Introduction: You can never know too many ways to speed things up
First of all, some largish majority of fiction readers—I'd guess at least 2 out of 3, and would not be surprised if it were as many as 5 out of 6—want their fiction to read fast.
Admittedly, this appears to be merely a long-running fashion change, the way that men's powdered wigs have never come back and it's hard to imagine a future where women never wear trousers. Some literary effects can only be achieved by text that reads slow, and if you need one of those effects to do what you're trying to do for the reader, you (and they) will have to tolerate slowness.
Nonetheless, unless you've figured out a way to sell your stories in 1830*, today's audience is the only one you can work for, assuming you don't want to bury your work in time capsules. So if you want to write fiction, you'd better know how to pick up the pace and keep it up, all through the book. And no matter what you do, some readers will still complain that it's slow, usually meaning that they didn't get exactly what they wanted, right on this page, right now. The fastest you can go will never be fast enough for everyone.
A long slow section is bad enough; you need to do extra work to get rid of it, and the work you already did is often wasted. But a long slow section that you can't get rid of (because it appears to be a necessity, but nothing you do to it seems to make it faster) is a virtual guarantee of Not Quiteness. And since this blog is about getting from Not Quite to Well, Sure!, a way of fixing deeply recalcitrant slow sections is one of the most important instruments in your bag–even if you don't have to use it very often.
Warning before reading: if you are not sure what a scene is, in fiction, either you don't know enough to understand what follows, or you don't think enough like me to benefit from it. (That doesn't mean you're wrong; we just speak different languages, and this would be like trying to cook from a cookbook in a language you don't read). Check warning here before proceeding.
Diagnosis: Slowness seems incurable due to an apparent tradeoff between speed and meaning
When a novel is painfully slow at the beginning, an editor or agent will frequently say things like:
•"Cut all that exposition, you don't need that."
•"I can tell you like writing relationship scenes and you're good at them but this is an action-rich books so we need to start with something blowing up."
•"How come the love of her life doesn't get in till page 150? Cut everything else before that."
•"All that shooting at the start was exciting but then it didn't have any consequences in the plot for another ninety pages. Why don't you just start at page 102 when Sam bawls Jake out about the discharge-of-firearms report?"
They say those things because usually they are right; again, before going further, really, seriously consider that the problem may be exactly what the editor or agent is telling you.
But what if the material they want cut contains everything that makes the material they want to keep matter?
When a novel drags in the middle, so that its "excitement graph" would form sort of a U, N, or M shape, that same editor or agent will often say:
•"Put in more obstacles in the middle part so the heroine has more to do; she's just going from one routine task to another."
•"I can tell you ran out of ideas before you ran out of book because it started so well, the pacing fell apart till you thought you had enough words, and then the ending was good again."
•"I think you fell in love with your character and didn't want to let go of him so you kept thinking up one more thing to happen."
When you've already shown them you can write taut action scenes and quick transitions, and suddenly they're bogging down, many agents and editors will reveal an irritating belief that they can read minds, and tell you how you happened to bore them. If it seems to you that they're right, swallow hard, accept the slightly patronizing tone, and change it as they suggest.
But you may also note that while they are telling you all these things about your process, none of them seem to resemble what you actually did, they have missed your point, and they assume something you find very uninteresting was your real goal.
Finally, sometimes, you'll get the note,
•"I see you haven't really figured out how to end your book. Just cut right to that ending, which was good, and forget about all that setup you tried to do just before."
And you thought that set-up was the main part of the story; but the agent or editor seems to think of the story as primarily a vehicle to get to the climactic events in the last chapter, and doesn't seem to care whether they will make any sense or not.
Now – one more time before we proceed – 90% of the time, maybe 97%, those criticisms and solutions will be exactly right, because most books have fairly simple plots, most fictional ideas are bag-of-hammers dumb (even if true, maybe especially if true), and people who read to be entertained, and those who write to entertain them, really do need to just slam the action together. Ever notice the huge expository black hole in the middle of the first Star Wars movie? They free the princess and in about two minutes everyone is getting ready to blow up the Death Star, and the logic that links these two is mostly not on the screen, but nobody much cares. Maybe Lucas winces late at night about it, but I doubt it.
In the great majority of cases, then, those editorial suggestions will be obviously true to the hapless writer, who just needed a small injection of hap. So before proceeding further with what I am discussing here, one more time, look long and hard and ask if those simple solutions are not, in fact, exactly what needs to be done.
Suppose there's a fundamental problem that if you just cut to those interesting action/events, they will be meaningless? Suppose there's something critically necessary to the effect you're after in every single scene you are being asked to cut?
They tell you they love the scene where Sandy goes and gets the crazy horse in the middle of the night, risking her life to be there without any protection or control over him, and soothes him down and leads him away, and you agree, it's a good scene. But this isn't strictly speaking a caper novel, or a horse novel; it's a novel about someone facing her greatest fears for her deepest values. To experience that scene properly, we need to know about Sandy's special relationship with her father—which is not just any old dad-daughter thing but built around the family pride in their skills with horses—and that her ex-husband brutalized the champion horse she had trained just because it was the way he could hurt her most, and that she has a delicate brain condition and three young kids to worry about, and that she has promised herself that she will either re-gentle that horse or shoot it herself, and that it was the last gift her father gave her before his death … and, and, and … and frankly, watching her sneak into the paddock without knowing that, she just looks like a horse thief.
Or let's turn to a real case. I hadn't formalized this trick when I fixed it, but I did most of the things that I'm telling you to do in the prescription below (and a whole bunch of other stuff that didn't work):
In the first draft of what became A Million Open Doors**, I was on what would have been published-page 100 or so*** before we had Raimbaut's funeral (it's on the seventh page of the eventually published version), and the damned thing was looking to be a million words with the amount of story to be accomplished, and yet I had such a long list of things people had to know for the major plot turning that was still to come, and something happened in every scene on the way there, and the thing that happened mattered. (I could tell it was excruciatingly slow, and my first reader at the time, who was also my first wife, had said, very gently, "Well, all the pages are interesting, but the story … well, look, you're a good writer, I'm sure you'll think of something to make it go a little faster," when I asked her for feedback.****
And yet … every scene seemed so mother-grabbing necessary.
It's that combination—slow development plus the absence of obvious discardable extraneous material—that is the main symptom of this week's manuscript disease. If there's nothing you can cut, and most of the book is fine, but one long section is just obviously too slow, there is a good chance that most or all of the scenes in the "slow part" are single-duty scenes.
A single duty scene is one that does just one thing: establishes a character, or takes care of one bit of action, or sets a location, etc. and doesn't do anything else. At the end of the scene, only one thing has changed, and the reader only has one more incident to file in the backstory, and from that incident, has only deduced one more fact about the characters or situation.
Most good scenes are multi-duty; actually in most good scenes, there are more duties being carried out than most readers are capable of seeing. A good scene should have so many duties that to perceive them all the reader would need to be a very detail-minded critic doing exhaustive multiple readings.
By "duty" here I mean something like "obligatory purpose" – the scene's reason and value for being in your story. Duty is to some extent a matter of taste, but has a nearly-objective component as well. In a murder mystery, there's a duty to let the reader know that there's been a murder, and some scene will carry out that duty. There's also probably a duty to establish the detective's credentials, a duty to establish the possibility of each suspect, and so on, and each of those are objectively duties as well. Subjectively, or as a matter of reader and writer taste, there may also be duties regarding atmosphere, language, character development, disavowing or espousing particular points of view.
So a single-duty scene is a scene that is there to do one thing: show that Maude's shyness conceals her innate courage, move the servant to Samarra, establish the author's voice, head off critics who will object to your sexism, show that you're pro-animal rights, for example. It's single-duty if that's all it does. If the scene has a long list of duties and fulfills them all, it's multi-duty – and almost always better and faster.
Prescription: recast the action, fusing scenes to create multi-duty scenes.
Replacing a long sequence of single duty scenes with a short sequence of multi-duty scenes will allow you to shorten a section tremendously while greatly increasing its reader interest.
1. Begin by writing down what each single-duty scene in your existing draft is doing. Some of them might, on reflection, turn out to be doing more than one duty, say two or three, but probably none of them will be doing enough duties.
For example, in the first draft of A Million Open Doors (which wasn't called that at the time), I had a hero, Aimeric, who was a jaded old guy of 35 with a depressing past (I was 29 and fully expected to be jaded by then), and minor characters named Giraut, Raimbaut, Marcabru, Yseut, Garsenda, and Bieris, who were about 20-22, and who tolerated Aimeric (and in Bieris's case, were romantically involved with him).
I needed to establish that:
1. Aimeric was devoted to his young friends because they were his path out of depression.
2. Aimeric had come from another very different culture on a very different planet.
3. Aimeric was going to lose any reason to remain with his young friends, through their deaths and betrayals.
4. Aimeric would be offered a chance to go back home, to live among people he despised and had fled, to help them with a major social transition.
5. The major social transition was the invention of the springer (transporter device that could send material to any other springer), which would be re-connecting the Thousand Cultures—about 1200 distinct human societies scattered on about 25 exosolar planets, which had all been settled by slower-than-light generation ships hundreds of years before.
6. The springer had become pervasive and nearly every possible gadget was using it, from rockets that didn't carry any fuel with them to vacuum cleaners that sent dirt straight to the dump.
7. The springer had destroyed/was still destroying the Nou Occitan culture Aimeric had come to love.
8. Aimeric secretly hoped the springer would destroy the Caledon culture from which he had come and which he hated (at least he thought at the beginning of the story).
9. Raimbaut and Giraut must kill each other in a duel over Garsenda, who was going to turn out to be a cruel betraying Bad Girl. (Putting Aimeric three friends down)
10. Marcabru would be revealed as a shallow, bullying poseur, and Yseut would loyally fawn on him. (Two more friends down)
11. Bieris was too serious about her art to give it up for Aimeric. (All friends down, and out!)
12. Aimeric had to be invited onto this mission in a way that would appeal to his vanity, so he would go with some arrogance.
13. Aimeric had to accept the invitation cynically and without real commitment.
14. The idea of "dead" was being redefined due to the development of the psypyx ("Soul repository") which allowed personality copying and made it possible for a few people to be downloaded into a cloned body.
15. Psypyxes didn't work very well and most people just ended up trapped in a soul-box on a shelf.
If each scene to establish each point was just 2700 words long—about eleven pages of standard manuscript—then there I was, still waiting to bury Raimbaut, with 40,000 words already expended.
Each of those points was set up for the reader to deduce from an individual, separate scene. Most of them were in my characteristic scene lengths of 1500 or 6500 words (see below for what a characteristic length is), averaging about 3500 words per scene, and hence by the time we were burying Raimbaut (the friends blamed the now-dead Giraut for his death), there was half a short novel of length, and the story proper had barely begun.
Yet all those things really did need to happen to make the story events at all significant.
2. Take the list of what those scenes do and sort them into the smallest possible number of chronological bins. Identify everything that can happen simultaneously (no matter how weird and cluttered that scene might be) and only separate things into first, second, and third bins when absolutely driven to it*****. Put every event in the earliest bin into which it can possibly go.
Really, there was only a short sequence: Raimbaut and Giraut fight, Raimbaut dies, Aimeric accepts invitation. Three bins. If I had known how to do this at the time, I'd have dumped all the other duties into the first bin—tried to work them all into the Raimbaut/Giraut duel. By itself, that wouldn't have worked out, but it would have made some progress. Hence the next step:
3. For the first bin, write sentences that intertwine those duties as intensely as possible. Usually, do this by making some of them subordinate clauses and attaching them to independent clauses invented from the others.
For example, "Aimeric witnesses the futility of Occitan life when Raimbaut is killed fighting with Giraut because they are both angry about the changes brought by the springer, and then when neither of their psypyxes works, they are truly lost to Aimeric forever." We're down to a quarter as many scenes, right there.
4. Revise the contents of the bins to intensely intertwine their duties.
By intertwining duties I mean using one incident or comment to carry out multiple duties, so that the duties depend on each other. In Conrad's Typhoon the same short sentence – "I shouldn't like to lose her" – tells us that MacWhirr is quietly brave, deeply competent, but also utterly stupid, and we have to see all three of those to get the point of the book. Thus the three duties – show MacWhirr's courage, show his confidence, reveal the depths of his stupidity – are all intertwined in that one sentence.
In A Million Open Doors I realized that Raimbaut and Giraut were practically the same guy; but if I eliminated one, who would kill the other?
What if they were both fighting people who represented all that change that is making Aimeric so sad?
What if the springer has called forth a new kind of nontraditional Occitan?
Suddenly it's a brawl between traddies and interstellars. Along the way, I realized that when Raimbaut is killed (hey, only need one of them dead!) by an accident that can only happen with very advanced neuroscience, the ambulance would of course be carrying a springer.
5. Now for each bin, write a scene that accomplishes all the duties you have listed for it, intertwining those purposes as much as you can, and in the point of view of the most affected character who sees the important issues most clearly.
Aimeric is just going cynically back to a world he doesn't like, because there's nothing left to do and the party's over here. He's not really involved, and no matter what happens, he'll narrate it in a sour, been there done that kind of voice.
But what about a crazy young idealist who loved Occitan culture?
At first I thought of Marcabru, but he had always been intended as an idiot, a brute, and a bully (I named him after the trobador that, when I was learning Medieval Occitan, I generally thought of as "that boorish puritanical asshole"). My Marcabru's devotion to his culture was based on the fact that it was his, and nothing more. But now that Giraut was still alive … I'd named him after the trobador whose work I admired most … hah!
In Giraut's viewpoint, I packed six of the fifteen points into the first little scene, barely 3500 words long, and there was room for him to explain why it mattered so that even an editor could understand.
4. Polish the scene to the shortest characteristic length that will work for you.
Characteristic length is one of those reasons you shouldn't be dealing with the material in this blog till you have, say, 100,000 polished professional words behind you. Your characteristic lengths are the lengths that you tend to shrink or expand scenes into. Most writers have between 3 and 6 characteristic lengths****** to which they gravitate; it's one of the statistical tools used to uncover or challenge authorship.
For example, I tend to write supershorts (about 500 words), shorts (1500), short-mediums (3500), mediums (6500), and longs (9000); scene lengths greater than that are usually scenes of shorter lengths that flow into each other (say 10,500—which will probably be either two scenes [a long and a short] or three [three short-mediums]). If I make one scene do the work of, e.g., five scenes, it will tend to gravitate (or I can push it) toward one of my characteristic lengths. So, for example, if I have five single duty scenes of about 9000, 1500, 9000, 6500, and 1500 words, if I make one scene do quintuple duty, and push it hard, I can do it all in a medium-length scene of 6500 words—at a savings of 21,000.
Eventually, the whole opening section was only about 20,000 words—half the length I'd had in for the rough draft of the first third of it—and was jammed with incidents. All that stuff I really needed was in there, and so were many more things I'd had to invent. Sizable numbers of people tell me it's their favorite thing in the series.
I have seen the method I describe here work for many writers who are not me.
Cautions, warnings, and contraindications:
Some writers just never write in single duty scenes, ever, anyway, so if you find this seems strangely irrelevant—or you are trying to shrink a work and this seems not to work at all—maybe you're just too talented for this trick.
Many of the writers who have this problem come in from computer programming or engineering, and what they're doing, I think, is the equivalent of writing one scene for each declaration statement, so it's not surprising that the scenes come out single-duty. But before deciding that that's the whole problem, it might be wise to consider how many of the duties are static. (Karl stabs George: dynamic. Karl loves George secretly: less dynamic. Karl feels lonely: static. Somebody tweet this with "Stabbing is better than love!" please).
A side note about characteristic lengths:
You don't actually have to figure out your characteristic length in advance; just know that if you've been writing for a while you probably have one or more of them. But if you're really curious, word count a large number—say 100—scenes from your finished work, order the word counts from high to low or vice versa, and you'll notice they tend to clump or cluster: a bunch around 7000, a bunch around 4500, and a bunch around 2200, for example, with no counts anywhere near 3000 or 6000, none greater than 7700, none smaller than 1500. Your characteristic lengths are then 2200, 4500, and 7000.
The major uses for knowing your characteristic length are that
1) if you write a scene too different from your characteristic length, it will often have something screwed up in the voice—I don't know how that works, but I've seen it more often than coincidence would seem to allow, so if the editor grumbles about a voice slip, check to see if that scene should be some other length.
2) in planning your work and outlining, if you assign one of your characteristic lengths to a scene, it will tend to come out at that length, without too much shrinking or growing.
Characteristic lengths are why single-duty scenes take up so much room; if you're writing to make one point, you'll tend to make it at one of your characteristic lengths. If you're writing to make a complex of intertwined points, you'll tend to make that intertwined complex at one of your characteristic lengths. The intertwining is what does it -- just putting single duty scenes one after the other without scenebreaks or time breaks does not create a multi-duty scenes.
*hey, let me know how—you could get paid in gold coin in those days! Not to mention the possibilities of buying certain stocks or land.
**out of print; if you're curious, you can get it from resellers through Amazon or from Barnes and Noble, or you can order a signed first edition from my backlist bookstore.
***Useful rules of thumb: in general 8 standard format manuscript pages will yield about 5 pages in an ordinary mass-market paperback. Old style non-proportional font, 12 point, unjustified, 1-inch margin manuscript pages are almost exactly 250 words, which conveniently means you divide manuscript pages by 4 and multiply by 1000 (or multiply paperback pages by 400) to get a not-inaccurate word count that you can figure in your head at any moment. (Obviously this is less important than it was in typewriter days). So I was actually at page 160 in the manuscript, which would have turned into page 100 in the book, and that mean I was at 40,000 words. Not good when I was about 3 percent of the way through the outline and I wanted to keep the book as a whole to around 120,000 words.
****This did not have anything to do with the subsequent divorce. Nor did anything I'm likely to discuss in this blog or in public.
*****For example, if Roguish Fred is going to have a wild night of delicious passion with Likeably Naughty Sally, and must also find her corpse on his front lawn, do not put those events in the same bin, and please, please, please make the corpse bit come after the wild passion. After.
******though I've seen as few as 2 and as many as about 10 in professional writers.