Raising the Stakes: Creating Compulsive Reading. Guest post by @tobywneal

A guest post by Toby Neal

I write crime/suspense/mystery/romance.

I know, that’s not a genre. But it should be, and that’s the only string of words that really describe what I write. As a reader of such fiction, the experience the reader is seeking is that of a “page-turner” or in current technology, “page clicker.” How do you keep the reader turning the pages, compulsively staying up way past their bedtime, or calling in sick to finish the book in one day? (both are comments shared with me by readers of Blood Orchids) I don’t have a formula. But in writing the four books I’ve completed in the Lei Crime Series, I’ve happened on a few things that work.

1) Characters with compulsions. Develop your MC to have clear drives, needs, and especially fears. Whatever those are, all of them are going to be “activated” by the situation they find themselves in. Characters that are believable and facing their personal nightmares, in whatever form, are the grist of this genre.

2) End every chapter on a cliffhanger. I’m not as good at this as some, but it’s essential in the keeping up the suspense. I’ve begun writing my MS without breaks, because trying to figure this out at the draft stage stalls me. I then go back and choose optimal suspenseful points to create a chapter break. This helps keep me from being distracted by how to end each chapter when I’m doing a first draft.

3) The ticking clock. I first noticed this in Patterson’s books—a date of a showdown, or catastrophe that the MC has to beat. It’s an old technique, but I was never conscious of it until I began to read in the genre, really looking at how the masters construct page-turning fiction.

Recently I had insomnia. This is not all that unusual; as a ‘thinker’ I am often unduly burdened by brain processing. At around 2 a.m. I woke up (unable to see clock without my glasses, and putting them on is admitting the insomnia is really bad, so the time remains a fuzzy red figment in the dark) plagued by the sense that the bad guy in my sequel is just not scary enough.

Creepy, yes. Disturbing. The potential for a great deal of gore is also there, which I’ve handled with buckets, tarps and scene cutaways (I tend to be of the suggestive rather than explicit school when it comes to violence) and he’s nicely crazed with a well developed pathology. Even so, he’s just not ‘popping’ for me… and if it’s not working for me it’s definitely not going to be working for readers. So in my insomniac bed I thought of Patterson and the ticking clock. I had one in there, but the early death of the victim sort of killed it (ha! Pun!) and so I got up and did what I have to do to keep track of time in my novel—printed out a calendar page of the month and mapped out the timeline until Expiration Day.

I gave the victim a death date that the reader knows and Detective Leilani Texeira doesn’t. In my original version the victim lay in a coma and was peacefully slaughtered. In my ticking clock rewrite, he woke up and demanded to know what the hell was going on, and knew his time was limited. And suddenly, the story’s scary. Urgent.

A date at the top of each chapter begins a new day and reminds you that the poor captive in the cave is going to buy it if Lei doesn’t get off her toned ass and track down the madman.

4) Purposeful scenes with a minimum of fluff. I had to cut and rewrite so much of my first two books I’ve learned to write from an outline (and no, it’s not easy, and no, it’s not fun to make the outline) but in this genre, planning is essential and every single scene either moves forward the plot with clues, information, dialogue… or develops essential character (that again, moves the plot forward). The best scenes feel inevitable, a perfect cocktail of character barreling toward destiny, as if you knew they had to happen (SPOILER- like when Lei’s dog gets shot in Orchids) and yet you always extend hope, possibility and surprises.

5) Did I mention I love writing this kind of book? It’s the psychology background I have—I want to outwit, outplay and outlast the reader to both our satisfaction. Think of of it that way—and the suspense can’t help but follow.

I love being a writer. Even the insomnia—when it amounts to something useful. Unfortunately sometimes I forget the brilliant ideas I have in that effortless gray between sleeping and awake. What secrets have you learned to keep your writing suspenseful? Is there anything I’ve suggested you will try in your next book?

About author Toby Neal

Toby Neal was raised on Kauai in Hawaii. She wrote and illustrated her first story at age 5 and has been published in magazines and won several writing contests. After initially majoring in Journalism, she eventually settled on mental health as a career and loves her work, saying, “I’m endlessly fascinated with people’s stories.”

She enjoys many outdoor sports including bodyboarding, scuba diving, beach walking, gardening and hiking. She lives in Hawaii with her family and dogs. Toby credits her counseling background in adding depth to her characters–from the villains to Lei Texeira, the courageous and vulnerable heroine in the Lei Crime Series.

Her website: www.tobyneal.net
Twitter: @tobywneal