Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Search Results for: structure part 1

We are into October and National Novel Writing Month is around the corner (November–NaNoWriMo). Thus, I am running my structure series to help you guys get prepared. Why write 50,000 words if, at the end you have an unpublishable mess? Some of you might have seen these lessons, but a good refresher can’t hurt.

Writers must understand structure if they hope to be successful. Yes, it might take five years to finish the first novel, but if we land a three book deal, we don’t have 15 years to turn in our books. Understanding structure helps us become faster, cleaner, better writers.

Plotters tend to do better with structure, but even pantsers (those writers who write by the seat of their pants) NEED to understand structure or revisions will be HELL. Structure is one of those boring topics like finance or taxes. It isn’t nearly as glamorous as creating characters or reading about ways to unleash our creative energy.

Structure is probably one of the most overlooked topics, and yet it is the most critical. Why? Because structure is for the reader. The farther an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect to a reader. Agents know this and editors know this and, since they are in the business of selling books to readers, structure becomes vital.

Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold

Story that deviates so far from structure that readers get confused or bored = slush pile

As an editor, I can tell in five minutes if an author understands narrative structure. Seriously.

Oh and I can hear the moaning and great gnashing of teeth. Trust me, I hear ya.

Structure can be tough to wrap your mind around and, to be blunt, most aspiring writers don’t understand it. They rely on wordsmithery and hope they can bluff past people like me with their glorious prose. Yeah, no. Prose isn’t plot. We have to understand plot. That’s why I am going to make this upcoming series simple easy and best of all FUN.

Learning narrative structure ranks right up there with…memorizing the Periodic Table. Remember those days? Ah, high school chemistry. The funny thing about chemistry is that if you didn’t grasp the Periodic Table, then you simply would never do well in chemistry. Everything beyond Chapter One hinged on this fundamental step—understanding the Periodic Table.

Location, location, location.

See, the elements were a lot like the groups at high school. They all had their own parts of the “lunch room.” Metals on one part of the table, then the non-metals. Metals liked to date non-metals. They called themselves “The Ionics” thinking it sounded cool. Metals never dated other metals, but non-metals did date other non-metals. They were called “The Covalents.”  And then you had the neutral gases. The nerds of the Periodic Table. No one hung out with them. Ever. Okay, other nerds, but that was it. Period.

All silliness aside, if you didn’t understand what element would likely hang out where and in what company, the rest of chemistry might as well have been Sanskrit….like it was for me the first three times I failed it.

Novel structure can be very similar. Last week we talked a lot about novel beginnings (pun, of course, intended). Normal world has a clear purpose, just like all the other components of the narrative structure. Today we are going to go back to basics, before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure, turning points, rising action, and darkest moments.

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I am going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Prose is not a novel. Just because we can write lovely vignettes doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 80-100,000 word novel.

That’s like saying, I can build a birdhouse, ergo I can build a real house. Um…no. Different scale, different skills. Are a lot of the components the same? Sure! But a novel needs a totally different framework of support, lest it collapse….structure.

There are too many talented writers out there writing by the seat of their pants, believing that skills that can create a great short story are the same for a novel. No, no, no, no. When we lack a basic understanding of structure we have set ourselves up for a lot of wasted writing.

Ah, but understand the basics? And the potential variations are mind-boggling even if they are bound by rules, just like chemistry. Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they also can be butterflies and barracudas and bull dogs. Today we are going to just have a basic introduction and we will delve deeper in the coming weeks.

Now before you guys get the vapors and think I am boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better.

Structure is about timing—where in the mix those elements go.

When you read a novel that isn’t quite grabbing you, the reason is probably structure. Even though it may have good characters, snappy dialogue, and intriguing settings, the story isn’t unfolding in the optimum fashion. ~James Scott Bell from Plot and Structure.

Structure has to do with the foundation and the building blocks, the carbon chains that are internal and never seen, but will hold and define what eventually will manifest on the outside—banana or butterfly? Paranormal Romance? Or WTH? Structure holds stories together and helps them make sense and flow in such a way so as to maximize the emotional impact by the end of the tale.

If an author adheres to the rules, then the possible combinations are limitless. Fail to understand the rules and we likely could end up with a novel that resembles that steamy pile of goo like from that scene in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum sends the baboon through the transporter but it doesn’t go so well for the baboon. The idea was sound, but the outcome a disaster…okay, I’ll stop. You get the idea. Structure is important.

We are going to first put the novel under the electron microscope.

The most fundamental basics of a novel are cause and effect. That is super basic. An entire novel can be broken down into cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect (Yes, even literary works). Cause and effect are like nucleus and electrons. They exist in relation to each other and need each other. All effects must have a cause and all causes eventually must have an effect (or a good explanation).

 

I know that in life random things happen and good people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that “seed” needed to be planted ahead of time. Villains don’t just have their heart explode because we need them to die so we can end our book. We’ll talk more about that later.

Now, all these little causes and effects clump together to form the next two building blocks we will discuss—the scene & the sequel (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure). Many times these will clump together to form your “chapters” but all in good time.

Cause and effect are like the carbon and the hydrogen. They bind together to form carbon chains. Carbon chains are what make up all living organisms. Like Leggos put together differently, but always using the same fundamental ingredients. Carbon chains make up flowers and lettuce and fireflies and all things living, just like scenes and sequels form together in different ways to make up mysteries and romances, and thrillers and all things literary.

Structure’s two main components, as I said earlier, are the scene and the sequel.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (again per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, which I recommend every writer buy).

  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Link scenes and sequels together and flesh over a narrative structure and you will have a novel that readers will enjoy.

Oh but Kristen you are hedging me in to this formulaic writing and I want to be creative.

Understanding structure is not formulaic writing. It is writing that makes sense on a fundamental level. On some intuitive level all readers expect some variation of this structure. Deviate too far and risk losing the reader by either boring her or confusing her.

Can we get creative with pizza? Sure. Can we be more than Domino’s or Papa John’s? Of course. There are countless variations of pizza, from something that resembles a frozen hockey puck to gourmet varieties with fancy toppings like sundried tomatoes or feta cheese. But, on some intuitive level a patron will know what to expect when you “sell” them a pizza. They will know that a fried quail leg served on filo dough with a raspberry glaze is NOT a pizza.

Patrons have certain expectations when you offer them a “pizza.” Pizza has rules. So do novels. Chemistry and biology have rules, so do novels. We can push the boundaries, but we must appreciate the rules…so that we can break them.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Do any of you have tricks for plotting you would like to share?

I do want to hear from you guys!

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

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

NOTE: If you have won an edit from me and haven’t heard back, PLEASE resend to my assistant Gigi Salem (if you haven’t already). Likely, the wormhole (spam folder) ate your submission. I do look for them, but sometimes they slip by. Just send your pages to Gigi.Salem.EA at g mail dot com and I will get you hooked up.

Winner’s Circle:

GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (6500 words) OR a blog diagnostic. Diane Henders

Monthly Winner of 15 Pages (3250 words) of Edit Joylse Barnett

Weekly Winner of Five Pages (1250 words) Ramblingsfromtheleft

All winners, send your words in a Word document to my assistant Gigi at Gigi.Salem.EA at g mail dot com

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

Want a way to stand out from all the other writers clamoring to get an agent’s attention? Want to be a best-selling author with stories that endure the tests of time? Learn all you can about the craft, particularly novel structure. Structure is one of those boring topics like finance or taxes. It isn’t nearly as glamorous as creating characters or reading about ways to unleash our creative energy. Structure is probably one of the most overlooked topics, and yet it is the most critical. Why? Because structure is for the reader. The farther an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect to a reader. Agents know this and editors know this and, since they are in the business of selling books to readers, structure becomes vital.

Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold

Story that deviates so far from structure that readers get confused or bored = slush pile

As an editor, I can tell in five minutes if an author understands narrative structure. Seriously.

Oh and I can hear the moaning and great gnashing of teeth. Trust me, I hear ya. Structure can be tough to wrap your mind around and, to be blunt, most aspiring writers don’t understand it. They rely on wordsmithery and hope they can bluff past people like me with their glorious prose. Yeah, no. Prose isn’t plot. You have to understand plot. That’s why I am going to make this upcoming series simple easy and best of all FUN.

Learning narrative structure ranks right up there with…memorizing the Periodic Table. Remember those days? Ah, high school chemistry. The funny thing about chemistry is that if you didn’t grasp the Periodic Table, then you simply would never do well in chemistry. Everything beyond Chapter One hinged on this fundamental step—understanding the Periodic Table.

Location, location, location.

See, the elements were a lot like the groups at high school. They all had their own parts of the “lunch room.” Metals on one part of the table, then the non-metals. Metals liked to date non-metals. They called themselves “The Ionics” thinking it sounded cool. Metals never dated other metals, but non-metals did date other non-metals. They were called “The Covalents.”  And then you had the neutral gases. The nerds of the Periodic Table. No one hung out with them. Ever. Okay, other nerds, but that was it. Period.

All silliness aside, if you didn’t understand what element would likely hang out where and in what company, the rest of chemistry might as well have been Sanskrit….like it was for me the first three times I failed it.

Novel structure can be very similar. Back in September we talked a lot about novel beginnings (pun, of course, intended). Normal world has a clear purpose, just like all the other components of the narrative structure. Today we are going to go back to basics, before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure, turning points, rising action, and darkest moments.

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I am going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Prose is not a novel. Just because we can write lovely vignettes doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 80-100,000 word novel. That’s like saying, I can build a birdhouse, ergo I can build a real house. Um…no. Different scale, different skills. Are a lot of the components the same? Sure! But a novel needs a totally different framework of support, lest it collapse….structure.

There are too many talented writers out there writing by the seat of their pants, believing that skills that can create a great short story are the same for a novel. No, no, no, no. When we lack a basic understanding of structure we have set ourselves up for a lot of wasted writing.

Ah, but understand the basics? And the potential variations are mind-boggling even if they are bound by rules, just like chemistry. Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they also can be butterflies and barracudas and bull dogs. Today we are going to just have a basic introduction and we will delve deeper in the coming weeks.

Now before you guys get the vapors and think I am boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better.

Structure is about timing—where in the mix those elements go.

When you read a novel that isn’t quite grabbing you, the reason is probably structure. Even though it may have good characters, snappy dialogue, and intriguing settings, the story isn’t unfolding in the optimum fashion. ~James Scott Bell from Plot and Structure.

Structure has to do with the foundation and the building blocks, the carbon chains that are internal and never seen, but will hold and define what eventually will manifest on the outside—banana or butterfly? Paranormal Romance? Or WTH? Structure holds stories together and helps them make sense and flow in such a way so as to maximize the emotional impact by the end of the tale.

If an author adheres to the rules, then the possible combinations are limitless. Fail to understand the rules and we likely could end up with a novel that resembles that steamy pile of goo like from that scene in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum sends the baboon through the transporter but it doesn’t go so well for the baboon. The idea was sound, but the outcome a disaster…okay, I’ll stop. You get the idea. Structure is important. 

 

 

 

 

We are going to first put the novel under the electron microscope.

The most fundamental basics of a novel are cause and effect. That is super basic. An entire novel can be broken down into cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect (Yes, even literary works). Cause and effect are like nucleus and electrons. They exist in relation to each other and need each other. All effects must have a cause and all causes eventually must have an effect (or a good explanation).

I know that in life random things happen and good people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that “seed” needed to be planted ahead of time. Villains don’t just have their heart explode because we need them to die so we can end our book. We’ll talk more about that later.

Now, all these little causes and effects clump together to form the next two building blocks we will discuss—the scene & the sequel (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure). Many times these will clump together to form your “chapters” but all in good time.

Cause and effect are like the carbon and the hydrogen. They bind together to form carbon chains. Carbon chains are what make up all living organisms. Like Leggos put together differently, but always using the same fundamental ingredients. Carbon chains make up flowers and lettuce and fireflies and all things living, just like scenes and sequels form together in different ways to make up mysteries and romances, and thrillers and all things literary.

Structure’s two main components, as I said earlier, are the scene and the sequel.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (again per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, which I recommend every writer buy).

  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

 

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Link scenes and sequels together and flesh over a narrative structure and you will have a novel that readers will enjoy.

Oh but Kristen you are hedging me in to this formulaic writing and I want to be creative.

Understanding structure is not formulaic writing. It is writing that makes sense on a fundamental level. On some intuitive level all readers expect some variation of this structure. Deviate too far and risk losing the reader by either boring her or confusing her.

Can we get creative with pizza? Sure. Can we be more than Domino’s or Papa John’s? Of course. There are countless variations of pizza, from something that resembles a frozen hockey puck to gourmet varieties with fancy toppings like sundried tomatoes or feta cheese. But, on some intuitive level a patron will know what to expect when you “sell” them a pizza. They will know that a fried quail leg served on filo dough with a raspberry glaze is NOT a pizza. Patrons have certain expectations when you offer them a “pizza.” Pizza has rules. So do novels. Chemistry and biology have rules, so do novels. We can push the boundaries, but we must appreciate the rules…so that we can break them.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Do any of you have tricks for plotting you would like to share?

Happy writing!

Until next time…

And the winner of a signed copy of my book is….insert drumroll here…..ANNE BRENNAN!

Now the shameless self-promo. We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media is designed to be fun and effective. I am here to change your habits, not your personality. My method will help you grow your network in a way that will translate into sales. And the coolest part? My approach leaves time to write more books. Build a platform guaranteed to impress an agent. How do I know this? My book is recommended by agents.

Today I have a guest post from my lovely, yet ruthless editor Cait Reynolds and she is here to talk about an important topic, particularly for those in the romance genre. Yes, I am an expert at a lot of things, but shifters? I am deferring to Cait. She is hard, brutal, but really excellent in shaping—*wink, wink*—you into a way better author than you imagined you could be.

She’s kind of like that coach who razors your swollen black eye so you can see but you bleed and then she tosses you back into the ring to get your face hit some more. But in the end you win and nail the TKO and so you forgive her.

Eventually.

Anyway, without further ado, take it away Cait!

****

Much like Cait.

Shifters are hot.

Well, okay, we knew that. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a multi-million-dollar niche market for them. I mean, who doesn’t want to read and fantasize about a delicious Alpha male with rippling pectorals whose instincts are all about…mating?

Let’s not forget the possessive, protective, wild, and dangerous parts of the shifter male. The shifter hero is a sexy beast. Literally.

But, I’m not here to talk about any of this. In fact, I’m here to come down with the Red Pen of Wrath on the shifter genre. Get ready, because I’m going to be controversial, mean, and utterly, utterly truthful.

Ready?

Many shifters are boring.

Whoa. Yeah, I know. I figured I’d just come right out and go balls-to-the-wall. Before you run to the comments section to testify for the defense, hear me out.

I say many shifters are boring because far too many shifter romances cheap out on two things: world-building and character development. I know that most stories do include some basics about their shifters, but it is rarely enough.

The character development problem shares some traits with the overall issues of character development in romance in general, but there are specifics to shifter characters (and their mates) that are tied to world-building.

Basically, we have reached a point where the genre is saturated in stereotypes and tropes.

Stereotypes are never sexy, and tropes are trite.

How do we get away from it, though? Aren’t there certain things readers will want? Isn’t this taking the idea of shifter romance a little too far away from its purpose as an escapist fantasy?

A fantasy is only as good as how immersive its world is. If our shifters are skimming the surface, using shortcut stereotypes and tired plot gimmicks, then, it’s no wonder we’re struggling to be heard above the noise of 99,000 other ‘meh’ shifter romances on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.

The business of shifter romances has always felt like a race-to-market to get the most pages read. With the Sword of KENP hanging over our heads, it’s less about quality and more about putting out 50,000 words every month.

There’s little time and even less incentive to ‘indulge’ in something like spending weeks—and sometimes even months—creating a world that both gives depth to characters and can handle the resulting complexity.

Don’t despair (or write me hate mail just yet). There are things we can do to ‘shift’ our world-building and character development to the next level, and all it takes is some time, patience, and thought.

The Literary Litmus Test of Awfulness

Okay. This is the hard part that is going to make you squirm, but you need to be honest! Answer the following questions with ‘yes’ or ‘no’:

  1. My shifters live in a small, rural town.
  2. My shifters recognize their mates by instinct (scent, sight, gut feeling, etc.).
  3. Once my shifters recognize their mates, that’s it: instant devotion.
  4. My shifters think nothing of relentlessly pursuing their mates for the purpose of seduction and securing lifelong mating.
  5. My shifters mark their mates in some way.
  6. My shifters are dominant Alpha males.
  7. My shifters produce shifter children with their mates.
  8. My shifters run in a pack.
  9. My mates feel safe around their shifters.
  10. My mates might have trouble accepting the fact that shifters exist at first, but they eventually do believe it.
  11. My shifters have enhanced senses even in human form.
  12. My mates can smell their shifters and are attracted to their scent.

Let’s stop there, though I could keep going. You probably answered ‘Yes, but…’ to several of these, indicating you do use the idea but have a variation on it.

I’m here to tell you that isn’t good enough. Variations are like sprinkles on ice cream. We love all the sprinkles, but the colors all taste the same. They just look a little different on the surface.

Taking any of these stereotypes or tropes and working it so it becomes something more than just a pink sprinkle instead of a red sprinkle involves hard work, failure, and some success.

The goal is not to write a shifter romance at the level of Tolstoy. But, who doesn’t want to write a better, more engaging story with hotter characters and a world that grabs the reader’s imagination and doesn’t let go?

Today, we’re going to look at how having a deeper, richer understanding of ‘the nature of the beast’ will help you do just that.

Native American Magic? Yawn.

Seriously?

What a cop-out.

Yes, I am pushing buttons, but, once more, hear me out. Using some generic Native American magic—or, insert generic magical accident/two-sentence explanation here—as the raison d’être for shifters doesn’t just show me that there is sloppy world-building.

It shows me that the author doesn’t really want to do the work in order to write a character that has any depth, complexity or backstory.

We don’t have to spell out every single detail of how our shifters came into existence, but knowing all this will influence our writing at a fundamental level. Our characters might interact with each other and strangers differently.

They might have a radically divergent opinion about something from the heroine who isn’t a shifter. They could face challenges that non-shifters have no clue about, but that could breed resentment/courage/patience/etc. Maybe, they are prejudiced against non-shifters or shifters from other territories.

Every shifter species has an origin story. Think about how important origin stories are to every culture on the planet. From the oral traditions of tribes in Papua New Guinea, to the book of Genesis, even to “On the Origin of Species,” we have a psychological bedrock of these spiritual, mythological, and intellectual origin stories that form the basis of everything we build about our identities and societies.

Imagine you are born a shifter. You are eight years old and ask your father about where shifters come from, and why you are different from other kids. “It was some kind of Native American magic that happened when our ancestors moved here, son,” is an explanation that might suffice for an eight-year-old (though, knowing eight-year-olds, I highly doubt it).

You ask the same question at twelve. Sixteen. Twenty. Twenty-five. Who are you? What are you? Why are you?

If all I got in response was that one sentence, then personally, I’d feel pretty damn lost, isolated, and threatened by the rest of the world, even if I was bonded to my community of fellow-shifters. It’s like showing up for the first day at a new school…every day…for the rest of your life.

Yet, somehow, all of these shifters are totally cool just going around their daily business, completely content to accept the “It was some kind of Native American magic that happened when our ancestors moved here, son” explanation without further questioning or emotional impact.

Now, we’ve come to the point where you might look at me and say (with a degree of asperity I probably richly deserve), “It’s all well and good to say, ‘Develop an origin story,’ but, how do you actually do it?”

An origin story has the following key components:

  • a creator
  • a moment of creation
  • a purpose for creation
  • a challenge to creation
  • a lasting consequence of creation

Let’s translate these points into concrete questions you can use to build a creation story:

  1. Who created the shifters? (alchemist, shaman, wizard, demons, etc.)
  2. What happened when the first shifter was created? (Killed the creator? Mated? Captured and tortured for witchcraft?)
  3. Why were the shifters created? (To fight vampires? Protect from demons? Protect a certain geographical location?)
  4. If they were created to fight something, what was it? Does the threat still exist? If it doesn’t, has that changed the nature of the shifters and their culture over time? Is there a similar threat that still exists? If so, how does the shifter react to it, or any danger, for that matter?
  5. Were the shifters first created in Europe or North America? What century? What culture? If they came from North America, you need to do research about the indigenous tribes of the time and their beliefs. If they came from Europe, were they part of Christianity or part of a pagan religion (and, no, you can’t just say druids and shortcut that sh*t)? Are there cultural customs (food, celebrations, ceremonies, beliefs, etc.) that the shifters have retained and practice in human or animal form that are related to their culture of origin?
  6. How do your shifters reproduce? (Mating, biting, alchemically?)

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Once you start building this origin story, you find yourself asking more and more questions. This is a good thing! In fact, this is one of those rare occasions where you should allot plenty of time to go down various rabbit holes and chase esoteric details.

You might not use everything you find, but you never know when that one, little, insignificant fact might become the pivot point for an entire character…and, that is when the fur begins to fly.

Genes and Jeans

I am a math-and-science reject, at least in practical terms. God gave us calculators for a reason. However, I have a layman’s fascination with science, and I try to use it in my writing because it adds so much more to every aspect of a story.

(Why writers should read about science is a whole other blog post of epic soap box-ishness.)

When it comes to shifters, you can’t get away from science. If you do—and most do—you lose out on the opportunity to use one of the most important tools in building an immersive world.

What does science do? It gives our world, our story, and our characters that flavor of reality and tantalizing hint of plausibility that makes readers greedy for more.

So, if we’re going to science! all the things, what does that mean in terms of research for those of us who are scientifically-challenged?

Let’s start with the basics and use wolves as an example.

Most of us have a somewhat basic grasp on wolf biology and behavior because we have waggy-tailed variations running around the house, perking up at the sound of the peanut butter jar opening. We know that wolves live in packs, have an incredible sense of smell, and stamina to travel long distances.

But, did you know that the theory of the ‘Alpha Male’ wolf has been significantly revised? It turns out the study was based on research that used wolves held in captivity and not wolves in the wild. In the wild, wolves live in more dynamic social structures where dominance and submission are driven by complex factors of age, parental relationships, sexual maturity, abundance or scarcity of prey, etc.

A simple Google search on ‘wolf behavior’ brought this article up. This raises interesting questions about having an ‘Alpha Male’ in your shifter pack.

What if there was rivalry for the alpha position? What if it was based on competitive mating opportunities? What if one of the men used his position as owner of the biggest company in town to drive off a competitor for a mate’s attention?

Wolf cubs tend to grow up and leave their natal pack, either joining another pack or forming their own. Does this wolf behavior impact the human side of your shifter’s family relationships? Do the sons of the town tend to move away? If the human side overrides it, what are the tensions it creates?

Does your shifter’s human hair color match his wolf’s fur? What if, instead, your wolf pack bore coloration and markings that had evolved according to their habitat? The density of a wolf’s fur, its color, and its ability to retain heat all vary based on the latitude in which the wolf lives.

Do your shifters have to get haircuts more often in the winter because their wolf fur is thicker? Does human pattern baldness affect your wolves? (I’m serious! These are the kind of questions that keep me up at night!)

Don’t even get me started on geeking out about the various theories on the evolution of the wolf. Why settle for a North American gray wolf when you could have an Italian wolf, the Dinaric-Balkans cluster wolf, the Carpathian wolf, and the Ukranian steppe wolf?

When it comes to the physical attributes of shifting from human to wolf form, you can let your imagination run wild—literally—and make it bone-breakingly painful and violent, or you can make it quick, smooth, and deadly. But, once in wolf form, the rules of biology must come back into play to some degree.

You can make your wolves over-sized and preternaturally strong, but for goodness’ sake, set some limits! Maybe they can run fast, but for how long? Maybe they have keen eyesight, but only at night? Maybe they are capable of breaking down doors and crashing through windows, but exactly how resistant is their skin to tearing?

Creating an all-powerful shifter wolf is the equivalent of a Mary Sue who never leaks snot when she cries. Setting limits based on real biology and behavior gives you more scope for challenge, conflict, and character development.

Sexy Taylor the wolf shifter is blindingly fast, but he can only run at that speed for half-a-mile. Tessie, who-will-be-his-mate-when-she-surrenders-to-his-charisma-eventually, is a mile away. Will he get to her in time? Can he push past his natural endurance limits? What happens if he doesn’t?

Sexy Taylor the wolf shifter also looks super hot in blue jeans. However, we’re just going to leave the whole clothing debate for another day. Suffice it to say that if your clothes shift with you, there’s definitely some extra hocus-pocus going on at a molecular level.

Though, it does bring to mind a plot bunny of a wolf shifter community that discourages visitors by labeling itself a nudist colony, since shifting generally involves nudity…

Shifters are the ultimate bad boys. They are the—sorry, I have to do this—party animals of the romance genre. They are unabashedly sexual and offer a dash of danger. Winning the heart of a shifter falls somewhere between winning the lottery and getting a puppy for Christmas. We read shifter romances for escapist fun and to indulge in dreams more intense than what we might dare in real life.

The point of all of this is not to dampen your enthusiasm for writing shifter romances or to bash the genre needlessly, but rather to bash the genre where needed in order help writers take their stories to the next level.

I want to lose myself in a world that feels so real, I forget that it isn’t. I don’t want to waste my time reading another shifter story that feels like someone did a ‘ctrl-H-replace-all’ for the names and slapped a different cover on the same damn story.

Writing is work. Writing well is hard work. Writing well about a world that is rich, complex, and dynamic? That’s hellishly hard work…

But, so, so worth it to the reader.

***

Thank you Cait! And make sure to check out her class on Shifter Romance listed below!

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but I am still working out the kinks. Also your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Talk to me!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

***Will announce April’s winner next post. I was supposed to do it this post but I lied. I am a writer, it is what we do. I will get to it! 😛

SIGN UP NOW FOR 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!

BUNDLE DEALS!!! 

Book Bootcamp  $99 ($130 VALUE)

Book Bootcamp GOLD $269 ($430 VALUE) This includes the log-line class, antagonist class, the character class AND a three-hour time slot working personally with ME. We will either plot your idea or, if your novel isn’t working? Fix it! Appointments are scheduled by email. Consults done by phone or in virtual classroom.

Individual Classes with MOI!!! 

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 May 25th, 2017

The Art of Character $45 May 18th, 2017

NEW CLASSES/INSTRUCTORS!!! 

Shift Your Shifter Romance into HIGH Gear $35 May 19th with powerhouse editor Cait Reynolds.

Researching for Historical Romance (How to NOT Lose 6 Hours of Your Life on Pinterest) $35 May 20th

 

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

 

Dog Body Language
Image by Gopal 1035

Today regular guest writer Alex Limberg is back with a post that will make any of your dialogue scenes sound so much smoother. His piece is about body language. Raise your eyebrows and drop your chin in delight, because Alex is about to help you get under your readers’ skin with your dialogue. Also, you should definitely check out his free checklist about “44 Key Questions” to make your story awesome. Now clap your hands: 3… 2… 1… here we go:

***

“Crossing my bridge on your flying rhinoceros? You better reconsider that,” the troll said and raised his fist.

When you are reading the sentence above, you know immediately what the situation is about: The troll is threatening the other person (and a flying rhino is coming your way). And the reason you know exactly what’s up is, you guessed it, the fitting description of body language. Body language is added in just four tiny words. But those four words add a lot of depth to the scene.

The physical snippet makes your reader visualize the scene; it puts the graphic image of a big, green, threatening troll fist in his head.

It also brings some nice variation to your dialogue; it’s more interesting than a plain, boring dialogue tag (“the troll said” or “the troll shouted.”)

It introduces character and overboiling emotion – you know it’s better not to tangle with the green guy.

And finally, it adds some physicality to your story, as opposed to just “blah, blah, blah” dialogue and scenic description. It makes for well-balanced speech.

Troll Warning
Image by Gil

All of this is the power of using body language.

Here is a short Body Language 101 that will help you with “puppeteering” your characters’ bodies:

1. Use Body Language Only From Time to Time

If you use body language too much, it will become annoying and obvious and lose its subtle qualities. Instead, only describe characters’ facial expressions and postures from time to time. Make them smoothly blend in with the dialogue and the other scenic description.

Sneak your body expressions into the mix unobtrusively. Remember that you have several other options to “tag” and break up your dialogue lines:

  • You could use a dialogue tag (“Let’s go to the party then!” Sandra squealed.)
  • You could describe what the characters are doing (“Let’s go to the party then.” Sandra held the invitation out to him.)
  • You could describe what else is happening in the scene (“Let’s go to the party then!” Suddenly the doorbell rang.)
  • You could just leave the dialogue line standing alone (“Let’s go to the party then.”)
  • You could describe a facial expression, posture or movement of the character who is speaking and put it directly before or after his dialogue line, to let the reader connect the dots himself (“Let’s go to the party then.” Sandra’s face lit up.)

Try to vary these options, so none of them gains the upper hand and becomes annoying. That way you will get a well-balanced and structured scene that pays equal attention to dialogue, characters and descriptions.

When you insert body language, always do it in passing and don’t give any extra weight to what you describe.

2. No Explanation, Just Body Language

If you want to look really stupid, you could write like this:

“So surely you can tell me where you were on the evening of the twenty-second of October?” George asked with eyes narrowed to slits, because he felt very suspicious about Blake’s story.

This example does both, showing and telling. That’s one too many, and the too many one is the telling part! Cut out “because he felt very suspicious about Blake’s story.

When you write like this, you also take your reader for stupid. Let her connect the dots herself – if she has followed the story, she will know why Georg’s eyes are pressed to slits.

Try it like this:

“So surely you can tell me where you were on the evening of the twenty-second of October?” George asked, his eyes narrowed to slits.

That’s much better, now we don’t even have to go inside George’s head artificially, we can just describe objectively what the reader sees.

Whenever possible, don’t name the feeling, but just show the body language. And definitely never put both of them (body language and description of feeling) together in the same sentence.

Showing, not telling is sometimes not easy to do when you are caught up in the writing process. That’s why I created my free checklist about “44 Test Questions” to make your story great. It’s a comprehensive, no-holds-barred list about what I learned makes a good story, and you can download it right away.

Body Language 1

3. Have a Very Clear Idea of What Your Character Is Feeling

Take a look at this ambitious description of body language:

“Randy held one hand in his other behind his back, then suddenly stroked his throat while he was leaning towards Linda.”

What’s happening here? Nobody knows, Randy’s behavior is too much. As far as we are aware, it doesn’t make any sense. It seems like the writer pays attention to the undertones so much, that in the end he is not really saying anything.

Don’t write so cryptically that nobody can understand where your character is coming from. A simple description of one piece of body language at a time is absolutely enough. You, the author, always have to be clear about what your characters are feeling. And their body language has to match those feelings.

4. Follow Your Intuition When Describing Body Language

But where can you take an accurate description for flattery or envy from?

Your best bet is to take it from yourself. Imagine you feel flattered by an enormous compliment, like the best compliment ever. What expressions would your face, your arms, your body be making? Totally immerse yourself in the feeling like a good actor, and see which body expression fits.

Remember the last time you felt really envious about somebody? Use that memory to immerse yourself in the feeling for a second and ask yourself how your body would react.

Reading a book about body language is also an excellent idea. The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease is a very systematic and comprehensive guide to everything you ever wanted to know about body language. I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Acting 1

5. Several Types of Body Language You Can Use

Our bodies have several ways of giving our secrets away. Here are some examples and a bit of inspiration on what’s possible:

  • Facial expressions: The human face is an endless source of expressions. Think of raised eyebrows, tightly pressed lips, blown up cheeks, wrinkled noses, wide eyes, frowned brows, poked out tongues, widened nostrils… most feelings show through several features
  • Body postures: Crossed arms, legs wide apart, foot put forward, leaned back upper body, spread elbows, locked ankles, body pointing away, tilted head… all of these have something very distinctive to say
  • Body movements: Adjusting tie, nibbling on temple of glasses, whipping foot, raising hand with palm toward opposite, flicking the hair, putting hands in pockets, grabbing the other’s upper arm, scratching one’s nose… do you know what all of these mean?

Equipped with all of this knowledge, you now have an extremely elegant and effective way to describe what’s really happening under the surface of your scene. You can now go fill your characters with overflowing emotions and life.

Once you manage to describe how their feelings subconsciously pour out of them, your figures will automatically take on a life of their own and feel like they were standing next to you in your living room. And your reader won’t be able to keep from loving or loathing them whole-heartedly.

Photo, Alex Limberg

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Polish your dialogue, plot, characters and much more to greatness with his free checklist about “44 Key Questions” to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and in the movie industry. He has lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

Thumbs up, Alex!

It’s Kristen again, and I’m back to ask you: Are you guilty of completely neglecting body language in your stories? Do you have a favorite body part or movement to describe? Aren’t knees so much cooler than elbows? Do you ever forget to jump up and down when you are happy?

Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!

I love hearing from you!

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

Check out the other NEW classes below! Including How to Write the Dreaded Synopsis/Query Letter! 

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes

NEW CLASS!

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

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?

***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.

Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.

Sign up early for $10 OFF!!!

Blogging for Authors

September 17th

Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.

The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.

The problem is too many writers don’t approach a blog properly and make all kinds of mistakes that eventually lead to blog abandonment. Many authors fail to understand that bloggers and author bloggers are two completely different creatures.

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

 

 

Golden Goose

Image by DonkeyHotey/Flickr CC

This is another guest post by blogger and copywriter Alex Limberg. If you have followed my blog in the last couple of months, you have probably come across him, namely because the Stockholm’s Syndrome sets in faster when you drug the candy 😀 .

Once again, I’m going to gently nudge you into the direction of his free ebook about “44 Key Questions” to test your story; it will help you make your scenes tight and compelling and detect any story problem you might have. This time, Alex is showing us a very interesting recipe to keep every single part of your story interesting. Take it away, Alex!

***

Uh-oh! It’s showdown time.

In your heart-stopping thriller piece, Tinky the milkman has just found out who poisoned Lady Chatterbee’s canary. Now he is driving to the ash grove for the faceoff in the old mill.

Your scene before and your scene after are sweat-inducing, ear-wringing, eye-popping pieces that keep your audience glued to the page.

But this little scene in between, when Tinky is quietly sitting in his car, motor humming and wheels turning… well, there is just absolutely nothing happening. It’s dull. Sleep-inducing. It would make a dog with rabies put on his pyjamas.

Let’s say you still want it in there. You need a connection piece, you want to slow down the pace a little to ramp it up more effectively later on. Maybe you even want to weave in a bit of backstory, so we better understand where Tinky is coming from.

But how can you do it in a way that doesn’t completely choke off any excitement in your reader?

How do you make a scene that is naturally not very exciting interesting in its own way?

This post will give you a practical roadmap for how to make the in-between sexy. Also, because I know long-winding and unmotivated story parts are often hard to detect for the writer himself, you can here download a free goodie to check your story for superfluous parts and any other imaginable weakness (it uses test questions).

This is how to keep your story fresh and exciting in every scene:

1. If You Can, Trash It

Your first choice should always be to get rid of any in-betweens that don’t advance your plot. To show your protagonist getting out of bed, showering and preparing her breakfast cereals would slow your story down ridiculously, destroy its rhythm and bore the boots off your readers.

There is a storytelling rule that says: “Get into the scene at the latest possible moment and out at the earliest possible moment.” You can observe this rule in meticulous action in screenplays and movies.

Filmmakers in particular can’t afford to bore their audience for even one second. With the ultra-short attention span of today’s music video culture, viewers will just cold-bloodedly switch channels.

However, sometimes you will have your very own reasons to show an additional scene: You may want to show your character in a different light, display her personality or habits or slow down the rhythm on purpose. Maybe you want to give your reader a feeling for passage of time or show social surroundings, working space or landscape. There are a million possible motives.

So should you decide to hang on to your scene, here are a couple of helpful techniques to keep your audience hooked.

Garbage Can

2. Introduce Personality: Make It about Character

Instead of worrying how to fill those pages, see them as an awesome opportunity to breathe more life into your characters!

Look at it this way: In most scenes, your plot carries the burden to advance your story.

But now, in your little in-between scene, your character has a chance to fully take the stage and showcase a brand new side of herself. If the story is about her professional life, make that scene about her private life; if the story is about her bright side, make that scene about her dark side – or the other way around.

You might also use the scene to introduce new relationships we don’t know about yet. New relationships can give a deeper glimpse into your character’s personality and show her in a different light.

Each of us human beings is a complete drama on his own. We are also utterly entertaining in our own ways… Use your pages so your reader gets to know your characters better and your entire work will profit!

3. Introduce Action: Make It about Drama

Better yet, when you get several of us together, the drama is exponentiated. So you could involve several characters in your scene and use it for a mini-plot, a play within the play.

Your mini-plot doesn’t have to be connected to the main plot, nor does it have to be about some big and important theme. Depending on your genre, it could be everyday drama and as mundane as a girl forgetting her handbag on the bus.

The overarching plot plays from beginning to end of the entire novel. In turn, your mini-plot could play from beginning to end of the scene, with a similar structure; for example:

  1. Introduction
  2. Problem arises
  3. First attempt at solution
  4. New twist and problem even worsens; Climax
  5. Problem gets solved; Happy ending

If you want the complete ballad of the forgotten handbag, how about this: Girl cheerfully rides on a bus, thinking of happy days (introduction); while she is waiting for her connecting bus, she realizes she has forgotten her handbag (problem arises); she enters the first bus again, only to discover the bag isn’t there anymore (attempt at solution, problem worsens in climax); she asks the driver in desperation and learns that somebody has found the bag and taken it to a lost property office (problem solved); happily she goes to pick it up (happy end).

Of course, you can also let a character play through the whole sequence solely in his mind. For example, let him worry about horrible outcomes of the main plot. At that point, he won’t even have to interact with anybody to create drama; he doesn’t even have to move or to do anything. Just let a worst-case scenario play out in his head.

If you are bored, just make things more difficult for your characters: A nightly walk through the park is a lot more suspenseful if you are not sure if somebody is following you. If nothing else helps, you can always fall back on conflict to spice up your tale.

Make sure your mini-plot fits the kind of story you are telling and doesn’t overwhelm your main plot. A comedy with the mini-plot of a mad axe murderer can be done, but you have to make sure to hit the right note…

4. Introduce Questions: Make It about Suspense

Suspense is always about questions: Who is the murderer? Will Godzilla eat the city? What secret does Martin hide from Sharon?

Your readers will never get bored as long as there are nagging questions on their minds.

Question Garden

Image by Dennis Brekke/Flickr CC

In your in-between scene, you have two choices to raise a question.

Option one: You could spin a question of the overall plot further. For example, letting your character contemplate if Craig can even be the murderer, because he was on vacation the entire time; letting your readers know that Godzilla has just eaten another city block; hinting at that breathtaking secret of Martin’s.

Option two: Your mini-plot could create suspense by raising a question on its own. In the example above, it would be the question: Will the girl ever get her handbag back?

In the end, dealing with in-between sections is about giving your scenes a life of their own. This, of course, is something you should always do in any scene, so it’s excellent practice.

You are a storyteller, and if you want to be a really good one, know that not only the raisin parts of your story are worth telling. Any part of your story should be worth writing well and making it at least a little bit interesting.

And if you do take the effort to polish every part of your story, it will feel continuous and complete and shine on like a crazy diamond. Your story will engage your reader continuously, draw her in deeply and take her on a rollercoaster ride she will never be able to forget.

Photo, Alex Limberg

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Check how tight your scenes are and much more with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

Thanks, Alex!

Kristen here again.

Now let’s hear it from you: What do you usually do with a connection scene? What happens in your story if nothing happens? Do you sometimes let dull story parts slide? Do you proceed to tell people the cookiemonster ate your exciting version? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if all of our scenes could be as dull as watching water condense?

Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!

I love hearing from you!

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

Upcoming Classes!

Back by popular demand! Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Beyond craft and to the business of our business?

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