Making Tension Tense

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photo courtesy Daniel Y. Go
Editor Victoria Mixon, whip-smart columnist with the newly named Writer Inboxed newsletter, is back with us today to share an excerpt from her soon-to-be-released book for writers, The Art & Craft of Prose: 3rd Practitioner’s Manual. She’s provided this excerpt on Making Tension Tense to WU exclusively. Enjoy!

Making Tension Tense

What really makes tension tense?

The modern reader’s expectation of tension—a story that stands above the crowd—can seem to the aspiring writer sometimes unbearably high. And yet it’s always been true that storytelling is about tension. The reader has always longed to be transported physically to another dimension through sheer adrenaline.

So let’s talk about what makes tension tense.

Omission

The oldest trick in the book.

Hemingway wrote so beautifully of this in his memoir of Paris in the 1920s, A Moveable Feast.

Knowing—as we do—that curiosity is the single most powerful reader motivation out there, we can pretty easily guess that giving the reader a devastating question and then withholding the answer fuels reader curiosity like nothing else.

This is why I read so much vintage mystery. Those things are absolutely chocked to the eyeballs with questions to which the answers are adroitly yet firmly withheld until the final pages. Thriller and romance, the other two biggest-selling modern genres, do the same.

Addicting stuff.

So we writers focus upon our scenes set in concrete details and our forward motion, we eliminate all internal dialog, and we minimalize internal monologue and exposition as much as humanly possible.

Through these simple techniques, we keep the reader’s curiosity piqued yet unsatisfied, page after page, for literally hundreds of pages—until the very. . .last. . .moment. . .

When we limit ourselves in this way to anchor the reader in scenes, it creates—inside the reader—enormous contrast between the stress of not-knowing, or “push,” and the joy of realization, or “pull.”

Two opposite poles, extreme contrast between them, and the reader caught inextricably in the middle, with nowhere to go except forward: this Push/Pull Rhythm moves the story out of the book and into the reader’s body, which is where all story rightfully belongs.

We never tell the reader what’s happening beneath the surface unless it makes that surface only more fascinating. Subtext is for the reader to discover.

Their ultimate delight.

“Does this skirt make my butt huge?”

“It’s fine.” She ran her hands over her own bony hips with a satisfied smile.

Now, what’s missing from this snippet of scene? [Read more…]

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About Victoria Mixon

Victoria Mixon has been a professional writer and editor for thirty years and now works as an independent editor through her blog, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner's Manual, and The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner's Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators. She also writes the "Ask Victoria" column for the Writer Unboxed newsletter. Always on the look-out for quality editing clients, she can be found on Google+ and Twitter.

Damn Spectacular Feet

My 1950s slippers
My 1950s slippers

A funny thing happened to me on the way to Writer Unboxed this week. . .

I was walking along barefoot, and I ran into a woman I know wearing simply wonderful shoes.

“Wow! Those are impressive shoes,” I said. “Congratulations! I work all the time with people who have no feet.”

Wonderful Shoes

Now, I happen to know for a fact that this woman earned the living daylights out of those shoes.

She had to grow her feet slowly and conscientiously, with much hard work and dedication and suffering before she could possibly be in a position in which to wear these wonderful shoes.

Of course, I have other friends and clients with shoes quite as wonderful. And I have a number of clients who sport very snappy numbers upon their own periwinkle toes and are improving their shoe collections at a respectable rate. It’s also true that I work with people still busy conscientiously growing their feet so that someday they can wear wonderful shoes too.

I’m not entirely barefoot myself—I do own footgear, which I do not go to a whole lot of trouble to improve upon (a pair of old 1950s leather slippers that I got at my local thrift store, which, by the way, I love).

But that all makes hers no less amazing.

She has really wonderful shoes.

However, the really extraordinary part is that her wonderful shoes are actually almost completely invisible to many people these days—those very people desperate to sell for cold, hard cash photos of anything they’ve happened to randomly step in.

[Read more…]

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About Victoria Mixon

Victoria Mixon has been a professional writer and editor for thirty years and now works as an independent editor through her blog, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner's Manual, and The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner's Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators. She also writes the "Ask Victoria" column for the Writer Unboxed newsletter. Always on the look-out for quality editing clients, she can be found on Google+ and Twitter.

It Sounds Like Your Stuff

“It sounds like your stuff.”—Garry Trudeau, Doonesbury

I was talking to my friend M. Terry Green the other day about the extraordinary number of twentysomethings online in this virtual era, and she asked me, “Weren’t you too busy to blog in your twenties?”

I said, “I was too drunk to blog in my twenties.”

This is not entirely true, but it is true when I was in my twenties we didn’t take it as a given that everyone we knew owned an expensive piece of electronic equipment on which to create a magnum opus.

I won my first computer as a Computer Science scholarship from NCR—the cash register manufacturer.

In those days, we typed our fiction. If we couldn’t afford typewriters, we wrote it by hand. If we couldn’t afford pens and paper, we went to our parents and begged them to take us back home again. All of our parents owned pens and paper.

And occasionally we got drunk and tried to write great literature, and in the morning we found notebooks full of big, loopy scrawls that looked like very bad deconstructionist art.

Which brings us to another icon of my twenties, the fabulous Doonesbury character Duke, based as everyone knows upon Hunter S. Thompson, who according to Garry Trudeau had a tendency to take lots of drugs he shouldn’t right before his deadlines.

So when he turned in articles full of, “Wwkeodo djhsaklsadju sl;skfjkdlfsjkyh!!” and shrieked upon discovery, “Someone’s tampered with my brilliant writing!” his editor said, “I don’t know, Duke. It sounds like your stuff.”

This, my friends, is the writing life. [Read more…]

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About Victoria Mixon

Victoria Mixon has been a professional writer and editor for thirty years and now works as an independent editor through her blog, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner's Manual, and The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner's Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators. She also writes the "Ask Victoria" column for the Writer Unboxed newsletter. Always on the look-out for quality editing clients, she can be found on Google+ and Twitter.

Lost Sight of the Game? Find it Again.

“Encumbered by idjits, we pressed on.” – John Fusco, Young Guns II

PhotobucketWe’ve been talking lately here on Writer Unboxed about coping with our devastating self-doubts as writers and, by contrast, our unreal expectations of the publishing industry. We writers often find ourselves swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other, from the Self-Loathing Phase of Revision, to our secret (or not-secret) Delusions of Grandeur, and back again.

It’s so easy in today’s publishing environment to panic. We read about the burden of self-marketing that falls on modern writers and worry that we’re not marketers. We’re told to use log-lines in queries in one place, and someplace else tells us never to use log-lines. We see “best seller” crop up on the blogs of authors we’ve never heard of and wonder why we’re not best sellers.

We hear that traditional publishing is dead, self-publishing is where it’s at, but when we self-publish our novels the silence is deafening.

And we eventually cry out, in the words of the hapless Gussie Fink-Nottle, “Stop, stop! It’s complete gibberish! What does it all mean?”

It just means we’ve lost sight of the game.

The game of art. The game of craft. The glorious, luxurious, mesmerizing game of creation. [Read more…]

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About Victoria Mixon

Victoria Mixon has been a professional writer and editor for thirty years and now works as an independent editor through her blog, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner's Manual, and The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner's Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators. She also writes the "Ask Victoria" column for the Writer Unboxed newsletter. Always on the look-out for quality editing clients, she can be found on Google+ and Twitter.

Introducing “Ask Victoria” — Editorial Column in the Upcoming WU Newsletter

PhotobucketTherese and Kath here to introduce the newest member of the WU team. You’ve seen independent editor Victoria Mixon here before. We love her for her ability to plumb the depths of craft knowledge, her commitment to making hard-to-understand concepts understandable, and her personality. So when she offered to provide a column to us for the upcoming WU newsletter–a column full of craft and editorial questions provided by our readers, and answered in advice-column style–we couldn’t resist. We thought it could be a good idea to give you a taste of what she’ll be offering readers in her “Ask Victoria” column for us, so that’s what today’s post is all about.

A big thanks to the WU Facebook Community for sending questions to Victoria; she’ll be using several of them moving forward. You can submit questions too, by leaving them for Victoria here in comments. Enjoy!

Dear Victoria, Column One

Dear Victoria,

Aside from meticulous proofreading, how can we, as writers, make your job easier?

Signed,
Hungry for Knowledge (AKA Kristin Pedroja)

Dear Hungry (AKA Kristin),

The best thing you can do, as a writer, is be open to the extraordinary complexity, scope, and sheer hard labor of writing a novel. Random typos aren’t a problem. But you must set your ego tenderly aside and bring to your editor your deep and abiding passion for this manuscript and this craft.

Although I’ve worked with dozens of clients, I’ve never seen a manuscript that didn’t need a lot of work. And these are final drafts! Novels that clients have brought to me secretly thinking, ‘She’s going to catch a few typos and tell me she stands in awe.’ I know this because they tell me about it later, laughing after they’ve learned just how much more there is to the story they want to tell—how much deeper and more satisfying this work is than they ever dreamed, but how much more complicated. [Read more…]

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About Victoria Mixon

Victoria Mixon has been a professional writer and editor for thirty years and now works as an independent editor through her blog, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner's Manual, and The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner's Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators. She also writes the "Ask Victoria" column for the Writer Unboxed newsletter. Always on the look-out for quality editing clients, she can be found on Google+ and Twitter.