Keep the Reader Guessing
Leonard D. Hilley II
Thanks so much for allowing me to post a guest blog. I’d like to share part of the creative process for writing that a lot of suspense authors use to ‘hook’ the readers.
In 1992, when I first decided to write "seriously," I submitted a lot of short stories to science fiction/fantasy magazines. Sadly, a lot of those publications are now defunct. But, I learned a lot from various editors during that time.
Some editors were gracious enough to enclose pointers with their rejection forms. However, a few went a bit further and actually wrote comments on their forms (always a good sign). One piece of advice was to avoid using too much exposition. Basically, get to the point and don't bog down the reader with nonessential background information. Marion Zimmer Bradley put it another way, as she had been told by an editor early in her writing career, "Johnny gets his butt caught in a bear trap and spends the rest of the story trying to get out of it." Dean Koontz suggests always ‘start with the action.’
I've learned that adding the urgency and dilemmas early on—like the opening—really pulls the reader in. After all, if readers aren't interested in what you're writing, what’s the point in them finishing a novel? Without an audience what's the point in writing other than for one's self-amusement?
I took creative writing courses during my senior year of college. The professor kept insisting that I show the monsters of Predators of Darkness: Aftermath on page one. His advice was to put it all on page one, but page one is only so long, right?
I argued that putting the description of the monster on page one is story suicide. When he asked, "Why?" I explained. If I show the monster on page one, I have killed the suspense and mystery that attracts the readers to the main character's problem. You're more afraid of what you don't see hiding in the shadows than when you find out exactly what it is. Ask anyone who is terrified of spiders or snakes to step into a room where a spider or snake has hidden what level his/her fear is. If you know where it is, you can avoid finding it. Not knowing where it is . . . means you might accidentally walk into its path. Sometimes not seeing is MORE frightening. The possible element of surprise, so to speak.
The mystery of what’s hidden in the shadows keeps a reader’s curiosity, but only if she cares about the characters. This leads to another point. Stories need vivid 3-D characters that readers have empathy toward. They need people they want to root for and hope survive. Most readers read to immense themselves into the lives of the characters and enter another world, so bland characters . . . don’t cut it. Visual characters make the reader want to follow them through their ordeals until the end.
For me, as a writer, my characters are very real. I’m the note-taker. I follow and report what the characters do, say, and how they react. Since I don’t outline a novel ahead of time, I don’t have a predetermined destination. When the characters stumble upon a deadly creature or have someone trying to kill them, I find myself trapped into the suspense wondering ‘how are they getting out of this one?’ Generally, the characters resolve the dilemmas, and live to see another day . . . most of the time.
This is why I start with the action first with great characters and keep the reader guessing until the end. I hope this gives you some insight into how this writer writes.
Forrest Wollinsky: Vampire Hunter
Leonard D. Hilley II
Genre: YA Friendly; Urban Fantasy/Paranormal
Publisher: Nocturnal Trinity Press
Date of Publication: March 13, 2016
Number of pages: 266
Word Count: ~83,000
"Killing Vampires Since 1888."
I was born in Bucharest in 1880 in the heart of the vampire population. At eight years old, I was considered a freak of nature since I was already the size of an adult male. Other children my age, and some of my teachers, shunned me.
Being rejected by one’s peers cuts deeply. Then I met my first werewolf and discovered a master vampire was plotting to kill me because of what I am. From that moment, my destiny stole my future aspirations all men grow up wanting.
This is how my destiny begins.
The wind howled like an awakening banshee as it swirled and lashed around our snow-covered cottage nestled in the barren trees at the edge of the forest. I was only eight years old, but it was the harshest winter in my one hundred and thirty-odd year memory.
My father had been gone for several days, which wasn’t unusual. Mother had said that he was hunting and should return soon, but the blizzard had set in with a fury, burying the roads, fields, and the forest floor beneath several feet of snow. Wherever he was, he’d be stuck for quite some time.
Snowdrifts lined three sides of our meager cottage and the snowstorm had barely started. The outside layers of snow helped insulate our rugged home. The warmth of the fire felt like the heat of summer, making it almost easy to forget about the freezing howling winds outside.
The hearth fire crackled softly under a black bubbling pot of rabbit stew. Garlic cloves were strung together above a basket of dried yams. We had enough food to last out the week, which made me wonder why my father had chosen to hunt during the worst of the blizzard.
My mother sat in her creaky rocker and was sewing a new coat for me from rabbit hides. Only eight, I was as husky and tall as a young man in his teens. It seemed that I outgrew my clothes about as quickly as she could make new ones.
While she sewed, I sat near the fire and sharpened a long curved dagger my father had given me. He had traded fox hides for the blade, and I expected to soon use it whenever my father returned with his kill.
A slight pause in the winds caused my mother to stop rocking. She leaned slightly forward and cocked her head to the side. The curious frown on her face caught my attention. I set down the whetstone and rose to my feet.
A gentle rapping at the door was faintly noticeable since the winds had quieted, and probably would have gone completely unnoticed had they continued to whistle. But there it was again.
A bit bolder, but not overly pronounced or with desperation.
With my dagger gripped in my hand I eased toward the door. Confusion furrowed my mother’s brow. She set her quilt aside and held her scissors to her side, ready to help fend off whatever danger awaited outside that door.
Stepping to the side of the door, I lifted the metal latch that secured the door and eased it against the door panel, careful to be silent.
Without fear, I grabbed the large oval handle and yanked open the door. A whoosh of cold air sprang forward, sucking out our much-treasured heat.
On the path directly outside the door, the snow was stained crimson beneath the gray overcast sky. A trail of blood cut farther down the path into the forest. Large heavy snowflakes dropped, steadily trying to erase the blood path. No other tracks were in the snow. No bandits or attackers were visible amongst the snowy tree trunks. The bloody path ended at the door where the body lay.
A desperate weak hand shook, reaching up for me.
“John!” my mother shouted, running across the room to the door.
In terror I stared down into my father’s haunted eyes, barely recognizing him. His face was battered, and his eyes were swollen nearly shut. Blood caked in his graying beard. His useless legs twisted behind him. How far he had crawled or how he had managed to do so with the amount of blood he had lost? It was a mystery then, and remains so even to this day. By every means he should have been dead, long before he got to the door, but his stubborn determination enabled him to ignore his pain and fight to pull himself back home.
I sheathed my dagger and grabbed his nearly frozen hand, heaving him out of the snow and across the threshold. Mother quickly closed and secured the door when we were safely inside.
My father’s cold hand fell from my grip and a huge sigh gushed from his mouth as he lost consciousness.
“Father?” I asked, dropping to my knees in front of him. Blood trickled from his nose. I glanced toward Momma. “What happened to him?”
“Get him to the bed,” she said, wiping away tears.
Placing my hands beneath his underarms, I lifted, pulling him up enough to wrap my arms around his chest until he was upright. His body was cold, but the heat of his leaking wounds stuck to me. I cringed. So much blood. I fought tears. He was dying. Had to be. Nothing lost so much blood and survived.
My father wasn’t a massive man, like he and my mother always insisted I would become. He actually weighed less than I and was several inches shorter. In spite of his stature, he was a crafty fighter, capable of defending himself against men twice his size. Stout and thinly muscular, he had incredible strength and feared no one.
For once, I was proud of my abnormally large size and his lack thereof. I hefted him and walked toward the bed, his boots scraping the wooden floor as I moved. Gurgling sounds rumbled in his throat.
“A bear?” I asked, looking at her. “Was he attacked by a bear?”
Mother brought a pail of lukewarm water and set it by the bed. She shook her head and tore strips of cloth.
I eased my father onto the bed and laid him back. He gasped and groaned in pain, but his eyes never opened.
“Strip off his coat,” she said. “His boots, too.”
I quickly obeyed.
She peeled back his shirt, revealing long gashes across his chest and abdomen. The lacerations were too narrow to be from bear claws, but the cuts were dark and deep. Older white scars were visible. On his chest above his heart was the singed outline of a cross. Two puncture marks near his shoulder were swollen, bruised. Two dark dots.
“What did this?” I asked, pointing at the wound. My fingers almost touched the marks, and she slapped my hand away.
“No!” she gasped.
“What kind of animal could do this?”
Her dark eyes were hollowed from fear. She was paler than normal and seemed more delicate.
“Mother, please tell me what did this to Father?”
She took a damp cloth and washed blood from his nose and beard. With another cloth, she washed his forehead. Tears heated her eyes. She spat out a word with complete contempt as she whispered, “Vampire.”
My chest tightened. Anger rippled inside me. “A vampire attacked him while he was hunting game?”
“No,” she replied. “He was hunting the vampire.”
“It is his calling, his duty. Magistrates and governors seek him out to kill vampires. They pay in gold and silver coins.”
I stared at my father’s frail body. His chest rose and fell with shallow breaths. “Why has he never told me?”
“To protect you.”
Frowning, I asked, “Why would they wish to harm me? My schoolmates tell tales that are quite scary. I’d never venture into one of their lairs.”
“You’re like your father, but you’re too young. In time you’ll be as fearless as he.”
“Too young for what, Mother?”
“To train to hunt the vampires.”
My eyes widened and fastened upon my father’s incapacitated body. He was barely alive. The possibility that he would die during the night was greater than the chance of him surviving his injuries. I didn’t think I was foolish enough to pursue the fanged demons of the night. Trained or not, hunting vampires was destined to become a short-lived profession.
“His legs are broken,” I said.
She nodded. “I know.”
Tears streamed down my mother’s cheeks. She cried quietly without calling attention to herself. I took a damp cloth and pressed it against one of the lacerations across my father’s stomach. I hoped the pressure might stop the bleeding. Some of the cuts were scabbing, but the two puncture wounds pulsed softly, in rhythm with his faint heartbeat. It was unnerving to witness, as if the injuries were alive, feeding off of his body.
While I held the cloth, her eyes widened. She rushed from the side of the bed and ran to black water pot near the hearth. She was back in seconds.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Momma was too frantic for words. She turned my father’s head to the side, pried open his mouth, and black blood oozed out. She took the damp cloth and inserted it into his mouth with her finger. She swirled her cloth-covered finger around the inside of his mouth like one washed a dish. When she pulled out the cloth, it was saturated with more of the dark blood.
“Is he bleeding that badly?” I asked.
She shook her head. “It’s not his blood.”
“Under the bed,” she said softly. “Get the box.”
I lowered to my knees and peered under the bed. I grabbed the handle and pulled the heavy suitcase box out, scraping the floor loudly.
I lifted the heavy box and set it on the edge of the bed.
“Open it,” she said.
Inside of the box were several sharp wooden stakes, a wooden mallet, a silver cross, glass vials filled with powder, and more glass vials filled with clear liquid. My mother took one vial of the liquid, read the label, and popped the cork. She walked around to the other side of the bed.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“The puncture marks have to be purified and cleansed. Or your father will become a vampire.”
“The bite somehow causes the victim to turn. Don’t ask me how. Your father would know but—” Her voice broke into sobs.
I wanted to tell her that he was going to be okay, but I couldn’t tell a lie that convincingly. His condition was severe. No way to deny it.
Then the revelation gripped me. I suddenly realized his injuries were intentionally far worse than I had imagined. The vampire who had inflicted the damage upon my father intended for him to die so that he, too, would become a vampire.
“What’s in the vial?” I asked.
“That will cure him?”
Mother replied, “If we can fully cleanse the wound, it’s possible that we can save him. But, it’s painful for him to endure. In his weakened condition, the cure might well kill him.”
“And if that should happen?”
“You will have to drive a stake through his heart. I can’t . . . I simply can’t do it.”
Stunned, I looked into her eyes with uncertainty, questioning. She nodded solemnly. I knew the depth of her love for my father prevented her from killing him, even if he were to turn, but I wondered if I was capable. Could I drive a stake through the heart of my father? In the matter of age, I was still a boy, struggling with a problem that only an adult should have to consider. I had to shoulder the responsibility but how?
About the Author:
Leonard D. Hilley II grew up in Fort Payne, AL, where his never-ending curiosity introduced him to the world of biology and books. During his youth he was an avid insect collector and reared butterflies and moths. His love for science eventually merged with his writing. He currently resides in Marietta, Ohio, where he writes science fiction thrillers, epic high fantasy, and YA mysteries.
Education: B.S. Biology; MFA in Creative Writing
Leonard D. Hilley II is the author of Predators of Darkness: Aftermath, Beyond the Darkness, The Game of Pawns, Death's Valley, Shawndirea, and Devils' Den.
Leonard D. Hilley II also writes short stories for YA. Two books were inspired by his love of biology: Rearing Dragons in My Backyard and Fiddling Worms. He also writes a mystery series for YA: Dee's Mystery Solvers.