Posts Tagged We Are Not alone

What Brazilian Jui-Jitsu Can Teach Us About Going Pro as AUTHORS

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Some of you may know that (for stress relief) I practice Brazilian Jui-Jitsu. Being a teacher and a writer, I see lessons in everything. Strangely, our dojo is not known for BJJ. It’s mainly Shito Ryu Karate and those classes are always packed. There’s a plethora of black belts and they earned it. Many are kids, and they’re a wonder to behold.

Our Jui-Jitsu class? Right now we are down to five people—two out with injuries, one went off to med school and two are on vacation. This can feel weird when the next class over is packed wall-to wall with students.

Last night we were talking about why our group was so small. Why are people not as attracted to BJJ? Why do so many sign up then quickly leave? I’m being careful here, because over my many years, I’ve studied four forms of martial arts and two styles of fighting—Tae Kwon Do (Korean), Karate (Japanese), Wing-Jitsu (a fusion one Wing Chun Kung Fu and Jui-Jitsu), Japanese Jui-Jitsu, regular boxing and kickboxing.

All have strengths and weaknesses.

I have my preferences. I liked Wing-Jitsu the best because I really love doing throws and I love the hand to hand combat. But is it better than any other? Depends on the fighter.

***Hmmm, like genre preferences?

So Why ARE We So Small?

First, in BJJ you are a white belt for a looooooooooong time. The minimum time is 18 months. When people in other classes are blowing through the belt-rainbow faster than a Skittle commercial and we’re still sporting a white belt? Can be tough on the ego.

There is no “outside badge” of what we know.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of GollyGForce

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of GollyGForce

Also, since we’re mostly on the floor grappling, there’s a lot of nuance outsiders don’t see. We aren’t doing the fancy kicks and things that look “cool.” And, bluntly, BJJ is a tough, tough, tough sport. It’s hard on the body because we mostly fight. BJJ is also something that is pretty much impossible to do alone. We can’t hone our skills with a punching bag. We must have others to practice with. Since we’re doing a lot of throwing and joint locks and wear no pads, injuries are commonplace. In two months I’ve broken my nose and two toes.

Just goes with the sport *shrugs*.

***And, for the record, all of my MAJOR injuries were NEVER in a dojo. Soccer, icy pavement, and evil coffee tables hurt me worse than any martial arts.

Last week, I fought the guy who broke my nose. He made a comment about being easy on me and I chastised him. If I wanted to go through life with no pain I’d take up scrapbooking and I sure as hell wouldn’t be a writer.

What BJJ and Writing Can Teach Us

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kristina Zuidema

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kristina Zuidema

This brings me to my point. I see a LOT of parallels in BJJ and us choosing to go pro as writers. BJJ is easier if we go into it understanding the realities of the sport. We set our expectations correctly. Too many newbies don’t, which is why they quit. They think they will be the special case, the person who’s only a white belt for a month or that they can compete without pain.

Same in writing. I’ve been guilty. I didn’t need craft books or classes. Ptht. *rolls eyes* When I wrote my first “novel” my biggest concern was how to choose an agent when all of them said yes and were fighting over my book. Talk about an awkward cocktail party. I so wish I were kidding. Yes, I was an idiot. Laugh at me. I do. The query letters agents make jokes about? That was ME.

At first I was discouraged in my writing career. I wanted to give up daily. The more I wrote, the more I was rejected, the dumber I felt. I believe much of this could have been avoided had I understood the realities of what it meant to go pro. Then my expectations would have been more reasonable.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

What to Expect

We WILL Be Tempted to Judge Ourselves by Outside Opinions

Like BJJ, most of us will be white belts a LONG, LONG time. What most people fail to appreciate is there is a massive disparity within “white belt writers.” In BJJ, a white belt who’s been in class for a month is NOT the same as one who’s been fighting/training for over a year. But bluntly, outsiders will all see the same color belt and, since they haven’t been on the mats, they can’t possibly understand.

Same in writing. A writer who’s just stepped out to attempt writing a novel is often regarded the same as a writer who’s been working hard for a year or two. Just like outsiders don’t understand that the process for gaining belts in BJJ is slooooow, regular people believe the second we finish a book, it should be shelved at B&N the very next week and on the NTYBS list by the end of the month.

They have NO concept how slow the process is for writing a novel and getting that book to market (even if we were freakish savants who wrote the Wold’s Perfect Book our first try). Often when we’re new, even WE don’t understand this.

Regular People: So, can I get your books at a bookstore? No?

Subtext: You aren’t a “real” writer.

This is why humility is such a vital trait in life, martial arts and writing. We need to be open to not knowing “everything” and seek help from those stronger and more seasoned. We also should give ourselves permission to be new, to be learning. We get too focused on the “belt” (getting published/selling lots of books) and that’s when depression sets in and we’re tempted to give up. It has to be about LOVE of the sport (writing) and less about the recognition if we have any hope of sticking to it long enough to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Writing is ALL About Endurance, Tenacity, and SENSITIVITY

Grappling will test the limits of the human body. We spar 40-50 minutes straight with one-minute rest breaks for water. Then, the next round and the next….and the next. It’s why a lot of people quit. It’s hard work and nothing like TV or the movies ;) .

Same with writing. The Modern Author has A LOT of work ahead. Most people don’t “get” that we are going to write probably about a million words before we even know what we’re doing (then add in branding, business, social media and LIFE).

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***Btw, and if you happen to get a clue before the million words and are the exception, GO YOU. But if we go in knowing how hard this is, we’re less likely to be over-critical and give up. I know it took me at least a quarter million words to unstick my head out of my own butt.

Also, in BJJ, most people can’t see all we are balancing at the same time. Attacking, defending, calculating physics nonstop and at top speed; using hands feet, knees and mind all simultaneously. It’s a sport of strategy. It’s VITAL we learn to feel the body of the opponent, to anticipate the next move. It’s less about me and more about others.

Readers often don’t appreciate all the countless nuances of what we do, because if we’re any good, we MAKE it look easy. But we’re balancing character, plot, dialogue, subtext, symbol, description, etc. etc. Excellent writers focus on others. We feel the ebb and flow of the human condition and relax into the reality that what we do takes a lot of time in lonely places with no cheer squad.

The late David Eddings said it best and here is the extended quote:

“My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.

“When you are with people, listen; don’t talk. Writers are boring people. What are you going to talk about so brilliantly? Typewriters? The construction of paragraphs? Shut your mouth and listen. Listen to the cadences of speech. Engrave the sound of language on your mind. Language is our medium, and the spoken language is the sharp cutting edge of our art. Make your people sound human. The most tedious story will leap into life if the reader can hear the human voices in it. The most brilliant and profound of stories will sink unnoticed if the characters talk like sticks.

“Most of all, enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s not worth doing at all. If hard and unrewarding work bothers you, do something else. If rejection withers your soul, do something else. If the work itself is not reward enough, stop wasting paper. But if you absolutely have to write–if you’re compelled to do it even without hope of reward or recognition–then I welcome you to our sorry, exalted fraternity.” (David Eddings R.I.P, Christchurch City Libraries Blog)

Master the BASICS

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Never underestimate the power of the SIMPLE. Mastery is only achieved by achieving a sound foundation of fundamentals. Make them second nature. Basics are CRITICAL. When people are injured in BJJ, it’s often because they forgot basics.

Stay on the balls of your feet so you can maneuver. Relax. Roll into an attack and use the opposition’s momentum against them. Don’t post a leg where your opponent can grab it.

When I studied Jui-Jitsu, you know what we did the first two months? FALL. Over and over and over. That was it. Nothing fancy. But if you don’t know how to fall? That’s when bones get broken.

Many writers run to self-publish and they get popped because the BASICS are botched or even missing—POV, proper grammar, punctuation, dialogue, etc. Instead of starting with foundational stuff and building ART from there, they hurry or try to be “fancy”. Don’t. Basics are cool.

To make this point, here is a GREAT, GREAT laugh from my hero, Weird Al Yankovic…

What are your thoughts? Do you compare your progress too much with your peers? Do you find yourself rushing? Is it discouraging when outsiders act like you are some poseur because they haven’t seen your book as a movie yet? Do you go back to edit and realize you forgot to stay simple and harness the basics? It’s okay. Did you start out writing as clueless as I was? Then beat yourself up because you “failed”? Do you have a tough time celebrating the small victories?

It’s OKAY. I am guilty of ALL of these. This stuff doesn’t go away, it’s why vigilance is important. It’s also why I blog more about my failures than successes. I want you guys to see the REALITY of what we do, not some Photoshopped unreality.

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

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

For those who need help building a platform (HINT: Start as EARY as possible) here’s my newest social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

THIS SATURDAY!!!!!

SATURDAY is my ANTAGONIST CLASS. NYC Time 12:00-2:00. Use WANA15 for $15 off. Have an idea for a book? Stuck and can’t move forward? Keep starting books you can’t finish? THIS class is the cure! You get two…okay usually more like three hours of instruction, the recording, detailed notes AND you can upgrade for personal consulting to help you repair or construct your masterpiece.

 

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Writing, Caregiving & Confessions of a “Recovering” Control Freak

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It’s funny how life has this way of pointing out our weaknesses. We have this delusion that we can keep doing things the way we always have and it will work…and that’s when the pressure piles up. I admit it. I am a control freak and a perfectionist.

I grew up in a family of chaos where the rules changed daily and the only thing I could count on was nothing could be counted on. My family was also rather stoic (likely because we are mostly military and medical workers).

I still tease my mom that she had a saying, “Come home with your lunch kit or ON it.”

Growing up, we went through a lot of bad times and crying was highly discouraged. Second place was the first loser. Failure was not an event, it was who you were.

When Life Lands in the Blender

I try to always walk my talk. When I advise getting out of the comfort zone? I mean it, and I do it. Starting WANA International was terrifying for me. What’s interesting was up until that point, life had been pretty uneventful, even awesome. We’d had wonderful, almost stress-free three years and I ran my life and writing with the efficiency of a Swiss watch.

Then it was as if the second I filed the LLC to start my own business? The Gates of Hell opened.

Now? I’m lucky to have my underwear on correctly. A lot has gone right with WANA International, but just as much has gone sideways. I’m learning a lot about just how much I don’t know. Seriously humbling. I also MUST stop comparing how I ran things before life changed. Sure keeping an immaculate house and meeting deadlines was easier when Spawn was in a PLAYPEN.

But just like our novels run our characters through a crucible to (hopefully) change them for the better, life can do the same to us.

While a lot of what’s happened in the past couple years has been HARD (even devastating) it’s amazing what I’ve learned and how it’s forced me to come up higher and grow.

Learning I am NOT ALONE

Original Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Spasoff

Original Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Spasoff

I began the idea of WANA (We Are Not Alone) because I knew what it was like to have a dream of being a writer and be alone with no support. Deciding to become a writer was probably the first time I stepped out in faith that I could DO something remarkable….and it was a beating.

That trial taught me how much support networks are vital for success. They keep us pressing and give us people we can lean on when we’re about to fall apart. I felt writers needed help beyond social media or craft. Writers are people with a lot of stress and life can make us give up the dream. And WANA was born.

We still need to keep stepping out and doing stuff that scares us. I have always been such a workhorse/caretaker that I forget to ask for help. I know none of you have this problem, but I will cop to it  ;) .

In May, (after six deaths in less than two years and two more pending) it all became too much, so I joined a weekly group at my church designed to help those dealing with grief. My pride had kept me away for too long. It’s been…weird. Stripping away the gallows humor. Learning to feel when I’m in the habit of running an endless list of things to do through my head to avoid feeling.

I remember when my dad suddenly passed away, I showed up for work the next day. My coworkers were horrified. WHY are you HERE?

Um, because I am scheduled to work? *confused* It never occurred to me I should stay home. I had obligations.

Control is an Illusion

SO ME!

SO ME!

Part of what I’ve learned is control is an illusion. Often it will get us sidetracked on things that really don’t matter (um, refer to above image) at the expense of doing things that are meaningful.

Yeah, I was in denial. I made jokes about being OCD or a control freak, but recently it’s hit me how BAD I really was (am). So, again, I made a decision to do things differently. So much energy had been focused on the sick, deceased or dying, I forgot to focus on the living. I began doing a lot more with The Spawn, taking him to the pool or the park and enjoying it, instead of working while he played. I joined martial arts with him so he’d have Mommy as a teammate. I abducted Hubby to learn to play D&D.

The Spawn LOVES "Mommy School"

The Spawn LOVES “Mommy School”

I made friends here locally and have become more comfortable asking for help.

It’s odd how we don’t honestly see ourselves and how that parallels with writing a good protagonist (they really ARE their own worst enemy in the beginning). Last Friday, I was in a rush and my foot met the wrong end of the glass shower door giving me a BAD puncture wound in my foot.

I rinsed it with antiseptic and taped it together and headed out for the church potluck because I promised I’d be there. As I was enjoying the food and the company, my new friend Shannon simply got up and refilled my drink and plate and tended The Spawn…and it stunned me.

People can help…ME?

Weird, I know. But even though I was hobbling around, my nature was to be up refilling and cleaning and helping everyone else. The fact that another person naturally did that for ME?

BIG eye-opener.

Confessions of a Yoga Nazi

Another thing I’ve done differently is I’m back going to yoga. I needed a place to relax mind and body before I imploded from stress. I came from two years of doing Bikram, which is Sparta of Yoga. Very strict.

I’m now doing gym yoga—hot yoga, which is only an hour and only 98 degrees. It’s a lot faster. But people come in the room talking away. Two days ago, I was in the middle of the workout and a woman next to me texted through the entire class. She had her cell on silent, but it did this weird strobe thing when a text came in, then she’d drop to the mat and text back. (In Bikram they would have booted her from the class.)

*me twitching*

It really took a lot of discipline to just let it go and not let her poor manners ruin my peace.

The hot yoga really is metaphoric for what I’m learning. Yes, structure is great, but true emotional or mental discipline doesn’t come from being told everything to do in a controlled environment. It’s having the ability to maintain the calm despite. It’s ignoring the people talking, laughing or texting inappropriately and still choosing peace. Because LIFE is anything but a controlled environment.

Having a Good Cry

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

What I REALLY like about this hot yoga, is the teachers will bring in lessons for the day. One hit home with me. It was about crying. When we stuff emotions and refuse to feel them, these emotions GO somewhere. They don’t vanish. She spoke about the benefits of crying.

Crying, in ways, doesn’t make sense. We feel sad or hurt and our eyes leak?

Apparently scientists tested different types of tears. Tears from cutting onions are very different from tears released when watching Bambi’s mother die.

Emotional tears are extremely high in toxins and hormones produced due to stress. It’s our body’s way of releasing the “bad stuff” and it’s why we feel better “after a good cry.” This made me think a lot about our society. Being emotional is discouraged. Crying is often viewed as weakness. Maybe that’s why a lot of us are too close to crazy these days. We are in a non-stop world moving from task to task to task and never stopping to feel or to even —GASP—cry.

Also caregivers are in a weird position. We have to be strong for others. If we aren’t careful we slap on a smile even when we’re crumbling. Often we aren’t even AWARE we are crumbling. I’m learning that it’s okay for me to recharge. I can’t help others if I’m empty.

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I left yoga yesterday and saw two quotes that spoke to me.

Nature does not hurry and yet everything is accomplished. ~Lao Tzu

Blessed are the flexible, for they shall never be bent out of shape. ~Anonymous

What to Take Away

When we step out to do something remarkable, expect disaster. Expect failures.

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer here, but like our protagonists face trials and threshold guardians when they accept the adventure, we will too. It might be life testing us to see how badly we want the dream, but it’s more than that. Failures and setbacks are simply logical. We’re doing something different and unknown. We’re learning. Failure is part of that. I like to say, Show me a person who isn’t failing and I’ll show you a person who’s not doing anything interesting.

Quitting is easy. Anyone can do that.

Additionally, life doesn’t PAUSE when we decide to reach for our dreams. We must learn to maintain peace in the storm and to remember storms do eventually pass.

Oh, and another storm will come eventually ;).

Resting doesn’t make us lazy. Asking for help or even crying doesn’t make us weak.

My dishes will always need washing and my e-mail will always be a monster. The Spawn won’t remember that the house was perfectly organized, he WILL remember a day at the pool playing Water Zombies with Mom.

Also, some setbacks or bad events in life are worth having a good cry.

Peace is a decision, not a destination.

I’ve learned that $#!& happens. Me freaking out that the AC overflowed and flooded the attic doesn’t change the hefty bill or the mess to be cleaned up. Besides, most of the crap we fret about 1) never actually happens or 2) does happen and in five years we don’t even remember it.

Never underestimate how important you are. The little things are the biggest of all.

The comments on a blog, the funny pics on a FB timeline are all the small actions that keep a lot of us together. Never buy the lie that your actions don’t matter because they are “too small.”

Remember to rest, to cry, to laugh and to BREATHE. Hey, it’s life. None of us get out of it alive :D .

What are your thoughts? Have you been through stressful seasons and realized you were too focused on the problems and not enough on the joys? Do you find yourself holding your breath? Are you a caretaker and feel guilty doing anything for yourself? Do you forget to ask for help? Are you overly critical of yourself and learning to give yourself a BREAK? Can you think of hard times that nearly crushed you, yet when you came out the other side, something in you had changed for the better?

Hey, I am right here with you. We can trade notes :D .

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

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

For those who need help building a platform (HINT: Start as EARY as possible) here’s my newest social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

Announcements:

If you feel you might have the vapors after reading all of this, no worries, I offer classes to HELP.

July 19th is my First Five Pages Class  and use WANA15 for $15 off. If you can’t make the time, no worries, all classes are RECORDED and come with notes for reference. Upgrade to the GOLD level and I will look at your first five pages and give DETAILED analysis. This is NOT simple line-edit. This is a detailed, how to start your story in the right place and in a way that HOOKS analysis.

Also my Antagonist Class is coming up on July 26th and it will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). Again, use WANA15 for $15 off. The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

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The Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, via Mikko Luntiala

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, via Mikko Luntiala

To prologue or not to prologue? That is the question. The problem with the prologue is it has kind of gotten a bad rap over the years, especially with agents. They generally hate them. Why? In my opinion, it is because far too many writers don’t use prologues properly and that, in itself, has created its own problem.

Because of the steady misuse of prologues, most readers skip them. Thus, the question of whether or not the prologue is even considered the beginning of your novel can become a gray area if the reader just thumbs pages until she sees Chapter One.

So without further ado…

The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues

Sin #1 If your prologue is really just a vehicle for massive information dump…

This is one of the reasons I recommend writing detailed backgrounds of all main characters before we begin (especially when we are new writers). Get all of that precious backstory out of your system.

This is a useful tactic in that first, it can help us see if a) our characters are psychologically consistent, b) can provide us with a feel for the characters’ psychological motivations, which will help later in plotting.

I have a little formula: background–> motivations –>goals–>a plan–>a detailed plan, which = plot and c) can help us as writers honestly see what details are salient to the plot.

This helps us better fold the key details into the plotting process so that this vital information can be blended expertly into the story real-time.

Many new writers bungle the prologue because they lack a system that allows them to discern key details or keep track of key background details. This makes for clumsy writing, namely a giant “fish head” labeled prologue. What do we do with fish heads? We cut them off and throw them away…unless you are my mother’s Scandinavian family and then they make soup *shivers*.

Sin #2 If your prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.

This point ties into the earlier sin. Do this. Cut off the prologue. Now ask, “Has this integrally affected the story?” If it hasn’t? It’s likely a fish head masquerading as a prologue.

Sin #3 If your prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader…

If readers have a bad tendency to skip past prologues, and the only point of our prologue is to hook the reader, then we have just effectively shot ourselves in the foot. We must have a great hook in a prologue, but then we need to also have a hook in Chapter One. If we can merely move the prologue to Chapter One and it not upset the flow of the story? Then that is a lot of pressure off our shoulders to be “doubly” interesting.

Sin #4 If your prologue is overly long…

Prologues need to be short and sweet and to the point. Get too long and that is a warning flag that this prologue is being used to cover for sloppy writing or really should have just been Chapter One.

Sin #5 If your prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story…

Pretty self-explanatory.

Sin #6 If your prologue is über-condensed world-building…

World-building is generally one of those things, like backstory, that can and should be folded into the narrative. Sometimes it might be necessary to do a little world-building, but think “floating words in Star Wars.” The yellow floating words that drift off into space help the reader get grounded in the larger picture before the story begins. But note the floating words are not super-detailed Tolkien world-building.

They are simple and, above all, brief.

Sin #7 If your prologue is there solely to “set the mood…”

We have to set the mood in Chapter One anyway, so like the hook, why do it twice?

The Prologue Virtues

Now that we have discussed the 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues, you might be asking yourself, “So when is it okay to use a prologue?” Glad you asked.

Virtue #1

Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.

Genre will have a lot to do with whether one uses a prologue or not. Thrillers generally employ prologues because what our hero is up against may be an old enemy. In James Rollins’s The Doomsday Key the prologue introduces the “adversary” Sigma will face in the book. Two monks come upon a village where every person has literally starved to death when there is more than an abundance of food.

Many centuries pass and the very thing that laid waste to that small village is now once more a threat. But this gives the reader a feel for the fact that this is an old adversary. The prologue also paints a gripping picture of what this “adversary” can do if unleashed once more.

The prologue allows the reader to pass centuries of time without getting a brain cramp. Prologue is set in medieval times. Chapter One is in modern times. Prologue is also pivotal for understanding all that is to follow.

Prologues are used a lot in thrillers and mysteries to see the crime or event that sets off the story. Readers of these genres have been trained to read prologues and generally won’t skip. The serial killer dumping his latest victim is important to the story. It’s a genre thing. Yet, still? Keep it brief. Reveal too much and readers won’t want to turn pages to learn more.

Virtue # 2

Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the backstory relevant to the plot.

The first Harry Potter book is a good example of a book that could have used a prologue, but didn’t (likely because Rowling knew it would likely get skipped). Therese Walsh in her blog Once Before A Time Part 2 said this:

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is told in a close 3rd person POV (Harry’s), but her first chapter is quite different, told when Harry is a baby and switching between omniscient and 3rd person POVs (Mr. Dursley’s and Dumbledore’s). Rowling may have considered setting this information aside as a prologue because of those different voices and the ten-year lag between it and the next scene, but she didn’t do it. The info contained in those first pages is critical, it helps to set the story up and makes it more easily digested for readers. And it’s 17 pages long.

This battle is vital for the reader to be able to understand the following events and thus would have been an excellent example of a good prologue. But, Rowling, despite the fact this chapter would have made a prime prologue still chose to make it Chapter One so the reader would actually read this essential piece of story information.

Food for thought for sure.

Yes, I had Seven Sins and only Two Virtues. So sue me :P . That should be a huge hint that there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one (that and I didn’t want this blog to be 10,000 words long).

Prologues, when done properly can be amazing literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one. Make sure you ask yourself honest questions about what purpose these pages are really serving. Are they an essential component of a larger whole? Or are you using Bondo to patch together a weak plot?

But, don’t take my word for it. Over the ages, I’ve collected great blogs regarding prologues to help you guys become stronger in your craft. These are older posts, but timeless:

Once Before a Time: Prologues Part 1 by Therese Walsh

Once Before a Time Part 2 by Therese Walsh

Agent Nathan Bransford offers his opinion as does literary agent Kristin Nelson

Carol Benedict’s blog Story Elements: Using a Prologue

To Prologue or Not To Prologue by Holly Jennings

If after all of this information, you decide you must have a prologue because all the coolest kids have one, then at least do it properly. Here is a great e-how article.

So if you must write a prologue, then write one that will blow a reader away. Take my First Five Pages class (below) and I can give you some expert perspective of whether to keep or ditch or if you want to keep your prologue, then how can you make it WORK?

What are some of the questions, concerns, troubles you guys have had with prologues? Which ones worked? Which ones bombed? What are your solutions or suggestions?

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

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

For those who need help building a platform (HINT: Start as EARY as possible) here’s my newest social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

Announcements:

If you feel you might have the vapors after reading all of this, no worries, I offer classes to HELP.

July 19th is my First Five Pages Class  and use WANA15 for $15 off. If you can’t make the time, no worries, all classes are RECORDED and come with notes for reference. Upgrade to the GOLD level and I will look at your first five pages and give DETAILED analysis. This is NOT simple line-edit. This is a detailed, how to start your story in the right place and in a way that HOOKS analysis.

Also my Antagonist Class is coming up on July 26th and it will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). Again, use WANA15 for $15 off. The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

, , , , , , , , ,

70 Comments

Want More Conflict in Your Novel? Go DM & Balance the Party

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Recently, I’ve added homeschooling The Spawn to the list of what I already do. Blog, write books, teach, run two small businesses and keeping a house clean, the yard mowed, and my family fed. As an introvert who works from home, it’s easy to realize you no longer leave the house and are talking to yourself way more than is healthy. Thus, I’ve been on a mission to break some patterns and do what might scare me (talking to other people in person).

Btw, writers don’t count.

Welcome to Nerd Land

In the spirit of this “Doing Stuff Differently” I joined some friends for a monthly game of Dungeons and Dragons, and took Hubby as a hostage teammate. I hadn’t played D&D since I was in high school so there is a learning curve. But one thing that struck me is how being an author had changed my perspective. The first duty I had was to choose and create characters for me and Hubby.

When I looked at who was playing what, I spotted a big problem. The existing party was far too homogenous, so the only real conflict was going to come from whatever bad creatures they happened to fight. What did I do? My writer’s mantra.

THROW A ROCK IN IT.

Image via http://www.kencyclopedia.com/kender/art/page7.cfm

Image via Lui Yanqing

 

Instead of playing a ranger as I always had, I chose a Kender (Halfling). Kenders are loved and despised. They are tiny and childlike and have an affinity for anything shiny (yeah, it fits). They can pick locks, spot and disarm traps, and they have boundless curiosity paired with sticky fingers and that can land them in hot water.

Since Kenders place no material value on anything, stealing to them is more…”borrowing.” Also, they have no social filters and say whatever they’re thinking. One of their strongest powers in a fight is “the taunt.” They can get the enemy so riled, bad guys don’t think clearly and make mistakes. They are a chaotic good character, emphasis on the chaotic.

Now pair this Kender with Hubby who is a Lawful Good Paladin. BOOM!

Hey, I only “borrowed” his sword. Was totally going to give it back *rolls eyes*.

But what was interesting about our first game with the other party members, is that they all groaned and wanted roasted Kender. Apparently a Kender played poorly is simply a pain in the a$$. Like any D&D character, it is up to the person playing the role to breathe in life and to dig below the surface and harness strengths and weaknesses. By the end of the game, everyone (including the barbarian) was yelling to the Kender for help.

***My name is Idgy Thistletuft—or IT for short :D .

Case In Point

For instance, Kenders are fearless in regards to their own lives. Instead of staying with the party, I decided to run off and climb a tree. Very popular move when everyone was “strategizing.” Ah, but once up in the tree, I spotted enemies over the rise. I used the powers of taunting to draw the orcs and goblins all to the base of said shiny tree and then FOCUS their anger on me…then the party had an easier time defeating them.

Also, Hubby being a Paladin added even more conflict. Our mage put the goblins to sleep, but a Paladin will never kill an enemy (even an orc) who is helpless and will actively stop others from doing harm to a helpless foe. It isn’t “noble”…so we used me to distract Hubby while others whacked sleeping orcs.

This is SO Hubby...

This is SO Hubby…

But the game was FAR more fun, since now the conflict was being generated within the party itself. Each character is guided by a code, a background and a personality. When those conflict? Fun times!

Why do I mention D&D? Because I believe Dungeons & Dragons ™ offers a litmus that is HIGHLY useful in creating great characters.

Alignment

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When I used to run writing groups, I would challenge participants to explore their character’s alignment which is basically a way to categorize a character’s moral and ethical perspectives in relation to the greater societal framework. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook. TSR, Inc. breaks down character alignments into the following:

Lawful Good     Neutral Good      Chaotic Good

Lawful Neutral     Neutral Chaotic     Neutral

Lawful Evil       Neutral Evil          Chaotic Evil

These nine classifications are used to help determine how a character will act (or react) in any given circumstance.

***And, yes, my fellow nerds, I know they have since whittled this list to five, but the original classification system, I feel, is more useful for crafting characters. So delete your e-mail correcting me :). Or add some wisdom in the comments.

Anyway…..

We as writers are tasked with creating characters that can easily be mistaken for living breathing people. In order to do this, we have to develop “people” who act in ways consistent with their backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. In other words, we must assign “alignment.”

Also, most of our conflict will not come from the core antagonist, rather it will come from allies and those closest. Anyone who’s ever been to a family reunion or been forced to do a group project knows I’m correct.

In our novel? If too many allies are agreeing? Something is wrong. 

Back to Dungeons and Dragons

Each D&D alignment is associated with an archetype which we see reflected in literary examples.

For convenience, the following definitions/excerpts/examples are taken from a Dungeons & Dragons Alignment article in compliance with the Terms of Use as stipulated by Wikipedia. This hyperlink will take you to the complete article, where you can learn more about alignments in greater detail. As a former D&D acolyte, I can (sadly, LOL) attest to the accuracy of the following information, and I hope it helps guide you in your writing.

Lawful Good

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“Saintly” or “Crusader” alignment. A Lawful Good character typically acts with compassion, and always with honor and a sense of duty. Lawful Good characters, especially paladins (knights), may sometimes find themselves faced with the dilemma of whether to obey law or good when the two conflict – for example, upholding a sworn oath when it would lead innocents to come to harm – or conflicts between two orders, such as between their religious law and the law of the local ruler.

Literary Examples—Superman, Joan of Arc, Olivia from Law & Order.

Neutral Good

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Neutral Good is known as the “Benefactor” alignment. A Neutral Good character is guided by his conscience and typically acts altruistically, without regard for or against Lawful precepts such as rules or tradition. A Neutral Good character has no problems with co-operating with lawful officials, but does not feel beholden to them. In the event that doing the right thing requires the bending or breaking of rules, they do not suffer the same inner conflict that a Lawful Good character would. A doctor who treats soldiers from both sides in a war could be considered Neutral Good.

Literary Examples—Zorro, Spiderman, Elliot from Law and Order.

Chaotic Good

And….me :)

And….me :)

Chaotic Good is known as the “Beatific,” “Rebel,” or “Cynic” alignment. A Chaotic Good character favors change for a greater good, disdains bureaucratic organizations that get in the way of social improvement, and places a high value on personal freedom, not only for oneself, but for others as well. They always intend to do the right thing, but their methods are generally disorganized and often out of alignment with the rest of society. They have no use for those who would try to push them around and tell them what to do.

While they do not have evil intentions, they often do bad things (even if they do not necessarily enjoy doing these things) to people who are, in their opinion, bad people if it benefits their goal of achieving a greater good.

Literary Examples—Starbuckfrom Battlestar Galactica , Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, and Robin Hood

Lawful Neutral

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Lawful Neutral is called the “Judge” or “Disciplined” alignment. A Lawful Neutral character typically believes strongly in Lawful concepts such as honor, order, rules and tradition, and often follows a personal code. A Lawful Neutral society would typically enforce strict laws to maintain social order, and place a high value on traditions and historical precedent. Examples of Lawful Neutral characters might include a soldier who always follows orders, a judge or enforcer who adheres mercilessly to the word of the law, a disciplined monk, or a cowardly commoner.

Characters of this alignment are neutral with regard to good and evil. This does not mean that Lawful Neutral characters are amoral or immoral, or do not have a moral compass; but simply that their moral considerations come a distant second to what their code, tradition or law dictates. They typically have a strong ethical code, but it is primarily guided by their system of belief, not by a commitment to good or evil.

Literary Examples—James Bond & Odysseus.

Neutral

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Neutral alignment, also referred to as True Neutral or Neutral Neutral, is called the “Undecided” or “Nature’s” alignment. This alignment represents Neutral on both axes, and tends not to feel strongly towards any alignment. A farmer whose primary overriding concern is to feed his family is of this alignment. Most animals, lacking the capacity for moral judgment, are of this alignment. Many roguish characters who play all sides to suit themselves are also of this alignment.

Some Neutral characters, rather than feeling undecided, are committed to a balance between the alignments. They may see good, evil, law and chaos as simply prejudices and dangerous extremes.

Literary Examples—Lara Croft & Han Solo.

Chaotic Neutral

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Chaotic Neutral is called the “Anarchist” or “Free Spirit” alignment. A character of this alignment is an individualist who follows his or her own heart, and generally shirks rules and traditions. Good and Evil come a distant second to their need for personal freedom, and the only reliable thing about them is how totally unreliable they are.

They typically act out of self-interest, but do not specifically enjoy seeing others suffer. Many free-spirited adventurers are of this alignment. Alternatively there are madmen whose actions are chaotic, but are not themselves inclined towards evil.

An unusual subset of Chaotic Neutral is “strongly Chaotic Neutral”, describing a character who behaves chaotically to the point of appearing insane. Characters of this type may regularly change their appearance and attitudes for the sake of change, and intentionally disrupt organizations for the sole reason of disrupting a lawful construct.

Literary Examples—Jack Sparrow Pirates of the Caribbean. Al Swearingen, Deadwood 

Lawful Evil

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Lawful Evil is referred to as the “Dominator” or “Diabolic” alignment. Characters of this alignment see a well-ordered system as being easier to exploit, and show a combination of desirable and undesirable traits; while they usually obey their superiors and keep their word, they care nothing for the rights and freedoms of other individuals. Examples of this alignment include tyrants, devils, undiscriminating mercenary types who have a strict code of conduct, and loyal soldiers who enjoy the act of killing.

Literary Examples—Boba Fett Star Wars & X-Men’s Magneto

Neutral Evil

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Neutral Evil is called the “Malefactor” alignment. Characters of this alignment are typically selfish and have no qualms about turning on their allies-of-the-moment. They have no compunctions about harming others to get what they want, but neither will they go out of their way to cause carnage or mayhem when they see no direct benefit to it. They abide by laws for only as long as it is convenient for them. A villain of this alignment can be more dangerous than either Lawful or Chaotic Evil characters, since he is neither bound by any sort of honor or tradition nor disorganized and pointlessly violent.

Examples are an assassin who has little regard for formal laws but does not needlessly kill, a henchman who plots behind his superior’s back, or a mercenary who switches sides if made a better offer.

Literary Examples—X-Men’s Mystique. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV Series).

Chaotic Evil

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Chaotic Evil is referred to as the “Destroyer” or “Demonic” alignment. Characters of this alignment tend to have no respect for rules, other peoples’ lives, or anything but their own desires, which are typically selfish and cruel. They set a high value on personal freedom, but do not have any regard for the lives or freedom of other people. They do not work well in a group, as they resent being given orders, and usually only behave themselves out of fear of punishment.

It is not compulsory for a Chaotic Evil character to be constantly performing sadistic acts just for the sake of being evil, or constantly disobeying orders just for the sake of causing chaos. They do however enjoy the suffering of others, and view honor and self-discipline as weaknesses. Serial killers and monsters of limited intelligence are typically Chaotic Evil.

Literary Examples—Joker from The Dark Knight. Stargher’s evil half in movie The Cell (2000).

An author’s task is not easy, but it can be simplified. Alignment is just one of those tools that can help us get a better idea of who each of our characters are. Once we “know” them, it then becomes far easier to craft scenes, because we know how each will act/react in any given situation and within any stipulated context.

Once we understand their moral compasses (or lack thereof), we can then plot their courses accordingly. Alignment is also valuable for understanding character arc, goals, and motivations and priceless for crafting conflict that will test and fire their mettle.

What are your thoughts? Other than yes, we can all argue what alignment certain characters are (I.e. Batman). But it really is that tension in the “not knowing” that is fabulous for CONFLICT. Think of the characters above and how they not only interacted with their respective antagonist, but also how they interacted with allies and you’ll see that casting our novel is a HUGE deal. And BIG THANKS to Wikipedia for the help. also a HUGE thanks for people with enough free time to create such AWESOME memes.

Any fellow D&D nerds players who might have another perspective or additional insight? Never heard of D&D? Or maybe you’ve heard of D&D and now are unsure we can be friends because I told you I play D&D?

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

Announcements:

If you feel you might have the vapors after reading all of this, no worries, I offer classes to HELP.

July 19th is my First Five Pages Class  and use WANA15 for $15 off. If you can’t make the time, no worries, all classes are RECORDED and come with notes for reference. Upgrade to the GOLD level and I will look at your first five pages and give DETAILED analysis. This is NOT simple line-edit. This is a detailed, how to start your story in the right place and in a way that HOOKS analysis.

Also my Antagonist Class is coming up on July 26th and it will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). Again, use WANA15 for $15 off. The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

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63 Comments

Description—How to Make Readers Fall In & Never Escape

Sidewalk chalk art near Regent’s Canal in London.

Sidewalk chalk art near Regent’s Canal in London.

Today we’re going to address a topic that—GASP—I don’t believe we’ve ever covered in almost 800 blogs. Namely because it is a tricky one to address. We’re going to talk about description. For those who never use description or very sparse description? Don’t fret. That’s just your voice. Readers like me who looooove description will probably gravitate to other books and that is OKAY.

Personally, I’m not a fan of austere modern houses with stainless steel everything and weird chairs no human could sit in and most cats would avoid, but? There are plenty of people who dig it. I also don’t like a lot of knick-knacks and clutter. Makes me want to start cleaning.

Same with books. Not too little or too much. Yeah, I’m Literary Goldilocks.

Plain fact? We can’t please everyone. Description (or lack thereof) is a component of an author’s voice. BUT, if you are a writer who does like description, maybe I can offer some tips to make it stronger.

Avoid “Police Sketch” Description 

Er?

Er?

I assume most of you have watched TV. A witness is asked to give a description of the mugger, murderer, whatever. Well, he was tall, with dark hair and dark eyes. Very muscular.

She was short, blonde and fit.

The reason I (as an editor) don’t care for this kind of description is a good writer is a wordsmith and we should be able to describe characters better than someone who’s been at the wrong end of a purse-snatching. Is there anything wrong with this description? Nah. Just it’s something anyone can do. It isn’t anything unique.

Avoid the “Weather Report” or “Google Maps”Description

Weather can be vital and even its own character (which we will get to). But putting in weather just to tell us it’s a hot sunny day? Again, surface. Same with describing a location. Cities, streets, stores can come alive with the right description.

Avoid “Info-Dump” Description

I was really bad about this when I was new. I described everything in a room. I believed the reader needed to know all the positions of the furniture, what was on the bookshelves and end tables, the colors of the walls, just to “get” what I was talking about. They didn’t need all that and likely lost interest in the point I was trying to make anyway.

I didn’t give my readers enough credit and most of that information was for me anyway. Novels are for the reader not for us, which is important to remember and easy to forget.

Good description doesn’t automatically mean MORE description ;) .

What Makes GOOD Description?

Again, this is subjective, but I read…a LOT. I need a 12 Step Program for the sheer number of books I buy. Since I dig description, I often highlight it when it’s done WELL (which is why I cannot check out books from the library or EVER yell at Spawn for coloring in books). The common denominator I see in great description is it delves beyond the surface and evokes some kind of feeling.

In this post, I’m merely giving some of MY favorite examples (from many different genres). I recommend that, if you want to use description, go to those stories that spoke to YOU. Those highlighted spots can be telling about your voice, preference and style. You don’t need to copy, but you can deconstruct how the author did something WELL. And likely, if you are a fan of that kind of writing, others are too and you might share the same kind of readers.

Characters

One of my favorite authors is Jonathan Maberry. He describes people in a way that instantly evokes a visceral resonse. Sure there is a tad of physical description, but not much. Most is left out and yet we SEE these people.

For instance, Rot and Ruin (which is a YA series about our world 12 years after the Zombie Apocalypse. A teenage boy is the protagonist and my entire family is now INHALING this series, too).

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This is a scene in the first book when the young protagonist Benny goes to hang out with his zombie-hunting hero, Charlie Matthias:

“It was a 1967 Pontiac LeMans Ragtop. Bloodred and so souped-up that she’d outrun any damn thing on the road. And I do mean damned thing.”

That’s how Charlie Matthias always described his car. Then, he’d give a big braying horselaugh, because no matter how many times he said it, he thought it was the funniest joke ever. People tended to laugh with him rather than at the actual joke, because Charlie had a 72-inch chest and 24-inch biceps, and his sweat was a soup of testosterone, anabolic steroids, and Jack Daniels… (Page, 24)

In this example, other than the size of Charlie’s muscles, we get very little literal description. Everything in this is “feeling oriented.” We get a real sense of who Charlie is and who he might be. As a zombie-hunter, he seems the epitome of who we’d want taking out the undead, but there is an undercurrent of tension that makes us (readers) uneasy.

To me, this is far more powerful than:

Zombie-Hunter Charlie Matthais was well over six-feet tall with bulging muscles and wild red hair. (Zzzzzzzzz. Btw, I have no idea what color C.M.’s hair is, but did I really need to know?)

For the Literary Folks: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men:

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(Sheriff Bell) came across a hawk dead in the road. He saw the feathers move in the wind. He pulled over and got out and walked back and squatted on his boot heels and looked at it. He raised one dead wing and let it fall again. Cold yellow eye dead to the blue vault above them.

It was a big red tail. He picked it up by one wing and carried it to the bar ditch and laid it in the grass. They would hunt the blacktop, sitting on the high power poles and watching the highway in both direction for miles. Any small thing that might venture to cross. Closing in on their prey against the sun. Shadowless. Lost in the concentration of the hunter. He wouldn’t have the trucks running over it (Page 44-45).

In this story, a good lawman is after a soulless criminal who is nothing short of pure evil. This above description is important. The red tail hawk is a parallel of Bell. Bell is also a hunter who’s in danger of being so caught in the pursuit, it could get him killed. Even though the lawman is tracking a criminal, he takes time to honor a fallen hunter even though it’s “only” a bird, something the psychopathic antagonist, who has NO VALUE for any life, would ever do.

Part of that “Show, don’t tell” thing ;). We don’t get a description of what Bell looks like, but through action, we know who he IS.

If you are into the “Less-Is-More-Description” here’s an example from Daniel Suarez’s cyber-thriller Daemon:

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Merrit stopped short and turned to glare at the man—a federal bureaucrat type, late twenties. The kind of person you forgot even while you were looking at him (Page 242)

Short, sweet and we all know this kind of person. We fill in the blanks and it’s emotive (or rather non-emotive, which is the point).

Weather/Setting/Information Without Being Info-Dump

For the sake of time, we’ll bundle three into one. Depp does a fabulous job of weaving weather, setting, and information in a tight cord of emotion. This selection is from Daniel Depp’s Loser’s Town.

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The protagonist, Spandau, is a P.I. is following a Hollywood agent to a movie set to meet a client who’s being blackmailed:

Spandau smoked, and thought the city gliding past was much like an overexposed film, too much light, all depth burned away and sacrificed. All concrete and asphalt, a thousand square miles of man-made griddle on which to fry for our sins. Then, you turn a corner and there’s a burst of crimson bougainvillea redeeming an otherwise ugly chunk of concrete building. Or a line of tall palm trees, still majestic and still stubbornly refusing to die, stubbornly sprouting green at the tops of thick dying stalks, guarding a side street of bungalows constructed at a time when L.A. was still the Land of Milk and Honey….There was a beauty still there, sometimes, beneath all the corruption, like the face of an actress long past her prime, when the outline of an old loveliness can still be glimpsed through the desperate layers of pancake and eyeliner. (page 23)

In this description, we get more than a play-by-play of the L.A. streets he passes. Additionally, I feel the description is very telling about the character. Note the contrasting biblical references or even the tension inside the character. He hates this place, but can still see the loveliness that tears at him and keeps him there, keeps him coming back.

The description is an extension of the feel of the city—no depth, manmade, hardened, lost (but still something beautiful worth staying for).

Note the description is processed through the feelings and backstory of the character. Instead of sounding like a travel brochure, there is emotional flavor adding depth. We pretty much know the weather—bright and hot. We experience the place rather than just “seeing” it in a boring “and then he turned on this street and then that street” fashion.

The description also shows us Spandau is likely an excellent detective—he sees more than the surface and instinctively searches deeper.

Again, description–how to do it, how much, how little—is subjective.

But, I believe that good description can make the difference in a caricature verses a “person” or “place” so real we’re sad to say good-bye when the book ends. Also, I hope I’ve given examples of how we can describe a character or a place without “describing” it.

Are we describing with the same depth as any literate person with a laptop could do? Or are we digging below skin and into marrow?

What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself skimming description and didn’t know why? Do you highlight great description, too? Or are you a minimalist? There aren’t any wrong answers, btw. Who are some of your favorite authors who ROCKS description? What are maybe some tips/thoughts you have that takes description from blasé to beautiful?

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

Winner of JUNE’S COMMENT CONTEST: Linda Maye Adams. Please send your 5000 word WORD doc to kristen at wana intl dot com in an attachment, please. Or, if you prefer, you can send a 500 word synopsis or 300 word query letter. Your choice which one. Congratulations!!!! Thanks for being part of the discussion that makes this blog so much FUN.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

THIS SATURDAY is my  Antagonist Class  PINKIE-SWEAR!JULY 5th). Use WANA15 for $15 off. This class will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

For more help with your social media/author platform/author brand, please check out Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

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98 Comments

Zombie School, OCD & How To Keep Modern Life from KILLING Us

The Spawn LOVES "Mommy School"

The Spawn LOVES “Mommy School”

Back in 2013 I wrote a post detailing The Parable of the King Who Forgot to Pay the Internet Bill and All The Kingdom was Super-Sad….also known as The Parable of TKWFTPTIBAATKWSS. I’ve had a lot of challenges lately. After Spawn being fired from nursery school for his over-zealous love of zombies, I’m home-schooling.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s FUN and Spawn has come LIGHT-YEARS. I take him to the museum, we study space, and explore fluid dynamics using water guns. We built and launched his own rocket (which he christened The Nebula because its mission was to find “baby stars”).

He still loves zombies (a lot). He plays a zombie, shoots the zombies (and sometimes he mistakes ME for the zombie, though that is totally understandable and hard for me to be too judgy). He carries his zombie NERF guns EVERYWHERE. He makes up songs about zombies, poems of zombies, tales of zombies…

I need a nap. I really miss six hours of quiet time to work. Especially because the constant interruptions and not finishing???? *left eye twitches* Yes, I AM SHELDON.

Spawn being home-schooled? Yeah. I get the living room clean, turn and BOOM! My need for closure is being tested to the MAX.

And sometimes?

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Anyway, my old schedule was already hectic but with Spawn at home? I’m out of my mojo and have done some DUMB stuff…namely when I scheduled the Antagonist Class, I was looking at a JULY calendar.

Seriously? *hangs head*

What a Week

Also, after Spawn got booted from nursery school, I put him in Karate. I then signed up at the same dojo to show Mommy Support (and maybe get a workout). I took Brazilian Jui-Jitsu because I used to teach Jui-Jitsu (though I will say BJJ is very different and I am a total noob).

Last Tuesday, I was sparring and went to pin my opponent in a choke hold. He countered with a leg sweep to escape that I countered…with my FACE, breaking my nose.

S-E-X-Y!

S-E-X-Y!

Now, the nose wasn’t that bad, nothing that some ice, tape and Ibuprophen couldn’t handle. In fact, a broken nose can be awesome family fun. I chased Hubby around going, “My nose is CRUNCHY! Touch it!” And he screamed like a girl and climbed up the back of the couch faster than a cat high on catnip.

…then yelled something about me being a freak and I am rather shocked that after six years he’s just now figured that out.

So last Friday I’m running errands for the other family business and, of course my phone was DEAD because Spawn likely broke into my iPhone to play Angry Birds and ended up booking a flight to Dubai.

…and my class was in our digital classroom waiting. And Jay was calling. And no one answered :( .

Where is Kristen?

Um, duh *rolls eyes*. I was totally preparing for class on SATURDAY.

The ANTAG class is MY FAVORITE to teach, so I’d been looking forward to it more than a 6-year-old wanting a snow cone. Looking back, I probably should have rescheduled the class anyway because I didn’t sleep for three days because I’m a belly-sleeper and that doesn’t work so great with an injured face. But, I tend to just press on (like I continued sparring 30 more minutes even with a broken nose).

Sigh.

I need a cone *hangs head*

I need a cone *hangs head*

Which brings me to a new parable. The Parable of the Teacher Who Couldn’t Read a Calendar and All the Students Were Super Sad. I sent out a mortifying embarrassing professional note of apology to the abandoned attendees *weeps*.

Those signed up will get extra cool add-ons provided they forgive me. But good news is the class is RESCHEDULED for this Saturday and Jay has sent the NSA “Ice Cream Truck” to make sure I’m present.

I know it’s a holiday weekend for Americans, but 1) a lot of attendees are NOT in America and 2) we have a recording if you can’t attend in person. And, if you can? I can think of NO BETTER people to hang out with than you guys on a holiday.

What Does This ALL Mean?

Man, I was hoping you guys could tell me. KIDDING! No, just that the life of a modern writer is uncharted territory. A lot of you are moms, dads, single parents, grandparents, etc. You have day jobs and kids and maybe your laundry also owns cloning technology.

Maybe you’ve been through illness, deaths or are caring for a loved one who is sick. I’m helping care for my grandmother who just had two strokes and has dementia that’s going downhill faster than my heart can bear.

We might be writing late at night or early in the morning. We just about go to pat ourselves on the back that we’ve got everything under control, when something we forgot PATS us on the HEAD…with a hammer.

Some Tips:

Write It DOWN—When I fail to write lists and get this notion that “I can totally keep this in my head”? That’s when I get in trouble. For instance, I might have SEEN the error in dates if it was WRITTEN on an actual calendar.

I can be in the middle of working and be assaulted with a NERF sword. This breaks concentration—Ya think?—and then it goes downhill from there. A written list is invaluable and Jay is going to teach me Excel which, frankly, is like Sanskrit to me

But I WILL say, Modern Society kinda ticks me off sometimes. They hand us an app or a tool to “get more done” and instead of it freeing time? I just get loaded with more stuff to do. When we get to where we’re sorting e-mail in the bathroom? Time to back away from the smart phone.

Okay, I know none of you have ever done that. Just me. I own it.

Delegate/Ask for HELP—I’m struggling with this one big time, but baby steps. I’m a workhorse and I kid you not, it usually isn’t until I’m exhausted and in tears that I realize I could have possibly maybe asked for help.

THIS is how the keys end up in the fridge and the mayo in my purse.

Laugh—Is it embarrassing to make mistakes? OH YEAH. But mistakes help us learn and keep us humble. Just about the time I think I am all super-smart? *winces*

And this isn’t an excuse for me to just goof off and not strive for excellence. But, if I keep focusing on where I blew it? Definition of unproductive.

Give Grace—Every magazine ad or commercial tells us where we suck. It shows us we are old, have too many wrinkles, big thighs, a messy house and our kids aren’t properly prepared for college (even though the kid is only THREE).

The thing I’ve learned is that perfect people are 1) boring and 2) lying. Imperfect people are real. REAL=AWESOME. We have good days and bad days and OMG WHY AM I ALLOWED TO LIVE/BREED days. But it’s just a day. It passes and one day it will be a great story ;) .

…like The Parable of the Teacher Who Couldn’t Read a Calendar and All the Students Were Super Sad.

And if I don’t blog again this week? Happy Fourth of July!

The laaaand of the FREEEEE! And the home of the…

Next.

What are your thoughts? Do you have days where you couldn’t find your own butt with a team of sherpas and a GPS? Do you struggle to balance life, home and writing? Are you sometimes too hard on yourself? Do you have a hard time discerning giving yourself grace versus making excuses? Does modern society vex you too? Oh, there’s an APP for that. How about a NAP APP?

Are you a Sheldon too and when life changes, you have a hard time adjusting? Have you caught yourself answering/deleting e-mails in the bathroom on your phone because it’s the only place the kids/pets can’t chew through the door? Okay, probably just me.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, 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).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

THIS SATURDAY is my  Antagonist Class  PINKIE-SWEAR!JULY 5th). Use WANA15 for $15 off. This class will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

For more help with your social media/author platform/author brand, please check out Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

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56 Comments

Selling LOTS of Books and Why Bright Ideas Can Go BADLY

The Reliant Robin: Image via "Top Gear"

The Reliant Robin: Image via “Top Gear”

Writers must understand structure if they hope to be successful. Yes, it might take five years to finish the first novel, but if we land a three book deal, we don’t have 15 years to turn in our books. And the key to making money at this writing thing is we have to be able to write books…the more the better. If we can write GREAT books quickly? WINNING!

Understanding structure helps us become faster, cleaner, better writers.

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

Structure is probably one of the most overlooked topics, and yet it is the most critical. Why? Because structure is for the reader. The farther an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect to a reader.

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

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

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

And for those who’ve heard my clever stories before, just be polite and laugh and for the sake of the new kids.

Does Your Plot Have “Chemistry”?

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

Location, location, location.

Here's the Per--ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Here’s the Periodi–ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

See, the elements were a lot like the groups at high school. They all had their own parts of the “lunch room.” Metals on one part of the table, then the non-metals. Metals liked to date non-metals. They called themselves “The Ionics” thinking it sounded badass. Metals never dated other metals, but non-metals did date other non-metals. They were called “The Covalents” and liked to wear hemp and put flowers in their hair.

And then you had the neutral gases—The “Noble” Gases. The nerds of the Periodic Table. No one hung out with them. Ever. Okay, other nerds, but that was it.

Period.

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

Novel structure can be very similar. Today we’re going to cover some basics. We must understand basics before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure, turning points, rising action, and darkest moments, subtext, parallel timelines and where the heck we can buy a Flux Capacitor to go back in time and slap ourselves for spending five years on a seriously dumb plot idea (that seemed GENIUS at the time).

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I am going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Prose is not a novel. Just because we can write lovely vignettes doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 65-120,000 word novel.

When we lack a basic understanding of structure we have set ourselves up for a lot of wasted writing.

Ah, but understand the basics? And the potential variations are mind-boggling even if they are bound by rules, just like chemistry :D . Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they also can be frogs, ferrets and fluffernutter.

And BABIES!

And BABY SPAWN!

Now before you guys get the vapors and think I am boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, that’s a lie. Boundaries, even loose ones, actually intensify creativity.

Don’t believe me? Watch any show about maximum security prisons. Those inmates are some of the most creative folks on the PLANET. Who knew a spoon could be so useful?

Anyway…

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

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

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

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

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

Structure is important.

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

The Micro-Scale

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

I know that in life random things happen and good people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. If we wanted real LIFE, we wouldn’t read FICTION.

So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that “seed” needed to be planted ahead of time. Villains don’t just have their heart explode because we need them to die so we can end our book.

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

Cause and effect are like the carbon and the hydrogen. They bind together to form carbon chains. Carbon chains are what make up all living organisms. Like Leggos put together differently, but always using the same fundamental ingredients.

Carbon chains make up flowers and lettuce and fireflies and all things living, just like scenes and sequels form together in different ways to make up mysteries and romances, and thrillers and all things literary.

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

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

Statement of the goal
Introduction and development of conflict
Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster
Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

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

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

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

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

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

This is where “literary-artsy writers” often chime in and want to bring up examples of how “Thus-and-Such won a Pulitzer by writing an Epic-Fantasy-Self-Help told only by using combinations of haiku and emoticons.” Fine. Go for it. I’m here to teach how to write a commercial product, which is something consumers want to…consume. Code for “buy.” Just because we are creating something commercial doesn’t mean it is less-than or “not” art.

One word…Ferrari. Has four wheels, doors in logical places, the steering wheel isn’t in the trunk and people pay BIG BIG MONEY to own one.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kosala Bandara

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kosala Bandara

Cars come in all sizes shapes and variations. The engine can be in the front, in the back, powered by sunlight. Cars can be one color or all colors or have a COOL WIZARD airbrushed on the sides. But, there are fundamentals that the Scion and the Lambourghini should share or it can go badly—”rules.” For a good laugh: Ten Bad Ideas That Seemed Good at the Time .

When we start getting clever for the sake of being clever? Our story can do this:

***WARNING: Do not drink liquids while watching.

Granted, to a small group of collectors and aficionados, these products are valuable. Heck, even that lampshade hat made of prime rib jerky Lady Gaga wears to award ceremonies cost a pretty penny, but most of us will stick to wearing a regular ball cap ;).

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

I do want to hear from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, 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).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

If you feel you might have the vapors after reading all of this, no worries, I offer classes to HELP.

TOMORROW is my First Five Pages Class  and use WANA15 for $15 off. If you can’t make the time, no worries, all classes are RECORDED and come with notes for reference. Upgrade to the GOLD level and I will look at your first five pages and give DETAILED analysis. This is NOT simple line-edit. This is a detailed, how to start your story in the right place and in a way that HOOKS analysis.

Also my Antagonist Class is coming up on June 27th and it will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). Again, use WANA15 for $15 off. The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

For more help with your social media/author platform/author brand, please check out Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

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How to Tell if Your Story is On Target—What is Your Book About in ONE Sentence?

You missed….

You missed….

This past weekend, I indulged a little and we went to TWO movies. First, date night with Hubby. We saw Maleficient and it was AWESOME. Sunday, we wanted to take The Spawn to X-Men, but there wasn’t a convenient showing so we settled for the new Spiderman movie, or as I like to call it…The Movie That Would NOT END.

No spoiler alerts here other than save your money and go see Maleficient. The Spiderman movie was dreadful. I kept checking my watch.

The only saving grace is that Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey were really likable people. But the movie dragged on…and on…and yes, ON.

Characters are important. I don’t buy into the notion of character-driven or plot-driven stories. We need both. No one cares about the plot if we don’t care about the people. Conversely, we can care about the people, but PLOT is the crucible that drives change. A hero is only as strong as the problem he faces.

One can see that Spiderman 2 was in trouble simply by looking at the log-line from the IMDB:

Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of super villains against him, impacting his life.

What’s the GOAL? Where’s the ticking clock? What’s the hero supposed to accomplish? This log-line does an excellent job of telling precisely what this movie is about. Nothing, oh and everything. “Impacting his life?” Really?

O_o

The log-line tells us exactly what to expect. Instead of genuine dramatic tension, we’re served bad situation after bad situation to the point of tedium. Running a gauntlet is NOT interesting. It’s CGI indulgence.

Even The Spawn (Age FOUR) fell asleep.

Additionally, the movie revolved around Parker keeping Gwen safe. This is a passive goal. It’s like “containing Communism.” Doesn’t work and just drags on.

Back to the Log-Line 

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

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

Let’s look at components of a great log-line:

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

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

Elements of a Great Log-Line

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

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

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

A good log-line is emotionally intriguing.

A good log-line tells the entire story. You can almost see the entire story play out in your head.

A vengeful fairy is driven to curse an infant princess, only to discover that the child may be the one person who can restore peace to their troubled land.

This is the log-line for Maleficient. It’s rich with emotion, complication and irony. In the protagonist’s anger she creates the story problem. How can she heal the kingdoms? We also get a glimpse of the character arc (vengeance to forgiveness?) and the goal (break the curse).

A good log-line will interest potential readers.

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

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

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

You Have Your Log-Line. Now What?

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

****This is what I teach you how to do in my Antagonist Class. At the Gold Level, we work one-on-one until you have the one sentence DOWN and then plot from there, which is WAY easier with a solid log-line. Use WANA15 for $15 off.

The Fear Factor

Fear is probably the most common emotion shared by writers. The newer we are the more fear we will feel. A side-effect of fear is to emotionally distance from the source of our discomfort. The log-line will help you spot that emotional distancing and root it out early.

Is your log-line on target?

Is your log-line on target?

I’ve seen two behaviors in all my time working with writers. Either a writer will wander off down the daffodil trail because he is afraid he lacks the skills to tell the story laid out in the log-line, OR the writer will water down the log-line to begin with. Through future plotting the writer will realize hidden strength…then he can go revise the plotting or revise the log-line.

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

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

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

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

For this literary folks, here is a log-line for The Road.

In a post-apocalyptic Earth where every living thing but humans has died, a Man (protagonist) must travel cross-country with his son to the ocean (active goal) while battling organized, militant group of cannibals who hunt people (antagonist) and yet must still protect their sacred humanity in the face of certain death by starvation (stakes).

Plot Goal: Make it to the ocean Character Goal: If they resort to eating people they fail.

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

What are your thoughts? Have you nearly had a nervous breakdown trying to get your story into one sentence? Have you used this log-line technique and discovered you had to change it and make it stronger? Did it save you needless revision?

I LOVE hearing from you!

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

For those who need help with branding, blogging and social media, please check out my latest book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

My Antagonist Class is coming up. At the Gold Level, we work one-on-one until you have the one sentence DOWN and then plot from there. The beauty of this class is once you’ve been through this process, it will make you a faster, better leaner plotter in the future and will save SO MUCH rewrite. Use WANA15 for $15 off.

If you think you might need some professional help, I have my First Five Pages Class coming up. Use WANA15 for $15 off. Also there is a GOLD level. This is NOT line-edit. This is ripping apart your first pages and then SHOWING you how to fix the problems not only in the beginning of your book but throughout.

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Writer Victory!—Yearning, Empathy, & How Political Correctness is Killing Diversity in Literature

Edie didn't care the Johnny was the funniest looking puppy she'd ever seen.

Edie didn’t care the Johnny was the weirdest puppy she’d ever seen.

After deviating last week, today we tackle the final letter in our Writer Acrostic. Thus far, we’ve covered: V is for Voluntarily Submit. Anticipate trials and challenges and understand there is far more strength in bending than breaking. I was for Identify Problem Areas. We can’t fix what we fail to acknowledge. Our profession hinges on us writing better today than we did yesterday. C was for Change Your Mind. We can only achieve what we can first conceive. Make your mind and set it and keep it set.

T was for Turn Over our Future. When we let go of things we can’t control, we’re far more powerful to drive and direct that which we can. R was for Remember Writers are Magicians. This isn’t a hobby or “playtime.” Our society is only as evolved as the artists who drive the change. Show me a country without writers and I’ll show you a country doomed.

Y stands for Yearning. Natural talent has very little to do with being a great writer or a successful writer. We have to want the dream. I can teach you guys structure, technique, POV, etc. but I can’t do the work for you. You have to want it.

Over Memorial Day, Hubby and I watched Lone Survivor. There was a really neat quote in the intro: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Moderation is for cowards.”

A Writer’s Work is Never Done

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Benjamin Watson.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Benjamin Watson.

Unless I’m sleeping, I’m always on the job. Even then, y’all should be privy to some of my dreams. Since my fiction involves a lot of complex science, it’s not uncommon for me to bolt up in the middle of the night with an A-HA! I make a joke that I do my best work while sleeping.

One of the reasons I tell writers NOT to start a writing blog is that teaching writing and writing are two completely different skill sets. Writers are not necessarily good teachers. In fact, I will go so far as to say some of the most brilliant authors I’ve ever met were dreadful teachers.

I remember being at Thrillerfest and one of the mega-authors (who I won’t name) had somehow been coaxed into teaching a class. This was a writer I…worshipped. BRILLIANT man.

I battled for a spot right in the center so I could take notes and learn all I could. The poor author, though? I was waiting for him to chew off his own leg to escape. He kept saying things like, “Well, I don’t know how I do it. I just…do it.” *looks at watch* *looks for fire exit*

Writers (novelists) are not all craft teachers and that’s fine. Readers won’t care about plot or dialogue unless we screw it up. What WE are experts at and what we should be experts at is storytelling. Paying attention to life. We explore questions regular people might not even know they have. They just have this deep dark niggling they can’t articulate. We see what others miss. We make the seemingly trivial relevant. We pay CLOSE attention.

I don’t think it’s an accident that science and art use many of the same parts of the brain. In ways, writers are scientists. We extend the logic.

We ask things like, “What would happen if the government was allowed to completely rule our lives?” “What would happen if suddenly an alien race ‘answered’ all these messages we are sending out?” “Could humans keep their humanity in a world with no food source other than other people?” “How would a Muslim girl cope with trying to balance two vastly different cultures?”

I have been devouring John Maberry’s Rot and Ruin series. It has been immensely popular with young boys and male teens, the toughest demographic to get to read. This has inspired me. After I finish the novel I’m working on, I want to write a YA series for boys using two of my son’s favorite things to talk about—zombies and dinosaurs. I want to pen books my son will love.

Talk about a brain-bender. How can I get zombies and dinosaurs in the same book without it being the stuff of Sharknado? What diseases can I use? What disease might affect humans and yet affect reptiles differently? Is it an engineered bioweapon? What timeline should I use? How does the disease work?

Maybe incorporate time-travel? Perhaps unknowingly infected scientists go back to the Jurassic Period to explore and are made into snack food. Infects dinosaurs and immediately alters current timeline for those in the future. Humans now face a two-front war. Bio-weapon has unleashed hoards of the undead and suddenly creatures that should have been dead are very much alive.

How would this affect our world? What would be the bigger “human” question?

I have a log-line:

Borders and beliefs no longer matter. Humanity is now facing extinction from the extinct and the undead.

Maybe it’s lame. Maybe not. The puzzle is what keeps the yearning in me alive. It’s a challenge.

Yearning is vital. It’s what makes us do the stuff we might not like (I.e. branding and social media). Yearning challenges us to grow where we are weak. Yearning keeps us going even when others think we are nuts. Yearning asks WHY, even if the question goes nowhere or the answers are uncomfortable.

Yearning Leads to Understanding

It's good to walk in shoes that aren't ours….

It’s good to walk in shoes that aren’t ours….

After my post The Disease of Self-Importance—Can We Find a Cure? Jami Gold wrote a fabulous follow-up piece about how PC could endanger diversity in books. If we allow PC to reign, will it discourage authors from writing about a diverse mix of characters? I believe yearning is what makes us good at writing other characters.

***And PC kills yearning because it makes us afraid to just talk to each other and ask questions out of fear of “offending” someone and being labeled a racist. My POV.

I have a confession. Y’all ready for it?

I have never been a dinosaur.

Now, don’t tell AARP that or the folks sending me coupons for hearing aids and information on prepaid funerals (I AM ONLY 40!). But, I might make the dinosaurs sentient in my book. I’d have to use empathy to imagine what it would be like to have the brain the size of a walnut (might call Congress for tips :D ).

I’ve also never been SHOT and hope it stays that way. But I have written characters who’ve been shot.

I believe yearning is often what makes us good at writing characters unlike ourselves. I know my male characters are almost ALWAYS better than my female characters. Why? As a chick I take too much for granted. Since I’m 99% sure I’m not a man (or a dinosaur), I pay attention to mannerisms, speech, beliefs, etc.

Same with characters of different racial groups. Years ago, I wrote a novel that won a major award and the BEST character was an African American female. Last I checked? I’m still white.

I’ve won awards on three short stories with protagonists vastly different from me. One was from the perspective of a suicidal middle-aged white male and the other two were love stories from the POV of the elderly WWII generation.

Great writers must have empathy. The stronger the empathy the better. Just like we don’t have to be kidnapped and beaten to be able to write about it, I don’t feel we need to be another race, religion, orientation to write those characters. In fact, if we can’t write characters who aren’t us, we’re in BIG trouble.

Yearning fuels empathy. Empathy leads to appreciation and understanding. We yearn to understand the perspective of another. This is why diverse characters and diverse books are so vital. Rot and Ruin was from the perspective of a young teenage boy, and because I could spend time in that unfamiliar head, the book gave me new insight of how to be a better mother to my son. Maberry highlighted areas that a boy needed that a mom might not be aware of.

Yearning is the fire that fuels the passion and the progress.

What are your thoughts? Do you have to read books or attend conferences to reignite your yearning? Are you always on the job, too? Hubby has forbidden me from speaking during movies. Do you like coming up with insane story ideas and seeing if you can make it plausible without being ridiculous? Do you write characters who are different from you? Do you have the same experience? That maybe the characters unlike you are actually stronger? Do you think PC is anathema to diversity in literature? Maybe makes writers afraid to explore and thus leaves only the stereotypes and tropes (ironically fueling more misunderstanding)?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, 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).

Note: I’ve just gotten over a nasty bout of bronchitis, so will announce May’s winner later this week.

If you need help building a brand, social media platform, please check out my latest best-selling book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

Upcoming Classes:

I am running my First Five Pages Class on June 20th. The first five pages are essential and often symptomatic of bigger weaknesses in the book. Hook hard and hook early. For those who want a DETAILED critique of the first five pages, I offer the Gold Level. This is WAY more than simple line-edit and is a thorough analysis of your writing. Use WANA15 for $15 off.

Also running my Antagonist Class. This will teach you how to make sure your core story problem is as strong as it can be and also how to generate tension on every page. Will teach you to become a master plotter and FAST. Excellent class for anyone wanting to write multiple books a year or even series. Again, use WANA15 for $15 off.

I also offer the Gold level for this, which is one-on-one time with me. Clear up a confusing plot, fix a weak plot, plot a series. I am here to help.

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61 Comments

Something Wicked This Way Comes & Why Writers Could Be in Great Danger

Image courtesy of Raymond Brown via Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Raymond Brown via Flickr Creative Commons

Today, we are going to take a bit of a sideline from our acrostic. Over the holiday weekend, I was resting up from a nasty bout of bronchitis and puttering around Facebook. I’ve been long frustrated with this new culture of “Everyone’s a Winner.” Back in 2005, my young nephew was in soccer. I recall being horrified that everyone received a trophy.

What was the point for working harder? What gain did it give my nephew that I ran extra drills with him after school and off the practice field? He “won” the same trophy as the kid who showed for one game out of the season.

Trying is all that matters.

Deep.

Deep. Never mind the TYPO. The person “tried.”

We see all over the news where schools are attempting to cancel Honors events because those kids who didn’t achieve honors “will be sad” because they are “left out.” We can’t honor the kids who traded video games or time with friends for extra work, far more difficult work.

We can’t reward those who sacrificed because those who didn’t might have their delicate sensitivities permanently bruised. We’re seeing flyers being sent home to parents that Field Day isn’t about winning, athleticism or competition and promising that “the urge to win will be kept to a minimum.”

In a world that lives and dies by competition, how is this healthy?

I can appreciate the desire to protect and shelter our young. I’m a mother. But life will not hand out trophies because of attendance. And this is all I’m going to say about that nonsense because it’s just the tip of the spear.

Sunday, I ran across something that chilled my blood. As writers we should be frightened of this new trend.

The Culture of “Special”

Yes, every person is a special unique snowflake. I wholeheartedly believe this. Every one of us is gifted with talents, drives, memories, passions that are uniquely ours. There will never be another YOU or another ME. WANA is dedicated to cultivating those gifts.

But, lately, this social disease of “Everyone is a Winner” has made me want to scream. Yes, everyone is given a set of gifts, but rewards are given based upon action. What do we DO with those gifts?

Showing up is the basest of requirements.

What I’m about to say might be unpopular, but I’m a writer not an Ad Man. Leave the propaganda to the bureaucrats and sheltered academics. Writers have always changed the world. Why? They were fearless enough to point out the unpopular. To shine a light on an ugly reality and maybe even extend some logic of how a social cancer might spread if left unchecked.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

There is a terrifying movement popping up in our universities. In my opinion, it’s the “shot across the bow,” the seed of the Thought Police.

If PC wasn’t bad enough, the new political flavor of “Everyone is so special they should never feel any discomfort” is Empathetic Correctness. According to a recent post in The Atlantic, Karen Swallow Prior explains:

While political correctness seeks to cultivate sensitivity outwardly on behalf of those historically marginalized and oppressed groups, empathetic correctness focuses inwardly toward the protection of individual sensitivities. Now, instead of challenging the status quo by demanding texts that question the comfort of the Western canon, students are demanding the status quo by refusing to read texts that challenge their own personal comfort.

I didn’t believe this when I read it and dug deeper and yes, this IS happening. Some of our most prestigious universities are calling for literature to be marked with “Trigger Warnings” to point out any areas a student might feel uncomfortable or traumatized.

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In a New York Times article, Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and other literary staples are in the EC crosshairs. Issues like slavery, oppression, misogyny could be “traumatizing.” Such literature might make students and young minds “feel bad” and thus students should have the option of reading something less distressing.

*head desk*

I know The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel’s NightThe Scarlet LetterThe Red Badge of Courage, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Brave New World, Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours, and even The Hunger Games changed me. These works disturbed me, made me weep, and most of them made me more than a little angry.

But isn’t that the point?

My fiction isn’t about rainbows and unicorns and the world holding hands. I don’t write My Little Pony. I strive to write about regular (often innocent) people thrust into the bowels of darkness who through sheer force of their humanity confront evil, grow into heroes and WIN.

I even write works that challenge what we believe about our world or ourselves. What are we capable of under the right circumstances? My short story Dandelion is raw, viscous and utterly heartbreaking.

It was meant to be.

The High Cost of “Higher” Education

Higher education is supposed to expose students to other people with differing beliefs, ideas, and opinions…and live to tell the tale. Perhaps they might even learn to think critically instead of parroting. Heck, maybe they’ll even realize they’re really blessed and that there are plenty of people on the planet who’d gladly trade places and not B%*$# that the wi-fi is slow.

That is a mark of becoming an ADULT.

When I attended TCU, one of my closest friends was a refugee from Uganda who fled to the US for asylum after her father (a teacher) was brutally executed during a regime change. My other best friend’s family lived in a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, Syria (where I went to briefly live after college).

My university exposed me to the brutality of the “real world” and made me angry enough to want to change it. So this white girl with blonde hair and a big mouth hopped a plane to the Middle East instead of Cabo San Lucas the day after graduation.

I traded a tan on a beach for a hijab. I wanted to understand even when it scared me half to death. I wanted to see if someone like me might make even a little bit of difference. To at least try.

Maybe we are offended or traumatized, but maybe we should be. Perhaps that’s what is going so wrong.

And to add an increasing burden to teachers, exactly how are they suppose to thread the needle between PC and EC?

As Chester E. Finn, Jr. points out in a recent post in Politico Magazine:

Does the history professor refrain from mentioning that Hitler killed homosexuals as well as Jews? Does the English teacher shun James Baldwin and George Eliot because one was gay and the other was a woman using a man’s name? Avoid Toni Morrison because one of her books includes a rape scene? Not teach astronomy because just two of the 23 best-known constellations are recognizably female?

Writer Beware

I suspect why this is so disturbing to me is right now there is pushback. But what about in ten years or twenty?

Orwell predicted a world where thoughts would be controlled, and we laughed. Should we be laughing now? Alduous Huxley predicted we’d eventually live in a world driven by the Orgie Porgie Feelies of the Centrifugal Bumblepuppy. Pillars of truth would be buried under mountains of meaningless. All that would matter is “feeling good” even if there was no depth or substance. The human spark would snuff out since we only find our greatness in the crucible.

I’m not laughing.

And I suppose why I bring this up is what is the long-tail of this thinking? Years ago, I blogged about the dangers of Amazon and their strong-arm tactics. It was a level post praising Amazon but also cautioning what could happen if we failed to appreciate their past business behavior (and more than a few people called me a nut). Yet, lately it seems so many people are surprised that BUY Buttons can disappear. And this is Amazon’s business and not really my point.

My point is this: In a virtual world, books are “allowed” to exist.

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Let’s take Amazon out of this and let’s speculate that another business comes along and uses Amazon’s business model and improves upon it. Fluffy Fairy Dreams takes over and does it better…and embraces EC.

What “warning labels” would be on your books or mine? With enough political pressure, could our writing disappear? If universities press down this path of making everyone happy and comfortable, will there be generations who no longer remember works like Huckleberry Finn or The Merchant of Venice? Or find them so “distasteful” the BUY buttons vanish?

We no longer need to burn books when we can just “delete” them. 

I know today’s post is disturbing. It was meant to be. Maybe it should have come with a warning label ;) . Yet, the duty of bloggers (who are a form of journalist) and writers is to start the conversation. This Brave New World scares me. Yes, The Digital Age of Publishing is wonderful. Works nearly driven to extinction by the print paradigm are springing back to life. Writers can reach new audiences and emerging markets abound.

But we must remain vigilant. Who would have thought in 1980 we’d take pictures with our phone? What was laughable then is now commonplace. If we scoff at the idea that books can vanish…?

What are your thoughts? By the way, I never mind anyone disagreeing with me so long as the disagreement is respectful. Maybe I do need a tin foil hat. I’ll own that. But, maybe I don’t.

What warning labels would be attached to your writing? Did you find healing from past trauma through literature? Maybe realizing you weren’t alone? Are you writing on a delicate subject hoping to encourage a dialogue, understanding or catharsis? What do you think about this trend of being “empathetically correct”?

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

If you need help building a brand, social media platform, please check out my latest best-selling book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

 

 

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