Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

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 😀 .

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!

Malpractice: Getting Medical Facts Right in Fiction. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST.
OMG! Like, How to Write On Fleek YA. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 23, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here). $45.00 USD. Wednesday, August 30, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Class Title: Beyond Lipstick and Swords: Creating Strong Female Characters. $40.00 USD. Saturday, September 9, 2017. 2:00-4:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

 

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 😀 .

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!

Malpractice: Getting Medical Facts Right in Fiction. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST.
OMG! Like, How to Write On Fleek YA. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 23, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here). $45.00 USD. Wednesday, August 30, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Class Title: Beyond Lipstick and Swords: Creating Strong Female Characters. $40.00 USD. Saturday, September 9, 2017. 2:00-4:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

 

OhmygoshitisWednesdayandthatmeansitistimeforMEEEEE!!!!! In other words, it’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday with me, Cait Reynolds. Today, I’m going to talk about the fact that there is nothing new under the sun.

And, by that, I mean that every variation of story has been told before. Every culture from every time period has its version of Cinderella, its Aladdin or Jack, its greedy kings and tricky old witches. No matter how many magical mice, talking mirrors, or transportation-challenged pumpkins dress up the tale, every story has at its heart the most basic, most fundamental truths about the human condition and human relationships.

Denny Basenji doing his imitation of a wise crone. His cryptic advice to the hero/heroine: “Only peanut butter can help you now.”

Myths and fairytales appeal to our innocence, our belief in justice, and our sense of history. The fact that most of them have happy endings doesn’t hurt, either. The past two years have seen a kind of renaissance in retellings and modern interpretations of these classic stories. A handful have been very well done. The rest have been inconsistent efforts that show very little thought and research has been put into understanding the nature of both mythology and fairytales and how to translate them into contemporary settings.

Celebrity Death Match: Myths vs. Fairytales

So, is there a difference between the two?

Absolutely, and it goes beyond their definitions. But, let’s start with definitions for the sake of clarity.

From merriam-webster.com:

Fairytale:

  • a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (such as fairies, wizards, and goblins)
  • a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending

Myth

  • a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon
  • parable, allegory
  • a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone

Here are some other differences between fairytales and myths:

  • Myths are not obligated to have a happy ending;
  • Fairytales do not have to have a moral or philosophical agenda;
  • Myths are often closely tied to world creation stories, religion, and attempts to explain natural phenomenon prior to scientific understanding;
  • It is understood that fairytales have never been believed to be real, whereas myths were frequently accepted as fact.

There are more differences and finer distinctions, but I’ll just add in one more. You can always tell it’s a real fairytale because people/animals/magical creatures are cheerful and sing when doing housework.

Research is a Myth…or is it a Fairytale?

Okay, so say we have this great idea retelling ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ We’ve seen the Disney movies, and we are happily humming ‘Be our Guest’ as we open the blank Word document. We know the story cold, and we may or may not have a picture of Luke Evans as Gaston tucked away on Pinterest.

We are ready to start writing. Except, we aren’t.

If all we are doing is using the movie as our guide, we have missed out on the fact that the historical fairytale has variations that include a father who was a merchant, a sudden loss of fortune, two wicked sisters, and a pretty sharp lesson about the costs of indecision and not keeping your word. If we haven’t done any research, we wouldn’t know that the the fairytale actually has origins (at least in Western culture) in the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, or that another lesser-known fairytale – ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’ – spun out from that myth.

It may seem silly to do research on something that is fundamentally untrue and is by nature fluid and adaptable to time period and culture. Yet, without knowing about the people who wrote the stories, the system of beliefs that the myths came from, and the history of the time when a particular variation was recorded, we are losing out on a chance to delve into subtleties, textures, interpretations, and details that take a retelling from blasé to blazing.

One of the topics I cover in my Once Upon a Plot class is how to go about researching a myth or fairytale, what to pursue, what to set aside, and how to analyze the story in a more complex, contextual way.

World-Building for ‘Then’ and ‘Now’

When we do a retelling, one of the first things we have to decide is the setting. Will it be contemporary? Will it be historical? Will it be futuristic, steampunk, or some medieval-ish time?

This impacts what characters we decide to use, the deeper intricacies and devices of the plot, and the way we represent significant objects from the myth or fairytale (is that a pumpkin or a Porsche?). This is also, sadly, where most writers tend to take short-cuts. They use the generic ‘faux-medieval’ setting that is a haphazard mishmash of culture, technology, and clothing, or they set the tale in today’s world, not really thinking through the implications for characters, decisions, and objects.

A lot of writers use the ‘timeless’ setting in order to avoid doing historical research or any real world-building. Ideas for behavior, costumes, servants, food, castles come from whatever historical drama is on at the time (I’m looking at you, ‘Reign,’ ‘The Tudors,’ ‘The White Queen,’ and ‘The Borgias’). While those medieval-renaissance-ish shows do provide a lot of striking visuals and demonstrate how to make archaic-sounding dialogue accessible to modern listeners/readers, they are NOT to be used for world-building. Ever.

Even for fairytales and myths.

As writers, we are responsible for creating our own worlds, and it is our obligation to the reader to provide a setting that is detailed, well thought-out, and consistent.

Here are just a few of the questions writers should ask when picking a ‘timeless’ setting:

  • What is the level of technology, industry, medicine, and transportation?
  • What is the political structure of the ‘kingdom’?
  • What kind of social mobility or stratification exists within the ‘kingdom’?
  • What is the kingdom’s primary religion? Are there secondary religions? Competing or conflicting faiths? Holidays and celebrations?
  • What is the geography, geology, and climate?
  • What is the overall cultural feel (i.e. generic British, generic Scandinavian, generic Central European, generic Mediterranean?)

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for a timeless setting. If we choose a contemporary setting, that brings a whole other set of issues into consideration, including normalizing any magical abilities within a greater social context, secrets vs. open practices, modern equivalents of historical objects or accessories, and how to maintain a character’s original attitude, purpose, and decisions while grounding him or her realistically in the here-and-now.

Bibbity Bobbity BOOYAH

You guessed it. I’m teaching a class on this very topic. All the details below!

Once Upon a Plot: Retelling Myths & Fairytales

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45 USD Standard

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: WEDNESDAY, August 9, 2017, 7:00 p.m. EST – 9:00 p.m. EST

Myths and fairytales are as fundamental to human existence as communication itself. We grow up hearing these stories, being formed by them, and often rebelling against them.

One of the hottest trends in publishing right now is bringing these stories back and giving them new life with creative interpretations and retellings. Done right, a retelling can capture the public imagination, give us new insights into our society and ourselves, and sweep us away to a time and place where everything, including justice and happy endings, is possible.

Done wrong? A retelling is nothing more than a yawn-worthy yarn full of two-dimensional characters floundering through an unremarkable story with a bland, generic setting.

This class will cover a wide range of topics, including:

  • How to research a myth or fairytale, from origins to variations;
  • How to analyze in order to develop a deeper, richer understanding of the stories;
  • How to pick out the key elements, from characters and attitudes, to objects and settings;
  • Creating contemporary settings for retellings that are accurate, believable, and flexible enough to accommodate ‘magic’;
  • Creating ‘timeless’ settings that are unique, consistent, and immersive.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

GOLD PACKAGE

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus one hour of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story.

PLATINUM PACKAGE

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus two hours of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story and bonus worksheets. These worksheets will efficiently guide you through in-depth world-building and research, providing you with consistency for your writing and an excellent reference/style sheet for your editor and proofreader.

REGISTER NOW!

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. 

 

 

****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! So scroll down and sign up!

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).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

 

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World August 11th $45 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Baby It’s Hot in Here—Writing Erotica & High Heat Sex Scenes August 4th $45 General/ $90 GOLD/$150 Platinum

Classes with MOI!

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Elements of Literary—How to Write Character-Driven Stories August 3rd $40

Beyond Planet X, Monsters & Chainsaws–Mastering Speculative Fiction August 10th $35

Classes with Award-Winning Author Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Method Acting for Writers—How to Write Deep POV August 1st $85 (two-week intensive class & lifetime access)

Beyond Lipstick & Swords—Writing Strong Female Characters September 9th $40

On Friday, we explored how shame is the beating heart of great fiction, how probing the shadow sides of human nature is what can separate the mundane from the magnificent.

All fiction has its place. Some fiction is purely fun and escape and the world needs more fun and feel good. Certain books are simply a holodeck to get away from the mundanities of life, the overwhelming pressures of being an adult (kids, laundry, bills, car repairs). They serve as a place of rest and we all could use more of that!

But that isn’t all fiction.

Many writers (myself included) desire to go far deeper with our fiction, explore wounds and human issues, poke and prod at larger social dilemmas using the narrative form to expose that which is diseased and show it can be overcome. Speculative fiction is an excellent outlet for this. This genre offers a myriad of ways to help us mere humans face all the stuff we fear the most.

I am breaking out of my comfort zone and now offering new classes specifically for the genres I love and read the most. In August I have a class on Speculative Fiction and one on Character-Driven Stories (which includes but is not limited to literary fiction and can greatly enhance genre fiction) before I leave for New Zealand to keynote.

Why did I pick these two to start with? These are my favorite kinds of books to read, which means I’ve read a lot of these kinds of stories.  I also find it fascinating how (believe it or not) great speculative fiction has a lot more in common with literary than one might believe.

What is Speculative Fiction?

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.

(And forgive me because today we are using seriously broad strokes.)

But what makes the difference between the laughable 1950s science fiction matinees and the long-forgotten pulp fiction versus the works of Philip K.Dick? What makes The Road literature even though it’s a post-apocalyptic novella? Why is Heart-Shaped Box or Wool so deeply disturbing and simultaneously resonant?

Why do star-packed big-budget films like Jupiter Ascending fizzle? Yet Blade Runner is a science fiction staple worthy of being remade for the newest generations to enjoy?

Plot

It’s easy to dismiss speculative fiction as escapist fluff and some of it is. But, when we look to the great speculative fiction, we see the authors are disguising explosive social commentary within narrative so it can be viewed and experienced behind the safety-glass/containment field of story.

By using story, we writers place the reader into this world then (hopefully) generate empathy that is impossible to create any other way. I’ve seen the movie I, Robot countless times and I bawl EVERY time during this scene.

Yeah this is me…

Stepford Wives was a commentary on the women’s liberation movement. Animal Farm was a treatise on socialism and the dangers of groupthink. The peril that comes with handing over too much power to those who claim to have noble and benevolent intentions without asking the hard questions.

Brave New World was Huxley’s stab at a culture propelled by temporary highs, unlimited choices and instant gratification while rejecting that which endured (love, family, marriage), because that which lasted required time, sacrifice and work. He showed us an eerily accurate picture of what society could become if we were not vigilant…and is now probably rolling in his grave.

*Makes note to write story about Huxley haunting Instagram*

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was Philip K. Dick’s commentary on artificial intelligence and just because we can play God, should we? What sort of moral implications are involved? These are issues we are now facing for real, that are no longer fiction and we are being tasked with the tough questions.

Is it wise to create and sell sex robots that come with a “frigid” setting? What happens when we extend the logic of this? Blade Runner. We get Blade Runner. Also a bizarre escalation/reinvention of the previously mentioned Stepford Wives.

All these great science breakthroughs that float across our newsfeed are now fertile ground for new and possibly even better stories that prod the science with ethical dilemmas.

We show the world it’s upside down and maybe even ways to right it.

I believe that the great speculative fiction writers have always been the conscience of culture, the voice that whispers things like, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” Or, “This really is a big deal and can go ugly really easily.”

Horror does a lot of that as well. Good horror writers tap into the subconscious angst and gives it a face. What happens when society is allowed to continue to devalue human life? When mobs are handed permission to call the shots? Let’s chat about this after watching The Purge.

To Make it BIGGER, Make it Smaller

When we care about everything, we care about nothing. Additionally, the human mind can’t truly grasp the loss of a billion lives. It doesn’t resonate because it can’t compute.

Thus the great spec-fic plots make the big small. We tell a small story of one person or a group of people as it plays out on the far larger stage. World War Z anyone?

This is why so many Hollywood movies about asteroids hitting the planet fizzle while The Road simply guts us.

Not All Big Stories are Big

Sometimes speculative fiction isn’t addressing something big, rather it dives into the intimate and deeply personal. Heart-Shaped Box is about a vengeful ghost out to destroy an aging rock star and anyone he loves. While the supernatural elements are terrifying, what is so beautiful and moving about this story is how the characters are forced to face and conquer inner demons they would have been happy to bury if not running for their lives.

The human story is what elevates this from a forgettable scary book into a work that prods at the deep dark places of the characters (and by extension the reader).

Character

Writing speculative fiction is really tough. It has a lot in common with literary in that it can turn preachy or fall flat so easily. Too many writers get fixated on world-building, when world-building is backdrop and can never substitute for story.

Spec-fic is tough and I swear it is the souffle of fiction. If we aren’t careful and look away one second? Yeah.

Plot of course matters in that we need a core story problem to drive the story, but characters are vastly important (possibly even more important). We must develop multi-dimensional characters with flaws and problems to set on this adventure because gizmos, gadgets, spaceships, magic, chainsaws, gore and ghosts alone are not a story.

We don’t need a bigger asteroid…we need a better story. Story is what is going to rattle the cage, not the two-ton spider. More blood or teeth won’t scare us and won’t change us.

In a world where we are overwhelmed with doom and gloom, where any debate on-line easily devolves into ranting, I think spec-fic is more important than ever in human history. Story is the place where the armor goes off and the heart is exposed and then able to be changed, fixed, remolded, and softened.

What are your thoughts? Do you love horror? Dystopian? Science fiction? What are your favorites? I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU! What makes spec-fic great? Or fall flat? What are your pet peeves?

I love speculative fiction, even though it took about 4 years to figure out what other writers meant by “speculative fiction.” I am a horror and science fiction JUNKIE. And I love the good stuff, the stories that poke and prod and that people can’t help talking about, debating, discussing in a way no Facebook rant-fest can. Which, again, is why I am thrilled to be offering a new class on it!

****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! So scroll down and sign up!

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).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Baby It’s Hot in Here—Writing Erotica & High Heat Sex Scenes August 4th $45 General/ $90 GOLD/$150 Platinum

Classes with MOI!

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Elements of Literary—How to Write Character-Driven Stories August 3rd $40

Beyond Planet X, Monsters & Chainsaws–Mastering Speculative Fiction August 10th $35

Classes with Award-Winning Author Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Method Acting for Writers—How to Write Deep POV August 1st $85 (two-week intensive class & lifetime access)

Beyond Lipstick & Swords—Writing Strong Female Characters September 9th $40

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of frankieleon

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

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

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

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

Shame.

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

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

So I shall go first….

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

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

In short? I was a jerk.

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

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

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

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

Shame

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Alan Levine

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

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

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

That’s funny.

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

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

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

No place. No person was safe.

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

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

Eventually, I dropped out of high school…twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reason? All great stories are birthed from SHAME.

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

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

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

Fiction as Therapy

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

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

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

Writers are dealers of justice.

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

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

And she made millions, because of course she did!

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

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

But here we are talking plot. Now?

Character Arc

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

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

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

You have no power over me.

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

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

Facing Shame & Taming the Jerk

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kenny Louie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soooo….

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

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

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

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

****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! So scroll down and sign up!

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).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

  

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Baby It’s Hot in Here—Writing Erotica & High Heat Sex Scenes August 4th $45 General/ $90 GOLD/$150 Platinum

Classes with MOI!

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Award-Winning Author Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Method Acting for Writers—How to Write Deep POV August 1st $85 (two-week intensive class & lifetime access)

Beyond Lipstick & Swords—Writing Strong Female Characters September 9th $40