Note by Note and Scene by Scene–Suspense Novels: Part 4

Polish for Perfection

After you complete the novel’s first draft, then what? The next steps are the hardest work involved in writing a book–re-writing, revising, and editing. Check every chapter, every scene, every sentence and every word. This is grueling work but it must be done.

There are some steps to take which will be helpful. They involve calling in the troops. Build a network of folks who will support your efforts, even as you support theirs.

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Critique Groups

Join a critique group in your writing organization. Reading critically to help others is a wonderful way to learn to look at your own writing with critical eyes. As you help your friends, they can read selections you send them and all of you benefit.

Attend Writing Conventions and Workshops

You should be able to find several conventions or workshops that cater to your interests. Select classes or workshops that speak to your needs. It’s possible you will meet some other writers who will become fast friends. If your local group meets regularly, request programs that will benefit your endeavors.

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Beta Readers

When you have gone over the draft about fifty times and you think it’s nearly ready for release, it’s time to call in a team of Beta Readers. These would be folks you trust to read the entire novel with a critical eye to find any errors you might have missed. The readers could be fellow writers, but you might also wish to draw from your other circles to find out if you have missed any technical details from their fields of expertise. For Sundrop Sonata I used several writing friends, but also some people who just love to read, a young man who knows personally what it’s like to deal with Asperger’s Syndrome (who is also a gifted writer), a friend who is a native of New York, another piano technician, a drama specialist, and a military man who knows firearms.

Listen and Learn

Once you have delivered copies of the novel, or specific sections, for critical review, the next step is most important. Be prepared to listen to any and all suggestions for editing changes that your valued readers offer. There is probably no book written that can’t be improved in its early phases, and you certainly don’t want to release your book before you’ve done everything possible to smooth over the hiccups.

Much of my research for Sundrop Sonata came through years of full-time work as a rural piano technician. When I tune a piano for a client, the objective is to produce a harmonic instrument, something better than what I started with. Since I’d like the piano owners to call me back again in a few months, I strive for the very best result possible.

Consider that most pianos have 88 keys. What many people don’t realize is that most of those 88 keys operate mechanisms that end up striking and playing 3 strings simultaneously. Thus, on your average piano, for the 88 keys, a piano technician ends up tuning about 220 strings. This number varies due to the design and size of pianos, but let’s just say 220 strings need to be in tune with each other when I’m done with a piano call.

What if I end up tuning 219 strings perfectly, but leave one untuned? I have a piano that is 99.5% tuned. Pretty good, right? Almost 100%.

When I was in school, the grading scale was something like 90 to 100% considered excellent work, and earned an A. 80-89% was a B. 70-79% a C. Remember those days?

That’s not the way it works in the real world. If I tune a piano with 219 out of 220 strings perfectly in tune, and miss just one, I have a piano that is 99.5% tuned. But it is that one sour string that will draw attention, and the pianists will say, “She doesn’t know how to tune a piano.”

In other words: 99.5% is FAILING in the real world.

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As writers, we need our work to be 100% complete. If there is one little hiccup, that is what readers will notice. The process of re-writing and revising can’t be more important, and ultimately, it is the author who will receive credit (or blame) for the book.

With piano tunings, there is room for some disagreement about what might be considered “perfect”. Likewise, there are various opinions about choices writers may make that would lead to smooth reading. Absolute perfection is an elusive and impossible goal. Still, you want to smooth out as many hiccups as you possibly can before turning the book loose on your readership.

The month of November is National Novel Writing Month. (NaNoWriMo) If you are aspiring to complete a draft of a story that is forming in your head, I wish you many productive days that result in an excellent book. I hope to be working on a sequel to Sundrop Sonata  myself, so let’s write together!

Thanks for taking the time to ponder my musings. Hope you found something helpful in these last few posts.

Find Sundrop Sonata here:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AZUMTZS

Note by Note and Scene by Scene–Suspense Novels: Part 3

Hook ’em and Reel ’em in

Layers of Conflict

Within the pages of a suspense novel, readers will be increasingly concerned about several areas of conflict the characters face. This conflict arrives in several categories, or layers.

The obvious first layer of conflict is an external one, where the protagonist and antagonist come up against each other with conflicting goals in mind. They provide a source of conflict for each other that escalates throughout the story until they meet one-on-one and face-to-face with only one of them going to come out okay.

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In Sundrop Sonata, the external conflict that Izzy faces starts from the first pages, when Nola begs her to leave the ranch, taking the child Laura along. Izzy is confronted with the need to save the child, though from what she doesn’t really know. Later, through various anomalies she discovers in a number of local pianos, she comes to understand that there is also a threat to the country–her neighbors, family, and friends. Both threats seem to be linked in some way to the same man, Laura’s father.

As the story progresses, a box of unknown substance from a backyard laboratory comes into Izzy’s possession. She doesn’t know what it is, but assumes it could be very bad and should not be left unattended in a crowded parking lot at a music festival. When she learns that her nemesis has abducted her own daughter, the conflict escalates once again. He has made it personal and brought the threat into her own family.

In the concluding scenes, Izzy and Jay meet face-to-face in a dark piano repair shop where she must find a way to stop him and thwart his agenda, or die trying.

Internally, each of the three viewpoint characters faces challenges of their own. Jay struggles with recurring nightmares of his past life. Laura must come to grips with the loss of her mother, the most important person in her young life. And Izzy struggles with self-doubt about her own ability to find the strength needed to persevere.

On a personal level, Jay must face his sweet mother and convince himself that his actions–whether she approves or not–are in her best interest and defense. Izzy faces marriage unrest, compounded by the actions and temptations of another man.

Each layer of conflict for the characters intensifies as the story progresses. Even when young Laura seems to find safe haven with family in the east, it becomes clear that she is not yet safe from Jay.

The ticking clock

The needs and goals of each character, whether external, internal, or personal, have to meet one other requirement. There is a deadline by which everything must happen. As the deadline approaches, the activity escalates as well.

A few years ago, in mid-September, I discovered an interesting plant in my flower circle. It was a thin green spike with a mass of narrow scarlet petals cascading from the top. I’d never seen anything quite like it, though it did resember the pink surprise lilies that bloom in the summer. My first thought was that some of those pink flowers had evolved into this fall-blooming red version. Through subsequent years, I discovered that the red lilies also had a late froth of narrow green leaves that stayed green all WINTER, but would shrivel up and disappear with the arrival of spring. One could forget they were there until September when the flowers reappeared, with no leaves.

I called this flower a red spider lily. The fact that it bloomed in September, coinciding with the local music festival, made it appropriate as a deadline tool in the fictional story. Later, I discovered that I did not have anything unique. There really is a flower, more of an amaryllis than a lily, that other people have also called “red spider lily”.  The flower comes from Asia, (how convenient) and its technical name is Lycoris radiata.  It was perfect–easy to hide in someone’s flower garden, always blooming at the same time of the year, and hidden most of the rest of the year. The red spider lily became a ticking clock.Red Spider Lilies

Building suspense

When writing a suspense novel, you want to invite readers to continue reading from the very first page. I would even go so far as to say, dare the reader to stop reading! The opening line is critical to keep folks reading and wondering what will happen next. Put a lot of time into crafting the perfect opening line for your story. It may not take you eight years, like it did me, but spend some time on the opening line.

Some of my favorites opening lines:

It was a pleasure to burn. (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)

I was not sorry when my brother died. (Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions)

First I had to get his body into the boat. (Rhian Ellis, After Life)

There was a time in Africa the people could fly. (Sue Monk Kidd The Invention of Wings)

Once you have the opening, take care with endings too. Readers should want to keep reading when they get to the end of a section or chapter. Make them wonder how it’s going to turn out. Tease them along by presenting more tantalizing questions or raising the stakes at the close of a scene. It’s kind of like a fishing expedition. First, hook them with the perfect opening line. Then tease them along to keep them reading. Make them turn the pagess

The use of multiple viewpoints in the “sonata format” allows multiple cliff-hangers in each chapter. You can leave one character in a formidable place and start a section with another of the viewpoint characters, moving their story along. Little by little, the questions are answered, and conflicts resolved, even as new challenges and questions arise. The final scene makes everything  clear to the characters and the reader as well.

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Stay tuned for the final part of this series on Suspense Novels: Polish for Perfection.

Find Sundrop Sonata here:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AZUMTZS