Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Saturday, 11 May 2013

Marathon or sprint? by Jenny Harper


I've just been listening to an item on Radio 4 about cinema, and about how students looking at 1920s footage find it very hard to relate to the content. It's not just that it's old, in black and white, and silent, it's also that often nothing much happens. Accustomed to the big effects of today, the relentless car chases and thrills (accompanied by intense noise, both sound effects and music), young people simply cannot attune to the old material.

Of course, the same applies to books and to the way we read. We're all familiar with the pace of a Jane Austen novel, or of George Eliot and Trollope. Would they be published today? Possibly not exactly as they stand. But I've been even more surprised by rereading novels from the much more recent past - Coming Home (1995) by Rosamunde Pilcher, for example, and Tara Road (1998) by Maeve Binchy. Now I enjoyed both these books immensely, because the power of the storytelling and the drawing of the characters is very fine. However, I do suspect that an editor buying either of these books today would ask for cuts, in order to increase the pace.

Pace is key to fiction writing. Too fast and we feel cheated, too slow and we stop reading. I think it's a very hard balance to achieve, and particularly hard to judge in your own work. In thrillers the advice is to alternate a chapter where the protagonist is forced to make one bad decision with one where he or she reacts to what has happened. Really fast-paced books drop the reaction and stick with the bad decisions made in impossible situations. In other genres, the principles are similar. Action and dialogue speed up the pace, reflection, rumination and description slow it down. To drill down further into technique, long sentences and paragraphs slow down, short ones add pace. Avoid commas, adverbs and adjectives for pace, and use active verbs. To slow down pace, make dialogue more relaxed. descriptions more panoramic, and use the time to delve deeper into character.

We need both, of course. 

I once got a rejection from an editor who commented that while I wrote beautifully, she didn't find my work 'compelling enough'. I took this to mean there wasn't enough happening, particularly in terms of ramping up the jeopardy. The next rejection came from an editor who said that while there was a great deal going on, I didn't get deeply enough into the characters.

Sigh.

I've used the metaphor of a race in the title of this blog, but now I'm thinking more about cooking. Master Chef hosts John Torrode and Greg Wallace are for ever talking about the 'balance' of the ingredients – sweet and sour, delicate or spicy and so on. They talk about depth and lingering aftertaste and bursts of flavour and freshness. Apart from the fact that I'm getting a bit peckish (!), it seems to me that these are useful descriptions for writing too. We need to strive for balance in terms of pace, with bursts of flavour and a fantastic, lingering aftertaste.

Now for breakfast ...

25 comments:

  1. Jenny, I just what you are talking about. As readers we are much less patient these days. Getting that balance right is so important and so hard!

    lx

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    1. And I'm sure you do... Thanks for dropping by, Liz!

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  2. It's a really hard trick to pull off, Jenny - you're so right. While I don't think I've ever put down a book because the pace was too fast, I find there are many plots so fast-moving that I miss things - often crucial things - because not enough time has been given to them. And I'm reading a book at the moment where I want more description and background to support the plot.

    That said, I don't generally put a book down because the pace is too slow either (see my post on Robinson Crusoe) - but I will put down a book where nothing happens or there's nothing (say, a well-written nd rewarding description, even if it is quite long) to keep my attention.

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  3. It's that balance of ingredients thing, isn't it? And we all have different tastes. Food fashions change, but so do reading ones!

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  4. Great post, Jenny. I wonder what Dickens or Thomas Hardy would think about the books published today which 'cut to the chase' so much quicker and without great (in every sense of the word) long passages of description? Fashions and tastes have changed a great deal - and yet those classics are still read, although an editor today would edit out huge chunks. Getting the balance right isn't easy and as writers I guess we are never going to please all readers.

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    1. It's getting the 'feel' in your own work for what's right - that's what's so difficult, I find.

      Thanks Mary.

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  5. I do agree the editor would cut out huge chunks these days. I enjoyed both Dickens and Thomas Hardy but I'm not sure I would be so enthralled today. Publishers have certainly cut down on descriptions. The pace of life in general seems to be so much faster these days - or maybe I'm just getting old.

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    1. We're all getting older Gwen!

      But that leads to another question - do we enjoy different books from younger readers? I think there's a lot of common ground, so we must be changing too!

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  6. You wrote this before breakfast? I'm impressed. And also with your thoughts on pace (or flavour) and what worked in other eras but might not now.

    It's a fascinating and possibly insoluble problem. I've just been reading 'Spies' by Michael Frayn so that I can discuss it with younger son who is studying it for Higher exams. My first thought was that it is Slow. The second that it is Dull (there is slow but interesting e.g. Jane Austen). The third that it wasn't actually very believable. I thought it must have been written 30 or 40 years ago, but find it was in fact publsihed in 2002. And I'm told it won lots of prizes.

    So I'm confounded. Slow books do still get published, and win prizes. Unfortunately I can't find any teenager who has actually enjoyed reading this, which makes you wonder who decided on the prizes.

    The alternatives for Higher were 'To Kill A Mocking Bird' or 'The Great Gatsby'. I'd certainly have preferred to read and discuss either of these, from my memory of them. But now I'm worried my perception of these will also have changed. Perhaps I need to go back and re-read them. When I have the time...

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    1. And then you wonder - haven't there been any books since To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby that are worth studying? I'm sure there have! Do we think things of the past are better/more worthy than contemporary work?

      Hmm...

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    2. I gave up on Spies, not so much because it was slow (though it was) but because it was very difficult to follow and I felt, as a reader, that I was being toyed with and teased. As for the literary prizes...hmmm.

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  7. Gill, I am sure you would enjoy both To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Great Gatsby if you re-read them now. Brilliant books, both of them. I hadn't heard of Spies and from what you say I won't bother to add it to the tbr pile.

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  8. I think they are both great books, Mary - but there are more recent ones too!

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  9. Excellent post, Jenny, and so right about the need for balance - and the difficulty in knowing exactly what that is in relation to publisher's needs! Gill's comment about Spies is telling - makes me wonder if we write for readers or publishers.

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    1. I find I go through hoops to try to please the publishers - so much so, I'm in danger of losing my own voice (and the will to live!).

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  10. Which books would you suggest Jenny? Harry Potter would be too low-brow for the schools, but Philip Pullman is v. readable with interesting themes. Marjorie Blackman? Who else?

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  11. Your field, not mine! Pullman is quite controversial, isn't he? I never thought of To Kill a Mockingbird as a YA novel. I think there's lots of YA novels out there dealing with challenging themes, but Harper Lee takes on one that reaches beyond teenage preoccupations and out into social injustice in a very dramatic way. it's a 'big' novel in that sense.

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  12. I have FB'd and Tweeted, Jenny......and now I'm here to say what a great post this is. I was told, many moons ago on a writing course, that a comfortable balance for writer and reader is 2/3rds dialogue:1/3rd narrative....and I try to stick to that. I have a friend who recently gained a PhD in Literature (possibly not quite Literature but she read an awesome amount of Victorian novels) and an interesting question came up during her studies. Dickens? Who will be the Dickens for our times? Because, after all, Dickens was chronicling his times, so who is best at chronicling ours? A Chick Lit author? Hmmm...I have my choice....anyone else?

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  13. There are so many more to choose from, aren't there? So much competition. Sigh.

    Did you hear today's Open Book on Radio 4? Tessa Hadley ('Clever Girl') talking about 'domestic fiction' and how nowadays we downgrade it - even though it was the stuff of great 19th-century fiction (and is actually the stuff of most fiction today.

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    1. Alas, Jenny, my implant not quite up to radio....sigh. But it seems this question is being much-debated at the moment.

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    2. Sorry Linda! My comment was general. Anyway, you get my drift.

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  14. A wonderful and thought provoking post, Jenny. I prefer the 'balance of ingredients' approch in writing - but in reading - I do love a descriptive prose. If it's good I stop and re-read a paragraph just for the pure pleasure of it - although I'll admit that it doesn't happen that often these days. There was mention of The Great Gatsby - I can't wait to see the movie but I'm almost afraid it won't live up to expectations!

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  15. Ah now, comparing movies to the original book - that's a whole new subject for a blog, Janice!

    Thanks for dropping by.

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  16. Great post, Jenny. Pace is so important and striking the balance so hard. I was always amazed at rehearsals with one particular director who ramped everything up. She didn't want the audience to have time to mull over anything, I think - I never asked her, but to absorb meaning from a natural delivery. Anne

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  17. It's a powerful too, used properly. Thanks, Anne.

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