Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: writing tips

Running, marathon, heartbreak hill, Boston marathon, writing, Curse

It’s Cait Reynolds blog time, which, as you know, is probably both a blessing and a curse. Haven’t blogged for a while but, it’s like the old Country & Western song: How Can I Miss You if You Won’t Go Away? But yes, I’m back which might be a blessing or a curse.

Speaking of curses, that’s what I’m here to talk about today.

Writers tend to be a superstitious bunch, much like runners. Even the most skeptical among us can tell when the stars are not aligned on a writing day. Runners can feel when their bodies just aren’t hitting on all cylinders.

From drinking the same tea while writing to wearing lucky socks for race day, many of us can’t help but look for and cling to signs/omens/Tarot readings for encouragement.

Because we ALL need encouragement.

But, sometimes, there comes a moment when it feels like all the forces of nature are against us. No amount of stretching our prose or IT bands seems to make any difference. It’s positively spooky how blocked we get.

Now, living in Boston and being both a runner and a Red Sox fan, I consider myself something of an expert in curses. I mean, it took Bruce Springsteen’s rock n’ roll exorcism during his concert at Fenway Park to lift the curse of the Bambino…and that year, we finally won the World Series.

You can’t tell me that ish doesn’t work.

Running, marathon, heartbreak hill, Boston marathon, writing, Curse
Do you know how hard it was to find funny Boston memes without the f-bomb for this post? DO YOU?!! DO YOU F*$#@*&* APPRECIATE WHAT I DO FOR YOU????!!!!

I also happen to be descended from a long line of eerily prescient/omniscient/ohnoshedidn’t Slavic women who can look right into your soul and see you didn’t wash your hands after using the public restroom.

Yeah. I know my curses.

Now, settle in, my loves. Ignore the goat demon in the corner. He’s harmless. Mostly. Oh, and careful with the salt circle. Summoning with a smudged salt circle can be…messy.

29 and Feeling Fine

writing tips, how to write a novel, Boston Marathon, Boston Red Sox, writing tips, curse, Cait Reynolds, Heartbreak Hill, writing success

Like all curses, the Mile 25 Curse begins with the seduction of possibility, invincibility, and a good pair of running shoes.

We get the Big Idea. Get all excited, develop characters, settings, plot, outlines. When we jump in, it’s both feet first and hit the ground running like we are our very own NaNoWriMo on meth.

The words are flowing. It’s easy. Effortless. This time…this time is gonna be different. We’re going to ride that wave of effortless all the way through to THE END. It’s just gonna flow.

It’s like that first run, when we blast our way through 1.5 miles at a blistering 14:06/mi pace. Hardcore, man.

We blow through the first 29,000-30,000 words of a full-length novel in record time. And it’s good work. Some of our best. We’re in it to win it, and this is rocking!

We’ve reached the end of Act I, and now, our characters are on their way. Only, the yellow brick road turns out to be paved with the broken backs of melting Peeps, and now, we’re running on a road that’s slow, sticky, and somewhat distressing.

Welcome to HELL…or Act II. Too many writers mistakenly believe writing a novel is a sprint or a fun run. No, it’s a marathon that requires training, preparations, patience and a very high pain tolerance.

Because all novelists will eventually hit…

The Heartbreak Hill of the WIP

But hey, we’ve got a plan. We’ve got an outline. The fresh idealism of the first 30,000 words has worn off, but we kinda knew this was going to happen. We had hoped it wouldn’t. But, it did. Just like we wish training for a 10k simply felt like training for two 5ks…but it’s sooo not.

So, it’s not totally shocking, and while it may take a few days to resign ourselves to the fact Act II will always be a slower, harder slog, we’re ready to soldier on.

The first stirrings of real unease might pop up around 40,000-45,000 words. We feel a little proud we’ve gotten this far. That’s a lot of words, probably around a halfway point for the whole book.

It’s also the Heartbreak Hill of our story.

Heartbreak Hill is the cruelest mile of the Boston Marathon. It’s a steady 3.3% incline for more than 2 km. Now, that may not seem like much, but remember, runners have already done 20.6 miles. There have been shorter, steeper climbs and longer, quad-punishing downhills.

Boston Marathon sign at Heartbreak Hill

Runners are caked in salt, blood, and sticky dried Gatorade. It could be beating down icy rain or unseasonably hot. Healed injuries are tweaking, threatening to unravel. The playlist is failing to inspire. Even the kisses and oranges from the Wellesley College girls (both offered freely to all) can’t quite distract from the pain.

All the cowbell in the world can’t help you now.

2014 Boston Marathon: the famous Wellesley kissing line.
Wellesley College student Lauren Dow solicited and RECEIVED kisses from the passing runners. Section: Sports, Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Writers and runners slow and walk a few steps, cry a little, then grit their teeth and get back in the game. Because it’s only 5.6 miles or 45,000 words to the finish line. This is the hardest test of what we are made of. Can we ENDURE?

We got this….*weeps*

The Mile 25 Curse

I used to live right at mile 25 of the Boston Marathon, which is just before Kenmore Square (mile 25.2), where the crowds really start going wild. From Kenmore, it’s just one more mile to the finish line.

But there’s one last nasty surprise for runners. To get to Kenmore Square, they have to run over the I-90 overpass, a mini-Heartbreak Hill. It’s the psych-out sucker punch. CURSE it ALL!

Boston Marathon sign

For writers, that moment of despair generally comes at the end of Act II, or about 60,000 words-ish. It’s a sudden existential inadequacy and dread:

Oh-my-God-this-is-the-worst-stuff-I’ve-ever-written-what-was-I-thinking-is-it-too-late-to-take-up-Olympic-curling-as-a-career-instead-who-would-want-to-read-this-crap-I-suck-as-a-writer-I-should-just-go-crawl-in-a-hole-and-die.

You know…something like that.

Every writer faces a Mile 25 Curse moment. There are no talismans to protect us against it, no surefire cures. We are alone and unprepared to face our demons. Every. Single. Time.

The Mile 25 Curse can make us abandon our WIP to chase fluffy plot bunnies that PROMISE to be easier to write and give us instant fame, fortune, and a lifetime supply of Diet Coke.

The curse doesn’t care if our WIP is any good. It doesn’t care about our dreams. It has one goal: to trip us up before the finish line.

There are runners who collapse at mile 25 in the Boston Marathon, physically and mentally pushed beyond their limit. There are also the runners who slow to a walk as they digest the grim reality of one last hill. You can see them weighing the options in their heads. Should I just give up and walk the rest of the way? Do I have it in me?

How badly do I want this?

They take a deep breath…and resume running, even if it’s merely a limping jog. No way they’ve come this far to just give up.

So, they just keep running.

The Finish Line

And, really, that’s what I’m trying to tell you today. Keep pressing. Mile 25 is a finite thing. It is one mile…or 5,280 ft….or 1,500 steps, and each step brings you that much closer to the finish line.

Spencer the Boston Marathon dog will cheer you on!

When we are at the end of Act II, there isn’t that much further to go. It’s another 15,000-20,000 words at most for Act III. We know how the story is going to end (or should) and what needs to happen. There’s no more slogging through the confusing, mushy bits we’re not sure of in Act II.

This is a final sprint for the FINISH!

A marathon is about crossing the finish line. It isn’t about sashaying, moon-walking, or pronking across it. How we cross doesn’t matter. We simply have to cross it, limping, bloody, and shaking from way too much caffeine after writing the worst 12,000 words of our lives.

Nobody looks good crossing the finish line of a race. Even the 100-meter dash–sure, it’s not far enough that hair and makeup get mussed, but there’s the awkward ‘runner face’ everyone makes, which is halfway between the putting-on-mascara face and the O-face.

Not even Kenyans look their best at a finish line.

I have yet to finish a book and wake up the next morning looking like a million dollars. It’s more that I look like a reject extra for The Walking Dead. I probably smell like a reject extra from The Walking Dead, too, because who has time to shower when we’re 4,000 from the finish line?

The point is, it doesn’t matter if you are sweaty, blotchy, puffy, a drippy mess from allergies, or prone to random hysterical laughter by the time you finish your book. YOU FINISHED.

And as a fellow writer and perhaps a fellow runner…I’ll be there to cheer you on!

Coach Cait is ready! (Post-run on a GOOD day)

***

Thank You CAIT!

Kristen here. If anyone ever sees me running? RUN FOR YOUR $%#@#$% LIFE! Because there is something with teeth or a chainsaw behind me.

But, whether we are runners or not, writing is an endurance sport. I choose motherhood, grappling in Jiu Jitsu, and time with my mother to train my endurance. It helps 🙂 .

***Scroll down for new classes from Cait and for On Demand classes for hardcore storytelling training from MOI!

What Are Your Thoughts?

I love hearing from you!

Do you find yourself starting and never finishing? Is this from lack of planning? Failing to fully prepare? Not enough training? Maybe underestimating HOW FREAKING HARD writing a novel ACTUALLY is?

Are you being too hard on yourself? A commenter last time was really down she couldn’t finish her FIRST ‘novel.’ Hell, it took me no less than FIFTEEN ‘novels’ before I finished. That whole ‘endurance training thing’ 😉 .

What do you WIN? For the month of MAY, 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).

Also NOW OFFERING MORE CLASSES PLUS ON DEMAND…

Retelling Myths & Fairytales

Instructor: USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds
Price: $65 USD Standard (Cool Upgrades Available)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: FRIDAY May 25th, 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

Myths and fairytales are as fundamental to human existence as communication itself. We grow up hearing these stories, being formed by them, and often rebelling against them.

One of the hottest trends in publishing right now is bringing these stories back and giving them new life with creative interpretations and retellings.

Done right, a retelling can capture the public imagination, give us new insights into our society and ourselves, and sweep us away to a time and place where everything, including justice and happy endings, is possible. Get your spot today! HERE.

The Yarn Behind the Book: Backstory

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $55.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Friday, June 1, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

Behind every good book is an entire story that happens before the reader ever opens to page one. This is the backstory, and done right, it is what sets the stage, provides clues and cues, and rescues you from writer’s block.

A good backstory will help with logic and consistency in the plot, developing complex motivations for characters, and sorting out exactly what needs to happen going forward as you either plot or pants your way to the end.

This class will cover the following topics – and much more:

  • The elements of a backstory;
  • How to take your current plot idea and work backwards into a backstory;
  • Integrating character profiles and the backstory;
  • How the backstory relates to the logline and synopsis;
  • Using the backstory to dig yourself out of corners and shake off writer’s block;
  • Why a backstory is crucial to writing a series.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

On Demand Training!

Ready for Book Beast Mode? I Live to Serve…Up Some TRAINING!

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend:

ON DEMAND Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. 

Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

The Art of Character is also now available for ON DEMAND.

And if you’re ready for BOOK BEAST MODE and like saving some cash, you can get BOTH Plot Boss and Art of Character in the…

Story Boss Bundle (ON DEMAND).

Almost FIVE HOURS with me, in your home…lecturing you. It’ll be FUN! 

I also hope you’ll pick up a copy of my debut novel The Devil’s Dance.

The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, Author Kristen Lamb, Kristen Lamb novel, Kristen Lamb mystery-thriller, Romi Lachlan

Kristen Lamb, how to write a synopsis, why do writers need a synopsis, synopsis, querying an agent, how to get a literary agent, narrative structure, writing tips

There is one word known to strike fear into the hearts of most writers. Synopsis. Many of us would rather perform brain surgery from space using a lemon zester and a squirrel than be forced to boil down our entire novel into one page.

Yes one.

But alas we need a synopsis for numerous reasons. First and foremost, if we want to land an agent, it works in our favor to already have a FABULOUS synopsis handy because the odds are, at some point, the agent will request one.

Sigh. I know. Sorry.

A Quick Aside

When it comes to synopses, I lean toward the, ‘Better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission’ camp. This is where already having a seriously spiffy synopsis helps.

Think of it this way. E-mail is necessary, but also tedious. Getting lots of email and having to juggle it all, frankly, sucks. Agents get a lot of email. Since I’m also a person who gets a ridiculous amount of email, I LOVE people who save me work. They save me time when they save needless steps.

Most queries these days are via email and since agents don’t like getting their computers crashed by a virus? This means the query will be pasted into the body of the email (no attachments).

Believe it or not, agents like writers. In fact they need writers. They don’t get paid without a writer (who has a book). Last I checked, agents also really like being paid in money—not adorable pigmy goats. Trust me, you will only make THAT mistake once.

To Boldly Go…

So we are clear, agents need writers. Their goal is to make the authors they represent as successful as possible. When the author wins, so does the agent. This is why they’re very picky who they add to their cadre. Just as much as agents are looking for reasons NOT to read our book, they’re simultaneously looking for reasons TO read our book.

I know it’s a paradox much like time travel. Don’t think about it too long or your brain will cramp.

In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with ending your query with: I have taken the liberty of pasting the one page synopsis of my novel below for your convenience.

Worst case scenario? They don’t scroll down. OMG!

But best case is they DO scroll down and they like it! Better yet, you are off to an awesome start because you just saved them a crap-ton of time. Proper initiative is a great way for us (the writers) to make a good impression. Yes, agents want to discover that fabulous book, but it’s even better if that fabulous book comes with an author who makes their life/job easier.

Why Do We Need a Synopsis?

Kristen Lamb, how to write a synopsis, why do writers need a synopsis, synopsis, querying an agent, how to get a literary agent, narrative structure, writing tips

If you don’t want to automatically include the synopsis that’s fine, but if you write a really good one (which IS possible if the story is strong)? Why the heck not?

All right, so what if you aren’t brave enough to include a synopsis and are praying that the subject never comes up and the agent skips all this and asks for a full. Okay, great! Problem is, if you do get a book deal, often the editor will want you to write a synopsis for the book you’re writing next (for approval of course).

Ugh, so if you go traditional, really no dodging it.

Some of you might be saying, Oh, but Kristen! Traditional is sooo yesterday and I am self-publishing. I don’t need a synopsis.

Technically correct, but actually I do recommend a synopsis for all the reasons writers loathe writing them.

Why All the Angst?

Kristen Lamb, how to write a synopsis, why do writers need a synopsis, synopsis, querying an agent, how to get a literary agent, narrative structure, writing tips
Dramatization of writers off to work on a synopsis.

A big reason writers hate writing synopses with the power of a thousand suns is because we believe every word is precious and every character vital and necessary. We lack perspective, especially if we haven’t had any time or distance away from the work.

This is normal.

But a bigger reason many writers hate writing the synopsis (particularly for first-time novels) is the synopsis makes it painfully obvious we have no story or a terribly flawed story.

The synopsis strips away our pretty prose and all our verbal glitter and it lays our story bare.

Today I want to talk about the BIG PICTURE stuff. What is it our synopsis is really out to reveal? If we don’t first grasp that, no amount of tips I give for writing a great synopsis will help.

Synopsis as Skeleton

The synopsis is the skeleton of our story. What do skeletons do? They support everything else. The skeleton is the guidepost for all that is to come.

We can see the skeleton of a fish and ‘see’ the fish even without benefit of gills and scales. We can see an elephant skeleton and get an idea of scope and size and finished ‘entity/product.’

But most importantly, we don’t have to be a doctor to look at a skeleton and tell that something is horribly wrong.

Kristen Lamb, how to write a synopsis, why do writers need a synopsis, synopsis, querying an agent, how to get a literary agent, narrative structure, writing tips
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

We don’t need a lot of imagination to see how this skeleton above is going to flesh out, pardon the pun. We can see at a glance that this human skeleton is going to have a lot of problems because of the various deformities.

The same holds true with a story skeleton. If the narrative orbital sockets are located in the posterior, we don’t care how pretty the eyes are if they are in the @$$.

Kristen Lamb, how to write a synopsis, why do writers need a synopsis, synopsis, querying an agent, how to get a literary agent, narrative structure, writing tips

There is no amount of witty dialogue or clever prose that is going to rescue a plot that is missing vital parts or has them in the wrong place.

Yes, we are sending a synopsis in hopes of selling a story, but how is the synopsis doing this? Plain and simple? The synopsis is letting the agent see if the skeleton is solid, symmetrical and is of a creature that is rare, cool and maybe never seen before.

Kristen Lamb, how to write a synopsis, why do writers need a synopsis, synopsis, querying an agent, how to get a literary agent, narrative structure, writing tips
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Steve Starer.

An agent is also looking at a synopsis because she knows it is the fastest way to reveal terminal (deal-breaker) errors.

***For the self-published folks. Technically you don’t need to write a synopsis, but if you can’t for any of these reasons below, the novel might not yet be good to go and this could save a bunch of nasty reviews.

Is the premise weak?

I get pages all the time from ‘finished novels’ but there actually is no story. Just because we have 80,000-100,000 words doesn’t mean we have a story. It means we have a lot of WORDS.

Is it really a novel or just melodrama?

Do we have a solid plot or is it ‘scene’ after ‘scene’ of bad situations?

Does the ‘plot’ rely on trickery? Gimmick? 

Often writers are having a panic attack about writing the synopsis because the entire book rests on a ‘clever’ twist ending that really isn’t a twist but rather a gimmick.

I.e. It was all really a bad dream.

No.

Does it require deus ex machina to resolve?

The protagonist endures plight after plight and all seems lost when she finds…………a journal!

No.

Does it actually resolve?

New writers often don’t understand structure, which naturally means they don’t yet understand that series follow similar structure guidelines to a singular novel.

***And btw, it is OKAY to be new, so breathe!

Even series still follow three act structure. But say the story follows four or even five act structure. Doesn’t matter. The story is not over until the core story problem introduced in the beginning is resolved.

Every book in a series must read as a standalone. Readers should be able to pick up Book 5 in a series and enjoy a complete story and understand what’s going on without having yet read Books 1-4.

If Book 5 blows the reader away, she’ll want to go read Books 1-4. However, if Book 5 makes no sense at all without first reading Books 1-4? We’ll pass.

We read for entertainment, not extra homework.

NO BATMAN ENDINGS.

Stay tuned for next week book!

Often I get, Oh well the reader will have to read the next book to know if she lives. Nope, not how that works unless we write for Days of Our Lives.

No matter the structure we use, our story must come equipped with a satisfying resolution, or that story is missing legs.

In the case of a connected series, often a gatekeeper to the Big Boss is defeated but the journey continues toward that final showdown. No being clever by withholding a resolution.

Is the writer breaking genre constrictions in unforgivable ways?

For instance, romance comes with an HEA (happily ever after) or the more modern HFN (happily for now). No HEA/HFN? It ain’t romance.

If the author is selling the manuscript as romance in the query, but the story ends in a breakup? The agent knows this is a new writer who doesn’t understand genres have rules and expectations.

Is the story just not all that remarkable?

Once the plot is laid bare, is it truly anything unique? A fresh twist on an old idea? Or is it really more of the same?

My book is about a thirty-eight-year-old female executive who decides she wants to have a baby and the struggle of being an older mom.

Okay *falls asleep*.

My book is about a thirty-eight-year-old female executive who finds out she’s pregnant with her first child at the same time her teenage stepdaughter reveals she, too is expecting.

*perks up* Hmmm, interesting.

The Good News

When we can write a concise and interesting synopsis, it shows our level of skill and the strength of our story. If we can write tight and clean here, it bodes well for the book. If your brain is in knots writing your synopsis, relax.

If the story is there the synopsis is too. It’s only a matter of unearthing it.

I love hearing from you!

(And am not above bribery.)

What are your thoughts? Have you been struggling with the synopsis and think it’s because there might be bigger issues going on? Are you a more seasoned writer and remember the nightmare of trying to fit a first-time “novel” into a single page? Any thoughts? Questions? Suggestions?

What do you WIN? For the month of April, 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).

Heads Up! If you need help, on May 3rd 7-9 EST I’m teaching Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS.

****Free recordings are included with all classes.

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?

***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.

Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, after reading this post, you now know why this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.

Also NOW OFFERING…

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 two hours long, 90 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.

***A free recording is included with purchase.

General Admission is $40 and there are some SUPER COOL upgrades! Get your spot HERE.

 

MORE CLASSES!

Ready for Book Beast Mode? I Live to Serve…Up Some TRAINING!

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend:

ON DEMAND Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. 

Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

The Art of Character is also now available for ON DEMAND.

And if you’re ready for BOOK BEAST MODE and like saving some cash, you can get BOTH Plot Boss and Art of Character in the…

Story Boss Bundle (ON DEMAND).

Almost FIVE HOURS with me, in your home…lecturing you. It’ll be FUN! 

I also hope you’ll pick up a copy of my debut novel The Devil’s Dance.

The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, Author Kristen Lamb, Kristen Lamb novel, Kristen Lamb mystery-thriller, Romi Lachlan

self-editing, Kristen Lamb, revision, editing, content editing, how to edit a novel, self-publishing, how to revise a novel

A fallacy among many emerging writers is that authors only write the books. Then, once finished, agents will fall in LOVE and someone else will do ALL the editing.

*clutches sides laughing.*

Yeah…no. And woodland creatures don’t help with housework. Sorry to break the news. Bummed me out, too.

The hard truth is the onus is on us (writers) to make certain our manuscript is properly edited before sending a query. Remember, agents are actively searching for reasons to STOP reading. Self-editing skills can mean the difference between a sweet deal or a spot in the slush pile.

Even if the story is amazing, agents know editing is time-consuming and costly. This means they’re more likely to wait for another ‘amazing story’ that doesn’t cost as much as a Caribbean cruise to get bookstore ready. They’ll be far more likely to sign an author who possesses solid self-editing skills.

But what was that old saying?

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Applies to agents and to readers.

Self-publishing is a whole new level and new devil. If we’re doing our job, the self-published novel should be at least as good as anything legacy published. This means we bear the burden (and cost) of making sure our manuscript is the best it can be.

Superior editing makes the difference between releasing a novel versus unleashing one. Many emerging writers—once the novel is ‘finished’—make some major errors when it comes to ‘editing.’

Here are a few biggies:

  • The writer actually believes the novel is finished and hits PUBLISH (Ahhhhhhh! NO!);
  • Emerging authors fail to understand proofreading is NOT synonymous with editing. Proofreading is merely one type of editing;
  • New authors don’t research how much good developmental editors/substantive line-editors charge for services.

self-editing, Kristen Lamb, revision, editing, content editing, how to edit a novel, self-publishing, how to revise a novel

The above guidelines are from the Editorial Freelancers Association.

Since all novels require editing, the more we know how to do ourselves, the lower our costs will be. Trust me. Y’all do not want to pay a developmental editor to turn a 90,000 word mess into something readable (forget publishable).

Feel free to do this, but be ready to cough up a few thousand dollars and part of a kidney.

A more cost-effective option is to understand plot and the mechanics of story so we can repair the flaws ourselves. Sure, a good developmental editor will spot the massive plot holes and guide us how to repair them, but (again) it’s gonna cost us.

A lot.

Additionally, we can pay someone to insert all our proper punctuation and correct poor grammar, OR we can learn how to do this stuff ourselves. Then we’re only paying for a proofreader to catch what we missed or goofed.

Trust me, no matter how good the writer, we ALL miss/goof stuff.

Self-Editing and ‘Cost vs. Value’

As I already mentioned, good editors are NOT cheap. There are also many editors who charge by the hour. If they’re spending their time fixing oopses we could’ve easily repaired ourselves?

We’re burning cash and time.

Self-editing can be a real life (and cash) saver.

Yet, correct the problems we’ll be discussing today, and editors can more easily get to the MEAT of our novel. This means you will spend less money and get far higher value.

Over my career I have literally edited thousands of works, most of them written by emerging writers. My particular specialty is content and developmental edit. Though I’ll correct punctuation and spelling as I go (because I am OCD and generous) MY job is to make a STORY the best it can possibly be.

Problem is, most of the time I can’t even get to the story because it’s obscured under layers of bleh the writer could have removed in revision.

#1 DIY Adverb Removal

Despite what you might have been told, not ALL adverbs are evil. Redundant adverbs are evil. If someone shouts loudly? How else are they going to shout? Whispering quietly?

***Wow, glad the author explained how ‘whispering’ works.

Ah, but if a character whispers seductively? The adverb seductively gives us a quality to the whisper that isn’t inherent in the verb. Check your work for adverbs and kill the redundant ones.

Either we need to choose a stronger verb, or we’re treating the reader like an idiot.

If a character walks quickly to the train platform, then choose a verb that means ‘to walk quickly’ (stride, jog, hurry) and use that one instead. If a character yells loudly, ditch the loudly. 

We understand how yelling ‘works.’

#2 Cut the Cray-Cray

First and foremost, readers want a STORY. Stories are more than loads of ‘pretty writing’ using thousand-dollar words. Stories are about problems. A character thinks life is fine, then PROBLEM. The character then must struggle, grow, evolve, make choices to eventually SOLVE the problem (win, lose, draw).

Pretty description is optional. Big words are also optional. Alas, if we want to be a writer who uses description then we need to wield with economy.

Few things make me as giddy as a glorious line of description or a new vocabulary word. Many readers (and writers) are like crows.

We see the shinies and tuck them away because they’re THAT cool. The last book I read was The Devil in the White City.

When describing a miserable afternoon in late 19th century Chicago, the author had many options of how to do this. Instead of, ‘The day was humid and stifling,’ Erik Larson wrote, ‘The air hung with the heavy stillness of a tapestry.’ 

There’s nothing, per se, wrong with the first description. But Larson’s line was far more visceral because he made use of multiple senses simultaneously.

But some writers take similes too far.

I’ve seen writers who’ve used so much ‘wordsmithery’ that I had no idea what the hell they were even trying to say. The goal of a novel is to hook readers into a dramatic narrative, not prove we own a thesaurus.

Exhibit A:

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***Word on the street is the NSA is contemplating either revoking Sean Penn’s permission to own a thesaurus OR they want to weaponize his writing.

Metaphors and similes are fantastic literary devices, but need to be used with intention. Yes, in school, our teachers or professors didn’t ding us for using forty-two metaphors in five pages, but their job was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor or simile, NOT prepare us for commercial publication as professional novelists.

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When we use too much of this verbal glitter, we can create what’s called ‘purple prose.’ Go through your pages and highlight metaphors and similes.

Pick THE BEST and CUT THE REST.

Any kind of description must serve the story and propel the dramatic action forward. If it doesn’t do this? CUT!

#3 Cut the Stage Direction

Again, the more time an editor devotes to a project the higher the bill. Also, if an editor charges by the page, we could be paying for a lot of filler we could have removed ourselves.

Alfred Hitchcock said, ‘Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.’ Readers don’t need every single step of a day. We live it, why would we read it?

Yet, I see a lot of samples like this:

Fifi opened her eyes at dawn. She pulled back her covers and placed her feet on the floor. Padding across the room, she reached for a robe hanging on her door. Her stomach growled, so she went downstairs and opened the fridge for the carton of orange juice, then grabbed a glass from the cabinet. Turning around, she searched for a granola bar….

OH, GET ON WITH IT!

An editor is going to cut all of this because NOTHING IS HAPPENING. Also, readers pretty much know how the whole ‘getting juice’ phenomenon works. They don’t need a blow-by-blow.

Fifi reached out her hand to open the door.

NO KIDDING.

Unless Fifi has telekinetic powers, do readers need the direction?

Filler pads the word count, but it also pads the editing bill. The verbs turn, look, grab, pull are possible red flags you’re doing too much stage direction. My advice is to do a Word Find and search for these verbs and their variations (I.e. look, looked, looking). See if the action is necessary or if you’re holding the reader’s brain.

If you’re holding the reader’s brain? Return it, please.

#4 Beware of Painful & Alien Movement of Body Parts

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

His head followed her across the room.

Um…ouch.

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

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#5 Ease Up on the Physiology

Fifi’s head pounded. She ran for the door, her heart hammering and wild pulse beating relentlessly in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs. All she could do was gasp. Panic made her throat clench and stomach heave. Mind numb, she reached for the door, fingers trembling.

GET TO IT ALREADY!

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out. That and I read a lot of samples where the character has her heart pounding so much, I’m waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment.

Physiological reactions can become echoes. If every page the character has her stomach churning, roiling and rolling, our reader will need an antacid before finishing the chapter (provided she finishes at all).

I strongly recommend a copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Emotion Thesaurus to help you vary physiology. Also, if someone’s heart is pounding, that’s okay. We just don’t need to be told this over and over and…over.

We (readers) assume the character’s heart is still pounding until she’s out of danger.

No need to remind us.

Really.

#6 Odd Sentence Construction

In an effort to break up and vary sentence structure, many emerging writers will craft sentences like this:

With the months of stress pressing down on her head, Jessie started ironing the restaurant tablecloths with a fury.

First, this is backing into the action. Though technically correct (enough), it’s easy to lose a reader if we have too many sentences like this. Active sentences are the easiest on the brain and keep the reader immersed in the fictive dream.

Then there are the picky issues with the example above. For instance, when we use the word ‘down,’ then ‘on’ is redundant.

Also, Jessie is either ironing or not ironing. ‘Started’ is overused and makes sloppy writing (this actually goes back to the whole stage direction thing).

Jessie ironed the restaurant tablecloths with a fury, months of stress pressing on her shoulders.

Another way writers will vary the beginning of sentences is they’ll default to what’s known as passive voice.

Passive:

The door was kicked in by the police.

Active:

Police kicked in the door.

If you go through your pages and see WAS clusters? That’s a HUGE hint that passive voice has infected your story.

Many writers end up with strange sentence construction because they realize every sentence is starting with the character’s name or the appropriate pronoun. They’re trying to ameliorate the repetition of Jessie, Jessie, Jessie, she, she, she. The problem, then, is not sentence construction, rather the writer needs to open the lens of the storytelling.

Remember our character doesn’t need to be the subject of every sentence. We’re telling a story. This means we can work with setting, other characters, etc.

#7 Get Rid of ‘Clever’ Tags

Ideally, if we do a good job with our characters, the reader should know who’s talking without tags because speech patterns differ. If all our characters ‘speak’ the same way, that is an issue we need to remedy.

Yet, we can’t always do this, which means we can use a tag. Tags are fine, but keep it simple. This isn’t the place to get clever.

‘You are such a jerk,’ she laughed.

A character can’t ‘laugh’ something. They can’t ‘spit,’ ‘snarl,’ or ‘grouse’ words either. They can SAY and ever so often they can ASK. Said used properly becomes white noise.

NOTE: Use said as a tag…just don’t get crazy. If you beat it up it gets distracting and annoying.

But again, used properly readers don’t generally see it. It keeps them in the story and cooking along. If we want to add things like laughing, griping, complaining, then fine. It just shouldn’t be the tag.

“You are such a jerk.” She laughed and flicked brownie batter onto Fabio’s white shirt.

Notice how sentences like the one above also keep us from beating said to death.

I swear the funniest instance of bizarre tags was a new writer who just would NOT listen to me and she insisted on using all these crazy@$$ tags. So instead of exclaimed when her character yelled something she tagged with, he ejaculated.

*Editor Kristen falls over laughing*

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Okay y’all ALL sniggered at that one. So yeah be creative just not in the tags, ya dig? 😉

There you go!

SEVEN easy tips for self-editing. We all make these mistakes and that’s why God invented revision (that and to punish the unfaithful). If you can get rid of these common offenders on your own, then good editors can focus on the deeper aspects of your fiction.

Have you had to ruthlessly slay your favorite metaphors? Are you a recovering adverb-addict? What are some other self-editing guidelines you use to keep your prose clean and effective?

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of April, 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).

NOW OFFERING…

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 two hours long, 90 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.

***A free recording is included with purchase.

General Admission is $40 and there are some SUPER COOL upgrades! Get your spot HERE.

 

MORE CLASSES!

Have to write a query letter or synopsis? Conference season is coming! 

Pitch Perfect: Crafting a Query & Synopsis Agents Will Love. Class is May 3rd 7-9 EST and $45 for over two hours training y’all how to do the toughest parts of this job.

Ready for Book Beast Mode? I Live to Serve…Up Some TRAINING!

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend:

ON DEMAND Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. 

Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

The Art of Character is also now available for ON DEMAND.

And if you’re ready for BOOK BEAST MODE and like saving some cash, you can get BOTH Plot Boss and Art of Character in the…

Story Boss Bundle (ON DEMAND).

Almost FIVE HOURS with me, in your home…lecturing you. It’ll be FUN! 

I also hope you’ll pick up a copy of my debut novel The Devil’s Dance.

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Kristen Lamb, writing tips, research and writing, details and writing, adding depth to stories, research and character, how to research, why research is important for novels, how to write a novel, research readers, how to find more readers

Research can be a double-edged sword. It can elevate writing to an entirely new level, but can also be a place we hide, procrastination masked as ‘work.’ Recently, I posted on the dangers of premature editing and gave tips to help keep us moving forward on that first draft until it is FINISHED.

A common place we might stall is when we reach a point we need to fact-check or research. To maintain momentum, my suggestion is to write a note and keep writing. For instance, I might be writing a story set in the jungle. It is tempting to halt, open a browser tab then spend the next three weeks researching jungles.

Problem is, the goal is to finish a novel, not to become an expert in rain forests.

Thus, what I recommend is to write the scene anyway, and, in another color or bold or all caps, type something like ADD IN COOL STUFF ABOUT JUNGLE HERE. Then? Sally forth.

Research is vital for great stories (so long as we contain it).

Research Genre Expectations

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Choosing a genre is critical for success. Many emerging writers believe genre is too constricting, that it will make a work ‘formulaic,’ but nothing could be further from the truth. First, genres often have a lot of crossover.

As an example, my new novel The Devil’s Dance has ranked very well in mystery, mystery-thriller, thriller, suspense, mystery-suspense, women sleuth, pulp and even…financial.

Why ‘financial?’ My best guess is it is because a massive financial crime of Enron proportions kicks off my story. The murders that later ensue serve the BIG goal, which is motivated by money.

Genre is critical in that it helps fans find and discover our work. Readers can’t fall in love with a novel they can’t locate. Also, readers pick a certain genre for reasons. When we know these reasons, our stories can serve the consumer what she craves.

Mystery readers want a puzzle. The puzzle needs to find the sweet spot between ‘So Easy a Six-Year-Old Could Solve This’ and ‘There’s No Way Anyone Could Solve This.’ They want twists, turns, and to be surprised and even fooled.

With romance, readers want a Happily Ever After (or at least a Happily For Now). If the couple doesn’t come together at the end, this is not a romance. It’s a different genre, likely a women’s fiction.

Every genre has boundaries (here is a post to help). Knowing our boundaries helps us push them in new ways, but we can’t break rules until we know them first.

The best way to research the genre we want to write is to READ that genre. As many books as possible.

Research Audience

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This dovetails into my last point about genre. When writing any story, it is essential to always keep the audience in mind. If we want to sell books and write for a living, then stories are for the readers, not for us. We can feel free to write for ourselves, but that is writing as a hobby.

Sort of like my crochet.

I love crocheting, but don’t expect any of my blankets or scarves to be for sale on Etsy. My crafting is for relaxation, not for making my living (…thank God).

When I do edits, one of the most common problems is the writer who fails to consider his/her audience. This oversight plagues virtually every genre.

If you desire to write a Regency romance, it is imperative to read A LOT of Regency and to know that time period inside and out. Social conventions, their world, how they spoke, what they valued, etc.

This holds for any form of historical fiction. These audiences are passionate about history, and very knowledgable, too. If we do our research and make sure the details are correct, fans will love us. If we don’t?

Readers will burn our novel at the…steak.

😀  *evil laugh* *all the writers scream in pain*

With mystery, thriller, crime, etc. we must appreciate that readers who buy those books watch a lot of crime shows. This audience likely has an addiction to Discovery ID, Dateline, and documentaries about forensics and all things criminal justice.

Thus, we need to understand jurisdiction, procedure, and have characters using the proper nomenclature. Know who handles what and how they talk as they work the scene.

In the U.S. at least, if dispatch notifies a beat cop about a possible DB (dead body), there is a process. Once that officer confirms there IS a body, this officer then has a limited role in what happens next (call in homicide, notify the Crime Scene Unit, cordon off area to preserve the scene and make sure evidence isn’t trampled through).

The officer will NOT do the footwork a detective does, like interviewing POIs (Persons of Interest).

We need to know this, or readers will holler FOUL.

Research Readers

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This is similar to researching the audience, but with a very slight difference. For instance, if we write Middle Grade, we are selling to parents, teachers, librarians, etc. Here’s where it gets dicey. When writing for young people, we need to THINK like young people of TODAY.

I’ve edited many MG pieces and it’s from the vantage point of a middle-aged (or older) writer. Middle Grade stories are to entertain 8-12 year-olds, not relive our youth. We must appreciate children of the 21st century are tech-savvy and most don’t possess the same freedoms we did as kids.

Thus, the notion of a ten-year-old having a paper route, where she/he wakes at dawn to throw papers unsupervised is anachronistic. First, the parents would likely get a visit from Child Protective Services and secondly, newspapers are pretty much a relic.

An Example

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Last Halloween, a store had all these spooky telephones on display with the laughing skulls and dancing bats. Spawn (my then seven-year-old son) had NO IDEA what these ‘telephones’ were.

At first, I was floored, then realized something crucial. My son has grown up in a world of cell phones and has never used a land line.

If we want to write Middle Grade, then we need to take into account the world of our young readers.

This is not to say our child protagonist won’t come into contact with a pay phone, a land-line, a camera with film, a typewriter, or a newspaper. They can encounter these items, but their attitude toward commonplace fixtures of our youth, would be a source of mystery and confusion for the modern child. They’d have little or even no concept that phones were not ALWAYS the go-to way to take pictures.

It would be akin to me, a child of the 80s, encountering a telegraph machine.

It is OKAY to ASK

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These days we have unprecedented access to information. As mentioned earlier, one excellent way to research is to read A LOT of works in our genre. Tess Gerritsen was once a physician. Michael Connelly was an L.A. crime reporter. John Grisham was a lawyer. Their novels are excellent resources for learning.

Additionally, there are many professionals out there who are ready and willing to help writers with the details. If you’re writing a thriller and the character uses a gun, learn about guns. Ask someone in the know.

I once threw a book across the room because the writer’s protagonist ‘put the safety’ on her revolver. I’m from a military family, and married to a man who was a competitive shooter for the Air Force. I’m that annoying person who counts shots fired in movies (which is why I detest most action movies).

Wow, I want a magic magazine that never runs out of ammo.

I’ve also studied martial arts since I was a kid. I was testing for a brown belt in traditional Jiu Jitsu when life got in the way and I stopped. Later, I changed to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (ground-fighting) and am an upper belt with over two years training.

Why does this matter?

First, I know what women can and cannot do in a fight. Secondly, I also know that being in a fight SUCKS (which is why I avoid them). Punching someone HURTS. Being punched hurts, too. This makes me REALLY picky about fight scenes.

I grow weary of delicate females throwing punches like Mike Tyson and never having to ice down a hand that would swell the size of a small melon (likely due to broken bones). Badass heroines who kick and punch and take down men twice their size…and never break a nail?

Uh huh. Sure.

Just to train I had to tape finger joints to prevent dislocations.

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Nice swollen hands after a night at Jiu Jitsu.

Again, if we are unsure about something? ASK. Social media is wonderful for locating an expert. Ages ago, I was editing a military thriller. The author had her hero pulling another soldier out of a Humvee that was ablaze.

Problem was, there was no way this would’ve been possible.

At the time her story was set, the uniforms had WAY too much synthetic fiber, and her hero would have lit up like a human torch. In fact, the uniforms were so flammable, the U.S. military finally had to reissue all new uniforms because the old ones were a hazard.

How did I know this? I vaguely recalled this uniform change with Hubby (since I had to wash them). To be certain, I went to military friends on Facebook then Hubby to confirm this detail.

I stopped and ASKED. There is no shame in not knowing something. Seriously.

Military people read military books and maybe this detail was silly, but it very well could have been a deal-breaker.

Why risk it if a question can save the grief?

Research Adds Depth and Dimension

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On one hand, the devil is in the details. Readers will judge us on accuracy. On the other hand, when we do our research and get the details right, readers will LOVE us for it. We shouldn’t feel pressure to hose readers with factoids. Remember, readers want to enjoy a story, not something that reads like an encyclopedia.

Yet, if we immerse ourselves in the facts, we’ll have a treasure trove of details to select from. The right detail in the right place can transform the mediocre to the magnificent.

Additionally, research helps our characters come to life. Who we are (profession) colors our world, what we notice or don’t.

Put a CIA operative in a restaurant, and the agent would notice points of ingress and egress. A chef would notice the wilted watercress, the shoddy plating, and the tiny chip in the water glass. An architect might note the design of the room, structural flaws, or possibly admire the wainscoting and use of natural light.

Profession, age, socioeconomic status, education level, gender, etc. all factor into character and what that character would notice or pass over completely. What would they prioritize? A teenager would prioritize wifi access over the cost of the hotel room (parents).

Y’all get the gist.

Research Setting

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, research and writing, details and writing, adding depth to stories, research and character, how to research, why research is important for novels, how to write a novel, research readers, how to find more readers
Rotorua New Zealand, and YES it smells of sulfur. I KNOW this NOW.

A major way we can hook readers into our story is with the worlds we create. Part of showing, not telling involves using setting as more than a backdrop. If our character is in prison, then what kind of prison is it?

What kind of farm? Which city? What part of the country?

What are smells, sounds, routines, textures? A supermax prison will be vastly different from a county lockup, just as a family-owned bed and breakfast won’t share much in common with a major hotel chain. The five senses of a character are woven into setting (or at least should be).

In the end, details add layers and dimension to characters, and help bring them to life. The better our research, the more nuance we have on hand to add depth to our stories.

If you need outside eyes to see if you’re using your detail for max effect, I have a couple slots left in my Write Stuff Special (detailed content edit 20 pages for $55).

What Are Your Thoughts?

Does this help you see research in a new way? Do you go nuts when a writer or Hollywood botches a detail that should be something simple? Do you fall in love with writers who’ve taken time to do the hard homework? I know I do.

What detail bumbles make you cray-cray? My mom is a nurse so we have to hide any medical shows. Hubby? No military movies. Me? Action movies give me hives.

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of April, 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).

Have to write a query letter or synopsis? Conference season is coming! THIS WEEK!

Pitch Perfect: Crafting a Query & Synopsis Agents Will Love. Class is May 3rd 7-9 EST and $45 for over two hours training y’all how to do the toughest parts of this job.

Ready for Book Beast Mode? I Live to Serve…Up Some TRAINING!

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend:

ON DEMAND Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. 

Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

The Art of Character is also now available for ON DEMAND.

And if you’re ready for BOOK BEAST MODE and like saving some cash, you can get BOTH Plot Boss and Art of Character in the…

Story Boss Bundle (ON DEMAND).

Almost FIVE HOURS with me, in your home…lecturing you. It’ll be FUN! 

I also hope you’ll pick up a copy of my debut novel The Devil’s Dance.

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how to sell more books, trends in fiction, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, Camp NaNoWriMo, dramatic writing, how to get more readers, The Martian Andy Weir, hook, writing hooks
Image courtesy of Randy Heinitz via Flickr Creative Commons.

How do we sell our stories? That is the big question. It is the reason for craft classes and editing and cover design and agents and editors and all the time on social media. And while platforms and covers and algorithms do matter, there is one tried and true way to sell more books.

Write a great story.

And not just any story, but a story that hooks from the very beginning and only continues to hook deeper.

Think of great stories like concertina wire.

The danger of concertina wire is not just in one hook, but hundreds or thousands. And it isn’t even in the thousands of hooks. It is the tension created by the coiled structureIf a person is snagged even a little, every effort to break free (turning a page for resolution) only traps the victim deeper in a web of barbed spines.

Now granted, this is a morbid visual, but y’all are writers and there is a good reason our family doesn’t like us talking at the dinner table.

So I was researching sucking chest wounds today and, hey, pass the spaghetti please?

Moving on…

We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. Many new writers finish their first novel, and (I know as an editor) that odds are more than good that I’m going to chop off the first 50-100 pages.

We dream killers editors call this the fish head. What do we do with fish heads? We toss them (unless you are my weird Scandinavian family who makes fish face soup out of them).

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Image courtesy of David Pursehouse via Flickr Creative Commons

Often, when I go to do this kind of cutting, new writers will protest. “No, but you need this and the story really gets going on page 84.”

My answer? “Then let’s start on page 84.”

Too many stories fall flat because they lack the barbs necessary for snagging the modern reader who has the attention span of an ADD hamster with a meth habit. Additionally, a lot of us writers fall into bad habits of assuming readers are stupid, that they need all kinds of brain holding to “get” what we are talking about which means we not only lack barbs…but necessary tension.

I will prove readers are really smarter than we give them credit for 😉 …

Hook with a Problem

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One morning, on my way to take Spawn to school, as I stopped at my stop sign at a major business highway, a VW van passed at 50 mph and another car pulled out in front. BAM! Car parts, exploding glass, tearing metal, right in front of me. One driver screaming because his legs were crushed and he was pinned. All of this in less than 15 seconds.

Do you think I was hooked?

Did I need to know the history of the drivers, where they were going, what had the one driver so distracted that he would pull out into traffic? Did I need a description of the balmy, normal morning and a weather report? A description of the pale azure sky? Nope.

Now this is an extreme example, but it shows how even in life, we stop everything in light of a problem. A scream, a child crying, someone falling over a curb. We immediately halt everything.

Good fiction always begins with a problem because that is ALL fiction really is. Prose and descriptions and symbol and theme are all various delivery mechanisms…for PROBLEMS.

I cannot count the number of new manuscripts I read where the author spends most of her opening playing Literary Barbies. We really don’t care as much about your protagonist’s flaming red hair as much as we care about that warrant for her arrest. This is drama not a doll house.

Go look at books that have launched to legends and you will see this.

Andy Weir’s The Martian:

I am pretty much f**ked.

That is my considered opinion.

F**ked.

Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it has turned into a nightmare.

We don’t start the book on Earth or in the astronaut program at NASA. We don’t even start when they land on Mars and hint that trouble eventually will come. Nope. Weir tosses us face first into a problem.

Hook With a Question

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I have a mantra that all modern novelists must live and die by.

Resist the urge to explain.

One of the reasons emerging writers get that fish head is they do a lot of flashbacks and explaining and “setting up” the story and they are unwittingly destroying the single strongest propulsion mechanism for their story—curiosity.

If we look at the opening page of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, the opening paragraph has a small character hook but six lines down we read:

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.

When we craft any story, we are wise to harness the power of human nature. Humans are curious. Heck, we are downright nosey. Imagine sitting at a Starbucks and prepping the computer to write. Two women sit nearby chatting and one has obviously been crying (hooking with a problem). We might eavesdrop a little, arrange Post Its, set out our lucky thesaurus but the second one of the women says, “He would kill me if he ever found out.”

There went the writing.

Then we would be doing “research” 😀 .

Hook with Question and Character

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What the HELL, HANNAH?

Sometimes the problem or question isn’t so obviously stated and there is a lot left between the lines. We humans love to fill in the blanks, so LET US.

We will use an example from my all-time favorite book Luckiest Girl Alive.

I inspected the knife in my hand.

“That’s the Shun. Feel how light it is compared to the Wustof?”

I pricked a finger on the blade’s witchy chin, testing. The handle was supposed to be moisture resistant, but was quickly going humid in my grip.

First of all, this is a great opening line. It hooks, but then it leads to another hook and another and another. The character is testing the blade. Why? A blade being moisture resistant obviously is a plus if you are planning on stabbing someone because less chance of slippage (Stuff Writers Know).

Who is she planning to stab? How is she planning on using the blade? What has her so nervous her hands are going moist?

And on PAGE ONE we realize the protagonist is out looking at knives with her fiancé. Why? That is unusual. China? Normal. Curtains? Normal. Knives? Not normal.

Especially since in paragraph FOUR, we read:

I look up at him, too: my fiancé. The word didn’t bother me so much as the one that came after it. Husband. That word laced the corset tighter, crushing organs, sending panic into my throat with the bright beat of a distress signal.

Don’t Eat Your Own Bait

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…or drink it.

There are any number of reasons we as writers are failing to gut hook with our stories and often it is because we are falling prey to the very bait that is going to trap a reader. Problems bother us (because we are human) so we feel a need to “lead up to” something bad. We don’t like questions. We want to know…which is why we feel the urge to explain.

Just know that that clawing feeling inside that is driving you to pad the text is a good sign you are probably doing something right. Coil that barbed story all around and no escape until you’re cut free.

A FANTASTIC resource for teaching how to hook (other than me 😛 ) is my brilliant and brutal mentor Les Edgerton and his book Hooked. Read, learn, bleed, cry, grow.

If you’re wondering if your pages are hooking and, if not, how to remedy that? I am running my Write Stuff special. This is 20 pages of INTENSIVE content and line edit with an analysis included all for $55. Only ten slots are available and they fill up quickly, so get one today.

Your time is valuable and expert eyes are incredibly helpful to ensure you’re fixing the right things, or maybe letting you know to leave the pages ALONE that they are FINE. Work smarter, not harder.

Ain’t no rest for the wicked 😉 .

What are your thoughts?

How long do you give a book? I give ten pages max. On audio books I am more generous simply because I am a member of Audible and can return the book. I might give an hour. But I don’t have a lot of time and sure not spending what little extra I have on a dull book.

Does this post make the notion of the ‘hook’ make more sense? Oh, and by the way a book is like crochet, we need to hook through the entire thing. NO LOGICAL PLACE FOR A BOOKMARK.

Bookmark=DEATH.

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of April, 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).

March’s winner is Ben Gardner. Please send 5000 words in a WORD document double-spaced Times New Roman font, one-inch margins to kristen at wana intl dot com. CONGRATULATIONS! Thanks for the immoral support by commenting! Here is my gift back to you!

Ready for Book Beast Mode? I Live to Serve…Up Some TRAINING!

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my ON DEMAND Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

The Art of Character is also now available for ON DEMAND.

And if you’re ready for BOOK BEAST MODE and like saving some cash, you can get both Plot Boss and Art of Character in the Story Boss Bundle (ON DEMAND). Almost FIVE HOURS with me, in your home…lecturing you. It’ll be FUN! 

Have to write a query letter or synopsis? Conference season is coming!

Pitch Perfect: Crafting a Query & Synopsis Agents Will Love. Class is May 3rd 7-9 EST and $45 for over two hours training y’all how to do the toughest parts of this job.

I also hope you’ll pick up a copy of my debut novel The Devil’s Dance.

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