Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: Les Edgerton

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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…but 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…Really

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 aboutI’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 😀 . 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 😉 …and 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 😛 .

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 “hook the reader” by “starting in the middle of the action.” Then when they get dinged/rejected by an agent or editor, they are confused.

But I started right in the action! What is more “in the action” 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 “in the early years” leading up to the story problem. Authors would wax on rhapsotic about the setting and spend 10,000 words or more “setting up” the story. The reader was privy to “why such and such character” 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 “the heart of the action” doesn’t involve a gun battle, funeral or cliffhanging scene, what the heck does it look like?

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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’s too far in. If we start the story on a Big Loop (HUGE ACTION–like 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…home 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 😉 . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

 

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Whether you are just now entertaining the idea of writing a book or have been writing for a while, all authors need certain tools if our goal is to publish and make money with our work. Now, if your goal is to simply create a piece of literature that “says something deep and probing” about society or life or is esoteric and selling the book doesn’t matter? Then that is a noble goal and I wish you the very best.

There are works that have broken all the rules and come to be known (usually much later) as classics. I will, however, respectfully point out that the majority of those who follow this blog want to write commercially and make a decent living, so my list is geared toward a certain group of authors.

What this means is that anything can go in writing. Rules are not to be a straightjacket, rather guideposts.

I will say, however, that if we deviate too far from what audiences expect, then most agents won’t rep it because they won’t have a clear way to sell it. Readers might steer clear because it becomes what I call “Blue Steak.” It might be yummy, but it is just so dang odd that only a handful of the adventuresome might dare take a bite.

But look how CLEVER it is! Really, it's YUMMY.
But look how CLEVER it is! Really, it’s YUMMY.

When I wrote my post Five Mistakes Killing Self-Published Authors, I did get some push-back regarding archetypes and three-act structure. To be clear, I never said, “All authors must adhere to boring and predictable rules that turn a story into a ridiculous trope.” Nor did I say, “You can only write a good book if you reverently follow every rule.”

I merely stated that we need to understand the basics before we can get to creating “art.” If we don’t, we’re relying on “happy accidents.”

If we don’t understand the rules, we don’t know how to intelligently and artfully break them. Maybe we will write something unique and successful without ever understanding POV. But then how do we duplicate that success if we don’t know how we created it in the first place? This is akin to going in the kitchen and tossing ingredients in a bowl without knowing what they are, how they taste or how they work together (or don’t). Maybe we’ll make something yummy…or maybe we’ll make a chemical bomb.

Image via Frank Selmo WANA Commons
Image via Frank Selmo WANA Commons

When it comes to promotion, experience has taught me that if we are doing the latest fad? It’s already outdated. Algorithmic alchemy has a short shelf-life and I predict that soon it won’t work at all. Automation is ignored, spam filters are better at eating newsletters, and people are drowning in FREE! This means we need to be vigilant to grow, even in areas where we are fearful or weak.

I’m blessed to know thousands of writers, many of them legendary. The interesting thing I’ve found, is that normally the most talented writers, no matter how many zillions of novels they have sold have something in common. They continue to learn.

Last week, I was on the phone with a writer most of you would recognize. He was telling me of the books he was reading to help his current project, the social media and computer books. This author is a widely recognized genius. His books have been made into iconic movies and even assigned to college students. But, despite all this success, he’s wise enough to appreciate that, if we want to master our craft and thrive in our profession? We must always refresh and be open to new works, ideas and techniques.

For instance, craft evolves as readers evolve. Marketing doesn’t stay static. We need to always keep our fingers on the pulse of change and be open to getting out of that comfort zone.

In my career, I’ve read countless books, but these are the ones I would recommend as a staple in any writer’s library. Maybe you can use Christmas money or gift cards to begin stocking your resource library.

For Structure:

Hooked, by Les Edgerton

Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

For Character Development:

The Art of Character by David Corbett

The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

I STRONGLY recommend Angela and Becca’s Positive Trait Thesaurus and Negative Trait Thesaurus. In fact, I think you get a deal if you buy them all together. Do yourself a favor. These tools will keep your characters psychologically consistent. When you do want to vary or surprise, these books can help you do it artfully. We don’t want readers thinking WTH? 

That is bad.

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

Mind Hunter by John Douglas (Profiling is good for the FBI and writers)

DSM-5 (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders 5th Edition) Helpful for characters, dating, the workplace, and family reunions ;).

For a Swift Kick in the Pants:

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The Successful Novelist by David Morrell

Linchpin by Seth Godin

Mastery by Robert Greene

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Failing Forward by John Maxwell

Guides for Social Media:

Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World by Kristen Lamb (of, course, LOL)

Purple Cow by Seth Godin

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Buyology by Martin Lindstrom

I’ve read many other fantastic craft books and guides (often written by the same authors). I’m not listing them all because this is just what I recommend should be standard in our stores of resources. If you guys have any others you’d like to mention, I am always learning and growing, too. Feel free to mention them in the comments!

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

Will announce December’s winners tomorrow. Sorry. My check-up took three and a HALF HOURS (which is why I only go to doctors about once a decade if I can). I apologize.

I hope you guys will check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World and get prepared for 2014!!!!

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Francis, the WANA Mascot

WANACon is coming up, and we launch tomorrow evening at 6:00 PM EST (New York Time for our foreign friends) and go to 8:30 PM with PajamaCon. Since WANA is founded on a spirit of generosity, we’re offering PAJAMACon to everyone for FREE. Just go to the WANACon Page and on the right side you will see this:

Portal to F-U-N!
Portal to F-U-N!

You see in the Conference Hall A Selector I chose PajamaCon, then enter your name (or alias) and the password is “WANARocks”. Anything that pops up, just allow. We do this to keep your computer secure.

I know that WANACon is a bit futuristic and maybe some of you are shy about how a virtual conference works, so here’s a great time to check it out. Also, I’ll be there. What more reason do you need?

Ouch! I just got a cramp patting myself on the back!

Today, I want to take a little time to point out what is going to be SO awesome about WANACon (aside from teaching from top-tier publishing pros, AMAZON, free recordings, sweet price point, NO travel, no layovers, no TSA, no hotel and no overpriced restaurant food).

Agents

Okay, a moment about agents. I made an executive decision not to have agents at this WANACon. Why? Because NYC grinds to a halt roughly in November. The odds of ANY pitch (manuscript) landing a sweet publishing contract in three weeks has roughly the same odds as me becoming a bikini model. Reality dictates that most manuscripts will sit untouched until 2014. Why waste your time or an agent’s?

You want any agent selling your work when it’s fresh and they’re still super-stoked-excited…not after your book’s sat on their desk for three months. Just my personal opinion.

So, instead?

I kidnapped recruited the head of the Amazon CreateSpace team to present and show you how to make the most of all the cool tools Amazon provides to help you succeed. For those considering any kind of indie, self-publishing or hybrid publishing? Amazon’s Thom Kephart will be there to show you the ropes.

I also have the owner of Green E-Books to demonstrate all the coolest innovations in e-book technology, and he makes this stuff so simple even I understand it (and have yet to figure out my e-mail *sigh*).

Craft

We have the LEGENDS David Corbett and Les Edgerton and these two guys alone are worth the price of the entire conference.  I’ve been to countless conferences and workshops and read all the craft books. There are very few teachers who are game-changers.

Even though I’ve been writing professionally for ten years, I still attend craft classes. It is rare that I blow through half a notebook taking notes. I stalked both Corbett and Edgerton until they agreed to do WANACon…and reconsider the restraining orders :D.

Technically this is a “virtual” conference, so I’m not in violation of the 1000 feet “rule” the “courts” have established.

My Classes

I am teaching three sessions at WANACon, all classes I’m not regularly offering.

The first is Many Roads to Rome—Choosing a Publishing Path. How do you know whether to self-publish or keep trying to score a traditional deal? Not all writers (or works) are suited to be traditionally published. Other personalities will DIE trying to self-publish. Sometimes a book is great, but the publishing path chosen is ill-suited for the work. You might want to even consider a hybrid path.

This class will offer guidance on one of the most important decisions we will ever make. How DO we publish?

Then I have Killing Little Darlings with Ruthless Efficiency. Ever heard of RAMBO? I am LAMBO. I have slayed entire villages of Little Darlings. I’m going to teach you ways to spot them, cut them, kill them and maybe even not create them in the first place.

Prevention IS the best cure.

Then, lastly, NaNoWriMo Bootcamp. 

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is the month of November. 50,000 words in one month. Sounds like a lot. If we write every day, roughy 1,600 words a day. If we take weekends off? 2,000 words a day. Granted, NaNoWriMo isn’t about writing a perfect book. It is, however, a GREAT introduction into what it’s like to keep and maintain a professional pace.

Many writers start out hot and heavy, write themselves into a corner, then burn out and DIE. Most of the time, this is preventable if we have some basic know-how and start off correctly. There is no sense in killing ourselves for a month to reach 50,000 words only to end up with an unfixable nightmare that chews on the furniture and pees on the rugs.

I would assume that anyone who vows to complete NaNoWriMo would like to create something that can be revised, polished and published. Throwing away a month of time and tens of thousands of words is hard on the body and the ego. Why not write something solid that can be shaped into something FANTASTIC?

Other Stuff

We have Susan Spann who is an Intellectual Property and Publishing Attorney to teach you about contracts. When do you sign? When do you walk away? When do you RUN away?

Some of you might want to add romance to your book or even a–GASP!—love scene. How do we write those without sounding like bad porn?

Hey, I’m here to fix your cable?

But I don’t HAVE cable….

Best-Selling Author Candace Havens has written more books than I could fit on our digital book table. She’s written at all levels of “heat” so whether you want the sweet romance or are writing erotica, Candy has the know-how to help you write scenes readers will love…instead of rolling their eyes.

For the NF Folks

We have long-time journalist Caitlin Kelly. She’s written multiple books and has worked as a freelance writer for most of her career. She’s had over a 100+ freelance articles in The New York Times and recently was published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. This lady KNOWS her stuff. She’s tough and will tell it straight, but this business isn’t for the faint of heart.

We also have media personality Amy Shojai to guide you how to write a NF proposal. Not only is she an amazing and energetic teacher, Amy has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and in USA Weekend, The New York TimesWashington PostReader’s Digest, Woman’s DayFamily CircleWoman’s World, and many other leading newspapers and magazines.

She regularly appears on national radio and television in connection with her pet writing. Most recently, she appeared as a dog and cat expert on Animal Planet’s DOGS 101 and CATS 101.

Then There Will Be (Of Course) Social Media

Gaping at G+? Fried on Facebook? We have you covered ;).

Web Nightmares

I can attest that getting an author web site is about as confusing and pleasant as a colonoscopy (and the after-effects can feel strangely similar).

It’s easy to get ripped off. I have been ripped off multiple times. Why? I didn’t know what questions to ASK. When we step out to do this new thing of finally being serious enough to get a website, we are NEW.

We are too dumb to know what we don’t know. Sometimes, we think if we throw more money at it, MORE MONEY=AWESOME. Or, if we are broke, we assume we can’t have a good-looking web-site.

WRONG.

Laird Sapir is a trusted WANA web designer. She’s smart, savvy and affordable but not at WANACon to sell you anything (unless you want). I recruited her to educate you. If you don’t have a web site, how do you find a designer? The right designer? What do you need to know? What questions do you ask? What should you reasonably PAY? How do you negotiate?

If you already have a web site, what are some things you can do to make your site more appealing to visitors? What are some changes you could possibly make that might sell more books?

And SO MUCH MORE!!!

This is just a sample of the awesome that will be at WANACon (you can check out the full schedule HERE). And remember, if you can’t attend or miss a session or two, you get the recording, notes and handouts FREE as part of your conference.

WANACon is just like a REAL writing conference. The only things you’re missing out on are the super high price tags, uncomfortable flights, bad conference food, a chance at getting bed bugs from your hotel, and that awkward TSA pat down. Though the guy who sold me my Interview Van works for tips and a pat down can be arranged.

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Just ignore the ankle monitor.

So you can go ahead and sign up HERE. We are also selling individual days if that fits your schedule or budget better. BUT, there isn’t ANY excuse to not stop by and check out the fun at PajamaCon. Here are our best-practices and trouble-shooting guidelines to make PajamaCon (and WANACon) as pleasant as possible. For instance, Safari will cough up a hairball with our technology. Google Chrome and Firefox play better. Simple stuff like that.

I’ll be at PajamaCon so we can meet. You can ask questions about craft, social media, branding, or even why tin foil is completely useless for keeping the aliens from reading your thoughts. It’ll be FUN :D.

For those of you who might not have met the WANA Mascot, Francis, here’s his debut film. I think a lot of us can relate. WANACon is a way to start reaching your dreams without adding time strain and financial pressure.

I hope to see you at WANACon, but at LEAST PajamaCon.

Lock the kids out of the bedroom for a couple hours and take time for YOU. Let your inner artist have a play date with the pros.