Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: tips for writing

One of the major issues with first-time novels is that the young writer fails to understand what a novel really is. All great stories are about one thing and one thing only—PROBLEMS. More specifically? Every good story has one core problem in need of being resolved. Granted, there will be many other problems along the way, but they are the setbacks and are all related to solving the core problem.

The trouble is that many of us got our “author training” in school, which really is no training at all. That purple prose that scored us an A on our college short story won’t get us far in the world of commercial storytelling. Additionally, pretty prose might be fine for keeping a five page or ten page short story interesting, but it falls apart under a body as weighty as a novel.

The new writer often senses this, so will work in navel-gazing and inner demons and then random bits of stuff going wrong and, instead of a well-structured story where tension and drama flow organically? We end up with melodrama.

Our “novel” then devolves into Days of Our Lives where nothing is really happening. Conflict is manufactured instead of inherent. “Bad stuff” is happening because the writer needs it to, not because “bad stuff” was inevitable.

How do we fix this?

Antagonists

The antagonist is a highly confusing topic. Hell, it confused me for years which is why I came up with my own term, which we will discuss today. Remember we said every story must have a core story problem?

That core story problem is created by the antagonist.

Conflict is the core ingredient to fiction, even literary fiction. Conflict in any novel can have many faces and often you will hear this referred to as the antagonist. The antagonist is absolutely essential for fiction. He/she/it is the engine of your story. No engine, and no forward momentum.

Like cars, plots need momentum or they are dead. The antagonist provides the energy to move the story forward. Yet, the antagonist has many, many faces and that is what trips up most new writers.

Think of your antagonist like ice cream–infinite colors, flavors, and complexities. The antagonist is not always evil. Yes villains are always antagonists but antagonists are not always villains.

Villains are only a flavor of antagonist, much like chocolate is only one flavor of ice cream. And, even in chocolate, there are still limitless varieties. Guess what? Same with villains. We’ll talk about them later.

This series is to explore the many facets of the most important element in fiction. Today, we are going to begin with what I call the BBT–or Big Boss Troublemaker. Why? Because the term antagonist confused the hell out of me for years, so I simplified things.

No BBT and you have no story. The BBT is not always bad or evil. The BBT simply creates the core story problem in need of being resolved.

Your opposition is the most important ingredient for a great story readers will love.

The Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever or whatever causes the protagonist’s world to turn upside down. The BBT creates the core story problem. The BBT is also who or what must be present at the Big Boss Battle (Act Three).

The lead up to the show-down with the BBT is responsible for creating our story tension. Will the protagonist evolve and triumph, or will he fail?

In commercial fiction, it is generally easier to spot the BBT.

No Sauron and no need for the Hobbits to leave the Shire.

No Darth Vader, no reason for Luke to leave Tatooine.

No Buffalo Bill, and Agent Starling is left doing paperwork.

This might seem simple enough, but time after time I get new manuscripts where there is no core story because there is no BBT. I get fantasy or science fiction manuscripts with a lot of fancy world-building and magic and bad stuff happening, but no core party responsible for a singular problem….so it all just fizzles.

Even in more literary works there is also a BBT and that BBT must have a face despite all we heard about man versus man, man versus religion, man versus nature, man versus society, etc. in school.

When the BBT is not corporeal? This is when things get tricky. Humans don’t do so great with existentialism, which is why we then need the proxy.

Let’s explore these.

Man Against Society

Whatever larger idea your protagonist is battling, that idea will need a manifestation. For instance, in The Hunger Games trilogy, “the system” is represented by Snow. The story is not over until Snow is defeated and his defeat marks the system’s defeat.

In The Help, the BBT is racism, but it is manifested in the white socialites who mistreat the maids (I.e. Hilly Holbrook). “Racism” is defeated when the socialites are defeated.

Man Against Nature

Some new writers take this as man fighting bad weather, but really? Who wants to read about bad weather for 300 pages? Often these stories are not about the weather at all, but rather what the weather reveals in people.

For instance, In The Perfect Storm, was the storm really the BBT? Or was it merely the impetus that brought forth the real BBT…pride which was manifested in the captain, Billy Tyne?

The fishermen are suffering. They are on the verge of losing homes and marriages because of their dire economic situation. The captain decides to do one final fishing voyage even though it is the most dangerous time of the year. When the fisherman go out, they land the catch of a lifetime, but the refrigeration system breaks.

They are faced with a choice. Let the fish rot and then it was all for nothing. Or they can risk everything and take on the perfect storm (pride).

In my POV, the story is never man against nature, it is man against himself and nature is simply the catalyst.

Man Against Himself

No one wants to read a book of nonstop navel gazing. Thus if your character’s worst enemy is himself/herself? You need a proxy. The BBT will represent the particular aspect you are seeking to destroy and then the BBT will have a face.

For instance, in the movie 28 Days, the BBT is alcoholism, but it is represented in the proxy Jasper, the hard-partying boyfriend who fuels and normalizes Gwen’s addiction.

Gwen is her own worst enemy. She must defeat her own alcoholism. But this will be manifested when she can finally see herself as an addict and walk away from the life of addiction (where Jasper is its representative).

We could go on forever on this topic, but we won’t. Just pay attention to your favorite stories and see if you can pinpoint the BBT and then notice how it is always the protagonist-turned-hero who will face off with him/her/it at the end.

Some Pretty Hard and Fast BBT Rules—Break these Rules at Your Own Risk

Rule #1—BBT (or a proxy of the BBT)  MUST be introduced in Act I. No leading us on for 50 pages before we get an introduction. BBT is responsible for Inciting Incident.

Rule #2—In ROMANCE, the love interest cannot be the BBT. Romance has rules and this is a big one. Now, in romance, the love interest will take on the role of antagonist in scenes, but they cannot be the BBT. Why? Because the BBT must be defeated in the Big Boss Battle, and utter defeat isn’t exactly grounds for a lasting relationship. Romance is all about the HEA (happily ever after)

Feel free to break this rule, but I will warn you that when the BBT is the love interest, it is no longer a romance. It becomes Women’s Fiction 😉 .

Rule #3–BBT MUST be defeated in your book. Period.

There has to be a Big Boss Battle in your story or the story problem is not fully resolved. A lot of new writers are “writing a series.” And, oh, but Such-and-Such dies in book 12 of my series. Nope. Sorry. Try again.

There are two types of series. One type is connected only because of the protagonist. Detective books for instance (I.e. Harry Bosch books). In these it is pretty easy to see that the BBT must be defeated in each book.

The second type of series is connected through a singular story, but the thing is, each book will have a mini-BBT that marks the culmination of that part of the story. So I get it, your “Sauron” is not defeated in Book One, but that doesn’t absolve you of the Big Boss Battle for that book.

(Book I) BBT–> (Book II) BIGGER BBT–> (Book III) EVEN BIGGER BBT—> (Book IV) HOLY MOLY! AN EVEN BIGGER BBT!!!!

In the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, each movie had it’s own BBT. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the movie wasn’t over until the showdown against the Uruk-Hai who is actually a minion of Saruman (The Two Towers) who is a minion of the Big Guy, himself…Sauron (defeated in The Return of the King). Each movie has a Big Boss Battle against that movie’s BBT. If we panned back, each movie would make up one Act of a larger 3 Act whole.

Okay, well that’s enough for today. Need to stop before your brains all explode and then you have to clean up your keyboard. The antagonist is tough, and hopefully this series will break its complex nature down in to bite-size, manageable pieces.

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Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Pedro Travassos
Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Pedro Travassos

Today we have a special treat from Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing. He’s going to give us some ways to tackle one of the biggest problems plaguing writers—the inability to finish what we start.

*gets popcorn*

Take it away, John!

***

Do you live in a world of unfinished stories? Across the year, you’ve jotted scraps here and there, stuck an opening scene beneath a flowerpot, a closing line in a shopping list and a great cameo incident… well, you’ve forgotten where it is now but it was awesome.

Join the Club of Interrupted Scribes

Image via Drew Coffman courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons
Image via Drew Coffman courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

You’re not alone.

We all know what happened when Coleridge was interrupted, when finishing Kubla Khan, by ‘a person from Porlock’. All that remains of his epic is an unfinished scrap.

More fragments, abandoned by great authors, have been found – centuries later – in laundry baskets, croquet boxes and golf bags than you’d believe. Or so Prof. K. K. Ruthven tells us in Faking Literature (2001). Maybe Shakespeare’s lost play Cardenio will one day be discovered beneath Donald Trump’s hair?

Improbable, yes. But so is Donald Trump.

Lost bits, found by chance, are the history of literature.

Joyce’s Ulysses consists merely of out-takes from other people’s work that he salvaged from the jakes of Dublin pubs. (Read Ulysses and see if you don’t agree.)

Seriously, have you written a dozen fine stories – almost ready to go – that you haven’t quite finished?

Once, that was my fate too. Bits lay everywhere, forlorn. My name was not Homer so I couldn’t rely on future savants piecing them together to create The Iliad.

Do you share my pain? If so, let me share with you my remedy. In fact, I have seven remedies.

Yeoman’s Seven Tested Ways To Get A Story Finished

ONE—Create your own scene hangers.

Image courtesy of Ed Dunens via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Ed Dunens via Flickr Creative Commons

You know what scene hangers are – and page hangers, chapter hangers and book hangers. (They’re the last scenes in a novel written to cue a sequel.) Hangers are artful lines, scattered here and there, that tease the reader to read on.

But why waste those magic words upon the reader? Write them for yourself.

Take a notepad with several blank pages. Scribble, at the bottom of each page:

‘Little did I know that…’

‘But her wish was not to be granted,’

‘There was a shadow behind the curtain. And it moved.’

‘What would happen now? Tomorrow, he knew, was not going to be an easy day.’

And so on.

Don’t you just want to finish that story? Now it’s easy. Go back and fill in the spaces. Delete those clichéd lines. And, lo, you have a story.

TWO—Devise your own Scrivener program.

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 9.55.59 AM

What’s Scrivener?

If you have to ask, you’re new to story telling. It’s a wondrous program that puts everything you need to complete a story in one convenient place on your computer screen.

Imagine a corkboard on your wall. In one corner, you’ve pinned character descriptions. In another, scene settings. Somewhere else you’ve stuck pictures, plot outlines, dramatic incidents, crumbs of dialogue… Plus links to web resources (research), videos and even music.

Some people do like to play music while they write, I’m told. Maybe Mahler for prose poetry. Rap for crime/suspense. It inspires terse. Jerky. Sentence fragments.

Now imagine that corkboard on your computer. Here’s the link to Scrivener (and, no, I don’t get a commission). Once learnt, it’s wonderful.

Problem is, Scrivener takes time to learn. Its Help manual is too technical for newbies and its built-in word processing program is, compared to Word, primitive.

Solution? Build your own Scrivener using the ‘sticky notes’ utility that may be on your computer right now.

My Windows 8 program lets me put up to 35 sticky notes on my desktop in a choice of six colours. I’ve assigned Green for settings, Pink for characters, Yellow for plot outlines, Blue for web links, and so forth. I can move them around the screen as I wish, to compile a story.

Each of my sticky notes will hold up to 6000 words. Potentially, that’s three whole novels in one place.

Graphics? You can’t put those in sticky notes. (At least, I can’t.) So do a montage of the pictures you need – say, of your key characters and scene settings – and make that montage your screen wallpaper. Every time you turn on the computer, you’ll be hurled into your novel – graphically.

Who needs Scrivener?

THREE—Try the ‘bricolage’ technique.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Linda Eng
Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Linda Eng

‘Bricolage’ means a jumble of unrelated things, as in a patchwork quilt. Well, that’s what we’ve got already, haven’t we? Scraps of stories. So how can bricolage help us finish those stories?

Stop scribbling on paper. (Those little bits get lost.) Start writing on file cards.

Why? Cards are durable. You can keep them in your handbag or back pocket, ready to hand for whenever an idea strikes you. As soon as they bulge out of your pocket, toss them on the carpet and play solitaire.

You’ll see a plot take shape before your eyes. All you need do now is write other cards to fill in the gaps.

Just be sure to collate your card pack in the desired order – and hide the pack – before your spouse or other tidy person bustles in to sweep the carpet.

BTW: This idea works. I wrote one of my novels that way. But I had to lock my study door lest my wife fuss in with a broom.

FOUR—Write the END first.

Original Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anurag Agnihotri
Original Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anurag Agnihotri

 This is a variation on the ‘scene hanger’ gambit.

Your closing and opening scenes should be the most powerful in your story, right? The closure sends your reader away happy, intent on buying your next book. The opener gets them, agreably, into the story itself.

So devise a great closing line. Expand it into a paragraph, then a scene. Then write the first paragraph of the story so that, in some way, it reflects the last one.

Instantly, you have a ‘book end’ effect. The story acquires an inner sense of unity. It’s a perceived ‘whole’, synthetic or not.

Take a look at the short stories you admire most. I wager, most of them will echo – in some way – elements of their closing theme in the first paragraph.

Those elements are ‘book ends’.

It’s a snap to finish a story when you know, at the very start, where it’s heading to and coming from.

FIVE—Dictate your story.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.
Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

If you’re like me, you pen your first draft on file cards then type it laboriously into Word. That doubles your workload. Why not dictate your draft, from notes, straight into a voice recognition system? Then tidy it up?

You can lie back in your favourite chair with a glass of elderflower lemonade and bark to your willing slave: “Begin!”

I confess I’ve never mastered voice recognition. But I do know that a member of my story coaching program, Writers’ Village Academy, uses Dragon to create her stories. And very good they are.

I also know that Erle Stanley Gardner put out 66,000 words a week, and kept several secretaries on the go, by using a Dictaphone. And the prolific UK author Barbara Cartland would ‘write’ as many as five novels simultaneously by lying in her bath and dictating to her secretary. A willing slave.

Well, we can always dream…

SIX—Use a software program.

"Assistant" not included.
“Assistant” not included.

You’ll find a wealth of clever software programs on the web, many of them free, that will help you organize your work, brainstorm or mind-map. Making every component of a story visual is one step towards finishing the story.

It’s no longer an idea in your head. It’s an object. You can play games with it.

You’ll find a lot of useful programs for writers here. (But please do come back.)

The Top 55 Apps for Writers in 2016

At a pinch, you could even use Excel. Or, if you like a challenge, the internal hyperlink utility in Word. For example, you can write ‘Jim goes to the farm‘ then hyperlink ‘Jim’ and ‘farm’ to their character and setting descriptions elsewhere in the same file (or, if you really like a challenge, on the web).

The problem is, I’ve found, the more you play with software the more you play. And the darn story never does get done.

Keep it simple.

SEVEN—Don’t finish the story at all.

Screen Shot 2013-03-20 at 9.14.12 AM

You wrote those scraps for a reason. Each had its own merits. Could any one of them yield you a flash fiction story if you tidied it up, added a start and finish, and wove in a structure?

Some of the best flash fiction stories have grown out of a simple punchline, anecdote or dialogue snippet.

Just remember the Golden Rule: even a flash fiction story needs structure.

You can read The Ultimate Guide to Writing Very Short Stories here. (But please come back.)

So you’re still haunted by bits of stories (or a bit of a story) floating around your head or home? No problem. Here is your Bonus Tip #8:

Don’t even bother to write them down.

One sign of born story tellers, like us, is that we live in our minds. We tell stories for ourselves. It’s not imperative that anybody else overhears our thoughts, or even buys our stories. If we create them for our own fun alone there’s no compulsion to finish them. Is there?

Worth a thought…

Well, I had intended to write a compelling last line for this post, to finish it conclusively, but on reflection there’s no point. I’ve had my fun.

What about you?

How do you finish the work you’ve started? What tips can you share with other writers? Share them here. And have fun!

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 9.34.50 AM

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is a top-rated Amazon novelist. He judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed in his free 14-part course at Writers’ Village.

Other helpful links:

Dragon

Scrivener

The Top 55 Apps for Writers in 2016

The Ultimate Guide to Writing Very Short Stories

Thank you, John for taking the time to help us out! Remember that comments for guests count double in my monthly contest so tell us about your unfinished bits of genius. Did you ever find a way to bring them to fruition? How did you do it? Did you use one of John’s suggested techniques or something else? Did you find an AH-HA moment today?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, 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.

Upcoming Classes!

Back by popular demand! Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Beyond craft and to the business of our business?

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

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