Give Me Tension!

I’ve read a number of books lately where the story fell flat and I found myself skimming the books. They may have started out great, but after the inciting moment, the story was tension-free until the end. A story like that will pretty much put you to sleep. The characters didn’t have goals, and therefore, there were no roadblocks or setbacks. The characters didn’t feel in jeopardy at all, so why keep reading?

(Consider the couple in the picture above and to the right. They have a goal of enjoying a nice day at the park, but it looks like they’re about to become dino dinner. Quite the obstacle, isn’t it?)

One of my favorite all-time movies is Jurassic Park, not because I like to see people get chased and eaten by dinosaurs, but because it’s an amazing tension-builder, probably one of the best movies I’ve seen for creating tension, and a lack of tension is what made the following Jurassic movies fall flat. Consider this scene (if you prefer, skip the video and read description below):

Setting: It’s raining in Jurassic Park, night has fallen, and the power has gone off. Two tourist cars are in the park with the dinosaurs, right next to the T-Rex area where a goat stands chained as T-Rex bait. No sign of the T-Rex. Until now, the characters aren’t terribly worried. The fences are built strongly. The characters trust that the power will come back on and that they’ll get back to the main building safely. Goal established.

But then the tension builds, events happen that get in the way of achieving their goal …

There’s a faint rumble, and ripple of water. Boom, you’re put on edge. The camera pans to a character’s eyes and you see worry. A young boy puts on night-vision goggles and notices that the goat is no longer tethered. Scared yet? Yeah, me too. Then a goat leg lands on top of the glass-topped vehicle accompanied by thunder. A dino-hand tugs on a wire that has a Danger 10,000 Volts sign attached, but as you know, the electricity is out. Up until now, you haven’t seen Mr. T-Rex, but I bet your heart is pumping.

Then T-Rex finally makes his appearance, and he looks straight at the camera. Straight at you. Then the director eases back for just a moment, giving the viewer a chance to breathe as an adult runs from the safety of the car to the presumed safety of an outhouse nearby, leaving two young kids alone in the car. In the other car, one of the adults makes a joke. But the relief is momentary as the wires to the T-Rex area start snapping and groaning. And finally Mr. T-Rex breaks from his enclosure and walks between the two vehicles. And roars.

I love how the director builds the tension by slowly adding layers, then stepping back to give you a breather, maybe just a glimpse of hope that the worst isn’t going to happen, then the tension escalates once again. The dinosaurs aren’t what make this movie frightening, rather it’s the anticipation of the dinosaurs coming that keep you on the edge of your seat.

As a women’s fiction writer, it’s easy to forget that I need that same tension in my stories. I need to set goals, I need to put my characters in jeopardy so that the reader fears what’s going to happen next. No, I won’t have a dinosaur break out of a cage, but I will have family and life complications that prevent my characters from attaining that goal right away. I will throw in roadblocks, then give the reader a short breather before adding another obstacle. And if don’t, I know I’m going to put the reader to sleep.

Those Pesky Details

I was totally enjoying the story I was reading. It was a historical novel, based on a popular legend I had heard since I was a little girl.  It took place very near my hometown, and I was enthralled. Then, it happened. One of the characters made a simple statement about the big city that was just fifty miles west. The problem, the city he referred to was more like 150 miles away, and to get there, you would have to travel north, not west. Now, I had trouble continuing the story. I couldn’t get past that little error. Ninety percent of the other readers would not even notice. But I did, and it took quite awhile before I could get back into the story.

Historical novels do take a lot more research than contemporaries. Readers have high expectations that events and inventions will be true to the time period. A popular author of contemporary fiction tells the story of her short lived historical career. It seems that an airplane flew over her heroine’s head. Not a problem, except that her story took place well before the turn of the twentieth century.

Even when the story takes place more recently, getting the story straight can be very important. Mysteries have important details that provide clues to the outcome of the book. A popular mystery series has been a favorite escape for me. I didn’t read the books in order, and decided to go back and read the first in the series.  In the first book, the ending just didn’t compute. While reading the story, I had a few likely suspects, and was fairly proud that I had figured things out. Then, the author threw me a curve. The end of the story pinned the crime on a character that had only been mentioned in passing. The clues in previous chapters just didn’t add up. Thankfully, I gave the author another chance, and in her subsequent books, the outcome made more sense.

And then there are the meaningless details that get left out of the story. Remember the old TV show, Happy Days? Remember Richie’s older brother? He appeared in a couple of shows, and then, they mentioned him a time or two, and by the time the series wrapped up, Howard and Marian talked only about Richie and Joanie. “What’s His Name” was completely forgotten.

The bottom line is- readers ( and TV viewers) notice. Authors don’t make mistakes like this on purpose. Details can get messed up when we edit, taking out something important, or adding something un-necessary. The best defense for these errors is a good critique partner. Every author can use someone to say “What were you thinking?” Find a good fact checker, and double check those details. We want our readers to get caught up on our story, not throw it across the room!

What’s the Point in Point of View?

The point is to draw your readers deep into your story and keep them there. Take it from this very avid (some say rabid) reader: Getting POV right matters!

Disclaimer: This is purely from a readerly perspective and is in no way an in depth exploration of writing techniques. There are better people out there who teach…check out

a fool & his monetFirst person POVI, me, my – the narrator is the main character and everything is seen from his/her perspective. It can be limiting from a writer’s perspective because you can only relay what one character experiences but it’s a great way to get deep into your hero or heroine’s psyche. Readers either love it or hate it. There are actually people who won’t read a book in 1st person POV! Which is sad because they will miss out on this fabulous example – A Fool & His Monet by Sandra Orchard. Exceptionally well written, great-pacing, lit with humour and oh, the bliss of mystery!

room for hopeThird Person POVhe, she, him, her – the most common writing style and seems to be preferred by the majority of readers. It enables the writer to access different viewpoints. Think Love Inspired books which relate scenes from both the hero and the heroine’s viewpoint. Or longer novels that have even more viewpoints. Room for Hope by Kim Vogel Sawyer is a great example of that. The story is told from the perspective of four characters and it’s exciting to be inside their heads but also know enough about what the others are thinking and feeling that you transcend into that thrilling reader anticipation as you begin to see how story threads will be woven together.

redOmniscient POV – Not very popular (thank goodness) in current fiction, this is a detached narrator’s retelling of a story. It’s a recounting, really, and can’t go deep into characterization. The best example I can think of are traditional fairy tales. Many years ago, children’s authors were fond of tossing out omniscient POV to their ‘dear readers’ at odd points in a story. A girl would be about to enter a dark cellar and the author would pull out of the story to observe, “I fear, dear reader, that this was a foolish decision.” Anyone remember those books? Used to drive me crazy as a kid and I never knew why. Now I do. Which brings us to…

Rule #1 – Limit Your Point of View – Pick a character POV and stick with it for at least a scene.

Rule #2 – Do not under any circumstances try to incorporate all viewpoints in one story. Really. Just don’t do it or it turns into a hot mess. I know because I had the displeasure of reading such a book. A YA mystery by a debut author who began the story with an omniscient viewpoint that persisted in raising its ugly head with annoying regularity, even in 1st POV scenes. And while the story was all told from the perspective of the teenaged heroine (except for those omni moments), the author yoyoed between 1st and 3rd POV – sometimes in the same scene!!! Yes one paragraph would end with “I wondered what lay hidden in the cellar.” And the next paragraph would start up with, “She tugged the door open and peered down the stairs.” Pulled me out of the story every single time. It was like reading a tennis match!

So, do you have a preference? Do you abhor 1st person POV? Prefer multiple points of view in a story (all consistently 3rd person POV, of course)? Have you noticed established writers playing with the rules effectively? Do share!

Fill Your Bucket

We writers have to have inspiration to fill the stories we pen. If we don’t find something to quench our imaginations, it’s like the old saying, ‘All work and no play makes (insert your name here) a dull, dull author.


My family never took vacations, at least not like the vacations you think about today. We took trips to my grandparent’s house a couple of hours away, and trips to local watering holes to fish.


I have never liked fishing.


As a kid I always wished that we would have been the type of family who all jumped in the station wagon and went to local attractions for outings. As an adult I have the power to  be that person I always wished I could be.


This past week my husband and I took a trip to Arizona. We visited the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, and Montezuma Castle National Monument. They were each magnificent in their own way. If I lived more than one lifetime, I’m convinced I would be a geologist.


empty bucketTo most people rocks are not exciting, canyons are not awe-inspiring, nor old holes built into the sides of mountains that interesting. But, for me they were filling. My bucket of inspiration runneth over.


I hadn’t planned on the trip being something that could bring about ideas for a story. But, that’s what happened. So many ideas, in fact, that I’m bursting with them.


We all need to have our bucket full of inspiration in order to write a story riveting enough to touch the hearts of our readers. The thing about inspiration is that we don’t have to go far for it to happen. Find local points of interest and make an afternoon out of it. It only takes the cost of gas to do.


Locally, I live near De Soto Bend Wildlife Refuge. There on display is a boat that sank in the Missouri River in 1865 called the Bertrand. One hundred years later they recovered the cargo along with pieces of the boat and have it on display. A few years ago our ACFW Iowa/Nebraska group took an outing there. We got to go behind the windows and get a close up view of the items on display. It was beautiful, but eerie. It spawned an idea I’ve had percolating ever since.


One day I’m going to write that story. I know this because it comes back to me time and again. It was just a drop in my inspirational bucket.


How do you fill your bucket?

The All-in-One Write And Edit Mistake

Though I make more writing mistakes than I care to mention, the biggest one is the temptation to hit the delete button and take up a simpler activity, like catching squirrels. Since I don’t know what I’d do with a squirrel after I catch it, I’ve decided to keep writing.

With that problem nixed, I’ll tell you about the next biggest problem that plagues me like…well, the plague. Oops, I think I found another mistake I make and it’s called clichéd writing.

Okay, back to the main point I’m trying to make here. When I get frustrated with my novel and put it on hold for a while, I tend to try to make up for lost time when I get back to it. I tell myself if I do it right the first time I’ll get the thing done a whole lot quicker. Sometimes I’ll go so far as to think each sentence needs to be perfect as my fingers touch the keys. But, you know what? That might work for a while, but then I get frustrated and creativity flounders and then stops all together. (That’s when I go outside and start looking for squirrels.) The all-in-one write and edit combo simply does not work, at least not for me. If you can write a scene and then edit, that’s great, but if it doesn’t work and you find yourself developing writer’s block, you may need to forget about all the rules as you go and simply write, write, write.

Your goal is to get the first draft finished while you’re energized and save your editing for later.

The Backstory Dump

Did anyone else read The Baby-Sitters Club books? They were a series of books that were popular among preteen girls in the late 1980s/early 1990s that centered around seven junior high-age girls who loved to babysit and started a club so their clients could get a hold of them. Each book followed a certain babysitter, chronicling their adventures in babysitting and beyond.

The books were extremely predictable (but when you’re 10-years old, you don’t really care). The first chapter would introduce the main action of the story, while the second would always take place at a Baby-Sitters Club meeting, where the first-person narrator/babysitter would explain who the members of the club were, their personalities, and how the club came to be. It was as formulaic as H20, with the exceptions being what the club members were wearing at the time.

I mention all of this to illustrate a common writing mistake: the backstory/information dump.

Writing Mistake No. 2: The Backstory Dump

Tangled backstoryThink about the main character in a book you’re reading. When you started the first page, do you know everything about them? Of course not. Just like when meeting a real person for the first time, you usually only know a few things about them, primarily their name, and their general appearance.

Too many beginning authors (and I include myself in that bunch) want to let the reader know everything about the main character right off the bat: who they are, what they do for a living, what makes them angry, why they don’t like to eat broccoli (well, who does?), etc. So, those writers will commonly have what we call the “backstory” or “information dump.” They try to tell the reader everything about their character in the first few pages, rather than get on to the business at hand: telling the story.

I get it. You’ve been living with this fictional character, fleshing them out, and you want the world to know everything about them, because you want the reader to love them as much as you do. But just like when you meet a person for the first time, you don’t know their life story; you slowly get to know them, peeling back the layers of their personality and history.

In the murder mystery I’m writing, my main character, Mira, is a former cellist who, due to an accident, can no longer perform. This is an essential element to who my character is, and it’s not a secret to either the reader or the other fictional characters in her world. However, I didn’t want to dwell on the accident in the first couple of paragraphs of the story, so while I mentioned it, I didn’t go into great detail:

My left hand involuntarily curled into a half-fist. Grimacing at the tight tendons that prevented it from closing further, my fingertips brushed the thin white scar across my palm: the only physical remains of the accident three years ago. I felt the familiar mixture of sadness and anger flare up, but I tamped it down. No use dwelling on something that would never be.

jane-eyre-book-cover WEBAs my story unfolds, the reader will learn more about the details that led to Mira’s accident, and how it affected her life. But I don’t need to write about it in the first couple of pages. I’d rather the reader wonder what happened to her, why such a small scar could change her life, and how she is moving on from it.

I recently read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for the first time. From Jane’s first person perspective, we meet Mr. Rochester, the moody, brooding master of Thornfield Hall. As Jane and Rochester’s relationship deepens, he tells her he made mistakes in his youth, and has been desperately seeking redemption. Not all of his faults are revealed at once, but through long conversations with Jane as she (and the readers!) fall in love with him.

Reading a nearly 170-year old classic for the first time is interesting, because I knew Rochester’s big secret long before I ever read the story (thanks, pop culture!). Knowing what was going to happen slightly dampened my enjoyment of the big “Ah ha!” moment, but for an audience reading the story for the first time, it would have been shocking and unexpected.

Jaen Eyre 2006 WEBJust think if Charlotte Bronte had made a rookie writer mistake and revealed that *spoiler!* Mr. Rochester already had a wife (albeit a crazy one) when he tried to marry Jane? We would think him a cad, and Jane foolish for falling in love with a married man. As it is written, readers have fallen in love with Mr. Rochester long before his past is revealed, making it too late to hate him for his actions. This approach made us sympathize with his plight, while we are also grieving with Jane. It also makes for one heck of a great story!

In short: don’t dump your character’s backstory all up front. Let your readers get to know them gradually, and they’ll enjoy the character that much more.

* As a note to this post, I fully understand that books that are part of a series tend to have some sort of information or backstory dump for new readers, which is common and acceptable. I intend to have Mira’s life-changing accident be mentioned up front in other subsequent novels (Lord willing!), but it won’t be the focus.

8 of the Most Common Writing Mistakes

Reader friends, in case you’ve missed this, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The Inkspers are writers.

As writers, most of us have a strong internal editor when we read things. Whether it’s a sign on the street or a church bulletin, we will most likely notice grammatical errors. However, what we really see are common writing mistakes in books. This could be in our own books, in the works we are critiquing for friends, or in books we’re reading.

For the next two weeks each of us will be sharing a writing mistake we’ve seen. That will be eight writing mistakes. Join us and see if you agree.

Mistake #1: Choppy Writing

I just finished my dear friend Laura Frantz’s The Mistress of Tall Acre. I was behind the times in reading it, but I’d promised myself I’d only read a chapter a day. I failed miserably and finished it in only a day and a half.

As I was reading her book, I thought, “Why am I enjoying this so much?” One thing, of course, was the characterization and plot, but another is Laura’s masterful way of writing prose. Her books have a lyrical quality to them. They read like symphony pieces. They have both pace and poetry.

I’ve also read books that would comparably read like hard rock. The sentences are choppy often because the author is trying to mirror the way we think. They write many short sentences in succession which makes it hard for the reader to sustain a thought. I’d like to point out there is a big difference between writing tight and writing choppy. Tight writing doesn’t use a lot of unnecessary words and there’s nothing wrong with that. The sentences are still complete and devoid of run-ons. Choppy writing, however, might sound good at first, but it quickly becomes irritating and exhausting.

Let’s look at an example of choppy writing.

John’s breath caught. Same old Grace. T-shirt and jeans. Brown hair draw drawn up in a ponytail. Smelling like horses. But now she belonged to someone else. His brother.

What to look for?

How does a writer know if their work sounds choppy? First of all, read it out loud. Our ears hear more than our eyes see when it comes to the rhythm of text.

Second, look at the paragraphs. How often do you use sentence fragments rather than whole sentences? Can sentences be combined? All authors use fragments occasionally for effect, but are you overdoing it? If you have more than three short sentences or phrases in a row(of less than 10 words), you might want to take a second look at that area. If you’re finding that tendency often in you manuscript, give it a good rework.

Third, study the cadence of other writers and their sentence structures. When they need to increase the tempo of an action scene, the sentences are usually short and to the point. When they want to slow things down and make the reader reflect, they usually increase the sentence length.


The Fix

Fixing choppy sentences is easy. You combine phrases and clauses or rework the structure. If you’re old enough to remember School House Rock, you already know the answer. Remember “Conjunction juntion, what’s your function?” Like the song says, “and, but, and or will get you really far.” You might also need to add some “meat” to some places.


Let’s take a new look at the example above. I’ve reworked it to make it less choppy.

John’s breath caught at the sight of Grace. Was it his imagination or did she smell like roses and horses–the two things she loved most? Wearing a t-shirt and jeans with her hair drawn up in a ponytail, she seemed to have changed at all. His chest tightened. She hadn’t changed except she had a new boyfriend who happened to be his brother.

It’s not a perfect re-write, but I think you get the idea. So share your opinion. Do you ever write choppy prose? Have you read any recently?

A Merry Ergonomic Christmas

I’m sure you’ve heard all the hype about how sitting is really bad for your health. Crazy statistics that suggest we shouldn’t be sitting for longer than thirty minutes at a stretch. Kind of impractical when you’re a writer.

And just to complicate things, I spend a lot of time sitting or lying down due to health reasons. Seriously, I’m allowed two minutes on the treadmill a day. Woohoo! So hearing all the gloom and doom about a sedentary lifestyle has me dreaming of an ergonomic Christmas. Here’s what I’m hoping Santa might have in his sleigh.

 ergo desk

How’s this for the ultimate ergonomic work station? You can recline, sit and stand with very little disruption to your work flow. How cool is that? And space saving as well.

 typing changing up and down

Okay, so maybe you don’t have the megabucks for that fancy work station but this simple device will keep you moving through those long nano writing binges. The laptop tray moves up and down so you can too. Sit for twenty minutes. Stand for twenty minutes. Up and down with barely a glitch in your workflow.

 lounge chair with hole

How’s this for an ergonomic way to read your rough draft? I think my bones would just melt into this comfort lounger and, hey, if someone wanders by and offers to give me a massage I wouldn’t say no.

 recliner rocking chair

This one’s just plain fun. The gravity recliner is versatile while being ergonomic. You can recline with your feet above heart level (perfect position for contemplating plot twists), rock gently while you work out your hero’s GMC, pull forward into a kneeling position so you can work on your laptop or just curl up and read a good book for inspiration.

 foot sling

Okay – if you can’t finance the fancy schmancy stuff above how about this clever hammock footrest? Elevating your feet helps prevent blood pooling around your ankles and improves circulation.

 ergo pen

And for those times when you’re feeling nostalgic remembering the good old days when creative juices flowed as evenly as the ink from your pen you can get this ergo variety. Guaranteed to keep your fingers nimble so they can fly across page after page.

 So, do you worry about the ergonomics of your work place? Have you made adaptations to get you moving more? Any DYI suggestions that can help a weary body out? If so, do share.


Everyday Phrases Coined by Famous Authors

Throughout the years, authors and writers have done their part in growing the English language. In fact, some calculate that Shakespeare alone has contributed over 3000 commonly used phrases and idioms.

Why so many?

First of all, it’s just fun to make up words and, as long as your readers can understand what you’re saying, you can get away with it. Another reason is because we need to keep our writing “fresh.” That means cutting worn, clichéd phrases from our prose and “inventing” new ways to word what we want to say.

Just for fun, I’m going to share a few examples of phrases/idioms and words introduced into our language by some of the most renowned authors.

Dead as a Doornail –

This is one of the many phrases smithed by Shakespeare. A few days ago, Lorna mentioned several idioms often related to death and dying, so this is another idiom to add to that list. The phrase refers to a once-popular carpentry technique called “clenching.” Once a nail was hammered through a piece of wood, the end was bent over to secure it. If someone later worked to reclaim the used nails, those that had been clenched weren’t fit to be re-used, so they were, in fact, “dead,” or, more specifically, “dead as a doornail.” Once Shakespeare wrote the phrase into the lines of Jack Cade of Henry VI, it soon became widespread in colloquial use:

Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.

The Creeps – 

We can thank Charles Dickens for this phrase, which pretty much means what it says – “Something that causes fear or revulsion” (dictionary definition). The word “creepy,” had recently been introduced into the language (around 1831), so Dickens took the opportunity to ad lib on that word in this line from David Copperfield:

She was constantly complaining of the cold, and of its occasioning a visitation in her back which she called ‘the creeps’.

Nerd –

Does it make me more of a nerd that I was thrilled to discover the origin of this word is largely attributed to Dr Seuss? A few others have raised their hands, hoping to claim authorship of “nerd,” but it was Seuss who first put it in print, so he gets the glory. Of course, the nerd was among the list of animals young Gerald McGrew planned to include, should he be made zookeeper, in Seuss’s classic tale, If I Ran the Zoo.

And then just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo / And bring back an IT-KUTCH, a PREEP, and a PROO, A NERKLE, a NERD, and SEERSUCKER, too!”

Blip –

Until the mid-1940s, when this word came to mean a spot of light on a RADAR screen, the common meaning for blip was “a sudden brisk blow, a popping sound.” Blip has been attributed to one of my personal favorites among classic authors, Mark Twain, in St. Nicholas.

“. . . a blip in the back and knocked him off.”


How about you? What idioms/words/phrases have YOU coined in your writings? Or, if you haven’t created your own idiom(s), what original, “fresh” descriptive terms have you discovered in books you have read?

Do You Know Diddly Squat?

Did you ever wonder where certain unpredictable sayings, called idioms, come from? Like “Riding shotgun?” This phrase originated back in the days of stagecoach travel when the seat next to the driver was reserved for the person holding a shotgun to ward off thieves determined to rob passengers. In other words, this individual was the security agent of yesteryear. I guess the TSA has been around longer than I thought, though I’m guessing I wouldn’t have to take my shoes off to pass security back then.

Another popular saying is “Heard it through the grapevine.” When telegraph wires were first strung way-back-when, many people thought the drooping, twisting mass of confusion resembled grapevines. As communication methods progressed, this common saying has stayed the same throughout the years.

A saying I probably use way too often is “Diddly squat.” This idiom originated as slang among carnival workers who wished to communicate with each other without anyone else knowing what they were talking about. (Sounds like a novel idea to me.) In the beginning the phrase referred to small amounts of money offered by gamblers but the saying gained popularity as time passed and has stuck around longer than was probably ever intended.

So there you have your dose of meaningless trivia for the day. Just in case you ever wondered where these sayings came from—now you know.