Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: character

Social media is an amazing tool and it is a wonderful time to be a writer, but, I am going to point out the pink elephant in the room. We still have to write a darn good book. If we don’t write a darn good book, then no amount of promotion can help us. Sorry. That’s like putting lipstick on a pig. This is why Mondays are dedicated to craft. I am here to train stronger writers. In the comments last Monday, one of our writer pals asked me to expound on the difference between showing and telling. Setting is a great tool to do exactly that.

Today we are going to talk about setting and ways to use it to strengthen your writing and maybe even add in some dimension. Some of the information I will present to you today isn’t new, but, hey, all of us can use a refresher, right?

Setting is a magnificent tool when used properly.

Setting can help your characterization.

Setting can actually serve a dual role in that it can be not only the backdrop for your story, but it can also serve characterization through symbol. We editors love to say, “Show. Don’t tell.” Well, here is where setting can help you do just that.

Say you have a character, Mitzy, who is depressed. You could go on and on telling us she is blue and how she cannot believe her husband left her for the Avon lady, or you can show us through setting. Mitzy’s once beautiful garden is overgrown with weeds and piles of unopened mail are tossed carelessly on the floor. Her house smells of almost-empty tubs of chocolate ice cream left to sour. Piles of dirty clothes litter the rooms, and her cat is eating out of the bag of Meow Mix tipped on its side.

Now you have shown me that Mitzy is not herself. I know this because the garden was “once beautiful.” This cues me that something has changed. And you managed to tell me she was depressed without dragging me through narrative in Mitzy’s head.

She couldn’t believe Biff was gone. Grief surged over her like a surging tidal surge that surged.

Writing is therapeutic, not therapy. Some of that introspection is great, but after a while you will wear out your readers. Setting can help alleviate this problem and keep the momentum of your story moving forward. We will get that Mitzy is depressed by getting this glimpse of her house. You have shown that Mitzy is having a rough time instead of being lazy and telling us.

We judge people by their environment. Characters are no different. If you want to portray a cold, unfeeling schmuck, then when we go to his apartment it might be minimalist design. No color. No plants or signs of life. Someone who is scatter-brained? Their house is full of half-finished projects. An egomaniac? Walls of plaques and pictures of this character posing with important people. Trophies, awards, and heads of dead animals. You can show the reader a lot about your character just by showing us surroundings.

Trust me, if a character gets out of her car and two empty Diet Coke bottles fall out from under her feet into her yard that is littered with toys, we will have an impression.

Probably the single largest mistake I see in the work of new writers is that they spend far too much time in the sequel. What is the sequel? Plots can be broken into to main anatomical parts–scene and sequel. The scene is where the action occurs. A goal is declared and some disastrous setback occurs that leaves our protagonist worse off than when he began. Generally, right after this disaster there is what is called the sequel. 

The sequel is the emotional thread that ties all this action together. Yet, too often new writers will go on and on and on in a character’s head, exploring and probing deep emotions and nothing has yet happened. The sequel can only be an effect/direct result of a scene. Ah, but here comes the pickle. How can a writer give us a psychological picture of the character if he cannot employ the sequel?

Setting.

An example? In Silence of the Lambs how are we introduced to Hannibal Lecter? There is of course the dialogue that tells Agent Starling that Dr. Lecter is different, but talk is cheap, right? Clarice goes down into the bowels of a psychiatric prison to the basement (um, symbol?). She walks past cell after cell of the baddest and the maddest. All of them are in brick cells with bars…until Clarice makes it to the end.

Hannibal’s cell is not like the others. He is behind Plexi-Glass with airholes. This glass cage evokes a primal fear. Hannibal affects us less like a prisoner and more like a venomous spider. Setting has shown us that Hannibal the Cannibal is a different breed of evil. This is far more powerful than the storyteller poring on and on and on about Hannibal’s “evil.”

Setting can set or amplify the mood.

Either you can use setting to mirror outwardly what is happening with a character, or you can use it as a stark contrast. For instance, I once edited a medieval fantasy. In the beginning the bad guys were burning villagers alive. Originally the writer used a rainy, dreary day, which was fine. Nothing wrong with that. I, however, suggested she push the envelope and go for something more unsettling. I recommended that she change the setting to sunny and perfect weather. In the heart of the village the ribbons and trappings of the spring festival blew in the gentle breeze, the same breeze that now carried the smell of her family’s burning flesh.

Sometimes it is this odd juxtaposition in setting that can evoke tremendous emotion. This is especially useful in horror. Dead bodies are upsetting. Dead bodies on a children’s playground are an entirely new level of disturbing.

Setting is a matter of style and preference.  Different writers use setting in different ways and a lot of it goes to your own unique voice. Some writers use a lot of description, which is good in that there are readers who like a lot of description. But there are readers who want you to get to the point, and that’s why they generally like to read works by writers who also like to get to the point. Everyone wins.

Whether you use a lot or a little setting will ultimately be up to you. I would recommend some pointers.

Can your setting symbolize something deeper?

I challenge you to challenge yourself. Don’t just pick stormy weather because it is the first image that pops in your mind. Can you employ setting to add greater dimension to your work? Using setting merely to forecast the weather is lazy writing. Try harder.

In Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane’s story is set on an island at a prison for the criminally insane. What the reader finds out is the prison is far more than the literal setting; it is a representation for a state of mind. The protagonist, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is imprisoned by his own guilt and need for justice. Like the island, he too is cut off from the outside world emotionally and psychologically. Now an island is more than an island, a prison is more than a prison, bars are more than bars, cliffs are more than cliffs, storms are more than storms, etc. Shutter Island is an amazing book to read, but I recommend studying the movie for use of setting as symbol.

So dig deeper. Can you get more out of your setting than just a backdrop?

Blend setting into your story.

When I teach, I liken setting to garlic in garlic mashed potatoes. Blend. Garlic is awesome and enhances many dishes, but few people want a whole mouthful of it. Make sure you are keeping momentum in your story. Yes, we generally like to be grounded in where we are and the weather and the time of year, but not at the expense of why we picked up your book in the first place…someone has a problem that needs solving. Unless you are writing a non-fiction travel book, we didn’t buy your book for lovely description of the Rocky Mountains. We bought it to discover if Ella May will ever make it to California to meet her new husband before winter comes and traps her wagon train in a frozen world of death.

Keep perspective and blend. Keep conflict and character center stage and the backdrop in its place…behind the characters. Can you break this rule? Sure all rules can be broken. But we must understand the rules before we can break them. Breaking rules in ignorance is just, well, ignorant.

In the end, setting will be a huge reflection of your style and voice, but I hope this blog has given some insight that might make you see more to your use of setting and help you grow to be a stronger writer. What are some books or movies that really took setting to the next level? How was setting used? How did it affect you? Share with us. I love hearing from you!

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

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

Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique

Alicia McKenna Johnson Please e-mail your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi at gigi.salem.ea@gmail.com. She will make sure it doesn’t get eaten by the spam folder.

Note: GRAND PRIZE WILL BE PICKED THIS MONTH. I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced at the end of September) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about how to spread word-of-mouth and build your platform, sign-ups are open for my Blogging To Build Your Author Brand on-line workshop. It’s two months long–one month of lessons and one month of launch and it is ONLY $40.

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

Fiction is a tough gig. There are so many things that have to be developed, crafted, balanced, and brought to completion. Plot, setting, character, dialogue, arc, POV—it can get overwhelming. It is very easy to lose sight of the conflict and then our story gets stuck in the literary dolrums. Bad juju.

Two elements drive all great stories—character conflict and plot conflict. In good stories, there are generally two arcs, the plot arc and the character arc. One cannot be satisfied unless there is progression on the other. The character must grow or he cannot complete the next step in the plot. Each progression toward resolving the story problem also creates character growth. These elements work in perfect tandem.

This is one of the reasons that uber-perfect characters= BORING SNOOZE FEST. If our hero begins the story as a hero, then how can he grow? How can we (readers) worry?

Worry=Page-Turner

Everything else in a story, dialogue, scene-setting, description, etc. must support the conflict or be cut. Why? Because if these elements are not fueling momentum, they are, by definition, dead weight that can quickly leave a story drifting in the ho-hum world of “Ain’t Nothing Happening.” There is no conflict, no fuel, so the story loses momentum. If it sits idle long enough, the book can end up lost in the Burmuda Triangle the reader’s bookshelf, never to be seen again (until moving day).

Back to conflict…

When you look at the really great novels, each part serves a purpose. All parts work together like a highly efficient sailboat. With that said, how well do you think any sailboat would work with extra sails randomly sent up the mast? Everything on the boat must have a purpose and work to keep the boat afloat, to help navigation and provide momentum. If these components are neglected, it is likely the boat either will sink, go the wrong direction or will be left drifting at sea so long that all souls will perish.

Every scene must have conflict. Conflict must in some way involve the characters and serve to propel them either further along on the plot arc, or on a character arc.  Conflict doesn’t have to be nail-biting, cliffhanging tension. In fact, it is best to leave that sort of conflict for very specific parts of the story or you risk wearing out the reader. Conflict can be boiled down to somebody wants something, but then… This is the fuel that drives the machine of your story.

Think about the movie Top Gun. Was every scene a hair-raising ordeal involving dog-fighting jets? No. But there was plenty of conflict. Remember the scene at the club where Lt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell meets his future love interest Charlie Blackwood? Does he succeed? Or does he go down in a figurative ball of fire? This protagonist has an ego the size of Texas, and he’s used to getting his way. When he doesn’t, this propels him along on his character arc. He has to change or die, because the character traits that get him shot down in the club eventually will be the traits that can get him (and others) shot out of the sky.

The club scene in Top Gun serves multiple, multiple functions…other than getting to see a lot of really hot guys in Navy dress whites. The bar scene is a key sail to drive the character arc, when it easily could have been fluff and filler.

First, we get to see that pilots are human. They have lives beyond a cockpit. Or do they? That will be a key point developed over the course of the movie. Second, the audience is afforded the opportunity to witness how the protagonist’s blind spots and character flaws are affecting all aspects of his life in a negative way. His hotshot methods are beginning to show signs of breaking down.

Iceman, the story’s antagonist, is also present to witness Maverick fail. That is no accident. Now could this have just been a fun nightclub scene to show off hot Navy guys? Sure. But if that had been the only function of the scene, I doubt we would still remember it almost twenty years later.

All of us have to be wary of permitting our story to drift into the doldrums. We love our characters, our wonderful scene-setting, clever exposition and witty dialogue. But to write truly great stories requires brutal honesty. When we edit our work, we have to ask ourselves one question over and over and over—“What purpose does this scene serve?”

If it doesn’t have a function—a good, solid function that drives the story—it needs to either be modified or cut altogether. It’s a literary siren tempting your story to crash on the rocks, or what we more seasoned sailors writers like to call a Little Darling.

Little Darlings will KILL a novel. For more information about Little Darling Syndrome, go here.

So you need some ways to spot if you are drifting dolrums? Happy to help:

1. Remember that fiction is the path of greatest resistance.

One of the number one newbie mistakes I see is that writers resolve conflict too easily and too soon. Most of us go out of our way to avoid conflict in life, so it is very counterintuitive to seek to ADD MORE conflict when we write.

As an example. A few months ago I was helping one of my writing group peeps with her plotting and I noticed something.

“Gee. All your characters get along so well….and ALL THE TIME.” If her protagonist wanted to fight the rebels, the protag’s allies were right there. No one ever disagreed. Anyone who has run a committee more than five minutes knows that it is rare that everyone will be on the same page. Most of the conflict for our novel will actually come from intimate connections.

One example I like to use is the movie, Finding Nemo. Darla the Fish-Killer is the story’s core antagonist (what I call the Big Boss Trouble Maker), but we only see Darla in a few minute’s worth of scenes. She drives the entire story because if Darla had wanted a kitten for her birthday, Nemo would never need rescuing. Yet, in the big picture, Darla is rarely present. Who is responsible for most of the tension and conflict? The hero’s ally, Dorie.

If Marlin wants to go up, Dorie goes down. Every decision is maximum conflict…the path of greatest resistance. Each scene has a goal and the protagonist must reach that goal rarely if ever until the end. In each scene he needs to seem worse off than when he began. So go back through and make sure you aren’t making life too easy on your characters.

2. Look for the goal of each scene and make sure someone/something is in the way.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat taught me a wonderful technique for making sure each scene has a purpose. Take an index card for a new scene, then write the goal at the top then who or what was in conflict.

After losing sight of the boat that took his son Nemo, Marlin wants to go home.

Marlin><Dorie

Marlin wants to go home, but Dorie wants to talk to Bruce the Great White.

-/+

(This little set of symbols above -/+? This symbol shows how the protag enters a scene and then how he leaves. Here, I use a – because at the beginning of the scene Marlin loses sight of the boat that took his son. By all accounts the story is over, but then Dorie, the ally/antagonist insists on talking to Bruce the Great White. At the end of the scene discover the critical clue that keeps the story going. The scene ends on a + because there is renewed hope to find Nemo.)

Ideally there should be a shift from + to – or – to +. If the protagonist is always ending on a +, there is little conflict and no reason to worry. If we have too much -, then the reader just gets depressed and gives up. Too many -s or +s will help you spot doldrums quickly.

There needs to be a fine balance of setbacks and progression to keep the reader hooked…just like a fish. Yank too aggressively on the line plot and the fish reader breaks free wears out and gets frustrated. Don’t yank hard enough and the fish reader takes off gets bored and turns on the TV.

3. Never leave a place to put a bookmark.

Fiction is real life with all the boring stuff cut out. Yes, we get that our protagonist must go to sleep, but never end a chapter with a character going to sleep (without introducing the next problem). This is a subconscious cue to the reader that this is a safe place to put a bookmark. Bookmarks are death.

Never let your reader feel good about using a bookmark. Bookmarking should be painful and only because it is two in the morning and the reader must get some sleep before work.

At the end of the day, question everything. It is better for us to give our fiction the trial of fire than for reviewers to do that publicly on-line. Ask the hard questions and be willing to cut away dead weight for the sake of the story. The doldrums is where you will lose most of your readers, so always keep the forward momentum. We don’t always have to be doing top-speed, but we do need to be moving forward.

What are your thoughts? What makes you get bored with a story and put it down? What tools do you guys use for spotting dead places in your stories? Share! we’d love to learn from you.

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

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

Last Week’s Winner of 5 pages (1250 words) of critique:

Michelle DeRusha please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org. Congratulations!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

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

The topic for today is an interesting one and even possibly controversial. Editing is great, but it can KILL any kind of writing, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I keep tabs on #nanowrimo. One consistent post I see looks like this. “Looked at the pages I wrote last week and now editing. What crap”…or something to that effect.

Editing too early can kill a novel. Yes, editing can be devastating to shorter works, but doesn’t have quite the killing power it possesses when introduced into longer works. In a novel that can span anywhere from 60-120,000 words (depending on genre), editing can be catastrophic if done at the wrong phase.

Think of it this way. Driving is great. It gets us from point A to point B much quicker, and we do not know what life would be like without our cars. Yet, do we hand car keys to an eight-year-old? NO! Why? Because that child needs to develop into at least pre-adult (known as an adolescent) to be handed a two-ton piece of metal and fiberglass. Is it because we sit up at night thinking of ways to make the lives of our eight-year-old children miserable and that we take sick joy in depriving them of fun activities like driving? Um, no. As older wiser adults, we know the child doesn’t have the height, motor skills, and cognitive development to take on such a task without possibly fatal results.

Yet we edit novels three chapters in? Gasp. Can we edit a novel this early? Sure. But just like handing an eight-year-old car keys, we must prepare to endure some consequences.

In my opinion, a novel has not developed enough to sustain any reasonable edit until at least the first draft. Our first draft is essentially our fifteen-year-old who can now go to Driver’s Ed.

Some of you might be screaming right now. “Kristen! What do you mean? Are you mad? Are you suggesting I leave a document rife with spelling errors and grammatical flaws just lying around?”

Yes. Yes, I am. You will thank me later.

If you are writing a novel, you need to leave any kind of edit for once you have finished the entire first draft. Breathe. Get a paper bag. You will be okay. Just trust me. I learned stuff the hard way. I suffered so you don’t have to.

Now is it okay to reread what you have written in order to get grounded? Sure. And when you reread, it is even okay to red-pen any spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. It is okay to make notes of things you believe at the time should be fixed or even expounded. But don’t you dare hit that backspace button. Nothing gets deleted. Period. Feel free to highlight. Make a note that you believe something should be taken out at a later time, but leave it be. Also, anything you decide needs to be added needs to be written in any color other than your main document. Red, purple, blue. Doesn’t matter. Just make it a different color.

Also, if you take part of your novel to a writing critique group before you are finished with the first draft, then you are taking a HUGE risk.

But, if you choose to do so, I recommend that you still follow these rules of editing. Any changes or suggestions need to be inserted in the form of notes (highlight possible deletions and make a notes as to why this section needed a change). Any additions need to be in another color…then sally forth.

Don’t look back, or you will turn into a pillar or unfinished novels.

Premature editing is very dangerous for three reasons:

1. Uproots Subconscious Seeds—Our subconscious mind is an amazing machine. It sees the big picture in ways the conscious mind cannot. As we write, our subconscious mind is planting seeds that, when viewed in a microcosm of one or three chapters, will likely seem to make no sense. Duh. That is like an acorn trying to envision life as a 100 foot tall oak tree. These seeds need time to gestate. When we edit prematurely, all we see is a hunk of something smooshy. We don’t realize that a possibly mind-blowing idea is trying to germinate and take root in the fertile soil of our story. By editing too early, we can possibly cripple our novel. By the end of the first draft, however, we will be able to look back and see sprouted weeds, which we can feel free to uproot. But the sprouts will be mature enough to distinguish from seedlings that need to be nurtured to their full potential.

2.  Makes Us Mistake Busy Work for Real Work—Premature editing indulges our fears. Many times we writers do not continue forward due to subconscious fear. Deep down we might know our original idea is flawed, or not strong enough, or convoluted, or unclear. We may know that we don’t have a solid outline or framework to support a 100K words. We may realize our characters have problems, but it is going to take work and honesty to fix them. Or all of that might be just fine, but we fear failure or even success. We fear writing the gritty stuff because it leaves us exposed and vulnerable, or we fear writing real conflict because our human nature is to avoid it. Premature editing gives us a false belief that we are being productive, when in fact it is sabotaging our work and reinforcing our fears by permitting us to procrastinate. Fears can only be conquered by facing them, and premature editing keeps us “busy” and gives us justification to stay mired.

 3.  Premature Edit Can Discourage and Keep a Writer from Finishing—This is another reason that traditional critique groups can be counter-productive. Other writers are seeing our work in a microcosm, and that limits how well they can critique. This is why I suggest using the techniques we discussed earlier. Just make notes. Our fellow writers are invaluable, but we have to appreciate that they are seeing our work from a limited point of view. Their opinions may be dead-on (We HATE your protagonist and hope he dies), but they could be far off-base and serve only to uproot those subconscious seeds we discussed.

If we continue to go back changing things chapter by chapter, changing, changing, changing, either due to critique group feedback or our own self-edit, what happens is that we KILL our forward momentum with a big ol’ red-penning, back-spacing machete.  Do that long enough, and it becomes hard not to be discouraged and ultimately give up. If you have been reworking the first act of your book for months, it can very easily end up in the drawer with all the other unfinished works.

All of us care about our work, and we desire to put our best foot forward. If that means waiting a few months before we bring anything to read at our critique group, then so be it. Mark my words. It will take a lot of self-restraint NOT to go back through your writing with pruning shears after a hard critique. I, personally, develop a twitch even after all these years. It takes all the will power I have not to go slashing through my writing with the delete button. So, I feel your pain.

Writing a novel is like planting a field of green growing things that will eventually bear fruit. If in the beginning, we can envision the magnificent rows ready for harvest, then it is easier to be encouraged and to refrain from digging up the seeds and starting over.

Time to hear from you guys, What do you love about editing? What do you hate? Do you have any tips or suggestions? War stories you’d like to share?

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

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

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Last Week’s Winner of 5 page critique is Angela Wallace. Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

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

Today we are going to discuss gimmick and fundamentals of a good story.

First, gimmick. Here is the thing. There are only so many plots. DO NOT try to get creative with plot. Everything has been done. Seriously. There are only so many elements on the Periodic Table, yet everything in the universe is made up of some combination of these elements. Think of core plots like the elements on the Periodic Table. Many new writers make writing a novel way too hard in that they try to reinvent the wheel. The wheel works. Leave the wheel alone. You do not have to revinvent plot as we understand it to tell a darn good story.

I find a lot of new writers get really excited about gimmick. Gimmick is dangerous, and gimmicks can bite back. Don’t believe me? Okay…M. Night Shyamalan. He got us with The Sixth Sense, but after that? It was over. Why? Because the “magic” only worked with a naïve audience. After The Sixth Sense we were like CSI Vegas with every Shyamalan story. Short of using a swab kit and blacklight, we paid attention to every last little detail trying to figure out the twist ending.

This also limited Shyamalan in that he was doomed if he did and doomed if he didn’t. If he told a story with a twist ending, then the audience (no longer naïve) was looking for the clues, so no ending could possibly measure up to The Sixth Sense. But, if Shyamalan tried to do a movie with no twist and do something different, then the audience was ticked because there was no twist.

Shyamalan, in my opinion, is a victim of his own brilliance, and I can see how The Sixth Sense really put him in a bind….because it worked so well. Most of the time gimmicks suck, but even when they are really good…they still suck. So avoid gimmick and just focus on becoming a darn good storyteller.

Anyway, back to my original point.  There are only so many plots, so don’t try to be cute and clever and unique because it is unlikely you will discover a “new element.” Go ahead and try. I guarantee you that one of two things will happen. One is that you will think you have this new plot no one has ever seen. All excited, you will posit this new-and-shiny-never-before-imagined-idea to your fellow writing friends, and one of them (I promise) will go, “Oh, yeah. That’s like the movie Blah.” And then you are required to drink heavily and cry and wonder why you were doomed to be born a writer. The other end-scenario is that you get so weird that you barely understand your own story, and the poor the reader will need a Dungeon Master Guide and a sherpa to navigate your plot.

So, remember. Pizza has rules. Chemistry has rules. Plot has rules. Can’t get too weird or complicated or it falls apart. If you doubt this assertion, read the discussion about the Star Wars disaster um, prequels here.

Plots, at the very core, are usually simple. Why? The plot is the foundation. Now what you construct on top of that foundation can be super-complex. Note I wrote complex NOT complicated. Even the most complex stories can be boiled down to very simple goals. J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, James Clavell’s Shogun, and MacMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove all have very simple forces driving very complex and dynamic stories. Good versus evil. Struggle for power, for survival, for love. Very simple. As Blake Snyder says in his book Save the Cat: Is it primal? Would a caveman understand the core of your story?

Good storytellers connect with the audience on a basic level. So when you whittle down that idea or novel into a one-sentence log-line, step back and be honest. Does your story hinge on primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, or fear of death? Does it have physical and or emotional stakes? Your story might seem complex, but at the core it should be very basic and connect at a visceral level. People in China LOVED Titanic. Why? Because it is a love story. Love is basic. It is primal.

There are all kinds of methods of plotting, but before you start any novel, there are some fundamental questions we can use as a litmus test for our idea. Ask yourself:

Do I have a sympathetic protagonist? 

Notice I said sympathetic…not likable. Be careful here. If we are expecting readers to spend 10 hours (average time to read a novel) with our protagonist, it helps if they are rooting for him to win. If you have a rough protagonist, then you need to at least offer the reader a glimmer of hope that he can be redeemed. If he can’t be redeemed, then you must offer the reader something about your protagonist that puts the reader on his side.

For instance, Quentin Tarantino knew he had a potential problem in Pulp Fiction. His protagonists (Travolta & Jackson) happen to be a two hit men and human beings of the lowest sort. Tarantino was brilliant in how he handled introducing Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield. First, he makes them funny. They stop for a burger before the hit and get into this funny dialogue about the Big Mac vs. The Royale. So we find them funny and we relate. But then Tarantino takes it another step and makes the bad guy badder than these two hit men so that the audience will side with the lesser of two evils. When viewed “in relation” these guys are clear heroes. They are still deplorable, but they are sympathetic.

Do I have a genuine GOAL for my protagonist?

A lot of first-time novelists get fascinated writing novels about journals, letters and buried secrets. I have a theory about this. It is called, “We-Are-Squeaky-New-and-Don’t-Know-Jack-About-How-to-Plot Syndrome.” Guess how I know this? Yes, I was visited by the Bright Idea Fairy too. Shoot her. Now. Double-tap. It’s for the best.

Novels that involve a journal or finding about a secret past usually involve the newbie author’s favorite tactic…the flashback. Since we have no big goal at the end, forward momentum is scary, so we roll back…and this makes the reader feel as if she is trapped in the car with a teenager learning to drive a stick-shift. Journals and letters, in my opinion, are so attractive because they provide the unskilled author a contrived mechanism for stringing together unrelated vignettes. That is not a plot. Sorry. I was bummed too. That is okay, though. Everyone starts somewhere. I’m here to help :D.

Yes, you can use journals in your story, but seriously? How many best-selling novels have you seen that involve someone reading a journal? Things written in journals are in the past, which means they have already happened and the world didn’t end so who cares? It becomes a Watch out for that glacier! No rising stakes and no pressing danger. Watch out for the glacier! It’s moving at an inch a year, but watch out!

Conflict drives stories. My best advice? Journals are for self-actualization. Leave self-actualization for therapy. Want a gut-wrenching plot? Stick to the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy ;).

Stories can have a journal/letters, but they MUST ALSO have a main conflict and the journal/letters are merely a tool that drives the present conflict…which is your plot. The journal isn’t the plot. Neither are the letters. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants had conflict happening real-time. Yes, the novel contained each girl’s experience with the pants, but each girl’s story was a separate plot joined in one large plot and happening real-time. Each girl was facing a different challenge and had to mature in a different way, but the group of girls (the group is actually the protagonist) had to learn to mature while finding a way to hold on to childhood friendship.

Same with The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya-Sisterhood. The Ya-Ya Journal was critical for the daughter and mother (present-day) to repair the rift in their relationship. So there was a present-day problem that the journal solved, and basically you have a Fried Green Tomatoes. Two parallel plot lines and the present-day plot relies on past-time events to drive forward momentum in the present. Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook was the same thing. Two parallel love stories, but both had a plot arc. The love story told in the notebook drives the present-day love story in the nursing home.

Same with secrets. The secret must have something to do with the present-day story or it is just a contrivance. The secret can be a part of the story, but generally doesn’t work as the entire story. Linda Castillo executes this brilliantly in her novel Sworn to Silence. Chief of Police, Kate Burkholder, grew up Amish, but made a choice to live in the world with the English. She is the Chief of Police in a small Ohio community of both Amish and English, and she acts as a cultural bridge. When a serial killer begins butchering women, Kate leads the investigation, but a secret from her past holds clues to catching the present-day killer. Kate’s secret drives the forward momentum of the present-day plot, and adds mind-bending tension.

Is my story primal?

Beneath the empires and spaceships and unicorns, is your main plot driven by a basic human desire/need? Here is a list of some best-selling novels I’ve read to illustrate my point.

Michael Crichton’s Prey—Survival. Save/protect loved ones.

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic ParkDon’t get eaten. Protect loved ones.

Lee Child’s Killing FloorVengeance. Protect loved ones.

Suzanne Collins Hunger Games—Survive. Protect loved ones.

Cormac McCarthy The RoadSurvive. Protect loved ones.

Linda Castillo Sworn to Silence—Fear of death. Survive. Protect loved ones.

Jennifer Chiaverini The Aloha Quilt—Love. Sex. Protect loved ones. Survival.

Bob Mayer & Jennifer Crusie’s Wild Ride—Sex. Protect loved ones. Survival.

Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island—Survival. Vengeance. Protect loved ones.

Stephenie Meyer’s TwilightSex. Protect loved ones. Don’t get eaten.

Dennis Lehane’s Mystic RiverVengeance.

Okay, so as you can see, I read a lot of genres. But most great books can be boiled down to a very simple driving force. New writers very frequently rush into the writing with no idea of the story they are trying to tell. I know. I’ve been there. And since deep-down we know we do not have a core goal that is simple and primal, we try to compensate by making things more and more complicated. That’s why so many writers have a panic attack about the agent pitch session. We are forced to boil down our plot to the primal core…and we can’t because there isn’t one. So we ramble and blather and try to fit 400 pages of world-building complications into our pitch while trying not to throw up in our shoes (Been there. Done that. Got the T-Shirt).

Being complicated is like trying to use Bond-O putty to fix your plot. Won’t work. Strip that baby down and look at the bare bones. Simple. Primal. This is why gimmicks are a sticky wicket. Gimmicks make stories complicated instead of complex. Stay away.

Remember that there are no new plots. So why not take a story you really love, look at the plot, then make it your own? NYTBSA Bob Mayer frequently points out in his workshops that the award-winning novel A Thousand Acres is King Lear on an Iowa farm. In my pov, Twilight is Jane Eyre with vampires (and I am not alone in this assessment).

Instead of trying to totally revinvent story and plot as we understand it, why not take a book you love so much the pages are falling out of it, and see if you can use the premise in a new and exciting way?

Utilizing another author’s plot is not plagiarism. It’s smart. Remember…the number of plots is finite. I think this is where a lot of writers get stuck. Heck, I did! We believe we have to come up with a story never told before or risk being accused of plagiarism.

Not so.

Plagiarism is when someone takes the execution of another author’s plot and tries to hide that by only changing surface elements. So if I wrote a book called Evening about girl who moves from Texas to Northern California to fall in love with a vampire who merely glimmers in sunlight…. See the point? Actually a great way to come up with story ideas is to go to the IMDB and look at log-lines, then ask yourself how could you tell that story differently?

A timid romance author must travel to South America and join forces with a handsome opportunist to rescue her sister who’s been kidnapped by treasure-hunting thieves. (Romancing the Stone).

A shy librarian must travel to South Texas and join forces with a handsome biker to rescue her brother who has been kidnapped by desperate drug-dealers. (Kristen’s Made-Up Story).

See how you can take a story that has already been done and make it something amazing and new?

So what are some problems you guys are facing when it comes to plot? Do you have any resources to share? Have I scared the socks off you or offered you new inspiration? Share.

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

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

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Important Announcements

June Week 3’s Winner is Anne Mhairi Simpson. Please send your 1250 word Word doc to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

I am teaching TWO workshops at Write It Forward. Sign up HERE. There is a Becoming a Brand class for $20, but if you want to blog and you need my dedicated help to helping you find your own unique brand and develop a plan for blogging, then the $40 Blogging to Build a Brand will fit that need. In this class I will run you through exercises to help find and create a brand as unique as you and then tailor it to connect with your future fans.

Make sure you join our LOVE REVOLUTION over on Twitter by following and participating in the #MyWANA Twibe. Read this post to understand how this #MyWANA will totally transform your life and your author platform.

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

Today, we are going to talk a bit about failure. All writers who dare to dream seem to have this same fear–FAILURE. It can seem larger than life and everything fades away in the face of this looming beast. I want to let you in on a little secret. For many years I was the best, the Big Kahuna, the Big Gal on Campus. I was positively THE most successful person…at failing.

A little about me…

I was a high school drop out at the age of 15, then again at 16. I worked as a waitress, but was a really bad waitress. I lost my job and returned to school. I finally graduated high school at the age of 19. No one figured I would make much out of my life since it’s highly likely I graduated last in my class. I think by the time you get a GPA as low as mine was, they just start listing you alphabetically.

I came from a military family, so I decided to enlist in the Army…only I got sick in the middle of the physical and failed. Doc gave me a medical disqualification (DQ).

Great.

So, I dusted myself off and attended junior college. I figured I’d go to school and try the Navy. I come from a family of Squids, so that wasn’t so bad. I put in all my paperwork…then they found out about the Army. Sigh. Apparently a medical DQ lasted two years.

No Navy for me.

Back to the drawing board (school). I knew the medical DQ would run out, so I worked really hard and ended up winning a full military scholarship to become a doctor. I didn’t really want to become a doctor, but this was the best scholarship and I was broke ergo not picky. I transferred to T.C.U. and began pre-med. I swore in to the Air Force (yes, I made my rounds of all the branches) and pledged my life to serving my country as a future military doctor.

Two years in, I was a shining scholar with a 3.79 average. Then, in March of 1995, Fort Worth was hit with an ice storm and T.C.U. refused to cancel classes. On my way to class, I slipped and fell and hit my lower back on a concrete curb…and fractured it.

Bye, bye military. Bye-bye scholarship. Bye-bye medical school.

I returned to school a semester later. I had to use a cane for eight months as my back healed and there was no such thing as handicapped access to anything in those days. It seemed every class I had signed up for was on the third floor, too. But I did my best and took it one class at a time.

I didn’t want to be a doctor if the DoD wasn’t picking up the tab. Didn’t have the money. So I changed majors because I could no longer afford to be on a medical track. This was all well and good except that it set me back. Instead of being a junior, I was back to being a sophomore.

Felt a little like high school.

But, I had changed degrees and really loved political economy. I studied the Middle East and North Africa and felt I could make a difference. So you can imagine my excitement when I was asked to help with a business development project in Syria. I would live in the Yarmouk Camp (a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria) and help modernize a paper facility.

Well, that was the plan at least.

The day after graduation I hopped on a plane. I was full of hope, dreams and passion, and just knew I would make a difference. I would knock this project out of the park and it would look SO awesome on my grad school application (I was applying for a special doctorate program).

Yeah….um, no.

It was a great experience but pretty much a huge failure. No matter what we tried, we hit a wall of bureaucratic red tape and corruption. I came back to the States and gave up on grad school. The hallowed halls of academia were too far removed from reality and I realized it was no longer for me.

I went to work in software sales and then paper sales and was dismal at both. I was a hard worker, but it always seemed that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and the competition was eating me alive. Thus, it was only a matter of time before my position—and me—would be eliminated.

I failed at high school, failed at the military, failed to become a doctor or a professor and now I was quite possibly THE worst salesperson on the planet.

…and I wouldn’t trade one minute of it.

My failures taught me far more than success ever did. Many of you reading this are terrified of failure. I want to let you in on a little secret–Failure is not the end. Failure is a teacher. It will guide you to who you should be. Too often we give failure too much power. We think it is the end, when in reality it is training us for a better future. What if I HAD been successful? What if I was now a military flight surgeon? I wouldn’t be doing what I love and I wouldn’t be here to help you guys, to let you know it isn’t as bad as you might think.

Failing in school taught me to keep pressing on, even when that meant being embarassed. It was humiliating being 19 in an English class full of 14 year-olds.

Failing at the military taught me that some doors shut for very good reasons. Sometimes our prayers are answered, it’s just the answer happens to be “no.”

Failing in Syria taught me discernment. I jumped into a project before I thought it out fully. I wouldn’t trade the experience for all the gold in the world, but the project was doomed from the start. I should have done more research and planned better.

Failing at sales taught me that trying to do everything myself was a formula for disaster. It taught me to form teams and that relationships are the most important possession we have. When I was in sales, I didn’t want to bother other people and I tried to do too much on my own. My failure was an inability to delegate and form a team I could depend upon.

I now understand that any success I enjoy is not because of ME, because I am anything special. It is because of opportunities, blessings and support granted me from other people.

Our success is only a culmination of a lot of team support. There are no self-made best-sellers.

We can’t do this alone.

Failure is scary, but failure is priceless to the person who can embrace it. Failure should be rewarded because it means we are taking a risk. People who never fail rarely do anything remarkable. Nothing great was ever created in the comfort zone. Sure there are people who seem to succeed at everything they do, but the Midas Touch is not the norm. I want to learn from great people who failed yet pressed on and succeeded despite setbacks. I want to learn about creating wealth from Donald Trump, not the latest lottery winner.

Many of you who read my blogs want to be successful writers. If I can give you any advice, it is to learn to embrace failure. When we are in the middle of the storm, it is hard to see the bigger picture. It is tough to see how these setbacks and disappointment might actually be shaping a more brilliant future than we can ever imagine.

When I was a little girl I dreamed of being a famous writer and teacher, but I was told that was a foolish dream. So I traded in that dream for more practical dreams—a military career, becoming a doctor, sales. And you know what? I thank God every day that I failed at everything I ever tried because eventually I failed so much I no longer feared it, and THAT is when success started coming my way.

I took bigger and bigger risks and was more willing to throw my heart and all my passions into something because I finally understood failure never meant the end…it just meant the beginning of something new and I would be stronger for it.

The strongest blades are forged in the hottest fires. Adversity is the fire that removes the impurities in our character. Failure is the forge that creates excellence. One of the strongest forms of steel in the world is Damascus steel. Damascus steel is fired, folded and hammered hundreds of times, and it is this fiery brutal birth that makes it so strong. What about you? Are you a failure, or are you on your way to being Damascus steel?

Fifteen years ago, I had the talent to do great things and reach great heights, but I didn’t have the character to stay there. Failure taught me to work hard, set goals and, above all, remain humble and value people. YOU guys are my most valuable possession. You guys are my team and my support and I cannot reach my dreams without your help. It is my honor and privilege to keep your company, to hear your voice and to learn from you. If I can offer anything in return, it is my support and lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime of doing just about everything wrong.

Failure is our friend. When I get what I like to call a “God’s-eye point of view” and see the big picture, I am SO thankful I didn’t succeed in the military, medical school or even sales. Success would have robbed me of all of you. I remember the tears and the depression and the self-loathing I felt after each failure, but what if I had been given a look at my future? I would have danced for joy!

We all start out a hunk of metal, just like the Damascus steel blade. Adveristy and failure fire out the impurities and strengthen our character and resolve. Failure might sting now, but if you could see the bigger picture, I imagine you would dance for joy as well.

What are some challenges you guys have faced? What did you learn? Are you facing something now and feel as if you are losing your nerve? What lessons do you think you can take away?

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

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

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Important Announcements

I am teaching TWO workshops at Write It Forward. Sign up HERE. There is a Becoming a Brand class for $20, but if you want to blog and you need my dedicated help to helping you find your own unique brand and develop a plan for blogging, then the $40 Blogging to Build a Brand will fit that need. In this class I will run you through exercises to help find and create a brand as unique as you and then tailor it to connect with your future fans.

Make sure you join our LOVE REVOLUTION over on Twitter by following and participating in the #MyWANA Twibe. Read this post to understand how this #MyWANA will totally transform your life and your author platform.

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