Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: characters

Today is Free for All Friday so I get to talk about what I want. Not quite sure how this differs from most days, but the alliteration–Free for All Friday–makes me happy, so there :P.  This has been an awesome week, a week I have waited almost two years for. Did I get a sweet publishing deal? Not yet. Did I befriend celebrity author Sandra Brown? No, she has pretty awesome security people…and a sprinkler system. No, better than a publishing deal or a celebrity author friend… Epic Games released Gears of War Three .

Six years ago, my brother told me of this device called the X-Box. I was not interested in his silly reindeer games. Like many other Gen Xers, I grew up on Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, Centipede and Pac-Man, etc. Yes, these games were addictive, but they almost too accurately mirrored life. They started out new and fun and slow and then just got faster and faster and faster UNTIL YOU DIED. So when my brother approached me about playing a game known as HALO, I only agreed to play to shut him up.

Jaysen, where are you? Someone keeps shooting me in the back of the head.

My brother might not be the best introduction into the world of gaming. He believes that you learn by dying. Not doing. You read correctly. DYING. For two hours, I found myself trapped in corners or under staircases because I didn’t know how to work the controller, thus I spent most of the time seeing only my cyborg feet and getting shot in my cyborg a$$. Not only was I supposed to keep the aliens from killing me, but my brother would pop out of nowhere and shoot me in the face and run away while my character regenerated (respawned).

Jerk.

So we somehow escape the craft that has been boarded by aliens and crash-land on some earth-like planet, where we see this giant ring in the sky (the HALO and the center of the game’s storyline). I would have loved to have learned more, but my brother found a Hummer and promptly ran me over….then ran me over again…and yes, again. I finally managed to respawn and beat him to the Hummer. Ha! Revenge…

….so he threw a plasma grenade in my back seat and killed me again. Yes, I come from a family of sadists and I am their favorite object of torment entertainment.

The odd thing, however, is how well my brother knows me. If he would have held my hand and gently introduced me to gaming, he wouldn’t have ignited my competitive nature. I was going to show him.

Shoot me in the a$$. I’ll show YOU!

The next day I recruited my six-year-old nephew Josh to teach me the Jedi X-Box ways. Josh was a better teacher. Granted, he got us lost…all the time and took ALL the ammunition, but it was a step up from being run over 42 times in less than a minute and a half. I had to grow strong and become a warrior.

*insert montage music* If you need to do a lot in a really short time, you need a montage! A montage!

I trained using HALO. Eventually I graduated to playing Dungeons & Dragons Heroes with my nephew and twin cousins (all six years old). We played all day (it was summer and they wouldn’t stay outside). We learned to fight, to cheat and to win. I gained legend-status among all 4-7 year olds on the block. I gamed three days straight until I’d finally beaten Halo and D&D. The very small kindergartener bards would long sing of my adventures and draw Crayon depictions of my many battles.

After beating HALO 1 & 2 and D&D I finally met my match….Enclave. To this day it is the only game I have never beaten.

*Note to game designers: We need to actually be able to win. Thank you.*

It took seven months of playing Enclave almost every day to finally give up and admit a game had bested me. Ah, but I never could have known how this worthy adversary prepared me for my finest hours of battle.

GEARS.

The Gears of War games are not games; they are an experience. What makes them so addictive really isn’t the battling monsters (cool) or even the Lancer, which is a a SAW fitted with a saw–literally it’s a semi-automatic weapon fitted with a chainsaw (awesome)–or even the Torque Bow (exploding arrows & AWESOME-SAUCE)…it is the story.

Gears is some of THE best writing anywhere. Most novels and movies cannot compare. The characters are real and it is easy to get emotionally attached. Each level reveals more and more of the overall story-problem. There is a plot and we as gamers are participating in this real-time adventure. There is tension and conflict on many, many levels, not only from the enemy, but from allies as well.

Gears is a story of the underdog–Alpha squad fails on their mission to map the enemy tunnels, and Delta Squad, the rejects, take up where their brothers fail. They rise from disgrace to become heroes. Gears is a story of family, love, sacrifice. It is a story of redemption.

Sure the shooting bad guys and making stuff go BOOM is a lot of fun and strangely cathartic, but the real draw to this game is the characters. We want to understand, to make sense of why this war ever happened. We care. We want to play the next level and the next because beating the game is the only way we will ever sleep. We need resolution. We need the bad guys to be defeated. It is a strange desire. We need the world to be saved while at the same time we are hoping the save is temporary because we want a chance to be able to save the world again.

Unlike the old arcade games, the new games–HALO, Gears, FEAR 3, etc.–have incorporated the essence of what it means to be human. Stories. We are a story people, and that is how you hook us. Stories are in our DNA…along with violent tendencies and addictive behaviors. Marry all three and you get a winner.

The Gears saga sucks you in and you cannot help but care. For those Gear Heads out there, tell me you didn’t have to pause the game in Gears 2 when Dom found his wife. You KNOW you cried. Even the dudes. You got tears. It’s okay. You’re among friends.

Sure there are all kinds of asshats out there who have played video games until they starved to death or died from their heart exploding from too many energy drinks. I can’t speak for them. I have yet to resort to wearing adult diapers during gameplay (been close, but there are lines best left uncrossed). But gaming has this wonderful way of uniting those of us who never understood football. We can have cool gamer tags (I am known as Miss Mayhem) and meet on-line to….play. We can shoot each other in the face and play King of the Hill and laugh and be childlike.

Gaming is also great for dating. It’s how I met my husband. He’d never played before. Mwah ha ha ha ha.

“Hey, little boy. Ever heard of X-Box? I have free candy.”

Hey, it worked. Less than a year later we were married.

Gaming is actually a great way of getting to know who people really are. Ladies, if you are single, dudes dig gamer chicks. Learn to game. Something about a woman and a shotgun that is infinitely hot. Ah, but there is more to gaming than just being smokin’ hot. This is one of the best ways for us (ladies) to see who a man really is.

Can this dude play as an effective part of a team? Does he lose his temper? Can he have fun? Does your gaming partner hog all the treasures with no consideration for others? Is your gaming partner an ammo whore, keeping all of it for himself? Does he share frag grenades and ammo cans?

Science shows that a man who won’t share ammo isn’t worth dating let alone marrying.

Does your partner charge off ahead and leave you to the monsters? My husband and I are such an effective alien-killing force that frequently even the game can’t keep up. THAT is teamwork. And the best part is we get to have fun, unwind…and PLAY.

Stories unite us and ignite us. Being able to PLAY is key to balance. Oh, I have to confess that after several bad bouts of tendonitis, I have learned more moderation when it comes to gaming. Yet, I still want to plunge ahead and unlock the next clue, the next key, the next adventure. And this is why I LOVE Gears. I have to confess that one of my big life goals is to write a video game. There, I said it.

So what is your obsession? How you do play? Are you a gamer? What are your favorite games? Why? What makes you passionate for your hobby? Do you love Gears? Tell us why. Here is the Gears 3 trailer for those who want a taste of what I ambabbling  raving about. LOVE THIS! Yes, my leg is thumping.

I do want to hear from you guys!

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!

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.

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.

Last week, I introduced you guys to my first three Deadly Sins of Writing. Many of you, in the comments, requested I keep going and reveal the rest of my Deadly Sins. All I have to say is, y’all asked for it :D.

Creating great characters has to be one of the toughest tasks for any fiction writer to successfully accomplish. Let’s be honest. Plot is important, but characters have the power to make or break a story. Most of us don’t remember plot…we remember people. We identify. There is something about that character resonates within our soul, and we’re hooked.

Today’s blog will help you give life to great characters. How? By teaching you not to kill them.

There are a number of ways to strangle, smother, or otherwise crush the life from what could have been a wonderful character. One popular method of involuntary homicide (character-cide?) is the ever-tempting Bog of Back-Story.

Like a real bog, the Bog of Back-Story looks lush, verdant, and innocent from afar. One might even easily mistake this smooth green landscape for solid ground…but take a closer look. This sucker is nothing but mud and muck and quicksand. Step in deep enough and we ain’t getting out.

I have edited hundreds of short stories and novels. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read a really clever story that had some great forward momentum…only for the author to stop and go back in time to explain why such-and-such did thus-and-such. What? Huh?

It is my opinion that the Bog of Backstory is most often the by-product of our failure to plan ahead of time. Writers (especially new writers) are super excited to start writing, so they often charge into a plot without understanding the psychological terrain of the characters ahead of time. As a consequence, it is then easy for characters to wander off the path (plot) and end up stuck in the mire of memories and recollections.

New writers often try to thread flashback after flashback into the plot as they try to understand who their characters really are. Weighting down any plot with bag after bag of memories, dreams and flashbacks is a surefire way to sink any story…and kill all souls on board.

Failure to understand key characters ahead of time often has terrible effects.

Back Story Kills Plot Momentum

Loading back story onto the narrative often has the effect of riding in a car with a fifteen-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift. We just about get going and it looks promising and….we roll backwards, stall and have to wait a few minutes to get going. Just like we wouldn’t want to make a 700 mile drive this way, readers don’t want to read a novel this way either. It leaves them beat up, exhausted and in a foul mood.

Back Story Creates Fish Heads

On virtually every first novel I’ve edited, there is what author Candy Havens calls a fish head. It is almost always 100 pages long. Why? Because the writer who takes off writing without knowing her characters needs roughly a hundred pages to figure them out. The first hundred pages of first-time novels (98% of the time) are something that can be chopped off and thrown away…ergo the term fish head.

Every character sounds alike and the dialogue is flat. Then, suddenly about page 100, the characters start coming alive and develop their own voices. It is also about this point the writer finally settles on what the real story problem is.

Doing detailed character backgrounds ahead of time can prevent fish heads. Take time to write out each major character’s story. Write freely and let your imagination go wild. Then, once you get to the plotting, it will be easier to see what parts of the back story are good to harvest for your main story for plot and even sub-plots.

Back Story is Important but not Always Relevant

Back story is critical for our characters. In fact, in my current critique group, highly detailed character backgrounds are the first step before ANY plotting. It is absolutely essential to know each of the characters and why they are good, evil, confused, etc.

Why?

Because we are all the sum of our experiences and our backgrounds affect our choices, body language, dialogue and decision-making. Characters need to be real people with baggage (Just because they have baggage, doesn’t mean the reader wants to hear about it. That is therapy, not fiction).

What is NOT, relevant, however, is that the reader know ALL of these critical details unless they apply to the current story problem. We don’t need a heavy-handed flashback to when our heroine was a little girl and her father left her and there was great crying and gnashing of teeth.

Really.

We (readers) really don’t need to know the why behind everything. Don’t believe me? Go read my post about why the Star Wars prequels sucked. Explaining is not necessary and it ruins tension (The Force was better before it was explained).

Yes, our readers might want to know why, but let them suffer. Not giving readers what they want when they want it is exactly what keeps them turning pages and buying books. It’s called dramatic tension.

Instead of dumping a crude flashback in the beginning so your reader will understand Such-and-Such…let them wonder. It’s good for them and it’s good for your career.

Think of it this way.

Writers are word magicians. If we tell the audience how we made the woman float, we ruin the show.

Back Story Needs to Be Used Sparingly

Back story gives life to a character much like water gives life to a plant. However, filling a plot with back story (like overwatering) will just kill forward momentum and drown your character. Part of growing as novelists requires we learn finesse. Many of us, when we start our writing, are very heavy-handed and it takes time, practice and study to acquire the skill of folding back story seamlessly into the narrative. We need to learn to be so smooth that the reader never even sees what we’re doing.

A quick example:

“Fifi, are you going to the dance tonight?” asked Lola.

Fifi wanted to meet up with Josh, and hoped the night would go as planned. But, bad things had happened before. Fifi thought back to the time her father had promised he would take her to the Father-Daughter Dance. She had been waiting weeks to wear the pink chiffon gown her mother had bought her for the occasion. Even though her mother had forbidden her to wear it, Fifi would sneak the dress out of her closet and twirl in front of the mirror like a ballerina. She remembered counting the days up to the dance and how it had started to rain and her mother begged her father not to go to the store for a corsage to go with Fifi’s dress…

And we have just taken a side-trip into The Land of “Who Cares?”

This approach takes away from the current story problem and trails the reader down a story thread that may or may not be relevant to the current story problem. Yes, Fifi might have had a tragedy, but telling all the details kills the mystery and ruins the momentum of the current conflict.

So instead, try something like…

“Fifi? Are You going to the dance tonight?” asked Lola.

“I don’t know. I don’t have the best history with dances,” Fifi replied. “People tend to die.”

See how much shorter this is? It gives back story, but doesn’t tell so much the reader gets lost and distracted. Also, by not telling everything, the reader wants to know more.

Fiction is a lot like dating. We writers are courting the reader. Give too much too soon, and it’s too easy. We ruin the thrill. Don’t give enough? The reader goes looking for more exciting fiction.

So have you escaped the Bog of Back Story and lived to tell the tale? What techniques do you recommend for avoiding this writing pitfall? Have you thrown a book across the room because it kept going back in time? Or does it not bother you? Come on and share your thoughts.

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!

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–Ruth Nestvold. Please send your 1250 word Word document to kristen @ 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 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.