Today wasn’t one of my best writing days. Although I hit my word count goal, I didn’t stagger away from my computer until near three. Since I normally start novel work by 7:30, that made for a long day. One with editing and publicity work still waiting to be conquered. In light of my rather murky muse, it’s no wonder I considered a major gear shift. In fact, as I puttered around the house, sweeping away the mountainous cobwebs that had gathered on more creative days, I plotted and planned another book entirely. And even convinced myself I needed to set my novel aside–the one I’m 45,000 words into and planned to have completed by the end of January–to start on a fresh book. Ah, a blank notebook, a blank screen, with ideas popcorn kernelling through my head.
Good thing I’m a praying woman. Hesitant to veer too far off my schedule without clear confirmation, I spent the afternoon in prayer. And nope, I never did get the novel-chucking, muse-chasing confirmation. So tomorrow, I’ll plunk back in my office chair, poise my fingers over my keyboard, squeezing out another 2,500 words (I upped my daily word count goal this year), whether they fly or crawl. Because sometimes we need to persevere and not everything comes easy, even when God’s behind us. (Like my old track coach, I believe occasionally He makes us sweat, not because he’s mean, but because He loves us and wants to help us be our best.)
Tonight as I sat and evaluated my behaviors, I realized how easy it is to chase one idea after another. After all, a novel sounds so exciting when its first birthed. Not so much when you’re halfway through, staring at a stack of notecards wondering if you’ll ever make it to *the end*. But if we keep sifting through ideas, we’ll end up with a lot of starts that sort of fizzle out. With anything, but especially with writing, there are times you’ve got to muddle through. Those great ideas can wait. Jot them down. Chew on them. Pray about them, then when you finish the project you’re on, go back to them. They’ll still be there, only now you’ll have a finished book behind you, giving you the confidence to push through when your muse decides to take another nap.
I challenge you to make that a goal this year—to finish what you start. It doesn’t matter if it stinks. You can always rewrite it, or delete it. Shred it? Feed it to your puppy? Douse it in lighter fluid and have a winter bonfire? And your time won’t be wasted. No time spent writing ever is. You’ll have learned a little more while developing perseverance—grit, and you’ll have gained confidence.
Today’s post comes from Lillian Duncan, author of Pursued. Lillian lives in a small town in the middle of Ohio Amish country with her husband, four parrots, one Jack Russell, and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Whether as a speech-language pathologist, an educator, or as a writer, she believes in the power of words to change lives, especially God’s Word.
Lillian believes books can be entertaining without being trashy. She writes the types of books she loves to read, suspense with a touch of romance. Her newest release is PURSUED and her fifth novel, DECEPTION, will be released later this year. Her website is: www.lillianduncan.net and her blog is www.lillianduncan.wordpress.com.
Always wanted to try your hand at suspense but don’t know how to start? Lillian’s here to show you how in this two part series. Join us Thursday for the conclusion of this topic, then come back Friday to learn more about her novel.
Writing Suspense—PART I
I love reading and writing suspense. No matter how hard I try to write something else, it always turns into a mystery or suspense. One agent suggested I write an Amish story since I live in Amish country but before the end of the first chapter, I had a dead body. What can I say?
First, let’s look at some definitions. These are my working definitions, and so you’re allowed to disagree.
MYSTERY is a story where the MCs are trying to discover who the murderer is. Somewhat slower paced than suspense but not by much (unless it’s a cozy mystery.)
SUSPENSE is a story where the MCs are trying to stop a murder. Often times the story starts with a murder, but it’s not necessary.
THRILLERS are a subgenre of suspense and usually include a conspiracy of some sort that will affect more than just the MCs. Political and Medical thrillers are common.
ROMANTIC SUSPENSE is a story where the romance between two MCs is as important as the mystery/suspense plot. Romantic suspense follows the same sorts of rules as romances.
There’s obviously a lot of overlap between these genres and sometimes it might be hard to figure out. One of my working definitions is when the Main Characters can keep their normal schedule as the story proceeds while they search for the killer, then it’s probably a mystery. When the Main Characters lives are interrupted because someone’s trying to kill them to stop them from exposing the truth throughout most of the story, it’s probably suspense.
My advice, don’t worry about it too much. Write your story then pick the genre you believe is closest. My stories are usually a mixture of mystery and suspense with a romantic subplot (different than romantic suspense.)
Now, let’s take a look at some of the elements of suspense writing. Today, we are looking at Pacing, Vocabulary, Violence and The Dreaded Foul Language Conundrum.
Getting the right pacing in your suspense novel is crucial. Too slow and you’ll lose most of your readers. Too fast and you won’t get the depth and layering that makes for a better story.
- Keep the focus on the story. Every scene should be about the story, not what she had for dinner, how her workday was (unless someone tried to kill her), who she talked to on the phone.
- Fiction is the illusion of real life, not real life. Or as someone important once said “good fiction is life with the boring parts taken out.” (Might have been Alfred Hitchcock.) This is very true for suspense novels. We read suspense for the goosebumps and the worry—not to hear about their day.
- Build up the excitement and tension of the story. Suspense novels shouldn’t just be one explosion after another. There needs to be a story and a plot that makes sense. We want to root for the main characters and we can’t if we don’t get to know them. Readers need a break from all the action so they can breathe—just not for too long.
- Showing and Telling. I know you know all about showing not telling, but you should use both techniques in your suspense story. If the pace is too slow get rid of the telling parts and show. If you need to slow the pace a bit, throw in some telling.
- Telling is a great way to show time passage or the mundane matters of life without letting the story drag.
- Short = faster pace. Long = slower pace. Shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, shorter chapters quickens the pace. Longer slows down the pace.
- 7. Cut the backstory. Backstory will kill the suspense in your suspense novel. If you must include backstory, do it in dribs and drabs not as in information dump. And better yet, do it as dialogue between two characters.
- Limit description. If you want to write long beautiful descriptions of sunsets, pick another genre. Suspense is fast paced and it seems to get faster paced with each passing year. You need to include description, of course, but it should be done in such a way that it blends in with the action.
Using inappropriate vocabulary is one of my pet peeves as I critique other writers’ work or even when I’m reading for pleasure. The vocabulary you choose should enhance your story, not make the readers scratch their.heads and wonder what the writer is talking about.
- 1. Vocabulary can help set the mood. Shrouded in darkness sets a much spookier mood than ‘the room was dark.’
- 2. Don’t show how smart you are by using “ high-falutin” words. Nothing irritates me more than a writer who wants to show off their vocabulary level. If I have to get the dictionary out and look up a word—it definitely stops the story and that’s not a good thing.
- 3. Vocabulary is especially important in dialogue. Let kids sound like kids, let a college professor sound like a….well, you get the idea.
- 4. Technical vocabulary must be explained. If your story features an unusual profession or setting, then find a way to explain the technical terms to the reader. One technique is to have one character explain it to another character who isn’t familiar with the vocabulary.
- 5. The dreaded foul language conundrum. Suspense and mysteries have bad guys—sometimes really bad guys. And yet some writers want to have them using what I consider silly terms, like “aw shucks” or “fiddlesticks.” Come on, let’s get real. Do you really think a serial killer would talk like that? I don’t. I hope I haven’t hurt anyone’s feelings by pointing that out but having your murderer use such terms takes away from the story.
On the other hand, I believe Christian Fiction should be different from the general market. One of the reason, I don’t read a lot of general market books anymore is that I got really tired of every other word being of the four-letter variety. This has been debated very vigorously on the loop. It brings out a lot of deep feelings and I don’t really want to revisit the topic but… The way I deal with it is to leave out the specific oaths and simple tell the reader they cursed.
James Scott Bell says he writes them in to help with the realism and then takes them out as he edits. Sounds like a good way to do it if you want that edgy feel.
We write Christian Fiction and that should mean something but readers who choose suspense/mystery know violence will be part of the story. The question then becomes how graphic will you (the writer)get? Here’s my list:
- Knifings-yes and no. I show them, but not step by step.
- Rapes-no. If there must be a rape in a story I use telling not showing.
- Dead bodies-yes.
- Dead, decomposed bodies-no. Again use the telling technique. I don’t want to hear about worms climbing out of the dead body. But that’s just me.
Your list may be different from mine and that’s fine with me. Do what works for you and your story.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at Overwriting and Creating Tension. See you then. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your reaction to the information questions below.
- Share your list of what’s acceptable and not acceptable when it comes to violence in your story.
- How do you deal with the “foul language” issue?
As a confessing word-lover, I’m the first to admit, I struggle with over-abundance. If a two sentence description is good, than an entire page is better, right? And why not dazzle my reader with my literary genius, spinning word-picture after word-picture?
If I wrote literary fiction or poetry, perhaps. But I don’t. I write fiction, filled with action and emotion. My ultimate goal is not to impress my reader but instead to plunge them so deeply into the story, they forget they’re reading. They’ve become Alice, or Trent, or Teddy–whatever character I’m presenting. Which means, every word must be selected carefully for optimal effect and anything that jars my reader must be sliced mercilessly from the page.
When writing intense scenes, short, even choppy sentences propel the reader forward. I eliminate reader-jarring tags like, “she thought,” “she felt,” and “she decided,” because they’re not necessary. If I present the sensory details effectively, my reader feels what my character feels and doesn’t need to be told how to feel.
Wanna write like the best? Then study great writing. Check out his four…maybe five…rules for great writing used by Ernest Hemingway here. (Gotta give a shout out to Michael Ehret, editor-in-chief for the Christian Writers Guild, because I nabbed this link off his fb page.)
And don’t forget, I’m giving away a three-page critique to help all my writer friends prepare for the many upcoming conferneces. In those three pages, I’ll teach you how to show, not tell, deepen your POV, craft your sentences to match your desired tension, and more! To be entered in the drawing, fb share this link, tweet the link, or leave a comment.
I’d love to hear from you. How do you find the balance between stale writing and sensory-overload?
First of all, run now, while you still have a chance. Just kidding. But seriously, writing is not for the thin-skinned. And it isn’t nearly as glamorous as it might seem. In fact, most days you’ll be glued to your computer, still in PJ’s at two in the afternoon, ball cap by your side in case one of your normal, presentable neighbors happen by. Although truth be told, you probably won’t answer the door anyway. Or the phone. Until the tips of your fingers throb from… (Read more)