Tips For Sustaining Tension In Your Writing

Last week, I talked about giving characters agency, but that’s not all editors and agents request. Another thing they ask for is ‘tension’. If the reader doesn’t have a reason to care what happens next, you’ve lost your tension.

Wait. Before we get any further, I need to clarify:

Why ‘Conflict’ Doesn’t Always Mean ‘Tension’

You hear a lot about how stories need to start off with ‘conflict’, but that’s not quite true. What your story needs is tension.

A fight or chase scene can provide conflict, but it’s really just an unsubtle way of giving your readers tension they can understand. And you have to be sure it’s actively forwarding the plot!

If you’ve ever seen Matrix 2, think about the opening fight scene–that went on and on and on.

I’m an easy audience– I don’t typically critique while watching, I want to buy into the world and the story, and I’m very invested in even the cheesiest of movies. Plus? I have a well-honed startle reflex.

Before the 10-minute mark, I couldn’t sit on the edge of my seat any longer. I sat back, took a sip of my soda, and waiting for the fighting to finish so we could start the plot.

So, with that caveat, let’s talk about the:

Goats with locked horns.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Types of Tension

  1. Fights
  2. Arguments
  3. Deadlines
  4. Curiosity (but not true confusion or you’ve lost your reader)
  5. “Disquiet-itude”* – where something is a little off
  6. Unanswered questions
    • Romantic questions! Will they or won’t they?
    • Mystery questions! Who was the real killer?
  7. The list goes on and on…
Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

Ways To Add Tension

Most of these should be familiar, but I’d be remiss if I left them out.

  1. Get into the scene as late as possible, and get out as soon as the scene’s main character has made a decision about the next action.
    • In Game of Thrones, Clash of Kings, there’s a scene that showed Daenerys after the council decided against her, raging against them. And the scene ends when Daenerys decides what to do next — before letting the reader/viewer in on the plan.
  2. Fight scenes aren’t tense by themselves – the stakes they’re fighting for are what adds the tension.
  3. Hinting is better than showing – think about horror movies.
  4. The Main Character Wants something
  5. The Main Character is invested in something
    • Emotionally, physically, financially -> it doesn’t matter what combination of these three, but you know it’s the character’s weak point
  6. The Scenery – use word choice to set up the tension
    • Have your metaphors say more than just the comparison
    • Look at your verb choice. Is there something more precise that sets the mood?
  7. The five senses
    • Building on the scenery, have the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches enhance the tension and mood
  8.  Contrast
    • Is everyone else tense, except for one character? What do the rest of the characters know that your one character doesn’t know?
    • Is your character tense when everyone else is relaxed? What does your character know that the rest don’t know?
  9. Have something be obvious to the reader, that the main character doesn’t react to as expected.
  10. Proximity – both time and distance affect tension
  11. Pacing – Shorter chapters. Shorter sentences. More action.
A hammock overlooks the water.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Ways To Lower Tension

Well, other than playing with the things above, (in a reverse way), there are things that writers do that lower tension, either intentionally or not.

  1. Writers often start with setting the scene chapters before the true story starts
  2. Writers fulfill the reader’s expectations, with no twists
  3. Humor – there’s a reason gallows humor exists. If you guessed “breaking the tension” in real life, you’d be right.

Conclusion

Remember, you want to keep the tension in your story to compel the reader onwards, but as with any genre, sustaining high tension is exhausting. You need to give the readers (and characters) time to process the plot.

By playing with the levels and types of tension in your story, you can make a story that your reader just can’t walk away from.


These notes come from the Balticon 52 panel, “Sustaining Tension in Your Writing”, featuring writers/panelists David Walton, Gail Martin, Scott Andrews, and moderated by Mark VanName.

 

* Scott Andrews’s word

Advertisements

How To Find An Agent For Your Novel

I talk a lot about my querying process, but one thing I haven’t talked as much about is HOW to find the agent in the first place.

It takes a bit of research, but most of us writers are pretty comfortable with research, especially if it means we’re putting our manuscript in front of the ‘right’ person. It’s a little time consuming, but ultimately not usually challenging.

Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

Step One: Pick a list of literary agents

Where can you find a list of literary agents? All over the place.

The main places I look for agents are:

  • Guide to Literary Agents [YEAR]  – found on Amazon, in bookstores, or at your local library, this is a print(or Kindle) edition of vetted agencies. It’s fine if it’s a couple years old.
  • The Manuscript Wish List – A website associated with the twitter hashtag #mswl. This list is lightly vetted and tends to be where you’ll find the more social media adept agents.
  • Query Tracker – A website to track your queries, response rates, and more. You can also FIND agents to query here, with a pretty handy search feature.
  • Your genre magazine! Yes, they print a magazine for most genres listing the books that recently sold, what agent sold them, and interviews with the writers, agents, and editors. I write fantasy, so I look at Locus Magazine (for SF/F)
  • Publisher’s Weekly – check out the book deals and look for agents selling books that sound like yours.
  • Your bookshelf! – Open a book you love with a comparable genre to your manuscript (preferably one published in the last 3-5 years) and see who they thank in the opening. Who the listed agent is!
  • Google! Just look for literary agents.

Step Two – Make Sure They Represent Your Genre

When you’re looking at this list of agents, make certain that your genre is listed as something they represent! Otherwise, you’re asking for a short trip to the rejection form letter queue.

Feel free to add all the agents you want to your query list, though! I suggest creating a large list and ranking them 1-3.

It can take up to 100 no’s before you get that ‘yes’.

For me, 1’s are the agents whose bios spoke to me, who listed some of my comps (comparison novels) as favorites, or request a theme I feel is strong in my book.

2’s are the agents who sounded up my alley but didn’t have any specific requests that my novel fulfilled.

3’s are the agents who represent my genre, didn’t give enough detail for me to know if we’d be a good fit but didn’t list any specific dislikes that fit my novel. They could be AMAZING and just didn’t use their bios to their full potential.

Because a lot of these lists are just that- lists of agents’ names and represented genres.

And worse? Sometimes these lists are out of date.

Scrabble pieces spelling out 'SEARCH'

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Step Three – Visit Their Agency’s Website

No matter where you get the name from:

  1. Go to their agency website
  2. Visit their profile
  3. READ it.

Often, this is where you’ll get a list of their preferences, their tastes, their favorite books. This is where you get a taste of their personality so you can evaluate if you think they’d be a good match for you. Use this information when ranking these agents for querying.

Plus, you can find out their experience. Are they young and hungry? Where did they work before? Do they talk about their editorial feedback or are they just going to start selling your book right away? Are they experienced and only take on the rarest of new writers? Do they want to sell a book, or start a partnership that will last throughout your writing career?

And most importantly, are they currently open to queries!?

Step Four – Vet Them

Once you’ve decided an agent sounds right for you, don’t stop there. Check out both the agency and the agent!

  • Writers Beware – A SF/F run site, but can have lots of information on vanity presses, scams, and more.
  • Query Tracker – Do they have a success rate (many agents don’t track here, but can be a clue. Check out what other writers have to say about working with them, their response times, etc)
  • Absolute Write* – Forums and posts about agencies, agents, and issues with any of them.
  • Plain out google them. Check out their twitter or blog.

Some agencies are glamorized vanity presses. Remember, you should NEVER pay to be published traditionally.

Some agencies basically just help you self-publish. If you’re self-publishing or indie-publishing, you might end up paying out of pocket for your own editor, cover art, and print/e-formatting. Is it worth it to you to go through them?

Remember that a lack-luster sale on a self-published work or through a small publisher can be strikes against you in the future if you do try traditional publishing.

If you’re a blow-away success, you can find a publisher or agent easily. But the number of people who’ve gotten a book deal that way can be counted about on one hand.

A hand holding a deck of cards, fanned out, facing away from the camera.

Photo by Tookapic on Pexels.com

Step Five – Deciding Who To Query First

It’s recommended to send out queries in batches of 5-10. I usually do batches of 3-5, but I’m cautious and nervous.

For an untested query, I like to do a mix of 1’s and 2’s. I feel the 1’s are a better match, but I don’t want to use a query that performs poorly on all of them, because once they say no, you should NOT re-query, unless you’ve substantially revised your manuscript.

NOTE: If you’re getting a lot of form rejection letters, you should look at your query and opening pages and see if you can make improve them.

Requerying will typically just get you rejected faster, and possibly added to that agent’s blacklist.

A laptop, a map, a notebook, and a pen held over a spot on the map.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Step Six – Follow Their Submission Guidelines

I’m assuming you’ve already written your novel, edited it, revised it, and gotten feedback at LEAST twice before you even THOUGHT about submitting.

If it takes you even more rounds of beta readers and revisions, that’s fine! Especially for a first-time novelist. You only get one debut novel.

You should have written your query letter — keeping it under at least 300 words, and preferably under 250 words — concentrating on the emotional arch of the main character(s). CHARACTER wants SOMETHING, but SOMETHING ELSE stands in their way.

You should have created your synopsis.

However, no two agents or agencies have the same guidelines. So what do you do?

  1. Go to the agency website
  2. Click the ‘Submissions’ tab
  3. Read the directions
  4. Follow them

Really. It’s that easy.

Plus? Their guidelines are kinda a test. If you ignore their directions, they’re going to assume you’re a pain in the butt to work with. They get dozens of queries a day and you just made it really easy for them to say no.

Some are going to have you fill out a web form. Some only accept snail-mail submissions. Some want you to email a specific address.

99% of email submissions do NOT accept attachments. Adding one anyway will get your query deleted without being read. Often, you’re going to copy and paste pages or even chapters AFTER your query letter, directly into the email.

And make sure you spell the agent’s name right. Don’t ask me how I know this one.


sky ditch eye hole

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Now you know how to pick agents to query! Best of luck in the query trenches.

Thanks for tuning in! Feel free to subscribe and I’ll be back next Thursday for more Writing Tips and Writerly Musings.

 

*Edited to add Absolute Write. I knew I was missing one!

When Querying A Novel: Hope Can Be The Scariest Thing

If you’re a regular reader, you saw my post two weeks ago about how I started to lose faith in my story. I believe in my story, but I was worried about its ability to stand out in an over-crowded market full of amazing stories.

I don’t know if it was karma, persistence, or simply comedic timing, but I got a FULL REQUEST on Monday.


Querying and Life

For those of you who haven’t queried a novel, I’ve been sending 1-page ‘query’ letters to agents, asking if they would like to represent my novel and me, and find me a publisher. Each agent and agency is different in what they ask for, some just want the query, some want anywhere from 5 pages to 50 pages, some want the synopsis as well.

As you might remember, I just finished a move that turned into a two-month ordeal. Well, I didn’t really get time to recover from that. The past 2 weeks, I’ve been helping coordinate my cousin’s wedding, which culminated in the official event this past Saturday. The beach was hot, the bride looked lovely, and we were surrounded by friends and family.

And? Let me tell you–if putting in that much time and effort to help a loved one earns me the karma for a full request on my manuscript? I’d do it twice a month. (I just don’t know where I’d find the time to work full time, write, and throw a wedding…)

A couple, kissing on a sandy beach at sunset (sunrise?)

Photo by Ibrahim Asad on Pexels.com


Hearing Back On A Query

But, going back to the full request. I’d queried this particular agent with just the query 104 days ago. The agency website says they TRY to respond in under 8 weeks for queries and under 12 weeks for page requests, but it’s not guaranteed.

Personally? I like to be patient and am hesitant to nudge unless a timeline for that is explicitly noted. Otherwise, I’ll likely wait double the suggested time limit. I don’t want to irritate the agent, and as long as they aren’t a ‘no-reply-means-no-thank-you’ agency, I’ve yet to not hear back eventually. (And many are now sending “we got it” automated replies, so that worry is alleviated.)


My Reaction To Getting a Full Request From An Agent

Confession?

When I got the email, I had to read it twice. I’ve gotten fewer than a handful of non-form-letter rejections. My one other FULL request, from two revisions ago, turned into no-reply.

Reading this one, I started breathing hard and my hands flailed in the air.

Tears welled up in my eyes, as I covered my face with my hands, and tried not to let my entire cube farm know that something was up.

Hope is terrifying!

I’d given up. I’d emotionally stopped expecting to get any traction with this story I love so much, that I’ve worked so hard on. I’d even entered a writing contest last week to try and get feedback, to see if someone could help me try and add that SPARK to get the interest that my story deserves.

To be offered this chance, this opportunity to display my work to an agent I was super excited about was overwhelming.

I had hope. Which meant now I had something to lose.

I stared at the clock. I couldn’t wait to go home and work on my novel.

clock


Prepping My Manuscript For Submission

Wait! But Morgan, you’re only supposed to query novels that are already edited and ready to go? What work did you need to do?

Well, true. And my novel IS revised, edited, and ready to go.

But, I’ve been slowly working on a read-through of my novel, just for a final polish while waiting on rejections to try and make it shine. I’d slowed down after I passed the 50 page mark, thinking anyone who asked for more pages would start with a partial (i.e. Where they ask for more pages, but not the whole thing.)

And with the move and the wedding and all? I was sitting at about page 160 out of 340.

I could have just sent it and trusted my earlier edits, but honestly? I wanted to finish this read-through.

5 Bic pens fanned out. Green, black, pink, blue, and red.

All of my Bic editing pens.


The Odds That A Full Request Will Lead To An Offer

Now, I’ve been querying for a while and I know the odds. A request for more pages means that my query is working (and maybe my first pages if they’re included in the submission package.)

It does NOT in any way, shape, or form mean I’m about to have an offer on the table.

For one? Remember that 104 days I waited to hear back on my 1 query letter? A full manuscript takes a bit longer to read — assuming always that they don’t read the first chapter and decide it’s not for them.

In addition? This particular agent hasn’t read a single page of my manuscript, yet. The voice, the tone, or the pacing might not be right for her.

But then again? It could be just what they’re looking for.

Picture of a roulette wheel.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com


Responding To On A Full Request

Back to my manuscript polishing. I could have spread it out a little–as long as I replied in the next couple days I would be okay.

But, I didn’t want to give the impression that I wasn’t ready.

I didn’t want to give the impression that I was slow to work with or that I looked at standard guidelines as mere suggestions.

Plus, I’m the kinda girl who finishes her test and turns it in first, because every time I try to review my answers, I only change right answers to wrong ones. Overthinking things isn’t my forte, so I just send it off and make sure it’s out of my hands. I wasn’t about to start sitting on things now.

Also, I’m the sort of person who, once I have a decided course of action, moves forward. (Assuming it’s something I want. Not just the lesser of two weevils.)

WIN_20180517_00_16_07_Pro


Focused On Polishing

Thus, I got home at 6 pm and I polished until 1:30 a.m., prepped the submission package, and sent it off before I could work myself into a tizzy.

The first about 150 pages I polished had my complete focus.

Wait. That’s a lie.


Distractions From Writing – Gaining Traction

About 25 pages in, I got an email from my dad asking if I wanted to collaborate on a short story. And remember that writing contest I entered? They were asking for more pages.

❤ Traction. My little story is starting to get some traction. ❤

I had to take a few moments to fan myself and take it all in.

Meanwhile? A thunderstorm was blowing in, with strong winds and heavy rains. I watched the trees in my backyard sway and decided I’d be working a little further away from those great big windows.

Sitting on my couch, away from the windows, listening to the howling storm, I had to just sit back and laugh.

When it rains it pours. In this case? Literally.

A hand reaching out to feel the falling rain - in black and white/greyscale.

Photo by Tookapic on Pexels.com


Late Night Writing

So, there I was, burning the midnight oil to finish reading through my polished draft one last time before I sent it off.

Honestly? The last 50 pages? Well, my eyes were starting to blur from staring at the screen, but the ending’s been rewritten and reworked a lot, so likely needed less polish than the middle.

A bit rushed, but acceptable work. Plus, now I know I can polish nearly 25 pages an hour, so I have no excuse next time for working so slow.

Social media can take care of itself without me for a while.

Now all I can do is cross my fingers and hope that my manuscript touches a chord.


 Best of luck to all of you out there and don’t give up hope!

Let me know if there was a time YOU got feedback at just the right time to keep you going. It doesn’t have to be writing related.

How Change Can Be a Good Thing – In Life and In Writing

I’m moving.

This week has been spent packing, painting, and making seemingly endless to-do lists.

I’m partially moving to be closer to friends and family, partially to be closer to my new job (that I took partially BECAUSE of it’s proximity to the aforementioned friends and family), and partially because it’s cheaper there than it is where I am now.

That’s a lot of change.

I think it’s going to be a good thing.


Getting Away From The Status Quo

In life, if you don’t make changes, you end up doing the same thing, day-after-day, year-after-year. If you want to reach your dreams, you need to be actively working towards them, changing your life to get you there. Wishes are only useful for the direction they give you.

Enter a caption

In writing, if you don’t read and practice and learn how to use criticism to grow, your writing won’t improve.

In your stories, your reader cares about change. Stories are about things HAPPENING and that means change. Sure, there are some stories about daily living, but something, even if it’s internal growth or understanding, should happen. “May you live in interesting times” might be a curse, but that’s where stories are.


Trying Something New

You weren’t born knowing what your favorite food was, you had to try it to find it.

Just because one writing style, one point of view, one tense comes naturally to you, doesn’t mean that a different style can’t compliment your writing better! If you don’t try something, you’ll never know.

Whether they like it or not, your main character is probably going to have to step outside their comfort zone if they want to fix the problem caused by the ‘inciting incident’ (assuming a traditional style novel, and most non-traditional).


Embrace The Unknown

This new thing you’re trying might be a complete disaster. You might make every mistake in the book–and invent a few new ones along the way.

You won’t know til you try.

OR

This new thing may be just the thing you didn’t know you were looking for. Sometimes the ‘mistakes’ you make are just how you figure out what comes next.

pexels-photo-247787.jpeg

Less esoterically? There’s a program I used at my old job that I learned how to use by breaking it. Repeatedly. And having to unbreak it was how I learned the ins and the outs.

And now, at my new job? My current task is to switch most of the projects to use this program.


What changes have you made that turned into a complete disaster?

What changes have you made that turned out better than you could have ever dreamt?

 

4 Ways Querying A Novel Is Like A Religion

4 Ways Querying A Novel Is Like A Religion

Most agents, especially in America, like query letters. These are somewhat formulaic introductions to your novel’s characters and plot, that give the agent a feel for your writing style and story.

(I’ve heard ones in the UK and other places like cover letters? But I fear what those might entail, and have never studied their holy scripture.)

1 – Adherents should follow certain tenets

Like most types of religious doctrine, there are different sects, but they agree on a lot of the basic tenets.

The Basic Tenets of Querying

  • Include at least 2 short paragraphs about the novel
  • Include a paragraph with the novels stats
  • Include a short author biography
  • Try to keep the query under 250 words or 1 page
  • Avoid rhetorical questions – they’re overdone and not compelling
  • Avoid ‘in character’ queries – they’re confusing and trite
What they don’t agree on? Everything else.

2 – Different Sects Have Different Rules

If you ask 20 agents what a query should look like, you’ll get between 10 and 20 different answers. Some will overlap, and some will contradict everything the other said.

Querying Doctrinal Differences

  • If the stats paragraph goes at the start or the end
  • If you should include a single pitch sentence, or just get to the story
  • If personalization is something desirable or feels like trying too hard to be friends
  • The length of the story section of the query (1, 2, or 3 paragraphs)

3 – Ritual Observance

To offer the best odds for a query to succeed (i.e. result in additional pages requested, the story sells itself), many query practitioners concoct different rituals.

  • Querying at specific times and days of the week, month, or year
  • Tweaking the query based on #mswl or other stated preferences
  • Following and commenting on the agent’s social media in the hope of connecting such that they recognize your name in a fond way when you query (in a RESPECTFUL and NON-STALKERISH way)
  • Selecting agents based on the assumed personality extracted from their profile
  • Number of queries sent at a time
  • Number of outstanding queries at any time
  • Number of query rejections between revamping pages and/or their query

4 – Heretics!

There are heretics who hate the formula and strive to stand out, to be different, to break the mold and catch an agent’s attention.

  • They’ll write from the character’s point of view
  • Send the letter as though they were writing a friend
  • Send a stream of consciousness message
  • Talk about why they wrote the book and themes, (rather than letting the story demonstrate these things itself)
  • Go on for pages
  • Write 3 lines and their salutations
  • Write in verse — iambic pentameter, haiku, or free verse

I’m not saying none of these will ever work with any agent, ever. I’m just saying, most agents like the formula for a reason. And if the agents are bored by the formula, that just means your opening pages count for more.


Do you have any rituals I missed?

Which query sect do you belong to?