In creative writing, how do you know if the pace of your writing is too slow or too fast? How do you find the right rate for your story to unfold?
I have never felt that the pacing was wrong in any book I read.
I have read books that contained boring parts that I skipped; for example, lengthy backstory, especially the worldbuilding backstory in fantasy, or endless rumination on the part of the characters in a love story. I am interested in the protagonists and what they do, so everything that is not relevant to that is boring to me and I skip it. But I never felt that these parts were too slow, only that these parts were not relevant to (my perception) of the story: for example, I don't need to know the pantheon of a fictional world to understand the motivation of the hero; I don't need a detailed description of every room in which the hero fights for his life; and I want to be allowed to have my own thoughts and emotions about a romance that I witness, not be forced to slavishly follow every anxiety of the heroine.
So, when I read, I feel that the pacing is right when the writer only writes what is really relevant to the story.
When I write, I don't care about pacing at all. I follow the story as it unfolds. When the hero is relaxed and has time to look around, I let her look around. When the hero needs to think about something, I let her think. When the hero wants to do something, I let her do it. And when she does something, I describe what she does, and not what she would have seen had she been relaxed. When she's relaxed and doing nothing, I don't describe the idling of her mind.
I feel, the pacing (whatever that is) of the story is right, if you get into your story and feel what it is about at any given moment. And write that.
If you write a children's book, become the child and go through the story as the child, looking at, experiencing, and behaving as a child would – and your pacing will be appropriate for a children's book. If you write an action thriller, get yourself into that dangerous situation and "see" what you would see if you had to fight for your survival. And so on. Let your story tell you what it needs, or rather, get into your story, become your protagonist, and feel what is going on and describe that. Do not describe what a bystander would see, or someone who is unaware of what is going on.
When I ask you to follow your story, I don't mean the chronology of the observable events. Think of the beginning of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club: the protagonist-narrator has a loaded gun put in his mouth. Definitely a moment that in the average action thriller is "fast paced". Yet, the moment is "paused" and the story continues somewhere in the past that led up to this moment, before the rest of the moment is allowed to unfold. Thinking in terms of "pacing", Palahniuk breaks the pace. But does it feel wrongly paced to the reader? Not to me.
When I tell you to follow your story, I mean the opposite of looking on from outside and narrating it as a chronicler would. The logic of a story is not necessarily chronological. You are the logic of your story. You are its organizing principle. Usually you will not even understand what your story is about, rationally, completely, but you will have a strong and definite visceral feeling for what the story is. So trust your intuition and let the story unfold as it will.
The pacing will be right if you don't interfere.
There is definitely a sweet spot between too fast and too slow, and if you find it, you may have commercial success.
This is a separate issue from the length of the book, which incorporates a whole different set of variables.
Symptoms your book is progressing too quickly:
There is a lack of character development: Characters appear without background. They may have new powers without an explanation. They progress in relationships in an unbelievable fashion.
The story is choppy: How did we get from A to B? Where did Cassandra go? Now we're fighting dragons; how'd we get past the goblins?
The average reader might zone out a few seconds here and there. Do they get jarred and jostled around? Meaning, does action build, or does it explode without warning?
Time gaps are necessary from scene to scene in most books, but books moving too quickly with timeline will leave the reader with the sense of How did that happen?
Symptoms your book is moving too slowly:
You write a chapter without any dialogue.
You write a chapter getting you no closer to your climax. People who spend money on fiction want to be entertained more so than informed. Ideally you can do both, but one must be cautious about information dumps.
Your introductory chapters are longer than your average chapter. This will usually work itself out in the editing process, but our tendencies as writers is to show how clever we are at Worldbuilding.
You find rereading your book boring and tedious. You may eventually get sick of it as you get into query, and you've now done 3-5 rounds of complete edits, but boring? There is nothing wrong with saying, "This chapter sucks," and deleting it. Try it; it's fun.