Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: Star Wars

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Other writers frequently ask how I somehow manage to get a lot of stuff done, despite my having the attention span of a ferret…with a bad crack habit. Here are 10 ways to help you be productive even if OOH! SHINY!

…even if you tend to be a tad majorly ADD. The following tips are what help ME stay focused. I am NOT a doctor or psychologist or ADD expert. I’m a Jedi master, warp engine inspector, and WRITER so you get what you get.

We’ve been talking this week about how to be able to do all it takes to not only be a digital age author, but to freaking ROCK IT while we are here. Truthfully, the explosion of social media is just proof to me that ADD people will rule the world…which probably explains all those “End of the World” prophesies.

In the meantime? We have dreams and deadlines and most of us have grown fond of clean clothes. Also, our family is all needy and whiny and says things like, “Mommy, why is there no food?” “Daddy, why won’t the lights turn on?” “Honey, why are there people living in our basement?”

*rolls eyes*

Can you say “high maintenance”?

OKAY, so tips…

1. Make lists.

I get distracted easily, so a list reminds me of what I need to get accomplished. I make separate lists—housework, fiction, non-fiction, business stuff, global domination using sea monkeys. Then, once I have the list, I do the hardest thing on my writing and business lists FIRST (housework can WAIT).

Like Covey says, Never mistake the urgent for the important.

I also add stuff to the list I’ve already done…just so I can cross it out because it makes me smile and feel SUPER accomplished. Don’t judge me because you do it, too.

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2. Understand that feelings are narcissists and pathological liars.

Writing is a profession, not a playpen. Professionals ignore their feelings and do it anyway. Only children, amateurs and  The Long Island Medium listen to their feelings. Feelings are fickle, lazy, and secretly jealous of your work and a tad pissed that you no longer hang out with them as much as you used to. The secret to success is to work your tail off. Be willing get up earlier and stay up later than others. Be willing to do what others won’t.

But I wanna write books. I don’t wanna do social media, toooooo. It’s haaaaard.

Yes. It is. There are many reasons this profession is not for everyone.

3. Use The Force…of self-discipline.

Who cares HOW you get things done, so long as they get done?

I use the “Swiss Cheese” approach. I have my list and I take bite after bite after bite until the work is finished. Every book can be written in 250, 500, or 1,000 word bites. I CANNOT work linearly, so I don’t try and yes I was always in trouble in school but public schools were designed to train factory workers and corporate mind slaves, not people who get paid to play with imaginary friends.

4. Mix it up.

I am a writer, wife, entrepreneur, teacher, and mom who has yet to make enough money to afford servants (which sucks), and cats make lousy slaves. This means I get to do most of the cooking, cleaning, laundry and housework. Write your 200 words, fold a load of whites, empty the dishwasher, then write another 200 words.

5. Suck it up, buttercup.

Understand that sometimes we will have to sit for a long time and focus. It’s hard. Whaaaaaaahhhhh, but anyone who thinks being a writer is a fluffy hamster dream has been hanging out with their feelings…and feelings lie, sabotage and will talk you into living on ice cream and cookie sprinkles.

6. Make mean writer friends.

Yes, the Swiss Cheese approach works well for people with ADD, and yes, there are times we need to duct tape our a$$es to the chair. This is why I befriend really mean people who kinda scare me. On the surface they are funny and sweet and would do anything for a friend…but that’s the issue. They will do anything for a friend, including ordering a hit on my X-Box One.

7. Ditch loser friends.

We all have them or have had them. People who like to complain, make excuses, indulge in their feelings all the time. People who have a new dream every other week. I wanna be an astronaut, no a writer, no a vacuum salesman, no a journalist!

Ditch writers (and other people) who believe in luck, not work. Laziness, apathy, and whining are contagious. Treat excuses like EBOLA. A friend coughs blood excuses all over you, and, within two to three days, you start coughing up blood excuses, too…until your dream of being a writer liquifies and bleeds out and I hope you’re happy with yourself.

Killer.

8. Forget perfection.

Perfection is an urban legend, started by Feelings (because Feelings are a needy boyfriend/girlfriend who don’t understand the world does not revolve around them.) The world doesn’t reward perfection; it rewards finishers. Often we lose focus on what we are REALLY doing, because we are getting sidetracked with nitpicking.

9. Exercise.

Often ADD can be fueled by being too sedentary. Human bodies were not designed to sit on their @$$e$ all day. Ever have a puppy that chews everything and is into everything and short of strapping itself to a rocket is just being a GIANT PAIN IN THE @$$?

How do you get it to behave? Put on roller blades and run puppy until puppy wants to slip into something more comfortable…like a coma. ADD people are human puppies, so stop piddling on the carpet…I mean, go get a little exercise and your focus will generally improve.

Four times a week I go to Jiu Jitsu and roll around on the mats and inflict pain on large men. Sure, it is probably Freudian, but it is also fun and it helps keep the joints loose and the mind calm.

10. Drink lots of water. The clear stuff. That stuff from the faucet.

Human bodies are a hydroelectric system, and water enhances conductivity. Cool writer ideas/thoughts work this way. Muse Pixies of Awesomeness are conducted through your brain to your fingers and they bring the cool story stuff. MPAs like to travel via fairy, or ferry on WATER. They can’t travel if the waterways are too dry and moor them on a cookie sprinkle…and then you can’t focus.

It’s science. Don’t argue.

Must…get…off…Instagram…..

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BONUS TIP #11 MULTI-TASK YOUR A$$ OFF!

Some experts say multitasking doesn’t work and that is simply because they suck at it.

Multitasking is awesome for ADD people namely because by definition we need at least two simultaneous activities to talk our brain into cooperating. Why some people suck at multitasking is 1) they have a normal boring brain that needs time to buffer or 2) they pick the wrong activities to pair together.

BAD IDEA: Using a chainsaw to clear deadwood while doing baby-mommy yoga.

GOOD IDEA: Listening to soundtrack to American Horror Story while clearing deadwood and making mental notes of the feel of chainsaw for future use in stories.

I’ll give an example of a great way to multitask. As writers, READING is a huge part of our job. I can almost instantly tell writers who don’t read, mostly because their writing sucks.

Audio books are our friend. I inhale audio books while folding laundry or doing mundane but necessary chores like taxes dishes.

Thing is, pair one rote activity with one that you need to do that will engage and develop your creative brain. It’s about working smarter, not harder. And, since your ADD brain likes to paint the cat when you aren’t looking, giving it story time keeps it happy and engaged and out of trouble.

What about you guys? Those of you ADD folk out there who’ve paid attention to this point, first of all, CONGRATULATIONS!!!

…now back in your hole.

It writes the words or it gets the hose O_o.

What are your thoughts? Struggles? Tips? Words of wisdom. It’s okay. You have permission to get back in your hole after you comment :D.

It rubs the elbow grease on. IT RUBS THE ELBOW GREASE ON! *pets fluffy white dog*

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of OCTOBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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Hmmm, what’s the story behind THIS?

There are all kinds of arguments about which area of craft is the most important for creating great fiction. Plot? Character? Voice? Theme? My opinion. They’re all organs in one body. Our brains will still work if our lungs have bronchitis, but maybe not at an optimal level. Similarly, there are people with brain injuries who have a strong heart. A body can “live” without everything operating in concert, and so can any story.

It’s ideal to hone our skills in all areas, and our goal is to be skilled at all of them. Can we be equally skilled? That’s another debate for another post.

I will say that plot (skeleton/brain) is very important. Our characters (heart) 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.

We don’t remember Luke Skywalker because he hung out on Tatooine waxing rhapsodic about his plight as a moisture farmer. We remember him and his allies because they went up against seemingly unbeatable odds and WON.

Yet, even if we come up with the coolest plot in the world, there are elements of character that should also be in the mix, lest our novel can become the literary equivalent of a CGI Star Wars Prequel NIGHTMARE. Characters should develop organically or the reader will call FOUL.

Additionally, if our characters are as deep as an Amarillo puddle, it will be virtually impossible for readers to emotionally connect.

Among many other reasons, I think this is why the Star Wars Prequels were like a bad acid trip at Chuck E. Cheese. Anakin was utterly unlikable and unredeemable simply because the writers were more focused on how many characters they could make into McDonald’s Happy Meal toys instead of sticking to the fundamentals of GOOD storytelling.

But Obi-Wan doesn’t take me seriously. Whaaaaahhhhhh! *SLAP*

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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). Recently, I was helping a student of my Antag-Gold class plot her novel. She had a good protagonist who was a control freak. My question: 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.

For instance, my father abandoned us, my mother was chronically ill, and my little brother was legally blind. I was left to grow up too fast and take care of far too much way too early. THIS is why I struggle with being a control freak. From MY wound, %#!* didn’t get done unless I did it.

Additionally, because I grew up in the wake of constant broken promises, I’ve had to work hard to trust. It’s been a challenge to delegate and allow others to fail or succeed without my meddling. Also in my growing up years, achievement=love/attention. That wound drove me to seek dreams that weren’t mine to please others. I had to “arc” to walk away from people-pleasing if I wanted fulfillment.

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.

For instance, my father was all play no work. Unfortunately, we suffered the consequences. Ironically, my grandfather was all work no play. Doubly ironic, my childlike father created a workaholic daughter (me); like thread, one loop feeding into the next weaving the “pattern” until someone changes “the pattern.”

Arc.

I’ve had to learn to lighten the hell up and balance The Force. But my workaholic, overachieving nature served up far more thorns than fruits.

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!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Winner for August is Lara McGill. Lara, please send your choice of 20 pages (5000 words) in a WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. You can also choose to send a query letter (250 words) or a synopsis (up to 750 words). Congratulations!

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

Back to School!

Upcoming Classes: NEW!!! Going Pro Series

TONIGHT is Going Pro Craft, then Going Pro SocialMedia/Branding September 6th, Going Pro Business September 10th, Going Pro All the Way! (ALL THREE).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

All literary roads lead back to "Star Wars"....
All literary roads lead back to “Star Wars”….

Yesterday, the AWESOME Marcy Kennedy taught “showing, not telling” using Star Trek” (hint, hint, take her class). So what is the natural follow-up for Star Trek?

STAR WARS….duh.

Setting is one of those tools that helps writers to do more showing than telling. Today, we are going to tackle a highly confusing subject for many writers—In medias res. In medias res quite literally means in the middle of things. This is a literary tactic that has been used since the days of Odysseus. It is a tactic that forces the writer forward, to begin the story near the heart of the problem.

The Trouble with In Medias Res

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

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

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

Commercial Fiction Ain’t A Tale of Two Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

These days, especially for traditional publishing, we need to get right into the heart of the action from the get-go. But if “the heart of the action” doesn’t involve a gun battle, funeral or cliffhanging scene, what the heck does it look like?

For Those Who Have Slept Since Seeing Star Wars

It is the front gate of Six Flags over Texas.

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

Uh…no.

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

No, that’s too far in. If we start the story on a Big Loop (HUGE ACTION–like car chases, bank heists, etc.) then we risk the rest of the book being anti-climactic. So where do we begin?

We begin at the gates of Six Flags over Texas.

We see young Kristen in the back of the station wagon and as her parents pull into the giant parking lot. We are present when she catches a glimpse of the Shock Wave (story problem) in the distance. Wow, it is bigger than she thought. We walk with Kristen through the line to get into the amusement park, and get a chance to know her and care about her before she makes the decision to ignore the Tea Cups and take on the roller coaster (Rise to Adventure). Kristen could have totally chickened out and stayed on the baby rides, but that would have been a boring story. Yet, because the Tea Cups are in the context of the larger ride, it means something when she decides she MUST ride the roller coaster.

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

In my little example, the GIANT roller coaster represents the story problem. We have a choice to start far earlier than in the parking lot of Six Flags….but we risk losing the reader in the Land of “Who Gives a Crap?”. We, as the narrators, can also choose to start on the actual ride, but then we have a different problem. The readers are then hurled into the action after the decision (rise to the adventure) has been made. Thus, we didn’t get time to give a gnat’s booty about seven-year-old Kristen.

Also, since Kristen is already locked down and can’t walk away, there is no conflict. It isn’t like Kristen can step out of the coaster on the first loop and take on the Tea Cups instead. As long as Kristen cannot make the wrong choice or give into her fears, there really is no story. Kristen MUST have a chance to fail….to walk away and go play the Ring-Toss instead.

Likewise, our protagonists MUST have opportunities to fail or to walk away. This is why they are eventually called “heroes.” Anyone else would have waved the white flag in the face of such circumstances. This is why we read fiction. We like bravery, courage and resilience.

What Star Wars the New Hope Can Teach Us About In Medias Res

To give you guys another example, let’s pretend it is 1977 and we are sitting in the theater watching the movie Star Wars. Star Wars (The New Hope) is a PERFECT example of in medias res. When we start the story, wars have been fought and we are in the heart of the conflict. The twins are grown and living separate lives and Anakin has already whined himself over to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader.

My theory is that you can only call a guy “Annie” so many times before he just snaps. Anyway…

Begin on Tatooine

So if you don’t want to start at the Gates of Six Flags, then feel free to Begin on Tattoine.

Star Wars begins (with the protagonist) on the planet of Tatooine just before his life will intersect with the antagonist’s agenda. We meet young Luke in his Normal World and get a chance to meet his aunt and uncle. We get a chance to see his normal life, so we have a basis for comparison when everything goes sideways. We care when Luke’s family is senselessly slaughtered. We are there when Luke is given a choice. Ignore everything that’s happened and return to moisture-farming OR step on the path to adventure.

What NOT to Do

We DO NOT begin the adventure with Little Luke looking at the stars wondering who his father is or longing for exciting adventures in space. It is too early and we aren’t close enough to the story problem–when the Emperor’s agenda intersects with Luke’s life and alters it forever.

We also DO NOT start the story with Luke whizzing through space on the Milleneum Falcon dodging bad guysThat would have been exciting, but jarring and we wouldn’t have cared about any of the passengers. We also wouldn’t have had time to see the overall story problem—The Emperor, Darth and the Death Star.

I feel part of why the prequels sucked were not as good is because Lucas tried to go back and explain the story that we already had loved and accepted. Among many other reasons

Guess what?

We really didn’t need to know WHY Annakin Skywalker turned evil or even HOW the Force worked or WHAT it was to enjoy The New Hope movies. In fact, we kind of liked the movies better before we “knew.”

The Force was better before it was explained.

Some of you are starting too far into the action, which is jarring. But others might feel the need to go back and explain everything. Why your protag is thus and such. Why the world is la la la. How the magic did whatever. Guess what? You really don’t need to explain.

I have used this example before. What if you went to a magic show? The magician makes a woman float. As the audience, we cry out, “How can he DO THAT?” What if the magician stopped mid-show, flipped on the lights and pointed out all the mirrors and wires? What would it do?

It would ruin the magic.

Keep Your Literary Magic

Same with our writing. Sure, some things (backstory) can be explained. But, I will be blunt. Most backstory can be explained in dialogue, real-time in flow with the narrative. Flashbacks and prologues really just bog down the narrative more times than not. Yes, you might want to explain why your vampire is dark and brooding, but why? Many readers will keep reading in hopes they can piece together enough hints to figure it out. Just because readers might want something, doesn’t mean it is in our best interests as authors to give in.

Sure. Star Wars fans all thought they wanted to know WHY and HOW, but once we got what we wanted????

Yeah.

Finding the Literary Sweet Spot

Thus, as writers, we are looking for that literary sweet spot, just close enough to the inciting incident to make readers feel vested, but not so far that we are basically beginning our book with a scene that should be the Big Boss Battle at the end. In medias res is tough and we aren’t always going to nail it on the first try. The key is practice and study. Movies are really wonderful to study because in screenplays, Act One is brutally short.

Watch how the best movies introduce the characters and the problems and see how efficient they are at relaying backstory in dialogue. And sure, some movies use flashbacks, but we always have to remember that the visual medium is different. We can “see” differences and don’t have to “keep up with” a zillion characters. We are passive and watching with our eyes. We don’t have to recreate the world in our head.

Reading is very active, so flashbacks always risk jarring the reader out of the narrative. Also, if you study screenwriting, great screenplays, much like great novels, do not rely on flashbacks. Heavy use of flashbacks is generally a sign of an amateur screenwriter. Highly skilled writers, whether on the page or the screen, are masters of maximizing every word and keeping the story real-time.

So what are your thoughts? Does this help you understand in medias res better? Do you have anything to add?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.

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

 

Today we are going to tackle a highly confusing subject for many writers—In medias res. In medias res quite literally means in the middle of things. This is a literary tactic that has been used since the days of Odysseus. It is a tactic that forces the writer forward, to begin the story near the heart of the problem.

The Trouble with In Medias Res

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

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

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

Commercial Fiction Ain’t A Tale of Two Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

These days, especially for traditional publishing, we need to get right into the heart of the action from the get-go. But if “the heart of the action” doesn’t involve a gun battle, funeral or cliffhanging scene, what the heck does it look like?

For Those Who Have Slept Since Seeing Star Wars

It is the front gate of Six Flags over Texas.

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

Uh…no.

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

No, that’s too far in. If we start the story on a Big Loop (HUGE ACTION–like car chases, bank heists, etc.) then we risk the rest of the book being anti-climactic. So where do we begin?

We begin at the gates of Six Flags over Texas.

We see young Kristen in the back of the station wagon and as her parents pull into the giant parking lot. We are present when she catches a glimpse of the Shock Wave (story problem) in the distance. Wow, it is bigger than she thought. We walk with Kristen through the line to get into the amusement park, and get a chance to know her and care about her before she makes the decision to ignore the Tea Cups and take on the roller coaster (Rise to Adventure). Kristen could have totally chickened out and stayed on the baby rides, but that would have been a boring story. Yet, because the Tea Cups are in the context of the larger ride, it means something when she decides she MUST ride the roller coaster.

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

In my little example, the GIANT roller coaster represents the story problem. We have a choice to start far earlier than in the parking lot of Six Flags….but we risk losing the reader in the Land of “Who Gives a Crap?”. We, as the narrators, can also choose to start on the actual ride, but then we have a different problem. The readers are then hurled into the action after the decision (rise to the adventure) has been made. Thus, we didn’t get time to give a gnat’s booty about seven-year-old Kristen.

Also, since Kristen is already locked down and can’t walk away, there is no conflict. It isn’t like Kristen can step out of the coaster on the first loop and take on the Tea Cups instead. As long as Kristen cannot make the wrong choice or give into her fears, there really is no story. Kristen MUST have a chance to fail….to walk away and go play the Ring-Toss instead.

Likewise, our protagonists MUST have opportunities to fail or to walk away. This is why they are eventually called “heroes.” Anyone else would have waved the white flag in the face of such circumstances. This is why we read fiction. We like bravery, courage and resilience.

What Star Wars the New Hope Can Teach Us About In Medias Res

To give you guys another example, let’s pretend it is 1977 and we are sitting in the theater watching the movie Star Wars. Star Wars (The New Hope) is a PERFECT example of in medias res. When we start the story, wars have been fought and we are in the heart of the conflict. The twins are grown and living separate lives and Anakin has already whined himself over to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader.

Begin on Tatooine

So if you don’t want to start at the Gates of Six Flags, then feel free to Begin on Tattoine.

Star Wars begins (with the protagonist) on the planet of Tatooine just before his life will intersect with the antagonist’s agenda. We meet young Luke in his Normal World and get a chance to meet his aunt and uncle. We get a chance to see his normal life, so we have a basis for comparison when everything goes sideways. We care when Luke’s family is senselessly slaughtered. We are there when Luke is given a choice. Ignore everything that’s happened and return to moisture-farming OR step on the path to adventure.

What NOT to Do

We DO NOT begin the adventure with Little Luke looking at the stars wondering who his father is or longing for exciting adventures in space. It is too early and we aren’t close enough to the story problem–when the Emperor’s agenda intersects with Luke’s life and alters it forever.

We also DO NOT start the story with Luke whizzing through space on the Milleneum Falcon dodging bad guys. That would have been exciting, but jarring and we wouldn’t have cared about any of the passengers. We also wouldn’t have had time to see the overall story problem—The Emperor, Darth and the Death Star.

I feel part of why the prequels sucked were not as good is because Lucas tried to go back and explain the story that we already had loved and accepted. Among many other reasons

Guess what?

We really didn’t need to know WHY Annakin Skywalker turned evil or even HOW the Force worked or WHAT it was to enjoy The New Hope movies. In fact, we kind of liked the movies better before we “knew.”

The Force was better before it was explained.

Some of you are starting too far into the action, which is jarring. But others might feel the need to go back and explain everything. Why your protag is thus and such. Why the world is la la la. How the magic did whatever. Guess what? You really don’t need to explain.

I have used this example before. What if you went to a magic show? The magician makes a woman float. As the audience, we cry out, “How can he DO THAT?” What if the magician stopped mid-show, flipped on the lights and pointed out all the mirrors and wires? What would it do?

It would ruin the magic.

Keep Your Literary Magic

Same with our writing. Sure, some things (backstory) can be explained. But, I will be blunt. Most backstory can be explained in dialogue, real-time in flow with the narrative. Flashbacks and prologues really just bog down the narrative more times than not. Yes, you might want to explain why your vampire is dark and brooding, but why? Many readers will keep reading in hopes they can piece together enough hints to figure it out. Just because readers might want something, doesn’t mean it is in our best interests as authors to give in.

Sure. Star Wars fans all thought they wanted to know WHY and HOW, but once we got what we wanted????

Yeah.

Finding the Literary Sweet Spot

Thus, as writers, we are looking for that literary sweet spot, just close enough to the inciting incident to make readers feel vested, but not so far that we are basically beginning our book with a scene that should be the Big Boss Battle at the end. In medias res is tough and we aren’t always going to nail it on the first try. The key is practice and study. Movies are really wonderful to study because in screenplays, Act One is brutally short.

Watch how the best movies introduce the characters and the problems and see how efficient they are at relaying backstory in dialogue. And sure, some movies use flashbacks, but we always have to remember that the visual medium is different. We can “see” differences and don’t have to “keep up with” a zillion characters. We are passive and watching with our eyes. We don’t have to recreate the world in our head.

Reading is very active, so flashbacks always risk jarring the reader out of the narrative. Also, if you study screenwriting, great screenplays, much like great novels, do not rely on flashbacks. Heavy use of flashbacks is generally a sign of an amateur screenwriter. Highly skilled writers, whether on the page or the screen, are masters of maximizing every word and keeping the story real-time.

So what are your thoughts? Does this help you understand in medias res better? Do you have anything to add?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of January, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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 January 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 Annette Mackey.

Please send your 1250 word Word document to author kristen dot lamb 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 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!

Happy writing!

 

Anyone in publishing will tell you that one of the most important parts of your novel is the beginning. As an editor I hear, “Oh, but wait until you get to the good part on page 50. This is all the lead up.” Um, no. Doesn’t work that way. You might have a humdinger on page 50, but you are competing against authors who hook readers in the first 1-10 pages.

Many agents freely confess that they can tell by page five if they will even bother reading the entire sample submitted. I know. Nothing has changed. I spoke at the DFW Writers Workshop Conference this past weekend and sat through the Agent Q & A. Agents have a lot on their plate, so they are looking for a reason to put a story down. Why?

Because agents are out to get you. They are really psychic vampires who feast on the crushed dreams of writers. Muah ha ha ha! Kidding!

To be blunt, agents love great writing. They also want to be good at what they do and make at least a living doing it (like the rest of us :D). How do they do this? By helping writers sell a lot of books. They understand that a novel’s beginning is the “hook” that will make or break a novel when it comes to readers. Agents want writers to succeed, and they know that excellent beginnings are vital to selling many, many books.

I actually believe that, as e-readers become more popular that beginnings will become more important than ever. I know that I frequently download free samples. I figure if a writer can interest me (sell me) in 3 pages, then I will read 5. If she can hook me in 5 I will read the free 30 pages. If I make it through 30, then this writer deserves my money and my time. But, remember, she had to make it past 3. Good writers do their homework and know what goes into a great beginning. I recommend studying great beginnings so you know what they look like.

So what makes a great beginning? Glad you asked. There are a lot of components that can go into a great beginning, but I am only going to discuss one of those components today—normal world. I believe if you can understand why normal world is important, the functions it serves, then you will be less eager to cut it out completely.

Normal world is vital. It is easy to feel the pressure to be interesting and begin our books with a car chase or a shoot-out.

**Hey, there isn’t a mistake I haven’t made as a writer or seen as an editor. Lighten up. It’s okay to goof up and live to laugh about it. The important thing is to learn and do better.

We as writers are so eager to be interesting in the first three lines, that we can easily forget an essential component to fiction…the normal world. Not wanting to bore readers, we toss them in a tank of sharks and grin—That’ll hook ‘em for sure.

The problem with that thinking? When we thrust a reader right into the heart of the action immediately, they haven’t been given a chance to care about or connect with any of our characters. Thus, what can easily happen is that we end up creating melodrama instead of drama. That is a bad situation, not conflict. What is the difference? Read last Monday’s post .

My favorite example of a story that desperately needed normal world is the movie The Crazies. The inhabitants of a small Iowa town are plagued by insanity then death after a mysterious toxin contaminates their water supply (via IMDb). This plot idea had the potential to be an excellent movie (I know it was a remake, but haven’t seen the earlier version). I feel this movie would have made it to a whole other cinematic level had the director made one vital change. I wish he would have kept us in normal world longer. Why?

We didn’t get a chance to meet and connect with any of the people who lost their minds and essentially became zombies that the protagonist had to put down like rabid dogs. The director had a great opportunity to create some real drama…but he missed it. He got too focused on zombies and forgot that the true drama came from the main character being forced to kill people he’d known and cared about his entire life…but we the audience didn’t really care. Oh, granted, we cared on a superficial level, but we hadn’t spent any real time with these characters, so when they died it didn’t make us emotional.

The director didn’t have to take long in normal world, either. Star Wars proves that. Who didn’t cry when Skywalker’s family was found dead? But we saw a scene with the aunt and uncle alive and well and they were nice people who we kind of liked…and it moved us to see them butchered. So keeping these movies in mind….

1. Normal world lays the foundation for genuine drama.

Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked explores this problem in detail if you would like to read more, but to keep it short and sweet I’m going to explain it this way. Most of us have driven down a highway at around rush hour, so picture this scenario. We notice emergency lights ahead.  The oncoming traffic lane is shut down and looks like a debris field. Two mangled cars lay in ruins, and there are still figures draped with blue blankets surrounded by somber EMTs. Do you feel badly? Unless you’re a sociopath, of course you do.

Now…

You look into that same oncoming lane, and one of the cars you recognize. It belongs to the nice family you chatted with in line at Wal Mart when you had to wait 40 minutes in the customer service line. You even helped the dad load groceries and put away their cart so the mom could buckle in their babies. You had to stop for gas, but 30 minutes ago that family was alive and well and now the coroner’s van is showing on the scene.

Before you cared…now you are connected.

That is how good characterization makes the difference. If we open our story with this gut-wrenching scene in a hospital where someone is dying, we are taking a risk. Readers will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes them have to close the book and get tissue.

Whether in books or on film, this is why normal world is critical. It gives the observer a chance to see the world as it would have remained had the inciting incident never happened. Would Luke Skywalker have been nearly as interesting if his aunt and uncle hadn’t been killed? And since we as the viewing audience were afforded a glimpse of Skywalker’s loved ones at the beginning of the movie, it had more impact on us when they were brutally murdered. It also helped rally us to Skywalker’s side as he set off on his journey.

2. Normal world gives the audience a baseline for character.  

By understanding how our hero is at the beginning, we also get a picture of what must be developed by the climax so our hero can be victorious. In the beginning of Romancing the Stone Joan Wilder is a single older woman who lives alone with her cat and writes about love and adventure because she has neither…and she is too afraid to pursue them.

Because we see normal world, we then recognize the inciting incident when we see it—the phone call from sister who has been kidnapped. Additionally, because we have witnessed this fraidy-cat writer, we observers are now seated in real conflict as we wonder—How on earth is she going to pull this off? We have seen this woman who is afraid of everything and wonder HOW she will develop the courage she will need to triumph. We are…hooked.

Joan’s life from the moment she receives the call from her sister will no longer be the same. A series of events have been set in motion and conflicts must be resolved to restore the natural order of things. But, since we are storytellers, we know that we must leave the world better than when we found it. Joan, at the end of her quest, must have love and courage to live the life of adventure she only could dream about in the beginning, which leads to my next point…

Normal world gives us an opportunity to see the character’s starting point on his or her arc. Joan at the beginning was afraid of her own shadow. Joan at the end has been tested and tried by bad guys, jungles, snakes, and alligators, and has come out victorious. She as a person had to change in order to triumph. Your protagonist, if pitted against the antagonist in the opening scene (for one reason or another) should FAIL. Why? Because then victory at the end is far sweeter.

3. Normal world also allows the reader to see what is at stake.

In The Fellowship of the Ring the story begins with the Hobbits. The wizard Gandalf the Grey is riding into town for a visit with fireworks in tow. There is a reason for these initial scenes of carefree laughter on a beautiful summer day. We as the audience get to see what is to be lost should our heroes fail.

In the beginning we witness a lush green world that is lovely and innocent…but in danger. We are told in the prologue that the Ring of Power was not destroyed. Thus the Ring represents an invisible, but ever-present threat. But, because we witnessed this world in an almost perfected state, it is more psychologically disturbing to us as the darkness grows. As the tale unfolds and Sauron grows stronger, we see progressively that the days literally grow darker and darker, the shadows deepen, and no one smiles or laughs any more.

At the end of the trilogy, in Return of the King we get to the ending scenes and see that the world of innocence and joy have been saved, but we see it has come at a price. The little Hobbits who were so naïve and bedazzled by the dreams of adventure are now war veterans, home from a journey that no one in the Shire will ever fully comprehend.

We see them sitting quiet at the table. We hear the unspoken words between them because we witnessed the darkness they faced and defeated. We, the audience comprehend the price they paid so the world could remain innocent. Yet, we know it was all worth it in that, unlike the beginning, the Ring will never threaten this world again. The world is restored…only better.

Points to remember:

1. Normal world lays the foundation for genuine drama—we have to get to know the characters in order to care and be vested in them.

2. Normal world gives us a character baseline—we need an initial glimpse to see how our hero is not in a position to succeed in the beginning. This creates genuine conflict in that we want to read the story to figure out how that protagonist could ever take down the antagonist. For a deeper understanding of HOW to do this, I recommend Bob Mayer’s on-line character workshop that starts this week, so sign up now for $20.

3. Normal world lets us see what is at stake—We need to see what could be lost. We also need to see what the hero may be clinging to that is keeping him from answering the call to adventure. The inciting incident must pry away something meaningful (Joan Wilder and security) or offer blessed escape (Harry Potter—escape from abuse).

What are some of the great beginnings either in film or in books? How did they hook you and why? Can you think of reasons a film or book didn’t grab your attention? What beginnings would you recommend we study and why?

I love hearing from you. And to prove it, I am going to sweeten last month’s deal and draw every week from the list of names. What do you win? My critique of the first five pages of your novel. At the end of the month, I will draw for the winner of the big prize. A critique of your first 15 pages. That give FIVE of you guys an opportunity to see if your work will hook an agent.

Names? What? Kristen, what are you talking about? Here is how you can win for those who don’t know. 

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 WANA in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. February’s winner will be announced on this Friday’s blog.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, 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.

Also, I highly recommend the Write It Forward Workshops. My workshop about building brand starts this week Sign up….like, NOW. Build your brand the right way. Also, as I mentioned earlier, NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer is teaching on character, too. Great stuff for the month of March. For $20 a workshop, you can change your destiny….all from the comfort of home.