Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Writer's Laboratory: Cutting out the Boring Parts

The Writer's Laboratory

"I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
Elmore Leonard, New York Times bestselling author

In the last thirty years, I've written all kinds of fiction: literary

novels, mysteries, and urban fantasy.

But in each novel, my style is always the same. You will find humor, darkness, romance, wackiness, and food--

though you'll find a good bit less food in the urban fantasies. 

You will also find leaner prose, though it wasn't always that

way. When I was working on my seventh novel,

a wise editor wrote in the margins: "The pace is slacking for me here. Move her from the beach to

the parking lot--the reader will fill in the blanks."

My editor was right. Every scene in a novel is fueled (or bogged down) by pacing and transitions.

I didn't need to list every smell, taste, or sound. I needed to paint the details with a

broad stroke, just enough to place the character

in a vivid environment. The trick is finding the balance, and that's never easy. 

  I humbly submit a few tidbits about pacing that I have learned along the way:

1. Make every word count. Look at every sentence in every paragraph--ruthlessly cut the flab.

2. As the action rises, sentences and dialogue become shorter. That doesn't mean you can skimp on details. Just keep them lean. 

3. Try not to drag out the ending of a scene. Elmore Leonard does this beautifully by ending one scene and merging into the next with a few sentences.

4. Within chapters, use scene breaks (such as ### or ...) judiciously. Ask any literary agent, and they'll tell you that too many (#) breaks will create a choppy mess. If one scene ends at, say, 8 pm, and the next scene begins at 8:15 pm, nix the set up. Get your characters moving to the juicy stuff! But do it smoothly.

Let's say that a scene begins and ends in a restaurant. And the next scene begins just a few minutes later in a hotel room. Naturally you'll omit what happens to your characters after they leave the restaurant and step into the elevator--unless the elevator stalls between floors. Since a short bit of time has gone by, you don't need to show your characters walking down the hall, not even if the dialogue is brilliant. Get them to the next location, and quickly. You don't need a space break (#) to isolate each scene. Just start a new paragraph. And be sure to begin the sentence with a well-chosen word.

"When we walked into our suite, Vivi had not returned."

The key word is "when." (You can also use "later.")
This signals that a short passage of time has occurred and moves the action forward. You've skipped a plodding
step-by-step. And you haven't added an unnecessary gap in your chapter (this tends to call attention to itself, and it's the last thing you want if you're trying to get published). 

Learn how to handle short transitions by reading the novels of Mr. Leonard and Janet Evanovich. The boring stuff is left on the cutting room floor, and the pacing is flawless.

5. Significant scene breaks require a (#) space and should be treated like "mini" chapters (see #6). How much time has gone by? Where is your character? Get into her head. What does she see and hear?
Show. Don't tell. And be quick about it.

"Two nights later, Vivi was huddled in the back of a Mercedes sedan, watching the A-6 highway race behind them like dirty water."

6. Chapter breaks

Ending a chapter with a cliffhanger is always fun for the writer. The next chapter can open with dialogue or action. But readers don't always finish one chapter and breathlessly turn to the next. Life happens. The dog must be walked, meals must be prepared, etc. Try to open each chapter with as many 5 W's as you can: Who, what, where, when, and why. 
Get inside your characters. Feel what they feel. See what they see. Has their geography changed? Is it day or night? Is it cold, sweltering, rainy? Does the breeze carry the smell of grass and wild onions? Or the coppery tang of blood? 
Take notes. Roll up your sleeves and start writing.
Then start cutting.
Choose the most significant sensory details and let them lift the heavy furniture.
What if your chapters open with sub-titles, giving the city or time of day? You still need to ground the scene.
In HD, each chapter begins with the name of the viewpoint character and his/her geographic location. This technique helps to orient the reader, but it won't carry a chapter. The character must exist in a world that can be touched, smelled, tasted, seen, and heard--with brevity. Then dive into the action.

Chapter 22

Champs Elysees
Paris, France
       I walked to the balcony rail and stared down at the night-time view of Paris, watching car lights sweep around the Arc de Triomphe. Even though it was after ten P.M., tourists wandered down the sidewalks.
      "You have a lovely view, Dr. d'Aigreville," I said.
      She smiled, the wind stirring her little-girl bangs.  "Call me Sabine."
      "I saw you tonight at Chez Georges. Are you a regular patron?" I paused. "Or were you stalking my daughter?"

7. Larger Transitions

When an author separates chapters into "parts" or "books," she has a good reason. Perhaps a large passage of time has transpired. Or something monumental has occurred with the characters. A pivotal event might require its own section. The mood and tone may be shifting into a higher gear. If the author chooses to give each "part" a title, it's usually metaphorical. Sometimes quotations are used to help reinforce the book's theme.
The opening of each "part" must be treated with great care, employing the 5 W's--and lean writing.

- - -

The flow of a book is like a river, and it's the writers job to decide where to place bridges. Some bridges span the widest part of the water; in other places, the stream narrows, and you can easily leap to the other bank.

For me, transitions are a joy to write and to read. I love it when Elmore Leonard guides me across a river, asking me to walk a few steps, rather than a mile.
No matter how many steps I take, each journey is different, each one is miraculous.
top photo source: shutterstock, license purchased.
cake photo: Michael Lee West