Fiction writing advice for the advanced amateur.
December 8, 2010 11:58 AM   Subscribe

I seem to be teetering on the edge of getting somewhere with my writing, but I'm not there yet. How can I learn to get a handle on pacing and characterization in my novels and short stories?

Background rambling snowflake info: I write genre fiction--sci-fi and fantasy short stories, and sci-fi and fantasy young adult novels. I've been trying to become a published writer for three years now and seem to be almost getting somewhere. Looking at my spreadsheet, about 80% of my rejection letters are personal rejection letters (even from some pro markets!), and I've had many stories get passed on to editorial boards or senior editors, but no acceptances. I've queried two novels, and had an okay rate of material requests, but likewise, no luck there actually getting signed. And I'm starting to notice a pattern.

I come from a poetry-writing background, and editorial consensus seems to suggest that my stylistics are very strong. However, they also suggest that my work is lacking in characterization and/or pace. I get lots of rejections that say things like "gorgeous writing, but I had no sense of the main character," or "Very well-written, but slow. Send more!" In fact, I just got a novel rejection from an editor today that said something exactly along those lines. As a note, the criticisms about characterization usually seem centered on my protagonists or narrators--they tend to seem bland, I guess, particularly when held up against my more dynamic secondary characters.

I'm currently 2/3rds done with my next novel draft, and this time I want to Do It Right. I'm not sure if my process has something to do with it. I plot pretty extensively in my head, but I've never had success using note cards or outlines or any kind of prewriting like that. In fact, every time I've tried to do that, my enthusiasm for the writing wanes before I get very far, and the project dies. Because I've at the very least figured out what works for me in putting down a draft, I'd prefer advice/resources that focus on fixing these problems in revision. But if you think I really need to sit down with some note cards or something, I'll do it.

So, metafilter, help me become awesome. Do you have any tips and resources for dealing with these specific problems in fiction writing, or advice for advanced amateurs who want to finally manage to go pro? With my last manuscript, I picked up Self-editing for Fiction Writers, but it really wasn't helpful to me because I already know how to manage things like beats and said-bookisms and adverbs--I'm honestly looking for something a little more advanced. I know about the shrunken manuscript technique, and I'm planning on using it when I'm done with this project and would love more advice along those lines. I know I'll probably never be Dan Brown in terms of pacing, but I really want to work hard to be better than . . . well, this!

(Oh, and I have a bunch of really awesome beta readers and am now part of a crit group.)

Thanks for any advice you might have.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 112 users marked this as a favorite
This might sound corny, but I'd recommend reading Stephen King's On Writing. It's a quick read, worth the short amount of time it would take to read.
posted by Blake at 12:26 PM on December 8, 2010

Response by poster: Not cheesy at all, Blake. I'm actually a big King fan but haven't read On Writing since college, so thanks for the reminder to take another look!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:31 PM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: I could just email this stream-of-consciousness to you, but I'll post in case it helps anyone else. (I'm a YA author, & I've seen a small bit of PhoB's writing.) From what I know of your work, you've very, very literary. Literary writing in a commercial story is the golden ticket in YA. I also know your concepts are enticingly commercial. So I think it's great that you're able to pin down what's holding you back at this almost stage.

My first thought when it comes to character likability and relatability would be voice. Is your MC's tone super-serious? You might want to aim for slightly more casualness, 1) to make your books a little more commercial to agents/editors, and 2) because it helps occasionally attention-deficit teens identify with their characters. I'm so not talking Meg Cabot or anything like that, but check out Saving Francesca and Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, if you haven't, or The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. I realize those are contemporary and you write genre, but they're the ones that popped into my head (literary, but with voice.) (Actually, try Melina's Finnikin of the Rock too. Obviously she's a favorite.) Even in a literary YA book that's 90% somber, it's refreshing if we see some joking, some wry observations, that sort of thing. A main reason I never fell for The Forest & its sequel, for example, were the dead serious POVs, absolutely absent of any levity ever. Often writers let side characters take on that comic relief role, but it's nice to see it in the MC's voice too, especially in first-person. (I'm avoiding the work "snark" on purpose, since snarky MCs are overdone in YA, but yeah a little bit of that.)

Do you feel like you really, really know your protagonist? To the point where you could fill out one of those once-trendy MySpace surveys in her voice with almost no thought? And you're sort of amazed from time to time she isn't walking around somewhere else, living a life outside the slice captured in your novel? I read somewhere that Laurie Halse Anderson said she doesn't really *know* her protagonist until the second draft. It's bounced around in my head ever since. When you start a book, you and your MC are strangers, so the MC can't truly act like herself until you've spent a whole book writing her. Much of that second pass is honing every thought, word and action to fit exactly what she would do in every single situation.

As for pacing -- Are you throwing ninjas at your character? A series of more and more dangerous ninjas, until you think your character can't possibly survive, can't possibly deal with all the ninja stars, and then you send in yet another? And sometimes, when we think she's gotten a chance to catch her breath, do you pull the rug out from under her? Do you end chapters on cliffhangers a couple times? (only a couple. And not super contrived ones. hello there dan.) Do we experience multiple varieties of tension throughout, tension that amplifies and amplifies? Sexual counts, especially in YA. (hello there stephenie.) A problem I sometimes have with pacing in my own writing is including too many thoughts or descriptions in what should be a fast-paced scene. Do you do that?

I know you'll get there! You can teach this kind of stuff, but beautiful, literary writing -- so much of that is innate. Trust me. Recently, I attempted to explain to one of my (very commercial, published) writer friends how to make her work-in-progress more "literary" and my brain broke.
posted by changeling at 12:51 PM on December 8, 2010 [20 favorites]

An old book but a useful one is Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:03 PM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: As far as pacing, I have found that playing around with other formats can help. Namely, throwing a 300+ page story into a 90 page screenplay format can really give you a sense of pacing and make it much easier to see the work as a whole.

For characterization, there are a lot of things that I find helpful but they all seem to boil down to this: nail down some details well beyond the depth of the story. Especially with heavily plot driven stories (as genre tends to be), a lot of characters will mold to what the story demands to them and little else. To really get into their heads and get a strong sense of them, you need to step outside the story and build some background. Depending on the setting, I like to start with the question “what is this character’s favorite ice cream?” and then just go from there. No detail is irrelevant, nothing is too insignificant. When did they get their ears pierced? What was their favorite toy as a child? What do they have on the bookshelf? What was school like for them, what is their favorite color, how do they look when they’re nervous, what’s their favorite kind of weather? Favorite shirt? Favorite gun? What food do they find absolutely revolting? What kind of relationship did they have with their parents/guardians? And on and on.

None of these questions have to be relevant to the story, none of the details ever have to come up. In fact, I’d suggest specifically focusing on details that AREN’T relevant to the story. The goal is to get a sense of the character as an individual who exists outside the scope of the book. You should be showing just a small (though significant) part of this character. The novel or story shouldn't define the shape of your characters, it should just define a kind of horizon that they vanish beyond. But if you KNOW what lies beyond that horizon, it will come across in your writing.
posted by ghostiger at 1:27 PM on December 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

oh, and I second Stephen King's "On Writing". And, even though it's not in the scope of your question, read Elements of Style again, because everyone should always be reading it again ; )
posted by ghostiger at 1:30 PM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: The thing that's been useful for me in ironing out pacing and character issues in revision is a post-draft outline on index cards. I generally don't outline, or outline very little, before I start writing. But when I have a draft I make an index card for each scene, just a sentence or two about what happens in that scene. Then on the bottom or back of the card:

-What work is this scene doing in advancing the plot arc(s)?
-What work is this scene doing in advancing the character arc(s)?
-Could this scene be doing more work in terms of advancing the character arc, and drawing connections between other things in the book (thematic, foreshadowing, etc)?
-Does this scene exist only for character exposition or plot exposition, and if so, how can I make sure there is genuine conflict going on at the same time?

That gives me a direction to think about for the rewrite.
posted by Jeanne at 2:42 PM on December 8, 2010 [8 favorites]

In fact, every time I've tried to do that, my enthusiasm for the writing wanes before I get very far, and the project dies.

Learn to do what you love even when you aren't enthusiastic. Go this route. See what happens. Force it.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:58 PM on December 8, 2010

Response by poster: Learn to do what you love even when you aren't enthusiastic. Go this route. See what happens. Force it.

Ironmouth, I've done that, seriously, and I usually just end up with, say, 10,000 words of something that makes me absolutely miserable to think about, much less write. I know that daily, day-in and day-out writing is necessary, and that you have to write through the slog, but if I'm unenthusiastic about the general premise, I just can't get through those rough days, which I weather fine if otherwise.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:00 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm more of a literary writer (though one whose novel was called "chick-lit in reverse" once, but I think it was praise) but let me throw my thoughts in there.

Personally I'm not a big believer in 'getting inside a character's head.' I don't think an intuitive sense of character is necessarily that important. My method is to develop characters by figuring out what's unique about the way they speak and/or write. For example, I started another novel last month and it has two main characters. One writes (it's epistolary, kinda) mostly in short sentences. The other writes long sentences full of subordinate clauses and conjunctions. Characters in novels are made up of words, after all. No one will know all your thoughts. If you're writing in the third person, give different characters specific ways of being described (e.g. one gets described with bird/flight/sky similes, while another is described in terms of the ocean/fish/water). Set yourself simple rules to follow to differentiate between characters (unless you're writing a story about a group, in which case you want to make sure the group has cohesion). Of course, after working with a set of characters for a while you develop a clear sense of who they are. It helps to keep information about the world in a separate file somewhere, e.g. where the characters grew up, what they like for breakfast, what the area that the story takes place in looks like, and so on.

Note: I mostly do this as I'm writing the first bits of a story. I do a fair bit of planning ahead, but most of the planning happens as I'm writing the first few chapters. This can also be done while revising, e.g. inserting certain kinds of similes for descriptions of certain characters. What I do is that, while writing, I put down thoughts on another piece of paper (I write longhand) that don't have anything to do with what I'm writing at the moment.

One thing I do when sharpening a character is to in some way or another construct short story inside the longer narrative where that character is independent of the main thrust of the book. Or lengthen chapter where the character is already doing that and give it a more independent shape. Think of them as solo turns in a longer musical work.

This said, my main advice is to trust your skills and craft. You have written a lot, you have your own writerly experience and preferences. Listen to your muse and follow her. Run with your notions.
posted by Kattullus at 3:03 PM on December 8, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not much of a creative myself, but was a book reviewer for several years and I've written about YA stuff for journals etc, but do feel free to disregard!

Regarding characterisation, one quite successful author I know used to write out involved biographies of her characters as she was writing her novels. I don't mean biographical details she would then put in the book, necessarily, but all kinds of biographical details. Not like profiles like you might find in a magazine, more like dossiers.

These dossiers would include a list of standard questions she used, like"Do this person have any family? What are their relationships to their family?", and "What would this person wear to a fancy event with people they didn't know?" but she would also add more according to the character. They would run to several pages in Word, usually between five and ten. They were a nice mix of biographical facts she would invent, and characterisation she could essentially draw from like it were a master stock going into the soups of her novels later.

From a reviewing perspective, what kind of voice are you giving your protagonists? It's especially easy in YA, I think, to make your characters into a type of every-person; all the better for malleable young minds to adopt. But I think it can often leave you cipher-like characters that things to to "happen to". It's not a book but Pirates of The Caribbean is the perfect example. Who the fuck remembers Orlando Bloom? Do they have a strong voice?

I think a lot of YA authors get around this by giving their characters a strong through-line or quest or what have you - it gives them the propulsion the otherwise fairly blank slate of their protagonist needs. Though I enjoyed it, I think Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve is a good example of this kind of character.

By way of contrast, Sophie in Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle is the absolute opposite of this. She is a very strong and singular character - things happen to her, but more importantly, she happens. She bristles with strong emotions, opinions and actions. It's an especially great example because it's a book that also has really strong and dynamic secondary characters in the form of Howl and Calcifer. It can be done, and not at the cost of losing that protagonist empathy that makes YA fiction hum.

Pacing I think is a little easier. You can always edit more vigorously to make stuff happen sooner. Also, make sure something happens every chapter. I do think some YA Authors get into the groove where every chapter ends on a climax. I think that's a fine art that frequently fails, it can feel exhaustive and manipulative if not done well. But sans climax, I would have a simple goal that every chapter includes a development. Garth Nix and the Abhorsen Trilogy are a great example of superb pacing, imho. You might also find Nancy Kress's Beginnings, Middles and Ends useful for this.

Using Nix as an example, every chapter for him is a point of no return, by which I mean once that chapter is over, the protagonists could never go back to how things were before that chapter - even if they wanted to. It's like a heavy train with a decent head of speed: it might slow down but it cannot turn around. This creates great conflict because sometimes the characters want to go back and turn that train around. Indeed, sometimes that's their whole through-line. Or sometimes they are plunging full speed ahead, because they are curious, in dire straits, want to change things desperately etc. which is also very exciting (and both of them = great allegories for growing up, natch).

Just from reading what you're saying - it sounds to me that in terms of pacing, you might have the internal pacing right but perhaps not the external pacing. I always love the delicate juxtaposition between pacing of character and plot development. They can both be great sources of tension, ambiguity etc, and they can happen in concert, one at a time, one a little and the other a lot etc etc. But one has to always be happening in every chapter, and significant points in the novel should have both.

Speaking of novels, it seems I've written one, and I'm not even a YA writer! I hope you find some of this helpful and none of it patronising, because it's truly not intended to be. Good luck, I'm sure it's only a matter of time, dude. :)
posted by smoke at 3:05 PM on December 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Honestly, I thought Self-editing for Fiction Writers was a bad version of Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages -- which starts out simplistic but does get into advanced stuff. For characterization in particular, though, I recommend Lukeman's The Plot Thickens. If you sit down and genuinely work through all the stuff Lukeman asks you to answer about a character, I think you'd be hard-pressed to come up with something that wasn't interesting; a single question is enough inspiration to last me half an hour.

But some stuff doesn't click with everyone. Personally, I love Lukeman's writing books; they're somehow more human than other writing books, which tend to sound gimmicky at points. (Oooh, kind of an aside, but if you want a book on advanced stuff not related to pacing or characterization, Lukeman wrote an entire book on using punctuation effectively in fiction. It's called A Dash of Style, and it's one of my favorite books ever.)

King's On Writing is an entertaining book, but I don't think it's great as a writing resource: it's one of my favorite books about writing, but not one of my favorite writing books, if you get what I mean. It doesn't give much advice on craft, and in particular it says next to nothing about pacing and characterization. Even if it did, King would be the last person I'd suggest you look to for pacing and characterization. I want to phrase this delicately because you like King -- no judgment here, for real -- but his weaknesses are pacing and protagonist-characterization, imo. You might disagree, which is just as well since taste is subjective, so my objective here isn't to say the thing you like sucks, but rather, to suggest that some other people feel the same way about characterization and pacing as I do, and you might be querying some of them. Since we've both read King, it seems as good a reference point as any to start talking about what aspects of pacing and characterization might be turning people off -- not that I assume you purposely try to copy King in those areas, just that if you like the way he does those things you might tend to write in a different way than those who don't like the way he does those things. (And maybe you don't actually like the way he does those particular things, but even if you don't, it's worth examining why so you don't do it.)

If you read this and completely disagree, I won't be offended in the least; you should write the kind of stuff you like to read. It could ultimately be that you just need to keep querying until you get someone with similar taste. At the least, I hope this will save you a reread of On Writing, unless you just have the extra time to go through it for fun.

In regards to intentional pacing, all King says in On Writing is that he doesn't -- and furthermore, he doesn't mince words about what he thinks of people who do. He just sits down and starts going. He says tightens stuff up in subsequent drafts.

Now, I think it's entirely possible for a writer to go through that process and end up with a good plot and great pacing after editing. I just don't think King manages it. I think it shows that he doesn't doesn't plot and just wanders blindly forward, because his fiction has always felt aimless to me. People refer to his stuff as page-turners, and I can understand that in the sense that it's easy to follow and he's good with words... but nothing happens for pages upon pages upon pages. And not in the creepy, rising tension sort of way -- which he does do, and it feels different -- but in this meandering way, stuffed with extraneous details about boring, everyday stuff, internal monologues about things that aren't interesting in the least, and so on. It reads like a narrative throat-clearing before getting started -- the sort of stuff I'd edit out later.

So, for now, consider if you're doing any of that throat-clearing and not editing it out. When the protagonist has a thought, is it relevant to anything? Is it at least a thought that says something about them -- i.e. does it serve characterization? Is it a thought that most other characters would not have? Or are you spending a lot of time describing things that aren't very important? Could you pick the two or three most evocative aspects and condense them into a sentence or two?

In short: if something doesn't serve a purpose, edit it out.

Then his plots, or at least the ones I've read, are too simplistic to be interesting on their own; there's really not much to them. I know this isn't the case with all his plots; I've heard of some that sound more involved, so I don't want to give the impression I think this is a universal flaw in his work or something. I can only speak to the ones I've read, though, and they don't much hold my attention. It's not an inherent flaw for a plot to be simple, and some powerful stories have simple plots. It's easier to keep a reader interested when they have more to work with, though. It's harder for the work to feel slow. I'll say more about this later.

Presumably all the details and thoughts are supposed to add character, but they're so basic that they do hardly anything except take up space on the page. For example, I don't need to be there when the protagonist is considering how he needs to get his car fixed; just skip to the next scene where he's getting it fixed, or better yet, the scene after it's fixed when something actually happens. If my mom could have the same thought on an average day, it's not going to interest me to be informed of it. Rather than making the character approachable, it makes him too boring to want to know him better.

On Writing offers some explanation for his approach: he says he tries to make them average, unremarkable people like the working class he grew up with, because that's what he relates to. I don't fault him that. However, I wouldn't advise following his example to make your protagonists more interesting: not because those kinds of people can't be interesting, but because he offers no insight into that in On Writing -- and, of what I've read, his protagonists unremarkable in a bland way, not unremarkable in every-person-has-something-interesting-about-them way. The characters I've read usually don't have much personality, and their motivations (when they exist) are too mundane to interest me. I've only read a small slice of what he's written, though; if you remember a King protagonist that's stuck with you, then consider looking at that particular character for ideas -- but also think about the ones that were unmemorable, and try to determine what makes the difference.

Personally, I need protagonists to have thoughts that are unexpected, intriguing, or delightfully odd. There's certainly people who want to read about average people, people just like them, but I can't say that I'm one of them. I want strong characters that allow me to see the world through different eyes. I want them to have an unusual degree of a trait or two. Those are the kinds of characters that are memorable and feel like real people to me, no matter how unusual they are; I can't get a handle on a character who is too average, so they never feel real.

In my opinion, King's strength is more in concepts and sometimes in pinpoint accurate description -- and if you want a characterization lesson from King, he actually is pretty great at introducing characters with physical descriptions that subtly tell you something about the character's personality. Whenever I introduce a character, I specifically think about how King does it and aspire to do it as well.

But that's secondary characters, and yours are already good. His protagonists, eh. You wouldn't be aiming very high.

Okay, King and books aside, some general comments:

Characterization - I'm sure this is nothing you haven't heard before, but it bears repeating: think of your favorite characters ever, especially if they're protagonists. Why did you like them? What about them stuck with you the most? Most importantly, how did they look at the world in a way that was different? Think especially of characters with strong voices.

Reread their stories to get a feel for what it's like when a character just takes over; this is the feeling you should aim for when you write. It can suck until you hit the mark because you keep thinking, "Is this good? Is this boring? It's better than it was, but..." Once you feel it, though, you know you have it, and after that you'll know when you don't have it.

Another approach:
This may not be your problem, but I've often felt that writers have been told too much to make their characters "likable" and "relatable," so they're timid about giving their protagonists any outlandish or negative qualities. That is a mistake: in practice, those qualities are INCREDIBLY interesting, and people love those characters. All my favorite characters are kind of theatrical assholes. You don't make likable characters by making them average or nice; that's how you make a boring character. You make likable characters by making them extraordinarily flawed and unusual, while demonstrating that they're still like other people.

As a bonus, they are fun as hell to write, and the enthusiasm comes through. Well-adjusted characters are too polite to take over a page, but everyone else won't give the page up.

In fact, the negative traits are among the first things I decide for a character, and it inevitably dictates the story. Then the trick is balancing it out so they aren't purely unlikeable. Three ways to do that, off the top of my head:

1. Give them a sense of humor. You have to be genuinely funny, though, to a laugh-out-loud extent. Otherwise the character will just seem like an asshole who thinks he's funny when he's actually lame; people will forgive nothing in exchange for quaint jokes. On the upside, though, the funnier you make the character, the worse you can make their negative traits (within reason).

Some writers pull off "cool" or "intimidating" better than they do funny, and it works similarly. The difference is humor endears the character to the reader, whereas cool/intimidating inspires awe and not affection. The trick with cool/intimidating is to avoid sounding like a fanfic, though.

This can be daunting since it's difficult to pull it off well. Whatever you try, though, you've got drafts and drafts to get it right; don't despair under your desk when you reread a lame joke later, or wonder what's wrong with you since you thought it would be a good idea to give this character a cape. No one has to know he had a cape. It can be your secret shame. (Give him guyliner instead, duh.)

2. Make it clear that you, as the author, are not oblivious to the protagonist's flaws, even though the protagonist is oblivious; the problem with most "unlikeable" characters is that they stomp around being a fuckface and don't suffer for it.

Other people should react realistically to the protagonist. Bad things should happen to the protagonist because they don't handle their flaw well, or they aren't aware of it. In fact, that can and should be a driving element of the story. If they come to realize the flaw, and then feel bad about themselves and lose their outlandish lustre for a bit, and then figure out a way to handle themselves and become a better version of their old, entertaining self, people will love them even more; most people have had the experience of realizing they were putting people off in some way, so they tend to empathize with this instead of thinking, "HAH, finally got yours, dickhead!" And it's all smooshy and feel-good and inspiring after that -- unless you're like me, because then it turns out not to be good enough, or the rest of the world fucks them over. Getting over crippling psychological issues is ultimately a consolation prize for life being shitty and capricious, I feel.

Anyway, as a bonus, starting from the negative and going through this process is pretty much instant character arc, which informs -- or at least enriches -- a lot of the plot. When I pick my negative traits, I ask myself these follow-up questions:

"Why do they have this negative trait? What happened to them that causes them to act this way?"
This also lets you know what kinds of stuff they're sensitive to. Then the other characters can unknowingly stab them in that spot, over and over. That's either internal or external conflict or both, depending on how they react.

"What do other people think of people with this kind of negative trait? How do they react?"
More conflict.

"How do others's reactions hurt people with this negative trait? In what ways is their life harder than people who don't have that negative trait?"
Conflict, and an opportunity to emotionally involve the reader.

"What would it take to get this character to realize they have this horrible trait, and that it is hurting them?"

This last question is the most important. As in real life, the answer is usually "quite a lot": it's easy to be blind to our faults and much harder to acknowledge them. Whatever your answer to this, it's a major plot point: the character will make different kinds of decisions afterward (unless it's the kind of tragedy where they learn nothing). They will likely be spurred to action, or withdraw into inaction. The realization is a mini-climax, at least usually. The climax-climax is usually sometime after their realization, made all the more fraught by their shaky new perspective.

That's also a pacing plus: the internal upheaval naturally causes everything to build and quickly spill into the climax, even if an external event must coincide and force them to act. I mean, you want to avoid something like, "OH MY GOD NOBODY LIKES ME!" followed by the character lying on the couch crying and eating ice-cream for a week until the story ends. The president has to call them a few hours into their pity party and be all, "MARTIANS STOLE THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT, AND ALSO THE ELECTION." That forces the character to act while they're still raw.

Or, alternately, at least give them an opportunity where they should act, even if they don't anyway; it's just a different kind of ending and story... the kind of ending without a Washington Monument.

Then you can try working backwards for all the stuff that pushes them to that breaking point.

3. There are certain people they love or care about intensely, and they are not assholes to those people -- or at least not easily, or at least not on purpose; it's realistic and compelling conflict when they hurt loved ones due to their blind spots. Anyway, there's something appealing about a person who doesn't like most people, but likes you. It makes people feel special. Characters like this intrigue people and they can generally understand why other characters would be drawn to them.

One more thing on characterization: it's much easier if you don't start with a plot, but rather start with an emotional conflict.

I usually base my stories around a protagonist and another character going through some intense emotional conflict while interacting with each other, and then the specific nature of those interactions is built up afterward. I write sci-fi and fantasy too, so what I mean by that is that I start with something like, "Man, being uneasy about getting close to people sucks" -- a purely psychological issue, generally rooted in a negative trait. Then, using that as a guiding theme, I imagine generic interactions between two people and take note of which ones are particularly interesting or appealing to me.

Then I start thinking about external factors that would compound the psychological issue. Usually this entails imagining the conditions needed to overcome the psychological issue, and then imagining ways to ensure those conditions aren't met -- what if the other person wasn't that kind of person, but this kind of person? what if the protagonist had this complicating factor? what if their relationship had this inherent social characteristic to it? what if the other person had this motivation and this trait, but it's easily misconstrued by the protagonist as this other, worse thing?

Then I start to imagine technology or magic that would make it a million times worse. Then I start building everything up at once -- like, "Man, being uneasy about getting close to people sucks, and it sucks even worse when he's your enemy and you have to work with him even though neither of you want to, and he's probably going to screw you over so really you should screw him over first, but maybe not just now because neither of you can trust anyone else either -- and now things are better -- but now things are worse, of course they're worse, you can't expect that he actually likes you, no one likes you -- and now everyone is suspicious of both of you so you've got no one else, and also there's racism and homophobia and lives at stake and this horrible monster no one understands and this magic that your enemy is addicted to, which is quite troubling -- or it would be, if you cared about him, which you don't, because you're not even friends and he's an asshole anyway, you're only helping him because you have to."

The character arc is the "real" story, but I love plotting complicated events too, so there's also that going on in parallel; it has to be at least as strong. The character's emotions always come before anything else, though.

One more thing that makes it easier: the psychological conflict is usually something I've gone through in some modified form, especially when I've realized some way in which I was an asshole. I can remember all the stupid things I thought, and why and how I didn't realize things sooner, and the horrible embarrassment of when things became clear. I also usually cram in some horrible things about myself that I've always been aware of and have just kept a lid on. Sublimation makes characterization easier; I can write about their feelings with some genuine emotion, so they're a bit more alive than they would be otherwise. I make my protagonists both better than I am, and way more fucked up than I am; they end up several degrees removed from me, but not so removed that I can't understand exactly how they feel.

So, if you haven't tried it, think of the worst realization you've ever had about yourself and start from there. Use caution if you suffer from any sort of depression. I do, but I've found it more therapeutic than anything. Sometimes when a piece of writing feels slow or uninteresting, it can do more to take a step back and remind yourself that writing doesn't have to be approached like a puzzle, but foremost as a venue for you to feel whatever you want for a while and engage with what's meaningful to you. I've found it's easier to do that and then edit it for an audience than it is to build up a strong, but empty structure. It's very difficult to shake out of the audience-centric approach, or at least that's what I've found; it was much easier when I was younger and only wrote for my own sake.

I know some people like to complain about writers who put themselves too much into their characters, but from what I've discerned, people only hate when writers do it poorly. When they do it well, people cherish it. There are two ways it's done poorly: one, the writer is full of themselves and blind to their flaws, and writes themselves into a Mary Sue kind of character -- which won't happen if you approach from the negative -- or two, the writer tackles an emotional issue that isn't far enough in the past for them to have acquired the proper perspective, and it comes across as melodramatic or unreasonable. I suppose there's a third way, too: a writer has a valuable and reasonable perspective, but they just aren't good enough at the craft to effectively convey it; that can cause people to misunderstand them, or they may come across as childish or overwrought even when they don't feel that way. No reason why you can't avoid those things, so if it's what you want to do, don't stress over making something too personal.

Pacing: No scene should serve only one plot purpose. That's the big thing that sticks out to me about King; nothing really does double duty, and some of his stuff does nothing but transition between two other things. If nothing happens, don't write it. Transitions can be summarized in a sentence or two in the next real scene, if they need to be written at all. Better yet, have something else happen when transitioning between two things.

This is the simplest approach to pacing I can suggest: Conflict is exciting. Lack of conflict is boring, and feels slow. Try to avoid writing a whole page that does not include conflict.

You don't have to take that strictly, but rather as a target; it won't be the end of the world if you go two pages without conflict sometimes, as long as you have a decent reason. And conflict does not have to mean big action; it can simply be that the protagonist feels uneasy about something, or wants something he doesn't have, or feels sad or angry or anxious or tired for some reason, or he has to make a decision or respond to something, or whatever. As long as you're not adding in mundane detail for the sake of suggesting conflict -- which would slow things down more than it would speed them up -- you should be fine.

To put it another way, there has to be something on the page that, even if it's small, indicates that things in their current state are not ideal, and someone wants it to be different -- or there are opposing visions for how things should be. Furthermore, there needs to be some tension toward moving in that direction, even if no one is acting on it. Something I've found helpful: pick up a book that you remember as moving quickly, turn to a random page, and look for mentions of anything being less than ideal. It gives one a better idea of how subtly conflict can be inserted; otherwise we tend to only remember the big stuff and don't pay enough attention to the smaller things that compel us to move page-by-page.

Now, it's also true that some conflict is just boring; usually it's presented in some hackneyed or unrealistic way, or it just isn't a remarkable conflict. If you're getting compliments on style, then you're probably not having a problem with the former. Consider whether the conflict you've set up on the larger scale just isn't terribly interesting, though. What do your betas and crit group say about your pacing and characterization? Can you trust them to be honest when something drags? What determines the "slow" or "uninteresting" verdicts is how things are gradually revealed to the reader, but you already know all the characters and events by the first page. It's hard to give yourself the same experience of reading your work that others have. (Although, if you happen to have wrote a novel years ago -- or even a large enough unfinished chunk of a novel -- and haven't looked at it since, you might notice characterization and pacing problems now. I have found it instructive.)

In the meantime: err on the side of too fast. It's easier to slow it down than to speed it up, and people rarely complain that a book was too quick to read. Generally, it's a pleasant experience to feel like a book swept you away and was over too soon. Speed is only a problem if it's fast because:

- the story is thin

- it plowed through tension too quickly to feel satisfying, e.g. after the entire book has built up to it, the villain appears and dies in two pages at the end

- things felt unrealistically thrown together because there wasn't enough development, e.g. protagonist barely knows this person, then one scene happens and he's madly in love; it could have been believable if there'd been several other scenes between those

If you make it faster and it's too short, either you hacked off more than you should have or the story is too thin; assume the latter and add more conflict. Subplots are the easiest way to do this, but if it's crazy short I'd be surprised if the main plot had enough conflict, and that should be addressed first. Adjust only if you get back comments that it felt rushed.

Ooooone more thing and then I'm done, I swear. You're getting comments back about how gorgeous your writing is, which is great! However, is it possible you're slowing down your pacing by lingering over things that sound good, but don't do much to move the story forward? I ask only because I have a writer acquaintance who is wonderfully eloquent, but he tends to waste that eloquence on things that don't ultimately matter much; his stories are very long but not a lot happens, and the characters don't feel distinct. It usually creeps in as excessive physical description; it's lush, but a sentence or two is more powerful and preserves pacing, plus too much physical detail is hard for some readers -- like myself -- to juggle in their head. Anyway, it's not a terrible problem to have so much beautiful stuff that you can only keep a fraction of it; when most people edit, they're striking out everything that sucks. ;-)

Anyway, good luck, keep at it, and let us know when you get something published!
posted by Nattie at 6:42 PM on December 8, 2010 [17 favorites]

Best answer: Two things I thought of as I was falling asleep.

Find a way to visualize your plot. When I was writing my first novel I came up with a metaphor for the plot as threads that weave together into a knot which then unweaves into separate threads. The threads were the individual character stories and the knot was when everything went to shit. The unweaving was the aftermath. It really helped in the editing process. I had a clear idea what to keep and what to delete, and which scenes I should shuffle around and to where.

Figure out who is speaking to whom and why. In the novel I'm writing currently things started to gel for me when I realized/decided that the narrator was writing a lengthy justification to her friends for her decision to commit suicide.
posted by Kattullus at 7:15 PM on December 8, 2010

Just came in here to recommend taking a look at How Fiction Works by James Wood. Not a writers "how to", but a contemporary literary criticism text that really covers all angles with examples from classics and newer works. I found it very inspiring for my own writing and he devotes a decent sized section of it to character. Very easy, enjoyable read too, despite its depth.
posted by the foreground at 4:14 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for everyone who took the time to respond--so much useful, thoughtful, supportive and detailed advice! I'll be combing through the book recommendations (how did I not know Nancy Kress had a book on writing?! I love her!) and referring back to this post tons in the coming months, as revision looms. I'm not going to mark this as revised yet--I mean, writing's a marathon, not a sprint, right?--but I do want you all to know that I adore you. Best people on the internet. Seriously.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:45 PM on December 10, 2010

Response by poster: Hi everyone--two weeks ago, just about a year after I asked this, the book in question sold to Simon and Schuster Children's books in a two book deal. I'm over the frigging moon, and I never would have gotten here if it weren't for metafilter generally and everyone who commented in this thread specifically. Thank you for all of your advice and support. You're still the best people on the internet. Seriously.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:52 PM on December 5, 2011 [10 favorites]

Phoebe that is terrific news! I'm _soooooooooo_ excited for you! I expect - nay demand! - regular updates etc so I can buy this puppy (and its sequel, talk about a vote of confidence!) as soon as it hits the shelves. This is the best news I've heard all week! Congratulations!
posted by smoke at 12:23 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

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