Essay–Pace, Pacing, Paced

The Black is the first book I’ve written that has sold a ton of copies. It’s also the first story of mine to have 45 reviews on Amazon.com. I know I shouldn’t look at the reviews. I know I shouldn’t. But I do. I can’t help myself.

There have been a few that have driven me crazy. I read them, I blink, I read them again, and they still make no sense. There are others, however, that burrow into my brain. I make those mea culpa notes to myself and figure I’ll do better next time. It’s too late to “fix” this book in any way, shape or form. The damned thing, for better or worse, is out there in the world. So all I can do is try and carry any lessons I learn into the next effort.

Writing, music, visual art, and etc are all complex animals in the way they are consumed and enjoyed. It’s impossible for someone to create something that everyone in the universe will love. But rest assured, everyone has a reason for loving or hating art. And I use the term “art” loosely, especially when speaking of my own work. But enough of that. I have something else on my mind.

The Black is the second novel I’ve written that is a “slow burn.” Closet Treats was the first. If you’re not sure what I mean by “slow burn,” I’ll put it in very simple terms. Those two books were written as thrillers. They both start with lengthy introductions to the characters and the occasional tweak of the fear bone. They are both designed to build suspense and grab a reader’s attention until the roller coaster finishes climbing that first real hill. After that? It’s on. And they move. Fast.

But how the hell do you make sure your riders aren’t bored while climbing that first hill? How do you balance the proverbial need for speed versus the need to build suspense? And how do you make it work for everyone?

Simple: you don’t. From the various comments I’ve seen, the suspense build up worked, and yet it didn’t. Some readers found it too slow. Others found the book too damned short. What gives here?

Like I said, you can’t make everyone happy. If the book failed for the majority of those writing the reviews, I’d guess you could say I screwed the pooch. Instead, it appears I hit the sweet spot for some and failed for many others. Oh well.

So what do I do next? Keep writing.

There are some tricks I can use in the next book. They’re not really “tricks” so much as literary devices to provide more foreshadowing, more tension from the get-go. And perhaps I can stoke the imagination so that folks desperately want to find out what happens past the “boring” chapters.

A little more foreshadowing. A little more bumps in the road early on. A little more conflict on page 3. Blah blah blah… And yet I still won’t please everyone. Fine, whatever. As I’ve worked on The Black audiobook, I’ve noticed things I could have done to make it move faster. I read. I study. I write. I publish. I start the whole process over again.

I’ll get better at all of this. Hell, every book has been an improvement on the last. With that in mind, maybe I’ll finish the perfect novel on my death bed. And there will still be some person out there that doesn’t care for it. And that’s reality, kids. As long as “most” of the audience likes it (3 stars or better), then I guess I’m doing something right. Hopefully, I’ll keep doing that “something.” I’m sure as hell trying.

6 comments on “Essay–Pace, Pacing, Paced
  1. In The Black, during the opening chapters, I think you lent the rig a firm air of “this is a bad place for something horrific to happen.” Distance from the shore, storm coming, and a crew who aren’t ready to get along. With that gesture you promise me something horrific WILL take place. That’s not boring at all as long as you follow through, which I think you did.

    The skill that you develop in trying different approaches to building tension, dread and suspense is, in part, the skill of threading the strange and the mundane. In the mundane (for example, in the early part of the Black) there are motes of strangeness that can be evoked from character idiosyncrasy and setting. This does wonders in setting tone, for the character sphere but it also bleeds some color into the setting and overall narrative. It’s also difficult. I’m not very good at it yet.

    And in the strange, when the tension is rising due to horrific circumstance, keeping the mundane as an anchor: the frailty of the human body, how a “safety lock” could pose a great danger under certain circumstances, or how an otherwise boring object or scene now looks utterly different when seen through the eyes of panic. Just some examples, there.

    In future works I think you’ll continue to develop and notice ways of seeding the build-up with small reader rewards: subtle warnings such as character flaws that could become a problem under the right (wrong?) circumstances.

    Also, you can’t make a thick or inattentive reader any smarter or sharper. Focus on working with finesse and refining your ideas and you’ll pull in the kind of fans you want coming back and appreciating your writing.

    • Paul Cooley says:

      Thank you, sir. Appreciate the comments. I’m working on the paraquel now and putting a lot of these little mea culpas in. The, um, climax of this particular story is going to be epic. Might make The Black look a little pedestrian by comparison.

      • I listened through the beginning of Closet Treats this week (nearly halfway through, I listen at work) and I’d say your ability to economize description of both character and setting has improved. With The Black I feel like I’m getting the most interesting and relevant bits of character and setting detail, which is keeping me engaged. Definitely on board for the next one.

        • Paul Cooley says:

          Closet Treats is certainly a different kind of book. Psychological horror requires a much closer study of the characters. Some of my readers wish I would get back to writing that kind of horror. And no doubt I will, at some point. But yes, I think I’ve grown as a writer. CT is nearly four years old, so I’ve had a lot of time to improve.

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