Category: Pacing

Pacing, Part 6: Dog

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

All right, let’s get out a thesaurus and look up dog.

pup, puppy, bitch, cur, doggy, hound, mongrel, mutt, pooch, stray, tyke, bowwow, fido, flea bag, man’s best friend, tail-wagger

As well as a list of dog breeds.

Affenpinscher, Afghan hound, Afghan shepherd, Aidi, Airdale terrier, Akbash, Akita…

Each of those words has a character of its own.  It not only denotes something (that is, to serve as the word “for” something) but connotes, or implies, some other things.  A cur is not man’s best friend, for example, even though both denote some king of dog.

In addition, each of these words has, to go back to the woodworking metaphor, a particular sound that it makes, a particular face that it makes you make, when you say it.  A currrrrrrr literally makes you make an angrier, growlier face than straaaaaay, which almost makes your face smile.  (Check a mirror.)

The words also have lengths: cur, stray, man’s best friend.

Your word choice here is the base level of material with which you build your story.  You can treat the word sincerely, ironically, or with other tones–you can call a beautifully groomed Pomeranian a cur, for example.

How do you know what words to choose?  We’ll get to that…

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Pacing, Part 5: Pacing for Engineers

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Dear engineer types,

I am a poet type.  So I’m borrowing the metaphor from my spouse, who works in IT and does woodworking.

Let’s agree to look at pacing as a woodworking project.  We start with our raw materials, which are words.  What kind of words are they?  Words are like the type of wood you’re using.  Short blunt words are like pine, reliable and cheap.  Sesquipedalian verbiage is like a veneer of mahogany, thin and fragile, but it definitely classes up a project.

Let’s say phrase length is like the thickness of the wood, and sentence length is its length and width.  Let’s say punctuation is how you attach your pieces of wood together–commas, periods, semicolons, dashes.  Without punctuation it is impossible to sort out any kind of clarity in a sentence paragraph scene story

Paragraph length is, let’s say, how you put the pattern of joints together.  Are your joints heavy and reinforced, like a set of bunkbeds for a pair of eight-year-old twin boys, or are they delicately balanced, like a Louis XIV table,

with its thin and spindly legs?

Point being, you have to consider both the materials that you’re working with and who is eventually going to be using them and for what, right?  You have to pick the right wood, the right pieces of wood, the right methods of attaching them, the right design, etc.

At every level, your choices must fit the project.

That’s what pacing is.  You learn pacing when you stop banging together whatever wood is cheapest with whatever nails you have on hand and going, “Why is my table so cheap and unprofessional looking?”

Welcome to Intermediate Writing!

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Pacing, Part 4: The Building Blocks of Pacing

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

I’ll get to pacing for engineers in a bit.  First the different building blocks of pacing:

  • Word length.
  • Length of phrases (as marked by breaths or punctuation).
  • Sentence length.
  • Paragraph length.
  • Beat length (the length of each individual sub-conflict within a scene).
  • Scene length.
  • Section length (as marked by a white space).
  • Chapter length.
  • “Part” length.
  • Story length.

Each “level” of pacing has its own implications and use.  It’s often the pattern of how the different lengths are mixed that’s important–long long long gives a different “feel” to the work than long medium short short, for example.  (Sorry, engineer types, I’ll get to that for you in a bit.)

The content of what you put into each level is important, too, because pacing is how we link form and content.

And there are other things that I’m not mentioning here that are also levels of pacing, because pacing knows no limit to the complexity with which you can slice it, as far as I’ve been able to tell.  But we’re not going to talk about that now.

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Pacing, Part 3: Pacing for Poets

I’m going to give two explanations of what pacing is, one for poet-types and one for engineer-types.  This is an arbitrary split, and you’ll probably need both perspectives at some point.

For poets:

Pacing is how you start sneaking poetry into fiction, without the heightened sense of language that might tip your hand to the reader that you’re being poetic.

Buffalo Bill ’s
               who used to
               ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
                                                  and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

If you look at any given poem by e.e. cummings, for example, you can see that on every level, the poet makes choices such that the form of the poem–almost literally the appearance of the words on the page–reflects the content of the poem.

In fiction, this is called pacing.  In commercial fiction, you break fewer “rules” than you would here, but the spirit is the same.

Although it led the way to the twenty-first century, Moscow maintained the Victorian habit of traveling on iron wheels.  Kievsky Station, which was near the foreign ghetto and Brezhnev’s own apartment, pointed to the Ukraine. Belorussia Station, a short walk from the Kremlin, was where Stalin boarded the Czar’s train from Potsdam and, afterward, where Khrushchev and then Brezhnev boarded their special trains for Eastern Europe to inspect their satellites or to launch détente.  Rizhsky Station took you to the Baltic states.  Kursky Station suggested suntanned vacations on the Black Sea.  From the small Sabelovsky and Paveletsky stations no one worthwhile traveled–only commuters or hordes of farmers as dusty as potatoes.  Most impressive by far were Leningrad, Yaroslavl and Kazan station, the three giants of Komsomol Square, and the strangest of these was Kazan Station, whose Tartar tower capped a gateway that might take you thousands of kilometers to the deserts of Afghanistan, to the siding of a Ural prison camp, or all the way across two continents to the shore of the Pacific.

At 6 a.m. inside Kazan Station, entire Turkman families lay head to feet on benches.  Babies with felt skullcaps nestled on soft bundles. Soldiers leaned slackly against the wall in a sleep to tangibly deep that the heroic mosaics of the ceiling overhead could have been their communal dream.  Bronze fixtures glowed dully.  At the one refreshment stand open, a girl in a rabbit-skin coat confided in Pasha Pavlovich.

This is from Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, set in about 1981, the year it was published.  In other words, after the widespread use of the airplane.  The main character is a blunt detective type–and could be expected not to use the Oxford comma.

The first paragraph, all about where the trains go, is longer than the second, which is about people.  The first paragraph reflects how the POV character, the detective, is supposed to see Communist Russia; the second reflects how he sees the world around him when he’s not being monitored.  This is mainly effected by the pacing of the respective paragraphs.  More on that in a bit.

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Pacing, Part 2: Form and Content

At some point, the beginning writer starts to notice that different stories are different from each other.  They don’t all seem to follow the same rules.  For a while (and I’ve seen this a lot), the writer tries to stretch “their” system of writing to fit the basics to cover all possible variations.  This is where you start hearing people say that the monomyth (Joseph Campbell) covers every possible plot, it just has variations.

But the fact is, the Joseph Campbell monomyth was never meant to cover every possible story–it’s just a story that he noticed cropping up in most cultures.  It’s a common story, but it’s not the only possible one.

If you’ve ever wondered why almost every Hollywood movie seems the same these days, it’s because the Joseph Campbell monomyth plot template has been used to whip writers into shape for so long that it’s hard for a screenwriter not to use it.

In other words, the content of a story takes on the form of whatever is used to tell the story.  If a Joseph Campbell monomyth plot is imposed on a story, then that story resembles all other Joseph Campbell stories.

It’s a good story, very sound, very popular–but it’s not the only way of fitting form and content together.

So if the monomyth isn’t the only possible story out there (and I know some of you are going to be saying, “But…she hasn’t proven that it isn’t!”), how do you build a story?

I propose that we start with the smallest aspects first–bottom up rather than top down.

With pacing.

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Pacing, Part 1: Welcome to Intermediate Writing!

When writers first start out, what they’re mainly aware of, writing-wise, is conflict.  This is when you sit down and start writing a scene and go, “This is two people fighting about something, how exciting!”  Let’s call that Level 0.

Beginning writers have started to be inundated with English classes; they often have a set of rules and guidelines that they have to follow (in order to pass the class).  They have learned that the vague mush of conflict can be split into categories:  character, setting, plot, grammar/punctuation/clarity, repetitiveness, style, mood, atmosphere.

Intermediate writers are starting to break off from the early categories and rules.  (If I’ve ever told you that every writer has to break at least one rule in order to become a good writer, you’re moving into this category.  It’s a gradual process.)  They have a decent grasp on the basics.  They are starting to think about things like tension, depth/opinion/voice, pacing, and condensing repetitive things instead of removing them.

Advanced writers are starting to mess with their readers, and they’re starting to put the pieces back together, so that character = voice = style = plot = mood = everything else.  Genre, and screwing with genre, is a big deal here.

And master writers don’t give a damn about anything but screwing with the reader.

The issues that I’ve been running across lately are people moving from beginning writer to intermediate writer–and having no idea that there’s anything between “beginning” and “master.”

Why am I not getting published?  Why am I not getting published in the top magazines in my genre?  Why is XYZ shitty writer getting published and paid millions of dollars and not me?

That’s the kind of complaint/attitude I’m seeing.  It comes from 90% of all writing advice being focused on beginners–because that’s where 90% of all writers are at, and where 90% of all writers drop out.  (I have no exact stats on that!)

The writers saying these things are decent at the basics for the most part, and may shine at one or two of them.  But they don’t really have a clue that there’s more to learn.

Next time:  what pacing is, and why it can do a world of good for an intermediate writer.

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A Song of Ice and Fire: Structure/Word Count Case Study

The post about word count and subplots was getting long, so I’ll break this out here:

I think George R.R. Martin is writing parallel novels inside each of his books.

  • There is a main plot and a main character to each book.  You can figure this out by counting which POV character has the most chapters; usually, the main POV has an undistinguished number of chapters in the first half of the book, and then comes to dominate the number of chapters in the latter half of the book.
  • The main POV character’s “novel” seems to have a main story and multiple subplots.  If that “novel” were stripped out on its own from each, it would probably be 120-150K all by itself (I should check this but haven’t yet).
  • The other “novels,” a.k.a. POV characters in each book, have main plots, mostly without subplots but sometimes with.
  • All “novels” except the main POV’s have a strong chance of terminating abruptly, simply so the main POV can dominate the latter half of the novel.
  • This doesn’t mean that the main POV won’t get killed (ahahahaha), but that the main POV will at least have a solid beginning, middle, and ending to their story within that book.  If they live, then they’ll have stuff ahead of them, but the arc for that book will feel more or less complete.
  • Some of the POV characters’ “novels” span from book to book, so you’re only getting a beginning, part of a middle, or an end per book.
  • Some of the POV characters’ “novels” truncate abruptly with no real ending/wrapup, so you feel cheated (when they die or get massively screwed and you’re just left hanging).

In conclusion, GRRM is probably structuring his books specifically to mess with your sense of how a story “should” be, and killing off characters just so you can have the requisite number of pissed-off moments per book.

I need to do a lot more work on ASOIAF, so this is really tentative 🙂

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How Long Should Your Book Be?

This is a terrible question.  It doesn’t really mean anything other than “on average, we see XYZ wordcounts in this genre.”  And it says nothing about why.

Here’s a better question:

When do readers of this genre want to see subplots, and what kind?

A novel with one main plot is about 40-50K.  For example, The Stepford Wives is about 45K.  Most pulp novels have one main plot.  The early Doc Savage books are about 50K each.

Epic fantasies, contrariwise, have lots of subplots.  In fact, the readers would be upset if there weren’t subplots.  The Wheel of Time books are about 300K each.

In between are the things like The Maltese Falcon, which has the main plot (falcon/murder) and a subplot (love triangle). 67K.

Subplot = wordcount.

“Let’s talk about the current political situation at length” is a supblot.  See 1984 by George Orwell (88K), which has a romance, a rebellion, and a political treatise.

I could go on, but let’s say in general, a single subplot is about 15-20K of sheer words (about a novelette’s worth of plot*).  And that anything over 50K should have subplots.

And that when you get an arbitrary “how long your book should be” number from an agent or editor (or even just checking word counts on bestsellers), what you’re seeing, in general, is how many subplots are popular in a novel these days.


*I’ll post my best guess as to GRRM’s structure on a different day.  It’s different than this.

I’m trying to find an “ask” format that I feel comfy with.  I still haven’t yet.  I’m going to keep posting this one for a while, at least until I come up with something better.  Better than nothing, this one is, but not by much!

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.


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