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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: Green Beret

 

 

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” –Helen Keller

 

One of the greatest goals a writer can have is to create characters so vibrant and real that they take on a life of their own. We as readers come to love them, loathe them, cheer for their victory or pray for their defeat. Great characters go beyond caricature—what I call “paper dolls” when I edit. They have depth and layers and texture just like real people…well, at least interesting people.

Many of us began writing in our teen years and we probably can remember our first characters—tall, fit, good-looking, perfect and basically everything we desired to be (mine was a wandering female moon-elf who made her way through Mid-Atlantia as a mercenary and thief—yeah, I didn’t date much). Anyway, characters manifested as little more than vehicle of wish-fulfillment.

As an editor, I often see this trend continue with new writers even when they are all grown up, and, while that might be great for therapy or self-entertainment, it lacks for creating memorable characters that will resonate with a readership. And I am not picking on the young or the new writer. Wish-fulfillment is a starting place. If creating unforgettable characters was easy, then there wouldn’t be so many workshops and books and conferences all geared toward teaching characterization.

One of the common errors newer writers make is the great-looking character who is perfect in every way. While many of us strive to be that person, truthfully? Who likes them? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know I am hitting a nerve here. But be honest. I mean every time Halle Berry or Christie Brinkley speak out against plastic surgery, I find myself making gagging motions in the background—well, yeah! If I looked like Halle-freaking-Berry I wouldn’t need plastic surgery. Duh! But that person who is beautiful and rich and brilliant and who never would dream of having a disorganized closet and her New Year’s resolution is to send even more money to the starving children of Africa???? Yeah—DIE!

And proof that I am correct on this point is how we all LOOOOVE us some tabloid dirt. I bet even Bob, while standing in the grocery store line, cannot resist his eye wandering to, “Angelina and Jen Caught in Cat Fight over Brad—Who Will Win His Heart?”—okay, maybe not Bob, but the rest of us would look….after we finish checking out the photos proving once and for all that Carmen Electra actually has fat thighs—GASP!

Why do we love to look? Because we LIKE that they are not perfect. We LIKE that they have flaws. It makes us feel a bit more secure that even the beautiful, talented and filthy rich are lonely, suck at relationships, are bad with money, have a temper, or whatever. Since many of us will never know what it feels like to wonder which palatial estate to keep—the one in Malibu or the one in Martha’s Vineyard?—the easiest common ground we will find is in our collective defects.

This said, defects provide us with something else invaluable in writing—a character arc. If a character begins as perfect, then where does he go from there? And some characters will be flawed but static. Jack in the movie Titanic didn’t change, but rather served as a catalyst for others to change (namely, Rose). But if you want to add that layer of depth to your writing, someone in your story needs to change over the course of the story.

The best way to do this? Grab up a big old hand full of rocks. This is the first time in your life you have permission to throw them. Because Helen Keller was right. Conflict fuels change and creates character.

A good example…

Last night I was watching a documentary on the Military Channel called Two Weeks of Hell which followed the Special Forces Assessment and Selection Course, the initial weeding out process for those young motivated males who desire to become Green Berets. What I found most interesting—and Bob talks about this in his wonderful, awesome, inspiring book Who Dares Wins (great last-minute Christmas gift, btw :))—is that one really cannot tell who will succeed and who will fail by looking at the crowd. Why? Because physical strength is not enough to get into Special Forces, and mental and emotional fortitude can only be seen when a man is tested by fire. Get him hungry, wet, tired, frightened, hurting and then put him in a virtually unwinnable situation? You will see what he is made of.

Basically? Throw rocks. The more the better.

Characters are the same way. We editors love to use that phrase, “Show. Don’t tell.” This is what we mean. Put your characters to the test. How they react to stress will tell us who they are (inciting incident) as well as who they grow to become (climactic scene). Also, when you the writer heap stress upon stress upon stress onto the poor character, it makes for much more interesting reading (conflict) and, truthfully, more accurately mirrors life, which allows the reader to sympathize and relate.

Because in life, when stuff blows up, it does it all at the same time. The day you have an unbearable migraine will be the same day your babysitter dies, your 5-year-old will experiment with fire and your car will break down. And when you go to call a tow truck? You will realize AT&T has cut off your phone service because they screwed up the account number…again. Meanwhile, the baby will be teething and screaming and the dog will eat something very valuable and throw up the remains on something even more valuable.

If this is our life, then why should our characters get off so easily?

I love using a scene from Jason Myers’ novel-in-progress to illustrate my points. His protagonist goes out to eat at a Chinese All-You-Can-Eat buffet. What begins as a simple lunch with colleagues ends up in disaster, with Jason’s character face-down on the floor as the place is being robbed. When I critiqued the piece, one of the suggestions I offered was to think of all the things that could go wrong at this moment…then amplify them. Why? Because we all know that if we were in that same situation, face-down on the floor trying to be invisible, that would be the ONE time we forgot to turn off the ringer on our cell phone—and the ringtone would have to be something ironic and mortally embarrassing (Feeling Fegalicious?). It would also be the exact moment a loved one, who was NOT supposed to join us for lunch with the coworkers, would come stumbling blindly into an ongoing robbery calling our name. You get the idea.

So make that curmudgeon Murphy proud! Turn up the heat and watch your characters squirm. When writing key scenes, ask yourself if you’re throwing enough rocks. Yeah, like any other reader, I like some scene-setting and exposition and even good description, but conflict is the fuel that drives the story. Make sure yours doesn’t run out of gas.

Until next time…

 ***Want to create characters like a pro? Learn from the best. Go to www.bobmayer.org and purchase Bob’s Novel Writers Toolkit and sign up for one of his mind-blowing workshops.

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A month ago, I wrote a guest blog here about Revising/Rewriting the WarriorWriter way as taught by Bob Mayer. I preached about the three arcs to emphasize in revision: Plot, Character, and Symbolism. Since then, I’ve spent about six hours per day revising and rewriting the first draft of a novel I composed for this year’s National Novel Writing Month.

So how’d I do? Not so good. I’m a bad WarriorWriter. Maybe. (You decide.)

Back in the middle Eighties when I started my professional writing career in magazines, I called everything between the composition of the first draft and the final copy placement into layout, “Comb Edits.” Think of a girl with long hair combing or brushing over and over until all the tangles are gone.

So here’s my confession: Despite the way I understood the teachings of Bob, I defaulted to my old ways of comb editing. Sure, I kept an internal chant going of “Plot, Character, Symbolism” while I combed, especially when I encountered tangles. But I discovered I don’t have the mental discipline to focus my edits solely and only on, say, Plot Arc.

So what are the WarriorWriter lessons here? I like triplets, so let’s extract three:

#1: Editing is good

I don’t care what you call it or how you think about it, going over and over your manuscript with the same creative intensity you had in composing the first draft makes it better. The first few comb-throughs force you to confront the most difficult tangles, which usually involve plot, characters, and symbolism. (And that’s also when the word “rewrite” is more in play than “revise.”)

#2: Warriors improvise

Just because the plan calls for sticking to plot issues in the first edit doesn’t mean you get to ignore every other problem you see. If your mission is to blow up a bridge and a tanker truck filled with gasoline is conveniently broken down in the middle lane, you change your plan to take advantage of it.

#3: Who Dares Wins

That’s the title of Bob’s book about success in every aspect of life using the warrior philosophy of the Green Berets. Those who dare write the first draft of a novel dramatically increase their changes of publication (duh). And those who dare edit their work with the fine-toothed comb of plot, character, and symbolic development increase their chances even more (duh again).

To me, the largest lesson of WarriorWriting is to do whatever is necessary to find the tangles and fix them, to dare invest everything you’ve got to be in a position to win. If you don’t, you’re not really in the game. Usually, the hardest part is seeing the real tangles that lie hidden behind the walls of our own psychological making (and that’s where the help of other people becomes invaluable: hence the need for psychologists, beta readers, and editors).

The good news is, most people don’t dare confront these tangles, and therefore won’t win. When you point out tangles to most people, they get defensive or ignore them. Only a scant few keep combing and combing and combing until they’ve relentlessly created a manuscript (and a life) worthy of recognition.

Happy WarriorWriting.

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Jeff Posey writes historical and contemporary fiction informed by archaeological findings of the Anasazi culture that lived in the Southwestern U.S. a thousand years ago. He blogs as Anasazi Stories by Jeff Posey, and enjoys his Twitter buddies as AnasaziStories.

And, yes, Jeff fully appreciates the irony of a guy who is so bald he hasn’t touched a comb in twenty years evangelizing the benefits of “comb editing.” There’s always the lingering hope of facial hair.

The impetus for writing this series came from an epiphany I had this past weekend at Bob Mayer’s DFW Novel Writer’s Workshop. I had the fortunate opportunity to listen and observe the sessions as a passive participant. Now one cool talent I have been blessed with is that I tend to be good at recognizing patterns; helps make me a very thorough content editor. There are two patterns in particular I happened to spot this weekend, and I believe, if I can successfully avoid these two writing pitfalls, my writing is going to drastically improve. It is my opinion that these two covert saboteurs are responsible for more rewrite than almost any other error. In fact, I know from my own Blood Lessons that these two critical mistakes have sabotaged some really great stories, and cost me countless hours of work. 

Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict

These two related booby-traps are often hidden beneath our little darlings (clever dialogue, beautiful description, etc). That is probably why Stephen King recommended we kill them—he knew they could be rigged to explode and critically wound our manuscript. I have two novels on the KIA list, and one that has been badly injured and is currently being triaged. And if these hazards aren’t bad enough on their own, when they work together (as they often do) the collateral damage can be devastating.

Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. Good characterization is what breathes life into black letters on a white page, creating “people” who are sometimes more real to us than their flesh and blood counterparts. The problem is that characterization is a skill that has to be learned, usually from a lot of mistakes. To think that simple practice is enough is folly. We have to be taught to do it correctly. It is sort of like going to a gym and swinging weights around with no proper form, then thinking we just need to do it more to get the results we seek. Not true. Yet, time and time again, I see writers—as Bob would say—moving deck chairs around on the Titanic (again, I have been guilty). The writer describes the character more, or gives more info dump or more internal thought, or more back story, yet never manages to accomplish true characterization. So, when something really bad happens, we the reader just don’t care.

Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked explores this problem in detail if you would like to read more, but to keep it short and sweet I’m going to explain it this way. Most of us have driven down a highway at around rush hour, so picture this scenario. We notice emergency lights ahead.  The oncoming traffic lane is shut down and looks like a debris field. Four mangled cars lay in ruins, surrounded by somber EMTs. Do you feel badly? Unless you’re a sociopath, of course you do.

Now…

You look into that same oncoming lane and two of the cars you recognize. They belong to friends you were supposed to meet for dinner.

Before you cared…now you are connected.

That is how good characterization makes the difference. If you open your story with this gut-wrenching scene in a hospital where someone is dying, you are taking a risk. We will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes us have to close the book and get tissue.

Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict

Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witnessed this pitfall tank more manuscripts this past weekend—including my own. Bob has this section of his workshop where he makes everyone show their conflict lock. Protagonist wants this. Antagonist wants that. What they each want is destined to lock in conflict.

Not one person in the workshop could do this. Not one!

Now, don’t get me wrong, there were people who just didn’t see they had a good simple conflict, and it was easy enough to remedy. But, over half of us could not say in one to three sentences what the conflict in our story was, and now we’re staring down the barrel of major rewrite. To varying degrees we had all fallen victim to Hazard #2, and thank God our fellow writers were nearby to drag us back to safety.

It is my opinion that we all knew we were missing this integral piece—CONFLICT—the backbone of our story. I think we sensed it on a sub-conscious level and that is why our plots grew more and more and more complicated. We were trying to fix a structural issue with Bondo putty and duct tape and then hoping no one would notice.

Complexity is not conflict!

You can create an interstellar conspiracy, birth an entirely new underground spy network, resurrect a dead sibling who in reality was sold off at birth, or even start the Second Civil War to cover up the space alien invasion…but it ain’t conflict. Conflict is biblical, and never changes. It most often revolves around the Seven Deadly Sins in conflict with the Seven Heavenly Virtues. Interstellar war, guerilla attacks, or evil twins coming back to life can be the BACKDROP for conflict, but alone are not conflict.

 And not only do we writers need a core conflict; we need a good core conflict.

There is a difference between…

A criminal profiler is forced to go to Key West and rescue her aunt before the mob uses an inbound hurricane to cover up her murder as payback for a dead family member’s debt.

(Hmmm…interesting maybe)

Vs.

A criminal profiler grieving her sister’s death runs to Key West only to arrive just before a hurricane.

(Who cares?)

Now these are just examples I thought of on the fly from my own writing (didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, :D). But, I hope it helps. And for those who would like to learn more about conflict, I recommend taking one of Candace Havens’ on-line workshops www.candacehavens.com, or attending one of Bob Mayer’s workshops, www.bobmayer.org. Bob’s book “The Novel Writer’s Toolkit” (you can buy off his site) and Jessica Morrell’s “Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction” are two excellent resources I recommend for every writer’s collection. If anyone reading this blog has additional suggestions, please leave them in the comment section. I am sure we would all appreciate it.

So, after all of this, what is a good way to spot these two hazards?  William Faulkner is said to have advised writers to kill their “darlings,” those little bits of glitter a writer thinks are simply marvelous. To the reader lacking that maternal attitude, they are at best distracting, at worst a reason to stop reading. I sincerely believe these little darlings are like fluffy beds of leaves covering pungee pits of writing death. Be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there.

Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out. — Samuel Johnson

Good luck, and happy writing!

 http://www.bobmayer.org/index.php?id=4

http://www.amazon.com/Bullies-Bastards-Bitches-Write-Fiction/dp/1582974845

http://www.amazon.com/Hooked-Write-Fiction-Grabs-Readers/dp/1582974578

There are many times throughout the day that I simply pause and think how incredibly blessed I am.  Almost ten years ago I made the fateful decision to become a writer. It has been an amazing journey, and the most humbling experience of my life. I have toyed with blogging on different subjects, but often found it difficult to stay focused very long. Why? Three reasons:

  1. For those who love to write, they often have so many stories to tell it seems one lifetime is not enough. There is so much commentary bubbling inside that we can find it depressing to have to light on one subject.
  2. Discipline is a character trait that, sadly, is not just encoded in one’s DNA. Like getting in the gym or saying “no” to that next slice of pizza, writing anything (blogs included) takes focus, willpower, and work. (Yeah…I was kind of bummed about that, too).
  3. I think many new writers (and even some of us seasoned ones) struggle with feeling legitimate. I know well-published authors who still find it tough to think of themselves as writers, let alone “experts” with anything noteworthy to say.

The last item in that list, I believe, is what has held me back the most in regards to blogging. I critique/edit hundreds of pages a month—fiction, non-fiction, marketing, etc, and have done so for going on a decade. I edit for some of the best authors in the business. On my desk are stacks of signed books from grateful writers, and a few of these books even has my name printed in the acknowledgements. And strangely, even though I possess quite a dossier of success in the writing world, I have a hard time believing I am an expert in my field. Silly, I know. But, part of growing as a writer is developing a greater degree of self-awareness.

Back to the why I am so blessed part, because that is really important and will help you understand why I have chosen to write this new series. I have the most amazing friends any person could ever wish for. Among those friends are some extremely talented writers (Candy Havens, Rosemary-Clements Moore, A. Lee Rodriguez, Britta Coleman, Nell Noonan, Dr. Mike Bumagin, Debbie Gillette…just to name a few). But, one of my closest friends is NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. This friendship has changed my life, my writing life in particular, more than anything else. Bob is not just a famous, talented, brilliant author; he is also a former Green Beret and leader of an A-Team. He teaches how to blend the warrior spirit into the craft of writing in his book “Who Dares Wins,” and in July he is launching the first all-day workshops called “Warrior Writer” to teach writers (published or unpublished) how to think like a best-selling author. I count myself fortunate to have had such a mentor.

This past weekend, I helped Bob run his “DFW Novel Writer’s Workshop.” I had the super important jobs like refilling ice chests of cold drinks, handing out workbooks, and rescuing attendees locked outside on the bottom floor. Hey, I’m not proud. If I have to make two hundred ham sandwiches and scrub smashed Doritos out of the carpet to listen to a best-selling author teach me how to write, you can bet I am so there.

Like all of the attendees, I walked away a changed writer and person. First, I saw another layer of fear that had been dictating a lot of my choices (like being afraid of blogging about writing even though I WORK as an editor—dumb. I know.) But I also learned some mind-blowing lessons about the craft that I intend on passing on to you, my loyal blog readers.

First…let’s point out the pink elephant in the room.

Yes. There are some people who write their first novel and—POOF—they are instantly a NY Times Best-Selling success. This is a reality that cannot be denied, just like there happen to be people who win a hundred million dollars playing the lottery. These individuals do exist, but I don’t think lottery tickets are a wise investment plan for the rest of us. Yet, how many writers (and I am so guilty of this, too) write our first book and think we are going to be the next (insert name of super mega best-selling author here)? For those writers who emotionally survive that first slap of reality (known as a tall stack of rejected queries for your 170,000 word romantic-comedy-historical fantasy-science fiction-suspense novel that your mother just LOVES), the road to publication is fraught with peril.

Most won’t make it.

The bitter reality is that the road to publishing success is littered with the corpses of rejected or unfinished manuscripts, soaked in the lost lifeblood of what used to be a writer’s ego. For those who dare to take this path, they will learn a lot of Blood Lessons along the way.  Those who are smart will learn, but those who are wise learn from others.

Blood Lessons come in many forms as you will read about in this blog. I will post lessons about writing, of course. But, most importantly, it will be my goal to post lessons of life, camaraderie, and character. As I stated earlier, I have been greatly blessed to be friends with caring, talented individuals. I always joke that Guantanamo Bay was using my first novel to break terrorists until the UN intervened (Water board me pleeeease! Just not another chapter of that BOOK!).

 

I still remember sitting in the Southwest Fort Worth Library parking lot crying after my first critique…and second…and third. When it finally sank in that I was not going to be living off my royalty checks in the French Riviera within the year, I became deeply depressed. In fact, I would have tossed myself off my apartment balcony, but the drop was only far enough to maim me. I would have tossed my computer off the balcony, but I had spent the last of my savings to buy it.

Despite the crushing blow to my ego and general sense of worth as a human, I kept at it—and I am so glad I did. I have won quite a few awards for my fiction, even though I am still trudging the road toward finishing/publishing a novel. I have been president of the Freelance Writers Network for going on five years, and I also sit on the board of directors for the DFW Writers’ Workshop. Through perseverance, I’ve earned my stripes as a critique/editor and I have managed to make a nice living doing what I love. It hasn’t been easy—the path of the Warrior Writer never is. And, though I’m sure all of you will learn your own Blood Lessons along the way, maybe I can help spare you a few…or at least inspire you.

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. — from Seven Pillars of Wisdom

 

 

 

I hope to pass some of this wisdom on to those of you who choose the path of the Warrior Writer.