I stop reading a lot of novels before I get anywhere near the end. My thinking is that these days, there’s far too much available to read in the world for me to stick with a novel that doesn’t have me hooked or pay off in some big way. Books by authors I’m trying for the first time often suffer this fate, but so do classics and bestsellers. It doesn’t necessarily say anything bad about the story, just that a particular novel isn’t for me.
However, if I stick with a novel to the end and continue to be deeply engaged in the story, that does say something good about the story and the author. Not everyone will share my taste in stories, but it’s an important feat to keep even one reader on seat’s edge for hundreds of pages.
As I started reading K. Bird Lincoln’s new Kindle novel Tiger Lily, I half-expected never to finish it. The main character, Lily, is plagued by self-doubt and pessimism, and that’s just not the kind of character that tends to draw me in. It wasn’t far into the book, though, that the story took an unexpected and intriguing twist, and I decided to keep reading until that problem was resolved–except that before that issue came to a complete close, the story took another twist, and then another, and then another. Halfway through, the story walloped me with a twist that made perfect sense but that I would never have imagined, and I knew the book was a keeper. Straight through to the climax, these reversals and surprises never let up. I was impressed enough with Lincoln’s mastery of these attention-trapping skills that I asked if I could interview her on the subject. She kindly agreed.
Luc: In your novel Tiger Lily, it seems that as soon as we begin to get relief from one suspenseful situation, a new one comes up as a natural part of the story. The result, for me, is continuous suspense and engagement. Is this something you consciously set out to do, or does it just happen automatically because of how you write?
K. Bird Lincoln: Yes to both?
I’ve got a fairly limited attention span. Also, I’ve read quite widely and deeply in Science Fiction, Fantasy (urban, historical, epic, paranormal) over the years and so have come across quite the range of tropes for these genres. I kind of know what’s going to happen and who it’s going to happen to most of the time when reading. So for a story to keep my interest, there have to be continuous issues for my main character to overcome.
In short, get me attached to someone, and then give them big and small problems. Think about X-Files when it was blazing new trails in TV-Land for having an overarching question that we got hints about (are there aliens? who is the cigarette smoking man?) at the same time as smaller, more bite-sized monster-of-the-week issues were resolved in each episode.
Books that keep my interest do this. So when I’m writing, I keep in mind the overall issue that’s going to need to build up and be resolved by the end of the book. In the case of Tiger Lily, it’s the confrontation with the Pretender Emperor on the plot level and Lily’s feelings for Ashikaga on the inner-character level. When I come to the end of a chapter, I try to give the reader a dramatic pause, as well a reason to go on to the next chapter that involves smaller obstacles. Those are the monsters-of-the-week.
But here’s my confession. This sounds all very purposeful and consciously planned out. The truth is, I’m a “by-the-seat-of-my-pants” writer, not an outliner. So my short attention span kind of naturally guides my writing towards the dramatic pauses (such as Tiger Lily encountering a kami for the first time) every 3,000 words or so….because if I don’t, I get bored. Then writing is work and not fun any more. If writing isn’t interesting/fun, then I’ll go watch an episode of Vampire Diaries or do the laundry or bake cookies.
So it happens naturally when I write, but I tend to rework chapter breaks during editing to make sure they hit a dramatic pause. Or else I end up eating too many cookies 🙂
Luc: So let’s say you’re getting to a point where something new needs to happen: 3,000 words have passed, or you find yourself starting to think about cookie recipes. How do you decide what that “something new” is going to be? Has it been brewing already over the past 3,000 words, or do you sit and think “What can I do to shake this up?”
K. Bird Lincoln: Oh, I don’t have anything planned. I totally just make it up as I go along.
K. Bird Lincoln’s Unconscious (KU): You’re kidding, right? You’re so full of it. I’ve been working like a dog thinking about the character, and the overall arc, and where the character is, and the other characters’ motivations while you’ve been sitting poolside drinking a latte and watching the kids’ swim lessons. “Totally just makes it up” MY PANTS!
K. Bird Lincoln: I get into that writing zone after the first 200 words or so and the next line jumps magically on to the page. I don’t have to consciously “shake things up.” The crisis just happens naturally.
KU: *palm to face* As if you never read that Scott Westerfelt interview where he said he always started off a writing session by going back and editing the last few pages he wrote. It’s not magic, doofus. When you’re editing, I’m getting bored, so I am figuring out how to make things more interesting before you crack open the 101 best chocolate chip cookies book.
K. Bird Lincoln: Okay, okay, I do go back and edit the prior day’s pages before writing. And so, of course, whatever happens there usually plants the seeds of the next impending crisis. But you can’t take credit for planning that crisis while I’m daydreaming or editing. I’m a seat-pantser writer, not an outliner!
KU: Methinks the lady doth protest too much.
Luc: I’m not sure whom to ask this final question, so I’ll throw it open to both of you: how much of the suspense emerges in the first draft versus what comes out in editing?
K. Bird Lincoln: I guess I’ll take over for my Unconscious. She needs to get back to work figuring out how my plucky boy adventurer, Eli, is going to escape from a cave full of giant centipedes in my work-in-progress.
When I first crack open a blank Word Document, I have a vague plan how the big, ending battle is going to go down. In Tiger Lily’s case, I pictured her using forbidden Jindo songs to fight evil. I started writing- and life intervened.
One month passed, my children started school, my job required overtime, and I’d completely lost touch with my original excitement about how she was going to fight evil. That’s such a MARVELOUS feeling. And it happens to me all the time.
So I sat down to write anyway, and my husband interrupted with some news about an active volcano in Southern Japan, and I remembered climbing Yamadera (awesome, shrine-laden mountain stairs in Yamagata Prefecture) ten years ago. Suddenly Lily’s climbing Hell Mountain to save Ashikaga.
The official answer is that suspense emerges in the first draft, but by the time I’ve finished the “First Draft”, I’ve probably gone through three or four different tension-building scenarios. Then when I’ve written the end, I go back and erase aborted ideas and false starts, and layer in little bits of tension that (hopefully) foreshadow the big, ending battle.
That’s how to to be a constantly interrupted, short-attention span writer: be willing to change ideas mid-scene (no matter how painful) if the romance suddenly dies, and also put your butt in the chair and write even if you’re not sure where your characters are going. You can always fix it later.
After you’ve made cookies.