Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Suspense or Manipulation? by Claudia Mills

Naomi Kinsman's wonderful post explored the fine line between suspense and confusion: will the withholding of crucial information entice readers to turn pages or frustrate them into tossing the book aside in frustration? Inspired by her musings, I want to explore the fine line between suspense and manipulation: when do readers feel that an author hasn't played fair? Or simply roll their eyes in irritation (or amusement) at comically heavy-handed narrative strategies?

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I'm one of those hyper-sensitive readers who can't bear very much suspense in a story, who finds even relatively modest doses of suspense more painful than exciting. And I do think there are many young readers in my camp. So I tend to be quick to criticize suspense-generating moves as annoying.

Here, then, are a few of my "Do's" and "Don'ts" regarding the attempt to create suspense in a story.

1) Chapter-ending hooks can be wonderful - if used sparingly. But if every single chapter ends with a deliberate hook - "And then Peter could hardly believe what happened next!" or "Susan opened the door and gasped!" - or "When would they ever find their way to safety?" - this feels formulaic and gimmicky. Vary chapter endings so that some can offer, e.g.,  satisfying closure on a scene, or a humorous or serious reflection.

2) If you break a scene at a crucial point to heighten tension, make sure that the tension isn't going to be resolved in the very first sentence of the following chapter. The chapter break shouldn't feel engineered only to provide a cliff-hanger. There should be some significant work that remains to be done to get your character off that cliff, or else the timing feels Manipulative-with-a-capital-M.

3) Avoid "fake" cliff-hanging hooks - that is to say, hooks that rely on the appearance of a cliff, when in fact there is no cliff at all. If a character hears a loud, terrifying noise, don't let it be just the cat knocking a vase off a table. Or at least, don't make a habit of doing this! Don't be "the author who cried wolf" time and time again, when there is no wolf, just a wolf-like sound of the wind howling in the trees.

4) While foreshadowing is crucial, of course, don't be so blindingly obvious that readers of any sophistication chuckle. My favorite example here is a skit on an old Prairie Home Companion that had in it this line: "Now, go off and have a good time playing, Timmy. But be sure to stay far away from that old abandoned mine shaft!"

5) Finally, don't build an entire book's suspense around the withholding of one enormously important piece of information that would have been constantly present in the main character's consciousness, so that his or her neglect to share this with the reader can only be construed as deliberate deception. For me, the otherwise brilliant Walk Two Moons falls into this category. On the other hand, its Newbery Medal and generations of adoring readers show that most readers didn't resent Creech's manipulation of them. And I myself read on breathlessly until the very end. But then, I did hurl the book across the room in rage (so to speak).

This last example suggests that maybe authorial manipulation to create suspense isn't all bad, if it's skillfully enough deployed. After all, Alfred Hitchcock has been praised, not condemned, as a "master manipulator." And as I said, I'm unusually uncomfortable with any suspense at all, so take all my caveats with some skepticism.

But do dial back those repeated warnings about the old abandoned mine shaft!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Question Map by Naomi Kinsman

Between myself and my students, I've had to think about confusion quite a bit.

We all know that feeling of being drawn through a story because we have to know. Of course, when I started writing with the serious intention of sharing my work with readers, I wanted to provide that same experience. Thus, I withheld key information any chance I could. I threw in rabbit trails and detours and mysterious floating orbs.

"What is that?" my characters would ask.

Someone else would raise an intriguing eyebrow. "We'll have to find out!"

It didn't take my critique group long to point out that no one wants to read a kichen-sink novel. No one wants to be confused, or overwhelmed, or worse, finish a whole book to find the question they thought was important isn't even answered. The trouble was, if I didn't toss in mysteries whenever they popped to mind, I had no other strategy for building suspense. At the time, this problem was intensely frustrating... almost to the point of making me give up writing. Now, I'm absolutely grateful for the struggle. I can completely relate to my students when they face similar problems. Also, I have a hard-won strategy that transforms confusion into page-turning suspense.

I call it the Question Map. It's one of the most helpful tools in my writing AND my teaching tool-kit.

1. Drafting

When I draft, I let my subconscious play without worrying whether I'm setting up rabbit trails or not. Like many of my students, part of the joy of writing for me is being my own first reader. I love those moments that surprise me and make me wonder ... what's that? What might happen there? While I do use a loose storyboard as a plot, I make room for any small mysteries that show up to hang around and add layers and richness to the overall narrative.

2. Storyboarding

As I draft, I refine my loose plot on a storyboard. If mysteries have shown up that seem important enough to shift my plans, I remove, add or change scenes. For me, the first draft is a discovery process.

3. Question Mapping

Once my first draft is done, I read through the story. As I read, I note key questions in the margin. I make sure to note when they are raised, and when they are resolved. If my story is particularly complex, I might use color to visualize the number of lingering questions at any given time. In this way, I can gain a suspense map of my story.
  • How many questions are introduced in chapter one? 
  • How many questions pile up on top of one another?
  • Have I overwhelmed or confused my reader? 
  • Are they reading to find answers to mundane questions that aren't important to the overall plot? 
  • Do I ever answer the immediate, burning question and then leave the reader without any suspense for too long?
My rule of thumb is to allow up to two major story questions to linger, plus up to two scene or chapter questions. I also pay attention to how the major story questions shift. As the story progresses, the unfolding information should help readers build theories and refine their questions. I know the suspense in my story works when my question map shows a series of evolving questions that each build to a climax before providing an answer. Along with each answer comes at least one new question ... until the book's resolution. Plus, I look for some wild-card questions and answers along the way, to keep things interesting.

I used to treat suspense with caution, as though if I paid it too much attention, I'd ruin it. Now, suspense is an area of my writing craft over which I intentionally exercise control. Even so, I feel as though I'm always discovering something new about suspense, and that's part of what makes writing such a delight. There's no end to the learning process.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Suspense of the Hurricane by Bob Krech

We just moved to Hilton Head Island from New Jersey this summer. We had a ton of renovations done to the house we bought and although they were started in May, they didn’t finish until October 1st. We moved in! Hooray!

Then on Tuesday, October 5th we received a mandatory evacuation order due to Hurricane Matthew. We drove off to North Carolina to stay with our kids in Greensboro until we were allowed back. We got back on October 12th.

But, there was a lot of stomach churning suspense surrounding this event. (Yes, I remembered this month’s theme!) Reflecting on it, I realize most of the suspense centered around unanswered questions that have serious importance to them.

When will Matthew hit?
Will Matthew hit our island?
Will Matthew hit our house?
Will Matthew blow out our windows?
Will Matthew flood our house?
Will we have electricity?
Will we have water?

Now we are back and fortunately no damage was done to the house, but we are dealing with lots of huge trees down. Water and power are back up in our neighborhood and yesterday the sewer system have us the O.K. to flush again. That was a profoundly happy moment!

As one question was answered, two or three more seemed to emerge. It made me think about how that’s not a bad way to write a story. Obstacles and questions continue to emerge as the story goes on. Some are answered happily, others not so much, but one leads to another in pursuit of a conclusion.

In this case the conclusion was a happy one. My final question though -  “Does anyone know a good tree guy?”

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Interview With MG Authors Audrey Vernick and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich by Darlene Beck Jacobson

I asked two of my favorite authors, Audrey Vernick & Smack Dab member, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, to talk about their new MG book TWO NAOMIS, which was a first time collaboration for both.  Here they are.

How it All Began: by Audrey Vernick & Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
We met at a New Jersey SCBWI conference in New Jersey and became fast friends. A few years later we co-taught a humor workshop at another NJ SCBWI conference and Darlene was one of our wonderful students.
And now here we all are! We have co-authored a middle-grade novel! Two Naomis is out and we're visiting Darlene's blog to ask each other some weird questions  .      two-naomis-cover-402x600
What books that you read when you were of middle-grade age stayed with you the way memories of time spent with good friends do?
Olugbemisola: This is a hard one, because I read a lot of not-MG books when I was MG-age, especially in order to read as much as possible that featured Black characters. So the African Writers Series was one of my favorites in those days, but those books were meant for adults. I loved I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from 5th grade on. And I was remembering recently that when I was ten I thought Burr by Gore Vidal was one of the best books EVER. I need to read it again to see what I think now. In 6th grade, a friend introduced me to "Harlequin Presents" romances. I remember that she brought a huge trash bag full of them onto the school bus for me to take home; it felt so illicit. Then I read the Flowers in the Attic books for a while...But, between 2nd and 6th grades, a few MG favorites were...all of the Streatfeild Shoes books, Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy books, Black Folktales, A Wrinkle in Time, The Friends, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Harriet the Spy, Ramona and Her Father, Pride & Prejudice, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre.  Oh! I loved books by Norma Klein, Hila Colman, and Hilma Wolitzer…There were a lot more. I can't really do this sort of thing, it's too hard.
Audrey: I know I was a reader and a rereader, and yet I can’t think of more than a dozen books I read, which feels like heresy. Harriet the Spy, about a character who was fantastically imperfect. I loved the friendship between Victoria North and Marcia Sherman in Ursula Nordstrom's The Secret Language. I think of many Judy Blume characters as people I kind of went to summer camp with--I knew lots of things about them and remember them fondly. The same with Paula Danziger's The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. I loved Freaky Friday and A Billion for Boris and I wrote to Mary Rodgers to tell her and she sent me a letter back. The closest thing I had to a trash bag of Harlequin Presents romances was a book my mother bought for me that delved into territory she had no idea I'd be reading about--They'll Never Make a Movie Starring Me by Alice Bach. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, reading, while she was talking to my aunt, and asking questions that were, at the time, quite shocking for her. It opened the door to books for older kids--I was possibly a little obsessed with Paul Zindel, especially The Pigman, for some time.
Have you ever been out in the world and seen someone who reminded you of one of your characters? Or has it ever worked the other way—do you develop a character based on people you know?
Olugbemisola: Absolutely! I've seen a lot of boys who remind me of Reggie in 8th Grade Superzero, and I know a lot of lit-from-within, socially conscious girls like Naomi Marie (Two Naomis) and Ruthie (Superzero).
I think I base just about all of my characters on people I know or have met, a lot of the time I don't do it consciously. I love to eavesdrop (or, as I like to call it, pay attention), and a lot of writing about kids for kids requires me to recall my own memories, so a lot of that is layered in there. Sometimes there are actual people, places, things, and situations that are rendered very much as they are/were, and sometimes it's more of the sensibility, or the emotion, or mood.
Audrey: I think I’d enjoy it if I saw someone random out in the world and felt inspired to use something about that person for a character but it hasn’t happened yet. And I haven’t based a human character on anyone I know. The only time someone from my life showed up in one of my books was in my first novel, Water Balloon. The dog in that book, Rig, is based on our beloved dog who died in August, Rookie. But I also had another crazy Water Balloon experience in the old Yankee Stadium. A girl with very cool sneakers was waiting in line for the women’s room and I thought, “There’s Marley!” In the few waiting minutes we had left, I just stared. I wonder if she saw. And was terrified. I hope not.
Hey blog readers! We’d be interested in your answers to these questions too (if that’s okay with Darlene).  Absolutely OKAY!

Audrey Vernick is the author of Brothers At Bat: The True Story of An Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team, a New York Times Notable Book. In addition to Two Naomis, her 2016 picture book releases are The Kid from Diamond Street, I Won a What? and Unlike Other Monsters. Audrey visits dozens of schools and is a frequent speaker at conferences for writers, librarians and teachers. A two-time fiction fellowship recipient from the NJ Arts Council, she lives with her family near the ocean. Visit her online at    audrey-vernick-author-photowww.audreyvernick.com.
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is often asked about her name; she is the daughter of a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother, and married to a man of Croatian descent. She was born in New York City, and was the ‘new kid’ many times over, in more than one country. Her first novel, 8th Grade Superzero, was named a Notable Book for a Global Society by the International Reading Association, and a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People by the National Council for the Social Studies and CBC. She has contributed essays and stories to The Journey is Everything: Teaching Essays that Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them, Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, Imagine in Better: Visions of What Schools Might Be, and other collections. She has a MA in Education and holds a Certificate in the teaching of writing from the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College/Columbia University. She lives with her family in NYC where she writes, makes things, and needs to get more sleep. Find her online at olugbemisolabooks.com.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Suspense, In Short

from Jody Feldman

Short. Quick. Heart. Breaths. Go. Forward. Stop! No! Yes!

No one really taught me the value of using words to mimic the beating of the heart and the panting of breaths in suspenseful situations. It was probably more like osmosis, absorbed through all those mysteries I read and all the quick-cut scenes I viewed in action-packed movies and TV. I’ve worked with that technique a lot. Sentences that start and stop and huff and puff and turn at the—

Wait! What? Who? Help!

And yet, with my latest published book, The Gollywhopper Games: Friend or Foe, I needed a little reminder. It took my editor suggesting that I could do the same with intercutting (in a literary way) chapters. I loved how it worked so much, I’m employing a similar version in my work-in-progress. What’s that book about? I don’t want to leave you in suspense so it’s about these kids and this huge...
...sorry. I am leaving you in suspense. But hopefully not for long.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Suspense: Figments of Your (Character’s) Imagination

By Marcia Thornton Jones

The summer of 1977 was the summer from hell, especially if you lived in Manhattan. The city was broke, a heat wave held everyone captive, and a serial killer was picking off young lovers in parked cars.  Nora, the main character in Meg Medina’s novel BURN BABY BURN, lives everyday wondering if she might be the next victim in the cross hairs of the killer’s gun.

BURN BABY BURN is not a typical oh-my-gawd-we’re-going-to-die suspense novel, and it’s not about an axe-wielding masked killer bludgeoning his way through a slumber party with blood-in -your-face gore. Instead, Medina uses the character’s imagination based on primal fear to build suspense. Is the killer in the car parked across the street? Is he waiting in the shadows between work and home? Is he peeking in the windows?

I believe one of the best ways to learn about writing is to read books and ask what the author did to make the work successful. The lesson from Medina’s novel is that suspense is heightened using the characters’ imaginations and worries that prey on primal fears and insecurities.

Medina’s main character, Nora, sums this type of suspense up in her own words after the serial killer is caught:

“Is it crazy to be disappointed by a monster? He’s nothing like what we’ve imagined…
I wonder if everything we fear is somehow the same as the unmasking of Son of Sam. Maybe the things that scare us seem more powerful than they truly are when we keep them secret.”

(BURN BABY BURN by Meg Medina, Candlewick Press, 2016, page 287)

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Cliff Hanging by Jane Kelley

We all want to write a page-turner. A book that's so engrossing the reader doesn't want to put it down. We want the reader to ignore the realities of her or his world to stay in the one WE made out of words and spaces. That's why many writers end each chapter with the hero hanging by her fingernails from the edge of a cliff.

Most cliffs are not actually cliffs. They are doors that slowly open. Or are locked. Telephones that ring. Or don't work. People who arrive in the middle of the night. Or who miss their trains. In other words, they are ordinary occurrences that writers must somehow make extraordinary.

How do we do that?

Atmospherics help. There's a reason it's often a "dark and stormy night."

Backstory can be useful. Every location is haunted by some sort of history.

I also remind myself that stories are about what's possible---not what's probable. I try not to let the structure of my story be locked up tight. I always leave space for something unexpected. If it surprises me, I know it will delight my readers.

Leave a door open--just a little bit. You never know what might come in.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Finding Your Suspense by Deborah Lytton -- October Theme

Growing up, I was a Nancy Drew fan girl through and through.  I read and re-read the books just to experience that moment when I feared what might happen and yet had to read on anyway.  I chewed many fingernails in those moments (to my mother's dismay) but I also learned one of the most important lessons in story crafting--suspense.  Mildred Wirt Benson, who was the author of many of my favorite Nancy Drew mysteries (writing under the pen name of Carolyn Keene) layered suspense into every single page.  The art of creating suspense isn't just reserved to mystery authors.  We all need to balance sharing just enough to keep the reader connected but not so much that we give away our greatest reveals.  It's that suspense which drives the plot forward and begs the reader to turn the page.  Here are some of my suspense tools:

1.  Begin at the end.  I always know where I am going to finish (even if I have absolutely no idea how I will get there).  Working backwards helps in layering the small clues for the reader.  Clues make the story real, and ground the resolution in honesty. 

2.  Another thing that helps is being aware of the power of chapters.  Some of the best writers break the chapter at the exact moment of suspense, rather than resolving the excitement before turning to a new chapter.  This propels the reader forward organically. 

3.  Mixing points of view can add a great deal of suspense.  Switching back and forth between characters allows for a break in the action from the plot surrounding one character while moving to the other character's story.  In this way, the action never slows and the reader must continue to chase it.

For any Nancy Drew fan girls, share the title your favorite book in the series.  Mine would be The Hidden Staircase
Happy writing!