Posts Tagged plot

Fueling the Muse—How to Mentally Prepare for “The Novel”

NaNoWriMo is kind of like Christmas for writers—suffering, drama, no sleep, heavy drinking and really bad eating habits. Also, we start talking about NaNoWriMo months before it actually happens.

If you are a new writer and don’t know what NaNoWriMo is? It stands for National Novel Writing Month and it is held for the duration of November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month.

In a nutshell, it gives a taste of what it is like to do this writing thing as a job, because for the professional writer? Every month is NaNoWriMo, so there is NO BETTER indoctrination into this business.

NaNo shapes us from hobbyists to pros, but we need to do some preparation if we want to be successful—finish 50,000 words and actually have something that can be revised into a real novel that others might part with money to read. Genre obviously will dictate the fuel required, but today we’ll explore my favorites.


I like watching movies to strengthen my plotting muscles. Unlike novels, screenplays have very strict structure rules. Also, it takes far less time to watch a movie than read a novel, so movies can be fantastic for practice (and also our goofing off can have a practical application :D ) .

Study plot points. Sit with a notebook and see if you can write out each of these major points in one to three sentences.

Normal World

First of all, in recent years, Normal World has become considerably shorter. Actually, it began that way. In Oedipus Rex, the story begins with the kingdom in a real mess. There is a plague upon the land and somehow the king is at fault.

It wasn’t until centuries later that writers at large stopped trusting the audience and Normal World went on and on and on and we followed a character from birth and then about a hundred pages in? Something went amiss and we finally got to the PROBLEM.

I believe this phenomena also coincided with when writers started getting paid by the word…. *raises eyebrow*

These days? People (readers) DO NOT have that kind of patience. Normal World is often seriously condensed or even missing.

But back to the movie you are watching for practice…

If there IS a Normal World (even a brief one) can you detail it in a sentence or two?

What was the character’s life like before it was interrupted by the BBT’s (CORE ANTAGONIST’S) agenda? I will use two divergent examples—World War Z and Steel Magnolias— to make my point and hopefully not spoil the more recent of the two. As far as Steel Magnolias? Y’all have had since 1989 to see it. Tough :P.

In World War Z, we meet a guy making breakfast for his family. He’s hung up some mysterious “old bad@$$ life” in order to be with his wife and kids.

In Steel Magnolias, we meet M’Lynn taking care of all the little details of her daughter’s wedding. She’s a Hover-Mother who takes care of the broken glasses, finds the right shade of pink nail polish, and stops Dad from shooting birds out of the trees. She’s a fixer and she’s in control.

Inciting Incident

This is the first hint of the BBT’s (Big Boss Troublemaker’s) agenda, the first tangible place it intersects with the protagonist’s life and causes disruption. Can you spot it?

In World War Z, we know from watching the background TV noise when they are having breakfast that a mysterious illness has already broken out. BUT, the virus has not yet directly intersected with the protagonist. When does this happen?

Jack and his family are in the car. He and his wife are on their way to take the kids to school when all hell breaks loose. It’s the first glimpse the protagonist sees of the looming threat, but aside from escaping with his family, he’s made no vested decision to get involved.

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In Steel Magnolias the Inciting Incident happens in the beauty shop when Shelby’s blood sugars drop dangerously low and she goes into convulsions. Mom tries to help and Shelby swats her away (a hint at her future defiance). This is the first time the audience has met the BBT (Death/Diabetes manifested in the proxy Shelby).

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Turning Points

Look for the major turning points in the movie. According to one of my FAVORITE craft books (Story Engineering) in Act One, the protagonist is running. He or she doesn’t know where exactly the conflict is coming from or precisely what IT is. Act Two, the protagonist is a Warrior. He or she has glimpsed the face of the BBT and fights back.

For instance, in World War Z, Jack knows it’s a virus creating “zombies” and he decides to return to the old job and fight. He agrees to search for Patient Zero in hopes they can find a cure.

In Steel Magnolias, M’Lynn shifts from Running (Here’s your orange juice. Have you checked your blood sugar?) to Warrior. Her daughter defies her and decides to get pregnant even though it could (and will) cost her life. Momma puts on full battle gear, determined to “control” her daughter’s fate. Diabetes has shifted from looming “controllable” threat to a ticking time bomb Mom still believes she can defuse if she just tries hard enough.

Act Three, the protagonist shifts from Warrior to Hero.

Darkest Moment

This is right before the turning point to Act Three. This is where EVERYTHING is stripped away from the protagonist and it seems all is lost. The DM is the catalyst that shifts our protagonist from Warrior to Hero. Anyone else would give up the “fight” and go home, but not our protagonist.

In World War Z the protagonist is critically injured, he’s lost his family, outside help, and he’s faced with a crushing setback. There is no Patient Zero, at least no “clear” Patient Zero. It’s a dead end and it looks like time has just about run out for humankind.

In Steel Magnolias Shelby dies despite all of M’Lynn’s tireless efforts to control. She realizes she has no power. She never was in control and now she’s utterly lost.

Act Three/ Character Arc

How does the protagonist mentally shift over the course of the story? What was the critical flaw that would have held them back in the beginning, that would have made the protagonist “lose” if pitted against the BBT.

For Jack, he has to be willing to give up his family to save his family.

For M’Lynn, she has to admit she can’t control life or death in order to embrace the messiness of living.

How is the story problem resolved? 

Pay attention to the Big Boss Battle. How has the protagonist changed? What decisions do they make (or not make)?

What is the outcome? How is the world set “right”?

In World War Z, Jack’s sacrifice gives humanity a fighting chance. In Steele Magnolias we see little Jackson (biological grandson) running and picking up Easter eggs (there is NO mistake that this story is bookended by Easter). Resurrection through Jackson is what ultimately defeats Death. Shelby lives on through her little boy.

Beyond Plot—What Else to “Study”


Great movies have great dialogue. Study it. How do characters talk? When I get submissions, one of the major problems I see is in dialogue. Coaching the reader, brain-holding, and characters simply talking in ways that are unrealistic. For instance, most of us, when having a conversation, don’t sit and call each other by name.

“But, Bob, if Fifi goes base-jumping she could die.”

“Yes, Joe, but it’s Fifi’s life and if she want’s to be stuff on a rock, it’s her decision, not ours.”

“I agree, Bob, but I love Fifi.”

“Joe, then tell her. Fifi’s craving attention.”

*rolls eyes*


The devil is in the details. Details are like truffle oil. A little goes a LONG way and what a flavor enhancer! We writers don’t need to be super detailed about everything (because when we emphasize everything we emphasize nothing). But, a little goes a long way for good or for bad.

Get the details correct and we will love you. Get them wrong?

*brakes screech*

I am a gun person. If your character reloads using a clip? I will toss the book across the room.

This is my BOOM-STICK!

Clips go in your hair. Magazines go in your gun.

I once read a book where the protagonist was putting the safety on her revolver. O_o

Unless the protagonist is a gun collector with some weird @$$ revolver only useful for collecting? No such thing as a safety on a revolver.

Shows me the author didn’t do some basic homework. Granted, details matter more in some genres versus others. Readers of a military thriller will be far pickier than those who read a high fantasy.

I recently had a writer who had me edit her first 20 pages. The story was excellent and had to do with a soldier in Afghanistan. Problem was, there were some main details that were simply wrong that were a pretty big deal (which I fixed for her). There was also a smaller, more obscure detail. The scene was set in 2004 and her protagonist was rescuing a fellow soldier from a burning vehicle. Unfortunately, the uniforms at that time were not flame retardant (a problem the military was forced to remedy in later years).  In 2004, the fabric would have melted to him and the scene (in reality) would have played out very differently.

Granted, this detail about the uniforms is something only a military geek would likely know. But, if the writer worked that in???? Mad respect from the discerning reader.

If you need to know details, use social media. There are all kinds of military folks, law enforcement people, gun experts, history experts, medical personnel and people who do martial arts who are eager to help writers get things RIGHT. I regularly have people write me about hand-to-hand, since I practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

If you’re writing a military book, watch a friend play Call of Duty or Modern Warfare. Game designers use folks from Special Operations as consultants. They use DELTA Force, Green Berets, SEALS, etc for all the world-building, so why reinvent the wheel? Hollywood is notorious for getting this stuff dead WRONG, so if you want accurate military dialogue, games are better. Or, watch movies created by folks who’ve done their homework (I.e. Hurt Locker).


Movies are great for getting an idea of setting. Pay attention to the terrain and make notes. Work to be accurate.

Grossly inaccurate setting is distracting in books and film. I loved the recent mini-series Texas Rising, because DUH, I am a Texan. But the setting drove me BONKERS.

Just so y’all know, there are no Colorado-Large mountains anywhere near San Antonio.

*Kristen twitches*

So I hope all these tips will help y’all fill that muse to bursting and NaNo will be a LOT easier.

Another HUGE help for NaNo is a solid core story problem. I strongly recommend my antagonist class NEXT SATURDAY. If you’re not too strong at plotting? This class will make even the pantsiest of pantsers a master of story.


What are your thoughts? What are some things you do to prepare to write a novel? What movies have the best dialogue? Setting? Yes, I know I have ruined all movies for you. You will thank me later :P.

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).

Before we go…. It’s BACK TO SCHOOL!:

Remember! THIS SATURDAY, I am running my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages. Beginnings are crucial. As a long-time editor, I can tell almost every bad habit and story flaw in five pages. I rarely need over 20. This class helps you learn to see what agents and editors see and learn how to correct most common writing mistakes. I am offering additional levels if you want me to shred your first 5 or even 20 pages.

All classes are recorded and the recording is provided FREE with purchase.

Can’t wait to see you in class and read your writing!

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How to Create Dimensional Characters—Beyond the Wound & Into the Blind Spot

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Today, we’re going to explore an extension of the WOUND. The BLIND SPOT. There are no perfect personalities. All great character traits possess a blind spot. The loyal person is a wonderful friend, but can be naive and taken advantage of.

The take-charge Alpha leader can make a team successful, but also inadvertently tromp over feelings or even fail to realize that others have great ideas, too. Maybe even BETTER ideas.

A super caring, nurturing personality can be an enabler or maybe even ignore close relationships to take care of strangers. Someone who is great with money can end up a miser. A person with a fantastic work ethic can become a workaholic.

Y’all get the gist.

Often the antagonist (Big Boss Troublemaker) is a mirror of the protagonist, especially in the beginning of the story.

To use an example from a movie we have likely all seen. In Top Gun, what makes Maverick the best pilot is his complete lack of fear. He has the cajones to do what other pilots wouldn’t ever consider.

He’s driven by his wound, the lie about his father. This has made him one of the best pilots (trying to overcome his tainted history and impress a ghost) but he’s missed the lesson on how to be part of a team.

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Yes, maybe breaking all the rules makes you “the best”, but it can get others killed. It isn’t all about HIM.

This is why when I refer to “the antagonist” I prefer my made-up term Big Boss Troublemaker. The antagonist isn’t always “bad.” The antagonist is simply the person responsible for creating the core story problem.

Iceman isn’t a bad guy. He isn’t evil with a plan to take over the world or infiltrate the Top Gun school as a sleeper terrorist.

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He’s simply a by-the-book fighter pilot who believes Maverick shouldn’t be there. He loathes Maverick because he thinks he’s a danger to himself and others (and, frankly, he has a very valid point).

The plot provides the crucible. Maverick butts heads with Iceman over and over in a um, man-part-measuring contest. But what happens when Maverick loses Goose? Crisis.

A hard event (PLOT) has now forced Maverick to face the truth about himself. For the first time, he SEES the blind spot Iceman and others have been pointing out (which has been the core source of conflict). This loss forces him to go searching for answers deeper than buzzing the tower.

He finally recognizes others might actually have a point.

The beauty of this movie and why it’s remained so timeless (aside from hot guys in Navy dress) is it’s a movie exploring people. Real, broken, hurting people blind to who they really are. By story’s end? Everybody arcs.

Maverick learns there are other people in the sky besides HIM and that he is part of a TEAM. Iceman lightens up and recognizes that Maverick, too, has a point. Sometimes one just has to toss out the rulebook.

Thus, when creating characters in any story, to deepen them, we need to KNOW them. What DRIVES THEM? How would they react according to their past, their wounds and their blind spot?

As a writing exercise, take a scenario. Maybe an attempted mugging. How would different characters react?

For instance, when I was in college, I taught Jui-Jitsu during the day and sold papers in the evening. One dark winter night a drunk tried to mug me in a dark apartment complex and take my hard case briefcase.

Because of MY background, growing up powerless and determined to be in CONTROL, I’d taken years of martial arts. Also, when I was eight, I witnessed my 6’8″ male family member raise his hand to hit my mom while she was cooking….and she beat his a$$ out the front door wielding a mad hot cast iron skillet.

This left a mark (though likely more on said family member).

Thus, 12 years later when a MUCH larger drunk came up behind and tried to mug ME, he got beaten heartily with a briefcase and then chased until I lost him.

But why did I fight, not just hand over the briefcase?

I’d always been POOR. I was very poor in college and had worked long hours to buy a really nice briefcase in hopes of landing a better job than selling and delivering papers. There was no money in the case. I could have handed it over but because of MY wounds, the briefcase was more than a briefcase.

Clearly my BLIND SPOT is I have an alligator mouth and a pekinese @$$. I could have lost and ended up hurt or dead.

But what about a person with a different background? A different wound? A different blind spot?

What if the person mugged was a trust fund baby who could easily buy another briefcase? Or a person who’d been beaten badly in formative years and would do anything to avoid experiencing that pain? What if the person was elderly? There are a lot of variables that make a VERY rich palette to create characters with LIFE.

Think of your own life and personality? What is your greatest strength? How does it create your greatest weakness? What is YOUR blind spot. Play a little armchair psychiatrist and what you find might be really interesting ;) . Feel free to share about you or even your favorite characters you’ve read or even written.

Remember! Due to popular demand I am running my Your Story in a Sentence class in a little over a week and participants have their log lines shredded and rebuilt and made agent-ready. Log-lines are crucial because if we don’t know what our book is about? How are we going to finish it? Revise it? Pitch it? Sell it?

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).

July’s Winner is Aurora Jean Alexander. Please send your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. CONGRATULATIONS!

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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“Write What You Know”—Paying Attention to the Character Journey


Okay, yesterday I shared the tragic story of my father’s passing to give to an idea of what it means to “Write what you ‘know'” and today we’ll continue, but it’ll be a bit different. We’re going to talk about character change.

My dad was a HOOT. Both of us were always like kids. One time we both bought Christmas gifts for each other. Any year the anticipation would have KILLED us and we would have totally spilled the beans early, but this time we waited until Christmas morning to “unveil the PERFECT gift”—only to realize we both bought each other the same things; a Klingon dictionary and a tape to teach you how to speak Klingon.

My dad was always a little unconventional. Other little girls grew up wanting to be models or ballerinas. I wanted to grow up to be a ballerina-Navy SEAL. My father (former Navy Intelligence) used to tote me from ballet lessons to Karate (back in the days when girls were NOT in Karate), and I was one of the first girls to fight competitively (when it was ALL boys).

Dad taught me to shoot when I was eight and how to sharpen knives properly by the time I was ten. He bought me an SAS Survival guide for my birthday in high school. To train me to be better with my feet (a tad too much ballet and not enough power) he hung a canvas sea bag for me to practice.

I recall when I made a certain belt, I had to learn how to use a weapon and I chose the long staff since it was the most practical (and one of the few not illegal, LOL).

So Dad is in the yard training me for my test with the long-staff. He says, “Okay, on the count of three…” then whacks the holy $%#@%^&*&%$# out of my shins. As I am curled on the ground in pain, he hovers over me, grinning and says, “Fights in the real world don’t give you a count of three.”

Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

In later years I went to a ritzy private college (was one of the few poor kids allowed in under the fence) and while other girls were in sororities, I was teaching Ju-Jitsu. In fact, I was one of the first instructors of Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, commonly known as Gracie Ground-Fighting. Doesn’t matter how big you are. Get a fight on the ground and know what you’re doing and the other dude is toast.

My Dad gave me an extreme sense of sticking up for others. I remember one day I was in between teaching classes and our dojo was located in front of a major traffic light. I’d taken off my belt to rest and stepped outside when I noticed this guy beating the holy hell out of his petite girlfriend in his truck. Without thinking (and barefoot) I go flying into the road and dare the guy to hit ME.

“Come on! You like hitting little girls? Hit me. I’ll even give you the first swing.” I probably would have dragged the guy out of his truck but the light turned green and the coward took off.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.

Since teaching Ju-Jitsu didn’t pay the best, I also worked selling newspaper subscriptions and often was out in apartment complexes after dark (gets dark early in winter). I had some drunk try to mug me for my briefcase, which made no sense because the only things in there were paperwork and my expensive retainer, which was useless for pawning.

*rolls eyes*

He came up behind me in an arm-bar choke hold, but what he didn’t know is there is a nerve in the forearm, that if you crank down on it? Is VERY painful and will make most people release. I then beat the bejeezus out of him with the very briefcase he was trying to steal.

And y’all thought I was so sweet and delicate :D.

I mountain-biked before it was cool. I rock-climbed, went bouldering, jumped out of planes, and ran rapids. To my knowledge, I was the 46th person in the state of Texas to have a Concealed Handgun License. I only got one because I went camping almost every weekend. I lived life like a Mountain Dew commercial, largely because of my dad. I wonder to this day if he realized he had cancer and was trying to teach me to make the most of every moment.

But back to the bigger story…

I believe abusive people are often attracted to the strong to see if they can dominate them and break them. By the time of my father’s passing, my Evil Ex had changed me into a person I didn’t recognize. Through years of mental abuse, I no longer had an opinion or chose my own clothes. I didn’t visit family or friends because it wasn’t worth the verbal beating. I no longer camped or rode trails on my mountain bike because he “didn’t like outdoors stuff.”

I literally lived with the guy from Sleeping with the Enemy. He had labels in the pantry and all cans had to be facing forward and behind the “proper” label. He’d insist I vacuum all the floors then use a carpet rake to make all the lines go the same direction. He loved to play racquetball, namely so he could spend an hour laughing as he used me as target practice (then tell me I had no sense of humor, that he was just “playing”).

Never mind all the bruises.

Trust me when I say Evil-Ex was NOT this way before I accepted the marriage proposal. He was an ideal boyfriend and seemed he’d be an ideal husband. My family loved him (Dad hated him).

When it comes to abuse, it’s a lot like the story of the frog. Toss a frog in boiling water and it will jump out. Yet, set the sucker in cool water and turn up the heat slowly? The frog will boil to death without realizing it’s in danger.

So after Dad passed away, something of my former self ignited. Within a couple months, I began to ignore Evil-Ex’s antics. No insult worked. I wore what I wanted and grew my hair long. I even bought a gorgeous citrine ring (because Dad’s favorite color was yellow). When Evil-Ex had nasty comments about the ring, I replied, “You don’t have to like it. You aren’t wearing it.”

All along I was funneling money and plotting my escape and Evil-Ex began to notice the verbal assaults were being ignored. About a month before I left for good, he was yelling at me over something and must have noticed it was no longer having an impact.

He raised his hand to hit me and I replied in a low voice, “Go ahead. Hit me. But you better pray to God you knock me out long enough to start a new life somewhere else. I know a thousand ways to kill you and get away with it.”

I didn’t, but must have been very convincing.

I left and never looked back, but this “story of my life” reveals something about character arc. Yes, Kristen in the beginning was somewhat of a bad@$$, but obviously something was lacking. I grew up very poor, so when a wealthy man from high society showed interest, I ignored the warning signs. Deep down, I believed he was better than me…and that was the opening. I had to be tested by fire to grow into a person who believed in herself, who accepted she wasn’t “girlie” and that was okay.

This is my BOOM-STICK!

This is my BOOM-STICK!

I had to learn that money was meaningless. Yes, I lived in a big house and rode around in a Mercedes and took lavish trips, but I was miserable and hurting and NO MONEY, NO RITZY LIFE was worth the price. I had to become a person who was willing to live in poverty if it meant being happy. I had to learn what “security” really meant and I can tell you from experience it ain’t always a bank account.

Now, I can bemoan the experience, but it was VERY valuable. Not only did I grow as a person, but this time prepared me to become a writer. When Dad died, he never realized his dream. I had the same dream and was willing to do anything to fulfill it. There were many years I lived on Ramen and saltines and worried that the lights might get turned off. I wore clothes I rescued from Dumpsters. Nothing would stop me from becoming a writer.

So when you hear “Write what you know” harvest those emotions, but also pay attention to your personal journeys. What changed? What was missing initially that the “journey” provided. I am much the same person I was before Evil-Ex, but that critical flaw is now gone (probably replaced with New & IMPROVED ones, LOL).

What about your journey? Have you been through something difficult and when you look back, you SEE how you changed? And changed for the better? I want to hear YOUR stories!

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Announcements: I LIED. I will announce September’s contest winner TOMORROW. Yes, Kristen IS human. Forgot today was Dad’s birthday and not altogether “there.” Sorry. Great ploy to get y’all back :D.

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Can Critique Groups Do More Harm than Good?

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 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 being traditionally published.

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 publication in New York.

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

So where’s the problem?

Traditional critique groups lack perspective.

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 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 you 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.

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

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

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 Cassandra end up in a meat locker wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw? I’m lost.”

Well, duh, of course they are lost.

They have 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. Your job is to write a great novel…not 600 individual sections your critique group can follow.

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

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. Read every craft book you can find. In fact, here is a list of my favorites. 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.

The world does not reward perfect novels, it rewards finished novels. I still run into writers that 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. Scrap it, part it, or shop 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 4,5 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.

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 traditionally published authors has the group produced? I’m not picking on self-publishing, but self-publishing doesn’t have the same rigorous peer review.

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 our group for additional critique.

Make sure your 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 being published. Once our book is for sale, we are open to the big bad real world of people with nothing better to do than skewer a writer publicly on-line in a blistering review.

You will know them by their fruits…

Make sure any group you join is producing successful novelists. I began Warrior Writer Boot Camp because my old group of six years produced many successful articles, short stories and NF, but they had never produced a successfully published novel. I knew I had to create a different critique format capable of critiquing a leviathan work of 100,000 words or likely that trend would continue.

Some writers naturally understand structure, and so they do fine in the traditional setting. I didn’t naturally understand structure, and my novel ended up on so many bunny trails I needed a pack of plot-sniffing dogs and a GPS to find my original idea. If you are the same, then make sure you take traditional critique for what it is…critique of prose. You might need to find or start another group on your own dedicated to looking at the big picture.

Or…be creative. If you can’t go to the mountain, make the mountain come to you. Next week I am going to give you guys a new approach to a traditional group. Skilled beta readers are hard to find and skilled editors can be expensive. But, apply the technique I will teach you and you will know for sure if your novel has the right stuff.

Critique groups are WONDERFUL. I don’t know what I’d do without mine. But, we are wise to be aware of the trouble spots so that we can get the most out of this fantastic resource.

So what do you guys think? Have you had problems? Or am I off-base? What are your solutions? Ideas? I LOVE hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of January, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of January I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

IMPORTANT–I will announce last week’s winner on Wednesday. Need to catch up on a few things since I no longer have an assistant :C. So stay tuned!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!

Happy writing!

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Structure Part 8–Balancing the Scenes that Make Up Your Novel

Welcome to Structure Part 8. We have spent the past couple of months studying the fundamentals of what makes up a novel, and today we are going to discuss the actual scenes that make up a novel and how to keep track of them. It is easy to get lost when dealing with a structure as complex as a novel, so I hope to give you a nifty tool to keep everything straight.

As a fiction author, you will often feel like an acrobat spinning plates while standing on your head and juggling fiery chainsaws. There are so many components to keep track of, lest you end up down the Bunny Trail of No Return. Organization is key when it comes to being a successful novelist.

First, let’s talk about scenes.

According to James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, scenes do four things. Bell calls these the four chords of fiction:

The two major chords are: (1) action and (2) reaction.

The two minor chords are (1) setup and (2) deepening.

Back when I used to edit for writers, I was known to draw flies on the page when the writer lost my interest. This became known as my infamous, “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Cares?’” The reader is a fly on the wall when it comes to the world we are creating. Make them the fly on the wall of something interesting at all times. How do we accomplish this?

All scenes need conflict. Conflict is the fuel that powers the story’s forward momentum. “Scenes” that are merely back-story, reflection (rehash of what the reader already knows) or information dump, slow down the story and make the reader either want to skim ahead or put the book down. Bad juju. We want our readers hooked from the beginning until we finally let them go on the last page. How do we accomplish this? We add lots of conflict.

Scenes, according to Bell, need three components, collectively known as HIP—Hook, Intensity & Prompt.

Hook—interests the reader from the get-go. This is why it is generally a bad idea to start scenes with setting. Waxing rhapsodic about the fall color is a tough way to hook a reader. If you do start a scene with setting, then make it do double-duty. Setting can set up the inner mood of a character before we even meet him. Setting should always be more than a weather report. Try harder.

Intensity—raises the stakes. Introduce a problem. Scenes that suddenly shift into reverse and dump back-story KILL your intensity. Cut scenes at meals unless there is a fight. If your characters are in a car, they better be in an argument or a car chase. Also cut any scenes that the sole purpose is to give information. Have a scene that’s sole purpose is two characters talking about a third? CUT!

Prompt—leave the scene with work left undone and questions left unanswered. If your character is relaxed enough to go to bed at the end of a scene, that is a subconscious cue to your reader that it is okay to mark the page and close the book.  There should always be something unsettling that makes the reader want to know more.

Going back to the chords of the writing. Every scene should involve one of your key characters in pursuit of an interesting goal that is related to the overall conflict of the story. Each of these scenes are stepping stones that take your character closer to the final showdown. Most of the time, it will feel like two steps forward and one step back.

Your POV character (protagonist) sets out to do X but then Y gets in the way. Your character then will have some kind of a reaction to the setback.

So we have the major chords I mentioned earlier:

ACTION–> REACTION to the obstacle

Now when we add in the minor chords, it might look something like this:

Setup–>ACTION–>obstacle–>REACTION to the obstacle–>deepening

Setup and deepening need to be short and sweet. Why? Because they don’t drive the story, conflict does. We as readers will need a certain amount of setup to get oriented in what is happening, but then drive forward and get to the good stuff. Deepening is the same. We want to know how this conflict has changed the course of events, but don’t get carried away or you risk losing your reader.

Every scene should have conflict and a great way to test this is to do a Conflict Lock. Bob Mayer teaches this tactic in his workshops and if you get a chance to take one of his classes, you will be amazed how your writing will improve.

The conflict lock is a basic diagram of what the conflicting goals in the scene look like. Here is one from one of my earlier fiction pieces. My protagonist’s roommate has just been taken by bad guys, and protag and the love interest are clearly in conflict:

Jane wants to pursue the trail of the kidnappers deeper into Mexico.

Tank wants to return to Texas and call the FBI.

Even though these two characters are allies, it is clear they want different things. Jane wants to plunge ahead and take her chances pursuing the bad guys who have her friend. The love interest doesn’t want Jane hurt or killed. He wants to take the safer route and let the pros handle the kidnapping. Both have reasonable goals, but only one of them, by the end of the scene, will get his/her way. One path takes Jane closer to finding her roommate. The other ends the adventure.

So how do you keep track of all these elements? The note card is a writer’s best friend. We will discuss different methods of plotting in the future, but I recommend doing note cards ahead of time and then again after the fact. I stole a very cool tactic from screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

On each note card, I write the location, then a one-sentence header about what the scene is about. Then there is a neat little symbol for conflict (><) I use to show who is in conflict in this particular scene. Then I do a micro conflict lock. Who wants what? I also use an emotional symbol to note change +/-.

Characters should be changing emotionally. If your protag enters on a high note, crush it. Enters on a low? Give some hope. If a character is constantly okey dokey, that’s boring. Conversely, if a character is always in the dumps, it will wear out your reader and stall the plot. I also note any facts I might need to keep up with. Has my main character suffered an injury? Lost her weapon? Gained a bazooka and a pet hamster?

Let’s look at an example from the movies. Romancing the Stone.

So the card might look something like this:

Jungles of South America (Location)

>< Joan (protag) and Jack (love interest/antagonist)

Joan wants a guide to get her to Cartejena, Columbia to trade the treasure map for her sister.

Jack wants to recapture the exotic birds he lost when the bus crashed into the back of his truck.

-/+ Joan finally convinces Jack to take her to Cartejena. (Note she started on a low. She was lost, in a crash and far away from Cartejena. She ends on a high note. Jack agrees to guide her to her destination)

Joan and Jack decide to go to Cartejena (decision), but then bad guys arrive and start shooting at them (prompt).

Yes, Blake Snyder’s system is designed to keep up with all the scenes a movie, but it can do wonders for novelists, too. When I finish my first draft, I go back and make set of cards. Using this system makes it painfully clear what scenes are in need of a total overhaul. If I can’t say in one sentence what the scene is about, then I know my goal is weak, nonexistent or unclear. Too many people in conflict? Conflict might be muddy. Go back and clarify. If there isn’t any emotional change, then that’s a big red flag that nothing is happening–it’s a “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Cares?'”

If I find a scene that’s sole purpose is information dump, what do I do? I have three choices. 1) Cut the scene totally. 2) Fold it into another scene that has existing conflict. 3) Add conflict. Note cards also make it easy to spot bunny trails–goals that have nothing to do with the A or B plot.

This tactic can help make a large work manageable. If you are starting out and outlining? Make note cards for each scene and who you foresee being in conflict. If you already have your novel written, but you want to tighten the writing or diagnose a problem you just can’t see? Make note cards.

Keeping organized with note cards is an excellent way to spot problems and even make big changes without unraveling the rest of the plot. There are, of course, other methods, but this is the one I have liked the best. Note cards are cheap, portable and easy to color code. For instance, each POV character can have a designated color. Using these cards makes it much easier to juggle all the different elements of great novels—characters, conflict, inner arc, plot, details.

Have any questions? Are there other methods that have worked for you? Please share so we all can learn. What is the biggest challenge you face when it comes to plotting? I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of November I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique is Joel. Congratulations! Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!

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Structure Part 6-Getting Primal & Staying Simple

Okay, so if you have read all the blogs in this series, you should understand what makes a scene vs. a sequel, understand the three-act dramatic structure. You also understand that the antagonist—or Big Boss Troublemaker—is the engine of your story. Without the BBT, your protagonist’s world would remain unchanged. The BBT’s agenda drives the story. It is the engine. No engine, no forward motion. By this point, you should be able to decipher a good idea from a not-so-good idea and then, once decided, state what your book is about in ONE sentence. You can have up to three, but let’s shoot for one.

Welcome to part SIX of my series on novel structure–whoo-hoo! Today we are going to discuss gimmick and fundamentals of a good story.

First, gimmick. Here is the thing. There are only so many plots. DO NOT try to get creative with plot. Everything has been done. Seriously. Remember Part One of this series? There are only so many elements on the Periodic Table, yet everything in the universe is made up of some combination of these elements. Think of core plots like the elements on the Periodic Table.

Many new writers make writing a novel way too hard in that they try to reinvent the wheel. The wheel works. Leave the wheel alone. You do not have to revinvent plot as we understand it to tell a darn good story.

I find a lot of new writers get really excited about gimmick. Gimmick is dangerous, and gimmicks can bite back. Don’t believe me? Okay…M. Night Shyamalan. He got us with The Sixth Sense, but after that? It was over. Why? Because the “magic” only worked with a naïve audience. After The Sixth Sense we were like CSI Vegas with every Shyamalan story. Short of using a swab kit and blacklight, we paid attention to every last little detail trying to figure out the twist ending. This also limited Shyamalan in that he was doomed if he did and doomed if he didn’t. If he told a story with a twist ending, then the audience (no longer naïve) was looking for the clues, so no ending could possibly measure up to The Sixth Sense. But, if Shyamalan tried to do a movie with no twist and do something different, then the audience was ticked because there was no twist. Shyamalan, in my opinion, is a victim of his own brilliance, and I can see how The Sixth Sense really put him in a bind….because it worked so well. Most of the time gimmicks suck, but even when they are really good…they still suck. So avoid gimmick and just focus on becoming a darn good storyteller.

Anyway, back to my original point.  There are only so many plots, so don’t try to be cute and clever and unique because it is unlikely you will discover a “new element.” Go ahead and try. I guarantee you that one of two things will happen. One is that you will think you have this new plot no one has ever seen. All excited, you will posit this new-and-shiny-never-before-imagined-idea to your fellow writing friends, and one of them (I promise) will go, “Oh, yeah. That’s like the movie Blah.” And then you are required to drink heavily and cry and wonder why you were doomed to be born a writer. The other end-scenario is that you get so weird that you barely understand your own story, and the poor the reader will need a Dungeon Master Guide and a sherpa to navigate your plot.

So, remember. Pizza has rules. Plot has rules. Can’t get too weird.

Plots, at the very core, are usually simple. Why? The plot is the foundation. Now what you construct on top of that foundation can be super-complex. Note I wrote complex NOTcomplicated.  Even the most complex stories can be boiled down to very simple goals. J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, James Clavell’s Shogun, and MacMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove all have very simple forces driving very complex and dynamic stories.  Good versus evil. Struggle for power, for survival, for love. Very simple. As Blake Snyder says in his book Save the Cat: Is it primal? Would a caveman understand the core of your story?

Good storytellers connect with the audience on a basic level. So when you whittle down that idea or novel into a one-sentence log-line, step back and be honest. Does your story hinge on primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, or fear of death? Does it have physical and or emotional stakes? Your story might seem complex, but at the core it should be very basic and connect at a visceral level. People in China LOVED Titanic.Why? Because it is a love story. Love is basic. It is primal.

In the upcoming weeks we are going to discuss various methods of plotting, but before you start any novel, there are some fundamental questions we can use as a litmus test for our idea. Ask yourself:

Do I have a sympathetic protagonist? 

Notice I said sympathetic…not likable. Be careful here. If we are expecting readers to spend 10 hours (average time to read a novel) with our protagonist, it helps if they are rooting for him to win. If you have a rough protagonist, then you need to at least offer the reader a glimmer of hope that he can be redeemed. If he can’t be redeemed, then you must offer the reader something about your protagonist that puts the reader on his side.

For instance, Quentin Tarantino knew he had a potential problem in Pulp Fiction. His protagonists (Travolta & Jackson) happen to be a two hit men and human beings of the lowest sort. Tarantino was brilliant in how he handled introducing Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield. First, he makes them funny. They stop for a burger before the hit and get into this funny dialogue about the Big Mac vs. The Royale. So we find them funny and we relate. But then Tarantino takes it another step and makes the bad guy badder than these two hit men so that the audience will side with the lesser of two evils. When viewed “in relation” these guys are clear heroes. They are still deplorable, but they are sympathetic.

Do I have a genuine GOAL for my protagonist?

A lot of first-time novelists get fascinated writing novels about journals, letters and buried secrets. I have a theory about this. It is called, “We-Are-Squeaky-New-and-Don’t-Know-Jack-About-How-to-Plot Syndrome.” Guess how I know this? Yes, I was visited by the Bright Idea Fairy too. Shoot her. Now. Double-tap. It’s for the best.

Novels that involve a journal or finding about a secret past usually involve the newbie author’s favorite tactic…the flashback. Since we have no big goal at the end, forward momentum is scary, so we roll back…and this makes the reader feel as if she is trapped in the car with a teenager learning to drive a stick-shift. Journals and letters, in my opinion, are so attractive because they provide the unskilled author a contrived mechanism for stringing together unrelated vignettes. That is not a plot. Sorry. I was bummed too. That is okay, though. Everyone starts somewhere. I’m here to help :D.

Yes, you can use journals in your story, but seriously? How many best-selling novels have you seen that involve someone reading a journal? Things written in journals are in the past, which means they have already happened and the world didn’t end so who cares? It becomes a Watch out for that glacier! No rising stakes and no pressing danger. Watch out for the glacier! It’s moving at an inch a year, but watch out!

Conflict drives stories. My best advice? Journals are for self-actualization. Leave self-actualization for therapy. Want a gut-wrenching plot? Stick to the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy ;).

Stories can have a journal/letters, but they MUST ALSO have a main conflict and the journal/letters are merely a tool that drives the present conflict…which is your plot. The journal isn’t the plot. Neither are the letters. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants had conflict happening real-time. Yes, the novel contained each girl’s experience with the pants, but each girl’s story was a separate plot joined in one large plot and happening real-time. Each girl was facing a different challenge and had to mature in a different way, but the group of girls (the group is actually the protagonist) had to learn to mature while finding a way to hold on to childhood friendship.

Same with The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya-Sisterhood. The Ya-Ya Journal was critical for the daughter and mother (present-day) to repair the rift in their relationship. So there was a present-day problem that the journal solved, and basically you have a Fried Green Tomatoes. Two parallel plot lines and the present-day plot relies on past-time events to drive forward momentum in the present. Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook was the same thing. Two parallel love stories, but both had a plot arc. The love story told in the notebook drives the present-day love story in the nursing home.

Same with secrets. The secret must have something to do with the present-day story or it is just a contrivance. The secret can be a part of the story, but generally doesn’t work as the entire story. Linda Castillo executes this brilliantly in her novel Sworn to Silence. Chief of Police, Kate Burkholder, grew up Amish, but made a choice to live in the world with the English. She is the Chief of Police in a small Ohio community of both Amish and English, and she acts as a cultural bridge. When a serial killer begins butchering women, Kate leads the investigation, but a secret from her past holds clues to catching the present-day killer. Kate’s secret drives the forward momentum of the present-day plot, and adds mind-bending tension.

Is my story primal?

Beneath the empires and spaceships and unicorns, is your main plot driven by a basic human desire/need? Here is a list of some best-selling novels I’ve recently read to illustrate my point.

Michael Crichton’s Prey—Survival. Save/protect loved ones.

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic ParkDon’t get eaten. Protect loved ones.

Lee Child’s Killing FloorVengeance. Protect loved ones.

Suzanne Collins Hunger Games—Don’t die. Survive. Protect loved ones.

Cormac McCarthy The RoadSurvive. Protect loved ones.

Linda Castillo Sworn to Silence—Fear of death. Survive. Protect loved ones.

Jennifer Chiaverini The Aloha Quilt—Love. Sex. Protect loved ones. Survival.

Bob Mayer & Jennifer Crusie’s Wild Ride—Sex. Protect loved ones. Survival.

Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island—Survival. Vengeance. Protect loved ones.

Stephenie MeyerTwilightSex. Protect loved ones. Don’t get eaten.

Dennis Lehane’s Mystic RiverVengeance.

Okay, so as you can see, I read a lot of genres. But most great books can be boiled down to a very simple driving force. New writers very frequently rush into the writing with no idea of the story they are trying to tell. I know. I’ve been there. And since deep-down we know we do not have a core goal that is simple and primal, we try to compensate by making things more and more complicated.

That’s why so many writers have a panic attack about the agent pitch session. We are forced to boil down our plot to the primal core…and we can’t because there isn’t one. So we ramble and blather and try to fit 400 pages of world-building complications into our pitch while trying not to throw up in our shoes (Been there. Done that. Got the T-Shirt).

Being complicated is like trying to use Bond-O putty to fix your plot. Won’t work. Strip that baby down and look at the bare bones. Simple. Primal. This is why gimmicks are a sticky wicket. Gimmicks make stories complicated instead of complex. Stay away.

Remember that there are no new plots. So why not take a story you really love, look at the plot, then make it your own? The award-winning novel A Thousand Acres is King Lear on an Iowa farm. In my pov, Twilight is Jane Eyre with vampires (and I am not alone in this assessment). Instead of trying to totally revinvent story and plot as we understand it, why not take a book you love so much the pages are falling out of it, and see if you can use the premise in a new and exciting way?

Utilizing another author’s plot is not plagiarism. It’s smart. Remember…the number of plots is finite. I think this is where a lot of writers get stuck. Heck, I did! We believe we have to come up with a story never told before or risk being accused of plagiarism. Not so. Plagiarism is when someone takes the execution of another author’s plot and tries to hide that by only changing surface elements. So if I wrote a book called Evening about girl who moves from Texas to Northern California to fall in love with a vampire who merely glimmers in sunlight…. See the point? Actually a great way to come up with story ideas is to go to the IMDB and look at log-lines, then ask yourself how could you tell that story differently?

A timid romance author must travel to South America and join forces with a handsome opportunist to rescue her sister who’s been kidnapped by treasure-hunting thieves. (Romancing the Stone).

A shy librarian must travel to South Texas and join forces with a handsome biker to rescue her brother who has been kidnapped by desperate drug-dealers. (Kristen’s Made-Up Story).

See how you can take a story that has already been done and make it something amazing and new?

So what are some problems you guys are facing when it comes to plot? Do you have any resources to share? Have I scared the socks off you or offered you new inspiration? Share. I love hearing from you guys. Lets me know I haven’t given you a massive coronary and killed you off, :D. I appreciate your loyalty to this series.

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique–Andy Hollowman. Congratulations! Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!

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Structure Part 5–Keeping Focused & Nailing the Pitch–Understand Your “Seed Idea”

Today is the start of National Novel Writing Month. Yay! I hope those of you participating will take some time to read these posts on structure to help maximize your chances of success. Normally I blog about craft on Monday, but we had a special guest abduction interview with Nationally Best-Selling Author James Scott Bell.

So here we are posting on Tuesday. Thank you for your patience. Back to structure!

Welcome to the 5th installation on the topic of structure. As an editor for years, I consider myself an expert in spotting and fixing structural problems. Sadly, over the course of doing this many years, I have run into far too many novels that had plot problems that ran so deep there was no saving the manuscript. Like a building with massive structural flaws, the best course of action was simply implosion. Rebuild. Start from scratch.

I used to try to teach from the perspective of an editor, but I found that my thinking was flawed. Why? Because editors are like building inspectors. We have skills best used on a finished product. We are trained to look for problems. Is that a good skill? Sure. But do building inspectors design buildings? No. Architects do. Architects employ creativity and vision to create a final structure. Hopefully, they will have the necessary skills to create and design a structure that will meet code standards.

Creativity and vision are not enough. Architects need to learn mathematics and physics. They need to understand that a picture window might be real pretty, but if they put that sucker in a load-bearing wall, they won’t pass inspection and that they even risk a fatal collapse.

Aestheticism must align with pragmatism.

This made me step back and learn to become an architect. When it comes to plotting, I hope to teach you guys how to have the creative vision of the designer, but with the practical understanding of an inspector. Week one, we discussed plot on a micro-scale. Week two we panned back for an aerial shot, and discussed common plot problems that arise from a flawed structure. Week three we discussed the single most important component to plot, the Big Boss Troublemaker, and last week I gave you a tested method to make sure your core idea was solid enough to be the foundation for an entire novel.

Today I am going to show you how to construct your novel’s core—the log-line. I learned this tactic from NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. If you can ever get the opportunity to take his novel writing workshop, please do. It will change your entire career.

So what’s this log-line thingy?

Basically, you should be able to tell someone (an agent) what your story is about in one sentence. That is called the “log-line.” Log-lines are used in Hollywood to pitch movies.  In fact, a book that should be in every writer’s library is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a book on screenwriting, but every writer can benefit enormously from Snyder’s teaching.

In the world of screenwriting there is a tenet, “Give me the same, but different.” This axiom still holds true when it comes to novels. Our story cannot go so far off the deep end that readers cannot relate, but yet our story needs to be different enough that people don’t just think it’s a retread. We as writers have to negotiate this fine balance of same but different, and that is no easy task.

So let’s look at components of a great logline:

Great log-lines are short and clear. I cannot tell you how many writers I talk to and I ask, “So what’s your book about?” and they take off rambling for the next ten minutes. Often why writers are so terrified of the pitch session is that they cannot clearly state what their book is about in three sentences or less.

Here is a little insider information. When we cannot whittle our entire story into three sentences that is a clear sign to agents and editors that our story is structurally flawed. Not always, but more often than not. Your goal should be ONE sentence. What is your story about?

A good log-line is ironic. Irony gets attention and hooks interest. Here’s an example:

The Green Mile is about the lives of guards on death row leading up to the execution of a black man accused of rape and child murder who has the power of faith healing.

What can be more ironic than a murderer having the power of  healing? Think of the complex emotions that one sentence evokes, the moral complications that we just know are going to blossom out of the “seed idea.”

A good log-line is emotionally intriguing.

A good log-line tells the entire story. Like a movie, you can almost see the entire story play out in your head.

During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.

Didn’t you just see the entire movie play out in your head with that ONE sentence? Apparently Steven Spielberg did, too and that’s why he took Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park and made it into a blockbuster movie.

A good log-line will interest potential readers.

Good log-lines exude inherent conflict. Conflict is interesting. Blake Snyder talks about taking his log-line with him to Starbucks and asking strangers what they thought about his idea. This is a great exercise for your novel. Pitch to friends, family, and even total strangers and watch their reaction. Did their eyes glaze over? Did the smile seem polite or forced? If you can boil your book down into one sentence that generates excitement for the regular person, then you know you are on a solid path for your novel.

Yet, if your potential audience looks confused or bored or lost, then you know it is time to go back to the drawing board. But the good news is this; you just have to fix ONE sentence. You don’t have to go rewrite, revise a novel that is confusing, convoluted, boring, arcane, ridiculous, etc.

Think of your one sentence as your scale-model or your prototype. If the prototype doesn’t generate excitement and interest, it is unlikely the real thing will succeed. So revise the prototype until you find something that gets the future audience genuinely excited.

You Have Your Log-Line. Now What?

Your log-line is the core idea of your story. This will be the beacon of light in the darkness so you always know where the shore is versus the open sea. This sentence will keep you grounded in the original story you wanted to tell and keep you from prancing down bunny trails.

Bob Mayer taught me this tactic a few years ago and it WORKS. In my novel writing critique group, every participant has to be able to tell what their story is about in ONE sentence before we ever start plotting. If the writer gets too far off track, then we as his teammates know to do one of two things. 1) Change the plot and get back on track. Remember the core idea. Or 2) Change the original idea.

Fear is probably the most common emotion shared by writers. The newer you are the more fear you will feel. A side-effect of fear is to emotionally distance from the source of our discomfort. The log-line will help you spot that emotional distancing and root it out early. I have seen two behaviors in all my time working with writers.

Either a writer will wander off down the daffodil trail because he is afraid he lacks the skills to tell the story laid out in the log-line, OR the writer will water down the log-line to begin with. Through future plotting the writer will realize hidden strength…then he can go revise the plotting or revise the log-line.

The best way to learn how to write log-lines is to go look at the IMDB. Look up your favorite movies and see how they are described. You can even look up movies that bombed and very often see the log-line was weak and the movie was doomed from the start. Look up movies similar to the story you are writing.  Look up movies similar to the story you want to tell.

Solid novel log-lines will have 1) your protagonist 2) active verb 3) active goal 4) antagonist 5) stakes.

Here is a log-line I wrote for Michael Crichton’s Prey.

An out-of-work computer programmer (protagonist) must uncover (active verb) the secrets his wife is keeping in order to destroy (active goal) the nano-robotic threat (antagonist) to human-kind’s existence (stakes).

Hopefully you can see how this log-line meets all the criteria I set out earlier.

This log-line is ironic. An out-of-work programmer will uncover the robotic threat.

It’s emotionally intriguing. The main gatekeeper to the problem is his wife. This spells logistical and emotional complication to me.

It will interest potential readers. Considering it was a best-seller, I think Crichton did well.

So here is an exercise. See if you can state your novel in one sentence. It will not only help add clarity to your writing and keep you on track, but when it comes time to pitch an agent, you will be well-prepared and ready to knock it out of the park. Practice on your favorite movies and books. Work those log-line muscles!

What are some problems you might be having? Share in the comments. Maybe you have a tactic or a resource you would like to recommend.

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Winner’s Circle

Last week’s winner of 5 page critique is Laura Rae Amos–Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com

Last month’s winner of 15 page critique is Ashley Prince–Please send your 3750 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com

also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!

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