WWI Fiction – Life Class by Pat Barker

Life Class by Pat BarkerIn the past seven years I have collected and read many books dealing with WWI, so many that friends think I am going slightly crazy. This, of course, could be true. Had you asked me ten years ago about reading books of this nature I would have laughed. Who me? Someone who hated history and would never have put her mind to topics as dreadful as battle strategy or trench warfare or the causes of world war one.

Each book offers a new window on the war experience, a fresh perspective, a piece of information that is astonishing or horrifying or both. I underline and make notes looking for an idea to extract or explore further, taking a phrase here and there and adjusting them to my own characters and their purpose. I return to my books when in need of inspiration, leafing through the pages until something strikes me.

After all, Rule 25 of Steven Taylor Goldsberry’s The Writer’s Book of Wisdom says “Borrow (and steal) from your favourite writers.”

Pat Barker’s novel Life Class is a case in point. Paul Tarrant, the protagonist, does not go overseas until half way through the book and I recall considering whether to chuck the novel for something else but then I read the first sentence of Part II:

Everything stinks: creosote, bleach, disinfectant, soil, blood, gangrene.

Aha, at last we are getting somewhere, I thought, using my pen to underline these words.

Two miles away, no more noticeable than the beating of his heart, the guns thudded: the usual early-morning intensification of fire.

Great metaphor. Who would think of comparing heart beats to guns firing?

We were crawling along most of the time, edging past columns of men in wet, gleaming capes and helmets, like mechanical mushrooms … close to the front people move only after dark, with dawn and dusk the most dangerous times. That’s when the heaviest bombardments are.

Mechanical mushrooms – lovely image. And danger at dawn and dusk, an interesting tidbit.

Men who die at a CCS [casualty clearing station] are generally buried as close to it as possible. They’re surrounded by these little dark crosses that always look like bird footprints to me…

Crosses like bird footprints – incredibly poignant.

there came a long whistling roar so close it seemed to be caused by the movement of his chest. When he was next aware of himself he was staggering around in smoke with the screams of wounded men all around him.

They lived in a world of confusion and disorientation.

And so my reading goes, accumulating information and images, looking for sights and sounds and smells, deepening my understanding of how soldiers and others involved existed while attempting to survive.

Take it slow, take it fast

Several days ago, a very kind literary agent offered feedback on two fifty page snippets of my writing. While he had some positive comments, when asked more directly, he said that my writing “does not have the pace and energy to capture the enthusiasm of this reader”. Good to know.

Being a methodical woman, I set out to examine the notion of pacing – I should disclose that I had already adjusted the pace of one of these novels in order to improve its opening chapters. I started the novel differently, cut out several chapters and tightened the language – or so I thought. Do I need to do more?

Let’s begin with a definition of pacing.

  • Pacing is the measurement of how quickly you go from point A to point B. (Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages)
  • Pacing is word count. Minimum word count. (Steven Taylor Goldsberry, The Writer’s Book of Wisdom)
  • Pacing is the rhythm of the novel, of the chapters and scenes and paragraphs and sentences … and the speed at which novel events occur and unfold. (Dr. Vicki Hinze)
  • Pace is the tempo at which a scene moves. The pace varies within a novel, depending on the emotion an author wants the reader to experience at any given time. (Marilyn R Henderson, The Fine Art of Pace – Making Every Scene in Your Novel Count)
  • Pacing, as it applies to fiction, could be described as the manipulation of time. (Gerry Visco, Techniques to Establish Pacing)
  • Pacing is the tempo of the story, the speed at which information is provided and the dynamics of the rising tension. (Gail Gaymer Martin, Pacing – Too Fast or Too Slow)

Other writers talk about the subtlety and complexity of pacing, describing the difficulty an author has stepping back from his or her work to objectively look at overall pace in the context of conflict, tension, the reader’s emotional experience, reader fatigue and reader confusion. At times, a slower pace is necessary; at other times, a slow pace creates boredom.

Here’s a list I compiled of ways to increase and decrease pace:

Increase Pace Slow Pace
Strive for brevity; Use lean writing with fewer adjectives and adverbs Description, particularly ones that are steeped in sensory input and rich in texture and sound (DVH)
Zoom in – eg: beads of sweat on a face Zoom out, describe a wide panorama
Keep the action rolling; include lots of action Reduce the psychological intensity
Trim physical detail/description Slow the pace in order to place emphasis on something
Avoid analysis, rumination Slow the pace after a dramatic, active scene
Increase narrative tension by raising the stakes. Resolve some of the conflict
Create white space on the page Slow the pace to expand emotional impact – a love scene or an intense situation
Reduce telling and description; replace with dramatization Note specific details that seem larger than life
Dialogue speeds pace, gives illusion of action, particular abrupt, pointed dialogue Long blocks of narration slows the pace
Increase the conflict Long flowing sentences; soft sounding verbs
Edit out insignificant actions Layering details, one upon another
Short, snappy sentences and paragraphs; towards the novel’s end, short chapters with more drama More relaxed dialogue
Cut scene short at a dramatic moment Flashbacks and backstory; remember that readers are interested in what’s going to happen not what has happened (SK)
Crisp, sharp verbs
Use sentence fragments
Switch back and forth between POV
Check each scene for a crisis situation

What will I do now?

Armed with these ideas, I’m going to crawl through one of my manuscripts noting slow, medium and fast paced areas then block these out against my chapter/scene outline. Perhaps I will have a eureka moment.

If anyone has other advice, please let me know.

By the way: SK means the suggestion comes from Steven King’s book On Writing; DVH indicates an idea from Dr. Vicki Hinze’s article on Pacing.