Vacation Suspense – Part 2

Blog 13 04

Television producers try to get you to come back for more by showing scenes from “the next exciting episode” of whatever program you’ve just watched.  Writers have to do the same thing sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and chapter to chapter.  Suspense is one of the tools of the author’s craft that helps pull the reader along.

For me, suspense is the essence of a story that makes me skim a few pages more because I have to know what comes next before I put the book down for the night.  Though most easily seen in cliffhanger thriller and action pieces, suspense is also present in more subtle ways when a story has engaging characters or a compelling storyline.  Will the young lovers stay together in the face of pressure from their parents?  Will the social activist win against the sea of opposition?  Stay tuned for the next sentence, paragraph, or chapter to find out.  That’s suspense.

A few days prior to my vacation in October, John McCarthy challenged the members of the Deadwood Writers Book Study Group to write a paragraph containing suspense.  I took the idea on the trip with me not knowing if I’d do anything with it.  While sitting on the beach I wondered how I might describe the scene around me in such a way to make it interesting.  What started as an exercise in scene setting became one for developing suspense:

A warm breeze passed over Sarah as she scanned the overcast sky.  The clouds kept the sun from making it scorching hot, yet enough blue shown through to make it a pleasant day at the beach.  Sunbathers spread out across the sand with no one closer than a hundred feet between.  The more cautious among them sat beneath the colorful umbrellas that peppered the landscape.  When screams rang out from the ocean, Sarah’s heart raced and her eyes scanned the surf left, right, left, right for the source.  It took her several eternal seconds to find the sounds came from a young surf boarder having a good time.  “Calm down, Sarah,” she told herself, as she wiped sweat off her face that had nothing to do with the midday heat.  “No one’s caught in a riptide like before.”

There are questions this passage provokes that I hope would cause a reader to want to know more and keep reading:

  • Who is this character named Sarah? A lifeguard, tourist, or maybe a resident on the beach?
  • Who got caught in the riptide? Was it someone close to Sarah?
  • Did the person drown or get saved?
  • Why did the incident affect Sarah so much?
  • What role did she play?

As writers, we must always be aware of what will keep a reader tuned in for more.  Thinking about the questions our passages inspire is a good check on the suspense we are trying to create.  As we begin to answer those questions, we need new ones to continue the process until we reach a conclusion.  Does that mean you have to answer all the questions by the end of your piece?  Not necessarily.  Sometimes you want to leave a person on a thought provoking note.  If you’re writing a series, you might leave the reader with something that nudges them to read the next book or blog post.

Consider these memorable ways that writers/authors have tempted their audiences:

Same bat time, same bat station.

Luke, I am your father.

Happiness is…

Elementary, my dear Watson.

Even if somewhat misquoted, people were so taken with the lures that the lines have become part of the modern lexicon.  How can you reach that level of popularity?  It all starts when you figure out how to entice your readers to ‘stay tuned.’

Paper’s First Mass Extinction

The digital age is upon us, it’s everywhere we look today. Literally, no industry is safe when doctors can now print 3-D parts for a heart valve repair minutes later. What possible chance do printed books have by the year 2025? Slim to none, sorry to say.

By then, publishers will only print Limited Edition books that authors and illustrators will sign and that collectors and fans will treat like trophies. Books will only be purchased – and thus printed – for their beauty or their collector appeal by 2025. Attractive, leather bindings with inlaid gold designs touting popular titles will command hundreds of dollars, but the “trade editions” will all be ninety-nine cent digital versions.

Text books – all learning material for that matter – will fall like dinosaurs during the first mass extinction of pulp. These books will die out because of their sheer weight alone, but so, too, will all sci-fi, suspense, mystery and romance stories. Novels will lose out because they hold no advantage on paper. They are more expensive and take longer for everyone involved, from author to publisher to seller to readers. In the end, economics rule. Without some other inherent value, there will be no reason to keep a novel once you’re done reading it. If that’s the case and e-books remain cheaper, then print is dead. Long live E!

Some genres should survive until 2025. Children’s books will still be in print because they are illustrated, but their days are numbered, too. Biographies with their childhood photographs, documents, maps, and other such supporting evidence have a home on the future bookshelf for those very reasons, at least for a while longer. Religious material will continue in print because you take this Book with you to Church to read along with the faithful. Even so, at some point, churches, too, will be distributing prayers, sermons and missals on e-readers left in the pews.

Cookbooks and other reference material – the kinds of books that people dog-ear and write in the margins of – will continue to be printed because we treat them like tools while working on related projects. It’s hard to see other formats surviving, though. How are you going to convince today’s youth to put down their iPhones and pick up something printed on paper?

The year 2025 is only a decade away. For the first mass extinction of paper to come true by then, all these dire predictions will need to travel at the speed of light.


A decade from now, authors, Amazon, and the publishers who are sure to follow, will be too busy translating their e-novels into other languages without making embarrassing mistakes. That will be everyone’s main concern. The war over “cover price” will be long over. Free market enterprise will set the price. It always does in the end.

I think third world countries will be the new marketing frontier ten years from now, not just for books but for e-everything. Authors and publishers could thrive with the Polaroid Theory of Marketing in those countries by providing them with cheap e-readers and free internet.

Dr. Edwin Land’s marketing strategy in the 1960s was to effectively “give away the camera to sell the film.” This was akin to financial suicide in an industry where cameras cost hundreds of dollars and the photographic film costs pennies to turn into pictures. But Land had a theory, which was this: people will pay dearly for instant gratification.

Land priced one version, the Polaroid Swinger,  under $20.00. Cameras were not household items in the 1960s until Land’s affordable entry pricing made them popular. But, where 35mm film was cheap – $4.00 to develop a roll of 36 photos – it had to be mailed to a company to be turned into pictures. It took about a week to process, and sometimes you got someone else’s pictures back instead of your own. That could get embarrassing. Polaroid sold ten pictures for $7.00, but you held your Polaroid picture in your hand one minute later, while the moment was still fresh. It was our first taste of instant gratification, and we showed great marketers like Edwin Land, Bill Gates and Steven Jobs just how much more we were willing to pay for it.

Create a $20.00 e-reader today and the Polaroid Theory guarantees that everyone of age in Africa, Asia and the poorer parts of the Americas will have access to all kinds of books. With today’s technology, all it requires is a few drones parked in the sky to gain access to millions – billions – of potential e-book buyers. This means instant global gratification for e-books and global extinction for print. A $20.00 e-reader could conquer the world with ten books for seven bucks instead of ten pictures. Everyone from author to publisher makes more money with the Polaroid Theory because millions of more copies are sold. The costs to create more copies spiral down with the economy-of-scale, and if the novel never catches on, the cost of failure is survivable.

Think bigger than that. It is possible bilingual e-books could give rise to English as Earth’s common language by 2025. It almost is now. Think of what that means to all fiction authors, regardless their native tongue.

Printed matter’s second life is destined to become firewood at some point during in the next decade. Even something as sought after today as a first edition of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I’m sorry to say. As an antiquarian dealer, I worry about this a lot. I’ve stopped investing in modern classics produced after 1980.

Tomorrow’s bookshelf is today’s trophy cabinet. By 2025, we’ll keep our treasured tomes locked behind glass and out of direct sunlight. When someone asks if they can take one out, we’ll smile and say, “I’ve got that book on my iPad, too, if you’d like to read it.”

Next Month: Back to the topic of writing. If the future of fiction novels is strictly digital, how will that affect the way authors pace their stories? Are we headed for the 140-character novel? Will an author need to work with an illustrator to have any chance of success? Is writing a novel morphing from solitude to team project? And, if so, then whose e-voice is this, anyway? Stop by next month and explore these thoughts with me.

Costco’s Looking Out For You

I was so pleased with myself. I felt I had really gotten through. I’d spent a long time writing my letter explaining things. I thought the phone call went well too. But, it was his last remark that stayed with me. Now I wonder…

I live in Ann Arbor. A little over a year ago, Costco built a new store on the southwest side of town. My husband, Michael, and I decided to join. We like Costco because of their products, prices and friendly service.

Once a week, we stop for gas and then go into the store to do some shopping. We have their Gold Star or basic card. One Saturday, near our renewal date, we stopped by the front desk to see if we’d save more money by upgrading to their Executive Membership. The manager in charge was very helpful. He asked us a few questions: How many people in your household? Did you mostly buy gas or food?

Since we are only two people, and considering that gasoline makes up a great percentage of our purchases, we wouldn’t save more money if we upgraded. The regular card was our best bet. We appreciated his helpfulness and honesty.

The following week, when we were checking out, the cashier asked me if we’d like to upgrade our membership. I told her, “Thank you. No.”

She told me we were missing out. With the money we were spending at Costco, we’d get money back at the end of the year if we upgraded. She was “only looking out for our best interest”.

I repeated, “Thank you. No.”

She started in a third time. I thought a little explanation might help. I said we’d already consulted with the person in charge of the membership desk and, in our case, we wouldn’t be getting money back. (At Costco you don’t get money back based on what you pay for gas.)

Michael and I discussed this interchange as we were leaving. Neither of us liked the way she continued to push after I’d told her “no” the first time, let alone having to repeat no three times. We especially noted her remark that she, who didn’t know us, needed to be looking out for our best interests. It seemed a little arrogant.

The following week, after getting gas, we were back in the store shopping. This time a different cashier started in. The only difference from last week was: She was louder, more aggressive if possible, it was crowded, and people on both sides of us as well as behind were listening.  I must have said, “No, thank you” at least six times.

She persisted:

“You really should upgrade your membership. I’m only trying to help you.”

“You don’t understand. I’m looking out for your best interest. Believe me.”

“If you don’t want to upgrade with me, you need to do it at the membership desk. You’ll save lots of money. I know. I can tell by looking at your account here on the screen.”

I swiped our card, got our receipt and we walked toward the exit. She was still talking.

What, we asked each other, did she read on that screen that she felt entitled her to continue harassing us after we’d said “no”?  What did she know about our best interests? She was a stranger.

We concluded, the screen must have said something like this:

“Look at this couple. They’re over 65. Therefore they’re stupid. Everyone knows, as you get older you get stupider and stupider. They don’t know what’s best for them. It’s your duty to save them from themselves. You know what’s best for them. Even though you’ve never met them before or checked out their financial situation, you know how they should spend their money. You can recognize a good deal when you see it. If they resist upgrading, that’s proof of how really stupid they are. It’s your duty to look out for them. Obviously they can’t look out for themselves. You’re only doing this for their own good. You have their best interests at heart.”

We were horrified to think that we’d have to go through this experience every time we checked out. We decided, maybe a letter to the manager of the Ann Arbor Costco store might help.

I sat down to write the letter as soon as we got home. I began by relating several positive customer service experiences we’d had at Costco. I included the anecdote about the front desk manager helping us decide that the Executive Membership wasn’t for us.

I then related the stories about the two cashiers. I wrote what we thought the screen might have said that caused them to act like that.

I asked that whatever the screen actually did say that caused the cashiers to act this way be deleted. The next time we came to Costco, we wanted to have a pleasant experience.

I gave my identifying information and asked the manager to phone.

Two mornings later one of the Costco managers called. We chatted for about five minutes about the letter. He apologized and said he was sorry for our experience. He would talk with the cashiers. He didn’t know what caused them to act that way but he would look into it. He wanted to keep us as Costco customers and to have a good experience when we came to the store.

I thought, “Wow! This is really going well. He’s listening. He’s going to do something. Our next experience should be fine. I must have explained things really clearly.”

Then the manager concluded by saying something along the lines of, “I want you to know that at Costco we’re always looking out for our customers’ best interests.”

Now, I wonder, did I really make my point? Or, maybe not…

Writing: Promises or Priorities?

They say timing is everything.  I agree.

So is letting go.  That’s why I say to whomever “they” are that I’m extending my 10-hour book publishing challenge to December 18.

Why?  First of all, it’s my blog challenge and I set the rules.  (And my blog editors said it was okay.)

Second, I felt overwhelmed by things crashing into each other.  Fundraising to dance in THON clashed with my seeking financial support for my Indiegogo campaign.  The extra shifts for my part-time job slammed into prep work time for my Zentangle classes.

The last and most important time-suck of the month was me.  I watched my Major Crimes DVDs over and over, obsessing because the new season starts next week.  I wandered aimlessly through the playgrounds of Instagram.  I tell myself that writing haiku through Ku and Notegraphy phone apps was a productive use of my time, but, really, that was another distraction.

I sound just like that person I wrote about last month.

Now, I did catch a cold.  I was not so sick that wiggling my toes hurt, but I sniffled enough where leaning over my keyboard caused my nose to drip and drool on the keyboard. Any precious time I could snort the mucus back, I spent that time on my memoir.

Outside of that, I chose to be careless with my time, and now I’m here apologizing and making excuses.  Why did I not value my time and talent?

I thought about it.  I figured I’d have more success collecting donations for THON when I wasn’t asking people to buy my book.  Rather than compete with holiday parties and family events, it made more sense to me to plan a marketing strategy for my Zentangle classes in the New Year when I wasn’t marketing my memoir and my Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.  At some point, the money from working extra hours at my job was not worth the time that could have been spent writing my memoir.

Are you seeing the theme here?  Believe it or not, I didn’t at first.  When you think about your responsibilities–I mean, really think about them–listing your life out like chapter outlines will identify the events that really matter to you. Here I’ve moved on to the next step, the follow-through that freezes many would-be writers: I’m letting go of extraneous tasks and planning.  Not everyone does that.  They usually give up.

I didn’t give up; I refocused. That’s not an excuse, although we may see it as such. If we do, then we fail, fizzle and flop.  I didn’t think I needed to prioritize, but I couldn’t identify what really mattered until then. Of all the items on my list, my memoir was most important to me.  Knowing that, I could push everything else aside.

All of this brings us back to the postponed eBook challenge. Yes, some readers who were expecting Part Two this month may be disappointed, but remember, I’m rescheduling it, not giving up.  Think of it as…increased anticipation.

How has this shift in priorities helped my memoir time? With the extra time, I was open to rearrange and commit to the Chapter order.  After doing that, the process flowed better. Both self-editing and finding an editor takes longer than I thought.  Re-launching the Indiegogo campaign was frustrating and disappointing, but the descriptions and perks are now more enticing.  I’ve explored marketing ideas and am planning specific actions of specific dates.  For other ideas, I’m letting those all percolate.

Did you make a writing promise to yourself and were unsuccessful?  No one can change what happened yesterday.  It’s been done, but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure.  How do we start fresh without feeling guilty?

First, forgive yourself.  We’re all human, but we can do simple, little things.  What should you consider when planning your writing time, or anything else, really?  I can offer some advice.

1. Don’t rely on To-Do lists.  From my experience, they appear organized but are often overwhelming, and thus counterproductive.

2. Don’t say yes to things just because that time isn’t blocked off on your calendar.

3. Break up your lunch hour by standing up and physically moving away from your desk.  If that’s the time you squeeze in exercise, give yourself permission to write during one or two of those times.  Take your laptop into an empty conference room or even your car to write away from distractions.  No laptop? Use paper and a pen, as we dinosaurs did in the pre-digital age.

4. Family and relationship time is important so look for ways to balance the two. I can write in the living room on the couch next to my husband as we watch episodes of The Big Bang Theory.

No matter what you do, the key is making the time.

Did I say any of this would be easy?  If it was, we’d be doing it all and there would be no need for me to write this post.  We’d all be published authors with worldwide readership.

We know self publishing is possible. I can’t promise readers will love your stories, but if you don’t publish, how will people be able to read them?  If you have already completed the 10-Hour Challenge and published a book, leave the link information below in the comments.  If not, then you have another 30 days.  Timing is everything.

Ready? Set. Go!

It Couldn’t Be More Personal

During my childhood, my grandmother taught me little lessons. I learned how to fold and crease a sheet of paper over and over until it resembled the expanding membrane of an accordion but wasn’t constrained by the edges of a musical instrument. My creation could be waved in the air to blow away summer heat. Gramma also showed me a more advanced origami technique, although she never called it that, of creating a miniature upright piano. I’ve long forgotten those more complicated steps; however, I can still make a pretty good fan.

These memories came to me while editing an article for Deadwood Writers Voices. All I needed was to know whether to italicize or put quotation marks around a TV program’s title. Hoping to confirm my suspicion on the correct usage, I looked in The Chicago Manual of Style and was distracted by something else I came across first. The reference guide said, “The name of a living person should, wherever possible, correspond to that person’s own usage.” (CMOS, section 8.3)

How silly was that statement? It reminded me of those caution labels that are printed on coffee cups: “Careful! Contents may be hot!” When buying a cup of coffee, I certainly expect it to be, and hope it will be, hot. Regarding my own name, as a living person, shouldn’t I know better than anyone else what it is and how to spell it? Of course!

So why would CMOS bother to point out the obvious? I think the book’s editors and advisory board meant to impress upon writers the importance of spelling names correctly. But it’s not as cut and dry as it appears. For example, my grandmother ended her surname in an “i.” Her brother ended his in an “o.” Gramma’s sisters threw an extra “e” in the middle somewhere. I grew up never knowing how to correctly spell my ancestors’ last name. I’m sure they each had a convincing reason for why they did things the way they did, but I can only speculate. Maybe the ending depended upon gender: an “i” for females and “o” for males?

I’ve even thought that the difference in spellings could have had something to do with a mistake in documentation. Perhaps an official incorrectly recorded my great-grandfather’s name when Grandpa immigrated to the US from Italy. That mishap could have resulted in multiple versions of the family name surviving and competing with one another. I wish I could ask one of my living relatives but none know why there was confusion in the first place.

A lesson comes to mind for us conscientious writers: we should be watching for the unique or unconventional preferences of our subjects. For instance, friends of mine are named “Lesley” and “Sheri.” Not Leslie and not Sherry. To them, anything other than the way they spell their own names is just not correct. I’d feel the same if they addressed letters to me with “Kelli” or “Kellie.” It doesn’t look right, and to me, it doesn’t feel right.

During verbal conversations, accidents happen for sure, like when my husband calls me Kathy, his sister’s name, or when I yell to one of my sons and out stumbles his brother’s name instead. There’s also forgetting someone’s name altogether. Faulty utterances like these are common and easily forgivable. In fact, it’s rare for anyone I know to point out spoken errors at all. They seem to understand and just let them go.

There’s a higher expectation placed upon writers, however. When we commit thoughts to paper, we are responsible to verify the facts being presented, to pay attention to details. Very often, the records being created are permanent, and they’re always subject to public scrutiny. A simple mistake could jeopardize credibility with an audience. Misspellings, particularly of names, make it appear that we don’t know, care about, or respect our subjects well enough. At the very least, a person’s name, like Grandpa’s, should be documented precisely as he wishes (“to correspond to that person’s own usage”). It’s important to at least that one person.