Slow Down: Pace, Plot, and Observation

I used to take walks with my ex, before we were exes, wandering the city, street to street, alley to alley. I found it utterly boring. I needed a destination, somewhere to go, a point to it all. It’s one more thing I should apologize for. I’ve since learned to meander, ambulate, and drift. I’ll take turns down new streets because I like the house on the corner or into an alley based on the graffiti. This tactic is a great way to think, to plot, to turn ideas over and let them rise like bread. It’s not a bad method of warming up my brain and slipping into my character’s skin.

It’s also become one of my favorite ways of capturing unique details, images and snippets that I file away for later use. You observe more at the slower pace of walking. You hear more without the muting of car windows or the rush of the wind. Landscape and setting don’t pass you by. As I’m often reminded when a fox crosses my path in the park, cities are full of unexpected wildlife, people, and details. Things jump out at you more clearly, but most importantly you learn to slow your mind down. When I’m writing I tend to get very excited about ideas, many of which aren’t bad, but they don’t fit the scene or piece. It’s important to check ideas before I just start altering a work; and I often find the idea isn’t going to work and file it away for later. Rewriting a scene without thinking it through can be disastrous. A story is a tapestry. Once you start pulling threads or introducing new images you may create problems that ripple through the entire work. I realized in my latest edit that I was putting all of the revelations at the climax, and while this effectively brought the plot to a tightly written end, it created a desert of meaningful events in the preceding section. An edit later and I’ve moved things around a little. The pace of the novel is less like a sudden crescendo, where all of the secrets unravel at once, and more like a gradual ascent, with peaks and valleys of revelation until the most major secret stand exposed. You need little rests along the way, accomplishments, and respite from whatever is hounding you.

The trick to understanding that I needed to make the change was feeling the novel’s tempo and knowing where to speed up or slow down. When I looked at the points in the book where the story crawled I often found a lot of slack, extra writing that while not bad, didn’t contribute to moving the story forward. Cutting these pieces and repurposing their strongest lines at other points went a long ways to speeding the book up. I had to get go of a pre-determined word count and give the story what it needed most.

Each story has its own pace: a cross-country chase will feel very different than a cozy murder mystery. The best trick I’ve found for learning my story’s pace is to read it aloud to myself, which certainly earns me a few interesting glances on the bus. I’m fortunate that I studied poetry so long. It helps me a lot with understanding the iambic rhythms of English and if I’m lucky, avoiding staccato beats.

I guess if there’s any advice in this post it’s to listen: to your work, to your environment. Try to get a feel for the world around you with a pointless walk, unplugged from technology. Leave your phone behind, your iPod, and your laptop. Bring nothing but your eyes, your feet, a notebook and a pen. When you’ve got a story finished, take it with you. Find somewhere quiet to sit and read it aloud.

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