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.

TENSION.

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!

Forest or the Trees?

It’s easy for me to lose focus on the bigger picture.You know the saying, “Miss the forest for the trees?” That’s me, but I take it to a whole other level. While I’m lost in the forest (or on my way to lost), I’m so distracted by the small details ( but seriously, how beautiful is moss on tree bark?) that I can forget the bigger scheme of things. I’m the worst person to figure directions on a map or any hiking trail. Ask Freddy. I have zero sense of direction.

So, when I least expected it, I am slowly discovering the bigger picture.

Patience. I’ve struggled with patience for years. I always want things done perfectly and yesterday. Well, with the schedule completely cleared (still can’t wrap my mind around this), I have time to be patient. With everyone else’s schedules the same way, the comparison of keeping up with everyone else’s productivity has been wiped away. I could never have done that on my own. It’s been such a blessing. I wake up and don’t even have to look at our family schedule.

Family. We’re focusing on things more important than deadlines and crammed schedules. Like family. We’ve been playing family games (yes, sometimes I bribe the kids into card games with a pooled amount of money for the winner) and taking turns walking our dog. I can see our kids decompress and exhale.

Nature. It does WONDER for the soul. We’ve been taking a lot of hikes and taking our time because there’s no schedule. We make fairy gardens and find cool things to collect and spray paint at home. We have time to look for agates in dry runs and by creeks.

We are slowing down. Staying up late and watching movies and sleeping in as long as our dog allows.

Hobbies. Yes, there are moments of complete craziness and meltdowns, but overall, it’s been forcing us to appreciate the importance of togetherness and the contentment of separation in finding our individual hobbies. Our kids have picked up long-forgotten hobbies like painting and playing piano and graffiti art (that’s Sterling).

So, blessings to you all. May you still appreciate the finite details, but also immerse yourself into the bigger picture of family and patience and nature and finding what fills your soul in solitude.

Turns out, slowing down isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Putting Ability into Instability

I crave stability and security, which go hand in hand. Well, God has a sense of humor because like most people, my adult life has been anything but consistent.

We have the many benefits of being self-employed and running our own business, but with it, especially in the early years, came inconsistency. Inconsistency in our schedules, our incomes, the dependability of people we worked with, whether from a client standpoint or a training standpoint. We’ve worked hard to build stability into our business, but being home at different times every night and working commission had some anxieties attached in the beginning.

Though we have more control and flexibility over our business schedules, our kids’ schedules leave it a rare occasion we eat supper together at one time or are even together at once. Especially with a family of five schedules.

And, it seems that when one kid is “up,” and things seem routine and under control, we’re dealing with another kid who is dealing with his/her own crisis, whether grades or with friends or sports or you name it.

SPOILER ALERT!

Teenage years are so tough to parent in. Tougher than the physical exhaustion of chasing them around (even three of ’em) when they were young. I think back on the days when I would pull the baby in the wagon, chasing a toddler on a training bike, while walking the third to kindergarten. ANY DAY over this emotional exhaustion. Ugh! Add onto that, the random and inconsistent “sick days” from school that throw any consistency in my schedule off (thank God we’re self-employed on these occasions, but still…!)

So……welcome Corona virus.

Welcome to the shutdown and all the instability that is messing with us everyday. Schedule changes. Like every few hours. Long-scheduled events that had been carefully planned and worked around for months are now no longer. Trips are up in the air. Book talks, retreats, conferences and kids events postponed and I find myself checking our email almost hourly for updates. Welcome instability. You might fill me with some anxiety, but you do not scare me.

Deep breath.

I understand this instability is tough. Quite frankly, it sucks.

So, if you are craving consistency and routine right now, like I am, here is what I’ve decided I CAN do:

  1. Put consistency and routine somewhere in my week: walking our dog every morning and evening, meeting up with a friend for coffee once a week (laughter therapy and “mom-venting” does wonders!), church Lent services on Wednesdays (bonus: I don’t have to cook when there’s church supper).
  2. Pray for more flexibility. I’ve stopped praying for patience because ever since I did this, I feel like I’m constantly tested. Seriously God. I kind of wanted it given to me, not built from patient-stemming situations!
  3. Schedule free time/family time in my schedule as if it was a client appointment. We often put our clients before our personal schedules so why would I not do this for our kids?

It’s the most I can control at this time, but I figure that balance is key. And if God has thrown so many inconsistencies in our lives, it must be because He knows we can handle it. That we’re the type of people who are RESILIENT and have the internal fortitude to rise up to meet the challenges of the unknown and not only meet them, but find opportunities and blessings in them as well. Even if it comes with the uncertainty of the unknown.

So, here’s to finding the blessings in the unknown and the unplanned. To filling missed events with family time and your own choices of consistencies in this unstable and crazy world.

Faith, Without Numbers

I’ve been asked quite a few times what the toughest part of the writing and publishing process has been for me. Without hesitation, there are two answers.

First of all, it is separating yourself from your writing project. I heard this advice from my future editor/publisher at a writing conference a few years back. I think this advice can pertain to any project, not just writing. It can be extremely difficult to do if you are a get-it-done, all-at-once, kind of person like me. When you are in the thick of a project and hit a road block or if you think it is finished, step away. Like really away. For at least four weeks. It will give you a fresh perspective and insight as to what you need to do to truly finish it.

But second, the most tough, is keeping the faith. Faith in yourself. Faith in the system. Faith in the fact that you are called to do something. To impact someone. I would have Freddy read early draft chapters and really questioned whether the writing was decent.

But then I realized, we all have different tastes. I’ve picked up NYT Bestsellers and could not for the life of me, get into them. I’ve picked up unknown books from little free libraries that have become my favorites. People like different styles of music and different genres of books and that’s a great thing! My son, who is currently deep in the newest Dog Man graphic novel, has no interest in my book. That’s okay.

Keeping belief levels up can be challenging, but I pray on it (Prayer of Jabez, look up the story) and feel God has blessed me with optimism and enough encouragement along the way to keep the faith, despite setbacks (yes, there have been some). Even now, four months after publication, I have no idea how many books have sold. Yes, it is driving me crazy. I’m used to daily updates in our finance business, but what the publishing business has blessed me with is PATIENCE and FAITH.

Without concrete numbers, I am putting my trust in God’s plan and the fact that I did this to get awareness on this topic in the Midwest. I wanted to honor those involved during World War II, both veterans and the families impacted by the war. I felt the story tugging on my heart and it’s been in the back of my mind off and on for years. I even got a Japanese symbol of love when I was 18 (fun fact!). The seeds had been planted many years ago, but I needed maturity and exposure to rejection in other forms to gain the confidence to take on this project.

So, whatever you are aiming for, keep faith first. About four years back, I had a dream even. It was weird. The entire dream kept telling me James 214. I woke up thinking it was the craziest thing ever. When I opened up my (admittedly, dusty) Bible, I came to James 2:14. “Faith, without works, is dead.”

It’s been my guiding principle since that night. Act on faith. Don’t worry about the concrete evidence. It will come.

Appreciating the Lost Art of…Art!

One of the only constants in my routine is walking our Lab Penny. I love having the downtime of zoning out (That is, when she’s not breaking off her leash to run after a squirrel!)

We like to walk around the middle school neighborhood side streets and coming from a family of carpentry and architecture, one of the things I’m always noticing is how beautiful the older houses are. Not necessarily the biggest houses, but the oldest and most beautiful. They always have so much character in the accents of their roof lines or porches or pop out windows (can you tell I have no architectural experience?!). Even their window panes are beautiful.

I was talking to my Uncle Mark, who appreciates history and carpentry, about this. Our conclusion was that art is kind of a lost art. Just 100 years ago, when someone wanted to build a house or add a room, the carpenters (usually a family member or small family business), had the time. Unfortunately, today builders are under a lot of pressure to put out many houses quickly and they just don’t have the time to put in all of the hand work required for some of these features.

In the past, art was a part of almost everything. It was required for advertising before computer graphics. Think about old billboards or pick up an old newspaper and look at the hand drawn advertisements. As Mark mentioned, even the birth certificates, marriage certificates etc. all had hand drawn scrolling, painting or decorating on them. Old black and white pictures had water painted “touch ups” of rosy cheeks or colored dresses. They’re beautiful. Much prettier than the massively photo-shopped and filtered pictures of today, in my opinion.

So just a thought. Next time you take a walk or look at old documents, take time to appreciate the art that was involved in the process. Look at the detailing (again, don’t know the right architectural word for this) on the upper half of the house or the crown molding design under the roof lines. Take a walk around any older part of any small town or even downtown St. Paul. If you want to go bigger, make it to the Garden District in New Orleans.

When you think about the amount of time put into these buildings and the high quality, heavy wood used, you’ll understand how these homes are often the ones to withstand time and the variable of weather throughout the years. And each one has several generations of stories buried within their beams and walls, waiting to be uncovered.

Compartmentalizing

I don’t consider myself to be very emotional, but a few things got me this season.

Yesterday, I finally made the time to transfer all of my pics from my phone to the laptop and then onward to a backup server. The effort of this and time involved inspired our New Year Resolution to start downloading monthly! Seriously.

I spent so much time compartmentalizing things into different folders (“Sterling 2019,” “Sterling & Sports 2019,” “Jaelyn & friends 2019,” “Jada & name the holiday 2019″) that I almost missed the present moment when one of the kids asked me to play a game. Not a video game, but a sit-on-the-floor kind of board game. These moments are rare and usually only happen over Christmas break.

Anyway, I got to thinking about how often we compartmentalize our lives into neat little boxes. I’m guilty of doing that all the time. If we get together with friends, I try to make sure the couples will have things in common…can you imagine mixing our Democrat friends with our Republican friends (yes, we have a good mix of both! And get this, we even get along!)? Can you imagine putting this person who swears quite a bit (ok, it’s me) with this person who seems to be perfect? We have to keep that relationship at the school event or the church event or whatever the case might be.

The list goes on.

So I realized that I compartmentalize my feelings or stay busy to the point of not having to confront them, which is why writing certain scenes can be really tough as it opens the door just a little bit to what feelings of loss feel like. At least if I want to connect in a believable way with a reader.

So this Christmas, I received the most unexpected and special gift I’ve ever been given. And let me tell you, I was having a perfect glass of wine, had on the perfect red lipstick and Christmas outfit and was as composed as can be after attending Christmas service. So when I opened a mysterious card addressed to me from Santa (of course I’m on the good list), the sentimental words ripped open my neatly boxed and wrapped emotions of devastation, loss, gratitude, love.

My Uncle Woody, who was married to my second mom (my mom’s twin sister) had written me a note within a card and had wrapped the most precious gift of my Aunt Pam’s legacy necklace so that I could carry a piece of her with me from time to time.

I was instantly a mess. That hardly ever, NEVER happens to me. I’ve lived through some pretty rough moments, but I never show hurt. It was a gut reaction, like being slapped in the face. Tears came streaming down my face and all my emotions oozed out of their packaged boxes and swam around my stomach in a muddy mess. Having her fingerprint felt like having her here. A mixture of loneliness & fullness at once. But she felt close.

My mom’s twin sister has been part of every part of my life. Losing her felt like the loss of a mom as I saw her almost daily my entire life. It was a season of tremendous faith knowing she was in this amazing place where time stands still and knowing her, she’s probably still hugging everyone in line at Heaven’s gates. I feel her presence daily, but to have a tangible piece makes her feel like she’s always with me.

The second trigger that wreaked havoc on my emotions happened when reading “Ordinary Grace,” a FANTASTIC book that several people have recommended. This trigger opened the boxes of hope, faith and comfort in one little dialogue exchange between a Native American and a young man…


“As I walked away he called to me and when I turned back he said, They’re never far from us you know.

Who? I asked.

The dead. No more’n a breath. You let that last one go and you’re with them again....They’re in our hearts and on our minds and in the end all that separates us from them is a single breath, one final puff of air.”

I was fulfilled and grateful to the author (William Kent Krueger) for being willing to open that box in order to relate with me and so many others and set me at ease through his words. The way he writes the scenes of devastation (read it, you’ll know what I mean), it’s certain he’s lived through loss. Tragic and severe loss that cuts through your soul and leaves you feeling shattered as you search for broken pieces of what was your heart.

But because of this, I didn’t feel alone in loss. I felt companionship. There are so many people who relate with loss and if not yet, they will. We all will. That’s a promise. Having the courage to open these boxes from time to time, lets others in and our light and relatability out.

For the first time in weeks, I slept well last night.

Christmas Traditions

One of our favorites:)

Most of our Christmas things are packed, along with 70% of the rest of our life. After sitting on some land for almost 13 years, we are finally pulling the trigger and building this spring.

When we were moving into our “in-between” house last year, for the first time, I realized just how many Christmas bins I had. I had never really added them up. A few in the garage (garlands and pine swags), a few in the laundry room (ornaments), and a couple of closets with metal pine candle holders and snowmen. Oh, and about ten nutcrackers, just because (do you need a reason if they have glitter?)

So we had roughly 8 bins. Big bins. I love Christmas.

So I didn’t think I would miss them over one year. And I have to say, I was right. Almost.

What I really miss the most are the books. Of course.

We had an unspoken tradition of keeping the Christmas/winter kids books out on the table to read throughout the season. I didn’t realize how much I would want those out! I miss reading “Twas the Night Before the Night Before Christmas” and “Dancing Snowmen” with the kids. The gap with the kids actually sitting and reading them with us is closing in fast:( I’m not sure if the kids have even noticed, but I do.

As a kid, some of my best winter memories (don’t make fun of me) are of sitting on the carpet by the fireplace and reading the Little House series. I LOVED them. I even kept the box set in hopes of at least one of my kids being interested in them. Sterling got close this year and liked the one they were reading in class. I was excited and asked him if he wanted to read my set.

“No thanks,” he replied. Oh well. There’s always grand-kids someday.

So, in the end, it’s time together that makes the season. Reading, playing games and yes, even the teenage bickering to some point (we have a LOT of that between the two girls).

And traditions. Driving to the Pechacek Farm, which is always AMAZING. Free light show, complete with Santa’s workshop full of their real-life cats and bagged treats for the kids. Cost? Free with a food shelf donation.

And music. I’ve taken the radios hostage. All of them. To Sterling’s dismay, Christmas music. All. Day. Long. I love it! I love the stories of Christmas music. I’m a lyric person (go figure).

So, here’s to the simplicity in Christmas traditions. Especially the ones that actually celebrate Christmas. No money required.