Friday, March 19, 2010

Add Tension...Don't Be a Chucklehead

A while back, I read some of literary agent Donald Maass' book Writing the Breakout Novel. A couple of things really stood out for me:

"Examine the novels you most admire with a tension-sensitive eye, (and) you will find that your favorite authors find subtle ways to infuse tension in every moment. Tension can be apprehension, a question, an inner need, uncertainty, contrasting desires, hostility hidden in humor...The big problem with 80 percent of the novels we reject at my agency is not too much tension; rather, it is too little...

"Next time you plow through a weak (novel), pay attention to the movement of your eyes. Watch how they skip down the page. Feel your inner impatience. Nothing is happening, you think. C'mon move it along! What you really mean is, make that paragraph matter. And that one.

"There is only one sure way to do that: to make it contribute to, deepen, or elaborate the conflict, problem, or complication at hand. When tension is present, the words matter. When tension is absent, our care diminishes on a curve."

Easier said than done right? He also stresses the importance of making the reader care about and identify with the protagonist in the opening pages of a novel. "Most stories build toward enormous heroic actions at the end, which is fine, but what about the beginning? What is there to make me care?....Demonstrate special qualities right away."

Out of curiosity, I also did a Google search on writers about writing and found some very poignant, useful and entertaining advice. I particularly enjoyed Mark Twain's musings:

"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

"As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out."

"The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say."

Samuel Johnson said something similar: Read over your compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

George Orwell had a very eloquent way of conveying that writing is hard: Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

And, an author named William Styron, with whom I am sadly unfamiliar, called into question the sanity of good writers: The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis, and we'd have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.

I don't know if the last two are useful, but at least maybe the words of these two men will make us all feel a little better in our struggle to tell our stories.


  1. twain is always great, but i like that orwell one! of course, i always say "writing is hard." great points about tension.

  2. Yes, Twain was damn hysterical, wasn't he?

    I put the "writing is hard," one in with you in mind. Orwell really put it in a damn gut-wrenching fashion.

    I, too, thought the points about tension were damn good advice.

    (Sorry. I got damn carried away.)

  3. I loved the Mark Twain quotes.

    And thanks, because now I know I'm in good company whenever I question my sanity.

  4. Twain is among my most-want-to-hang-out with historical people. He is so fun. Yes and the "damns" should keep flying! Love the entry and I don't know I like to think of myself as a happy chucklehead but maybe I shouldn't?

  5. I guess life needs a little tension to be interesting, too. But, twins?

  6. I like the one by Samuel Johnson the best.