Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: creating a core story problem

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Hmmm, what’s the story behind THIS?

There are all kinds of arguments about which area of craft is the most important for creating great fiction. Plot? Character? Voice? Theme? My opinion. They’re all organs in one body. Our brains will still work if our lungs have bronchitis, but maybe not at an optimal level. Similarly, there are people with brain injuries who have a strong heart. A body can “live” without everything operating in concert, and so can any story.

It’s ideal to hone our skills in all areas, and our goal is to be skilled at all of them. Can we be equally skilled? That’s another debate for another post.

I will say that plot (skeleton/brain) is very important. Our characters (heart) are only as strong as the crucible. Ultimately, all stories are about people. We might not recall every detail of a plot, but we DO remember characters. Ah, but here’s the sticky wicket. WHY do we remember characters? Because of plot. Stories are more than about people. Great stories are people overcoming great odds.

We don’t remember Luke Skywalker because he hung out on Tatooine waxing rhapsodic about his plight as a moisture farmer. We remember him and his allies because they went up against seemingly unbeatable odds and WON.

Yet, even if we come up with the coolest plot in the world, there are elements of character that should also be in the mix, lest our novel can become the literary equivalent of a CGI Star Wars Prequel NIGHTMARE. Characters should develop organically or the reader will call FOUL.

Additionally, if our characters are as deep as an Amarillo puddle, it will be virtually impossible for readers to emotionally connect.

Among many other reasons, I think this is why the Star Wars Prequels were like a bad acid trip at Chuck E. Cheese. Anakin was utterly unlikable and unredeemable simply because the writers were more focused on how many characters they could make into McDonald’s Happy Meal toys instead of sticking to the fundamentals of GOOD storytelling.

But Obi-Wan doesn’t take me seriously. Whaaaaahhhhhh! *SLAP*

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If we’re missing emotional connection between the audience and our characters, our story loses critical wattage. What are some ways we can help form that connection? Today…

The Wound

Real humans have wounds that drive our wants, needs, perceptions, and reactions and so should all our characters (even the Big Boss Troublemaker-Antagonist). Recently, I was helping a student of my Antag-Gold class plot her novel. She had a good protagonist who was a control freak. My question: WHY?

Yes, genetics will have a role in forging our personality, but genes do not a good story make. Having a character be a certain way simply because we need them to be or act that way will work, but so will a heart with damaged valves.

Wounds drive how we perceive our world, what we believe we want, and how we will (or won’t) interact with others. This is critical for generating story tension and character arc.

For instance, my father abandoned us, my mother was chronically ill, and my little brother was legally blind. I was left to grow up too fast and take care of far too much way too early. THIS is why I struggle with being a control freak. From MY wound, %#!* didn’t get done unless I did it.

Additionally, because I grew up in the wake of constant broken promises, I’ve had to work hard to trust. It’s been a challenge to delegate and allow others to fail or succeed without my meddling. Also in my growing up years, achievement=love/attention. That wound drove me to seek dreams that weren’t mine to please others. I had to “arc” to walk away from people-pleasing if I wanted fulfillment.

Wounds Don’t Have to Be Big to Be BIG

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Thomas Ricker.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Thomas Ricker.

Often, new writers will default to wounds like rape or death or some big tragedy to create the wound. To be clear, I am not saying these aren’t viable wounds, but never underestimate the “smaller” and more relatable emotional injuries. The more a reader can empathize with one or more characters, the deeper that connection becomes.

Not everyone has lost their family to a sudden alien invasion— 😉 — but they can empathize with maybe never living up to expectations, being bullied, or not fitting in. LOTR rests on a small band of Hobbits who believe they are too little to make a BIG difference.

Perhaps the character is the invisible middle child trying to forge an identity, the eldest trying to hold the world together, or the baby who “got away with murder” and “was handed everything.” Never underestimate family dynamics as sources for realistic and powerful psychic wounds.

For instance, my father was all play no work. Unfortunately, we suffered the consequences. Ironically, my grandfather was all work no play. Doubly ironic, my childlike father created a workaholic daughter (me); like thread, one loop feeding into the next weaving the “pattern” until someone changes “the pattern.”

Arc.

I’ve had to learn to lighten the hell up and balance The Force. But my workaholic, overachieving nature served up far more thorns than fruits.

Wounds Will Distort Happiness

Wounds generate illusions. Because I grew up poor and lived hand-to-mouth all through college, I “believed” that money and financial security would make me happy. At 27, I made more money than any person in their 20s should make…and I was miserable. I was eaten alive with emptiness. I’d achieved all that should have filled that hole—the college degree, the premium job and premium pay. And yet?

I was the person stranded in a desert gulping sand I believed was water from an oasis.

Am I "there" yet?
Am I “there” yet?

Character arc comes when a protagonist is placed in a problem strong enough to challenge the illusion and break it. The protagonist believes X=happiness/fulfillment. It is only through the story problem that the protagonist rises to become a hero, a person capable of realizing they were wrong and that they’d been coveting a shill at the expense of the gold.

Thus, when creating characters, keep the wound at the forefront of your mind.

How does it affect what he/she believes about their own identity? What do they believe will make them happy? What is it that you (Author God) know that’s really what will make them happy? What needs to change for that character to lose the blinders? What is the perfect problem (plot) to force the protagonist to see the hard truth of the unhealed wound?

What are your thoughts? Writing can be healing and therapeutic. Have you ever siphoned from your own hurt-reservoir to deepen your characters? Can you think of how even small hurts can become super-sized? What are some ways you’ve witnessed wounds driving people in wrong directions toward false happiness? Have you been there, done that and earned the t-shirt?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Winner for August is Lara McGill. Lara, please send your choice of 20 pages (5000 words) in a WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. You can also choose to send a query letter (250 words) or a synopsis (up to 750 words). Congratulations!

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

Back to School!

Upcoming Classes: NEW!!! Going Pro Series

TONIGHT is Going Pro Craft, then Going Pro SocialMedia/Branding September 6th, Going Pro Business September 10th, Going Pro All the Way! (ALL THREE).

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

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Last post, I talked about the increasing popularity of series, novellas, shorts and “episodic” writing. Of course, this assertion probably stirred panic in those writers who simply aren’t wired to write series. Personally, I would like to try writing a series, but we’ll see. I might be a stand-alone gal, too.

Let me offer a bit of comfort. The rule that we shouldn’t write to the market still holds true in this case. Just like we shouldn’t decide to write a Vampire-Post-Apacolyptic-Self-Help because those are hot, we shouldn’t take on shorts or series if they aren’t our thing.

Epics, Shorts, and Series are NOT New

What many people might miss is that epics and shorts are not new. With the advent of the nifty thingamajig—the “printing press”—pamphlets were all the rage back in the 1800s. In fact, if we look at early writing, we see two very divergent sizes. On the end of brevity? Ben Franklin Poor Man’s Almanac or even Sir Author Conan Doyle’s short stories. The deep end? The breathtakingly-long-and-detailed-OMG War and Peace by Tolstoy—which demonstrates clearly that, when an author is paid by the word, he will pad that sucker more than a freshman term paper.

Even Charles Dickens danced both sides of the length-spectrum. A Christmas Carol versus A Tale of Two Cities.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

In the early 20th century, pulp fiction was extremely popular. People loved short works that fit in a pocket, ergo, the term “pocket books.” But, as the traditional publishing model evolved and books became bigger business, publishers realized they could charge more money for a longer book. This didn’t mean the audience for short stories and novellas suddenly went away. It had more to do with a business model than reader preferences.

We see the same with epic high fantasy and science fiction. When I was a kid, books big enough to brain a burglar were hot. Um, Clan of the Cave Bear? Ah, but the publishers realized that long books presented a couple of problems.

First, if the word count got too big, the font was so small readers needed a microscope to read it. Secondly, a big fat honkin’ book took up a LOT of shelf space. Why would a publisher bank on FIVE 140,000 word books when they could encourage writers to limit word count and be able to shelve and sell TEN 70,000 word books?

But again, shelf space, cost of paper/shipping/shelving, profit-models didn’t mean that readers who loved 140,000 book died off or evaporated.

The Digital Paradigm Revival

When I began as a writer, agents were quick to turn down short stories, novellas, epics, poetry, etc. It wasn’t because there weren’t readers for these types of writing; it was that the profit simply wasn’t there in a paper-based-brick-and-mortar model. And, to be blunt, I can’t blame New York. I remember being a young whipper snapper inhaling Tolkien, but my eyes were better.

By the time I reached my adult years, reading 1200 pages with 9 font was far too grueling.

Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of Christian Guthier
Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of Christian Guthier

The e-reader has solved this problem. It’s made short works profitable. For those who are great at writing shorter works or serialized works, you can now access the audience that loves them and in a way that doesn’t automatically land you in the red.

For those who are strong at more epic fiction, now you can either publish one long book or break it into installments. I know I never would have been able to read Game of Thrones in paper without going BLIND. With my Kindle? I can now enjoy those super long adventures I adored in my youth.

Yes, there is a lot of chaos, confusion and growing pains as the publishing world shifts and grows and molts the old skin that no longer fits. In the midst of this, however, there is now room for more writers, more works, and more types of work, which should be very encouraging.

Also, writers can now enjoy far greater flexibility. Sure, if you want to publish traditionally, you can! But if you have the right contract, there is nothing stopping you from writing shorts or novellas or series or testing other genres in between books if you want to. Keep the fan fires burning in between.

There is ALWAYS an Audience

If you want to write stand-alones only? Great. Do it. That is your strength. Don’t feel that because series are hot you need to suddenly retool everything. There is just as much of an audience for the stand-alone as there is for the shorter or way longer stuff. The only difference is that publishing has been feeding your audience for the past couple decades, whereas those who liked super-short or uber-long had to read older books or look to magazines or e-zines.

If you DO, however, want to write a series, there are some fundamentals to ensure that your plot skeleton is strong and compelling. Plot is the delivery mechanism for character. Our characters can only be as strong as the problems they face.

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Last post I talked about loving Battlestar Galactica. I can SEE why this series is so iconic. Hubby and I went back and watched Caprica because we were interested in what happened before the Cylon revolt. How did the Cylons come to be? The first few episodes? LOVED them. Now? I can see why the series wasn’t renewed. The overall plot problem is too small and too weak. There is no impending threat, so the series, for me, is fizzling.

Also, without a BIG and COMPELLING story problem, the individual characters aren’t as strong. The pressure is weak, thus the characters are too. Instead of truly heroic feats, I am seeing more and more melodrama and getting to where I hate almost everyone. Why? Because in Battlestar Galactica characters did awful, bad and stupid things, but we could forgive them. They were running for their lives and staring into the face of extinction. The story PROBLEM permitted us to give them grace.

In Caprica there is no large problem so this makes the characters petty and unlikable. Also, in Battlestar Galactica we knew the log-line. The human race must destroy or evade the Cylons and find Earth before they are rendered extinct by their own creation.

The audience in ONE SENTENCE knows the story, whether it is three episodes or thirty. GOAL: Find Earth. Every setback that keeps Earth out of reach or dashes hope of even finding Earth or any hint Earth might not exist makes us nervous. It is true dramatic tension.

Caprica? Once I got an idea of how the Cylons came to be? I grew bored. There is NO imminent threat, no crucible, no idea of an overall problem in need of solving. Each episode is just “stuff happening.” It is breaking one of the core rules of a good series. Every episode should be able to stand alone. Every episode should have a clear smaller goal that is a step toward reaching the larger goal.

Original image courtesy of flowcomm, via Flickr Commons
Original image courtesy of flowcomm, via Flickr Commons

And, to be blunt, Caprica might simply be facing the problem most prequels have. We already know the end. We already know the Cylons will rebel and wage war and nearly wipe out humans. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy I watched Caprica because now I understand the Cylons more and the humans sorta deserved what they got. But, it is tough to have a ticking clock and a disaster to be averted when the audience already knows the humans will “lose.”

Whether we write short works, long works, in-between works, serialized or unserialized, the same “rules” apply. We’ll talk more later about how to write a strong series, but a great start no matter what kind of story—short, long, in-between, connected, unconnected—is to create a clear, compelling, story-worthy problem.

What are your thoughts? Do you have series that fizzled for you for the same reasons? There wasn’t a strong problem or a clear problem? Can you think of stories you loved versus ones that lost your interest because it devolved into confusion or melodrama? Are you contemplating a series? Why?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

For a LONG-TERM plan for a fit, healthy platform, please check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World.

 

 

Original image via Wikimedia Commons, Nuclear Weapons Test Romeo
Original image via Wikimedia Commons, Nuclear Weapons Test Romeo

Since I am dedicating this week to the apocalypse to support my friend, Piper Bayard, I thought we’d take a day to look at the Bookpocalypse. What IS a Bookpocalypse? The Bookpocalypse is when you realize that first book you’ve been working, reworking, taking to critique, etc. is a train wreck and, for all intents and purposes, unsalvageable.

I went through this, too. Back in the 90s, when I began my tome, I mistakenly believed that making As in English naturally qualified me to be a best-selling author.

Yeah, um. NO.

And there comes that point that we need to be honest why our book is being rejected (or, in the new paradigm, not selling). This can be a very depressing low for any artist. I still remember the day it dawned on me my first book was mess and it was time to pull the plug. This is why I coined the phrase, Persistence can look a lot like stupid. 

If we don’t have a basic understanding of some key fundamentals, more work or harder work is wasted effort. We need to work smarter, not harder.

Sometimes we need professional help. This help can come from reading craft books, dissecting fiction similar to what we want to write, studying movies, attending conferences and workshops. But sometimes it can come through having a strong editor.

A Story of Seeds

Piper won’t mind me telling you this story since we laugh about it now. Of course we weren’t really laughing through the process, and it did seem a strange request that Piper requested a lock of hair part-way through edits.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

But, the story goes like this.

Piper met me at the DFW Writers Workshop Conference. She met me at a fortuitous point because I believed that antagonists were key to plotting and had spent the previous year studying all the masters with the hopes of creating a program to help writers (especially new writers) be able to create a core story problem, a solid plot, and dimensional characters quickly.

I’d been part of critique groups for years and watched writers all around who kept working on the same novel and getting rejected year after year. I knew there had to be a better way. What if these authors did land the Magical Three-Book Deal? NY wasn’t going to give them fifteen years to write the next books.

There had to be a way to teach new writers how to ramp up the creative process and generate solid books at a professional pace.

When I met Piper, she was shopping a completed manuscript called Seeds. Though I was no longer taking on editing work at this point, I gave in when it came to Piper because she is cute and fun to hang out with. I agreed to edit the first hundred pages because Piper was headed to another conference the next month and a big-time editor had expressed interest in her story idea.

Piper sends me the document and…

Kill. Me. Now.

Three pages in, I sensed we needed to call Literary FEMA. All the rookie mistakes. ALL OF THEM. I remember hitting about page 65 and calling her.

Me: Um, Piper, you, uh, have a lot of characters.

Piper: There aren’t that many.

Me: Are they all relevant to the story?

Piper: Well, maybe not in this book, but it’s going to be a series.

Me: *head desk* Okay, but still you have A LOT of characters.

Piper: Not really.

Me: I counted. I am at page 65 and you have almost 70 named characters. When you name them, that is a cue we need to care. It’s impossible to care about 70 people in less than 70 pages.

She still didn’t believe me, so I went back through the manuscript and not only highlighted all the named characters (which included pets and extended family) but I wrote the names in a list.

Piper: Oh, wow. I guess I do have too many characters.

Me: Ya think?

I continued my edits and notes and this is how I earned the name The Death Star. By the end of the tortuous hundred pages, I told Piper that her book was all over the place.

There were scenes that were irrelevant because she’d missed her core antagonist and core story problem. Because of this, the rest was just filler. She was “playing Literary Barbies” as I like to say.

Characters were talking to each other with no conflict, no scene goal. Melodrama filled in the gaps. Characters were psychologically inconsistent and half I would have recommended seek therapy and get medication. Their emotions were all over, namely to manufacture tension that couldn’t be created any other way (because no core story problem/antagonist).

I could tell she had a great storytelling voice (and a great idea for a novel), she just didn’t understand basic fundamentals, and that was derailing what she’d been trying to accomplish the past nine years.

I recommended we start a new book so she could learn the basics with a bit of guidance and then she’d have the skills to fix Seeds. But, Piper was determined to finish what she started and I knew this would mean a mass genocide of Little Darlings.

I only agreed to help for two reasons. First, Piper was a former lawyer so I knew she had a fabulous work ethic and tough skin. Secondly, I’d never tried to resurrect a novel from the dead and wondered if it was even possible. I knew it would stretch my skills and teach me just as much as it would teach Piper.

I stripped everything she’d written down to a single story problem then made her develop her core antagonist. Then we plotted from there, keeping and developing only the characters salient to the plot. I’d love to say this was easy for Piper, but I am pretty sure she was plotting her book and my death at a number of points along this journey.

At first, we would argue over characters or scenes she wanted to keep. Then, over time, I’d hear her starting to defend, and my response was, Have fun storming the castle.

Eventually, Piper learned to laugh and give in when I said this, namely because every time I recommended something be changed, moved or removed and she didn’t do it? She’d go back and read and see what I was talking about and just end up doing what I advised anyway.

A lot of working with an editor is developing trust, btw ;).

But, after all of this, I am happy we took the hard road. Piper endured her Bookpocalypse and came out stronger in the end. Seeds was burned and buried, and what grew from the ashes was Firelands.

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Not only did Piper get a traditional deal, this book has become a best-selling dystopian that has received glowing AP reviews and was blurbed by numerous New York Times best-selling authors. She wrote a funny blog post about this same journey we’re discussing today in her post, The Nine-Year Baby.

Piper is now a WAY faster, cleaner, stronger writer.

Her second book took less than seven months to complete and she’s now writing her third and has plotted her fourth (those books being an entirely new series). When I read her second book, I raced through it in less than six hours and loved it. Amazingly enough, I only had minor suggestions and corrections to offer.

My Baby Writer’s all grown up! *sniff*

Remember I mentioned some writer’s block might not be laziness or fear, rather lack of a foundation. The subconscious senses what’s lacking and slams on the breaks.

But this experience proved what I’d believed all along. There are some great new storytellers out there who just need some basics and tough love. Not all of us are able to learn by reading books. Some of us are kinesthetic learners and learn by doing. This can mean writing a drawer full of sucky books, or it can mean seeking guidance from someone who is a skilled teacher.

Yet, none of this learning can happen if we don’t experience our Bookpocalypse. I am not going to sugarcoat the experience. It SUCKS. When you have written and rewritten over and over, the characters and experiences become very real. It very much does feel like burying friends. I’ve been through it, too.

But we can’t move forward until we admit we have a disaster on our hands. And if we don’t learn why we wrote a disaster, this can be a formula for writing even more disasters.

This is why I am offering the Antagonist class tomorrow (use WANA15 for 15% off) and more classes that compliment this one next month. I no longer have the time to mentor the way I did with Piper, but I was able to create curriculum that can help reproduce the same effect.

I also highly recommend workshops offered by Bob Mayer, Candace Havens, James Scott Bell, Larry Brooks and Les Edgerton. Yes, it might cost money, but your time is valuable. Invest in your future.

Have you had a Bookpocalypse? Did you mourn the loss of your characters? Was it hard letting go? Are you happy you did?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.