Author Archives: Ace Jordyn

The Key to a Successful Crit Group – A 29 Year Example

There is a ‘special sauce’ when it come to making group dynamics work and having an effective writers group requires its own special brand of nurturing.

I’ve been a member of the Imaginative Fiction Writers’ Association (IFWA) for several years and I value every moment spent with this group. Founded in 1988 (yes, as of this writing it has been together for 29 years!) IFWA has nurtured, trained, and supported many writers along their writing career paths.

What is IFWA’s secret to success?

There are several factors:

1) It is not a book club. It is a writing group for writers who want to improve their craft and hone their skills.
To that end, the monthly meeting begins with crits. In the previous month, two people volunteered a work to be critiqued at teh curernt meeting. The work is no more than 5,000 words and usually is either a first chapter or a short story although we have had epic poetry. Two people volunteer to provide a a critique. There are rules for how to critique. To learn more about the art of critiquing, you can read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 on a series I wrote on critiques.

The critique porrtion of hte meeting begins with the author reading their story for ten minutes (a necessary skill we all need to practice). Each person critiquing the story gets five minutes to give the author feedback. An opportunity is given to the author to respond and only then is the group at large allowed to provide their feedback (for five minutes) to the author. These guidelines are strictly enforced.

The first time I experienced this process, it was nerve wracking. I read too quickly because I wanted to read the whole story in my allotted ten minutes. Mistake! So, I learned how to read calmly and more slowly. The second time it was much better. Some comments I agreed with and others I didn’t but I had to practice what I knew in my head – that there were things I needed to hear so I could learn them; that everyone has their own opinion and if you ask for it, you have to respect it, no matter what you do with it; and people are much kinder, much gentler than that stupid critic in my head!!!

That’s the thing, everyone in this group offers insight and wisdom, from a reader’s perspective and a writer/editor’s perspective on how the story can be improved. We do it from a genuine desire to see each other succeed. And we run the gamut of skill sets for our members include professional writers, editors, and beginners. No matter what stage any of us are at, we all have something to offer and something to learn – and we know it! This form of humbleness is the group’s core value and that’s why I think it’s been successful for so long.

2) The group isn’t exclusive.
We have every form of writing (screen, short story, novel, novella, graphic art, comic, etc.) and although we are a group for speculative fiction writers, we have lots of other genres and cross genres represented (fantasy, science fiction, horror, thriller, detective science fiction, noir, space opera, and fairy tale to name a few). Some members are published, some edit anthologies (and write too), some are not published. But we are all there with a view to encourage and support each other while encouraging growth in craft and business skills.

Then there are the splitters groups. Splitters groups are formed by members who have specific interests or needs. For example, I belong to a critique group which comments on novels and shorter works with a view to being submitted.

Our members are at all stages of development, including beginners, those trying to break into the market, and published and award winning authors. The group also counts many small publishers and well-known authors as friends.

3) A pay-it-forward attitude is practiced within the group and the larger writing community|
We help each other out with our projects. We share what we know. We organize writing events such as a writers’ weekend, workshops, manage a short story contest, produce an anthology exclusive to the group, attend and participate in national and international cons, and are a large part of organizing and volunteering in the local, annual con When Words Collide. We attend each other’s book launches, readings, and celebrate the victories of getting published and share the disappointment of a rejection. We are there for each other.

4) Skills sessions
Every meeting has a skills session which can be on any aspect of writing from craft to business. Sometimes the learning comes in the form of a presentation, sometimes it’s a discussion, and sometimes it’s a little of both. But always we learn, always we share and after the meeting that sharing continues at a local pub.

IFWA has a lot to offer its membership becasue it’s members contribute in somany ways. The group’s enthusiasm is infectious and the friendships are longlasting. This writers group definitely has its own brand of ‘special sauce’.

Two Great Examples of How to Lie

Lying well is a great art – a con artist will agree, but so will the great writers. It is a much used device and character trait and if done well, the reader is drawn into the drama. Lying has many uses: to further the plot, to plant clues, create mystery and tension in a cat and mouse game of truth finding, to introduce information without being forthright about it, to pace the story and timing of reveals, to change direction in the plot, and to misdirect readers to increase the shock and thrill of a reveal.

All these uses make the lie a very powerful, multi-purpose tool.

Lying is more than the art of misdirection, although in a good mystery there’ll be plenty of red herrings and misdirection which increases the thrill of the reveals. Lying is about the relationships characters have with each other and with themselves. Who lies to whom?

In its simplest form, a character can either lie to herself or to someone else. Whether it’s about a personal flaw, a false belief which forms her worldview, or a moral justification which conflicts with an authority such as the law, a religious or ethical code, or it may be avoidance to face the consequences of a truth.

The art of a good lie is that the reader will begin to believe those lies, despite clues to the contrary. This increases the shock value of reveals. That’s what makes the cat and mouse game of truth versus lie so scintillating.

The danger of the lie is that it can alienate the reader. If your protagonist lies to characters, it had better be for a good reason because it will affect how your reader feels about the character. Every protagonist has a moral code and readers expect her to act within that code. The code may include lying all the time or only in certain circumstances such as to protect others or oneself, for personal gain, to hurt, to entrap, to avoid a truth. Depending on how this is done, reader emotion can range from sympathy to horror, and your protagonist can be seen as either heroic or villainous. We all lie, even our favorite heroes do, that’s part of what makes each of us human and our characters relatable. So, lying must be part of the writer’s toolkit.

Recently, I read two books which employed lies in very different ways. Both authors intrigued me with their choices and their consistent, believable execution of the lie. In both stories, lying was central to how each mystery was created and solved. However, the lies weren’t merely fibbing or speaking a falsehood, although that played into the dramas as well. In Death by a Honey Bee by Abigail Keam, most lies were justified because of a moral and ethical code which doesn’t fully conform to law enforcement’s rules which means adjusting the truth and meeting out justice from the amateur sleuth’s personal moral code. In The Couple Next Door, Shari Lapena primarily used omission, the withholding of information, by each character.

Thes two ways of using lies in these novels couldn’t have been more different, but the effect was the same – a mystery was created, a puzzle needed to be solved and the sleuth (one a detective and the other an amateur) had to uncover the truth. Keam’s use of the lie, however, created a cat and mouse game filled with red herrings. Josiah Reynolds, a middle aged beekeeper has her own brand of lying and justice based on her personal Southern Kentucky code of justice. She lies to the police, lies to herself, and lies to others. Despite the lies the protagonist tells, or perhaps because of them, Keam manages to create a believable and likeable protagonist. Josiah’s lies to others sometimes comes in the form of pranks, like when she lies about her young and gay lawyer friend Matt being her lover.

By contrast, Lapina’s characters, except for the detective, withheld major information which was slowly meted out to create a suspenseful novel which was hard to put down. Her trick, I think, was not to let the reader know immediately what information was withheld, or who was lying about what and only to use the reveals to move the plot forward. She used other forms of lying such as omission, secrets, lying to the police, lying to oneself. Lying to oneself was one of the most cunning devices, however. Without spoiling the plot, the mother, Anna suffers from post partum depression and her needing to face some hard facts about herself, lying to herself and to others about her condition, is excruciating and the tension builds as we want to know what really happened.

In this novel, everyone is hiding something, and no one is telling until and only if they absolutely have to. Masterfully done- a setting of every parent’s nightmare, a child has been kidnapped from Anna and Marco’s home while they were next door at the neighbour’s for a dinner party. Anna and Marco love their little girl and the torture of her being gone, of time passing and her not being found are excruciating. Detective Rasbach pulls out their secrets, one by one and slowly reveals the omissions.

The Couple Next Door is a must read for Lapena is not just a writer, she’s one of the Fates, weaving in a thread of omission, a thread of an incomplete truth, then gently pulling it, leaving it for a while only to come back to tug at it and then having it unravel. Keam’s Josiah Reynolds series is also a must read on not only how to make a lying protagonist likeable but also because Josiah has a refreshing worldview, albeit a little quirky.

The best way to learn to lie is to study the lie and the techniques used by Keam and Lapina are great studies (and reads), indeed.

The One Friendship Writers Must Not Forget

This month, we’ve read posts about how friends in a story can serve to illuminate plot and the protagonist. We’ve also heard about how critique groups can be inspiring and help us to become better writers. Our friendships, whether with writers or others can help us to overcome personal and health concerns which affect our writing life. But there is one other friendship we must salute – and that’s the reader’s friendship with a book.

Books entertain us, engross us in their characters and worlds. They teach us a little about ourselves, our world, and our relationship to and with each other. Every well-crafted book, as every author knows, requires research and thought not only about character, but about philosophy, technology, politics, clothing, food, and all things most dear and valued.

The first time I read an excellent book, it is to me just as if I had gained a new friend. When I read over a book I have perused before, it resembles the meeting with an old one. – Oliver Goldsmith
 

A characters’ hardships become our hardships, and their triumphs, disappointments, loves and hates also become ours. We cheer them, we jeer them. We bite our nails with worry and lose sleep over them. We want to visit their worlds, to chat with them, and often we don’t want our journey with them to end. How many people do we know who allow us to know them so intimately?

Through books, we can safely travel into the past without fear about being stomped on or eaten by dinosaurs. We can live on a space station without zero gravity affecting our bodies. We can visit the what-ifs of alternate history or live with hobbits and faeries. Or, we can visit the tender, the romantic, the grieving, the dying parts of our hearts, the very soul of human existence.

Books are our lovers, our mentors, our guides and philosophers. They are our heart break, our inspiration, our voyage into the fantastic, the scary, the parts of ourselves we both desire and dread. They are also the place where we can learn about ourselves, our world, hard science, speculative science, about religions, foods and customs of places we can never visit, or we can learn to cook or fix the plumbing.

Comfort, salvation, or escape from our daily realities can be found in books. Some books help us through our hardest moments when they help us face the hard truths. From this we go forward a little wiser, and a little humbler.

A book, too, can be a star, ‘explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,’ a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe. – Madeleine L’Engle

For all these reasons, every writer makes a pact with the reader when giving a gift of a new friend. That pact is a promise of a lasting friendship borne of captivating characters; a world wherein the reader is so immersed that friendship is undeniable.

And yet, books are odd friends. You can’t yell, at them, I mean, yes you can but they won’t respond or yell back. You can burn them or spill tea on them and they won’t complain or file a complaint of book abuse. They are a one-way friendship, of sorts, whose ideas and words can niggle and torment for days or even years even after the covers have been closed. These hauntings of sorts, can be either the most pleasant or the most tormenting, creating a duelling conversation of voices in our heads.

No matter what his rank or position may be, the lover of books is the richest and the happiest of the children of men. – J.A. Langford

The reason some books can haunt and invade our psyches is because they’ve struck cords of doubt, or love, or longing, or thought and reflection deeply within our own hearts. Thus, every book becomes a special friend to every person who reads it. Every reader brings their own unique world view to the story, their values, understanding of relationships and what is normal, even their own meaning for specific words. No matter the author’s intent, no matter what the author conceived, felt or saw in her imaginings, the reader’s unique perspective changes and twists the author’s world ever so slightly, thus making that book a unique friend.

The book has an unusual power, not only to become one’s best friend, but to also create friendships between people. These friendships occur when readers enjoy and embrace the same book. Irving Stone said it best when he wrote: “There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.”

For all these reasons, there are books we must forever keep on our shelves, despite yellowing pages or dust bunnies proliferating – these books are friends forever.

I have an odd collection of forever-friends-books: a dictionary I used to read when in grade school (that’s my nerdy friend), a biochemistry book from university (the science geek I love); Captain Underpants (need I say more?}, a translated series of books Women’s Voices in Ukrainian Literature (this is everyday history at it’s best); How to do Psychic Readings Through Touch; and the list goes on! The point is, is that these books not only inform, they each play their part in satisfying a need of the heart, a curiosity of the mind and spirit. To ask any one human to be this kind of friend would be an impossible achievement for anyone.

Books are the one freindship writers should never overlook. For many reasons, our words affect how people not only see and interact with their world, but also how they feel. We have a duty, a sacred trust, to be as engrossing, as engaging as we can be in creating spell binding worlds with characters who will stay with the reader long after the covers are closed.

Sometinmes you never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.
 Dr. Seuss
 
 

Creating Tension in Mysteries

Mysteries are puzzles to be solved. Inherent in that puzzle is the expectation of tension created by the anticipation of a sympathetic sleuth’s ordeal and the promises made by the writer. There are a few points to be kept in mind to create tension in a mystery.

A good mystery writer incites anxiety, stress, dread, worry, speculation, fretting, and curiosity. Experiencing those emotions is what makes a story a page turner. How is this done? By creating sympathetic characters, characters to cheer for, and then throwing in mini-conflicts, obstacles, failures, and reminding us what’s at stake for the protagonist. It can be as simple as personal pride, a need not to be a failure, or as grand as a family member held as hostage. Or, if they know the plan such as a schedule, or if characters reveal an agenda or secrets and the clock is ticking on those, the reader thinks they know what to expect but something gets screwed up, or the plans happen in a manner which propels the story and tension is created.

Characters who are care and can be cared about hook the reader emotionally. When readers care, they perceive tension when information is with held because they are empathizing and sympathizing. They want answers as much as the sleuth does. They worry knowing that the murderer lurks around the corner and the protagonist is headed right for him. Or, it’s about the presumed impact, abstract consequences in which the reader’s anticipation of what could happen escalates. Danger approaches, the sleuth is in peril and tension builds as the reader worries for the sleuth. Tension , however, isn’t all about action scenes. It can also be about the promise of danger.

The promise of danger is equally if not more effective than action itself. The moments between promises, the waiting, not knowing creates tension in mysteries. The false hopes of an answer – that red herring – an answer to a promise which bore no fruit, all of these create tension. As a writer you must ask yourself what you can promise that will go wrong? The rule about promises and action is this: anticipation creates tension while action is payoff and deflates tension and reader attention. Have you ever watched a movie, a television show or read a book where the sexual tension between two characters is high? Create a situation where they consummate that tension and poof! it is gone for the reader too. That is also true of answering the big questions, solving the big pieces of the puzzle too soon.

Red herrings in mystery work because they don’t answer the big questions – they create more. The reader anticipates the conflict, the reasons for a the red herring’s actions, and the tension mounts because we really don’t know the truth, just that so much is implied. Then, we learn that the herring is red, the criminal is on the loose, the clock still ticks, and the mystery still is unresolved. It’s all part of a mystery’s story structure: creating clues that indicate one or more suspects, include red herring clues and suspects, lead the sleuth down specific paths in the maze of the investigation and eventually redirect the sleuth to the criminal. This structure is a framework for creating tension.

Tension in a mystery isn’t created by merely mentioning the crime or the criminal in the beginning, or by asking the great unresolved question in the beginning and then forgetting about it. The reader needs to be reminded, forced back to that unresolved question – what if the criminal isn’t captured? What if the lost jewels aren’t returned? What if? What if? How upsetting will it be if the sleuth loses?

Not answering questions immediately creates tension and in a mystery there are many opportunities for this. Sometimes a question needs to be answered quickly to propel a story forward. The path of the red herring was a dead and in the maze of the puzzle, so we must explore another path. Remember this rule though: If a question is answered immediately, it’s a small surprise with a small payoff. If it’s stretch out over several pages or chapters, it must have a big surprise with a big payoff. Put another way – each time a question is asked, a promise is made. Each time the stakes are raised a promise is made. Readers need you to deliver on those promises. If it’s the biggest crime of the century, then the payoff for the sleuth must be big. And, it can’t be predictable. Readers think they know what will happen, but they want to be surprised by the answer. Knowing that you will deliver on the surprise also creates tension because it leaves readers wondering what will happen next.

An effective, yet seldom talked about tool to create tension, is for the writer to know the antagonist intimately. In a mystery, the antagonist creates the inciting incident, the sleuth reacts, and then they escalate their reactions and actions. Toss in additional obstacles created by others, family, bosses, coworkers, the justice system, and we’re left wondering if our sleuth will succeed or fail.

Tension is also created when a protagonist cares about something other than just the mystery at hand – the son with the unsuitable fiancé, a homeless person, a pet, or a friend’s crisis. Any of these can conflict with and impact the sleuth’s ability to solve the greater mystery. Multiple conflicts lend themselves to a protagonist’s personal theme – we all know that patterns exist in our lives, we’re attracted to the same messes, we have a limited set of skills to approach them – choices must be made and through those decisions and actions, characters reveal themselves. More importantly, multiple conflicts lead to subplot which affects the sleuth and impacts the sleuth’s ability to solve the crime.

Sympathetic characters, a myriad of suspects, conflict both personal and professional, an antagonist who raises the stakes, promises and payoffs, and unresolved questions, these are the staples of creating tension in mysteries.