Author Archives: Jason Michelsen

About Jason Michelsen

Jason writes short stories and fiction of the Epic/Heroic Fantasy variety as well as horror/psychological thriller screenplays.

Pacing: A Literary Strip Tease

I love the way a good book will spoon feed me interesting tidbits, stringing me along like a drug addict flipping pages from fix to fix. Getting to the end of a chapter and realizing I can’t stop there, that I simply must continue reading, that my life will be a little poorer until I find out how the hero is going to free himself from the rock that has him pinned to that hard place there is an awesome feeling.

With epic fantasy and the cast of hundreds some of the successful series wield (i.e. A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time), it might actually be a chapter or two if not a hundred pages before you get back to said hero stuck in said predicament. The challenge the writer faces is making sure A: the continuation of the storyline you’re slavering over is worth the wait, and B: the intervening storylines and their characters are not only necessary, but interesting enough not to lose your attention in the meantime.

Of course, the pacing you use will vary depending on the format of what you’re writing. The pacing in a short story is quicker–for obvious reasons–than in a novel, and a 150k novel will have different pacing than one of the 450k word tomes Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss and George R. R. Martin publish. Likewise, it will vary depending on the genre. If you like writing YA, your story will definitely have a quicker pace than a story written for a more mature audience.

I aspire to write epic fantasy, and often find myself struggling with my own pacing. Like so many of you, I’m a product of this current age of instant gratification.  We want what we want, and we want it now! But with literature–as with just about any form of entertainment–a good percentage of the enjoyment we derive from it comes from sheer anticipation. How often do you see the monster in the horror movie before the second act? Very rarely.

And while I love that very same anticipation when reading a book or watching a movie, when I’m actually writing, I wish I could write ten times as fast. As the author, I know what’s going to happen next. I know how awesome I think it is, and how badly I want my readers to get to it so they can revel in its glory right there beside me.

Somewhere along the line in the writing process, I typically lose my sense of pacing and begin revealing things far too quickly. The big secret which is supposed to be revealed at the climax suddenly makes an appearance in the prologue. Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but this most definitely is one of my weaknesses as a writer. As such, it’s one of the things I always ask my alpha readers to focus on.

Anyone have any tricks for how they deal with pacing in different forms of fiction? Since I’m writing epic fantasy, it helps to tell myself it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Stocking the Shelves

A while back, I started the second draft of a novel I’ve been working on for some time . . . close to a year by the time I opened version 2.o in Word.

I’d made it through the beginning, trudged through the sticky middle, and was well on my way to the climax when I realized some of the characters weren’t where they were supposed to be, both geographically and emotionally.

I’d strayed from my original outline–I’m more Gardener than Architect, though I do try to outline key events in my stories–and realized some changes were in order. It wasn’t until around the 160k word mark of my first draft that I finally understood some of my characters and realized there were things I needed to change in the beginning in order to get them where they needed to be by the end.

So I started over. I got about 20k words in and was really digging the revisions. My villain was more clearly defined in a shorter amount of time. The conflicts seemed more urgent. The setting was even coming to life in ways it hadn’t until much further on in my first pass.

Then, because writers aren’t immune to outside forces, Life reared its ugly head and gave me a smack in the face, bashing my inspiration into the mud and stomping it into an unrecognizable pulp. Pulling words from my head became about as difficult as pulling an entrenched boot from quicksand.

It’s no surprise we talk so often on this blog about what keeps us writing. Sometimes, nothing seems to work. There is no magical can of Inspiration we can use to grease the creative wheels, no verbal laxative to unplug our plugged minds. If there were, I’d put it in a can and stock an entire pantry. I wouldn’t sell it, I’d want it all for myself! Well, I might sell it for an exorbitant price so I could quit my day job and write full time like when I was unemployed. Oh those were the days!

So what do you do when the words won’t come? Last time I posted, I wrote about my return to reading. Indeed, it worked in the short term, coaxing a few thousand more words of my own onto the screen when I wasn’t working or reading. But the effect didn’t last long.

So I ask again, what do we do when an unfinished project turns stale? Many authors will push on, throwing down words they know they’ll delete at a later date until the levee breaks and good words start flowing again. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of writer that can do that. I’d rather write 50 great words than 1000 bad ones. I’m a little too much of a perfectionist for my own good at times.

The answer, at least in my case, is simple:  Write something else.

I’m not giving up on the novel I’ve worked on for over a year–far from it–I’m simply taking a break to write something else. Something I can finish, because nothing is as therapeutic to an author as writing “The End”. I started working on a short story, and, lo and behold, the words began moving again. It just so happens it’s a short story I’d actually like to turn into a short, animated film . . . or perhaps an illustrated, not-quite-for-children, children’s book a la Pat Rothfuss’s The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed.

What we write isn’t always as important as actually writing. And the more we write, the better we get. Guaranteed. So, when your darling of a story isn’t behaving like a darling, write the ugly step-child of a story instead. Get the words flowing again, and soon you’ll have your inspiration back. Do that enough times, and you’ll have a virtual shelf–or perhaps a folder on your computer hard drive–filled with ever improving stories.

It can’t be said often enough, the only way to grow as a writer is to write.

Life, Inspiration, and . . . a Red Sheep?

What a week to have to write a post for this wonderful blog (authored by some of the greatest human beings I know!).  Somehow, I’ve got to write a post that follows David Farland–arguably one of the most successful writers of just about anything and everything speculative fiction–a book give away, and an insightful and scary look into the functioning of the brain?

What if I just put a cool picture of a red sheep out there and call it a day?  No?

To be honest, the picture has nothing at all to do with this post.  I just liked it and wanted to use it in a blog post.  I probably should have saved it, using it when I had an idea for a post that would actually work with a picture of a red sheep.

And if I’m honest once again, this is about the most I’ve written in the last three weeks.  And in November of all months!  I competed in NaNoWriMo last year and won, finishing before Thanksgiving, but this year, nothing.  So, what happened?  Life happened.

And just so I don’t give the wrong impression, nobody died.   But neither do I want to talk about what it was here on a public blog.  What it was isn’t the issue.  The issue is the lack of writing.  Nay, the lack of desire to write.

For three weeks, I’ve tried on occasion to sit at the computer–butt in chair, hands on keyboard and all that–but nothing has happened.  It seemed there was little I could do to will the words from my brain out onto the screen.  It was a little like trying to wring water from a dry sponge.

I was empty.

Being an aspiring author, the prospect that there were no more words inside was a little frightening.  A literary suffocation.

It didn’t take me long, however, to realize the only way to fill something up with whatever it is it needs–words in the case of this writer’s mind–is to feed it what it needs.  For over two years, I’ve been so focused on my own writing that I’ve neglected my reading.  Oh, I read a book here or there, usually new releases by certain authors I simply can’t wait to read.  But my pace of a book every 3-4 weeks (I’m a slow reader with a day job, what can I say?) had slowed dramatically.  I’d been on the same book for over four months.

So I read.

In three weeks, I finished the last 300+ pages of the book I was stuck in, read another hefty fantasy book–The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie–and started A Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss.  Yeah, I’m a little behind.  My list of books that I’ve bought and need to read is over 25 books long.

Some people might gasp to know I haven’t even cracked A Dance With Dragons.  I know, I’m ashamed.  I deserve to be punished.

But in reading Abercrombie, Rothfuss, and the unnamed author in whose awesome book I’d been stalled for months, I remembered why I’ve wanted to be a writer since elementary school, and why I came to the conclusion that I had to write fantasy after reading Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World for the first time.

The sheer joy of the story.  The careful selection and placement of words, and the emotions they invoke.  The characters who seem more like good friends than ink on paper.  The anticipation of what waits on the other side of the page.  These are the reasons I’ve always wanted to be a writer, all the things that made me love being a reader.

Some successful authors will tell you they don’t read in the genre they themselves write.  Others will say they read a wide range of literature.  Personally, I read a fairly wide range of books, though admittedly, the vast majority is speculative fiction.  Namely fantasy.  It’s just what I’ve always loved reading; deciding to write it hasn’t changed that fact.

So, um, yeah.  Read.  That’s my advice.  To anyone, but especially aspiring writers.  Not every reader is a writer, but every writer was a reader first.

And you have to admit, the sheep picture is sweet.

Cathartic Writing

This isn’t the blog post I set out to write.  We aspire to be a blog for writers dealing with the business and/or process of writing.  Sometimes though, writing is about more than the characters and the plot.  Sometimes, it can be about real life, even when everyone in the story is wearing armor and carrying swords.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’ve spent a fair amount of time the past few days watching documentaries about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  To the majority of Americans – indeed even a great number of world citizens – it is the single most historically significant event to take place within the span of our lives.

We can all remember where we were when we first heard the news.  We’ve all seen the haunting images of the senseless violence.  It was impossible to not be affected in some way emotionally by the events of that day.

Is it no wonder those emotions would find their way into my writing?

In the days and weeks directly after the attacks, I was surprised to see just how affected my writing became.  I was in grad school for screenwriting at the time.  Like many people I knew, I was angry, and the scripts I wrote during that period reflected that.  Loss and vengeance appeared frequently.

But, what became apparent while revisiting the footage these past few days, is how certain images and themes found their way into my fantasy years later.  The story I’m currently working on takes place partly in a desert city.  The desert itself is comprised of fine, gray dust and littered with teetering towers of obsidian.  When I was worldbuilding, I didn’t consciously draw upon images from 9/11, and yet this is just one of many that has manifested in my writing.

It seems only natural.

To write is to express emotion.  Just because we write speculative fiction doesn’t mean that, in some way, we’re not using it to look at relevant issues of our own time.  To dissect them.  To find out what motivates some people to do unspeakable things.  Perhaps, on some level, to find reasons to sympathize with those people, to understand them.  Or perhaps to live vicariously through the hero, thwarting the enemy’s plan in the eleventh hour and saving the day.

Sometimes, however, we write simply to cope.