);

Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: plotter

 

Anyone in publishing will tell you that one of the most important parts of your novel is the beginning. As an editor I hear, “Oh, but wait until you get to the good part on page 50. This is all the lead up.” Um, no. Doesn’t work that way. You might have a humdinger on page 50, but you are competing against authors who hook readers in the first three-ten pages. Many agents freely confess that they can tell by page two if they will even bother reading the entire sample submitted.

Why? Because they sit up all night thinking of ways to crush writer egos. Kidding!

To be blunt, agents want to be good at what they do and make a lot of money doing it (like the rest of us :D). How do they do this? By helping writers sell a lot of books. They understand that a novel’s beginning is the “hook” that will make or break a novel when it comes to readers. I actually believe that, as e-readers become more popular that beginnings will become more important than ever. I know that I frequently download free samples. I figure if a writer can interest me (sell me) in 3 pages, then I will read 5. If she can hook me in 5 I will read the free 30 pages. If I make it through 30, then this writer deserves my money and my time. But, remember, she had to make it past 3. Good writers do their homework and know what goes into a great beginning. I recommend studying great beginnings so you know what they look like.

So what makes a great beginning? So glad you asked. There are a lot of components that can go into a great beginning, but I am only going to discuss one of those components today—normal world. I believe if you can understand why normal world is important, the functions it serves, then you will be less eager to cut it out completely.

Normal world is vital. It is easy to feel the pressure to be interesting and begin our books with a car chase or a shoot-out.

**Hey, there isn’t a mistake I haven’t made as a writer or seen as an editor. So lighten up. It’s okay to goof up and live to laugh about it.

We as writers are so eager to be interesting in the first three lines, that we can easily forget an essential component to fiction…the normal world. Not wanting to bore readers, we toss them in a tank of sharks and grin—That’ll hook ‘em for sure.

The problem with that thinking? When we thrust a reader right into the heart of the action immediately, they haven’t been given a chance to care about or connect with any of our characters. Thus, what can easily happen is that we end up creating melodrama instead of drama.

1. Normal world lays the foundation for genuine drama.

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, and there are still figures draped with blue blankets 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 readers will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes us have to close the book and get tissue.

Whether in books or on film, this is why normal world is critical. It gives the observer a chance to see the world as it would have remained had the inciting incident never happened. Would Luke Skywalker have been nearly as interesting if his aunt and uncle hadn’t been killed? And since we as the viewing audience were afforded a glimpse of Skywalker’s loved ones at the beginning of the movie, it had more impact on us when they were brutally murdered. It also helped rally us to Skywalker’s side as he set off on his journey.

2. Normal world gives the audience a baseline for character.  

By understanding how our hero is at the beginning, we also get a picture of what must be developed by the climax so our hero can be victorious. In the beginning of Romancing the Stone Joan Wilder is a single older woman who lives alone with her cat and writes about love and adventure because she has neither…and she is to afraid to pursue them. Because we see normal world, we then recognize the inciting incident when we see it—the phone call from sister who has been kidnapped. Additionally, because we have witnessed this fraidy-cat writer, we observers are now seated in real conflict as we wonder—How on earth is she going to pull this off? We have seen this woman who is afraid of everything and wonder HOW she will develop the courage she will need to triumph. We are…hooked.

Joan’s life from the moment she receives the call from her sister will no longer be the same. A series of events have been set in motion and conflicts must be resolved to restore the natural order of things. But, since we are storytellers, we know that we must leave the world better than when we found it. Joan, at the end of her quest, must have love and courage to live the life of adventure she only could dream about in the beginning, which leads to my next point…

Normal world gives us an opportunity to see the character’s starting point on his or her arc. Joan at the beginning was afraid of her own shadow. Joan at the end has been tested and tried by bad guys, jungles, snakes, and alligators, and has come out victorious. She as a person had to change in order to triumph. Your protagonist, if pitted against the antagonist in the opening scene (for one reason or another) should FAIL. Why? Because then victory at the end is far sweeter.

3. Normal world also allows the reader to see what is at stake.

In The Fellowship of the Ring the story begins with the Hobbits. The wizard Gandalf the Grey is riding into town for a visit with fireworks in tow. There is a reason for these initial scenes of carefree laughter on a beautiful summer day. We as the audience get to see what is to be lost should our heroes fail.

In the beginning we witness a lush green world that is lovely and innocent…but in danger. We are told in the prologue that the Ring of Power was not destroyed. Thus the Ring represents an invisible, but ever-present threat. But, because we witnessed this world in an almost perfected state, it is more psychologically disturbing to us as the darkness grows. As the tale unfolds and Sauron grows stronger, we see progressively that the days literally grow darker and darker, the shadows deepen, and no one smiles or laughs any more.

At the end of the trilogy, in Return of the King we get to the ending scenes and see that the world of innocence and joy have been saved, but we see it has come at a price. The little Hobbits who were so naïve and bedazzled by the dreams of adventure are now war veterans, home from a journey that no one in the Shire will ever fully comprehend. We see them sitting quiet at the table. We hear the unspoken words between them because we witnessed the darkness they faced and defeated. We, the audience comprehend the price they paid so the world could remain innocent. Yet, we know it was all worth it in that, unlike the beginning, the Ring will never threaten this world again. The world is restored…only better.

Points to remember:

  1. Normal world lays the foundation for genuine drama—we have to get to know the characters in order to care and be vested in them
  2. Normal world gives us a character baseline—we need an initial glimpse to see how our hero is not in a position to succeed in the beginning. This creates genuine conflict in that we want to read the story to figure out how that protagonist could ever take down the antagonist.
  3. Normal world lets us see what is at stake—We need to see what could be lost. We also need to see what the hero may be clinging to that is keeping him from answering the call to adventure. The inciting incident must pry away something meaningful (Joan Wilder and security) or offer blessed escape (Harry Potter—escape from abuse).

What are some of the great beginnings either in film or in books? What would you recommend we study?

Happy writing!

Until next time…

***************************************************************

Writers! The sooner you begin building your platform, the BETTER! Some agencies now will not sign any writer who does not have a solid social media platform. That trend is sweeping publishing. Time to get prepared the right way.

Plan for success. If you don’t have a slick team of NY marketing people at your disposal, my book is perfect!

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.

You don’t have all day to market. You have best-selling books to write! So pick up a copy today.

hor_pinhead

Writing a novel…welcome to hell.

Just kidding (not really).

After almost a decade in the business, I must attest that fiction is the toughest form of writing. It’s like trying to create and conduct a symphony with only black letters on a white page. So many things have to be balanced perfectly so as not to provide a natural spot for a big fat bookmark. The author must first have a hook that makes the reader want more, and then create a protagonist who possesses a story-worthy problem that makes us desire to spend the next 80-100,000 words giving a crap…without tipping over in the TDTL category (Too Dumb to Live). On top of that, there is pace, tone, POV, characterization, etc. It can be a dizzying experience that can frustrate even the most highly motivated.

Back in the summer, I had the privilege of attending the first Warrior Writer Workshop by NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. Several of my writers from my Fort Worth critique group also attended. We realized after day one that we needed to make a serious change to the way we were approaching critique. Truthfully, we’d known it for a couple of years, just didn’t really have a solid idea how to change things. Bob’s Warrior Writer gave us the answer.

For my one year as VP and four years as Prez of this particular group, it had been a never-ending battle trying to get rid of this sick dependence on line-edit. Too many members believed that showing up twice a week to look for every “was” cluster or dangling participle was actually productive. In my opinion, there were too many members mistaking mere “activity” with meaningful “progress.” And the tragic part is the writing never improved. Week after week, the characters still remained flat, the POV switched so much that reading required Dramamine, and the plots had more holes than cheesecloth. And there were also some great writers, but this format of 5-10 page critique in a microcosm was merely a formula for frustration when one was working on a piece that spanned 100, 000 words.

What bothered me most was that I saw a lot of highly motivated writers in the group who wanted more, and who possessed the talent to write great material…if they could just see HOW. I’ve also fought the battle (in another group) with some extremely talented (published) writers who firmly believe that if members just attend and pay attention at critique, that, by osmosis, they will learn what they need to learn to write a darn good book.

Um, no.

That’s like saying if I hang out long enough at the Dallas Symphony practice, I will eventually be able to pick up the cello and play by ear. Now are there people who learn that way? Yes! And boy are we ever jealous of those guys. But, the reality is that, as a leader, if I cared about those in membership, I had to appreciate that not everyone learned the same way. Thus, we broke off and created Warrior Writer Boot Camp. This was a group designed specifically for those who desired to write a novel.

Making hell a little more manageable, :).

Before any writing (or rewriting) takes place, Warrior Writer Boot Camp runs attendees through a series of steps designed to provide a much stronger framework for a story, and hopefully a much greater likelihood of publication.

Today, we’ll discuss two Warrior Writer Boot Camp steps for success.

1)      In WWBC, we have the author place the one-line conflict in the header.

A woman must choose between her love for her husband and her love for her country when she finds a box of mysterious letters indicating the man she loves is a Jamaican spy.

This one line is to make sure that all that follows after this point in critique falls in line with that conflict. All other group members at all times know what the story is about. We are reminded of the big picture. This makes it easier for us to catch an author who’s gone off on a tangent. Or, sometimes the tangent is better (subconscious working) and then the group can help the author modify the one-line conflict accordingly. This simple tactic prevents “critique in a microcosm”—the five or ten pages might be great, but if they have nothing to do with the main conflict, then the scene needs to be cut or rewritten and made salient.

This one line is the very first step. And, to be blunt, at this point in Boot Camp, it doesn’t matter if it sucks. This next step will likely change that one line anyway.

2)      Plot every detail, no matter how small.

As a writer, your subconscious mind is one of the greatest assets you possess. By plotting “every” detail ahead of time, you provide all sorts of fodder for your subconscious to get creative. In Warrior Writer Boot Camp we require members to detail everything (using the Character template in Bob Mayer’s Novel Writers Toolkit). The more detail the better. And give your details underlying reasons.

Write down that your protagonist loves Frosted Flakes because it reminds her of happier times when she was a kid before her father died. This way, later, when you get to writing and you have a stressful scene for your protagonist, what is going to be a natural choice for comfort food? Frosted Flakes. This will prevent a lot of your characters doing the same things. When we have to think of things on the spot, often we insert our own likes/proclivities. I recently edited a writer who had every single character drinking coffee when they were stressed or thinking. Guess what this author drinks when he is stressed or thinking?

If I know ahead of time that my protagonist is a Christian (religious beliefs are part of the template), then it is logical she pray when faced with an EOE (emotionally overwhelming event). If she is a Christian with wavering faith, the prayer will be different than a person of more solid beliefs. You get the idea.

Getting an idea of looks, manner, habits, beliefs are all vital to creating rich characters and a great story. It’s like going from a palette of paint with three primary colors to suddenly having one of those super-duper paint sets with hundreds of colors.

If you ever attend one of Bob’s Warrior Writer Workshops (and I certainly hope you do), you will probably hear him talk about the characters in Lonesome Dove. McMurtry did such a great job of creating characters that there was no question what each would do when the inciting incident occurred. Think about this in your own life. How would your mother react to being mugged? Now your father? Your best friend? The guy at the gym who teaches Cardio Kickboxing? Each of these people would have an entirely different book with the same inciting incident. Why? Because everyone is comprised of a different set of experiences, skill-sets, attitudes, beliefs, and abilities. All of these elements are going to directly affect HOW they react, or even if they react at all. This is what you the author are doing before you ever start the novel.

In WWBC, we create the antagonist first. Why? Because without the antagonist, the protagonist doodles on and has a happy conflict-free life. We don’t really give a rip about Luke Skywalker unless Darth enters the picture. Our WWBC goal is to make certain the writer is creating a worthy adversary, one whose defeat will elicit cries of joy from a riveted reader. It also makes it much simpler to create a protagonist perfect for taking him/her/it out (Week Two). These short dossiers make it much easier to adjust characters, goals, agendas, plans ahead of time before the author gets 50,000 words in and realizes there is a huge problem.

Pantsers need not cry out in pain. This method will not impede your creativity. I can attest to that, being a long-time pantser myself. It’s just that we get an opportunity to get to know and adjust our characters/plot/setting ahead of time. This will help keep us on track once we begin writing our novel. We can still be pansters, but it will be far easier to see the difference between getting creative and just jumping off the train altogether and landing in a tar baby. This tactic also creates characters that are richer sooner. As a pantser, I always found that my characters were kind of flat until about 40 pages in. Well, it took 40 pages for me to figure out who the heck the characters were! By doing all their back-story first, I now find my characters coming to life on page ONE.

To all you plotters, this method is good for helping you focus on characterization, which is often a weakness for the plot-driven author. It will give depth and texture and provide information to your subconscious to help make your plots even better.

Never underestimate the power of collective minds. In WWBC we now can have qualitative critique that focuses on CONTENT. When a new attendee brings his antagonist (with the one-line conflict in the header) the group now gets an opportunity to say, “Whoooo. Can’t WAIT for the book!” or “Seriously? Are you high?” (we’re not that mean). We get a chance to help the author make the strongest antagonist possible before the writing ever begins. We can say, “That goal seems silly,” “His goal needs to be bigger,” “What she wants is way too complicated, and I’m lost,” “Your bad guy isn’t scary, he’s annoying,”“That isn’t logical,” “What does this goal have to do with your one-line conflict?” Of course, we also can say, “I like that, but it might be stronger if you did X,” or “Great plan. Now make sure your protag’s greatest fear is X, because then you’ll have your arc.”

One doesn’t have to be a published author or a professional editor to do this sort of critique. We are ALL readers, and we know what we like, what will make us stay awake until four in the morning reading. We also know what will make us toss a book with great force across the room. The WWBC method allows problems to be addressed and fixed ahead of time, and I can attest that critique time is now put to far better use than merely looking for repetitive words and misplaced commas. Critique is also much more productive because instead of an author hearing, “Well, your protagonist is unlikable,” the writer now can get feedback from the group as to WHY the protagonist is unlikeable and can be given suggestions as to what would fix that problem. As authors, we often get tunnel vision, and can’t see the forest for the trees. WWBC alleviates this problem by providing different perspectives at all critical stages along the genesis of any work.

Critique now becomes a crucible where all the “impurities” can be fired out.

Over the coming weeks, we will delve deeper into this method of critique/constructing a book. Although having a group setting is ideal, a lot of these tactics can be used by an individual. In WWBC, we are actually a group designed to work for all kinds of learners (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, combination). Mostly, this format provides accountability, practice and repetition. Writing fiction can be hell, but no one said we had to do it alone.

Until next time…

For a Warrior Writer Workshop near you, contact Bob Mayer at www.bobmayer.org.

hannibal

What’s your favorite type of pain?

 Sure, sure, you’re going to say, “I don’t like pain at all.”

No one does, but pain is something we must experience to have growth. 

What if a masochist (we’ll call him “Bobby”) captured you and made you choose?: Do you want a sharp stabbing pain that occurs in a few seconds/minutes, or would you prefer a low level, always-on pain for a month?  Think about that for a minute while I wait.

<waiting>

Okay, you’ve made up your mind. No, no, you don’t need to tell me right now. You can keep it to yourself.  But you need to know the answer.

 

Why am I asking you this question and what the hell does it have to do with writing a manuscript? Well, everything.

 

I attended Bob Mayer’s Warrior Writer Workshop a while back and he introduced me to something called “front-loading.” I had no idea what he meant, but when Bob speaks, you listen. Front-loading is just another word for a “plotter” as opposed to a “pantser.”  Plotters work out all the nuances and story before they write one word of prose. Pantsers do it during the work.  Which way is better? I’m sure Bob would tell you plotting is, but he would also deliver the caveat that either way will work. I agree with him. I used to be a firm pantser, but now do a lot more plotting and find it significantly speeds up writing. Now, don’t get me wrong, plotting is a TON of writing, just not your actual story. You have to write down everything you research, your characters back stories, key points , your overall outline, timelines, and your inciting event. Write it down.

 

But that doesn’t matter. Pantsers and plotters are doing the very same thing, just going about it differently. Plotters are pantsers and pansters are plotters—they just don’t know it

 

How is that, you might ask? Well you might not ask, but I’m going to tell you anyway, so buckle up.

 

When a pantser starts in on her story, she just jumps in and starts writing like a madwoman.  Typically, she’ll get a significant way into the story, and get lost or even blocked.  What does she do then? She must plot. She has to decide on which way the story will go from the stuck point. (Ha! To all you pantsers out there! You’re secretly plotters and didn’t know it!)  So she feels the pain while writing the story. It’s a slow, dull ache that lasts mostly during the middle parts and even toward the end, where she might not be entirely sure where the story will end up. (This can also be addressed by getting back to your Original Idea.) I have seen numerous pantsers on Twitter complaining about being stuck somewhere in the middle of the story, and when I throw out perhaps they should try to plot a little, they strike back with, “That’s not the way I work.”  I disagree.  You must plot out your story or you will write it forever.

 

Case in point: I just now (yes, while writing this) see an assumed pantser on Twitter. This person tweeted: Brain this would be a great time for you to kick in and give me something useful for this scene.  Plotters don’t have that problem. They know the purpose of every scene before it’s written.  I hear those pantsers out there bemoaning the “creative process” and “getting into their character’s heads” and “What fun is it if you already know the entire story?”  They like to let the story go where it may and be surprised by their characters. (Stephen King is a pantser by the way…he said he didn’t even outline Needful Things. Read that sucker and tell me he’s not a genius. No outline!)

 

 Keep reading, you pantser.

 

Now, when a plotter begins a story, she starts with her Original Idea and builds upon that by deciding what characters and items are going to be in the story, their back story, what they want (no, what they really want) and plots out the general idea of where the story is going using the Narrative Structure of:

 

Initiating Event

Rising Action

Crisis

Climax

Resolution

 

This is all before she writes a word of story.  This is also where she is pantsing.  She is trying different flavors of the story, deciding on what POV to use, deciding on setting, and voice, the ending, how her protagonist will overcome the obstacles in her path, writing a good outline…all that good stuff. She is going through the very same thing a pantser goes through, but she’s doing it before she writes one word down. What’s the ending going to be? She doesn’t know, but she works through the story—just like a pantser, and finds it.

 

Her pain is sharp, like a knife stab, but over quickly.  Well, quickly being a subjective term. It may take her just as long as the pantser to figure out where her story is going, but she’s doing it before she writes. Once the pain is inflicted, it’s over. Unlike the pantser who will feel pain like a broken toe for chapter after laborious chapter of flailing about on the page, wondering where the damn story is going, and why is the main character going into that cave, when he should be getting on the ship? Plotters feel the pain and feel it sharply because, at the beginning stage, they test the viability of the idea without writing for two months only to discover the thing is only forty pages long and they’re out of story!

 

So take your pain answer from above and apply it to which type of writer you are.  If you like a shorter duration of pain, you might want to try plotting and see how it works. I know, I know, you’re a diehard pantser, but hey, you’re still going to get all that fun pantsing time, it’ll just be before you write yourself into a corner in chapter 22 and freak.

If you prefer the slower, dull ache of getting stuck halfway through your story, by all means, pants to your heart’s content.  However, understand one thing: you will be plotting later. And when you do, you may very well have to go back to chapter one and start rewriting the entire freaking thing!  If that sounds fun to you, by all means, carry on.  But often I’ve seen people have to turn their character from a tall blonde woman, to a short black man because of the revision they could have done before and saved them all that time. 

 

Which do I do? I have embraced plotting—with one exception!  I only stretch my outline (which is just a scene breakdown in paragraph form) up until the final few scenes.  I know by then where the story is heading, and I know my Climax, and my Resolution.  I then pants the final few scenes seeing where the story goes and how the characters are going to deal with the mountain of stones I am throwing at them.  I pants this part, because I don’t really want to know the ending of my story and more than the reader does, until I get there.  So does this make me a pantser?  Ha! Not so much, but I do get the best of both worlds. 

 

What about you? Do you plot? Is there a solid reason to pants?  I would be interested to hear it.

***************************************************************************************************************************

Jason is a rising talent and underappreciated megalomaniac with a thirst for world domination. When he isn’t working his day job (IT Geek) or spending time with his family, he is busy crafting worlds he can destroy on a whim. As an enthusiastic member of the DFW Writers Workshop, he can often be witnessed dedicating his time to supporting his fellow minions–I meant other writers.

He is a highly talented writer and blogger. For more of Jason A. Myers, go to:

Web: http://jasonamyers.wordpress.com/
Twitter: twitter.com/JasonAMyersTX

He is truly a Warrior Writer and we are all grateful for this thoughtful post.

 

To sign up for a Warrior Writer near you, go to www.bobmayer.org