Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Categorized: Character

Oh, and it looks like we’re in Medieval England…again…

I’m Kim Alexander back to talk about fantasy world-building. This time I’m looking at those writers who make every heroine in their stories a—wait for it—princess.

This is different from Chosen One Syndrome, because when it comes down to it, every protagonist is a chosen one; you’ve chosen to write about them. In this installment, I’ll be talking about working for a living. (More about Chosen One Syndrome in an upcoming blog post!)

When we create fantasy lands like, oh, “Gondfloria” (pop. 2 mill. unicorns), it’s easy to use the default: faux medieval Europe. If we have a bunch of forbidding, craggy, windswept mountains with impenetrable fortresses (I always feel like it should be ‘fortressi’ even though I know better) atop them, the next thing we’re gonna do is make our main character a princess. (Or a prince, I don’t know your life.)

I’m here to suggest to be brave and try something else. I’m not saying we have to make our enchanted land of Gondfloria into an Arctic survivalist encampment. But, we need to think a little bit outside the box…okay, dungeon, especially if the dungeon is full of Northern European royalty.

(Full disclosure: the main character of my novel, The Sand Prince, is – as the title suggests – a prince. But I hasten to add that he’s astonishingly bad at it.)

Sometimes it seems like every fantasy novel I pick up is crewed by the same group:

  • The sullen yet hot warrior who is certainly hiding a secret (it probably has to do with sex)
  • The sassy thief
  • The wise elder (also a thief, possibly retiring, clearly not going to make it to the sequel)
  • And of course our hero, the member of nobility who under the cover of darkness runs with a bad crowd because Daddy Issues.

Any of them may be masquerading as the opposite gender because it’s…daring. My money is on the sassy thief.

Don’t any of these people have jobs? And no, I’m not counting ‘thief’ as a job. You can’t put it on a resume unless you’re actually applying to be a thief.

Even if we’ve decided it’s written in stone that Gondfloria has forests and castles and bears, we can still explore the lives of people living there without falling back on ‘princess’ or ‘thief.’

Here are a few suggestions, on the house: bear wrangler, bee keeper, lute carver, magical bee keeper (the bees, not the person), cook, fixer for the local mob boss, mob boss, magical bee keeper (the person, not the bees – gods, keep up!), innkeeper, wench (if you have an inn, you’ve got to have a wench; I don’t make the rules), bard, dog boy, horse girl, and then way down at the bottom, thief, and finally, princess. You’re welcome.

Look, we want our story to stand out in the enormous ocean of similarly themed and titled books. We can do that by either taping a $20 bill to the inside cover of each and every one…or by making it unique.

I look forward to reading your take on a hot yet sullen magical bee keeper who lives in the misty woods of Gondfloira. Feel free to get on your magical sassy pants and sprinkle some flash fiction in the comments. Also any suggestion for other cool roles (characters) who’ve been forgotten, overlooked, or given little or no love. Maybe one not yet thought about?

Oooooh, extra XP points!

Unicorn trainers? Those suckers are magical so surely they could be house-trained right? Dude in charge of the “Pigeon Messaging Service” that later was forced into rebranding and a name change because PMS a really bad name for a business in communication (one not involving knives and chocolate). Use your imagination! ALSO!

Are you tired of ye same olde same olde? Losing that loving feeling for fantasy because, when it’s all the same, that is well, to be blunt, the OPPOSITE of fantasy?

Next time: The Chosen One, or, It is foretold that you and you alone will fix this coffee maker and save mornings for all of Gondfloria!

***

I love hearing from you!

For the month of September, 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).

NEW CLASSES FOR SEPTEMBER AND MORE!

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, award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson, and Kim Alexander, former host of Sirius XM’s Book Radio. So click on a tile and sign up!

(If you are getting this via email, open the blog post to see all the options and sign up!)

Villains & Anti-Heroes: The Characters We Love and Hate. $45.00 USD. Tuesday, September 12, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Hooked: Catching Readers in the First Five Pages. $40.00 USD. Thursday, September 14, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Turn Your Passion Into A Business: Making Money As A Writer. $40.00 USD. Monday, September 25, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Guilty Pleasures: Writing Suspense, Thrillers, and Crime. Tuesday, September 26, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Outside the Box: How to Read More, Write Less, and Up Your Fiction Game. Friday, September 29, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

What makes the difference between a meh novel and one we fall head over heels in love with regardless of genre? Good question and it sure would make our job easier if there existed one answer.

Though there isn’t one answer there’s a list of pretty good answers, thus for this post and the sake of brevity, we’ll pick one. Today, I posit that the reader, upon page one, is testing a potential relationship. Kinda like dating.

We (readers) BOND to the great stories much the same way we bond in human relationships. Think about it.

We even admit to this all the time without truly noting what we’re saying, “OMG, I fell in LOVE with that book! I LOVE that character!” etc.

When we authors roll with this metaphor, our job as storytellers becomes far simpler (though simple and easy are not the same thing).

Attraction

I teach a class called Hooked–Your First Five Pages (and offering it again) because those initial pages are critical. It’s like meeting a member of the opposite sex and noticing something that makes our heart flutter, that propels a longing to know more.

A vast majority of relationships start with this kind of heart-fluttering spark, though granted there are relationships where there was nothing/nada in the beginning, and, over time, something surfaced.

This happens in fiction though it’s rare. Every person who has ever recommended Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to me has told me essentially the same thing, “Oh the first hundred pages will bore the paint off the walls, but if you get past that….it’s AWESOME.”

Ok. I’m good, thanks. Not picking on this book, but just not my beer. Sorry.

I’m glad he has a great personality…. *looks for exit*

OPW versus NPW

Though not all relationships begin with an instant spark, it’s pretty amazing to have (and ideal, too). In fiction it is no longer optional. In a what I call the NPW (New Publishing World) we no longer have the luxuries of the OPW (Old Publishing World).

In the OPW, only so many authors were ever published. Discoverability wasn’t a nightmare. The competition was finite.

In the NPW? We gotta have that love-at-first-sight or the browsing reader will simply pass after glancing at the sample pages and move on until something sparks.

Story IS Seduction

All righty, so sparks are great but not nearly enough if nothing catches fire. Before Hubby, I had more than my fair share of bad dates which I want to use for the purposes of illustration.

Nothing Ned

When I was 20 a ridiculously hot Marine asked me out and he wasn’t gorgeous…he was breathtaking. Just looking at him made my knees weak…and then I went out with him.

I’m not picking on Marines because I know plenty who are brilliant, but this young man was not one of them. Though I think he was likely the most handsome man who’d ever asked me out, it was one of the most painful dates of my life. Agonizing might be a better word, namely because I find intellect attractive and this guy was about as smart as a tomato plant.

During the meal, I found myself wondering if he’d start leaning toward the light, postulating he might be able to photosynthesize his own food. Was the steak he ordered even necessary? 

Yes, I know. Not a very nice thing to think but I was only twenty. Gimme a break!

And maybe he wasn’t dumb and I simply assumed this because I was young and dumb, myself. Perhaps he was nervous or shy. But what killed the spark was he was a blank, a Nothing Ned. He parted with nothing of his own.

Me: *eagerly smiling* So, you like to mountain bike?

Him: *shrugs* Not really.

Me: *still perky* Okay, you have hobbies?

Him: *makes face* Nah. Not so much.

Me: *dying a little inside* Where are you from?

Him: *chews* Texas.

Me: *feeling the tailspin, reaching for anything* What music do you like?

Him: *butters more bread* I dunno. Really don’t listen to music.

Me: *wanting to commit Seppuku with sorbet spoon* So what do you do?

Him: *shrugs again* A lot of things.

Now maybe this guy was a genius and a layered and dimensional human being with loads of cool hobbies we could have bonded over. But, because on this ONE date he parted with NOTHING of himself, he came across as boring, dull, and frankly dull-witted.

Was he? No idea.

I didn’t have the bandwidth to endure another painful evening like that to find out. The spark of his looks were enough to get me to dinner, but nothing ignited because he refused to part with anything personal to act as tinder to make use of the spark.

Then we have the other kind of date. Again, really attractive guy, enough to spark a date and by the end of the evening…I wanted to throw myself out of a moving car.

Let’s meet…

Over-Sharing Oliver

Over-Sharing Oliver was the opposite of Nothing Ned and he spent hours using dinner as his personal confessional/therapy session relaying in vivid detail everything that had happened to him from childhood, the deets of his nasty divorce and why he hates and doesn’t trust women (but thinks I might be different—thanks) and on and on about himself.

HIS likes, accomplishments, job, hobbies, interests, opinions and thirty minutes into this ordeal I seriously wondered why the heck I was even THERE.

I felt like a prop whose sole purpose was so he didn’t look stupid eating at a restaurant and talking to himself (though he was essentially doing just that).

The Story as Romance

When we create our characters we must be vigilant to avoid the polar opposite ends of the backstory spectrum, and it IS a balancing act.

On one side the character can be a Nothing Ned. We fail to explore and articulate the backstory of WHO this character is and why he/she is a certain way. How do they see their world? Why do they act/react the way they do?

Dramatic tension cannot exist in a vacuum. There is nothing to emotionally ignite the relationship between the reader and our story.

Conversely, when we create the backstory, it doesn’t belong vomited on the reader all at once like Over-Sharing Oliver. As we talked about on Tuesday, mystery is a good thing. It keeps readers turning pages.

There is a reason the final big ending of a novel is called the climax *wink, wink, nudge, nudge*.

The reader and story bond in relationship that grows and intensifies with every struggle, setback and finally a triumph (climax)…which can be a betrayal (tosses book across room), an unsatisfying letdown (no more books by THAT gal), satisfying (cool, maybe get his next book), or a mind-blowing transcendent experience (in love, committed forever and no author does it better).

How any novel ends largely depends on the writer’s skills at wooing the reader then making them see stars 😉 . They will love YOU forever, eternally devoted. Frankly that is what we ALL want, readers and authors.

Learning to create fascinating and layered backstories is a great start, and USA Today BSA Cait Reynolds has a class on that tonight which I strongly recommend. Cait is a fantastic instructor.

Additionally, the worlds we create can in and of themselves become like a character where readers fall goofy in love because they ADORE that world (um…Cosplay anyone?).

This is why we are also offering world-building classes, because it involves so much more than one might think. Many of the MS I edit really are sad regurgitations of other worlds by other authors or, as in the case of Independence Day Resurgence a boring and bizarre cobbling of other worlds.

Hollywood: Hey, let’s retread Independence Day, slap on some Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and a smidge of Call of Duty Infinite Warfare. It will be awesome!

…..yeah NO.

Instead our goal is to learn to create something grounded in familiar mythos, yet wholly ours and unique and captivating. Y’all can also feel free to peruse the archives of this blog for all kinds of free posts on character, backstory and world-building.

Either way, I want y’all to succeed and to create the stories we (readers) LOVE. I want that when we think of your novel we then blather on and on like we would over some guy/gal we had a mad-stupid crush on.

What are your thoughts? Can you relate to the horrible date? The one you believed you’d enjoy and ended up only wanting to chew off your leg to escape? What about stories? What stories captivated you instantly and you’re mad in love to this day? Why?

I love hearing from you!

For the month of September, 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).

NEW CLASSES FOR SEPTEMBER AND MORE!

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, award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson, and Kim Alexander, former host of Sirius XM’s Book Radio. So click on a tile and sign up!

Villains & Anti-Heroes: The Characters We Love and Hate. $45.00 USD. Tuesday, September 12, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Hooked: Catching Readers in the First Five Pages. $40.00 USD. Thursday, September 14, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Turn Your Passion Into A Business: Making Money As A Writer. $40.00 USD. Monday, September 25, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Guilty Pleasures: Writing Suspense, Thrillers, and Crime. Tuesday, September 26, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Outside the Box: How to Read More, Write Less, and Up Your Fiction Game. Friday, September 29, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

It’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday, which means it’s me, Cait Reynolds, coming to you with special guest blogger Lisa Hall-Wilson. It’s a good thing I have a co-blogger today, because I’m on day 14 of a cold and feel like lukewarm coffee – just ugh and barely effective.

Denny Basenji doesn’t like it when I sneeze, so he spends most of his time hiding in his blanket fort.

Denny: Why get a cave bed when you can have your mama custom-drape a blanket fort for you?

If I had the energy, I’d actually be really excited about today’s guest blog post because Lisa and I are also teaching a workshop on this topic in September. We are going to be talking about how to create strong, authentic female characters in fiction. Lisa is specifically focusing on how to avoid extremes, tropes, and types. I will be talking about how to TRULY get into the mindset of historical female characters and what defines strong for them (which is going to be another blog post).

Okay, over to Lisa!

Character, not caricature.

Lisa here! Portraying strong women authentically is tricky. Most of the time, I find strong female characters are caricatures of an extreme: the dim-witted blond, the stock-in-trade man with boobs, the femme fatale. These are stereotypes sure, but what they really are is extreme examples of real life. Can you find an example from history of a female warrior in a male-dominated society – sure, but she’s an outlier. If you want to write an outlier character that’s fine, but let the traits that make her an outlier be the source of her strength not her ability to wield a sword.

Let’s look at a real-world example, Malala Yousafzai. She’s a strong woman, but is she strong because she survived a bullet wound to the head? Yes, partly, but moreso she’s strong because of the choices that led to her being targeted, and the friends and family who empowered her to follow her heart.

Are you able to portray women without these extremes that’s both likable (or at least worthy of cheering for) and surprises readers? That’s the tricky part.

Brave, not dumb.

I love to study Amazons, that mythical race of female warriors written of by the Greeks. The truth is that Amazons were a cautionary tale for their times. This is what might happen if women could make their own decisions about marriage, family, war or the economy. Exotic? Dangerous? Lust-worthy? Absolutely. But in nearly every Greek tale, the Amazons inevitably rush headlong into battle over pride or vanity and are overwhelmingly outnumbered against a professional army. That’s not heroic, it’s stupid. Most women, especially strong women, are not stupid.

 

The danger with the extremes is that characters become one-dimensional. The only reason that character exists is because the hero needs a woman to encourage him. You have no story-based reason for making that character female other than you liked that idea, needed a victim to motivate a male character to act, a reason to insert sex, etc. There was nothing about being female that placed obstacles in her path or helped that character succeed.

Ever did that experiment where you write on a coffee filter with a black marker, get the filter wet and see the variety of colors that went into making black? Strength is like the colors that make up that black marker. Strength is not one thing or act, just like black is not a primary color, but it’s your job as the writer to show all the different colors that make up that character’s strength.

Truth is a subtle strength.

Let’s look at Veronica Roth’s Tris. One of the first things we learn about her is that she chooses to leave Abnegation and join Dauntless because she knows herself and must be true to that. She makes that choice knowing what some of the consequences will be. That’s strength. There are a lot of natural obstacles in her way (one of them being female without any athletic training competing against guys), but she’s not afraid to make friends or find an ally. Being a lone wolf can represent strength but it’s also a self-protection mechanism rooted in fear.

I love 100. I know a lot of people point to Clarke as a strong character, but personally I’m more drawn to Octavia and Raven. These are girls who have fought their way to influence in a variety of ways and through painful personal sacrifices. We’ve seen them as outliers and leaders, run from pain, lash out in anger, deny their own desires, and escape from life. They are intelligent, courageous, fighters, who love, grieve, chase, hate, forgive – the whole spectrum. And each time they get knocked down, they blunder and stumble, but then they get stronger. That’s real life.

Female characters need to be strong, but they need to be real, varied, unique, and as individual as possible.

Want to get more in depth?

Check out the workshop that Lisa and I are offering in September!

Now and Then: Strong Female Characters in Historical and Contemporary Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds and Lisa Hall-Wilson

Price: $70.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

WhenSaturday, September 9, 2017. “Historical not Hysterical” 11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. EST. “Beyond Lipstick and Swords” 2:00-4:00 p.m. EST


From fainting virgins to sexually-empowered widows, the ‘historical heroine’ attempts to accomplish the near-impossible: capture the sensibility and reality of the times while keeping the heroine relatable to modern readers.

Until we get time machines, we have to rely on research and our imaginations in order to create authentic, sympathetic historical heroines. The amount of research required can seem daunting, but this class is designed to give you a ‘jump start’ with some basic facts, tricks for getting into your heroine’s head, and hints on how to research efficiently and with confidence.

This class will cover the following topics – and much more:

  • Vital statistics: how to determine the correct age for your female character based on time period;
  • The Three E’s: Education, Entertainment, and Etiquette;
  • Dressing the part: how to capture the feel of an era’s fashions without Mary Sue shopping sprees;
  • Housekeeping from princesses to privy pots;
  • The Three F’s: Faith, Fierceness, and Fiancés. What your female character believes is her destiny and what actually is her destiny;
  • Tips and tricks for quick research.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

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

 


Want to create strong female characters with depth and vitality but avoid clichés and tired tropes? This class will explore the pitfalls and old ruts writers fall into when creating strong female characters, and what to strive for instead. Because what if your character doesn’t wield a sword or own a power suit – are they still strong?

Learn what’s missing from many depictions of strong female characters and how to write them in a realistic way even if you’re writing fantasy! Joss Whedon isn’t the only one who can write strong female characters – and Wonder Woman isn’t the only type of strong female character you can write.

Some of what you’ll learn:

  • What makes women strong;
  • Making female warriors believable;
  • Shaping societal forces;
  • Women are not men;
  • Women in community;
  • Character agency.

Lisa Hall-Wilson is an award-winning journalist and novelist, and writing teacher. She grew up watching and reading about women like Wonder Woman, Princess Allura, Jo March, She-Ra, Catherine Chandler, Jessica Fletcher, and other less notable characters. After realizing she was repeating all of the tired tropes and stereotypes she hated, Lisa spent months studying strong female characters and learning what makes them authentic and real.

How This Class Works…

After registering, you’ll be sent an email confirmation which will provide you with login information for the online classroom we’ll be using. This class will be recorded so if you’re not able to make it in person you’ll have the recording within two or three days. Come prepared with a sense of humor and a notepad. Yes, this class will be recorded if you can’t make it live, but you want to be there!

About the Instructor

Lisa Hall-Wilson is an Award-Winning Author and Journalist and she LOVES to mentor writers. She’s been a freelance writer for ten years turning her love of words into an income. Her passion is to help beginning writers hone their skills and become published storytellers, so look for her classes to go beyond basics and challenge you.

 

NEW CLASSES FOR SEPTEMBER AND MORE!

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, award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson, and Kim Alexander, former host of Sirius XM’s Book Radio. So click on a tile and sign up!

Villains & Anti-Heroes: The Characters We Love and Hate. $45.00 USD. Tuesday, September 12, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Hooked: Catching Readers in the First Five Pages. $40.00 USD. Thursday, September 14, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Turn Your Passion Into A Business: Making Money As A Writer. $40.00 USD. Monday, September 25, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Guilty Pleasures: Writing Suspense, Thrillers, and Crime. Tuesday, September 26, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Outside the Box: How to Read More, Write Less, and Up Your Fiction Game. Friday, September 29, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

 

It’s back to school for everyone – not just kids. Vacation’s over. Fun’s over…or maybe the fun is just beginning.

This fall, W.A.N.A. is back with new classes, new instructors, and lots of exciting announcements coming up. Bookmark W.A.N.A. and make sure to subscribe to my blog to stay up-to-date with all the news!

Don’t forget to hop on over to the W.A.N.A. Tribe to join in our daily writing sprints in the chat room! The Tribe is a thriving community, and we are planning on some awesome upgrades to the entire Tribe experience this fall.

NEW CLASSES FOR SEPTEMBER 2017

Villains & Anti-Heroes: The Characters We Love and Hate. $45.00 USD. Tuesday, September 12, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Hooked: Catching Readers in the First Five Pages. $40.00 USD. Thursday, September 14, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Turn Your Passion Into A Business: Making Money As A Writer. $40.00 USD. Monday, September 25, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Guilty Pleasures: Writing Suspense, Thrillers, and Crime. Tuesday, September 26, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Outside the Box: How to Read More, Write Less, and Up Your Fiction Game. Friday, September 29, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

 

 

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

How can we learn and do better?

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

We MUST Go Against Our Nature

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

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

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

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

#1—We Have Decoration Devoid of Substance

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

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

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

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

PROBLEMS are the “cake” of story.

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

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

#2—We Have No Plot

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

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

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

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

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

#3—We Have No Clear Plot Goal

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

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

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

Besides that is the wrong question entirely.

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

For that to happen? We need a PLOT PROBLEM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#4—Too MUCH SUGAR

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

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

Description not friction. No friction? No traction.

#5—We’re Making it TOO Easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#6—We Forgot to Turn on the Heat

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

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

I replied: NOOOOOOOOOOO!

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

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

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

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

NOW we have a story 😉 .

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

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

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

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

I love hearing from you!

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

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

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

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

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

Basically, all the weird stuff.

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

In this class we will cover:

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

All classes come with a FREE recording!

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

Blurb - Cait Reynolds
BLURB BOSS: Writing Blurbs that SELL BOOKS. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 10, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
BRAND BOSS! When Your Name Alone Can Sell. $45 USD. Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
PLOT BOSS: Writing novels readers want to buy! $40 USD. Thurs., Nov. 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Bad Boys. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!