Creating Suspense

If you’ve read Perfecting Plot, or for that matter, any of the other books in the Red Sneaker Writers series, you understand the importance of creating suspense, or its junior partner, tension. Bottom line, it’s a matter of maintaining interest, keeping the reader riveted to the page in a world rife with distractions. Suspense is not just for so-called suspense novels–it’s an important element in any book you want the reader to finish. And in my opinion, it’s just as important in nonfiction as it is in fiction. When the book is full of suspense, the reader finishes and runs to work the next day (or posts on Amazon) enthusiastically talking about this great book everyone need to read. That’s when they call it “a good read” or say they stayed up till three in the morning because they couldn’t put it down. And that is the best publicity a writer can get.

Simply stated, suspense is apprehension–the reader wondering and even worrying about what will happen on the next page. This requires at least two elements. First, there must be a perilous situation fraught with risk. This doesn’t have to involve guns, cliffs, or end-of-the-word scenarios. Sometimes emotional stakes can be just as important. The second essential element is a protagonist readers care about. This doesn’t mean they have to be perfect (and probably shouldn’t be). It just means the reader has to care what happens to them. This won’t happen automatically. You have to give them a reason to care (see Creating Character).

Tension is nascent suspense, a sense that all is not right with the world, even if you don’t know quite what the problem is. There should be tension on every page, from the first page until the climax is completed. You heard me right. Every page.  Tension is that nagging feeling that there’s a ticking time bomb somewhere that’s going to explode if someone doesn’t do something. It’s the unsettling intimation that the characters are all talking but not actually talking about what is uppermost in their minds. Even in the early pages of the book, when you might not have fully developed the suspense elements, there should be tension.

I’ve been reading a lot of manuscripts lately, editing for friends and patrons, and I’ve noticed that suspense, or attempts to create suspense, tend to fall into one of two different categories. The best kind of suspense is what I described before, a genuine concern about what might befall characters you care about. “Oh no–what will happen next?” This is conflict that arises naturally and authentically from the narrative you’ve created.

Too often, what I see is “false suspense.” (If someone has a cooler name for this, please share it.) This is the literary equivalent of the “jump scare” in a horror film–when something unexpectedly leaps out from off-screen, usually accompanied by a jarring noise. Sure, you jump, but that scare wasn’t really earned. Similarly, writers sometimes create unearned suspense by withholding vital information. Like, in the worst possible (and most common) example, the fact that this exciting interlude is only a dream. Almost as bad is when a first-person narrator withholds critical information. Though some have done this with success (Agatha Christie, Harlan Coben), it always leaves me feeling cheated. I mean, seriously–I’ve been inside this character’s head for 400 pages, but he never once thought about this critical detail that was not reveled until the last page? To me, that’s a cheat.

I understand the desire to have one final surprise on the final page, and that may be the easiest way to do it. But for me, I’d rather see a “big reveal” in the climax, and let those few pages following the climax wrap up character business, or complete the narrative with a touching, evocative, or thematic grace note. Even in thrillers, there’s more to a good novel than eternal surprises. And I think there should a constitutional amendment banning all dream sequences, drug trips, daydreams, parallel universes, and any other devices that allow writers to suggest something exciting is happening when it isn’t. This is suspense without consequences, and I think it leaves most readers feeling ripped off.

The best approach? Dynamic, sympathetic characters working against major opposition to achieve meaningful goals. Anytime you feel the suspense may be lagging–raise the stakes. Put more at risk. Put someone else in jeopardy. Make your book impossible to put down.

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Does Anyone Still Buy Books? Where?

There’s a new Author Earnings report out this month, and for me, that’s a chance to reassess everything you’re doing as a writer, and perhaps, to readjust your plans for the future. It’s hard to obtain reliable information about the publishing business, and every source has flaws, but I believe the information collected by Author Earnings is the most reliable we have, and certainly better than the info from AAP or Bookscan or other sources that don’t track Amazon sales. Granted, that’s tough to do, since Amazon doesn’t release its sales figures. But any accounting that ignores the retailer that sells more than 50% of all books sold in the US, and an even greater percentage of all eBooks, is inherently untrustworthy. Authors Earnings, using its advance computer-bot data-gathering techniques, counts everything.

Here are the three main takeaways from this month’s report:

One: In the five primary English-speaking countries, indie self-published books outsell the Big Five New York publishers.

When you’re doing the math, remember to add the sky blue (indie books) to the cyan (uncategorized, probably self-published). Independent authors are doing better worldwide than most people realize. Also note the increased growth of Amazon’s imprints. Amazon is the fastest growing publisher in the world.

Two: eBooks are still selling, and they sell far better at Amazon than anywhere else.

eBook sales did dip around May of last year, but they rebounded and are slowly growing again. As this chart makes clear, Amazon sells far more books than anyone else, but the other three are not insignificant. Which leads to the third topic…

Three: The answer to whether it’s best to have your books exclusively with Amazon, or to “go wide” (my wife calls this, “playing the field”), is still unclear. Amazon sells more books, and exclusivity does have benefits, the most significant of which is participation in Kindle Unlimited. KU allows members to “borrow” your book at no additional charge. The author gets paid based upon pages actually accessed by the borrower.

The plus is that many will borrow who would not buy. According to Author Earnings, “KindleUnlimited has grown into a Top-3 ebook retail channel in its own right; KU is now paying indie authors twice as many dollars as Barnes & Noble’s Nook is paying to all publishers combined.” That said, you have to wonder how many of those people would’ve bought the book (at full price) if they couldn’t borrow. Even if it’s only a fraction, you might make more in royalties.

And there are always risks in being dependent upon a single market. What if Amazon’s eBook sales dip again, even more precipitously? Or Amazon changes its policies on author compensation? Being visible, and taking advantage of promotions, on a variety of platforms may increase your visibility. It will also increase your ability to get value out of marketing promotions like Bookbub. I have friends who have told me they are getting something like a quarter of their sales from B&N.com or a combo of non-Amazon sites. (Of course, that only comes with active promotion.)

I wish I had a definitive answer here, but I don’t. My recommendation? Experiment, and see what works best for you and your books.

Author Earnings: http://authorearnings.com/report/february-2017

When Do You Get Your Rights Back? Never?

For a law student studying contracts law, this principle is axiomatic: You don’t give away your rights unless you get something of value in return. Sadly, though, writers historically have done that all too often. Because they hunger to be published, preferably by a large corporate publisher, they sign contracts with poor terms and pitifully low royalty rates. In the past, however, they at least knew that if the book went out of print, those publishing rights would revert to them.

Not any more.

When does an eBook go out of print? Never. When does a print book go out of print? If the publisher sets it up for print-on-demand, never. So today, writers face the possibility of granting licenses that will never revert.

The Authors Guild and other organizations have proposed various contract provisions to alleviate this situation, but the sad truth is the Authors Guild has little to no clout. The Big Five publishers are cogs within large corporations and large corporations do not give up anything of value if they can avoid it. Why would they?

Some have advocated contract clauses providing that if a book doesn’t sell a certain number of books, say, 200 copies a year, the rights revert. But a publisher can easily circumvent that. Make the book available online for 99 cents (or less) and it will cross that threshold. Some have advocated clauses providing that if an author doesn’t earn a minimal amount, say, $200 a year, the rights revert. But the publisher can easily circumvent that. Even if the publisher has to pay a small fee to an author, it might be willing to do so to hold onto the rights. Bottom line, I don’t think clauses based on sales or money are the solution.

Here’s what I recommend: whenever possible, limit the term of your licenses to a number of years. License the rights for five years, or ten years, long enough to make it worthwhile for the publisher. But when the term is over, the rights revert, or the publisher may request an extension based upon the same or better terms. Something like this:

The Author grants and assigns the Publisher the following rights (insert rights)The period of this license shall be for five years, at which point, the contract may be renewed on the same or better terms, provided both parties agree.

You may be thinking, no publisher would agree to that. But I’ve gotten it and I know other writers who have as well. If you’re a first-time writer dealing with a Big Five publisher, it may not happen. But you can still ask, or tell your agent to do so. And if you can’t get it, you might think twice about signing that contract. Are you getting enough value to justify giving those rights away forever?

And just so you know, Amazon Publishing traditionally offers contracts with term clauses.