Posts Tagged plotting

Generate Nerve-Shredding Story Tension—Power of the Secret-Keeper

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 9.47.12 AM

Image via the award-winning show “House.”

It’s tempting for us to create “perfect” protagonists and “pure evil” antagonists, but that’s the stuff of cartoons, not great fiction. Every strength has an array of corresponding weaknesses, and when we understand these soft spots, generating conflict becomes easier. Understanding character arc becomes simpler. Plotting will fall into place with far less effort.

My POV? All memorable stories are character-driven. Plot merely serves to change characters from a lowly protagonist into a hero….kicking and screaming along the way.

One element that is critical to understand is this:

Everyone has Secrets

To quote Dr. Gregory House, Everybody lies.

All good stories hinge on secrets.

I have bodies under my porch.

Okay, not all secrets in our fiction need to be THIS huge.

Secret #1—”Real” Self Versus Authentic Self

We all have a face we show to the world, what we want others to see. If this weren’t true then my author picture would have me wearing a Star Wars t-shirt, yoga pants and a scrunchee, not a beautifully lighted photograph taken by a pro.

We all have faces we show to certain people, roles we play. We are one person in the workplace, another with family, another with friends and another with strangers. This isn’t us being deceptive in a bad way, it’s self-protection and it’s us upholding societal norms. This is why when Grandma starts discussing her bathroom routine, we cringe and yell, “Grandma! TMI! STOP!”

No one wants to be trapped in a long line at a grocery store with the stranger telling us about her nasty divorce. Yet, if we had a sibling who was suffering, we’d be wounded if she didn’t tell us her marriage was falling apart.

Yet, people keep secrets. Some more than others.

In fact, if we look at The Joy Luck Club the entire book hinges on the fact that the mothers are trying to break the curses of the past by merely changing geography. Yet, as their daughters grow into women, they see the faces of the same demons wreaking havoc in their daughters’ lives…even though they are thousands of miles away from the past (China).

How could she just LEAVE those babies?

How could she just LEAVE those babies?
Image via IMDB “The Joy Luck Club”

The mothers have to reveal their sins, but this will cost them the “perfect version of themselves” they’ve sold the world and their daughters (and frankly, themselves).

The daughters look at their mothers as being different from them. Their mothers are perfect, put-together, and guiltless. It’s this misperception that keeps a wall between them. This wall can only come down if the external facades (the secrets) are exposed.

Secret #2—False Face

Characters who seem strong, can, in fact, be scared half to death. Characters who seem to be so caring, can in fact be acting out of guilt, not genuine concern for others. We all have those fatal weaknesses, and most of us don’t volunteer these blemishes to the world.

The woman whose house looks perfect can be hiding a month’s worth of laundry behind the Martha Stewart shower curtains. Go to her house and watch her squirm if you want to hang your coat in her front closet. She wants others to think she has her act together, but if anyone opens that coat closet door, the pile of junk will fall out…and her skeletons will be on public display.

Anyone walking toward her closets or asking to take a shower makes her uncomfortable because this threatens her false face.

Watch any episode of House and most of the team’s investigations are hindered because patients don’t want to reveal they are not ill and really want attention, use drugs, are bulimic, had an affair, are growing marijuana in their attics, etc.

Secret #3—False Guilt

Characters can be driven to right a wrong they aren’t even responsible for. In Winter’s Bone Ree Dolly is driven to find her father before the bail bondsman takes the family land and renders all of them homeless.

Ree is old enough to join the Army and walk away from the nightmare, but she doesn’t. She feels a need to take care of the family and right a wrong she didn’t commit. She has to dig in and dismantle the family secrets (the crime ring entrenched in her bloodline) to uncover the real secret—What happened to her father?

She has to keep the family secret (otherwise she could just go to the cops) to uncover the greater, and more important secret. She keeps the secret partly out of self-preservation, but also out of guilt and shame.

Seeking the truth is painful...

Seeking the truth is painful…
Image via “Winter’s Bone”

In the first novel of the trilogy I am writing, my protagonist takes the fall for a massive Enron-like scam. She had nothing to do with the theft of a half a billion dollars and the countless people defrauded into destitution. Yet, she feels false guilt. She feels responsible even though she isn’t.

This directs her actions. It makes her fail to trust who she should because she’s been had before. When she uncovers a horrific and embarrassing truth about someone she trusts, she withholds the information (out of shame for the other person) and it nearly gets her killed.

This embarrassing secret is the key to unlocking the truth, yet she hides it because of shame. Shame for the other person and shame that this information reveals her deepest weakness…she is naive and has been (yet again) fooled.

Be a GOOD Secret-Keeper

This is one of the reasons I HATE flashbacks. Oh, but people want to know WHY my character is this way or does thus-and-such.

Here’s the thing, The Spawn wants cookie sprinkles for breakfast. Just because he WANTS something, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him. Don’t tell us WHY. Reveal pieces slowly, but once secrets are out? Tension dissipates. Tension is key to maintaining story momentum. We WANT to know WHY, but it might not be good for us.

The Force was more interesting before it was EXPLAINED.

Everybody LIES

They can be small lies, “No, I wasn’t crying. Allergies.” Lies of omission. White lies. They can even be BIG lies, “I have no idea what happened to your father. I was playing poker with Jeb.” Fiction is one of the few places that LIES ARE GOOD. LIES ARE GOLD.

Fiction is like dating. If we tell our date our entire life story on Date #1? Mystery lost and good luck with Date #2.

When it comes to your characters, make them lie (even if it’s only to themselves). Make them hide who they are. They need to slowly reveal the true self, and they will do everything to defend who they believe they are.

Remember the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. The protagonist will want to return to the old way, even though it isn’t good for them.

Resist the urge to explain. 

Feel free to write backstory/secrets out for your benefit…but then HIDE those babies from the reader. BE A SECRET-KEEPER. Secrets rock. Secrets make FABULOUS fiction.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some great works of fiction that show a myriad of lies from small to catastrophic? Can you think of what your character’s “false face” is? What is the lie that defines him or her? What is the self-delusion? What is the weakness that they dare not show (but by not showing it, is ultimately inhibiting growth)?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

, , , , , , , , , ,

59 Comments

The Bookpocalypse–What to Do When You Realize Your Story Might Be DEAD

Original image via Wikimedia Commons, Nuclear Weapons Test Romeo

Original image via Wikimedia Commons, Nuclear Weapons Test Romeo

Since I am dedicating this week to the apocalypse to support my friend, Piper Bayard, I thought we’d take a day to look at the Bookpocalypse. What IS a Bookpocalypse? The Bookpocalypse is when you realize that first book you’ve been working, reworking, taking to critique, etc. is a train wreck and, for all intents and purposes, unsalvageable.

I went through this, too. Back in the 90s, when I began my tome, I mistakenly believed that making As in English naturally qualified me to be a best-selling author.

Yeah, um. NO.

And there comes that point that we need to be honest why our book is being rejected (or, in the new paradigm, not selling). This can be a very depressing low for any artist. I still remember the day it dawned on me my first book was mess and it was time to pull the plug. This is why I coined the phrase, Persistence can look a lot like stupid. 

If we don’t have a basic understanding of some key fundamentals, more work or harder work is wasted effort. We need to work smarter, not harder.

Sometimes we need professional help. This help can come from reading craft books, dissecting fiction similar to what we want to write, studying movies, attending conferences and workshops. But sometimes it can come through having a strong editor.

A Story of Seeds

Piper won’t mind me telling you this story since we laugh about it now. Of course we weren’t really laughing through the process, and it did seem a strange request that Piper requested a lock of hair part-way through edits.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

But, the story goes like this.

Piper met me at the DFW Writers Workshop Conference. She met me at a fortuitous point because I believed that antagonists were key to plotting and had spent the previous year studying all the masters with the hopes of creating a program to help writers (especially new writers) be able to create a core story problem, a solid plot, and dimensional characters quickly.

I’d been part of critique groups for years and watched writers all around who kept working on the same novel and getting rejected year after year. I knew there had to be a better way. What if these authors did land the Magical Three-Book Deal? NY wasn’t going to give them fifteen years to write the next books.

There had to be a way to teach new writers how to ramp up the creative process and generate solid books at a professional pace.

When I met Piper, she was shopping a completed manuscript called Seeds. Though I was no longer taking on editing work at this point, I gave in when it came to Piper because she is cute and fun to hang out with. I agreed to edit the first hundred pages because Piper was headed to another conference the next month and a big-time editor had expressed interest in her story idea.

Piper sends me the document and…

Kill. Me. Now.

Three pages in, I sensed we needed to call Literary FEMA. All the rookie mistakes. ALL OF THEM. I remember hitting about page 65 and calling her.

Me: Um, Piper, you, uh, have a lot of characters.

Piper: There aren’t that many.

Me: Are they all relevant to the story?

Piper: Well, maybe not in this book, but it’s going to be a series.

Me: *head desk* Okay, but still you have A LOT of characters.

Piper: Not really.

Me: I counted. I am at page 65 and you have almost 70 named characters. When you name them, that is a cue we need to care. It’s impossible to care about 70 people in less than 70 pages.

She still didn’t believe me, so I went back through the manuscript and not only highlighted all the named characters (which included pets and extended family) but I wrote the names in a list.

Piper: Oh, wow. I guess I do have too many characters.

Me: Ya think?

I continued my edits and notes and this is how I earned the name The Death Star. By the end of the tortuous hundred pages, I told Piper that her book was all over the place.

There were scenes that were irrelevant because she’d missed her core antagonist and core story problem. Because of this, the rest was just filler. She was “playing Literary Barbies” as I like to say.

Characters were talking to each other with no conflict, no scene goal. Melodrama filled in the gaps. Characters were psychologically inconsistent and half I would have recommended seek therapy and get medication. Their emotions were all over, namely to manufacture tension that couldn’t be created any other way (because no core story problem/antagonist).

I could tell she had a great storytelling voice (and a great idea for a novel), she just didn’t understand basic fundamentals, and that was derailing what she’d been trying to accomplish the past nine years.

I recommended we start a new book so she could learn the basics with a bit of guidance and then she’d have the skills to fix Seeds. But, Piper was determined to finish what she started and I knew this would mean a mass genocide of Little Darlings.

I only agreed to help for two reasons. First, Piper was a former lawyer so I knew she had a fabulous work ethic and tough skin. Secondly, I’d never tried to resurrect a novel from the dead and wondered if it was even possible. I knew it would stretch my skills and teach me just as much as it would teach Piper.

I stripped everything she’d written down to a single story problem then made her develop her core antagonist. Then we plotted from there, keeping and developing only the characters salient to the plot. I’d love to say this was easy for Piper, but I am pretty sure she was plotting her book and my death at a number of points along this journey.

At first, we would argue over characters or scenes she wanted to keep. Then, over time, I’d hear her starting to defend, and my response was, Have fun storming the castle.

Eventually, Piper learned to laugh and give in when I said this, namely because every time I recommended something be changed, moved or removed and she didn’t do it? She’d go back and read and see what I was talking about and just end up doing what I advised anyway.

A lot of working with an editor is developing trust, btw ;).

But, after all of this, I am happy we took the hard road. Piper endured her Bookpocalypse and came out stronger in the end. Seeds was burned and buried, and what grew from the ashes was Firelands.

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 9.38.10 AM

Not only did Piper get a traditional deal, this book has become a best-selling dystopian that has received glowing AP reviews and was blurbed by numerous New York Times best-selling authors. She wrote a funny blog post about this same journey we’re discussing today in her post, The Nine-Year Baby.

Piper is now a WAY faster, cleaner, stronger writer.

Her second book took less than seven months to complete and she’s now writing her third and has plotted her fourth (those books being an entirely new series). When I read her second book, I raced through it in less than six hours and loved it. Amazingly enough, I only had minor suggestions and corrections to offer.

My Baby Writer’s all grown up! *sniff*

Remember I mentioned some writer’s block might not be laziness or fear, rather lack of a foundation. The subconscious senses what’s lacking and slams on the breaks.

But this experience proved what I’d believed all along. There are some great new storytellers out there who just need some basics and tough love. Not all of us are able to learn by reading books. Some of us are kinesthetic learners and learn by doing. This can mean writing a drawer full of sucky books, or it can mean seeking guidance from someone who is a skilled teacher.

Yet, none of this learning can happen if we don’t experience our Bookpocalypse. I am not going to sugarcoat the experience. It SUCKS. When you have written and rewritten over and over, the characters and experiences become very real. It very much does feel like burying friends. I’ve been through it, too.

But we can’t move forward until we admit we have a disaster on our hands. And if we don’t learn why we wrote a disaster, this can be a formula for writing even more disasters.

This is why I am offering the Antagonist class tomorrow (use WANA15 for 15% off) and more classes that compliment this one next month. I no longer have the time to mentor the way I did with Piper, but I was able to create curriculum that can help reproduce the same effect.

I also highly recommend workshops offered by Bob Mayer, Candace Havens, James Scott Bell, Larry Brooks and Les Edgerton. Yes, it might cost money, but your time is valuable. Invest in your future.

Have you had a Bookpocalypse? Did you mourn the loss of your characters? Was it hard letting go? Are you happy you did?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.

, , , , , , ,

52 Comments

The Single Largest Cause of Writer’s Block–Might Not Be What You Believe

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

Today, I’d like to talk about the single greatest reason for writer’s block (aside from laziness and fear, but we can chat about those another time). I spent years as an editor, and I believe I’m a pretty good one. I’ve taken stories that were train wrecks and helped the author create a best-seller. Just ask Piper Bayard about Firelands, LOL.

I had a unique ability to pull apart a story and locate what wasn’t working and why. Then I could guide that writer to the best book possible (without altering that writer’s voice). Editing is a skill, but it’s a different skill from creating. For instance, a person who restores historical houses isn’t necessarily someone who can draw a blueprint and build a new house. The restorer looks to the bones of the house and fixes what’s already standing to help create what the owner envisions.

Same with editing. There is less creating and more reverse-engineering.

When I initially began writing fiction, I was shocked how terrible I was at it. Oh, page to page, the writing was lovely. But as a whole? I kept creating mess after mess, a blob with no internal structure that made sense. To make matters worse, I would hit about 30-40, 000 words an hit a WALL. I was paralyzed with no idea how the story should progress.

This, then led to editing and reediting the beginning until I was just ready to throw myself in traffic.

I was blocked.

Was it the wrong story? Was the idea flawed? Oh, let me try something new. 

Writing can feel a little like THIS...

Writing can feel a little like THIS…

Yet, time after time the same thing happened. I’d hit the exact same spot and paralysis would set in. I kept reading craft books and yet, nothing clicked. I’d start some new writing teacher’s program and again. STUCK. I’d hear things like, “Write your ending first” and it just made me want to punch the person who said it.

How is this even possible? Write the ending. RIGHT. After I take my pet unicorn for a ride.

Then I took NYT best-selling author Bob Mayer’s Warrior Writer class. We spent two days doing what he calls a “conflict lock.” I still didn’t get it. Bob kept asking me what kind of protagonist I wanted. Who was she? I had her in mind and yet…the plot ideas would end up so complicated even I didn’t understand what the hell I was talking about.

After some time, I am sure Bob was probably ready to hairlip me. I know I was ready to hairlip myself.

In frustration, Bob finally said the words that changed everything, “Okay, Kristen. Stop talking to me or I will call the cops.”

Kidding!

Bob said, “Forget the protagonist. Let’s start with the antagonist. Who is he and what does he want?”

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Robert Ellsworth Tyler

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Robert Ellsworth Tyler

Everything changed, and I finally saw what I was doing wrong. I was creating my hero with no problem. I had to begin with the story problem first or plotting would be next to impossible. Why? I had no idea what the hell my protagonist was trying to SOLVE!

I also was carrying around misguided ideas of what an antagonist was.

She is her OWN worst enemy.

Oooh, a STORM! SOCIETY!

Um, yeah…no.

This set me a on a new course. I stopped writing fiction altogether and threw everything I had into studying antagonists. I read stacks of novels, this time paying attention to the antagonists. I read psychological journals, profiling books, and tore apart every movie I watched (my husband has banned me from speaking during movies). I reverse engineered everything until I understood antagonists from every angle possible.

When most of us start out as baby writers, we only think of antagonists as villains. Buffalo Bill. Easy. But what if we don’t want to write about serial killers? And even if we DO want to write about serial killers, we can’t put the killer in every scene. A villain alone isn’t enough.

Don't make me toss you in my well....

Don’t make me toss you in my well….

High body count is still, as Les Edgerton would put it, a bad situation not conflict. Car chases and gun battles are not dramatic tension and can quickly become tedious in movies and books.

As I began to speak at more and more conferences, I saw how far-reaching this problem was. When I’d ask a writer to give me her pitch, I’d get something like this:

Well, it’s about a girl who is half-fairy and in high school, but she doesn’t know she has magic and, wait. Let me back up… Her mom fell in love with a vampire but then her mom had an affair with an evil fae and now their kingdom is in ruin because of werewolves and my character needs to find herself. She keeps having these dreams and there are these journals left by her aunt who was only 1/8 fae….

Kill…me…now *looks for closest wine bar*.

I started to realize what I had done to poor Bob (and I sent a letter of apology and a thank you for not slapping me). But it showed me something critical. Most new writers are backing into the story the wrong way.

With no clear antagonist, it is impossible to know the core story problem in need of resolution by Act Three. It’s impossible to plot (even good pantsers still have to know the story problem). It’s impossible to generate dramatic tension and what we are left with is melodrama….and a great way of getting STUCK at 30,000 words and wanting to kill ourselves and give up being novelists.

As an editor I knew when these elements were missing, but couldn’t articulate my instincts. I had to train and study and read until I got it.

Looking back at all those-half-finished novels, I now know how to fix them because I know what was missing to begin with. The novel I’m revising right now (that I easily finished) is actually one of those works that made it to 40,000 words then *insert sounds of squealing breaks here*.

The antagonist is the beating heart of the story. He/She/It creates the crisis and the crucible that forces our protagonist to become a hero. If we don’t know the endgame, we have no idea how to insert roadblocks, create misdirection, setbacks, or drama. So if you keep getting stuck? It might not be you are lazy or fearful (I wasn’t either). It might be your foundation (the antagonist/core story problem) either isn’t there or it’s weak and unable to support the bulk of 65-100,000 words.

I am offering an on-line class on antagonists next Friday. Use the code WANA15 for 15% off, and the class is recorded if you can’t make the actual window. But, if you want other resources you can read on your own (check out of the library), some great references are:

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

Hooked by Les Edgerton

Bullies, Bastards and Bitches by Jessica Morrell

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout PhD

The DSM-V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition)

Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas, the father of modern profiling

Take one of Bob Mayer’s workshops or Les Edgerton or even James Scott Bell. They are fabulous teachers.

Yet, if you are stuck, take heart. You might not be lazy or scared, you might just need some foundation repair :D. Good news is most stories can be fixed, just might take a lot of elbow grease. Yet, once you are finally headed in the right direction? That’s when the magic can happen.

What are your thoughts? What other books would you add to my list? Have you gotten stuck?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.

, , , , , , , ,

121 Comments

What Star Wars “A New Hope” Can Teach Us About In Medias Res

All literary roads lead back to "Star Wars"....

All literary roads lead back to “Star Wars”….

Yesterday, the AWESOME Marcy Kennedy taught “showing, not telling” using Star Trek” (hint, hint, take her class). So what is the natural follow-up for Star Trek?

STAR WARS….duh.

Setting is one of those tools that helps writers to do more showing than telling. Today, we are going to tackle a highly confusing subject for many writers—In medias res. In medias res quite literally means in the middle of things. This is a literary tactic that has been used since the days of Odysseus. It is a tactic that forces the writer forward, to begin the story near the heart of the problem.

The Trouble with In Medias Res

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

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

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

Commercial Fiction Ain’t A Tale of Two Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

These days, especially for traditional publishing, we need to get right into the heart of the action from the get-go. But if “the heart of the action” doesn’t involve a gun battle, funeral or cliffhanging scene, what the heck does it look like?

For Those Who Have Slept Since Seeing Star Wars

It is the front gate of Six Flags over Texas.

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

Uh…no.

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

No, that’s too far in. If we start the story on a Big Loop (HUGE ACTION–like car chases, bank heists, etc.) then we risk the rest of the book being anti-climactic. So where do we begin?

We begin at the gates of Six Flags over Texas.

We see young Kristen in the back of the station wagon and as her parents pull into the giant parking lot. We are present when she catches a glimpse of the Shock Wave (story problem) in the distance. Wow, it is bigger than she thought. We walk with Kristen through the line to get into the amusement park, and get a chance to know her and care about her before she makes the decision to ignore the Tea Cups and take on the roller coaster (Rise to Adventure). Kristen could have totally chickened out and stayed on the baby rides, but that would have been a boring story. Yet, because the Tea Cups are in the context of the larger ride, it means something when she decides she MUST ride the roller coaster.

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

In my little example, the GIANT roller coaster represents the story problem. We have a choice to start far earlier than in the parking lot of Six Flags….but we risk losing the reader in the Land of “Who Gives a Crap?”. We, as the narrators, can also choose to start on the actual ride, but then we have a different problem. The readers are then hurled into the action after the decision (rise to the adventure) has been made. Thus, we didn’t get time to give a gnat’s booty about seven-year-old Kristen.

Also, since Kristen is already locked down and can’t walk away, there is no conflict. It isn’t like Kristen can step out of the coaster on the first loop and take on the Tea Cups instead. As long as Kristen cannot make the wrong choice or give into her fears, there really is no story. Kristen MUST have a chance to fail….to walk away and go play the Ring-Toss instead.

Likewise, our protagonists MUST have opportunities to fail or to walk away. This is why they are eventually called “heroes.” Anyone else would have waved the white flag in the face of such circumstances. This is why we read fiction. We like bravery, courage and resilience.

What Star Wars the New Hope Can Teach Us About In Medias Res

To give you guys another example, let’s pretend it is 1977 and we are sitting in the theater watching the movie Star Wars. Star Wars (The New Hope) is a PERFECT example of in medias res. When we start the story, wars have been fought and we are in the heart of the conflict. The twins are grown and living separate lives and Anakin has already whined himself over to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader.

My theory is that you can only call a guy “Annie” so many times before he just snaps. Anyway…

Begin on Tatooine

So if you don’t want to start at the Gates of Six Flags, then feel free to Begin on Tattoine.

Star Wars begins (with the protagonist) on the planet of Tatooine just before his life will intersect with the antagonist’s agenda. We meet young Luke in his Normal World and get a chance to meet his aunt and uncle. We get a chance to see his normal life, so we have a basis for comparison when everything goes sideways. We care when Luke’s family is senselessly slaughtered. We are there when Luke is given a choice. Ignore everything that’s happened and return to moisture-farming OR step on the path to adventure.

What NOT to Do

We DO NOT begin the adventure with Little Luke looking at the stars wondering who his father is or longing for exciting adventures in space. It is too early and we aren’t close enough to the story problem–when the Emperor’s agenda intersects with Luke’s life and alters it forever.

We also DO NOT start the story with Luke whizzing through space on the Milleneum Falcon dodging bad guysThat would have been exciting, but jarring and we wouldn’t have cared about any of the passengers. We also wouldn’t have had time to see the overall story problem—The Emperor, Darth and the Death Star.

I feel part of why the prequels sucked were not as good is because Lucas tried to go back and explain the story that we already had loved and accepted. Among many other reasons

Guess what?

We really didn’t need to know WHY Annakin Skywalker turned evil or even HOW the Force worked or WHAT it was to enjoy The New Hope movies. In fact, we kind of liked the movies better before we “knew.”

The Force was better before it was explained.

Some of you are starting too far into the action, which is jarring. But others might feel the need to go back and explain everything. Why your protag is thus and such. Why the world is la la la. How the magic did whatever. Guess what? You really don’t need to explain.

I have used this example before. What if you went to a magic show? The magician makes a woman float. As the audience, we cry out, “How can he DO THAT?” What if the magician stopped mid-show, flipped on the lights and pointed out all the mirrors and wires? What would it do?

It would ruin the magic.

Keep Your Literary Magic

Same with our writing. Sure, some things (backstory) can be explained. But, I will be blunt. Most backstory can be explained in dialogue, real-time in flow with the narrative. Flashbacks and prologues really just bog down the narrative more times than not. Yes, you might want to explain why your vampire is dark and brooding, but why? Many readers will keep reading in hopes they can piece together enough hints to figure it out. Just because readers might want something, doesn’t mean it is in our best interests as authors to give in.

Sure. Star Wars fans all thought they wanted to know WHY and HOW, but once we got what we wanted????

Yeah.

Finding the Literary Sweet Spot

Thus, as writers, we are looking for that literary sweet spot, just close enough to the inciting incident to make readers feel vested, but not so far that we are basically beginning our book with a scene that should be the Big Boss Battle at the end. In medias res is tough and we aren’t always going to nail it on the first try. The key is practice and study. Movies are really wonderful to study because in screenplays, Act One is brutally short.

Watch how the best movies introduce the characters and the problems and see how efficient they are at relaying backstory in dialogue. And sure, some movies use flashbacks, but we always have to remember that the visual medium is different. We can “see” differences and don’t have to “keep up with” a zillion characters. We are passive and watching with our eyes. We don’t have to recreate the world in our head.

Reading is very active, so flashbacks always risk jarring the reader out of the narrative. Also, if you study screenwriting, great screenplays, much like great novels, do not rely on flashbacks. Heavy use of flashbacks is generally a sign of an amateur screenwriter. Highly skilled writers, whether on the page or the screen, are masters of maximizing every word and keeping the story real-time.

So what are your thoughts? Does this help you understand in medias res better? Do you have anything to add?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

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

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.

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

, , , , , , , , ,

51 Comments

Writing is Best When We Get Out of Our Own Way

Image vis Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.

Image vis Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.

One of the benefits of attending the same conferences year after year is I get to see which writers are published and which aren’t. Which writers finished the book, and which ones haven’t. It’s staggering how many authors I know who have been working on the same manuscript for two, three, five or even ten years. As NYTBSA Bob Mayer likes to say, “They are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

I confess, I was once guilty of this behavior, too. I would absolutely edit my WIPs to DEATH, and this behavior made it impossible to finish. Thankfully, blogging and writing non-fiction has helped tremendously with my fiction. I have learned to overcome perfectionism and ship.

Just Tell the D@&% Story

I recently finished a novel, but I will confess that, as I wrote, it was sooooo tempting to go back and edit, correct, perfect every sentence. This time? I didn’t. Every time I was tempted to go back, re-plot, adjust the story, revise, I just said to myself, “Kristen, just tell the d@&% story.”

This is why the simple act of knowing what your story problem is and where it will end is VITAL.

My story problem?

A former Dallas socialite is blackballed after her con-man fiance vanishes with a half a billion dollars in stolen money, leaving her as the FBI’s favorite suspect. Homeless and broke, she’s forced to move in with her crazy trailer trash family, where she soon discovers that solving her mother’s fifteen-year-old murder is the only way to uncover a massive criminal network before they kill her and everyone she loves.

This means my mind has a checklist of everything that needs solving regarding plot. Likely, the book will end with 1) solving the murder 2) exposing the criminal network and 3) finding the missing fiance and the stolen money.

Knowing how your character needs to change is also VITAL.

Character-wise, there is also a mental checklist. I know who my protagonist is in the beginning and where she needs to be by the end. This helps tremendously because, as I wrote, my protagonist would say or do certain things and my mind would inject, “Uh uh. She isn’t that evolved yet.” Or “Um, she needs to have grown up a little bit by now.”

Simply knowing those two elements: What is the problem that must be solved by the end? How does my protagonist have to change in order to earn the title “hero”? These two critical pieces can help you get out of your own way. I learned this cool stuff from Bob, by the way, so take his classes if you can or go to his retreat. Will change your life.

Learning to R-TUTE (Yes, you can giggle)

RESIST THE URGE TO EDIT. This can also stand for RESIST THE URGE TO EXPLAIN.

I recall, as I was writing my latest book, my hands seemed to take on a life of their own. I would add in an unplanned character or an unforeseen (seemingly meaningless) detail. Not too long ago, I would have backspaced over these moments of serendipity, convinced they were stupid because “they weren’t part of the outline.”

Yet, by the time I reached the end of my novel, I was blown away at how those “unplanned” details and players had coalesced into a multi-layered story I’m unsure I could’ve consciously plotted.

Your subconscious is your best friend. Premature editing can uproot the unconscious seeds of brilliance. Premature editing can kill momentum.

RESIST THE URGE TO EXPLAIN! You DO NOT NEED TO EXPLAIN. Really.

The Force was more interesting before it was EXPLAINED. Metachlorians RUINED The Force. Same with your characters. Don’t go “back in time” to tell us why Such-and-Such is a brooding emotional mess. We don’t want to be your protagonist’s shrink, we want to partner with her on an adventure and watch her overcome her flaws in amazing ways.

Do you like hanging out with people who can do nothing but talk about their bad childhood? I don’t. Why would we want to hang out with characters (novels) who drag us to mandatory family therapy? We DON’T.

The Benefits of Writing FAST

We Learn by DOING.

We can read books about playing guitar for years and still have no clue how to play the guitar. The best way to learn how to write full-length novels is to write full-length novels. No one (but you and probably every friend and family member) expects your first book to be perfect. Get over it.

When I first played clarinet, it sounded like someone was water-boarding a goose. Practice made the difference. Practicing FULL songs, from Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to finally (four years later) The Marriage of Figaro. But I didn’t play The Marriage of Figaro the first week I picked up my instrument. Same with novels. Keep writing and write to the end.

We Are Professionals

This is one of the reasons I do recommend blogging. We need to write every day. If we want to do this thing for real, then we have to take on the role of a professional. This means showing up a minimum of five days a week. What other job would let us show up when we feel inspired and not fire us? Who can take us seriously if we work when we feel like it?

Writing FAST Helps Keep Us Out of Our Own Way

When we write fast, we don’t have time to over-think and edit the life out of our story. Move forward. Press on. Especially new writers. You need the practice. More experienced authors can languish a bit more because they earned it. Eric Clapton can spend hours perfecting a certain riff, but he already passed the Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star Test. 

Keep pressing and practicing. Every book makes you a better writer! Eventually you will be executing the literary equivalent of The Marriage of Figaro and can leave Mary Had a Little Lamb behind :D.

For those who are curious about what The Marriage of Figaro sounds like on clarinet:

What do you think? Are you editing your WIP to death? How to you resist the urge to edit? Does it involve duct tape and twisty ties? Are you struggling with finishing? Or, are you finishing books, but don’t feel you are improving enough?

I love hearing from you!

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

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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

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

, , , , , , , ,

93 Comments

Opening the Floor–Ask an Expert! What Do YOU Want to Learn More About?

Need some adverbs taken out?

Trust me. I be an expert….

One of my favorite parts of blogging is I get to hang out with you guys. I love your comments and REALLY LOVE when you share your stories. I read every one of them, and the only reason I don’t reply to all comments is because some of you subscribe to be messaged when there is a new comment…

…and I don’t want to blow up your e-mail with “((HUGS)) You are so awesome! I forget my purse ALL the time!”

I never run out of ideas because the world is a very interesting place. Writing is a complex topic and social media for writers is ever-evolving (along with the publishing paradigm).

I do try to mix this blog up with different content, some informational and some just fun. Keeps me fresh and you from being bored. Besides I am far too crazy creative to wear an expert suit all the time. I have to wear digital panty hose and they chafe :D.

But I want to try something different, today. I generally choose the topics. Ever so often one of you might ask something in the comments and that gives me an idea for a blog. I can keep just blogging about the things I find important or interesting, but I’d like to ask you guys what you’d like me to blog about. Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

  • What do you want to know about fiction?
  • Plotting?
  • Character?
  • How do you hook in the beginning of your book?
  • When do we need a prologue?
  • POV?
  • More dialogue (maybe from me or another expert)?
  • Tips for self-editing?
  • How to find a good editor? What’s the difference between a line-editor and content-editor? What is reasonable to pay for these services?
  • How do we choose what genre to write?
  • How do you write YA?
  • How do you get started writing for children?
  • World-building? (for fantasy, sci-fi, etc.)
  • Differences and expectations in genres?
  • How do you create romantic tension? Write love scenes?
  • What are the fundamentals of good romance?
  • Scene and sequel structure?
  • Generating conflict and tension?
  • How to write a strong female character and make her likable, too?
  • What are elements of great heroes?
  • What are the must-have resources for writers?
  • Why is it a bad idea to put Band-Aids in your hair?
  • If you are brand new, where do you start? How do you begin that first novel?
  • How do you get ideas for stories?
  • How to do research?
  • Want to know about non-fiction?
  • How do you choose a topic?
  • Write a proposal?
  • Land an agent without using chloroform?
  • How do you choose an agent? What questions do you ask?
  • When is it time to fire an agent?
  • How do you pitch?
  • Create a log-line/elevator pitch?
  • How do you get blurbs for your book without using blackmail?
  • Which type of publishing might be a good fit for you?
  • Choose a conference?
  • Speak Pig Latin like a pro?
  • Do you want to explore psychological profiles for crime writing?
  • Forensics?
  • Want to write about the military or guns in your book and sound like you know what the heck you are talking about? Revolvers DO NOT have a safety, btw. Also, it is a MAGAZINE, not a CLIP. And if we call it a MAGAZINE CLIP, it makes us sound double-stupid.
  • Want to know more about author brand?
  • How to handle a pen name with social media?
  • How to use a pen name and ACTUALLY protect your real identity?
  • Internet safety. How do we stay safe in cyberspace?
  • How to use Twitter and NOT be a spamming @$$clown?
  • More about blogging? Where to start? What to talk about?
  • How to deal with haters and trolls without becoming one, too?
  • How to balance social media and writing? It can be done. No whining.
  • Want to know more about Smashwords? What does it do?
  • CreateSpace? How to use it?
  • Why it’s a bad idea to let your husband have a remote control helicopter AND access to Post-It Notes?
  • Want to learn tips for productivity?
  • Time-management?
  • Learning self-discipline? I was once a lazy sot, so if I can do it, ANYONE CAN.
  • Balance family, work and writing without going crazy…ok craziER. Y’all are writers, so you know we all start out crazy. Little disclaimer there.
  • Learning social intelligence?
  • Having a fabulous social media presence WITHOUT changing your personality (unless you’re a jerk). Shy introverts don’t need a personality transplant. You are awesome. Be YOU.
  • How to teach your child Jedi skills by age three?
  • How to deal with family/friends who doesn’t get why you want to be a writer and who are kinda jerks to you?
  • How to put down boundaries in a world with no borders?
  • How to be an expert on ghosts? What exactly IS a K-2 meter and why are all paranormal investigators named “Darryl” and wear a mullet?

These are just some of the topics I could think of. Most I can blog about, but I also am connected to other, more knowledgeable writers who are always happy to lend a hand (as y’all saw with Les Edgerton’s series). I am not ashamed to admit I don’t know stuff (like WTH IS a K-2 meter and why do all these regular people all seem to have them in their kitchen drawers like a flashlight?).

Honestly, if I don’t know about a topic,  I will just abduct recruit another expert who does know…and then promise to free them in exchange for a guest post. I have a creepy panel van AND a very impressive and intimidating NERF battle-ax. So here’s your chance to tell me what you want to talk about. What do you need help with? The floor is yours…

I LOVE hearing from you guys! Now you get to ask me questions AND it counts for the contest. How COOL IS THAT?

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

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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

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

, , , , , , , , , , ,

115 Comments

Little Darlings & Why They Must Die…for REAL

Remember me?

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

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

…oops, I digress.

Little darlings are those favorite bits of prose, description, dialogue or even characters that really add nothing to the forward momentum or development of the plot. To be great writers, we must learn to look honestly at all little darlings. Why? Because they are usually masking critical flaws in the overall plot.

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

But why are little darlings so dangerous?

Because th-they come back….but *shivers* they are…different.

Let me explain why it is important to let go.

Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. The characters’ agendas, secrets and insecurities collide.

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

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

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

Conflict.

Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict

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

Me: What’s your book about?

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

Me: Huh? Okay. Who is the antagonist?

Writer: *blank stare*

Me: What is her goal?

Writer: Um. To find out who she is?

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

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

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

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

The problem is, “complicated” is not conflict. 

We can create an interstellar conspiracy, birth an entirely new underground spy network, resurrect a dead sibling who in reality was sold off at birth, or even start the Second Civil War to cover up the space alien invasion…but it ain’t conflict. Interstellar war, guerilla attacks, or evil twins coming back to life can be the BACKDROP for conflict, but alone are not conflict.

And, yes, I learned this lesson the hard way. Most of us do. This is all part of the author learning curve, so don’t fret and just keep writing and learning.

Little darlings are often birthed from us getting too complicated. We frequently get too complicated when we are trying to b.s. our way through something we don’t understand and hope works itself out.

Um, it won’t.

Tried it. Just painted myself into a corner. But we add more players trying to hide our errors and then we risk falling so in love with our own cleverness—the subplots, the twist endings, the evil twin—that we can sabotage our entire story.

I sincerely believe these little darlings are like fluffy beds of leaves covering punji pits of writing death. “Complicated” is the child of confusion, whereas “complexity” is the offspring of simplicity.

Be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there. Make the hard decisions, then kill them dead and bury your pets little darlings for real.

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

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

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

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

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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

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

, , , , , , ,

69 Comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 39,956 other followers

%d bloggers like this: