Creating and Sustaining Suspense

There is an article on suspense in the Writer’s Digest online blog by Steven James, one of the Writer’s Digest editors, that was recently featured but dated nearly seven years ago.  He discusses six techniques for crating and sustaining suspense, which I think are quite good.

1. Put characters that readers care about in jeopardy

Four factors are necessary for suspense—reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger and escalating tension.

We create reader empathy by giving the character a desire, wound or internal struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathise, the closer their connection with the story will be. Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be invested when they see the character struggling to get what he most desires.

We want readers to worry about whether or not the character will get what he wants. Only when readers know what the character wants will they know what’s at stake. And only when they know what’s at stake will they be engaged in the story. To get readers more invested in your novel, make clear: 1) What your character desires (love, freedom, adventure, forgiveness, etc.); 2) what is keeping him from getting it; and 3) what terrible consequences will result if he doesn’t get it.

Suspense builds as danger approaches. Readers experience apprehension when a character they care about is in peril. This doesn’t have to be a life-and-death situation. Depending on your genre, the threat may involve the character’s physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or relational well-being. Whatever your genre, show that something terrible is about to happen—then postpone the resolution to sustain the suspense.

2. Include more promises and less action.

Suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences, in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.

If readers complain that “nothing is happening” in a story, they don’t typically mean that no action is occurring, but rather that no promises are being made.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the problem of readers being bored isn’t solved by adding action but instead by adding apprehension. Suspense is anticipation; action is payoff. You don’t increase suspense by “making things happen,” but by promising that they will. Instead of asking, “What needs to happen?” ask, “What can I promise will go wrong?”

Stories are much more than reports of events. Stories are about transformations. We have to show readers where things are going—what situation, character or relationship is going to be transformed.

3. Keep every promise you make.

In tandem with making promises is the obligation of keeping them. The bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff.

When stories falter it’s often because the writers didn’t make big enough promises, didn’t fulfill them when readers wanted them to be fulfilled, or broke promises by never fulfilling them at all.

Here’s a great way to break your promise to the reader: Start your story with a prologue, say, in which a woman is running on a beach by herself, and there are werewolves on the loose. Let’s see if you can guess what’s going to happen. Hmm … what a twist this is going to be—she gets attacked by the werewolves! Wow. What a fresh, original idea that was.

How is that a broken promise? Because it was predictable. Readers want to predict what will happen, but they want to be wrong. They’re only satisfied when the writer gives them more than they anticipate, not less.

Make big promises.  Then keep them.

4. Let the characters tell readers their plans.

I know, this seems counterintuitive. Why would we want readers to know what’s going to happen? Doesn’t that give the ending away?

I’m not talking about revealing your secrets or letting readers know the twists that your story has in store. Instead, just show readers the agenda, and you’ll be making a promise that something will either go wrong to screw up the schedule, or that plans will fall into place in a way that propels the story (and the tension) forward.

Simply by having your characters tell readers their schedules, you create a promise that can create anticipation and build suspense:

•         “All right, here’s what I have lined up for the rest of the morning: Follow up on the fingerprints, track down Adrian, and then stop by the prison and have a little chat with Donnie ‘The Midnight Slayer’ Jackson.”

A story moves through action sequences to moments of reorientation when the characters process what just happened and make a decision that leads to the next scene. We do this in real life as well—we experience something moving or profound, we process it, and then we decide how to respond. Problem is, in those moments of reflection, a story can drag and the suspense can be lost. During every interlude between scenes a promise must be either made or kept.

And, if you resolve one question or plot thread (that is, you keep a promise you made earlier), introduce another twist or moral dilemma (in other words, make another promise).

When a story lags it’s almost always because of missing tension (there’s no unmet desire on the part of the characters) or not enough escalation (there’s too much repetition). To fix this, show us how deeply the character wants something but cannot get it, and escalate the story by making it even more difficult to get.

5. Cut down on the violence.

The more violence there is, the less it will mean.

A murder is not suspense. An abduction with the threat of a murder is.

The scariest stories often contain very little violence.

And, of course, different genre elements dictate different means of suspense. In a mystery you might find out that a person was beheaded. This occurs before the narrative begins, so the focus of the story is on solving the crime. If you’re writing a horror story, you’ll show the beheading itself—in all of its gory detail. If you’re writing suspense, the characters in the story will find out that someone is going to be beheaded, and they must find a way to stop it.

Reader expectations, and the depth and breadth of what is at stake in the story, will determine the amount of mystery, horror or suspense you’ll want to include. Nearly all genres include some scenes with them. As a writer, it’s vital that you become aware of how you shape those sequences to create the desired effect on your reader—curiosity, dread or apprehension.

Also, remember that valuing human life increases suspense. Because readers only feel suspense when they care about what happens to a character, we want to heighten their concern by heightening the impact of the tragedy. Show how valuable life is. The more murders your story contains, the more life will seem cheap, and if it’s cheap, readers don’t need to be concerned if it’s lost.

6. Be one step ahead of your readers.

Here are some ways to amp up the suspense:

→ As you develop your story, appeal to readers’ fears and phobias. (Phobias are irrational fears, so to be afraid of a cobra is not a phobia, but to be afraid of all snakes is.) Most people are afraid of helplessness in the face of danger. Many are afraid of needles, the dark, drowning, heights and so on. Think of the things that frighten you most, and you can be sure many of your readers will fear them as well.

→ Make sure you describe the setting of your story’s climax before you reach that part of the storyIn other words, let someone visit it earlier and foreshadow everything you’ll need for readers to picture the scene when the climax arrives. Otherwise you’ll end up stalling out the story to describe the setting, when you should be pushing through to the climax.

→ Countdowns and deadlines can be helpful, but can work against you if they don’t feed the story’s escalation. For example, having every chapter of your book start one hour closer to the climax is a gimmick that gets old after a while because it’s repetitious and predictable—two things that kill escalation. Instead, start your countdown in the middle of the book. To escalate a countdown, shorten the time available to solve the problem.

→ As you build toward the climax, isolate your main character. Remove his tools, escape routes and support system (buddies, mentors, helpers or defenders). This forces him to become self-reliant and makes it easier for you to put him at a disadvantage in his final confrontation with evil.

→ Make it personal. Don’t just have a person get abducted—let it be the main character’s son. Don’t just let New York City be in danger—let Grandma live there.

No matter what you write, good prose really is all about sharpening the suspense. Follow these six secrets, and you’ll keep your readers up way past their bedtime.”

Review: A Delicate Truth

I was on holiday recently and I had finished reading The Grapes of Wrath.  Hoping to find a new book, I noticed that the hotel shop had a shelf of books – all in English, which I thought was a bit unusual as it was a Mexican resort.  I asked the shop keeper whether they were for sale.

“No,” she said, “but you can borrow one.”

That wouldn’t do, because we were going to leave that hotel soon and I wanted to finish a book at leisure.  So, I asked, “Is it possible to trade a book?”

“Yes, that would be fine.”  So I left them The Grapes of Wrath and I selected A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré.  I have to say that the hotel got the better part of that deal, but I bought another copy of The Grapes of Wrath when I got home.

John le Carré is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell who was born in 1931 in Poole, Dorset, England.  He is a British author of espionage novels. During the 1950s and 1960s, he worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works. Following the success of this novel, he left MI6 to become a full-time author. Several of his books have been adapted for film and television, including The Constant Gardener, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Night Manager. 

He studied foreign languages at the University of Bern in Switzerland. In 1950, he joined the Intelligence Corp of the British Army garrisoned in Allied-occupied Austria, working as a German language interrogator of people who crossed the Iron Curtain to the West.  In 1952, he returned to England to study at Lincoln College,Oxford, where he worked covertly for the British Security Service, spying on far-left groups for information about possible Soviet agents.  When his father was declared bankrupt in 1954, Cornwell left Oxford to teach at Millfield Preparatory School.  In 1955, he returned to Oxford, and graduated in 1956 with a first class degree in modern languages. He then taught French and German at Eton College for two years, becoming an MI5 officer in 1958. He ran agents, conducted interrogations, tapped telephone lines and effected break-ins.  In 2011, he was awarded the Goethe Medal, and official award of the Federal Republic of Germany, given annually by the Goethe-Institut to “non-Germans who have performed outstanding service for the German language and for international cultural relations”.

John le Carré

This novel, published in 2013, concerns a failed plot by the British and Americans to capture a jihadist who was, reportedly, about to buy arms in Gibraltar.  The plot was conceived by a shadowy American private intelligence firm and endorsed by a British minister.  It involved British special forces who would flush the jihadist from a meeting with a notorious Middle Eastern arms dealer into the hands of the Americans who had their special forces in a boat on the water.   A middle ranking British Foreign Officer, who was observing events in Gibraltar was to advise the minister whether the situation was ‘go’.  When events turned sour, the officer advised ‘no’, but the minister with American backing decided ‘yes’.   The result was a failed operation which resulted in the deaths of an innocent civilian and her child.  In the aftermath of the operation, there was a cover-up, the minister was reassigned, and the observing officer was given a knighthood and a plum assignment in the Caribbean.  The bulk of the story concerns Toby Bell, a rising star in the Foreign Office, who was not involved, but who was suspicious at the time.  Bell gradually uncovers the whole story, its participants, and has to decide whether to risk his career to blow the whistle.

This novel is not on a par with John le Carré’s typical craftsmanship. It seems contrived and hastily put together.  For me, the author did not get the balance right between the credibility of the story, which would have been enhanced by more detail and a more deliberate pace, and the aura of secrecy surrounding the story.  The sensational aspects of the story contribute to a believe-ability problem in the sense that how likely is (or was) it that all these features would coincide in real life: a stubborn, wilful, isolated minister, an incompetent, headstrong group of Americans, a secret arms transfer being made on the streets of Gibraltar, a notorious, super-rich arms dealer on his yacht in Gibraltar harbour, a middle grade officer being given a knighthood for his meaningless participation, two murders in Gibraltar that go unnoticed and so on?  The characters are real; the suspense and the intrigue are vintage le Carré, but the editor was asleep.

Give it a pass.  There are much better le Carré novels.

Review: The Grapes of Wrath

I hadn’t read any John Steinbeck, but this title was certainly familiar to me as being about the ‘dust bowl’ and the ‘Okies’ of the 1930’s, at time with which I was only vaguely familiar.  So I bought a copy.

Wikipedia says: “John Ernst Steinbeck Jr (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” He has been called “a giant of American letters,” and many of his works are considered classics of Western literature. During his writing career, he authored 33 books, including 16 novels, six non-fiction books, and two collections of short stories. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered Steinbeck’s masterpiece and part of the American literary canon. In the first 75 years after it was published, it sold 14 million copies. Most of Steinbeck’s work is set in California. His works frequently explored the themes of fate and injustice, especially as applied to downtrodden or everyman protagonists.

“Steinbeck graduated from Salinas High School in 1919 and went on to study English Literature at Stanford University, leaving without a degree in 1925. He travelled to New York City where he took odd jobs while trying to write. When he failed to publish his work, he returned to California and worked in 1928 as a tour guide and caretaker at Lake Tahoe, where he met Carol Henning, his first wife. They married in January 1930 in Los Angeles, where, with friends, he attempted to make money by manufacturing plaster mannequins.  When their money ran out six months later due to a slow market, Steinbeck and Carol moved back to Pacific Grove, California to a cottage owned by his father. The elder Steinbeck gave John free housing, paper for his manuscripts, and loans that allowed him to write without looking for work. During the Great Depression, Steinbeck bought a small boat, and later claimed that he was able to live on the fish and crab that he gathered from the sea, and fresh vegetables from his garden and local farms. When those sources failed, Steinbeck and his wife accepted welfare, and on rare occasions, stole bacon from the local produce market. Whatever food they had, they shared with their friends. Carol became the model for Mary Talbot in Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row.”

Steinback was married three times and died in New York City, aged 65, of heart failure; he had been a life-long smoker.

John Steinbeck

This novel is set during the Great Depression of the 1930’s in Oklahoma, and, later in California.  Its principal characters are the Joads, a family of share-croppers whose borrowed 40 acres are devastated by the severe drought, which results in their decision to load their possessions and the entire family into an old car which has been converted into a truck. Tom Joad has just been released from prison after serving a term for manslaughter.  He returns to the ramshackle family home to find them preparing to leave, like so many others (300,000), for California, where handbills suggest that there is a great demand for farm labourers.  The family consists of his Ma and Pa, Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle John, brothers, Al and Noah, pregnant sister, Rose of Sharon, her husband, Connie, the young ones, Ruthie and Winfield, and an itinerant preacher, Jim Casy, who has lost his faith.

As the Joads drive west Grandpa dies and is buried; the family experiences hardships, but when the get to California, things get worse.  Grandma dies, it is very difficult to find work paying more than 5 cents an hour, police harassment of the migrants is a recurring problem, the large land owners unscrupulously drive down wages, and the local residents reject the ‘Okies’ as uncivilised beings.  Noah drifts off on his own.  Jim Casy becomes a union organiser and is killed by a deputy, who is killed by Tom, who then separates from the family for fear of being arrested. Connie departs the family and his wife who gives birth to a stillborn child.  Al finds a sixteen year old girl that he intends to marry and stays with her.  The campsite which the Joads – what remains of them – floods, and the remains of the family, Ma, Pa, Uncle John, Rose of Sharon, Ruthie and Winfield, are forced to take shelter in a barn with a boy and his dying father.

The story, which reflects the experiences of many economic migrants from the dust bowl to California, reveals the hopes, fears, resilience, and love of human beings under extreme stress.  It is difficult to read it without feeling pity for the thousands of migrants housed in makeshift camps around the world.  The characters, the setting and the circumstances are extremely real, and one keeps hoping to find some relief for the characters in the pages ahead, but none is forthcoming.  This is a tremendously powerful book!  It is long: 534 pages, but nearly impossible to put down.  I sometimes felt that some of the narrative could have been pared back, but even that extra narrative contributed to the story.  It is, for me, difficult to believe that twelve people could have travelled well over 1500 miles in a wheezy, small pick-up truck that was also loaded with mattresses, cooking equipment, and personal possessions, but the impossibility adds to the family’s evident predicament.

This is a must read novel!

 

Writing a Good Book Blurb

Boob blurbs are on the front line of battles for book sales.  The Reedsy website defines book blurbs as: “a short description of a book that is written for promotional purposes.  For a paperback book it usually appears on the back cover. Generally, 150-200 words are more than enough for a full blurb.  In the modern publishing landscape, where more books are being purchased online than in bricks and mortar stores, you are more likely to encounter blurbs on the product page of Amazon or any other digital retailer. Sometimes, you will hear them referred to as ‘book descriptions.’”

“The opening of your blurb has to be incredibly precise and dynamic,” says editor Rebecca Heyman. “For a lot of first-time authors, I think there’s an instinct to make sure readers understand everything that happened in the book’s universe before the beginning of the actual story. That’s generally a mistake.”

So if it shouldn’t set the stage for a reader who’s about to dive into your book, what should the blurb do?

Reedsy recommends a four step process as follows:

1. Introduce your main character(s)

“Your blurb has to be about characters. Consciously or not, readers check out the synopsis to see whether they want to spend time with your main characters. They don’t need to know their entire backstory, though — just enough to understand how they figure into the story’s primary conflict…

2. Set the stage for your primary conflict

“The primary conflict is what drives your story.  Without a real-world conflict, you don’t have a story readers can sink their teeth into.

“It‘s tempting to talk about “interior journeys” in your blurb, but that’s something best avoided in most cases. While a character’s compelling internal conflicts might turn out to be an aspect that reader enjoy once they read your novel, they don’t work well in a blurb.  “Your primary conflict has to exist in the physical world of your manuscript,” says Heyman. “That’s not to say that character arcs are not a critical part of what makes a plot dynamic, but they are certainly not going to hook most readers.”

3. Establish the stakes

“Without consequences, a conflict lacks drama. A blurb that says “Jack Ryan has 24 hours to rescue the Russian ambassador,” isn’t as impactful unless we know what’s at stake: “…his failure will result in certain nuclear war.”

“In JoJo Moyes’s Me Before You, a young woman becomes a caregiver for a quadriplegic millionaire and begins to fall for him.  “When she learns that Will has shocking plans of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living.”  This single sentence not only establishes the external conflict (“Louisa must convince Will to live”), it also lays out the stakes, which are literally life-and-death.

“To show your story’s full potential, the reader must be aware that something hangs in the balance for your characters.

4. Show the reader why this book is for them

“Most readers have an idea of the book they’re looking to read next. A well-tuned blurb won’t try to sell everybody on the book — it will help people who already want a book like yours see that it’s for them.

“It’s important subtly highlight how your book is familiar by including elements that readers are already excited by,” says Sione Aeschliman, an editor who regularly helps authors through events such processes. The key is to imply similarities between comparable books without sounding derivative: ensure you also distinguish what makes your book unique.”

In my experience, it’s best to be quite choosy about the words you select: they should be clear and they should convey the feelings you want the reader to have about the book.  Set it aside and keep improving it.  The first shot is never good enough.

What Makes a Great Protagonist?

I’m returning to Janice Hardy and her Fiction University website for her thoughts about creating a strong central character.

Protagonist

She says: “At the heart of every story is a person with a problem, and the more compelling that person is, the better the story will be. Flat, boring protagonists lead to flat, boring stories. And no one wants that. We want ‘jump off the page and grab the readers by the throat’ kind of characters. The ones you keep thinking about long after the book is over.  Here are ten ways to turn your protagonist from good to great.

1. She has a problem that needs solving

You’d think this would be obvious, but I’ve seen plenty of manuscripts where the protagonist could have died on page one and the story would have continued without missing a step. Make sure the protagonist is the one with the problem that has to be solved. No one else can solve this problem (or solve it as well as she can) and she’s central to the entire issue.

2. He has the ability to act

Protagonists who do nothing but react to the situation are boring. A good protagonist makes things happen and moves the story along through his actions and choices. If your protagonist isn’t in a position to affect change, consider how you can adjust it so he is.

3. She has reasons to act

Plenty of people might be able to do something, but unless they have a good reason, it starts to stretch credibility why they would get involved in something that clearly doesn’t matter to them. Imagine how unrealistic Die Hard would have felt if John McClane hadn’t been a cop and hadn’t had a wife being held hostage by bad guys. Why on earth would he have risked his life if there wasn’t a good reason? If your protagonist is risking her life or happiness, make sure it’s for a reason readers will understand.

4. He has something to lose

Just having a reason to act isn’t enough. Losing something that matters is a powerful motivating tool and will force your protagonist to do what he normally wouldn’t. He’ll take risks he’d never take if he didn’t have this consequence hanging over his head. It’ll also make readers worry that he might suffer those consequences and lose what matters most to him.

5. She has something to gain

This is an important aspect of the story’s stakes that’s sometimes forgotten or not thought through well enough. Watching a protagonist not lose has its merits, but when was the last time you went to a sporting event to see if your team didn’t lose? Readers want to see a protagonist rewarded for all her hard work and sacrifice, and a reason for her to keep going when everything tells her to give up.

6. He has the capacity to change

Character growth feeds the soul to the story. It’s what turns it from a series of plot events to a tale worth telling. A great protagonist has the ability to learn from his experiences and become a better (though not always) person. He won’t be the same person he was when the story started.

7. She has a compelling quality

Something about the person is interesting. Maybe she’s funny and likeable. Maybe she’s twisted and fascinating. She might have an unusual talent or skill, or a unique manner about her. Whatever it is, there’s a quality that makes a reader curious to know more about her. Often, what’s compelling is also contradictory, and wanting to know how these two things work together is what keeps readers hooked.

8. He has an interesting flaw

Perfect people are boring–it’s the flaws that make them interesting. Flaws also give you an opportunity to show character growth and give the protagonist a way to improve himself. Maybe he knows about this flaw and is actively trying to fix it, or he has no clue and change is being forced upon him. Maybe this flaw is the very thing that will allow him to survive and overcome his problems. Or the cause of the entire mess.

9. She has a secret

Open-book characters are too predictable, and predictable usually equals boring. If the protagonist is hiding something, readers will wonder what that secret is and how it affects the story. Let your protagonist be a little cryptic until readers are dying to know what her secret is.

10. He has someone or something interesting trying to stop him

A protagonist is only as good as the antagonist standing against him. Where would Sherlock Holmes be without Professor Moriarty? Dorothy without the Wicked Witch? Buffy without Spike? A great protagonist needs someone worth fighting or his victory is meaningless. Think of your antagonist as the opposite of your protagonist. The dark to his light, the evil to his good. Match them well for a villain readers will love as well as hate.

A protagonist who knows what she wants and makes the story happen is a far more compelling character than one who sits around and waits for the story to happen to her. Make sure your protagonist is more than just someone in the middle of a mess.

Literary vs Genre Fiction

 

Goodreads says that literary fiction is “a term that has come into common usage in the early 1960s. The term is principally used to distinguish “serious fiction” which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction.”

But what defines ‘serious fiction’ and ‘literary merit’?

Wikipedia says that the characteristics of literary fiction generally include one or more of the following:

  • A concern with social commentary, political criticism or reflection on the human condition.
  • A focus on “introspective, in-depth character studies” of “interesting, complex and developed” characters, whose “inner stories” drive the plot, with detailed motivations to elicit “emotional involvement” in the reader.
  • A slower pace than popular fiction. As Terrence Rafferty notes, “literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way”.
  • A concern with the style and complexity of the writing: Saricks describes literary fiction as “elegantly written, lyrical, and … layered”.
  • Unlike genre fiction plot is not the central concern.
  • The tone of literary fiction can be darker than genre fiction.

The Now Novel website says, “Literary fiction explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. ” and “Often, literary fiction makes more demands on its readers than genre fiction. This is because it merits a higher level of intellectual engagement. The themes and subjects of the text and its social or political and/or historical context are important to how you read literary fiction. This is especially true since a lot of books seen as literary were written in past centuries and societal taboos and beliefs aren’t static.” and “Literary fiction is also arguably defined by a kind of elitism. Although literary novelists may come from any number of backgrounds, literary fiction is mostly written and read by a privileged class. By and large, literary fiction is seen as work that is created and read by an educated middle and upper class while genre fiction, with its populist roots, is often seen as more working class.” and “‘Theme’ and ‘allusion’ can’t be forgotten when defining literary fiction. There are plenty of well-written thrillers, romance and science fiction novels with developed characters and page-turning plots, but in the end, the primary purpose of those books is to entertain the reader. They may have a message as well, but the message is usually secondary or is not particularly difficult to grapple with or tease out.  Literary fiction often presents more difficult or complex truths than genre fiction. It may offer few answers but instead simply make observations about human nature. Its purpose is seldom escapism, more often engagement with big ideas.”

This is, of course, a subjective question, but to my mind, the distinguishing features of literary fiction are:

  • the grappling with important, intellectually complex concerns: the functioning of society, politics, religion, philosophy and governance.
  • distinctive, well defined characters who struggle with internally generated problems
  • a less rapid pace than genre fiction, but without suffering a loss of tension; this slower pace enables more in-depth exploration of characters and their environment
  • considerable emphasis on the creative use of language to affect shades of meaning, tone and emotion
  • plot being a tertiary emphasis behind theme/message and characters
  • a strong sense of originality

The Popularity of Poetry

There is an article, “Poetry Sales Soar as Political Millennials Search for Clarity”, in the January 21 issue of The Guardian by Donna Ferguson, which I found interesting.   Donna Ferguson is an award winning freelance journalist specialising in finance.  (Perhaps she knows something about literature, as well.)

Donna Ferguson

“A passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials, is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry, with sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018.  Statistics from UK book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan show that sales grew by just over 12% last year, for the second year in a row. In total, 1.3m volumes of poetry were sold in 2018, adding up to £12.3m in sales, a rise of £1.3m on 2017. Two-thirds of buyers were younger than 34 and 41% were aged 13 to 22, with teenage girls and young women identified as the biggest consumers last year.

“Rupi Kaur, a 26-year-old Canadian poet with 3.4 million followers on Instagram, leads the bestsellers list and was responsible for almost £1m of sales. “You tell me to quiet down / cause my opinions make me less beautiful,” she writes in Milk and Honey, the No 1 bestselling collection of 2018, “but I was not made with a fire in my belly / so I could be put out.”  (It’s interesting that at least one poet is able to make a decent living.)

“Andre Breedt, for Nielsen, said that sales were booming because in times of political upheaval and uncertainty, people turn to poems to make sense of the world: “Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding. It is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty.”  He added that the form’s brevity also meant it could be easily consumed on phones and shared on social media.

“In the immediate aftermath of the Manchester bombing, Tony Walsh’s reading of his poem, This is the Place, at Manchester town hall was shared thousands of times online and became instantly famous worldwide. Ben Okri’s poem, Grenfell Tower, June 2017, written in the aftermath of the fire, followed a similar trajectory.

“At these moments of national crisis, the words that spread and the words that were heard were not the words of politicians, they were the words of poets,” said Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation, which runs the Forward prizes for poetry and National Poetry Day. “Almost everything a politician says is incredibly forgettable. There is a hunger out there for more nuanced and memorable forms of language.”  People wanted to cut through the verbiage of Brexit to see the bigger picture in 2018, she said: “Language gets stale in politics. Words begin to lose their meaning. Poetry occupies a different space to the humdrum. It is a way of renewing what words actually mean. It offers you a different way of looking at the world.”

“Poetry as a form can capture the immediate responses of people to divisive and controversial current events. It questions who has the authority to put their narrative forward, when it is written by people who don’t otherwise hold this power,” she said. “Writing poetry and sharing it in this context is a radical event, an act of resistance to encourage other people to come round to your perspective.”  Social media and technology have made poetry much easier to access and pass along, magnifying its impact, Shaw said.

Could this mean that millennials want existential emotion in their novels?

 

Plotting Your Novel

Plotting Your Novel – Ideas and Structure is a book I bought to help me make progress on a novel I started last year, but couldn’t finish.  It had some very interesting characters, a fascinating setting, and pieces of a plot that had great promise, but after about 30,000 words it ran out of steam.  So, I think this book has rescued me.  It was written by Janice Hardy, who has also written Understanding Show Don’t Tell (and Really Getting It), Understanding Conflict (and What It Really Means). and a teen fantasy trilogy.   She lives in central Florida with her husband, one yard zombie, two cats and a very nervous fresh water eel, according to her website.

Janice Hardy

The book is divided into ten workshops:

  1. Finding your writer’s process
  2. Finding ideas to write about
  3. Developing your ideas
  4. Developing your characters, point of view, theme and setting
  5. Developing your plot
  6. Determining the type of novel you’re writing
  7. Determining the size and shape of your novel
  8. Turning your ideas into a summary line
  9. Turning your summary line into a summary blurb
  10. Turning your summary blurb into a synopsis

Each workshop has brainstorming questions, exercises, and discussion in which she clarifies the meanings of the terms she uses and explaining the importance of each term.  For example there are various points of view in which a novel can be written: first person, and various third persons: a particular character, a neutral observer, limited point of view, and omniscient point of view; and there are various multiple points of view.  Each POV has advantages and disadvantages, and the choice will depend, in part, on what the author wants to reveal to the reader when.

The section on characters was helpful to me, asking me to think about the character’s objectives and his/her arc (how the character changes during the story).  This prompted me to think about the strengths and vulnerabilities of each character, a point not covered by the book, but it helped clarify his/her arc, and some plot details.  I now had a rather lengthy paragraph that describes each character.

The hook in my novel needed more thought.  Ms Hardy describes the hook as the element which catches the reader’s attention and motivates her to read more.  Hook is generated by conflict between the characters or between a character and the external environment.

Now, I think I’m in a position where I can describe the plot in more detail.  This, for me, will consist of writing out the principal kinds of events which occur in the first part (establishing the theme, the principal characters and the hook); the middle of the story in which the characters and the conflict are further developed; and the conclusion in which the conflicts are played out and the characters’ arcs are completed.

When I’ve done that, I’ll be able to write a summary line, or two, and a catchy summary blurb.  The synopsis will come when the first draft is complete.

I’ve found this book particularly useful in better organising my outlining of a novel, so that when I start writing, I rely less on imaginative story-telling and more on writing to a specification. In this way, the intensity of the novel increases and diversions decrease.

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

There’s an article by Lawrence Block republished in yesterday’s issue of the Writer’s Digest which was originally in the same magazine twenty years ago.  Lawrence Block, born 1938, is an American crime writer who is best known for a series set in New York about the recovering alcoholic and private investigator, Matthew Scudder and the gentleman burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Lawrence Block

I quote from Mr Block’s article as follows: “A couple of years ago, two friends of mine, a man and woman I’d known for most of a decade, made the papers. They did so in a rather spectacular fashion when the husband, a Wall Street stock analyst, murdered the wife, drove around for a while with her in the trunk of the car, dumped her at the side of the road, and was in very short order apprehended and charged with homicide. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing women’s underwear.

“Eventually the case came to trial, but not before he had been released on bail, married someone else, beat up the new wife, and had his bail revoked. He stood trial, was convicted, and was in jail awaiting sentencing when he rather abruptly died, evidently of AIDS. The new wife attended his funeral service in the company of a woman who’d been in the news a while back when a former Miss America stood trial on a charge of using unlawful influence to get a judge to lower her lover’s alimony payments to a former wife. The new wife’s companion at the funeral was the daughter of the judge in question, and achieved some local notoriety by testifying against the former Miss America. What she’s doing in this story is beyond me, but I guess everybody has to be someplace.

“After the funeral, the wife and her friend hurried back to the deceased’s house and stole everything they could carry.”

Mr Block, discussing this with a friend, said that it was a lot like a soap opera.

“’No,’ the friend said. ‘No, soap opera has a certain internal logic to it. That’s how you can distinguish between it and Real Life.’

“Fiction has to make sense. Life does not, and I suppose it’s just as well, or vast chunks of life would bounce back from the Big Editor in the Sky with form rejection slips attached to them. When we want to praise fiction, we say that it’s true to life, but it’s not that often the case. Life, unlike fiction, gives every indication of operating utterly at random, with no underlying structure, no unifying principles, no rules of drama. I think it was Chekhov who pointed out that it was dramatically essential that any cannon that appeared onstage in Act 1 had damn well better be fired before the final curtain. Life doesn’t work that way. In life, onstage cannons are forever silent, while others never seen go off in the wings, with spectacular results. Characters play major roles in the opening scenes, then wander off and are never heard from again. Perhaps it all balances out, perhaps there’s some sort of cosmic justice visited in another lifetime or another world, but all that is hard to prove and not too satisfying dramatically.

“What I’m really getting at, though, is not so much that life is a tale told by an idiot as that fiction had better be otherwise. And, simply because fiction has to make sense, we take for granted certain things that hardly ever happen in real life.

“Consider premonitions. Now, everybody has premonitions from time to time—the sudden illogical hunches that lead us to stay off an airplane, bet a number, or cross a street. Every once in a while a premonition actually turns out to be warranted—the number comes up, the plane comes down, whatever.  But in the vast majority of instances the premonition is a bum steer or a false alarm. The warning that came to us in a dream, and that we did or didn’t act upon, winds up amounting to nothing at all. The lottery ticket’s a loser. The plane lands safely.  Not so in fiction. Every premonition means something, though not necessarily what it seems to mean; in fiction, we ignore omens and hunches at our peril, and to our chagrin.

“Just look at the supermarket tabloids. They usually run extensive predictions around the first of the year, with famous psychics telling us what to expect over the next 12 months. Except for the can’t-miss shotgun predictions (“I foresee that somewhere in the world there will be a disaster, with great loss of life. Washington will be rocked with charges of political corruption and financial mismanagement. And, on the Hollywood scene, I see a marriage breaking up.”), the predictors hardly ever get anything right.

“In fiction, they almost always get almost everything right, and it never occurs to us to regard this as unrealistic.  ‘Oh, this is silly,’ a character says. ‘I’m not superstitious. I’m going to walk under this ladder.’ Or break this mirror, or forbear to throw this spilled salt over my shoulder, or whatever. And he does, and we know something’s going to happen to him before his story’s over. We may not be superstitious ourselves. We may detour around ladders, just on the general principle that it couldn’t hurt, but we don’t take the whole thing seriously.  Not in real life we don’t. In fiction, we know better.

“And what does all this mean?   Because I’m not sure just what it all means, or precisely what implications it has for us as writers of fiction. It could probably be argued that one of the reasons fiction exists, a reason it is written and a reason it is read, is that it is orderly and logical, that it makes sense in a way that life does not. Frustrated with the apparent random nature of the universe, we take refuge in a made-up world in which actions have consequences.

“Truth, as we’ve been told enough, is stranger than fiction. Of course it is—because it can get away with it. It flat-out happens, and it’s undeniable, so it doesn’t have to make sense. If my friend’s story, replete with uxoricide and transvestism and the remarriage and the beating of the new wife and the trial and the death, if all of that were placed without apology between book covers and presented as fiction, I’m sure I’d have tossed the book aside unfinished; if I made it all the way through, I’d surely be infuriated by the virus ex machina ending. The loose ends would annoy me and the inconsistencies would drive me nuts.

“But it’s fact. It happened. I can’t dispute it on dramatic grounds. I can’t say it’s improbable, or illogical. It happened. It’s what is. I may not like it, I may be saddened or horrified by it, but I can’t lay the book aside because it’s not a book. It’s real.

“I’ve seen writers react to criticism that their stories were implausible, that they relied too greatly on coincidence, that they were unresolved dramatically, by arguing that their fiction had been faithful to actual circumstance. ‘How can you say that?’ they demand. ‘That’s how it happened in real life! That’s exactly how it happened!’

“Indeed, and that’s the trouble. If real life were fiction, you couldn’t get the damn thing published.”

Deciding on the Point of View

There is an article of the Writer’s Digest website, ‘Writing Multiple Points of View’ by Wendy Heard which caught my attention because the novel I’m completing now will have two narrators.  Ms Heard holds a Bachelor’s degree in Studio Art, emphasising painting, and a Master’s degree in Education.  She is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America, is a contributor at Crimereads.com, and co-hosts the Unlikable Female Characters podcast.

Wendy Heard

Ms Heard says, “When a story calls for more than one narrator, it’s exciting (at first). In a way, starting a new book is like diving into a new relationship—a potentially abusive relationship with a high-maintenance narcissist who demands you spend every moment obsessing about them.  I’ve now been in two multiple points of view relationships, one with The Kill Club, a thriller released December 2019, and one with She’s Too Pretty to Burn, a YA thriller out in 2021. Going through the rounds of revisions on these two projects taught me a lot, and I hope what I’ve learned is useful to you.  That said, let’s dive into some suggestions I have for writing multiple POV projects.

  1. Determine your primary POV.

Even if you have just a couple of narrators, one of them will likely carry the theme of the book and serve as the dominant POV. I spent a lot of time figuring this out with She’s Too Pretty to Burn, where I had dual narrators with almost the same amount of real estate. If you’re not sure who your primary narrator should be, consider the logline for your book in terms of the following structure: “X person must do Y or [some bad thing] will happen.” For example, “Harry Potter must defeat Voldemort or the wizarding world will be ruined forever.” Sometimes putting your logline into this sentence frame will help determine who’s carrying the central conflict in the story.  In general, I’ve heard from many different people that it helps a reader orient themselves in a multiple POV story when the primary narrator goes first and gets Chapter One.

  1. Distinguish your characters’ voices.

First, figure out if you’d like to differentiate the POVs by making one first person and the other(s) third person, one past tense and the other(s) present tense, one limited and the other(s) omniscient, etc. Going back and forth between limited and omniscient in third person is high art, and I admire anyone who can pull it off.

Next, consider the characters themselves. If you have a character who is musical, they’ll likely be quite auditory and their descriptions of settings will include sounds as much as imagery. If you have a character who’s younger, their internal cultural references, comparisons, and slang will be different than an older character. If one character is a doctor, they might notice physical aspects of the people around them more than, say, a glass blower.

I’d also recommend journaling a list of sayings and phrases used by each character. As you do, consider making each character’s thinking style vastly different. One person can be more poetic, with longer sentences containing more clauses. Another character might be a more direct person who tells it exactly like it is with no embellishment. The more work you do here, the more authentically each of these voices will read.

  1. When working with many points of view…

First of all, I recommend pouring a stiff drink and staring at your computer moodily. This is the only way to commence writing more than three points of view.

Some stories must be told from many perspectives. In this case, you’ve already determined who your protagonist will be, so now you’re trying to figure out how to fit all the other perspectives into the story. I was in this position for The Kill Club, and I developed a strategy that helped me stay organized: I considered the main character’s POV as the primary and all the other ones a secondary POV I called a “composite” POV. When I was outlining the book (see next bullet), I had one list of plot points and story beats for the protagonist and one for the composite, and I plugged narrators in based on who would be the best narrator for the story beat in question.

  1. Beat sheets and outlines for multiple POVs

I work with Save the Cat beat sheets, but I know there are many other outlining tools in use. Regardless of methodology, a question arises: How do I know which character should tell which part of the story?

I’d advocate for giving the largest story beats to your protagonist. If the heart of the book happens away from your hero and with someone else, the question begs to be asked: why not make that other person the hero?

Some other things I’d advocate for doing in your protagonist’s POV: major relational beats, plot-altering twists (unless the point of the twist is that you’re showing something that will add suspense if hidden from the protagonist), thematic beats, and moments that could contribute to character development if given to the hero.

If you have dual POVs, with both being almost equally weighted, I’d recommend huge plot points such as the inciting incident, the midpoint, and the dark night of the soul happen in both perspectives. If possible, the two narrators could be in scene together when these moments happen, or, if they’re carrying parallel narratives, such as in past/present tense books, they could each experience separate major plot points.

It’s important to remember that all POV characters need to go through a full plot, and the character growth needs to be well-developed in each, even if they only get a handful of chapters. By designating someone as a point of view character, you’ve said they are crucial to the reader’s experience of this story. This brings me to my final piece of advice.

  1. Sometimes, maybe it’s not necessary.

I wrote a book that started out as multiple POVs and ended up a single-narrator project. Sometimes, after you’ve sat with the outline for a minute, you might realize that being inside the head of one of these characters, or some of them, is not necessary for a reader to fully experience this story. While it’s hard to reconsider the structure of a project once you’ve fallen in love with it, just like in relationships, it’s important to be open to all possibilities in those early drafting stages. Readers can sometimes find themselves bored or alienated by extra points of view.”

This discussion was interesting to me as it was suggested that having two POV’s in the novel I’m currently working on, instead of a single narrative by the protagonist, could increase the tension in the story.  This turns out to be correct, particularly as the two POV characters are very different, but they share a common interest in telling the story.