By Lisabet Sarai
I’ve been working on my latest erotic romance novel for more than a year. It’s not that I’m an incredibly slow writer—my new 8.5K holiday story took me about sixteen hours to write, edit and format—but in the case of this novel (The Gazillionaire and the Virgin), life kept getting in the way. In fact, from May through October, I could scarcely work on it at all.
There’s also the fact that I didn’t really expect this to be a novel in the first place. When I came up with the premise and the characters, I figured the story would be 20K, tops. My characters did not agree, however. This is the first time I’ve tried the Character-driven Random Walk method for novel writing. I began with a moderately clear notion about the story arc, but Theo and Rachel kept taking time out from the plot to have sex. I mean, the sex wasn’t gratuitous—it developed the characters and helped define their emerging relationship—but it slowed things down, from both a productivity and a narrative perspective.
Figuring that a deadline might help me finish the thing, I reserved a publication date at Excessica and committed to completing the first draft by the end of 2015. I’ve made some excellent progress over the past few weeks (partially because some of the other demands on my time have relaxed). One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that the plot is moving faster as I approach the climax and conclusion. The characters seem less likely to dawdle in bed. That got me started thinking about the general question of pacing in a novel—how it impacts the reader’s experience and how we as writers can control it, or at least be aware of it.
What do I mean by pacing? I can define the term as the ratio of the amount of action to the number of pages it takes to express that action. (Sorry—can’t get away from my engineering background!) In other words, pacing is the speed with which the story develops.
Many novels begin at a relatively gentle pace, as the author introduces the characters, the setting and the initial situation. It’s also fairly common for the pace to pick up as you get deeper into the book.
Not all books work that way, though. Some authors begin with an intensely active scene (sort of like the intro to a James Bond film), build to a minor crescendo, then slow down in order to provide the back story. This strategy can be very effective. It yanks the reader into the book, triggering all sorts of questions, which are then answered when things settle a bit and the reader can catch her breath. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books fit this model, as do the couple of books I’ve read by Carl Hiaasen. It’s also a favored style in science fiction.
There are some risks to this approach, though. If you extend the section with frenetic action for too long, your reader may begin to feel exhausted. The tension arising from unanswered questions can be pleasurable for a while, but if you don’t resolve the mysteries eventually, you’ll have a reader who’s confused, frustrated, or both.
The rapid-fire pacing one typically finds in some genres (e.g. thrillers, mysteries, horror) is a relatively modern phenomenon. Fiction a hundred years ago tended to be more discursive and deliberate, the action interspersed with frequent description. Nineteenth and early twentieth century fiction also tends to use more consistent pacing throughout the book.
Jane Austen epitomizes, for me, the effective use of slow and relatively steady pacing. Many twenty first century readers might find her novels too sedate, but I feel that her pace fits the stories she’s trying to tell. In the world and society she describes, change occurred gradually. Relationships took years to develop, and news (and gossip!) required days to circulate.
In modern erotica and erotic romance novels, things often happen more quickly. Characters may become sexually involved in the first chapter. Things then happen to threaten their sexual and emotional connection. Typically some conflict, internal or external, appears. The opposition of forces implied by that conflict propels the story forward, further ramping up the pace. Eventually the conflict will be resolved, and the story will slow down as it concludes.
It doesn’t have to be that way, however. A book may alternate between fast and slow paced sections, cycling between action and reflection. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife uses this pattern. In erotica, the pacing may tend to pick up during sex scenes and slow down in the bridging periods where the characters are getting on with their lives. On the other hand, as I’ve found in my current novel, the opposite can also be true. My characters get distracted by carnal activities, in some sense putting the plot on hold.
When I noticed the accelerating pace of events in Gazillionaire, I started to worry. Was I rushing the story too much, in trying to get it finished? After considering the question, I’ve concluded that more rapid pacing is what the novel requires at this point. The core relationship has been established; the conflict has been exposed and has temporarily torn my protagonists apart. It’s time to move forward in order to get them back together again.
There’s no one right way to pace your novel, of course. In fact it’s not an issue I think about much. Normally, I trust my intuitions, developed over decades of writing and more than half a century of reading. However, when something feels wrong about your novel—when you sense it’s not working the way it should, but you don’t know why—pacing could be the problem.
Earlier this year I reviewed a four hundred page BDSM erotica novel that, in some ways, I liked very much. It offered a much more realistic and nuanced treatment of power exchange than many books in the genre. It featured interesting characters and hot sex. Yet somehow it left me feeling flat. When I analyzed my reactions, I concluded that pacing was partly to blame. The novel was constructed as a series of episodes that unfolded over a fairly long period of time (at least a year). The pace of the book didn’t vary at all, over the full four hundred pages. There was no rise in tension (and consequent increase in pace). This even pacing somehow decreased my interest in the action.
Pacing is one component of each author’s individual style. You probably shouldn’t try to force your books to use a different pace than what comes naturally. Being aware of the issue, though, may give you clues as to how to make your writing even more effective.