Read, Read, Read

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

~Stephen King

I met a young man in a critique group who had an excellent premise for his novel. I asked him if he read anything in that genre. His unflinching reply, “Oh, I don’t read books.”


Good writers read and write a lot. Inspiration can come from various sources, not just their own genre. As a memoir and fiction writer, I’ve read a number of books that have helped me improve my creative skills. Some books I’ve kept in my do-not-lend collection.

The Cry and the Covenant, the historical fiction by Morton Thompson, chronicles a doctor’s efforts in preventing women from dying of childbed fever. As a teaching physician at a hospital, he insisted that his students and colleagues wash their hands after working on a cadaver and before helping a woman deliver her baby. This was before widespread acceptance of germ theory and his colleagues resisted his efforts. Women continued to die. Thompson’s description of the ignorance of the medical staff and the doctor’s frustration was powerful.

I reread Lynn S. Hightower’s Flashpoint to study her writing style and because I enjoyed the fact that a female serial killer was quite intriguing and believable. Hightower is excellent in this genre.

Charles Pellegrino’s Dust is a terrifying tale of a worldwide biological chain of events that threatens the survival of mankind. Since reading that book, I haven’t met a dust bunny I didn’t try to kill.

Phantom by Susan Kay is a powerful prequel to The Phantom of the Opera. Each chapter is told from the point of view of the person with whom the phantom comes in contact, beginning with his mother who recoiled at the sight of her disfigured newborn. This book demonstrates strong character development.

The World’s Love Poetry, edited by Michael Rheta Martin, contains more than 500 poems – lyrical, bawdy, tragic, beautiful, and moving – from centuries ago to modern times.

The Stovepipe by Bonnie E. Virag is an emotionally moving memoir of a young girl’s struggle and survival after she and her many siblings were taken from their home and put in foster care. The book ends with “After Thoughts,” a touching recap of her family members’ whereabouts.

I’ve enjoyed rereading the adventures and viewing the awesome pictures of the travels of Kwang and Kook-Wha Koh in their book, Hopping Seven Continents, Maybe one day I can go to some of the places they’ve been.

The young man I mentioned did self-publish his book, but the story wasn’t fully developed or well-written. No surprise there. He should have read more books.

What are you reading?

Drawing Readers into the 1st Page

The 1st page, the 1st paragraph, the 1st words can determine whether the author hooks a reader to share the storytelling journey, or if the book gets returned to the shelf for another author. There is so much competition for a reader’s attention, whether on first entering a bookstore or viewing the first page of a virtual store.

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John Jakes, a prolific writer, said that in the 1st page of a story, the author should introduce a main character, the setting, and a conflict. These are the key elements for engaging a reader towards investing time in a good story. Let’s look at the opening of one of his classic novels, North and South:

“THE LAD SHOULD TAKE my name,” Windom said after supper. “It’s long past time.”

It was a sore point with him, one he usually raised when he’d been drinking. By the small fire, the boy’s mother closed the Bible on her knees.

Bess Windom had been reading to herself as she did every evening. From watching her lips move, the boy could observe her slow progress. When Windom blurted his remark, Bess had been savoring her favorite verse in the fifth chapter of Matthew: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The boy, Joseph Moffat, sat with his back against a corner of the chimney, whittling a little boat. He was twelve, with his mother’s stocky build, broad shoulders, light brown hair, and eyes so pale blue they seemed colorless sometimes.”[i]

The opening words are infused with tension, coming from a very flawed character. His wife’s non-verbal reaction messages that the demand is not well received, and a sore topic. The pages that follow portrays an abusive family, from which Joseph Moffat dreams of escaping, yet held back with the helpless desire to protect his mother from an alcoholic step-dad. In the end, the boy gains his freedom, but at a high cost. And that’s just the prologue.

Engaging openings draw the reader into the story. You feel connected to a character and their immediate situation, such as Joseph Moffat. The initial conflict might not be THE conflict, but there’s enough tension to promise more if the reader continues to turn pages. Other times, the opening scene may be an accident in slow motion—metaphorically. The reader might not identify with the characters just yet, but the situation is something we cannot look away from, no matter how uncomfortable one might become. Ernest Hemingway masterfully creates such a scene in the first paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea. Here’s just the first half of the 1st paragraph:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.”[ii]

Here’s a man so down on his luck that he’s lost credibility in his profession. Hemingway, following the same concept as John Jakes, introduces the Old Man, the title character, the setting, and THE conflict of the story in the first couple of paragraphs. Life is so hard for the old man that the boy–his former apprentice who is now learning from another–buys him a beer. With tight writing, which is a topic for a different article, Hemingway draws in the reader to view someone worse off than themselves. The old man’s stoic kindness and the boy’s devotion to him keeps us reading, and wondering, “things have got to get better, right?” Yet the rest of the story takes us deeper into experiencing the old man’s sacrifices, struggles, and loss that becomes a form of victory and vindication. But the key is the opening lines about a slow motion car wreck that we just can’t stop watching with the opening page.

Another approach is to open a story in the middle of the action. This entry has the advantage of immersing the reader into the chaos of an immediate conflict. Thrown into the deep waters of action, most often violence, the intent is to build instant momentum. Matthew Reilly is a master of this style. I credit him with establishing the genre of high octane storytelling, where there are no pauses where a character can become introspective, or an author can philosophize. The story is go, Go, GO! Conflict IS the story. One example comes from Scarecrow Returns:

“THE PLANE hurtled down the airstrip, chased by furious machine-gun fire, before it lifted off with a stomach-lurching swoop and soared out over the vast expanse of Arctic sea ice that stretched away to the north.

The plane’s pilot, a 60-year-old scientist named Dr. Vasily Ivanov, knew he wouldn’t get far. As he’d lifted off, he’d seen two Strela-1 anti-aircraft vehicles—amphibious jeep-like vehicles that were each mounted with four 9M31 surface-to-air missiles—speeding down the runway behind him, about to take up firing positions.

He had perhaps thirty seconds before they blasted him out of the sky.”[iii]

While the reader is drawn into the conflict, Reilly follows the theme of introducing a main character,[iv] providing scene context, and a conflict—death is 30 seconds away. The reader needs the three elements to anchor themselves within the chaos. We identify with his desire to escape, and wonder at his fatalistic belief—remember the slow motion car crash strategy. The conflict is intense—machine-gun fire, plane pulling Gs on take-off, and surface-to-air missiles moving into range. If this is the opening, how will the rest of the story continue to climb? Reilly meets this challenge, where other writers fail. They lead with an explosion, and then leave the reader coughing through the smoke of the rest of the story. Few will take that journey.

Good non-fiction starts with a strong opening. Authors, like Chip and Dan Heath, use their opening to illustrate the focus of the book. The focus would be similar to the plot. Here’s the opening to their major book, Switch. What do you think their focus is about?:

“One Saturday in 2000, some unsuspecting moviegoers showed up at a suburban theater in Chicago to catch a 1:05 p.m. matinee of Mel Gibson’s action flick Payback. They were handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn and were asked to stick around after the movie to answer a few questions about the concession stand. These movie fans were unwitting participants in a study of irrational eating behavior. There was something unusual about the popcorn they received.

It was wretched. In fact, it had been carefully engineered to be wretched. It had been popped five days earlier and was so stale that it squeaked when you ate it. One moviegoer later compared it to Styrofoam packing peanuts, and two others, forgetting that they’d received the popcorn for free, demanded their money back.”[v]

The Heath brothers open with a social experiment that draws in readers with a story about a scene that most of us have experienced—eating popcorn at a movie theater. They turn the experience on it’s head by offering free popcorn that’s “wretched” in various sizes. Regardless if the study participants got a medium, large, or extra large tub, of the 5 day old popcorn, they ate all of it. From there the book lays out an elaborate argument about the difficulty for people to change, and how to go about succeeding in changing mindsets. What’s important here is that the opening paragraphs suck in readers, who before they realize it, are 3-4 chapters into a book about complex ideas—and they’re invested.

Characters, scene, conflict: starting with the 1st words, all three elements are present in the first paragraph, of the first page of most books that succeed in drawing in readers. Now once you have them, the next challenge is keeping them. How that works is another tale to be told. But as readers, you already know what those might be…


[i] Jakes, John (2013-05-21). The North and South Trilogy: North and South, Love and War, and Heaven and Hell (Kindle Locations 204-211). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Hemingway, Ernest (2002-07-25). The Old Man and the Sea (p. 3). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Reilly, Matthew (2012-01-03). Scarecrow Returns (Kindle Locations 256-262). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Actually, Dr. Vasily Ivanov dies five pages later. He’s not the main character of the story. That would be Scarecrow. But Dr. Vasily is the key character of the prologue. All of the elements that John Jakes discussed are present to draw and satisfy readers.

[v] Heath, Chip; Heath, Dan (2010-02-10). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (p. 1). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Grasshoppers Popcorn

65 years ago I was about ten years old and I had seasonal activities.  In winter and early spring, I played hide and seek around the block under the dim street light with a bunch of girls.  During the monsoon season in the summer, I caught small fish in the rice field.  Under the blue sky with cool autumn winds, I caught grasshoppers in the dried rice field and brought them home to make snacks, grasshoppers popcorn.

Rice was our main dish, and still is, but not to the same extent as fifty years ago.  Then we were solely dependent on sticky rice as the staple in our diet.  Now we have a mixture of wheat, barley, red beans and other grains with white rice for a healthy diet.  We called it “zagokbob” meaning mixture of rice and grains, the other one was “hynbob” meaning white rice without any grains.  The rice was packaged in 100 lb. bags made of rice straw.  At that time, the symbol of wealth was the number of rice bags that were harvested in the autumn and stored in the barn.  Now, the biggest package of rice in the Korean grocery store is only 25 lbs.

In the early spring, farmers needed hands to plant the small rice plants in the field.  Even elementary school students helped out for one or two days during the planting season.  Farmers put the thread throughout the field to plant the shoots in a straight line  at one foot intervals in one foot deep water.

The leeches sucked my blood near the ankles and 90o bending in order to plant the shoots was an extremely terrible job at such a young age.  However, I did finish the job without crying.

In Korea the monsoon season is between July and August.  It rained every day, with 100% humidity.  In 1950, we did not have washers and dryers.  We did hand washing on a washboard and dried by air.  Occasionally we got mold on freshly washed clothes.

Despite the pouring rain and getting soaked to the skin, I enjoyed catching the small fish that were flowing down at the terrace of the rice field with the round sieve that was formerly used for separating the dry grains.

My mother was not appreciative of bringing the fish for one additional dish for dinner because of the fish smell, I was scolded instead for taking the sieve that was only for dry materials.  But I had a great time hopping around the terrace following the streams of small fish..

I was told “In Korea the so-called autumn has blue sky without any clouds and with abundant harvest to make the horses fat”.  The saying meant it was the most peaceful season, with bountiful harvests of rice, fruits and vegetables.  The lazy horse was getting fat without concern about the lack of grass to eat.  The rice field was getting yellowish brown and the grasshoppers and birds were in the heavens to eat the crops.  My activities in the rice field were no exception in the autumn

After endless requests, grandpa made me a net to catch grasshoppers.

“Grandpa, don’t tell mommy you made me a net,” I begged him.  “Mmm,” was his slow response.

At that time we did not have any steel wire for making grasshopper nets.  I don’t know why.  Anyway, grandpa used a thin bamboo stick as a ring and sewed the cloth around it to make a net to catch grasshoppers.

I grabbed it and ran without wasting time to say “thank you,” and went to the rice field a couple of miles away.  The early afternoon sun was hot compared to the chilly morning.  After running for two miles, my light cotton blouse and pants were all wet like being soaked by the rain.

The farmers often said, daytime heat will accelerate the ripening of the rice.   Several scarecrows stood in the field to chase away birds and grasshoppers.  At first the sparrows and grasshoppers were frightened by the scarecrows, later they were getting smarter and were even landing on the heads of the scarecrows with loud chirping.  When I ran to a small trail between the rice fields, a couple of boys were already catching grasshoppers and filled half of a one pint glass jar.

Gee, they got here before me, I said to myself, and continued mumbling.  If I am behind them catching grasshoppers, I will come back later to make up.  I cannot be behind.

“Hey, Kook-Wha, no girls are coming here.  I will tell your mom you were here again at the rice field.”  A boy with a bald haircut and a lanky figure like a small telephone pole threatened me.

“My grandpa said it was ok,” was my timid and naïve answer.  If my mother knew I was in the rice field again I would be in big trouble.

When I arrived in the middle of the field, a bunch of grasshoppers flew away with a loud noise from flapping their wings.  There were so many grasshoppers, gray, brown and green, I could almost catch them in my hands.  By swirling the net, one, two, three — I put the grasshoppers into the jar.  I got a full bottle of grasshoppers.  “Oh, great.”  I was thrilled, but I wondered how could I ask mom to saute’ or roast them for a great snack?  I continued to talk to myself, I might get spanked again and continued, But today grandpa is at home, so it will be okay.  With these thoughts I ran home with the bottle full of grasshoppers.

Mom was in the kitchen and grandpa was in the yard taking care of the pigs.  I was relieved because in the presence of grandpa mom had never yelled at me and never, never spanked me.

“Mom, I caught some grasshoppers.”  Mom was quiet.  “Mom, can you saut’e or roast them, like Soodal’s mom did for him?  He is having them for snacks all the time”.  Soodal was the lanky boy.  I begged mom, holding two hands tightly.  “Soodal already came and told me that you were at the rice field,” mom answered.  I noticed the cold expression on her face.  “Mom, please.”  I asked her one more time with my head down without staring into her face.

She started to make a charcoal fire in a very small stove.  It was one foot high and about a foot in diameter with two layers inside.  The upper was for charcoal layers and the bottom had a side wall with a small inlet for the air flow.  When the charcoal had a red flame, mom put the pan on that was coated with soybean oil and waited for the pan to get hot.

“Mom, thank you,” I almost screamed.  She did not answer, but just did it for me.

I did not remember how I poured the grasshoppers from the narrow mouthed bottle into the hot pan, but I do remember that as soon as they were in, I put the lid on the pan.   Mom and I could hear the popping noise of the grasshoppers as they jumped inside the pan.  “Grasshopper Popcorn”.  The smell of soybean oil was permeating the air and stimulated my appetite.

The tension between my mother and I was reduced, and I saw a beautiful smile on her face.  It was a rare occasion to see that she was happy about my odd behavior instead of punishing me.  Mom, thank you.  I am so happy,  I mumbled to myself.

When mom opened the lid of the pan the grasshoppers lay down in the pan.  Some had wings, some didn’t.  I grabbed them into my mouth.  They were hot with a soybean oil smell.  “Yummy, mom,” I was exhilarated.

One week ago, in the middle of September 2010, I read in the Wall Street Journal about a gourmet food restaurant with insects; crickets, grasshoppers and others with a bug theme, for dinners, snacks and main dishes, in Brooklyn, New York, and Boston area,  promoting “Insects are tasty and nutritious”.

Now, I must decide whether to have gourmet meals with insects.  It may be a wonderful memory re-created, but will my guests enjoy it, even myself?  That is a great question, besides, how will I catch live grasshoppers around here?  I haven’t seen any rice fields in Michigan.  The smile on my face said it all.  I was one of the first pioneers with creative gourmet snacks with grasshoppers popcorn.

What’s Magic in a Million Words?

In addition to being a ‘word’ person, I’m also a ‘numbers’ person.  So when I hear someone say, “You have to write a million words before you will have something good enough to publish,” both sides of my brain start to fire up.  Can you imagine?  A magic number to work toward, and when you reach it all your writing dreams will come true.  Sounds wonderful, but I know it doesn’t work like that.

Nonetheless, a lot of people seem to be striving to meet that magical number.  Do a search on the internet for the phrase ‘write a million words’ and you’ll see what I mean.  So what’s the allure?  I think the draw is due to several messages the phrase communicates:

1)       Practice Makes Perfect – This centuries old bit of common sense is motivation to keep at it and work to improve at what you do.  I would modify it to say, “Practice, with feedback, makes perfect.”  You can do a lot of your own editing to improve the quality of your work.  However, getting feedback is important in order to avoid the blind spots you get from being too close to your own writing.  Don’t take the ‘million word’ phrase too literally and wait till you hit the one million mark to show your work to anyone.  The better way is to get feedback as you go and be open to constructive advice.

2)       Persevere – Rejection comes with the job so don’t take being turned down by publishers and agents personally.  If you self-publish and don’t gain an audience, don’t take that personally either.  There are many reasons why your work might not be accepted.  You may never find out the reasons, and if you do it may not make any sense or have anything to do with your talent.  So when a rejection letter comes in, resolve to keep going and continue on your writing path.

3)       It’s Helpful to Have a Goal – No matter how much you love writing, there may be times when you can use some extra incentive to keep you moving along.  Getting to the million word mark can be a fun way of challenging yourself, or creating a friendly rivalry between writers.  Organized events such as the National Novel Writing Month offer support and resources to help and encourage you toward your goal.

Ultimately, writing is a journey with no fixed end and no roadmaps to sure things or dead ends.  If things don’t happen for you in the first one million words, maybe it will happen in the second.  Author Ursula K. Le Guin said “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”  Enjoy your journey, wherever it may take you.  That’s where the magic lies and the only person who can stop it is you.  Don’t let it end too soon.

Six Sensible Rules for Suspense

Amy stirs, half asleep and freezing cold with a putrid taste sticking to her throat. In the distance, her two dogs bark frantically. Much closer, the wind whistles in the fog and gently brushes her cheek, and that puzzles her…?

Amy wakes with a jolt and shivers with fear. “Glenn!” she calls, coughs and shoves the lump that is her husband. “Glenn! There’s a fire! Glenn, wake up!”

Glenn feels flaccid and clammy, and just snores through the thick smoke now rushing over them. She looks towards the dresser and the digital clock but sees only dark. “Glenn!” She turns him over, her voice hysterical, harsh. She swallows clawing smoke and stale booze. Glenn snores. Amy tries to get out of bed but the smoke and the heat beat her back.

“Brian! Bria! Jump!!” What was a putrid, cold fog only seconds ago is now an oven pouring out suffocation. “Jump!!”

She pulls the comforter over her head and thinks of her children as she clasps her throat. The smoke presses down and crushes all hope. She hears the roar of a locomotive drown out the dogs, and she whimpers with her last breath, “Please, jump!”

What did you see in this scene?

Did you see a cold, dark, two-story house on fire? Did you see Amy’s dogs downstairs barking to get someone’s attention? Her kids asleep, already dead, or hopefully jumping for their lives? Did you see fire roaring up the stairwell? A desperate woman trying to wake a drunk? Did you see Amy surrender to the sheer weight of her circumstances? In less than a minute, did you see what mattered most in her all-too-brief life?

If so, you’ve got a pretty good mind’s eye because the entire 60-seconds was clouded in smoke.

Amy couldn’t see a thing! She coughed the smoke, heard the dogs, the wind and the fire, felt and smelled the inebriated Glenn and the putrid of something toxic. Jump shouted that it was a two-story house, wind and roar brought smoke and fire rushing up the stairs. Stale booze gave you a taste of why Glenn was not waking up. Not one word was written for the eyes. If the only sense Amy had were her vision, she would have died in her sleep like Glenn. End of story. And that is exactly what writing to the other senses does – it wakes up your reader, it lets them see through the smoke.

The senses are five vital, but very different, utensils in the writing’s toolbox. Here are my six sensible rules for how to use them correctly.

General Rule: “Taste and touch follow what we see. Smells and sounds precede our sight.”
Where you can show better tension, wordplay becomes fuel for your fire and you’ll want to break the rules. That’s the fun bit, but that’s not the first rule.

First Rule. “Don’t stop to smell the roses in first draft, just get your hero to safe harbor.” In other words, don’t let the minutia bog you down; finish the scene. Finish your novel.

It is only natural for the suspense author to write through his/her eyes because we envision our story as we write it – We make this stuff up! In first draft, it is much easier to just paint the broad strokes while our fireworks are still in the air. Fair enough. But use your second draft to color in all the tiny, mind-searing, sparkling bursts with precision. Not just: “Stole a Jet Ski and zigzagged out into the storm dodging bullets.” (1st draft). Let your readers: “Inhale the salty air, feel the rumble of the engine through her thighs and hold on tight as the Jet Ski slams-hard-against-the-surf, while Sluggo’s bullets wiz past her ear.” (2nd draft). Save those salty, rumbling details for when you’re more relaxed and can take the time to study the scene carefully, with all five of your senses functioning freely.

Second Rule: “Cleverly, but clearly, break the rest of the rules where it adds suspense.” Do this where it adds more tension, comedy or calamity.

“Just slept on it funny,” he gruffed and limped away.

That works, in a lame way, because people don’t usually sound gruff when they are trying to be funny (or use the word lame when trying to be serious), and your actions or characters will become indelible.

Third Rule: “Hearing delivers more than just sound.”

Sound is the hardest of all the senses to fool on the page, so it should be the easiest “other” sense to write to. Be careful: sound is also the only sense that we rely on with impunity. The other four work in harmony, they confirm or cancel each other out, but sound is a lone actor in the dark. Because we have two ears, we also get a sense of direction and distance which adds to the tension. When a sound beckons your character, and before they turn their eyes in that direction, their mind has already played back memories of what that sound – or voice – meant. Just reusing that sound and response in a later chapter can recall all the trauma in the first scene. You can now draw comparisons to that first scene without saying another word, without compromising pace or tension.

“A shot rang out! He heard the cock of an antique Winchester and knew who was behind it.” (2nd scene – I’ll let you color in the first scene.)

Your character will trust their ears before their eyes. They’ll likely first crouch, scream or run, or smile, laugh or pucker up based on what they hear, then see if they’re right. Or horribly wrong!

Horrific sights should freeze your mortal characters to a point where they cannot move. Frightening sounds should have them running first, thinking later.

Fourth Rule: “Touch and taste are secondary to sight.”

These two senses always confirm what we see. Well, almost always. Walk, barefoot through a dark cave and stepped on something cold and slimy that went hissss, and clearly you see a snake. But that only works in a dark cave, and because our ears confirmed our worst fears.

Touch and taste we can take as one because we rarely use them together – popcorn being one exception; sex being another. But touch and taste only work in only a limited way on the page because these two senses are internal by nature. If what you write is out of sync with dear reader’s preconceived notion, your tasty words will not be enrichment at all. One woman’s yum is another’s woman’s yuck.

No vegetarian is going to agree with your “mouth-watering” response to the question, how was the beef Wellington? (1st draft) But what if your character’s response were instead, “She rolled her eyes, held her tummy and tongued her lips.” (2nd) Carnivorous readers might still salivate, but your vegetarian audience might see gag me and make me throw up from the same three motions. And you haven’t carelessly taken a segment of your audience out of the story. That’s what I mean by be careful with taste and touch.

Generic feelings (kiss, hold, hug), and tastes (salty, cold, hot) work best with strong adverbs like humongous and dainty. Unique feelings (itching, stinging, horrifying) and tastes (briny, zesty, spicy) work best on their own.

Fifth Rule: “When in doubt, follow your nose.”

Scent is a different breed of cat all together. In my piece at the beginning, it is the smell of smoke that awakens Amy, and she has full command of all of her senses within a heartbeat. We cannot ignore the scent of fear. If something foreign gets past our nose, our subconscious instantly knows that it can’t let anything happen to our breathing. Scent is the only one of the five sense that will wake us up from a deep sleep with our adrenalin already pumping.

Scents stick with us, too. Some, forever…. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and take in memories like: That wonderful aroma of Grandma’s kitchen; your wedding corsage; your dog after it caught the skunk. If the last one of these got you to blink or your nostrils to twitch, I rest my case. “Wonderful aroma” and “skunk” don’t fit. But, you knew that.

So the only trick here is to use scents correctly, by appeal. Fragrances heighten a sensual scene, or turn the screws on uncertain moments. Aromas can instantly cast light on the dark, or call forth a forgotten memory. Odors tell time’s passage, they foretell danger down the road and quickly time-stamp past, traumatic events.

Sixth Rule: “Men focus on the hunt; women gather on the periphery.”

Which brings us to the eyes. Writing descriptive suspense for the eyes is as easy as carrying on a conversation with a close confidant. Just vividly put on the page what your mind’s eye beholds and don’t hold back. If you’re writing in third-person, imagine your friend is telling you instead.

Only, it is important to remember that your men and women will see things differently. And that difference is primordial. And that primordial instinct is the very essence of believable suspense.

In pre-historic times, the male hunters depended on silence to sneak up on their prey. They used their two eyes together to fix on the distance needed to throw their spear and kill dinner. Another hunter knew exactly what this man was thinking by just following his gaze. Gatherers – the women, children and one-eyed old men – depended on making noise and using their voices to scare the wild things from the berry bushes. For protection, women used their two eyes to focus on two or more things at the same time. They learned to depend on their peripheral vision to spot movements off to the side. One wrong move and they’d be stung or bitten, or become the dinner.

Those two unique survival traits are still in our eyes today. Men still look straight into who or what has their mental focus, and women are still much quicker at spotting movement on the periphery while looking you in the eye.

That’s true about not only the lady’s deep, baby-blue, mischievous, sparkling, haunting, adorned, oval, cat-like, vicious, emerald, crying, smiling, laughing, sad, happy or otherwise adorable eyes that we can clearly see, but her mind’s eye, too. Her sixth sense is broad. His is keen.

Six Sensible Rules for Suspense
1) Don’t stop to smell the roses in first draft, just get your hero to safe harbor.
2) Cleverly, but clearly, break the rules where it make more suspense.
3) Hearing delivers more than just sound: direction; distance; friend-or-foe.
4) Touch and taste are secondary to sight.
5) When in doubt, follow your nose.
6) Men focus on the hunt; women gather on the periphery.

Next Month: Information dumps. Those lumps of facts and timestamps that precede your storyline are so often the hidden, root cause for your character’s actions. Until you get them on the page your story remains convoluted where you want to be clear. But factoids are just the canvas, not the painting. You can’t allow them to slow down the action and quick pace that is suspense! They’re essential, and, at the right moment, need to be clearly conveyed, but it doesn’t have to read like a rap sheet. Next month we’ll look at how to backfill your story without slowing down the action.