Pace Yourself

Do you remember when the movie Speed came out? It seemed like after that every movie was a mile-a-minute, action-packed adrenaline rush. Gone was the slower pacing of a Casablanca or Waterloo Bridge. Has the same thing happened to fiction?

A lot of the advice given to writers these days is to skip the exposition (intro) and get right to the action. In romance, we’re told the hero and heroine are supposed to meet within the first few pages, and if there are no martial arts or bullets flying, then some critics claim there isn’t enough going on.

Personally, I enjoy those action-packed romances. Authors like Sherrilyn Kenyon and J. R. Ward have made a huge career out of them. But I also like reading slower-paced works too. I like the kind of story that draws you in gradually, then won’t let you go. The type you might have trouble getting into at first, but whose characters linger with you long after the last page. Although stories about warriors and secret agents are great, so are tales of everyday life and love and loss.

I say give us variety! Writing is a creative art. I hate to see a market trend homogenize fiction. It’s the same as listening to only one genre of music all the time. Hip-hop, R&B, alternative rock, even disco are great some of the time, but eventually I’m going to pop on Enya for a break.

28 responses to “Pace Yourself

  1. Agreed, but how does an author nurture and sell a slower-paced book with a publisher like LI? I’m working on a coming out story. It’s my first contemporary romance, and that’s definitely part of the reason I’m having so much trouble with it, but I also think it’s challenging because my heroes are taking time to get to know each other. Only one of them has a balls-to-the-wall, anything goes attitude. My other guy’s dealing with his past by being reticent and fearful. That combination doesn’t exactly make for a quick-start, right off the bat, high-sex situation. I definitely welcome your comments on this one, Allie, and if it’s too much for this post, feel free to email me!

    It’s funny, but until you wrote this post, I didn’t realize: I’ve written all my other books as fast-paced novels without even meaning to. And they’ve only gotten faster. I always write to music, and I wrote my first three novels to music by Staind and Nickelback. I wrote most of this novel to the soundtrack from the old movie De-Lovely. Maybe that should tell me something.

    • You see, that’s a perfect example. I think by having your characters get to know each other more slowly, you can build a deeper, more meaningful romance. That’s not always the most popular in today’s immediate-gratification society, but it’s something I think a lot of readers can get behind. Above all, erotic romance publishers like LI are looking for books that show sex in a positive light. I would think having a slower, more emotional relationship as a foundation for those spicy love scenes would be a good thing. The trick is to work in some sexual tension as the characters get to know each other. Create a build-up of anticipation for the reader.

      By and large, romance readers are an intelligent, creative, and optimistic group of people. They don’t want or demand clones of the same book retold a hundred different ways. Give them (and them includes us, lol) an honest, well-written romance, and they’ll judge it on its merits.

      To quote Dennis Miller, “That’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.”

  2. It’s funny. I just had a GR reviewer comment that she hates the “guys meet, instant attraction, one jerks off in the shower afterwards” convention that has crept into romance novels. But that is what the requirement for immediate sex produces. When you have plot restrictions that prevent your heroes from falling into bed, the author is required by both the publisher and the reader to get some sex in there quickly. Hence, masturbation becomes the order of the day. But TV and movies train us to want instant gratification on all levels. We may write the slower romance, but will they read it? LOL : )

    • That is the important question: will readers buy it? To me, it’s also a sort of chicken-and-egg deal. If writers and publishers don’t provide works that diverge from that tried-and-true formula, then readers don’t have a choice. Are they just buying what’s available, and would they be willing to try something different if it was for sale?

      I don’t want to torture a metaphor here, but my bugaboo is the low-rider jean. That clothing style certainly wasn’t designed for a woman with my figure. Do I think they should get rid of all low-rider jeans? No, of course not. But it ticks me off that you can hardly ever find at-the-waist jeans right now. I’ve bought low-riders not because that’s my first pick, but simply because that’s what’s for sale. Perhaps the same can be said for some of the fiction market.

  3. Every romance doesn’t have to be action packed, but they are a lot more interesting if they are.

    And the hero and heroine DO NOT have to fall into bed right away. With a couple of exceptions, my protagonists don’t get into be until about 2/3 of the way through the book. That just seems to be the natural progression of the books. Now I do have one where they make love in the second chapter. So it’s just whatever fits the characters.

    • I’d think letting the romantic relationship develop organically would create a more relaxed and better flow. Again, I think variety is the key. Each book should be created and paced in the way that best works for that particular piece.

  4. Cool post! I’m also working on a slower, get-to-know-you-first romance, and I sometimes find myself glancing at the word count and thinking, “Oh my god…and they haven’t slept together yet?” I have to find a way to tune out the voice that wonders if readers will get impatient waiting for my characters to hop in the sack, and write the story that’s true to my characters – and to me.

    • Exactly. Of course there have to be certain rules for a genre, but are writers supposed to be slaves to those rules? Chained to word count and a prescribed formula?

  5. Allie, you said, “I like the kind of story that draws you in gradually, then won’t let you go. The type you might have trouble getting into at first, but whose characters linger with you long after the last page,.”

    To me those are TWO separate things. I do enjoy character-driven stories that build gradually, BUT it has to hook me from the beginning. I won’t read a book that “I have trouble getting into.” My time is precious to me, and frankly, I refuse to invest in a book that doesn’t hook me right away. I don’t actually read that many action-oriented romances, which I think of as being more romantic suspense, because I prefer the emphasis to be on the relationship than external forces that affect the characters. But that’s merely my preference.

    I agree that characters are jumping into bed together too quickly these days. It’s pushing the bounds of credibility, the suspension of disbelief. In my LI cougar romance, Reckless in Moonlight, I wanted the characters to get to know each first, but Loose Id editors said they had to have sex sooner and told me to “raunch it up.” Fortunately, judging from the reviews, readers still have found it “surprising sweet.”

    However, when I’m READING an erotic romance and the characters don’t have sex until 2/3 of the way through (sorry, Cynthia!), I’m disappointed. I read erotic romance for the romance, but I STILL want the sex and if I have to wait until I’m nearly finished with a book, that doesn’t do it for me.

    But lastly, I think it depends on the length of the work. With a novel, you have the luxury of time to build up to it. In a 120 page novella, you can’t wait 90 pages for the character to have sex.

    • Length definitely makes a difference. I admit a novella doesn’t leave a writer much time to move things along.

      I get what you mean about wanting a book that hooks you right away. When I mentioned having trouble getting into it, I was thinking along the lines of how conditioned we are to wanting that action (or conflict or sex scene) instantly. Otherwise, we have so much going on to distract us these days that it’s hard to immerse ourselves. Look at a classic: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” There’s a first line that hooks you, but A Tale of Two Cities is certainly not a work you’d read while waiting in a grocery store line or waiting for dinner to cook. Some books – popular fiction as well as classic literature – require more undivided attention than others, and those are the ones modern readers might have difficulty getting into at first since we’re used to a quick fix.

  6. I wind up with sort of a Catch-22 when it comes to pacing. I’m sort of a sexually impulsive person so it makes sense to me to jump in first and ask questions later. That doesn’t work for everyone, though. I don’t do that in every story, but when I do write it, I get comments from readers.

    When I build the tension more, the readers seem fine, but publishers may ask for more heat earlier in the story. I don’t mind adding heat, I like writing sex scenes, but it doesn’t always feel particularly organic to have a masturbation scene or a wet dream plugged in.

    I guess that becomes a problem of serving two masters. Publishers know what sells, but I also know as a reader I’m not that into heat for heats sake.

    • It’s true what they say. Writers walk a tightrope between being business people and artists. Not always easy to get that perfect balance between what will sell and what feels just right for a certain work.

  7. I think two different topics are floating here: pacing and sex.

    There are excellent examples of romances with slower sexual/romantic development: Tere Michael’s ‘Faith and Fidelity’ comes to mind. The sexual buildup is slow and gradual. I don’t recall any jerk-off scenes in the beginning. There is a level of sexual awareness that is gradual, creating a gripping romantic drama. The thing is, sex and sexual tension does not have to equate an orgasm. The instant, combustive attraction doesn’t have to result in a physical act. Just because they aren’t rolling in the sack doesn’t mean sexual tension isn’t taking place. I’ve read more than one e-rom (several from LI) where there’s really only one completed sex act in the duration of the book. In Heidi Cullinan’s ‘Dance With Me,’ the combative heroes connect over dance, then a shared mission. The sexual tension is subtle and then explodes in one little moment. (white tights…sigh…) So Emily, if you create sexual tension, even if the guys can’t get into bed, the sex is in the air and creates the tension LI is looking for. Your characters can dream, fantasize, or just have moments of intense awareness or need.

    Regarding pacing, think of going to a play. The lights come up and what do you see? An empty stage? An actor just standing there, doing nothing? As a general rule, a play (or a movie) starts with action…something is happening. It doesn’t have to be an explosion or a fight, it can be a phone call, or someone coming in from a bad day at work. Or maybe something has just happened and we’re witnessing the end of that, which is what sets the events of the play in motion. If you chart the “action” on a graph, there will be peaks and valleys. You want to start on a peak. You can have your major crisis at the start and it is what kicks off the play, or you can have that big event at the end as the ‘black moment.’ But things have to happen. Otherwise people walk out of the theatre or close the book, never to return.

    Truly, I’ve never had an editor tell me to skip the exposition, but there are better tools than to dump it at the beginning of the book. I really, really hate a sci fi that opens on a chapter of, “…after the ending of the great galactive war of 5059, a plague broke out, killing all the groundhogs….” I frequently write a prologue that gives a little window into the story…a nightmare or a moment from the past. But exposition is better shown than told.

    Here’s a real life example: I had a friend who named Stu. When his feet were bare, he used to curl his toes under very tightly. It was just weird to see so I asked why he did that, and he told me that his foster father used to step on his feet. End of story.

    Well, Stu underwent a lot of abuse, but that little interaction told me everything I needed to know. So if I was using a character like Stu in a book, that’s how I’d expose the fact that he’d been abused. I wouldn’t go into graphic, blow-by-blow detail. The character can show it simply and effectively in dialogue, but also in his behavior.

    Plot action doesn’t mean its got to be a gunfight. It can be someone walking into a bar or breaking up with a long time love. It can be a car breaking down and the driver stumbling through a storm to find…the Shadowlands, maybe? The antagonist in a contemp can be the parents or the bad economy or an abusive ex spouse. The crisis can be a life in peril or the realization on the part of the hero that his chronic pain is forever. (Heidi Cullinin…brilliant!)

    The thing is, the action that starts and sustains the story is a pivotal, life-changing moment in time. Ordinary shifts to extraordinary. I’m going to pick on Zam for examples cause she does this so well. In ‘Crossing Borders,’ the hero opens the door to find his girlfriend has sent her brother to deliver a break-up message. Hero is more distracted by the brother’s ‘package’ than the message and has the ‘maybe I’m gay’ epiphany. That moment sets the entire ball in motion. In “Drawn Together,” the hero drives from Louisiana to California, risking an awful lot, just to deliver flowers to his favorite manga artist. He gets there, waits in line to see the beautiful artist, and to his chagrin, discovers that “she” is a “he.” Again, a moment that changes everything the hero knows…or thinks he knows about himself.

    Neither of these are kick-butt, balls-to-the-wall moments. But they’re gripping. In those scenes, everything changes; the lives of the protagonist/s will never be the same. That’s not a sexual element (though it can be sexual) its the plot. Its the hook that editors are looking for and keeps readers engaged.

  8. What is the definition of “sex” though? Mutual masturbation? Oral? Or sex only defined by penetration? Can there be a blend between the gradual build of a relationship and instant gratification?

    I’m asking for the definition of sex because I’ve gotten one (holy crap- only one?!) complaint about my first novel. The complaint is that it takes my heroes all the way until the final scene of the final chapter to have “real” sex: full-penetration sex. Was that their first sexual contact? By no means! LI might have thrown me out on my ear! (And *I* wouldn’t have enjoyed the book if that was the only sexual contact, let alone sexual tension- I love writing erotica.)

    I like Tara’s comment about masturbation becoming the order of the day because (forgive the misquote, Tara, but I think this is where you were going) sex sells. I wonder if there are different ways to keep readers hooked (and turned on, since it’s most definitely erotica) with other methods.


    • If you want to really muddy the waters, Emily, try throwing in some of the fantasy genres while trying to define “sex.” There’s psychic sex, dream sex, out-of-body sex (apparently ghosts and astral projections can get it on), and all sorts of other “sexual encounters” in some of those books 🙂

  9. Belinda, you make some very good points. Need to ponder while I return to my thesis… I’ll check into this talk later!

  10. Personally, I really enjoy getting to know the characters before they jump into bed together. I like to read sexual tension more than I do sex scenes themselves. I like an interesting plot, but I like to read stories that are more character driven than plot driven. So, I enjoy the slow ride in the country before the big bang. That being said, I require that sexual tension to be strong and instant. I don’t like to wait around for the boy meets boy or boy meets girl. I want them to find each other quickly and build their individual stories together. I don’t need shoot ’em up and fast car chases to get me going in a book. I don’t mind reading about the shy glances and flirtation. But, I agree with the previous comments. Will that sell? In this fast-paced, instant gratification society the art of seduction just might be an endangered breed. I find that very disappointing. There is so much richness in the building of a romance. There is more to erotic romance than just sex. It’s about the conflict in relationships and yes, the sex is important, but sometimes what is implied can be more powerful than the actual written word. And with any book, if the content is good and emotionally charged the book should sell and touch a cord with the readers.

    • There it is again, Pauline: the question of the day. Will a slower-paced book sell? Although there are other factors to consider when trying to judge whether a work of fiction is successful, in the end it’s all about sales. If people don’t buy it, it meants they’re not reading it. Books are meant to be read. I’m not sure of the answer on this since the market is always changing. Is there room for all sorts of differently paced books, big and small?

  11. I think a slower buildup does sell, but the heat has to be there from the start. I mentioned “Dance With Me.” The men are aware of each other, but the attraction is cursory and subtle. When it hits, it (literally) takes one of the men to his knees. There’s no intercourse but its so erotic.

    Emily, what is sex? LOL! If its a cigar, is it sex? In spite of what Bill Clinton might think, yes, it is. A touch? A kiss? Yes. It doesn’t have to be graphic to be intimate.

  12. I think it’s a touch-and-go kind of subject. Fast-paced action and quick draw romances work in some stories, while in others it’s better to draw it out. If we’re looking at a paranormal romance where the protagonists are hunting werewolves or a crime novel where a serial killer is loose, it makes sense to have some instant action. In most cases (or at least in mine) I expect there to be high-octane action in these kind of novels and when it isn’t delivered I do get bored. In stories that follow a more mellow plot, something that is driven not by a external conflict but an internal conflict (family dramas, historical, political, etc.) a slower build up is nice. I think this applies to both romance and non-romance. The idea can be applied to mystery, sci-fi/fantasy, general, historical etc. It all just wraps around the plot and what is driving the characters. I enjoy romances that have a slow waltz to them, where the characters don’t instantly feel that burning attraction or develop their happily ever after before the story is even over, but I also think sometimes we go into something expecting a wham-bam-thank-you-m’am. So I guess it all should be based around what you want to drive the plot and sometimes even what the category is that the novel will fall under. Because lets face it, when I jump into an erotica novel, if there isn’t sex within the first three or four chapters (and that can push it sometimes) I’m getting a little frustrated!

    I personally have jumped into the action and tried to do a slower build-up. I can honestly say that for me the slower build-up is harder. I instantly want to throw in some kind of drama to shake things up and when I love my characters sometimes I just want them to get busy right away. But there is definitely a sweet reward when you see the story develop into something deeper over a gradual period.

    • Good point, Evelyn. Reader expectation is really important. I’ve seen some books that were definitely mis-marketed – for instance, you think you’ve picked up a thriller with lots of heart-pounding suspense, and it turns out to be a rambling little mystery with lots of psychological analysis. Doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, but the bait-and-switch can kill it. The tone of the blurb and cover definitely needs to accurately reflect the book.

  13. If we’re talking stories selling well with very little sex just look at self-pubbed Kallypso Masters. Her first novel had almost no sex and introduced all the Doms. Readers adored it and snatched up the next in her series which did go into sex as they explored the life journeys of the Doms. Loose Id would not have touched that first book.

    So it can sell if well-written and if the tension is there.

    Another example in the m/m genre would be “Out of the Closet” by Keva D. It sold well, had little sex, and was through Noble romance, I think?

    I admit that I too have that “ohmigod I have no sex in this story” concern when writing my latest one. lol

    • Obviously sex is going to take a central role in erotica and erotic romance. The consensus I’m getting is that the best process is when the pace of the relationship and the placement of those love scenes develop naturally. Although erotic writers have to worry about putting in the right amount of sex and moving the relationship there soon enough, we don’t want to say, “Oops. Page thirteen; time for a sex scene. Now page twenty-five, time to get them in bed again.” Readers are savvy, and they can tell when a scene is forced.

      I had some issues with this when I wrote Alien Sex 102. One of the heroines, Spri, believes that sex is a spiritual commitment, not something to be done lightly. It didn’t make sense for her to sleep with Whitt right away. That actually provided the conflict. While they do some fooling around, the clash of sexual viewpoints is a real obstacle and source of tension between them.

  14. I like to open a story with some action, and then ease back a little and let the reader catch up and get to know the characters.

  15. Allie, this is such a great topic! I’ve learned more in the last twenty-four fours from this than I have from the last two weeks working on my thesis. (Don’t tell my advisor…)
    The genre definitely dictates the pace (though not the heat level, and not the amount of sexual tension that can be put in- very good point, Belinda, at least not where erotica’s concerned). On the other hand, this discussion pulls at my heartstrings a little. I was talking to a friend who writes for the Wild Rose Press, and she mentioned that non-erotic LGBT romances are starting to break ground beyond the gay community, which means we may see the equivalent of a sweet m/m inspirational Regency out there someday soon. Well, m

    • There has been a great discussion on this, hasn’t there? I’m learning too. I consider my own writing to be more thoughtful and character-driven rather than having a lot of external conflict and action, although some of my works do have that too. I’d like to think there’s a place for every writer who has honed their skill, for all varieties of pace, style, and voice.

  16. Pingback: Most Popular Posts of 2012 | Allie Ritch, author

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