PACING THE START OF YOUR NOVEL

Pickachew Rabbit agrees that you need to relax with the start of your novel:)

My husband sometimes teases me for the way I start behind the wheel on a long road trip, driving faster than I normally would. I’m not exactly sure why I do this and I soon settle back into my normal rhythm.

It occurred to me the other day that this is how I start a novel – and it’s not really a good way to write either. I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve had it dinned it to me that I have to hook the reader right for the start, maybe it’s just the nervous excitement of the new project. But what I’ve realised is that if my readers are exhausted by the end of chapter one, they just won’t keep reading.

On the other hand, I don’t want them snoring either – it’s all about finding the right balance. When I was at the SCBWI LA conference recently I was lucky enough to have my manuscript assessed by US agent, Michael Bourret and I learned so much from the experience.

It was this assessment that made me realise that I need time to settle into a novel and that I really need to think carefully about how I introduce my characters and lead the reader into the story.

I had submitted ten pages of a YA thriller that I thought needed plenty of action to hook the reader – but after speaking to Michael I realised that I might have overdone it a little.

As Michael pointed out, it moved very fast and there were not enough beats or pauses, time allowed for the reader to draw breath and absorb. In some parts there was too much detail and in others, he felt I’d skipped over important information.

His overall comment on plot and structure was, “The pacing feels much too fast. We never pause or linger, so nothing really sets in.”

Michael’s suggestion was that I think about changing from present to past tense and slow things down. He also made me realise that I had about four scene changes in the first chapter.

So here’s what I learned about Pacing the start of the novel:

  1. You need a hook, but not manic action
  2. Give the reader time to linger and absorb what they’re reading (the foreshadowing I had put in the first chapter was lost because there was so much else going on.)
  3. It can be helpful to consider a different tense or point of view in order to make your novel more accessible for the reader – and allow them to form a closer connection with your main character.
  4. Limit the number of scenes in your first chapter and explore each one thoroughly before you move on.
  5. Let the reader get to know your main character so they will care what happens to them and will want to follow their progress in your story.

I’m now going to try rewriting my novel in past tense. I’ve also taken my foot off the accelerator and I’m allowing my main character more time to reflect. I have a lot of work to do in the rewrites, but I feel renewed enthusiasm for my story knowing that thanks to my SCBWI LA assessment, I have the tools I need to make it better.

If you have any tips or experiences on pacing the start of the novel, feel free to share them in the comments section here.

Happy writing:)

Dee

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22 thoughts on “PACING THE START OF YOUR NOVEL

  1. Fabulous post, Dee. We are taught to hook the reader and keep it exciting, but I’ve heard no mention of the risk of moving too fast until now.
    Point 5 really spoke to me. It is important for the reader to care about the main character/s so they’ll keep reading to find out what happens to them. I’ll revisit my first chapter with this in mind.
    I can see the value of your SCWBI assessment. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Enjoyed your post, Dee. Love getting bits of insight into this amazing process. How much info to put in, how to pace it etc. It’s such a craft and relies a lot on instinct too. Glad the conference was so inspiring. I kept lots of the blogs from it and put them in my favourites bar.

  3. Thanks, Jenni,

    Glad you found this post useful. As you can see, I definitely got a lot out of my SCBWI assessment and it gave me plenty to think about…and I can see that getting out of the starting gate too fast has definitely been a problem for me in a number of my manuscripts. I’m working on fixing that:)

    Dee:)

  4. Thanks, Kaye,

    The conference was definitely inspiring and it’s great that you have found my blog posts useful. Instinct is definitely such an important part of the writing process.

    I hope your writing is going well:)

    Dee

  5. Thanks for this post. Just what has been on my mind lately as I start my second novel. Pacing the first 50 pages of my last book was a challenge and something I haven’t felt I succeeded in doing well, even after a bazillion rewrites.

  6. Thanks Dee for this post. I love all your tips about pacing in the first chapter.
    Interesting what you said about foreshadowing what’s to come.

    I have a dilemma which I must work out. Do I introduce the antagonist in Chapter 1 , book one of a kids SF series. Or do I just hint/ foreshadow whats to come?

  7. Lots of great advice, Dee, and food for thought because I tend to go for action and pace with YA and junior to grab them in and keep them hooked. I’ll watch more now to see if I ebb the tension enough in future.

    Cheers,
    Chris

  8. Thanks, Toby,

    I find pacing one of the hardest things. I know what you mean about the heaps of rewrites and I’ve realised that trying to include too much at the start is definitely a problem for me and that I need to allow each scene to unfold.

    Good luck with the your novel.

    Dee:)

  9. Hi Karen,

    Pacing is such a tricky thing isn’t it. I think that the start of the novel needs to have some foreshadowing in that it has to give the reader a sense of the type of story it is and what’s to come. But where you introduce the antagonist really depends on the type of story you are writing. If it’s an action focussed book then you might want to introduce the threat to the main character as soon as possible.

    If it’s more of a psychologically based, character driven story, you may introduce the antagonist at a different point. I think it’s finding what works for you. I find that the best way I learn is to read how other authors do it. To help me look at how to start a novel I have been reading lots of novel beginnings and looking at the sorts of things that people include in different types of stories. Unfortunately, as with everything in writing, there’s no magic formula, it’s what works for you and your novel.

    Good luck:)

    Dee

  10. Dee found this post ultra insightful and full of sense. Crazy to drive and write like that really. Your tips on relaxing at the start put me in a much better frame of mind to tackle the rest of the journey. Thank you. Dimity

  11. Dee, That advice came just in time for a last chance rewrite of the beginning of a novel that’s going to print next year. So helpful – not to feel driven to ‘manic action’ but to allow the reader time to know the main character.
    Thanks!

  12. Hi Alison,

    Congratulations on your book going to print next year.

    I’m glad you found it helpful. I always find the pacing at the start of the novel particularly hard; trying to balance the getting to know the character with hooking the reader in with action.

    I look forward to reading your new book.

    Dee

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