Friday, July 8, 2022

Expansion/Contraction--Test the Pacing Strength of Your Writing

Pacing—a delicate affair in writing a book—depends on a balance of expanded and contracted moments. I think of it like breathing. Good pacing creates a rhythm between inhale and exhale, between how much we take in and how it is absorbed.

It's hard to learn. The fastest, most effective way is by reading good writing, of course. When I read a well-paced memoir or novel, I feel the author has kept my interest and delivered just the right amount of material in each chapter. There isn't any rush, but there's no lagging either.

I recently read The Farm by Joanne Ramos, published in 2019. About a community in rural New York where surrogates are paid to bear the children of the uber-wealthy, this is not an easy read. But the pacing was masterful. I read it in two days; I couldn't put it down. Similarly, I just finished The Guide, a new thriller by Peter Heller. Another challenging subject, but wonderfully written and paced. When I finished, I actually started reading it a second time, just to catch what I might have missed. A third, equally provocative book I enjoyed this month, this one a memoir, was Heating and Cooling, a series of 52 micro-stories by Beth Ann Fennelly. Two days for that one, as well.

I'm not bragging about my reading speed; it isn't often this fast. I'm lauding these authors' pacing skills.

So how do you up your own game in terms of pacing in your writing? Aside from reading a lot?

This week’s exercise lets you notice your natural (often unconscious) pacing tendency. I've divided it into the two qualities of expanding or contracting. Either, done too much, will create a bumpy ride. Balanced well, the writing will soar. This exercise is excerpted from Your Book Starts Here, my writing-craft book for book writers.

1. Set a kitchen timer for fifteen minutes. Begin to write about a childhood event that influenced you greatly. Don’t overthink this exercise, just let it rip. No editing along the way!

2. Read the piece out loud. Whenever you get interested, as you read, highlight the paragraph that pulled you in. (It’s essential to read out loud—you’re switching from a writer’s viewpoint to a reader’s.)

3. Contract (condense) the paragraph into one sentence, as short as possible, without losing the essence of the larger paragraph.

4. Now expand this one sentence into five new sentences (a new paragraph).

Which was easier for you, expansion or contraction? Think about whether this short exercise helped you see anything about your natural tendency as a writer.

5. Return to your original freewrite about the childhood experience. Select your favorite section, a paragraph or two.

6. Apply the aspect (expand or contract) that was the most difficult for you in steps 3 and 4. If you had trouble with expansion, expand the section to three or more paragraphs. If you had trouble with contraction, condense the section to half its length.

Read the new writing out loud. Can you notice the difference in flow, in music, in pacing?

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