Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Like a good neighbor, Cajuns are there….. Hey, we have EXCELLENT friends.

That this has been a hell of a week is the mother of all understatements, especially for anyone impacted by Harvey. On my way home to Texas after keynoting for the Romance Writers of New Zealand, Hubby warned me of possible thunderstorms and a bumpy ride into Houston.

Still basking in the fuzzy glow from my trip of a lifetime, I was nonplussed. Meh. It was Texas and crazy weather just part of the deal, right?

I board in Rotorua and learn it’s no longer a mere line of thunderstorms. Now? An inbound tropical storm. Okay. Not ideal but I’m cool. I get to Aukland and now Hubby tells me it’s being upgraded to a Category One hurricane. *nervous laugh* Yeah but it’s a small one. I’m totally fine.

Then this. And YES THIS IS MY PLANE. *deep breaths* It will be okay.

I’m already prepared to endure the eight-hour layover in the International Airport Houston (IAH) even though I’m hurting and so sleep-deprived I’m bordering on passing out. Bad enough. But suddenly I’m praying to make it out before the hurricane hits which now has a name…Harvey.

Seriously? Computers need to be denied permission to name hurricanes if they can’t do better than this.

Writers could do WAY better. Hurricane Vlad. Hurricane Michael Myers. Hurricane Lizzy Borden. Anyway…

My luck with travel rarely is good so imagine my shock when I DO make it onto one of the last flights out. We were literally outrunning a storm band that was already spawning tornadoes.

View from my seat. And it was a LOT darker.

From what I can glean, the airport was shut down about ten minutes after my flight took off. Yay me! ….but no. I know it sounds odd, but once I got home and started seeing how bad things were getting, part of me was wishing I hadn’t made it out.

I wanted to help. Wanted to be there, only I was now hundreds of miles away and WHAT COULD I DO? But this brings me to why Texas will beat Harvey.

#1—We LOVE Texas Even Though She’s Bat$h*t Crazy

First of all it took a special kind of crazy to even settle this state to begin with. Droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, blue northers, hurricanes, and weather so wonky it seriously needs Xanax. Texas changes her mind about weather the way a woman changes her mind about what to wear to dinner.

Then cries and smacks you with a tornado if you forget to tell her she’s pretty.

It’s also HOT here. Crazy hot. As in Texas experienced its largest population explosion in history with advent of air conditioning. To me, that speaks volumes. We Texans take a lot of joy filming all the stuff you can fry on a sidewalk in summer.

Throw in poisonous snakes, deadly spiders, and fire ants and that sounds just like utopia right? Sigh. For us it is.

#2—Our Unofficial State Motto is “Hold My Beer and Watch This”

Just tell us we can’t do something. Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha! Yeah. We have a long history of taking stupid dares, probably most accurately demonstrated at the Alamo. A hundred Texians gathered in a mission about the size of a Trader Joe’s were given a choice.

Leave, run for safety, or stay knowing the vast Mexican Army (1,500 strong) was on its way. If you’ve ever visited the Alamo, you’ve likely seen this painting of Tapley Holland who was the first to step across the line and volunteer to stay and fight. The line in the sand is a dare, which apparently Texans are biologically incapable of ignoring. In fact one could argue Texas itself would never have happened without a dare ūüėČ .

I hear the doom and gloom all over the media how we will never recover, how it will never be the same, how Harvey has somehow defeated us and all I can think is…

Hold my beer and watch this.

Yeah it will suck for a while, but keep it up. Just tell us Texans we CAN’T do something and, well, you might wanna stand back cuz while others are talking? We’re a bit busy, thank you, kindly.

Yes, we Texans are known for bravado, BS, bluster but not for sense. In a part of the world that can be this tough to live in, sense can get in the way. Anyone with sense would have endured one 115 degree summer complete with rattlesnakes and brown recluse spiders and moved somewhere else like…Napa.

#3—Psychological Preparedness From Country & Western Music¬†

Virtually all Texas children are inoculated early (often in the womb) with steady doses of Country and Western music, which means we know all about losing the job, the truck, the house, and the dog. We also know a bass boat and a reliable pickup cures most of what ails you (and in the case of Harvey, cures what ails others).

#4—Texans Never Lose Hope

We are a ridiculously optimistic bunch and we don’t throw in the towel even when times get hard and it seems it will never get better.

Any longtime fan of the Dallas Cowboys is proof of this.

#5—You Can’t Keep a Texan DOWN

When life gives you lemons, we Texans just add a shot of tequila and salt. We’ve been through so many disasters we’ve learned when you can’t choose your circumstances, you can choose your attitude. We know sometimes the best thing to do is to laugh.

Or even SING!

#6—Texans LOVE Getting Dirty & Making it BIGGER

Oddly these go together about as well as chips and salsa.

Whether it’s noodling (sticking your hand in a slimy hole in a lake to catch catfish), ATVing, or just plain sliding around in mud in monster trucks, it’s tough to keep a Texan clean any length of time.

Texas is the mutt you just gave a bath. Probably best not to bother.

Y’all might hear that everything is bigger in Texas and that’s because often it is. Show us a disaster and we’ll top that with Redneck ingenuity at its finest. We love the mud and love our lifted trucks even more. Sure some folks might think a Cadillac Escalade on GIANT tires is silly.

That is, until you need one ūüėČ .

Rednecks with Paychecks¬†is a group of everyday guys with love for lift kits and a mojo for muddin’. Who better to rise to the challenge? These everyday heroes broadcasted the call and turned their lifted truck passion into a mission. Maybe the Texas National Guard can add a few of these fine vehicles to their own motor pool ūüėÄ .

#7—Texans are Pathologically Helpful

We aren’t called “The Friendship State” for no reason. Our duty is to be a good friend because 1) it really is in our nature (possibly from beer and fully belly of amazing tacos) and 2) being a good friend can literally become a matter of life and death. We Texans often need friends, ourselves.

Looking at you Louisiana *blows kiss to Cajun Navy*.

Even before we were sure how bad Harvey was going to be, folks from all over Texas (and all over neighboring states) instantly gassed up and headed toward the storm to help. Social media and the news is filled with everyday people rescuing strangers with anything that could float or just power through high water. Boats, jet skis, canoes, TRACTORS, you name it.

Paddle board? It’ll do in a pinch!

We don’t care if you’re a stranger…or even you’re human. Come along!

We have a soft spot for our furry friends and Texans risked their lives time and time again to rescue dogs, cats, possums, bats, horses, livestock, and even…carp.

Saving a fish! Now how awesome is THAT?

#8—Texans Have Never Met a Stranger

I know many folks hear this and believe it’s more Texas BS…until they visit Texas or meet a Texan. Sure we shovel plenty of BS but not when it comes to our reputation for hospitality.

Before I left on my trip a fellow writer who I only know on-line gave me her number in case I got stranded in Houston where she lives. She gave me her number when I was on my way out, but a couple weeks ago, my greatest concern was some silly mechanical issue that might have me sleeping on my luggage.

NOT HARVEY.

Anyway, when I returned to the States and a hurricane, I knew I could call and she’d come get me. But since never in a billion years would I EVER let her risk her safety, I didn’t call.

But when I got home, I texted her immediately then got worried when she didn’t respond. I called and left message after message begging to get an update she was safe.

Only later in a FB IM did I find out I had the wrong number (had transposed the last two numbers). So what did I do after blowing up the phone of a complete stranger? Duh, the only “reasonable” thing!

 

#9—Texas Per Capita Has the Highest Number of Casserole Dishes

Okay I totally made up that statistic and normally I would worry about the backlash but according to some news sources Mississippi is no longer with us and has apparently been clandestinely annexed by Alabama while we were all distracted.

Well played, Alabama. Well played.

So if Mississippi was still part of the US I might have a fight on my hands regarding my casserole dish density statistic, but until they win independence from Alabama, I should be okay.

Why is the casserole dish so important? Well, natural disasters can be a lot like a funeral. A lot of people show at the moment of the heartbreak but when the real pain surfaces is often weeks, months or even years later. Sure we need rescues and the immediacy tended, but when the adrenalin wears off and the news has found some other story, it ain’t over.

There’s a lot to clean up, rebuild and people who will need a lot of love. When others might move on, Texans will still be here.¬†We’re here for the long haul (Refer to Cowboys Fan reference).

#10 Texans Remember FOREVER

Elephants got nothing on a Texan. We remember everything. The Alamo, helloooo???? We remember the state flower (Bluebonnet), state bird (Mockingbird…ok, Mosquito), state nut (Pecan), state pepper (Jalape√Īo), state mammal small (Armadillo) and large (Longhorn), state insect (Monarch Butterfly), and state @$$hole (Fire Ant).

We remember everyone impacted in this storm, not just Houston. And we are here and not going anywhere until the job is done ūüėČ .

Granted, this post was to share some levity in a very dark time, but honestly we have so many folks to thank who are not Texans. Volunteers from EVERYWHERE, all over the US, all over the world, rushed to help and *bawls in Kleenex* and we will remember that and cherish your love and generosity.

It was a joy to see convoys from New York, Maine, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Minnesota, and on and on rushing to do all they could for us in our time of need, even risking their lives. We are infinitely grateful that y’all could be the boats on the ground, so to speak.

For those who would like to help, human or critter, I’ve linked to a number of ways we can keep helping those in need, even the furry friends. It will take time to rebuild, but we’ve been honored to watch how such a tragic event could bring out and reveal so many everyday heroes and we love you!

Salvation Army Harvey Relief

Samaritan’s Purse Harvey Relief

Donate to the ASPCA for Animals Impacted by Harvey

Rednecks With Paychecks Relief Fund

I love hearing from you!

Do you have any stories to share? Heroes we don’t know about? Favorite stories? Places to donate with links?

When the world seems so full of doom and gloom, for me, it was such a JOY to see how Harvey brought out so much good. And yeah yeah, I know there was bad, always is, but the bad (in my POV) was dwarfed by the mind-boggling outpouring of love and compassion from ALL OVER. I’ve never been so proud of what people can do when they set their minds to it.

 

 

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

How can we learn and do better?

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

We MUST Go Against Our Nature

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

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

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

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

#1—We Have Decoration Devoid of Substance

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

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

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

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

PROBLEMS are the “cake” of story.

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

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

#2—We Have No Plot

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

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

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

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

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

#3—We Have No Clear Plot Goal

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

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

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

Besides that is the wrong question entirely.

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

For that to happen? We need a PLOT PROBLEM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#4—Too MUCH SUGAR

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

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

Description not friction. No friction? No traction.

#5—We’re Making it TOO Easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#6—We Forgot to Turn on the Heat

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

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

I replied: NOOOOOOOOOOO!

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

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

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

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

NOW we have a story ūüėČ .

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

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

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

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

I love hearing from you!

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

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

July’s winner will be listed next time I post. Sorry, lots to do getting ready for New Zealand and I am behind.

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

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

Basically, all the weird stuff.

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

In this class we will cover:

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

All classes come with a FREE recording!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Logic & Emotion

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

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

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

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

Yet how do so many of us tackle our demons?

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

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

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

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

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

%$#& THAT $#!%!

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

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

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

Right brain is creative, thus good at hiding bodies.

Why Fiction?

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

Because we cannot heal emotional wounds with logical poultices.

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

Same thing goes for psychic wounds.

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

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

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

Mending the Broken 

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

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

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

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

The Lightning Strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love hearing from you!

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

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

July’s winner will be listed next week.

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

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

I am a sucker for a strong female character and these gun-wielding, sword-swinging gals are skyrocketing in popularity both in books and film. 2017 has served up both Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde, two characters who are as different as Amarillo and the moon, and this has given me a lot of food for thought.

What makes a female character truly bad@$$?

Last week I watched the pilot for Midnight, Texas and, like most shows, I’m undecided how I feel about it. It usually takes at least three episodes for me to get a clear picture of whether I want to remain or bail.

I loved True Blood and am a fan of Charlaine Harris. As a Texan and an author who writes stories set in Texas, this series of course piqued my interest.

Overall I enjoyed the pilot, but there was one scene that bugged the dickens out of me and thus prompted me to write a post about creating strong female characters.

More about Midnight later and what hit the sour note.

There’s No Mystery Why the Bad@$$ Female Has Gained Appeal

Being an older gal, I remember a time when every woman in every show twisted an ankle. She huddled in a corner panicking and weeping waiting for a man to save her instead of standing up and being useful instead of just decorative. I also recall being a seriously ticked off five-year-old.

Why was she just sobbing in a pile instead of picking up the gun? Tire iron? Whatever.

As a kid of the 80s our female action heroines were Charlie’s Angels *rolls eyes* but it was a start…even though this magazine cover (below) gives me gun safety apoplexy.

*Kristen breathes into paper bag*

But back in the day it was a fresh idea. Take some pretty women with lots of lipgloss and even more hairspray, hand them guns and —> POWER.

Oh-kay….

Terminator & The Tectonic Shift

For me, Terminator 2 was a tectonic shift in how women could be viewed in terms of an “action hero” especially since I was the only girl in 1985 taking martial arts instead of ballet. When I initially competed in karate, there were no “girls” divisions so I competed against boys.

With T2, finally there was a female action hero for me!

Yet, it seemed like Hollywood completely missed the point of Sarah Connor. Yes, in T2 she is all buff and devoid of emotion, fixated on a singular objective and willing to use any means to get there.

But that was because the STORY compelled such a character. After what Sarah endured, witnessed and survived in T1, she inadvertently became the very thing she sought to destroy.¬†In her desire to defeat the Terminator, she’d become the very thing she hated.

Kyle Reese gives us the foreshadowing of this in T1.

It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!

He says these words regarding the Terminator, yet this is eerily prophetic regarding Sarah in T2.

The Sarah Connor of T2 was a METAPHOR, not the singular template for what makes a bad@$$ female action hero.

Yet, T2 set the pattern for over two decades of one-dimensional, bitter, unfeeling and often unlikable female action heroes from Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, to Evelyn Salt in Salt, to the female assassin Fox in Wanted and now we get Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde.

Though I haven’t seen Atomic Blonde yet, I’ve watched enough clips and trailers to know she’s basically¬†John Wick with boobs. Which *shrugs* is cool.

To be clear, I watch and enjoy a lot of these movies and I think they have a place. For instance, no one expects James Bond or Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible) to be dimensional.

We expect these guys to have fast cars, cool gadgets, woo beautiful and often dangerous women, and take out the bad guy in new and creative ways. I’m certain¬†Atomic Blonde will deliver the same, because that’s the movie’s goal.

Yet, in my POV, the female action hero who can shoot and fight as well or better than any man has gone from breaking ground (and glass ceilings) and devolved into a die cut trope. In short, this assembly-line character is low-hanging fruit when it comes to storytelling.

I’m sure¬†Atomic Blonde will have all kinds of cool fight scenes and I’m beyond impressed with Charlize Theron and what she did to prepare for the role.¬†Atomic Blonde is groundbreaking for me in that Hollywood cast an over-forty female and not some twenty-something Megan Fox clone.

For that? They get major applause from me.

I know Lorraine Broughton will thrill and electrify me. She will not, however, be my hero which makes me wonder WHY?

Why Wonder Woman is STILL My Hero

One of the many reasons the newest rendition of Wonder Woman had me in tears through most of the movie is the creators ignored the low-hanging fruit and reached higher…MUCH MUCH higher.

We weren’t handed (yet again) what boiled down essentially to a man with girl parts. We had a fully realized and definitively feminine heroine.¬†Additionally, her femininity didn’t “lessen” her.

The story showed us that a woman wasn’t required to become a man in order to be powerful.

THIS is what I feel is a superlative example of a female action hero. Yes, she is amazing with her fighting skills and ability with weapons etc. but the creators didn’t stop there. What made Diana even more powerful (to me) was she possessed innocence and naivete and was motivated by love and compassion not some bitter backstory.

For me, Wonder Woman demonstrated more power in a singular act of undeserved mercy than every Jolie female bad@$$ combined. Being powerful is more than the ability to be violent.

In fact, authentic power is often the opposite.

Back to Midnight, Texas

As mentioned earlier, I enjoyed the pilot and look forward to more episodes, but one scene really rubbed me the wrong way and if the show wants me to root for Olivia, they are off to a bad start. There’s a scene where the band of “supers” for lack of a better word, need to detain protagonist Manfred Bernardo to pepper him with questions when he unexpectedly moves to the town.

Okay, fair enough.

But Manfred is a psychic with the demeanor and physical prowess of a high school English teacher. Why then did Olivia (resident female bad@$$) find it necessary to sucker punch him in the face with brass knuckles to knock him out/detain him?

First of all, no one bothered, I dunno, asking him to come for a chat. Maybe start there? Over some chips and salsa? Even some salsa dosed with Benadryl?

With so many other options, why brass knuckles? Brass knuckles would have crushed his nose and likely cracked orbital sockets and cheekbones. The sheer factual inaccuracy of the results of such a blow irritated me.

Manfred wouldn’t have been simply rendered unconscious, he’d more likely be in surgery to cobble his face back together with wire and bone grafts.

Also, sucker punching a man who’s done nothing wrong (and who’s only been amiable) in the face with brass knuckles was overkill. It was needless and not what truly powerful characters do, especially ones I’m supposed to root for.

Olivia can show off all she wants with throwing knives and shooting arrows indoors and all of her bitchiness and brooding doesn’t make her a better character, it makes her a tiresome trope. And authentic bad@$$es don’t ambush unarmed people who’ve done nothing wrong and assault them.

Though so far I like the story concept and other characters, this gal is off to a real bad start with me.

I dislike Olivia for the same reasons I stopped rooting for Arya Stark (though Game of Thrones is chock full of despicable characters). I was on Arya’s side and could ignore a lot of bad things she did (she was a survivor). I was able to overlook a lot of brutality…until she was needlessly cruel, then? I was done.

In the end, there will always be audiences eager for the emotionless femme fatale who’s as volatile as she is violent. But, I feel there is great opportunity for writers to dig deeper and reach higher and offer us a wider range of female bad@$$es. If we don’t, then we are like painters who only use black paint, and thus are limiting what we can create.

Wonder Woman has shown us there is a middle-ground between the helpless victim and the pointless brute.

For me? I desire to create strong female bad@$$es characters I wouldn’t mind little girls aspiring to be, and I feel we need more of these women. I would want my daughter to be like Wonder Woman. Evelyn Salt? Atomic Blonde?

Um, yeah. No thanks.

What are your thoughts? Do you have mixed feelings about many of the female bad@$$es? I don’t mind them, but come on! Can we get something different? What do you think makes a female character powerful?

Who are your favorites? Did you cry all through Wonder Woman too? I was so elated to see my childhood role model portrayed so brilliantly. And I loved that all the Amazons were different ages, shapes, sizes, races and that’s another post. But WOW!

I love hearing from you! And I am not above bribery to hear your thoughts ūüėÄ .

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

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

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

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

 

Monday we brushed the surface of speculative fiction and why it can be such a powerful and world-changing genre when executed well. In my opinion (based on years of experience with new manuscripts) this genre shares a lot of the same pitfalls as literary/character-driven novels. If we aren’t careful, world-building—while vital—can take over and obscure the human story.

While literary authors don’t face the perils of too many dragons or spaceships, they can run into a similar world-building dilemma with prose and too much inner demon navel-gazing self-exploration. The world-building is “internal” and vital, but the key is to make sure this “inner world” is serving the story not smothering the life out of it.

Though what we are talking about today can be useful for virtually any genre, it plays a special importance in genres that come part and parcel with elements that can easily become distractions.

Lasers, spaceships, magic, demons, technology, kingdom rivalries, portals are necessary for spec fic and fantasy. Yet we are wise to appreciate that these elements, while potentially beautiful, can easily get of control.

Like the wisteria I planted that tried to eat my house.

Just like a mystery must come with a crime and a romance requires an HEA, spec fic and fantasy also possess ingredients fundamental to the very definition of the work. It would be weird to have a science fiction with no “science” or a fantasy with nothing “fantastical.” Our job as the author it to make sure everything harmonizes.

Yes, while we need superlative world-building, WB alone does not a story make. Readers don’t want to hang out on our personal holodeck (or in our Literary Barbie Dream House). They long to be invited along on an adventure, and to become part of that adventure.

Empathy is the mechanism (plug) that connects the readers’ consciousness into our characters (socket) where they experience the raw energy of the stories we tell. Insert plug into couch cushions, small houseplants or mini-blinds and nothing happens aside from looking like an idiot. A socket with no plug serves no purpose and vice versa.

Connect them together?

This is where characterization becomes a game-changer.

When reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, there were a couple of assertions King made that really opened my eyes as to what made the difference between the fun escapist fiction versus the books we read for generations.

Power vs. Resonance

All spec fic and fantasy are about power. Monday we mentioned there are different types of fiction to serve different needs. Some fiction is just mind candy, a place to escape and get away and get some mental R&R away from “adulting” and that is a good thing. We need books like that and readers enjoy them.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian books are a prime example. These are standard sword and sorcery tales and Howard wrote more than fifty of these himself. Other authors added to the trove of stories about Conan.

Yet Conan was a character who always had power, never lost it and only wielded it. In King’s words, these were “tales of power for the powerless” which explains why I loved books like these so much as a geeky teen (definition of “powerless”).

According to King (and I concur), the great fantasy fiction (and spec fic) revolves around those who find power at great cost or who have power and lose it tragically. This is the crossroad where tales of Conan and the legends of King Arthur part ways.

When we look at Lord of the Rings the Hobbits are given what they always longed for. They wanted adventure and they learned that the smallest of all can make the largest of difference. This quest reveals strengths and abilities they were unaware they possessed. They come to learn they can fight in battle, brave trolls and orcs and giant spiders and ride horseback while battling vast armies.

They learn they are smarter, braver, tougher and stronger than they dreamed possible. That of all the races, they alone could resist the temptation of Sauron’s Ring of Power, rendering them the only ones capable of destroying it and thus saving Middle Earth.

Yet there is a heavy price.

Innocence.

Yes, they save the Shire, but can never return to it. Not really.

We witness this in one of the final scenes of Return of the King. We see our band of Hobbits in the same pub and while the other Hobbits they saved are drinking and dancing and laughing, our party sits quiet, somber, broken and grieving far too much death and loss.

They’re sharing more than a round of pints. They share a dark suffering reflected back in each others eyes and wounds that never will fully heal.¬†They will never be the same.

Great power has been granted…but at tremendous cost.

Same thing in horror. In Stephen King’s¬†It the children (even as adults) refer to themselves as “The Losers Club” because they are the outcasts of Derry: the fat kid, the boy with the stutter, the geeky class clown, the “white trash” tomboy girl, the Jew, the black kid, and the mama’s boy hypochondriac. The least likely to destroy a creature as old as time are the ones who discover they’re the only ones who can defeat it.

But, again this power comes with tremendous sacrifice and at great cost. They didn’t ask to be heroes but rose to the call knowing what it would mean.

Did We Mention the Supers?

Spec fic also covers super heroes, super villains, etc. The comic world is all spec fic. Yet, if we look at all the great superhero comics and movies, we see a similar pattern. How many superheroes/super-villains have been created over the past several decades, yet of that number, how many endured? Or have been elevated to modern legends?

Arm Fall-Off Boy, Color Kid, Skateman, Vibe, and no I am not kidding Squirrel Girl all made it into the comic world only to exit just as readily. All of these superheroes failed for a number of reasons beyond being stupid ideas to begin with.

The creators became too fixated on a “different superpower” and so I guess that is how one comes up with a Vietnam veteran who fights crime on roller skates or an even more lame@$$ superpower of being able to…change the color of things.

*scratches head*

Super powers were not enough to make these characters into super heroes and thus they were quickly (and eagerly) forgotten.

As I hear it Arm Fall-Off Boy is serving time in Pensacola for disability fraud, Vibe was sued for sexual harassment, and Squirrel Girl lives in NYC near Central Park with her life partner Color Kid who found his true calling…interior design. Skateman was unavailable for comment.

All kidding aside, super powers alone were never enough to elevate these “characters” into the staple heroes/anti-heroes/villains we know and love even today. There had to be resonance and resonance comes from what King described…those who find power at great cost or who have power and lose it tragically.

Resonance is why we remember Batman, Spiderman, Mr. Freeze, Harley, Wonder Woman, Two Face, Joker, and Captain America and why they’ve been reinvented time and time again.

Resonance is why audiences cheer for anti-heroes like Deadpool, The Punisher and Spawn. Resonance is the difference between the mundane and the memorable and resonance comes only with creating dimensional characters with human flaws and emotions.

What are your thoughts? I always had a fondness for villains with tragic backstory. Mr. Freeze? *clutches chest* What resonates with you? What characters and stories connected to you? What stories, movies, television shows fell flat and why? I am no comic expert, but which ones were your favorites and why?

I love hearing from you! And I am not above bribery to hear your thoughts ūüėÄ .

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

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

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