November 2015 DVSinC Writing Tips Session

 

Our November 2015 writing tips session was presented by author-member Lisa Regan. These are her notes:

TIPS FOR CREATING SUSPENSE

 

What is suspense?
Suspense is a feeling you create within your readers that is akin to excitement or nervousness wherein they cannot wait to find out what will happen next.

How do you create suspense?
In a talk that he gave at a writer’s conference in 2008, Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher series, suggested that posing questions and then making readers wait for the answers creates suspense.

How can you create and/or heighten suspense in your story?

1) Start with a character your readers identify with and like. If your readers don’t like the protagonist, they’re not going to care about the character’s problems. (Author Linwood Barclay suggests making your main character a sort of “everyman” character, a regular person with financial and family obligations, etc. He suggests adding elements that the average person will relate to like waiting in line at the grocery store or dealing with an annoying boss. Author Daniel Palmer has said giving one of his main characters a dog helped make the character more likable.)

2) Then frustrate that character at every turn.

3) Employ elements of the background or setting to bolster the suspense (i.e. leave a cupboard door open, make the setting seem broken down, have a storm roll through). Author John Hart’s The Last Child leans heavily on setting to build suspense. Last year I read Ellen Green’s The Book of James, which is set in Chestnut Hill, and she uses an old mansion and its grounds to create a great sense of foreboding that adds suspense to her story.

4) Think of your novel as a puzzle and each chapter as a puzzle piece. With each new chapter, the reader should feel like they are getting another piece of the puzzle. The pieces shouldn’t fit together until the end. Make them want to keep reading to get a new piece to the puzzle. (Karin Slaughter’s Fallen is a great example of this.)

5) Raise questions, hint at certain things but don’t reveal them right away. Emily Bleeker’s Wreckage, about a group of people who crash on a deserted island, alludes to several events that took place on the island and a character named Paul early on in the novel but you have to keep reading to find out exactly who Paul is and what happened on the island.

6) “No one is safe” – while you may not want to “kill off” a major character and risk alienating readers, you might want to remove a minor character either via injury, death or kidnapping. The idea that no character is safe from the forces of evil can sometimes heighten suspense. (Slaughter chose to kill off a major character in her novel, Beyond Reach which alienated and angered many of her fans. An example of the “no one is safe” concept where the main character is in serious jeopardy but eventually recovers is Greg Iles’ Turning Angel where the main character is kidnapped and forcibly given heroin.)

7) Author James Scott Bell says you should “unanticipate” meaning figure out where you think readers would expect the story to go and then don’t do that. If you think a reader is going to anticipate one thing, then do something else.

8) Try to keep your chapters short.

9) Make the ending of chapters cliffhangers.

10) Show the point of view of both the protagonist and the antagonist.

 

October 2014 DVSinC Writing Tips Session

October 2014 Writing Tips Session (summarized by Matty Dalrymple): KB Inglee provided information on critique groups. The DVSinC critique group currently has eight members which is the maximum workable number; when a slot opens up, she will let the group know. KB has found critiques of written material better than read material; critiquing written material keeps the author from providing more information in their read presentation than the reader would get if they read the material. Getting written material also enables readers to catch spelling and grammatical errors that they might miss if they were listening to the piece. KB provided guidelines for successful critique group participation, including the importance of confidentiality and reciprocity. KB suggested that the Sisters in Crime chapter pursue setting up other critique groups in different locations both to provide more critique opportunities and easier access for our members.

January 2013 DVSinC Writing Tips Session

January 19, 2013: KB Inglee: Dealing with Butterflies, and Reading your Work in Public

At our January 2013 meeting, author-member KB Inglee discussed some clever ways to deal with the difficulties most writers experience when reading their work in public. The following is her written summary of her remarks.

 

READING YOUR WORK IN PUBLIC

by KB Inglee

I recently attended an event, where 12 people read 1000 words or fewer. Three readers stood out. One woman read a short story from her book. She stood in the center of the front, looked at her audience, and read in the voices of the characters. It was spectacular. Her material was good and her presentation brought it to life.

She was a natural performer, but most of us aren’t.

One fellow seemed to have good material, but he read too fast, and he read directly from his computer screen, which forced him to do the whole reading looking down into his lap. I heard maybe two thirds of what he said.

 NERVES

In polls, people have said they are more scared of public speaking than of dying.

What you feel as butterflies is actually a spurt of hormones into your system, preparing you for fight or flight.  When your body senses a threat, all its reserves are redirected from your digestive system into your brain and muscles. Your vision narrows to take in the threat. You see the lion in front of you, but not the zebras on either side. Trips to the bathroom empty your innards and lighten your body, making it more able to engage in flight. Most of us want to flee when we feel these butterflies, but a select few want to fight. See if you can reinterpret what you feel from “Let me out of here” to “Let me at ‘em.”

If you are really afraid, find a totem — an object that brings you comfort. I have several: a quill pen, a “writer’s jacket,” a knit shawl. You might find a stuffed animal, a small stone, or even a book. If you are at a table, put your totem in front of you. The audience may not remember your name, but they will know you were the one with the stuffed cat, or the first edition Agatha Christie.

But what will make you more comfortable than anything else is proper preparation.

 PREPARATION

Pick something under 1000 words. It is long enough to give a taste of your work, but won’t keep you nailed in position forever. If you do in fact fold, you can get through 1000 words, and gracefully retreat. My own preference is around 500 words (see the chicken story at the end).

Pick something that feels like a whole work, with a beginning and an end, such as a single scene, a short conversation, or a description that contains some action.

Do not read from your book. Carry the book with you, but copy the section you intend to read onto paper. This should not be difficult, since you almost surely have the manuscript on your computer.  Enlarge the type to a size that is comfortable for you, so you will not be stuck to your manuscript. (I have gone from 14 to 16 point in the last few years.)

Settle on your pacing, and mark it off with slashes, double slashes, and highlighters. If your reading has more than one voice, color-code them so you know at a glance when the change is coming up.

Practice first. Read it out loud at least three times before you arrive, at least once to a live person.

Get a shill. A shill is someone planted in the audience who is acting on behalf of the presenter. Have your shill sit just off center in the back row. She will let you know if you are going too fast, or speaking too softly. If it’s a group reading, one shill will do for everyone.

 PRESENTATION

Tell them your name, give the name of your piece, and start reading. If the audience needs more information, they can ask later. If you feel you must do an introduction, make it as brief as possible and don’t overdo it. Don’t babble. Plan it before you get there, and add it to the start of your manuscript.

If you are so nervous you think it will show, you can tell the audience “this is the first time I have read in public and I am not yet comfortable.” I know people who have bought books because they felt sorry for the poor author who was struggling with a case of nerves. As my shill pointed out, the audience doesn’t care if you are comfortable; they care if they are comfortable. Telling them you are nervous allows them to relate to you, and releases the tension that occurs when they see you are nervous, but you haven’t acknowledged it.

If you are in a group and you have a choice, read early, but not first. That way you can relax and enjoy the rest of the readings and not get more and more frantic as the time goes by.

Whenever possible, stand up for your presentation. It is more professional, and you can be heard and seen better. Make sure the manuscript you read from is on something firm, so it doesn’t keep flipping over, or shutting.

Since you are no longer stuck to your manuscript, you can look at your audience. Make eye contact with some of them.

Stand up, look at your audience; take three slow breaths before you start.

Read slowly. You will live to finish the reading. You don’t have to rush through it. Speak up.

Don’t drop your last line. More than once, I have had to ask a reader what the last word was because the sense of the whole presentation was in the last line and I missed it.

End as you began, take three breaths, look at your audience and sit down.

The following piece is just over 500 words, in two voices, that of the reader (relaxed and chatty) and that of the historical interpreter (didactic and boring). It is marked off in phrases or groups of words, so I know exactly where I am all the time. Single slashes tell me where to pause; double slashes indicate a longer pause, and the color change tells me when to change my voice. Each one of these tricks is invaluable — especially when you are nervous.

 May This House Be Safe from Chickens

by KB Inglee

Living balanced between the 18th and 21st century/ can sometimes be difficult.// As an interpreter for two living history museums/ I sometimes have to do just that.//

One of my jobs is at a grist mill and wool factory/ that interprets the New Republic// the other at a colonial gristmill.//

Nearly 100 years separate the two sites,/ but the water system works the same way in both.//  First you find a stream that drops enough/ in a short space/ to provide the power…Oh, sorry,/ I do tend to fall into interpreter mode.// I’ll try to behave.//

A couple of times a year,/ we take our heritage sheep on the road./

In October/ we borrow a pair of chickens,/ load them up with a pair of sheep/ and drive them off/ to entertain and educate the public.//

We have two breeds,/ Merino and Leicester Longwool.// The Leicesters/ are a dual purpose breed.// Before machine processing,/ farm animals had to do two jobs.//  There I go again,/ sorry.//

What I sometimes forget/ is that we live in a 20th century house/ with a 21st century dog/ who thinks chickens are the enemy,/ or at least dog food.//

I put the chickens in their little crate,/ on the back stairs/ and shut the cellar door.// I always thought my dog was pretty dumb/ but she found more ways to get into the cellar/ than I ever did. First she tried to tear down the door.  When that didn’t work/ she tried to dig up the stairs/ and drop down on the chickens from above. Then she crawled behind the book case/ to get through the wall to them. Fortunately for the birds/ she couldn’t do it.//

The chickens are Buff Orfingtons.// Beautiful golden birds/ that lay white eggs/ and are excellent/ roasted with a bit of …

It took two of us/ to get the crate of chickens/ out of the house/ and into the car. One of us held the dog/ while the other carried the chickens.//

After a day in period clothing/ where sheep and chickens did their public thing,/ this time about colonial farming,/ I brought them home.// They spent the night in the car,/ in their tiny crate.// In the morning/ I set them loose on the side porch/ and gave them a feast of dry dog food,/ crushed popcorn/ and bird seed.// They’ve been poking about all morning,/ always with one eye on the door/ that had a dog on the other side.//

By noon/ the dog had quieted down/ and fallen asleep/ under the dining room table.// But she was ready to pop up// and defend the house again/ if she had to. Tomorrow the chickens go home.//

18th century people/ were as clean as it was possible to be,/ given that they had to make their own soap,/ carry fire wood,/ and water,/ heat the water…

So, I am faced with my final dilemma,/ to clean out the chicken smell/ in the car and the house/ with 409,/ or with the ubiquitous and versatile cleaning agent of the 18th century,// urine.///

END

Note: I would like to thank Greg Schauer, owner of Between Books in Claymont Delaware, who hosted the public reading, my “How Many Pages…” group on Facebook, and my Shill for the day, Judith Skillings.