Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

It’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday! Though, at this point, it’s more of a sublet than anything. I was planning on writing something snarky and funny today, but I woke up with the first sentence of this blog screaming in my head. Clearly, someone forgot to give my muse her decaf.

Naturally, though, we begin with the obligatory Denny Basenji picture.

Dear Leader is pensive this morning.

Please don’t worry that I am about to abandon the magnificent and wonderful tradition of this blog in staying the f*ck away from politics, etc. However, I found that the recent ugliness that claimed the life of an innocent woman raised a truly poignant, pertinent question for writers:

How do we as writers properly use ugly things?

Sure, a lot of us stay away from these topics or avoid writing in the genres that might land us in cultural minefields. But, we all reach a moment when our fingers pause over the keyboard as we wonder if we really should use that word, or describe a character with a particular label, or hint at a certain belief. It’s universal and unavoidable, really. Because when we are telling stories that mean something to us, that meaning is by nature complex and reflective of the entire spectrum from white to grey to black.

What are your intentions toward my novel, young man?

Writers are sneaky. We like to explore our vulnerabilities, controversial or dark thoughts, and unpopular opinions using the cloak-and-dagger of “plot” and “characters” and especially “the antagonist.”

This is absolutely the right thing to do. Our ability to slip in and out of disguise, to inhabit other lives and other worlds, is the Promethean gift to writers. Actors are similar to us, except they do it in a way that is physical and immediate. Whereas, we writers sip our tea, smile a little, and ponder if gutting the host with a cheese knife would leave enough forensic evidence for the pathologist to know that we were served camembert instead of brie.

This is all well and good.

Things become sticky when we fail to be honest with ourselves about our motivations. The ability to “shape shift” into our fiction comes with an equal measure of responsibility. We need to look at what we are saying and why we are saying it. Not just the general theme or message. We have to ask the hard questions of ourselves:

  • How did we get to this point in our lives where we need to write about this theme?
  • Could my message be seen from a different viewpoint? Can I accept that? Why or why not?
  • What does this message say about me as a person and what I believe and value?
  • Am I doing this to work off a grudge? Against whom or what? Why or why not?
  • Am I doing this so I can say things I am not normally allowed to say in society? Why or why not?

Notice that little phrase I keep using? “Why or why not?”

We can’t just stop at the first level of answers we give ourselves. If we are going to be authentic, honest, and meaningful, we must push ourselves to look unflinchingly at the truth – good, bad, ugly, and bad hair day – of who we truly are.

It is only when we are truthful about our own motivations that we can be meaningful…and careful when we handle ugly things.

You have the right to remain silent.

Writing difficult, ugly, and controversial things is a privilege, not a right. I mean, technically, yes, we have the First Amendment on our side. But, the moment we write something carelessly or thoughtlessly, we forfeit our alibi with our readers…and ourselves.

This is not about political correctness, identity politics, or anything like that. Those are incendiary labels that get shot back and forth in society like flaming tennis balls at the Wimbledon from hell.

This is about being honest with ourselves and doing the work to think through not just why we are writing something, but also tapping into our empathy to see if we are carelessly or thoughtlessly saying something that is needlessly hurtful to others.

That’s not to say that as writers, we can’t use stereotypes, prejudices, etc. We absolutely can – and often should. The difference is in our motivation and the care with which we do so.

Please note the second half of that sentence: the care with which we do so.

Because if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, thoughtful writing craft is the GPS of salvation. 

Handling ugly things requires the care and skill of a Ming dynasty vase collection curator. When we we use an ugly thing, we need to slow down, maybe even come to a full stop. This is a moment for analyzing what we are about to say, why we are saying it, which character/POV is saying it, why we chose that character/POV, what are that character’s motives and beliefs, and is this truly necessary to the story at that moment?

Ugly things are powerful. Ugly things evoke a visceral reaction in a reader that few other aspects of fiction can do. Ugly things can bring up ugly memories, traumas, deep fears, blistering rage, and gut-wrenching sorrow. Ugly things can turn the reader’s world upside down or make them face a world they had been hiding from.

This would be a moment to insert that old chestnut about absolute power corrupting absolutely. Sure, we as writers may not be making the kind of bank that a hedge fund manager or anesthesiologist makes, but we have the ability to haunt someone’s waking moments for weeks – if not months – after reading our words. That, my friends, is absolute power.

If we cannot or are unwilling to do the work to use our power responsibly and respectfully, then perhaps we should remain silent…

Speech therapy.

I have been toying with the idea of offering a class on this subject. I’d want it to be something where we really get into the weeds of how/when/not to use specific words, stereotypes, etc. However, it’s all too easy for a class like that to degenerate into a session of everyone complaining about the wrongs done to them as a person or as a writer. I include myself in this worry because this topic is a slippery slope. No, wait, it’s a glass slope covered in ice, with a layer of oil poured on top, and paved with banana skins for good measure.

Still, I think it might be something worth trying out. If you’d like to be part of this experiment, leave a comment and let me know!

***

For the month of AUGUST, for 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).

***

CATCH THE LAST CLASSES FOR AUGUST AND WATCH HERE FOR OUR WHOLE NEW LINE-UP OF SEPTEMBER CLASSES!

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!

Malpractice: Getting Medical Facts Right in Fiction. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST.
OMG! Like, How to Write On Fleek YA. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 23, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here). $45.00 USD. Wednesday, August 30, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Class Title: Beyond Lipstick and Swords: Creating Strong Female Characters. $40.00 USD. Saturday, September 9, 2017. 2:00-4:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

It’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday again, and you know what that means! Well, first, it means the obligatory photo of Denny Basenji. But right after that, it means that I’m going to take the Red Pen of Wrath to a topic, and today’s topic is medicine. Specifically, medicine in fiction. Why? Because I’m tired of being jerked out of stories by medical inaccuracies. It’s the literary equivalent of having to dig for a vein…for the third time.

So, first: Denny Basenji.

This is Denny Basenji coming out of surgery last summer. He’s wondering if the patient will get peanut butter ice cream…or maybe peanut butter jello…

Okay, let’s get down to business.

If we are going to put a character in the hospital, we need to know how to do it. We also need to know what happens inside a hospital and how long people stay. We need to know what nurses can and can’t do, what doctors can and can’t do, and why our character’s friend-of-family-doctor can’t simply take charge of her care. We need to know what happens after a character goes home in terms of when they can go home, why they are allowed to go home, and what the follow up care is.

I’m not a doctor, but I play one in my books

Why listen to me? Because I’m a f*cking gold star club card holder at Massachusetts General Hospital. Here’s a list of my experience and “qualifications.”

Yours truly getting her monthly immune suppression therapy intravenously. Still smiling after two tries for the iv and three separate sticks for blood work.
  • I’ve had a kidney transplant since 2007. I’m a walking encyclopedia on infectious diseases, pharmacology, and clinics.
  • I’ve had cervical cancer. Luckily, mine was caught early and completely by surgery. But, I went with my friend Jaime to her chemo treatments – all 19 of them. I know a few things about how chemo works now.
  • I have been hospitalized for infections, accidents, near-death drug interactions.
  • I’ve been taken in ambulances, taxi cabs, and driven myself.
  • I’ve ended up in the hospital in everywhere from Portugal to New Mexico.
  • I was hospitalized for pneumonia. Wheeze, cough. Cough. Ow.
  • I’ve been hospitalized for multiple infections of various kinds as a result of having no immune system (thanks, kidney transplant!).
  • I was hospitalized for a stomach infection (that had an upper GI endoscopy involved – SO much fun).
  • I’ve had miscarriages from 6 weeks to 5 months.
  • I’ve had enough iv’s and blood draws that I could be an iv nurse. Or part-time vampire.
  • I’ve worked in hospital administration. I am surrounded by friends and family who are doctors and nurses.
  • I’ve had ultrasounds, x-rays, CAT scans, MRI’s, stress tests, bone density scans, you name it. Interventional radiology procedures like angiograms are lots of fun, too.
  • I’ve sat at the bedside of my father as he went through heart attacks, surgeries, and finally the strokes that killed him. I know what it’s like to watch someone die.
  • I know how an ICU works.
  • Blood transfusions. I’ve got a frequent customer punch card.

Basically, I am at the hospital 2-4 times every month for various reasons. Mostly outpatient appointments, but I’ve got a collection of more than 30 wristbands that tell the story of my inpatient experience. You can just call me Dr. Cait. Or Nurse Cait. Or Frankencait.

Just one teeny weeny example: how to put a character in the hospital

So…there’s a famous set of books about a color somewhere between black and white…lots of people object to the rather “adventurous” sex scenes in it. Others object to the objectification of women and power dynamics of the main relationship. Me? I object to the ham-handed handling of the protagonist’s injuries that land her in the hospital.

She’s injured. She falls unconscious. She wakes up in a hospital room with her husband’s mother – a pediatrician – helping to manage her care.

Cue the…

 

Let’s call our character “Jane,” as in Jane Doe.

Please disabuse yourselves immediately of the standard “Jane wakes up in the hospital and doesn’t remember getting there.”

It almost NEVER happens like that, and if it does, Jane will have had to have been in a horrific, life-threatening accident. It’s actually pretty rare that people lose consciousness. The body’s defense mechanisms drive us to remain conscious, or at least semi-conscious, as much as possible.

If Jane does fall unconscious, the norm is to “surface” fairly quickly. Minutes, usually. Again, do your homework about just what could cause prolonged unconsciousness – and the side effects. Jane could be facing oxygen depletion in the brain and potential brain damage. Jane could have swelling of the brain, another life-threatening condition. Jane could have sustain other neurological damage. Prolonged unconsciousness is no joke, so please stop using it as a plot device unless you  know what you’re doing.

The Emergency Room

This is going to be the way Jane goes into the hospital in 99% of situations.

In the ambulance, Jane will have a paramedic with her, taking her vitals (blood pressure, heart rate, temperature), and doing emergency stabilization if necessary:

  • Epinephrin shots to reduce allergic reactions, anaphylactic shock, angioedema, etc.
  • Morphine for pain management
  • Possible treatment for diabetic reaction
  • Defibrillation for cardiac arrest, along with emergency cardiac medication (depending on the situation)
  •  Insertion of an iv and bag of saline hookup if signs of blood loss, dehydration, low blood pressure, etc.

Forget what you see on tv about arriving via ambulance. It doesn’t happen that way. Unless you have a machete sticking out of your forehead (I saw that arrive at MGH once when I was in an ER bay myself – that was fun), there will be no running or shouting.

The paramedics will remove Jane’s gurney from the ambulance and wheel her inside. A triage nurse will be waiting, as well as a hospital registration admin. If Jane is conscious, the hospital registration admin will ask her for basic information like, has she ever been a patient here before? Does she have an insurance card with her? Name, date of birth, address, person to notify, etc.

Please note, that even if Jane is in a ton of pain, as long as she is conscious, the hospital registration admin will ask these questions. Trust me, I’ve been there before. It’s not fun to answer questions like that when you are burning up with fever or writhing in pain, but it has to be done.

Fever of 102. Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection). Missed complete organ failure by just a few hours. Bored out of my mind waiting for further test results. What to do? Play Candy Crush and take selfies. Because you can be near death, in the ER, and FULLY AWAKE.

The triage nurse in the meantime will be getting the paperwork and rundown from the paramedic. This will be happening calmly and quickly. Once Jane is done with the hospital registration admin, the triage nurse takes over.

Treatment in the ER

The triage nurse takes Jane from the arrival area into the treatment bay area. In an ideal world, Jane is given a curtained-off bay right away. In the real world, Jane might be placed “in orbit,” which means that her gurney will be lined up against the wall with other patients on gurneys, waiting for a bay to open up. Jane will receive the same level of care, just not in a bay.

Once Jane is in a bay, the triage nurse will return to her work at the triage station, and Jane’s primary nurse will come to take care of her. Jane’s primary nurse will also probably have an assistant – a patient care assistant or PCA.

Whether able to do it herself or with the help of the nurse and PCA, Jane will be changed into a hospital gown, and her clothes and personal effects put into a big plastic bag labeled with a sticker printed with all of her information and also the same barcode that is on her hospital band. Oh yeah, almost all hospitals now have barcodes on hospital bands now. These are scanned when medication is administered.

Jane’s primary nurse will ask for her version of the story of what happened to bring her to the ER. The nurse will also ask Jane about any medications she currently takes, as well as any allergies she has. While this is going on, the nurse will be putting on a blood pressure cuff (absolutely always), electrodes for echocardiograms (depending on the situation), taking her temperature (absolutely always).

Jane will be asked to rate her pain level from 1-10, with 10 being the worst.

Now, here comes the kicker. The nurse leaves Jane now. That’s right, unless Jane is actively bleeding to death or having cardiac arrest or something similar, Jane is left alone with a call button. This is because the nurse now goes and enters all of her information into the hospital records system, which then feeds it to the assigned doctor.

Ah, finally, the entrance of the doctor…sorta.

Jane will not meet the doctor just yet. The doctor will review Jane’s situation and order bloodwork, maybe a urine test, and possibly other tests like an ultrasound or x-ray. The doctor will also “write an order” for pain medication if needed. The doctor will also write an order for any anti-nausea medication or fever-reducing meds like Tylenol.

Once the orders have been entered into the system, two things could happen. One, the ER has its own mini-pharmacy with basic medications (anti-nausea drugs, Tylenol, certain types of pain medications), and the nurse can unlock the pharmacy cabinet with her ID badge. Or, the hospital pharmacy receives the orders on their computers, and processes all the requests, sending a delivery person to bring the meds to the ER.

This whole process generally takes anywhere from 20 minutes up to an hour and a half. Yup. Jane just has to cool her heels and suffer through this time. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary.

The nurse returns to Jane, drawing blood (which is a whole other post), and administering whatever medications the doctor has ordered. If Jane has to have an x-ray or ultrasound, a transport person will arrive and wheel her in her gurney off to the imaging area where she will be placed in a waiting area until the next available imaging tech is ready for her.

There will be another post about X-rays, ultrasounds, MRI’s and CAT scans, and interventional radiology, but for now, you just need to know the basic tests generally don’t take too long, and they can all be done with Jane either still in the gurney if she’s unable to move, or with Jane standing up.

Jane is returned to the waiting area in imaging until a transport person arrives to take her back to her bay.

The nurse will check on Jane, run her vitals again (blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature), assess her pain, and make sure Jane is as comfortable as she can be (did I mention the WARM blankets that they have available for patients?). There is no food or drink until at least initial results are back.

Denny Basenji strenuously objects to the no food or drink policy.

Then, it’s another waiting period for the results of the bloodwork and the other imaging tests to come back. Once it’s all back and the doctor actually has a minute to review everything, Jane will finally get a chance to meet the doctor.

The doctor will knock and enter, introducing himself (could be a herself, but for the same of less confusion with pronouns, I’ll go with a Dr. Taylor McHotterson), and asking Jane to tell him the story of how she came to be in the ER. Yes, it’s in her records, but every new nurse and doctor she meets from here on out will request her story. It’s protocol.

The doctor will definitely listen to her heart and her lungs, and potentially check her joints for swelling, as well as doing a hands-on exam of her belly to check her organs.

Then, Dr. McHotterson will explain so far what they have learned about Jane’s condition. Depending on what is wrong, this could result in more tests, starting intravenous drug treatment, emergency surgery (and no, they’re not going to run down the hall with her down on the gurney unless she is literally dying), admission to inpatient treatment, or discharge. Any or all of this basically requires Jane to do…nothing. Except wait. And try to sleep. If she going to be admitted, the staff has to contact the correct ward, find out if there are any beds available, and if not, when they might be or where else they would have to put her. All of this could take anywhere from an hour (record-breaking speed) to 12-14 hours, with an average of somewhere between 3-6 hours of waiting.

Do we really need to know all this?

Well, yes. We might not have to describe everything in agonizing detail like I have done above, but knowing the process will make the Jane’s inpatient scene more realistic. Having a basic grasp of the facts about whatever injury or condition our characters have helps us create more detailed, immediate, and immersive experiences for the reader.

Still, it can be daunting, trying to figure out what we need to know and how much we need to know medically, and then learning what we need to leave out in terms of writing craft. The good news is that with a little thinking, a little logic, Dr. Google, and MY CLASS, you can learn not just how to figure out your character’s medical care, but how to use it to up the tension, pacing, and conflict in your story!

 

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $40.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Wednesday, August 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

From fainting to family doctors in the OR, fiction today is full of medical malfeasance. Watching George Clooney or Ellen Pompeo run through the ER yelling “Stat!” may seem like just what the doctor ordered to up dramatic tension in fiction, it’s more likely to be 20cc of the wrong medicine.

Nothing shatters the fragile suspension of disbelief for the reader like inaccuracies, whether it’s historical, behavioral…or medical. Whether your character is injured in a car crash, poisoned, knocked unconscious, or comes down with the flu, it’s critical to get the details right.

Like a first responder, this class is on the scene to help you resuscitate realism in your medical scenes. This will be a crash course on how to avoid making the most common mistakes and how to get the facts for whatever you inflict on your characters in the future.

This class will cover:

  • From ambulance to admission, how your character actually ends up in the hospital;
  • What happens while your character is inpatient (from blood work and imaging, to iv’s – especially iv’s!!! – and hospital food);
  • The different kinds of medications, treatments, and timelines for characters to recover from a wide range of illnesses and injuries;
  • The truth about knocking your character unconscious: how, how long, and what the short- and long-term consequences are;
  • From birth to death, clinical procedures and protocols;
  • How to research medical information and get it right in your descriptions.

At the end of the class, we will have an open Q&A sessions where you can ask about medical scenarios for your characters.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes. http://caitreynolds.com

 

For the month of AUGUST, for 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).

****And MAKE SURE to check out the NEW CLASSES classes below including the final class I will teach before taking off for NEW ZEALAND! I’m keynoting there for the Romance Writers of New Zealand, which while SUPER COOL….I’d be lying if I didn’t say the trip wasn’t making me more than a tad nervous.

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!

Malpractice: Getting Medical Facts Right in Fiction. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST.
OMG! Like, How to Write On Fleek YA. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 23, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here). $45.00 USD. Wednesday, August 30, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Class Title: Beyond Lipstick and Swords: Creating Strong Female Characters. $40.00 USD. Saturday, September 9, 2017. 2:00-4:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

Why is it so many new novels are—to be blunt—crap? How can we find an author we love with one book, then all the love goes away with the next? What’s going wrong? What’s missing? Where did everything go wrong?

How can we learn and do better?

First and foremost, to be an author it’s imperative to embrace some healthy sadism. We’ll chat briefly on this so the “wrong turns” in story can become far easier to spot.

We MUST Go Against Our Nature

Humans have all kinds of intricate biological wiring that propels us to AVOID CONFLICT/PAIN. Now this is great namely because our desire to avoid pain is what keeps us alive and gainfully employed. It’s also how many of us are able to endure the holidays when forced to see family.

This said, it is human to avoid conflict and to smooth everything over and civilization would implode if we didn’t heed our biology. We feel the rising anxiety and our nature steps in to “fix” everything and return to a nice comfortable homeostasis.

Avoiding conflict and pain can be healthy in life, but it spells death for fiction.

So here are a couple reasons your story might suck. Btw, remember while I have one finger pointing at you? Three are pointing back at me. I use these guideposts in my own work when I sense it’s starting to seriously suck.

#1—We Have Decoration Devoid of Substance

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Novels are not pretty sentences or even pretty words. Sure, it’s nice to have them, but they’re not entirely necessary.

It’s like a cake. Some cakes are so intricate they’re literally works of art, but cake is meant for people to EAT. So I’d much prefer a plain cake that is so yummy angels sing than to bite into a work of “art” and get a revolting mouthful of sugar-laden lard.

Same with stories. Stories, too, are meant to be ingested, to FEED us emotionally.

Fiction is about one thing and one thing only—PROBLEMS.

PROBLEMS are the “cake” of story.

I don’t emotionally connect to a cerulean sky or a painstakingly accurate description of a forest or an 18th century tea setting. I have zip-nada invested in an outfit, a garden or the layout of a room (that’s “icing”). Most people prefer cake with icing and readers like stories with description, setting, superlative prose etc. (though to the degree varies with reader preference).

All that “stuff” can make a story better, but they are NOT story, just like icing is not cake.

#2—We Have No Plot

Plot is basically a fancy way of saying we have a core problem in need of resolution (cake) and a plan (recipe) to do just that.

I cannot connect emotionally with a detailed description of a designer outfit, but I can connect with the woman who’s wearing this outfit. I don’t care all that much about the outfit, I care about the woman and the why behind the outfit.

What is she hiding? What is she up against? What must she face to become whole?

Is she in this outfit because she desperately needs a job? Because it hides the bruises from her emotionally and physically abusive husband who controls her life? The one she must find the courage (and job) to escape?

This is why I’m a huge believer in writers being able to articulate what their story is about in ONE sentence. If we can’t do that? Odds are we have icing and no cake. Or maybe a cake that’s half-baked or missing key ingredients.

#3—We Have No Clear Plot Goal

All stories have ONE CLEAR FINAL goal. And I don’t want to hear the BS copout of:

“Well, my story is literary and character-driven. Her goal is she wants to find out who she is.”

Aside from the fact that literary and character-driven stories don’t automatically get a pass on a plot, why do we care? What happens if the protagonist doesn’t find out ‘who she is’? Why is it important? What are the stakes? Why should I (the reader) root for her?

Besides that is the wrong question entirely.

Regardless of genre, the protagonist is never finding out who she is, rather what she is made of.

For that to happen? We need a PLOT PROBLEM.

Clear plot problems offer context. If I (reader) have not been clearly shown the story problem, then I’ll be quickly bored because I lack context that makes any setback a setback.

It’s like showing me a guy driving off for a destination and not telling me where he’s going. Yet, if I know he’s driving to Canada from Texas, then accidentally turning down I-35 South because he’s arguing with his ex on the phone MEANS SOMETHING.

I can clearly SEE he’s headed for MEXICO, not Canada. The wrong turn means something and so does every setback which creates bigger and badder problems (which turns pages, btw).

By DEFINITION a setback can only happen when there is an actual goal.

We need a Death Star, a Mount Doom, and a Labyrinth or….meh.

Same in character-driven stories. We root for Evelyn Couch in Fried Green Tomatoes because we know the final goal is her growing a spine. We know she has “won” when she stands up to her bullies and to the husband who’s disrespecting her.

Bad situations are not a plot. It’s soap opera writing. Soap operas get forty years and go into infinity. Novels don’t have that luxury.

#4—Too MUCH SUGAR

We’re being way too nice. I see way too many new manuscripts and the reason they’re boring the paint off the walls is nothing is happening and everything is too easy. Everyone gets along is super sweet and lots of colorful pretty descriptions and empty calories that make us sick.

Humans have fears and faults and failures that will collide, especially under pressure. I see far too many manuscripts where nothing is happening. People talking.

Description not friction. No friction? No traction.

#5—We’re Making it TOO Easy

Yes, your protagonist has ONE core story goal in need of resolution, but there should be a ton of hardship, suffering, setbacks and pain along the way. Our protagonist must work for everything and earn every reward, even the small ones with blood, sweat and sacrifice. NOTHING should be easy. Ever.

Authors deal in solid gold rewards, not plastic participation trophies.

If our protagonist is being spoon fed the answers (dreams, journals, letters, flashbacks, “super helpful” ancillary characters) that’s cheating. If the protagonist is rescued constantly by others and it never pushes any pain points? Where’s the glory in that?

When I was in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, most people don’t last a month. Most females never make it past white belt. It takes a YEAR to earn blue belt. I had to do this grappling men twice my size.

It took me a year and a half of busted lips, blood, bruises, and strains. It also cost me a broken nose and a dislocated knee…but guess what’s framed in my office?

I can tell you that had I been handed a blue belt for attendance, it would be in some junk drawer along with the piles of other worthless awards.

Same in fiction. We revel in the protagonist’s victory only when the title of “HERO” is earned.

#6—We Forgot to Turn on the Heat

The greater the stakes the better the story. No heat and we don’t have cake, we have batter. Same in fiction. Turn on the heat.

A friend of mine had a brilliant idea for a story, but her niceness kept killing it. She emailed me that her story is about an artist who has five years to make it in NYC or he has to return to his family’s house-painting business.

I replied: NOOOOOOOOOOO!

If our artist has five years in the beginning? We aren’t too worried. There’s time. But if we know he’s at the end of five years and has only one final narrow window? Everything changes.

If the stakes are he returns to an occupation close to what he loves (painting) and also limited seasonally (house painting in NY) it isn’t that big of a deal. He can dream away what he longs to create while on a ladder touching up eaves. He also will have seasons he can still create art.

But, what if he’s returning to a job that is not only the opposite of what he loves, but can potentially drain every creative molecule from his soul? A stressful occupation that might just kill him with seventy-hour work weeks (accounting firm)? Or physically endanger his hands/ability to paint (family auto repair business)?

And while we are at it? He’ll have to return to a family that never really was supportive and will be delighted he failed and relish rubbing it in.

NOW we have a story 😉 .

Crank up that heat. Shorten timelines and up the stakes, both physical and emotional.

If your protagonist fails, it isn’t simply a failure, it needs to be an extinction event.

In the end, I have a mantra: Make it worse until you make it weird.

What are your thoughts? Have you been too easy on your characters? Maybe indulging in flashbacks to “explain” why a character is a certain way instead of making the reader work to uncover it? Have you been too nice? Unclear? What ways can you wind that tension tighter? Shorten the timeline or up the stakes? We only will value what COSTS a lot. No one values free and easy 😉 .

I love hearing from you!

For the month of AUGUST, for 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 will be listed next time I post. Sorry, lots to do getting ready for New Zealand and I am behind.

****And MAKE SURE to check out the NEW CLASSES classes below including the final class I will teach before taking off for NEW ZEALAND! I’m keynoting there for the Romance Writers of New Zealand, which while SUPER COOL….I’d be lying if I didn’t say the trip wasn’t making me more than a tad nervous.

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term used to describe narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements. This includes but it not necessarily limited to fantasy, science fiction, horror, utopian, dystopian, alternate history, apocalyptic fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction.

Basically, all the weird stuff.

Gizmos, gadgets, magic, chainsaws, demons, fantastical worlds and creatures are not enough and never have been. Whether our story is set on Planet X, in the sixth dimension of hell, on a parallel world, or on Earth after Amazon Prime gained sentience and enslaved us all, we still must have a core human story that is compelling and relatable.

In this class we will cover:

  • Discovering the core human story problem.
  • How to plot these unique genres.
  • Ways to create dimensional and compelling characters.
  • How to harness the power of fear and use psychology to add depth and layers to our story.
  • How to use world-building to enhance the story, not distract from it.

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!

Malpractice: Getting Medical Facts Right in Fiction. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST.
OMG! Like, How to Write On Fleek YA. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 23, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here). $45.00 USD. Wednesday, August 30, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Class Title: Beyond Lipstick and Swords: Creating Strong Female Characters. $40.00 USD. Saturday, September 9, 2017. 2:00-4:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

Lately we’ve been talking a lot about what differentiates the decent stories from the ones that gut hook us and don’t let go. In my opinion the truly superlative stories stand out in one way. We are not only entertained…we are changed. We aren’t the same person we were when we flipped open to page one and decided to give the story a go.

By the end, through characters, trials, challenges, heartbreak, ruin and victory we are forever a different person. The story generates a chemical change, rendering us a cake that can’t be unbaked.

Great stories (and the authors who pen them) serve us fresh insight into ourselves and others, a different perspective on the world around us. They might reveal a darkness we never noticed or were to afraid to face or offer hope we didn’t know we could have.

Most vital of all, these stories provide perspective we could gain no other way.

Fiction is the only way we can step into the shoes of a broken, pathetic alcoholic (Girl on a Train), an aging heavy metal rock star burdened by false guilt who never truly escaped the sadistic father who turned his childhood into a hell (Heart-Shaped Box).

We can know what it is to feel like life is no longer worth living once we’ve outlived our usefulness even if we are young (A Man Called Ove). We can experience the gross injustice and humiliation of being a black maid in the American South during the 60s (The Help) no matter what color our skin.

Regardless of race, faith, gender, or background, stories allow us into a perspective to experience life, to encounter our own wounds (wounds common across all of humanity) from a different vantage point. We come to appreciate how seeing our pain worked out through another gives us the psychic distance necessary for us recognize then heal the pain that in real life we can’t yet touch…without screaming.

The Battle of Logic & Emotion

I find it interesting that scientists really don’t have a definitive reason WHY we dream. Is is the brain defragging? The subconscious mind revealing what we can’t see when we’re awake because the left brain rushes in with a logical explanation?

When left brain gets a vote, it’s all too easy to miss the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

He wasn’t being mean. It was a joke. He’s right. I don’t have a very good sense of humor.

But fiction? Fiction is emotion. Fiction is primal and hooked directly into the right brain. Dreams are not ruled by logic, but they are extremely limited in what they can do once we’re up and have had our coffee. But, there’s another way…STORY.

Yet how do so many of us tackle our demons?

If you’re like me, you read self-help books about self-esteem, boundaries, forgiveness and healing and while these books can offer a lot of great information, (in my POV) they’re talking to the wrong side of the brain.

We can read all the self-help books about forgiveness, but what happens when we come face to face with our betrayers? When we have to be in the same room with flesh-and-blood villains who have zero remorse over the ruin left in the wake of their actions? The liars, pillagers, and plunderers we once supported, loved and trusted…who knifed us in the back and never shed a tear after leaving us like this.

I can tell you what happens when we face these folks.

We’re calm and composed and easily recall the breathing exercises, meditation, and self-affirmations spoken into a mirror. We stare into our betrayer’s face knowing we’re a better person who’s done a lot of therapy and exercises. We even composed long letters of how this person hurt us, burned the letters and let the embers fly away on zephyrs delivering our pain into the sky and to the unicorns.

And everything is okay because we know hurting people hurt people….and….

%$#& THAT $#!%!

Reptile brain rises up like a hidden viper threatening to sink its fangs into left brain’s soft gray matter if is says one frigging reasonable word.

While left brain is the calm, enlightened negotiator, reptile brain is Old Testament and Old School and believes an eye for an eye. Right brain is raw emotion and the one who’s closest to the reptile (brain) inside all of us.

What happens next in such a confrontation can be placed anywhere on a large continuum from getting in a shouting match spewing venomous words to ending up on an episode of Dateline.

Right brain is creative, thus good at hiding bodies.

Why Fiction?

Yes, self-help books and therapy, etc. have a place, but I don’t think they’re nearly as well-suited for healing wounds as story is. Why is that?

Because we cannot heal emotional wounds with logical poultices.

It’s like trying to halt a runaway MRSA infection with anti-depressants. Infection is virus and it needs something anti-viral, equipped to surround and dismantle the invasion.

Same thing goes for psychic wounds.

The wounds created BY emotion (betrayal, abandonment, exploitation, abuse) can only be healed WITH emotion. Inner demons and wounds are by nature emotional, thus in the realm of the right brain (and limbic brain). This means the right brain is far better suited (perhaps even DESIGNED) to stop the “infection” and heal the damage.

When we read fiction and vicariously experience our hurts, failures, disappointments, betrayals through another set of eyes, it’s a way of facing our villains in life. We get a place to feel these emotions, but better still? Story shows us it is possible to come through the fire not only healed, but stronger and better.

By reading all kinds of stories with characters battling a vast variety of problems, we can experience far greater empathy, compassion, understanding and forgiveness. It’s also far more effective than coldly analyzing our baggage on a flow chart.

Mending the Broken 

For me, my greatest AH-HA moments have come from fiction. Stories have allowed me another way of looking at myself and my pain.

The most recent example of this came from Heart-Shaped Box. Sure it’s a horror, the story of a vengeful ghost hot on the tail of an aging rock star. Yet, oddly enough, this story changed my perception of myself more than a stack of self-help books and years of well-meaning therapists ever did.

Fifty-four-year-old rock star (Judas Coin) is on the run from a vengeful spirit with his goth girlfriend (Georgia) who’s half his age. I could relate to Georgia, though our backstory is different.

She believes she’s damaged goods, worth nothing and grateful for the crumbs that fall from the table. She’s had a hard life filled with exploitation, pain, failure and shame and, as a result, chooses men she knows will hurt her because suffering is what she deserves.

The Lightning Strike

Judas and Georgia have a conversation at a Denny’s during a brief reprieve from the ghost who’s hunting them and end up on the topic of kids. She says she’s never had kids because she’s too afraid they’ll find out about her. Judas asks what exactly her kids would find out. This next bit is some of the most powerful dialogue I’ve ever read.

Georgia: “That I dropped out of high school. That when I was thirteen I let a guy turn me into a prostitute. The only job I was ever good at involved taking my clothes off to Mötley Crüe for a room full of drunks. I tried to kill myself. I been arrested three times. I stole money from my grandma and made her cry. I didn’t brush my teeth for about two years. Am I missing anything?”

Judas: “So this is what your kid would find out: No matter what bad thing happens to me, I can call my mother, because she’s been through it all. No matter what shi##y thing happens to me, I can survive it because my mom’s been through worse, and she made it.”  ~ Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (page 171).

I remember this part of the novel hitting me like a bolt from the sky and I burst out crying, the moment of catharsis so raw and visceral. I once was Georgia (maybe a part always will be). Because of my life experiences, I too believed I was damaged goods.

Because I empathized with Georgia (similar demons) I could vicariously experience her breakthrough, that WOW moment when Judas completely reframes what she’s just said. She isn’t “damaged goods” at all. Rather, she’s like furniture that’s been battered and scratched that collectors pay big bucks for because it’s “distressed” and thus more interesting and far more valuable because of its damage and scars.

I’m sure a zillion well-meaning friends or shrinks told me the same thing. Probably read similar notions off faded Post-Its on the bathroom mirror, so why didn’t the happy, happy mantras stick? Why didn’t these affirmations melt me, undo me and remake me?

It’s because that left-brain approach is too sterile, and it doesn’t shove us face first into what we need to face. Fiction, on the other hand is ugly and dirty and raw. It provides intimacy and slams that psychic distance tight (while we still are technically “safe”).

Real fiction, the good stuff, reveals that the worthless “damaged goods” in truth, are valuable and maybe even priceless. The story shows the protagonist his or her worldview, their perception of themselves is faulty and through the crucible remolds the protagonist into what we call a hero. This is why I challenge all of you to be fearless in your stories, because if you can be fearless? So can your readers and they will love you for it.

What are your thoughts? I like good self-help books and therapy is important and often vital. But fiction really has a way of grabbing me by the scruff and shaking me. Have you ever read a book that completely revealed something about your own wounds? That helped you? Gave you insight? Helped you heal?

I believe all genres have the ability to give us tremendous healing and hope y’all will check out my Speculative Fiction Class where we are going to bore into the grit and heart of the dark stuff.

I love hearing from you!

For the month of AUGUST, for 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 will be listed next week.

****And MAKE SURE to check out the NEW CLASSES classes below (including writing layered characters and strong females) and sign up!

Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!

Malpractice: Getting Medical Facts Right in Fiction. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST.
OMG! Like, How to Write On Fleek YA. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 23, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here). $45.00 USD. Wednesday, August 30, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Class Title: Beyond Lipstick and Swords: Creating Strong Female Characters. $40.00 USD. Saturday, September 9, 2017. 2:00-4:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

It’s Wednesday, which is on its way to being officially renamed in the U.S. calendar of holidays as “Cait Reynolds Blogs for Kristen Lamb” Day. Denny Basenji, however, thinks it should be renamed “Curly Tail Problems” Day.

Announcing that you write erotic romances is certainly a conversation starter. Or stopper. Depending on your audience. Explaining that this is your livelihood and that you are proud of it will get you reactions from, “Wow, that’s cool!” to, “So, when are you going to write a real book?”

Let’s just get something straight, right off the bat. Erotica today is not “porn in pretty dresses.”

One of the first ground rules for taking an objective look at the changing face of romance publishing is to separate the quality of the writing from the message of the content.

The message of today’s romance, erotic romance, and erotica novels is that women are free to associate themselves (and pay the money to buy the books to drive this point home) with sexually experienced, sexually adventurous, and sexually knowledgeable heroines. Heroes today are expected to spend as much, if not more, time focused on the heroine’s pleasure than their own.

While certain tropes like the Cinderella rescue persist, the nature of their portrayal has changed. For example, you now find the Cinderella rescue scenario played out in LGBTQ romances as much as heterosexual romances. Often the “heroine” is just as or more successful professionally than the “hero” (regardless of gender or orientation).

Heroes now have room to be complex, and heroines can genuinely be strong. Erotic romance novels fearlessly explored issues of mental illness, adoption, divorce, depression, anxiety, socio-economic differences, even while so-called “mainstream” books were still tip-toeing around sensitive topics.

The readers of these erotic romances are a truly diverse group, and people are starting to take note of this sociological change (and you can thank good ol’ “Fifty Shades” for the mainstream media attention erotic romance has gotten).

But who are the writers of these books? These are men and women who sit down, day in and day out, and put fingers to keyboard to produce these stories. I am one of them.

I used to be tremendously embarrassed by the fact that I wrote erotica. I felt like everyone was always expecting me to use it as a “stepping stone” to my “real books.”

Well, guess what? The books I write as Fiona Blackthorne ARE real books. I lost sleep, tweeted, swore, chatted, paced, dog-walked, typed, ground my teeth, wrote notes on receipts, and sketched out entire storyboards for these books. I had to submit them to my publisher, Siren Publishing, wait for them to be accepted, then go through an intense, fast-paced editing phase that would leave your head spinning. Then, there’s all the marketing work I had to do to get my website up and running, and promoting my books.

Yes, I work from home, and yes, I can start my day in my pajamas. But my workday starts at 7:00 a.m. and doesn’t really stop until I go to bed. Sure, I can change the laundry in between chapters, but you can bet I’m still working through a paragraph in my head. Yes, I have a flexible schedule. That just means that if I need to work from 7pm to 2am because my day was already full of other stuff, then I’ll suck it up and work from 7-2.

You want to know what it’s like to write a sex scene…or seven for a book? Sometimes, it’s a delightful literary challenge, because I never want to write a sex scene the same way twice. I always am looking for different words, moments, things to notice, ways to enhance the experience for my reader. Sometimes, it’s good fun for *ahem* me as well.

Sometimes, though? Sometimes, it’s like pulling freaking eye-teeth. You can get really tired of writing sex scenes. You always have to be on your guard against dropping into the mechanical and clinical just to get through it.

Then there are those moments when you are thinking to yourself: “Okay, about 700 words left in the chapter. That means if I can get her to her climax, then, hmmm, no, that won’t take enough words. He’ll have to stop just short of it. Oh, and then he can actually pick her up and put her on the bed. That’s about fifty words right there. Then maybe he ties her up? That could be a good hundred words or so, and I could finish this goddamn scene in 500 words after that.”

Yeah. It happens.

Then, I remember Anais Nin, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and I am strong again.

Erotic writing has been around for as long as the oldest profession has been around…and when people couldn’t read or write, they carved things on walls and painted them in caves. Clearly, something that is so deeply tied to our biological drive for survival and procreation deserves attention, study, and respect, not dismissiveness or judgment.

This is why I am teaching a class on writing erotica. We write the stories that are the mirrors reflecting the changes in society’s sexual mores and gender roles. Good, bad, indifferent, it is our writing that helps to push boundaries, expand horizons, and drive acceptance.

Who are the writers of erotic romance? Why do they write this when they could simply leave out all the sex? What are the blessings and consequences of this life? For once, it’s time to tell our own stories.

Baby, It’s Hot in Here!…a Sizzling New Class from Cait Reynolds

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Friday, August 4, 2017

Erotica is one of the most difficult genres to write.

Wait. No. Erotica is one of the most difficult genres to write well.

From pacing (literally) to placing, this class is gonna go…deep. Yeah. Couldn’t resist. In all seriousness, how do you handle the paradox of writing a book with compelling characters and interesting story when it’s really about sex?

The answer is this: good erotica is not about sex. It is about seduction and intimacy. In this class we will cover:

  • Understanding why readers choose erotica, what they are looking for, and how to both deliver and guide them to wanting more;
  • How to apply and adapt standard plotting structures to erotica;
  • Creating a story that is interesting enough to sustain a full-length novel;
  • Developing characters that are complex, memorable, and desirable;
  • Avoiding repetitive, mechanical sex scenes;
  • Maintaining the heat throughout a  book;
  • How to push yourself to write better and use quality as a unique marketing strategy;
  • Bonus: history, fun facts, and trivia about literary erotica through history!

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

In a world of a gazillion forgettable erotica books and romance novels, let Cait help you stand out in the one way no marketing can compete with: hot, unique stories that turn readers into fans who will BEG you for more! 

Erotica GOLD

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus one hour of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story. 

Erotica PLATINUM

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus two hours of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story and a detailed edit and critique of one sex scene up to 2,500 words.

Register today!

About the Instructor

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes. Learn more at http://caitreynolds.com.

 

For the month of AUGUST, for 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).

****And MAKE SURE to check out the NEW CLASSES classes below (including writing layered characters and strong females) and sign up!

Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!

Malpractice: Getting Medical Facts Right in Fiction. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST.
OMG! Like, How to Write On Fleek YA. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 23, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here). $45.00 USD. Wednesday, August 30, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Class Title: Beyond Lipstick and Swords: Creating Strong Female Characters. $40.00 USD. Saturday, September 9, 2017. 2:00-4:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!