Self-Publishing With Tom Wood

When you self-publish, you often don’t have the good fortune of having an all-powerful, brilliant editor who’s going to turn each of your caffeine-fueled lines into a polished gem. Rather, the onus falls on you, dear writer (brilliant in your own right), to keep the reader in the forefront of your mind and make each word, each scene, fraught with tension. 

In this month’s “Self-Publishing,” author Tom Wood gives insight into how he builds suspense and how you, too, can become a fisher of men, so to speak. 

Gone Fishing

By Tom Wood

When’s the last time you went fishing? It’s been years, maybe decades, since I wet a line (that’s fishin’ talk).

If like me — always behind the keyboard and busy writing, writing, writing, trying to meet a deadline — then it’s probably been a while for you, too.

Right now, I’ve got another Word document open and am hard at work on the sequel to my debut novel Vendetta Stone, a fictional true-crime thriller. So when my Killer Nashville Online Magazine editor e-mailed a request for me to contribute a column about literary suspense, I said, sure, no problem. What’s one more deadline?

As a journalist/author, I’ve lived a lifetime meeting deadlines.

But actually, I would rather be down at the ol’ fishing hole, gentle waters lapping at my feet and introducing Mister Minnow to Mister Bass.

That got me to thinking.

Building literary suspense is a lot like going fishing.

I mean, isn’t that what we are all trying to accomplish with our stories? Author Joe Fisherman wants to catch as many fish, er, readers as he can—no limits—and in doing so, he want to catch them off-guard.

All genre writers know the basic definition of literary suspense, though we may approach it from different angles—which makes us anglers, another synonym that fishermen use to describe themselves.

My quest in building literary suspense is to create enough compelling tension in the story and enough obstacles for the main characters that readers feel an empathy for them and concern for their safety and well-being. I want them hanging on every word, and when they get to the end of the chapter, I want them to breathlessly flip to the next page to find out what happens next.

In fishing parlance, that’s called playing the line. Get the reader hooked, let them run with the story going in one direction and then the other, a few tugs at the heartstrings and then worn out from holding their collective breaths, you slowly reel the reader back in.

One reader emailed how much they enjoyed Vendetta Stone, but complained that I made him late to work because he stayed up reading. I smiled, knowing I had done my job.

You need the right bait, the right lure, if you’re gonna reel in readers. That’s the compelling action of your story and what the stakes are for your protagonist versus his/her antagonist.

What’s your story hook? Figure that out, and you have them.

Patience is a virtue when you cast that line, but you must learn how to play it just right. You don’t want to lose the reader to sloppy writing, a boring story, a lack of action or any other number of things that lets them wiggle off the hook.

Some of the best writing advice I learned was at 2011 Killer Nashville during a session on story structure hosted by guest of honor Robert Dugoni. It wasn’t about fishing, but it would’ve been a good analogy.

Bob talked about the importance of the first sentence/paragraph of a chapter being so good that it compels readers to continue. The second-most important sentence/paragraph, Bob said, must close that chapter—the object being to compel the reader to quickly turn to the next chapter. And it didn’t matter how long—or short—the chapter was to get from Point A to Point B, just whatever it took.

That excellent advice helped me hone my story and take it from a good story to a publishable work of fiction.

When everything comes together, you’ve caught the reader—hook, line and sinker.

Tom WoodA veteran sports writer and copy editor, Tom Wood has covered a variety of events ranging from the Iroquois Memorial Steeplechase to the Atlanta Olympic Games for The Tennessean in Nashville. After retirement, he continues his passion for writing, contributing to the Civil War-based anthology, Filtered Through Time and conducting an interview with Stephen King for Feast of Fear: Conversations with Stephen King. In the last year, Tom has begun writing Western fiction short stories, two of which have been published by Western Trail Blazer. “Tennesseans West” is his next project with four other authors involved. He is also an actor and can be seen in several episodes of the ABC series “Nashville”. He also coordinates the Killer Nashville guest blog series. Vendetta Stone is his first novel and he is working on the sequel.

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