Telling the story: pace or depth?

I’ve had the good fortune to learn from some wonderful writers in the past few years. It’s been pretty quick learning, mostly through a short presentation of conversation, but I’ve soaked in as much as I can. One of the interesting things has been hearing about other writers’ reading habits: some of them have said that once they start on a new book they have to stop reading, in case the style of what they’re reading seeps into what they write.

But I still keep reading every night whether or not I’ve got a writing project on the go. If I’m not actually writing I’m thinking about it, dreaming about it even, and the need to read is too strong to be resisted. Sometimes I choose something from a different genre completely: recently it was Hallett-Hughes’ wonderful biography of d’Annunzio, and now I’ve started on William Dalrymple’s ‘Return of the King’, a factual account – also beautifully written – of Britain’s early involvement in Afghanistan. At the same time – I usually have more than one book on the go at one time – I’m reading the first story in Peter May’s ‘Lewis Trilogy’ set in the Western Isles. I chose it for the setting, remembering the time I spent there a few years ago. And I wanted to see how he handled the issue of writing ‘linked’ stories that I talked about in this blog a few weeks ago.

The sense of place in the first of May’s stories ‘The Blackhouse’ is very strong, with long passages of description of the landscape and the weather that add a dark context to a gruesome event. After the gripping introduction the main character is introduced very slowly, with lengthy flashbacks. I’m now in Chapter Seven and beginning to hanker after a faster pace. Just at the point where our ‘hero’ is about to meet his childhood girlfriend  we circle round into another flashback and I want to flick forwards for some real-time action.

That’s why I’m asking myself the question: as readers do we want pace or depth? Of course, we want both, but the balance between the two is hard to find. I wonder how much influence an editor might have on the writer’s choice, or whether any of the descriptions or flashbacks are added on after the first draft, to flesh out the story or lay more foundations for what is to follow.

Much of the feedback I’ve had about the first two books in my trilogy – A Good Liar’ and ‘Forgiven’ – has mentioned that the stories rattle along, and people want to keep turning the pages. I take that to be a good thing, but should I be re-considering the balance, aiming for ‘slow story telling’ in the same way and for the same reason as we are urged to choose ‘slow food’? Do we need to relish what we read rather than devour it?

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