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December 21, 2010

'The art of suspense'

 Well, I've sent my manuscript to my agent with completed revisions, so now I'm taking my own advice and turning my attention back to another project, one which I started earlier this year during the wait for news on my MS which was out on submission.

It's a completely different genre from my last MS, and I've had trouble pinpointing what genre it is (though I think I've decided it's more a psychological thriller than anything else), so I'm still at the point of feeling my way, trying to work out how to tell the story, whether to include multiple points of view and all that other fun stuff which will be familiar to most of you.

Of course, books don't have to conform to a particular genre. And they can straddle boundaries between genres, or shun genre boundaries entirely. But...in the interest of informing myself a bit more about what the heck I should be doing if in fact I am trying to write a psychological thriller, I've just watched Ken Follett's online video lecture on the history of the thriller. Though he has a career spanning more than thirty years as a writer of thrillers, to some he is best known for Pillars of the Earth, his historical novel about the building of a cathedral in the Middle Ages. His writer's biography is comforting for anyone contemplating genre hopping at some point in their career!

 It's fair to say at this point that there are some things I really struggle with in my writing. Things I wish I'd already memorised the 'rule book' for, if such a thing exists.

  • Like pacing.
  • Like how to know the perfect time for a 'turning point' in a novel (apparently this is really important), and what form it should take.
  •  Like the nuts and bolts of how to hook a reader, and keep them turning those pages until they reach the end.

Along with all that I'd also like to know how to make sure they read that final page and put the book down with a satisfied sigh, rather than making a face and throwing it at the wall in disgust, thinking Call that a story?!

Yep. All that insignificant stuff which just happens to be the bread and butter of any aspiring commercial writer.

Now I'm gonna 'fess up here and let you know that I've never taken a writing course (though I did go to a one day conference a few years back). And I've only ever flicked through the beginning of Steven King's On Writing. So there's probably lots of really good information out there which I just haven't...um...assimilated yet. Actually I know there's lots of stuff out there. So much stuff that the prospect of picking through it all looking for pearls of wisdom is very daunting.

That's why I'm putting out the call to those of you who are writers' conference junkies, and who have bookshelves groaning with writing How-to titles of all descriptions. Which books/resources/websites/lecture givers have you found really helped you understand the above issues in a practical way? Clearly and concisely, in a way which you could actually apply to your own work?

Or are these things which ultimately, nobody can teach you, and you have to learn the hard way?

I'll be leaving you with that thorny question for the rest of December, as it's madness and mayhem at my place from here on in and computer (and blogging) time will be strictly rationed. Enjoy the festive season for those having holidays, and I'll be back in 2011!


Charlotte Rains Dixon said...

I always learn a lot about novel writing from reading screenwriting books. You can't go wrong with anything from Syd Fields, and I also like the new edition of the Writer's Journey from Christopher Vogler. Oh, and Larry Brooks's blog, www.storyfix.com has a lot about structure, based on screenplay theory.

Hart Johnson said...

I'm not your gal. I can't learn from a book or a 'tell me' lecture AT ALL. I seem to learn best from the one on one critique exchange... I learn both from receiving and from GIVING feedback, but I need to learn it with my own words. Otherwise all i hear is blah blah blah blah. I DO keep a file of great writing posts I run across blogging, because if one hits exactly at the right time, it can help a LOT... having them in a file insures i can FIND it when I need it.

As to genre hopping though... Follet is a good example. So is Grisham. And in BOTH cases, their books off their main genre (even though I love their normal stuff) is my favorite.

THRILLERS are hard. If they weren't everybody would write them, as that is where the money is. I currently write suspense because I don't apparently have the skill or knowledge base for thrillers. *hmph*

The Sisterhood said...

Hi Adina,

If I had to pick three excellent books on writing, I would recommend these ones:

1. Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
2. Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress
3. The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams (this is a screenwriting book but works really well for novels too).

If you have time, and a library nearby, I recommend you to check out The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. This is an enormous book and I haven't read it completely, but it gives you a deeper understanding of storytelling. Another good one is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. But the first three I mentioned are short and sweet.

Best of luck with the manuscript.


The Sisterhood said...

I see that my Sister Lorena came before me, but I'll let you know how it works for me. There are too many writing books out there. Period. They all basically say the same thing over and over but in different lingoes. Mine has been a learn as I go approach. If I'm struggling with something then I research it a little, I've taken classes in the past, and I've talked with other struggling writers. Don't beat yourself up for not reading those books. Get something that will give you the basics on most anything, like Writer's Market, or Jeff Herman's Guide. They both touch upon different aspects of writing, but in a plain format. Get the basics and fill in the gaps from there.

Happy Writing!

♥ Mary Mary

P.S. I have quite the aversion to writers' conferences. Check out my post this week if you don't believe me ; )

Oh, and Ken Follett rocks!

Kari Marie said...

I really enjoyed Pillars of the Earth. I'm ashamed to admit I'm not familiar with Mr. Follet's other works. But will check them out now. I've read the Plot and structure book by Bell. It was informative. I also routinely purchase second-hand copies of authors I admire and then study them scene by scene, studying how the plot builds etc. It's been helpful too. My "writers" copy has notes in the margin, stuff underlined etc.

Adina West said...

Thank you all for your book and blog suggestions!

@Charlotte&Lorena: Funny how screenplay structure often comes up as a suggested starting point for novelists too - perhaps because of the rigorous structure a screenplay requires. Novels do seem to allow a little more flexibility!

@Hart&MaryMary: Phew. I'm not alone. I think you're both talking my language. I've always found the key to learning anything from a book is finding something which resonates and making it your own anyway.

@Kari: Good point. Analysing a book you admire is a great tool for seeing how it's done, with the example right in front of you. I've never gone so far as to deface anything yet, but maybe I need a second hand copy or two which I won't mind scribbling all over...

Rachael Harrie said...

Wow, congrats in handing in your manuscript!!! That must be such a relief to get it off your desk. And just in time for Christmas :)

I'm going to buy Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel (I already have the workbook). You can borrow it from me when I'm done if you'd like (*chortles*). Otherwise, I have some good revision/editing books, but I can't really say about the overall plot/structure/pacing etc books. Like you, I prefer to learn by immersing myself in the craft. And I'm with Hart, I bookmark good articles I come across so I can refer back to them when the time comes.

Hope you have a wonderful Christmas with your family :)


Anonymous said...

A turning point every 1000 words is the usual advice. Liz H

kangaroobee said...

An excellent book for all those things is Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure. I haven't looked at it much with my rhyming novel but for a regular novel it is brilliant.

As for making up a genre, Mary Kole wrote about this a while ago, saying you shouldn't try inventing new genres and still to the ones already there. I find that hard myself, because my rhyming novel seems to be almost as easy to read as a pb, which make me wonder if it should be an easy reader. Are there any rhyming easy readers though? I need to read more MG books to know for sure where mine stands. Good luck! and Happy Christmas.

Jenny Beattie said...

I wish I had the answers to your questions!

I've been a truly appalling Crusader over the last few months but I'm looking in to wish you a wonderful 2011.

erica and christy said...

Happy New Year! I've nothing to add to these helpful comments. But I've learned a lot by visiting. Thanks to you ALL! christy

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I found that the book SAVE THE CAT by Blake Synder containied a treasure trove of helpful information for the novelist, wanting to grow in her craft, even though it is written by a successful screen writer. Congrats on turning in your novel. I wish you success in your publication dreams, Roland

Aurora Falsestart said...

My sincere congratulations on getting your revisions submitted. I wish the very best for your work, Adina.

Julie Musil said...

I'm here for the crusade! Congratulations on submitting your revisions. That's awesome.

I have a few writing books, but the one that's helped me the most is PLOT & STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell. So easy to understand. I now read through it each time I plot a story!

Constance said...

Hi Adina,

Just looking back over your blog posts. Saw the like to Ken follett's work.

I read one of his books :jackdaws" late last year. (a random pick up in a used book store) loved it.

Have just gone to amazon about the most popular one "pillars of the earth" sounds right up my medieval loving alley.


thanks :-)

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