If you’re a writer of short fiction, you’re in good company. Each year, fiction magazines are inundated with thousands of story submissions from both new and established writers all over the world.
Unfortunately, 99% of those hopeful individuals receive rejection letters. You might be one of them, and you might be feeling a little discouraged by all the “thanks for submitting, but…” notes that keep showing up in your inbox. The pro-level markets set a high bar for the stories they choose to publish. If you want yours to be one of them, your writing can’t just be good. It has to be outstanding.
Interestingly, the same set of mistakes show up again and again in the stories I read for Clarkesworld magazine. So, let’s talk about one of the more common issues that might be interfering with you finding publishing success in the short fiction markets: pacing.
Macro- versus Micro-Pacing
Pacing refers to the speed and rhythm of a story as it moves from beginning to end, but pacing exists at different levels–the macro and the micro-level. They’re related, but they aren’t the same, and it’s important to understand the difference.
Macro-pacing (which may or may not be a real term) deals with big-picture, birds-eye-view stuff. How quickly are character goals established, conflicts introduced, obstacles overcome? In other words, how fast is the plot moving? Are events happening too quickly or too slowly? Are the story beats hitting at all the right moments? When these macro issues are working, a story seems to unfold effortlessly. Readers keep turning the pages because the pull to read more, to find out what’s going to happen next, is irresistible.
Micro-pacing (again, a term I may have made up) lives down at the sentence level. The term refers to which words you use, how many, and in what order you place them to convey essential information. It’s not about getting you from the beginning of a story to the end. Instead, micro-pacing is what gets you from one sentence to the next. Within a single scene or even a single paragraph, the writing needs to create a sense of forward momentum.
Pacing Issues Invite Rejection
Problems with macro-pacing tend to reveal themselves gradually, sometimes not until the last few pages of a submission. Micro-pacing issues, on the other hand, jump out quickly in stories, often in the first 250 words (first page). They’re like flashing red warning lights, and I’ll be honest with you. If a first-reader sees them in a submission, odds are good that the story will be rejected.
Most pro-market magazines like Clarkesworld get 1,000 to 1,200 story submissions every month. On average, only about 3% of submitted pieces get passed up the chain for consideration. Of those, only 5 or 10 make it to print. First-readers are highly selective. Editors, even more so. Give them a reason to stop reading, and they will.
A Quick & Easy Pacing Fix
The plot of your story could be incredible, the characters memorable, the setting ground-breaking. If micro-pacing issues are bogging down the narrative, none of that other stuff will matter. There are many such issues that red-flag a story for rejection. One that I see again and again is an overuse of participle phrases, especially in the context of dialogue tags.
A participle phrase is a word formed from a verb (e.g., walking, running, jumping, dancing) that is acting as an adjective in a sentence. Too often, new writers try to beef up the impact of weak nouns and verbs by slapping a bunch of adjectives onto them.
The insidiousness about participle phrases is that they don’t feel like adjectives. They feel like verbs. Writers think they’re creating action in a piece when they drop in a participle phrase. They aren’t. They’re doing the opposite. Consider the following example:
Shrugging her shoulders, Amanda’s mother said, “What are you mad at me for? You’re the one who can’t stand to be in the same room with him.”
“I never said that. Stop putting words in my mouth,” said Amanda, glaring at her.
In the above exchange, the phrases shrugging her shoulders and glaring at her are both acting as adjectives.
When attached to a dialogue tag, participle phrases are often clunky and unnecessary. In the above example, what purpose does either one serve? To show us that Amanda’s mother is being flippant and that Amanda is upset with her? Doesn’t the dialogue do that? Both are redundant from an information delivery standpoint. As such, they’re slowing the forward momentum of the scene. Look what happens when we cut them out.
Amanda’s mother said, “What are you mad at me for? You’re the one who can’t stand to be in the same room with him.”
“I never said that. Stop putting words in my mouth,” said Amanda.
All the essential information is still there for readers, but we’ve found a way to deliver it using fewer words. Here’s an alternative solution:
“What are you mad at me for? You’re the one who can’t stand to be in the same room with him.”
Amanda glared at her mother. “I never said that. Stop putting words in my mouth.”
Amanda is back to glaring at her mother, but this time the exchange flows better. The writing pulls the reader forward in a way it didn’t in the original version, so what’s changed?
In the first version, Amanda glares while she speaks. The two things are happening simultaneously. In the last version, Amanda glares and then speaks. They are two separate actions occurring in a distinct sequence. That creates a sense of forward flow. Instantly, the pacing has improved.
Try This Exercise
Grab a marker and a piece of your own writing. Highlight every participle phrase you find and ask yourself, can this be eliminated without losing essential information? If so, cut it out and rejoice. If not, try to rewrite the sentence in a way that reclaims the verb word in the phrase (like we did in the third and final example above).
If the goal is publication, your story must be perfectly paced at both the macro- and micro-level. Avoiding an overuse of participle phrases is a quick way to improve the pacing of your writing and bring you one step closer to achieving that goal. Give it a try and see what happens, and once you have, tell us how it went in the comments!
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