Kristen Lamb

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The Single Largest Problem of Most First Time Novels

Original image courtesy of flowcomm, via Flickr Commons
Original image courtesy of flowcomm, via Flickr Commons

All righty. So we have spent a couple of posts talking about getting our head right when it comes to doing this writing thing. Once we get our heads in the game, then the practical How To advice gets a heck of a lot more mileage. Today we are going to talk about the writing of the actual novel.

When I started out wanting to become a writer years ago, I was so clueless I didn’t even realize I was clueless. I had an overinflated ego from all those years making As in high school then college English. I believed I could write so when it came to reading craft books? I thumbed through them and decided I didn’t want my writing to be “formulaic” *flips hair*.

Trying to take a short cut cost me a lot of time and wasted words because I failed to appreciate that writing a work spanning 60K-100K words might just be a tad more difficult than that five page essay.

Once I realized how much I really didn’t know, I set about reading every craft book I could find, seeking out mentors, reading blogs and articles and taking classes until finally I actually became an expert.

In being an expert though, I run into a lot of writers who say the same things that I as a fledgling newbie said. I remember being utterly perplexed and most of the instructors I came in contact with had no good answer to my questions. Now in the position of teacher? I hope to give you what I had to find on my own.

You need to start in the action.

I did! How much more action do you need than blowing up a building with cyborg ninjas?

You don’t have any conflict.

Sure I do!

What is your book about?

Well, it isn’t about any one thing. Oh, but a lot of stuff happens to my character. She has a lot of issues.

What is your plot problem?

Oh, mine is a character-driven story.

Yeah.

This said, the single largest problem of most first time novels is there is simply no story. It really isn’t a novel, rather a collection of clever vignettes.

What is a STORY?

Pirate Code=Writing Rules. Clearer now? :)
Pirate Code=Writing Rules. Clearer now? 🙂

Okay so one of the major problems I had when I started out is I was too narrowly focused on the pretty prose on the page. I had spent a lifetime being applauded for my brilliant use of language and since I was weak at structure, I relied on what I did well. BS and glitter. But the problem is that pretty prose does not a story make. A novel is not just a collection of cool sentences and witty dialogue. There must be a destination.

The destination is what the entire book is about.

Yes, this even applies to literary fiction so there is no copping out. In fact, when an emerging writer says, “Oh, my book is literary” or “My book is character-driven” I hear “I have no plot and really no clue how to create one.”

Bear with me…

All stories have a CORE SINGULAR PROBLEM that must be resolved in Act Three (or four or five—It doesn’t matter which structure we use, it is all basically Three Act Structure). So for the sake of simplicity, it needs to be resolved at the end.

And yeah yeah I am giving you “rules” but to break the rules we need to know and understand the rules. Yet on this one? Break it at your peril. We don’t want readers lost because we have failed to pick what our book “is about.” We also don’t want them getting all the way through the book then tossing it against the wall because we don’t understand story and thus delivered a frustrating and unsatisfying ending.

Me with sooooo many books.
Me with sooooo many books.

Back to the core problem…

Now, this core problem can have all kinds of subplots (and often does) but they are ALL tributaries feeding into the same river. For instance, in Lord of the Rings the core plot problem is to drop an evil ring into a specific volcano before a power hungry necromancer takes over Middle Earth.

Simple.

But there are all kinds of subplots (I.e. Aragorn no longer running, facing his failures and reclaiming his place as king. Arwen standing up to her father and sacrificing to be with the human she loves even though she is an elf and he is a human who has a lot of baggage with Dad).

But all of these smaller dramas impact the resolution of the story. If they don’t? They are plot bunnies that need to be caged.

Even in character-driven stories, there is a core plot problem. In The Road Man and Boy must make it to the ocean. If at the end, they are not at the ocean OR they are at the ocean but resorted to snacking on humans? They failed.

In The Joy Luck Club Jing-Mei (June) must make a decision whether or not to get on the boat to China to meet her missing twin sisters. If she doesn’t take the lessons from the stories, she will continue to hide and the sins of previous generations will continue. If she doesn’t get on the boat, it will mean she has failed to understand and thus forgive her mother. She fails.

Notice how even in these literary examples there is a physical representation that the character has succeeded—ocean and boat.

When there is an end-goal in mind, then it is far easier to deliver the character change. How the protagonist confronts the problem initially won’t work. The character will have to conquer inner demons and evolve into a hero in order to triumph.

This is why I STRONGLY recommend being able to write what our story is about in ONE sentence. If we can’t do that? Houston, we have a problem.

Conflict Versus The “Bad” Situation

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.40.07 AM

If we do not have a plot problem it is impossible to generate authentic dramatic tension. I will give you an example.

Kristen oversleeps through her alarm. Worse, when she wakes up, she steps into squishy carpet. The toilet has overflowed. Then she tries to clean that up and the power goes out. Since she has places to be she packs up her stuff to shower at the gym. But after showering and dressing at the gym, she is then caught in bumper to bumper traffic and only once she is an hour away from the house does she realize she has forgotten her purse and has no I.D. or money.

Sounds like a pretty bad day, right? On some level you sympathize. But here is the deal, since this is all happening sequentially with no larger context, it is just bad situation after bad situation. It sucks, but there is no conflict.

Now, let’s add in one little thing. The end goal.

Kristen’s goal was to make an international flight. She is flying to keynote in Australia and this is the make or break of her career. If she fails to make it on time to Australia, she not only forfeits her speaker fee, she will wreck her reputation and also have to pay back the $2,000 for the flight. On top of that an entire hotel of people who have paid for a conference to see her speak, now will have no keynote.

NOW when these setbacks happen, because we know the goal (and what is at stake) we are practically white with tension. We know this isn’t just any other day and that THIS day is vital and so is every decision Kristen makes.

Starting in the Action

Starting in the action has less to do with car chases and bombs and fight scenes and more to do with getting as close to the story problem as possible. Using my example above, we wouldn’t want to start our story with the day Kristen left paper sales to become a writer. No. We would start as close to the day she is leaving to keynote and kick off the problems there.

Obviously there is a lot more to this writing thing, but starting with a solid core plot problem will alleviate a lot of problems. It won’t matter how witty the dialogue, how bad the bad situation, how glorious the prose if all of these are not feeding into the same goal—RESOLVING THE CORE STORY PROBLEM.

If you are struggling with that, sign up for my class about query letters and synopses this Saturday. I will teach you how to whittle your plot to bare bones and find and fix weaknesses. Also, sign up for my Master’s Series (all listed below and recordings come with purchase). I have one for Craft and though the Plotting for Dummies has passed and you can’t attend live, you will get the recording. These Master’s Series give you three classes for the price of TWO. The social media series literally has ALL you need to know to build a brand.

I also have a TOTALLY new Master’s Series with Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg. Normally this sells for $400. It is three classes, two hours a piece and Joel is offering it through W.A.N.A. for only $199. How to Maximize Earning Potential as a Full-Time Writer. So hello? Valentine’s Day gift? *wink, wink*

So what are your thoughts? Do you struggle with plot? Do you find yourself drifting off after plot bunnies?

I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of JANUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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).

SIGN UP NOW FOR MY UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! 

All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! How to Maximize Your Earning Potential as a Full-Time Author Learn from Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg in your HOME. This series is normally $400 but W.A.N.A. is offering it for $199.

Branding Master’s Class Series with Kristen Lamb THREE social media classes, ONE low price. Only $99. It is literally getting one class for FREE!!!! 

Craft Master’s Class Series with Kristen Lamb THREE craft classes, ONE low price. Only $89. One class is FREE!!!! Includes my new class The Art of Character.

Individual Classes with MOI!

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS January 28th

When your Name Alone Can SELL—Branding for Authors February 10th, 2017

Social Media for Authors February 11th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character January 27th, 2017

Blogging for Authors February 3rd

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

36 thoughts on “The Single Largest Problem of Most First Time Novels”

  1. aurorajeanalexanderaurorajeanalexander

    Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    Kirsten Lamb provides us “firsties’ with a guide to write a good first time novel. Thank you very much Kristen. You’re an angel!

  2. Deborah OsborneDeborah Osborne

    I had a flutter of fear when I read the post title in case it made me realise what a total newbie I was. I can whittle my story down to one line though! *happy dance* It may not be a great line yet but I’ll take it.

    Great tips as always – thanks a bunch.

  3. C. A. KeithC. A. Keith

    Very interesting. I am just starting but busy with life stuff. So my compromise for now is to write short story collaborations with other talented writers and ask lots of questions and tips from many.
    Thanks for the insight.
    C.A. Keith

  4. Chris SaperChris Saper

    Excellent post Kristen. I especially related to the bunny picture:)

  5. robakersrobakers

    Kristen,

    It is so simple when you say it and so complex when I try to write it.

    Thank You,
    rob

  6. ReneeRenee

    Kristen, this is brilliant. Thank you. As a wordsmith maestro and wisecracker myself, it’s taken me 8 years to get “story.” I so badly wanted to show off, and my weak story paid the price. I’ve been humbled, over and over, and it’s been good for me. I’ve watched nearly a dozen former writing buddies ride off into the sunset, one becoming a bestseller. She got “story.” She got “structure.” I did not.

    I’ve repeated this often, until I’m blue in the proverbial face: a screenwriter told me 25 years ago: “People do not buy words. They buy story.”

    This is why a masterful YA story that uses one-syllable words sells millions of copies, and a sassy, meandering, overstuffed novel doesn’t. Snarky one-liners do not move people or make them cry. Emotion and struggle do.

    Several years ago, I attended a critique group of 25 people or so, divided evenly between men and women. One man read an excerpt from his YA novel. Later, on the way out, I encountered a female writer who sniffed haughtily that his writing sounded like a grade-schooler, and didn’t have her level of sophistication. I thought to myself, “But your snarky first-person narrative didn’t make me cry. His did.”

    Story and great structure triumphs over wordsmithing. Every single time.

    I think it’s easier for an actress to write a first novel than it has been for me. Because she has a sense of three acts and structure. I was the former marketing / advertising guru, and wanted my narrative voice to do all the work.

    The great film director Billy Wilder said to “develop a clean line of action for your lead character.”

    Wilder’s movies, particularly “The Apartment,” combine heart and humor, as well as a sharply observed cynicism that still holds out hope. Lots of snappy lines uttered by unforgettable characters. A story that sticks to your bones. And heartbreak.

    Wilder advised writers, as he did himself: “If there’s anything I hate more than not being taken seriously, is being taken too seriously.”

    I’m trying not to take myself too seriously, to stay humble. I’m always learning. Thanks again for letting me know I’m not alone out there.

  7. saralynrichardsaralynrichard

    Are you really speaking in Australia? Way to go, Kristen! I’m currently writing a chapter I love, but wondering whether it really contributes to the resolution of the problem, instead of being just another plot point. Thanks for making me consider this.

    • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

      Actually I am speaking in New Zealand in August, but I didn’t want to jinx it, LOL.

  8. jiniellynejiniellyne

    Your description of what a plot consists of and why it’s the crucial part of any novel is so different than the advice of any other so-called experts on writing, and so much better too. I’m one of those struggling new writers you’re talking about who hates rules and thinks I don’t need to follow them. Your advice about what a plot is and why it’s so important is not one of those rigid rules that I see all the good authors breaking; it’s common sense and it’s the reason we all love the books we love. I have a question though. Is it starting in the action if there is no struggle going on in the first chapter but it still manages to give us a good sense of the plot? I think so. Tolkien didn’t have any plot-related action in the first chapter of the Hobbit or in the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, but he did give us the bones of the plot, something about a ring of power. Stephen King, in the first book of his brilliant Dark Tower series, spends innumerable slow-moving chapters describing the protagonist slogging his way across a vast desert. It has no action of any kind other than the slogging for a long time. It actually takes several books of this series to learn the true plot (to get to the Dark Tower and kill the Red King before he can use the Breakers to destroy the beam which will destroy the whole universe). I had to be patient, knowing from reading other novels of his, that is was going to get better. In Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, Tom Robbins spends almost a third of the book having the protagonist float slowly down the Amazon River without any real action but with (eventually) the set up of an amazing plot (to overcome the curse the witch doctor put on him and be able to walk again). I just finished a book called I Am Mordred, by Nancy Springer and I really loved it. We only need to know a little bit about Arthurian Literature to know the plot just from the name Mordred (Mordred tries to kill Arthur, his own father, and succeeds). However there is absolutely no plot related action in the first chapter. The closest thing is that Mordred tells us (in first person) that he has learned it’s his destiny to kill Arthur). The reason I loved this book so much is that it’s poetic. It’s not an action/adventure book. It’s a prose poem. Oh yes, there is a plot, and Nancy gives us a plot twist that’s so beautiful and poetic that it made me cry. So we don’t have to begin our Next Great American Novel in the middle of a battle scene, right?

  9. Sharon PearsonSharon Pearson

    Spot on as always! Somewhere in the cobwebs of my mind a great writer/director/producer once put it this way, “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.”

  10. Lora DLora D

    I agree 100%!! I have a question, though… What about autobiographies?

    • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

      You would still flesh it over a narrative arc but that could be one theme for the whole (I.e. escaping German death camps) or in each individual vignette like “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.” In the latter, each story had an arc of its own.

      • Lora DLora D

        Ohhhh, that makes sense! Now I know why the autobiographies of two different people that I’ve been editing don’t work. It’s not just that they are green writers, they need a theme of their life stories. Thank you! You are so wise. 🙂

  11. Deborah MakariosDeborah Makarios

    I manage story all right – it’s the little details like ‘character’ that elude me. Still, I’m better than I used to be, and (hopefully!) getting better with every page I write. [gets back to work]

  12. T.K. ThorneT.K. Thorne

    Kristen, well said, and thank you for your excellent assistance on my first chapter of new novel. (Have just signed a contract with agent for it!) I am trying to figure out the core problem/dramatic/plot arc of Book II and III. Reading this post, I realized that although you mention the writer must resolve the core problem in the end of the novel, in the example you gave, in The Lord of the Rings, it actually took 3 books to resolve the core problem and drop that dratted ring into the pit. I think I remember actually throwing Book II across the room at 3 am because rather than resolving the problem at hand, at the end of Book II, Tolkein tortured me by stopping in the middle of the scene! (Frodo caught in the web) So, do you have a take on the subject of this post regarding resolving plot problems when we are talking about a trilogy (or more)?

    • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

      It depends on if it is a connected series or not. If it is connected then you will have your BIG BIG BOSS TROUBLEMAKER (AKA Sauron) and each book has a lesser BBT. In LOTR it goes Uruk-Hai–> Sauraman—Sauron. Each had to be defeated (leg completed) in order to make it to the final showdown.

      If the series isn’t connected (like a Harry Bosch book) it doesn’t matter.

  13. jiniellynejiniellyne

    Yes, what TK Thorne asked. I’m writing a series too.

  14. 1authorcygnetbrown1authorcygnetbrown

    Thanks! This is a good reminder to those of us who have been at this for a while too!

  15. chellypikechellypike

    Ah, the days of not knowing what I didn’t know. I remember those days. The MSs created during that blissful time, however, have been destroyed. 🙂

  16. Elizabeth RoseElizabeth Rose

    Ah plot bunnies. Cute furry little things that must caged and shunted away from the story!

    Great points on this. I was reading some sample chapters for an acquaintance, and I was at least two chapters in and I still didn’t know what was going on or why any of it was important. I get the guy avoided being a dragon snack, but so what? Why do I care? Where is this going? It’s the kind of thing that makes me put the story down and find something else to do.

  17. Don MassenzioDon Massenzio

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Here is a great post from Kristen Lamb for those of you working on your first novel and even for those of us that are a few books in.

  18. jiniellynejiniellyne

    Reblogged this on J. Ellyne's Blog and commented:
    Now this is the best writing advice I’ve ever heard from anyone! Reblogged so my followers will benefit from it too.

  19. Kate JohnstonKate Johnston

    This is the kind of advice I need to hear over and over again. I know I’m supposed to do it this way, and yet I’ve gotten so caught up in all the little twists and turns that sometimes I have found a different end-goal! Ack. Years later, and I think I’m getting the hang of it.

    Regarding your query letter class on Saturday–do we need to have a query and synopsis ready to go, or just that one-line “My book is about blah-blah-blah” and take it from there?

    • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

      You just need to attend. If you have the one line great we will work with it but it isn’t required because I am going to help you get one that SHINES 😀 .

  20. jandicrockerjandicrocker

    Great article! The information about conflict vs bad situations really rings true to me. They are exactly the mistakes I made in my first draft.

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