How Strong is Your Dialogue? How to Fix Common Dialogue Problems

Blah Blah Blah

For my regular peeps, you probably know about my favorite hostage guest contributor, blogger Alex Limberg. Today, he shines his spotlight at some basic dialogue problems we all know in one form or another.

Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools for storytelling. Dialogue is the difference between a cast of talking heads versus characters so real they are more alive to us than even people we know. Dialogue is the engine of plot, and coolest thing is?

We can mess with the reader’s emotions more than that crush in high school. But, though it seems so simple to use? It’s far from it.

So without further ado…take it away, Alex!

***

Here is the crazy thing about dialogue: It’s just pure, blunt, in-your-face words. With dialogue, there is no filter in between your characters and the reader.

When you describe an action, a setting or what your character thinks or feels, you, the author, are in the role of the messenger. You convey what is happening to the reader with your own words. Everything the reader senses, she senses through you.

But with dialogue, it’s very different.

When in your story little Bobby asks: “What’s bigger, the world or everything?” the reader will read exactly that phrase, “What’s bigger, the world or everything?” It’s like Bobby is talking right next to your reader’s ear, and you, the wicked author, are sitting in another place far away.

That straight-on nature makes it so hard to make dialogue lines sound good (well, it’s hard to make anything sound good in fiction writing, okay, okay, but mind you, this post is about dialogue…).

With dialogue, there is no place to hide.

No dense jungle of overgrowing language to cover you.

No big, solid rock of a character to overshadow your clumsiness.

No flashy action from another direction to distract the reader.

Nothing but the reader watching your dialogue like a hawk, coming down on your soft words mercilessly with his sharp peak, ripping your writer’s confidence apart… Ok, I’m getting carried away here, but you get the picture!

Especially when you start out, your dialogue will often sound clumsy. But it doesn’t have to be. Here are four basic mistakes almost everybody makes in the beginning stages of their writing – and how to avoid them and make your dialogue sound really smooth.

Just take care of these four things, and you have come a long, long way towards interesting and real dialogue.

And because I know dialogue flaws are often hard to detect for the writer himself, you can download a free goodie here to check your dialogue. It uses test questions, and you can also use it to make all other parts of your story tight and exciting.

1. All of the Characters Sound Like You

Newbie writers often let their characters talk however the sentences pop up in their, the writer’s, head. They don’t filter the dialogue lines through the character’s unique personality. Of course, all of the figures now talk like the writer himself.

With a little practice, that’s quite easy to avoid.

Think about who your characters are, one by one: What’s his age and sex? How did she grow up? What are his values? What’s her temper? What’s his personality?

When you really get into your characters’ heads, you will see that every single one of them demands totally different talk. They all use different vocabulary, different length of sentences, different power of expression, etc…

Mild-mannered Lady Bumblebee, who grew up on a castle, might say: “Would you be so kind as to give me notice for how much longer we have to ascend this questionable mountain?” Whereas hands-on lumberjack Burt, straight out of the woods, might say: “Damn! No end to that $%&* slope!”

Avoid making all the characters talk like you do.

2. The Dialogue is Filled with Commonplaces

Nobody reads fiction to see trivial phrases. In real life, a good part of what we speak consists of salutations, compliments, good wishes and other formulas. But in fiction, that’s annoying and a bore. Can you imagine how your audience would feel reading a scene beginning like this:

“Good morning, dear!” – “Good morning, darling!” – “Did you sleep well?” – “Yes, and you?”

They would feel bored, really bored.

In screenwriting, there is a rule that says “Get into the scene at the latest possible moment and out at the earliest possible moment.” In fiction, that rule is not so strict, because fiction readers can handle a pace that’s a bit slower. But keep in mind that you should always have a reason for every sentence you write.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 7.27.07 PM

 

Superfluous words in a good story are like too much fat on a delicious steak – nobody needs it.

So what can you do?

Your first option is to just cut the formulas, nobody will miss them.

Your second option is to pack them into interesting, plot-driven dialogue, so they will seem like a natural byproduct and readers won’t notice. Take a look:

“Good morning, dear! Have you seen Georgie?”

“Oh my god, he should have been sitting on his high chair. Maybe he has sneaked outside, I’m gonna run and catch him. Good morning, darling!” [kisses him on cheek]

Avoid boring your readers with trivialities.

3. Your Characters Speak Logically, Not Emotionally

If the characters in your story always reply exactly “on point” to what the other one just said, your dialogue will feel very constructed.

In the real world, us humans talk first and foremost from our emotions. Our answers are often just emotional reactions deeply colored by our personalities; they are not precise, to the point replies.

Imagine one part of a couple asking the other one to go walk the dog. A logical reply would be something like: ”It’s your turn today, honey; I did it yesterday.”

But let’s make that character answer according to her feelings. She would say something like: “Why is it always me who has to walk the dog?” (annoyance) “Always the same old story!” (anger) or “And you want me to pick up the slippers for you too?” (with a slight grin; annoyed amusement)

You can make your dialogue vivid and realistic by letting your characters talk after their feelings, not after logic.

Avoid too “correct” and stilted dialogue.

Stiff Conversation 2

4. Boring. Boring. Boring. Your Dialogue is Just Boring.

Even if all the characters have their unique voices, your dialogue will also have to follow its primary purpose: To entertain!

Maybe you and your characters are just reciting the program of the plot too mechanically. Maybe there are no quirks, no detours, no fun, no suspense.

How can you solve this problem and inject something interesting?

For one, make sure your characters fully show off their personalities. The more they express their thoughts and feelings, the more material you will have to insert interesting bits of “dialogue within the dialogue.”

You can keep your dialogue juicy by introducing little “side topics.” Say the scene is about a guy buying a gun. Within the dialogue between him and the shop assistant, he gets sidetracked and enthusiastically depicts his new pink whirlpool to the assistant.

Remember, small detours can be entertaining, but they have to add something, be it suspense or fun. And they have to stay small and not take over the dialogue.

Avoid dull conversation in your scene.

Wow Your Reader With Intriguing Dialogue

You can often see these four typical mistakes in dialogues. With a little practice and a watchful eye though, you will eliminate them from your writing forever and craft dialogues so thrilling and authentic, your reader will swallow them like cotton candy.

Your characters will take on a life of their own and your audience will be swept away by their struggles and will just have to keep on turning the pages.

Photo Cut

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Write gripping dialogue with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story (contains a to-the-point checklist to test every aspect of your story). Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and on movies. He has lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

So what do you have to say to all of this?

Which character was the most difficult to get to talk for you so far? When your characters open their mouths, is it a pleasant experience? Do they dare to copy each other’s dialogue? Do they have the right to remain silent? Will you use anything they say or do against them in a court of law? If they can’t afford an attorney, will one be appointed to them? Do they have good breath?

I love hearing from you!

Let’s get a dialogue going… ha!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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.

ANNOUNCEMENT!

Making Money with FREE is tomorrow and there is still time to sign up. Our job as authors is tougher than ever, but I have a class to help with the business side of the business. I will be teaching about the most common mistakes writers use with FREE and teach how to use FREE for advantage.

As a BONUS, my friend Jack Patterson who’s sold over 150,000 books in less then four years is going to also teach how to rock a newsletter, how to tame Amazon and all kinds of other author insights into the toughest question we have…. HOW do I sell MORE BOOKS?

All WANA classes are recorded and the recording is free. The class is easy, convenient and from home and if you miss? We gotcha covered with the recording. So I hope to see y’all there!

 

, , , , , , , ,

19 Comments

Writing Career Stuck? Sales Mired? How to Get Your MOJO Back!

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 11.42.26 AM

Last time we all commiserated about feeling stuck. Lately, it’s been really bizarre. I’ve been at this writing thing since long before self-pub, but recently the feeling of author despondency seems to be heavy…everywhere. Maybe it’s the vastness of the internet, the fact that all the old ways and old rules are gone. Sales are stuck. We are stuck. We have this general feeling of anxiety and I do feel it’s worse now than ever.

So no, you were NOT imagining it.

Stuck happens, especially for those who choose to go pro. See, success in anything is not this straight line that shoots at a perfect angle ever upwards. It is fraught with setbacks. Some we can control, some we can’t.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.14.05 AM

But as I said last post, the most critical step is to admit we have a problem lest we give up and OD on brownie batter and Game of Thrones.

What Do We Do?

The next step is to see exactly what kind of problem(s) we are having.

If we don’t stop and assess what precisely might be going sideways, we’re just going to sink ever deeper into despair because the right brain is terrible at planning. The right brain tells us we aren’t selling books because we are a fake, that our thighs are chubby and that ice cream solves all that ails us.

Right brain is a bit of a drama queen.

Typical day as a writer...

Typical day as a writer…

Left brain is better at problem-solving.

What If My Career Is Going Nowhere?

I always like to begin by looking at the actual product for sale. The writing is where we exercise the most control and why waste energy fixing marketing if the product needs help?

Good marketing sells good books faster.

It’s science😛 .

If the product is fine good great, then maybe we need to shift to the marketing end of things and stop editing the magic out of something that is actually good to go.

Do we have a brand? Really. An actual brand? Or are we unfocused? Is our message unclear? Is it failing to resonate? Why? Why aren’t people picking up on what we are putting out?

Perhaps our sales tactics are off. Now, there’s the word that makes almost all writers break out in hives—sales—but before we progress I want you to breathe and I am going to tell you that most people love a good salesperson. These days even more so.

Seriously.

THIS IS NOT AUTHENTIC SALES…

AHHHHHHH!

AHHHHHHH!

Unfortunately, though, this is what too many writers are doing.

You don’t believe me that people love a good salesperson? All right. Think about when you get a really excellent server at a restaurant. Don’t you return time and time again? And ask for that server?

I LOVE shopping at the stores where, if the pants don’t fit, a smiling friendly salesperson appears with the next two sizes so I don’t have to struggle back into clothes and pack up the Spawn to find a bigger pair. Or maybe she even brings the ones that I missed that were ON SALE and cut to fit me better.

*swoons*

Don’t you miss the bookstore where the staff had read every new title and could save you buying a real stinker?

AUTHOR MOJO KILLER—Mass Marketing and the RACE to FREE!

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 10.33.50 AM

In my opinion, mass marketing and well, mass “everything” ruined the art of sales. See, if you look at what a salesperson truly does, it looks absolutely nothing like all this spam crap we’ve seen.

With the advent of mass marketing and mass mailers in the 90s, we began to see the decline of the true salesperson. It became more about businesses flinging out a thousand coupons into the ether and hoping someone bit. It was far cheaper to send out mailers and coupons (and later e-mails) than it was to employ an actual sales staff who went out, in person and connected.

In the 90s and early 00s this shotgun tactic was pretty successful, namely because not everyone was doing it. But then our culture hit a saturation point and the actual structure of the human brain evolved to literally un-see all the crap being flung its way.

The only way (initially) to counter the ineffectiveness of mass mailings became a race to the bottom on PRICE. Who could give away the most stuff and the deepest discounts and the most FREE?

This has happened in publishing and writers are seriously hurting from the over reliance on mass marketing which breeds this unnecessary race to the bottom. But how do we avoid this, especially these days where there’s all this noise?

Refuse to Play By the Rules

BOO-YAH!

BOO-YAH!

There’s a saying, You can’t win if you don’t play. And this is the one a lot of writers bite….then get bitten.

Let me posit this instead.

You can’t lose if you don’t play.

Refuse to play the game by the “given” rules. History has proven time and again that the little guy who wins big refuses to play by the “rules.”

Think of one of the greatest underdog stories in history! David and Goliath. David, the little shepherd boy who killed the giant and saved Israel. On the surface it seems nothing short of a miracle that he won.

But upon closer inspection…

Back in the day, armies had a tradition of pitting their best warriors to combat. Winner took all. This minimized casualties. As the story goes the Philistines put out their best warrior, Goliath and he was the size of a semi. He was heavily armored and his sword was so massive regular men couldn’t lift it let alone wield it.

The Isrealites were all losing their mind. How can we beat this guy? We…are…doomed.

David steps up with some smooth stones from a river bed and puts Goliath down in one shot. Miracle! Perhaps but not totally.

Here’s the thing, David was a slinger. Slingers were projectile warriors (artillery). An experienced slinger could seriously injure or kill a target up to 200 yards and they were crazy accurate (precursor to modern snipers).

Goliath was challenging the Israelites to “single combat” and expected a hand-to-hand fight that relied on strength and armor. David understood he could not lose if he didn’t play. He refused to play Goliath’s game.

Instead, he used speed and maneuverability and hit Goliath between the eyes (only place not protected by armor) with a projectile that had the force of a modern handgun.

In layman’s terms? Goliath didn’t realize he was the first dude who brought a knife to a gunfight.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 11.21.44 AM

What Does This Mean?

First of all, I advise losing the fear of sales because most of what is going on around us (book spam, free stuff, giveaways) is not sales. If we are in a modern world filled with overwhelmed and distracted people? They are going to gravitate to those who authentically connect them to what they want and need (brand built on relationships).

Secondly, we have to ask why we just don’t bring a GUN to the knife fight? If we can’t win this thing doing the same stuff as everyone else? Then how CAN we win?

Good question.

A Handy Checklist To Help

  • Am I spending too much time feeling instead of planning and doing?

  • Have I been really honest about where I need to improve?

  • Have I done everything I can to make my product appealing?

  • Is the writing really strong enough? Have I had enough good feedback to know? (Btw, ten members of a critique group and a handful of reviews might not be giving you the accurate picture you need).

  • If I am querying, do I have a good pitch? Am I shooting myself in the foot because my idea is not solid? Do I have enough feedback/information to repair it on my own?

  • Do I have enough books for sale? Am I resting too much on too little?

  • Am I too slow at plotting?

  • Am I marketing the same way as everyone else? Am I really being fresh or am I bringing a knife to a knife fight?

  • Do I have a brand? Really? Is my name alone a bankable asset?

  • What can I do differently that others are not?

  • Am I spending time in the right ways or even in the correct places?

I know some of this sounds “No, duh, Kristen” but really it isn’t. I edit SO many works where the prose is beautiful, but there is no plot or a weak plot. Or the story is all over. Or it needs some serious cutting. Or the author is new and has crammed what should be a five-book series into one book.

Same in marketing. A lot of big problems can be repaired with simple solutions.

So to get that mojo back, distract right brain with some free candy and sit down with left brain for an adult conversation. Then take heart that sales (real sales) is not the stuff turning people off. It is OKAY to sell your book.

Finally? We DO NOT have to play by the rules we are handed. Stop letting Goliath pick the battle plan!

Yes, I Brought a “Different” Battle Plan

To take this beyond the cheerleading for some practical stuff I am going to tell you about what I have coming up to specifically help you. If you’re cool with my pom-pom waving? Thanks for coming by for just the blog ((BEAR HUG)). See you in the comments😉 .

But for those who need a little more…

Kristen’s Battle Plan

I’m a solutions person and so I’m here to help.

We posited a lot of nagging questions Monday, so I put together ways to answer each of these nagging doubts. For those who follow my blog you know I NEVER do this, but time is of the essence. I’m not going to be able to space classes out like usual so I want to tell you about them now.

My tech guy is going to be taking vacation (slacker) so I won’t be able to offer classes in June and so we are going to barrel through this together and I am offering some seriously awesome stuff to help get your mojo back and get you cooking again!

And most of this costs less than dinner at Chili’s.

#1 Is my writing any good?

Good question.

The first five pages of any book are the best selling tool we have aside from the cover. We get a cool cover, it catches attention and then what is a reader going to do next? Look at sample pages. This is where we hook ’em or ‘lose ’em.

Yesterday, I talked about the question we all have of “Gee, am I any good? Is it that my writing sucks?”

Hard to know, but a good way is to get a pro like me who will be brutally honest with your work. I’m offering my First Five Pages class Saturday, May 14th 3:30-5:30 P.M. EST but I’m sweetening the deal.

Come on, the basic class is $40 and you get TWO HOURS with ME😀 .

Anyone who signs up gets double pages for that level.

Pay for the platinum that offers 20 pages and you get 40. Hey, summer is coming and Spawn will be home from school so take advantage while you can. I now have a PA who can help me make sure edits are returned within 15 business days from the time they are turned in and I seriously have NO idea when my schedule will let up next to do something like this.

I have only done it once before and that was almost a year ago.

Not only do you get the class where I’m going to go over dos and don’ts of hooking a reader (and the recording for free), I’m also offering a way to see if your stuff really is good (and you are imagining things) or maybe it needs more work.

I will give detailed content feedback on your pages. Tell you what to fix and how.

Conversely, if I am all “Yes, and angels where singing while I read!” you know maybe marketing or sales is the problem and you will stop over-editing your stuff.

I’ve also been known to pass that awesome work on to agent friends who love that I do some of the heavy lifting.

#2 Is my plot flawed?

If your plot seems like it is meh or it is falling apart? Take my antagonist class Bullies and Baddies Saturday, May 7th 3:00-5:00 P.M. EST. This is going to answer the BIG questions and the Basic class is $50 for TWO HOURS.

No antagonist? No plot. Weak antagonist? Weak plot.

This class will help make you a master plotter, meaning you can write leaner, meaner faster and cleaner and we all know that compounded sales (more books) is where we start making a good living.

#3 Does my idea stink? HOW is my plot flawed?

I am also rerunning my log-line class Your Story in a Sentence on Friday, May 6th 7:00-8:30 EST and the first ten signups are guaranteed to have their log-line shredded in class. We should be able to tell others (an agent/readers) what our story is about in ONE sentence. If we can’t? Probably a problem. I love this class because it is the best way to diagnose a major problem. This class is only $35.

#4 Is my sales plan (or lack of one) hurting me? Should I do a newsletter?

If you are fairly sure of your product and want other answers, then I highly recommend THIS SATURDAY’S class (3:00-5:00 P.M. EST)  Making Money with FREE. I am team-teaching with Jack Patterson who has sold over 150,000 books in less than four years.

We are going to talk about when and how and where to use free and address why sales might be going nowhere. Also, Jack is a master at the effective newsletter which is largely why I asked him to join me and as always, the recording is FREE.

#5 Do I have a brand? How can I build one?

I have a Branding for Authors class Monday, May 16 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST to help you learn how your name alone can drive sales. Again, only $35. Spend more time writing and less time marketing. This class is all about doing more with less. As always the recording it automatically included.

WHEW!

Thanks for spending time with me and letting me share that and now I love hearing from YOU! Where have you been stuck? Have you been hiding under the covers instead of focusing on a plan? Have you had no idea where to start? Do you think the vastness of the internet is making writers even MORE neurotic?

I love hearing from you!

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

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

, , , , , , , , ,

33 Comments

Author Despair—What To Do When You Feel Like All Is Lost

Image courtesy of Eflon via Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Eflon via Flickr Creative Commons

We have all heard the saying, The truth shall set you free. But what many people may not realize is the truth doesn’t set us free from others. It sets us free from ourselves.

Like our characters, we are often blinded by our own lies and since we aren’t facing the truth and admitting it, we can make no forward progress. Growth, change, and victory are all impossible.

This said, there are some dark places all writers go, but since we are ashamed to feel these things, we rarely fess up to feeling them and so they remain in the dark. Thus we remain in the dark and sink ever deeper.

It reminds me of that scene from The Neverending Story. We can become like Artax the horse—admit you cried TOO😛 .

We sink deeper and deeper and deeper never realizing we’re doing it to ourselves.

What I’d like to do today is to tell you, “You are not alone.” I feel this stuff too.

I’m Not Jealous

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.40.07 AM

If you are taking this writing thing at ALL seriously, you are going to feel jealousy. There is nothing wrong with this. When it is wrong is when we fail to recognize it and inadvertently begin feeding it.

Maybe you’ve been at this writing thing for many years and that newbie you encouraged to attend your writing group landed a sweet book deal her first try. Sure, there can come a point where you are genuinely happy for her, but that will only come after the initial gut punch of Her? Really? Why not me?

Last month I entered the James Patterson contest. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy I did it. I think I have a kickass treatment for my next book. But I do admit, when one of my friends and most passionate followers made the cut and I didn’t? I did NOT feel like yelling SQUEEEE! And throwing her a party at first. There was the beat of….

But…but…but what about meeeeeeee?

Since I’ve been around longer than most, I’ve learned to recognize jealousy when I feel it, take a few moments to experience the emotion…but then move through it. I tackle jealousy pretty much like I tackle everything else.

Head on.

I took the pins out of the voodoo doll I’d crafted in her likeness and then messaged her a truly heartfelt congratulations. And seriously it only took a couple minutes talking with her to become excited for her. I began to question why I was dumb enough to be jealous at all.

***Though word on the street is her writing DOES suck but she worships Satan so he gives her the big breaks😛 .

Yes, some writers will get that break because they have worked very hard and have great talent. We all hope to be that writer (or be that again since often our career rests on many breaks, not just one biggie).

But, we also have to be honest. The writing business is subjective and a lot also relies on timing and luck. We can’t treat it like a pure meritocracy because often it isn’t. Believing that this profession is fair is just going to make us cray-cray.

There is going to be that friend who hit the right algorithm that day and his blog went viral or his books sold a bazillion copies because he happened to write the first ferret romance novel and suddenly there was an international ferret scandal and now racy rodents are trending.

And be happy for him because, hell all of us wouldn’t mind some of that magic tossed our way.

I’m Tired

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.40.20 AM

What’s up? Oh, I’m just tired.

This is a HUGE lie and one that I’ve been guilty of more times than I would like to admit. See, in our culture, often other people don’t really want to hear the truth. So? We lie. Then we lie enough it eventually becomes our truth. It’s not “socially acceptable” to say:

I’m discouraged.

I’m angry.

I’m despairing.

So we say we are “tired.”

All writers hit these sour notes. Trust me. You new writers out there? I get it. I wrote my first novel, thought all I needed was an agent and within the year, month week I’d have a movie deal. Since I had no idea how the industry worked, I was ill-prepared. Oh, I’d heard the stories of authors who’d been rejected for years, but that was not going to be ME.

*hair flip*

In fact, my first conference? I was worried about talking to more than one agent because…

Could we still be friends when I had to choose between them for who would represent my novel?

Yeah, seriously wish I were joking.

When reality came crashing down that I was so dumb I wasn’t even aware HOW dumb I was? It was tough. Looking at that really loooooong road ahead? When I had to face the hard truth that maybe I wasn’t any good. Maybe I wouldn’t make it. Maybe, after all, I simply didn’t have what it took?

It was hard.

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.40.55 AM

If you make it past this newbie phase, you’re likely going to hit The Dip (which is that giant span of suck before our breakthrough).

It is the first book that bombs. It is the royalty check that’s just big enough to supersize a Happy Meal. It’s the blog that is seeming to go nowhere. It’s the first one-star review.

Instead of admitting that we are scared or frustrated or disillusioned?

Well, I have just not been writing because I am really tired.

Of course that is only half of the sentence.

Well, I have just not been writing because I am really tired of not mattering.

Well, I have just not been writing because I am really tired of being stuck.

Well, I have just not been writing because I am really tired of seeing friends outpace me.

And so we sink deeper and deeper.

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 10.27.51 AM

Name It And CLAIM It

Back to where we began. For anything to change, we need to be honest. Maybe we are avoiding going to a workshop because we feel like a failure. We are being unrealistic with how long this process takes and so we feel like we are a hack and fooling ourselves. We might be embarrassed. Or we are jealous.

Maybe we are dragging around chugging caffeine because we are “tired” but the reason 20 cups of coffee hasn’t made a dent is we aren’t tired at all. We’re deeply discouraged.

Until we get honest with what is truly going on? We can’t make a plan to get past what we are failing to even acknowledge.

We have to name it to really feel it so we can then move past it.

In the end? Give yourself permission to be fragile. All this is human and best of all? It’s temporary. It is absolutely OKAY to feel jealous, jaded, discouraged, angry…we just can’t camp there😉 . We ALL feel it. Lately, I seriously misplaced my mojo. I think it is under that pile of laundry I need to do.

*weeps*

What are your thoughts? Have you been in a slump that has just felt like The Swamp of Sadness? ARTAX NO! Is your writing suffering because you can’t focus? Are you in the Why the Hell Do I Try? phase? Have you recently felt sucker punched because a friend or colleague surpassed you? What about meeeeee?

It’s all good. We are friends here. And if you have felt all this stuff and moved through it? What are your tips?

Btw, I have two classes below that are AWESOME for busting past slumps. The antagonist class is fantastic for fixing a WIP that is going nowhere and the business class on how to use FREE? If sales are stuck, check this class out and maybe I can help you jackhammer through that roadblock.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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).

Upcoming Classes!

Back by popular demand! Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Beyond craft and to the business of our business?

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

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

, , , , , , ,

102 Comments

How to Make Boring Story Parts Exciting

Golden Goose

Image by DonkeyHotey/Flickr CC

This is another guest post by blogger and copywriter Alex Limberg. If you have followed my blog in the last couple of months, you have probably come across him, namely because the Stockholm’s Syndrome sets in faster when you drug the candy😀 .

Once again, I’m going to gently nudge you into the direction of his free ebook about “44 Key Questions” to test your story; it will help you make your scenes tight and compelling and detect any story problem you might have. This time, Alex is showing us a very interesting recipe to keep every single part of your story interesting. Take it away, Alex!

***

Uh-oh! It’s showdown time.

In your heart-stopping thriller piece, Tinky the milkman has just found out who poisoned Lady Chatterbee’s canary. Now he is driving to the ash grove for the faceoff in the old mill.

Your scene before and your scene after are sweat-inducing, ear-wringing, eye-popping pieces that keep your audience glued to the page.

But this little scene in between, when Tinky is quietly sitting in his car, motor humming and wheels turning… well, there is just absolutely nothing happening. It’s dull. Sleep-inducing. It would make a dog with rabies put on his pyjamas.

Let’s say you still want it in there. You need a connection piece, you want to slow down the pace a little to ramp it up more effectively later on. Maybe you even want to weave in a bit of backstory, so we better understand where Tinky is coming from.

But how can you do it in a way that doesn’t completely choke off any excitement in your reader?

How do you make a scene that is naturally not very exciting interesting in its own way?

This post will give you a practical roadmap for how to make the in-between sexy. Also, because I know long-winding and unmotivated story parts are often hard to detect for the writer himself, you can here download a free goodie to check your story for superfluous parts and any other imaginable weakness (it uses test questions).

This is how to keep your story fresh and exciting in every scene:

1. If You Can, Trash It

Your first choice should always be to get rid of any in-betweens that don’t advance your plot. To show your protagonist getting out of bed, showering and preparing her breakfast cereals would slow your story down ridiculously, destroy its rhythm and bore the boots off your readers.

There is a storytelling rule that says: “Get into the scene at the latest possible moment and out at the earliest possible moment.” You can observe this rule in meticulous action in screenplays and movies.

Filmmakers in particular can’t afford to bore their audience for even one second. With the ultra-short attention span of today’s music video culture, viewers will just cold-bloodedly switch channels.

However, sometimes you will have your very own reasons to show an additional scene: You may want to show your character in a different light, display her personality or habits or slow down the rhythm on purpose. Maybe you want to give your reader a feeling for passage of time or show social surroundings, working space or landscape. There are a million possible motives.

So should you decide to hang on to your scene, here are a couple of helpful techniques to keep your audience hooked.

Garbage Can

2. Introduce Personality: Make It about Character

Instead of worrying how to fill those pages, see them as an awesome opportunity to breathe more life into your characters!

Look at it this way: In most scenes, your plot carries the burden to advance your story.

But now, in your little in-between scene, your character has a chance to fully take the stage and showcase a brand new side of herself. If the story is about her professional life, make that scene about her private life; if the story is about her bright side, make that scene about her dark side – or the other way around.

You might also use the scene to introduce new relationships we don’t know about yet. New relationships can give a deeper glimpse into your character’s personality and show her in a different light.

Each of us human beings is a complete drama on his own. We are also utterly entertaining in our own ways… Use your pages so your reader gets to know your characters better and your entire work will profit!

3. Introduce Action: Make It about Drama

Better yet, when you get several of us together, the drama is exponentiated. So you could involve several characters in your scene and use it for a mini-plot, a play within the play.

Your mini-plot doesn’t have to be connected to the main plot, nor does it have to be about some big and important theme. Depending on your genre, it could be everyday drama and as mundane as a girl forgetting her handbag on the bus.

The overarching plot plays from beginning to end of the entire novel. In turn, your mini-plot could play from beginning to end of the scene, with a similar structure; for example:

  1. Introduction
  2. Problem arises
  3. First attempt at solution
  4. New twist and problem even worsens; Climax
  5. Problem gets solved; Happy ending

If you want the complete ballad of the forgotten handbag, how about this: Girl cheerfully rides on a bus, thinking of happy days (introduction); while she is waiting for her connecting bus, she realizes she has forgotten her handbag (problem arises); she enters the first bus again, only to discover the bag isn’t there anymore (attempt at solution, problem worsens in climax); she asks the driver in desperation and learns that somebody has found the bag and taken it to a lost property office (problem solved); happily she goes to pick it up (happy end).

Of course, you can also let a character play through the whole sequence solely in his mind. For example, let him worry about horrible outcomes of the main plot. At that point, he won’t even have to interact with anybody to create drama; he doesn’t even have to move or to do anything. Just let a worst-case scenario play out in his head.

If you are bored, just make things more difficult for your characters: A nightly walk through the park is a lot more suspenseful if you are not sure if somebody is following you. If nothing else helps, you can always fall back on conflict to spice up your tale.

Make sure your mini-plot fits the kind of story you are telling and doesn’t overwhelm your main plot. A comedy with the mini-plot of a mad axe murderer can be done, but you have to make sure to hit the right note…

4. Introduce Questions: Make It about Suspense

Suspense is always about questions: Who is the murderer? Will Godzilla eat the city? What secret does Martin hide from Sharon?

Your readers will never get bored as long as there are nagging questions on their minds.

Question Garden

Image by Dennis Brekke/Flickr CC

In your in-between scene, you have two choices to raise a question.

Option one: You could spin a question of the overall plot further. For example, letting your character contemplate if Craig can even be the murderer, because he was on vacation the entire time; letting your readers know that Godzilla has just eaten another city block; hinting at that breathtaking secret of Martin’s.

Option two: Your mini-plot could create suspense by raising a question on its own. In the example above, it would be the question: Will the girl ever get her handbag back?

In the end, dealing with in-between sections is about giving your scenes a life of their own. This, of course, is something you should always do in any scene, so it’s excellent practice.

You are a storyteller, and if you want to be a really good one, know that not only the raisin parts of your story are worth telling. Any part of your story should be worth writing well and making it at least a little bit interesting.

And if you do take the effort to polish every part of your story, it will feel continuous and complete and shine on like a crazy diamond. Your story will engage your reader continuously, draw her in deeply and take her on a rollercoaster ride she will never be able to forget.

Photo, Alex Limberg

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Check how tight your scenes are and much more with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

Thanks, Alex!

Kristen here again.

Now let’s hear it from you: What do you usually do with a connection scene? What happens in your story if nothing happens? Do you sometimes let dull story parts slide? Do you proceed to tell people the cookiemonster ate your exciting version? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if all of our scenes could be as dull as watching water condense?

Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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).

Upcoming Classes!

Back by popular demand! Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Beyond craft and to the business of our business?

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

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

, , , , , , ,

30 Comments

Can’t Keep Up? 7 Brilliant Ways To Finish Your Story

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Pedro Travassos

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Pedro Travassos

Today we have a special treat from Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing. He’s going to give us some ways to tackle one of the biggest problems plaguing writers—the inability to finish what we start.

*gets popcorn*

Take it away, John!

***

Do you live in a world of unfinished stories? Across the year, you’ve jotted scraps here and there, stuck an opening scene beneath a flowerpot, a closing line in a shopping list and a great cameo incident… well, you’ve forgotten where it is now but it was awesome.

Join the Club of Interrupted Scribes

Image via Drew Coffman courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Image via Drew Coffman courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

You’re not alone.

We all know what happened when Coleridge was interrupted, when finishing Kubla Khan, by ‘a person from Porlock’. All that remains of his epic is an unfinished scrap.

More fragments, abandoned by great authors, have been found – centuries later – in laundry baskets, croquet boxes and golf bags than you’d believe. Or so Prof. K. K. Ruthven tells us in Faking Literature (2001). Maybe Shakespeare’s lost play Cardenio will one day be discovered beneath Donald Trump’s hair?

Improbable, yes. But so is Donald Trump.

Lost bits, found by chance, are the history of literature.

Joyce’s Ulysses consists merely of out-takes from other people’s work that he salvaged from the jakes of Dublin pubs. (Read Ulysses and see if you don’t agree.)

Seriously, have you written a dozen fine stories – almost ready to go – that you haven’t quite finished?

Once, that was my fate too. Bits lay everywhere, forlorn. My name was not Homer so I couldn’t rely on future savants piecing them together to create The Iliad.

Do you share my pain? If so, let me share with you my remedy. In fact, I have seven remedies.

Yeoman’s Seven Tested Ways To Get A Story Finished

ONE—Create your own scene hangers.

Image courtesy of Ed Dunens via Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Ed Dunens via Flickr Creative Commons

You know what scene hangers are – and page hangers, chapter hangers and book hangers. (They’re the last scenes in a novel written to cue a sequel.) Hangers are artful lines, scattered here and there, that tease the reader to read on.

But why waste those magic words upon the reader? Write them for yourself.

Take a notepad with several blank pages. Scribble, at the bottom of each page:

‘Little did I know that…’

‘But her wish was not to be granted,’

‘There was a shadow behind the curtain. And it moved.’

‘What would happen now? Tomorrow, he knew, was not going to be an easy day.’

And so on.

Don’t you just want to finish that story? Now it’s easy. Go back and fill in the spaces. Delete those clichéd lines. And, lo, you have a story.

TWO—Devise your own Scrivener program.

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 9.55.59 AM

What’s Scrivener?

If you have to ask, you’re new to story telling. It’s a wondrous program that puts everything you need to complete a story in one convenient place on your computer screen.

Imagine a corkboard on your wall. In one corner, you’ve pinned character descriptions. In another, scene settings. Somewhere else you’ve stuck pictures, plot outlines, dramatic incidents, crumbs of dialogue… Plus links to web resources (research), videos and even music.

Some people do like to play music while they write, I’m told. Maybe Mahler for prose poetry. Rap for crime/suspense. It inspires terse. Jerky. Sentence fragments.

Now imagine that corkboard on your computer. Here’s the link to Scrivener (and, no, I don’t get a commission). Once learnt, it’s wonderful.

Problem is, Scrivener takes time to learn. Its Help manual is too technical for newbies and its built-in word processing program is, compared to Word, primitive.

Solution? Build your own Scrivener using the ‘sticky notes’ utility that may be on your computer right now.

My Windows 8 program lets me put up to 35 sticky notes on my desktop in a choice of six colours. I’ve assigned Green for settings, Pink for characters, Yellow for plot outlines, Blue for web links, and so forth. I can move them around the screen as I wish, to compile a story.

Each of my sticky notes will hold up to 6000 words. Potentially, that’s three whole novels in one place.

Graphics? You can’t put those in sticky notes. (At least, I can’t.) So do a montage of the pictures you need – say, of your key characters and scene settings – and make that montage your screen wallpaper. Every time you turn on the computer, you’ll be hurled into your novel – graphically.

Who needs Scrivener?

THREE—Try the ‘bricolage’ technique.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Linda Eng

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Linda Eng

‘Bricolage’ means a jumble of unrelated things, as in a patchwork quilt. Well, that’s what we’ve got already, haven’t we? Scraps of stories. So how can bricolage help us finish those stories?

Stop scribbling on paper. (Those little bits get lost.) Start writing on file cards.

Why? Cards are durable. You can keep them in your handbag or back pocket, ready to hand for whenever an idea strikes you. As soon as they bulge out of your pocket, toss them on the carpet and play solitaire.

You’ll see a plot take shape before your eyes. All you need do now is write other cards to fill in the gaps.

Just be sure to collate your card pack in the desired order – and hide the pack – before your spouse or other tidy person bustles in to sweep the carpet.

BTW: This idea works. I wrote one of my novels that way. But I had to lock my study door lest my wife fuss in with a broom.

FOUR—Write the END first.

Original Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anurag Agnihotri

Original Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anurag Agnihotri

 This is a variation on the ‘scene hanger’ gambit.

Your closing and opening scenes should be the most powerful in your story, right? The closure sends your reader away happy, intent on buying your next book. The opener gets them, agreably, into the story itself.

So devise a great closing line. Expand it into a paragraph, then a scene. Then write the first paragraph of the story so that, in some way, it reflects the last one.

Instantly, you have a ‘book end’ effect. The story acquires an inner sense of unity. It’s a perceived ‘whole’, synthetic or not.

Take a look at the short stories you admire most. I wager, most of them will echo – in some way – elements of their closing theme in the first paragraph.

Those elements are ‘book ends’.

It’s a snap to finish a story when you know, at the very start, where it’s heading to and coming from.

FIVE—Dictate your story.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

If you’re like me, you pen your first draft on file cards then type it laboriously into Word. That doubles your workload. Why not dictate your draft, from notes, straight into a voice recognition system? Then tidy it up?

You can lie back in your favourite chair with a glass of elderflower lemonade and bark to your willing slave: “Begin!”

I confess I’ve never mastered voice recognition. But I do know that a member of my story coaching program, Writers’ Village Academy, uses Dragon to create her stories. And very good they are.

I also know that Erle Stanley Gardner put out 66,000 words a week, and kept several secretaries on the go, by using a Dictaphone. And the prolific UK author Barbara Cartland would ‘write’ as many as five novels simultaneously by lying in her bath and dictating to her secretary. A willing slave.

Well, we can always dream…

SIX—Use a software program.

"Assistant" not included.

“Assistant” not included.

You’ll find a wealth of clever software programs on the web, many of them free, that will help you organize your work, brainstorm or mind-map. Making every component of a story visual is one step towards finishing the story.

It’s no longer an idea in your head. It’s an object. You can play games with it.

You’ll find a lot of useful programs for writers here. (But please do come back.)

The Top 55 Apps for Writers in 2016

At a pinch, you could even use Excel. Or, if you like a challenge, the internal hyperlink utility in Word. For example, you can write ‘Jim goes to the farm‘ then hyperlink ‘Jim’ and ‘farm’ to their character and setting descriptions elsewhere in the same file (or, if you really like a challenge, on the web).

The problem is, I’ve found, the more you play with software the more you play. And the darn story never does get done.

Keep it simple.

SEVEN—Don’t finish the story at all.

Screen Shot 2013-03-20 at 9.14.12 AM

You wrote those scraps for a reason. Each had its own merits. Could any one of them yield you a flash fiction story if you tidied it up, added a start and finish, and wove in a structure?

Some of the best flash fiction stories have grown out of a simple punchline, anecdote or dialogue snippet.

Just remember the Golden Rule: even a flash fiction story needs structure.

You can read The Ultimate Guide to Writing Very Short Stories here. (But please come back.)

So you’re still haunted by bits of stories (or a bit of a story) floating around your head or home? No problem. Here is your Bonus Tip #8:

Don’t even bother to write them down.

One sign of born story tellers, like us, is that we live in our minds. We tell stories for ourselves. It’s not imperative that anybody else overhears our thoughts, or even buys our stories. If we create them for our own fun alone there’s no compulsion to finish them. Is there?

Worth a thought…

Well, I had intended to write a compelling last line for this post, to finish it conclusively, but on reflection there’s no point. I’ve had my fun.

What about you?

How do you finish the work you’ve started? What tips can you share with other writers? Share them here. And have fun!

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 9.34.50 AM

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is a top-rated Amazon novelist. He judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed in his free 14-part course at Writers’ Village.

Other helpful links:

Dragon

Scrivener

The Top 55 Apps for Writers in 2016

The Ultimate Guide to Writing Very Short Stories

Thank you, John for taking the time to help us out! Remember that comments for guests count double in my monthly contest so tell us about your unfinished bits of genius. Did you ever find a way to bring them to fruition? How did you do it? Did you use one of John’s suggested techniques or something else? Did you find an AH-HA moment today?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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.

Upcoming Classes!

Back by popular demand! Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Beyond craft and to the business of our business?

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

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

, , , , , , , , ,

91 Comments

Three Ways To Add the Sizzle to Fiction That’s Fizzled

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sodanie Chea

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sodanie Chea

I read a TON of fiction no only for pleasure, but for work. I’ve been blessed to help countless writers diagnose what’s going wrong in their fiction. The good news is that Occam’s Razor applies even to fiction that is fizzling…meaning sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one.

Often we think we need to invent a story never told, or create some mind-blowing twist-ending never before witnessed. But, while those are cool things to strive for, they aren’t necessary and can even backfire.

Truth is, there are only so many plots and if we get too weird, then readers have no basis for comparison and it’s such a mental jump that the story won’t resonate. I use my blue steak example.

Steak is wonderful and there are countless creative ways to prepare it, but if we get too weird for the sake of being different, it will make the reader lose her appetite.

BLUE STEAK. But look how CLEVER it is! Really, it's YUMMY.

BLUE STEAK. But look how CLEVER it is! Really, it’s YUMMY.

Twist-endings can have the same effect. Recently, I read a thriller by a mega-author and the book had me positively entranced. The author had created one of the most frightening killers I’d ever seen. I am an avid fan of Discovery ID and read countless true crime works and probably own every profiling book out there. To create a killer that rattled me? Pretty big deal.

So I am inhaling this book and then the ending?

I would have tossed the book across the room, except I was listening to it on my phone and really didn’t want to buy a new phone. The author actually would have had a way better ending had he not tried to be clever. I wasn’t buying the twist and it ticked me off more than a little.

When I think of some of my favorite fiction, I think of what they do well. I dog-ear and color my books. I actively study what writers do well and when a story goes sideways, I go back and try to diagnose what went wrong where so I can learn (and pass this on to you guys).

Thus, today I want to share three simple things you can check for if you have a plot that just seems to be flatter than a week-old Coke.

There MUST Be an Active Goal

Whenever I teach my log-line class, this is one of the things I am looking for when a writer is describing his work. Getting a writer to articulate what her story is about in ONE sentence is highly useful, especially when diagnosing a problem. One of my all-time favorite plotting books is Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Brooks breaks plots into three elements.

In Act One the protagonist is usually in the dark. Something life-altering has happened but the protagonist is kind of swinging blindly or avoiding conflict altogether (Running). Act Two, the protagonist becomes aware there is a problem and begins pushing back (Warrior). Then we have the false victory and darkest moment and then the protagonist undergoes a transformation.

Act Three is when the protagonist transforms. Anyone else would have said, “Screw it” and gone home, but the protagonist presses on to solve the core story problem (Hero).

Often when I see log-lines that involve passive goals like “avoid” or “evade” or “hide” that is only part of the story. There is an incomplete plot. No protagonist can rise to become a hero by avoidance. Any plot that simply involves a character trying to stay away from something is only partway there.

While it is completely okay to begin with a passive goal, the story cannot remain there.

The protagonist must face the life-altering force (antagonist) in order to rise to become a hero. Even in literary fiction, the protagonist must face the existential enemy and come out on top.

For instance, in The Road the enemy is man’s animal nature. When faced with imminent death which will triumph? Humanity or baseness? If the Man and Boy reach the ocean by snacking on other humans, they fail.

Unlike a genre fiction, there is no Big Boss Battle with a terrorist organization, a mad scientist, a serial killer or monster. And yes, in literary fiction the antagonist can be more of an intangible, but that doesn’t mean there is no showdown. There has to be or there is no transformation/triumph and transformation/triumph is the entire point of fiction.

Stakes/Consequences

Image via Dupo-x-y courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Image via Dupo-x-y courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

What will happen if your protagonist fails? The bigger the stakes and the consequences, the better the story. This is true in life and more so in fiction (since fiction is the bouillon of life).

Case in Point

I’m a huge fan of horror. When the remake of Poltergeist came out I couldn’t wait for it to come to video (since I prefer watching movies at home). What really surprised me was that Poltergeist was such a cool story to remake and yet? The movie got terrible reviews. I didn’t read them because I didn’t want to be biased, but two stars?

Ouch.

So I watched the movie and yeah…it sucked. I wasn’t quite certain why so I rented the original Poltergeist to compare. Maybe I was just being biased?

No.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 10.17.48 AM

The problem with the second Poltergeist had to do with the stakes and the consequences. See, in the original, the Freeling family is living the American Dream. They have an amazing house in a new tract home development, a development that offered many luxuries to a more working class section of society.

Steve Freeling is passionate about his development and his enthusiasm shows in his sales numbers. In fact, his bosses are SO impressed that he is offered a prime spot in the next phase of building, on a hill overlooking the development where he currently resides.

Diane Freeling is a stay-at-home mom with fantastic kids and life is not only good, it is simply getting better and better.

Until the poltergeists start disrupting their lives.

The story is so disturbing simply because this is a really likable family living a dream that becomes a nightmare. When they find out their home is built on a cemetery and no one bothered moving the bodies, it is a profound violation.

Contrast this with the new-and-not-so-improved remake.

The Griffin family isn’t living a dream at all. Eric Griffin was laid off. He’s desperate and erratic. They didn’t buy a dream home, they bought the only house they could afford because they’re broke and all their credit cards are maxed out. Eric and Amy (unlike the Freelings) are already teetering on divorce in the beginning of the story.

Thus, what the poltergeists disrupt was already cracked and failing anyway. Since there was no ideal marriage, perfect family and American Dream on the line?

Meh.

To find out the crappy house you moved into only because you could afford it is built on an old cemetery is not nearly as disruptive as realizing all your hopes, dreams and future are tainted.

Plot Stakes and Personal Stakes Are Bound Together

Also remember that there are two lines of stakes—plot and character. Both act as cogs, one turning the other. The protagonist should be arcing and that personal arc is critical for confronting the problem and winning.

In Winter’s Bone there is the land that is at stake, but Rhee is also risking her personal identity. In the beginning, she is loyal to the patriarchal family structure. She keeps her head down and avoids confrontation. But the plot problem puts her in the crosshairs of choosing the larger family structure with the nuclear family. She must defy the unwritten laws of the hillbilly culture in order to save her mother and siblings.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 10.18.42 AM

She is not only gambling her own life to find what happened to her father, she is risking the lives of her own immediate family. Her very self-identity and where she fits is on the line.

Urgency

Stakes and consequences are ultimately tethered to urgency. In genre fiction, this is a bit more straight-forward. In The Black Echo Harry Bosch must uncover who killed tunnel rat and Vietnam buddy Meadows before the second heist is completed and the killers disappear forever.

In Winter’s Bone, Ree Dolly must find proof her father is dead before the bondsman takes the family land and renders them all homeless.

Even if the antagonist is not so flesh-and-blood (I.e. addiction) there needs to be some kind of a ticking clock. The protagonist doesn’t just have forever to get sober. There is some outside pressure that gives a timeline and if the protagonist doesn’t meet the timeline, she fails.

The shorter the timeline, the greater the tension. If loan sharks tell you you have the next ten years to come up with $10,000 that sucks, but is doable. But what if they give you three days?

Combine the Three for MAX Effect

Image courtesy of Iwan Gabovich via Flickr Creative Commons.

Image courtesy of Iwan Gabovich via Flickr Creative Commons.

Notice how all three of these elements dovetail into one another. In order to have stakes or a timeline, there has to be an ACTIVE goal. Then once you find that active goal, make the stakes as high as you can…then try harder. Remember that risk and reward are joined at the hip.

The more the reader is aware of what is at stake, the tighter we can wind the tension. Remember that fiction is the path of greatest resistance.

If the reader knows that Mount Doom is the destination and that Middle Earth will be plunged into darkness and despair if the Ring of Power is not destroyed…then every misstep, every mistake, every setback is enough to shred our nerves.

Additionally when you (the writer) are aware of the ultimate goal and the stakes and consequences, then it is far easier for you to generate dramatic tension instead of simply inserting bad situations.

Go over your plot and if it isn’t where you want it to be, try using these three elements as a checklist. Is the goal active? Do you only have a partially formed plot? Are the stakes high enough? Could they be bigger? Can you up the timeline and make the protagonist (and the reader) sweat?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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.

Upcoming Classes!

Back by popular demand! Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Beyond craft and to the business of our business?

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

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

, , , , , , , ,

41 Comments

Real Writers Don’t Self-Publish—Part 2

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

All righty, so last time in Real Writers Don’t Self-Publish we talked about a lot of myths that surround publishing in general and I promised to delve deeper into this subject. I hope, at the very least, y’all walked away with one core understanding about traditional publishing.

Traditional publishing measures one thing and one thing only…commercial viability.

Granted, this often means the author is professional and the writing is outstanding…but that’s isn’t always the case. Some works are published for the sole reason that they will sell a certain amount of copies (refer to Snookie’s memoir). Additionally some of the greatest works of our time are not coming to market (initially) through legacy presses (refer to The Martian).

But here’s the deal. While we certainly don’t have to be leggy-pressed to be “real” writers, self-publishing is no panacea.

The hard truth is there is a lot of junk being published. There are too many people who are so in love with the idea of calling themselves “published authors” that they take shortcuts, and I feel this is likely what irritates many professionals (especially since what this group lacks in skill and talent they tend to more than make up for in mass marketing).

But, the dangerous idea comes when we cut off our nose to spite our face.

We are SO scared that we are going to get lumped in with the folks who, frankly, should just increase processing speed by deleting Word off their hard drives, that we sit around believing we aren’t any good unless the Legacy Gods reach down from Olympus New York and give us their blessing.

NY is not going to give you (or me) a writing career. We have to hustle. Self-publishing actually has a lot of benefits not only for writers, but for traditional publishers as well.

Really, I Mean It

In my post The Ugly Truth About Publishing I explained how the consignment model worked and how mega-stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble obliterated the bookstore landscape. We discussed the terrible consequences writers have endured because of these companies’ greed.

Borders is now a memory and, trust me, Barnes and Noble isn’t far behind. They’re succumbing to the effects of their own avarice. Having a megastore on every corner was a sound business model…until everyone began shopping on-line.

If Barnes & Noble survives (which I highly doubt because, to date, they have not listened to my advice to SAVE them😛 ) they aren’t going to offer writers all that much of an advantage. These days, their stores are few and far between meaning there are fewer point-of-sales locations than ever.

The remaining stores resemble a department store more than a bookstore. They look like a Starbucks, a Hallmark, a Radio Shack, a Tower records, a Blockbuster and a Toys-R-Us had a baby…oh and there are some books, too.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 9.35.27 AM

It’s almost an ironic homage to all stores/industries first plundered by the megastore.

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. 

Btw, that was WAY cooler before Amazon started doing it to them. Anyway…

This transition has a huge impact on all authors because bookstores no longer are the best place for discoverability. Gone are the days where most readers found what they wanted to read by browsing a bookstore. Amazon has done a stellar job of spoiling us and training us to rely on algorithms to help us choose.

People who bought this, also bought THIS.

This means the remaining points of distribution—Walmart, Costco, Sam’s, airport bookstores, drug stores and grocery stores—are the only common points of sale and they only carry a scarce fraction of available titles (and those are almost always established brands guaranteed to sell—you know, “real” writers😛 ).

The biggest advantage legacy press had was distribution, and in a world not yet shopping on-line? That used to be a big deal. Now?

For the first-time novelist or the novelist who’s yet to be a big brand? Not the big deal it used to be simply because shelf space is finite (and only for a short time) and brick-and-mortar stores are going under and the new brick-and-mortars are owned by The Borg Amazon.

The remaining stores (the few indie bookstores that survived) are generally very small, which means limited inventory. By the time we subtract the classics which will always be a staple and the mega-authors who are guaranteed to sell? *cough Stephen King* 

We don’t have a lot of space left for anyone else.

What Does This Mean?

Image via Bill_Owen Flickr Creative Commons

Image via Bill_Owen Flickr Creative Commons

In my opinion, the author career path is evolving. Traditional’s ability to distribute is still a pretty big deal, but due to market changes, NY can now be far smarter/surgical about how they choose. They need to be picky, especially now when shelf space is more limited than ever.

In the old days, a publisher took on a huge risk hoping a work would resonate with audiences and sell.

Now? They really don’t need to. They can simply look to what is doing well in the indie world then come in and help develop that work/author on the next level.

Try to go through an airport without seeing The Martian on a newsstand.

I feel this new trend also allows us to gain a greater diversity of works. Before we could get realtime feedback what audiences were loving, legacy presses were forced into a lot of guess work. They would spot a trend (Twilight) and then ride that trend until the sparkly vampire was beaten to death. Now? They can capitalize on what I am calling The Dark Horse Effect.

What is The Dark Horse Effect?

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Pedro Ribiero Simoes

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Pedro Ribiero Simoes

The dark horse is the outlier no one saw coming. It’s the candidate or competitor about whom little is known but unexpectedly wins. Instead of NY trying to create lighting in a bottle, now they just have to catch it.

It is impossible for NY to capitalize on the dark horse author without self-publishing. Why? Because by definition a dark horse is no one anyone expects to win, and last I checked? NY wasn’t into that.

Self-published/indie authors have much more freedom to experiment with writing that would have been patently rejected ten years ago. I know I keep mentioning The Martian but it is a stellar example because it breaks all the rules.

Too Much Science

Self-published book and now a major motion picture. BOO-YAH!

Self-published book and now a major motion picture. BOO-YAH!

First of all, I’ve read the book and it is very science heavy. I could see an agent going cross-eyed and telling Weir to cut all the talk about chemistry, that audiences would be bored. Why? Because usually that is great advice.

But had Weir (in a parallel universe) sought after approval from the Legacy Gods, they very likely would have given advice that wrecked the exact reason this book is so awesome.

Content Published on a Blog is No Good for Publication

For years (and even today) we will hear agents say that any fiction we publish on our blog is no good and not worthy of publication. The Martian, however, shows this is not always the case.

Weir was originally a programmer who left AOL and decided to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a writer…but failed. He couldn’t get an agent, let alone a publisher. So he then left writing and returned to programming, but then decided he would still write his story and offer it on his personal blog where anyone could read it for free.

Initially, his story flopped, but he kept at it fine-tuning and doing more research while honing his writing skills.

It paid off. BIG.

Eventually, word of the story spread and readers started requesting an e-version (the PDF was too hard to download) so Weir uploaded it into Kindle and sold it for .99. Within a few months The Martian rocketed to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list and an agent contacted him.

Soon, Random House called and wanted to make it into a hardcover. Within days, Hollywood called and asked for movie rights. Weir scored a book deal and a movie deal in the same week.

Crowd-Sourcing is Bad

I would imagine that many within Legacy Land would have broken out in hives at the thought of a book being written using crowd-sourcing. But that is precisely why The Martian ended up being so successful.

According to Business Insider:

“Chemists actually pointed out some problems in early drafts,” Weir said. He was able to go back and correct some of the chemistry that’s crucial for Watney’s survival.

Fans of the work were eager to be part of the collaborative process, even if it simply meant helping out with the facts. The writer of that Guardian article blasting self-publishing was adamant that “real” writers possess the decency to make mistakes in private.

But Weir wasn’t afraid to get it wrong in public…and it paid off BIG TIME.

Not everyone has the rhino skin to be corrected publicly, but if we do? We grow up way faster.

Breaking Making the Rules

What all this means is that a work that breaks all the “rules” for what NY might have been looking for in a query letter goes out the window the second they are able to see what readers really want…in sales figures.

NY didn’t have to guess that a science-heavy-crowd-sourced-geek-fest previously offered for free “might” be a winner. They could see it for themselves.

What happens to "rules" when a work is profitable.

What happens to Legacy Press “Rules” when a work is profitable.

I’m also happy Weir didn’t care about being a “real” writer.

As much as self-publishing gets flack, it’s allowing legacy publishers to reap high profits in a world where that’s harder and harder to do. It’s removing much of the guess work out of what readers like and want which helps NY’s bottom line.

It’s also freeing up writers to do what we do best…get creative. We can experiment. Try new things. Adjust, adapt, grow and mature instead of slaving away on one draft for a decade hoping someone in NY will notice.

Additionally, successes like Weir’s prove that a writer can create a platform of hardcore fans before the work is ever published. The single greatest reason authors fail to ever make a living is they can’t escape the gravitational pull of The Black Hole of Obscurity. Now? We can.

The Martian wasn’t released into a vacuum (*bada bump snare*), rather Weir created a core group of die hard fans using…his blog. There was no high-priced marketing campaign or promotion (which doesn’t work as well as writers believe). Rather, it began as a small grassroots fandom that grew roots and spread exploded.

No ads, no algorithmic alchemy, no giveaways, no contests, no relentless blog tours, no slaving away on social media instead of writing. Hmmm. Wonder if he read my book Rise of the Machines? 😛 #heywhynot

Suffice all this to say that this notion that we are only a “real” writer if we publish a certain way is ridiculous. But, we find what fits for us and our work. We try things, we get creative and who knows?

We might just be the next dark horse😉 .

Are you ready for a perfect storm?

What are your thoughts? Personally, I love this new renaissance and it always thrills me to see how creative you guys can be. I’m also a helpless pawn on Amazon—the crack-meth-heroin dealer of books. I am now listening to three audiobooks, reading one novel and another novella on my Kindle. Yes, I am ADD but I do finish😛 #donotjudgeme

I am also completely spoiled that when I find an author I love? I can buy that writer’s entire backlist…probably far too easily.

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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.

March’s WINNER: DK WALKER! Please send your 5000 word WORD document (New Times Roman and one-inch margins double-spaced) to kristen at wana intl dot com and CONGRATULATIONS!

Before we go, I want to give you a heads up especially if you are thinking on attending a conference.

I’m holding my ever-popular Your Story in a Sentence class. Can you tell what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t? There might be a huge plot problem. This also helps if you are ever going to query or pitch an agent. The first ten signups get their log-line shredded by MOI for FREE.

Also speaking of FREE, I’d like to mention again the new class I am offering!

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

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

, , , , , , , , ,

67 Comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 53,172 other followers

%d bloggers like this: