Have you ever thought about Edgar Allan Poe's influence on our feelings for month of October? In last October's newsletter, we focused on Poe's poem, "The Raven." Our topic for this October's newsletter and the theme for this writing tip is "one's greatest fear," and how exploiting it can add tension and suspense to your writing, no matter the genre. A lesser known poem, "Ulalume," takes Poe's readers directly to a cemetery-on Halloween. No wonder fear and Poe go hand in hand.
I'm writing a mystery about a private detective who suffers from PTS disorder and has fallen on hard times. Because he refuses to deal with his troubled emotions, he loses his wife, his job, and his swanky apartment in mid-town Manhattan. He struggles to hold on to his self respect and pull himself out of the gutter. His greatest fear is failure. This is also the theme of the story. I utilize his fear as often as I can, increasing the tension by having him make one bad decision after another, and making his failure seem imminent.
Here are some other examples:
Nevada Barr's mystery, Burn, is the story about a woman searching for her two young daughters who are missing. Her greatest fear is not finding them.
In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving's title character's greatest fear is that his best friend will be drafted and sent to Vietnam.
In the short story, "The Pit and the Pendulum," Poe's main character is about to suffer a horrific death: being sliced in two by a razor-sharp pendulum. Poe masterfully ramps up the fear and tension by describing what the character anticipates and experiences through all five senses.
A good practice is to look for characters' greatest fears in every book you read. When you write, ask yourself at the start of each chapter, "What's the worst that can happen?"
My greatest childhood fear on Halloween was someone dropping heavy fruit into my bag, causing it to rip and spill all the candy. Talk about trick or treat!
Last month I compared a story's setting to "icing on a cake." But what about the cake itself? Plotting, structuring, and manipulating the story of a novel is, for me, like making a multi-layer cake.
Step One: Formulate the Idea
Since I am a pantser (a writer who plots by the seat of her pants), I start with an idea, then a first sentence, an image of a character, or a snippet of dialogue. As the story unfolds, much changes as more ideas surface. The plot of my second Kate Caraway mystery, A Two Horse Town, came about when I was daydreaming while driving through the Arkansas county side. Suddenly eighty-two-year-old Ida Springfield appeared and began telling me her story. I had the plot outlined by the end of the week.
Step Two: Check the Direction
Once I know where I'm headed, I take a close look at the plot, subplots, characters, and setting, making sure they complement one another and take up the appropriate amount of the story. The theme (what the story is about) is nailed down in a word or a phrase. Then, in a sentence or two, I follow with the premise (the message I want to convey to the reader).
Here are two examples:
Ernest Hemingway's theme in Old Man of the Sea is courage.
The premise is "a person can be destroyed but not defeated."
The importance of faith is the theme in John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.
The premise is "Owen Meany believes that he God's instrument and Owen sets out to fulfill the fate."
Step Three: Check for Subtleties
I list all the red herrings-maybe even adding one or two-and make sure they don't reveal too much. I also make sure the foreshadowing and backstory moves the plot forward without muddying the waters. Run Dog Run begins with the backstory, but only hints at its effect on the main character. This thread runs through the entire series. It doesn't bog down the main story.
Step Four: Tie Up Loose Ends
Because I plot as I go, I often head in different directions. If I have a scene that goes nowhere, I have to add to it or eliminate it. I look at all my characters. Are they necessary? Does their presence have conclusion? For example, in a work-in-progress, I've introduced a new character. His presence led to an important scene. Then I realized he's barely mentioned again, so I had to bring his presence to conclusion.
Step Five: Check for Originality, and Punch-Up Descriptions
I check for clichés, overused metaphors, and similes, replacing them with my own. Descriptions should be visceral and not mundane.
"The smell of fruitcake hit us in the face like a Christmas nightmare," is more descriptive than "The smell of fruitcake was nauseating."
Or this one: "She forced her feet into a pair of shoes that were too small." That's easy to imagine. But this etches the image into the reader's mind: "Her pudgy feet spilled over a pair of tiny pink pumps-resembling dough rising over the side of a bowl."
Step Six: Check Strong and Weak Words
Writing teacher Jessica Morrell says it best: "Every word in every sentence needs a job. If it doesn't have a job, fire it." This involves shortening dialogue, eliminating unnecessary adverbs and strengthening verbs. It doesn't matter what genre you're writing, your story must have action, suspense, and tense scenes. The scenes should contain the most emphatic words at the end of the sentence. In a scene from Murder at the Driskill, Sydney is chasing a bad guy and finds herself in a dark warehouse.
"I stood between a headless man and a rabbit whose nose twitched to the beat of my pounding heart. Dracula's image reflected off the blade of a guillotine".
Step Seven: Enhancing the Writing
First and last sentences of every scene and chapter should be checked for their strength to keep the reader turning pages. Make sure the transitions are clear.
Here's how chapter one ended and chapter two began in David Baldacci's thriller, The Last Mile:
Staring at the floor now, Skinny Glasses said, "There's been an unexpected development in your case. Your execution's been called off."
He was still dressed in his white jumpsuit with the warning on the back, but something else was missing.
Step Eight: Conduct a Word Hunt
Search for words consistently overused (like, also, when, as, then, just, really), words often misused (doing for going and vice-versa; there, their, or they're; for, of, or from; my or me). Search for words spellcheck can't catch (burden and bourbon). I made this mistake several times in one of my stories; the editor didn't catch it either.
Once these writing steps are complete, I have a working draft. It's good enough to share with my writers' critique group, a beta reader, proofreader, copy editor and line editor, but not ready for public consumption.
If you want to make a cake that will win a baking contest, you have to put it through several trials and tests. If you want to see your book on a bookstore shelf, you have to do the same. You can't have your cake and eat it too, but you can write your book and have it published.