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Ideal Pace

Updated: Mar 9

What is it with people at self-checkout registers in grocery stores?

While I stand in line holding my one or two items I must watch people in front of me at the self-checkout machines empty entire grocery carts as they're under the influence of a powerful sedative, struggling to lift each item one at a time from their cart to the scanner, eventually getting the machine to recognize it, and then expending great effort placing the scanned item in one of their carryout bags before managing to stand upright again and turn around to reach for their next item, pointing a finger at each one as if trying to decide which to pick.

I try not to judge people because I want to be a nice person. But then the next customer in line behaves in the very same manner. Then I notice that all the customers at the self-checkout registers are under the same bizarre spell.

This also happens at the local Post Office. Ten people wait in line to be helped by a postal worker while three other registers sit unattended behind the check-in counter. The customer at the counter tells the worker about her pets and her grandchildren. The two of them act like long-lost friends who have finally found each other again. The line of people must become acquainted with the customer's life as the postal worker eventually processes the customer’s packages.

What’s even more surprising to me is the next customer in line behaves in the self-same fashion. This astonishes me because when I finally get to the front of the line, I do my business in about 7.5 seconds before getting out of everyone else’s way.

Why do people appear to be utterly oblivious? How is it possible for so many to be unaware of anyone’s existence other than their own?

What happened to the society-wide need for greatly increased sensitivity? Why does this new, almost pathological level of awareness turn off the moment people get their way?

This question causes me considerable concern because isn’t caring and awareness intertwined? Aren't we more aware of what matters to us the most, and less aware of what doesn’t matter?

We’ve heard the notion, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Is this what happens when people finally get what they want? They forget what they went through to get there, and stop recognizing the existence of people they were with a moment before?

What does all this have to do with writing? Everything. Authors must be intimately aware of the thoughts, feelings, and wishes of many thousands of people they have never met.

The metronome

I was in a vocal quartet for a time. We rehearsed weekly for months prior to each performance because we wanted to sound good. At one point I noticed a metronome on the piano of our accompanist. I had learned from thirty years of playing the trombone that musicians often have difficulty keeping a steady, consistent pace during performances, so I suggested we practice using the metronome to make sure we weren't speeding up or slowing down during our singing.

That was a mistake. The metronome didn’t do a good job of keeping time at all, but instead sped up or slowed down randomly throughout our songs. This frustrated us so much that we stopped using the evil device.

But the metronome wasn’t wrong. We had taught ourselves to sing our songs without a good awareness of time.

Or, was it that we had a sense that the most important parts of the song deserved more time while the lesser important parts deserved less time? We’ll leave the answer to that question to the critics.

Magicians, musicians, comedians, jugglers, leaders, and orators

Effective entertainers and public speakers must know their audiences, meaning they should know what their customers feel, want, and understand.

One reason people get nervous in front of others is the fear that what they have to offer may not meet the audience's needs and understanding.

This is a good sign because it means we care about other people’s feelings and wishes. I hope that if people are afraid to be in front of large crowds, it’s because they care deeply about those they're going to speak to.

To keep a steady pace, you must keep an unsteady pace

Pace is a critical part of fiction. A steady pace helps keep readers glued to the page. The idea is to have them start reading right after dinner and then keep them going until well after two in the morning because they lost track of time.

Many authors have a sense that the most important parts of a story deserve the most space on the page, while the lesser important bits are given fewer words or are omitted entirely. Thus,

"The more important the passage,

the more time spent on it."

But there’s another reason for speeding up and slowing down the story. During the more important passages, the reader’s sense of time speeds up (“time flies”). To counteract this psychological speed-up, the amount of time the reader spends reading such passages should be increased, or the experience will feel rushed.

Likewise, the lesser important passages feel drawn out, so their pace on the page should be sped up.

If the timing is right, your story’s varied pace will match your readers’ sense of time, and the reader will feel an equal pace throughout the story. When this happens, the reader will finish your story quickly and then long for the next one.

This is accomplished through lots of practice and experimentation. Writing ten short stories will serve you better than writing one novel, as you'll be better able to get feedback from people on a greater number of stories.

Timing is one reason why the first page of any story is often the most difficult to write. Spend too much time setting up your story and your readers will get bored. Spend too little time on it and your story will be trivialized.

I’m afraid the difference between too many words and too few words is very small—perhaps down to one or two. I read once that,

“A good short story with one extra word

is a bad short story.”

I think of this whenever I write anything, even when composing business emails at work.

Here’s another thought. For every sentence in your story, ask yourself:

“Is this sentence worth the reader’s time?”

These thoughts have caused me to delete more sentences from my stories than any other.

At the self-check-out registers

Don’t be like the people at the front of the line. Be the opposite of them. Cultivate an acute awareness of the people around you. Try to perceive how they feel, what they want, and what they understand.

Be like the person who “gets people,” who is unassuming and listens. This will help you write better because you’ll develop a sense of what's attractive and what isn’t. You’ll have your finger on the pulse of society.

“You got all this from pace?” you ask.

Yes. This is how important it is and how broadly it affects all aspects of writing, along with every other part of your life:

  • When you’re making a point in an office meeting.

  • When you’re trying to resolve a conflict between family members.

  • When you’re trying to keep anyone’s attention, including the girl you’re dating.

Moby Dick

Below is an example of the expert use of pace in literary fiction by Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. The paragraph takes place on the morning of the second day of a three-day chase of the White Whale. This paragraph occurs on page 454 of the 469-page novel, so readers have been waiting a very long time for this moment. Melville knows that his readers have invested considerable time by this point in the story, so he extends the moment to allow his readers to bask in and relish the scene until they are fully satisfied.

The following is one example of thousands within Moby Dick, where more time is devoted to something that ordinarily wouldn’t call for as many words.

Instead of writing,

“On the second morning, the men prepared again to catch the White Whale.”

Melville writes,

“They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things—oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp—yet all these ran into each other in the one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man’s valor, that man’s fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.”

Moby Dick, Herman Melville

A stitch in time

Here is one of the oft-most cited proverbial phrases of its time, first published by Thomas Fuller in 1732 (making it 290 years old):

“A stitch in time may save nine.”

Meaning, “mending a hole in a fabric right away may prevent more mending work later on.” Notice the word, “may.” The entitlement craze of guaranteed immediate gratification wasn’t as strong back then. The phrase wasn’t changed to “A stitch in time saves nine” until 1797 by Francis Baily. Maybe Mr. Baily was the grandfather of the Me Now generation.

Making adjustments in timing along the way in all aspects of your life, including in your writing, may pay huge dividends later on. Unless you're already part of the Me Now generation, in which case it's too late for you because you already know everything.

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