Creating Tension

Ropetrailer2Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rope isn’t a movie that I like to re-watch because I always feel uncomfortable in a story where the murderer is the protagonist. But it’s a great example of how to create tension. In the picture above, the murderers are being confronted by the one person in the story smart enough to figure out what they’ve done, which is murder a man and hide his body in a trunk.

The murderers and the ‘detective’ are in the background. Hitchcock put the trunk with the dead body in the foreground of the shot. He always kept the tension right in front of the audience.

I have to resist the urge to keep everything secret from the reader until the Great Reveal. That doesn’t produce tension so much as it produces annoyance. It’s far more effective to use suspense instead of surprise.

Hitchcock had the right idea. if the audience can see the danger coming, the tension is high. You’ve caught their attention and they want to know what happens next.

Note to self: Twists in the story are great. But if given the choice, go with suspense every time.

Reviews: the good, the bad, the ugly

Isaac Asimov once listened to someone giving a lecture that explained in detail his personal theory of what one of Asimov’s stories meant. After the lecture, Asimov came up to the man and kindly pointed out that while the man’s theory was ingenious, it was also completely off base regarding the story. When the man asked why he was so sure, Asimov said “Because I wrote it.” I loved the man’s response.

“… tell me, what makes you think, just because you are the author of ‘Nightfall,’ that you have the slightest inkling of what is in it?”
-Gotthard Guenther

The other day, I read a blog written by an author who, some years back, wrote a critical review of a book. It wasn’t nasty, there was good and bad in the review, but now he is wondering if perhaps he should not leave the review up. Other authors chimed in to agree, saying less-than-positive reviews aren’t helpful for the author.

I have to say that I don’t agree with that point of view. I don’t think the point of a review is to be helpful or hurtful to a writer. It’s written by a reader and is helpful to other readers. Reviews are opinions and as such as wholly subjective and not designed to be anything else.

Reviews are not written about what the author put into the book; they’re about what the reader got out of the book. Just because I wrote a book doesn’t mean that I know what’s in it. Not, that is, from the reader’s point of view.

Reading a book is a joint effort between the author and the reader. What I get out of a book is not necessarily what the author put into the book, because my experience of reading it is shaped by the mood I’m in, my past experiences, etc.  There’s no point in an author getting upset about a review, arguing with the reviewer, saying “you just don’t understand.” What they got out of the book is their experience, not yours.

I have bought books based on one-star reviews that I read in Amazon, because the reviewers mentioned why they disliked the book, and the things they called out would not bother me. On the other hand, I’ve read five-star reviews that deterred me from buying the book. If the reader thinks the book is wonderful even though it’s riddled with grammatical errors, I know I will be too distracted by the poor writing to enjoy the book. That’s just me.

Note: when I’m talking about a review, I’m talking about someone’s honest opinion about what they liked and what they didn’t like. I am not talking about one of those reviewers who enjoys being witty at someone’s expense. That’s someone who enjoys being cruel. It’s got nothing to do with whether the book is good or bad, often I suspect the person skimmed the book if they read it at all.

I’m coming from the perspective of someone who’s spent the last 20+ years writing books. Granted, they were non-fiction and usually only reviewed by engineers, but I wrote ’em,  my livelihood depended on them, and I got the equivalent of some one-star reviews. Not fun. However. As a professional writer, I considered it part of the job not to get upset or argue with someone’s opinion. If I write a book, I will sweat over it, bleed over it, angst over it, but then I will let it go. If you don’t like it, that’s your prerogative. You probably love books that I can’t stand. And that’s okay.

P.S. Blog posts are also subjective. The above is my opinion. I won’t feel hurt if you give this post a one-star comment.

What do you do when the book stalls?

Kulikov Writer E.N.Chirikov 1904
I’m judging entries in the Golden Heart contest again this year. It’s like pulling out gifts from a grab bag; you never know if what you get is going to be something you like. So far I’ve read a couple stories that fell into the “well, it’s okay” category and one that absolutely made me sit up and want more.

I think the “it’s okay” stories might be published after some re-writing, but I’m curious to see what happens to the “Wow!” story. I’ve read stories in contests that were better than most published books that I’ve come across — and yet I never see the stories published. (I do look. These are stories that made it to the finals of their contests, so I could google the author’s name.) So either the author published under a different name and title or… they never published at all.

A lot of manuscripts are contest winners because the first few chapters are incredible, and the rest of the book goes downhill faster than a slalom run. But if these authors were that wonderful in their early chapters, I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t polish the rest of the story as well, given time and persistence.

And that, I think, is the problem. Persistence. Especially when you’ve been listening to inner voices (or outer ones) that say you can’t finish. Or facing the fact that you’re simply not sure what to do to finish the book.

Napoleon Hill built a whole career writing books with titles such as “Think and Grow Rich.” His philosophy on how to succeed boils down to these steps:

  1. Try something.
  2. If it doesn’t work, analyze why.
  3. Try something different, based on what you learned in step 2.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until you succeed.

That’s where I’m at right now with the manuscript I’m revising. One chapter is falling flat and I am analyzing why it doesn’t feel like it’s working. I’m trying different ways to write it to find a way to that works. Not exciting, but it’s still progress.

Writer’s Digest wrote a post on how to resurrect a stalled manuscript.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. A chrysanthemum by any other name would be easier to spell.

 

Batten - Europa'sFairyTales
Alternate title: stop hiding in my bushes, you stalker! (Well, she does look like she’s fed up with him in this picture.)

Where does a writer get the title for their book?

Not a rhetorical question. When I first wrote up the one-paragraph blurb for the Manuscript Matchmaker contest, I blithely slapped on a title without much thought. The story was about a woman who is fighting to keep her homestead claim and her fiancé, so Claiming His Heart seemed to fit. Then I got to the end of the story, then to the end of the rewrites, and I looked back at that title from the perspective of hundreds of pages and wondered if it really fit after all.

The trouble was, I had no idea what to suggest as a replacement. Now I’m brainstorming, writing down every title I can think of without judging it too harshly (yet).

This blog post has some excellent ideas on ways to find a good title, including these suggestions:

  • What role does the hero play in the story? Is he a troublemaker? A peace maker? A quilt maker?
  • What is the heroine’s career? A firefighter, a teacher, a detective?
  • Can you use the setting of the story in the title?
  • Scan through the story and see if you can find any catch phrases that would work as a title

Rant: Prologues, or how to make this reader put down a book quickly

Your opening pages are the first impression the reader has of your story. Don’t throw them away.

When I’m reading, I want to imprint onto a character and follow them about, seeing the world through their eyes. I’ve learned to tolerate two points of view, since that’s endemic in Romance novels these days, but any more than that and I become less invested in the characters. I start to lose interest.

One common mistake that I see new writers make is starting out a story with a prologue. Almost invariably, the prologue is in the point of view of a character that I’m not going to meet again for several chapters, maybe not until the end of the book. This is throwing away your prime time slot on a character who does not play an active role in the story.

As I read the story, I’m still waiting in the back of my mind for this original character to come back. They’re the one I first met in this world. I imprinted on them. Starting off with someone who then disappears is a great way of ensuring that I’m never going to be fully involved in the main POV characters. It weakens the link I have to the story and makes it much easier for me to put the book down.

I’ve heard authors argue that this POV character is going to make sense once the reader makes it to the end of the story. That assumes that the reader is going to care enough to make it to the end. Why should they care? You’re telling them you have a big secret and they have to finish the book to find out what it is. As a reader, my response is “So what? I don’t see any point in learning this secret. It feels like you’re playing a game with me. If you don’t give me a reason to care, I’m going to feel manipulated.”

The whole reason I start to read a book is that I’m looking for a reason to care. You need to hook my interest within the first few pages or I’m going to put your book down and go find something else to do. Don’t waste your first pages on a prologue or on a character who isn’t going to show up again until the end of the story. If the information is so important to the story, slip it into the active story line bit by bit. If the character is so important to the story, make them the main POV character of the story.

Ferry tales are for dreamers

Arthur Rackham 1909 Undine (10 of 15)
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” – Albert Einstein

“The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed.” -G.K. Chesterton

Once upon a time, I went to grad school. One of the seminars was on Children’s Literature. It turned out to be the site of the fiercest arguments and the most passionate advocates of any class I ever attended.

Most of my fellow students were teachers in schools where the majority of the student body had parents who were themselves not literate, or who didn’t speak English as their first language, or who were so preoccupied with trying to keep a roof over their head that they didn’t have time to sit down and read to their children.

These teachers formed a cadre, united by their passionate belief that it was absolutely wrong to try to teach children fairy tales, or any kind of fantasy at all. In their opinion, literature’s sole function was to serve as a mirror. It reflected back to the reader exactly the reality that the reader saw all around them. Their fear was that children would not become interested in reading if they read about worlds different from their own.Arthur Rackham 1909 Undine (3 of 15)

I was in the other camp. To me, literature should be a window, not a mirror. It lets you look out onto landscapes you would never see otherwise. Sometimes when you look out of a window, you catch sight of your own reflection there. It never looks quite the same as the you in the mirror though. This is like looking at yourself from the outside and seeing a new side of you.

Terry Pratchett wrote an essay about the importance of fantasy for children:

… let’s not get frightened when children read fantasy. It is the compost for a healthy mind. It stimulates the inquisitive nodes. It may not appear as ‘relevant’ as books set more firmly in the child’s environment, or whatever hell the writer believes to be the child’s environment, but there is some evidence that a rich internal fantasy life is as good and necessary for a child as healthy soil is for a plant, for much the same reasons.

The cadre were right about one thing: not everyone is going to enjoy reading fantasy or science fiction or anything that does not reflect the immediate world around them. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be introduced to these stories. For some students, the experience is like opening the door on a whole new world and stepping into your kingdom. You don’t know which group a child is going to fall into until you let them discover for themselves what they like.

Let the children explore. Let them read fairy stories. They might become ferry tales, carrying them into a different world to help them understand their own.