Posts Tagged plot

“Write What You Know”—Paying Attention to the Character Journey

dad

Okay, yesterday I shared the tragic story of my father’s passing to give to an idea of what it means to “Write what you ‘know’” and today we’ll continue, but it’ll be a bit different. We’re going to talk about character change.

My dad was a HOOT. Both of us were always like kids. One time we both bought Christmas gifts for each other. Any year the anticipation would have KILLED us and we would have totally spilled the beans early, but this time we waited until Christmas morning to “unveil the PERFECT gift”—only to realize we both bought each other the same things; a Klingon dictionary and a tape to teach you how to speak Klingon.

My dad was always a little unconventional. Other little girls grew up wanting to be models or ballerinas. I wanted to grow up to be a ballerina-Navy SEAL. My father (former Navy Intelligence) used to tote me from ballet lessons to Karate (back in the days when girls were NOT in Karate), and I was one of the first girls to fight competitively (when it was ALL boys).

Dad taught me to shoot when I was eight and how to sharpen knives properly by the time I was ten. He bought me an SAS Survival guide for my birthday in high school. To train me to be better with my feet (a tad too much ballet and not enough power) he hung a canvas sea bag for me to practice.

I recall when I made a certain belt, I had to learn how to use a weapon and I chose the long staff since it was the most practical (and one of the few not illegal, LOL).

So Dad is in the yard training me for my test with the long-staff. He says, “Okay, on the count of three…” then whacks the holy $%#@%^&*&%$# out of my shins. As I am curled on the ground in pain, he hovers over me, grinning and says, “Fights in the real world don’t give you a count of three.”

Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

In later years I went to a ritzy private college (was one of the few poor kids allowed in under the fence) and while other girls were in sororities, I was teaching Ju-Jitsu. In fact, I was one of the first instructors of Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, commonly known as Gracie Ground-Fighting. Doesn’t matter how big you are. Get a fight on the ground and know what you’re doing and the other dude is toast.

My Dad gave me an extreme sense of sticking up for others. I remember one day I was in between teaching classes and our dojo was located in front of a major traffic light. I’d taken off my belt to rest and stepped outside when I noticed this guy beating the holy hell out of his petite girlfriend in his truck. Without thinking (and barefoot) I go flying into the road and dare the guy to hit ME.

“Come on! You like hitting little girls? Hit me. I’ll even give you the first swing.” I probably would have dragged the guy out of his truck but the light turned green and the coward took off.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.

Since teaching Ju-Jitsu didn’t pay the best, I also worked selling newspaper subscriptions and often was out in apartment complexes after dark (gets dark early in winter). I had some drunk try to mug me for my briefcase, which made no sense because the only things in there were paperwork and my expensive retainer, which was useless for pawning.

*rolls eyes*

He came up behind me in an arm-bar choke hold, but what he didn’t know is there is a nerve in the forearm, that if you crank down on it? Is VERY painful and will make most people release. I then beat the bejeezus out of him with the very briefcase he was trying to steal.

And y’all thought I was so sweet and delicate :D.

I mountain-biked before it was cool. I rock-climbed, went bouldering, jumped out of planes, and ran rapids. To my knowledge, I was the 46th person in the state of Texas to have a Concealed Handgun License. I only got one because I went camping almost every weekend. I lived life like a Mountain Dew commercial, largely because of my dad. I wonder to this day if he realized he had cancer and was trying to teach me to make the most of every moment.

But back to the bigger story…

I believe abusive people are often attracted to the strong to see if they can dominate them and break them. By the time of my father’s passing, my Evil Ex had changed me into a person I didn’t recognize. Through years of mental abuse, I no longer had an opinion or chose my own clothes. I didn’t visit family or friends because it wasn’t worth the verbal beating. I no longer camped or rode trails on my mountain bike because he “didn’t like outdoors stuff.”

I literally lived with the guy from Sleeping with the Enemy. He had labels in the pantry and all cans had to be facing forward and behind the “proper” label. He’d insist I vacuum all the floors then use a carpet rake to make all the lines go the same direction. He loved to play racquetball, namely so he could spend an hour laughing as he used me as target practice (then tell me I had no sense of humor, that he was just “playing”).

Never mind all the bruises.

Trust me when I say Evil-Ex was NOT this way before I accepted the marriage proposal. He was an ideal boyfriend and seemed he’d be an ideal husband. My family loved him (Dad hated him).

When it comes to abuse, it’s a lot like the story of the frog. Toss a frog in boiling water and it will jump out. Yet, set the sucker in cool water and turn up the heat slowly? The frog will boil to death without realizing it’s in danger.

So after Dad passed away, something of my former self ignited. Within a couple months, I began to ignore Evil-Ex’s antics. No insult worked. I wore what I wanted and grew my hair long. I even bought a gorgeous citrine ring (because Dad’s favorite color was yellow). When Evil-Ex had nasty comments about the ring, I replied, “You don’t have to like it. You aren’t wearing it.”

All along I was funneling money and plotting my escape and Evil-Ex began to notice the verbal assaults were being ignored. About a month before I left for good, he was yelling at me over something and must have noticed it was no longer having an impact.

He raised his hand to hit me and I replied in a low voice, “Go ahead. Hit me. But you better pray to God you knock me out long enough to start a new life somewhere else. I know a thousand ways to kill you and get away with it.”

I didn’t, but must have been very convincing.

I left and never looked back, but this “story of my life” reveals something about character arc. Yes, Kristen in the beginning was somewhat of a bad@$$, but obviously something was lacking. I grew up very poor, so when a wealthy man from high society showed interest, I ignored the warning signs. Deep down, I believed he was better than me…and that was the opening. I had to be tested by fire to grow into a person who believed in herself, who accepted she wasn’t “girlie” and that was okay.

This is my BOOM-STICK!

This is my BOOM-STICK!

I had to learn that money was meaningless. Yes, I lived in a big house and rode around in a Mercedes and took lavish trips, but I was miserable and hurting and NO MONEY, NO RITZY LIFE was worth the price. I had to become a person who was willing to live in poverty if it meant being happy. I had to learn what “security” really meant and I can tell you from experience it ain’t always a bank account.

Now, I can bemoan the experience, but it was VERY valuable. Not only did I grow as a person, but this time prepared me to become a writer. When Dad died, he never realized his dream. I had the same dream and was willing to do anything to fulfill it. There were many years I lived on Ramen and saltines and worried that the lights might get turned off. I wore clothes I rescued from Dumpsters. Nothing would stop me from becoming a writer.

So when you hear “Write what you know” harvest those emotions, but also pay attention to your personal journeys. What changed? What was missing initially that the “journey” provided. I am much the same person I was before Evil-Ex, but that critical flaw is now gone (probably replaced with New & IMPROVED ones, LOL).

What about your journey? Have you been through something difficult and when you look back, you SEE how you changed? And changed for the better? I want to hear YOUR stories!

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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 LIED. I will announce September’s contest winner TOMORROW. Yes, Kristen IS human. Forgot today was Dad’s birthday and not altogether “there.” Sorry. Great ploy to get y’all back :D.

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Can Critique Groups Do More Harm than Good?

After six years in critique, her novel was “perfect.”

Critique groups can be wonderful. They can offer accountability, professionalism, and take our writing to an entirely new level. But, like most, things, critique groups have a dark side. They can become a crutch that prevents genuine growth. Depending on the problems, critique groups can create bad writing habits and even deform a WIP so badly it will lose any chance at being traditionally published.

The key to avoiding problems is to be educated. Not all critique groups are worth our time. Some critique groups might have limitations that can be mitigated with a simple adjustment in our approach.

Traditional Critique Groups

Many of you have attended a traditional critique group. This is the “read a handful of printed pages or read so many pages aloud” groups. Traditional critique groups have some strengths. First and foremost, they can clean up a new writer’s prose.

When we turned in that high school paper with 60 glorious metaphors on page one, we got an A. Why? Because our teacher’s goal was to teach us how to use a metaphor properly. Her job was not to train us for publication in New York.

In a good traditional critique group you will learn that POV does not mean “Prisoners of Vietnam.” You will learn to spot passive voice and “was clusters” and will even learn why adverbs aren’t always extra-nifty. You will hopefully learn self-discipline in that you need to attend regularly and contribute. You will forge friendships and a support network.

So where’s the problem?

Traditional critique groups lack perspective.

Once a week reading fifteen pages only cleans up shoddy prose. Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see flaws. A novel can have perfect prose page to page and yet have catastrophic faults. In fact, I would venture to say that most writers are not rejected due to prose, but rather, they meet the slush pile because of tragic errors in structure.

Traditional critique groups can tell you nothing about turning points or whether a scene fits properly. They lack the context to be able to discern if our hero has progressed sufficiently along his character arc by the mid-point of Act 2. They have zero ability to properly critique pacing, since pacing can only be judged in larger context. So, my advice is to get a beta reader that you trust. Critique groups cannot do what only beta readers can.

Traditional critique groups can also hurt us in the following ways.

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

As we just mentioned,  those in a traditional critique group sitting around the table can’t see the big picture. It is hard to pick up a story on page 86 and understand what is going on. Our fellow writers care about us and believe if they don’t say something that they aren’t helping. Thus, they will say things akin to, “But how did Cassandra end up in a meat locker wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw? I’m lost.”

Well, duh, of course they are lost.

They have missed the last three weeks and haven’t been keeping up with the story. So learn to resist the urge to over-explain in your prose. Your job is to write a great novel…not 600 individual sections your critique group can follow.

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

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

One great way to know good advice is to READ craft books. Read every craft book you can find. In fact, here is a list of my favorites. That way, when someone offers suggestions, you will know whether or not that advice is supported by leading teachers in the industry.

They can get us in a habit of perfectionism.

The world does not reward perfect novels, it rewards finished novels. I still run into writers that have been working on “perfecting” the same novel for the past ten years. As professionals, we need to learn to LET GO. Either the project was a learning curve and it needs to be scrapped and parted out, or it needs to be handed a lunch box and sent off to play with the big novels via query. Scrap it, part it, or shop it but MOVE ON.

Yes, I know NY publishes novels that have typos and grammar errors. But when writers are under contract, they don’t have 6-10 years to ensure that their manuscript doesn’t have a single misplaced comma. In fact, I would be so bold as to posit that readers don’t generally get to the end of a novel and declare, “Wow! That was riveting. Not one single dangling participle in the entire book!”

There are writers I know who have been working on the same book for 4,5 even SIX years. I see them at conferences dying to land an agent and get that three-book deal. WHY? New York isn’t going to give them another 12-18 YEARS to turn in manuscripts. The hard reality is that, if we hope to make a living at this writing thing, we need to learn to write solid and we need to learn to finish…quickly.

Traditional critique groups can offer a false sense of security.

We must always be looking for ways to have our work critiqued by professionals who are willing to be blunt and who possess the skill set to see our errors. Don’t join a writing critique group simply because they say they are a writing critique group. Look at their credentials. How many traditionally published authors has the group produced? I’m not picking on self-publishing, but self-publishing doesn’t have the same rigorous peer review.

How many people in the group are career writers, authors, or editors? Gathering together because we love writing is always a great idea, but if the group is solely comprised of hopeful unpubbed writers, the critique will be limited. Limited is fine, so long as we make sure to reach beyond our group for additional critique.

Make sure your work is being reviewed by people who will be honest about any problems. Meeting once a week to sing kumbayah is not the best preparation for being published. Once our book is for sale, we are open to the big bad real world of people with nothing better to do than skewer a writer publicly on-line in a blistering review.

You will know them by their fruits…

Make sure any group you join is producing successful novelists. I began Warrior Writer Boot Camp because my old group of six years produced many successful articles, short stories and NF, but they had never produced a successfully published novel. I knew I had to create a different critique format capable of critiquing a leviathan work of 100,000 words or likely that trend would continue.

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

Or…be creative. If you can’t go to the mountain, make the mountain come to you. Next week I am going to give you guys a new approach to a traditional group. Skilled beta readers are hard to find and skilled editors can be expensive. But, apply the technique I will teach you and you will know for sure if your novel has the right stuff.

Critique groups are WONDERFUL. I don’t know what I’d do without mine. But, we are wise to be aware of the trouble spots so that we can get the most out of this fantastic resource.

So what do you guys think? Have you had problems? Or am I off-base? What are your solutions? Ideas? I LOVE hearing from you!

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

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

IMPORTANT–I will announce last week’s winner on Wednesday. Need to catch up on a few things since I no longer have an assistant :C. So stay tuned!

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!

Happy writing!

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Structure Part 8–Balancing the Scenes that Make Up Your Novel

Welcome to Structure Part 8. We have spent the past couple of months studying the fundamentals of what makes up a novel, and today we are going to discuss the actual scenes that make up a novel and how to keep track of them. It is easy to get lost when dealing with a structure as complex as a novel, so I hope to give you a nifty tool to keep everything straight.

As a fiction author, you will often feel like an acrobat spinning plates while standing on your head and juggling fiery chainsaws. There are so many components to keep track of, lest you end up down the Bunny Trail of No Return. Organization is key when it comes to being a successful novelist.

First, let’s talk about scenes.

According to James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, scenes do four things. Bell calls these the four chords of fiction:

The two major chords are: (1) action and (2) reaction.

The two minor chords are (1) setup and (2) deepening.

Back when I used to edit for writers, I was known to draw flies on the page when the writer lost my interest. This became known as my infamous, “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Cares?’” The reader is a fly on the wall when it comes to the world we are creating. Make them the fly on the wall of something interesting at all times. How do we accomplish this?

All scenes need conflict. Conflict is the fuel that powers the story’s forward momentum. “Scenes” that are merely back-story, reflection (rehash of what the reader already knows) or information dump, slow down the story and make the reader either want to skim ahead or put the book down. Bad juju. We want our readers hooked from the beginning until we finally let them go on the last page. How do we accomplish this? We add lots of conflict.

Scenes, according to Bell, need three components, collectively known as HIP—Hook, Intensity & Prompt.

Hook—interests the reader from the get-go. This is why it is generally a bad idea to start scenes with setting. Waxing rhapsodic about the fall color is a tough way to hook a reader. If you do start a scene with setting, then make it do double-duty. Setting can set up the inner mood of a character before we even meet him. Setting should always be more than a weather report. Try harder.

Intensity—raises the stakes. Introduce a problem. Scenes that suddenly shift into reverse and dump back-story KILL your intensity. Cut scenes at meals unless there is a fight. If your characters are in a car, they better be in an argument or a car chase. Also cut any scenes that the sole purpose is to give information. Have a scene that’s sole purpose is two characters talking about a third? CUT!

Prompt—leave the scene with work left undone and questions left unanswered. If your character is relaxed enough to go to bed at the end of a scene, that is a subconscious cue to your reader that it is okay to mark the page and close the book.  There should always be something unsettling that makes the reader want to know more.

Going back to the chords of the writing. Every scene should involve one of your key characters in pursuit of an interesting goal that is related to the overall conflict of the story. Each of these scenes are stepping stones that take your character closer to the final showdown. Most of the time, it will feel like two steps forward and one step back.

Your POV character (protagonist) sets out to do X but then Y gets in the way. Your character then will have some kind of a reaction to the setback.

So we have the major chords I mentioned earlier:

ACTION–> REACTION to the obstacle

Now when we add in the minor chords, it might look something like this:

Setup–>ACTION–>obstacle–>REACTION to the obstacle–>deepening

Setup and deepening need to be short and sweet. Why? Because they don’t drive the story, conflict does. We as readers will need a certain amount of setup to get oriented in what is happening, but then drive forward and get to the good stuff. Deepening is the same. We want to know how this conflict has changed the course of events, but don’t get carried away or you risk losing your reader.

Every scene should have conflict and a great way to test this is to do a Conflict Lock. Bob Mayer teaches this tactic in his workshops and if you get a chance to take one of his classes, you will be amazed how your writing will improve.

The conflict lock is a basic diagram of what the conflicting goals in the scene look like. Here is one from one of my earlier fiction pieces. My protagonist’s roommate has just been taken by bad guys, and protag and the love interest are clearly in conflict:

Jane wants to pursue the trail of the kidnappers deeper into Mexico.

Tank wants to return to Texas and call the FBI.

Even though these two characters are allies, it is clear they want different things. Jane wants to plunge ahead and take her chances pursuing the bad guys who have her friend. The love interest doesn’t want Jane hurt or killed. He wants to take the safer route and let the pros handle the kidnapping. Both have reasonable goals, but only one of them, by the end of the scene, will get his/her way. One path takes Jane closer to finding her roommate. The other ends the adventure.

So how do you keep track of all these elements? The note card is a writer’s best friend. We will discuss different methods of plotting in the future, but I recommend doing note cards ahead of time and then again after the fact. I stole a very cool tactic from screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

On each note card, I write the location, then a one-sentence header about what the scene is about. Then there is a neat little symbol for conflict (><) I use to show who is in conflict in this particular scene. Then I do a micro conflict lock. Who wants what? I also use an emotional symbol to note change +/-.

Characters should be changing emotionally. If your protag enters on a high note, crush it. Enters on a low? Give some hope. If a character is constantly okey dokey, that’s boring. Conversely, if a character is always in the dumps, it will wear out your reader and stall the plot. I also note any facts I might need to keep up with. Has my main character suffered an injury? Lost her weapon? Gained a bazooka and a pet hamster?

Let’s look at an example from the movies. Romancing the Stone.

So the card might look something like this:

Jungles of South America (Location)

>< Joan (protag) and Jack (love interest/antagonist)

Joan wants a guide to get her to Cartejena, Columbia to trade the treasure map for her sister.

Jack wants to recapture the exotic birds he lost when the bus crashed into the back of his truck.

-/+ Joan finally convinces Jack to take her to Cartejena. (Note she started on a low. She was lost, in a crash and far away from Cartejena. She ends on a high note. Jack agrees to guide her to her destination)

Joan and Jack decide to go to Cartejena (decision), but then bad guys arrive and start shooting at them (prompt).

Yes, Blake Snyder’s system is designed to keep up with all the scenes a movie, but it can do wonders for novelists, too. When I finish my first draft, I go back and make set of cards. Using this system makes it painfully clear what scenes are in need of a total overhaul. If I can’t say in one sentence what the scene is about, then I know my goal is weak, nonexistent or unclear. Too many people in conflict? Conflict might be muddy. Go back and clarify. If there isn’t any emotional change, then that’s a big red flag that nothing is happening–it’s a “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Cares?’”

If I find a scene that’s sole purpose is information dump, what do I do? I have three choices. 1) Cut the scene totally. 2) Fold it into another scene that has existing conflict. 3) Add conflict. Note cards also make it easy to spot bunny trails–goals that have nothing to do with the A or B plot.

This tactic can help make a large work manageable. If you are starting out and outlining? Make note cards for each scene and who you foresee being in conflict. If you already have your novel written, but you want to tighten the writing or diagnose a problem you just can’t see? Make note cards.

Keeping organized with note cards is an excellent way to spot problems and even make big changes without unraveling the rest of the plot. There are, of course, other methods, but this is the one I have liked the best. Note cards are cheap, portable and easy to color code. For instance, each POV character can have a designated color. Using these cards makes it much easier to juggle all the different elements of great novels—characters, conflict, inner arc, plot, details.

Have any questions? Are there other methods that have worked for you? Please share so we all can learn. What is the biggest challenge you face when it comes to plotting? I love hearing from you!

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

Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique is Joel. Congratulations! Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

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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Structure Part 6-Getting Primal & Staying Simple

Okay, so if you have read all the blogs in this series, you should understand what makes a scene vs. a sequel, understand the three-act dramatic structure. You also understand that the antagonist—or Big Boss Troublemaker—is the engine of your story. Without the BBT, your protagonist’s world would remain unchanged. The BBT’s agenda drives the story. It is the engine. No engine, no forward motion. By this point, you should be able to decipher a good idea from a not-so-good idea and then, once decided, state what your book is about in ONE sentence. You can have up to three, but let’s shoot for one.

Welcome to part SIX of my series on novel structure–whoo-hoo! Today we are going to discuss gimmick and fundamentals of a good story.

First, gimmick. Here is the thing. There are only so many plots. DO NOT try to get creative with plot. Everything has been done. Seriously. Remember Part One of this series? There are only so many elements on the Periodic Table, yet everything in the universe is made up of some combination of these elements. Think of core plots like the elements on the Periodic Table.

Many new writers make writing a novel way too hard in that they try to reinvent the wheel. The wheel works. Leave the wheel alone. You do not have to revinvent plot as we understand it to tell a darn good story.

I find a lot of new writers get really excited about gimmick. Gimmick is dangerous, and gimmicks can bite back. Don’t believe me? Okay…M. Night Shyamalan. He got us with The Sixth Sense, but after that? It was over. Why? Because the “magic” only worked with a naïve audience. After The Sixth Sense we were like CSI Vegas with every Shyamalan story. Short of using a swab kit and blacklight, we paid attention to every last little detail trying to figure out the twist ending. This also limited Shyamalan in that he was doomed if he did and doomed if he didn’t. If he told a story with a twist ending, then the audience (no longer naïve) was looking for the clues, so no ending could possibly measure up to The Sixth Sense. But, if Shyamalan tried to do a movie with no twist and do something different, then the audience was ticked because there was no twist. Shyamalan, in my opinion, is a victim of his own brilliance, and I can see how The Sixth Sense really put him in a bind….because it worked so well. Most of the time gimmicks suck, but even when they are really good…they still suck. So avoid gimmick and just focus on becoming a darn good storyteller.

Anyway, back to my original point.  There are only so many plots, so don’t try to be cute and clever and unique because it is unlikely you will discover a “new element.” Go ahead and try. I guarantee you that one of two things will happen. One is that you will think you have this new plot no one has ever seen. All excited, you will posit this new-and-shiny-never-before-imagined-idea to your fellow writing friends, and one of them (I promise) will go, “Oh, yeah. That’s like the movie Blah.” And then you are required to drink heavily and cry and wonder why you were doomed to be born a writer. The other end-scenario is that you get so weird that you barely understand your own story, and the poor the reader will need a Dungeon Master Guide and a sherpa to navigate your plot.

So, remember. Pizza has rules. Plot has rules. Can’t get too weird.

Plots, at the very core, are usually simple. Why? The plot is the foundation. Now what you construct on top of that foundation can be super-complex. Note I wrote complex NOTcomplicated.  Even the most complex stories can be boiled down to very simple goals. J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, James Clavell’s Shogun, and MacMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove all have very simple forces driving very complex and dynamic stories.  Good versus evil. Struggle for power, for survival, for love. Very simple. As Blake Snyder says in his book Save the Cat: Is it primal? Would a caveman understand the core of your story?

Good storytellers connect with the audience on a basic level. So when you whittle down that idea or novel into a one-sentence log-line, step back and be honest. Does your story hinge on primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, or fear of death? Does it have physical and or emotional stakes? Your story might seem complex, but at the core it should be very basic and connect at a visceral level. People in China LOVED Titanic.Why? Because it is a love story. Love is basic. It is primal.

In the upcoming weeks we are going to discuss various methods of plotting, but before you start any novel, there are some fundamental questions we can use as a litmus test for our idea. Ask yourself:

Do I have a sympathetic protagonist? 

Notice I said sympathetic…not likable. Be careful here. If we are expecting readers to spend 10 hours (average time to read a novel) with our protagonist, it helps if they are rooting for him to win. If you have a rough protagonist, then you need to at least offer the reader a glimmer of hope that he can be redeemed. If he can’t be redeemed, then you must offer the reader something about your protagonist that puts the reader on his side.

For instance, Quentin Tarantino knew he had a potential problem in Pulp Fiction. His protagonists (Travolta & Jackson) happen to be a two hit men and human beings of the lowest sort. Tarantino was brilliant in how he handled introducing Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield. First, he makes them funny. They stop for a burger before the hit and get into this funny dialogue about the Big Mac vs. The Royale. So we find them funny and we relate. But then Tarantino takes it another step and makes the bad guy badder than these two hit men so that the audience will side with the lesser of two evils. When viewed “in relation” these guys are clear heroes. They are still deplorable, but they are sympathetic.

Do I have a genuine GOAL for my protagonist?

A lot of first-time novelists get fascinated writing novels about journals, letters and buried secrets. I have a theory about this. It is called, “We-Are-Squeaky-New-and-Don’t-Know-Jack-About-How-to-Plot Syndrome.” Guess how I know this? Yes, I was visited by the Bright Idea Fairy too. Shoot her. Now. Double-tap. It’s for the best.

Novels that involve a journal or finding about a secret past usually involve the newbie author’s favorite tactic…the flashback. Since we have no big goal at the end, forward momentum is scary, so we roll back…and this makes the reader feel as if she is trapped in the car with a teenager learning to drive a stick-shift. Journals and letters, in my opinion, are so attractive because they provide the unskilled author a contrived mechanism for stringing together unrelated vignettes. That is not a plot. Sorry. I was bummed too. That is okay, though. Everyone starts somewhere. I’m here to help :D.

Yes, you can use journals in your story, but seriously? How many best-selling novels have you seen that involve someone reading a journal? Things written in journals are in the past, which means they have already happened and the world didn’t end so who cares? It becomes a Watch out for that glacier! No rising stakes and no pressing danger. Watch out for the glacier! It’s moving at an inch a year, but watch out!

Conflict drives stories. My best advice? Journals are for self-actualization. Leave self-actualization for therapy. Want a gut-wrenching plot? Stick to the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy ;).

Stories can have a journal/letters, but they MUST ALSO have a main conflict and the journal/letters are merely a tool that drives the present conflict…which is your plot. The journal isn’t the plot. Neither are the letters. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants had conflict happening real-time. Yes, the novel contained each girl’s experience with the pants, but each girl’s story was a separate plot joined in one large plot and happening real-time. Each girl was facing a different challenge and had to mature in a different way, but the group of girls (the group is actually the protagonist) had to learn to mature while finding a way to hold on to childhood friendship.

Same with The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya-Sisterhood. The Ya-Ya Journal was critical for the daughter and mother (present-day) to repair the rift in their relationship. So there was a present-day problem that the journal solved, and basically you have a Fried Green Tomatoes. Two parallel plot lines and the present-day plot relies on past-time events to drive forward momentum in the present. Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook was the same thing. Two parallel love stories, but both had a plot arc. The love story told in the notebook drives the present-day love story in the nursing home.

Same with secrets. The secret must have something to do with the present-day story or it is just a contrivance. The secret can be a part of the story, but generally doesn’t work as the entire story. Linda Castillo executes this brilliantly in her novel Sworn to Silence. Chief of Police, Kate Burkholder, grew up Amish, but made a choice to live in the world with the English. She is the Chief of Police in a small Ohio community of both Amish and English, and she acts as a cultural bridge. When a serial killer begins butchering women, Kate leads the investigation, but a secret from her past holds clues to catching the present-day killer. Kate’s secret drives the forward momentum of the present-day plot, and adds mind-bending tension.

Is my story primal?

Beneath the empires and spaceships and unicorns, is your main plot driven by a basic human desire/need? Here is a list of some best-selling novels I’ve recently read to illustrate my point.

Michael Crichton’s Prey—Survival. Save/protect loved ones.

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic ParkDon’t get eaten. Protect loved ones.

Lee Child’s Killing FloorVengeance. Protect loved ones.

Suzanne Collins Hunger Games—Don’t die. Survive. Protect loved ones.

Cormac McCarthy The RoadSurvive. Protect loved ones.

Linda Castillo Sworn to Silence—Fear of death. Survive. Protect loved ones.

Jennifer Chiaverini The Aloha Quilt—Love. Sex. Protect loved ones. Survival.

Bob Mayer & Jennifer Crusie’s Wild Ride—Sex. Protect loved ones. Survival.

Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island—Survival. Vengeance. Protect loved ones.

Stephenie MeyerTwilightSex. Protect loved ones. Don’t get eaten.

Dennis Lehane’s Mystic RiverVengeance.

Okay, so as you can see, I read a lot of genres. But most great books can be boiled down to a very simple driving force. New writers very frequently rush into the writing with no idea of the story they are trying to tell. I know. I’ve been there. And since deep-down we know we do not have a core goal that is simple and primal, we try to compensate by making things more and more complicated.

That’s why so many writers have a panic attack about the agent pitch session. We are forced to boil down our plot to the primal core…and we can’t because there isn’t one. So we ramble and blather and try to fit 400 pages of world-building complications into our pitch while trying not to throw up in our shoes (Been there. Done that. Got the T-Shirt).

Being complicated is like trying to use Bond-O putty to fix your plot. Won’t work. Strip that baby down and look at the bare bones. Simple. Primal. This is why gimmicks are a sticky wicket. Gimmicks make stories complicated instead of complex. Stay away.

Remember that there are no new plots. So why not take a story you really love, look at the plot, then make it your own? The award-winning novel A Thousand Acres is King Lear on an Iowa farm. In my pov, Twilight is Jane Eyre with vampires (and I am not alone in this assessment). Instead of trying to totally revinvent story and plot as we understand it, why not take a book you love so much the pages are falling out of it, and see if you can use the premise in a new and exciting way?

Utilizing another author’s plot is not plagiarism. It’s smart. Remember…the number of plots is finite. I think this is where a lot of writers get stuck. Heck, I did! We believe we have to come up with a story never told before or risk being accused of plagiarism. Not so. Plagiarism is when someone takes the execution of another author’s plot and tries to hide that by only changing surface elements. So if I wrote a book called Evening about girl who moves from Texas to Northern California to fall in love with a vampire who merely glimmers in sunlight…. See the point? Actually a great way to come up with story ideas is to go to the IMDB and look at log-lines, then ask yourself how could you tell that story differently?

A timid romance author must travel to South America and join forces with a handsome opportunist to rescue her sister who’s been kidnapped by treasure-hunting thieves. (Romancing the Stone).

A shy librarian must travel to South Texas and join forces with a handsome biker to rescue her brother who has been kidnapped by desperate drug-dealers. (Kristen’s Made-Up Story).

See how you can take a story that has already been done and make it something amazing and new?

So what are some problems you guys are facing when it comes to plot? Do you have any resources to share? Have I scared the socks off you or offered you new inspiration? Share. I love hearing from you guys. Lets me know I haven’t given you a massive coronary and killed you off, :D. I appreciate your loyalty to this series.

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!

Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique–Andy Hollowman. Congratulations! Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

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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Structure Part 5–Keeping Focused & Nailing the Pitch–Understand Your “Seed Idea”

Today is the start of National Novel Writing Month. Yay! I hope those of you participating will take some time to read these posts on structure to help maximize your chances of success. Normally I blog about craft on Monday, but we had a special guest abduction interview with Nationally Best-Selling Author James Scott Bell.

So here we are posting on Tuesday. Thank you for your patience. Back to structure!

Welcome to the 5th installation on the topic of structure. As an editor for years, I consider myself an expert in spotting and fixing structural problems. Sadly, over the course of doing this many years, I have run into far too many novels that had plot problems that ran so deep there was no saving the manuscript. Like a building with massive structural flaws, the best course of action was simply implosion. Rebuild. Start from scratch.

I used to try to teach from the perspective of an editor, but I found that my thinking was flawed. Why? Because editors are like building inspectors. We have skills best used on a finished product. We are trained to look for problems. Is that a good skill? Sure. But do building inspectors design buildings? No. Architects do. Architects employ creativity and vision to create a final structure. Hopefully, they will have the necessary skills to create and design a structure that will meet code standards.

Creativity and vision are not enough. Architects need to learn mathematics and physics. They need to understand that a picture window might be real pretty, but if they put that sucker in a load-bearing wall, they won’t pass inspection and that they even risk a fatal collapse.

Aestheticism must align with pragmatism.

This made me step back and learn to become an architect. When it comes to plotting, I hope to teach you guys how to have the creative vision of the designer, but with the practical understanding of an inspector. Week one, we discussed plot on a micro-scale. Week two we panned back for an aerial shot, and discussed common plot problems that arise from a flawed structure. Week three we discussed the single most important component to plot, the Big Boss Troublemaker, and last week I gave you a tested method to make sure your core idea was solid enough to be the foundation for an entire novel.

Today I am going to show you how to construct your novel’s core—the log-line. I learned this tactic from NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. If you can ever get the opportunity to take his novel writing workshop, please do. It will change your entire career.

So what’s this log-line thingy?

Basically, you should be able to tell someone (an agent) what your story is about in one sentence. That is called the “log-line.” Log-lines are used in Hollywood to pitch movies.  In fact, a book that should be in every writer’s library is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a book on screenwriting, but every writer can benefit enormously from Snyder’s teaching.

In the world of screenwriting there is a tenet, “Give me the same, but different.” This axiom still holds true when it comes to novels. Our story cannot go so far off the deep end that readers cannot relate, but yet our story needs to be different enough that people don’t just think it’s a retread. We as writers have to negotiate this fine balance of same but different, and that is no easy task.

So let’s look at components of a great logline:

Great log-lines are short and clear. I cannot tell you how many writers I talk to and I ask, “So what’s your book about?” and they take off rambling for the next ten minutes. Often why writers are so terrified of the pitch session is that they cannot clearly state what their book is about in three sentences or less.

Here is a little insider information. When we cannot whittle our entire story into three sentences that is a clear sign to agents and editors that our story is structurally flawed. Not always, but more often than not. Your goal should be ONE sentence. What is your story about?

A good log-line is ironic. Irony gets attention and hooks interest. Here’s an example:

The Green Mile is about the lives of guards on death row leading up to the execution of a black man accused of rape and child murder who has the power of faith healing.

What can be more ironic than a murderer having the power of  healing? Think of the complex emotions that one sentence evokes, the moral complications that we just know are going to blossom out of the “seed idea.”

A good log-line is emotionally intriguing.

A good log-line tells the entire story. Like a movie, you can almost see the entire story play out in your head.

During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.

Didn’t you just see the entire movie play out in your head with that ONE sentence? Apparently Steven Spielberg did, too and that’s why he took Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park and made it into a blockbuster movie.

A good log-line will interest potential readers.

Good log-lines exude inherent conflict. Conflict is interesting. Blake Snyder talks about taking his log-line with him to Starbucks and asking strangers what they thought about his idea. This is a great exercise for your novel. Pitch to friends, family, and even total strangers and watch their reaction. Did their eyes glaze over? Did the smile seem polite or forced? If you can boil your book down into one sentence that generates excitement for the regular person, then you know you are on a solid path for your novel.

Yet, if your potential audience looks confused or bored or lost, then you know it is time to go back to the drawing board. But the good news is this; you just have to fix ONE sentence. You don’t have to go rewrite, revise a novel that is confusing, convoluted, boring, arcane, ridiculous, etc.

Think of your one sentence as your scale-model or your prototype. If the prototype doesn’t generate excitement and interest, it is unlikely the real thing will succeed. So revise the prototype until you find something that gets the future audience genuinely excited.

You Have Your Log-Line. Now What?

Your log-line is the core idea of your story. This will be the beacon of light in the darkness so you always know where the shore is versus the open sea. This sentence will keep you grounded in the original story you wanted to tell and keep you from prancing down bunny trails.

Bob Mayer taught me this tactic a few years ago and it WORKS. In my novel writing critique group, every participant has to be able to tell what their story is about in ONE sentence before we ever start plotting. If the writer gets too far off track, then we as his teammates know to do one of two things. 1) Change the plot and get back on track. Remember the core idea. Or 2) Change the original idea.

Fear is probably the most common emotion shared by writers. The newer you are the more fear you will feel. A side-effect of fear is to emotionally distance from the source of our discomfort. The log-line will help you spot that emotional distancing and root it out early. I have seen two behaviors in all my time working with writers.

Either a writer will wander off down the daffodil trail because he is afraid he lacks the skills to tell the story laid out in the log-line, OR the writer will water down the log-line to begin with. Through future plotting the writer will realize hidden strength…then he can go revise the plotting or revise the log-line.

The best way to learn how to write log-lines is to go look at the IMDB. Look up your favorite movies and see how they are described. You can even look up movies that bombed and very often see the log-line was weak and the movie was doomed from the start. Look up movies similar to the story you are writing.  Look up movies similar to the story you want to tell.

Solid novel log-lines will have 1) your protagonist 2) active verb 3) active goal 4) antagonist 5) stakes.

Here is a log-line I wrote for Michael Crichton’s Prey.

An out-of-work computer programmer (protagonist) must uncover (active verb) the secrets his wife is keeping in order to destroy (active goal) the nano-robotic threat (antagonist) to human-kind’s existence (stakes).

Hopefully you can see how this log-line meets all the criteria I set out earlier.

This log-line is ironic. An out-of-work programmer will uncover the robotic threat.

It’s emotionally intriguing. The main gatekeeper to the problem is his wife. This spells logistical and emotional complication to me.

It will interest potential readers. Considering it was a best-seller, I think Crichton did well.

So here is an exercise. See if you can state your novel in one sentence. It will not only help add clarity to your writing and keep you on track, but when it comes time to pitch an agent, you will be well-prepared and ready to knock it out of the park. Practice on your favorite movies and books. Work those log-line muscles!

What are some problems you might be having? Share in the comments. Maybe you have a tactic or a resource you would like to recommend.

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!

Winner’s Circle

Last week’s winner of 5 page critique is Laura Rae Amos–Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com

Last month’s winner of 15 page critique is Ashley Prince–Please send your 3750 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com

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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Structure Part 4–Testing Your Idea–Is it Strong Enough to Make an Interesting Novel?

For the past month, we have been discussing story structure. Part I of this series introduced the novel on a micro-scale. Part II explored the big picture and offered an overview of common plot problems. Part III introduced the most critical element to any novel, the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). Each of these blogs builds upon the previous lesson, so if you are new, I recommend reading the earlier blogs. I bring the best teaching in the industy right to your computer in an easy-to-digest form to make you a great storyteller. 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.

Welcome to Part IV of my Structure Series—Testing the Idea. 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. 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 recommend, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. Jim, being the SUPER AWESOME person he is, has granted me permission to talk about some of his methods today.

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 Roger 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, but he is actually the leader of a group of wizards from another dimension and he is pitted against his inner demons because he lost his father in a battle against shapeshifters….”

Huh? *looks to wine bar in the corner of the room*

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 last week 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 and rapes 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. Luke had to face Darth. By employing the Jedi skills learned over the course of the story, he was able to triumph. 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.

This is why all this “my protagonist is the BBT/antagonist” WON’T WORK. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn is her own worst enemy. She is spineless and weak. But, the real enemy resides in those who desire to control and bully Evelyn. In each act of the movie, we see Evelyn learning confidence so that by the end, the BIG battle, she can tell her abusive mother-in-law to stuff it. She isn’t having an argument with herself. She is standing up to a very real antagonist…even though this is a character/literary story. Characters having inner angst for 80,000 words is therapy, not fiction. Humans do better with the tangible. Existentialism is great, but for a mainstream successful novel? Not the best approach.

So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using the 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. In the coming weeks, I will be using this book for reference, among others to help you guys become master story-tellers.

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 do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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!

Winner of 5-Page Critique–Barbara McDowell. Please send a 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

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 over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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54 Comments

Structure Part 2–Plot Problems–Falcor the Luck Dragon & the Purple Tornado

Last week we began a series discussing structure and, if you haven’t read last Monday’s blog, I strongly recommend checking it out. Each of these blogs will build upon the previous lesson. By the end of this series, I hope you to give you guys all the tools you need to be “structure experts.”

If you are planning to do the National Novel Writing Month Challenge (50,000 words in the month of November) then these lessons will help you tremendously. If you are going to put in that much effort, wouldn’t it be great to have something worthwhile at the end of the month?

Structure is one of those topics that I feel gets overlooked far too much. There are a lot of workshops designed to teach aspiring writers how to finish a novel in four weeks or three or two or whatever. And that is great…if a writer possesses a solid understanding of structure. If not? At the end of 4 weeks, you could very likely have a 60K word mess that no editor can fix.

Finishing a novel is one of the best experiences in the world, but wanna know the worst? Pouring your heart and soul into a novel, finishing it, and then finding out it is not publishable or even salvageable. I make a lot of jokes about my first novel being used in Guantanamo Bay to break terrorists.

I’ll tell you where the bomb is just not another chapter of that booook!

Some of you might be in the midst of having to face some hard truths about your “baby.” If you have been shopping that same book for months or years, and an agent has yet to be interested, likely structure is the problem. Many of you might have a computer full of unfinished novels. Again, structure is likely the problem.

Good news is that most structure problems can be fixed, although many times that requires leveling everything to the foundation and using the raw materials to begin anew….the correct way and killing a lot of little darlings along the way.

Last week I broke the bad news. Novels have rules. Sorry. They do. I didn’t make this stuff up. When we don’t follow the rules, bad things happen. Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.

Authors who break the rules do so with a fundamental understanding of rules and reader expectations. Remember the pizza analogy? We can get creative with pizza so long as we do so with an appreciation for consumer expectations. A fried quail leg on filo dough with raspberry glaze is not recognizable as a pizza. We can call it pizza until we are blue and a consumer will just think we’re a nut.

Same with a novel. Readers have expectations. Deviate too far and we will have produced a commodity so far off the standard consumer expectations that the product will not sell…which is why agents won’t rep it. Our novel can be brilliant, but not sell. Agents are interested more in making money than breaking literary rules. Rumor has it that agents do have to make a living.

I can tell if a writer understands structure in ten pages. So can an agent. We are diagnosticians and when we spot certain novel “diseases” we know there is a big internal problem. We’ll discuss two major symptoms of a flawed plot today, but first we are going to pan the camera back this time. Last time we zoomed in and looked at the most fundamental building blocks of a novel. Today, we are going to get an aerial shot—the Three Act Structure.

Aristotelian structure has worked for a couple thousand years for very good reasons. To paraphrase James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure (cuz he says it the best):

There is something fundamentally sound about the three act structure, and it is very much in harmony with how we live our lives. Three is a pattern. Childhood is short and introduces us to life (Act I). Most of our living comes in the middle span of years (Act II), and then we are old and we die and that sums up our existence (Act III). We wake in the morning (Act I) then have the day living life (Act II) and then night ties things up (Act III). When we are confronted with a problem we react (Act I) then spend the greatest amount of time searching for insight and looking for an answer (Act II) and then finally the solution (Act III).

Three act structure has endured thousands of years because it works. Beginning, middle and end. We can ignore the three act structure, but we do so at our own risk that our work will fail to connect with readers.

Beginnings present the story world, establish tone, compel the reader to come on the adventure, and introduce the opposition.

Middles deepen the character relationships, keep the reader emotionally invested in the characters, and sets up the events that will lead to the final showdown at the end.

Ends tie up the main plot and any other story threads and provide a sense of meaning.

(If you don’t yet own Jim’s book, buy it today. It is a must-have for every writer’s library.)

Ideally, our story’s tension will steadily rise from the beginning to end, getting more intense like a roller coaster. Think of the best roller coasters. They start off with a huge hill (Inciting Incident that introduces the ride) then a small dip to catch your breath, and then we are committed. If the biggest hill is at the beginning of the ride, the rest of the ride is a total letdown.

A well-designed roller coaster gives escalating thrills—bigger and bigger hills and loops—with fewer troughs to catch our breath and all leading up to the Big Boss loop, then the glide home to the other side of where we began. We all want to get to the Big Boss loop, but we do so with a mix of terror, dread and glee. Same with a good story.

Great roller coasters are designed. So are great novels. Everything is done with purpose.

Two major problems will occur when we fail to follow this design. In almost two and a half years of running countless plots through my workshop, we have given them names—Falcor the Luck Dragon and The Purple Tornado.

Meet the Luck Dragon

Remember the movie The Neverending Story? Beautiful movie and amazing special effects…but (in my opinion) a HORRIBLE story. I loved the movie too. I have a soul. But I feel this movie is remembered and loved more for great effects and puppets, not the storytelling.

The beginning starts with The Nothing eating away a world we haven’t been in long enough to care and gobbling up critters the viewing audience hasn’t even been introduced to. Total melodrama. And the solution? A boy hero who the viewer doesn’t know from a hole in the ground and who, truthfully, isn’t nearly as likable as his horse that sinks into the Bog of Despair. Yes, I cried.

So High Council instructs unlikable boy hero to go and talk to the Northern Oracle. Northern Oracle is a giant turtle that is suffering depression and is apparently off his meds. Northern Oracle tells boy hero the answer to their problems rest with the Southern Oracle…but it is ten thousand miles away.

Boy trudges off depressed and defeated and music rises to cue the audience that we are supposed to care. Unlikable boy hero falls into the swamp…oh but Falcor the Luck Dragon swoops down from the sky and flies him ten thousand miles to the Southern Oracle. How lucky for the boy hero. Better yet. How convenient for the screenwriters that Falcor was there to bail them out of a massive plot problem.

No, your protagonist cannot find a journal or letters or some contrived coincidence to bail her out of a corner and get her back on track. That is what we at WWBC call a Luck Dragon. Don’t think you can sneak a Falcor by an agent or editor either. There is no camouflaging this guy. Did you see the picture? He’s HUGE, and he will stand out like, like…like a Luck Dragon bailing you out of a plot problem. But take heart. Looking at structure ahead of time will make all actions logical and Falcor the Luck Dragon can stay up in the clouds where he belongs.

Watch out for that Purple Tornado!

Next plot problem? The Purple Tornado. What is a purple tornado? So glad you asked. One of the first participants of WWBC had a YA fantasy. By page 30 there was this MASSIVE supernatural event with a purple tornado. This writer clung to the purple tornado scene until I thought I was going to break his knuckles prying it away from him.

Why was I prying the purple tornado from his hands? Because he couldn’t top the purple tornado!!! He had his Big Boss Battle, his grand finale, his giant loop too close to the beginning. The rest of the book would have either been a letdown or totally contrived.

Plan where that loop will be situated and put it in the spot that will evoke the greatest emotional reaction….at the end.

I see too many new writers trying to “hook” the reader with some grand event like a building exploding. Well, okay, but what are you going to do for the grand finale, blow up a city? The planet? It’s too much too soon and before anyone even cares.

Structure.

I hope you guys get a lot out of this series. I know it took me years to learn some of this stuff and part of the reason I started this blog was to help shorten the learning curve. I would imagine most of you reading this would like to be published while you are still young enough to enjoy it. Join me next week for more on structure and plotting.

What are some problems you guys have faced in plotting? What are the biggest struggles? Do you have any suggestions for books on the subject or methods you use that you could share? Have you been guilty of a Falcor or a Purple Tornado? Share your thoughts.

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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.

Winner of 5 Page Critique for Week 2 of October Teresa Owen. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail addy is Gigi at gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com. Gigi will make sure I get your pages.

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 over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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48 Comments

Structure Part 1–Anatomy of a Best-Selling Novel–Structure Matters

We are into October and National Novel Writing Month is around the corner (November–NaNoWriMo). Thus, I am running my structure series to help you guys get prepared. Why write 50,000 words if, at the end you have an unpublishable mess? Some of you might have seen these lessons, but a good refresher can’t hurt.

Writers must understand structure if they hope to be successful. Yes, it might take five years to finish the first novel, but if we land a three book deal, we don’t have 15 years to turn in our books. Understanding structure helps us become faster, cleaner, better writers.

Plotters tend to do better with structure, but even pantsers (those writers who write by the seat of their pants) NEED to understand structure or revisions will be HELL. Structure is one of those boring topics like finance or taxes. It isn’t nearly as glamorous as creating characters or reading about ways to unleash our creative energy.

Structure is probably one of the most overlooked topics, and yet it is the most critical. Why? Because structure is for the reader. The farther an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect to a reader. Agents know this and editors know this and, since they are in the business of selling books to readers, structure becomes vital.

Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold

Story that deviates so far from structure that readers get confused or bored = slush pile

As an editor, I can tell in five minutes if an author understands narrative structure. Seriously.

Oh and I can hear the moaning and great gnashing of teeth. Trust me, I hear ya.

Structure can be tough to wrap your mind around and, to be blunt, most aspiring writers don’t understand it. They rely on wordsmithery and hope they can bluff past people like me with their glorious prose. Yeah, no. Prose isn’t plot. We have to understand plot. That’s why I am going to make this upcoming series simple easy and best of all FUN.

Learning narrative structure ranks right up there with…memorizing the Periodic Table. Remember those days? Ah, high school chemistry. The funny thing about chemistry is that if you didn’t grasp the Periodic Table, then you simply would never do well in chemistry. Everything beyond Chapter One hinged on this fundamental step—understanding the Periodic Table.

Location, location, location.

See, the elements were a lot like the groups at high school. They all had their own parts of the “lunch room.” Metals on one part of the table, then the non-metals. Metals liked to date non-metals. They called themselves “The Ionics” thinking it sounded cool. Metals never dated other metals, but non-metals did date other non-metals. They were called “The Covalents.”  And then you had the neutral gases. The nerds of the Periodic Table. No one hung out with them. Ever. Okay, other nerds, but that was it. Period.

All silliness aside, if you didn’t understand what element would likely hang out where and in what company, the rest of chemistry might as well have been Sanskrit….like it was for me the first three times I failed it.

Novel structure can be very similar. Last week we talked a lot about novel beginnings (pun, of course, intended). Normal world has a clear purpose, just like all the other components of the narrative structure. Today we are going to go back to basics, before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure, turning points, rising action, and darkest moments.

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I am going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Prose is not a novel. Just because we can write lovely vignettes doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 80-100,000 word novel.

That’s like saying, I can build a birdhouse, ergo I can build a real house. Um…no. Different scale, different skills. Are a lot of the components the same? Sure! But a novel needs a totally different framework of support, lest it collapse….structure.

There are too many talented writers out there writing by the seat of their pants, believing that skills that can create a great short story are the same for a novel. No, no, no, no. When we lack a basic understanding of structure we have set ourselves up for a lot of wasted writing.

Ah, but understand the basics? And the potential variations are mind-boggling even if they are bound by rules, just like chemistry. Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they also can be butterflies and barracudas and bull dogs. Today we are going to just have a basic introduction and we will delve deeper in the coming weeks.

Now before you guys get the vapors and think I am boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better.

Structure is about timing—where in the mix those elements go.

When you read a novel that isn’t quite grabbing you, the reason is probably structure. Even though it may have good characters, snappy dialogue, and intriguing settings, the story isn’t unfolding in the optimum fashion. ~James Scott Bell from Plot and Structure.

Structure has to do with the foundation and the building blocks, the carbon chains that are internal and never seen, but will hold and define what eventually will manifest on the outside—banana or butterfly? Paranormal Romance? Or WTH? Structure holds stories together and helps them make sense and flow in such a way so as to maximize the emotional impact by the end of the tale.

If an author adheres to the rules, then the possible combinations are limitless. Fail to understand the rules and we likely could end up with a novel that resembles that steamy pile of goo like from that scene in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum sends the baboon through the transporter but it doesn’t go so well for the baboon. The idea was sound, but the outcome a disaster…okay, I’ll stop. You get the idea. Structure is important.

We are going to first put the novel under the electron microscope.

The most fundamental basics of a novel are cause and effect. That is super basic. An entire novel can be broken down into cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect (Yes, even literary works). Cause and effect are like nucleus and electrons. They exist in relation to each other and need each other. All effects must have a cause and all causes eventually must have an effect (or a good explanation).

 

I know that in life random things happen and good people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that “seed” needed to be planted ahead of time. Villains don’t just have their heart explode because we need them to die so we can end our book. We’ll talk more about that later.

Now, all these little causes and effects clump together to form the next two building blocks we will discuss—the scene & the sequel (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure). Many times these will clump together to form your “chapters” but all in good time.

Cause and effect are like the carbon and the hydrogen. They bind together to form carbon chains. Carbon chains are what make up all living organisms. Like Leggos put together differently, but always using the same fundamental ingredients. Carbon chains make up flowers and lettuce and fireflies and all things living, just like scenes and sequels form together in different ways to make up mysteries and romances, and thrillers and all things literary.

Structure’s two main components, as I said earlier, are the scene and the sequel.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (again per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, which I recommend every writer buy).

  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Link scenes and sequels together and flesh over a narrative structure and you will have a novel that readers will enjoy.

Oh but Kristen you are hedging me in to this formulaic writing and I want to be creative.

Understanding structure is not formulaic writing. It is writing that makes sense on a fundamental level. On some intuitive level all readers expect some variation of this structure. Deviate too far and risk losing the reader by either boring her or confusing her.

Can we get creative with pizza? Sure. Can we be more than Domino’s or Papa John’s? Of course. There are countless variations of pizza, from something that resembles a frozen hockey puck to gourmet varieties with fancy toppings like sundried tomatoes or feta cheese. But, on some intuitive level a patron will know what to expect when you “sell” them a pizza. They will know that a fried quail leg served on filo dough with a raspberry glaze is NOT a pizza.

Patrons have certain expectations when you offer them a “pizza.” Pizza has rules. So do novels. Chemistry and biology have rules, so do novels. We can push the boundaries, but we must appreciate the rules…so that we can break them.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Do any of you have tricks for plotting you would like to share?

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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!

NOTE: If you have won an edit from me and haven’t heard back, PLEASE resend to my assistant Gigi Salem (if you haven’t already). Likely, the wormhole (spam folder) ate your submission. I do look for them, but sometimes they slip by. Just send your pages to Gigi.Salem.EA at g mail dot com and I will get you hooked up.

Winner’s Circle:

GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (6500 words) OR a blog diagnostic. Diane Henders

Monthly Winner of 15 Pages (3250 words) of Edit Joylse Barnett

Weekly Winner of Five Pages (1250 words) Ramblingsfromtheleft

All winners, send your words in a Word document to my assistant Gigi at Gigi.Salem.EA at g mail dot com

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 over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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92 Comments

Self-Publishing–The “American Idol” of the Publishing World

Happy Friday! Well, it’s a holiday weekend, so I figured we’d have some fun. I posted this argument at the beginning of the year and it generated a lot of cool discussion. There have been a lot of changes in publishing, so I figured it would be entertaining to revisit the debate. About what?

Self-publishing.

After two #1 best-selling books (published through a small, yet awesome indie press) I feel I can safely offer my opinion, then you guys can add $2.50 to my advice and get a venti coffee from Starbucks.

In my opinion, self-publishing is the American Idol of the publishing world. Thousands and thousands of hopefuls and a small handful of real chart-topping talent–talent that, in the traditional format, might never have been discovered. That’s the upside. The downside? There are no gatekeepers to keep the talentless hacks from assaulting the unsuspecting public with their “art.”

In the beginning, American Idol caught a lot of flack. There was a genuine concern about removing traditional gatekeepers from the music industry and–GASP–leaving it to the fans. Um, who did they think bought the records?

But I digress…

There was a genuine worry that American Idol could devolve into a popularity contest and that real talent might get overlooked due to a stampeding hoard of tone-deaf fans. I mean,the insanity! Let the FANS vote for their favorite artist? What’s next? Democracy?

I might be going out on a limb here, but I don’t think the guy in fat guy in spandex with the pink boa who sounds like a cat got caught in a screen door has yet to make it past the first round of eliminations. And maybe some less-than-talented people make it past the initial auditions, but, overall, I would have to say that the general music-loving public has, so far, picked some amazing artists.

Back to self-publishing. If we are willing to gut through the initial American Idol stand in line for three days, then we get our shot. What is the literary equivalent? If we are willing to fork out the cash, time, or effort to self-publish, we get our shot to be heard. Period. That is all self-publishing is. After that, it boils down to the story and prior preparation. The readers will judge the talent.

In American Idol, you have the raging hacks, the undiscovered diamonds…and then everyone in between. Same with self-publishing.

The Deluded Divas

American Idol is flypaper for people with far more ego than talent. They believe they have a “natural gift,” which is code for, “I’m too talented (self-deluded) to take singing lessons or be bothered by things like voice classes or learning to read music.”

They belt off some bad Whitney Houston song in a voice that makes every dog in a 10 mile radius start bleeding from the ears. And, when one of the judges suggests voice coaching, they go nuts, flouncing out to their entourage (closest loser friends) waiting outside the door.

“Because all their friends say they have a great voice, and that Simon just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Yeah. You’ll show him…or not.

Writing has the same Deluded Divas. Critique groups always have at least one. This is the guy who reads every week–EVERY WEEK–no matter what. Why? Because short of taking hostages, this is the only way anyone is going to listen to his novel.

Rather than learning the craft, this type of writer frequently talks non-stop about the junk NY is putting out there, so he is going to just bust past all the gatekeepers who don’t know a real best-seller when they see one. That and he gets 100% royalty rate that he can reinvest into producing the crappy film based off his crappy book…which he is also writing and producing with his cousin who’s attending film school at the local junior college. Things like correct punctuation, consistent POV and Aristotelian structure interfere too much with his “art.”

Yeah.

The Undiscovered Diamond

What is the whole point of shows like American Idol? Finding real talent. The vocalist who might not have ever been noticed if she’d gone the traditional route to landing a record deal. 

The Susan Boyle. The Fantasia. THAT one, the one with the voice of an angel.

If you have watched more than a handful of episodes of American Idol, then you have likely seen this happen. The shy kid with the guitar who starts singing and you just know this kid is going to go all the way…and you rooted for him when he was a nobody.

Same in self-published writing. But, like the shy kid with the guitar? This chart-topping (best-selling) writer is equally rare….like most undiscovered diamonds. Duh. If they were as common as brown puppies, they wouldn’t be diamonds.

It is not a regular thing for a self-published author to suddenly shoot up the best-seller lists. Not saying it won’t happen, but it sure doesn’t happen as frequently as the Deluded Divas would like to believe.

Even when traditionally published, a writer’s odds of hitting the NY Times best-seller list is about the same as being hit by lightning. As the market stands, the odds of our self-published book with no prior platform hitting the NYT best-seller list is about the same is being hit by lightning and mauled by a polar bear and brown bear at the same time. Not saying it can’t happen, but, um…yeah.

Good books with no platform stand a slim chance. Bad books? Well, no amount of social media can help a bad book.

Everyone In Between

Between the Deluded Divas and the Undiscovered Diamonds, there rests everyone else. Maybe they are new, need more time to grow, develop, learn, train, mature. On American Idol, I have seen vocalists audition, and it was clear to see they had the makings of a great singer…but they needed more time, a mentor, a coach.

I have also seen many writers who fall into this category. Are they bad writers? No. Are they green? Maybe in need of refining? Yes.

Do all of us have the talent to make be the next Cormac McCarthy? No. But there are a lot of successful authors out there who do very well, even if they aren’t a household name. They sell enough books to live comfortably and do what they love every day. For many of us, that would be enough. Would we like to be the next Stephen King or Nora Roberts? Sure. But we wouldn’t consider our lives as failures if we simply could sell enough books to write full-time.

Some of us might even make it through all three tiers.

I know I began as a Deluded Diva. I thought my first novel was perfect and that those agents didn’t know what they were talking about. Part of me is thankful that self-publishing was not as accessible back then. This book I though was perfect is the same book I joke about being banned by the Geneva Convention as torture.

I’ll tell you where the bomb is, just not another chapter of that booook!

I was new and unskilled and had more ego than sense. After the gatekeepers popped me on the snoot a few times, I started realizing maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. I joined a critique group, took a job as a line-editor, and read every craft book I could find.

Right now, I’m idling in the Everyone In Between, hoping I am that Undiscovered Diamond. But you know what? Maybe I’m not. Maybe I am a nice opal or an emerald. Maybe I am a diamond. Time and hard work will tell.

So what about self-publishing? Basically, it boils down to Deluded Divas, Undiscovered Diamonds…and then Everyone In Between. Self-publishing is our audition. It’s our shot to show the reader what we’ve got.

Maybe you are a deluded hack who should be banned from accessing Microsoft Word. That will become clear eventually when you sell 10 copies of your novel and one is to your dog, who ran in front of a car the next day after he “bought” your book. If your writing sucks, it will become painfully clear in the sales numbers soon enough. Live and learn. Keep writing.

We should always be writing the next book. We should never stop and never ever bank our future on one book. That’s a bad business plan.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Maybe sales figures will be enough to sober you up and help you understand that your craft needs work. Write, write again. It ain’t over until we give up. You might have to work extra hard to clean up your reputation, but that’s why there are gatekeepers in traditional publishing. They are there to warn us that our vampire-mystery-chik-lit-historical-memoir is not a winner. Agents and editors aren’t out to get us…really. They are there to help keep us from making fools of ourselves.

If our book makes people claw out their own eyes is not so great…

The kinda good news is there are so many self-published books that, if the first book we upload is a stinker, it’s pretty unlikely so many people will notice that we must change our names and go live in a cave. This isn’t to offer permission to put out garbage, but I do feel writers have a bit more leeway here than they did even three years ago. If the book flops, just move on. Shake it off and learn and do better next time.

Write more books and keep growing. Once your writing is strong enough to really start selling, you will probably have the skills to go back and fix the problems in the earlier books. Then, you will have more books for sale for fans. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Just like the participants of American Idol. They DO have the option to check their egos at the door, go get voice lessons and try again.

If our book is actually a gem…

Agents and editors aren’t God. Maybe you have an excellent book that is professional and not riddled with typos. Maybe you are the Susan Boyle or Fantasia or LeeDeWyze…the Undiscovered Diamond. Maybe you aren’t yet a diamond, but are clearly one in the making. Again, the sales figures don’t lie. Building a solid platform ahead of time will help make this clearer sooner.

Likely, you are like the rest of us who are Everyone In Between and hoping to one day be discovered. Any way you go, best of luck and I hope my blogs help you reach your dreams faster than you dreamed possible.

So what do you guys think? Are you a fan of self-publishing or do you think it is a sign of the coming apocalypse? And the angel opened the fifth seal, and out of the cup of wrath poured many bad vampire books to torment the unfaithful. Are you in between? Undecided? 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.

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: GRAND PRIZE WILL BE PICKED THIS MONTH. 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.

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63 Comments

Deadly Sin of Writing #6–Drifting in the Doldrums

Fiction is a tough gig. There are so many things that have to be developed, crafted, balanced, and brought to completion. Plot, setting, character, dialogue, arc, POV—it can get overwhelming. It is very easy to lose sight of the conflict and then our story gets stuck in the literary dolrums. Bad juju.

Two elements drive all great stories—character conflict and plot conflict. In good stories, there are generally two arcs, the plot arc and the character arc. One cannot be satisfied unless there is progression on the other. The character must grow or he cannot complete the next step in the plot. Each progression toward resolving the story problem also creates character growth. These elements work in perfect tandem.

This is one of the reasons that uber-perfect characters= BORING SNOOZE FEST. If our hero begins the story as a hero, then how can he grow? How can we (readers) worry?

Worry=Page-Turner

Everything else in a story, dialogue, scene-setting, description, etc. must support the conflict or be cut. Why? Because if these elements are not fueling momentum, they are, by definition, dead weight that can quickly leave a story drifting in the ho-hum world of “Ain’t Nothing Happening.” There is no conflict, no fuel, so the story loses momentum. If it sits idle long enough, the book can end up lost in the Burmuda Triangle the reader’s bookshelf, never to be seen again (until moving day).

Back to conflict…

When you look at the really great novels, each part serves a purpose. All parts work together like a highly efficient sailboat. With that said, how well do you think any sailboat would work with extra sails randomly sent up the mast? Everything on the boat must have a purpose and work to keep the boat afloat, to help navigation and provide momentum. If these components are neglected, it is likely the boat either will sink, go the wrong direction or will be left drifting at sea so long that all souls will perish.

Every scene must have conflict. Conflict must in some way involve the characters and serve to propel them either further along on the plot arc, or on a character arc.  Conflict doesn’t have to be nail-biting, cliffhanging tension. In fact, it is best to leave that sort of conflict for very specific parts of the story or you risk wearing out the reader. Conflict can be boiled down to somebody wants something, but then… This is the fuel that drives the machine of your story.

Think about the movie Top Gun. Was every scene a hair-raising ordeal involving dog-fighting jets? No. But there was plenty of conflict. Remember the scene at the club where Lt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell meets his future love interest Charlie Blackwood? Does he succeed? Or does he go down in a figurative ball of fire? This protagonist has an ego the size of Texas, and he’s used to getting his way. When he doesn’t, this propels him along on his character arc. He has to change or die, because the character traits that get him shot down in the club eventually will be the traits that can get him (and others) shot out of the sky.

The club scene in Top Gun serves multiple, multiple functions…other than getting to see a lot of really hot guys in Navy dress whites. The bar scene is a key sail to drive the character arc, when it easily could have been fluff and filler.

First, we get to see that pilots are human. They have lives beyond a cockpit. Or do they? That will be a key point developed over the course of the movie. Second, the audience is afforded the opportunity to witness how the protagonist’s blind spots and character flaws are affecting all aspects of his life in a negative way. His hotshot methods are beginning to show signs of breaking down.

Iceman, the story’s antagonist, is also present to witness Maverick fail. That is no accident. Now could this have just been a fun nightclub scene to show off hot Navy guys? Sure. But if that had been the only function of the scene, I doubt we would still remember it almost twenty years later.

All of us have to be wary of permitting our story to drift into the doldrums. We love our characters, our wonderful scene-setting, clever exposition and witty dialogue. But to write truly great stories requires brutal honesty. When we edit our work, we have to ask ourselves one question over and over and over—“What purpose does this scene serve?”

If it doesn’t have a function—a good, solid function that drives the story—it needs to either be modified or cut altogether. It’s a literary siren tempting your story to crash on the rocks, or what we more seasoned sailors writers like to call a Little Darling.

Little Darlings will KILL a novel. For more information about Little Darling Syndrome, go here.

So you need some ways to spot if you are drifting dolrums? Happy to help:

1. Remember that fiction is the path of greatest resistance.

One of the number one newbie mistakes I see is that writers resolve conflict too easily and too soon. Most of us go out of our way to avoid conflict in life, so it is very counterintuitive to seek to ADD MORE conflict when we write.

As an example. A few months ago I was helping one of my writing group peeps with her plotting and I noticed something.

“Gee. All your characters get along so well….and ALL THE TIME.” If her protagonist wanted to fight the rebels, the protag’s allies were right there. No one ever disagreed. Anyone who has run a committee more than five minutes knows that it is rare that everyone will be on the same page. Most of the conflict for our novel will actually come from intimate connections.

One example I like to use is the movie, Finding Nemo. Darla the Fish-Killer is the story’s core antagonist (what I call the Big Boss Trouble Maker), but we only see Darla in a few minute’s worth of scenes. She drives the entire story because if Darla had wanted a kitten for her birthday, Nemo would never need rescuing. Yet, in the big picture, Darla is rarely present. Who is responsible for most of the tension and conflict? The hero’s ally, Dorie.

If Marlin wants to go up, Dorie goes down. Every decision is maximum conflict…the path of greatest resistance. Each scene has a goal and the protagonist must reach that goal rarely if ever until the end. In each scene he needs to seem worse off than when he began. So go back through and make sure you aren’t making life too easy on your characters.

2. Look for the goal of each scene and make sure someone/something is in the way.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat taught me a wonderful technique for making sure each scene has a purpose. Take an index card for a new scene, then write the goal at the top then who or what was in conflict.

After losing sight of the boat that took his son Nemo, Marlin wants to go home.

Marlin><Dorie

Marlin wants to go home, but Dorie wants to talk to Bruce the Great White.

-/+

(This little set of symbols above -/+? This symbol shows how the protag enters a scene and then how he leaves. Here, I use a – because at the beginning of the scene Marlin loses sight of the boat that took his son. By all accounts the story is over, but then Dorie, the ally/antagonist insists on talking to Bruce the Great White. At the end of the scene discover the critical clue that keeps the story going. The scene ends on a + because there is renewed hope to find Nemo.)

Ideally there should be a shift from + to – or – to +. If the protagonist is always ending on a +, there is little conflict and no reason to worry. If we have too much -, then the reader just gets depressed and gives up. Too many -s or +s will help you spot doldrums quickly.

There needs to be a fine balance of setbacks and progression to keep the reader hooked…just like a fish. Yank too aggressively on the line plot and the fish reader breaks free wears out and gets frustrated. Don’t yank hard enough and the fish reader takes off gets bored and turns on the TV.

3. Never leave a place to put a bookmark.

Fiction is real life with all the boring stuff cut out. Yes, we get that our protagonist must go to sleep, but never end a chapter with a character going to sleep (without introducing the next problem). This is a subconscious cue to the reader that this is a safe place to put a bookmark. Bookmarks are death.

Never let your reader feel good about using a bookmark. Bookmarking should be painful and only because it is two in the morning and the reader must get some sleep before work.

At the end of the day, question everything. It is better for us to give our fiction the trial of fire than for reviewers to do that publicly on-line. Ask the hard questions and be willing to cut away dead weight for the sake of the story. The doldrums is where you will lose most of your readers, so always keep the forward momentum. We don’t always have to be doing top-speed, but we do need to be moving forward.

What are your thoughts? What makes you get bored with a story and put it down? What tools do you guys use for spotting dead places in your stories? Share! we’d love to learn from you.

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!

Last Week’s Winner of 5 pages (1250 words) of critique:

Michelle DeRusha please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org. Congratulations!

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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59 Comments

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