Shelley Widhalm

Sick blogger (but committed)

In Blogging, Pacing, Writing on October 23, 2016 at 11:00 am

I’ve taken the blog commitment to blog every week about something writing related.

I post my blogs on Sundays.

I get a few readers, but not too many, and I’m grateful to everyone who reads my blog. But I do know I’m not marketing my blog in the right way. If I were, I’d have fans and more fans and awards and all that.

I skipped blogging last week, because I got behind with the work-life balance and spent my free time on editing my novel. Again. It’s the young adult one I’ve edited a million times. This time I’m editing for pacing and a few other elements, which is quite revealing because now I better understand the concept that, before, seemed too complicated.

Basically, pacing, or the speed at which a novel unfolds, is how boring or interesting the read is, and what kind of action versus description occurs. If the storyline is full of action with short dialog exchanges and short scenic descriptions, the pace is fast. If there is little action and more description, the pace is slow.

Lately, the pace of my life has been slow, very slow. That’s because I’ve been in bed for the past two days. And in that state, I considered skipping blogging this week, because I just didn’t feel like it. I either had the flu or food poisoning, resulting in my being unable to move (day 1 and part of day 2) and calling in sick for two days. My father informed me I likely had food poisoning, because the flu lasts for about a week, and today, Sunday, I’m in a coffee shop, out and about, blogging.

I have to admit I must be a bit lazy, because I thought being in bed, reading and listening to audio books for hours on end, alternated with sleeping, was absolute heaven. I have been going at such a fast pace that sometimes my heart goes out of whack and my brain buzzes, and I wonder, what the heck?

Anyway, I’ve returned to real life and to my blog, albeit not in my usual tone or voice, another concept I’ve blogged about. My voice is a bit British (it’s the book I’m reading) and my tone is relaxed—I’ve been sleeping after all. So there you go.

I’ve kept my blog commitment. Or at least mostly.


Balancing back story in novels

In Back Story, Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on October 9, 2016 at 11:00 am

A member of my writers’ group helpfully pointed out how my short stories have too much back story.

I wanted to tell her, but my stories need all those details! And right now!

But, she was right … writers shouldn’t front load the opening of a story or novel with back story, which literally takes a story backward out of the present moment into the past. The details of back story need to be revealed throughout the novel and not in large chunks of description and exposition.

Back story, which is everything that came before the novel’s opening, can be in the form of flashbacks, character musings and recollections, and descriptions of character history. It can be details about the setting and plot that came before now. And it can be an explanation about why the characters behave and act as they do in the present moment and how they came to that moment.

The problem with back story, especially if it’s laid on too heavily particularly in the beginning, is it slows the pace or forward momentum of the novel, causing scenes or the entire novel to drag.

A novel that has a strong opening is cinematic with the story playing out moment by moment. It sets the story in motion while also establishing scene and introducing characters.

Leaving out details of the back story, or past, helps create tension for readers, who don’t need everything spelled out but want to guess the reasons for plot action and character motivation and to put together the clues as they read along. The tension is created between what readers know and don’t know, pulling them into and through the story.

Here are a few approaches to adding back story to give the clues readers need without giving them too much information:

  • Figure out the back story that’s necessary to the plot of the story and cut what the reader can figure out from dialog and action.
  • Reveal character through action and dialog and less through description.
  • Rewrite a scene heavy with back story as a play or screenplay, using only dialog and brief descriptions of action, setting and characters.
  • Weave in back story into the narrative of the entire story, keeping the immersion of details and descriptions short; or use the back story to provide a timeout or sense of mental relief for the reader in a scene with heavy action, quick pacing and a great deal of tension.

Back story, especially in the beginning or told in long descriptions or tangents off of other tangents, causes the tension of the story to slacken. It becomes something to read and less of a story. Back story is a literal pause in storytelling and plot. It’s the then, not the now.

Balancing description in story

In Writing, Writing Processes, Writing Tips on October 2, 2016 at 11:00 am

Description in a novel or short story, if not handled correctly, can slow the pace or movement of the novel from start to finish.

Action keeps the story moving, while description gives story place and setting. It identifies character. It adds layers of meaning.

I’ve read books heavy in back story and detail, with some of the descriptions leading to tangential thoughts and more description, so that I lose the sense of the story. I’m working too hard at reading with little plot to pull me along.

At the other extreme, if there is too much action, I don’t get a sense of the world of the story, feeling like I’m reading a white canvas with too little to absorb.

Description is necessary to flesh out the story, moving it from an outline of this happened and then this happened into something three-dimensional and real. Description adds life through the use of the senses of seeing, tasting, touching, feeling and hearing.

To provide a balance in description versus action, choose words carefully, making sure every word has a purpose. That purpose can be establishing setting, developing character or moving the plot forward.

Verbs are important in description, much less so than adjectives, which qualify a noun or noun phrase to provide more information about the object being described. Adjectives, when used, should be kept simple.

There are a few things to avoid in description, such as:

  • Using adverbs, which weaken writing when they are not specific. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs.
  • Writing in the passive voice, using “he was,” “they were” and the like. The passive voice slows down the action, while distancing the reader from what’s being said.
  • Using general words, instead of concrete details and specific nouns and verbs. Tree and bird are general nouns, as opposed to a birch oak or maple and a cardinal or robin.

Description can, just like action, add excitement to a story if the language is crisp, purposeful and intriguing.