Forget Suspense, EXPLAIN EVERY DETAIL

by Ksenia Anske


This Friday I stared working on Draft 5 of SIREN SUICIDES, my 1st novel, and I had anxiety over not having anxiety before starting. Weird, I know, let me explain. Throughout 3 months of writing Draft 4, every morning I would battle about 30 minutes of knuckle-biting, crying, hyperventilating, and other beautiful symptoms of self-doubt. It was exhausting, debilitating, and outright ugly. I hated it, yet every single morning it would repeat. All I could do was power through it. In the meantime, several weeks ago, I started reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. This is my first Murakami book, and I was blown away by the fact that I was glued to reading every single little detail about his characters, including them brushing their teeth and checking their nails. WHY? Because he did the old SHOW DON'T TELL and I got to see how the characters feel and connect to them on the human level. The more I read him, the calmer I became.

After having finished Draft 4, I took a 1.5 week break, to let my Beta Readers dish in, and to distance myself from the story. I kept reading 1Q84. Then, on Friday, a miracle happened. I sat down to write, and the anxiety was gone! Not only that, I wrote for 6 hours straight without checking Twitter (if you know me, you'll know this is close to impossible). I was absolutely calm, going from paragraph to paragraph, quietly explaining every single detail. NOT doing an info dump, no, but doing it the way Murakami does. He gave me courage. The real test came in the evening, when I emerged from my room, having spent a whole 6 hour to write only 4 pages (usually I do about 7 to 12 pages a day) and was ready to show it to my boyfriend (he's my sounding board). He said, "This is good. If you keep this quality of work, it will be awesome." I will try to summarize my experience here for you, to hopefully help you get rid of this stupid anxiety thing we all have before starting. So here goes:

A confused reader will throw your book away in a fury. Kurt Vonnegut said, "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages." For a while I couldn't understand it, but I do now. I started out my book by diving directly into action, and almost 90% of my Beta Readers complained that they had no idea who sirens were, how they looked, what their powers are, etc. I bit the bullet and realized I need to write from the perspective of a reader, slowly explaining everything along with moving the action forward. It works like this: every time I'd stumble in doubt, I knew it was time to explain. I know you know what I'm talking about. All of us have those moments when we write and pause, wondering, should I maybe dive deeper here? But the fear of losing the reader drives us forward. Guess what, it's ok to stop and explain. It doesn't mean it has to be a whole paragraph, it could be a sentence or two. The fact remains - the reader doesn't know what is in your head. So do it. Here, I'll give you an example and you tell me if it's better or not:

Draft 4 excerpt: "Nothing would irritate Daddy more than finding a fully clothed corpse of his sixteen year old daughter on the morning of her birthday, floating in his beloved antique clawfoot cast iron tub held up by four enameled sirens, ruled by the Siren of Canosa, or, in plain bathroom fixture speak, the bronze gooseneck faucet. How fitting. Ailen Bright, the deceased, to be guided into the after-life by a tap."

Draft 5 excerpt: "Nothing would irritate Papà more than finding the fully clothed corpse of his sixteen-year-old daughter on the morning of her birthday, floating in his beloved antique carved-marble tub. The ridiculous Bright’s family relic. Each of its corners is held up by one of four sirens, their mouths open in a lethal song, their hands upturned in worship to Siren of Canosa, the typical funerary adjunct. Papà’s name for the faucet. How fitting."

Do you see the difference? I threw in a small change, but already you can see the bathtub better. As I go along, I explain more about each siren, their names, Siren of Canosa, her origin, and more. I know this is ridiculous to feel, especially for a first time novelist, but I feel I'm doing the right thing. I'm calm. Awesome, right? (And yes, by popular request, I'm cutting out names Daddy and Mommy.) 

The more detail you show, the better you'll root the reader in your story. Fantasy or no fantasy, you're building a non-existing world, and it has to be convincing enough for the reader to believe in. Think of a good movie you recently saw. Think about camera close-ups in that movie. The furrowed eye brows, the fidgeting fingers, the unlaced shoes. In a good movie a good director will show you those details to make you decide for yourself what the character feels. We've all seen bad movies where a character tells you, "I feel awful!", and it takes away from your game of guessing, and you become bored. In good movies you are on the edge of your seat, guessing, discovering, nodding your head when you get it. That's the thrill of a good story. Then after the movie you share your experiences with friends, and feel exulted if they saw the same (or not if not, but that it another topic). A good book works the same way. If the author tells you how the character feels, you go, "Bullshit!". You're pissed because you want to decide for yourself. If, however, the author shows you all the little things that lead you to understand how the character feels, you're glued. You're gone. You love the book and you tell all your friends.

Don't be afraid to over-explain, you can always cut it out later. That's another lesson I learned from reading Murakami. At times he would explain in meticulous detail how a character prepares himself dinner, to the point where I wanted to go buy same ingredients and try it for myself. At other times, he would simply skip it, saying the character had dinner. I couldn't understand why. I get it now. It has to do with pacing. Whenever something emotionally important is happening inside your character, take all the time you want to explain what he or she does, show us the turmoil. We will gobble it up. But when the character makes a decision to act, move along and don't bore us with details.

I'm beginning to ramble here and somehow I don't feel I've captured enough essence of the calm I got recently when startting Draft 5. Grrr. Sorry. I'll try to distill it more in my head to share. I can't NOT to share because the feeling is so awesome. Was this helpful at all? Let me know...  

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WRITE A NOVEL. Change this fucking world for the better.

by Ksenia Anske


Photo by Emma Katka

This was supposed to be a happy post. This was supposed to be a post about a victorious feeling after finishing Draft 4 of my 1st novel, getting 50+ Beta Readers to read it, getting an enormous amount of positive feedback on it, and much much more. Well, it's not going to happen, because 20 elementary school kids died this morning when a gunman, a father of a student, opened fire on them.

HOW CAN YOU LIVE AFTER HEARING NEWS LIKE THIS? TELL ME. I'll tell you. I will write. I will write as fast as I can. I will use every second of my existence to do it.

I won't let a gunman stop me. It is my job, to change this fucking world for the better or die trying. 

IT'S WHY I LIVE.

People keep asking me where I got inspiration for my book. It wasn't inspiration, it was pain, an incredible amount of pain that I didn't know how else to release and help others feel it with me, in hopes of doing something about it together. As I disclosed on Twitter a few weeks ago, I'm an incest survivor, my father and my step-grandfather sexually abused me and I had complete amnesia until I went back to Russia and saw my father. This triggered memories, panic attacks and the like. At 33 I wanted to kill myself, but then decided, NO, FUCK IT, I will talk about it instead. For the first time in my life, I understood why I wanted to take my life at 16. Why I ran away from home. Writing SIREN SUICIDES was my therapy. It's heavily laced with issues of teenage suicide and the antagonist is a woman hater. This is my cry for help, this book. I want to stop teenage suicide. I want to stop abuse. I want to change it.

YOU CAN DO IT TOO. WRITE A NOVEL. PLEASE.

Dig deep into the pain you're afraid to face. All of us have this one forbidden topic that nobody mentions at family gatherings but that gives you nightmares. You're afraid to mention it, I know. Don't! Make up a fictional character with the same problem and pour out your heart into a fictional story. Magnify the issues you want to talk about, it's the best thing ever. You can be as mad as you want, as angry as you want. In fact, the more you feel while writing, the better it feels when you're finished. I can testify to you that I'm a hundred traumas lighter after almost finishing my book. So go ahead, start today. Take one step closer to being happy.

Forget about plot and stay true to your feelings. Stop reading books about how to write books. 1st Draft of anything is shit. Just sit down and start from the place that hurts most. Keep pouring until it's empty. I'm sure it will take you several months (though it took me only 6 weeks, I carried it so long, I guess it badly wanted out). Keep writing. Don't stop. Don't think. Don't talk to anyone. Don't share it with anyone. Write. Stop at the end when done. Ignore your doubts. Imagine that you're writing a complete stream of consciousness. And one day you'll be astounded to find Draft 1 completed. Voila!

Divorce from your story, make it about your characters. Now that you have 1st Draft completed, let it rest for a week and then read the whole thing to see how it makes you feel and find the story that's there. Let it live on it's own - each consecutive Draft is about the story, NOT YOU. Remember this. That's why people will read it. They don't know you, they won't care for your pain. That's why a novel is so powerful. You create a fictional character that is a magnified version of everything you ever wanted to be (or not), and readers will notice that person. They will root for her or him, and they will feel it together with you. The most recent example I have of this is 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I can literally feel what he's trying to say, and it made me that much more driven to continue with my own writing.

Stop existing and start living. Think about it. You carry suppressed pain. We all do, to one extent or another. Your body and mind spend energy suppressing it, instead of enjoying life. So, depending on the amount of pain you carry, maybe about 20% of your energy is spent keeping it in check, maybe 50%, maybe even 80%. Ever meet those people that look like walking zombies? Yeah. You don't want to turn out like that. Cut yourself open, I know, it's painful, but it must be done in order for you to spill your pain on paper. And you will gain your energy back. I did. I'm happy. I've never been happier in my life than I am now. You can do it too. Please!

Now that I've written my pain out, in this post, I actually feel better. I only have one question for you - why do you live? Right now, right this very second, if you knew you had only 1 hour left to live, what is it you wish you had time to do? Would you wish you weren't so afraid and had the guts to tell your story? You still can.

START NOW.

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