Writing exercise: Pacing

Finger cymbals, zils, zills, Peter Fels, Jamila Salimpour
Learning to play these finger cymbals helped me figure out a new approach to pacing my novels.

A few weeks ago, my belly dance instructor sent me back to zill kindergarten. (Zills are the metal disks dancers attach to their fingers so they can accompany the musicians or make their own music.) Despite the grace displayed in scenes like this one in “From Russia With Love,” playing them takes a helluva lot of coordination — and then you add moving your body.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks walking around my house, playing the right cymbal, then the left, then the right, starting out on a different foot with each set of three. Luckily I’ve talked my bass player husband, Dan O’Brien, into being my personal metronome, so the pacing-the-house-while-playing is slowly switching to dancing.

What the hell does any of this have to do with writing?


In addition to coordination, playing cymbals requires serious listening. I’m training myself to dance to complicated Turkish rhythms, which means I’m listening intently to how the song is paced. With seven minutes of music, you have an intro, building to some excitement, a lush sexy bit, then more excitement and even more excitement.

Dancing and playing to a song like this is an exercise in pacing, which has definitely affected my writing. I’m more conscious of the need to release as well as build tension. And Dan, who’s been my involuntary beta reader for a long time, noticed a real difference in my latest book, saying it’s more of a page turner.

So here’s my challenge for other writers:

Pick a song you love in a language you don’t know.

Put it on repeat on your iPod.

Listen to it at least an hour a day. More if possible. Play it while you’re driving, dealing with housework, walking the dog.

Continue with your regular writing schedule, but consciously let your song inform your writing.

At the end of the week, take a look at your work and see how it’s changed. My bet is that your pacing will be better, your transitions will be stronger and the need for expository prose will fade away.  That was my experience. I’d love to hear about yours.