Using Conflict to Build Tension

My friend Becca Puglisi is here today with a fab post about how to use conflict and tension effectively. Enjoy!

One of my favorite Aha moments as a writer came in the form of feedback from a critiquer. (Shout out to all the critique partners!) She kept writing notes in my manuscript, like Where’s the tension? and This would be a good spot to add some tension.

No tension? What’s she talking about? The main character was just abandoned by her father. Her best friend was attacked by racist pigs. The family business is about to go under. I mean, there is conflict ALL OVER the place, so how can she say there’s no tension??

After chewing on this for a while, I realized that I was confusing tension with conflict. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they aren’t necessarily the same.

Blake Snyder (Save The Cat) defines conflict like this: a character enters a scene with a goal, and standing in the way is an obstacle. That’s conflict. Maybe it’s a confrontation with an adversary, a downed tree that blocks the character’s path, the alarm not going off on the morning of an important meeting, or a temptation that triggers an internal struggle.

Conflict is whatever makes it harder for the character to achieve their goal. It’s a vital part of creating empathy in the reader as they wonder if the hero is up to the challenge.

Tension in literature is an emotional response from the reader, and conflict is one of the things that elicits it. Think of it in terms of real-life tension—that tight, stretched feeling in your belly that puts you on edge. Where conflict occurs, the character should be feeling some of that tension. If the reader feels it too, an emotional bond is forged that puts the reader more firmly in the character’s corner, rooting for them and turning pages to see if they succeed.

When conflict is done right, it should result in tension. But it doesn’t—not all the time, as my critique partner kindly pointed out. So how do we write stories that are chock full of tension? Here are four tips for making that happen.

Include Conflict in Every Scene. In each scene, your character should have a goal. If they get what they want without any opposition, where’s the fun (or tension) in that? Too many pages without conflict will result in a story that drags and readers who start wondering what’s in the fridge.

So for each scene, know what your character’s after, then add whatever will make it more difficult for them to achieve their goal. The conflict can be big and noisy (a fistfight) or quiet (the character wanting something that’s bad for them), but make sure it’s there. For ideas on possible conflict scenarios, take a look at this database at One Stop for Writers.

Employ a Variety of Conflict Scenarios. Think over the past day and take a quick inventory of all the difficulties you encountered. The list is going to be impressive (and maybe a little overwhelming). It’s going to include not only conflict of varying intensity, but scenarios that touch on different areas of life. The same should be true for our characters. Your spy protagonist is going to have lots of work-related conflict, but they’re also going to encounter relationship friction, moral temptations, power struggles, ticking clock situations, etc. Well-rounded characters should experience conflict in all areas of life. Maintain authenticity (and make things super difficult for them) by varying the conflict scenarios in your story.

Add Some Internal Conflict. While there always will be external forces working against your character, any protagonist traversing a change or failed character arc is going to struggle internally. As the story goes along, they’ll face difficulties that highlight a weakness, challenge a dysfunctional coping mechanism or flawed ideology, and push them to make the changes that will allow them to succeed. The only way they can reach that critical tipping point of meaningful change is if they struggle with their inner demons.

It’s Sarah Connor doubting her ability to become “the mother of the future.”

It’s Jason Bourne slowly realizing who he is, not knowing if he can live with the knowledge, and being unsure how to move forward.

It’s John Anderton—cop and neuroin addict—wrestling with the knowledge that the Pre-Crime program he’s devoted his career to may be flawed and even immoral.

Internal conflict is compelling to readers because they’ve been there—wrestling with questions about morality, right and wrong, identity, and a host of other things. They also know what’s at stake for the character should they fail to emerge from those internal struggles with a healthier approach to life.

Make Sure the Stakes are High Enough. We know that conflict doesn’t always result in tension, which means it won’t automatically engage readers. For readers to be unsettled and a little nervous about your character’s future, something significant needs to be at stake: a cost incurred if the protagonist fails to navigate the situation successfully.

So when you’re thinking of the consequences of failure, think in terms of stakes. Each conflict scenario needs a serious or else attached to it. To identify stakes that will greatly impact the character, consider the following:

  • Far-Reaching Stakes: those that may result in loss for many people if the protagonist fails.
  • Moral Stakes: those that threaten the character’s most foundational ideals and beliefs.
  • Primal (Death) Stakes: those involving the loss of something major, such as innocence, a relationship, a career, dream, idea, belief, reputation, or a physical life.

Stakes—even the far-reaching ones—should touch your character on some level. This gives them skin in the game by making things personal and endangering something or someone important. When the reader sees just how high the stakes are, their empathy for the character will grow, and they’ll be more engaged in the story.

We try to avoid tension in real life, but in our books? It’s absolutely vital for holding the reader’s interest. Create and maintain tension by carefully considering the conflicts in your story. Include opposition in every scene, vary the kinds of conflict your character experiences, add some internal struggles, and ensure that the stakes are impactful and you’re sure to raise your character’s blood pressure while keeping readers engaged.

For more information on the role conflict plays in storytelling and how you can use it effectively, check out The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1).

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers.

Her books have sold over 700,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that’s home to the Character Builder and Storyteller’s Roadmap tools.

Monday Tips and LOLs

I should’ve had a first page critique for you today, but it’s my birthday, you see, and I gave myself the gift of time. By that I mean, rather than juggle nine million tasks, I spent an uninterrupted Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning inside my fictional world (except for a quick trip to TKZ to read Rev’s top-notch advice about agents and JSB’s superb first page critique). Sunday afternoons I reserve for football. 😉

Most of last week I spent redesigning my website and Murder Blog. Then tweaked it to death in between working on the WIP, engaging on social media, marketing, newsletters, virtual events, updating email subscribers and SEO, etc. etc. etc. So, allowing myself to pull away from it all, crawl into my writer’s cave, and block out the world freed my soul.

Today’s dedicated to birthday shenanigans. If the sun parts the storm clouds, Bob and I will head to one of my favorite places—Squam Lakes Natural Science Center—for a relaxing stroll through the wildlife trails. It’s the simple things in life that bring the most joy. Don’t you agree?

I’ve got two writer tips to share, then let’s party with a few Monday morning laughs. Sound good? Cool, let’s do this…

NEWSLETTER TIP

If someone Unsubscribes from your email list, be sure to Archive their name. Mailchimp and other email providers still charge you whether or not that person ever receives another newsletter. You’re billed for Contacts, not Subscribers. Technically, the person who Unsubscribed is still considered a Contact. They can’t charge for Archived Contacts.

WEBSITE/BLOG TIP

Poor SEO (Search Engine Optimization), an outdated design, lost backlinks, broken links, and/or a slow or unresponsive website theme murders organic traffic. If bot crawlers aren’t happy, they might skip your site, and all the years you’ve spent writing content will be wasted. Did you know most people read blogs on handheld devices? I am not one of them, but the experts swear it’s true.

ZOOM TIP

HOUSEHOLD TIP

Umm, about five minutes ago. Did you know this?

UNEXPECTED OBSERVATION

SAD, BUT TRUE

WRITER PROBLEMS

I plead the fifth, Your Honor. 😉

AND MY PERSONAL FAVORITES

Who can relate?

Feel free to steal any of these for your social media. Hope you have an amazing week!

via GIPHY

Two Important Points for Writers

A recent conversation with my husband brought up two important points for writers to keep in mind. Rather than tell you, I’ll peel back the veil and let you eavesdrop.

Bob: Whatcha doin’?

Me: Studying forensic taphonomy. I’ve been dyin’ to dig into this field and finally gotta reason. Exciting, right?

Bob: Forensic taphonomy? Oh, sure, I know all about it. Are you just researching that now? I’ve known about it for years.

Me: Ha. Ha. Very funny.

Bob: Lemme ask ya this. Why are you studying forensic whatever-it’s-called?

Me: Forensic taphonomy. Well, I need to know it for a new character— Actually, the character’s an anthropologist, but y’know, since we only have one in the state, she delves into forensic taphonomy and forensic archaeology, as well. That part’s true, by the way, not fiction. We really do only have one forensic anthropologist in New Hampshire. Imagine how overworked she is? Anyway, since I needed to learn the field, I figured I’d write a post about it for TKZ. Y’know, two birds, one stone type o’ thing.

Bob: How far’d ya get?

Me: The post? About halfway. Wanna hear it?

Bob: Sure.

Me: Okay. Forensic taphonomy is the study of what happens to the human body after death. Specifically, how organisms decay and/or fossilize when exposed to the elements or in clandestine graves. Most of what happens to the body (and evidence) at an outdoor crime scene is the result of alteration or modification by natural agents, such as plants, animals, insects, soils, environment, gravity, and a whole range of environmental, climatic, and biotic factors.

The recognition and documentation of the specific role played by each of these natural agents becomes critical to understanding why evidence ends up where it does and why it looks the way it looks. By focusing on unusual patterns of dispersal and/or removal of evidence and/or remains, it shows investigators where or if human intervention occurred. (e.g., moving/removing remains to hide evidence).

Bob *teeing his hand*: Stop, stop, stop.

Me: What’s wrong?

Bob: Ya lost me.

Me: Which part?

Bob: Does it matter? You lost your audience.

Me: Oh. *pause* But forensic taphonomy’s a fascinating field.

Bob: For you, maybe.

Me: Since when is decomposition not fascinating? I thought you and I lived on the same page.

Bob: Honey, we do, but your audience may not appreciate your fascination with decomp and death like I do.

Me: Oh.

Bob: What’re you gonna write about?

Me: I dunno now. You ruined it.

Bob: You may wanna rethink that character, too.

Me: Why are you in my office?

Bob: Too much?

Me *glares*

Bob *backing away*: Yep, crossed a line. Okay, okay, don’t shoot. I’m goin’.

Sadly, he’s not wrong. When I read the post aloud it sounded dry. He wasn’t right about the character, though. I need her—she plays a vital role in the plot—but I may have gotten a bit overeager with my research. And you guys almost ended up with a 1500-word post about forensic taphonomy to read with your morning coffee/tea.

This conversation raises two important points. Did you catch them already?

#1: For what reasons do we create secondary characters?

Secondary characters bring the story to life. No one lives in a bubble. Secondary characters can provide comic relief at a tense moment, or make matters worse by adding conflict or increasing tension. A secondary character may come in the form of a mentor, love interest, work colleague, long lost relative…the list goes on and on. Subplots often revolve around secondary characters, and we can use these subplots to mirror and add depth to the main storyline.

Just because the plot may not revolve around a secondary character doesn’t mean their role is less important. After all, they’re still human with hopes and wants and dreams and fears and flaws like the rest of us. The story will be more interesting if our secondary characters are working toward their goals alongside the main characters.

While crafting a new secondary character, don’t get hung up on what they look like, unless their appearance adds to their characterization. For example, a depressed character might wear baggy lounge wear that’s two sizes too big, never wear makeup, or even bother to brush their hair.

What matters most is their role in the story, their association with the main players, and how they work with—or against—the protagonist. Once we nail down their role, we can flesh them out with personality traits that complement or contrast with the key players.

#2: Always keep the reader in mind.

Yes, we’ve all heard the speech: Write for you and you alone.

While it’s true on a certain level, writing is also a business. For those who don’t care if anyone ever reads their work, it’s a hobby. In which case, they probably don’t care much about craft, either. Serious writers keep audience expectations in mind. We care about delivering a visceral thrill ride each and every time. Which is not the same as writing for money or some crazy get-rich-quick scheme. If that’s the goal, find another profession.

I’ll let Stephen King explain:

One more matter needs to be discussed, a matter that bears directly on that life-changer and one that I’ve touched on already, but indirectly. Now I’d like to face it head-on. It’s a question that people ask in different ways—sometimes it comes out polite and sometimes it comes out rough, but it always amounts to the same: Do you do it for the money, honey?

The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it. I have done some work as favors for friends—logrolling is the slang term for it—but at the very worst, you’d have to call that a crude kind of barter. I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

Thank you, Mr. King!

TKZers, care to share your favorite secondary character? S/he can be a character you created or one you read about.

I AM MAYHEM is a semi-finalist in the 2021 Kindle Book Review Awards. Fingers crossed for the next round!

What Do Apes, Humans, and Koalas Have in Common?

While researching an unrelated topic last year, I found a cool tidbit and tucked it away (as I often do) to use in a story someday. Since I doubt I ever will, perhaps one of you can put this research to good use.

First, a question.

What do you think is a forensic investigator’s worst nightmare?

Did anyone guess a cute ’n cuddly koala? No? I didn’t think so. In all fairness, I would never have guessed it either, but the koala could keep investigators on their toes. I’ll tell you why in a minute.

Apes & Chimpanzees

As children, we’re taught apes and chimpanzees are our closest living relatives. The similarities are obvious. No one can stare into the eyes of these gentle beings and deny their humanity. Both animals also have astonishing intelligence.

Remember Koko?

Koko, the western lowland gorilla that died in her sleep in 2018 at age 46, stunned researchers with her emotional depth and ability to communicate in sign language. She garnered international celebrity status with her vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and the ability to understand 2,000 words of spoken English.

National Geographic magazine featured Koko on its cover twice. First in October 1978, with a selfie Koko snapped in a mirror. Then in January 1985, when National Geographic ran a story about Koko and her pet kitten.

“Because she was smart enough to comprehend and use aspects of our language, Koko could show us what all great apes are capable of: reasoning about their world, and loving and grieving the other beings to whom they become attached,” Barbara King, a professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary

In addition to language, Koko’s behavior revealed human emotions. She also seemed to have a sense of humor, and even a bit of playful mischievousness, as portrayed in this video of Koko and Robin Williams.

There’s no denying the human qualities of apes and chimps. But did you know a koala’s fingerprints are so similar to humans the Australian police once feared they’d cause confusion at crime scenes? It’s true.

Similar confusion occurred in the UK during a time when unsolved crime was at an all-time high. In fact, in 1975, British police raided the ape houses at London and Twycross Zoos. According to The Independent, the police targeted “Half a dozen chimpanzees and a pair of orangutans.”

The objective was to fingerprint these animals, partly because the UK police referred to smudged or unclear fingerprints as “monkey prints.”

“If you passed a chimpanzee print to a fingerprint office and said it came from the scene of a crime, they would not know it was not human.” Steve Haylock, City of London Police fingerprint bureau

The chimpanzees and orangutans didn’t mind being fingerprinted. If you’re curious, none of the prints led to solving the string of unsolved crimes. All the furry suspects appeared to be upstanding members of society. 😉

Meanwhile, in Australia

Police feared koalas may have contaminated a criminal investigation. Why? Because like apes and chimpanzees, koalas possess freakishly human fingerprints. The deltas, loops, and whirl patterns of a koala’s fingerprint are as individual as our own. Yet most tree-dwelling mammals don’t possess humanlike prints.

“It appears that no one has bothered to study them in detail,” said Macie Henneberg, forensic scientist and biological anthropologist at the University of Adelaide, Australia. “Although it is extremely unlikely that koala prints would be found at the scene of a crime, police should at least be aware of the possibility.”

Some researchers believe that even after closely inspecting the fingerprints under a microscope, investigators would not be able to distinguish a human print from fingerprints left by a koala. Even their closest relatives—kangaroos and wombats—don’t possess fingerprints. The weird part is Koala prints seemed to have evolved independently, and much more recent than primates.

Can you guess which print is human?

Photo credit: Macie Hennenberg, et al. and naturalSCIENCE

Click the image to enlarge.

Top row: Standard ink fingerprints of an adult male koala (left) and adult male human (right).

Bottom row: Scanning electron microscope images of epidermis covering fingertips of the same koala (left) and the same human (right).

 

 

What do humans, apes, chimps, and koalas have in common?

The need to grasp. Yes, it could be that simple.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide discovered koala prints in 1996 and wrote a paper on their findings:

“Koalas … feed by climbing vertically onto the smaller branches of eucalyptus trees, reaching out, grasping handfuls of leaves and bringing them to the mouth… These forces must be precisely felt for fine control of movement and static pressures and hence require orderly organization of the skin surface.”

Makes sense, right?

But wait—there’s more!

I discovered one other fascinating tidbit about fingerprints that I never knew.

Genetics form the base of a fingerprint, but they are personalized when the baby touches the inside of their mother’s womb, resulting in unique whirls, deltas, and loops. Hence why identical twins don’t share identical fingerprints. Each baby touched the womb wall in his or her own unique way, swirling and drawing like finger paints on a bathtub wall.

Maybe it’s me—I do tend to get overly sentimental around holidays—but I find it heartwarming to think the tips of our fingers forever preserve the unbreakable bond between momma and baby, imprinted for eternity.

I hope my discoveries kickstart your creativity in new and unsuspecting ways. Happy Labor Day to our U.S. readers! May your burgers be sizzlin’, the buns toasted to perfection, and your beverages be cold. 😀 

First Page Critique: Side Effects

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Enjoy! I’ll catch ya on the flip side.

Title: Side Effects

Genre: Psychological Thriller

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood, only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh.  He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not so quickly as to attract attention.  It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing than the closeness of the warm bodies surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent that still lingered in his mind, and as the scope of his concentration narrowed he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow.

Things had gone even worse than he had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been to avoid contact with the target.  Just simple surveillance and data collection, no face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad.

An alleyway not choked by storage crates or piles of trash appeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stopping behind a dumpster and immediately pulling a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket.  It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain.  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley.  The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

After a moment he stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal.  There were no sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d come.  It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment, and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now.

Let’s look at all the things Brave Writer did well.

  • Compelling exposition
  • Action; the character is active, not passive
  • Raised story questions
  • Piqued interest
  • Great voice
  • Setting established. We may not know the exact city/town, but s/he’s planted a mental picture in the reader’s mind and we can visualize the setting.
  • Stayed in the character’s POV
  • The title even intrigues me. Side effects of what? Did an injury or drug turn this character into a killer?

The writing could use a little tightening, but nothing too dramatic. 

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood (anytime we use telling words like hear, we distance the point-of-view. Remember, if you and I wouldn’t think it, our characters can’t either. Quick example of how to reword: Blood rushed like thunder in his ears,) only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain (Excellent description: sharp, bright pain) in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh. from his fingernails biting into flesh.

Technically, only distantly aware would be classified as telling, but I like the juxtaposition between only distantly aware and sharp, bright pain. Some might argue both things can’t be true. Hmm, I’m torn. What do you think, TKZers? Reword or leave it?

He pushed (use a stronger verb like shoved or jammed) his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into quickening his pace moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not too fast or he might so quickly as to attract unwanted attention. It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing Better to focus on his stride than the closeness of the warm bodies strangers (the warm bodies sounds awkward to me) surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent (Love intoxicating here! Let’s end well, too, by replacing scent with a stronger word. Tang? Aroma? Stench?) that still lingered in his mind,. and

As the scope of his concentration narrowed, he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow. “Felt” is another telling word. Try something like: As he focused on his footsteps, the wild pounding of his heart slowed to a light pitter-patter, pitter-patter.

Things had gone even worse than he’d had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been  was to avoid contact with the target.  Just Simple surveillance and data collection,. No face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, part of him he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad. The inner tussle between good and evil intrigues me. 🙂 

He ducked into aAn alleyway—swept clean, no not choked by storage crates or piles of trashappeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stoppinged behind a dumpster, and immediately pullinged a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his (coat?) pocket.

Something to consider: Rather than use the generic word cigarettes, a brand name enhances characterization. Example: Lucky Strikes or unfiltered Camels implies he’s no kid, with rough hands from a lifetime of hard work, a bottle of Old Spice in his medicine cabinet, and a fifth of Jack Daniels behind the bar. A Parliament smoker is nothing like that guy. Mr. Parliament Extra Light would drink wine spritzers and babytalk his toy poodle named Muffin. See what I’m sayin’? Don’t skip over tiny details; it’s how we breathe life into characters. And it falls under fair use as long as we don’t harm the brand. For more on the legalities, read this article.

 It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain (If it’s raining, we should know this sooner, perhaps when he’s focused on his footsteps).  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley. Love surprisingly steady hands! Those three words imply this is his first murder, and he’s almost giddy about it. Great job!

The cigarette flaring is a bit too cinematic, though. The last thing smokers notice is the end of their butt unless it goes out. If you want to narrow in on this moment, mention the inhale, exhale, maybe he blows smoke rings or a plume, and him leaning against the brick wall. That’s it. Don’t overthink it. Less is more.

The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

Dear Writer, please interview a smoker for research. A smoker’s lungs don’t burn. If they did, they’d panic, because burning lungs indicates a serious medical issue. Also, a smoker doesn’t experience a wave of nicotine-fueled calm. It’s too Hollywood. The simple act of him smoking indicates satisfaction. Delete the rest. It only hurts all the terrific work you’ve done thus far.

After a few moments, he chanced a peek at stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal. There were Nno sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d coame. Nothing It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment (let him be certain so when the cops find something later, it throws him off-kilter. Inner conflict is a good thing. Also, simply stating that apartment is enough. We know he killed somebody. Kudos for not telling us who.), and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now. I would end the sentence after apartment, but if you need to add the rest, reword to remove “knowing,” which is also a telling word.

One last note: Use one space after a period, not two.

All in all, I really enjoyed this first page. It sounds like my kind of read. Great job, Brave Writer!

I would turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? Please add your helpful suggestions/comments.

Writing Ritual and Routine

I always write to music, but a problem arose recently that made me question my writing ritual.

But I love writing with my headphones on, music blocking out the world around me. There’s no better way for me to strike the right mood in the WIP. I create a playlist for each book, with overlapping “series songs.” Songs I listen to only while writing books in that series. Since my series are vastly different so are the songs in each playlist.

As soon as I slide on the headphones, the music transports me back to my story world.

The problem I ran into recently was with writing true crime. I’d created a playlist for Pretty Evil New England. But for this new book I veered away from my usual writing routine and threw on Pandora.

Big mistake.

I struggled. The words wouldn’t come like they normally do. My mind felt cluttered and bogged down. Hence why I wrote my last post about multitasking and the brain. Frazzled, I panicked. Why I couldn’t reach “the zone” with my WIP? The beginning had been so easy, words flowing like Niagara, paragraphs in perfect harmony with one another. Had I finally lost my writing mojo?

The answer seemed clear. Only it wasn’t an answer I could accept. I emotionally degraded myself, exercised, read . . . I tried everything I could think of to breathe life into my muse, dying next to two unfinished WIPs. And yet, every time I slid on the headphones and clicked Pandora . . . total brain block.

After several grueling days (felt more like years), I stumbled across a blog post that advised writers never to listen to music unless it has no lyrics, background instrumental music. In other words, the total opposite of my music. But I’ve written all my books to music. What changed?

The metaphoric lightbulb blazed on.

By switching to Pandora, not knowing what song would play or when, my brain couldn’t interpret the music as white noise.

As soon as I went back to YouTube and clicked the playlist for Pretty Evil New England (since I’m writing true crime), my fingers could barely keep up with the flood of creativity.

I’m back!

Writers have writing rituals/routines for a reason. The ritual or routine encourages focus and has the ability to get us back on track if we drift off course. The familiarity snaps us out of the funk and reminds us that yes, we can finish the WIP, just as we’ve always done. It also allows the words to flow. Rituals help us find comfort and balance and sets the tone for a solid writing session. Routine is especially important. Employing a consistent writing routine can be the difference between hitting our word count or staring at a blinking cursor.

If your writing comes to a screeching halt for no apparent reason, a change within your writing ritual or routine may be to blame.

For me (obviously), it’s sliding on the headphones with a familiar playlist cranked. Emphasis on familiar. An argument could be made that I’m not really listening to music. Rather, the playlist morphs into white noise and acts as the gunshot to start the footrace. Although, strangely, I’ve tried the white noise app and it’s not nearly as effective (for me). All my research is done on my iMac, but I switch to my MacBook to write. This was a subconscious act. I wasn’t even aware of the ritual until I focused on changes within my writing routine.

For others, the writing ritual may include an environmental change, like shutting the door to the office or sitting outside in a special chair. Some writers trek to the local coffee shop or settle in at their designated desk in the university library. *waves to Garry*

Some of our most celebrated authors had/have consistent writing rituals and routines.

JAMES JOYCE

Joyce’s ritual included crayons, a white coat, and a comfy horizontal surface. For word flow, he would lay flat on his stomach in bed. Since he was severely myopic, crayons enabled Joyce to see his own handwriting more clearly, and the white coat served as a reflector of light.

MAYA ANGELOU 

In her own words:

I keep a hotel room in my hometown and pay for it by the month.

I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind.

I think my grandmother taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “little mind.”

So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about.

I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!

But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up.

TRUMAN CAPOTE 

The creative genius behind In Cold Blood was a superstitious man. Capote’s writing ritual often involved avoiding things like hotel rooms with phone numbers that included the number 13, starting or ending a piece of work on a Friday, and tossing more than three cigarette butts in one ashtray.

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.

No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

Even so, Capote stuck to his writing routine because it worked.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY 

In stark contrast to James Joyce, Hemingway was a firm believer in standing while writing. While working on The Old Man and The Sea, he followed a strict regimen.

“Done by noon, drunk by three.”

This entailed waking at dawn, writing furiously while standing, and eventually hiking to the local bar to get hammered.

JOAN DIDION 

Didion holds her books close to her heart—literally.  When she’s close to finishing a manuscript, she’ll sleep with her WIP.

“Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.”

E.B. WHITE 

In his own words:

I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.

KURT VONNEGUT 

Check out Vonnegut’s writing routine:

I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare.

When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.

JODIE PICOULT 

Picoult doesn’t believe writer’s block exists:

Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

Wise words. I agree. Nothing motivates quite like a looming deadline, self-imposed or contracted.

DAN BROWN 

Most writers would do anything and everything to get rid of writer’s block. According to The Da Vinci Code novelist, Dan Brown hangs upside down to cure writer’s block. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But we can’t argue with the results. If Brown didn’t hang like a bat, imagine all the amazing thrillers we would have lost?

Bats can’t launch into flight until they’re upside down. Why not Dan Brown? He says he’s more productive and creative afterward. He also does push-ups and stretches every hour. Not only has he found the cure for writer’s block, he’s in tip-top shape.

Writers are complicated beings. 😉

Do you have a writing ritual and/or routine? Tell us about it.

My publisher ran a sale for Pretty Evil New England last week. Not sure how long the sale will last, but for now the ebook is $1.99 on Amazon.

Can Multitasking Harm the Brain?

Writers need to multitask. If you struggle with multitasking, don’t be too hard on yourself. The brain is not wired to complete more than one task at peak level. A recent study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience showed when we’re concentrating on a task that involves sight, the brain will automatically decrease our hearing.

“The brain can’t cope with too many tasks: only one sense at a time can perform at its peak. This is why it’s not a good idea to talk on the phone while driving.” — Professor Jerker Rönnberg of Linköping University, who conducted the study.

The results of this study show that if we’re subjected to sound alone, the brain activity in the auditory cortex continues without any problems. But when the brain is given a visual task, such as writing, the response of the nerves in the auditory cortex decreases, and hearing becomes impaired.

As the difficulty of the task increases—like penning a novel—the nerves’ response to sound decreases even more. Which explains how some writers wear headphones while writing. The music becomes white noise.

For me, once I slide on the headphones, the world around me fades away. I can’t tell you the number of times my husband has strolled into my office, and I practically jump clean out of my skin. Don’t be surprised if someday he kills me by giving me a heart attack. But it isn’t really his fault, even though I’ll never tell him that. 😉 I’m in the zone, headphones on, music blaring, my complete attention on that screen, and apparently, my brain decreased my ability to hear.

Strangely enough, I don’t listen to music while researching. When I need to read and absorb content, I need silence. This quirk never made sense to me. Until now.

Have you ever turned down the radio while searching for a specific house number or highway exit? Instinctively, you’re helping your brain to concentrate on the visual task.

Research shows that our brains are not nearly as good at handling multiple tasks as we like to think they are. In fact, some researchers suggest multitasking can actually reduce productivity by as much as 40% (for everyone except Rev; he’s a multitasking God). Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time. Doing many different things at once can also impair cognitive ability.

Shocking, right?

Multitasking certainly isn’t a new concept, but the constant streams of information from numerous different sources do represent a relatively new problem. While we know that all this “noise” is not good for productivity, is it possible that it could also injure our brains?

Multitasking in the brain is managed by executive functions that control and manage cognitive processes and determine how, when, and in what order certain tasks are performed. According to Meyer, Evans, and Rubinstein, there are two stages to the executive control process.

  1. Goal shifting: Deciding to do one thing instead of another
  2. Role activation: Switching from the rules for the previous task to the rules for the new task (like writing vs. reading)

Moving through these steps may only add a few tenths of a second, but it can start to add up when people repeatedly switch back and forth. This might not be a big deal if you’re folding laundry and watching TV at the same time. However, where productivity is concerned, wasting even small amounts of time could be the difference between writing a novel in months vs. years.

Multitasking Isn’t Always Bad

Some research suggests that people who engage in media multitasking, like listening to music through headphones while using a computer, might be better at integrating visual and auditory information. Study participants between the ages of 19 and 28 were asked to complete questionnaires regarding their media usage.

The participants completed a visual search task both with and without a sound to indicate when the item changed color. Heavy multitaskers performed better when sound was presented, indicating they were more adept at integrating the two sources of sensory information. Conversely, heavy multitaskers performed worse than light/medium multitaskers when the tone was not present.

I can attest to that. If I don’t have my headphones on, chances are I won’t hit my writing goals that day. I’ve conditioned my brain to focus when the music starts. And I store a spare set of headphones in case mine break. Learned that little lesson the hard way.

“Although the present findings do not demonstrate any causal effect, they highlight an interesting possibility of the effect of media multitasking on certain cognitive abilities, multisensory integration in particular. Media multitasking may not always be a bad thing,” the authors noted.

How can writers multitask and still be productive?

  • Limit the numbers of things we juggle to two (*laughter erupts in the audience*)
  • Use the “20-minute rule.” Instead of constantly switching between tasks, devote your full attention to one task for 20 minutes before switching to the next task.

What do you think about these studies? How well do you multitask?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Be the Mouse

A recent exchange with the hubster went something like this.

Him: What’d you do today?

Me: Same as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.

Him: You’re a persistent little bugger, aren’tcha?

Me: *shrugs* I’m a writer.

But it’s not as simple as that, is it? Persistence can be grueling at times.

If someone told me ten years ago that in 2021 I would stumble across a true story that’s so meaningful and important it might forever change my writing trajectory, my first reaction would’ve been: Ten years is a lifetime away.

But the truth is if I found this case ten years ago, I wouldn’t know how to do it justice. Today I do. 🙂 This narrative nonfiction/true crime project has so many parallels to my own life, my passion is at an all-time high. Which brings me to persistence. Persistence while researching. Persistence while re-investigating the crime. Persistence while interviewing witnesses. Persistence while submitting the proposal.

The Big Dream

When I wrote my first novel—longhand, by candlelight—the Big Dream was all I could think about. I remember searching for other writers’ interpretation of success and how long it took them to “make it” in this business. Most said a new writer won’t make any money until they’ve written five novels. If they’re lucky, they’ll sell a few hundred copies of their debut. That’s the last thing an aspiring writer wants to hear.

The aspiring writer thinks: If you build it, they will come.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad mindset if it drives the writer to the keyboard. I’m a dreamer. Always have been, always will be. As long as we offset the dream with a dose of reality, I say dream big, dream often, dream without limits.

Now, with a backlist of 17 titles and 5+ trunk novels, I look back on that early advice and it means something completely different.

Writing five novels isn’t only about building an audience. It means the writer has honed their craft. They’ve let their passion lead them on a journey of self-discovery (Think: Who are you as a writer?). It means the writer never gave up. Or quit. S/he continued for love, not money. S/he kept her head down, fingers on the keyboard, butt in chair, and created, edited, rewrote passages, scenes, or whole chapters, and finished five manuscripts.

What else happened?

S/he learned the business side of writing—found an agent, publisher, or learned the ins and outs of self-publishing. Lastly, it means s/he learned how to market a product, build a brand and an audience. S/he persisted, even though the odds seemed insurmountable. S/he leaped out of the nest and learned to fly.

Sometimes this biz can be disheartening, other times it’s super exciting. The ups and downs are all part of this amazing journey. The minute we stop trying to achieve future goals, we’ve already lost. Aside from creatives—writers, singers, artists, actors, musicians, etc.—I can think of no other field that requires as much persistence.

What is persistence?

The dictionary defines persistence as:

  • continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition
  • continuing to exist or endure over a prolonged period

The definition clarifies how difficult it is to persist.

What happens in the brain during the act of persistence?

Serotonin is a neurochemical in the brain important for feelings of happiness. It’s also known for:

  • promoting good sleep by helping to regulate circadian rhythms (a 24-hour inner clock running in the background to carry out essential functions like the sleep-wake cycle)
  • helping to regulate appetite
  • promoting memory and learning
  • helping to promote positive feelings and behavior

If you have low serotonin, you might:

  • feel anxious, low, or depressed
  • feel irritable or aggressive
  • have sleep issues or endless fatigue
  • become impulsive
  • have a decreased appetite
  • experience nausea and digestive issues
  • crave sweets

Scientists have studied serotonin levels and persistent behavior in mice.

During foraging, all wildlife explores an area for food and/or water. But at some point, they must move on to a different area. Thriving animals exhibit patience and persistence before exhausting their search at each location.

In the study, researchers required water-restricted mice to “nose poke” while foraging to obtain water as a reward. The probability of obtaining water in each area lessened with each nose poke. The higher the number of nose pokes equaled more persistence in that individual mouse. Scientists also used video tracking to measure how long it took for the mice to switch to a different foraging area.

Mice exhibited optimal foraging behavior. Meaning, they optimized the trade-off between time spent searching an area for water and leaving to find a water source in a different area.

The mice who received serotonin neuron stimulation performed a greater number of nose pokes compared to mice who didn’t receive stimulation. They also took longer to leave an area, suggesting they were more persistent.

This is the first study to show a correlation between serotonin neuron firing and active persistence. Previously, scientists hypothesized that serotonin was involved in patience. We now know a rush of serotonin is involved in persistence, as well.

If our persistence starts to wane, we need to increase our serotonin level.

Here’s how:

  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise
  • Bright light
  • Massage

The list is almost meaningless without more explanation. So, let’s dive into each tip.

Healthy Snacks

We can’t get serotonin from food, but we can get tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in the brain. High-protein foods contain tryptophan. For example, turkey and salmon. But it’s not as simple as eating tryptophan-rich foods, thanks to the blood-brain barrier—a protective sheath around the brain that controls what enters and exits. Isn’t the human body amazing?

Like with most life hacks, there’s a shortcut around the blood-brain barrier.

Research suggests eating carbs along with tryptophan-rich foods pushes more tryptophan into the brain, thereby raising the serotonin level.

Some tryptophan-rich snacks include:

  • oatmeal with a handful of nuts
  • plums or pineapple with crackers
  • pretzel sticks with peanut butter and a glass of milk

Exercise

Exercising creates an ideal environment for serotonin by triggering the release of tryptophan in the blood and decreasing the amount of other amino acids. Thus, more tryptophan reaches the brain.

Aerobic exercise of any kind releases the most tryptophan. Don’t fret if you’re unable to do aerobics. The main goal is to raise the heart rate. This can be accomplished by:

  • a brisk walk
  • a light hike
  • swimming
  • bicycling
  • jogging
  • blaring the music and dance

Bright Light

This surprised me, but it makes sense when you consider seasonal affective disorder. Serotonin levels dip in the winter and rise in the summer. What should we do? Spend 10-15 minutes in the sunshine. Or, if you live in rainy climate or can’t get outside, use a light therapy box. Both will increase serotonin levels.

Massage

Massage therapy increases serotonin and dopamine levels. It also reduces cortisol, a hormone produced when stressed. If paying for a professional massage therapist isn’t within your budget, ask a friend/spouse/partner to swap 20-minute massages.

Be the Mouse

Writers cannot achieve goals without some form of persistence. Be persistent, dear writer. Be the mouse.