Sensing Writers: Down to the Details

Writers who prefer sensation focus on concrete data. They start with the detail, then pan out until they can see the big picture. But too much focus on discrete data can prevent them from perceiving the connections between ideas. How can sensing writers make sure they include conceptual as well as factual information?

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of following your natural tendencies when writing a first draft. Then, during the editing process, you can go back and fill in the elements you missed.

Natural tendencies of sensing writers

Sensing writers immerse themselves in the five senses. They see the world as it is. Relying on facts, they enjoy storing knowledge about their observations and including this information in their writing.

When sensing writers begin a writing project, they want clear instructions. They need details to develop a sense of direction. Often, they’ll use other projects that have gone well as a template.

Sensing writers organize their content around concrete elements. They’re more interested in action than in ideas. They focus on practical applications and find it easier to write based on personal experience. They tend to move in a linear way from start to finish.

As they mature, sensing writers learn through experience to brainstorm and conceptualize. They become more imaginative and original. However, they trust imagination most when it has boundaries—for instance, a writing structure to follow.

Filling the gaps

If you’re a sensing writer, be sure to get detailed instructions at the beginning of a project. If you don’t understand what’s expected of you, talk to your editor or project sponsor. Ask a peer for help.

Use other projects as a model, but also consider new approaches. While sensing types learn best through repetition, sometimes the benefits of innovation are worth the learning curve of trying new things. Be open to improvement.

Compose a rough first draft to give yourself something concrete to work with—but avoid polishing too soon. When presenting facts, look for connections between them. Transition clearly from one topic to another. Relate details to the big picture to give a sense of context.

For instance, in technical writing, tell the reader why to perform a procedure. Instead of Press the red button to launch the missile, write To launch the missile, press the red button.

To overcome writer’s block, break the rules. Writing is an art, not a mechanical procedure. Don’t be constrained by preconceived ideas. Try something new and see what happens.

Finding Your Voice in Fiction

Copywriters blog about it. Literary agents yearn for it. Budding writers may know they need it, but they may be unsure how to get it (or even what it is). In a sense, voice is your platform. It’s the reason that you alone could write this story—that no one else could write it the way you did.

Many things contribute to an author’s voice. Word choice and sentence structure are part of it. But voice is also much deeper. It’s your world view, your values, your passion. In short, it’s your personality.

The websites of literary agents make it clear that they’re looking for a unique and compelling voice. If your manuscript sounds like every other submission in your genre, then no matter how well written it is, the agent will likely pass. Your personality must shine through.

Here are some of the components of voice:

Your values

David Keirsey grouped the 16 Myers-Briggs types into 4 temperaments, and identified the values unique to each. For example, the Idealists (NFs) and Guardians (SJs) value cooperation, while Rationals (NTs) and Artisans (SPs) value autonomy. But while the cooperative efforts of Guardians focus on preserving traditions and social institutions, Idealists seek to build stronger communities through personal growth. And while Artisans want autonomy so they can take advantage of immediate opportunities, Rationals focus on building systems and long-term strategies.

Think about some of your favorite novels, and consider how the voice might reflect one or more of these values. For example, I might argue that in The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Aibileen expresses Guardian values, Minny expresses Artisan values, and Miss Skeeter expresses Rational values. Yet the novel itself expresses Idealist values. The voices of the three point-of-view characters come together to give the novel a voice that’s different from the sum of its parts.

Your experiences

I’m a Pennsylvanian who’s made a home in North Carolina. I know how disorienting it is to leave your support system behind, and start a new life in a strange place with customs you don’t understand. My experience with this sense of alienation plays a role in my fiction.

But note that your experiences aren’t limited to things you’ve personally lived through. We’ve all been listening to stories—through books, TV, movies, and conversation—since we were born. The people you know also have a unique set of experiences that they can share with you. The old caveat, write what you know, is backwards. It should be know what you write. Research. Interview people. Travel if you have to. Draw on your past, but continue to build your store of knowledge.

Your interests

If you love jazz, set a couple of scenes in a jazz club. Include dialogue that could only be spoken by a jazz connoisseur. If you garden, include descriptions of trees and flowers that demonstrate your specific knowledge. These kinds of details add depth and authenticity to a scene.

Your interests may also affect the theme of your work. As a writer of women’s fiction, I’m fascinated by the effects of human evolution on behavior, particularly in the differences between men and women. In most primate societies, to avoid inbreeding, females stay in the troupe they were born into; males, on the other hand, are forced out when they reach sexual maturity, and must make their way in the world. Modern human females largely define themselves in terms of their relationships, whereas males define themselves in terms of identity. My fiction explores the conflicts that naturally occur as a result: for instance, the woman is trying to preserve the relationship but her partner is trying to preserve his identity. Or, conversely, a woman’s search for identity creates problems in her relationships.

Voice is one of those things that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. The best way to ensure that your voice shines through is to be authentic, to write from your core self, and to be fearless. If you’re not willing to take chances in your fiction, to expose the deepest parts of yourself, you won’t touch the reader’s heart. It’s that emotional connection to the characters that keeps readers engaged. A story without voice is a story that won’t sell. So don’t hold back. Write for all you’re worth.

Can You Make a Living As a Novelist?

A reader asked whether I thought it was possible to make a living as a novelist in the current environment. We’re seeing deep changes in the publishing industry. That can be scary, because change creates uncertainty. But I believe that this is the most exciting time ever to be a novelist. We have more publishing options, more delivery options, and more ways of connecting to potential readers. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to make a living as a novelist. In fact, it may be more difficult now, because readers are more demanding and sophisticated. So what can you do to increase your odds?

1. Write a stellar book.

Whether you choose traditional or self-publishing, your manuscript must have no major flaws. Major flaws include:

  • Numerous grammar and spelling errors
  • An opening that doesn’t hook the reader
  • No distinct voice
  • A plot that doesn’t move
  • Characters that readers can’t identify with quickly enough
  • Wooden dialogue
  • Overblown descriptions
  • Events that seem to happen at random without a connection to the main character’s journey
  • A contrived ending

The gatekeepers in traditional publishing will keep you out if your debut novel has these flaws. But if you go with self-publishing, you can publish your manuscript anyway. The problem is, no one will buy it. You won’t get the word of mouth endorsements you need in order for the novel to succeed. And anyone who does read the book will avoid your future ones.

2. Write another stellar book.

Very few people can make enough money to retire on from their first novel. It’s likely that it will take 3 or 4 novels before you build a fan base. You must be in it for the long haul. Ideally, you should follow up your first book with your second in six months to a year. Readers who love your book, and are panting for more, will give up on you if you keep them waiting too long. Bob Mayer recommends that you don’t self-publish until you’ve got three books ready to go. Only then will your promotion pay off in sales.

3. Don’t put more time into promotion than you do into writing.

These days, even fiction writers need a platform before most acquiring editors will consider them. If they Google your name and don’t find you, that’s bad. You should be on Facebook and Twitter, maybe LinkedIn and Google+. It also helps to have a blog with a decent number of hits. But none of that matters if you’re not focusing on your manuscript first, making it the best it can be. Read books in your genre, study the craft, and write every day.

4. Eliminate non-essentials from your life

Writing a novel is a full-time job. If you’ve got another full-time job to pay the bills, then you need to eliminate things from your life that don’t contribute to your writing practice. That doesn’t mean giving up your social life. If you and your spouse enjoy throwing a Super Bowl party every year, don’t let your writing get in the way of that. But if the only reason you watch the big game is to see the commercials, then maybe your Super Bowl Sunday would be better spent in front of a keyboard than in front of a TV.

5. Get feedback on your work (from someone who’s qualified to give it)

Chances are pretty good that your mom will love your novel. After all, she loved those crayon drawings you did when you were three. Were those crayon drawings masterpieces because your mom loved them? No. The same is true for your manuscript.

Join a critiquing group, either local or online. Participate in events offered by writing organizations, and seek out fellow writers you can trust to serve as beta readers. Keep in mind that the first few times someone critiques your creative writing, it will be excruciating. But in time, it gets easier. You start looking forward to the feedback because you know it will make your work stronger.

6. Want it more than you’ve ever wanted anything

Chances are, writing your first salable novel will be a long-term commitment. It requires you to pour in your emotions, to be more honest than you’ve ever been. It means giving up your leisure time. These sacrifices are hard, so ask yourself: can you go to your grave satisfied if you never become a published author? If the answer is yes, then you may not have the drive and the passion it takes to see this thing through.

Success in publishing is about 30% talent. The rest is timing, perseverance, and luck. A lot is out of your control. But if you want it enough, you work hard enough, and you keep at it for as long as it takes, you may just have a chance.

Query Letters: Seduce, Don’t Summarize

In her blog SlushPileTales, literary agent Lauren Ruth of Bookends LLC runs a wonderful series called Query Dice. She critiques queries (with the author’s permission, of course), and invites readers to share their views as well. One thing stands out to me about the queries she’s featured so far: the authors are trying to summarize their book, instead of crafting a marketing pitch to hook the agent. They’re giving the agent more information than she needs, and the result is confusion rather than excitement.

Agents are in part to blame for this. Too many agency websites state that the query letter should contain a “synopsis” or “summary” of the novel. Those words suggest that the author should encapsulate the entire plot in two paragraphs. But as editor Jane Friedman says, “A query letter is not a straightforward description of your work. It’s a sales letter. It should be persuasive and seduce the agent into requesting your work.”

Other agency websites ask for a “description” or a “pitch.” These terms are better, but “description” could lead some writers to submit a beautiful abstraction, instead of focusing on plot. And “pitch” could lead some writers to declare, “It’s the next Da Vinci Code!” or “It’s better than Eat, Pray, Love!” Agents don’t want that, either.

What agents really want is back jacket copy—that marketing copy on the back cover that convinces the reader to buy the book. Back jacket copy must entice readers, revealing enough to pique their interest but not so much that their curiosity wanes. Your query should do the same for an agent.

For instance, here’s my attempt at writing back jacket copy for my favorite novel, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

When Charles Bingley rents an estate in Hertfordshire in Regency England, the mamas of the eligible daughters in the neighborhood welcome him with undisguised glee. Chief among these mamas is Mrs. Bennet, who has produced five daughters, but no sons to inherit the family estate. The two eldest Bennet sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, hope for love but know that marrying well is their only security against poverty when their father’s fortune inevitably passes to a distant cousin.

Bingley is smitten by the lovely but modest Jane. Then, his friend Darcy visits Hertfordshire. The grandson of an earl, Darcy is shocked by the coarse manners of the provincial society. Jane’s vivacious sister Elizabeth teases Darcy out of his silence. But when Jane and Elizabeth’s family expose their own follies at a ball, Darcy whisks Bingley out of Hertfordshire to save him from Mrs. Bennet’s designs, leaving Jane heartbroken. Elizabeth realizes a painful truth: The greatest threat to her future happiness isn’t the entail on her father’s estate. It’s her mother’s crassness, her sisters’ wildness, and her father’s benign indifference. If she and Jane hope to find love with men of quality, the sisters must rise out of the stifling country society into which they were born.

This copy isn’t perfect—for one thing, it names 5 characters, which is 3 too many. The novel’s protagonist, Elizabeth, doesn’t feature prominently enough. But this is the way the novel reads. It introduces a number of characters at once, and Elizabeth doesn’t dominate at first. In this sense, the rhythm of the copy follows the rhythm of the novel.

Note that this copy focuses mainly on the early chapters of the novel. Then, the second half of the second paragraph skips forward to the midpoint reversal. The final sentence summarizes the protagonist’s course of action based on the new information she receives at the midpoint, which begins the long lead-up to the climax.

Note also what I left out: I barely hinted at the courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy. Their courtship is a critical part of Elizabeth’s internal journey, but it doesn’t drive the external plot. In fact, Elizabeth doesn’t realize she’s engaged in courtship with Darcy until halfway through the novel. So I gave the reader just enough information to suspect that the two might become a couple.

I also left out the subplots, such as Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins, and Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. There’s no room for subplots in a query letter.

Before you try to write the query, I recommend that you first write a logline. A logline is a one-sentence description of the main action of the story. Here’s a possible logline for Pride and Prejudice:

Two sisters in Regency England must marry well to avoid poverty, but the uncouth manners of their family threaten to frighten off any men of quality they meet.

This logline is horribly reductive. It doesn’t begin to capture the magnificence of one of the greatest novels of all time. But a logline isn’t supposed to do that. It’s supposed to leave the audience wanting more. And having a logline will help you write your query with a laser focus on the main plot.

Why is writing a query difficult for many budding novelists? Author and self-publishing guru Bob Mayer looks to the Myers-Briggs personality types for one explanation: “Promoter (ESTP) is the complete opposite of Author (INFJ).” As an INFJ author myself, I can relate. But remember, the MBTI types are based on preference, not ability. Writing promotional copy is a skill you can learn, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you.

Chapter 4 of Bob Mayer’s book Write It Forward contains more information on how the MBTI can help fiction writers plan their career and deepen their characters. This book is available in multiple formats from Who Dares Wins Publishing, and is also available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Related links:
The INFJ Writing Personality: Eloquent Vision

Breaking the Surface: Deepening the Characters in Your Fiction

Recently on Twitter, @AgentShea (Katie Shea of the Donald Maass Literary Agency) was wondering “how to make a one-note romance book into women’s fiction.” This is a question I also think about. As a writer of women’s fiction, I find that some romance and chick lit novels leave me dissatisfied. They hint at the depth of their characters but don’t really explore it.

For instance, I recently read a chick lit novel where the heroine is addicted to shopping. Even though she’s getting deeper into debt, she can’t seem to stop herself from buying things. The novel is resolved when she finally takes control of her financial life. But it never explores why she’s got this addiction in the first place.

I get that there’s a temporary high that comes with buying pretty things (have you seen my lia sophia jewelry collection?). I get that the character’s mother also loves to shop. But people with an addiction generally have a hole in their life they’re trying to fill. What’s this character’s wound? In the novel, she doesn’t seem to have one.

This is one area where knowledge of personality type can help you deepen your characters. For instance, this protagonist struck me as an ESFP. She was gregarious, fun-loving, spontaneous, and deeply loyal to the people she cared about. She ignored her negative feelings, hoping they would go away, rather than confronting them directly before things got out of control. So, considering the stressors of an ESFP, what might the source of this character’s pain be?

Personal relationships are of primary importance to ESFPs. Conflict with a loved one, or the feeling of being excluded by their social group, is likely to trouble this type even more than others. Because of their lighthearted and carefree demeanor, ESFPs may find that people don’t take them as seriously as they deserve. I can easily envision how an ESFP character experiencing feelings of rejection might spiral into compulsive behavior.

In this novel, a couple of simple elements might have deepened the story substantially:

  • Spending more time dealing with the heroine’s recent breakup with her boyfriend, which in this case was simply glossed over.
  • Showing other characters consulting her expertise about fashion but not finance (she’s knowledgeable about both).

This is just one example. You can take the same approach to any of the personality types, identifying their stressors and working them into the story.

For other ideas on deepening character in your story, see the list of Breakout Novel writing prompts that Donald Maass currently has listed on the agency website. You can also find these prompts by searching #Maass on Twitter.

Related post:

Using Personality Type Theory to Develop Fictional Characters

Shoveling the Slush

I had the pleasure of hearing agent Jon Sternfeld speak at the South Carolina Writers Workshop conference this weekend. As the newest member of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, Jon is responsible for reviewing the slush that comes into the agency. The term “slush” refers to unsolicited submissions of writers seeking representation. And as Sternfeld points out in this post at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog, thanks to the digital revolution in publishing, the slush pile is growing:

Even more amateur writers are giving it a shot because it literally takes minutes to submit to an agent. As I have said ad nauseam to my colleagues, because everyone knows the alphabet, just about everyone thinks they can write.

What if there were a test that wannabe novelists had to pass before they could submit to agents? It would be an easy thing to implement. Many agencies now have online forms that writers must use to submit their queries. What if agencies added a simple, ten-question test that you had to pass before you could get to the submission form? It might go something like this:

1. The main character of a story is called the antagonist.

o True
o False

2. Who wrote The Great Gatsby?

o Ernest Hemingway
o John Steinbeck
o F. Scott Fitzgerald
o Saul Bellow

3. The denouement occurs during which part of the story?

o Beginning
o Middle
o End

4. Which of these sentences is punctuated correctly?

o “Open the door”, he said.
o “Open the door.” he said.
o “Open the door”. he said.
o “Open the door,” he said.

5. Every story must have a villain—that is, an evil person who is out to destroy the main character.

o True
o False

6. Which of these sentences is generally considered to be the best constructed?

o She walked quickly toward the exit.
o She walked very quickly toward the exit.
o She hurried toward the exit.
o She walked hurriedly toward the exit.

7. Purple prose should be avoided in fiction.

o True
o False

8. Choose the word that correctly completes this sentence: She opened the door to reveal the surprise and said…

o Walla!
o Voila!
o Valla!
o Woila!

9. Commercial fiction is more artistic than literary fiction.

o True
o False

10. The weather should always reflect the main character’s mood—that is, it should be rainy when the character is sad, and sunny when the character is happy.

o True
o False

What do you think? Are these questions objective enough that publishable writers should know the answers? Are they too difficult or too easy? Would such a test reduce the number of queries agents receive from unqualified writers, or would it be too easy for people to find the answers?

Being able to type letters into a word processor doesn’t make a person a writer, any more than being able to cut a tuna fish sandwich in half with a kitchen knife makes a person a surgeon. A quiz to weed out the dilettantes from the serious writers would give agents more time to devote to those of us who actually sort of know what we’re doing. And that would be a good thing for agents and writers alike.

Tools, Not Rules

Many blogs offer advice on how to write. Often these blogs are didactic, as if the author is right and anyone who does things differently is wrong. These authors, I’m afraid, don’t understand the difference between process and product.

Let’s assume that all novelists have the goal of writing  a saleable novel. That’s their product. It doesn’t follow that they must all use the same process in order to reach that goal.

For instance, many authors recommend that you set a weekly word count goal. That’s great advice, if you’re goal-oriented or tend to be unproductive without intermediate milestones to track your progress. But if you write every day, and you’re happy with the progress you’re making, then a word count goal is just one more worry to interfere with your creative process.

Whether setting a word count is a useful goal for you may depend in part on your personality type. SJ writers may like the structure that word count goals give them. NPs may find themselves getting caught up in research or going off on tangents without word count goals to keep them focused. NJs and SPs may find such goals helpful, or they may find them restrictive. A word count goal is a tool, and the purpose of a tool is to make your job easier. If the tool doesn’t make your job easier, then stop using the tool.

Note, though, that process differs from craft. Show, don’t tell is an example of craft. “James was angry at his brother” is telling. “James kicked his brother’s Big Wheel into the bushes” is showing. Showing is more vivid and involves the reader viscerally in the story. That’s why show, don’t tell has become a mantra of fiction writing. It’s difficult to write successful fiction without employing this technique.

Understanding the difference between product, process, and craft is key to developing into a confident and competent fiction writer. Here are some examples of advice relating to each.

Product

  • Happy endings: Romance novels must have an optimistic ending. This isn’t true for other adult fiction.
  • Likeable main character: Some people will tell you that you’ll be more successful if your main character is likeable. Others will tell you that the main character must be engaging, but not necessarily likeable. It depends on the kind of novel you’re writing. Know your audience.
  • Dissimilar character names: If character names are too similar (like Kevin and Steven), readers may get them confused.
  • Title: Selecting a title has less to do with craft and more to do with marketing. That’s why publishers often choose a different title than the one the author had in mind.

Process

  • Write first thing in the morning: Okay, there may be some science behind this. But if you’re a night owl, or you have kids you need to get ready for school in the morning, this advice might not be right for you.
  • Don’t edit while you write: Sadly, some writers become discouraged and stop writing if their first drafts aren’t beauteous. For these people, slogging through the first draft without reading what they’ve written may be great advice. Also, if you’re tempted to wordsmith each scene until it shines like platinum, only to realize after you complete the first draft that half the scenes should be deleted, you may want to force yourself to keep moving rather than getting caught up in revising too soon. But many writers find it useful to edit the previous day’s work before they start drafting new material. This serves the dual purpose of cleaning up the first draft and immersing them in the world of the novel.
  • Write every day: There’s a reason that “Remember the Sabbath” is one of the ten commandments. And it’s not just to keep grocery stores from selling wine on Sunday mornings. Humans need to take a break from work to feed their souls. As long as you’re productive, you don’t have to write every day. But if you need that habit in order to stay on track, then maybe this is good advice for you. Just don’t feel guilty if you take a day off. God said it was okay.

Craft

  • Three-act structure: The three-act structure has been the basis of storytelling in the Western world for millennia. It’s so ingrained in us that we naturally follow this pattern when telling stories. Chances are, if your story is working, then it follows the three-act structure, even if you’re not aware of it. Chances are, if your story isn’t working, then it’s not following the three-act-structure. Figure out what parts of the structure are missing so you can fix the story.
  • Conflict: Nearly every successful story consists of a main character who wants something, plus obstacles that the main character must confront in order to reach that goal. If your story consists of happy, satisfied characters doing interesting things, then no one but your mom will want to read it. The momentum behind a story is frustrated desire.
  • Engaging the senses: This is an element of show, don’t tell. Part of your job as a fiction writer is to immerse the reader in the fictive world. It isn’t enough to appeal to the intellect. You must create a sensual experience. “Flowers lined the sidewalk” doesn’t draw the reader into the landscape. Include sensory details: “Golden lilies spiced the air with fragrance, and bees hummed as they hovered over the blooms.”

Learning which advice to follow and which to ignore is one of the toughest challenges that beginning writers face. I recommend this simple guideline: If it makes you a better writer, then it’s good advice. If it doesn’t make you a better writer, and especially if it paralyzes you or keeps you from writing, then it’s not good advice. Listen to your heart, listen to your gut, and keep writing.

For more information on the three-act structure, I recommend Screenwriting Tricks For Authors (and Screenwriters!) or Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II by Alexandra Sokoloff.

Five Key Elements for Creating Tension in Fiction

Tension is the driving force in fiction. It propels the plot and grabs the reader’s interest. Without it, the story is flat and pointless.

So what is tension? Simply put, it’s the distance between characters and their goals. Authors create and manipulate tension through the use of five key elements.

Outer goal

The outer goal is the character’s stated objective: to solve a murder, to win a beauty contest, to defeat the enemy, to discover the family secret. It’s the focus of the plot from start to finish. The outer goal is resolved in the climax.

Suppose that our protagonist, Josie, is a 30-something lawyer hoping to make partner at her firm. The further she seems from achieving that goal—and the closer her rivals seem—the higher the tension.

Inner desire

The inner desire exists alongside the outer goal. It may be consistent with the outer goal, or at odds with it. The character may be aware of the desire, or it may lurk on an unconscious level.

In our example, Josie’s drive to make partner is intensified by her desire to start a family. If she had a baby while still an associate, maternity leave and the demands of an infant would decrease her visibility, and could move partnership out of her reach.

External conflict

The external conflict comes from the obstacles between the characters and their goals. The source of the conflict may be the environment or other characters.

Josie’s firm has two openings but four candidates. In addition to Josie, there’s Agatha, the leggy blonde with the rich clients and the cozy relationship with the senior partner; Dante, the smooth talker who would sell out his best friend; and Raul, the sweet but clueless family man whom Josie has bailed out more than once to save the firm from embarrassment. Agatha and Dante are formidable rivals. But Raul could prove most dangerous of all, entangling Josie in his mistakes and distracting her from her own cases.

Internal conflict

The internal conflict comes from the obstacles that characters create for themselves, either through self-sabotage or an incompatibility between the outer goal and the inner desire.

Josie has been dating Steve for four years. He’s suave, sophisticated, and has connections that help her in her job. The trouble is, she’s not in love with Steve. She stays with him because he’s convenient and useful. They’re compatible inside and outside the bedroom. But he’s not the man she wants to father her children.

Stakes

Stakes are probably the most important element of tension. The characters must be at risk of losing something of great significance to them if their goals and desires aren’t met. As the protagonist nears the goal, the stakes must increase. This keeps the tension high even as the climax approaches.

Josie’s biological clock is ticking rapidly. Her mother went through menopause at thirty-nine. Josie knows that if she doesn’t find the right man and start a family soon, time may run out for her. As the climax nears, Josie realizes that she’s in love with Zack, her best friend since college. Zack has been offered a promotion out of state. If she doesn’t commit to him now, she may lose him forever. But if she breaks up with Steve, she may lose her biggest client, Steve’s cousin, and blow her chance at partnership. Josie will have to choose between her outer goal and her inner desire.

These five elements of tension are critical to engage the reader and move the plot forward. If you feel your story dragging, look for ways to sharpen these elements and bring the story back to life.

Intuition and the Importance of Being in Your Right Mind

Writers often have good first-hand knowledge of the duality of the human mind. The unconscious is a fertile source of insight and imagination, while the conscious mind wants to enforce structure and rationality on our fevered ramblings—sometimes to the point of editing them out of existence. In writing, as in life, it’s important to find balance.

The unconscious mind is often our first line of defense, grasping incongruities that the conscious mind overlooks. In the book Housekeeping for the Soul, Sandra Carrington-Smith says that the unconscious mind sends its suggestions as “a very light punch in the stomach and the lingering sensation that something is not right, although we can’t quite put our finger on it. If not acknowledged, this subtle feeling can easily be drowned out by our rational mind and the thoughts formulated by the ego.”

One way to approach the unconscious vs. rational mind is to think of them as representing the two hemispheres of the brain. In Jill Bolte Taylor’s remarkable TED talk, she explains that the two hemispheres are completely separate from one another:

  • The right hemisphere focuses on the present moment. Feeling connected to everything around it, it thinks in pictures, creating a collage from the sensory information it perceives.
  • The left hemisphere is linear. It thinks in words, focusing on details, separating things into their component parts. It compares present data to the past, or uses the data to project the future.

The left brain wants things to be logical. It doesn’t always trust the thought-pictures that the right brain sends. It can’t convert them into words, so it can’t categorize them. Those thought-pictures then settle as a feeling in our gut, a feeling that it’s easy to rationalize away.

But there’s nothing mystical about the perceptions of the right brain. They’re as true and meaningful as left-brain perceptions. When we suppress or misuse right-brain data, we can create all sorts of trouble for ourselves.

In fiction, flashes of insight offer an opportunity to foreshadow events or create suspense. When used skillfully, intuition can be the hunch that helps the detective solve the crime, or the bad feeling that prompts a mother to lead her child out of danger. When ignored, intuition can be the signal that the college student is making a terrible mistake leaving the nightclub with a man she just met. When overused—without the counterbalancing effect of the more analytical conscious mind—intuition could lead the rich widower to fall for the sweet young thang whom he “just knows” loves him and not his money.

Unless you’re writing speculative fiction, it’s your job to offer a rational explanation for the gut instincts of your characters. Drop hints that create the same sense of unease in the reader that the character feels. That way, whether the character’s intuition leads in the right direction or leads astray, the reader won’t feel manipulated. The story will just feel right.

Cooperation vs. Competition: Gender Differences in Communication

tough boy, smiling girlIn my fiction, I like to explore the conflicts that occur when well-meaning people communicate at cross-purposes. People with different personality preferences have different goals in mind when they speak. Gender differences increase the opportunity for misunderstanding.

This potential source of conflict may be problematic for society as a whole, but it’s great for fiction writers. How can you use differences in communication styles to increase tension in your fiction?

How Men Communicate

According to marriage counselor Lesli Doares, male communication focuses on problem-solving, jockeying for position, and creating boundaries to establish independence. Testosterone makes men sensitive to angry faces. Anger gives men energy: it increases competition and calls them to action. But this sensitivity to anger also teaches men to resist showing emotion. They tend to avoid eye contact, because it can be seen as threatening. As a result, they may misinterpret signs of distress—such as frustration, confusion, or worry—as anger. Moreover, men’s ability to empathize with others is diminished when they’re agitated. Under stress, they often pull away.

How Women Communicate

Women, by contrast, communicate to make connections, build consensus, and minimize differences. Oxytocin leads them to focus on bonding activities. They chat to look for common ground and to establish a sense of community. Women are good at reading subtle emotions. They find competition and conflict to be threatening. They tend to soften directive statements by phrasing them in the form of a question—”Can you take out the trash?”—even though they expect compliance. Under stress, their ability to empathize deepens.

Inherent Conflict

It’s easy to see how, in early human society, these differences in communication styles served the species well. While the women were at the campsite gathering food and caring for the children, men were out hunting game and protecting the tribe against threats. Yet in romantic relationships—or any other relationships between men and women—these diametrically opposed communication styles can create endless frustration, misunderstanding, and even distrust. When a woman chats to create camaraderie, the man goes into problem solving mode. She takes this to mean that the man thinks she’s incapable of solving her own problems. Instead of feeling supported, she feels belittled. The man misinterprets her hurt feelings as anger. He doesn’t understand why she’s angry when he was just offering the helpful advice that he thought she wanted.

Note that the male communication style contains similarities to that of Thinking types, while the female communication style contains similarities to that of Feeling types. But personality preferences are just that—preferences. They don’t necessarily reflect ability. Under stress, women who prefer Thinking may be better able to empathize with others than men who prefer Feeling.

In your own fiction, use these gender differences in conjunction with personality preferences to enrich the character development and deepen the conflict.