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The Suspense is Killing Me

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.

UnknownIn 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 Silence of the Lambssenator’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 BringDownTheFuries_LowRes_v03more 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.

Cover of 'Matanzas Bay' by Parker Francis

‘Matanzas Bay’ by Parker Francis.

BringDownTheFuries_LowRes_v01GhostlyWhispers_cvr_small

Bring Down the Furies             Ghostly Whispers, Secret Voices

BlueCrabsAtMidnight_SMALL_cvr

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.”

GhostlyWhispers_cvr_smallAnd 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.

06_Ghostly-Whispers

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.

 

Get FURIES for free!

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.

BringDownTheFuries_LowRes_v03You 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

 

Parker is hearing “Ghostly Whispers”

If you’ve been wondering what old Parker has been up to, you’ll be happy to hear I’ve added a new book to the Amazon.com Kindle shelf. While it’s not another Quint Mitchell Mystery (more about that later), it is a collection of short stories titled GHOSTLY WHISPERS, SECRET VOICES.  The collection is subtitled, “Six GhostlyWhispers_cvr_smalldark and surprising tales featuring the novella, Ghostly Whispers.”
 
Here’s a peek at the cover art created by my talented son, Greg, who also created outstanding title illustrations for each of the six stories. The collection contains the award-winning short stories, Saving Sam and Texting April.
Saving Sam is a tale about an elderly woman and her invalid husband on the eve of the eviction from their longtime home.  And Texting April finds a perplexed young Nick receiving bizarre text messages from a girl asking him to help find the person who killed her. 
 
Along with those two stories, there’s also My Brother, My Burden, Wimmer’s Luck and Promises to Keep. I wrap up the collection with Ghostly 
Whispers, a novella of nearly 100 pages about poor “Mad Max” Gribbins.

06_Ghostly-Whispers

Max, the former lead guitarist with super band, The Kingslayers, was forced into an early retirement because of a severe case of tinnitus. Now trapped in a loveless marriage, Max is desperate to rid himself of the nonstop trumpeting in his head until the noise morphs into something much more — news broadcasts from the future.

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.

Tale of Two Writers

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?

______________________________

120911 Mary AnnMary 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.

Kindle Free Promoton — Part Two

In last week’s post I announced my first free promotion of MATANZAS BAY as part of the KDP Select Program which gives authors up to

Cover of 'Matanzas Bay' by Parker Francis

‘Matanzas Bay’ by Parker Francis.

five days over a 90-day period to offer their book free of charge. I’d heard from many authors who had done free promotions with varying results. As I said, giving away books for free may seem counter-productive, but the idea is to find new audiences who will, hopefully, purchase your other books.

So how did it turn out? To recap, the books were free from Saturday, February 23 through Monday, February 25. During that time nearly 30,000 books were downloaded and my ranking in the Top 100 Free Books continued to climb. By the end of the first day, 9,369 books had been downloaded and MATANZAS BAY had reached #19 in the Top 100 Books, but it was #1 in the Hard-Boiled Mystery category.

By 5:30 Sunday, there were over 15,000 free downloads, and I was beginning to see a surge in sales for BLUE CRABS AT MIDNIGHT and BRING DOWN THE FURIES, which I hoped would happen, but hadn’t anticipated it happening during the free promotion. I was up early Monday morning to check my stats and was amazed to see the free downloads had jumped to 24,178 and MB was still #1 in Hard-Boiled Mysteries, but had climbed to #5 in overall free books. Both CRABS and FURIES continued to sell at a higher rate than before the promotion.

The free promotion ended at midnight Monday with a grand total of 29,870 free downloads. And I was amazed to find that readers in other countries were downloading the book as well, including 85 in Germany.

If I looked at the promotion as a glass half empty, I might think I’d lost out on thousands of sales, but I prefer to look at it as introducing 30,000 new readers to my books. In a perfect world a good percentage of those people would enjoy MB and decide to purchase the other two titles. We all know we don’t live in a perfect world, but I was anxious to see if over the next few weeks there would be an uptick in sales as they finished reading MB and looked for another Parker Francis book.

Surprisingly, I didn’t have to wait for weeks. Instead I saw increased sales of MB almost immediately after the end of the free promotion. It helped that MB remained in the top ten of Hard-Boiled Mysteries. I also saw the sales ranking drop—which is a good thing indicating increased sales—over the next few days from over 100,000 to below 2,000, and I saw MB sales approach 200 in just 3 days. Another unexpected benefit was the jump in “Borrowed” units by the Amazon Prime members. Prior to the free promotion only one lonely borrow had taken place for the entire month of February. As of this writing, three days after the promotion, 80 people have borrowed MB.

I know that some authors, particularly in the early days of the KDP Select Program, reported much higher sales, but I’m pleased with the results and excited to know nearly 30,000 people will be exposed to my book. Will they all buy my other books? Of course not. Some people only want free books, but from what I’ve seen so far it was definitely worth it.

Now the trick is to have more titles available for readers to select once they finish reading my three Parker Francis-penned titles. So you’ll excuse me if I get back to work.

Kindle Free Promotion

Cover of 'Matanzas Bay' by Parker Francis

‘Matanzas Bay’ by Parker Francis.

Several months ago I decided to add MATANZAS BAY to KDP Select, Amazon.com’s program which loans books to Amazon Prime members. The book loan is free to Prime members, and authors are compensated through a  global fund ranging from $700,000 to the current $2.2 million for this month. All of the authors in the program receive a pro rata share of the fund each time someone “checks out” their book from the lending library.

The results in terms of revenue generated has varied from its first year where many authors reported higher revenues than normal. I resisted climbing aboard this bandwagon because Amazon demands exclusivity for the 90-day period a book is in the Select program. This means it can only be sold on Amazon.com. Not Barnes & Noble for the Nook, or any of the other  e-tailers.  But after tracking my sales and seeing that the majority has come from Amazon.com, it began to make more sense, particularly since the Kindle app may be added to almost any device.

One of the promotional wrinkles Amazon offers to authors in the Select program is the option to offer our books for free for up to five days in that 90-day contract period. In other words, Amazon shoppers can reap the greatest of all bargains—free books. And who doesn’t like free?

You might wonder why an author would give their book away for free. Good question. The answer lies in the vast reach of the Amazon.com market. When we offer a book for free, we can reach a potential audience of millions of new readers. Of course, not all of them will be interested in any particular book, but there must be many people looking for a good mystery, and the free promotion allows them to sample new writers at no cost. If they like that particular book, then they may purchase one of the other books by that author.

All of this is preamble to announcing my first free promotion for MATANZAS BAY this week, February 23 – 25. Tell your friends they have the opportunity to add an award-winning mystery to their Kindle library. And if they enjoy Quint Mitchell’s St. Augustine adventures, they can then purchase BRING DOWN THE FURIES and BLUE CRABS AT MIDNIGHT.

I’ll let you know how the promotion turns out, and if it spurs increased sales for the other Parker Francis offerings.

 

Playing God

Writers hold an awesome power in their hands. We’re able to create “storybook people” from the depths of our imagination. I like to think of it as playing God. Of course, with great power comes great responsibility, and I take the people-building process quite seriously.  I hope my readers appreciate the end-results of all the planning, plotting and layering I’ve done to create my character’s personalities.

BringDownTheFuries_LowRes_v03Readers can relate to many of the characters in BRING DOWN THE FURIES because they’re a lot like people we know. Maybe people we care for a great deal. There’s old Verla Covington, for example, the unofficial hostess of the Magnolia Inn, a grand old southern plantation-like B&B. From his first meeting with Verla, Quint has the feeling he knows this woman. Something about her is so familiar. Only later does he realize she reminds him of his great-grandmother, a woman he hadn’t thought about in years since he was only four or five when she died.

Verla plays a big part in Quint’s motivation as he pursues the Heartthrob Bandit and tries to identify a dangerous serial arsonist who has targeted Quint as his next victim. Another major subplot is the feud between a conservative minister and the lead researcher at a nearby archaeological site. The feud erupts into a cultural war that inflames emotions on both sides and attracts the attention of the national news media that descend on little Allendale like sharks in a feeding frenzy.

They’ll also meet Wilburn Peeks, the county sheriff, a crusty, no-nonsense ex-Marine who can’t abide private detectives messing around in his town. As we soon find out, Sheriff Peeks already has his hands full with the serial arsonist who’s destroying Allendale one building at a time. Another spicy old gal, Iva Mae Higginbotham, plays a big part in the story as it pertains to the Heartthrob Bandit.

Author John Dufresne said it best when he reviewed my book and said, “As in the best of plots, nothing here is as it seems.” If  readers enjoy unraveling mysteries along with a lead character who keeps fighting through all the adversity life—and a sadistic author— throws at him, then they’re sure to enjoy BRING DOWN THE FURIES.