Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Cherry Cake Pacing

On the few occasions I’ve made a cherry cake I’ve carefully followed all the instructions, stirred in my glace cherries (full of E numbers, but stickily delicious), carefully spooned the mixture into the cake tin, then popped it in the oven. Half an hour or so later the cake is ready. Then the first slice…and all the cherries have ended up in one glutinous lump at the bottom. It’s a bit like pacing a novel. The best scenes – the cherries – need to be distributed evenly throughout. The easiest way to check your novel for pacing is to use index cards, one scene per card.

Start with a big table or a clear floor. Draw a few imaginary lines, one for normal, one for exciting, one for incredibly dramatic. Now lay the cards out scene by scene, according to where you think they are on the scale (depending on your novel, the scale may be normal: scary: scariest, or normal: emotional: tempestuous, etc). When you done the lot, step back. Ideally the novel should follow the line of a series of hills and valleys, with the hills getting higher as the novel reaches The End. Of course, not every novel follows this plan – The Lovely Bones is one best-selling exception – but it’s a good one to aim for.

It’s about pace: readers need the contrast in fast and slow, between the heights and the depths, with the ordinary stuff connecting the best scenes like cake mix. If your cherries are clumped into a sticky mess, then spread them out. In cake making the answer is to dredge the cherries with flour before dropping them into the mix. For novels, the answer is some dismantling and rearranging. I love this bit. The hard slog of the first draft is over, and now it’s like cooking: necessity, pleasure and craft are all mixed up together and the result is…mmmmm.


Craig Davey said...


I've been rearranging my cherries this Autumn and found it just as satisfying as you promised it would be. I couldn't resist sprinkling a few more into the mix too.

As a computer geek, i used excel to score each scene in various ways (pace, main characters involved etc) and plotted the results in pretty curves. When it actually came to shuffling scenes around, however, I was reduced to moving post-it notes about on a big sheet of paper.

Just like cookery - forget Heston - the old ways are the best.

Sarah Duncan said...

I've seen clever spreadsheets that looked like the electrical schemes for mega buildings, but somehow index cards - or post-its - seem more creative, more personal, more successful. Glad your cherries are nicely rearranged!