Jennifer Waugh was the perfect host, interviewing me on the WJXT Morning Show about the upcoming Novel in a Day Workshop. Click here to watch it.
I recall fondly my years as a Boy Scout growing up in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. One of the highlights was a special camping trip to Lake Okeechobee, the second largest freshwater lake in the U.S. We set up our tents in a clearing shaded by towering trees bearded with Spanish moss. In the early morning hours we listened to the hammering of woodpeckers echoing through the woods. We fished and canoed, and chased armadillos from one palmetto patch to another. At night we sat around the fire, toasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories.
When my son decided to join the Scouts it brought back memories of that Lake Okeechobee campout. I jumped at the chance to relive them when he told me about an upcoming father-son camping trip. The only problem was I hadn’t been camping since I left the Scouts, and we didn’t own a tent or any camping gear. After investing in some supplies, I borrowed a tent and sleeping bags from a friend and we joined the others for our outdoor adventure.
What strikes me now about that camping trip, and still elicits guffaws at family gatherings, is my attempt to erect the tent. After wrestling with it for much longer than any other father-son duo—assembling poles, figuring out where they went, and fighting with the canvas—we looked at the sagging structure and realized something was definitely not right.
Son Greg shook his head, and gazed at the other tents standing tautly around us. “Something’s wrong here,” he offered, and went to find the Scoutmaster.
The Scoutmaster, a veteran of many camping trips, walked around our tent, tilting his head one way and then the other. A slight smile was on his face when he told us, “It looks like this thing’s upside down.”
That may have been a defining moment for Greg. The time when he realized his father was not the most competent person in the world when it came to assembling anything more complicated than a bowl of Cheerios with sliced bananas. And, of course, I’ve been known to slice the Cheerios instead of the fruit.
I tell you this embarrassing bit of family history to illustrate how it relates to writing a novel. There are writers, like Jeffrey Deaver, who spend months plotting and outlining their stories in advance. Other very accomplished writers, like Lee Child and Stephen King simply take a plot idea and jump in, uncovering their story and characters as they write.
The more structured writers are called Outliners or Plotters. The unrestricted writers who wouldn’t dream of tying themselves to an outline are referred to as seat of the pants writers, or Pantsers. I happen to be a combination of both, starting with a basic outline and making changes as I write and new avenues occur to me. But there is one constant in my process, and that is I know my ending in advance and work toward it.
Now I’m wondering if that’s like erecting the tent upside down. Am I going about it wrong? I’ve thought about it and I don’t think so because it seems to have worked for me.
What I’ve learned is that no two authors approach the process of writing in the same manner. There is no right or wrong. If the road maps we draw in advance, as opposed to following a built-in mental GPS, all lead to a finished product, then the journey has been successful.
Of course, if the road map isn’t followed, or it leads the writer into a confusing wilderness where armadillos run amok, then, like putting the tent up wrong, the story won’t have a happy ending.
Parker continues to work on his assembling skills as he writes his third Quint Mitchell Mystery. Look for Hurricane Island in 2014. In the meantime, start your holiday shopping now by purchasing any of his Quint Mitchell Mysteries, Matanzas Bay, Bring Down the Furies, and Blue Crabs at Midnight by clicking on the links. He’s also written the short story collection, Ghostly Whispers, Secret Voices, six dark and surprising tales.
BRING DOWN THE FURIES, the second Quint Mitchell Mystery took the top spot, a Gold Medal in last night Florida Authors & Publishers Association President’s Awards. Quint knocked out the judges and the competition, and Parker was there to take home the gold, saying he felt like an Olympic champion. “My next goal,” he said, “is to make it on the front of the Wheaties box.”
The following first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official member magazine of the Florida Writers Association, in my column, The First Million Words.
“I had to force myself to finish it.”
The speaker was a woman I met at a party recently, and she was telling me of a book she’d read that hadn’t held her attention. Gratified to learn it wasn’t one of my books, I began thinking about the difference between the book she had read, and others where the reader just couldn’t put it down. My guess is her book lacked suspense, a key ingredient separating a so-so book from a compelling one.
All novels, no matter what genre, should have a climate of suspense to hold the reader’s interest. Unlike tension (a topic I’ll address in my next column), which comes in sharp, surprising bursts guaranteed to ramp up the adrenaline, suspense should be present from the very first page. Think about some of these opening lines”
“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”
This opening from The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold grabs the reader’s attention, piques their curiosity and injects a healthy dose of suspense. How about this one:
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.”
You probably recognize this classic. It’s the opening from To Kill A Mockingbird. Scout Finch teases the reader with this intriguing bit of information about her brother before moving on to describe her little town of Maycomb, Alabama. It isn’t until the very end of the book that Scout tells us about the incident leading to Jem’s broken arm. Author Harper Lee heaped on a healthy serving of suspense leaving the reader craving more information.
You can have memorable characters, snappy dialogue and a unique setting, but if you don’t grab the reader’s attention quickly they may search for another story with more suspense. The trick is to arouse the reader’s curiosity and keep it aroused for as long as possible. All of this adds to a book’s narrative drive, a special blend of pace and style forcing the story forward, adding an element of anticipation. In other words—suspense.
One common way to build suspense into your story is what I call The Bait and Switch Technique. We see this all the time. The author builds toward a dramatic point in the story, extending the action, ramping up the tension and right before the climactic moment when the real killer is exposed, or the meaning of the cryptic note explained, the author jumps to another plotline, typically changing point of view and location.
In Alex Grecian’s historical thriller, The Yard, Inspector Walter Day searches for a serial killer in one of London’s deplorable workhouses. At the end of the chapter, he’s warned that the man with the scissors (the killer) is right behind him. The reader is expecting a ferocious battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, but Grecian leaves the reader in suspense while he deals with another crisis situation. And do we see how Inspector Day is faring after that chapter? We do not. Instead the reader is transported to a third dramatic situation. All the while we’re kept in suspense about the fate of brave Inspector Day.
Thomas Harris did the same in Silence of the Lambs when the crazed killer decides he’s going to harvest the senator’s daughter. Chapter 46 ends with Buffalo Bill outlining his graphic plans for the girl and informs the reader of his intentions to do the deed the next day. All of this advances the ticking clock deadline and builds suspense. But instead of satisfying the reader’s hunger for resolution by starting chapter 47 with the killer and his intended victim, Harris cuts back to Clarice Starling and then to her boss, Jack Crawford. And by the time we return to the killer, in chapter 48, there are even more complications since the senator’s daughter has somehow trapped Buffalo Bill’s beloved little dog and is threatening to kill it.
So you see that bit-by-bit, drop-by-drop, the author squeezes out all the tension he can, building the suspense to torturous levels before allowing the reader the catharsis of the climax. Bait & Switch is more difficult to pull off effectively if you’re using a first person POV, as in my Quint Mitchell Mystery series. In Bring Down the Furies, I attempted to add more suspense by cutting away at key moments by inserting an anonymous diary entry as a device to break the action. I ended chapter 14 with Quint waking to see smoke seeping into his room. I wanted to build the suspense as much as possible before continuing with Quint’s dilemma, but first person typically locks us into a single POV. I cheated a bit and used the diary entry for that purpose. The diary was tied to the story’s main mystery, but I wrote it as a provocative introduction to an unnamed character who played a big part in the resolution of the mystery. I inserted a different diary entry three or four times within the story, offering few clues to the writer’s identity and, hopefully, adding more suspense to the story.
Here are a few more ways to add suspense to key scenes. Instead of jumping right into the action, you extend the scene by making the character hyper-aware of his surroundings, of the smells and sounds, the feel of the breeze on his face, the birds in the tree. This ratchets up the suspense and adds to the feeling of impending danger.
Don’t forget to use your character’s emotions and insecurities as a way to heighten suspense. The more she worries about the forthcoming event, the more suspenseful it will be when it finally arrives. So get inside your character’s head. How does she feel during these tense moments? Lump in her throat? Pulse pounding? Sweaty? Make the reader feel what the character is feeling.
Placing your hero at a disadvantage always adds to the suspense as the reader wonders how she’ll cope with the new problems you’ve heaped upon her. So think of ways to make more trouble for your protagonist, thwart her at every turn. Take away her support systems. Cast doubts on her friends and allies. Keep the internal conflicts roiling as she faces one challenge after another.
And there has to be a payoff after you’ve built a suspenseful scene. Maybe it leads to a major plot twist at the end of Act One or Two. Maybe it’s the discovery of a body or finding an important clue.
If you’ve made your readers care about your character, created a high level of anticipation, constantly building toward the climax, then you will have gone a long way toward injecting enough suspense to satisfy the reader.
Try it. The suspense won’t kill you.
Look for Parker’s suspense-filled stories.
Ghostly Whispers, Secret Voices
Unlike novels, which are complex and layered structures unfolding, perhaps, over long periods of time, the short story is a drive-by glance at life. Compressed into far fewer words than a novel, the short story focuses on a literary lightning bolt striking the protagonist with some blinding insight. The Irish author Joseph O’Connor said, “A good short story is almost always about a moment of profound realization. A quiet bomb.”
And sometimes the bombs are not so quiet. That’s the case in Parker’s newest creative effort, a collection of six rather dark and surprising tales I call Ghostly Whispers, Secret Voices. In this collection you’ll find stories where characters whispered to me over long periods of time, sometimes encouraging me to reach deeper into the darker recesses of my mind to find the best resolution and that moment of profound realization.
Some of the stories have been published and others have not. Some are extremely short, others more in line with the typical short story length, while one runs nearly 100 pages. Each of them will hopefully surprise you and leave you a bit uneasy about the human condition. Aside from the compelling cover art, you’ll find illustrations for each title page created by the multi-talented Greg DiGenti. Ghostly Whispers, Secret Voices is available as a Kindle digital book from Amazon.com.
Here’s a peek at each of the six stories:
SAVING SAM — An elderly woman and her invalid husband share their final hours together before facing eviction from their longtime home. Sometimes a house is more than a home.
TEXTING APRIL — Technology is moving rapidly, but text messages from the beyond? You’ll share Nick’s perplexity when a dead girl asks his help in finding her killer.
MY BROTHER, MY BURDEN— Racing to save his disturbed brother before he can harm himself, Robert gains new insights into his very special brother.
WIMMER’S LUCK— Two vicious thugs force Wimmer’s wife to rob her own bank while they hold him hostage. Can the Wimmer’s survive the terror-filled day?
AND PROMISES TO KEEP — A flat tire in the middle of the night on a deserted road is only the beginning of a fateful journey.
GHOSTLY WHISPERS — Desperate to find relief from the tinnitus that caused him to leave his job as a rock musician, “Mad Max”Gribbins learns the alternative can be both a blessing and a curse.
As a boy, I loved the stories of O’Henry, so it’s not surprising that most of these tales will have a twist at the end. They may shock you and perhaps you’ll question the mental state of an author who admits to hearing strange voices in his head.
Let me assure you I have them under control. I really do. But the question is will you be able to say the same after reading these six tales? I seriously doubt you’re in any danger of hearing ghostly whispers or secret voices. At least I don’t think you will.
The second Quint Mitchell Mystery, BRING DOWN THE FURIES, is now available for free “borrows” to Amazon Prime members. The Prime program allows members to borrow one book a month free of charge to read at their leisure. FURIES is priced at $3.99, a bargain in its own right, but free is always better. If you agree, then you’ll love the fact that I’m having a FREE promotion on June 12 and 13 and you’ll be able to download the book for free on those two days whether you’re a Prime member or not.
You may recall I did the same thing with MATANZAS BAY last February and 30,000 people took advantage of the opportunity to download Quint’s first adventure. After reading MATANZAS BAY many of them decided to read the other Parker Francis offerings, including FURIES and BLUE CRABS AT MIDNIGHT. Amazon’s free promotion days help expose an author’s work to tens of thousands of new readers internationally.
If you’ve already read BRING DOWN THE FURIES, please take a moment to go to the Amazon.com page and write a customer review. This helps potential readers decide whether or not to purchase the book. Among those Amazon readers who have left a review are these comments:
- “Parker Francis holds us hostage with his latest Quint Mitchell mystery. This mix of civil war history and suspense will keep you fully engaged and is jammed full or twists and turns that lend to the tension of the story. The writing flows and builds to a fever pitch as the story takes on a life of its own.” – The Kindle Book Review
- “Parker pens Bring Down the Furies in a plot filled with twists and turns in this suspenseful drama. His characters are very interesting and fascinating, they will keep you turning the page. I totally loved the way the author describes the surroundings, I felt I was right there with them. Highly recommended for all drama, suspense, and mystery lovers.” – My Cozie Corner Book Review
- “This was the first mystery novel in a very long time that kept me guessing to the very end. It has a great cast of characters with quite a variety of personalities. Quint Mitchell is a great PI and travels to South Carolina on one case and ends up in the middle of two. This book reminds me of Nelson DeMille’s John Corey Series. Bring Down The Furies is a must read for any mystery lover.” – Simone L-E
If you’re into suspenseful tales with a macabre twist, then you’ll enjoy GHOSTLY WHISPERS, SECRET VOICES. Download the book for your Kindle or Kindle app by clicking here. Here’s a look at the title illustration Greg created for Ghostly Whispers.
From time to time I’ll ask another writer to be a guest blogger. My first guest is my friend Mary Ann de Stefano. Mary Ann is a writer, editor and more. Not long ago she wrote the following essay for the Florida Writers Association blog, and I asked if I might repost it here on “Jumping Off Cliffs.” Both she and FWA agreed and here’s her worthwhile missive which all beginning writers should take to heart.
TALE OF TWO WRITERS
Recently I had the opportunity to do manuscript evaluations for two writers who had many things in common—and one important difference.
Both writers had completed drafts for mysteries with an edge of romance. They are females around my age and readers with little writing experience or instruction. This was the first attempt at a novel for both of them. They had created interesting female protagonists and stories with great potential, and they demonstrated an ability to write well with a unique voice. There were many positives about both manuscripts.
However, I felt their work was at an early draft stage, and although the manuscripts held promise, there were significant issues with plotting, pacing, characterization, and style that would need to be addressed in revision.
As always, I delivered the written evaluation (a comprehensive and detailed set of notes) as part of a conversation with the writer, and, as always, I pointed out what worked in the manuscript as well as what didn’t work, and I offered encouragement along with the reminder that no one gets it right the first time.
The first writer—I’ll call her “Ms. Pink”—eagerly soaked up the advice and asked a lot of questions. We had a lively to and fro about her story, her characters, and writing in general. There was a lot of laughter as we talked (just as there was great humor in her work). She said she enjoyed the process of writing for itself. Writing a book was like a giant puzzle to her, and she wanted to see if she could figure it out. My feedback gave her more information about how to solve the puzzle, and she looked forward to digging into her book again.
The other writer, “Ms. Blue,” didn’t receive my feedback quite so well, even though I provided her with the same gentle but realistic mixture of positives, negatives, and encouragement. Much of my advice, she said, was familiar, because a family member had told her the same things. Shortly after we talked, Ms. Blue wrote me to say that she would not continue to work on the book, she would not read the evaluation—and she would give up writing.
Ms. Pink told me that family members often asked her when she was going to be published. She answered them by saying something to the effect that if she played tennis, they wouldn’t be asking her when she was going to play at Wimbledon, or if she played golf they wouldn’t be asking her when she was going to be in the Masters Tournament. Good answers! Great attitude!
But Ms. Blue had apparently believed she could fast track to Wimbledon, and when it became clear that wouldn’t be as easy as she thought, she gave up. It made me sad that she gave up, but she had set herself up for disappointment with faulty notions about what it takes to be a writer.
Many successful writers will tell you they have “practice” novels stuck away in a drawer. We understand that learning to play an instrument takes practice, and we’d never assume we could perform at Carnegie Hall after doodling around with a violin for a few months. You wouldn’t want a surgeon who had picked up a scalpel for the first time to take out your appendix. Yet somehow we believe, some of us believe, we can successfully write a book—a hugely complex task— without the training, time, and practice it takes to do it well.
Ms. Pink is willing to do the necessary work. Ms. Blue isn’t. Which writer are you?
Mary Ann de Stefano is a writer, editor, and organizer of writing workshops with 30 years of experience in publishing and writing consulting. Besides working one-on-one with writers who are developing books, she builds websites and advises on e-marketing. Mary Ann does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing.
A version of this article appeared on the Florida Writers Association blog.