);

Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Categorized: Writing Tips

Money is fundamental to our lives but taboo in polite conversation…much like sex. But just like sex, money is one of the main drivers of human behavior. And what do we pattern our characters’ behavior on? Yup. Exactly.

Now, of course, I would never be so crass as to suggest that any of our protagonists are motivated by such indelicate—even sordid—things such as money or sex (*rolls eyes, but soldiers on*). Protagonists are always ultimately convinced to act solely from altruism, and villains are the ones who simply must be avaricious and lustful. (*accidentally rolls eyes so hard I fall over backward*)

Money, writing, history, historical fiction

Except, sex and money are just shorthand proxies for deeper, more complex psychological stimuli. In this case, ‘sex’ as a motivator encompasses everything from our biological impetus to procreate—because the world by now totally needs more humans *eye roll…OW!*—to the pleasures and comforts of companionship.

‘Money’ is the stand-in for scarcity, acquisition, and competition for what we need to survive, from basics like food and water to the finer points of existential fulfillment.

And, while plotting is totally Kristen’s wheelhouse, it’s safe to say all plots boil down to one basic premise: a character wants/needs/lacks something and must overcome obstacles to obtain it.

No matter what genre we write, character motivation matters. Therefore, money matters.

Haves, Have-Nots, and Have-a-Snickers-Cait-You’re-not-Yourself

I am not the kindest editor, and I’m a downright PMS-ridden-harpy when it comes to historical anachronisms.

Wanna trigger the transformation? Just drop any of the following little gems into prose:

Characters using generic ‘gold coins’ to pay for bread and cheese (a whole other rage topic for another time);

WORSE, using those same coins across international borders (because universal currency, exchange rates, and value of goods was so standard and easily handled. Genghis Khan’s forced standardization of currency conversion across his empire is a totally underrated achievement of his. Too bad Europe was all like, “Yeah, no, thanks, we’re good with our seventy-five-and-counting different currencies. Try back next century, yeah?”);

Money, writing, history, historical fictionLook, I get that researching and figuring out how to include depictions of money sounds about as much fun as listening to Gilbert Gottfried read Strunk & White at open mic night. But, we just have to suck it up and look at it as penance for our sins. Or something like that.

Wanna see the harpy pop out again? Give me a servant girl with more wardrobe changes than a Lady Gaga concert. Or the poor farming family whose feisty, independent daughter is always buying and reading books. Or the Regency version of the Mary Sue Shopping Spree.

Quick, anybody got a Snickers? I’m feeling a little peckish.

Money doesn’t grow on trees

Here is the most important tip for using ye olde economics in historical fiction:

Ask questions.

What questions, you ask? (OMG, stop me, I’m so punny!)

Money, writing, history, historical fiction

ALL the questions, because to paraphrase/absolutely slaughter Socrates: we’re not always smart enough to know what we don’t know.Here’s a basic set of questions I use:

Where (literally) in the world are the characters? What are the local industries, geographical resources, etc.? Ship-building on the coast, sheep-shearing inland.

What are the major imports/exports of that region or country at the time? Robin Hood didn’t ever eat corn-on-the-cob (corn is SO 1492!).

What do the characters do for a living? How much is the wage or income for that time period/region/profession/social status? What would the modern equivalent be? The world wasn’t just nobles, peasants, and beggars. There were comfortable—even wealthy—craftsmen, tradesmen, physicians, lawyers, accountants, etc.

What is the currency of the region/country? What were the denominations in use? Was currency used at all, or was it a barter system? Nowadays, who remembers the French ‘franc’? How about the French ‘livre’ or ‘louis d’or’? Okay, yes, I do, but I’m a nerd.

Did they have servants? How many and what kind? What did they pay them? Elbow grease was the original renewable energy source, and even relatively poor families might have a ‘girl’ come in once a week to help out.

What exactly would a character own? Capsule wardrobe or queen’s trousseau?

If you are feeling a little freaked and a lot overwhelmed by the seemingly enormous, torturous research paper I have just assigned you…don’t. This is fiction, and while relative accuracy is necessary, footnotes are not required.In fact, I’m about to show you how to cheat.

My money’s on the answer…

I totally get it that not everyone dreams about spending hours organizing one’s non-fiction library by time period-topic-region. *cough*

Money, writing, history, historical fiction

So, for those out there who just want to get the job done, I present…the quick and dirty way to research just about anything for historical fiction.

Make sure you have a way to organize the research you gather because the last thing any writer wants is to find that *exact* detail we needed, then waste hours trying to find that page again.

Always start with Wikipedia. Print out or save the relevant articles. Make note of dates, places, foreign language words that will need translation if used in the story, specific terms, etc.

Don’t click away yet! Scroll down to the bottom and look at the footnotes! There’s gold in them thar hills! The cited books and articles are the next level of resources for when there’s time/interest.

Next up? Ask Dr. Google. The first entry is almost always Wikipedia, but usually the next hits are also established sources. Google also has great ye olde currency conversion links.

If you know an impecunious doctoral student, bribe them with home-cooked food in exchange for help accessing JStor, one of the largest online repositories of scholarly articles. Also, many public libraries and alma maters offer a wide range of research databases.

Often, Google provides the most precise results from Google Books (because Google is a self-referential bastard). Google Books basically is like a mini-Project Gutenberg (where all kinds of out-of-copyright primary sources are available for free download). Google Books will even HIGHLIGHT the relevant phrases on the pages of the book, and you just can’t get more silver-platter-research than that.

Adding it all up

All joking aside, here’s the process in a nutshell:

  • Get your questions ready.
  • Get ready to organize your findings so you can find ’em again.
  • Go to Wikipedia and print the heck out of the articles…and don’t forget the footnotes!
  • Do a Google search to find other professional or academic resources.
  • If you need to dig deeper, go to the public library or use alumni privileges to access JStor and other academic and research databases.
  • Search Google Books for info hidden in rare and out-of-print books, and Project Gutenberg for free, downloadable primary sources.

Money, writing, history, historical fiction

Time is money

I often get asked, “How long should I spend researching?”

The answer is easy.

It depends.

*ducks*

Money, writing, history, historical fiction

No, really, it does depend on a lot of individually-determined factors, like how familiar we already are with a time period, how comfortable we are with historical research, or even how much mind-numbing 18th-century prose we can take reading before we tear our hair out, wonder WTF we are doing with our lives, and go become meter maids because that looks like so much more fun than this *ish*.

However, I do think a good milestone is when our brains ‘click.’ Certain names, dates, facts, or events keep popping up consistently, and we begin to feel an almost-comfortable familiarity with them. Another good test is when we don’t need our notes to tell our long-suffering significant other/friend/stranger-duct-taped-to-chair/cellmate about the time period and what people lived like and could afford.

Money, writing, history, historical fiction

Like all things in writing (and life, but that’s another dissertation for another time), learning to research money takes time and practice. Luckily for penurious writers, the one thing researching money doesn’t take…is money.

(Unless people want to give me Amazon gift cards so I can make headway on my 35-page book wish list. Then I’ll totally take the money because then I can get more books and make things like this ‘Catalogue Raisonné about money, trade, economics, and shopping in history.)

money, history, writing
Want more of these Catalogues Raisonnes? I have a whole page of them over on my website. Just click the image!

NEW CLASS!

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, November 16, 2018. 7:00 P.M. – 9:00 P.M. EST

So…how’s NaNoWriMo going for you?

The first 10k words? No problem. Another 5k? I can pants that.

Now…I’m at 18k words with 14 days left…and 0 clues about where to go from here.

Sound familiar? This is what I call ‘The Sticky Middle,’ and it is a treacherous swamp that can swallow even the most accomplished, focused writers. It is the moment when writers are most likely to be pulled under by the forces of writer’s block, insecurity, and exhaustion.

The Sticky Middle is the root cause of 98% (I’m guessing here, but I’m pretty darn sure I’m right) of all unfinished first drafts. This class will teach you how to get out of The Sticky Middle…not just for NaNoWriMo, but for every book you write from now on!

This class will cover:

  • Walking into Quicksand: Half of getting out of The Sticky Middle is knowing how we got in there in the first place…and how to avoid making these early mistakes next time;
  • Maslow Stripping: Assessing where characters are when we get stuck…and what we need to take away from them in order to move forward;
  • The Treasure Map: Making sure we have our eye on the prize (i.e. the ending), and how to use that to get through The Sticky Middle;
  • Stop! Break it Down!: (Couldn’t help myself with that…) A blunt, practical way to tackle the amorphous goo that is The Sticky Middle and wrestle it into realistic, achievable, bite-size steps.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

REGISTER NOW!

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in Boston with her husband and neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. She likes history, science, Jack Daniels, jewelry, pasta, and solitude.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Which is more important? Plot or character? Anyone currently doing NaNoWriMo is all, “WORDS! ONLY WORDS MATTER NOW! Get off my case, Blogger Chick. I’ll figure out plot and character later.”

*awkward silence*

To write great fiction, we need both. Plot and characters work together. One arc drives the other much like one cog serves to turn another, thus generating momentum in the overall engine we call “STORY.”

If we goof up plot? Readers/Audiences get confused or call FOUL. Watch the movie Ouija for what I am talking about *shakes head*.

Goof up characters? No one cares about the plot.

New writers are particularly vulnerable to messing up characters. We drift too far to one end of the spectrum or the other—Super-Duper-Perfect versus Too Dumb to Live—and this can make a story fizzle because there is no way to create true dramatic tension.

This leaves us (the frustrated author) to manufacture conflict and what we end up with is drama’s inbred cousin melodrama. 

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

If characters are too perfect, too goody-goody and too well-adjusted? If they always make noble, good and professional decisions? Snooze fest.

Again. Bad decisions make great fiction.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more booksOf course, the other side of that is what I call The Gilligan Effect. Yes, I am dating myself here and I apologize if I upset any DIE-HARD Gilligan’s Island fans, but I remember being a kid and this show nearly giving me an aneurism (being the highly logical child I was).

After the third time Gilligan botched up the escape off the island? Kristen would have gone Lord of the Flies and Piggy Gilligan would have mysteriously gone “missing.”

I also recall how the stranded party could make everything out of coconuts except a freaking BOAT, and the only reason I kept watching was because it was better than being locked outside to play in heat that shifted asphalt to a plasma state.

Yay, Texas summers!

Yet, I’ve read books with characters that make Gilligan look like a rocket scientist…then been compelled to hurl the book across the room.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books
This is me after reading certain books *stabbing self*

Flawed vs. Too Dumb to Live

Today we are going to talk about how we can make characters flawed without crossing over into TDTL (Too Dumb To Live) Territory. This commercial never gets old *giggles*

Let’s hide behind the CHAINSAWS!!!! *clutches sides*. Or this one about gals tripping too many times in horror movies. BWA HA HA HA HA HA!

Okay, I’m back *giggles*.

Great stories are filled with characters making bad decisions, and when this is done well, we often don’t really notice it beyond the winding tension in our stomach, the clenching that can only be remedied by pressing forward and seeing if it works out okay.

When characters are properly flawed, the audience remains captured in the fictive dream.

When we (the writer) goof up? The fictive dream is shattered. The audience is no longer part of the world because they’re too busy fuming that anyone could be that stupid. They also now cease to care about the character because, like Gilligan? They kind of want said TDTL character to die.

If this is our protagonist? Extra bad. Our protagonist should make mistakes, just not ones so egregious the reader stops rooting for him/her.

Bad Decisions Birthed from The Flaw

When we create a protagonist, we should remember that all strengths have a complimentary weakness. If a character has never been tested by fire, the protagonist is blind to the weakness.

For instance, great leaders can be control freaks. Loyal people can be overly naive. Compassionate people can be unrealistic. Y’all get the idea.

This dual nature of human strength paired with fallibility is why plot is just as critical.

Plot as Crucible

The plot is the crucible that tests the mettle and reveals and fires out the flaw. The strength ultimately will have to be stronger than the weakness because this is how the protagonist will grow to become a hero by story’s end.

A great example of this is one of my favorite movies, The EdgeAnthony Hopkins plays billionaire Charles Morse. Charles is extremely successful and very much in his own head. Though he’s a genius, he lives the sheltered existence of the uber-wealthy.

What happens when all that “head-knowledge” is what he needs to survive a plane crash in the unforgiving wilderness?

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

When the plane crashes and he and the other two survivors make it to shore, Morse does the right thing. He knows they need to get dry before they all die from hypothermia. He also realizes Stephen, the photographer, is in full panic.

What is the intelligent thing to do? Put the photographer to work doing something fruitful to take his mind off his fear.

Bright (Bad) Idea Fairy

The problem, however, is Morse assumes the photographer has the same knowledge-base and doesn’t take time to show Stephen how to use a knife properly and the man is badly injured as a result. Now we’ve already had a problem (plane crash) and now we have a complication (bad injury) and then it gets worse.

Morse, again, being an in-his-own-head-guy and unaccustomed to having to communicate WHY he wants certain things done, tells Robert Green to bury the blood-soaked fabric.

Green is jealous of Morse and rebellious and instead of following instructions and burying the material? He hangs the blood-soaked rags from a tree where an incoming storm whips up the scent of a newly opened All You Can Eat Buffet.

Soon, the men are being hunted by an apex predator with the munchies for humans.

***Side note here. Look at the genius in the choice of character names. Morse, a cryptic person who must unravel the “code” of his situation and realize the bear is actually the (MUCH) lesser threat. Green, the man who envies to such a degree it drives him to plot a murder. Stephen is the first to die. “Stephen” was also the first Christian martyr, the first innocent to die for the greater cause—salvation.

#DeepThoughts

Back to FLAWS

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more booksBut all of this was birthed from a myriad of flaws. Morse failing to communicate and assuming his comrades are operating with the same head knowledge (because he’s never had to use this type of information in a real-world way).

As a billionaire, Morse has never been required to explain himself before. He doesn’t understand that this might be a good time to START.

Additionally, the two photographers are city people who don’t have the training/understanding to know 1) NOT to drag a knife toward the body and 2) that the smallest scent of blood will draw predators. BIG ONES.

These men are used to the “civilized world.”  When thrust into the wild, they make a critical error. They fail to properly appreciate that their position at the top of the food chain has drastically shifted.

Only ONE member of our stranded coterie gets that they’ve suddenly gone from ordering OFF menus to being ON the menu #DailySpecial #MarketPrice #JokesInPoorTaste…

Where was I? Oh, yes…

Bad Decisions Depend on Circumstances

Sometimes characters will make bad decisions simply because this is a completely new world or a set of circumstances they’ve never faced, thus have no way to fully appreciate. The “bad” decision was not a “bad decision” before the adventure.

A good example? Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings. In the Shire, people talk and are sociable. These naive characters haven’t yet felt the consequences of this new and dangerous world.

To them? Chatting away and freely sharing information at The Prancing Pony is NOT a bad decision in their minds. Neither is frying bacon on top of a mountain.

They’ve always lived a life that if they were in a pub? They drank and made friends. If they wanted bacon? They just made bacon. They’ve never had to think beyond their mood or stomachs. The Hobbits don’t have the experiential base to grasp that fire is a “Come and Kill Me” beacon.

Bad Decisions & The Wound

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

We’ve talked about The Wound in other posts. In Thelma & Louise what is the wound? A lifetime of male oppression. In Thelma’s case, her husband controls every aspect of her life.

Thus, when she finally does get on her own, she has poor judgement and is naive and that’s how she nearly ends up raped in a honky-tonk parking lot.

Louise has been a victim (shamed and alone) and doesn’t trust men or the law. Thus, her baggage is what leads her to shoot Thelma’s attacker, but then also dovetails into the really, really bad decision to run.

But if we look at all these examples from an analytical distance, these characters are just DUMB. But why aren’t they TDTL? Context. Because of plot we (the audience) are not staring down at them like specimens through a microscope. We empathize with “bad” decisions. Why? Because there’s context (their world).

Making “Stupid” Forgivable

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Great writing is a sort of alchemy that transforms the raw material of “stupid” into the literary gold we recognize as “damaged,” “broken,” and/or “naive”—which we have ALL been at one time or another.

This hits us in the feels. We relate, connect, and BOND with the characters because we’ve been there, done that, and have the scars to prove it.

In The Edge, “bad” decisions are forgivable because most of us are not wilderness experts. Readers can empathize with maybe doing something seriously stupid if stranded in a similar fashion.

In The Lord of the Rings we, the audience, have “been” to the Shire—and know what world created the childlike Merry and Pippin. Thus, we appreciate these characters are grossly out of their depth and give them a pass.

In Thelma & Louise we can understand how damaged people make poor decisions because, unless we’ve been living under a rock, we’ve made similar choices, and suffered consequences created from fear not reason.

What this means is that, while ALL of these characters made really wrong decisions, they are necessary and pardonable decisions that serve to drive the character arc and thus the plot’s momentum.

That is the final note on characters making bad decisions.

Plot Puppets

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Do we have a character making a mistake, withholding vital information, acting irrationally because it is coming from a deeper place of flaws, circumstance or wounds?

Or, do we have a character playing marionette? Characters are making a mistakes because we NEED them to. The tension has fizzled, so let’s just let them do something epically stupid (and random)?

Audiences can tell the difference between mistakes that are organic and flow from deeper emotional waters versus something contrived. And we can ALL be guilty of forcing characters to make bad choices simply because we sense tension is missing. Even I have to go back and ask the tough question…WHY is this character doing this?

What are your thoughts? I love hearing from you!

What are your thoughts regarding characters making poor decisions? What are some of your favorite examples? Ever quit a book, movie, or show because you wanted everyone to DIE? What are some great examples of characters who you should hate, but you forgive? Why? Can you think of what activated empathy instead of disdain?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

FYI: I’m AM loading new classes. They’ll be up next post. I know I said that last time, but whatever. I lied 😛 .

What are some classes y’all need? Topics you’d like me to talk about here on the blog. I dig suggestions!

BTW: October’s winner for the comment contest is Bjørn Larssen!

Please email your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. One-inch margins, double-spaced, Times New Roman font, please. Or you are also welcome to choose to send me a query or synopsis instead. Query shouldn’t exceed 500 words and synopsis 2,500 MAX. Congratulations!

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

 

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

National Novel Writing Month starts tomorrow (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo). For those who aren’t yet familiar with NaNoWriMo, it is a yearly challenge to write 50K words in thirty days. It’s a fantastic introduction into writing as a profession, because writing as a profession differs vastly from writing for a hobby. 

NaNoWriMo is held during the first month of the holiday season. WHYYYY? Because a) there IS no perfect time to write b) pros have to meet deadlines, even sucky ones and c) writing professionally WILL eventually make us choose between word count and friends and family.

So, best to get that out of the way early.

For those who want to write a “novel” for fun or to simply see if you can finish a “novel” then today’s writing advice doesn’t precisely apply. Alas, everything changes when our goal is to produce a novel as a commodity—as in expecting people to pay money and part with 12-15 hours of free time they don’t have to read and love our words.

This brings me to my first point.

Description is NOT Story

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers
Pretty…but um okay.

Fiction isn’t just a bunch of pretty words. Many of us who decide we long to write a novel have been told most of our lives we are “good with words.” We probably even made top grades in English and believe we already “know how to write” because of all the As we made in school.

Ah, problem is this though. Our English teachers didn’t care that we used twenty-five modifiers on the first page of our short stories. They didn’t care because their GOAL was to teach us what a modifier was and how to use it…NOT to prepare us to write for commercial publication.

Yes, I know many of us received A++++ es for our cerulean skies and peridot eyes. Alas, fiction is about one thing and one thing only. PROBLEMS. Fiction is NOT description.

Fiction is a Crucible

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

Fundamentally, superb fiction is the hero’s journey and the hero’s journey is almost always (99.9999% of the time) about a person undergoing a TEST he or she didn’t CHOOSE.

Think of all the celebrated fiction, regardless of genre—Harry Potter (series by J.K Rowling), The Hunger Games (series by Suzanne Collins), The Help (Kathryn Stockett),  The Martian (Andy Weir),  In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad Book: Tana French), Winter’s Bone (Daniel Woodrell), A Man Called Ove (Fredrik Backman), etc.

In every one of these novels (series) the protagonist DID NOT ASK for the challenges that fate tossed at their feet, but they DID (eventually) take up the journey and enter the fire that would change them and their world forever.

Sure, some of these titles have AMAZING description. Into the Woods is total prose porn. YET, description isn’t story. Tana French, description genius she is, still had to have a core story problem or she didn’t have a novel.

One BIG reason a lot of folks will stall out and fail to finish NaNoWriMo is they don’t have a story. They have a crap ton of pretty words and are trying to create a ten-foot-tall cake with no cake…only icing and sprinkles.

Description and Voice

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

How any writer decides to use or not use description is a matter of voice. This said, the professional author recognizes this is a business. Books are a commodity meant to eventually be sold in exchange for money. Real money that buys stuff.

The more books we sell, the better for everyone. Agents are happy, publishers elated, bookstores celebrate, and libraries thrilled. Culture and society benefits from a literate, reading population AND…authors have money for coffee (which keeps the murder rate down).

This said, there are a lot of different tastes we can appeal to, much like any other product. Think about art. Some folks are willing to spend tens of thousands on a giant canvas that looks like the drop cloth from the last time I painted my office.

Others? A single red dot suspended on a vast white background. Me? I love anything on velvet that involves a bullfight and Elvis…because I’m a smart@$$ (if my art glows under a blacklight, that’s a bonus).

Actually, I am not—quite—that gauche but I’m not evolved enough to “get” anything at The Modern in Fort Worth (modern art museum, FYI).

Um, it’s a box and a lightbulb. Oh-kay. *looks around* I don’t get it.

The point is this. It doesn’t matter if we use a lot of description or a little or we’re somewhere in between. Why? Because there’s an audience for all styles—so long as we have a STORY to go along WITH that description (or lack thereof).

We Can Do Better

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

I know I’ve mentioned this particular bugaboo in a recent post. We are authors. Authors are artists. This means we should be able to do a better job at description than non-writers. It doesn’t take an artist to lean on raven hair, emerald eyes, or porcelain skin. Can we use simple descriptors like these? Sure.

But please keep in mind that books (thus authors) already have a lot of competition—and not from other books. We’re competing against Netflix, hot yoga, YouTube, cat videos, Spotify, video games, etc.

Humans have more ways to be entertained than ever before in human history. Should our potential reader (code for customer) choose reading as their distraction of choice, we’re going to have to up our game to make ours stand apart.

Suffice to say, more of the same is a risky plan. It certainly won’t be enough to catch the attention of a culture with the attention span of a crack-addicted fruit bat. AND, what catches the attention span of our culture largely isn’t what one would initially assume. They crave tough mental work and eschew being spoon fed.

Much of the modern audience is ignoring the blockbuster Hollywood movies, and choosing instead to get lost in Game of Thrones. A series so complex it need a GPS, a team of sherpas and a Dungeon Master Manual to keep up. Much of the brain-holding description so popular a decade ago now fails to resonate with contemporary audiences.

We (the audience) like to have places where we can fill in blanks ourselves.

This means the blow-by-blow police sketch description might have worked well enough in days of yore, but now? It’s common as clay. We CAN describe a character directly, though often oblique description is far more visceral, thus more resonant.

Oblique description. Er?

Perception is Reality

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

Far too often, description is used either to hold the audiences’ brains or to make word count or both. Why do we hold the audiences’ brains? We might be new.

Being new often means we want to be in total control (new at the whole “playing god” thing). Until we gain some experience we don’t trust the audience to “get it” without us spoon-feeding them.

Yet, the largest reason we fail to employ description for maximum impact is that writing is HARD. It’s an art that takes time, training and a LOT of hard work to get good at. It takes time to fully appreciate what description can really DO.

Description is a conduit into the mind of the characters. If we (writers) describe another person, a room, a landscape using a lot of pretty words that took an hour on the on-line thesaurus to compile, we are missing the point.

Description delivers perception. Perception IS character. How any character sees is WHO this character IS.

For brevity’s sake, I’m going to riff off a couple examples to make a point (these are EXAMPLES, not me trying to win a Pulitzer, so just do me a favor and roll with it):

Setting and Character

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

Example A:

Anne hesitated, bracing herself against a heavy oak doorframe with tiny notches that ran almost up to her shoulder. Ghosts of her father’s expensive cigarettes lingered in the cheap damask curtains stiff from age and brittle with dust.
When she lifted the half-finished afghan from her mother’s side of the couch and clutched it to her chest, a cloud of cat fur sent her into a sneezing fit. Moments later, despite every vow to remain strong, her sneezes shifted to sobs.

Example B:

Anne braced herself against the battered oak doorframe painted the color of molded avocado. The notches of long-forgotten growth spurts were still visible, scored through the lead-lined enamel. She absently ran her fingers along the marks like braille, though they still told the same story they had twenty years ago.
Nicotine stained curtains turned the room the color of weak tea. She knew at a glance there was no sense washing them. They’d only disintegrate.
Just like everything else.

Notice same name of a character, both leaning in a door (presumably of her home) but the experience and feeling is different. One Anne is, for whatever reason, missing someone who’s no longer around for whatever reason. Maybe they died, have been put in a home or are in the hospital. We don’t know, but the description evokes QUESTIONS.

***Questions are what turn pages, btw 😉 .

The other Anne is dreading some sort of task ahead she didn’t ask for. Probably similar scenarios. Family that’s passed away, disappeared, had to be placed in care facility. Yet, the emotions THIS Anne experiences in a similar room are very different.

Characters and Character

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

Example A:

Sarah almost knocked over her desktop when her boss, Frank O’Leary, barked her name. She managed to hit the Alt-Tab fast enough that he didn’t see she’d been playing the on-line game Buzz Off instead of doing her quarterly projections. She’d named her giant fly-swatter O-Dreary.
She used O-Dreary to obliterate butterflies into bright clueless smears on glass, even though it cost her points. The object of the game was to kill the mosquitos and not the butterflies.
But O-Dreary didn’t get that point any more than O’Leary. She enjoyed the poetry. It helped pass the time.

Example B:

Sarah didn’t even bother glancing away from her desktop when her boss, Frank O’Leary, barked her name. She’d been playing a game of Buzz Off with someone from Accounting using the call sign BigMan007. O’Leary peered over her shoulder, then let out a laugh when she swatted BigMan007’s wasp into a giant smear of Technicolor goo.
They still had yet to figure out the real identity of BigMan007 and could only agree that BigMan007 probably wasn’t from Accounting and definitely was overcompensating for something.
Normally, they’d engage in a heated debate over this pivotal mystery but today was different. One look at O’Leary’s face told her it was time to get to work. For real. Not a good sign.
Again, perception is reality.

In the first example, we get that Sarah doesn’t like or respect her boss or her job. She has a dark sense of humor and her boss has NO sense of humor.

In the second example, however, her boss joins in and the reader sees there is some sort of odd rapport between boss and employee. Maybe she doesn’t take her job seriously or maybe she’s very good at her job and has been passing time until something worthy of her skillset arrives. Her boss gives her leeway to goof off because she does the heavy lifting.

Whatever. We could go any number of ways. The point is simply we use action to show character instead of being lazy.

Sarah hated her job and did everything she could to dodge her task-master boss.

Show Don’t Tell

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

Description, used properly, permits the audience to participate in the drama. They can cast the person THEY conjure in their minds’ eyes (likely a boss they once hated, which is far more emotive). We’re also hooking with story, not every fancy word we can extract from the obscure section of the dictionary.

Sure, we could describe every detail of the home Anne (above) is visiting, but the details mean nothing until they do.

It wouldn’t matter if we described the sofa as a late Victorian reproduction with faded blue velvet, dotted with needlepoint cushions. If we fail to assign what this all MEANS to the character, it falls flat.

The late Victorian reproduction dotted with needlepoint cushions Anne’s mother bought with money Anne saved for college AND the late Victorian reproduction dotted with needlepoint cushions Anne and her mother made together before her mom spiraled into dementia are TWO TOTALLY different sofas.

What Does It MEAN?

The goal is to captivate the audience with STORY. Description is an amazing device for kidnapping—um, captivating—an audience (until we let them go at three in the morning hating themselves). Yet, I challenge all of us to strive to do more with less.

Feel free to describe what the character is wearing. How does he/she feel about the outfit? Is he/she miserable? Does he/she feel like a phony? Do his/her high end labels act as armor to hide deep insecurities? What do his/her clothes mean? Go read Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive or Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box to see my point.

Clothes should be more than what’s draped over a mannequin (lest our characters end up with the depth of a mannequin). If we bother mentioning clothing at all, the outfit should speak volumes about our characters and the story.

A great example is MC—Detective Ryan—from Tana French’s In the Woods: 

When I made the Murder squad, I already had my new work clothes—beautifully cut suits in materials so fine they felt alive to your fingers, shirts with the subtlest blue or green pinstripes, rabbit-soft cashmere scarves—hanging in my wardrobe for almost a year. I love the unspoken dress code.
~In the Woods, Tana French, page 7.

We learn A LOT in a couple sentences. First, Murder an ELITE squad and the unspoken dress code should reflect that.

Detective Ryan is a high achiever, assured of himself. How do we know this? He bought the “uniform” for a squad he hadn’t yet made—a YEAR before he made it.

We can see he pays extreme attention to detail, which is excellent for a detective. Ah, but he’s also self-absorbed, concerned with image. This is a noticeable harbinger of major problems.

Again, feel free to describe the room, the car, the office, but ponder what it MEANS. Furniture is only furniture until is isn’t (refer to sofa above). Weather can be and should be more than weather. Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island is a fabulous example. Setting can become a character.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Does this spark new ways to use description? Mind bubbling with creativity? Good!

***Announcement: Whether or not you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, I invite you to join us over at W.A.N.A.Tribe. It’s a NING I created where we meet every weekday (on the CHAT tab) to WRITE. We sprint in forty-minute intervals until we gas out. We officially begin at 7:00 a.m. CST but often we’re there far earlier.

We’ve been going strong for almost FIVE YEARS. Rain, sleet, shine, holidays, we are there.

W.A.N.A.Tribe is a paid site, so there are no ads, bots, trolls, politics, distractions, etc. It’s a water cooler where we team up and push one another for excellence. If you’re looking for accountability and a place free of distractions, sign up. It doesn’t cost y’all anything. I have to approve your membership (diligence to weed out bots).

Other than that? We sprint, then we relay what we accomplished, chat a few minutes then get back at it. Sprints can be used for word count, research, revisions, editing, etc. (basically anything productive). If you’ve done three sprints sitting on your butt, feel free to use one to tidy the kitchen and move around.

The point is simply focused productivity. THIS is the place to be if you want to finish NaNo. I think our record is someone finished in ten days. We are NOT alone, so can’t wait to see you there 😀 .

I LOVE hearing from you!

I’m loading new classes. They’ll be up next post. What are some classes y’all need? Topics you’d like me to talk about here on the blog. I dig suggestions!

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Or is every month NaNoWriMo for you? Does it intimidate you? Or, does it let loose the creative rage-unicorn trapped inside stabbing its way out? #RuiningUnicorns

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

 

 

Will Braden, Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, Will Braden, Kristen Lamb, self-help, productivity, handling stress, dealing with burnout, writer's block, emotional health and creativity, humor
Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, courtesy of Will Braden

I’ve finally returned safe and sound from keynoting for the Cruising Writers and realized Cait broke into my blog again. CLUE: Cookie crumbs, glitter, red wine stains, and CAIT WUZ HERE LUZR written in crayon on my WP dashboard.

I would expect no less.

Truthfully, I love when she “breaks in” because she’s a master of dropping truth bombs (as well as cookie crumbs), which I hope y’all noted with her last post.

Cait also wrote another blog on HER page: Unproductive: Why the Productivity Industry is Killing Us, which I’d like to riff off today. Productivity can be a good thing, but can also become a soul-sucking abyss.

To quote the great inspirational life coach Freidrich Nitezsche:

“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” ~ Freidrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil (Aphorism 146)

Part of me wonders if Nietzsche was like some 19th century Nostradamus who had a vision of my Yahoo mail *shudders*. As usual, Cait had excellent points about our cultural obsession with being more productive. Talk about facing the meaningless existence.

Alas, productivity in and of itself is neutral. Like TNT, radiation, sugar, or yoga pants, “productivity” is neither inherently good or bad.

The nature of “productivity” is always in how we conceptualize and then apply it. If we fail to take control and define our own metrics? We’ll be like a rudderless ship caught in a storm bracing for the inevitable.

Tossed this way and that until we’re ripped apart or run aground, coughing up mixed metaphors.

What’s the Abyss?

Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, Will Braden, Kristen Lamb, self-help, productivity, handling stress, dealing with burnout, writer's block, emotional health and creativity, humor
Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, courtesy of Will Braden

You might be wondering why I’m taking time to mention the abyss at all (other than that quoting Nietzsche makes me sound smart).

It’s because productivity when left as a vague construct is just that…an abyss. It’s a black hole, a singularity that can crush everything. A place where no light escapes.

The entire POINT of being more productive—allegedly—is so we can enjoy more free time. Ah, but here’s the rub. We free up time and it creates a vacuum which sucks in more stuff we “must” get done.

This then propels many of us to download an app, buy a new planner, ponder if cloning truly is all THAT unethical after all…

Why? Because we’ve either a) added more stuff onto our own To Do List OR b) allowed other people to shovel their $#@! onto our list.

We can all fall victim to the productivity abyss. It’s so easy to spiral into fixating on all we do poorly. Instead of noting what we’ve accomplished (and maybe celebrating a little), we can only seem to see what we didn’t do.

We pick at every flaw, berating how we could have done better, tried harder, accomplished more.

The world—our culture—wants us to think this way. Why? Because if we believe we’re a never ending failure, they can sell us a program, a book, an app, a service, a pill, a plan, a shrink or all of the above.

Defining Productivity

Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, Will Braden, Kristen Lamb, self-help, productivity, handling stress, dealing with burnout, writer's block, emotional health and creativity, humor
Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, courtesy of Will Braden

Before we go any further, I am a huge fan of books, plans, apps, and organizational tools.

Namely buying them…then hoping osmosis can take things from there (not much success on this front, btw).

Sure, on some level, I agree with Cait that the productivity grift is real. Anyone who’s ever been efficient at a “real job” learns quickly to be quiet about that skill…unless you want to be doing the job of three people.

For the same pay.

Alas, while the abyss is real we have to watch either/or thinking. If we fail to define what we want, what productivity means, and WHY we are bothering being productive in the first place, the abyss will eat us alive. We’re inexplicably despondent because we’re exhausted from all this activity that seems to propel us nowhere.

Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, Will Braden, Kristen Lamb, self-help, productivity, handling stress, dealing with burnout, writer's block, emotional health and creativity, humor
Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, courtesy of Will Braden

Conversely, we cannot do and control everything. Some of us need a reality check…or a sponsor who can look at our goals and then lovingly inform us we’re totally crazy.

This tends to be a unique problem for us Type A+ folks.

***Yes, Type A+ because we did the extra credit unlike the other slackers.

To define productivity, we need to first seek awareness. Like piling all the stuff from your closet on the bed then sorting through what to keep, what to donate (delegate) and what to trash. If we have no idea what our priorities are, what order they’re in, then we have no hope of defining a meaningful metric to measure success.

Malevolent Metrics & the Abyss

Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, Will Braden, Kristen Lamb, self-help, productivity, handling stress, dealing with burnout, writer's block, emotional health and creativity, humor
Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, courtesy of Will Braden

The abyss looooves for us to adopt no metrics or absurd metrics. We’ll be happy when we have five percent body fat, no wrinkles, a spotless home, children who speak three languages, and we donate a month a year serving the homeless in Darfur.

***Makes mental note to find actual location of Darfur.

One thing that jumped out at me when I read Cait’s post was how we can so easily mistake activity or busyness with productivity.

The world claims: Busy is GOOD and not busy is BAD (unproductive).

This is a seriously jacked up metric.

If you’ll pause with me a moment, you’ll see how this makes no sense and is completely at odds with natural law. Our culture (Western culture in particular) shames us for taking time off, going on vacation, sitting still in the quiet…doing….nothing.

Yet, nature has seasons. Winter is the time the world RESTS. This is when the trees deepen their roots so they can better weather and even survive future storms and droughts.

How many of us fall apart when life slams into us because our roots are too shallow?

Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, Will Braden, Kristen Lamb, self-help, productivity, handling stress, dealing with burnout, writer's block, emotional health and creativity, humor
Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, courtesy of Will Braden

Nature also teaches us that land that’s overworked eventually won’t produce. If forced to produce, each successive crop will be increasingly sicklier and leaner because the ground is depleted.

The ideal in farming is to let the land go fallow. Give it time to do…NOTHING. Time to “produce” what it wants—dandelions, sunflowers, crabgrass, poison ivy, ant hills, weeds.

When the land has time to do NOTHING, time to be UNproductive….it comes back better than ever.

Why do we use the term, “Dumb as dirt”? Seems to me the dirt’s smarter than I am. The dirt, at least, knows it needs a break. Knows winter is it’s time to…chill 😉 .

Ah, but modern industrial farms believe they can break the natural rules. They artificially add critical nutrients using chemicals and science and produce bumper crops of freakishly large berries that taste like…nothing. Outside looks pretty, but the proof is on the palate.

How many of us are doing the same thing? Using caffeine, energy drinks, sugar, motivational speakers to try to replenish what rest could do much better? We, too, look pretty on the outside but in truth? Life has lost all flavor. Our writing is bleh, our passion threadbare, our mind is moth-eaten and dreams all dusty.

Healthy Metrics, Happy Heart

Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, Will Braden, Kristen Lamb, self-help, productivity, handling stress, dealing with burnout, writer's block, emotional health and creativity, humor
Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, courtesy of Will Braden

Rest IS being productive. Being still, learning to be quiet, giving ourselves permission to enjoy the moment is crucial. When WE define what productive means, the abyss retreats. If my definition of success is a peaceful, joy-filled family then me screaming at everyone threatening them with a can of Endust does NOT serve my metric.

As writers, are we enjoying writing? When was the last time you had FUN? Science has proven the almost miraculous benefits of daydreaming. We do our best thinking when NOT thinking, our best problem-solving when NOT problem-solving. Maybe, just maybe we need not a NOT TO DO LIST way more than a TO DO LIST.

Hmmmmmm…..

Getting Practical 

Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, Will Braden, Kristen Lamb, self-help, productivity, handling stress, dealing with burnout, writer's block, emotional health and creativity, humor
Ennui Cat, Henri the Existentialist Cat, courtesy of Will Braden

I get that I’m not saying anything you’ve not heard before. Encouragement is vital. We are a distracted species, now more than ever and need to be reminded of what we know to be true.

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing, that’s why we recommend it daily.” ~ Zig Ziglar

Nietzsche and Ziglar are both making the same point. We become what we focus on the most. If we focus on how we can’t get it all done, how we suck because we didn’t do X, Y, T, D, F and B and only did all twenty other of the letters in the alphabet…we’re doomed.

Perception is reality. Ah, but since that is still a tad existential, here are some practical tips for keeping the abyss at bay.

Set Boundaries

Not everyone should have permission to walk in and out of our lives. Boundaries benefit everyone. Givers must set boundaries because takers never will. Guilt is a lie and boundaries benefit everyone.

Say NO

I know it can be a tough life skill to master, but if we want to keep the abyss at bay we gotta learn to Invoke the No.

Rest

Computer acts up, what do we do? Unplug it for a while. Works on people, too. Take regular breaks. The best thing we can do is prioritize rest. Think vacations are pricey? Try burnout.

I know I’ve blogged on ALL of these action items and I strive to walk my talk. Tuesday, I returned from keynoting for the Cruising Writers retreat (and will have more things to say about that later).

I had NO idea how battered I was from stress until I stepped onto a boat with no email, no wifi, no social media, and no life/family drama. A place where it was OKAY for dirty clothes to go in a closet and a place where I didn’t have to do dishes. This magical dreamland where having FUN was the entire POINT.

My left eye stopped twitching after a day or so.

Granted, I worked my tail off (being the speaker and all). But, just having a week where all that other “stuff” was peeled off my shoulders opened my eyes. Too many of my priorities were (are) seriously out of whack. But guess what? REST helped me see this. Having a break gave me perspective.

Whose To Do List am I doing anyway? Do I really HAVE to be doing blah blah blah blah? Maybe, maybe not.

In fact…probably not.

If I’ve not convinced you, maybe Henri can.

For those who’ve not yet encountered the fabulous Henri the Existentialist Cat (a.k.a. Ennui Cat), you’re welcome. You can also get your own copy of Henri’s book Henri, le Chat Noir: The Existential Musings of an Angst-Filled Cat so you can hold authentic suffering in your own hands.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Other than going as “crippling self-doubt” for Halloween? Are you like me and can be your own worst enemy? Fall prey to organizers, planners, apps only to end up MORE confused? Which planner did I write that in? 

Has it been too long since you had a break? Do you feel guilty for taking a nap? Reading a book? Enjoying a movie? Believe you should be at least folding laundry or doing yoga at the same time? Have you hit a wall where nothing seems fun anymore? And maybe your metrics need resetting?

I swear my personal metrics need to be reset more than my Apple password *face palm* .

Or are you good at setting boundaries and priorities? How do you do it?

Other than being a cyborg? KIDDING!

*mumbles* Not really. 

What tips do you have? Are there noticeable signs and symptoms you need to stop and reevaluate? Aside from a restraining order from AT&T’s customer service department?

#AskingForAFriend

I LOVE hearing from you!

Talk to us in the comments! Do you struggle with some of this stuff too? Or, have you gotten past it? What have you overcome? Share your success with us!

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

 

Perfect is the crystal meth of the soul. We know perfect is bad for us, that we should avoid it because it is impossible to attain. Yet, when we fail to remain vigilant, perfect’s promising high lures us in. Perfect whispers in our ear that we’re in total control and can stop any time we like. But that’s the lie, the hook. Oh, and once those hooks sink deep, the only way free from perfect is to bleed.

I know it seems like I’m being a tad dramatic, but anyone who dares to pursue anything remarkable must know the enemy and this one is a doozy. Why? Because this is the perfect enemy.

Why is perfect so deadly, especially for writers? Oh SO many angles, and we’ll explore those later.

A Perfect Mess

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

We’ve been talking a lot about the log-line lately and how we can use this one sentence to test a story idea before we’re 30,000 words deep in an unfixable mess.

Conversely, if we’re already tangled in a story we can’t wrangle under control, the log-line can pinpoint what specifically is going awry.

If the story is grand, but we failed to make the stakes high enough, then we can quickly and easily fix THAT. Instead of wasting time adding in more subplots or more detailed description, we know the MC needs to have more skin in the game.

The log-line also saves a lot of time rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If we’re missing a core story problem then we don’t have a novel, we have 50,000 or 80,000 or 100,000 words. Pretty big difference.

For those who’ve not yet read the post, the log-line formula is simple:

An Intriguing MC + Core Story Problem (Antagonist) + Active Goal + Stakes + Ticking Clock = Story

Perfect Characters

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

One of the single largest problems I encounter is that the MC is way too perfect. This is an easy mistake to make, especially for the newer writers.

When we’re first starting out, we lack confidence. We lack confidence because—despite what the world may believe—writing a GOOD novel is ridiculously difficult. There is a learning curve and writers need talent, training and time.

Many emerging authors are far more eager to give their MC a black belt in Judo than a black eye from a dirtbag spouse or lover. Characters have dream jobs, dream lives, and are fully self-actualized. Thus, all that remains is the oily residue known as whining. I want to get one thing straight before we go any further.

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

In order for an MC to be interesting, he or she must have some flaws. Juicy, interesting ones. That’s why I put the Intriguing MC as the first ingredient in our recipe for a spicy story. I will riff off a common enough example to demonstrate my point:

An immortal god with superpowers must understand his past in order to rescue the universe.

Even if we fixed all the other glaring problems with this log-line, can you spot IMMEDIATELY why this story is doomed?

If our MC is immortal, he isn’t ever risking his life. He can’t die. Also, he has superpowers so he’s already better than well-equipped to tackle even big problems. Can any of you intimately and personally relate to an immortal god with superpowers?

This all adds up to a steaming pile of WHO CARES?

Perfect Description

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

Since perfect characters come out of the brain bubble-wrap fully self-actualized, ideally prepared to take on any problem without breaking a sweat or a nail, this doesn’t leave much to work with. Perfect people are boring, and so is delving into their psyche.

Unlike seriously damaged characters—who have psychological warehouses crammed with skeletons and baggage—the PMC’s (Perfect MC’s) psyche is a spacious, orderly California Closet stocked solely with cruelty-free items.

FYI: This is bad news for a great story.

When we make characters fully evolved from the get-go, this defeats the entire purpose of story. Story is the crucible that will reveal the MC’s flaws, fire out his/her impurities and eventually forge the self-actualized hero.

If we’re starting our story with a California Closet, we really don’t have anywhere to go…unless….

We describe everything IN the California Closet, which obviously will be perfect *flips hair*.

It will also, by default, be extremely superficial because we don’t have anything else to work with. This is how we have so many MCs with emerald eyes (bet no one ever thought of THAT description) and flaming red hair (oh, another one I’ve never seen) or porcelain skin (*stabs self repeatedly*).

***Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, I did this, too.

Give yourself permission to be NEW. This said, if we can walk into a fast food place and any random person off the street can come up with the same descriptions we did? THAT is a problem.

While descriptions of the PMC might fall flat, there’s “good” news. Since there’s no actual core story problem, we have plenty of room left over to gloriously describe…everything else.

This might be all right except description alone is not story. Many of us will sense this on some level, sense our reptile brains are nagging us that something NEEDS to happen after the MC goes shopping/has a meal/gets dressed.

I swear there is a drop-down menu somewhere in the zeitgeist.

Click to Insert: a) PMC gets party invitation, thus desperate need for new outfit and makeover b) Unexpected news that PMC is hosting a ball and requires new gown(s) c) Prophecy that war is looming and need to choose armor.

Perfect Pitfalls

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

Perfect characters lend themselves to page after page of description and a lot of nothing happening. Why? Because nothing CAN happen. Perfect has the hooks in and soon, short of alien abduction, we’re putting anything in the WIP just to say we’ve written SOMETHING.

There’s a reason this is happening…

If someone is rude, the PMC will handle with utmost diplomacy. Should a problem arise, our PMC will find the perfect spell instantly. And, since he or she is ridiculously powerful, talented, intelligent, the PMC can and will master whatever is necessary within a few pages.

But reptile brain is still there telling us we need to create PROBLEMS. Reptile brain has seen every season of Jerry Springer, worships Maury Povich, and believes that Dr. Phil is a total party pooper. Reptile brain is a huge fan of family holidays and always spoiling for drama.

Reptile brain, of course is right. Something DOES need to happen but, since we began with a perfect character, he or she can’t ever make bad decisions, which leaves generally two options.

Option One

The first option is the PMC has a lot of internal navel-gazing and angst which doesn’t make the PMC flawed, it only makes them unlikable and ungrateful. No one likes a whiner. And no one is going to feel sorry for a rich socialite who jets around the world and has looks, brains, and everyone’s unmitigated adoration waxing rhapsodic about how lonely she is.

*gagging sounds*

Our PMC often will also be more sensitive than a pre-menopausal mom caught in Christmas traffic with a mini-van full of hungry teenagers. The PMC completely overreacts to, well, pretty much everything.

And how we love THOSE people in life.

Or not.

Option Two

The second option is the PMC makes mistakes that render our PMC TDTL (Too Dumb to Live).

If I had a dollar for every perfect princess gifted with unrealized magical powers, the sole protector of her kingdom, the sole guardian of her people from certain doom…who for some seriously bizarre reason decides to go for a late night horseback ride.

Alone.

In the dark.

When she KNOWS her kingdom is on the verge of disaster, and that if anything BAD should happen to her, it’s game over for the kingdom.

Alas, despite fully understanding her hefty responsibility, she goes for a midnight ride. No guards or escort so she can do more…thinking. And, of course, she dismounts her favorite steed for a water break where she can conveniently gaze upon her spun gold/flaming red/black as night hair in her reflection.

All is magical and surreal (describe this part A LOT) until…

DUN DUN DUN!

She glances up and sees WHO?

*Refer To Dropdown Menu*

Our PMC is unarmed, unguarded and OF COURSE this would be the one time the a) evil wizard b) power-thirsty warlord c) demented rival ruler d) Other Bad Man So Long as He’s SUPER HOT would arrive.

OMG! I never saw that comi—yeah, saw that from a mile.

Why So Perfect?

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

As a reminder, I DID THIS TOO. I kid you not, in my first “novel,” I spent no less than six pages describing a flower market *face palm*. Again, give yourselves permission to be NEW. It’s wonderful to be new. It means you stepped out to do something grand. Just because we begin as amateurs, however, doesn’t mean we want to remain amateurs. Right?

Which is why I’m here to help shorten your learning curve 😉 .

Why many (newbie) stories fizzle flat has less to do with talent and more to do with insecurity and fear.

We’re prone to casting perfect characters because we’re not yet comfortable with the most valuable creative currency. CONFLICT.

When it comes to stories, handing out conflict is like tossing countless crisp hundred dollar bills into the air for everyone at the party #MakinItRain.

This is why authors who dole out the best (and the most) conflict have the largest entourage (Refer to George R.R. Martin, Tana French, Nora Roberts, etc.).

Is it okay to describe our characters and setting? Of course! That’s a ton of fun.

Is it okay to have hot MCs with superpowers? Sure it is! Ever heard of DC or Marvel? Certain genres even call for these over-the-top and larger-than-life characters.

All of this works…so long as the characters are imperfect.

Imperfect Makes Perfect (for Stories)

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

In order to be captivating, our MC needs to have baggage (more than carry-on, please). Issue them plenty of inner demons, a graveyard of skeletons in the closet, and decent-to-large helpings of weaknesses, addictions, and/or limitations.

Even the great comic book heroes are seriously messed up.

Batman is emotionally unavailable, filled with repressed anger, driven by false guilt, false shame and is prone to depression and masochism. He’s the great self-appointed martyr who believes he must sacrifice everything—love, family, Netflix—for the thankless Gotham City…even though no one ever asked him to.

***Hmmm wait a sec. HOLY CRAP! Batman is my NANA?

Feel free to give your MC some fantastical power…so long as there’s a cost (a BIG one preferably).

For example:

In the HBO series Carnivale, the Oklahoma farm boy Ben Hawkins has the ability to heal, but there’s a catch.

When Ben gives life he must also take life. The energy to heal comes from somewhere, and never from a source he can predict. Someone or something else must pay the price for Ben’s “gift.” In essence, Ben is stealing a life he has no real right to give away. Talk about some inner conflict and outer drama.

Do Some Damage!

And now that we’ve explored all this, we can return to our original “log-line” and fix at least PART of what is wrong aside from a crap-ton of redundancies:

An immortal god with superpowers must understand his past in order to rescue the known universe.

How about…?

When an egomaniacal god recklessly breaks an old and tremulous truce, thus igniting a needless war, he is stripped of his powers and banished to the mortal realm on Earth where…. (Refer to Thor).

See how it was perfectly fine to cast an immortal god with superpowers? It works, so long as we (Author God) take them away 😉 .

Weak is Strong

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

In the beginning, I mentioned the allure of perfect. It’s natural to be afraid of giving characters flaws because we still need training, practice and confidence. Perfect attracts us because it’s easy to write.

It doesn’t take tremendous skill to write a 2,000 word “scene” where the MC shops for a new designer dress and giggles with her best girlfriends. Anyone semi-literate with half an imagination can write this sort of a “scene” where the only problems might be typos or grammar mistakes.

On the other hand, it takes far more skill to write a scene where the MC shops for a new dress and giggles with her best girlfriends…but it’s all a ruse. She’s living in a house of cards about to blow away.

On the surface she’s normal. Inside? She’s on the edge of a nervous breakdown. She doesn’t WANT to be at Neiman Marcus, but she has to keep up appearances (WHY?). The MC is terrified (WHY?) because she lost her sweet high-paying job a month ago and her severance pay has run out (WHY IS SHE KEEPING THIS A SECRET?).

She’s sweating bullets hoping her credit card isn’t declined because if it is, she will be nothing and no one. She will cease to be the only person she knows how to be—The Gal Who Has Everything.

This is a taller order. Our MC has to maintain the facade, but the “friends” will sense something is off. She’s edgy, jumpy and feels ill about lying. Why is she lying? What does this say about HER? None of her “friends” are aware of her dire situation, so what does that say about THEM?

Notice how the first “scene” is information dump. There are no QUESTIONS to keep us (readers) turning pages. The second example, however, is bursting with tension.

And we didn’t even need to travel to her childhood to find it 😉 .

In the End

Writing fabulous books readers love takes skill. This is a tough gig, albeit a fun one. Regardless of genre, messes make magic. We want characters we can relate to, and don’t know about y’all, but I am far from perfect. Questions hook readers because we don’t like loose ends. We’re a nosey species that longs to know “Why?” and “What happened?” and if whatever happened can be resolved.

Pretty prose doesn’t make us turn pages, PROBLEMS do. So go make a mess, so your MC can grow up and clean the mess up. Your readers will thank you.

What Are Your Thoughts?

I love hearing from you! Questions? Do you feel liberated to go mess up some lives now? It’s okay. Your MCs can fix them by the end (which is kind of the point, LOL).

What do you WIN? For the month of OCTOBER, 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 OCTOBER!

SPOOKTOBER!

paranormal, ghosts, writing, angels, demons

PARANORMAL: GETTING REAL WITH GHOSTS, ANGELS, AND DEMONS

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, October 12, 2018. 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE!

 

Ever get the feeling that a paranormal romance WIP is turning out more reality ghost-hunting television than Demi Moore pottery party?

How about when a demon ends up sounding more like a goth teenager than an all-powerful agent of everlasting darkness? Or, when angels get confused as to whether they are supposed to be Nicholas Cage in ‘National Treasure’ or ‘City of Angels’?

Let’s not forget the time when asking friends and fellow writers for advice turned into a 172-comment trolltastic thread debating minutiae of scripture and ended with all our ‘Team Long Island Medium’ friends blocking our ‘Team John Edward’ friends.

All of this comes from a fundamental paradox in writing about the paranormal:

We are trying to define and describe the unexplained and unexplainable for the reader.

Well, get your EMF ghost meters and EVP recorders ready, because in this class, we’re going to turn off the lights and turn on the night vision cams…

This class will cover:

  • Ghostbusters: five questions every writer needs to answer when writing about the living-impaired;
  • Chills, chills, chills: writing the spooky stuff so readers feel like they’re really there;
  • Flirting with danger: walking the fine line between the mysterious angelic stranger and creepy stalker demon (hint – one of them stalks your Facebook);
  • The demon is in the details: from scripture to spirit boxes, how to get your ‘facts’ right, avoid trolls, and find that unique angle that will make your story stand out.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


PARANORMAL, URBAN FANTASY, GHOSTS, VAMPIRES, WRITING

URBAN FANTASY: SALT CIRCLE NOT INCLUDED

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, October 19, 2018. 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE!

 

Be honest. How many voodoo dolls have you mutilated in your quest to become the next Laurell K. Hamilton or Sherrilyn Kenyon?

  • 0-9: You’re probably too virtuous to ever get published.
  • 10-19: Equivalent of the New Year’s resolution of voodoo…fizzles in week 2.
  • 20-29: You’ve won NaNoWriMo once or twice and wear lucky writing socks.
  • 30+: Now, we’re talking.

In all seriousness, urban fantasy has emerged as one of the strongest and most competitive categories in publishing, building on the momentum of legends like Anne Rice and expanding to embrace all kinds of sub-genres such as YA, satire, and romance.

But for all its badass convention-breaking, urban fantasy also a genre boobytrapped with the worst pitfalls of all the genres it borrows from.

If we’re not overdoing the Mickey Spillane-esque hard-boiled grit, we’re confusing which supernatural creature has which power. Or, we’re creating characters that are so wrapped up in their love lives with <insert hot supernatural guys here>, they almost miss the climactic battle between good and evil happening a couple blocks over.

Fear not! Strap on your vampire-hunting gear, grab your wolfsbane gris-gris, and don’t forget to bring your sarcastic sidekick to this class where I will help you navigate the mean streets and treacherous back alleys of urban fantasy!

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, PARANORMAL, GHOSTS, WRITING

BLOODY BEASTS: VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, AND OTHER BEASTIE BESTIES

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, October 26, 2018. 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE!

 

Every few years, publishing declares, “Vampires are dead!” and technically, this is correct. They are undead. You can’t keep a good vampire down. Or a good werewolf. (Down, boy!)

Like a dog with a bone, readers keep coming back to stories about vampires, werewolves, and other creatures because there is something irresistibly compelling about the danger of the ‘other’ that makes us question what it means to be human. Plus, vampires and werewolves can be totally hot, amiright?

However, trite tropes and careless creature creation can raise a reader’s hackles faster than a bad batch of AB negative. Okay, okay, I’ll stop with the awful mixed metaphors and puns. Still, a story that doesn’t offer anything new or compelling will suck the life out of a reader’s interest faster than day-old vampire…yeah, I know…bad joke…sorrynotsorry!

This is going to be a super fun class with a lot of juicy stuff to sink your teeth into…can’t-stop-won’t-stop….

This class will cover:

  • Only human: how to walk the fine line between immortal angst and everyday relatability and create characters so cold, they burn, baby!
  • Sparkle, shmarkle: picking through the mystery, history, and science of vampirism to create your own believable and betwitching bloodsuckers;
  • That time of the month: from caricature to cryptozoology, what writers get right…and wrong…about werewolves and wolf shifters;
  • Mortal problems: Do vampires pay taxes? If a hunter shoots a werewolf, is it involuntary manslaughter? ignoring these details can deal a fatal blow to a reader’s suspension of disbelief.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


THE CREATURE FEATURE CLASS BUNDLE

GHOSTS, PARANORMAL, VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, WRITING

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: (see below)

REGISTER HERE!

Recordings of all three classes is also included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in Boston with her husband and neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. She likes history, science, Jack Daniels, jewelry, pasta, and solitude. Not all at the same time. When she isn’t enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.