Monday, May 23, 2011

A Bit about Pacing

Week of May 22—Pacing a Picture Book
Monday, May 23—A Bit about Pacing

Lately, I’ve noticed that I say similar things in many of my critiques:  
·         Not paced like a picture book,
·         Lacking pacing,
·         Pacing is off,
·         The story doesn’t move.

A skillfully paced picture book can speed us through action, whirling us toward the climax. Or a well-paced book can slow the action making us sense a dilemma, a character’s feelings, or the importance of a moment. A book with stellar pacing compels us to turn the page.

But when I try to explain what I mean in my pacing critiques, I am often at a loss for words. I can demonstrate what I mean by rewriting a few lines of a manuscript, but explaining how to pace the story is much more difficult. Part of my problem is that I am an intuitive writer. I feel what to do, I hear what to do, I don’t always know what to do. Don’t get me wrong, I read a lot of books and articles about writing, I study the writing of others, I analyze what I see working in great books. But after all of that, I internalize what I learn, see, or discover and it becomes part of my intuitive approach.

As a matter of fact, I teach my students to be intuitive writers. I tell them, “Let your ears be your first audience” . . . in other words, if something doesn’t sound right to your ears, change it until it does. It is that not sounding right that leads to the realization that there may be pacing issues in a piece of writing. (Of course, it’s so much easier to spot (and hear) pacing issues in others writing than in your own!)

I have realized why I don’t have much of a pacing vocabulary. I’ve discovered few books on the subject. As a matter of fact, I think there’s only one in the educational world of writing—Fluent Writing: How to Teach the Art of Pacing by Denise Leograndis. Our quote of week is from Leograndis’ book:

Pacing is all that makes the flow, the balance, the rhythm of the story. (p. 12)

Leograndis also describes pacing as being “big” and “small.” “Big” pacing relates to the story as a whole, while “small” pacing relates to drilling down to the sentence level and analyzing the flow. Leograndis further writes about the big three that help writers develop pacing—content, conventions, and craft. .

As we begin looking at pacing in our writing, I suggest that we explore a few books with exceptional pacing first. I’m going to suggest you read two “quiet,” slowly-paced picture books, a picture book with moderate pacing, and two fast-paced, active picture books.

Let me chance a rabbit first, however. A friend recently sent me a link to author and agent Mandy Hubbard’s blog. Mandy recently made a trip to NYC to find out what editors were looking for. Her take-away about picture books is (and this won’t surprise most of you) that most editors are not looking for quiet, sweet books. They are looking for fun books, often with humor. (Read the post at While I am listing “quiet” books below to illustrate pacing, remember that those types of books may not be what editors are looking for at this moment in time. HOWEVER, the pacing in those books is timeless and illustrates what we should be striving for.


The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant and Bonnie Kelly-Young

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas


Brontorina by James Howe and Randy Cecil


Robot Zot! by Jon Scieszka and David Shannon

Avalanche Annie: A Not-So-Tall Tale by Lisa Wheeler and Kurt Cyrus

It’s Your Turn!
1. As you read stellar picture books with superb pacing, note what is making the pacing happen. Think about Denise Leograndis’ big three: content, conventions, and crafts. See what you can discover and then we’ll continue our discussion about pacing in tomorrow’s post.


Romelle said...

Ha! I just received a critique that commented on my pacing. I never really understood how I could speed up my pacing. When I read my own story, it sounded "fast-paced" to me.

So thanks for the book suggestions. I will definitely look for them and study them closely!

Rob Sanders said...

Good deal, Romelle. Glad you're pacing yourself! LOL!