How to Create Tension In Your Story

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Conflict is story

At the core of every story is conflict. Conflict keeps us engaged and wanting to read on. It’s meaningful and relatable, and why we love stories. This conflict must be powerful, deep and complex enough that it requires an entire novel to resolve.

How do writers technically create conflict?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Ensure the stakes are high enough – If your main character doesn’t stand to lose much, no one will care about the ending. If true love, or life and death, or a great moral dilemma fill your story, then readers will want to go on turning the pages.
  2. The opening scene must contain a mini conflict – The purpose of this is to hook your reader in by revealing key aspects of your main character while also alluding to the nature of the broader conflict they face. Opening scenes are a taster aimed at drawing the reader in for more.
  3. You must have complex and engaging characters who want different, opposing things – Given that stories are character driven, your main character needs to have many sides, and be flawed, relatable and want something badly that isn’t easy to obtain. Pitting characters who have different goals against each other creates friction and is how your characters reveal who they truly are.
  4. Conflict must be inner as well as outer – The protagonist must face internal conflict as well as some outer struggle. Stories are often about journeys of the self, about change and transformation. This must be reflected at every level in every chapter in the moral dilemmas the character has to deal with while facing opposing outer forces.
  5. The threat must be constant and immediate – The reader must feel the danger at every turn meaning in every scene and chapter. Readers shouldn’t be allowed to forget what’s at stake for a moment.
  6. Ensure the action happens in the present – While short flashbacks (no more than 1-2 paragraphs) can reveal character, they aren’t immediate. Instead, reveal character in small bites and through what they do. Keep readers in the moment by staying in the moment.
  7. Every word must count – Each word you write counts. If it doesn’t, get rid of it. In particular, use strong nouns and verbs that reflect the kind of issues at stake in your story. Likewise, if a scene doesn’t reflect the theme and move your story forward, then get rid of it. No one wants to go down rabbit holes that lead nowhere.
  8. Include scene and chapter arcs – Every scene and chapter has an arc – a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end. These components build towards the novels’ overall story arc, building tension as they go.
  9. Everything should reflect tension – The environment, the characters, the music, the smells, the colours and the weather are just some things that can reflect tension, building atmosphere in support of your story. If your character is sad, the sky can be cloudy, if they’re tense, traffic around them can be chaotic.
  10. Believe in your story and tell it passionately – If you don’t believe in your story, no one else will. Your story therefore needs to be something that you MUST tell. This will keep you writing and rewriting to perfection. Remember not to be too hard on your first draft. Add layers in the redrafts.

Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
Barbara Kingsolver

How to research your novel & what it brings

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I have mixed feelings about research. On the one hand it can be dull because it’s not actual writing and can take discipline, but on the other hand it’s learning and it’s creative because I don’t know what exciting things it will bring to my story.

Research can also be a fearful process. Will I find the story hook I need? Will it give me the dramatic plot points I’m seeking? Will it fit with the story I have in my head? Or will it take me down rabbit holes? This depends, of course, on how much of your story exists in your head, and whether you’re a pantser or plotter.

There’s the danger too that research can become a procrastination point, as it has with me lately. Here are my best tips on how to research effectively and efficiently:

  1. Explore – First and foremost, research is about exploration. Perhaps you’re just looking for details that will make your story realistic like setting and costume, but maybe you’re looking for plot points and characters. Let your curiosity loose and see where it takes you.
  2. Read – Scour stories, articles, and other pieces you find on the internet. Devour books (fiction and non-fiction). Trawl through diaries and old newspapers. Investigate journals. Go where you need to go. Become a magpie.
  3. Watch films, documentaries, TV – Visual research such as watching films,  documentaries or TV programs can be a rich source for writers. They can be emotive and give you pictures of things that might have been challenging to imagine. Use them as enrichment and to add authenticity.
  4. Conduct interviews – Talk to people. Is there an expert who could help you? Is there someone you’d like to use as a character? Were there people who experienced the kind of event you’re writing about? Most people are willing to help out so find your courage and ask. All they can say is no.
  5. Travel – My next story is going to require me to travel overseas during a particular event that will be the culmination of my novel. I also need to be there to see whose pathways I will cross and where that will lead me. I know one author who needed French WWII collaborator stories for her story so she went to a rural town there, sat in a cafe, told people what she was after and gradually locals came to her to talk. Travel can add colour, character and plot points. Create the opportunity for synchronicity to happen.
  6. Take organised notes – I use a physical book or sheets of paper to write up the details of each piece I research, then I highlight key information with a pen and rewrite it in a more meaningful way. For my first novel being published next year, I wrote up must-have points in sequential order because that’s how my story was organised. I ended up with 3 pages of notes that I used as a checklist. For any details, I had the longer notes. Also, I do separate notes for ideas that emerge during the process.
  7. Trust – With my last two novels I’ve had clear ideas of how the stories were going to work, meaning that while my research filled in gaps, I didn’t need it for plot points. With my current story I’m somewhat in the dark so I’m relying a lot more on what emerges during this process. Whether you’re a panster or plotter, trust that your research will give you what you need.
  8. Background only – Whatever you find through your research, your novel is fiction, not a lecture. Your research should inspire and inform you and provide authenticity where needed. It should never dictate your story or characters. Let it sink in to your mind and fall into the background.
  9. When to stop – Stop when you have enough critical information and can start writing your story. You could research forever, which can become an excuse for procrastination. Just dive in. You can always do research along the way to fill in specific details.

 

Is the cost of a writing mentor, editor or manuscript assessment worthwhile?

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There can be great value in paying a professional to help you develop your manuscript and writing skills. But it’s not cheap and there can be pitfalls resulting in wasted money and blows to your confidence.

Here are some tips to help you work out whether hiring one or more of these experts might be worthwhile, and if so, how to choose the right person for you and your work. Remember, if you going pay someone to help improve your work, they will find things wrong with it. So finding the right person at the right stage of drafting is crucial.

I’ve used two editors for my manuscript (which recently attracted a publisher) along with a mentor. I’ve also had a manuscript assessment done. Two of these processes were great learning experiences, one was a disaster and the other was poor value for money.

What do mentors, editors and manuscript assessors do?

Mentors

Engaging a mentor is a medium-priced avenue of paid support that sounds great—hiring an experienced author you respect who understands the ups and downs of the writing process to provide you with detailed one-on-one coaching.

But being a published author doesn’t automatically qualify someone as a good mentor. A good mentor sees this work as part of their profession, not just as easy money.

I went through a writer’s centre and engaged a mentor under agreed written terms, which included assessing 3-4 chapters at a time because I wanted guidance as I redrafted so as not to repeat mistakes. The mentor quickly reneged on those, saying they preferred to look at whole manuscripts only. Also, their comments revealed that they didn’t understand my genre and had made many incorrect assumptions. When I questioned them about their feedback in a genuinely inquisitive way, they became defensive. Nothing positive came from this expensive experience for me.

Editors

A full copy edit includes an experienced editor looking at your entire manuscript and considering structure, voice, point of view, character and style. They present their findings in a report, but also do a line edit, checking each word through track changes. This is the most expensive of the three processes and theoretically the most thorough, although I’ve found that editors’ attention wanes the further they progress into your manuscript.

It’s most important when choosing this option to be certain that your manuscript is at the right stage. Too early and you won’t get value for money because your draft is underdeveloped and not yet ready. This is what happened to me and I feel the editor should have warned me. Too advanced and all the editor will be left with is nit-picking, which can be bad for confidence.

During my second-to-last draft, I engaged a different editor to look at the first third of my novel line by line because by this stage I was most interested in improving my style as opposed to dealing with structural or other big picture issues. I then applied what I learned to the rest of my manuscript, which lifted my writing considerably.

Manuscript Assessments

This is a 10-12 page report that looks at the same issues as an editor but without the additional line edit. Often, the assessor will also ask you to submit a synopsis, publisher letter, author bio and pitch for comment, which can be very useful. This is by far the cheapest, and I think the best value option.

I went through an agency to get my manuscript assessment done. I was thrilled that they matched me with an assessor who was obviously across my genre, thorough, professional and concise. Quality, not quantity, was what this assessment was about.

Guidelines for choosing writing support:

  • Do your research to find the right person for you and your manuscript. What’s their experience, do they understand your genre, are they interested in your manuscript, are they over committed, are you a good personality fit, will they talk through their thoughts with you or write them down? Ask other writers for recommendations and interview each candidate. You can even test them out with a chapter of your work (many will agree to this)
  • Set agreed terms in writing so there’s no confusion. This might include stating the aims of your partnership, how much of your work they’ll review and within what timeframe, the price and what level of comment they’ll provide (high level overview and/or detailed word for word)
  • Any feedback must be constructive, aimed at supporting and bettering your work, not pulling it (or you) down. You want to come out more empowered and your work stronger
  • The person you engage must allow you to retain control of your work rather than forcing their personal preferences on you. A good teacher will help you find what it is you really mean to say
  • They also need to be confident in themselves, welcoming questions without feeling threatened
  • Whoever you hire, they must be professionally interested in your work and not just your money.

‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’ Confucius

 

 

Helpful reference ‘books’ for writing

IMG_1618.PNGGrammar is the rules or conventions that make the meaning of language and sentences clear.

Many people don’t care about grammar these days. But writing in a clear way by observing these conventions will help you to convey your message most effectively and optimally. The correct use of grammar will also that can help lift your writing into the professional realm, letting people know you’re a serious writer who works at their craft.

There will be times when you want to break the rules of grammar in the name of creativity. Go for it! But it helps to know them first before working out how best to manipulate them.

The five books I find most useful for grammar questions are as follows:

  1. A thesaurus – I use the online Dictionary.com almost every time I write to find synonyms for words I need to repeat. I like how you can click on a synonym in a list to find synonyms for that word until you’ve found the right one. I couldn’t write without a thesaurus.
  2. Fowler’s Modern English Usage – For me this is the bible on all sorts of questions you might have about specific words in both British and American, Australian, South African etc. English. For example, should I write roofs or rooves, is it ok to use ‘didn’t ought to’, what does ‘sic’ mean, what is the English versus American spelling of ‘program/me’, is the correct word ‘strategic’ or ‘strategical’? Make sure you get the latest edition.
  3. The Elements of Style – This book is great for writing rules such as when to place a comma before ‘and’ and ‘but’, slang, redundancy, using the active and not passive voice, verb tenses and mood, and is it which or that? The misused words and expressions section is fun reading, if you like that sort of thing. This book is priceless.
  4. A dictionary – I’m Australian and we generally speak British and to American English—although that’s eroding—so I use the Macquarie dictionary. It includes Australianisms  that other dictionaries don’t. Find the best dictionary for you in the version of  language  you want to write in—either online or physically. This is particularly important during the rewriting/editing/proofreading stages.
  5. Style Manual – This is an Australian Government book that I use for writing and editing advice. When I’m unsure about punctuation such as when do or don’t I include a comma in a string of adjectives, should I use a colon or a semi-colon, where do I place quotation marks, when do I use an en, em or 2-em dash, or hyphenation, then this is my go-to reference book. Very handy and easy to use with its detailed index.

To quote Winston S Churchill again, ‘This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.’

The First Draft

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Do you let your first draft rip never looking back, or do you rewrite as you go meaning your first draft is a partial rewrite? Maybe you find it impossible not to constantly go back to earlier writing, interrupting your progress and flow?

Do you wonder how bad your first draft can be? Is it OK if it’s cringeworthy rubbish, or does that mean you’re a talentless writer?

  1. How bad can your first draft be?
    First drafts are often really, really bad. As Ernest Hemingway said, ‘All first drafts of anything are shit‘. I find great comfort and relief in this. When I reread my first draft, it’s little more than a basic plot outline using simple words. I just need to get something down, a structure of events, that I can build on. Often there’s no flourish, sumptuous description, depth or complexity and there’s plenty of cliché, redundancy and repetition etc.. If you’re like me, you’ll be relieved to know this is perfectly normal.
  2. How first draft is a first draft?
    Depending on my writing flow, I sometimes finish a section or chapter, then go back and improve the words before writing the next part of my story. This draft is by no means final. That comes much later after a lot more work when I also look at structural and other matters. But I want my work to have some substance before I move on. Here’s why…
  3. Fixing the words – what am I really trying to say?
    Fixing the words it the best part of writing for me. It’s what makes me want to write, and brings excitement and joy to a challenging process. I also find it — as often happens to be the case in life — the most difficult part of writing. You know, yin and yang, growth comes from challenge etc..

    I’ve long thought that when rewriting or editing the key question to ask yourself is, What am I really trying to say? I watched an interview with author Sophie McManus in which she confirmed this. She went on to say that when a writer redrafts, they’re responding to technical questions about how to improve a sentence. It’s only then that the writer discovers the real meaning of what they’re writing because this is when they’re forced to ask what they really mean to say. In particular, this requires a focus on nouns and verbs, which I’ve posted about before.

  4. Creating versus rewriting and editing
    In this post here I talked about how you can’t create in editor mode because these processes use different parts of the brain that are not connected. But this doesn’t mean you can’t switch from one to the other, if it works for you. Perhaps you’re able to create in the morning or create on one day and rewrite in the afternoon or the next day. It’s OK too to get your first draft done in one hit before even rereading what you’ve written. You’ll know what’s best for you.
  5. Continual redrafting
    It’s critical, however, that you don’t get stuck in continual redraft mode, perfecting your words before you even get to the end.  This is an endless loop that can delay your project significantly.

    Seek perfection later. There’s a reason for this. It’s only when you have a complete plot with an ending that you can fix the sentences so that each one helps build your story in that direction. How will you know what’s missing or redundant, how will you know which words are most apt if you haven’t written the ending yet? Even if you think know your ending, there will be changes along the way that will impact your words. Trust your creative process.

  6. Just write it, confident or not
    You don’t have to feel confident as you write your first draft. Getting something down on the page is a start. Remember, you can’t rewrite or edit a blank page. Don’t let fear of writing poorly or going down a dead-end path hold you back.

    When you’re ready to rewrite, keep working on the language until it gets to the point where you’re saying something in a style or voice that knows its purpose, even if you don’t consciously know at first what your story is truly about. Ironically, through technique, writers create meaning, beauty and art.

 

 

Writing Book Review – Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

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This writing book aims to help you take your fiction to the next level. If you know the basics of writing, it’s a great guide on how to do this. I found it practical as well as motivating.

Maass talks about the premise, stakes, time and place, character, plotting, POV, endings, and I love that it also discusses theme. In short, it’s pretty thorough.

Key take outs:

  • The great novel should sweep you away with unforgettable characters, and dramatic and meaningful events. The essence of a great story is conflict.
  • High stakes come from your own stakes in writing your story. An author who is fired up, or rather who fires up their characters as their proxies, stands a much better chance of crafting a spellbinding story.
  • Use exposition – interior monologues – in which there is no action to deepen dilemmas and increase tension e.g. irresolution and mixed feelings.
  • To set your voice free, set your words, characters and heart free.
  • Novels are moral. Say something passionately that must be said.

Score: 9/10 It works