Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: The Devil’s Dance Kristen Lamb

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

Genre is a word that makes a lot of new writers cringe. Many (mistakenly) believe any kind of boundaries will somehow impair or restrict creativity and crater imagination. This is why so many emerging authors (myself included) avoid learning about structure or how to plot until forced to…at gunpoint.

Fine! Yes, I’m being melodramatic, but close enough to the truth.

It’s easy to understand why we want to skip all that boring stuff. We’re eager to write, to create, to unleash the muse! Yet, in our haste, we can lose sight of what we stand to gain by truly understanding the fundamentals and respecting boundaries.

For any author who wants to eventually sell enough books to make writing a full-time occupation, genre is one of our greatest allies.

Genre Dictates Location

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

Location, location, location. Yes, I remember being a neophyte, breaking out in hives when anyone mentioned I needed to choose a genre *shivers*. My book wasn’t a genre, it was all genres. It was a novel everyone would love. I didn’t need something as prosaic as…genre.

Yes, I was a clueless @$$hat so y’all can already feel better about yourselves. When we’re new, obviously we don’t understand the intricacies of the publishing profession. Why? BECAUSE WE ARE NEW.

***By the way, it is okay to be new. We all begin somewhere. Stephen King didn’t one day hatch as a mega-author.

Before we even get to how genre impacts story, we must remember publishing is a business. Many of you long to submit to an agent in hopes of a sweet contract with the Big Five. Great! You yearn to see your books on a shelf in a bookstore. Wonderful! Me too. *fist bump*

So where would the bookstore shelve your novel?

This is a critical question all writers must be able to answer. Ideally, we need to know our genre before we ever begin writing the novel, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. But first…

Genre Lands Book Deals

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers
Meh…there are better ways.

If we want to publish traditionally (legacy) the first step—beyond finishing the book, obviously—is landing an agent. Writers who take the business seriously research agents ahead of time because this is a partnership.

We don’t want just any agent, we want the right agent. Conversely, agents aren’t looking for any book, they’re on the hunt for books they can sell.

Most agents have a list of the sort of books they’re in the market to represent (which genre). Thus, if an agent’s bio states she’s looking for Young Adult and New Adult novels, we’re wasting her time and ours by querying our Middle Grade series. By doing a bit of research, we can locate agents who’ll be the ideal fit.

Agents create these wish lists for a reason. They know publishers all have wish lists, too. The agent’s job is to pay attention to those wish lists and hustle to deliver the goods. Their goal is to sell our book to a publisher and negotiate the sweetest deal possible for us (the author), because this benefits them, too.

Agents pay attention to the publishers’ shopping lists. If the publishers are no longer wanting Dystopian YA novels, the agent then knows that trying to sell the next Hunger Games is a fruitless endeavor.

Even if our book IS the next Hunger Games, agents won’t rep it because they already know they’re highly unlikely to sell it.

Genre Sells Books

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

Now, traditional publishers might reject a certain genre for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the book. Maybe they’ve already filled the X amount of slots reserved for a Dystopian YA. They don’t want to oversaturate the market. Perhaps Dystopian YA is not selling like it used to because Steampunk YA is picking up steam *bada bump snare*.

Thus, if you have an amazing Dystopian YA, you can go indie (if they’re open to representing it) or self-publish. Genre is still incredibly important because when we list our book for sale on-line, again, we have to tell Amazon (and other on-line distributors) where our story belongs.

Major publishers do, too.

Genre will directly impact metadata and will serve as a guide for keyword loading within the product description. Genre and the associated keywords will also influence which books are listed alongside ours (or vice versa). When we look up Gone Girl, we see…

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

This is how on-line retailers help readers find books they’re likely to enjoy more easily.

Genre Draws Fans

This is one of the reasons we really don’t want to write a novel totally unlike ANY other. The story never before told is a unicorn, first of all. It doesn’t exist.

Also, a novel that can’t be fit into any genre is unlikely to draw fans. Whether readers are browsing a bookstore or browsing on-line, they generally know what sort of books interest them and head that direction.

If they’ve just finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and they’ve read all of Flynn’s other books and want to read more books LIKE hers, genre is the flashing arrow pointing readers to similar novels (and authors).

This is a fantastic way for authors who aren’t yet household names to be discovered. Fans of the genre can then evolve into fans of that author.

Because readers can discover our work on a shelf or on-line, our odds of selling more books vastly improves.

This isn’t rocket science. People are unlikely to buy something they a) don’t even know exists or b) can’t find.

Genre Builds Brands

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

As Cait mentioned in her post on best practices for publishing success, genre focus is a major factor in becoming a successful author. When we focus on a specific genre we build an author brand and cultivate a devoted fan base far faster.

A qualifier here, though. Just because we write a Psychological Thriller doesn’t mean we must only write Psychological Thrillers forever and ever. Often genres have ‘kissing cousins’ and, so long as we remain within that general genre region, it’s all good. Suspense, Mystery, Thriller, Sleuth, are close enough to count.

Once we’ve published enough books, built a solid brand and cultivated a large devoted fan following, then we gain more freedom to try something new.

Genre Helps Plotting

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

When we choose any genre, there are certain reader expectations. Once we know what’s expected, we can then deliver what readers want. We also have a better idea how to plot. If we don’t understand how/why a thriller is different than a suspense, that’s a problem.

Let’s use these ‘kissing cousin’ genres as an example…

A thriller has large (global) stakes on the line. In the beginning a bad thing happens and it is a race against time to stop the MASSIVE bad thing by the end.

For instance, Lee Child’s debut novel Killing Floor is about a former MP-turned-drifter thrust by fate into a problem with global consequences. Reacher’s goal is to stop bad guys’ plan to inundate the market with counterfeit bills (which would destabilize the U.S. economy).

A suspense has more intimate stakes. In Thomas Harris’ book The Silence of the Lambs, the goal is to find and stop Buffalo Bill from murdering Size 12 women for his ‘woman suit.’ Ideally, Agent Starling will stop Buffalo Bill before the latest victim (a senator’s daughter) is killed. The stakes, however, are not global.

The F.B.I.’s image is at risk, Starling’s career is on the line, the latest victim’s life is in jeopardy, but overall?

Skinny girls are totally safe.

When we understand the dictates of a genre, we can plot better and also know what we’re selling (to agents, publishers, and readers).

Genre and Structure

Since this week is my birthday and the week I am re-launching my novel, The Devil’s Dance I’m going to indulge 😀 .

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers
My precious…

I’ve been blogging for a while about structure, and we’ll deep dive the different types of structure and how to use them and why and when more in another post. All have pros and cons.

Some structures are better suited for certain genres. When we know what genre we are writing, then selecting the perfect framework becomes easier.

The most well-known and widely read is the traditional three-act Aristotelian structure. This story structure works as well today as it did a couple thousand years ago. My debut novel is a mystery-suspense and I used traditional three-act structure and ALL THE COLORS!

Why THAT Structure?

I chose this straight-forward structure because, for me, it was the best scaffolding for the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to craft a story that blended the humor of a Janet Evanovich with the gritty edge of a Dennis Lehane. I’d always joke that my book was Legally Blonde meets Killing Floor. Since I was already being ‘creative’ with the KIND of story I was telling, I felt it best to not also try to be creative with structure as well.

***No novel quadruple axel for me, thanks.

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

I wrote The Devil’s Dance purely to entertain. The sort of novel one might inhale on vacation, or when stuck in an airport. Fun, gritty, straightforward and a very fast read. Since I wanted it to be a quick read, linear structure was ideal.

Yet, maybe we want to offer the reader a challenge beyond what straightforward linear structure can offer. This is when we might select a non-linear structure. A fantastic example of this is Into the Water by Paula Hawkins, which is also a mystery-suspense.

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

Granted there are at least nine POVs and shifts in time ranging from the 17th century all the way to the 21st. The time shifts and different POVs delivered red-herrings galore. For mystery fans who want a challenge?

This book definitely is a brain-bender.

Keep in mind, though, that the downside to non-linear structure is readers can easily become confused, bored or lost. Good thing Paula Hawkins is a master storyteller, just sayin’. I’m on my third pass through to catch what I missed.

In the End

Genre is incredibly helpful in a vast number of ways. We can know and meet (then exceed or challenge) reader expectations. Since we know what fans want, we can serve them something they want or even something they never KNEW they wanted (I.e. Harry Potter). Knowing the story we long to tell helps us plot faster, since the objectives are clearer.

Once our story is complete, we know how to query our novel and to whom. Also, when the book is finally published, genre helps readers find our books!

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft, and next time we’ll resume talking abut structure. Those new to my blog, I hope you’ll check out this series. Look to the column over there–>

Need More Help? I Live to Serve….

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

I’m offering The Art of Character (March 22nd 7-9 EST). More advanced material, and lots of FUN! Just because we’re tackling advanced material, doesn’t mean we can’t make it a party. As always, recording is included with all classes FREE of charge 😉 .

Also, my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist is a great follow up, and this class will help you plot faster and tighter than ever. It’s being held March 29th (7-9 EST).

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of March, for 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).

Today we are going to talk about something potentially embarrassing, but hey I have no shame. But I believe this is a cool thing because I talk about stuff A LOT of people have been through, but few are bold enough to talk about let alone post it in a blog for all to see.

The old way of being a “professional” was to portray you were perfect. Spin everything. Maybe some people still do that, but meh. Not my style. I take the hard hits then talk about them so you guys can learn and to me? That’s more important than anyone thinking I am “perfect.”

So…

Want to know who people really are? Three ways. One. How do they act when they have everything? Two. How do they act when they have nothing? Three. How do they act (respond) when the proverbial caca hits the fan?

For the purposes of today’s blog, I’m interested in number three because it involves a lot of number two (the stinky kind). Before we start though, we must understand that….

Life is NOT Hermetically Sealed

I’d love to say that every time some land mine blew up in my face that my response soooo perfect that Mother Theresa was looking down gettin’ all jealous. That I handled said caca with grace, maturity, kindness, love, yoga, bible study and inspirational quotes. That my response did NOT involve a hell-mouth opening beneath my feet and then spewing out of my mouth. That my reaction did not involve a blast radius.

But one thing I promise on this blog is honesty.

One thing we must learn to be successful in this profession (or any other) is to forbid outside circumstances to own, control or derail us.

Sounds easy in an inspirational quote. The doing? Not so much.

How are we going to handle it when the proverbial caca hits the fan?

Because it is GOING to happen. It isn’t a matter of if, rather a matter of when.

If we allow ourselves to be at the mercy of circumstances? We’re going to be miserable and we’ll never finish the blog or the book. We’ll give up, tap out and take every carb in the house down with us.

Though I’m not where I’d like to be? I’m a hell of a lot better than I used to be. Making the decision to become a writer was the single best thing I could ever have done to grow my character, to mature me and to make me a better (not perfect) person.

Successful people don’t avoid stress, they learn to manage it….often the hard way. Yay!

Managing Expectations


A lot of why we make ourselves miserable and end up depressed is that our expectations fail to meet with what reality delivers. If you ever want to see this in action, just watch Bridezilla clips off YouTube. The bride has this absurd expectation of what the wedding day should be, an expectation that reality cannot meet (No, sorry, we cannot have cherubim deliver you to the altar on a cloud)…and they implode.

A sinkhole forms around the bride that eats all the bridesmaids, the caterer, the flower girl…and the groom is just standing there like he’s just landed at Normandy.

Expecting too much? Can be problematic.

But we need to be careful about the other side of this emotional coin—especially those of us from crazy dysfunctional families. We can stray to the opposite side of the spectrum and that’s dumb too. Maybe we’ve gone through a lot, been let down a lot so we just expect nothing. Or worse, we expect bad things to happen. We expect to be let down.

That is bad juju as well.

Thus, there is this fine dance we must master between expecting great things, but also being prepared for everything to just go sideways, too.

$h%t WILL Hit the Fan

Going to let y’all in on a little secret. Lean closer. This will blow your mind. Publishing involves…humans. Humans who screw up, make mistakes, etc. Even better? Now that we’re in the digital age? Humans can screw up much FASTER and INSTANTLY.

Great right?

Sometimes things will go great. When I self-published Rise of the Machines? It was glorious. Beautiful cover, perfect formatting, not a single typo *gets cramp patting self on back*. Of course this was all run by Control Freak Perfectionist Kristen and I damn near killed myself doing it all on my own.

That and Hubby wondered if he needed to bring me more coffee or perhaps toss holy water on me.

The power of Christ compels you!

I’d written a novel The Devil’s Dance  (ha ha). I even sent the manuscript to an agent friend who was unafraid to make me cry, just to see if the book was solid. Her answer? Great book and I don’t even like that genre. Thus, I felt cool to query. And I queried and queried and got a lot of “Love the story and the voice but not for us.”

See? Even I get rejected 😛 .

But with all the family stuff going on the past few years (my husband ordered to deploy to Afghanistan, deaths in the family, sickness, Shingles, etc. etc.)? I just didn’t have the bandwidth left to push my novel for a legacy deal and still have passion and energy for this blog and classes, etc.

Thus, the book sat and I just kept feeling inside that I needed to take that step. I needed fiction out there because 1) my original goal was to be a novelist 2) I have enough unpublished novels sitting on the hard drive, no need for one more and 3) I needed skin in the game. I can’t blog week after week challenging you guys to be brave…while hiding.

#UNCOOL

To make a long story longer, I finally let go of my novel and handed it to a new indie press. I loved the cover. They did a great job proofreading it and I was really happy with the final version. My launch date got pushed up a week. Was supposed to be May 25th and instead it was May 16th but whatever, right? Roll with it.

So we put it on sale for .99 and I am promoting it and messaging people and then all the sudden this inner is voice telling me, “You need to go look at the sample pages.” And I argued with said inner voice. “Nah. What are you talking about? I saw that final version. I approved it.” Inner voice. “Seriously, GURL. LOOK.”

May I welcome y’all to every control freak’s nightmare…

I pull up the sample pages on Amazon and the world drops out from under me. I have no idea what happened. Sun spots. Mercury in retrograde. Essential human error.

Suffice to say the wrong version was uploaded. Better than that? An un-proofed version. Good news is a lot of people bought the book. Bad news? They bought the wrong one.

Excuse me while I go shoot myself.

The publisher immediately corrects the problem, but then Amazon takes their time and it was a mess. The correct version wasn’t syncing and BLARGH. It certainly was NOT how I envisioned launching my debut novel. There were way more typos and way fewer calls from Hollywood involving talks on an HBO series.

Class, What Did We Learn?

I’m a huge fan of failure. No I’m not high on anything, and trust me. If I have a choice between failing and winning? Winning always feels way better. But failure often can be better FOR us long-term.

If we never fail, we never learn. Show me a person who never fails and I’ll show you someone who’s never done anything interesting. They’ve never done a damn thing themselves and often they have a profile that looks like this…

Then they go sprinkle one-star reviews on Goodreads like frigging fairy dust when they’re not trolling blogs.

I learned not to allow myself to be rushed. I was people-pleasing again. I’d just come off the road and was tired, emotional and thin. I went along instead of saying no, then getting rested and making sure what was being put out there. When it blew up in my face? Aside from scrambling to make it right, I refused to make any big decisions because this Kristen when she’s tired…

Yes, I do turn into Danny Trejo with an ax.

And I’d love to say this would never have happened if only I’d been a Random-Penguin! Everything is perfect for legacy published writers. Right? Yeah, no. They have their own (albeit different horror stories) and one day I am sure I will have my own to share.

See, a lot of bad things will happen to us in life and definitely in publishing. Often is it not our fault, but it is ALWAYS our responsibility. People will make mistakes. The mistake is not the core issue, rather what do they do to FIX it?

And how do we handle it when everything goes pear-shaped?

Obviously this is not me being laissez-faire about mess ups, but there is a balance. Yes, strive for excellence as a standard but also recognize there’s this inconvenient thing called reality 😉 .

I was extremely blessed, namely because of this blog. A lot of fans messaged me to tell me my digital skirt was tucked in my digital underwear instead of hammering me with one-star rants.

I was able to explain what happened and get them the correct version. This only happened (I feel) because 1) I had an established reputation for quality and 2) the fans I’ve cultivated here genuinely want me to succeed because of a long-standing relationship.

*prostrates before you*

***NOTE: If you happened to get the wrong version, feel free to email for the correct one. Send a message to captivequillpress at gmail dot com and either a screenshot of the receipt or image of it on your device and include the email for your kindle. We will get you the correct version.

All In All?

Try stuff. When it goes pear-shaped? Examine it. Study. Learn. Try new stuff. Grow, improve, evolve. Get better, change tack. Wood moths did it and surely we’re as smart as a wood moth, right?

(After coffee.)

And to quote Teddy Roosevelt…

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever had something go so bad, SO sideways you thought you’d die just from the embarrassment? If so, comment and give us proof of life 😀 . A cover go wrong? Formatting that bit back? Amazon issues? Whatever it is! I like hearing from people who have failed because those are my kind of peeps! People brave enough to at least DO something and give it a go.

LOVE hearing from you guys!

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

Talk to me!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

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

NEW CLASSES!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

OMG, Like How to Write Fleek YA July 7th $40 with Cait Reynolds

How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here) July 14th $40 w/ Cait Reynolds

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction 

July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Plotting for Dummies July 13th $35 ($250 for GOLD)

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

OTHER Classes with Cait Reynolds

Research for Historical Romance Writing – Or, How NOT to Lose Six Hours on Pinterest July 8th $35 for Basic/ $75 for GOLD / $125 for PLATINUM

Shift Your Shifter Romance into High Gear July 15th $35 Basic/ $75 GOLD/ $125 PLATINUM

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

 

 

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of DualD Flip Flop

Recently, I wrote a guest post This is the Reason All Great Stories are Birthed from Shame. It was a tough post and I needed a nap after writing it. It forced me to peel back layers I hadn’t touched in years. But the post got me thinking about probably the single most important element of great fiction

SHAME.

Since that post was not per se a craft post, I wanted to explore what I began on that blog here today. I firmly believe shame is the critical ingredient for fiction to resonate. It’s the difference between a forgettable fun read and a book we keep and read over and over.

Some Examples

I dig examples. I learn better when I have some to work with, so sharing some goodies with you today.

It by Stephen King

It is, of course, terrifying and is the main reason a disproportionate number of Gen Xers hate/fear clowns. But what makes the story so great is SHAME. Big Bill (protagonist) made the paper boat for his little brother, the paper boat that was then was swept into a gutter, the gutter where the beast was waiting to devour an unsuspecting six-year-old (thus kicking off the story).

Bill also has a terrible stutter. He is ashamed of his stutter and suffers false guilt for the death of his little brother Georgie.

The Losers Club

All the characters in this novel suffer from profound shame, especially Bill’s allies (who call themselves The Losers Club). Ben is morbidly obese and his mom a single parent in the 1950s. Beverly’s father beats her and is sexually inappropriate with her. Stan lives under the cloud of being a Jew, and Mike is black. They face shame in regards to who they are in the WASP dominated world of post WWII America. Richie is socially awkward and tries too hard. Eddy is a hypochondriac, ashamed of his perceived (yet false) delicate constitution.

Without shame, this story would be uninteresting and forgettable because the real monsters in this book are not (only) what is lurking beneath Derry (though that sucker is pretty terrifying), rather what is in each of the children then later adults that also must be defeated—their shame. The monsters who look a lot a hell of a lot like people.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The protagonist is a raging alcoholic propelled by real and false shame. She is ashamed (obviously) that she is a drunk, but she’s also ashamed her drinking supposedly ruined her “once perfect” life. Yet, once she is pulled into a potential murder mystery, she uncovers not everything is as it seems and in seeking truth, she also uncovers the seeds of her shame were not planted by her.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Three protagonists drawn together over a seemingly innocent infraction in a Kindergarten…that ends in murder. All three protagonists are propelled by shame.

Madeline was abandoned by her first husband, who now has decided to move practically next door.

Celeste has a perfect life that is a perfect lie. Because she is perfect, who can she turn to with the truth?

Jane is an outsider and mother of an illegitimate son, fathered by a man whose real name she doesn’t even know.

The Ones We KEEP

When I think of all my favorite characters? The ones I remember and keep in my heart forever, why do I love them? Their shame. Harry Bosch is ashamed that he was the son of a murdered prostitute, that she was thrown away by the system. Everyone matters or no one matters.

Mickey Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer) is ashamed his father never loved him, that he never measured up. He’s ashamed he failed an innocent client who’s serving life in prison because that was the only way Mickey could save him from the needle.

The Hobbits are ashamed they are too little to make a BIG difference.

Shadow in (American Gods) is ashamed of going to prison, believes he’s culpable for his wife’s death.

Y’all get the gist.

Finding the Shame

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Noemi Galera.

Some of us older folks recall that schoolyard taunt, “Shame, shame we know your name!” But I think this nasty taunt can serve as an interesting guidepost when crafting visceral and dimensional characters. When we begin with our story idea, I feel it’s imperative to look for, find and NAME the shame.

When we start out? No, shame, shame we DO NOT know your name.

But we need to.

Shame is a powerful driver of character decisions and actions. It’s the linchpin for all the emotional armor, the lock on the box of the inner demons. The story problem is the crucible for exposing then firing away the shame. That is how we know the protagonist has evolved to a hero. We can’t accurately determine any character’s Goal, Conflict ,or Motivation until we know the dark place they’re doing everything to protect.

Finding the shame can elevate an okay story to an unforgettable one.

A Good Example

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Alan Levine

For instance, last week I had a student of the log-line class call me for a consult. She had an interesting story but it was all falling flat for a reason she couldn’t quite grasp. I liked her idea, but sensed she was right. Something important was missing.

Her story was set in the 70s and a young girl was running away from home because of her alcoholic mother. Girl jumps out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak when she runs away and gets tangled in a world of predators (sex, drugs and rock and roll). Yet, what happened was the story just was a series of bad situations.

Running away is not a story goal. It’s passive and stories need active goals. Protagonists can run away but heroes return to face and conquer. So how could this protagonist return and when she did, what exactly would she face and conquer?

Her story idea lacked the connective tissue it needed to fully come together.

In this case, the connective tissue was…

You got it. SHAME.

I asked the writer, “Okay so WHY does the mother drink? WHY is she an alcoholic?” Because an answer of, “Well it’s genetics” or “She just likes Jameson way too much” isn’t meaty enough for a good fiction.

I challenged her to think about why the mother drank. What was HER shame that she was numbing with booze?

The writer actually hadn’t asked that critical question, btw.

Since the story is set in the 70s, women were very vulnerable. Mom has four kids. She wouldn’t be able to get a bank account without her husband’s permission. Odds were she had no money of her own and no way to get it without her husband’s knowledge. Divorce was highly frowned on and if she did get a divorce the courts likely would have ruled in the man’s favor.

So why does Mom drink? *puts on thinking cap*

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of davidd

What if the father the protagonist (the teen) adores who everyone thinks is this super amazing guy is actually an abusive bastard? What if he’s a traveling salesman who takes great joy in coming home and relaying his conquests to his wife? Tells her if she hadn’t let herself go pumping out babies, he wouldn’t need to find other women?

He’s a narcissist, manipulator and master of gas-lighting everyone, including his kids. Mom drinks because she is ashamed she is so powerless. She is ashamed she married such a person, that she believed he loved her. She probably also has false shame from his abuse (she is fat, ugly, stupid, useless).

So you have a scene. Mom comes out into living room ready to go to a cocktail party. Dad makes a big deal over how beautiful she looks in front of the kids, goes up and passionately kisses her (oh the adoring husband) then whispers “lovingly” in her ear, “Don’t you have a tighter girdle? I’ve seen pigs with a better figure.”

Mom’s face changes and she mutters something about needing to adjust her girdle and twenty minutes later stumbles out clearly toasted. Dad then sighs to the kids and gives the pained Look at what I have to put up with face.

So in the beginning, the teen protagonist is unaware of the real villain (because of incidents like the one above). She’s judgmental of Mom, but when she runs away, she gets a hard dose of reality and matures. She begins to see things in a new light, her mother in a new light.

NOW, the antagonist (alcoholism) can be defeated because when she returns she can forgive her mother and even possibly expose her father. Lay shame at the feet of the person who should be held accountable for it. Once she helps free Mom of false shame, Mom can get help for her drinking.

By naming the shame, we’ve taken a story of vignettes and threaded something entirely new throughout that holds the story together in a far deeper way. The writer was pleased, I was pleased and I think she has a hell of a story that I look forward to reading.

Why Do We Miss This?

Image courtesy of Eflon via Flickr Creative Commons

When I get samples from writers, I see a lot of uber-perfect Mary Sue characters. Heck, my first novel? My protagonist was beautiful, a genius, always made good decisions and she bored the paint off the walls.

I believe a lot of new writers are afraid. I was. Often looking for shame for a character makes us have to dig into our own tender places.

OUCH.

But, it IS worth it. Promise!

So I challenge you to look at your own work and see if you can pinpoint the shame. My stories all sucked until I learned this. Finally, I got brave.

In my debut novel, The Devil’s Dance, Romi’s shame is she grew up trailer trash and is from a highly dysfunctional family. Her mother abandoned her as a kid and every man who’s ever loved her has betrayed her. Every decision she’s made has been to escape her shame—leaving the trailer park, going to college, landing the perfect job and perfect guy.

But what happens when everything she’s carefully constructed comes tumbling down on her head, dumping her right back in the one place she vowed to never return to?

She did everything to escape the trailer park and now it’s her only refuge.

She’s forced into a position to face the shame that has been driving her. Romi has a LOT of baggage and baggage makes for interesting characters and stories ( click the sidebar and get a copy 😉 *cute face*)

Look at your favorite books, movies and characters with new eyes and look for the shame, and I think you will be surprised how much it drives the story.

What are your thoughts? Do you see what I am talking about in reference to shame? Did you have to face some of your own shame to start writing fiction worth reading? Heck, I did. Do you like books with characters who are able to finally see then conquer shame? What are some of your favorites?

LOVE hearing from you guys!

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT! We’re having a Facebook launch party tomorrow for The Devil’s Dance. We will have kittens and unicorns and magic powers as prizes. A raffle for immortality! Okay, yeah (disclaimer) writers LIE. We will however be giving away all kinds of cool prizes and you get to hang out with me so HELLOOOO? FUN INCARNATE!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but I am still working out the kinks. Also your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Talk to me!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

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

NEW CLASSES!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer. Cait Reynolds was my answer. She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

OMG, Like How to Write Fleek YA July 7th $40 with Cait Reynolds

How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here) July 14th $40 w/ Cait Reynolds

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction 

July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS May 25th $45

Plotting for Dummies July 13th $35 ($250 for GOLD)

Blogging for Authors June 29th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 7th $35

OTHER Classes with Cait Reynolds

Research for Historical Romance Writing – Or, How NOT to Lose Six Hours on Pinterest July 8th $35 for Basic/ $75 for GOLD / $125 for PLATINUM

Shift Your Shifter Romance into High Gear June 30th $35 Basic/ $75 GOLD/ $125 PLATINUM

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook June 24th $40