How Much Tension Do You Want?

I’ve been yakking about Ilona Andrews’s SAPPHIRE FLAMES since I finished reading it.  The book and the writing have stayed me with a while.  It made me think about a lot of different things.  And tension is one of them.

Since I’ve been writing cozies for a while now, I’ve been working on making page turns rely on different dynamics than fighting terrible odds, supernatural monsters, serial killers, or ticking clocks.  Cozies have a quieter tension–discovering clues and adding them up, ignoring red herrings, and discovering the killer before the protagonist does.  Every story has to have conflict, but in cozies, it could be trying to worm a secret out of someone you’re questioning, trying to add up evidence to get closer to finding the killer.

One of the reasons I like writing Muddy River is because the tension is about trying to survive or help someone else survive.  It’s about life and death.  Ilona Andrews uses that kind of conflict in her novels, only she ratchets it up to almost every scene.  And that’s the fun of reading her.  I can’t turn the pages fast enough to see how her protagonists are going to survive another battle against an even stronger opponent.  Muddy River doesn’t do that.  There are battles, yes, but there “down” scenes, too, because I like the people and their lives and their dynamics together.

I like low-key tension as much as I like nail-biters.  Literary tension might be the one I struggle with most.  Inner conflict doesn’t grip me as much as it does my daughters.  My younger daughter says it’s her favorite.  Anyway, I’ve spent some time thinking about how to develop conflict and tension lately.  And these are just a few of my random thoughts, nothing deep or momentous, just ponderings:

  1.  Personal Stakes:  In literary reads, the entire plot might revolve around a person getting to know who they are and what they want of themselves and life and struggling to get that.  That internal struggle is what builds tension.  For example, a book could be about an alcoholic who’s trying to stop drinking.  No easy thing to do.  It could be about an abused child who’s trying to live an ordinary life as an adult and overcome the fears and defense mechanisms she developed to cope.  The emotional toll is high, and the stakes for finding happiness or even normalcy are high.  But they aren’t life or death.  The country won’t go into chaos if the hero doesn’t succeed.  There’s no ticking clock.  That’s why it’s personal, but we can all relate to them.
  2.   Low Stakes:  In romances, again, the stakes are personal.  The tension is driven by emotions, people hoping to find love.  Girl meets boy.  Attraction flares, but obstacles get in the way.  Can the two people overcome those obstacles and get together?  Stakes are low in cozies, too.  There’s a murder.  There’s a good reason the amateur sleuth gets involved in solving that murder.  He or she interviews people, looks for clues, and won’t be satisfied until he finds the truth.  In both of these types of books, the tension ebbs and flows.  It peaks when failure looms on the horizon, then dips when something new happens to advance the plot.  These books have rhythms and often revolve around four turning points in the story.  The protagonist might be in danger of failing to achieve his goal, but his life is rarely at risk.  There are “soft spots” for the reader to land before the next push forward.
  3. Medium Stakes:  I’d put straight mysteries in this category, adventure stories, some thrillers, and maybe most paranormals.  There’s more action.  There’s more possibility for physical harm.  The cost of failure isn’t just emotional, but maybe getting beat up, stabbed, or shot, too.  The person a cop or hero is trying to protect might die if the hero can’t stay a step ahead of the antagonist.  The hero might die trying to protect him.
  4.  High Stakes:  Every chapter brings a new danger.  There’s not one murder at the beginning of the book and maybe a second or third one later to keep up the pace.  High stakes is when the protagonist and the antagonist fight it out from the beginning of the book to the end, and the protagonist’s life is almost always in danger.  Often, there’s a ticking clock.  Sometimes, the battle starts small–like in women in jeopardy novels–and escalates to the end.  Always, the tension builds from the first chapter to the last.  Everything intensifies.  Often, the protagonist loses someone he’s close to or cares about.  The stakes have to be high.
  5.   Ilona Andrews’s Urban Fantasies:  The stakes are off the chart.  The opponents take off their gloves at the beginning of the book and duke it out over and over again until the stakes are so high, you’re wrung out by the time you finish the last page.  And everything in the stories create tension:  a.  almost every conversation is fraught with tension.  People disagree, argue, threaten each other, try to outmaneuver each other, and try to worm information from one another.   b.  romantic tension:  the attraction between the protagonist and her love interest almost feels like sparring; the physical attraction is off the charts, but one or both of them resist it  c. the clashes build bigger and more dangerous from the first to the final, BIG do-or-die battle.

No matter what kind of book you write, the stakes have to keep getting higher.  The protagonist has to have more to lose.  Unless you write humor.  And in all honesty, I’ve never done it, don’t read much of it, and I just don’t know:)  (Except I did read Mae Clair’s IN SEARCH OF McDOODLE and loved it).  But whatever you’re working on now, good luck and happy writing!

Whew! The steam…

I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries, back to back.  Some cozy, some thrillers, some historical, but I was in the mood for something different, and then I read a fun review on Goodreads for a romance:  HOTSHOT DOC, by R.S. Grey.  A grumpy, dedicated-to-his-job surgeon scares away one assistant after another until he meets Bailey, a cute blonde who knows her stuff.  I don’t read romance often, but this sounded like the kind where sparks fly, so I decided to give it a try.  And I really enjoyed it.  The story has a lot of heart.  It also has some steaming  hot sex.  If you’ve recently decided to become celibate, this isn’t the book for you.  It could make you change your mind.

When I choose a book to read, I don’t LOOK for sex, but I sure don’t mind it, either.  I admire good writing when I find it, whether the author’s describing a Regency social gathering, a tense suspense scene, or two bodies that can’t resist being together.  (I can’t handle too much gore or torture, though, even when they’re well done.  I’ve gone soft in my old age).

When I first started writing urban fantasy as Judith Post, I tried to write hot sex scenes, and I was only so-so at it.  They’re hard to write.  It’s not just about body parts fitting together.  It’s about emotion and passion, too.  Desire.  Need.  When I signed a contract to write clean romances and cozies, it was a blessing.  I could focus on my strengths.  Passion seems to be one of my weak points.

A wonderful woman who used to insist on editing my early books told me to get past my hang ups, that sex is a natural thing between two people who love each other.  And then she analyzed my handwriting.  That was a revelation.  When there are no lines on the paper, my words start at one end of a line and go higher by the time I reach the other end–the sign of an optimist.  I cross my t’s higher than usual–I enjoy work.  And my a’s, e’s, and o’s are closed–the sign of a person who likes her privacy.  She said that’s why I didn’t open up when I wrote steamy scenes.  She told me if I’d open my vowels, my writing would follow.  I’ve tried.  I really have.  It hasn’t worked.  What happens behind closed doors, stays behind closed doors.

Whatever.  In HOTSHOT DOC, I sure enjoyed reading it, but it was because the characters were so RIGHT for each other.  And I liked each of them so much.  They fit together in every way, not just in bed.  And now that I’ve kicked up my reading heels a little, I’m ready to go back to murders and clues.  Happy reading and writing to you!

 

Sometimes, I don’t want angst

When I’m yapping to my friend and fellow writer, M. L. Rigdon, about my idea for a new book, and I rattle off a list of things that I can see happening in it, she always stops me and says, “That’s all well and good.  You love plotting.  But…”  And then she lists the sacred mantra of character development:  1. What does the character want?  2.  Why does she want it?  3.  What will she do to get it?  Mary Lou starts books with characters who tug at her.  I start books with ideas.  A good book needs both. No matter how you start, you have to end up with both.  And you have to find balance.

Mary Lou, who used to perform on stage, has no problem whipping up fully developed characters in her nimble, supple brain.  She has no trouble developing angst either.  After all, the ebb and flow of drama pulses in her veins.  Her Regencies (written as Julia Donner) drip with angst.  And wit.  And humor, thank God, to offset it.

For Julia Donner’s books:  https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=julia+donner

One of my other fellow writer friends, Kyra Jacobs, writes contemporary romances, like me.  I like them, along with lots of other people.  I’d love to visit the Checkerberry Inn, but she’s partnered up all the hot men there in her three book series, so I’d only get to look and drool.  But her books are fun, fast reads with heartwarming characters that lift my mood.

For Kyrs’s books: https://www.amazon.com/Kyra-Jacobs/e/B00E5PIJ04/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1 

That’s what I tried for when I wrote my Mill Pond romances.  I wanted to create characters who hooked me and life challenges I could relate to.  So I think I balanced the characters–what do they want, why, and what will they do to get it–and the plot (all the things that get in their way), but I still get feedback occasionally that my romances don’t have enough angst.  Now, I know I”m never going to please everybody.  I also know that I purposely tried to write fun, light romances–quick “feel good” reads, because sometimes, that’s exactly what I want.  Sometimes, I get damned sick of baggage piled on top of baggage. That’s why I’m not very good at deep, literary novels.  I’ve had enough baggage in real life.  I sure don’t want to read about it.  But the first time I read that my books could use more angst, I tried to add some.  Let’s face it.  No one gets through Life with a free pass.  But I got the same comments on that book.

So, I thought I’d add more angst between my protagonist and her romantic interest.  And I think I did a better job on that.  But I got the same review on that book as the earlier ones and fewer stars.  Sigh.  I’m grateful for every review I get (okay, maybe not EVERY review.  There are some I could do without:)  And I even think maybe I have a glimmer of what the reviewer meant, because–and I know this sounds strange since I’ve never met her–but I like this reviewer.  I’ve learned, though, that what one person calls “angst” might not be what I would call “angst.”  And if I ever write another romance, I’d fiddle with my next theory, but now I’m off to try my hand at mysteries.  Kensington offered me a three-book deal, and I’m pretty happy about that.  But let’s hope they have enough angst. Because I don’t have a theory on that yet.  And I’ve noticed that my least favorite book in a favorite author’s series is the one where she was the most depressed.  Bigger sigh.  I still haven’t made up my mind, I guess.

How do you define angst?

For my romances:  https://www.amazon.com/Judi-Lynn/e/B01BKZDQ68/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1501354126&sr=1-2-ent 

My webpage:  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

My author Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/JudiLynnwrites/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel

On Twitter:  @judypost

Making it personal

Experts tell you to write what you know.  That always confused me.  I started out writing mystery short stories and I didn’t know much about crime.  I went to conferences and listened to panels on poisoning, fingerprints, DNA, and serial killer profiles, etc., because I wanted to get the basics right.  And I’d read lots of mysteries to know the rhythm and format.  But I finally decided that “write what you know” meant write what you emotionally know.  I’ve never killed a person, but I’ve sure been mad as hell, felt betrayed,  or wished a person out of my life–forever.  The thing is, what we live, what we feel, is what makes our writing real.

In my third romance, the protagonist’s dad dies soon after he retires from the army.  My dad didn’t get to live long enough to retire.  After a long bout with multiple myeloma–where his blood became so thick, he was hooked up to a machine that took blood out of his left arm, used centrifugal force to “clean it,” and returned it to his right arm–he finally lost the battle.  His blood got thicker faster and faster until his heart had to work too hard to pump it.  I didn’t want to do that to the characters in my book, so Paula’s dad got a quick, unexpected death, but I know that feeling of loss and the aftermath.  Paula tries to help her mom through her grief.  That, I know, too.  So do my sisters.  Paula, herself, has lost her military husband overseas, and she has two kids to raise.  My daughter’s a single mom, and even though we helped her, I know it’s no piece of cake to raise kids without a husband.

In my fifth romance (and it’s far, far in the future before it’s released), Joel–the love interest–is raising his daughter by himself, because his wife isn’t emotionally strong enough to deal with their daughter, who has cerebral palsy and will never be mentally older than twelve.  She’ll never grow up and move away.  She’ll always live with him.  Which Joel is fine with, because, lord, what a beautiful human being she is!  But she’ll always be a child–the good and the bad of that.  My cousin has cerebral palsy, and is maybe mentally eight or nine, and I remember my grandmother and my cousin’s mother worrying about what would happen to her after they died.  My sister, bless her, took her in, but I’ve met more people with those worries.  When a child won’t grow up, will never be able to make it on her own, what happens to her when you die?

In the romance I’m working on now, Karli goes to Mill Pond to deal with her grandfather, who’s mean and uncooperative, but is reaching the point where it’s not safe for him to stay in his own home without help.  I’ve been there/done that.  My John’s mom was unstable when she didn’t take her meds, and after John’s dad died, sometimes she took them, sometimes she didn’t.  Even though we checked on her every day and brought her to our house for suppers, it didn’t work. Our two small daughters got on her nerves.  She’d wake up at two a.m. and call us.  Her doctor finally told us, “Find a place for her, or she’ll be in the hospital.”  The doctor told Harriet, too, thank goodness, and then Harriet pushed for me to find a good nursing home for her.  Those decisions are almost always messy.  They’re messy for Karli in book six, too.

You don’t have to battle witches or vampires to find the right emotions for good to battle evil.  Most of us have battled something in our lives.  We know how it feels.  A writer’s life experiences and the emotions they invoke add depth to our stories.  So use what you’ve got.  Write what you know!

https://www.facebook.com/JudiLynnwrites/

http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

twitter:  @judypost

 

 

Writerly Ramblings

Last week, I shared an article about what makes a bestseller.  The authors did research and believe that no matter the genre, tapping into the human condition–dealing with two themes we struggle with–(more gets to be too much)–helps readers relate to our stories. They also thought that showing characters react with each other, maybe sitting over a cup of coffee and talking, makes them more real.

A friend of mine came for lunch on Thursday, and we yakked even more writing.  We talked about some of our favorite books before we started to write.  It surprised us how much writing styles have changed from then to now.  We both were drawn to books with lots of details and description.  Sometimes, we read the first chapter and still had no idea where the story was going.  A lot of those books were told by a narrator or an omniscient author, putting distance between the writer and the reader.  Today, people like faster paced stories that are more immediate.  We like internal dialogue.  We want to live inside our protagonist’s skin, to feel what she feels.

When I first tried to write mysteries, I patterned them after my favorites, written by Agatha Christie. I got many a rejection letter that said, “Love your writing, but not what we’re looking for.”  Cozies were out of style.  But now that I think back, there was more to it than that.  I was using a writer’s style that wasn’t current.  How well did we know Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?  They were both clever and fun to follow, and I loved trying to solve the elaborate puzzles Christie laid out, but her characters’ lives remained vague.   It wasn’t until I read Nancy Pickard and Carolyn Hart that it occurred to me that the detective’s life should be as interesing and demanding as whatever mystery she was trying to solve.  The authors gave their characters jobs they cared about, romances that hit highs and lows.  They made their characters have bad hair days.  Made them feel real.

One of my favorite series to write, and the series I got the most feedback on–was my Babet and Prosper urban fantasy novellas.  Babet felt real.  So did Prosper and his partner Hatchet.  So did their supernatural friends.    Eventually, I want to try my hand at another mystery, but this time, I want my characters to feel as real as Babet and Prosper.  I want their personal stories to matter just as much as whatever crime they have to solve.  I’m not holding my breath that I’ll end up with a bestseller, but I think it will make my story stronger.  I can’t wait to give it a try.

I should never read Elizabeth George

Okay, everyone knows that writers need to read.  We learn.  We grow.  We re-energize.  We learn markets.  We internalize rhythms, techniques.  But there are some authors I should just stay away from.  And Elizabeth George is one of them.  I asked for a banquet of consequences for Christmas.  My sister bought it for me, but I was so swamped with manuscripts, I couldn’t get to it.  My good writing friend, Paula, read it and loved it.  We both appreciate Elizabeth George’s depth and language, her layers and nuances.  This last week, I finally got to start the book.  Poor me.

Elizabeth George makes me feel like I should sit in a corner and suck my thumb with a dunce hat on.  She makes me feel juvenile and inadequate, and I love her for it!  Every time I read her, she makes me want to strive harder, to show, not tell, to use small scenes to create big emotions.  She has a way of developing fully realized characters with strokes of dialogue, small gestures, telling details.  Sigh.  It’s a good thing she takes a long time between books, or else my ego might not survive.  She writes mysteries, but I consider her more of a literary writer.  The story’s characters outweigh the clues.  To be honest, I loved her early books, studied A Great Deliverance because I thought it was near-perfect, then had a rocky time for a few of her last books, but with this one, I’m back in reading Nirvana.

I feel the same way when I read a Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson novel.  Briggs writes urban fantasy–and who knew a writer could make that almost literary?  But for me, she pulls it off.  Yes, there are battles, struggles, and plenty of mythology.  But once again, Briggs’s use of language and her emphasis on characterization lift urban fantasy into literary status.  Everyone has their own likes/dislikes.  And I usually avoid literary with a vengeance, but when an author can combine the two–boy, am I impressed!

I hope your favorite authors never disappoint and always inspire you!  Happy Reading!  And as always, happy writing!

 

Writing: My Experiment

I’ve put up 12 free chapters on my webpage for Babet & Prosper’s short novel RIVER CITY RUMBLE.  I have at least nine more chapters plotted.  It might go longer.  And I have to say, this has been an interesting experiment.  What have I learned?

  1.  As far as marketing, I’ve read on other blogs that offering free stories on your webpage helps increase sales.  I thought that if readers liked the chapters and free Babet and Prosper stories in the side column, they might spring for some of the bundles on Amazon.  I’ve gotten the occasional hit, but I’ve had better luck paying for advertising than offering free stories on my webpage.  I’ve had a lot more visitors, but that hasn’t translated into sales.  For now, I’m just happy I have more visitors and reach more people, so I’m okay with that.  But as a marketing tool, advertising seems to work better.
  2. As for writing, telling a story as a weekly serial has made me really concentrate on what I put in each chapter.
    1.  Have I kept the characters interesting and alive in the reader’s mind?  It’s been a week since they’ve thought about them.  Do they remember Viviane, Jacinta, or Hennie?  Have I made them distinctive enough?  How do I jump start their personalities again?
    2. Something significant has to happen in every chapter.  There are no “down” chapters that link from one event to the next.  Whatever happens has to be important enough to hold the reader for another week.
    3. Is there enough variety?  Yes, a chapter has to be significant, but I can’t write a battle for each of them.  Yet I want an event that’s significant, that makes the reader feel satisfied that it’s going to impact the final outcome.
    4. Have I offered the reader a variety of emotions?  Have I made the characters complex enough that they care about them?  Worry when they’re in trouble?  Be surprised about how they react?  Have I offered some laughter or amusement to buffer the tense moments?  Some warm or poignant moments to touch the heart?
    5. I try to permeate the feel of River City into the story.  I hope to show the bond between the protagonists who live there, so that each character is part of the whole.  The series is long enough, the cast of characters has grown, and it’s hard to give them each a part and let him/her shine.
    6. Am I cranking up the conflict and tension, so that things just keep getting worse, so that the final showdown will be big and bad enough to satisfy the reader?  Zanor won’t go down easily.  Defeating him has to test the protagonists past anything they’ve done before.

I’ve written other serial stories, but they’ve been short–four or five chapters, and I like them because they challenge me.  This is the first time I’ve tried a serial novel, something longer with more characters and events.  And it’s challenged me, too.  But I’m enjoying it.  Whatever you’re working on, I hope it stretches your writing muscles AND brings you joy.  Happy Writing!

 

http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

https://www.facebook.com/JudithPostsurbanfantasy/