How do you Keep an Author in Suspense?

I am an avid follower of the Bulwer-Lytton contest for a truly terrible opening sentence for a book–entries are now open for 2016, if you are so inclined.  At the very least, you should click through to the 2015 winners and scroll down to Fantasy and Historical fiction if you’d like a good chuckle.  One of the finalists a few years back featured the typical dying victim of a violent crime, bleeding out on the floor from terrible injures, gasping as the detective leans over him. . . and revealing with his dying breaths exactly who the killer is, why they did it, and where to go to find them.  Thus destroying any hope of suspense.

Although studies suggest many people actually spoilers and enjoy a work more when they know how it ends, that is rather a different thing from a story having a complete lack of suspense.  In fact, I suspect that knowing the ending before knowing the middle creates a completely different type of suspense. It generates the tension between knowing how it ends, and *not* knowing how it got there.

One of my favorite books, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, in effect is told backward and forward at the same time.  You know, at the start of the book, that the alien encounter for which the characters are so eagerly preparing ends badly–you know who survives to return to Earth, and in what condition he arrives.  At the same time, you get to follow along with the excitement of planning the voyage, building the team, discovering the aliens and learning their culture.  So the question is, what goes wrong in storyline A, the voyage, that results in storyline B, the aftermath.  By holding the image of the protagonist at his most optimistic, alongside the image of him at his most abject, the reader becomes desperate to reconcile the one with the other, and the ending of the book is actually the hinge point between the two narratives.

The fact of the matter is, most people don’t actually like to be surprised.  Surprises are often disruptive, like adventures to hobbits, they are an intrusion into an otherwise orderly and enjoyable life.  We might not mind being surprised by the details of an event–but honestly, we’d like to make sure we’re dressed for it, and have brought the right number of pocket handkerchiefs.    We’d rather the spouse says they are taking us out for supper, even if we don’t know where, than that they suddenly show up at the office, leaving us suspicious of motivation and looking for the hidden camera.

You see, suspense is at its best when you have an idea what to expect.  A surprise–someone leaping out of a closet to shout “Boo!” for example–totally lacks suspense.  So we are startled, and you can watch dozens of jump-scare videos on YouTube of this exact reaction.  Shortly after that, annoyance usually follows.  But people watch videos of jump-scares for the same reason we enjoy spooky movies or suspense novels.  You go into the experience knowing what will happen, but not when or how.  That knowledge builds a pleasant sensation of tension, which will then be cathartically released when the probabilities collapse and you reach a well-deserved ending.  David Farland refers to this as the Stress Induction/Reduction theory of entertainment.

Of course, individual readers have different thresholds for the build-up of tension, below which, it’s not interesting, and beyond which it becomes intolerable.  Some people love high-tension narratives, others prefer less. Some people re-read the same books repeatedly, in spite of knowing not only the ending, but also precisely how it all happens.  And different genres have different expectations of suspense.  In a mystery, the reader wants to keep guessing who the killer is, right up until the moment the protagonist figures it out, then think “Of course it had to be!”  In a romance, the reader wants to feel the tension grow between the hero and heroine throughout the narrative, but most readers also want to know this tension will resolve into a happily ever after.

I have been brooding on suspense because I am currently waiting to hear back from three different directions about three different book projects.  This is not a form of suspense I enjoy.  I would rather have the spoilers up front:  this book will be accepted, but at a lower advance than you’d like; this book will need another round of revisions; this book will succeed beyond your wildest dreams.  Then I could settle back in my chair, with my popcorn, and watch the sequence unfold until that ending arrives.

This is the trouble with suspense in real life.  I don’t know what genre it will be.  Is this passage of my life a romance, with a happy ending implied up-front?  Or is this a horror story, where my feelings of foreboding will pay off in disaster?  If the next few months are to be a fantasy narrative, will they be of the whimsical variety, the stressful but ultimately triumphant, or the grimdark?  Alas for me, only time will tell.

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Location, Location, Location: The Roles of Setting in Fiction

A few of my recent posts have focused on settings I visited and researched for my work–definitely one of the perks!  But it may seem as if I am a bit obsessive about my settings.  That’s because setting is one of the defining features of fiction–and especially of fantasy.

A bell tower from an early church, among modern buildings

The Lost Tower of London:  a lovely little place, with a high-contrast setting.

We tend to think of a setting as the backdrop for the action that takes place there, but setting can have a great influence on many other aspects of fiction–even if you don’t subscribe to the “setting as a character” school of thought (which I don’t).  Setting creates resonance with the themes and emotional beats of the work. It can contribute to or inspire plot points.  And it shapes the characters who live, work, and pass through it.

Think about a certain famous work beginning this way:

In a walk-up, in the Bronx, there lived a hobbit.

Even if you wanted to tell the same basic story, it is now completely different.  And so is he.  Who would Bilbo have become if he grew up, not only outside the Shire, but above ground?  If you wanted to re-create the same cozy feeling and small-community sensibility that Bagend exemplifies, you’d be working with very different social cues and signifiers in the description and in how people react to it.

It’s so easy to default to the familiar. In fantasy fiction, we’ve even developed a term–  Consensus Fantasy Setting–which denotes a very recognizable pastiche of medieval life and architecture, with lots of half-timbered houses and people who eat stew when they take a break from riding their horses though a spooky forest of identical spooky trees.  Here it is:

This narrow Medieval street from a town in Dorset gives a sense for the architecture and feel of 14th century London.

This narrow Medieval street from a town in Dorset gives a sense for the architecture and feel of 14th century London.

trees in the New Forest

trees in the New Forest











Yep, there are actually places like this–these ones are in England–and I think it is no coincidence that many American authors go straight for these images when they begin to write.  That place on the left?  That’s the inn where the travelers meet up for their adventure, before they ride through the forest. . .  I guess I cheated. Because my series is set in 14th century England, I actually used these settings.  I hope I brought them to life, not merely as a stage set given to me by a previous generation of writers, but rather, by studying, researching, and visiting them when possible, to look for the details that reveal the specific place and time.  The New Forest, for instance, is actually a palimpsest of continuous human occupation since the Bronze Age or before, a fact that shaped the characters’ lives and the things they see when they enter.

But the idea of stage setting can be a useful one.  In the movies, you choose a location and film there.  In a book, as on stage, you need to bring everything the audience will experience–whatever they see, hear, smell (aside from the things each member of the audience brings on their own).  So crafting a setting in fiction is the result of a series of deliberate choices about what details will most reveal the place–and also the people who move through it.  Different characters might enter the same setting and notice very different things, having unique reactions as a result.

The right setting for a given scene can elevate the work to a new level, by bringing out that history, the characters’ reactions to it, and the emotional tone of the work. I have recently been studying both George R. R. Martin, and Martin Cruz Smith, thinking about how they achieve the effects that they do. They have a startling number of things in common.  One of them is the effective use of setting.  It’s handy if you have the option of inventing settings, as GRRM does, then you can build in the resonance that you want–like putting eyes on trees in the Godwood, and being very careful about how those places are described.  If you are using real places, as Cruz Smith does, or as I did for The Dark Apostle, then you look for the places that give you a thrill–and will hopefully do the same for your characters and your readers.  I often start with a map in great detail, and look for something striking, or thematically relevant to the scene.

Does that mean you can’t set a deeply resonant and exciting work in an ordinary American town?  Of course not–it means that you need to look more deeply into that place and consider what you find there, and that you may find unexpected things.  The town where I used to live was build in a river valley, with many buildings set into the slope, so the library had a short stone bridge to reach the front door.  Beneath the bridge, a space closed off by a metal grate, chained and locked–a low stone chamber.  Everyone in town probably knows about this spot, and most of them shrug it off.  But my murderer might use it to stash a body–or my teen wizards might use it as their hide-out.

A secret room beneath the library steps? Yes!  In an ordinary town, an extraordinary setting–and thereby hangs a tale. . .




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Historical Scenes and Settings: Trier, the Roman Capital of Germany

Not long ago, I did a profile of Aachen, Germany, Charlemagne’s capital city, and one of the unused settings I research for Elisha Mancer, book 4 in The Dark Apostle series.  Today, I’m going further back in time, to a setting I did, in fact, develop into scenes in the book, the Roman capital of Trier.

germany 554

Roman-era Porta Nigra, or Black Gate, into the city of Trier

Wait a minute, Imperial Rome had a capital in Germany?  What gives?  When Rome was working to subdue the Gauls in nearby France, they expanded this city on the Rhine, and used it as a base of operations to oversee the Western Roman Empire until the 4th century.  At that time, it was one of the largest cities in Europe, with a population estimated between 75,000 and 100,000 people.  Many of the city’s landmarks date from this time period–as does its square Roman layout.

A model of the Porta Nigra as it appeared during the Middle Ages

A model of the Porta Nigra as it appeared during the Middle Ages

By the time Elisha gets there in the 14th century, only the impressive ruins remain, some of them re-used for other purposes entirely.  Much of the land inside the walls had been reclaimed as farmland, with a much smaller population living within.  However, Trier was also the oldest seat of a bishop west of the Alps.  It evolved into the Archbishopric of Trier–and the archbishop who held this seat became one of the electors of the Holy Roman Emperor.

There is one building which, to me, really shows the history of this fascinating city, and that is the Basilica of Constantine.  Originally part of the imperial palace, this imposing red brick building fell into disuse, then was used as the home of the bishop.  The round apse had a tower built inside with living quarters and a battlement at the top for defense.  The building was then converted into a church, and became a protestant church during the Reformation–a use it retains to this day.

The apse of the Basilica as it now stands.

The apse of the Basilica as it now stands.

An artist's rendering of the Basilica when it was a residence.

An artist’s rendering of the Basilica when it was a residence.

One fascinating aspect of writing historical fiction is the attempt to reconstruct for the reader an earlier time.  The city of Trier shows that this reconstruction is a continuing effort, the admiration of the past and its incorporation into an ever-changing present.

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After “The End”

I have had the experience several times now of reading a book that I am very much enjoying–right up until the end.  Then the work either fizzles out, simply stops, or blatantly kicks me in the teeth (as a reader).  Leaving me feeling, well, WTF, author?

Authors spend a lot of time crafting beginnings.  They worry and work over their middles–but sometimes, they neglect the most important part.  Endings are critical.  Mystery writer Mickey Spillane said that the first page of your book sells that book, and the last page sells your next one.  If you deliver a satisfying reading experience all the way through, then readers will be eager to pick up your next title (and for you writers out there, remember that your first reader is likely to be an editor/agent/reviewer/blogger).  And if you fail to deliver that complete experience, then your next book is likely doomed.

Author and psychology professor Jennifer Lynn Barnes  in an article for the Novelists’ Inc. newsletter recently pointed to a reason why endings are so important.  She references an experiment involving subjects plunging their hand into painfully cold water (A) or plunging their hand into painfully cold water, then into slightly less cold (but still painful) water for a longer period of time (B).  The subjects overwhelmingly preferred B, in spite of the fact that the suffering overall was longer.  They preferred their suffering to end on a better note.  (The Ninc newsletters go online for public consumption about six months after publication–so you’ll have to wait for the full article–totally worth the read.)

It turns out (and if you examine your own experiences, you will probably find anecdotal confirmation) that in any given experience, people tend to remember most the highest point–the most thrilling, most terrible, most beautiful–and the ending.  So, for example, I took a trip to Hawaii last year where we got to visit with seahorses (most beautiful), and had a really terrible flight off the island.   High point, ending.  We also visited with a dolphin, and if I sit here to recall more, I can dredge up those memories, but if you said, “How was your trip to Hawaii last year?”  likely, I’d mention the seahorse and the flight–and nothing more.

The ending of the experience is what solidifies the whole thing.  It encapsulates what that experience was like, bringing it together and resolving the emotional impact on the reader/experiencer (even if the thing itself is somewhat unresolved, like the middle book of a trilogy).  You get to that ending, and you’re thinking, “Wow–that was great!”  Or maybe, “Wow, I was really enjoying this–until now.”

The same moment, plot-wise, can deliver a very different impact on the reader, depending on the order of ideas, sentences, phrases, or the effort of the author to find just the right image for that final note of resonance.  Imagine this is the last line of a story:

Jerry helped his injured companion up onto the horse behind him.  She might not survive the night, but at least they rode on together.

Or this one. . .

Jerry helped his injured companion up onto the horse behind him.  They rode on together, but she might not survive the night.

The first example, in spite of the companion’s injured state, leaves you with the positive impression of these two characters, together through it all.  The second one ends on the downer that it doesn’t matter if they are together, she’s doomed.  Sucks to be her.  And probably sucks to be Jerry, too.  The same things happen.  The same phrases are used.  The impact is *completely* different.

An ending can be flat–neither enhancing nor detracting from the experience of the work.

It can be brilliant–the shining capstone on the work that leaves you googling the author for their next title, right now!!

It can be a sucker punch–one that rewards the readers’ time, patience and investment with a moment that undercuts everything the reader loved about the book.

Please note:  if what the reader is loving is the horror, the pathos, the dread, then the ending doesn’t need to be happy at all–that’s not what I’m suggesting:  it needs to be the culmination of the reader’s emotional engagement, even if that emotion is a negative one.

The endings that bother me are the ones that turn the contract with the reader on its head, refusing to provide any satisfaction, leaving the reader hollow, ignoring emotional resolution or the potential for positive emotion even in a negative or unresolved situation, the endings that feel like you found a bug at the bottom of your ice cream sundae.

For you writers out there, take a hard look at those critical last moments on the page.  Are they delivering the impact you want to leave with your reader?  Are they the clincher for the experience you’ve been crafting so diligently?  Is this a final page that will encourage the reader to seek out more?

For you readers, what was the last truly satisfying book you read?  How did it end, and could the ending have been stronger?  weaker?  Have you, like me, suffered that terrible let-down of a great book with a bummer ending?

The first pages of a book are where the author makes a promise about the journey to come, and the last page is where they deliver. . . or not.




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Alien Intelligence, Close to Home

Thanks to a clever octopus in New Zealand who escaped back to the sea, there’s been a lot of talk lately about animal intelligence.  A recent book by Frans de Waal  questions whether we are even smart enough to know if animals are intelligent.

Years ago, I had the chance to do a behind-the-scenes tour at the New England Aquarium in Boston, and heard the mystery of the disappearing fish.  It seems that one of the tanks had fewer fish every morning–and they finally figured out that an octopus down the row was slipping out at night and helping himself, then going back home again.  A board placed over the top of his tank stopped that problem.  So the adventure of Inky the octopus was not surprising, merely the culmination of a series of incidents involving cephalopods on the move.

an octopus off of Hawaii

an octopus off of Hawaii

As a writer of fantasy and science fiction, I am often in the position of considering non-human intelligence, whether that is the intelligence of the working wolf-pack, of a mythical creature, or of an alien species on another planet.  How would it manifest?  What evidence would we look for, or be able to recognize? Science fiction is rife with tales of mistaken identity, wherein the intrepid humans fail to see the intelligence of the creatures they encounter, whether those are giant termites, as in The Termite Queen, or adorable miniatures, as in the Fuzzy books.  Our own assumptions about what constitutes intelligence or culture stand in the way, in spite of our apparent eagerness to learn and openness to new ideas.

Tool use and communication, as well as an ability to organize group activity are usually considered key to intelligence.  Crows use tools, and learn from watching each other.  Dolphins, and even prairie dogs, communicate and coordinate their activities.  Centuries ago, European explorers had the bad habit of considering everyone they encountered who lived in a different way from themselves as savages.  (Interestingly, one account of the rumor of gorillas refers to them as simply another tribe of people).  In our continued arrogance, are we doing the same thing to many species today–denigrating their innate intelligence in order to advance our own agenda and justify treating them as “mere” animals?

I think this is often the overt or subtextual meaning of those science fiction stories that depict wildly different races and the efforts of humanity to get along with them. Ashleigh Brilliant, the creator of Potshots, may have said it best:  All I want is to be treated like everyone else, no matter how revoltingly different I am.

What does it take to define intelligence?  Once having done so, how do you decide where, upon the scale of sentience, to place the dividing line between animals we eat, animals who are our companions, and animals who are, perhaps, our cousins if not our equals?

Creating scenarios and playing them out in fiction is one way to grapple with these questions. It’s gratifying to see some of that conversation entering the mainstream, thanks to Inky and other animal ambassadors.  It can be hard in a fictional context to create a truly alien intelligence–beings who think and act very differently from us–which is why many authors draw from examples in the animal kingdom to inspire new races in other places or on other worlds.  This often begins with a series of what-if questions.  What if a particular behavior in ants signifies their true culture?  What would spur the development of advanced skills in a certain species, or the development of an intelligent species in a particular environment?

Now, it seems, we should be scrutinizing these questions more closely. . .what if our extrapolations are not so far from the truth?  Another of the recent videos that questions our assumptions about intelligence features a dolphin who apparently sought out a diver to help it with an injury that required hands to undo.  Fiction, science fiction, animals, aliens.  They are already here, and we are starting to take notice.


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Kylo Ren and the Question of Parental Succession

Star Wars:  The Force Awakens recently came out on video, so I gave it a second viewing.  This blog will contain spoilers.  you have been warned.

One of my favorite elements of the film centers on that scene spoiled for so many (and objected to by many others) when Kylo Ren kills his father.  It comes toward the end of the film, after a moment when you (and Dad) think that Kylo may be convinced to return to the light side.  He describes himself as torn, struggling with that last thing that will galvanize his future.  It is, of course, killing his father.

One of the main criticisms of this film has been that it’s basically a re-hash of the first movie where the elements are mixed together, with some new characters and some old ones, and I basically agree.  But I did appreciate that the film also, in revisiting Star Wars:  A New Hope also goes back to the source material–namely, the heroic mythology that influence the story.  If you read many fairy tales or fantasy novels, or see many Disney films, you will find that there are many, many orphans.

Mythologically, metaphorically, and often historically speaking, in order for a child to have an adventure, their parents must be gone.  This is what allows the child the necessary autonomy to go forth and take risks.  With the parents around, it’s usually the parents’ job to, say, save the world, confront the evil or make the sacrifice.  When they are gone, the child not only has the freedom to make these big choices, but may, in fact, be obligated to do so.

This is the moment when the child becomes an adult. They can no longer hide behind their parents’ choices, go running to their parents for help, or count on someone else stepping up to take care of things.  The child is now in command.  Liberating and frightening, by turns. The child must take on adult roles and responsibility.

In historical terms, the parent must die for the child to rule, and many stories stem from the way things go wrong if this is not the case. Either the child rebels against the father, committing murder in order to bring about an early succession, or the father abdicates in favor of the child, suggesting that there’s a problem with the traditional order of society (King Lear, anyone?) or perhaps the natural order of the world.

Parents speak of leaving a legacy in their children–in the desire for the child to be better off, more powerful, more wealthy than they have been–wanting the child to exceed their own lives.  And governments speak in terms of the “replacement rate” for births, in which the expectation is the parents die off, but have left enough children behind for society to go on.  Family businesses have the hope if not the expectation of children who grow up to take their parents’ place at the helm, whether that is a family restaurant, a laundry shop, or a political dynasty.  In spite of all the changes in our world from the era of royalty until now, this sense of the child eventually rising to take on the adult’s role of leadership is considered by many to be part of the natural order.

So of course Kylo Ren could not move forward with his goals and ambitions while his father lived.  He needed both the emotional freedom that comes from decoupling the child from his past (gaining orphan status, with which to go forth on his adventure) and also the dynastic sense of succession, becoming a general in his own right–although for a very different cause than the one his father supported.  He tells his father that he needs only one thing in order to move on, and Han Solo, being the good hero and devoted dad that he is, delivers it:  his death.

I wonder what would happen in a more mythically aware version of the scene in which a father, realizing what the son requires, chooses to deliver it by killing himself. . .


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Unused Settings: Aachen, the Imperial City of Germany

I’ve mentioned Aachen in a couple of recent blog posts, and I figure it’s time this beautiful city got its own entry although, alas, it will not appear in my book.

I had the opportunity to visit a couple of years ago on a research jaunt aimed at making my series “more epic,” ie, wider in scope and scale, by expanding beyond England, and in the final two volumes you’ll see the result of that effort (and hopefully love it).

germany 647

Aachen is the westernmost city in Germany, sharing a border with Belgium and the Netherlands, on the Rhine river. If you have the chance to go, I highly recommend taking a river cruise or taking the train to get there.  The entire length of the Rhine is studded with spectacular castles.

Charlemagne visited for the first time in 768, after his coronation as King of the Franks, and began spending all of his winters there (his down-time between seasons of war or or official travel), making it the center of his court.  While he does not appear to have added much to the fabric of the city, he did build his Palatine Chapel (now the cathedral), a sumptuously decorated central plan church, which houses his striking throne.

germany 668

The striking part is, of course, how plain it looks: made of just a few slabs of white marble, with wooden doors to cubbies underneath.  But this throne has its own story.  Those slabs of marble and the steps leading up to them were taken from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  And the cubbies underneath?  During the coronation, the jeweled and gilded Purse of St. Stephen would be placed inside.  This holy relic enclosed dirt from the place where St. Stephen was martyred.  So when a king of Germany sat here, he was symbolically seated in Jerusalem, the center of the world.  Charlemagne had already been crowned, but the throne still held a great deal of significance.

Throne of Charlemagne

Throne of Charlemagne

In the nearby city hall, you can take a marvelous audio tour, which includes a nifty interactive component that makes you a witness to the coronation of a later king, with commentary by everyone from merchants to servants to nobles who might have been present at the event.  I was a little irked that, in the audio tour, they did not fully explain the imperial regalia, replicas of which occupy a nice glass case.  You can see a version of the Purse of St. Stephen here, along with the Iron Crown (which contained a nail from the Crucifixion–okay, one of many nails made from a nail that theoretically came from the Crucifixion)  and Charlemagne’s sword. However, the audio does not explain the significance of these artifact/relics, nor does it even mention the lance: said to contain a fragment of the very lance that pierced the side of Christ.

the Purse of St. Stephen, with the Holy Lance

the Purse of St. Stephen, with the Holy Lance

In Aachen, the enthusiast for medieval history can thus discover how the secular powers sought to claim the imprimatur of the heavenly power with every bit of stone and soil.

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