Writer’s Workshop: Pacing

I’m currently under contract to get paid money for stuff that I write, which means that I am a professional writer.

And when you’ve been a professional writer as long as I have, you know how crucial it is to master pacing. It’s a tricky concept to explain to you amateurs, so here’s a simplified example of the craft, from my most recent work:

  1. It’s 9 AM. You went to bed four hours ago. Time to wake up! There’s still a lot of work to do, and more importantly, some guy is outside using a high-pressure hose on your windows. You couldn’t sleep if you wanted to! But you don’t want to, because now it’s time to write!
  2. In the shower, think of a brilliant dialogue exchange for that crucial moment in the opening scene. Your Muse can strike at any moment, so be receptive!
  3. As you brush your teeth, realize that the reason that brilliant dialogue sounded familiar is because it was a snappy one-liner delivered by Natalie to Jo on “The Facts of Life”. Your Muse is Nick at Nite’s TVLand, and she is a fickle mistress. Spit.
  4. Turn on the computer. Open your mail and RSS feed reader. Get dressed (optional).
  5. Go outside and light a cigarette. Pace back and forth in front of the apartment, deep in thought. The casual observer must believe that you are deep in thought about your writing project, and not simply trying to remember how many girls were in the original cast of “The Facts of Life.” Writing is about guiding the perceptions of the observer, so this is important.
  6. Pour a glass of orange juice. Set it down beside the computer.
  7. Pace into the living room and open the window. Watch the woman jogger go from one end of the block to the other. Writing exercise: imagine her life story. Has she been jogging for years, or is there some recent incident, a health scare, that compelled her to start exercising? Extra credit: imagine her topless.
  8. Pace back to the desk. Drink the orange juice. Check e-mail. Are there any non-spam messages? No? Good. That means you’re on track.
  9. Open Word. This is your home, your sanctum sanctorum as a professional writer. Stare at the fresh digital page of possibilities. Consider whether it’d be easier to use a text editor.
  10. Check one (1) feed’s latest posts from your RSS feed reader. Begin posting a clever reply to a comment. Lose interest and move on.
  11. Pace back into the living room. While standing, read a section of the comic book that is source material for your writing project, for “inspiration.” Become dejected when you realize that you’d inadvertently stolen a joke from the source material during an earlier writing project. Hope that people will believe it’s a clever in-joke or callback.
  12. Pace back to the desk. Re-read the design document. It all seems so simple. This is going to be easy.
  13. In Word, write — excuse me — professionally write a character’s name, followed by a colon. Clever dialogue will go here.
  14. Go outside and light another cigarette. Pace back and forth in front of the apartment. Question: can the earlier inspiration be salvaged by removing references to Mrs. Garrett?
  15. Back to the computer. Type the one-line summation taken directly from the design document. It can be “fixed up” later, and made 1000 times more interesting and funny. The goal here is to get something on the page. Once you’ve got that inertia, insert a newline, then write the next character’s name, followed by a colon. This is where the craft becomes professional art.
  16. Realize that the process would flow much more easily with a larger monitor. Go to the Dell website and do price comparisons on the 24″ and 30″ monitors. Use Google to search for monitor reviews. Click to add a new monitor to your shopping cart. Go into the living room and grab your wallet to get the credit card number. Have second thoughts.
  17. Go outside and light another cigarette. Pace up and down the apartment steps, watching the movers hauling furniture across the street. Haven’t there already been two families moving off of this block this week? Remind yourself to check online if there have been gas leaks or violent crime on this street.
  18. Back to the computer. Check up on the latest webcomics, a valuable source of inspiration. Lose interest after two.
  19. Pace into the living room. Stare in the mirror. Do you actually have more gray hair than you did last night? Is that even possible, outside of stories on snopes.com?
  20. Pace into the bathroom and shave. (Optional — for the ladies, shave your legs or read fashion magazines or call your girlfriends and compare ex-boyfriends’ junk sizes, or whatever the hell it is you people do).
  21. Back to the computer. This is the crucial part of the writing process; once this line is done, the rest will flow in a never-ending creative torrent. Essential here is frequently looking off into space, chin in hand, keeping those synapses firing, making connections that will yield the crucial bit of inspiration.
  22. Realize you missed a spot shaving. Go back into the bathroom and finish the job. Reconsider the possibilities of using “Just for Men” hair coloring, and how you could get away with it. Maybe take a two-week vacation to an island with mysterious hair-darkening properties? Claim you were part of a stem cell research project?
  23. Go back outside, light another cigarette. Pace back and forth in front of the apartment. Consider whether an interesting blog post could be made from this process. Decide to write one anyway.
  24. Back to the computer. Write the next line of dialogue. Then another! The process is working! This is professional writing!
  25. Open the web browser again.

By now, I hope it’s clear the importance of pacing. It turns what should be a simple, easily-accomplished professionally-contracted task, into an agonizing ordeal of self-importance and self-doubt and suffering for one’s art.

Next up: the first draft. Does putting a towel under the door really work?1

1. Hackneyed Jokes to Avoid at All Costs, Bennett Cerf et. al., 1952.