Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Art of Suspense

What makes a reader spend their time turning the pages of a book? In one form or another the story is compelling, it makes them want to know what happens next. The opposite is true for why someone would put down the book and go do something else. In the fiction genre category of Mysteries and Thrillers that compelling force in many instances will be suspense. Suspense can make you believe that anything could happen including the loss of a main character. Good suspense should make the reader decide to stay up reading for another thirty minutes because they have to find out what happens next. If a chapter ends and everything is okay and there is no suspense then a rewrite may be in order. That does not mean it has to be a nonstop thrill ride where your characters can't even catch their breath, but by the end of the chapter there needs to be good suspense, compelling the reader to move forward.

Now I am not the master of suspense, I believe that title still belongs to the amazing filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Now why would I bring up a filmmaker in a blog about writing books? It's my belief that there are many elements that can be taken directly from a visual story telling medium such as film and be placed directly into writing. If you look back to my previous article, Devils in the Details, I talked about watching clips of dance movements to better describe a scene in my novel so that it would have a more fluid movement. The same principle could be used in creating good suspense. Of course I'm not suggesting that you lift a scene from a thrilling movie and drop it right into your novel. Instead watch closely to how a film builds suspense. Film directs the viewer to very specific things, it leads the viewer to see and experience exactly what the filmmaker wants them to see and experience. A good author can do the exact same thing.

I've been reading Michael Crichton's State of Fear. As I'm sure you know many of his books have been turned into films and it is very easy to get wrapped up in his books as you continually get pulled forward by that feeling of suspense. In one section of State of Fear his main characters are in Antarctica and they are being briefed on all the dangers of being caught out in the frozen cold and how each of the vehicles they will be driving hold a number of survival gear items. Instead of just telling the reader there is survival gear, Crichton goes into detail of the type of gear so that you see it. And what do you suppose happens? That's right, the characters get trapped out in the ice and begin to panic. As a reader you think "Go to the box with the survival gear!" The character finally remembers the gear in the back and they get to the chest and find that in the crash it's been damaged and won't open. SUSPENSE. The character finds a screwdriver and hammer and begins to break the box open. It takes agonizing minutes. MORE SUSPENSE. When the box is finally broken open it is empty! EXTREME SUSPENSE. As you can see I have to continue reading. 

When I sat down to write Loves Deception I had a clear outline of what I wanted to happen. I wrote the first five chapters and sent them to my wife to read. I eagerly waited for her to praise me on my extensive writing prowess. Unfortunately it seemed I was found lacking. Although the characters were a bit interesting there was very little compelling her to care about what would happen next. I was writing a Thriller and was delivering a boring commentary on the action. The chapters were also very short in length, roughly 1500 words (not that a small chapter can't make a big impact). So I took those five chapters and sat back down with the goal of making the story have suspense, to make my reader care about the characters and want to know what would happen next. I nearly tripled the length of the chapters and created a rich tapestry of the world I was placing my characters in.

So this week look through the chapters of your own work and ask:
  • Where is the suspense?
  • How can I point my reader to see what I want them to see and remember it for the future?
  • Is the end of the chapter compelling enough to keep them reading. Will the reader lose sleep because they have to keep reading?
Make changes that will give you a more suspenseful result.

The first chapter of the Tale of  Doug Martin will be out this week!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It is Finished or How I Learned to Embrace Possibility

     There was a part of me when I wrote the last sentence of  Loves Deception that was in total disbelief that I had really completed a novel. And I don't want this to sound like a bunch of patting my own back or tooting my own horn (if your more musical) but I feel really good, like here is something that I created and finished.     
     Of course it's not complete, it is simply the first step on my way to seeing my novel in print or on a Kindle or Nook: it is the first draft.
     My next step is the rewrite. One of the things that thankfully I have noticed over the course of putting 84,722 words down on paper is that the quality has become progressively better. So while I will need to go back and rewrite the first 84,720 words the last two, The End, are solid.
     Of course I'm just being a little silly in my complete giddiness for having accomplished my goal. Now that I have a finished my first draft I'm so ready to begin doing the rewrite. For Christmas my wife sent me a book titled Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. I was so excited when I received it and immediately jumped into the book only to find that the author, Donald Maass, suggests that his workbook is more successful when using it with a complete manuscript. So I set the book on the shelf and eagerly waited for my chance to open it up and get started.
     As I've talked about before I had a long stretch of years where I really didn't accomplish much of what I started and the few things I did complete I immediately sat down and took up residence on those small achievements (like I'm not even bothering playing Super Mario Brothers 2 because I already saved the princess). I saw it happen with several guys I had known from basic training who went on after accomplishing a very physically challenging course and in the process losing lots of weight and becoming more fit only to return home our to there next duty station to become the guy who just sits around and doesn't have to do anything more because they already got fit and did that training. Of course in a few more months they were back to where they had started wondering why.
     So what I'm saying is don't rest around too long. I'm reveling in my achievement because it means a great deal to me, it showed me that I can write a novel, which means I can write more novels. But I'm not sitting around waiting for everyone to come up and tell me how great it is because I can see that the road ahead is still requiring more from me and I'll give it everything it needs in order for me to reach my ultimate goal of publishing my book.
     I'd like to share a few small things that I have learned from this process:
  1. It is possible. 
  2. It takes work.
  3. If it's not working, adapt and change.
  4. Celebrate.
     It is possible. I set a goal, wrote it down and made it happen. How amazing is it that we live in a world where we can make what we want in life happen. I think in my life there have been so many times that I have looked at a task and said "This is not possible." I wonder how many things I could have accomplished had I known that the reality of any situation is: it can happen, it is possible. The other side of that coin is that making the possible happen will not take place with out work.
     I think that the four letter word work is the swear that escapes the lips most for those who fail to accomplish their New Years resolutions. Work, or the fear of work held me back in the past because I was not willing to make the sacrifices needed to accomplish what I wanted to have happen. Very little happens without work. If you want what is possible to happen you need to figure out what it's going to take. When I was writing my novel I set smaller goals that were manageable and I had to give up other things that I wanted to do to make room for my new goal. I also put in the time everyday. I heard someone say that results are the outcome of action multiplied by time, or something to that effect. What it means is if you do small things everyday they create the big thing you want.
     In my writing I came to three sections that just didn't work, I was sitting down with paper and pen in hand and fighting to get every single word. At first I simply used the above method and it worked I had a chapter done, it was the hardest chapter I had ever written and I tossed it because it still didn't work. It never worked. Did I stop writing the novel? Of course not, I did have to change tactics, adapt, which lead me to a chapter that flowed simply. Life is ever changing and you either continue to adapt to those changes, still making your way to your original goal or you fight it and end up taking a much harder and longer path that you may find in the end has not lead you where you really wanted to go.
     When you reach the end of the path, before taking the first steps down the next path stop and enjoy what you've accomplished. Life is about learning how to let go of suffering and embrace the good that is there. When you accomplish a goal that's good and it needs to be embraced, shared and celebrated.

Did I tell you that I finished my novel? Pretty cool huh?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sprinting toward the finish line

     The end is near! Not that the big cataclysmic end talked about in so many religions and cultures but the end of my first draft of Loves Deception. It's so exciting being this close to the finish. The only thing I can really relate it to is the first 5k race I ran. In that race I had started out strong but dropped off in the midsection for a little bit and when I saw the last half mile approaching I felt this burst of energy that invigorated me, driving me toward the finish line. I didn't come in first, second, or third. I was twenty-first, and there was a man who was in the 60 years and older category that beat me, but when I crossed that finish line I felt so good because I had completed it. Much like that first 5k I don't believe that when I finish the first draft of Loves Deception that it will be a first place novel and I'm already getting my mind prepared for my rewrite, but I will have a completed novel, something I have never done.

     I have four chapters to finish and Loves Deception will be complete. I write everything twice, first with paper and pen and then I type it on the computer. I'm not the fastest typist so it has taken me a long time to get everything transcribed over, but a few days ago one of my good friends here in Baghdad got me the hook up with a dictation program for my computer. Technology is such an amazing thing. It took a little bit of time to get the program familiar with my speaking and I had to become familiar with it's commands. In the end it's really helped me speed things up...I think.

     Here's an example of how things have changed:
     I would take my hand written notes and type this:
Mabel approached slowly, a cold calculating expression on her face. The heels of her boots clacking across the polished floor were the only sounds she made as she came closer to the receptionist. Mabel reached into her handbag and slowly removed her cell phone.

"Can I help you?" The receptionist asked in a tone of authority.

Mabel thought the Thomas Vanders might consider hiring another receptionist like this one for the main entrance.

Mabel switched the cell phone to silent and slipped it back into her handbag. She looked at the receptionist and coolly replied, "No" and continued walking past the receptionist toward the office of Melissa Vanders. She could hear the receptionist calling for security as Mabel opened Melissa Vanders door. Melissa stood up not recognizing Mabel from their brief encounter in the restaurant.

And now with the dictation program:

Mabel approached slowly Comma a cold calculating expression on her face Period The heels of her boots clacking across the polished floor were the only sounds she made as she came closer to the receptionist Period Mabel reached into her handbag and slowly removed her cell phone Period
New Line Open Quote Can I help you Question Mark Close Quote The receptionist asked in a tone of authority Period
New Line Mabel thought the Thomas wonders Correct Vanders wonders Correct Vanders wonders Spell V A N D E R S might consider hiring another receptionist like this one for the main entrance Period
New Line Mabel switched the cell phone to silent and slipped it back into her handbag Period She looked at the receptionist and coolly replied Comma Open Quote No Close Quote and continued walking past the receptionist toward the office of Melissa wonders Correct Vanders wonders Correct Vanders wonders Spell V A N D E R S Period She could hear the receptionist calling for security as Mabel opened Melissa wonders Correct Vanders wonders Spell V A N D E R S door Period Melissa stood up not recognizing Mabel from their brief encounter in the restaurant Period

So I'm still working some of the bugs out, but it's getting there, hopefully it just won't hold up my final dash through the last four chapters.

Check back Wednesday for a sneak peak at another character.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Loves Deception Loves Mustaches

Talking about one of my favorite websites for reading and my new page devoted to Loves Deception. But please no questions about the mustache...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Shifting Gears

This past week I have had to shift gears away from writing my novel, Loves Deception, in order to concentrate all my efforts in preparing for the release of the new section on this webpage that will reveal details of said novel. I have these chapters that are just ready to spill out on the pages, so it has been difficult to set aside writing my novel so that I could finish a series of character paintings and a few prequel short stories, but I know I didn't want to have the burden every week of coming up with new content for the new section to the webpage especially where I'm already committing my extra time to writing a weekly article and shooting and editing a weekly video. However this is life. If you are like me you already have a great deal of demands on your time and it's difficult to take on new projects. I know in an earlier blog I already went into detail about goal setting, touching a bit on time management but I'd like to go a little deeper into that today.

We are only given so many hours in a day that are divided into sleep, eat, work, family, exercise, fun, etc. So when you take on a new project and you already feel that your time is pushed to the max, where do you get the new time to accomplish it? I have no idea how to get more than twenty-four hours out of the day and that is the truth. I have found two things in time management:
  1. When I have lots of free time nothing gets done.
  2. When I try to overfill my time I get burned out and I have to abandon something that was important.
I'm not sure if the previous points are universally true but they certainly are in my own life. The first one is the universes biggest mystery. Here in Baghdad I don't have free weekends or days off so this doesn't happen very often to me here, but back in Idaho I would see the weekend coming and think of all the things that I'd be able to get done with my time and the first thing to do would be RELAX. And the relaxing would take all that time I could have used to be productive and destroy it and I'd sit there wondering where it all went. I think that this phenomenon happens because there is an illusion of extra time that really isn't there so the tendency is to push off the important things till later but later never comes. I wrote in the earlier blog that you have to do what is most important first. I hold that to be so true because doing anything else will leave you disappointed.
In the second point I think it's easy to see the importance with what you're doing with your time. Life needs to be balanced. Too much free time can easily lead to not being able to accomplish your goals just as much as overfilling your day can stretch you to the point of abandoning your goals. I'm a firm believer in writing down what needs to be done, but very flexible in how it is written. I don't think it matters if you are planning down to the minute or just putting the basics down on a month long calendar. The important part is you are stopping to write down what needs to be accomplished and planning your days accordingly. Draw your attention back to the beginning of this blog, I knew that in my limited amount of time I couldn't do everything I wanted, something had to give so I could put together the material for the new section of this webpage, and I wasn't willing to give up eating or sleeping in order to do it. If your writing is important to you, you need to find room for it and that may mean that you need to give up something else. If not you run the risk of burning yourself out and scrapping your writing goal which might rob us of a very powerful story.

So this week I want you to look at your time and answer these questions:
  • What needs to be done and how much time does it take?
  • To accomplish what you want where can you shift gears in your life to make it happen?
  • Are you spreading yourself too thin?
Now write up a schedule to assist you in managing your time so that you accomplish all the important things in your life. Don't forget free time can be scheduled too!

Keep checking back this week for the new section!

Friday, May 6, 2011

The really big bribe

All right I am on a mission to do whatever it takes to get some likes on my facebook page. Okay maybe not anything, but, well just check this out to see how far I'm willing to go...

Monday, May 2, 2011

Devils in the Details

Reaching the halfway point in my new novel has felt really good. I wanted to make sure that I had not left any holes in the previous chapters so I went through each one and looked. I came across one chapter in particular that I felt lacked a certain punch that the other chapters were delivering. It took a little time to figure out what it was. I went through the dialogue, checked to see if I was leaving out the necessary drama that should be built in each chapter; both were fine. I then realized as I reread the chapter that my description was flat. I was using a lot of generalities and not delving deep into the details.

This particular chapter takes place at a Latin nightclub and I had my two characters dancing a tango. In my original chapter I was using lines like "They moved across the floor in a whirl of spins and turns always meeting each other's gaze with deep intensity." Reading that simply does not come close to describing the movements found in a tango dance. So how did I rectify the situation? I studied. One of the greatest things about our current technological state is the amount of information we can find online, especially video. I went to You Tube and I watched and I watched and I watched some more. I found videos on teaching, found videos of tango competition, found montages of someone's favorite tango moves, it was everywhere and limitless and gave me the details I needed. After seeing everything I began to watch more intently with pad and paper in hand and each time I saw a particular move or flourish I would write it down in the best description I could to help rebuild the chapter.

So why are details important? Details make up the canvas of life. Details give us the basis of the opinions we make. Just as in the real world the written world that we create also needs to be filled with details that give each chapter life and help the reader suspend their reality and jump feet first into that world.
How much detail is enough? Enough so that someone other than the writer can see the scene as the writer envisioned it. Enough so that if you wrote: He had on expensive leather shoes that were more practical for the boardroom than the backwoods your reader can begin to take that detail and create a picture in their mind of who this person is. Small details when crafted correctly can allow for less writing and still give more description.

In the chapter I was working on I had made a mistake in the first writing, I was relying on own experience in ballroom dancing. These were two classes I took in college back in the 90's. That was a long time ago and although I recalled the good feeling of dancing across a floor I really wasn't able to recall to mind more specific details. Taking the time to refresh my memory by watching the You Tube videos helped me to create some really good word play like this from chapter nine of my new novel:  
            Doug took her right hand in his left and in a smooth motion moved their hands away from their bodies creating a space that would be theirs alone, a sovereign territory that no other couple on the dance floor would dare invade. 
And another:
Doug pushed Candice forward with his right hand letting go of hers with his left; his fingers sliding along her arm then her waist as she effortlessly glided by him moving out of his bodies contact until he took her right hand and forcibly stopped her departure. She froze on the beat, striking a pose: left hand on her hip, her face looking away from his, a look of an unsure lover about to walk out on the relationship. It lasted only two beats as he pulled her back to him, wrapping her around his body until on the eighth count she was clasping herself against his back, her arms running under his own; the palms of her hands grasping desperately to his chest, her head laid against his own lovingly, but his look held no desire for this woman. Doug’s eyes were caught in Sarah’s as she moved away from him, wrapping herself around her partner, feeling his body with her hands but never breaking eye contact with Doug.

So this week I would like to challenge you to try writing a descriptive action scene by doing the following:
  • Take the time to sit down and watch the action unfold. 
  • Take notes and try to describe the movements of the action in a way that the reader can picture it.
Next week I'll be posting new character biographies from my new novel and sharing some short stories so check back often!