Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Amen, Sister

Monday, August 4, 2014

Deliver What You Promised

Recently, a writer "liked" one of my blog posts. That doesn't happen as often as you'd think, so I clicked on his name to find out more about him. He's got three novels out, self published. I read his bio and LOVED it! The writing was excellent. It had wit, charm, a bit of sarcasm, and it was a joy to read. So I clicked on the link to his books. The first two didn't really appeal to me, but the third book caught my attention. The synopsis of the book was written in the same style as the bio, with wit, sarcasm, and fabulous word-smithing. Excited that I'd found an awesome style, I bought the book (Kindle version).

The dream faded as chapter one sped by. That wonderful style I'd read in the bio and the book description were lacking in the text. The writing was fine--setting, characters, all that stuff was well done. But the wit, the sarcasm, the sense of humor, were conspicuously absent. I made it to chapter five before I gave up. The plot is fine. The characters are fine. But the humor I thought I'd find wasn't to be found. I didn't recover from that disappointment.

It's ultra important to deliver what you promise to your readers. If the back-of-the-book blurb contains humor, there'd better be humor in chapter one. Conversely, if your book description is fast-paced with world-destroying stakes, there shouldn't be page after page of slapstick humor. Or worse, puns. Reader disappointment is a killer.

I'm not going to tell you this author's name because I have high hopes that he'll discover (on his own) that his laid back, humorous bio style should be incorporated into his next book. And I will finish the one I bought. The story questions raised were enough to keep me interested, and I'll probably end up liking the book. It just doesn't have any humor in it.

Would that bug you the way i bugged me? Share your thoughts.

-Sonja

Monday, July 14, 2014

Introducing Microtension

In the September 2014 issue of Writer's Digest, Donald Maass has a short but interesting article on Building Microtension Into Every Scene. The article was a fast read, and full of useful information, but I'm not going to share all of it. I want to pick out a bit at the end and discuss what he says. He offers three ways to deliver microtension to scenes.

1. "Pick a passage of dialogue and increase hostility between the speakers. It can be friendly ribbing, worried questioning, polite disagreement, snide derision, veiled threats, open hostility or any other degree of friction." 

Of the three ideas, I think this one is the easiest. When you have two characters who spend any amount of time together, tensions will automatically mount. Little things like misunderstandings, misaligned goals, or hurt feelings can easily produce juicy dialogue. Instead of internalizing the pain, have one character lash out with words. It doesn't have to be negative, either. Good-natured teasing (or an ill-timed tickle-fest) can escalate into tension, especially if there are unspoken resentments or unknown variables (that lovely sense of mystery must be made clear to the reader for this to work, though). 

2. "Pick a passage of exposition. List all of your POV character's emotions and find emotions that conflict. Grab what creates unease, uncertainty, fresh worry, new questions, a deeper puzzle or an agonizing dilemma. Rewrite the passage."

This one takes more work, as you've got to establish the conflicting emotions first. For example: in one scene, your female character thinks her husband is planning a surprise party for her. She's feeling a bit excited, but let's be truthful, it's too boring to devote an entire scene to it. Now add an emotion that conflicts. Simple: she hates surprises. Now she wants to find out if he's really planning it, who's involved, where it'll be, how they'll surprise her--and the whole time, she doesn't want her husband to know she's found out. (It's still pretty boring, but if you weave all this conflicting emotion into the main thread of the story, the potential for interest will raise.)

3. "Pick a moment when your protagonist is still, simply waiting or doing nothing. List three setting details that only this character would notice. Detail her emotions. Find those that conflict or surprise her. What's this moment's personal meaning?"

This is the hardest one, especially for me, as I'm not that great at detailing setting. However, it can be done. I'm thinking of J.D. Robb's In Death series. The protagonist, Eve Dallas, is a homicide detective. When she walks into a crime scene, she immediately notes the things that others wouldn't necessarily notice: hiding places, forensic evidence, misplaced items (like moved furniture or pictures askew). Her emotions are almost always under control. But once in awhile, the scene is personal to her--she knew the victim, or feels extra compassion for a survivor, or something about the crime reminds her of an emotionally trying time from her past. That's when the viewing of the scene takes on more meaning. The emotional connection to the setting produces tension.

If you've got a boring passage in your WIP and don't know how to fix it, try using one of these three ideas to increase the tension. 

Questions? Comments? Do you have better examples than what I came up with?

-Sonja

Thursday, July 10, 2014

True for me

When in doubt, post something humorous. True for you, too?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Plotting a Mystery

Sorry I haven't been around lately. I'm plotting a new mystery. I'm taking a quick break today to share something I found on Pinterest (yes, I wasted some of my plotting time with a visit to Pinterest--since I only spent five minutes there, I'm not feeling guilty at all). The pic said this:

"To uncover the plot of your story, don't ask what should happen, but what should go wrong. To uncover the meaning of your story, don't ask what the theme is, but rather, what is discovered. Characters making choices to resolve tension--that's your plot. If your protagonist has no goal, makes no choices, has no struggle to overcome, you have no plot." -Steven James, from Story Trumps Structure

What I love most about this quote is the part "What should go wrong." I don't know about the rest of you mystery writers, but I plot my story by figuring out the murder first. Who did it? Why did he do it? How did he do it? How does he think he'll get away with it? How much planning did he put into it? Most importantly, how will he be caught and brought to justice?

At some point in here, I'll also figure out everything about the victim: who he is, why he deserved to die (in the mind of the murderer), how to make him sympathetic (so the reader cares about solving his murder), and all the other little things that go into crafting a great victim.

Once I have all that nailed down, I create my protagonist (she's been in the back of my mind all the while, anyway) and figure out: How does she stumble across this murder? Why is it important for her to solve it? How will she solve it? What are the stakes if she doesn't solve it? What's her inner flaw that she must conquer before she can be in a position mentally, physically, or spiritually to solve the crime?

That's where the "what can go wrong" comes into play. If it's too easy for my protagonist to solve the murder, it's a boring story. If it's too hard, the reader will be frustrated. There's a fine line between Believable and Throwable (as in "throw the book across the room and never read another book by this author ever again so-help-me-God"). Granted, my murderer wants to get away with his crime, so he'll probably try to make things go wrong for the protagonist. But she also faces other problems. People lie. Evidence gets misinterpreted or languishes in a crime lab somewhere for horrific amounts of time. Budget cuts limit personnel availability. Family members want some quality time with the protagonist, so she can't devote her entire day to crime solving. Attitudes and expectations get in the way. Feelings get hurt. Drama distracts.

The "what can go wrong" part can be fun to plan, but if I go overboard, the story isn't believable or fun to read. Balance is the key.

Any comments? Questions? Observations? Share your wisdom with the rest of us, please, and use the comments section to do it.

-Sonja

Thursday, June 26, 2014

My Story is Boring

I think this is a problem most writer's face. You get to that spot in the story where everything slows down and you're certain it's boring. What to do? I'm facing that problem today. One solution is to raise the stakes. There are at least five different kinds of stakes that I know of, and any one of them can pull the story out of the blahs. Let's look at them.

1) Spiritual. My character's religious beliefs can be thrown into question somehow. Is it okay to steal food if my kids are hungry? Will God really be displeased with me if I tell a lie (we all lie in real life, so characters should lie, too--and not just when it's convenient. A good whopper out of nowhere can really shake things up). Does kissing this guy who's not my husband mean I'm an adulteress? Is it still murder if the thing I killed is a life form from a different galaxy and I'm not even sure it was sentient? Okay, I'm getting silly now, but you can see where I'm going with it.

2) Emotional. Just when my character thinks life might be going fine, introduce an element that causes an extreme emotional response. Her child almost got run over by a car (or DID get run over--that'll shake everything up for the rest of the novel). His co-worker stole his great idea that lead to the co-worker's promotion--and there's no way to prove it. Her sick Grandma just won the lottery, and that money would be ultra useful to get out of a jam--and then the guilt kicks in for getting greedy over Granny's money. Those emotions can be fun to play with, so slather them on thick.

3) Mental. Thoughts, attitudes, understandings, expectations, we all have these things in real life. So does your character. Explore one of them, then twist it up so it's no longer useful. She thought he loved her and would buy her a ring--until she saw the new pick-up truck he bought with his savings. He truly believed he'd get chosen to be on the team, but when the roster was posted, his name wasn't on it. Misunderstandings can be especially useful to shake things up.

4) Community. Family members are the best for mucking things up, but there are also friends, neighbors, and that guy at the park you see every time you go jogging and you don't know his name but you recognize his face and smile at him. And because they are all people, they can shake up a character's carefully ordered world. Maybe your character is planning on going into business with younger sister, but she elopes and moves to Cancun. Or your protagonist is planning to spend that tax refund on a new golf cart, then one of the kids spills a gallon of paint on the hardwood floor in the living room and lets it dry instead of cleaning it up. Of course, all this physical excitement will lead to mental and emotional stresses, which raise the stakes even higher.

5) Global. Your character is cruising along through life, everything's going good, then out of nowhere, Canada declares war and bombs Seattle. Or maybe it's the Koreans. Or the Rusikans from Theta Seti 5. Or a tornado touches down and rips up the neighborhood. Unless your character is the president of the country, there's nothing that can be done about a national or international crisis. 

Now I must go fix my boring story by raising some stakes. Are there any helpful things in here? Any other stakes you can think to raise?

-Sonja

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

An Interesting Character

I enjoy Pinterest for a bunch of reasons, and one of them is the humor. I find funny sayings, pictures, posters, quotes, you name it. Today I saw this photograph:


It was easier to post the picture than try to explain a sandwich-board sign coated in chalkboard paint... or maybe not. I don't know who took the picture or where it's from, so if anyone knows, fill me in and I'll give due credit to the source. For those who can't read the tiny font, it says, "Congratulations, you made it out of bed. Come in and celebrate."

My first reaction was to smile. That's pretty cute. Then I thought, does this person really exist? We all like to joke about how hard it is to get up in the morning, or how we don't function until we've had our first cup of coffee, but most of us aren't really this extreme. 

This would make an awesome character in a novel!

I see story elements in nearly everything I see, do, and read. Have you ever driven by a remote spot and thought, "What a great place to hide a body!" Have you ever seen a child laughing so hard they quit breathing and thought that scene had to go into a book? Have you seen a T-shirt with a sarcastic saying on it and knew which of your characters would proudly wear it?

Am I all by myself in this? What would you do with this character who must buy a coffee in response to successfully getting out of bed on time?

-Sonja