Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: Donald Maass

A Tail of Two Star-Crossed Lovers

I’ve been battling a cold this week, so I am just going to go ahead an post the next lesson on structure and will announce September’s winner on Monday. Trust me, you don’t want me tallying with a NyQuil hangover. Anyway, for the past couple weeks, we have been discussing story structure. I like to run this series around NaNoWriMo to get you guys prepared. There is no sense in knocking out 50,000 words, if, at the end, we have an un-fixable mess. This series is designed to help make sure at least the bones of your story are sound.

Part I of this series introduced the novel on a micro-scale. Part II explored the big picture and offered an overview of common plot problems. Part III introduced the most critical element to any novel, the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). Each of these blogs builds upon the previous lesson, so if you are new, I recommend reading the earlier blogs.

I bring the best teaching in the industry right to your computer in an easy-to-digest form to make you a great storyteller. Whether we are traditionally published, indie published or self-published, we must connect with readers and tell a great story. Structure is the “delivery system” for our story, so it’s wise to make it as solid as possible.

Welcome to Part IV of my Structure Series—Testing the Idea

I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60-100,000 words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task. That said, all novels begin with an idea. But how do we know if our idea has what it takes to make a great novel?

Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then they take off writing in hopes that seed will germinate into a cohesive novel. Yeah…um, no. Not all ideas are strong enough to sustain 60,000 or more words. Think of your core idea as the ground where you will eventually build your structure. Novels, being very large structures, require firm ground. So how do you know if the idea you have is strong enough?

Good question. Today we will discuss the fundamental elements of great novels. If your core idea can somehow be framed over these parts, you are likely on a good path.

James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure (which I highly recommend you buy & read, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. Jim, being the SUPER AWESOME person he is, has granted me permission to talk about some of his methods today.

When you get the first glimmer of the story you long to tell, the idea that is going to keep you going for months of researching, writing, revisions and eventually submissions, it is wise to test its integrity. The LOCK system is one method we will discuss today.

Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK

LEAD

First, we must have a sympathetic and compelling character. It is critical to have a protagonist that the reader will be able to relate to. Our characters must have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.

Perfect people are boring and unlikable and they lack any room to grow. Perfect characters are no different. New writers are often insecure and our protagonists are us…well, the perfect version of us anyway. Our heroines are tall and thin and speak ten languages and have genius IQs and rescue kittens in their free time…and no one likes them. Seriously.

Think about it for a moment. Why do so many people demonize women like Angelina Jolie or Martha Stewart? Because most of us feel very insecure around women like these. They show us where we are lacking, and so we don’t like them. Most of us cannot wrap our minds around what it is like to be too beautiful or have zillions of dollars or the free time to carve pumpkins into sculptures while making our own curtains from recycled prom dresses. These individuals fascinate us with their “perfection,” yet we secretly wait for them to trip up so we can revel in their failure–I knew it! She isn’t perfect!

That’s why STAR Magazine can sell hundreds of thousands of tabloids with the promise of showing us that Angelina Jolie has cellulite. We want to tear her down and make her human. Not the best way to start out with your protagonist. If we make her too perfect, readers will revel in her destruction.

Bad juju.

We need readers to rally to her team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws, and humanize her. Additionally, if our characters are fully actualized in the beginning, there will be no character arc so our story will be one-dimensional and flat.

Bridget Jones and Forrest Gump are two great examples of great, flawed characters. We can all relate to not being the prettiest or the smartest and so these characters are easy to love and root for. What if you are writing a thriller or a suspense, something that generally has a cast of uber-perfect people? Give them flaws. Perfect characters are passé. Don’t believe me? Watch the new James Bond movies, and contrast Daniel Craig with Roger Moore.

Now, to look at the other side of the spectrum. Often to avoid the cliched “too perfect” character, an author will stray too far to the other end of extremes. The brooding dark protagonist is tough to pull off. In life, we avoid these unpleasant people, so why would we want to dedicate our free time to caring about them? Oh, but the author will often defend, “But he is redeemed in the end.” Yeah, but you’re expecting readers to spend ten hours (average time to read a novel) with someone they don’t like. Tall order.

To quote mega-agent, Donald Maas (The Fire in the Fiction):

Wounded heroes and heroines are easy to overdo. Too much baggage and angst isn’t exactly a party invitation for one’s readers. What’s the best balance? And which comes first, the strength or the humility? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that one is quickly followed by the other.

In my opinion, this was the single largest problem with the Star Wars prequels. Anakin Skywalker was a little-kid-killer, ergo never redeemable…EVER. He needed to die badly and slowly. Lucas should never have allowed his protagonist to cross that line. Heroes NEVER kill defenseless little kids. It was (my POV) an unforgivable action on the part of the “hero” that cratered the epic.

Objective

Your protagonist MUST have a clear objective. There are many times I go to conferences and I see all these excited writers who are all dying to talk to an agent. When I ask, “So what’s your book about?” I often get something akin to, “Well, there is this girl and she has powers, but she didn’t know she had powers, because, see. Hold on. Okay, her mother was a fairy queen and she fell in love with a werewolf, but werewolves in my book are different. Anyway she has a boyfriend in high school, but he is actually the leader of a group of wizards from another dimension and he is pitted against his inner demons because he lost his father in a battle against shape-shifters….”

Huh? *looks to wine bar in the corner of the room*

Your protagonist must have ONE BIG ACTIVE GOAL. Yes, even literary pieces.

Don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s a good example. The movie Fried Green Tomatoes very easily could have been just a collection of some old lady’s stories that helps our present-day protagonist (Evelyn Couch) bide the time while she waits for her husband to finish the visit with his mother, but that is far from the case.

Evelyn is having trouble in her marriage, and no one seems to take her seriously. While in a nursing home visiting relatives, she meets Ninny Threadgoode, an outgoing old woman, who tells her the story of Idgie Threadgoode, a young woman in 1920’s Alabama. Through Idgie’s inspiring life, Evelyn learns to be more assertive and builds a lasting friendship of her own with Ninny (per IMDB).

Learning to be assertive is an active goal. Building is an active verb. Gaining the self-confidence to make your own friends shows a change has occurred, a metamorphosis.

Oh, but Kristen, that’s a movie. Novels are different.

Um…not really. I use movies as examples of storytelling because it saves time. But, here is an example in the world of literary fiction to make you feel better that I am steering you down the correct path.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan could have been just a collection of tales about three generations of Chinese women, but they weren’t. There was an active goal to all of these stories. The mothers left China in hopes they could change the future for their daughters, and yet the old cycles, despite all their good intentions, repeat themselves and echo the same pain in the lives of their daughters. Actually the protagonist in the book is the collective—The Joy Luck Club.

The stories propel the living members of the Joy Luck Club toward the active goal of finding courage to change the patterns of the past. The mothers seek forgiveness and the daughters struggle for freedom, but each is actively searching and eventually finds something tangible.

We will discuss this in more detail later, but keep in mind that running away from something or avoiding something is a passive goal. Not good material for novels. Novels require active goals…even you literary folk ;).

Conflict

Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember, on Monday we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end. Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive.

Riddick, for most of the story, is reacting to the Lord Marshal’s agenda. Riddick’s goal is to defeat the BBT, but there are all kinds of disasters and setbacks along the way. Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting. One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.

There is a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles that I just LOVE. The prime villain, Hedley Lamarr, is interviewing scoundrels to go attack a town he wants to destroy so that he can build the railroad through it. There are all kinds of bad guys standing in line to give their CV.

Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?

Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.

Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.

Applicant: I like rape.

This sequence gets quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene.

I am not making this up.

And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies and rapes are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.

Knockout

So your novel has thrust a likable, relatable protagonist into a collision course with the Big Boss Troublemaker. The Big Boss Battle must deliver all you (the writer) have been promising. Endings tie up all loose ends and sub-plots and, if we have done our job, will leave the reader a feeling of resonance.

Your protagonist MUST face down the BBT. No fighting through proxies. Luke had to face Darth. By employing the Jedi skills learned over the course of the story, he was able to triumph. Same in literary works. Evelyn Couch had to stand up to her husband and her monster-in-law. She couldn’t send in Ninny Threadgoode to do it for her. In the movie’s climactic scene, Evelyn employs the “Jedi skills” she learned from stories about Idgy. Her Jedi skills are confidence and self-respect, and she uses them to defeat her oppressors by refusing to take any more of their sh—enanigans.

This is why all this “my protagonist is the BBT/antagonist” WON’T WORK. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn is her own worst enemy. She is spineless and weak. But, the real enemy resides in those who desire to control and bully Evelyn. In each act of the movie, we see Evelyn learning confidence so that by the end, the BIG battle, she can tell her abusive mother-in-law to stuff it. She isn’t having an argument with herself. She is standing up to a very real antagonist…even though this is a character/literary story. Characters having inner angst for 80,000 words is therapy, not fiction. Humans do better with the tangible. Existentialism is great, but for a mainstream successful novel? Not the best approach.

So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using the LOCK system. Ask yourself:

Can I cast a LEAD who is relatable and likable?

Is this OBJECTIVE something that will keep readers interested for 60-100,000 words?

Can I create a BBT and opposition force capable of generating plenty of CONFLICT to keep my lead from her objective?

Does this story problem lend itself to a KNOCKOUT ending?

This is just a taste of the good stuff that James Scott Bell has to offer in Plot & Structure so I recommend buying a copy for your writing library. In the upcoming lessons, I will be using this book for reference, among others to help you guys become master story-tellers.

What are the biggest problems you guys have when it comes to developing your ideas? What are some setbacks you have faced? Do you guys have any recommendations for resources? Or, feel free to commiserate and laugh about all the good ideas that went oh so wrong.

Those of you who loved James Scott Bell’s LOCK system can check out his site for more fabulous learning material, workshops and seminars. I’ve been blessed enough to watch Jim teach in person, and if you can believe it, HE IS EVEN BETTER IN PERSON. It will be the best money you ever spend…aside from my blogging class, of course :D.

QUICK ANNOUNCEMENT!!!—Starting a Successful Blog

Time is running out to sign up! Class starts MONDAY. A lot of blogs fail simply because writers take off with no instruction, and, because of this, they are left to learn by painful trial and error. If you believe you would like to blog, but you’re uncertain, I’m doing something new. To accommodate those who are still on the fence, I’m now running a Basic level for my upcoming blogging class that starts next week (and it is only $50 for TWO MONTHS).

In the Basic class, you get to be part of the WANA1012 team and receive all the forum lessons (none of the live webinars are included). This is a really great place to learn if blogging is right for you (Blogging Training Wheels).

If you’re ready to skip the training wheels and get started blogging, then get your spot NOW. My classes have a history of selling out. I offer a Blogging Bronze, Silver, Gold, and even Diamond, for those who are ready to go all the way.

This is a TWO MONTH class—one month for lessons and one for launch—that you can do in your own time, at your own speed and from home. And since you will be part of a WANA team, you won’t have to do this blogging thing alone, so your odds of success are MUCH higher. For those who want to do NaNoWriMo, we can extend the two months if we have to. That’s one of the benefits of being the owner of the interface :D .

So whether you start your own blog or just get out there and read a few, getting in the mix and forging relationships is more critical than ever. Have I missed anything? For you bloggers out there, what makes you feel warm and fuzzy? What can writers do to get your attention that isn’t illegal in all Southern states?

Anyway….

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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 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). Will announce September’s winner on Monday.

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of October I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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 And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

Welcome to WANA Wednesday, the day I dedicate to helping you rock it hard when it comes to social media and building an author platform. Last week I talked about the dreaded Spam Toad. I know sometimes it seems I am being critical in my blogs. I want any writer who has made these mistakes to appreciate one thing…I made them too! Don’t feel badly. It’s an honest mistake.

There are a lot of marketing experts who are benevolently offering flawed advice. They don’t mean to. Most of these experts (at least the ones I have met) have a genuine desire to help and serve others. They see writers who need to market so they offer what they believe is a good plan. And, it very may well be a good plan…just not for books.

The problem is that most marketing experts have a disconnect. Since most of them are not writers to begin with and haven’t worked in the publishing industry, they often fail to appreciate that not only are writers unique, but our product is too. What works for Starbuck’s and Levis and Joe’s Car Wash will not work for authors and books. Why?

First, the CEO of Honda is not personally responsible for building every car. An author, however, is solely responsible for producing the product. Not just a product, but an EXCELLENT product and in a timely fashion. Writers cannot be on a half a zillion sites, doing blog tours and pod casts and on and on…and still have time to write good books.

Yet, even if we could change the fabric of space-time and add more hours to the day, it wouldn’t matter how many social platforms we blitzed with marketing. Why? Traditional marketing does not sell books. Never has and never will. Don’t ask my opinion, mega-agent Donald Maass  (and anyone working in publishing) will tell you that there are only TWO things that sell books…good book and word of mouth. Period.

I remember years ago hearing that traditional marketing didn’t work for selling books. I didn’t want to believe them and I did a lot of running my head into a wall. Finally, I realized they were right, so I wanted to understand what made this particular product (books) so different from pizza, televisions and Frappuccinos. After a lot of study, a few cases of Red Bull and a massive brain cramp, I came up with my own theory—The WANA Theory of Book Economics—WANATBE (get it? Wanna to be? I crack myself up).

The WANATBE  is going to super-duper simplify Marketing 101 so you guys can plainly see why blitzing and advertising about your books non-stop is a bad plan that will do little to drive sales. Yes, traditional marketing will drive some sales, but won’t offer the life-changing numbers all of us want. WANATBE is very simplified, but I tend to believe in Occam’s Razor—the simplest explanation is usually correct. Time to explore why traditional marketing doesn’t sell books.

Commodities are often divided into two types of commodities:

Low Consideration Purchases

High Consideration Purchases

Low consideration purchases are of low social influence. If I drop three bucks to buy a tube of toothpaste and hate it, it is not big deal to toss it in the trash and buy a different kind….unless you are my mother.

Most of us aren’t paying attention to friend recommendations for toothpaste and I would guarantee we aren’t surfing the web looking for blogs and articles about the latest developments in fluoride so we can finally settle the Crest versus Aquafresh debate. We won’t need support and approval from peers that we made a good choice in toothpaste.

And if you do? That’s, uh kinda weird.

High consideration purchases on the other hand, are like cars, vacations, 3-D televisions, and jet skis. These are products where peer opinion weighs heavily upon the decision. If I am about to drop 30 grand on a bass boat, you better believe I have lost my mind I am going to check out consumer reports and on-line resources to get opinions from others.

High-consideration purchases are almost always emotionally driven.

Corvette. Enough said.

But what about books? Some books cost even less than a tube of toothpaste and none cost nearly as much as a flat screen TV. Are books high-consideration or low-consideration?

First, I want all of you to forget the mythos of the Book-A-Week Reader. To the person who devours books like candy, books are a low-consideration purchase. The problem, however, is that this type of reader makes up a VERY small fraction of the overall literate population in need of entertaining or informing.

You want to know how Stephenie Meyers, J.K. Rowling, and Dan Brown became such mega-huge successes? They mobilized the fat part of the bell curve made up of people who normally would not define themselves as readers. There are people out there who have never read any other books, but who own every last hard cover of Harry Potter. These books ignited word of mouth so powerful, that they were able to mobilize the largest segment of the population that is traditionally the toughest to move.

These authors’ books became so popular that they transformed into a social definition. I would have never picked up The DaVinci Code or Twilight on my own. But, finally so many of my peers had read the book that I felt like an outsider. To fit in with my peers, I had to read the book.

The fat part of the bell curve—people who believe they do not enjoy reading—is like a huge boulder sitting on the edge of a cliff. It takes a lot of energy to get moving, but once it does? There is no stopping it. And this is how legends are made.

Yet, too many writers are focusing all of their efforts looking for the ever-elusive avid reader. Why? Who cares if someone only reads one book a year if it is your book?

How much advertising is happening in bookstores, on book blogs, book review sites, and author web sites…the very places we will probably NEVER find regular people in need of entertaining or informing? Writers are all in search of the White Stag (the avid reader) and, in the process, passing up thousands of brown deer. Wait too long on an anomaly and we can starve.

A massive percentage of Americans do not consider themselves to be readers, so to them, books are now a high consideration purchase. If we merely look at price, we can get sucked into this notion that books and toothpaste require the same low-consideration purchase approach. But, when we look closer, we see that books cost something more precious than money…TIME.

So books are tricky. To the avid reader, books are a low-consideration purchase. This is why traditional marketing does not drive the big sales numbers. Traditional marketing (for books) targets a select group of people who already love to read. They don’t have to be talked into giving up their time to read. This person was going to be reading anyway. Traditional marketing does work for this small percentage of the population, because they love books and need help choosing from all the options.

Yet, for the BIG numbers, we have to mobilize the fat part of the bell curve, and that can be a MONUMENTAL task. We have to convince this non-reading group that our book is worth giving 12 hours of undivided attention (average time to read a novel). Unlike music or video, reading is not a passive activity where we just soak up entertainment like a sponge. We can watch a movie while we fold laundry or listen to music while we do dishes. Books are different. They require our full attention.

Thus, our job is to convince this non-reading group to forgo all other fun hobbies for an activity they don’t even believe they enjoy. We have to convince them to turn off Monday Night Football, stop chain-sawing monsters on X-Box, or turn off Dancing with the Stars.

How do we do this? We have to make buying our books an emotional decision driven by peer influence. This is not as tough as it might seem, but we are out of time. We will talk more about this next week. If you must know the answers right away, I encourage you to pick up a copy of my best-selling book We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media.

What are your thoughts? Opinions?  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.

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.

Mash Up of Awesomeness (This week’s is very short. Power has been on and off. Will make up for it next week.)

Nationally Best-Selling Author James Scott Bell addresses back story. Awesome post!

The brilliant and talented Jody Hedlund talks about time-management and productivity.

What scares you that you can’t get enough of? by Angela Wallace