Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: novel

So a couple of weeks ago, we discussed critique groups then I saw something shiny and forgot to post the second part of the discussion. ::head desk:: Anyway, in Part One, I posited the question: Can a critique group do more harm than good? In my opinion? YES. Traditional critique groups can have severe limitations, and, if a writer doesn’t understand this and adjust accordingly, then she can do irreparable damage to her WIP and even her career. As a note before anyone gets huffy. Just because something is limited  does not mean it is bad. Critique groups, especially GOOD critique groups are worth their weight in gold. But just like my car has limitations–I cannot traverse lakes with it–critique groups are limited as well. Yet, when we understand the limitations, then we can adjust accordingly.

As a quick refresher, traditional critique groups:

Lack Proper Perspective

Since most traditional critique groups only hear/read a small section of pages at a time, there is no way they can tell if there are major plot problems in a manuscript. Many writers hit the slush pile because their plot has catastrophic flaws. Pretty prose does not a novel make.

Agents are overworked as it is. They can love our writing voice, but they don’t have the time to teach us our craft. As professionals, we should have the basics down when we query and it is rude and amateurish to expect an agent will fix everything for us. Not their job. They can fix some surface stuff, but not the deep structure flaws that cause many queries to land in the slush pile.

I have met countless writers who didn’t properly understand the antagonist or even narrative structure. They thought their WIP was ready to query because people in critique “loved their writing style.” Just because we have command of our native language doesn’t mean we have the skill set to write a 60-100,000 word novel.

Critique groups don’t have the perceptual distance to spot the big problems. So just understand this from the get-go and all is fine. But make sure your plot is critiqued before you query. Also, understand that the group is limited then take critique with a grain of salt. If someone says, “but this spot didn’t have enough action” and you know that those ten pages were part of a sequel and NOT a scene, then you know you don’t need to punch up the pace. Write good books, not 150 individual sections to keep people at critique happy.

Other Problems with Traditional Critique Groups

Traditional critique groups can get us in a habit of over-explaining.

Because the group can’t see the big picture, they can inject things like, “But how did Gertrude end up in Disney World with a flame thrower?” Well, of course they don’t understand why Gertrude is setting The Seven Dwarfs ablaze. They haven’t been at critique for three weeks, so they missed the part about a hell-mouth being located under Cinderella’s castle. Why do you think Disney got the land so cheap? And all these years you just thought it was because it was a swamp!

When people at critique say things like this, just hold your ground and give permission for some folks to be lost.

Traditional critique groups are notorious for the Book-By-Committee.

We have to stand strong here. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you must learn to stand your ground with suggestions. I have seen writers have a lovely writing voice literally hen-pecked out of them by people at critique. Just take critique for what it is and accept the good and ignore the bad.

Traditional critique groups can get us in a habit of perfectionism.

The world does not reward perfection. It rewards those who get things done. No one ever had a runaway success with half of the world’s perfect novel. Lean to be a finisher.

Traditional critique groups can give a false sense of security.

Again, pretty prose does not a novel make. Is voice important? YES! But voice alone is not a novel. We have to make sure our structure is not a disaster area, and this is where traditional critique groups run into trouble. But today, I will give you guys a way to work within the limitations.

How can I get solid critique of my plot?

Beta readers are good for critiquing at plot. If you can, find a pal who loves to read and ask for her to read your novel. She can tell you if your book was great, boring, confusing, or made her want to gouge out her own eyes. Just make sure you allow your beta reader permission to be honest, even when it hurts.

Beyond the Beta Reader

But beta readers, especially GOOD beta readers are hard to find. A MAJOR limitation to beta readers? We have to finish the book before we get critique.

In my opinion, life is short. Why waste it writing books with fatally flawed plots? This is why I started WWBC (my critique group). I didn’t want to waste months writing a book that had a flawed skeleton. I don’t like having revisions from hell. I prefer to dedicate my time to books that actually stand a chance of being published.

Introducing Concept Critique

If you can’t find a non-traditional critique group or a good beta reader, then just modify the content you bring to critique. This is part of what we do in my writing group WWBC. We employ what I call Concept Critique. We do things a bit differently, but I have modified our methods to work for you.

Instead of bringing the first fifteen pages of your novel, write a fifteen page synopsis based off what you did when you were plotting with the index cards (discussed in Part Eight of my Structure Series). Or, for those pantsers, go back and use cards to show the scenes of the WIP you’ve written. Every scene card had a one-sentence summary, so writing a synopsis now should be a piece of cake. Write your one-sentence log-line at the top so they can critique that too, and also so they can make sure your synopsis supports the log-line.

If we are finished with a novel and it is solid and ready for critique, we should be able to say what our entire book is about in ONE sentence. (If you need help learning how to do this, then check out the above link about log-lines).

We should also be able to clearly see scenes and sequels in our WIP. Detailing our finished WIP scene-by-scene for concept critique is a far better use of time than taking a year to get line-edit on a potentially flawed WIP.

Let your brilliant writer friends chime in on what they think of your story as a whole. Is it contrived? Is it convoluted? Boring? Does this synopsis sound like a book they are dying to read? Can they tell who the antagonist is? Is your antagonist a mustache-twirler or the stuff of greatness?

Once you have your novel as a whole critiqued, take it to the next step. The next week take Act One and write a fifteen page synopsis of what happens in Act One. Get critique. Clean it up. Then, take Act Two and Act Three and do the same. Write fifteen page synopses about what happens in each act. Then take it to the next step. Break your act into scenes and write a summary of what happens in each scene.

This way you are cleaning up your concept. You are going beyond the prose. Your fellow writers NOW can help you by brainstorming better ways to build your mousetrap. And, since they have an idea of the BIG picture, their advice will be a lot better. They might even be able to offer insight into how to fix the idea before you invest the next year writing a book that is doomed from day one because the original idea needed to be fortified before it could support 60-100,000 words. Or, if you have already written the novel, you will have a better idea how to tackle revisions.

Once you have solid critique on all these summaries, take off and write/revise that novel. Now it will be way easier because you know where you are going. Also, because your writer friends helped in the planning phase, they will be better trained to see flaws once they critique your final product. They will know why Gertrude is torching Cinderella’s castle.

Time to Get Real Honest…

I am going to warn you. This method will test your mettle. In traditional critique, we can hide behind our pretty prose. Concept Critique means laying our baby out there bare bones, warts and all. This will show us why we are really in a writing group. Is it because we really want to succeed at this writing thing? Or, are you like I used to be? I wrote really awesome prose and I got to hear every week how wonderful I was (even though the big picture was fatally flawed). I could believe the standard lies many of us tell ourselves when we are unpublished.

I just haven’t found the right agent.

Oh, it’s because my novel is a mix of genres.

New York just doesn’t publish any good writing anymore.

I hear vampires are hot and they are only taking vampire books.

Vampires are passe and they are only taking books with trained ferrets.

When I started WWBC I had to check my ego at the door. Now I couldn’t hide behind my glorious prose. If someone beat the hell out of my synopsis, there was nowhere to hide. I couldn’t use the Standard Issue Line of Writer Denial–-Well, they just haven’t read the rest of my novel. If they had, they wouldn’t say that.

If we really long to be successfully published, then we need to hear the truth. As I like to say, Excellence begins with honesty. If we are attending a group only to hear how every word we write is a golden nugget of joy, we aren’t going to grow.

What are some of the problems you’ve had with critique groups? How did you overcome them? Any suggestions? Opinions?

I LOVE hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of February, 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 February I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. 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 . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! 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.

Now that NaNoWriMo is behind us, it is time to take a hard look at the 50,000 or so words we wrote. Is it really a story? Or is it 50,000 worth of organic goo that we can maybe perhaps grow into a story? Maybe some of you didn’t participate in National Novel Writing Month, but you are working on a novel. Maybe you have finished a novel and can’t understand why you’re getting rejection after rejection. Perhaps you desire to write a novel, but have no clue where to even begin? Where do professional authors get all their ideas?

All in due time…

Three years ago, I left my home critique group even though I had been president for three years. Why? My home critique group placed too much importance on reading pages. My opinion? Beautiful prose does not a novel make. Is prose important? Absolutely. But it isn’t the most important. We can have prose so lovely it makes the angels weep, yet not have a story. Sort of like, I could have the flawless skin of a twenty-year-old super model, but if I don’t have a skeleton? I’m dead meat. Same with prose and novel structure. Novel structure makes up the internal support structure, and prose fills it all in and connects everything and makes it look pretty.

I broke away and, with help from a few close friends, created a new kind of critique group that we named Warrior Writer Boot Camp in honor of our favorite mentor NYT Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. When creating WWBC, I wanted to create something with the capacity to look at stories as a whole and judge the “big picture.” The first lesson all writers receive upon entering my critique group has to do with the antagonist (the spinal column of your story) and that’s what we are going to talk about today.

Why is the antagonist so important? No antagonist and no story. I think most craft books make a critical error. They assume us noobs know more than we do. Most new writers don’t understand the antagonist the way they need to. We have some hazy basics from high school or college English and then we try to go pro. Then it takes years of trial, error, rejection and therapy to see any success. Um, yeah. Bad plan. The antagonist is critical, and is often one of the most troublesome concepts to master. No worries. I am here to help.

What happens when we don’t have an antagonist?

I teach at many writing conferences and see all the nervous writers, eyes dilated and skin pasty with panic. They are waiting for their agent pitch session and it takes every bit of courage they have to not throw up in their shoes. Ask them what their stories are about and 99% of the time I get fifteen minutes of convoluted world-building and a character cast that would rival Ben Hur.

Why?

The writer generally didn’t understand the antagonist when she wrote the book. So, since there wasn’t a clear-cut antagonist with an overall plot problem, what we have left is a bunch of literary Bond-o (extraneous characters, world-building, extra sub-plots and gimmicky twist endings).

This is one of the reasons many writers find it easier to do brain surgery on themselves with a spatula than to write the novel synopsis or the query letter. They can’t boil down the plot into one sentence because the plot is so complicated even they barely understand it.  Been there, done that and got the T-shirt, myself.

When helping writers plot, I often suggest that they write their ending first. Many look at me like I just asked them to reverse the earth’s orbit around the sun. Why? They don’t have a clear story problem to be solved. Yet, when we look at it, what is any story’s ending? The solution to the problem created by the antagonist. That is the climax.

All of this angst with pitches and queries and synopses can be traced back to one single problem. There is no antagonist or there is a weak or unclear antagonist. How does this happen? I feel there is a huge logical fallacy to blame.

For those of you who have slept since high school, a logical fallacy is an argument that mistakenly seeks to establish a causal connection when dissimilar objects or events are compared as if the same.

In English?

All apples are fruits. An orange is a fruit therefore all oranges are apples.

What does this have to do with today’s topic?

Most writers mistakenly believe this:

All villains are antagonists, therefore all antagonists are villains.

Uh…no.

The antagonist seems to be a real sticky wicket, especially for new writers. Hey, I’ve been there. It is easy to see how there could be confusion. Villains make no bones about the mischief and mayhem they seek to create. Nobody doubted who the bad guy was in The Dark Knight. Joker will live on in infamy as one of the greatest arch-villains in movie history. Yet, villains are only one kind of antagonist. So if the antagonist isn’t merely a villain, who is he?

The antagonist is merely whoever drives the conflict.

All stories are the antagonist’s story. Why? Because without the antagonist, there is no problem. The protagonist’s happy joy-joy life would go on as normal. If there is no problem, then there is no need for our protagonist to rise to the occasion. The antagonist represents this dire change that must be set right by the end of the book. Great fiction actually uses many antagonists. Let’s take a look.

Different types of antagonists:

The Core Antagonist—The Big Boss Troublemaker

All stories MUST have a core antagonist, what I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. The BBT has a plan that disrupts the hero’s ordinary life and that plan is the overall story problem. Big Boss Troublemakers need to be corporeal. Antagonists are tremendously complex, and thus, in my opinion, the most interesting. Even if the overall antagonist is disease, nature, war, weather, the antagonist will almost always be represented by a proxy. Humans tend to be concrete thinkers, so tangible antagonists generally work best.  In fact, I’ll wager that many stories that seem to have non-corporeal BBTs actually do. Let’s take a quick look.

Weather

The Perfect Storm—The antagonist is not the storm. Rather it is the captain who, out of greed and pride, makes the decision to endanger the crew to save the haul of fish…and everyone dies, which is probably why we should avoid weather/nature as an antagonist.

In fairness, how many best-selling books involve a hero pitted against bad weather chapter after chapter? We can’t control the weather so how can we conquer it? Can’t make heroes with bad weather. Well, maybe someone can, but my advice is to steer clear.

Disease

Steel Magnolias—In the movie Steel Magnolias the BBT is death and disease. Who is the main antagonist? Daughter Shelby. Shelby has life-threatening diabetes. Had Shelby decided to adopt, there would be no story. It is Shelby’s decision to get pregnant despite the risks that creates the story problem for the mother (Protagonist) M’Lynn.

See, corporeal.

Society

In the movie Footloose, who is the BBT? Religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing. Who is the main antagonist? The town preacher who is out to get the city boy (protagonist) who wants to hold a school dance. The preacher represents the BBT—religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing.

Protagonist against Herself

Oh, but my protagonist is her own worst enemy. Yeah, no. Therapy is not fiction. Need an outside BBT.

In the movie 28 Days, Sandra Bullock’s character Gwen Cummings is an alcoholic. Alcoholics do not generally believe they have a problem. Most do not wake up one day and say. “Wow, I really drink too much. I need to quit.” There will be an outside force that creates the problem and drives the change. In this case, Gwen gets a DUI. The judge orders her to court mandated rehab. Who is the BBT? Alcoholism. Who is the antagonist? The judge. If he hadn’t sentenced Gwen to rehab, she would still be drinking. If Gwen fails, then this same judge will send her to prison (stakes). If Gwen finally sobers up, she will defeat the BBT, Alcoholism. But, she must face-off against the judge’s challenge first and prove she can sober up.

Every story needs a Big Boss Troublemaker. If your BBT isn’t corporeal, then your story will need a corporeal proxy as shown in the examples. Existentialism doesn’t make for great fiction. Navel-gazing is therapy, not fiction.

Employing Scene Antagonists

Once you have a clear Big Boss Troublemaker and a story problem, then you can begin plotting. Ah, but how do we ramp up the tension? We use scene antagonists. Every scene must have a clear goal for our protagonist…and he can rarely if ever succeed until the end. There must be obstacles and very often those obstacles will be other characters that your protagonist calls “friend.”

Think of your favorite cop shows. I love Law and Order Criminal Intent. The detectives are after the murderer (BBT), but the Commissioner just called and they’re chief has his panties in a twist. How many times have you seen a police chief kick a detective off a case because of the political heat? Is the police chief a villain? No, but he is an antagonist because his wants stand in direct opposition from what the protagonist wants…finding the bad guy and brining him to justice. This creates dramatic tension. Will our detectives risk career suicide and find the killer? Conflict now comes at the audience from two fronts—long-range (BBT) and close-range (scene antagonist).

After you write your first draft, I highly recommend looking at every scene. Write what the goal of the scene is on an index card. Who stood in the way? Allies should rarely, if ever agree. If they need to escape an island, the hero will want to take a boat and an ally will insist they take a plane. Some of the best conflict for your story will actually come from your protagonist and his gaggle of allies.

The Pixar movie Finding Nemo is an excellent movie to study this. Watch Marlin and Dori. Dori provides far more conflict to the overall story than Darla the Fish-Killer. Darla (BBT) merely creates the overall problem and sets the stakes and the ticking clock. Darla the Fish-Killer is the BBT because if she’d wanted a puppy for her birthday, there would be no reason to find Nemo. He’d still be safe at home. Yet, aside from a couple of short scenes, we never really see Darla. Lovable ally Dori is the heart of most of the conflict.

Marlin wants to give up when the one clue to finding Nemo drops into a trench.

Dori wants to Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming and go after the clue.

Marlin wants to avoid the whale.

Dori calls out to it.

Marlin wants to give up.

Dori won’t let him.

Antagonists are at the core of all great stories, whether those stories are for children or adults. The bigger the antagonist, the bigger the problem and the greater the stakes. Failure must be catastrophic for the protagonist, or he can’t rise to ever be a hero. Some great books I recommend are Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches by Jessica Morrell, and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.  I also highly recommend taking one of New York Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer’s on-line worskhops. They are $30. Aside from these resources, watch a lot of movies and pay attention to who creates problems and how they do it. Take notes. Study. Learn. That’s the great part of being a writer. Stories are our business, so watching movies counts as work.

So what are your thoughts? Comments? Questions? Feel better or do you need a paper bag (just put your head between your knees and breathe :D).

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. 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 December I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique is Carolyn Neeper. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi at 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 to write great books!

I’ve run critique groups for almost eight years. I also have edited literally hundreds of manuscripts, and one thing that most new writers do not accurately understand is the antagonist.

I have to admit that I didn’t understand the antag the way I needed to until a few years ago, and this pivot-point in my education would not have happened without the fabulous Bob Mayer. Not only is he a NY Times and USA Today Best-Selling mega-author, but he is a great writing teacher as well. A couple years ago, Bob actually taught me a technique that changed everything about the way I wrote. Bob advised that I start thinking of the antagonist FIRST. Initially, I was resistant. I mean, I wanted to construct my heroine. She was far more fun. But, as I would soon learn…that was backwards thinking.

Construct your antagonist first. Trust me. You will thank me (and Bob ) later.

As I have said in previous posts, there is no story without the antagonist. Period. The story IS the antagonist’s agenda.  No Buffalo Bill, no Silence of the Lambs. No Darth Vader, and Skywalker doesn’t have a Death Star to destroy. If Joker was a choir boy, Batman’s life would have no meaning.

Antagonists are the Alpha AND the Omega—the beginning AND the end.

Once we understand the antagonist, narrative structure falls into place with far less effort. The antagonist is responsible for the inciting incident (beginning) and the Big Boss Battle (the end).

When we know our antagonist, it is easier to find a beginning point.

Too  many authors have awkward prologues that serve no real purpose. They are just stuck on the front because the new writer wants to “hook” the reader because she intends on spending 50 pages to get going (normally with a lot of back story about the protag’s childhood). Hey, I made the same mistakes when I was new, too. We are here to learn ;).

So there is this awkward prologue slapped on the front to hook the reader. Yeah, um no. Prologues are bad juju. Read why here.

Back to antagonists and structure…

When we understand what the antagonist WANTS, then it is easier to pinpoint where and how his life intersects with our protagonist—also known as the inciting incident.

Normal World—Shows us the protag’s life as it would have remained had the antag never come along to disrupt the protagonist’s life. Normal World grounds us and gives us a chance to become vested in the protag. We need to connect if we are going to spend the next 80-100,000 words caring for this character. Normal World hints that all is not well. It doesn’t hang us over a cliff or a tank of sharks or have us in a hospital weeping over a lost loved one. That is melodrama.

Inciting Incident—Is that event that offers the possibility of change. The protagonist still has to MAKE a choice before we make it to the first major plot point. The inciting incident is that point where the agenda of the antagonist intersects the life of the protagonist.

Normal World–>Inciting Incident–> (Choice) Turning Point into Act One

In screenplays there are three acts, always. In novels, there are four acts. Normal World, Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.Screenplays generally condense that Normal World so much that it is just part of Act One. In novels, we need time to be vested in the character. Hooking the reader is less about fast action or heart wrenching melodrama and more about presenting a character we like, and who we care about. We connect and we sense trouble, so we worry, and that’s why we stick around.

When we understand the antagonist and his agenda, it is far easier to write great endings.

In Star Wars, we knew Darth’s plan involved the Death Star. Thus, the ending logically would involve the Death Star getting all blowed up, right? In Romancing the Stone, the bad guys kidnapped Joan Wilder’s sister in order to get the jewel. Thus, even if we had never seen the movie, it would be easy to extrapolate that the ending likely involves rescuing a sister and making sure bad guys go to jail and don’t end up with the jewel.

Our beginnings will change a dozen times or more before we make it to the final draft. If you are beginning a book, my advice is that you write out your antagonist’s history. What does he want? Why does he want it? How does he plan on getting what he wants?

Also, remember that the antagonist, in his mind, is not the bad guy. This will help give your antagonist dimension. Antagonists are not always villains. Villains are merely ONE FLAVOR of antagonist.

Remember that the antagonist is the hero in his own story.

Great villains do not believe they are the bad guy. Hannibal Lecter felt he was doing society a service by eating the less desirable members of the species. It is his warped justification for his actions that makes him even more fascinating.

Antagonists are not always wrong; their goals just conflict with the protagonist and disrupt her life and force change.

For instance, the antagonist in Steele Magnolias is the daughter, Shelby. What is her agenda? Have a baby despite having severe, life-threatening diabetes. That is a noble goal that isn’t necessarily wrong. Why does this make Shelby the antagonist? Because, if Shelby had been happy to adopt, then M’Lynn’s (mom-protagonist) life would have remained the same. When we understand Shelby’s plan—have a baby despite life-threatening diabetes—then plotting becomes far easier. At the end, there must be a baby. Whether that baby lives or dies is up to the creator.

Your protagonist will be reacting to the antagonist’s agenda for roughly 75% of your story. It is only in the final act that your protagonist will transition into a hero and will start gaining ground.This is why, when we begin a novel, it makes sense to figure out out ending first. Then, plotting becomes MUCH easier in that we know how and where the story ends. Then plotting is just a matter of getting the protag from point A to point Z.

Some outstanding references to help you guys:

Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering.

James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit

What are some of your favorite movie endings? Some really well-layered antagonists that had you on the edge of your seat? I vote for Law Abiding Citizen.  I had a hard time rooting for the protag, and found myself hoping the “bad guy” would win. It was very surreal, but proof-positive that this was a BRILLIANT antagonist that made for a spectacular ending…because his PLAN was just that darn great.

What about you guys? I love hearing your opinions and thoughts.

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. 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 December 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’s Circle

Winner of 5 Page Critique is Joseph Kurtenbach. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

Winner of 15 Page Critique is Jennifer Jensen. Please send your 3750 word Word document to my assistant as well.

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 to write great books!

Social media is an amazing tool and it is a wonderful time to be a writer, but, I am going to point out the pink elephant in the room. We still have to write a darn good book. If we don’t write a darn good book, then no amount of promotion can help us. Sorry. That’s like putting lipstick on a pig. This is why Mondays are dedicated to craft. I am here to train stronger writers. In the comments last Monday, one of our writer pals asked me to expound on the difference between showing and telling. Setting is a great tool to do exactly that.

Today we are going to talk about setting and ways to use it to strengthen your writing and maybe even add in some dimension. Some of the information I will present to you today isn’t new, but, hey, all of us can use a refresher, right?

Setting is a magnificent tool when used properly.

Setting can help your characterization.

Setting can actually serve a dual role in that it can be not only the backdrop for your story, but it can also serve characterization through symbol. We editors love to say, “Show. Don’t tell.” Well, here is where setting can help you do just that.

Say you have a character, Mitzy, who is depressed. You could go on and on telling us she is blue and how she cannot believe her husband left her for the Avon lady, or you can show us through setting. Mitzy’s once beautiful garden is overgrown with weeds and piles of unopened mail are tossed carelessly on the floor. Her house smells of almost-empty tubs of chocolate ice cream left to sour. Piles of dirty clothes litter the rooms, and her cat is eating out of the bag of Meow Mix tipped on its side.

Now you have shown me that Mitzy is not herself. I know this because the garden was “once beautiful.” This cues me that something has changed. And you managed to tell me she was depressed without dragging me through narrative in Mitzy’s head.

She couldn’t believe Biff was gone. Grief surged over her like a surging tidal surge that surged.

Writing is therapeutic, not therapy. Some of that introspection is great, but after a while you will wear out your readers. Setting can help alleviate this problem and keep the momentum of your story moving forward. We will get that Mitzy is depressed by getting this glimpse of her house. You have shown that Mitzy is having a rough time instead of being lazy and telling us.

We judge people by their environment. Characters are no different. If you want to portray a cold, unfeeling schmuck, then when we go to his apartment it might be minimalist design. No color. No plants or signs of life. Someone who is scatter-brained? Their house is full of half-finished projects. An egomaniac? Walls of plaques and pictures of this character posing with important people. Trophies, awards, and heads of dead animals. You can show the reader a lot about your character just by showing us surroundings.

Trust me, if a character gets out of her car and two empty Diet Coke bottles fall out from under her feet into her yard that is littered with toys, we will have an impression.

Probably the single largest mistake I see in the work of new writers is that they spend far too much time in the sequel. What is the sequel? Plots can be broken into to main anatomical parts–scene and sequel. The scene is where the action occurs. A goal is declared and some disastrous setback occurs that leaves our protagonist worse off than when he began. Generally, right after this disaster there is what is called the sequel. 

The sequel is the emotional thread that ties all this action together. Yet, too often new writers will go on and on and on in a character’s head, exploring and probing deep emotions and nothing has yet happened. The sequel can only be an effect/direct result of a scene. Ah, but here comes the pickle. How can a writer give us a psychological picture of the character if he cannot employ the sequel?

Setting.

An example? In Silence of the Lambs how are we introduced to Hannibal Lecter? There is of course the dialogue that tells Agent Starling that Dr. Lecter is different, but talk is cheap, right? Clarice goes down into the bowels of a psychiatric prison to the basement (um, symbol?). She walks past cell after cell of the baddest and the maddest. All of them are in brick cells with bars…until Clarice makes it to the end.

Hannibal’s cell is not like the others. He is behind Plexi-Glass with airholes. This glass cage evokes a primal fear. Hannibal affects us less like a prisoner and more like a venomous spider. Setting has shown us that Hannibal the Cannibal is a different breed of evil. This is far more powerful than the storyteller poring on and on and on about Hannibal’s “evil.”

Setting can set or amplify the mood.

Either you can use setting to mirror outwardly what is happening with a character, or you can use it as a stark contrast. For instance, I once edited a medieval fantasy. In the beginning the bad guys were burning villagers alive. Originally the writer used a rainy, dreary day, which was fine. Nothing wrong with that. I, however, suggested she push the envelope and go for something more unsettling. I recommended that she change the setting to sunny and perfect weather. In the heart of the village the ribbons and trappings of the spring festival blew in the gentle breeze, the same breeze that now carried the smell of her family’s burning flesh.

Sometimes it is this odd juxtaposition in setting that can evoke tremendous emotion. This is especially useful in horror. Dead bodies are upsetting. Dead bodies on a children’s playground are an entirely new level of disturbing.

Setting is a matter of style and preference.  Different writers use setting in different ways and a lot of it goes to your own unique voice. Some writers use a lot of description, which is good in that there are readers who like a lot of description. But there are readers who want you to get to the point, and that’s why they generally like to read works by writers who also like to get to the point. Everyone wins.

Whether you use a lot or a little setting will ultimately be up to you. I would recommend some pointers.

Can your setting symbolize something deeper?

I challenge you to challenge yourself. Don’t just pick stormy weather because it is the first image that pops in your mind. Can you employ setting to add greater dimension to your work? Using setting merely to forecast the weather is lazy writing. Try harder.

In Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane’s story is set on an island at a prison for the criminally insane. What the reader finds out is the prison is far more than the literal setting; it is a representation for a state of mind. The protagonist, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is imprisoned by his own guilt and need for justice. Like the island, he too is cut off from the outside world emotionally and psychologically. Now an island is more than an island, a prison is more than a prison, bars are more than bars, cliffs are more than cliffs, storms are more than storms, etc. Shutter Island is an amazing book to read, but I recommend studying the movie for use of setting as symbol.

So dig deeper. Can you get more out of your setting than just a backdrop?

Blend setting into your story.

When I teach, I liken setting to garlic in garlic mashed potatoes. Blend. Garlic is awesome and enhances many dishes, but few people want a whole mouthful of it. Make sure you are keeping momentum in your story. Yes, we generally like to be grounded in where we are and the weather and the time of year, but not at the expense of why we picked up your book in the first place…someone has a problem that needs solving. Unless you are writing a non-fiction travel book, we didn’t buy your book for lovely description of the Rocky Mountains. We bought it to discover if Ella May will ever make it to California to meet her new husband before winter comes and traps her wagon train in a frozen world of death.

Keep perspective and blend. Keep conflict and character center stage and the backdrop in its place…behind the characters. Can you break this rule? Sure all rules can be broken. But we must understand the rules before we can break them. Breaking rules in ignorance is just, well, ignorant.

In the end, setting will be a huge reflection of your style and voice, but I hope this blog has given some insight that might make you see more to your use of setting and help you grow to be a stronger writer. What are some books or movies that really took setting to the next level? How was setting used? How did it affect you? Share with us. I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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 September I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique

Alicia McKenna Johnson Please e-mail your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi at gigi.salem.ea@gmail.com. She will make sure it doesn’t get eaten by the spam folder.

Note: GRAND PRIZE WILL BE PICKED THIS MONTH. I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced at the end of September) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about how to spread word-of-mouth and build your platform, sign-ups are open for my Blogging To Build Your Author Brand on-line workshop. It’s two months long–one month of lessons and one month of launch and it is ONLY $40.

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.

 

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. Write cleaner and faster. 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 cumin, chili powder and paprika on hand. Like cooking Italian food? Then basil 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.

Ten 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-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.

I believe there are three kinds of writers. One type of writer is the Born Genre Author. This type of writer knows the genre he wants to write from day one. He is a born horror author or fantasy author, or whatever. This type does not start on a horror novel and then suddenly start thinking that YA is more his stride…or maybe sci-fi…or literary fiction. This author’s laser-focus is a tremendous asset, but tunnel-vision can get him in trouble. The greatest weakness I see with this type of writer is that they often don’t read outside their genre and so their work can lack that je ne sais quoi that makes their writing stand apart from others in their genre. Of course, this is easily remedied if this type of author can make a conscious effort to diversify.

Another type of author is like I used to be (and still have to fight). Meet The Dabbler. We love everything and have a hard time making up our minds. We love all kinds of writing, but this lack of focus can hurt our platform and spread us too thinly to be effective. Dabblers also are bad about making the mistake of trying to write a book that is all genres and what they end up with is an unpalatable mess. On the flip-side, though. Dabblers who can finally choose a genre usually are very innovative creatures because they have the knack and ability to draw flavors of other genres into their writing. The trick is getting them to pay attention and focus long enough.

Then there is the third kind of writer, The Profiteer. These writers are in the business for all the wrong reasons, and, because of that, usually never end up finishing, let alone publishing. They are writing for the money and fame and often are genre-hos. They keep a finger in the wind searching for what is currently hot. Vampires? Chick-lit? Whatever is flying off shelves, that is The Profiteer’s  new love. Of course what this writer doesn’t understand is that by the time they finish the novel, land an agent and that book makes it to print, the trends will have changed. But most Profiteers fall by the wayside, so that’s all I will say about them.

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 a French restaurant.

Part of why I stress picking a genre is that genres have rules and standards. For example, I had a student drop out of my Warrior Writer Boot Camp because I told her that her hero could not be the Big Boss Troublemaker (main antagonist) in her romance novel. I advised her that the hero could be an antagonistic force, but that she had to choose another person to be the BBT. Why? Because the genre of romance has rules, and guy and gal MUST come together at the end and live happily ever after. This cannot happen if the heroine defeats the hero.  Great love stories generally do not involve the hero being beaten up by a girl. I didn’t make the rules, but I can help a writer understand those rules and thereby increase his/her chances of publication success.

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 end. Thrillers 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 Lambs. A 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 main antagonist.  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).

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.

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 Association. The Dark Fiction Guild seemed to have a lot of helpful/fascinating links, so you might want to check them out too.

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.

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 YA 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?

Make sure you tune in for Wednesday’s blog where I continue walking you through blogging for platform :D. What do we blog about to gain a fan base?

Happy writing!

Until next time….

Give yourself the gift of success for the coming year. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books! Enter to win a FREE copy. Check out Author Susan Bischoff’s blog.