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Category: writing advice

For Writers — Microtension

I’ve decided to start a thread on this blog for writers. I used to write a monthly craft-of-writing article for the Romance Writers of Australia magazine, but after five years I stepped down. But I enjoy pondering aspects of writing craft, and find I miss it. So rather than go back, I’ve decided to pop an occasional writing post onto my blog, and have it open to anyone who’s interested. I’m really just musing about various aspects of the writing craft, rather than creating instructional posts. But if you’re not interested, just skip them — I’ll still be writing more personal posts and posts about my books as usual.

I’m also planning to put those previous writing articles up on my website to add to the others on my “about writing” page

So here’s the first of my dedicated craft-of-writing blog posts. It came to me when I was going through a small scene I’d written the day before and was thinking it felt a bit flat. And then I realized why . . .

Tension and Micro-tension

Many years ago I was in a masterclass for writers conducted by literary agent and writing guru, Donald Maass. 

We were asked to bring a finished novel in manuscript form — the idea was that the participants had to have finished a novel, that this was an editing/rewriting class rather than a class for beginner writers. My manuscript was only three-quarters finished, but I’d had a number of books published by then.

I brought my stack of printed off pages  (hole-punched and tied with a shoelace if I recall correctly). I was worried I might drop it and pages would go everywhere, even though they were numbered.

I learned a heap in that workshop — if ever you get a chance to do a workshop with Donald Maas take it. (See below for an on-line opportunity.)

One of the things he taught in that workshop was the importance of micro-tension.

In his own words micro-tension is “the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in a constant state of suspense over what will happen—not in the (overall) story, but in the next few seconds.

It’s not the kind of tension that comes from the high stakes story, or the circumstances of a scene, it comes from emotions — conflicting emotions.

One of the various exercises he gave us in that workshop seemed incredibly simple: he got us to open to a random page, and “make it worse” — i.e. find a way to increase the tension on that particular page.

At first it felt impossible — I’d worked hard on those scenes — but then I saw a way of doing it, and then I was crossing out bits and writing in new bits, and getting a whole other layer of tension into that page and that scene.

We did that exercise a few times on different pages, and I was amazed at what a difference it made. Scenes that had one main purpose, through just a few small changes, gained more complexity and intrigue. And added tension. 

I wish now I’d kept that printed off manuscript with all the scribbles I made over it as a result of that masterclass, but I didn’t. The final book was called The Stolen Princess and it was the winner of Romance Writer of Australia’s Romantic Book of the Year.

In the scene that I reworked the other day, the hero was investigating the heroine’s background. In the first draft, that was all he did — ask a few questions and get some answers. Simple and straightforward.  In terms of the plot, it did the job it needed to do. But when I revised it, by going deeper into his character and adding in a few sentences here and there to increase microtension, I was able to show that he had mixed feelings about what he was doing. And that by the end of the (very short) scene he had the answers to his questions, but also a few more questions, and his feelings were even more mixed. 

There are several Donald Maass workshops recorded on line that you can purchase to watch. Also more here. (For the record, I have no connection with Donald Maass or the organizers of these sessions.)

And that coffee cup above? That was the trademark saying of the late Emma Darcy and, way back when, Trish Morey had it printed on a mug for a conference she was organizing. I still treasure it. It’s a great reminder.

Do you mind me including craft-of-writing posts in this blog, or would you prefer I put them elsewhere. Let me know.


The other day a friend asked me how I come up with the physical settings for my books and scenes — the locations, the houses, and so on.  And as it happened I’d just been working some of that out for my newest book, which has barely begun. For me, settings are very important, even if they’re only imaginary. So I thought I’d share my process here.

In this case, I wanted to find the country house in which the heroine lived as a child. There will only be one scene set there (I think, though that might change) and that’s in the prologue (which is what I’m writing now.) But by the time I’ve finished it, there might not be many setting  details left in the scene. So why research it?

The setting feeds into the heroine’s backstory, the places she loved and hated as a child—it’s part of who she is. So many of my own childhood memories are inextricably linked to the places where we lived; the tree in which I sat, meaning to read, but instead dreaming among the leaves;  The pine-trees under which a friend and I built forts of piled-up fragrant dry pine-needles; the rock-pools I explored in summer, peering into tiny perfect complicated worlds; the attic window I gazed out of in Scotland, looking out over the rooftops.

I wanted to find those kinds of places for my heroine — not necessarily because I’d use them in the book, but because it would help me know more about her and what makes her tick. And particular settings rather than generic ones throw up particular and individual aspects of a character’s personality. And sometimes the spark events that help shape her as a person.

I usually start by deciding on a county, and then narrow in on the map. Often in a series, I like to site my people’s country houses not too far from each other so they can get together for Christmas etc. without too much trouble. But in this case, she won’t ever be going back to that house (probably), so her childhood home could be anywhere.

I chose Hampshire because as I was poring over a 19th century map of the counties of England (borders change over time so a historical map is necessary) I looked at Hampshire and the phrase from My Fair Lady popped into my brain — “In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen.”  So I chose Hampshire. <g>

Then I did an image search for stately homes in Hampshire. And I scrolled through the various pics until one jumped out at me, and my subconscious said — that’s it. Then I explored that place and if several features jumped out at me I’d grab them for my imaginary heroine’s imaginary childhood home. 

It doesn’t even have to be one house — this is not history I’m writing, but fiction set in historical times, so I’m free to assemble features from several houses.

When I was collecting images for The Perfect Kiss, for instance, this photo jumped out at me of an old stone staircase with hollows worn by generations of feet climbing it. It also had a lovely gothic feel, which suited the story, so it became a part of the story– a few lines only, but it added to the atmosphere in my mind, which was its main purpose.

The stairs also had meaning for me, because in one of the many places I lived as a child, I attended a very old school that had stone steps with dips worn in them by generations of children. They fascinated me. I was very aware of stepping into the hollows made by the feet of generations of children before me.  So I used that ancient staircase in my story, but the house they were in was quite a different one — though also quite gothic.

This process, believe it or not, helps me to understand more about my character. For instance the minute I saw the image above,  of a walled garden, I thought — this is where she hides out, reads her books, dreams her dreams. I hadn’t planned it — the image sparked the thought. And those feelings she has about the garden will feed in later to the part of the book that’s set in London.

There’s a turret — I love turrets. So then I wonder, maybe the house has a turret room in which she has her bedroom. Or maybe the turret is haunted. Or maybe she wants to go there but it’s in disrepair and she’s forbidden to go there, and so the question arises, will she go there? And what will be the consequence of that? And until I saw the turret on the house, none of that even occurred to me.

Even so, the images you see in this post will not be the same as the place in my story. In my story the house is a little bit shabby and run-down, the garden wilder and more tangled, the turret might be taller and quite crooked. My heroine, you see, is a little bit lonely and neglected, and she escapes into the garden and the hidden corners of the house in a way she couldn’t if everything was efficient and well run. It’s all to do with creating the atmosphere I want — I’m a big believer in “landscape as metaphor.”

So that’s a little bit about how I explore settings for my books. If you found this interesting and you’d like to read more about this process, here’s a blog I wrote a few years ago on the Word Wenches.


Writing No-no's

There’s a lot of writing advice around that is bad — well-intentioned, but misleading. It usually results from people simply repeating what they’ve heard, and turning it into “a rule” that they then share with (or impose on) other new writers.

For instance how often have I seen new writers warned off this kind of thing:

Her eyes dropped to the floor.

No, no, the ‘expert’ instructs  gleefully. If you write this your reader will imagine eyeballs popping out of someone’s head and landing on the floor. You should write:

She lowered her gaze to the floor.

Nonsense, say I. It’s a metaphor. No reader with half a brain is going to think her eyes dropped out of her skull and landed on the floor — because clearly this happens all the time in real life! 

It’s just like saying “She flew to the window” or “He froze” or “He approached the door with leaden footsteps.”

They’re all metaphors! She didn’t literally fly — she hurried; he didn’t literally freeze, he went abruptly still; and his feet weren’t made of lead, it’s a metaphor to show how reluctant he was to approach the door.

So when you’re given writing advice — mine included— think about it, and decide for yourself whether to adopt it or not.