Monday, November 28, 2011

Notes on Craft: Tension

I love stories, whether they’re told by mouth, expressed through song, or acted out on film.  But more than anything, I love books.  I suppose the one feature that makes books different from these other genres is the pace at which the story unfolds.  I can read a book at whatever pace I choose.  Some books are only good enough for short bathroom breaks, while others are so well written I can barely put it down long enough to get my chores done.  So what’s the difference between them?  What makes a book a page-turner?

There are many elements that make up a good story.  While characters may or may not be likeable, they must be vivid and dynamic.  Dialogue must snap with electricity and be free of accompanying actions that bog down the pace.  Every scene must crackle with both inner and outer conflict conveyed through specific and identifiable turning points.  Setting must come alive not through eloquent writing, but through how the characters wrestle with their emotional ties to it.  The voice, more than just syntax, should sing clearly in detail and delivery, articulating a belief system and personal perspective while overwhelming the reader with authority and relieving us of skepticism.  So how does a writer accomplish each of these?  That’s easy.  Through tension.

As writers, we understand that a story has ebb and flow, a cycle of ups and downs.  But you cannot construct a story that is always on the upswing.  A reader cannot appreciate such an upswing unless there is a downswing with which to contrast it to.  And in order to keep the reader’s attention through a downswing, you must maintain tension.  Literary agent, Donald Maass, calls this micro-tension in his book “The Fire in Fiction.”  In it he says:

Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story, but in the next few seconds.

Maass portends that micro-tension is vital in all aspects of a novel, whether it be in dialogue, in action sequences, or in exposition.  And more importantly, “micro-tension...comes from emotions, and not just any old emotions, but conflicting emotions.” 

Dialogue in a novel should never be truly natural, which is often stilted with interruptions.  If dialogue in a novel were written naturally, we would all be bored to death, wondering if the speaker was ever going to get around to his or her point.  Maass writes, “In dialogue, it’s not the information itself, but the doubt about the facts and the skepticism of the deliverer.”  It is “emotional, not intellectual,” that as readers, “we don’t want to know if the debate will settle the point of contention, but whether the debaters will reconcile.”   Also important, dumping information via dialogue only works “if it is infused with tension, and even then, it must be a tug-of-war.”  

This element of emotion is equally important in action.  Emotion, especially contrasting emotion, is what provides energy for each scene.  The same can be said for exposition, where the use of conflicting emotion keeps the reader involved.  They want and need to know if the characters will resolve their conflict.  This is where we learn of their “contradictions, dilemmas, opposing impulses, and clashing ideas…It puts the character’s heart and mind in peril,” explains Maass.

One area in a novel that frequently looses steam due to a lack of tension is backstory.  This is at its worst when backstory is used up front, before the story even has a chance to get started.  We lose interest simply because we don’t care about all those bits the author thinks we need to know in order for the story to make sense.  James Scott Bell calls this a first page mistake and warns never to front load with backstory, noting it will only serve to stall instead.  Maass contends that backstory may be added as long as it is not the point.  The point, he says, “is to set up the conflict of emotions and inner tension.”  He suggests using the past to create present conflict, that this will “stir curiosity to find out what will happen.

So while tension is not the only aspect of a successful page-turner, it is of primary importance.  After reading “The Fire in Fiction,” I read through my own manuscript.  For the most part, I did have tension is every paragraph, but I where it lagged, I pumped it up using the techniques described in Maass’s book.  I highly recommend it as a necessary tool on craft for every writer. 

Read through your own manuscript.  Is tension present in every chapter, paragraph, or sentence? 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Giving Thanks!

            I had another post planned for today, but since it’s a short week, I thought I’d take this time to share what I’m most thankful for instead, aside from my family. 
First off, thank you to all those who offered me advice on last week’s post.  It has helped me a great deal.  Even more thanks to Lora Rivera for suggesting The Poisonwood Bible in her comment, and to Julie Musil for her post on the book, Hate List.  Both recommendations have helped me decide on how to proceed with my WIP.

Then there’s you, my followers and fellow writer-bloggers.  As writers, we know this is a rather lonely avocation, but we feel pulled toward it regardless.  Lucky for our generation, we have the Internet and Blogger, or whatever service you use, to connect with folks you’d normally never have the opportunity to connect with.  But just because they’re there, doesn’t mean there is automatically a connection.  You have to work at it.  And it’s not always easy either.  So for what it’s worth, I’d like to say how grateful I am that you’ve all allowed me to make that connection with you.  I feel blessed to have so many other writers who are willing to share, teach, advise, or just talk with me.  What would have been lonely is now anything but.  So thank you!  I really don’t think I could do this without you.
            Within my group of online acquaintances, I’ve made quite a few honest-to-God friends, people who exchange manuscripts with me and others who enjoy exchanging emails.  There’s even one writer I get to interact with in person!  *GASP*  Her name is Jennifer Hillier.  I won a signed copy of her book, Creep, last summer and quickly became a fan, but what’s even more remarkable is that we actually became friends.

She lives an hour away, so from time to time, we meet up somewhere in the middle and have lunch and chat about all things writing.  Since the Seattle Puget Sound Area is not exactly the friendliest place on earth, I was grateful just to have a new friend, but even more so since she was a fellow writer, and even more because we write in the same genre, so we understand each other in ways others may not.  But alas, as is my luck, Jenny is moving back to her home town and country, Toronto, Canada.  This saddens me more than I can say, but I’m grateful just to have met her and feel privileged to call her my friend.  That won’t change just because she’s moving away.

(God, I wish I had a picture of us together!)

            Last, but certainly not least, I am eternally grateful to God for bringing Lisa Regan  into my life.  Sure, she is a fellow writer, and even writes in the same genre, but what we share is so much more intense and profound than just our writing.  We share our lives, the nitty gritty, the happiest of moments, and everything in between.  Yes, it began as a critiquing partnership and I can honestly say we have helped each other become better writers, but even though we’ve never actually met in person, Lisa knows me better than just about any human being on the face of the earth, save my husband.  Then again, she knows things even he does not.  *Shhh*  I know I couldn’t have survived the insanity that is my life without her.  I love her like an identical twin sister.
            So for you, my followers and fellow writers, for Jenny and for Lisa, I am incredibly thankful and I want the world, or anyone who is interested anyway, to know just how much.



Monday, November 14, 2011

In Search of a Little Writerly Advice

So I’m super busy this week and don’t have much time to write or visit until later, but I wanted to ask you all for a little advice.  When you’re starting on a new project, a new book, how do you choose the point of view?  What’s your process?  I know a lot of you write YA and so first person is the preferable choice.  I feel the same way and greatly enjoy those adult thrillers written in the first person. That’s why I wrote my first novel in first person.  But now that I’m starting out on my second book, the choice isn’t nearly as clear. 
My first book was primarily about two people, so I chose to write in their voices.  This time around, however, it’s proving a little more difficult.  I really want to write about the whole family involved in this story, not just because I need all their POVs to tell the story, but rather because they each play a distinct role in how the story plays out, yet they are each unaware of the other’s role.  So they’ll each be holding onto their own pieces of the puzzle and will play each one according to who does what before them. 
So my question is this, because this story is such an emotional one, I wanted to tell it in first person, but I worry about having four voices and hopping back and forth between them.  Not that I haven’t seen this done, because I have, but I worry that it will be difficult for me as a still-unpublished-author to get this story publish.
Since the story starts out with one of the four main characters—the antagonist— having a mental and emotional breakdown and being hospitalized, I thought of just having the story unfold during therapy, but not just for him—for all of his family, since his problem is related to the family dynamic.  This can be supplemented through journaling, as well, and all the details are revealed to the therapist treating her patient and his family as a whole.  But once the main conflict is revealed, the action will be in real-time, so to speak.  Not in flashbacks, memories, or recollections. 
Or I can use the old standby and write in the third person from all four POVs.  But then again, I worry about all that head-hopping.  And since the conflict originates years in the past, I don’t want to tell the story in a purely linear fashion, but rather slightly out of sequence so the details can build until the story reaches the present day and the reader learns how the sins of the past have affected those living in the present.  
So I know most of you don’t write or perhaps even read adult thrillers, but I’d be interested in what you think.  How would you tackle it?  What is your process for choosing POV and revealing a series of events over a very long period of time while trying to keep everything in the moment?  Have you ever had to tackle a story like this?  

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fiction vs. Reality

            I’ve been ruminating a lot lately about the market for adult thrillers.  This is something my friend, Lisa Regan, and I have talked about many times, as she also writes in the genre along with me.  Her book, Finding Claire Fletcher, has been on submission for thirteen months just waiting for a home.  And while it is still in the running with three major publishers, in the time she has been on submission, she’s seen few titles close to our genre sell besides cozy murder mysteries, which I just don’t understand.  Murder is anything but cozy.  It’s difficult to figure out why good thrillers aren’t selling when forensic TV shows are so popular and thrillers are a favorite in the movie theater.  So why aren’t adults buying and reading thrillers much any more? 
            Yeah, we have the same old, same old from the tried and true like Patterson and Cornwell, but publishers aren’t biting from newbies much these days.  A couple of editors who turned down Lisa’s book said they couldn’t believe that a young kidnapped girl wouldn’t try to escape her captor.  Uh, hello?  Ever heard of Elizabeth Smart?  Does Jaycee Dugard ring a bell?  Their true-life stories were more horrific than anyone could have ever imagined or written, and they didn’t try to escape.  That’s real life and it harkens back to that saying that life is stranger than fiction.  I’m beginning to think that it’s the selling of reality as entertainment that is desensitizing us to what might otherwise thrill us.
About a decade or so ago, the Writer’s Guild of America went on strike for better residual compensation.  That strike lasted a long time and the big TV networks had to come up with an idea to replace the scripted programs affected by the striking writers.  This is when we first started seeing a glut of reality TV programming.  And I’m not talking about shows like America’s Most Wanted or Cops.  I mean shows like Survivor, which were good ideas based on the question, “What if…?”  They were interesting and marked the first time Americans became fixated with other relatively unknown Americans, people whose lives were transformed overnight.  This was the beginning of our obsession with being famous. 
Since then, a plethora of reality programs have come onto the market, but these aren’t “What if…?” kind of shows.  They are simply tapings of average folks doing their thing, whatever that is.  It might be buying unseen junk left abandoned in a public storage unit, or maybe a mother’s consumption with getting her three-year-old daughter every pageant tiara in existence, or watching a Nazi-like dance instructor bully her students into performing better, or perhaps even following the lives of the relatively unknown, but totally spoiled step-children of former star athletes.  Whatever it is, these shows are all supposedly unscripted.  No writers had any part in the performances of the participants.  Yeah seriously, you couldn’t make that stuff up.  And frankly, would you really want to?  Quality it is not.
This fascination with reality TV has skewed the way we seek entertainment.  Gone are the days when we were fascinated by a story where dinosaurs are reanimated from DNA strands extracted from insects entombed in crystallized amber, or where an average married man is drawn into the intrigue of a long lost lover come back to haunt him.  It’s all about fame these days, about how a former Playboy bunny married a famous football star and had a baby, or the daughter of a prolific TV producer reflecting on her life as a “poor little rich girl,” or *gasp* an actual novel—yes that means fiction, baby—written by an overly indulged young woman whose drunken and promiscuous antics have proven fodder for public disdain. 
Man, do I ever crave a good, action and emotion-packed adult thriller where the protagonist has to overcome unbelievable odds to save his life and win the girl, where the woman FBI agent has to battle the misogynistic status quo just to get her boss to believe she knows what the hell she’s doing and can solve the serial murder case, where a newly-engaged, sex-addicted college professor goes head to head with her former student-lover who’s kidnapped her, or where a grief-stricken man seeks revenge on the woman who killed his pregnant wife only to discover he’s victimized the wrong woman, imperiling not only her life, but his own and his brother’s, as well.
Yes, I want reality, too.  I want real life, down and dirty and gritty.  But I also want real people.  Not homespun wannabe stars.  Real, authentic heroes who might be anything but, yet they still soldier on and at least try to save the day.           

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

IWSG: Dreams vs. Expectations

Today is another entry in

            I’ve been following a common thread lately in some of my favorite blogs.  It expands on an ideal most writers postulate:  Getting published will make me happy.  What’s not to believe about this statement?  This is our ultimate goal, is it not?  We write.  We edit.  We query.  We submit.  We get published…maybe.  We know the road is laced with potholes of disappointment, but we believe in ourselves and our stories, so we carry on. 
Keep the dream alive!  Yeah!!

            But what if the dream is not what we expect it to be?  I first pondered this a few weeks ago after having lunch with my friend, Jennifer Hillier, author of Creep.  Not only do I hold Jenny in high esteem for her talent and skill, she is someone I relate to on a personal level.  We’re both women writers who write similar stories in the same genre, and we live near each other, so we chat about writing and blogging and books and all that sort of thing. 
            At the time of our most recent lunch date, Jenny was in the final throes of her last edit before sending her latest manuscript, Freak, off to her agent and editor.  She expressed what a brutally difficult experience it was, nothing like the first time when she wrote Creep.  She lamented that it would never be as enjoyable as it was that first time around.  She was under contract now and had deadlines and expectations to meet.  As I listened to her, I couldn’t help but think of that old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.  You just might get it!
            Then on October 17th, Natalie Whipple wrote a blog post she called Smelling the Roses. Or Whatever wherein she bemoaned how obsessed she had been over the last five years with getting published.  More than merely driven, but rather “maybe more like desperate,” she wrote.  She said she had put all her “feelings of self-worth into publishing” and she “would never, ever be happy if I didn't sell a book.”  Then, almost immediately, Natalie said that selling her book, Transparent, didn’t make her happy after all.  It seems that publishing wasn’t all she had expected it to be, that in the end, it’s really all about the writing—the book itself—not the publishing of it. 
            On Tuesday (November 1st), Rachelle Gardner wrote a post called Writing Ain’t Easy.  In it, she wrote about one of her less-experienced writer friends who wondered if her “lack of confidence would dissipate as she gets more experienced in writing,” to which another, more experienced writer friend replied, “The complete lack of confidence will likely persist and even become worse as you progress.
So, in other words, unlike most jobs where people become better and more comfortable the longer they perform their tasks, writing will always be difficult.  It will always be rife with insecurities and self-doubt.  Even my blogger friend Joylene Nowell Butler commented on my Bad News Isn’t Always a Bad Thing post last week, saying, “One day there is that sale, and while you believe wholeheartedly that your life is about to change forever, it's not in the way you think.” 
I’m getting the message that having my book published might not live up to my lofty expectations.  It might not make me feel any better as a writer.  It might not make me feel successful.  And, in and of itself, it might not be what makes me happy.  Writers who have had the same dreams that I have, and who have achieved them, now tell me it only gets harder, and I might not ever feel what it is I want to feel when I’m done.
But I suppose writing is like anything else.  When we reach our goal, we bask in our success for a short time then move on to something else, a new thing that will challenge us, that we can enjoy for the sheer effort.  Being totally satisfied means not having the need to accomplish something else.  Well, that’s not me.  I am many things, but static is not one of them.  So maybe I’m a bit jaded now, but at least I know what to expect.  Or what not to expect anyway.