Archive for category Writing Tips

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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126 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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70 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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144 Comments

Against All Odds—What’s Our REAL Chance of Becoming a Successful Author?

Image and quote courtesy of SEAL of Honor on Facebook.

Image and quote courtesy of SEAL of Honor on Facebook.

Many of you were here for last week’s discussion regarding What Makes a Real Writer? When we decide to become professional writers, we have a lot of work ahead of us and sadly, most will not make the cut.

I know it’s a grossly inaccurate movie, but I love G.I. Jane. I recall a scene during Hell Week (the first evolution of S.E.A.L. training) where Master Chief has everyone doing butterfly kicks in the rain. He yells at the recruits to look to their left and look to their right, that statistically, those people will quit.

Who will be the first to ring that bell? Who will be the first to quit?

Years ago, one of my mentors mentioned The 5% Rule. What’s The 5% Rule? So happy you asked. Statistically, only 5% of the population is capable of sustained change. This means of ALL the people who want to run marathons, 5% will. Of ALL the people who join a martial arts class, only 5% will ever reach black belt. Of ALL the people who have a dream of being a career author, only about 5% will ever reach that goal and maintain it.

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At first, I was horrified when I heard this statistic. I want everyone to be successful! Surely if they had more tools, more chances, more affordable classes…

Human nature is a weird thing and, had I not seen this 5% rule play out countless times, I’d still be an unbeliever. Yet, like everyone is not meant to be a Navy S.E.A.L., not everyone is meant to be a career author. This is good news and bad news. Bad news is odds are against us. Good news is multi-fold. First, we control a lot of the factors that lead to success. Secondly, this job is NOT for everyone.

Believe it or not, what we do is excruciatingly HARD. Just like it is NOT normal for a human body to run long miles in freezing surf carrying a Zodiac filled with water, it is NOT normal to sit and write 100,000+ words. Most people—literate or not—cannot do what we do.

They like to believe they can…but they can’t.

One of the reasons regular people are so shocked to meet a “real” writer is that so few writers ever really reach the professional level. But, why? Why do so many give up the dream? What does the 5% writer do differently than hoi polloi 95%?

I’m an optimist. I believe all of us possess what it takes to be in that coveted 5%. Question is, can we overcome our natures?

Pros Like Validation But Don’t Require It 

Image via QuickMeme

Image via QuickMeme

Validation is different from feedback. We ALL love validation. We crave it. We adore it. But pros don’t require it.

When I first brought my glorious prose to a critique group, I said I wanted feedback. What I really wanted was for the group to tell me that my words were written in angel tears and that all the agents who rejected me must have been brain damaged.

I did not want to hear that I might not have a clue what I was doing. I did not want my pages handed back dripping in red ink. In fact, that hurt. A LOT. I had to learn to suck it up and press on. If one person had an opinion? Well, might just be a personal preference. When ten people gave the same opinion?

Houston, I had a problem.

Writers can work years without any hint of outside approval. Most people can’t sustain this and they give up. I found out last week that this blog has been named Writer’s Digest‘s Top 101 Websites for Writers for 2015.

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*happy dance*

But some of you might not know that I blogged for almost two years and no one cared. My biggest fans were the male-enhancement bots.

I so licked your blog. You make many grate poinsettias. Is it just me or are all your commenters brain dead?

Hmm, maybe he’s foreign? Or not *head desk*

How much do you LOVE the dream? Because I will tell you that if I went by outside approval, I would have quit YEARS ago. If I judged my future success by my beginning blog stats or early book sales?

*weeps*

I was starting to wonder if I’d made a serious error by leaving sales. Sales had a paycheck, a fancy title and a company car. No stranger ever asked me if I was a “real” salesperson.

I went a LONG, LONG, LOOOONG time when no one cared and worse, they thought I was a joke/lunatic/poseur/hack. We need rhino skin in this business.

When I started this blog seven years ago, there were all kinds of other bloggers who were bigger than me. Sadly, many of them are gone. Never underestimate the power of simply showing up.

Below is an image of my blog stats.

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Can you tell when I made it past “The Dip”? What if I’d quit? In 2009, I had a little over 6,000 views for the year (and I’d been blogging about 18 months by this point). In 2013, I had almost 450,000 views. But how many people would have given up when staring at those 2009 numbers (which works out to about 15 views a day)?

Pros Don’t Find Time, They MAKE Time

Time isn’t hiding down in the couch cushions camouflaged in Cheerios. We don’t find time, we make time. Often new writers will bemoan how they wish they could find time. 

Yet, I will posit this.

If today, I could guarantee you hundreds of millions of dollars in sales and all you had to do was finish the novel, how many would stay up late or get up early? How many would decide the family can go to the movies alone? Or that the floors are clean enough?

Often we procrastinate because there is no guarantee of success. Procrastination and perfectionism are frequently driven by fear of failure. If we never finish, we can never really fail. Our work is never out there to be judged.

As I like to say, “If we aren’t failing, we aren’t doing anything interesting.” So what if you write a blog and no one cares? Join the club. My first blogs were dreadful. So the crickets and spam bots can boo you :P ? Write a crappy first novel. Then move on. Learn. Keep writing!

No unpublished blog ever went viral. No unfinished novel ever became a runaway success.

Pros Focus on What They Can Control

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Show me a struggling author and I will show you someone spending too much time shopping the same book. Instead of writing more books and better books, these writers are worried about querying the same book over and over, or (if published) they fret over sales, marketing, blog tours, or algorithms.

We cannot control what will be the next hottest thing. We can’t control the marketplace or the tastes of readers or whether matte bookmarks sell more books than pink beer koozies. This means we shouldn’t waste precious time on things we cannot control at the expense of things we can.

When I gave the 5% statistic earlier, many of you were probably discouraged. But let’s take a closer look at that number.

It’s been said that as much as 75% of the literate population would love to one day write a book. Out of hundreds of millions of possible authors, how many do you think actually take the idea seriously?

5%

And of the tens of millions left over, how many sit down and write and finish a first draft?

5%

Of the millions remaining, how many actually read craft books, get critique and keep revising that first draft until they have a polished draft?

5%

Of those who finish that first novel then realize they have a train wreck and not a novel, how many suck it up and start over to write a better book that’s more likely to engage with readers?

5%

Of those who finally write a decent book, how many take time to also build a brand and platform? How many learn to blog effectively in ways that reach and cultivate readers?

5%

How many get in the regular habit of writing, researching and revising? They don’t just stop with the one book and keep on writing more books?

5%

Of those who publish the first book and don’t instantly become zillionaires, how many keep writing and improving?

5%

This profession is really hard. Toss a few hundred million people with a dream into one large funnel and most will not shake out at the end. Yet, if we look at the individual pieces of becoming “successful” it is astonishing how much we control.

Others whine, we work.

What are your thoughts? Does this 5% example make you feel a little better about your chances? Can you look at your own life and routine and maybe see some areas that you can come up higher? I am ALWAYS reevaluating how and where I am spending my time. Have you been allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by things beyond your control? Do you find that fear keeps you from finishing? Hey, I have been guilty of ALL of this, so we are friends here ;) .

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).

***Congratulations to March’s WINNER of 20 Pages of Critique. Krystol Diggs, step into the arena! Please send me your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. I look forward to reading your work.

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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195 Comments

Series and Psychopaths—The Author Sadist & Why Audiences LOVE the Pain

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Mads Mikkelsen in “Hannibal”

Hubby and I are now careening through Hannibal, which is some of the most amazing writing I’ve ever seen. I would have never believed any actor could even rival Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, but…? Mads Mikkelsen might actually be better. I don’t know if I have ever felt so conflicted about a character. Hannibal is a stone-cold killer, but then I catch myself rooting for him?

Wait…no, he’s the BAD GUY. Right?

I’m so confused *head desk*

Yet, this series is such a prime example of why series are superlative storytelling. Instead of containing a character like Lecter to 90-120 minutes, we now have what no movie can offer…TIME. This allows for a layering, a depth, an exploration we always craved, even if we weren’t entirely aware of it at the time.

I find it harder to make snap judgements (like I do in a movie) because just about the moment I am horrified by Lecter, he has another scene where he is kind, compassionate, supportive (um, psychopath?) and I’m back being conflicted.

Much like that guy I dated when I was 21 ;) .

Right about the time I was sure he was a jerk I never wanted to talk to again, he’d show that side I’d fallen for and I’d give another chance.

So yes, the writers of this show are master manipulators and play (at least my feelings) like a violin. They keep pushing buttons, enticing our innate human curiosity to understand WHY? Like a dangerous snake that fascinates us, we are staring, tapping at the glass and enamored (conveniently forgetting the snake just ate a cute little mouse earlier).

For me, this series is more than superior storytelling. In ways, the writers have done a masterful job of placing the viewer in the role of those who deal with psychopaths. It’s like being on a roller coaster, experiencing the thrill of near-death but without the real danger. And isn’t that what superb writing is all about? Offering a slice of danger for the audience to experience and explore from safety?

Series Are Taking OVER

I refuse to watch any show that doesn’t have at least two seasons complete, namely because, if I like a new show? Apparently it spells its DEATH for the new showThus, I don’t like getting too attached. I wait, then inhale an entire season a day.

Don’t judge. I know you do it too O_o.

I feel that series, complex series, are actually the way of the future (and have felt this way since roughly 2004). There’s a fantastic book that explains why, called Everything That’s Bad for You is Good (and I strongly recommend it). In a nutshell, popular opinion seems to be that, as a society, we are getting DUMBER, spiraling toward an Idiocracy.

In the face of Honey Boo-Boo and The Bachelor, it’s tough to argue. But those shows are mindless brain junk food, and thus we’re comparing apples to oranges when we place them next to Breaking Bad or Walking Dead. Those other shows aren’t storytelling. Don’t tell The Real Harpies Housewives of the OC.

*shivers*

*shivers*

From Big Screen to Small Screen

When I was a kid, all the best actors (acting) were on the big screen. To see an actor go from movies to television was a clear sign she needed to stop doing drugs fire her agent her career was likely over. Television equaled death. Now? We see the opposite.

I’ve all but given up on most movies. They bore me into a coma. Most are abysmally predictable or just showing off CGI skills instead of telling a great story. My opinion? Television is now where we are seeing the most successful stories and the most talent (been that way for a while).

But Again, Why IS That?

Audiences, despite what people might want to believe, have become far more sophisticated. If we had a time-machine and could transport an avid TV fan of Gilligan’s Island to 2014 and sit him in front of Game of Thrones? His head would explode.

Boom.

Ugly.

Anyone got a squeegee?

Modern audiences love a complex plot, numerous story lines, and obscure references. We want a large cast to fall in love with or hate. 

We watch certain movies/shows over and over because there are jokes, innuendo or backstory we missed. Seinfeld is a great example. Every episode had its own plot and humor, but if one hadn’t watched the other shows there were a lot of jokes one simply would NOT get.

Shows like Seinfeld were revolutionary this way. It had never been done before. I Love Lucy was all contained to each episode. Every episode stood alone.

The greatest comedic writing out there is great primarily because of the obscure wink-wink-nod-nods to other iconic movies. For instance, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Scary Movie 5. But if you aren’t a horror fan, it won’t be nearly as funny. Same with Tropic Thunder. One has to have seen Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Tears of the Sun etc. in order to understand the movie and “get” the jokes.

The Simpsons, South Park and Pixar employ a similar tactic by threading pop culture references into the stories.

Finding Nemo has to be one of my all-time favorite movies. Now, The Spawn has loved this movie since he was two. There is a level of humor that renders a toddler a quivering puddle of giggles. But, at a higher level what adult hasn’t lost it in the Shark AA Fishaholics meeting scenes? A toddler has no concept of a Twelve-Step Program, and yet as adults? WE GET the reference and so it launches the humor over the top.

These factors are why many of these movies (or series) are worth buying. We see something new every time we watch. We peel back a new layer, spot a new subplot, finally “get” that double entendre. We can rewatch Battlestar Galactica with a fresh set of eyes and see new territory. 

Modern audiences are growing increasingly sophisticated and they long for the mental challenge of keeping up. One can watch BSG and have to recall some detail from ten episodes earlier. We LOVE the mental challenge and this is why the big screen won’t last for the adult audience. The main factor working against movies is TIME.

Most people are pushing it to sit through a three hour movie. A screenwriter, director can only do so much plot or character development in three hours or less. Compare this to a TV series with a hundred hours. We have the time to get to know more characters, more backstory, more subplots and our brains crave the challenge.

How does George R.R. Martin use Twitter?

 He has 140 characters and everyone DIES  :D . *bada bump snare*

Ah the Setback

Every setback is an opportunity for an even greater comeback. This is largely why series are becoming HUGE. With a series there is, bluntly, more time and more opportunities to 1) generate love and affection for a wide cast of characters and then 2) torture them then 3) wait for the comeback. Some of the finest series out there will wind your nerves so tightly you feel like you need a drink and a Xanax to get to sleep.

WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN?

Is Starbuck alive? Dead? Is she real? A Cylon? Ok, I can sleep WHEN I’M DEAD *clicks for “Next Episode”*

The same urges that drive viewers to lose an entire weekend or night of sleep dying to find out what happens on a show (or video game *cough* Gears of War) is the same phenomena that is driving series and novellas to greater popularity.

Fiction is the opposite of functional sanityNormal human beings seek to maintain peace and healthy relationships. We are NOT NORMAL (in case no one has yet broken the news to you). Our job as good great epic writers is to maim, torture, crush and kill. We are emotional, deeply empathetic, loving and caring creatures…but we writers are also kinda psycho.

To write great stories, we have to channel some sadism. The relationship between author and audience is actually pretty toxic, but it’s the only “toxic” relationship that’s GOOD for people. We throw a rock in sanity and readers want more. In fact they punish us if we are too sane ;).

Being crazy and dysfunctional is our JOB. Conflict and problems are the heart and soul of stories. Of course, unlike psychopaths in life? Writers offer resolution and closure.

Yet, in the meantime?

Find that shiny thing. Get the protagonist sooooooooo close they almost…have….can…touch…..the edges……..

….and then SMASH IT. SMASH IT, KILL IT….BUUUUURRRRRNNNN IT!

Original image via Flikr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

Original image via Flikr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

Your readers will hate you, but it’s good for them. Do NOT protect your characters. Screw up their lives more than a meth-addicted multi-personality mother-in-law. Your characters NEED a crucible.

No one wakes up and thinks, “Gee, maybe I have a pride problem. I should totally work on that.” NO! Instead of that promotion they know is in the bag, they get FIRED. Worse, they get blackballed. Worse, they have to apply for food stamps.

Worse, the person at the food stamp office is the very person they were horrifically RUDE to and now they need this person’s mercy. Do they get it? NO! ARE YOU HIGH? STOP BEING A SOFTIE. Do you want to be a WRITER? Then lose that soul and sense of decency (for a bit).

Take the food stamps away! Get them a job at McDonalds and they get fired from THAT TOO. IN THE RAIN!

Run over that character with an emotional panel van, then back over them, then run over them and repeat until they are a pile of GOO.

Gee, I wonder why people feel nervous around writers? :D

Ah, but once that character has withstood the tests…you as Author God then can give them a new shiny and a better shiny. Show them they shiny they wanted in the beginning was Fool’s Gold and let them earn the real deal.

And your readers will then forgive you for the torture.

And now you know why writers are on the list of professions psychopaths gravitate to….oooooh, chew on THAT :D .

Sam Rockwell in "Seven Psychopaths"

Sam Rockwell in “Seven Psychopaths”

Series are simply becoming more popular because there is an increased demand for entertainment and people are spoiled with a lot of variety. Humans are also masochists. Fiction shows us our ugliness, but unlike life? There is a resolution.

Writers are a strange breed of magicians. Humanity has always relied on us to do what it cannot. Others might be in the world, but writers notice the world. We reverse-engineer life and boil it down to its marrow. It’s the difference between the regular person who enjoys a glass of wine versus the author who can tell you (in detail) WHY you enjoyed it.

It’s the notes of dark cherry with licorice and a hint of spice…

We also start the hard conversations that people didn’t even know were there.

For instance, when watching Hannibal, Hubby and I got into a long debate about how society needs a certain percentage of psychopaths. Contrary to popular belief, not all psychopaths are ruthless killers. Many are very successful because they gravitate to careers that reward those who can make tough decisions even when under extreme pressure (pressure that would likely cave more emotional types).

Psychopaths are devoid of natural human emotion, and for me? That can be okay. I do NOT want my surgeon getting emotional. I want him to do his JOB.

And this is a WHOLE other blog, but it shows how a series has the power to dive deeper into human dialogues (which is a HUGE part of their appeal).

***Btw, if you are interested in learning how to write a series, I am teaching my Antagonist Class (details below) where I show you how to generate tension on any scale from short-story to epic series.

What are your thoughts? Are you too easy on your characters? Do you have a tough time taking away the shiny? What TV series do you love and why? Are you losing interest in the big screen, too? What are some of your favorite characters from a series and that you might never have known intimately if it were a movie (um, SPIKE)?

Do you agree/disagree that publishing is now favoring the series? Are you a series-gorger, too? Do you kill new shows if you like them? Are you simultaneously horrified and fascinated by characters like Dr. Lecter?

Do you think writers have to have a touch of psychopathy? Come on, our browser history is already evidence against us :) . I have to be careful in restaurants. He has to die. I know he is really nice, but he needs to die, only they can’t find the body right away and it has to look like natural causes. *notices restaurant suddenly quiet* *turns* *nervous laugh* I’m a writer…

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, 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 finally back teaching and 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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77 Comments

The Difference Between “Flawed” Characters and “Too Dumb to Live”

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Which is more important? Plot or character? Though an interesting discussion—sort of like, Could Ronda Rousey take a Klingon with only her bare hands?—it isn’t really a useful discussion for anything other than fun. To write great fiction, we need both. Plot and characters work together. One arc drives the other much like one cog serves to turn another, thus generating momentum in the overall engine we call “STORY”.

If we goof up plot? Readers/Audiences get confused or call FOUL. Watch the movie Ouija for what I am talking about *shakes head*.

Goof up characters? No one cares about the plot.

New writers are particularly vulnerable to messing up characters. We drift too far to one end of the spectrum or the other—Super-Duper-Perfect versus Too Dumb to Live—and this can make a story fizzle because there is no way to create true dramatic tension. This leaves us (the frustrated author) to manufacture conflict and what we end up with is drama’s inbred cousin melodrama. 

If characters are too perfect, too goody-goody and too well-adjusted? If they always make noble, good and professional decisions? Snooze fest.

Again. Bad decisions make great fiction.

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Of course, the other side of that is what I call The Gilligan Effect. Yes, I am dating myself here and don’t want to upset ant DIE-HARD Gilligan’s Island fans, but I remember being a kid and this show nearly giving me an aneurism (being the highly logical child I was).

After the third time Gilligan botched up the escape off the island? Kristen would have gone Lord of the Flies and Piggy Gilligan would have mysteriously gone “missing.”

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I also recall how the stranded party could make everything out of coconuts except a freaking BOAT, and the only reason I kept watching was because it was better than being locked outside to play in heat that returned asphalt back to a plasma state (Yay, Texas summers!).

Today we are going to talk about how we can make characters flawed without crossing over into TDTL (Too Dumb To Live) Territory. That and I SO had to blog about something that let me share THIS! *giggles*

Let’s hide behind the CHAINSAWS!!!! *clutches sides*

Okay, I’m back *giggles*.

Great stories are filled with characters making bad decisions, and when this is done well, we often don’t really notice it beyond the winding tension in our stomach, the clenching that can only be remedied by pressing forward and seeing if it works out okay. When characters are properly flawed, the audience remains captured in the fictive dream.

When we (the writer) goof up? The fictive dream is shattered. The audience is no longer part of the world because they’re too busy fuming that anyone could be that stupid. They also now cease to care about the character because, like Gilligan? They kind of want said TDTL character to die.

If this is our protagonist? Extra bad. Our protagonist should make mistakes, just not ones so egregious the reader stops rooting for him/her.

Bad Decisions Birthed from The Flaw

When we create a protagonist, we should remember that all strengths have a complimentary weakness. If a character has never been tested by fire, the protagonist is blind to the weakness.

For instance, great leaders can be control freaks. Loyal people can be overly naive. Compassionate people can be unrealistic. Y’all get the idea.

This dual nature of human strength paired with fallibility is why plot is just as critical.

The plot is the crucible that tests the mettle and reveals and fires out the flaw. The strength ultimately will have to be stronger than the weakness because this is how the protagonist will grow to become a hero by story’s end.

A great example of this is one of my favorite movies, The Edge. Anthony Hopkins plays billionaire Charles Morse. Charles is extremely successful and very much in his own head. Though he’s a genius, he lives the sheltered existence of the uber-wealthy.

What happens when all that “head-knowledge” is what he needs to survive a plane crash in the unforgiving wilderness?

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When the plane crashes and he and the other two survivors make it to shore, Morse does the right thing. He knows they need to get dry before they all die from hypothermia. He also realizes Stephen, the photographer, is in full panic. What is the intelligent thing to do? Put the photographer to work doing something fruitful to take his mind off his fear.

The problem, however, is Morse assumes the photographer has the same knowledge-base and doesn’t take time to show Stephen how to use a knife properly and the man is badly injured. Now we’ve already had a problem (plane crash) and now we have a complication (bad injury) and then it gets worse.

Morse, again, being an in-his-own-head-guy and unaccustomed to having to communicate WHY he wants certain things done, tells Robert Green to bury the bloody fabric. Green is jealous of Morse and rebellious and instead of following instructions and burying the material? He hangs the blood-soaked rags from a tree where an incoming storm whips up the scent of an newly opened All You Can Eat Buffet.

Soon, the men are being hunted by an apex predator with the munchies for humans.

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But all of this was birthed from a myriad of flaws. Morse failing to communicate and assuming his comrades are operating with the same head knowledge (because he’s never HAD to use this type of information in a real-world way) and also the two photographers who are City People and don’t have the sense to know 1) NOT to drag a knife towards the body and 2) that the smallest scent of blood will draw predators.

These men are used to the “civilized world” and at the beginning, have failed to properly appreciate that their position at the top of the food chain is NOT static.

Bad Decisions Depend on Circumstances

Sometimes characters will make bad decisions simply because this is a completely new world or a set of circumstances they’ve never faced, thus have no way to fully appreciate. The “bad” decision was not a “bad decision” before the adventure.

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A good example? Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings. In the Shire, people talk and are sociable. These naive characters haven’t yet felt the consequences of this new and dangerous world. To them? Chatting away and freely sharing information at The Prancing Pony is NOT a bad decision in their minds. Neither is frying bacon on top of a mountain.

They’ve always lived a life that if they were in a pub? They drank and made friends. If they wanted bacon? They just made bacon. They’ve never had to think beyond their mood or stomachs and don’t have the experience base to realize that fire is a “Come and Kill Me” beacon to the enemy.

Bad Decisions Can Be Birthed From The Wound

From the movie "Thelma & Louise"

From the movie “Thelma & Louise”

We have talked about The Wound before. In Thelma & Louise what is the wound? A lifetime of male oppression. In Thelma’s case, her husband controls every aspect of her life. Thus, when she finally does get on her own, she has poor judgement and is naive and that’s how she nearly ends up raped in a honky-tonk parking lot.

Louise was raped and no one was there for her. She’s been a victim and doesn’t trust men or the law. Thus, her baggage is what leads her to shoot Thelma’s attacker, but then also dovetails into the really, really bad decision to run.

But if we look at all these examples from an analytical distance, these characters are just DUMB. But why aren’t they TDTL? Context. Because of plot we (the audience) are not staring down at them like specimens through a microscope. We are immersed in their worlds and thus empathize with the bad decisions.

The bad decisions are forgivable because unless we live in the Alaskan wilderness? We can empathize with maybe doing something seriously stupid if we were stranded, too. We (the audience) have “been” to the Shire and know what world created the childlike Merry and Pippin. We appreciate they are grossly out of their depth and give them a pass.

In Thelma & Louise we can understand how damaged people make poor decisions because, unless we’ve been living under a rock, we’ve made similar choices, and suffered consequences created from fear not reason.

What this means is that, while ALL of these characters made really wrong decisions, they are necessary and pardonable decisions that serve to drive the character arc and thus the plot’s momentum.

That is the final note on characters making bad decisions. Do we have a character making a mistake, withholding vital information, acting irrationally because it is coming from a deeper place of flaws, circumstance or wounds?

Or, do we have a character playing marionette? Characters are making a mistakes because we NEED them to. The tension has fizzled, so let’s just let them do something epically stupid (and random)?

Audiences can tell the difference between mistakes that are organic and flow from deeper emotional waters versus something contrived. And we can ALL be guilty of forcing characters to make bad choices simply because we sense tension is missing. Even I have to go back and ask the tough question…WHY is this character doing this?

For more help on how to use characters to ratchet anxiety to the nerve-shreding level, I am finally back teaching and 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 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 .

What are your thoughts regarding characters making poor decisions? What are some of your favorite examples? Ever quit a book, movie, or show because you wanted everyone to DIE? Did you hate Gilligan, too? Do you think Ronda Rousey could take on a Klingon with her bare hands?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, 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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66 Comments

From Newbie to Master—Understanding the Writer’s Journey

Pirate Code=Writing Rules. Clearer now? :)

Pirate Code=Writing Rules. Clearer now? :)

The mark of a pro is they make whatever we want to do look easy. From running a business to playing guitar to wicked cool Kung Fu moves, masters rarely seem to even break a sweat. Same with authors. With the pros? The story flows, pulls us in, and appears seamless and effortless.

Just check out Ronda Rousey’s 14 second record-breaking WIN from this past weekend for an idea of JUST how EASY pros make things look…

Many of us decided to become writers because we grew up loving books. Because good storytellers are masters of what they do, we can easily fall into a misguided notion that “writing is easy.” Granted there are a rare few exceptions, but most of us will go through three acts (stages) in this career if we stick it through.

Act One—The Neophyte

This is when we are brand new. We’ve never read a craft book and the words flow. We never run out of words to put on a page because we are like a kid banging away on a piano having fun and making up “music.” We aren’t held back or hindered by any structure or rules and we have amazing energy and passion.

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 8.32.50 AM

Woodleywonderworks Flikr Creative Commons

But then we go to our first critique and hear words like “POV” and “narrative structure.” We learn that maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do and that we need to do some training. We also finally understand why so many famous authors drank…a lot.

Act Two—The Apprentice

The Apprentice Phase comes next. This is where we might read craft books, take classes, go to conferences and listen to lectures. During the early parts of this phase, books likely will no longer be fun. Neither will movies. In fact, most of your family will likely ban you from “Movie Night.” Everything now becomes part of our training. We no longer look at stories the same way.

The apprentice phase is tough, and for many of us, it takes the all the fun out of writing. The apprentice phase is our Act II. It’s the looooongest, but filled with the most growth and change. It’s the span of suck before the breakthrough.

I’ve studied other forms of martial arts, but I am relatively new to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Right now I am in the span of SUUUUUCK. When I started as a neophyte, I “seemed” to do better because I just muscled my way around on the ground and being naturally strong? It worked…against an equally green opponent.

Moments before Kristen gets her tail kicked….

Moments before Kristen gets her tail kicked….

But it also wore me out and gave me more than a fair share of injuries. I had to learn technique. Technique looks awesome when Coach does it. It looks easy on theYouTube videos.

When I do it? Eh…not pretty and NOT easy.

Right now, I’m losing most of…ok, all of my rounds, which is tough on the ego but easier on the joints. I’m focusing more on “rules”, finesse and drilling the basics because I know that in time? It will pay off. Right now is NOT the time for me to try and be “creative.” There is also NO substitute for time on the mat.

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Same with writing. Many shy away from craft books because they fear “rules” will ruin their creativity. Truth? They will, but only for a little while ;) .

Eventually we realize that rules were made to be broken. BUT, the difference between the artist and the hack is that the artist knows the rules and thus HOW to break them and WHY and WHEN. We start to see rules as tools.

As we move through The Apprentice Phase and we train ourselves to execute all these moves together—POV, structure, conflict, tension, setting, description, dialogue, plot arc, character arc—it eventually becomes easier. In fact, a good sign we are at the latter part of the apprentice phase is when the rules become so ingrained we rarely think about them.

We just fight write.

We’ve read so much fiction, watched (and studied) so many movies, read so many craft books, heard so many lectures, and practiced so much writing that all the “rules” are now becoming instinct and, by feel, we are starting to know where and how to bend, break or ignore them.

Like anything, there is NO substitute for DOING. Watching Ronda Rousey videos is a good idea for understanding ground-fighting, but it can’t take the place of mat time. Reading, taking classes, studying cannot replace writing crap until we don’t write crap.

At the end of the apprentice phase, writing is now starting to become fun again, much like it was in the beginning when we were banging away on the piano keyboard. Like the fighter who instinctively knows to arm bar an opponent without conscious thought, we now find more and more of the “right” words and timing without bursting brain cells.

The trick is sticking it through the apprentice phase long enough to engrain the fundamentals into the subconscious.

Master

This is where we all want to be. In fact, we all want this on Day One, but sadly, I believe this Day One Master is reserved for only a handful of literary savants. Mastery is when we return to that childlike beginning. We write with abandon and joy and, since the elements of fiction are now part of our DNA, our literary marrow, what we produce isn’t the off-key clanging of a neophyte, it’s actually a real story worth reading. Granted, it isn’t all kittens and rainbows. Masters have a lot of pressure to be perpetual geniuses.

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Portrait by Yosuf Karsh via Wikimedia Creative Commons

I believe most of us, if we stick to this long enough, will always be vacillating between the Advanced Apprentice Phase and the Mastery Phase. If we choose to try a totally new genre, we might even be back to Neophyte (though this will pass more quickly than the first time).

We have to to keep growing. The best writers still pick up craft books, refresh themselves in certain areas, read other authors they enjoy and admire to see if they can grow in some new area. Masters seek to always add new and fresh elements to the fiction.

The key to doing well in this business is to:

1. Embrace the Day of Small Beginnings—Starting is often the hardest part. Enjoy being new. Enjoy that feeling because you will reconnect with it later because you recognize it.

2. Understand We All Have an Apprentice Phase—We will all be Early, Intermediate, then Advanced Apprentices. How quickly we move through these will be dictated by dedication, hard work and, to a degree, natural talent.

3. No One Begins as a Master and Few Remain Permanent Masters—Every NYTBSA was once a newbie, too. When we understand this career has a process, it’s easier to lighten up and give ourselves permission to be imperfect, to not know everything. Many writers get discouraged and give up too soon because they don’t understand there is a process, and they believe they should be “Masters” right away.

Hey, I did.

We need to give ourselves permission to grow. If we love and respect our craft, we will always be learning, so we will continue to dip back into “Apprentice” to refine our art even further.

Does this make you feel better to know this career has a process? Are you in the Act II span of suck and getting weary? What are you doing to remain focused? Which part has you the most discouraged? Write with the abandon of the Neophyte then edit with the eyes of an Advanced Apprentice or Master ;) .

I love hearing from you!

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

The winner for February is Monica Karel. Congratulations! Please send your 5000 word WORD document to kristen @ wana intl dot com. 

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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90 Comments

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