Eek!

I’m going to be speaking locally on Monday, January 23rd at 7:00 at the Katonah, NY, library. If anyone would like to come, the event is free, and I would love to meet you in person! The audience will mostly be adults, so I’ll be pitching my talk that way. Teens will certainly be fine.

The library is putting out a press release to promote the event, and the press release includes this quote from Ella Enchanted, which made me laugh:

I wished I could spend the rest of my life as a child, being slightly crushed by someone who loved me.

Do you remember my recent inveighing against adjectives and adverbs that weaken, like slightly. So I’m delighted that I’ve learned a thing or two in the twenty-plus years since I wrote the book. Today, instead of slightly crushed, I’d substitute squeezed, or I’d just delete slightly–if I noticed. I’m still capable of making this sort of mistake.

Onto the post!

On August 9, 2016, #writingstruggles wrote, I struggle to write suspense. I just can’t seem to make my readers feel scared, like my characters, or build up the tension.

In response, Christie V Powell wrote, If you’re up to it, you could try reading a thriller or watch a scary movie to get ideas. I’ve only watched one true horror movie in my life, and I was amazed how my emotions were reacting like crazy even though in my head I didn’t care for the plot.

One thing is to make sure to pace it so that you have both constriction and release leading up to the moment. In some books, especially the last of a series, they try to keep the pressure on all the time, but after awhile it just gets old. “Okay, the world is in danger. The world is still in danger. The world’s in even more danger. I get it already.” If you break it up with some light moments, it makes it much more intense.

You can also do a lot with description. The setting, and how you describe it, can have a big impact on mood. So do details, if you draw in and focus on just a few small things. Here’s examples from my climax:

The jagged teeth of Whiterocks Pass pierced the overcast sky.

The girls stood at the edge of a valley surrounded by sharp cliffs. Ruins of old buildings and deep, open pits spattered the entire valley floor, and every single space in between was taken up by statues.

Her foot snagged on a rock, and to keep from stumbling she instinctively grabbed a hand offered in front of her.

The hand was smooth and cold and definitely not alive. Keita looked up, and screamed.
A statue of a young girl stood beside her. Her arm was held out, in supplication or perhaps to deflect a blow. Her face was wrinkled in an ugly silent scream. Keita scrambled backward and bumped into Sienna. The girl stood just outside the tunnel, still as if she’d been turned into a statue herself.

I love the hand surprise, which is nicely creepy.

So that’s one strategy, to set reader’s expectations up and then have them play out unexpectedly in a bad way: warm, living hand expected–cold, lifeless, and useless one received.

When I was little, I liked to go to horror movies, which didn’t scare me much–until Creature With the Atom Brain. I had nightmares for months.

I don’t remember much of the movie, just that a girl character about my age at the time, which may have been eight or nine, adores a family friend, who plays with her and her dolls–until his brain is replaced with the atomic one. I still remember a frame of the movie in which this formerly nice man holds the doll by one foot, and you can tell it and the child no longer have any significance for him. Aaa!

What got me was the loss of affection. I don’t remember if he killed the girl. He may have, but I was lost to horror the instant the doll thing happened.

Then I saw the movie a second time and induced nightmares all over again. (What were our parents thinking? Both times I saw it at our neighborhood movie theater with friends–and no adults.)

So this movie gives us something else to use to create suspense. If we care about the MC, we’ll want others to be decent to her. Threatening that will create suspense.

Along the same lines, I’m not fond of violence in movies or on tv, but I can bear it and even like the movie or tv show if the violence isn’t nonstop. However, I’m not capable of watching or even reading about harm done to an animal. It’s the animal’s innocence that does me in. Character innocence can create tension, too. The reader sees the threat, but the character doesn’t. She’s having a perfectly fine time. Maybe she’s telling the villain things she absolutely shouldn’t because he’s charmed her. The ax is about to fall. The reader has chewed her nails right up to her elbows.

And that’s another strategy: make the MC clueless–sometimes, of course. She can’t always be out to lunch or the reader will lose patience.

Underlying all suspense is one principle: the reader has to care about the character who’s in jeopardy. The reader doesn’t have to like the character, although that makes the task easier. The reader just has to want bad things not to happen to her.

In the end-of-the-world/end-of-the-series scenario Christie V Powell writes about above, we may be able to keep the suspense going through reader caring. I haven’t written this kind of thing, but I’ve seen examples. I used to love Star Trek (I  watched only the original series). I desperately wanted the entire wonderful crew to be okay. I assume that in a series of books, there are at least a few characters the reader cares about. We can keep the suspense going by making each aspect of the coming apocalypse endanger a different character. Then once that danger has been dealt with, on to the next danger and character.

Thus the one the reader worries about doesn’t always have to be our  MC. Doesn’t even have to be a person or even alive. The reader can be made to care about a work of art, a building, a city. Anything.

In the case of Star Trek, the tension was undermined a bit by my certainty as the series progressed that the writers would never bump off a major, beloved character. We can learn from that too. If we allow dreadful things to happen to our MC, the reader will realize that this book takes no prisoners. The worst really can come about. Eek!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Make the reader care about a plastic cup. Threaten it. Create tension over the cup.

∙ Write from the perspective of the evil queen in “Snow White.” Make us care about her, whether or not you keep her evil. Make us see her tragic ending coming.

∙ Time pressure is a great tension builder. Your MC is on a journey. Her mission, whatever it is, has to be accomplished before the destination is reached. Use the time pressure to make us worry.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Rainy Day Misery

Thanks for weighing in on the changed blog! If you have more thoughts, please post them. By the way, what used to be called labels are now categories.

Now a little pre-post before the main event:

Without being specific, a writer recently asked on my website about advancing controversial opinions in stories that might offend some readers. This has come up before, and I’ve written a couple of posts on the subject. Basically, I’ve said that we shouldn’t stifle ourselves, and we don’t know whom we’re going to offend or not offend, anyway. The most seemingly bland scenario may trouble someone.

A fresh idea has occurred to me, however. I still don’t think we should worry about our readers. There is literature in the world putting forth every take on every topic in the universe. But we may want to protect ourselves.

Something like this was addressed not long ago in my poetry school in a master class about writing about actual people in one’s life (which I’ve also written about here). One of the poets teaching the class had published a collection that revealed troubling family history. The response from his relatives was less than positive. I think he had every right to publish, but he also had the right to not publish and shield himself if he felt that he wouldn’t be able to deal with the hurt.

This doesn’t apply just to life experiences. If we put forward an unpopular position, whether our readership is broad or narrow, we need to be prepared to accept the response. I’m not saying not to do it–maybe we should do it–but we should brace ourselves. If we’re not ready for criticism or even anger, we can hold off and wait for a better moment.

Now for the regular post. On January 15, 2015, KLC wrote, I had been writing short books that had good ideas, but were not suspenseful at all and leaving me with absolutely no reason to turn the page. Then I started planning for other books and as I started to write them, I realized that the only way I knew to make my books suspenseful was to add in lots of drama and people dying. The problem is that that’s not how I want my books to be like, so how do I make a good, suspenseful book without making it a blood-and-gore horror story. (Perhaps I have been taking your advice “make your characters suffer” a bit far…)

At the time I wrote, I’m adding your question to my list, but it will be a while before I get to it. In the meanwhile, readers will be in suspense if they care about your main character and if he or she needs something or wants something or is in trouble. No one has to die.

And this is what I’m writing now: I love to walk but not in the rain. On most Tuesdays I commute to New York City and while I’m there I like to get in a long walk of about three miles, because I especially enjoy striding through the bustle and along the interesting architecture. The endorphins kick in after a while, and I feel like the healthiest old lady on the planet. Starting on the previous Wednesday, I anxiously watch the weather predictions. It’s silly. My health won’t be damaged if I miss a walk or two, and it’s not my only form of exercise. Usually I’m lucky and get sun, but I worry that I’m wasting my wishes on weather, and when something really important comes along, they’ll all be used up. Still, I care a lot. If I were a character, and the reader sympathized with me, he would want the sun to shine whenever I wanted it to.

Could this desire for a sunny day be a suspenseful part of an interesting story? I think so. Let’s make me a lot younger than I am and let’s call our MC Abigail, since no modern young person is named Gail, alas. Abigail is an outdoorsy person, and things haven’t been going well for her lately. Let’s say her Geology teacher seems to have it in for her and she’s failing, even though she loves the subject. Her best friend has texted her with accusations that make her feel awful, even make her feel that their friendship since they were toddlers may have been a sham. Oh, and let’s top it off: The friend’s accusations are true, because the most misery comes when we are guilty (and, I think, the most reader sympathy).

Abigail needs a break, so she plans one for the next day, because today is shot. It’s spring. The dogwoods are in bloom and she hasn’t seen them yet in her city neighborhood. She packs a picnic lunch the night before and decides to leave early for the big park a mile from her house. If the day is clear, she’ll be able to outstrip her unhappiness or walk into it and figure out some strategies. She goes to sleep visualizing sunshine.

If our story has been very tense up to now we may give her a break and blue skies. If not, we make it pour. She’s cooped up at home because it’s the weekend. What does she do? She obsesses about her friend. She composes an answer, then thinks it won’t do, tries again, gives up. Next, she picks up her geology textbook, reads a paragraph without comprehension, shuts the book with a thud. Desperate to do something positive, she decides to cook dinner for her parents and make her favorite recipe, which they also like, but it turns out that a crucial ingredient is missing, and the deluge is still going on. We’ve set it up that she doesn’t deal well with frustration. So far she’s been cautious and positive, but we know that isn’t going to last. She starts curling her hair around her finger, always a bad sign. The reader wonders in what way she’d going to go off the rails–and keeps reading.

So what have we done? We’ve taken a trivial wish and surrounded it with unhappiness, because we do need to make our characters suffer, even if the suffering is unlikely to kill or maim them or anyone they love. I don’t think I’ve made Abigail sympathetic enough in just this summary, but we need to do that, too, to persuade the reader to turn the page. One possibility for that would be to put her in the presence of her friend, who’s ignoring her. We reveal her thoughts, as she wonders about the right approach, as her friend smiles and talks with other people, maybe even glancing in Abigail’s direction and looking away.

A great example of all of this is Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. Nothing more violent happens than Anne cracking Gilbert Blythe over the head with her school slate. There’s death, but it’s not the focus of the story, and a baby gets the croup, but Anne saves her. What draws us in is how unloved Anne feels herself to be, with some reason, her ardent desire for whatever she wants at any point in the story, her wry self-awareness, and maybe five other things I can’t think of. Certainly the voice of the narrator is engaging. If you haven’t read it, I hope you will. You don’t have to be eight years old; it’s worth studying.

Although no lives are at stake, the themes can and should still be big. In my example of Abigail and the sunny day it may be friendship, self-worth, self-understanding, empathy, personal growth, honesty. That we touch these grand motifs will also keep readers reading.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Make the reader care about your character’s wish for one of these: a melted cheese sandwich, eyeglasses, quiet, a single good idea, a set of watercolors. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Show Abigail at home after receiving the hurtful text. Make her sympathetic through her thoughts and her preparations for the longed-for sunny day.

∙ Write the argument between Abigail and her friend when it finally comes. Make the emotional wounds deep, as if this were a battlefield and the words were swords. If you like, then bring about a reconciliation. If you don’t like, use the argument and the injuries sustained to launch your plot, in which the pain is never physical. You can end finally with renewed friendship or separation and growth, or, tragically, just separation.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Aaa! Action!

As you see above, the website is up and running.  Please let me know what you think if you haven’t commented already or have more to say.  It’s still a work in progress.

Announcement: Yesterday was Betsy Red Hoodie Day, when my second Betsy book (the first was Betsy Who Cried Wolf!) was released.  You can read about both books on the website.

And check out my upcoming appearances on the “What’s New” page.

When you ask a question on the blog and I say I’m going to add it to my list, the list is a document called “blog ideas,” and each week I mark off the last question I answered and go on to the next.  Today when I went to the next question, it was this from Sami: “How do you write a love story if you have never been in love?!?!? I want to but don’t know how..”  I realized this was one I already covered – on Wednesday, June 9th, in a post called “Un-sappy Romance.”  So Sami, I’m not ignoring your question, and please take a look at that post.  If you – or anyone – have more questions on the subject, please let me know.

The next question, on May 6th from Abigail, was about covers, but I discussed covers on August 4th, “Cover Musings.”  Abigail, if you have more questions about covers, please post them.

Now for today’s topic, on May 7th, 2010, Rose wrote, …do you have any suggestions on writing action or fight scenes in books? Things that happen fast are especially hard to capture, because it takes so long to say that it happened, even if it happens quite quickly. I think I especially need help on writing large battle scenes because I have no idea where to start. However, if you haven’t done this sort of thing much, that’s fine too – I was just fishing for whatever help I could get.

I wrote a battle scene in The Two Princesses of Bamarre and my recent Disney Fairies book, Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, and I wrote a fight scene in Dave at Night.  In Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, the battle is between the fairies, aided by a human girl, and a dragon.  It lasts a few pages in two segments and gave me more trouble than the entire rest of the book.  Speed was one problem and where everyone was was another.

The battle takes place on a plateau, so I needed to make up landmarks.  I invented a tree, the only one for miles, a petrified log, and a pile of stones.  Then I drew a map, a rough one, no work of art, and I had the three landmarks form a triangle.  No matter what happened, I knew where the action was relative to at least one landmark, because if I don’t know where the characters are and if I can’t visualize the scene, the reader doesn’t stand a chance.

In Dave at Night, the fight scene, really a beating, takes place in the orphanage superintendent’s office, a small space, but I still drew a map: desk, knickknack case, electric fireplace, door.

Short sentences can help move things along and give the feeling of the rush of  action.  This is a snippet from the battle against monsters in The Two Princesses of Bamarre:

…Her sword flashed.  Blood spurted from the ogre’s neck.  He pitched over.  She stood and ran at the falls.
    I raced to catch up.  An ogre leaped between us, his head and shoulders swathed in cloud.  Another cloud-ogre lurched about nearby.

Short phrases in long sentences work too.  Here’s an example, also from Two Princesses:

    Rhys hovered, just higher than the ogres’ heads, pointing his baton at one ogre, then another, wrapping them in cloud.

A battle can have a cast of thousands, but of course it’s impossible to show what a thousand people are doing, so the author needs a camera with a zoom lens.  Zoom way out to show the armies assembling, then in on the important characters.  It’s been a long while since I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but if I remember correctly he’s a master of shifting in close and out again, and it may be worthwhile to read a few of his battle scenes.

You have to wield that camera even in a fight, when there aren’t many characters.  Say your main character, Jesse, is attacked by three bullies.  If you’re writing from his point of view, you can show only as much as he’s taking in.  As the bullies approach, the camera zooms out to see them all.  Once the melee starts, the camera comes in close.  Jesse may see two coming at him, but the third has circled to attack from behind.  The view may narrow next to one boy.  If Jesse falls he may see only the left sneaker of one bully or two inches of pavement.  Same for sounds.  Before the action starts, with his senses on full alert, he may hear children playing, a mosquito whining, an ice cream truck going by.  But once the first bully makes the first threat, he’ll be listening only for noises that endanger him.  If a fire truck passes, sirens blaring, he probably won’t hear it. 

Same for smells.  Once the fight starts he probably will no longer be aware of the newly mown grass a few yards away.  But he’ll be noticing the sour odor of his own sweat.

If you’re writing in third-person omniscient, the task is harder, because you have to decide at every turn where to point the camera.  But you still need to focus in here, pull back, and focus out there.

Even though the pace is breakneck, don’t omit details, because they’ll bring the scene to life.  In this, think of the camera as a movie camera.  The camera is rolling until you freeze the frame to linger on a bully’s screaming mouth, his sweaty upper lip, his nostrils, which seem enormous, his chipped front tooth or his gleaming braces.  Action rushes on again until you stop to take in the detail that may save Jesse, a bully’s trailing, untied shoelaces or, say, a tree that can be an escape route for Jesse, an expert climber.

When you choose your details, pick carefully.  You want details that increase the tension or advance the action.  To increase the tension at the beginning, for example, a bully might go a few steps out of his way to kick a cat.  Or, while they’re beating Jesse, they’re talking about what a nice house he lives in or how pretty his sister is.  Yikes!

Jesse isn’t going to stop thinking during the fight, and you shouldn’t stop reporting his thoughts, but they’re likely to be stripped-down thoughts, limited mostly to the immediate situation.  He may think about where he can move, what the bullies are going to do next.  There may be other thoughts too, depending on the situation.  If Jesse has something in his backpack that’s precious to him, he may think about how to protect it.  He may even give away his thoughts and further endanger the thing.  Or maybe he had a conversation with his aunt that morning, and she urged him to make friends at school.  During the fight he may fleetingly and ironically remember her advice.

The only exception to this that I can think of is if something devastating happened to Jesse just before he’s ganged up on.  Let’s imagine the worst: his mother died, and he just got the news.  In that case, he may hardly notice the bullies, may not care that he’s being beaten.

As for feelings, the reader needs them, wants to experience Jesse’s fear, his desperation, his churning stomach, icy feet, shallow breath.  Again, stripped down.  If Jesse deliberately breathes deep, remembering his brief martial arts training, that’s okay.  But we don’t want a digression to a martial-arts lecture.

In fact, we want no long thoughts, elaborate feelings, certainly no flashbacks – because they suck the tension out of the scene.  When I read an exciting part in a book, my reading speeds up.  If the author throws in complications I may miss them, and if I have to slow down for a detour, I may just jump ahead.  In an action scene, I’m thrilled.  I want to be on a roller coaster with nothing to interrupt the wild ride.

Two prompts:

•    Tighten an action scene you’ve already written.  Take out anything extraneous.  If you need to, add thoughts, feelings, sensations that heighten the tension.  Try shortening your sentences.  Paragraphs too.  Then put the revision aside for a day.  The next day go back to it and tighten even more.

•    Write about Jesse.  You can change his name, his sex, his age, whatever you like, but have him attacked by three bullies and make the setting an amusement park or a playground.

Have fun, and save what you write!