Before I begin this week’s blog, I must quickly apologize for how sporadic the blog’s been recently. Still trying to figure out how to balance deadlines, i.e. making sure my novella’s making timely process before its ultimate due date of April 30th while remembering to come up with blog topics. I’ll hopefully be better about this once the first draft is done and I’m onto the editing stage, but we all have things to learn as content creators, now don’t we?
In a similar vein is the topic of this week’s blog, which is one of the first things I had to learn as a writer: timing.
Back when I got my start writing fanfiction, I was notoriously bad at timing. Part of this was because I was so excited to just be writing cool ideas that I wrote whatever came to mind and let the story guide me—the ultimate pantser, so to speak. Which would’ve been fine if I didn’t write “hot off the presses” and posted updates as soon as they were written (which the posting guidelines for fanfiction.net explicitly warned us not to do back in the day). I was notorious for scenes dragging on too long, only to suddenly crash into the ending with no foreshadowing because that’s what I happened to write that afternoon. Perhaps that’s why I’m such a vicious plotter and self-editor now?
Either way, I’d like to think that years of constructive criticism from readers and workshops have helped me turn timing into one of my strengths in my writing, instead of a glaring weakness. I put a lot of thought into how I pace my stories, and that’s weighing particularly heavy on my mind this week as I near the end of my novella’s first draft. Thus, I’m going to talk about a couple of tips and tricks I’ve picked up about timing, so I can get into the headspace of puzzling out how I’m writing this ending.
There’s a delicate balance between action and rest. No matter how much is happening in your story, characters still need a moment to breathe and process what’s going on. Without such respites, they won’t have time to reflect on what’s happening—and neither will your readers. How much time you need depends on what kind of story you’re writing. If the action scenes are few but really need to stand out, you can get away with having more time to reflect and build character. A film that’s actually a great example of this is the movie Redline; there are two big races, one at the beginning and one at the end, and the rest is building up characters and stakes while gearing up for the ultimate race. On the other hand, if you’re trying to keep the characters and readers on their toes, however, you can actually pull off interrupting a calmer scene with a sudden beat of action, something Cordelia Kingsbridge does well in Can’t Hide From Me.
From a technical standpoint, reading tends to drag on if the sentences and paragraphs end up the same length; the repetition becomes monotonous. Furthermore, structure can be used to convey mood and tension. Action tends to be clipped. Clipped sentences. Short paragraphs grab our attention. But if the sentence goes on longer, it usually signifies a calm in the action…or at least that things are slow enough that the protagonist can stop to notice and think about things. Changing things up in your sentence structure like this will actually help the flow, amongst other things.
(On a related note: Sentence structure can also be used to differentiate character voices. When reading “Bones and Bourbon,” note how Jarrod is more curt and thus uses shorter sentences that are to-the-point, while Retz has a tendency toward longer but more casual sentences.)
I often work with multiple protagonists in my longer stories, so timing becomes important in order to maintain consistency in the story. It’s not a matter of rehashing the same timeframe or event with different characters; seeing the same thing on repeat bores readers unless there’s enough variance between the differing POVs. I tend to utilize switching between POVs to escape lulls in the story. In “Bones and Bourbon” for example, there’s a lot of travel that takes place, and the Gallows brothers aren’t always in the same location. Readers don’t need to see the entire journey, so I use that as a time to swap, such as when Jarrod gets hired by a client and is traveling to them for more details, so I let him travel while seeing what Retz is up to in the interim.
Showcasing the same scene in different points of view can be a little trickier, especially if you’re trying to see the same moment for both of them. The trick here is that if you rewind or fast-forward time so one protagonist can catch up with the other, to do so in small increments. When Jarrod and Retz reunite, I reach the scene first in Jarrod’s POV, where he notices evidence that his brother’s shown up, but how and why is a mystery. When I return to Retz’s POV, I only go backwards by a scene, showing his lead-up to how he leaves the evidence behind, and then continue moving forward. If I had moved too far back—such as having Retz’s chnapter start an entire day before what just took place in Jarrod’s scene—it would be too much of a difference for the readers. (Unless, of course, Retz’s chapters were always a few days before Jarrod’s, but I would have to keep that consistent.)
I’ve always been fascinated by parallels, callbacks, and reprises, those spaces in a story that echo an earlier event in some way. Sometimes this is to repeat an emotional response, and other times to subvert it, but either way requires timing to pull off. A silly example I remember from my childhood (so you don’t have to) was the pilot movie for the short-lived TV Show Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. In one fight scene, Buzz Lightyear is training a robot companion and says “You’re good, but I’m better,” only for the robot to destroy a bunch of enemies and repeat the line back at him, echoing the sentiments of heroism and one-upmanship…only to get shot by the main bad guy, who then echoes the line again, still boasting but considerably more sinister. While it showcases both uses of a callback quite well, it all takes place over the course of about one minute—without time for the line and its implications to settle, the repeated line just becomes annoying at best.
I could go on, but blogs are bidden to timing too in order to keep readers’ attention, and letting your eyes glaze over at this rate would defeat my point. Timing is a delicate act, and to complicate it further, everyone has different preferences over it—just look at the debate over pacing in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In the end, like any writing technique, timing becomes a matter of not just skill, but preference, style, and what suits the story best.
Now dear readers, I believe it’s time for me to get this novella finished.
Congratulations, dearest readers: you all made it to 2018! If your year was anything like mine, it was a roller coaster that was done before you even finished strapping yourself in. While most of it was a parade of bizarre news and awful weather, the year did have its bright spots. For me, one of the best perks of 2017 was all the books!
A quick confession: I’d actually taken a bit of a break from hardcore reading the past few years. Not to say I stopped reading entirely—an author that doesn’t read is like a scientist who doesn’t research, after all—but I had a hard time sticking with books that didn’t instantly grab me (or, if we’re being honest, fanfiction). I kept telling myself I was too busy to commit to a book, or that I was sick of over-analyzing stories after college.
Then “Bones and Bourbon” was accepted by Ninestar Press (and releases in three months, that’s so soon I can’t believe it), and in order to better get to know fellow readers and authors in my community, I volunteered to be a judge for the Rainbow Awards. Plus, I resumed social media and met all sorts of other authors on Twitter and Goodreads, ended up at the San Diego Comic Con and found more books, and so on. To make up for all the time lost, I threw myself headlong into reading, and now?
Now, I’m going to share with you my top ten favorite reads of 2017! There’s no particular order to this list; just a collection of books I enjoyed this year, from mainstream to indie, genre or otherwise.
The Animal Man Omnibus, as written by Grant Morrison
This whopper of a comic collection was what kicked off 2017 for me, being my 2016 Xmas gift from my partner. For those who don’t know what’s so special about Grant Morrison’s take on Animal Man, I won’t spoil the fun, but if you’re a fan of deconstructing superheroes, underutilized characters, and comic book metanarratives, Animal Man is a treat. I especially recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics (especially since they’re technically in the same universe…)
Can’t Hide From Me by Cordelia Kingsbridge
The first book I read for the 2017 Rainbow Awards, and one of my favorites to boot. This thriller has the perfect balance of conflict and romance, as its secret agent protagonists try to avoid both a killer and the threat of falling back in love with each other. All the characters are entertaining and well-developed (and diverse to boot!), the action is on point, and the use of tension is masterful.
Haunting Muses, anthology curated by Doreen Perrine
Four words: Lesbian Ghost Story Anthology. The premise alone is exciting, but all the stories within were so good! The definition of ghosts ranged wildly, from literal apparitions (some of who were the titular lesbians, but not always) to memories, ancestors, or even the faint reminders of a long-lost relationship. There are funny stories and dark ones, romances and tales of terrors, and even the sweetest zombie love story I’ve ever read.
Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire
I’ve been meaning to read more Seanan books for awhile now, having only experienced her pseudonym Mira Grant (and some of her music, actually). Discount Armageddon was one of the most fun reads I had, where just the protagonist’s view on life is enough to lighten the narrative. I also loved how many less-common creatures were used (or invented, such as the cuckoos), and how the few familiar creatures we saw were given unique twists—and being the worldbuilding geek I am, I loved all the realistic biological details. Hail!
Fire Sea by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
The third book in the Death Gate Cycle, Fire Sea wasn’t a quick read, but definitely a worthwhile one. Each book takes place on a different world, and this one is a slowly dying planet whose inhabitants utilize necromancy and the strength of the dead in order to keep the living alive. The concept alone was fascinating, but add in two rival protagonists who must work together to survive, even with conflicting ideas on what should be done with the knowledge of necromancy in their inter-planetary war? Moral AND magical conundrums, a delicious combination.
Sweet Blood by Dusk Peterson
Sweet Blood is a special entry in this list, because while I didn’t like all of it, it gave me the most to think about out of all the books on this list. It’s the fifth book in a series, is technically five novellas strapped together into one book, and starts with a sadistic torturer punishing one of his own—but while it’s certainly not for everyone, there’s such wonderful craft past that opening! Inspired by historical prison reforms, this novel brings up important moral questions about redemption, sacrifice, how to balance tradition and revolution, and so much more. Even minor characters have intriguing developments, there’s worldbuilding even in minor details like the presence of hot cocoa in the dungeon, and that sadistic torturer I mentioned? He’s so multifaceted and developed that he became one of my favorite characters. Still trying to wrap my head around that one.
The Ancient Magus Bride by Kore Yamazaki
I jokingly call this my guilty pleasure manga, but I admit, I’m a sucker for anything with properly dark faeries and magic. Not only is this series well-researched in regards to British folklore and detailed with its unique brands of magic, but it’s a story of hope overcoming despair, be it saving endangered dragons or just learning new magics at home. Plus, who doesn’t want to smooch the powerful, naive eldritch wizard with a skull head?…Just me, huh?
Hearts of Darkness by Andrea Speed
Another book that, while not perfect, was flat-out fun to read. The protagonist is a master supervillain’s son who comes into his own as he doublecrosses other villains and heroes alike, with the help of overpowered gadgets and an adorable assassin sidekick. The evil plans don’t experience too many hiccups, but sometimes, it’s fun to just watch a protagonist be openly wicked as he crushes his competition throughout the city. Plus, one of the “good guys” that gets thwarted is basically Batman, which I found outright hilarious.
Ardulum: First Don by J.S. Fields
First off, bonus points for not only having prominent aliens in this sci-fi story, but having almost all of the POV characters be aliens. Especially when those aliens come from such vastly different worlds and backstories (and are all apparently inspired by different types of fungi to boot)! I also like that as the plot goes on, ripples and repercussions arise across the different POVs, especially across the radio transmissions heading many of the chapters. It’s such a cool technique to holistically tie all the storylines and settings together.
Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson
First off: that art. Just look at that art a long moment. Then go read the comic and see how much more of a gut-punch the plot is, its gorgeous art refusing to shy away from the visceral and terrifying. You would think that animals solving occult mysteries would be cute and quirky like a Scooby Doo knockoff? Read this comic and let your perceptions be ripped apart to shreds. Then give your pets a nice, long hug.
And now, as a bonus entry:
Utter Fabrication: A Historical Account of Unusual Buildings, curated by Dawn Vogel and Jeremy Zimmerman
Okay, this one’s cheating a little, because I have a short story in it, “The Orpheus Well.” Of course I’m going to like it. But even if you completely ignore my story, all the other entries are so good and diverse! From haunted spaceships to disappearing bike racks and fantastical hideaways, this anthology explodes with cool ideas and nifty words. Little touches like the transition markers and the extra artwork show what a labor of love this was; I’m honored that I got to be a part of it.
There’s the verdict, dearest readers. Now, onto all the books of 2018—including mine!