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Answers to Some Big Questions

Today I attended an author event at The Crazy Lady Book Store in Acworth, GA. Below are the questions we were asked to prepare for the panel. We didn't get to all of them, but they are so excellent (and I prepared answers) that I decided to share them and what I said or would have said.

1. Could each of you share a brief narrative of your personal journey that led you to become a writer? Was it a calling you pursued full-time from the beginning, or did it evolve alongside other life commitments?

Writing has been an attraction for me all my life. I wrote a novel when I was in elementary school (it was about a horse, of course, and pretty derivative). I almost totally set it aside until I was about 50. I love books and literature, and I found myself surrounded by stories that needed telling, or at least I thought they did. In my fifties I began seriously writing novels, having written short stories before. My first novel was published in 2008. Writing is still a part-time pursuit, but I try to give it the time it deserves.

2. Each of you has created compelling narratives that captivate readers. A concept often mentioned in discussions about narrative structure is 'every scene must turn,' meaning that every scene should have a change or shift to maintain reader engagement, often involving conflict. How do you interpret and incorporate this idea into your writing?

I structure my novels by chapter. Each chapter has to be a step in the rising conflict or resolution. There is some info dumping and some getting from point a to point b, but I try to end every chapter with either: statement of how the main character sees his/her situation or an insight into it; a statement from a character that’s sort of Whoa! Or a new piece of information. For example, in Long Lost Promise, a young Hispanic girl with promise is found dead on her parents’ property. She’s been strangled before death, but no other signs of violence, so it seems she was running away from her attacker. A homeless man shows up in the sheriff’s office and says he did it—who is this guy? Keep turning the page to find out!

3. In How to Write Best Selling Fiction, James Scott Bell states, “the best villains are those that evoke pity and genuine sympathy as well as terror.” Would you agree with this statement? (Note, one of my co-panelist says this writer is his guide.)

Not really because I don’t know about the word “villain.” That implies evil, sort of a character who is just there to be a counterpoint to the supposed virtue of the main character. Or a James Bond evil overlord or the Joker in The Dark Knight. That’s kind of simplistic. If there is an antagonist, and there might be more than one, he/she should be fully drawn with some understanding of why he/she might want to oppose the protagonist, but pity and sympathy I don’t think so.

4. How do you ensure that the inciting incident is memorable, exciting, and believable in your stories?

Research. In my current WIP, which will be published later this year, the inciting incident is the death of the mother of a family by the Spanish flu. I had to do a lot of research about that time and disease even to get the dates of when it hit that particular part of the country. If I had said February 1918, I would have blown that.

More to the point, I went through my novels and realized they all had one; I just didn't call it an "inciting incident" at the time. As the person directing the panel stated, a door closes on the protagonist and they can't go back.

5. How do you consciously create cliffhangers without resorting to cliches?

I don’t know if I have a cliffhanger. I end chapters so the reader wants to turn the page. I may be too literal in my interpretation of "cliffhanger," in that it means "physical danger."

6. How do you incorporate descriptions in your writing that allow readers to not just see but also feel a scene?

Action slowed down, observe small things in the room or the person’s view point. Point of view. The main character is experiencing it and has feelings about it. He/she is interpreting it, sometimes emotionally, or sarcastically, or angry. That experience of feeling must be consistent with how you’ve written them before, not out of nowhere.

7. How do you incorporate your personal experiences, if at all, into your storytelling?

Very little. I may use a detail here, like a place I’ve been too, or if the characters are playing golf, but my story is a totally different animal than the fiction I write. That’s a memoir, which up to this point just hasn’t really intruded on my other characters. I do steal from other people.

8. Can you discuss how you strategically utilize subplots and parallel plots to enhance your story, address the challenge of the "sagging middle," and maintain consistent pacing throughout your narrative? No, I can’t. You need a three-act structure, or something like that. You need each chapter to move forward, not just be description. And I don’t think pacing can be consistent, I think it needs to slow down for tension. In my WIP, the main character, to survive the Spanish flu with the children she’s left with, keeps meeting obstacles or challenges, has to bury the mother, butcher a hog, learn how to raise children, find food, and sew up the dog when it gets mauled by a bobcat. Lots to do.

I tend to start in media res and go back and forth in time to build to the middle, where we return to the "hook" moment and begin to move forward in time.

9. How do you maintain unpredictability in your stories to keep the reader on edge?

They have to care about the characters, otherwise the plot devices are just that. So spend time on character. Character doesn't have to be likable; they have to be real.

10. In the crafting of a cohesive narrative, how do you develop and establish a compelling thematic arc?

Character is, meets a challenge, meets another, and another, on the way to accomplish a goal or "want," and on the way to accomplishing something they did not know was even going to happen (revelation, arc, change) In my WIP (which is work-in-progress, by the way), the main character does everything she can to keep herself and children alive, but when they are out of danger, she doesn’t want to give up the children, and has to find a way to do so. She takes a stand, and eventually she ends up with a home of her own, finally, after being an outcast and itinerant.

11. How do you craft dialogue that distinctly captures each character's individual personality?

You listen to people talk. That’s the only way. And then you give them permission not to sound perfect, or like you, or smart and sophisticated, but consistent with what you have presented about the character.

12. Do you prefer to spill the beans with exposition to get the reader to sympathize with your characters or do you enjoy teasing it out gradually? How do you manage this balance to keep the story engaging and intriguing?

This is a good example in my next novel. Telly has neurofibromatosis, hundreds of tumors under her skin which makes her face quite difficult to deal with, so she’s rejected by a lot of people. But I never come out and say that. We see how she envies other women’s looks, how she feels about her looks without knowing how she looks, see her rejected by people, and then go back to how it developed. The name of the disease is never mentioned, partly because it wasn't name in 1918.

13. Could you talk about how you strike a balance between incorporating genre-specific or obligatory scenes, and introducing unexpected plot twists, to ensure your readers stay engrossed in the story?

I don’t really write genre fiction, so I’m not sure this applies to me.

14. Can you share your thoughts on the significance of themes in storytelling, how they shape the narrative, and resonate with readers?

Theme emerges, and theme might be different for the reader than for the author. I think there is a subject---hope, survival, etc.--but how one would formulate the subject and the plot and character into a "theme" in a sentence is another matter. I don't start with a theme. We are telling stories first and foremost. After I wrote my first novel, I realized I had rewritten Antigone (not as good, of course). I love Antigone and taught it for years, so why wouldn't it come out in my work? I do often weave a piece of great literature into my books. Little Dorrit plays into my WIP; Anna Karenina into Long Lost Family.

15. How do you approach crafting dynamic and engaging storylines that push your characters to their limits?

For me, I start with a character in a context where there is a conflict between what he/she wants or thinks is wanted. I use chapters, and certain things have to happen. But I don't write my first draft with any expectations of "Such and such must happen by page 150."

16. How do you utilize point of view (POV) to craft a distinct narrative voice that captivates readers and immerses them in your characters' perspectives?

In dump drafts, let the person talk, in first person about themselves if necessary. Not everything you write will in the final. There is no reason to worry about the draft until the last one you send

17. When it comes to editing and revising your work, what strategies do you find helpful in identifying and addressing weak points in your story or writing? Word find and replace. Beta readers.

18. When finishing your novel, could you share your thought process behind crafting the ending to achieve a satisfying and impactful conclusion?

Sometimes you start with the end in mind. I like to end with happiness, that the character recognizes his/her new situation as a result of what they’ve been through. In Bringing Abundance Bank, the main character is a woman in the south who never cooks. That might seem strange, but not cooking is just unheard of in her generation in the south. She learns what happened to her mother, who “disappeared” and that her mother loved to cook and she finds her mother's recipes. She decides to cook in the last paragraph. More to it than that, of course, but in the end we know she has changed and she is happy about it.

19. If there is one powerful lesson or message you have learned from your experience as a writer, or one key takeaway you hope readers derive from your stories, what would it be? Your art is worth paying for. If you’re good at something, never do it for free (quoting the Joker in The Dark Knight). And make sure it is good enough to pay for.

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Barbara G. Tucker
Barbara G. Tucker
Aug 01, 2023

Amen. Great comment. If it's real and from your soul, it won't be.


I appreciate your answer to question #19. "Make sure it is good enough to pay for." I also don't want my book to be a waste of someone's time.

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