Authors Aren’t Normal!
(Ten writing tips that could make you one of us.)
By Jordan Dane
I’m here to confess that as an author, I’m not a well person. Bad men speak to me in my head—and I like it. I scare myself all the time. It’s my job. Who says crime doesn’t pay? And I openly admit that I torture fabricated people with my computer keyboard. In short, what lands most people behind prison bars can put me on a fictional happy train.
That’s because suspense authors don’t think like normal people. We have a warped sense of reality and of what’s funny. I play deviant games of “what if” scenarios in my head, like what if the Internet could melt your brain and make it seep out of your ears? Or what if coffee shops dispensed mind-altering lattes or espresso was discovered as the sole source of global warming? In the world of fiction, these things can happen. But once you get the great idea for a suspense novel, what’s next? And how can you pull it all together enough to interest a publisher?
For aspiring authors everywhere, I’ve put together TEN TIPS that I hope you’ll find useful in crafting your book. Add a little pace and structure to your brilliant plot and you may join the ranks of published authors who are borderline psychotics, like me. Everyone has got to have goals.
Start with a BANG!
Start your book with the moment that changes the character’s life forever or throw the reader into the middle of action, using all their senses. Shorter sentences will also add tension when your character is holding a ticking time bomb, but stick with the action and be patient with dropping mystery clues. For suspense, action sequences are not the time to introduce back-story or a lot of description. You’ll have time to explain later. If your character is ducking gunfire, avoid telling the reader about his misspent youth or describing the posh setting that he’s about to bleed over.
Something Bad is Coming
Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock pioneered many film techniques in suspense and psychological thriller genres. He believed suspense didn’t have much to do with fear, but was more the anticipation of something bad about to happen. When I read this, it was a HUGE epiphany for me. The idea changed how I thought about scene and chapter endings. I even re-chaptered one of my books—without changing much of the actual wording—to give it that sense of anticipation. It really helped with the pace and without much effort. As an author, you’re tempted to escort the reader to the end of the scene, but I’m here to say, resist the temptation. Don’t be afraid to leave them in the middle of the action. (Remember the movie scene where the woman is about to open the door and everyone in the theatre screams, “DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!” And of course, she always does.) Don’t give the reader a chance to put down your novel at the end of a chapter. Hook them into turning the page. Give them a sense of foreshadowing or plant the seed of a red herring to sustain the pace. And tease them with things to come.
Enter Late & Leave Early
Enter Late, Leave Early (ELLE) is a concept that maintains pace and transition in the scene of a book and leaves the reader wanting more. ENTER LATE refers to starting a scene in the middle of the action, such as a cop already at the murder scene staring down at the body, not a scene that shows him or her driving over to the crime. LEAVE EARLY refers to a scene ending that foreshadows something or raises a question or creates more of a mystery, not showing the detectives driving back to the police station. Quick snippets of plot suggest pace and movement. The reader’s mind will fill in the gaps on what happened in between. (Note: This principle does not apply to dialogue. Don’t make the reader guess what your characters are talking about. Start at the beginning of the dialogue for clarity.)
Torture your Characters
Yes, you read this right. Torture your characters. It’s legal and fun. Make the reader understand why you chose your character to be the star of your novel. In suspense, they have to rise to the occasion—even if they are an average Joe or Josephine—and go up against insurmountable odds.
No One Likes a Cheater
Don’t rely on surprise suspects or miraculous databases to add twists to your plot. That’s cheating. We all laugh when a TV crime show or movie can process DNA analysis in seconds or the crime scene technicians have access to amazing databases that don’t exist. Such inventive technology allows the TV detectives to wrap up the show in minutes, but that’s not how it works in the real world. Don’t get lazy with your research and don’t resort to “cheating” with technology. There are no short cuts to a solid plot with well-motivated characters.
Pile it on, Baby!
Conflicts add drama. Put up roadblocks and heap on the complications by capitalizing on the internal and external conflicts within your character. Force a guy afraid of heights to scale a tower to save a child. Or compel a shy, timid woman to pick up an AK-47 and shoot her way out to rescue her family. And give your characters baggage the reader can relate to. Force your character out of their comfort zone with emotional obstacles that enable them to do amazing things and become a real star in your book. (Remember that torture is good in fiction. Say it aloud until you believe it, “Torture is good.” It’s liberating.) Action by itself can be boring if you don’t add the right balance of human struggle into a story.
Escalate the Stakes & Make it Personal
In good suspense, the stakes intensify. And as an author, you want your reader to feel a physical excited reaction when they read your book. To do this, it helps to put a face on the victim. In my book, EVIL WITHOUT A FACE, a 17-year old girl is lured from home by an online predator pretending to be another young girl. You’ve heard this story before, but I catapult a troubled Alaskan family into a massive global conspiracy with the clock ticking. A tangle of unlikely heroes attacks this conspiracy from different angles and they converge in a fight for their lives. The conspiracy is far reaching, it’s deadly, and because one young girl is caught up in a web of lies—it’s personal.
Tick Tock Goes the Clock
Give your characters a deadline—a race against time—then shorten the timetable. The story is even more compelling when you force your character to make really tough decisions. Make them do the one thing they would NEVER do with an unthinkable consequence looming as the clock is ticking. I’m breathless just thinking about it (or maybe that’s just a hot flash).
Everyone Loves a Big Finish
If you build up the hype on your book, give the reader a big finish. Don’t disappoint them with an ending that doesn’t live up to expectation. And tie up the lose ends for reader satisfaction. I’m not only referring to the clues being resolved, but the emotional journey should be tied up too.
Restore the world? That’s up to YOU
Redemption at the end of a book can be good and uplifting. I like the idea of restoring the world that an author creates, but it doesn’t always have to be the same world. Crime affects people in a bad way and it radiates out like ripples on still water with many more people affected—from the victim to the family survivors to cops investigating the case. Don’t be afraid to show the aftermath.
In closing, I’d like to warn you that everyone will feel obliged to offer advice on your book. Heed what fits and don’t be afraid to reject what doesn’t. You’re in control. It’s your book. And we’ve all heard the phrase “Write what you know,” but I think it should be “Write what you fear…what you love…what you hate.” Writing what you know is too limiting. That’s where solid research comes in, but writing about emotion is something we all can do. Conveying emotion in our writing will resonate with readers. And only YOU can tell a story filtered through your life’s experiences.
I know by now you’re thinking that I really love what I do. For the sake of my mental health, I’m conflicted, I suppose. Weighing the strange consequences of being an author has not been easy. But I’m optimistic that I can strike a balance and retain the sanity I have left—or be forced to find a whole new set of friends.
Please feel free to post questions on anything you’ve read in this session. I’ll respond during the week of Oct 11-17th. But for those who don’t have specific questions, please share your thoughts on any of these questions:
1. What was the last book you read that you couldn’t put down—and tell us why?
2. As a reader, do you expect books to have a happy ending? And does that usually entail the boy gets the girl or vice-versa?
Copyright Material – Jordan Dane