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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Categorized: Novel Structure

writing, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, how to write a novel, publishing

We all make mistakes, especially when learning anything new. Writing is not immune to process. Contrary to popular belief, writing great stories is HARD.

It takes time, devotion, training, mentorship, blood, sacrifice and the willingness to make a ton of mistakes. This means countless hours and probably years of practice (which also means writing a ton of crappy books/stories).

As I mentioned in the last post, George R.R. Martin didn’t become a legend because of his marketing abilities and mad HootSuite skills.

No, he’s a master because he’s practiced and honed raw talent until he could create a series that’s become a global phenomenon.

Kristen Lamb, writing mistakes, mistakes, writing tips

Same with J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and all the other ‘greats.’ They didn’t begin as legends. It took time, practice, and a fair share of ugly drafts and stories.

With practice, we learn what works, what doesn’t, what sizzles and what fizzles. We find, develop and mature our writing voice.

The problem I see these days is that, now that we’ve transitioned into the digital age and it’s so easy to self-publish, many writers are ‘ad-men’ before artists.

In the old publishing paradigm, writers faced rejection until they either gave up or learned how to tell better stories that audiences would pay to read. Writers made the mistakes in private before permitted onto the VERY EXCLUSIVE public stage.

Now? There are so many books flooding the market, it’s far harder to get authentic and useful feedback. Tougher to know what we’re doing wrong when the books don’t sell, no one leaves a review, or the agents keep sending form-letter rejections.

Today, I hope to address what might be wrong with stories that either we aren’t finishing or that aren’t selling (either to an agent or directly to the market).

Mistake #1: Skipping Learning HOW to Tell (Build) a Story

Kristen Lamb. mistakes, plotting, writing mistakes

A story is a structure like a bridge or a building. There is a method to the ‘madness.’ We can’t build a house, a shed, or a skyscraper without a foundation/proper framing and expect it to stand for long (if at all).

Similarly, we can’t expect a story with no internal structure to do anything but collapse.

Too many writers want to skip the dull parts of our craft, believing that if they learn structure, plotting, etc. it will make the writing formulaic (HINT: It won’t). They also assume that learning structure immediately means they have to be pure outlining plotters, which is also untrue.

I don’t give a rip how any author creates a structure so long as it’s there.

When it comes to great stories, everything is by design. It’s ALL intentional.

If Game of Thrones isn’t your cup of tea, read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Tana French’s Into the Woods, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and you’ll see that each and every one of these books possess a vastly complex structure.

These structures are not only strong enough to maintain the story integrity, but they are also deliberate in design. Each of these stories is crafted with ONE purpose—to capture readers and refuse let them go until they’ve done the full tour.

We cannot create this effect if we skip learning how this feat is accomplished. This is akin to an ‘architect’ winging it when designing a house. Adding guest rooms here and a ballroom there, and a library would be LOVELY!

There are too many Winchester Mansion ‘Novels’ running amok.

Instead of doors that open to brick walls or stairs that lead nowhere, we have subplots that hit dead ends, characters that serve no purpose. Overall, there is no core concept that dictates design.

In the end, we’re left with an expensive novelty that only the creator can navigate without becoming hopelessly lost.

Mistake #2: Holding Too Tightly to First Book

Kristen Lamb, mistakes, writing mistakes, writing, how to write, self-publishing mistakes, how to write a novel

Most first novels, even if we ARE in the process of studying and learning structure, end up being Winchester Mansion ‘Novels.’ We are LEARNING.

Yet, instead of writers letting go of the first novel, they keep doing like Mrs. Winchester and adding an orangery and another library and redecorating the sewing room.

Which is why they never finish.

With every painstaking addition the writer becomes more and more attached to their creation. It becomes increasingly more difficult for outsiders to talk them out of their madness.

In all my years fixing plots—and I have repaired hundreds of plots—I’ve only had a handful of authors finish their first novel.

In almost every case I recommended the writer let go of the first book. Shelve it. Take a new idea and we could plot together.

This way they could learn kinesthetically. I feel the best way to learn is to DO. It takes writing from the theoretical and translates it to the practical.

This tactic is far more effective because the writers aren’t as emotionally vested.

Kristen Lamb, mistakes, writer mistakes, writing mistakes, writing tips

They aren’t pondering the hundreds of hours, the years and rewrites. It’s all unexplored territory, so they’re far more likely to listen, learn, do and finish. When they finish something that has flow, intention and design, then they can finally FEEL the victory.

They also—eventually—will gain the knowledge and emotional distance to return to the first novel and repair it.

Provided they still want to.

Odds are better they will see what I saw…the Winchester Mansion ‘Novel.’ Instead of trying to retrofit ballrooms and halls into a new design, they give the first novel permission to be what it was ALWAYS intended to be.

A learning experience.

Mistake #3: Ignoring Feedback

Kristen Lamb, mistakes, how to write, writing tips

It is HIGHLY unusual for an author who permits me to tear down their Winchester Mansion ‘Novel’ to actually use the new version.

Even though I work very hard to keep the core ideas the writer was most passionate about—the ideas they BEGAN with—and make them integral to the story…there is simply too much emotion.

So many snippets of dialogue, glorious sections of prose, characters I’ve cut away because they didn’t propel the story. To just leave that all behind? It can feel like a betrayal of the worst variety.

To abandon the old design for the new seems traitorous.

Trust me, I UNDERSTAND.

I worked on my own Winchester Mansion ‘Novel’ for almost six years. No matter what critique groups or editors told me, I felt they just didn’t ‘get’ my story. I braved the agent rejections and rewrote and rewrote, adding literary basements, gazebos, and indoor swimming pools.

Inside, I BELIEVED if I didn’t make that first ‘novel’ a mega-success I was a failure.

It wasn’t until I met my first mentor—who happened to be a New York Times best-selling author who’d published almost fifty novels—that I finally listened. When HE told me I had no story, I STILL argued…until I realized how ridiculous I was being.

Then, I went into depression for six months.

After that? I set aside the ‘novel’ and began to actually LEARN my craft. Writing is an artisan skill, which requires we seek the right feedback and listen. Our friends who tell us they can’t believe our novel isn’t already a movie are great encouragers (keep them, you’ll need them).

But if a critique group (a good one with successful authors) keep pointing out the same problems? If editors, beta readers, and people leaving reviews keep pointing out the same problems?

Entertain that they might have a point.

Kristen Lamb, mistakes, writing mistakes, writing, publishing

Ultimately, understand that you are NOT a failure because you put the first book in a drawer and moved on. Humans are wired to learn from mistakes, from failure. It is perfectly acceptable to set a novel aside and try something fresh.

Now, if you’re making a habit of this? That’s bad and actually a red flag you need professional guidance and training. Odds are, you’re not understanding structure and the story is caving in.

I want you all to be finishers. But we can’t be finishers if we’ve set ourselves up for failure.

If we aren’t finishing, if no one is reviewing, if the book sales are lackluster, if we keep getting rejected? All good signs to dig in on training and PRACTICE.

Mistake #4: Failure to Understand What Makes a Story a STORY

As I just vividly described, too many ‘novels’ really aren’t novels at all. It’s why I’m liking the term writer less and less as I mature. Putting words on the page is critical, but a lot of words does not a story make. A lot of PRETTY words does not a story make.

Fiction is about one thing and one thing only…PROBLEMS.

To be more specific, a novel is about ONE BIG PROBLEM that will be solved by the end of the book…and not easily.

Fiction is the path of greatest resistance. Be cruel to EVERYONE. If your MC loves something, take it away…then step on it. Smash hopes and dreams and everything they believed to be true.

Every single break they get better be earned with blood. Any new information better COST something.

There need to be stakes—shattering stakes—if the MC fails. Oh, and by the way? They don’t have forever to solve the problem. There’s a ticking clock because we are aging here and COULD be watching Netflix instead.

Stories are FLAWED people making bad choices until the CORE STORY PROBLEM forces them to see their faults, evolve and thus make better choices until they WIN, FAIL or DIE or maybe even ALL OF THE ABOVE.

Great stories are exotic torture devices a reader can escape only ONE WAY. The reader must finish the story to find the key that opens the cage we’ve locked them in.

Yeah, writers are sadists.

Mistakes are crucial when learning how to tell stories, because we’re learning ways of building better traps. Yet, these are the good mistakes, the mistakes that come with trial, error, improvement and innovation.

The fatal mistake?

Failing to understand the PURPOSE of a story. What does a story DO? Sure, stories entertain. But the good ones are clever traps that will torment the poor reader, make them scream and cry and rail and beg and walk out breathless at 4:00 a.m. on a work day…cursing our names.

What’s better?

The reader will be so high from the experience, she won’t be able to stop talking about it and telling everyone who will listen. The reader will wait in agonizing expectation for the next chance the author offers another opportunity to be trapped and tortured all over again.

No one evangelizes a book simply because they got it for .99. It won’t matter how many free books we give them or how fancy the marketing. If there’s no trap, no torment? No one cares.

Want to be a good trap-maker? Study traps.

Read a crap ton of books and DOG-EAR them. Yes, I am a monster because that is what good writers are. We are sociopathic, sadistic, masters of torment (but readers are masochists, so it works).

We choreograph torment that leads to the catharsis…the blissful release and euphoria!

***Yes, even the sweet ‘Hallmark’ romances torment readers if they’re well-written. Will guy and gal get together? Can the family overcome their petty fighting in time to do the traditional Christmas Eve sleigh ride one last time before they are forced to sell the farmhouse?

I dog-ear, color, underline and scribble on all books I read, then pull the story apart. How did it hook me? When did it hook me? What did the author DO? How did he or she pull a fast one on me? Can I duplicate that or do a variation? Is it possible to do it even BETTER?

Mistake #5: Breaking the Rules Before KNOWING the Rules

As I mentioned earlier, too many writers believe if they read craft books, take classes, study, learn plot, etc. that the writing will be ‘formulaic.’ All stories have a formula (noun), but not all stories are formulaic (adjective).

***Sort of like if you are nauseated (verb), it means you’re sick to your stomach. Conversely, if you’re nauseous (adjective), it means your mere presence makes others sick to their stomachs.

Before we talk about formulas, though, we first need to define what sort of author we want to be, what genre we are writing, and what kind of books we want to write.

Romance has a formula. Deviate from this formula and you don’t have romance…you have women’s fiction or general fiction.

Most genre fiction has some sort of a formula. Mystery has a formula. There’s a crime discovered at the beginning that is solved by the end. One has to introduce red herrings, clues, etc. by specific points or the audience will call FOUL.

If there is a crime at the beginning but ALSO a race against time to stop some far greater crime at the end? Welcome to the thriller (refer to post on GENRE for more). It’s a thriller if we know who we are stopping, a mystery-thriller if we don’t.

Those who can write excellent pulp fiction quickly can make an incredible living. Before anyone gets snooty…

Some of the greatest works of modern literature have come from what was once considered ‘escapist trash’ (pulp fiction).

***Refer to my tongue-in-cheek post Real Writers Don’t Self-Publish 2 for a comprehensive list.

All this said, rules exist for a reason. Our job as artists is to learn and understand the rules before we go about breaking them. We have to know the WHY behind the rule.

Knowing the WHY is the magic.

Why are we breaking the rules other than to be different?

There is a pretty standard rule that we should pick a POV and stick to it. Why is there this rule? Because changing the type of POV is risky in the hands of the unskilled writer.

If we begin in first-person and switch to third, we can risk giving the reader a headache. Thus, we need a good reason WHY we are breaking this ‘rule’ other than our simple desire to be clever.

T. Jefferson Parker broke this rule in his novel Iron River. He used first-person for the antagonist, Bradley Smith (aka Bradley Jones), the man brokering a deal with the Mexican cartel chief to produce a revolutionary new handgun.

Why?

Because T. Jefferson Parker knows that first-person is the closest psychic distance.

He chose to put Smith’s POV in first person because he wanted the reader to bond more intimately with the antagonist, a man who’s forced onto his dark path when a faulty product drives his family business—Pace Firearms—to the brink of bankruptcy.

By using this close POV for the ‘bad guy,’ T. Jefferson Parker makes it harder for the reader to choose sides. He generates empathy, tension and conflicted loyalties.

All in all, T. Jefferson Parker DELIBERATELY broke the POV rule to elicit a desired and planned EFFECT on the reader. That’s what makes him an artist, and probably a good reason why T. Jefferson Parker is the only author to ever win three Edgar Awards.

Go and BREAK THINGS

In the end, make mistakes. The RIGHT mistakes. Mistakes can eventually become magic even though they make a hell of a mess. Remember that perfectionism is the elixir of the doomed. When has any artist ever created a masterpiece and not gotten dirty?

Stop reworking the first chapters of the same novel and finish. Even if it sucks. Stop plotting and re-plotting and revising. Yes, we need training (classes, books, coaches, camps, read loads of fiction and break it apart, etc.) but these activities can become great places to hide 😉 .

Get the training, then put it into ugly practice. If you need training, scroll down and I have some fabulous classes for sale ON DEMAND ($15 off until midnight MONDAY May 13th). Delivered right to you to enjoy over and over on your computer (pants not required).

To celebrate Mother’s Day, use the code MOM15 for $15 off all ON DEMAND CLASSES. So if you are a mother or have a mother or just appreciate that writing can be a real mother *&^%$ use the code.

It’s also Cinco de Mayo this Sunday, so tequila should be on sale. Might help with the killing little darlings.

Seems like a sign to me 😛 .

ON DEMAND CLASSES!!!

***NOTE: Classes are designed to play on computers (laptops or desktop) and our technology plays nicest with Chrome or Firefox. Many times the recordings are compatible with other devices like tablets or smartphones, but those devices aren’t always able to access the class because of the changes with HTML5. Use mobile devices at your own risk.

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flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Recently I blogged about the log-line, how it’s an incredible diagnostic tool for spotting flaws in a story idea. The brilliance of the log-line is the simplicity. As an editor/writing coach, I can zero in on a story’s every strength and spot every flaw with a single glance at the log-line.

How? Because the log-line is a prototype (a scaled-down model) of the final product.

Think about car designers. When they have some fabulous idea for the next car of the future, what do they build first? A prototype. It’s far easier and cheaper to see and fix problems when the car is small enough to fit on a table.

If a company sinks tens of thousands of dollars into a finished snazzy full-sized car, there’s a far greater level of commitment to keep going even when there’s that niggling sensation something isn’t quite right.

Why?

Because those involved in the project have already invested a lot of time and money. They also get too attached. Perhaps they fall in love with the color, the hand-stitched leather seats, and the pop-up digital displays.

In short, they become emotionally attached at the wrong point in the process.

There’s a heightened temptation to ignore problems and pray it will sort itself out. It’s much easier to start (and keep) throwing good money after bad. Sink more time into a disaster.

Same when it comes to building a skyscraper, office complex, condo community, etc. The first step beyond the concept and blueprint is to construct a scaled version (even if this is a virtual/digital model in 2018).

When developers and investors can see the final product—albeit miniaturized—everything changes. This abstract idea becomes concrete and flaws stand out waving red flags.

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Is the complex too close to a highway and the walls aren’t thick enough to meet code for sound-proofing? Can the building(s) be accessed easily from the highway?

Or, is the exit nine miles farther down making anyone who lives or works there have to double back and wend their way through a confusing maze of neighborhoods?

Is the art-deco-meets-minimalism idea something that seemed edgy and cool on paper? But, now that one can SEE the buildings, it looks more like a state prison had a baby with an insane asylum? These are things a builder/investor needs to know before they’re millions in the hole and the buildings are half-built.

Same with novels.

Problem With Pantsing

Lack of a clear prototype can create major problems when writing a novel. This is where we can run into trouble pantsing a novel (writing by the seat of our pants).

Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, feel free to write any way you see fit. Yet, I will say pure pantsing is almost always a sentence for revision hell if you don’t at least start with a log-line. More often than not, there will be much tearing apart and starting over (refer to image above)…and drinking.

***Authors who are very good at pantsing with no preparation usually either a) began as plotters/outliners and know structure so intuitively they can plot by feel or b) have written and finished so many books they can write a sound structure by feel.

Either way, the pure pantster who doesn’t need a bazillion revisions is usually a highly experienced author…or an alien.

And my vote is alien.

Meet the PLOTser

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Anyway, outlines aren’t for everyone. I don’t like them either and refer to myself as a plotser. I’ve learned to start with a log-line and get that as solid as possible. THEN, I work out the major landmark points and once this is all accomplished, THEN I write.

The guideposts keep me focused on where I’m headed (eventually), but also allow some freedom for my imagination to play as well.

Sometimes on my way to a turning point I’ve pre-planned my subconscious will come up with something even cooler. BUT since I know the overall gist of where I’m heading?

No problemo. 

Log-lines can keep us on track. They can also make sure we actually have a story before we’ve invested tens of thousands of words into something that can’t be fixed without rewriting the entire manuscript.

I can’t count the number of clients I get who believe they have a finished novel, but what they really have is 80,000-100,000 words. Just because we have a lot of words doesn’t mean we have a novel.

#AskMeHowIKnow

A log-line prevents this reaction.

Often when I talk about log-lines I get samples like these (I am making these up, btw):

Despite being emotionally damaged, a highly trained warrior must fight for his people.

Oh-kay. Fight who? What? Why? This ‘log-line’ is actually a warning label: This ‘story’ contains random fight scenes with liberal amounts of tedious, self-indulgent navel-gazing.

That and if he’s a highly trained warrior, then fighting is what he already does well. So…all righty then.

#SnoozeFest

A defiant prince travels to a forbidden moon against interstellar regulations and must explain to the High Council why he defied the rules.

So a defiant prince is being—wait for it—defiant. All right.

He breaks the rules and goes to a moon deemed off-limits. Yet, if we made this log-line into a movie, would we sit on the edge of our seats chomping popcorn breathlessly waiting for the ending?

Must explain to the High Council WHY he defied the rules.

Perhaps it is me, but Alien C-Span doesn’t seem terribly exciting.

Assuming the writers haven’t already committed 100,000 words to each of these stories, we can easily see how a good log-line might help.

Try Again

EXAMPLE 1: Despite being emotionally damaged, a highly trained warrior must fight for his people.

This is a statement, not a story.

Instead, how about…?

EXAMPLE 1A : A once-revered general, betrayed by his emperor, disgraced and sold into slavery must use all his skills to earn fame in the gladiatorial ring for a chance to destroy the ruler who killed his men and butchered his family (Gladiator).

Then there was:

EXAMPLE 2: A defiant prince travels to a forbidden moon against interstellar regulations and must explain to the High Council why he defied the rules.

How about:

EXAMPLE 2A: A sheltered prince left in the desert to die must lead an untrained and disorganized rebellion on a campaign to overthrow an oppressive godlike regime that controls space-time. (Dune)

What Makes the Difference?

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Example 1 flounders because it’s incomplete. Sure, an emotionally damaged warrior fighting is interesting but what’s the rest of the story? Without a core problem, antagonist, goal, stakes and ticking clock we have a statement…not a prototype for a full story.

Anyone who’s watched Gladiator knows Maximus is a highly-trained warrior and ALSO very emotionally damaged. The actual log-line for the movie from the IMDB is: A former Roman General sets out to exact vengeance against the corrupt emperor who murdered his family and sent him into slavery.

In one log-line, we have someone perfectly trained to do the job (Maximus) of taking out the emperor. Ah, problem is that despite all his advanced military training…he’s been betrayed, his reputation smeared, and he’s a slave.

#SuxToBeYouMaximus

Thus, there are a lot of barriers preventing the perfect warrior from accomplishing the goal using his standard approach. The writer (God) had to strip his reputation, his men, his family, and his freedom so we’d have an interesting story.

If the writers didn’t strip away almost every advantage that made Maximus a target to begin with, the movie would’ve looked like this:

A skilled fighter gathers his loyal legions, tells them the new plan and they all march on Rome and flush the crap emperor.

Sounds like a movie I want to lov—sleep through.

Same with our other log-line, Example 2.

No one wants to invest 12-15 hours reading a novel that ends with the equivalent of an alien congressional hearing. Ah, but change a few things and we have something… spicier 😉 .

Instead of casting an MC who’s immediately all-powerful and perfect for the job, Frank Herbert made his MC more of ‘the least likely to succeed’ type of guy.

Sure, young Paul Atreides has had some hand-to-hand training in the palace via Jean Luc Picard (Gurney Halleck) and mind-power lessons from Mom. Despite this, though, he’s more of a ‘play on my Caladan iPad’ kind of leader than a ‘sand in my shorts and ride the worms’ messiah-type.

Which is why the story is still AMAZING decades later.

Stories Have RULES

(If we break them, be sneaky or readers scream FOUL!)

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

One of the major reasons the log-line is so helpful is we can easily see if our story idea has all the necessary ingredients: an intriguing MC, an active goal (CORE story problem with a CLEAR GOAL), stakes, and a ticking clock.

Intriguing MC

The most common mistakes I see are that writers will a) offer a name only or b) give us only some uninteresting qualitative descriptor.

I shall demonstrate…

Joe must free the ship’s crew who are trapped in cryosleep if he hopes to defeat the alien threat and find the wormhole back to Earth.

All right. Sort of cool, but who the heck is Joe and why should I CARE?

Hint: I don’t.

The captain must free his ship’s crew who are trapped in cryosleep if he hopes to defeat the alien threat and find the wormhole back to Earth.

Better. It’s a neat story idea but weak. Big frigging deal. He frees his crew. Um, he’s the captain. Kind of his JOB.

How about, this instead:

When the captain of an interstellar prison transport’s systems are crippled in an alien attack, locking the crew and the most violent prisoners in the galaxy in cryosleep, he must choose between risking everyone’s life to repair the ship and defeat the alien threat or do nothing, thereby consigning the innocent and the guilty to certain death.

Yes, the log-line is long. I said try to get it into A sentence. Never said it couldn’t be a LONG sentence. But look at the difference. The first one with Joe is a bad situation and we don’t know Joe from Adam.

The second example tells us (Joe) is a ship captain, but he is simply doing his JOB. Not terribly interesting. It is ONLY when we toss in a painful and impossible choice that we have ourselves a fabulous story problem.

Obviously one can glean the alien attack disabled the captain’s ability to selectively wake only the crew. Thus, it becomes the lesser of evils.

A person who is duty-bound to protect the ship and crew has two options and they both seriously suck. One makes a fantastic story with a zillion moral implications…and the other is a French film.

They all DIE.

The End.

#LifeIsSuffering

Casting is Essential

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Many new writers are uncomfortable with flaws and want characters to be larger than life and perfect. Larger than life is okay but perfect=BORING.

Do any of these stories sound interesting?

A brilliant surgeon finds a way to repair his destroyed hands.

An undefeated hockey team wins the gold medal in the Olympics.

The NYC ballet company’s most disciplined and committed ballerina lands the part of the White Swan and the Black Swan in Swan Lake.

Zzzzzzzzzzz. Let’s try again.

After the world’s most brilliant (and narcissistic) surgeon destroys his life, reputation, and hands, he must beg for help from those he’s openly mocked, but the cure comes with a cost and a crusade (Dr. Strange).

The worst hockey team to ever hit the ice must set aside their ego and all they believe they know about hockey to beat the seemingly invincible Russian squad in the 1980 Olympics (Miracle).

The NYC ballet’s most committed and disciplined ballerina must lose control of everything, including her mind and reality, in order to land the part of both the White Swan and Black Swan in Swan Lake (Black Swan).

Clear TARGET/GOAL

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Look at your story’s log-line and it should have an active goal. The MC can’t simply be flung along like flotsam by bad situations for the entire story. Sure MCs get tossed into the Life Vit-A-Mix, but by Act Two they start pushing back so they can be reborn as full-fledged heroes in Act Three.

Heroes eventually fight back and WIN.

When pondering your log-line, can you picture a film you wouldn’t dare get up for a bathroom break lest you miss how the story ENDS?

If there is a logical place to take that bathroom break anywhere in your story, TRY HARDER.

Stakes

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What is at stake? What is the MC willing to risk, lose, give up for that which is BETTER? Life, reputation, sanity? What happens if your MC fails?

If Dr. Strange is unwilling to let go of what he believes he knows (his certainty) and humble himself, he’s doomed to life as a has-been surgeon with a shattered reputation and twisted hands. His life is a cautionary tale against hubris.

The only way to avoid this fate is to humble himself. Once he humbles himself, he realizes there are far larger battles than whether he’ll make it on a magazine cover. If he fails, the world is doomed.

In Miracle, if the team keeps training the way they always have, then they will again shame their entire country during the Cold War (when morale is crucial). The U.S. Hockey team is at a pivotal point: continue to be synonymous with LOSER or humble themselves and take a chance at being a MIRACLE.

Nina Sayers’ almost superhuman self-control is what makes her one of the best dancers in the world, but unless she lets GO of control she’ll never be THE best. She will never dance her dream role. Yet, everything comes at a price. Failure will cost her career and potential legacy…but success might just cost her sanity and her life.

The only question left to be answered is, “Will it all be worth it?”

Ticking Clock

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Our characters shouldn’t have forever to do what needs to be done. Paul Atreides must lead the Fremen to victory before the Guild arrives with enough force to possibly put down the rebellion.

In Miracle, the team has until the 1980 Olympic games. Nina only has until the Swan Lake roles are finalized (ballerinas have a very short shelf life).

Notice how ALL these components ratchet tension and keep audiences riveted (turning pages). Can the unlikely, ill-equipped MC do what needs to be done in time? If the MC fails, what is lost?

***Hint: It better be BIG.

Diagnostic

Back to our prototype. I hope you can now see how every part of the log-line is critical to the story working as a whole. We can look at each component and see if we can do better.

Conversely, if a story is flagging, this is a great diagnostic to help us work on the parts that are actually BROKEN.

How might we make it harder on the MC? Can we make the problem bigger, messier, seemingly unbeatable? Is it feasible to condense the timeline? How can we up the stakes? What MORE can we place in jeopardy?

Remember stakes ideally should be internal and external. What does it mean personally for the MC to win/fail? How will the outer world reflect winning versus failing? As far as this part of the log-line, go big or go home.

Readers are parting with very limited free time so we need to make our stories a good use of that time. No one wants to invest twelve to fifteen hours in a novel where, if the MC fails, he just tries again next year.

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

I LOVE hearing from you!

Does this break down help? Maybe make the idea of using a log-line more appealing? Can you see how, if one component is faulty, it impacts the entire story?

If you’ve been struggling to write a query or synopsis, try starting with the log-line. It might a) make the job easier or b) reveal what needs to be repaired before you query.

I know this is a detailed blog, but I DO have a class NEXT THURSDAY on how to write query letters and the dreaded SYNOPSIS (and recording of class is free with purchase).

The FIRST TEN sign-ups get ME repairing, polishing their log-lines for FREE.

This class can be a game-changer for an author’s career. Even if we land an agent, trust me, they’ll ask for a synopsis for the next book and next.

Also, if we become skilled at writing synopses, we can write at a much faster pace. So, I hope y’all will join me 😀 .

Otherwise, what are your THOUGHTS? I reward those who share *group hug*

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

Upcoming Classes for September


Pitch Perfect—How To Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $45 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, September 20th 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?

***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.

Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn. Synopses are often requested by agents and editors and it is tough not to feel the need to include every last little detail. Synopses are great for not only keeping your writing on track, but also for pitching your next book and your next to that agent of your choice.

This class will help you learn the fundamentals of writing a query letter and a synopsis. What you must include and what doesn’t belong.

So make your writing pitch perfect with these two skills!


Brand Boss: When Your Name Alone Can Sell

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: General Admission $55.00 USD/ GOLD Level $175
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, Thursday September 27th, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Time is one of many tools we authors can use when crafting a story. This said, bending time takes training and skill because it’s one of the toughest techniques to pull off well. Even those who bend time masterfully will have their fair share of critics because most audiences are accustomed to linear structure.

This is only natural.

We’ve all teethed on stories that have a clear beginning, middle and end. Any story that deviates from this familiar pattern can vex and confuse us.

This is why movies like Memento tend to divide into two camps: those who loved it and those who couldn’t make it through thirty minutes.

Time Has a Proper Order

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Humans take time for granted, which is why time is one of those things that will wig people out when someone starts tinkering with it. Remember this because we can twist the audience’s assumptions to our advantage (especially in certain genres).

Bending time can disorient and confuse readers, but that isn’t always a good thing.

Most audiences enjoy the traditional Aristotelian three-act structure (which is why the lion’s share of novels are written in linear time). Aristotelian structure has been around over a thousand years for good reason. It’s endured simply because it’s a story structure that reflects time as sane humans experience it.

Time is hardwired into our brains. Our world reflects linear structure.

Morning–>noon–>night. We are born–>we live–>we die.

When old age manifests where childhood should be, something is clearly WRONG (progeria) and has disturbed the natural order.

Time & the Flashback

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Whenever I’ve blogged about flashbacks being bad, inevitably commenters list a dozen books or movies where the writer (allegedly) used flashbacks all the time and it was super successful.

Clearly, I don’t know what I’m talking about 😛 .

First, I’d like to point out that, while we can learn from film, we must be careful mimicking movies in our work. Movies are visual, whereas writing is completely abstract. We’re creating people and worlds using combinations of 26 letters (and roughly four of those are pretty useless).

No one wants to play Scrabble and get Q.

Movies get a smidge more leeway because the audience can SEE changes in people, places and time and are less likely to suffer a brain cramp. Alas, even in screenwriting, flashbacks are a sign of lazy/amateurish writing for a couple of reasons.

First, most information can be relayed real-time. If I have a character who is OCD (As Good as It Gets), I don’t need to go back and explain WHY the character is trapped with a psychological disorder.

There is no need to hop into a literary DeLorean and go EXPLAIN. Audiences are smart and get that Melvin Udall has OCD by how he behaves.

That’s the whole show don’t tell thing at work.

In the original film version of Silence of the Lambs , director Jonathan Demme toyed with using a flashback for the tense moment when Hannibal Lecter demands Agent Starling part with her most traumatic memory in return for the key to locating Buffalo Bill.

***The time when young Clarice tries in vain to rescue one of the lambs from being slaughtered.

But Demme was too good of a director and Jodi Foster to great an actor. He knew the flashback would wreck the effect and so he nixed it and, instead allowed Foster to show just how incredible a performer she really was (which explains the Academy Award).

Because the story remained in the present, the memory was far more visceral. It intensified the story to nerve-shredding proportions.

Flashback FAIL

In most stories we don’t need to use flashbacks. In many new works I see the writer just about piques my interest, then slams on the brakes, throws it in reverse and takes me back to EXPLAIN WHY.

I have a mantra:

Resist the urge to explain.

Frequently, new writers jump back in time because they’re doing a good job at creating tension. Feeling the tension they’ve generated, they seek reprieve and so they explain. The problem with this is that they are killing the very element (tension) that will keep readers turning pages until 3 a.m.

Explanations are the antidote for tension.

What do we do when our kid acts up? We EXPLAIN. Sorry, he didn’t have a nap today. This serves to allay our own anxiety and relax the bystanders gathered round staring at us.

Explaining might work in life, but for fiction it spells D-E-A-T-H.

If the love interest in our novel is maddeningly evasive?  Leave it alone. Readers will keep reading to see if they find out/figure out what the heck his deal is.

If we go back and explain, “He has intimacy issues because his parents were murdered by a Mary Kay lady on bath salts,” we’ve just handed the reader a great place for a bookmark.

Hmm, question answered. I’ll get back to this later.

Let Them Wait

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Great writers keep layering on more and more questions that either are a) partially answered b) not answered until toward the end c) some not answered at all.

We can put some humdinger questions in a WIP and refuse to answer them. Seriously. Great writers are sadists. We’re ONLY required to fully answer the core story problem for THAT particular book.

Other than that? We writers are not required to tie everything up neatly with a bow. The best stories leave a smidge of unfinished business. Loose ends generate passion and conversations that linger long after readers have turned the final page.

***Additionally, if we want to write a series, it’s a good idea to NOT answer everything.

Tana French’s incredible book In The Woods does this brilliantly. She does her duty and answers the core mystery: Who killed the Knocknaree girl and why? But, there’s a lot more about Knocknaree’s dark past she withholds (likely so we’d read the rest of the series or because she is a brilliant author, a.k.a. heartless psychopath).

Readers long for catharsis—release—and the longer we (authors) can delay the reader getting what he/she wants, the better.

Flashback Apoplexy

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Flashbacks generally are a sign of weak writing. Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, we can go back and forth in time so just be patient.

As I’ve mentioned before I’m a HUGE fan of horror and I love, love, love American Horror Story, particularly Season Four Freak Show. Elsa Mars is one of the most beautifully conflicted villains I’ve ever encountered.

She’s layered, complex, and unpredictable. Every character and storyline is pure heart-wrenching genius.

Then, in Season Five, Jessica Lange left the show and they substituted her with Lady Gaga *face palm*. For me, this is like serving me Tofurkey when I’m used a Thanksgiving turkey a la Martha Stewart. I mean no disrespect to Lady Gaga, but she’s a performer not an actor. ‘

I’m certain they cast her because she’s a huge name (draw) but she didn’t have the acting abilities to take center stage, which is why Season Five (Hotel) and Season Six (Roanoke) are painful to watch.

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Season Five is like being trapped in a car with a teenager learning to drive a stick. Just about get going forward then REVERSE. The series keeps going backwards to explain to the point that watching became more chore than fun.

In Season Six, AHS tried something different. It takes the form of a television show interviewing survivors and what happened is “reenacted.”

The HUGE problem with this is that no matter how many monsters, how much gore, how depraved the story gets, there is NO DRAMATIC TENSION. Why? Because of flashbacks. We know the people lived or they wouldn’t be sitting there being interviewed.

How can we worry about characters we KNOW are going to make it out alive? We can’t.

Time as a Literary Device

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

All this said, time CAN be used as a literary device. Progressing linearly isn’t always ideal, especially for certain genres. One surefire way to throw readers off is to mess with their sense of time. Non-linear structure is fantastic for mysteries, psychological thrillers, horror, and suspense.

If we choose to distort time, however, there needs to be a good reason for doing so. Let’s explore a handful of reasons…

Unreliable Narrator: Non-Linear Timeline

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Whenever we open a book (or start a movie) we’re programmed to trust the MC, that what he or she is relaying is truth. Non-linear plotting can use this human propensity to trust until given reason NOT to trust for advantage. Vanilla Sky, Black Swan, Shutter Island, and Fight Club are all superlative examples of twisting truth and trust.

Yet, notice the reason time is fractured in these stories.

The point is to intimate or even emulate madness. We begin trusting the MC but this trust erodes until we’re sucked into the chaos, our bearings lost, internal compass needle spinning and unable to find True North.

Past is Key to Present: Parallel Timeline

Sometimes the story shifts back and forth from past to present. Like train tracks running parallel they flow side-by-side until finally the past timeline converges with the present to solve the core story problem at hand.

We see this in Stephen King’s speculative fiction story The Green Mile. The story opens with elderly Paul Edgecomb in a retirement facility and establishes Paul’s present reality. THEN we go back in time to Louisiana State Penitentiary in the 1930s when young Paul Edgecomb worked as a prison guard in charge of Death Row.

Though we spend much of our time in the 1930s, we’re not going back in time for no reason. What happened decades ago on The Green Mile is essential for revealing a mystery in the present timeline at the retirement home.

A lot of literary works use the parallel timeline (The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan). Parallel timelines are also employed in general fiction.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood uses parallel timelines to resolve a feud between mother and daughter. Sidda (daughter) must understand the past from her mother’s (Vivi’s) POV in order to forgive her and heal the relationship.

Memory LIES…or Does It?

Mysteries employ this tactic as well, though many authors tend to dribble the past throughout but in the form of memories, dreams, fragments of recollections the MC doesn’t fully trust. A good example of this is James Patterson’s The Murder House.

Can We Trust Our Senses?

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Ultimately, when we deviate from traditional linear timelines, we’re jarring the readers sense of what she believes she knows. By going back and forth (I.e. In the Woods) we can throw readers off figuring everything out too easily and we make them work for the resolutions they crave.

This said, jumping back and forth willy-nilly is a good way to simply tick readers off. Even when non-linear timelines are executed with mastery, there will always be certain people who will hate it.

I remember walking out of Vanilla Sky feeling like I’d just had a spiritual experience, but the people around me were irate because “that stupid movie was just too confusing.”

There are probably more people who hated Pulp Fiction than those who loved Pulp Fiction. BUT, those who LOVED Pulp Fiction did so with such passion it’s now an iconic movie.

We can’t please everyone. In the Woods was one of those books that made me weep and think, “What am I DOING? I can’t WRITE! Whaaaaaahhhhhh!”

Yet, go check out the one and two-star reviews from readers who “grew bored” or “got confused.”

Whenever we authors play with time, just accept that some people will hate it. But, since no one ever wrote a book that pleased everyone?

Relax.

Caveat Auctor

I want to put a warning in here. Just because we are zipping back and forth in time doesn’t mean our structure is sound. Employing time as a literary device is tricky because we can lose readers very easily.

Many editors loathe ‘flashbacks’ with the power of a thousand suns, but here is a post regarding WHY.

Frequently, if a writer is going backwards and forwards in time, it is more a symptom of major story problems than an indicator of genius. The above post explains how flashbacks can be symptomatic of a flawed or nonexistent plot.

***For those who’d like training in advanced plotting, I recommend the class I’m teaching tomorrow, Beyond Planet X. USA Today best-selling author Cait Reynolds and I are doing a Speculative Fiction Saturday with three classes in a row (World-Building, Character, and Advanced Plotting). The XXXFiles Bundle is the best value. Three classes for the price of two (SIX hours of training) and recordings are FREE with purchase. 

If you want to mess with your reader’s heads, then do it with style 😉 . I’m excited to teach this much more advanced material and hope you guys will join me!

I LOVE hearing from you!

What are some of your favorite movies or books that used time to mess with your head? Which ones did you hate? Why?

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

***Chris Parrett is August’s winner. Please send your 5000 word Word doc to kristen at wana intl dot com. One-inch margins and 12 point Times New Roman Font, double-spaced. Congratulations!

***FYI: The Speculative Fiction Saturday has been moved to THIS COMING SATURDAY (9/15/18).

The software that powers our virtual classrooms kept crashing our servers #NotFun. Thus, we spent all last weekend upgrading/updating all the tech and it looks fantastic!

Again, for the value, I HIGHLY recommend The XXX Files Bundle (all three classes—world-building, character, advanced plotting—for the price of two). Speculative fiction includes sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian, utopian, horror and basically all the weird stuff. Sign up and we can be weird TOGETHER!

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Upcoming Classes for September


Brand Boss: When Your Name Alone Can Sell

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: General Admission $55.00 USD/ GOLD Level $175
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, Thursday September 27th, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—6:00 p.m. EST.

REGISTER HERE

Purchase includes FREE recording of all three classes.

 


Building Planet X: Out-of-This-World-Building for Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


Populating Planet X: Creating Realistic, Relatable Characters in Speculative Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 1:00—3:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 


Beyond Planet X: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 4:00—6:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


Pitch Perfect—How To Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $45 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, September 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?

***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.

Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn. Synopses are often requested by agents and editors and it is tough not to feel the need to include every last little detail. Synopses are great for not only keeping your writing on track, but also for pitching your next book and your next to that agent of your choice.

This class will help you learn the fundamentals of writing a query letter and a synopsis. What you must include and what doesn’t belong.

So make your writing pitch perfect with these two skills!

 

 

 

 

 

 

log-line, Kristen Lamb, story structure, plot, pitching a novel, how to pitch an agent, writing tips, screenwriting, writing fiction

Today we’re going to chat about log-lines. Some of you might be wondering if I was trying to give you a heart attack with my title. Maybe you think this feat is impossible. AN ENTIRE NOVEL IN ONLY ONE SENTENCE?

Maybe something simple, plebeian and commercially formulaic *flips hair* but ART cannot be forced into a box.

Yes. Yes it can.

I know, I know. Your novel is over four-hundred pages with made up technology and wizards and folding space using enchanted Thigh Masters….

I hear you. Calm down.

A log-line is a lifeline that will allow you to pitch a novel (or series) in ONE—YES ONE—sentence. The log-line is going to save you time, energy, and sanity (save the crazy for the fiction).

We’ll get to how a log-line is going to do ALL this AND give you six-pack abs in only five minutes a day in a moment…

***Legal Disclaimer: Consult your psychiatrist before believing any writing tool will give you six-pack abs. The giant pink bunny in the corner lies, too FYI.

Anyway…

I used to try to teach story structure from the perspective of an editor, but I found that my approach was flawed. Why? Because editors are like building inspectors. We have skills best used on a finished product. We’re trained to look for structure problems.

Is that a good skill? Sure. But do building inspectors design buildings?

No.

Architects do. Architects employ creativity and vision to create a final structure. Hopefully, they will have the necessary skills to create and design a structure that will meet code standards.

Creativity and vision are not enough. Architects need to learn mathematics and physics. They need to understand that a picture window might be real pretty, but if they put that sucker in a load-bearing wall, they won’t pass inspection and that they even risk a fatal collapse.

Aestheticism must align with pragmatism.

log-line, Kristen Lamb, story structure, plot, pitching a novel, how to pitch an agent, writing tips, screenwriting, writing fiction

This made me step back and learn to become an architect. When it comes to plotting, I hope to teach you guys how to have the creative vision of the designer, but with the practical understanding of an inspector.

We’ve discussed how plot works on a micro-scale (scene and sequel). After that, we panned back for an aerial shot, and discussed how great stories–like amazeballs rollercoasters—are addictive by design.

I’ve also covered how the single most important component to plot is the opposition, and l even have a tested method to make sure your core idea  is actually solid enough to be the foundation for an entire novel.

So what’s this log-line thingy?

Basically, we should be able to tell someone (an agent) what our story is about in one sentence. That is called the “log-line.” Log-lines are used in Hollywood to pitch movies.

In fact, a book that should be in every writer’s library is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a book on screenwriting, but every writer can benefit enormously from Snyder’s teaching.

In the world of screenwriting there is a tenet, “Give me the same, but different.” This axiom still holds true when it comes to novels.

Our story cannot go so far off the deep end that readers cannot relate, but yet our story needs to be different enough that people don’t just think it’s a retread.

We as writers have to negotiate this fine balance of same but different, and that is no easy task.

So let’s look at components of a great log-line:

Great log-lines are short and clear.

log-line, Kristen Lamb, story structure, plot, pitching a novel, how to pitch an agent, writing tips, screenwriting, writing fiction

I cannot tell you how many writers I ask, “So what’s your book about?” and they take off rambling for the next ten minutes. Often why writers are so terrified of the pitch session is that they cannot clearly state what their book is about in three sentences or less.

Here is a little insider information. When we cannot whittle our entire story into three sentences that is a clear sign to agents and editors that our story is structurally flawed. Not always, but more often than not. Your goal should be ONE sentence. What is your story about?

A good log-line is ironic. 

Irony gets attention and hooks interest. Here’s an example:

The Green Mile is about the lives of guards on death row leading up to the execution of a black man accused of rape and child murder who has the power of faith healing.

What can be more ironic than a murderer having the power of  healing? Think of the complex emotions that one sentence evokes, the moral complications that we just know are going to blossom out of the “seed idea.”

A good log-line is emotionally intriguing.

A good log-line tells the entire story. Like a movie, you can almost see the entire story play out in your head.

During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.

Didn’t you just see the entire movie play out in your head with that ONE sentence? Apparently Steven Spielberg did, too and that’s why he took Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park and made it into a blockbuster movie.

A good log-line will interest potential readers.

Good log-lines exude inherent conflict. Conflict is interesting. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder relays stories of how he would take his log-line to Starbucks and ask total strangers what they thought about his idea.

This is a great exercise for your novel.

Pitch to friends, family, and even total strangers and watch their reaction. Did their eyes glaze over? Did the smile seem polite or forced? If you can boil your book down into one sentence that generates excitement for the regular person, then you know you are on a solid path for your novel.

Yet, if your potential audience looks confused or bored or lost, then you know it is time to go back to the drawing board. But the good news is this; you just have to fix ONE sentence.

You don’t have to go rewrite, revise a novel that is confusing, convoluted, boring, arcane, ridiculous, etc.

Think of your one sentence as your scale-model or your prototype. If the prototype doesn’t generate excitement and interest, it is unlikely the real thing will succeed. So revise the prototype until you find something that gets the future audience genuinely excited.

You have your log-line. Now what?

log-line, Kristen Lamb, story structure, plot, pitching a novel, how to pitch an agent, writing tips, screenwriting, writing fiction

Your log-line is the core idea of your story. This will be the beacon of light in the darkness so you always know where the shore is versus the open sea. This sentence will keep you grounded in the original story you wanted to tell and keep you from prancing down bunny trails.

The Fear Factor

Fear is probably the most common emotion shared by writers. The newer we are the more fear we will feel. A side-effect of fear is to emotionally distance from the source of our discomfort.

This is why so many first-time novels fall apart.

I can tell everything that is wrong in a novel with a single glance at the log-line. Conversely, I can tell a writer what precisely needs to be fixed by looking at the log-line.

Does the story have a core problem? Is it a large enough/interesting enough problem to merit a whole novel? What are the stakes? Is there a ticking clock or have we given the MC forever to get around to accomplishing the goal?

If you’re like me and botched your first (hundred) attempts to write a novel, RELAX. It takes time to develop the level of sadism required to write spectacular stories. Not everyone is a born psychopath like George R.R. Martin.

New writers (in particular) tend to shy from any source of conflict, but conflict is the life blood of fiction. Log-lines can show us our story is flat-lining and WHY.

One of the best ways to learn how to write log-lines is to go peruse the IMDB (Internet Movie Database). Look up your favorite movies and see how they are described.

You can even look up movies that bombed and very often see the log-line was weak and the movie was doomed from the start. Look up movies similar to the story you are writing. Look up movies similar to the story you want to tell.

Solid novel log-lines will have 1) your protagonist 2) active verb 3) active goal 4) antagonist 5) stakes 6) ticking clock.

EXAMPLE: Here is a log-line I wrote for Michael Crichton’s Prey.

An out-of-work computer programmer (protagonist) must uncover (active verb) the secrets his wife is keeping in order to destroy (active goal) the nano-robotic threat (antagonist) to human-kind’s existence (stakes/ticking clock).

Hopefully you can see how this log-line meets all the criteria I set out earlier.

This log-line is ironic. An out-of-work programmer will uncover the robotic threat.

It’s emotionally intriguing. The main gatekeeper to the problem is his wife. This spells logistical and emotional complication to me.

Also, the MC doesn’t have forever to get around to stopping the threat. If he doesn’t ACT, humanity is doomed. Also, the price of failure and success is the same…everything he knows and loves.

It will interest potential readers. Considering it was a NYT best-seller, I think Crichton did okay.

So here is an exercise.

See if you can state your novel in one sentence. It will not only help add clarity to your writing and keep you on track, but when it comes time to pitch an agent or hook readers to BUY, you will be well-prepared and ready to knock it out of the park.

Practice on your favorite movies and books. Work those log-line muscles!

If you’re struggling, I’m giving a class next Thursday, September 20th, Pitch Perfect: How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis That SELLS.

Part of this class is my special recipe/formula for amazing log-lines to impress your friends and, hopefully an agent. The first ten sign ups will get ME repairing your log-line, shining it up the snazziest it can be for FREE. Grab your slot ASAP. You can register HERE.

I LOVE hearing from you!

What are some problems you might be having? Do you find you wander too far off your original idea? What are your struggles with remaining focused?

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

***Chris Parrett is August’s winner. Please send your 5000 word Word doc to kristen at wana intl dot com. One-inch margins and 12 point Times New Roman Font, double-spaced. Congratulations!

***FYI: The Speculative Fiction Saturday has been moved to THIS COMING SATURDAY (9/15/18).

The software that powers our virtual classrooms kept crashing our servers #NotFun. Thus, we spent the entire weekend upgrading/updating all the tech and it looks fantastic!

I HIGHLY recommend The XXX Files Bundle (all three classes—world-building, character, advanced plotting—for the price of two). Speculative fiction includes sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian, utopian, horror and basically all the weird stuff. Sign up and we can be weird TOGETHER!

log-line, Kristen Lamb, story structure, plot, pitching a novel, how to pitch an agent, writing tips, screenwriting, writing fiction
It will be FUN!

Upcoming Classes for September


Brand Boss: When Your Name Alone Can Sell

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: General Admission $55.00 USD/ GOLD Level $175
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, Thursday September 13th, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—6:00 p.m. EST.

REGISTER HERE

Purchase includes FREE recording of all three classes.

 


Building Planet X: Out-of-This-World-Building for Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


Populating Planet X: Creating Realistic, Relatable Characters in Speculative Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 1:00—3:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 


Beyond Planet X: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 4:00—6:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


Pitch Perfect—How To Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $45 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, September 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?

***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.

Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn. Synopses are often requested by agents and editors and it is tough not to feel the need to include every last little detail. Synopses are great for not only keeping your writing on track, but also for pitching your next book and your next to that agent of your choice.

This class will help you learn the fundamentals of writing a query letter and a synopsis. What you must include and what doesn’t belong.

So make your writing pitch perfect with these two skills!

Say it with me: world-building is fun.

Seriously! It’s the only way—aside from global domination—we will ever get to arrange the world exactly as we want. Don’t like green peppers on your supreme pizza? Banish them! Hate people who squeeze the toothpaste tube from the middle? Declare them subversive enemies of the regime!

world-building

Yet, some genres are trickier than others when it comes to creating backgrounds and context. Science fiction, ‘apocalit’ (zombies optional), horror, and dystopias all require as much if not more work than more mainstream genres like historical when it comes to world-building. Why?

Because unlike historical, where it is mostly a matter of doggedly researching established facts, speculative fiction forces us to create those facts.

What’s more, we must do all this while keeping an eye on opposite ends of the setting spectrum. We have to track the big picture logic and global structure as well as check for consistency and catch everyday details.

As if that weren’t enough, we have to embed all of this into prose that is designed to give momentum to the narrative, not serve as a expository guidebook for the Totalitarian-Regime-Next-Door.

world-building

Worst of all, if we don’t get it right, the reader is the one who suffers. Our brains recognize hiccups in logic on a subconscious level. This can lead to reader attention wandering, which can easily become the dreaded…BOOKMARK MOMENT.

Burn the world with a burning reason

Good stories always have at their heart a burning reason. It’s the message, the theme, the desire to share a truth of life that drives us to write. I talk more about the burning reason in this post.

Speculative fiction has given us some of the most memorable burning reasons in all of literature. They incinerate our complacency and comfort zones, leaving only questions and ashes in its wake.

Can’t think of any speculative fiction books off the top of your head? How about:

Farenheit 451, The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Lorax, The Stand, Neuromancer, Ender’s Game, Divergent, World War Z, Underground Airlines, Brave New World, Ready Player One, A Clockwork Orange, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (just to name a few…)

world-building

Now, imagine doing a lightning round of ‘Name the Theme’ for each of these books. You just started ticking off themes and messages in your head, didn’t you? I know I did. For a fraction of a second, I also relived the deep existential unease each book left me with.

Coming up with the burning reason can be uncomfortable because it means asking hard questions. We have to skate a little too close to the edge of moral insanity. It’s the double-dog dare to look through a mirror darkly and see some chilling truths about human nature.

world-building
UN-Successories

However, if we do our job well in coming up with the burning reason and translating it into world-building, the reader will remember our story long after the thrill ride through post-apocalyptic totalitarianism (zombies optional) is over.

Means to an end (of the world as we know it)

The good news is that once we have come up with the burning reason, we have done the hardest part of the whole exercise. If we feel wrung-out, slightly distraught, and in major need of a glass of wine, then we know we’ve done it right.

world-building

Now that we know why our world exists (i.e. the message), it’s time to figure out how we are going to convey that message. In other words, what are the tangible means that will give us the ability to show-not-tell when it comes to explaining this brave, new, freaky world?

Let’s take Fahrenheit 451 as an example. The burning reason of the story (pun FULLY intended) is to make us question censorship and the role of mass media in society. Bradbury then translates the qualms and questions into both physical objects (paper, books, written word, flame-throwers, the Wall) and social structures (‘firemen,’ the governing laws, the underground culture of dissent).

world-building

In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Margaret Atwood uses color and clothing to deepen the impression of the politicization of women’s bodies. An old Scrabble game set becomes another tangible symbol of oppression, rebellion, and consequences.

World-building
Women dressed as handmaids promoting the Hulu original series “The Handmaid’s Tale” stand along a public street during the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Film Interactive Festival 2017 in Austin, Texas, U.S., March 11, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder – RTX30ML9

From the Barbaloot suits of ‘The Lorax’ to the spice and sands of ‘Dune,’ speculative fiction requires a blood sacrifice of something ordinary. We find the everyday things that best represent the burning reason. Then, we offer them up to be stretched, twisted, and torn until they become truly frightening.

Until they become perfect.

Twist and shout

The good news is that we are done with the really hard parts. Figuring out the burning reason behind our world involves uncomfortable questioning. Identifying the tangible symbols requires logic and hard choices. But turning the symbols into that freaky mix of familiar-and-yikes?

That’s fun.

Okay, so maybe you and I define ‘fun’ a little differently. Is it so wrong for a girl to enjoy daydreaming about turning the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse into Twitter handles that secretly hide the not-so-benevolent intentions of a multi-national cabal bent on eradicating our civil liberties in a post-nuclear-zombie-disaster era?

world-building
This is why writers can’t have nice things.

In all seriousness, this is the part of world-building where we get to flex our imaginary muscles and muscular imaginations. Once we have a tangible symbol, we need to put it through an intellectual stress test.

Let’s look at ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card as an example. The burning reason behind the world-building is questioning how far we are prepared to go to survive as a species. The tangible symbol is a military academy (among other things). The stress test is that Card stretches the concept and purpose of a military academy to its most extreme limit.

While these academies have a goal of instilling loyalty and discipline, producing genocidal sociopaths isn’t in the brochure for West Point.

world-building

We take the concept and purpose of each symbol and either stretch it to its limits…or compress it until it becomes oppressive. The books in Fahrenheit 451 are examples of compression. Books are compressed by fire and memory, leading the reader back up through pondering the concept and purpose of books, and eventually to the questioning of censorship and mass media.

Whoa, did I just bring that full circle? Boom, baby!

The whole world in our hands

World-building is the most fun a writer can have when it comes to distributing death, distruction, and dystopia for speculative fiction. (Legally. Whatever you do in your off-time is your business. *snerk*)

world-building

When it comes to the down-and-dirty process of creating our worlds, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. While I like to nail down every detail I can, from toilet paper to totalitarianism, other writers prefer creation-on-the-fly. Both methods work. There are also problems with both methods. My way can be a bit too rigid and create unnecessary roadblocks. On-the-fly creation can lead to logical holes the size of the Grand Canyon.

world-building

At the end of the day, both methods require a balance between flexibility and attention to detail. Both techniques work best when we grant ourselves the grace of time. Time to think. Time to imagine. Time for our brains to catch up and wave the red flag of contradicting details. Time to find deeper meanings and motives behinds the symbols and reasons.

Time to create the best dysFUNctional world we can.

What’s your favorite dysFUNctional world? Tell me in the comments!

Regularly scheduled mayhem

No surprise here, but I have SO much more to say about this. I am itching to talk about space operas, zombies, YA dystopias, and flavor-of-the-month apocalypses.

From limits to liminality, I have a LOT to say about world-building in general. Kristen is kind enough to occasionally remove my muzzle and allow me to spout off deconstructionist analyses of various books, shows, and movies. But then, the timer goes off, and the muzzle goes back on. *le sigh*

world-building
…because SOMEONE (aka Supreme Emperor Denny Basenji, blessings upon his paws) is an a$$hole at the vet…

Still, she has found a way to channel my slightly manic musings (after we realized the electro-shock therapy just wasn’t working). Kristen and I are offering a Saturday workshop of three classes about speculative fiction. I’ll be teaching world-building (naturally). You’ll get a double-teaming treat of me and Kristen TOGETHER for the character class. Then, Kristen brings some sanity back to the proceedings (after using the tranquilizer gun on me) with a class on plotting for speculative fiction.

If you’re interested, check out the classes below! More classes listed here.

Building Planet X: Out-of-This-World-Building for Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

Speculative fiction may be a way of seeing the world ‘through a glass darkly,’ but it can also be one of the clearest, most pointed, and even most disturbing ways of seeing the truth about ourselves and our society.

It’s not just the weird stuff that makes the settings of speculative fiction so unnerving. It’s the way ‘Normal’ casually hangs out at the corner of ‘Weird’ and ‘Familiar.’

But it’s trickier than it seems to get readers to this intersection without letting them get bogged down in the ‘Swamp of Useless Detail’ or running them into the patch of ‘Here be Hippogriffs’ (when the story is clearly about zombies). How do we create a world that is easy to slip into, absorbingly immersive, yet not distracting from the character arcs and plots?

This class will cover:

  • Through the looking glass darkly: How to take a theme/issue/message and create a world that drives it home to the reader.
  • Ray guns and data chips: The art of showing vs. telling in world-building.
  • Fat mirror vs. skinny mirror: What is scarce in the world? Valuable? Forbidden? Illegal? What do people want vs. what they have vs. what they need?
  • Drawing a line in the sand: What are the laws, taboos, limits of this world? What is unacceptable to you/the reader/the character? How are they the same or different, and why it matters.
  • Is Soylent Green gluten-free and other vital questions: All the questions you need to ask about your world, but didn’t know…and how to keep track of all the answers.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


Populating Planet X: Creating Realistic, Relatable Characters in Speculative Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 1:00—3:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

It’s a time-honored tradition in literature to take an ordinary person out of his or her normal life and throw them into a whirlwind of extraordinary circumstances (zombies/tyrants/elves/mean girls optional). After all, upsetting the Corellian apple cart is what great storytellers do best.

It’s also that very same ordinariness and normalcy that first gets the reader to identify then empathize with the characters and stick with them (and the book) through to the end.

But, what do we do when our ‘ordinary’ protagonist lives with a chip implant and barcode tattoo, and our antagonist happens to be a horde of flesh-eating aliens…or a quasi-fascist regime bent on enforcing social order, scientific progress above ethics, and strict backyard composting regulations (those MONSTERS!)?

How the heck is the reader supposed to identify with that? I mean, seriously. Regulating backyard composting? It would never happen in a free society.

This leaves us with two challenges in creating characters for speculative fiction: 1. How to use the speculative world-building to shape the backgrounds, histories, and personalities of characters, and 2. How to balance the speculative and the relatable to create powerful, complex character arcs.

This class will cover:

  • Resistance is futile: What does normal look like for the characters? What’s different or strange, and how to get readers to accept that retinal scans and Soylent Green are just par for the course.
  • These aren’t the droids you’re looking for: What are the discordant elements around the characters? What are their opinions about it? What are the accepted consequences or outcomes?
  • You gonna eat that?: Whether it’s running from brain-eating zombies or fighting over dehydrated space rations, what is important both physically and emotionally to the character? What is in short supply or forbidden?
  • We’re all human here (even the ones over there with tentacles): The basic principles and techniques of creating psychological touchpoints readers can identify with.
  • Digging out the implant with a grapefruit spoon: In a speculative world, what are the stakes for the character? The breaking point? The turning point?
  • And so much more!!!

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


Beyond Planet X: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 4:00—6:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term used to describe narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements. This includes but it not necessarily limited to fantasy, science fiction, horror, utopian, dystopian, alternate history, apocalyptic fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction.

Basically, all the weird stuff.

Gizmos, gadgets, magic, chainsaws, demons, fantastical worlds and creatures are not enough and never have been. Whether our story is set on Planet X, in the sixth dimension of hell, on a parallel world, or on Earth after Amazon Prime gained sentience and enslaved us all, we still must have a core human story that is compelling and relatable.

In this class we will cover:

  • Discovering the core human story problem.
  • How to plot these unique genres.
  • Ways to create dimensional and compelling characters.
  • How to harness the power of fear and use psychology to add depth and layers to our story.
  • How to use world-building to enhance the story, not distract from it.

***A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—6:00 p.m. EST.

REGISTER HERE

Recordings of all three classes is also included with purchase.

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