Pub Rants

What The Heck Do I Say To Help?

 52 Comments |  Share This:    

Status: Reading right now. Chutney is curled up in a blanket that she spent 10 minutes fluffing.

What’s Playing on the XM or iPod right now? DON’T DREAM IT’S OVER by Paul Young

For the last two nights, I’ve been reading a full manuscript that I requested. I really like the writing and the concept is super cool but for over 100 pages, the story hasn’t gone anywhere (or I should amend that—it’s going somewhere but moving slowly).

So definitely a pacing issue.

Yet, I’m still reading. I know I’m probably going to have to pass but I so want to be able to tell the writer why and how they might revise. But pacing is THE hardest writing mechanic to explain when it’s not working. If I point to an individual scene, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the writing except the scene is not doing enough in terms of building the tension or revealing another hint to the over-arching story that is unfolding.

In other words, there is no easy fix where I can say “do xyz” and you’ll transform the story.

52 Responses

  1. Trisha said:

    Well, I recently was told that some of my writing was beautiful in itself, but it was all backstory. So the message was that it wasn’t BAD, it was just unnecessary. I think you really have to pick and choose which scenes you absolutely need to advance the story. And maybe have the odd extra bit of decoration in there, but if it’s moving THAT slowly then you’ve got too much decoration.

    Just my amateurish thoughts 🙂

  2. Michael said:

    I agree, Trisha and Cholisose.

    Not only is pacing the hardest thing to explain when it’s wrong, but I feel it’s the hardest thing to fix at times, too.

  3. Mystery Robin said:

    It sounds like they either need to “get there” quicker, so get to the end of the over all arc in 80K words instead of 100K. Or, they need to do more in the words they have – throw in more twists and kinks so you’re moving faster in the word count they have.

    It’s awfully nice of you to read to the end. 🙂

  4. Noble M Standing said:

    If the writer is serious about their craft, then they will figure out how to fix the pacing if that is the problem. I know your time is precious and you can’t possibly personalize every rejection but as a writer it’d be nice if we knew why sometimes. 🙂

  5. Ebony McKenna. said:

    Last year I attended Debra Dixon’s ‘Goal, Motivation and Conflict’ seminar and the key in that is to have GMC present in every scene – and if it’s not, does the scene really belong?

    It may be beautiful writing, but is it moving the story forward?
    (Wish I could follow my own advice sometimes!)

  6. Ted Cross said:

    Often these days it seems that a book must be cut down to the bare minimum with no chaff and a breakneck pacing. I like such books at times, but I think the publishers are failing to recognize that there are still buyers out here who enjoy a relaxing pace, too. Not all of us would have cut out Tolkien’s huge prologue and vast amount of description! Why can’t the market supply what all of us want? If a book is great other than some slow pacing, perhaps it doesn’t need much fixing?

  7. Jami said:

    My theory? If it’s good enough to keep me reading even when nothing much is happening in the story, then it’s a good story. Then again, I’ve read all but the most recent Jane Auel books, so my tastes may be a bit skewed.

  8. Kiolia said:

    You can say “examine every single scene and cut or rework it if it doesn’t move the story.” I’d say that’s both very simple and (potentially) very transformative.

    @ Ted Cross: there’s a difference between a “relaxing” pace and an unsteady or halting pace, where the story stops completely in favor of description. You don’t have to sacrifice story movement to work in great description.

  9. Robert said:

    Slow-paced books sometimes sell well; Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, for instance. I think it depends on the book and the writer. If it’s done well, slow pace seems to work in fantasy – or some fantasy anyway – but it wouldn’t work in a thriller. 100 pages is a dreadful long time for nothing to happen!

  10. Jane said:

    I used to tell writers to make sure they blended their characterization and conflict together. That way it’s not like getting a spoonful of fruit and then a spoonful of yogurt. Instead if they blend them together, each scene can accomplish two things rather than one.

    In other words, some authors get trapped in “this is my scene that moves the plot” and “this is my scene that builds character,” but with a little blending, you can have multilayered, multifunctional scenes that move the plot, build character, foreshadow what’s to come, and a lot of other things too.

    Without having seen the work, it’s hard to say what is the right advice for this particular author. But in general, I guess what to tell the writer would be “Get all these scenes to multitask and you can reduce your wordcount by about 15,000 words without losing any content.”

  11. Diana said:

    I think you should tell them exactly what you’ve said here, but with a bit more detail.

    In other words, there’s a problem with the pacing between pages x and y. I’m not sure of the exact cause, but it could be due to a, b, c, or a combination of those.

    Thus leaving it to the writer to figure out what they need to do to fix it.

  12. Amity said:

    Donald Maass and The Fire in Fiction fixed my pacing issues. The way he talked about microtension and tension clicked with me and it was like the skies parted. Don’t know if that will help everyone, or this particular author, but it did for me.

  13. Mr Pond said:

    Could you possibly supply the author (and us, if you’re up for it?) with a reading list? As in, here are the masters of dramatic pacing; read these stories/books/movies, then go and do likewise? Perhaps leaving the manuscript on the shelf for a few months, the dusting it off and reworking it after such a study? If there’s an innate talent there–after all, you’re still reading it so it’s no drek–then they can probably learn quite a lot that way.

  14. RJS said:

    I was just thinking this morning of Tad Williams’ “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” trilogy, which makes Tolkien look downright hasty. 🙂 Beautiful writing is hard to come by these days.

    One of my favorite fictional characters has this advice on writing beginnings:

    “Begin at the beginning as you understood it, proceed through the middle, continue to the end, and then stop,” said Master Li, and he sauntered out to get drunk, leaving me to my current misery. (Barry Hughart, “The Story of the Stone”)

  15. David said:

    Pond & Cross,

    We learn about pacing from reading the masters. Our own reading should inform our concept of pacing. Agents don’t necessarily read better than we do. They just advertise that they read a lot.

    The thing that Kristin said that most people are missing, “But I’m still reading.” This is huge, and often a reason why agents who pass on projects will go on to see that book sell elsewhere.

    My advice, and this follows the post of Cross: if the writer can’t find an agent, go read JAKONRATH’s blog and then self-publish on Amazon. Kristin’s preference with pacing is a mix of preference and market/publishing house experience. But WE READERS are the new gatekeepers. Let us decide if we want to read your story. Chances are, if it’s good while bucking the trend of current pacing, then it will sell anyways.

    Kristing said it herself, she’s still reading it.

    And people are still reading Austin, Auel, the first Horatio Hornblower book…

  16. Peace, Lena and Happiness said:

    I had that problem with my books before I started outlining. I used to just write from beginning to end, and now when I read the books…nothing happens. So I’d give specific advice. “The dialogue is great/shows characters w/o telling, but it has to DO something,” or something like this. Or maybe it’s lacking dialogue and that could help: “More dialogue relating to plot to remind us where the story is going.”

    I know if you had my MS, I’d appreciate honest, specific criticism so I’d know how to fix things.

    It’s very generous of you to keep reading.

    And someone asked for an example. Not everyone’s genre, but LOIS DUNCAN is an absolute master of pacing (YA horror/suspense). You will never for one second forget where one of her stories is going.

  17. Nicole said:

    I used some of Janice Hardy’s great blog advice when editing my novel recently (yay NLA authors!).

    She suggested identifying the conflict and stakes in each chapter. I wrote brief notes about those two items at the top of every one of my chapters. It’s amazing how helpful it is to skim those notes and see where things are moving forward, or where you essentially have the same conflict drawn out with nothing new happening. The opportunities for tightening the plot suddenly jumped out at me.

    Maybe that’s a helpful technique you could recommend.

  18. idempotent said:

    I like Roz Morris’s idea of a beat sheet (described here on her website. She even does an example beat sheet of Harry Potter. I actually have not literally made one, but I mentally think something like that through.

  19. Rebecca said:

    If I were the writer in question, I’d be happy to get this critique from you. Sure, it would involve a lot of work – research, probably a lot of rewriting from scratch, etc – but clearly they’re really close, since you’re still reading and you’re anxious to give them a few pointers. Saying what you just wrote here with a little more specificity would be a huge help to anyone, I think.

  20. Joseph L. Selby said:

    While guidance is awesome (especially because the author might not agree with your opinion), if you see the potential and it needs work, throw the ball back int he author’s court. Say, “I think this is an interesting concept and good writing but your pacing needs improvement [in this area if you can offer a general point]. If you would like to rewrite and resubmit, I would give it a second pass.

    I don’t offer to rewrite unless the agent makes the overture. I know how strapped for time they are. But as a serious writer, I will work hard to improve my manuscript even with something as vague as “the pacing is too slow here.”

  21. C.E. Hart said:

    As long as the story is moving within me, it doesn’t have to be moving quickly. In my opinion, a good story is one where the characters are memorable and the story is meaningful–whether it is fast-paced or slow. 🙂

  22. Silvia said:

    For me, personally, it really helps when the reader indicates exactly what scenes aren’t working for them. At what point do your minds start to wander or think, “Where’s this plot going?”

    I agree slow-paced stories can work, especially in literary fiction, but if this is a commercial genre, the writer should take the readers into consideration.

  23. V said:

    I learned that slow pacing is solved by making the words work harder. At least, that’s how I solve my slow pacing issues.

    Every scene in every chapter has to do two of the following things at the same time: develop the plot, develop the character(s), develop the setting, impart needed backstory/foreshadowing. If I can get those same words to do three of the four tasks, even better. Doing all four (five?) at once in the same scene? That’s the holy grail.

    The more the words work, the less of them I need. That means 1) fewer words to read out-story 2) perceived time in-story also passes faster because the reader is more engaged. (It’s the old “time flies” thing. It not just when you’re having fun, it also happens when you’re busy.)

    This is easy to say as an editor/critiquer, but really hard to do as a writer. The easiest way I found to edit myself (and give advice in workshops) is to identify the slow bits and remove 10% of the words in that section, but keep the information intact. I have done multiple cutting runs or just upped my percentage on myself when the first pass wasn’t enough. I find removing about 20% of the words in a slow section forces the double duty writing out of necessity. The first 10% just deals with lazy word choices and loose writing. The second 10% gets the information condensed. Really slow sections,can loose about 25% of the words and still make sense.

  24. Ted Cross said:

    It only works for fantasies, but when I really love a world, I am happy to linger there lovingly as long as it makes some progress. That progress can be very slow, as long as it is there. For some worlds, I feel terrible when the book finally ends, and I would have been happy to keep reading on and on.

  25. Kristin Laughtin said:

    I think this blog post is a good start. As others have said, tell the writer to really examine each scene and determine what it is doing for the story vs. what it should be doing. If it’s just there to “build character” or something like that, the writer needs to figure out how to achieve the same effect while advancing the plot. Or it could just be a case where the author is too wordy, and tightening up each scene to its core will make things seem to move faster.

    (V’s comment above is amazing, btw!)

  26. CNHolmberg said:

    Ha, this is the exact same comment my writing group gave me just last week. . .

    I like V’s comment about “making the words work harder.”

  27. Eddie Louise said:

    There are two techniques that no-one has yet mentioned that I find critical to judge pacing:

    1) Put it away for a while. A few weeks away from the manuscript almost always allows you to view it with fresh eyes. Pacing is one issue that will really jump out at you after a break.

    2) Read it out loud – 1st to yourself – make fixes; then read it to an audience. If your audience isn’t excited when you read the exciting bits you have problems.

    If an agent sent a manuscript back to me with the comments K makes above, these two steps would be the first things I did to focus on the problems.

  28. Robert Michael said:

    Sometimes we get caught up in the world we build (fantasy or not, the world of our novel is at best a reflection of the real world). We are, after all, the first audience of our writing. We fall in love with it as much as the people who populate it and their travails and journeys.

    On that 2nd edit through our work, I think it is imperative to ask the question: is this important? We can ask the same of all our tertiary characters, listless dialogue, entire chapters, and of course the blocks of prose that do not move the plot or move the heart.

    It is this part of the editing process that becomes difficult. How do we make such huge cuts to our baby? How can we be so cruel to ourselves as to slash away all those passages full of beautiful words, gorgeous images and thoughtful reminisces?

    The thing we must keep in mind is that if we want our audience to be wider than merely ourselves, we must create that which can be digested by many. Our creation can contain pithy moments as well as provocative ones. It can be descriptive, but needs to move.

    In fact, it is my theory that most all great or popular works of fiction contain some sort of movement: psychological, geographical, or situational.

  29. Nicole L Rivera said:

    Maybe recommend a good book. That way if the author is serious they will make the effort to learn and fix. Then if they submit again you will know they are hardworking and dedicated to improving. That’s just me, but I’m not an agent with piles of queries and manuscripts to read, lol.

  30. wonderer said:

    I’m with the first Nicole — it sounds like the issue in this case is conflict/stakes, not individual scenes (although the advice others have offered about tightening could be helpful too). But even if you just tell the author what you told us, s/he should be able to look at the ms through that lens and possibly identify a fix you hadn’t even thought of.

  31. Liesl said:

    I think the most helpful large-scale feedback for writers is simply when a reader points out where they lost interest or where they were confused. That simple criticism always helps me to see my manuscript with new eyes and ideas for improvement always follow.

  32. Rachel said:

    I do think a slow pace can work beautifully for some authors — I agree about Guy Gavriel Kay, and I’d add CJ Cherryh and also, say, McKinley’s Pegasus.

    But if pacing is indeed a problem for a particular book, the instruction to fix it could simply be: Cut 20,000 words(or whatever). Then leave it up to the author to decide how to tighten it up. Poof! Pacing improves.

    Or at least, that’s how my agent gets me to fix pacing issues, and it works for me.

  33. Mahak Jain said:

    I am an editor — I became really excited about this post because pacing is the #1 thing that I work on and look for in submissions (and it’s also the thing I am best at editing). For authors that I have decided to take on — and who I feel are skilled enough to deal with the pacing issues — I do two things. First, I point out why something isn’t working, and secondly, I give concrete suggestions for how to get it to work (which they may or may not decide to use, but which get the ball rolling).

    This sounds like a rewriting job where things would have to be combined; characters that are unnecessary may have to go, as well as scenes and details. It’s developmental/substantive editing, and some writers aren’t confident enough for this. If I am not taking on the author and just want to send a positive rejection letter, then I will just vaguely suggest that the writer may want to consider combining some scenes that could be doing more things at once.

    Alternatively, this may not be a “too many scenes issue.” Sometimes just cutting some description, exposition, and dialogue can do the trick; if each scene is shortened enough, then the time between each subsequent scene is shortened as well, picking up the pace. But as a rule, all scenes should be doing many things at once: developing character, plot, setting, etc.

  34. Sara Thompson said:

    I recently started reading a book for critique – the first 50 pages was really interesting (needed work but interesting), the next 50 the characters went to a concert and then grocery shopping. I couldn’t get past it. It was pointless and I couldn’t get the author to take my critiques seriously so I stopped reading. I was maybe 1/4 of the way through but the story was already falling apart. Sounds like you still have a good story and perhaps you will find a way when you finish to give good advice to the writer.

  35. K.C. Shaw said:

    Seems like it would be easy to just say to the author, “I like this but you have a pacing issue. The story takes too long to unfold (or slows down during the middle/end, or whatever).” If someone told me that, I’d know exactly what to look for and how to start fixing it. Pacing is a hard issue to define, but once you know pacing is the issue, it’s not too hard to address it–successfully, I hope. 🙂

  36. Ebony McKenna. said:

    Thanks @ idempotent
    Just bought Roz Morris’s book on kindle and can’t wait to read it.

    Taking a second bit of the cherry here:

    Whether you call them ‘beats’ or ‘the gap’ (Thanks Robert McKee) or turning points, a story needs to move forward – I keep a visual of a staircase in mind – with discoveries and obstacles along the way, whether they be physical or philosophical. Things still need to happen.

    To me, that’s when the pace drops off. Nobody is discovering anything new in the world, or within themselves, and it goes around in circles.

  37. Cassandra said:

    What Silvia and Liesl said. Where were you when it first occurred to you that “This is slow”?

  38. Suzanne said:

    Point them toward ‘Save the Cat’ the best guide I’ve found to help a writer address underlying structural issues like pacing. There’s other advice out there, but this was what worked for me.

  39. Natalie Aguirre said:

    If the overall story is okay, the pacing can be fixed. Perhaps suggest a few scenes that you felt that way about and it could help the author see how to fix the story. That kind of advice would help me.

  40. Joseph L. Selby said:

    While I’m sure all the recommendations of this book or that might be fine among peers, on Twitter as a review, or even as a blog post with an explanation of why you recommend it, if an agent included a recommendation to buy a book as part of his/her rejection, it would damage my perception of that agent’s integrity.

  41. Buffra said:

    The book suggestions might be good. Also Lani Diane Rich has structure class occasionally (online, with live chats) that could be helpful as well. (

    If there really is a diamond under there, it would be nice for the author to be given ideas for how to uncover and polish it.

  42. JW Doom said:

    Check out some Jacqueline Carey if you have pacing concerns. If the story is sound and the writing is good, the pacing isn’t a concern.

  43. Jeff Baird said:

    I wonder if the problem isn’t commercial dynamics? So much pressure for these shorter books (200 pages). I wonder if Kristin isn’t feeling this isn’t bad but commercially????? Needs some pep or needs some cuting. I agree with Ebony about GMC. Ask at each chapter beginning, middle and finish if this meets GOAL, MOTIVATION and CONFLICT. Does it move my story along? Can the book live without it? idempotous post on Roz Morris site for specific “cookie cutter” system to move a book along is probably good but very cookie cutter. Again, maybe because of commercial needs? I wonder if when Kristin gets a book like this one she could choose a few of her writers to read it for comment? Obviously Kristin is very good, that’s why we are here. But maybe a second opinion might make room for some of those good books but not number one sellers! I know I would be happy if she asked permission to have others read my book sitting on the chopping block!

  44. idempotent said:

    I would respectfully disagree about Roz Morris’s beat-sheet idea being a cookie-cutter way of moving your book along. It is actually just a compressed way of visualizing the dramatic arc of your plot, its ups and downs, so you can assess whether or not it lines up with your intention – like taking a step back from your painting to see the overall impression instead of the details. There is no implication that you must use a particular set of emotions, or that they must be arranged in a specific way.

  45. Alaina said:

    I have a hard time reading something that does not move fast enough. I guess I end up getting bored with the storyline and setting it aside. But my husband loves those types of stories. If he can read it fast, then to him it is not worth reading. So who knows!

    I do find it easy to get caught up in doing too much explaining or drawing a scene out too long, so I have someone else look at those areas and take out all that is making it drag. I then put those things into a character book, so I can draw personality traits from there. The reader doesn’t always need all the details, just enough to make sense and keep things flowing smoothly. 🙂

  46. EML said:

    That author is lucky to be able to get some feedback, whatever it is. So many of us get no further than form rejections. She will be very grateful to you. She’s very lucky.

  47. Cholisose said:

    Definitely a tricky thing to get down just right. Usually takes a couple edits to get things to move along at a comfortable pace, I imagine. My feeling is if a scene isn’t adding anything to the story, it can probably be left out, even if it does sound good.