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Developing Conflict and Tension

Today’s guest post is written by Elizabeth Craig who writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink.

She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010, 2011, and 2012. Her most recent releases are Quilt or Innocence (June 2012) , Hickory Smoked Homicide (a November 2011 release), and A Dyeing Shame a Myrtle Clover mystery (December 2011).  Her next release will be February 5, 2013–Knot What it Seams.

Elizabeth is active in the online writing community.  She shares writing-related links on Twitter as @elizabethscraig and posts on craft and the publishing industry on her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder. She and Mike Fleming of Hiveword also manage the Writer’s Knowledge Base–a free search engine to help writers find resources.

Developing Conflict and Tension in Our Story

Conflict is one of the elements of an interesting story.  As much as we love our characters, if everything goes smoothly for them, then it’s hard to keep our readers reading.  After all—if it’s just an ordinary day for our protagonist, then we really don’t have much of a story.

A few tips for developing conflict and tension:

Quickly introduce conflict into your story.  If it’s delayed too long, the reader might start flipping ahead through the set-up and back story to see where the story really gets started.

Use both larger conflicts and smaller ones.  A lower level of conflict can be easily maintained by introducing tension in our story.  Maybe we’ve got a character who lost his job and is struggling to make ends meet.  He finally snares a job interview—and it’s for his dream job.  His car breaks down on the way to the interview. He was in a hurry when he left, and forgot his phone.  This approach can resonate with readers, too—it’s realistic and relatable. It can also give us an opportunity for us to display a character’s personality to our readers…when we show how the character reacts to the problem.

Provide conflict through other characters.  Here we do need to watch our character motivation and know our character and what matches his personality.  Who rubs our character the wrong way and why can tell us a lot about the protagonist as well as the other character.  We could bring in an ex-wife, an overprotective father, an annoying neighbor, or a backstabbing co-worker.  Every time we have a scene with one of the troublesome characters, we have the opportunity for tension.

Use both internal conflict and external conflict. What are our character’s inner demons?  What’s our character fighting with himself over?  Consider how his internal conflict can shape the story and his reaction to events. What external conflict prevents him from obtaining his goal?

Raise the stakes to create a faster pace.  Raising the stakes and making the conflicts and outcomes increasingly dire for the protagonist is one way to increase our story’s pace and keep readers turning pages.

Try to delay resolution. One thing that’s been difficult for me as a writer is delaying resolution of the protagonist’s problems.  I’m a problem-solver in life and I want to solve my character’s problems, too.  But letting problems spiral out of control and allowing them to gnaw at my protagonist can add excitement and tension to a story.

Give readers some breathing room.  Some of this is personal taste, but as a reader, I really enjoy having breaks in the tension and conflict.  This break can be accomplished through humor, or a subplot that’s moving along the path to resolution when hope in the main plot seems to be lost.

Make the protagonist’s external conflict and internal conflict collide.  What if our character had to sacrifice what’s most important to him in order to accomplish his main goal?  What if he’s got to face his inner demons to save the world?

Tension and conflict are two ways to keep readers turning pages.  What tips have you got for developing them in a story?

Writer’s Knowledge Base–the Search Engine for Writers

Twitter: @elizabethscraig


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20 of the Most Beautiful Bookshops in the World

A gorgeous converted Dominican church gives the power of reading its due diligence. Selexyz Bookstore, Maastricht, Holland

Modern design at its finest in a store full of art books. The Bookàbar Bookshop, Rome, Italy

We love the stairs as reading and display area, the wall-to-wall bookshelves, and the simple, clean design. Plural Bookshop, Bratislava, Slovakia

This divine neo-gothic bookstore, opened in 1906, contains what we consider to be the ultimate definition of a stairway to heaven. Livraria Lello, Porto, Portugal

Somehow, this bookstore manages to be both whimsical and slightly macabre all at once. Cook & Book, Brussels, Belgium

There’s magic in the air at this English-language bookstore in Beijing. Bookworm, Beijing, China

This majestic converted 1920s movie palace uses theatre boxes for reading rooms and draws thousands of tourists every year. Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires, Argentina [images via and via]

How could any kid (or adult, for that matter) resist those delicious reading nooks? Poplar Kid’s Republic, Beijing, China

This is a bookstore that seems to be made almost entirely out of books — down to its dramatic front doors. Livraria da Vila, Sao Paulo, Brazil [photos via]

For those who like their green spaces (and coffee shops) to invade their bookstores. Cafebreria El Pendulo, Mexico City, Mexico [photos via]

For those browsers not as impressed by architecture as they are by the beauty of books upon books upon books in narrow hallways — not to mention a place to nap. Shakespeare & Company, Paris, France [photo via]

The huge space, high ceilings and stately pillars make for a lovely reading experience. The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, CA

For sailors and beach readers alike, this sun-kissed bookstore is a little less ostentatious than some of the others on this list, but no less lovely. Atlantis Books, Santorini, Greece

The biggest outdoor bookstore in the world, this photo doesn’t really do the place justice — it’s all about the view. Bart’s Books, Ojai, California [photo via]

The bookstore section of the larger complex dedicated to art and design certainly lives up to its mission. Corso Como Bookshop, Milan, Italy

We’re suckers for rounded ceilings and decorative lighting. Barter Books, Alnwick, UK [photosvia]

This beautifully designed space has surprising shapes, cleverly constructed nooks and crannies and even a tree or two. The American Book Center, Amsterdam, the Netherlands [photo via]

Almost utilitarian but filled with simple old-world grace, this store is a little like what we might imagine our ideal ship’s main cabin to look like. VVG Something, Taipei, Taiwan

This store has a flying bike and books to the ceiling. Need we say more? Ler Devagar, Lisbon, Portugal

 

Source: Flavorwire


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Size Matters: On the Lost Art of Brevity

A good story is a good story no matter what the length. However, there is a trend these days that implies the bigger the better. Unless you’re trying to win a Hugo Award where a minimum of 40,000 words is a requirement, length does not actually matter to a story (although events like NaNoWriMo with its 50,000-word arbitrary goal and the books regularly getting movie deals these days would have us believe otherwise).

Brevity is a lost art.

  • Harry Potter : 7 books/4,095 pages with a 585 page average; shortest at 309 pages and longest at 870
  • A Song of Fire and Ice: 5 books, 2 more on the way/2,562 pages; the 854 page average skewed thanks to the 1056 page A Dance With Dragons
  • The Millennium Trilogy: 3 books/1,905 pages with a 635 page average

It’s not like books have never been atrociously long before – Les Miserables clocks in at 1042 pages. J.R.R. Tolkien is the king of multi-volume story with Lord of the Rings, which is 1728 pages if you include The Hobbit (more with the addition of appendices and supplementary books). Charles Dickens’ longest book is Bleak House if you go by page number (928), David Copperfield if you go by word count (358,000).

The difference between these lengthy tomes and our modern ones is that when they were written (with the exception of Tolkien), these books were everything – they were the radio, television, and internet of their day – the perfect escape for the whole family to enjoy with the occasional “after the kids are in bed” reads like The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman – it’s own length a joke, as Shandy is unable to stay on subject without several tangents to his own story. Even so, the book is only 342 pages.

Then, like today, length could mean money. Dickens certainly mastered the art of stringing the plot along for the sake of a serial, supposedly paid by the word. But length was also a product of simply having time on one’s hands; Fanny Burney’s Evelina might not have been 600 pages long if she was writing in between a day job and picking up the kids from school.

Ultimately, a book should only be as long as it takes to tell the story – no longer, no shorter. George Orwell managed Animal Farm just fine in 168 pages, while Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is only 108 pages. And while there is nothing wrong with a long novel if its length is what it takes to tell the story, just think of how much shorterTwilight (2,720 pages) could have been if an editor had told Meyer to stop with all the amber eyes/ice cold skin repetition. The story would still have had problems, but each book would have been about 50 pages shorter (yes, hyperbole). Even The Neverending Story manages to be 2,336 pages shorter than Twilight.

There’s something wonderful about a novel where the weight is in the words, not page count. Shakespeare stated that “brevity is the soul of wit,” but it is also the soul of a book where each word means something.

Recently, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRecord.org released the second volume of Tiny Stories, described by the LA Times as having “haiku-like precision.” These pocket-sized books are preceded by the ultimate big meaning in tiny packaging story. Ernest Hemingway is said to have written the shortest story as part of a barroom challenge on a cocktail napkin:

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

Hemingway nailed the brevity with this story – it says more precisely because it says less.


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Literary Maps

Beautiful Hand-lettered Literary Maps

“The idea for these maps was my wife, Dani’s, and I created the first one (the United Kingdom) in November 2010 without thinking all that carefully about the selection. I just trawled my own bookshelves. I have to defend myself almost weekly against angry emails about the absence of Dickens (whom I have never rated); no one seems to have noted that Pope and Orwell aren’t there either. I admire both and would have included them had I been more thorough. The first 500 copies of the map have a spelling mistake (Robert Greacen, in Ulster, is spelled ‘Greacon’); I corrected this on the second printing and added a couple of names – Angela Carter and Louis MacNiece.

I drew the map freehand, and it is somewhat distorted, in order to take into account the concentrations of writers I admire: Kent and Sussex are larger than they should be; Northumberland compressed, and the Lake District grossly inflated. On the fourth and latest edition I altered Kent a little, and relettered a handful of names. I think I should probably stop tinkering with it now!

We were surprised by how well the United Kingdom map sold and straightaway set about a map of the United States. This time I worked with an American editor, Bridget Hannigan, to attempt to get slightly better coverage, particularly of those parts of the United States I know nothing about. I also spent quite a while finding a projection that cinched in the northern parts of the United States, so that I could fit it onto a standard paper size, and then laid out the names state by state. You can see still see the state boundaries in a number of places; try tracing the outlines of Texas or Idaho. New England was incredibly dense and hard to do; California too, but at least that had space to spill over somewhat into the rather emptier Nevada. The solution I came up with for the New York/Boston logjam was eventually to include a spray of American writers who made their names in Europe off the East Coast and a number of Jewish writers who came in during the 1930s.

The next map that I did towards the end of 2011 was a real labour of love. While Scotland had a good amount of space on the United Kingdom map, for Wales I had had far too many good names to try to pack into a tiny area, and we set to work on a dedicated Welsh map, working with Gwyn Davies (from the National Library of Wales) on the name selection. We decided together to restrict the selection to dead writers here, as the Welsh tradition covers 1,500 years and three languages; with the United States it had been 250 years at most; 90 for the West Coast, and all in English. Wales was probably the most aesthetically satisfying for me in terms of the quality of my own lettering, although its sales remain quite modest compared to the others.

And so to the newest map, ‘From Neverland to Wonderland: A Map of Children’s Literature in Britain’, just out this week: this one was entirely Dani’s idea. She did an MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton a few years back and is passionate about the subject. Here I decided to use slightly brighter colours than the fairly muted palettes I usually favour, and a few more visual jokes; Spike Milligan, for instance, would have been hard to fit into Sussex, where he lived, as it is stuffed already, so I put him walking backwards across the Irish Sea.”

– Geoff Sawers

Order your hand-lettered map of
Literary Britain and Northern Ireland.

Order your hand-lettered USA Literary map.

Order your hand-lettered
Literary Map of Wales/Map Llenorion Cymru.

Order From Neverland to Wonderland: A Map of Children’s Literature in Britain.

Visit The Literary Gift Company for a range of marvellous
gifts and treats.

Reblogged from http://peonymoon.wordpress.com/


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One of the most effective ways of editing your work

Kindle

So, you have painstakingly crafted a novel, left it to rest, edited and re-edited. What next?

There are many different recommendations for editing, especially during the final stages of your work. Most writers recommend using a different medium, which is more likely to flag up any issues with sentence structure and grammar. You can read aloud so that you are hearing, rather than seeing your words, you can read it on the screen, print it out, or there is anther method, which I have found really effective. A method that has, for me, picked up the most issues with the manuscript…

One of the most effective ways of editing your work is to read it on your kindle or any other eReader device. Follow these simple steps, and you might also want to try it for blog posts:

1. Make sure you are happy with the text as a whole.

2. Download Mobipocket eBook Creator and import your word document. Mobipocket will generate and save a kindle ready file. This keeps the formatting clean.

3. Send the document as an attachment to your kindle email address, which will probably look something like clairesmith_26@kindle.com.

4. Make sure the wireless setting on your kindle device is switched on and then click ‘check for downloads.’

5. Don’t worry too much about formatting yet if it feels overwhelming. You can do this at a later Stage. The less carriage returns you have inserted, the better. You will need to use page breaks when you get to the formatting stage as kindle, at least, does not recognise the return key.

6. I would advice stepping away from your computer for a while and having a change of scene. You are removing your writing hat and putting on your reading hat. In other words, you are approaching your work as a reader would. It might, in some cases, feel as though you are reading someone else’s work.

7. You can either make the changes by using the ‘Add Note or Highlight’ function on the home menu of your kindle or you can print out a hard copy and annotate directly onto this. I find that there is more space and it is quicker. You can then go back to the computer when you have finished, to make the changes needed. Happy reading!

There is something about reading your work on an eReader that helps you to see the text in a different light. You will probably find issues which you might have missed on screen (partly because the manuscript is too familiar) will jump out of the page…..sorry, screen!

Although I tend to use a kindle, you can use any device. Here are some useful videos for editing on kindle, NOOK, and iPad:


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Plot, Characters, Homeland, and What You Need to Achieve to Keep Readers Engaged

Are you hooked on Homeland? Yes? Great, we’re on the same wavelength. No? Give it a go, I’m sure you’ll be waiting for the next episode as soon as you have watched just one. Try it and let me know what you think. There is a trailer at the end of the post. I love espionage and secret service dramas. I was hooked on Spooks, set in the UK and now Homeland, a US  TV series which was released in October 2011. I watched the latest episode last night and my final thoughts before I drifted off to sleep, and my first waking thoughts, were what makes it so gripping?

There are many good dramas, films, and books that will keep you wanting more – books that will keep you up all night, films that leave you glued to your seat long after the cinema has emptied, drama series that will leave you waiting for the next episode, but how and why does this happen? Like all of you, my life is full and busy, there isn’t much time to watch TV, get to the cinema often or read a book right through in one sitting. So it has to take a pretty good plot and compelling characters to make me want more. These are the two key elements of a good storyline. You can have a great plot with two-dimensional characters and the reader/viewer won’t engage or feel anything, apart from maybe the need to go and make a coffee. Similarly, you might have engaging characters but if nothing happens to them, then there is no tension or suspense, nothing to stay for, nothing to come back for.

I’ll fill you in quickly on the Homeland plot:

Homeland is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, following Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an American soldier returned to the US from years of captivity in Iraq, and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a Central Intelligence Agency operations officer who conducted an unauthorised operation in Iraq and is put on probation. She is warned that an American prisoner of war has been turned by al-Qaeda. She believes Brody is not an American Hero, but part of a sleeper cell planning a terrorist attack. The only person she can trust is Saul Berenson. The two must now work together to investigate Brody and prevent another terrorist attack on America. Homeland was named Best Drama Series at the Emmy Awards, with stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis winning Lead Actress in a Drama Series, and Lead Actor in a Drama Series, respectively.  The series also won Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series.

So, what is it that has made the series so successful, and why am I taking up your time in sharing all of this? Because it is important to learn what makes  the viewer keep coming back, and what keeps people reading.

Good Plot

A story has to have some element of conflict – conflict of desires, conflict of interest, conflict between characters. Without it there is very little tension. Not all books are thriller/espionage/action adventure, but even in a romance or historical fiction novel you’ll find some good areas of conflict which propel the plot forwards and drive the action. In Homeland you never really know which side Nicholas Brody is on. There are moments when you believe he wants the best for the US government and the country, and times when he wants to support the terrorist group who he became entwined with during his years in prison. He has allegiances to both sides for various reasons. As the viewer, you never know what he really believes.

Compelling Characters 

Sol Stein, author of nine novels, poet, screenplay and TV drama script writer, and creative writing lecturer, has said this of characterisation – ‘When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.’ He says that we are driven through life by needs and wants, that these desires are the driving force of characters. If a character does not want something enough, the reader or viewer will have a difficult time getting behind them, and will lack the emotional experience that they are looking for. Carrie, in Homeland, is constantly trying to prove her belief that Brody has been turned and is a ‘threat to national security.’ It is this drive in her, despite the obstacles, that keeps you hooked. You want her to succeed.

What have you seen, read or written recently that builds tension? Do you have any examples of good plot or compelling characters?

I’m off to see Skyfall on Wednesday! Enjoy the Homeland trailer…


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Short Stories and Flash Fiction

Having spent months editing Take Me to the Castle I have missed the writing process, which is what writers love. Editors scour written work for grammar, punctuation, style, consistency. Publishers focus on pulling a book together professionally and marketing it to readers. Writers love to craft novels and stories. I think we come unstuck when it is time to take a scalpel to the writing and cut out or change words, re-read, re-write, and change any inconsistencies. So I decided to take action and write some short stories and flash fiction. This has served two purposes – It has given me the opportunity to write in a shorter timescale than I would a whole novel, and it has sharpened my skills as a writer. I will keep you posted on the release of these. My aim is to publish an anthology in the future, with a collection of short stories and poems.

I have had some communication with the lovely Alison Moore, author of The Lighthouse, which was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She says that she began her journey into writing by writing short stories, and that it tightened her style and honed her craft. I had already read ‘When the Door Closed, It was Dark’ in The Best British Short Stories 2011 by Salt Publishing, and loved it. So I set to work on short story writing and have also written flash fiction, generally under 350 words. For the writer it teaches you to keep the essence of your story within limited boundaries, and for the reader it is a pleasure to read something which is short and intense – like a good espresso!

Before I get back to my coffee, I just want to leave you with an exclusive short story by Hilary Mantel, The Long QT. It is striking in so many ways. Let me know what you think.

What are your experiences with reading or writing short stories and flash fiction? Do you prefer these styles of writing to novel-length work or vice versa? Have your say and feel free to share any of your own reading or writing experiences with short stories or flash fiction.

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