When it comes to writing tips and advice, Donald Maas is a master! It’s no secret that his book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, changed the way I viewed writing as a whole. I stumbled on this article he wrote for Writer’s Digest back in 2009 – an oldie but a goodie – and had to share!
Since it’s Halloween, and I’ve been focusing on tension and suspense in my own writing, today has me thinking about fear, and how fear can be leveraged to increase tension, suspense, character development, and even setting in any genre of fiction.
If I were to ask, “What are you afraid of?” I’d probably get plenty of similar responses. For some, it’s serial killers, ax murderers, and bad people in general. For others, it’s disease, illness, or the loss of a loved one. Spiders, clowns, heights, and other phobias all have their places, and while all of these themes can be woven into any genre, what if you don’t want to focus on a specific fear, but instead invoke the feeling in general, because, let’s face it – sometimes people (and characters) – don’t know exactly what it is that they’re afraid of.
A general uneasiness of unknown cause can be crafted into scenes that create just as much tension as a character locked in a haunted house with Hannibal Lecter and a dozen sadistic, serial killing clowns.
The question is, how do you leverage fear without making it blatantly obvious?
Well, consider this – fear takes many forms and has many faces. At it’s most general, fear is anxiety. And anxiety isn’t always the enemy, especially when it’s felt by a character in a piece of fiction.
If I were to ask, “What makes you anxious?” would I get the same answer as when I asked what you were afraid of? Now what if I asked, “What makes you uneasy?”
Three different questions, all with different answers.
This is how to subtly leverage fear in your writing. Pick a different emotion or feeling and develop it. Make it grow into something more. Something, dare we say, sinister.
How do you feel about isolation? Would being in an unsettling situation by yourself be more unnerving than if you were with others? How about if others were there, friends even, but there was no cell service, basically cutting you off from the rest of the population? Now, what if you were in a location that further isolated you, like an island?
It’s a popular trope, but a good example in that it’s a situation that can also be enjoyable. On an island with friends and no cell service, nothing to do but relax, unwind, and party? Sounds like torture, right?
But that’s the fun thing about fictional fear – taking paradise and making it pergatory. Best of luck!
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With NaNoWrMo almost here, I decided to give some thought to the pregame show. Spoiler Alert – This isn’t about sports. And there’s nothing to actually watch. It also isn’t another plotter vs. pantser post. This is about what you write before you write (I’m going somewhere here, I promise).
I am a pantser, which means I don’t create an outline before I write. More power to the writers who do, it just doesn’t work for me. When I start a new piece, sometimes all I have is the beginning. Or the ending. Sometimes the middle, but more often just an idea I’ve been kicking around that I think I can develop into 60-80,000 words that I hope will keep readers distracted from reality for a while.
I don’t outline because I like to see how things organically progress, like a social experiment where you drop a group of people into a situation and watch to see how they’ll react. But, since I’m more drawn to plot than character, I tend to not know who I’ll be playing with when I start. Which can make the stark white page with the blinking cursor looks kind of daunting at times.
So, while I don’t spend hours plotting out what will happen, I do engage in something called prewriting. That’s when I jot down notes, ideas, and general directions I could go in before I’ve made thousands of words worth of commitment to an idea I’ll later abandon. It lets me see possible names on paper, maybe a quick character sketch or two, locations to consider and some plot points I may want to visit along the way. Basically, it’s a brain dump.
Sometimes, I scratch the whole thing. Other times, I realize one of the characters I’m considering isn’t going to work in the story or with the other characters. It creates a launching point so I can quickly get some words on the blank page. And when I feel adrift in choppy waters, another quick brain dump is usually enough to bring my boat back to smooth sailing.
Pros: It takes all of five minutes, so if you don’t listen to a word of it you haven’t lost much time, and if it doesn’t work, simply try again. It gives you a rough direction if you’re feeling lost. It’s completely fluid – you can add or scratch notes at any time without having to restructure the whole thing.
Cons: It leaves a lot to chance and the writer’s ability to tell themselves a story on the fly as they’re typing. It does not provide the structure of allowing you to see the scene you’ll be writing on a given day. It does not write the story for you.
So, for all of you who don’t want to create a detailed outline of a book you haven’t written yet, but also don’t want to go in blind, I hope this helps! Best of luck to all the writers out there, both those who are and aren’t participating in this year’s NaNo!!!
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I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been rejected as a writer, but over the years it amounts to hundreds. Hundreds of times that my work, and by proxy, myself, was not good enough. Thanks to my Duotrope stats, I know I’ve been rejected by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine ten times, twice with a personalized letter of rejection from the editor. Thanks to QueryTracker, I know my last novel was rejected 14 times, 7 of those times by agents that requested the full manuscript. My current manuscript has already been rejected 8 times, once by one of the agents that requested the full.
Now let’s look at Churchill’s quote. Have I lost my enthusiasm? Honestly? At moments, yes, but for the most part, no. I love writing. Of the 8 rejections I’ve received on my current novel, two were personalized emails saying that while this particular novel wasn’t for them, my writing was strong, I have a good novel, and some agent is going to want it. Is that success? During my good moments, yes. During the others . . . not so much.
Usually, when I write a post, that’s it. I read it over for typos, then schedule it. Not this time. Not this post. This post found me in the dark place writers sometimes go, that nasty little spot somewhere between self-doubt and city razing rage. (I suspect Godzilla must have been an aspiring novelist.) The unhelpful, ranting parts of this post were deleted. Rewritten. Deleted again. Because I know the game. I choose to play the game. But that doesn’t mean I always like it.
Sometimes those near misses feel even harder than the outright rejections. It’s like getting the candy bar out of the wrapper and into your mouth, tasting its chocolately goodness against your tongue before having it cruelly yanked away. No chocolate for you. Just the hint of it, that’s all. It’s a special kind of torture (especially when put in terms of chocolate!).
Believe me when I say that I understand that rejection is part of the process. Even all those manuscripts that find agents and publishers and homes on the shelves of major bookstores still get rejected by readers and reviewers and people who pass them over for reasons as odd as the cover being the wrong color. There’s no escaping rejection, I get that.
Sometimes I stare at my computer screen, wishing I’d self-publish and offer my books for free on Amazon in exchange for constructive criticism from the readers. Wouldn’t that be a more proactive way of developing my craft than stacking another abandoned manuscript on the dusty pile growing in the corner? Sometimes I Google
masochism words trying to find the perfect one to describe the torture situation. And sometimes, I type away lalala all smiles and grins and faith that it’ll work itself out simply because I’m writing, which is (in my opinion) the best of all superpowers and as far as evil villains go, rejection isn’t that bad.
On those dark days, though . . . send chocolate and puppy memes. And tequila. Lots and lots of tequila.
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When writing fiction, how much thought do you put into your setting? Do you craft scenes drenched in atmosphere? Do your places drip with detail, oozing menace, gushing romance, shining with delight? Or is your setting simply the place where your fascinating characters bring your stellar plot to life?
I have to admit that while I occasionally focus on developing an atmospheric setting in my short fiction, in my novels the settings tend to simply be the trunk on which my plot branches and my characters grow their leaves.
My goal this year is to take more care in creating my settings. By skimping, I’m missing out on a vital opportunity to further flesh out my writing. To take my characters to the next level by allowing them to evolve over the course of the story.
Ask yourself – do your characters feel the same way about certain environments at the end of your story as they did at the beginning? Mine certainly don’t, and by sharing this evolution with my readers, I can make my characters more three dimensional.
Seize any opportunity you have to make your readers care for, identify with, and become invested in your characters!
How do you bring your scenes to life?
It feels like it’s been forever since I’ve posted, and looking back, I see that it’s been almost three months. In three months, you can hike the Appalachian Trail if you trek fast. A cougar kitten can gestate and be born. Or, like me, you can move across country and acclimate from one extreme (New Hampshire) to another (Florida).
It’s been a happy homecoming, rejoining our family in the land of sun, where feet of snow can be a
distant cold fond memory. While I didn’t keep up with my writing as much as I’d have liked during the transition, I have gotten back to work, and am pleased to announce that I’ve had short stories purchased by Mystery Weekly Magazine, to be released later this summer, and Dual Coast Magazine, out this month. I look forward to picking up my discussions on the different aspects of the craft of writing with my Thursday’s Thoughts on Writing series and sharing my experiences of the rejection agent process 😛 . I hope you’ll join me along the way!
This past weekend I attended the 2018 New England Crime Bake, which was my first writing conference. For a while I’d been reading about how important it is to network with other writers for both support and to establish a writing community, so I decided to give it a try.
I met so many AMAZING people there that it was worth going for that experience alone!
I also met the authors of these three fantastic books and got them signed, which was a major score because they are all wonderful, yet very different, stories, and I cherish the opportunity to let a writer know how much I enjoyed reading their book. The authors are absolutely awesome, too! How awesome? Let me count the ways. . .
Walter Mosley was the guest of honor of this year’s conference. The author of more than 40 book and a multiple award winner, he’s probably best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, yet he contributes to many genres and writes for TV and film as well (ever heard of the series Snowfall?).
Mosley is hilarious, but he’s also a very insightful, eloquent speaker who doesn’t mince words when sharing his experiences in the publishing industry. If you get a chance to hear him speak, don’t miss it – you won’t regret it!
As both an agent and a writer, Munier considers herself a “storyteller and storyseller”. She is a huge animal lover, which is all I need to know to turn into a super fan! She is also incredibly nice and friendly, a very genuine person.
Her latest release, “A Borrowing of Bones”, was inspired by the “hero working dogs she met through MissionK9Rescue”. I really enjoyed the mystery and recommend you give it a try!
Hank Phillippi Ryan is a firecracker! So much energy and enthusiasm and with personality for days, Ryan knows how to keep an entire room enthralled! I took a master class with her at the conference, and she was definitely one of the major highlights of the weekend!
She may be best known for her day job as an investigative reporter who has won over 34 EMMYs and dozens of other awards, but she hasn’t done too shabby in the writing department. “Ryan’s also an award-winner in her second profession—with five Agathas, three Anthonys, two Macavitys, the Daphne, and for The Other Woman, the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award.” Her schedule is PACKED full of events for her latest release, “Trust Me”. This is an author that you have got to see for yourself! #TrustMe
Was it perfect? No. #CrimeBake wasn’t everything I had imagined or hoped for. I don’t feel like I learned very much, but as an event for both readers and writers, it wasn’t as instructive as conferences that focus exclusively on writing and craft development. (I learned that at the conference!)
I did, however, have a truly memorable and enjoyable time. Talking with other writers, hearing about their experiences, the other conferences and events that they had attended, was truly priceless.
Was it worth it? Yes!
Would I do it again? Absolutely!
The bottom line is that I was there to meet other writers, and that’s exactly what I did. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and most authors don’t get an agent or a publishing contract overnight. (While #CrimeBake does have a pitch option, I did not partake. This time.) To me, the important thing is that I took some time for myself and spent it immersed in my passion. What more can I ask for?!?!
Writers need to write.
It’s simple enough. Rather basic, really. No big surprise there. But when you look in greater detail at what successful writers do, there’s more to it than just writing (or writing well).
Writers need to network. They need a #WritingCommunity.
Wait. What? But aren’t we all shy? Lone wolves doing our own thing, fearful of leaving our safe writing spots and interaction and (gasp) conversation. With other people?!?!
I’m what you’d call a severe introvert. I wouldn’t say I’m shy, I’ve seemed to have outgrown that throughout the years, but I’m horrible at small talk. Bad at starting conversations with strangers. I’ve read that people like being asked questions about themselves, but I can’t seem to do that, either. Sometimes, when people ask me questions, it feels like the Inquisition. It seems cruel to do that to someone else.
Isn’t this the way you’re supposed to be as a writer?
Then what are all the conventions about? Big gatherings of people – who write – all across America, held for the purpose of meeting, talking, networking. How does this work, exactly? And how do we learn to step out of our comfort zone to join the
chaos nightmare fun?
Are there enough writers who are extroverts? Do they carry the conversation for all of us, or are they the only ones getting networking done? I need a large dose of courage, stat!
Next month I’m attending my first conference. Just me and several hundred strangers. That’s not uncomfortable at all. Gulp. 😨
I’ve read up on what I’m supposed to do. I’ve checked Twitter to see who’s posting and what’s trending about the event. In this case, very little indeed. So there’s really no one to follow, no one to ‘pre-meet’ before the event from behind the safety of an electronic device, no way to integrate myself into a ‘social’ group beforehand. Unless I make it happen.
Twitter is the #1 recommendation I’ve seen for introverts trying to prepare for writer events. Since tweeting takes very little effort, I’m going to try building my ‘pack’, see if anyone connects with me if I try throwing myself out there. If anyone reading this is going to the 2018 New England Crime Bake, (and is not opposed to a little pre-conference convo), send me an email (AuthorShannonHollinger@gmail.com) or a message in the comment section below.
If anyone’s been to some of these events before, and has some advice, I’d love to hear it!
In the meantime, I’m researching members of the panel, familiarizing myself with everyone and everything that I can so I don’t get struck mum and wind up regretting that I didn’t say a word to anyone the entire time. This lone wolf is ready for action, prepared for stranger danger and ready to say some words! (I
think hope am!)
One of the best lessons I’ve learned recently is that good writing is a form of manipulation. When an author manipulates the emotions of both their characters and their readers, the story resonates on a deeper level with the reader. The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass is an excellent resource if you want to learn how to make your writing connect with your readers on a more visceral level. Below are some of the notes I’ve made after reading the book:
* Don’t just write about the emotions your character is experiencing, but about the experience they are having to endure. Make your reader experience their journey, too.
* Pay attention to the details; have your character ruminate about the big impact of small events or the easily overlooked ramifications of major plot twists.
* Your characters’ emotions have more impact when they have personal significance to your readers, something the reader can relate to and understand, which is much more impactful than just the ‘fact’ that your character feels a certain way.
* Have a character become aware of the meaning of something small and common and everyday that they ‘just now realize’.
* “Plot events are what happen. Inner moments give those events meaning. Together they both shelter and lead the reader somewhere new.” ~ Donald Maass
* Pacing involves emotion, not just plot. There need to be emotional shifts, fluctuations, and growth entwined with the story-line and action.
* Stakes should be personal to your character. Increase the emotion by having your character choose between the morally correct choice and the choice that is better for them personally. Make your readers feel the angst of the conflict.
* Your protagonist should discover something unexpected about his/herself over the course of the story, an epiphany about something deep at their core that makes them who they are. They should change and evolve.
* All plot events can be opportunities to manipulate emotions. Use them.
* Make the reader take an active role and get their ‘wheels turning’ – make them develop their own insight into the character, make them consider a moral decision your character has to make, make them think about your character and the character’s choices . . . even when they aren’t reading.
* Characters with good values are more appealing. A character committed to justice, family, self-sacrifice or just ‘doing the right thing’ hooks readers better than a character after fame, fortune, or a self-serving agenda.
* Make your story more compelling by creating a sense of hope. Make your readers fear that the hope won’t be fulfilled.
* After writing your first draft, decide what hurt your protagonist most, then plant seeds throughout the story that suggest that they are particularly vulnerable to the source of that pain.
What I’ve taken away most is that in order to write compelling fiction, you need to find a way to develop a personal connection between your readers and your story and characters. When readers feel invested in the outcome, it becomes harder for them to put the book down. Give them something to root for, something to fear, and above all else, make them feel and care.
If you have any suggestions or tips you’d like to add, I’d love to hear them!
Please introduce yourself and what you write if you feel so inclined . . . we’re all in this together and I consider you a member of my #writingcommunity! I look forward to connecting with you here and on social media, and am open to guest bloggers who’d like to share their knowledge or experiences!
Have you ever read a book that is well written, has an interesting premise, a solid plot with plenty of twists, yet it leaves you feeling either unsatisfied or it simply fades from memory as quickly as you read the words ‘The End’? Ever wonder how an author spun the magical web that left you thinking about a story days, weeks, months, even years after you finished reading the book?
The second is the kind of author I want to be. I want to haunt readers with my characters, I want to plague them with my plots, I want my words to linger in the recesses of their minds to revisit them again and again – in other words, I want my stories to be memorable. (It’a really not as creepy as it might sound, I promise!)
Question: How do you crack the code? How do you create a fictional world that captures your audience?
Answer: You create an emotional connection between your readers and the story, forging a bond that resonates at a deeper level than mere casual reading.
For some writers, this may be instinctual, a natural click of the keys or flick of the pen. For the rest of us, it may take a bit more effort, in which case, The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass is a priceless resource. This book illuminates the many ways in which you can make your readers care. Best of all, many of these tips can be used during the editing process to help flesh out scenes that lend themselves naturally to the different methods presented in this book.
I’ll be sharing some of my favorite quotes from this book over the next several months.
Do you have any recommendations for strengthening the connection between your readers and your writing? Any tips, tricks or tutorials you find useful? Sharing is caring, and caring creates community. I’d love for you to be a part of my #writerscommunity!!!