Posts Tagged editing

The Tips to Maximize Conflict in Your Novel

Kirk

Whenever I blog about craft, I’m coming from the perspective of a long-time editor. I do understand that the creation process is vastly different from the editing process. I know this because I’ve been on both sides. But, if you want to minimize revisions and rewrites, it helps to have some basic editorial skills in your toolbox.

Since many of you might want to pursue self-publishing, you’re wise to hire an outside editor. The cleaner the text, the lower the bill. Even if you want an agent or to traditionally publish, the tighter the writing, the better the odds your work will earn positive attention.

Line-edit is important and no longer my area of expertise. I put commas everywhere and pay other editors the move them where they need to be. Typos happen even to the best of us. Right now, I’m editing my almost 100,000 word mystery-thriller and *head desk*. We all need a good editor. In the past 12 months, I’ve written well over 600,000 words. Yet, even with all this practice? I oops. You will oops. It happens.

Today, we’re going to talk about ways to up the tension and conflict. Conflict is what draws a reader in, what keeps them turning pages. When the conflict lags, so does the reader’s attention span. A good beta reader or content editor is a great ally for spotting these literary doldrums. I’m here to offer some guidance how be your own content editor before you pass your work onto another pair of eyes.

Tip #1—Perfect is Boring

Everyone has baggage and people who don’t aren’t the mettle of great fiction. Decisions are driven by life experiences good and bad (for fiction, bad experiences are more interesting). We don’t need to have a character who was beaten in foster care to have “issues.” We’ve all had our hearts broken, been betrayed, or even been around people who measure us against impossible standards.

A character can be impulsive because she came from a household that was far too structured. He can refuse to trust because his last job brought him in for a glowing quarterly review, only to fire him the next week. She can refuse to give in to love because she’s been self-sufficient so long she fears losing freedom.

Never underestimate the little things that can propel decisions (particularly bad ones). Many readers can’t relate to fifteen years of horrific sexual abuse, but they can easily relate to a parent, guardian or former love who was never pleased and withheld affection. They can connect to a character who’s deeply insecure because of being compared to a sibling.

I’m not saying we can’t have characters with nightmare backgrounds, but it isn’t mandatory. What is mandatory is that a character arc. If we begin with a fully actualized protagonist, then there is no way to grow, thus no crucible. The plot problem should be what fires away character flaws (refusing to be a team-player, unwillingness to trust, blind loyalty, etc.) and transforms a protagonist into a hero.

Tip #2—Some Personalities Naturally Clash

Every scene should have conflict. Conflict doesn’t need to be aggressive. Allies are often the best source of conflict in our arsenal. Think of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Captain Jack Sparrow isn’t the protagonist, but he creates a lot of tension because he’s utterly unpredictable. Allies never know if he’s going to sell them out to the bad guy, and often when he does, he comes to the rescue. He’s completely selfish, or is he?

If your protagonist is a paladin—embraces order and predictability, follows the rules, doesn’t like surprises—then a natural ally would be the maverick/loose cannon, the character who believes rules are “more guidelines.”

According to the Myers-Briggs, I score dead-even as an ENFP or INFP. While the MB jury is out as to whether I am an introvert or extrovert, I am off the charts on intuition. I make most of my decisions based off my gut. This gives my mom and brother—both ESTJs—a twitch. Why? We are polar opposites. I could care less about graphs, numbers and charts. My mantra?

There are lies, damn lies and statistics. ~Mark Twain

But? My mom, brother and yes, my husband, looooooove charts, Excel and bar graphs. Those closest to me process information and make decisions very differently than I do. This means, if I want them to be on the same page as I am? I have to write lists, show numbers, etc. Otherwise? We might as well be speaking two different languages. I speak the heart and they speak the head…and trust me when I say this has lead to a lot of conflict and misunderstandings.

Think Captain Kirk (all instincts) and Spock (all logic). We don’t need a ship of ticked off Klingons for all the tension. The dynamics between Kirk and Spock also propel the story and generate dramatic tension.

You're being highly illogical.

You’re being highly illogical.

If your character is a homebody? Pair her with a nomad. If he’s a rebel? Pair him with a rule-follower. You get the idea :D.

Tip #3—Nothing Worth Having Comes Easily

There is a difference between a “bad situation” and “conflict.” I recently beta read a book and part of my feedback was, “Everyone gets along too much.” Always run this simple litmus test:

“My character wants X, but then Y happens.”

It can be big stuff. Your character finds a key piece of evidence but then bad guys show and torch the place along with the proof of murder before a CSI team can get there. It can even be little stuff. Your protagonist needs to be able to unravel some problem and can’t think with noise, but one of her allies babbles like an idiot when nervous. Setbacks and roadblocks will intensify a story. Get your protagonist so close to what she wants she can taste it, then take it away.

Image via Pixar's movie "Finding Nemo"

Image via Pixar’s movie “Finding Nemo”

Also, by mixing big problems with small problems, you will be able to better control the pacing of a story. If everything is a fight scene or car chase, it not only wears out a reader, it can quickly get boring. That is actually my complaint with the later Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Great stories, but another sword fight? I could only watch Sparrow swinging from ropes so long before it became tedious.

Whenever I do content edit, these are some of the areas I hunt for. A victim writer might get comments like “Too perfect” “Okay, I’m asleep” “Nothing happening” “Why does everyone get along so well?” Yet, whenever you do your own revisions, these are areas you can easily fix yourself. Even I am slashing through my novel looking for the Doldrums of Nothing Happening.

Do you have personalities that just hit you like industrial sandpaper? Maybe you are highly organized, but have a sibling couldn’t find her own butt with a flashlight and Google Maps? Can you think of people you know, but there is conflict because you process information differently? Is your partner (spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc.) a person you like, if they didn’t drive you NUTS?

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. 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)

I hope you guys will check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World and get prepared for 2014!!!!

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Don’t Eat the Butt #3–Persistence Can Look a lot Like Stupid

Thank you Parks Australia for the image.

A couple of weeks ago, I started a new series that I called Don’t Eat the Butt. Why? Because typing “butt” makes me giggle. No, I think there are some important lessons here, so let me explain. I have always found the puffer fish fascinating. For those who choose to eat the puffer fish, there is only ONE TINY PART of the puffer fish that is not deadly. Oh, and if you don’t know how to cut a puffer fish correctly, you can unwittingly unleash deadly poison into the non-poisonous part.

Take a bite! I dare ya!

Herb: Hey, this puffer fish kind of tastes like chick–…*grabs throat and falls over*

Fred: Note to self. Don’t eat the butt.

This idea of the puffer fish made me start thinking about our careers as artists. There are a lot of common misperceptions that can leak poison into our dreams if we aren’t careful. Thus, this series is designed to help you guys spot the toxic beliefs that can KILL a writing career. You might have heard the saying, Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Well, I am saying, Don’t Eat the Butt. 

Some of us have been there, done that and got the butt-tasting T-shirt. I am here to hand down what I have learned from being stupid enough to eat the Literary Puffer Butt and survive. Watch, listen and LEARN. The smart writer learns from her mistakes, but the wise writer learns from the mistakes of others.

Without further ado…

Don’t Eat the Butt Lesson #3–Persistence can look a lot like stupid.

The successful writer is the one who never gives up. Yeah, uh…no. This lesson is a bit tricky since, of course, the ability to stick to something is a major factor in success. But, as I like to say, “Persistence can look a lot like stupid.”

For those of you who follow this blog, I hope you took time to read Wednesday’s post The Future of Publishing–Bracing for Impact. Why do I mention this post? Because traditional publishing is certainly not giving up…on an old, wasteful, utterly uncompetitive paradigm. They are being persistent, all right. They are being persistent to the point of making dumb moves like “agency pricing” and clinging to the printed book in a digital world. The Big Six are doing what has worked for decades, oblivious to the changes all around that are about to spell their doom. What do you call the publisher who never gives up (on a flawed business model)?

Extinct.

Big Publishing is currently eating the butt. They saw the music industry eat the Music Puffer Butt and DIE, then the film industry dined on some Kodak Puffer Butt and DIED, and, in the midst of all these dead bodies industries, The Big Six are pulling up a chair and ordering the Literary Puffer Butt thinking they are the special exception. So let us at least be smart enough to learn from all this carnage.

Literary Puffer Butt KILLS.

Okay, moving on…

I believe in persistence, but we need to always make sure it is a smart persistence, an informed persistence, an honest persistence. I love Konrath’s quote, “What do you call the writer who never gives up? Published.” I totally agree, but this really great quote needs a little bit of clarification. Persistence alone (as we are seeing with Big Publishing) can be a disaster. It can make us get tunnel-vision and fail to see that we are on a dead-end road to destruction.

I teach at a lot of conferences, and every year I see the same people with the same books that have been rejected 624 times. They bring the same book to critique and redo the makeup on a corpse that they drag around even though it has started to stink up the place. Granted, some don’t keep querying the corpse, they self-publish it, and, even though it has only sold ten copies (all to their mother), they keep retooling the marketing plan, placing all their future hopes in one book. They remain loyal to a dead novel instead of taking it as the learning experience that it is and moving on to write more books and better books.

We all need to learn to be persistent. Persistence is a mark of maturity and character. Amateurs and infants drift from shiny thing to new shiny thing; professionals stay the course. But while persistence is noble, it must always be taken with a solid dose of reality. We need to stop, take an honest look at the situation, whatever that situation might be, and then be unafraid to ask the hard questions. We must invite real criticism even when we know it likely could sting like hell. And, after we’ve gotten a candid assessment of our novel or business plan or our dream to create the world’s largest Twister board? Then it is time to genuinely seek guidance from others to make a new plan, a better plan.

In the end? Friends don’t let friends eat Literary Puffer Butt.

So I have mentioned clinging to the same novel and reworking again and again as an instance of Literary Puffer Butt. What do you think? What other Literary Puffer Butt is lurking out there on the buffet that we might need to look out for? Have you eaten Literary Puffer Butt and lived to tell the tale? Share your story of survival. Have you saved a friend or family member from Literary Puffer Butt? And, yes, I am having way too much fun typing Literary Puffer Butt :D.

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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75 Comments

Editing–Are You Butchering Your Creativity?

The topic for today is an interesting one and even possibly controversial. Editing is great, but it can KILL any kind of writing, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I am currently participating in #nanowrimo. One consistent post I see looks like this. “Looked at the pages I wrote last week and now editing. What crap”…or something to that effect.

Editing too early can kill a novel. Yes, editing can be devastating to shorter works, but doesn’t have quite the killing power it possesses when introduced into longer works. In a novel that can span anywhere from 60-120,000 words (depending on genre), editing can be catastrophic if done at the wrong phase.

If you are writing a novel, you need to leave any kind of edit for once you have finished the entire first draft. Breathe. Get a paper bag. You will be okay. Just trust me. I learned stuff the hard way. I suffered so you don’t have to.

Now is it okay to reread what you have written in order to get grounded? Sure. And when you reread, feel free to correct any spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. It is okay to make notes of things you believe at the time should be fixed or even expounded. But don’t you dare hit that backspace button. Nothing gets deleted. Period. Feel free to highlight. Make a note that you believe something should be taken out at a later time, but leave it be. Also, anything you decide needs to be added needs to be written in any color other than your main document. Red, purple, blue. Doesn’t matter. Just make it a different color.

Yesterday, when I reviewed previous pages, I realized I’d divulged a tad too much information too early for my mystery-thriller. Instead of spending the entire day reworking the scene, I merely added in a note in red.

Rework this scene to make it seem like they are really after a possible serial killer. Increase tension.

Then I moved on.

Also, I must warn you that this applies to writing after NaNoWriMo. If you take part of your novel to a writing critique group before you are finished with the first draft, then you are taking a HUGE risk. You are asking for people to critique isolated instances out of context. The advice you get might do more harm than good.

You can still get advice, but, if you choose to do so, I recommend that you still follow these rules of editing. Any changes or suggestions need to be inserted in the form of notes (highlight possible deletions and make a notes as to why this section needed a change). Any additions need to be in another color…then sally forth.

Don’t look back, or you will turn into a pillar of unfinished novels.

Premature editing is very dangerous for three reasons:

1. Premature Editing Uproots Subconscious Seeds—Our subconscious mind is an amazing machine. It sees the big picture in ways the conscious mind cannot. As we write, our subconscious mind is planting seeds that, when viewed in a microcosm of one or three chapters, will likely seem to make no sense. Duh. That is like an acorn trying to envision life as a 100 foot tall oak tree.

These seeds need time to gestate. When we edit prematurely, all we see is a hunk of something smooshy. We don’t realize that a possibly mind-blowing idea is trying to germinate and take root in the fertile soil of our story. By editing too early, we can possibly cripple our novel. By the end of the first draft, however, we will be able to look back and see sprouted weeds, which we can feel free to uproot. But the sprouts will be mature enough to distinguish from seedlings that need to be nurtured to their full potential.

This is especially true for those of you who did at least a basic plot of your main narrative points. When we do this, we have basically told our subconscious we need to make it from Point A to Point B (Inciting Incident to Turning Point Act One). Sometimes, our subconscious will want to show off and can dazzle us with how creatively it can make the trip.

So let it alone. Your subconscious could surprise you.

2.  Premature Editing Makes Us Mistake Busy Work for Real Work—Premature editing indulges our fears. Many times we writers do not continue forward due to subconscious fear. Deep down we might know our original idea is flawed, or not strong enough, or convoluted, or unclear. We may know that we don’t have a solid outline or framework to support a 100K words. We may realize our characters have problems, but it is going to take work and honesty to fix them. Or all of that might be just fine, but we fear failure or even success. We fear writing the gritty stuff because it leaves us exposed and vulnerable, or we fear writing real conflict because our human nature is to avoid it.

Premature editing gives us a false belief that we are being productive, when in fact it is sabotaging our work and reinforcing our fears by permitting us to procrastinate. Fears can only be conquered by facing them, and premature editing keeps us “busy” and gives us justification to stay mired.

 3.  Premature Editing Can Discourage and Keep a Writer from Finishing—This is another reason that traditional critique groups can be counter-productive. Again, other writers are seeing our work in a microcosm, and that limits how well they can critique. This is why I suggest using the techniques we discussed earlier. Just make notes.

Our fellow writers are invaluable, but we have to appreciate that they are seeing our work from a limited point of view. Their opinions may be dead-on (We HATE your protagonist and hope he dies), but they could be far off-base and serve only to uproot those subconscious seeds we discussed.

If we continue to go back changing things chapter by chapter, changing, changing, changing, either due to critique group feedback or our own self-edit, what happens is that we KILL our forward momentum with a big ol’ red-penning, back-spacing bone saw.  Do that long enough, and it becomes hard not to be discouraged and ultimately give up. If you have been reworking the first act of your book for months, it can very easily end up in the drawer with all the other unfinished works.

When it comes to NaNoWriMo, the point is to write 50,000 words in thirty days. That’s it. You can’t do this if you over think your work. If you hit a wall, just keep writing. Sometimes our brains are like water pumps. We need to prime them and get through the goo before the creativity flows. Just write. You can fix it later. Or, you can start over.

Doesn’t matter.

For those participating in NaNoWriMo, you need to remain focused on the entire point of NaNoWriMo…word count. That might not seem like enough, but trust me it is. Becoming disciplined enough to generate respectable word count and adhere to self-imposed deadlines is the clincher to doing this writing thing for a career. No publishing house will sign a writer who writes only when she “feels like it.”

NaNoWriMo is “career day” and newer writers get a taste of what it’s like to be an author. Career authors have to say no to family and friends, set boundaries and write no matter what…just like Nano. Professionals also have to learn to not edit too quickly. That is yet another valuable lesson from NaNoWriMo. So embrace the experience for what it is and let go of perfection for now.

So put down the red pen and use the Delete Key with care. With great power comes great responsibility. And, most of all, relax and have fun.

Time to hear from you guys, What do you love about editing? What do you hate? Do you have any tips or suggestions? War stories you’d like to share?

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, 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 October 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 th 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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107 Comments

Deadly Sin of Writing #7–Treating the Reader Like a Moron

I know I talked about this only a couple of months ago, and yes, you guessed it. This is my 7th Deadly Sin of Writing. As an editor, I found that I kept correcting the same blunders over and over and yeah…over. The mistakes were so universal among new writers that I finally put together my Seven Deadly Sins of Writing so that these issues could be corrected ahead of time. This, then, would leave me more time to comment on the actual story instead of taking valuable time slashing through these common oopses. Feel free to ignore any of the Sins, but I will tell you that editors don’t sit up all night thinking of ways to make your lives miserable….we only stay up until ten doing that :D.

Editors are like engineers. We look at a writer’s  race car (the manuscript) and look for parts that will cause drag, slow down momentum, or cause so much friction that a fiery crash or a dead engine is inevitable. The Seven Deadly Sins are designed to make sure your plot is sleek, fast and unstoppable until the finish line.

I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid.  Yet, it is a common problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful. It’s as if we get so wrapped up in our story that we mentally stumble in that brief span from synapse to keyboard, and inadvertently end up treating our readers like they need a drool cup. So today, I put together a list of bad habits to make it easier for you guys to spot when you are coaching the reader.

Offender #1—Adverb Abuse

Here is a news flash. Not all adverbs are evil…just most of them. One of the reasons I am such a Nazi when it comes to adverbs it that they are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.

The ONLY time an adverb is acceptable is when it is there to denote some essence that is not inherent in the verb.

For example: She whispered quietly. Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly?

Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? The adverb conspiratorially tells us of a very specific type of whisper, and is not a quality that is necessarily implied by the verb.

Offender #2—Qualifiers

It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break).

The qualifiers add nothing but a cluster of extra words that bogs down the prose.  If someone slams the door right after a heated scene of arguing, the reader gets that the character is angry, frustrated, upset. We don’t need to spell it out.

Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene. Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.

Offender #3—Punctuation & Font as Props

You are allowed three exclamation points every 50,000 words—just so your editor can cut them and then laugh at you for using exclamation points in the first place.  Hey, a little editor humor :)99% of the time exclamation points are not necessary if the prose is strong.

“Get the kids out of the house!” he yelled. (Yep)

I recently read a non-fiction book where the writer used an exclamation point on every single sentence. I felt like I was learning marketing from Billy Mays. At best, the guy was shouting at me for page after page. At worst, he was monotone, because when we emphasize everything, we emphasize nothing.

Ellipses do not make a scene more dramatic, just…make…the…writing…more…annoying. Ellipses can be used but, again, very sparingly.

In fiction, bold font and italics are almost never acceptable. Again, if the prose is well written, the reader will stress the word(s) in his head. Trust me. We don’t need to hold our reader’s hand, or brain, or whatever.

Is it ever okay to use bold font and italics? Sure, if you write non-fiction. In non-fiction we are teaching, so certain key words or points need to stand out.

In the world of fiction?

No bold font. That is the tool of an amateur. And italics? We can use it, just not very often or we run the risk of insulting our reader’s intelligence. If you come to a point where you believe it is absolutely necessary to use italics, I suggest trying to strengthen the scene first.

Everyone who has ever argued this point with me was wrong. I don’t say this to sound like a jerk, I say it because if you are using all these props, you don’t need them. Have confidence. Your writing is stronger than you believe. I have read the writing samples sent to me by huffy writers who thought they were robbing the reader of some experience by removing the bold and/or italics, and guess what? I still found the bold and italics annoying and distracting. We readers really are smart. Really. We can figure out what should be stressed. Lose the prose training wheels to race with the big boys and girls.

And as far as italics for internal dialogue? Yes, that is technically correct, but internal dialogue should be used VERY sparingly. Too much internal dialogue, to me the editor, is a major red flag of an author not yet strong enough to maintain POV and keep the flow of narrative. Switching a reader from a third limited perspective to a first-person internal dialogue is jarring. Do you mind being jarred once in a while? No. But every five minutes? It gets tedious.

Offender #4—Telling Instead of Showing

Most of us have been beaten over the head with the saying, “Show. Don’t tell.” There is a good reason for that. Telling is a lazy method of characterization. Most readers are pretty sharp and like figuring things out on their own. Thus, if we spoon-feed information that should be given via the story, we risk turning off the reader.

New writers are almost always guilty of telling instead of showing. Why? Simple. They’re still learning techniques that are going to take time and practice to develop. Yet, all of us, regardless our skill level need to be wary of this narrative crutch. To be blunt, telling is far less taxing on the brain, so our lazy nature will try to take shortcuts if we aren’t careful.

Actions speak louder than words. Yeah, it is easy to just tell the reader our antagonist is a real jerk, but it is better to show our antagonist doing things that make the reader decide this for himself. We accomplish this by creating an antagonist who simply does things jerks do.

Good writers don’t tell readers a character is ticked off. Good writers show she is ticked off. Crossed arms. No eye contact. Clenched jaw. Slamming doors. Remember that over 95% of communication is non-verbal. Use this to your writing advantage. When creating characters, think about what actions will define your character’s nature or mood universally.

For a character’s nature: If you want to create a cad, think what actions cads do that would make everyone in a room label him the same way—checking out every woman who walks by, openly flirting with other women, using breath spray every 5 minutes, telling sexist jokes, etc.

For a character’s mood/mental state: Regardless of culture, we can tell if someone is mad, hurt, sad, or happy by body language. Make a list of all the body language cues for the mood you wish to create. A book on body language can be extremely helpful for the more subtle stuff. For instance, people who lie often rub a body part (wringing hands) or tap. Why? Unless people are sociopathic, it usually causes mental stress to lie, so the rubbing or tapping is a sign of energy displacement.  See, these are the sort of details that make good writing into much better writing.

What are your thoughts? Are there some other pet peeves you guys have that I missed? What makes you put down a book? What methods transport you? What makes you hurl the book across the room?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of September, 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.

Okay, I am behind on announcing winners due to family drama, so catching up today.

Last Week of August’s Winner–Diana Stevan

First Week of September’s Winner–Donna Amis Davis

Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

Winner of fifteen pages of critique for the month of August is Susie Lindau

Please send 3750 word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org

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

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, I 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 th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Until next time…

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59 Comments

Guinea Pig Diaries: Little Darlings Anonymous

Have you ever heard of the Kubler-Ross 5 Stages of Death and Dying? Well, as an editor for many years, I’ve seen a similar phenomenon happen with first-time novelists, especially when I was called upon to stage an intervention. Not pretty. I call this process of extracting a writer from her first bad novel, The 5 stages of Edits & Crying, which looks eerily similar to what Kubler-Ross observed:

Denial–My novel is perfect. Agent ready. You just need to keep reading. You haven’t gotten to the good parts yet. Those 67 flashbacks will all make sense on page 282.

Anger–How dare you say anything is wrong with my novel? What have YOU had published??? Huh? You don’t know everything. I haven’t seen your name on the NY Times best-seller list.

Bargaining–Okay, granted, I might not need all 139 characters, but at least 111 are essential, or the ten-book series I have plotted in my head will fall apart.

Depression–Can we talk later? I kind of need to go drink some Listerine right now.

Acceptance–Do what you must *hands me the red pen*

Science has proven (okay well, not proven, but kind of suggested, and all right all of this is made up and LOOK SQUIRREL!!!).

Where was I?

Oh, yes. Science has proven that Little Darlings are highly addictive and, if left untreated, can lead to manuscript paralysis, coma or even death. This addiction is real and real books are hurting.

Little Darling addiction is a serious problem in the writing world, and is estimated to kill at least 900,000 novels a year. Most novels never make it throught the entire gestational process. Little Darlings cause horrific mutations in the manuscript. The birth defects are often so severe that the novel fails to thrive. It is always tragic having to console a writer parent during these times.

So, how does the addiction work? Glad you asked. Apparently, when a writer weaves in friends, loved ones, exes, witty pieces of banter from real life, a Little Darling often forms, much like a tumor. The Little Darling once embedded into the prose, then stimulates the Dopamine response centers in the brain, giving the writer a high not unlike chocolate, winning scratch-offs, or finding a forgotten five dollar bill in the laundry. The writer then likes this high and wants to repeat the feeling.

This is a dangerous cycle that can lead to a metastatic explosion of Little Darlings in a manuscript. The Little Darlings aggressively seek out and then take over actual healthy narrative points and, in the end, the original story is so corrupted with Little Darlings that the story develops Terminal Little Darling Syndrome and death is the most likely prognosis.

There actually are life-saving surgeries available, but it involves so much cutting, bleeding and extraction, usually most writers cannot endure the process. Also, not all surgeons editors have the skill to help the writer remove the Little Darlings without killing the underlying healthy story.

There is generally only one alternative. Writers who are unwilling or unable to obtain WIP surgery are then forced to take the WIP off life support or place their WIP in a home near the computer Recycle Bin.

WIPs then spend their days drooling and eating Jell-O in some forgotten Word folder that the writer never visits. She can’t bear to. She feels too helpless and guilty. So, the WIP with Terminal Little Darling Syndrome spends the rest of its life playing Bingo with partially drafted short-stories and bad break-up poetry.

Little Darling addiction works rapidly and can affect more than just the WIPs. The addiction hurts the writer as well. The writer keeps inserting more and more little precious pieces of prose, OR often will just keep rereading the same pages seeking that first-time high. This behavior then paralyzes the writer and keeps him from moving foreward and finishing the work in progress.

It is a terrible addiction and the only way to fight this is to educate people. TLDS is deadly, but it CAN be prevented. This is why I blog. It’s why I’m here and today, I want you to meet a friend of mine.

A year and a half ago, I met a young promising writer, Piper Bayard. She was one of the most tragic cases I’d ever seen. She was so addicted to Little Darlings that she’d pushed away close friends and family, because they cut into time playing with her imaginary friends. It was an ugly scene and we had to dose Piper regularly with caffeine and let her stroke a shiny bookmark so the DTs didn’t kill her will to write.

She is here today to share her story and how she beat her life-threatening addiction to little Darlings. She canonized the process and created Little Darlings Anonymous for those struggling to let go of this terrible addiction.

Thank you Piper for being here….

Thank you, Kristen. I would like to start today’s meeting with the 12 Steps of LDA:

12 Steps of Little Darlings Anonymous

  1. We admit we were powerless over our imaginary friends, and that our Works Progress had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that an Editor greater than ourselves could restore our prose to sanity.
  3. We made the decision to turn our will and our manuscripts over to our Editors, whoever we understand them to be.
  4. We made a searching and fearless critical inventory of all of our Little Darlings that were wholly irrelevant to our stories.
  5. We admitted to our Editors, to ourselves, and to our beta readers the exact nature of our self-indulgences.
  6. We became entirely ready to have our Editors remove all the Little Darlings from our Works In Progress.
  7. We humbly asked our Editors to mercilessly slaughter all of our Little Darlings when we had not the strength.
  8. We made a list of all persons we had subjected to our original manuscripts and became willing to make amends to all of them who had not killed themselves with sporks by page fifty.
  9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would cause them to injure themselves or others at the mere memory of our manuscripts.
  10. We continued to undergo edits, and, when our Editors sniff out Little Darlings, promptly submitted them for termination.
  11. We sought through study and daily word count to improve our conscious contact with our plots, as we understood them, seeking only the knowledge to distinguish between Little Darlings and actual elements of our stories.
  12. Having had a literary awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to other Little Darling Addicts, and to practice these principles in all of our written endeavors.

Hello, My name is Piper Bayard, and I’m a Little Darling Addict.

Hi, Piper.

Welcome.

Thank you. I’d like to say I’m happy to be here today, but that wouldn’t be true, and I know that, if we aren’t honest with ourselves and others, we’ll never recover from our addictions.

The fact is, I really didn’t want to come. I made up a hundred excuses as to why I didn’t need this meeting. Why I didn’t need to share my story. Why I really didn’t need recovery at all. I was fine. Sure, I knew I had one or two Little Darlings, but I could get rid of them any time.

And then the little voice inside me. . . . You know the one. . . . That little voice that calls us on our crap and keeps us from enjoying the denial we wallowed in before we first logged on to Kristen’s blog and saw the light of Novel Structure. . . . That little voice told me that if I was fighting this meeting so hard, it was because this was where I needed to be. So I’m here.

*Polite clapping.*

Thank you. So this week, I want to share my Step 7 with you. I humbly asked my Editor, Kristen Lamb, to perform Radical Little Darling Surgery on my WIP and extract all of my Little Darlings. *shudder*

I was so proud of my manuscript when I first sent it away. I had colorful characters, exquisite action, and details about everything from trimming pottery to the nocturnal habits of pet mice. Every clever joke I had ever laughed about while partying with my friends was deftly woven in and disguised as meaningful dialogue. And the best part? All of my favorite people I had ever known were right there in one place. Of course, none of that had anything to do with a huntress who must befriend her worst enemy to overthrow a theocratic dictator before he exterminates her people. But it was all so sparkly and shiny.

I didn’t understand at first why Kristen took one look at it and broke out her surgical instruments. But when she placed her scalpel at the throat of one of my favorite-but-forced jokes right on page one, I jumped in front of her, falling to my knees and pleading, “No. Not that one.” I could see she was considering extracting me from the room along with my ill-timed humor, but instead, she mercifully lowered her blade and guided me through a process I now use to help others in Little Darlings Anonymous.

I worked the first six steps for months, fruitlessly attempting to justify inappropriate violence, psychotic character behavior, and excessive verbiage that rivaled the unedited version of The Count of Monte Cristo. But it was no good. The truth is the truth. One Little Darling is too many, and a thousand are never enough. I had to “Let Go, and Let Editor.”

It got bloody fast. . . . *sob*

A tissue box appears and arms embrace me.

It’s ok. . . . I’m ok, now. *deep breath*

Just as I had humbly asked, Kristen showed no mercy. She sliced and diced my cool “reminiscing over every book we own as we’re hurriedly packing them into hiding” scene. She obliterated my two whole stunning chapters on “finding the fugitive in the hidden cave.” She even vaporized my detailed recitation of Mexican border laws in a post-apocalyptic world, just because none of the action takes place at the Mexican border. Can you believe it?

But that wasn’t the most difficult part, and I know this is going to be hard for some of you to hear. . . . Believe me. It’s even harder for me to tell you. . . . She removed then biopsied 74 of my 87 main characters. Even after I named them all and gave each of their backgrounds and habits in depth!

At first, I was stunned. I thought I was ready for that 7th Step, but when she started cutting, I didn’t know if I was going to be strong enough to bear it. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I even thought about running home to my writing group that met every Saturday for fifteen years with no one ever getting published, so I could hear them tell me just one more time how one day, those 587 agents and publishers who turned me down were going to be sorry.

But then, as Little Darling parts flew around me and the scent of blood and burning flesh filled my nostrils, a strange transformation took place. Deep down in my gut, I realized something. . . . This felt goooooood!

Before I knew it, I was right there by Kristen’s side with a laser scalpel of my own, popping off monologues, sniping at adverbs, and hunting down three more of those 87 characters who’d hidden in some redundant metaphors. It wasn’t easy, and I had quite the mess to stitch up by the time we were finished, but now, I have a real plot with relevant characters in place of “tea time with my imaginary friends.”

After a lot of bleeding and pain, my story was saved. My WIP went through six months of WWBC rehabilitation to build strong narrative points and she’s now on the road to full recovery.

I’m living proof, folks. The program works when you work it.

Thank you for listening today.

Grant me the
serenity to accept that things have got to change.

The courage to
change the things I can.

And a good
Editor to help me know the difference.

Thank you, Piper!

What Little Darlings are hiding in your work? Are you ready to have them removed to save your WIP? All the best to all of you for letting go. Do you want to share your own struggles with Little Darling Addiction? Do you have friends or loved ones who need help? This is a safe place to share. Also, feel free to ask Piper any questions about her journey to recovery.

What are your thoughts? Opinions?  I love hearing from you! And 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. 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 August I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, I 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 th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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81 Comments

Deadly Sin of Writing #4–Beware the Bog of Back Story

Last week, I introduced you guys to my first three Deadly Sins of Writing. Many of you, in the comments, requested I keep going and reveal the rest of my Deadly Sins. All I have to say is, y’all asked for it :D.

Creating great characters has to be one of the toughest tasks for any fiction writer to successfully accomplish. Let’s be honest. Plot is important, but characters have the power to make or break a story. Most of us don’t remember plot…we remember people. We identify. There is something about that character resonates within our soul, and we’re hooked.

Today’s blog will help you give life to great characters. How? By teaching you not to kill them.

There are a number of ways to strangle, smother, or otherwise crush the life from what could have been a wonderful character. One popular method of involuntary homicide (character-cide?) is the ever-tempting Bog of Back-Story.

Like a real bog, the Bog of Back-Story looks lush, verdant, and innocent from afar. One might even easily mistake this smooth green landscape for solid ground…but take a closer look. This sucker is nothing but mud and muck and quicksand. Step in deep enough and we ain’t getting out.

I have edited hundreds of short stories and novels. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read a really clever story that had some great forward momentum…only for the author to stop and go back in time to explain why such-and-such did thus-and-such. What? Huh?

It is my opinion that the Bog of Backstory is most often the by-product of our failure to plan ahead of time. Writers (especially new writers) are super excited to start writing, so they often charge into a plot without understanding the psychological terrain of the characters ahead of time. As a consequence, it is then easy for characters to wander off the path (plot) and end up stuck in the mire of memories and recollections.

New writers often try to thread flashback after flashback into the plot as they try to understand who their characters really are. Weighting down any plot with bag after bag of memories, dreams and flashbacks is a surefire way to sink any story…and kill all souls on board.

Failure to understand key characters ahead of time often has terrible effects.

Back Story Kills Plot Momentum

Loading back story onto the narrative often has the effect of riding in a car with a fifteen-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift. We just about get going and it looks promising and….we roll backwards, stall and have to wait a few minutes to get going. Just like we wouldn’t want to make a 700 mile drive this way, readers don’t want to read a novel this way either. It leaves them beat up, exhausted and in a foul mood.

Back Story Creates Fish Heads

On virtually every first novel I’ve edited, there is what author Candy Havens calls a fish head. It is almost always 100 pages long. Why? Because the writer who takes off writing without knowing her characters needs roughly a hundred pages to figure them out. The first hundred pages of first-time novels (98% of the time) are something that can be chopped off and thrown away…ergo the term fish head.

Every character sounds alike and the dialogue is flat. Then, suddenly about page 100, the characters start coming alive and develop their own voices. It is also about this point the writer finally settles on what the real story problem is.

Doing detailed character backgrounds ahead of time can prevent fish heads. Take time to write out each major character’s story. Write freely and let your imagination go wild. Then, once you get to the plotting, it will be easier to see what parts of the back story are good to harvest for your main story for plot and even sub-plots.

Back Story is Important but not Always Relevant

Back story is critical for our characters. In fact, in my current critique group, highly detailed character backgrounds are the first step before ANY plotting. It is absolutely essential to know each of the characters and why they are good, evil, confused, etc.

Why?

Because we are all the sum of our experiences and our backgrounds affect our choices, body language, dialogue and decision-making. Characters need to be real people with baggage (Just because they have baggage, doesn’t mean the reader wants to hear about it. That is therapy, not fiction).

What is NOT, relevant, however, is that the reader know ALL of these critical details unless they apply to the current story problem. We don’t need a heavy-handed flashback to when our heroine was a little girl and her father left her and there was great crying and gnashing of teeth.

Really.

We (readers) really don’t need to know the why behind everything. Don’t believe me? Go read my post about why the Star Wars prequels sucked. Explaining is not necessary and it ruins tension (The Force was better before it was explained).

Yes, our readers might want to know why, but let them suffer. Not giving readers what they want when they want it is exactly what keeps them turning pages and buying books. It’s called dramatic tension.

Instead of dumping a crude flashback in the beginning so your reader will understand Such-and-Such…let them wonder. It’s good for them and it’s good for your career.

Think of it this way.

Writers are word magicians. If we tell the audience how we made the woman float, we ruin the show.

Back Story Needs to Be Used Sparingly

Back story gives life to a character much like water gives life to a plant. However, filling a plot with back story (like overwatering) will just kill forward momentum and drown your character. Part of growing as novelists requires we learn finesse. Many of us, when we start our writing, are very heavy-handed and it takes time, practice and study to acquire the skill of folding back story seamlessly into the narrative. We need to learn to be so smooth that the reader never even sees what we’re doing.

A quick example:

“Fifi, are you going to the dance tonight?” asked Lola.

Fifi wanted to meet up with Josh, and hoped the night would go as planned. But, bad things had happened before. Fifi thought back to the time her father had promised he would take her to the Father-Daughter Dance. She had been waiting weeks to wear the pink chiffon gown her mother had bought her for the occasion. Even though her mother had forbidden her to wear it, Fifi would sneak the dress out of her closet and twirl in front of the mirror like a ballerina. She remembered counting the days up to the dance and how it had started to rain and her mother begged her father not to go to the store for a corsage to go with Fifi’s dress…

And we have just taken a side-trip into The Land of “Who Cares?”

This approach takes away from the current story problem and trails the reader down a story thread that may or may not be relevant to the current story problem. Yes, Fifi might have had a tragedy, but telling all the details kills the mystery and ruins the momentum of the current conflict.

So instead, try something like…

“Fifi? Are You going to the dance tonight?” asked Lola.

“I don’t know. I don’t have the best history with dances,” Fifi replied. “People tend to die.”

See how much shorter this is? It gives back story, but doesn’t tell so much the reader gets lost and distracted. Also, by not telling everything, the reader wants to know more.

Fiction is a lot like dating. We writers are courting the reader. Give too much too soon, and it’s too easy. We ruin the thrill. Don’t give enough? The reader goes looking for more exciting fiction.

So have you escaped the Bog of Back Story and lived to tell the tale? What techniques do you recommend for avoiding this writing pitfall? Have you thrown a book across the room because it kept going back in time? Or does it not bother you? Come on and share your thoughts.

I love hearing from you! And 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. 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 August I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique–Ruth Nestvold. Please send your 1250 word Word document to kristen @ kristen lamb dot org.

In the meantime, I 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 th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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66 Comments

Beating the “Sugar” Addiction–Tightening the Writing

Sugar addiction is dangerous.

When I started writing fiction years ago, I didn’t know anything. There wasn’t an adverb, adjective, metaphor or simile I didn’t adore. The problem, however, is when we emphazise everything, we in effect emphasize nothing. My writing was bloated, and I had to learn to trim the fat. I had joined a writing group that, on more than one occasion, left me in tears vowing to go back to sales and forget this foolishiness of wanting to write.

But, once I could get my ego out of the way, I realized that yes, a handful of the critiquers were nasty human beings who would never say anything nice. Yet, that didn’t mean that I should ignore everything they had to say. When I finally calmed down, I was open to suggestions.

One of the strongest writers in our group regularly submitted pieces of what was called flash fiction. Flash fiction are short works of fiction. Some are 500 words or less, 300 words or less, 150, and even 100 words or less.

I figured if I had a strict word count limit, that might force me to go on an Atkin’s Diet for Writers. I would cut out all carbohydrates modifiers, in hopes I could break my addiction to them. I started writing flash fiction in hopes I could make my prose leaner and more powerful.

If you are like I once was, and you regularly indulge in sweet metaphors until your brain is euphoric from a sugary writing high, I recommend trying your hand at flash fiction. Sugar addictions are bad in eating as well as writing (and this parallel allowed me to use the Girl Scout image above–ROFL).

Since some of you guys on Twitter and FB expressed interest in my fiction, here is a flash fiction story I wrote in 2004, and it was my very first contest win. There was a picture of an old Chevy Bel Air as a writing prompt for a story that could be a max of 500 words.

Deep in the Heart

A thin finger of Texas highway shimmers with heat, and rows of cacti whir by in a blur of green. Wind snaps the ends of my grandmother’s hair across her cheek and her head turns toward the haze of plateaus along the horizon. Her scarf tries to tangle in a smile that has spread like a sunbeam across her eighty-year-old cheeks.

Sitting next to her, my heart flutters with happiness. I begin to believe that love, hate, fear, and wonder are passed from one generation to the next, floating along the same genetic tributaries as brown hair or green eyes.

When I was a year out of college, my grandmother, a product of the Great Depression, greeted me, and my 1956 Chevy Bel Air convertible, with a concerned scowl. I knew she worried about me. Truthfully, at the time, I worried about me. Though the car was a dream I’d carried to adulthood, I wondered if I would have the funds and the patience to restore the rusted, creaky disaster to her former glory.

My grandmother grew up desperately poor and, even now, her face is painted with shades of hardship that mark her generation as different. When I was little, she told me stories about the time she had to stay home from school six months because she had no shoes and how her older brother, now dead, carried her to and from church to protect her feet from angry barbs of West Texas goat heads. A lifetime later, long after the days of walls papered with old newsprint to keep out the cold, she still clips coupons and saves every spare cent . . . just in case.

I’d grown up watching old movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, my grandmother next to me, her lap dusted with popcorn from my greedy fingers. I would sit, enthralled by Marilyn Monroe’s beauty or Audrey Hepburn’s class and dream that one day, I too, would be glamorous. I recall how I’d glance to the lovely, patrician woman by my side and wonder if she felt the same.

Now an adult, I tilt my rear-view mirror to study her reflection. I watch her grin against the sun and marvel how joy has melted the disquiet from her face. We glide across the desert on white-wall tires, our hair wrapped in bright scarves that flutter and wave flirtatiously to the truckers behind us.

Our final destination is a quaint South Texas town known for strange green lights and artistic flair— Marfa. We’ll stay at a family-owned hotel, and I’ll make jokes about being abducted by aliens. At night, I will drive us out of town and park beneath a sparkling canopy of stars in hopes the famous Marfa Lights might come out and grace us with an appearance. Like college girlfriends, rather than grandmother and grandchild, we’ll lean against the massive hood of the car that made it possible for both of us, at least for a moment, to be glamorous.

***

The coolest part about this story is that, aside from the car and the trip to Marfa, everything is true. This was my very first contest win and my first piece of published fiction. I gave my grandmother a copy of the book with this story printed in it. She started crying when she read it.

Anyway, do you guys suffer from a writing “sugar” addiction? Have any tips, tools or suggestions?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of July, 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.

Last Week’s Winner–Gloria Oliver

Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

Month of July’s Winner–Leo Godin

Please send your 3750 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org

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

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, I 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 th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Now an adult, I tilt my rear-view mirror to study her reflection. I watch her grin against the sun and marvel how joy has melted the disquiet from her face. We glide across the desert on white-wall tires our hair wrapped in silk scarves that flutter and wave flirtatiously to the truckers behind us.

Our final destination is a quaint South Texas town known for strange green lights and artistic flair— Marfa. We’ll stay at a family-owned hotel, and I’ll make jokes about being abducted by aliens. At night, I will drive us out of town and park beneath a sparkling canopy of stars in hopes the famous Marfa Lights might come out and grace us with an appearance. Like college girlfriends, rather than grandmother and grandchild, we’ll lean against the massive hood of the car that made it possible for both of us, at least for a moment, to be glamorous.

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43 Comments

The Pain of Resetting–Loving Your Novel…Even When It Hurts

Happy Friday!!! TGIF!!! I have a speacial treat for you guys today. My friend, the HILARIOUS Clay Morgan, writer, professor and speaker from Pittsburgh, PA is here as a special guest. Some of Clay’s works include, Don’t Forget the Toilet Paper: A Memoir, Visits with Dead People: Family Memories, and Michael Myers vs. Facebook.

Thank you, Clay for sharing your wit and wisdom…

A few years ago I busted my hand while packing our vehicle for departure. Not good. We were about leave for a 25 hour drive to Florida, and I was scheduled to be behind the wheel for approximately 25 of those hours.
Extra not good.

I knew the hand was in trouble by the way the left side collapsed. The thing looked like an ampersand by the time we rolled into the Sunshine State. The doctor we rented a beach house from took a cursory look at my paw and made this sound: “ughblarg…” There may have been a snarf in there too but these memories are pretty sketchy since my brain was fairly rattled by the Vicodin-endorphin-orange juice cocktail I consumed for breakfast that day.

The staff at the emergency room down there could have just kidney punched me and taken my wallet for all the effort the expended to tell me my hand was broken. I left there with some x-ray images, a Cracker Jack prize, and a medical bill.

Throughout the rest of vacation and another week back home the bones healed but problems were setting in. I couldn’t find any bullets to bite, so I just went to my doctor and showed him what happened. Did I mention
the injury happened to my left and I’m a southpaw? Off to the orthopedist I went!

My left hand shudders at the memory of what took place there. Having broken bones set is never a picnic, not even a picnic that gets rained out while ants crawl all over your food. But let me tell you about how they fix smashed bones after two weeks of healing incorrectly.

I was laid on a table and given a nerve block in my hand. Two men stayed in the room. One of these guys was the doctor. His job was to sit on a rolling stool, take my hand, and re-break the not tender enough bones in order to properly reset everything. The other guy’s job was to lean across me with hands or forearms in case my body reflexively tried to attack and murder the good doctor.

You might think this procedure involves some sort of implement. Nope. Just the bare hands of someone who’s taken the Hippocratic Oath. He squeezed and pressed and snapped the stubborn paw. That’s snap, crackle, and pop if you’re keeping score at home.

I reacted sort of how William Wallace looks at the end of Braveheart when the executioners are fidgeting with his entrails. I sounded like him too, no words just grunts and empty gasps. It was as close as I ever came to seeing the types of things cartoons see when you hit them over the head with a frying pan.

When he finished I told the assistant how glad I was that the ordeal was over. He said, “Well, he still has come back and actually set the bones now.”

Ughblarg.

I’ve never written that story until now my WANA friends, but I have cause for dragging you through tha trauma. See, despite being a nonfiction writer these days, I also wrote a novel once. The unpublished book is a supernatural thriller called Dash. Think Field of Dreams but written by M. Night Shyamalan.

My book sucked mostly, but I got it done. All first novels are terrible, right? (Curse you David Baldacci and anyone else who hit it big on the first try.) Most of us just need to get it out. Get it down. That first book is a mind dump, as much therapy as plot development.

Mark stared down the space pirate, a creature more hideous than his dad who never came to any of my
games or even supported my decision to become a professional blogger! Oh, oops…

Maybe that’s just me. Maybe you’ve been there. That’s one of the main reasons we have to let our work sit
and get dusty for a bit after completion. We care too much about our fabulous WIP at first (mine took two  years to write). A little distance hardens our nhearts enough for us to come back with a chainsaw later.

I still love my characters in Dash and did okay with dialogue, but I learned much about editing through hacking that puppy to bits. Three times. I realized it might just be saleable if I chopped another 25,000 words and eliminated a couple characters. I quit instead and haven’t looked at it in 4 years.

Then I went to a writer’s conference recently where my current work generated some interest. One night, an acquisition’s editor from a small press asked if I had anything else. I briefly described my sucky novel Dash. She told me to send it over.

Super.

*puts head into plastic window fan*

I’m thinking that reworking that novel will be about as pleasant as the time Doctor Pain brutalized me. Like my hand, Dash had too much time to form in the wrong way with built in damage, bad settings, and screwed up structure. But I’ll probably try for another painful attempt sometime since we writers are clearly masochists.

My style has changed. I’m a completely different person. I may need to be heavily medicated again, but should be distanced enough from that manuscript by now to bust it apart with all the dispassion of a hand-breaking orthopedist.

If you’re in the middle of a project and sense a fatal flaw you might want to face it sooner than later. I denied the extent of my problem and ended up with a painful and costly solution. But life was so much better once my hand was fixed, and I need that sucker to keep on writing, even when it hurts.

Do you have a MS that needs some painful deconstruction/reconstruction? How do you approach this painful chore? What are your thoughts? Suggestions? War stories?

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76 Comments

4 Writing Crutches that Insult the Reader’s Intelligence

I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid.  Yet, it is a common problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful. It’s as if we get so wrapped up in our story that we mentally stumble in that brief span from synapse to keyboard, and inadvertently end up treating our readers like they need a drool cup. So today, I put together a list of bad habits to make it easier for you guys to spot when you are coaching the reader.

Offender #1—Adverb Abuse

One of the reasons I am such a Nazi when it comes to adverbs it that they are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.

The ONLY time an adverb is acceptable is when it is there to denote some essence that is not inherent in the verb.

For example: She whispered quietly. Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly?

Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? The adverb conspiratorially tells us of a very specific type of whisper, and is not a quality that is necessarily implied by the verb.

Offender #2—Qualifiers

It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break).

The qualifiers add nothing but a cluster of extra words that bogs down the prose.  If someone slams the door right after a heated scene of arguing, the reader gets that the character is angry, frustrated, upset. We don’t need to spell it out.

Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene. Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.

Offender #3—Punctuation & Font as Props

You are allowed three exclamation points every 50,000 words—just so your editor can cut them and then laugh at you for using exclamation points in the first place.  Hey, a little editor humor :). 99% of the time exclamation points are not necessary if the prose is strong.

“Get the kids out of the house!” he yelled. (Yep)

I recently read a non-fiction book where the writer used an exclamation point on every single sentence. I felt like I was learning marketing from Billy Mays. At best, the guy was shouting at me for page after page. At worst, he was monotone, because when we emphasize everything, we emphasize nothing.

Ellipses do not make a scene more dramatic, just…make…the…writing…more…annoying. Ellipses can be used but, again, very sparingly.

In fiction, bold font and italics are almost never acceptable. Again, if the prose is well written, the reader will stress the word(s) in his head. Trust me. We don’t need to hold our reader’s hand, or brain, or whatever.

Is it ever okay to use bold font and italics? Sure, if you write non-fiction. In non-fiction we are teaching, so certain key words or points need to stand out.

In the world of fiction?

No bold font. That is the tool of an amateur. And italics? We can use it, just not very often or we run the risk of insulting our reader’s intelligence. If you come to a point where you believe it is absolutely necessary to use italics, I suggest trying to strengthen the scene first.

Offender #4—Telling Instead of Showing

Most of us have been beaten over the head with the saying, “Show. Don’t tell.” There is a good reason for that. Telling is a lazy method of characterization. Most readers are pretty sharp and like figuring things out on their own. Thus, if we spoon-feed information that should be given via the story, we risk turning off the reader.

New writers are almost always guilty of telling instead of showing. Why? Simple. They’re still learning techniques that are going to take time and practice to develop. Yet, all of us, regardless our skill level need to be wary of this narrative crutch. To be blunt, telling is far less taxing on the brain, so our lazy nature will try to take shortcuts if we aren’t careful.

Actions speak louder than words. Yeah, it is easy to just tell the reader our antagonist is a real jerk, but it is better to show our antagonist doing things that make the reader decide this for himself. We accomplish this by creating an antagonist who simply does things jerks do.

Good writers don’t tell readers a character is ticked off. Good writers show she is ticked off. Crossed arms. No eye contact. Clenched jaw. Slamming doors. Remember that over 95% of communication is non-verbal. Use this to your writing advantage. When creating characters, think about what actions will define your character’s nature or mood universally.

For a character’s nature: If you want to create a cad, think what actions cads do that would make everyone in a room label him the same way—checking out every woman who walks by, openly flirting with other women, using breath spray every 5 minutes, telling sexist jokes, etc.

For a character’s mood/mental state: Regardless of culture, we can tell if someone is mad, hurt, sad, or happy by body language. Make a list of all the body language cues for the mood you wish to create. A book on body language can be extremely helpful for the more subtle stuff. For instance, people who lie often rub a body part (wringing hands) or tap. Why? Unless people are sociopathic, it usually causes mental stress to lie, so the rubbing or tapping is a sign of energy displacement.  See, these are the sort of details that make good writing into much better writing.

What are your thoughts? Are there some other pet peeves you guys have that I missed? What makes you put down a book? What methods transport you? What makes you hurl the book across the room?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of July, 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.

Last Week’s Winner–Nina Badzin

Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

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

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, I 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 th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Until next time…

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97 Comments

Testing the Idea–Is It Strong Enough to Make a Novel?

Whether we are traditionally published, indie published or self-published, we must connect with readers and tell a great story. Structure is the “delivery system” for our story, so it’s wise to make it as solid as possible. Many writers don’t have the luxury of writing full-time. Thus, it becomes critical for us to use time effectively. We don’t have time to waste writing 30,000 words only to realize our “great idea” cannot support the bulk of a three-act structure. Thus, we need to get really good at testing our ideas.

I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60-100,000 words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task. That said, all novels begin with an idea. But how do we know if our idea has what it takes to make a great novel?

Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then they take off writing in hopes that seed will germinate into a cohesive novel. Yeah…um, no. In my novel writers critique group, we have experienced first-hand that not all ideas are strong enough to sustain 60,000 or more words.

Think of your core idea as the ground where you will eventually build your structure. Novels, being very large structures, require firm ground. So how do you know if the idea you have is strong enough? Good question. Today we will discuss the fundamental elements of great novels. If your core idea can somehow be framed over these parts, you are likely on a good path.

James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure (which I highly highly, highly recommend, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. When you get the first glimmer of the story you long to tell, the idea that is going to keep you going for months of researching, writing, revisions and eventually submissions, it is wise to test its integrity. The LOCK system is one method we will discuss today.

Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK

LEAD

First, we must have a sympathetic and compelling character. It is critical to have a protagonist that the reader will be able to relate to. Our characters must have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.

Perfect people are boring and unlikable and they lack any room to grow. Perfect characters are no different. New writers are often insecure and our protagonists are us…well, the perfect version of us anyway. Our heroines are tall and thin and speak ten languages and have genius IQs and rescue kittens in their free time…and no one likes them. Seriously.

Think about it for a moment. Why do so many people demonize women like Angelina Jolie or Martha Stewart? Because most of us feel very insecure around women like these. They show us where we are lacking, and so we don’t like them. Most of us cannot wrap our minds around what it is like to be too beautiful or have zillions of dollars or the free time to carve pumpkins into sculptures while making our own curtains from recycled prom dresses. These individuals fascinate us with their “perfection,” yet we secretly wait for them to trip up so we can revel in their failure–I knew it! She isn’t perfect!

That’s why STAR Magazine can sell hundreds of thousands of tabloids with the promise of showing us that Angelina Jolie has cellulite. We want to tear her down and make her human. Not the best way to start out with your protagonist. If we make her too perfect, readers will revel in her destruction. Bad juju. We need readers to rally to her team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws, and humanize her.

Bridget Jones and Forrest Gump are two great examples. We can all relate to not being the prettiest or the smartest and so these characters are easy to love and root for. What if you are writing a thriller or a suspense, something that generally has a cast of uber-perfect people? Give them flaws. Perfect characters are passé. Don’t believe me? Watch the new James Bond movies, and contrast Daniel Craig with William Moore.

Now, to look at the other side of the spectrum. Often to avoid the cliched “too perfect” charater, an author will stray too far to the other end of extremes. The brooding dark protagonist is tough to pull off. In life, we avoid these unpleasant people, so why would we want to dedicate our free time to caring about them? Oh, but the author will often defend, “But he is redeemed in the end.” Yeah, but you’re expecting readers to spend ten hours (average time to read a novel) with someone they don’t like. Tall order.

To quote mega-agent, Donald Maas (The Fire in the Fiction):

Wounded heroes and heroines are easy to overdo. Too much baggage and angst isn’t exactly a party invitation for one’s readers. What’s the best balance? And which comes first, the strength or the humility? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that one is quickly followed by the other.

Objective

Your protagonist MUST have a clear objective. There are many times I go to conferences and I see all these excited writers who are all dying to talk to an agent. When I ask, “So what’s your book about?” I often get something akin to, “Well, there is this girl and she has powers, but she didn’t know she had powers, because, see. Hold on. Okay, her mother was a fairy queen and she fell in love with a werewolf, but werewolves in my book are different. Anyway she has a boyfriend in high school.”

Huh?

Your protagonist must have ONE BIG ACTIVE GOAL. Yes, even literary pieces.

Don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s a good example. The movie Fried Green Tomatoes very easily could have been just a collection of some old lady’s stories that helps our present-day protagonist (Evelyn Couch) bide the time while she waits for her husband to finish the visit with his mother, but that is far from the case.

Evelyn is having trouble in her marriage, and no one seems to take her seriously. While in a nursing home visiting relatives, she meets Ninny Threadgoode, an outgoing old woman, who tells her the story of Idgie Threadgoode, a young woman in 1920′s Alabama. Through Idgie’s inspiring life, Evelyn learns to be more assertive and builds a lasting friendship of her own with Ninny (per IMDB).

Learning to be assertive is an active goal. Building is an active verb. Gaining the self-confidence to make your own friends shows a change has occurred, a metamorphosis.

Oh, but Kristen, that’s a movie. Novels are different.

Um…not really. I use movies as examples of storytelling because it saves time. But, here is an example in the world of literary fiction to make you feel better that I am steering you down the correct path.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan could have been just a collection of tales about three generations of Chinese women, but they weren’t. There was an active goal to all of these stories. The mothers left China in hopes they could change the future for their daughters, and yet the old cycles, despite all their good intentions, repeat themselves and echo the same pain in the lives of their daughters. Actually the protagonist in the book is the collective–The Joy Luck Club.

The stories propel the living members of the Joy Luck Club toward the active goal of finding courage to change the patterns of the past. The mothers seek forgiveness and the daughters struggle for freedom, but each is actively searching and eventually finds something tangible.

We will discuss this in more detail later, but keep in mind that running away from something or avoiding something is a passive goal. Not good material for novels. Novels require active goals…even you literary folk ;) .

Conflict

Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember in March we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end. Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive.

Riddick, for most of the story, is reacting to the Lord Marshal’s agenda. Riddick’s goal is to defeat the BBT, but there are all kinds of disasters and setbacks along the way. Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting. One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.

There is a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles that I just LOVE. The prime villain, Hedley Lamarr, is interviewing scoundrels to go attack a town he wants to destroy so that he can build the railroad through it. There are all kinds of bad guys standing in line to give their CV.

Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?

Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.

Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.

Applicant: I like rape.

This sequence gets quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene.

I am not making this up.

And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies, rapes, car chases and dead bodies are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.

Knockout

So your novel has thrust a likable, relatable protagonist into a collision course with the Big Boss Troublemaker. The Big Boss Battle must deliver all you (the writer) have been promising. Endings tie up all loose ends and sub-plots and, if we have done our job, will leave the reader a feeling of resonance.

Your protagonist MUST face down the BBT. No fighting through proxies. Darth (Annakin) had to face the Emperor. Same in literary works. Evelyn Couch had to stand up to her husband and her monster of a mother-in-law. She couldn’t send in Ninny Threadgoode to do it for her. In the movie’s climactic scene, Evelyn employs the “Jedi skills” she learned from stories about Idgy. Her Jedi skills are confidence and self-respect, and she uses them to defeat her oppressors by refusing to take any more of their…shenanigans.

So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using Bell’s LOCK system. Ask yourself:

Can I cast a LEAD who is relatable and likable?

Is this OBJECTIVE something that will keep readers interested for 60-100,000 words?

Can I create a BBT and opposition force capable of generating plenty of CONFLICT to keep my lead from her objective?

Does this story problem lend itself to a KNOCKOUT ending?

This is just a taste of the good stuff that James Scott Bell has to offer in Plot & Structure so I recommend buying a copy for your writing library. Bell makes plotting simple. I was a die-hard pantser (writer who writes by the seat of her pants) and Bell helped me learn to plot, yet still retain the pantser spontaneity.

What are the biggest problems you guys have when it comes to developing your ideas? What are some setbacks you have faced? Do you guys have any recommendations for resources? Or, feel free to commiserate and laugh about all the good ideas that went oh so wrong.

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of July, 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 June I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Last Week’s Winner of 5 page critique is Stella Deleuze. Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

In the meantime, I 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 recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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45 Comments

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