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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: writing rules

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Last time I wrote about stress and how it can kill creativity. Many “normal” people (code for “non writers”) see our job as play, as fun. They really don’t grasp what goes into creating the stories they all enjoy and that it is a lot of work. Also, because our field is so subjective, writers must endure an onslaught of “enemies” no one else can see because often they are in our head. Sometimes, in our effort to produce the best work we can, we invite in a very dangerous enemy.

Meet….Perfect.

All of us want to do a good job. We want to put our best foot forward. We all say that we want feedback and critique, but deep down, if we are real honest, we want people to love everything we say and do. Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality. We can’t please everyone, and it is easy to fall into a people-pleasing trap that will steal our passion, our art, and our very identity.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again with writers. They rework and rework and rework the first chapter of their novel, trying to make it “perfect”—which is actually code for “making everyone happy.” Here is the thing. Not gonna happen. Ever. Oh and trust me, I am giving this lecture to myself as much as anyone.

One person will say our book is too wordy. Another wants more description. We add more description and then another person is slashing through, slaughtering every adjective and metaphor.

Lessons from Aesop

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I find it interesting that some of my favorite childhood stories were about character issues that I’ve struggled with my entire life. My favorite story Old Man Whickett’s Donkey and was loosely based off one of Aesop’s fables, The Man, The Boy and The Donkey. The story in a nutshell is this.

An old man and his grandson head to market with their donkey carrying bags of grain for sale. A passerby says, “What a fool. Why buy a donkey if you aren’t going to ride him?” In response to the critic, Old Man Whickett and the boy load up and ride the donkey into the next town where another passerby says, “You cruel lazy people. That poor donkey carrying all that weight. You should be ashamed.” So Old Man Whickett and the boy dismount and carry the bags of grain and the donkey (which seriously freaked out the donkey).

Anyway—and I am probably butchering this story, but give me a break, I’ve slept since I was five—Old Man Whickett and the boy keep trying to please everyone who passes and what happens?

The bags of grain burst open and spill all over the road from being moved around so much (and in Aesop’s version the donkey falls in the river and drowns). They never make it to market and all of them are exhausted and half-dead from trying to please everyone.

Moral of the tale?

Try to please everyone and we please no one.

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The Fine Line of Fools

We have to walk what I will call the Fine Line of Fools. There are two different types of fools. There are fools who plunge ahead and don’t ask for any feedback and ignore anyone who tries to warn there might be a problem. But then there is the other type of fool who can never seem to make up her mind. She keeps changing direction every time someone has an opinion (been there, done that).

All of us are in danger of being one kind of fool or another. While the wise writer is open to critique, she also needs to know when to stand her ground. If she doesn’t learn to stand firm, that’s when the donkey hitches a ride.

I would love to tell you guys I’ve never been either of those fools, but I don’t dig getting struck with lightning.

Perfectionism and People-Pleasing Mask Fear

I have learned through a lot of trial, error and stupidity that perfectionism and people-pleasing really are just an extension of fear. If we get everyone’s opinion about our book, web site, blog, color of fingernail polish, if someone else doesn’t like it, then we don’t have to own it.

“Well, that wasn’t my idea. That was Such and Such’s idea.”

We Can’t Please EVERYONE

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Over the weekend I took a short family trip to get away and reset my head after the trauma of last month. I love mysteries and detective novels so I hastily just downloaded a book Audible recommended to me based on other books I’d enjoyed. I had never head of the author but there were 14K reviews and overall 4 stars.

So I started listening and the story was just moving at a snail’s pace. In my opinion it was wordy and pretentious and gave me no good sense of place. I kept listening for three hours until I just could’t give any more time to the book. When I looked the book up again, I realized that the author was actually the legend J.K. Rowling writing under a pen name.

I thought that it had to be me. I was just being picky. Maybe I hadn’t turned off my editor’s brain. But when I glanced at the one and two-star reviews, the commenters were saying the same things I was feeling about the story.

But isn’t that just more than a little amazing?

Not that poor J.K. had to endure one-star reviews, but that she isn’t…wait for it….wait for it…she isn’t perfect. Even the famed J.K. Rowling can’t write a book that pleases everyone. Many other readers (far more actually) enjoyed the book. So good for her! She still did her job and did it well.

***As a quick side note this is one of the many, many reasons I never leave a review unless I can give it four stars. There is a person on the other side of that review and for all I know it really could just be me. Maybe Mercury is in retrograde, my underwear is too tight, or I needed to try this book after a vacation.

Learn to Drop the Donkey

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In this new publishing world, all of us need to learn to be leaders and leaders own everything, the good and the bad. That is no easy task, and I have to admit there are times my neck starts hurting and I get this lower back pain and then I realize…I’M CARRYING THE FREAKING DONKEY! DROP THE DONKEY, YOU IDIOT!

We have to be aware that there are jerks and there are also people mean well. Humans offer constructive criticism to show love, even if there is nothing wrong. I’ve seen perfect works of fiction get eviscerated by well-meaning “helpful” critique groups.

This is why it is critical to really understand the rules of writing, why it is essential to really know what our book is about, and to learn to be confident in our brand. This way, when well-meaning folk offer us poles and twine to tie up the donkey on a sledge, we can say, “No, thanks. I think my donkey can walk.”

This is one of the many reasons I love for authors to have a blog. It really does help us develop rhino skin and trains us to publish even when the writing isn’t worthy of a Pulitzer. One mantra I have when I find I am afraid to move forward is:

Perfect is the enemy of the good.

So are you carrying the donkey? Do you find him difficult to drop? Do you fall into the trap of carrying your donkey? I know I am a notorious donkey-toter, but getting better every day. What tools, suggestion or advice would you offer to other who struggle with their respective donkeys? What are warning signs that you are carrying a donkey?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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. 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).

rattheearnestpainter is JULY’s WINNER! Please send me your 5000 word WORD document, double spaced and in 12 point Times New Roman to kristen at wana intl dot com! Congratulations! You can also choose to send a one-page query letter (250 words) or three-page synopsis (750 words) instead.

Check out the other NEW classes below! 

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes

Blogging for Authors  (August 26th) will teach you all you need to know to start an author blog good for going the distance. Additionally I would also recommend the class offered earlier that same week (August 22nd) Branding for Authors to help you with the BIG picture. These classes will benefit you greatly because most blogs will fail because writers waste a lot of time with stuff that won’t work and never will and that wastes a lot of time.

I am here to help with that 😉 .

We are doing ANOTHER round of Battle of the First Pages!!! August 5th THIS FRIDAY!

The first time we did this we had some tech issues doing this new format and we’ve since worked those out, but for now I am still keeping the price low ($25) until we get this streamlined to my tastes.

LIMITED SEATS. This is an open workshop where each person will submit his or her first page of the manuscript for critique. I will read the page aloud and “gong” where I would have stopped reading and explain why. This is an interactive workshop designed to see what works or what doesn’t. Are you ready to test your page in the fire?

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages August 12th

The first five pages are the most essential part of the novel, your single most powerful selling tool. It’s how you will hook agents, editors and readers. This class will cover the most common blunders and also teach you how to hook hard and hook early. This class is 90 minutes long, 60 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.

Your First Five Pages Gold Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique your first five pages.

Your First Five Pages Platinum Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique of your first twenty pages.

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist September 2nd–September 2nd

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold

This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

 

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Most of the time, I try to use great writing as examples of what TO DO. But, some writing fails so epically, the best use of it is as a cautionary tale for other writers. We can use it to study what NOT to do.

True Detective Season Two does just that. I hate writing this because Season One was a masterpiece, and all I can think of is that maybe Nic Pizzolatto was a victim of his own success. It would be very daunting to top Season One. Scratch that. It would probably put most writers in a padded cell from nerves.

So what the heck went wrong?

This entire blog is nothing but a spoiler alert, but trust me. I am saving you ten hours of your life you can never get back. Before we talk about some of the basic writing issues that derailed the series, I believe there is one core reason this post fizzled faster than a bottle of New Coke.

Pizzolatto forgot the audience and remembered the critics.

Despite resounding praise for Season One, a handful of critics did take shots at Pizzolatto because they are critics and it is what they do. I wish Pizzolatto would have appreciated that most T.V. critics are being paid to watch the show and paid to have an opinion. They weren’t really his audience. The audience LOVED Season One. They bought t-shirts and quoted lines and tweeted and those were the people who mattered because it is basic math.

Fans waaaayyyy outnumber professional television critics. More fans means fans matter more.

This reminds me of the trouble we can get into as writers. This is actually one of the big dangers of attending a critique group.

Thing is, everyone at the table actually could love your pages, but I promise you that there will be ONE dude who will say something negative even if he doesn’t believe his own critique because he is like that jerk teacher who never gave an A because, “No one is perfect.”

Then, instead of the poor writer listening to twenty freaking people who thought the story was written with long-sought-after unicorn tears dripping from the quill made from a feather of a phoenix? Writer tries to appease Jerk Critic who just wanted to have something to criticize because he simply cannot stand the fact that someone in the group might have more talent.

Same with reviews on books. Unless an overwhelming percentage of people are complaining about the same things?

DO NOT WRITE FOR CRITICS.

I feel this is what happened to Season Two of True Detective.

Instead of appreciating the glowing feedback from fans and basking in the knowledge that his series fundamentally changed television…he listened to the critics and changed Season Two to suit them. Maybe not consciously, but yeah. And since I don’t want to spend too much time here, check out this Ben Travers’ fantastic article about it; How Nic Pizzolatto’s Temper Tantrum Toward Critics Ruined ‘True Detective” Season 2.

When we write for critics, more times than not, we end up with Franken-Novel, which I wrote about in my post Franken-Novel, Perfectionism & The Dark Side of Critique Groups.

So, About the Writing…

Every time I write about the “rules” of writing, inevitably, I get at least ONE commenter who wants to toss out the rule book, which is fine. But, I will reiterate that we can break rules but we do so at our own risk. Rules exist largely for readers (the audience) which I hope will become clear as we go through this.

Limit the Number of Characters

O…M…G. I lost count of how many named characters were in this series. I felt like I was trapped at family reunion, smiling at people and pretending I knew them and that I actually recalled that they were the second grandchild of my third-cousin-by-marriage.

Even in the finale, I had to pause because I had NO IDEA who the hell was killing off one of the main characters.

Is it the Russians? Who IS that? Honey, does he look Mexican to you or Armenian? I thought he was cool with the Armenians. Wait…nope, those are Mexicans. What the hell are THEY doing there?

Really, I was Being Serious…Limit the FREAKING Characters

Especially POV characters. I’ve run into this before with my writing classes. Some new writer who wants to get all “literary” demands she has seven POV characters. Oh-kay.

I used to argue. Now?

Have fun storming the castle *waves*.

Thing is, like meeting every person on the planet who is alive and who happens to share our DNA at ONE TIME (family reunion again) we cannot care about that many people. Not at ONE time.

Season 2 had four POV characters and only eight episodes. Basic math tells us this is a bad plan. When we try to cram too many POV characters into a story, we end up with extra parts that don’t matter because we simply don’t have time (and audiences lack the cranial bandwidth) to explore these characters.

Eight episodes is NOT enough time to fully develop a sympathetic mob boss with a barren wife, a hardboiled detective who is the daughter of a hippie guru who allowed her to be sexually abused as a child, a raging alcoholic dirty cop with guilt issues and child custody problems, and a disgraced CHP with a shady past in Afghanistan, mommy issues, and who is struggling with his sexuality.

Have mommy issues. Feel free to have daddy issues. Go for BOTH at your own risk. Every single POV character trying to reconcile extensive and complex child abuse?

Mob Boss Frank Seymon—abandoned and verbally, physically and emotionally abused.

Detective Bezzideres—emotionally abused by guru father, abandonment issues, was abducted and sexually abused (we think, because she never *really* remembers or if she did I forgot it)

Detective Ray Velcoro—emotionally and verbally abused by his father (in convenient flashback-dream-sequence-hallucination thingy)

Officer Paul Woodrugh—extreme verbal abuse by mother and hinted at sexual abuse by mom who is a bitter dancer pissed off that she gave birth to Paul and it cost her her dance career.

*head explodes*

What becomes problematic (other than the sheer NUMBER of POV characters) is that rather than the characters simply being deep (I.e. we can “get” they were abused in their past without the deets) the series teased out details of each character’s past as if these details were salient to unraveling the plot mystery.

We are given all kinds of details in a way that “suggests” we need to pay attention. Instead of Chekhov’s Gun? We got Osama Bin Laden’s gift-weapons-cache from the CIA circa the 80s.

If you show us a gun plot trail in Act One Episode One, use it by Act Three Episode EIGHT.

The same went for the problems these characters were facing in the present. Not only was the audience saddled with unraveling the past mysteries, but we had the characters’ present-drama dumped in our laps as if THIS stuff was salient to unraveling the plot mystery.

Hint: No. No it was not.

I waited SEVEN episodes for that Hollywood bi*&% who tarnished Woodrugh’s reputation to get her comeuppance.

*rails at the heavens*

Nope. They kill him off and just…stop his story.

AAAHHHHHHH!!!!

What happens when we try to develop everyone, is we develop no one. By the end, most of the characters were forced, contrived paper dolls. In fact, Officer Paul Woodrugh was a third-wheel. We could have cut his character and his storyline with zero negative impact to the overall kind-of-sort-of-plot.

Limit the Plot Layers

Some speculate that Pizzolatto was being reactionary to critics who claimed Season One wasn’t deep enough or complex enough. Here’s the deal. There is a difference between complex and complicated.

Lord of the Rings—> COMPLEX

Star Wars Prequels—> COMPLICATED

Complexity is birthed from simplicity. Complication is the child of confusion.

As we see when we try to create a log-line for each.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

A naive race who has never left home must travel vast distances and fight innumerable dangers to drop an evil ring in a special volcano located in the heart of enemy territory before darkness consumes the world.

Star Wars Prequels

A snarky slave kid who works on robots and races pods and who does something, then leaves home, maybe because Mom dies then something about Metachlorians and kid’s INFESTED with them. Then a dude with a painted face and Jedi and clones and much whining and more whining and then kid-now-whiny-adult-Jedi has no other choice but to slaughter a bunch of kids to save preggo wife and hell… I got nothing.

When it comes to the end of Season Two of True Detective, I haven’t been so confused since I forced myself to finish the Star Wars prequels.

Bluntly, I still really don’t understand the plot and don’t get who killed Casper. There were too many layers and subplots and hints and players in action. Maybe I am simply not smart or savvy enough for this series because…

I cannot unravel the Russian mob, the Mexican Mob, the Armenian underground, crooked cops, crooked politicians, crooked U.S. soldiers, crooked shrinks moonlighting as crooked plastic surgeons, crooked Hassidic Jews (NO, I AM NOT KIDDING), a land grab, toxic waste and environmental crimes, prostitution rings, secret sex parties, a missing five million dollars, sex trafficking, multiple coverups, several missing persons, blackmail, government fraud, gender issues, a missing hard drive, diamond theft, trafficking illegals, real estate fraud, and two orphaned kids with multiple identities out for the-most-complicated-revenge-plot-in-history in EIGHT EPISODES.

All we were missing in Season Two was the plot tangent about jaywalking. And some abused clowns juggling secretly gay ferrets.

And I hate picking on Pizzolatto because he is still my hero and is breathtakingly talented. ANY of these Season Two characters on his or her own could have been vastly complex and interesting and remarkable. But ALL at ONE time? That was the mistake.

Characters Should Stay in Character

Should characters be predictable? No. Can characters do unexpected things? Yes. Should characters do unexpected or stupid things simply because we (the writer) need them to? NO.

A ruthless mob boss who has survived into adulthood by being a master tactician and who GLORIOUSLY takes out the Russian mob in one showdown should NOT die because of rookie mistake/decision. He would give up the suit and then kill them all another day. He’d kill them, get back his diamonds and take all THEIR money, too.

When he refuses to give up the suit and some spear-carrying Mexican gang member not even important enough to warrant a NAME kills him?

We call foul and it ticks us off.

Characters Can’t BE Something They Aren’t

The whole sow’s ear/silk purse thing. Ray Delcoro’s son was as interesting as tax law no matter how many lines of Ray’s dialogue tried to tell us otherwise. The fact that Delcoro died (pointlessly) still trying to reach out to the World’s Most Uninteresting Kid still kind of ticks me off.

Someone NEEDS to Arc

Personally, I am with Blake Snyder. Everyone arcs! In True Detective Season 2? Other than Ray Delcoro being sober, every protagonist was the same in the end as in the beginning. No one was inherently changed by the crucible of plot.

The Plot Problem MUST Be Resolved

After gutting it through seven episodes, I was hoping that the season finale would finally tie up all these loose ends and that I would finally understand. Finally, there would be justice.

Nope.

Almost everyone dies for no good reason and the bad guys win. Casper’s murder becomes an afterthought and I can’t even tell you the names of his killers only that his murder is never officially solved. All the shady politicians get what they want and the dirty cops go on being dirty cops.

The season ends with Ani (one of the investigating detectives) in Belize (I think) talking to ANOTHER CHARACTER. A NEW CHARACTER. A reporter. She hands off all the evidence she collected for an expose (????) and is still uncertain anyone will see justice probably because she is as lost as the rest of us and hopes the reporter can figure it all out.

If we want to end our story like a French film and everyone dies? Ohhhh-kaaaaay, but we should give the audience a bone. The bad guys then should be punished. If we want the bad guys to win? I’m not fond of that kind of ending, but all right. It happens. But then we need to give the audience a personal WIN for the characters. Our protagonists cannot all die AND all fail. They cannot all die and fail the plot arc and the character arc.

If they do, the audience will want to stab our story IN THE FACE.

Why all of this is (to me) a shame is because there was so much rich material in this series to work with and it went to waste. I actually enjoyed Vince Vaughn as a bad guy and loved his character (cheesy lines and all).

But there IS some good news to this. When I watched True Detective Season One, it was so good I actually questioned if I could even write. After Season Two? I realize even geniuses like Pizzolatto make mistakes too 😉 .

What are your thoughts? Did you watch both seasons? Were you just as confused by Season 2? Were the dudes with the bakery who forged the passports Armenian? I never could quite figure that out.

I love hearing from you!

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. 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).

Before we go, some upcoming classes. It’s BACK TO SCHOOL!:

Remember! Due to popular demand I am running my Your Story in a Sentence class THIS SATURDAY and participants have their log lines shredded and rebuilt and made agent-ready. Log-lines are crucial because if we don’t know what our book is about? How are we going to finish it? Revise it? Pitch it? Sell it?

This class can help ensure your story is COMPLEX, not COMPLICATED.

I am also running my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of August. Beginnings are crucial. As a long-time editor, I can tell almost every bad habit and story flaw in five pages. I never need over 20. This class helps you learn to see what agents and editors see and learn how to correct most common writing mistakes. I am offering additional levels if you want me to shred your first 5 or even 20 pages.

I am STOKED about Back to School and am here to help! The first ten signups for Gold or Platinum get double pages (10 for Gold and 40 for Platinum).

In September, I’m teaching my Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist. This class is critical for PLOT whether we are plotters or pantsers. This class will teach you how to have a solid plot that captivates and satisfies audiences, whether for one title or a series.

All classes are recorded and the recording is provided FREE with purchase.

Can’t wait to see you in class and read your writing!

Pirate Code=Writing Rules. Clearer now? :)
Pirate Code=Writing Rules. Clearer now? 🙂

Yesterday’s post stirred quite the debate and flurry of panic attacks, so today, we will delve a bit further into Le Mystique of Le Flashback. First of all, for future reference, I need to ignore all Facebook comments that begin with, “I haven’t read your post, but completely disagree…” Er? Ok. Here’s the thing. I play dictator on my blog, because it’s my blog and it’s FUN.

I’m a realist and I KNOW there is some writer out there who has broken every rule there is. But, bringing up every last exception is a confusing way to teach and a fabulous way to make your heads explode.

It’s like the “I before E Except After C (except for when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbor) Rule.”

If I give you guys the BASICS and explain WHY editors, agents and readers almost always dislike flashbacks, you know what is distressing about a flashback so you can avoid the pitfalls if you choose to employ a flashback.

…but still avoid them. Ok, I’ll shut up now.

Defining a Flashback

When is a flashback a literary device? Hint: Rhymes with…NEVER.

Oh, before y’all get your panties in a bunch, let me expound.

One thing that jumped out at me yesterday is that we don’t seem to all define the flashback in the same way. I see this with the term “antagonist” ALL THE TIME, which is why I have an entire class dedicated to un-confusing you. Yes, un-confusing is a word :P.

For instance, many writers use villain and antagonist interchangeably, but they aren’t interchangeable. A villain is only ONE TYPE of many variations of antagonists. Antagonists are not always bad and often they are the protagonist’s allies.

This is like saying an orange is a fruit, thus all fruits are oranges. Logical fallacy.

Flashbacks, to me, are when a writer either breaks a scene and jumps back in time to explain (and thus alleviate tension as in yesterday’s example). OR, a flashback is when another scene serves ONLY to explain another scene (thus again, alleviating present tension).

In the first type, we have a scene, which is action. Protagonist has a goal, but then X happens. The point of the scene is to make the reader wonder if the protagonist will reach the goal or fail. The more roadblocks, the better.

To Flashback to Yesterday’s Post…

In yesterday’s example, we had this GREAT, TENSE scene where a wedding planner is trying (rather unsuccessfully) to herd hungover bridesmaids to the wedding on time. Nothing is going well for the poor planner. WE LOVE IT. We are HOOKED! Yet, with no warning or a clear scene break, suddenly *screeching of tires* we are  hurled back into an earlier conversation in a different place and time with totally different people when the bride-to-be decided to move the location from Napa to Mexico.

Huh?

What this did was:

1. Break the forward timeline.

2. Make the reader have to reorient to a new time/goal.

3. Introduced a new cast of characters and dialogue that had to do with a TOTALLY different goal that had nothing to do with herding half-drunk bridesmaids to a chapel on time (and also had me floundering to keep up with 10 names).

The going back in time did nothing for the plot except break the tension by explaining and add a bunch of characters who weren’t even in the present scene. There was no information in that minor flashback that could not have been done BETTER in forward gear.

We know Mom gave in and let the bride have the wedding in Mexico, because…we began the story IN MEXICO!

In fact, putting the flashback real-time actually raises the tension through the roof. Nothing like having Mom wag a finger and say I told you so to make a nervous bride’s hangover improve :P.

Another example.

I’m working on a trilogy. Any book within a series should be able to stand alone. In series, however, it can be very tempting to explain in case someone hasn’t read the earlier book(s). Don’t.

Romi (my protagonist) is shot in the first book. In Book Two, this is page ONE when my protagonist meets with a character from Book One:

“Romi Lachlann,” he said close to my ear then leaned back, studying me. “You look different.” 

“I’d hope so.” I absently rubbed the scar on my ribs from the gunshot wound and poured myself a cup of black coffee from a large carafe.

Then, I continue the story. Sally forth!

Romi’s goal is to find out why, after 18 months of silence, someone from her past suddenly needs to see her. Yes, there is this teasing of the past, but I don’t stop and explain who shot her. I don’t lurch back to the final Big Boss Battle in Book One when she is on the floor begging for her life. I let the reader wonder.

Er? Gunshot wound? WTH happened?

If I stop mid-scene to explain, I confuse the reader and dilute the wondering. If I indulge in another scene back from when Romi was shot, I shoot myself in the foot.

Why would anyone 1) bother reading the first book or 2) keep turning pages to figure out what happened and how/why she was shot?

Additionally, my Book Two Romi is so paranoid she’s three steps away from wearing a tin-foil hat. If I go back and tell WHY, the story fizzles. Yet, by revealing details from what happened earlier in real-time (and when relevant to the current story problem), the reader eventually comes to understand the full depth of what Romi survived.

In fact, if I do my job properly, part of what will keep the new reader engaged is finding out what on earth transpired that tipped Romi off the deep end. For those who (hopefully) read Book One, her behavior is just an organic growth of the character/story they already know.

Also, if some people have read the first book, then I’m not trapping myself in an “As You Know, Bob Syndrome” when I withhold information. Why repeat details some readers already know and that would ruin tension for those who don’t yet have answers?

Flashbacks and Parallel Timelines are TWO Different Creatures

Flashbacks disorient, diffuse tension and can be cut without harming the story. All the information in the flashback can be explained in narrative or dialogue at a later point. No need to hit the “Reverse.” Your protagonist’s conflict isn’t in the past, but the present and future. The past has already happened, so readers CAN’T WORRY.

In my book, the reader knows Romi survives being shot. She’s drinking coffee and NOT a ghost. Flashing back to a bunch of pain, suffering, betrayal is self-indulgent melodrama.  Her conflict is in the current problem—the large bounty for her head (literally).

A Parallel Timeline is NOT a Flashback

Image via "The Joy Luck Club."
Image via Amy Tan’s, “The Joy Luck Club.”

Just because some scenes are set in an earlier time, doesn’t mean they are flashbacks. If we pull past and present apart then set the scenes side-by-side, we will see they exhibit three-act structure and eventually converge with the present in the final scenes of the story. Some examples are Fried Green TomatoesThe Joy Luck Club, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Notebook and The Green Mile. 

For instance, I love the example of Stephen King’s The Green Mile not only because it is a great story and superb example of what we are discussing, but the book and movie are very close. This movie would be a great study if you are so bold as to try parallel timelines. They are tricky and I am not so brave.

The Green Mile begins in 1999 with Paul Edgecomb in a Louisiana nursing home. Paul begins to cry while watching the movie Top Hat. When his elderly friend Elaine shows concern, he confesses the movie reminded him of his time as a prison guard in charge of the death row inmates at Cold Mountain Penitentiary during the summer of 1935.

Old Paul Edgecombe.
Old Paul Edgecomb.
Young Paul Edgecombe
Young Paul Edgecomb.

One timeline follows Young Paul as a prison guard and his miraculous encounter with John Coffee. The other timeline follows Old Paul and his trials in the nursing home. It isn’t until the end that anyone bothers doing the math and sees HOW these two timelines converge. In fact, the timelines converging is essential to the core of the story. What happened to Young Paul has altered Old Paul forever.

Also, note that Young Paul Edgecomb was a jailer who held the power over the powerless, yet used his authority for good. As an elderly man in a home, Paul comes to experience what the inmates in his care might have felt like under the sociopath Percy Wetmore. Old Paul is no longer in a position of power and is at the mercy of a sadistic care giver (a present-day ghost of Percy Wetmore).

Or is he? 😉

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 7.17.46 PM
Percy Wetmore in “The Green Mile.”

Not All Story Timelines Have to Be Completely Linear

Some stories will begin with a tragic event in the beginning, then we see something like TWO DAYS EARLIER. This is not a flashback. This is merely a different way of plotting and a solid literary device. Though these types of stories might begin in a future moment, once the timeline goes back, it often stays there. Time then keeps pressing forward until the two points in time meet. There is no back-and-forth psychic whiplash.

Can these rules be broken? Sure. Pulp Fiction.

From the Quentin Tarantino film, "Pulp Fiction."
From the Quentin Tarantino film, “Pulp Fiction.”

But, I might add that Pulp Fiction ticked off as many people as who loved it (and this was a movie and visual so easier on the gray matter). Yet, even in Pulp Fiction (or The English Patient) eventually the jaunty timelines converged for those of us who’d gutted through being tossed all over the place.

***Note: I wanted to set The English Patient ON FIRE….but someone beat me.

But let me point out something interesting. If we snipped the scenes in either of these stories apart, we could set them side-by-side into a completely linear story with no spare parts.

Tomorrow, we will discuss why misused flashbacks can be a symptom of bigger issues/problems. But, I hope this helps you guys understand what I mean when referring to “a flashback” and the difference between a flashback versus parallel or non-linear timelines. Unorthodox plotting can be a literary device that enhances tension. Flashbacks, however, diffuse tension…and this is why they should be killed without pity.

I’m right.

It’s science :P.

What are your thoughts? Unless your thoughts are, but “But Kristen! Rules can be broken! Such-and-Scuh used flashbacks every page and now bathes in diamonds!” I know. And everyone hates her so I hope her money makes her happy. All rules can be broken and broken well.

Other thoughts than that? Did this help you guys see the difference in the “flashback” that irritates readers, editors and agents versus a parallel timeline or non-traditional plot structure?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, 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).

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have a FANTASTIC class coming up to help you!

CLASS COMES WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.

Understanding the Antagonist

If you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension.

Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem 😉 . This is a GREAT class for streamlining a story and making it pitch-ready.

Additionally, why pay thousands for an editor or hundreds for a book doctor? This is a VERY affordable way to make sure your entire story is clear and interesting. Also, it will help you learn to plot far faster and cleaner in the future.

Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

I’ll be running the First Five Pages again at the end of May, so stay tuned.

And, if you need help building a brand, social media platform, please check out my latest best-selling book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

 

Les Edgerton
Les Edgerton

Today, is Les Edgerton’s last post in this series. We’ve been extraordinarily blessed to learn from him, so I hope y’all will give him a digital hug or round of applause. Les will soon be teaching on-line classes for WANA, so I’ll let you know when those are available.

Take it away, Les!

All of the points we’ve covered in this dialogue series are intended for one purpose only—to help writers avoid the red flags that improper dialogue can create for agents and editors… and readers.

And that’s what they are—red flags. That doesn’t mean that breaking any of these “rules” or conventions will doom your mss from being taken, but it does mean the presence of them can cast a negative light on your work. And, I imagine we all want to avoid that!

Also, there will be a great many examples of novels that break these precepts. There are many reasons for that. Contrary to popular opinion, novels don’t make it into print simply because they’re quality writing. There are many other factors at work. Factors that the writer may or may not have control over.

For instance, novels are published because the author has made a personal connection with a publisher. When an editor knows someone and likes that person, it’s not uncommon for that person’s book to be taken over another more worthy one. Happens all the time.

Or, an author may have had one or more successful novels already published and the current one may not be as good as the mss lying on the same desk as an unknown author, but the lesser quality novel will be taken. Again, happens all the time.

Sometimes, even though the novel breaks all kinds of rules, something in a novel like this may simply appeal to an individual editor. Maybe it’s the voice. Maybe it’s the setting—my first novel was taken by accident because of its setting. The Death of Tarpons had been rejected 86 times before I sent it to the University of North Texas Press.

That’s EIGHTY-SIX times!

That was in the days of snail mail submissions, where you had to pay the postage for the mss to the editor and also provide return postage. That was during a time when my family ate a lot of beans and really couldn’t afford to buy the tons of stamps I needed. I had made my mind up that once I reached 100 rejections, I would “retire” the manuscript.

What happened was that it landed on the desk of UNT’s publisher, Fran Vick. Unbeknownst to me at the time, UNT had never before published fiction. If I’d known that, I never would have sent it. Anyway, Fran’s secretary had unwrapped the day’s mail and as it by chance happened, mine was the first mss on Fran’s desk. Her normal routine when presented with a fiction mss, was for her to not even read it, but just stick a standard rejection notice in it and have her secretary send it back.

Luck was on my side!

As Fran related to me later (I’ve just revealed a happy ending and taken all the tension out of this, haven’t I!), her secretary was bringing her her morning cup of coffee and something happened where she had to remake the pot. That gave Fran an extra five minutes or so before she began her “official” day, so, for want of anything else to do, she picked up the first page of my novel and began idly to read it. If it wasn’t for her secretary’s failing to deliver her that cup of coffee, none of what happened next would have ever happened.

It’s what she read on that first page that induced her to keep reading. The novel was set in Freeport, Texas, the town I grew up in. Like most first novels, it was an autobiographical, “coming-of-age” novel (there’s a cliché for ya!). The thing is… Freeport was Fran’s hometown!

What editor can resist reading about their own hometown, especially when that town is a tiny burg like Freeport? A New York City editor, glancing at the first page of a mss and seeing it’s set in NYC isn’t going to be nearly as intrigued as an editor from Freeport, Texas reading a novel set in… Freeport, Texas!

As it turned out, Fran also knew my grandmother who was prominently on the page immediately and was instantly drawn into the story and read it all the way through, got on the phone, and offered to buy it.

So, there’s luck involved sometimes. Although, the book was well-written, so it also pays to be ready for luck when it appears. Fortune favors the prepared! The book went on to be well-reviewed and sold very well and earned a Special Mention from the Violet Crown Book Awards.

The point is, there are so many factors out of your control that can lead to or prevent publication. But, there are factors that you can control and among them are adhering to contemporary writing styles and conventions. And that is the impetus behind these precepts. To help you avoid many of the red flags that may prevent your mss from getting a fair and thorough reading.

Okay? Best of luck to all of you and your writing endeavors!

Blue skies,

Les

Les, THANK YOU SOOOOO MUCH. We really appreciate you taking so much time from your packed schedule.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, 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 once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

Les Edgerton is the author of HOOKEDTHE RAPISTTHE BITCH and others.