Thursday, June 24, 2010

Process Note: Something about the Pace

Whatever success I might have as a teacher is based almost entirely on repeating little bits of wisdom I've heard from other writers. On the question of pacing, I use my former teacher Jim Shepard's advice: we must make sure not to let any more than, say, two manuscript pages go by without letting something happen. Something like advancing the plot or revealing character.  This is the pace the reader demands.

There is nothing like serialization to bring this premise into shocking focus. As I chop this story into 3-minute, 500 word increments--which by the way translates almost exactly to two manuscript pages--I've got to make sure each week that something happens. Sounds ridiculously simple, but isn't that just how it goes with the best ideas.

But what do I mean by "something?" Luckily for me, "something" is generously vague. Wide open for interpretation.

Yet I also found myself recently repeating to a student a bit of wisdom I picked up who knows where: beware of the word "something." For example: In that moment, she felt something like loyalty for him. I've written countless awful sentences like this, in which a character feels "something like" an emotion, as if such vague nonsense made my sentences more oblique and therefore more literary.  But this won't do. We're writers; we trade in the specific.  If it's "something like" loyalty my character is feeling, it's not exactly loyalty, is it? If it's something else, then what is it, precisely? It's our job to know, and to describe it.

So, what do I mean by "something?" Plotwise, that's easy: a character acts, or an external force imposes itself, or someone makes a decision. Character development wise, "something" is also fairly clear: we might learn about a fear, or a desire, or a habit, or a memory. But what about description? Is description "something?" Can I spend two pages in rumination about the ugliness of Speedway Boulevard, or the ways in which Tucson fails to be an interesting city? I'm deciding that yes, I can...because that description comes through a close narrative stance and is filtered, heavily, in this case, through the character's desires. And with an attitude that illustrates her bitterness and disappointment. Description reveals character. That's the idea, at least.

But will I be able to keep this up? It's a lot of something. I welcome all ideas on the definition of something, not to mention how to make it happen every three minutes.

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