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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.

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 »

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 »

Dynamic Dialogue

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on April 23, 2011

Last week Rita asked about ‘beats’ in dialogue.  This was a term I had only seen used in plays or scripts when the author leaves a ‘beat’ before the character answers to create suspense.

It appears the term ‘beat’ has been applied by writers as a form of tag, only this tag drives the story forward with action or reveal character reaction.

A dialogue tag can be:

‘How dare you!’ she said.

It can also be:

She slammed the mug down on the table. ‘How dare you!’

In this case the action is the tag because it identifies the speaker and tells us how the character is feeling. And this is what people are calling ‘beats’. It is what I was told was an ‘action tag’ when I first started writing.

For a fuller explanation with an example see here where Marisa Wright talks about effective dialogue.  And here there’s Tara McClendon’s explanation of how to use beats to bring dialogue to life.

Here we have the redoubtable Richard’s thoughts on dialogue, from his 145 pages of writing tips.  He talks about keeping dialogue lively. And here from Judy Cullins are examples of how to spice up your dialogue.

Here is a free online workshop from Holly Lisle on writing dialogue. She says ‘Dialogue is about demonstrating character through conflict, either internal or external’. In this section on pacing, she talks about how to speed up dialogue and how to slow it down.

ROR has covered dialogue in the past in Convincing First Person Narrative and Primal Emotions.

Thanks to Rita for bringing this up. Using these kind of action dialogue tags is something we’ve all been doing but putting this post together has made me review the process and now I’m itching to get back to the clean up of The Outcast Chronicles and make sure I’m using all of my dialogue tags as effectively as possible!

Posted in Editing and Revision, Good Dialogue, Nourish the Writer, Point of View, Writing Opportunities | Tagged: , , , | 2 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 »

Coming back to that Manuscript …

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on February 5, 2011

Sally from the VISION Writers list asked for a post on:

‘How to find your way back into a story when you’ve been away for awhile’? With either the writing or re-writing process. I think skilful, seasoned writers might probably say – don’t leave in the first place! But life just happens, sometimes. And it feels like the story grows a tough hide in the meantime, that’s hard to pierce through and get back inside of. Tried and true ways to get back inside?’

Sally, this really hit a nerve with me.

I’ve spent since July last year working on The Outcast Chronicles trilogy that was written 6 years or more ago. Normally, if I come back to something, I’ll read it from beginning to end, let it brew for a bit, then tackle it once I have a vision for the whole thing. But because this was a complete trilogy of 500 pages each book, I couldn’t do this. So I re-read the synopsis (spelling plural?) and plunged into the clean up rewrite, while also bearing in mind the requests from my editor, based on his reading of the synopsis.

This has proved really challenging, with major changes happening, books ending in different spots, sub plots taking on large significance and one character’s age changing.  All of this had a roll-on effect and I’ve been riding the roller coaster of reworking the trilogy ever since.

So I asked the ROR group for their input and Nicole Murphy, author of the Secret Ones series volunteered her tips for getting back into a manuscript.

Nicole Murphy - Photo courtesy Cat Sparks

Nicole says:

In terms of having breaks in the writing – that’s one of the reasons I left a mentally-intensive job (journalism) and went into a mentally easy job (supermarket). At the checkouts I had to concentrate, but when I was wandering about putting up stock or tidying up displays, I often found myself working through where I was up to next in the story, so when I did get the chance to sit back down I knew where I was headed next.

For editing I have to leave the story alone – I can’t edit straight away, I need the break in order to look at it objectively. Only requires a few weeks, but necessary. I’ve got a bad habit of only seeing what I think should be on a page, rather than not what’s really there if I look at it again too soon (my English teacher used to go spare over this).

One thing I like to do (which is easy when you’re working on a series) is when I’m putting one book down, I work on drafting/editing another. It keeps me in the world, but not engaged with those characters (except in a minor way) or with that part of the storyline. However, this often leads to insights and understandings about the book I’m not working on that helps me when I come back to working on it – a good thing.

Otherwise, I have a series of things I use to get back into the story. One is to re-read and re-discover the story. You’ll sometimes here people say ‘don’t read what you’ve written, keep writing’ but sometimes you need the reminder. I use some meta-documents such as scene outlines and colour charts to help me look at the book objectively and see where its flaws and weaknesses are.

One more thing – I think we can get so caught up in the idea of ‘I’m a writer and I have to keep writing, regardless of what happens’ and to a certain extent, that’s true, particularly if you get a contract. But I also believe that there are times when life just says ‘Dude, settle – give yourself a break, you’re doing fine and it will all work out’. I had a couple of years where I barely wrote a word of fiction (it was all in my work at the newspaper) and I just trusted that it would work out. Sure enough when the time was right, I picked up the trilogy again (after a four year break) and sold it two years later. So find what works for you and do that.

Richard Harland, author of the hugely successful Worldshaker series says.

Good question, Sally, and I love your metaphor of the hide that grows on the abandoned story – like skin on hot milk when you let it go cold. You’ve already undercut my first response, which would be, Don’t leave it behind in the first place. For me, more than a week away means a major struggle to get back into the groove; more than a month away, and I usually end up rewriting everything I’ve already written. I think the story, world and characters are like a dream at the back of my mind; and if I go away for too long, they fade like a dream too.

So my first advice would be, try to add a tiny bit to the story every day or every second day, even if it’s only a sentence or a single short paragraph. Keep it turning over, keep it alive in your mind. Failing that, I guess all you can do is re-read and hope to recapture the thread. But it’s a huge drag!

And Margo Lanagan four times World Fantasy Winner (I love saying that!) and author of lots of things, but Tender Morsels is most recent, says:

1. Read what you’ve written, right through. Make marginal notes about what you MIGHT do, ideas for scenes, bits of dialogue you hear, atmospheres you feel from the existing material. Also, it’ll be very clear, as you read, where chunks are missing/overwritten. Mark these places. You might be able to jump right in at this point, but…

2. If you still haven’t got a handle on the story after the read-through, consult the scrapbook you made for it. If you didn’t make one, assemble one now; for a short story, a double-page spread might be enough, or even a single picture, if you find the right picture. Try and be relaxed and open while you put this together, ready to approach the story from a number of different angles. This step might get you going again, but…

3. Still tense and panicked? Hold the story and the pictures in your head while you do something mechanical (washing dishes) or physical (swimming laps). Focus on entry points for one or more scenes, either old scenes that you’re now repairing/rewriting, or entirely new ones that are going to drag the story off in a different direction. Just gently prod your imagination to work on some bit of the story, doesn’t matter what bit. I’d be very surprised if you haven’t got going by now, but…

4. Tell yourself, ‘I’ll just finish off THAT scene,’ or ‘I’ll just write TWO PAGES’. Sit down and write. Have a number of places-to-start at your fingertips, so that if that scene doesn’t work you can jump in again from another direction.

5. Keep going. The rest is doggedness.

 

I’d have to agree there is a very large component of Determination. It has been like a sauna here in Brisbane. I’ve been sitting at the computer with heat radiating off the screens, a wet washer on the back of my neck, writing. As long as I meet my page quota each day I’ll be OK.

So there you are, Sally. Hope this helps.

Anyone else have tips for how they get back into a manuscript?

Posted in Creativity, Editing and Revision, Genre Writing, Nourish the Writer, Plotting, Point of View, Research, World Buildng, Writing Craft, Writing goals | Tagged: , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Sally’s insight into the Allen&Unwin/QWC Children’s Manuscript Development Program

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 4, 2010

When I heard that Vision member Sally had been offered a place in the Allen and Unwin/QWC Children’s Manuscript Development Program I thought ‘You lucky thing!’ So I invited her along to ROR, now Sally is going to share her insights with us.

Oh, I like A A Bell’s opening so I’m gonna steal it  – Greetings fellow speculators!

 

 

Rowena has asked me to tell a bit about the amazing experience that was the inaugural Allen & Unwin / Queensland Writers Centre children’s literature manuscript development program. So – the basics first off: I was fortunate enough to be one of the 10 selected participants (from I think about 230 applicants nationwide) in this 5 day program that ran out of the QWC in Brisbane’s lovely new State Library. The submission process was this: you sent off your first 50 pages of a (supposedly!) complete first draft, after which you might’ve made it onto the longlist of 40, which then got whittled down to 10 successful applicants. Three of these spaces were reserved for residents of QLD.

After we had been notified of our success, we then had 72 hours to get our whole manuscript to the QWC. Gulp. I had a whole first draft, yes, but I was in the early stages of the rewrite and radical changes were afoot. I really had had no expectation of being selected, so I was hopelessly disorganised when I got the call. I had to scramble to patchwork together something vaguely cohesive and sent it off with a shrug, thinking, oh well, maybe now they’ll be sorry they picked me!

I’ve gone fuzzy on time now, but I think it was then a couple of months before the actual program, which ran from the 15-20 October, with all accomodation and most meals catered for (the food was great, by the way! Thanks Chef Stick!). In that meantime I barely looked at the manuscript, figuring my rewrite plan might’ve needed to be thrown out the window after the consultation with the editors from Allen & Unwin. So it all seemed a bit distant and dreamlike.

And then I was there, having drinkies and nibblies in the Red Box in the State Library overlooking the glittering lights on the Brisbane River and hobnobbing with Anna McFarlane and Eva Mills (the children’s lit editors from A&U) and the nine other participants, and the lovely staff of QWC. Needless to say, this shy little country girl from Nth NSW ended up gravitating towards chatting with the chef and drinking far too much wine that first night!

The first full day of the program was set aside for our one-on-one hour-long consultations with the A&U editors. Eva Mills had read my MS and of course she had amazingly astute feedback to give me. What thrilled me most was how easy it was to talk with her, how open to and encouraging she was of my pretty intuitive style of working. It felt so natural to discuss the story with her, we slipped into an organic, fluid sort of workshopping of various issues, which was just the kind of discussion I had been so hungry for. I wanted to take her home with me! Also, my story engages with some Indigenous Australian themes and she had some great experience and advice to share with me on what has been my biggest issue with this MS.

All in all I was left with a feeling of great encouragement after this session. Eva told me my rewrite was working just fine thus far and to just keep doing what I’d been doing. And to send it to her when I was done. Wow! I think this was the strangest, most wonderful feeling of all throughout the program – the sense that the door is open, and that it’s now just up to me to give it my absolute best when it comes to walking through.

The following four days were also incredibly rich. Each morning until lunch we had a group session with various industry professionals. On one day we had a round-table discussion with Eva and Anna, accompanied by Tara Wynne of Curtis Brown literary agency and the very lovely and generous Michael Gerard Bauer, who was our writer mentor for the entire program. The following day we had a session about children’s writing networks, with Helen Bain from the Brisbane-based Speakers Ink booking agency, Beth Green from the QLD branch of Children’s Book Council and Kelly Dunham from the Voices on the Coast children’s literature festival.

The day after that we learnt all about the industry from a bookseller’s perspective via Emily from Riverbend Bookstore. We were so inspired by her telling us that the children’s and young adult sections take up the bulk of the floorspace of the store that a bunch of us hopped on the ferry down to Bulimba that afternoon! And yes – the kids’ section is brilliant!

The final session was run by Angela Slatter of QWC who did a great job of pulling all the threads together. As a fairly newly established author herself, it was really helpful getting that perspective on the industry, as well. She had lots of good tips. One of the things she said that stuck most was that this is an industry made of relationships (so be polite to everyone, because everyone knows everyone!).

As a kind of shy person, I’ve always felt a bit scared of this aspect of the industry, this ‘networky’ thing we’re all supposed to do. But I think one of the key things I took from the program as a whole was that it doesn’t have to be scary at all, in fact, it can be rather wonderful making relationships and yes, friendships with people who at the heart of it all, are all people who love books and writing and stories – ie. MY KIND OF PEOPLE! The feeling I got, too, was that, like the speculative fiction community, children’s literature people are a kind of tribe too, there is a sense of camaraderie and support and just general nice-ness. So I have chosen very well, I’ve decided, in my genre/market division leanings!

Overall, the program was simply a brilliant experience. I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity this has given me, with the open, encouraging door at Allen & Unwin awaiting my rewritten MS. And I feel incredibly proud of the QWC for being such a shit-hot, professional body that has publishers like A&U approaching them to run such programs!

Lastly I want to acknowledge my fellow participants Ann, Jill, Fiona, Sean, Helena, Sam, Jenny, David and Maude. Meeting these lovely people was as much of a blessing as the open door to the publisher.

Sally Newham

Sally Newham lives in a shack by a creek in Nth NSW where she is working on her first fantasy/steampunk novel (when she is not procrastinating, or baking organic sourdough bread, which is what pays the bills at present).

Feel free to ask Sally questions.

 

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Characterisation, Creativity, Editors, Genre Writing, Mentorships, Nourish the Writer, Pitching, Plotting, Point of View, Publishing Industry, Visiting Writer, Writing Craft, Writing for children, Writing for Young Adults, Writing Opportunities | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Characterisation through View Point, revealed by Action

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on July 24, 2010

Something that Richard said in his post during the week got me thinking about characterisation.

‘I find I’m creating characters in pairs or multiples or contexts – they only exist when they start bouncing off one another, or bouncing off their contact with a particular setting or turn of events. Sometimes the character comes before the setting or turn of events,  and sometimes vice versa – but never a character on his/her own, not any more.’

This is so true. I found myself showing the movie The Princess Bride to my class the other day and when it came to the fight scenes, I said, Now watch closely. The reason these scenes are gripping is because the people stay in character while they fight.

When Westly (the man in black) fights each of the three men who have been sent to kidnap the princess, each fight is different, each requires a different skill and he wins in a different way.

Inigo believes himself to be such a skilled swordsman he has to fight left-handed, or there is no fun in it for him. When he swaps to his right hand and they continue, the man in black smiles. Why? Because he is not left-handed either.

The giant doesn’t think it is very sportsman like to hide behind a boulder and throw rocks. When the man in black knocks the giant out, he says, I do not envy you the headache you will have when you wake. Sleep well and dream of large women.

When the man in black comes up against the Sicilian, he defeats him using his wits. And even in his last battle with the Prince, Westley plays on the Prince’s cowardice to defeat him.

You can only write these kind of scenes if you know your characters well enough for them to stay in character while they are fighting. How the  characters behave when they interact comes down to the sort of people they are, which is Richard’s point, about characters bouncing off each other.

Action reveals character.

Here is a link to Richard’s tips for Creating Characters in Groups. For his whole section on characterisation see this link. Here’s Holly Lisle’s article on How to Create a Character. She talks about starting with a dramatic need.

Another movie which I show the kids to help explain characterisation is Blade Runner.

There’s a scene right at the end of the movie where the last replicant (android) talks about his past and comes to terms with his imminent death. He’s just saved the detective from falling off the roof. Now he sits there in the rain and talks of the things that he has seen, which will all die with him.

Lost like tears in rain.

This powerful line wasn’t in the original script. The actor came up with it, which is an achievement considering English was not Rutger Hauer’s first language.

In this case you have an actor who knew his character so well, that he knew what the character would say.

This is what the writer should be aiming for. The writer needs to become so immersed in the character that they see the world through that character’s Point of View.

I wasn’t using PoV in the traditional sense, as in how to switch from one PoV to another in a scene, but more in the sense of filtering the world and its events through the character’s perception.

A child character might blame themselves when their parents fight because they’ve been naughty.

A character who is inherently distrustful will see ulterior motives where there are none and a character who is honest, will fail to see the dishonesty in others. Sometimes a ‘good’ trait can be a failing in the right circumstance.

So there are you are – Characterisation through View Point, the evidence is in the action or reaction of your character/s.

What are your favourite movies for characterisation?

Posted in Characterisation, Point of View, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Right, Thursday is Trent’s Day

Posted by trentjamieson on April 29, 2010

Ok, I’ve promised to blog here every Thursday. Perhaps I should have prepared something earlier. I’m in the middle – if we’re generous about what constitutes middle – of a first draft of book three. This is the book that concludes a lot of story arcs. While the previous two books are relatively self-contained they did leave threads, and it’s those threads that I’m tying up, hopefully with a lot of excitement, a touch of romance, and not too many knots.

This is the fun part of writing for me. Just getting the words down, seeing what the subconscious mind does with my plans, and going with it. I know how the book ends, and have even written the ending, but there’s still enough here to surprise. And it’s those surprises that make it so much fun. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy the rewriting and the crafting of sentences and scenes, but there’s nothing more fun than surprising yourself, feeling a scene just drag you along.

Now, I have a question.

I’m a writer that writes, fairly consistently, a thousand or so words a day – though if I don’t hit it, I don’t hit it and move on. But I also have the occasional daily bursts of up to about five thousand – usually I’m wrecked the next day though, so those five thousand words might mean I can’t stand the sight of my computer screen for a day or two.

Are you a slow and steady writer. Or a word burster? Or both?

Also, check out fellow ROR member Tansy Rayner Robert’s Blog. Her entry today on what it’s like to have a book on the verge of release is just brilliant.

Posted in Genre Writing, Good Dialogue, Point of View, Writing Craft | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »

Deep Point of View

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on February 13, 2010

On Saturday, I ran a workshop on Deep Point of View. (POV or VP). The people at the workshop asked me for my notes, so I’m going to put them up here, where they can make copies of them.

But first of all there is basic Point of View. I covered it here, back in 2009. This covers basic VP types, when you would use a VP and why.

Remember to tell the scene from the VP of the person who has the most to lose. This will be the most exciting VP.

CHANGING VP.

The simplest way to change VP is to change when you start a new chapter or scene but, every now and then, you might want to change VP in the middle of scene. Maybe you want to show how the other character misunderstood something, or you want to raise tension and reveal something to the reader, that one of the protagonists doesn’t know.

To change VP mid scene you need to signal the change clearly. To do this use the character’s name and an emotive verb. Make it clear which VP you are in.

‘Annie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.’

As soon as you see a word like knew or sensed, felt, wondered or thought, you know you have to be in that character’s VP. These are subjective verbs, they rely on the character’s perception.

Then you can either switch straight away to his VP or slip into omniscient to set the scene then into his VP. Like this.

‘Annie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. (Third person VP, Hers).

The dust settled on the floor between them. (Omniscient).

Nathan coughed and wiped chalk dust off his shirt, wishing he could think of something wity to say, but he always came up with smart replies later. (His VP).’

Use VP changes sparing for greatest effect. Don’t risk losing your reader and throwing them out of the story.

DEEP PV

To write deep VP you need to know your characters. Know their background, know their motivation and their secret fears. If you think you know your characters interview them and let them answer the question in First Person. Here’s some sample questions. Your character’s responses can be quite revealing. You could come up with questions more suitable to your world if you’re writing genre.

What’s the most memorable moment from your childhood?

Are you still in touch with your childhood best friend.

What’s the most embarrassing moment?

What’s your idea of a perfect day?

If you knew you were going to die in 6 months, what would you do?

If you could change one thing about you, what would it be?

Now that you know your characters, you can write from deep in their point of view. Filter what they see through their perception.

They don’t just walk into a room, the room has significance. If they have been there before and something terrible happened and now they have to face the person who did this terrible thing again, then you have a powerful scene. Let the character’s emotions and back-story colour the way they see the world.

SHOW DON’T TELL

By showing the reader how your characters feel about a place, an event or a person, you filter the story through the character’s perception. You make it more powerful.

Use all 5 senses plus intuition.

Have your character observe others and try to work out what they are really thinking. Your character can get this wrong and you can reveal the misunderstanding using a VP change. This can add to the humour of the scene or raise the tension.

DEEP VP COMES FROM:

Creating vivid characters.

With strong motivations.

Using clear VP changes.

Using all the senses, including intuition.

Imbuing places and events with emotional significance.

Filtering the reader’s perception of the world through the character’s perception so that they feel what the character feels.

Starting our with High Stakes and then Raising the Stakes!

Now that you are aware of VP and Deep VP look at your favourite authors.

How many VPs do they use?

When do they change VP?

Why do they change it and how do they do this?

Do they imbue places and events with significance? How?

Be an informed reader. Set out to observe the writing craft in other authors’ work and apply what works for you.

Posted in Point of View, Writing Craft | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »