Archive for category Writing Tips

Mastering Conflict—Hook Readers & Never Let Them Go

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sharon Mollerus

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sharon Mollerus

Last time we talked about how, if we want to sell more books, we need to give readers what they want—an excellent story. Very often writers believe they need to be clever and deep and super different and while all of that is excellent, it must all be built around delivering a terrific story…not simply being clever for the sake of being clever.

This said, we must always remember the beating heart of every story. Conflict. No heart? The story flatlines.

Conflict is not simply a bad situation.

I often get pages where it is almost like, “And this bad thing happens then the next bad thing oh and another bad thing.” It makes me feel like I’m trapped in a bad action movie.

Oh there’s a fight scene, then a car chase, then another car chase and then another fight and OH! An explosion.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

If you have ever been to any family event, you have all you need for writing great fiction. Lots of personalities, baggage, history, and agendas all piled into one spot and BOOM!

Conflict.

Conflict is what hooks readers and keeps them turning pages. Every single scene needs conflict. Every page should have conflict. One of my personal mottos, is:

Bookmarks=DEATH

We should strive to never ever leave a logical spot to slip in a bookmark. No, we want to torture our readers and keep them up all night and sleep-deprived. We do this with conflict.

Humans don’t like unresolved problems. It is in our nature to want everything sorted out before we can relax. How do we keep readers up all night? Never let everything get completely sorted out.

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Conflict obviously will happen internally and externally. The internal conflict gets center stage in the sequel and external conflict steps up during scenes.

Scenes are defined by action (an outside tangible goal).

The protagonist wants X but then…

Sequels are the spaces between scenes where there is a bit of a breather and the character is internalizing what happened and making a plan of what to do next.

By eventually spacing out the sequels and then removing them altogether is how we as writers can control the pace and ratchet the tension as we careen into the third act. For more on scenes and sequels refer to Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story Part One.

But whether it is a scene or a sequel it must have conflict.

Situation

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Obviously the outside situation might generate conflict (and frankly should).

Example:

Fifi simply must get the deposit into the bank before end of day, but then she ends up trapped in a traffic snarl and gets there right as the motor bank closes.

Question: Are you making it too easy for your character to get from point A to point B? Can you dangle what she wants just beyond reach? Can you insert more misdirection/setbacks?

Personality

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Sure the situation can generate conflict, but our protagonist does not exist in a vacuum. His or her decisions will happen around other people and thus be influenced by them.

Example:

Fifi is a very plain, no-nonsense gal who is Type A and if she isn’t fifteen minutes early, in her mind she is already fifteen minutes late. Unfortunately she opened her cupcake bakery with her little sister who always looks like she fell out of a fashion magazine, who would never dream of going out not looking like a model and who, as a consequence is pathologically late.

Fifi loathes being late.

So not only did Fifi have to get to the bank, she was forced to take her sister because she needed something to be notarized with sister’s signature for the business. Sister was just going to “take a minute to freshen up.” Of course had Fifi’s sister just gotten in the damn car, they would have missed the fender bender that caused the traffic snarl and would have made it to the bank on time.

Question: Who have you cast with your protagonist? Are they too similar? Do they get on too well? Opposites often attract, so who could you cast against your protagonist to make life all that much messier?

Baggage/History

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Clearly you all have baggage (and I don’t mean carry-on only) or you wouldn’t be writers. Great characters have loads and loads of baggage and often that baggage appears during conflict.

Remember that sane and well adjusted people make for lousy fiction unless we cast one of those types and that becomes the source of conflict. But if both people disagree in healthy ways? Snoozefest.

Example:

Fifi: When you choose to do your makeup and hair when you are aware we need to be somewhere, it frustrates me. Your chronic tardiness makes me feel as if you don’t value me or my feelings.

Sister: Well I feel that when you insist on looking like a hopeless frump all the time that you don’t value me. Lord, I have to be seen with you and we could be seeing potential customers for God’s sakes. And for the record, I feel like throat-punching you when you use your therapy speak on me. Is this garbage what you pay all that money for?

Pretty clearly we see there is a lot of baggage here.

Question: In your scenes can you ramp up the tension with barbed mentions of any chronic behaviors? Unhealed psychic wounds? Most people don’t completely operate in the present, the past likes to bum a ride. Are your characters both dealing with disagreements like healthy well-adjusted people? If they are? Stop it!

Worldview

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Remember that there are all kinds of sources for conflict all around us that are natural and organic and don’t seem forced. Age can be a factor. A parent won’t see the world the same way as a child and won’t have the same priorities.

When I am trying to get out the door, my main priority is not whether or not I have packed enough Hot Wheels. For Spawn? That is critical and trust me it creates conflict.

I am a Type A control freak and I loathe being late with the power of a thousand suns. Yet my husband, when we are going somewhere? He has three speeds. Slow, slower, and DEAR FREAKING GOD ARE YOU EVEN ALIVE?

Granted he is good for me. He makes me slow down, pay attention to detail, maybe even *shudders* enjoy the ride…but in the meantime, he’s maddening.

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Yet there is some unspoken law that writers must marry engineers. Seriously, it is freaky.

Opposites attract and yet they also drive each other bonkers.

Question: Can you look at your cast then, using their worldview (age, personality, occupation) use that to create tension?

If you want a REALLY GOOD LAUGH???? Check out this quick video that perfectly illustrates differing world views.

I hope all of this has helped. Remember that yes, we must have a core antagonist who generates the singular story problem in need of resolution, but along the way we will need all kinds of micro-tensions and micro-aggressions to add depth to our story and keep readers riveted.

What are your thoughts? Are you a writer married to an engineer personality? Do you see all kinds of tensions flying about that you now can add to spice up your story? Are you leaving a lot of tension on the table?

If you want to become a master at plotting and tension, check out my Bullies & Baddies class below.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, 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).

Check out the other NEW classes below! Including How to Write the Dreaded Synopsis/Query Letter! 

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes

NEW CLASS!

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?

***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.

Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.

Sign up early for $10 OFF!!!

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist September 2nd–September 2nd

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

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

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold

This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.

Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line

September 7th

Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.

As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.

If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.

In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.

The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.

Blogging for Authors

September 16th

Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.

The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.

The problem is too many writers don’t approach a blog properly and make all kinds of mistakes that eventually lead to blog abandonment. Many authors fail to understand that bloggers and author bloggers are two completely different creatures.

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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25 Comments

The Problem with Pen Names

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When I first became a writer, one of my favorite activities was dreaming what my pen name would be. I’d even practice signing it so that, you know, I didn’t accidentally scribble Kristen Lamb in my runaway best-selling book at my glamorous book signing.

Don’t judge me. Y’all did it too😛 .

Before anyone gets in a fluff, understand two things. First, I’m on your side. If you want or need a pen name? Rock on! If you already have one? Keep it! If a sexy exotic name makes you write better stories? Go for it!

This is only a decision the author can make. My only goal here is to make sure y’all are making educated business decisions. Thus, I won’t stop anyone from having a pen name, but about 95% of the time? They’re unnecessary.

The modern author already has to take on far more than simply writing, so why volunteer for more work?

In my opinion? Pen names are more hassle than they are worth and they’re a fast way to land in Crazyville. Pen names used to offer benefits, but most of those benefits have evaporated because the world is digital and connected. In fact, pen names can actually hurt book sales and stall a platform and brand.

Let’s look at some of the advantages pen names used to offer that no longer exist.

I Need a Pen Name for PRIVACY

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Here’s the thing. We are in The Digital Age. Privacy is an illusion. In fact, be too private and we fail to connect emotionally with others and thus the platform and brand never gain traction. Social media is social and being social requires a certain level of vulnerability and openness.

Being open and vulnerable doesn’t mean we post our Social Security Number and the names of all our kids. It can be something as simple as, “Hey, I totally dig Dr. Who” or “I like to crochet weapons of mass destruction.”

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Some writers don’t want to do social media at all or they want to hide behind a pen name and only post “writerly things” or “BUY MY BOOK!” because, yeah, that is SUPER creative and we don’t already get enough of that *rolls eyes*.

They don’t want to share anything personal and the pen name is there to help them gain emotional distance and keep their “lives separate.”

The problem with this thinking is that, in The Digital Age, WE ARE THE BRAND.

Before The Digital Age, gatekeepers stemmed the number of books that came to market. Readers only could buy what they discovered browsing a bookstore. Now that there are millions of titles and more being added every day? Those habits and hobbies no one cared about in 1995 are what’s going to help us cultivate our readership. Readers buy from who they know and who they like.

When we try to separate our personal persona from our writing persona, we create layers of friction and a lot of extra work for those trying to discover our books.

This means we can inadvertently undermine our own success seeking the illusion of anonymity/privacy.

I Need a Pen Name to HIDE

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Erotica authors generally run into this problem. If what you write might cost you your job? Then yes, I agree a pen name is probably a good idea. It will be extra work, but y’all probably already knew that. What I DON’T like is often writers believe that just using another name is enough.

No.

First, if you require a pen name for safety, security, etc. hire a pro. I recommend The Digital Dark Knight Jay Donovan at Tech Surgeons. Tell him I sent you and he will give you special rates. If we are just creating social sites under a made up name and thinking this keeps us “safe”? This is akin to locking the screen door to keep out serial killers.

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If someone is motivated to find us, they can (unless you hire a pro like Jay).

You will probably have to look into the legal aspects of using another name and will likely require a DBA (Doing Business As) because, if you have any amount of success, you will need to be able to cash the check under another name, do taxes, etc.

Also, I will say that having to hide an identity is very stressful. Sites like Facebook use facial recognition software for tagging photos and then those photos are searchable.

All it takes is a friend carelessly posting a photo and tagging with the wrong name to implode a carefully crafted alter ego.

As more social networks communicate across platforms and search engines become more ingrained and more advanced, hiding will get harder and harder.

I Need a Pen Name for Each Genre

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NO! For the love of all that is chocolate, NO!

Remember, WE ARE THE BRAND. You guys come to my blog and trust I will work hard and deliver enjoyable content. This means when I have a book out, there is less work or thinking on your part. You know me, hopefully like me and you trust my work.

My name holds a lot of power because it promises to deliver content you enjoy. I write social media books, but I also…wait for it…write fiction.

Did anyone’s reality just fracture?

People “get” we do more than one thing. In fact, those who like my blogs or social media books, might just decide to read my fiction simply because they already trust my non-fiction. With SO many choices out there, we find a writer we like and stick like glue. We don’t want the hassle of trying and testing an unknown.

Readers don’t only read one genre. In fact, I think that is probably fairly rare.

When we use a pen name for another genre, we are back at Ground Zero. We have to build another name without any help from the already existing platform.

I finally sent off my mystery-thriller to the publisher. When that sucker goes to market? I am NOT motivated enough to start ALL OVER. If my followers don’t like stories about murder and cartels? Don’t buy my book. Simple. But, there may be people who might just try a thriller because it’s written by me.

*cute face*

It Doesn’t Take Much to Implode an Identity

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I once had a writer in my branding class who was using a pen name because her family is less than supportive and they trolled her other sites when she tried to use her real name. But what if she becomes successful and crazy family member figures out the pen name and starts trolling that site? Eventually this writer will have to put down a boundary.

Troll my site one more time and you will die in a tragic blow-up doll accident in my next novel.

She is costing herself a TON of extra work to cater to a handful of bullies. She’s losing all those close connections—schoolmates, college friends, colleagues, etc.—who actually will be her best word of mouth sales. I have people who didn’t say three words to me in high school who are now avid fans because I’m the writer they KNOW.

My Name is Too Hard to Pronounce or Spell

NO! That name no one has gotten right since you were a kid is now your digital BFF. If you don’t believe me? Google Janet Evonnivich.

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I see authors with AWESOME names for the Digital Age change it to something utterly forgettable. If your name is Skjolsvik, I don’t have to know how to pronounce it, I just have to be able to recognize it in a lineup. Also, all I have to remember is it starts with Skj—.

Search engines will correct me if I goof it.

I Need a Pen Name Because There is Another Person With My Name

Again, search engines can help with this. Do y’all really think I am the ONLY Kristen Lamb? When I decided to set aside fiction to become the social media expert for writers, I began by googling my name. There was another Kristen Lamb who happens to be a media mogul.

But by producing a LOT of content and properly tagging that content, I now dominate the search for my name. And, even if I didn’t? If someone is searching my name for my blog/books and they get Kristen Lamb the Cake Decorator, all they have to do is add the word “writer” to narrow the search.

I Need a Pen Name Because Using My Name is Pretentious

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I hear new writers say this a lot. Why would anyone care what have to say? They don’t. When I was new, they didn’t care what I had to say, either. But being a writer is fundamentally pretentious and even narcissistic. We have to believe we have something to say that is worth not only reading, but PAYING to read.

Just own it.

And if we pan back, this entire argument is more than a tad ridiculous. So no one would care what Kristen Lamb has to say, but they WILL care what Kristen Lamb writing as an imaginary person and figment of her own imagination has to say? And that isn’t pretentious?

It is YOUR Decision

In the end, all I can do is give you branding and social media advice. Multiple names and pen names are a lot of work that is very often unnecessary. I see writers do this same thing with multiple blogs.

I blog about writing but I also blog movie reviews and funny anecdotes. What if my followers who like my writing posts don’t like kitten stories?

Um, they don’t read your post that day?

I write thrillers, but I also write cozy romance. What if my readers don’t like cozy romance?

Um, they don’t buy them?

If you require a pen name for safety issues, legal issues or even because it could endanger your job? TALK TO JAY. The rest of us? Our time is better spent writing more books😉 .

What are your thoughts? Questions? Experiences? Do you have a pen name and love it? How do you manage that pen name without going cray-cray? Did you start out with a pen name and now you regret it? Do you have multiple names you now need to merge? I can actually blog about ways to do that another time.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, 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).

Check out the other NEW classes below! Now including a log-line class! Can you tell me what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t SIGN UP.

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes

Blogging for Authors  (August 26th)

This class will teach you all you need to know to start an author blog good for going the distance. Additionally I would also recommend the class offered earlier that same week (August 22nd) Branding for Authors to help you with the BIG picture. These classes will benefit you greatly because most blogs will fail because writers waste a lot of time with stuff that won’t work and never will and that wastes a lot of time.

I am here to help with that😉 .

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist September 2nd–September 2nd

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

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

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold

This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.

Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line

September 7th

Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.

As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.

If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.

In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.

The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.

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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70 Comments

Description—The Good the Bad and the Just Please STOP

Odin The Ridiculously Handsome Cat

Odin The Ridiculously Handsome Cat

In the last post, we talked about revisions and how often when we are making those next passes through we need to flesh, cut or refine our description. Can we be really honest about our description? Is it truly remarkable or just filling space? Are we weaving a spell that captures readers or are we boring them into a coma?

Okay, okay, do you have a point?

For those who never use description or very sparse description? Don’t fret. Description (or lack thereof) is a component of an author’s voice.

But obviously all writers will use some kind of description. We have to in order to draw readers into the world we are creating. If we don’t give them anything to sink their teeth into, they will wander off in search of something else.

So whether you are heavy or light on the description, here are some tips on how to do it well…

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.

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Avoid the “Google Maps” or “Weather Report” Description

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Weather can be vital and even its own character (which we will get to). But putting in weather just to tell us it’s snowing? Again, surface. Same with describing a location. Cities, streets, stores can come alive with the right description.

For some help with finding just the right words? Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have put together two setting thesauri, the Urban Setting Thesaurus and the Rural Setting Thesaurus.

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?

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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

For the Literary Folks I will use 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.

Weather/Setting/Information Without Being Info-Dump

For the sake of brevity, 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?

Yes, my cat Odin the Ridiculously Handsome Cat has his own fan page😀 .

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, 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).

Check out the other NEW classes below! Now including a log-line class! Can you tell me what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t SIGN UP.

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes

Blogging for Authors  (August 26th)

This class will teach you all you need to know to start an author blog good for going the distance. Additionally I would also recommend the class offered earlier that same week (August 22nd) Branding for Authors to help you with the BIG picture. These classes will benefit you greatly because most blogs will fail because writers waste a lot of time with stuff that won’t work and never will and that wastes a lot of time.

I am here to help with that😉 .

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist September 2nd–September 2nd

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

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

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold

This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.

Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line

September 7th

Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.

As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.

If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.

In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.

The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.

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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43 Comments

So You Wrote a First Draft—Dear God! What NOW?

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Once we have that crappy first draft usually there will be two major things we need to do…fill or cut. Okay, drinking makes three. And maybe wondering why we didn’t go to dental hygienist school instead makes four….

Anyway.

While it is true that too little substance can generate confusion, too much fluff can create distraction.

There needs to be a balance between…

Enough about the damn snowstorm! and Wait? There was snow?

Thus, once we have that completed first draft and begin our read-through we need to make these refinements to see if what we created meets or exceeds our expectations.

Sadly this is usually the first draft.

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Much of what we will need to do is going to be dictated by what kind of writer we are. Are we a Trimmer or an Embellisher? There is a fantastic post over on Writer Unboxed that describes these two types of writers.

Some writers do a very sparse first draft that acts a lot like a frame for paper machet. It is really meant to just give an idea of the final form and serve as a guide.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Suzette.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Suzette.

Once the structure is inspected and found to be solid enough for government work, the writer then goes back through and fleshes in the work.

Other writers write super heavy then carve away what doesn’t serve the story.

And while I think all of us will identify with one type or another (Trimmer or Embellisher) it really helps to know what to add and/or what to cut.

If we add too much of the wrong thing, we can spoil the entire novel. If we cut too much of the right stuff we can collapse the story. Thus I hope today to at least give you some guidance beyond the more surface line-edit tips I’ve given before (6 Ways to Self-Edit and Polish Your Prose) though those are super helpful as well.

When I do a content edit for any writer, these are the main areas I am looking for.

What To Cut

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Jojo Nicado

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Jojo Nicado

Character Redundancy

Each character should have a distinctive personality. This personality will give them a corresponding unique purpose to driving the story forward and generating conflict.

In Lord of the Rings the main story problem is of course created by Sauron (the whole evil ring thing). But, much of the story conflict is actually created by the cast members of the various parties who all have a specific role to play.

Merry and Pippin create a lot of chaos that generates sudden changes in the plan. For instance, the plan was to meet Gandalf at The Prancing Pony NOT to nearly fall into the Dark Rider’s lap outrunning a ticked off farmer.

The duo is naive, inquisitive and we can kind of bundle them into one because they are a team in their mischief. To have essentially another Merry and or Pippin type character would be a redundancy that would be a distraction.

Ask yourself then: Do I have any characters who could be merged?

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Q Family

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Q Family

Scenes that Don’t Move the Story Forward

All scenes have one common element. Conflict. There is a goal. No goal and that isn’t a scene.

Sections of information dump, flashbacks that have no ties to the main plot problem/resolution, or scenes with no conflict (I.e. two characters merely talking about a third character)? CUT.

Lackluster Description

Many of us love description. I do. My motto? No metaphor left behind! But description can have two main problems. Either we have a lot of good description but it is SO much that it is bogging down the story. Or, we have description, but it isn’t anything remarkable and we need to replace it with something better.

Ideally, it will be description that goes below the surface and adds to the plot, sets the tone and heightens tension.

Description is more than a weather report or a police sketch.

He was tall and handsome with a chiseled chin and dark wavy hair and…

And he took your purse?

I love this line from the beginning of Prisoner of Hell Gate, which is a literary suspense and one of my favorite books. This description hooks me and sets my expectations:

Dampness prevails, as always, but at this time less from the river and more from the mugginess that weighs on everything. It penetrates the very bricks, their crumbling mortar spongy to the touch.

I don’t know about you, but I am practically wilting reading this. It works way better than:

She walked beside the river on a hot summer night.

Though obviously style will dictate how we write description, even lean writers use words that will give the most impact.

He was a boring man dressed in an off-the-rack suit.

Maybe, instead…

He was the kind of man whose face you forgot even while you were still speaking to him.

Good description is less about piling on details and more about evoking a feeling.

What to Add

Sense of Time and Place

Is this a modern story? Or one set back in time? Is there magic? Technology? What is the setting? Now drop in the details that ground us. Talking heads in a place we aren’t oriented in is jarring. If this is in the beginning of a book, often it will fail to hook.

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Character Nuance

If we just roughed out a bare-bones plot, we now need to go put the modeling clay on the skull.

Another one of my all-time favorite books is Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. Now in a parallel world maybe he just wrote out that he needed “a brash bounty hunter with a red car” then later built it into this:

“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)

We learned a lot about this character from a three-sentence bit of dialogue, some power-packed description and even some narrative regarding how others responded in the company of this particular character.

This is a really short section that does a lot. It even hints at what type of book this is…a book about zombies. If we happened to pick up this story with no book cover, we’d “get” what it was about.

More Conflict/Tension/Surprise

Great stories are about one thing and one thing only. PROBLEMS. Are our characters getting what they want too easily? Too quickly? Is their action toward each goal too linear? Are there enough stakes? Setbacks? Misdirections?

Are the characters’ actions too predictable? Can you maybe do better at defying reader expectations?

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Are the characters acting as three-dimensional “people” who carry a lot of baggage? Or are they plot-puppets merely doing and saying things because we Author God need them to?

What are your thoughts? Does this help give you a plan of what to do with that first draft? Are you afraid of your office because your WIP might bite you and thus far refuses to be potty trained? What items do you look for? Can you add to the lists I gave?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, 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).

Check out the other NEW classes below! Now including a log-line class! Can you tell me what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t SIGN UP.

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes

Blogging for Authors  (August 26th)

This class will teach you all you need to know to start an author blog good for going the distance. Additionally I would also recommend the class offered earlier that same week (August 22nd) Branding for Authors to help you with the BIG picture. These classes will benefit you greatly because most blogs will fail because writers waste a lot of time with stuff that won’t work and never will and that wastes a lot of time.

I am here to help with that😉 .

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist September 2nd–September 2nd

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

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

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold

This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.

Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line

September 7th

Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.

As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.

If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.

In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.

The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.

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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51 Comments

4 Powerful Ways to Improve Your Writing

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Today, copywriter and blogger Alex Limberg is back with a post that’s a bit different from his typical “how-to” writing advice. In this one, he spills the beans on how his own writing process came together. Here is the link again to his wonderful e-book that will help you create a tight and intriguing story by asking “44 key questions.” Check it out! And off we go…

***

Over the last several months, I’ve had the great pleasure of publishing ten guest posts here on Kristen’s fine blog. They were posts about all kinds of technical writing topics like characters, action scenes, how to introduce information, plot, etc… (look them up).

But for my eleventh post today, I thought it was time to switch gears.

Yes, it’s time for me to stop hiding behind the mask of the teacher and show myself to you bare-naked. But fear not, this post is still not X-rated. No need to hide it from the kids.

I’m just saying that this is a much more personal post than the ones before it.

Today, I want to report from my own writing journey and highlight for you what has advanced me most in my writing. Hopefully these lessons will help you too, especially if you are at the beginning stages of creating fiction.

Any look back on a passion project must always be personal and a bit awkward. That’s because it matters so much to you.

When you start out writing, like with any new skill, what you are doing just feels clumsy and deficient. The ugly truth is, the beginning stage is painful for novices of any field. You have no clue about anything, and you don’t even have a feeling for what’s missing. You feel out of balance, like a bear starting to practice riding a unicycle.

In my case, that clumsy bear phase began when I was 14; that’s when I started writing with serious intentions. Gladly, while writing, I didn’t realize how far I was from where I wanted to be. Like the donkey following a crunchy carrot, it always seemed to me my goal was just around the next corner.

Internet was still a few years away, and I didn’t have any information about the most effective ways to sharpen my skills. I just followed my gut and did what my passion told me: To keep writing and pushing forward.

But looking back now, I can point out the four specific things I did that helped me more than anything for my fiction writing. Let’s take a look at them.

Oh, and I almost forgot: Like always, if you want a comprehensive, no-holds-barred list about what I learned makes a good story, download my free ebook about 44 test questions to make your story great.

Putting a Lot of Hours into Writing

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If you take just one single thing from this post, let it be this one: You only learn by doing!

By far the most important thing you can do to get good at a skill is to practice it relentlessly.

Theory can be a shortcut, and it’s a good idea to study a bit how people more skilled than you have done it before you – but don’t get stuck with it. You will never be able to write well just from reading theory. That would be like trying to become a world-class tennis player by sitting on your couch, watching tennis and eating potato chips.

No, here is the only way to get good: You have to sit down on the cheeks opposite of your face and actually do it!

There is a rule that says you need about 10,000 hours to excel at a skill, and I found that number to be remarkably accurate: After roughly 10,000 hours of writing, I started to become really happy with the quality of my writing and my stories.

But back then, of course I didn’t know about that rule. I just knew that to have a finished book that I loved, I would need to have a finished book first.

And so I wrote. When the novel was done, I read it, and my heart sank to my knees – my writing was a lot worse than I had thought. But I still loved the story. So I wrote it again. And again. All in all, I wrote that novel four times.

And while putting in my hours and actually doing it, I became good.

Reading a Lot

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Just like you probably do, I loved books, I loved stories, and I loved to withdraw and immerse myself in different, fascinating worlds. I was intrigued by exciting plot, strong characters and skillful dialogue.

I had started devouring books at age 6 and never stopped. By the time I started writing, I had already been through many bookshelves worth of literature, with many more to come. I just followed my passion. But what I didn’t know was that observing my role models shaped me excellently.

When reading fiction, your subconscious automatically absorbs the language, the patterns, the three dimensional characters, the plot structure.

When you constantly immerse your brain in stories and language, you can be sure that deep down a killer instinct for writing is built. You can’t help but learn.

You will be able to draw from this reservoir for all of your writing career. Even if it’s not a career.

Being Brutally Honest with Myself

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You won’t find this one in many writing manuals, because it’s hard to do: Being able to admit to yourself what you have written is plainly bad. Admitting it is especially hard when you have no idea how to make it better and how to navigate the maze that is writing a good story.

Me, I’m a critical and sometimes too critical mind.

I’m usually able to confess to myself when work I have done sucks. To be honest, for many years reading my prose was an utterly depressing experience. My pulse quickened and my palms got sweaty when I realized everything it lacked.

What I wasn’t aware of at the time was how many people go for half-hearted outcomes, only to tell themselves it is okay and good enough. But self-deceit hardly ever leads to success.

You grow most outside your comfort zone. You grow when you set yourself goals and work towards them. And in order to establish these goals, you must admit that you are not there yet. You have to be able to take a good, hard look at your writing and realize what is missing.

Only then do you allow yourself to become better.

Knowing My Characters as Well as My Best Friends

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Your characters are driving your story. That also means when you have great characters, they will drive your story for you.

They will take care of who they are (characterization), what they do (plot), what they say (dialogue), and what they see (description). That’s still not your entire story (above all, you also have to learn how to handle language), but it’s a huge part of what makes your story.

Hence, if you know your characters really, really well, it will help you enormously.

Once I realized this, I started to write out long character sheets for each main character before even writing one single word of the main story.

I wrote out deep psychology, background, attitude, speech patterns and more. Then I put my characters into single scenes totally unrelated to the story, just to see how they would behave. How would they react to winning the lottery? To their brother insulting them? To gaining weight?

Minor characters would get shorter character sheets and even very small characters would have a couple of sentences dedicated to their personalities.

So write out your character sheets, and then lean back and let your characters do all the hard work for you…

In summary, follow these four cornerstones: Write relentlessly, read, be honest with yourself and know your characters like your best friends. I followed these rules intuitively, and only looking back do I now realize how important they were for my writing.

If you do just these four things, you have come a long, long way. Your writing will improve fast and the quality of your stories will skyrocket. Till one day you notice… writing doesn’t feel clumsy anymore at all.

Now it feels effortless.

****

Got it, Alex.

Kristen here. Now tell me: What do you think of these four points? Is there something else that really helped you getting better at story writing? Why can it be so brutal to read your own story? Do you ever wish you weren’t in the room when you read it? Could you maybe say you have gone outside for a smoke? Do your characters even like you?

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

I love hearing from you!

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

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

Check out the other NEW classes below! 

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes

Blogging for Authors  (August 26th) will teach you all you need to know to start an author blog good for going the distance. Additionally I would also recommend the class offered earlier that same week (August 22nd) Branding for Authors to help you with the BIG picture. These classes will benefit you greatly because most blogs will fail because writers waste a lot of time with stuff that won’t work and never will and that wastes a lot of time.

I am here to help with that😉 .

We are doing ANOTHER round of Battle of the First Pages!!! August 5th

The first time we did this we had some tech issues doing this new format and we’ve since worked those out, but for now I am still keeping the price low ($25) until we get this streamlined to my tastes.

LIMITED SEATS. This is an open workshop where each person will submit his or her first page of the manuscript for critique. I will read the page aloud and “gong” where I would have stopped reading and explain why. This is an interactive workshop designed to see what works or what doesn’t. Are you ready to test your page in the fire?

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages August 12th

The first five pages are the most essential part of the novel, your single most powerful selling tool. It’s how you will hook agents, editors and readers. This class will cover the most common blunders and also teach you how to hook hard and hook early. This class is 90 minutes long, 60 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.

Your First Five Pages Gold Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique your first five pages.

Your First Five Pages Platinum Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique of your first twenty pages.

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist September 2nd–September 2nd

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

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

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold

This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.

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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37 Comments

Stress & Burnout—How to Get Your Creative Mojo Back

Image courtesy of Eflon via Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Eflon via Flickr Creative Commons

The past few years have been just brutal. My grandmother who raised me was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and it was just one crisis after another and it just never…freaking…let…up. I felt like I was in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu being crushed all the time, but not allowed to tap out. Then, on Independence Day (ironically) my grandmother finally passed away.

I really never appreciated how much her declining health was impacting me until she was gone. It was like I was wandering around in a fugue state only aware that my knees hurt. Then out of nowhere a hand lifted off the 500 pound gorilla and I could breathe again. I never noticed the gorilla, never noticed the lack of air, only the knee pain.

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So now I am in the process of rebuilding. I plan on taking a couple days off to just rest and get away from all the work that piled up for me to do. Hit my reset button, so to speak. But I figured blogging about this might help some of you who are struggling, too.

Burnout can come from all directions—family, job, marriage, illness, death. Sometimes we are not even aware how hard we have been hit until something radical changes (for me, a death). We are the frog being slowly boiled alive, oblivious that maybe we should jump out.

Writer’s Block

The words won’t flow and you think you might have worn out your thesaurus function looking for another word to say “the.” You might be your own worst enemy.

Writing can be therapeutic. True. But, our creativity can also be one of the first casualties of too much stress, which makes sense when we really study what is happening to us when we’re under too much pressure.

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Biology 101

Have you ever wondered why you can’t remember half of what you said after a fight? Wondered why it seems the only time you can’t find your keys is the day you’re late for work? Been curious why you said the stupidest comments in the history of stupidity while in your first pitch session with an agent?

Yup. Stress. But how does stress make perfectly normal and otherwise bright individuals turn into instant idiots?

Basically, the same biological defense mechanisms that kept us alive hunting bison while wearing the latest saber tooth fashions are still at work today. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in tandem to regulate the conscious mind. Sympathetic gears us for fight or flight. Parasympathetic calms us down after we’ve outrun the bear…or opened that rejection letter.

In order for the sympathetic system to do its job effectively, it dumps all sorts of stress hormones into the body—DHEA, cortisol, adrenaline—to enable that super human strength, speed, and endurance required to survive the crisis. The problem is that the human body thinks in blanket terms and cannot tell the difference between fighting off a lion and fighting with the electric company.

The human brain is divided into three parts:

Cerebral Cortex—higher thinking functions like language, meaning, logic.

Limbic/Mammalian Brain—used for experiencing emotions.

Reptilian Brain—cares only about food, sex, survival.

I believe that writers (and people in general, for that matter), could benefit greatly by truly understanding stress and the affect it has on the mind and body. A brain frazzled to the breaking point physiologically cannot access information contained in the cerebral cortex (higher thinking center). Thus, the smart writer must learn to manage stress.

And for the purpose of this blog, I am referring to bad stress so there is no confusion.

Modern life may not have as many literal lions and tigers and bears, but we are still bombarded with their figurative counterparts all day, every day. When stress hits, the body reacts within milliseconds.

Welcome to Stress Brain

This is me right now *head desk*

This is me right now *head desk*

The sympathetic nervous system floods the body with hormones, increases heart rate, pulls blood away from digestive and reproductive systems, etc. And, most importantly, it diverts blood supply to the mammalian and reptile brain at the expense of the cerebral cortex. Apparently the body feels your witty repertoire of Nietzsche quotes are not real helpful in lifting a car off your child.

Thus, since the mammalian brain is in high gear, this explains why it is not uncommon to experience intense emotion while under stress. This is why crying, when confronted or angry, is very common. It is also why, once we calm down, we frequently wonder why we were so upset to begin with…mammalian brain overtook logic.

This is also why the gazillion action figures your child leaves littered across the floor suddenly becomes a capital offense two seconds after you accidentally set dinner ablaze. Your emotions have taken front and center stage and knocked logic into the orchestra pit.

Another interesting point…

When the sympathetic nervous system prepares us for fight or flight, our pupils dilate. The purpose of this is to take in as much information about a situation as possible. The problem is that, although we are seeing “more” we are actually seeing “less.” The body is totally focused on the cause of the stress. This is why, when we’re running late to work, we see every clock in the house, but cannot seem to find our car keys.

This also explains how, once we take time to breathe and calm down, those keys have a way of magically appearing in the same drawer we opened 763 times earlier (while screaming at the kids, the dog, the cat, the laundry….). Poof! Magic.

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Once we understand and respect stress, it seems easier to give ourselves permission to go on vacation or truly take a day off. It is a matter of survival. When bad stress piles up, we physiologically are incapable of:

1) Being productive.

That book proposal will take 15 times longer to prepare because you keep forgetting the point you were trying to make in the first place.

We will wear out the thesaurus function on our computer looking for another way to say “good.” Face it. Stress makes us stupid.

2) Making clear decisions.

We won’t be making decisions from the logical part of our brain, so eating everything in the house will actually seem like a good idea.

3) Interacting in a healthy way with our fellow humans.

The new trees for your back yard might never get planted because your husband will be too busy plotting a way to bury you under them.

The most important lesson here is to respect stress. We must respect its effects the way we should alcohol. Why do we make certain to have a designated driver? Because when we’re sober, we think clearly and know that driving drunk is a very poor decision. Yet, the problem with alcohol is it removes our ability to think with the higher brain functions. Stress does the same thing. It limits/obliterates clear thought.

That’s why it is a very good idea to have people close to us who we respect to step in and 1) force us to back away and take a break, 2) convince us to take a vacation, get a pedicure, go shopping, hit the gym 3) give us a reality check, 4) take on some of the burden, 5) run interference with toxic people.

Like great violinists take great care to protect their hands, we writers would be wise to do the same with our emotions and our minds. So when the stress levels get too high and you start seeing it seeping into your writing, it is wise to find a way to release stress. Take back the keys to your higher thinking centers! Take back that cortical brain!

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Exercise, read, pray, meditate, watch a movie, laugh, do yoga, take a walk, work in the garden. Most of all…write. But do a different kind of writing. Write without a care in the world. Ever wonder why experts advise us to do freewriting when we hit a wall?

Seems counterintuitive, but it is actually super smart when you think about the biology lesson we just had. If we can just write forward, without caring about the clarity or quality, we often can alleviate stress rather than fuel it. This freewriting can calm us back into the cortical brain so later, when our head is back on straight, we can go back and clean up the mess.

Which is exactly what I will do…after I go for a walk.

What are some ways you guys deal with stress? How do you overcome writer’s block? Have you been through caregiver burnout? How did you recover? Hey, I am a work in progress too😀 .

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

Check out the other NEW classes below! 

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes

Blogging for Authors  (August 26th) will teach you all you need to know to start an author blog good for going the distance. Additionally I would also recommend the class offered earlier that same week (August 22nd) Branding for Authors to help you with the BIG picture. These classes will benefit you greatly because most blogs will fail because writers waste a lot of time with stuff that won’t work and never will and that wastes a lot of time.

I am here to help with that😉 .

We are doing ANOTHER round of Battle of the First Pages!!! August 5th

The first time we did this we had some tech issues doing this new format and we’ve since worked those out, but for now I am still keeping the price low ($25) until we get this streamlined to my tastes.

LIMITED SEATS. This is an open workshop where each person will submit his or her first page of the manuscript for critique. I will read the page aloud and “gong” where I would have stopped reading and explain why. This is an interactive workshop designed to see what works or what doesn’t. Are you ready to test your page in the fire?

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages August 12th

The first five pages are the most essential part of the novel, your single most powerful selling tool. It’s how you will hook agents, editors and readers. This class will cover the most common blunders and also teach you how to hook hard and hook early. This class is 90 minutes long, 60 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.

Your First Five Pages Gold Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique your first five pages.

Your First Five Pages Platinum Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique of your first twenty pages.

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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53 Comments

It Ain’t Just Talk: 3 Crucial Elements of Great Dialog

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She’s baaaaack. Well, sort of. Today I have an extra special treat. This is going to sound super conceited but whatever, it is MY blog😛 . But first lemme caveat with this.

I feel I DO have a knack for predicting the next big thing. Case in point, in 1993 I was at an air show and there was an unknown all-female band I chatted with because no one was really over there. I loved their unique sound and gushed over how one member employed the banjo (an instrument forgotten at that time).

I told them I was sure they were going to be the next biggest thing in country music, and even bought some of the cheap merchandise they sold to support their music and prove I meant what I said.

That little band was The Dixie Chicks.

I’ve done this time and time again with authors and bloggers and I can tell you that if there is any sense in this world, J.E. Fishman (A.K.A. Dana Wolff) will be the next legendary author of our time. He’s already proven himself as a NYC agent and editor and he is one HELL of an author (multi-published).

Speaking of HELL, his latest release The Prisoner of Hell Gate written under the pen name Dana Wolff is by far one of the most amazing books I have ever read (and I pretty much hate everything…occupational hazard). Not only is the story sheer genius (Filed under “Stuff I Wish I Would Have Thought Of”) the prose is like fine French cooking.

If you like bare Hemingway writing with no description and lean sentences? This is not for you. But, if you are a lover of words and cannot help but GORGE on “perfect description”? Just plan on highlighting almost everything. My paper copy just became a damn coloring book. I gave up and got the audio so I would actually finish the book.

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In fact, I sent J.E. a message telling him I hated him. *flops on bed* I can’t wriiiiiiiite like that. I suuuuuuuck.

Seriously, I will blog more on this book later, but OMG. Get this book and if you want a MIND-BLOWING experience? Buy it in audio. Whoever did the narration? She needs to read every book I ever listen to for like…ever.

I will stop gushing now and let J.E. take over but like many of my other blogs foretelling the future (like the ones that predicted The Big Six would shrink, that self-pub would explode, that Amazon would HAVE to open a brick-and-mortar, that stretchy pants were here to stay)…one day you will come back to this blog and go, “She was RIGHT!”

Ouch! I got a cramp from patting myself on the back!

Okay, shutting up for realz now. Today, you guys get to learn today from a true master…

***

Two people are sitting on a park bench. What words do they use to talk to one another?

If you answered, How the heck am I supposed to know?, you are well on your way to understanding how to construct good dialog.

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You undoubtedly know, for example, that writing dialog depends upon knowing which characters are speaking, the details of their relationship, and other basic—or not so basic—characteristics they may have. What if one of these characters is mute? What if one of them is a two-year-old child?

And yet, so much dialog we see today feels so generic, so interchangeable. Why? I think that’s because dialog too often ends up working harder in service to the story—What happens next? What information does the author have to get to the reader RIGHT NOW?—than in service to the reader.

I believe that many readers want something more than only to find answers to the ever-crucial question, And then what happened?

Since our characters at times communicate directly with one another, dialog gives us a major tool that we can use to enhance our storytelling in a rounded way, not just to advance events.

Good dialog enriches the reading experience and creates greater empathy with your characters by deepening their individuality.

The main thing to remember when crafting dialog is:

Content and style are NOT two completely different things.

The way your character speaks reflects what your character wants—in that moment and in life.

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Here are some simple dialog techniques to keep in mind while writing. Remember, once you’ve committed to any of these for a particular character, be consistent without overdoing things:

  • Vocabulary. Big words vs small words. Technical jargon vs plain speaking. Foreign words vs straight English. Regional usage vs generic usage. Precocious vs ordinary.
  • Length. Some characters are terse and others are voluble. This distinction alone can speak volumes about personality.
  • Rhythm. This one’s a little harder to put one’s finger on. Listen to the voice of the character in your head. Some people speak fast and others speak slowly. How might you suggest this with phrasing?
  • FormalityHere’s another aspect of speech that can suggest much about your character. Does she use profanity? Does he speak in a stilted manner? Does she use a lot of contractions?
  • Verbal Tics. Maybe your character stutters or speaks with sibilance or has some other verbal tic. This can become an immediate identifier, but be careful not to overuse it.

With these tools at your command, you can begin to think about…

Three Elements of Great Dialog

#1 Your character’s fundamentals:

  • Sex. “Man or woman” might imply a generalization, but perhaps your character goes against type. That would tell us something very powerful every time she opens her mouth.
  • Age. As we all know, a five-year-old boy generally speaks differently from a 30-year-old man, etc.
  • Physical Attributes. Perhaps your character sits in a wheelchair. What verbal techniques might she have mastered to get the attention of people who tower over her?

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#2 Your character’s history:

  • Upbringing in Time. People raised at different times use different vocabularies and constructions. Someone raised in the Seventies, for example, may use a very different vocabulary from a child of the Aughts.
  • Social Status. While the whole concept of social status is a moving target, there is little question that some people play to or against their status (by affecting an upper-class accent or, on the other hand, being more “street” than expected). The way they choose to speak in relation to their standing in society can tell us a lot about their character.
  • Education. Some people are book smart and some people attended the school of hard knocks. A Ph.D. often speaks differently from a high school dropout. Although, of course, you can also have fun playing against type here.
  • Recent History. If your character recently underwent some kind of transformation (before or after the story starts), this may affect the way she speaks.
  • Relationship to Other Characters in the Scene. This element is more contingent than the others, as it depends upon who else is in the scene. A woman speaks to her son differently than she speaks to her male boss. A man speaks to his female boss differently than he speaks to his girlfriend. How your protagonist speaks with subordinates, for instance, might also be very revealing of character.

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#3 Your character’s wants:

  • In Life and/or Story Arc. There is nothing more important in storytelling than what your characters want at any given moment and in the broader narrative arc. Therefore, it helps greatly if the nature of their dialog reflects their desires. If I kind of want a drink of water and you’re withholding it, I might be polite. If I desperately want it, I might be more direct, even rude. On the bigger canvas, if I’m racing against time to save the world from nuclear holocaust, I might choose to dispense with pleasantries. Then again, maybe not, if I have good reason to pursue another tack.
  • Mood in the Scene. None of us has just one way of speaking. How a character chooses to speak at a particular moment in the story might be greatly influenced by her state of mind.

When I’m writing, I try to hear the voices of my characters in my head and remember what makes them distinct from one another. When I self-edit and rewrite, I ask myself questions like: Would that character really use that word?

With all that said, it pays to remember that a novel is entertainment and dialog is part of the entertainment. Therefore (duh) the best dialog is entertaining. Try to be clever without showing how smart you are. Follow the above guidelines AND do so in a fresh and entertaining way. Then you’ll be well on your way to crafting memorable and effective dialog.

***

Thank you! Please show J.E. some love in the comments with any questions or thoughts. This is a really great opportunity to talk to a fantastically talented and proven Big Five author. If you want more on dialog from J.E. check out The Big Thrill for MORE!

And remember bloggers have big hearts, short attention spans and long memories. We DO remember who shows the love! And any comments for my guest count double in the contest. What contest?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

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J.E. Fishman writes screenplays and is author of 7 critically acclaimed thrillers and several nonfiction books. His latest novel, The Prisoner of Hell Gate, was written under the pen name Dana I. Wolff and published July 2016 by the Picador imprint of Macmillan.

Check out NEW classes below! 

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

We are doing ANOTHER round of Battle of the First Pages!!! August 5th

The first time we did this we had some tech issues doing this new format and we’ve since worked those out, but for now I am still keeping the price low ($25) until we get this streamlined to my tastes.

LIMITED SEATS. This is an open workshop where each person will submit his or her first page of the manuscript for critique. I will read the page aloud and “gong” where I would have stopped reading and explain why. This is an interactive workshop designed to see what works or what doesn’t. Are you ready to test your page in the fire?

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages July 22nd

The first five pages are the most essential part of the novel, your single most powerful selling tool. It’s how you will hook agents, editors and readers. This class will cover the most common blunders and also teach you how to hook hard and hook early. This class is 90 minutes long, 60 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.

Your First Five Pages Gold Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique your first five pages.

Your First Five Pages Platinum Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique of your first twenty pages.

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist July 29th

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

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

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold

This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.

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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65 Comments

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