4.23.2020

Why Speed Matters

When I started working in publishing, I had a nebulous melange of dreams about great books mingled with a knowledge of what books sell, similar to the rest of the reading population. That speaks to the power of artistry, that even after reading so many works of schlock along the way to getting a college education, I still held onto such prosaic notions as every novel needs depth. Yet shortly into my first tenure an editor who would become a mentor put it to me straight: “John, pacing is everything.”

I laughed, of course, wanting to be in the know but thinking to myself, “What a terrible way to think about books.” As it turns out, though, they were right, at least in terms of commercial novels. Or, to qualify its truth further, in terms of novels that don’t possess much depth anyway. That is not meant cruelly. It just so happens that writing a rich book is extremely difficult, and so many authors don’t meet that mark, because they are still learning how to write.

When I read submissions, I use an internal balance scale to measure what the book has to offer. How complex are the characters? How much do I feel I am standing in their shoes as the plot events unfold? How deep are their reflections about those events, and about life in general? How much of the narrative is focused on physical action—that is, the stuff that most writers write about?

Based on the overall assessment, I will repeat my mentor’s famous words with more or less emphasis. If an author is trying to write a thriller, I don’t want to stop for 20 pages of intellectual discussion. I want another murder pretty soon. The faster we get to it, the better. In lieu of constant carnage, I want to feel a character’s fearful anticipation, their stark worry, their terror of the consequences—whatever can drive suspense forward. At the end of every chapter, I want to experience a plot turn that makes me turn the page.

The baleful result of dreaminess about what moves a reader is a swampland between vigorous action and the writer’s principles about writing. If you want to write a best-seller, you have to put the pedal to the metal. If that feels like prostitution to you, I’m afraid there are plenty of other writers out there who like cash and fame. Their novels contain 80 percent dialogue. Their plots careen on the edge of nonstop mayhem. They know that pacing sells.

Exercise: Work backward from the end of each chapter. What is the event that will make the reader turn the page? Once you write down what it is, ask yourself how the chapter is building up to it. Any intellectual stuff, stick it at the beginning of the chapter—before you start ramping up the tension toward the end of the chapter. And keep it short, so we’re not waiting too long.

“If everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough.”
― Mario Andretti

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.