Description—Writer Crack & Finding the Write Balance

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Description. Ah the crack for most writers. Many of us never met a modifier we did not love. Forget a BLUE sky. Why would you have a BLUE sky when you could have a cerulean sky?

*chops up line of metaphors with a razor and snorts*

Granted, there is also the other side of the writer coin; those who never use description or very sparse description.

Also known as…freaks.

I am KIDDING!

….kind of.

But even if you don’t use a lot of 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. This doesn’t absolve y’all completely though. If you use very little description, then it is more important than EVER to use the right description.

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, the blunt truth is it is almost impossible to tell a story with NO description. That is hard on the reader. She needs some kind of grounding. So, whether you use a little or you lay it on heavier than a Texan with hairspray? These tips will help you be a master at description…

Avoid “Police Sketch” Description 

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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! And REMEMBER TO SIGN UP TO HANG OUT AND LEARN FROM HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER JOEL EISENBERG! Details are below. This is EIGHT hours with one of the hottest producers in Hollywood teaching everything from craft to how to SELL what we write! Recordings are included with your purchase for FREE!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, 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).

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg’s Master’s Series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR (Includes all classes listed below) Normally $400 but at W.A.N.A. ONLY $199 to learn from Joel IN YOUR HOME.

OR, if it works better, purchase Joel’s classes individually…

Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights $65 February 21st, 2107

How to Sell to Your Niche Market $65 February 28th, 2017

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU $65 March 7th, 2017

Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights $65 March 14th, 2017

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 February 23rd, 2017

Plotting for Dummies $35 February 17th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 March 20th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character $35 February 24th, 2017

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages $40 March 18th, 2017

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

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18 Comments

Failure, Betrayal & Setbacks—Sometimes the Only Way Out is THROUGH

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Setbacks. We all have them and, strangely, they like to cluster together and dog pile us at once. The trick to setbacks is to adjust our perspective of what happened and use them to to make us stronger, wiser and grittier.

You might not believe me, but instant success is not always good for us. There is something about the process of learning and doing and failing and starting again and again even when we want to give up that is healthy. In fact it is vital for any kind of long-term achievement.

I know because I’ve encountered my share of people who were promoted too soon, beyond the scope of their abilities and far past the strength of their character. And it ended badly every…single…time.

Growth is a Process

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All human growth is a process. It has steps. We skip steps at our own peril. Everything we are doing is training for something bigger. If we get the promotion too soon? We are going to be ill-prepared for the dream.

And this is what I want you guys to keep in mind when you face setbacks.

There are all kinds of stories of folks who won the lottery who then ended up bankrupt. Stories of athletes or musicians or actors who got promoted too fast too soon before their skills and character could develop. We even have writers who by some fluke, saw vast success with a book only to never be able to duplicate that lightning in a bottle.

Don’t get me wrong, this is sort of like the whole “Money can’t buy happiness” line. I sure would love my chance to test that theory 😉 . And instant success? Would love me some of THAT. But since instant fame and fortune are not the norm, and since I assume most of you have no desire to be flash-in-the-pan-successes…

We must learn GRIT.

Today I want to talk about the three most common types of setbacks and what they can teach us if we are open to the lesson.

Setback #1—The Judas Kiss

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E tu, Brute?

I’m pretty sure anyone who’s lived longer than a few years has been through a betrayal. And not just any betrayal. The one you never saw coming.

Writers are emotional creatures. Our art springs from our heart and if our heart just got rammed through a Vit-A-Mix? It’s really hard to focus. Maybe it was a writing partner who bailed halfway through the novel you were co-authoring together. Maybe someone in your personal life took major advantage of you and you’re reeling from it. Maybe you got majorly screwed over at work.

Thing is? It happens. And it is never ever pretty.

I’ve been through my fair share of betrayals, but guess what? We can cry and whine and feel sorry for ourselves or we can use it. I just absolutely love the song “Fighter” by Christina Aguilara regarding betrayal:

‘Cause it makes me that much stronger
Makes me work a little bit harder
It makes me that much wiser
So thanks for making me a fighter
Made me learn a little bit faster
Made my skin a little bit thicker
Makes me that much smarter
So thanks for making me a fighter

Humans are flawed. Many come with baggage (and not just carry-on). The only way to avoid ever being hurt is to isolate ourselves, but then we are deprived of the many wonderful people out there who can and will make excellent friends and partners.

The same fire that will boil out the users is the same fire that will also reveal the gold around us.

If I hadn’t been through four other crappy writing partners who totally flaked? I would never have found my current gem, Cait.

So yeah, just expect that knife in the back. As you get older and wiser it does happen less frequently and hopefully we will get to a point it never happens. But the blunt truth is risk and reward are related and so it can still happen to the wisest among us.

Just expect it, plan for it and learn to roll with it.

Setback #2—You Just Aren’t Ready

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Most of us have been there as writers. We have worked and worked and edited and polished and we think THIS! THIS is the book that will make it…only to realize we still have no idea what the hell we are doing.

Before the digital age, becoming published was a very slow, private, and painful process. Most aspiring writers remained just that.

Aspiring.

The process of querying and being rejected and rejected and rejected…and rejected again weeded out those who were not truly committed. It forced us to get better, to go to conferences, to take classes and try again and again.

Thus, by the time we actually were published (if we made it that far) the book was actually pretty decent. Granted there is no accounting for taste (so I am not claiming everything NY published was better than unicorn tears), but when we compare the books published 15 years ago against this modern era where publishing is instant and no gatekeepers are required?

Vastly different quality.

And before anyone shouts me down, I am an indie. I love many indie books and think some of the best writers of our time are not traditionally published. But we ALL have seen the books that probably should have had more work before being offered for sale 😉 .

Here’s the deal. Some writers still are not ready even once “published.” Maybe we need to write more books to become better storytellers. Maybe we write great books but we just do not have a platform/brand that can drive sales.

Hey, my first book We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media was an excellent book. It was groundbreaking and desperately needed. But, my first royalty check was good for a dinner at Chili’s. I didn’t have a solid platform yet. I hadn’t built my brand enough.

In short? I wasn’t ready. And the reason I mention this is, what if I had gotten discouraged and given up? What if I hadn’t just faced this setback for what it was? I needed to grow.

Sometimes we need outside help to see if we are ready and where and how to grow. My mentors did it for me and now I pay it forward to you guys.

This is why I am offering my favorite class Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages. Instead of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, sometimes those outside professional eyes can help us work smarter, not harder. I am offering two upgrades where you get me ripping through your pages to help you get better. I am a master at taking out little darlings 😉 …

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Setback #3—Burning Bridges

Ah, the burning bridges

Now there are two types of burning bridge situations. In one? We hold the box of matches. Maybe this is when we decided to quit the day job to write full time. We are in control of said bridge burning.

But then there is the other scenario.

This is where you go over the bridge to maybe pick up some nibbles for the family and stretch your legs…and you come back to your bridge ablaze with no way home.

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I’ve been here, too. This might be the job loss you weren’t expecting, or a death or an illness. In my case, I was misdiagnosed with epilepsy thereby ending my career in corporate sales. I had no choice but to sink or swim. Only after I’d lost everything was I willing to dare to pursue my childhood dream.

I mean, why not? I had nothing left to lose.

I would love to say I was always that evolved when I faced this, but I wasn’t. I spent a year crying and in depression that I was a failure. Bemoaning my lost career and whining so much I couldn’t even stand myself.

It wasn’t until I quit crying over my burned bridge that I could harness the freedom it gave me. I had no way back and nothing left to lose. It made me much braver than I ever would have been with some kind of a safety net in place.

And trust me, this is probably THE most terrifying of all the setbacks, but we have to make a choice. There is no un-burning the bridge, so the only thing we can control is our attitude. So cry, call a prayer hotline, gripe in my comments and get it all out…then dig in. Sometimes the only way out is through.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever had a betrayal SO bad you thought you wouldn’t make it? Did it make you better? What did you learn. Do you struggle with knowing if you are ready? Have you ever attempted something too soon? What did you learn? Have you ever had a bridge blow up on you? I want to hear your stories!

And remember next week at W.A.N.A., we are starting that Master’s Class series with Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg so make sure to get your spot!

I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, 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).

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg’s Master’s Series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR (Includes all classes listed below) Normally $400 but at W.A.N.A. ONLY $199 to learn from Joel IN YOUR HOME.

OR, if it works better, purchase Joel’s classes individually…

Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights $65 February 21st, 2107

How to Sell to Your Niche Market $65 February 28th, 2017

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU $65 March 7th, 2017

Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights $65 March 14th, 2017

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 February 23rd, 2017

Plotting for Dummies $35 February 17th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 March 20th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character $35 February 24th, 2017

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages $40 March 18th, 2017

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

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26 Comments

YOU’RE TOO SMART TO GO DOWN STUPID

Image courtesy of Eflon via Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Eflon via Flickr Creative Commons

Today, we welcome back author and Hollywood producer Joel Eisenberg for the kick in the pants ALL of us need. I have to admit, yesterday was an unbelievably bad day and Joel sent this guest post in early. In the midst of the flaming wreckage of my day, I didn’t get a chance to read the post until this morning and man, did I ever need this message.

We all do. Every day. Tattooed backwards on our foreheads so we can read it when we look in the mirror.

Okay, maybe that is a tad too far.

….just a tad.

But read on! And as always, thank YOU for being here and THANK YOU JOEL for being so generous to all of us.

***

“You’ve worked too hard and you’re too smart to go down stupid!”

– a loved one in 2001, when I was discussing giving up on my dreams.

You can have it all. Really, you can. To get there, though, requires all of the clichés: sacrifice, hard work, persistence, yada yada yada.

It’s like this: There is no roadmap. Period. End of story. And yet, getting published or being produced as a writer is not an impossible dream. And therein lies the rub.

Anyone who says they have discovered the roadmap is, frankly, deluded or a liar. There is no roadmap. Both the publishing business and the film or TV business is the wild west. There are no rules. Yeah there are books. Take a cursory look on amazon, or your local bookstore, and you will find dozens of volumes devoted to making it in your specific industry.

But, you may ask, if I’m calling these efforts out, and yet I’m hosting a Kristen Lamb Masterclass myself – and years ago having written and self-published a book about surviving day jobs en route to the attainment of one’s creative goals – then wouldn’t I be a master hypocrite?

Read on, and make that determination on your own.

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The greatest single mistake made by these sometimes-well-intentioned efforts is this: They assume everyone has the same path in life and they espouse their “rules” from there.

There’s a word for such assumptions in my native Brooklyn. You’ve heard it from me before. The word is … “BULLSHIT.”

Some aspiring writers have children to feed. Some are in school. Some have family responsibilities such as taking care of an elderly parent.

Some are lazy.

Regardless, no one person has the same path. You can only work with what you have. Now, that said, John Grisham spent the majority of his hours daily cultivating his legal career, while writing in whatever spare time he had. And then “The Firm” happened …

You will hear these stories over and again, about people succeeding against all odds. But, you must consider: “Who is the odds maker?”

Make no mistake. It’s you. Sometimes, we are our own worst enemies.

If you take care of your daily responsibilities, even if you write one page a day … over the course of a year, or less, you just may have a final draft of a book. Or an award-winning screenplay. So many others have done the same. Those Nike commercials are spot on: “Just Do It!”

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We live in 2017. Take advantage. Years ago, one was asked to send a self-addressed stamped envelope to a publisher or production company, containing your query or bound volume of your latest masterwork. Today, most of this is done by email.

But, what is more important is you can easily google lists of publishers or production companies who will read unsolicited manuscripts. Such listings will also explain how best to query your specific target. Frequently, you don’t even need an agent.

Which brings me to the bane of the writer’s existence: The business of writing. In my experience, having spoken to tens of thousands of writers throughout the country for several years, and hosting multi-media networking events at Paramount Studios, Warner Brothers Studios, Sunset-Gower Studios and others for the better part of a decade – one thing is constant.

That is…

Once a creative person takes care of, what would in our case be the writing of the material, many are lost when it comes to how to sell the material.

This is perhaps the biggest reason why I am hosting a Master Class for Kristen. I’ve been in the trenches. I’m accessible and not at all foreign to being broke, having time issues and so on.

When I became truly desperate is when I succeeded.

You don’t have to become desperate. I did all that work already. My answer to the above quandary is simple:

You have to learn to sell yourself first.

Join us and we’ll share with you specific strategies to work with what you have as an advantage to maximize your results. Remember, if there really was a magic bullet to all this, we’d all be doing the same thing and achieving the same results.

That’s not even science fiction.

That’s foolishness.

And you’re too smart to go down stupid …

***

What are your thoughts? Your stories? Your struggles? Joel and I are here in the comments so let’s TALK! And Joel and I have been where a lot of you are. It is why we have dedicated our lives to serving you and teaching you and making you better, so sign up for a class or five 😀 . We did the heavy lifting for you, so let us help you!

I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, 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).

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg’s Master’s Series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR (Includes all classes listed below) Normally $400 but at W.A.N.A. ONLY $199 to learn from Joel IN YOUR HOME.

OR, if it works better, purchase Joel’s classes individually…

Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights $65 February 21st, 2107

How to Sell to Your Niche Market $65 February 28th, 2017

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU $65 March 7th, 2017

Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights $65 March 14th, 2017

 

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 February 23rd, 2017

When your Name Alone Can SELL—Branding for Authors $35 February 10th, 2017

Social Media for Authors $55 February 11th, 2017

Plotting for Dummies $35 February 17th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 March 20th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character $35 February 24th, 2017

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

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19 Comments

Good Things Happen to Those Who Hustle—Getting PAID to Write

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I know most of you reading this blog have the eventual goal of becoming professional authors who work full-time doing what they love. One thing that vexes me about our industry is everyone is afraid to talk about money, but money makes the world go round. It’s almost as if it’s dirty to want to actually be paid to write.

Which is just B.S.

What we do is highly valuable. Not everyone can do what we do. Think about most people regarding writing.

My class requires a ten-page essay.

OMG! Writing is hard!

I am assigning a twenty page research paper.

Writing is hard!

Write a short story.

Ugh, writing is hard!

Draft a resume and cover letter.

I hate writing. Writing is hard!

“I’m a novelist.”

Really? That’s a job? Writing is easy.

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Thing is, we all need to eat and pay the power bill. Sure, the goal is one day the novels will be bringing in most of our income, but that is just the tip of what is available to those of us with a knack for words.

Open Your Mind

Too many people, when they hear the word “writer” automatically default to ONE vision of writers. If we are not J.K. Rowling then clearly we spend our days writing bad poetry at Starbucks while begging for loose change.

*rolls eyes*

Years ago, my church was offering instruction on financial planning so they had the most successful members of the congregation come in to instruct how to save, invest, etc.

One of the elders happened to be a stock broker and when I told him I wanted to be a novelist, he all but laughed in my face. He told me I needed a “real” job, that writing was a nice hobby but that I had “better odds of being hit by lightning than making any money at it.”

Once the urge to kill had passed, I said, “Really? So I guess all of this reading material I see here in your office magically appeared. Writers didn’t do that.” *points to bookshelves as tall as the ceiling*

“Well, uh…”

“And you like movies. Obviously no one wrote those. Producers just hired a bunch of actors to improv the entire thing, right?”

“No, but…”

“And last I checked, you have to navigate the various fields of the software you use. So those instructions just evolved over millions of years of letters rubbing together and eventually growing legs. Web sites don’t have words, ads are all cat pictures and billboards use sign language. Is that what you’re saying?”

Needless to say, he was an idiot. I just pointed it out because he apparently hadn’t noticed.

He also lacked imagination and must have not realized that technical writers like me were paid $45 an hour. Not a bad meantime job.

I know that many of you want to be novelists and that is a fantastic goal and one that I share. But there are a lot of other venues that need writers so when we free up what we think of when we hear “writer” that is going to give us a major advantage.

There Are OTHER Forms of PAID Writing

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Once I came to grips with the fact that my first novel, my 187,000 word thriller-suspense-YA-historical-inspirational-comedy was not going to launch me immediately to fame and fortune, I had to make another plan. I was going to need time to build my skills as an author and storyteller. But I still wanted to call myself a professional writer…and eat.

What did I do?

I taught myself how to do technical writing. Now trust me, there is nothing remotely sexy about writing software instructions, company manuals, HR training modules, or descriptions for on-line merchandise. But these jobs are in demand and for those who learn to do this well? The pay can be seriously sweet.

Additionally a lot of the work is from home or even on short-term contract. This means you don’t have to stick with the same company once the contract is up (though if we do a great job, often they will keep offering more contracts because good technical writers who are NOT flakes are about as rare as unicorn tears).

In fact, once companies realize you are good at what you do and meet or exceed deadlines? Word spreads. Eventually I had to turn down jobs because there was only so much of me to go around. In fact one time a hiring manager called me and I was so loaded with work I was only half paying attention to the introduction on the phone. I had no intention of taking yet another contract, but indulged the call anyway.

Manager: (Snooty interviewing voice) We got a recommendation for you via X Company. Why should we hire you to write our manuals?

Me: Because I’m good.

Manager: Why’s that?

Me: I insert random steamy love scenes. No one expects that in a training manual. Like they think, “Oh I’m here to learn about avionics and end up wanting to know if Fabio and Francesca ever hook up!” Gotta have SOME way to make engineers pay attention and actually READ the damn things.

I was just being goofball me and blowing off the job, but the manager? Dies laughing and says, “You’re hired!” It turned out to be a multi-billion-dollar defense company and the hiring manager so loved my confidence and humor she was determined to hire me away. That or maybe she thought I was being serious.

Feed the NEED

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All businesses need copy. Most business is done on the Internet and all those words don’t spontaneously appear out of the ether. Obviously the better and more specialized our skill sets? The higher the pay. If you can learn the various forms of software required AND you’re a clean concise writer? Great formula for success because BOTH those skills are rare indeed.

Many writers might have great form, but lack analytical abilities and software know-how, so they aren’t going to be considered. They simply don’t have the skill set for the job. Often those who DO have analytical ability and software knowhow are programmers and engineers (NOT writers).

There’s a good reason stereo instructions make your brains bleed.

In fact, that was the very weakness that I worked to my advantage. It’s how I landed a lot of my work. The interviewer would ask, “Why should we hire you?” My response? “I speak fluent engineer and can translate.”

SOLD!

If you are interested in this type of work, do some recon first. Go search for these jobs on the internet and see which ones appeal to you. Then make notes regarding what employers are looking for and learn those skills.

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When I was doing this, the program Visio was used a lot. So, I downloaded the 30 Day Free Trial and used Microsoft’s on-line tutorials to teach myself. It was win-win. If I was not able to learn the program? I just wouldn’t buy the software and would try something else. But if I did learn it? I might not even have to buy it if I was working on a company computer.

What could it hurt? I was only out time and maybe a few brain cells.

Not everyone can do this, but a lot of you can and you might not have realized that weird ability to teach yourself to crochet or build above-ground gardens using YouTube might just pay off.

This is an excellent way to keep income in your pipeline while you’re working on being the next J.K. Rowling. Because last I checked, she isn’t exactly starving, either.

Hollywood

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I love bringing mentors to you guys because they expand our worldview. My friend, Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg (here last time), has been hammering lately on how desperate the entertainment industry is for writers. There are countless channels all streaming entertainment and this industry is on the hunt more than ever for something new and fresh. They need solid, talented, dependable writers who can help them keep up with consumer demand.

It is a HUGE reason I pestered him to come teach for me. We just don’t know what we don’t know and sometimes getting that toe in the door is the break we need. Joel is going to explore all kinds of other ways to create revenue using speaking, blogging, film and harnessing your work for rights you might not even known you could use let alone HOW to.

Blogging

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One of the reasons I love for writers to blog is if you get any good at it, you are creating revenue streams. Not only is blogging the most stable form of social media, it is the easiest form of social media to monetize. So we can build a fantastic platform, reach out and cultivate an audience for our novels and make money doing it.

This is called working smarter, not harder. I go into how to do this in MY upcoming class Blogging for Authors.

Granted, I never in any way promise “Get rich quick!” But at the same time, it’s easy to be myopic and that could be costing us that regular income to support us on our way to the dream. It’s easy to take for granted how much writing is out there and forget that somebody was PAID to do it.

What are your thoughts?

Thanks for following and as always I reward the faithful!

I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, 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).

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg’s Master’s Series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR (Includes all classes listed below) Normally $400 but at W.A.N.A. ONLY $199 to learn from Joel IN YOUR HOME.

OR, if it works better, purchase Joel’s classes individually…

Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights $65 February 21st, 2107

How to Sell to Your Niche Market $65 February 28th, 2017

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU $65 March 7th, 2017

Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights $65 March 14th, 2017

 

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 February 23rd, 2017

When your Name Alone Can SELL—Branding for Authors $35 February 10th, 2017

Social Media for Authors $55 February 11th, 2017

Plotting for Dummies $35 February 17th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character $35 February 24th, 2017

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

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40 Comments

Wisdom from a Hollywood Producer—IT’S ALL B.S. UNTIL THE CHECK CLEARS

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I am unbelievably blessed to call some of the biggest names in the industry my friends. What is even MORE awesome is that these experts are willing to give so generously to me and to you guys.

The goal of this blog is to train y’all how to be PROs. So many writing books are addressing the hobbyist. Though there is nothing wrong with that because writing is the best hobby EVER—and that is mostly why all of us want to be PAID to do it—we need much more than the average, Gee, I’d love to write a novel resource.

We have ALL been there. When someone asks, “So what do you do?” and we tell them, “I’m a writer.”

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Yeah.

When the world rarely takes us seriously, we gotta be extra careful that doesn’t rub off. Above all, if we don’t take ourselves seriously, no one else will.

We have to step up our game and I don’t care about all the arguments that “real” writers are legacy published or have awards or an MFA. At the end of the day, real writers get paid (or are on a trajectory to BE paid). Because when people are using the term “real” it’s really just a poor synonym for “professional.”

Which is why today, y’all are getting a treat. My close friend, author and producer Joel Eisenberg is IN PRODUCTION right now. His book series The Chronicles of Ara is being made into a television series, and right now he is in production on “Then Again with Herbie J Pilato” for Decades—so VERY busy man—yet he took time to be here and give the real digs on what we do…which is why he is pretty epic.

Take it away, Joel!

***

Welcome to my world. A world of promises upon promises, of big-talk and scant return, of endless parties and meetings …

My world, that is, of 15 years ago, though I remain what I’ve always been: a writer.

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can recall. I remember my first short story too. The plot went a little something like this: The crew of the Starship Enterprise teams with the Six Million Dollar Man to save the world from the Planet of the Apes.

No, not kidding at all. And then, in 2015, about 30 years later, this happened (though I had nothing to do with it):

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It was not exactly the same, but close enough.

Clearly, I was ahead of my time. But up to 15 years ago, I was also flat broke. I owed tens of thousands of dollars in credit card bills, and was nearly homeless. Daily breakfast and lunch was a tuna sandwich from my local 7-11 and dinner, if I was lucky, was a canned meatball ravioli, courtesy of Chef Boyardee.

And then I got smart.

I had just worked (and quit) my 100th day job. I was sick and tired of being … You know the rest. Thing is, that day would define me moving forward. I told my new wife, who was understanding but not thrilled with the idea, that I could not do this anymore. Not for her, not for me.

If there was any chance of my career moving forward, if I had any real opportunity for an upward trajectory, I needed to place our lives where my big mouth was and write a book. I would call it, “How to Survive a Day Job” and I would interview celebrities about how they made their own creative dreams come true.

My success would only help us in the future, I argued.

“But you don’t know any celebrities,” she said.

“Uh, you’re right,” I replied. “But I’m doing it anyway.”

I kept that promise. I interviewed 70 some-odd public figures for the book, from actors to writers to producers and more. I sabotaged them at local book signings. I emailed them through their personal websites. I tortured personal assistants.

I did what I needed to do.

I self-published the book in 2005, under a horrid branding but nonetheless: Aunt Bessie’s How to Survive a Day Job While Pursuing the Creative Life. Don’t ask about the title. It was my first effort and a mistake. The book is long out of print, but I kept in touch with nearly everyone who participated.

That was the second best thing I’ve ever done. I still cannot believe any woman ever put up with me for so long, but nonetheless.

Through the years, I’ve referred to that volume as my “mentors in a box.” Since then, I’ve opened networking groups of my own, that were ultimately hosted by Paramount Studios, Warner Brothers Studios, Sunset-Gower Studios and more. I moderated groups of maybe 200 film and television professionals monthly for ten years, having only recently left the endeavor for a partner to run due to an increasingly insane schedule.

Thing is, my book, and that networking business, changed my life.

Going full-circle, back to the beginning of this diatribe: Everyone talks. Everyone yaps in this business about having money to finance your film, or having the ability to get your book to a major publisher. There is so much unbearable talk, it’s easy to believe that no one could ever make a living in this business.

I’m reminded of an ex, who meant well but did not understand that my path was a need and not a want. I needed to be a writer. There was no other way for me.

“You should be a school psychologist,” she said. “You’re great with students and, let’s face it, you’ll never make it as a writer. You’re already in your thirties. It’s time to be realistic.”

Another life-changing moment. I ended the relationship two days later and immediately decided to move from my native Brooklyn to Los Angeles, to dig in and truly work towards my goals. That was 1989. I began my book in 2003. It took me some time, but the time it took proved invaluable.

I’ve been my own boss for nearly 15 years now – save for one more gig to help a friend – and I’ve never looked back. Money and satisfaction happens and, frankly, it’s an awesome feeling being paid to practice your passion. I wake up at 3 or 4 (I know), hit Starbucks and write for hours before anyone in my house is awake. It’s great having the freedom, however, discipline is every bit as important.

***

When you tell people you are a writer, in certain circles you become an instant celebrity regardless of your output. You will be wined and dined. You will need to learn the difference between what is real and what is not and yes, there are groupies on both sides of the equation (and no, I’ve never indulged, thank you very much).

My point with this post is simple. I found my way. I’ve since been traveling around the country teaching others how to find theirs. I write novels, and produce movies and television.

Certainly beats telemarketing, I tell ya.

One more thing. My friend Kristen and her organization, W.A.N.A., consistently delivers the most truthful, and helpful, of all online seminars for writers. It is for this reason that I happily offer my teaching services. If anyone reading this would like to attend my upcoming Master Classes, check them out below.

It’s your life, and your career is precisely what you want it to be. Do what you need to do. Work on your craft daily and, as Steve Martin once said:

Become so good at something you cannot be ignored.

And if the world gets you down, remind yourself of this: John Lennon, Mark Twain and Stephen King have the same number of hours in the day as you. So what’s your excuse?

Trust me. I’ve been there.

***

Thanks so much Joel! Joel will be around for those commenting so here is your chance to rub elbows with an amazing person and one of the top talents in the world. Networking is a HUGE deal, so what are your thoughts? Questions? Do you struggle to believe you could be paid to write? Do you feel overwhelmed at all of it? Do you have a similar story of how everything changed in your attitude/world? DO NOT BE SHY! Joel is fantastic to talk to!

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Hey, Valentines is coming up. Chocolate will make you fat but these might make you rich. Hey, why NOT? Someone has to be! 😛

Joel is running his Master’s Class HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR for $199 (this series is normally $400, but Joel loves me 😀 ).

Or you can take each of the four sessions individually for $65 a piece. All are recorded and is included in purchase price. Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights (February 21st), How to Sell to Your Niche Market (February 28th), It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU (March 7th), Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights (March 14th)

Thanks for following and as always I reward the faithful!

I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, 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).

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

Joel Eisenberg’s Master’s Series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR (Includes all classes listed below)

Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights February 21st, 2107

How to Sell to Your Niche Market (February 28th)

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU (March 7th)

Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights (March 14th)

NEW CLASS!!!! How to Maximize Your Earning Potential as a Full-Time Author Learn from Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg in your HOME. This series is normally $400 but W.A.N.A. is offering it for $199.

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors February 23rd, 2017

When your Name Alone Can SELL—Branding for Authors February 10th, 2017

Social Media for Authors February 11th, 2017

Plotting for Dummies February 17th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character February 24th, 2017

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

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45 Comments

Save Money on Professional Edits—6 Easy Ways to Clean Up Your Own Manuscript

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Over my career I have literally edited thousands of works, most of them written by emerging writers. My greatest frustration always was (and still is) when I couldn’t even GET to critiquing the deeper story elements because I was too distracted by these all too common oopses.

Good editors are NOT cheap. There are also many editors who charge by the hour. If they’re spending their time fixing oopses you could’ve easily repaired yourself? You’re burning cash and time. Yet, correct these problems, and editors can more easily get to the MEAT of your novel. This means you will spend less money and get far higher value.

#1 The Brutal Truth about Adverbs, Metaphors and Similes

I have never met an adverb, simile, or metaphor I didn’t LOVE. I totally dig description, but it can present problems.

First of all, adverbs are not ALL evil. Redundant adverbs are evil. If someone shouts loudly? How else are they going to shout? Whispering quietly? Really? O_o Ah, but if they whisper seductively? The adverb seductively gives us a quality to the whisper that isn’t already implied by the verb.

Check your work for adverbs and kill the redundant ones. Kill them. Dead.

Metaphors and similes are awesome, but need to be used sparingly. Yes, in school, our teachers or professors didn’t ding us for using 42 metaphors in 5 pages, but their job was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor or simile, NOT prepare us for commercial publication as professional novelists.

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When we use too much of this verbal glitter, we can create what’s called “purple prose.” This glitter, while sparkly, can pull the reader out of the story or even confuse the reader. A while back, I edited a winner’s 20 page entry. The story began on a whitewater river and the rafters were careening toward a “rock coffee table.”

Huh?

Oh, the boulder is squarish shaped!

Thing is, the metaphor made me stop to figure out what image the author was trying to create. If the rafters had merely been careening toward a giant flat rock? Not as pretty but I could have remained in the story without trying to figure out how the hell furniture ended up in the river.

I’ve read some great books, but as an editor, I might have cut some of the metaphors. Why? Because the author might have a metaphor SO GOOD I wanted to highlight it and commit it to memory…but it was bogged down by the other four metaphors and three similes on the same page. The other metaphors/similes added nothing…unless one counts distraction.

Go through your pages and highlight metaphors and similes. Pick THE BEST and CUT THE REST. Look for confusing metaphors, like rock furniture in the middle of a river.

#2 Stage Direction

She reached out her arm to open the door.

Okay, unless she has mind powers and telekinesis, do we need the direction?

He turned to go down the next street.

He picked up the oars and pulled a few more strokes, eager to get to his favorite fishing spot.

We “get” he’d have to pick up the oars to row his boat, or that is a seriously cool trick.

Be active. Characters can “brush hair out of their face” “open doors” and even slap people without you telling us they reached out an arm or hand to do this. We are smart. Really.

#3 Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts…

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

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

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#4 Too Much Physiology…

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

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

Get a copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Emotion Thesaurus to help you vary physiology. Also, if someone’s heart is pounding, that’s okay. We assume until they are out of danger it’s still pounding. No need to remind us.

Really.

#5 Backing Into the Sentence/Passive Voice

In an effort to break up and vary sentence structure, many writers will craft sentences like this:

With the months of stress pressing down on her head, Jessie started ironing the restaurant tablecloths with a fury.

Problem? Passive action. When we use the word “down” then “on” is redundant. Either she is ironing or not ironing. “Started” is overused and makes sloppy writing. That actually goes back to the whole “stage direction” thing.

Active:

Jessie ironed the restaurant tablecloths with a fury, months of stress pressing on her shoulders.

The door was kicked in by the police.

Police kicked in the door.

If you go through your pages and see WAS clusters? That’s a HUGE hint that passive voice has infected your story.

#6 Almost ALWAYS Use “Said” as a Tag

“You are such a jerk,” she laughed.

A character can’t “laugh” something. They can’t “spit” “snarl” “grouse” words. They can SAY and ever so often they can ASK. Said used properly becomes white noise.

NOTE: Use said as a tag…just don’t get crazy. If you beat it up it gets distracting and annoying.

But again, used properly readers don’t generally “see” it. It keeps them in the story and cooking along. If we want to add things like laughing, griping, complaining, then fine. It just shouldn’t be the tag.

“You are such a jerk.” She laughed as she flicked brownie batter onto Fabio’s white shirt.

Notice how sentences like the one above also keep us from beating said to death.

I swear the funniest instance of bizarre tags was a new writer who just would NOT listen to me and she insisted on using all these crazy@$$ tags. So instead of exclaimed when her character yelled something she tagged with, he ejaculated.

*Editor Kristen falls over laughing*

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Okay y’all ALL sniggered at that one. So yeah be creative just not in the tags, ya dig? 😉

There you go, SIX easy tips for self-editing. We all make these mistakes and that’s why God invented revision (that and to punish the unfaithful). If you can get rid of these common offenders on your own, then good editors can focus on the deeper aspects of your fiction.

Have you had to ruthlessly slay your favorite metaphors? Are you a recovering adverb-addict? What are some other self-editing guidelines you use to keep your prose clean and effective?

I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, 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).

SIGN UP NOW FOR MY UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! 

All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! How to Maximize Your Earning Potential as a Full-Time Author Learn from Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg in your HOME. This series is normally $400 but W.A.N.A. is offering it for $199.

 Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors February 3rd, 2017

When your Name Alone Can SELL—Branding for Authors February 10th, 2017

Social Media for Authors February 11th, 2017

Plotting for Dummies February 17th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character February 24th, 2017

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

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74 Comments

Unpacking the “Character-Driven” Story—How to Make Your Story Sizzle

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Craig Sunter

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Craig Sunter

Today we are going to shift gears back to craft. Last week we talked about the single largest problem with most first-time novels. There must be a singular core story problem that is resolved in Act Three.

All good stories must have an overall goal.

Now, this of course doesn’t mean there are not a lot of subgoals along the way, but all tributaries eventually deposit into the same river (core plot problem). If they are not related to this problem? Likely you have a plot bunny (or ten) in need of caging.

Yet often emerging writers will toss around this word “character-driven story” when they really don’t understand what this term means. All too often they mistakenly believe it is a pass to skip plotting. Nope. Sorry. So today we are going to discuss what a “character-driven story” really is and what it isn’t.

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Now we all know there are all kinds of fiction and some genres naturally lean toward being “plot-driven”. We don’t want to read a mystery where we are never told whodunit and are instead exploring the detective’s fatal character flaw.

We want the killer uncovered and brought to justice. Thrillers? Same deal. Stop the SUPER BAD THING from happening (I.e. Militant vegans launching the super weapon that turns all bacon into tofu).

Now, this doesn’t mean these stories cannot also be character-driven. They just don’t necessarily have to be. Yet, often what will separate the forgettable detective book from, say a Harry Bosch book, is this added layer of character depth that just gives the story this delicious je ne sais quoi that leaves us wanting more.

We walk away from the story feeling as if we have bonded with living person, not just some writer’s imaginary friend. But the character-driven story must work in tandem with PLOT. Plot is the fire that heats the crucible. No fire? No test.

The World View

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Whenever we begin with our protagonist, this character (like real living people) has a distinctive world view that is born of his/her backstory. This world view is created by millions of variables colliding to make one special distinct personality.

Who were the character’s parents? Was the character adopted? Abandoned? Abused? What did his parents do? What was their world view? Does the character share this view or is he opposed to it? What traumatic events forged this adult (or teen) personality?

Y’all get the gist.

A character who was born into a military family that moved every two years is likely going to hold a vastly different world view than a character born on a family farm in Iowa. Both will be different than a character raised by a grandmother in a Kentucky trailer park because dad died when his meth lab blew and mom is in prison.

Story Challenges then Smashes the World View

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As Author God, we get to choose the protagonist’s world view, but THEN it is our job to then smash it. How do we smash it? We create the perfect problem (story) that is going to shatter what the character believes to be true.

For instance, let’s look at a mystery-suspense that is also a very character-driven story. In Connelly’s book The Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller is a rock star defense attorney. He is a product of his background with a famous lawyer father, a man so great in his field, Mickey is a mere shadow. As we can tell from this quote, Mickey is a product of his rearing…

“You know what my father said about innocent clients? … He said the scariest client a lawyer will ever have is an innocent client. Because if you fu*& up and he goes to prison, it’ll scar you for life … He said there is no in-between with an innocent client. No negotiation, no plea bargain, no middle ground. There’s only one verdict. You have to put an NG up on the scoreboard. There’s no other verdict but not guilty.”

Haller screwed up once. He defended an innocent man but the evidence to free the guy just wasn’t there and he lives with the guilt that he talked an innocent man into taking a plea bargain for life in prison because it was the only way to save him from the needle.

When the story begins? Mickey has no interest in guilt or innocence. He doesn’t want to know. And, better yet, to avoid innocent men? He actively courts the worst of the worst as clients—pimps, drug dealers, outlaw bikers, etc.

But then he takes the case for Louis Roulet and everything changes.

Roulet is not just any case. In the beginning, Mickey takes him on because he is rich. He really doesn’t care if the guy did the crime or not. That is not his purview. But then, as the plot unfolds, Mickey realizes that Roulet might be responsible for the crime his innocent client is now serving time for.

The PLOT PROBLEM challenges Mickey’s worldview. It forces him to change, to question who he is, what he stands for and what he really believes. Now, this book might have been fine as a straight up mystery suspense if we just cast a very different character and focused more on solving who really was beating and raping the victims.

But, what makes this book stand head and shoulders above other mysteries is we are there to witness the evolution of Mickey Haller. He begins as a man who claims justice doesn’t matter and evolves into a man willing to die to do what is right.

Connelly didn’t write a book where Haller spends 100,000 words questioning why his father never loved him, why he has a hole in his soul and feels nothing for his fellow man, why he isn’t a better man *queue violin* Why? Because that is not a story, that is self-indulgent tripe.

How a Character Can “Find Herself”

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All right, but some of you might be yelling, But Kristen, this is still a mystery suspense and it partially plot-driven. What about my story? My protagonist wants to “FIND herself”.

Hold on. We are getting there.

Hate to tell you this, but this story will also have a core plot problem. There must be a challenge to the worldview that is eventually resolved. Seriously, no one wants to spend 15 hours reading navel-gazing. Even in these types of stories there is a core plot problem complete with stakes and a ticking clock.

A good example? The 1999 romantic comedy Runaway Bride.

Maggie Carpenter is a feisty, spirited woman who just cannot seem to have success in relationships. She has left three men at the altar already and had it not been for the plot problem? She very well could have left far more.

But what happens?

Columnist Homer Eisenhower Graham or “Ike” gets a scoop from a drunk at the bar about this woman who leaves all these men at the altar. Ike then writes a flaming tabloid about Maggie, but he screws up. He gets a lot of the facts wrong and is fired for not doing his research. He is given the opportunity to redeem his reputation by doing a follow-up story on Maggie.

Now, Maggie is lost, but she doesn’t realize she how lost she is until Ike, believing he yet again is missing the real story does some digging and talks to those who know her. He challenges her that she is running because she is mimicking the men she loves (as evidenced by the way she eats her eggs). She is morphing herself to be each fiancés dream girl and losing herself in the process.

Why hasn’t she pursued her dreams? Does she even know what they are? Does she even know who she is?

The story problem forces Maggie to confront the ugly truth about herself. Instead of risking failure reaching for her own dreams, she is hiding behind the men she dates. She is driven by fear.

The stakes are love. Will Maggie ever find love? When she uncovers who she really is, can she marry Ike (or anyone) as a distinctive and whole person?

But the core story question is, Will the Runaway Bride ever tie the knot? And since this is a romance, the question is (more specifically) Will the Runaway Bride tie the knot with Ike?

If our story merely ended with Maggie leaving for a yoga retreat in India on a journey of self-discovery? That is a crappy story. And again, there was a problem that forced this journey of self-discovery in the first place and this is a problem in need of a satisfying resolution.

So when you are looking at your protagonist, ask the hard questions. Who IS this character and what is his/her worldview. Then, craft a problem that will challenge and smash that view and replace it with a superior lens.

What are your thoughts? Does this help clear up the idea of “character-driven” stories?

I love hearing from you!

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