Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Weeding Our Manuscripts Part II: Word Whacking to Increase Pace

"Man, your story has so much conflict, but you keep slowing it down with the words you're using." 

One of the best things about critique groups when you hear something from more than one person over time...its major confirmation.

Last time I talked about fear: Weeding Out I: Fear

Today let's get out our weedwhacker and find out how making some crucial cuts can up the pace of your story?

1) Weed #1: Long paragraphs

Dickens may have been able to get away with paragraphs that last for pages, but we can't and shouldn't. 

I have to admit, it comes naturally to me to write longer paragraphs. Even for this post, I'm trying to consciously focus on increasing the white space so the eye passes over it more quickly.

I notice shorter paragraphs are utilized in many of the most highly followed blogs. One of my personal favorites, Ann Voskamp has mastered the art of helping the readers eyes glide over the page with her short paragraphs punctuated with breathtaking photographs. 

2) Weed #2: Lack of dialogue or too many dialogue tags.

My name is Julia and I'm a dialogue tag addict. 

It all started with trying to avoid he said/she said. 

The next thing I know my characters are Pilates queens making odd body contortions and facial twitches.

"Your characters don't have to do something every time they talk."

Guilty as charged. Too many dialogue tags can slow your reader down. 

Also increasing the amount of dialogue is a great way to up the tension. 

One writer to watch in this area is Ronie Kendig. The novels in her Discarded Heroes series don't slow down for a single paragraph and she often uses dialogue to ratchet the conflict up a notch.

Here's a short example from Firethorn:

“You move one wrong muscle,” the one in front of Cowboy growled, “and so help me God, I’ll kill you.”      “No you won’t.” Cowboy lowered his hands. “If you wanted me dead, I wouldn’t be out here.”

A few short lines of dialogue, but powerful.

3) Weed #3: Unecessary Descriptions

I recently read an article in Writer's Digest by Stephen King. In it he includes a powerful excerpt from one of his early novels, The Shining. I have clipped this article because I thought it was an excellent example of giving "just enough" description.

The main character describes his father in a simple paragraph, yet the reader comes away knowing so much about the main character and his origins.

Jack's father used to play a game, maybe one your father played with you. Lying down on the floor. My dad called this game "Superman." 

Jack's father's game was a bit different than what some preschoolers played with Dad because occasionally his dad didn't catch him. Instead he went crashing into the wall.

King uses simple details such as the beer mustache, his father's odd jerky movements and his slightly rancid smell to show the reader Jack's father was an alcoholic. A few key details show the reader much about who Jack is today. Yet he doesn't include every detail (what Dad was wearing, what the walls looked like, etc).

(OK, I always feel like I have to give a caveat here, as its important to me to not have to worry about stumbling anyone. This is not meant as a recommendation for this particular book. But I did find this as a good enough example that I wanted to include it).

4) Weed #4: Too wordy

I recently received manuscript help in the form of simple slashes. 

Some words deserve to die. Here's a list from Tameri.

Do you have any to add? My common offenders are then and often, but I'm sure my online and face-to-face critique partners could find some I've missed.

Tightening up your prose is often as simple as reducing words.

Reading your work aloud is a simple way to solve many of these issues in pacing. Try having a friend read your work to you, utilize Word's vocal features, or read it to yourself with a tape recorder in hand.

You'll be amazed at what you notice about your writing.

Do you have a favorite book or author that keeps you turning the pages? What ideas have you used to increase the pace in your own novel? Or what do you think would help increase the pace in your own novel?

Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also enjoys reading and reviewing books for The Title Trakk, a Christian review site.   


Debra E. Marvin said...

"slash and burn" is a good method of editing. I'm doing spring cleaning and that's the mood you need to be in when you do a good edit. Sure, you love that paragraph, but... is someone else going to love it, or skim it?

I am a strong proponent of reading aloud and recording it. Chances are your recording is not going to sound very good because you often stop and edit as you go along! (lots of pauses). I also have my computer voice Fiona read back to me as I follow along, and again without reading it but just listening.

Nothing beats time away from your WIP to see it in a new light, though.
oh - one more thing.

I like to send my chapters to my kindle and read it on there. For some reason I am much more of a critic when I read it on my kindle. My mind tends to look at it as 'someone else's work'!

Great post Julia. I hope to see you soon!

Joanne Sher said...

Julia - I am SO with you on the dialogue tags thing - and it started JUST the same with me! Several other excellent points. A GREAT post.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Awesome pointers, Julia! My favorite authors who keep the pages turning are Jenny Jones and Hillary Lodge. Hillary is known to have several lines of dialogue without any tags or action beats...It makes for such a fun, fast-paced read. But she adds just the right details in just the right spots to keep the reader from being confused.

Lindsay Harrel said...

Love this list, Julia! I've struggled with the dialogue thing too. I don't struggle as much with the long paragraph thing, but that's probably because I was a journalist first...and writing tight is beat into you as a journalism student. :D

Renee said...

I had to hop over here to say hi because it's been so long since we've been in touch,Julia! Great list. I think having someone else read and critque my writing was what really helped me to begin seeing these things in my own manuscript. And reading aloud also really helps.

Julia M. Reffner said...


Oh, yes, spring cleaning! Its much more fun to do it in our MS than in our houses, huh? :)

That's a great idea to listen once while reading along and another time to just listen. I'm sure you catch so much more that way.

The Kindle is a great idea, but I confess I've never done it yet. Thanks for your thoughts!

I'm not heading to Philly after all, but I am heading to Dallas and hopefully we'll all get a NE meeting going this year! Hope to see you!


Oh, yes, I'm so glad my critique partners are kindly blunt with me. Easy error to get into.

Julia M. Reffner said...


Never read either of the authors you mentioned, but I've heard both are hilarious. That's so key to add the right details without overdoing. So GLAD you stopped by, you'll always be part of the writing family here.


I can definitely see that your background would help you write tight. Thanks so much for stopping by today!

Julia M. Reffner said...


Yes, thanks so much for stopping by. I miss stopping by the blogs, yours was always one of my favorites.

Hope I'll get to meet you at the NE ACFW meeting or in Dallas!

Lisa Jordan said...

Terrific pointers, Julia. I can be a bit wordy so I try to pare down words to say what I mean. And you're so right about Ronie's books. She's one of my favorite writers. Her books are packed with action, conflict and the right amount of sizzle. Two other favorites are Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck...no wonder they're award-winning, bestselling authors.

Julia M. Reffner said...


Yes, I love Susan & Rachel's use of emotional conflict. Fantastic!

BTW, thanks for being 500 and thanks to all of our 500 for following us!

Nancy Kimball said...

Cliff Graham and Karen Witemeyer. Though they write very different genres, I have to plan ahead to read their books. If I don't, I'm going to be trying to read in traffic and caffeinated out of my mind to make it through work if I don't start them on Friday night.
I agree the best thing is time away before coming back through to tighten. I'm curious though if any authors ever go too far the other direction? Is there such a thing as too tight?

Julia M. Reffner said...


I must confess I didn't know what Cliff Graham wrote, but they sound like must-reads! I mostly end up obsessed thinking about the book until I get back into it.

Hmm...good question. I guess its a matter of balancing sensory description without including unecessary details. Anyone have comments on this?

Unknown said...

Julia, it's been a busy day in my world, so I'm just stopping in. :) Loved your post today--great points. I had to check out the "list" of words that must die. Unfortunately, in my first drafts, they manage to sneak in there a lot. I'm learning the words I tend to use and chopping them out more quickly. :)

I don't know if this helps with writing too tight, but I heard Susan May Warren say that a scene should be a minimum of 1200 words, otherwise you can't get all the necessary components into the scene. I'm also finding that for a polished draft of a scene, I'm trying to set a word count goal for myself (i.e. try to keep my scene to 1600 words, or something like that). That helps me with not being too wordy, because I go through my scene and tighten the writing to get close to my goal. Thanks for all you shared today!

Julia M. Reffner said...


Always glad to see your comments pop up whenever they do. Oh, my first draft was just a mess. It really helped to step away for a bit before coming back to it.

That's good advice on allowing for 400-500 extra words. I'll keep this in mind.

Julia M. Reffner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angie Dicken said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Angie Dicken said...

Great advice, Julia!! I find myself using the word "just" so much. I can get carried away in the description of things and have come to realize I need to do that only if it intentional to showing something deeper, something that will boost setting in relation to character. Intentional writing is becoming more of my focus...I think it helps cut out the unnecessities. :)

Julia M. Reffner said...


I definitely think description is a strength in your writing. Its always hard to balance those out sometimes though, isn't it? I'm going to add your other thoughts to the comments from Barbara Scott because I think they're fantastic!

Julia M. Reffner said...


Here are some great thoughts Angie shared:

I heard Barbara Scott say that she Can tell when someone has surrendered their manuscript to a crit group and slashed it so much that, although it is technically correct, the voice is gone. I suppose without a good balance of detail and pace you either get a boring robotic piece or a rambling of imagery that makes your reader dizzy!!

Well said, Angie!

(BTW, if you can get ahold of any of Barbara Scott's ACFW lectures I highly recommend them. I end up with pages and pages of usable notes.)

Mary Vee Writer said...

thanks, Julia
This was great info!

Nancy Kimball said...

Thank you. I agree. I don't remember who called what you described (with the critique group) as "writing by committee" but it stuck with me.
I appreciate the insights.