Are You Tense?

In an interview for The New York Times (September 25, 1977), John le Carré explained to Michael Barber that a good story begins with conflict: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.” Then he went further. “I don’t think that there are very many good writers who don’t live without a sense of tension. If they haven’t got one immediately available to them, then they usually manage to manufacture it in their private lives.”

If this is true, I’m in trouble. Over the years I’ve invested a lot of energy trying to lessen the tension in my world. Isn’t this what doctors and psychologists advise? Lower the tension. Calm down. Create a sense of harmony.

But what works in real life does not work in the world of fiction. And even if writers don’t manufacture tension in their private lives, they must create it in their novels. Lots of it. Because tension is what keeps the reader turning the pages.

Yesterday I attended a Donald Maass workshop called “Fire in Fiction,” sponsored by COFW (Central Ohio Fiction Writers). With apologies for oversimplifying the dense, seven-hour workshop, the “fire” in fiction (Maass says) comes from character and conflict. Conflict between characters. Conflict within a character. Conflict on every page. Conflict is tension, and tension is what makes certain novels, regardless of genre, stand out from the crowd.

It isn’t difficult to see tension in the action and dialog of le Carré’s spy thrillers. But tension must arise also from subtler layers such as character, setting, and even word choice. Maass calls this “micro-tension”—not plot conflict or scene goals, but the “moment-by-moment, line-by-line uneasiness in the mind of the reader,” relieved only by continuing to turn the pages.

Maass recommended an interesting technique. Scramble the pages of your manuscript, he said, and then revise them page by page, in random order, making certain that there is tension on every page. Here’s the problem: I really want to be finished with this “final revision” by March.

Oh dear. I’m starting to feel tense.

If you want more information, read Maass’s wonderful books on the craft of writing (available from Amazon and Writer’s Digest): The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing 21st Century Fiction.

Auld Scotland

Auld ScotlandThe setting of my mystery, The Secret of Lanark Island, is a fictitious island in Lake Champlain, south of Isle La Motte and west of “the Heroes” (North Hero Island and South Hero Island)—although, if you check the map, there isn’t room for an island there at all.

In the novel Lanark was settled by Scottish immigrants from Lanarkshire in the green heart of Scotland. Descendants of the original settlers still live in the small resort community and take their Scottish heritage very seriously indeed.

Lanark Island and its inhabitants are patterned loosely after my grandmother’s close-knit Scottish community in Buffalo, New York. My paternal grandmother, Flora Hannah Campbell, was born in Greenock on the Clyde and grew up in the tenements of Glasgow. In her twenties she emigrated, along with her parents and sister, to New York State, where she lived well into her nineties.

Everyone my grandparents knew had been born in Scotland, most from Glasgow or its environs. Even my grandfather from Aberdeen was a bit of an outsider—a status he seemed to enjoy. They spoke with thick Glaswegian accents and talked about lawn bowling tournaments and trips to Toronto for items they couldn’t live without such as English Rose tea and thick-cut orange marmalade and real oat porridge. They valued their privacy. “He keeps himself to himself” was the highest compliment they could pay.

Many of the surnames in my novel are taken from among this group—Arnott, Guthrie, Young, Hamilton. Like the Lanark islanders, they took great pride in their Scottish roots. Those less fortunates from other countries—even occasionally the English—were viewed with a thinly disguised suspicion. When my father announced his desire to marry a woman of Danish-Norwegian stock, my grandmother (trying her best to put a good face on things—he was in his early forties) decided that one of her ancestors may very well have been a Scottish woman taken back to Scandinavia by a Viking.

This is one of her recipes, a version of Dundee Cake without the citron. She called it Yum Yum Cake:

1 c. seeded raisins
½ c. currents
1 ½ c. chopped dates
2 c. sugar
2 c. boiling water
5 T. butter

Put this on to boil and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Cool completely. You can do this
the night before. Then sift together:

3 ½ c. sifted flour
½ t baking soda
2 t. cinnamon
1 t. cloves
1 t. salt
½ c. chopped walnuts or almonds

Stir into the fruit mixture with a long wooden spoon (it will be stiff). Add 2 T. whiskey (optional) and bake in a large loaf pan or Bundt pan at 350˚ for 1 to 1 ½ hours. Test with toothpick. Allow to cool before slicing. Glaze if desired: mix together 1 c. powdered sugar, 1 ½ T. water, and ½ t. vanilla or lemon extract.

Here’s tae ye!

The Long, Steep Learning Curve

I’ve learned a lot this year. About the world of publishing. About the craft of writing. About myself. I’ve also learned a whole new vocabulary—log lines, hash tags, elevator pitches. partials and fulls, R & R (not “rest and relaxation” but “revise and rewrite”). Becoming a writer involves a long and steep learning curve with lots of pitfalls and detours.

Recently I read a blog reposted by K.M. Weiland (Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors), “Why Second Novels Are So Different From the First,” by award-winning author Kim Wright (Love in Mid Air). It’s not that second books themselves are so different, Ms. Wright says, but that “first-time writers are different from second-time writers.” They’ve made it at least part way up that learning curve.

This gives me hope. Many authors admit to spending inordinate amounts of time on their first novel, only to realize that with contracts and deadlines looming, they no longer have that luxury—or burden. Some writers—Elizabeth George is a notable example—call their first novel “unpublishable” and go on the second, building on what they learned. Being able to write isn’t the same thing as being able to tell a story. And vice versa.

But there’s more involved than just learning how to write and how to tell a story. There’s the matter of ego. On her website Louise Penny says that she cut the first draft of her debut novel, Still Life, in half from a whopping 168,000 words. “Once my ego and pride was set aside,” she says, “I was able to ‘kill my young.’” So the learning curve involves not only what I know, but also how I think and what I feel.

Right now I’m in the painful process of killing my young. I’ve not reached the summit of the learning curve. In fact I can’t see the summit from my present location. Perhaps there is no summit—just another path to take from there. But it helps to know that I’m not alone on the journey. Others have marked the path before me. One of the most impressive things I’ve learned this year is the incredible generosity of writers in sharing their struggles—and even their failures—with those coming along behind. Thank you.

New Year’s Goals

     My New Year’s goals (one step down from resolutions) are to spend more time writing and to get more exercise. How the two will fit together in my schedule remains to be seen. All I know is that I need to get cracking on my new book and that the previous year, much of it spent in front of a computer screen, has taken a toll on my body.  

     The start of a new year is a traditional time to make resolutions and reset goals. A new beginning, we think. A clean break from the past. And yet my northern European face reveals my foolish adolescent attempts to get a tan, and my body still wears the cookies I couldn’t resist over the holidays. L.P. Hartley famously said, “The past is a foreign country.” Maybe so, but the past is also the ever-present elephant in the room. 

     The effect of the past on the present is a central theme in The Secret of Lanark Island. Lanark Island trades on the past, profiting from its Scottish heritage and quaint stone architecture. My main character, Kate, is stuck in an over-romanticized past. Other characters in the book live happily in the past or try to escape from the past or conceal the past or struggle to overcome the past. For each one, a secret in the island’s past will shape their future. 

     Similes come to mind. The past bleeds through, like the stain of a yellow highlighter from a previous page. The past gives visual depth, like actual contours inserted beneath a flat topographical map. The past provides context, like the underlying image in a 3-D photograph.  

     What in your past informs your present and shapes your future? The past can’t be erased and it can’t be ignored forever. But it can be redeemed.