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Thursday, October 27, 2011

By John Gilstrap

After receiving the email to which my manuscript for Damage Control (July, 2012) was attached, my agent wrote back the following: “Only 110,000 words? For you, that’s a novella.”

Smartass.  But she has a point: I write fat.
One of my critique partners who writes full-time and produces one book a year (plus maybe a short story or two) writes books that are only 70,000 words, and she does quite well with them. Granted, her genre is humorous mysteries, which always run shorter than thrillers, but still.
Even my contracts call for books that are approximately 100,000 words, and I've never once clocked in at under 110K. I don’t think I’m capable of telling an entire story in 70,000 words.
I’ve given this some thought in preparing for today’s blog post. While I don’t really write to a formula, I do, I believe, have a pattern to my storytelling rhythm.
The first 10,000 words are dedicated to the opening sequence (the hook) and the final 30,000 words or so are dedicated to the final climactic sequence. That middle 60K is where all the work is done--all the backbreaking plot development and backstory revelations that have to feel to the reader like real action. It’s not easy to do, but there are shortcuts that make it less hard:
Keep scenes short. Expository scenes in particular need to be as short as possible. I’ve heard it explained as starting the scene late and leaving it early. If characters are meeting for coffee, for example, start with them already in their seats and the coffee in front of them. If it’s important to have them enter or exit on screen, make sure to use that action for some kind of conflict or character development.

Use space breaks. On average, my chapters run about 12 pages, and they each consist of two scenes, and those contiguous scenes typically come from different parts of the story.  They almost always present a different point of view. I think this gives a feeling of motion to the reader. Also, by looking away from the action of one character for a while, you build suspense in the reader who’s anxious to get back to it after the space break.  (Oh, yeah.  And the scene you break away to has to be as compelling as the one you leave.)

Remember that shorter feels like faster. As the pace of the book picks up toward the climax, my space breaks become shorter. Sentences, too. Bang. Toward the end of the book, those 12-page chapters may have as many as four or five space breaks.

End chapters on cliffhangers. You need to be a little careful with this one, because if overused, cliffhangers can feel cheesy and manipulative. Of course, they always are manipulative; but the trick is to make them not seem that way.

So, dear Killzoners, what am I missing? What other tricks are there to give a sense of motion to your writing?  And how long do your manuscripts run?


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