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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: shame

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of frankieleon

I read a ridiculous amount of novels and I’m very picky, namely because I have the attention span of a fruit fly with a crack habit. Like most modern readers, it takes a lot to grab then keep my attention.

Most books I end up putting down or returning to Audible for another. There are books I finish then forget. Most are meh. Good way to kill time not much more. But then there are the ones that stick, the stories I never grow tired of reading and rereading and recommending and as you can see, I have very eclectic taste.

Some of my fondest loves are Heart-Shaped BoxBig, Little LiesAmerican Gods, Prisoner of Hell Gate, The Joy Luck Club, Luckiest Girl Alivethe Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer, and anything written by Fredik Backman Britt Marie Was Here being my favorite.

Yet what do all these great stories have in common? Why do they make me laugh and cry and cheer? What is so cathartic about these books?

Shame.

Deep, profound, gut-wrenching and very identifiable shame.

The content of this blog is actually from a guest post I did for Rachel Thompson. But I think it’s a valuable lesson, especially for the new writers who haven’t yet developed the rhino skin to dare to be vulnerable themselves, let alone with their characters.

So I shall go first….

Back in 2002 when I finally made the decision to become a novelist, I had no idea what kind of a personal journey I’d signed up for. In fact that could make an entire book—okay series of books—in and of itself.

When I started writing I was not a very nice person (and that’s putting it mildly). I was angry, self-centered, bitter, undisciplined, and immature. But I did have great hair so it wasn’t a total loss.

In short? I was a jerk.

Often though, the trouble with jerks is they are the only ones unaware they are jerks. Kind of like that movie The Sixth Sense.

I see jerks. Everywhere. Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re a jerk.

Yeah, that was me. It was everyone else. Everyone else was responsible for ***insert emotion/problem/drama here***.

And maybe this isn’t a very useful post for you because you’re all wonderful, perfectly adjusted individuals who rescue kittens when you’re not knitting onesies for cold baby goats. But maybe what I have to say today can help…a friend 😉 .

Shame

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Alan Levine

I did not come from a healthy family. Scratch that. I was born in The Jerry Springer Show Reality TV Edition. As a kid I didn’t know it was not normal to have screaming fights lasting hours every day. That sane people didn’t kick in doors, throw things or constantly threaten a) abandonment b) suicide c) divorce.

As a kid, I only partially grasped why I wasn’t allowed to play with other kids in the neighborhood. I was a straight A student and a teacher’s dream pupil…but every parent on the street walled their kid off from me like I carried Ebola.

Eventually my parents divorced and my father decided it would be fun to just you know, disappear for two years without so much as a word as to whether he was even alive. Child support?

That’s funny.

My poor mom did the best that she could, but by the time I hit middle school we lived on spaghetti because it was cheap and lived in unending fear the power would be cut off. I wore thrift store clothes and Toys for Tots supplied my Christmas gifts.

I got bounced home to home and in the process switched schools a total of ten times; five times just in high school. And it was strange. It was like every school came standard with a gaggle of Queen Bees WASPs ready to skewer me with their stingers over and over and over.

What was even worse were the teachers (probably Queen WASPs in their high school heydays) who joined in the “fun” of tearing me apart. In fact, I had nightmares about one particular teacher well into my 30s.

No place. No person was safe.

The harder I tried to appease the WASPs in school and home, the more I was stung. I was a bleeding ruined wreck.

I’m fairly certain to this day that I am the reason for the current Texas truancy laws. I’d skip and take refuge in the library. Books didn’t care that I only owned two pairs of pants and four shirts.

Eventually, I dropped out of high school…twice.

The only thing that kept me from getting a GED and being done with it was I’d always wanted to be in the military. I longed for structure and order and hell I was used to being yelled at and called worthless. Perfect fit!

But, in the 90s, you couldn’t get into the military without an actual high school diploma, so groans I had to go back. I was nineteen years old in an English class of fourteen-year-olds. Talk about a slice of humble pie.

Yet, to survive, I learned two key defense mechanisms. One, I became funny. Being funny works, it’s sort of like peeing yourself so no one eats you. High five! My possum friend! But when funny wouldn’t work? I became MEAN.

I’d always wanted to be a writer from the time I hadn’t even nailed down the entire alphabet song. I was good with words and after years of using them to flatter and pacify? I realized that didn’t work on bullies.

So I whipped out my whetstone and sharpened my words to a razor’s edge that rivaled any Samurai sword.

I truly believe that those who are born to be writers—good writers—have an almost preternatural power for observation. We very literally see what others don’t or even can’t. This meant I could meet a person (enemy) and instantly know every perfect pain point.

Thus, when I went for someone, I didn’t waste time. I went for their heart, for the thing they thought they’d buried so deep, hidden where no one could see.

And I’d carve it out and show it to them—still beating—in my hand.

If my tormenters were unwilling like me, they would by God fear me.

Of course while this worked to make the WASPs keep a nice and respectful distance, it also isolated me. Regular, nice people also were afraid of me and in my mind? I didn’t care. Being alone was safer. People always left anyway. Best not to care.

So why am I talking about all of this other than hey, FREE THERAPY!

When I became a writer and my goal was to become a novelist, I had to face who I’d become. Being a jerk made me a lousy writer.

My first novel (which of course I thought was perfect) sucked. But why was it so bad? Okay that is actually a loooooong list. But the main reason is that all my characters were “perfect.”

They were everything I had always wanted to be. My MC was tall and beautiful and eerily resembled Angelina Jolie and she had mad fighting skills and spoke 42 languages and Zzzzzzzzzzz.

Over and over I tried new stories and same deal. Why were all my stories boring the paint off the walls?

The reason? All great stories are birthed from SHAME.

I finally understood that I’d fashioned so much armor around myself cobbled together with self-delusion, B.S. glitter and flat out lies, that I couldn’t be vulnerable. I didn’t know how to be.

Until I acknowledged I was a jerk, I couldn’t start understanding WHY I was a jerk so I could heal those parts and then…change.

I didn’t know I was a jerk because I was deeply and profoundly ashamed.

Fiction as Therapy

To be a great author, we must understand this core truth…

Readers don’t connect to perfection; they connect to flaws. We aren’t telling stories to perfect people, we are telling them to lost and broken and hurting people who can pick up a book and by GOD at least there is one frigging place in the world where the good guy wins and bad people get what they deserve.

We writers must understand who we really are if we want to resonate with readers.

Writers are dealers of justice.

Because here’s the deal. We live in reality where the popular girl who tormented the poor kids in high school didn’t get what she deserved and never will.

No. She married rich. Then as a “stay at home mom”—with a full-time housekeeper and au pair—went on to start a home-based company selling non-GMO organic vegan nail decorations made from fair trade coconut oil.

And she made millions, because of course she did!

She spends every Spring Break in Vail, summers in Europe, and never loses one moment of sleep over the young girls she emotionally ravaged, has not a singular care for the self-esteems she plundered. She doesn’t even recall her victim’s names just hopes the pathetic little lemmings buy her nail wraps.

We all know villains like her exist in real life, certainly did in mine. And in real life, she gets away with her crimes…but in fiction? This is the place she has no power. Her looks, money and family connections mean nothing. In story, she can be held accountable for what she’s done.

But here we are talking plot. Now?

Character Arc

What about the protagonist? Because a protagonist ambushing the mean girl of high school and feeding her through a wood chipper FARGO style, while morbidly interesting, is not a story.

The story is always with the hero. Outward defeat of said villain is not enough. That is only half of the recipe for a perfect story.

How does the protagonist face this villain and finally change? How can she evolve to a point where she can finally say that crucial line?

You have no power over me.

She must not only defeat the villain, she must also face and defeat her own shame.

She must do the very thing that all of us—in real life—must do to find peace. To heal.

Facing Shame & Taming the Jerk

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kenny Louie.

When I came to a point I realized I needed to face and explore my shame in order to write something people might like to read? I will admit it. I was a total chicken and too broke for “real” therapy. So I did what many writers do, I put it into story.

At the end of May, I released my debut fiction The Devil’s Dance and it IS a fiction. The plot is, at least. But I used my MC Romi to work through a lot of places where I felt shame, in order to expose then overcome them.

Like Romi, I grew up ashamed of where I’d come from, desperate to fit in, to be accepted. Trying WAY too hard. No matter what I achieved, I felt like a fraud, a poseur.

There is a real reason I use a lot of Breakfast at Tiffany’s references in the book. Holly Golightly in the iconic Turner Classic beginning is standing in front of Tiffany’s staring at all the beautiful things she desires. But she’s an outsider peering in through an impenetrable wall of glass. No matter what she looks like on the outside, it is the inside that must change. Romi’s journey is the same.

And Romi’s journey looks a hell of a lot like mine sans drug cartels.

But a really interesting thing happened when I wrote this story. I learned a lot about me. By placing my shame in a fictional setting, it was less frightening. It lost its power over me. I found that as I understood Romi, I understood me. I began healing and one day realized my armor was falling away like the husk of a cocoon no longer needed.

Because fiction helped me face shame, it helped me learn to be vulnerable and in being vulnerable I became a better writer and a better person.

Soooo….

I was joking earlier about y’all being perfect, though I am pretty sure some of you really are knitting onesies for cold baby goats. I finally mastered the potholder.

I do know many of you have your own wounds, probably a lot of them far worse than mine. Yet I think we can keep going around the same mountain over and over. If we miss the linchpin of why we’re hurting—SHAME—we can’t heal. It’s putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound and we’re walking around bleeding all over the place with no clue why we’re drawing sharks. Additionally, we will be too afraid to write characters with any depth and end up with Literary Barbies, not literature.

All I can say is that the road isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. And I have a secret to tell you. You’re much stronger than you realize 😉 .

I love hearing from you! What are your thoughts? What are some wounds you’ve dealt with via fiction? Do you struggle making your characters flawed or even vulnerable? Did you learn to use words as weapons? Have you struggled with the weight of your emotional armor? What is your story?

****And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! So scroll down and sign up!

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

  

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Baby It’s Hot in Here—Writing Erotica & High Heat Sex Scenes August 4th $45 General/ $90 GOLD/$150 Platinum

Classes with MOI!

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Award-Winning Author Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Method Acting for Writers—How to Write Deep POV August 1st $85 (two-week intensive class & lifetime access)

Beyond Lipstick & Swords—Writing Strong Female Characters September 9th $40

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of DualD Flip Flop

Recently, I wrote a guest post This is the Reason All Great Stories are Birthed from Shame. It was a tough post and I needed a nap after writing it. It forced me to peel back layers I hadn’t touched in years. But the post got me thinking about probably the single most important element of great fiction

SHAME.

Since that post was not per se a craft post, I wanted to explore what I began on that blog here today. I firmly believe shame is the critical ingredient for fiction to resonate. It’s the difference between a forgettable fun read and a book we keep and read over and over.

Some Examples

I dig examples. I learn better when I have some to work with, so sharing some goodies with you today.

It by Stephen King

It is, of course, terrifying and is the main reason a disproportionate number of Gen Xers hate/fear clowns. But what makes the story so great is SHAME. Big Bill (protagonist) made the paper boat for his little brother, the paper boat that was then was swept into a gutter, the gutter where the beast was waiting to devour an unsuspecting six-year-old (thus kicking off the story).

Bill also has a terrible stutter. He is ashamed of his stutter and suffers false guilt for the death of his little brother Georgie.

The Losers Club

All the characters in this novel suffer from profound shame, especially Bill’s allies (who call themselves The Losers Club). Ben is morbidly obese and his mom a single parent in the 1950s. Beverly’s father beats her and is sexually inappropriate with her. Stan lives under the cloud of being a Jew, and Mike is black. They face shame in regards to who they are in the WASP dominated world of post WWII America. Richie is socially awkward and tries too hard. Eddy is a hypochondriac, ashamed of his perceived (yet false) delicate constitution.

Without shame, this story would be uninteresting and forgettable because the real monsters in this book are not (only) what is lurking beneath Derry (though that sucker is pretty terrifying), rather what is in each of the children then later adults that also must be defeated—their shame. The monsters who look a lot a hell of a lot like people.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The protagonist is a raging alcoholic propelled by real and false shame. She is ashamed (obviously) that she is a drunk, but she’s also ashamed her drinking supposedly ruined her “once perfect” life. Yet, once she is pulled into a potential murder mystery, she uncovers not everything is as it seems and in seeking truth, she also uncovers the seeds of her shame were not planted by her.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Three protagonists drawn together over a seemingly innocent infraction in a Kindergarten…that ends in murder. All three protagonists are propelled by shame.

Madeline was abandoned by her first husband, who now has decided to move practically next door.

Celeste has a perfect life that is a perfect lie. Because she is perfect, who can she turn to with the truth?

Jane is an outsider and mother of an illegitimate son, fathered by a man whose real name she doesn’t even know.

The Ones We KEEP

When I think of all my favorite characters? The ones I remember and keep in my heart forever, why do I love them? Their shame. Harry Bosch is ashamed that he was the son of a murdered prostitute, that she was thrown away by the system. Everyone matters or no one matters.

Mickey Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer) is ashamed his father never loved him, that he never measured up. He’s ashamed he failed an innocent client who’s serving life in prison because that was the only way Mickey could save him from the needle.

The Hobbits are ashamed they are too little to make a BIG difference.

Shadow in (American Gods) is ashamed of going to prison, believes he’s culpable for his wife’s death.

Y’all get the gist.

Finding the Shame

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Noemi Galera.

Some of us older folks recall that schoolyard taunt, “Shame, shame we know your name!” But I think this nasty taunt can serve as an interesting guidepost when crafting visceral and dimensional characters. When we begin with our story idea, I feel it’s imperative to look for, find and NAME the shame.

When we start out? No, shame, shame we DO NOT know your name.

But we need to.

Shame is a powerful driver of character decisions and actions. It’s the linchpin for all the emotional armor, the lock on the box of the inner demons. The story problem is the crucible for exposing then firing away the shame. That is how we know the protagonist has evolved to a hero. We can’t accurately determine any character’s Goal, Conflict ,or Motivation until we know the dark place they’re doing everything to protect.

Finding the shame can elevate an okay story to an unforgettable one.

A Good Example

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Alan Levine

For instance, last week I had a student of the log-line class call me for a consult. She had an interesting story but it was all falling flat for a reason she couldn’t quite grasp. I liked her idea, but sensed she was right. Something important was missing.

Her story was set in the 70s and a young girl was running away from home because of her alcoholic mother. Girl jumps out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak when she runs away and gets tangled in a world of predators (sex, drugs and rock and roll). Yet, what happened was the story just was a series of bad situations.

Running away is not a story goal. It’s passive and stories need active goals. Protagonists can run away but heroes return to face and conquer. So how could this protagonist return and when she did, what exactly would she face and conquer?

Her story idea lacked the connective tissue it needed to fully come together.

In this case, the connective tissue was…

You got it. SHAME.

I asked the writer, “Okay so WHY does the mother drink? WHY is she an alcoholic?” Because an answer of, “Well it’s genetics” or “She just likes Jameson way too much” isn’t meaty enough for a good fiction.

I challenged her to think about why the mother drank. What was HER shame that she was numbing with booze?

The writer actually hadn’t asked that critical question, btw.

Since the story is set in the 70s, women were very vulnerable. Mom has four kids. She wouldn’t be able to get a bank account without her husband’s permission. Odds were she had no money of her own and no way to get it without her husband’s knowledge. Divorce was highly frowned on and if she did get a divorce the courts likely would have ruled in the man’s favor.

So why does Mom drink? *puts on thinking cap*

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of davidd

What if the father the protagonist (the teen) adores who everyone thinks is this super amazing guy is actually an abusive bastard? What if he’s a traveling salesman who takes great joy in coming home and relaying his conquests to his wife? Tells her if she hadn’t let herself go pumping out babies, he wouldn’t need to find other women?

He’s a narcissist, manipulator and master of gas-lighting everyone, including his kids. Mom drinks because she is ashamed she is so powerless. She is ashamed she married such a person, that she believed he loved her. She probably also has false shame from his abuse (she is fat, ugly, stupid, useless).

So you have a scene. Mom comes out into living room ready to go to a cocktail party. Dad makes a big deal over how beautiful she looks in front of the kids, goes up and passionately kisses her (oh the adoring husband) then whispers “lovingly” in her ear, “Don’t you have a tighter girdle? I’ve seen pigs with a better figure.”

Mom’s face changes and she mutters something about needing to adjust her girdle and twenty minutes later stumbles out clearly toasted. Dad then sighs to the kids and gives the pained Look at what I have to put up with face.

So in the beginning, the teen protagonist is unaware of the real villain (because of incidents like the one above). She’s judgmental of Mom, but when she runs away, she gets a hard dose of reality and matures. She begins to see things in a new light, her mother in a new light.

NOW, the antagonist (alcoholism) can be defeated because when she returns she can forgive her mother and even possibly expose her father. Lay shame at the feet of the person who should be held accountable for it. Once she helps free Mom of false shame, Mom can get help for her drinking.

By naming the shame, we’ve taken a story of vignettes and threaded something entirely new throughout that holds the story together in a far deeper way. The writer was pleased, I was pleased and I think she has a hell of a story that I look forward to reading.

Why Do We Miss This?

Image courtesy of Eflon via Flickr Creative Commons

When I get samples from writers, I see a lot of uber-perfect Mary Sue characters. Heck, my first novel? My protagonist was beautiful, a genius, always made good decisions and she bored the paint off the walls.

I believe a lot of new writers are afraid. I was. Often looking for shame for a character makes us have to dig into our own tender places.

OUCH.

But, it IS worth it. Promise!

So I challenge you to look at your own work and see if you can pinpoint the shame. My stories all sucked until I learned this. Finally, I got brave.

In my debut novel, The Devil’s Dance, Romi’s shame is she grew up trailer trash and is from a highly dysfunctional family. Her mother abandoned her as a kid and every man who’s ever loved her has betrayed her. Every decision she’s made has been to escape her shame—leaving the trailer park, going to college, landing the perfect job and perfect guy.

But what happens when everything she’s carefully constructed comes tumbling down on her head, dumping her right back in the one place she vowed to never return to?

She did everything to escape the trailer park and now it’s her only refuge.

She’s forced into a position to face the shame that has been driving her. Romi has a LOT of baggage and baggage makes for interesting characters and stories ( click the sidebar and get a copy 😉 *cute face*)

Look at your favorite books, movies and characters with new eyes and look for the shame, and I think you will be surprised how much it drives the story.

What are your thoughts? Do you see what I am talking about in reference to shame? Did you have to face some of your own shame to start writing fiction worth reading? Heck, I did. Do you like books with characters who are able to finally see then conquer shame? What are some of your favorites?

LOVE hearing from you guys!

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT! We’re having a Facebook launch party tomorrow for The Devil’s Dance. We will have kittens and unicorns and magic powers as prizes. A raffle for immortality! Okay, yeah (disclaimer) writers LIE. We will however be giving away all kinds of cool prizes and you get to hang out with me so HELLOOOO? FUN INCARNATE!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but I am still working out the kinks. Also your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Talk to me!

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. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer. Cait Reynolds was my answer. She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

OMG, Like How to Write Fleek YA July 7th $40 with Cait Reynolds

How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here) July 14th $40 w/ Cait Reynolds

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction 

July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS May 25th $45

Plotting for Dummies July 13th $35 ($250 for GOLD)

Blogging for Authors June 29th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 7th $35

OTHER Classes with Cait Reynolds

Research for Historical Romance Writing – Or, How NOT to Lose Six Hours on Pinterest July 8th $35 for Basic/ $75 for GOLD / $125 for PLATINUM

Shift Your Shifter Romance into High Gear June 30th $35 Basic/ $75 GOLD/ $125 PLATINUM

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook June 24th $40