Monthly Archives: April 2020

WT3: Creating Tension

You can always tell when I’m reading an intense book I can’t put down (okay, or a Netflix series). My nails become bitten down to the point of scrutiny at the nail salon in my attempt of hiding behind acrylics. So what makes a book a page-turner, up all-nighter, have-to-know-what-happens next kind of book?

One word.


There’s all different ways of creating tension from how you create the mood of the setting through the words you choose and the feelings they evoke to the final period or question mark at the end of each chapter. For example, when you hear the words, dentist drill (Sorry Dr. Page), what feelings come to mind? How would the mood be different in an opening of a story if you used the description country cottage versus downtown condo? Or a metal bridge instead of a wooden bridge?

The words you choose have an effect on the reader and the mood of your character has an effect on how he/she is seeing things. Have you ever noticed when you get bad news how the world seems to slow to a screeching halt? You notice every minute detail as you try to grasp something unimaginable. Just the opposite is true if you are in a hurry or running scared…your thoughts might become fragmented and choppy…you’re not noticing the birds or describing blades of grass when you’re chasing after your puppy who is running toward the street or if you’re dodging bullets in a battle.

Tension moves a story forward. I went to a writing seminar a few years back and the speaker suggested there should be tension in every chapter (especially a cliffhanger at the end of each one), and possibly even every single page. Even if it’s minor tension. His suggestion?

Deep breath.

Throw your entire manuscript up in the air (please, please, please have the pages numbered for your sanity), and randomly pick up pages, out of order, and look for tension.

I was desperate and crazy enough to do this. It was awful, but it helped.

So how do you do it? How do you create tension? For one, put your characters in tough situations and when the problems start to get resolved, add more conflict. Conflict could be the anticipation of knowing something within the plot. Who killed her? Was it this suspicious new neighbor that just entered the scene during the last paragraph of this chapter?! Who was the mysterious man she was going to go meet in the middle of the night and why didn’t she tell her roommate?! What is she hiding? Is this character’s perspective even reliable or is she lying to us readers (remember the book, “Gone Girl?”)

You can switch between character’s points of view to help move the book along and create anticipation of getting back to your favorite character. You can withhold information. You can add small conflicts of missing a train, falling when running, the sense of being followed or you can bring in major conflict of an antagonist to challenge your main character.

The best way of researching tension?

Watch a tv series . If it’s a good one, you’ll be well into your third episode within the night. Ask yourself what keeps you watching to the point of sleep deprivation? What was it about the previous episode that made you start another one? What new problems arose? Were there new characters introduced? New plot twists? Lack of resolution? A different character’s perspective?

Whatever the elements were, they were enough to steal from your sleep and keep you up until midnight watching.

That’s the magic of tension.

WT 2: Who Are Your Characters?

The best books I’ve read are ones in which the characters seem to be real people. Books that leave you feeling something about the characters you’ve read, long after you’ve finished the book. But what makes these fictional characters come to life and seem relatable?

Well, like real people, they can “walk and chew gum at the same time.” Think of real examples of people you know and think about what they do when they are talking. Are their hands in their pockets? Are they running their hands through their hair?

I’ve also heard that if all of your character’s voices sound the same, it’s not their voices, but the author’s. So how do you develop characters that are different from one another and possess the qualities you want them to have?

The best characterization tips I’ve learned are from a Community Ed Class I took with a retired literature professor, Dr. Ron Neuhaus. He shared a method of developing characters that has stuck with me.

Step 1: Write the process of doing something: baking cookies, painting a room, fixing something etc. Break this process down into simple steps that could be explained to a young child.

Step 2: After you have all of the steps listed, put your character in the process and do this with 3 different characters who have certain traits you want to exemplify. For example:

Does your character roughly measure the ingredients or precisely measure them? Is he/she impatient? Sloppy? Methodical? Do they let the cat sit on the counter and lick the bowl or is it a sterile, cold, granite countertop?

Step 3: Once you know who your characters are and what makes them tick, it is easier to gauge how they would respond to certain events in your story line and how they’d interact with other people.

EXAMPLE: Painting a bedroom

  • Take down all of existing pictures, shelves etc.
  • Fill in existing holes with putty & allow to dry
  • Sand down puttied holes so smooth to wall surface…

NOW: Add in character

Pouring herself another glass of Cabernet, she stood in the entrance and glanced about the bedroom, wondering if one bottle of wine would be enough.

The blank walls, once alive with pictures and memories, no longer showed any indication of the life they had created together. Now looking more like the later years of their marriage, there was a series of attempts to cover the holes and though they may have been puttied, they still existed.

Setting her glass aside, she picked up a wet rag and began to wipe down the surface of the walls with aggressive strokes so as to clear any particles of dust from the patchwork she had sanded earlier that morning.

Sometimes it helps to think of real people you’d like to build characters around. Think of their traits and how they interact with others.

To me, this is the fun part of writing! You can make your characters realistic and relatable or wild and eccentric and interesting…so fascinatingly different from anyone you’ve ever met that you can’t stop reading about them. Even if you’re not in the middle of a manuscript, you can think of characters and set them aside. As you write, some main characters and supporting characters will be planned and others will “pop up” as you’re writing, whether to guide or support your main character or to showcase a quality of your main character.

I hope this helps! Happy writing!

Writing Tip: Show, Don’t Tell

One of the simplest edits to make when revising your draft is to look for areas where you, as an author, is unintentionally telling your readers what to think or how to feel.

The best books are complex and sometimes leave you as a reader, feeling many different emotions about a character. Maybe you start off hating a character until you read their backstory and realize you actually feel sorry for them and can kind of understand why they act the way they do.

With Becoming American, many of my personal edits involved better description of facial expressions or body language. What did his face look like when he was talking? How was he standing? Was he casually leaning against a railing (at ease) or was he standing straight, with his shoulders back (formal and tense). These little tweaks will give readers an idea of whether the character was angry, surprised, relaxed, tense etc. and makes it much more interesting to read.

For example, which would you rather read:

“Billy was angry.” or

“Billy’s hands curled into two fists. His face turned red as he glared at his big brother. He whipped around and stormed up the stairs.”

Here’s another example of telling readers how to feel about something:

“She wore a beautiful dress.”

What if the author’s idea of a beautiful dress is something a reader would think is hideous or too revealing? Was it a wedding dress or a prom dress? Short or long? Sequins, lace or satin? You might like sequins, but I might think they’re scratchy or ugly.

Instead, describe the dress and let the readers decide. If you want to show the character felt uncomfortable, maybe you can describe how tight the dress was or how the sequins felt against her skin. If she feels awkward in the dress, what’s her body language like?

So, as simple as this is, there are several times I’ve gone through my manuscript and found areas in which I wasn’t giving my readers enough credit and telling them something versus allowing them to form their own opinions and feelings. It’s an easy mistake to make, but easy to fix as well!

I hope this helps:)

Happy writing & revising.

Where Do You Draw Inspiration From?

Everybody has a story to tell. Whether it’s your own or a fiction or even a great idea for a picture book. Everyone has a story.

When I first started writing, I had a story on my heart, but didn’t know where to start. I didn’t go to school for creative writing and was intimidated by thoughts like, “Who am I to write a book?” and “What if I don’t do it right?” I started researching how to write and reading articles and tips.

Well, let me tell you, there are hundreds, probably thousands of articles and books on how to write and spoiler alert! There is no right or wrong way. They are all different and many times, contradicting tips. Some authors outline and plan meticulously, others (me) write impulsively and out of order! So naturally when I read all the how-tos, I froze.

But then I started thinking about the books I like and how very different their styles are. Most of my favorite books aren’t “proper” writing, but real people in real and messy and hurtful situations. I realized, I can do that! In fact, the author of The Tattoist of Aushwitz was a nurse. Stephan King was a teacher. Nicholas Sparks was in pharmaceutical sales. If you have a story, tell it!

My most creative inspiration doesn’t come from “how-to” books (although they can help you with issues you’re having), but from traveling to places and learning about the history of the place. I love putting characters right in the thick part of the historical event and seeing how they’d react and then adding in real subplots. What if the character had a boyfriend/girlfriend? What if they were already caught up in a situation when this event happened? Throw in a catty high school girl and that usually adds drama!

I hardly ever start in the beginning. I’m impatient. I start in the middle of the book and write the best action scenes first and then fill in around it and come back and add in details through the second or third or fourth edits of the entire thing once it’s done.

However, there are several creative classes and retreats I’ve gone to that have really ignited the writing process and I’d love to share what’s helped me. I’m hoping there are some writers out there who read this and would love to offer creative tips over the next several weeks (hopefully on Mondays), that really moved my manuscript forward.

As I’ve read several times, over 70% of people feel they have one good book in them. This is your moment. Most schedules have been cleared. Even if you only write a little at a time or start in the middle of your action with dialogue or details and come back to it. Whether you write in the quiet of the night or during the hustle and bustle of the day, this is your time to start!

You can do it!