A Room Full of Suspense

In January I segued from writing poetry to taking a six-day workshop in suspense writing at the well-established Writers in Paradise Conference held at Eckerd College. Through its 20-year history, successful writers have jump-started or completed their work with the help of nationally known authors and motivated, active writers in the conference workshops. Learning more about the techniques of suspense writing gave me a push forward in my creative nonfiction project that’s been on hold for over a year.

When a stranger rides into town . . . expectation builds. For me, our instructor Lori Roy, an award- winning suspense and mystery writer became the stranger whose lectures and discussions raised my expectations and led me through an unfamiliar genre of writing.  For three hours a day in class, I took notes, added my critique to manuscripts of other participants, and reviewed the merits and limitations of my writing sample submitted ahead of time. The week went by fast.

Thanks to those conversations, my own writing tool kit expanded. Everyone has stories to tell. Some emerge in conversation, reminiscences, phone calls, texts. But those of us who decide to tell our stories to the world need the example of successful writers. I don’t plan to become a thriller writer; I want to tell the story of seeking an identity while embedded in the restrictive world of a Catholic religious order. Stay and conform or break with the community whose shelter and education shaped my adolescence and early adult life? These choices are not new. There are iterations of a familiar theme in literature and other art forms. Yet as the Moth handbook How to Tell a Story suggests, to make “a familiar life experience remarkable and uniquely yours,” takes effort and know-how. I came home with a folder of notes and a brain teased by new ideas.

One of the best ways to improve writing is connecting with other writers doing the same thing. This was Roy’s best advice for me. Although regularly I critique with a few other writers, those who I’ve met at conferences and whose interests are similar, our instructor emphasized that responding to others’ manuscripts brings practice and builds insight. In this workshop I read about naval intelligence, time travel to Shakespeare’s world, the intrigue of local politics and more. Each of these novels-in-progress took me outside my own interests, as good reading should.

I learned to recognize how to activate suspense in a story: the importance of the first fifty pages that “set up all the levers,” the difference between likeable and relatable characters. In building suspense, it’s important to know why the story begins here instead of some other time and place. I learned how employing a “ticking clock”plot element raises momentum, how conflict needs escalation, how to trim the details that don’t pull their weight.

By the end of the conference, I knew I could read or watch a mystery story or thriller with new insight, an increased sense of pleasure and understanding. I knew I could respond to other writers with greater effectiveness. I learned imagination is important but craft is everything.



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