A lifetime ago I ran the NYC marathon. I wasn’t a runner, in fact I ran my first three miles just nine months before the race, but somewhere along the line I got it my head that I was going to conquer 26.2 miles. And I did. With no coaching beyond a book and only my dog for a trainer I went for it.
The one thing I struggled with throughout my training, and throughout the race, was my pacing. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t seem to find my sweet spot. I always started off too fast and petered out quickly. At times I could do nothing but walk and then I would launch into a sprint just before reaching a crowd of people (it was important to impress). At the end I was barely functioning and while most runners can finish that last 2-3 miles strong I was limping along, completely worn out and chanting, “slow and steady wins the race.” The problem is that I could never master steady. Slow I was a champ at.
Pacing for a marathon is not that much different from pacing your book. Starting off too fast with too much action sends the reader shooting out of the gate, but keeping up that pace is almost impossible. At some point you need to slow things down, introduce characters and build a plot. At that point the reader is tired and confused.
With too slow of a start you feel like you’re constantly trying to catch up. You aren’t making the times you wanted, but if you speed up to make up for lost time you’re going to lose your pace and lose even more time in the end. The same with a book. If your pacing is too slow you lose the reader, you might try to catch up, but the reader at that point has already closed the book.
Pacing needs to be steady, sometimes you’ll hit a hill and you’ll have to push a little harder to get up or might speed up a little on the down, but overall you’re building, slowly (but not too slowly) and steadily to that big crescendo at the end.