Monday, September 28, 2009

Writing Concept: Micro-tension in Exposition

Donald Maass has written a top-notch craft book called The Fire In Fiction. If you haven't laid your hands on this, I highly recommend it. This series of posts is taken directly from Chapter Eight. You will want your own copy if possible, so you can highlight and mark it up. I think this is one book on craft I will refer to often.

Exposition (interior monologue) is often skimmed over by readers. To illustrate his point, Maass suggests you pull out a purple highlighter (purple?) and grab a novel off your shelf. Read a few pages with your purple highlighter in hand. Draw a wavy line through any area you find yourself skimming. His bet is that much of what you skim will be exposition.


Maass writes: The most common reason is that such exposition merely restates what is obvious from what we have read: emotions that we felt earlier, thoughts that have already occurred to us. My private term for this is churning exposition. It's easy to skim because there's nothing new in it.

My notes from the his workshop include these words under micro-tension in exposition: SHARP HARD CONFLICT WAR

Tension in exposition is created when the author constructs feelings that are in conflict, or ideas that are at war with one another. Examples in Fire, include feelings of happiness and relief vying for worry in the exposition of one young girl. Ideas of judgment warring with forgiveness in the interior monologue of a dying man.

From Fire: How do you handle exposition? Are there passages of interior monologue in your manuscript that are just taking up space? If there are, you can cut them, or possibly you can dig deeper into your character at this moment in the story and find inside of him contradictions, dilemmas, opposing impulses, and clashing ideas that keep us in suspense.

. . . true tension in exposition comes not from circular worry or repetitive turmoil; it springs from emotions in conflict and ideas at war.

CR: Identity Crisis by Debbi Mack

It's all better with friends.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Writing Concept: Micro-tension in Action

You know that old axiom, "I know what I like when I see it." Well, when Donald Maass is actually reading examples and fixing them off the cuff, I can see it. I can hear it. The shift from mundane to intriguing.

But then I look at the page in front of me. One that I've written. It either looks just fine (and don't I know that is gonna bite me in the butt later on), or I can't figure out how to fix it. Is it really either of those things, or is it that I'm afraid it's going to require a lot more of me than I'm willing to give at this moment?

Whoa. That's bears repeating.

Is it really that I can't figure out how to fix something I've written, or is it that I'm going to have to invest more time, more thought, more struggle?

From The Fire in Fiction: . . . tension in action comes not from the action itself but from inside the point-of-view character experiencing it.

Here is a short section of a scene I recently revised. Hopefully, you'll be able to see a difference. Both of my critique partners had been in favor of cutting this paragraph. I decided to see if infusing it with a little bit of micro-tension changed their minds.

Bond (my co-protag) had gone for a walk with the family dog, a little bichon named McKenzie. The bad guys sent a message to the family by booting the small dog like a football. She's taking him to the vet.

First Draft:

Bond cradled him as best she could and took off at a fast trot down the remainder of the trail. She entered the code to open the garage and ducked under the door as it opened. Grabbed one of the blankets in her Jeep she always kept for emergencies and wrapped McKenzie. She hated letting him out of her grasp, but knew that laying him on the passenger seat would be better than him feeling her movements every time she moved her feet to drive. The garage door was barely up before she’d clamored into the Jeep and put her key in the ignition. Flying down the driveway, she punched a speed-dial number in her cell.

Revised draft:

Bond cradled him as best she could and sped off at a fast pace down the rocky, now dangerous, trail. Damn. What’s the code for the garage door? She forced her mind to focus. Two attempts and she ducked under the door as it opened. Grabbed one of the blankets in her Jeep she always kept for emergencies and swaddled McKenzie. The garage door was barely up before she’d clamored into the Jeep and twisted her key in the ignition. Firing down the driveway, she punched a speed-dial number in her cell.

What would make this better? More tension could be infused if Bond has some conflicting emotions. Any ideas?

CR: Identity Crisis by Debbi Mack.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Writing Concept: Micro-tension in Dialogue

I'm working through my rewrites wondering how different the last half might look from the first as I try to stumble through the idea of developing micro-tension in my writing. I like to think I may have lucked out a time or two early on (or better, had flashes of brilliance), but since I have yet to fully understand this concept, there's a good chance there's little difference. {resigned sigh}

For more significant guidance, additional detail, or just because there's a lot more in the book than the idea of micro-tension, you'll want to get your hands on a copy of Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass. The chapter I'm working from is Chapter Eight, Tension All the Time.

Maass has the amazing ability (honed from years and years of studying writing) to pick up a sample and tweak it to add undeniable tension. Or intrigue. At the workshop I attended, a brave soul offered up her YA manuscript with a bit of dialogue to see how it could be enhanced.

Her scene had two people waiting for a bus. An older woman and a teen girl with an attitude. What Maass did to make it better was to get to the goals and emotions of the individual characters. The older woman was nosey, and the younger girl wanted to be left alone. Super conflict for tension in the dialogue. His immersion into the psyche of each character ratcheted the words each one uttered. Amazing.

From Fire: Tension in dialogue is emotional, not intellectual. It comes from people, not topics.

Writers will sometimes feel we have to risk backstory and info dumps to help the reader understand the situation, and in some cases, we're probably right. But there's no way we can turn information into riveting writing. It is what it is. Sometimes we can make things a little better using dialogue. But it must be infused with tension. One of your characters has to have an opposing goal, or a disbelieving view, or something that makes the dialogue relevant and interesting.

And don't forget inner conflict. That can be expressed in dialogue as well. Do they indicate that what they're about to say is really none of their business, or something else even more dramatic?

Maass gives an example of creating tension when the dialogue is between friends. Then, the writer must rely on friendly disagreement. But there is still an element of strain. Does the character think they're friend is making a horrible decision? Do they refuse to back down?

From Fire: Where is the tension in your dialogue? Is it present in every line? Why not undertake a dialogue draft? Check every conversation in your story. Are you relying on the circumstances or the topic itself to make it important for us to listen in?

That is dangerous. Instead, find the emotional friction between the speakers. Or externalize your characters' inner conflicts. Or pit allies against each other. True tension in dialogue comes not from what is being said, but from inside those who are saying it.

Maass says earlier in the chapter: Micro-tension is easily understood but hard to do. I know this because when teaching it in workshops I watch participants nod in understanding when I explain it, but see them stare helplessly at their pages when they try to do it themselves.

Was I that obvious?

CR: Identity Crisis by Debbi Mack

It's all better with friends.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Writing Concept: Micro-tension

I attended a writers conference last week at which an Early Bird session was offered. Donald Maass presented an information packed workshop based on his must-have books on craft: Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook; and his newest, The Fire in Fiction.

Because it's easier for me to begin to understand a concept by sharing it with others, my plan is to write a few posts here centered around what Maass says is "the secret for making a page turner."

My notes say: Micro-tension: The line-by-line tension that carries the reader. Makes them momentarily apprehensive, anxious—enough to make them read the very next line, and then the next.

Maass says in The Fire in Fiction: Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but in the next few seconds. It is not a function of plot. This type of tension does not come from high stakes or the circumstances of a scene. Action does not generate it. Dialogue does not produce it automatically. Exposition—the interior monologue of the point-of-view character—does not necessarily raise its level.

I often hear writers talk about authors "getting away with" breaking the rules. Opening with weather or landscaping, dumping backstory when we all know it's supposed to be sprinkled like a very rare, very pungent spice throughout the story, but not before page 50!

Maass says that when you don't have micro-tension, the reader is likely to skim. Too much skimming and you've lost them forever. When you do have micro-tension, you can get away with anything.

From Fire: . . . micro-tension has its basis not in story circumstances or in words: it comes from emotions and not just any old emotions but conflicting emotions.

I hope to sort through this with you over the next few days as I learn about tension in dialogue, action and exposition, and try to apply it to my own writing.

Stepping off the cliff now . . .

CR: Identity Crisis by Debbi Mack

It's all better with friends.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Rewrite Process

One of the things every writer needs to figure out is the process that works for them.

How much needs to be worked out in the beginning? A detailed plot, or a vague concept? Characters? Setting? GMC?

Is organization tactile and/or visual, or does the work flow so quickly organization is unnecessary?

What to research first, what as the story is being written, and what can wait for later?

I think the reason one writes in order to learn how to write is as much about finding process as it is about learning craft.

Here's what seems to be working for rewrites at the moment:

I write in scenes rather than chapters. Scrivener (the writing software I LOVE and the driving reason behind my getting a Mac) let's me color-code POV's and save all of my scenes in a binder. By writing in scenes, I can shift them around and easily insert new ones that support my sub-plots.

I printed out my entire SFD. To rewrite, I grab a chunk of it to rewrite the scenes and form chapters—two at a time. (Six done today!) I have a notepad to remind myself of things that need to be tied up and then make the changes in the Scrivener program. My notes are outrageously messy. Ruled paper? What's that for?

Another printout, another review, and a ship to my critique partners for their input.

After this is done, I envision it sitting for a week or two, then a final read-through on my own.

That should give me enough time to have a polished manuscript for the full I'm just sure will be requested at some point after the sit-downs I've got scheduled with agents and editors next week. (From my lips . . .)

OT: Had a wonderful, romantic trip to San Antonio with the Love of My Life to celebrate our anniversary. If you haven't been to the Riverwalk, put it on your list. Just be sure and go during the week, and avoid holidays.

CR: Paranoia by Joseph Finder on my Kindle and loving it. (Marketing note: This was a free download for a period of time as Joe had a new book releasing. He certainly has a new fan in me.)

It's all better with friends.

Friday, September 4, 2009

On Becoming a Pro

Yesterday I felt like a professional writer.

Not because the writing flowed. Not because I received a check in the mail. Not because my critique partners were left in puddles of awe over my writing.

Yesterday I felt like a professional writer because I worked on my rewrites.

I was tired and I worked on my rewrites.

If I could take naps (oh, I wish I could take naps) I would not have taken one. I would've worked.

Because I'm learning how to be a professional writer.

I write when I'm inspired, and I see to it that I'm inspired at nine o'clock every morning.


CR: Prime Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I Solemnly Promise . . .

I had a meltdown yesterday.

Working on a particular section, I needed to confirm something (I can't remember what) and skimmed some upcoming scenes.

Suddenly, it appeared that the character I'd just written about, who was standing up and everything, was in the hospital with a concussion. What!? I panicked. I looked again. Yep. There he was. All banged up and not a doppelganger. Crud.

My rewrites screeched to a halt while I tried to figure out the best way to proceed. Forcing myself to take some kind of action aside from pacing and gibber-jabbing, I sat down to organize a plan. I read through the hard copy carefully and discovered I wasn't whacked, just wicked. My poor character. {evil smile}

The barest of outlines would've saved me so much time and frustration.

Thanks to my new Twitter friend (I cannot call them tweeps), Glynes O'Connell, I was reminded of something I should have paid attention to. I wrote about a wonderful method for putting a manuscript together, and then promptly buried it. Sheesh.

Next time? At the very least, there will be an outline. I swear.

CR: Prime Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan.

It's all better with friends.