Exploring genre: Suspense

I write in a lot of genres, and while suspense isn’t one of them (yet!) I absolutely love to read it. 

So what do I think makes a good suspense read? Here are my top three tips:

  1. Having a fabulous twist. A strong twist that surprises the reader can turn a good suspense book into a great one. One of my favourite YA Suspense of recent-ish years is We Were Liars by E. Lockhart for this very reason! I finished the book very quickly, but was left thinking of that twist for weeks afterward.
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  2. Having a strong element of mystery. Sounds pretty basic, right? But sometimes the mystery in a plot can become too predictable, the answers all too obvious. One book I’ve read recently that does the opposite and left me absolutely hanging out to find out who did it was One Of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus. What an excellent read! I loved it so much and don’t know if I’ve ever been so desperate to turn a page.
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  3. Having strong characters. You can have the best mystery in the world, the most surprising twist, but if you don’t create characters that are believable, likeable, and endearing, no one will care what happens to them and your suspense will fall flatter than a sat-upon pancake. 

They’re just a few things I think are crucial to a good suspense read–what about you? 

lauren k mckellar_ms
Lauren K. McKellar is the author of romance reads that make you feel. You can say hi to her over on Facebook here.

So You Think You’re Funny? 3 Ways to Add Humour to Your Writing

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Image: Ryan McGuire via Gratisography

September is all about exploring genre on Aussie Owned and Read, so I stuck my hand up to look at humour. Okay, so technically humour isn’t a genre, rather more an element of style and voice which can be employed across any genre, but if you look at the genre categories in physical and online bookstores, there’s usually a humour section. So I’m sticking to my guns – or in this case, maybe water pistols.

I love reading fiction with a humorous voice, so it’s no surprise my own writing is sprinkled with good doses of humour (or so I’m told). Like most people, though, I can’t really pinpoint what makes someone else’s – or my own – writing funny. So I Googled! Don’t judge. You would have too! Why reinvent the wheel when somebody else’s wheels have come off so nicely for the sake of a laugh?

  1. Think Ks for Giggles

Words with sharp ‘k’ or ‘c’ sounds are apparently king when it comes to laughter mileage, and words with ‘g’ sounds aren’t far behind in the giggle stakes. Go figure. This phenomenon is widely known in comedy writer circles as the K Rule. Now you know why words like ‘discombobulated’ or ‘gargoyle’ and ‘goggles’ make you smile. Put them all together – a discombobulated gargoyle wearing goggles – and you’ll have readers rolling between the pages! Okay, moving on.

2. Go NUTS on the Metaphors and Similes!

Punchy metaphors and similes are a comedy writer’s best friend, which is a good thing because I love metaphors and similes like a newly washed Labrador loves rolling in garden fertilizer. A well crafted metaphor or simile can only add to the humour in your story. The trick is to keep it fresh and creative, and to avoid cliché. Apparently you can overuse this brilliant comedic tool in your writing, or so my editor tells me. We agreed to disagree – after he made me edit out a good chunk of my metaphor and simile brilliance. I’m okay bout it. Really.

3. The Rule of 3s

Patterns are generally a useful device for writers, but a pattern of three, where the first two items set up the reader to expect one thing only to be given something unexpected in item three, is a great tool when writing humour.

‘Meredith couldn’t understand why her friends didn’t want to come hang at her place on a stinking hot day like today. She had her own air conditioned teen retreat. The fridge was stacked with heaps of cold soft drink. And she had found twelve of her fifteen pet tarantulas that had escaped their terrarium that morning.’

You get the idea.

And because all good things come in threes, here are three of my favourite YA titles that do humour really well:

If you’re after more tips on writing funny, check out Four Commandments to Writing Funny by Joe Bunting and How to Mix Humor into Your Writing by Leigh Anne Jashway.


Kat Colmer AuthorKat Colmer is a Young Adult author and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is out now with ENTANGLED TEEN and may or may not contain a few too many humorous metaphors and similes. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on FacebookTwitter and Instagram!

Elements of a Great Story: Editing

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Aussie Owned and Read has spent this month exploring the elements of a good story. Their awesome articles have explored ingredients such as the importance of authentic characters – by identifying their values, their beliefs, their reactions; the power of dialogue – by including conflict and subtext; the importance of pacing – how we can pick it up with action and dialogue and short, punchy sentences; and the power of setting – one that has been artfully woven through our scenes and characters. It really impresses on us the complexity and layers a good story needs to grasp readers. That’s a lot of balls to juggle…

How do you make sure the creation you’ve spent untold hours and sacrifices for has ticked all these boxes? You harness the power of editing.

Editing is the process of putting a new, very valuable and incredibly important, lens on your story. Stories are our babies. And just like our children or siblings, we tend to overlook (or plain old not see) their flaws. In our eyes, their strengths outshine any flaws they might have. With our family, that’s the way it should be. With a product that’s going out to for stranger’s consumption, we need to raise the bar. Editing creates the space you need to look at your story in a new way, find the weaknesses, and shore up the strengths. Luckily, there’s more than one way to do it, and it can be free.

  1. Self-Editing

There is a lot of information out there, blog, books and courses, about undertaking your own editing. If you want to hone the skills, then I suggest spending some time with Google. In the meantime the first step I recommend if you’re going to self-edit is to let your manuscript rest for a spell. And I’m talking at least a month. The first thing that will happen when you come back with fresh eyes is issues (that you hadn’t considered) will leap out so fast you’ll wonder how you missed them. Next, consider a lens that you’d like to elevate to next level; maybe dialogue, maybe pacing, maybe weaving setting through more seamlessly, and go through your manuscript with that filter in mind. Last, read your manuscript out loud, you’ll be surprised what you pick up.

This stage is important and shouldn’t be skipped, but it depends on you knowing your strengths and weaknesses in the craft of writing, and I’m not sure I’ve found a writer who has that level of objectivity. I know I don’t. This is why I recommend the next step as a vital part of making your story ready for publishing.

  1. Critique Partners

The discovery of my critique partners took my writing from a level I didn’t know I’d settled into, to a level I couldn’t have predicted. Critique partners are fellow lovers of the written word that have some understanding of the anatomy of a good story. As a general rule, these are fellow writers, and you exchange your work to provide honest and encouraging feedback. Critique partners can find things you missed, plot threads you’ve left dangling, characters that are hard to connect with. What’s even more rewarding, is finding critique partners that share the writing journey with you – the highs, the lows, the unexpected turns. They provide a level of support and encouragement that is impossible to quantify.

The points you need to keep in mind is being selective in your critique partners – you want a critique partner you can trust; one that is insightful, knowledgeable, discerning, and kind. Sometimes that takes more than one try. The other point to consider is that critique partners are still invested in your writer’s ego (they don’t want to hurt your feelings), which can cloud judgement and complete honesty. They also don’t necessarily have the qualifications, knowledge and experience a professional editor can offer.

  1. Hire a Professional Editor

As a developmental editor, and a writer that has had my manuscripts professionally edited, I’m a firm believer in the power of hiring a professional editor. If you hire an editor, you get the experience and knowledge I just mentioned, but more importantly, you’re paying for objectivity that values the power your story over the protection of your ego. An editor will delve into your masterpiece, pull out the gems, and shine a light on the holes. Character inconsistencies, POV issues, story structure slumps will all be identified in a constructive way. Because you’ll be given a road map on how to make your story the best it can be. And you’ll learn from it. You’ll experience ‘aha’ moments that will open a whole new world of possibilities, which will shape your future writing endeavours. In my opinion, that’s money well spent.

What’s your experience of editing your book? How did you take your manuscript to the next level?


Tamar Profile PhotoTamar Sloan is a freelance developmental editor and the creator of the PsychWriter blog – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Come and explore it at www.psychwriter.com.au. Tamar is also a passionate writer of award-winning young adult romance. You can find out more about Tamar’s books at www.tamarsloan.com. You can connect with Tamar on Twitter or Facebook.

Ramp up that Tension!

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It’s true! But they also want a great story! And tension is a way to keep them with you all the way. 

One of the things I find when I’m judging comp entries is that aspiring authors often confuse tension with pacing or with action. Too much pace with no breaks or undulations will certainly cause tension – but the wrong kind of tension. In short the kind that either lands your book against a wall or your reader in the ER. Ditto for action. With regards to these gently,  building and appropriate placing are the keywords. And sure, while both can help maintain the tension in your novel, they aren’t the tension. 

So, how can you build tension? Below are six things I’ve used that might help.

  1. Create characters that the reader connects with.

Once your reader has formed a connection with your character, tension is already built into that relationship. Think about someone you love or care about.  Now think about something bad happening to that person. Or them being in conflict with another; a conflict that causing them great pain and anguish; impacting on their life… Is your heart beginning to beat faster? A tightness around your chest? Pressure building in your head? No,  put the phone down. You’re not having a heart attack. (I hope!) What you’re experiencing is building tension. It’s the same with our stories. If we’ve created characters the reader readily empathises with, then the more we torture them, the more the reader worries and the more tension we build.

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  1. Keep the stakes high

A simple and long held equation for ‘story’ is:

Goal,  Motivation and Conflict   or  WHAT, WHY & WHO.

Broken down this means: WHAT does your character want? WHY does your character need this? WHO (or what) is preventing them from getting it?

 Next of course we add HOW  – as in ‘how’ do they overcome this – and we have story

There is always something at stake when you write a story. It might be the achievement of a life-long goal; the uncertainty of a love relationship; protecting a property that’s in danger of being lost to the family or protecting a child or sibling – or even a parent.  It could be needing to clear your name. It could be the strength to survive or to gain freedom. It could be anything.  That’s not the main point. The main point is that it must be BIG. And it must be plausible. And not achieving it must come at a price. A huge price.  This is teetering on the edge of a precipice tension.

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  1. Raising the stakes.

Tension in your stories isn’t static. It moves. It swells and abates. And swells again. And each time it swells, it rises higher.

Ian Irvine says of tension:  You can either raise the prize for succeeding, or raise the price of failure – or, preferably, both at the same time.”

And you keep raising those stakes.  Just when the reader takes a sigh of relief because some of the obstacles have eased, ramp it up. And ramp it even higher.

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  1. The Fear Factor

Fear is a great tension builder. When I workshop young or new authors I have them do a character profile. I’m not so interested in the basics such as looks and how many siblings they have etc, as I am in what lies underneath. One of those questions they answer in the profile concerns the character’s greatest fear. Greatest fear.  Once you have that answer you have a potential part of your plot – because one of the best ways to build tension in your story is to have that character face that fear. What is your greatest fear? The one that brings you out in a sweat  or paralyses you to the spot? Think about facing it.

How much tension are you feeling now?

Everybody has those fears.  Every one has doubts. Your character has those fears – and doubts – so use them!

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  1. Add a ticking clock

Nothing builds tension faster than a deadline.  If you don’t get the ransom to the dognapper by 12 midnight, the dog bites the dust. Again, take this back to your own life. What’s it like in your house in the morning as you scramble to get out the house to get to work on time? Maybe you’re super organised – in which case skip this. But if you’re like the majority of people, it’s madness. You have one eye on the clock; you’re running from point to point. You’re doubling up on yourself because you keep forgetting things in your haste. It gets worse:  The dog has hidden one shoe. (In which case, reconsider the ransom payment?) The child has remembered the assignment is due today. You’re at screaming point. By the time you’re out the door you feel like you’ve done a day’s work. Right?

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Again, this is tension. Any movie, book or show (Twenty Four?) we watch or read, that has a deadline element has automatic tension built in. And if you do it well, the reader won’t be able to look away.

6. Match the setting to the mood

If you’re building more than emotional tension – or not – use the elements to help build the mood. Make it as difficult for your character as possible. Always. For example is there’s evil afoot or if it’s a dark scary moment, ensure your setting and weather support that for you. A problem in the daytime is a heap less scary or worrying than one at night when you’re alone. Or when it’s raining. Or storming…  Wind howling. And the shutters are rattling and the trees are scraping the windows… 

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I’m sure you could research and find a trillion other ways to build tension and – most importantly –  maintain it. But I hope these six points are of some use. I can feel my BP already beginning to rise as I await your responses…

 

kaz-profiles-043Multi award winning author Kaz Delaney has published 72 novels for kids, teens & adults over a 20 year period, many of them  published in several languages. Thirteen are YA novels and every one features a romance. Her latest is The Reluctant Jillaroo, Allen & Unwin, 2016 .  She is repped by JDM Management.

Characters

So I’m writing this up while sitting at my desk at work…. which is why this will start out so plain, but I’ll add pics when I get home. My life is madness, and writing for me has come to an abrupt halt. I do have snippets of time to write here and there, but it’s because of my characters that I can’t.

Characters are the heart and soul of any story. Whether they be a human, an animal, or a talking object, without characters, all your doing is compiling a list or non-fiction. Even then, non-fiction often has characters! Characters breath life and purpose into a story, giving it direction, emotion, and reaction.

Because characters provide the pivot point for works of fiction, I believe that their integrity is essential. I’ve always gone a bit crazy with my casts, building way too many characters to manage, which has forced me to write up family trees etc. Keeping track of characters appearance, backstories, and families is only the first part. For the Kiya Trilogy I had wrote a family tree with descriptions of each character beside. For my Fairytale Galaxy Chronicles I have a massive excel spreadsheet with several pages, one for each of the seven books.

But the most important part is getting to know the characters. It’s this step that has prevented me from writing much lately. I love to spend time with my characters, getting my head-space into theirs. Whether it’s while listening to music while going for a walk, or driving, putting myself into the character’s place to discover how they want their story told, how they would react to situations and people around them, makes a story authentic.

Stories need these authentic characters, flaws and all, without political agendas, because real people are that way. Think about the people you know, even yourself, and no one is perfect. No one does anything exactly how they should, our how you would. Take Kiya for example; she makes reckless decisions, but I took the time to get to know her and understood her drive and everything she did was out of love for her family to the point of being self-deprecating. But also, all characters come from a place of selfishness, just like all humans do. It’s that inward perspective that drives all of us, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but understanding that will help us to see the perspectives needed for the characters. What do they see, how do they perceive it, how do their values, the way they were raised, their beliefs, cultural customs and norms, affect how they react or even don’t react. It’s up to you, the writer, to get that head-space on, to take the time to get out of your bubble and into the character’s. It’s always clear when an author inserts themselves into a narrative, it happens when you suddenly feel forced out of the story. None of us want that. And sometimes, a character does something that makes us uncomfortable, and that’s okay, because that means you’re making them real.

So, take your time to understand who you are writing about. Your readers will love the story more for it.

Katie Teller

Katie Teller aka Katie Hamstead is a writer of NA fiction. Her debut, Kiya: Hope of the Pharaoh, has sold more than 100,000 copies. You can find out more about Katie, the Kiya trilogy, and her other books on twitterfacebook, instagram or at her own blog.

***Check out her Pitching comp here or on twitter under #SonofaPitch

 

 

Elements of a Great Story – Dialogue

This month on Aussie Owned and Read we’re looking at the elements of a great story, and to help me write about crafting good dialogue, I’m lucky enough to interview fiction dialogue expert Professor S. M. Artmouth, known best for his work at the University of Wordoming.

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Photo by Leonardo Valente via Pixabay

‘Professor Artmouth, welcome to Aussie Owned and Read.’ I give the professor a big AO&R smile. ‘It’s an absolute pleasure to have you here.’

He leans back in his chair and nods. ‘I’m sure it is.’

I blink, then glance down at my notes before the man catches me staring at him open-mouthed. Surely he didn’t just say that?

I clear my throat. ‘You’ve been teaching fiction writing for some time now, and your area of expertise is dialogue. What would you say is the first thing a writer should keep in mind when trying to write good dialogue?’

‘That, Ms … Sorry, what was your name again?’ The man’s bushy brows scrunch above his thin-rimmed glasses.

‘Colmer. Kat Colmer.’

‘Yes, yes.” He waves away my answer like I’d interrupted him. ‘A writer must always ask if their dialogue is essential to the story. It must either advance the plot, reveal character, or reflect theme. If it does none of these, it’s a waste of space and must be done away with.’ Another wave of the hand. Maybe he’s swatting away redundant bits of dialogue?

I shift back a little in my chair so he doesn’t accidentally smack me in the nose. ‘What’s a mistake you see beginner writers make too often?’ I ask.

Professor Artmouth rests his elbows on the arms of his chair and steeples his fingers. The thoughtful contemplation he forces across his face is so comical, it takes everything I have not to laugh.

One of the most repeated mistakes I see in the fiction of unseasoned writers is the misuse of dialogue as a way to dump information on the reader. It may not be something that you, a recently published author with no formal education in creative writing, may easily identify in a manuscript. However, someone like myself, a highly esteemed professor of the literary arts, one who presents with a distinct air of intellect and authority as well as above average good looks, can spot a dialogue information dump from the other side of the country.’ He angles his head and gives me a pitying look. ‘Dialogue should never be used to blatantly give the reader information. Any attempt at exposition in dialogue should be in the context of confrontation. Good dialogue simply must include conflict of some sort.’

I grip my question sheet tighter in an attempt to avoid showing this douche of a man a conflict of a very different kind. ‘No gratuitous information dumps. Got it.’ I shift in my chair. Time for another question. ‘What advice would you give writers when it comes to crafting dialogue that’s distinctive to a particular character?’

‘Careful selection of vocabulary,’ he says, adjusting the cuff of his badly ironed shirt.

‘And by that you mean…’

‘By that I mean the vocabulary should fit the character, Ms Colman.’

My smile is forced. ‘It’s Colmer.’

‘Yes, yes.’ Again with the hand wave. ‘Now, let me illustrate. If, for example, you were to base a character on me, you’d want to use complex and elevated vocabulary to make sure the reader understood my character came from the upper class and was highly educated.’

I look down at my notes. ‘And highly conceited.’

‘Excuse me?’

I cough. ‘I said, could you please repeat that?’

Artmouth frowns, but he loves the sound of his own voice too much to stop talking. ‘The vocabulary must be right for the character, is what I said.’

‘So we should be realistic in how we represent characters and their speech when writing dialogue.’

‘Yes and no.’ No hand wave this time. Just a smug smile as he leans back in his chair and waits for me to ask him to explain.

I take a slow breath. ‘Please elaborate.’

‘I believe it was Hitchcock who said that great story is life with the boring bits taken out. So it is with great dialogue. We want to give the illusion of real life dialogue with all the mundane parts removed. No one wants to read umms and ahhs after every third word. And don’t get me started on overuse of dialect and colloquialism.’ He rolls his eyes, and a wave of pity for his creative writing students rolls through me.

‘Last question,’ —because I’m so over this interview— ‘I’ve heard it said that good dialogue should be working double duty. What exactly does this mean?’

‘Ah, good question, Ms Colman.’

‘It’s Colmer.’

He ignores me. At least there’s no dismissive hand wav— Wait. There it is.

‘Good dialogue should strive to include …’ Fart— I mean, Artmouth leans forward conspiratorially, like what he’s about to divulge is the holy grail of dialogue writing, ‘…subtext,’ he finally says, and waits for me to be duly impressed. My lack of awe sends him slumping back against his chair. ‘What I mean is, what isn’t said is just as important, if not more so, than what is being said.’

I nod.

So does he.

The air between us bulges with subtext that isn’t fit for polite conversation.

‘Professor Artmouth, it’s been an experience.’ I offer him my hand, but — surprise, surprise — he waves it away.

‘Yes, yes. I’m certain it has been.’ And with that, Professor S. M. Artmouth proceeds out of the room, followed closely by his overinflated self importance.

 

For more information on dialogue in fiction without the need to interview pompous fictitious writing professors, I recommend James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication. He’s got a fantastic chapter on writing and editing dialogue.


Kat Colmer AuthorKat Colmer is a Young Adult author and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is out now with ENTANGLED TEEN. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on FacebookTwitter and Instagram!

 

Elements of a Great Story – Pacing

This month on Aussie Owned we’re looking at the elements of a great story. I chose pacing because it’s one of my favourite elements of story, and one I have struggled with from time to time — particularly when I was a wee baby writer working on my first novel. (I liked to overshare about the day-to-day of my characters’ lives, you guys. No, I loved it. I was still getting to know them, and that’s fine in a first draft — but some of those scenes had to go because, ye gods, they were boring.)

Pacing is, simply, how fast the story unfolds. The “right” pacing varies depending on the requirements of your story. Some stories take you along like you’re old friends going for a stroll along the beach, slowly immersing you in events until you’re invested (before probably sucking the sand out from under you or smashing you with a wave). Other stories are the equivalent of riding a runaway stallion, all thundering hooves and branches slapping you in the face and maybe, if you’re lucky, the chance to pause and eat some grass at some point.

Okay, I’ll stop with the terrible similes!

The tools for adjusting a story’s pacing are varied; action and dialogue speed the story up, while description slows it down. Short sentences and paragraphs speed it up; long sentences and paragraphs slow it down. I think it’s best expressed by one of my favourite writers (who writes fast-paced speculative fiction and gives the best writing advice I’ve found on the internet), Chuck Wendig.

Further reading … but not, like, in a boring way

I love to give book recommendations, and, happily, I can readily bring to mind two five-star favourites with very different levels of pacing. (Both are speculative fiction, because that’s how I roll.)

The first is Aussie urban fantasy Shadows by Paula Weston (and in fact the whole Rephaim series). The four books of this series are set over the course of a couple of weeks. Sure, there are flashbacks, particularly in the last one, but still. It really gives you a sense for how exhausted the characters must be, the urgency of the storyline. When they had a chance to pause for food or a sleep I was relieved on their behalf! I can’t recommend this series highly enough.

 

The second book I’m recommending is one I just finished, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. This man is a world-building, story-crafting genius. I strongly recommend his works if you like your fantasy on the EPIC side of epic — Goodreads tells me the hardcover of The Way of Kings is over 1000 pages. (I listened to this on audiobook and it was 45+ hours long.) Because Sanderson spends so much time building his worlds and layering them with backstory and foreshadowing, the books are immersive and the build of tension is slower than in some other stories, but the stakes just keep getting higher and higher. And there are flashes of action that keep you gripped.

 


Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction writer whose latest urban fantasy, False Awakening, hits the shelves at the end of August. Preorders are now available from your favourite ebook retailers.