A Sovereign of Suspense (Part One)
Who are your Pajama Authors? You know, the ones who keep you in your PJ’s the entire weekend because you can’t put their book down to get in the shower or get dressed. Hell, you have to drag yourself away from the page to eat! I have just a few. John Grisham has PJ’d me a couple of times. So has James Patterson in his early years. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I even went without sleep to finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in one sitting!
That’s why I’m beyond excited this week, as I was able to sit down with another of my PJ authors, the Queen of Crime Thrillers herself - best-selling author, Sue Coletta. If you love crime fiction and haven’t read one of Sue’s books yet, trust me, you don’t know what you’re missing. As she was gracious enough to give me an extended interview about her writing craft, I’ll be serializing the interview over three blog posts, so make sure you visit over the next couple of weeks too. This week we learn about pacing the storyline:
Sue, I’ve read several of your books, novellas and short stories, and they kept me on the edge of my seat! Where did you learn to pace your crime thrillers like that, or does it just come naturally to you?
I may have had some inherent story sensibilities, but certainly not enough to write without studying the craft of storytelling. When I started writing, my biggest pacing problem was that I never let up on the gas, so to speak. By learning to slow the pace a bit it heightened the suspense. As you know, my books are still fast-paced, but at least now I won't give my readers whiplash! It's a delicate balance that's not easy to grasp when you first start writing. Too slow, and you bore your reader. Too fast, and you don't give your reader a chance to breathe. You need to find that perfect middle ground. Pacing is one of the hardest things to master. It takes time and practice.
To better answer your question, I learned about pacing by following blogs dedicated to craft, and by tearing apart stories that worked on a structural level, which only worked once I learned story and scene structure. One of the best ways to pace your novel is by learning about MRUs or “Motivation-Reaction Units.” Much like life, for every action (motivation) there's a reaction.
I'll give you a quick example:
While out on a nature hike I zigged instead of zagged and got separated from the group. Dried autumn leaves rustled behind me [motivation], and I whirled around [reaction]. Ten feet away a black bear huffed, his massive paw striking the earth [motivation], sending vibrations up my spine, quaking my very core [reaction]. I shifted my weight from foot to foot, but my legs refused to cooperate.
Would he charge? Regardless of the nagging urge to escape, the fact remained that I could never outrun a black bear. Perhaps it's safer if I stood my ground. A while back I'd read an article about bears. With grizzlies, the safest option was to play dead. With black bears, do the opposite by making yourself appear larger.
Easy for the author to say. Not so easy for the person staring down a four-hundred-pound black bear, licking his lips like he hadn't eaten a good meal in weeks.
Mr. Bear's piercing glare [motivation] conjured images of a brutal death [reaction]—my death—an incident I'd rather not experience. Especially now. Last night, Kevin popped the question. No, I refused to die. There must be a way to survive an encounter. Or, God forbid, an attack. Only one question lingered: how?
When using MRUs, the most important thing to remember is to use action (motivation) and reactions in a realistic order, each time upping the tension in order to build suspense. Triggering the five senses also helps to drag out the suspense, correct the pacing, and make the scene more visceral.
Have you always been a writer? When did you decide to try your hand at getting something published?
Whenever I read some authors claim they'd been writing since elementary school, I have to laugh. Sure, kids tell stories. It's human nature to use storytelling as a way to communicate. Hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt told stories on the walls of caves, but that doesn't mean they were "writers" per se. So to answer your question, no, I haven't always been a writer.
In my early twenties I wrote over a dozen children's books. Not for publication. I wrote them for friends' children to enjoy. I'd always loved the crime genre, but it wasn't until we moved to the country, with all its majestic wonder, that I buckled down to study my craft. It's funny how life works sometimes.
Did you know your genre before you began? What interested you so much about crime fiction?
I've always been a fan of psychological thrillers, mystery, and suspense. Especially books, TV shows, and movies that revolve around serial killers. What first interested me? I'm fascinated by the psychology of why people kill, as well as what first pushed them to cross into the realm of the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the untold story some people fantasize about while others, like you and I, can't apply logic to their actions. Psychopaths and sociopaths intrigue me. And so do average Johns and Janes who suddenly commit murder. By this answer you may think I'd be drawn more to true crime, and I do write about real cases on my blog from time to time. However, fiction allows my inner serial killer to roam free!
Next week Sue will be discussing character development, so be sure to join us! In the meantime, Check out her Murder Blog, voted one of the top 50 crime blogs on the net by Feedspot, and her books on Amazon.com.