Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Last time we talked about paradigms, and how paradigms are what make the difference between a flat one-dimensional character background and a fully dimensional creation. The paradigm is the meaning of the background, the character’s interpretation of their own experiences.

The context.

We all know there is an inherent X factor to humans. Theologians, scientists, geneticists, sociologists, psychiatrists and self-help gurus have all been trying to unravel that X factor probably since humans had enough free time to get existential. The nature-nurture argument is still alive and well with no clear answers.

The paradigm represents this X factor.

One person gets mugged and becomes agoraphobic. Another becomes a black belt. And yet another brushes it off and is just more careful and maybe carries pepper spray. Humans are all vastly different, and this provides the wide pallet of color from which the skilled writer can then create.

In the last post, we referred to the paradigm as a set of lenses. Experience, birth order, genetics, etc. all serve to grind the lenses the character wears. As also mentioned in the last post, the protagonist wears these lenses but only we—Author God—know these lenses are flawed and in need of replacing.

The protagonist believes he is seeing clearly. The plot problem is what eventually shows how wrong the protagonist is.

Now when we simply look at the protagonist—because it is HER story—we know the core plot problem we create must be directly related to shattering HER particular paradigm. If the plot doesn’t do this? It’s going to fizzle, because there simply won’t be any conflict. The paradigm reveals the pain point, the critical node and perfect place for us to strike.

If the character is family-centered, we go after the family. Job-centered? Go for the job. Relationship-centered? A break-up is on the horizon.

Y’all get the gist.

We need to smash what the protagonist believes is important and reveal what really is important. Let’s look at a couple of examples to see how this works. I’m going to use different genres so you guys get a better feel for what I am talking about.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Frodo is achievement-centered. He believes The Shire is holding him back. It is too prosaic, too mundane. No, he is called to adventure and wants to see the world and experience dragons and orcs and look for treasure. He has a romanticized notion that what is outside The Shire is far more important than The Shire.

This means we need to give him a plot problem that 1) gets him out of The Shire (give him what he believes he wants) 2) exposes that all this adventure he has been dreaming about is seriously NOT as wonderful as he’d imagined 3) place The Shire and all he took for granted in genuine danger of being lost for good.

In the beginning of our tale, Frodo cannot wait to leave The Shire. In the middle (Book Two) all he wants to do is return to The Shire and by the end (Book Three) he is willing to die to save the very place he took for granted. His lenses of All Outside the Shire is Super Awesome have been shattered and replaced.

The Minority Report

John Anderton not only heads Pre-Crime, he is a bonafide acolyte of a system that uses the Pre-Cogs to see a crime before it ever happens. With Pre-Crime the murder rate in D.C. has dropped to almost zero, and with less-than-subtle encouragement from his mentor? John firmly believes that Pre-Crime is the answer to human sin, that if it had only been around a few years earlier, he would never have lost his son.

John drinks the Pre-Crime Kool-Aid.

He honestly believes there really is no such thing as free will, that humans don’t have the ability to choose. That what the Pre-Cogs see is set. He is all about the job, because his job is changing the world and making it “safe.”

John is job-centered. His entire identity is wrapped up in Pre-Crime.

So, knowing this, the screenwriters (tasked with adapting the Philip K. Dick version for film) understood precisely where to strike. They knew to hit John Anderton right in the job, right in his belief in the infallibility of Pre-Crime. How did they do this?

They red-balled him (a red-ball is a warning of premeditated murder).

John believes that the Pre-Cogs are infallible. But how is he supposed to murder a man he has never even met? By the end of our tale, the man who believed enough in Pre-Crime to lead the charge to take it national, is now the one who destroys it. By the end he can finally see the wreckage of his life.

Before, when he had the job-centered lenses, he was driven by the career, fueled by drugs and haunted by his guilt. In all of this he’d pushed away his wife, destroyed his marriage and haloed countless potentially innocent people who very well might have made a different decision in the seconds before…just as he had.

With new lenses, he can finally SEE his flawed world and set it right. Tear down Pre-Crime, free those jailed under it, let go and mourn his son, and reunite with his estranged wife.

Big, Little Lies

I touched on Liane Moriatry’s Big, Little Lies last time. The story actually blends the threads of three major characters but for the sake of brevity? We will continue to pick on Madeline. As I mentioned last time, Madeline has a family-centered paradigm. Her entire worth and how she sees herself and her world is caught up in her ability to be a mother.

More accurately, how much her daughters need her.

In the beginning of the story we get that Madeline is losing her grip. Her youngest daughter Chloe is finally in grade school and is becoming more and more independent. To make matters worse, Madeline’s ex-husband, Nathan, who abandoned her and the older daughter Abigail years before is back with a new (and far younger) wife, Bonnie. He also has a new daughter Skye, who’s enrolled in the same school (and same class) as Chloe.

Madeline already feels her identity grip slipping in the beginning, so what did Moriarty do? She stomped on Madeline’s fingers and dropped her off the ledge. If her entire being rests on her children needing her, what will she do when Abigail bonds with her “replacement” Bonnie? When her daughter decides to leave the mother who stood by her for the man who abandoned them both?

The story problem forces Madeline to learn the old adage, If you love something, let it go and trust that her daughter will return. Trust is not Madeline’s strong suit for obvious reasons (namely abandonment). But Madeline is going to have to learn to forgive and to trust in order to be reunited with her older daughter.

She needs to lose the family-centered glasses and realize she is a person in her own right and that her identity cannot rest on her children’s need because that has led to control and not love.

I am hoping you are seeing the depth that the paradigm offers as well as how it is almost a witching stick for finding the perfect story for your character. By adding the paradigm, plot almost magically reveals itself. Next time we are going to take the idea of paradigms even further to show how this is going to generate page-turning conflict throughout and keep your readers up so late they will curse your name but secretly love you for all that missed sleep.

What are your thoughts? Can you use this idea of paradigms to see your favorite books and movies in a whole new light?

I LOVE hearing from you!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but that is a ONE TIME deal. After you do it once, WP will recognize you as a regular *sings Cheers theme song* once I approve the comment.

Also know I love suggestions! After almost 1,100 blog posts? I dig inspiration. So what would you like me to blog about?

Talk to me!

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

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

February’s winner of the 20 page critique is Dominic Scezki. Congratulations! Please send your 5000 word WORD document (12 point, Times New Roman, one-inch borders, double-spaced) to kristen at wana intl.com.

 

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

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For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on

What really makes a great story? I read an insane amount and always have, but it really wasn’t until I decided to go pro that I began looking at books very differently. Why were some books so utterly forgettable and others? I couldn’t get out of my head. What made the difference?

Why do I still revisit The Hours, The English Patient, Big, Little Lies, A Girl on the Trail, Gone Girl, The Luckiest Girl Alive? And others? I can’t recall if I even read them. I look at my Kindle menu and it claims I read it but…

This said, I’ve been putting a lot of thought lately into character. Reverse engineering it so that I can better understand what makes it tick. I’ve mentioned the raging debate about character-driven stories versus plot-driven stories and really all great stories are both.

Story is a machine. An engine. And if story is a machine, then plot and character are cogs. If one is flawed or weak or breaks? It cannot help but impact the overall machine.

But today, we are going to focus on the character cog. How do we create characters with resonance?

Who Are You?

Now, I know a lot of writing books recommend doing character sheets. There is nothing wrong with that. Get it out. Free write on the page. Think about who the character is, where she came from. Social class, religion, economic status, childhood, etc. Tell his or her life story and get it down.

But now I want you to dig a little deeper—ok, a LOT deeper—and ask…

What is my character’s paradigm?

This is to say, what is her reality? Her framework? What defines her? And, most importantly, what is its center? How does the character define his or her worth? Because a background sheet is nothing more than facts without context. To create a dimensional character, context is king.

Paradigms offer that context.

Though sociologists and self-help experts have used the notion of paradigms to assist personal growth, as a writer I felt the need to use this idea for a far darker purpose. Instead of using the paradigm to fix messed up people, I use it to create them.

So I bring you…

The Seven Habits of Seriously Messed Up People

Great fiction is about problems. It is about people with problems. And the more messed up they are? The better.

This means that to write any great story, we are going to need to create some seriously jacked up people.

So to do this, we need to know the character’s paradigm. But before we go further, I want to explain a bit how a paradigm works. Stephen Covey explains the paradigm as a set of lenses through which we see ourselves and our world. Rolling with that metaphor, a quick story to help you relate this to creating memorable fiction.

When I was pregnant with Spawn I suddenly needed glasses after having perfect vision my whole life. So I get glasses and can see! Yay! I just assumed I was getting older and accepted I now wore glasses.

But then something strange happened.

When Spawn was about three I kept getting headaches. My eyes hurt. I couldn’t see detail. Naturally I assumed I needed a stronger prescription so I went to the eye doctor. Turned out? I no longer needed the glasses. My vision had returned to 20/20.

So why did I feel the need to share?

When creating the character, take all of that background information then go deeper and reflect on what lenses the character is using. Our protagonist in the beginning wears a set of lenses that he or she is unaware no longer work. Maybe they did in the beginning, but life has changed. Maybe they never worked at all but the character has no basis for comparison so is unaware.

Regardless, they (our characters) believe their vision is correct, but we as Author God know that it isn’t. Our characters are suffering the headaches, strain and fatigue but are not necessarily aware what is causing such discomfort.

Plot is what will reveal that the old lenses are flawed and trade them for newer, corrected lenses that finally offer the clear picture and alleviate the strain.

Let Me Demonstrate

For instance, in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies the character Madeline has a family-centered paradigm. Her worth is determined by her effectiveness as a mother and being needed by her children.

In Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive, Tif-Ani has a status-centered paradigm and believes social position and wealth are the most important things in life, that they are what will make her happy. Her dream job and marrying old money define who she is.

In Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller has an achievement-centered paradigm. Winning is paramount because winners get paid. He does not see himself as a justice-seeker, which is why he only defends those he is sure are guilty.

When we pan back and look at these great stories with the idea of paradigms in mind, then the genius of plot becomes far more obvious. We have the characters, we know them and now we have the perfect way to make them scream. We are going to show them that what they believe to be true really isn’t, that what they see is inherently flawed. That is what all three of these authors did in these three remarkable stories.

Madeline gets tossed through the parenting wringer, Tif-Ani is forced to confront the demons of her past that are driving her future, and Mickey Haller is confronted with the client he always feared. And to me, THIS  is what elevates stories like these from mundane to magnificent.

All great characters have their paradigm challenged then shattered then reformed. Paradigm melds character and plot into one. Plot problems are more than just “bad stuff happening” and instead, are direct challenges to the ego. Without paradigm, characters are one-dimensional puppets passively reacting to ill fortune.

Paradigm=Character

Paradigm is what adds depth to that backstory because backstory alone is not enough. We need to get to the interpretation of the backstory.

Game of Thrones. Every single one of the Lannister children is remarkably different even though they are from the same family…because of paradigms.

But even if we simply wrote ONE character background, we could have the same background and create countless variations off of it. How? Paradigm.

One woman grows up in a big domineering over-involved family and can’t wait to run away and do her own thing. She has no interest in marriage or children and wants a career.

Another? Has no idea why you wouldn’t want to live across the street from all ten of your relatives. She can’t imagine a world where family wasn’t meddling in everything. She can’t wait to get married and have lots of babies.

Same back story. Different interpretation. You, Author God, get to choose 😉 .

The Shattered Paradigm

There are all kinds of paradigms. There is family-centered, money-centered, relationship-centered, status-centered, enemy-centered, friend-centered, etc. Most people have an amalgamation of more than one paradigm, and so do good characters. Think of The Godfather. That is a delicious combination of family-centered, money-centered, power-centered, and status-centered.

Game of Thrones?

*head explodes*

So study it. Go to your favorite movies and series and think about the characters using this notion or paradigms and I believe you will see and be able to then add an entirely new level of genius to your own work.

That and now you can use “paradigm” in a conversation to impress your family and friends 😀 .

What are your thoughts? Does this shed new light on character for you? Maybe you can see what I am talking about in your favorite stories?

I LOVE hearing from you!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but that is a ONE TIME deal. After you do it once, WP will recognize you as a regular *sings Cheers theme song* once I approve the comment.

Also know I love suggestions! After almost 1,100 blog posts? I dig inspiration. So what would you like me to blog about?

Talk to me!

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

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

I will announce February’s winner next time! I was going to announce it this time, but I lied. I am a writer and that is what writers do. We lie.

*smooch*

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg’s Master’s Series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR (Includes all classes listed below) Normally $400 but at W.A.N.A. ONLY $199 to learn from Joel IN YOUR HOME.

OR, if it works better, purchase Joel’s classes individually…

Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights $65 February 21st, 2107 (AVAILABLE ON DEMAND)

How to Sell to Your Niche Market $65 February 28th, 2017

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU $65 March 7th, 2017

Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights $65 March 14th, 2017

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 March 30th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 March 20th, 2017

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages $40 March 18th, 2017

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on

As digital age authors we have challenges and responsibilities unique to the time we are in. Namely, our job has become vastly more complex. This is why it is really important to get the right information from the get-go. If y’all hadn’t noticed, this blog is now on my author web site. FINALLY!

So happy y’all are here!

The site is a work in progress and will continue to evolve, but I want my journey to be a lesson because I love you and I want you all to be super successful.

It Started Out Harmless Enough

I am a Generation Xer through and through, in life and in regards to my profession. I didn’t “come of age” as a writer in the digital world. I decided to become an author in a world with typewriters and snail mail, where we went to libraries to research and the only way to connect with an agent was to drop several hundred bucks to go to a conference.

I had to struggle to find my way in a world I’d only believed was possible in science fiction, which was super fun namely because NO ONE knew what the hell they were doing. Back in 2006 we really had no good way of discerning solid advice from sheer BS.

Many of y’all know my story. I did NOT set out to become a social media guru. In fact the word guru makes me itch. It just kind of happened because I am a know-it-all and a meddler. I joke that my first social media book should have been called, I Did All the Dumb Sh%$ So You Don’t Have To.

I bitched so much about people doing it wrong (or teaching it wrong) that I finally just wrote my own book 😛 .

Then another….

And then another….

Y’all can probably tell when I took over decisions on the cover, LOL.

Anyway, as I was saying…

If we want to sell books we must have a social media platform and brand. It is no longer a choice. But I will be blunt. You do NOT want to waste time by starting off wrong, and I will also tell you that there are still a ton of “experts” who have zero business teaching this stuff.

Seriously, I thought we would be past these yahoos teaching social media by about 2011 but they are still around so BEWARE. Just last year (2016) I went to a conference and there were five social media classes, which I was eager to take since I am always learning. I walked out of every single class so angry I couldn’t see straight.

In the blogging class, the instructor was teaching the very same stuff that landed me in a major mess, which we are about to talk about…

Kristen as a Cautionary Tale

I started blogging on a free WP site back in 2008. I went to a conference and listened to an “expert” who claimed the only difference between the paid and the free was the paid offered more options on fonts and backgrounds. Basically cosmetic stuff.

This expert also claimed that once you decided to upgrade to the paid site, it was easy to transition all your content over. Since I was starting out on a shoestring budget at the time? FREE was exactly in my price range.

Huge mistake. HUGE. HUGE!

By the time I was making enough money I could upgrade to having my own website, I had over 400 posts and easily 35,000 comments. I also had 20K+ followers. I couldn’t move ANY of that and I literally would have to start over. It took until last year for the technology to catch up and move all my posts and my comments and my followers to my website.

And even then? In this move I lost over 21,000 followers *clutches sucking chest wound*.  I am still trying to figure out where they went. My best guess is that in the free version there is a WP “Follow” button that a paid site doesn’t have. This is so others on WP get your blog delivered in their feed and since I am no longer there?

Yeah. Just shoot me.

But there are still experts teaching writers that it is okay to start out on a free site.

NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!

JUST NO!

If your plan is to eventually be a professional author who sells books, you have no business with FREE. You do not want FREE ANYTHING. Trust me.

The cost of free is far too high.

Just suck it up and get your own site.

Social Media for Authors

See I am not just a social media expert. I am a very unique expert. I don’t teach social media. I teach social media for authors. I don’t teach blogging. I teach blogging for AUTHORS.

There is a huge difference.

I have the task of training introverted neurotics with social anxiety who’d rather be drawing unicorns how to build a platform and brand.

This is SO me.

I’m tasked with teaching my fellow weird kids how to be popular 😀 .

But beyond the whole social aspect, I want you guys to plan for success. This means the second you make a decision to do this writing thing for REAL, you need to start building a platform and brand. You do not want to try and pull a platform out of the ether a month before your book debuts.

Trust me, I have done that. Not fun. Though my first social media book later went on to be a best-seller, my first royalty check was enough to pay for dinner if no one super sized anything. Why?

No one knew me.

So seriously, invest $15 and get a copy of Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World. I wrote the content to be evergreen, so even though it was published back in 2012 it is still all relevant. Start today and a little effort every day will pay off BIG later.

The next thing I want you to invest in is a web site with YOUR NAME in it. You can get clever like I did and put “author” or “writer” in it if you can’t specifically get your name as a domain. Invest in yourself and this is going to save you a ton of headaches down the road.

***Check out my friend Jay Donovan at Tech Surgeons. He has done all my hosting for years and he is amazing and gives my readers a special discount. I changed from GoDaddy to Jay after hackers took down my site and put up a laughing skull. I was not laughing. I was crying. And Jay fixed it and he is amazing.***

Mistakes Were Made…

I have an excuse. I started blogging back when there were no real experts. The only way TO learn was trial and error. But as my mom likes to say…

A wise man learns from the mistakes of others, whereas a fool has to learn from his own.

I was a fool so you don’t have to be.

There are a lot of reasons why you want a paid site beyond cosmetic differences, but I will just touch on the biggest of all.

SELLING STUFF.

On a free WP site (or even Blogger for that matter) you cannot conduct commerce. Sure, when I started blogging I didn’t have books or classes for sale, but eventually? I DID. But on a free site, you can’t have a book table widget. You can’t have a shopping cart RIGHT THERE.

Nope, you have to hyperlink and pray for the best.

But you don’t want to do that. That is called friction. It is an added layer between the initial point of contact and the actual sale. With every layer we increase the odds our reader will see something shiny before buying.

Bad juju.

We DO NOT want any extra clicking if at all possible.

Why this friction stuff really buggered me is that my blog is (was) the popular draw and the primary driver of book and class sales, not my actual author website. But I couldn’t SELL anything on the blog, so I also had to have a website where I could sell stuff. And this made a serious mess. With both a website and a blog, I had two points of contact that were competing for SEO and as I mentioned it was just a major disaster so just please learn from me and start off correctly.

If you already oopsed, remedy it as quickly as possible. Just rip that digital Band-Aid off. You can talk to my web person Laird Sapir owner of Memphis McKay Designs. She can get you set up and moved over and she, too, offers discounts to my readers.

So thanks for following me to the new location and please do a gal a favor and subscribe. I will be your best friend…

And we will have fun in the coming weeks, namely because I am back learning which buttons to never ever touch. I will be adding new features, blah blah yada yada.

So what are your thoughts? Questions? Do you have a similar horror story?

Also, I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but that is a ONE TIME deal. After you do it once, WP will recognize you as a regular *sings Cheers theme song*.

Also know I love suggestions! After almost 1,100 blog posts? I dig inspiration. So what would you like me to blog about?

I LOVE hearing from you! And REMEMBER TO SIGN UP TO HANG OUT AND LEARN FROM HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER JOEL EISENBERG! Details are below. This is EIGHT hours with one of the hottest producers in Hollywood teaching everything from craft to how to SELL what we write! Recordings are included with your purchase for FREE!

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

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

I will announce February’s winner next time!

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg’s Master’s Series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR (Includes all classes listed below) Normally $400 but at W.A.N.A. ONLY $199 to learn from Joel IN YOUR HOME.

OR, if it works better, purchase Joel’s classes individually…

Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights $65 February 21st, 2107 (AVAILABLE ON DEMAND)

How to Sell to Your Niche Market $65 February 28th, 2017

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU $65 March 7th, 2017

Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights $65 March 14th, 2017

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 March 30th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 March 20th, 2017

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages $40 March 18th, 2017

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-9-10-47-am

We writers have a vast array of tools at our disposal to craft stories readers will love. But like any tool, it helps if we know how to use it properly. Theme is wonderful. It can keep us plunging a story’s depths for years when used correctly. Applied incorrectly? It just makes a story annoying and preachy.

Description! Love me some description! But pile on too much and we can render a story unreadable.

The same can be said of prologues. Now, before we get into this, I want to make it clear that certain genres lend themselves to prologues. But even then, we are wise to make sure the prologue is serving the story.

So, to prologue or not to prologue? That is the question.

The problem with the prologue is it has kind of gotten a bad rap over the years, especially with agents. They generally hate them. Why? In my opinion, it is because far too many writers don’t use prologues properly and that, in itself, has created its own problem.

Because of the steady misuse of prologues, many readers skip them. Thus, the question of whether or not the prologue is even considered the beginning of your novel can become a gray area if the reader just thumbs pages until she sees Chapter One.

So without further ado…

The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-9-24-05-am
Evil Odin.

Sin #1 If your prologue is really just a vehicle for massive information dump…

This is one of the reasons I recommend writing detailed backgrounds of all main characters before we begin (especially when we are new writers). Get all of that precious backstory out of your system.

This is a useful tactic in that first, it can help us see if a) our characters are psychologically consistent, b) can provide us with a feel for the characters’ psychological motivations, which will help later in plotting.

I have a little formula: background–> motivations –>goals–>a plan–>a detailed plan, which = plot and c) can help us as writers honestly see what details are salient to the plot.

This helps us better fold the key details into the plotting process so that this vital information can be blended expertly into the story real-time.

Many new writers bungle the prologue because they lack a system that allows them to discern key details or keep track of key background details. This makes for clumsy writing, namely a giant “fish head” labeled prologue (which we editors will just lop off).

Sin #2 If your prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.

This point ties into the earlier sin. Do this. Cut off the prologue. Now ask, “Has this integrally affected the story?” If it hasn’t? It’s likely a fish head masquerading as a prologue.

Sin #3 If your prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader…

If readers have a bad tendency to skip past prologues, and the only point of our prologue is to hook the reader, then we have just effectively shot ourselves in the foot. We must have a great hook in a prologue, but then we need to also have a hook in Chapter One. If we can merely move the prologue to Chapter One and it not upset the flow of the story? Then that is a lot of pressure off our shoulders to be “doubly” interesting.

Sin #4 If your prologue is overly long…

Prologues need to be short and sweet and to the point. Get too long and that is a warning flag that this prologue is being used to cover for sloppy writing or really should have just been Chapter One.

Sin #5 If your prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story…

Pretty self-explanatory.

Sin #6 If your prologue is über-condensed world-building…

World-building is generally one of those things, like backstory, that can and should be folded into the narrative. Sometimes it might be necessary to do a little world-building, but think “floating words in Star Wars.” The yellow floating words that drift off into space help the reader get grounded in the larger picture before the story begins. But note the floating words are not super-detailed Tolkien world-building.

They are simple and, above all, brief.

Sin #7 If your prologue is there solely to “set the mood…”

We have to set the mood in Chapter One anyway, so like the hook, why do it twice?

The Prologue Virtues

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Still Evil Odin but with “Cute Face.”

Now that we have discussed the 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues, you might be asking yourself, “So when is it okay to use a prologue?” Glad you asked.

Virtue #1 Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.

Genre will have a lot to do with whether one uses a prologue or not. Thrillers generally employ prologues because what our hero is up against may be an old enemy. In James Rollins’s The Doomsday Key the prologue introduces the “adversary” Sigma will face in the book. Two monks come upon a village where every person has literally starved to death when there is more than an abundance of food.

Many centuries pass and the very thing that laid waste to that small village is now once more a threat. But this gives the reader a feel for the fact that this is an old adversary. The prologue also paints a gripping picture of what this “adversary” can do if unleashed once more.

The prologue allows the reader to pass centuries of time without getting a brain cramp. Prologue is set in medieval times. Chapter One is in modern times. Prologue is also pivotal for understanding all that is to follow.

Prologues are used a lot in thrillers and mysteries to see the crime or event that sets off the story. Readers of these genres have been trained to read prologues and generally won’t skip. The serial killer dumping his latest victim is important to the story. It’s a genre thing. Yet, still? Keep it brief. Reveal too much and readers won’t want to turn pages to learn more.

Virtue # 2 Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the backstory relevant to the plot.

The first Harry Potter book is a good example of a book that could have used a prologue, but didn’t (likely because Rowling knew it would likely get skipped). Therese Walsh in her blog Once Before A Time Part 2 said this:

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is told in a close 3rd person POV (Harry’s), but her first chapter is quite different, told when Harry is a baby and switching between omniscient and 3rd person POVs (Mr. Dursley’s and Dumbledore’s). Rowling may have considered setting this information aside as a prologue because of those different voices and the ten-year lag between it and the next scene, but she didn’t do it. The info contained in those first pages is critical, it helps to set the story up and makes it more easily digested for readers. And it’s 17 pages long.

This battle is vital for the reader to be able to understand the following events and thus would have been an excellent example of a good prologue. But, Rowling, despite the fact this chapter would have made a prime prologue still chose to make it Chapter One so the reader would actually read this essential piece of story information.

Food for thought for sure.

Yes, I had Seven Sins and only Two Virtues. So sue me :P . That should be a huge hint that there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one (that and I didn’t want this blog to be 10,000 words long).

Prologues, when done properly can be amazing literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one. Make sure you ask yourself honest questions about what purpose these pages are really serving. Are they an essential component of a larger whole? Or are you using Bondo to patch together a weak plot?

But, don’t take my word for it. Over the ages, I’ve collected great blogs regarding prologues to help you guys become stronger in your craft. These are older posts, but timeless:

Once Before a Time: Prologues Part 1 by Therese Walsh

Once Before a Time Part 2 by Therese Walsh

Agent Nathan Bransford offers his opinion as does literary agent Kristin Nelson

Carol Benedict’s blog Story Elements: Using a Prologue

To Prologue or Not To Prologue by Holly Jennings

If after all of this information, you decide you must have a prologue because all the coolest kids have one, then at least do it properly. Here is a great e-how article.

So if you must write a prologue, then write one that will blow a reader away. Take my First Five Pages class (below) and I can give you some expert perspective of whether to keep or ditch or if you want to keep your prologue, then how can you make it WORK?

What are some of the questions, concerns, troubles you guys have had with prologues? Which ones worked? Which ones bombed? What are your solutions or suggestions?

What are your thoughts?

I LOVE hearing from you! And REMEMBER TO SIGN UP TO HANG OUT AND LEARN FROM HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER JOEL EISENBERG! Details are below. This is EIGHT hours with one of the hottest producers in Hollywood teaching everything from craft to how to SELL what we write! Recordings are included with your purchase for FREE!

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

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg’s Master’s Series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR (Includes all classes listed below) Normally $400 but at W.A.N.A. ONLY $199 to learn from Joel IN YOUR HOME.

OR, if it works better, purchase Joel’s classes individually…

Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights $65 February 21st, 2107 (AVAILABLE ON DEMAND)

How to Sell to Your Niche Market $65 February 28th, 2017

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU $65 March 7th, 2017

Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights $65 March 14th, 2017

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 March 30th, 2017

Plotting for Dummies $35 February 17th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 March 20th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character $35 February 24th, 2017

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages $40 March 18th, 2017

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on

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

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

Write a great story.

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

Think of great stories like concertina wire.

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

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

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

Moving on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hooking with a Problem

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

Do you think I was hooked?

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

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

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

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

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

Andy Weir’s The Martian:

I am pretty much f**ked.

That is my considered opinion.

F**ked.

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

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

Hooking With a Question

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

Resist the urge to explain.

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

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

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

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

There went the writing.

Then we would be doing “research” 😀 .

Hooking with Question and Character

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

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

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

I inspected the knife in my hand.

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

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

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

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

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

Especially since in paragraph FOUR, we read:

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

Don’t Eat Your Own Bait

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

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

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

Ain’t no rest for the wicked 😉 .

What are your thoughts?

I LOVE hearing from you! And REMEMBER TO SIGN UP TO HANG OUT AND LEARN FROM HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER JOEL EISENBERG! Details are below. This is EIGHT hours with one of the hottest producers in Hollywood teaching everything from craft to how to SELL what we write! Recordings are included with your purchase for FREE!

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

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg’s Master’s Series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR (Includes all classes listed below) Normally $400 but at W.A.N.A. ONLY $199 to learn from Joel IN YOUR HOME.

OR, if it works better, purchase Joel’s classes individually…

Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights $65 February 21st, 2107 (AVAILABLE ON DEMAND)

How to Sell to Your Niche Market $65 February 28th, 2017

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU $65 March 7th, 2017

Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights $65 March 14th, 2017

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 March 30th, 2017

Plotting for Dummies $35 February 17th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 March 20th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character $35 February 24th, 2017

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages $40 March 18th, 2017

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on