Tag: #writingtips

#writingtips

Talking Suspense with Jaden Terrell.

We met this spring when you flew up from Nashville to speak to the New York Chapter of Sisters in Crime. You gave a fascinating presentation on craft. Afterwards, you and I had quite the discussion about what makes for good suspense. You were rather persuasive. So, will you explain what you think makes for I-cannot-put-this-book-down suspense? Thank you. Alison. That was a lively conversation, and as I remember, you were pretty persuasive yourself. I’m a big proponent of Donald Maass’s mantra, “Tension on every page,”  and I think suspense is tightly connected to that. But I also think writers interpret it too narrowly. They add bickering, car chases, explosions, and fight scenes in hopes of raising the stakes and heightening suspense. But we’ve all read books that had non-stop action and yet came across as flat or even humdrum. That happens when the writer forgets to give the reader an emotional stake in the story.

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POV In Setting A Scene

Clouds loomed over the ocean, a gathering black mass in the darkening evening that gradually assumed the shape of a ghostly pirate ship moored to the horizon. Light crackled in the dense fog like the flash of light before cannon fire. The expected blasts never sounded. The squall, visible as day over the dark, still water, was still too far away for thunder. Lightening can be seen for fifty miles or more, though. The storm was silent. But it was coming.  If I were writing a new thriller, this is how I might describe the electrical storm my husband and I witnessed last night in the North Fork of Long Island. The tone is foreboding. The clouds are likened to a pirate ship; the lightening flashes to cannons. Pirates and war are never welcome. The POV character describing the storm is not an optimist. She or he is anticipating something bad happening. Perhaps there’s something in his or her past that explains this sense of dread. Perhaps he or she just senses something about to go awry in the future. Either way, the person seeing this storm is not in a romantic comedy. In real life, I’m in the midst of a family vacation. The worst I am expecting is a tantrum or two from my four-year-old. If I were to describe the storm as myself, I’d use very different language. Something more like this:  Thick clouds settled in on the horizon, a blackout curtain hung low enough to allow the first stars to peak from above. I snuggled deeper into my husband’s side, placing my head on his pectoral rather than his sunburned shoulder. I remembered the opera. We went every year for my birthday. I loved the drama of it all. The heavy curtains. The ornate chandelier. The vocal acrobatics. This might be better.  The clouds began flashing as though behind the curtain a thousand papparazos snapped the performers photos.  Anticipation thrilled through me followed by a pang of motherly guilt. The kids would miss quite a show. Maybe I should wake them? Then again, they could spoil this. They were young enough to be scared by lightening, to fear the sudden thunder cracks or complain about the quickening wind, unable to fully understand that the steady brush against our skin was the only reason anyone could be outside at this feeding hour. Mosquitoes and no-see-ums rage against the dying light. Any other way, we’d be eaten alive.   Not tonight. The lightening flashed. The sky whitened like daylight and then switched to black. God flicking the switch. Night. Morning. Night. Morning. Every strike was better than fireworks. Brighter without the battering of my ears. The storm was far away enough to enjoy. Close enough to smell. The air held the fresh scent of electrified oxygen. I inhaled the atmosphere and leaned deeper into my spouse’s side. It would be at least an hour before the rain. We would enjoy every minute of it.   

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The Readers in My Head

I write for me. But editing that way would be too selfish.  At night, when I pour over whatever I penned earlier in the day, I try to wrest myself from my characters’ heads and my own mind and place myself in the heads of three people: my dad, my closest friend from elementary school, and my agent. Each person is very different. And, if I can please these imagined readers, I feel good about continuing my story.  My father is the critic. A sixty-six-year-old, soon-to-be retired accountant, my father scrutinizes stories like a balance sheet, searching for mistakes and plot failings. He wants to point out that something didn’t make sense or that a character’s actions were “unbelievable.” He refuses to allow well-crafted sentences to seduce him into an easy suspension of disbelief. Reading with my father in mind forces me to constantly ask myself whether or not I’ve done enough work to make my characters’ actions natural. If my fiction doesn’t feel truthful, my dad’s voice will accuse me of lying with all the venom of a parent thinking of a punishment for breaking curfew. I’ll need to go back to the drawing board.  My closest friend from elementary school is probably the person in this world most similar to me. She reads often. She likes stories. She enjoys being entertained. However, she’s a super busy working mother with a ton of responsibility. She doesn’t have time for tales that don’t keep the pages turning. If my story is not exciting and the characters are not compelling, she’s going to put it down–even though it was written by her best friend. There are just too many other pressing things demanding her attention. When I’m editing, I imagine her reading my book after putting the children to sleep. Does she place it on the nightstand because she’s tired or can she not help herself even though she knows her kids will wake up early the next morning and she’ll have to get them all ready for camp before heading to the office? If I can still have her imagined attention, then I’m telling an exciting story.  My agent is the seasoned professional. She’s read so many thrillers that few plots seem original and few stories aren’t predictable. She is my barometer for genre aficionados. If I can surprise her with a twist–or at least delay the inevitable guessing until the third act–then I may have something that will please serious mystery readers.  If, in my head, I’ve kept these three people interested in my story, then I’ve done a good job writing something that I can take pride in. If not, I need to write something better the next day when I’m back to being me.   

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Writing What Scares You

Whenever I am promoting a book, I get asked: How did you come up with the idea for the story? Invariably, the answer is that something scared the crap out of me. I had to explore and, hopefully, overcome my new fear by spending the next six months immersed in it. With my first book, Dark Turns, it was my daughter that spurred the fear-related obsession. She was three and enrolled in a serious ballet class–at least relative to all the cutesy baby ballet classes in the area. My child seemed to enjoy the discipline and the private attention that came with the group’s small enrollment. However, I worried about the physical demands of the class and all that rigor destroying her burgeoning love of movement and expression. One day, the teacher excitedly showed me my daughter performing a saddle split. She had her press against a cement wall and then pushed her pelvis against the concrete until both legs stuck out on either side. My kid smiled at me proudly and then her eyes started to water because achieving that extra inch of flexibility HURT. (This pic was a precursor to it.) I had a well controlled panic attack. Questions ran through my brain as I smiled and clapped. What does it do to a person taught to push herself beyond the limits of her physical comfort from age three? Should my child be this serious about anything at this point? If she continues on this path, what will all the rigor and pushing do to her psychologically?  The book that resulted is an exploration of the worst answers I could think of to those questions. The next year, I enrolled my kid in a more fun dance class that focuses on flexibility, though less intensely. If she still has a passion for ballet at eight, she can return to a more intense version. (Meanwhile, I hope I didn’t destroy the next Sara Mearns.) For my new book, The Widower’s Wife, it was fear of our new mortgage that spurred my writing.My husband and I had purchased a house in the suburbs and paying for it was (and is) dependent upon his salary. I began worrying about what would happen if he lost his job in another financial crisis/housing crisis/Great Recession. It would be difficult for him to secure employment immediately and, if the house declined in value at the same time, we would find ourselves extremely overburdened in a year or so. My salary would never make the payments. How would we recover? How easy would it be to downsize? How would my husband stomach downsizing?  I like to think that we both would be fine. We’d move away from the city. We’d use our skills differently. But… The characters in The Widower’s Wife–particularly the husband figure–are nothing like me or my spouse. As a result, the answers to my concerns are much more dramatic than they ever would be should the worst strike my family. Still, the initial fear lead me down the rabbit hole in which I found my story.           

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Turning Myself In, Getting The Word Out

I flip back the calendar page. I’m late with these things. For me, the month does not officially change until the Monday following the first. Already, August is marked. A circle surrounds the box for the ninth. Scrawled inside in my ever-evolving shorthand are two words: “Launch day.”  My second book, The Widower’s Wife, comes out Tuesday.  For me, a book launch is a painful metamorphosis. I am someone who hides out for hours in the sparsely decorated office above the garage, hunched over a laptop, listening to the wind beyond the window and the voices in my head whispering of mysteries and murders. Now, I must transform into an author who talks about her book, blogs about her book. Sells her book.  Certainly, I’m proud of my new thriller. But I was raised, like most people, not to brag or grandstand. If you do something you’re happy with, be humble, don’t say, “look at me and what I did. Have you seen the reviews!!!??? Check it out.  Buy it now!”  Yet, if you’re an author, that’s part of the job description. You can be, perhaps, a bit more subtle. But you have to get the word out about your work. There are radio interviews, blog tours, visits to book clubs, conferences and, if you’re lucky (read: famous), a publisher-paid-for bookstore tour. If you don’t do these things, you run the risk of being labeled a “writer”–not an author. Someone who fells trees in the forest and is happy to have no one hear the sounds.  So, how do you get the word out? Well, blogs are one way. There are different opinions on how often to blog. Daily seems to be the minimum. Search Engines check for fresh content. And, while hacking Google’s search algorithm is akin to cracking MIT’s time-lock puzzle, everyone knows that stale web sites tend to drop in the results.  But how do you write and still have time to get the word out? One way is to team up with other writers and divide up the work. Missdemeanors is a group of great women writers all seeking to share personal anecdotes and tips on the writing process, publishing and the writing life. We switch off weeks so that no single person has the burden of finishing her latest novel and keeping a daily blog up-to-date.  I am happy to be included in this bunch. And, so, I’m turning myself in and getting the word out:  My name is Cate Holahan. I write mysteries, invent murders and imagine all sorts of twisted scenarios. And if those are misdemeanors, well, guilty as charged.   

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