Dip Happens—What Do We DO When Nothing Seems To Change?

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Often I blog about things I am going through. Sometimes just writing things down, sketching out a plan of action, recalibrating MY perspective helps a lot. Hey, if nothing else, I have a blog post :D .

Lately, I’ve been in what Seth Godin calls…The DIP. In fact, I am even talking about The Dip over on my Dojo Diva blog for those who want more (and also a better chance of winning my 20 Page Death Star Critique).

*dangles carrot*

What is THE DIP? The Dip is that span of suck before the breakthrough. The Dip is where character develops, where dreams grow, where WE grow. Bad news is this is also the place where most people give up.

I’d love to say I’ve never given up when faced with a particularly tenacious Dip, but I am a terrible liar. Dips are tough. Why are Dips so hard?

Dips Come Out of Nowhere

We are zooming along and then it is as if an invisible force field comes out of nowhere. Maybe you started eating healthy and were losing weight steadily. Then…nothing. Another week? Nothing. Another week, I gained three pounds? WTH? And another and another and pretty soon, why bother?

A little story…

Before I got pregnant, I was 130 pounds and a Size 2. When I was pregnant, I did two-a-days the entire time I was pregnant. I did step aerobics in the morning (which was nothing short of comedic when I was almost 10 months in) and swam a mile a day, six days a week even though I felt like I should be a show at Sea World. The night they induced me, I stopped at the gym and did an hour workout before Hubby took me to the hospital.

Eleven days after having The Spawn, I was back in the gym. I’d get up for the 3:30 a.m. feeding then go to the 24-hour gym.

For the most part, I have still kept a strict diet and exercise regimen.

These days I do 6-8 hours of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu a week…and am STILL a size 10-12. No matter how disciplined I am, it doesn’t seem to want to show on the outside. We go to restaurants and I watch people eat onion rings and fried cheese and have dessert while I am GF, dairy-free, low-carb, soy-free, no sugar, etc. etc. I drink water, not soda. And yet?

Sometimes I wonder why I bother.

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Crossfit.

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Crossfit.

This is the first main problem with The Dip. Sometimes, we can’t figure out why it is there or worse…why it won’t GO AWAY. After blood panels and doctors and experts, they all agree. I am the picture of health, but am overweight.

No kidding.

We might be doing something GREAT that shows nothing on the outside. Granted, I might be a fluffy size 10-12 for the rest of my life. I have amazing flexibility, can run for miles, can outfight and outlast teenagers and my heart and insides are amazing.

Funny, though. I rarely think of my shining cholesterol levels when I have to shrug into Spanx.

I wonder how many calories we burn trying to put on Spanx?

The next problem with The Dip is there are often others who will rub salt in the wound that we are IN The Dip.

On Saturday, I went for an hour of rigorous BJJ training, ran home, cleaned up then attended a 2.5 hour Judo workshop that I paid for. I was feeling pretty good about myself until…

I was in the middle of learning a new throw and could tell I wasn’t pivoting my weight the correct direction. Sure I was throwing my sparring partner, but I was landing in the wrong spot. The teacher comes over and tells me I am doing it all wrong.

Okay, I KNEW that.

But then, he tells me that I need to work out more. That the reason I can’t do the throw is that my legs are weak and then says, “Have you thought about going to a gym? Maybe trying some squats?”

*suppresses urge to stab him in the face*

He corrects my posture and the next throw I did? I nailed it. He probably could tell from the look on my face that I might have been envisioning him.

*growls*

Of course, Judo is all about physics, not about strength. I didn’t point that out. I also didn’t point out that the rest of the attendees had slept in while I was one of the handful who came to the early morning class anyway (even when I knew there were 2.5 hours of additional training ahead). I also didn’t point out what should have been obvious. I was the only older female in the workshop and if the sport wanted to attract more like me? Insinuating we are out of shape is a bad plan.

After the Judo workshop, we had a family day at the zoo and all I wanted was to throw in the towel and eat all I have denied myself for a decade…in ONE day.

I know you guys probably have no idea what I am talking about ;) .

The Dip is REALLY common in writing. You are working on a novel and it is going great and then? You get stuck. You KNOW you are stuck. Maybe you can’t even figure out WHY you are stuck. Then, when you are about to throw in the towel for good and OD on brownies, someone in your life is there to point our that “Maybe you just aren’t trying hard enough…”

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Yeah, because we didn’t already think of that.

Some Important Things to Know About Dips

First of all, people who don’t attempt anything remarkable, never have Dips. Thus, if we are experiencing Dips, it means we are still pressing for something better. The only way to get out of ever dealing with Dips is to just drift along on the tides of mediocrity and ambivalence. Don’t know about you guys, but I can’t do that. This means I have to take my own advice and Suck it up, Buttercup.

The second thing is that we can more painfully feel Dips when we get our focus on the wrong things. If we stare at Dips we get intimidated. This is partly why I refuse to get on a scale. I found myself obsessing too much. Yes, I would love to trim down and get into my “skinny” clothes, but is that my only objective behind eating and living healthy?

Groceries at our house.

Groceries at our house.

I am extremely fit. Working out helps me release stress. I look far younger than peers because I am healthy. My family is all involved working out together. Spawn  learned to walk in the gym nursery. Now? We do martial arts SIX days a week together. Spawn has been sick ONE TIME in his entire life because I cook super healthy foods. He has to be told to stop eating so many vegetables and eat some protein.

Am I willing to abandon ALL those other benefits because ONE objective—trimming down in size—refuses to cooperate?

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Same with writing. For years I blogged to The Great Nothing. At first, I did it to get “views” but after a year and a half of blogging to the male-enhancement bots, I got seriously discouraged.

Since I’d invested too much to give up, I decided to focus instead on ALL the benefits of blogging that had nothing to do with outside approval.

I learned to write leaner, meaner, faster and cleaner. I learned to eat deadlines for breakfast. I became a better writer because I was TRAINING. I learned to be self-motivated and self-disciplined. Granted, even if NO ONE ever cared about my blog, these traits would serve me well in other areas.

Of course, eventually, when I got my eyes off the numbers and focused on what I COULD control, THIS happened. Can anyone see THAT DIP? When I finally busted past it?

Kristen's Blog Stats Circa 2013

Kristen’s Blog DIP

Dip Happens

The last things we need to appreciate about Dips is that they are not permanent but yet they are. 

One Dip alone is not permanent, but The State of Dippery is. Yes, DIPPERY. It is a word :P . Unless we give up, we will face more Dips and bigger and longer Dips.

For instance, as writers, a common first Dip is to finish the book. YAY! Then the next Dip. Getting published. Oh, if I could just be published, THEN I’d be happy. We get published and the next Dip is BOOK SALES. Then there is the next book and the next…and you guys get the point.

I’m not here to discourage you, but we cannot exist in a permanent state of happiness and satisfaction. It is a brief moment of sun and then? Back to work. Anyone who promises us a Dip-Free life is lying and probably selling something…like DRUGS.

Dip Therapy

Dips suck. They are long and painful and necessary. Dips weed out the uncommitted. Many people will give up on something remarkable because there is no instant payoff. Can we still LOVE writing when there is no outside evidence we are going to gain? Can we still keep eating healthy and exercising even if we never get to wear skinny jeans?

NO! Wait, okay fine *rolls eyes* I’ll keep pressing *grumbles*.

Dips make us value what we EARN. One of the reasons I get frustrated with our Everyone is a Winner Society is that is dilutes the genuine feelings of authentic achievement. A black belt is only valuable when it took years of sacrifice (busting past Dips) to earn it.

Dips train us for the mentality of the successful. Often others see what we have. They don’t see what we gave up to get it. And that is the reality of things. Successful people “get” Dips while others give up. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that most of the successful writers I know aren’t necessarily all that more talented, but they are far more tenacious.

When we face Dips, outside circumstances may never change, but we will.

Dips teach us to ignore outside opinions. Where would I have been had I listened to all the people who told me blogging was dead and that it was impossible to be a successful writer? We can choose to take that pushback as an excuse to quit or fire to fuel us forward.

Yes, I am frustrated with a LOT of Dips in my life, namely the “weight thing.” But am I going to let one outside jerk opinion derail me?

No. And the reason is that I have had extensive and intensive Dip Training ;) .

Tips for Busting Through the Dips

Remember the WHYs. Why are you doing whatever? Why are you correcting your kids when it feels like you just repeat yourself a million times? Why are you eating healthy? Why are you writing that novel? Focus on the why. If we write books simply to become millionaires? Could happen, but burnout probably more likely. Instead, focus on how much you LOVE writing. How much you LOVE your kids. How much you LOVE feeling good because you drank water instead of a 2 liter bottle of Diet Coke.

Baby steps ARE steps. Never underestimate the value of simply showing up. Every sentence is one step closer to a finished book. Small actions over time DO add up.

Remember “Dip Happens.” 

If we know that Dips are inevitable, we are more mentally prepared for the challenge. It is more a sign we are doing something right than a great cosmic plot against our happiness.

I hope you guys feel more encouraged. Remember that the summit is only that beautiful because of the climb.

What are your thoughts? Have you been in some Dips lately? Are you feeling like it will never END? Did you know that this was natural? If not, do you feel a little better about being stuck? Do you have those around you rubbing in that you are in a Dip? Have you ever made it past some particularly tenacious Dip and are better for it? What was it? Share your story! We need the encouragement!

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

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Parent-Shaming & Mom-Shaming—Has Our Culture of Guilt Gotten Out of CONTROL?

Image via Hyperbole and a Half

Image via Hyperbole and a Half

It has been a weird couple of months. We had our family business move and then Spawn (my 5 year old) was REALLY ill back in March. Ill to the point of a middle of the night ER visit. Hubby and I didn’t sleep for over a month. And now, I am trying to get back in the groove and I just don’t want to.

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I don’t want to be a grownup. I want to color and make a blanket fort. And YES I feel guilty for being a horrible wife and a bad mother.

On some level, I believe all women struggle with guilt, and, when we become mothers, I think the condition only worsens. I was a very different person before I married and had my son. I was always dressed impeccably, had my hair done once a month, and never missed a pedicure or manicure. I knew I’d worked very hard and believed I’d earned these simple indulgences.

In short, I thought like a man.

Trust me when I say my husband does not feel guilty about relaxing in front of the TV when there is a sink full of dirty dishes. Rare is the man who puts aside getting himself dressed until he’s fully satisfied his toddler’s clothes all match. Most of the time, my husband isn’t even bothered if the Spawn’s clothes even fit. And that is an awesome talent and I’m jealous because I know I am being neurotic.

Just an aside…

I have NO idea how my husband does this. I regularly cull through The Spawn’s clothes and pull out what is out of season or no longer fits. When I would delegate “dressing The Spawn” to Hubby, he somehow managed to dress our toddler in the ONE 18 mo shirt I missed and swim trunks…for church. I love my husband, and have THE BEST husband in the world, but seriously????

Mommy! I'm ready for picture day!

Mommy! I’m ready for Sunday school!

Believe me when I say that “clothes not fitting/matching” DOES NOT BOTHER A MAN. Neither do a handful of other things…

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When Mommy makes dinner….

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When Daddy makes dinner…

Anyway…

***By the way, Men. I am NOT picking on you at all. I am seriously, seriously envious. Your focus is the kid having some FUN, not worrying is his outfit is trendy and that the other dads might “judge” you.

I recall, years ago, being a bit judgy when I’d see some frazzled mom, her hair (much in need of a dye job) pulled back in a scrunchee. I’d think, Good grief. Yoga pants and stained t-shirt? Does this woman even TRY? Her kids aren’t even wearing clothes that match. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Be careful how you judge, and, as my mother warns…NEVER WONDER.

I Deserved It

I look back at the way I used to judge struggling moms and I now know that I deserve this. I recall thinking, She’s married. Why doesn’t she just get her husband to dress the kids while she does something with THAT HAIR?

Now I know. I didn’t listen to Mom.

I wondered.

NOW I know that this mom probably did delegate. She probably managed to get her hair in a scrunchee just as she caught sight of her husband dressing their kids for church in their bathing trunks and part of their Halloween costumes. This mom then likely stopped doing her hair to intervene and at least get the kids in regular clothes.

Actually, this mother likely would have even had her child’s clothes all matching, but she forgot to move the clothes from the washer to the dryer. Why did she forget? Because she heard the crash from her toddler unsuccessfully trying to scale the cat’s scratching post. And, by the time she stopped the bleeding, she’d long forgotten about the clothes…and this is why she is in yoga pants and the kids are still wearing their Halloween costumes…in MARCH!!! So just back the hell off!

Look at ME!

Mommy! Look at what I did!

The Guilt

I never feel like I am doing enough. Though I practically live in an apron, I can’t seem to ever feel caught up. My house isn’t clean enough, and I don’t read for an hour a day to my child and teach him Italian and art appreciation.

Then we have the magazines full of starlets posing in bikinis three days after they give birth. Despite the fact that I do 6-8 hours of grueling Brazilian Jiu Jitsu per week and eat gluten-free, dairy-free, almost carb-free, I still can’t even wear my pregnancy pants. At a size ten, it is easy to feel like a lazy slacker because I’m not a size 0.

When did 0 become a SIZE?

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I need to get the gym more *scribbles on list.*

Regular Guilt is Bad Enough

Okay, I admit that I need to work on the guilt thing. I should be able to wear makeup without thinking that those 15 minutes would be better served sorting the recycling.

Crap! I threw away that jelly jar in the REGULAR trash. I’m destroying the planet! Worse, I am teaching The Spawn that it is OKAY TO DESTROY THE PLANET!

Most women (okay, maybe just me) already feel like we are not doing enough. If we have a choice of a day at a spa or a day baking for the church or school, donating stuff from the garage to the needy, or volunteering to shuttle Great-Great-Great-Aunt Thelma who’s 97 to CVS for discount butt cream, you can count on us for the cheapest butt cream in town.

Walmart will price match.

The JUDGEMENT

The world is a REALLY different place. I know men face their own unique challenges, but I don’t think they experience near the same amount of parent-shaming.

Now that Spawn is five, I feel at such a loss. We have a little boy who lives across the street who is a year older. When I was a kid, if there had been another kid within bike-riding distance, we would have been BFFs.

But, no. They aren’t.

Me: Hey, can your kiddo come over and play? I got Spawn some new NERF zombie guns.

Other Mom: Sure! Wait, my kid has tutoring and then guitar lessons and then we go to karate. But the free hour before he attends Kid Yoga he needs to study his French vocabulary words. We’re getting him ready for Child Entrepreneur Camp where he will learn to build a business. Oh, and ride horses. He’s going with his friends Jackson, Madson, Grayson and Harrison. They met at Kid Chef School making allergen-free puff pastries…

Me: Nice. Um, does your boy like to roller-skate? 

Other Mom: He knows how to, but hockey lessons don’t start for a few months. Been using his off time to catch up on my reading. I’ve been reading all these books on alternative educational theories. Have you read that last one by Dr. Snooty Pants who never had a kid but feels comfortable judging? Why Your Child Will Kill You in Your Sleep for the Insurance Money if You Don’t Stimulate Enough Creativity?

It’s a best-seller. We read it in my book club.

Me: I missed that one.

Other Mom: It is so fascinating. We love all the exercises in the companion workbook. Rebirthing is extra fun if you make the blankets together. I can send you the pin on Pinterest…

Kill. Me. Now.

And this is why Spawn calls me his best friend. I am the one who hikes with him and plays video games and goes to martial arts with him.

Sorry, Spawn. All the other kids were booked, but I think I can call their agent…

BFFs

BFFs

Can I Donate My Kidneys? I Have One Extra

I feel like a SUPER terrible mother. This HAPPENED. My mom came over and was helping me clean after Stomach Bug from Hell.

Mom: Why can’t he go outside and play? It’s a beautiful day.

Me: He can’t unless we sit outside with him and we need to be in here cleaning.

Mom: Huh? Why can’t he just go outside and play?

Me: Um, CPS?

I kid you not, we had a woman in the area who was out front with her 5 year-old and ran inside to get the phone. In the 5 minutes she was gone a “Good Samaritan” called CPS on her for neglect. And this is happening more and more often. Of course, I don’t like calling these folks “Good Samaritans” because a Good Samaritan would just have kept a helpful eye on the kid while frazzled mom ran inside to get the phone.

And these are the SAME people who will also call me a bad mom because Spawn is being exposed to way too much time with electronics. That unless I am running my kid to every activity available and scheduling every second of his waking life for “educational opportunities” I am a jerk.

If I pay thousands of dollars for “Educational Software” I’m a great mom. But, if I teach my kid to play XBox and his reading is advanced because of his love for Transformers, I’m negligent. Does anyone else spot the crazy here?

Yes, my Kirby is an educational toy…. :P

Yes, my Kirby is an educational toy…. :P

And this is a long way of saying that there is a LOT of pressure on parents these days. Look at all it entails!

When I was a kid, we were thrown outside after Sesame Street to PLAY. We made ramps out of every discarded piece of trash on the curb. I had a tetanus shot every YEAR. My mom’s idea of “fun and educational opportunities” involved teaching me the multiple uses for lemon oil and a deck brush.

Want to learn about nature? Let’s go pull weeds.

I’m unsure how this helicopter parenting is healthy for our kids. How it is healthy for us parents. Are we parents or entertainment directors? How will our kids fare when they have to be adults and the world isn’t interested in entertaining them every waking second?

I feel much of this Parent-Shaming/Mom-Shaming is consumerism gone crazy. Shame me because I am not a Size 0 and I buy diet stuff and gym memberships. Shame me because my house isn’t a photo spread out of Good Housekeeping and I hire a cleaning service. Shame me that I am not being a good enough MOM and sell me all kinds of apps, games, camps and activities because OMG! My child might get…BORED.

What do you guys think? Has the Mom-Shaming/Parent-Shaming gotten out of control? Do you run non-stop and never feel like you measure up? Do you have days you simply don’t know where to begin because you feel like a failure at everything? Have you drank the Kool-Aid? Any tips to detox from it?

Guys, do you get Parent-Shaming or Dad-Shaming? I’m curious to know what your experiences are.

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

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150 Comments

Anatomy of a Legendary Villain

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Before we get started, I’d like to remind anyone who wants a WAY better chance at winning my 20 Page Death Star Critique, that I have started the Dojo Diva Blog and we are talking about Beginnings, namely giving ourselves permission to be NEW. Comments and trackbacks on the Dojo Diva count double and, since it is a separate contest, there is a LOT better chance of winning.

Moving on. VILLAINS!!!!

The antagonist is the most critical part to any story. No antagonist, NO story. Villains are only a type of antagonist and though this type of character has the power to be legendary, often what we see in books, series and movies are mustache-twirling caricatures. Villains can easily become one-dimensional plot puppets.

As writers, we must get in the head of our villains as much if not more than the protagonist. The reason is that eventually our protagonist must eventually grow to become a hero, and this is not possible if we fail to appreciate the goals, conflicts and motivations of the villain.

Plain and simple: The villain creates the STORY problem and provides the crucible that will create a hero.

No Sauron and Hobbits remain in the Shire wishing for adventure. No Darth Vader and who cares about Skywalker? No Goblin King and Sarah never faces the Labyrinth and her own immaturity.

I recommend studying movies to understand story structure, but I feel TV series are better for understanding the character development of villains. The reason is that series are far more similar to full-length novels. We (the audience) have more TIME to understand the villain and see him or her at work.

Today, I’d like to talk about ways that we can give villains depth. Great villains have some similar “components.”

Remember, the villain is always the hero in his own story. Wanting to “rule the world” just to “rule the world” is for cartoons. If a villain is wanting to rule, control, destroy, etc. they should have a really good/plausible/sympathetic reason for doing so.

In factwhen we do a great job at creating the villain, our audience will struggle with who to root for.

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Granted, we do run into great characters like Joker (Heath Ledger) who are chaotic evil, but though this type of character might be great for a Batman movie, he will be really tough to cast in a novel. Even then, I’d go so far as to say that Joker DID have an agenda. Whether it was trauma or madness, we get a sense that Joker believes there is no good in the world and is on a mission to prove any goodness can be corrupted.

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Give the Villain a Sympathetic Goal

Remember that the beating heart of a story is CONFLICT. Antagonist wants X and Protagonist wants Y. Their goals conflict and only one can triumph at the end. No cheating. In act three the Big Boss Troublemaker must be defeated. Period. None of this well the reader meets my antagonist in Book Two…

Every story has an antagonist responsible for the story problem and he or she must be defeated or the story isn’t complete.

***In series, the protagonist will defeat proxies of the core antagonist. Each proxy serves as the core antagonist for that story.

To help you guys wrap your heads around what I am talking about, let’s look at television shows. I highly recommend the series Justified for dimensional villains. In every season we are introduced to a new Big Boss Troublemaker. Season one is the Skinhead Bank Robber Boyd Crowder. Season Two is the Hillbilly Mob Boss Mama Bennett. Season Three is the Detroit Mob Boss Robert Quarles who’s been exiled to Kentucky to fill the vacuum left by the defeat of the Bennett clan.

What I LOVE about Justified is that the characters are dimensional and interesting. Also, each season nicely dovetails into the next with authentic human problems. This isn’t just a series for those interested in writing about crime. There are genuine human problems in this series.

Today, though, I want to hone in on what I feel is one of THE best villains I’ve ever seen: Mama Mags Bennett.

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What is Mags’ goal? Yes, she wants to rule Harlan, Kentucky and surrounding areas with an iron fist (and make a healthy profit), but deep down, she believes she is taking care of her flock. She maintains order in a world riddled with chaos. The area is steeped in poverty, endless economic depression, addicts, jailbirds, absentee parents, lost youth, and troublemakers and she provides authority, protection and structure.

Yes, she is taking advantage of the people, but believes she is the lesser of evils. Her family has been on that mountain for generations and have been there to pick of the pieces every time a corporation has raped the area after promising prosperity. She believes that there will be predators, so might as well go with the devil you know and the one who isn’t going to take all the timber, strip mine the minerals and ruin the land with slag.

And frankly, she has a good point.

Also, because the area is riddled with addicts, she knows that bigger predators have their eyes on the area (I.e. Miami Mafia and Mexican cartels) and have no concern for the people. Yes, she provides weed, meth and oxycotin, but also provides jobs and protection. She also protects members of the flock from smaller predators. For instance, she will NOT tolerate a child molester and goes biblical on anyone who crosses that line.

Thus, we as the audience see she kind of has a good point. The area will likely always be lawless, so why not be ruled by a local who cares for the community?

Contrast

Great villains have contrast. Contrast makes a villain sympathetic. If a villain is always torturing people and doing bad stuff simply to do bad stuff, the audience can’t really connect. We have to have some area where that villain is human.

The entire season (series ) is loaded with contrast and there is no character more conflicting that Mags Bennett. First of all, let’s just look at some of the surface contrast.

Hillbilly Mafia

Dixie Mafia

These words don’t go together. When we think of Mafia, we often think of black suits and shiny Lincolns. When we hear “Dixie” we think of line-dancing, moonshine and banjos. We don’t default to dirty flannel, banjos and ruthless drug enforcers.

Yet, one element that has always made mob members so intriguing is their loyalty to family.

Helloo? Ever heard of the Hatfields and McCoys?

This area of the country is steeped in a profound loyalty to clan and family, thus it unexpectedly makes the perfect mob story.

Mags is so interesting namely because we can never seem to get a bead on her. When we meet her, she seems to be this sweet, gentle grandmotherly figure (which she is). She runs a country store and makes sure the local families can use their food stamps and welfare checks to put food on the table.

Yet, this same matronly character is later seen breaking her son’s fingers with a hammer because his bad decisions have jeopardized their larger operations and brought the attention of federal marshals. Granted, she cries the entire time and hates having to “correct” her son, but she knows if she shows any weakness of favoritism with her own kin, she will lose power and respect.

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Thus, we SEE this woman do terrible things, but she always has a sympathetic reason (as to point above). Yes, it is awful that she breaks her son’s fingers, but she is genuinely afraid her son’s idiocy will get him killed or imprisoned, thus her “chastisement” is the far less severe of the consequences.

In her mind, she is saving him from himself.

The Villain Fires the Conflict for the Protagonist

Great villains torment some part of the protagonist’s soul. For the protagonist, it can be black and white to take out a bad guy, but that isn’t nearly as messy. In the case of Justified Raylan Givens is a federal marshal who also grew up in the area. He knows Mags and even likes her. He is torn between his duty to uphold the law and his personal history and feelings.

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Taking out Mags is emotionally messy. And, though Raylan is the perfect person to shut her down, he kinda wishes someone else could have the task. Mags brings back old guilt, memories, shame, regrets and baggage.

Make The Villain’s End a SAD Thing

In Justified we hate Mags, we are rightfully afraid of her, but we also feel for her. She does a lot of really awful things, and though we want her stopped, we want her undoing to be appropriate. She’s like a man-eating bear. Sure we want the bear to be put down, but caging it and putting it in the circus seems unreasonable and unfit.

When Mags is taken down, we walk away feeling that her end was just and appropriate to the apex predator she was.

What are your thoughts? Do you think series are better for exploring villains and antagonists? Do you think they are a better cross-comparison with a novel? What are some series with memorable villains? How did the villain leave you conflicted? Did you find yourself rooting for the villain and little bit sad when he or she lost?

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

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47 Comments

Ten Ways to Tighten Your Writing & Hook the Reader

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Image via CellarDoorFilms W.A.N.A. Commons

When I used to edit for a living, I earned the moniker The Death Star because I can be a tad ruthless with prose. Today I hope to teach you guys to be a bit ruthless as well. Before we get started, I do have a quick favor to ask. Some of you may know that I practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu so I’ve taken on our dojo’s blog to see if we can try out new and fun content and am using the moniker Dojo Diva.

I posted about how hard it is to begin and the fears that can ever keep us from starting. The way others try to stop us from doing anything remarkable. I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories, so I hope you will stop by and get the discussion going.

Click the word “Comments” and a box should appear. This is new, so working out the kinks. If you don’t appear, I may just need to approve you.

To prime the pump, so to speak, anyone who comments on the new blog will be drawn for a separate contest to win 20 pages of Death Star Treatment (rigorous edit from ME). This means a lot higher chances of winning. Also, the first ten commenters get double entries.

Been bragging about you guys, so I really hope to see you there!

Moving on…

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

Drift=Bad juju

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

I love doing my 20-page contest, namely because I act as an intermediary. When I run across excellent writing I do try to connect it with an agent who might be interested (with the author’s permission, of course). Yet, many of the samples I get are infested with these basic oopses that tell me the writer is not yet ready.

So I hope you can use these tips as a guide to reveal the pearl that is your story.

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

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

***Just know I am riffing off these examples. Some people love detail, others love minimalism so I am not doing anything other than providing quick illustrations. Ultimately, tailor these suggestions to your particular voice.

Smells are very powerful. In fact, it is the most powerful of ALL the senses.

Jane stopped short. She stared at the blackened walls and peeling paint that testified to the fire that took twenty young lives.

Okay, pretty good. But maybe try this.

Jane stopped short. The sickening sweet of cooked flesh stole her breath. It was all that remained of twenty young lives extinguished in flames.

Taste is also very powerful.

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

Not bad, but maybe try…

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

Try to use a combination of all of the senses to close the psychic distance. To rely solely on what a character sees will keep the reader at a distance. It will make her a mere observer and not a participant. Also, y’all might have noticed novels are pretty long so adding in other senses will broaden your emotional palette.

Tip #2 Don’t Coach the Reader

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

He raised his hand and struck her across the cheek.

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

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

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

Tip #3 Don’t State the Obvious

She slammed the door and cursed in anger.

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

Tip #4 Can We Have a Name, Please?

This can happen a lot when the writer is using first-person. We go two, three or ten pages and still don’t know the main character’s NAME.

Tip #5 Don’t Introduce Too Many Characters Too Quickly

This is the opposite of the last problem—too many names. I can’t tell you how many writing samples I’ve received that make this mistake. If you have ten named characters by page one? I’m done. In life, we can’t keep up with that many names all at once, and when reading, that doesn’t change.

Too many names will confuse us and muddle who the protagonist is. We get lost, so we’re frustrated and we put the book down…or toss it across the room.

Tip #6 Limit Naming Too Much Anything at Once

This can happen in science fiction and fantasy because we are world-building. Just remember that if we name characters, places, prophesies, weapons, technology, dragons, creatures, ships, robots etc. it can overwhelm the reader. Stories are about people and if the people get lost because of the world-building, that is problematic.

Jezebel gripped the Kum-Rah in her bleeding hands. Panting, she stopped just short of the Uf-Tah’s altar. Tomorrow the Gil-Had would sacrifice another Fluff-Tun.

I’m being a tad silly here, but maybe try something like…

Jezebel gripped her sword in her bleeding hands. Panting, she stopped short of the ornate altar. Tomorrow the Gil-Had would sacrifice another member of her family.

We still get some world-building without our heads exploding trying to keep up with names and figure out who is who and what is what. Later, as the story progresses, we can learn that the bad guys are the Uf-Tah, the henchmen are the Gil-Had and the victims are the Fluff-Tah. We can eventually learn the names of particular weapons.

Tip #7 Give Us an “Idea” of Who a Character Is and What He/She Looks Like

Don’t feel the need to bog us down too much, but by page one, we should know at least some basics about a character. Few things get weirder than reading about a character for five or ten pages and then realizing they are another race or gender.

Whaaaa??? He’s a black dude?

Tip #8 Strive to Give Us a Sense of Time and Place

Again, a few details are helpful to orient us where we are. Whether it is the smell of horse manure, the rattling of carriages or the whir of computers, we need to get grounded quickly to become part of the world and fall into that fictive dream.

Tip #9 No Secret Agents

We are introduced to who we assume is the protagonist. Unless something cues us otherwise, we assume he/she is alone. When another character suddenly starts talking?

Jarring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #10 Tighten the Prose

The biggest red flag to me as an editor is an infestation of the word “was.” This is a major indicator of weak writing and passive voice. If a writer does this on page one? Fairly safe to assume the trend will continue.

Do a Was Hunt. See too many of those buggers together? Time to kill.

It was barely dawn and Lulu was sitting on the couch. She was waiting for her father who was already hours late. This was unusual for him. He was always punctual. A crack that was deafening made her scream and moments later the door was kicked in by the police who barked orders for her to get down on the floor.

Instead….

Predawn light spilled into the room where Lulu sat, waiting for her father to be home. He was never late. Ever. A deafening crack made her scream. Police kicked in the door and ordered her to the floor.

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

What are some of your pet peeves? What loses you as a reader? Do these tips help? Do you see maybe some of your own bad habits? Btw, I did ALL of these at one time, so we are all friends :D .

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).

Also, for more help on how to use characters to ratchet anxiety to the nerve-shreding level, I am offering my Understanding the Antagonist Class on April 18th and YES, it is recorded in case you miss or need to listen again because this class is jammed with information.

I LOVE teaching this simply because our antagonists are pivotal for writing a story (series) readers can’t put down. Yet, too often we fail to harness characters for max effect. I look forward to seeing you there! I also offer the Gold level for one-on-one. Maybe you’ve hit a dead end. Your story is so confusing you need a GPS and a team of sherpas to find the original idea. Instead of wasting time with misguided revisions, I can help you triage your WIP and WHIP it into fighting form :D .

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

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157 Comments

Franken-Novel, Perfectionism & The Dark Side of Critique Groups

After six years in critique her novel was “perfect.”

Critique groups can be wonderful. They can offer accountability, professionalism, and take our writing to an entirely new level. But, like most, things, critique groups also have a dark side. They can become a crutch that prevents genuine growth. Depending on the problems, critique groups can create bad writing habits and even deform a WIP so badly it will lose any chance at resonating with readers, thus being successful.

The key to avoiding problems is to be educated. Not all critique groups are worth our time. Some critique groups might have limitations that can be mitigated with a simple adjustment in our approach.

Traditional Critique Groups

Many of you have attended a traditional critique group. This is the “read a handful of printed pages or read so many pages aloud” groups. Traditional critique groups have some strengths. First and foremost, they can clean up a new writer’s prose.

When we turned in that high school paper with 60 glorious metaphors on page one, we got an A. Why? Because our teacher’s goal was to teach us how to use a metaphor properly. Her job was not to train us for commercial publication.

In a good traditional critique group we learn that POV does not mean “Prisoners of Vietnam.” We learn to spot passive voice and “was clusters” and why modifiers aren’t always extra-nifty. We will hopefully learn self-discipline in that we need to attend regularly and contribute. We can also forge friendships and a support network.

So where’s the problem?

Traditional critique groups lack perspective.

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Once a week reading fifteen pages only cleans up shoddy prose. Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see structural flaws. A novel can have perfect prose page to page and yet have catastrophic faults. In fact, I would venture to say that most writers are not rejected due to prose, but rather, they meet the slush pile because of tragic errors in structure.

Traditional critique groups can tell us nothing about turning points or whether a scene fits properly. They lack the context to be able to discern if our hero has progressed sufficiently along his character arc by the mid-point of Act 2. They have zero ability to properly critique pacing, since pacing can only be judged in larger context. So, my advice is to get a beta reader that you trust. Critique groups cannot do what only beta readers can.

***A beta reader is a regular person who likes to read our genre and will tell us about the story from a reader’s perspective.

Traditional critique groups can also hurt us in the following ways.

Traditional groups can get us in a habit of over-explaining.

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As we just mentioned,  those in a traditional critique group sitting around the table can’t see the big picture. It is hard to pick up a story on page 86 and understand what is going on. Our fellow writers care about us and believe if they don’t say something that they aren’t helping. Thus, they will say things akin to, “But how did Fifi end up in Costco wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw? I’m lost.”

Well, duh, of course they’re lost.

They’ve missed the last three weeks and haven’t been keeping up with the story. So learn to resist the urge to over-explain in your prose. Our job is to write a great novel…not 600 individual sections our critique groups can follow.

Traditional critique groups are notorious for the Book-by-Committee.

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Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you can get in a nasty habit of trying to please your critique group at the expense of the big picture. Learn discernment and how to stick to your guns, or you will end up with a Book-by-Committee, also known as Franken-novel.

One great way to know good advice is to READ craft books. Hooked by Les Edgerton, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell are a great start. In fact, ANYTHING written by Edgerton or James Scott Bell, just buy it and read it. You can thank me later ;) .

That way, when someone offers suggestions, you will know whether or not that advice is supported by leading teachers in the industry.

They can get us in a habit of perfectionism.

Image via Hyperbole and a Half

Image via Hyperbole and a Half

The world does not reward perfect novels, it rewards finished novels. I still run into writers who have been working on “perfecting” the same novel for the past ten years. As professionals, we need to learn to LET GO. Either the project was a learning curve and it needs to be scrapped and parted out, or it needs to be handed a lunch box and sent off to play with the big novels via query or publication.

Scrap it, part it, shop it or ship it but MOVE ON.

Yes, I know NY publishes novels that have typos and grammar errors. But when writers are under contract, they don’t have 6-10 years to ensure that their manuscript doesn’t have a single misplaced comma. In fact, I would be so bold as to posit that readers don’t generally get to the end of a novel and declare, “Wow! That was riveting. Not one single dangling participle in the entire book!”

There are writers I know who have been working on the same book for four, five, even SIX years. I see them at conferences dying to land an agent and get that three-book deal. WHY? New York isn’t going to give them another 12-18 YEARS to turn in manuscripts. The hard reality is that, if we hope to make a living at this writing thing, we need to learn to write solid and we need to learn to finish…quickly.

Traditional critique groups can offer a false sense of security.

Can get you in trouble...

Can get you in trouble…

We must always be looking for ways to have our work critiqued by professionals who are willing to be blunt and who possess the skill set to see our errors. Don’t join a writing critique group simply because they say they are a writing critique group. Look at their credentials. How many successfully published authors has the group produced?

How many people in the group are career writers, authors, or editors? Gathering together because we love writing is always a great idea, but if the group is solely comprised of hopeful unpubbed writers, the critique will be limited. Limited is fine, so long as we make sure to reach beyond that group for additional critique.

We must make sure our work is being reviewed by people who will be honest about any problems. Meeting once a week to sing kumbayah is not the best preparation for this brutal career. Once our book is for sale, we are open to the big bad real world of people with nothing better to do than skewer us publicly on-line in a blistering review.

You will know them by their fruits…

If your goal is to write great novels, make sure any group you join is producing successful novelists. I spent way too many years in a critique group that produced all kinds of articles and NF, but no one had published a successful novel. Then I wondered why the critique was…eh.

When I left that group for the DFW Writers Workshop, my world tilted on its axis because DFWWW is AWESOME and is known for producing professionals in all genres. In fact, I wouldn’t be here without them. I also STRONGLY recommend joining RWA (Romance Writers of America) and find an RWA chapter nearby even if you don’t write romance.

RWA is by FAR the most professional group of authors any of us can connect with. They are at the leading edge of the industry and these folks will totally send in the flying monkeys if you don’t get back to writing. 

By the way, if you want to get more out of your critique group, I have a class this Saturday (details below) that can make sure your larger structure is sound. This class can do what your critique group can’t and it will help you spend your time more wisely.

So what do you guys think? Have you had problems? Does your critique group seem to only run you in circles? Have you fallen for the perfectionism thing? Or am I off-base? What are your solutions? Ideas?

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).

Also, for more help on how to use characters to ratchet anxiety to the nerve-shreding level, I am offering my Understanding the Antagonist Class on April 18th and YES, it is recorded in case you miss or need to listen again because this class is jammed with information.

I LOVE teaching this simply because our antagonists are pivotal for writing a story (series) readers can’t put down. Yet, too often we fail to harness characters for max effect. I look forward to seeing you there! I also offer the Gold level for one-on-one. Maybe you’ve hit a dead end. Your story is so confusing you need a GPS and a team of sherpas to find the original idea. Instead of wasting time with misguided revisions, I can help you triage your WIP and WHIP it into fighting form :D .

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

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74 Comments

5 Ways to KILL a Perfectly Good Story

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Over the weekend Hubby and I rested and watched movies and we took turns who could pick the film. Hubby loves dramas and war films. I prefer horror and space aliens. Anyway, Hubby chose the drama Unbroken and that is three hours of my life I will never get back.

Halfway through the movie, I had Hubby pause to check out how much more of this film I would have to endure, and I’m pretty sure I was worse than sitting with a young kid in a dentist’s waiting room.

I’m BORED! *plays with spit*

Though the intentions behind making the movie were noble and the cinematography superb, the fictionalization fell flat. And, since I don’t like wasting my time, I figure we can at least look at what went wrong with the movie and use it as a cautionary tale and example of what not to do.

What bugs me is that Louis Zamperini’s life could have made an excellent film. But, because of these five common rookie errors, the movie fizzled and failed to resonate.

My apologies ahead of time to those who liked the movie. Personally, I think adding some Klingons might have improved it.

Fiction has rules and we ignore those at our own peril. And, since I see these mistakes a LOT (particularly with new writers) we are going to take some time to explore what went wrong with what could have been an excellent movie…

#1 Characters Cannot Randomly Change

I’m sure in life people randomly change all the time. They do random stuff for no reason. This is bad to do in fiction. Fiction hinges on cause and effect and characters can’t do stuff simply because we (the writer) need them to.

In the movie, Louis Zamperini is introduced to us as a young spit-fire kid who is constantly in trouble. Though barely a teen, he checks out girls in church, steals, smokes, drinks and gets into fights. Early in the film, he is dragged home by a police officer and the viewer is told through dialogue that this hothead is bound for jail if he doesn’t straighten up.

Okay, interesting character.

*brakes screech*

Out of seemingly nowhere, Louis Zamperini decides to listen to his older brother and try out for the track team. No dark night of the soul. No sitting in a jail cell and having to make a hard choice. He simply one day apparently says, “You know what? I think I’m going to give up petty crime and go to the Olympics.”

*head desk*

Characters cannot change without a crucible. It’s cheating.

#2 Characters Must Have an Opportunity to FAIL

So yada yada yada, we endure a bunch of pointless flashbacks which seem to only tell us that Zamperini can run really fast and then we are in WWII and Zamperini is fighting in the war. For virtually the ENTIRE movie, Zamperini has no choice in what happens. He’s merely the victim of bad things happening to him.

The ONLY setback Zampirini didn't tun into...

The ONLY setback Zamperini didn’t run into…

He’s in a plane crash, they’re adrift at sea, bad things happen, sharks, more bad things, Japanese, more bad things. Then he and the only other survivor are rescued by the enemy and stuffed into a POW camp. And more bad stuff. And more and…*checks watch* even MORE.

Crappy luck is NOT dramatic tension. Dramatic tension is created by choices. When our protagonist is whisked along by events he cannot control and the only opportunity to fail is suicide? We bore the audience. That is a bad situation, not authentic drama.

Zamperini is far too evolved for the story and he has no opportunities to choose badly. He overcame his poor character before the story problem ever happened. There are no situations that cause him to arc (or for him to help anyone else arc).

He’s always the one who remains calm, the one who is level-headed, the one who does the right thing. He takes the beatings while in captivity and presses on to stay alive. He is the same when the plane crashes as the day when he walks out of the POW camp.

Zzzzzzzzz.

For this to have been true drama, we needed one Zamperini who went to war who was flawed and one who made it home “perfected.” The war situation should have been the crucible to fire away those character imperfections and leave a hero in the protagonist’s place. Yet, we get a sense that Zamperini was already a “hero” before his plane was ever shot down.

Thus, instead of a character journey to become a hero, we are left to endure a chronology of nothing happening. This is an excellent example of why too-perfect characters are BORING. Zamperini is a one-dimensional caricature because, as a human being, he has no place left to arc.

He’s also surrounded by “plot puppets”—characters who serve no purpose. I.e. Why is brother there other than to get Louis to join the track team and riff off a couple of inspirational quotes?

#3 Good Story Goals are ACTIVE

To have a solid story problem, our protagonist must have an active goal. Staying alive is NOT an active goal. It is like “containing Communism.” It’s passive and about as effective.

I don’t know about you guys, but staying alive is probably my top priority every day. It is why I don’t blow-dry my hair in the shower or juggle power tools. My goal pretty much every day is to NOT DIE. Staying alive is not a story-worthy goal.

I run into a lot of new authors who tell me that their story involves “staying alive” “staying hidden” “avoiding” “protecting” etc.

A young peasant boy must protect the princess of the realm from evil forces lest the Black Sorcerer enslave the realm.

Okay, so what’s the book about? A peasant boy stuffing princess in a giant Princess Hamster Ball and putting up round-the-clock security?

What must the protagonist DO in order to triumph?

#4 Flashbacks are a Often Sign of Weak Writing

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Jolie likes to flip back and forth in time, but there is nothing in the flashbacks that tell us anything we couldn’t have learned in dialogue and real-time narrative. We get that Zamperini went to the Olympics. We don’t need to go with him to Berlin understand that.

Really.

I’m not a fan of flashbacks. They stop the forward momentum of the story to go and “explain.” If we use a flashback, we have to be careful that we aren’t relaying information that any viewer/reader could have gleaned from the present story. That is being redundant. Flashbacks can also indicate we might be telling the wrong story or starting the story in the wrong spot.

In the case of Zamperini, the better story might have been the WHY behind him trading stealing for running. Why change? What makes a hotheaded hoodlum into an Olympian who later would become a war hero and man of God?

Since Jolie keeps flitting back in time, this might have been the actual story, but would have required better writing. Zamperini being starved and beaten for almost two hours is easier.

#5 The Antagonist MUST Be Defeated By A CHANGED Protagonist

Original cartoon via Hyperbole and a Half

Original cartoon via Hyperbole and a Half

If we pan back and look at all the great stories, power begins in favor of the antagonist. It is through change (arc) that this balance of power shifts. In the beginning of a story, the protagonist would fail (does fail) if pitted against the antagonist.

To keep in the same genre, we will look at one of my favorite classic dramas. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn Couch is bullied by her husband and Monster-In-Law. She has no spine and a low self-esteem. It is through stories of Idgy Threadgood (parallel plot line) that Evelyn changes—TOWANDA!–and, in the end is able to stand up to her tormentors.

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In the beginning, Evelyn handles the situation all wrong. She apologizes for her own existence and tries to appease those who enjoy making her a victim. By the END of the story, Evelyn is a changed person (protagonist—>hero). The ingredients for her to stand up for herself were always there, but the story problem is what reveals the gem that was always inside.

Evelyn defeats the antagonist in Act III by finally refusing to be abused.

In Unbroken there is no change. Zamperini takes beating after beating in defiance of his tormentor, The Bird. He doesn’t change. He doesn’t even inspire others to change. He simply outlasts the sadist and we are dragged along for the trip until the Allies can save the POWs (and the audience) from more abuse. We lose the internal development of the character and trade it for the cringe factor of watching Zamperini endure worse and worse torments.

What We Take Away

Characters might begin as victims of fate, but they eventually must take control.

Perfect characters are boring. Bad decisions make excellent fiction.

Characters need ACTIVE goals. “Surviving” is not active and the only way a character can fail is by DYING.

There is no authentic victory unless the protagonist is given opportunities to fail.

Examine flashbacks. What purpose do they serve? Are they necessary or Literary Bond-O to prop up a weak story? Does the story begin in the correct spot?

Does the protagonist change? How? How does the change make the protagonist into a HERO?

What are your thoughts? Am I being too hard on Unbroken? Were you bored too?

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).

Also, for more help on how to use characters to ratchet anxiety to the nerve-shreding level, I am offering my Understanding the Antagonist Class on April 18th and YES, it is recorded in case you miss or need to listen again because this class is jammed with information.

I LOVE teaching this simply because our antagonists are pivotal for writing a story (series) readers can’t put down. Yet, too often we fail to harness characters for max effect. I look forward to seeing you there! I also offer the Gold level for one-on-one. Maybe you’ve hit a dead end. Your story is so confusing you need a GPS and a team of sherpas to find the original idea. Instead of wasting time with misguided revisions, I can help you triage your WIP and WHIP it into fighting form :D .

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

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147 Comments

What to Do When You Absolutely, Positively NEED a Pen Name

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kenny Louie

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kenny Louie

Yesterday, we talked about reasons NOT to use a pen name. I will again be very clear about this. Ultimately, it is up to the writer. My job is to make sure you guys have time to write more books and that you aren’t inadvertently making more work than is necessary. Yes, there ARE good cases for having a nom de plume.

There are probably as many reasons TO have a pen name as not, but it will be extra work…which is why I don’t like them. I am LAZY. But that’s me :D .

If you are okay with that? Sally forth!

A Caveat…

I come at this from a different perspective than most writers, since often I am the one called in to help talk a writer off the ledge when pen names go bad. For instance, I recently spoke to a group of authors. One author was teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown trying to do social media. Yet, when we talked, this author had THREE pen names (with three different web sites) because she didn’t want readers “getting confused.”

The problem (in my POV) was she wrote thrillers, suspense and cozy mystery. These are genres with a lot of crossover. Usually from the cover, genre, story description, readers can figure out that one book is a hard-boiled thriller versus a cozy. She was running herself ragged trying to manage all these identities, when if she used ONE, she’d have more time to write and also readers from one genre likely would help sales for the others.

I actually get this a lot.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

In the pre-digital world, we didn’t have the ability to build an on-line presence, so readers would get confused. These days? That is not near the problem it used to be.

If we look at Jonathan Maberry, he writes adult books and YA and uses the same name. Often, those who like his adult books are drawn to his YA and the genre and story description is enough for those purchasing to know they are geared toward different ages. I’ve read most of his books and the adult books have profanity and more violence, the YA is zombie-lite. Most people can figure this out without Maberry adopting an entirely new name.

Same name, different target age groups

Same name, different target age groups

Patterson is also now writing books for young people. He’s using the power of his name (his brand) to sell for an entirely different age group and the titles and covers are enough for most people to understand that Public School Super Hero is probably a young reader’s book. Or this one ;) .

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In the pre-digital world, we would have viewed these genres differently. They would have been wildly divergent. The on-line world though has actually bundled a lot more than we might realize. Thus, if you already have a solidly branded name, you might not need an entirely new identity for another genre. Just think about it, then decide.

A Pen Name for Multiple Genres that DO Conflict

Many of those who chimed in on yesterday’s discussion in support of pen names write erotica or romance in combination with other genres that conflict. In this case? Yes, use a pen name for each genre. Have one name for steamy romance and another for YA. This case is an excellent candidate for a pen name.

Yet, I will say that if I write sexy erotica and kid’s books, I’m already aware that I will be in for building multiple platforms.

A Pen Name Because My Legal Name Would Cause Problems

There are instances where a writer is in genuine need of privacy. I stated this yesterday, but maybe was unclear. If I’m a nurse or doctor who writes medical thrillers? There is a concern with the day job. There are those who are still active in the intelligence community who NEED a pen name for safety reasons.

If I am a lawyer and write legal thrillers, maybe I don’t want to defend that I haven’t broken any confidentiality with my stories. Maybe I’ve been through a divorce and want to ditch my married name so I don’t have to deal with the ex.

So yes, these cases are good reasons for a pen name.

If you are a schoolteacher and write steamy romance, there is a real need to section off that writer persona. Maybe you are the black sheep in a fundamentalist family and the stress of dealing with drama overwhelms your ability to create. YES, use a pen name.

But, what I wanted to make clear is that in the early days of the Internet, simply signing up for a profile under a nom de plume WAS enough. Now, with search engines becoming far more advanced, there are additional steps we need to take to maintain the integrity of the pen name. Changing the name is no longer enough.

It would be irresponsible of me to not point this out. I KNOW there are teachers who have lost jobs over their fiction. I don’t want that happening to anyone, so it’s my job to let y’all know that if you do need a clear separation for these reasons, appreciate that it is more complicated than simply using another name.

I have had writers who didn’t realize this and ended up giving up writing altogether because a troll found them and the stress became overwhelming. I’ve had borderline suicidal writers e-mailing me who gave up their dream because of bullies, and that ticks me off and makes Kristen want to go on a troll-hunting spree. To me these situations are tragic namely because most of the time, they are preventable.

If you guys want to write erotica and YA and enjoy both without contending with haters? I am here to HELP. Yes, have a pen name, but do it properly.

A Pen Name Because I Want One

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Go for it! As Jami Gold mentioned in the comments yesterday, some writers need that alter ego to clear head space and to feel more in tuned with the writing. We are creative people and sometimes that “otherness” helps us step out or mentally separate from ordinary life.

While Maberry and Patterson are fine writing for kids and adults under the same name, maybe you require a different identity to get in tune with that particular audience. If I wrote steamy romance, I gotta be honest, I would probably want something a tad “sexier” than Kristen Lamb.

Ok, a LOT sexier than Kristen Lamb.

If you want that or need it? Rock on.

One of my followers, Heidi Cullinan, wrote a post exploring some excellent reasons to have a pen name, so I will send y’all there instead of belaboring it. The only points in the post I disagree with is that I made it clear that 1) I can’t make the decision for you and 2) romance/erotica genres are generally in need of a pen name. Actually any hot-button topic is. Sex, religion, politics? Probably gonna want a pen name.

It IS up to you. Also, yes, Heidi is right that it is your choice if you want four pen names or fourteen. I can’t stop you, though I will try ;) . And the reason is that if we are spread so thinly we can’t write or we aren’t selling books because we are trying to manage multiple pen names and diluting our readership, that is a formula for us to wear out and give up.

I Have a Branded Pen Name

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

If you have already created a pen name with a following and a brand, do not feel the need to go redo everything and use your legal name. You already HAVE a brand. There were some commenters who’d already spent years under a certain name. Stay there!

The advice of whether or not to have a pen name is different from whether or not to keep one. If you are a new writer starting out? I only ask you make the decision using current information. I see writers change names search engines would LOVE for something people can pronounce. That is old world.

If you are going to write in another genre, ask the tough questions then decide. Do you really need another identity or is this a case like Maberry where readers can figure out your books are different from the covers and titles? Would your current name possibly drive sales for you in another genre?

Would your current profession drive sales for your books? I see writers who have a successful career rebranding themselves for selling books when perhaps their success as a photographer, actor or surgeon could help book sales. People “get” we do more than one thing and we might be more inclined to pick up a thriller from our neighbor who’s a real estate agent. We understand she sells houses and writes books and we can adjust the Internet search terms accordingly.

If you already have four identities and are going nutso? Is it possible to pick one and then change the covers and retrain the audience? There are some authors who have been publishing since the days where multiple pen names were required. In the modern era, that is a formula to end up in a straight jacket. Thus, if you want to re-release works you have the rights to, you DO have the option of combining all those alter egos under one brand.

My Name is Boring

If you have a name like John Smith? Sure, a pen name is an option though not necessary. Tagging and generating content can mitigate this. The name Kristen Lamb is NOT terribly unique so a common name can work.

I Hate My Name

Get a pen name. If you don’t like your name and it makes you uncomfortable? Change it. Just understand it is more work, but that was probably already obvious ;) .

My Name is Stephen King and I am NOT Stephen King

If we happen to have a name that is exactly like a mega-branded author? Yes, get a pen name. If it is another popular personality like an actor? Consider keeping it. I said consider. It can make a name memorable. If I write mysteries and my name is Jessica Tandy? Most people with more than a half a brain know I am not the late film actress born in 1904. But, the name alone is memorable and all they have to do is put “writer” or “author” in the search to find me.

The Guts of This

In the end, all I can do is offer advice and get you guys to ask the right questions before you decide. Are we making the decision for the right reasons? Are we making our job tougher? Are we unintentionally watering down our brand? Will the pen name offer more advantages or disadvantages? Are we securing a pen name in a way that will maintain that “separateness” we require? If we think these things out ahead of time, we don’t set ourselves up for major headaches later.

So what are your thoughts? Aside from I am telling you you can’t have a pen name. I am NOT telling anyone they can’t have a pen name! :P For those who do use a pen name and enjoy it, what are says that you keep that separateness? Tips? Tricks? What does your pen name allow you to do creatively? For those who are having trouble with the pen name, what is vexing you?

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).

Also, for more help on how to use characters to ratchet anxiety to the nerve-shreding level, I am offering my Understanding the Antagonist Class on April 18th and YES, it is recorded in case you miss or need to listen again because this class is jammed with information.

I LOVE teaching this simply because our antagonists are pivotal for writing a story (series) readers can’t put down. Yet, too often we fail to harness characters for max effect. I look forward to seeing you there! I also offer the Gold level for one-on-one. Maybe you’ve hit a dead end. Your story is so confusing you need a GPS and a team of sherpas to find the original idea. Instead of wasting time with misguided revisions, I can help you triage your WIP and WHIP it into fighting form :D .

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

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