Category Archives: tension

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…and all that

Struggles, they say, make you stronger.  It’s true, I know.  When I was young, I didn’t have the experience to write some of the things I do today.  I could empathize with other peoples’ problems, but I’d been raised pretty sheltered with boringly typical growing up angsts.  Life took care of that in one way or another.  Bumps and bruises leave lasting internal marks.  They made me grow, so that the characters I write now have more depth.

I’ve known a few people–only a VERY few–who sailed through life mostly unscathed.  They don’t carry the baggage most of us do.  Now, I’m not glorifyng misery.  If I’d have had a choice, I’d have passed on some of life’s more demanding moments.  I’d have gone to a beach and played in the sand instead.  But that’s not the way Life works.  You get what you get, and some people live through burdens that would flatten me, nightmare childhoods and traumas that scar.  More surprisingly, some people get multi doses of awful and still stay positive and generous.  I don’t think I got that gene.

I know there are times when you’re just emotionally wrung-out, too.  When you don’t have the energy to put words on paper.  All you can do is cope, the most you can manage is to endure.  I’ve watched friends go through grief or illnesses and their stories stop speaking to them.

Struggles with writing make us stronger writers, too.  Not that I’m a fan of rejection, but it comes with the territory, doesn’t it?  When I look back at some of my earlier efforts, I cringe.  What if someone had accepted them, published them?  Would I have tried as hard to improve?  Actually, some of those stories were published, and I shake my head when I read them.  What were the other manuscripts like in that slush pile if mine stood out?  I don’t want to think about it.

Having to change genres has improved my writing, too.  I didn’t think so at the time.  After my kazillionth rejection that said, “Love your writing, but NO ONE’s buying cozies now,” I told myself it was time to give up my dream of becoming my generation’s Agatha Christie and move on.  (I’ve always believed in aiming high and seeing where I ended up.  Sometimes, it’s a long fall:)  After cozies, I tried my hand at writing serial killers, but that market was glutted, too, at the time.  And then an editor asked if I’d try writing urban fantasies.  It took me a minute, but I learned to love writing those.  And they made me think about battles and building tension until the ultimate battle at the end of each book.  Then my agent asked me to try romances, and I reeled.  They seemed impossible to me, but I learned to love them too.  They made me think about smaller missteps that build tension and have an emotional impact.  And finally, my editor at Lyrical Underground asked if I’d like to try a cozy mystery for their line.  And I was back to writing mysteries again.  But I really believe that all the twists and turns have made me think about ALL of the elements that make a strong story, not just plotting.

I doubt that many of you who read this are whistling happy tunes and skipping through the park every day of your lives.  And I hope that when you look back, after the fact, that your trials and disappointments were worth it.  So just in case, hang in there, and happy writing!

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It Takes Two

I tried–really hard–to kill only one person in my third mystery.   I wrote plot points for every chapter and scene, had enough suspects and witnesses–I thought–to keep moving the plot.  I had two subplots to add depth.  I was happy with what I had.  The thing is, I got to within fifty pages of the end, and I just wanted more.  I wanted something dramatic, something I didn’t expect, something that would throw all of my carefully placed clues into turmoil.  So I killed someone.  And it just felt . . . right.

Having only one victim would be a challenge for me, I knew–a challenge I wanted to meet.    But I didn’t.  Maybe I wrote urban fantasy one time too many.  I got used to having battles that kept escalating in danger the longer the novel went.  Maybe I missed that adrenaline rush.  I thought about Elizabeth George’s latest mystery, and there was only one body near the beginning of the book.  BUT, there were two crimes, and the second crime felt worse than the first.  It provided the oomph that made the ending pages stronger.

I’m not going to walk around, hanging my head in shame.  True, I tried something and couldn’t quite pull it off this time, but I sure love how this book came together.  It’s been so long since I read Agatha Christie, I can’t remember how many bodies she sprinkled through her mysteries, how she built tension as the clues added up.  I recently watched a TV remake of Ten Little Indians, though, retitled And Then There Were None, and she set a record for body count in that book.  I’m going to think about that with the next mysteries I read.  You can learn so much by studying authors you admire.  And maybe I’ll find something that will make one victim plenty to work with.  Or not.

In any event, I only need to write the big last chapter and then the shorter wrap-up, and THE BODY IN THE DUMP TRUCK is done.  I hope to write The End on Tuesday.  (I’m not even thinking about tonight and tomorrow).  But that’s only the first draft.  So it will only be The End until my critique partners give me their notes.  And then who knows?  I’ll find out what worked and what didn’t.

In the meantime, I wish you happy writing and reading!

 

Rules can be broken

I’m almost to page 400 in John Grisham’s SYCAMORE ROW.  I’d probably have it finished by now if I hadn’t lost time to my troublesome stomach, but I have to admit, I needed a kick in the pants to pick the book up to read every night.  It’s good.  But I’m not used to Grisham’s style of writing, and after all the pages I’ve read, the book still feels like set-up to me.  Everything’s interesting.  The characters are great, but there’s still no crunch time, no ticking clock, and I’m getting the feeling that’s not going to happen.

The truth is, I’m so used to genre writing, his style feels alien to me.  He does a lot of the things that my writers’ group tells people NOT to do, but it works.  For him.

  1.  Show don’t tell.  My group repeats this like a mantra.  Showing pulls a reader into a story, makes him feel part of it.   Grisham sets a scene–like Jake walking into the coffee shop where everyone gathers to learn the latest news and gossip–and TELLS us what’s happening.   I’ve never been bothered by telling as much as some writers.  Author intrusion?  Eh, it works once in a while.  Jenna Bennett uses it here and there, and it adds an intimacy to her stories, like she’s talking just to you, the reader.  It’s efficient, too.  Showing takes space.  You have to let a scene play out to make a point.  Telling…well, you just say what you want the reader to know.  It creates more distance between the reader and the story, but it gives the reader a quick feeling of everything important in fewer words.  Still, all in all, most writers try to avoid it.  We try to show instead of tell.
  2. POV.  My groups’ view is that there’s singular POV or multiple POV, and you don’t mix more than one POV in a scene.  You wait to jump from one person’s head to another’s.  Grisham eliminates that worry by using a sort of omniscient POV and focusing in on one person and then moving to another.  It’s not one bit confusing.  It works.  But again, it creates more distance.  The reader’s not following one person or a few important players from place to place.  We pop from Jake’s thoughts to Lettie’s to someone’s in the coffee shop.  I don’t read enough thrillers to know if this is the norm for the genre, but it very well might be.  That’s the thing about genres.  They don’t all follow the same rules.
  3. Pacing.  My group focuses a lot on keeping the reader turning pages.   We build tension and conflict into every scene we can.  We have pinch points and turning points.  And everything keeps geting worse.  Grisham concentrates on his story and lets it unfold.  It doesn’t feel rushed.  It has more of a literary feel where the characters develop more than the plot.  I’m happy to roll with that, except I have to admit, as a genre junkie, I wish some key plot point was moving a little faster.  But that’s my own hang-up, and I know it.
  4. Would I change my advice to people who come to Scribes?  No.  Because show, don’t tell works for most writers.  So does POV and pacing.  But Grisham is talented enough to pull off his style.  His sales speak for that.  But most mere mortals have better luck following the rules.  It’s hard enough finding an audience, so why push your luck?

Whatever you write, however you write it, good luck.  And happy writing!

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

My author Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/JudiLynnwrites/

Twitter:  @judypost

 

 

 

 

 

Will the World End?

A long, long time ago, I bought a book by Donald Maas about how to write a bestseller.  WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.  His advice?  The higher the stakes, the higher the demand for your book.  I’m writing cozy mysteries, and a few people have told me I’d sell more if I wrote thrillers or suspense.   They might be right, but I’m an Agatha Christie fan, and I like what I like.

When I wrote urban fantasies, the entire plots hung on good vs. bad.  If the good guys didn’t win, all things horrible would break loose.  The world would end, as we know it.  Okay, in truth?  That was a lot of fun.  But then I wrote six romances, and the stakes changed.  If the guy didn’t win the girl, there wouldn’t be a happy ending.  Enough to make me sad, so those stakes worked for me, too.

If as a reader I come to truly love and care about a character, I want him to survive and to be happy.  I just finished readng WHAT ANGELS FEAR, and the stakes were high.  If Sebastian couldn’t find the real killer, he’d be blamed for a crime he didn’t commit and probably hang.  Did that make me turn the pages faster?  I got every bit as hooked by Catherine Bybee’s FOOL ME ONCE, because I got totally caught up by the characters.  Yes, there was a lot at stake.  Secrets needed to remain hidden.  Could Reece win Lori after she found out he was a P.I. who was tailing her for info?  Before he fell for her?

Every book has to have high stakes, one way or another.  Maas would say, the higher the better.  What happens if the protagonist fails?  How devastated will the reader be?  But there are all kinds of stakes.  Emotional.  Political.  Career.  Reputation.  Books are filled with little setbacks, chapter after chapter.  After all, we don’t want to make it too easy for the protagonist, do we?  We try to end each scene with the protagonist wanting more, feeling a little defeated, until the very end.

I read Caleb Carr’s book, THE ALIENIST, when it first came out.  I haven’t seen the TV series yet, but I want to.  His protagonist worked hard to catch a serial killer, using psychology to understand the murderer.  The stakes grew higher and higher, knowing that if the detective team didn’t catch him, someone else would die.  A ticking clock is a great way to add tension.

Mae Clair uses past events to heighten the stakes in her Point Pleasant series.   The Mothman rescued Caden Flynn, and the “monster” and Caden have a weird bond.  When strange sightings start again in Point Pleasant, the past and the present collide, and Caden knows he’ll be visitng the Mothman again.  Is he meant to save the cryptid or destroy him?  (If UFOs and the Mothman legend appeal to you, here’s a link:  https://www.amazon.com/Thousand-Yesteryears-Point-Pleasant-ebook/dp/B0138NHJ4A/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1517091001&sr=8-3&keywords=mae+clair

Whatever you’re writing, may your stakes be high enough to keep the reader turning the pages.  Happy Writing!

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

Author Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/JudiLynnwrites/

My Kensington page: (I need a new picture): http://www.kensingtonbooks.com/author.aspx/31751

Twitter:  @judypost

 

 

How Many Bodies does it take?

I’m working on a mystery.  I finally reached the third turning point (three-fourths through the book–and yes, I do construct my plots that way), and I’m heading into the last 80 pages.  This is when I look at my remaining plot points and pray that I have enough twists and turns to make it to the The End.  If not, a little creativity is in order.

Almost (there must be one out there that breaks the mold, but I can’t think of it) every mystery starts with a dead body.  A crime would work, too, but it’s not as common.  The body doesn’t have to be on page one.  It doesn’t even have to show up by page five.  But someone usually stumbles upon it by the end of chapter one.  Not always.  Mystery readers, especially for cozies or traditionals,  know that while they’re hanging out with the protagonist and getting to know her and the book’s setting, a dead body will show up eventually.  It’s worth the wait.

Martha Grimes, in her early books, grabbed her readers with a hook–a prologue. They’re frowned upon now, but I liked them.  Some nice, oblivious person would be walking along a street or locking her front door, and we KNEW she’d be dead by the end of the chapter.  A great way to build tension.  A lot of thriller writers use that technique–showing the victim in a way that we know they’re already doomed.  It works.  If you’re not writing a thriller, though, you have to space out victims more sparingly:)  You don’t off somebody whenever the pace slows down, so you have to come up with different devices to keep the tension high enough to turn pages.

The thing I loved about witing urban fantasy is that you could write a battle every time you wanted to up the tension.  Pitting your protagonist against someone who could kill her works really well.  I just finished reading Ilona Andrews’s MAGIC SHIFTS, and it was a FAST read because there was a battle in almost every chapter.  Lots of action.  I loved it, but that doesn’t fly in an amateur sleuth mystery.  Protags don’t wield swords or shoot magic.

What does work?  Having the sleuth at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Having her get nosy and digging through a desk that’s not hers when someone walks into the office.  I’m halfway through a mystery by an author who’s new to me:  A Cutthroat Business by Jenna Bennett.   I’m loving it so far!  First, her protagonist is a Southern Belle.  I haven’t read one of those since the last Sarah Booth Delaney cozy I read by Carolyn Haines. Bennett’s protagonist is a real estate agent…so, of course, she takes a client to a showing and finds a body in the last room they stop to view.  See?  The nice, bloody corpse comes at the end of the chapter. More fun that way!

Also, of course, the police show up and the client who wanted to see the house doesn’t seem to have any money, but he has done some prison time–and the protag knew him when they were growing up–a smartass, sexy ex-con. Bennett finds one clever way after another to keep her protag involved in the investigation.  Eventually, though, (and I hate to say this), another body is needed to boost the pace near the middle of the book.  Sacrifices must be made for every novel, and for mysteries, well…. someone must die.

I’m sorry to say (and my daughter wasn’t happy with me, because she fell in love with a certain character when she read the pages I’ve done so far), I had to kill off someone, too, for the second plot twist in my book.  And that made me wonder:  how many bodies does it take to keep a good book going?  In urban fantasy, you’re lucky.  Very rarely does one of the good guys have to die, and you can kill bad guys at random, on every other page if you want to.  In mysteries, though? Bodies are up for grabs.  Good guys die as often as not-so-good guys.  I’m thinking–and I haven’t researched this–that it takes at least two bodies to move a mystery plot.  The first body happens at the beginning of the book and somewhere later, the pacing and clues start to fizzle, and an author has to stick in another victim.

What do you think?  Can you think of a mystery that only has one victim and the entire plot goes from there?  Okay, maybe in a P.I., because usually the private eye gets beat up close to the time a second body would pop up in a traditional mystery.  LOL.  This is probably why it was so hard for me to write romances.  I couldn’t kill anybody:)

Jenna Bennett:  https://www.amazon.com/Savannah-Martin-Mysteries-Box-Set-ebook/dp/B00A6UMNRM/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1496516485&sr=8-8&keywords=jenna+bennett+savannah+martin+series+kindle+kindle

Ilona Andrews’s Magic Shifts:  https://www.amazon.com/Magic-Shifts-Kate-Daniels-Novel-ebook/dp/B00OQSF7GY/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1496517298&sr=8-3&keywords=ilona+andrews+kate+daniels+series

My webpage (with a new creepy short story):  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

Twitter: @judypost

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

 

 

Tension

Okay, I just read a blog post by James Scott Bell, and he explained very well what I’ve always felt, but in a vague–somewhat nonverbal–way.  And he made it SO clear.  Every book has to have tension, or no one would turn the pages.  It’s easy to point to the tension in a thriller or suspense novel.  The bad guy might kill someone or lots of someones if the hero doesn’t stop him.  Same for horror, only who knows who or what the villain might be.  In a mystery, a hero is trying to solve a crime and restore justice.  But what’s the tension in a romance?  Or a literary novel?

Bell says that conflict is best if there are “death stakes” for the protagonist/s.  But he divides death stakes into physical death, professional death, or psychological.  That makes so much sense!  In a romance, every time the hero and heroine can’t work things out, it builds tension.  If they can’t get together at the end of the book, they suffer psychological death–the death of happiness:  http://writershelpingwriters.net/2017/03/conflict-and-suspense-belong-in-every-kind-of-novel/?utm_content=buffer7ce91&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Conflict drives a story, moves it forward.   And the stakes have to keep getting higher every time the reader turns a page.  That’s why there’s the old adage:  Things can always get worse.  They have to, or your story stalls.  During the set up, the author says what the protagonist wants, and he spends the rest of the book making sure he has to work harder and harder to get it.  Here’s a good link by Samantha Stone to build conflict:  http://www.creativewritingsoftware101.com/articles/how-to-create-conflict-in-your-story.php

I used different types of tension in my romances than I’ll need for my cozy mystery, but I still want a romance subplot, and I want to work hard at developing characters readers will care about.  I enjoyed writing Babet and Prosper so much for urban fantasy that I’d like to do something similar for my River Bluffs novels.  I want my characters and setting to be as fully formed as the mystery.  We’ll see how that goes:)

At my writers’ group last week, one of our members tried to decide what each of us needed to do to write a bestseller.  I give him credit.  He believes in all of us, bless him.  And I think we’re all good writers, too, but I have less faith in finding the “secret” that makes a book sell.  Lots of advice says that you need to write a “big” book.  The higher the stakes, the more readers you’ll attract.  That might be true.  I don’t know.  I think the heavens have to align and there’s a lot of luck involved.  And I found this article that sort of agrees with me.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-winkler/how-to-write-a-bestseller-formula_b_1542587.html

In the meantime, happy writing!

 

My webpage:  (a free snippet from SPICING THINGS UP–our March 21–and a free short mystery):  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

author Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/JudiLynnwrites/

twitter:  @judypost

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiddles!

I’ve started playing with plot points for my 6th romance.  I say playing because I’m still in the “Will this work?” phase.  And that’s exactly why I like tinkering with plot points in the first place.  I’m up to thirteen of them, and the whole damn story is sagging.   I mean, there are plenty of things going on, and they feel pretty interesting, but are they bringing the protagonist and her romantic interest together?  Not unless Karli would marry the one and only man who’s ever shown any interest her.  The chemistry, so far, is zippo.  And the main reason?  Keagan is about as exciting, so far, as white bread.  I’ve done a crappy job of bringing him to life.

The nice thing about doing plot points, for me, is that they show me what DOESN’T work, where the holes are, where the story peters out.  I started with an idea that really excited me.  I had characters who caught my attention and didn’t let go.  I still like the premise and both characters, but are they dancing to life on the page?  Not so much.  And they started out great…for about four or five chapters.  And then?  There wasn’t enough tension between them to keep me from yawning.  But the good news is, my plot points made that obvious.  I can fix it in the planning stage instead of the rewrite and weep stage when I’m sick and tired of the whole thing and want it done.

Once I hit chapter twelve, I could see I needed to up the conflict, too.  An easy fix.  I added another character who, hopefully, readers will love to hate.  I’ve just met him, and I’d already like to smack him with a two-by-four, which makes him perfect:)   I could also see that I needed to add more of a feel for Mill Pond into the mix.  Another easy fix.  After all, the residents of the little resort town love interfering in other peoples’ lives.  Oops, I mean they love to help and lend a hand.  Anyway, I’m up to plot point thirteen, and I’m so happy I bothered with them, because they’re going to save me a lot of work once I start putting words on the page.

I know plot points aren’t for everyone, but I blog about what I’m up to at the moment.  And on this particular day, I’m singing the praises of planning my books out. You have to find what works for you, but a few sign posts here and there can come in handy.  Whatever you come up with, have fun and happy writing!