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.

Have you registered yet for the Red Sneaker conference? The 2018 conference is going to be the biggest and best one yet. Click here for more information.

Should You Attend a Writers Conference?

Every year, many aspiring writers search for the assistance they need to break out–the agent, the editor, the publisher, whatever it is. And every year, many writers conferences offer to provide that assistance. The problems, of course, are that they are not free and they are not all in your hometown. How do you decide whether a conference is worth the investment? How do you decide which of the many you should attend?

I have some insight on these questions. As you may already know, I’ve organized a writers conference for many years now. It’s a lot of work and not terribly profitable, but every time I think about ending it, I come back to the same question: How would my life have changed if something like this had been available when I was trying to break into the business? I was a Oklahoma punk who’d never even met a writer, much less been in a hotel filled with them. Information was tough to find. I survived, but it wasn’t easy and that certainly might have helped.

And that’s why I put on the conference.

I think hard every year about how to make this year’s conference as useful as possible. Social opportunities are great, but I want the conference to provide more than networking. Information is the most valuable professional asset, so I try to provide the info people need to succeed. This has become even more important in recent years, as the publishing industry has undergone so many changes in so little time. I make sure people can find agents and editors, too. While I can’t guarantee publishing contracts, I can guarantee opportunities, information, and valuable feedback. The rest is up to the writer.

Here are the factors you should consider when deciding whether to attend a conference:

  1. If you’re hoping for an agent (or editor), examine the credentials of the people attending in advance. Sadly, some conferences will invite (or permit) agents who do not have strong track records, to fill slots cheaply or because they lack the contacts necessary to get to the top players. I’ve seen conferences with agents I wouldn’t even allow my students to pitch. If you’re going to commit to an agent, there should be a good reason. Make sure the person you’re pitching has sold books. Their website should list their clients as well as past sales. Make sure they represent the kind of book you’re writing. Make sure they’re with a reputable agency. If you can’t tell from their webpage (or they don’t have one), that should set off warning bells.
  2. Some conferences are so large they take the cattle-call approach to private consultations. Everyone is released at the same time in a large room and you can talk to as many as possible in a set period of time. You’ll like spend most of your time waiting, not talking. Some conferences make you pay an extra fee, per pitch. I recommend smaller or midsize conferences with reputable agents, so you know you’ll get to talk to the ideal people–and have enough time to have a real conversation. Plan to spend maybe 10% or your allotted time actually pitching. Spend the rest of the time listening. Go in with smart questions, things you need to know. Even if they don’t take you on, what would they recommend you do next? Instead of expecting an instant contract, view it as a learning experience, a rare opportunity for a professional consultation. Pick the brains of industry leaders. Most will be happy to talk.
  3. Give the rest of the speakers the same scrutiny. You should pick your sessions based not only on topic but also credentials. Even if the topic doesn’t address your primary need, a knowledgable speaker can impart information you may well find useful. Look for people who know what they’re talking about. If an opportunity for a chance conversation comes along, be prepared with questions. Don’t ask the obvious, stuff you could Google. Dig deeper. Take notes. Buy recordings. Then put the information into practice immediately, before you’ve had time to forget it.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that when I plan my conference, I only bring in agents I would be happy to have as my own, and I only choose speakers who are knowledgeable and know how to impart that knowledge. And I am always available to make sure people make contact with the people they want to see (or get anything else they need). I mother-hen the whole shebang, doing my best to make sure everyone is happy and everyone gets the tools they need to succeed. If you have any questions about the conference (OKC, Sept 22-24), feel free to email me: willbern@gmail.com.

You can register here: https://www.rose.edu/content/business-community/community-learning-center/writers-symposium-2017/

Modern Publishing 101: Traditional Publishing

Once upon a time–like when I started in 1991–traditional publishing was virtually the only game in town. If you wanted to get into bookstores–and you did, because that was the primary place books sold–you needed a publisher, the bigger the better. Unfortunately, that meant you needed an agent, who would take 10-20% of your share, so you could get a publisher, who would retain 85-96% of the proceeds from the sale of your book. Unless they paid you a flat fee, in which case they kept it all.

Today we have many options, and I’ll be discussing all of them in this series of blog posts. But I’m starting with traditional publishing, because it still exists, and some argue it’s still the most desirable, or at least the most prestigious. (I’m not saying I agree. I’m just reporting.) The Big Five NYC publishers lead the pack, but there are many other prestigious publishers that have national distribution, and beyond that, many regional, small, and university presses.

Getting a contract with a big publisher is supposed to be the aspiring writer’s dream, but that dream is more like a nightmare if no one can find your book, or sales are poor, or they edit it poorly or give it a silly title or an embarrassing cover (fyi, I’ve had all of the above). But let’s say you’ve got your heart set on traditional publishing. Here are the essential steps:

1) Accurately categorize your book

2) Find an appropriate literary agent

3) Prepare your submission materials (query letter, synopsis, etc.)

4) Submit

Accurate categorization is critical. Even if you think your work is too deep and complex to be pigeonholed, you must be able to tell people what it is or you will never sell it. Presentation materials differ from different kinds of books. For instance, nonfiction writers can pitch with a proposal, but fiction writers will need a completed manuscript. Agents tend to specialize in certain fields, as do editors. You must know what your book it is to find the right business partner. The Big Five do best with genre fiction (romance, mystery/thriller, SF, YA), and nonfiction with a strong hook or concept that could appeal to a large audience. You are unlikely to sell the Big Five books over 120,000 words, poetry, short story collections, memoirs (unless you’re famous), literary or experimental fiction. A smaller or regional press, however, might be interested (and might not require an agent).

If you want to be published by the Big Five, you will need an agent. If your project is unlikely to draw a decent advance, an agent will probably not be interested. Today, you have the advantage of using the net to obtain info about agents, and you may be able to query them online, too. The best sources for agent information are: WritersMarket.com, PublishersMarketplace.com (useful, but subscription required), AgentQuery.com, QueryTracker.net, and for the literary market, Duotrope.com (also requires a subscription). You can even hire someone to find appropriate agents and publishers for you. Visit Grad Student Freelancers.

While you’re researching literary agents, find out what they want to see, because it varies. All will want a query letter, a one-page pitch letter, though today it can usually be sent by email, or possibly pasted into an interface on a webpage. You will also probably need a synopsis for a novel (1-2 pages long), sample chapters, or a proposal (especially if this is nonfiction).

And then it’s time to submit. Don’t expect a fast response. Prominent agents receive about 300 queries a week. If you get no response, you probably need to improve your premise (read Promising Premise) or rewrite your query to make it more engaging. If people ask for a manuscript but then decline, there’s something wrong with your manuscript. Come to a writing seminar or retreat and we’ll see what we can do about that.

How long should you keep querying? Obviously, there’s no set answer here. How much can you stand? I will tell you this. I sent my first novel out, over a period of about three years, and it was rejected hundreds of times by agents or publishers. No, I am not exaggerating. I heard that it was boring, unbelievable, and poorly written. And then Random House/Ballantine bought it and sold half a million copies in the first three months.

So now you know why I tell my students to be persistent. Never give up. You’ve never been trying too long.

But if traditional publishing isn’t working for you, you might consider the alternatives. I’ll post about that next time.

Myth #3: Writing is Easy if You’re Any Good at It

Alternately, I could have titled this post something like, If you think writing is hard, you must not have any talent–because that’s how I often hear people phrase this idea at conferences and retreats. Either way, it’s completely untrue, though I can see how people might come to believe it.

It’s easy to become discouraged when the words aren’t flowing right, when you’re stuck in a fictional morass, when you know there’s something wrong but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. It’s particularly easy to become discouraged early in your writing career, because until you’ve got some practice under your belt, the work is never as good as you want it to be. I’ve read wonderful books all my life, you think. Why can’t I write one?

Here’s the reality: Writing is hard. I’m not sure why, but it is. Like all acts of artistic endeavor, creating something out of nothing is challenging. There may be other things that are as hard, but I don’t think there’s anything harder. We rarely have any trouble expressing ourselves verbally. So why is it so hard to put words down on paper? Perhaps a neurologist could explain it. I can’t, but I know it’s true. My next novel (Challengers of the Dust, out September 9) will be my 43rd book. So at this point, you might imagine I have this writing thing down, right? Wrong. It’s still a struggle. The first draft is always a fight to wrestle onto paper, and even then I’m typically so dissatisfied with it that I bury my face in my hands and think, When did I forget how to write?

Of course, the secret is to not stop there. Take a brief break, and then start on the next draft. Each time, if you’re putting in your maximum effort and working consistently, you should begin to see improvement. This is what writing is all about (and also the subject of my most recent Red Sneaker book, Excellent Editing). Your first draft will never be publishable. Writing is a process–and no steps in that process can be skipped without diminishing the final product. Good writing is the result of relentless editing and revision and reconsideration.

I will say this–I do believe that with practice you may find writing getting, not easier, but a bit faster. That is, once you have your writing process down cold, you may find the time it takes to produce a first-rate book decreasing. It will never be fast, but it may become faster. What causes some experienced authors to be labeled “prolific” is not that they find writing easy but rather that they’ve made writing a daily habit and they’ve got their process down.

So if you’re out there thinking, writing is so hard for me, I must be a terrible writer–you’re wrong. Writing is hard for everyone. You may need more practice. The more you do, the quicker it will get. Just don’t give up. Don’t become discouraged. And whenever you have an opportunity to learn more about this challenging quest you’ve undertaken, go for it.

One more note about the forthcoming Rose State Writers Conference: This year, for the first time ever, a VIP Dinner will precede the Friday night program. This will give you a chance to dine with and have photos taken with the Guests of Honor. Since there’s food involved, there’s an additional charge, but I encourage you to take this opportunity to rub shoulders with the people you hope to emulate. You might even have some fun!

Excellent Editing link

Rose State Writers Conference link

What’s Really Going On in Publishing

If you keep up with the publishing “news,” you may be confused by recent contradictory indicators. Some sources claim that eBook sales are declining, but any popular-fiction authors who’ve looked at their royalty statements lately sees a different story. The NYTimes consistently suggests that Amazon is the Antichrist and destroying literature, but a growing number of independent authors credit Amazon for the ability to work without a corporate overlord. Who’s right?

Good numbers are hard to come by in the book world, because the Big Five  play their cards close and Amazon won’t release sales figures at all. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe the statistics coming from AuthorEarnings.com are, while perhaps not perfect, the most reliable statistics we have. Why? Because by using computer data-gathering bugs to collect sales information, they take into account Amazon sales, which is currently more than 50% of all books sold in the US and about 75% of all eBooks. Those articles about eBook sales declining are based upon data from the AAP or Neilsen–so they include the Big Five but not Amazon. EBook sales are declining at the Big Five, because they’ve raised their prices, which you’ll recall they fought hard for the right to do. At Amazon, the far bigger share of the pie, eBook sales and independent authors are increasing.

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So gross unit sales are rising, but…

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…the books that are selling are increasingly those from independent authors, not the Big Five. The Big Five have (somewhat) larger gross profits, due to the higher prices, but of course most of that money does not end up in the hands of authors:

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As a group, independent authors are taking home more money than Big Five authors. Remember, an independent author can claim a 70% royalty at Amazon, whereas a traditionally published author will get somewhere between 4-15%. So you can sell far fewer books but still take home more money.

I urge you to visit AuthorEarnings.com, read the report, and draw your own conclusions. Read May 2016 Author Earnings Report: the Definitive Million-Title Study of US Author Earnings.