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Some Notes on Pacing
Pacing is a topic many writing instructors won’t touch. I suspect that’s because there really isn’t a lot to know. After a few facts, it’s all practice.
And by practice, I mean writing a story, finishing it, spell-checking and publishing or submitting it, then writing another one. Keep moving forward.
Pacing really does all boil down to paragraphing and sentence length. Here are those few facts I mentioned above:
First, forget what your high school or college English Composition teacher taught you about paragraphs. In fiction, they aren’t based on Topic. In fiction, they’re based on characters and mini-scenes. Or if you think visually, on camera angles.
These guidelines are not exhaustive, but they will make your fiction flow better 99% of the time. And a 99 is an A in anyone’s class.
1. Begin a new paragraph each time a different character speaks or each time a tag line (s/he said) or brief descriptive narrative (s/he nodded, s/he laughed) serves as an introduction or lead-in to that character speaking. As you practice this, you’ll develop a feel for it.
Even if two characters are speaking sentences or sentence fragments back and forth (like real life), start a new paragraph each time the other character speaks. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek example, a conversation among three characters:
A frowned. “Why?”
B “Because Harvey said so.”
B “Just do it, all right? Guy knows what he’s talkin’ about.”
A “How do you know?”
C “How does he know what?”
A “Whether this guy Harvey knows what he’s talking about.”
C smiled. “I suggest you do what he says. It’ll help your stories read better. The reader won’t have to stop to decipher who said what, who scratched his nose or twirled her hair around her finger..”
D walked up, late as usual. “Hey, what you guys talking about?
A, disgusted, turned away. “Nothing. Never mind.” Over his shoulder, he yelled, “Cormac McCarthy never used quotation marks, y’know.”
B grinned at C and D. “Well, in one book.”
A. When you have only two characters in a conversation, you need tag line much less often. Use them only to clarify for the reader which character is speaking. Use brief narrative descriptions (Her eyes widened, he grinned, etc.) any time the characters perform those or other actions.)
B. If a character speaks, then performs and action, then continues speaking, write the dialogue, then the action, then the dialogue (so just as it happened). Narrative doesn’t always have to preceed or follow dialogue.
For example, don’t write either
“Between us, we just closed a really good deal. Here’s to us.” Tom raised his glass in a toast.
Tom raised his glass in a toast. “Between us, we just closed a really good deal. Here’s to us.”
In the first, the action comes too late. In the second, ol’ Tom’s holding his glass up too early, and the other character probably wonders whether Tom is mental.
Instead, write it as it happened.
“Between us, we just closed a really good deal.” Tom raised his glass in a toast. “Here’s to us.”
Nuanced? Maybe. But so is life.
2. Also begin a new paragraph each time a new mini-scene starts (or each time the camera angle shifts). As before, as you practice this, you’ll develop a feel for it.
For real-life examples of any of this, see any of my fiction, including the freebies that come out every Friday. To subscribe and receive a free short story every Friday, visit Stanbrough Writes. Click any story title. At the bottom of the story, click the subscribe button.
There should be no long paragraphs (over about 8 lines on the page) in fiction. No, not even in “literary” fiction. If you want the reader to drag through your writing, use long paragraphs.
Short paragraphs (no more than 5 lines) are good. Six- to eight-line paragraphs aren’t bad, especially mixed in with shorter ones. But longer ones give the reader at least one opportunity per paragraph to put your book down and find something else to do.
First, a run-on sentence is NOT just a really long sentence. It can be as short as noun verb noun verb.
“It rained Billy cried” is a run-on sentence. (And a comma splice is the same thing but with a comma: “It rained, Billy cried.”)
But “Mary hit the ball over the fence, through the field, across the stream, into the woods, down a slope, and over a rock into the river” is not a run-on sentence.
To fix the first, write “It rained, and Billy cried” or “It rained; Billy cried.” Either one is a compound sentence.
“When it rained, Billy cried” fixes it too, but that’s a complex sentence because “when it rained doesn’t make sense by iteself.
The longer example above is a simple sentence with a lot of prepositional phrases attached. You could keep stretching it out. You could add another hundred prepositional phrases, adjectives, adverbs, etc. But as long as you didn’t introduce another subject-verb somewhere, it would still be just a really long simple sentence.
But back to pacing.
The longer a sentence is, the more emotion it conveys. If you’ve ever been in a spat or argument with someone else and they unleashed a verbal barrage, you know this.
Shoter sentences evoke a sense of drama. That goes double when they end a paragraph or a scene or chapter. Then, if they’re worded right, they also create intrigue and do double duty as a cliffhanger, making the reader want to turn the page and/or keep reading.
One more note on pacing: Pay attention to rhythm, the feel and the flow of the sentence, as you write. As you practice this, your creative subconscious will learn it’s what you want, and it will occur naturally. Your writing will smooth out.
Rhythm and flow are the only reasons I would personally condone editing (conscious mind) your own work. It’s why I use a first reader. He isn’t a writer (though he could be) but he’s an avid reader. He’s used to “listening” with his eyes.
But if you choose to edit your work, read it aloud from beginning to end and simply enjoy the story.
But again, read it ALOUD. You are used to hearing the natural rhythms of the language even if you aren’t aware of it. If you read your work aloud, your ears will pick up on things your eyes would have missed, including rhythm and flow. Guaranteed.
Okay, that’s enough for today.
I promise, you’ve never seen anything like either one of them. I should also mention what I consider my best nonfiction book on writing, Writing the Character-Driven Story. Check it out.
Talk with you again soon.
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Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.