Pacing, Part 7: The Quick Brown Fox

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

We’ve just looked at words.  Now let’s look at phrases.

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Our phrases here are:

  • The quick brown fox
  • jumped
  • over
  • the lazy dog

or however you want to slice that.  Up to you.

The speedy umber vixen hurdles the apathetic pooch.

This is a different version of the first sentence, using different words but the same phrases.  The units are the same; they’re attached the same way.  It’s colored a little bit differently than the first sentence, sure, but it means essentially the same thing.

The speedy umber vixen, the farm’s femme fatale, hurdles the apathetic pooch with a grace that justifies her pillage.

This is a different version of the first sentence, using different words and different phrases.  The units are not the same.

  • The speedy umber vixen
  • the farm’s femme fatale
  • hurdles
  • the apathetic pooch
  • with
  • a grace
  • that
  • justifies
  • her pillage

Again, you can slice this up as you like.  Not only are the words generally longer or more Frenchified, there are more of them in total, in bigger structure.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

You can’t communicate the same content–that the fox is the heroine of this story, admired by the narrator, despite the loss of the eggs–with the original words or the original way the phrases were structured within the sentence.  It doesn’t mean the same thing.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  She stole a dozen eggs over the last week.  Nobody could catch her.  Nobody bothered to try.

It’s not to say that short words and short, straightforward sentences can’t make for decent writing.  It’s just that the content changes, depending on the materials you choose, and how you choose to stick them together.

The speedy umber vixen, the farm’s femme fatale, leapt her skinny ass over the apathetic dog, praying that this time she wouldn’t get caught, not with four kits back waiting for her at home.

The easiest way to think of pacing at this level is that the form reflects the content; however, it’s not always straightforward.  If that was the only consideration, then the sentence above would have to be short, even shorter than the original sentence–it’s a short, smooth jump that the fox is making.

But there are other considerations.   More on that later.

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Writer Resources: On Robin Williams’ Comedy

(public domain photo)

The video “How Robin Williams Makes Us Smile” is from a solid YouTube series by Ryan Hollinger on movies, games, etc., and I particularly like the creator’s perspective on horror.

This video explains just what the title says: how Robin Williams makes us smile.  Hint:  he’s honest about his emotions.

As I was watching this, I realized that I’m not a “pantser” writer, but an improv writer.  I set up the word processor and let the characters do improv.

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Pacing, Part 6: Dog

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

All right, let’s get out a thesaurus and look up dog.

pup, puppy, bitch, cur, doggy, hound, mongrel, mutt, pooch, stray, tyke, bowwow, fido, flea bag, man’s best friend, tail-wagger

As well as a list of dog breeds.

Affenpinscher, Afghan hound, Afghan shepherd, Aidi, Airdale terrier, Akbash, Akita…

Each of those words has a character of its own.  It not only denotes something (that is, to serve as the word “for” something) but connotes, or implies, some other things.  A cur is not man’s best friend, for example, even though both denote some king of dog.

In addition, each of these words has, to go back to the woodworking metaphor, a particular sound that it makes, a particular face that it makes you make, when you say it.  A currrrrrrr literally makes you make an angrier, growlier face than straaaaaay, which almost makes your face smile.  (Check a mirror.)

The words also have lengths: cur, stray, man’s best friend.

Your word choice here is the base level of material with which you build your story.  You can treat the word sincerely, ironically, or with other tones–you can call a beautifully groomed Pomeranian a cur, for example.

How do you know what words to choose?  We’ll get to that…

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Think Like a Librarian: My Favorite Thing is Monsters, by Emil Ferris

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is another graphic novel.  (I checked a stack of best-of graphic novels all out at once, so there were a bunch.)  What you’re looking at here is older teens and up.  The main character is a middle-schooler, but I would definitely read the graphic novel before handing it off.  Some middle-school kids will do fine with it; it’s told at a middle-school level, but covers some extremely overwhelming topics.  If you need to cover some extremely overwhelming topics with your kids at that age…this might help.  Death, same-sex sexual attraction, attempted rape disguised as “bullying,” prostitution, murder, and loving someone who makes big mistakes are all covered.

The main character is a (human) girl who sees herself as a werewolf.  She is artistically inclined, and the graphic novel, created by an adult, is presented as her handiwork.  The “panels” in the graphic novel are free flowing, free associative doodles done in pen and ink.  People can be drawn beautifully, mockingly, photorealistically, etc., based on the main character’s emotions at the time.

The story ranges from before World War II, to concentration camps in WWII, to the late Sixties, as the main character attempts to solve the murder of a neighbor, the “blue” woman on the cover.

The art in this is loose and improvisational, yet masterful; the writing is a masterpiece on a level with Art Spiegelman’s Maus.  I’m not exactly going out on a limb to say that this volume is one of the masterpieces of Western fiction, graphic novel or otherwise.

It can be a challenging read, but mostly because it’s literally just heavy.  A second volume is planned to come out in the second half of 2018.

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Pacing, Part 5: Pacing for Engineers

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Dear engineer types,

I am a poet type.  So I’m borrowing the metaphor from my spouse, who works in IT and does woodworking.

Let’s agree to look at pacing as a woodworking project.  We start with our raw materials, which are words.  What kind of words are they?  Words are like the type of wood you’re using.  Short blunt words are like pine, reliable and cheap.  Sesquipedalian verbiage is like a veneer of mahogany, thin and fragile, but it definitely classes up a project.

Let’s say phrase length is like the thickness of the wood, and sentence length is its length and width.  Let’s say punctuation is how you attach your pieces of wood together–commas, periods, semicolons, dashes.  Without punctuation it is impossible to sort out any kind of clarity in a sentence paragraph scene story

Paragraph length is, let’s say, how you put the pattern of joints together.  Are your joints heavy and reinforced, like a set of bunkbeds for a pair of eight-year-old twin boys, or are they delicately balanced, like a Louis XIV table,

with its thin and spindly legs?

Point being, you have to consider both the materials that you’re working with and who is eventually going to be using them and for what, right?  You have to pick the right wood, the right pieces of wood, the right methods of attaching them, the right design, etc.

At every level, your choices must fit the project.

That’s what pacing is.  You learn pacing when you stop banging together whatever wood is cheapest with whatever nails you have on hand and going, “Why is my table so cheap and unprofessional looking?”

Welcome to Intermediate Writing!

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Pacing, Part 4: The Building Blocks of Pacing

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

I’ll get to pacing for engineers in a bit.  First the different building blocks of pacing:

  • Word length.
  • Length of phrases (as marked by breaths or punctuation).
  • Sentence length.
  • Paragraph length.
  • Beat length (the length of each individual sub-conflict within a scene).
  • Scene length.
  • Section length (as marked by a white space).
  • Chapter length.
  • “Part” length.
  • Story length.

Each “level” of pacing has its own implications and use.  It’s often the pattern of how the different lengths are mixed that’s important–long long long gives a different “feel” to the work than long medium short short, for example.  (Sorry, engineer types, I’ll get to that for you in a bit.)

The content of what you put into each level is important, too, because pacing is how we link form and content.

And there are other things that I’m not mentioning here that are also levels of pacing, because pacing knows no limit to the complexity with which you can slice it, as far as I’ve been able to tell.  But we’re not going to talk about that now.

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Writer Resources: Rowan Atkinson on Comedy.

Rowan Atkinson of Mr. Bean and Blackadder fame did a comedy/documentary series called Funny Business or Laughing Matters in 1992.  The first episode, on physical comedy, is available online.

Not only is this a great lesson on physical comedy, but on breaking down and distorting character–and why.

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Pacing, Part 3: Pacing for Poets

I’m going to give two explanations of what pacing is, one for poet-types and one for engineer-types.  This is an arbitrary split, and you’ll probably need both perspectives at some point.

For poets:

Pacing is how you start sneaking poetry into fiction, without the heightened sense of language that might tip your hand to the reader that you’re being poetic.

Buffalo Bill ’s
defunct
               who used to
               ride a watersmooth-silver
                                                                  stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
                                                                                                     Jesus
he was a handsome man
                                                  and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

If you look at any given poem by e.e. cummings, for example, you can see that on every level, the poet makes choices such that the form of the poem–almost literally the appearance of the words on the page–reflects the content of the poem.

In fiction, this is called pacing.  In commercial fiction, you break fewer “rules” than you would here, but the spirit is the same.

Although it led the way to the twenty-first century, Moscow maintained the Victorian habit of traveling on iron wheels.  Kievsky Station, which was near the foreign ghetto and Brezhnev’s own apartment, pointed to the Ukraine. Belorussia Station, a short walk from the Kremlin, was where Stalin boarded the Czar’s train from Potsdam and, afterward, where Khrushchev and then Brezhnev boarded their special trains for Eastern Europe to inspect their satellites or to launch détente.  Rizhsky Station took you to the Baltic states.  Kursky Station suggested suntanned vacations on the Black Sea.  From the small Sabelovsky and Paveletsky stations no one worthwhile traveled–only commuters or hordes of farmers as dusty as potatoes.  Most impressive by far were Leningrad, Yaroslavl and Kazan station, the three giants of Komsomol Square, and the strangest of these was Kazan Station, whose Tartar tower capped a gateway that might take you thousands of kilometers to the deserts of Afghanistan, to the siding of a Ural prison camp, or all the way across two continents to the shore of the Pacific.

At 6 a.m. inside Kazan Station, entire Turkman families lay head to feet on benches.  Babies with felt skullcaps nestled on soft bundles. Soldiers leaned slackly against the wall in a sleep to tangibly deep that the heroic mosaics of the ceiling overhead could have been their communal dream.  Bronze fixtures glowed dully.  At the one refreshment stand open, a girl in a rabbit-skin coat confided in Pasha Pavlovich.

This is from Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, set in about 1981, the year it was published.  In other words, after the widespread use of the airplane.  The main character is a blunt detective type–and could be expected not to use the Oxford comma.

The first paragraph, all about where the trains go, is longer than the second, which is about people.  The first paragraph reflects how the POV character, the detective, is supposed to see Communist Russia; the second reflects how he sees the world around him when he’s not being monitored.  This is mainly effected by the pacing of the respective paragraphs.  More on that in a bit.

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Think Like A Librarian: Mockingbird Graphic Novels, by Chelsea Cain

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

The Mockingbird graphic novels, #1 and #2, written by Chelsea Cain and illustrated by Kate Niemczyk, are a short series of superhero comics in the Marvel universe (the same as the movies, but with a character that hasn’t appeared in any of the movies yet).  Anyone who has seen the first Avengers movie with probably have enough knowledge of how the Marvel universe works well enough to follow along.

Writer Chelsea Cain is best known for her serial killer/suspense novels in the Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell series, beginning with Heartsick.  

Most of graphic novels in the main Marvel and DC universes are played in all seriousness, not for laughs.  There are some exceptions; one of the more recent characters who consistently gets played for laughs is Deadpool, but comic characters tend to be overwhelmed by the Batmans, Supermans, Professor Xs, Magnetos, and so on.

The comic characters also tend to be idiots; it’s pretty easy to squeeze a laugh out of Deadpool that way.

As portrayed in these two graphic novels, Mocking bird is a comic, yet still brilliant, character.  She faces off, in the first collection, against a hospital bureaucracy that’s almost more puissant than the actual villains she faces as a superhero.  In the second collection, she’s up against powerful forces again, but between her and victory stand two conventions and a cruise ship, including lots of adorable corgis.

My recommendations here are for people who want some light, humerous reading in a graphic novel format.  I would caution that this is a series that fits in the greater Marvel universe, so you’re just going to have to let some of the references fly by.  I don’t recommend this series for most teens, not because of the subject matter or language (which is more hinted at than shown), but because of the faster, quippier level of humor.  However, if a reader can keep up with Deadpool graphic novels (which can be quite witty and satirical), I’d give it a try.

The character is a bit Mary-Sue-ish:  good things happen for her and she is extremely irreverent toward the men in her life, but nothing happens without complications, reactions, or challenges.

would some readers that the humor here treats very lightly of some very serious issues, including a rape that happens before the events of the story.

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Pacing, Part 2: Form and Content

At some point, the beginning writer starts to notice that different stories are different from each other.  They don’t all seem to follow the same rules.  For a while (and I’ve seen this a lot), the writer tries to stretch “their” system of writing to fit the basics to cover all possible variations.  This is where you start hearing people say that the monomyth (Joseph Campbell) covers every possible plot, it just has variations.

But the fact is, the Joseph Campbell monomyth was never meant to cover every possible story–it’s just a story that he noticed cropping up in most cultures.  It’s a common story, but it’s not the only possible one.

If you’ve ever wondered why almost every Hollywood movie seems the same these days, it’s because the Joseph Campbell monomyth plot template has been used to whip writers into shape for so long that it’s hard for a screenwriter not to use it.

In other words, the content of a story takes on the form of whatever is used to tell the story.  If a Joseph Campbell monomyth plot is imposed on a story, then that story resembles all other Joseph Campbell stories.

It’s a good story, very sound, very popular–but it’s not the only way of fitting form and content together.

So if the monomyth isn’t the only possible story out there (and I know some of you are going to be saying, “But…she hasn’t proven that it isn’t!”), how do you build a story?

I propose that we start with the smallest aspects first–bottom up rather than top down.

With pacing.

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