Posts Tagged writing great fiction

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

dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

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

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

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

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.

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

*rolls eyes*

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

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

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

But back to the bigger story…

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

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

Never mind all the bruises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is my BOOM-STICK!

This is my BOOM-STICK!

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

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

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

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

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

Announcements: I LIED. I will announce September’s contest winner TOMORROW. Yes, Kristen IS human. Forgot today was Dad’s birthday and not altogether “there.” Sorry. Great ploy to get y’all back :D.

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75 Comments

Ways to Create Multi-Dimensional Characters–Tip #1

Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde."

Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde.”

To give characters depth, we have to be people-watchers. Study people. Know thyself. I strongly recommend reading books on psychology as part of research. For instance, I read a lot of FBI books on profiling.

As writers, characters need some amount of consistency without being predictable. If there is some deviation from the profile, there must be a good reason WHY, other than we need a character to act a certain way to move our story forward.

For instance, the shy librarian who rescues spiders cannot suddenly gouge out the eyes of a guy mugging her unless we can offer a reasonable explanation for this deviation from archetype. I.e. She could have been raped and left for dead as a teenager. Yes, she remained shy and soft-spoken and true to her character…until circumstances brought out that wounded part who was capable of going for the eyes.

Today I will focus mainly on the protagonist, but you simply reverse this for the antagonist.

Every Strength has a Weakness

One key factor we must appreciate is that every strength has a flaw. A loyal person is noble, but they are also often naive. A strong leader gets the job done, but often is a control-freak who fails to rely on a team and sucks at delegating. A tender-hearted person is kind, loving, but often used.

Part of creating conflict is to place the character in situations where the strength becomes a fatal flaw. The character’s arc is to learn to address this flaw and change.

In my current novel, the character is bubbly, likable and loyal. She is also naive and that is why she’s initially taken advantage of and used to take the fall for a massive Enron-like scheme.

Often, the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. What the character believes about her world and those around her evaporates. The plot problem serves to bring the protagonist back into balance, but as a better, New and Improved version.

We all want homeostasis. We want our old life back, but often that old life wasn’t good for us. THIS is what your plot will reveal to your protagonist.

In Legally Blonde Elle Woods must learn to see people for who they really are. She is naive, but underestimated (she even underestimates herself). People assume she is a dumb Pollyanna, but they miscalculate that Elle will be tested by fire and change. They assume, wrongly, that being bubbly and sweet=stupid.

THAT is the flaw that brings the victory. Remember, the antagonist who took advantage of the initial weakness is counting on the character failing to learn and grow, and this will be their ultimate undoing.

Gracie Hart "Miss Congeniality"

Gracie Hart “Miss Congeniality”

In Miss Congeniality, undercover Gracie Hart is a tough hard-@$$ who is such a control freak she cannot rely on her (very capable) team. This costs them a major bust at the beginning of the movie and lands her in her version of hell–going undercover as the very type of woman she despises.

Gracie suffers personal extinction. She cannot be the belching woman in comfortable shoes who arm-wrestles for who’s going to buy the next round of beers.

She has to face her scary place—her femininity and being vulnerable. She also has to learn to rely on others for help and it is the story problem—being thrust into a world of girly-girls—that makes her evolve as a human being. The very women she initially despised ironically hold the keys to her personal growth and thus her ultimate victory.

She loses nothing of the take-charge bad@$$ that makes her who she is, but it’s a far better version…in heels. Again, the opposition underestimates Gracie’s ability to face her demons and change.

Agent Gracie Hart, NEW AND IMPROVED

Agent Gracie Hart, NEW AND IMPROVED

In Lord of the Rings the Hobbits are naive, sheltered and childlike. We see this early on when Merry and Pippin break in to hijack some of Gandalf’s fireworks. The discovery of the Ring of Power is what creates the personal extinction—getting out into the scary world full of bad stuff that lies beyond the Shire.

There is almost an unspoken societal rule. Hobbits don’t LEAVE the Shire. They stay in Happy Hobbit Land and believe the bad will stay away.

Problem is, in order to destroy the Ring of Power, the Hobbits have to grow up. They can’t light fires for a midnight snack when dark undead kings are after their heads. The very characteristics that make them the most immune to the influence of the Ring—their good hearts, their childlike ways, their innocence—must be tempered and eventually sacrificed for the good of all.

My favorite scene (and I cry every time) is at the end of Return of the King. The same Hobbits from the beginning are back in having a pint, but rather than dancing and singing like all the other Hobbits, they huddle at a table and no longer speak. They left The Shire as boys and have returned war-weary men who gave up their innocence so the world would be saved.

Innocence lost to save the world.

Innocence lost to save the world.

It is Sauron’s gross underestimation of the Hobbits that is is ultimate undoing. He fails to ever even see them as a viable threat. Yet, had the Hobbits NOT been able to rise above their natures, they would have all died in Book (Movie ) ONE. It’s their ability to grow up and lose their innocence that saves the world.

Thus, when looking at your characters, look to what their best qualities are…then what are the dark sides of those traits? The inciting incident obliterates what the person believes about who they are.

What is the other side of the personality trait? How can you harness this to put your protagonist into tough spots that goes against their nature and forces change? Who can you pair that character with to create the most friction?

In Miss Congeniality she is no longer in charge and gets waxed, tweezed and forced to walk in heels. She’s shoved out of her comfort zone and she resists with all she has because she wants things to go back to the way they were. BUT, if the protagonist regresses, the story problem will not be solved. Bad guys win.

TOO PERFECT CHARACTERS ARE BORING.

Always remember that bad decisions are the beating heart of great fiction.

What are your thoughts? I try to use a blend of movies and books because it’s easier for more people to get the references, but what are your favorite instances of character arc? What do you struggle with?

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

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

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

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

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68 Comments

Great Fiction Goes for the GUTS

Screen Shot 2013-04-15 at 9.29.21 AM

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, contributed by Ano Lobb.

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

In fiction? We must go for the guts.

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

What is your character’s true story problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love hearing from you!

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

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

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

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

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67 Comments

The Clock is Ticking—5 Tips for Tighter, Cleaner Writing

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Image via CellarDoorFilms WANA Commons

Time is our enemy. Most people don’t have enough. This is why our writing must be tight, direct and hook early. Modern audiences have the attention span of a toddler hopped up on 2 liters of Coke. We can’t afford to let them drift.

Drift=Bad juju

I’ve edited countless books, many from new authors. I see a lot of the same errors, and this is to give you a basic guide of what to look for in your writing. Be your own Death Star. Blast away this weak writing so that, once you do hire an editor, it won’t cost nearly as much because the editor won’t spend precious time (charged often by the hour) to note or remove these basic offenses.

Tip #1—Use Other Senses. BTW, Sight is the Weakest

A lot of writers (new ones especially) rely on a lot of description regarding what a character sees, and while this isn’t, per se, wrong it can be overdone. Also, of all the senses, sight is one of the weakest, thus it lacks the power to pull your reader into deep POV (point of view).

Smells are very powerful.

Jane pushed through the heavy steel doors, plunging into the dark hallway of a school no one had stepped foot in since the city shut it down after the fire. The blackened walls and peeling paint testified to the tragedy that took twenty young lives.

Okay, maybe this.

When Jane pushed through the heavy steel doors, an acrid cloud of old smoke mixed with the sickening sweet of cooked flesh met her in the hall. Burned mildew pulsed from the crumbling walls of the ruined school, clear testimony of where the firefighters began their assault on the blaze. Instead of the familiar aroma of cafeteria food and drying finger paint, all Jane could smell was death. It invaded her mouth and clung to her clothes and skin.

Taste is very powerful.

Fifi tucked and rolled as shoe dove out of her captor’s van. The ground came up hard, harder than she expected.

Okay, not bad, but maybe try…

Fifi tucked and rolled as she dove out of her captor’s van. Her face met the ground, hard. At first, all she noticed was the bitterness of grass mixed with sand that crunched against her teeth. A moment later? The taste of old copper pennies gushed into her mouth, making her gag. Blood.

Try to use a combination of all of the senses. To rely solely on what a character sees will keep the reader at a distance. It will make her a mere observer and not a participant.

Tip #2 Don’t Coach the Reader

When we are new, we tend to think through stage direction, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean it should end up on the page. Readers aren’t dumb, so we don’t need all the details.

He raised his hand and struck her across the cheek.

Um, duh. We know he raised his hand to strike her. Otherwise, that would be a serious trick. Jedi mind powers, maybe?

He struck her across the cheek. Hard. Stars exploded in her vision.

We don’t need the character to step up on the curb or reach for the door handle. If a character makes it from one room to another, we fill in the missing (and boring) details. We also don’t need cues for emotion.

Tip #3 Don’t State the Obvious

She slammed the door and cursed in anger.

Okay, unless this character has spacial issues and Tourette’s? We know she’s angry. We don’t “need” the “in anger” part. We’re sharp. We get it. Really.

Tip #4 Don’t Introduce Too Many Characters Too Quickly

I can’t tell you how many writing samples I’ve received that make this mistake. If you have ten named characters by page two? I’m done. In life, we can’t keep up with that many names all at once, and, in writing, that doesn’t change. Too many names will confuse us and muddle who the protagonist is. We get lost, so we’re frustrated and we put the book down…or toss it across the room.

Tip #5 No Secret Agents

This error usually goes hand-in-hand with the previous error. We are introduced to who we assume is the protagonist. Also, unless something cues us otherwise, we assume she’s alone. When another character suddenly starts talking?

Jarring.

Also, tell us who this person is in relation to the character. Yes, you (the writer) know who this character is, but we don’t.

Gertrude awoke with a start. Her alarm clock hadn’t gone off, and panic gripped her. This was her first day at the new job, and being late could get her fired before she even started. She nearly fell as she scrambled out of the bed sheets and bolted for the coffee maker.

“I thought you’d be gone by now,” Ted said as he watered his Bonsai trees.

“Me, too. Hey, why didn’t you come wake me up?”

Okay, who is Ted? Brother? Husband? Boyfriend? Friendly home invader? We need to know. Maybe not right away but at least on the same page.

Yet, I see this all the time. A name, some dialogue but no introduction, so no sense of who that character is. We are book-readers not mind-readers.

There are a lot of other ways to tighten the writing, but these are common offenders and a great start. We all do this no matter how many books we write. It’s why we need revision. We can spot this stuff and clean it up and make it presentable for the public.

What are some of your pet peeves? What loses you as a reader? What tips or advice can you share?

I love hearing from you!

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

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

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

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

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110 Comments

Lessons From Oleander–Beware of Premature Editing

Please don't kill me.

Please don’t kill me.

I love to garden, but I am terrible at reading instructions, which means I am not going to read a How To book or gardening blogs, because I already have enough to read and this would steal time from my great joy…digging in the dirt. This means that, over the years, I’ve learned a lot through trial and error.

Code for : Killing Stuff

Three years ago, we bought our first home. We got a sweet deal on it, but it needed work. The yard was little more than mowed field. I couldn’t wait to get in and pretty it up. I slaved for hours in triple-digit Texas heat digging holes and clearing land for gardens. I’d always loved oleander and when I found them on sale at the local nursery, I was ecstatic. Normally, oleander this size were $50 and $60 but I got each for less than $20. I planted one on each corner of the house and dreamed of how beautiful they’d be when they matured.

Then we had the most freakish, freezing winter in Texas history. I’d never even seen snow before and suddenly we were buried in eight inches of it.

The Canadians can all stop laughing now. You guys have things like PLOWS, SNOW SHOVELS, SNOW TIRES…and COATS.

Anyway, the oleanders that seemed to be doing okay during the mild fall were obliterated. When early spring came, I cleaned up all the dead stuff and dug out all the oleanders and threw them away. All except one because I ran out of energy.

Much to my horror, guess what sprouted once it got warmer?

My last remaining oleander.

To this day, I can’t look at that oleander without grieving the other four. I feel so foolish. What if I’d just been patient? What if I hadn’t been so quick to judge what was “dead”?

This is what premature editing can do to our story. When we start hacking away and digging stuff out too soon, we have no idea what treasures we might be tossing in the garbage. Never underestimate what your subconscious is capable of doing. Our subconscious mind is planting seeds along the way that can eventually sprout into ideas better than we imagined. Editing too soon can ruin that magic and toss it in a Hefty bag, just like my poor oleanders.

Tips to Avoid Premature Editing

Fast Draft

Candace Havens teaches a method called Fast Draft. You write the entire novel in a matter of two weeks. No stopping, no looking back. No editing. This is my preferred method, because I am notorious for editing stuff to death.

Limited Edit

Allow yourself to correct typos, punctuation and grammar ONLY. Anything else that you believe needs to be changed, make a note of it in a different color. Then keep moving forward.

I know this isn’t for everyone. Every time I talk about this topic, I get a half a dozen comments from people who just can’t bear to not edit. Of course, they generally don’t have finished books, either.

In the end, these are tips. You have to find what works for you. But I would at least give these methods a try. You can always slay the adverbs later ;).

What are your thoughts? Have you ever gotten overzealous and edited the heart out of a story and later regretted it? What tactics do you use to keep from editing too soon? Does editing early not bother you?

I love hearing from you!

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

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

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

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

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

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Writing Tip #1–How Much Detail Should Writers Use?

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Lesson

When it comes to writing great fiction, less is often more. Think of modifiers and detail like perfume. Perfume can be lovely, sexy, attractive, and make one irresistible. It can also give others a headache or an asthma attack and have them looking for the closest bookmark exit.

Action

Comb through your prose and look for adverbs. When possible, replace them with stronger verbs.

She stood quickly out of the chair.

She bolted from her chair.

Look for redundant adverbs.

He yelled loudly.

Um…no, duh. How else would he yell? Softly?

Not all adverbs are evil. Adverbs are fine when they denote some quality that is not inherent in the definition of the verb.

She whispered conspiratorially.

Describing Characters

When it comes to character descriptions, you aren’t talking to a police sketch artist. Give the basics and let the reader fill in the rest. Trust your reader’s imagination to be far better than anything you can supply. Think of it this way, when your book is one day made into a movie, casting will be far easier :D.

Adjectives—Handle with Care

Like adverbs, try to use adjectives sparingly and only when they are truly going to punch up a sentence. Avoid adjectives your reader would automatically supply on her own.

It was a dark night.

Ok. Glad you told us that night was DARK. Our brain doesn’t need holding, really. We are not stupid.

It was an evil night, a night of reckoning.

Oooooh, oh. I can go with this. See how the adjectives hint at the story instead of stating the obvious?

Details Can Negatively Affect Pacing

We do need some details. Few things annoy me more than having no idea about the setting, or what people look like, but…

If we spend three paragraphs describing the weather and the setting, this gives readers a chance to see something shiny and then you are OOH! SQUIRREL!

We are in an increasingly ADD world and need to appreciate the reader of the Digital Age. Yes, use detail, but spread it throughout the story. Big chunks of detail get boring very quickly to everyone but the writer.

Imagine this scenario. You can’t wait to watch a movie. The opening scene is of a breathtaking sunrise, the most beautiful sunrise you’ve ever witnessed in the history of sunrises, but the camera just focuses on the sun rising over the mountains, and rising, and *yawn* more rising…for the next FIFTEEN minutes. You would be throwing popcorn at the screen.

Loads of detail heaped together have the same affect.

When We Modify Everything, We Modify Nothing

Too much detail/too many modifiers are like a person speaking/shouting in monotone. Remember Billy Mays, the Oxy Clean guy, and EVERYTHING WAS EQUALLY LOUD AND IMPORTANT?

When we modify everything, we modify nothing. Use detail/modifiers sparingly and purposefully so that readers can more easily enjoy why they bought your book in the first place…for the story.

Happy writing!

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

A Tail of Two Star-Crossed Lovers

I’ve been battling a cold this week, so I am just going to go ahead an post the next lesson on structure and will announce September’s winner on Monday. Trust me, you don’t want me tallying with a NyQuil hangover. Anyway, for the past couple weeks, we have been discussing story structure. I like to run this series around NaNoWriMo to get you guys prepared. There is no sense in knocking out 50,000 words, if, at the end, we have an un-fixable mess. This series is designed to help make sure at least the bones of your story are sound.

Part I of this series introduced the novel on a micro-scale. Part II explored the big picture and offered an overview of common plot problems. Part III introduced the most critical element to any novel, the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). Each of these blogs builds upon the previous lesson, so if you are new, I recommend reading the earlier blogs.

I bring the best teaching in the industry right to your computer in an easy-to-digest form to make you a great storyteller. Whether we are traditionally published, indie published or self-published, we must connect with readers and tell a great story. Structure is the “delivery system” for our story, so it’s wise to make it as solid as possible.

Welcome to Part IV of my Structure Series—Testing the Idea

I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60-100,000 words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task. That said, all novels begin with an idea. But how do we know if our idea has what it takes to make a great novel?

Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then they take off writing in hopes that seed will germinate into a cohesive novel. Yeah…um, no. Not all ideas are strong enough to sustain 60,000 or more words. Think of your core idea as the ground where you will eventually build your structure. Novels, being very large structures, require firm ground. So how do you know if the idea you have is strong enough?

Good question. Today we will discuss the fundamental elements of great novels. If your core idea can somehow be framed over these parts, you are likely on a good path.

James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure (which I highly recommend you buy & read, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. Jim, being the SUPER AWESOME person he is, has granted me permission to talk about some of his methods today.

When you get the first glimmer of the story you long to tell, the idea that is going to keep you going for months of researching, writing, revisions and eventually submissions, it is wise to test its integrity. The LOCK system is one method we will discuss today.

Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK

LEAD

First, we must have a sympathetic and compelling character. It is critical to have a protagonist that the reader will be able to relate to. Our characters must have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.

Perfect people are boring and unlikable and they lack any room to grow. Perfect characters are no different. New writers are often insecure and our protagonists are us…well, the perfect version of us anyway. Our heroines are tall and thin and speak ten languages and have genius IQs and rescue kittens in their free time…and no one likes them. Seriously.

Think about it for a moment. Why do so many people demonize women like Angelina Jolie or Martha Stewart? Because most of us feel very insecure around women like these. They show us where we are lacking, and so we don’t like them. Most of us cannot wrap our minds around what it is like to be too beautiful or have zillions of dollars or the free time to carve pumpkins into sculptures while making our own curtains from recycled prom dresses. These individuals fascinate us with their “perfection,” yet we secretly wait for them to trip up so we can revel in their failure–I knew it! She isn’t perfect!

That’s why STAR Magazine can sell hundreds of thousands of tabloids with the promise of showing us that Angelina Jolie has cellulite. We want to tear her down and make her human. Not the best way to start out with your protagonist. If we make her too perfect, readers will revel in her destruction.

Bad juju.

We need readers to rally to her team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws, and humanize her. Additionally, if our characters are fully actualized in the beginning, there will be no character arc so our story will be one-dimensional and flat.

Bridget Jones and Forrest Gump are two great examples of great, flawed characters. We can all relate to not being the prettiest or the smartest and so these characters are easy to love and root for. What if you are writing a thriller or a suspense, something that generally has a cast of uber-perfect people? Give them flaws. Perfect characters are passé. Don’t believe me? Watch the new James Bond movies, and contrast Daniel Craig with Roger Moore.

Now, to look at the other side of the spectrum. Often to avoid the cliched “too perfect” character, an author will stray too far to the other end of extremes. The brooding dark protagonist is tough to pull off. In life, we avoid these unpleasant people, so why would we want to dedicate our free time to caring about them? Oh, but the author will often defend, “But he is redeemed in the end.” Yeah, but you’re expecting readers to spend ten hours (average time to read a novel) with someone they don’t like. Tall order.

To quote mega-agent, Donald Maas (The Fire in the Fiction):

Wounded heroes and heroines are easy to overdo. Too much baggage and angst isn’t exactly a party invitation for one’s readers. What’s the best balance? And which comes first, the strength or the humility? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that one is quickly followed by the other.

In my opinion, this was the single largest problem with the Star Wars prequels. Anakin Skywalker was a little-kid-killer, ergo never redeemable…EVER. He needed to die badly and slowly. Lucas should never have allowed his protagonist to cross that line. Heroes NEVER kill defenseless little kids. It was (my POV) an unforgivable action on the part of the “hero” that cratered the epic.

Objective

Your protagonist MUST have a clear objective. There are many times I go to conferences and I see all these excited writers who are all dying to talk to an agent. When I ask, “So what’s your book about?” I often get something akin to, “Well, there is this girl and she has powers, but she didn’t know she had powers, because, see. Hold on. Okay, her mother was a fairy queen and she fell in love with a werewolf, but werewolves in my book are different. Anyway she has a boyfriend in high school, but he is actually the leader of a group of wizards from another dimension and he is pitted against his inner demons because he lost his father in a battle against shape-shifters….”

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

Your protagonist must have ONE BIG ACTIVE GOAL. Yes, even literary pieces.

Don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s a good example. The movie Fried Green Tomatoes very easily could have been just a collection of some old lady’s stories that helps our present-day protagonist (Evelyn Couch) bide the time while she waits for her husband to finish the visit with his mother, but that is far from the case.

Evelyn is having trouble in her marriage, and no one seems to take her seriously. While in a nursing home visiting relatives, she meets Ninny Threadgoode, an outgoing old woman, who tells her the story of Idgie Threadgoode, a young woman in 1920’s Alabama. Through Idgie’s inspiring life, Evelyn learns to be more assertive and builds a lasting friendship of her own with Ninny (per IMDB).

Learning to be assertive is an active goal. Building is an active verb. Gaining the self-confidence to make your own friends shows a change has occurred, a metamorphosis.

Oh, but Kristen, that’s a movie. Novels are different.

Um…not really. I use movies as examples of storytelling because it saves time. But, here is an example in the world of literary fiction to make you feel better that I am steering you down the correct path.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan could have been just a collection of tales about three generations of Chinese women, but they weren’t. There was an active goal to all of these stories. The mothers left China in hopes they could change the future for their daughters, and yet the old cycles, despite all their good intentions, repeat themselves and echo the same pain in the lives of their daughters. Actually the protagonist in the book is the collective—The Joy Luck Club.

The stories propel the living members of the Joy Luck Club toward the active goal of finding courage to change the patterns of the past. The mothers seek forgiveness and the daughters struggle for freedom, but each is actively searching and eventually finds something tangible.

We will discuss this in more detail later, but keep in mind that running away from something or avoiding something is a passive goal. Not good material for novels. Novels require active goals…even you literary folk ;).

Conflict

Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember, on Monday we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end. Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive.

Riddick, for most of the story, is reacting to the Lord Marshal’s agenda. Riddick’s goal is to defeat the BBT, but there are all kinds of disasters and setbacks along the way. Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting. One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.

There is a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles that I just LOVE. The prime villain, Hedley Lamarr, is interviewing scoundrels to go attack a town he wants to destroy so that he can build the railroad through it. There are all kinds of bad guys standing in line to give their CV.

Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?

Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.

Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.

Applicant: I like rape.

This sequence gets quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene.

I am not making this up.

And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies and rapes are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.

Knockout

So your novel has thrust a likable, relatable protagonist into a collision course with the Big Boss Troublemaker. The Big Boss Battle must deliver all you (the writer) have been promising. Endings tie up all loose ends and sub-plots and, if we have done our job, will leave the reader a feeling of resonance.

Your protagonist MUST face down the BBT. No fighting through proxies. Luke had to face Darth. By employing the Jedi skills learned over the course of the story, he was able to triumph. Same in literary works. Evelyn Couch had to stand up to her husband and her monster-in-law. She couldn’t send in Ninny Threadgoode to do it for her. In the movie’s climactic scene, Evelyn employs the “Jedi skills” she learned from stories about Idgy. Her Jedi skills are confidence and self-respect, and she uses them to defeat her oppressors by refusing to take any more of their sh—enanigans.

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

So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using the LOCK system. Ask yourself:

Can I cast a LEAD who is relatable and likable?

Is this OBJECTIVE something that will keep readers interested for 60-100,000 words?

Can I create a BBT and opposition force capable of generating plenty of CONFLICT to keep my lead from her objective?

Does this story problem lend itself to a KNOCKOUT ending?

This is just a taste of the good stuff that James Scott Bell has to offer in Plot & Structure so I recommend buying a copy for your writing library. In the upcoming lessons, I will be using this book for reference, among others to help you guys become master story-tellers.

What are the biggest problems you guys have when it comes to developing your ideas? What are some setbacks you have faced? Do you guys have any recommendations for resources? Or, feel free to commiserate and laugh about all the good ideas that went oh so wrong.

Those of you who loved James Scott Bell’s LOCK system can check out his site for more fabulous learning material, workshops and seminars. I’ve been blessed enough to watch Jim teach in person, and if you can believe it, HE IS EVEN BETTER IN PERSON. It will be the best money you ever spend…aside from my blogging class, of course :D.

QUICK ANNOUNCEMENT!!!—Starting a Successful Blog

Time is running out to sign up! Class starts MONDAY. A lot of blogs fail simply because writers take off with no instruction, and, because of this, they are left to learn by painful trial and error. If you believe you would like to blog, but you’re uncertain, I’m doing something new. To accommodate those who are still on the fence, I’m now running a Basic level for my upcoming blogging class that starts next week (and it is only $50 for TWO MONTHS).

In the Basic class, you get to be part of the WANA1012 team and receive all the forum lessons (none of the live webinars are included). This is a really great place to learn if blogging is right for you (Blogging Training Wheels).

If you’re ready to skip the training wheels and get started blogging, then get your spot NOW. My classes have a history of selling out. I offer a Blogging Bronze, Silver, Gold, and even Diamond, for those who are ready to go all the way.

This is a TWO MONTH class—one month for lessons and one for launch—that you can do in your own time, at your own speed and from home. And since you will be part of a WANA team, you won’t have to do this blogging thing alone, so your odds of success are MUCH higher. For those who want to do NaNoWriMo, we can extend the two months if we have to. That’s one of the benefits of being the owner of the interface :D .

So whether you start your own blog or just get out there and read a few, getting in the mix and forging relationships is more critical than ever. Have I missed anything? For you bloggers out there, what makes you feel warm and fuzzy? What can writers do to get your attention that isn’t illegal in all Southern states?

Anyway….

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

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

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

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

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

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