Wednesday, August 20, 2014

ADDING TENSION to your writing

On Monday, I met with local writers to hear a mini-workshop given by Erin Lindsay McCabe, author of the historical novel I SHALL BE NEAR TO YOU. Her website is HERE, and her book is described as:

An extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband, inspired by the letters of a remarkable female soldier who fought in the Civil War.

In her talk, Erin listed ways to increase tension in our writing—some surprising, as I'd never thought about how some of these things relate to tension.

1. Make a likeable character, one readers will care about. If readers are invested and feel close to a character, every obstacle the character faces will be sensed more keenly, with the interest in their welfare heightened.
2. Make a likeable character, which doesn't mean a wholly "good" character. A wholly good (or evil) character can be flat or stereotypical. Erin described the "good-bad character" and the "bad-good character," one who performs acts of both evil and kindness. These more complex characters amp up tension because they aren't as predictable, and often have conflicting inner desires.
3. The character needs to WANT something. A dream, a goal separate from the action of the story. What's important to the main character? If he/she wants something badly, the roadblocks along the way create more conflict and thus more tension.
4. Make life difficult with confrontation. Don't be too easy on your characters; take them to their limits, their darkest places. Make them experience the worst day of their life. Stretch them and have them make active choices that put them in yet more complex places, full of more difficult choices. Don't give characters what they want!
5. In dialogue, find ways to make characters say No to each other. This wise nugget Erin found in WRITING FICTION by Janet Burroway. If characters are in conflict and at odds with each other, tension is increased. People often don't think the exact same way about issues; show those differences. Make your interchange complicated. Also, make sure the characters aren't saying No to the exact same conflict throughout; explore different angles of that conflict.
6. Pay attention to pacing. When editing, cut scenes that don't further the plot; wandering or slow passages dilute tension. Look for places where your characters aren't talking for a half-page or more. Do you have too much sitting around and thinking? Often you can transform that into dialogue with another character, but be sure to further plot or relationships rather than writing needless talk. Don't have your characters dole out exposition or info dumps: show with actions and blend the details. Also, often tension can be increased by slowing action down. Don't rush important scenes. Explore the emotions and actions (by describing, not Telling) to make the reader FEEL what the character does.
7. Remove filters, phrases such as "she looked" or "I heard" or "he saw." Those words add distance and dilute tension because the writer is reminding the readers they're in someone's head. Just BE in that person's head, and describe the noise or sight without the filter words. Filters also slow scenes down, which again relates to the pacing issue.   

Have you ever thought about how character plays a part in tension?
Do you have any other ways you like to add tension to a scene or story?
Do you enjoy historical fiction, such as Erin McCabe's 19th-century Civil War novel?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Writing Middle Grade

Greetings, fellow Earthlings! I hope you are doing great with life and your writing.

My agent and I developed a better plan for my writing a few weeks ago. Instead of me writing entire novels and then having her decide some weren't marketable (due to being dystopian, not fresh enough, etc.), we decided to have me write sample chapters and run the premises by her FIRST. Seems a no-brainer, but hey. We're on track now.

This strategy also forced me to write a one-sentence pitch line before I started writing the novel—which is very focusing. I have to boil down the essence and ask the crucial question: "What's this story about?" 

My agent also suggested I try my hand at writing a Middle Grade to supplement my usual Young Adult. At first I was like… "Whaaat?" but I was definitely intrigued. She gave me a reading list of MG novels, most of them fantasy, since that's the genre I like to write. I read their first pages on Amazon; that's a great way to do quick research, by the way. I'll read further later.

1. Middle Grade is for kids who are pre-high school. The SCBWI describes MG as a whole as books for 8-12 year olds. My agent suggested I write Upper MG, targeting 7th and 8th graders.
2. MG manuscript lengths are shorter, roughly 30,000-60,000 words—in contrast to 55,000-90,000 for YA. 
3. Chapters for MG novels are also shorter. 5-8 pages vs. 8-12.
4. White space is the MG reader's friend. When some kids open a book, if they see solid blocks of paragraphs instead of friendly white space (around dialogue or shorter paragraphs), they often put the book back down. It's intimidating.
5. Chapters are more often titled in MG. But chapter titles shouldn't give too much away. Be vague but intriguing.  
6. Most MG books are written in third person, past tense. At least for fantasy, because this allows for multiple points of view to reveal everything going on in the story. I checked out 12 novels; 8 were written in third/past. The remaining 4 were first person, with 2 of those past tense and 2 present tense. The choice of which to use depends on what works for each story. I ended up settling on first person, past tense, for mine. It's the minority, but it felt "right."
7. Most MG readers don't like long-winded passages of description. Descriptions need to be spare, or trickled throughout the narrative. Upper MG is more lenient, though.
8. There are more vocabulary restraints with MG. With YA, anything goes (as long as it doesn't sound stilted or overly intellectual). I'm constantly having to weigh my words and decide if it's the right vocabulary for the MG reader as well as for my main character.
9. MG books often start right off with action. This catches a young reader's interest. The pace is also brisk throughout, to keep that interest. Adventure tales work well. 
10. The MG focus is more on friendships rather than romance. If there is romance, it's light, and at the most involve a kiss. No sex; that's a topic reserved for Young Adult.

I'm now 6 chapters (12K words) into my new MG novel. My agent approved my first chapter and pitch line, and said to keep going. I'm having fun! Isn't that what writing is all about?  

Have you ever tried your hand at writing a Middle Grade novel?
Have you read many Middle Grade books, or do your children read them?
Any additional tips or comments you'd like to share about writing MG?