Category Archives: Writing Tools

A discussion of the various software that authors employ to write, plot, backup, and ultimately use to write a novel.

Three’s Company, But Six is a Crowd

Writing critique groups are like blogs. They both tend to start with vows of seriousness and dedication. They launch with vigor and excitement, but eventually slow and become work. Life gets complicated (as it always does) and priorities change. First one deadline is missed. Then two. Then all of them. Most often, people in the group wander away, and unless there is a constant flow of new blood, the collective falls apart. Though plentiful, most fail within a year.

However, decay and disbandment are not inevitable, just common. I’ve contributed to half a dozen blogs or critique groups over the years. Only two have continued to this day. First is the Fictorians. Second is my current critique group, which has been going strong for over two years and has helped us all grow as authors. So, what makes these two groups successful, whereas the others failed?

The key factor, I think, is ensuring the group is the right size for what it is trying to accomplish. Groups that are too small may fail to meet their goals because the work overwhelms the members. There are simply not enough people to carry the load. Another common pitfall that I’ve observed is the tendency of small groups to synchronize into a group think. There needs to be enough diversity of thought and experience to keep things interesting and productive. So why then not take a “the more, the merrier” approach? Wouldn’t a group open to the public be preferable?

Frankly not, in my experience. It’s a matter of the time and reliability of the individuals involved. Nobody’s time is infinite, so any meeting that is too large must inevitably splinter into smaller groups to allow for practical critique. Secondly, large groups inherently diffuse personal responsibility. Why, after all, does any one member need to meet their writing goals for the week or read the other members’ submissions? Surely someone else will do it. Finally, the larger the group, the more likely there will be conflicts of personality that sour the tone of the meetings. Writers put ourselves on display in our fiction. We must trust those we turn to for critique or we will not be open to their help.

Take as an example my first two critique groups. With seven and eight members respectively, reading everyone else’s submissions became a chore and seriously impinged on my writing time. The critique we offered was often superficial and therefore not terribly useful. The second major problem that killed these groups was that we were never able to meet face to face. We tried to use a private forum to bridge the gap, but that medium destroyed accountability and it wasn’t long before people stopped posting.

My current critique group calls ourselves “the League” and consists of three members. Though we may seem too small, our size makes us flexible and familiar. Though we live in different cities, we meet face to face each week via video conferencing. When one of us has something come up on the normal meeting date, we can usually find an alternative time. This maintains accountability, which has been my only reason for making keyboard time some weeks. Because we are friends, we trust and value one another. We understand each other well enough to know what our fellow authors are thinking and can therefore offer deep, constructive criticism. Furthermore, we are comfortable enough with one another to engage in productive conflict, pushing each other to be better.

Also key to the success of the League is that we have been able to adapt the group to our changing needs. We started by performing weekly writing challenges. At that point, we three needed something to get us writing consistently, and it worked. For a time. After a few months, we all grew bored and frustrated, yearning to get to actual fiction. We three are novelists at heart, after all, and 1,000 word challenges weren’t promoting our goals of becoming published authors. So one meeting we discussed the problem and decided to change our focus to be prewriting new books in tandem.

For a while, this vein worked for us. However, we eventually found ourselves bogged down and struggling with making consistent progress. Another discussion led us to take David Farland’s Story Puzzle class as a trio. The class was fantastic, but even better because we took it together.

We all received extremely positive feedback from Dave on our assignments. NOT because we were particularly brilliant, but rather because we discussed his lessons and workshopped the exercises before sending them to him. I firmly believe that we three got more out of the class because we took it with friends.

My critique group has found a size and a strategy that works for us. Though every writing journey is unique, none of us is in it alone. I would highly encourage any aspiring author to find a group of like minds to help them take their craft to the next level. Like writing itself, critique groups require dedication, time, trust, and most of all the ability to grow and change.

Shave and a Haircut

The thing about tension is, it wants to be released. This is true not just for bowstrings drawn back to the ear, unresolved chords, or tectonic plates grinding up on each other in the world’s most excruciatingly slowed-down dance club. All of life, every life, is about the release of tension.

Sometimes the release comes quickly. Sometimes the stresses just continue to build, ratcheting up ever higher, long past what we would have believed to be possible. (On a possibly related note, it took me eleven years to earn my doctorate.)

But all of us are bullets, shots in the dark. We begin explosively, super-charged with unimaginable kinetic energy– as every parent of a small child knows. Over time, we lose it. Our trajectories curve groundward, our orbits decay, and we fall.

It is in this sense that mortality is a coil, in Hamlet’s famous phrasing. Life is a spring, tightly wound. Tension is what keeps it all going, what keeps this whole universe humming along. Sure, we complain about the stresses we endure day after day. But in a way, they’re reassuring. They let us know we’re still here, still kicking, not yet resting in peace.

I’m in no hurry to achieve entropic resolution myself. Oh, I know I’ll get there in time. All of us will. What’s the rush? Yet, on we run. We can’t help it. Tension propels us, speeding us toward that ultimate release.

I think this is true for stories, too. We all know the unbearable agony of being wrenched out of the narrative before we know our heroes are safe. I think that’s why parents grant their children the small mercy of finding a “stopping place” in their book (or game, or show) before they have to come help set the table.

We also know that in the very best stories, you can never find a stopping place. It gets its hooks in you right from the start and doesn’t let you go until the end. “It rips my life away, but it’s a great escape.

So, how do I make it work for me?

First, take a cue from Dean Wesley Smith and try exercising a little mind control over your readers. Hang those cliffs. Don’t make it easy for them to put your book down.

This doesn’t come naturally for me, but I’ve been experimenting with my preschooler. He wants to hear stories every night, one from mommy and one from daddy. And for the last few months, daddy’s stories have all followed a single hero (Percival Bunny-rabbit) in a continuous narrative, usually cutting off at the moment of maximum tension.

It’s cruel, I know. And every time the boy flops back on his bed with a frustrated groan, or spends the next day begging to hear the end of the story, there’s a part of me that thinks it can’t be good parenting to torture him so.

But another part of me is delighted.

He tells me he prefers stories that have an ending. So every few nights I give him a break and we come to a place where I can pronounce THE END. But the very next night my boy is asking me if we have any “leftover stories.” He can’t wait to find out what his hero is going to do next. And neither can I.

Which is the second way I am trying to make tension work for me: keeping myself in suspense. I don’t like leaving things unfinished. In fact, I’m like Roger Rabbit, positively vibrating with the need for closure.

So I’ve been experimenting on myself, trying to use this tension as a driver. Instead of stopping my writing for the day at a place where I’ve finished my scene and said all I want to, I cut it short and walk away.

The pressure of that incomplete ending, that unfinished chapter, pushes me to get back to the keyboard. And until I do, the untold story is bouncing around in my brain– generating dialogue, action sequences, etc. It itches at my brain, keeps me up at night, kicks me out of bed early in the morning to curl up on the couch with my laptop and punch out the lines that have been running through my head since my last writing session.

The experiment is still young, but it’s had some promising results. I’m really excited. I also am a little anxious, because we’ve got a new baby coming and I know that’s going to turn my whole life upside down (for the third time). And then we have the end of the semester, and then summer (and attendant travel) is going to nuke my schedule, and then we’re going to move.

So even though I’m telling you this works, I really don’t know if I can even keep this up myself. Will my new writing plan survive the month of March, or will it fall casualty to sleep deprivation? Will I find the time to finish my novel, or miss my deadline and maybe miss my chance? What will become of our peerless hero?

Find out next time, in . . .

PERCIVAL BUNNY-RABBIT

AGAINST

THE WORLD CRIME LEAGUE

Coming soon!


John D. Payne lives in Houston with his wife, two sons, and (maybe, by the time this post goes up) his newborn daughter. (Still looking for names, so please feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments.) His hobbies include removing peanut butter and chocolate from the stupid white couches, blowing bubbles for little boys to chop with laser swords, and using a Mickey Mouse doll to do Pharaoh’s part in the Moses story (complete with Mickey voice).

John’s debut novel is The Crown and the Dragon. His stories can also be found in magazines and anthologies such as Leading Edge, Tides of Impossibility: A Fantasy Anthology from the Houston Writers Guild, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. For updates on his writing and stories about his kids, follow him on Twitter @jdp_writes.

Creating Tension with Narrative Voice

Honestly? I’ve never thought about tension while writing. I’ve thought about conflict a whole lot: overarching conflict, conflict between characters, conflict with the environment, etc. But I’ve never framed it in my mind as “tension.” After some thinking, I decided it wouldn’t be quite right to offer advice about something that I don’t tend to think about while writing. However, I have noticed it while reading. So in lieu of offering advice, I’ve put together a list of memorable stories that created tension in a very unique way that may help you in your own writing. The fun of creating tension doesn’t have to be all your characters’ doing. By honing in on your narrative voice, you can create tension between you and your reader using a variety of techniques.

Tension Through Foreshadowing

In the classic book One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez sets up tension in the first half of his book by dropping the same line over and over: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembered…” Instantly, the reader questions this. Aureliano before a firing squad? How did he get there? Also… Colonel? When does he become a Colonel? With this line, the author continues to keep these questions fresh in the reader’s mind, and the reader continues on with the book in order to get the answers to those questions.

Tension Through Speaking Directly to the Reader

In one of the darkest children’s series out there, Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) adds a warning to the reader at the beginning of every book. In the very first book, he lays the land:

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things happen in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.”

By doing this, Snicket sets expectations and creates tension between himself and the reader. The reader fights the warning, thinking this, a children’s book, couldn’t end so badly. And yet, Snicket promises a unhappy ending. But what could that ending be? How could something so terrible happen to these wonderful children?

Tension Through Story Structure/Switching Timelines

This technique is a favorite among Literary Fiction authors and moviemakers. The author has one character telling the story as they remember it, allowing them to be the narrator. However, the switches from past to present is up to the author. That means right when something happens, the author has the power to pull back to present time, have the narrator reflect for a time, and then go back into the action. This undoubtedly drives some readers nuts, but can we deny it causes tension? Nope! An example of this would be Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, where our narrator, Cal, starts most chapters in the present, and then switches back to telling his grandparents’ and parents’ stories. The reader becomes anxious to see what’s going on in the present, and yet is forcibly taken to the past instead. This, in the best cases, builds tension by way of anticipation.

Tension, R.L. Stine Style

One BAMF.

The master of ending a chapter on a cliffhanger is the incomparable R.L. Stine.

When I was growing up, I was afraid to read out loud in class. I’d stutter, and as anyone who has tripped in front of their crush knows, once you start falling, nothing can save you from making a fool of yourself. In order to combat this, my dad suggested we read aloud to one another each night. We chose Goosebumps, naturally, because who wouldn’t. We found we’d read for longer than either of us anticipated because we just HAD TO KNOW what happened in the next chapter. If that’s not tension, keeping your readers up way past their bedtimes, then I don’t know what is.

Remember that tension doesn’t have to lay on the shoulders of your characters every time. Consider taking some of the burden from them and messing with your readers’ minds yourself!

Hook and Carry

I’ve heard Brandon Sanderson say it, I’ve gone to multiple David Farland workshops and heard him say it, and all the best authors know it: escalate!

The problem is, we often think of this only in terms of the action, the main problems, the basic plot. To write that book that nobody can put down we need to escalate everything. Every subplot, every character arc, every social dynamic, needs to be escalated in some way in order to grip our readers so tight that they just can’t let go. I’d like to focus on one point in this escalation process: The Hook and Carry.

Sometimes, a good hook can seem in conflict with the escalate philosophy. You want that first sentence of your book, the first hook, to be so good that the reader HAS to read your story. That means you have to jump in with a conflict that will knock their socks off. Right? Not exactly.

In order to escalate into the main conflict, you need to set the stage, give the reader a sense of the characters and why they’re important and then ease them into the opening conflict. Right? Not exactly.

One of the most challenging aspects of writing is balancing that opening hook with the much-needed escalation of conflict in a story. This is where the fact that we’re escalating every aspect of a book comes into play. That opening hook needs to pull us in with a question (or conflict) that we want to see resolved, though it doesn’t have to be THE conflict.

The hook can be an emotional dilemma: “Susan cried as she knelt over the casket. She would still strangle him if she had to do it again, but she would miss him.”

It can be a physical obstacle: “They circled one another, Chris and the mountain lion, each in the way of what the other wanted.”

The hook can even be completely unrelated, a stepping stone into the setting of the real conflict. “My tight red sweater announced my changed status to the student body with defiance; I was single, available, and I was happy about it, regardless of the pain I hid behind my cherry lipstick.”

Now, I’m not saying these are remotely good hooks. They’re rather thrown together, but I think they get across the idea. You’ve got to hook the fish if you’re going to have him for dinner, but you’ve got to keep some tension in the line if you’re going to bring him to shore. Don’t spend your readers’ precious time introducing them to the backstory. Jump in with a secret, a mystery, a conflict, that immediately grabs your readers’ interest. Then you can set the stage as your character deals with what’s immediately in front of them. After that, then follow all of the great advice from the other posts this month as you escalate, escalate, escalate.

Colette Black Bio:
Author PicColette Black lives in the far outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona with her family, 2 dogs, a mischievous cat and the occasional unwanted scorpion. Author of the Mankind’s Redemption Series, The Number Prophecy series, and the upcoming Legends of Power series, Colette writes New Adult and Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels with kick-butt characters, lots of action, and always a touch of romance. Find her at www.coletteblack.net