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Margo Reveals What it’s like inside a ROR Crit Week!

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on February 6, 2012

From Margo …

A Deepening ROR—a wRiters On the Rise workshop, from the inside

That's where we were circled in red

First there’s a bit of foreplay. Someone pipes up online: “When’s the next ROR?” Someone at the other end of the country: “I’ll have a novel draft ready by about January; how’s everyone else set?” And all the ROR-ettes speak up one by one, with their first or later drafts that are in synch, or the obligations or health issues or financial limitations or lacks of work-in-progress that’ll keep them away this time.

ROR meets roughly every 18 months to 2 years; I haven’t been able to get to the last couple of retreats but when this one was mooted, I decided that I had a chance, if I went hell for leather during November-December, of getting a super-rough first draft of my colonial NSW fantasy written for ROR’s perusal for the end of January workshop.

Tansy and Andrew scoped out Steele’s Island Accommodation; we discussed timing and settled on the weekdays 30 Jan-3 Feb, because the place is booked out with weddings most weekends.

All went quiet for a while. I dealt with Sea Hearts copyedits and proofs, wrote stories for Twelfth Planet Press, judged the Australian/Vogel’s Award, wound up my time on the Literature Board talked at the Brisbane Writers Festival, launched two other writers’ books, day-jobbed 3 days a week and, by the looks of the calendar, dined with a lot of different people. Clearly I didn’t scratch myself; there wouldn’t have been time.

On 1 November I started writing the draft of Formidable Energies. I registered with Nanowrimo, because I wanted some company, and besides, they have this neat graph that you can use to track your progress against the ideal path towards the 50K words. I like a neat graph, and I’d never make one for myself. Generally I’m not wordcount obsessive; this time, though, I definitely had to achieve a book’s worth.

It was lonely, exhilarating, hilarious, keeping up the pace, papering over the chasms in my research, blithely charging on, jumping in and out of the story, going from jam scene to jam scene and ignoring any bread-and-butter bits, but trying to keep it coherent enough for my ROR friends to be able to see what I was getting at, the nature of this beast.

I didn’t have the know-how, about Celtic gods, about Irish language, customs, culture and history—and only a 20-year-old history degree to help me with the convict ships, penal law and early colonial Sydney. I researched as I went just so I could picture enough setting in which to tell the tale. Perhaps this research was the most fun. I prowled around the State Library, requesting old travel books on Ireland and copying useful pages onto the iPad. I learned so much during that month—but most of all I learned what huge gaps existed in my knowledge, and the enormous job I might have on my hands if I ever went at the research properly.

And I knuckled down and wrote. Here’s my completed Nanowrimo graph, to give you the bare bones of the story of my month:

I was happy with that. I booked my ticket to Hobart. I wrote on for another 2 weeks into December, and managed a draft of 45K, which took the story from (what I imagined was the) beginning to (one possible) end. Manuscripts began to fly between email boxes. I did what pulling-together of the draft I could, wrote some explanatory/apologetic notes to cover the worst breaks, trailings-off and confused bits, took a deep breath and sent it off to my ROR-mates.

There was a flurry of communication as we sorted out accommodation moneys. Then came silence as we read each other’s drafts; that’s a lonely stage too, that one, keeping your opinions to yourself, addressing comments to an unresponsive screen, worrying that you haven’t quite captured what you felt about this character or that piece of plot logic, or that you haven’t phrased it helpfully. Weeks, it takes, reading five novels and assembling meaningful critiques.

Departure date loomed. I anguished a bit more over my reports, then saved them, printed them out for good measure and started packing.

The view up the estuary

Steele’s Island Accommodation: the perfect place for a writers’ workshop. Huge spaces for meeting and lounging in, more rooms and beds than we could fill, even with half our families along. Outside, a river-beach to stride along to the sea, a wooded hill across the water, waves and mountains in the distance, weather pouring across the sky. Only a few distant holidaymakers reminded us that there was a world beyond ROR. And the landscape showed that this was once an extremely popular place to feast on oysters. We kept to that tradition, at least.

Steeles Island Midden

But aak!, Formidable Energies was scheduled for the first critique session in the morning, and I hadn’t thought about it for six weeks—how would anyone’s comments make sense to me? So after the welcome dinner, deep into the first night and early in the morning I went over it again, reacquainting myself with its wild ambitions, its flights of fancy, its longueurs and its pathological avoidance of any form of action on the part of its main character.

Then on the Tuesday morning, all those weeks of solitary work suddenly blossomed into community, and made perfect sense. My story, which had seemed so stale and stuck, sketchy and hopeless, suddenly loosened, lightened and took flight on contact with the possibilities brought to it by my colleagues. From feeling as if I couldn’t progress without wearing amounts of research and tedious clunky plot-making, I went in the space of 2 hours to being excited about the many, many ways this story could go, the means by which I could get my main man moving, the significance I could bring to the powers plaguing him, both in Ireland and the new land. I saw the way forward; I saw several ways forward. I couldn’t wait to get back to the ms. and try out these ideas.

Just as good, if not so directly personally affecting, were the rest of the critique sessions. I would come out of the 2 x 2-hour sessions almost unable to think straight, I’d absorbed so much as I listened to Rowena, Richard, Dirk, Tansy and Maxine’s encounters with the same manuscripts. They’d responded so differently – or they’d felt the same, but phrased their response so differently, or come up with some completely ingenious solution. It was thoroughly absorbing to watch other RORers’ novels fly apart under each critiquer’s hands and then be brought back together in new ways.

Thank you so much, ROR-ettes, for the time and thought that went into your reports. Thanks for the privilege of reading and considering your works in progress. Thanks Tansy and Andrew for finding Steele’s Island, Dirk for the wonderful food, Daryl and David for radiating calmness, Steven for tourist-ing on our behalf, and Raeli and Mima for providing an understorey of questions, songs, sand-sweeping, fruit-eating and general play.

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Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Authors and Public Speaking, Book Launches, Dialogue, Editing and Revision, Genre Writing, Nourish the Writer, Plotting, Point of View, Research, Story Structure, World Buildng, Writing Craft, Writing Groups | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Raring to ROR…

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on January 18, 2012

As some of you might know our ROR writing group gets together every 12 – 18 months to critique our books in progress.

Back in 2001 at the first ROR we read Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice anthology and wept over Singing my Sister Down, which went on to win a World Fantasy Award. That was also the year we read Maxine Mc Arthur’s Less than Human, which went on to win the Aurealis Award for SF in 2004.

Since then there have been many RORs, and critiqued many books. Some of these books have been shelved or are still waiting to be completed and others  have been published, some of have won awards or been shortlisted for awards. (This reminds me I must update our success page. There’s been more sales since then. My bad).

For those of you who are interested, I’ve blogged about how to set up your own ROR group and how we critique. There are eight of us, but due to life, family and deadlines we don’t get to every ROR. (I’ve done them all so far, but I’m a bit of a ROR groupie. I even maintain this site in my spare time. All very sad, really).

Our next ROR is coming up in a couple of weeks. Having a deadline to get a book written for is a great motivator. We’re all madly reading each other’s WIPs (Works-in-progress), writing reports and planning to run away and be full time writers for a week!

There will be one book launch and possibly two, stay tuned!

From the Steele's Island web page. Link below.

This time we’re going to Tassie to Steele’s Island. Looks perfect for a bunch of nerdy writers!

So I’d like to raise a glass of cyber champagne to:

My writing friends, ROR ten years* on and still going strong!

* We couldn’t squeeze in a ROR last year in 2011, which would have been exactly 10 years, so this 2012 ROR is our official 10 year birthday bash.

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Awards, Book Launches, Creativity, Editing and Revision, Genre Writing, Nourish the Writer, Plotting, Writing Craft, Writing goals, Writing Groups | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Is that a door opening or are you just pleased to see me?

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on January 7, 2012

Lyn and Lee Battersby, Photo Courtesy Cat Sparks

Back in March 2011, Angry Robot Books, a UK-based publisher that generally only accepts agented submissions, held their first Open Submission Month, an experiment to see whether there were any unrepresented gems floating around the submitosphere that might be of interest.

In one month, they received 994 submissions. Mine was amongst them.

I’d had a somewhat frustrating time when it came to novels. I’d established a pretty solid reputation as a short story writer, at least on an Australian level: I’d sold a bunch of stories in Australia, the US and Europe, won a handful of local awards, and even had a collection published through an American small press. My reputation had been parlayed into teaching and mentoring stints at various industry associations, and I was pretty confident that, when it came to short stories, I knew what I was doing more often than not.

But therein lay the rub. Increasingly, I was confronted by the feeling that my career, such as it was, had reached a cross roads. I could continue to do what I was doing, and do it well enough, and accept that I had reached a natural level I was incapable of exceeding. But I’ve had a bee in my bonnet for a long time, one that demands I at least move towards a full time career in writing, if not actually achieve one. To do that, I needed to sell novels.

I’d come close with my first attempt, which I’d sent to 68 agents the previous year. One had picked it up, but we parted ways after she was unable to place it and didn’t like my second novel. No blood, no foul, and we separated on good terms. That second novel, an anti-fantasy romp entitled The Corpse-Rat King, was the one I sent to Angry Robot.

The deal was simple. Supplicants were invited to submit the first 5 chapters, or 10 000 words, of their novel, along with a synopses. A team of readers would plough through them, and ask to see the full manuscript of anything they believed merited further examination. Should that full manuscript be considered suitable, it would be passed upwards to editing bwana Lee A Harris. If it rocked Lee’s socks, he would take it to the editorial board and make a case for its purchase. Should the editorial board be persuaded then, and only then, would a contract be prepared and Angry Robot Shangri-La be achieved.

No guarantees, but then, only death and taxes and all that (and thanks to superhero comics and Christopher Skase, even they’re not absolutes).

So I submitted my synopses and five, and got on with other things. One of those other things was to continue my pursuit of an agent. I’ve always felt I needed an agent as part of my long-term strategy: whilst I want to write and conduct business to my own benefit, I’m aware of my weaknesses, and time-management is amongst them. An agent could take up much of the slack and apply much greater knowledge than I possess in terms of publishing law, contract negotiations and the like. Not only would I not have to do these things myself, I wouldn’t have to devote the time necessary towards gaining an intimate knowledge of them. I can take care of the creative stuff myself, but a business partner was always going to be a necessary component of building “Battersby, Inc.”

So, while I waited, the novel went out to 58 unsuspecting literary agents. And I got on with other things. Thankfully, I’ve got a lot of good friends who are experienced novelists. I’d been well informed: the novel game is a waiting game. Keep busy, keep working. I was tutoring an online course, and my day job is in the arts, and if you’ve met my family, well… occasionally I slept, and I could just about recite the Monarch Song from Horrible Histories off by heart. Most importantly, I started work on a new novel: Father Muerte & The Divine, a lengthier exploration of the character I’d created in several short stories, and a chance to finally answer many of the mysteries I’d raised in them. I kept busy, and tried not to watch the calendar.

Then word came from Angry Robot. The first reading round was complete. I’d passed. Now they wanted the whole manuscript. I sent it off. Word started filtering back from agents: rejection after dismissal after non-interest. Line after line on my spreadsheet was coloured in appropriately gloomy shades of grey.

I got on with other things.

Four months after submitting, I received a positive response from an agent. Then another. And a third. All liked the book. All were interested in representing it. I hadn’t mentioned Angry Robot. This was all about the book itself. Things looked positive.

Five months after submitting, word from Angry Robot: ‘my’ reader loved the full manuscript, and had passed it on to Bwana Lee. If he liked it, it would go to the publishing board. I’d passed again.

I compared agents, and came to a decision. And got on with other things

Father Muerte & The Divine hit 50 000 words. I joined The Angry Robot Waiting Club, a social forum on the Absolute Write forum boards devoted to the 22 authors who had gone right the way up to editorial and were now just waiting to find out if we were going to take the short, final hop from ‘aspiring’ to published novelist. We waited, together. I could recite all the way up to George IV.

October 26. Almost seven months to the day since I submitted my little package, and Bwana Lee sent me an email.

I’d made it. All the way through. A contract offer was, well, offered. As soon as I signed it and returned it to them, I would officially be an Angry Robot author.

Just one final thing to do: I forwarded the offer to my new agent, Richard Henshaw of the Henshaw Group. And got on with other things.  I was right the way up to Victoria, now.

The contract went back. It went forth. It went back again. For six weeks, Richard and Lee negotiated. Angry Robot announced the first two Open Door month authors. One as even called Lee, damn it! Negotiations continued. I waited. My wife and kids began to comment openly about my crankiness.

They say most people drown in sight of shore.

And then it was all over, so quickly it took me two days after I was announced before I got myself together enough to make my own proclamation. The final contract arrived in my inbox, I signed and emailed it back, and my mug was up on the Angry Robot website in less than 18 hours. The Corpse-Rat King will be published in 2012. A sequel, Marching Dead, will follow in 2013.

All of a sudden, after nine months, I was an author with an agent, a two-book deal, and a deadline.

Nine months after submitting my package on the last day of the Open Door month, the landscape of my career has changed completely. Far from hoping for an opportunity, I’m in the position of making the most of one. For the first time in a decade, I’m heading into uncharted career territory. I have a sequel to write, and I need to make sure I’ve got novels to follow after it, so that my second book isn’t my last. I need to build a relationship with my agent, and provide him with materiel with which to approach publishers. The door may be open, but the next few years will determine whether it’s at the front or just the workman’s entrance in the alleyway round the side.

Father Muerte and the Divine, 55 000 words old, has been put aside. 25 000 words of Marching Dead have already been written, as of penning this post.  Still, at least I know what I’ll be doing most evenings for the next three years…

(Departs, singing): William, William, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John, oi! Henry, Ed, Ed, Ed, Rich two, then three more Henrys join our song….

BIO: Lee is the author of over 70 stories in Australia, the US and Europe, with appearances in markets as “Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror”, “Year’s Best Australian SF & F”, and “Writers of the Future”. A collection of his work, entitled “Through Soft Air” from Prime Books. He’s taught at Clarion South and developed and delivered a six-week “Writing the SF Short Story” course for the Australian Writers Marketplace. His work has been praised for its consistent attention to voice and narrative muscle, and has resulted in a number of awards including the Aurealis, Australia Shadows and Australia SF ‘Ditmar’ gongs. He lives in Mandurah, Western Australia, with his wife, writer Lyn Battersby and an increasingly weird mob of kids. He is sadly obsessed with Lego, Nottingham Forest football club, dinosaurs and Daleks. He’s been a stand-up comic, tennis coach, cartoonist, poet, and tax officer in previous times, and he currently works as Arts Officer for a local council, where he gets to play with artists all day. All in all, life is pretty good. More information, and infinitely more lies, can be found at his website or his long-running blog The Battersblog.

 

 

Posted in Agents, Australian Spec Fic Scene, Contracts, Creativity, Editing and Revision, Editors, Nourish the Writer, Pitching, Plotting, Publishers, Publishing Industry, Query Letter and Synopsis, Writing Opportunities | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Sean the Blogonaut on Writers, Reviewing and Websites

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 11, 2011

Rowena has very kindly invited me to discuss how reviewers find an author via their web presence, what they look for on author web sites and finally, what they look for in a book.

Who is Sean and why should I listen to him?

Good question.  I am a teacher, a book blogger, interviewer and a reviewer.  I have been focussing on speculative fiction for the past year but I have had a life long interest in reading and authors. I review for traditional publishers, small press and conduct audio interviews for Galactic Chat. Now I’m wary of self proclaimed experts so I won’t pretend to be one.  I can only let you know how I get to know of authors and their works.

Getting noticed

Cory Doctorow is fond of quoting Tim O’Reilly, “the big problem [for Authors] isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity”.  I think it’s always been an issue for authors.  It’s just been compounded with the ease of self publishing.

So what follows are some tips for getting someone like me to notice you as a writer and become an honest advocate of your work. I say advocate here because I don’ see myself fitting into that role of an academic, critical reviewer (which isn’t to say I won’t offer constructive criticism).  I like finding good talent and letting likeminded people know about it.

Traditional publishers generally do a good job of getting you reviewed, or setting up interviews etcetera. In my experience though, social media and the use of the blogging/internet community is something they are just starting to come to grips with, often trying to seize it as a marketing opportunity, which runs against the grain of the egalitarian book blogging community.  In my opinion social media outreach and community engagement with your readers is probably best done by the author. So without further ado here are my information conduits:

Podcasts – Book people talking about the books they love.  I owe most of my recent purchases to listening to shows like The Coode Street Podcast, Galactic Suburbia and The Writer and The Critic. If there’s not a podcast that services your genre, consider starting one.  If you can, get a mention or even a guest appearance on podcasts by engaging in some of the activities below.

Twitter – is probably my best source of information on what authors are doing and saying.  A note here though, Twitter is a social media platform – engage with people. Don’t market your book at them (or do so with subtlety).  These are people not customers (yet).

Websites and Blogs – have a web presence, a free blog or a self hosted site with an RSS feed.  Have a place where you can talk about your book, yourself and your interests. If I like hanging out discussing things on your blog, I’ll tell others and I’ll link to your blog when you have news.

Goodreads– Get on Goodreads at least as a reader but preferably as an author as well.  I have other readers who I respect and who I know have similar tastes to me.  I’m informed of what books they are reading and what they think about these books.  Make it easy for us to find you there.

None of these are a guarantee and I have missed out some avenues that I don’t use.  The point though is to generate multiple pathways to your work, for you to grow a network honestly and organically.

Combine this approach with the works and networks of others and you have a web of mutually supportive connections that will nourish you.

Excellent examples of this approach are the ROR blog, and the various web incarnations of Marianne de Pierres. Watch how authors like Rowena, Marianne and publishers like Alisa Krasnostein contribute to a “rising tide that floats all boats”.

It’s not all work either.  I promote my writing on twitter (it’s my biggest source of site visits) but I also spend time just conversing with people socially.  All of the above activities require some effort but they also provide something in return.

But, “protect the work”.  No good having a web presence without work to promote.

What you can do to help?

Everyone is busy.  I know you have just spent the better part of two years getting a book to print, not to mention the carcases of other works abandoned on the journey, but here some things you can do to make it easy for people to sing your praises.

  1. Have a Press Kit, a page including a bio and jpegs of you and your works that bloggers can use in their posts.
  1. Collect links to interviews written and audio on your blog/website in one central location. When I research an author for an interview I listen and read all the other interviews they have done so that I don’t end up going over old ground.  I want to ask the author engaging questions that make the experience a new one for them as well as the listener.
  1. Social media buttons, Twitter, Facebook, and Google + make it easy for people to keep track of your pronouncements.  I don’t use browser bookmarks any more, I ‘m hooked up to RSS feeds & social media updates.
  1. Use commenting systems that allow users to be notified of new comments – anything that contributes to a community building up around your blog (my recommendation is Intense Debate).

So now that I have noticed you?  What do I look for in a book?

Book reviewers, whether we are semi professional bloggers or newspaper columnists are grizzled veterans.  We have seen it all before and we can be a hard crowd to please.  The craft side of the equation is up to you, it’s something you develop only by doing, but here are some things that I look out for when reading.

Characters: You get me interested and caring about the characters and the premise of you novel/story almost doesn’t matter.  Stephen King did this for me in 11.22.63. I couldn’t have cared less about the plan to save President Kennedy, I wanted the guy and the girl to get together and live happily ever after.  As a reviewer I’m looking for “real” characters, whether they are orbiting Titan or defending Helms Deep. I want drama and tension and a little romance.

Originality or a new angle: reading lots of work within a genre really opens your eyes to how crowded with ideas it is. So to get yourself noticed, you have to come up with a fresh angle or something original. Trent Jamieson’s Death Works series is a good example of a fresh take on a number of horror/fantasy staples.  You have a world that blends mythology, both Classical and Christian, an Australian location, demon possessed zombies, the Grim Reaper and a garnish of self deprecating Aussie humour.

Pacing: for genre fiction you need the novel to be well paced.  This can be a steady rhythm or a white knuckle ride. You don’t want to give the reader a chance to put it down because, let’s face it, you are competing against visual mediums and other less taxing forms of entertainment.

An example of excellent pacing in a fantasy setting is Rowena’s King Rolen’s Kin; I’ve mentioned a couple of times that she should try her hand at a techno-thriller.  A well paced novel helps the words disappear, immerses us in the story, page count ceases to matter. If you can make me as a reviewer forget that there’s another 300 pages to go I will be eternally thankful.

Emotional engagement:  I have a rule that I generally only give five stars to books that get under my skin to the point where I have an emotional experience.  To some extent this last point arises out of a combination of those above.  Without well developed, believable characters you can’t form an emotional tie, and a book that languishes in the minutiae of a relationship never moving forward will bore the reader.

I read and reviewed Quentin Jardine’s The Loner early this year, presented as a faux biography – the pacing was steady, and the characters interesting and real.  It was outside my reading preferences, a tale of a sportsman turned journalist.  In the last 30 pages though, it gutted me emotionally, I felt physically ill due to empathy with the main character.  Jardine had made those characters so believable and real that I experienced physical symptoms.

It’s rare to get all of these, or all of them in equal measure.  And there’s some I am probably missing.  But that’s not necessary for entertainment.  And truth be told, reviewers aren’t all cut from the same cloth so even a couple of these will get your work talked about.

If you can make a book blogger or a reviewer a fan, then you have a genuine and honest promoter of your work.  You may have noticed that I have mentioned writers associated with ROR, it’s not some cosy little in group referencing.  I sing their praises when I blog and when I teach because they stick in my head.

It’s fairly easy to tell when someone is promoting for the sake of getting a reward.  You want honest advocates of your work and if you can manage to do that you have an honest and organic support team at your disposal that you don’t have to pay.

I have given you some insight into my approach to reviewing and book blogging. Hopefully you can take something away from it.   Perhaps, in the spirit of community you’d like to discus your own experiences and opinions in the comments.

For instance what has been your experience with reviewers? Do you have some you trust to recommend books? Has your book been reviewed in such a way that left you gnashing your teeth?

Follow Sean on Twitter: @SeandBlogonaut

See the Austral-Asian Spec Fic. Daily

(Look out for the article next week on this site and how useful it is for writers).

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Characterisation, Creativity, Editing and Revision, Genre Writing, Plotting, Promoting your Book, Reviews, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , | 12 Comments »

Part Two of Ian Irvine’s 41 ways to Keep Readers Reading

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 3, 2011

41 WAYS TO CREATE AND HEIGHTEN SUSPENSE IN FICTION

PART TWO – PLOT AND STRUCTURE

The first part of this article dealt with suspense from the viewpoint of characters and their problems. This part looks at ways to create suspense using plot and structural elements.

C. PLOT

Plot is made up of the hero’s successive actions get what he wants (i.e. to solve the story problem) and the opponent’s corresponding actions to stop him. To build suspense to an explosive pitch at the climax of the story, each new action by the hero needs to be blocked by his opponent, and either fails or leads to an even bigger problem – until the climactic scene where the story problem is finally resolved one way or another.

19.  Make the story problem clear. A surprising number of manuscripts fail to set out either:

  • What the hero’s real problem or goal is;
  • Or the nature of the obstacle or antagonist that’s trying to stop him achieving this goal;
  • Or only do so many pages into the story.

The real story doesn’t begin until the hero formulates a goal and takes action to get it (see Cleaver, Immediate Fiction). Until this happens there can be little suspense or story interest, so make the hero’s goal clear as early as possible.

20.  Put the hero at a disadvantage. Examples:

  • At the beginning, the hero may not know how to solve her problem; or may not understand what the real problem is (e.g., she’s mistaken about her real enemy);
  • She lacks the skills to solve her problem (e.g. needs magic but doesn’t have any; has a gift for magic but doesn’t know how to use it);
  • She has critical personality flaws, e.g. her obsession with gaining justice for her murdered mother blinds her to vital friendships; his violent past leaves him paralysed with guilt; his racism leads him to refuse the aid of the one person who can help him;
  • She’s handicapped physically, mentally, emotionally or socially.

21.  Increase the pressure in unpredictable ways (for details, see the references, especially Lyon):

  • Test the hero’s abilities to breaking point. Take away her friends and supporters, undermine her assets and any options she’s relying on, block her escape routes, cut the deadline in half, devalue her strongest beliefs or the things she most cares about. Anything that can go wrong, should go wrong – not just for her, but for everyone;
  • Give her more simultaneous problems than anyone can handle, so she makes damaging mistakes. Distract her with an unexpected sexual attraction. Have disagreements escalate out of control. Give her an impossible dilemma that will trouble her for ages.;
  • Thwart her at every turn. If she’s relying on aid, information or some object or talisman, have it fail to appear, or be stolen, lost or destroyed when it’s almost within her grasp. If she has a vital talent or skill, rob her of the ability to use it when she needs it most;
  • Arouse suspicion about some of her friends or allies, or use dramatic irony (see (23), below) to make readers suspect them even if the hero does not. Have a trusted ally betray her, desert her or go over to the enemy;
  • Foreshadow her fate or peril, to the audience and other characters even if not to herself. Use mysterious documents or eerie settings or symbols to create uneasiness, or show that things are not as they seem;
  • Have the hero lose contact with her mentor; injure the hero; use forces of nature (weather, fire, flood, difficult terrain) to block her;
  • Plant red herrings. Have the hero jump to false conclusions that lead her in the wrong direction or to make disastrous mistakes, or to fall into a trap. Have failures caused by misunderstandings or poor communication;
  • Set the action within some greater conflict (cultural renaissance, political drama, social upheaval, war, religious persecution) or tailor social institutions to make everything more difficult (paranoid government, martial law, police state, secret society);
  • Create an emotional time bomb (something vitally important to the hero) then, at some critical time, have it destroyed or lost;
  • Lull the hero (and readers) into a false sense of security by having things go too well for a scene or two, then create a disaster;
  • Show the hero thinking over past events and seeing something she missed that’s worrying or ominous. Or, when it’s too late, coming to a dreadful realisation.

22Create conflict with everyone and everything.

  • With the opponent – see (4) above;
  • With family, friends and allies – see (10) above;
  • With people the hero meets on the way – they may be hostile, unreliable, treacherous, incompetent or give false or incorrect information;
  • With the setting (see 25) below, including landscape, weather, culture, politics, bureaucracy, religion;
  • Inner conflict – see (22) below.

23.  Create inner conflicts and dilemmas.

  • Give the hero impossible challenges or agonising choices that test his courage, skill & moral fibre;
  • Force a good man to make invidious choices, e.g. between informing on his corrupt mother or betraying his country;
  • A girl sees two friends in danger and can only save one. How does she decide whom to save and whom to let die?
  • Make the hero choose between strongly held ideals (duty/honour, family/justice). Force a pacifist to fight. Require a reformed drunk to drink.

24.  Use dramatic irony (i.e., your readers know something vital that the characters aren’t aware of):

  • The heroine is enjoying a glass of wine by the fire, unaware that the killer is looking in through the window. She’s not anxious, but readers are on the edge of their seats;
  • The hero doesn’t realise that he’s got things disastrously wrong, but it’s obvious to the reader (and perhaps to other characters, too);
  • Write some scenes from the villain’s viewpoint so readers can worry about the trap closing on the unsuspecting hero;
  • A character bears vital or troubling news but events conspire to delay (or prevent) its delivery to those who need to know.

25.  Use the unknown to create anxiety.

  • Set a scene where some terrible disaster or tragedy once occurred. The place need not necessarily be dangerous, but fear of the unknown or the past will make it seem so;
  • Arouse fear of some danger the character has to face – this could be a real-life danger (fighting a monster, swimming a flooded river) or an uncanny one (spending the night in a ghost-ridden graveyard);
  • Or an everyday ordeal (a daunting interview; meeting the girlfriend’s parents; sitting a difficult exam).

26Put your hero in a perilous place. Analyse your scene settings and work out how you can change them to heighten tension:

  • Move the scene to a dangerous or unpredictable place. Instead of a park, use a derelict factory, a minefield or a sinking ship;
  • Make an everyday place seem dangerous, e.g. the hero must race across a rugged landscape in a fog;
  • Change the scene from day to night, good weather to bad, peace to riot or war, or put the hero in the middle of a plague epidemic.

27.  Create mysteries. As noted above, mysteries and puzzles create suspense both because the hero has to work them out and because the reader wants to know the answer.

  • How did the disaster occur?
  • How did a good man (or company, or nation) take this fatal step into crime, addiction, insanity or war?
  • Is this document true, or a despicable lie?
  • What do these clues mean?
  • Why is this device or talisman here and how is it used?

28.  Design puzzles. These can either be intellectual or physical:

  • Intellectual – riddles, conundrums, paradoxes, illusions etc;
  • Physical – how do I get in or out? Locked room mysteries. Puzzles requiring dexterity.

29.  Leave issues and crises unresolved (especially at chapter or scene endings) and tension will rise because readers long for the resolution. Uncertainty and anticipation are interlinked and create suspense:

  • Uncertainty can be heightened with unexpected twists, sudden reversals and shocking disasters;
  • Foster anticipation by having the characters set out their goals, then by using omens, portents and foreshadowing to arouse unease about the goals being met;
  • Within scenes, heighten reader anticipation by using distractions and interruptions to delay longed-for meetings, confrontations, resolution of an important event, delivery of vital news etc.

30Use reversals. Reversals of the expected are used to break expectations, clichés and repetition.

  • Lead your readers in a particular direction in order to create expectations about the outcome, then throw in a reversal that breaks the expectation. This heightens readers’ anticipation, and thus suspense, because they have no idea what’s going to happen now.
  • Scour your story for clichéd character types, plot elements, emotions, dialogue, action and reactions, then use reversals where appropriate to break the cliché.
  • Do the same where you find repetition of character types, plot elements, emotions, dialogue, action and reactions.

31.  Secrets. The existence of a secret creates suspense because readers want to know the answer:

  • Rarely, a big secret can form the suspense backbone for a whole novel, such as: Who was the traitor? What happened to the money? The secret has to be developed throughout the story by drip-feeding clues that heighten the secret rather than revealing it;
  • Smaller secrets can be used to heighten suspense within scenes, e.g. the Hogwarts letter withheld from Harry Potter in the first book of the series, and the mysterious event (the Triwizard Tournament) which people keep alluding to early in the fourth book.

32Use subtext (see Lyon for details). Subtext is ‘everything hidden from the awareness or observation of non-viewpoint characters’. Subtext based on rising tension will create suspense. Some sources are:

  • The hero’s physical state, feelings and emotions: e.g., tears forming, sexual attraction or lust, concealed hatred, a need to throw up;
  • Hidden agendas, i.e. the character’s private thoughts, intentions and plans;
  • In the natural environment: a red glow over the forest, the ground shaking, the call of a wild beast;
  • In the built environment: a patch of oil on the stair, a pram on the edge of the railway platform;
  • Other characters’ behaviour or body language: man sharpening a dagger, child playing near a cliff edge.

33.  Turn a dramatic event into a question. Beware of having the event completely answer a question or resolve a problem, as this undercuts suspense. Instead, have the event raise more questions, which draws out the suspense:

  • For small events, draw out the answer over a few sentences or paragraphs. E.g., policeman knocks on the door late at night. Instead of revealing upfront that the man’s wife is dead, draw out the mystery about how the crash occurred and what’s happened to her;
  • For major events, the resolution can be drawn out over pages or even chapters;
  • Scour the story for questions that deflate suspense because they’re answered too soon, and draw out the answer.

34.  Make it worse.

  • There’s no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse, and you should take every opportunity to do so. But why would you want to?
  • Because character is revealed not in good times but in adversity. The worse you can make it for the hero, the more his true character will be revealed by what he does, the more the reader will worry about him and the greater the suspense.

D.    STRUCTURE

Readers read to identify with the characters and live their stories, suffering the ordeals the characters go through, worrying about them and dreading that they’ll fail to achieve their goals, yet hoping and praying that they’ll succeed. At the end, readers want to see the characters resolve their problems, and long for that tidal wave of relief when all the dramatic tension and suspense built up through the story is finally released. To build suspense, the novel needs careful structuring to:

a)      Clearly present the hero and his goal to the reader in the beginning;

b)      Portray the hero’s increasingly difficult struggle to defeat the adversary and achieve the goal;

c)      End scenes and chapters in ways that create reader uncertainty and anticipation (see (28) above; and

d)      Show how the hero achieves his goal (or not) at the climax, then satisfyingly release all the built-up tension.

35.  Structure the beginning to create suspense (see Brown for details):

  • Create a hero who is both sympathetic and interesting (see (1) and (2) above);
  • Set out the story problem (i.e. the hero’s goal) clearly, and why he must pursue this goal;
  • Reveal the obstacle (the adversary or force that’s trying to prevent the hero from achieving his goal);
  • Twist both the characters and the goal to break stereotypes, freshen the story and surprise the reader.

36Tailor the hero’s actions to heighten suspense: In each scene, the hero faces some problem related to her goal. The actions she takes to solve the problem should either:

  • Partially succeed, though worryingly (she finds a clue to the murder, but following it will lead her into greater danger);
  • Succeed but lead to a bigger problem (he kills the giant spider but now another hundred are hunting him); or
  • Fail and make the problem worse (she breaks into the enemy’s fortress to steal the documents, but they’re not there and now she’s trapped).

37.  Vary the hero’s fortunes to maintain and heighten suspense throughout the story.

  • If every scene runs at fever pitch and ends disastrously, the law of diminishing returns sets in – the reader becomes desensitised to the drama, and suspense dies;
  • Instead, alternate tense action or drama scenes with calmer ones, and end a few scenes with the hero succeeding, and with moments of peace, happiness or hope. Variety in endings maintains suspense because the reader knows the success is only temporary; the opponent will never give up trying to defeat the hero;
  • To heighten suspense, make the hero’s failures progressively worse, and his dark moments bleaker, towards the climax.

38.  Sequence the antagonist’s reactions to progressively heighten the hero’s troubles.

  • Look at each scene from the antagonist’s point of view and ask how he can make things worse for the hero. What action will cause the hero the most trouble, and what’s the worst time it can occur?
  • To heighten suspense, make these troubles progressively worse towards the climax, until it seems impossible that the hero can win.

39.  Heighten critical scenes. Identify the key events in the story (those moments of intense drama that are also turning points) because they need to be carefully set up and treated differently (see Lyon). Key events can be positive (love scenes, celebrations at war’s end, the award of prizes or honours) or crises (murders, defeat in battle, guilty verdicts, terrible realisations). Build suspense by:

  • Foreshadowing the coming event to raise worrying questions and create reader anticipation. This can be done via characters thinking about or debating the possibility (e.g. of war), and making plans and preparations for the worst, as well as by omens, foretellings, signs and symbols;
  • Writing a small scene or moment which hints at the coming critical scene (a burning house hints at the violence and ruin of war); a shouting match foreshadows the murder to come;
  • Then a reversal – a moment that’s the opposite of the coming critical scene. E.g., in a trial, the overconfident defence lawyer has a lavish lunch with friends before returning to hear a shattering guilty verdict; immediately before the joyous wedding, the couple have a furious argument; the soldier relaxes with his family before going to bloody war. This contrast makes the critical scene far more powerful;
  • In the critical scene, use all the dramatic techniques at your disposal to raise the scene to a higher peak of suspense than anything that has gone before;
  • Afterwards, make sure the hero emotes about all that has happened, reviews how the event has made his problems worse, and reformulates his plans.

40.  Climax, Resolution and Endings.

  • Vary your scene endings to maximise suspense. Some scenes should end at moments of high drama, many with unanswered questions, several with shocking twists, a few with emotional completion, and some with no more than a wry observation or pithy phrase.
  • The climax of the story, where the greatest obstacle is overcome and the hero’s story problem is finally resolved one way or another, is the biggest of all the critical scenes and must coincide with the highest point of tension and suspense.
  • If the greatest tension occurs in a scene before the climax, the ending of the story will be anticlimactic and the reader will feel let down.
  • If the story’s resolution is weak, contrived, over too quickly or in any other way fails to match the build-up of suspense to the climax, readers will be bitterly disappointed;
  • In most novels, all the key questions will be answered by the end, and the resolution provides a sense of completion plus the blissful release from suspense that readers are waiting for. Some stories may end with a dilemma, however – the main story has been resolved but there’s still a question raised in the reader’s mind about what choice the hero will make.
  • Stories which are part of a series should resolve most of the story questions at the end, but the overarching series question (e.g. will Harry Potter defeat Lord Voldemort) remains and creates ongoing suspense until the series ends.

41.  In editing.

  • Review the story scene by scene, rate each scene out of 10 for its level of suspense, then plot the sequence of suspense ratings. Ideally the graph should be a zigzagging line rising progressively to the climax of the story, then falling away in the resolution.
  • Does the story have flat periods with little suspense? Insufficient breaks from high suspense? The highest suspense occurring before the climax? Suspenseful moments that are too quickly resolved? Critical scenes where the suspense is too low, too brief or too similar to other scenes? A powerful climax ruined by a weak resolution? Work out how to fix these problems.
  • Common scene problems that lower suspense include: lack of a clear goal for the scene; stakes too low; lack of an obstacle or weak obstacle; too little conflict; too much thought or talk and not enough action; too much action and not enough thought, emotion or reflection; no twist or disaster at the end (see Lyon for a detailed analysis).
  • Analyse your characters (see (2) above). Can you modify or change certain character traits to vary the kinds of suspense in the story, and to heighten it in key scenes?

 

REFERENCES

Bell, James Scott (2004). Plot and Structure. Writer’s Digest. Probably the best book on the topic of plot and structure.

Bell, James Scott (2008). Revision and Self-Editing. Writer’s Digest. Also a great book; a wealth of practical info and examples.

John D Brown (2011). Key Conditions for Reader Suspense (27-part article).  An excellent series of articles.

Cleaver, Jerry (2002). Immediate Fiction. St Martin’s Griffin. No one has ever explained the craft of storytelling more clearly or simply.

Kress, Nancy (2005). Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint. Writer’s Digest. Excellent book on these topics.

Lukeman, Noah (2002). The Plot Thickens. St Martin’s Griffin, New York. Terrific chapters on characterisation, suspense and conflict, a lot of stuff I’ve never thought of before.

Lyon, Elizabeth (2008). Manuscript Makeover, Revision Techniques no Fiction Writer can Afford to Ignore. Perigee Trade. In my view, the best book on revision and self-editing.

Maass, Donald (2009). The Fire in Fiction. Writer’s Digest. He identifies the problems his agency sees over and over again in manuscripts and tells you how to fix them. A fantastic book.

Truby, John (2007). The Anatomy of Story – 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. Faber and Faber. A fascinating and insightful book.

Vorhaus, John (1994). The Comic Toolbox. Silman James Press. Not just the best book on comic writing, but better than all the others put together.

About me: I’m an Australian marine scientist. I’ve written 27 novels, including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds fantasy sequence, an eco-thriller trilogy about catastrophic climate change, Human Rites, and 12 books for children, most recently the Grim and Grimmer humorous adventure fantasy series.

My next epic fantasy novel is Vengeance, Book 1 of The Tainted Realm, to be published by Orbit Books in Australia in November 2011, and in the US and UK in April 2012.

For more on my books, including covers, blurbs, reviews and the first chapters of all of my novels and my 2 novellas, see my site.

To say Hi or get a quick answer to your questions, please pop over to my Facebook page.

For more on writing and publishing, see my blog

Posted in Characterisation, Creativity, Editing and Revision, Genre Writing, Nourish the Writer, Plotting, Point of View, Research, Story Structure, World Buildng, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Ian Irvine Reveals 41 Ways to Keep Readers Turning the Page!

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on November 26, 2011

 41 WAYS TO CREATE AND HEIGHTEN SUSPENSE IN FICTION

PART ONE – CHARACTERS AND THEIR PROBLEMS

According to top New York literary agent Noah Lukeman (The Plot Thickens), if a writer can maintain suspense throughout the story, many readers will keep reading even if the characters are undeveloped and the plot is weak. Clearly, suspense is a vital tool, yet most books on writing only mention it in passing and few devote much space to its creation and development.

I’ve written 27 novels, and some of them have been rather successful, but Lukeman’s observation came as a revelation. Accordingly, I’ve scoured my writing notes for the past quarter century, and the books and articles I’ve read on storytelling, in order to compile a comprehensive list of ways to create suspense. Here it is. Sources and links are listed at the end.

 

STORY

At its simplest, a story consists of a character (the hero) who wants something badly, and an adversary (the obstacle) who is trying equally hard to prevent the hero from getting what he wants. In each scene, the hero attacks his problem in a new way, the adversary fights back and the hero either fails or his initial success leads to a bigger problem.

Readers read to lose themselves in the story and, hopefully, to become the hero through identification (see Jerry Cleaver’s excellent book, Immediate Fiction). But before readers can identify with a character, he has to reveal his true inner self. Character is revealed most clearly through adversity and conflict, when the hero is desperate and has to give everything he has. When he’s forced to the limit, the reader will identify strongly with the hero. The reader’s hope that the hero will succeed, and fear that he will fail, creates rising suspense until the climax, where the hero’s goal or problem is resolved.

Suspense comes from readers’ anticipation of what’s going to happen next. Therefore, never tell your readers anything in advance when, by withholding it, you can increase suspense.

Following Brown, I’ve grouped the suspense creation tools into these categories:

  • The viewpoint characters;
  • The problems these characters are facing;
  • The plot of the story;
  • The structure of the story.

For simplicity I refer to ‘the character’ or ‘the hero’, though many stories will have a number of viewpoint characters and more than one hero.

In Part One of this post I list ways to create suspense from the characters and their problems. Part Two will look at suspense creation from plot and structure.

 

A. CHARACTERS

For maximum suspense, you should not use any old character. Readers are only going to worry about, and identify with, characters they care about – ones who are both sympathetic and interesting.

1.    Sympathetic characters are (after Brown):

  • In trouble, or suffering in some way;
  • Underdogs. It’s difficult to empathise with a hero who is strong, powerful and has everything going for him, but everyone cheers when the underdog wins;
  • Vulnerable, ie they can be killed, trapped, enslaved, destroyed politically or professionally, or ruined financially or socially. Vulnerability can come from the character’s own physical, mental or emotional shortcomings and conflicts as well as from the machinations of the adversary; and
  • Deserving because of their positive character traits (optimism, courage, steadfastness, selflessness, compassion etc). A character can be in trouble, an underdog and vulnerable, but if he’s also lazy, selfish or a whining liar readers won’t identify with him or care what happens to him, and his troubles will create little suspense. This doesn’t mean the character can’t be a villain. If he’s acting for the best of reasons and the good outweighs the bad, readers will identify with him.

2.    Characters are likely to be interesting if (see Brown for a detailed analysis) they’re important, unusual or extraordinary. One reason we love to read about such characters is wish-fulfilment – living our lives through the story, feeling the characters’ hopes and fears, and being awed by their achievements. Characters may be more interesting if they’re:

  • Powerful – because of noble birth, wealth, high office, rank or position, intelligence or strength;
  • Naturally gifted or highly skilled at something important or useful;
  • Unusual (in appearance, a rare ability or an amazing life experience), extraordinary, strange, eccentric or downright weird;
  • Physically attractive, funny, dangerous or mysterious; or
  • Surprising (they don’t fit the stereotype of their character type).

Your characters should also be as different as possible, since they will often be working together. Having highly contrasting characters maintains reader interest, multiplies the potential for conflict with the hero and will suggest many new subplot possibilities.

To build suspense through your characters:

3.    They must have goals.

  • Common goals are: to survive, escape, win the contest or battle, become the leader, achieve their destiny, master the art, free the slaves or change the world;
  • The moment your hero forms a goal, readers will hope she achieves it – and worry about what will happen if she doesn’t;
  • Sometimes the goal (eg to survive or escape) will only appear after the character is confronted with the problem (being stalked by a killer, trapped in a bushfire).

4.    A strong hero needs a strong opponent. The opponent isn’t necessarily a villain. It can be a good person who strongly disagrees with the hero, a force of nature (flood, forest fire, epidemic), a beast or alien, or an uncaring society. But when it is a villain:

  • He should be at least as strong as the hero, and preferably stronger. You can’t make a strong story when the hero’s opponent is weak;
  • Evil villains are a cliché, and pure evil is both boring and predictable, so make your villain human. Reveal his admirable side, make his motivations clear, show why the bad things he does make perfect sense to him, and you’ll create a far more chilling antagonist;
  • If the villain is largely in the background, strengthen him by revealing how much and why everyone fears him. Show his power growing via his victories, one after another;
  • Give him advantages the hero lacks, fanatical supporters, and the power to lure away the hero’s allies.

5.    Tailor your characters to maximise suspense (for details, see Lukeman and the other refs):

  • A cautious hero won’t go down the crumbling mine shaft, but an impulsive or reckless hero will plunge in. A coward won’t jump into the sea to rescue drowning passengers, a brave man will do so instinctively. If the hero has a phobia, such as a fear of rodents, send her into a ruin full of rats;
  • Often the hero’s biggest limitation will be himself. Does he have the strength of will to confront the woman who betrayed him, or will he keep putting put it off? Is he plagued by self-doubt, or a cock-eyed optimist who believes things will come right in the end despite all evidence to the contrary?
  • Does the hero have a destiny, eg to become the next lord, president of the company, or to be the catalyst for revolution? Is this destiny foretold in the story, or is it something he’s known since birth? Is it a positive destiny, an unbearable burden or a dark and dangerous threat? Will he achieve it, or fail? And either way, what are the consequences to him and to others?
  • Create loose cannon characters. No one knows what they’ll do next and their unpredictability heightens suspense. Will the reformed drunk crack under pressure and start drinking again? Will the self-effacing heroine snap when pushed too far, and explode?

6.    Take away the hero’s ability to defend herself (or others) and you create intense suspense:

  • She’s being stalked in the dark, but drops her only weapon and can’t find it; she’s injured and can’t escape her enemy; her foot is trapped in a crack and she can’t get it out; or she’s paralysed by terror or self-doubt;
  • She sees her friend heading across the rotten bridge but is too far away to warn her; she rides to the rescue of an ally, knowing she’s going to arrive too late;
  • He fails under pressure – he could save the day with a magic spell but forgets the words, or gets them wrong with disastrous consequences;
  • His efforts are in vain – his son is suicidally depressed and he can’t get through to him;
  • She believes that her fate (or a friend’s, or the country’s) is fixed by destiny and nothing can change it.

7.    Use rapidly changing emotions to build suspense. By showing the hero’s emotions changing rapidly in response to some threat or confrontation you can build suspense to a crescendo that will bring your readers to the edge of their seats, eg:

  • Vague unease becomes fear becomes terror becomes shrieking hysteria;
  • Irritation becomes annoyance becomes anger becomes murderous rage.

8.    Create anticipation and expectation.

  • The more your hero dwells on or worries about some forthcoming event (good or bad) the more suspenseful it will be when the event is about to occur – a shy girl fretting about her wedding night; a young recruit marching to battle, sick with fear;
  • Have the hero make a complicated plan and be rashly confident that it will succeed. This will worry your readers because they know it’s going to go wrong;
  • Build up the hero’s anticipation (of winning the contest, gaining the prize, getting the girl) into expectation. Then, when he fails, the blow will be bitter. He hasn’t been beaten by the failure, but by his defeated expectation.

9.    Employ romantic and sexual tension. For variety or to further the plot, action-related suspense can be alternated with suspense arising from romantic or sexual tension between characters. Heighten suspense by:

  • Creating barriers to the relationship – love between enemies, between a human and an alien, a lover with a dark past or terrible secret;
  • Or by using obstacles to keep the lovers apart.

10.  Use micro-tension – the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in suspense over what’ll happen in the next minute. (See Don Maass’s terrific book The Fire in Fiction for details). Micro-tension comes from the ‘emotional friction’ between characters as they try to defeat each other. The characters aren’t necessarily enemies, though. There should be tension between any two characters, whether they are opponents, servants, friends, allies or lovers. There should also be tension within the character due to inner conflicts.

  • In dialogue, show: the hero’s doubt or disbelief about what the other character is saying; the disagreement about goals or plans; the disdain, dislike, contempt or concealed hatred; the power struggles, and ego and personality clashes; bring out inner conflicts in what each character says and does;
  • Often action can be lacking in tension because we’ve seen it a thousand times before – there are only so many ways two people can have a sword fight. To make action suspenseful, get inside the head of the hero to show his conflicting feelings and emotions during the struggle. Then, break the action cliché by showing subtle visual details that give the reader a clear and vivid picture of this particular scene rather than any generic action scene;
  • Use similar techniques when writing sex or violence. Show the key moments with a handful of striking visual images. Bring out the hero’s conflicting feelings and emotions at each moment, focusing on subtle emotions rather than the obvious ones such as (in sex scenes) passion, lust or tenderness;
  • When the character is thinking or emoting, create suspense by (a) cutting restated thoughts, feelings & emotions and (b) making thoughts and emotions realistic. For instance, the hero may be outwardly happy, but is concealing or fighting some niggling worry. Or struggling with an inner conflict (justice versus vengeance, duty to an bad leader vs personal honour);
  • In descriptive passages and quiet moments, show little details that make the setting vividly real and establish the mood of the place. Describe the hero’s conflicting feelings and emotions, focusing on subtle emotions rather than obvious ones.

 

B. PROBLEM

The story begins when your character confronts a problem she has to solve, or forms a goal she’s determined to achieve. Problems can be of three kinds: a danger, a want or lack, or a puzzle or mystery. Dangers and lacks arouse suspense because the reader hopes the character will solve her problem, yet fears the consequences if she fails. Puzzles and mysteries create suspense through curiosity – the reader wants to know the answer.

11.  Put your characters (or their friends or allies) in danger (for details see the references, especially Brown, Lyon and Lukeman).

  • Dangers can be: physical (a threat to life, health or vital functions such as eyesight, mobility or intellect); sexual (assault, pregnancy, disease); psychological (abuse, bullying, brainwashing); emotional; or moral (being led into crime, corruption or depravity);
  • Dangers can also threaten: the character’s relationships (love, friendship, family, clan, group or society); her profession, trade, career or art; her property, possessions or prospects; her sanity; her freedom;
  • Alternatively, your character could be a danger to others (he’s violent, a rapist, a psychopath or just reckless), or to himself (depressed, suicidal or reckless);
  • Expose the hero to his darkest fear – if he’s claustrophobic, trap him in a lift or a dungeon. Alternatively, make the imaginary seem vividly real (eg someone who is paranoid or psychotic).

12.  Give your character a want or lack that she’s desperate to fulfil.

  • To find love or romance, support or friendship;
  • To escape from a blighted community or life;
  • To master a skill, disciple or art, or realise a dream.

13.  Pose a mystery or puzzle. In some kinds of stories, particularly crime and mystery, suspense mainly comes from the puzzle the author has set, and readers’ curiosity about how the hero will solve it and what the answer is (see (26 and (27)).

14Force the hero to face the problem. Either:

  • She has no choice because she can’t get away. She’s trapped in a locked building, slave camp, spacecraft or bureaucratic maze;
  • She has a choice but walking away would violate her own moral or ethical code. Eg, she’s on the run but sees a child in danger and has to help, no matter the risk to herself;
  • He has a choice but walking away would violate his professional duty to act – a munitions expert who has to defuse a bomb; a priest who must exorcise a demon;
  • He initially refuses but is talked (or talks himself) into it.

15.  Raise the stakes.

  • You can either raise the prize for succeeding, or raise the price of failure – or, preferably, both at the same time;
  • These consequences can either apply to the hero, to people he cares for, or those he has a duty to (eg a doctor looking after a critically ill patient);
  • Remember that both the prize and the price are relative – if the emperor wins or loses a skirmish it may be trivial, whereas winning or losing his first battle will change the life of a young lieutenant.

16.  Make the problem more difficult to solve.

  • Increase the likelihood that the character will lose, then show what the specific personal consequences will be;
  • Threats to the viewpoint character and his friends and family will arouse far more reader anxiety, and create more suspense, than problems facing people he doesn’t know, or people in another province or country.

17.  Shorten the deadline.

  • Constantly remind your hero of the time limit;
  • Then cut it in half;
  • Slow down key scenes to heighten suspense. Show them in greater than normal detail to bring readers right into the moment.

18.  Break reader expectations.

  • Readers are constantly guessing what’s going to happen next, based on stories they’ve read before, but if they know what’s going to happen, suspense dies;
  • Analyse the hero’s problem and come up with unusual twists and reversals, new problems and difficult conflicts that will confound reader expectations of what’s going to happen.

 

The second part of this article deals with suspense from the viewpoints of plot and structure. (Next Week)

 

REFERENCES

Bell, James Scott (2004). Plot and Structure. Writer’s Digest. Probably the best book on the topic of plot and structure.

Bell, James Scott (2008). Revision and Self-Editing. Writer’s Digest. Also a great book; a wealth of practical info and examples.

John D Brown (2011). Key Conditions for Reader Suspense (27-part article). http://www.sfwa.org/2010/12/key-conditions-for-suspense/ An excellent series of articles.

Cleaver, Jerry (2002). Immediate Fiction. St Martin’s Griffin. No one has ever explained the craft of storytelling more clearly or simply.

Kress, Nancy (2005). Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint. Writer’s Digest. Excellent book on these topics.

Lukeman, Noah (2002). The Plot Thickens. St Martin’s Griffin, New York. Terrific chapters on characterisation, suspense and conflict, a lot of stuff I’ve never thought of before.

Lyon, Elizabeth (2008). Manuscript Makeover, Revision Techniques no Fiction Writer can Afford to Ignore. Perigee Trade. In my view, the best book on revision and self-editing.

Maass, Donald (2009). The Fire in Fiction. Writer’s Digest. He identifies the problems his agency sees over and over again in manuscripts and tells you how to fix them. A fantastic book.

Truby, John (2007). The Anatomy of Story – 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. Faber and Faber. A fascinating and insightful book.

Vorhaus, John (1994). The Comic Toolbox. Silman James Press. Not just the best book on comic writing, but better than all the others put together.

 

About me: I’m an Australian marine scientist. I’ve also written 27 novels, including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds fantasy sequence, an eco-thriller trilogy about catastrophic climate change, Human Rites, and 12 books for children, most recently the Grim and Grimmer humorous adventure fantasy series.

My next epic fantasy novel is Vengeance, Book 1 of The Tainted Realm, to be published by Orbit Books in Australia in November 2011, and in the US and UK in April 2012.

 

For more on my books, including covers, blurbs, reviews and the first chapters of all of my novels and my 2 novellas, see my site.

To say Hi or get a quick answer to your questions, please pop over to my Facebook page.

For more on writing and publishing, see my blog.

 

 

Posted in Creativity, Editing and Revision, Good Dialogue, Nourish the Writer, Plotting, Point of View, Research, Writing Craft, Writing for children, Writing for Young Adults | Tagged: , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

The Inner Life of a Successful Writer

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on October 29, 2011

Chocolate and Coffee - also must haves for the writer!

Back in the late nineties after I had my first children’s book published I wrote up a Beginning Writer’s Checklist (here’s the updated version).

Recently, I came across this post The Common Traits of the Successful Writer by Bob Mayer, Part One and Part Two. He starts with:

‘It’s not normal to sit alone and write 100,000 words.  So let’s get that out of the way.  You aren’t normal.  You aren’t in the bell curve and you aren’t necessarily on the good side of the curve. ‘

I had to smile.

He says the publishing industry is changing faster than ever and he’s absolutely right. Once there was one way to get published – Write. Write short stories and books, develop your craft, attend workshops, develop your craft, make short story sales, enter competitions. Do all this while writing every day. Win or place in competitions. Develop your craft. Approach publishers with a CV of published short stories  and placings in competitions, get rejections.  Attend more workshops. Develop your craft. Keep writing. After about 10 years get that first publishing contract from a major publisher. And then you really start to learn, because as a writer you never stop learning.

Was it perfect? No. Good books were overlooked. (Some people lucked onto a book sale with their first book. Then they had to do all their development as a writer meeting deadlines in the public eye).

Now … People can self publish, release their books as e-books and Print on Demand. They don’t have to wait on recognition from major publishers. Of course this means a lot of books that are not ready for publication see the light of day. How do readers sift through these to find the gems? That’s a post topic for another day.

Back to the traits of a successful writer. This is an interesting quote from Bob Mayer:

‘Remember something about the art of writing: It is the only art form that is not sensual. You can see the colors and strokes that make a painting, feel a sculpture, and hear music.  The manner in which each individual piece in those fields impacts on the senses is different.  But every writer uses the same letters on a piece of paper.  You have twenty-six letters that combine to form words, which are the building blocks of your sentences and paragraphs.  Everyone has the same words, and when I write that word and you write it, that word goes into the senses of the reader in the same way.  It’s how we weave them together that impact the conscious and subconscious mind of the reader that makes all the difference in the world.

A book comes alive in the reader’s mind.  You use the sole medium of the printed word to get the story from your mind to the reader’s.  It is the wonder of writing to create something out of nothing.  Every book started with just an idea in someone’s head.  Isn’t that a fantastic concept?’

He’s right about writers all using the same 26 letters and the book going from the writer’s mind to the reader’s mind. But to me writing is deeply sensual. I create a Resonance file (See here and here). The file is packed with images, snatches of research, true stories and, while I don’t collect music, I know what music the characters would listen to. This file is a pale outer representation of the inner world of the story. In my mind the world of the story, it’s characters and society is richly sensual and packed with detail.

Mayer doesn’t actually list the common traits of successful writers because he’s plugging books on the topic. (The Writers Toolkit and the Warrior Writer – Both links were down).

Here’s my list of a successful writer’s traits:

1. A Passion to Write. This is the kind of passion that keeps you awake at night thinking about plots and characters. The kind of passion that drives you to sneak away from the family on Christmas Day to write because you just can’t keep away from the story. Which leads to …

2. Perseverance. The craft of writing is something you can read about in books, but often you have to ‘discover’ it as you write. The recognition of something only comes as you are doing it and you internalise the understanding. All of this springs from …

3. A Love of Reading. (This really means a love of story in all its forms). If you were the sort of kid who got lost in a book, if you are the sort of person who goes to see a movie and spends the next three days thinking about alternate endings, then you are a writer. The more you read, the more you internalise the craft of writing. And writing consists of …

4. A Love of Words for their own sake. I’ve always been fascinated by words, by the history that words contain and by the power of a single word, how it can change the meaning of a whole sentence. But words are just the building blocks for …

5. A Love of Story. Story is not plot. Story is a combination of plot (events that happen) and character (the people who react to these events or trigger them by their actions). Combine these two and you have something that comes to life in the reader’s head. Story. But just having a story is not enough. You need to hone that story with …

6. Persistence and Patience. (Writing is Rewriting) A successful writer needs the persistence to keep writing, but the patience to give your book time to sit while you mature as a writer. When you first finish a book you are too close to it to see the flaws. Time and distance is needed. Working on another project will help you hone your writing craft. Then, when you come back to the original draft of the first book, you’ll see ways to improve it. Published writers have editors who help them do this while meeting deadlines.

Do self published writers need all these traits? Of course they do. They need them more because they don’t have  a professional editor helping polish the story they love. Whether you self publish or are published by a major publisher you want your book to be the best it possibly can be. This means polishing the book and developing traits (strategies) to make you the best writer you can possibly be.

I haven’t mentioned writing groups here. I’ve done several posts on the importance of writing groups. ROR is an example of how a group supports the individual and furthers their craft. Here’s list of posts I’ve done on the topic:

Writing Groups where would we be Without Them?

ROR 101 (How we set up the group)

Critiquing 101

 

Do you belong to a writing group? Do you write every day? How do you motivate yourself?

Posted in Characterisation, Creativity, Editing and Revision, Editors, Nourish the Writer, Plotting, Publishing Industry, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Nicole Murphy – what I’ve learnt since my trilogy sale

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on June 25, 2011

Or … The joy of being a newbie writer.

 

July 1 marks the official release date of Rogue Gadda, the third and last book in the Dream of Asarlai series. It hasn’t even been two years since I got the email from the HarperVoyager publisher, Stephanie Smith, that began ‘Dear Nicole, I love your book…’

What a rollercoaster of a couple of years. I’ve written the other two books, edited and copyedited and proofed all three books and spent I don’t know how many hours promoting it all.

For the first thirteen months after I sold, pretty much every waking hour was given over to the Dream of Asarlai. If I wasn’t writing, I was thinking. If I wasn’t editing, I was planning promotion.

Then in August 2010, I delivered the manuscript for Rogue Gadda to the publisher and I found myself in the unique position of not knowing what I should be writing. No more deadlines. I still had work to do, based on editorial feedback, but the creative process was done.

It was at this point that I realised one of the great mistakes we make when we’re starting out on this mad journey to publication. We’re so focussed on the end result, on the dream, that we forget the joys of the present.

There ARE benefits to being an unpublished author. Sounds weird, I know, but it’s true.

For example as an unpublished author, you can write anything you want. Any genre. Any style. Any voice. Experiment. Go mad. Let the muse take you to far off lands.

Once you’ve had that first novel sale, however, you suddenly have this thing called a career, and career comes with restrictions. Publishers have expectations. They’ve signed you to contracts, established marketing plans. They’ve started to brand you, and they need that brand to continue.

Readers have expectations. They’ve invested time and money in you and now that they love your work, they want more.

So suddenly, you’re having to make decisions. Sure, that fabulous rolling epic fantasy looks GREAT, but perhaps you’re better off sticking with the urban fantasy genre you first published in. Or you want to write some short stories in your world but oops – the contract says the publisher owns the world and you can’t. Or you have a fabulous idea for a YA book but damn it – no point writing THAT until you know you’ve got more than one book, so you can establish a career as a YA writer…

Then as an unpublished author, you don’t have to worry about promoting yourself. You don’t have to spend money on creating bookmarks and posters for events. You don’t have to attend conventions to meet with folks. You don’t have to spend hours each week writing blog posts or contacting review sites or interacting with readers (and don’t think signing with a major publisher saves you from all this – IT DOESN’T!)

Then there’s the fact that as an unpublished author, you can sit back and watch the current upheavals in the publishing industry with interest but without feeling that every bookstore that closes is going to ruin your career. This might be contentious but honestly – if you don’t have to chase a major publishing contract right now, I’d suggest you don’t bother. Sit tight for a year or two, perfect your craft and wait for the dust to settle.

Does any of this mean that I’d give back my contract, or that I’m not trying for another one? Absolutely not. Being a contracted author is hard, hard work but it’s also the most fun I’ve ever had. I love my books. I love my world. I love that other people love my books and my world.

But there are days that I pine for the time when I didn’t have a contract, when I didn’t have a career to nurture and I could just write what I wanted.

Great days, my friends. Great days.

Giveaway question – if you could write anything, what would it be?

Nicole’s favourite response will win a copy of Rogue Gadda.

Rogue Gadda cookie

Connor handed it over carefully, making sure he didn’t touch her. The slightest contact of skin on skin would be enough to have his power draining into her and disappearing forever.

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Book Giveaway, Creativity, Editing and Revision, Editors, Nourish the Writer, Plotting, Promoting your Book, Publishers, Publishing Industry, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , | 28 Comments »

Writing Process

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on April 15, 2011

This one is for the Gorgeous Goth Girl, who dropped by the writers’ table at Brisbane Supanova and asked if I could do a post about the Writing Process.

Writing Process is such a huge topic, I thought I’d review some of the posts we’ve done in the last couple of years.

Starting with the Aspiring Writer’s Check list.

Here is one on the Writing Process.

First of all, are a plotter or a pantser? And what can you do about plotting?

So how do you grab the reader in the first 10 minutes?

One of my favourites that I like to use, Deep Point of View.

And here’s a really nerdy one, Characterization through View Point, revealed by Action.

How do you integrate back story?

And here’s one we all need to beware of The Sagging Middle!

What if you were going really well with your book, then life got in the way and you had to go off and do something else for a couple of months and now you want to get back into the book? See here for tips on getting back into your manuscript.

When it is all done, then there’s the Revision and Editing.

But don’t just listen to me. One of the writers I keep going back to is Holly Lisle. This is her page of extensive writing tips. Here is her page on courage for writers.  Frankly, we all need the courage to believe in ourselves. And this is Holly’s page on How to Finish your novel. And while we are talking about really useful site with lots of writing tips, there’s our very own Richard Harland’s 145 page guide to Writing. He breaks it into Good Writing Habits, The Elements, Characters, Story, Language and Getting Published.

There you are, Gorgeous Goth Girl, no excuse not to get stuck into your manuscript!

Out of curiosity, are there an requests from our readers?

Posted in Characterisation, Editing and Revision, Plotting, Point of View, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Book Two Hurdles …

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on February 12, 2011

There’s something really nice about meeting an aspiring writer at a workshop that you run, seeing their work, seeing them develop as a writer, and then some time later seeing their book in print. Today we welcome Paul Garrety who attended one of the EnVision workshops where published writers mentored a small pod of aspiring writers as they worked on their books. Paul wasn’t in my pod but I still feel a sense of achievement seeing his book, The Seventh Wave, in print. Paul is being very frank and up front about writing that second book!

Watch out for the give-away question at the end. Welcome Paul!

“It’s going to an acquisitions meeting.”

If you’re a writer, particularly a writer with an (as yet) unpublished novel, then you’ll know precisely how much is hanging off that very short sentence.

It was the back end of 2009 and after innumerable re-writes, plus a couple of false starts, “The Seventh Wave” was just one meeting away from a possible two book deal —one meeting… and one question:

“ Paul, you won’t need more than a year to complete book two, will you?”

At that stage Book Two constituted a title, one chapter and a very fuzzy outline that’d been thrown together like a quick salad one Sunday afternoon.

My lovely wife and partner, Annie, and I take it in turns to blow up each other’s delusions. I recall it was just after we’d signed the contract to build the house (construction due to begin January 2010) that she first asked whether “I’d be right” co-ordinating that as well as writing a new book. She had the good grace not to mention I’d already signed (and paid for) a 12 month Yoga Therapy course to start Feb 2010, my gang’s annual writers’ retreat, plus a week long yoga intensive in Sep 2010  — all committed to earlier in 2009. Annie and I would also be due to move house twice during that year — once into a rental on Macleay, and the next into the new house mid-year. Then, of course, there was always work which had to pay for it all, along with all the challenges of commuting every day from an island.

Even then (foolishly) I felt it would be okay. I write fast. Not necessarily good, but definitely fast.

Then the publisher’s advance arrived in my bank account.

The amount seemed to be more than it should have been so I rang up to see whether someone had made a mistake, before I spent it.

No mistake.

Even though I’d invoiced them for the advance on book two (I’d assumed) that particular portion of it wouldn’t be paid until a book draft actually existed.

Wrong.

I realised then that not only was I contracted to deliver 110,000 words by December 2010, but I’d been paid to do it as well. They should make anti-freeze for writers as well as cars because then all my insecurities flocked in — what if book two was no good? What if there wasn’t enough material to fill the 110k after all? What if they cancelled book one if book two didn’t make the grade?

Talk about delusions — I could write a book on that.

In January I found another excuse to distract myself. My 2009 (Xmas break) short story had been accepted for the 2010 One Book, Many Brisbanes anthology. While this was great news it still sucked up time, requiring re-drafts and a three day commitment to a (fabulous) workshop.

Then it was March, but I still had nine months up my sleeve, right?

Wrong again.

Because right about then I received the first editorial notes on book one with some serious structural revisions to make.

I was fast learning why “real” writers are super heroes; professionals who are able maintain multiple plot lines and complex characters in their heads while actually still managing to have a life.

By June, with less than 30,000 of book two words in the can, it was obvious something had to give — and if I wasn’t careful it would be my health because no way was I going to not do the book. I’d waited too long for this, but I was still seized up creatively. Nothing was flowing.

I dropped out of the Yoga Therapy course and cancelled the yoga intensive week.

I used up my last five days of annual leave and hunkered down. By then the writing paralysis had morphed into a highway-style “headlights moment.”

I wrote (and re-wrote) everywhere — on the water taxi to and from work, at cafes, in the car during lunch breaks (fortunately I work mostly from my car).

The deadline was looming.

At about that point the 3.00am ceiling-staring started, making mental calculations in the dark, dividing the amount of months and weeks remaining by the number of words still to write, multiplied by the number of re-drafts required until I realised I’d be better off getting up and actually writing than lying there projecting daily word counts.

By August word count mania had set it. I ruled up a foolscap pad with columns for: date, opening word count, closing word count, number of words written and how many words to go.

Negative word count numbers were the enemy — oh, did I mention I’m a “pantser” writer? No plan, no net, no parachute? Consequently, I found myself re-tapping whole slabs of content and continuity threads as the plot course veered off in unexpected directions chewing up time.

In one attempt to simplify the cast I deleted one Point of View character until I realised that he featured strongly in the book two teaser chapter that I’d already included at the end of book one. Needless to say book one was by then on final layout and wasn’t open to structural changes so he had to be woven back in. More time.

By mid November it looked like I might just make my deadline. Then I checked the contract (for next payment details) and found that book two was actually due on 1st December, not 31 December as I’d thought.

The curious thing about all this was that my situation is apparently not uncommon. Mid 2010 (wonderful) Kate Eltham, CEO of QWC, organised a Bridge Club for writers who’d had limited publishing experience ie first book, but who could benefit by advice from writing and business specialists. Several of the writers I met there had similar issues with contracted deadlines and advances.

I now realise you don’t have to read spec fic to find horror stories.

My lesson in all this is that if I am ever fortunate enough to secure a two book contract again is not to “see if the first one sells before writing the follow on” but to do it anyway. Sounds incredibly simple doesn’t it? Then again I’ve always found hindsight is much more reliable than foresight.

PS. Fortunately Harper Collins-Voyager provided me with a two week extension which then allowed me time to coerce (equally wonderful) Jason Nahrung to sandblast the obvious dross from the plot. A couple of sleepless sessions for me followed to then complete the re-write.

Paul is generously giving away 2 copies of his book, The Seventh Wave. Give -away question: What is your favourite wave, be it art, music or actual surfing wave?

Catch up with Paul on Facebook.

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Book Giveaway, Creativity, Editing and Revision, Nourish the Writer, Plotting, Publishers, Visiting Writer, Writing Craft | Tagged: , | 19 Comments »