Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: writing great fiction

Lately we’ve been talking a lot about what differentiates the decent stories from the ones that gut hook us and don’t let go. In my opinion the truly superlative stories stand out in one way. We are not only entertained…we are changed. We aren’t the same person we were when we flipped open to page one and decided to give the story a go.

By the end, through characters, trials, challenges, heartbreak, ruin and victory we are forever a different person. The story generates a chemical change, rendering us a cake that can’t be unbaked.

Great stories (and the authors who pen them) serve us fresh insight into ourselves and others, a different perspective on the world around us. They might reveal a darkness we never noticed or were to afraid to face or offer hope we didn’t know we could have.

Most vital of all, these stories provide perspective we could gain no other way.

Fiction is the only way we can step into the shoes of a broken, pathetic alcoholic (Girl on a Train), an aging heavy metal rock star burdened by false guilt who never truly escaped the sadistic father who turned his childhood into a hell (Heart-Shaped Box).

We can know what it is to feel like life is no longer worth living once we’ve outlived our usefulness even if we are young (A Man Called Ove). We can experience the gross injustice and humiliation of being a black maid in the American South during the 60s (The Help) no matter what color our skin.

Regardless of race, faith, gender, or background, stories allow us into a perspective to experience life, to encounter our own wounds (wounds common across all of humanity) from a different vantage point. We come to appreciate how seeing our pain worked out through another gives us the psychic distance necessary for us recognize then heal the pain that in real life we can’t yet touch…without screaming.

The Battle of Logic & Emotion

I find it interesting that scientists really don’t have a definitive reason WHY we dream. Is is the brain defragging? The subconscious mind revealing what we can’t see when we’re awake because the left brain rushes in with a logical explanation?

When left brain gets a vote, it’s all too easy to miss the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

He wasn’t being mean. It was a joke. He’s right. I don’t have a very good sense of humor.

But fiction? Fiction is emotion. Fiction is primal and hooked directly into the right brain. Dreams are not ruled by logic, but they are extremely limited in what they can do once we’re up and have had our coffee. But, there’s another way…STORY.

Yet how do so many of us tackle our demons?

If you’re like me, you read self-help books about self-esteem, boundaries, forgiveness and healing and while these books can offer a lot of great information, (in my POV) they’re talking to the wrong side of the brain.

We can read all the self-help books about forgiveness, but what happens when we come face to face with our betrayers? When we have to be in the same room with flesh-and-blood villains who have zero remorse over the ruin left in the wake of their actions? The liars, pillagers, and plunderers we once supported, loved and trusted…who knifed us in the back and never shed a tear after leaving us like this.

I can tell you what happens when we face these folks.

We’re calm and composed and easily recall the breathing exercises, meditation, and self-affirmations spoken into a mirror. We stare into our betrayer’s face knowing we’re a better person who’s done a lot of therapy and exercises. We even composed long letters of how this person hurt us, burned the letters and let the embers fly away on zephyrs delivering our pain into the sky and to the unicorns.

And everything is okay because we know hurting people hurt people….and….

%$#& THAT $#!%!

Reptile brain rises up like a hidden viper threatening to sink its fangs into left brain’s soft gray matter if is says one frigging reasonable word.

While left brain is the calm, enlightened negotiator, reptile brain is Old Testament and Old School and believes an eye for an eye. Right brain is raw emotion and the one who’s closest to the reptile (brain) inside all of us.

What happens next in such a confrontation can be placed anywhere on a large continuum from getting in a shouting match spewing venomous words to ending up on an episode of Dateline.

Right brain is creative, thus good at hiding bodies.

Why Fiction?

Yes, self-help books and therapy, etc. have a place, but I don’t think they’re nearly as well-suited for healing wounds as story is. Why is that?

Because we cannot heal emotional wounds with logical poultices.

It’s like trying to halt a runaway MRSA infection with anti-depressants. Infection is virus and it needs something anti-viral, equipped to surround and dismantle the invasion.

Same thing goes for psychic wounds.

The wounds created BY emotion (betrayal, abandonment, exploitation, abuse) can only be healed WITH emotion. Inner demons and wounds are by nature emotional, thus in the realm of the right brain (and limbic brain). This means the right brain is far better suited (perhaps even DESIGNED) to stop the “infection” and heal the damage.

When we read fiction and vicariously experience our hurts, failures, disappointments, betrayals through another set of eyes, it’s a way of facing our villains in life. We get a place to feel these emotions, but better still? Story shows us it is possible to come through the fire not only healed, but stronger and better.

By reading all kinds of stories with characters battling a vast variety of problems, we can experience far greater empathy, compassion, understanding and forgiveness. It’s also far more effective than coldly analyzing our baggage on a flow chart.

Mending the Broken 

For me, my greatest AH-HA moments have come from fiction. Stories have allowed me another way of looking at myself and my pain.

The most recent example of this came from Heart-Shaped Box. Sure it’s a horror, the story of a vengeful ghost hot on the tail of an aging rock star. Yet, oddly enough, this story changed my perception of myself more than a stack of self-help books and years of well-meaning therapists ever did.

Fifty-four-year-old rock star (Judas Coin) is on the run from a vengeful spirit with his goth girlfriend (Georgia) who’s half his age. I could relate to Georgia, though our backstory is different.

She believes she’s damaged goods, worth nothing and grateful for the crumbs that fall from the table. She’s had a hard life filled with exploitation, pain, failure and shame and, as a result, chooses men she knows will hurt her because suffering is what she deserves.

The Lightning Strike

Judas and Georgia have a conversation at a Denny’s during a brief reprieve from the ghost who’s hunting them and end up on the topic of kids. She says she’s never had kids because she’s too afraid they’ll find out about her. Judas asks what exactly her kids would find out. This next bit is some of the most powerful dialogue I’ve ever read.

Georgia: “That I dropped out of high school. That when I was thirteen I let a guy turn me into a prostitute. The only job I was ever good at involved taking my clothes off to Mötley Crüe for a room full of drunks. I tried to kill myself. I been arrested three times. I stole money from my grandma and made her cry. I didn’t brush my teeth for about two years. Am I missing anything?”

Judas: “So this is what your kid would find out: No matter what bad thing happens to me, I can call my mother, because she’s been through it all. No matter what shi##y thing happens to me, I can survive it because my mom’s been through worse, and she made it.”  ~ Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (page 171).

I remember this part of the novel hitting me like a bolt from the sky and I burst out crying, the moment of catharsis so raw and visceral. I once was Georgia (maybe a part always will be). Because of my life experiences, I too believed I was damaged goods.

Because I empathized with Georgia (similar demons) I could vicariously experience her breakthrough, that WOW moment when Judas completely reframes what she’s just said. She isn’t “damaged goods” at all. Rather, she’s like furniture that’s been battered and scratched that collectors pay big bucks for because it’s “distressed” and thus more interesting and far more valuable because of its damage and scars.

I’m sure a zillion well-meaning friends or shrinks told me the same thing. Probably read similar notions off faded Post-Its on the bathroom mirror, so why didn’t the happy, happy mantras stick? Why didn’t these affirmations melt me, undo me and remake me?

It’s because that left-brain approach is too sterile, and it doesn’t shove us face first into what we need to face. Fiction, on the other hand is ugly and dirty and raw. It provides intimacy and slams that psychic distance tight (while we still are technically “safe”).

Real fiction, the good stuff, reveals that the worthless “damaged goods” in truth, are valuable and maybe even priceless. The story shows the protagonist his or her worldview, their perception of themselves is faulty and through the crucible remolds the protagonist into what we call a hero. This is why I challenge all of you to be fearless in your stories, because if you can be fearless? So can your readers and they will love you for it.

What are your thoughts? I like good self-help books and therapy is important and often vital. But fiction really has a way of grabbing me by the scruff and shaking me. Have you ever read a book that completely revealed something about your own wounds? That helped you? Gave you insight? Helped you heal?

I believe all genres have the ability to give us tremendous healing and hope y’all will check out my Speculative Fiction Class where we are going to bore into the grit and heart of the dark stuff.

I love hearing from you!

For the month of AUGUST, 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).

July’s winner will be listed next week.

****And MAKE SURE to check out the NEW CLASSES classes below (including writing layered characters and strong females) and sign up!

Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!

Blurb - Cait Reynolds
BLURB BOSS: Writing Blurbs that SELL BOOKS. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 10, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
BRAND BOSS! When Your Name Alone Can Sell. $45 USD. Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
PLOT BOSS: Writing novels readers want to buy! $40 USD. Thurs., Nov. 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Bad Boys. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

dad

Okay, yesterday I shared the tragic story of my father’s passing to give to an idea of what it means to “Write what you ‘know'” and today we’ll continue, but it’ll be a bit different. We’re going to talk about character change.

My dad was a HOOT. Both of us were always like kids. One time we both bought Christmas gifts for each other. Any year the anticipation would have KILLED us and we would have totally spilled the beans early, but this time we waited until Christmas morning to “unveil the PERFECT gift”—only to realize we both bought each other the same things; a Klingon dictionary and a tape to teach you how to speak Klingon.

My dad was always a little unconventional. Other little girls grew up wanting to be models or ballerinas. I wanted to grow up to be a ballerina-Navy SEAL. My father (former Navy Intelligence) used to tote me from ballet lessons to Karate (back in the days when girls were NOT in Karate), and I was one of the first girls to fight competitively (when it was ALL boys).

Dad taught me to shoot when I was eight and how to sharpen knives properly by the time I was ten. He bought me an SAS Survival guide for my birthday in high school. To train me to be better with my feet (a tad too much ballet and not enough power) he hung a canvas sea bag for me to practice.

I recall when I made a certain belt, I had to learn how to use a weapon and I chose the long staff since it was the most practical (and one of the few not illegal, LOL).

So Dad is in the yard training me for my test with the long-staff. He says, “Okay, on the count of three…” then whacks the holy $%#@%^&*&%$# out of my shins. As I am curled on the ground in pain, he hovers over me, grinning and says, “Fights in the real world don’t give you a count of three.”

Ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

In later years I went to a ritzy private college (was one of the few poor kids allowed in under the fence) and while other girls were in sororities, I was teaching Ju-Jitsu. In fact, I was one of the first instructors of Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, commonly known as Gracie Ground-Fighting. Doesn’t matter how big you are. Get a fight on the ground and know what you’re doing and the other dude is toast.

My Dad gave me an extreme sense of sticking up for others. I remember one day I was in between teaching classes and our dojo was located in front of a major traffic light. I’d taken off my belt to rest and stepped outside when I noticed this guy beating the holy hell out of his petite girlfriend in his truck. Without thinking (and barefoot) I go flying into the road and dare the guy to hit ME.

“Come on! You like hitting little girls? Hit me. I’ll even give you the first swing.” I probably would have dragged the guy out of his truck but the light turned green and the coward took off.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.

Since teaching Ju-Jitsu didn’t pay the best, I also worked selling newspaper subscriptions and often was out in apartment complexes after dark (gets dark early in winter). I had some drunk try to mug me for my briefcase, which made no sense because the only things in there were paperwork and my expensive retainer, which was useless for pawning.

*rolls eyes*

He came up behind me in an arm-bar choke hold, but what he didn’t know is there is a nerve in the forearm, that if you crank down on it? Is VERY painful and will make most people release. I then beat the bejeezus out of him with the very briefcase he was trying to steal.

And y’all thought I was so sweet and delicate :D.

I mountain-biked before it was cool. I rock-climbed, went bouldering, jumped out of planes, and ran rapids. To my knowledge, I was the 46th person in the state of Texas to have a Concealed Handgun License. I only got one because I went camping almost every weekend. I lived life like a Mountain Dew commercial, largely because of my dad. I wonder to this day if he realized he had cancer and was trying to teach me to make the most of every moment.

But back to the bigger story…

I believe abusive people are often attracted to the strong to see if they can dominate them and break them. By the time of my father’s passing, my Evil Ex had changed me into a person I didn’t recognize. Through years of mental abuse, I no longer had an opinion or chose my own clothes. I didn’t visit family or friends because it wasn’t worth the verbal beating. I no longer camped or rode trails on my mountain bike because he “didn’t like outdoors stuff.”

I literally lived with the guy from Sleeping with the Enemy. He had labels in the pantry and all cans had to be facing forward and behind the “proper” label. He’d insist I vacuum all the floors then use a carpet rake to make all the lines go the same direction. He loved to play racquetball, namely so he could spend an hour laughing as he used me as target practice (then tell me I had no sense of humor, that he was just “playing”).

Never mind all the bruises.

Trust me when I say Evil-Ex was NOT this way before I accepted the marriage proposal. He was an ideal boyfriend and seemed he’d be an ideal husband. My family loved him (Dad hated him).

When it comes to abuse, it’s a lot like the story of the frog. Toss a frog in boiling water and it will jump out. Yet, set the sucker in cool water and turn up the heat slowly? The frog will boil to death without realizing it’s in danger.

So after Dad passed away, something of my former self ignited. Within a couple months, I began to ignore Evil-Ex’s antics. No insult worked. I wore what I wanted and grew my hair long. I even bought a gorgeous citrine ring (because Dad’s favorite color was yellow). When Evil-Ex had nasty comments about the ring, I replied, “You don’t have to like it. You aren’t wearing it.”

All along I was funneling money and plotting my escape and Evil-Ex began to notice the verbal assaults were being ignored. About a month before I left for good, he was yelling at me over something and must have noticed it was no longer having an impact.

He raised his hand to hit me and I replied in a low voice, “Go ahead. Hit me. But you better pray to God you knock me out long enough to start a new life somewhere else. I know a thousand ways to kill you and get away with it.”

I didn’t, but must have been very convincing.

I left and never looked back, but this “story of my life” reveals something about character arc. Yes, Kristen in the beginning was somewhat of a bad@$$, but obviously something was lacking. I grew up very poor, so when a wealthy man from high society showed interest, I ignored the warning signs. Deep down, I believed he was better than me…and that was the opening. I had to be tested by fire to grow into a person who believed in herself, who accepted she wasn’t “girlie” and that was okay.

This is my BOOM-STICK!
This is my BOOM-STICK!

I had to learn that money was meaningless. Yes, I lived in a big house and rode around in a Mercedes and took lavish trips, but I was miserable and hurting and NO MONEY, NO RITZY LIFE was worth the price. I had to become a person who was willing to live in poverty if it meant being happy. I had to learn what “security” really meant and I can tell you from experience it ain’t always a bank account.

Now, I can bemoan the experience, but it was VERY valuable. Not only did I grow as a person, but this time prepared me to become a writer. When Dad died, he never realized his dream. I had the same dream and was willing to do anything to fulfill it. There were many years I lived on Ramen and saltines and worried that the lights might get turned off. I wore clothes I rescued from Dumpsters. Nothing would stop me from becoming a writer.

So when you hear “Write what you know” harvest those emotions, but also pay attention to your personal journeys. What changed? What was missing initially that the “journey” provided. I am much the same person I was before Evil-Ex, but that critical flaw is now gone (probably replaced with New & IMPROVED ones, LOL).

What about your journey? Have you been through something difficult and when you look back, you SEE how you changed? And changed for the better? I want to hear YOUR stories!

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

Announcements: I LIED. I will announce September’s contest winner TOMORROW. Yes, Kristen IS human. Forgot today was Dad’s birthday and not altogether “there.” Sorry. Great ploy to get y’all back :D.

Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde."
Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde.”

To give characters depth, we have to be people-watchers. Study people. Know thyself. I strongly recommend reading books on psychology as part of research. For instance, I read a lot of FBI books on profiling.

As writers, characters need some amount of consistency without being predictable. If there is some deviation from the profile, there must be a good reason WHY, other than we need a character to act a certain way to move our story forward.

For instance, the shy librarian who rescues spiders cannot suddenly gouge out the eyes of a guy mugging her unless we can offer a reasonable explanation for this deviation from archetype. I.e. She could have been raped and left for dead as a teenager. Yes, she remained shy and soft-spoken and true to her character…until circumstances brought out that wounded part who was capable of going for the eyes.

Today I will focus mainly on the protagonist, but you simply reverse this for the antagonist.

Every Strength has a Weakness

One key factor we must appreciate is that every strength has a flaw. A loyal person is noble, but they are also often naive. A strong leader gets the job done, but often is a control-freak who fails to rely on a team and sucks at delegating. A tender-hearted person is kind, loving, but often used.

Part of creating conflict is to place the character in situations where the strength becomes a fatal flaw. The character’s arc is to learn to address this flaw and change.

In my current novel, the character is bubbly, likable and loyal. She is also naive and that is why she’s initially taken advantage of and used to take the fall for a massive Enron-like scheme.

Often, the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. What the character believes about her world and those around her evaporates. The plot problem serves to bring the protagonist back into balance, but as a better, New and Improved version.

We all want homeostasis. We want our old life back, but often that old life wasn’t good for us. THIS is what your plot will reveal to your protagonist.

In Legally Blonde Elle Woods must learn to see people for who they really are. She is naive, but underestimated (she even underestimates herself). People assume she is a dumb Pollyanna, but they miscalculate that Elle will be tested by fire and change. They assume, wrongly, that being bubbly and sweet=stupid.

THAT is the flaw that brings the victory. Remember, the antagonist who took advantage of the initial weakness is counting on the character failing to learn and grow, and this will be their ultimate undoing.

Gracie Hart "Miss Congeniality"
Gracie Hart “Miss Congeniality”

In Miss Congeniality, undercover Gracie Hart is a tough hard-@$$ who is such a control freak she cannot rely on her (very capable) team. This costs them a major bust at the beginning of the movie and lands her in her version of hell–going undercover as the very type of woman she despises.

Gracie suffers personal extinction. She cannot be the belching woman in comfortable shoes who arm-wrestles for who’s going to buy the next round of beers.

She has to face her scary place—her femininity and being vulnerable. She also has to learn to rely on others for help and it is the story problem—being thrust into a world of girly-girls—that makes her evolve as a human being. The very women she initially despised ironically hold the keys to her personal growth and thus her ultimate victory.

She loses nothing of the take-charge bad@$$ that makes her who she is, but it’s a far better version…in heels. Again, the opposition underestimates Gracie’s ability to face her demons and change.

Agent Gracie Hart, NEW AND IMPROVED
Agent Gracie Hart, NEW AND IMPROVED

In Lord of the Rings the Hobbits are naive, sheltered and childlike. We see this early on when Merry and Pippin break in to hijack some of Gandalf’s fireworks. The discovery of the Ring of Power is what creates the personal extinction—getting out into the scary world full of bad stuff that lies beyond the Shire.

There is almost an unspoken societal rule. Hobbits don’t LEAVE the Shire. They stay in Happy Hobbit Land and believe the bad will stay away.

Problem is, in order to destroy the Ring of Power, the Hobbits have to grow up. They can’t light fires for a midnight snack when dark undead kings are after their heads. The very characteristics that make them the most immune to the influence of the Ring—their good hearts, their childlike ways, their innocence—must be tempered and eventually sacrificed for the good of all.

My favorite scene (and I cry every time) is at the end of Return of the King. The same Hobbits from the beginning are back in having a pint, but rather than dancing and singing like all the other Hobbits, they huddle at a table and no longer speak. They left The Shire as boys and have returned war-weary men who gave up their innocence so the world would be saved.

Innocence lost to save the world.
Innocence lost to save the world.

It is Sauron’s gross underestimation of the Hobbits that is is ultimate undoing. He fails to ever even see them as a viable threat. Yet, had the Hobbits NOT been able to rise above their natures, they would have all died in Book (Movie ) ONE. It’s their ability to grow up and lose their innocence that saves the world.

Thus, when looking at your characters, look to what their best qualities are…then what are the dark sides of those traits? The inciting incident obliterates what the person believes about who they are.

What is the other side of the personality trait? How can you harness this to put your protagonist into tough spots that goes against their nature and forces change? Who can you pair that character with to create the most friction?

In Miss Congeniality she is no longer in charge and gets waxed, tweezed and forced to walk in heels. She’s shoved out of her comfort zone and she resists with all she has because she wants things to go back to the way they were. BUT, if the protagonist regresses, the story problem will not be solved. Bad guys win.

TOO PERFECT CHARACTERS ARE BORING.

Always remember that bad decisions are the beating heart of great fiction.

What are your thoughts? I try to use a blend of movies and books because it’s easier for more people to get the references, but what are your favorite instances of character arc? What do you struggle with?

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

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

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

Screen Shot 2013-04-15 at 9.29.21 AM
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, contributed by Ano Lobb.

I think it’s fair to say that writing a novel is no easy task. There is a lot to balance at the same time—narrative, setting, dialogue, POV, plot points, turning points, scenes, sequels, character arc, etc. It can be very challenging for even the best of us. Yet, I believe the hardest part of writing fiction is that, for most of us who aren’t crazy, conflict is something we avoid at all costs during our daily lives.

In fiction? We must go for the guts.

Today, I’d like to offer you a simple way to make your stories and characters three-dimensional and grab hold of great fiction’s throbbing heart. I learned this from the fabulous Les Edgerton who cornered me with this same question:

What is your character’s true story problem?

I gave Les a rundown of my carefully researched mystery thriller and he pressed again.

That’s surface, Kristen. What is the real story problem?

Fortunately, I was able to answer the question. Aside from the embezzlement, fraud, gun-running and drug-dealing, my character’s problem is she longs to be accepted, yet doesn’t fit in anywhere.

She began as small town trailer trash and ran away from home to go to college and pursue a better life. She naively assumed a fancy college degree would be her keys to acceptance, her ticket to become part of the high-class society she’d always envied. Yet, once she “made it” she found herself worse off than before. No matter how hard she worked, she was still, in the eyes of high society, gold-digging trailer trash who didn’t know her place.

In one world (home) she’s regarded as an uppity b!#$@ too good to be blue-collar working class. Yet, once part of “society” her problem was just as bad. The rich assume she must have slept her way into her high-paying job and that her sole goal is to marry money. She soon finds she’s regarded with equal disdain.

The story problem (the mystery) is only there to answer my protagonist’s deep, driving personal questions: Where do I fit in? Why do I need to fit in? Who am I?

The plot problem—a major embezzlement (Enron-style) leaves her penniless and blackballed and she has to go home to the trailer park she thought she’d left for good. This is where the story begins.

Now she is forced back into the lion’s den of her soul. Now she is torn between worlds. To solve the mystery and find the missing money (and a murderer killing to keep the secret) she must take on the wealthy and powerful. But in order to succeed, she must rely on a crazy-dysfunctional family who resents her and feels betrayed and judged.

Eventually, the plot will force her to face her greatest weakness—the need to be accepted—and she will have to make the tough choices.

If we look to all the great stories, the questions are bigger than the story. Minority Report has all kinds of cool technology, but the big question is, “Are we predestined, bound by FATE, or do humans possess free will?” In The Joy Luck Club the question is, “Can generational curses be broken?” In Winter’s Bone “Is blood really thicker than water?” In Mystic River “What is the nature of good and evil? Are people really who they appear to be?”

Thus, I challenge you to pan back from your story and ask What is the BIG question here? What is my character REALLY after? What will my story problem CHANGE about this character? What will it answer? 

As you guys know, I run a regular contest for free edit of sample pages. One of the biggest issues I see in new writing is it is very surface (Hey, I’ve been there, too. It’s all part of the learning curve ;)). Yet, to take that writing to the next level, we have to dig into the dark and dirty places. I actually have a sticky note on my computer that reads GO FOR THE GUTS. 

Every scene, every bit of dialogue must be uncomfortable. Fiction is the opposite of our human nature. Human nature is to avoid conflict at all costs. To write fiction? We must dive into the Miserable Messy head-first. Create problems at every turn (not mere “bad situations” but conflict).

Conflict turns pages. We have to be careful that our dialogue isn’t so busy being clever that it loses it’s teeth. Pretty description and scene-setting doesn’t turn pages and hook readers. CONFLICT does. Humans have a need to avoid conflict, but when we are faced with it? We want it resolved. THAT is why readers will turn pages. We make them shift in their seats and squirm and seek resolution.

What are your thoughts? What movies can you think of that have amazing BIG questions? Do you find that you have to revise places you are being “too nice?”

I love hearing from you!

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

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

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

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Image via CellarDoorFilms WANA Commons

Time is our enemy. Most people don’t have enough. This is why our writing must be tight, direct and hook early. Modern audiences have the attention span of a toddler hopped up on 2 liters of Coke. We can’t afford to let them drift.

Drift=Bad juju

I’ve edited countless books, many from new authors. I see a lot of the same errors, and this is to give you a basic guide of what to look for in your writing. Be your own Death Star. Blast away this weak writing so that, once you do hire an editor, it won’t cost nearly as much because the editor won’t spend precious time (charged often by the hour) to note or remove these basic offenses.

Tip #1—Use Other Senses. BTW, Sight is the Weakest

A lot of writers (new ones especially) rely on a lot of description regarding what a character sees, and while this isn’t, per se, wrong it can be overdone. Also, of all the senses, sight is one of the weakest, thus it lacks the power to pull your reader into deep POV (point of view).

Smells are very powerful.

Jane pushed through the heavy steel doors, plunging into the dark hallway of a school no one had stepped foot in since the city shut it down after the fire. The blackened walls and peeling paint testified to the tragedy that took twenty young lives.

Okay, maybe this.

When Jane pushed through the heavy steel doors, an acrid cloud of old smoke mixed with the sickening sweet of cooked flesh met her in the hall. Burned mildew pulsed from the crumbling walls of the ruined school, clear testimony of where the firefighters began their assault on the blaze. Instead of the familiar aroma of cafeteria food and drying finger paint, all Jane could smell was death. It invaded her mouth and clung to her clothes and skin.

Taste is very powerful.

Fifi tucked and rolled as shoe dove out of her captor’s van. The ground came up hard, harder than she expected.

Okay, not bad, but maybe try…

Fifi tucked and rolled as she dove out of her captor’s van. Her face met the ground, hard. At first, all she noticed was the bitterness of grass mixed with sand that crunched against her teeth. A moment later? The taste of old copper pennies gushed into her mouth, making her gag. Blood.

Try to use a combination of all of the senses. To rely solely on what a character sees will keep the reader at a distance. It will make her a mere observer and not a participant.

Tip #2 Don’t Coach the Reader

When we are new, we tend to think through stage direction, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean it should end up on the page. Readers aren’t dumb, so we don’t need all the details.

He raised his hand and struck her across the cheek.

Um, duh. We know he raised his hand to strike her. Otherwise, that would be a serious trick. Jedi mind powers, maybe?

He struck her across the cheek. Hard. Stars exploded in her vision.

We don’t need the character to step up on the curb or reach for the door handle. If a character makes it from one room to another, we fill in the missing (and boring) details. We also don’t need cues for emotion.

Tip #3 Don’t State the Obvious

She slammed the door and cursed in anger.

Okay, unless this character has spacial issues and Tourette’s? We know she’s angry. We don’t “need” the “in anger” part. We’re sharp. We get it. Really.

Tip #4 Don’t Introduce Too Many Characters Too Quickly

I can’t tell you how many writing samples I’ve received that make this mistake. If you have ten named characters by page two? I’m done. In life, we can’t keep up with that many names all at once, and, in writing, that doesn’t change. Too many names will confuse us and muddle who the protagonist is. We get lost, so we’re frustrated and we put the book down…or toss it across the room.

Tip #5 No Secret Agents

This error usually goes hand-in-hand with the previous error. We are introduced to who we assume is the protagonist. Also, unless something cues us otherwise, we assume she’s alone. When another character suddenly starts talking?

Jarring.

Also, tell us who this person is in relation to the character. Yes, you (the writer) know who this character is, but we don’t.

Gertrude awoke with a start. Her alarm clock hadn’t gone off, and panic gripped her. This was her first day at the new job, and being late could get her fired before she even started. She nearly fell as she scrambled out of the bed sheets and bolted for the coffee maker.

“I thought you’d be gone by now,” Ted said as he watered his Bonsai trees.

“Me, too. Hey, why didn’t you come wake me up?”

Okay, who is Ted? Brother? Husband? Boyfriend? Friendly home invader? We need to know. Maybe not right away but at least on the same page.

Yet, I see this all the time. A name, some dialogue but no introduction, so no sense of who that character is. We are book-readers not mind-readers.

There are a lot of other ways to tighten the writing, but these are common offenders and a great start. We all do this no matter how many books we write. It’s why we need revision. We can spot this stuff and clean it up and make it presentable for the public.

What are some of your pet peeves? What loses you as a reader? What tips or advice can you share?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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 once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

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