Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Search Results for: literary barbies

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of frankieleon

I read a ridiculous amount of novels and I’m very picky, namely because I have the attention span of a fruit fly with a crack habit. Like most modern readers, it takes a lot to grab then keep my attention.

Most books I end up putting down or returning to Audible for another. There are books I finish then forget. Most are meh. Good way to kill time not much more. But then there are the ones that stick, the stories I never grow tired of reading and rereading and recommending and as you can see, I have very eclectic taste.

Some of my fondest loves are Heart-Shaped BoxBig, Little LiesAmerican Gods, Prisoner of Hell Gate, The Joy Luck Club, Luckiest Girl Alivethe Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer, and anything written by Fredik Backman Britt Marie Was Here being my favorite.

Yet what do all these great stories have in common? Why do they make me laugh and cry and cheer? What is so cathartic about these books?

Shame.

Deep, profound, gut-wrenching and very identifiable shame.

The content of this blog is actually from a guest post I did for Rachel Thompson. But I think it’s a valuable lesson, especially for the new writers who haven’t yet developed the rhino skin to dare to be vulnerable themselves, let alone with their characters.

So I shall go first….

Back in 2002 when I finally made the decision to become a novelist, I had no idea what kind of a personal journey I’d signed up for. In fact that could make an entire book—okay series of books—in and of itself.

When I started writing I was not a very nice person (and that’s putting it mildly). I was angry, self-centered, bitter, undisciplined, and immature. But I did have great hair so it wasn’t a total loss.

In short? I was a jerk.

Often though, the trouble with jerks is they are the only ones unaware they are jerks. Kind of like that movie The Sixth Sense.

I see jerks. Everywhere. Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re a jerk.

Yeah, that was me. It was everyone else. Everyone else was responsible for ***insert emotion/problem/drama here***.

And maybe this isn’t a very useful post for you because you’re all wonderful, perfectly adjusted individuals who rescue kittens when you’re not knitting onesies for cold baby goats. But maybe what I have to say today can help…a friend 😉 .

Shame

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Alan Levine

I did not come from a healthy family. Scratch that. I was born in The Jerry Springer Show Reality TV Edition. As a kid I didn’t know it was not normal to have screaming fights lasting hours every day. That sane people didn’t kick in doors, throw things or constantly threaten a) abandonment b) suicide c) divorce.

As a kid, I only partially grasped why I wasn’t allowed to play with other kids in the neighborhood. I was a straight A student and a teacher’s dream pupil…but every parent on the street walled their kid off from me like I carried Ebola.

Eventually my parents divorced and my father decided it would be fun to just you know, disappear for two years without so much as a word as to whether he was even alive. Child support?

That’s funny.

My poor mom did the best that she could, but by the time I hit middle school we lived on spaghetti because it was cheap and lived in unending fear the power would be cut off. I wore thrift store clothes and Toys for Tots supplied my Christmas gifts.

I got bounced home to home and in the process switched schools a total of ten times; five times just in high school. And it was strange. It was like every school came standard with a gaggle of Queen Bees WASPs ready to skewer me with their stingers over and over and over.

What was even worse were the teachers (probably Queen WASPs in their high school heydays) who joined in the “fun” of tearing me apart. In fact, I had nightmares about one particular teacher well into my 30s.

No place. No person was safe.

The harder I tried to appease the WASPs in school and home, the more I was stung. I was a bleeding ruined wreck.

I’m fairly certain to this day that I am the reason for the current Texas truancy laws. I’d skip and take refuge in the library. Books didn’t care that I only owned two pairs of pants and four shirts.

Eventually, I dropped out of high school…twice.

The only thing that kept me from getting a GED and being done with it was I’d always wanted to be in the military. I longed for structure and order and hell I was used to being yelled at and called worthless. Perfect fit!

But, in the 90s, you couldn’t get into the military without an actual high school diploma, so groans I had to go back. I was nineteen years old in an English class of fourteen-year-olds. Talk about a slice of humble pie.

Yet, to survive, I learned two key defense mechanisms. One, I became funny. Being funny works, it’s sort of like peeing yourself so no one eats you. High five! My possum friend! But when funny wouldn’t work? I became MEAN.

I’d always wanted to be a writer from the time I hadn’t even nailed down the entire alphabet song. I was good with words and after years of using them to flatter and pacify? I realized that didn’t work on bullies.

So I whipped out my whetstone and sharpened my words to a razor’s edge that rivaled any Samurai sword.

I truly believe that those who are born to be writers—good writers—have an almost preternatural power for observation. We very literally see what others don’t or even can’t. This meant I could meet a person (enemy) and instantly know every perfect pain point.

Thus, when I went for someone, I didn’t waste time. I went for their heart, for the thing they thought they’d buried so deep, hidden where no one could see.

And I’d carve it out and show it to them—still beating—in my hand.

If my tormenters were unwilling like me, they would by God fear me.

Of course while this worked to make the WASPs keep a nice and respectful distance, it also isolated me. Regular, nice people also were afraid of me and in my mind? I didn’t care. Being alone was safer. People always left anyway. Best not to care.

So why am I talking about all of this other than hey, FREE THERAPY!

When I became a writer and my goal was to become a novelist, I had to face who I’d become. Being a jerk made me a lousy writer.

My first novel (which of course I thought was perfect) sucked. But why was it so bad? Okay that is actually a loooooong list. But the main reason is that all my characters were “perfect.”

They were everything I had always wanted to be. My MC was tall and beautiful and eerily resembled Angelina Jolie and she had mad fighting skills and spoke 42 languages and Zzzzzzzzzzz.

Over and over I tried new stories and same deal. Why were all my stories boring the paint off the walls?

The reason? All great stories are birthed from SHAME.

I finally understood that I’d fashioned so much armor around myself cobbled together with self-delusion, B.S. glitter and flat out lies, that I couldn’t be vulnerable. I didn’t know how to be.

Until I acknowledged I was a jerk, I couldn’t start understanding WHY I was a jerk so I could heal those parts and then…change.

I didn’t know I was a jerk because I was deeply and profoundly ashamed.

Fiction as Therapy

To be a great author, we must understand this core truth…

Readers don’t connect to perfection; they connect to flaws. We aren’t telling stories to perfect people, we are telling them to lost and broken and hurting people who can pick up a book and by GOD at least there is one frigging place in the world where the good guy wins and bad people get what they deserve.

We writers must understand who we really are if we want to resonate with readers.

Writers are dealers of justice.

Because here’s the deal. We live in reality where the popular girl who tormented the poor kids in high school didn’t get what she deserved and never will.

No. She married rich. Then as a “stay at home mom”—with a full-time housekeeper and au pair—went on to start a home-based company selling non-GMO organic vegan nail decorations made from fair trade coconut oil.

And she made millions, because of course she did!

She spends every Spring Break in Vail, summers in Europe, and never loses one moment of sleep over the young girls she emotionally ravaged, has not a singular care for the self-esteems she plundered. She doesn’t even recall her victim’s names just hopes the pathetic little lemmings buy her nail wraps.

We all know villains like her exist in real life, certainly did in mine. And in real life, she gets away with her crimes…but in fiction? This is the place she has no power. Her looks, money and family connections mean nothing. In story, she can be held accountable for what she’s done.

But here we are talking plot. Now?

Character Arc

What about the protagonist? Because a protagonist ambushing the mean girl of high school and feeding her through a wood chipper FARGO style, while morbidly interesting, is not a story.

The story is always with the hero. Outward defeat of said villain is not enough. That is only half of the recipe for a perfect story.

How does the protagonist face this villain and finally change? How can she evolve to a point where she can finally say that crucial line?

You have no power over me.

She must not only defeat the villain, she must also face and defeat her own shame.

She must do the very thing that all of us—in real life—must do to find peace. To heal.

Facing Shame & Taming the Jerk

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kenny Louie.

When I came to a point I realized I needed to face and explore my shame in order to write something people might like to read? I will admit it. I was a total chicken and too broke for “real” therapy. So I did what many writers do, I put it into story.

At the end of May, I released my debut fiction The Devil’s Dance and it IS a fiction. The plot is, at least. But I used my MC Romi to work through a lot of places where I felt shame, in order to expose then overcome them.

Like Romi, I grew up ashamed of where I’d come from, desperate to fit in, to be accepted. Trying WAY too hard. No matter what I achieved, I felt like a fraud, a poseur.

There is a real reason I use a lot of Breakfast at Tiffany’s references in the book. Holly Golightly in the iconic Turner Classic beginning is standing in front of Tiffany’s staring at all the beautiful things she desires. But she’s an outsider peering in through an impenetrable wall of glass. No matter what she looks like on the outside, it is the inside that must change. Romi’s journey is the same.

And Romi’s journey looks a hell of a lot like mine sans drug cartels.

But a really interesting thing happened when I wrote this story. I learned a lot about me. By placing my shame in a fictional setting, it was less frightening. It lost its power over me. I found that as I understood Romi, I understood me. I began healing and one day realized my armor was falling away like the husk of a cocoon no longer needed.

Because fiction helped me face shame, it helped me learn to be vulnerable and in being vulnerable I became a better writer and a better person.

Soooo….

I was joking earlier about y’all being perfect, though I am pretty sure some of you really are knitting onesies for cold baby goats. I finally mastered the potholder.

I do know many of you have your own wounds, probably a lot of them far worse than mine. Yet I think we can keep going around the same mountain over and over. If we miss the linchpin of why we’re hurting—SHAME—we can’t heal. It’s putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound and we’re walking around bleeding all over the place with no clue why we’re drawing sharks. Additionally, we will be too afraid to write characters with any depth and end up with Literary Barbies, not literature.

All I can say is that the road isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. And I have a secret to tell you. You’re much stronger than you realize 😉 .

I love hearing from you! What are your thoughts? What are some wounds you’ve dealt with via fiction? Do you struggle making your characters flawed or even vulnerable? Did you learn to use words as weapons? Have you struggled with the weight of your emotional armor? What is your story?

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Image courtesy of Randy Heinitz via Flickr Creative Commons.
Image courtesy of Randy Heinitz via Flickr Creative Commons.

How do we sell our stories? That is the big question. It is the reason for craft classes and editing and cover design and agents and editors and all the time on social media. And while platforms and covers and algorithms do matter, there is one tried and true way to sell more books.

Write a great story.

And not just any story, but a story that hooks from the very beginning and only continues to hook deeper.

Think of great stories like concertina wire.

The danger of concertina wire is not just in one hook, but hundreds. And it isn’t even in the hundreds of hooks. It is the tension created by the coiled structureIf a person is snagged even a little, every effort to break free (turning a page for resolution) only traps the victim deeper in a web of barbed spines.

Now granted, this is a morbid visual, but y’all are writers and there is a good reason our family doesn’t like us talking at the dinner table.

So I was researching sucking chest wounds today and, hey, pass the spaghetti please?

Moving on…

We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. Many new writers finish their first novel and I know as an editor that odds are I am going to chop off the first 50-100 pages. We dream killers editors call this the fish head. What do we do with fish heads? We toss them (unless you are my weird Scandinavian family who makes fish face soup out of them).

Image courtesy of David Pursehouse via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of David Pursehouse via Flickr Creative Commons

Often, when I go to do this kind of cutting, new writers will protest. “No, but you need this and the story really gets going on page 84.”

My answer? “Then let’s start on page 84.”

Too many stories fall flat because they lack the barbs necessary for snagging the modern reader who has the attention span of an ADD hamster with a meth habit. Additionally, a lot of us writers fall into bad habits of assuming readers are stupid, that they need all kinds of brain holding to “get” what we are talking about which means we not only lack barbs…but necessary tension.

I will prove readers are really smarter than we give them credit for 😉 …

Hooking with a Problem

One morning, on my way to take Spawn to school, as I stopped at my stop sign at a major business highway, a VW van passed at 50 mph and another car pulled out in front. BAM! Car parts, exploding glass, tearing metal, right in front of me. One driver screaming because his legs were crushed and he was pinned. All of this in less than 15 seconds.

Do you think I was hooked?

Did I need to know the history of the drivers, where they were going, what had the one driver so distracted that he would pull out into traffic? Did I need a description of the balmy, normal morning and a weather report? A description of the pale azure sky? Nope.

Now this is an extreme example, but it shows how even in life, we stop everything in light of a problem. A scream, a child crying, someone falling over a curb. We immediately halt everything.

Good fiction always begins with a problem because that is ALL fiction really is. Prose and descriptions and symbol and theme are all various delivery mechanisms…for PROBLEMS.

I cannot count the number of new manuscripts I read where the author spends most of her opening playing Literary Barbies. We really don’t care as much about your protagonist’s flaming red hair as much as we care about that warrant for her arrest. This is drama not a doll house.

Go look at books that have launched to legends and you will see this.

Andy Weir’s The Martian:

I am pretty much f**ked.

That is my considered opinion.

F**ked.

Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it has turned into a nightmare.

We don’t start the book on Earth or in the astronaut program at NASA. We don’t even start when they land on Mars and hint that trouble eventually will come. Nope. Weir tosses us face first into a problem.

Hooking With a Question

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I have a mantra that all modern novelists must live and die by.

Resist the urge to explain.

One of the reasons emerging writers get that fish head is they do a lot of flashbacks and explaining and “setting up” the story and they are unwittingly destroying the single strongest propulsion mechanism for their story—curiosity.

If we look at the opening page of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, the opening paragraph has a small character hook but six lines down we read:

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.

When we craft any story, we are wise to harness the power of human nature. Humans are curious. Heck, we are downright nosey. Imagine sitting at a Starbucks and prepping the computer to write. Two women sit nearby chatting and one has obviously been crying (hooking with a problem). We might eavesdrop a little, arrange Post Its, set out our lucky thesaurus but the second one of the women says, “He would kill me if he ever found out.”

There went the writing.

Then we would be doing “research” 😀 .

Hooking with Question and Character

What the HELL, HANNAH?
What the HELL, HANNAH?

Sometimes the problem or question isn’t so obviously stated and there is a lot left between the lines. We humans love to fill in the blanks, so LET US.

We will use an example from my all-time favorite book Luckiest Girl Alive.

I inspected the knife in my hand.

“That’s the Shun. Feel how light it is compared to the Wustof?”

I pricked a finger on the blade’s witchy chin, testing. The handle was supposed to be moisture resistant, but was quickly going humid in my grip.

First of all, this is a great opening line. It hooks, but then it leads to another hook and another and another. The character is testing the blade. Why? A blade being moisture resistant obviously is a plus if you are planning on stabbing someone because less chance of slippage (Stuff Writers Know).

Who is she planning to stab? How is she planning on using the blade? What has her so nervous her hands are going moist?

And on PAGE ONE we realize the protagonist is out looking at knives with her fiancé. Why? That is unusual. China? Normal. Curtains? Normal. Knives? Not normal.

Especially since in paragraph FOUR, we read:

I look up at him, too: my fiancé. The word didn’t bother me so much as the one that came after it. Husband. That word laced the corset tighter, crushing organs, sending panic into my throat with the bright beat of a distress signal.

Don’t Eat Your Own Bait

There are any number of reasons we as writers are failing to gut hook with our stories and often it is because we are falling prey to the very bait that is going to trap a reader. Problems bother us (because we are human) so we feel a need to “lead up to” something bad. We don’t like questions. We want to know…which is why we feel the urge to explain.

Just know that that clawing feeling inside that is driving you to pad the text is a good sign you are probably doing something right 😉 . For more on how to hook the reader, I am once again holding my First Five Pages class with upgrades available to get me shredding through your pages to help you start strong and stay strong.

The tricks we use to hook on page one we should continue to use until the final page. Coil that barbed story all around and no escape until you’re cut free.

Ain’t no rest for the wicked 😉 .

What are your thoughts?

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I do a ridiculous amount of reading because it is part of my job as a writer. My job in particular because I blog about craft. I read all genres and go through anywhere from 2-4 books a week. Audible will go bankrupt if I’m ever hit by an ice cream truck.

This said, I think I’m in a fairly good position to guide you guys on pitfalls to avoid from a reader’s POV. These are the mistakes that will have me railing at the heavens and throwing a book across the room…followed by depression because I can never get those wasted hours back.

I just returned a book so bad that I cannot believe I read as much of it as I did. It is a prime example why reviews can be misleading, even good ones.

I finally had to return it because there was just not enough blood pressure medicine in the world. I’m not a reviewer. It isn’t my brand so I’m not going to name names. Also, fiction is highly subjective so this is what pulled ME out of the story. But I’m hoping the thin silver lining from this dreadful experience is maybe I can use the flaws in this book as a cautionary tale.

Good Fiction is About Problems

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First and foremost good fiction is the path of greatest resistance. NOTHING should come easily for the protagonist. This is fiction, not a frigging Barbie Dream House for a writer to play out her dream life.

The protagonist had absolutely NO resistance whatsoever. After the death of her fiancé and childhood sweetheart, she decides to open a coffee shop. Magically she is gifted almost a quarter of a million dollars at the funeral. Okay. Plausible. Then she needed a space but her credit was bad…oh but magically mystically the owner of the space and a total plot puppet visits her house and gives her the lease and tells her he won’t charge rent until she opens and to take as long as she needs.

Oh-kay.

Then her friend—a premium designer—offers to redo the space gratis. And on and on and on. She never has a setback and the world is just bending over backward to hand her whatever she needs.

Now the book began sort of interesting. A psychic shows to the funeral to tell her her fiancé is alive. Okay, cool, that is a story. But does the protagonist pursue this? Ask any questions? Maybe fly to Mexico where the love of her life disappeared to check it out for herself? Even though she is flush with plenty of cash?

Nope.

We spend I kid you not, half the book of her essentially playing literary Barbies…including Sexy Photographer Ken who is every woman’s dream and who is willing to stop globe-hopping taking award-winning gallery quality shots….to be her barista for her gourmet coffee shop even though she refuses to date him.

Whenever we write fiction, of course we are injecting our fantasies into a book but we also need to make sure that everything isn’t going so smoothly that the reader is a Fly on the Wall of NOTHING FRIGGING HAPPENING.

Characters Who Are Too Dumb To Live

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As I mentioned, the book hooked early with the promise of a faked death and a psychic. But even after a vision of her love being in danger, in water, bullets whizzing by…the protagonist never pursues the question.

What is interesting is she (Barista Barbie) is happy to keep Photographer Ken waiting on the hook for TWO YEARS while she opens her Barbie Playhouse Gourmet Coffee Shop. The protagonist cannot date him because she still has questions whether or not her fiancé is still alive….

WTH?

YOU HAVE HAD TWO YEARS!!!!! So you keep Photographer Ken on the hook for two years because you are unsure if the psychic was right? That your love could be alive? But you NEVER look into it? IN TWO YEARS?

What…is…wrong….with…you?

Even more perplexing, what is wrong with Photographer Ken? Move on. She is a game-playing b$#@!.

Every mystery masquerading as tension was something easily remedied with a google search or a PHONE CALL. When there a deep nagging questions that can be remedied with a five minute conversation, and that conversation never happens?

*left eye twitches*

The entire premise of this book is that maybe her fiancé isn’t dead. NOT ONCE does she ever ask, “Hey those remains you found and that we buried? How did they identify it was him? Dental records? DNA?”

NOT ONCE.

*shoots self*

Dumb Factual Errors

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Right now I’m writing a Western Horror and historical is a totally new thing for me. I’m constantly stopping to research my facts and I know that one day when it is in print I will have some Curator of All Things Western probably nail me on some detail I botched. But, I tried. I did my due diligence. Thing is, we probably will all miss a fact here and there and that is all right. I really don’t mind that stuff.

But when an author has an error that could have a) been fixed with simply thinking for a minute and if still in doubt? b) GOOGLING IT…it ticks me off.

So after an absurd amount of time, protagonist FINALLY takes a break from baking and making frou frou coffees to check out Mexico and maybe see if the love of her life is still alive. What a peach! She lives in San Jose and it is a NINETEEN HOUR FLIGHT to Mexico?

Whisky Tango Hotel?

You don’t even need to be local to California to know that there is no way in hell that flight is NINETEEN HOURS. She could fly to New Zealand in THIRTEEN. This was actually the point I tapped out and gave up.

Seriously, the devil is in the details. It is too easy to get most of our facts correct in this day and age so when we bungle something that obvious? It frustrates the reader.

Word/Phrase Echoes

Again, this is something all of us do, though hopefully a good editor will help you remove them. Word echoes are my super power so I tend to be lenient when reading because I know I’m trained to see these things and so I’m tougher than most. I’ve learned to lighten up. But if we have a word or a phrase that we use to the point of distraction? It wrecks the reading experience.

When reading this book, I pondered making a drinking game out of it. You know, take a shot every time a character “rounded his eyes” (whatever that is—surprise?)…but I would have gotten alcohol poisoning in less than three chapters.

We need to mix it up and if you need help? Seriously, get a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus. 

In the end, any one of these oopses might not tank a book but these are at least some good things to keep in mind when writing and later editing.

What are your thoughts? What are your pet peeves? What makes you want to punch a book in the face?

I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of DECEMBER, 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).

November’s winner of my 20 page critique is Nancy Segovia. THANK YOU for being such an awesome supporter of this blog and its guests. Please send your 5000 word Word document (double-spaced, Times New Roman Font 12 point) to kristen@wana intl dot com.

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

 

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

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Frederik Andreasson
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Frederik Andreasson

I love helping writers and one service I offer that’s been particularly valuable is plot consult. Writers who are struggling to finish or who start off with one idea after another only for that great idea to fall flat? They call me. Querying and getting nowhere? Again, contact me.

I’ve busted apart and repaired hundreds of plots. Thus far I’ve yet to meet a plot I couldn’t repair.

But, in my many years of doing this, I’ve seen enough troubled plots to note some common denominators for a failed story. One ingredient for plot disaster stands apart.

Little darlings.

As writers, we are at risk of falling in love with our own cleverness. The “cool” idea, the super amazing mind-blowing twist at the end. We get so caught up in how smart we are that we fail to see that we are our own worst enemy.

Yesterday, I spent three hours talking to a new writer who was simply stuck. No matter how he reworked his novel, it was just going nowhere. This is one of the reasons I like to get authors to be able to state what their book is about in ONE sentence. Paring away all the pretty prose makes little darlings easier to spot…so you can then terminate with extreme prejudice.

But, since this writer was 60, 000 words deep into his own woods? He needed my eyes.

Hey, sometimes it takes a Viking to raze a village…of little darlings 😀

At first, I wanted him to explain his story to me…

Ten minutes later…

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 9.52.00 AM
Huh?

After listening to his idea, I pointed out the problem fairly quickly. He’d created what he believed was the world’s most interesting virus. Problem was, the only thing his virus killed was all the conflict in his story.

Because he was SO married to this clever virus, he’d built everything around it. The virus was a little darling and needed to go. Once we repaired THAT? The plot fell together effortlessly…and is pretty fantastic, btw. OUCH! I got a cramp patting myself on the back!

Seriously, once he got out of his own way? He had the story. It was there. I just helped him see it.

In fact, my biggest job consulting on plot is to pull the distraught writer off the body of the little darling and offer grief counseling and the assurance it was for the best.

What’s a Little Darling?

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Niki Sublime
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Niki Sublime

Almost any of us who decided one day to get serious about our writing, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Great book, if you haven’t read it. But one thing King tells us we writers must be willing to do, is that we must be willing to, “Kill the little darlings.”

Now, King was not the first to give this advice. He actually got the idea from Faulkner, but I guess we just took it more seriously when King said it…because now the darlings would die by a hatchet, be buried in a cursed Indian flash drive where they would come back as really bad novels.

…oops, I digress.

Little darlings are those favorite bits of prose, description, dialogue or even characters that really add nothing to the forward momentum or development of the plot. They can also look like “never before thought of ideas” and “wicked twist endings that put Shyamalan to shame.”

To be great writers, we must learn to look honestly at all little darlings. Why? Because they are usually masking critical flaws in the overall plot. Why are little darlings so dangerous?

Because th-they come back….but *shivers* they are…different.

Let me explain why it is important to let go. Here are three BIG reasons your little darlings need to die.

#1 We Risk Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. The characters’ agendas, secrets and insecurities collide.

As my awesome friend and talented author/writing teacher Les Edgerton mentioned a while back in his lesson about dialogue, subtext is vital. It’s more than what’s said. This can only happen when 3-D characters meet with real baggage that gets in the way of solving a CORE STORY PROBLEM.

In the new book I’m working on, my bike officer Landri had a father who wanted a son. She never quite lived up to his expectations. The need for his approval, in part, propelled her to become a cop. When she is reckless and legitimately criticized by a fellow officer that she should have waited for help, she takes it personally. Why?

She doesn’t hear that another cop is genuinely concerned for her. She hears the old recording from her father that she isn’t enough.

Fiction is a lot like life (only way more interesting). In life, we sometimes strike out at others not because of what they did or didn’t do, rather we are punishing them for unhealed wounds from our past often inflicted by other people. If my protagonist is pushing away the one person there to help her, she is five steps back from solving the core plot problem that’s upended her life.

Conflict.

Since little darlings are often birthed from a flimsy plot, the writer is left to manufacture conflict (melodrama). This weakness often manifests in pointless fight scenes, chase scenes, flashbacks or hospital/funeral scenes.

Zzzzzzzzzz.

We are creating bad situations, not authentic dramatic tension.

#2 We Mistake Complexity for Conflict

Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witness this pitfall in most new novels. I teach at a lot of conferences, and in between my sessions, I like to talk new and hopeful writers. I often ask them what their books are about and the conversation generally sounds a bit like this:

Me: What’s your book about?

Writer: Well, it is about a girl and she doesn’t know she has powers and she’s half fairy and she has to find out who she is. And there’s a guy and he’s a vampire and he’s actually the son of an arch-mage who slept with a sorceress who put a curse on their world. But she is in high school and there is this boy who she thinks she loves and…

Me: Huh? Okay. Who is the antagonist?

Writer: *blank stare*

Me: What is her goal?

Writer: Um. To find out who she is?

Me: *looks for closest bar*

Most new novels don’t have a singular core story problem. It is my opinion that new writers, deep down, know they’re missing the backbone to their story—A CORE STORY PROBLEM IN NEED OF RESOLUTION. Without a core story problem, conflict is impossible to generate, and the close counterfeit “melodrama” will slither in and take its place.

I believe when we are new writers, we sense our mistake on a subconscious level, and that is why our plots grow more and more and more complicated.

When we fail to have a core story problem, often we resort to trying to fix the structural issue with Bond-o putty and duct tape and then hoping no one will notice. How do I know this?

I used to own stock in Plot Bond-o :D.

“Complicated” is Not Conflict

We can create an interstellar conspiracy, birth an entirely new underground spy network, resurrect a dead sibling who in reality was sold off at birth, or even start the Second Civil War to cover up the space alien invasion…but it ain’t conflict. Interstellar war, guerilla attacks, or evil twins coming back to life can be the BACKDROP for conflict, but alone are not conflict.

And, yes, I learned this lesson the hard way. Most of us do. This is all part of the author learning curve, so don’t fret and just keep writing and learning.

Little darlings are often birthed from us getting too complicated. We frequently get too complicated when we are trying to BS our way through something we don’t understand and hope works itself out.

Um, it won’t.

Tried it. Just painted myself into a corner. But we add more players trying to hide our errors and then we risk falling so in love with our own cleverness—the subplots, the twist endings, the evil twin—that we can sabotage our entire story.

“Complicated” is the child of confusion, whereas “complexity” is the offspring of simplicity.

#3 We Fail to Spot/Correct Weaknesses

We fall so in love with our fun characters, our witty dialogue, our amazing inter-stellar conspiracy that we never finish. We can’t finish.

Since we aren’t being honest about why the book isn’t working, we aren’t doing the hard work that would make the story publishable and we end up playing Literary Barbies.

In the end, be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there. Make the hard decisions, then kill them dead and bury your pets little darlings for real.

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You’ve rewritten me 14 times. You think I’m going to leave without a fight? Hssssssss.

So what do you do with your little darlings? What’s been your experience? Do you have any tips, tools or tactics to help us dispose of the bodies? I really recommend taking my log-line class that’s coming up. I help you pare your story to ONE sentence and this is invaluable for spotting little darlings, honing your plot and you’ll need it for pitching later anyway. Or if you need a Viking to raze your village? E-mail me at kristen at wanaintl dot com.

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

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

Before we go, I want to give you a heads up especially if you are thinking on attending a conference.

I’m holding my ever-popular Your Story in a Sentence class. Can you tell what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t? There might be a huge plot problem. This also helps if you are ever going to query or pitch an agent. The first ten signups get their log-line shredded by MOI for FREE.

Also speaking of FREE, I’d like to mention again the new class I am offering!

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

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

Image via Mark Smith Flikr Creative Commons
Image via Mark Smith Flikr Creative Commons

I’d like to blame it all on Jay’s roast, but having time away, true downtime, allowed me to do some thinking (which is generally dangerous and has a wide blast radius). For any of you who’ve done any yard work, you know that for a vine to bear fruit, for a rose bush to produce more flowers, for a tree to grow taller, it needs to be pruned.

One of the key ways we grow in our careers (or even as people) is to be pruned. Pruning hurts. It sucks. It takes away all the pretty fluff we thought was “progress” and renders us naked and vulnerable. After pruning, we might not look like a lot to others, but inside and beneath, great things are happening. Our roots (commitment) dig deeper so we can stand taller.

Image via Keith Williamson Flikr Commons.
Image via Keith Williamson Flikr Commons.

The first step to being pruned is honestly and critically looking at where we are weak. I know there are all kinds of experts who say, “Only focus on your strengths. Don’t work on your weaknesses. You can’t be good at everything,” and that is true to a degree.

But…

On some stuff? We need to become experts.

When I first started writing fiction, my dialogue was fabulous, my prose lovely and my characters all adorable…but I could not wrap my head around the antagonist and plotting, thus wasn’t generating true dramatic tension.

Okay, I was playing Literary Barbies.

This was a critical node that would undermine everything I wrote. So I read every book available about plotting and tore apart every book I read and every movie I watched until I had it nailed. But I had to admit my weakness (pruning) to grow stronger.

Practice does make perfect, if it is intelligent practice.  If practice isn’t guided, it can just create a crap load of bad habits we’ll just have to fix later. Just ask anyone whose worked five minutes with a golf pro. Swinging the club incorrectly a thousand times doesn’t improve our game. It creates tendonitis, back problems, and eventually we get a lot of chigger bites from hunting for golf balls off in the rough.

Image via CompanyGolfLessons Flikr Creative Commons
Image via CompanyGolfLessons Flikr Creative Commons

Ah, but to know where to gain expertise, we need to know and admit our weaknesses and flaws.

Back to pruning. We love to look at our flowers, the stuff we’ve done well. Ah, it’s so pretty. I think I’ll call her “Tiffany.” It’s hard to admit where we fall short or are outright failing.

This is one of the reasons rest is so vital (and has been an area where I’ve been failing a lot). We can’t live off caffeine and adrenaline (Who knew?). And if we are always knee-deep in the mess, we lack perspective. Pulling away allows us a new vantage point and permits our brains to calm down long enough to really “see.”

Know there is a difference between fixing weaknesses and fixating on them.

I launched WANA International about a year ago. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and I wanted a way to reach more writers and offer affordable classes. I also wanted a way to highlight what I believed was emerging talent and use my platform to boost theirs.

Launching a business (publishing a book) requires risk and often we don’t know what we don’t know. More often, we figure it out when it goes BOOM. The learning curve of being a baby CEO has been steep and I am still learning.

My CEO photo.
My CEO photo.

I have been pruned…a LOT.

I’ve had to fire people I adored, who I really wanted to succeed. I’ve tried technology that sucked and formats of classes that just didn’t work out. Put out classes no one signed up for.

To succeed, we need to take risks and I will warn you ahead of time that a lion’s share of the risks we take (especially early on) will be mistakes. But some will turn out to be the best thing you’ve ever done, too.

I took a risk on Lisa Hall-Wilson and Marcy Kennedy and they have become shining WANA diamonds. But for every person who works out, there are fifty who haven’t. The ones who didn’t? That’s pruning. Each “failure” took me down a notch to learn to be better at diamond-spotting. Still working on it.

Sometimes ideas are just coal.
Sometimes ideas are just coal.

I took a risk helping Piper Bayard with her disaster book, Firelands, which has become a best-seller. But for every Piper, there have been a hundred writers who didn’t want to face the ugly and do the hard stuff. Some just faded away, gave up, and some have been all-out cataclysms (for more read Plagiarism and Terrell Mims–A Chronic Case of Epic Stupid).

Major pruning *head desk*.

Terrell (and others) taught me that talk is cheap. Pay attention to what people do and what they say. Are they congruent? Does the person have character? Are they focused? What is the person’s work ethic? Are they willing to do the hard stuff?

But where would I be if I’d just sat and cried I was bad at business and a failure and terrible at judging people?

Fix, don’t fixate.

Pruning isn’t Personal

I suppose part of the reason it’s tough to have a Kristen Lamb roast is that I serve roasted Lamb daily on this blog :D.

After my vacation, I have a teensy-tiny list of like one small thing…okay a long…okay a looooooong, looooong, like longer than my arm list of stuff I am committed to working on now that I’m home.

For instance, there are areas of business I just don’t understand as well as I need to in order to be an effective CEO. Does this mean I need to get a degree in business and be a new Jack Welch? No.

But I do need to study, to understand stuff well enough to know who to delegate what to and then how to hold said person accountable. I need to know enough to ask the right questions and understand if I am getting the right answers….or even if I need better answers.

Yes, work on your strengths. Writing is my strength and I train it daily. But, as writers, we are also small-business owners. We need to know the business side of our business or we waste time, energy, money and can even get fleeced.

And you will likely screw up. It’s okay. We learn by making mistakes. Too many people expect to write the perfect book the first time out, or hire the right web person day one, or make every business decision perfectly, but that isn’t how life works.

We Can’t Avoid Pruning—Indecision IS a Decision

I actually had to fire someone I cared about because this person would not take risks. This person needed validation from twenty people that every decision was perfect, and if one person said change the plan, this person changed the entire plan. We cannot live life by committee. Not and stay sane, at least.

This person was afraid of being pruned, didn’t want to lose the pretty flowers. But no pruning? No growth.

My advice? Get out there. Get dirty. Take risks. Yes, failure and mistakes will come, but they prune us so we can bear more fruit and better fruit.

What are your thoughts? Are you like and bracing for a new round of pruning? Does pruning scare you? Have you been pruned and have the fruit to show for it?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

ANNOUNCEMENT: I have a class coming up SOON, Creating Conflict and Tension on Every Page if you want to learn how to apply these tactics to your writing. Use WANA15 to get 15% off.

Also, my new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.

I will announce July’s winner when I’ve had a chance to unpack.