The Heart and Craft of Writing

Lesson 6/15 - Pacing: Write Slow, Write Strong


The Heart and Craft of Writing


Lesson Info

Pacing: Write Slow, Write Strong

Write slow and write strong. Another really common issue that comes up with manuscripts that I'm looking at is the pacing. Sometimes I can just feel that the person is in a hurry to get to this one part of the story and what they really need to do is, like what we were just talking about, just take a little breath, bring us there, you know? That leads very easily to this. Showing and not telling. Pacing and showing are really, really knit because when you are in a rush and you're writing too quickly, you're not showing us what the character is seeing, you're not really showing us what the character is doing, you're just sort of moving them almost like a doll around the story. But you really, really want (inhales) to bring the old lady on and let her scream. So, this is like showing and not telling is really, I mean you guys have probably all heard that before. Yeah, it's really crucial and it's really funny how often even though you know it, you just get into the rhythm and you kind of...

lose sight of what you're working on and you don't actually do it. So, it's really good. I have that quote hanging above my desk to just, sort of, remind me to slow down a little bit when I'm working. And I actually didn't get this quote from Mark Twain. I got it from this amazing book and I actually don't love a lot of writing books. I kind of feel like reading a writing how-to book is classic procrastination from actually writing your book. You're like, I'm just gonna really become a better writer first and then I'm gonna write my book. It's like, just write your book! That's all you need to do is write your book. But if you must read a writing book, this one is really wonderful. And Ariel Gore is a really, she's just a great writer, she's super prolific and has written in various forms and y'all might like her. So, check it out. And then we also have, I can't, if I'm gonna just shout out... Have you guys all read this already? You're like, yeah. This is the best book to procrastinate writing your novel with, number one best book. What I really like, what I got most from it is, well, I mean the title thing, the Bird by Bird, right? And that's about pacing. It's like, you don't just be like, oh, there's birds in the trees, da-la-la-la. You're like, there was this bird in the tree that had this kind of feathers and then if I looked over there, there was another bird eating a smaller bird. You just want to slowly let your story unfold. A trick that I have used on myself is if there is that scene that you are excited to write and it's further on in your book, write that scene. You don't have to write your book in the chronological order that it's happening. Once, I was working on a novel and it was actually really funny, I was working on my book Rose of No Man's Land which is about these two teenage girls. And I was asked to be in a reading that was about sex, like some story about sex. And I was like, ugh, I don't have anything, I don't want to write anything new. I only want to write this novel. I guess I'll just go make those girls have sex. So, I wrote this really fun sex scene with these girls and I loved it. And then I spent a lot of time writing them towards that scene, and it was really great. I didn't have to like... You know what's coming which takes a certain pressure off of you because sometimes, I think especially if you're creating fiction, there can be these moments where you're like, well, now what happens? Now what do I make these guys do? You can write some sort of great, dramatic scene that's awesome and then sort of move them towards it. And in the moving them towards it, you get all kinds of ideas. I don't know if you guys have had the experience in your writing of wanting to make your characters do something and then looking and seeing that you've sort of laid the tracks for that to happen. And you're like, how? I didn't know I was going to do that, how did those tracks get laid? Writing is really mysterious. Writing instruction can be challenging sometimes because it's like, you're all gonna just go off into your witchy space and cast your spell on your story and make something happen. But I think these little things that happen, like that, they're so magical and I think that just being in it and making sure that you're always writing and that you're sticking in your story, can kind of bring those sort of magical moments to you that make you feel like, oh, this is something. Writing is magical. So anyway, another really great part of Bird by Bird that I love is... That one, shitty first drafts. Do you guys know about this? (audience laughs) Yeah. I mean, this is so great. Like every single book that exists, every book that you've ever read that you love has started as a shitty first draft. Are you guys familiar with 826 Valencia? It's like a writing nonprofit that does a lot to help kids, especially sort of disadvantaged kids become better writers and think about writing. And it was started by Dave Eggers, he has a lot of famous writer friends and he had them give him their manuscripts of these famous books in the form of being crossed out and etched on by their editors, and like with the red pen marks so kids could see that even Lemony Snicket got edited like crazy in that first draft by their editor. So, it's really great to remember that when you're sitting down and you're creating this work, and it's kind of mysterious, and you're like, how am I gonna do this? It doesn't have to be perfect, it doesn't even have to be good. It can actually stink. You have permission to write a really, really stinky first draft and then later, at another time, you can go back and slowly, slowly, or quickly, make it better. Could you give us an example of a moment, or when you wrote your first, shitty draft, and how you moved past that? Or give us an example from your own? Let's just hang out in this spot for a little while. (all laughing) Yeah... Well, thank you for that question. The first time I wrote fiction was my book, Rose of No Man's Land, and I had written memoirs and... There was a certain bravado to writing a memoir where I just felt like, this happened, this is my life, if you don't like it, I don't care, 'cause it's real and it happened and boom, ya know? It had this sort of, its own internal motor that had me doing it. When I switched to fiction, I really didn't know what I was doing, is what it felt like. I relied really heavily on those five senses to kind of keep building this world out, hoping that I was creating characters that were believable and a world that was believable. And the entire time that I did it, I was like, this sucks. This character is annoying, I can't make her be likable. She's grating on my nerves, I just didn't like what was coming out. But I couldn't stop it, like I knew that I had to just keep going and not let the voices in my head, and we'll talk more about that, not let the voices in my head distract me too much. But you know, you just wanna get to the end. Once I made it to the end, I could take a breath, I could walk away from it, I could let outside eyes come in on it which is what happened, and I could learn how to make it better. Another thing that's worth noting is that that shitty first draft, while it was that, it also wasn't as bad as I thought. And that's something that's really important too, like your writing, what your writing looks like to you in those worst moments, it's not as bad as you think. Nobody's writing is ever as bad as a writer thinks, that's been my experience of working with writers. You're all your worst critics, we all get in our own way. I really feel like writing is a strange, mental illness and we all kind of share similar brain chemistry or something. But you just need to get in there and, I said to a friend once who was struggling with her first draft, I said, you haven't even created the forest that you're going to get lost in yet. You gotta create that forest and then you gotta get lost in it and you're gonna struggle with it. And you're gonna find your way out of it and you clean it up. Then you raise the forest! (laughing) No. But yeah, I mean, every single book that I've written, the first draft has been really rough. And I'm somebody who isn't very patient with editing, like I kinda wanna write it, I wanna get it out into the world. And when I was younger, I felt very inspired by the Beats being like, first draft, best draft, you know? 'Cause they just were all like... On pills and just wanted to move onto the next thing and I was like, yeah, let's move onto the next thing. So, I understand just wanting to get it out but editing is really important and the longer you write, the more you'll understand that. Some of you probably already are giant edit heads. I find that some writers are really, really into editing and they have that part of that brain is very strong. And other writers are sort of maybe more subconscious writers and that editing part is harder. I know the editing part is really hard for me but what I have found is that the more you do it, the better you get at it. And I guess that shouldn't be surprising but so much of writing to me, feels like a weird, magic spell and is so subconscious that when I see that I actually get better at something, it's like a little bit of a surprise. But we do, we get better at all these things the more we do it.

Class Description

If you’ve embarked on the process of writing your first book, there’s a good chance that you’re struggling a bit. Books are big, unwieldy creatures, and even the bravest of among us can feel overwhelmed by the thought of filling all those hundreds of blank pages with intelligent, effervescent words.

Award-winning author, editor and teacher Michelle Tea offers this class to help you believe in your abilities as a writer, stick to your goal and push through that first draft. She’ll outline some of the key tricks to writing a great book and inspire you to produce the vibrant, sparkling and unique work that’s inside your head and waiting to come out.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Be specific and avoid vagueness.
  • Bring your five senses to your writing by including sound, light, scent, texture and taste in every scene.
  • Find your pacing: write slow, write strong.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Build your unique voice and create a shelf of voices you wish your voice to be in conversation with.
  • Keep your editing brain away from your creative brain.



What a wonderful class! Michelle is knowledgeable, authentic, generous and open-hearted with her experience and advice. She offers a genuine sense of validation and practical tips for new writers. I especially liked her thoughts on how to carve out a space for your writing.

Irene Richards