Adding Tension and Foreshadowing: Golden Egg Academy Workshop

I was thrilled to be invited to run a workshop for Golden Egg North this month, on adding tension and foreshadowing as you edit a novel. 

For any emerging writers who don’t know already know about the Golden Egg Academy, please click. The GEA offer talks, workshops and feedback for writers of books for children and young adults. They also offer lots of great online support – from Twitter chats to writing prompts. 

 Before I was published, I’d been looking longingly at their offerings. I lurked on Twitter chats and soaked up some of the great advice, and even attended an introductory workshop down in London, planning to work with them on the book that became Dragon Daughter. But the very next month, I was offered my first publishing contract with David Fickling Books, so ended up not following that path after all. 

Now, happily, they’ve expanded their work regionally, so there’s a Golden Egg North, Golden Egg Scotland, Golden Egg Wales and South-West, Golden Egg Brighton and Golden Egg London and South-East, too. 

The day I attended was part of the ‘Work on Your Novel’ course, run by Matilda Johnson, the Director of Golden Egg North. The cohort of writers I met were coming to the end of a two-year programme, working on their manuscripts. The group were lovely and welcoming, obviously committed writers, with some already signed with agents or having won prizes, and I have no doubt we will be hearing from these writers in future. 

Here’s a summary of my workshop:

Tip 1: try writing a ‘dirty first draft’. 

 Give yourself permission to tumble out a very fast, rough, provisional draft that will change hugely. Let yourself get to know the characters and the shape of the story so you have some raw material to work with later. 

I wrote a rough first draft of Eden Summer

I wrote a rough first draft of Eden Summer

I have two manuscripts in a drawer, representing about 10 years’ work! One of the reasons they never got published, I think now, is that I didn’t understand how to draft and redraft yet. I spent too long polishing up sections that didn’t need to be in a final draft, and not long enough thinking about the larger overview. 

When I was writing my third novel, which became my debut Eden Summer, I tried something new: a fast and dirty draft. I wrote a disastrous first draft of around 30k words in which the main character was dead but didn’t realise it. My then-agent Ben Illis and my PhD supervisor Martyn Bedford both pointed out that dead characters can’t speak, act, change or drive the plot. So I started over, knowing the structure I was aiming for and really enjoying having Jess as a living protagonist, definitely driving the plot and running around looking for her missing best friend Eden. 

Tip 2: Add a ticking clock!

How can you add tension into the events of your plot, and a sense of time running out? 

If there are eggs, they must hatch!

If there are eggs, they must hatch!

For example, in the opening scene of Dragon Daughter, a mysterious stranger is murdered after hiding a bag of dragon eggs, setting up (I hope) the sense for the reader that: 

-      The eggs are important, since someone was killed to protect them

-      They are eggs: something is going hatch from them, but what? And when

 Similarly, in Eden Summer, Jess knows that Eden needs to be found in the first 24 hours, so I set the present-tense events of the story in one single day, to add that sense of time running out.  I sketched out how I imagined the structure, like a clock-face. 

I love this quote from Mary Kole which sums all this up: 

Keep your main character active and always in pursuit {of their objective}. When he has an ally, take that person away. When she has a decision to make, put a ticking clock on it. When there’s an object that he absolutely requires, obliterate it. When she craves a safe place, make it inaccessible. Always think of how you can exert more pressure on the events you already have in your plot.

Invaluable: Lisa Cron’s books

Invaluable: Lisa Cron’s books

 Kole, Mary. Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide for Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers. {Chapter 6} Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2012

Tip 3: Walk the tightrope! 

When writing a novel, it’s hard to judge just how much information the reader needs. This is the balance between drip-feeding just enough clues so the reader can work things out and stay engaged, but not info-dumping or making it too easy to foresee the ending you have in mind.  

 This is where the work of Lisa Cron is invaluable for me – see She’s great on the neuroscience of storytelling, and helping writers remember that the reader is living the story along with the protagonist. Cron taught me to stay focused on character, and let the action arise from the characters’ needs and wants. 

Tip 4: Discover your story’s symbols

 When you’ve returned to your story after the first couple of drafts, you might be able to see the symbols and images that best sum it up. You can now go through and thread them more strongly throughout your novel, working with foreshadowing and metaphor so your story really sings out. 

For example, in my next novel, Rise of the Shadow Dragons, coming next May, there are a few key images. My protagonist Joe has anger issues, and this is mirrored in the rumbling volcano that will cause such problems for him! Another symbol - which my editor Rosie Fickling and I only spotted quite late on – was Joe’s father’s compass which he inherits. Joe loses his way in the story but is able to navigate himself safely back again, and the compass sums this up in a few different places. 

Over to you: 

-      Make a list of at least 3 symbols or items that appear throughout your story 

-      Does one of them work hard as an ‘organising metaphor’? 

dragon eggs in chest.JPG

-      Maybe one of them is a kind of talisman or magical item that helps your character at different times? 

-      Maybe one of them is an animal, with certain attributes that shed light on your story? 

-      How can you thread it throughout the novel and make it work hard for you?

Tip 5: Write the first chapter last

 My final advice is to try re-writing the first chapter last of all. I did this with Eden Summer, when I knew exactly what happened in the story. It allowed me to add lots of foreshadowing, hints and clues. Some of these weren’t even conscious, but came about because I knew the story well by then. 

Challenge: without looking at your old chapter 1, try rewriting it when you’ve finished redrafting several times. Compare the two versions and see which works hardest to introduce character and the central issues of your story. 

Thanks to Golden Egg North for inviting me to run this workshop. Best of luck with your drafting!