Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: literary fiction

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of adohnes

Years ago when I got the idea to write a novel, I did what a lot of new writers do and created the uber perfect protagonist. In fact, when I came up with the original plot idea for The Devil’s Dance, I cast a Sarah Conner badass…and she was dull as dirt and utterly unlikable.

Yay me.

Bizarrely, when those critiquing didn’t like my protagonist, I made her more perfect thinking that would fix it. Um, no. Made it worse. They went from disliking her to kinda wanting to stab her in the face.

Why did I do this? Why did I default to super perfect?

Fear.

Fear of being authentic. I had no concept of what it was like to be perfect. My family resembled Season Two of the Jerry Springer Show. After my parents divorced, my dad disappeared for years only to resurface and take a job as a cashier at Stop-N-Go so he could get out of paying the originally allotted child support. I was never #1 at anything (unless one counts truancy). Terrible at sports, last to be picked and the first to get nailed in the face in a game of dodge ball. I dropped out of high school…TWICE.

When it came time to write a story, I wrote the version of me that never was and likely never would be. She was…perfect.

And again, dull as dirt.

For a long time I was tremendously embarrassed about all the best material for a great story (stuff I knew, had experienced in MY life). In short, I was afraid to be authentic. So, after countless versions of my perfect character, I relegated her to the recycle bin and started again with a new character…Romi.

I discovered that I was far better at writing messed up people with imperfect lives, lots of baggage who were working through pain in imperfect ways.

Thus, today, I have a guest who is one of my closest friends and has been critique partner of mine for years, Lanette Kauten. She loves literary fiction almost as much as I love tormenting her for loving literary fiction. But Lanette is excellent at creating very flawed and interesting characters with lots of layers, so who better to ask to guest post about writing authentically?

Take it away, Lanette!

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Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Gerald Gabernig

Writing is a great adventure because we get to explore worlds and characters, diving into the psychology of humanity. And we long to share these wonderful stories we’ve created with the world!

In doing so, it’s natural to put a piece of ourselves, our worldview, into the stories. We want to share things—a belief or a bit of wisdom—but the question is how to do it without sounding didactic. Religious writers have a reputation of moralizing their stories and not coming across as authentic.

Is that a fair criticism? Maybe for some, but it’s not a brush that can be applied liberally.

Look at Dean Koontz. He’s a Catholic, and his books are amazing! Sometimes his readers can detect his overall worldview in his stories, but not always. He simply churns out good stories. Though he did write the most kick-ass salvation scene in his “Prodigal Son” series. Let’s also not forget about the works of two other great writers who happen to be Christians—Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor.

But what about books with other religious elements?

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sukanto Debnath

I’m glad you asked because now we’re getting to the crux of this post. Life of Pi is not a Hindu novel. The Kite Runner is not a Muslim novel.

Both of those books portray beautiful stories, and are simply novels told from the worldviews of their respective authors. Yes, the main characters have religious beliefs. It’s part of who they are, and to deny it on the one hand or to make the stories all about that on the other wouldn’t have been authentic. And readers would’ve tossed the books aside without ever thinking about them again rather than gush about how great those two books are.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Navaneeth Kishor

My novels are written from my worldview, but anyone would be crazy to call them “Christian fiction.” My characters are a part of the world they live in and act accordingly.

I don’t attempt to hide from real life or shove my characters into a derivative little box. In one of my books, the main character is a confused atheist who escaped from her upbringing in a weird, Charismatic church. Even though she wants nothing to do with her parents’ religion, one of her closest friends is a Jesus freak guru who owns a club in an art district, and one of his employees is a pothead who believes just as strongly in aliens as he believes in Jesus.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of erokism

The book isn’t about her struggle with religion, but it’s a part of who she is. To cut all that out wouldn’t be true to her or to the story. However, to make the story about religion wouldn’t be honest either. Here I am as a Christian with a book about an atheist in a lesbian relationship, struggling to figure out where she belongs in this world. I don’t shy away from realistic people and situations.

For me, authenticity is key.

Readers are smart and can detect a false note as easily as hearing a wrong note played in their favorite song. It doesn’t matter what worldview you bring to your story (we all bring our beliefs and experiences into our stories); whether we’re Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, Atheist, or whatever, we are wise to be authentic. We must strive to be honest in order to show the world as it really is.

Great. That sounds wonderful. How do we do it?

Be Vulnerable

Share your pain, your loss, your doubts. To be human is to feel. Dump your emotions on that page. Open up your vein and bleed. (Not literally. Please don’t bleed on your computer. It’s sticky.) Don’t shy away from the difficult questions because many of your readers will pick up on that and will feel cheated, and don’t edit your emotions as you write. Editing comes later.

Personalize It

This is similar to vulnerability, but here is where you get to shine. Share your worldview as something personal to you. Beliefs have broad implications, but they also have personal elements. Open up the beauty of that world to us in a way that feels real by focusing on the minute details. So often the smallest things have the biggest impact.

Know Your Characters

Your characters are key to showing their own authenticity. Let’s say you’re writing a Christian book, and your character is in a difficult position. Maybe she learned that a friend stole some money and that friend knows a secret about her. If she reports her friend, she knows her secret will be out.

What would your character do? Don’t think about the moral lesson you want to impart, but think about her personality, beliefs, what drives her, and how big the secret is (the bigger, the better) and have her act as she naturally would.

I write literary and some women’s fiction, so my novels are grounded in real life, yet when I say you have to show the world as it really is, I don’t just mean contemporary or literary fiction. You can write fantasies or sci-fi with amazing new worlds, but what is that secret ingredient that elevates the forgettable story to the unforgettable one? Writing our characters and stories with honesty.

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Thank you, Lanette! I hope y’all will check out her books and befriend her on Facebook. Also Lanette will be at Jamie Lynn Boothe’s launch party on Facebook tonight so I hope y’all will come by.

What are your thoughts? What resonates with you? What do you try to impart onto your characters to make them “real”? Are you like I was and terrified to be imperfect? It’s cool. We all do it. And, frankly, perfect characters also serve a role in other types of fiction (I.e. James Bond), so I don’t want to pick on them too much. Do you enjoy authenticity or prefer the escape of perfection? No wrong answers, btw.

I LOVE hearing from you and comments for guests count double in my contest.

****Just FYI, in an effort to combat spammers your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

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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).

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Many emerging writers come to me when they find they are struggling with their WIP. I always begin with the same question, “What is your story about?” Often, I get this response, “Well, my story isn’t plot-driven. It is a character-driven story.”

Translation?

I have no plot…and please stop asking me because it makes me want to drink heavily.

There really is no such thing as a purely character-driven story. Character and plot are like two keyed cogs. One drives the other. The plot pushes the protagonist to grow and as the character grows, this in turn drives the plot.

For instance, in The Lord of the Rings the plot problem (Toss evil ring in a volcano before power-hungry necromancer takes over Middle Earth) is what forces the Hobbits to leave The Shire. Ah, but once they leave, how they respond to escalating threats determines plot.

For instance, they are barely out of The Shire when Merry and Pippin nearly get them all captured/killed by The Black Rider because they are running from an angry pitchfork-wielding farmer.

That is an ok place to begin, but what if they all remained the same reckless naive Hobbits they were in that scene? Their decisions would impact the story and they would fail.

To succeed, they must grow.

Granted, though we do have two cogs, depending on genre, this will impact the SIZE of each cog. In a Jack Reacher thriller? The plot cog is larger (but the character cog is still there). Similarly, in a literary fiction, this will reverse. In Cormac McCarty’s The Road there is still a plot objective (Make it to the ocean) but the character cog is larger because reaching the goal is far less important than HOW they reach the goal. If Man and Boy stop to snack on people? They fail. The torch of humanity is extinguished.

Thus, a literary work (character-driven story) might work like this…

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For genre fiction, it would reverse and, depending on the story and the style, the relative size of the cogs will change accordingly. Yet there will always be two cogs.

Regardless of genre, once we have an idea of what our story is about and have set the stage for the dramatic events that will unfold, we must remember that fiction is about PROBLEMS. Plain and simple. Furthermore, it is about PEOPLE who have problems. But not simply ANY problems. Very specific problems, which we will talk about in a sec 😉 .

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

Great stories are people overcoming great odds.

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

The Wound

Real humans have wounds that drive our wants, needs, perceptions, and reactions and so should all our characters (even the Big Boss Troublemaker-Antagonist). Maybe your character is a control-freak. Perhaps he avoids. Maybe she is battling an addiction or is a loner or is a people-pleaser. Maybe he is a user or a manipulator.

My question is WHY?

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

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

I used the meme of Dr. House and his motto, Everybody lies. Yet, part of why that character was so successful is that we know something happened somewhere in the past that gave House that core belief.

This belief is what made him a superlative doctor, but it also hobbled every single relationship he ever had. We wonder about the wound because in every episode?

We see that wound in action.

Wounds are the NOTCH That Engages the GEAR

Back to my gear metaphor, but let’s expand it a bit. Think of plot like gears on a bicycle. So long as the gears are engaged and moving forward we have story momentum. Character is like the chain winding around those gears.

Some of you might be old enough to remember riding a ten-speed with the old shifters. You had to practice shifting gears to get the chain to engage a larger or smaller gear and if you didn’t get it right? The pedals spun and the bike just made weird noises. That’s because the chain has to be able to meet with the teeth of the gear via a space or a hole…or it won’t work.

Character functions similarly. We can have the gears (plot) and the chain (character) but if there is no notch (wound) that allows them to ever mesh and create tension? The story has no momentum and just makes weird sounds while we fruitlessly spin literary pedals.

Wounds are the sweet spot, that hole, that allows plot and character to merge into dramatic momentum.

Some writers start with characters and others start with plot. It doesn’t matter so long as you let either be forged with “the wound” in mind. If you have a mental snippet of a rebellious renegade bad@$$ heroine and want to put her in a story, then think of a plot situation that will make her utterly miserable. She can’t grow if she’s comfortable.

Maybe instead of chasing bad guys, she is forced to become the caretaker for her three young nephews after her sister dies. This PLOT is going to force her to be vulnerable, maybe have a softer side, and lighten up. Now, character (chain) and plot (gears) are linked.

Same if we go the opposite direction.

Maybe you have a great idea for a story. You want to take down a mob boss. Who can you cast that will be the most uncomfortable and thus grow the most? A former hit man who’s given up killing because he promised his wife before she died? An agoraphobic ex-cop who can’t leave her house? A sweet, naive soccer mom who believes that Bedazzling makes everything way more AWESOME?

Genre will dictate some of the casting, but note if we cast someone who would reach our story goal with relative ease, we risk having a one-dimensional talking head. We also diminish tension because remember, readers LOVE seemingly unbeatable odds. So, if we cast a highly decorated detective to take down our mob boss, make sure there is something about him (a wound) that puts the odds against him.

Wounds Don’t Have to Be Big to Be BIG

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

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

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

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

Wounds Will Distort Happiness

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

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

Am I "there" yet?
Am I “there” yet?

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

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

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

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

I love hearing from you!

And 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).

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Fail to pick a genre ahead of time? Welcome to HELL…

For the past several weeks we have been exploring structure and why it is important. If you haven’t yet read the prior posts, I advise you do because each post builds on the previous lesson. All lessons are geared to making you guys master plotters (and, yes, this is even helpful to the pantsers out there).

Understanding structure helps us write cleaner and faster. Whether we plan every detail ahead of time or just intuitively have the architecture in our head, structure makes the difference between a workable first draft and a nightmare beyond salvage.

I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit right now to get writing. All in due time. Today we are going to talk genre and why it is important to pick one.

Understanding what genre you are writing will help guide you when it comes to plotting your novel. How? Each genre has its own set of general rules and expectations. Think of this like stocking your cabinet with spices. If you like to cook Mexican food, then you will want to have a lot of tumeric, chili powder and paprika on hand. Like cooking Italian food? Then basil, rosemary and oregano are staple spices. In cooking we can break rules … but only to a certain point.

We can add flavors of other cultures into our dish, but must be wary that if we deviate too far from expectations, or add too many competing flavors, we will have a culinary disaster. Writing is much the same. We must choose a genre, but then can feel free to add flavors of other genres into our work.

Twelve years ago, when I first got this brilliant idea to start writing fiction, I didn’t do any planning. I knew zip nada about the craft, and, frankly, was too stupid to know I was that dumb. To make matters worse, I tried to write a novel that everyone would love. It was a romantic-thriller-mystery-comedic-inspirational-memoir that would appeal to all ages, both men and women and even their pets and houseplants.

I am here to help you learn from my mistakes.

Just as nailing the log-line is vital for plotting, we also must be able to classify what genre our novel will be in. Now, understand that some genres are fairly close. Think Mexican Food and Tex Mex. An agent at a later date might, for business reasons, decide to slot a Women’s Fiction into Romance.  Yet, you likely will NEVER see an agent slot a literary fiction as a thriller. They are too different. That is like trying to put enchiladas on the menu at an Indian restaurant.

Um, ew.

Part of why I stress picking a genre is that genres have rules and standards. For example, last year, I had a student drop out of my critique group because she wanted to basically write a literary thriller. There was no making her understand that there were serious pacing issues with this combination. People who love thrillers like fast, steadily rising action. If we stop to take time to explore feelings and social issues, we will vex the very audience we are trying to entertain. People who read thrillers and people who read literary fiction are two very different audiences.

This is like trying to blend Transformers IV with Joy Luck Club. Not only will it not work but the target audiences are polar extremes. In trying to please everyone, we’d end up pleasing no one. Could we possibly mix these genres and be successful? Sure. Anything is possible, but why make more of a headache than necessary?

Granted, there are people who like to read everything, but betting our writing future on entertaining statistical outliers is a serious gamble. It’s like creating tuna ice cream. Sure, there is likely a handful of pregnant women who would love tuna ice cream, but most people would just pass. I didn’t make the rules, but I can help a writer understand those rules and thereby increase his/her chances of publication success.

In writing as in food, some combinations are never meant to go together. Paranormal thriller? Okay. Cool. Popcorn jelly beans. Literary thriller? Tuna ice cream of the writing world. Just my POV.

Understanding your genre will help immensely when it comes to plotting. It will also help you get an idea of the word count specific to that genre. I am going to attempt to give a very basic overview of the most popular genres. Please understand that all of these break down into subcategories, but I have provided links to help you learn more so this blog wasn’t 10,000 words long.

Mystery—often begins with the crime as the inciting incident (murder, theft, etc.), and the plot involves the protagonist uncovering the party responsible by the end. The crime has already happened and thus your goal in plotting is to drive toward the Big Boss Battle—the unveiling of the real culprit.

Mysteries have a lot more leeway to develop characters simply because, if you choose, they can be slower in pacing because the crime has already happened. Mysteries run roughly  75-100,000 words. Mysteries on the cozy side that are often in a series commonly are shorter. 60,000-ish. I’d recommend that you consult the Mystery Writers of America of more information.

Thriller/Suspense—generally involve trying to stop some bad thing from happening at the end. Thrillers have broad consequences if the protagonist fails—I.e. the terrorists will launch a nuclear weapon and destroy Washington D.C. Suspense novels have smaller/more intimate consequences. I.e. The serial killer will keep butchering young blonde co-eds. It is easy to see how thriller, suspense and mystery are kissing cousins and keep company. The key here is that there is a ticking clock and some disastrous event will happen if the protagonist fails.

So when plotting, all actions are geared to prevention of the horrible thing at the endThrillers can run 90-100,000 words (loosely) and sometimes a little longer. Why? Because some thrillers need to do world-building. Most of us have never been on a nuclear sub, so Tom Clancy had to recreate it for us in The Hunt for Red October (Clancy invented a sub-class of thriller known as the techno-thriller).

Pick up the pacing and you can have a Mystery-Suspense. Think Silence of the LambsA murder happens at the beginning, and the goal is to uncover the identity of the serial killer Buffalo Bill (mystery), but what makes this mystery-suspense is the presence of a ticking clock. Not only is the body count rising the longer Buffalo Bill remains free, but a senator’s daughter is next on Bill’s butcher block.

When plotting, there will often be a crime (murder) at the beginning, but the plot involves a rising “body count” and a perpetrator who must be stopped before an even bigger crime can occur (Big Boss Battle). These stories are plot-driven. Characters often do not have enough down-time to make sweeping inner arc changes like in a literary piece.

Pick up the pacing and raise the stakes and you have a Mystery-Thriller. Think Killing Floor by Lee Childs. The book begins with a murder of two unidentified people at a warehouse, but if the killers are not found, what the killers are trying to cover up will have global consequences. And I am not telling you what those consequences are b/c it would ruin the book :D.

When plotting, again, there is often a crime at the beginning with rising stakes, and the protagonist must stop a world-changing event from happening (Big Boss Battle). The focus of your plot will be solving the mystery and stopping the bad guy.

For more information on this genre, consult the International Thriller Writers site.

Romance—Guy and girl have to end up together in the end is the only point I will make on this. Romance is all about making the reader believe that love is good and grand and still exists in this crazy world. The hero cannot be your Big Boss Trouble Maker (read Structure Part Three if you want to know what a BBT is). Yes, the guy will likely be a scene antagonist, but that is different.

Romance, however, is very complex and I cannot do it justice in this short blurb. If you desire to write romance, I highly recommend you go to the Romance Writers of America site for more information and that you join a chapter near you immediately. This is one of the most amazing writing organizations around and a great investment in a successful romance-writing career.

Word count will depend on the type of romance you desire to write. Again, look to RWA for guidance.

Literary Fiction is character driven. The importance is placed on the inner change, and the plot is the mechanism for driving that change. Literary fiction has more emphasis on prose, symbol and motif. The events that happen must drive an inner transformation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Road is a good example. The world has been destroyed and only a few humans have survived. The question isn’t as much whether the man and the boy will survive as much as it is about how they will survive. Will they endure with their humanity in tact? Or will they resort to being animals? Thus, the goal in The Road is less about boy and man completing their journey to the ocean, and more about how they make it. Can they carry the torch of humanity?

When plotting for the literary fiction, one needs to consider plot-points for the inner changes occurring. There need to be cross-roads of choice. One choice ends the story. The character failed to change. The other path leads closer to the end. The darkest moment is when that character faces that inner weakness at its strongest, yet triumphs.

For instance, in The Road, there are multiple times the man and boy face literally starving to death. Will they resort to cannibalism as many other have? Or will they press on and hope? Word count can vary, but you should be safe with 60-85,000 words (The Road was technically a novella).

Note: Literary fiction is not a free pass to avoid plotting. There still needs to be an overall plot problem that forces the change. People generally don’t wake up one day and just decide to change. There needs to be an outside driving force, a Big Boss Troublemaker, and a tangible physical goal. Again, in The Road, the man and boy have a tangible goal of getting to the ocean.

The only difference in literary fiction and genre fiction is that plot arc is now subordinate to character arc. In commercial genre fiction the plot generally takes precedence. In Silence of the Lambs catching Buffalo Bill is top on the priority list. Character evolution is secondary. In literary fiction these two arcs reverse. The character growth and change is of primary importance and plot is merely the vehicle to get them to change.

For instance, in Joy Luck Club, June’s impending trip to China is what brings the women together and what forces each of them to change the patterns of the past. The trip is irrelevant save for two purposes—1) bringing the women together to face their demons and 2) when June actually makes the trip to China to meet her mother’s twin sisters (the lost babies) we know the change has occurred and the chains of the past have been loosed.

Fantasy and Science Fiction will involve some degree of world-building and extraordinary events, creatures, locations. In plotting, world-building is an essential additional step. How much world-building is necessary will depend on what sub-class of fantasy or sci-fi you’re writing. Word count will also be affected. The more world-building, the longer your book will be. Some books, especially in high-fantasy can run as long as 150,000 words and are often serialized.

In regular fantasy, we will generally have a singular protagonist. In high fantasy, the various parties each become protagonists. Think Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.

Consult the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for more information.

Horror—This is another genre that breaks down into many sub-classifications and runs the gambit. It can be as simple as a basic Monster in the House story where the protagonist’s main goal is SERE-Survive Evade, Rescue, and Escape. The protag has only one goal…survive. These books tend to be on the shorter side, roughly 60,000 words.

Horror, however can blend with fantasy and require all kinds of complex world-building. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a good example. Stephen King’s horror often relies heavily on the psychological and there is weighty focus on an inner change/arc. For instance, The Shining chronicles Jack’s descent into madness and how his family deals with his change and ultimately tries to escape the very literal Monster in the House.

Horror will most always involve a Monster in the House scenario. It is just that the definitions of “monster” and “house” are mutable. Word count is contingent upon what type of horror you are writing. Again, I recommend you consult the experts, so here is a link to the Horror Writers AssociationThe Dark Fiction Guild seemed to have a lot of helpful/fascinating links, so you might want to check them out too.

Young AdultI won’t talk long about YA, since YA beaks into so many subcategories. Often YA will follow the rules of the parent genre (i.e. YA thrillers still have a ticking clock, fast pacing and high stakes just like regular thrillers). The differences, however, is that YA generally will have a younger protagonist (most often a teenager) and will address special challenges particular to a younger age group.

Picking a genre is actually quite liberating. Each genre has unique guideposts and expectations, and, once you gain a clear view of these, then plotting becomes far easier and much faster. You will understand the critical elements that must be in place—ticking clock, inner arc, world-building—before you begin.

This will save loads of time not only in writing, but in revision. Think of the romance author who makes her hero the main antagonist (BBT). She will try to query, and, since she didn’t know the rules of her genre, will end up having to totally rewrite/trash her story or change the genre entirely because she actually wrote a Women’s Fiction and NOT a romance.

Eventually, once you grow in your craft, you will be able to break rules and conventions. But, to break the rules we have to understand them first.

I have done my best to give you guys a general overview of the most popular genres and links to know more. If you have some resources or links that you’d like to add, please put them in the comments section. Also, for the sake of brevity, I didn’t address other genres, like children’s or Western. If you have questions or advice, fire away! Any corrections? Additions? Questions? Concerns? Comments? I love hearing from you. What is the biggest hurdle you have to choosing a genre? Do you love your genre? Why? Any advice?

Quick announcement: Have trouble putting down and enforcing boundaries with yourself? With family? Always putting everyone else ahead of yourself? I am teaching a new class called Good Fences–The Writer’s Guide to Setting Boundaries and it is only $15 so I hope you will take advantage. This class is perfect for those who want to do Nanowrimo. I’ll help you learn the Art of the Loving NO.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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

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

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

For the past month, we have been discussing story structure. Part I of this series introduced the novel on a micro-scale. Part II explored the big picture and offered an overview of common plot problems. Part III introduced the most critical element to any novel, the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). Each of these blogs builds upon the previous lesson, so if you are new, I recommend reading the earlier blogs. I bring the best teaching in the industy right to your computer in an easy-to-digest form to make you a great storyteller. Whether we are traditionally published, indie published or self-published, we must connect with readers and tell a great story. Structure is the “delivery system” for our story, so it’s wise to make it as solid as possible.

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

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

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

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

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

Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK

LEAD

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

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

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

That’s why STAR Magazine can sell hundreds of thousands of tabloids with the promise of showing us that Angelina Jolie has cellulite. We want to tear her down and make her human. Not the best way to start out with your protagonist. If we make her too perfect, readers will revel in her destruction. Bad juju. We need readers to rally to her team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws, and humanize her.

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

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

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

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

Objective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflict

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

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

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

Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?

Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.

Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.

Applicant: I like rape.

This sequence gets quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene. I am not making this up. And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies and rapes are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.

Knockout

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

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

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

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

Can I cast a LEAD who is relatable and likable?

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

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

Does this story problem lend itself to a KNOCKOUT ending?

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

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

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Winner of 5-Page Critique–Barbara McDowell. Please send a 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Want to know how to create story magic?

Having trouble at critique group? Something not sitting well with your novel, but you aren’t quite sure what it is? Do you find yourself having to do more explaining than you would like when it comes to this one simple question: So what’s your book about? Want to know the secret to crafting stories a reader cannot put down? Fear not. Whether you are writing a short story, novella, screenplay, or a novel, there is one solid ingredient that can turn any plot into an un-put-down-able masterpiece.

Add this one ingredient (liberally), and you will be shocked how much your writing will improve. It can turn the mundane into magical. What is this super ingredient with such power that would make people turn off the television and send their children to bed early? What is the one pivotal component with the ability to make readers willingly and happily give up their precious sleep?

CONFLICT

Conflict Drives the Story

There. I said it. Conflict. Nothing else. Sorry. I love description and narrative and good dialogue, but they do not MAKE a story, and they do not DRIVE the story. Whether the story is character-driven or plot-driven, the fuel is the same…conflict, conflict, conflict!

Three pages describing a tree was great for a century ago. Steinbeck did it well. But today’s readers have a lot more choices when it comes to how they spend their free time. As an author, your work is competing against FaceBook, Twitter, movies, sporting events, the Internet, cable TV, carpools, etc. The modern reader has a far shorter attention span. Agents appreciate this reality, and so should you.

Let’s debunk one common myth (excuse) for breaking the “Conflict drives all stories rule.”

I love it when I hear this, “Oh, but my piece is literary fiction.”

Um…likely not.

And I do believe that a lot of new writers simply do not understand fundamental rules, and thus are lulled into believing their work is the exception. Do exceptions exist? Sure. Are they common? Not really.

One of the most common excuses I hear from new writers is that their work is literary and that is why there is no clear inciting incident or clear antagonist or even a clear goal. So let’s take a minute to clear this up.

Literary Fiction is Driven by Conflict

Most of the time when I hear a new writer announce that his piece is “literary fiction,” that is a short-hand cue for me to expect no structure, lots of similes, metaphors, self-indulgent flashbacks and no overall conflict other than a main character’s really pretentious angst. Most of the time, it smacks of self-therapy thinly guised as a story.

Sorry. Hate to break the news. Therapy is not interesting (unless you are Tony Soprano).

Am I picking on literary fiction? NO! But I do believe that a lot of authors really do not understand what it is.

Literary fiction is more serious and generally harder to pigeon-hole into a particular genre, but conflict still drives the story. In literary fiction, the story is more character-driven than plot-driven, much like movies categorized as “drama.”

This past weekend I watched Steel Magnolias. A fantastic example. There was no murder or explosion or stolen money to kick off the action. There was a wedding. A turn in life that would change all the characters forever, deeply and profoundly.

I repeat. Even literary fiction (drama) must be driven by conflict.

In literary fiction, the conflict is generally for the purpose of driving character arcs. Let’s use Steel Magnolias to elucidate. Movies make for easier examples.

In the very beginning Jackson (the groom) gives the audience the pivotal decision that will affect all six of the women featured in the movie—Shelby’s decision to have a child despite having Type 1 Diabetes. This is the inciting incident that causes everything to change.

I will go over three of the arcs for the sake of brevity.

Truvy (Friend of Shelby and her Mother M’Lynn)

Beginning—Truvy is estranged from the men in her life (husband and son). No matter how she tries to connect, she only seems to drift farther away from them, a reality that causes her great pain.

Ending—Shelby’s death due to kidney failure gives a sobering wake-up call to Truvy’s husband and son. They are convicted of how they have taken Truvy for granted and the emotional chasm closes.

Shelby (Daughter)

Beginning—Young, carefree, and in many ways very selfish. She is more concerned with the color of her nail polish than the risk she plans to take by getting pregnant against medical advice. Although bubbly and likable, it is clear that not only does she fail to value her mother, but she resents her mother’s efforts to look out for her well-being.

Ending—As Shelby’s arc closes, we see she is more sobered by life’s events and comes to value her mother’s sacrifices (now a mother, herself).

M’Lynn (Mother)

M’Lynn is a very static character who serves to drive the arcs of the others.

Beginning—Her only daughter is getting married. M’Lynn is keeping everything running and is there to fix the broken things (fragile champagne glasses). We see her fussing over the flowers and tending the details as she prepares for a joyous event.

Ending—Her only daughter has died. M’Lynn is keeping everything running, tending the details, fixing the broken things (a grieving husband and two sons who are emotionally crippled by loss [earlier symbolized and foreshadowed by broken champagne glasses]). She is once more fussing over flowers, only now the flowers will adorn a coffin and a grave site. She is the rock of the family, which we will see crack in a highly emotional scene after her daughter is lowered into the ground.

As is clear to see, there is plenty of conflict to drive the story.

For All Stories…

Conflict is the fuel that drives the arcs—character arc, scene arc, and ultimately the plot arc.

If you do not have conflict, you do not have a story. You may have a beautiful scene with lots of pretty metaphors and symbolism, but if there is not an overall problem to be solved, then what you have is dead weight.

In novels (and movies) there is always one large problem to be solved. Each scene is a step toward your protagonist’s problem being resolved. Each scene must have a smaller problem that HAS to be resolved before the hero can continue.

Since we have discussed literary fiction, let’s now look at a plot-driven story.

Plot-Driven Fiction is Driven by Conflict

The movie Labyrinth is a wonderful example. It begins with a kidnapping.

Our protagonist Sarah’s goal is to rescue her baby brother from the Goblin King. In order to do this, she must make it to the center of the labyrinth in thirteen hours. Yet, along the way, she must overcome a series of challenges that lead her ever closer to her outer goal—finding the way into the labyrinth, escaping the oubliette, running from the chopping blades of the Cleaners, escaping the Bog of Eternal Stench, and on and on. Each scene peels back a layer of Sarah’s character and serves to drive her emotional arc (inner goal) as it simultaneously drives the plot arc.

Through events (things happening—not internal dialogue or flashbacks or Sarah talking out loud or conveniently writing in a journal), Sarah is made painfully aware of the ugly aspects of her character. She MUST CHANGE if she hopes to save her brother.

The Sarah of the beginning is doomed to failure. In fact, when pitted against her adversary in the beginning, Sarah fails horribly. Because of her childishness and self-centeredness she pays a horrible price—she loses her brother.

Fortunately for our heroine, the Goblin King underestimates Sarah and he generously offers her a chance at redemption (the catalyst). Judging her by who she is in that initial scene, the King fully expects her to give up. Yet, what the King fails to understand is that the very labyrinth he believes will break Sarah, will be his undoing.

Each challenge within the labyrinth serves a two-fold purpose—1) Get Sarah closer to the center. Literal forward progression. 2. Fire away Sarah’s character impurities and forge a heroine who can triumph at the end when pitted against the Goblin King. Symbolic/emotional forward progression.

Conflict continually places Sarah in danger. Will she learn the lesson required to continue the journey? Conflict reminds us that something large is at stake and the clock is ticking. Conflict makes us care.

Whatever story you choose to write, think of it as a machine…like a car. Description, narrative, dialogue, characters all represent your vehicle’s moving parts. Without conflict (fuel) the parts fail to serve their purpose. What good is a strong chassis, a padded steering wheel, and the best Perelli tires if the car has no gas?

I challenge you to inspect each and every scene and ask three questions:

  1. What purpose does this scene serve?
  2. Does this scene propel figurative and literal forward momentum…toward the one large end goal?
  3. If I remove this scene, will it fundamentally change my story? If not…KILL it.

Add good doses of conflict, and I guarantee that readers will lose sleep reading your book or staying up to finish your movie.

Good luck and happy writing.

Until next time…

Want to learn how to become a master at conflict? As always I recommend learning from one of the best. Bob Mayer’s workshops www.bobmayer.org.

Also, I highly recommend Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.