Sunday, May 29, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 3 of 7

This is part 3 of my TMCC Writers' Conference talk about suspense.

Let’s go back to our protagonist who’s in major trouble. It is always tempting for a writer to delay bringing on the trouble. As writers, we like to set a careful stage. But resist this desire. Now you may be thinking that you’ve read many books that take their time getting the danger up to full speed. But they were almost certainly books by writers you already knew about. It was the writer’s reputation for developing a good story that kept you reading through a slow beginning. But a new writer doesn’t have that luxury. When a reader tries a book by a writer they’ve never heard of, the only reliable thing that will get them to turn the pages is trouble. And not just any trouble, either. For the trouble to grab the reader, it needs to be life-or-death trouble. This can be literal life or death or, less commonly, metaphorical life or death. If metaphorical, it’s critical that the protagonist is in danger of losing the very thing that he or she cares about most.

While your protagonist should be sympathetic, this doesn’t mean he needs to be sweet and good or even likable - think Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita or Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But the protagonist is often kind and beneficent. Nice or not, the protagonist is made sympathetic with specific, descriptive details. Not just any details, but telling details that reveal deeper aspects of his character.

For example, if you tell me that the protagonist of your story is a sweet little girl who dearly loves all creatures, I might immediately begin to get sleepy. But if you begin your story by showing a seven-year-old girl named Violet running out between racing cars and trucks on the highway and scooping up a baby bunny rabbit that had wandered across the asphalt during a lull in traffic, I’ll begin to know and care about this character and wonder why no one is supervising her actions. If the following action reveals that Violet was recently orphaned and her guardian uncle didn’t notice her running onto the highway because he is smoking a joint with a friend in nearby pickup, the cargo bed of which is filled with a stolen shipment of flat-screen TVs, my empathy for Violet will be at full attention. When Violet runs with the bunny back through traffic, I will be on hyper alert for all the dangers in Violet’s life even if she turns out to not be a very nice person.

When Violet’s uncle finally takes her home to the motel where they are living, you continue to slip telling details into the action. The more specific those details, the more believable the story will be. This applies not just to characters but to all aspects of the story. If, as John D. MacDonald said in his essay on writing, you tell me that the motel room where Violet and her uncle are living is worn and seedy, I may not care. But if I read through Violet’s point of view that the carpet nap near the door was worn down to oily rubber and the leaky air conditioner had dripped water down the wallpaper and formed a brown stain in the shape of Texas, I will not only believe that the room exists, I will smell the mildew.

Specific details bring a story to life.

Next week: How Terrible can the Trouble be?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 2 of 7

Last week, I excerpted a portion of a talk I gave at the TMCC Writers' Conference on Creating Suspense. I left off making the point that the protagonist - the hero - in a suspenseful story almost always appears inferior to the antagonist - the bad guy. The protagonist is always the underdog.

To continue:

When the mythologist Joseph Campbell detailed these aspects of heroes and villains and story format, some people used his concepts in great detail. Back in the 1970s, there was a young man studying cinematography at USC. As he later explained, he took Joseph Campbell’s iconic character and story analyses and wrote a script that utilized them point by point. He then filmed a movie that conformed to every detail of Campbell’s story vision. The student’s name was George Lucas, and his little movie was called Star Wars. Movies have never been the same since.

In 1993, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a divorced mother on welfare began writing a different kind of story, but a story that nevertheless used those same concepts that Campbell and other academics had described. Her protagonist was a kid named Harry Potter. Books have never been the same since.

When you construct the bones of your story according to these basic story principles that have been handed down through the ages, you will have major suspense already built in.

Let’s look at those principles of successful stories.

In nearly all gripping stories, the good guy, our sympathetic protagonist, runs into terrible trouble in the form of an antagonist or an agent of the antagonist. Immediately, we the readers begin to stress. The reason is that the antagonist, the Bad Guy, is usually smarter, stronger, and better prepared than our hero. The Bad Guy always has more powerful weapons than our hero, whether those weapons be physical or psychological. The antagonist also has more knowledge of the territory. This combination gives the antagonist overwhelming advantages, and the poor protagonist is hopelessly out-gunned. This applies across all genres. Even in a romance, the antagonist, whether male or female, is often more charming, richer, better connected, and even better looking than our hero.

These attributes feed our story hunger. As we dive into an entertainment novel, we want to get short of breath and be astonished by the dangerous extent of the hero’s trouble and the depth of depravity that rules the Bad Guy. We never seem to tire of an antagonist whose evil traits seem unlimited. The Bad Guy can be someone as wicked as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, or Jack Torrance in The Shining. The Bad Guy can be as fantastical as Captain Hook or Moby Dick, as evil as Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth. All rivet our attention.

When we are amazed and struck by fear and hatred of the Antagonist, that generates our emotions of empathy and worry for the Protagonist.

Leave it to the psychologists to explain why we crave these feelings. Suffice to say that they drive us to read. A really evil, powerful villain makes us hunger for a story in which the underdog hero, battling against enormous odds, eventually wins through tireless grit and innovative thinking.

Next week: A closer look at how Trouble, with a capital T, is the key to suspense.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 1 of 7

I was asked to give a talk on Creating Suspense at the 26th Annual Truckee Meadows Community College Writers' Conference.

The response was so positive, I decided to serialize it here on my blog. I've divided it into seven parts.

I hope you writers find it useful!

Today I want to talk about how to create suspense in your novel. First, I will give you some general concepts that automatically create suspense. Then I’ll go over specific techniques that set readers on edge. After that, we’ll have some time for Q and A, so please make a note of any questions.

Let’s start by distilling out the common components of stories. Once we have a clear picture of the structure of most stories, the bones as it were, then we can easily see where and how to construct them in a way that naturally grips our readers. More than anything else, suspense is created by a type of story structure.

All stories, and thus all novels, both literary and entertainment novels, are built around conflict. As readers, we get engaged in that conflict, and we want to see how it will turn out. At the most basic level, it is this conflict and its resolution that form the seeds of suspense.

In literary novels, which are written first as art and second as an engaging story, the suspense is often of a lower amplitude. We care of course about how the story will resolve itself, but we are often more focused on the complex, tormented characters, the lovely sentences, the rich metaphors, the deep, moody atmosphere, the thoughtful and heart-wrenching moral dilemmas.

In entertainment novels, which by contrast are written first and foremost and forever focused on an engaging story, the suspense is up front. We still may find a measure of art. We still want well-constructed characters and good prosody and scintillating sentences. But more than anything, we want suspense. I should point out that when I refer to suspense, I don’t necessarily mean something scary, I just mean something that gives us a powerful urge to turn the page. Speaking metaphorically, and sometimes literally, most readers, much of the time, want a novel that grabs us by the throat, drags us out into the rainy, sleet-stricken night, plunges us into the icy black swamp water, there to be held under and shook as if by the Godzilla of all that terrifies us.

In other words, we want a novel that makes us worry and stress and sweat. We want to be afraid. We want to cry even as we laugh at a romantic comedy.

You’ve heard the cliche “Show, don’t tell.” The three parts of prose are action, dialogue, and exposition. Exposition is the stuff where authors explain the things they think their readers need to know about. Get rid of it! Readers are smart. They don’t need to have things explained. As much as possible, show your story with action and dialogue. Those are the things that lead to a gripping, suspenseful story.

Let’s start with the hero, otherwise known as the protagonist.

There are of course a thousand ways to paint a great hero or heroine, and the hero, who’s usually a good person but sometimes isn’t, usually has sympathetic traits. As we get to know the protagonist’s desires and dreams and hopes and fears and worries, we identify with them, and we want their world to turn out well.

In the most common story structure, one that makes us rush to turn the pages and be unable to go to sleep at night, we quickly meet a sympathetic character who is our protagonist. That character gets into big trouble early on in the story. This trouble comes from the antagonist, otherwise known as the bad guy. In fact, the greater the depth of the well of trouble and the faster the hero falls into it, the more we worry and dread what is to come. As the protagonist tries to cope with the terrible trouble, the trouble gets worse. So the protagonist tries a new approach, but the trouble gets worse still. Then worse again. This is what’s called the Rising Plot Curve. And it is the foundation of building suspense.

Novels can of course begin slowly, carefully setting the stage with all of the components that will later be revealed as important in ways we don’t at first anticipate. This foreshadowing can be powerful, and the astute reader learns to pay attention to every detail, wondering which details will become the shotgun over the fireplace mantel, which must, according to Chekhov’s Law, be fired at the story’s climax.

However, increasingly in modern fiction, readers, who perhaps suffer shortened attention spans from the profusion of inputs vying for their attention, demand that the protagonist’s trouble comes on fast and heavy. Books with slow, deliberate beginnings are often put down in favor of books that start off fast and furious.

The famous movie impresario Samual Goldwyn of Metro Goldwyn Mayer said, “I want a story that begins with an earthquake and then builds to a climax.” There is no finer description of a tale that grabs our attention and holds it from beginning until end, a story that starts with the icy hand grabbing us around our throat, followed by increasing tension that builds to a shattering climax.

These stories that barely give us breathing space are the ones that get us talking about them to our friends, emailing and calling and texting our recommendation to everyone we know. If you want emperical evidence of this, you need only glance at any bestseller list. The stories that sell most are usually the ones that have life-or-death trouble on the first page or first paragraph or even the first sentence and then build from there to a climactic battle between the Bad Guy and our poor protagonist, a battle that more often than not takes place on the Bad Guy’s turf.

This basic structure of stories has existed for thousands of years. Philosophers and psychologists who have studied the nature of stories believe that humans are hard-wired to be receptive to stories with the pattern of a sympathetic protagonist in conflict with an antagonist who appears superior to the hero in every way. In other words, heros are always underdogs.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of How To Create Suspense, to be posted next week.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Best Hikes In Tahoe - South Shore - South Upper Truckee Road Toward Luther Pass

Category - Easy to moderate (gentle road, but elevation gain)
View Rating - 4 out of 10
Distance - 4 miles round trip if you go all the way out and back
Elevation Gain - 700 feet
Highest Point - 7200 feet

Although I love single-track trails that take you high into the mountains, this is another great hike for those who like wider paths for a walk-and-talk. (It also was one of the few hikes currently free of snow at the beginning of May.) 

The hike is along a narrow paved road one and a half lanes wide. Yes, there are occasional cars, rare during the shoulder season and common but not busy during the busy tourist months of July and August. As of the beginning of May, the top half of the hike was closed to cars.

To get to this hike, drive to the base of Echo Summit and turn off Highway 50 onto South Upper Truckee Road. Drive 3.8 miles south to a trail head sign. 

As you approach the trail head, you will cross this bridge over the Upper Truckee River.

Here's the trail head with room for several vehicles to park.

This sign exists to mark the single track trail up to Meiss Meadows and Dardenelles Lake, Round Lake, and Showers Lake. As of the beginning of May, these were all buried in snow.

Regardless of the time of the year, for the hike described in this post, you stay on the asphalt. 

The road climbs gently through deep aromatic woods with creeks and old-growth Ponderosa pines 6 feet in diameter.

When people think of giant trees, they usually picture Sequoias and Redwoods and even Sugar Pines. But Ponderosa pines in the Sierra can be monsters. Six feet in diameter and 150+ feet tall.

In one stretch of 300 yards, you will go across three rushing creeks (that is if you go in the spring).  All were in a big hurry to get their work done, transporting fresh snow melt down to the Upper Truckee River, which then carries it to Lake Tahoe.

One mile in (the half way point) you will come to Highway 89 as it rises up from Christmas Valley toward Luther Pass. Continue across the highway. If you come early or late in the season, the gate may be locked keeping cars out, which makes your walk that much more pleasant.

On the upper half of the hike, the road winds through the Luther Pass Campground, one of the more remote and less crowded campgrounds in the Tahoe Basin. It would clearly be a gorgeous place to camp.

At the end of this hike, you will once again approach Highway 89, as it curves around on its climb up the pass. This is where you intersect the Tahoe Rim Trail and the Big Meadow trail head, which is great single track hiking. (Although it was buried in snow in early May).

The Tahoe Rim Trail Association has put up several great informational signs. This one explains how Tahoe got its name from a mispronunciation of the Washoe Name for the lake.

We always know how lucky we are to live in Tahoe, and we never it for granted.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Writer's Speedometer

Those of us who are driven to spend long hours writing do so because we have stories to tell.

We certainly don't do it for the money. (Although the money can be very good.) According to a recent survey by the Author's Guild (comprised mostly of authors who are published by the big New York houses), the average Author's Guild member earns $17,500 a year. Poverty level. This is why so many writers have to keep their day jobs. (Self-published writers who figure out how to sell books can do much better because they keep up to 70% or more of sales vs. New York-published writers who keep roughly 5% - 25% depending on their publishing contract.)

So how does any writer get a sense of whether they are succeeding at their work?

One way is fan mail.

The first time a writer wakes up to an email from a stranger telling how much the reader enjoyed the writer's novel, it is a very big deal. It's even a bigger deal if the letter is printed on actual paper!

Same for reviews. These are the things that sustain us in our lonely profession. Don't get me wrong. Writers are world-class introverts. We're happy to spend time alone. But we still love to find out that our writing entertained someone or made a positive difference in some way.

Aside from counting dollars or emails from fans, one of our main speedometers is how many books we have out in the marketplace, whether they are ebooks or tree books. The number of books in distribution is independent from dollars, because tree books usually produce more money per book, while the cheaper ebooks produce less money per book. And some ebooks get downloaded for only 99 cents or even free on special promotions. For example, my first book, Tahoe Deathfall, is permanently free in ebook form. The hope is that readers might be willing to try a free ebook and end up liking it enough to buy other books by the author.

Complicating the book world is the new trend toward subscription reading. For example, subscribers to Kindle Unlimited pay a monthly fee and get to read as many books as they want. The writer, or their publisher, gets paid according to how many pages are read. One has to take that figure and divide by the number of pages in a book to determine how many books have actually been read.

But the bottom line is how many books you're getting out there.

Several years ago, after an interview, the journalist contacted me with a followup question. How many total books had I sold across all of my titles? The answer wasn't immediately clear because one has to add up tree books, and ebooks, and then do a little arithmetic to convert pages read by subscription into an appropriate number of whole books.

Of course, books sold, and books read, are not the same thing, either. Some books only get read by one person before they end up on a shelf, untouched again. Some books get sold and never read at all. Some families have several people who end up reading the same book. And some books go to libraries and get read by dozens of people.

Nevertheless, books in distribution is a pretty good speedometer. So when I gathered the figures for the journalist, I was surprised to find out I'd just crossed over 100,000 books in distribution.

I never had a goal of a certain number of books, but I was pleased to have gotten a bunch of books out there. The number of my books in distribution began to rise fast after I had ten titles out. I recently added up the numbers again, and I now have over 500,000 books in distribution.

While I'm pleased, this is nothing compared to the heavy hitters. There are many authors you can name who have numbers in the 10s of millions. The Rowlings and Kings and Grishams of the world are in the 100s of millions. I'll never be in their league.

But I do have another book coming out this summer, which should bump my numbers a bit. Stay tuned for a sneak preview...