Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: story

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.

Fiction is a tough gig. There are so many things that have to be developed, crafted, balanced, and brought to completion. Plot, setting, character, dialogue, arc, POV—it can get overwhelming. It is very easy to lose sight of the conflict and then our story gets stuck in the literary dolrums. Bad juju.

Two elements drive all great stories—character conflict and plot conflict. In good stories, there are generally two arcs, the plot arc and the character arc. One cannot be satisfied unless there is progression on the other. The character must grow or he cannot complete the next step in the plot. Each progression toward resolving the story problem also creates character growth. These elements work in perfect tandem.

This is one of the reasons that uber-perfect characters= BORING SNOOZE FEST. If our hero begins the story as a hero, then how can he grow? How can we (readers) worry?

Worry=Page-Turner

Everything else in a story, dialogue, scene-setting, description, etc. must support the conflict or be cut. Why? Because if these elements are not fueling momentum, they are, by definition, dead weight that can quickly leave a story drifting in the ho-hum world of “Ain’t Nothing Happening.” There is no conflict, no fuel, so the story loses momentum. If it sits idle long enough, the book can end up lost in the Burmuda Triangle the reader’s bookshelf, never to be seen again (until moving day).

Back to conflict…

When you look at the really great novels, each part serves a purpose. All parts work together like a highly efficient sailboat. With that said, how well do you think any sailboat would work with extra sails randomly sent up the mast? Everything on the boat must have a purpose and work to keep the boat afloat, to help navigation and provide momentum. If these components are neglected, it is likely the boat either will sink, go the wrong direction or will be left drifting at sea so long that all souls will perish.

Every scene must have conflict. Conflict must in some way involve the characters and serve to propel them either further along on the plot arc, or on a character arc.  Conflict doesn’t have to be nail-biting, cliffhanging tension. In fact, it is best to leave that sort of conflict for very specific parts of the story or you risk wearing out the reader. Conflict can be boiled down to somebody wants something, but then… This is the fuel that drives the machine of your story.

Think about the movie Top Gun. Was every scene a hair-raising ordeal involving dog-fighting jets? No. But there was plenty of conflict. Remember the scene at the club where Lt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell meets his future love interest Charlie Blackwood? Does he succeed? Or does he go down in a figurative ball of fire? This protagonist has an ego the size of Texas, and he’s used to getting his way. When he doesn’t, this propels him along on his character arc. He has to change or die, because the character traits that get him shot down in the club eventually will be the traits that can get him (and others) shot out of the sky.

The club scene in Top Gun serves multiple, multiple functions…other than getting to see a lot of really hot guys in Navy dress whites. The bar scene is a key sail to drive the character arc, when it easily could have been fluff and filler.

First, we get to see that pilots are human. They have lives beyond a cockpit. Or do they? That will be a key point developed over the course of the movie. Second, the audience is afforded the opportunity to witness how the protagonist’s blind spots and character flaws are affecting all aspects of his life in a negative way. His hotshot methods are beginning to show signs of breaking down.

Iceman, the story’s antagonist, is also present to witness Maverick fail. That is no accident. Now could this have just been a fun nightclub scene to show off hot Navy guys? Sure. But if that had been the only function of the scene, I doubt we would still remember it almost twenty years later.

All of us have to be wary of permitting our story to drift into the doldrums. We love our characters, our wonderful scene-setting, clever exposition and witty dialogue. But to write truly great stories requires brutal honesty. When we edit our work, we have to ask ourselves one question over and over and over—“What purpose does this scene serve?”

If it doesn’t have a function—a good, solid function that drives the story—it needs to either be modified or cut altogether. It’s a literary siren tempting your story to crash on the rocks, or what we more seasoned sailors writers like to call a Little Darling.

Little Darlings will KILL a novel. For more information about Little Darling Syndrome, go here.

So you need some ways to spot if you are drifting dolrums? Happy to help:

1. Remember that fiction is the path of greatest resistance.

One of the number one newbie mistakes I see is that writers resolve conflict too easily and too soon. Most of us go out of our way to avoid conflict in life, so it is very counterintuitive to seek to ADD MORE conflict when we write.

As an example. A few months ago I was helping one of my writing group peeps with her plotting and I noticed something.

“Gee. All your characters get along so well….and ALL THE TIME.” If her protagonist wanted to fight the rebels, the protag’s allies were right there. No one ever disagreed. Anyone who has run a committee more than five minutes knows that it is rare that everyone will be on the same page. Most of the conflict for our novel will actually come from intimate connections.

One example I like to use is the movie, Finding Nemo. Darla the Fish-Killer is the story’s core antagonist (what I call the Big Boss Trouble Maker), but we only see Darla in a few minute’s worth of scenes. She drives the entire story because if Darla had wanted a kitten for her birthday, Nemo would never need rescuing. Yet, in the big picture, Darla is rarely present. Who is responsible for most of the tension and conflict? The hero’s ally, Dorie.

If Marlin wants to go up, Dorie goes down. Every decision is maximum conflict…the path of greatest resistance. Each scene has a goal and the protagonist must reach that goal rarely if ever until the end. In each scene he needs to seem worse off than when he began. So go back through and make sure you aren’t making life too easy on your characters.

2. Look for the goal of each scene and make sure someone/something is in the way.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat taught me a wonderful technique for making sure each scene has a purpose. Take an index card for a new scene, then write the goal at the top then who or what was in conflict.

After losing sight of the boat that took his son Nemo, Marlin wants to go home.

Marlin><Dorie

Marlin wants to go home, but Dorie wants to talk to Bruce the Great White.

-/+

(This little set of symbols above -/+? This symbol shows how the protag enters a scene and then how he leaves. Here, I use a – because at the beginning of the scene Marlin loses sight of the boat that took his son. By all accounts the story is over, but then Dorie, the ally/antagonist insists on talking to Bruce the Great White. At the end of the scene discover the critical clue that keeps the story going. The scene ends on a + because there is renewed hope to find Nemo.)

Ideally there should be a shift from + to – or – to +. If the protagonist is always ending on a +, there is little conflict and no reason to worry. If we have too much -, then the reader just gets depressed and gives up. Too many -s or +s will help you spot doldrums quickly.

There needs to be a fine balance of setbacks and progression to keep the reader hooked…just like a fish. Yank too aggressively on the line plot and the fish reader breaks free wears out and gets frustrated. Don’t yank hard enough and the fish reader takes off gets bored and turns on the TV.

3. Never leave a place to put a bookmark.

Fiction is real life with all the boring stuff cut out. Yes, we get that our protagonist must go to sleep, but never end a chapter with a character going to sleep (without introducing the next problem). This is a subconscious cue to the reader that this is a safe place to put a bookmark. Bookmarks are death.

Never let your reader feel good about using a bookmark. Bookmarking should be painful and only because it is two in the morning and the reader must get some sleep before work.

At the end of the day, question everything. It is better for us to give our fiction the trial of fire than for reviewers to do that publicly on-line. Ask the hard questions and be willing to cut away dead weight for the sake of the story. The doldrums is where you will lose most of your readers, so always keep the forward momentum. We don’t always have to be doing top-speed, but we do need to be moving forward.

What are your thoughts? What makes you get bored with a story and put it down? What tools do you guys use for spotting dead places in your stories? Share! we’d love to learn from you.

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of August, 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 August 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 pages (1250 words) of critique:

Michelle DeRusha please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org. Congratulations!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) 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, I 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.

Happy Friday!!! TGIF!!! I have a speacial treat for you guys today. My friend, the HILARIOUS Clay Morgan, writer, professor and speaker from Pittsburgh, PA is here as a special guest. Some of Clay’s works include, Don’t Forget the Toilet Paper: A Memoir, Visits with Dead People: Family Memories, and Michael Myers vs. Facebook.

Thank you, Clay for sharing your wit and wisdom…

A few years ago I busted my hand while packing our vehicle for departure. Not good. We were about leave for a 25 hour drive to Florida, and I was scheduled to be behind the wheel for approximately 25 of those hours.
Extra not good.

I knew the hand was in trouble by the way the left side collapsed. The thing looked like an ampersand by the time we rolled into the Sunshine State. The doctor we rented a beach house from took a cursory look at my paw and made this sound: “ughblarg…” There may have been a snarf in there too but these memories are pretty sketchy since my brain was fairly rattled by the Vicodin-endorphin-orange juice cocktail I consumed for breakfast that day.

The staff at the emergency room down there could have just kidney punched me and taken my wallet for all the effort the expended to tell me my hand was broken. I left there with some x-ray images, a Cracker Jack prize, and a medical bill.

Throughout the rest of vacation and another week back home the bones healed but problems were setting in. I couldn’t find any bullets to bite, so I just went to my doctor and showed him what happened. Did I mention
the injury happened to my left and I’m a southpaw? Off to the orthopedist I went!

My left hand shudders at the memory of what took place there. Having broken bones set is never a picnic, not even a picnic that gets rained out while ants crawl all over your food. But let me tell you about how they fix smashed bones after two weeks of healing incorrectly.

I was laid on a table and given a nerve block in my hand. Two men stayed in the room. One of these guys was the doctor. His job was to sit on a rolling stool, take my hand, and re-break the not tender enough bones in order to properly reset everything. The other guy’s job was to lean across me with hands or forearms in case my body reflexively tried to attack and murder the good doctor.

You might think this procedure involves some sort of implement. Nope. Just the bare hands of someone who’s taken the Hippocratic Oath. He squeezed and pressed and snapped the stubborn paw. That’s snap, crackle, and pop if you’re keeping score at home.

I reacted sort of how William Wallace looks at the end of Braveheart when the executioners are fidgeting with his entrails. I sounded like him too, no words just grunts and empty gasps. It was as close as I ever came to seeing the types of things cartoons see when you hit them over the head with a frying pan.

When he finished I told the assistant how glad I was that the ordeal was over. He said, “Well, he still has come back and actually set the bones now.”

Ughblarg.

I’ve never written that story until now my WANA friends, but I have cause for dragging you through tha trauma. See, despite being a nonfiction writer these days, I also wrote a novel once. The unpublished book is a supernatural thriller called Dash. Think Field of Dreams but written by M. Night Shyamalan.

My book sucked mostly, but I got it done. All first novels are terrible, right? (Curse you David Baldacci and anyone else who hit it big on the first try.) Most of us just need to get it out. Get it down. That first book is a mind dump, as much therapy as plot development.

Mark stared down the space pirate, a creature more hideous than his dad who never came to any of my
games or even supported my decision to become a professional blogger! Oh, oops…

Maybe that’s just me. Maybe you’ve been there. That’s one of the main reasons we have to let our work sit
and get dusty for a bit after completion. We care too much about our fabulous WIP at first (mine took two  years to write). A little distance hardens our nhearts enough for us to come back with a chainsaw later.

I still love my characters in Dash and did okay with dialogue, but I learned much about editing through hacking that puppy to bits. Three times. I realized it might just be saleable if I chopped another 25,000 words and eliminated a couple characters. I quit instead and haven’t looked at it in 4 years.

Then I went to a writer’s conference recently where my current work generated some interest. One night, an acquisition’s editor from a small press asked if I had anything else. I briefly described my sucky novel Dash. She told me to send it over.

Super.

*puts head into plastic window fan*

I’m thinking that reworking that novel will be about as pleasant as the time Doctor Pain brutalized me. Like my hand, Dash had too much time to form in the wrong way with built in damage, bad settings, and screwed up structure. But I’ll probably try for another painful attempt sometime since we writers are clearly masochists.

My style has changed. I’m a completely different person. I may need to be heavily medicated again, but should be distanced enough from that manuscript by now to bust it apart with all the dispassion of a hand-breaking orthopedist.

If you’re in the middle of a project and sense a fatal flaw you might want to face it sooner than later. I denied the extent of my problem and ended up with a painful and costly solution. But life was so much better once my hand was fixed, and I need that sucker to keep on writing, even when it hurts.

Do you have a MS that needs some painful deconstruction/reconstruction? How do you approach this painful chore? What are your thoughts? Suggestions? War stories?

Blogging is probably one of the most powerful ways to build an author platform. The blog gives others a chance to know us and support us because of our writing. Yet, there is one question that I always get when I mention blogging:

How often should writers blog?

Everyone has an opinion, including me. But, before we get to my two cents, I know there are competing theories. Let’s take a quick look at those.

Blogging Every Day or Multiple Times a Day

Some experts recommend micro-blogging—blogging in short burst several times a day or short blogs every day. I think if your goal is to be a famous blogger, this can work. As writers, though, most of us are already balancing a day job, kids, housework, and a WIP. So blogging every day or more than once a day is hard on us and probably hard on our following as well.

Can you blog every day? Sure. It is a great way to saturate the Internet with your content and help fast-track a brand. I don’t think this approach is a good fit for most writers, though. If you can commit the time and be interesting that often, rock on!

Blogging Once a Month

Some experts advise once a month. Whoo-hoo! Yay! Only one blog a month!!!! *happy dance*

Okay, yes, there is that benefit of only having to write one post a month, but there are a lot of advantages we lose with this method.

I think that what we lose in this approach is the ability to build community and relationships using the blog.  Sure, we save time in having to write fewer blogs, but then we need to commit time in other areas, like lengthy e-mail lists. So, do we save time, or do we just shift it elsewhere?

If we post blogs regularly, people are connecting with us regularly and come to feel as if they know us. Why? Because they DO know us.

We are vested, posting content that serves the reader, and we are interacting with those who comment. We aren’t just surfacing once a month, expecting those around us to drop everything to pay attention to us and our blog.

Can the once a month approach work?

Sure. But this approach relies heavily on going viral…which is hard to do without on-line relationships to
propel the momentum.

For instance, my blog has a very large following. But, this blog has allowed me to forge relationships with other bloggers who also have large followings. My efforts now work exponentially instead of linearly. I don’t have to personally connect with 100,000 people. I have a team to help me. What’s better is that when my team promotes me, it is more genuine (psst–it’s also called word of mouth). Traditional marketing cannot compete.

I also think that blogging once a month makes it very easy to lose the top-of-mind with others. People have very short attention spans these days and a month with no content is a lifetime. Also, I don’t know about you, but once a month is really hard for me to remember. I had to get my computer to remind me to give my dog a heartworm pill once a month and I was STILL lousy at remembering. I think if we blog only 12 times a year, the blog is easy to forget all around.

What is the “Magic” Number?

I recommend a minimum of once a week. It is enough to stay top of mind with followers, yet not overwhelm anyone.

Ideally? I recommend three times a week, especially in the beginning. Why? Well, I know this sounds weird, but three times a week is actually easier than once a week. Blogging three times a week holds a number of advantages that are especially beneficial to professional writers:

Regular blogging places us in a professional mindset.

Writers write. Blogging is a great way to warm up those fingers and get the brain in gear. When we are writing a novel, we get little outside validation. Most of the time, friends and family think we are, at worst, lunatics, and at best, hobbyists. In short, others do not believe what we do is work or even a job. Blogging is a great way to demonstrate that we take our craft seriously. How? We wouldn’t spend time building a platform for a book we had no intention of finishing. Also, again, writers write.

When someone asks, “What do you do?” and you say “I’m a writer,” you know the next questions are going to be, “What books have you written? Anything I might have read?”

Blogging helps with confidence. We can say, “Well, I am finishing my first novel but you can go to my blog here.” A blog gives a professional front. It also helps switch us from hobbyists to true professionals.

This transition is vital. What if you decided you wanted to play baseball at a professional level? Would you just wait until game day to pick up a bat? Or would your lifestyle have to change to incorporate regular practice to take this “hobby” to a new level?

Blogging makes us faster cleaner writers.

When I look at some of my early blogs, I cringe. My thoughts are all over the place. Blogging works on our ability to mentally organize content. This helps us become better writers all around. Even plotting for a novel requires us to be able to organize our thoughts efficiently. Blogging is great exercise for that.

Let’s look at sports again. Years ago, I played soccer, and we had to run through a lot of tires. In three years of playing soccer I was never once assailed by a Goodyear tire on the field. So what was the point? It taught me to be quick on my feet so I would play the game better.

Blogging is like running cones or tires, or doing wind sprints. It makes us stronger, faster and better. The more we do it the faster the results.

Blogging feeds the spirit.

A huge part of this business is mental. Stephen King said, “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

I know of many writers more talented than me, but they won’t ever be published. Why? They gave up. As artists, we need to pay close attention to our mental state. It is easy in this business to get overwhelmed, burned out and give up. Blogging gives us validation in the lean times bewteen books.

The Big Picture

Am I telling you guys to blog because I can give you a magic formula for books sold?

100 blogs x 2 years divided by # comments X Pi = NY Times Best-Seller List

No, I encourage you to blog because it will make you stronger, faster, cleaner writers AND it will connect you to a large community of support so you don’t have to drive your book sales all by yourself. Instead of spending time putting together lengthy e-mail lists, write blogs instead. It takes the same amount of time and yet one approach makes us good at spreadsheets…the other makes us far better, stronger writers which means BETTER BOOKS. We also get really great at obliterating deadlines.

Blogging also keeps our head in the game. Back to sports. The pep rally is critical. All the practice in the world cannot help a team with low morale.

So back to our question, “How many times do we need to blog?”

There isn’t a clear answer. It is up to you and your strengths. Some people come from a sales background and their strength rests in putting together e-mail lists and launching marketing campaigns. If that is your strength, go for it!

For me? I am a writer. It is what I love and do well and I work hard every day to do it better. Blogging allows me to build a platform and strengthen my writing skills simultaneously. It permits me to do my passion WRITING.

My preference? I like three times a week.

Some people are against blogging three times a week because they don’t want to overwhelm their subscribers with fluff. My solution? Don’t write fluff. Blogging is a skill. It gets better with practice. You will get better at hooking readers with titles and content the more you do it. This will help your WIP as well.

Three times a week helps your blog and your skills grow faster. I have recommended this approach to many of my students. They kicked and screamed and whined, but when they started seeing the numbers climb and the subscriptions take off they were believers that three times a week really is easier.

But when we get down to brass tacks…

I recommend that you blog as often as you can be counted upon and still finish the books. The point of blogging is to eventually drive sales for our books. The finished product is paramount.

Back to blogging. There is a bare minimum we need to meet, or just forget it. There are too many writers who post when they feel particularly inspired. Hey, I was guilty once. But that isn’t the behavior of a professional.

Once a month, I think is not often enough for our blog to be much help in our platform. I advise a minimum of once a week or just forget blogging.

What are your thoughts? Do you love blogging? Hate it? What are your biggest challenges? What are some benefits you might have gained blogging?

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

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) 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, I 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.

I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid.  Yet, it is a common problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful. It’s as if we get so wrapped up in our story that we mentally stumble in that brief span from synapse to keyboard, and inadvertently end up treating our readers like they need a drool cup. So today, I put together a list of bad habits to make it easier for you guys to spot when you are coaching the reader.

Offender #1—Adverb Abuse

One of the reasons I am such a Nazi when it comes to adverbs it that they are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.

The ONLY time an adverb is acceptable is when it is there to denote some essence that is not inherent in the verb.

For example: She whispered quietly. Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly?

Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? The adverb conspiratorially tells us of a very specific type of whisper, and is not a quality that is necessarily implied by the verb.

Offender #2—Qualifiers

It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break).

The qualifiers add nothing but a cluster of extra words that bogs down the prose.  If someone slams the door right after a heated scene of arguing, the reader gets that the character is angry, frustrated, upset. We don’t need to spell it out.

Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene. Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.

Offender #3—Punctuation & Font as Props

You are allowed three exclamation points every 50,000 words—just so your editor can cut them and then laugh at you for using exclamation points in the first place.  Hey, a little editor humor :). 99% of the time exclamation points are not necessary if the prose is strong.

“Get the kids out of the house!” he yelled. (Yep)

I recently read a non-fiction book where the writer used an exclamation point on every single sentence. I felt like I was learning marketing from Billy Mays. At best, the guy was shouting at me for page after page. At worst, he was monotone, because when we emphasize everything, we emphasize nothing.

Ellipses do not make a scene more dramatic, just…make…the…writing…more…annoying. Ellipses can be used but, again, very sparingly.

In fiction, bold font and italics are almost never acceptable. Again, if the prose is well written, the reader will stress the word(s) in his head. Trust me. We don’t need to hold our reader’s hand, or brain, or whatever.

Is it ever okay to use bold font and italics? Sure, if you write non-fiction. In non-fiction we are teaching, so certain key words or points need to stand out.

In the world of fiction?

No bold font. That is the tool of an amateur. And italics? We can use it, just not very often or we run the risk of insulting our reader’s intelligence. If you come to a point where you believe it is absolutely necessary to use italics, I suggest trying to strengthen the scene first.

Offender #4—Telling Instead of Showing

Most of us have been beaten over the head with the saying, “Show. Don’t tell.” There is a good reason for that. Telling is a lazy method of characterization. Most readers are pretty sharp and like figuring things out on their own. Thus, if we spoon-feed information that should be given via the story, we risk turning off the reader.

New writers are almost always guilty of telling instead of showing. Why? Simple. They’re still learning techniques that are going to take time and practice to develop. Yet, all of us, regardless our skill level need to be wary of this narrative crutch. To be blunt, telling is far less taxing on the brain, so our lazy nature will try to take shortcuts if we aren’t careful.

Actions speak louder than words. Yeah, it is easy to just tell the reader our antagonist is a real jerk, but it is better to show our antagonist doing things that make the reader decide this for himself. We accomplish this by creating an antagonist who simply does things jerks do.

Good writers don’t tell readers a character is ticked off. Good writers show she is ticked off. Crossed arms. No eye contact. Clenched jaw. Slamming doors. Remember that over 95% of communication is non-verbal. Use this to your writing advantage. When creating characters, think about what actions will define your character’s nature or mood universally.

For a character’s nature: If you want to create a cad, think what actions cads do that would make everyone in a room label him the same way—checking out every woman who walks by, openly flirting with other women, using breath spray every 5 minutes, telling sexist jokes, etc.

For a character’s mood/mental state: Regardless of culture, we can tell if someone is mad, hurt, sad, or happy by body language. Make a list of all the body language cues for the mood you wish to create. A book on body language can be extremely helpful for the more subtle stuff. For instance, people who lie often rub a body part (wringing hands) or tap. Why? Unless people are sociopathic, it usually causes mental stress to lie, so the rubbing or tapping is a sign of energy displacement.  See, these are the sort of details that make good writing into much better writing.

What are your thoughts? Are there some other pet peeves you guys have that I missed? What makes you put down a book? What methods transport you? What makes you hurl the book across the room?

I love hearing from you! And 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. 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.

Last Week’s Winner–Nina Badzin

Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

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

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) 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, I 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.

Until next time…