Monday, July 18, 2011

Because Pacing Isn't Just for Runners

I recently got feedback on my novel, 13 Demon Days, from an editor judge of a local writing contest. Given that 13DD is out on submission and that I have more than one agent reading a full, I snatched up the scoring sheet and read it with anxious interest.

But it wasn't good news.

My numeric scores were okay--she actually rated me fairly high for marketability. But in the comments section she wrote:

"This is a gripping beginning. While I like the clash of everyday with the magical, it seems a bit too fast-paced and jarring. I struggled to understand what was happening and how I was meant to feel about it all."

I confess, I did that most cliche of all character behaviors--I bit my lip. My story does start pretty fast, and it isn't just the beginning that's on caffeine. It rips along at a good clip throughout. And what good does it do to have a fascinating story if the reader can't keep up, and feels left in the dust? Now, to be fair, the editor in question is with a small press that specializes in quiet, lyrical books. But she brings up a good question. How fast is too fast? How does a writer know when the pacing is right?

Well, I'm obviously no expert, but I think it depends on the story. Some stories will unfold slowly, like a rose coming into bloom. Others are more like the flight of a hummingbird, darting here and there. Story pacing should be a reflection of the characters, as it's their story being told. If your character is given to introspection and takes time to savor the sunsets, the story should reflect that. Otoh, if the character is maybe just a tad hyperactive and can't walk through a room without setting something off, the plot of the story will need to keep up with this very active protagonist.

And what about the reader? I suspect pacing is a matter of taste, but I know it's my goal to write books that will reach as wide an audience as possible. In the case of the contest editor, I missed my reader. The story didn't do enough leisurely showing, and maybe could have used a bit more setting and pov contemplation. I feel the pace reflects the characters well and is about the pace my audience--young teens--would like...but I confess that I'm not one hundred percent sure. In fact, in my next novel, I plan to make an effort to slow down just a bit. Because as the story's narrator, I want my reader to feel emotionally grounded in my characters and fascinated by the unfolding story, and that might mean going slower. Spending more time establishing setting. Stopping to watch the rose as it blooms, and maybe plucking it off to take home as well.

What makes for good pacing, in your mind? How fast is too fast, and what would you consider too slow?


  1. I agree with you that pacing depends somewhat on voice and audience, but I think sometimes it's a matter of the story itself. For instance, Kathi Appelt's The Underneath has a leisurely pace that reflects its almost mythic tone, and yet, because you know something bad at least ought to happen, there's a lot of tension that keeps the pages turning.

    One of the things I thought JK Rowling did so brilliantly in the first few HP books was to ramp up the tension, but rather than jump to the next event, she broke it with some humor, which gave her readers a brief respite.

    On the other hand, Looking for Lubchenko is one of those move, move, move action-adventure-thrillers (in YA mode) that needs a fast pace. Although it, too, takes breaks.

    I guess, for me, even if the action is fast-paced, I enjoy the occasional break, carefully placed, as a sort of oasis of calm in the storm.

  2. I hadn't really thought about the humor in HP books that way, but I totally agree.

    You've made me want to read The Underneath again. I loved that book's language and tone.

  3. Sorry I didn't comment before--I've been having trouble with my account. But, great points about using humor, etc. to break up the pace a bit!

  4. You know, while I'll agree about needing to provide breaks of humor (or just a moment for reflections on what has happened/side effects of said history, whatever), in a lot of ways it isn't just about having a breather. It is about the anticipation that the reader needs to develop before the actual action hits full that the full power of the next step in the story has the opportunity to actually give impact rather than just offer it. Kinda like how a wine ages...if you don't stop to test the bouquet, you'll never properly appreciate what hits your tongue.

    One other thought on this: remember the quote "opposition in all things"? If you don't have the great, the bad won't be so terribly...nor will the great. The both need to happen in gradually growing strength so that when your roller coaster ride hits the peak and you get sent down the whirling tunnel of death, you'll be able to anticipate a little bit better the degree of change...and feel (not just know) the difference between the high and low. If that makes sense?

  5. That definitely makes sense, and I love the analogy of aging wine! Also the highs and lows of a roller coaster. If the entire novel goes so fast you never catch your breath, there's no opportunity to gasp. Right?

  6. Great questions that I wish I had answers for. I'm still working this out in my mind, too, since I think my pacing is usually way too fast.

    Some bestsellers drrrraaaag for me and I'm used to writing picture books which don't take too many lengthy pauses.

    I really don't think I trust myself to engage the reader without throwing in a car chase or something.