on September 20, 2007

I’m putting together my workshops to pitch to RWA National, and one of them is on pacing.

Well, I think it’s going to be on pacing.

Roxanne St. Claire and I were talking about doing a workshop together in San Francisco (the next RWA conference) and were flirting with the idea of romantic suspense. She writes very emotional, sexy, romancy-romantic suspense and I write darker, more suspency romantic suspense. We write completely different in tone and style, yet we both write romantic suspense.

So we were playing with that, doing a workshop and the breadth and depth of the RS genre, then came up with the idea of talking about what is the common denominator of romantic suspense. Aside from the obvious (a relationship between two protagonists), the most important MUST in a romantic suspense is strong pacing.

Notice I say MUST. I rarely say that there is a hard-fast rule in anything, but in romantic suspense–in any of the suspense genres–pacing is crucial. Whether you write light or dark, more romance or more suspense, pacing is key.

So we started talking about pacing, and in walks my long-lost would-be sister Toni McGee Causey. Now THERE is a woman with her head screwed on straight–she loves both Rocki AND my books! So of course we invited her to join our panel because one thing Toni knows is pacing. (Read BOBBIE FAYE and you’ll totally agree.)

We’re still working on a title for the workshop, something that conveys pacing in romantic suspense, and we’re still working on the content (which I will NOT plan ahead of time, just give me a couple sentences and I’m good to go . . . ), but I thought that I’d share with you some things that I do when I’m writing and editing.

After strong characterization, pacing is the most important thing in every book, but absolutely vital in romantic suspense. If you’re writing women’s fiction or an angsty historical you may have more luxury in weaving the story–in historicals people love period detail, in women’s fiction, they want the deep emotion and relationships with not only a man, but family and friends and colleagues–the complete woman. This doesn’t mean bore your reader, but you have more elbow room, so-to-speak. But in RS, you have to keep the reader invested in not only the potential relationship, but in the plot. They need to keep turning pages, and in RS they expect to turn them because of the suspense plot. It all comes down, frankly, to reader expectations.

I can usually tell when my pacing is off as I’m writing. If a scene is boring me, it’s the pacing. It MAY be because the scene doesn’t need to be there–but primarily it’s because I’ve stalled, the characters have stalled, and NOTHING IS HAPPENING. Now, it doesn’t have to be a big event–sometimes it’s a small relevation, or even the knowledge that the killer is watching the quiet scene unfold. But something needs to happen to pique the reader’s interest so they want to find out more. So they turn another page. So they don’t put the book down in the middle unless they absolutely have to because the house is on fire.

Chapter beginnings are the hardest part for me to write. I don’t know why. I think because I unconsciously want to set the scene at the beginning of every chapter, and that is almost always the kiss of death. At least for me. Some authors weave in setting beautifully, making it a character in and of itself (I’m trying to do that in SILENT SCREAM because setting is important to the story), but unless the setting is crucial to the story, the less detail the better.

Chapter endings are much easier for me. I know it’s the end when I get there, and the chapter can be two pages or twenty. The ending should be a hook, a revelation, a question, a cliffhanger, anything to get the reader to turn the page. I don’t know who originally said this, but it is GREAT advice: Arrive Late, Leave Early. That means start the chapter not necessarily at the beginning (which may be the protagonist driving to the crime scene) but in the middle of the crime scene. In SPEAK NO EVIL I started with Carina staring at the dead body while the CSI was processing evidence. I didn’t need to get them to the scene, that would have been boring. I can establish character through the action in the scene and in subsequent chapters; I don’t need to dump it all in at the beginning.

The single biggest mistake novice writers make is telling the reader too much information about the characters. Readers don’t need to know everything at the beginning. You have a new neighbor. She comes over and spends the next three hours telling you everything about herself and her life, her kids, her husband, her parents, how she was screwing the pool guy last week and her husband’s vasectomy. You’re exhausted, breathless, and you really don’t want to spend anymore time with her. But instead, she comes over and offers you homebaked cookies, dressed to the nines and smelling like sin. She says breathlessly, “Sorry, I meant to bring this by earlier, but I got distracted . . . I have to run to work, I hope we get a chance to talk later!” You take the cookies, look out the window, and watch her drive away in a Mercedes . . . then notice the pool guy is in the driveway. Interesting.

Pacing is all about questions and answers and how they are shared with the reader. You pose three questions in chapter one, answer two in chapter two but introduce three more. You solve one problem, create another . . . or three. Ebb and flow. Throw in any cliche you want.

I visualize stories. Some are a race–they start with a bang, keep ratcheting up, but when you are turning a crank you have a downstroke as well as an upstroke, and it’s getting tighter and tighter and tighter until you can’t budge it–then you use all your strength for that final twist and yes, you can get it tighter. (FEAR NO EVIL) Some stories are like an reverse tornado, starting slower at the beginning, ominous, and getting faster, and faster, and faster. (THE PREY.) Some are like a tsunami, where you have a sudden, violent event, then nothing. It’s quiet, too quiet . . . then WHAM! disaster of epic proportions. (KILLING FEAR)

Short chapters are a gimmick to increase pacing and it doesn’t always work. Sometimes it does. I suggest to use them sparingly like all devices–it’s a tool in your tool chest, as Stephen King would say. Use it when you need to. Just like cliffhangers, just like earth-shattering revelations.

When you read a bestselling thriller or suspense novel, note the pacing (I’ll admit, this is hard to do because good pacing will disappear in the story–you can’t tell until you’re at the end!) The authors who have rarely, if ever, disappointed me on pacing (i.e. giving me the “boring parts”) are JD Robb, Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. I’ve only read one of Toni’s books because there is only one so far, but it is a master course on pacing in and of itself.

One NY editor told me that the two things she can’t fix are character and pacing. Not surprisingly, those are the two most important things in ANY book.

So do you have some suggestions on pacing? Pet peeves? What are some books where you thought the pacing was right on the money? And most important, do you have a title of Rocki, Toni and my workshop? (And no, I’m NOT changing my name to Alli.)