Starting the Story “In the Action”—Understanding “In Medias Res”

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos

Last week I gave FIVE editor tips to help you guys know if you needed revision. One of the most CONFUSING mistakes (in my POV) is the notion of “Starting with too much action.” I know all of us have heard the “Start in the action” “You have to HOOK” and so we devise car chases, bombs, funerals, etc. in hopes that we will engage a reader.

Before we start, I will add a caveat. Genre might affect the first pages of your novel. In a thriller, mystery, mystery-thriller or suspense, it is common to begin with a body or a terrible act.

In The DaVinci Code, we begin with a horrible murder in an art museum.

BUT, this scene is often NOT a scene with the protagonist. When it comes to the protagonist, we need to begin in what is called in medias res.

The first scene with the protagonist in The DaVinci Code involves the hero at a lecture, which is interrupted by a problem.

Protag’s Goal: Complete lecture, sign some books and maybe have a nice dinner in Paris and go to bed early.

Antag’s Goal: Drop everything and come check out this crime scene. We need your expertise and you don’t have an option of declining.

Note the scene antagonist is not a bad guy but his agenda trumps what the protagonist wants.

The Trouble with In Medias Res

In medias res quite literally means “in the middle of things.” This is a literary tactic that has been used since the days of Odysseus. It is a tactic that forces the writer forward, to begin the story near the heart of the problem.

Ah, but this is where we writers can get in trouble. I see writers beginning their novels with high-action gun battles, blowing up buildings, a heart-wrenching, gut-twisting scene in a hospital or at a funeral, all in an effort to “hook the reader” by “starting in the middle of the action.” Then when they get dinged/rejected by an agent or editor, they are confused.

But I started right in the action! What is more “in the action” than a high-speed chase through Monte Carlo as a bomb ticks down to the final seconds?

Bear with me a few moments, and I will explain why this is melodrama and not in medias res.

Commercial Fiction Ain’t A Tale of Two Cities

For many centuries, there was a literary tendency to begin “in the early years” leading up to the story problem. Authors would wax on rhapsotic about the setting and spend 10,000 words or more “setting up” the story. The reader was privy to “why such and such character” became a whatever. There was a lot of heavy character development and explaining the why of things.

This, of course was fine, because in the 18th century, no writer was competing with television, movies or Facebook.

Thus, if a book was a thousand pages long, it just meant it must have been extra-awesome. Also, authors, back in the day, were often paid by the word, thus there was a lot of incentive to add extra fluff and detail, layer on the subplots and pad the manuscript more than a Freshman term paper. Writing lean hit the author in the piggy bank, so most authors lived by the motto, No adverb left behind.

Then Hemingway came on the scene and…well, let’s get back to my point.

In medias res was not employed by many early novelists. They started the book when the protagonist was in the womb (being facetious here) and their stories often took on epic proportions.

Modern writers can’t do this. Yes there are exceptions to every rule, so save the e-mails. Just trust me when I say that modern readers have been spoiled by Hollywood and iPhones. They are used to instant gratification, and most modern readers will not give us writers 15,000 words to get the the point.

These days, especially when readers are deluged with choices, our sample pages are more vital then ever. We need to get right into the heart of the action from the get-go. But if “the heart of the action” doesn’t involve a gun battle, funeral or cliffhanging scene, what the heck does it look like?

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Example from Life

In medias res is the front gate of Six Flags over Texas.

Do we need to start in the years that Kristen was too young to go to Six Flags? How she would see her teenage cousins leave for a day of roller coasters and cry herself to sleep in her toddler bed for not getting to ride the roller coasters? How she vowed at four that she, too, would one day brave The Shock Wave?

Uh…no.

Do we start the story on the biggest loop of the roller coaster? The screams and terror mixed with glee?

No, that’s too far in. If we start the story on a Big Loop (HUGE ACTION–like car chases, bank heists, etc.) then we risk the rest of the book being anti-climactic. If we blow up a building in scene one, do we later blow up two? Three?

So where do we begin?

We begin at the gates of Six Flags over Texas.

We see young Kristen in the back of the station wagon and as her parents pull into the giant parking lot. We are present when she catches a glimpse of the Shock Wave (story problem) in the distance. Wow, it is bigger than she thought. We walk with Kristen through the line to get into the amusement park, and get a chance to know her and care about her before she makes the decision to ignore the Tea Cups and take on the roller coaster (Rise to Adventure).

Kristen could have totally chickened out and stayed on the baby rides, but that would have been a boring story. Yet, because the Tea Cups are in the context of the larger ride, it means something when she decides she MUST ride the roller coaster.

In medias res means we start as close to the overall story problem as possible.

Beginning With Action

This term “action” is often misunderstood, so I hope I can clear it up. There are two components to fiction, the scene and the sequel. The scene is simple. Our character has a GOAL, then someone stands in the way of that goal (antagonist) and there is a setback (or a victory). Most often there will be setbacks because setbacks ratchet tension. The protagonist needs to be one step forward, ten steps back.

The sequel is the processing of some event/setback that just occurred. This is where our character can do some thinking, emotional processing or even discussing with others.

What new writers often do is they begin the book with the sequel, yet a sequel can only come as a result of a scene.

Scenes are action. The character is wanting, needing, doing something. This is a place where we as readers can empathize with the character and connect with the protagonist and begin to root for him or her.

For instance, Les Edgerton is a pal of mine and his book Hooked is the bible of beginnings. He was kind enough to look at the first chapter of my novel and…he SLAYED ME. But, the cool part about Les is he teaches WHY he kills what he kills.

Now, I thought I got into my “action” quickly. I began with my character, Romi, cooking half to death in a parking lot. She’s dreading the Unemployment Office. She is funny, self-deprecating and we do feel sorry for her.

Les chopped off ALL OF IT.

Though only about three pages, Les told me that I began my story in the wrong spot. He chastised me and told me that, while my writing was hysterical, it had to GO.

My actual story began when Romi pushes through the door to the Unemployment Office and realizes Angry Bird (what she’s named a dreadful bureaucrat who treats her like dirt) is working that day. She wants a job. She wants an ally, someone who will help and not judge her. What she gets is a roadblock.

We feel sympathy for her. Most of us know how badly it sucks to look for a job, and that the Unemployment Office is humbling and even humiliating. This is a small event, but one that pulls the reader to the side of my protagonist. Within five pages, she meets another setback.

She finds out she has been blackballed because she was engaged to a man who pulled an ENRON and stole over a half a billion dollars then vanished (and also wiped out all her bank accounts leaving her so broke she can’t even afford to eat).

She’s given a challenge. “Find your ex. Find the money or you will never work anywhere that doesn’t involve a toilet brush and being paid in cash.”

Thus, I hope you can see how the initial setback isn’t massive. It isn’t a funeral or a car crash. It’s gutting it through the front doors of the Unemployment Office and dealing with someone who is supposed to help, but who is sarcastic, rude and a tad cruel. The scene gives us time to empathize, yet it is interminably linked to the major story problem.

Protagonist’s Goal: Get a job before being evicted.

Antagonist’s Goal: Keep her from finding work to starve her into finding missing money.

When Romi enters the Unempolyment Office, she is hopeful this day will be different. She will find a job. She leaves ten steps back. Not only is she unable to find a job, but she never will and has no clue where the missing money is or even where to begin looking. She’s out of money and is out of options. She has to fall back to the ONE place she vowed she’d never return…home with her crazy trailer trash family who resents her for leaving home to go to college.

Also note, (again) that the antagonist isn’t necessarily evil. His father was one of the investors fleeced out of millions. He believes Romi knows where the money is, and he’s using what sway he has for “justice.” Problem is, Romi really is innocent.

I hope this has helped you guys understand what makes a great hook. Begin with a problem (scene), not THINKING (sequel). The problem doesn’t need to be earth-shattering, and if it is, make sure it’s something you can outdo later. Don’t have the biggest loop of your roller coaster at the front of the ride or everything else will be anticlimactic.

What are your thoughts? Any lightbulbs? Did this technique confuse you guys as much as it did me?

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have TWO classes coming up to help you!

Upcoming Classes

BOTH CLASSES COME WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.

A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.

Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem ;) . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

 

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30 Comments

The Burst of the Social Media Bubble, Rise of the Indie Author & Why Coffee is to Blame

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(Original image courtesy of Matthew Pearce via Flikr Creative Commons.)

Many of you are old enough to remember the dot.com boom (then bust) of the 1990s. The Internet was growing in popularity. More people were owning PCs and commerce was shifting on-line. The Old Guard yelled “WITCHCRAFT!”, threw holy water and shorted out their keyboards. The New Guard dived in with the enthusiasm of a kid at Chuck E. Cheese hopped up on sugar.

Creativity abounded. What products or services could be offered on-line? How could we improve the on-line experience? How could we make purchasing faster, safer, more appealing?

Early Adopters jumped all over this because that’s what Early Adopters do. Hey, someone had to be the first to eat an oyster, right?

The Early Adopter Instigator

Most revolutions begin with other revolutions that set the stage. Case in point. For centuries, water was unsafe—okay deadly—to drink. Most workers actually brought beer to work (or some other fermented drink). Then Western society took a fancy to this new beverage from Asia called TEA and then later COFFEE from South America. When tea and coffee (um CAFFEINE) replaced alcohol as the beverage of choice, workers were more productive.

Image courtesy of Ryu1chia Miwa via Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Ryu1chia Miwa via Flickr Creative Commons

I was skeptical too, so I tested beer then coffee to make sure the empirical data was sound. When I began my workday with beer? Much more napping and looking up exes on-line. A double Starbucks espresso improved word count.

Joking aside, three major developments 1) the invention of the clock/watch 2) the standardization of time and 3) the shift from alcoholic beverages to caffeinated ones laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution.

The eight-hour workday was easier to implement once people understood what the heck “an hour” was. Also, laborers were able to focus better and be far more productive when sober.

Science :D .

Fast-Forward—How Coffee Transformed the Publishing Paradigm

Coffee not only fueled the Industrial Revolution, but apparently staying up all night unable to sleep led to the invention of the “computer,” “the Internet,” and later “iTunes.” The shift from “going to a physical store” commerce to more “e-commerce” set the stage for a number of unanticipated revolutions in the arts. If we think about it, when did the mega-bookstore enjoy its Golden Years?

Hint: Right about the time of the movie You’ve Got Mail, clearly marking the brief historical epoch when we actually enjoyed getting e-mails. 

In the 90s, the retailer was still king (and the Internet a novelty). Thus, the biggest store with the most bells and whistles and coffee shops won. Why? For centuries we’d been conditioned to going to a physical space to shop. Only the Early Adopters were thumping their legs at this notion of buying stuff without having to drive anywhere.

Granted, this was also the time when SUVs the size of a small semi were all the rage and gas was roughly $1.25 a gallon. Most of us were uncomfortable with the hoo-doo-voo-doo of electric lighting automobiles on-line shopping and still preferred to GO somewhere to buy what we wanted/needed.

Yet, despite initial skepticism, the tsunami of technological innovation decimated many types of businesses, some that had been asking to be smacked for a LONG time. Technology gave beating to the Old School phone companies (cell phones) and wiped out record stores (iTunes) and then later obliterated video stores.

Frankly, Blockbuster had it coming with those ridiculous late fees. Every time I see a Red Box I smile and think of the time Blockbuster refused to work with me on $128 in late fees. Apparently spending four days in the hospital was no excuse for not turning my movies in on time.

Jerks.

The Bursting of the Dot.Com Bubble

Of course, the problem was enthusiasm often has this way of trumping business sense. Once the dot.com fire caught light, everyone was a dot.com and many were nothing more than paper dragons with no business plan, no capital and frankly no idea what the heck they were doing.

We enjoyed a boom and then saw a BOOM. Dot.coms that had their act together became the vanguards for a new age of commerce and the digital wheat was separated from the virtual chaff.

In the wake of the Digital Tsunami, many industries crumbled. In my POV, the music industry is the only one that had a valid excuse not to reinvent. But, after Tower Records toppled, Kodak had time to rework their business model and yet didn’t—People will always want film!—which is why we now will talk of Kodak to our kids the way we talk about cassette tapes and Pet Rocks.

Viva la Revolution

We had to have the Alcoholic Beverage vs. Coffee Revolution to gain a viable and productive Industrial Revolution.

****Rumor has it that writers were equally divided Alcohol/Coffee Debate.

Then, we had to have affordable PCs and a viable Internet to have the On-Line Shopping vs. Retail Space Revolution in order to gain digital commerce. Once digital commerce shifted from Early Adopters to the Early then Late Majority, we witnessed yet even more revolutions spark to life, revolutions that had no way of happening until that particular time in history.

All started by coffee. See the cool stuff you learn here?

Many of these upheavals completely altered the business landscape, and the creative industries saw MAJOR shifts. Indie Bands, Indie Movies and yes, Indie Authors.

Word on the street is that Indie Authors are being supported by an underground resistance financed by Starbucks.

The Social Media Bubble

In roughly 2003-2004 I saw what a major game-changer social media would be for authors. Up until that point, only non-fiction authors had any practical way of building a platform before a book was finished. Novelists had to write a lot of books (and make it past NYC gatekeepers) to have a platform because books were the only way of having a platform/brand.

But with social media? Different story.

Of course when I pitched this idea of branding through social media to agents as late as 2008, they laughed in my face and called me a witch.

I just said we needed both good books and social media.

I just said we needed both good books and social media.

Alcohol vs. Coffee —> Industrial Revolution —> Internet —> Commerce Revolution/ Dot. Com Boom —> Tower Records Collapses —> Kodak Collapses —> iPad and Nook released —> Amazon gains publishing influence —> Early Adopters defect to go Indie —> Social Media Boom —> Indie Authors start seeing success —> Borders closes and Barnes & Noble starts bleeding out—> Big Six becomes Nifty Five —> Author Boom

Three components were critical to the success of the Indie Publishing Revolution:

1) Creation of the Product

Ten years ago, this was a pipe dream. Five years ago, self-published books looked self-published. They were also far more expensive and complicated to produce. Technology and the market has transformed this. Authors can now create a book that looks as good as anything purchased from the last remaining B&N in your city (without going broke).

2) Distribution

So long as major retailers had the upper hand, authors were limited in sales. As e-readers shifted from the Early Adopters to the Early and Late Majority (my GRANDFATHER having a Kindle), retailers lost their monopoly.

3) Visibility

Social media helped authors build a brand and platform that could drive book sales even as traditional retailers began to vanish. Social media BOOMED.

For those who want a paper copy to hold...

For those who want a paper copy to hold…

Social media experts came out of the woodwork to assist writers. It seemed that just about the time a social media site was AWESOME, it collapsed, so we did need guides to help.

Has the Social Media Bubble Burst? What Does This Mean for Authors?

My opinion is we’re seeing a bubble burst that looks a lot like what happened to the dot.coms. Social media has reached an asymptote (not many “drastically new” features to add). Unless Facebook does something EPICALLY STUPID, it will probably remain. Same with Twitter. Fad frenzy has normalized and this new way of interacting has integrated into our culture.

Yes, new sites will emerge, but the rules of the game will stay the same. Since it is social media, those who are authentic, offer value, and are good at creating community will do well. Algorithmic alchemy doesn’t work as well as it used to and never worked long-term.

The handful of writers who adopted social media early did reap rewards. Why? Most other authors didn’t want to go there. This limited competition and gave the Early Adopter Authors an advantage. Most people were on Facebook, yet many authors were NOT.

Then, authors saw the success of the Early Adopter Authors and many a social media guru promised get-rich-quick programs….thus flooding every social site with book spam and bad 20th century marketing retreads. Experts terrified and bedazzled authors with tech-speak and marketing plans.

Yet, in the end, technology is the means not the ends, and society has fundamentally shifted yet again. As I’ve said before, “If we wanted to buy more stuff, we’d be on the Home Shopping Network, not the social network.”

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Social media has become such a staple in modern culture we’re finally establishing concrete etiquette for using it. Kinda like, the “Don’t call people before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m.” probably didn’t come about the instant the telephone was invented.

Yes, there were “rules” we knew intuitively, but it took a couple years of poor behavior for us to say, “ENOUGH. I’ve had four direct messages from you on Twitter thanking me for the follow and asking for me to buy a book….UNFOLLOW.”

Pop! Goes the Bubble

Is social media essential for author success? Of course it is. Just because a gazillion dot.coms went under doesn’t mean on-line shopping isn’t bigger than ever. As with any revolution, it takes a lot of people jumping in with new ideas to sort the stinkers from the stickers. Buying books on-line? YAY! Grocery shopping on-line? Eh.

We still want to squeeze the Charmin tomatoes.

What I love about the new paradigm is it will test our motivations. Those writing for the wrong reasons (getting RICH) will probably burn out and grumble away. But those of us writing because we LOVE writing will keep pressing, keep working, keep connecting, and trying new things. We will be the new generation of authors no matter the path we choose—traditional or non-traditional.

Social media training will be less about technology and more how to become expert connectors and community-builders, which is what my latest book Rise of the Machines-Human Authors in a Digital World teaches how to do. So long as people buy on-line, social media (and doing it WELL) will remain a key component to success.

But creating relationships has always been a solid business practice. Maybe buy them a coffee ;) .

I love hearing from you!

What are your thoughts? Did you underestimate the power of coffee to change the world? Do you think social media has normalized like on-line commerce? Do you think regular people are becoming more aware of an existing etiquette? Are you less permissive of “rude” behavior you might have forgiven three years ago?

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Upcoming Classes

BOTH CLASSES COME WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.

A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.

Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem ;) . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

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60 Comments

Five Warning Signs Your Story Needs Revision

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Original image via Jenny Downing Flikr Creative Commons

We can have the best story ideas in the world, but to be blunt? There’s a lot to be said for delivery. While these problems might seem picky, there are some fundamental errors that can weaken the writing. If our writing loses power, this can become distressing or distracting to readers.

Many readers (not being editors or professional writers) might not be able to articulate specifically why they lost interest in a story, but often the answer is simple. It can be an accumulation of the small things. The little foxes spoil the vine.

Most of us make one or more of these errors, especially when we’re new. Hey, that’s called “being NEW.” No one is born with the natural ability to write brilliant, perfect novels coded into their DNA. It takes time and practice, so give yourself permission to make mistakes…then learn, suck it up and back to work.

It writes the words or it gets the hose *pets fluffy white dog*

To maybe make you guys feel better, I’ve written well over a million words in blogs and articles alone. I’ve also written three books, two novels and scads of short stories. As much as I have written—and EDITED—even I have to seek outside editors to look for these issues.

We ALL make these oopses. But, hopefully, this blog will give you a nice little checklist so you can clean up your own work as much as possible before handing it to a pro.

Not only will cleaning up these oopses make the editing process faster—because your editor can actually get to the MEAT of your work instead of being distracted by small errors—but the bill should be smaller because your editor can work faster because there are fewer problems to correct. Also, if you’re sending sample pages to an agent and he/she sees too many of these newbie blunders?

NEXT!

Oh, and a biggie? In The Digital Age, sample pages are the most POWERFUL tool we have for making a sale. Our first five pages can be the most important in the entire book ;) .

Today I’m again donning my editor’s hat to give you a peek into what red flags editors, agents (and even readers) see in those first five pages.

Red Flag #1

If Your Novel has More Characters than the Star Wars Prequels, You Might Need Revision

Don’t even get me started about Jar Jar Binks.

Whenever the author takes the time to name a character, that is a subtle clue to the reader that this is a major character and we need to pay attention. Think Hollywood and movies (good ones, NOT the SW prequels). If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part.

I did not know this, years ago, and I felt the need to name the pizza guy, the florist, the baker and the candlestick maker. Do NOT do this. When we name characters, it is telling our readers to care. Sort of like animals.

Only name them if you plan on getting us attached.

We do not have to know intimate life details about the waitress, the taxi driver or even the funeral director. Unless the character serves a role—protagonist, antagonist, allies, mentor, love interest, minions, etc.—you really don’t need to give them a name. They are props, not people.

And maybe your book has a large cast; that is okay. Just don’t feel the need to introduce them all at once. If I have to keep up with 10 names on the first page, it’s confusing, ergo annoying. Readers (and agents) will feel the same way.

Red Flag #2

If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision

Oh, there is no newbie blunder I didn’t make.

Lola leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Fabio. She needed her twist-ties and lucky purple rabbit’s foot if she ever was going to defuse the bomb in time. Sweat ran into her eyes as she reached out for Malfio’s hand. They only had minutes before Juliette would be back and then it would all be over for Katy, Skipper and Mitzi.

Okay, I just smashed two into one. Your first question might be, Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?

We don’t care. We (the readers) aren’t the writer who knows these characters and is vested. On this blog, we’ve discussed before how Normal World plays a vital role in narrative structure. As an editor, if I see the main character sobbing at a funeral or a hospital or hanging over a shark tank by page three, that is a big red flag the writer doesn’t understand narrative structure (or might be trying to “reinvent it”).

Thing is, three-act structure has worked since Aristotle came up with it. There are better uses of time than us trying to totally remake dramatic structure.

It’s like the wheel. Round. It rolls. The wheel works. Don’t mess with the wheel. Don’t mess with narrative structure.

Some other picky no-nos… .

Red Flag #3

Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts? Time for Revision

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow…the carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

Red Flag #4

Too much Physiology? Time for Revision

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more. Get a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus.

Red Flag #5

Too Many Evil Adverbs? REVISE!

Most of the time, adverbs are a no-no. Find a stronger verb instead of dressing up a weaker choice.

She stood quickly from her chair.

She bolted from her chair.

Also be careful of redundant adverbs.

She whispered quietly…

Um, duh. The verb whisper already tells me the volume level.

She can, however, whisper conspiratorially. Why? Because the adverb isn’t denoting something inherent in the verb. To whisper, by definition is to be quiet BUT not necessarily to conspire. The adverb conspiratorially indicates a certain quality to the whisper.

Avoiding these pitfalls will make for far smoother, cleaner writing and help you more easily spot what and where revision is needed.

Some books to help you clean up your prose and become a master at your craft? Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is a MUST HAVE in your library. I LOVE ANYTHING written by James Scott Bell, but my favorite is probably Plot & Structure. Hooked by Les Edgerton. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Buy these and study them.

You will thank me later.

(And, of course, for social media/branding help, there is my book *bats eyelashes* Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World).

What are some troubles you guys have? Maybe some questions you want me to address? Throw them up here. Takes a load off my brain so I don’t have to think this stuff up all by myself. Any tips, suggestions, books you recommend we read? Did this blog help you? Confuse you?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Upcoming Classes

BOTH CLASSES COME WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.

A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.

Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem ;) . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

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Social Media, Book Signings & Why Neither Directly Impact Overall Sales

Original image via Rosaura Ochoa via Flikr Creative Commons

Original image via Rosaura Ochoa via Flikr Creative Commons

One of my AWESOME on-line pals posted something troublesome on my Facebook page. Apparently there is a recent article in a major writing magazine that declares social media does not sell books and, in a nutshell, isn’t worth the effort. I’ll warn you guys ahead of time that I went hunting for the article—at the last remaining Barnes & Noble within a 25 mile radius of my home—and couldn’t find said article (and have asked Kim to get me the specific issue). But, since this type of commentary is prevalent enough in the blogosphere, I feel I can address the overall thesis accurately enough.

Social Media Was NEVER About Selling Books Directly—Who KNEW?

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

I’ve been saying this for about ten years, because the idea of using social circles for sales is NOT new. About ten years ago, I recognized that social media would soon be a vital tool for writers to be able to create a brand and a platform before the book was even finished. This would shift the power away from sole control of Big Publishing and give writers more freedom. But, I knew social media could not be used for direct sales successfully.

How?

When I was in college, every multi-level-marketing company in the known world tried to recruit me. I delivered papers and worked nights most of my college career. Needless to say, I was always on the lookout for a more flexible job that didn’t require lugging fifty pounds of paper up and down three flights of apartment stairs at four in the morning.

I’d answer Want Ads in the paper thinking I was being interviewed for a good-paying job where I could make my own hours. Inevitably it would be some MLM company selling water filters, diet pills, vitamins, prepaid legal services, or soap.

And if I sat through the presentation, they fed me. This meant I sat through most of them.

What always creeped me out was how these types of companies did business. First, “target” family and friends to buy said product (and hopefully either sign them up to sell with you or at least “spread the word” and give business referrals). Hmmmm. Sound familiar?

The business model wasn’t really about meeting people, connecting and actually liking them just because they were good people. There was an endgame…SELL STUFF (or manipulate others into helping you sell stuff).

Ick.

Hey, you go to the gym anyway. Strike up a conversation. Say nice things, then give the sucker friend target a FREE SAMPLE. People who work out need vitamins. That isn’t ookey AT ALL!

The Battle of the Experts

I recall being part of a panel in NYC three years ago and the other experts were all excited about applications that could tweet for authors “saving time” or even certain tools that could measure what days and times Twitter was most active and when people would be most likely to see our tweets. All I could think was:

1) Are these people tweeting or ovulating?

2) If everyone uses this same tool, then all they will do is crowd the feed and no one will see anything. Left long enough, these “Golden Hours” will shift so people can avoid the barrage of ME, ME, ME! MY BOOK!

The panel’s moderator (ironically) worked for the CIA and was tickled silly that there were all kinds of algorithms that could “predict human behaviors.” Of course, I made myself WAY popular when I said, “The only way to accurately predict human behavior is if we all have a chip in our heads and someone else has a joystick.”

Yes, I can be blunt. My mom is from New York. I blame it on her.

My assertion was that, if this was true, and we could accurately predict human behavior, then we wouldn’t be worrying about crime, war or terrorism and that these algorithms were a mirage that gave a false sense of us “being in control” of the uncontrollable.

Also, how would she still have a job at the CIA?

Oooh, But We Can MEASURE…um, NO

In the 90s and early 21st century most people weren’t on-line. Computers were still cost-prohibitive and Internet service was mind-bendingly slow (dial-up?) and expensive. Social media was in its infancy and only early adopters trusted buying on-line.

Companies could launch ads and measure click-throughs. How long did a visitor stay on a web site’s page? Did the visitor click the ad on the page? Did that ad then translate into a sale? Companies still do this. I’m pretty sure authors can do this, but why would we want to?

Could feel like THIS? Original image via Dan Derritt Flikr Creative Commons

Could feel like THIS?
Original image via Dan Derritt Flikr Creative Commons

Unlike Sephora, Gap or Walmart, most of us are a one-person operation. We don’t have a team of interns to do this stuff. We also don’t have a multi-million dollar corporate budget.

What IF an ad doesn’t work? How many of us have time and extra money to launch a new ad?

Also, there are SO many variables beyond our control. I’ve seen this with blogging. A holiday, time of year (kids getting out of school), a major world news event (Osama bin-Laden captured) can all affect traffic and click-throughs. To try and study our stats and juke them for advantage is a lot of time better used elsewhere (like writing more books).

Might I suggest one of these...

Might I suggest one of these…

Relationships are Key

Social media is social, meaning it’s about relationships. This means, 1) it will take time to build and 2) it cannot be outsourced 3) it cannot be automated.

Can you imagine trying to maintain relationships this way in the real world? Give your husband a call-in number:

For the location of clean socks, press 1. For a word of encouragement, press 2. For the item I need you to pick up from the store, press 3. For the real reason I haven’t talked to you since yesterday, please stay on the line and an operator will be with you shortly.

Your estimated call wait time is three days.

HINT: Anniversary.

Social media and author brands will sell books, just not directly and not in ways that can be measured looking at clicks and stats. Social media is essentially word-of-mouth which has been selling stuff books for centuries and no one can measure it. 

The Bottom Line

Since I don’t have the article (sorry), I am limited here. But I imagine that, aside from telling writers social media was a waste of time that doesn’t sell books, I assume there was no panacea offered to replace social media. If social media doesn’t sell books, then what does? Ads don’t. Never have. Promotions are time-consuming, expensive and have a dismal ROI (Return on Investment).

Also, if social media is so grossly ineffective, what explanation do we have for the MASSIVE power shift from BIG NYC publishing to indie and self-published authors now 1) making a reasonable second income 2) making a decent enough living to finally write full-time 3) nontraditional authors taking up an increasing portion of major bestseller lists like the New York Times and USA Today and 4) the major inflation of fiction writers now making six and seven figures?

All the ones I know of (and there are MANY) use social media to some extent. All of these authors would never have gained visibility, traction or sales without social media.How can we explain these trends without including social media as a variable?

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 1.17.53 PM

Notice I said social media as a variable. There is NO magic formula. Hard work, more books, good books and generating word of mouth (in part with a brand and on-line platform) is fundamental. Social media has been mistakenly touted as a formula to wealth and riches, but it isn’t. Neither is buying real estate using a proven program from an infomercial.

The Future

Bookstores are closing. Barnes & Noble is evaporating. Indie stores will have a resurgence, but they have limited space (and need to unless they want to go bankrupt like the megastores that tried to KILL them). THIS is the future of book sales. I saw this in the cosmetics section of my grocery store a few months ago. Insert a debit card and get a sample before you buy…

Why buy a WHOLE tube of lipstick when you can get a sample. LOSS prevention?

Why buy a WHOLE tube of lipstick when you can get a sample. Also, um LOSS prevention?

Oh, and these are popping up…

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 11.23.38 AM

Check your bank balance then BUY A BOOK!

For those who want a paper copy to hold...

For those who want a paper copy to hold…and get NACHOS!

These kiosks sound familiar. Reminds me of one of my posts from over two years ago. I wrote a lot of other blogs that said basically the same stuff, posts that are even older. But I’ve written over 800 blogs and I’m lazy and have to get back to writing books. And I am not alone in seeing this trend. I’m no great genius. Other people saw this coming.

Um, clearly since I can’t claim I invented any of these machines. Ok, I could, but I try to restrict lying to my fiction.

But, if THESE kiosks are down the pipeline, how can we reasonably come to the conclusion that social media is a total waste of time? Relying totally on social media is a waste of time, but I’ve been saying that for years. As authors, we are wise to think in terms of our careers. Think like a business, as in short-term and long-term. Platforms and careers need a wide base, deep roots, a community of support, time and a heck of a lot of sweat equity.

Also, there are effective ways to do social media and ways that make others want to stab us in the face (which was why I wrote Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World).WANA ways WORK but they take time. ROM has a step-by-step plan. Heck, don’t buy my book. Browse my blogs for free. I just care about your success.

The Future IS Bright for Writers

The future for authors is wonderful, but there is no Social Media Shake Weight. Sorry. I was bummed, too. But here’s the thing. The same articles that will discourage writers from social media because it doesn’t sell books aren’t also demanding we halt all book signings. Book signings are fun, they are social, and they’ve historically been a way to connect authors to an audience in a personal way.

Until social media they were the only way. 

But book signings were NEVER meant as a sole means to sell books. In fact, it was really never even the purpose of a signing. Rather it was connection with the author as a person.

Craftfest

Even if a writer has a line out the door, the most even a mega-author might sell is a thousand books. Let’s be generous. FIVE thousand books. A drop in the bucket if you’re Dan Brown. Is selling 5,000 books relevant when an author sells millions? When an author has to board a plane, stay in a hotel, sit in one spot signing for hours or even come up with a speech? And travel city to city to city for a month or more instead of writing?

Food for thought ;) .

We live in a wonderful time to be a writer. Yes, it’s work, but there are a lot of reasons why this job isn’t for everyone. Success in anything is about staying power, passion, and effective action (solid social media, building relationships, and writing MORE books and GOOD books).

What are your thoughts? Are too many authors banking too much on social media? Do you feel social media has been sold to writers as a get-rich-quick-scheme? Do you see other authors approaching social media in a way you know is going to burn them out? Do you know of any nontraditional authors who sold zillions of books yet didn’t use social media at all? What did they do?

…ALIENS.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

 

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136 Comments

What Makes a Media Release Effective

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mark Roy.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mark Roy.

My goal for the past several years has been to guide authors in The Digital Age and teach how to create a strong author brand capable of driving book sales. Social media is important, but we all know it’s also cluttered with competition because there are few if any gatekeepers.

There are no threshold guardians approving who can and cannot have a Facebook page or even a blog. Granted, a social media platform is powerful, but a key component is time. On-line platforms rarely yield instant results and time is what will eventually give us advantage.

Traditional media outlets are a different story. Many people still watch the news, read the paper, listen to radio and pick up magazines. These forms of media are a highly valuable asset to any platform because the audience knows that not just anybody can gain access. Results can come faster and be far more wide-spread. Yet, how do we get our foot in the door?

W.A.N.A. International is committed to helping writers in every aspect of their careers and we hire those who are proven experts in their fields. Today, W.A.N.A. International Instructor Lisa Hall-Wilson is here to offer a few tips on how to earn media attention for you or your book.

Take it away, Lisa!

***

What makes a media release effective? It gets you the attention you’re looking for. A great media release puts cheeks in the seats, gets coverage, gets the interview. It’s that simple.

I’ve been a professional freelance writer for almost five years. In that time, I’ve worked from some stellar and deplorable media releases. I’ve written media releases picked up by local print and radio media, and large national and daily media. A certain aspect of getting your story picked up is simple timing – what else is going on?

But there are ways to tip the scales in your favor! In my class on Thursday I’ll be giving the inside scoop on how to write an effective media release (including a proven template) but here are 3 quick tips to get you started!

What’s The Story?

When planning your media release, remember editors and radio hosts want to report on the news. Show me the money, baby! Give them something they can report on. They want news. Your feel good, I’m-so-proud-of-myself media release is not going to get you the desired attention. What about your book, your upcoming appearance, is news worthy? Why should that editor’s readers care?

Be honest with yourself!

The Greatest Story Ever Told Is Released <- not news

Local Author Releases Debut Novel <- this is news on a slow day

Local Author Wins National Writing Prize <- this is news on most days

Think Like A Journalist

Reporters, editors, and radio hosts are busy people who work in a fast-paced world. If your media release doesn’t clearly answer the who, what, when, where, why of the story in less than a page you’re probably out of luck unless you’re a big name.

Ask yourself this question: If I had to write an article promoting this event, what would I need to know to write the story?

The Power of Free

Many many times, I’ve had editors simply run my media release. They might shorten it, add a photo, rearrange a couple paragraphs – but they run it verbatim. Do I get credit? No. Do I care? No. These editors have space to fill. They’re looking for well-written clean copy their readers are interested in. You fill those needs, offer that content for FREE and your chances of being picked up increase exponentially.

How To Write An Effective Media Release – Thursday April 10th – 7PM NY Time

Whether you’re looking to expand the services you offer as a freelance writer, or you’re looking to get the attention of an editor, journalist, radio host, or book blogger about your book release, writing effective media releases is essential. Learn what gets a journalist’s or editor’s attention, what information to include, who to send it to, how to format your media release, and how to tip the scales in your favor to get the coverage you’re looking for.

And do it all the WANA way!

This class is recorded for later listening pleasure. Attendees will also receive a proven media release template.

Lisa Hall-Wilson

Lisa Hall-Wilson

 Lisa Hall-Wilson is an award-winning freelance journalist with over 100 published articles, is a syndicated columnist, author and blogger. She’s worked from stellar and deplorable media releases, and knows what a reporter is looking for. She’s had media releases picked up by local and national print and radio media, and written media releases, media kits, and provided publicity support to dozens of local and national events for small businesses and non-profits such as World Vision Canada.

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17 Comments

The Future of Fiction–From Tiny to Titanic, How to Claim Your Niche

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 11.27.33 AM

Last post, I talked about the increasing popularity of series, novellas, shorts and “episodic” writing. Of course, this assertion probably stirred panic in those writers who simply aren’t wired to write series. Personally, I would like to try writing a series, but we’ll see. I might be a stand-alone gal, too.

Let me offer a bit of comfort. The rule that we shouldn’t write to the market still holds true in this case. Just like we shouldn’t decide to write a Vampire-Post-Apacolyptic-Self-Help because those are hot, we shouldn’t take on shorts or series if they aren’t our thing.

Epics, Shorts, and Series are NOT New

What many people might miss is that epics and shorts are not new. With the advent of the nifty thingamajig—the “printing press”—pamphlets were all the rage back in the 1800s. In fact, if we look at early writing, we see two very divergent sizes. On the end of brevity? Ben Franklin Poor Man’s Almanac or even Sir Author Conan Doyle’s short stories. The deep end? The breathtakingly-long-and-detailed-OMG War and Peace by Tolstoy—which demonstrates clearly that, when an author is paid by the word, he will pad that sucker more than a freshman term paper.

Even Charles Dickens danced both sides of the length-spectrum. A Christmas Carol versus A Tale of Two Cities.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

In the early 20th century, pulp fiction was extremely popular. People loved short works that fit in a pocket, ergo, the term “pocket books.” But, as the traditional publishing model evolved and books became bigger business, publishers realized they could charge more money for a longer book. This didn’t mean the audience for short stories and novellas suddenly went away. It had more to do with a business model than reader preferences.

We see the same with epic high fantasy and science fiction. When I was a kid, books big enough to brain a burglar were hot. Um, Clan of the Cave Bear? Ah, but the publishers realized that long books presented a couple of problems.

First, if the word count got too big, the font was so small readers needed a microscope to read it. Secondly, a big fat honkin’ book took up a LOT of shelf space. Why would a publisher bank on FIVE 140,000 word books when they could encourage writers to limit word count and be able to shelve and sell TEN 70,000 word books?

But again, shelf space, cost of paper/shipping/shelving, profit-models didn’t mean that readers who loved 140,000 book died off or evaporated.

The Digital Paradigm Revival

When I began as a writer, agents were quick to turn down short stories, novellas, epics, poetry, etc. It wasn’t because there weren’t readers for these types of writing; it was that the profit simply wasn’t there in a paper-based-brick-and-mortar model. And, to be blunt, I can’t blame New York. I remember being a young whipper snapper inhaling Tolkien, but my eyes were better.

By the time I reached my adult years, reading 1200 pages with 9 font was far too grueling.

Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of Christian Guthier

Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of Christian Guthier

The e-reader has solved this problem. It’s made short works profitable. For those who are great at writing shorter works or serialized works, you can now access the audience that loves them and in a way that doesn’t automatically land you in the red.

For those who are strong at more epic fiction, now you can either publish one long book or break it into installments. I know I never would have been able to read Game of Thrones in paper without going BLIND. With my Kindle? I can now enjoy those super long adventures I adored in my youth.

Yes, there is a lot of chaos, confusion and growing pains as the publishing world shifts and grows and molts the old skin that no longer fits. In the midst of this, however, there is now room for more writers, more works, and more types of work, which should be very encouraging.

Also, writers can now enjoy far greater flexibility. Sure, if you want to publish traditionally, you can! But if you have the right contract, there is nothing stopping you from writing shorts or novellas or series or testing other genres in between books if you want to. Keep the fan fires burning in between.

There is ALWAYS an Audience

If you want to write stand-alones only? Great. Do it. That is your strength. Don’t feel that because series are hot you need to suddenly retool everything. There is just as much of an audience for the stand-alone as there is for the shorter or way longer stuff. The only difference is that publishing has been feeding your audience for the past couple decades, whereas those who liked super-short or uber-long had to read older books or look to magazines or e-zines.

If you DO, however, want to write a series, there are some fundamentals to ensure that your plot skeleton is strong and compelling. Plot is the delivery mechanism for character. Our characters can only be as strong as the problems they face.

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 11.26.10 AM

Last post I talked about loving Battlestar Galactica. I can SEE why this series is so iconic. Hubby and I went back and watched Caprica because we were interested in what happened before the Cylon revolt. How did the Cylons come to be? The first few episodes? LOVED them. Now? I can see why the series wasn’t renewed. The overall plot problem is too small and too weak. There is no impending threat, so the series, for me, is fizzling.

Also, without a BIG and COMPELLING story problem, the individual characters aren’t as strong. The pressure is weak, thus the characters are too. Instead of truly heroic feats, I am seeing more and more melodrama and getting to where I hate almost everyone. Why? Because in Battlestar Galactica characters did awful, bad and stupid things, but we could forgive them. They were running for their lives and staring into the face of extinction. The story PROBLEM permitted us to give them grace.

In Caprica there is no large problem so this makes the characters petty and unlikable. Also, in Battlestar Galactica we knew the log-line. The human race must destroy or evade the Cylons and find Earth before they are rendered extinct by their own creation.

The audience in ONE SENTENCE knows the story, whether it is three episodes or thirty. GOAL: Find Earth. Every setback that keeps Earth out of reach or dashes hope of even finding Earth or any hint Earth might not exist makes us nervous. It is true dramatic tension.

Caprica? Once I got an idea of how the Cylons came to be? I grew bored. There is NO imminent threat, no crucible, no idea of an overall problem in need of solving. Each episode is just “stuff happening.” It is breaking one of the core rules of a good series. Every episode should be able to stand alone. Every episode should have a clear smaller goal that is a step toward reaching the larger goal.

Original image courtesy of flowcomm, via Flickr Commons

Original image courtesy of flowcomm, via Flickr Commons

And, to be blunt, Caprica might simply be facing the problem most prequels have. We already know the end. We already know the Cylons will rebel and wage war and nearly wipe out humans. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy I watched Caprica because now I understand the Cylons more and the humans sorta deserved what they got. But, it is tough to have a ticking clock and a disaster to be averted when the audience already knows the humans will “lose.”

Whether we write short works, long works, in-between works, serialized or unserialized, the same “rules” apply. We’ll talk more later about how to write a strong series, but a great start no matter what kind of story—short, long, in-between, connected, unconnected—is to create a clear, compelling, story-worthy problem.

What are your thoughts? Do you have series that fizzled for you for the same reasons? There wasn’t a strong problem or a clear problem? Can you think of stories you loved versus ones that lost your interest because it devolved into confusion or melodrama? Are you contemplating a series? Why?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

For a LONG-TERM plan for a fit, healthy platform, please check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World.

 

 

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66 Comments

Why Series are Becoming Hot, Hot, HOT! How Dragging Out the Pain is Good for Your Readers

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica

Every setback is an opportunity for an even greater comeback. I love these words. No idea who said it, but it rocks. Life has a way of being awesome, amazing, fantastic…and a ROYAL @$$whipping, too. Not only is this quote great to hold close to our chests when life has us on the spin-cycle, this is a FABULOUS mantra for writing memorable, epic stories.

Hubby and I just finished a marathon session of gorging ourselves on Battlestar Galactica and are now careening through Caprica because it is backstory for BSG. I refuse to watch any show that doesn’t have at least four seasons complete, namely because, if I like a new show? Apparently it spells its DEATH for the new showThus, I don’t like getting too attached. I wait, then inhale an entire season a day.

Don’t judge. I know you do it too O_o.

I feel that series, complex series, are actually the way of the future (and have felt this way since roughly 2004). There’s a fantastic book that explains why, called Everything That’s Bad for You is Good (and I strongly recommend it). In a nutshell, popular opinion seems to be that, as a society, we are getting DUMBER, spiraling toward an Idiocracy.

In the face of Honey Boo-Boo and The Bachelor, it’s tough to argue. But those shows are mindless brain junk food, and thus we’re comparing apples to oranges when we place them next to Breaking Bad or Walking Dead. Those other shows aren’t storytelling. Don’t tell The Real Harpies Housewives of the OC.

*shivers*

*shivers*

From Big Screen to Small Screen

When I was a kid, all the best actors (acting) were on the big screen. To see an actor go from movies to television was a clear sign they needed to stop doing drugs fire their agent their career was likely over. Television equaled death. Now? We see the opposite. I’ve all but given up on most movies. They bore me into a coma. Most are abysmally predictable or just showing off CGI skills instead of telling a great story. My opinion? Television is now where we are seeing the most successful stories and the most talent (been that way for a while).

Why is That?

Audiences, despite what people might want to believe, have become far more sophisticated. If we had a time-machine and could transport an avid TV fan of Gilligan’s Island to 2014 and sit him in front of Game of Thrones? His head would explode.

Boom.

Ugly.

Anyone got a squeegee?

Modern audiences love a complex plot, numerous story lines, and obscure references. We want a large cast to fall in love with or hate. 

We watch certain movies/shows over and over because there are jokes, innuendo or backstory we missed. Seinfeld is a great example. Every episode had its own plot and humor, but if one hadn’t watched the other shows there were a lot of jokes one simply would NOT get.

Shows like Seinfeld were revolutionary this way. It had never been done before. I Love Lucy was all contained to each episode. Every episode stood alone.

The greatest comedic writing out there is great primarily because of the obscure wink-wink-nod-nods to other iconic movies. For instance, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Scary Movie 5. But if you aren’t a horror fan, it won’t be nearly as funny. Same with Tropic Thunder. One has to have seen Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Tears of the Sun etc. in order to understand the movie and “get” the jokes.

The Simpsons, South Park and Pixar employ a similar tactic by threading pop culture references into the stories.

Finding Nemo has to be one of my all-time favorite movies. Now, The Spawn has loved this movie since he was two. There is a level of humor that renders a toddler a quivering puddle of giggles. But, at a higher level what adult hasn’t lost it in the Shark AA Fishaholics meeting scenes? A toddler has no concept of a Twelve-Step Program, and yet as adults? WE GET the reference and so it launches the humor over the top.

These factors are why many of these movies (or series) are worth buying. We see something new every time we watch. We peel back a new layer, spot a new subplot, finally “get” that double entendre. We can rematch Battlestar Galactica with a fresh set of eyes and see new territory. 

Modern audiences are growing increasingly sophisticated and they long for the mental challenge of keeping up. One can watch BSG and have to recall some detail from ten episodes earlier. We LOVE the mental challenge and this is why the big screen won’t last for the adult audience. The main factor working against movies is TIME.

Most people are pushing it to sit through a three hour movie. A screenwriter, director can only do so much plot or character development in three hours or less. Compare this to a TV series with a hundred hours. We have the time to get to know more characters, more backstory, more subplots and our brains crave the challenge.

What does Twitter and Game of Thrones have in common?

There are 140 characters and everyone is pissed off :D . *bada bump snare*

Ah the Setback

I began this post with a killer quote and I want to use it to show why series are becoming hot, hot, HOT. With a series there is, bluntly, more time and more opportunities to 1) generate love and affection for a wide cast of characters and then 2) torture them then 3) wait for the comeback. Some of the finest series out there will wind your nerves so tightly you feel like you need a drink and a Xanax to get to sleep.

WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN? :O

Is Starbuck alive? Dead? Is she real? A Cylon? Ok, I can sleep WHEN I’M DEAD *clicks for “Next Episode”*

The same urges that drive viewers to lose an entire weekend or night of sleep dying to find out what happens on a show (or video game *cough* Gears of War) is the same phenomena that is driving series and novellas to greater popularity.

For Those Who Want to Write Stand-Alones

If series aren’t your thing. Don’t fret, but remember that every setback is an opportunity for an even greater comeback. The greater the setback the better the comeback. Fiction is the opposite of functional sanityNormal human beings seek to maintain peace and healthy relationships. Your job as good great superlative writers is to maim, torture, crush and kill. Find that shiny thing. Get the protagonist sooooooooo close they almost…have….can…touch…..the edges……..

….and then SMASH IT. SMASH IT, KILL IT….BUUUUURRRRRNNNN IT!

Original image via Flikr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

Original image via Flikr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

Your readers will hate you, but it’s good for them. Do NOT protect your characters. Screw up their lives more than a meth-addicted multi-personality mother-in-law. Your characters NEED a crucible. No one wakes up and thinks, “Gee, maybe I have a pride problem. I should totally work on that.” NO! Instead of that promotion they know is in the bag, they get FIRED. Worse, they get blackballed. Worse, they have to apply for food stamps.

Worse, the person at the food stamp office is the very person they were horrifically RUDE to and now they need this person’s mercy. Do they get it? NO! ARE YOU HIGH? STOP BEING A SOFTIE. Do you want to be a WRITER? Then lose that soul and sense of decency (for a bit).

Take the food stamps away! Get them a job at McDonalds and they get fired from THAT TOO. IN THE RAIN!

Run over that character with an emotional panel van, then back over them, then run over them and repeat until they are a pile of GOO.

Gee, I wonder why people feel nervous around writers? :D

Ah, but once that character has withstood the tests…you as Author God then can give them a new shiny and a better shiny. Show them they shiny they wanted in the beginning was Fool’s Gold and let them earn the real deal.

And your readers will then forgive you for the torture.

Series are simply becoming more popular because there is an increased demand for entertainment and people are spoiled with a lot of variety. We are also masochists. Fiction shows us our ugliness, but unlike life? There is a resolution. And, that, my friends, is why we all love a great story.

What are your thoughts? Are you too easy on your characters? Do you have a tough time taking away the shiny? What TV series do you love and why? Are you losing interest in the big screen, too? What are some of your favorite characters from a series and that you might never have known intimately if it were a movie (um, SPIKE)? Do you agree/disagree that publishing is now favoring the series? Are you a series-gorger, too? Do you kill new shows if you like them?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

For a LONG-TERM plan for a fit, healthy platform, please check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World.

Winner for March’s  Contest–Aaron Davis. Please send your 5000 word Word document to kristen at wan a intl dot com or a 1250 word synopsis or 250 word query.

 

 

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