Posts Tagged critique

Professional Authors Need H.E.A.R.T.—What It Takes to Make It In The Digital Age of Publishing

Image with Twig the Fairy

Image with Twig the Fairy

Sorry I’ve been lax about posting. The Attack of The Peanut cascaded into a splendid ER visit and a bad case of Shingles. Nothing to make a gal feel young like a case of Shingles. I now need denture paste and glitter. I am sure there is some mayhem I can create with that ;) . Oh, and I want an obnoxious pink cane with a tennis ball on the end so I can sit in my driveway and yell at people that they’re driving too fast.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah, was going to chat some about writing (in this weird gap I get between waking up and pain meds kicking in). No precise time when THAT happens so should be FUN. Being laid up in bed doped on pain meds gives you LOTS of blog ideas…and seriously weird dreams. How does one translate competing in ice skating against Nancy Pelosi and she wins because she has the better Monster Truck?

I REALLY want a Monster Truck.

Anyway, WRITING.

Today we will use an acrostic because they’re cool and keep this ADD teacher/blogger on SQUIRREL! …um, task.

Writing takes H.E.A.R.T.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons. Bansky's "Peaceful hearts Doctor" courtesy of Eva Blue.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons. Bansky’s “Peaceful hearts Doctor” courtesy of Eva Blue.

Hard Work—Yep, no magical program that can whip out a NYTBSA. But frankly, would we want one? Those in writing for the wrong reasons (make a quick buck) abound. Some succeed but they’re rare. Most of us do this writing thing because of LOVE. We love to write, to teach, to share, to tell stories. We are explorers who can venture into the human mind or into galaxies never before imagined. And no matter where we go, there is coffee.

That’s a perk *bada bump snare.*

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One thing that CAN feel weird though is often what we do doesn’t feel like work so it freaks us out that we’re being lazy. No, trust me. Reading books, watching movies, series, TV IS work. We’re studying the craft. And others can laugh at you, but who mocks the NFL player who watches the same football replays over and over? Or plays Tic-Tac-Toe and no one wins? I have yet to see them draw a line through any of the Xs or Os. *rolls eyes*

Ok. We laugh at them. But they don’t care and make millions for throwing a ball. Take a lesson.

We might be weak at something. Remember that our greatness is only limited by our strongest weakness. We can be a pro at dialogue, but if we have no clue how to plot effectively? We can limit how well we connect to the reader. Still focus on your strengths, but acknowledge and develop your weaknesses so your writing is balanced.

Allies—Again, this is why I started WANA. I knew what it was like to be completely alone trying to do this writing thing. I might as well have told friends and family I was pursuing a career in coloring books.

What a WANA Coincidence! (Susie Lindau, Moi, Julie Hedlund, Piper Bayard)

What a WANA Coincidence! (Susie Lindau, Moi, Julie Hedlund, Piper Bayard)

The world oddly devalues what we do, yet they spend most of their disposable income on what artists create—music, movies, books, video games, TV, TV series. Writing changes the world. It’s ended slavery, given hope to the hopeless, been the greatest catalyst for equality and often is the spark that lights the scientific innovation. *cough* Star Trek. Thank Gene Roddenberry for that smart phone the world is addicted to.

But you will need others to remind you that what you are doing is important. Also, learn to spot allies versus energy vampires. We all have them. People who have problems they want us to solve and then they do what they were going to do in the first place.

Use those words wasted on someone who won’t listen anyway and put them on a page. Also, learn to say NO to time-suckers and YES to allies. No is rarely popular, but I’ve learned I would rather be respected than popular.

Empathy—The mark of an excellent writer is how well she can get in a character’s skin/head. Study people. Listen. Pay attention. Get in another person’s head/heart for real. What would they think, say, feel? If we fail to do this authentically, readers will spot it.

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Rhino Skin—I wrote an old post about critique groups someone stumbled across. I mentioned that we gutted each other’s work. This vexed the commenter, but why? I would rather someone be hard on me in private than get slayed in reviews that are for public view permanently. And even if the person is a total jerk? Great training for this thing called reality. There are some reviewers who will post venom for the sole purpose of being mean. I don’t know why. But bullying has always been around and likely not going away. Though I’ve been blessed with wonderful, thoughtful reviews on Amazon, there are people on Goodreads who clearly never read my book who gave me one star just because they could.

Image courtesy of the generous Schristia via Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy of the generous Schristia via Flickr Creative Commons

But, if you’ve been in a critique group of respectable peers who give tough love? @$$clowns are easier to write off (or write INTO a novel).

If you can possibly find and join and RWA group? DO IT, even if you don’t write romance. This is the greatest collection of pros you can hope to find.

We have to develop discernment (which comments are crap and what’s worthy of looking into), but even if it’s pure jealous hate B.S.? Still useful. Hey, we always need someone to shame/torture/kill in our next novel, right?

I won’t sugar-coat. If you write anything, especially anything worthwhile? The haters will flock to you. You are the light that reveals their fear and suckiness. Actually hate is proof we are doing something right. But it will still hurt. I’ve been in martial arts my whole life and getting hit in the face still hurts. I just no longer take it personally.

Same with writing. Feel the sting, then let it go….until you can create a plot involving a serial killing H.R. Manager with tragically small man parts or a former coworker with terminal cellulite.

Time—Rid THIS phrase from your lexicon. “I can’t find the time.” Time is not the remote control hiding in your couch cushions. Pros don’t find time, we make time. You are a priority and so is your writing. Again, it is better to be respected than popular. I’m not saying these can’t coexist. But, those close are NOT writers. They do NOT understand us and won’t. Most people have no clue why anyone would write anything unless there was a grade at the end or a boss expected it.

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We will have to say NO. Guard your gift because I can’t do it for you. No one can. As the late great Robin Williams said, “It’s like partial circumcision. Either go all the way or $#@%#@$ forget it.”

Before we go, I AM going to mention a series of classes I have coming up in early September. I call them the Going Pro Series. Back to School for AUTHORS. There’s Craft, Branding/Social Media, and Business (which publishing path might be the best fit for YOU/your work). Often we make stuff too complicated. Hey, we are writers. It’s our thing. I am here to help.

These classes are designed to streamline ALL you do. In craft, you will learn essentials, how to plot leaner and meaner and write better and faster than you might believe you can. Branding/Social Media? It’s simple and doesn’t take nearly as much time and effort as some might tell you. Business? We writers are in the Entertainment BUSINESS. Which path is a good fit? Not all writers were meant to self-publish. Not all works are good for traditional. This series is a guide to help you accomplish much more with far less effort. Feel free to take one (use WANA 15 for $15 off), but if you take all three in the BUNDLE? The cost is a lot less (and notes and recordings are provided for free for all classes).

Anyway…

What are your thoughts? Which parts of the H.E.A.R.T. are hardest for you? Do you put everyone and everything ahead of writing? Are you feeling pressured and strapped for time? Need help going a thicker skin? Feel at war with family or friends over your desire to write?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, 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).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE here’s my newest social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

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Writing Tip #2–Writing is Pain, Learn to Take a Hit

WANA, Kristen Lamb, Author Kristen Lamb, WANA International

Want to be a writer? Expect suffering. Lose your illusions and embrace pain. Writing is not always a glittery unicorn hug, and we don’t get what we wish for, we get what we work for. This profession is not for the faint of heart, namely because 1) it’s hard 2) it’s often under appreciated 3) great writing requires us to expose our soft tender parts and hope no one carves them out with a spork.

I’ve said it before. Just because we have command of our native language in no way qualifies us to create a work of art spanning 50,000 to 100,000 or more words. We need to study, practice, apply what we learn (WRITING), and grow a damn thick skin.

Grow Rhino Skin

No matter how well we write, someone won’t like our stuff. It’s just reality. Ten years ago, I went to my first critique thinking every word I wrote was a rainbow kitten dream. Guess what? The group slayed me–it was all blood, teeth and adverbs. Later, when questioned, no one could positively ID the body (of work).

I sat in the parking lot alone crying, but I didn’t give up.

writing, WANA, Author Kristen Lamb

How badly do you want the dream?

Expect criticism, and get good at taking it…but not taking it personally. Remember, others have a right to be wrong. This is why it’s critical to know your craft. Any whackadoodle can join a writers’ group and give advice. If we don’t know our stuff, then when someone suggests we add a bunch of stupid description or adverbs we can politely thank them…and then gift them a copy of On Writing.

Know your $#!t.

Learn all you can and embrace peer review. Writing groups, conferences and workshops are good investments of time and money. If you can’t find a writing group, or you live in an area with no real access to a writing group, hop on to WANATribe and find the tribe that suits you best, or create one.

You are no longer writing for fun, Sweetheart. You are writing for keeps, so train like it. Read books, take classes, go over to WANA International and sign up for a class.

Learn to Take a Hit

Boxers volunteer for others to punch them in the stomach over and over and over to toughen their solar plexus so that, when it comes time to hop in the ring, their bodies are hardened and can take a hit. I see too many newbie writers more interested in the “glamorous life” of being a writer, than the grueling pain of the professional, so they enter the “ring” soft, sloppy, and untrained.

They treat publishing a book like furnishing a Barbie Dream House, and are more interested in cover art and bookmarks than the quality of the manuscript. Too often, they self-publish too soon and with no peer review. The first bad review they get, they go nuclear and give up.

This is a profession, not a playpen. Toughen up. Learn to take a hit and get back up.

You know I am here for you guys. I’ve been here for a lot of years and am rooting for your success, no matter which publishing path you choose to take. But real love is tough love.

All of these lessons I had to learn, too. I used to goof off, write when I felt like it, constantly start new projects, and daydream instead of getting my @$$ in the chair and writing. I had to put away my Author Barbie Dream House and grow up, too.

If I can do it, anyone can do it. Trust me.

Social media is critical, but books are the most important. Thrilled you stopped to read this, but back to work.

It writes the words or it gets the hose! ~Kristen Lamb

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of January, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. 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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NOTE: December’s winner will be announced when I return from Seattle.

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of January I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

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A New Approach to a Traditional Group–The Concept Critique

So a couple of weeks ago, we discussed critique groups then I saw something shiny and forgot to post the second part of the discussion. ::head desk:: Anyway, in Part One, I posited the question: Can a critique group do more harm than good? In my opinion? YES. Traditional critique groups can have severe limitations, and, if a writer doesn’t understand this and adjust accordingly, then she can do irreparable damage to her WIP and even her career. As a note before anyone gets huffy. Just because something is limited  does not mean it is bad. Critique groups, especially GOOD critique groups are worth their weight in gold. But just like my car has limitations–I cannot traverse lakes with it–critique groups are limited as well. Yet, when we understand the limitations, then we can adjust accordingly.

As a quick refresher, traditional critique groups:

Lack Proper Perspective

Since most traditional critique groups only hear/read a small section of pages at a time, there is no way they can tell if there are major plot problems in a manuscript. Many writers hit the slush pile because their plot has catastrophic flaws. Pretty prose does not a novel make.

Agents are overworked as it is. They can love our writing voice, but they don’t have the time to teach us our craft. As professionals, we should have the basics down when we query and it is rude and amateurish to expect an agent will fix everything for us. Not their job. They can fix some surface stuff, but not the deep structure flaws that cause many queries to land in the slush pile.

I have met countless writers who didn’t properly understand the antagonist or even narrative structure. They thought their WIP was ready to query because people in critique “loved their writing style.” Just because we have command of our native language doesn’t mean we have the skill set to write a 60-100,000 word novel.

Critique groups don’t have the perceptual distance to spot the big problems. So just understand this from the get-go and all is fine. But make sure your plot is critiqued before you query. Also, understand that the group is limited then take critique with a grain of salt. If someone says, “but this spot didn’t have enough action” and you know that those ten pages were part of a sequel and NOT a scene, then you know you don’t need to punch up the pace. Write good books, not 150 individual sections to keep people at critique happy.

Other Problems with Traditional Critique Groups

Traditional critique groups can get us in a habit of over-explaining.

Because the group can’t see the big picture, they can inject things like, “But how did Gertrude end up in Disney World with a flame thrower?” Well, of course they don’t understand why Gertrude is setting The Seven Dwarfs ablaze. They haven’t been at critique for three weeks, so they missed the part about a hell-mouth being located under Cinderella’s castle. Why do you think Disney got the land so cheap? And all these years you just thought it was because it was a swamp!

When people at critique say things like this, just hold your ground and give permission for some folks to be lost.

Traditional critique groups are notorious for the Book-By-Committee.

We have to stand strong here. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you must learn to stand your ground with suggestions. I have seen writers have a lovely writing voice literally hen-pecked out of them by people at critique. Just take critique for what it is and accept the good and ignore the bad.

Traditional critique groups can get us in a habit of perfectionism.

The world does not reward perfection. It rewards those who get things done. No one ever had a runaway success with half of the world’s perfect novel. Lean to be a finisher.

Traditional critique groups can give a false sense of security.

Again, pretty prose does not a novel make. Is voice important? YES! But voice alone is not a novel. We have to make sure our structure is not a disaster area, and this is where traditional critique groups run into trouble. But today, I will give you guys a way to work within the limitations.

How can I get solid critique of my plot?

Beta readers are good for critiquing at plot. If you can, find a pal who loves to read and ask for her to read your novel. She can tell you if your book was great, boring, confusing, or made her want to gouge out her own eyes. Just make sure you allow your beta reader permission to be honest, even when it hurts.

Beyond the Beta Reader

But beta readers, especially GOOD beta readers are hard to find. A MAJOR limitation to beta readers? We have to finish the book before we get critique.

In my opinion, life is short. Why waste it writing books with fatally flawed plots? This is why I started WWBC (my critique group). I didn’t want to waste months writing a book that had a flawed skeleton. I don’t like having revisions from hell. I prefer to dedicate my time to books that actually stand a chance of being published.

Introducing Concept Critique

If you can’t find a non-traditional critique group or a good beta reader, then just modify the content you bring to critique. This is part of what we do in my writing group WWBC. We employ what I call Concept Critique. We do things a bit differently, but I have modified our methods to work for you.

Instead of bringing the first fifteen pages of your novel, write a fifteen page synopsis based off what you did when you were plotting with the index cards (discussed in Part Eight of my Structure Series). Or, for those pantsers, go back and use cards to show the scenes of the WIP you’ve written. Every scene card had a one-sentence summary, so writing a synopsis now should be a piece of cake. Write your one-sentence log-line at the top so they can critique that too, and also so they can make sure your synopsis supports the log-line.

If we are finished with a novel and it is solid and ready for critique, we should be able to say what our entire book is about in ONE sentence. (If you need help learning how to do this, then check out the above link about log-lines).

We should also be able to clearly see scenes and sequels in our WIP. Detailing our finished WIP scene-by-scene for concept critique is a far better use of time than taking a year to get line-edit on a potentially flawed WIP.

Let your brilliant writer friends chime in on what they think of your story as a whole. Is it contrived? Is it convoluted? Boring? Does this synopsis sound like a book they are dying to read? Can they tell who the antagonist is? Is your antagonist a mustache-twirler or the stuff of greatness?

Once you have your novel as a whole critiqued, take it to the next step. The next week take Act One and write a fifteen page synopsis of what happens in Act One. Get critique. Clean it up. Then, take Act Two and Act Three and do the same. Write fifteen page synopses about what happens in each act. Then take it to the next step. Break your act into scenes and write a summary of what happens in each scene.

This way you are cleaning up your concept. You are going beyond the prose. Your fellow writers NOW can help you by brainstorming better ways to build your mousetrap. And, since they have an idea of the BIG picture, their advice will be a lot better. They might even be able to offer insight into how to fix the idea before you invest the next year writing a book that is doomed from day one because the original idea needed to be fortified before it could support 60-100,000 words. Or, if you have already written the novel, you will have a better idea how to tackle revisions.

Once you have solid critique on all these summaries, take off and write/revise that novel. Now it will be way easier because you know where you are going. Also, because your writer friends helped in the planning phase, they will be better trained to see flaws once they critique your final product. They will know why Gertrude is torching Cinderella’s castle.

Time to Get Real Honest…

I am going to warn you. This method will test your mettle. In traditional critique, we can hide behind our pretty prose. Concept Critique means laying our baby out there bare bones, warts and all. This will show us why we are really in a writing group. Is it because we really want to succeed at this writing thing? Or, are you like I used to be? I wrote really awesome prose and I got to hear every week how wonderful I was (even though the big picture was fatally flawed). I could believe the standard lies many of us tell ourselves when we are unpublished.

I just haven’t found the right agent.

Oh, it’s because my novel is a mix of genres.

New York just doesn’t publish any good writing anymore.

I hear vampires are hot and they are only taking vampire books.

Vampires are passe and they are only taking books with trained ferrets.

When I started WWBC I had to check my ego at the door. Now I couldn’t hide behind my glorious prose. If someone beat the hell out of my synopsis, there was nowhere to hide. I couldn’t use the Standard Issue Line of Writer Denial–-Well, they just haven’t read the rest of my novel. If they had, they wouldn’t say that.

If we really long to be successfully published, then we need to hear the truth. As I like to say, Excellence begins with honesty. If we are attending a group only to hear how every word we write is a golden nugget of joy, we aren’t going to grow.

What are some of the problems you’ve had with critique groups? How did you overcome them? Any suggestions? Opinions?

I LOVE hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of February, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of February I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

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108 Comments

Are We Being a Responsible Novel Parent or a Deadbeat Book-Daddy?

So this is the year. You are finally going to do it. You’re going to write a…no, you are going to finish that novel. How many of you have a bazillion ideas whirling around your gray matter at all times? How many of you have at least a half a bazillion ideas started and left unfinished? They are lurking in your documents, smoking and picking on the short stories. Maybe even writing gang tags on your recycle bin. The Unfinished are a miserable lot. Their lives began with such hope and promise, but then they were abandoned without so much as a good-bye. We are their deadbeat parents, promising that this weekend we’re going to spend quality time with them. But, we don’t. Why? Most of us are skilled at making babies, but we fail big time when it comes to being good parents capable of nurturing an embryonic idea to a successful novel.

Like “parenting,” we writers need to learn certain skills and gain good habits. We aren’t magically mystically born knowing this stuff. This is why I get such a bee in my bonnet when writers won’t say with pride, “I am a writer.” No aspiring. Aspiring writers aren’t responsible parents. They are the “Deadbeat Book-Daddy” of the writing world. They hang out with their writing when it is convenient and fun, and fail to stick it through when stuff gets hard. They don’t invest time, money, and resources into nurturing their work and maturing it into something they can be proud of and brag about.

My novel graduated today. She will be published this summer. Oh, I never thought I would see that day. *sniff, sniff*

And I am not busting your chops. I have a fair amount of Unfinished lurking in my computer too. They hang out with the spam cookies and send me e-mail about my inheritance in Ghana. But, I love them. They are mine. Some will one day be able to go to reform school. Others? Yeah…..we just won’t talk about them. They drool and say Baby Ruth a lot.

No one is going to fault any of us for making bad babies in our ignorance. My blog lessons, however, are here to educate you about how to take an idea and then lay a plan to grow it into a thing of beauty.

We have spent two months talking about structure. If you are new to the blog and want to write a novel, I highly recommend you go back and read the Structure Series so you have the tools to sally forth with the rest of the class.

Part of why ideas get started then abandoned is that writers really don’t get instruction about how to do this novel-writing thing. We believe we are born to write and for some reason that we should already know what we are doing. In our pride, we take off writing, then wake up one day and realize that we have painted ourselves into a corner. This is the point where most of us will do one of two things. Some of us will just give up and wait for the Inspiration Fairy to visit us in our dreams with all the answers. Others of us (yes, I have done both) will at this point (normally 30,000 words in) whip out the Literary Bond-O putty and slather that crap on until we have a “finished” novel that is so complex we don’t even understand it. Why? Because we had to create a secret government conspiracy, an evil twin for our evil twin and a rip in the space-time continuum all to explain why our protag wasn’t where she needed to be on page 100.

Here is the blunt truth. You need to be taught your craft. We all do. People with natural musical ability don’t feel they are “cheating” if they learn how to read music or take voice coaching. And I know all your family will believe that writing is easy, because, yes, even a chimpanzee can make a sentence.

All right. Enough of that.

So, no more Deadbeat Book-Daddy, and hello Responsible Writer Parent. Today we are going to talk about ways your novel can be hijacked, despite your best intentions. Many of you, in an effort to be a Responsible Novel Parent will go out and join a critique group. Excellent…but beware. I am going to explain how traditional critique groups can hijack your dream of being a novelist. But, I will also tell you how to side-step these problems and use the critique group to its maximum advantage.

Critique Groups

This is my opinion, so take it for what it is. I’m right :D–ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Seriously. Traditional critique groups have some strengths. First and foremost, they can clean up a new writer’s prose. When we turned in that high school paper with 60 glorious metaphors on page one, we got an A. Why? Because our teacher’s goal was to teach us how to use a metaphor properly. Her job was not to train us for publication in New York.

In a good traditional critique group you will learn that POV does not mean Prisoners of Vietnam. You will learn to spot passive voice. You will hopefully learn self-discipline in that you need to attend regularly and contribute. You will forge friendships and a support network.

The problem with traditional critique groups is that they lack the ability to properly judge the quality of a novel. Once a week reading fifteen pages only cleans up shoddy prose. Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see flaws. A novel can have perfect prose page to page and yet have catastrophic faults.

Traditional critique groups can hurt you in the following ways.

Get you in a habit of over-explaining—In a traditional critique group, those sitting at the table can’t see the big picture. It is hard to pick up a story on page 86 and understand what is going on. Our fellow writers care about us and believe if they don’t say something that they aren’t helping. Thus, they will say things akin to, “But how did Cassandra end up in a meat locker wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw? I’m lost.” Well, duh, of course they are lost. They have missed the last three weeks and haven’t been keeping up with the story. So learn to resist the urge to over-explain in your prose. Your job is to write a great novel…not 600 individual sections your critique group can follow.

Book-by-Committee—Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you can get in a nasty habit of trying to please your critique group at the expense of the big picture. Learn discernment and how to stick to your guns, or you will end up with a book-by-committee, also known as Franken-novel.

False sense of security—We must always be looking for ways to have our work critiqued by professionals who are willing to be blunt and who possess the skill set to see our errors. Don’t join a writing critique group simply because they say they are a writing critique group. Look at their credentials. How many traditionally published authors has the group produced? I’m not picking on self-publishing, but self-publishing doesn’t have the same rigorous peer review. How many people in the group are career writers, authors, or editors? Gathering together because we love writing is always a great idea, but if the group is solely comprised of hopeful unpubbed writers, the critique will be limited. Limited is fine, so long as we make sure to reach beyond our group for additional critique.

 Also make sure this group is producing successful novelists. I began Warrior Writer Boot Camp because my old group of six years produced many successful articles, short stories and NF, but they had never produced a successfully published novel. I knew I had to create a different critique format capable of critiquing a leviathan work of 100,000 words.

Some writers naturally understand structure, and so they do fine in the traditional setting. I didn’t naturally understand structure, and my novel ended up on so many bunny trails I needed a pack of plot-sniffing dogs and a GPS to find my original idea. If you are the same, then make sure you take traditional critique for what it is…critique of prose. You might need to find or start another group on your own dedicated to looking at the big picture.

Or…be creative. If you can’t go to the mountain, make the mountain come to you.

Modify the content you bring to critique. Instead of bringing the first fifteen pages of your novel, write a fifteen page synopsis based off what you did when you were plotting with the index cards (discussed last week). Every scene card had a one-sentence summary, so writing a synopsis now should be a piece of cake. Write your one-sentence log-line at the top so they can critique that too, and also so they can make sure your synopsis supports the log-line.

Let your brilliant writer friends chime in on what they think of your story as a whole. Is it contrived? Is it convoluted? Boring? Does this synopsis sound like a book they are dying to read? Can they tell who the antagonist is? Is your antagonist dumb or the stuff of greatness?

Once you have your novel as a whole critiqued, take it to the next step. The next week take Act One and write a fifteen page synopsis of what happens in Act One. Get critique. Clean it up. Then, take Act Two and Act Three and do the same. Write fifteen page synopses about what happens in each act. Then take it to the next step. Break your act into scenes and write a summary of what happens in each scene.

This way you are cleaning up your concept. You are going beyond the prose. Your fellow writers NOW can help you by brainstorming better ways to build your mousetrap. They can offer insight into how to fix the idea before you invest the next year writing a book that is doomed from day one because the original idea needed to be fortified before it could support 60-100,000 words.

Once you have solid critique on all these summaries, take off and write that novel. Now it will be way easier because you know where you are going. Also, because your writer friends helped in the planning phase, they will be better trained to see flaws once they critique your final product. They will know why Cassandra is in the meat locker wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw.

I am going to warn you. This method will test your mettle. In traditional critique, we can hide behind our pretty prose. Concept Critique means laying our baby out there bare bones, warts and all. This will show you why you are in a writing group. Is it because you really want to succeed at this writing thing? Or, are you like me? I wrote really awesome prose and I got to hear every week how wonderful I was (even though the big picture was fatally flawed). I had to check my ego at the door when I started WWBC. Now I couldn’t hide. My ideas and story took a beating…but produced a final synopsis/outline that was brilliant (mostly because of my brilliant writer peers).

Being a Responsible Novel Parent can be tough on the ego. We have to face up to our “kid’s” problems and then look for ways to fix them. This means admitting we don’t know everything and being humble enough to look for genuine outside help.  Does our “kid” have Novel ADD and go off on a zillion bunny trails? Does our “kid” have Story Autism? It’s in its own little world and not connecting with outsiders? Novel Development Issues are not a sentence for our “kid” to be one of “The Unfinished.” Concept Critique will help diagnose these developmental issues, and then give you ways to solve them so your novel can have an excellent life and be a “kid” any writer parent would be proud to claim…and brag about…a lot.

What are your biggest “Novel Parenting” issues? Problems? Concerns? What do you feel about critique groups? Are they helpful or do more harm than good? Do you guys have ideas for other ways you could re-tool a traditional critique group to be able to better see the big picture? I love hearing from you guys. 

Happy writing!

Until next time…

Give yourself the gift of success so you can ROCK 2011. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books. Put that gift card you got for Christmas to good use, ;).

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The Book that Impressed “The Death Star”–The Preacher’s Bride

Today is Free-for-All Friday, so it’s my choice for topics. Today I am going to do something a tad unusual. A book review. Now I don’t get asked to do a lot of these. I think it has something to do with my reputation preceding me. When you earn nicknames like “The Shredder” and “The Death Star,” you generally don’t have writers lining up around the block to hand over their baby. Fair enough. I do tend to be picky. Almost ten years as an editor has made me more than a little odd, and I do find it tough to read fiction without my Inner Red Pen tagging along. But I am a HUGE fan of Jody’s blog, so I figured I’d show some writer support and read her book. Boy am I glad I did!

I enjoy fiction and usually read a few chapters a day. I take the good and the bad. But, every once in a while, I am blessed with a rare opportunity to remember my life before the red pen, to recall how it felt to be a reader held captive by a story. This past Sunday, I cracked open Jody Hedlund’s The Preacher’s Bride. It’s a Christian Romance and really not the genre I ever read in my spare time. I figured out on page one that likely there wouldn’t be a single autopsy, explosion or car chase. But, the funny thing is that even though this book was so far from what I normally would read for pleasure, it caught me on the first page and didn’t let go until I had finished.

I sat glued to my couch all day. I would say, “Okay, I’ll just finish this chapter, and then I’ll get up.” Yeah, well I did that all the way to the end of the book. I read from 10:00 Sunday morning until 9:00 that night. Just to give some perspective, that has happened only 3 times in 8 years, and I generally read at least a book a week. Jody is a master of tightening the noose of conflict and suspense. Readers will love The Preacher’s Bride for the story, and writers should love her for the lessons her story can teach all of us about writing great fiction.

Jody’s novel breathes new life into the pages of history. The Preacher’s Bride is set in England right before the Puritans will be forced to leave for America to escape persecution. Jody drops the reader right into this historical setting and makes it once more alive and real, filled with real people with real lives and real problems. This love story is surrounded by death, disease, persecution, loss and hardship. Thus, when love does emerge, it is like the lone bud that struggles through the winter snows to remind us that life is good and right and worth fighting for.

Jody’s characters are rich, vibrant, and distinct. Her protagonists are wonderfully imperfect and multi-dimensional. I love how this story glorifies so many of the character traits that modern society overlooks—being a hard worker, having a heart for service, and genuinely giving to others. The heroine isn’t supermodel beautiful, but has tremendous qualities of the heart that make her beautiful, and better still, identifiable. The hero is flawed and real and noble. What’s the best of all is that Jody’s antagonists are deliciously wicked and create gripping conflict throughout. This is a romance with substance and grit that will leave you breathless. Jody does a brilliant job of layering conflict in a way that never allows the reader to grow too comfortable.

I highly, highly recommend this book, no matter what genre you normally read. The Preacher’s Bride is a page-turning treat that will make you laugh, cry and cheer. Great stories are great stories, plain and simple. Like all great stories, The Preacher’s Bride will leave you feeling encouraged and inspired, and we all could use more of that :D.

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The Doctor is in the House–Novel Diagnostics

Welcome to our third week discussing great novel beginnings. Why are we devoting so much time to the beginning of a novel? Because the first pages are the most critical. Today I am going to let you see the first 20 pages through the eyes of an agent or editor. Novel Diagnostics 101. The doctor is in the house.

I mean no disrespect in what I am about to say. I am not against self-publishing and that is a whole other subject entirely. But, what I will say is that there are too many authors who dismiss why agents are rejecting them and run off to self-publish instead of fixing why their manuscript was rejected. Agents know that a writer only has a few pages to hook a reader. That’s the first thing. But agents also know that the first 20 pages are a fairly accurate reflection of the entire book.

I don’t like being called a book doctor. I rarely will ever edit an entire book. I guess I am more of a diagnostician. Why? Doctors fix the problems and diagnosticians just figure out what the problems ARE. So again, why are beginnings imporant? Because I generally can “diagnose” every bad habit and writer weakness in ten pages or less. I never need more than 50 pages (and neither do agents and other editors). Why? Well, think of it this way. Does your doctor need to crack open your chest to know you have a bum ticker? No. He pays attention to symptoms to diagnose the larger problem. He takes your blood pressure and asks standardized questions. If he gets enough of the same kind of answer, he can tell you likely have a heart problem. Most of the time, the tests and EKGs are merely to gain more detail, but generally to confirm most of what the doc already knows.

The first pages of your novel are frequently the same. So let’s explore some common problems with beginnings and look to the problems that they can foreshadow in the rest of the work.

Info-Dump

The beginning of the novel starts the reader off with lengthy history or world-building. The author pores on and on about details of a city or civilization all to “set up” the story.

In my experience, this is often the hallmark of a writer who is weak when it comes to characters. How can I tell? He begins with his strength…lots of intricate details about a painstakingly crafted world. Although not set in stone, generally, if the author dumps a huge chunk of information at the start of the book, then he is likely to use this tactic throughout. This type of beginning tells me that author is not yet strong enough to blend information into the narrative in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story. The narrative then becomes like riding in a car with someone who relies on hitting the brakes to modulate speed. The story likely will just get flowing…and then the writer will stop to give an information dump.

Also, readers like to read fiction for stories. They read the encyclopedia for information.

Book Starts Right in the Middle of the Action

The beginning of the novel starts us off with the protagonist (we think) hanging over a shark tank and surrounded by ninjas. There are world-shattering stakes and we are only on page 2.

This shows me that the writer could be weak in a number of areas. First, she may not be clear what the overall story problem is, so she is beginning with a “gimmick” to hook the reader in that she is unsure the overall story problem will. Secondly, this alerts me that the writer is weak in her understanding of scene and sequel novel structure.

Scenes are structured: Goal-> conflict -> disaster

So when a writer begins her book with Biff hanging over a shark tank surrounded by ninjas, two major steps in a scene have been skipped. Also, if you go back to my earlier blog, normal world also serves an important function. Thus when a writer totally skips some fairly vital parts and thrusts us straight into disaster, I already know the author will likely rely on melodrama from this point on. Why? Because that was how she began her book.

Book Begins with Internalization

Fiction is driven by conflict. Period. Writing might be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. When a writer begins with a character thinking and internalizing that is another huge warning flag of a number of problems.

Do you need internalization in a novel? Yes! But it has its place. Most internalization will be part of what is known as the sequel. Sequels transpire as a direct reaction to a scene. When a writer begins the novel with the sequel, that is a huge warning that, again, the writer is weak when it comes to structure. There is a definite purpose for reflection, but kicking off the action is not one of them.

Also, beginning with the protagonist “thinking” is very self-indulgent. Why do I as the reader care about this person’s feelings or thoughts about anything? I don’t know this character. The only people who listen attentively to the thoughts, feelings, and disappointments of total strangers are shrinks, and they are being paid well to do so.

Now, give us (the reader) time to know your character and become interested in her and then we will care. But, starting right out of the gate with a character waxing rhapsodic is like having some stranger in the checkout line start telling you about her nasty divorce. It’s just weird.

Also, like people who tell you about their abusive alcoholic father the first 30 seconds after you’ve met them, they likely will keep this trend of rudely dumping too much personal information. When the protagonist begins with all this thinking and more thinking…and more thinking, it is probably a bad sign for the future. Just sayin’.

Book Begins with a Flashback

Yeah…flashbacks are a whole other blog, but lets’ just say that most of the time they are not necessary. We do not need to know why a certain character did this or that or why a bad guy went bad. Again, that’s for therapy. Did we really need to know why Hannibal Lecter started eating people for Silence of the Lambs to be an AWESOME book AND movie? Now I know that there was a later explication of this….but it was an entirely different story (and one that really didn’t do well, I might mention). We didn’t stop the hunt for Wild Bill to go on and on about how Hannibal’s family was slaughtered in the war and the bad guys ate his sister…and it worked!

Flashbacks often alert me that the writer needs time to grow. She hasn’t yet developed the skill to blend background details with the current conflict in a way that supports the story. I’ll give you a great example. Watch the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek. We find out exactly how Dr. Leonard McCoy gets his nickname…one line. “Wife got the whole planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones.” The audience didn’t have to have a flashback to get that McCoy’s divorce was really bad. That is a great example of a writer seamlessly blending character back story.

Flashbacks, used too often, give the reader the feel of being trapped with a sixteen-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift. Just get going forward, then the car (story) dies and rolls backward.

There are two really great books I highly recommend if you want to work on your beginnings (and even learn to fix the problems that bad beginnings foreshadow). Hooked by Les Edgerton and Scene and Sequel buy Jack Bickham.

Many authors are being rejected by the first 20 pages, and because most agents are overworked, they don’t have time to explain to each and every rejected author what they saw. Thus, too many writers are reworking and reworking their beginning and not really seeing that their weak beginning is a symptom of larger issues. It is the pounding headache and dizziness that spells out “heart condition.” You can take all the asprin you want for the headache, but it won’t fix what is really wrong. Hopefully, though, today I gave you some helpful insight into what an editor (or an agent) really sees so you can roll up your sleeves and get to what’s truly going on. All the best!

Happy writing!

Until next time….

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Little Darlings & Why They Must Die..for Real

 

Almost any of us who decided one day to get serious about our writing, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Great book, if you haven’t read it. But one thing King tells us we writers must be willing to do, is that we must be willing to, “Kill the little darlings.”

Now, King was not the first to give this advice. He actually got the idea from Faulkner, but I guess we just took it more seriously when King said it…because now the darlings would die by a hatchet, be buried in a cursed Indian filing cabinet where they would come back as really bad novels.

…oops, I digress.

Little darlings are those favorite bits of prose, description, dialogue or even characters that really add nothing to the forward momentum or development of the plot.

To be a great writer, you would be wise to learn to look honestly at all little darlings. Why? Because they are usually masking critical flaws in the overall plot. Today we will address two especially nefarious writing hazards that like to lurk below the wittiest dialogue and most breathtaking description:

Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict

These two related booby-traps are often hidden beneath our little darlings (clever dialogue, beautiful description, etc). That is probably why Stephen King recommended we kill them. Yes, kill them dead. No burying them in the Pet Semetary, also known as “revision.” Killing means killing….as in delete forever. Or at least cut them cleanly from the story and hide in a Word folder to give yourself time to grieve and move on with the real novel. Yet too many times we hang on to those favorite characters or bits of dialogue, reworking them and hoping we can make them fit…at the expense of the rest of the story.

Th-they come back….but *shivers* they are…different.

Let me explain why it is important to let go.

Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. Good characterization is what breathes life into black letters on a white page, creating “people” who are sometimes more real to us than their flesh and blood counterparts. The problem is that characterization is a skill that has to be learned, usually from a lot of mistakes. Yet, time and time again, I see writers—as NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer would say—moving deck chairs around on the Titanic. In a last ditch attempt to spare a darling, a writer describes the character more, or gives more info dump or more internal thought, or more back story, yet never manages to accomplish true characterization. So, when something really bad happens, we the reader just don’t care.

Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked explores this problem in detail if you would like to read more, but to keep it short and sweet I’m going to explain it this way.

Most of us have driven down a highway at around rush hour, so picture this scenario. We notice emergency lights ahead.  The oncoming traffic lane is shut down and looks like a debris field. Four mangled cars lay in ruins, surrounded by somber EMTs. Do you feel badly? Unless you’re a sociopath, of course you do.

Now…

You look into that same oncoming lane and two of the cars you recognize. They belong to friends you were supposed to meet for dinner.

Before you cared…now you are connected.

That is how good characterization makes the difference. If you open your story with this gut-wrenching scene in a hospital where someone is dying, you are taking a risk. We will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes us have to close the book and get tissue.

Yet, I have had to pry many, many darlings like these away from desperate writers “parents” unwilling to take the scenes off of life support. They wrote opening scenes of car accidents and hospitals and death and child abduction so vivid they couldn’t read their own work without tearing up. The problem, however, was this…no one but them cared. They hadn’t done enough development of the story to make the readers just as vested as they were. And, because they were so determined to keep these gut-wrenching scenes, they never dug in and did the real work that would have made the audience cry too.

Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict

Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witness this pitfall in most new novels. In fact, back in April at the DFW Writer’s Workshop Conference, I had an opportunity to talk to a lot of new and hopeful writers in between classes I was teaching. I would ask them what their book was about and the conversation would sound a bit like this:

What’s your book about?

Well, it is about a girl and she doesn’t know she has powers and she’s half fairy and she has to find out who she is. And there’s a guy and he’s a vampire and he’s actually the son of an arch-mage who slept with a sorceress who put a curse on their world. But she is in high school and there is this boy who she thinks she loves and…

Huh? Okay. Who is the antagonist?

*blank stare*

What is her goal?

Um. To find out who she is?

These conversations actually made me chuckle because now I know what Bob Mayer felt like the day he met me :D. My first novel was so complex, I don’t even think I fully understood it.

But back to the conference. Most writers wanted to land an agent, yet, out of everyone I talked to, only two could state what their novel was about in three sentences or less. The tragic part is that most of the novels did not have a genuine conflict lock. Protagonist wants this. Antagonist wants that. What they each want is destined to lock in conflict. Great tactic taught by Bob Mayer in his Novel Writer’s Toolkit.

It is my opinion that all these writers, deep down, knew they were missing the backbone to their story—CONFLICT. I think they sensed it on a sub-conscious level and that is why their plots grew more and more and more complicated. They were trying to fix a structural issue with Bondo putty and duct tape and then hoping no one would notice.

The problem is, complexity is not conflict.

You can create an interstellar conspiracy, birth an entirely new underground spy network, resurrect a dead sibling who in reality was sold off at birth, or even start the Second Civil War to cover up the space alien invasion…but it ain’t conflict. Conflict is biblical, and never changes. It most often revolves around the Seven Deadly Sins in conflict with the Seven Heavenly Virtues. Interstellar war, guerilla attacks, or evil twins coming back to life can be the BACKDROP for conflict, but alone are not conflict. And, yes, I learned this lesson the hard way.

Little darlings are often birthed from us getting too complex. We frequently get too complex when we are trying to b.s. our way through something we don’t understand and hope works itself out. Um, it won’t. Tried it. Just painted myself into a corner. But we get complex to hide our errors and then we risk falling so in love with our own cleverness—the subplots, the twist endings, the evil twin—that we can sabotage our entire story.

I sincerely believe these little darlings are like fluffy beds of leaves covering pungee pits of writing death. Be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there.

And then kill them dead and bury your pets for real.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

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