Sunday, August 29, 2010

Space and Pacing

As I’ve been working on my second steampunk/fantasy short novel for young adults, I’ve been thinking a lot about plot and structure. During the week I spent an afternoon with a younger friend of mine. We walked along the river, and at the end, arrived at a secluded dock-like area. There was no one to be seen around. Signs of humanity, yes, in the from of buildings and houses and cars, but no moving cars, no athletes out running. We joked that it was like the world had stopped, with all people but us having vanished.

Now, we’re both writers. She’s three years younger than me and plots are her thing. She whips them up while doing her chores. But for her, writing them down is more complicated. I can wax poetic all afternoon. So it was interesting to put us together; we started spinning a story out of it right away, using ourselves as the starting point that became an epic apocalyptic tale involving aliens. She would cement plot elements (just a little bit impressive, right?) and I would explore emotional implications.

She had told me earlier that she would outline but just end up zipping through the plot points way too fast. So, I have now been thinking about pacing, especially after coming back to my novel, The Mark.

A complimentary discussion to this one would be the topic of outline people versus no-outline people (James Scott Bell talks about this in his book on writing called Plot and Structure, which I recommend. Another good book on plot is Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver). I have found that obsessive outling helps me, most likely because that’s the kind of mind I have (lists, schedules, and organization are my forte), yet I can also identify with the “no-outline” perspective, that outling makes a piece too heavy, leaden, or unmoving. I mean to say, the outline makes the writer feel trapped, shutting down creativity.

I think this can happen even if you like outlines (as it happens to my friend). The problem is that the writer doesn’t leave enough space in the work for transitions from moment to moment, for pauses, for surprises, for characters to reflect, for the work to breathe. Actually, I can think of another book that addresses this: The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham. He has a section (24) where he talks about an idea of “the sequel.”

“Thus the major structural components of fiction, scene and sequel--link like the strongest chain. In the scene, you provide excitement and conflict, ending in disaster; in the sequel, you provide feeling and logic, and the character’s decision, which leads directly into the next scene.”

It comes down to pacing. Leaving space is probably a difficult thing for writers because of something I have mentioned before: we expect writing to feel the same as reading, with the same emotional progression. Instead, the emotional landscape of writing is completely different. I have found that, for me, the key is to write about something that I think is really cool, because then it can keep my attention in any number of emotional situations. I can be excited but I can also just be interested, I can feel empathy in sad scenes, I can slow down and examine a scene rather than be taken with the frenzy of inspiration, in which pacing often goes out the window.

But, the answer to how to leave spaces when creating an outline? That answer is more complicated, I think. There are so many things to balance when writing. Many are subconscious, more are subtle and complex.

Benjamin is probably going to pick on me for not expanding very much in this post. I’m sorry, I still haven’t explored this fully myself, so expansion is still out of reach in this case. At the very least, I enjoy the story-telling element of a blog like this, with a narrative.

See you soon.


benjamin said...

it's great that you went to that outside source, thank you for the indirect reading recommendation.

i'm not one for outlines (or sequels, actually), but i find myself even second draft completely leaving out (particular) transitions that i just don't have right yet. a short story i worked on all season ended at 700 words in first draft and 1300 at fifth draft. two or three more drafts to go now (i'm setting a deadline, too).

also enjoying the narrative element here, "personal essay" feel; ever considered doing non-fiction? (well, i guess this is non-fiction but you know...)

sorry that my comment is mostly irrelevant.

Meredith said...

Yes. I've read so many I sometimes I think I've recommended when I haven't.

I don't know what other non-fiction I would do; if I had an example of something I'd certainly consider it.

benjamin said...

well, memoire doesn't have to be as personal as everyone says--and i think you have tons of original memoir and you (much different life experience than everyone else that i know, at least)

Meredith said...

well, thank you for the compliment. :)

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