Janet Sumner Johnson
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Pacing Problems and Hidden Repetition


18, 2022 |

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It has been a long time since I’ve written about writing. I’ve been so busy doing the actual writing, that I haven’t thought about much else. This past weekend I’ve been thinking about Pacing.

Speed Limit Monitor showing the speed limit as 25 and your speed as 6.

Pacing can be a tricky thing. You think you’re moving along at 25 mph, when you’re actually only going 6. Usually, you don’t even notice until someone points it out with feedback like this:

“Pacing’s off.”

“This feels slow.”

“This feels rushed.”

“Something’s off, but I can’t pinpoint the problem.”

Maybe you haven’t gotten such comments, but I sure have. And it can be frustrating feedback because it’s not always clear how to fix it. Especially when you feel like you are only giving your readers the information they need.

Recently, I was revising a middle grade book, and one of my big concerns was cutting back the word count. It was long for a middle grade, but it was an intricate, complicated plot, so finding places to cut proved difficult.

Luckily I had the help of some amazing CPs (critique partners) and my agent, but as I worked through their suggestions, I discovered that Hidden Repetition was the the reason behind probably 95% of what I cut. Okay, that number is completely non-scientific, but you get the idea.

So what is Hidden Repetition, you ask? Let me tell you!

Hidden Repetition is when an idea is repeated using different words. 

As humans, we do this all the time. It’s so imbedded into the way we think, it’s not surprising that it creeps into our writing as well. Think of a few common expressions:

“Safe and sound.”

“Plain and simple.”

“Slip and slide.”

But it’s not just about overused synonyms. Hidden Repetition can be found at all levels of writing. At the word level (as shown above), at the phrase level, and at the scene level.

Paragraph Level

To find Hidden Repetition at paragraph level, you have to take a closer look at your writing to find the problem. For example, here’s a paragraph from my own work:

Exactly what you’d expect from the Wintertons. They were rich. They had money to waste on such things.

Looking at actual words, there isn’t much repetition. Only the intended emphasis on “They.” But those last two sentences express the same idea. Better to choose the sentence that says more.

Exactly what you’d expect from the Wintertons. They were rich. They had money to waste on such things.

Yes, there is such as thing as nuance, and truthfully, that double emphasis might be fine . . . but when you compound many such repetitions, it adds up and slows the pace. Consider another example:

The rain roared in my ears, and I shivered. All I wanted was to leave. “Please can we go?”

Again, no obvious repetition, but do you see it? Do you know what needs to be cut?
This kind of repetition falls into the “show and tell” category. Yes, I made that up, but it’s spot on. As writers, we’ve all heard the expression, “Show don’t tell.” That’s a whole other topic that I could spend a lot of time on, but you know what I mean. Show what happens to your character instead of telling your readers what happens.*

We know this, so we do the work and show it. But then we worry our reader won’t get it. They won’t understand that thing that we’re trying to convey. So we do both. We show AND tell, which is exactly what I’ve done above. Here is my edit:

The rain roared in my ears, and I shivered. All I wanted was to leave. “Please can we go?”
The rain and the shivering and the question are enough to inform the reader that she wanted to leave. I didn’t need to tell them. And by cutting that repetition, I tighten my story and give it a cleaner and smoother feel.

Scene level

At the scene level, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not the scene is giving new and necessary information to our readers. The writing may be good. It may be giving our readers information about our characters, but is it new? And is it necessary? Let me share an example to show you what I mean:

In the school, signs pointed audience members one direction and contestants another. We followed the signs down the trophy hall. The Region Soccer trophy that Gordon had helped win stood front and center with a light shining down on it. Behind it was a picture of the team. The state Mathletes trophy was in the corner behind some smaller trophies. And there was certainly no picture of our team. 

Would we have been front and center if Jennifer hadn’t ditched? I couldn’t imagine the Wintertons accepting anything less. But I was just a lowly scholarship student. And Mathletes wasn’t soccer. 

At the end of a hallway, a sharp-dressed woman about Mom’s age stood behind the check-in table. 

In this scene, I was trying to build the tension between my MC and her brother. I was trying to show how she might be jealous of him and the attention he is getting for doing what she deemed as less. Truthfully, in my humble opinion, it’s a good scene. It does exactly what I was aiming for without saying that she was jealous.
BUT, this scene did not pass the test. First, while the information was new, I had already established that there was tension between them. And second, this information was not necessary. Not only had I already established the tension, but the tension I build in this scene is coming from the wrong place. The tension I wanted to build wasn’t from jealousy, it was from a difference of opinion about an important issue.
In short, this scene, though well-written, was not serving my story. It was slowing down the action and distracting my readers from what I was really trying to say. So here is what that scene became:

In the school, signs pointed audience members one direction and contestants another. We followed the signs down to the end of the trophy hall The Region Soccer trophy that Gordon had helped win stood front and center with a light shining down on it. Behind it was a picture of the team. The state Mathletes trophy was in the corner behind some smaller trophies. And there was certainly no picture of our team. 

Would we have been front and center if Jennifer hadn’t ditched? I couldn’t imagine the Wintertons accepting anything less. But I was just a lowly scholarship student. And Mathletes wasn’t soccer. 

At the end of a hallway, where a sharp-dressed woman about Mom’s age stood behind the check-in table. 

I got them where they needed to be without the little side trip. Again, I didn’t cut it because of bad writing, but because it wasn’t serving my story. It doesn’t matter how well-written a scene may be, if it’s not serving the story, it is slowing the pace and preventing your readers from getting the information they need.

Though I used a short scene, the same principles apply to longer scenes. Sometimes, you may end up cutting a whole chapter or more. I’ve done it. And my stories have been the better for it.

Though I don’t have time to tell you about all the places and ways Hidden Repetition can sneak into your writing (for example, sometimes a whole character can be hidden repetition!), hopefully this discussion has been helpful! I was honestly surprised to find out just how much there was in my writing. Once it was cleared, the story flowed better and the pacing was no longer an issue.

Let me know if you have questions, or if there’s another topic you’d like me to discuss.

*I feel compelled to mention that there is a place for telling in your writing. This rule should not be taken as gospel 100% of the time. Perhaps I’ll do a post on this in the future.

P.S. If you haven’t checked out my 5 anticipated MG reads, check it out HERE!

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My Year in Review


04, 2016 |

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Happy New Year!

With all the Christmas rush, I have been absentee the last couple of weeks, but I didn’t want to miss again. Because this is the time of year where I hold myself accountable for the goals I set at the beginning of last year. And if I don’t hold myself accountable, who will?

So here we go. My goals from last year and my assessment:

1. Write 5 days a week.
I started out well with this, then wow. A big fail on this goal. BUT, if you consider all the non-book-writing things I wrote, perhaps I didn’t do so terribly. That said, I hope to do better this coming year. But I realize that for me, this type of goal will always be a fail, because I hate being tied down. I do much better when I assign myself a project to accomplish, as you’ll see in the next goal . . .

One page of my crazy edits

One page of my crazy edits

2. Finish revising my 2 WIPS (Works in Progress).
WOOT! TOTAL WIN! Granted, I now have more revising to do on WIP #2, BUT I finished 2 other rounds of revisions on it (2 other MAJOR rounds of revision), and this next round won’t be so terrible. WIP #1 is now on submission. *curls up in fetal position*

3. Finish a first draft of a new book.
Okay. Total fail. I just started yesterday. But in my defense, I didn’t expect the majorness of the revisions for WIP #2. Plus I wrote a bonus story for PB&J SOCIETY (hoping you will all love it!), and a bunch of other PB&J-related things. The next book just didn’t happen. However, it is STARTED, so finishing the first draft at the very least is this year’s goal.

4. Write at least two picture books.
Sigh. Nope. I did take a PB class, but I was so busy, I mostly skimmed through it. Turns out that when you have a book contract (which I didn’t have when I made these goals), you suddenly become much busier. While I would like to do this again, I realize debut year will be full of too many other things.

5. Attend at least one writing conference.
And Hooray!! Another accomplished goal! I will definitely be keeping this goal. I am attending LDStorymakers again as an attendee (my husband will be presenting!), and I will be presenting at the MD/DE/WV SCBWI conference in April. So check and check! It really is good to plan a goal that you have already facilitated the accomplishment of.

And there you have it. Not a great showing, to be sure. However, life sometimes mixes things up for you. It is somewhat surreal to realize that last year at this time, I had no idea what was in store for me. I had no idea I was on the verge of signing my first book contract . . . which changed the course of my whole year.

So while I didn’t accomplish all the specific goals I set for myself, I DID accomplish some pretty major things. And I am a firm believer in being flexible. Yes, I could have killed myself to accomplish every one of these goals above, but I feel pretty proud of all I accomplished this past year.

Now it’s your turn. Please tell me what you accomplished this past year so I can celebrate with you! 🙂

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When Things Aren’t Roses and Kittens


03, 2014 |

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So I’ve been revising . . . revising a work that I have revised A LOT. And I want to tell you something:

It has been hard.

I’ve spent a lot of time just staring at the screen, begging my characters to do something, because I had no idea what should happen next. I have spent a lot of time not staring at the screen, lost in deep, deep thought as I’ve reconsidered, oh, pretty much every scene. And then reconsidered it all again.

And mixed in there, there’s been a bit of typing, babysteps of progress, and slowly, slowly I’m getting through.

I’ve asked my husband more than once, “Why do I like this again?” Because in those moments when the plot feels impossible, and the characters feel flat . . . things can seem a bit bleak.

But then I came across this quote from Muhammad Ali:

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit.
Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'”

-Muhammad Ali

True champions push through the hard times. They don’t stop just because things aren’t roses and kittens all the time. True champions realize that the reward is greater than the pain.

I will never get one of those belts with the ginormous gold buckle on it. And I may never even get a publishing contract for this book. But when I finish, when I get to that point . . . I will be a champion.

Because I was stronger than the doubts and the fears that tried to hold me back.

What are you battling against right now?

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Celebrities with NO Make-up, Writer Edition


14, 2013 |

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I’m sure you’ve seen them. Those picture-articles titled something like: “What Celebrities Look Like With NO Make-up!”

I believe they are supposed to make us feel good, because even the Stars don’t look like Stars all the time!* Which brings us to the logical conclusion that if we had our own personal make-up artists and wardrobe consultants, we, too, would look like Stars. Right?

In fact, this whole idea inspired me to share such a comparison of myself:

Now, I know these pictures look like a before and after for some weight-loss program, but you should know:
  1. I weigh approximately the same in both these pictures. If anything, I weigh less in the not-so-nice picture.
  2. These pictures are taken less than a year apart (the not-so-nice one being taken last winter, the nice one being taken yesterday).
  3. I am wearing make-up in both of them.
So all these things being equal, what is the real difference between these two pictures? Why is one extremely not-so-nice, and the other so much better?
The answer? Effort.
In the not-so-nice one, I am not sure if I took this picture or if my husband did. Maybe it was even one of the kids. Clearly the photographer gave no thought to getting a nice picture. Snap, and it was done.
In the other picture, I took 21 pictures, adjusting something each time until I got a picture I liked. First the lighting wasn’t right, so I tried some different locations. Then the angle of my face bothered me. Next it was my smile, then where my eyes were looking. After 20 little tweeks and nudges, I decided I was satisfied. In short, I put forth a lot of work and effort to get something that I felt was presentable.
This, dear peeps, is why we revise. Why we get beta readers and critique partners. Why we read and re-read our work and make changes until our eyes bleed. Because seriously, can you imagine sending that not-so-nice picture to an agent or editor?
I thought not.

*And I’ll give us all the benefit of the doubt that we like those Stars better for it, and feel the indignity of what the paparazzi subject them to, because who would like having their picture taken in all their worst moments?

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