How to Utilize Tension More Effectively

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Tension is a very important story-telling technique. It's basically the way we tug on readers' emotions, how we pull them along page after page with curiosity, fear, or even fascination. Tension tightens readers' fingers to the book, making it very difficult for them to pry themselves away.
In essence, tension is the state of being stretched tight. I like to think of a rope tied to a tarp holding it down against a strong breeze. The harder the wind blows, the tighter the rope grows in its effort to hold that tarp in place. But if the wind dies down, the rope slackens and may even turn limp.

As writers, we can think of the tarp as our overarching story and plot, the rope as the varying types of techniques we use to stretch reader's emotions, and the wind as the amount of force we apply at any given moment.

The Tarp:

A writer must have an overarching plot. Many define plot as the connection of events or a series of causes and effects that are arranged in logical order. However, I would take the definition a step further to say that plot has to encompass the introduction of a story-problem, a problem big enough to last the entire book, a problem that covers and hangs over everything – like a tarp.

Small problems and conflicts are all fine and good (and needed). But without the overarching plot that hangs above everything else, we risk losing reader interest as the smaller cause and effect scenarios work themselves out.

The Rope:

There are two basic types of rope or tension that we can weave into our stories: macro-tension and micro-tension.

1. Macro-tension: This is the type of tension that carries through a broader scope of scenes and story. We introduce longer-lasting issues that stretch readers' emotions so that they have to keep reading to find out what happens. We can exhibit macro-tension in numerous ways:

• We make our bad guys so strong that it appears the good guys won't be able to win.

• We keep stacking the odds against our good guys until it seems they can't climb over.

• We set a ticking clock that our characters must beat or else . . .

• We withhold information to keep our reader guessing.

• We plant questions that we don't fully answer until later.

• We hint at problems that are yet to come.

• We add a sub-plot that has intrigue and inherent conflict.

2. Micro-tension: This is the type of tension that happens on a much smaller scale, usually at the paragraph or short scene level. We often feel this kind of tension when we're watching a movie and we know a knife-wielding criminal is in the house with the heroine. We're with her as hears strange thumps upstairs, as she rises from the couch, creeps down the hallway, and ascends each creaking step one at a time. We're waiting with tightening muscles and shallow breathing for the moment when the intruder jumps out. (Cue the scary music!)

With micro-tension, we stretch the paragraph or scene as taut as we can. We can do that a number of ways:

• We show more details; we move our "video camera" much more slowly and carefully, showing each step of the unfolding drama.

• We utilize the five senses to evoke a certain mood.

• We share the character's internal narration, their reactions, their churning emotions.

• We use contrast (instead of our character sneaking up the stairway, we can make her oblivious to the danger that awaits her).

The Wind:

As writers, we're the wind. We control how much pressure we apply to our characters and story. Obviously this will vary depending upon the genre we write. Suspense stories will likely have more inherent tension than historicals.

Whatever the genre, however, we writers are the ones who blow the breeze. And for the most part, we'll want to keep a steady stream in order to keep our tension levels tight.

However, we may make our readers weary if we never release the tension but instead keep the wind blowing at gale force all the time without any let up. Imagine reading page after page of both macro and micro tension without anything good ever happening to our characters. Readers may begin to think, what's the point in reading this if the character never succeeds or gets a break? They may begin to think the story is unrealistic or the character too weak.

Thus, the use of tension requires some releasing and then tightening. We blow hard, then relax, only to blow harder the next time. It's a process of give and take, and the better we get at it, the better we engage our readers.

How well are you utilizing tension in your stories? Any other tips that you can share with us? We'd love to hear them!

*Photo credit: Flickr Ollie Brown

P.S. My young adult e-novella, THE VOW (published by Harper Collins) just released! It's a prequel to the first book in my YA series coming out in March. If you love castles, knights, and the middle ages, then check it out!

Do Agents Still Hold the Gatekeeper Key to Getting Published?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

The world of publishing has changed radically over the past few years. With the evolution of ebooks and indie publishing, everything that was once tried-and-true has been shaken. As the construction dust settles, many are trying to figure out what remains of the old traditional way of doing things and also what is new and necessary.

Of course, one of the things many writers want to know is, "Do I still need an agent?" 

In the not-too-distant past it seemed that everyone was talking about getting an agent. In fact, when I first started my agent hunt about six years ago, the frenzy was at an almost ridiculous high. Most agents already had full client loads but occasionally bestowed their favor upon a giddy new writer plucked out of the slush pile.

As agents began blogging and tweeting, aspiring writers scrambled to get noticed in the new medium. At times among the cyber-hallways, it felt as though there was a "high school popularity contest" mentality both among aspiring writers and between agents.

The few writers who got an agent's attention were considered lucky and special. Because like it or not, everyone knew that agents held the gatekeeper key to getting published. Most publishers didn't have the time or staff to weed through manuscripts of all the wannabe's. So, for the most part, they let agents do the gate-keeping job for them.

But alas, the hype over agents has died down (finally!). The popularity contests are over (thank goodness!).

However, new, unagented writers are left scratching their heads wondering what to do. Do they really need an agent? And if they get agent, what would that person do for them anyway?

If you're planning to self-publish, then no, you don't need an agent. At least not right away. When you've written multiple books and they're hitting best-seller lists, then you can possibly consider acquiring an agent to help you expand your reach into traditional publishing, foreign print, and even film. (Sidenote: I'm not self-published, so I can only share what I've heard from indie friends. For those who are self-published and agented, feel free to chime in with the benefits you've experienced with your agent.)

For those still seeking traditional publication with a bigger publisher, yes, you likely WILL still need an agent to get a book deal. Once in a while, writers make connections with publishers at writing conferences. Every now and then, indie writers catch the attention of publishers if they have high sales like Hugh Howey with his Wool series (which I'm currently reading and enjoying). (Read his fascinating publishing story here on WD.)

But for the most part, traditional publishers still usually find authors from manuscripts submitted by trusted agents. Savvy knowledgeable agents not only broker deals but also provide much needed career direction (which I could expound on in a whole other post). The truth is, some agents are better at their job than others, and new writers should be careful to get feedback from agents' current clients before signing.

So how does a writer go about getting an agent? Sometimes writers connect with agents at conferences or get referrals from agented friends. But the most common way to get an agent is still through direct querying. Most agents have query guidelines on their website for exactly WHAT to submit (usually a query letter containing a synopsis and then a specific number of sample pages), HOW to submit (usually via email), and WHERE (usually to an agency email address). Follow those guidelines as carefully as possible. 

If a writer's skill is honed, if a story is well-told and captivating, and it holds general market appeal, it WILL eventually garner an agent's attention. From my many years of critiquing for new writers, I've learned that it's VERY easy to spot a talented writer and a great story. The problem is that many writers think they're at the graduate level before they really are and so end up querying an agent too soon in their writing career (like after their first book or two). Most successfully published writers will attest that they had to write several books before their writing skill reached a publishable quality.

My advice for writers who are beginning to query is this: Send it out and see what happens. If the story doesn't "hook" an agent right away, keep trying. But in the meantime continue to write AND improve your writing skills. Writing and learning must always go hand in hand.

The traditional publication process still takes lots of patience. But the good thing is that it's not the ONLY option available to writers. Our hopes for a writing career don't all hinge upon it anymore. If the traditional door stays shut, the future is still wide open.

So what about you? Do you still think agents are necessary in today's changing publishing industry?

15 Ways to Find Writing Inspiration in 2015

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Happy New Year!

At the start of every year, I like to search for ways to inspire my writing to greater depths. While I'm a firm believer in BIC writing with or without inspiration, it's always pleasant to have a rare burst of creative characterizing, poetic prose, or brilliant brainstorming. (BIC = Butt-In-Chair)

Yes, most of the time, I write without the fairy dust. But that doesn't mean I don't seek ways to inspire my writing with more beauty and meaning. So in an effort to inspire all of us, here are 15 ways to find writing inspiration in 2015:

1. Find things to smile about. We should uncover the hidden joys that surround us. Sometimes we get so busy we forget to take the time to see the small things that can make us smile. Sometimes we forget to laugh at ourselves and with others. Looking for humor in life, helps us better able to add it to our stories (and every story needs lighter moments in some form).

2. Feel pain deeply. When we face difficulties,we can't be afraid to embrace the plethora of emotions that go with it. We should let the pain filter through us fully and not avoid it. We need to cry, weep, feel frustrated, and taste depression. When we do, we can write about those emotions much more realistically in our characters.

3. Go below the surface. We need to top taking issues at face value (whether political issues, world trauma, or personal difficulties). We should peel away the layers and look deeper at problems than we ever have before. This helps heighten our awareness of motivations. And it also makes us better able to weave in eternal truths that will resonate with a broader audience.

4. Study people. Instead of letting people pass us by without taking a second glance, we should slow down and study humanity. We can look at the way people react differently to the same situation. We can analyze their habits, mannerisms, and uniquenesses. And we can study their faces, expressions, ticks, and all of the things that make them different from others.

5. Collect words, ideas, and metaphors. Everywhere we go, we can raise our radars to become more aware of interesting words, ideas, and metaphors. Whether we're in line at the grocery store or at the dentist office, we can be on the lookout for the strange and unique. But we can also try to view the ordinary with new eyes.

6. Make better use of movie time. We all watch movies (and/or TV). And most of the time we simply allow ourselves to be entertained. But we can turn movie time into "work time" by watching more thoughtfully and gleaning ideas for characters and plot. We can pick and choose characters that especially stand out to use as a basis for one of our characters. Or we can take plot twists and use them as a spring board for something in our novels.

7. Listen to inspiring music. Lately I've been listening to lots of piano and cello music (my current favorite is The Piano Guys). The incredibly complex cacophony of instruments surges through my blood. There’s something about beautiful music that restores beauty to our souls and stimulates our moods that then spills over into our stories.

8. Take time to focus on sensory details. A gently floating snowflake, the lustrous velvety fur of my kitty, the creaking of the branches outside my window, the rich aroma of the garlic and sage in the spaghetti sauce. How can we write sensory details in our stories if we don’t stop and experience them for ourselves?

9. Read writing craft books. My favorites are Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, Characters, Emotions, & Viewpoints by Nancy Kress, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. I own these and re-read them frequently. They're dog-eared, highlighted, and full of notes.

10. Read books outside our comfort zone. Over the past couple of years, I've been branching out and reading books in genres that I might not normally read. I can't say that I like each one I read. But I learn something new about writing techniques and story-telling with each book.

11. Study great books. Every time I read great books (award-winning or classical) I usually end up taking lots of notes. I enjoy studying the characterization, plot development, the usage of similes and metaphors, and all of the other techniques. I try to figure out what made the books popular in their day and why they still have a timeless appeal.

12. Make real connections. Nowadays, we spend more and more time behind a screen interacting with people as opposed to connecting in real. While there's nothing wrong with having online friendships (and in fact it can be a wonderful blessing), it can't replace face to face interactions where we're truly able to get to know people on a deeper level. If our primary relationships are shallow off the page, then how can we expect depth in our characters on the page?

13. Try writing something new. I've branched out into writing YA and have found that it has opened my creative juices in a new way. I've also recently written two novellas which has stretched my writing muscles too. When we try new genres, styles, or new techniques, we give ourselves a fresh outlook, even if eventually we go back to the tried-and-true.

14. Read a historical biography or memoir. Even those who aren't historical writers can benefit from reading history, particularly reading biographies or memoirs. I recently read Night by Elie Wiesel a memoir of his experience in German concentration camps. Of course we read so that we don't forget the past and make the same mistakes, but we also learn so much about the present when we delve into the lives of others who've come before us. Such reading enriches our experiences of life.

15. Never fail to ask "What If?" All too often our imagination is turned off in our practical, news-headline dominated world. But we can't forget to dream, be curious, and imagine the impossible. We can't be afraid to be a little crazy, to wander off the path, and to search for rainbows. Sometimes we have to let our imagination get wild and carried away in the first draft. We can always go back and tame and temper our wildness during editing if need be.

What are some other ways YOU find inspiration for your writing?

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Merry Christmas!

I'll be on a blogging break during the remainder of the holidays. Stop back on Tuesday, January 6 for a new post for the New Year.

If you haven't read my annual Christmas Letter, I invite you stop by my family blog for LOTS of pictures and a glimpse of my family life this past year.

Enjoy your holidays and see you back here on January 6!

6 Ways to Make Characters Stand Out in a Crowd

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Among the masses of characters in the masses of books out there, what truly makes a character stand out in a crowd? What makes a character remain living and breathing in the reader's mind long after they've closed the pages of a book as opposed to characters that are "here today and gone tomorrow?"

This fall I read a book called Flat Out Love by Jessica Park. I was impressed with Park's character-building. EACH of the characters was distinct, quirky, and amazingly alive.

Since it's nearly impossible for me to read without turning off my internal-editor, of course I had to analyze the nuances behind Park's stand-out characters. Here are just a few of the techniques she employed as well as a few others we can use to help our characters jump off the page.

1. Make the character HEROIC in her own way.

She needs to have a greater cause than just herself and her own needs. She needs to be concerned about someone or something else, so much so that she's willing to sacrifice her own needs. But of course, that greater cause should be unique to our character's personality. Not everyone has to be Superman in order to be heroic.

2. Give the character QUIRKS or distinct traits.

In Flat Out Love, each of the characters is really quirky to the extreme (which worked in this story but I'd caution against being too over-the-top).

One of the characters, Celeste, carries around and talks to a life-sized cardboard cut-out of her brother. Another character has a geeky tee-shirt collection and is a huge math and science nerd. Even the minor characters are very distinct with unique traits that set them apart from the others.

3. Make the character MULTI-LAYERED. 

In other words, we want our readers to have to keep peeling away layers of the character's personality to discover the "real" person hidden beneath. She may have issues that she's dealing with on the surface. But give her deeper struggles too. Hint at the problems but don't be too quick about revealing her fullest nature. Let the reader wonder and peel away those layers as the book unfolds.

4. Drop the character into a UNIQUE PLOT.

Rock her world. Show her having real struggles that are believable but different. On the other hand, we don't want to have our character flattened by the circumstances. No one likes a character that is constantly having a pity-party.

5. Make the character LOVEABLE.

It IS possible to make our readers fall in love with even the gruffest, weirdest, and quirkiest of characters. The best way to do that is to make her heroic (the first point). But beyond that we need to make her logical, confident, self-sufficient, strong, and wise (the kind of person we aspire to be).

Obviously, our character needs to have a flaw. But the flaw has to over-balanced other traits that make her redeemable. For example, if she's weak in logic then we need to make sure she's high in confidence and other positive traits. If she's weak in self-sufficiency then we need to be sure she's strong in logic and other areas. The positive has to outweigh the negative otherwise it becomes difficult for our readers to care about the character.

6. Have the character DO THE UNEXPECTED. 

In Flat Out Love, I didn't expect the heroine, Julie, to cater to Celeste's obsession with her life-sized cardboard cutout. But Julie was constantly surprising me by how she accommodated Celeste's need to take the cutout figure with her everywhere.

Not only did the heroine act in ways I wasn't expecting, but the dialogue and plot also kept me on my toes. I was always uncertain what was coming next with the characters, and because of that they were all that much more memorable.

My Summary: Perhaps we aren't able to do each of the above to each of our main characters in every book. But the more we can chisel away and shape our characters into unique individuals who are admirable and likeable but delightfully surprise us, the more readily they will join the ranks of unforgettable characters.

How about you? Have any characters you've read about lately really stood out to you? What are some traits that make those characters memorable?

Even When We Fail, We Can Still Win

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

This year I failed at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I took up the challenge to write 50,000 words in November, hoping to complete a new novel. Over the past couple of years that I've participated in NaNo, I've "won" which means I've met the goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. So I thought I'd have no trouble this year too.

But in spite of my best intentions and my very best efforts, I fell short by 3,000 words. Even burning the midnight oil on both ends, I just couldn't do it.

At first I felt like a failure for not finishing and made all kinds of excuses for myself. I'd had to stop writing for several days earlier in the month because I had to finish line edits and return them to my publisher. That kind of editing is time and energy consuming.

Then in the later part of the month, the unexpected happened. My grandmother died. I had a busy week of making travel arrangements, driving eight hours to the funeral, staying with family, and then turning around and driving home through precarious weather conditions. Needless to say, after I got home, I was incapacitated for a day from grief and a stress-migraine.

During the midst of all of that, I was attempting to get my website ready for its December 2 showcase. And obviously I had a great deal to do to get ready for my newest book, Love Unexpected, to launch on December 2 as well.

Yes, excuses, excuses, excuses. Sometime they're legitimate and sometimes they're not. The simple truth is that there will be plenty of times when we fail.

We fail to meet a writing goals, word counts, weekly totals.

We fail to meet a publishing deadline.

We fail to get the positive reviews we hoped for.

We fail to final in a contest.

We fail to get the attention of the publishers we wanted to work with.

We fail to make as much money as we wanted.

We fail to increase our social media platform, even though we've worked hard to gain exposure.

We fail to make the story or book turn out the way that we anticipated.

Over the years, I've learned that there are lots of ways we writers fail. Disappointments, melt downs, and moments of falling flat on our faces. Those times are inevitable. For all of us.

Of course social media can have a candy-coating effect, making it seem like everything for everyone else is always SO wonderful. But if we take the time to look past the sugary-sweet facade, we'll see that even the best authors have rough days.

Everyone fails from time to time. We have no control over that. But we do have control with how we deal with the failure. The difference between those who go on to have successful writing careers and those who peter out and eventually fall away has to do with how we handle our failures.

Successful authors DO fall down. They feel hurts, disappointment, frustration, and even feel like giving up from time to time. I have.

But once successful authors fall down, they don't stay down. They pick themselves back up, brush off the dirt and dust, and then begin to creep forward once more. Maybe they barely crawl along. But they don't stop. They inch forward, until little by little they're walking, running, and perhaps even soaring again.

Yes, I failed NaNo this year. I had a mini-pity party for a few hours (and drowned my sorrows in a chocolate brownie sundae). But then the following week, I plunked myself back in my chair, opened up the story, and pushed myself until I reached the end. I completed my 19th full length novel. 14 of those are either published or slated for publication.

If I'd given up every time I felt like a failure, I would never have reached the point I'm at today. So, dear friend, if you're feeling discouraged or feeling like giving up, remember you're not alone.

Remember that even when you fail, you can still win.

What disappointments have you faced recently? Have you felt like giving up? Are you picking yourself back up and continuing onward in the midst of the failure?

Getting a New Look & A Book Launch!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Today I'm celebrating two big milestones!

The first (as you can probably tell!) is that I've had my website overhauled for a brand new look. I had my first website designed almost five years ago by Pulse Point. Needless to say, Pulse Point did a fabulous job, and I've been VERY happy with my site ever since.

So why have my website overhauled, you might ask?

Well, several reasons, actually:

1. I'm branching into two new genres next year. In addition to continuing to write historical romance, I'll be adding Young Adult (An Uncertain Choice, a medieval romance releasing in March 2015 through Harper Collins) AND I'll also be releasing Historicals (the first is releasing in September 2015 through Random House).

Thus I wanted my website to not only have special pages for my new genres, but I also wanted it to have a broader appeal (so that I'm not branded as only a historical romance writer).

2. I wanted to bring a clean-cut, more 2015 feel to my website. Just like styles in clothes and shoes come and go, so do styles in websites. What was popular five years ago, may start to feel dated today. So, in an effort to keep up with the changing styles and times, I wanted to clean up my website.

3. I have new author and family photos. Every so often, we writers need to have our author photos updated. Since it's been about five years since I had mine taken, I realized I was due for a makeover. (And my family photos needed to be updated too.) The new photos have a slightly different feel to them, so I decided this was a good time to place those new photos in a new home.

All that to say, grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and enjoy browsing through my new site! I hope you'll feel at home!

The second big milestone today is the launch of my seventh book, Love Unexpected! This is the first book of my first series. So I'm really excited about it! The series centers around real women light keepers who served at real Michigan lighthouses.

Of course I've fictionalized the stories and piled them full of my usual page-turning danger and adventure. Nevertheless, I hope you'll enjoy learning a little bit more about lighthouses and some of the women who helped run them.

If you enjoy marriage of convenience stories, lighthouses, and pirates, then I have no doubt that you'll like Love Unexpected. Whether that sounds like your cup of tea or not, I'm encouraging readers to give it as a gift this Christmas. We all know books make an excellent gift!

In fact, in celebration of my book's release, my publisher is sponsoring a "Give the Gift of Books" giveaway with a package of FIVE new releases (including Love Unexpected). Enter to win the package of books either on my Facebook Page or on the Events Page here on my website. If you win, you can gift yourself or give the books to someone else.

(And if you missed out on my FREE e-novella, Out of the Storm, make sure you go get it now! It kicks off my lighthouse series.)

Thanks for stopping by and celebrating these new milestones with me! I'm so grateful for the many friends and readers who've encouraged me along the way!

A HUGE thank you to Jones House Creative for the fantastic job they've done on my new website!

So what about you? What do you like to see in an author's website? What makes a site stand out to you?
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