Micro-Progress Your Novel

A few weeks ago I spotted an article in the New York Times entitled ‘Micro-Progress and the Magic of Just Getting Started’ (you can read it here) and realized it was tailor made for us writers (especially after I’d seen a number of posts on my writing groups about writers writers feeling overwhelmed about their projects).

The idea of ‘micro-progress’ is simple: For any task you have to complete, break it down to the smallest possible units of progress and attack them one at a time.

In many ways, it’s an obvious concept. But what caught my eye, was the fact that studies had shown that micro-progress (or establishing micro-goals) can actually trick the brain into increasing dopamine levels, providing satisfaction and happiness. Sounds like the perfect plan for anyone facing the daunting prospect of completing a novel:)

Online I was seeing posts from people who felt overwhelmed by revisions, who were despairing that their novel had run aground mid way through, or who were experiencing chronic writer’s block and desperate for advice. In all of these situations, focusing on ‘micro-progress’ seemed a useful place to start.

The concept of ‘micro-progress’ has also helped me. I currently have a number of projects out on submission and a couple of ones with my agent – so it was time to start a new WIP. I faced a dilemma though – I had the first 50 pages of a YA novel that I’ve been noodling over (actually driving myself insane over is probably more apt) and yet I was concerned it still wasn’t quite ‘there yet’. I struggled with whether I really knew what the book was about (despite a synopsis and outline, mind you). So I decided it was best to put it aside and start a completely new project – yet at the back of my mind I still couldn’t quite let the old project completely die. Enter ‘Micro-Progress’!

I decided to use the advice in the NYT article and tackle both projects but with a different mindset. For the brand new WIP I’d sit down and get started in the usual way. I have the synopsis and outline so it was time to face the blank page and get writing. I’d focus on this everyday except Friday – when I’d allow myself to tackle the old project but with a ‘micro-progress’ approach. I’d just take it scene by scene in Scrivener and see what happened – without placing too much pressure on myself. The regular WIP could progress in the usual fashion – but for this one I’d be happy setting smaller, more manageable goals to see how it would all come together. In this way a ‘micro-progress’ mindset helped overcome my confidence issues as well my concerns about abandoning the project all together.

A ‘micro-progress’ mindset could be helpful in almost all our writing as it focuses on the smaller more manageable steps that can be taken. The evidence also seems to demonstrate that this approach can stimulate our brains, enabling us to continue, progress and feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction – rather than becoming overwhelmed by the totality of the task ahead. But I guess the key question is – TKZers – what do you think about ‘micro-progress’?

 

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From Idea to Novel

Starting a new project is always nerve wracking – there’s the empty page for starters but then there’s also making sure that the idea is sufficient to form the foundation for a complete novel. Generating ideas has never been my problem – a number pop into my head each day and some are sufficiently intriguing that I jot them down in my ‘ideas book’ to see if they will gradually begin to take shape in my mind to form the foundation for a story. Many ideas fall by the wayside at this point – because while they interest me, they never really coalesce into a premise that can sustain a novel. Even after that, I’m consumed with doubts…although I’ve really only had one story die after I’d finished the first draft because I realized the premise was too convoluted and confused (the idea, though still holds promise!).

I’m about to embark on a new WIP and I’m at the doubt-filled stage of wrestling with a new idea. Since I have other projects in various stages of the submission process, it’s definitely time to knuckle down to a new manuscript but in this early stage of the creative process I have to grapple with how to formulate an idea into (hopefully!) a great story.

My process (such that it is) usually goes something like this:

  • Light-bulb moment – new idea starts to whip round in the brain and, of course, I think it’s awesome.
  • Write down idea in vague terms – lots of questions and possibilities…
  • Start research (almost always involving some historical period/event)
  • First doubts – which way to proceed? More questions than answers? Do I have enough for a novel??
  • Begin to outline a proposal to help shape the idea into a real concept and (ultimately, I hope) the premise for a novel. This is usually when the second round of doubts start to hit… Sometimes I end up with multiple proposals revolving around the same initial idea as I fumble around trying to decide if this project really is ready to get off the ground.
  • More research = more procrastination and sometimes panic that whole idea really sucks…
  • Send outline to beta readers for feedback – see if it’s intriguing and clear enough (my issue is always one of complicating rather than simplifying a story!)
  • After feedback – sometimes involving a choice between proposals – I send to my agent for her initial read/buy in. This is where I have to formulate the log-line/blurb so I can succinctly describe it to her and others.
  • Once I have agent buy-in I start on an outline and the first chapters to establish the POV/Voice for the book (I spend a long time on the first chapters feeling my way into the book as well as drafting an outline of where I’m headed with the plot/characters)
  • More research (I like to hide between the pages of history books!) = procrastination
  • Finally begin draft!

So TKZers how do you go from idea to first draft? Do you spend time, like me, formulating the premise and making sure your idea is sufficient to sustain a novel? Or do you just set off writing from the get go with the confidence that it will all come together and work out in the end? What’s your process?

 

 

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When a Picture Is Worth
At Least 80,000 Words

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The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.– Graham Greene

By PJ Parrish

Friday, I tried to push the boulder back up the hill again.

You all know the one. James even had a picture of it here last week when he asked us what was the hardest part of writing. It’s that stone on which is engraved CHAPTER ONE. It’s that rock that feels so heavy and looms so large that you are sure it will roll back and crush you dead before you even get traction.

Especially if you haven’t got a good picture of how your story is going to open.

We talk a lot here at TKZ about crafting a good opening for your book. That it has to be compelling, that it has to grab the reader by the throat, that you can’t do this or that. But I think the single most important decision we all need to make boils down to one question:
What is the optimum moment to enter the story door? What is the best angle of approach?

I struggle with this question every time I start a new book because I’ve learned that for me least, finding this prime entry angle affects the whole trajectory of my story. I keep going back to my metaphor of the astronauts in the movie Apollo 13. The three guys are up in the capsule about to make their harrowing re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. The guys down in mission control are sweating about finding the right angle of descent. If they come in too fast and deep, they will burn up. If they come in too slow and shallow they will bounce off into the atmosphere.

It’s the same with a book opening, I think. If you come in too hard and fast, you burn up in a blaze of clichéd action and grab-me gimmicks. But if you come in too late and lazy, you lose the reader in backstory and throat-clearing.

So how do you find that right moment?

For me, it always starts with an image. I have to see something in my mind’s eye –- a person who can’t be ignored, a place that has the power to haunt the imagination, a visual that is so compelling that I have to spend 100,000 words explaining it. You often hear writers talk about “seeing” their stories unfold like films. Joyce Carol Oates has said she can’t write the first line until she knows the last. I can’t write one single word until I see the opening of my mind-movie.FINAL COVER

I can trace this process to almost every book my sister and I have written. (I usually get the opening chapter duties after we have talked things over). For our newest book, She’s Not There, the seminal image came from a vivid childhood memory of when I almost drowned at a Michigan lake one summer. I walked out into a lake, the sand gave way under my feet and I felt myself sinking slowly downward in the water until someone yanked me out by the hair. Here is the opening of our book:

 

She was floating inside a blue-green bubble. It felt cool and peaceful and she could taste salt on her lips and feel the sting of it in her eyes. Then, suddenly, there was a hard tug on her hair and she was yanked out of the bubble, gasping and crying.

This is our heroine, Amelia, who is coming out of a coma in a hospital, a literal image. But I knew in my bones that once I had that opening paragraph, I had the whole book, because it is a metaphor for the story’s theme about getting a second chance to live after you’ve lost your way.

Kelly and I take a lot of photographs for our locations and return to them for inspiration as the stories unfold. Other images that inspired our books:

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A potter’s field cemetery in an abandoned asylum outside Detroit, where we found that the old stone markers of the dead inmates (above) had only numbers and had been lost in the weeds. This became An Unquiet Grave.

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This abandoned hunting lodge (left) on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Once Kelly and I saw it, the whole plot of Heart of Ice began to reveal itself.

The odd juxtaposition of a swampy stand of dead trees glimpsed from the road outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, and a nearby old white pillared mansion. This inspired Dark of the Moon.

Sitting in Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle in December, listening to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” feeling so cold that my teeth chattered like bones, watching a cellist who looked so bored that he wanted to kill someone. Which he did in The Killing Song’s first chapter.

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This creepy old farmhouse near Lansing MI inspired this opening for South of Hell:

It was just south of Hell, but if you missed the road going in you ended up down in Bliss. And then there was nothing to do but go back to Hell and start over again. That’s what the kid pumping gas at the Texaco had told her, at least. Since she had not been here for a very long time, she had to trust him, because she had no memory of her old home anymore.

I feel so strongly about the power of a picture in your imagination that I use this in our writing workshops. Kelly and I have found that one of the biggest hangups for beginning writers is getting over the paralysis of finding the perfect opening. Maybe it’s because it’s been drilled into their heads that they have to come out of the gate at full gallop or no agent or editor will ever buy their books. Or maybe they get intimidated by the “rules” that preach suspense is all about adrenaline. Whatever the reason, they get all constipated and can’t make a decision about when is the right moment to start their narrative journeys.

So we give them pictures and five minutes to write the opening of a story using it. The purpose of the exercise is to get them un-stuck but it is also to force them to tap into their powers of observation. Forced to focus on one photograph, they turn up the volume on their receivers, extend their sensory antennae. They become, in the words of Graham Greene, better spies on the human experience.

The results are always amazing. Freed from the tyranny of their WIPs and under deadline to write something, they lock on an aspect of the image that moves them. And they always come up with really good stuff.  Afterwards, when we read them aloud, I see something change in their expressions, like they realize they do, indeed, have that spark inside them.

In college, I was an art major and I always struggled because I was hung up on making everything look…perfect. Even my attempts to be “modern” were perfect and thus lifeless. Then one of my teachers had us do blind contour drawing. We had to keep our eyes on the subject, never look at the sketch pad, and draw slowly and continuously without lifting the pencil. I was shocked at how good my drawing was. Psychologists call this right brain thinking. Picasso nailed it in one quote:

It takes a very long time to become young.

The idea being, of course, kids know instinctively how to create. We adults…well, the spark fades and most of us live in our left lobes, never finding the synapse that lights the way back across.

I just got back from a month in France. I didn’t write a word. I had been trying hard to begin this new book and I was bone dry and defeated. So I rested and read good books by other writers. And I took photographs. I have a thing about taking photos of people in cafes, especially old ladies with dogs, which is a human sub-species in France.  When I got home, while I was going through my pictures, I happened upon one and sat down and wrote an opening about it. It was pretty darn good. It won’t make it into the new book (maybe it’s a short story?) but it got my right brain buzzing again. I started thinking about the new book again, not with dread but with anticipation. I even got this picture in my head…

But that’s another story.

EXERCISE TIME!

Just for fun, while writing this post, I sent two of my old French lady photographs to some writer friends and asked them to choose a photograph and write an opening. Thanks guys! Here are the results:IMG_0469

The old woman watched the young man cross the plaza towards her. He looked very French — cream colored neck scarf, black blazer, black coiled hair, black jeans, his jaw brushed with just enough of a beard to give the impression he’d spent the last three days in bed with a woman. If she had known how beautiful he would grow up to be, how much he would one day resemble his father, she would not have given him away thirty years ago. — my sister and co-author Kelly

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They’re all I have now that Jacques is gone. I think they miss him as much as I do, but we persevere. At least I know why it happened. Dogs, they do not understand. — SJ Rozan.

 

 

 

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The old woman came to the cafe every morning promptly at nine. She always had the morning newspaper in her right hand, and a blue bag with her small dog in it over her left shoulder. She walked in, spread the paper out on the table, and placed the bag containing the dog on the chair next to her– always the one on the right. The dog never barked, never growled, and never bothered anyone. Her order rarely varied: always a cup of black coffee, sometimes orange juice as well, with a toasted muffin with strawberry jelly, please, and a pat of butter — but she never failed to order a side of bacon for the dog, whose name was Pierre. She would feed him the bacon, cooing his name and gently scratching him behind the ears. Once the bacon was gone, Pierre would curl up inside his carrier and go to sleep while she enjoyed her newspaper and sipped her coffee, tearing the muffin to small pieces. She smelled of lilacs, always left a five dollar tip, and was always gone by ten.— Greg Herren

 

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What an ugly fucking dog, I thought, and even more unhappy than ugly. I wondered how it felt to be shoved into the old lady’s purse like that, like a spare Euro or used tissues as she shoved foie gras down her pie hole. I don’t know, maybe I was reading into it. I probably was. Wouldn’t be the first time. I was the unhappy one. Maybe the dog was Zen about it all, the foie gras eating and the bag. Like I said, I don’t know. But I couldn’t help hoping the dog would leave a present in the old lady’s purse. – Reed Farrel Coleman

 

 

What I found revealing about this exercise is that in each example you can hear the unique voice of each writer. Kelly loves to focus on lost relationships. SJ Rozan’s is just like her books, as lean but emotion-laden as a haiku. Greg’s reflects the same gentleness and attention to detail as his books. And Reed’s — well, if you have read his Moe Prager series, or his new bestselling Robert B. Parker Jesse Stone books, you’ve hear the same gritty authority at work.

Just for fun, go ahead and take your turn. Pick one of the lady pictures and write an opening. Don’t over-think it. Don’t take too long. You might surprise yourself. And if you’ll let me, here is one more picture of an old lady and her dogs in a cafe. (My husband took this one…)  A bientôt, mes amis.

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Insights into the Dreaded First Page

I attended my first local Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference here in Colorado last weekend and there was a strong emphasis on the dreaded first page – one session was devoted to reading random first pages aloud to two editors (I was too chicken to enter!) and in another, more intensive session, the first 3-5 pages of a new novel were evaluated (I did bravely submit for this one!). We’ve dealt with a number of first pages here at the Kill Zone and, although this conference was focused on children’s books (ranging from picture books to middle grade and young adult), the same issues (unsurprising) reared their ugly heads, so I thought it would be helpful to distill and share some of the advice the editors and agents gave on those all important first pages.

By way of background, the two editors who conducted the first page session were Andrew Karre, executive editor at Dutton, and Stacy Whitman, founder and publisher of Tu books (Andrew also provided the novel intensive session). I also attended a session with Kristen Nelson, an agent, where the group evaluated query submissions (which in most cases focused, once again, on those dreaded first pages).

Here’s the advice, distilled and summarized as best I can:

Start with intrigue, leave explanations and extensive backstory for later

Many of the first pages evaluated fell into the trap of over-explaining (usually by way of character backstory) and succumbing to large chunks of narrative exposition before the action even got going. All the editors and agents agreed that the first pages of a novel must intrigue and raise questions in the reader – if those questions are answered too soon then there is no real payoff for the reader and, hence, no reason for them to continue to read. The difficulty comes when trying to achieve the next key point: anchoring your reader in time and place.

Anchor your reader, nonetheless in place and time

Some first pages provided a great deal of mystery and intrigue but too little in the way of ‘grounding’ so the reader felt lost before the story had really begun. Some pieces sounded contemporary only to turn out to be historical (and the reader had no way of knowing the setting or time period from the start which was disorientating). Some pages began with dialogue and no real foundation for the reader to visualize where that dialogue was taking place. Again, the editors all emphasized that a first page has to serve two purposes – to draw a reader in and hook them with the story and also to provide them with enough basic information to know where and when the story was taking place so they were willing to go along for the ride (rather than thinking ‘huh?!”) from the get go.

Overall, the editors emphasized, a balance has to be achieved between action and intrigue, questions and answers, exposition and dialogue. This is no easy task but one that enables a reader to get hooked on the story, suspend disbelief, and  want to keep turning the pages to discover the resolution to the issues raised.

Make sure you have a clearly established ‘voice’ and choice of POV from the outset

In the novel intensive program, this issue was raised a number of times as we discussed the choice of POV used in our crucial first pages. Sometimes the choice of first versus third person felt strange or forced, sometimes it was clearly the way the story needed to be told. The key element was one of deliberate choice by the author rather than lack of certainty over voice or POV (which comes through as inconsistency or uncertainty in the writing).

Avoid dialogue that sounds like it’s only for the reader’s benefit

All too often the dialogue in some first pages was too obviously providing information for the reader and so it felt forced and inauthentic. All the editors agreed that authors should avoid using dialogue as a backhanded way of introducing exposition or in a way that sounds like people are only telling each other facts or backstory for the reader to ‘overhear’. The critical element, once again, was to create a sense of authenticity and voice when using dialogue in the all important first few pages of the book.

Avoid mixed metaphors or overly ‘intellectual’ or ‘precious’ turns of phrase

As part of the editing process, the editors emphasized trying to pare down the first pages as much as possible so extraneous information is left out and readers aren’t slowed down by turns of phrase or metaphors designed to impress rather than move the story along. When we discussed this in the first pages session, the editors also emphasized that authors need to be aware of inadvertant ‘micro-agressions’ that come from using racially stereotyped or inappropriate phrasing. One of the main topics for the SCBWI conference was the issue of diversity in children’s literature (or rather the lack thereof) so this came up occasionally when dealing with the initial pages of some authors’ work.

So there you have it – further insights into the pitfalls to avoid in the first pages of your book! While there were no real surprises in terms of the feedback provided, I think it never hurts to have these issues repeated. Feel free to add your own comments or further insights…

 

 

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Settings as Inspiration

Nancy J. Cohen

Settings can provide inspiration for a scene, a story, or even a character in a book. For example, I’ve used old Florida estates as models in at least three of my novels. Body Wave, book 4 in my Bad Hair Day Mysteries, launched yesterday as a newly revised Author’s Edition.

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Marla, my hairstylist sleuth, goes undercover as a nurse’s aide to care for elderly matriarch Miriam Pearl. As Publisher’s Weekly states, she “agrees to help her snake of an ex‑husband, Stan Kaufman, who’s been arrested for the murder of his third wife, Kimberly, find the real killer.” Stan believes one of Kim’s relatives might be guilty. Most of them reside at the Pearl estate. Marla, feeling a sense of obligation to Stan, agrees to his scheme. She dons a nurse’s uniform and accepts a part-time job assisting the wealthy head of the family.

So what stately mansion did I use as the model where Marla goes to snoop? A drive along our coast will show you many stately homes, any number of which could have served as the model for the one in Body Wave. Bonnet House (http://bonnethouse.org/) was the model for cousin Cynthia’s seaside Florida estate in Hair Raiser (book #2 in the series). It’s a historic site with lush tropical grounds abutting Fort Lauderdale Beach. There’s the Flagler Museum (http://www.flaglermuseum.us/) in Palm Beach, which I’ve used in an—as yet—unpublished mystery.

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And then there are the haunted sites that coalesced into Sugar Crest Plantation Resort on Florida’s west coast for Dead Roots. I enjoyed researching the Breakers (http://www.thebreakers.com/), the Don Cesar Beach Resort (http://www.historichotels.org/hotels-resorts/loews-don-cesar-hotel/), haunted sites like the Kingsley Plantation (http://floridafringetourism.com/listings/ghosts-kingsley-plantation/), and other locales for their ghost stories and spooky ambience. A stay at the haunted Cassadaga Hotel (http://www.cassadagahotel.net/) set among a town of certified mediums lent authenticity to Died Blonde.

These are mainly historic estates and grand resorts. I’ve used Florida theme parks as the model in several of my stories, not to mention numerous towns that Marla visits to interview characters or to investigate an angle in a mystery. Florida has a wealth of diverse settings that inspire writers in many ways.

How about you? Have old houses played a part in your stories?

Check out my Contest Page for a chance to win free books: http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest/

For more details on Body Wave, go here: http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com

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Tips on Pacing your Novel

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

The story in most novels takes place over a period of time. Some are condensed to a few hours while many epic tales span generations and perhaps hundreds of years. But no matter what the timeframe is in your story, you control the pacing. You can construct a scene that contains a great amount of detail with time broken down into each minute or pacecareven second. The next scene might be used to move the story forward days, weeks or months in a single pass. If you choose to change-up your pacing for a particular scene, make sure you’re doing it for a solid reason such as to slow the story down or speed it up. Remember that as the author, you’re in charge of the pacing. And the way to do it is in a transparent fashion that maintains the reader’s interest. Here are a couple of methods and reasons for changing the pace of your story.

Slow things down when you want to place emphasis on a particular event. In doing so, the reader naturally senses that the slower pace means there’s a great deal of importance in the information being imparted. And in many respects, the character(s) should sense it, too.

Another reason to slow the pacing is to give your readers a chance to catch their breath after an action or dramatic chapter or scene. Even on a real rollercoaster ride, there are moments when the car must climb to a higher level in order to take the thrill seeker back down the next exciting portion of the attraction. You may want to slow the pacing after a dramatic event so the reader has a break and the plot can start the process of building to the next peak of excitement or emotion. After all, an amusement ride that only goes up or down, or worse, stays level, would be either boring or frantic. The same goes for your story.

Another reason to slow the pace is to deal with emotions. Perhaps it’s a romantic love scene or one of deep internal reflection. Neither one would be appropriate if written with the same rapid-fire pacing of a car chase or shootout.

You might also want to slow the pacing during scenes of extreme drama. In real life, we often hear of a witness or victim of an accident describing it as if time slowed to a crawl and everything seemed to move in slow motion. The same technique can be used to describe a dramatic event in your book. Slow down and concentrate on each detail to enhance the drama.

What you want to avoid is to slow the scene beyond reason. One mistake new writers make is to slow the pacing of a dramatic scene, then somewhere in the middle throw in a flashback or a recalling of a previous event in the character’s life. In the middle of a head-on collision, no one stops to ponder a memory from childhood. Slow things down for a reason. The best reason is to enhance the drama.

A big element in controlling pacing is narration. Narrative always slows things down. It can be used quite effectively to do so or it can become boring and cumbersome. The former is always the choice.

When you intentionally slow the pace of your story, it doesn’t mean that you want to stretch out every action in every scene. It means that you want to take the time to embrace each detail and make it move the story forward. This involves skill, instinct and craft. Leave in the important stuff and delete the rest.

There will always be stretches of long, desolate road in every story. By that I figuratively mean mundane stretches of time or distance where nothing really happens. Control your pacing by transitioning past these quickly. If there’s nothing there to build character or forward the plot, get past it with some sort of transition. Never bore the reader or cause them to skip over portions of the story. Remember that every word must mean something to the tale. The reader assumes that every word in your book must be important or you wouldn’t have written it.

We’ve talked about slowing the pacing. How about when to speed it up?

Unlike narration, dialog can be used to speed things up. It gives the feeling that the pace is moving quickly. And the leaner the dialog is written, the quicker the pacing appears.

Action scenes usually call for a quicker pace. Short sentences and paragraphs with crisp clean prose will make the reader’s eyes fly across the page. That equates to fast pacing in the reader’s mind. Action verbs that have a hard edge help move the pace along. Also using sentence fragments will accelerate pacing.

Short chapters give the feeling of fast pacing whereas chapters filled with lengthy blocks of prose will slow the eye and the pace. Make sure you write it that way for a reason.

Just like the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 sets the pace for the start of the race and dramatic changes during the event such as yellow and red flags, you control the pace of your story. Tools such as dialog versus narration, short staccato sentences versus thick, wordy paragraphs, and the treatment of action versus emotion puts you in control of how fast or slow the reader moves through your story. And just like the colors on a painter’s pallet, you should make use of all your pacing pallet tools to transparently control how fast or slow the reader moves through your story.

How about you Zoners? Got any hot tips on pacing?                                           

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