Sunday, September 16, 2018

Writing Contests

As the editorial director of Intrigue Publishing I submit our books for various contests. Today I got to send five of our latest releases to the International Thriller Writers for their annual awards. Could one of our novels be chosen as best paperback original or first novel of the year? And what if they are?
While I believe that one of our books really might be the best thriller of the year, I harbor no illusions that we are likely to beat out the publishing giants who send all their books in as well (unless one year Deaver, Gilstrap, Heather Graham, et al decide to take a year off writing.) However, the judging is blind and there are tons of books to judge so you never know when an unknown might get placed on the list of nominees. I say this from experience: I was one of the paperback judges one year and it is a monumental job! But aside from ego gratification, what does an author get from such contests.

I don’t honestly think readers really care if your book wins an ITW award, or an Edgar award or a Bram Stoker or a Hugo. I don’t think these awards do much for sales – at least not directly.

What they DO nudge is the industry’s opinion of a writer. Winning one of these awards makes publishers, agents and editors view you differently. They make reviewers more likely to comment on your next work. They make book sellers more likely to want to carry your books. So, they do matter.

These awards also give the publisher a boost. A big win like the ITW awards would enhance our brand in the eyes of all those same industry professionals. It says we know how to pick a winner. It shines a positive light on all the rest of our line. We have had books win conference awards (the Love is Murder Lovey, the Deadly Ink best mystery award, etc.,) so now we’re chasing the bigger wins.

Writers should not be misled by awards that require them to pay a fee to be considered. Because entrants are only competing against others who decided to pay that fee, being named “best” has much less value. Industry professionals pay little attention to those contests.

So, authors, get your books up for the important awards, and encourage your publisher to put you on those lists. And give me a comment if you’ve won something and let us know how it has affected your writing career.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

One Step Beyond

Last week I posted a number of tips for building suspense, and here’s one more important one: Always be one step ahead of your readers.

As you write you must constantly be asking yourself what your reader is hoping for or wondering about each point in the story. Your job is to give them what they want, when they want it – or maybe a little later than they want it – or to add a twist so you give them more than they bargained for. How do you do that?

1.      As you develop your story, appeal to readers’ fears and phobias. Phobias are irrational fears, so to be afraid of a tarantula is not a phobia, but to be afraid of all spiders is. Most people are afraid of helplessness in the face of danger. Many are afraid of needles, the dark, heights and so on. Think of the things that frighten you most, and you can be sure many of your readers will fear them as well.

2.      Make sure you describe the setting of your story’s climax before you reach that part of the story.  This is necessary to protect your pacing.  In other words, let someone visit it earlier and foreshadow everything you’ll need for readers to picture the scene when the climax arrives. Otherwise you’ll end up stalling out the story to describe the setting, when you should be pushing through to the climax.
3.       As you build toward the climax, isolate your main character. Remove his tools, escape routes and support system (buddies, mentors, helpers or defenders). This forces him to become self-reliant and makes it easier for you to put him at a disadvantage in his final confrontation with evil.

4.      Make it personal. Don’t just have a person get abducted—let it be the main character’s son. Don’t just let the whole city be in danger—let the protagonist’s grandma live there.

Work all those elements into your story, and you will give your readers a satisfying journey and always be one step ahead of them.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Promise of Suspense

Last week I told you about creating suspense by promising things that will go wrong. My favorite scenes in the Star Wars movies grow from one inspired bit of dialog: Han Solo looks around and says, “I got a bad feeling about this.” Actually at least 5 different characters say that in the series but only Han Solo says it more than once.

When Scarlett O’Hara swears s he’ll never be hunger again.  Marley tells scrooge he’ll be visited by 3 ghosts. Or in a romance story when a jilted lover says something like, “If I can’t have her nobody will,” That’s promising bad stuff. In the romance, maybe that guy hides in the bushes until his rival shows up. The bad guy pulls his knife. The good guy looks around, looks right at the bush but doesn’t see the bad guy hidden there. He turns his back to the bad guy… Yep! Milk that moment. That’s the suspense.

But make sure that eventually you show us what happens in front of that bush. You have got to keep every promise you make, and the bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff has to be. A huge promise without the fulfillment isn’t suspense—it’s disappointment. That’s why Frodo can’t simply pull off the ring and toss it. And Rocky can’t knock out Apollo Creed with a lucky punch in the third round.
Every word in your story is a promise of some sort. If you spend a paragraph describing a woman’s fabulous shoes, those shoes better be vital to the story. The cliché is, if you show me a gun on the mantle in chapter 2, somebody better darned well aim that thing at someone before the books’ over.

Stories sometimes fail because the writers don’t make big enough promises, or they don’t fulfill them.

Another side of the promise concept is, let the characters tell readers their plans. That doesn’t mean give away all the secrets. It means show the reader the character’s agenda. Readers know something will go wrong because they know, on some level, that the story is about conflict. In the romance story I made up with the guy hiding in the bushes, that scene would be stronger if earlier we had heard the good guy tell the girl, “I’ll meet you by the bushes at 6 o’clock!” Now we’re not only worried about him getting stabbed, we also get to worry that she’ll see it, or that she might be the next victim.

I’ll share more on mastering suspense next week. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Foundations of Suspense

We’ve been talking about creating suspense in your writing the last few weeks. Narrative suspense is built out of four parts: reader empathy, impending danger, escalating tension and reader concern – or as I call it: worry.

We create reader empathy by giving your protagonist a goal or objective or an inner struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathize the better. Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be personally invested when they see that character struggling to get what he wants.

We want readers to worry about whether or not the character will succeed.  Readers have to know what the character wants so they know what’s at stake, and they have to know what’s at stake to get engaged in the story. To get readers invested in your story, make it clear what your character desires, what is keeping him from getting it; and what huge, horrible consequences he’ll face if he doesn’t get it.

Suspense builds as danger approaches. Readers experience that worry when a character they care about is in peril. This doesn’t have to be a life-and-death situation. Depending on your genre, the threat may involve the character’s physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or relational well-being. Whatever your genre, show that something terrible is about to happen—then postpone the resolution. That’s how you sustain suspense.

To get a truly satisfying climax, you need to escalate the tension. Raise the stakes by making the danger more imminent, or more intimate, or more personal or more devastating. So, if the shire is at risk in in the first film the world better be in danger at the end of the trilogy.  If the tension doesn’t escalate, your suspense will fade.

Next – give us more promises and less action. Suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences, in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.

If readers complain that “nothing is happening” in a story, they don’t usually mean no action is happening.  It usually means no promises are being made. Contrary to what you may have heard, reader boredom isn’t solved by adding action – the solution is to add apprehension. Suspense is anticipation; action is the payoff. You don’t increase suspense by adding events, but rather by promising that something will happen. So, don’t ask yourself “what needs to happen?” Ask, “What can I promise will go wrong?”

Next week I’ll give you some concrete examples of how to build suspense.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

What Kind of Suspense…?

Last time I told you that suspense is created by posing a question the reader wants answered. Variety is good, so in my own work I use three different kinds of suspense. 

There is “what’s going on here?” suspense. If you watched the tv show Lost, or more recently Colony, you know what that is. You came back every week trying to figure out what the heck was going on. 

There is also “why is this happening?” suspense.  This is what writers mean when they tell you to start the story in the middle. Perhaps your story opens with someone holding a gun in your hero’s face, saying “This is what happens to people who go poking their noses into my business.” Then you have to answer the obvious questions during the action. 

Btw, in my humble opinion, Stephen King is the best novelist alive and, also in my opinion, King writes suspense, not horror. Every Stephen King novel is a master class on how to write the “why is this happening?” style of suspense. If you don’t have time to read one of his giant books, rent the first season of his TV show Under The Dome. You’ll get the idea.

The most common kind of suspense is probably “will the hero accomplish his major goal?” That can take different forms based on the genre you write. In a mystery, where the violence usually takes place before the protagonist is involved, the question may be “who done it?” You maintain suspense there by keeping your villain one step ahead of your detective, and your reader. In a thriller the reader may be anticipating the antagonist accomplishing his goal, so the question is “how can this impending crisis or crime be averted.” The reader might know about dangers the protagonist doesn’t know about. That creates suspense. In a horror story the question may be “will the protagonist survive?” 

So as we write, how do we ratchet up the suspense to keep readers on the edge of their seats? To an extent this depends on characterization and conflict. The first key to creating suspense is to create characters that readers care about, and then put those characters in jeopardy.

Next week we’ll discuss the foundations of narrative suspense, so don’t worry (that’s for the reader to do!)

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Keep Them in Suspense

Last week we discussed the importance of a scene list. While you are making that list you have to remember to set things up to create suspense. All readers love drama, as long as it’s not in their own lives. The key to suspense in a short story is to set up a dramatic question.

In a horror story it could be as simple as “will he survive the zombie apocalypse?” In a romance it could be “will she get the man of her dreams?” The point is to make clear that the protagonist’s fate is in doubt. That’s what makes the reader want to know what will happen next. To do this successfully you need to say less not more. Carefully restrict how much information you give the reader. Nothing destroys drama like telling too much too soon.

 Suspense is what keeps people turning the pages, no matter what genre of story it is.  In some genres suspense may be thought of as frustration.  The reader wants to know something, and the writer keep saying, “I’ll tell you in a minute.” By the time that minute is over the story is done.  If you write thrillers or that subgenre we call suspense, the word worry might work better.

 I first learned about suspense when I read the Tarzan novels.  Edgar Rice Burroughs had an interesting technique for holding his readers’ attention.  After the first book every story featured both Tarzan and Jane.  They always took off on some adventure, and they always got separated. So, you might see Tarzan running thru the jungle – he comes face to face with a lion – the lion roars – he pulls his knife.  The lion jumps at him and…

The chapter ends and we’re following Jane.  She’s lost so she climbs a tree.  She finds herself on the limb with a huge snake.  It gets closer.  She’s about to fall out of the tree.  The snake rises, about to strike and…

The chapter ends. We see Tarzan grapple with the lion, but the whole time we’re watching Tarzan, I’m worrying about Jane. At the time I found this kind of thing very frustrating – but fun.  I learned that people like to be frustrated this way.

So, suspense is created by posing a question the reader wants answered. For variety, there are different kinds of suspense. I’ll spell a few of them out next week.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Making the Scene

The last few weeks we’ve been preparing to write a short story. We’ve found the actual story, chosen a protagonist and focused on the importance of that first sentence. The next step is to break your story down into scenes. 

Every good piece of fiction, regardless of length, is composed of a set of scenes. Each one takes place in a specific time and place. You’ll want to make a list. The scene list helps you organize your story. Not only does this approach lend some structure to your story, but it makes it easy to see which part needs more details or more work. And just like a novel outline there’s no law that you have to follow that list exactly. But if you’re like me and write the story in more than one sitting it will help you work thru the story.

I don’t imagine your short story will have too many scenes, but every one will be important to your story. I know you’ve heard the saying “show don’t tell” a thousand times. Keep it in mind as you make your scene list. When anything happens in your story that is interesting, or that changes the fate of your protagonist, don’t tell us about it. Show it in a scene. Your readers deserve to see the best parts of the story play out in front of them.
I’d suggest your scene list have four columns:

Point of View (POV)  Summary:
One sentence about the scene:
Planned word count:
Actual word count:

The great unintended consequence of this plan is that you can’t do it until you have your major plot points pinned down. This list kind of forces you to flesh them out.

If you’re working on a novel I would consider doing this too – only in an excel spreadsheet or something. But for the short story it puts everything in front of you, all nice and organized. You can see where there’s a scene missing (Hmmm… How did I get from here to there?) and it’s easy to see where a new scene belongs.

While you are making your list of scenes don’t forget to set things up to create suspense. All readers love drama, as long as it’s not in their own lives. The key to suspense is to set up a dramatic question. I’ll details how to go about that next week.