Cheerleading for Writers: P – Pace of a Story

Pace of a story used to be the main criteria, according to which I judged the quality of a book I read or pieces of that book. I realize now, that I rarely said that the certain topic of a book or its piece didn’t interest me. I usually said that it was too slow.

Now when I manage not to take my thoughts too literally or too serious, I am fascinated to realize that I perceive a faster flowing story better than a “slower” one.

Even, when many (including me) agree that it is reasonable and healthy to slow down, the hurry of thoughts and a wish to get fast somewhere else than where we are right now, seems to be a default programing of our brains. At least it seems to be the default program running inside my head. If something is done (or maybe even not yet done), the question of what’s next arises, and faster and faster, until my brain can’t deal with it anymore and either explodes with frustration or leads me to sleep.

Is it how the babies’ brains function — absorbing as much information as they possibly can, and that with a crazy pace, after which taking an extensive break to process all that? I remember thinking that the smallest of humans are extremely calm and slow and process the world with a pleasant pace. But are they really? I guess, the exact answer will never be known even if the scientists found out that the development of the human brain and learning of new skills occurs rather in big leaps than gradually.

Having now two young children, I learned that when they grow most impatient and irritable, then they are in the process to learn something substantially new, at it makes sense then to give them time and space to complete that leap.

Hm, should I maybe allow that myself too?

I discovered once that there was a difference on how I perceived a book as a reader depending on the time of the day I read it and in general on my state, whether I was tired at the end of a busy day, or fresh in the morning with the first cup of espresso on the table in front of me. Even the same passages of the same book read differently at different time of he day.

I remember how I complained about the structure of the book “The Girl You Left Behind” by Jojo Moyes, which presented two stories with two main characters, and where each of these stories took place in different times. I usually complained in the evenings how one chapter was from one story and the next one jumped backed in time to follow the other story. Sometimes these jumps in time were even within the same chapter. When I read the same book in the morning, I nodded with appreciation that both stories and how the book was written stirred and challenged me and that I did like reading it and discovering the connection between the two stories. And I realized that I enjoyed the book only…when I gave myself time to read it without trying to finish reading and get to the end of it.

Is this what happens usually in the evenings? Our brains simply searching an end, so that they get some rest?

Recently I have read an article by Ariel and Shya Kane where Ariel remembered finding a shopping list for groceries, which was discovered in her grandmother’s belongings on the day she died. Her grandmother lived a fulfilled life, but she still had a list of things she wanted to do on that last day. This story was extremely touching and revealing. It showed me that there will always be things that I won’t manage to complete. But this doesn’t mean that something is incomplete in my life.

Now I realize that I am capable of creating endless lists of what I could do. And curiously enough, at the same time I want to have them finished all at once. This is quite a quirkily naive paradox!

Another interesting thing I discovered when I complain about the pace in a book, is that there is something I am resisting, so that I can’t stop processing this in my mind. When something reminds me of that unresolved issue, then I’m stuck and struggle to get over it, so I blame the source of that reminder, that is the book I am reading in being too slow and not letting me to get to the interesting bit. This happened for example when I read for the first time Ariel and Shya Kane’s latest book “Practical Enlightenment”. While reading one of the chapters somewhere in the middle of the book, I heard myself thinking, “Oh, this bit lacks a story, an example. They only describe the challenge people face, but they should have better written instead about a concrete event happened to them or other people, and this would make the point stronger.”

Mind you, there are examples, tales and stories of real people following each point Ariel and Shya made in their book. But at some point I had these thoughts again. At that time I stopped. “Wait a second,” I said to myself. “What is happening here? Did Ariel and Shya maybe hit the spot in me with those words? Is there something I avoid and those words simply stirred a sensitive cord?”

I sighed bravely and said in my thoughts, “OK, let’s check it.”

I reread those passages I criticized in my head, and sure enough, there was an unresolved knot, which made something inside me squeeze and feel uncomfortable, a point where I felt vulnerable. I tried to relax and consider that point non-judgmentally. Funnily enough, this was something I thought was resolved. I don’t remember now what exactly that was, but I do remember that it was something I had thought of not being too sensitive about anymore. So, this little “complaining-about-pace-incident” and the experiment with seeing what caused it, was very revealing.

Those complains are neither good or bad. They are just indicators that a change might be needed, whether in thinking or activity.

Yes, these complains appear also with books that don’t interest me. But that doesn’t mean that these books are bad. They definitely can be perceived as great to other people. And thus they are great. Just not for me. They are simply not what my heart wants to lead me to. But why am I sometimes forcing myself to finish a book and complain that it is bad? Why don’t I leave that book in peace instead  and turn my attention to a book or a story that would appeal to me?

So my perception of the pace in a book is probably an indicator what is the state of my mind in that given moment or what my expectations are in respect to the given books, or something completely else about myself I am still to discover.

Realizing this also makes me understand varying reactions toward my books. I had various feedback toward the same book from various readers and editor. Some had only editorials to communicate, and others said that my book lacked description in many places, that I took for granted that readers knew what I meant. Slowing down or even stopping and looking did the trick: I found out where it felt right to add more description and which bits I wanted to keep as they were. And then I discovered that I could write pages of enjoyable description and have fun doing it.

So what is the right pace for a story in a book? Is there an absolute value? Is it like riding a bike, going neither too slow nor too fast, so that it can move further, without the cyclist falling down and injuring herself? Yes, it is most probably like riding a bike, but not only to keeping it up, but also slowing down, pushing it up a hill, or even stopping and putting it away, when it is time to take a break or when the path has ended.

The path of this article is ending now and I have a few questions for you. What are you judging when you think of a book as being good or bad? Is it also the pace of a story or something else? What is your state of mind when you enjoy the story more or less? Does your reaction toward the story you read show something about yourself and your perception of the world around? Do you read books only when you are in a certain state of mind or certain circumstances? If yes, what are they?

Picture: My toddler daughter is testing every day, what is the perfect pace for her to walk and in what clothes. Several days ago she discovered my red top and wanted to wear it. And up came a long “evening dress” for a toddler, which made her pace and way of walking different than in comfortable leggings or jeans.


“Cheerleading For Writers”, copyright © 2016 by Victoria Ichizli-Bartels

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