It’s always a good time to subscribe to Clarkesworld

Oh hi there.

I was raised by prudes and would not let my sister read this even though she’s a senior in college.

Make of that what you will.

Anyway, I find our relationship with technology fascinating. The lines between what we’re willing to accept and what we consider too far are shockingly arbitrary.

So yeah, that’s what this is about.

That and literally getting off to attention.

So anyway, I obviously don’t need to read that one again…lucky this entire issue is packed with GOOD STUFF.


You Can’t Edit Every Word: The Idiot’s Guide to Leaving it Alone

Editing is awesome. I love editing so much. But there’s a point at which even I have to put down my red pen and stop.

Stop, you say?!

Yeah, it’s really not that hard to get caught up in this perfectionist funk where all you do is wind around in circles on the same piece. Curb it from the beginning by having an idea of where you want to end. What should the reader walk away thinking about? What should the reader walk away feeling? Do things move fast enough to be interesting?

I stop editing when I get to a point where all my edits are just minor wording tweaks. At that point I’ll go back and forth, and I’m not even changing the overall impression the story creates. If it’s not productive, it’s not worthwhile.

Now that we’ve gotten dessert out of the way:

When to edit

So you’ve just finished writing a piece. Put it down. Do not touch.

Go do something else for a few days. Stroke your…ego, kick back and play videogames, read a book—actually, reading a book can be very useful if you know the author does something well that you have trouble with. In the past, I’ve read Pullman before jumping into edits on science fiction because Pullman’s descriptions are so much richer than mine. That way, the original write is still ‘me,’ but while editing, I’ve got a good baseline for intended changes.

Okay, have you taken at least three days? (Minimum: if you’re still in the mindset you were in when you wrote the thing, take more. You wouldn’t stuff your face right after hors d’oeuvres, would you?)

Cool, let’s do this.

How to edit

Let’s take a moment to discuss what editing is. Yes, there is an element of going back and fixing technical errors, as appropriate for informal writing. People don’t always talk in complete sentences, so make sure you’re not applying the rigidity of formal—essay—writing to your work without reason.

But the bigger purpose of editing is to consolidate the impression your story leaves on the reader.

  1. Keep the big questions in mind. Is your work doing what you want it to do? Is it engaging—will people even get to the end? Like good food, it shouldn’t be so uniformly spiced or bland that people get bored. But at the same time, it can’t be too obvious; the changes in pacing and subject should follow naturally.
  2. Reread your story. This is why taking a break is so important. You need the reader’s mindset, and readers don’t have 50 billion hours of backstory raging in their brains, nor do they already love your work. Note that this also makes it a lot easier to pick up typos. Your brain is no longer seeing what it thinks is there.
  3. Don’t spaz out if you don’t have the fix to a bad line/paragraph/whatever right away. These things take time. On average I go through about five revisions of a work before I’m satisfied enough. Sometimes changes get undone, too. Mood impacts approach.
  4. Save versions, or use Track Changes (all hail Track Changes). Especially with poetry, where the placement of each and every word matters—not that it shouldn’t for prose—you may go through a lot of iterations and not be sure which one is the best version. That’s okay. Save them all and do a little taste test when your palate is fresh.
  5. Done? Good. Now read it again. See above for when you can stop doing this.

Make sure your finished work has the right punch, match it with the right wine, and all will be well.

The Problem With Character Sheets

To be clear, there are some pretty awesome character sheets out there. I don’t personally use them, but I’ve seen others make them work. I’m not here to dispute the fact that they’ve got some utility, but I am here to point out one big problem with relying on a list of traits—which is generally how character sheets present these things—to define your character.

(Note: This also applies to Mary Sue tests. ‘Not a Mary Sue’ just means your character isn’t a perfect storm of coincidence. It has nothing to do with likeability or even believability. isn’t a Mary Sue, either.)

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Quirks

I think this approach is, if it’s the only approach you take to figuring out a character, a really bad idea.

Take a moment to think about your best friend. What’s their favorite food? What are they good at, and what are things they do that make you Google good places to dump a body?

While you were coming up with answers to these totally not intrusive questions, did you really just pull the information from some mental dossier, or did you picture past situations where these things have come up? (Anyone who watches ‘Supernatural’ knows about Dean and pie.)


The people you know aren’t a list of traits or neatly checked boxes on a sheet of paper. They’re an aggregation of moments and scenes, things they’ve told you and things you’ve seen them do. (Especially seen. People grossly overestimate how much data words actually offer. Go outside, guys.)

Let’s take a simple trait like ‘outgoing.’ Being outgoing could mean working in a field that involves a lot of face time, enjoying parties, talking to random people on the train. But a college professor probably doesn’t spend weekends half-conscious in a puddle of vomit or make polite smiling faces at every pleb on the bus. A 26-year-old high school teacher, on the other hand, would totally go out more—but what about during finals week when she’s got to get all those grades in? What about a high school teacher with war PTSD, or a college professor who’s, like, super chill dude and smokes “herbs” with his drum circle?

Traits on a page don’t say much about behavior, which is what happens in scenes, also known as those things your readers will actually be reading. Reducing someone to a series of flaws/strengths/quirks overlooks the fact that people don’t behave consistently.

Environmental factors FTW, not to mention state of mind at the time. Do you behave the same way at work, home, and when you’re out with friends? Would your boss list the same strengths and weaknesses in your personality as your sibling or your best friend?

If you’re going to use character sheets, don’t let them be the be-all-end-all of how you create or develop your characters.

Visualize these traits. A lot of people write scenes for practice, which is a fantastic way of figuring out a character. I base all characters off aspects from my own real life and interactions. When that’s impossible (e.g. murderers), I look at TV shows, movies, and case studies, in particular Oliver Sacks’ work for the weirder stuff. I always start with a mental picture.

Mental pictures are good.

See a person within that demographic act out a situation, and then make it happen on paper. Pull and twist like taffy so you’ve got exaggerations in the right places, and bam, motherfucker! (As a cross between Emeril Lagasse and Samuel L. Jackson would say.)

When you’re writing a character, you need to consider reasons that might pull them one way or the other, factors that will draw out certain traits and weaken others (chew that taffy). All actions result from some type of motivation, anything ranging from your money to your life to your sanity. (Motivation runs a wide gamut. My favorite motivation for characters is trying to escape the inevitable misery of the plot.)

I find that this method inevitably includes character development (not necessarily positive or progressive). The person you started with hasn’t had those experiences during the plot to sway them one way or another. Once they have, they’re going to behave differently…or the reader will see their actions differently because of new information.

The best way to make a character a convincing person is to have them be a person.

Dr. Editlove

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the edit

It’s a common misconception that the end result of writing is a finished product, which can then be sent out to magazines, nailed to a door, read aloud to your prisoners—whatever it is you usually do with your work.

The end result of writing is editing. And the goal of editing is to produce a finished result you can take pride in, and then share.

What editing is for

  • Resolving big errors, e.g. continuity, plot holes, inaccuracies, and other problems that will dampen the overall effect of your work.
  • Fixing details, e.g. grammar/spelling, ambiguous wording, and other technical issues.
  • Producing polished work.
Editing gives you the opportunity to take your work and bring it up to scratch.

Why don’t we do this on the initial write? Because getting the ideas down in the first place, and getting them all the way to completion, is a demanding process. Maybe you’ve written a piece about an improbable goal, but since you were on a roll you forgot to check the offside rules. When you go back and realize that the goal isn’t valid, unfortunately, your player has to stop halfway through his victory lap and glare at the referee, instead of doing the Macarena. Or, for poetry, maybe a reread reveals that “holy shit” doesn’t scan with the “act like you mean it,” so it’s time to find a better way to deliver your message.

Sure, you might be a good writer on the first pass, but can you be better? Could your piece have more of an impact if you take the time and space to critically analyze it after you’ve written it?
If the answer for you is no, I’ve got something you should read.

How to enjoy editing

  • Track Changes
  • Be yourself.
  • Understand what your work is in relation to yourself.
  • Care about the result.
A brief paean to Track Changes (which is not only available in Microsoft Word, I’ve also used it in LibreOffice): Track Changes is awesome. Let’s say you like a passage but decide to edit it out because you’re not sure it belongs. If you change your mind, you can go back and restore it with the click of a button. Sweet, no?!

Editing doesn’t mean acting like a robot. I just got back some edits for a piece and, along with the criticisms, the editor put comments when she found something particularly hilarious, which is mildly gratifying and lets me know what not to touch. And then when I’m editing my own work, I don’t have to play nice. My notes have included things like “were you on the drugs when you wrote this, where can I get some.”

You may be asking how I can be such a bitch, even if it’s only to myself. Surely that writing is a piece of my soul, crystallized into a form perceivable to humans?


Your work isn’t you. It is produced by you, and representative of your skills, but it’s not actually you. And if it is, why the hell shouldn’t it be awesome?

I’ve said it above and I could go on saying it. There is nothing like a well-crafted result to make you feel good about the quality of your work. Being able to take your style and not just say, oh, this is what I write like when I’ve flopped out of bed, but this is something that I can’t even believe I made because, ten weeks after the initial writing, it’s still giving me—and other people—feels, that is pretty damn great.

Editing is not smashing down your pretty little writing house, it’s bringing that house up to code and fitting it with better lights and pipes. If you’re going to live in a world of stories, it might as well be one where the toilet flushes on the first try.

What is voice, anyway?

In the simplest possible terms:

Voice is the personality of the book.

You know that thing about avoiding cliché except every single plotline ever has been done and has the TVTropes article to prove it and OH GODS WHY?!?!

Voice solves 97% of that. It lends originality to your story by tossing a filter over the whole thing. The Shining needed that kid-voice so readers could stare in horror over his shoulder, understanding things like the dark cloud of suicide in his father’s head without having his reaction ruin half a page of ominous build. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency wouldn’t be the same book without its constant, gentle ribbing of everyone: Adams wasn’t trying to give us a new Sherlock Holmes, even though the premise lends itself to that comparison.

I Googled the crap out of ‘voice’—there’s surprisingly little—and found this well-written blog. We totally agree, so that’s a bullet dodged.

Voice = personality…?

In first person, “voice = personality” is easy to conceptualize. It’s like, okay, I have this dude who thinks he’s amazing, but he’s actually Al Yankovic in ‘White and Nerdy.’ So he’s going to talk the talk/walk the walk without ever getting it right. As far as his narration goes, you just let him do his thing. It’s for the audience to recognize that “da bomb” is, like, so 1996.

What about third person?

Generally speaking, narrators have a straightforward agenda: they want the audience to sympathize with the protagonist. There are exceptions, like Cersei Lannister (‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ by George R. R. Martin). If GRRM had wanted to make her sympathetic, he could’ve shown her fearing for her children instead of plotting the destruction of their enemies, which was at least part of the motivation for her real-life counterpart.

The third-person narrator controls how readers feel about your characters, and that in turn controls its personality, even when it’s not a person (aka you the author).

AKA You The Author: there is this elusive beast called “native voice,” which reflects how you talk and think. How do you figure out what you sound like on paper? I found conversational things—blog entries and forum posts—better than trying to write stories. Some sites say it’s partly/entirely innate, but I’m convinced it can be learned through practice.

An example: if you’ve read Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, you can make a decent guess at who wrote which part in ‘Good Omens,’ though the book reads evenly for the most part.

Something to consider for your “writing journey.”

Let’s look at the Romantics for half a second. William Makepeace Thackeray, Edgar Allan Poe: regardless of sentence complexity and esoteric word usage, they’re more readable than many modern textbooks. Why? Textbooks are allegedly objective—no opinions, no personality. No filter on the world.

How do I not be a textbook?

Two words: intention and perspective.

Yeah, okay, that’s not super helpful. Even if I said that intention is the motivation of the narrator—getting back to that ‘agenda’ mentioned above—and that perspective is the influence of nature/nurture on how a person sees the world, that doesn’t tell you how to execute it. So:

  • Style/word choice.
  • Information.
  • Bias.

Style/word choice are what you really need to make things clear to the reader, so they are in one sense more important than the other two, but I’m not going to rehash those here. Let’s talk about information and bias.

Information is what you tell your readers, and bias is how you tell it.

If I’m pro-choice, I’m going to describe a Planned Parenthood clinic very differently from the protesters haranguing it. (See what I did there? I could have said “outside” instead of “haranguing.”) If I want to tell you about a young woman going in, maybe I’ll point out that she was abused by her mother and had no father figure to teach her how to be careful around men. A protester might point out that her sex ed didn’t cover abstinence and that no one counselled her on how precious human life is. Also, one of us would say ‘fetus’, and the other would say ‘unborn child’.

Bias determines what information we consider important and, by extension, what we’re willing to tell others.

Ultimately, voice is how you control people’s reactions to your narrative without compromising the story.

Is NaNoWriMo Right For Me?

If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you have a book in you—one that’s not already on paper (or, let’s be real, a hard drive). So the real question is:
Is NaNoWriMo the best way to make my book’s first draft happen?

One thing I want to be very very clear about:

Doing NaNo doesn’t make you any more or less of a writer than not doing it.

Yes, you get a completion badge and even 50% off Scrivener. Yes, you get high fives for doing it. But that’s not the goddamn point!

The point of NaNo is to finish a book draft. And there’s nothing unusually magical about November—as a matter of fact, it’s so unmagical that Camp NaNo exists for all the people who would rather power through in another month. You presumably have access to all the things you need to write (aka a computer) all the time.

But NaNo is everywhere, so there must be something special about it.

In my experience—having written novel-length stuff on and off NaNo—these are the pros and cons.

NaNo is great if:

  • You need a big fat push to get things done
    • This should really be triple-underlined and have marching ants around it.
    • The thing I find most useful about NaNo is that it’s structured motivation. This means that on a normal day, I’m gonna be like, okay, I want to write, but first I’m going to read a book and play some videogames, and then go to class, and by the time I get back I need a shower and am going to curl up with some Nathan For You.*
      *this is not how I really spend my day, there’s a lot more lying on the floor.
    • With NaNo, I already know I’m going to spend an hour a day writing. So I get home, take a brain break, work in half an hour of writing, go to class, write for another half hour, and then go to bed knowing that I did the thing.
    • If you’re the kind of person who gets perfectionistic about first drafts, NaNo is a great way to force you to not care.
  • You are nervous/unsure of what you’re doing, or otherwise want community support
    • As I mentioned above, Camp NaNo is a good venue for people who aren’t able to do the thing in November. But the benefit of November is that, because it’s the main one, there’s lots of stuff going on. You can commiserate in the forums or chats, get inspired in all kinds of places, post your daily word counts, etc.
    • (Full disclosure, I generally spent that time writing. But if I’d been stuck and not known what to do, I would’ve had five million places to go.)
  • NaNo makes you commit to a specific target and share that target with people. There’s a lot more guilt around ‘I told people I would write 1000 words and didn’t’ as opposed to ‘I thought about writing some book today and didn’t.’

NaNo is not-so-great if:

  • You are busy
    • It’s one thing to cut out time from other hobbies, or tell your friends and family that you’re going to be busy. But if you are a caretaker, parent, in school with a ton of extracurriculars, et. al.—please think about what the appropriate priorities are. I never would have done NaNo in college. That’s okay, because NaNo (and the stupid book idea in my head) didn’t go away. I came back to them when I had time.
    • As an alternative, set a lower NaNo target, or do Camp NaNo at a better time of year.
    • While the idea is to challenge yourself, you’re creating a first draft! There’s a whole world of rewriting and editing that will come after. Plan accordingly.
  • You haven’t planned
    • Speaking of planning….
    • If you can pants (i.e., write without planning) however many words is your target, more power to you. But speaking from personal experience, this produces a lot of drivel. I legitimately felt that I had wasted my time when I looked back at one of the things I wrote. Even though I took a day to figure out the direction when I got stuck, I was so caught up in the urgency of meeting the deadline that I didn’t stop to ask myself if I was producing something cohesive.
    • Needless to say, I’m not a fan of the ‘do anything to stretch your word count’ method. NaNo is supposed to help you be productive, not procrastinate even harder. Figuring out how many words your story will be based on an outline isn’t an exact science. But you should try to have some rough estimate so you aren’t taken by surprise.
  • It will affect your health
    • Obviously, this is going to have a ton of individual variance. Use your best judgment, but keep in mind….
    • Sedentary lifestyles are not healthy. I spend 8-9 hours a day staring at a computer screen as is. The last thing I’m doing on a weekday after I come home is plopping in a chair and doing even more of that thing everyone says is bad for you. (I typed this standing while looking out a window. It was slow.)
    • An ergonomic keyboard/overall setup isn’t going to solve eyestrain or stressed wrists. In an ideal world, we’d all have the time to take yoga breaks, but if you have one hour and one hour only to get your writing done, that’s not gonna happen.
    • NaNo is stressful. Ideally, this is eustress, the kind of thing that makes having a deadline motivating. But if it’s turning into distress, that’s a bad sign. Do what’s best for your state of mind.
    • I tried to write something about people who give up sleep to write but it kept turning into a rant. Two words: memory consolidation. (You can also read the extremely lay-friendly ‘Why We Sleep’ for more on this topic.)

Because NaNo in November is a more coordinated event, there are advantages to participating in it. But at the same time, it’s one way out of many ways to get a first draft out of your head. Weigh the personal pros and cons and figure out if NaNo is or isn’t right for you.

From Short Stories to Oh Shit

I started writing a novel something like 12 years ago and, as you can imagine, there wasn’t much of a process there. Luckily, reality got in the way and I didn’t finish the thing until 7 years later, after I had spent some time writing short stories.

The problem is, there still wasn’t much of a process to it. I’d run into something I thought was funny or interesting, or get an image in my head that seemed like a good one, and find a way to shoehorn it in. Stephen King’s On Writing says to kill your darlings; I’d written something that was 70% darling.

At this point, I’d figured out a decent methodology for short stories. They weren’t golden, but they also weren’t terrible. And we know that good short stories contain the same elements as a good book: characters and a plot that complement each other; plausibility; a good setting, etc.

So what went wrong?

For one, 3,000 words will hide your screwups better than 60,000.

Yeah, okay, that’s obvious, but the implications should be considered.

You can’t half-ass the planning.

Short stories are more forgiving. This means that if, say, you only flesh out one character and let the other ones languish as sidenotes, people are less likely to kick up a fuss. If readers get one scene with a dude behind the counter of a pie shop, they aren’t going to be like ‘hey, everything this dude does is just a response to things other people are doing.’

Sure, writers are supposed to think about these things anyway because good character make do, but let’s be honest: how often do you bother, when it’s something short?

Setting is another case where, theoretically, you’re spending as much time thinking about why such-and-such happened and how that set up the current situation—but practically speaking, that’s insane. A short story might only have one fleshed-out setting. (Alright, this isn’t impossible for a novel, but how many do it?)

I’m not saying that you should abandon short-story shortcuts. You shouldn’t spend longer planning for a story than you do writing it. But you do need to be aware that figuring out a novel goes beyond short story planning.

Wait, what?

If you look at what I’ve said so far, it sounds like I’m saying that all you have to do to adjust for a novel is more of the same thing. Do you normally flesh out one character? Flesh out six. Only build one city? Build the country. Instead of having one plot, have a couple of side plots that feed into an overarching main plot. Simple, right?

What’s missing here is the gestalt—how do these things all come together?

If main character Y happens to have a side plot where they want to buy a dog, are readers going to want to follow Y around as they visit animal shelters? What if the story is about interstellar politics?

The thing with a short story is that there isn’t—or shouldn’t be, anyway—enough space for wholly tangential side plots or extra characters. Yes, there are boring short stories, but we’d expect them to be overdescribed or otherwise drawn-out, not have an entire section with zero bearing on anything else.

Whereas with a novel, we’re looking at multiple groups of people doing multiple things over a more expansive period of time. There’s a lot more room to explore ideas which otherwise wouldn’t get more than a brief nod—but there’s also a lot more room to go off on a random track. As a reader, do you find it frustrating or enjoyable to read an arc that ends up tying into nothing, and is never mentioned again?

So when you’re planning a novel, it isn’t as simple as ‘here, let’s make this bigger.’ It’s more like ‘let’s widen this andmake it deeper.’

(But don’t overdo it, either.)

Much as I love Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? struck me as trying to do everything in too small a space. It’s a barrage of social commentary, only some of which gets full attention—the most incomplete arc being, in my opinion, John Isidore’s.

Backing me up on this—or so I like to imagine—is the lack of time given to him in the movie (Director’s Cut of course). Even though the treatment of mentally disabled people is very relevant to a story that’s about the nature of humanity, there isn’t a lot to explore that wouldn’t distract this book’s readers in one way or another.

(who wants to play Spot the Replicant?)

One of the best ways to avoid too much or too little is to plan out your story, including the major and minor arcs. By diagramming what’s happening and whom it’s happening to, you get a 10,000 foot view of how these things tie into and, most importantly, develop major themes.

In A Scanner Darkly, the subplot with Donna could be considered a sidenote—but her transformation arguably adds a different angle to the main theme of identity. We can ask bigger questions about Arctor as a result of what we see in his interactions with her, and gain a broader understanding of the drug-using subculture that this book is very much about.

Lessons from doing it wrong

The last time I tried to pull together a whole novel, I did the whole ‘okay, this is just a short story on a large scale so let’s make a bigger plot, toss in a couple more characters.’ I didn’t think about how having the characters move from place to place would affect the reader’s ability to visualize a setting, or how goddamn boring it is to have to read through yet another getting-our-feet-wet scene. My problem wasn’t just random tangents, but also repetition of the same idea without new insight: the failure to go deeper.

I ended up with 30,000 words of actual happenings and 50,000 of bunk. I didn’t have a lot of material, and I hadn’t worried about it because it hadn’t occurred to me as something to worry about. In the past, I’d padded novels out with random shit; or written short stories, where shorter—tighter—is better.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t write short stories before writing a novel. I still think it’s a great idea, especially if you’re looking at publishing. But when you’re going from writing short stories to tackling a novel, don’t expect the transition to be seamless. Plan to ask yourself tougher questions and hold yourself more accountable for your strategy.

Just Tell Your Story: The Case Against “Show Don’t Tell”

A teeny rant about how, unqualified, “show don’t tell” is bad advice.

For a while now I have wondered why amateur writers write the most mind-numbingly long descriptions, or draw out action sequences that would in the hands of a skilled writer take half the words and be twice as jam-packed. I don’t want the ‘flames of burning searing pain of the aching broken heart’ all up in my grill. I’d genuinely prefer a ‘he hated her after the break up.’ That’s all I need to know about that? Good. Move on.

And that’s the ‘oh’ moment: when people tell you to show not tell, they fail to mention ‘pacing.’

Look, there are times when it’s best to convey a mood. His trembling fingers reach for the full glass, her voice an angry buzz in the back of his mind–I’d consider that a reasonable establishing shot. But if you’re halfway through a paragraph and he’s having a conversation with the bartender and that’s the real focus, could you just say that he’s an ex-alcoholic? Do I need the ten hour backstory? Is this the right place to stick it?

Of course, part of this is reflective of modern trends in writing, which of course are informed by journalism and the fact that you can now choose between different types of media, not to mention the radical transformation of how books are published. Much as I love Vanity Fair there are whole swathes I’d love to machete away. And I had the worst Poe-boner when I was a kid, but when I read contemporary works written in that style–my old stuff included–I just want to slap the author and go ‘are you being paid by the word? ARE YOU SURE?’

Most of it goes back to pacing. The easiest example of this might be the action scene. Action scenes are a tell-fest. Punches are thrown. Breath is expelled. If you’re Philip Pullman you might toss in an Odyssey-style metaphor or two (the fight between Iofur and Iorek for instance), but beyond that things need to happen. He’s mad! He’s really pissed off now! He’s so good at making friends! (Wait, that’s Naruto….) Open handed filial piety attack! Action scenes are fast and short and simple, because that’s a fight.

Unless, of course, we’re talking about emotions, in which case there’s plenty of good reason to drop hints without dropping trou and saying what a character is feeling. An unreliable narrator might show (or rather tell) their true colors later, when it turns out they were trembling from excitement rather than fear. The cool thing about showing and not telling is you can use it to introduce a lot of ambiguity, which keeps readers engaged as long as they feel like they have a reason to keep guessing.

But here’s the thing, the market is saturated. People have myriad choices of reading material, and that’s before we even get to other forms of storytelling. Plus, think about how people consume books these days. Spending half a day completing an entire book is not going to endear repetitive, tortuous writing in the way it might have when you got one chapter a week and needed a refresher or so.

Before you start devoting your life to showing not telling and end up with an audience of three very determined people, read over the whole goddamn thing and make sure that each scene takes as long as it should.


5 Things Writers Should Know About Pacing

1. What is pacing?

From my experience with it:

For the overall story, it’s the rate at which things move along, and how much time it takes to get from A to B – where A and B are anything under the purview of narrative focus, including scenes, beliefs, ideas, and characters.

Within a small block of text, it’s the information density. A paragraph that takes 50 words to tell you that we’re in New York is much more slowly paced than one which takes five.

2. Okay, what is good pacing? (Small block of text edition) I’m sure you saw this coming, but it varies. Let’s consider a 50-word paragraph establishing that we’re in New York:

The man behind the counter shouted for people’s orders with full expectation that they knew which bagel they wanted. Given the crowd, it was probably dangerous not to know—although outside was little better, with people swarming down the nearby steps to the subway. Just another Friday in New York.

And then five words:

We were in New York.

The first example is worth reading because it adds something valuable to the story. Maybe the fast-paced life of NYC is a central theme and will later be contrasted with, say, turtles at Central Park. Maybe the dude behind the counter is a serial killer, or someone is going to choke and die on their bagel while running for a subway train. Either way, this paragraph isn’t here for no reason.

Likewise with the second instance. Being in New York is important enough to mention, but not important enough to wallow in. The description might come later and not include a landmark that will make it clear this is NYC, or the story isn’t about the city but rather something that happened to the narrators as a result of being there. If spending time describing something isn’t adding value, don’t.

(For the record, I’m fully aware of the difference between New York and New York City, but I live in Chicago and don’t care.)

3. What is good pacing? (Story edition)

Because it varies, it’s one of those questions that’s easier to answer by discussing what bad pacing is.

The easiest way I’ve found to identify that a story isn’t well-paced is when all the paragraphs are the same length. Imagine looking at wallpaper or carpeting. The parts that stand out aren’t the parts that blend into the pattern, but the bits that don’t: stains, tears, the massive spray-painted dick after those tequila shots you shouldn’t have let your friends talk you into.

You can also have bad pacing where a lot of time is being spent on stuff that isn’t important. The best litmus test of this is having other people read your story: I can’t imagine you put in 500 words about the ceiling in Grand Central because you don’t think it’s important. But it’s a good idea to get feedback after you’ve already fixed the obvious problems.

Put your story away for a week. Don’t look at it. Then come back and go through each scene, and ask yourself, what value does reading this add? What do I want the reader to walk away with?

(The man behind the counter shouted for people’s orders with full expectation that they knew which bagel they wanted. Given the crowd, it was probably dangerous not to know—although outside was little better, with) Why am I in a bagel shop? Oh, it’s because I wrote this while hungry. I like it—and New York bagels—but it is not important. (people swarming down the nearby steps to the subway. Just another Friday in New York.) Add some details about being pressed into five different briefcases while trying to not touch a sweaty handhold.

Above, I’m reshifting the focus of the scene because, during that week off, I decided I want traveling on public transit to be a major focus. It would be more useful to add a description of what that’s like. Could I keep the bagel part? Yes, but then I’m slowing the pace down overall with this unnecessary scene. Could I add a bit about how revolting the germs are? Sure, if I want to make it clear that my narrator is a germophobe, or otherwise reinforce a negative view of public transit. The scene is no longer about fast-paced life or crowds, it’s about the subway.

4. You didn’t mention the differences between action, dialogue, and description. Yeah, that’s the lovechild of #3 and #2. Again, consistency is bad on a large scale, so don’t write 50 pages of people doing things without including some sense of where they are—and what those things are—or 50 lines of dialogue without any body language or other plot progression.

It’s standard practice to use short, choppy sentences for action in order to create a sense of speed, and then longer sentences for description to slow things down. I argue that the relationship goes both ways: longer sentences typify description, while short sentences are expected to be action. Even Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ makes use of this convention.

Note that people doing things doesn’t equal action. The 50-word sentence is all descriptive, even though there’s a dude shouting and people swarming. In bold I’ve added an action. It’s passive structure, which makes it less ‘actiony’, and it’s another longer sentence in the middle of a paragraph that moves on, which is bad writing, but it’s still a blip in the scene. Foreground instead of background.

The man behind the counter shouted for people’s orders with full expectation that they knew which bagel they wanted. An indecisive man was asked to step aside; the crowd was getting restive. Outside was little better, with people swarming down the nearby steps to the subway. Just another Friday in New York.

Here, this action is part of the establishing shot, but unlike the old version, it’s showing a thing happening instead of describing the overall scene.

Zooming in on a specific person, or even a part of a person, is one way to force yourself away from pure description; zooming out pushes away from pure action. For instance in a fight scene, the background is the fight itself, along with where it’s staged and the people involved; the foreground would be the actual movements, and the thoughts flying through their minds. Think of the last thing you watched or comic you read. How do the shots (long, mid-range, closeup) vary within scenes?

To get away from pure dialogue, think outside the quotes. People don’t stand in one position or make one face the whole time. It’s been said that 55% of our communication is body language, another 38% is vocal tone, and only 7% are the actual words. This isn’t exactly true, but it does drive home the point that body language and vocal tones add a whole other layer to communication, and not having any is perceived as unnatural or stiff.

5. Chekov’s Gun. This is effectively what I’m saying in #s 2 and 3.