Pacing a novel
Meditation on and discipline with the quantity of words
A friend from Twitter, the other day, before I quit Twitter, said she had trouble with pacing, above all, in writing her novels. At the time I didn’t think I had any knowledge to offer, but after a few days’ reflection, I’ve decided that I have just a little.
Take the long way home. I take this advice from Mamet and Tarantino.
Mamet literally says in Spartan, “We got the girl back.” “Yeah. She just took the long way home.” I believe as a double statement, on one level literally about something in the movie, but on another level, it echoes with Mamet’s writing about writing, and he has either described plot as, or I have imagined him describing plot as “taking the long way home.”
Tarantino in one of his DVD extras, prodded along by the interviewer, says something like ~Yeah, I could get there quicker, but I have this whole all around the bush way of getting there~ That’s not exactly what he says, but he says something like that. Like one of his movies, in an interview with that man, you’re on a ride that’s going to go Tarantino’s long way ‘round, and you ain’t gettin’ there until he’s showed you all the sights he wants to show you along the way.
In one of my beginning attempts at writing a novel, The Drowning Pool, my cousin correctly critiqued me when he said that ~The first chapter has perfect pacing, but after that it seems rushed~ It seems like I’m rushing to the end—which I was—and in doing so I missed out on telling the story. I was too young and too impatient to take the long way ‘round. But I also had a process problem: the first chapter, the well-paced one, I wrote on a typewriter in an empty rental room with no furniture, no bed, no comforts..the rest of the book I wrote on a computer in a comfortable house with cable TV and lots of food and people to talk to and distractions of all sorts.
So of course the first chapter has a different pacing than the rest of the book. I had nothing else to do when I wrote the first chapter, so I took my time. For the rest of the book, I was fat and happy and just wanted to finish something I could send to a publisher.
I am not saying you have to write in discomfort to pace your novel properly. I am saying you have to essentially have nothing else to do, during your writing time, and that you have to be willing to take the long way ‘round. You have to give the second chapter the same Zen-patience attention that you gave the first, you have to write the same amount of time (or pages, or words) each day, and you have to not be in any hurry at all to finish.
It is going to take you longer than you want, to finish your novel, and you have to accept that fact. You have to have the patience that comes with being ok if no publisher or any other person ever reads this book—or else you are writing for them. You have to write the book for the book’s sake. You have to write the book as it wants to be written. And it wants you to work like a metronome. If you write five pages a day, then write five pages a day, and have the patience not to write six. Ever. If you write one hour a day, then write exactly one hour a day. If you write 1,000 words a day, never write 1,005. Be exacting with this and it will cure your pacing problems.
Now you’re thinking, that’s not the kind of pacing problem I have. Writing the same quantity each day will not make one of my scenes that was running too fast now run at the correct speed and make one of my scenes that was running too slow now also run at the correct speed. But it will. Pacing is a matter of the discipline of supplying and not supplying detail which is absolutely fixed by making your writing a meditation on the quantity of the words themselves. Write the same amount of time each day, every goddamn day, or write the same number of words each day, every goddamn day, and I promise you your novel will be well paced.