Posts Tagged writing tips

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.

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66 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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62 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

Free Falling, Ground-Fighting & Learning to Start Over

Image courtesy of Morgan Sherwood via Flickr Creative Commons.

Image courtesy of Morgan Sherwood via Flickr Creative Commons.

Like all of you, okay most…all right maybe only one or two of you, I kinda wish I had a Delorian so I could go back in time and slap myself. So many things I have done wrong, and still do wrong. I swear sometimes it is a miracle I make it to bed in one piece. This is the great thing about WANA (which stands for We Are Not Alone). We’re a club…or probably a cult.

***Note: We don’t make you dance with snakes until your second third meeting.

WANA is about being smaller than yourself, thus making you greater than you could ever be. When we focus on others and loving others, life is bearable and even kinda awesome, because there are a LOT of un-awesome times we all have to go through. But what I always longed for WANA is it is our safe-haven where we know it is okay to cry, dust off and start anew.

Writing has, historically, been a lonely business and I started WANA because I knew what it was like to have a dream and no one be there.

I was mocked, hated, ridiculed and very, very lonely. And that was just the writing part. Here I was, struggling to do what others thought was a foolish hobby and then life used me like one of those punching clowns that all kids of the 70s got for their birthday that SCARED THE CRAP OUT OF THEM bobbing in the dark at night. The one you punched over and over and it popped back up…until it ate you in your sleep (or deflated).

WANA as a movement has made great strides, binding weirdos great creative people across the globe via a common love for writing. As a business? I’ve tried a lot of stuff and kind of feel like Wile E. Coyote, but am still here. Have some cool ideas in the pipeline, namely WANATeens. There are a lot of kids who suffer from having writer parents and have inherited this madness to combine words into something others might want to pay to READ.

HELP THE CHILDREN

I believe WANA is the best place to cultivate this budding talent, since we used to be those kids…scribbling away on stone tablets beating off Stegosauruses (Stegosaurusi?). I am creating some curriculum specifically for teenagers, since word on the street is that I have the mentality of a 14 year old boy, ergo am PERFECT for the job :D .

The crux of what I want to say is I have been down A LOT over the past months. Ever have one of those days weeks months years? I kid you NOT, we have had FIVE deaths, three major (MAJOR LIFE-THREATENING surgeries) in two years and my beloved grandmother is suffering dementia and has had two small strokes in the past month. I take care of her tomorrow.

On top of this, I FINALLY took a couple days off to get my head screwed on straight and we came home to water leaking through our living room ceiling from a clogged AC unit overflowing. Thank GOD we caught it before the ceiling caved in and the damage was eh…not catastrophic? W…T…H?

All this to say, please feel super sorry for me…wait, no. Um. All this to say LIFE STILL GOES ON. This is what WANA is about. All of us have good times and bad and the bad times can be very dangerous for artists because the first thing to go is the dream. We tend to put the dream on the shelf and dig in to fight the wildfires. But truth is? There will always be wildfires and WANA is here to remind you that you aren’t alone.

Even me. Maybe mostly me.

I love the moniker WANA Mama because it fits. I LOVE all of you and want all of you to realize your dreams. I KID YOU NOT, I sometimes wake up at night with ideas for YOUR novels (Antagonist Class). It’s a JOY to see these cool but amorphous, gelatinous ideas become….a NOVEL. A GOOD novel. A GREAT novel! It’s like being a literary midwife and helping all these cool babies be born into this world, each one with its own unique fingerprints and your DNA. Babies that we will love and maybe who will one day change the world.

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A Little Side-Story

Due to the freakish amount of stress, I finally made the plunge to go back into martial arts. Part of this was instigated by Spawn being fired from nursery school at AGE FOUR because he loved zombies too much (yes, I am NOT kidding and am framing the dismissal letter because that is SO my kid and will blog more on this later bur for the original rant, GO HERE). I’d always pondered homeschooling but it seemed this amorphous thing in the future that suddenly became the PRESENT.

AAAAGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

So, I did what any (Texas) mother would do, I got pissed and put him in karate where they would appreciate his need to fight the undead and save the day. Long story short, I used to teach Jui-Jitsu and only quit because of a fractured back (was testing for my brown belt). I have been in martial arts on and off since age 5 and studied at least four forms of martial arts and never made it to BLACK BELT.  Which makes me twitch because I am OCD.

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 9.17.03 PM

Anyway, I signed up for Brazilian Jui-Jitsu and guess who is a WHITE BELT ALL OVER AGAIN? And there was a time this would have bothered me and ruffled my ego BIG TIME, but now? Eh. Whatever. See, being successful has a lot to do with how well we can begin anew. How humble can we be? Can we let go of the old to embrace something new and maybe even better?

The true mark of a great person isn’t how big they can be, but how small they can be and still have joy.

See, I used to believe I was this uber-talented editor-writer and was so full of myself X-rays demonstrated I had a cranium up my own @$$. Then, I grew up and learned that small stuff matters. Beginning matters and it is OKAY to be NEW. In fact, that is the best time because it means someone is being BRAVE.

I do this Antagonist class and it is my FAVORITE, especially the Gold Level where I work with people one-on-one. And yeah it costs more, but trust me it is a LOT of work on both sides. But why I love it is because there is such a high rate of success.

Most of human history was based on being an artisan. You became an apprentice to a master who guided you. None of this throwing stuff against the wall and hoping it sticks stuff.

Gry is one of my favorite examples. She was a student out of DENMARK and is 19 and brilliant. Anyway, she won the Gold Level from attending WANACon and came to me with this high fantasy that was so complicated it took three meetings (2 hours a piece) to even understand what the hell her story was about. Problem was she’d gotten bogged down with world-building and her core goal was fatally flawed. But, after several sessions, we peeled away the Literary Bond-O and she finally could see the story she originally wanted to tell…and had a viable log-line and PLOT. And her new and improved story ROCKS.

The hardest part? Letting go of all the other “stuff.” Her story was still in tact. This wasn’t a Kristen Lamb retread. It was the story she originally wanted to share, but didn’t understand how to construct. And the coolest part is the excited letters I get from her now that she “gets” the process. I am immensely proud of her and can’t wait to hear she has a book deal. She worked her tail off and I know it was heart-wrenching letting go of a lot of what she’d already done.

Been there.

***Note: That is actually one of the coolest parts of what I do. “My writer baby has a BOOK DEAL!” Even had a writer baby who now can put NYTBSA in front of her name ;) .

Anyway, a great editor takes your lump of shiny coal and chips and polishes until you have a diamond. A great teacher teaches you how to do this yourself.

Free Falling

One of my favorite Bible scriptures talks about how God will give us beauty for our ashes. Thing is, we have to let go of the ashes to get the beauty (which is VERY contrary to our nature). Maybe this is a book that we have been working on far too long. We need to let go, start over, or even let a pro look at it to show us how to reconstruct. Maybe it is an idea of who we were, that maybe we DON’T want to be in sales, telemarketing, ferret-grooming because we want to be a WRITER.

Maybe it’s realizing the public school is going to crush the joy out of your kid, so you now need to figure out how to not damage him permanently teach him from home…and still WRITE.

Change Your Thinking and Change Your LIFE

One of the weird things I’ve had to overcome in Brazilian Jui-Jitsu is to reset my thinking. See, in Judo/Jui-Jitsu, being on bottom was generally BAD. It meant being pinned and GAME OVER. In Gracie, this is not the case. The person on bottom has just as much if not MORE power. And in Gracie, falling to the ground offers the best advantage. Watch any MMA tournament and many fighters have one goal, “DON’T GET ON THE GROUND OR IT IS OVER.” Why? Those skilled in ground-fighting know most people aren’t and they can dominate the game.

So when life throws you to the ground? Breathe. You’re a WANA. You got this ;).

I do want to hear from you guys!

Do you have kids who might like to become WANATeens? Some thoughts on classes? Have you ever had to scrape yourself off the pavement and try again….and again? TELLL us your WAR STORIES! We LOVE to hear the encouragement! Are you going through a rough time. too??? Ceiling fall in?I KNOW how you feel.

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.

TONIGHT 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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45 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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60 Comments

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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Writer Victory!—One Day at a Time

Image and quote courtesy of SEAL of Honor on Facebook.

Image and quote courtesy of SEAL of Honor on Facebook.

So far we’ve made it through most of our Writer Acrostic. V is for Voluntarily Submit. Know there will be trials and challenges and there is far more strength in bending than breaking. I was for Identify Problem Areas. We can’t fix what we fail to acknowledge. Every day in this profession is about writing better than we did the day before. 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.

O is for One Day at a Time

I don’t trust people who’ve never failed. As I’ve told you guys, Hubby was Special Operations. Recently we were talking about the training for the Green Berets and Delta Force. These programs are designed to make participants fail. They WANT people to fail because failure shows what people are really made of.

In those programs, the rare few who do make it through the first time still are not guaranteed a slot. Why? Because the folks who run Special Forces know it is the Type A Overachiever who gravitates to these careers. It’s the athlete, the guy who maybe made the best grades or went to a prestigious military academy. This is a person driven by success and accustomed to winning.

Those responsible for the training don’t want the first time a candidate faces failure to be in combat when others could die.

Thus, they break them to see who they are, what they are capable of (or not). Will the candidate who fails rise or fall apart? Will he try again? And again? And maybe…again?

The Old Gold Standard

Not that I long for the Old Publishing Paradigm, but it did have its merits. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was nightmarishly tough. We failed, often over and over and over. Thus, when we finally landed an agent and saw that book in print, it was an accomplishment few ever saw. Gatekeepers stood in the way and not everyone wore a green beret the title of “published author.”

Deep down, many of us still want that Traditional Seal of Approval. I do. Granted, it makes ZERO business sense for me, but my heart still longs for it. Why? It was simpler. In the olden days, so long as NY granted me their blessing, it didn’t matter if my book sold ten copies. It was out of my control. Sales weren’t my validation so long as I could loudly proclaim, “I AM A RANDOM-PENGUIN!”

Now? All us.

And this can be liberating and terrifying.

I know I’ve written three best-selling books that never would have been published if I’d stuck to the NY model. But? Succeed or die, it has ALL been on me. That is enough pressure to crumble most. Heck, crumbles me some days. Guess what? That is OKAY.

I’m not asking you or even me to be perfect every day. I’m only asking you recognize this happens ONE day at a time. Success isn’t permanent, but guess what? Neither is failure ;) .

Craftfest

My First REAL Mentor

I began this blog in honor of my first real mentor, Bob Mayer. I own every one of his books. I loved his self-published version of Who Dares Wins and dogeared and highlighted until the book fell apart, gifted copies to everyone I knew. I met Bob at a conference years ago when I believed I knew how to write. Could I edit? OH YES. I had a gift in that area. Writing?

Eh.

Bob was so kind to me. I’d send him a sample and I’d get back:

Sucks. Try harder.

We had a long-running joke that one day I’d get more than a four-word e-mail.

Do it again.

Sucks.

Try harder.

No story.

Huh?

Not interesting.

Huh?

Huh?

Huh?

*Insert sound of Kristen weeping*

Bob never even referred to me by my first name until a year after he published my first book…and MAN that was a GLORIOUS day. When I first met Bob, I was so full of what I thought I knew. He tore that down so something better could take its place. And I don’t want to make Bob sound mean, because he’s far from it. I wouldn’t be here had I not been blessed enough to know him.

Here was a NYTBSA who was taking the TIME to read my pages and respond. But…he never gave me the answer, so I had to hunt for it. I had to EARN IT. One step at a time. One day at a time. One blog at a time. One BOOK at a time.

Bob never gave me a First Place Trophy for Attendance, for “trying.” To this day I don’t think I’ve earned First Place Anything in Bob’s book other than being a pain in his neck, LOL. But he was the BEST mentor any author could ask for. He challenged me.

How badly did I want the dream? Was I willing to fail, and fail, and fail, and REALLY fail, and fail some more and keep going, learning, growing?

Yes, but I did it ONE DAY AT A TIME. My mentor taught me this.

I honor the gift he gave me with every post, with every book, with every step forward. I want all my actions to show his time was never wasted. I believe deep inside that Bob never would have answered my stupid newbie e-mails had he not seen something in me. He saw the good, but I know Bob is a WISE man. He also saw the bad. My craving for approval and fluffy unicorn hugs. He fired that crap out of me quickly.

Embrace your failures. Learn. If we aren’t failing it means we aren’t doing anything interesting.

Try, fail, learn, do again. Repeat. 

And, if we learn that progress comes ONE DAY AT A TIME we are far more forgiving with ourselves, but also able to WRITER UP.

What are your thoughts? Is it easier if you break it into one day at a time? Do you bite off too much? Do you overwhelm yourself? Is your skin getting thicker? What are you proud of? What thing took you FOREVER to achieve but you value it so much because it was SO dang HARD?

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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47 Comments

Writer Victory!—Turn Over the Future & Focus on What We CAN Control

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Mr. Muggles.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Mr. Muggles.

We’ve been working through an Author Acrostic the past few posts. Why? Because a zillion craft books and workshops can’t do it. We can be the most talented writer the world has ever seen, yet go to our graves with no one ever knowing our names. How? This job is as much about our hearts and minds as it is our hands. This profession is largely mental. We’re athletes of the mind. We have to train our will along with our skill.

V was for Voluntarily Submit. I was for Identify Problem Areas. C was for Change Your Mind.

Today, we are on T.

T is for—Turn Over the Future. As professionals, it is key to cast our care and keep our responsibilities. Too many writers waste valuable time on crap they can’t control, all the while ignoring what they CAN. It’s an easy snare, which is why ALL of us have to remain vigilant. Even me. Maybe especially me.

Social Media Snare

Image via QuickMeme

Image via QuickMeme

This might sound bizarre coming from the Social Media Jedi for Writers, but social media does NOT SELL BOOKS. When I say, “social media” I mean, the book spam, the promos, the ads, the impersonal fluff we’d luuuuv to automate, outsource or measure with an algorithm. This stuff doesn’t work. I’ve said this approach would’t work since MySpace was around (and time has redeemed me).

This is why I created the WANA method. WANA methods have sold hundreds of thousands of books, have launched unknowns into the record books. But WANA methods can’t be automated or outsourced (Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World). We have to turn over our future and trust that, if we plant love and grow relationships, then pair those relationships with a clear brand and excellent writing? Harvest will come.

This traditional marketing-advertising behavior is a dinosaur. It’s responsible for an abysmal .001% of reasons people decide to buy a book.

Recently, I heard mega-agent Donald Maass speak and he’s the one who gave the statistic above (not sure where he found it) but he said essentially what I’d blogged about only a couple weeks previously in my post Social Media, Book Signings & Why Neither Directly Impact Overall Sales.

Social media is the human connection, and is taking the place of the traditional book signing. Book signings don’t sell books. Never did. BUT, they were the only place readers could come and get to know and connect with the author in a meaningful way. Book signings were the way to cultivate the long-term fans.

Social media now is a way we can easily do the same thing from home and all it costs is TIME. We can use social media to rise above the din in an age where discoverability is becoming a nightmare. Social media is far more effective than books signings because geography, status, and money are no longer limitations.

What Can the Pre-Published Author Control?

Virtually the same things we published ones can. Hone our craft. Write the book. Finish the book. Query. We can’t control getting an agent beyond the query (or networking). Even when we land an agent that doesn’t guarantee that agent can sell our work. Even if our work is sold and published, it might tank, or take off. We can’t tell.

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 1.17.53 PM

But, we can control writing more books and better books. In between, while taking a break? Build that platform.

The rest is trying to read chicken bones.

If we hope to be relevant in the Digital Age, then the question is not longer whether we will do social media, rather, how we will do it.

Look to those who are successful and who will remain successful. Look to Anne Rice. She’s on Facebook A LOT. Talking to her fans. Asking questions, sharing, discussing. Why? She’s an ICON! Exactly, and she is putting in the social sweat equity to remain that way. She understands the fans are EVERYTHING.

I was recently talking to Jonathan Maberry at a conference. This man practically lives on the NYTBS list. He turns out a novel every two and a half months and write columns, novellas, short stories and also is one of the lead writers for Marvel Comics. His novels have been optioned for Hollywood and his Rot & Ruin series is now being made into a television series.

He works an hour, then spends ten minutes on social media connecting.

Social media is something we can directly control. Sales? Forget it. I see so many authors running around like a wind-up toy. They check their algorithms and beat up stats on Amazon. They research another way to promote, send mailers, hunt for new and improved ways to do blog tours or hold contests. They futz with the price of their book more than Kim Kardashian posts selfies.

And the sales don’t budge.

Original image via NASA Blueshift courtesy of Flickr Commons

Original image via NASA Blueshift courtesy of Flickr Commons

Look to the Pros

Pros understand what they can control and focus there. They write. They finish. They ship. They study. They read. They know that cultivating an on-line community is key to relevance in The Digital Age. They also write more books instead of camping on top of ONE.

Pros know to start where you ARE.

Maberry didn’t always write full-time. He worked as a bouncer at a strip club and later as a bodyguard. He fit the writing in between crappy jobs because he knew a life getting beat up and stabbed was not his ideal career plan. James Rollins fit in writing after a long day working as a veterinarian. Tess Gerritsen began with a short story she wrote on maternity leave. Her next novels were penned while she was working as full-time doctor.

We will never have optimal working conditions. Accept that reality and this career will be far less frustrating. As I write this, I have a fever. I’m achy and miserable and would rather be in bed. But, I’m abysmally behind and I need work. While I am getting a cramp from kicking my own @$$, that isn’t very fruitful. I’ve dropped the ball, but I CAN pick it up and RUN.

It’s life :D .

I must remember to focus on what I can do NOW. In the present. What can I control? I can get my butt in my seat and do my job if I want to be like the legends I revere. Pros don’t worry and fret over how many Twitter followers they have or if the latest algorithm on Amazon is favorable to sales. They work. Hard. They work…smart ;) . They trust that incremental investments every day add up and that the future is uncertain. Cool thing is, we can do this too!

What are your thoughts?

I know when I am feeling like the world is crushing me, I am focusing too much on stuff that’s out of my hands. What about you? Do you drift into that territory? Do you often get overwhelmed and realize you’re spending too much time and worry on something you have no power to control? Does it feel better to know that it is okay to focus on the “little” things?

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).

 

 

 

 

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41 Comments

Two Dialogue Death Sentences & How to Get a Stay-of-Execution

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Peter Dutton

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Peter Dutton

Kristen here, and we’ll continue our acrostic for VICTORY next post. I’m interrupting for a Writer Public Service Announcement. Great dialogue is paramount. Readers can overlook a lot of things if we have fabulous dialogue.

Dialogue can make or break a book. We can have the most brilliant story ever imagined in human history, but if the dialogue is weird, stilted, or redundant, that’s a good place for a bookmark.

As an editor, I can attest that this is one of the BIGGEST problem areas for the new writer. Dialogue can often sound stiff, like two kids playing with Barbies or fighting with action figures. Or, characters can become “talking heads” who all sound the same.

Great dialogue should give us a peek into the psyche of the character. We know we’ve done it properly when readers really don’t need tags (though use them where appropriate anyway for safe measure). When we nail dialogue, our characters can become so rich and vibrant the reader knows who’s speaking simply by the way they speak, what they say or even don’t say.

A fantastic example of this is J.E. Fishman’s latest book, “A Danger to Himself and Others.” Fishman did an astonishing job of characterization through superb dialogue. When I read this book, I always knew who was talking. This helped create characters so real and a world so rich, it drew me in and didn’t let go.

***I believe the Kindle version is free right now, so I recommend this book for a study in this area.

So, today to give you guys some quick tips on FAB dialogue, I have our WANA International instructor, Marcy Kennedy to guide you.

Take it away, Marcy!

****

In my years as a freelance editor, I’ve worked with clients all the way along the writing path—from newbies who are just starting their first book to seasoned veterans with multiple books on the market. I can now guess with a high level of accuracy where a writer is along the path based on the types of dialogue mistakes they’re making.

Newer writers tend to use creative dialogue tags or allow their characters to speak for paragraphs (or pages!) at a time without interruption. I once edited a novel where a character spoke for 63 pages solid. No joke.

But new level, new writing devil.

As writers gain experience in the craft and stop making the newbie mistakes, they run into a new dilemma. They’re told their writing still isn’t ready.

And one of these dialogue death sentences is probably playing a role in killing their chances at publication success.

Image vis Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.

Image vis Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.

 

Death Sentence #1 – Redundant Dialogue

Redundancy happens when we repeat something in our dialogue that we’ve already written in either narrative or action.

He shook his head. “No.”

Unless our character needs to add extra emphasis to their denial, the action or the dialogue alone is usually enough.

Let’s look at a sneakier example of redundancy.

Rob glanced at the clock on the wall. Three at last. Time for him to go. He popped his head into Joan’s office. “It’s three. I’m heading out. Want me to lock up?”

The redundancy here isn’t as exact as in the previous example, but it still makes for boring, flabby writing. We could tighten it to read…

Rob glanced at the clock on the wall. Three at last. He popped his head into Joan’s office. “I’m heading out. Want me to lock up?”

Redundancy can also happen big-picture. If, for example, we’re going to have a character cracking a safe, we don’t need to have them explain the whole process to another character before it happens. That makes it boring for the reader to then have to sit through the description of our character actually cracking the safe (even if something goes wrong).

We shouldn’t bore our readers to death by redundant dialogue.

 

Death Sentence #2 – Orphaned Dialogue

Any time we confuse the reader, it’s a bad thing because we destroy their immersion in the story. If we confuse them enough times, our book goes in the donate pile or gets deleted from their e-reader and they move on to someone else.

When it comes to writing dialogue, one of the most common crimes is to leave our dialogue orphaned, with no one to claim it.

This abandonment comes in two types.

(A)  Dialogue where we’re not sure who’s speaking.

I suspect this usually happens because, as writers, we know exactly who’s speaking. We forget the reader can read only our words, not our minds.

If we have more than three lines of unattributed dialogue in a row (dialogue without a tag like said or an action beat), we can risk the reader losing track of who’s speaking.

If we have a scene with multiple speakers, we need to be certain it’s clear who each line of dialogue belongs to. An unattributed line of dialogue could belong to anyone present.

But the sneakiest of all is when we write about two characters in the same paragraph and then tack on a line of dialogue at the end.

Ellen waved her arm above her head, and Frank sprinted towards her. “I’ve missed you.”

Who said “I’ve missed you”? It could be Frank or it could be Ellen, and the reader has no way to tell which one it really is.

(B)  Dialogue where we don’t find out until then end who’s speaking…and we probably guessed wrong about the speaker’s identity.

AVOID dialogue like this…

“We have come to witness our finest warriors compete. Scythia offers their best to us, so we offer them no less,” the queen said.

By the time the reader reaches the tag at the end, they’ll have consciously or subconsciously made an assumption about who’s speaking. If they guessed wrong, it throws them off balance.

When we have long passages of dialogue, it’s usually best to either begin with a beat, so readers know who’s talking before they start, or to place a beat or tag at the first natural pause.

“We have come to witness our finest warriors compete,” the queen said. “Scythia offers their best to us, so we offer them no less.”

Don’t leave dialogue abandoned on the side of the road. It’s just cruel.

 

Need More Help With Dialogue?

Check out my book How to Write Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide. In it you’ll learn how to format your dialogue, how to add variety to your dialogue so it’s not always “on the nose,” when you should use dialogue and when you shouldn’t, how to convey information through dialogue without falling prey to As-You-Know-Bob Syndrome, how to write dialogue unique to each of your characters, how to add tension to your dialogue, whether it’s ever okay to start a chapter with dialogue, ways to handle contractions (or the lack thereof) in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, and much more!

If you prefer live teaching, I’m running a webinar called Say What? Techniques for Making Your Dialogue Shine this Saturday, May 17th.

This 1.5 hour live webinar will…

* cover the seven most common mistakes when it comes to dialogue and how to fix them,
* explain how to ensure your dialogue makes your story stronger,
* show you how to create dialogue unique to your characters, and
* answer some of the most frustrating questions about dialogue such as how to handle dialect, should we use contractions in historical novels, science fiction, and fantasy, and is it okay to begin a book with dialogue.

As a bonus, all registrants receive an ebook copy of my book How to Write Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.

The webinar will be recorded and made available to registrants, so even if you can’t make it at the scheduled time, you can sign up and listen later at your convenience.

Click here to sign up for Say What? Techniques for Making Your Dialogue Shine.

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