New Year, New Goals, New Look?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Welcome to 2015! 

I greeted the new year in with a literal ‘bang’ as we had heating problems in our newly renovated basement and three water pipes froze and burst – so as far as I’m concerned this year can only get better:) 

Here at the TKZ, we are looking forward to a wonderful, productive, challenging year ahead for all our writing. We are also constantly looking forward to ways we can improve our blog to meet our growing readership. There have been many changes in the publishing industry since our blog’s inception in 2008 and we have been thrilled to see our readership continue to climb over the years. 

Given these changes, however, it is important for us to take a moment to reflect on our blog’s mission and the direction TKZ should take in the years ahead. 

So we thought we would take this opportunity to ask you for feedback on our blog’s direction in 2015. We know that to keep current, relevant and useful, we need to continually assess and refine both our mission as well as our content. So we’d love your thoughts and feedback on:

  • Our mission, focus and posts: We’ve noticed a shift in the blog’s direction towards focusing on the craft of writing and the issues facing aspiring as well as professional writers. Typically our blog posts focus on practical advice on writing craft as well as providing personal accounts and experiences that touch upon our writing.  Would you like to see us delve more deeply into other areas or industry trends? Would you like to see more on promotion, marketing, editorial advice or ‘indie’ publishing? 

  • Further blog contributions/guest posts: Since we now have a professional editor (thanks Jodie!) in our midst as well as professional writers spanning many genres, we were thinking about adding other professionals into the mix. Would you be interested in hearing from other perspectives (a literary agent perhaps?) on a more regular basis? Are there any other people you’d like to see providing guest posts? 

  • Other TKZ offerings: It would be great to also receive feedback on the value of critiques and other participation offerings we could potentially provide. Are our first page critiques helpful? Would you like to see more or less of these kind of offerings on our blog?

  • The ‘look and feel’ of the TKZ: We are tossing up alternative templates to give the blog a better ‘look and feel’ and any feedback on this would be greatly appreciated. We are definitely hoping to create a new look and feel for 2015, so keep a look out for the changes ahead!
Thank-you TKZers for all your comments, feedback and support over the last six years. Here’s to many more!

Emotional Resonance

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’ve been reading a great book on writing for children and YA called ‘Writing Irresistible KidLit‘ by Mary Kole and, apart from wishing I’d read it a little earlier (for it encapsulates all the elements that make any novel great), I was particularly interested in the comments surrounding the need for emotional resonance. Kole writes that when she puts down most manuscripts or submissions she’s left wondering “And? So what?” She notes that all too often a book fails to create sufficient emotional resonance to make the reader care – and all too often this is because the writer hasn’t built in enough conflict.

Just a few weeks ago I experienced the exact thing Kole was writing about. I was only a couple of chapters into the final instalment in a very popular YA trilogy when I put down the book and thought “So what?” The story had totally lost any kind of emotional resonance for me.There was no longer any conflict that I cared about between the characters, and (as a result) I couldn’t be bothered continuing to read. To be fair, I did keep reading but I found myself skimming the pages until the end hoping that there would be a point at which I became reinvested in the story. 
There wasn’t.

Often when we talk about the craft of writing we focus on elements such as characterisation, setting, style, plot and structure. Embedded within all of these are the need to establish a strong voice and the need to make a reader care enough to keep turning the pages. However the issue of emotional resonance can be just as tricky to explain as the concept of ‘voice’ in some one’s writing. You know it when you see it, just as you know when it’s not there – but it can be a pretty difficult concept to wrangle to the ground.

So, mulling over this rather slippery concept of emotional resonance, I thought of a few key elements, namely:

  • High stakes for characters that have believable motivations and emotions;
  • High conflict between these characters, who face life changing events that a reader cannot help but become invested in; and
  • A greater (‘bigger’) question that touches upon core emotional needs that readers identify can with…

Central to all of these is conflict (both between and within the characters) – which is exactly what was missing from the book I just tried to finish. As I grapple with final edits to a current WIP, I have the issue of emotional resonance now firmly in my mind. I don’t want my agent or an editor finishing it, putting it down, and saying “And? So what?”(!)

So fellow TKZers, how would you characterise emotional resonance? How do you try to achieve it in your own writing? And have you ever put down a book because (like me) you found yourself saying “So what?”…

Bait and Switch Tactics

Bait and Switch Tactics are a means to keep your reader on the edge of her seat with gripping fear for your characters’ lives. What you’ll want to do is isolate your characters, then write scenes in each person’s viewpoint with a cliffhanger at the end of each sequence. This only applies if you are writing from two or more characters’ points of view.

In SILVER SERENADE, my current science fiction romance, Silver is an assassin whose assignment is to kill Tyrone Bluth, the leader of a ruthless band of terrorists. Jace, a hunted criminal, needs Bluth alive to prove his innocence. In addition, Bluth has kidnapped Jace’s sister and so Jace must learn her location from the man.

Silver promises to help Jace before she kills the monster who destroyed her family. Whether or not she will hold to this promise is the basis of the romantic conflict. Silver and Jace are both after the same target but for different reasons.

In one scene, Silver and Jace confront the terrorist leader in his lair. The purpose of this scene is to deliver important information and propel the action forward. To rachet up the suspense, I’ve isolated my heroes. Here is how the scene breaks down [Spoiler Alert!]. It shows how this technique can work for genres other than mystery/suspense/thriller.

1. Jace’s viewpoint. Jace and Silver, in disguise, present themselves as new recruits for Bluth’s terrorist network. They look for their contact, Gruber, at a saloon on the planet Al’ron. While sitting at the bar, Silver shrugs off a roughneck patron who makes a play for her. The fellow insults Jace, who kills him. After this display, their contact approaches and introduces them to the bandit leader. Impressed by Jace’s quick response, Bluth says they passed the first test. He’ll take Silver with him to his headquarters, but Jace must follow them alone in his ship. Jace fears for Silver’s safety. Or worse, will she use this opportunity to assassinate Bluth and leave him behind?

2. Silver’s viewpoint. She is on a firing range at headquarters for Tyrone’s Marauders, being tested for her skills as a sharpshooter. She passes the test. Her supervisor marches her to the detention center where the evil Bluth snatches a captive child from his mother’s arms and demands Silver shoot him. Tempted to aim her laser rifle at Bluth instead, Silver manages to demonstrate her skill in a less lethal manner. During their dialogue, she learns a piece of important information. Bluth leads her away, while she wonders what’s happened to Jace who has failed to show up. Has he been caught?

3. Jace’s viewpoint. Jace’s cover has been blown, and Bluth arrives to torture him in his prison cell. Bluth questions him about his contact, Gruber. Was Gruber duped by Jace, or is he a willing accomplice? Jace turns the interrogation around when he learns where his sister is being held and also gains news on urgent political issues. What chills him more is Bluth’s boast that Silver waits for him in his chamber, unaware the pirate knows her true identity.

4. Silver’s viewpoint: Silver seeks to rescue Jace. In the hallway, she hears approaching footsteps. She opens the nearest unlocked door and slips inside a stranger’s quarters. He turns out to be a financial officer for Bluth. After rendering him unconscious, Silver copies data from his computer. This information may help prove Jace’s innocence and may also help them cut off Bluth’s funding at its source. But this data will only be useful if she can escape the complex. How can she reach the detention center and free Jace?

5. Jace’s viewpoint: Guards arrive to march him from his cell, and he figures he’s marked for execution.

And so on. You get the idea? When I began this scene, I had no idea how it would play out. The sequences developed as I wrote, but each time I was in one character’s head, I left them at a critical juncture. Hopefully this will induce you, the reader, to keep turning pages to see what happens next.

In summary, to increase suspense, isolate your main characters and leave each one in jeopardy or fearing for the other’s safety at the end of each sequence. Switch back and forth, until they meet again. This technique has been used successfully in many thrillers, and you can deploy it for your story as well. Hook your readers and reel them in!

For more info on Silver Serenade, go to‑j‑cohen‑m‑831.html

Co-Writing Dreams and Nightmares

by Michelle Gagnon

On our Open Tuesday discussion this week, someone asked about co-writing. Joe Moore is our resident expert on the subject, so he can elaborate on the positive aspects of that type of collaboration. Today I’ll outline the alternate scenario, when it doesn’t go particularly well.

I have a close friend who has always wanted to be a writer. Over drinks one night, she proposed that we work on a project together. I’d had a screenplay idea milling around the back of my mind for awhile, and it seemed like an ideal project to tackle together. After all, screenplays are shorter than novels, primarily dialogue, and can be easily divided up into individual scenes. We sat down and hashed out the plot over the course of a few days, decided which scenes each of us would tackle, and set to work.

Within a week I had most of my scenes written. My friend stalled: stuff to do around the house, she hadn’t been able to find time…understandable. A few weeks later, after I pressed again, she came back with a single scene.

And it was terrible. Really, truly, awful. All the characters sounded alike- in fact, they all sounded like her. The dialogue was clunky and forced, the jokes fell flat. It was a mess. Not unsalvagable, mind you, but rough.

Now, I don’t claim to be the best writer out there–far from it. But I suddenly realized that while I’d spent the past decade writing nearly every day, learning what worked and what didn’t, and being heavily edited by pros, she had not. The scene felt like something handed in for a freshman writing class–which, essentially, it was. It threw me, because I didn’t know how to handle it. I realized that this project wasn’t going to be a few weeks of work that I could sneak in between book deadlines, but would require months of tough conversations and editing.

In the end, we abandoned the idea.

And here’s what I came away with. If you are going to work with a collaborator, ideally it should be someone as dedicated to the craft and on roughly the same writing level as you are. At nearly every cocktail party I’ve attended in the past decade, someone declares that someday, they’re going to write a book. Most people think they’re capable of such a thing, if only they could find the time. The truth is, there are people who have worked demanding full time jobs, raised small children, and found the time. Heather Graham used to type one-handed while she cradled a baby in her other arm. Allison Brennan worked late at night after her kids had gone to bed. Khaled Hosseini worked at 5AM before his family woke up and he had to head to the hospital for work.

Given time and effort, my friend might turn out to be a great writer. The ideas she came up with during our brainstorming sessions were fantastic, things I never would have thought of. The problem was that she lacked the experience to translate those ideas, and, worse yet, didn’t have the drive to work on it every day. And without that drive, and the understanding that what we do is not easy but requires a serious dedication of time and effort (and a thick skin), it simply won’t happen.

I’m about to undertake another co-writing project on a screenplay. This time, I’ll be working with a friend who has written several scripts, and had one produced. I’ll admit to some trepidation regardless–after all, she is a friend, and nothing can strain a friendship like working together in any field. But I’m hoping that this time things will go more smoothly.

Just Go

James Scott Bell

I love writing about the craft of fiction. I love it because I had to teach myself how to write back when I was being told writing could not be learned. I had come to believe that (about 90% of me, anyway) because I’d taken a workshop in college with Raymond Carver, and I couldn’t do what he did. I didn’t really know that what he was doing (literary short stories) was clearly different from the kind of thing I wanted to do (e.g., Raymond Chandler). I just thought I didn’t have what it takes to be a writer.

Anyway, you wake up one day knowing you have to figure out how to write or something inside you will wither up and die. So I set about to see if writing fiction could be learned, and I discovered it could. Along with good writing books and studying bestsellers, I started to get it. And after I got published, I started to teach it.

For me there are few things as enjoyable as learning a new technique, or getting a different perspective on an old one.

It’s kind of like golf. Golfers are always tinkering with their game, trying things out, seeing what works. It can begin, if you don’t watch it, to drive you a little bit mad. As you’re getting ready to tee off, you might find yourself thinking of the 22 most important things at point of impact– and immediately freeze up.

Which brings me to the point of this post. When you write, you have to write freely. You can’t let a lot of craft knowledge freeze you up.

Sometimes, those who are writing their next novel put too much stress on all the things they think they should be doing, and end up not doing much of anything.

When you write, write. And try to get a first draft done as quickly as possible. It’s best to concentrate on only a few basics and just go.

1. Make sure the stakes are high enough for the Lead. I advocate “death overhanging” as being the key to this. There are three kinds of death: physical, professional and psychological. If you look at the most popular novels out there, one or all of these are at work in the plot.

2. Make sure the opposition to the Lead is stronger than the Lead. Only then will readers truly be “worried” enough to read on.

3. Make sure your individual scenes are packed with tension or conflict. That means you never have a scene where everything is hunky-dory. At all times, in some way or other, there is worry, fear or outright confrontation.

And that’s about it. There will be more work to be done, of course. Especially upon revision. But as you go through your first draft, let these fundamentals guide you. Don’t freeze up thinking about myriad things.

Just go.

It’s between writing stints that you study and learn and adjust. A good golf teacher will tell you never to work on your swing in the middle of a round. Finish the round, and then go over to the practice tee and work on things. Review your fundamentals and if need be consult a teaching professional.

Keep learning, keep practicing, but when you write, write like it’s play. Get caught up in what you’re doing.

You writers out there, what do you concentrate on when getting that first draft down?

Constructive Criticism & Incandescent Rage

by Michelle Gagnon

The first time I heard Lee Child speak, he discussed how he reacts to his editor’s comments on each manuscript. Lee claims to initially go “incandescent with rage.” He closes the email, fumes for a bit, then goes back and reads it again a day or so later. And the second time, he sees some of what the editor is talking about.

I think this is a common reaction of writers everywhere. How dare someone criticize your baby? Clearly they just didn’t get it. But I’ll tell you what- the difference between an author who gets published, and one who doesn’t ever sell that manuscript, frequently correlates directly to how that author processes and responds to constructive criticism.

Which is not to say that the editor is always right. I generally retool the manuscript based on approximately three-quarters of my editor’s comments. It’s one of the reasons I use up to ten beta readers for each book. If one person says something, and it doesn’t strike a chord with you, it might be just their impression (one example: for my upcoming novel KIDNAP AND RANSOM, my editor noted that the book, “doesn’t depict Mexico in a very favorable light.” And she’s right- it doesn’t, mainly because the bulk of it is set in the poorest slums in Mexico City. So that one I dismissed outright).

But if more than one beta reader reacts to something, that usually means it necessitates a change. For the same book, the majority of my readers (among them, my esteemed fellow bloggers) thought that there was a coincidence in the book that was just too darn convenient. And going back through it, I realized they were right. There had to be a better way to move the plot forward. In the end, I rewrote over two-thirds of the book based on feedback. And the end product was a stronger, more believable storyline (I hope).

This came up recently when I reviewed a manuscript for a friend from a local writing group who is struggling to get their first book published. I sent a detailed assessment of what I thought the strengths and weaknesses of the story were, bearing in mind what I know from experience editors respond negatively to. The writer’s reaction surprised me (particularly since I had more positive than negative comments). I received detailed responses to each negative note, arguments for why this scene and that character had to be in there.

Now, it’s this author’s choice to keep or discard whatever they like- after all, it is their book, and their name on the cover if it ever gets published. Sadly, unless at least a few of those changes are made, I suspect it will continue to garner rejections.

What I realized early on was that when an agent responded to a submission with a rejection, but also provided a response detailing why they rejected it, it was important to take note. A form letter rejection is one thing. If they bother to let you know what in particular prevented them from signing you, it means that you’re actually very close. I see the same thing in my critique group. When someone writes something that is a hot mess, few people say anything. The author invariably (and wrongly) takes this as proof that what they’re holding in their hands is perfect. The truth is, people say less when something is unsalvageable. When a heated debate begins, or everyone agrees on the salient strengths and weaknesses, the author has come close to hitting their mark.

So, going back to Jim’s “before you submit” post…before you send out that first stream of submissions, pass the manuscript along to people you trust. Aim for folks who you know will be hard on it (sometimes that means avoiding friends and family). Listen to what they say. Feel free to go incandescent with rage for a few days, then sit back down and read their responses more closely. And make those changes: kill those darlings, cut that exposition, come up with better ways for events to transpire. No manuscript ever suffered from revision-the more you change it, in general, the better it will become.

Relationship Driven

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After last week’s mini-discussion about character-driven versus plot-driven novels (and the difficulty involved in distinguishing one from t’other) I started thinking about what really gets me hooked in a good book. Sure I like characters that I can care about and plots that keep me turning the page, but what I most often find keeps me glued to the page is the evolving relationships in a book.

I admit, I’m a hopeless romantic, but when I speak of relationships I don’t necessarily mean the lovey-dovey kind. For me, I want to see the sparks fly on all kinds of levels – because (as far as I’m concerned) it’s conflict and thwarted objectives that make relationships between characters come to life. I just finished a very light regency era mystery/romance which disappointed on the relationship level precisely because the conflict was never really evident between the two main protagonists (that and the fact that I had to wade through pages and pages of the most ‘awesome sex ever’ escapades which defied belief). This got me thinking about what I look for in a novel when it comes to the critical relationships in the story.

One of the key relationships we often look for in a good thriller is between the antagonist and the protagonist – whether it’s a serial killer and an FBI agent or a police officer and his suspect, I want to become invested in a real ‘cat and mouse game’. I want to see a relationship develop between these two opposites that intrigues as well as satisfied. If only one of these characters is sufficiently interesting to hold my attention then no matter how much this character might drive the plot, I will probably still feel let down.

Of course, many times I am looking for a good romance to develop alongside the mystery, and this is where (in my humble opinion) many mysteries and thrillers fall down. The relationship is either way too obvious and heavy-handed or so underplayed as to be totally underwhelming. I want chemistry (!) and both the promise of a romantic relationship as well as the seeds of doubt. In a mystery series the evolution of key relationships are often the most enjoyable things to watch – though as ever writer knows, once those relationships become ‘consummated’ all too often the fizz and the thrill of it all can die.

So what do you look for in terms of relationships in a thriller or a mystery? Are you like me hooked by relationships in a story? Do you enjoy seeing these evolve over a series or do you to see character relationships as ‘second fiddle’ as long as there’s a ripping yarn to be told?