Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: Hooked

Baby Spawn….budding novelist.

Get it? You’re newbie is showing? Ah we are talking about the deeper stuff today ūüėÄ .

Writing seems like it just shouldn’t be that hard, and yet? It’s deceptive. Seasoned storytellers make it look easy, and that does us no favors. Sort of like when I was four years old and, high off an episode of Wonder Woman, went flying out the back door and got the bright idea to do a handspring just like–OH SWEET EIGHT POUND SIX OUNCE BABY JESUS THAT HURT.

Many of us who eventually decide to become novelists did so because we grew up loving books. Then, probably just as many of us, thought we could also do that seamless triple front handspring (write a full length novel) with zero professional training, no practice and no falls.

Yeah about that.

After years of writing and working as an editor I’ve gotten better at articulating what differentiates the newbie writer from the pro, so I figured I would put together a checklist of some of the bigger offenders to help.

I’d love to say I’ve grown beyond ever making these oopses, and for the most part I have. But it took seventeen years of practice and I still have to make sure every now and again, that my newbie isn’t showing.

Beware of Low-Hanging Fruit

Many new writers will default to tropes and cliches and not-so-subtle ways of coaching a reader she is supposed to care. Every editor has their bugaboos. My mentor and friend Les Edgerton’s peeve is the single tear coursing down the cheek. Les is all, “What the hell is that? Does the character have a clogged tear duct or something?” Yeah Les is blunt and ruthless and that’s why he is damn good at teaching writing. He whipped my @$$ into shape.

***Grab his book Hooked. It is seriously one of the single best writing resources ever penned.

My peeve is when any character “weeps bitterly.”

See, instead of the writer actually developing character, she just inserts great weeping and gnashing of teeth—the shill (melodrama) for the gold (authentic drama). Making readers care is an art and is some seriously hard work, so coaching readers to care is lazy/newbie writing.

Another variety of low-hanging fruit is with description. My latest pet peeve is “emerald eyes.” In fact just any precious or semi-precious stone is going to make my left emerald eye twitch.

Not there there is anything inherently wrong with aquamarine, emerald, sapphire or ruby eyes (okay maybe ruby is interesting). Just that it is all too…easy. It doesn’t really take a wordsmith to come up with the jewel of “emerald eyes.”

Good description is more than just the physical makeup of another character. It is telling of¬†who that character is (the person being described) and even more importantly? It is telling of the character who is doing the describing. Description, what that character notices and how she notices, tells a lot about that character’s paradigm (how she sees the world).

The example I love using the most is from Jessica Knoll’s¬†brilliant book¬†Luckiest Girl Alive.¬†Tif-Ani (protagonist and anti-hero) is meeting her fiance at a bar where they are having drinks with his client and the client’s wife. Here is how Tif-Ani describes Whitney the wife.

The client and his wife, body mean with Equinox muscles, cheery blonde hair swept away from her face in a ninety-dollar blowout. I always eye the wife first; I like to know what I’m up against. She was wearing the typical Kate uniform: white jeans, nude wedges, and a silky sleeveless top. Hot pink, I’m sure she spent a few minutes debating it—was she tan enough, maybe the navy silky sleeveless top instead, can’t go wrong with navy—and over her shoulder, a cognac Prada the exact same shade as her shoes more age revealing than the skin starting to pucker in her neck. (Page 82)

Not only does this description tell us a lot about Whitney (she is fit, wealthy and older) but it also gives is an in depth view into Tif-Ani. How she sees the wife is extremely telling. She notices all the ways Whitney¬†might be competition—she is fit with great hair and expensive clothes—but also shows us Tif-Ani is extremely insecure.

She spots the chinks, how Whitney’s neck is already aging. She also projects her insecurities onto Whitney and is likely correct. Whitney knew to wear NUDE wedges and a COGNAC purse because to matchy-matchy the two is what “old women” did. Tif-Ani knows the designer brands like Prada but also ties Equinox (a luxury fitness center) into her perception as well.

This is far more revealing than, “She was stunning and fit with long blonde hair and expensive clothes and emerald eyes.” This description digs deep and gets to the marrow of storytelling, harnesses the essence of WHO Tif-Ani is and shows us her paradigm.

She is guided (or rather misguided)¬†by status and achievement. Since Tif-Ani’s arc is to realize her worldview is flawed what we will eventually see his how her descriptions (impressions) of others shift¬†as the plot problem forces her to face what she has become and change.

Pacing

Another way we can see if our newbie is showing is to pay attention to pacing. Often, when reading the work of emerging writers, it feels a lot like being stuck in a car with a teenager learning to drive a stick shift. With each “scene”, there isn’t a hook and then a steady build of pressure until some form of release. That is because, in actuality, there IS no scene…just filler.

See, a scene has very specific anatomy; it is a microcosm of plot. There is the hook, the problem, then rising tension, then then resolution (win, lose, draw). The character has a goal…but then. But since a lot of new writers don’t yet understand what a scene is and how it works, what they have is fluff.

Since there is no goal, there can be no setback. No setback? The writer is manufacturing drama, since drama is not happening organically.

What then manifests is usually one of two things. Either the reader will feel like a Fly on the Wall of NOTHING HAPPENING (lots of description), or the characters will seem like they need Xanax. Their emotions will be all over instead of inevitable, and there is a LOT of overkill.

For instance, maybe the writer is trying to create a strong badass heroine but instead? The character is really just kind of a bitch. She’s getting bent out of shape way too easily and thus quickly becomes unlikable.

I did this back in my first “novel.” It was like I could sense something needed to happen and so I just tossed in some kind of a ridiculous misunderstanding or fight. My protagonist didn’t need Xanax, she needed a frigging exorcism.

That is what I like to call Soap Opera Writing. See in soap operas, there is no overall plot, only “bad things happening” and thus a lot of new writing¬†resembles¬†Days of Our Lives.¬†Lots of overacting and overreacting.

If the character is breaking down in sobs every three pages? It’s tedious. Same with physiology. We get so much heart pounding, and pulse racing, and blood hammering that we wonder how the hell the character didn’t suffer cardiac arrest two pages in.

Did I Mention Filler?

Again, this is often a result of a writer being weak at structure. If a writer doesn’t get the anatomy of a scene, odds are, they’re weak at how to structure the overall plot, too. This is why agents often only need a few pages of writing to know everything they need to.

Description can be filler. Lots of describing every detail of the room. Describing the weather. Description, though, should always be serving the plot and doing more than taking up space.

With every scene, first check and make sure it is a scene. What is the goal? If there are just pages with two characters talking about a third? Or rehashing stuff we already went through? CUT. Sure, all this fluff maybe helps us make a word count goal, but that’s all. It isn’t serving the story.

Even I have to go through my own work and look for this stuff. If a “scene” seems to be falling flat, I ask¬†What does she want?¬†Then¬†What stands in the way?¬†Since I tend to have a comedic writing style, I can often drift off into very funny dialogue that is highly entertaining on the surface….but is doing nothing to propel the plot.

Ah damn…CUT.

If you need help, that is what I am here for. I have a SUPER AWESOME DEAL to help you whip that WIP into fighting form! I put together a Book Bootcamp (3 craft classes—6+ hours of instruction with MOI—for $99 & RECORDINGS included in the purchase price) as well at a Book Bootcamp GOLD (also 3 craft classes for the price of two PLUS three hours with ME one-on-one plotting your novel OR repairing the plot for your novel). So make sure to check those out below along with all kinds of new classes!

Also before we go, check out the new classes below (including a two-week workshop on Deep POV by powerhouse editor Lisa Hall-Wilson). W.A.N.A. is also offering two NEW classes for romance authors, one on how to write shifters and the other on how to write great historical romance without needing a PhD in History.

Make sure you check out the newsletter class with Jack Patterson. He’s sold almost a quarter million books, so probably someone to listen to. Just sayin’…

What are your thoughts?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but I am still working out the kinks. Also your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

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

Talk to me!

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

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

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

Be a Better Hooker (How to Write a Compelling Newsletter)

April 29th $45

In this class, learn how to compose a newsletter that is entertaining and compelling‚ÄĒand all without stealing most of your writing time. Learn how to get your hooks in your readers and keep them until the end.

With a mailing list of over 15K subscribers, mystery/thriller author Jack Patterson will share some of his tips that will spice up your newsletter and get your subscribers opening it up every time you send one out.

BUNDLE DEALS!!! 

Book Bootcamp  $99 ($130 VALUE)

Book Bootcamp GOLD¬†$269 ($430 VALUE) This includes the log-line class, antagonist class, the character class AND a three-hour time slot working personally with ME. We will either plot your idea or, if your novel isn’t working? Fix it! Appointments are scheduled by email. Consults done by phone or in virtual classroom.

Individual Classes with MOI!!! 

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS!¬†$45 May 25th, 2017

Blogging for Authors $50 April 27th, 2017

Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-line¬†$35 May 4th, 2017

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist¬†$50/$200 (Gold) May11th, 2017

The Art of Character $45 May 18th, 2017

NEW CLASSES/INSTRUCTORS!!! 

Growing an Organic Platform on Facebook $40 May 6th, 2017 Lisa Hall-Wilson is BACK! She is an expert on Facebook so check out her class!

Method Acting for Writers: How to Write in Deep POV $85 for this TWO WEEK intensive workshop with editor and writing instructor Lisa Hall Wilson.

Shift Your Shifter Romance into HIGH Gear $35 May 19th with powerhouse editor Cait Reynolds.

Researching for Historical Romance (How to NOT Lost 6 Hours of Your Life on Pinterest) $35 May 20th

 

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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We can Twitter ’til we flitter and Facebook ’til we face plant and that won’t matter much in the greater scheme of things if we fail at our single most important job—writing a great book. Our single greatest challenge is to hook the reader hard enough to buy (and then read) our novel.

Sales ultimately are impacted by reviews and if no one reads and no one finishes?

Exactly.

Yes, covers are important and social media is vital, but those sample pages can mean the difference in No Sale and Big Hit.

One writing book every writer should have is Hooked by Les Edgerton. I think this was the first craft book that truly woke me up and showed me all I really didn’t know about writing.

As a new author, there were far too many elements I believed were important when in reality? Not so much. Additionally, because I was focusing on the wrong “stuff” I was failing to develop the “right” stuff.

What I love about Hooked is how Les demonstrates how all the factors that go into making great beginnings don’t just evaporate. These are tactics we must keep employing throughout the work to keep the reader engaged and turning pages. Our job is to obliterate sleep, to send our readers tired and grouchy and over caffeinated to work‚Ķbut ultimately satisfied.

Let’s talk about some common ways beginnings fall flat.

The Writer is Easing Into the Story

Nope. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had writers wail, “But you don’t understand! The story really starts on page 50.”

Okay, then cut off 49 pages and you’re golden.

Modern audiences simply don’t have the attention span for us to go on too long. Yes, I get that the authors of yesteryear got away with this, but they were competing against shoveling manure and shoeing horses, not YouTube, Facebook and 24-hour entertainment. Additionally, writers back in the day were often paid by the word, so that sucker was padded worse than a freshman term paper.

These days we need to get to the point as quickly as possible and fiction is about one thing and ONE thing only. Problems.

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Readers Don’t Need a Set-Up‚ĶReally

We writers can be really guilty of brain-holding. Readers are smart. Really. We don’t need to go ten or twenty or fifty pages to “set up” the story problem so the reader doesn’t get lost.

Even Andy Weir’s¬†The Martian¬†begins with:

I’m pretty much f**ked.

That is my considered opinion.

F**ked.

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

Weir doesn’t start with the crew landing on Mars and bonding and working to “set up” the sandstorm that strands Watney on Mars. He starts right in the guts of the problem and we (readers) keep up just fine.

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We Don’t Care Why

Often new writers will begin a novel with a lot of telling and flashbacks in an effort to explain why a character is a certain way. We don’t care. That is the realm of psychotherapy, not fiction. Want to see who a person (character) really is? Toss them into a problem.

Sure, later in the story we can divulge the character was abused or abandoned or whatever, but the beginning is not the place for that. Yes, we eventually know that Connelly’s character Detective Hieronymous Bosch grew up an orphan after his mother (a prostitute) was murdered. We eventually find out that these circumstances fueled Harry’s choice in occupation and even his world view. But the Bosch books never begin with this. That is for later.

Why?

Because the past is in the past and cannot be changed, therefore it is not a story worthy problem. It is a bad situation, not true drama.

In fact, we as the writer need to know these details, but sharing them might not always be a good thing.

Hannibal was far more interesting before he was explained.

Readers are perfectly fine with meeting a fully formed character (flaws and all) and just rolling with it from there. In fact, the wondering why a character thinks or acts a certain way often drives the reader to turn pages hoping that it eventually will be explained.

Inner Demons

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My previous point dovetails nicely into inner demons, which we will explore in another post for sake of brevity. I get a lot of novels that begin with thinking and more thinking and waxing rhapsodic over “inner demons.” Here’s the deal, we don’t like people who go on and on about their personal problems and character flaws in real life. Why would we pay to endure that in print?

Fiction is therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy.

Remember that we are using the story problem to make the reader care about the protagonist. If we jump the gun too soon and start dumping a lot of emotional baggage on the reader, she is going to feel like she is trapped in the checkout line with that stranger who feels the need to share details of her ugly divorce.

We have to earn the privilege of the reader caring.

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Beginning with thinking and internalization presents a structure problem as well. Internalization is part of what is called a sequel. Sequels can only happen as a direct consequence of a scene. Scenes are action and goal-oriented. All fiction begins with a scene (problem/conflict).

Outer Problems Versus Inner Problems

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Humans feel far more comfortable with outer problems (initially) and it is what draws us in. If you have ever visited a major city like NYC, then think of it this way.

On the sidewalk there are countless faceless people.

If we notice someone crying? We might (big on the¬†might) get¬†involved, but we wouldn’t feel very comfortable. If, however, a person is carrying a briefcase and the latches give way spilling out the contents? Most of us wouldn’t think twice about helping the person gather her papers.

We also would feel far less weird if after we helped gather the papers, we “found out” the person was discombobulated because she was upset over a personal problem (was just fired). We might even want to know more because we’ve established enough report to activate empathy.

This is the difference in using an outer problem to hook versus inner drama.

Good fiction goes right to a tangible outer problem.

Beginning with Melodrama

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Any time I see a book that opens with a funeral, a death, a hospital scene, I cringe. This is going to sound cruel, but we really just don’t care. If we have not been introduced to the characters who are clinging to life or recently deceased? We have nothing emotionally vested and so sections like these are just tedious.

***This goes along with a protagonist starting things off by relaying her abuse history as a child.

And the more the writer tries to amp up the “feelings” the weirder it gets for the audience.

I get that the story might be prompted by a death or a tragic event, but there is no reason to drag us along if we don’t know the dearly departed.

Remember that even in Star Wars, we did spend at least a little time with Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru before they were butchered. If the story would have started there? It would have just been weird.

There are a lot of other things that go into crafting excellent beginnings, but we will talk about those another time. I am trying something new, though. Thursday, June 16th I am holding a Battle of the First Pages. If you’ve ever been to a conference and to an agent gong show, this will be similar.

I will upload your first page in the W.A.N.A. virtual classroom (all you need is internet and pants are optional) and will read until the point I would have stopped (or, conversely, where I am hooked). Then we will parse the first page sample for what the writer did well or what could be done better. Sign ups are limited but it is only $25 for two hours of fun and games and the recording is provided for free with purchase.

Anyway, I do love hearing from you! What are your thoughts, opinions, questions regarding beginning?

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, 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).

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Again, I am trying something new and offering an open and interactive workshop. Is your first page strong enough to withstand the fire?

Battle of the First Pages

June 16th, 7-9 EST. Cost $25

This is an interactive experience similar to a gong show. We will upload the first page and I will “gong” when I would have stopped reading and explain why. We will explore what each writer has done right or even wrong or how the page could be better. This workshop is two hours long and¬†limited seats available¬†so get your spot as soon as you can!

So You Want to Write a Novel 

June 17th, 7-9 EST. Cost is $35

Just because we made As in high school or college English does not instantly qualify us to be great novelists. Writing a work that can span anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000+ words requires training. This class is for the person who is either considering writing a novel or who has written a novel(s) and is struggling.

We will cover the essentials of genre, plot, character, dialogue and prose. This class will provide you with the tools necessary to write lean and clean and keep revisions to a minimum.

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.¬†

 

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.
Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

All righty. So we have been discussing “flashbacks” and I have been working hard to pull this blanket term apart because not everything that shifts back in time is the dreaded “training wheel flashback” that make us editors break out in hives. New writers love to shift back and forth in time because they are weak at plotting and characterization and “flashbacks” often serve to prop up these weak spots.

Um, like training wheels.

Before we get into non-linear plotting, I would like to talk about backstory. Often we feel the need to include a lot of backstory right in the beginning because we just simply don’t trust that the reader will “get it.” Sometimes this will be delivered through going back in time so we need to talk about it.

 

Our goal in fiction is to hook early and hook deep. GUT HOOK. Get as close to the inciting incident as possible. Yes, backstory has its place, but we must be careful about how we deliver it. Think of garlic mashed potatoes. I LOVE them. But what happens if the garlic isn’t blended in just right? No one wants a mouthful of garlic. It is an unpleasant experience that probably discourages taking another bite.

There is nothing per se wrong with backstory in the beginning, but we live in an age where attention spans are very short. The longer we take to get to the point, the likelier it is that a reader will lose interest.

New writers particularly believe that readers need more setup than they really do. They don’t¬†trust the reader. But not only are readers actually very clever, giving that backstory often will fizzle the very tension that turns pages.

I have made up two examples to illustrate what I am talking about.¬†I’m going to show not tell ;). This first selection is not necessarily “bad” writing. But I would like you to contrast it with the second sample and see the difference it makes when we learn to be “secret-keepers” and save that backstory for later.

Kristen’s Made-Up Example A:

Fifi’s mom had been abusive all her life. She remembered staring through the bars of the toddler bed, tensing at the sound of footsteps in the hall knowing, even at that young of an age, that pain would follow. For years, the whole family balanced on eggshells, waiting to sense what to say or what to do that might delay Doris’s wrath. Fifi never could figure out just how to please her mother.

When she was in third grade, she had to explain the bruises on her back from the Play-Doh cans lobbed at her that morning, the cans she forgot to pick up after Elizabeth came over to play. Then, when she was in sixth grade, there was that teacher who called CPS when Fifi showed up with a black eye. But her mom was always the charmer and was practically best friends with the social worker by the time the interview was finished. CPS did nothing and Fifi got the beating of her life as soon as the social worker was out of the drive. But that time her Mom made sure to only hit places where no one could see the marks.

Now Fifi was thirty and somehow had never escaped the pull of her Doris’s power. The power of Alzheimer’s. It figured her mother would be blessed with forgetting, when that was all Fifi had ever wanted. Just tonight, her mother had set the kitchen on fire and when Fifi tried to extinguish the flames, her mother had pummeled her. She snapped. After all this time, all this pain, she just picked up a pot and fought back and this time it had gone terribly wrong.

Example B:

Fifi pressed a scorched towel to her face to stem the bleeding. Her mother, Doris, lay facedown in a broken heap, her head an odd shape from where the pot had cracked her skull. After all the years, all the beatings it had come to this. It figured the one time Fifi stood up for herself, it would end with trying to hide Doris’s body.

***

There is nothing particularly wrong with Example A. But, I do run the risk of sounding melodramatic and the reader wonders if I have a point to all this and might lose interest before Fifi whollops mom with a pot. The first example does a lot of explaining and answers a lot of questions. We are told about the long history of abuse with all this setup and so we feel comfortable in the situation because we are grounded.

Now, Example B does something vastly different. It starts right at the trouble and poses more questions than it answers. Because of this, I compel the reader to move forward because the reader is NOT grounded.

In the second example, we wonder what the heck happened? We glean there was some kind of a fire because of the scorched towel. We also “get” there was some kind of an altercation because Fifi is bleeding. I don’t¬†need to detail the history of abuse because a few words take care of this. After all the years, all the beatings.¬†

I don’t need to detail Fifi being a doormat, because it is clear this is the first time she has fought back. But notice the hidden questions. Not only do we want to know what the heck happened, we also get a sense that Fifi has never had anyone believe her because her instinct is NOT to call the police, rather it is to dispose of her mother’s body.

We are compelled to sympathize with Fifi because it is clear she is a victim and not simply a murderer. We know there is a history of suffering because of the¬†language.¬†Mom is referred to as Doris (not “Mom”), suggesting psychological distancing.

Backstory has its place, but often we are tempted to glom it on in the beginning to make the reader “comfortable.” Making readers comfortable is bad. Make them uncomfortable because that means they will want to turn pages.

Let’s say our story continues on. Fifi is trying to think of how to hide her mother’s body, but remember there was a kitchen fire. What if a neighbor has called 911? Fifi is pondering the rug in the living room and wondering if she can lift Dear Old Mom into the trunk of her Honda on her own, when firetrucks arrive. Now, I have a bad situation I have made worse.

Effectively, the reader is hooked.

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

I can go any number of ways with this, but let’s say the firemen come in, find the body and Fifi is hauled away. It is¬†later that I could go into maybe a more detailed description of the years of abuse. Say, in an interview with a homicide detective.

Or maybe she stuffs mom into a closet, no one is the wiser and Fifi calls a shady guy from her past to help get rid of mom. She will have some explaining to do to get Shady Guy’s help. Backstory can be relayed, but notice this is done¬†later¬†after the reader is vested.

Backstory as a Time-Loop

So this is our simple example. But what if I want to put Fifi into some situation that no one would have anticipated? What if the story problem is not about getting away with murdering her mother and is about something else?

What if the murder is simply what led to the actual plot problem?

For instance, Fifi is in Venezuela awaiting to hear from the American Embassy to help her get out of jail. She was caught running drugs.

This is when we can use backstory in a sort of time-loop. We start with the inciting incident to get the reader hooked and then smoothly loop around. We go back to when everything went sideways until we catch up to real-time.

If the book is really about Fifi bringing down drug lords who framed her, then we start with her in a Venezuelan prison (inciting incident) then smoothly transition back to the murder and how it began a series of events that now brings us up to real-time story and the problem of taking down the people who framed her. We have a surface problem (get out of jail and take down drug lords) as well as a story-worthy problem (learning not to be a victim).

For instance, Fifi killed mom and asked Shady Guy for help getting rid of the body and this decision led to her being framed for running cocaine. Now she is in a real pickle, but note that we needed the loop around of backstory to properly get to the real-time problem. We also do NOT go back in time until the reader is hooked with the inciting incident for the real-time plot problem. If we dump backstory too soon? The tension evaporates.

Les Edgerton uses a fabulous example to illustrate this technique and I am going to include it here because, yes, I have read this novel and it is the best example I can think of so I am stealing ūüėÄ . Les said it was okay. His book¬†Hooked will change your life.

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Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Love Nun does such a loop-around. The story begins with Tucker Case hanging upside down from a coconut tree about to be eaten by cannibals. Without so much as a space break, Moore shifts seamlessly from Tucker awaiting being made into an entree back in time with the line, “Like most missteps he had taken in life, it had started in a bar.”

We effortlessly go back to the bar where Tucker meets the prostitute who talks him into taking her up in a plane so she can join the Mile High Club (even though he is drunk and shouldn’t be flying). Tucker ends up crashing the plane and seriously damaging his man parts. To make matters worse, he was the pilot for a cosmetics company that has a pink plane ūüėČ ‚Ķand the owner is livid over the avalanche of disastrous PR.

Tucker not only is losing his license, he is probably going to go to jail and¬†this leads him to taking a somewhat shady job flying medical supplies in Micronesia. This backstory is how he ended up suspended in the tree about to be eaten and it is necessary because the story is about Tucker growing up and realizing that it isn’t bad luck or karma that is making his life suck, it’s that he makes bad decisions.

But remember, we began this story with Tucker hanging in a tree about to be eaten. The inciting incident has already occurred, so readers will indulge this loop around because they want to know how Tucker gets out of the tree and what happens from there.

If the story had simply been about Tucker trying to rebuild his life after the world’s most embarrassing plane crash, we would start in the bar. But even then, if we simply start in the bar, we are not at an inciting incident—Tucker doesn’t realize he might be responsible for his own misfortunes until that defining moment in the tree.

We¬†know he has reached this self-awareness because of the line, “Like most missteps he had taken in life, it had started in a bar.”

If we simply start in the bar and Tucker lacks this self-awareness, the flight, the crash, the injury, the threat of jail just becomes a string of bad event after bad event happening to this character.

Ask the Hard Questions

When you are tempted to include backstory (particularly at the beginning) just ask the hard questions.

Is it necessary to give backstory at all?

In¬†Thelma and Louise we never get Louise’s full story. We (the audience) are left to fill in the blanks and infer Louise was likely raped in Texas.

Can I just add a small amount of backstory for set-up?

For instance, in our Fifi B example, there is a tad bit of setup that Fifi was abused by her mom.

Does this story, by nature, require a loop-around? Without the loop back in time, is the story we want to tell completely altered?

Look at Island of the Sequined Love Nun.

No matter which path we choose, backstory IS vital. Callie Khouri¬†had¬†to know Louise’s backstory to write¬†Thelma & Louise but she was not required to spell it out. We (Author God) need to know our characters, but how we then spell it out depends a lot on the story we wish to write.

What are your thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Is it becoming clearer how to use going back in time as a literary device? Do you see where it behooves us to be secret-keepers?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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. 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).

Classes COMING SOON:

Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line¬†is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE.¬†

Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses ūüėõ .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages. ¬†Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting.¬†General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and¬†I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

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.¬†

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos

Last week I gave FIVE editor tips to help you guys know if you needed revision. One of the most CONFUSING mistakes (in my POV) is the notion of “Starting with too much action.” I know all of us have heard the “Start in the action” “You have to HOOK” and so we devise car chases, bombs, funerals, etc. in hopes that we will engage a reader.

Before we start, I will add a caveat. Genre might affect the first pages of your novel. In a thriller, mystery, mystery-thriller or suspense, it is common to begin with a body or a terrible act.

In The DaVinci Code, we begin with a horrible murder in an art museum.

BUT, this scene is often NOT a scene with the protagonist. When it comes to the protagonist, we need to begin in what is called in medias res.

The first scene with the protagonist in The DaVinci Code involves the hero at a lecture, which is interrupted by a problem.

Protag’s Goal: Complete lecture, sign some books and maybe have a nice dinner in Paris and go to bed early.

Antag’s Goal: Drop everything and come check out this crime scene. We need your expertise and you don’t have an option of declining.

Note the scene antagonist is not a bad guy but his agenda trumps what the protagonist wants.

The Trouble with In Medias Res

In medias res quite literally means “in the middle of things.” This is a literary tactic that has been used since the days of Odysseus. It is a tactic that forces the writer forward, to begin the story near the heart of the problem.

Ah, but this is where we writers can get in trouble. I see writers beginning their novels with high-action gun battles, blowing up buildings, a heart-wrenching, gut-twisting scene in a hospital or at a funeral, all in an effort to ‚Äúhook the reader‚ÄĚ by ‚Äústarting in the middle of the action.‚ÄĚ Then when they get dinged/rejected by an agent or editor, they are confused.

But I started right in the action! What is more ‚Äúin the action‚ÄĚ than a high-speed chase through Monte Carlo as a bomb ticks down to the final seconds?

Bear with me a few moments, and I will explain why this is melodrama and not in medias res.

Commercial Fiction Ain’t A Tale of Two Cities

For many centuries, there was a literary tendency to begin ‚Äúin the early years‚ÄĚ leading up to the story problem. Authors would wax on rhapsotic about the setting and spend 10,000 words or more ‚Äúsetting up‚ÄĚ the story. The reader was privy to ‚Äúwhy such and such character‚ÄĚ became a whatever. There was a lot of heavy character development and explaining the why of things.

This, of course was fine, because in the 18th century, no writer was competing with television, movies or Facebook.

Thus, if a book was a thousand pages long, it just meant it must have been extra-awesome. Also, authors, back in the day, were often paid by the word, thus there was a lot of incentive to add extra fluff and detail, layer on the subplots and pad the manuscript more than a Freshman term paper. Writing lean hit the author in the piggy bank, so most authors lived by the motto, No adverb left behind.

Then Hemingway came on the scene and…well, let’s get back to my point.

In medias res was not employed by many early novelists. They started the book when the protagonist was in the womb (being facetious here) and their stories often took on epic proportions.

Modern writers can’t do this. Yes there are exceptions to every rule, so save the e-mails. Just trust me when I say that modern readers have been spoiled by Hollywood and iPhones. They are used to instant gratification, and most modern readers will not give us writers 15,000 words to get the the point.

These days, especially when readers are deluged with choices, our sample pages are more vital then¬†ever. We need to get right into the heart of the action from the get-go. But if ‚Äúthe heart of the action‚ÄĚ doesn‚Äôt involve a gun battle, funeral or cliffhanging scene, what the heck does it look like?

screen-shot-2012-03-27-at-6-17-32-pm

Example from Life

In medias res is the front gate of Six Flags over Texas.

Do we need to start in the years that Kristen was too young to go to Six Flags? How she would see her teenage cousins leave for a day of roller coasters and cry herself to sleep in her toddler bed for not getting to ride the roller coasters? How she vowed at four that she, too, would one day brave The Shock Wave?

Uh…no.

Do we start the story on the biggest loop of the roller coaster? The screams and terror mixed with glee?

No, that‚Äôs too far in. If we start the story on a Big Loop (HUGE ACTION‚Äďlike car chases, bank heists, etc.) then we risk the rest of the book being anti-climactic. If we blow up a building in scene one, do we later blow up two? Three?

So where do we begin?

We begin at the gates of Six Flags over Texas.

We see young Kristen in the back of the station wagon and as her parents pull into the giant parking lot. We are present when she catches a glimpse of the Shock Wave (story problem) in the distance. Wow, it is bigger than she thought. We walk with Kristen through the line to get into the amusement park, and get a chance to know her and care about her before she makes the decision to ignore the Tea Cups and take on the roller coaster (Rise to Adventure).

Kristen could have totally chickened out and stayed on the baby rides, but that would have been a boring story. Yet, because the Tea Cups are in the context of the larger ride, it means something when she decides she MUST ride the roller coaster.

In medias res means we start as close to the overall story problem as possible.

Beginning With Action

This term “action” is often misunderstood, so I hope I can clear it up. There are two components to fiction, the scene and the sequel. The¬†scene¬†is simple. Our character has a GOAL, then someone stands in the way of that goal (antagonist) and there is a setback (or a victory). Most often there will be setbacks because setbacks ratchet tension. The protagonist needs to be one step forward, ten steps back.

The sequel is the processing of some event/setback that just occurred. This is where our character can do some thinking, emotional processing or even discussing with others.

What new writers often do is they begin the book with the sequel, yet a sequel can only come as a result of a scene.

Scenes are action. The character is wanting, needing, doing something. This is a place where we as readers can empathize with the character and connect with the protagonist and begin to root for him or her.

For instance, Les Edgerton is a pal of mine and his book Hooked is the bible of beginnings. He was kind enough to look at the first chapter of my novel and…he SLAYED ME. But, the cool part about Les is he teaches WHY he kills what he kills.

Now, I thought I got into my “action” quickly. I began with my character, Romi, cooking half to death in a parking lot. She’s dreading the Unemployment Office. She is funny, self-deprecating and we do feel sorry for her.

Les chopped off ALL OF IT.

Though only about three pages, Les told me that I began my story in the wrong spot. He chastised me and told me that, while my writing was hysterical, it had to GO.

My actual story began when Romi pushes through the door to the Unemployment Office and realizes Angry Bird (what she’s named a dreadful bureaucrat who treats her like dirt) is working that day. She¬†wants¬†a job. She¬†wants an ally, someone who will help and not judge her. What she¬†gets¬†is a roadblock.

We feel sympathy for her. Most of us know how badly it sucks to look for a job, and that the Unemployment Office is humbling and even humiliating. This is a small event, but one that pulls the reader to the side of my protagonist. Within five pages, she meets another setback.

She finds out she has been blackballed because she was engaged to a man who pulled an ENRON and stole over a half a billion dollars then vanished (and also wiped out all her bank accounts leaving her so broke she can’t even afford to eat).

She’s given a challenge. “Find your ex. Find the money or you will never work¬†anywhere that doesn’t involve a toilet brush and being paid in cash.”

Thus, I hope you can see how the initial setback isn’t massive. It isn’t a funeral or a car crash. It’s gutting it through the front doors of the Unemployment Office and dealing with someone who is supposed to help, but who is sarcastic, rude and a tad cruel. The scene gives us time to empathize, yet it is interminably¬†linked¬†to the major story problem.

Protagonist’s Goal: Get a job before being evicted.

Antagonist’s Goal: Keep her from finding work to starve her into finding missing money.

When Romi enters the Unempolyment Office, she is hopeful this day will be different. She will find a job. She¬†leaves¬†ten steps back. Not only is she unable to find a job, but she never will and has no clue where the missing money is or even where to begin looking. She’s out of money and is out of options. She has to fall back to the ONE place she vowed she’d never return‚Ķhome with her crazy trailer trash family who resents her for leaving home to go to college.

Also note, (again) that the antagonist isn’t necessarily evil. His father was one of the investors fleeced out of millions. He¬†believes¬†Romi knows where the money is, and he’s using what sway he has for “justice.” Problem is, Romi really is innocent.

I hope this has helped you guys understand what makes a great hook. Begin with a problem (scene), not THINKING¬†(sequel). The problem doesn’t need to be earth-shattering, and if it is, make sure it’s something you can outdo later. Don’t have the biggest loop of your roller coaster at the front of the ride or everything else will be anticlimactic.

What are your thoughts? Any lightbulbs? Did this technique confuse you guys as much as it did me?

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).

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have TWO classes coming up to help you!

Upcoming Classes

BOTH CLASSES COME WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.

A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.

Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different¬†types¬†of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem ūüėČ . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

 

Via Flikr Creative commons, courtesy of Tax Credits.
Via Flikr Creative commons, courtesy of Tax Credits.

There are a lot of ways to try and sell books. One way? Non-stop Twitter book spam, “Buy my book! Buy! Buy! Buy! #writer #books #ineedmoney #indie #selfpub.” Just make sure you set it to automate to EVERY writer hashtag and to repeat every fifteen minutes. People LOVE THAT.

We can advertise fifty times an hour and never have to bother actually talking to people on Twitter. Hey, our time is valuable, whereas others? They have plenty of time to be on Twitter, so why not give them a GREAT BOOK?

Then there are of course, form-letters on Facebook. “Dear Valued Person, I noticed you like puppies. My book has puppies, please buy now!”

We can also rufie invite people to FB fan clubs for our book against their will.

Me: When did I become a member of The Raven’s Chest Hair¬†Fan Club? *scratches head* *leaves group*.

Then there’s always Goodreads Begging: “Hi, I’ve never even said hello to you and don’t know you from a hole in the ground, but my book is the best thing since Scratch-and-Sniff stickers, yet strangely not selling. I’m sure together we can make my book NUMBER ONE!”

Or not…

In my new book,¬†Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World¬†I actually spend a lot of time explaining why advertising and marketing doesn’t sell books in the new paradigm (or any other, for that matter) and what changes to make for any advertising or marketing to be more effective. Yet, ads, banners, book trailers aside,¬†people want to read a great book.

This means our best way of selling books is…

You ready for this? *drum roll*

Writing great books.

Price is no longer as big of a determining factor as it used to be. A couple years ago, John Locke started the .99 bandwagon and many authors jumped on. At first readers were excited, until they realized the slush pile had just been dumped onto their Kindles and Nooks.

This is good news and bad news. Bad news? Being cheap isn’t the game-changer it used to be. Good news? People are gravitating to higher priced books, because there is a presumption of higher quality. This means good books can make more money. Yay!

***Btw, I said¬†higher priced not stupid priced. Traditional publishing has taken many a hit for this. Strange fact. Consumers won’t pay the same price for an e-book as a glossy hardback. Wow, who would have imagined¬†that?

Yet, just because potential readers are gravitating to higher priced books, doesn’t mean an automatic purchase. It means our customer’s time is *gasp*¬†valuable. Yes, they are browsing the slightly more expensive books…to whittle down which books they will invest time in reading sample pages. We have to¬†earn the sale.

Our sample pages, which are the beginning of the book, are our most priceless selling tool.

I know most of you’ve heard agents and editors usually give a book one to three pages, before continuing or chunking into the circular file. You might be thinking¬†one to three pages? But, my story really gets going on page 21.

No.

I’ve run the first-twenty-pages-contest on this blog for about three years. Most of the samples I get? I don’t need 20 pages. I need one. I already know all the writer’s bad habits and level of education and skill (or lack thereof). It’s simply shocking how many of the same problems plague the beginning of most first-time novels.

And it’s easy to think this is all very unfair, but think of your own experiences browsing a bookstore. Aside from cover and interesting title and story description, what do we do? We open the book and scan the first couple of pages. If those first pages stink, we don’t give the writer twenty of fifty or a hundred pages to sell us.

Unless you wrote Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but he was dead.

So when you are dead, I suppose people give more gratis, because I cannot count the number of times people have said, “Well, yes GWTDT bored the paint off the walls, but after the first hundred pages, it’s awesome!”

I…am not that motivated. I gave the book more than it’s due (because the writer was dead) and gave it 20. Next! I’m aging here.

So if you are reading this blog and you’re dead? You get more leeway. Also, what’s it like on the Other Side? Feel free to leave a description in the comments :D.

For the rest of us who remain among the living? One to five pages.

I can tell 99% of what’s wrong in a book by page five, and so can agents and editors (and readers, though they might not know what¬†is wrong, only they aren’t hooked).

It’s sort of like going to a doctor. He/She can tell from the sphygmomanometer (been DYING to use that word) which is a blood-pressure cuff, a look at skin pallor and basic symptoms to tell if a patient has a bum ticker. No need to crack open the patient’s chest and stare right at the sickly beating heart.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Most new writers (especially) have what Candy Haven’s calls a fish-head. What do we do with fish-heads? We cut them off and throw them away, unless you are my family, who are¬†scavengers Scandinavians and then they make soup *shivers*. This actually explains the¬†Girl with the Dragon Tattoo¬†mystery.

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of David Pursehouse
Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of David Pursehouse

The writer was dead and Swedish. Apparently Swedish readers¬†looove¬†fish-head-story-soup and somehow convinced others to give it a try. Not saying these are bad books, btw. Clearly, they have a huge fan base and rave reviews. I’m just I am not patient enough to get to the good stuff (and neither are a lot of other people).

Most new novels need to lose the first hundred pages. But that’s just something I’ve gleaned from experience. Yet, who cares about the first hundred if we can’t care about the first¬†five? Often, the problems in the next 95 pages can be fixed by knowing what went sideways with the first five. Seriously.

Sample pages are…samples. If we go to Sam’s or Costco, how many will stop for a sample of egg rolls, pizza, or Acai juice? How many will stop to sample the Fish Head Surprise?

My point, exactly.

For a fantastic resource about this, I¬†highly¬†recommend Les Edgerton’s Hooked.¬†Also, August 21st, I am running a Your First Five Pages webinar. Bronze is $40 and Gold is $55 (I look at your first five pages) and use WANA15 for 15% off. The webinar is recorded in case you can’t make the time and a PDF with notes will be sent to you following the class.

What makes you stop reading a book? How long do you give books? Are you patient enough to wait a hundred pages for it to get interesting? What do you find the hardest about writing the beginning of the book? Have you lopped off your own fish heads?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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. 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).

ANNOUNCEMENTS: I have a class coming up SOON, Creating Conflict and Tension on Every Page if you want to learn how to apply these tactics to your writing. Use WANA15 to get 15% off.

Winner of 20 Page Edit for July is EDWARD OWEN. Please send your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com.