Awhile back I asked my publisher to tell me the most common reason he rejects submissions. There aren’t many right now, being a small company, but he spent some time as an editor of a semi-professional magazine, “The Leading Edge.” At his peak there he says he processed over a hundred stories a month, personally reading about a fourth of those. They had a name for those stacks of stories: the slush pile.
They got submissions from mostly new authors, although a few names you might recognize passed him: David Brin, Orson Scott Card, Ray Bradbury, and Tracy Hickman. If you ever meet Carl, be sure to ask him about his time there. Ask him to tell the story about how they rejected a submission from David Brin.
The slush pile lived up to its name. Less than 5% of submissions made it to the editorial board and of those, 75% would see rejection. From what he says, they’d have printed more stories than they did, if they received more that were printable. Of the stories he rejected he says about 80% were all rejected for the same reason and in almost all of those cases, he could tell it was going to be rejected within 500 words (two pages by their submission guidelines.)
When he asks people to guess what it is, they almost all say the same thing: editing.
And they’re all wrong.
Most writers know they need to have their stories proofread, so he doesn’t see many with that problem. Minor mistakes can now be fixed with a right click, so it’s not as big of a concern to him as it was AND the story has to go through editing no matter what. He’s quick to point out that he will reject a story if the author shows a disregard for grammar and punctuation, but that’s not the biggest problem.
Those that read my last post know where I am going, but for those that haven’t and didn’t catch the hint in the title, the biggest problem he sees is pacing. This topic is one that’s a little more difficult to give hard examples, so I’ll take a slightly different approach. First, I’m going to define what I mean by pacing and then I’m going to give summaries of areas where a particular type of pacing is wanted. I’ll conclude with some comparisons regarding where it can be properly used.
Pacing means the amount of time that the reader perceives as passing regardless of the actual passage of time and refers to the interaction between real time in the reader’s world and the fictional time in the writer’s world. Ok. that’s kind of deep and kind of an oversimplification. Let’s say you put something in your mouth and it’s so hot that your mouth is about to burn, what do you do? You might want to get it out as fast as you can. Now let’s suppose you’re eating one of your favorite foods and it’s the perfect temperature, what do you do? You might want to savor it.
Stories have parts that’re similar to one or the other, but you have no control of how much time your reader is going to take reading a passage. Some are slow readers, and some are fast readers. You do have a little more control over how the reader perceives the passage of time: that’s pacing. I’ve also heard it called word-flow and rhythm.
The food that’s too hot example works pretty well on this. What kind of actions are you taking? Short and swift ones. What are you observing? Next to nothing else. And if you’re enjoying your food? You’re relaxed and restive and better able to observe the food itself as well as the world around you.
Scenes where you want fast pacing are going to have shorter sentences and shorter descriptions. It’s not going to automatically mean fewer words, although it might. A sword fight where every action is being quickly described--the focus is almost entirely on what those blades are doing and how the characters are reacting—that might be two pages long, let’s say. A scene where the characters enjoy the coolness of the slight breeze that blows across the river and where they have a chance to sit and reminisce about pleasant memories—could only be one page long.
Now without counting the words or the lines, which scene description is longer? If you guess the second one, you’re right, but only by one word. Between tone and action, the reader’s belief on the passage of time may be changed. If you guessed the same length for both or even the reverse, that’s fine too. Pacing isn’t something you have complete control over, but when you don’t put any effort in, it’ll show. I’d do better with a full palette, but these short descriptions hopefully illustrate it.
It’s easy to fall into the trap where you make all your action scenes pass quickly and all your calmer scenes take more time. To avoid the “calmer scenes take more time” mistake, you can make use of brief summaries. There’s a scene in What Once Was Eden (no spoilers here really) where Sajani and Gregor get in a water fight. You see the beginning and you see the aftermath. Why such a quick summary? Because I wanted to give the feeling that time passed very quickly. I used very few words to describe a long event.
Sometimes an action scene might need to be drawn out. Later on in the same book, Sajani and Gregor get into a duel. That’s not a “hot food in the mouth” scene. That’s more like an “everything slows down when you’re in a car accident” type scene. You’re told about ever action, every breeze, and every thought that goes through Sajani’s mind.
I’ll wrap up by explaining exactly why pacing gets most stories rejected: it’s one of only a few areas where an editor can’t save you. An editor can edit out superfluous stuff, but she can’t write your story for you. Most authors emphasize the fast-paced stuff and forget that there’re times when you want to give a longer feel to your story. Even in a thriller, you’ll find the author taking some time for descriptions and emotions.
Steven King once described the difference between a short story and novel. He said that a short story is like a kiss in the dark, while a novel is like a love affair. A kiss in the dark can be fun but has nothing on a real love affair. A novel might go by like a whirlwind, but you want the effect to last beyond the pages and not be a passing feeling like the Chinese food you ate twenty minutes ago.
Next week, I’ll discuss action/dialogue mix, which is an extension of pace.
I hope you enjoy this series as much as I enjoy writing it. My intent is to give practical advice devoid of the “Wo is me, the misunderstood artiste” mentality so prevalent in writing communities. Talent is like being given one answer on a long test: it helps, but you still need to work and study to get the results you want.
Bonus question: Tell me in the comments how I used pacing in the journal itself, outside of the examples I provided.
Feel free to share links to this. No need to ask permission, I’m flattered if you think others might want to know this too.
And, in case you didn’t notice, these posts have been moved to Wednesday. It fits my schedule better for now. In a few months, it’ll probably go back to Tuesdays.