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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: english

 

Years ago, I left my career in sales. Why? Well, I was quite possibly the worst salesperson on the planet, so I figured most any other job would be a vast improvement. I loved writing and decided to pursue my passion. I actually got my start as a copy editor, and years of proofreading and editing have given me a different set of eyes that detect details often unseen by the rest of the world.

Wait. Let me clarify.

Just because something is unseen, in no way means it has gone unnoticed. To the untrained, small mistakes can collect in the subconscious. A reader might put a book down and never know exactly why she couldn’t get engaged, or why she felt the text was too confusing, or why she simply just gave up.

Well, as they say, the devil is in the details.

These days I spend a lot of time focusing on the big picture–structure. Why? Structure is where most writers need training. High school and college English does NOT train us how to write a work spanning 60-100,000 words. Don’t believe me? How many novels did you turn in for a grade in college English? Exactly.

Knowing something in theory is a heck of a lot different than the actual execution. Even though I prefer to talk about big picture stuff, today we are going to zoom in and have a refresher on the small stuff.

Years ago, when I ran a traditional critique group, I would see the same mistakes over and over and, yeah, over. These oopses won’t keep us from being published (especially nowadays), but they can be highly distracting for readers. If left uncorrected, our story could become a projectile hurled with great force by a frustrated reader.

I saw these mistakes so many times in critique, I finally made a list and called them my Deadly Sins of Writing. The Deadly Sins are often the first professional hurdle for writers who want to up their game and play with the big boys and girls of fiction. Why? Because formal English classes (high school and college), are there to teach command of the English language, not prepare us for publication in NY.

I’m in no way picking on teachers. It is incumbent upon any writer to learn her craft. To believe college English constitutes proper schooling for commercial fiction is like saying Home Economics is proper training to become a premiere chef. Yet, many new writers believe that because they made good grades in English, they know how to write (Yeah, I’ll confess. I was one of them).

So after a couple of years critiquing fiction, I began to notice a pattern of common errors. These flubs were so distracting that I often found I couldn’t even GET to critiquing plot, character, or voice. Thus, I wrote out my Deadly Sins as a reference. I believe that if a writer can eradicate most or all of these types of errors, then he will leave the reader with a clearer view of the story.

Today we are only going to go over three. Why? Because most of us haven’t had formal grammar since that awful experience with sentence diagramming back in the eighth grade. And while I could just list the Sins, I believe it will be more helpful if you understand WHY these errors can be so detrimental to even the best of stories.

Deadly Sin #1

Was Clusters— There is nothing wrong with using being verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, —Remember them?). But, they do tend to have a nasty habit of flocking together. A couple of being verbs are all right. But, if there are 42 on one page? You might have a problem…or an infestation.

Was often acts as a screaming beacon directing me, the editor, to places where the writing could be tightened. Was can also lead you, the writer, into dangerous passive voice waters so beware.

The door was kicked in by the officers. (Passive)

The officers kicked in the door. (Active)

Passive voice will confuse a reader, so make sure your writing is as active as possible.

Deadly Sin #2

Overuse of “ing” Whether as Gerunds or Participles—First, a quick review for those of us who have slept since our last grammar class. A gerund is a verb used as a noun—i.e. reading glasses. Participles are often used with a helping verb to show progression (also called progressive verbs)—i.e. I am walking to the car.

***I have left Point A and have not quite reached Point B. Therefore the action is in progress, ergo the term progressive.

There is nothing wrong with using either, but like was, these critters also tend to cluster together. When they do so, they tend to:

a. Create a monotonous pattern

b. Signal places the writing could be made more active.

Joe was walking to the car while smoking a cigarette and thinking about his day. He was wondering if it was all worth the effort. Tired, he pulled out a set of reading glasses. He was scanning the Dear John letter one last time before driving home when a car came barreling out of nowhere heading straight for him.

Don’t laugh. I have seen more than my fair share of similar passages. Technically, nothing is incorrect. Yet, the pattern of ing ing ing ing ing creates a monotony that can diminish the literary effect.

Deadly Sin #3

Modifier overload.  Ever heard the term less is more? The same holds true in writing. Why? WHEN YOU MODIFY EVERYTHING YOU MODIFY NOTHING (Yes, I was being a smarty pants with the all caps). The reader can get so bogged down in lovely similes and metaphors that he forgets the original point of the story, and that is bad.

Have you ever been to a lecture where the speaker’s voice is flat, and nothing is emphasized? Think of Ben Stein, the guy who does the eye drop commercials.

Monotone.

Now think of Billy Mays, the guy who made Oxy Clean famous. HE STRESSED ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING!!!! By the end of the commercial, the audience needed a nap…or a drink.

Again, monotone.

Modifiers can make beautiful writing that transports us and makes us part of an entirely different world.

Or…

It can make us feel like we’re trapped in that nightmare where we never really graduated high school, and have been forced to repeat Sophomore-Level English if we want our college degree to be valid. Jane Eyre. Enough said.

Just remember some simple rules of thumb. Adverbs are almost always a no-no. Why use window dressing on an inferior verb if there is a superior verb that can take its place?

He walked quickly across the room.

He strode across the room.

She jumped quickly. Hmm….as opposed to jumping slowly?

Are all adverbs evil? No. Just the redundant ones. If we want to denote a quality that is NOT inherent in the verb’s definition, then adverbs can be wonderful.

She whispered conspiratorially.

As far as adjectives, similes, and metaphors? Use good judgment. Don’t be the Oxy Clean guy. Have a fellow writer look at your work and see which ones might be weakening your story. Or, take a highlighter and strike through all the modifiers, and see how many there are, and how many can go. Heck, if they are really good, you can use them later. I promise.

Grammar is not a whole lot of fun for most people, but it is necessary to understand it as part of understanding the craft. And you are going to make mistakes. These lessons are a critical part of learning. Good writing comes from wisdom, and wisdom comes from experience. Experience comes from writing some real crap. Sloppy technique, bad grammar, and poor sentence construction can cling to your writing like a dirty film that obscures story and characters. Clean up your writing so your stories can shine.

What are some of your pet peeves? What will make you toss a book across the room? Do you love a lot of detail or very little detail? Why?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

Last Week’s Winner–Paul Anthony Shortt

Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of August I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Before we get started, I would like to announce that my new book Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer is now ready for purchase at B&N in e-book. This week, we are going to take a break from talking about the antagonist and, instead, focus on some common writing errors that seem to plague virtually all new writers. I generally like blogging about the larger issues, namely structure, because that is the killer. If the story’s plot is fatally flawed there’s little hope of connecting with a reader. If we need a Dungeon Master Guide and a team of sherpas to navigate our story’s plot, then finding an agent is the least of our worries. So plot matters, but, to be blunt, there other rookie mistakes that can land us in a slush pile before an agent (or reader) even gets far enough to notice a problem with plot.

So today I am putting on my editor’s hat and going to give you a peek into what agents and editors (and even readers) see in those first five pages that can make us lose interest.

If Your Novel has More Characters than the Cast of Ben Hur, You Might Need Revision

Whenever the author takes the time to name a character, that is a subtle clue to the reader that this is a major character and we need to pay attention. Think Hollywood and movies. If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part. Many characters in our novels will be what Bob Mayer calls “spear carriers.” Spear carriers do not need names.

I did not know this, years ago, and I felt the need to name the pizza guy, the florist, the baker and the candlestick maker. Do NOT do this. When we name characters, it is telling our readers to care. Sort of like animals. Only name them if you plan on getting attached.

We do not have to know intimate life details about the waitress, the taxi driver or even the funeral director. Unless the character serves a role—protagonist, antagonist, allies, mentor, love interest, minions, etc.—you really don’t need to give them a name. They are props, not people.

And maybe your book has a large cast; that is okay. Don’t feel the need to introduce them all at once. If I have to keep up with 10 names on the first page, it’s confusing, ergo annoying. Readers (and agents) will feel the same way.

If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision

Oh, there is no newbie blunder I didn’t make.

Angelique leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Drake. She needed her twist-ties and fuzzy pink pipe cleaners if she ever was going to diffuse the bomb in time. Blood ran down her face as she reached out for Gregor’s hand. They only had minutes before Sondra would be back and then it would all be over for Fifi, Gerturde and Muffin.

Okay, I just smashed two into one. Your first question might be, Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?

Thing is, you don’t care. You aren’t the writer who knows these characters and is vested. We have discussed before how Normal World plays a vital role in narrative structure. As an editor, if I see the main character sobbing at a funeral or a hospital or hanging over a shark tank by page three, that is a big red flag the writer doesn’t understand narrative structure.

Thing is, maybe you do. But, if we are new and unknown and querying agents, these guys get a lot of submissions. And, if our first five pages shout that we don’t understand narrative structure, our pages are likely to end up in the slush pile. When we are new, we get less leeway about trying to reinvent narrative structure, and the thing is, three-act structure has worked since Aristotle came up with it. There are better uses of time than us trying to totally remake dramatic structure.

It’s like the wheel. Round. It rolls. The wheel works. Don’t mess with the wheel. Don’t mess with narrative structure.

Some other picky no-nos… .

Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow…the carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

Too much Physiology…

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.

Adverbs are Evil…

Most of the time, adverbs are a no-no. Find a stronger verb instead of dressing up a weaker choice.

She stood quickly from her chair.

She bolted from her chair.

Also be careful of redundant adverbs.

She whispered quietly…

Um, duh. The verb whisper already tells me the volume level.

She can, however, whisper conspiratorially. Why? Because the adverb isn’t denoting something inherent in the verb. To whisper, by definition is to be quiet BUT not necessarily to conspire. The adverb conspiratorially indicates a certain quality to the whisper.

I will do more of these in the future, but the points I mentioned today are very common errors. Many editors and agents will look for these oopses to narrow down the stack of who to read. These are also habits that can frustrate readers should the book make it to publication. I know some of you are thinking of self-publishing and that is certainly a viable path these days. But, if we have 42 characters by page five? We are likely going to frustrate a reader.

Avoiding these pitfalls will make for far smoother, cleaner writing.

Some books to help you clean up your prose and become a master at your craft? Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is a MUST HAVE in your library. Another MUST HAVE reference?  102 solutions to Common Writing Mistakes by NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer,

What are some troubles you guys have? Maybe some questions you want me to address? Throw them up here. Takes a load off my brain so I don’t have to think this stuff up all by myself. Any tips, suggestions, books you recommend we read? Did this blog help you? Confuse you?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of May, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of May I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Important Announcements

Make sure you join our LOVE REVOLUTION over on Twitter by following and participating in the #MyWANA Twibe. Read this post to understand how this #MyWANA will totally transform your life and your author platform.

My book We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media hit THREE best-seller list on Kindle yesterday. #2 in Computers & Technology, #13 in Authorship and #17 in Advertising. THANK YOU!!!!! This book is recommended by some of the biggest authors AND agents in New York, so make sure you pick up a copy if you don’t have one already.

Also, if you want to learn how to blog or even how to take your blogging to a level you never dreamed possible…get your copy of Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer  today. Not only will this book help you learn to blog, but you will be having so much fun, you will forget you were supposed to be learning.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

Okay, today we are going to discuss some of the finer points of writing fiction. I am putting on my editor’s hat. Many of you decided to become writers because you love to write. Duh. I’ll even bet most of you, back when you were in school, also made very good grades in English. Thus, you might assume that you naturally know how to write a novel that is fit for NY publication. Maybe you do. But, if you are anything like me when I started out? You might not know as much as you think you do.

Why?

Our high school English teacher didn’t care that we used 15 metaphors on one page. Why? Her goal was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor…NOT to prepare us for agent submission.

As you might be able to tell from my latest posts, I think self-publishing is becoming an increasingly viable option for many writers. Yet, I also want to be forthcoming. Self-publishing is not a panacea, and there are too many writers who rush to self-publish instead of understanding why their story wasn’t working. Generally, I can see in three pages why a manuscript was rejected by an agent.

How?

There are a number of ways, and I recommend you check out my earlier post, Novel Diagnostics  for a detailed explanation of some of the most common newbie novelist oopses.

But, beyond that list, the single largest mistake I see in new manuscripts is the author does not understand P.O.V. This is an easy mistake to make, in that, as I stated earlier, our college Literature classes aren’t there to teach us how to be great novelists. Some writers pick up on P.O.V. intuitively, but most of us need to be taught, lest we leave the reader feeling as if she is being held hostage on a Tilt-A-Whirl.

 POV–Prostitution (Head-Hopping)

Let’s step back in time to the days before we all made the decision to become writers. I would guess all of us were readers. We loved books, and books were a large part of what prompted our career choice. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you ever tried to read a book, but eventually had to put it down because it was too confusing? You couldn’t figure out who was doing what, and you needed Dramamine to keep up with the perspectives?
  • Have you ever read a story that was so good you actually felt as if you had taken on the character’s skin? His success was yours, as was his failure. By the final page, you were sad to say good-bye?

P.O.V. used properly can create entire worlds, and breathe life into characters. Used improperly, it can make your reader feel like she’s been bungee-corded to Hell’s Merry-Go-Round—not good.

First, you have to know what P.O.V. is if you hope to use it to your advantage.  “P.O.V. does not stand for ‘Prisoners of Vietnam,’” as author Candy Havens would say. P.O.V. stands for Point of View.

Although this literary device is one of the most vital tools an author possesses, it is probably the number one style problem I encounter as an editor. I cannot count how many new writers (and, sadly, some not-so-new writers) give me a blank stare when I write P.O.V. in big red letters all over their manuscripts (and H.H., but we’ll get to that later).

The best way to describe point of view is to think of your story as viewed through the lens of the video camera. How many people (characters) are going to be permitted to hold that camera?

Is your camera going to travel with one main character through the entire story? Or, do others get a turn? Is “God” holding the camera? These are simple questions you can answer to help you select the point of view perfect for your story.

There is no wrong P.O.V., but we do have to be consistent. P.O.V. is a HUGE factor in determining our writing voice.

What are the types of P.O.V.?

A quick overview:

First-Person P.O.V—uses “I” a lot. Only one character (the narrator) has the camera.

There are three major disadvantages to this P.O.V.

1. This P.O.V uses a lot of “I” which can become repetitive to the point of distraction.

2. The reader can only see and hear what the narrator knows. This limits the flow of information. Probably good for a mystery, but if you aren’t writing a mystery this may not be the right P.O.V for you.

3. First-Person P.O.V is a bugger when it comes to tense. Why? Because First-Person breaks into two camps.

There is the I remember when camp and the Come along with me camp.

One is in past tense, a recollection. “I remember the day my father and I were attacked by a pack of Mary Kay ladies gone feral….”

The other is in present tense, and the reader is along for the ride. “I walk these streets every morning, but today I am just waiting for something to go wrong….”

Note of Caution: It is extremely easy to muddy the two camps together. Tense can be problematic…okay, a nightmare.

The benefit? First-person P.O.V. adds an intimacy that no other P.O.V. can, and is useful for stories where we might want to withhold information from the reader.

Third-Person P.O.V—is when you, the writer, permit one or more of the characters to lug the camera through your story.

Third Person Locked allows only one character access to the camera. The entire story is told through what that particular character can experience through the 5 Senses. So, if your character’s eyes are “shining with love,” then she’d best be holding a mirror, or you are guilty of head-hopping.

Third Person Shifting allows more than one character access to the camera. Here’s the rub. Your characters must to play nice and take turns. Only one character with the camera at a time. When the next character wants a turn, there has to be a clear cut. Think of the director’s clapboard ending one scene before shifting to the next. It is usually a good idea to limit one P.O.V. per scene. When we switch perspectives inside the same scene, that is called head-hopping, and it will confuse and frustrate our readers.

There are advantages to Third-Person Shifting

1. It can add additional depth and insight to your story.

2. It can allow you (the writer) to hold back information and add to suspense.

3. Third-Person Shifting can allow other characters to take over during emotionally volatile points in the story.

For instance, if your protagonist walks in on her brother lying dead in a pool of blood, the emotions experienced are realistically too overwhelming to be properly articulated by your protagonist (what Bob Mayer calls an EOE–emotionally overwhelming event). In this scenario, First-Person P.O.V is probably not a good fit. The scene would be more powerful if told from someone watching your protagonist react to discovering a deceased loved one.

There are inherent problems with Third-Person Shifting.

1. Your characters must play nice and take turns. Otherwise, your reader will likely become confused and eventually frustrated.

2. It is best to permit camera access to key characters only. The reader has to stay in one head long enough to feel connected. Too many perspectives can easily become overwhelming and dilute the strength of your characters.

Omniscient P.O.V is when “God” gets to hold the camera.

Oh stop mucking it up and give Me the camera…

This P.O.V is like placing your camera up high over all of the action. The narrator is omnipresent and omniscient. “If Joe had only known who was waiting for him outside, he would have never left for that pack of cigarettes.” Joe cannot experience anything beyond the 5 Senses (third-person). So, unless Joe is actually Superman and possesses X-Ray vision, it takes an omniscient presence to tell us someone bad is lurking outside waiting to do Joe harm.

There are advantages to Omniscient P.O.V.

 1. Omniscient can relay information that would be far too overwhelming to describe if limited to the 5 Senses. Battle scenes are a good example.

2. Omniscient can give information critical to the story that the character doesn’t have to personally know. For instance, in Bob’s Area 51 Series (which I HIGHLY recommend), he relays a lot of factual and historical information that is critical to understanding the plot. But, it would really seem bizarre to the reader if his characters just started spouting off the history of the pyramids like an Egyptologist. To avoid this jarring scenario, Bob uses an omniscient presence to relay the information so the prose remains nice and smooth.

There are disadvantages to Omniscient P.O.V.

 1. Third-Person P.O.V. and Omniscient P.O.V. are VERY easy to muddy together.

2. Omniscient P.O.V. and Head-Hopping are not the same, but are easy to confuse. I have edited many writers who believed they were employing Omniscient P.O.V. In reality, they were just letting every character in the book fight over the camera simultaneously, leaving me (the editor) feeling like I was trapped in the Blair Witch Project.

Whose head am I in? I can’t tell. Help meeeee…..

Proper use of P.O.V. takes a lot of practice to master. It is very easy to shift from one type of P.O.V. to another, or what I like to call “P.O.V. Prostitution” or “Head-Hopping.”

Key Points to Remember:

  • In First-Person–Come along with me stories can easily turn into I remember when stories (or vice versa). Tense is a big red flag. Do you shift from present to past or past to present? Pay close attention to verbs.
  • In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting)–Characters will only play nice and take turns if you, the writer, force them to. Make sure whatever is happening in a scene is something that could be filtered through ONE character’s 5 Senses.
  • In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting) –“God” is really bad about grabbing your character’s camera, so keep an eye on Him. If there is suddenly information your character has no way of knowing through the 5 Senses, that is a big clue the Big Guy snagged your camera. Just remind Him nicely of commandment number eight, and ask Him to give the camera back.
  • In Omniscient–“God” is in charge. Be careful your wide-lens isn’t zooming in and out and making your reader dizzy in the process.

P.O.V. is one more reason it is critical for writers to read if they hope to become great authors. Read, read, read. Read all kinds of books by all kinds of authors using different P.O.V.s to see how it is done well.

Suzanne Collins brilliantly employs First-Person in the Come Along with Me fashion in her Hunger Games Trilogy. Her choice of P.O.V. gives an intimate feel no other P.O.V. can, and, since it isn’t an I Remember When story, Collins is able to maintain reader suspense.

Stephen King does a great job of using first-person in an I Remember When style in The Green Mile. King chose this P.O.V. for a very specific reason, which I will not say so as not to spoil the ending.

Dennis Lehane does an amazing job of employing omniscient in Mystic River. If you think you might want to use omniscient, I’d recommend reading him.

James Rollins uses third-person shifting very well in the Doomsday Key. Third-shifting is generally a great P.O.V. for thrillers in that it helps manage/reveal a lot of information that the protag may or may not know.

I would also recommend reading Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo. She actually mixes third-limited and first-person and the effect is impressive.

P.O.V. when used properly can take a story to a whole new level. Read, experiment and practice. I know I just touched on a handful of suggestions, so feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments .

I highly recommend NY Time Best-Selling author Bob Mayer’s  The Novel Writers Toolkit for more in-depth explanation.

What is your favorite P.O.V. and why? Which ones do you like the least? Why? Have you never heard the term P.O.V. before? Does this post clear up some big questions about why your manuscript might have been having problems? Do you guys have any resources you would recommend? I want to hear from you!

And, to prove it and show my love, for the month of February, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention WANA in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel.

Happy writing!

Until next time….

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

Also, I highly recommend the Write It Forward Workshops. Learn all about plotting, how to write great characters, and even how to self-publish successfully…all from the best in the industry. I will be teaching on social media and building a brand in March. For $20 a workshop, you can change your destiny….all from the comfort of home.

 

 

For the past several weeks we have been exploring structure and why it is important. If you haven’t yet read the prior posts, I advise you do because each post builds on the previous lesson. All lessons are geared to making you guys master plotters. Write cleaner and faster. I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit right now to get writing. All in due time. Today we are going to talk genre and why it is important to pick one.

Understanding what genre you are writing will help guide you when it comes to plotting your novel. How? Each genre has its own set of general rules and expectations. Think of this like stocking your cabinet with spices. If you like to cook Mexican food, then you will want to have a lot of cumin, chili powder and paprika on hand. Like cooking Italian food? Then basil and oregano are staple spices. In cooking we can break rules … but only to a certain point. We can add flavors of other cultures into our dish, but must be wary that if we deviate too far from expectations, or add too many competing flavors, we will have a culinary disaster. Writing is much the same. We must choose a genre, but then can feel free to add flavors of other genres into our work.

Ten years ago, when I first got this brilliant idea to start writing fiction, I didn’t do any planning. I knew zip nada about the craft, and, frankly, was too stupid to know I was that dumb. To make matters worse, I tried to write a novel that everyone would love. It was a romantic-thriller-mystery-comedic-memoir that would appeal to all ages, both men and women and even their pets and houseplants. I am here to help you learn from my mistakes.

I believe there are three kinds of writers. One type of writer is the Born Genre Author. This type of writer knows the genre he wants to write from day one. He is a born horror author or fantasy author, or whatever. This type does not start on a horror novel and then suddenly start thinking that YA is more his stride…or maybe sci-fi…or literary fiction. This author’s laser-focus is a tremendous asset, but tunnel-vision can get him in trouble. The greatest weakness I see with this type of writer is that they often don’t read outside their genre and so their work can lack that je ne sais quoi that makes their writing stand apart from others in their genre. Of course, this is easily remedied if this type of author can make a conscious effort to diversify.

Another type of author is like I used to be (and still have to fight). Meet The Dabbler. We love everything and have a hard time making up our minds. We love all kinds of writing, but this lack of focus can hurt our platform and spread us too thinly to be effective. Dabblers also are bad about making the mistake of trying to write a book that is all genres and what they end up with is an unpalatable mess. On the flip-side, though. Dabblers who can finally choose a genre usually are very innovative creatures because they have the knack and ability to draw flavors of other genres into their writing. The trick is getting them to pay attention and focus long enough.

Then there is the third kind of writer, The Profiteer. These writers are in the business for all the wrong reasons, and, because of that, usually never end up finishing, let alone publishing. They are writing for the money and fame and often are genre-hos. They keep a finger in the wind searching for what is currently hot. Vampires? Chick-lit? Whatever is flying off shelves, that is The Profiteer’s  new love. Of course what this writer doesn’t understand is that by the time they finish the novel, land an agent and that book makes it to print, the trends will have changed. But most Profiteers fall by the wayside, so that’s all I will say about them.

Just as nailing the log-line is vital for plotting, we also must be able to classify what genre our novel will be in. Now, understand that some genres are fairly close. Think Mexican Food and Tex Mex. An agent at a later date might, for business reasons, decide to slot a Women’s Fiction into Romance.  Yet, you likely will NEVER see an agent slot a literary fiction as a thriller. They are too different. That is like trying to put enchiladas on the menu at a French restaurant.

Part of why I stress picking a genre is that genres have rules and standards. For example, I had a student drop out of my Warrior Writer Boot Camp because I told her that her hero could not be the Big Boss Troublemaker (main antagonist) in her romance novel. I advised her that the hero could be an antagonistic force, but that she had to choose another person to be the BBT. Why? Because the genre of romance has rules, and guy and gal MUST come together at the end and live happily ever after. This cannot happen if the heroine defeats the hero.  Great love stories generally do not involve the hero being beaten up by a girl. I didn’t make the rules, but I can help a writer understand those rules and thereby increase his/her chances of publication success.

Understanding your genre will help immensely when it comes to plotting. It will also help you get an idea of the word count specific to that genre. I am going to attempt to give a very basic overview of the most popular genres. Please understand that all of these break down into subcategories, but I have provided links to help you learn more so this blog wasn’t 10,000 words long.

Mystery—often begins with the crime as the inciting incident (murder, theft, etc.), and the plot involves the protagonist uncovering the party responsible by the end. The crime has already happened and thus your goal in plotting is to drive toward the Big Boss Battle—the unveiling of the real culprit. Mysteries have a lot more leeway to develop characters simply because, if you choose, they can be slower in pacing because the crime has already happened. Mysteries run roughly  75-100,000 words. Mysteries on the cozy side that are often in a series commonly are shorter. 60,000-ish. I’d recommend that you consult the Mystery Writers of America of more information.

Thriller/Suspense—generally involve trying to stop some bad thing from happening at the end. Thrillers have broad consequences if the protagonist fails—I.e. the terrorists will launch a nuclear weapon and destroy Washington D.C. Suspense novels have smaller/more intimate consequences. I.e. The serial killer will keep butchering young blonde co-eds. It is easy to see how thriller, suspense and mystery are kissing cousins and keep company. The key here is that there is a ticking clock and some disastrous event will happen if the protagonist fails.

So when plotting, all actions are geared to prevention of the horrible thing at the end. Thrillers can run 90-100,000 words (loosely) and sometimes a little longer. Why? Because some thrillers need to do world-building. Most of us have never been on a nuclear sub, so Tom Clancy had to recreate it for us in The Hunt for Red October (Clancy invented a sub-class of thriller known as the techno-thriller).

Pick up the pacing and you can have a Mystery-Suspense. Think Silence of the Lambs. A murder happens at the beginning, and the goal is to uncover the identity of the serial killer Buffalo Bill (mystery), but what makes this mystery-suspense is the presence of a ticking clock. Not only is the body count rising the longer Buffalo Bill remains free, but a senator’s daughter is next on Bill’s butcher block.

When plotting, there will often be a crime (murder) at the beginning, but the plot involves a rising “body count” and a perpetrator who must be stopped before an even bigger crime can occur (Big Boss Battle). These stories are plot-driven. Characters often do not have enough down-time to make sweeping inner arc changes like in a literary piece.

Pick up the pacing and raise the stakes and you have a Mystery-Thriller. Think Killing Floor by Lee Childs. The book begins with a murder of two unidentified people at a warehouse, but if the killers are not found, what the killers are trying to cover up will have global consequences. And I am not telling you what those consequences are b/c it would ruin the book :D.

When plotting, again, there is often a crime at the beginning with rising stakes, and the protagonist must stop a world-changing event from happening (Big Boss Battle). The focus of your plot will be solving the mystery and stopping the bad guy.

For more information on this genre, consult the International Thriller Writers site.

Romance—Guy and girl have to end up together in the end is the only point I will make on this. Romance is all about making the reader believe that love is good and grand and still exists in this crazy world. The hero cannot be your main antagonist.  Romance, however, is very complex and I cannot do it justice in this short blurb. If you desire to write romance, I highly recommend you go to the Romance Writers of America site for more information and that you join a chapter near you immediately. This is one of the most amazing writing organizations around and a great investment in a successful romance-writing career.

Word count will depend on the type of romance you desire to write. Again, look to RWA for guidance.

Literary Fiction-is character driven. The importance is placed on the inner change, and the plot is the mechanism for driving that change. Literary fiction has more emphasis on prose, symbol and motif. The events that happen must drive an inner transformation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Road is a good example. The world has been destroyed and only a few humans have survived. The question isn’t as much whether the man and the boy will survive as much as it is about how they will survive. Will they endure with their humanity in tact? Or will they resort to being animals? Thus, the goal in The Road is less about boy and man completing their journey to the ocean, and more about how they make it. Can they carry the torch of humanity?

When plotting for the literary fiction, one needs to consider plot-points for the inner changes occurring. There need to be cross-roads of choice. One choice ends the story. The character failed to change. The other path leads closer to the end. The darkest moment is when that character faces that inner weakness at its strongest, yet triumphs.

For instance, in The Road, there are multiple times the man and boy face literally starving to death. Will they resort to cannibalism as many other have? Or will they press on and hope? Word count can vary, but you should be safe with 60-85,000 words (The Road was technically a novella).

Fantasy and Science Fiction will involve some degree of world-building and extraordinary events, creatures, locations. In plotting, world-building is an essential additional step. How much world-building is necessary will depend on what sub-class of fantasy or sci-fi you’re writing. Word count will also be affected. The more world-building, the longer your book will be. Some books, especially in high-fantasy can run as long as 150,000 words and are often serialized.

Consult the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for more information.

Horror—This is another genre that breaks down into many sub-classifications and runs the gambit. It can be as simple as a basic Monster in the House story where the protagonist’s main goal is SERE-Survive Evade, Rescue, and Escape. The protag has only one goal…survive. These books tend to be on the shorter side, roughly 60,000 words.

Horror, however can blend with fantasy and require all kinds of complex world-building. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a good example. Stephen King’s horror often relies heavily on the psychological and there is weighty focus on an inner change/arc. For instance, The Shining chronicles Jack’s descent into madness and how his family deals with his change and ultimately tries to escape the very literal Monster in the House.

Horror will most always involve a Monster in the House scenario. It is just that the definitions of “monster” and “house” are mutable. Word count is contingent upon what type of horror you are writing. Again, I recommend you consult the experts, so here is a link to the Horror Writers Association. The Dark Fiction Guild seemed to have a lot of helpful/fascinating links, so you might want to check them out too.

Picking a genre is actually quite liberating. Each genre has unique guideposts and expectations, and, once you gain a clear view of these, then plotting becomes far easier and much faster. You will understand the critical elements that must be in place—ticking clock, inner arc, world-building—before you begin. This will save loads of time not only in writing, but in revision. Think of the romance author who makes her hero the main antagonist (BBT). She will try to query, and, since she didn’t know the rules of her genre, will end up having to totally rewrite/trash her story.

Eventually, once you grow in your craft, you will be able to break rules and conventions. But, to break the rules we have to understand them first.

I have done my best to give you guys a general overview of the most popular genres and links to know more. If you have some resources or links that you’d like to add, please put them in the comments section. Also, for the sake of brevity, I didn’t address other genres, like YA or Western. If you have questions or advice, fire away! Any corrections? Additions? Questions? Concerns? Comments? I love hearing from you. What is the biggest hurdle you have to choosing a genre? Do you love your genre? Why? Any advice?

Make sure you tune in for Wednesday’s blog where I continue walking you through blogging for platform :D. What do we blog about to gain a fan base?

Happy writing!

Until next time….

Give yourself the gift of success for the coming year. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books! Enter to win a FREE copy. Check out Author Susan Bischoff’s blog.

Last week we began a series discussing structure and, if you haven’t read last Monday’s blog, I strongly recommend checking it out. Each of these blogs will build upon the previous lesson. By the end of this series, I hope you to give you guys all the tools you need to be “structure experts.” Structure is one of those topics that I feel gets overlooked far too much. There are a lot of workshops designed to teach aspiring writers how to finish a novel in four weeks or three or two or whatever. And that is great…if a writer possesses a solid understanding of structure. If not? At the end of 4 weeks, you could very likely have a 60K word mess.

Finishing a novel is one of the best experiences in the world, but wanna know the worst? Pouring your heart and soul into a novel, finishing it, and then finding out it is not publishable or even salvageable. I make a lot of jokes about my first novel being used in Guantanamo Bay to break terrorists. I’ll tell you where the bomb is just not another chapter of that booook!

Some of you might be in the midst of having to face some hard truths about your “baby.” If you have been shopping that same book for months or years, and an agent has yet to be interested, likely structure is the problem. Many of you might have a computer full of unfinished novels. Again, structure is likely the problem. Good news is that most structure problems can be fixed, although many times that requires leveling everything to the foundation and using the raw materials to begin anew….the correct way and killing a lot of little darlings along the way.

Last week I broke the bad news. Novels have rules. Sorry. They do. I didn’t make this stuff up. When we don’t follow the rules, bad things happen. Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.

Authors who break the rules do so with a fundamental understanding of rules and reader expectations. Remember the pizza analogy? We can get creative with pizza so long as we do so with an appreciation for consumer expectations. A fried quail leg on filo dough with raspberry glaze is not recognizable as a pizza. We can call it pizza until we are blue and a consumer will just think we’re a nut.

Same with a novel. Readers have expectations. Deviate too far and we will have produced a commodity so far off the standard consumer expectations that the product will not sell…which is why agents won’t rep it. Our novel can be brilliant, but not sell. Agents are interested more in making money than breaking literary rules. Rumor has it that agents do have to make a living.

I can tell if a writer understands structure in ten pages. So can an agent. We are diagnosticians and when we spot certain novel “diseases” we know there is a big internal problem. We’ll discuss two major symptoms of a flawed plot today, but first we are going to pan the camera back this time. Last time we zoomed in and looked at the most fundamental building blocks of a novel. Today, we are going to get an aerial shot—the Three Act Structure.

Aristotelian structure has worked for a couple thousand years for very good reasons. To paraphrase James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure, there is something fundamentally sound about the three act structure, and it is very much in harmony with how we live our lives. Three is a pattern. Childhood is short and introduces us to life (Act I). Most of our living comes in the middle span of years (Act II), and then we are old and we die and that sums up our existence (Act III). We wake in the morning (Act I) then have the day living life (Act II) and then night ties things up (Act III). When we are confronted with a problem we react (Act I) then spend the greatest amount of time searching for insight and looking for an answer (Act II) and then finally the solution (Act III).

Three act structure has endured thousands of years because it works. Beginning, middle and end. We can ignore the three act structure, but we do so at our own risk that our work will fail to connect with readers.

Beginnings present the story world, establish tone, compel the reader to come on the adventure, and introduce the opposition.

Middles deepen the character relationships, keep the reader emotionally invested in the characters, and sets up the events that will lead to the final showdown at the end.

Ends tie up the main plot and any other story threads and provide a sense of meaning.

Ideally, our story’s tension will steadily rise from the beginning to end, getting more intense like a roller coaster. Think of the best roller coasters. They start off with a huge hill (Inciting Incident that introduces the ride) then a small dip to catch your breath, and then we are committed. If the biggest hill is at the beginning of the ride, the rest of the ride is a total letdown. A well-designed rollercoaster gives escalating thrills—bigger and bigger hills and loops—with fewer troughs to catch our breath and all leading up to the Big Boss loop, then the glide home to the other side of where we began. We all want to get to the Big Boss loop, but we do so with a mix of terror, dread and glee. Same with a good story.

Great roller coasters are designed. So are great novels. Everything is done with purpose.

Two major problems will occur when we fail to follow this design. In a year and a half of running countless plots through my workshop, we have given them names—Falcor the Luck Dragon and The Purple Tornado.

Remember the movie The Neverending Story? Beautiful movie and amazing special effects…but (in my opinion) a HORRIBLE story. I loved the movie too. I have a soul. But I feel this movie is remembered and loved more for great effects and puppets, not the storytelling. The beginning starts with The Nothing eating away a world we haven’t been in long enough to care and gobbling up critters the viewing audience hasn’t even been introduced to. Total melodrama. And the solution? A boy hero who the viewer doesn’t know from a hole in the ground and who, truthfully, isn’t nearly as likable as his horse that sinks into the Bog of Despair. Yes, I cried.

So high council instructs unlikable boy hero to go and talk to the Northern Oracle. Northern Oracle is a giant turtle that is suffering depression and is apparently off his meds. Northern Oracle tells boy hero the answer to their problems rest with the Southern Oracle, but it is ten thousand miles away. Boy trudges off depressed and defeated and music rises to cue the audience that we are supposed to care. Unlikable boy hero falls into the swamp…oh but Falcor the Luck Dragon swoops down from the sky and flies him ten thousand miles to the Southern Oracle. How lucky for the boy hero. Better yet. How convenient for the screenwriters that Falcor was there to bail them out of a massive plot problem.

No, your protagonist cannot find a journal or letters or some contrived coincidence to bail her out of a corner and get her back on track. That is what we at WWBC call a Luck Dragon. Don’t think you can sneak a Falcor by an agent or editor either. There is no camouflaging this guy. Did you see the picture? He’s HUGE, and he will stand out like, like…like a Luck Dragon bailing you out of a plot problem. But take heart. Looking at structure ahead of time will make all actions logical and Falcor the Luck Dragon can stay up in the clouds where he belongs.

Next plot problem? The Purple Tornado. What is a purple tornado? So glad you asked. One of the first participants of WWBC had a YA fantasy. By page 30 there was this MASSIVE supernatural event with a purple tornado. This writer clung to the purple tornado scene until I thought I was going to break his knuckles prying it away from him. Why was I prying the purple tornado from his hands? Because he couldn’t top the purple tornado. He had his Big Boss Battle, his grand finale, his giant loop too close to the beginning. The rest of the book would have either been a letdown or totally contrived.

Structure.

Plan where that loop will be situated and put it in the spot that will evoke the greatest emotional reaction….at the end.

I hope you guys get a lot out of this series. I know it took me years to learn some of this stuff and part of the reason I started the Warrior Writers blog was to help shorten the learning curve. I would imagine most of you reading this would like to be published while you are still young enough to enjoy it. Join me next week for more on structure and plotting.

What are some problems you guys have faced in plotting? What are the biggest struggles? Do you have any suggestions for books on the subject or methods you use that you could share? Have you been guilty of a Falcor or a Purple Tornado? Share your thoughts.

Happy writing!

Until next time….

Ah, time for the shameless self-promo.  My best-selling book  We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media is designed to be fun and effective. I am here to change your habits, not your personality. My method will help you grow your network in a way that will translate into sales. And the coolest part? My approach leaves time to write more books. Build a platform guaranteed to impress an agent. How do I know this? My book is recommended by agents.