Novel Girls: Fragments, Pacing, and Running a Critique Group

3 Mar

We had a special Tuesday edition of the Novel Girls this week because our dear Sonia is moving this weekend and she will need Thursday to get ready. (I’m in denial about this move happening, if anyone asks.) We gathered at my apartment and started right in with critique. We’ve implemented a new system where we email our pieces out a day ahead of time so we can focus on critique. I’m a big fan of this change.

Something that came up during my piece was a stylistic concern. I have a part where my narrator is reflecting on all the things that are about to change in his life. It goes something like this;

His memory of Sarah was faded but there were still moments that he remembered in detail. The time he broke her favorite china plate and she laughed and cried while she cleaned it up. There was the first time they’d gone ice skating together and she fell down more often than not.

I recognize that the second sentence is a fragment but the third is a full sentence. What my partners recommended was setting up a parallel phrasing situation where the second and third sentences are fragments. I always cringe at fragments but they felt it would be strong stylistically. I’ve not done this anywhere else in my novel, but this scene is a big turning part in the character arc of my protagonist. How do you feel, Reader? Is breaking grammatical convention for style and emphasis a pardonable sin? Does it work here?

Another thing we talked about was pacing. After we discussed Sonia’s piece, she asked us about the pacing of a story. We all agreed it was well paced, needing maybe one or two minor tweaks. This got me thinking more about pacing in general. There are books I’ve read recently that I thought were well paced (Divergent) and books I thought were terribly paced (Outlander) but I never though what contributed to that pacing problem. My quick Google search did not return any tips I found useful so I’m going to write my own.

  1. Use action to describe a scene instead of a description. There’s not a window on the wall; the sun coming through the window warmed the characters skin (‘warmed’ is stronger than ‘is’).
  2. Build a sense of excitement and anticipation. Your characters will feel this as they work toward achieving their goal. If their goal isn’t worth getting excited about, maybe they need a new one.
  3. Cut down on description as the plot progresses. We should know what the characters and common settings look like. If the reader is engrossed in the book, he will likely be able to go off less description as he becomes more and more absorbed. Focus more on action.
  4. Skip the boring parts. If a scene later in your story seems dull, cut it. Early/middle is okay for a lull scene, but the ending is not.
  5. What else would you add to this list?

Another quick stylistic thing we talked about was using ‘present’ adjectives and adverbs in a piece with a past tense narration. Let me give an example.

Mindy wrote about the dark places her mind went to and how this was the most difficult part of her life thus far.

Notice the word ‘this’ in this sentence. In my opinion, ‘this’ describes something that is very immediate and usually fits best with present tense. It seems to immediate to work with past tense. Am I the only one that feels this way? Reader, do you think words like ‘now’ and ‘this’ seem out-of-place in past tense prose?

The final thing we talked about was how our critique group works. As you may have guessed from the name, we’re all working on novels. Each time we meet we share the next ten pages or so of our work. Our problem is that when we review a section, our advice will often be to change something fundamental about the section or to add something to clarify a question we had as readers. For example, lets say my first chapter starts with a major conflict between a couple and my girlfriends said that the reason for the fight seemed weak and unjustified. As a writer I fix the problem, adding in a more believable dialogue section, changing the motivation for the fight, and creating some back story for my characters. The next time the Novel Girls meet, I bring chapter 2 but my readers don’t know what’s changed in chapter 1. They’ll have the same questions, or even new ones arising from what I’ve added. We don’t want to review the same chapter over and over to perfect it because something might happen in chapter 5 that would recommend a change in chapter 1 and we have to get to chapter 5 to even seen that plot development. Wow, is this getting confusing!

Our question is; What is a good way of communicating the changes made in a piece so that the downstream prose will still make sense and the reader has a very real sense of what minutia and characterization has changed? We haven’t found a good way to do this yet and would welcome to any suggestions, advice, or precedents you might have.

We’re sad that Sonia won’t be able to join us in person for a while, but we still plan to do e-mail critiques and the other two and I still plan to meet. No worries, Novel Girls posts will continue for the foreseeable future.

Until next time, write on.

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