Posts Tagged plotting

Why Flashbacks Ruin Fiction

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

We have been discussing Deep POV, and yesterday I mentioned hating flashbacks with the power of a thousand suns and promised to explain why next post.

Yay! Here we are.

So you want to be a writer. Okay. I’ll be blunt because that’s my superpower. Check your conscience at the door keyboard. Writers are not civilized humans. In fact, we are the opposite. We are the reptilian brain to the power of a million. We probe and prod and poke the weak places.

Great storytellers are nothing short of sadists. We take a perfectly empathetic/likable person, toss their life in a Vita-Mix and blend, churning that mixture from Level 1-1000.

That is called conflict.

Stories are about people with problems to be solved. Everything else is a travel brochure.

One of the reasons I LOVE teaching craft is I get to see the work/stories of other writers. Last time I held my First Five Pages class (which there is a NEW ONE open *wink, wink*), I could hear the collective groans when I said, “NO FLASHBACKS. EVER.”

But, I am a benevolent dictator and instructed those submitting pages, that if they believed they positively-absolutely-must-have the flashback and had no idea how to extract it? Send it anyway.

One of my students sent her pages and they were the best example I have seen about WHY I hate flashbacks. Fabulous story and the flashbacks absolutely killed it.

***And, so you know the student was cool with me using this example and later fixed the story per my suggestions and it was successfully published.

:D

HOOK

We’ve talked before about how to hook readers. It doesn’t have to be a bomb, a car chase, a murder. In fact, some of the best tension is in the everyday and it is even more intense because regular people can relate. Most of us can’t relate to a bomb ticking down but two words—Family Reunion. One word—WEDDING.

This writer’s story began with a poor wedding planner trying to herd badly hungover bridesmaids to a wedding (in Mexico). She is trying to repair dresses, cater to a prima donna maid of honor, and placate a bride who is passive and used to others walking over her.

Between trying to get enough outlets in a hundred-year-old church, bridesmaids barfing on their shoes, and a meddling mother of the bride, we have the perfect STEW of DRAMA and a FANTASTIC HOOK! Perfect understanding of in medias res.

We feel compassion for the poor wedding planner and worry if she will get these sick-half-drunk girls to the wedding without using a stun-gun on someone.

I was RIVETED…and then the author went back and explained how the wedding came to be held in Mexico.

ER????

NO, I WANT TO SEE A BRIDESMAID PUKE IN THE FLOWER ARRANGEMENTS!

This sample of writing was fantastic, but she did two things that undermined her piece.

NOTHING Should Work

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

When the wedding planner gives the bridesmaids Pepto, it makes them feel better. Okay, I will go with that. But to enhance this? It makes them feel better…moments before at least one of them (or ALL of them) barfs pink all over the wedding planner’s bag, or the bride’s veil, or the bouquet. Now, the problem isn’t only the sickly maids and bride, but how the heck can the wedding planner get out of THIS?

Character is demonstrated by solving (or not solving) problems REAL-TIME. We do not need to go back in time to explain or tell what kind of person the protagonist is. She didn’t need to go back and tell me about the protagonist’s character when she could easily show me in the current timeline.

Since wedding planner is the protagonist, maybe she has been through this before and just as the bride is about to have a breakdown because her veil is ruined? Wedding planner pulls out…a spare.

She always orders two after that wedding she put together in Oklahoma where the chain-smoking bride set fire to her own veil (showing she is calm and resourceful).

Whatever.

So when you put your characters in any scenario, ask, “Can I make it WORSE?” Then make it worse. Then ask that question again and again until you can’t make it worse without making it weird (I.e. sudden alien abduction in a Women’s Fiction).

Part of becoming a writer is to train out any human sensitivity. When we make life easier on our characters, we are doing it because WE feel tension and are seeking to alleviate that. Ah, but TENSION is the fuel of fiction, so do the opposite of what civilized humans would do and MAKE IT WORSE.

Flashback Fizzle

I could tell this writer was doing a SUPERB job of winding our nerves tighter than a Hollywood facelift. How? She backed off to explain…using a flashback.

When we feel the need to use a flashback and go back in time? Often we are reacting to tension we’ve successfully created and now y’all might see why I feel flashbacks are bad juju. Fiction is all about conflict. No conflict no story. No tension? Good place to stop reading.

How many of you have jerk friends, family or acquaintances? Or all of the above? Or maybe you’ve had a moment where you’ve shown your butt? I have all of the above. What do we do to ease others? To make them relax?

We explain.

Sorry about my Mom. She’s not been the same since my father died. 

Ok, so we leave out the part that Dad died 15 years ago. It works. It makes others give grace to Mom for acting like a horse’s behind.

I apologize for blowing up like that. I had a flat tire, migraine, no sleep, allergy medicine overdose, etc.

EXPLAINING is what civilized humans do to break the tension. STOP IT! CUT! CUT! CUT!

Original image via Flickr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

Original image via Flickr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

All of us will feel a NEED to explain why a character is moody, angry, broken, bawdy, whatever. DON’T. Resist the urge to EXPLAIN. In fact, if readers don’t know WHY, they will want to turn pages to find out WHY.

Frankly, as writers, we are GOD, so we really don’t have to explain ourselves anyway. Let the readers suffer until the very end, when you finally allow resolution. Suffering is good for readers (and book sales).

***And, like anything, I am sure someone somewhere used a flashback and it was AWESOME. Like any writing “rule” we can break this one, too. But, we have to know the rules to break the rules ;) .***

Flashback Fodder in Real-Time Adds Mystery

When this writer flashed back to explain how the wedding ended up in Mexico instead of Mom’s choice (Napa Valley), she inadvertently missed two opportunities:

1) Increase tension.

2) Show character.

If she’d had this flashback information revealed real-time, Mom could have come in, seen the sea foam green bridesmaids (faces and dresses matching) and thrown a fit. “THIS is why I wanted to have this in Napa. It’s Montezuma’s Revenge. I told you wine country was a better choice. Why don’t you ever listen to me?”

The poor bride, who never stands up for herself is defeated and losing ground on what should be HER day. Wedding planner can come to the rescue and usher Mom out with the skill of an ambassador in a war zone (or try and fail). Either way, we LIKE her for trying.

THIS is “Show don’t tell.” Having critical information from a flashback in the current thread of time allows readers to see people act and react. It makes us wonder. It makes us tense. We want to ease the pressure and the only way to do that is to KEEP READING and HOPE it will eventually all turns out for the better.

Most Backstory CAN Be Told Real-Time…I Promise

One major reason new writers rely on flashbacks (aside from a possibly weak/flawed/nonexistent plot OR as a tension release) is that there is something that happened earlier the writer wants to share. Backstory.

A lot of writers don’t give readers enough credit. We believe we need to travel back in time to explain the backstory or the reader won’t “get” what’s going on. They will.

Let’s take a quick look at one of yesterday’s hastily assembled examples of Deep POV.

Fifi clutched the baby picture, the one her daughter had given her a week ago for Mother’s Day when they picked her up from rehab. Ninety days clean. At least that was the lie she’d packed along with her swimsuit and the hairspray can with the secret compartment and the only pills they hadn’t found.

The pills that were now gone.

They should have already been at the resort, the one staffed with eager friends willing to help her out. Friends with first names only who took cash and asked no questions.

Fifi scratched at her arms. Millions of insects boiled beneath her skin, invaded her nerve endings and chewed them to bleeding bits. Pain like lightning struck her spine, the section crushed then reconstructed. Pain like lightning spidered her brain, frying her thoughts. She glanced again at the baby picture, then at the fine young woman in back. Her daughter Gretchen.

What am I doing?

Maybe she would be okay. Maybe she hadn’t had enough pills to completely undo her. Maybe she could ride this out. And maybe I’m the Queen of England.

Gretchen bent between the seats and kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, Mom. You okay?”

Tears clotted her throat. She nodded. “Yes, I’m fine, Honey.”

“You mean it?”

She hesitated then smiled. “Yes. Yes I do.”

She tucked the baby picture in her shirt pocket, close to her heart and opened the van door. She needed air. She also needed to change their plans. Visit somewhere with no friends. With no one who took cash.

Look at ALL the stuff we learn without having to go back in time. We learn the time of year. That Mother’s Day was a week ago. That the family picked up Fifi from rehab. We learn she has an addiction to pills that is bad enough she has special drug-hiding containers. We later realize she has suffered a serious injury that crushed part of her spine.

You guys get the idea. We don’t need to go back to her being picked up from rehab. We don’t need to go back to the car accident or the fall or the ambush by ninjas wielding large sticks to see HOW Fifi was hurt. None of that is salient to the current story problem aside from fleshing out the character.

In fact, if I have my addict stranded with a broken down car and STOP and rewind to explain how she injured her back? Odds are it would just confuse you.

The story is about a family breaking down on the way to a vacation destination. Taking side trips back in time is distracting, redundant, confusing and makes the conflict fizzle.

Now y’all know why I take away your flashbacks. I am being mean, but it’s good for you. Flashbacks will ease your nerves, but is it worth losing the reader? And we often don’t recognize we are doing this. Even I have to go back through my writing and hunt for places I backed off the throttle because I was uncomfortable.

We will talk more about flashbacks in the coming posts because, as I mentioned yesterday, often what folks believe is a flashback is actually unorthodox plotting (I.e. parallel timelines).

What are your thoughts? What makes you tense? Do you find you fall in love with your characters and go too easy on them?

Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE. 

Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses :P .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages.  Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.

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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71 Comments

How to Manage Scenes in a Novel—Structure Part 8

And….ACTION!

And….ACTION!

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.

Before we continue, if you want better odds of winning my 20 page critique at the end of the month, I am running a separately drawn contest over on my Dojo Diva blog where I am talking about why everyone (but especially females) needs at least some basic self-defense training. Comments count for one entry. Comments with a hyperlink count for two. And you get to learn about beating up bad people.

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Moving on…

We have spent the past few weeks 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.

First, let’s talk about scenes.

My friend and mentor James Scott Bell has given me permission to use a sample of his teachings as a guide, and again I strongly recommend getting his book. I was a pantser for ages and revisions were a nightmare. Plotting might as well have been sanskrit until I read his books and instead of reinventing my own methods, I just like to tell writers about the good stuff.

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 content edit, I was known to draw cute little cartoon flies on the page when the story took off down a bunny trail and lost my interest. This became known as my, “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Cares?’” and was a signal to the writer that this was a section with no real purpose so it needed revision, tightening or to be cut completely.

Screen Shot 2014-08-25 at 9.51.29 AM

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 (okay, just something tense). 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! CUT! CUT!

We are writing novels, not screenplays for Days of Our Lives.

Prompt—leave the scene with work left undone and questions left unanswered. If your character is relaxed enough to happily 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.

Remember when we talked about antagonists? How the BBT is responsible for the problem in need of resolution, but that EVERY scene should have an antagonist.

Allies will often provide the lion’s share of the conflict of a story. One of my favorite movies is Finding Nemo. Darla the Fish-Killer is the BBT, because had she wanted a puppy for her birthday, Nemo would have never been taken and wouldn’t be in danger. But who creates MOST of the conflict? Ally, Dori. For most of the story. Marlin and Dori are at odds.

Marlin wants to keep searching for the clue to find his son.

Dori wants to talk to the sharks and attend a Fish Anoymous meeting.

Image via Pixar's movie "Finding Nemo"

Image via Pixar’s movie “Finding Nemo”

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 use 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 weaponized Bedazzler 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 Cartajena, Colombia 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 Cartajena. (Note she started on a low. She was lost, in a crash and far away from Cartajena. She ends on a high note. Jack agrees to guide her to her destination)

Joan and Jack decide to go to Cartajena (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’ve liked the best. Note cards are cheap, portable and easy to color code (you can also sub an Excel spreadsheet for cards).

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!

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

Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.

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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60 Comments

Is Your Story PRIMAL?—Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story Part 6

Geiko Caveman.

Geiko Caveman.

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 also 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 versus 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, a Garman and a sherpa to navigate your plot.

So, remember. Pizza has rules. Plot has rules. Can’t get too weird. If you still want to invent the plot never seen before? Have fun storming the castle *waves and smiles*.

Moving on…

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 NOT complicated.  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.

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, one of my ALL TIME FAVORITE movies is Tropic Thunder.

Don’t judge me.

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The main protagonist Tugg Speedman is a washout and an action movie has-been. The entire group of actors are hard to like. They are insecure, narcissistic and extremely high-maintenance. One is a hardcore addict. These guys are tough to root for. BUT, when placed in relation to the dreadful Hollywood producer Les Grossman?

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BEST Tom Cruise role EVER!

We can’t help but cut the actors a break and sympathize, especially after they end up in way over their heads when they are dropped in Vietnam and the plan goes sideways. The actors believe they are in an action movie, but (after a freak twist of events) they are actually pitted against real drug dealers…with real bullets.

*giggles*

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?

To paraphrase Blake Snyder, 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 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.

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

Dennis Lehane’s Mystic RiverVengeance.

Veronica Roth’s DivergentSurvive. Belong. Protect loved ones.

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 was 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-Just-Now 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.

Oh, by the way. Since there seemed to be a lot of interest in log-lines and creating them or repairing them, I am thinking on doing a class and workshop to help. Is this something that would interest you guys? It would be about $35. Lemme know.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, 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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Is Your Idea Strong Enough? Story Structure Part 4

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Whether we are traditionally published, indie published or self-published, we must connect with readers and tell a great story. Structure is the “delivery system” for our story, so it’s wise to make it as solid as possible.

Welcome to Part IV of my Structure Series—Testing the Idea

I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60-100,000 words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task.

That said, all novels begin with an idea. But how do we know if our idea has what it takes to make a great novel?

Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then they take off writing in hopes that seed will germinate into a cohesive novel. Yeah…um, no. Not all ideas are strong enough to sustain 60,000 or more words.

Think of your core idea as the ground where you will eventually build your structure. Novels, being very large structures, require firm ground. So how do you know if the idea you have is strong enough?

Good question. Today we will discuss the fundamental elements of great novels. If your core idea can somehow be framed over these parts, you are likely on a good path.

James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure (which I highly recommend you buy & read, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. Jim, being the SUPER AWESOME person he is, has granted me permission to talk about some of his methods, but these are just my notes, so get the book for the real meat.

When you get the first glimmer of the story you long to tell, the idea that is going to keep you going for months of researching, writing, revisions and eventually submissions, it is wise to test its integrity. The LOCK system is one method we will discuss today.

Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK

LEAD

First, we must have a sympathetic and compelling character. It is critical to have a protagonist that the reader will be able to relate to. Our characters should have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.

Perfect people are boring and unlikable and they lack any room to grow. Perfect characters are no different. New writers are often insecure and our protagonists are us…well, the perfect version of us anyway. Our heroines are tall and thin and speak ten languages and have genius IQs and rescue kittens in their free time…and no one likes them.

Seriously.

We need readers to rally to her team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws, and humanize her. Additionally, if our characters are fully actualized in the beginning, there will be no character arc so our story will be one-dimensional and flat.

Now, to look at the other side of the spectrum. Often to avoid the cliched “too perfect” character, an author will stray too far to the other end of extremes. The brooding dark protagonist is tough to pull off. In life, we avoid these unpleasant people, so why would we want to dedicate our free time to caring about them?

Oh, but the author will often defend, “But he is redeemed in the end.” Yeah, but we’re expecting readers to spend ten hours (average time to read a novel) with someone they don’t like. Tall order.

To quote mega-agent, Donald Maas (The Fire in the Fiction):

Wounded heroes and heroines are easy to overdo. Too much baggage and angst isn’t exactly a party invitation for one’s readers. What’s the best balance? And which comes first, the strength or the humility? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that one is quickly followed by the other.

In my opinion, this was the single largest problem with the Star Wars prequels. Anakin Skywalker was a little-kid-killer, ergo never redeemable…EVER. He needed to die badly and slowly. Lucas should never have allowed his protagonist to cross that line. Heroes NEVER kill defenseless little kids. It was (my POV) an unforgivable action on the part of the “hero” that cratered the epic.

Objective

Our protagonist MUST have a clear objective. There are many times I go to conferences and I see all these excited writers who are all dying to talk to an agent. When I ask, “So what’s your book about?” I often get something akin to, “Well, there is this girl and she has powers, but she didn’t know she had powers, because, see. Hold on. Okay, her mother was a fairy queen and she fell in love with a werewolf, but werewolves in my book are different. Anyway she has a boyfriend in high school, but he is actually the leader of a group of wizards from another dimension and he is pitted against his inner demons because he lost his father in a battle against shape-shifters….”

Huh? *looks to wine bar in the corner of the room*

Your protagonist must have ONE BIG ACTIVE GOAL. Yes, even literary pieces.

Don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s a good example. The movie Fried Green Tomatoes very easily could have been just a collection of some old lady’s stories that helps our present-day protagonist (Evelyn Couch) bide the time while she waits for her husband to finish the visit with his mother, but that is far from the case.

Evelyn is having trouble in her marriage, and no one seems to take her seriously. While in a nursing home visiting relatives, she meets Ninny Threadgoode, an outgoing old woman, who tells her the story of Idgie Threadgoode, a young woman in 1920’s Alabama. Through Idgie’s inspiring life, Evelyn learns to be more assertive and builds a lasting friendship of her own with Ninny (per IMDB).

Learning to be assertive is an active goal. Building is an active verb. Gaining the self-confidence to make your own friends shows a change has occurred, a metamorphosis.

Oh, but Kristen, that’s a movie. Novels are different.

Um…not really. I use movies as examples of storytelling because it saves time. But, here is an example in the world of literary fiction to make you feel better that I am steering you down the correct path.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan could have been just a collection of tales about three generations of Chinese women, but they weren’t. There was an active goal to all of these stories.

The mothers left China in hopes they could change the future for their daughters, and yet the old cycles, despite all their good intentions, repeat themselves and echo the same pain in the lives of their daughters. Actually the protagonist in the book is the collective—The Joy Luck Club.

The stories propel the living members of the Joy Luck Club toward the active goal of finding courage to change the patterns of the past. The mothers seek forgiveness and the daughters struggle for freedom, but each is actively searching and eventually finds something tangible.

We will discuss this in more detail later, but keep in mind that running away from something or avoiding something is a passive goal. Not good material for novels. Novels require active goals…even you literary folk ;).

Conflict

Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember, last time we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is whose agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end.

The protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive.

Riddick, for most of the story, is reacting to the Lord Marshal’s agenda. Riddick’s goal is to defeat the BBT, but there are all kinds of disasters and setbacks along the way. Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting. One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.

Knockout

So your novel has thrust a likable, relatable protagonist into a collision course with the Big Boss Troublemaker. The Big Boss Battle must deliver all you (the writer) have been promising. Endings tie up all loose ends and sub-plots and, if we have done our job, will leave the reader a feeling of resonance.

Your protagonist MUST face down the BBT. No fighting through proxies. Luke had to face Darth. By employing the Jedi skills learned over the course of the story, he was able to triumph.

Same in literary works.

Evelyn Couch had to stand up to her husband and her monster-in-law. She couldn’t send in Ninny Threadgoode to do it for her. In the movie’s climactic scene, Evelyn employs the “Jedi skills” she learned from stories about Idgy. Her Jedi skills are confidence and self-respect, and she uses them to defeat her oppressors by refusing to take any more of their sh—enanigans.

This is why all this “my protagonist is the BBT/antagonist” WON’T WORK. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn is her own worst enemy. She is spineless and weak. But, the real enemy resides in those who desire to control and bully Evelyn. In each act of the movie, we see Evelyn learning confidence so that by the end, the BIG battle, she can tell her abusive mother-in-law to stuff it.

She isn’t having an argument with herself. She is standing up to a very real antagonist…even though this is a character/literary story. Characters having inner angst for 80,000 words is therapy, not fiction. Humans do better with the tangible. Existentialism is great, but for a mainstream successful novel? Not the best approach.

So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using the LOCK system. Ask yourself:

Can I cast a LEAD who is relatable and likable?

Is this OBJECTIVE something that will keep readers interested for 60-100,000 words?

Can I create a BBT and opposition force capable of generating plenty of CONFLICT to keep my lead from her objective?

Does this story problem lend itself to a KNOCKOUT ending?

This is just a taste of the good stuff that James Scott Bell has to offer in Plot & Structure so I recommend buying a copy for your writing library. In the upcoming lessons, I will be using this book for reference, among others to help you guys become master story-tellers.

What are the biggest problems you guys have when it comes to developing your ideas? What are some setbacks you have faced? Do you guys have any recommendations for resources? Or, feel free to commiserate and laugh about all the good ideas that went oh so wrong.

I do want to hear from you guys! What are your thoughts? Questions? Concerns? I LOVE hearing from you.

Lynette Mirie is the winner over at my Dojo Diva blog. Today at Dojo Diva, we are talking about the POWER of QUITTING. Since this is a new blog (and a way shorter one), I am running a separate contest for commenters so the chances of winning are A LOT better!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, 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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Generate Nerve-Shredding Story Tension—Power of the Secret-Keeper

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Image via the award-winning show “House.”

It’s tempting for us to create “perfect” protagonists and “pure evil” antagonists, but that’s the stuff of cartoons, not great fiction. Every strength has an array of corresponding weaknesses, and when we understand these soft spots, generating conflict becomes easier. Understanding character arc becomes simpler. Plotting will fall into place with far less effort.

My POV? All memorable stories are character-driven. Plot merely serves to change characters from a lowly protagonist into a hero….kicking and screaming along the way.

One element that is critical to understand is this:

Everyone has Secrets

To quote Dr. Gregory House, Everybody lies.

All good stories hinge on secrets.

I have bodies under my porch.

Okay, not all secrets in our fiction need to be THIS huge.

Secret #1—“Real” Self Versus Authentic Self

We all have a face we show to the world, what we want others to see. If this weren’t true then my author picture would have me wearing a Star Wars t-shirt, yoga pants and a scrunchee, not a beautifully lighted photograph taken by a pro.

We all have faces we show to certain people, roles we play. We are one person in the workplace, another with family, another with friends and another with strangers. This isn’t us being deceptive in a bad way, it’s self-protection and it’s us upholding societal norms. This is why when Grandma starts discussing her bathroom routine, we cringe and yell, “Grandma! TMI! STOP!”

No one wants to be trapped in a long line at a grocery store with the stranger telling us about her nasty divorce. Yet, if we had a sibling who was suffering, we’d be wounded if she didn’t tell us her marriage was falling apart.

Yet, people keep secrets. Some more than others.

In fact, if we look at The Joy Luck Club the entire book hinges on the fact that the mothers are trying to break the curses of the past by merely changing geography. Yet, as their daughters grow into women, they see the faces of the same demons wreaking havoc in their daughters’ lives…even though they are thousands of miles away from the past (China).

How could she just LEAVE those babies?

How could she just LEAVE those babies?
Image via IMDB “The Joy Luck Club”

The mothers have to reveal their sins, but this will cost them the “perfect version of themselves” they’ve sold the world and their daughters (and frankly, themselves).

The daughters look at their mothers as being different from them. Their mothers are perfect, put-together, and guiltless. It’s this misperception that keeps a wall between them. This wall can only come down if the external facades (the secrets) are exposed.

Secret #2—False Face

Characters who seem strong, can, in fact, be scared half to death. Characters who seem to be so caring, can in fact be acting out of guilt, not genuine concern for others. We all have those fatal weaknesses, and most of us don’t volunteer these blemishes to the world.

The woman whose house looks perfect can be hiding a month’s worth of laundry behind the Martha Stewart shower curtains. Go to her house and watch her squirm if you want to hang your coat in her front closet. She wants others to think she has her act together, but if anyone opens that coat closet door, the pile of junk will fall out…and her skeletons will be on public display.

Anyone walking toward her closets or asking to take a shower makes her uncomfortable because this threatens her false face.

Watch any episode of House and most of the team’s investigations are hindered because patients don’t want to reveal they are not ill and really want attention, use drugs, are bulimic, had an affair, are growing marijuana in their attics, etc.

Secret #3—False Guilt

Characters can be driven to right a wrong they aren’t even responsible for. In Winter’s Bone Ree Dolly is driven to find her father before the bail bondsman takes the family land and renders all of them homeless.

Ree is old enough to join the Army and walk away from the nightmare, but she doesn’t. She feels a need to take care of the family and right a wrong she didn’t commit. She has to dig in and dismantle the family secrets (the crime ring entrenched in her bloodline) to uncover the real secret—What happened to her father?

She has to keep the family secret (otherwise she could just go to the cops) to uncover the greater, and more important secret. She keeps the secret partly out of self-preservation, but also out of guilt and shame.

Seeking the truth is painful...

Seeking the truth is painful…
Image via “Winter’s Bone”

In the first novel of the trilogy I am writing, my protagonist takes the fall for a massive Enron-like scam. She had nothing to do with the theft of a half a billion dollars and the countless people defrauded into destitution. Yet, she feels false guilt. She feels responsible even though she isn’t.

This directs her actions. It makes her fail to trust who she should because she’s been had before. When she uncovers a horrific and embarrassing truth about someone she trusts, she withholds the information (out of shame for the other person) and it nearly gets her killed.

This embarrassing secret is the key to unlocking the truth, yet she hides it because of shame. Shame for the other person and shame that this information reveals her deepest weakness…she is naive and has been (yet again) fooled.

Be a GOOD Secret-Keeper

This is one of the reasons I HATE flashbacks. Oh, but people want to know WHY my character is this way or does thus-and-such.

Here’s the thing, The Spawn wants cookie sprinkles for breakfast. Just because he WANTS something, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him. Don’t tell us WHY. Reveal pieces slowly, but once secrets are out? Tension dissipates. Tension is key to maintaining story momentum. We WANT to know WHY, but it might not be good for us.

The Force was more interesting before it was EXPLAINED.

Everybody LIES

They can be small lies, “No, I wasn’t crying. Allergies.” Lies of omission. White lies. They can even be BIG lies, “I have no idea what happened to your father. I was playing poker with Jeb.” Fiction is one of the few places that LIES ARE GOOD. LIES ARE GOLD.

Fiction is like dating. If we tell our date our entire life story on Date #1? Mystery lost and good luck with Date #2.

When it comes to your characters, make them lie (even if it’s only to themselves). Make them hide who they are. They need to slowly reveal the true self, and they will do everything to defend who they believe they are.

Remember the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. The protagonist will want to return to the old way, even though it isn’t good for them.

Resist the urge to explain. 

Feel free to write backstory/secrets out for your benefit…but then HIDE those babies from the reader. BE A SECRET-KEEPER. Secrets rock. Secrets make FABULOUS fiction.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some great works of fiction that show a myriad of lies from small to catastrophic? Can you think of what your character’s “false face” is? What is the lie that defines him or her? What is the self-delusion? What is the weakness that they dare not show (but by not showing it, is ultimately inhibiting growth)?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, 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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59 Comments

The Bookpocalypse–What to Do When You Realize Your Story Might Be DEAD

Original image via Wikimedia Commons, Nuclear Weapons Test Romeo

Original image via Wikimedia Commons, Nuclear Weapons Test Romeo

Since I am dedicating this week to the apocalypse to support my friend, Piper Bayard, I thought we’d take a day to look at the Bookpocalypse. What IS a Bookpocalypse? The Bookpocalypse is when you realize that first book you’ve been working, reworking, taking to critique, etc. is a train wreck and, for all intents and purposes, unsalvageable.

I went through this, too. Back in the 90s, when I began my tome, I mistakenly believed that making As in English naturally qualified me to be a best-selling author.

Yeah, um. NO.

And there comes that point that we need to be honest why our book is being rejected (or, in the new paradigm, not selling). This can be a very depressing low for any artist. I still remember the day it dawned on me my first book was mess and it was time to pull the plug. This is why I coined the phrase, Persistence can look a lot like stupid. 

If we don’t have a basic understanding of some key fundamentals, more work or harder work is wasted effort. We need to work smarter, not harder.

Sometimes we need professional help. This help can come from reading craft books, dissecting fiction similar to what we want to write, studying movies, attending conferences and workshops. But sometimes it can come through having a strong editor.

A Story of Seeds

Piper won’t mind me telling you this story since we laugh about it now. Of course we weren’t really laughing through the process, and it did seem a strange request that Piper requested a lock of hair part-way through edits.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

But, the story goes like this.

Piper met me at the DFW Writers Workshop Conference. She met me at a fortuitous point because I believed that antagonists were key to plotting and had spent the previous year studying all the masters with the hopes of creating a program to help writers (especially new writers) be able to create a core story problem, a solid plot, and dimensional characters quickly.

I’d been part of critique groups for years and watched writers all around who kept working on the same novel and getting rejected year after year. I knew there had to be a better way. What if these authors did land the Magical Three-Book Deal? NY wasn’t going to give them fifteen years to write the next books.

There had to be a way to teach new writers how to ramp up the creative process and generate solid books at a professional pace.

When I met Piper, she was shopping a completed manuscript called Seeds. Though I was no longer taking on editing work at this point, I gave in when it came to Piper because she is cute and fun to hang out with. I agreed to edit the first hundred pages because Piper was headed to another conference the next month and a big-time editor had expressed interest in her story idea.

Piper sends me the document and…

Kill. Me. Now.

Three pages in, I sensed we needed to call Literary FEMA. All the rookie mistakes. ALL OF THEM. I remember hitting about page 65 and calling her.

Me: Um, Piper, you, uh, have a lot of characters.

Piper: There aren’t that many.

Me: Are they all relevant to the story?

Piper: Well, maybe not in this book, but it’s going to be a series.

Me: *head desk* Okay, but still you have A LOT of characters.

Piper: Not really.

Me: I counted. I am at page 65 and you have almost 70 named characters. When you name them, that is a cue we need to care. It’s impossible to care about 70 people in less than 70 pages.

She still didn’t believe me, so I went back through the manuscript and not only highlighted all the named characters (which included pets and extended family) but I wrote the names in a list.

Piper: Oh, wow. I guess I do have too many characters.

Me: Ya think?

I continued my edits and notes and this is how I earned the name The Death Star. By the end of the tortuous hundred pages, I told Piper that her book was all over the place.

There were scenes that were irrelevant because she’d missed her core antagonist and core story problem. Because of this, the rest was just filler. She was “playing Literary Barbies” as I like to say.

Characters were talking to each other with no conflict, no scene goal. Melodrama filled in the gaps. Characters were psychologically inconsistent and half I would have recommended seek therapy and get medication. Their emotions were all over, namely to manufacture tension that couldn’t be created any other way (because no core story problem/antagonist).

I could tell she had a great storytelling voice (and a great idea for a novel), she just didn’t understand basic fundamentals, and that was derailing what she’d been trying to accomplish the past nine years.

I recommended we start a new book so she could learn the basics with a bit of guidance and then she’d have the skills to fix Seeds. But, Piper was determined to finish what she started and I knew this would mean a mass genocide of Little Darlings.

I only agreed to help for two reasons. First, Piper was a former lawyer so I knew she had a fabulous work ethic and tough skin. Secondly, I’d never tried to resurrect a novel from the dead and wondered if it was even possible. I knew it would stretch my skills and teach me just as much as it would teach Piper.

I stripped everything she’d written down to a single story problem then made her develop her core antagonist. Then we plotted from there, keeping and developing only the characters salient to the plot. I’d love to say this was easy for Piper, but I am pretty sure she was plotting her book and my death at a number of points along this journey.

At first, we would argue over characters or scenes she wanted to keep. Then, over time, I’d hear her starting to defend, and my response was, Have fun storming the castle.

Eventually, Piper learned to laugh and give in when I said this, namely because every time I recommended something be changed, moved or removed and she didn’t do it? She’d go back and read and see what I was talking about and just end up doing what I advised anyway.

A lot of working with an editor is developing trust, btw ;).

But, after all of this, I am happy we took the hard road. Piper endured her Bookpocalypse and came out stronger in the end. Seeds was burned and buried, and what grew from the ashes was Firelands.

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Not only did Piper get a traditional deal, this book has become a best-selling dystopian that has received glowing AP reviews and was blurbed by numerous New York Times best-selling authors. She wrote a funny blog post about this same journey we’re discussing today in her post, The Nine-Year Baby.

Piper is now a WAY faster, cleaner, stronger writer.

Her second book took less than seven months to complete and she’s now writing her third and has plotted her fourth (those books being an entirely new series). When I read her second book, I raced through it in less than six hours and loved it. Amazingly enough, I only had minor suggestions and corrections to offer.

My Baby Writer’s all grown up! *sniff*

Remember I mentioned some writer’s block might not be laziness or fear, rather lack of a foundation. The subconscious senses what’s lacking and slams on the breaks.

But this experience proved what I’d believed all along. There are some great new storytellers out there who just need some basics and tough love. Not all of us are able to learn by reading books. Some of us are kinesthetic learners and learn by doing. This can mean writing a drawer full of sucky books, or it can mean seeking guidance from someone who is a skilled teacher.

Yet, none of this learning can happen if we don’t experience our Bookpocalypse. I am not going to sugarcoat the experience. It SUCKS. When you have written and rewritten over and over, the characters and experiences become very real. It very much does feel like burying friends. I’ve been through it, too.

But we can’t move forward until we admit we have a disaster on our hands. And if we don’t learn why we wrote a disaster, this can be a formula for writing even more disasters.

This is why I am offering the Antagonist class tomorrow (use WANA15 for 15% off) and more classes that compliment this one next month. I no longer have the time to mentor the way I did with Piper, but I was able to create curriculum that can help reproduce the same effect.

I also highly recommend workshops offered by Bob Mayer, Candace Havens, James Scott Bell, Larry Brooks and Les Edgerton. Yes, it might cost money, but your time is valuable. Invest in your future.

Have you had a Bookpocalypse? Did you mourn the loss of your characters? Was it hard letting go? Are you happy you did?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.

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52 Comments

The Single Largest Cause of Writer’s Block–Might Not Be What You Believe

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

Today, I’d like to talk about the single greatest reason for writer’s block (aside from laziness and fear, but we can chat about those another time). I spent years as an editor, and I believe I’m a pretty good one. I’ve taken stories that were train wrecks and helped the author create a best-seller. Just ask Piper Bayard about Firelands, LOL.

I had a unique ability to pull apart a story and locate what wasn’t working and why. Then I could guide that writer to the best book possible (without altering that writer’s voice). Editing is a skill, but it’s a different skill from creating. For instance, a person who restores historical houses isn’t necessarily someone who can draw a blueprint and build a new house. The restorer looks to the bones of the house and fixes what’s already standing to help create what the owner envisions.

Same with editing. There is less creating and more reverse-engineering.

When I initially began writing fiction, I was shocked how terrible I was at it. Oh, page to page, the writing was lovely. But as a whole? I kept creating mess after mess, a blob with no internal structure that made sense. To make matters worse, I would hit about 30-40, 000 words an hit a WALL. I was paralyzed with no idea how the story should progress.

This, then led to editing and reediting the beginning until I was just ready to throw myself in traffic.

I was blocked.

Was it the wrong story? Was the idea flawed? Oh, let me try something new. 

Writing can feel a little like THIS...

Writing can feel a little like THIS…

Yet, time after time the same thing happened. I’d hit the exact same spot and paralysis would set in. I kept reading craft books and yet, nothing clicked. I’d start some new writing teacher’s program and again. STUCK. I’d hear things like, “Write your ending first” and it just made me want to punch the person who said it.

How is this even possible? Write the ending. RIGHT. After I take my pet unicorn for a ride.

Then I took NYT best-selling author Bob Mayer’s Warrior Writer class. We spent two days doing what he calls a “conflict lock.” I still didn’t get it. Bob kept asking me what kind of protagonist I wanted. Who was she? I had her in mind and yet…the plot ideas would end up so complicated even I didn’t understand what the hell I was talking about.

After some time, I am sure Bob was probably ready to hairlip me. I know I was ready to hairlip myself.

In frustration, Bob finally said the words that changed everything, “Okay, Kristen. Stop talking to me or I will call the cops.”

Kidding!

Bob said, “Forget the protagonist. Let’s start with the antagonist. Who is he and what does he want?”

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Robert Ellsworth Tyler

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Robert Ellsworth Tyler

Everything changed, and I finally saw what I was doing wrong. I was creating my hero with no problem. I had to begin with the story problem first or plotting would be next to impossible. Why? I had no idea what the hell my protagonist was trying to SOLVE!

I also was carrying around misguided ideas of what an antagonist was.

She is her OWN worst enemy.

Oooh, a STORM! SOCIETY!

Um, yeah…no.

This set me a on a new course. I stopped writing fiction altogether and threw everything I had into studying antagonists. I read stacks of novels, this time paying attention to the antagonists. I read psychological journals, profiling books, and tore apart every movie I watched (my husband has banned me from speaking during movies). I reverse engineered everything until I understood antagonists from every angle possible.

When most of us start out as baby writers, we only think of antagonists as villains. Buffalo Bill. Easy. But what if we don’t want to write about serial killers? And even if we DO want to write about serial killers, we can’t put the killer in every scene. A villain alone isn’t enough.

Don't make me toss you in my well....

Don’t make me toss you in my well….

High body count is still, as Les Edgerton would put it, a bad situation not conflict. Car chases and gun battles are not dramatic tension and can quickly become tedious in movies and books.

As I began to speak at more and more conferences, I saw how far-reaching this problem was. When I’d ask a writer to give me her pitch, I’d get something like this:

Well, it’s about a girl who is half-fairy and in high school, but she doesn’t know she has magic and, wait. Let me back up… Her mom fell in love with a vampire but then her mom had an affair with an evil fae and now their kingdom is in ruin because of werewolves and my character needs to find herself. She keeps having these dreams and there are these journals left by her aunt who was only 1/8 fae….

Kill…me…now *looks for closest wine bar*.

I started to realize what I had done to poor Bob (and I sent a letter of apology and a thank you for not slapping me). But it showed me something critical. Most new writers are backing into the story the wrong way.

With no clear antagonist, it is impossible to know the core story problem in need of resolution by Act Three. It’s impossible to plot (even good pantsers still have to know the story problem). It’s impossible to generate dramatic tension and what we are left with is melodrama….and a great way of getting STUCK at 30,000 words and wanting to kill ourselves and give up being novelists.

As an editor I knew when these elements were missing, but couldn’t articulate my instincts. I had to train and study and read until I got it.

Looking back at all those-half-finished novels, I now know how to fix them because I know what was missing to begin with. The novel I’m revising right now (that I easily finished) is actually one of those works that made it to 40,000 words then *insert sounds of squealing breaks here*.

The antagonist is the beating heart of the story. He/She/It creates the crisis and the crucible that forces our protagonist to become a hero. If we don’t know the endgame, we have no idea how to insert roadblocks, create misdirection, setbacks, or drama. So if you keep getting stuck? It might not be you are lazy or fearful (I wasn’t either). It might be your foundation (the antagonist/core story problem) either isn’t there or it’s weak and unable to support the bulk of 65-100,000 words.

I am offering an on-line class on antagonists next Friday. Use the code WANA15 for 15% off, and the class is recorded if you can’t make the actual window. But, if you want other resources you can read on your own (check out of the library), some great references are:

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

Hooked by Les Edgerton

Bullies, Bastards and Bitches by Jessica Morrell

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout PhD

The DSM-V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition)

Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas, the father of modern profiling

Take one of Bob Mayer’s workshops or Les Edgerton or even James Scott Bell. They are fabulous teachers.

Yet, if you are stuck, take heart. You might not be lazy or scared, you might just need some foundation repair :D. Good news is most stories can be fixed, just might take a lot of elbow grease. Yet, once you are finally headed in the right direction? That’s when the magic can happen.

What are your thoughts? What other books would you add to my list? Have you gotten stuck?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.

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121 Comments

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