Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: how to write great fiction

Why is it so many new novels are—to be blunt—crap? How can we find an author we love with one book, then all the love goes away with the next? What’s going wrong? What’s missing? Where did everything go wrong?

How can we learn and do better?

First and foremost, to be an author it’s imperative to embrace some healthy sadism. We’ll chat briefly on this so the “wrong turns” in story can become far easier to spot.

We MUST Go Against Our Nature

Humans have all kinds of intricate biological wiring that propels us to AVOID CONFLICT/PAIN. Now this is great namely because our desire to avoid pain is what keeps us alive and gainfully employed. It’s also how many of us are able to endure the holidays when forced to see family.

This said, it is human to avoid conflict and to smooth everything over and civilization would implode if we didn’t heed our biology. We feel the rising anxiety and our nature steps in to “fix” everything and return to a nice comfortable homeostasis.

Avoiding conflict and pain can be healthy in life, but it spells death for fiction.

So here are a couple reasons your story might suck. Btw, remember while I have one finger pointing at you? Three are pointing back at me. I use these guideposts in my own work when I sense it’s starting to seriously suck.

#1—We Have Decoration Devoid of Substance

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Novels are not pretty sentences or even pretty words. Sure, it’s nice to have them, but they’re not entirely necessary.

It’s like a cake. Some cakes are so intricate they’re literally works of art, but cake is meant for people to EAT. So I’d much prefer a plain cake that is so yummy angels sing than to bite into a work of “art” and get a revolting mouthful of sugar-laden lard.

Same with stories. Stories, too, are meant to be ingested, to FEED us emotionally.

Fiction is about one thing and one thing only—PROBLEMS.

PROBLEMS are the “cake” of story.

I don’t emotionally connect to a cerulean sky or a painstakingly accurate description of a forest or an 18th century tea setting. I have zip-nada invested in an outfit, a garden or the layout of a room (that’s “icing”). Most people prefer cake with icing and readers like stories with description, setting, superlative prose etc. (though to the degree varies with reader preference).

All that “stuff” can make a story better, but they are NOT story, just like icing is not cake.

#2—We Have No Plot

Plot is basically a fancy way of saying we have a core problem in need of resolution (cake) and a plan (recipe) to do just that.

I cannot connect emotionally with a detailed description of a designer outfit, but I can connect with the woman who’s wearing this outfit. I don’t care all that much about the outfit, I care about the woman and the why behind the outfit.

What is she hiding? What is she up against? What must she face to become whole?

Is she in this outfit because she desperately needs a job? Because it hides the bruises from her emotionally and physically abusive husband who controls her life? The one she must find the courage (and job) to escape?

This is why I’m a huge believer in writers being able to articulate what their story is about in ONE sentence. If we can’t do that? Odds are we have icing and no cake. Or maybe a cake that’s half-baked or missing key ingredients.

#3—We Have No Clear Plot Goal

All stories have ONE CLEAR FINAL goal. And I don’t want to hear the BS copout of:

“Well, my story is literary and character-driven. Her goal is she wants to find out who she is.”

Aside from the fact that literary and character-driven stories don’t automatically get a pass on a plot, why do we care? What happens if the protagonist doesn’t find out ‘who she is’? Why is it important? What are the stakes? Why should I (the reader) root for her?

Besides that is the wrong question entirely.

Regardless of genre, the protagonist is never finding out who she is, rather what she is made of.

For that to happen? We need a PLOT PROBLEM.

Clear plot problems offer context. If I (reader) have not been clearly shown the story problem, then I’ll be quickly bored because I lack context that makes any setback a setback.

It’s like showing me a guy driving off for a destination and not telling me where he’s going. Yet, if I know he’s driving to Canada from Texas, then accidentally turning down I-35 South because he’s arguing with his ex on the phone MEANS SOMETHING.

I can clearly SEE he’s headed for MEXICO, not Canada. The wrong turn means something and so does every setback which creates bigger and badder problems (which turns pages, btw).

By DEFINITION a setback can only happen when there is an actual goal.

We need a Death Star, a Mount Doom, and a Labyrinth or….meh.

Same in character-driven stories. We root for Evelyn Couch in Fried Green Tomatoes because we know the final goal is her growing a spine. We know she has “won” when she stands up to her bullies and to the husband who’s disrespecting her.

Bad situations are not a plot. It’s soap opera writing. Soap operas get forty years and go into infinity. Novels don’t have that luxury.

#4—Too MUCH SUGAR

We’re being way too nice. I see way too many new manuscripts and the reason they’re boring the paint off the walls is nothing is happening and everything is too easy. Everyone gets along is super sweet and lots of colorful pretty descriptions and empty calories that make us sick.

Humans have fears and faults and failures that will collide, especially under pressure. I see far too many manuscripts where nothing is happening. People talking.

Description not friction. No friction? No traction.

#5—We’re Making it TOO Easy

Yes, your protagonist has ONE core story goal in need of resolution, but there should be a ton of hardship, suffering, setbacks and pain along the way. Our protagonist must work for everything and earn every reward, even the small ones with blood, sweat and sacrifice. NOTHING should be easy. Ever.

Authors deal in solid gold rewards, not plastic participation trophies.

If our protagonist is being spoon fed the answers (dreams, journals, letters, flashbacks, “super helpful” ancillary characters) that’s cheating. If the protagonist is rescued constantly by others and it never pushes any pain points? Where’s the glory in that?

When I was in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, most people don’t last a month. Most females never make it past white belt. It takes a YEAR to earn blue belt. I had to do this grappling men twice my size.

It took me a year and a half of busted lips, blood, bruises, and strains. It also cost me a broken nose and a dislocated knee…but guess what’s framed in my office?

I can tell you that had I been handed a blue belt for attendance, it would be in some junk drawer along with the piles of other worthless awards.

Same in fiction. We revel in the protagonist’s victory only when the title of “HERO” is earned.

#6—We Forgot to Turn on the Heat

The greater the stakes the better the story. No heat and we don’t have cake, we have batter. Same in fiction. Turn on the heat.

A friend of mine had a brilliant idea for a story, but her niceness kept killing it. She emailed me that her story is about an artist who has five years to make it in NYC or he has to return to his family’s house-painting business.

I replied: NOOOOOOOOOOO!

If our artist has five years in the beginning? We aren’t too worried. There’s time. But if we know he’s at the end of five years and has only one final narrow window? Everything changes.

If the stakes are he returns to an occupation close to what he loves (painting) and also limited seasonally (house painting in NY) it isn’t that big of a deal. He can dream away what he longs to create while on a ladder touching up eaves. He also will have seasons he can still create art.

But, what if he’s returning to a job that is not only the opposite of what he loves, but can potentially drain every creative molecule from his soul? A stressful occupation that might just kill him with seventy-hour work weeks (accounting firm)? Or physically endanger his hands/ability to paint (family auto repair business)?

And while we are at it? He’ll have to return to a family that never really was supportive and will be delighted he failed and relish rubbing it in.

NOW we have a story 😉 .

Crank up that heat. Shorten timelines and up the stakes, both physical and emotional.

If your protagonist fails, it isn’t simply a failure, it needs to be an extinction event.

In the end, I have a mantra: Make it worse until you make it weird.

What are your thoughts? Have you been too easy on your characters? Maybe indulging in flashbacks to “explain” why a character is a certain way instead of making the reader work to uncover it? Have you been too nice? Unclear? What ways can you wind that tension tighter? Shorten the timeline or up the stakes? We only will value what COSTS a lot. No one values free and easy 😉 .

I love hearing from you!

For the month of AUGUST, for 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).

July’s winner will be listed next time I post. Sorry, lots to do getting ready for New Zealand and I am behind.

****And MAKE SURE to check out the NEW CLASSES classes below including the final class I will teach before taking off for NEW ZEALAND! I’m keynoting there for the Romance Writers of New Zealand, which while SUPER COOL….I’d be lying if I didn’t say the trip wasn’t making me more than a tad nervous.

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term used to describe narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements. This includes but it not necessarily limited to fantasy, science fiction, horror, utopian, dystopian, alternate history, apocalyptic fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction.

Basically, all the weird stuff.

Gizmos, gadgets, magic, chainsaws, demons, fantastical worlds and creatures are not enough and never have been. Whether our story is set on Planet X, in the sixth dimension of hell, on a parallel world, or on Earth after Amazon Prime gained sentience and enslaved us all, we still must have a core human story that is compelling and relatable.

In this class we will cover:

  • Discovering the core human story problem.
  • How to plot these unique genres.
  • Ways to create dimensional and compelling characters.
  • How to harness the power of fear and use psychology to add depth and layers to our story.
  • How to use world-building to enhance the story, not distract from it.

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!

OMG! Like, How to Write On Fleek YA. $40.00 USD. Wednesday, August 23, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here). $45.00 USD. Wednesday, August 30, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Class Title: Beyond Lipstick and Swords: Creating Strong Female Characters. $40.00 USD. Saturday, September 9, 2017. 2:00-4:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

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There are two essential components all great writers possess and unfortunately these are highly unnatural abilities. Most of us have to hone and refine and strengthen these skills because they are so counter to human nature. First, most humans run from conflict. Great writers go straight for it. Secondly, most humans really don’t pay attention to or explore the motivations of others. Great writers master what makes other people tick.

Conflict

We humans are hardwired to avoid conflict and that makes sense. Wandering around in the brush gathering berries, fruits and small game left one exposed and vulnerable. For our ancient ancestors? Every day the goal of “not dying” was preeminent among the Things To Do. But the problem is this. Just because we now have high-rises, smart cars and Facebook, it doesn’t mean that our biology has caught up.

It’s why modern humans are struggling with so many neuroses and stress illnesses. We are wearing out our fight or flight mechanisms because the body cannot tell the difference between outrunning an angry bear or taking on a Facebook troll.

Rejection very literally meant death for thousands of years. We had to have the safety of a tribe to keep us fed and safe. Isolation was a death sentence.

So fast-forward to modern times and there is always this every-present voice to keep the peace. To not make waves. Problem is? Fiction is the wave-making business.

Understanding Other Humans

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of DualD Flip Flop
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of DualD Flip Flop

Most people operate from a perspective that is highly self-centered. I am not meaning this to be disparaging, but we do. If someone won’t talk to us or avoids us, we often assume that person is mad at us. This goes back to that fear of rejection thing. Another human avoiding us is less often about them and more about us.

What did I do? Did I say something wrong? Why doesn’t she like me?

It is a rare person who automatically thinks, “Wow, I bet that person is very shy.”

Whenever we encounter those who are naturally gifted authors, I believe it has less to do with the ability to write, to string words and lovely prose together. It is more that those folks naturally dive headfirst into conflict without hesitation. They also are acutely aware of the goals, conflicts and motivations of others.

The rest of us? We simply have to train these.

How Conflict is Birthed from Understanding Weakness

I do a lot of editing and very often it’s the work of new writers. As I read pages I often can see this is a person who likely made As in English (only college was not training us to write commercial fiction).

On the surface there is nothing wrong…except that everything is surface. Too often new writers are far too nice. They hesitate to exact authentic suffering and instead settle for a shill…the bad situation.

Bad situations don’t say anything about who we are. It highlights nothing about our failings as people, about our flaws. Anyone can be attacked by a band of blood-thirsty marauders, get caught in a hurricane, singed by a dragon or attacked in an alley. This is all external and says absolutely nothing about people, about who these characters are. Because it’s surface. The bad situation alone is not enough.

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I love this meme because this literally says it all. When we are new, however, we are very uncomfortable with bad decisions. Truly bad decisions. Often our first novels are more of a holodeck for us to play out how our world should have turned out, starring the person we always wanted to be. Dialogue often sounds like eavesdropping on a child playing alone.

I call this Literary Barbie Syndrome (or Literary G.I. Joe Syndrome for the guys 😉 ).

Literally, nothing is happening. Oh characters might bitch at each other and come across as needing a Xanax or three. The girls might want to fall in love or go to the dance. The guys race off for another space battle Pew! Pew! But deep down? Nothing.

And much of this has to do with our fear of acknowledging weakness, because we worry it might be seen as our weakness. It is still a self-protection mechanism for what others might think of us should they read our book.

We must learn to separate from that. Writers create all kinds of characters who are NOT us and if others don’t get that? Meh. Let them wonder.

Great writers understand people other than themselves, then use the power of empathy to crawl into that world and crack it open to the light.

Case In Point

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Right now I am reading The Girl on the Train. Talk about conflict and human weakness!

The protagonist is a raging alcoholic. She is bitter and angry and self-destructive. She drinks until she blacks out and that creates problems…BIG problems. Then she lies to cover up her failures. She is conflicted—the person she is trying to be (sober) versus the person she ends up being despite her best efforts (drunk).

She has very sympathetic reasons for why she is that way and this is what terrifies the reader. Because the way it is written, we all take a breath and know that under the right circumstances, that could be us. Strip enough of us away, lay our world in ruins and we, too might be that drunk asleep on a park bench. Good fiction draws us in because it promises to show us what terrifies us.

Rachels’ flaws shine a light on the dark places of US, the places we fear to go, the places we fear we could go.

But this is also why we root for her. We want her to win. We want her to be sober because if there is hope for her, there is hope for us.

Rachel isn’t some caricature caught up in a bad event (a woman’s disappearance), she is a horribly flawed and broken character whose redemption is being offered through this bad event (core story problem). Thus every setback she encounters is inextricably tied to her path from perdition to salvation.

Yet, what if the author Paula Hawkins worried that people might believe she was a closet drunk if she wrote a character like Rachel? That the vomiting on the stairs and waking up in urine-soaked clothes was some fictionalized version of her real life? And maybe some people do wonder that but thing is? Ms. Hawkins clearly didn’t care.

She wrote for maximum conflict and created raw and riveting characters who are profoundly flawed, thus immensely vulnerable which makes for a story that will last generations.

I understand that not all fiction is gritty like Girl on a Train, but this works for other genres as well. Helen Fielding’s romantic comedy Bridget Jones’s Diary. Michael Connelly’s crime fiction The Lincoln Lawyer. Some other books that do this well? Big, Little Lies and What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty (women’s fiction). Rebecca Well’s The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood.  All of these authors excel at conflict and exploring human weakness/strength and what motivates us all. To read their books is to look deeply inward and see ourselves and that is the heart of great fiction.

What are your thoughts? Do you have to go back and remind yourself to be harder on your characters? I certainly do. Do you struggle making them flawed? Do you worry that the flaws you put in your work might reflect on you? Hey, I’d be lying if I said that didn’t freak me out. What are some works of fiction that really drew you in and why? Do you now laugh at your First Holodeck Novel? Man, mine cracks me up. What was I thinking? Hey, we all start somewhere 😀 .

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).

Check out the other NEW classes below! Including How to Write the Dreaded Synopsis/Query Letter TONIGHT! I have also included new times to accommodate the UK and Australia/NZ folks! 

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

Upcoming Classes

NEW CLASS!

FRIDAY October 14th Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?

***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.

Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.

FRIDAY October 21st Your Story in a Sentence–Crafting Your Log-Line

Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.

As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.

If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.

In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.

The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.

Those who miss being in the first ten will get a deeply discounted workshop rate if they would like their log-line showroom ready.

SATURDAY, October 22nd Blogging for Authors

Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.

The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.

The problem is too many writers don’t approach a blog properly and make all kinds of mistakes that eventually lead to blog abandonment. Many authors fail to understand that bloggers and author bloggers are two completely different creatures.

This class is going to cover:

  • How author blogs work. What’s the difference in a regular blog and an author blog?
  • What are the biggest mistakes/wastes of time?
  • How can you effectively harness the power of algorithms (no computer science degree required)
  • What do you blog about? What topics will engage readers and help create a following?
  • How can you harness your author voice using a blog?
  • How can a blog can help you write leaner, meaner, faster and cleaner?
  • How do you keep energized years into your blogging journey?
  • How can a blog help you sell more books?
  • How can you cultivate a fan base of people who love your genre.

Blogging doesn’t have to be hard. This class will help you simplify your blog and make it one of the most enjoyable aspects of your writing career.

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 courtesy of Reuters.
Image courtesy of Reuters.

I hope everyone had a FABULOUS Christmas and is enjoying this wonderful time of the year. Holidays bring family and friends together and usually? This equals CONFLICT. Use it. Eavesdrop. Great writers make a MESS because that is what is the heart of the best stories. The uglier the better. You will one day be grateful for that seriously jacked up childhood.

Sally forth!

I think it’s fair to say that writing a novel is no easy task. There is a lot to balance at the same time—narrative, setting, dialogue, POV, plot points, turning points, scenes, sequels, character arc, etc. It can be very challenging for even the best of us. Yet, I believe the hardest part of writing fiction is that, for most of us who aren’t crazy, conflict is something we avoid at all costs during our daily lives.

In fiction? We must go for the guts.

Today, I’d like to offer you a simple way to make your stories and characters three-dimensional and grab hold of great fiction’s throbbing heart. I learned this from the fabulous Les Edgerton who cornered me with this same question:

What is your character’s true story problem?

I gave Les a rundown of my carefully researched mystery thriller and he pressed again.

That’s surface, Kristen. What is the real story problem?

Fortunately, I was able to answer the question. Aside from the embezzlement, fraud, gun-running and drug-dealing, my character’s problem is she longs to be accepted, yet doesn’t fit in anywhere.

She began as small town trailer trash and ran away from home to go to college and pursue a better life. She naively assumed a fancy college degree would be her keys to acceptance, her ticket to become part of the high-class society she’d always envied. Yet, once she “made it” she found herself worse off than before. No matter how hard she worked, she was still, in the eyes of high society, gold-digging trailer trash who didn’t know her place.

In one world (home) she’s regarded as an uppity b!#$@ too good to be blue-collar working class. Yet, once part of “society” her problem was just as bad. The rich assume she must have slept her way into her high-paying job and that her sole goal is to marry money. She soon finds she’s regarded with equal disdain.

The story problem (the mystery) is only there to answer my protagonist’s deep, driving personal questions: Where do I fit in? Why do I need to fit in? Who am I?

The plot problem—a major embezzlement (Enron-style) leaves her penniless and blackballed and she has to go home to the trailer park she thought she’d left for good. This is where the story begins.

Now she is forced back into the lion’s den of her soul. Now she is torn between worlds. To solve the mystery and find the missing money (and a murderer killing to keep the secret) she must take on the wealthy and powerful. But in order to succeed, she must rely on a crazy-dysfunctional family who resents her and feels betrayed and judged.

Eventually, the plot will force her to face her greatest weakness—the need to be accepted—and she will have to make the tough choices.

If we look to all the great stories, the questions are bigger than the story. Minority Report has all kinds of cool technology, but the big question is, “Are we predestined, bound by FATE, or do humans possess free will?” In The Joy Luck Club the question is, “Can generational curses be broken?” In Winter’s Bone “Is blood really thicker than water?” In Mystic River “What is the nature of good and evil? Are people really who they appear to be?”

Thus, I challenge you to pan back from your story and ask What is the BIG question here? What is my character REALLY after? What will my story problem CHANGE about this character? What will it answer? 

As you guys know, I run a regular contest for free edit of sample pages. One of the biggest issues I see in new writing is it is very surface (Hey, I’ve been there, too. It’s all part of the learning curve ;)). Yet, to take that writing to the next level, we have to dig into the dark and dirty places. I actually have a sticky note on my computer that reads GO FOR THE GUTS. 

Every scene, every bit of dialogue must be uncomfortable. Fiction is the opposite of our human nature. Human nature is to avoid conflict at all costs. To write fiction? We must dive into the Miserable Messy head-first. Create problems at every turn (not mere “bad situations” but conflict).

Conflict turns pages. We have to be careful that our dialogue isn’t so busy being clever that it loses it’s teeth. Pretty description and scene-setting doesn’t turn pages and hook readers. CONFLICT does. Humans have a need to avoid conflict, but when we are faced with it? We want it resolved. THAT is why readers will turn pages. We make them shift in their seats and squirm and seek resolution.

What are your thoughts? What movies can you think of that have amazing BIG questions? Do you find that you have to revise places you are being “too nice?”

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of DECEMBER, 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 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

Battlestar Galactica
Battlestar Galactica

Every setback is an opportunity for an even greater comeback. I love these words. No idea who said it, but it rocks. Life has a way of being awesome, amazing, fantastic…and a ROYAL @$$whipping, too. Not only is this quote great to hold close to our chests when life has us on the spin-cycle, this is a FABULOUS mantra for writing memorable, epic stories.

Hubby and I just finished a marathon session of gorging ourselves on Battlestar Galactica and are now careening through Caprica because it is backstory for BSG. I refuse to watch any show that doesn’t have at least four seasons complete, namely because, if I like a new show? Apparently it spells its DEATH for the new showThus, I don’t like getting too attached. I wait, then inhale an entire season a day.

Don’t judge. I know you do it too O_o.

I feel that series, complex series, are actually the way of the future (and have felt this way since roughly 2004). There’s a fantastic book that explains why, called Everything That’s Bad for You is Good (and I strongly recommend it). In a nutshell, popular opinion seems to be that, as a society, we are getting DUMBER, spiraling toward an Idiocracy.

In the face of Honey Boo-Boo and The Bachelor, it’s tough to argue. But those shows are mindless brain junk food, and thus we’re comparing apples to oranges when we place them next to Breaking Bad or Walking Dead. Those other shows aren’t storytelling. Don’t tell The Real Harpies Housewives of the OC.

*shivers*
*shivers*

From Big Screen to Small Screen

When I was a kid, all the best actors (acting) were on the big screen. To see an actor go from movies to television was a clear sign they needed to stop doing drugs fire their agent their career was likely over. Television equaled death. Now? We see the opposite. I’ve all but given up on most movies. They bore me into a coma. Most are abysmally predictable or just showing off CGI skills instead of telling a great story. My opinion? Television is now where we are seeing the most successful stories and the most talent (been that way for a while).

Why is That?

Audiences, despite what people might want to believe, have become far more sophisticated. If we had a time-machine and could transport an avid TV fan of Gilligan’s Island to 2014 and sit him in front of Game of Thrones? His head would explode.

Boom.

Ugly.

Anyone got a squeegee?

Modern audiences love a complex plot, numerous story lines, and obscure references. We want a large cast to fall in love with or hate. 

We watch certain movies/shows over and over because there are jokes, innuendo or backstory we missed. Seinfeld is a great example. Every episode had its own plot and humor, but if one hadn’t watched the other shows there were a lot of jokes one simply would NOT get.

Shows like Seinfeld were revolutionary this way. It had never been done before. I Love Lucy was all contained to each episode. Every episode stood alone.

The greatest comedic writing out there is great primarily because of the obscure wink-wink-nod-nods to other iconic movies. For instance, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Scary Movie 5. But if you aren’t a horror fan, it won’t be nearly as funny. Same with Tropic Thunder. One has to have seen Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Tears of the Sun etc. in order to understand the movie and “get” the jokes.

The Simpsons, South Park and Pixar employ a similar tactic by threading pop culture references into the stories.

Finding Nemo has to be one of my all-time favorite movies. Now, The Spawn has loved this movie since he was two. There is a level of humor that renders a toddler a quivering puddle of giggles. But, at a higher level what adult hasn’t lost it in the Shark AA Fishaholics meeting scenes? A toddler has no concept of a Twelve-Step Program, and yet as adults? WE GET the reference and so it launches the humor over the top.

These factors are why many of these movies (or series) are worth buying. We see something new every time we watch. We peel back a new layer, spot a new subplot, finally “get” that double entendre. We can rematch Battlestar Galactica with a fresh set of eyes and see new territory. 

Modern audiences are growing increasingly sophisticated and they long for the mental challenge of keeping up. One can watch BSG and have to recall some detail from ten episodes earlier. We LOVE the mental challenge and this is why the big screen won’t last for the adult audience. The main factor working against movies is TIME.

Most people are pushing it to sit through a three hour movie. A screenwriter, director can only do so much plot or character development in three hours or less. Compare this to a TV series with a hundred hours. We have the time to get to know more characters, more backstory, more subplots and our brains crave the challenge.

What does Twitter and Game of Thrones have in common?

There are 140 characters and everyone is pissed off 😀 . *bada bump snare*

Ah the Setback

I began this post with a killer quote and I want to use it to show why series are becoming hot, hot, HOT. With a series there is, bluntly, more time and more opportunities to 1) generate love and affection for a wide cast of characters and then 2) torture them then 3) wait for the comeback. Some of the finest series out there will wind your nerves so tightly you feel like you need a drink and a Xanax to get to sleep.

WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN? :O

Is Starbuck alive? Dead? Is she real? A Cylon? Ok, I can sleep WHEN I’M DEAD *clicks for “Next Episode”*

The same urges that drive viewers to lose an entire weekend or night of sleep dying to find out what happens on a show (or video game *cough* Gears of War) is the same phenomena that is driving series and novellas to greater popularity.

For Those Who Want to Write Stand-Alones

If series aren’t your thing. Don’t fret, but remember that every setback is an opportunity for an even greater comeback. The greater the setback the better the comeback. Fiction is the opposite of functional sanityNormal human beings seek to maintain peace and healthy relationships. Your job as good great superlative writers is to maim, torture, crush and kill. Find that shiny thing. Get the protagonist sooooooooo close they almost…have….can…touch…..the edges……..

….and then SMASH IT. SMASH IT, KILL IT….BUUUUURRRRRNNNN IT!

Original image via Flikr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins
Original image via Flikr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

Your readers will hate you, but it’s good for them. Do NOT protect your characters. Screw up their lives more than a meth-addicted multi-personality mother-in-law. Your characters NEED a crucible. No one wakes up and thinks, “Gee, maybe I have a pride problem. I should totally work on that.” NO! Instead of that promotion they know is in the bag, they get FIRED. Worse, they get blackballed. Worse, they have to apply for food stamps.

Worse, the person at the food stamp office is the very person they were horrifically RUDE to and now they need this person’s mercy. Do they get it? NO! ARE YOU HIGH? STOP BEING A SOFTIE. Do you want to be a WRITER? Then lose that soul and sense of decency (for a bit).

Take the food stamps away! Get them a job at McDonalds and they get fired from THAT TOO. IN THE RAIN!

Run over that character with an emotional panel van, then back over them, then run over them and repeat until they are a pile of GOO.

Gee, I wonder why people feel nervous around writers? 😀

Ah, but once that character has withstood the tests…you as Author God then can give them a new shiny and a better shiny. Show them they shiny they wanted in the beginning was Fool’s Gold and let them earn the real deal.

And your readers will then forgive you for the torture.

Series are simply becoming more popular because there is an increased demand for entertainment and people are spoiled with a lot of variety. We are also masochists. Fiction shows us our ugliness, but unlike life? There is a resolution. And, that, my friends, is why we all love a great story.

What are your thoughts? Are you too easy on your characters? Do you have a tough time taking away the shiny? What TV series do you love and why? Are you losing interest in the big screen, too? What are some of your favorite characters from a series and that you might never have known intimately if it were a movie (um, SPIKE)? Do you agree/disagree that publishing is now favoring the series? Are you a series-gorger, too? Do you kill new shows if you like them?

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.

Winner for March’s  Contest–Aaron Davis. Please send your 5000 word Word document to kristen at wan a intl dot com or a 1250 word synopsis or 250 word query.

 

 

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Ben Swing.
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Ben Swing.

We often hear the saying, “Write what you know,” and that advice can be seriously confusing. Since I’m assuming most of us have never been abducted by aliens, lived on other planets or turned into vampires, the story world would be a very boring place if we followed this advice literally.

Plot and world-building are merely delivery systems for conflict and character—real “human” emotions and experiences. If we write something that’s all car chases, vampire bites and geeky technology we’ve invented, the story will be uninteresting and superficial. I see this in a lot of submissions I review. A writer gets so fascinated with dragons or terrorists or aliens that the body of the work lacks a beating human heart.

Any good story should be able to change locations or points in history and still make sense. A Thousand Acres is King Lear on an Iowa farm. Fiction probes the deep and tender places, exposes our human failures and shows us how we can rise above them. If your story is set on the planet Zoltron, we should be able to take the premise and slap it in Sanger, Texas and it still work.

Thus, when we hear “Write what you know” this alludes to, “What do we know about ourselves? What do we know about others? What do we know about society? What do we know about emotions?”

A Personal Story

Some of you might have heard me talk about this, but it bears repeating. In 1999 I planned a surprise birthday for my father. He’d always longed to become a writer, but he since he worked for minimum wage repairing bicycles, he was relegated to scribbling poems and stories in stacks of little notebooks.

I was so excited because my fiancé had purchased my dad a “top of the line” computer with a Pentium processor (supposedly several thousand dollars, which he reminded me of repeatedly). It took EVERYTHING not to give Dad his gift early (I’m notorious for that) and to keep this gift a secret.

Finally, my father would have the tool to become a novelist.

My best friend and I had ordered Dad this silly A Bug’s Life cake because, like me, my father was a perpetual kid with a great sense of humor. He laughed all the time and was like hanging out with a standup comedian. She was busy decorating her home with A Bug’s Life plates and streamers as if the party were for a six-year-old (instead of someone turning 50). It was going to be SO MUCH FUN.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Will Clayton
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Will Clayton

Yeah.

So I’d arranged to take him out to dinner as a ruse to spring this party on him. All day, I’d tried to reach him and no answer. I really became worried when I called his work and they told me he’d called in sick. All my life, my father NEVER called in sick. Finally, after calling and paging him a zillion times, I got a call.

He sounded terrible and his voice was strange—high and thin. Of course, he was still joking as I was playing remote-triage-nurse concerned that maybe his flu might be meningitis. As I am asking him symptoms, I’m panicking because this birthday party is waiting to go and it’s looking more and more like I need to get him to an ER instead.

As he spoke his last words to me, the phone dropped to the floor.

Nothing.

In my head, I thought He’s dead, which was weird because my father rode a bike to work. He rollerbladed, mountain-biked, hiked and was more physically fit that someone half his age.

I kept trying to call back and nothing. My then-fiance came in the door and, stunned, I said, “I was just on the phone with Dad…and I think he died.”

Of course, Evil-Ex just proceeded to call me an idiot and a lot of other choice names. Thus, instead of calling an ambulance, I gave in that I was an overreacting dolt and called my grandparents who lived nearby (I was 40 miles away and they were 3 miles away). I begged them to go check on him and drag him to an ER and I’d take care of the bill.

I sent my grandparents to discover their son on the floor deceased. To this day, I’ve never gotten over the guilt. The last phone call haunts me.

Numb, we went to my grandparents’ home to console them and make funeral preparations. All I wanted was my mom, whom I hadn’t seen in years because she lived in Florida. Evil-Ex “benevolently” made plane reservations for her to come to Texas and, when we returned home, he asked where the flight number was. I told him I thought it was in the car.

He spent the next hour yelling at me for being an idiot (and the flight number turned out to be in the car, just where I said it was.)

At my father’s funeral, I chose to sit next to my grandmother who was falling apart, and of course she was. She was the one who’d found my dad’s corpse (apparently there wasn’t a single part of his body that didn’t have cancer). Evil-Ex screamed at me the entire way home because I didn’t sit next to him instead.

Every time I would start to cry, he’d yell at me for being weak. Then, in the weeks that passed, when we’d be in the car, he’d deliberately play the songs played at my father’s funeral, and, if I started to tear up, he’d fly off the handle and berate me for being idiotic.

I stopped crying.

In fact, I never cried and now, fourteen years later, I still haven’t (his birth-death-day is tomorrow). I suppose this is why the only dreams I have of my father are ones where we find out he really is still alive, and then, when I “find” him, he’s dying all over again.

Before my father passed, I knew I’d inadvertently agreed to marry a sadist, and I’d already planned to leave him. This is why I am very compassionate to those who end up in abusive relationships. Evil people rarely show true colors until their victim is trapped (and evil people do a lot of things to ensnare their victims—finances, alienation from family and friends, emotional abuse, gas-lighting, etc.).

Anyway, not long after Dad died, I tried to use this top-of-the-line computer, only to find out it was a bargain-basement piece of junk that didn’t even work. All I could think was, What kind of person DOES that? Who gifts something they KNOW won’t work?

It took another year of planning and plotting to break free, but I did and never looked back.

Yes, my father died, but my uncle who lived in Colorado with his family returned to Texas. My little brother and his new wife and baby moved here from Florida and so did my mom. We are now a united and very close family.

Though my father’s death, I found the courage to leave Evil-Ex and then become a writer no matter the sacrifice. I also NEVER allowed anyone to treat me the way Evil-Ex did. I learned the early warning signs and ran from anyone who exhibited the traits I’d so foolishly ignored in my youth. And now I have the world’s best husband :D.

This story isn’t to depress you, though I probably have. Sorry.

It’s to show you that we can look on these tragedies and harvest them for story. I KNOW pain. I KNOW suffering. I KNOW evil. I understand the changes in character that must occur to break free, because I LIVED IT.

I believe one of the reasons I write military and law enforcement characters well, is I understand emotional compartmentalization; tucking away the pain to keep pressing on living. I know the long-term effects of failing to grieve, how hard that can be when you’ve tamped down an emotion so long you’ve forgotten where you put it, yet it gnaws at you from some unseen place.

Been here. Sigh. (Image via the movie "28 Days")
Been here. Sigh. (Image via the movie “28 Days”)

Likely, so do a lot of you. Use it.

Great antagonists—villains especially—don’t wear black hats and twirl mustaches. They can resemble people who claim they love us. They’re often very ordinary and that’s what makes them terrifying. Serial killers don’t wear signs and foam at the mouth. They look like the polite neighbor (Dahmer) or the elder at church (BTK).

We can all look back to events in our lives—the triumphs and the tragedies—and tap into those feelings and emotions and THAT is what is meant by “Write what you know.” When did you experience great loss, injustice, abuse, evil, helplessness, heartbreak, or illness? When did you experience freedom, joy, love, passion or elation? What did the journey in between feel like?

I like to say that all gold is guarded by dragons. Often fiction falls flat because we’re afraid to battle the dragons to reach the good stuff, but fearful writing is flat writing.

These primal experiences/emotions are the gold, the beating heart of our story that transforms combinations of 26 letter on a page into something REAL, that transfigures them into stories that move people, changes them and makes our work unforgettable.

It’s hard, but nothing worth doing is easy ;).

And, for the record, I’ve given Spawn a love for Star Wars, Star Trek, I, Robot and zombies, and last week taught him to say, “This is my BOOM STICK!” Dad would be proud :D.

Taking after Grandad John?
Taking after Grandaddy Lamb?

What are your thoughts? Have you ever tapped into a personal tragedy to give depth to story? Or, do you find yourself holding back? Afraid to dive into the abyss?

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. 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).

Announcements: There are a handful of people waiting on their 5-Page revisions. My goal is to have those finished today. Between a stomach flu and WANACon, I am running behind and I didn’t have enough brain power to do your pages justice. I’d rather be a little late than return junk. I want to give your work 1000%. I am also FRIED from working all weekend, so I will announce September’s contest winner TOMORROW. Yes, Kristen IS human.