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.

What Writers Learned in 2017

When the calendar reboots it always seems like time to reassess and plan for the future. I know, this was a month ago, but the new year never sinks in with me until: 1) I’ve remembered to start writing “2018” on checks, which  takes weeks, and 2) all my 1099s arrive–the definitive word on what worked and what didn’t. So in this blog I’m going to discuss what we learned in 2017, and in the next blog, I’ll make my annual forecasts about what we can expect in the future.

What We Learned In 2017:

  1. Audiobooks Are Still Hot. In fact, they are the fastest growing segment of publishing, and have been for several years running. Don’t believe me? See for yourself here. If you haven’t got an audio edition of your work, you are literally leaving money on the table. Every year at my writers conference we’ve had someone speak on how to produce your own audiobooks professionally and affordably. This is critical information. In today’s world, it’s just as important as knowing how to use a word processor.
  2. Bookstores Are Not Hot. Which is not to say they are unimportant. Just less so. We have one national bookstore chain and it appears to be in financial distress. The Nook and its associated ebook businesses have declined for years. (Forbes says B&N has lost $1.3 billion on the Nook.) B&N says they are now focusing on the core business–books–but when I go in, I see lots of games and toys and magazines and coffee and CDS and DVDs. If B&N crumbles, what then? Brick-and-mortar retailing appears to be steadily failing, replaced by online buying. Some say bookstore sales only account for 7-10% of the total market.
  3. The Indie Market May Be Maturing. Some people are making money with independent or self-publishing (click here for details), and that will increase in the years to come. CreateSpace controls 80% of the print-on-demand market. It’s growing while its competitors (Lulu, Smashwords, etc.) decline. Overall, ISBN purchases have declined, which could mean  that fewer people are publishing–or fewer people are bothering with the print edition (eBooks do not require ISBNs at KindleDirect). A lot of fly-by-night operations are closing, which may make it easier for writers to know what to do and how to do it. I will write more on indie success techniques later this year.
  4. Wattpad is Profitable. Wattpad received a $40 million cash infusion from a Chinese retailer. They’ve also partnered with Hachette for audiobooks and offered a premium “no-ads” subscription. They generated 20 million in advertising revenue, a big increase over the previous year. Wattpad Studios is developing film projects. The point being, if you think of Wattpad as just a place where adolescent girls publish fan fiction, think again. Serious writing careers are being launched at Wattpad.
  5. Traditional Publishing Can’t Launch a Bestseller. Yet again, NY publishing failed to produce a single breakout hit. The bestselling novels last year were 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, neither new books, surging due to television and current events, not NYC marketing. Which does not mean publishers aren’t making any money. But the stories about eBook sales declining are nonsense, not borne out by any statistical analysis that includes Amazon, where self-published eBooks are about 40% of all unit sales. Traditional publishers are responsible for “just over half of paid ebook downloads” (Publishers Marketplace). And that doesn’t consider all the online “borrowing” that takes place through Kindle Unlimited.
  6. Readers still love reading and still love books.

That last one is, of course, the most important. That’s why we bother.

Made plans to attend the Red Sneaker Writers Conference yet? Register in February and the entry fee for all contests is waived. Stay at the conference hotel and save another $50 off registration. Click here for details.

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/