Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tense Enough Yet? (Another SCBWI Poconos Post)

Almost one month later and I'm finally, finally writing up the third "wrap up, what I learned" post from the SCBWI PA Poconos conference. Not the last-- I still have two more workshops and two/three more keynotes to go! I'll eventually post it all-- until then, y'all will have to be patient with me.

(I'm sorry things have been slow on this blog-- between long work hours, physical therapy sessions for my knee and family obligations, my free time is limited and blogging is low on the totem pole. I still love all of you, though!)

Look! A Mountain Laurel! Did that distract you from my foot-dragging blogginess?
(Pic taken in our yard in South Jersey-- I ♡ mountain laurels)

I'm really excited to write about tension today-- since the weekend ended up becoming all about character building for me, I love the tools that were given to us in this workshop. They promise to make my characters' stories interesting.
These notes are from "The Tension Headache", the workshop taught by Sara Sargent, Assistant Editor of YA and MG at Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Children's Books (Follow her on Twitter here.) Like in my character workshop post, I'm not going to write everything I noted down-- I don't think it's fair to transcript someone's entire talk (which is basically what my notes ended up becoming due to all of the wonderful information that Sara gave us!!!), but I will write up the points that resonated most with me:

This quote was underlined in my notebook: "Your novel thrives on drama and tension."-- Drama may stink in everyday life (unless you're a drama queen and love that stuff), but a book without drama is... boring. And a boring book doesn't get picked up by readers (or agents. or editors.)

Sara then went on to describe the different types of dramatic tension that can be present in a novel. There are four ways in which we can torture our characters (My comments in purple, starting with "Mwahahaha"):
  • Romantic tension (Please! The "will they, won't they" thing is eeevil, but the fireworks when the characters finally get together are awesome. But maybe that's just me and I like eeeevil *whistles innocently*)
  • Environmental tension-(My MS really depends on this and romantic tension, so I listened HARD here)
  • World building tension: (Since I'm currently reading Insurgent, I have to pop in here and say that Veronica Roth did a masterful job with world building tension in her books. I cannot wait for book 3!)
  • Big ideas: tension revolving around concepts of love, freedom, etc. Sara's example here was 13 Reasons Why. (I think Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak and Wintergirls fit in perfectly under this type, as well.)
She suggested that we list out all of the plot points in our stories-- if we see a weakness, editors and readers will, too. The stakes need to be sufficiently high for the tension to be believable.

A lot of this talk really made me think a lot about how to tighten my writing. As someone who can be prone to LM Montgomery-esque purple prose (God, I love that woman, but I also know that I'm no LMM. She was able to get away with long paragraphs of description,) keeping the story moving is always foremost in my brain when I'm plotting and editing. This workshop also is helping me figure out how to drive the plot and interest in the still plotting, still outlining contemporary in my head (yup. Back to Phoebe's story. Always. Because contemporary doesn't have magic or surreal elements to make things easier-- at least, for me.) I like workshops that make me ask questions and that inspire me at the same time.

I'm not sure if these were Sara's exact words or a paraphrase in my notebook, but either way, they're the perfect way to sum up the entire workshop (and end this blog post):

"Up the stakes, threaten your character. Make everything matter. Never be safe."

Next SCBWI PA Poconos installment: How Laurie Halse Anderson made me cry. Sneak peek: "A loving God would not give you the passion to create without giving you the seeds to create. You need to nurture those seeds."


  1. (Oops)
    Thanks for all the info about tension from Sara Sargent! The conference must have been great. I guess drama and tension are the cornerstones of a good YA book, and you can't have too much of them.
    (Laura_6 from AW)

    1. Definitely! One thing that I've learned from all of these workshops and from speaking with agents/editors at the conferences is that YA especially needs that tension to keep the story moving and the reader engaged. Teens don't seem to appreciate some of the slower descriptive flights of fancy writing that some adult novel readers might embrace, and they totally see through any BS. All of Sara's workshop really helped us look at ways to cut through the "BS" and the predictable :)

  2. Great post...makes me miss you and the Poconos though. <3

    1. <3 <3 <3 I know! One month later and writing this up makes me Poconos-sick!

  3. Excellent post. Since I couldn't go to Poconos, I really appreciate this!

    1. Yay! I'm glad that you liked this!