Posts Tagged story

Great Characters–The Beating Heart of Great Fiction

Today we are going to talk about character, but I want you guys to breathe and relax. Give yourselves permission to not know everything. Art is not one of those things that we take a few lessons and “graduate” as experts. True artists never stop learning.

We read, take classes, and always push ourselves to the next level. Most new writers do not sufficiently understand plot, but I will say that the key to creating better plots rests in a deeper understanding of character.

But How Do We Come Up with Plot?

Some people naturally think in terms of plot. They are the kind of people who think of a story problem, but then need to cast characters appropriate to the story. Other people think in terms of character, a person who they want to cast, but they need to find the right story. Both ways of thinking are fine, but both require an in depth study of character.

Story/Plot Comes from Characters—Characters Create the Problem

Take a handful of flawed humans with agendas, put them together, shake, slowly turn up the heat and watch the drama ignite. Great fiction is fueled by bad decisions and human weakness. All good stories are biblical. They are all birthed by inherent human flaws—the desire for power, control, recognition, jealousy, rage, cowardice, lust, vengeance, etc. This is why perfect characters are super boring. We can’t relate.

Failure/Weakness is the Hinge Point of Connection and Story

Character flaws help us connect. In good stories, we should be able to connect with both the protagonist and the antagonist. If our antagonist is a pure evil mustache-twirler, that generally leads to a literary snooze fest. In fact, the more we connect with the antagonist, the better the story.

For instance, the movie Law Abiding Citizen is an excellent example. The antagonist, Clyve Shelton, is a husband/father whose wife and young daughter are brutally raped, tortured, then slaughtered by two repeat offenders.

Clyve is beaten, bound and left for dead, yet survives to testify. In the end, the justice system fails to serve appropriate justice and one of the bad guys cops a plea and walks free. Clyve Shelton is a father/husband out to avenge his murdered family and to punish a lax justice system.

Vengeance is definitely biblical.

It is really hard not to root for the antagonist in this movie, which is what makes Law Abiding Citizen a superior example of story-telling.

We see easily how story/plot is birthed from character. When we look at Shelton’s background, we see that he is a tinkerer of the deadliest sort. He has used his skills on all kinds of black bag operations. NOT a guy to screw with.

Thus, we see how, if the murderers picked on the family of an ice cream truck driver, we could have never had the construction materials for the plot of Law Abiding Citizen. Story is birthed from the fact that the justice system failed the wrong citizen. They failed a guy who has the skills to take them out….literally. We find ourselves rooting for him because we connected emotionally. What would we do for our own children?

Dig Down to the Uncomfortable Stuff

We cannot bear when our children are hurt…

This is a photo of my son after he’d been terribly injured. I struggled with whether or not to post it, but this image (captured on my cell phone) was just so haunting, and it spoke volumes with its quiet pain. All of us react viscerally to injustice and pain, especially when an innocent is involved.

There are times, like with my son, that the injury is a result of an accident. Yet, doesn’t this terrible yet beautiful picture speak an untold story? What if this injury was the result of an abuser? A kidnapper? What acts would we “forgive” in the pursuit of “justice”? How easily could the lines of hero and villain blur? This is when things get sticky.

Sticky = Interesting

Law Abiding Citizen connects us on the same emotional fault lines. We are willing to forgive the antagonist, but how far? That is the question the screenwriters explore. The story is one that will leave audiences talking and taking sides. The premise isn’t neat and clean. It is an ugly jagged gash with no clean edges, which makes excellent fiction.

And, just so you guys know, my son is just fine.

All better!

Plot is birthed from character. Characters are vital to plot, and that is one of the reasons that attendees of my old critique group were required to write very detailed character backgrounds before plotting. We needed the character’s history to understand her story.

What were her inner demons? What world-view did the character have? What need is not yet fulfilled? What is she afraid of? What are the character’s strengths? What does the character believe she needs to be happy? What does she need to prove? How is the character used to getting her way? Is this tool effective?

This is Especially True for Literary Fiction

Despite what anyone tells you, literary fiction must also have a plot. The only difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction is that the character arc takes precedence and plot is of lesser importance (lesser importance, not NO importance).

For instance, in The Road by Cormac McCarthy, there is a plot. Man and Boy must make it to the sea. But it is more important HOW they make it than IF they make it. If the Man and Boy resort to cannibalism, that is an epic fail. They must make it to the sea, but without sacrificing their humanity. Yet, if you read The Road there is a three-act structure, turning points, rising stakes, etc.

There is an end goal—make it to the sea. No journey, no crucible. If the story is Man and Boy sitting in a cave reminiscing about the good old days and being bummed about having no food, we have a bad situation. Bad situations are not conflict.

But again, story is birthed from character. There is a Man and a Boy who are obviously father and son. Much of the plot and decisions stem from this being a father and son. The story would be very different if the characters were different. The Man might have laid down and died if he had nothing to live for, to fight for.

It makes the conflict far more interesting. As parents, would we watch our child starve to death, or would we serve up some hobo BBQ with extra ketchup and tell the kid it’s chicken? The child would live, but at what cost? This story probes the really hard questions. What would we do to survive? What is “living” if we forfeit humanity? Again, the questions are not easily answered because the problems aren’t black and white.

Go Deeper

Whether we are plotters or pantsers, we still need to ask the tough questions. We need to play armchair psychologist and get to the heart of the character, to go beyond hair and eye color. It is the weaknesses, demons, and skeletons in the closet that make the best stories. This is an especially important for step plotters, otherwise, it is easy for all your characters to become “talking heads.”

To help, I highly recommend Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, Fire in the Fiction by Donald Maass, and The Successful Novelist by David Morrell.

What are your thoughts? Who are your favorite characters? What do you think adds dimension to fiction? What are some exercises you recommend?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

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

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

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5 Common Writing Hazards

I hope everyone had a FABULOUS CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY!!! AND YES I HAVE HAD A LOT OF SUGAR! Fortunately, though, I also had a good week of rest. Thanks for letting me take last week off, though I did miss you guys a lot. Okay I do need to be honest. After hubby took away my Internet, I had about three days of DTs—night sweats, uncontrollable twitching and rapid heartbeat. Fortunately, I had a Smart phone taped to the back of one of the toilets, and, if I did this yoga stance that looked like Triangle pose and Half-Moon pose had a deformed baby, I could get enough bars to approve comments.

So thank you for your patience. *hugs* Happy to be back!

Before we start talking about writing, there are still some slots left for my on-line Blogging to Build Your Author Brand Class. It is only $4o for TWO months and I help you harvest your imagination and background for blog content that will use your creativity…not shove you into a straight-jacket. The only reason I am mentioning this is that there are only 100 slots and they are almost all gone.

Sign up here. Give it as a Christmas gift to yourself to help improve your odds of success in the new year.

We authors MUST have a solid platform. It is just a requirement of the 21st century author. Few social media tools are as powerful as the blog…when done properly. Launching a blog without the proper preparation is a formula to end up curled in fetal position clutching a bottle of scotch. Ask me how I know.

We need to blog, but we also need time left over to write more brilliant books. I’m not here to turn you guys into marketing gurus…I am here to help you use that same imagination you use to create entirely new worlds and utilize it to build your platform so your excellent stories can sell themselves.

Okay, enough of that.

Today, we are going to focus on some common writing errors that seem to plague virtually all new writers. I generally like blogging about the larger issues, namely structure, because that is the killer. If the story’s plot is fatally flawed there’s little hope of connecting with a reader. If we need a Dungeon Master Guide and a team of sherpas to navigate our story’s plot, then finding an agent is the least of our worries. So plot matters, but, to be blunt, there other rookie mistakes that can land us in a slush pile before an agent (or reader) even gets far enough to notice a problem with plot.

So today I am putting on my editor’s hat and going to give you a peek into what agents and editors (and even readers) see in those first five pages that can make us lose interest.

If Your Novel has More Characters than the Cast of Ben Hur, You Might Need Revision

Whenever the author takes the time to name a character, that is a subtle clue to the reader that this is a major character and we need to pay attention. Think Hollywood and movies. If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part. Many characters in our novels will be what Bob Mayer calls “spear carriers.” Spear carriers do not need names.

I did not know this, years ago, and I felt the need to name the pizza guy, the florist, the baker and the candlestick maker. Do NOT do this. When we name characters, it is telling our readers to care. Sort of like animals. Only name them if you plan on getting attached.

We do not have to know intimate life details about the waitress, the taxi driver or even the funeral director. Unless the character serves a role—protagonist, antagonist, allies, mentor, love interest, minions, etc.—you really don’t need to give them a name. They are props, not people.

And maybe your book has a large cast; that is okay. Don’t feel the need to introduce them all at once. If I have to keep up with 10 names on the first page, it’s confusing, ergo annoying. Readers (and agents) will feel the same way.

If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision

Oh, there is no newbie blunder I didn’t make.

Angelique leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Drake. She needed her twist-ties and fuzzy pink pipe cleaners if she ever was going to diffuse the bomb in time. Blood ran down her face as she reached out for Gregor’s hand. They only had minutes before Sondra would be back and then it would all be over for Fifi, Gerturde and Muffin.

Okay, I just smashed two into one. Your first question might be, Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?

Thing is, you don’t care. You aren’t the writer who knows these characters and is vested. We have discussed before how Normal World plays a vital role in narrative structure. As an editor, if I see the main character sobbing at a funeral or a hospital or hanging over a shark tank by page three, that is a big red flag the writer doesn’t understand narrative structure.

Thing is, maybe you do. But, if we are new and unknown and querying agents, these guys get a lot of submissions. And, if our first five pages shout that we don’t understand narrative structure, our pages are likely to end up in the slush pile. When we are new, we get less leeway about trying to reinvent narrative structure, and the thing is, three-act structure has worked since Aristotle came up with it. There are better uses of time than us trying to totally remake dramatic structure.

It’s like the wheel. Round. It rolls. The wheel works. Don’t mess with the wheel. Don’t mess with narrative structure.

Some other picky no-nos… .

Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow…the carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

Too much Physiology…

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.

Adverbs are Evil…

Most of the time, adverbs are a no-no. Find a stronger verb instead of dressing up a weaker choice.

She stood quickly from her chair.

She bolted from her chair.

Also be careful of redundant adverbs.

She whispered quietly…

Um, duh. The verb whisper already tells me the volume level.

She can, however, whisper conspiratorially. Why? Because the adverb isn’t denoting something inherent in the verb. To whisper, by definition is to be quiet BUT not necessarily to conspire. The adverb conspiratorially indicates a certain quality to the whisper.

I will do more of these in the future, but the points I mentioned today are very common errors. Many editors and agents will look for these oopses to narrow down the stack of who to read. These are also habits that can frustrate readers should the book make it to publication. I know some of you are thinking of self-publishing and that is certainly a viable path these days. But, if we have 42 characters by page five? We are likely going to frustrate a reader.

Avoiding these pitfalls will make for far smoother, cleaner writing.

Some books to help you clean up your prose and become a master at your craft? Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is a MUST HAVE in your library. Another MUST HAVE reference?  102 solutions to Common Writing Mistakes by NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. And I LOVE ANYTHING written by James Scott Bell, but my favorite is probably Plot & Structure. So if you got some gift cards for Christmas, start with these. You will thank me later.

What are some troubles you guys have? Maybe some questions you want me to address? Throw them up here. Takes a load off my brain so I don’t have to think this stuff up all by myself. Any tips, suggestions, books you recommend we read? Did this blog help you? Confuse you?

I love hearing from you.

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

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

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70 Comments

Is Your Novel a Spineless Weakling?

Now that NaNoWriMo is behind us, it is time to take a hard look at the 50,000 or so words we wrote. Is it really a story? Or is it 50,000 worth of organic goo that we can maybe perhaps grow into a story? Maybe some of you didn’t participate in National Novel Writing Month, but you are working on a novel. Maybe you have finished a novel and can’t understand why you’re getting rejection after rejection. Perhaps you desire to write a novel, but have no clue where to even begin? Where do professional authors get all their ideas?

All in due time…

Three years ago, I left my home critique group even though I had been president for three years. Why? My home critique group placed too much importance on reading pages. My opinion? Beautiful prose does not a novel make. Is prose important? Absolutely. But it isn’t the most important. We can have prose so lovely it makes the angels weep, yet not have a story. Sort of like, I could have the flawless skin of a twenty-year-old super model, but if I don’t have a skeleton? I’m dead meat. Same with prose and novel structure. Novel structure makes up the internal support structure, and prose fills it all in and connects everything and makes it look pretty.

I broke away and, with help from a few close friends, created a new kind of critique group that we named Warrior Writer Boot Camp in honor of our favorite mentor NYT Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. When creating WWBC, I wanted to create something with the capacity to look at stories as a whole and judge the “big picture.” The first lesson all writers receive upon entering my critique group has to do with the antagonist (the spinal column of your story) and that’s what we are going to talk about today.

Why is the antagonist so important? No antagonist and no story. I think most craft books make a critical error. They assume us noobs know more than we do. Most new writers don’t understand the antagonist the way they need to. We have some hazy basics from high school or college English and then we try to go pro. Then it takes years of trial, error, rejection and therapy to see any success. Um, yeah. Bad plan. The antagonist is critical, and is often one of the most troublesome concepts to master. No worries. I am here to help.

What happens when we don’t have an antagonist?

I teach at many writing conferences and see all the nervous writers, eyes dilated and skin pasty with panic. They are waiting for their agent pitch session and it takes every bit of courage they have to not throw up in their shoes. Ask them what their stories are about and 99% of the time I get fifteen minutes of convoluted world-building and a character cast that would rival Ben Hur.

Why?

The writer generally didn’t understand the antagonist when she wrote the book. So, since there wasn’t a clear-cut antagonist with an overall plot problem, what we have left is a bunch of literary Bond-o (extraneous characters, world-building, extra sub-plots and gimmicky twist endings).

This is one of the reasons many writers find it easier to do brain surgery on themselves with a spatula than to write the novel synopsis or the query letter. They can’t boil down the plot into one sentence because the plot is so complicated even they barely understand it.  Been there, done that and got the T-shirt, myself.

When helping writers plot, I often suggest that they write their ending first. Many look at me like I just asked them to reverse the earth’s orbit around the sun. Why? They don’t have a clear story problem to be solved. Yet, when we look at it, what is any story’s ending? The solution to the problem created by the antagonist. That is the climax.

All of this angst with pitches and queries and synopses can be traced back to one single problem. There is no antagonist or there is a weak or unclear antagonist. How does this happen? I feel there is a huge logical fallacy to blame.

For those of you who have slept since high school, a logical fallacy is an argument that mistakenly seeks to establish a causal connection when dissimilar objects or events are compared as if the same.

In English?

All apples are fruits. An orange is a fruit therefore all oranges are apples.

What does this have to do with today’s topic?

Most writers mistakenly believe this:

All villains are antagonists, therefore all antagonists are villains.

Uh…no.

The antagonist seems to be a real sticky wicket, especially for new writers. Hey, I’ve been there. It is easy to see how there could be confusion. Villains make no bones about the mischief and mayhem they seek to create. Nobody doubted who the bad guy was in The Dark Knight. Joker will live on in infamy as one of the greatest arch-villains in movie history. Yet, villains are only one kind of antagonist. So if the antagonist isn’t merely a villain, who is he?

The antagonist is merely whoever drives the conflict.

All stories are the antagonist’s story. Why? Because without the antagonist, there is no problem. The protagonist’s happy joy-joy life would go on as normal. If there is no problem, then there is no need for our protagonist to rise to the occasion. The antagonist represents this dire change that must be set right by the end of the book. Great fiction actually uses many antagonists. Let’s take a look.

Different types of antagonists:

The Core Antagonist—The Big Boss Troublemaker

All stories MUST have a core antagonist, what I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. The BBT has a plan that disrupts the hero’s ordinary life and that plan is the overall story problem. Big Boss Troublemakers need to be corporeal. Antagonists are tremendously complex, and thus, in my opinion, the most interesting. Even if the overall antagonist is disease, nature, war, weather, the antagonist will almost always be represented by a proxy. Humans tend to be concrete thinkers, so tangible antagonists generally work best.  In fact, I’ll wager that many stories that seem to have non-corporeal BBTs actually do. Let’s take a quick look.

Weather

The Perfect Storm—The antagonist is not the storm. Rather it is the captain who, out of greed and pride, makes the decision to endanger the crew to save the haul of fish…and everyone dies, which is probably why we should avoid weather/nature as an antagonist.

In fairness, how many best-selling books involve a hero pitted against bad weather chapter after chapter? We can’t control the weather so how can we conquer it? Can’t make heroes with bad weather. Well, maybe someone can, but my advice is to steer clear.

Disease

Steel Magnolias—In the movie Steel Magnolias the BBT is death and disease. Who is the main antagonist? Daughter Shelby. Shelby has life-threatening diabetes. Had Shelby decided to adopt, there would be no story. It is Shelby’s decision to get pregnant despite the risks that creates the story problem for the mother (Protagonist) M’Lynn.

See, corporeal.

Society

In the movie Footloose, who is the BBT? Religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing. Who is the main antagonist? The town preacher who is out to get the city boy (protagonist) who wants to hold a school dance. The preacher represents the BBT—religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing.

Protagonist against Herself

Oh, but my protagonist is her own worst enemy. Yeah, no. Therapy is not fiction. Need an outside BBT.

In the movie 28 Days, Sandra Bullock’s character Gwen Cummings is an alcoholic. Alcoholics do not generally believe they have a problem. Most do not wake up one day and say. “Wow, I really drink too much. I need to quit.” There will be an outside force that creates the problem and drives the change. In this case, Gwen gets a DUI. The judge orders her to court mandated rehab. Who is the BBT? Alcoholism. Who is the antagonist? The judge. If he hadn’t sentenced Gwen to rehab, she would still be drinking. If Gwen fails, then this same judge will send her to prison (stakes). If Gwen finally sobers up, she will defeat the BBT, Alcoholism. But, she must face-off against the judge’s challenge first and prove she can sober up.

Every story needs a Big Boss Troublemaker. If your BBT isn’t corporeal, then your story will need a corporeal proxy as shown in the examples. Existentialism doesn’t make for great fiction. Navel-gazing is therapy, not fiction.

Employing Scene Antagonists

Once you have a clear Big Boss Troublemaker and a story problem, then you can begin plotting. Ah, but how do we ramp up the tension? We use scene antagonists. Every scene must have a clear goal for our protagonist…and he can rarely if ever succeed until the end. There must be obstacles and very often those obstacles will be other characters that your protagonist calls “friend.”

Think of your favorite cop shows. I love Law and Order Criminal Intent. The detectives are after the murderer (BBT), but the Commissioner just called and they’re chief has his panties in a twist. How many times have you seen a police chief kick a detective off a case because of the political heat? Is the police chief a villain? No, but he is an antagonist because his wants stand in direct opposition from what the protagonist wants…finding the bad guy and brining him to justice. This creates dramatic tension. Will our detectives risk career suicide and find the killer? Conflict now comes at the audience from two fronts—long-range (BBT) and close-range (scene antagonist).

After you write your first draft, I highly recommend looking at every scene. Write what the goal of the scene is on an index card. Who stood in the way? Allies should rarely, if ever agree. If they need to escape an island, the hero will want to take a boat and an ally will insist they take a plane. Some of the best conflict for your story will actually come from your protagonist and his gaggle of allies.

The Pixar movie Finding Nemo is an excellent movie to study this. Watch Marlin and Dori. Dori provides far more conflict to the overall story than Darla the Fish-Killer. Darla (BBT) merely creates the overall problem and sets the stakes and the ticking clock. Darla the Fish-Killer is the BBT because if she’d wanted a puppy for her birthday, there would be no reason to find Nemo. He’d still be safe at home. Yet, aside from a couple of short scenes, we never really see Darla. Lovable ally Dori is the heart of most of the conflict.

Marlin wants to give up when the one clue to finding Nemo drops into a trench.

Dori wants to Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming and go after the clue.

Marlin wants to avoid the whale.

Dori calls out to it.

Marlin wants to give up.

Dori won’t let him.

Antagonists are at the core of all great stories, whether those stories are for children or adults. The bigger the antagonist, the bigger the problem and the greater the stakes. Failure must be catastrophic for the protagonist, or he can’t rise to ever be a hero. Some great books I recommend are Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches by Jessica Morrell, and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.  I also highly recommend taking one of New York Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer’s on-line worskhops. They are $30. Aside from these resources, watch a lot of movies and pay attention to who creates problems and how they do it. Take notes. Study. Learn. That’s the great part of being a writer. Stories are our business, so watching movies counts as work.

So what are your thoughts? Comments? Questions? Feel better or do you need a paper bag (just put your head between your knees and breathe :D).

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of December, 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 December 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 Carolyn Neeper. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi at 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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53 Comments

The Doctor is in the House–Novel Diagnostics

We’ve spent the past several weeks talking about my Deadly Sins of Writing, which are seven newbie mistakes that interfere with our fiction. “Was” clusters and ellipses overkill are distracting, and POV shifts just make us want to lie down until the dizziness passes. Ah, but once you have successfully removed the offending sins, you can more clearly see the actual story…but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more trouble ahead. There still might be more work to do.

Many of you have vowed to take your craft more seriously this year, which means more conferences and many, many more queries. For those of you who have submitted before, every wonder how an agent can ask for the first 20 pages and still reject our book? Did you ever wonder if the agents really read these pages? How can they know our book isn’t something they want to represent with so little to go on? I mean, if they would just continue to page 103 they would see that the princess uncovers a whole underground movement of garden gnomes with interdimensional capabilitites, and they wouldn’t be able to put it down. Right?

Wrong.

For those of you hoping to win my contest, you might be wondering exactly how much my 5 or 15 page critique is going to help you. Well, today is a peek inside my head. Please ignore the laundry. I’ve been meaning to get to that.

Back in the day before I wrote full time, I paid my dues doing a lot of editing. I have edited countless manuscripts, and today I am going to let you see the first 5-20 pages through the eyes of an agent or editor. Novel Diagnostics 101. The doctor is in the house.

I mean no disrespect in what I am about to say. I am not against self-publishing and that is a whole other subject entirely. But, what I will say is that there are too many authors who dismiss why agents are rejecting them and run off to self-publish instead of fixing why their manuscript was rejected.

Agents know that a writer only has a few pages to hook a reader. That’s the first thing. But agents also know that the first 20 pages are a fairly accurate reflection of the entire book.

Years ago, when I used to edit, I never cared for being called a book doctor. I rarely ever edited an entire book. I guess one could say I was more of a novel diagnostician. Why? Doctors fix the problems and diagnosticians just figure out what the problems ARE. Thus, what I want to help you guys understand is why beginnings are so imporant.

I generally can ”diagnose” every bad habit and writer weakness in ten pages or less. I never need more than 50 pages (and neither do agents and other editors). Why? Well, think of it this way. Does your doctor need to crack open your chest to know you have a bum ticker?

No.

He pays attention to symptoms to diagnose the larger problem. He takes your blood pressure and asks standardized questions. If he gets enough of the same kind of answer, he can tell you likely have a heart problem. Most of the time, the tests and EKGs are merely to gain more detail, but generally to confirm most of what the doc already knows.

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

Info-Dump

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

In my experience, this is often the hallmark of a writer who is weak when it comes to characters and even plotting. How can I tell? He begins with his strength…lots of intricate details about a painstakingly crafted world. Although not set in stone, generally, if the author dumps a huge chunk of information at the start of the book, then he is likely to use this tactic throughout.

This type of beginning tells me that author is not yet strong enough to blend information into the narrative in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story. The narrative then becomes like riding in a car with someone who relies on hitting the brakes to modulate speed. The story likely will just get flowing…and then the writer will stop to give an information dump.

Also, readers read fiction for stories. They read Wikipedia for information. Information does not a plot make. Facts and details are to support the story that will be driven by characters with human wants and needs. 

Sci-fi/fantasy writers are some of the worst offenders. It is easy to fall in love with our world-building and forget we need a plot with players. Keep the priorities straight. In twenty years people won’t remember gizmos, they will remember people.

Book Starts Right in the Middle of the Action

A lot of new writers are being told to start right in the action, and this tip is wrong…well, it needs to be clarified. We need some kind of conflict in the beginning to make us (the reader) choose to side with/like the protagonist. This conflict doesn’t necessarily have to do with the main story problem (directly).

For instance, in the Hunger Games we are introduced to Katniss and we get a glimpse of the hell that is her life and the burden she has of feeding her family. We feel for her because she lives in a post-apocalyptic nightmare where life is lived on the brink of starvation. Nothing terribly earth-shattering happens, but we care about this girl. So, when Katniss is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games–a brutal gladiator game held by the privileged Capitol–we want her to win, because that means a life of food, shelter and relative safety.

Suzanne Collins didn’t start out with Katniss in the arena fighting the Hunger Games. That is too far in and is too jarring. We need time with Katniss in her Normal World for The Hunger Games to mean anything or this action would devolve quickly into melodrama. Even though in the beginning, she isn’t per se pitted directly with the Capitol, she is pitted against starvation and depravity…which leads us nicely into the main cause of that starvation and depravity (the Capitol) and the solution to this life (win the Hunger Games).

Yet, many new writers take this notion of “start right in the action” and they dump the reader straight into the arena. The beginning of the novel starts us off with the protagonist (we think) hanging over a shark tank and surrounded by ninjas. There are world-shattering stakes and we are only on page 2.

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

Scenes are structured: Goal-> conflict -> disaster

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

Book Begins with Internalization

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

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

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

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

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

Book Begins with a Flashback

Yeah…flashbacks are a whole other blog, but lets’ just say that most of the time they are not necessary. We do not need to know why a certain character did this or that or why a bad guy went bad. Again, that’s for therapy.

Did we really need to know why Hannibal Lecter started eating people for Silence of the Lambs to be an AWESOME book AND movie? Now I know that there was a later explication of this….but it was an entirely different story (and one that really didn’t do well, I might mention). We didn’t stop the hunt for Wild Bill to go on and on about how Hannibal’s family was slaughtered in the war and the bad guys ate his sister…and it worked!

Flashbacks often alert me that the writer needs time to grow. She hasn’t yet developed the skill to blend background details with the current conflict in a way that supports the story.

I’ll give you a great example.

Watch the J.J. Abrams Star Trek. We find out exactly how Dr. Leonard McCoy gets his nickname, Bones…one line. “Wife got the whole planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones.” The audience didn’t have to have a flashback to get that McCoy’s divorce was really bad. That is a great example of a writer seamlessly blending character back story.

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

Also, sometimes, not knowing why adds to the tension. The Force was more interesting before it was explained. For more why over-explaining is a total story-killer that RUINS tension, I recommend a visit to my post What Went Wrong with the Star Wars Prequels.

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

Many authors are being rejected by the first 20 pages, and because most agents are overworked, they don’t have time to explain to each and every rejected author what they saw. Thus, too many writers are reworking and reworking their beginning and not really seeing that their weak beginning is a symptom of larger issues.

It is the pounding headache and dizziness that spells out “heart condition.” We can take all the asprin we want for the headache, but it won’t fix what is really wrong. Hopefully, though, today I gave you some helpful insight into what an editor (or an agent) really sees so you can roll up your sleeves and get to what’s truly going on.

What are some novels you guys can think of that had amazing beginnings? What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell are some of my favorites. I know that I had to put down Next by Michael Crichton because it just went on and on without addressing a core problem. I was a hundred pages in and had no idea what the book was truly about, and had been introduced to so many characters, I had no clue who I was supposed to be rooting for (most of the characters were utterly unlikable).

What hooks you? How long will you give a novel before you buy it? How long will you give a novel you have bought before you put it down?

I do want to hear from you guys!

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.

Last Week’s Winner of Five-Page Critique–Ted Henkle.

Please send your 1250 word Word doc to my assistant Gigi at gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com. Gigi will make sure I get your pages.

NOTE: For those of you who haven’t yet gotten your pages back, I am going on an exploratory mission in my spam folder to see if anyone has been missed. If you don’t have your pages back by Thursday then please resend to my assistant. I get about 500 e-mails a day, so I am redoing things so submissions don’t get lost in the ether. Thanks for your patience.

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.

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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71 Comments

Setting–Adding Dimension to Your Fiction

Social media is an amazing tool and it is a wonderful time to be a writer, but, I am going to point out the pink elephant in the room. We still have to write a darn good book. If we don’t write a darn good book, then no amount of promotion can help us. Sorry. That’s like putting lipstick on a pig. This is why Mondays are dedicated to craft. I am here to train stronger writers. In the comments last Monday, one of our writer pals asked me to expound on the difference between showing and telling. Setting is a great tool to do exactly that.

Today we are going to talk about setting and ways to use it to strengthen your writing and maybe even add in some dimension. Some of the information I will present to you today isn’t new, but, hey, all of us can use a refresher, right?

Setting is a magnificent tool when used properly.

Setting can help your characterization.

Setting can actually serve a dual role in that it can be not only the backdrop for your story, but it can also serve characterization through symbol. We editors love to say, “Show. Don’t tell.” Well, here is where setting can help you do just that.

Say you have a character, Mitzy, who is depressed. You could go on and on telling us she is blue and how she cannot believe her husband left her for the Avon lady, or you can show us through setting. Mitzy’s once beautiful garden is overgrown with weeds and piles of unopened mail are tossed carelessly on the floor. Her house smells of almost-empty tubs of chocolate ice cream left to sour. Piles of dirty clothes litter the rooms, and her cat is eating out of the bag of Meow Mix tipped on its side.

Now you have shown me that Mitzy is not herself. I know this because the garden was “once beautiful.” This cues me that something has changed. And you managed to tell me she was depressed without dragging me through narrative in Mitzy’s head.

She couldn’t believe Biff was gone. Grief surged over her like a surging tidal surge that surged.

Writing is therapeutic, not therapy. Some of that introspection is great, but after a while you will wear out your readers. Setting can help alleviate this problem and keep the momentum of your story moving forward. We will get that Mitzy is depressed by getting this glimpse of her house. You have shown that Mitzy is having a rough time instead of being lazy and telling us.

We judge people by their environment. Characters are no different. If you want to portray a cold, unfeeling schmuck, then when we go to his apartment it might be minimalist design. No color. No plants or signs of life. Someone who is scatter-brained? Their house is full of half-finished projects. An egomaniac? Walls of plaques and pictures of this character posing with important people. Trophies, awards, and heads of dead animals. You can show the reader a lot about your character just by showing us surroundings.

Trust me, if a character gets out of her car and two empty Diet Coke bottles fall out from under her feet into her yard that is littered with toys, we will have an impression.

Probably the single largest mistake I see in the work of new writers is that they spend far too much time in the sequel. What is the sequel? Plots can be broken into to main anatomical parts–scene and sequel. The scene is where the action occurs. A goal is declared and some disastrous setback occurs that leaves our protagonist worse off than when he began. Generally, right after this disaster there is what is called the sequel. 

The sequel is the emotional thread that ties all this action together. Yet, too often new writers will go on and on and on in a character’s head, exploring and probing deep emotions and nothing has yet happened. The sequel can only be an effect/direct result of a scene. Ah, but here comes the pickle. How can a writer give us a psychological picture of the character if he cannot employ the sequel?

Setting.

An example? In Silence of the Lambs how are we introduced to Hannibal Lecter? There is of course the dialogue that tells Agent Starling that Dr. Lecter is different, but talk is cheap, right? Clarice goes down into the bowels of a psychiatric prison to the basement (um, symbol?). She walks past cell after cell of the baddest and the maddest. All of them are in brick cells with bars…until Clarice makes it to the end.

Hannibal’s cell is not like the others. He is behind Plexi-Glass with airholes. This glass cage evokes a primal fear. Hannibal affects us less like a prisoner and more like a venomous spider. Setting has shown us that Hannibal the Cannibal is a different breed of evil. This is far more powerful than the storyteller poring on and on and on about Hannibal’s “evil.”

Setting can set or amplify the mood.

Either you can use setting to mirror outwardly what is happening with a character, or you can use it as a stark contrast. For instance, I once edited a medieval fantasy. In the beginning the bad guys were burning villagers alive. Originally the writer used a rainy, dreary day, which was fine. Nothing wrong with that. I, however, suggested she push the envelope and go for something more unsettling. I recommended that she change the setting to sunny and perfect weather. In the heart of the village the ribbons and trappings of the spring festival blew in the gentle breeze, the same breeze that now carried the smell of her family’s burning flesh.

Sometimes it is this odd juxtaposition in setting that can evoke tremendous emotion. This is especially useful in horror. Dead bodies are upsetting. Dead bodies on a children’s playground are an entirely new level of disturbing.

Setting is a matter of style and preference.  Different writers use setting in different ways and a lot of it goes to your own unique voice. Some writers use a lot of description, which is good in that there are readers who like a lot of description. But there are readers who want you to get to the point, and that’s why they generally like to read works by writers who also like to get to the point. Everyone wins.

Whether you use a lot or a little setting will ultimately be up to you. I would recommend some pointers.

Can your setting symbolize something deeper?

I challenge you to challenge yourself. Don’t just pick stormy weather because it is the first image that pops in your mind. Can you employ setting to add greater dimension to your work? Using setting merely to forecast the weather is lazy writing. Try harder.

In Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane’s story is set on an island at a prison for the criminally insane. What the reader finds out is the prison is far more than the literal setting; it is a representation for a state of mind. The protagonist, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is imprisoned by his own guilt and need for justice. Like the island, he too is cut off from the outside world emotionally and psychologically. Now an island is more than an island, a prison is more than a prison, bars are more than bars, cliffs are more than cliffs, storms are more than storms, etc. Shutter Island is an amazing book to read, but I recommend studying the movie for use of setting as symbol.

So dig deeper. Can you get more out of your setting than just a backdrop?

Blend setting into your story.

When I teach, I liken setting to garlic in garlic mashed potatoes. Blend. Garlic is awesome and enhances many dishes, but few people want a whole mouthful of it. Make sure you are keeping momentum in your story. Yes, we generally like to be grounded in where we are and the weather and the time of year, but not at the expense of why we picked up your book in the first place…someone has a problem that needs solving. Unless you are writing a non-fiction travel book, we didn’t buy your book for lovely description of the Rocky Mountains. We bought it to discover if Ella May will ever make it to California to meet her new husband before winter comes and traps her wagon train in a frozen world of death.

Keep perspective and blend. Keep conflict and character center stage and the backdrop in its place…behind the characters. Can you break this rule? Sure all rules can be broken. But we must understand the rules before we can break them. Breaking rules in ignorance is just, well, ignorant.

In the end, setting will be a huge reflection of your style and voice, but I hope this blog has given some insight that might make you see more to your use of setting and help you grow to be a stronger writer. What are some books or movies that really took setting to the next level? How was setting used? How did it affect you? Share with us. 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!

Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique

Alicia McKenna Johnson Please e-mail your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi at gigi.salem.ea@gmail.com. She will make sure it doesn’t get eaten by the spam folder.

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, if you want to learn more about how to spread word-of-mouth and build your platform, sign-ups are open for my Blogging To Build Your Author Brand on-line workshop. It’s two months long–one month of lessons and one month of launch and it is ONLY $40.

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Clay for sharing your wit and wisdom…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ughblarg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super.

*puts head into plastic window fan*

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

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

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

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

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