Posts Tagged Les Edgerton

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

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trouble with In Medias Res

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

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

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

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

Commercial Fiction Ain’t A Tale of Two Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Example from Life

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

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

Uh…no.

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

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

So where do we begin?

We begin at the gates of Six Flags over Texas.

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

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

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

Beginning With Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

Les chopped off ALL OF IT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming Classes

BOTH CLASSES COME WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.

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

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

 

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62 Comments

The Writer’s Guide to a Meaningful Reference Library

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Whether you are just now entertaining the idea of writing a book or have been writing for a while, all authors need certain tools if our goal is to publish and make money with our work. Now, if your goal is to simply create a piece of literature that “says something deep and probing” about society or life or is esoteric and selling the book doesn’t matter? Then that is a noble goal and I wish you the very best.

There are works that have broken all the rules and come to be known (usually much later) as classics. I will, however, respectfully point out that the majority of those who follow this blog want to write commercially and make a decent living, so my list is geared toward a certain group of authors.

What this means is that anything can go in writing. Rules are not to be a straightjacket, rather guideposts.

I will say, however, that if we deviate too far from what audiences expect, then most agents won’t rep it because they won’t have a clear way to sell it. Readers might steer clear because it becomes what I call “Blue Steak.” It might be yummy, but it is just so dang odd that only a handful of the adventuresome might dare take a bite.

But look how CLEVER it is! Really, it's YUMMY.

But look how CLEVER it is! Really, it’s YUMMY.

When I wrote my post Five Mistakes Killing Self-Published Authors, I did get some push-back regarding archetypes and three-act structure. To be clear, I never said, “All authors must adhere to boring and predictable rules that turn a story into a ridiculous trope.” Nor did I say, “You can only write a good book if you reverently follow every rule.”

I merely stated that we need to understand the basics before we can get to creating “art.” If we don’t, we’re relying on “happy accidents.”

If we don’t understand the rules, we don’t know how to intelligently and artfully break them. Maybe we will write something unique and successful without ever understanding POV. But then how do we duplicate that success if we don’t know how we created it in the first place? This is akin to going in the kitchen and tossing ingredients in a bowl without knowing what they are, how they taste or how they work together (or don’t). Maybe we’ll make something yummy…or maybe we’ll make a chemical bomb.

Image via Frank Selmo WANA Commons

Image via Frank Selmo WANA Commons

When it comes to promotion, experience has taught me that if we are doing the latest fad? It’s already outdated. Algorithmic alchemy has a short shelf-life and I predict that soon it won’t work at all. Automation is ignored, spam filters are better at eating newsletters, and people are drowning in FREE! This means we need to be vigilant to grow, even in areas where we are fearful or weak.

I’m blessed to know thousands of writers, many of them legendary. The interesting thing I’ve found, is that normally the most talented writers, no matter how many zillions of novels they have sold have something in common. They continue to learn.

Last week, I was on the phone with a writer most of you would recognize. He was telling me of the books he was reading to help his current project, the social media and computer books. This author is a widely recognized genius. His books have been made into iconic movies and even assigned to college students. But, despite all this success, he’s wise enough to appreciate that, if we want to master our craft and thrive in our profession? We must always refresh and be open to new works, ideas and techniques.

For instance, craft evolves as readers evolve. Marketing doesn’t stay static. We need to always keep our fingers on the pulse of change and be open to getting out of that comfort zone.

In my career, I’ve read countless books, but these are the ones I would recommend as a staple in any writer’s library. Maybe you can use Christmas money or gift cards to begin stocking your resource library.

For Structure:

Hooked, by Les Edgerton

Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

For Character Development:

The Art of Character by David Corbett

The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

I STRONGLY recommend Angela and Becca’s Positive Trait Thesaurus and Negative Trait Thesaurus. In fact, I think you get a deal if you buy them all together. Do yourself a favor. These tools will keep your characters psychologically consistent. When you do want to vary or surprise, these books can help you do it artfully. We don’t want readers thinking WTH? 

That is bad.

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

Mind Hunter by John Douglas (Profiling is good for the FBI and writers)

DSM-5 (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders 5th Edition) Helpful for characters, dating, the workplace, and family reunions ;).

For a Swift Kick in the Pants:

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The Successful Novelist by David Morrell

Linchpin by Seth Godin

Mastery by Robert Greene

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Failing Forward by John Maxwell

Guides for Social Media:

Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World by Kristen Lamb (of, course, LOL)

Purple Cow by Seth Godin

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Buyology by Martin Lindstrom

I’ve read many other fantastic craft books and guides (often written by the same authors). I’m not listing them all because this is just what I recommend should be standard in our stores of resources. If you guys have any others you’d like to mention, I am always learning and growing, too. Feel free to mention them in the comments!

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)

Will announce December’s winners tomorrow. Sorry. My check-up took three and a HALF HOURS (which is why I only go to doctors about once a decade if I can). I apologize.

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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98 Comments

Your Writing Future—And Now For Something Totally Different…

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Francis, the WANA Mascot

WANACon is coming up, and we launch tomorrow evening at 6:00 PM EST (New York Time for our foreign friends) and go to 8:30 PM with PajamaCon. Since WANA is founded on a spirit of generosity, we’re offering PAJAMACon to everyone for FREE. Just go to the WANACon Page and on the right side you will see this:

Portal to F-U-N!

Portal to F-U-N!

You see in the Conference Hall A Selector I chose PajamaCon, then enter your name (or alias) and the password is “WANARocks”. Anything that pops up, just allow. We do this to keep your computer secure.

I know that WANACon is a bit futuristic and maybe some of you are shy about how a virtual conference works, so here’s a great time to check it out. Also, I’ll be there. What more reason do you need?

Ouch! I just got a cramp patting myself on the back!

Today, I want to take a little time to point out what is going to be SO awesome about WANACon (aside from teaching from top-tier publishing pros, AMAZON, free recordings, sweet price point, NO travel, no layovers, no TSA, no hotel and no overpriced restaurant food).

Agents

Okay, a moment about agents. I made an executive decision not to have agents at this WANACon. Why? Because NYC grinds to a halt roughly in November. The odds of ANY pitch (manuscript) landing a sweet publishing contract in three weeks has roughly the same odds as me becoming a bikini model. Reality dictates that most manuscripts will sit untouched until 2014. Why waste your time or an agent’s?

You want any agent selling your work when it’s fresh and they’re still super-stoked-excited…not after your book’s sat on their desk for three months. Just my personal opinion.

So, instead?

I kidnapped recruited the head of the Amazon CreateSpace team to present and show you how to make the most of all the cool tools Amazon provides to help you succeed. For those considering any kind of indie, self-publishing or hybrid publishing? Amazon’s Thom Kephart will be there to show you the ropes.

I also have the owner of Green E-Books to demonstrate all the coolest innovations in e-book technology, and he makes this stuff so simple even I understand it (and have yet to figure out my e-mail *sigh*).

Craft

We have the LEGENDS David Corbett and Les Edgerton and these two guys alone are worth the price of the entire conference.  I’ve been to countless conferences and workshops and read all the craft books. There are very few teachers who are game-changers.

Even though I’ve been writing professionally for ten years, I still attend craft classes. It is rare that I blow through half a notebook taking notes. I stalked both Corbett and Edgerton until they agreed to do WANACon…and reconsider the restraining orders :D.

Technically this is a “virtual” conference, so I’m not in violation of the 1000 feet “rule” the “courts” have established.

My Classes

I am teaching three sessions at WANACon, all classes I’m not regularly offering.

The first is Many Roads to Rome—Choosing a Publishing Path. How do you know whether to self-publish or keep trying to score a traditional deal? Not all writers (or works) are suited to be traditionally published. Other personalities will DIE trying to self-publish. Sometimes a book is great, but the publishing path chosen is ill-suited for the work. You might want to even consider a hybrid path.

This class will offer guidance on one of the most important decisions we will ever make. How DO we publish?

Then I have Killing Little Darlings with Ruthless Efficiency. Ever heard of RAMBO? I am LAMBO. I have slayed entire villages of Little Darlings. I’m going to teach you ways to spot them, cut them, kill them and maybe even not create them in the first place.

Prevention IS the best cure.

Then, lastly, NaNoWriMo Bootcamp. 

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is the month of November. 50,000 words in one month. Sounds like a lot. If we write every day, roughy 1,600 words a day. If we take weekends off? 2,000 words a day. Granted, NaNoWriMo isn’t about writing a perfect book. It is, however, a GREAT introduction into what it’s like to keep and maintain a professional pace.

Many writers start out hot and heavy, write themselves into a corner, then burn out and DIE. Most of the time, this is preventable if we have some basic know-how and start off correctly. There is no sense in killing ourselves for a month to reach 50,000 words only to end up with an unfixable nightmare that chews on the furniture and pees on the rugs.

I would assume that anyone who vows to complete NaNoWriMo would like to create something that can be revised, polished and published. Throwing away a month of time and tens of thousands of words is hard on the body and the ego. Why not write something solid that can be shaped into something FANTASTIC?

Other Stuff

We have Susan Spann who is an Intellectual Property and Publishing Attorney to teach you about contracts. When do you sign? When do you walk away? When do you RUN away?

Some of you might want to add romance to your book or even a–GASP!—love scene. How do we write those without sounding like bad porn?

Hey, I’m here to fix your cable?

But I don’t HAVE cable….

Best-Selling Author Candace Havens has written more books than I could fit on our digital book table. She’s written at all levels of “heat” so whether you want the sweet romance or are writing erotica, Candy has the know-how to help you write scenes readers will love…instead of rolling their eyes.

For the NF Folks

We have long-time journalist Caitlin Kelly. She’s written multiple books and has worked as a freelance writer for most of her career. She’s had over a 100+ freelance articles in The New York Times and recently was published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. This lady KNOWS her stuff. She’s tough and will tell it straight, but this business isn’t for the faint of heart.

We also have media personality Amy Shojai to guide you how to write a NF proposal. Not only is she an amazing and energetic teacher, Amy has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and in USA Weekend, The New York TimesWashington PostReader’s Digest, Woman’s DayFamily CircleWoman’s World, and many other leading newspapers and magazines.

She regularly appears on national radio and television in connection with her pet writing. Most recently, she appeared as a dog and cat expert on Animal Planet’s DOGS 101 and CATS 101.

Then There Will Be (Of Course) Social Media

Gaping at G+? Fried on Facebook? We have you covered ;).

Web Nightmares

I can attest that getting an author web site is about as confusing and pleasant as a colonoscopy (and the after-effects can feel strangely similar).

It’s easy to get ripped off. I have been ripped off multiple times. Why? I didn’t know what questions to ASK. When we step out to do this new thing of finally being serious enough to get a website, we are NEW.

We are too dumb to know what we don’t know. Sometimes, we think if we throw more money at it, MORE MONEY=AWESOME. Or, if we are broke, we assume we can’t have a good-looking web-site.

WRONG.

Laird Sapir is a trusted WANA web designer. She’s smart, savvy and affordable but not at WANACon to sell you anything (unless you want). I recruited her to educate you. If you don’t have a web site, how do you find a designer? The right designer? What do you need to know? What questions do you ask? What should you reasonably PAY? How do you negotiate?

If you already have a web site, what are some things you can do to make your site more appealing to visitors? What are some changes you could possibly make that might sell more books?

And SO MUCH MORE!!!

This is just a sample of the awesome that will be at WANACon (you can check out the full schedule HERE). And remember, if you can’t attend or miss a session or two, you get the recording, notes and handouts FREE as part of your conference.

WANACon is just like a REAL writing conference. The only things you’re missing out on are the super high price tags, uncomfortable flights, bad conference food, a chance at getting bed bugs from your hotel, and that awkward TSA pat down. Though the guy who sold me my Interview Van works for tips and a pat down can be arranged.

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Just ignore the ankle monitor.

So you can go ahead and sign up HERE. We are also selling individual days if that fits your schedule or budget better. BUT, there isn’t ANY excuse to not stop by and check out the fun at PajamaCon. Here are our best-practices and trouble-shooting guidelines to make PajamaCon (and WANACon) as pleasant as possible. For instance, Safari will cough up a hairball with our technology. Google Chrome and Firefox play better. Simple stuff like that.

I’ll be at PajamaCon so we can meet. You can ask questions about craft, social media, branding, or even why tin foil is completely useless for keeping the aliens from reading your thoughts. It’ll be FUN :D.

For those of you who might not have met the WANA Mascot, Francis, here’s his debut film. I think a lot of us can relate. WANACon is a way to start reaching your dreams without adding time strain and financial pressure.

I hope to see you at WANACon, but at LEAST PajamaCon.

Lock the kids out of the bedroom for a couple hours and take time for YOU. Let your inner artist have a play date with the pros.

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14 Comments

The Single Best Way to Sell a Lot of Books

Via Flikr Creative commons, courtesy of Tax Credits.

Via Flikr Creative commons, courtesy of Tax Credits.

There are a lot of ways to try and sell books. One way? Non-stop Twitter book spam, “Buy my book! Buy! Buy! Buy! #writer #books #ineedmoney #indie #selfpub.” Just make sure you set it to automate to EVERY writer hashtag and to repeat every fifteen minutes. People LOVE THAT.

We can advertise fifty times an hour and never have to bother actually talking to people on Twitter. Hey, our time is valuable, whereas others? They have plenty of time to be on Twitter, so why not give them a GREAT BOOK?

Then there are of course, form-letters on Facebook. “Dear Valued Person, I noticed you like puppies. My book has puppies, please buy now!”

We can also rufie invite people to FB fan clubs for our book against their will.

Me: When did I become a member of The Raven’s Chest Hair Fan Club? *scratches head* *leaves group*.

Then there’s always Goodreads Begging: “Hi, I’ve never even said hello to you and don’t know you from a hole in the ground, but my book is the best thing since Scratch-and-Sniff stickers, yet strangely not selling. I’m sure together we can make my book NUMBER ONE!”

Or not…

In my new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World I actually spend a lot of time explaining why advertising and marketing doesn’t sell books in the new paradigm (or any other, for that matter) and what changes to make for any advertising or marketing to be more effective. Yet, ads, banners, book trailers aside, people want to read a great book.

This means our best way of selling books is…

You ready for this? *drum roll*

Writing great books.

Price is no longer as big of a determining factor as it used to be. A couple years ago, John Locke started the .99 bandwagon and many authors jumped on. At first readers were excited, until they realized the slush pile had just been dumped onto their Kindles and Nooks.

This is good news and bad news. Bad news? Being cheap isn’t the game-changer it used to be. Good news? People are gravitating to higher priced books, because there is a presumption of higher quality. This means good books can make more money. Yay!

***Btw, I said higher priced not stupid priced. Traditional publishing has taken many a hit for this. Strange fact. Consumers won’t pay the same price for an e-book as a glossy hardback. Wow, who would have imagined that?

Yet, just because potential readers are gravitating to higher priced books, doesn’t mean an automatic purchase. It means our customer’s time is *gasp* valuable. Yes, they are browsing the slightly more expensive books…to whittle down which books they will invest time in reading sample pages. We have to earn the sale.

Our sample pages, which are the beginning of the book, are our most priceless selling tool.

I know most of you’ve heard agents and editors usually give a book one to three pages, before continuing or chunking into the circular file. You might be thinking one to three pages? But, my story really gets going on page 21.

No.

I’ve run the first-twenty-pages-contest on this blog for about three years. Most of the samples I get? I don’t need 20 pages. I need one. I already know all the writer’s bad habits and level of education and skill (or lack thereof). It’s simply shocking how many of the same problems plague the beginning of most first-time novels.

And it’s easy to think this is all very unfair, but think of your own experiences browsing a bookstore. Aside from cover and interesting title and story description, what do we do? We open the book and scan the first couple of pages. If those first pages stink, we don’t give the writer twenty of fifty or a hundred pages to sell us.

Unless you wrote Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but he was dead.

So when you are dead, I suppose people give more gratis, because I cannot count the number of times people have said, “Well, yes GWTDT bored the paint off the walls, but after the first hundred pages, it’s awesome!”

I…am not that motivated. I gave the book more than it’s due (because the writer was dead) and gave it 20. Next! I’m aging here.

So if you are reading this blog and you’re dead? You get more leeway. Also, what’s it like on the Other Side? Feel free to leave a description in the comments :D.

For the rest of us who remain among the living? One to five pages.

I can tell 99% of what’s wrong in a book by page five, and so can agents and editors (and readers, though they might not know what is wrong, only they aren’t hooked).

It’s sort of like going to a doctor. He/She can tell from the sphygmomanometer (been DYING to use that word) which is a blood-pressure cuff, a look at skin pallor and basic symptoms to tell if a patient has a bum ticker. No need to crack open the patient’s chest and stare right at the sickly beating heart.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Most new writers (especially) have what Candy Haven’s calls a fish-head. What do we do with fish-heads? We cut them off and throw them away, unless you are my family, who are scavengers Scandinavians and then they make soup *shivers*. This actually explains the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo mystery.

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of David Pursehouse

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of David Pursehouse

The writer was dead and Swedish. Apparently Swedish readers looove fish-head-story-soup and somehow convinced others to give it a try. Not saying these are bad books, btw. Clearly, they have a huge fan base and rave reviews. I’m just I am not patient enough to get to the good stuff (and neither are a lot of other people).

Most new novels need to lose the first hundred pages. But that’s just something I’ve gleaned from experience. Yet, who cares about the first hundred if we can’t care about the first five? Often, the problems in the next 95 pages can be fixed by knowing what went sideways with the first five. Seriously.

Sample pages are…samples. If we go to Sam’s or Costco, how many will stop for a sample of egg rolls, pizza, or Acai juice? How many will stop to sample the Fish Head Surprise?

My point, exactly.

For a fantastic resource about this, I highly recommend Les Edgerton’s Hooked. Also, August 21st, I am running a Your First Five Pages webinar. Bronze is $40 and Gold is $55 (I look at your first five pages) and use WANA15 for 15% off. The webinar is recorded in case you can’t make the time and a PDF with notes will be sent to you following the class.

What makes you stop reading a book? How long do you give books? Are you patient enough to wait a hundred pages for it to get interesting? What do you find the hardest about writing the beginning of the book? Have you lopped off your own fish heads?

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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

ANNOUNCEMENTS: I have a class coming up SOON, Creating Conflict and Tension on Every Page if you want to learn how to apply these tactics to your writing. Use WANA15 to get 15% off.

Winner of 20 Page Edit for July is EDWARD OWEN. Please send your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com.

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150 Comments

Little Darlings & Why They Must Die…for REAL

Remember me?

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 flash drive 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 great writers, we must learn to look honestly at all little darlings. Why? Because they are usually masking critical flaws in the overall plot.

Right now I am almost through Act II of my novel and I can already see the little darlings in Act I that need to go. Fortunately, I’ve been through this enough times to kill with ruthless efficiency.

But why are little darlings so dangerous?

Because 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. The characters’ agendas, secrets and insecurities collide.

As Les mentioned in his lesson about dialogue, subtext is vital. It’s more than what’s said. This can only happen when 3-D characters meet with real baggage that gets in the way of solving a CORE STORY PROBLEM.

There is a scene in my current book where the protagonist becomes angry and hurt by the FBI agent trying to help her. Did the agent do anything wrong? No. But his behavior reminded her of her ex (the antagonist) and that ignited an unhealed hurt/insecurity inside my protagonist.

As is happens in life, we sometimes strike out at others not because of what they did or didn’t do, rather we are punishing them for unhealed wounds from our past often inflicted by other people. If my protagonist is pushing away the one person there to help her, she is five steps back from solving the core plot problem that’s upended her life.

Conflict.

Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict

Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witness this pitfall in most new novels. I teach at a lot of conferences, and, in between my sessions, I like to talk new and hopeful writers. I often ask them what their books are about and the conversation generally sounds a bit like this:

Me: What’s your book about?

Writer: 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…

Me: Huh? Okay. Who is the antagonist?

Writer: *blank stare*

Me: What is her goal?

Writer: Um. To find out who she is?

Most new novels don’t have a singular core story problem. It is my opinion that baby writers, deep down, know they’re missing the backbone to their story—A CORE STORY PROBLEM IN NEED OF RESOLUTION. Without a core story problem, conflict is impossible to generate, and the close counterfeit “melodrama” will slither in and take its place.

I believe when we are new writers, we sense our mistake on a sub-conscious level, and that is why our plots grow more and more and more complicated.

When we fail to have a core story problem, often we resort to trying to fix the structural issue with Bond-o putty and duct tape and then hoping no one will notice. How do I know this?

I used to own stock in Plot Bond-o :D.

The problem is, “complicated” is not conflict. 

We 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. 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. Most of us do. This is all part of the author learning curve, so don’t fret and just keep writing and learning.

Little darlings are often birthed from us getting too complicated. We frequently get too complicated 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 add more players trying 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 punji pits of writing death. “Complicated” is the child of confusion, whereas “complexity” is the offspring of simplicity.

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. Make the hard decisions, then kill them dead and bury your pets little darlings for real.

You have rewritten me 14 times. You think I’m going to leave without a fight? Hssssssss.

So what do you do with your little darlings? What’s been your experience? Do you have any tips, tools or tactics to help us dispose of the bodies?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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).

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 April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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69 Comments

Great Fiction Goes for the GUTS

Screen Shot 2013-04-15 at 9.29.21 AM

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, contributed by Ano Lobb.

I think it’s fair to say that writing a novel is no easy task. There is a lot to balance at the same time—narrative, setting, dialogue, POV, plot points, turning points, scenes, sequels, character arc, etc. It can be very challenging for even the best of us. Yet, I believe the hardest part of writing fiction is that, for most of us who aren’t crazy, conflict is something we avoid at all costs during our daily lives.

In fiction? We must go for the guts.

Today, I’d like to offer you a simple way to make your stories and characters three-dimensional and grab hold of great fiction’s throbbing heart. I learned this from the fabulous Les Edgerton who cornered me with this same question:

What is your character’s true story problem?

I gave Les a rundown of my carefully researched mystery thriller and he pressed again.

That’s surface, Kristen. What is the real story problem?

Fortunately, I was able to answer the question. Aside from the embezzlement, fraud, gun-running and drug-dealing, my character’s problem is she longs to be accepted, yet doesn’t fit in anywhere.

She began as small town trailer trash and ran away from home to go to college and pursue a better life. She naively assumed a fancy college degree would be her keys to acceptance, her ticket to become part of the high-class society she’d always envied. Yet, once she “made it” she found herself worse off than before. No matter how hard she worked, she was still, in the eyes of high society, gold-digging trailer trash who didn’t know her place.

In one world (home) she’s regarded as an uppity b!#$@ too good to be blue-collar working class. Yet, once part of “society” her problem was just as bad. The rich assume she must have slept her way into her high-paying job and that her sole goal is to marry money. She soon finds she’s regarded with equal disdain.

The story problem (the mystery) is only there to answer my protagonist’s deep, driving personal questions: Where do I fit in? Why do I need to fit in? Who am I?

The plot problem—a major embezzlement (Enron-style) leaves her penniless and blackballed and she has to go home to the trailer park she thought she’d left for good. This is where the story begins.

Now she is forced back into the lion’s den of her soul. Now she is torn between worlds. To solve the mystery and find the missing money (and a murderer killing to keep the secret) she must take on the wealthy and powerful. But in order to succeed, she must rely on a crazy-dysfunctional family who resents her and feels betrayed and judged.

Eventually, the plot will force her to face her greatest weakness—the need to be accepted—and she will have to make the tough choices.

If we look to all the great stories, the questions are bigger than the story. Minority Report has all kinds of cool technology, but the big question is, “Are we predestined, bound by FATE, or do humans possess free will?” In The Joy Luck Club the question is, “Can generational curses be broken?” In Winter’s Bone “Is blood really thicker than water?” In Mystic River “What is the nature of good and evil? Are people really who they appear to be?”

Thus, I challenge you to pan back from your story and ask What is the BIG question here? What is my character REALLY after? What will my story problem CHANGE about this character? What will it answer? 

As you guys know, I run a regular contest for free edit of sample pages. One of the biggest issues I see in new writing is it is very surface (Hey, I’ve been there, too. It’s all part of the learning curve ;)). Yet, to take that writing to the next level, we have to dig into the dark and dirty places. I actually have a sticky note on my computer that reads GO FOR THE GUTS. 

Every scene, every bit of dialogue must be uncomfortable. Fiction is the opposite of our human nature. Human nature is to avoid conflict at all costs. To write fiction? We must dive into the Miserable Messy head-first. Create problems at every turn (not mere “bad situations” but conflict).

Conflict turns pages. We have to be careful that our dialogue isn’t so busy being clever that it loses it’s teeth. Pretty description and scene-setting doesn’t turn pages and hook readers. CONFLICT does. Humans have a need to avoid conflict, but when we are faced with it? We want it resolved. THAT is why readers will turn pages. We make them shift in their seats and squirm and seek resolution.

What are your thoughts? What movies can you think of that have amazing BIG questions? Do you find that you have to revise places you are being “too nice?”

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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).

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 April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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67 Comments

A Final Word from Les Edgerton–Fortune Favors the Prepared

Les Edgerton

Les Edgerton

Today, is Les Edgerton’s last post in this series. We’ve been extraordinarily blessed to learn from him, so I hope y’all will give him a digital hug or round of applause. Les will soon be teaching on-line classes for WANA, so I’ll let you know when those are available.

Take it away, Les!

All of the points we’ve covered in this dialogue series are intended for one purpose only—to help writers avoid the red flags that improper dialogue can create for agents and editors… and readers.

And that’s what they are—red flags. That doesn’t mean that breaking any of these “rules” or conventions will doom your mss from being taken, but it does mean the presence of them can cast a negative light on your work. And, I imagine we all want to avoid that!

Also, there will be a great many examples of novels that break these precepts. There are many reasons for that. Contrary to popular opinion, novels don’t make it into print simply because they’re quality writing. There are many other factors at work. Factors that the writer may or may not have control over.

For instance, novels are published because the author has made a personal connection with a publisher. When an editor knows someone and likes that person, it’s not uncommon for that person’s book to be taken over another more worthy one. Happens all the time.

Or, an author may have had one or more successful novels already published and the current one may not be as good as the mss lying on the same desk as an unknown author, but the lesser quality novel will be taken. Again, happens all the time.

Sometimes, even though the novel breaks all kinds of rules, something in a novel like this may simply appeal to an individual editor. Maybe it’s the voice. Maybe it’s the setting—my first novel was taken by accident because of its setting. The Death of Tarpons had been rejected 86 times before I sent it to the University of North Texas Press.

That’s EIGHTY-SIX times!

That was in the days of snail mail submissions, where you had to pay the postage for the mss to the editor and also provide return postage. That was during a time when my family ate a lot of beans and really couldn’t afford to buy the tons of stamps I needed. I had made my mind up that once I reached 100 rejections, I would “retire” the manuscript.

What happened was that it landed on the desk of UNT’s publisher, Fran Vick. Unbeknownst to me at the time, UNT had never before published fiction. If I’d known that, I never would have sent it. Anyway, Fran’s secretary had unwrapped the day’s mail and as it by chance happened, mine was the first mss on Fran’s desk. Her normal routine when presented with a fiction mss, was for her to not even read it, but just stick a standard rejection notice in it and have her secretary send it back.

Luck was on my side!

As Fran related to me later (I’ve just revealed a happy ending and taken all the tension out of this, haven’t I!), her secretary was bringing her her morning cup of coffee and something happened where she had to remake the pot. That gave Fran an extra five minutes or so before she began her “official” day, so, for want of anything else to do, she picked up the first page of my novel and began idly to read it. If it wasn’t for her secretary’s failing to deliver her that cup of coffee, none of what happened next would have ever happened.

It’s what she read on that first page that induced her to keep reading. The novel was set in Freeport, Texas, the town I grew up in. Like most first novels, it was an autobiographical, “coming-of-age” novel (there’s a cliché for ya!). The thing is… Freeport was Fran’s hometown!

What editor can resist reading about their own hometown, especially when that town is a tiny burg like Freeport? A New York City editor, glancing at the first page of a mss and seeing it’s set in NYC isn’t going to be nearly as intrigued as an editor from Freeport, Texas reading a novel set in… Freeport, Texas!

As it turned out, Fran also knew my grandmother who was prominently on the page immediately and was instantly drawn into the story and read it all the way through, got on the phone, and offered to buy it.

So, there’s luck involved sometimes. Although, the book was well-written, so it also pays to be ready for luck when it appears. Fortune favors the prepared! The book went on to be well-reviewed and sold very well and earned a Special Mention from the Violet Crown Book Awards.

The point is, there are so many factors out of your control that can lead to or prevent publication. But, there are factors that you can control and among them are adhering to contemporary writing styles and conventions. And that is the impetus behind these precepts. To help you avoid many of the red flags that may prevent your mss from getting a fair and thorough reading.

Okay? Best of luck to all of you and your writing endeavors!

Blue skies,

Les

Les, THANK YOU SOOOOO MUCH. We really appreciate you taking so much time from your packed schedule.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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).

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 April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

Les Edgerton is the author of HOOKEDTHE RAPISTTHE BITCH and others.

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31 Comments

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