);

Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: writing tips

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Which is more important? Plot or character? Anyone currently doing NaNoWriMo is all, “WORDS! ONLY WORDS MATTER NOW! Get off my case, Blogger Chick. I’ll figure out plot and character later.”

*awkward silence*

To write great fiction, we need both. Plot and characters work together. One arc drives the other much like one cog serves to turn another, thus generating momentum in the overall engine we call “STORY.”

If we goof up plot? Readers/Audiences get confused or call FOUL. Watch the movie Ouija for what I am talking about *shakes head*.

Goof up characters? No one cares about the plot.

New writers are particularly vulnerable to messing up characters. We drift too far to one end of the spectrum or the other—Super-Duper-Perfect versus Too Dumb to Live—and this can make a story fizzle because there is no way to create true dramatic tension.

This leaves us (the frustrated author) to manufacture conflict and what we end up with is drama’s inbred cousin melodrama. 

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

If characters are too perfect, too goody-goody and too well-adjusted? If they always make noble, good and professional decisions? Snooze fest.

Again. Bad decisions make great fiction.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more booksOf course, the other side of that is what I call The Gilligan Effect. Yes, I am dating myself here and I apologize if I upset any DIE-HARD Gilligan’s Island fans, but I remember being a kid and this show nearly giving me an aneurism (being the highly logical child I was).

After the third time Gilligan botched up the escape off the island? Kristen would have gone Lord of the Flies and Piggy Gilligan would have mysteriously gone “missing.”

I also recall how the stranded party could make everything out of coconuts except a freaking BOAT, and the only reason I kept watching was because it was better than being locked outside to play in heat that shifted asphalt to a plasma state.

Yay, Texas summers!

Yet, I’ve read books with characters that make Gilligan look like a rocket scientist…then been compelled to hurl the book across the room.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books
This is me after reading certain books *stabbing self*

Flawed vs. Too Dumb to Live

Today we are going to talk about how we can make characters flawed without crossing over into TDTL (Too Dumb To Live) Territory. This commercial never gets old *giggles*

Let’s hide behind the CHAINSAWS!!!! *clutches sides*. Or this one about gals tripping too many times in horror movies. BWA HA HA HA HA HA!

Okay, I’m back *giggles*.

Great stories are filled with characters making bad decisions, and when this is done well, we often don’t really notice it beyond the winding tension in our stomach, the clenching that can only be remedied by pressing forward and seeing if it works out okay.

When characters are properly flawed, the audience remains captured in the fictive dream.

When we (the writer) goof up? The fictive dream is shattered. The audience is no longer part of the world because they’re too busy fuming that anyone could be that stupid. They also now cease to care about the character because, like Gilligan? They kind of want said TDTL character to die.

If this is our protagonist? Extra bad. Our protagonist should make mistakes, just not ones so egregious the reader stops rooting for him/her.

Bad Decisions Birthed from The Flaw

When we create a protagonist, we should remember that all strengths have a complimentary weakness. If a character has never been tested by fire, the protagonist is blind to the weakness.

For instance, great leaders can be control freaks. Loyal people can be overly naive. Compassionate people can be unrealistic. Y’all get the idea.

This dual nature of human strength paired with fallibility is why plot is just as critical.

Plot as Crucible

The plot is the crucible that tests the mettle and reveals and fires out the flaw. The strength ultimately will have to be stronger than the weakness because this is how the protagonist will grow to become a hero by story’s end.

A great example of this is one of my favorite movies, The EdgeAnthony Hopkins plays billionaire Charles Morse. Charles is extremely successful and very much in his own head. Though he’s a genius, he lives the sheltered existence of the uber-wealthy.

What happens when all that “head-knowledge” is what he needs to survive a plane crash in the unforgiving wilderness?

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

When the plane crashes and he and the other two survivors make it to shore, Morse does the right thing. He knows they need to get dry before they all die from hypothermia. He also realizes Stephen, the photographer, is in full panic.

What is the intelligent thing to do? Put the photographer to work doing something fruitful to take his mind off his fear.

Bright (Bad) Idea Fairy

The problem, however, is Morse assumes the photographer has the same knowledge-base and doesn’t take time to show Stephen how to use a knife properly and the man is badly injured as a result. Now we’ve already had a problem (plane crash) and now we have a complication (bad injury) and then it gets worse.

Morse, again, being an in-his-own-head-guy and unaccustomed to having to communicate WHY he wants certain things done, tells Robert Green to bury the blood-soaked fabric.

Green is jealous of Morse and rebellious and instead of following instructions and burying the material? He hangs the blood-soaked rags from a tree where an incoming storm whips up the scent of a newly opened All You Can Eat Buffet.

Soon, the men are being hunted by an apex predator with the munchies for humans.

***Side note here. Look at the genius in the choice of character names. Morse, a cryptic person who must unravel the “code” of his situation and realize the bear is actually the (MUCH) lesser threat. Green, the man who envies to such a degree it drives him to plot a murder. Stephen is the first to die. “Stephen” was also the first Christian martyr, the first innocent to die for the greater cause—salvation.

#DeepThoughts

Back to FLAWS

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more booksBut all of this was birthed from a myriad of flaws. Morse failing to communicate and assuming his comrades are operating with the same head knowledge (because he’s never had to use this type of information in a real-world way).

As a billionaire, Morse has never been required to explain himself before. He doesn’t understand that this might be a good time to START.

Additionally, the two photographers are city people who don’t have the training/understanding to know 1) NOT to drag a knife toward the body and 2) that the smallest scent of blood will draw predators. BIG ONES.

These men are used to the “civilized world.”  When thrust into the wild, they make a critical error. They fail to properly appreciate that their position at the top of the food chain has drastically shifted.

Only ONE member of our stranded coterie gets that they’ve suddenly gone from ordering OFF menus to being ON the menu #DailySpecial #MarketPrice #JokesInPoorTaste…

Where was I? Oh, yes…

Bad Decisions Depend on Circumstances

Sometimes characters will make bad decisions simply because this is a completely new world or a set of circumstances they’ve never faced, thus have no way to fully appreciate. The “bad” decision was not a “bad decision” before the adventure.

A good example? Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings. In the Shire, people talk and are sociable. These naive characters haven’t yet felt the consequences of this new and dangerous world.

To them? Chatting away and freely sharing information at The Prancing Pony is NOT a bad decision in their minds. Neither is frying bacon on top of a mountain.

They’ve always lived a life that if they were in a pub? They drank and made friends. If they wanted bacon? They just made bacon. They’ve never had to think beyond their mood or stomachs. The Hobbits don’t have the experiential base to grasp that fire is a “Come and Kill Me” beacon.

Bad Decisions & The Wound

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

We’ve talked about The Wound in other posts. In Thelma & Louise what is the wound? A lifetime of male oppression. In Thelma’s case, her husband controls every aspect of her life.

Thus, when she finally does get on her own, she has poor judgement and is naive and that’s how she nearly ends up raped in a honky-tonk parking lot.

Louise has been a victim (shamed and alone) and doesn’t trust men or the law. Thus, her baggage is what leads her to shoot Thelma’s attacker, but then also dovetails into the really, really bad decision to run.

But if we look at all these examples from an analytical distance, these characters are just DUMB. But why aren’t they TDTL? Context. Because of plot we (the audience) are not staring down at them like specimens through a microscope. We empathize with “bad” decisions. Why? Because there’s context (their world).

Making “Stupid” Forgivable

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Great writing is a sort of alchemy that transforms the raw material of “stupid” into the literary gold we recognize as “damaged,” “broken,” and/or “naive”—which we have ALL been at one time or another.

This hits us in the feels. We relate, connect, and BOND with the characters because we’ve been there, done that, and have the scars to prove it.

In The Edge, “bad” decisions are forgivable because most of us are not wilderness experts. Readers can empathize with maybe doing something seriously stupid if stranded in a similar fashion.

In The Lord of the Rings we, the audience, have “been” to the Shire—and know what world created the childlike Merry and Pippin. Thus, we appreciate these characters are grossly out of their depth and give them a pass.

In Thelma & Louise we can understand how damaged people make poor decisions because, unless we’ve been living under a rock, we’ve made similar choices, and suffered consequences created from fear not reason.

What this means is that, while ALL of these characters made really wrong decisions, they are necessary and pardonable decisions that serve to drive the character arc and thus the plot’s momentum.

That is the final note on characters making bad decisions.

Plot Puppets

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Do we have a character making a mistake, withholding vital information, acting irrationally because it is coming from a deeper place of flaws, circumstance or wounds?

Or, do we have a character playing marionette? Characters are making a mistakes because we NEED them to. The tension has fizzled, so let’s just let them do something epically stupid (and random)?

Audiences can tell the difference between mistakes that are organic and flow from deeper emotional waters versus something contrived. And we can ALL be guilty of forcing characters to make bad choices simply because we sense tension is missing. Even I have to go back and ask the tough question…WHY is this character doing this?

What are your thoughts? I love hearing from you!

What are your thoughts regarding characters making poor decisions? What are some of your favorite examples? Ever quit a book, movie, or show because you wanted everyone to DIE? What are some great examples of characters who you should hate, but you forgive? Why? Can you think of what activated empathy instead of disdain?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

FYI: I’m AM loading new classes. They’ll be up next post. I know I said that last time, but whatever. I lied 😛 .

What are some classes y’all need? Topics you’d like me to talk about here on the blog. I dig suggestions!

BTW: October’s winner for the comment contest is Bjørn Larssen!

Please email your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. One-inch margins, double-spaced, Times New Roman font, please. Or you are also welcome to choose to send me a query or synopsis instead. Query shouldn’t exceed 500 words and synopsis 2,500 MAX. Congratulations!

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

 

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

National Novel Writing Month starts tomorrow (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo). For those who aren’t yet familiar with NaNoWriMo, it is a yearly challenge to write 50K words in thirty days. It’s a fantastic introduction into writing as a profession, because writing as a profession differs vastly from writing for a hobby. 

NaNoWriMo is held during the first month of the holiday season. WHYYYY? Because a) there IS no perfect time to write b) pros have to meet deadlines, even sucky ones and c) writing professionally WILL eventually make us choose between word count and friends and family.

So, best to get that out of the way early.

For those who want to write a “novel” for fun or to simply see if you can finish a “novel” then today’s writing advice doesn’t precisely apply. Alas, everything changes when our goal is to produce a novel as a commodity—as in expecting people to pay money and part with 12-15 hours of free time they don’t have to read and love our words.

This brings me to my first point.

Description is NOT Story

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers
Pretty…but um okay.

Fiction isn’t just a bunch of pretty words. Many of us who decide we long to write a novel have been told most of our lives we are “good with words.” We probably even made top grades in English and believe we already “know how to write” because of all the As we made in school.

Ah, problem is this though. Our English teachers didn’t care that we used twenty-five modifiers on the first page of our short stories. They didn’t care because their GOAL was to teach us what a modifier was and how to use it…NOT to prepare us to write for commercial publication.

Yes, I know many of us received A++++ es for our cerulean skies and peridot eyes. Alas, fiction is about one thing and one thing only. PROBLEMS. Fiction is NOT description.

Fiction is a Crucible

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

Fundamentally, superb fiction is the hero’s journey and the hero’s journey is almost always (99.9999% of the time) about a person undergoing a TEST he or she didn’t CHOOSE.

Think of all the celebrated fiction, regardless of genre—Harry Potter (series by J.K Rowling), The Hunger Games (series by Suzanne Collins), The Help (Kathryn Stockett),  The Martian (Andy Weir),  In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad Book: Tana French), Winter’s Bone (Daniel Woodrell), A Man Called Ove (Fredrik Backman), etc.

In every one of these novels (series) the protagonist DID NOT ASK for the challenges that fate tossed at their feet, but they DID (eventually) take up the journey and enter the fire that would change them and their world forever.

Sure, some of these titles have AMAZING description. Into the Woods is total prose porn. YET, description isn’t story. Tana French, description genius she is, still had to have a core story problem or she didn’t have a novel.

One BIG reason a lot of folks will stall out and fail to finish NaNoWriMo is they don’t have a story. They have a crap ton of pretty words and are trying to create a ten-foot-tall cake with no cake…only icing and sprinkles.

Description and Voice

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

How any writer decides to use or not use description is a matter of voice. This said, the professional author recognizes this is a business. Books are a commodity meant to eventually be sold in exchange for money. Real money that buys stuff.

The more books we sell, the better for everyone. Agents are happy, publishers elated, bookstores celebrate, and libraries thrilled. Culture and society benefits from a literate, reading population AND…authors have money for coffee (which keeps the murder rate down).

This said, there are a lot of different tastes we can appeal to, much like any other product. Think about art. Some folks are willing to spend tens of thousands on a giant canvas that looks like the drop cloth from the last time I painted my office.

Others? A single red dot suspended on a vast white background. Me? I love anything on velvet that involves a bullfight and Elvis…because I’m a smart@$$ (if my art glows under a blacklight, that’s a bonus).

Actually, I am not—quite—that gauche but I’m not evolved enough to “get” anything at The Modern in Fort Worth (modern art museum, FYI).

Um, it’s a box and a lightbulb. Oh-kay. *looks around* I don’t get it.

The point is this. It doesn’t matter if we use a lot of description or a little or we’re somewhere in between. Why? Because there’s an audience for all styles—so long as we have a STORY to go along WITH that description (or lack thereof).

We Can Do Better

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

I know I’ve mentioned this particular bugaboo in a recent post. We are authors. Authors are artists. This means we should be able to do a better job at description than non-writers. It doesn’t take an artist to lean on raven hair, emerald eyes, or porcelain skin. Can we use simple descriptors like these? Sure.

But please keep in mind that books (thus authors) already have a lot of competition—and not from other books. We’re competing against Netflix, hot yoga, YouTube, cat videos, Spotify, video games, etc.

Humans have more ways to be entertained than ever before in human history. Should our potential reader (code for customer) choose reading as their distraction of choice, we’re going to have to up our game to make ours stand apart.

Suffice to say, more of the same is a risky plan. It certainly won’t be enough to catch the attention of a culture with the attention span of a crack-addicted fruit bat. AND, what catches the attention span of our culture largely isn’t what one would initially assume. They crave tough mental work and eschew being spoon fed.

Much of the modern audience is ignoring the blockbuster Hollywood movies, and choosing instead to get lost in Game of Thrones. A series so complex it need a GPS, a team of sherpas and a Dungeon Master Manual to keep up. Much of the brain-holding description so popular a decade ago now fails to resonate with contemporary audiences.

We (the audience) like to have places where we can fill in blanks ourselves.

This means the blow-by-blow police sketch description might have worked well enough in days of yore, but now? It’s common as clay. We CAN describe a character directly, though often oblique description is far more visceral, thus more resonant.

Oblique description. Er?

Perception is Reality

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

Far too often, description is used either to hold the audiences’ brains or to make word count or both. Why do we hold the audiences’ brains? We might be new.

Being new often means we want to be in total control (new at the whole “playing god” thing). Until we gain some experience we don’t trust the audience to “get it” without us spoon-feeding them.

Yet, the largest reason we fail to employ description for maximum impact is that writing is HARD. It’s an art that takes time, training and a LOT of hard work to get good at. It takes time to fully appreciate what description can really DO.

Description is a conduit into the mind of the characters. If we (writers) describe another person, a room, a landscape using a lot of pretty words that took an hour on the on-line thesaurus to compile, we are missing the point.

Description delivers perception. Perception IS character. How any character sees is WHO this character IS.

For brevity’s sake, I’m going to riff off a couple examples to make a point (these are EXAMPLES, not me trying to win a Pulitzer, so just do me a favor and roll with it):

Setting and Character

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

Example A:

Anne hesitated, bracing herself against a heavy oak doorframe with tiny notches that ran almost up to her shoulder. Ghosts of her father’s expensive cigarettes lingered in the cheap damask curtains stiff from age and brittle with dust.
When she lifted the half-finished afghan from her mother’s side of the couch and clutched it to her chest, a cloud of cat fur sent her into a sneezing fit. Moments later, despite every vow to remain strong, her sneezes shifted to sobs.

Example B:

Anne braced herself against the battered oak doorframe painted the color of molded avocado. The notches of long-forgotten growth spurts were still visible, scored through the lead-lined enamel. She absently ran her fingers along the marks like braille, though they still told the same story they had twenty years ago.
Nicotine stained curtains turned the room the color of weak tea. She knew at a glance there was no sense washing them. They’d only disintegrate.
Just like everything else.

Notice same name of a character, both leaning in a door (presumably of her home) but the experience and feeling is different. One Anne is, for whatever reason, missing someone who’s no longer around for whatever reason. Maybe they died, have been put in a home or are in the hospital. We don’t know, but the description evokes QUESTIONS.

***Questions are what turn pages, btw 😉 .

The other Anne is dreading some sort of task ahead she didn’t ask for. Probably similar scenarios. Family that’s passed away, disappeared, had to be placed in care facility. Yet, the emotions THIS Anne experiences in a similar room are very different.

Characters and Character

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

Example A:

Sarah almost knocked over her desktop when her boss, Frank O’Leary, barked her name. She managed to hit the Alt-Tab fast enough that he didn’t see she’d been playing the on-line game Buzz Off instead of doing her quarterly projections. She’d named her giant fly-swatter O-Dreary.
She used O-Dreary to obliterate butterflies into bright clueless smears on glass, even though it cost her points. The object of the game was to kill the mosquitos and not the butterflies.
But O-Dreary didn’t get that point any more than O’Leary. She enjoyed the poetry. It helped pass the time.

Example B:

Sarah didn’t even bother glancing away from her desktop when her boss, Frank O’Leary, barked her name. She’d been playing a game of Buzz Off with someone from Accounting using the call sign BigMan007. O’Leary peered over her shoulder, then let out a laugh when she swatted BigMan007’s wasp into a giant smear of Technicolor goo.
They still had yet to figure out the real identity of BigMan007 and could only agree that BigMan007 probably wasn’t from Accounting and definitely was overcompensating for something.
Normally, they’d engage in a heated debate over this pivotal mystery but today was different. One look at O’Leary’s face told her it was time to get to work. For real. Not a good sign.
Again, perception is reality.

In the first example, we get that Sarah doesn’t like or respect her boss or her job. She has a dark sense of humor and her boss has NO sense of humor.

In the second example, however, her boss joins in and the reader sees there is some sort of odd rapport between boss and employee. Maybe she doesn’t take her job seriously or maybe she’s very good at her job and has been passing time until something worthy of her skillset arrives. Her boss gives her leeway to goof off because she does the heavy lifting.

Whatever. We could go any number of ways. The point is simply we use action to show character instead of being lazy.

Sarah hated her job and did everything she could to dodge her task-master boss.

Show Don’t Tell

Kristen Lamb, description, how to use description for fiction, writing tips, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, how to write fiction, tips for finishing NaNoWriMo, how to get more readers

Description, used properly, permits the audience to participate in the drama. They can cast the person THEY conjure in their minds’ eyes (likely a boss they once hated, which is far more emotive). We’re also hooking with story, not every fancy word we can extract from the obscure section of the dictionary.

Sure, we could describe every detail of the home Anne (above) is visiting, but the details mean nothing until they do.

It wouldn’t matter if we described the sofa as a late Victorian reproduction with faded blue velvet, dotted with needlepoint cushions. If we fail to assign what this all MEANS to the character, it falls flat.

The late Victorian reproduction dotted with needlepoint cushions Anne’s mother bought with money Anne saved for college AND the late Victorian reproduction dotted with needlepoint cushions Anne and her mother made together before her mom spiraled into dementia are TWO TOTALLY different sofas.

What Does It MEAN?

The goal is to captivate the audience with STORY. Description is an amazing device for kidnapping—um, captivating—an audience (until we let them go at three in the morning hating themselves). Yet, I challenge all of us to strive to do more with less.

Feel free to describe what the character is wearing. How does he/she feel about the outfit? Is he/she miserable? Does he/she feel like a phony? Do his/her high end labels act as armor to hide deep insecurities? What do his/her clothes mean? Go read Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive or Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box to see my point.

Clothes should be more than what’s draped over a mannequin (lest our characters end up with the depth of a mannequin). If we bother mentioning clothing at all, the outfit should speak volumes about our characters and the story.

A great example is MC—Detective Ryan—from Tana French’s In the Woods: 

When I made the Murder squad, I already had my new work clothes—beautifully cut suits in materials so fine they felt alive to your fingers, shirts with the subtlest blue or green pinstripes, rabbit-soft cashmere scarves—hanging in my wardrobe for almost a year. I love the unspoken dress code.
~In the Woods, Tana French, page 7.

We learn A LOT in a couple sentences. First, Murder an ELITE squad and the unspoken dress code should reflect that.

Detective Ryan is a high achiever, assured of himself. How do we know this? He bought the “uniform” for a squad he hadn’t yet made—a YEAR before he made it.

We can see he pays extreme attention to detail, which is excellent for a detective. Ah, but he’s also self-absorbed, concerned with image. This is a noticeable harbinger of major problems.

Again, feel free to describe the room, the car, the office, but ponder what it MEANS. Furniture is only furniture until is isn’t (refer to sofa above). Weather can be and should be more than weather. Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island is a fabulous example. Setting can become a character.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Does this spark new ways to use description? Mind bubbling with creativity? Good!

***Announcement: Whether or not you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, I invite you to join us over at W.A.N.A.Tribe. It’s a NING I created where we meet every weekday (on the CHAT tab) to WRITE. We sprint in forty-minute intervals until we gas out. We officially begin at 7:00 a.m. CST but often we’re there far earlier.

We’ve been going strong for almost FIVE YEARS. Rain, sleet, shine, holidays, we are there.

W.A.N.A.Tribe is a paid site, so there are no ads, bots, trolls, politics, distractions, etc. It’s a water cooler where we team up and push one another for excellence. If you’re looking for accountability and a place free of distractions, sign up. It doesn’t cost y’all anything. I have to approve your membership (diligence to weed out bots).

Other than that? We sprint, then we relay what we accomplished, chat a few minutes then get back at it. Sprints can be used for word count, research, revisions, editing, etc. (basically anything productive). If you’ve done three sprints sitting on your butt, feel free to use one to tidy the kitchen and move around.

The point is simply focused productivity. THIS is the place to be if you want to finish NaNo. I think our record is someone finished in ten days. We are NOT alone, so can’t wait to see you there 😀 .

I LOVE hearing from you!

I’m loading new classes. They’ll be up next post. What are some classes y’all need? Topics you’d like me to talk about here on the blog. I dig suggestions!

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Or is every month NaNoWriMo for you? Does it intimidate you? Or, does it let loose the creative rage-unicorn trapped inside stabbing its way out? #RuiningUnicorns

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

 

 

Perfect is the crystal meth of the soul. We know perfect is bad for us, that we should avoid it because it is impossible to attain. Yet, when we fail to remain vigilant, perfect’s promising high lures us in. Perfect whispers in our ear that we’re in total control and can stop any time we like. But that’s the lie, the hook. Oh, and once those hooks sink deep, the only way free from perfect is to bleed.

I know it seems like I’m being a tad dramatic, but anyone who dares to pursue anything remarkable must know the enemy and this one is a doozy. Why? Because this is the perfect enemy.

Why is perfect so deadly, especially for writers? Oh SO many angles, and we’ll explore those later.

A Perfect Mess

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

We’ve been talking a lot about the log-line lately and how we can use this one sentence to test a story idea before we’re 30,000 words deep in an unfixable mess.

Conversely, if we’re already tangled in a story we can’t wrangle under control, the log-line can pinpoint what specifically is going awry.

If the story is grand, but we failed to make the stakes high enough, then we can quickly and easily fix THAT. Instead of wasting time adding in more subplots or more detailed description, we know the MC needs to have more skin in the game.

The log-line also saves a lot of time rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If we’re missing a core story problem then we don’t have a novel, we have 50,000 or 80,000 or 100,000 words. Pretty big difference.

For those who’ve not yet read the post, the log-line formula is simple:

An Intriguing MC + Core Story Problem (Antagonist) + Active Goal + Stakes + Ticking Clock = Story

Perfect Characters

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

One of the single largest problems I encounter is that the MC is way too perfect. This is an easy mistake to make, especially for the newer writers.

When we’re first starting out, we lack confidence. We lack confidence because—despite what the world may believe—writing a GOOD novel is ridiculously difficult. There is a learning curve and writers need talent, training and time.

Many emerging authors are far more eager to give their MC a black belt in Judo than a black eye from a dirtbag spouse or lover. Characters have dream jobs, dream lives, and are fully self-actualized. Thus, all that remains is the oily residue known as whining. I want to get one thing straight before we go any further.

Fiction is about one thing and one thing only—PROBLEMS.

In order for an MC to be interesting, he or she must have some flaws. Juicy, interesting ones. That’s why I put the Intriguing MC as the first ingredient in our recipe for a spicy story. I will riff off a common enough example to demonstrate my point:

An immortal god with superpowers must understand his past in order to rescue the universe.

Even if we fixed all the other glaring problems with this log-line, can you spot IMMEDIATELY why this story is doomed?

If our MC is immortal, he isn’t ever risking his life. He can’t die. Also, he has superpowers so he’s already better than well-equipped to tackle even big problems. Can any of you intimately and personally relate to an immortal god with superpowers?

This all adds up to a steaming pile of WHO CARES?

Perfect Description

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

Since perfect characters come out of the brain bubble-wrap fully self-actualized, ideally prepared to take on any problem without breaking a sweat or a nail, this doesn’t leave much to work with. Perfect people are boring, and so is delving into their psyche.

Unlike seriously damaged characters—who have psychological warehouses crammed with skeletons and baggage—the PMC’s (Perfect MC’s) psyche is a spacious, orderly California Closet stocked solely with cruelty-free items.

FYI: This is bad news for a great story.

When we make characters fully evolved from the get-go, this defeats the entire purpose of story. Story is the crucible that will reveal the MC’s flaws, fire out his/her impurities and eventually forge the self-actualized hero.

If we’re starting our story with a California Closet, we really don’t have anywhere to go…unless….

We describe everything IN the California Closet, which obviously will be perfect *flips hair*.

It will also, by default, be extremely superficial because we don’t have anything else to work with. This is how we have so many MCs with emerald eyes (bet no one ever thought of THAT description) and flaming red hair (oh, another one I’ve never seen) or porcelain skin (*stabs self repeatedly*).

***Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, I did this, too.

Give yourself permission to be NEW. This said, if we can walk into a fast food place and any random person off the street can come up with the same descriptions we did? THAT is a problem.

While descriptions of the PMC might fall flat, there’s “good” news. Since there’s no actual core story problem, we have plenty of room left over to gloriously describe…everything else.

This might be all right except description alone is not story. Many of us will sense this on some level, sense our reptile brains are nagging us that something NEEDS to happen after the MC goes shopping/has a meal/gets dressed.

I swear there is a drop-down menu somewhere in the zeitgeist.

Click to Insert: a) PMC gets party invitation, thus desperate need for new outfit and makeover b) Unexpected news that PMC is hosting a ball and requires new gown(s) c) Prophecy that war is looming and need to choose armor.

Perfect Pitfalls

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

Perfect characters lend themselves to page after page of description and a lot of nothing happening. Why? Because nothing CAN happen. Perfect has the hooks in and soon, short of alien abduction, we’re putting anything in the WIP just to say we’ve written SOMETHING.

There’s a reason this is happening…

If someone is rude, the PMC will handle with utmost diplomacy. Should a problem arise, our PMC will find the perfect spell instantly. And, since he or she is ridiculously powerful, talented, intelligent, the PMC can and will master whatever is necessary within a few pages.

But reptile brain is still there telling us we need to create PROBLEMS. Reptile brain has seen every season of Jerry Springer, worships Maury Povich, and believes that Dr. Phil is a total party pooper. Reptile brain is a huge fan of family holidays and always spoiling for drama.

Reptile brain, of course is right. Something DOES need to happen but, since we began with a perfect character, he or she can’t ever make bad decisions, which leaves generally two options.

Option One

The first option is the PMC has a lot of internal navel-gazing and angst which doesn’t make the PMC flawed, it only makes them unlikable and ungrateful. No one likes a whiner. And no one is going to feel sorry for a rich socialite who jets around the world and has looks, brains, and everyone’s unmitigated adoration waxing rhapsodic about how lonely she is.

*gagging sounds*

Our PMC often will also be more sensitive than a pre-menopausal mom caught in Christmas traffic with a mini-van full of hungry teenagers. The PMC completely overreacts to, well, pretty much everything.

And how we love THOSE people in life.

Or not.

Option Two

The second option is the PMC makes mistakes that render our PMC TDTL (Too Dumb to Live).

If I had a dollar for every perfect princess gifted with unrealized magical powers, the sole protector of her kingdom, the sole guardian of her people from certain doom…who for some seriously bizarre reason decides to go for a late night horseback ride.

Alone.

In the dark.

When she KNOWS her kingdom is on the verge of disaster, and that if anything BAD should happen to her, it’s game over for the kingdom.

Alas, despite fully understanding her hefty responsibility, she goes for a midnight ride. No guards or escort so she can do more…thinking. And, of course, she dismounts her favorite steed for a water break where she can conveniently gaze upon her spun gold/flaming red/black as night hair in her reflection.

All is magical and surreal (describe this part A LOT) until…

DUN DUN DUN!

She glances up and sees WHO?

*Refer To Dropdown Menu*

Our PMC is unarmed, unguarded and OF COURSE this would be the one time the a) evil wizard b) power-thirsty warlord c) demented rival ruler d) Other Bad Man So Long as He’s SUPER HOT would arrive.

OMG! I never saw that comi—yeah, saw that from a mile.

Why So Perfect?

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

As a reminder, I DID THIS TOO. I kid you not, in my first “novel,” I spent no less than six pages describing a flower market *face palm*. Again, give yourselves permission to be NEW. It’s wonderful to be new. It means you stepped out to do something grand. Just because we begin as amateurs, however, doesn’t mean we want to remain amateurs. Right?

Which is why I’m here to help shorten your learning curve 😉 .

Why many (newbie) stories fizzle flat has less to do with talent and more to do with insecurity and fear.

We’re prone to casting perfect characters because we’re not yet comfortable with the most valuable creative currency. CONFLICT.

When it comes to stories, handing out conflict is like tossing countless crisp hundred dollar bills into the air for everyone at the party #MakinItRain.

This is why authors who dole out the best (and the most) conflict have the largest entourage (Refer to George R.R. Martin, Tana French, Nora Roberts, etc.).

Is it okay to describe our characters and setting? Of course! That’s a ton of fun.

Is it okay to have hot MCs with superpowers? Sure it is! Ever heard of DC or Marvel? Certain genres even call for these over-the-top and larger-than-life characters.

All of this works…so long as the characters are imperfect.

Imperfect Makes Perfect (for Stories)

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

In order to be captivating, our MC needs to have baggage (more than carry-on, please). Issue them plenty of inner demons, a graveyard of skeletons in the closet, and decent-to-large helpings of weaknesses, addictions, and/or limitations.

Even the great comic book heroes are seriously messed up.

Batman is emotionally unavailable, filled with repressed anger, driven by false guilt, false shame and is prone to depression and masochism. He’s the great self-appointed martyr who believes he must sacrifice everything—love, family, Netflix—for the thankless Gotham City…even though no one ever asked him to.

***Hmmm wait a sec. HOLY CRAP! Batman is my NANA?

Feel free to give your MC some fantastical power…so long as there’s a cost (a BIG one preferably).

For example:

In the HBO series Carnivale, the Oklahoma farm boy Ben Hawkins has the ability to heal, but there’s a catch.

When Ben gives life he must also take life. The energy to heal comes from somewhere, and never from a source he can predict. Someone or something else must pay the price for Ben’s “gift.” In essence, Ben is stealing a life he has no real right to give away. Talk about some inner conflict and outer drama.

Do Some Damage!

And now that we’ve explored all this, we can return to our original “log-line” and fix at least PART of what is wrong aside from a crap-ton of redundancies:

An immortal god with superpowers must understand his past in order to rescue the known universe.

How about…?

When an egomaniacal god recklessly breaks an old and tremulous truce, thus igniting a needless war, he is stripped of his powers and banished to the mortal realm on Earth where…. (Refer to Thor).

See how it was perfectly fine to cast an immortal god with superpowers? It works, so long as we (Author God) take them away 😉 .

Weak is Strong

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

In the beginning, I mentioned the allure of perfect. It’s natural to be afraid of giving characters flaws because we still need training, practice and confidence. Perfect attracts us because it’s easy to write.

It doesn’t take tremendous skill to write a 2,000 word “scene” where the MC shops for a new designer dress and giggles with her best girlfriends. Anyone semi-literate with half an imagination can write this sort of a “scene” where the only problems might be typos or grammar mistakes.

On the other hand, it takes far more skill to write a scene where the MC shops for a new dress and giggles with her best girlfriends…but it’s all a ruse. She’s living in a house of cards about to blow away.

On the surface she’s normal. Inside? She’s on the edge of a nervous breakdown. She doesn’t WANT to be at Neiman Marcus, but she has to keep up appearances (WHY?). The MC is terrified (WHY?) because she lost her sweet high-paying job a month ago and her severance pay has run out (WHY IS SHE KEEPING THIS A SECRET?).

She’s sweating bullets hoping her credit card isn’t declined because if it is, she will be nothing and no one. She will cease to be the only person she knows how to be—The Gal Who Has Everything.

This is a taller order. Our MC has to maintain the facade, but the “friends” will sense something is off. She’s edgy, jumpy and feels ill about lying. Why is she lying? What does this say about HER? None of her “friends” are aware of her dire situation, so what does that say about THEM?

Notice how the first “scene” is information dump. There are no QUESTIONS to keep us (readers) turning pages. The second example, however, is bursting with tension.

And we didn’t even need to travel to her childhood to find it 😉 .

In the End

Writing fabulous books readers love takes skill. This is a tough gig, albeit a fun one. Regardless of genre, messes make magic. We want characters we can relate to, and don’t know about y’all, but I am far from perfect. Questions hook readers because we don’t like loose ends. We’re a nosey species that longs to know “Why?” and “What happened?” and if whatever happened can be resolved.

Pretty prose doesn’t make us turn pages, PROBLEMS do. So go make a mess, so your MC can grow up and clean the mess up. Your readers will thank you.

What Are Your Thoughts?

I love hearing from you! Questions? Do you feel liberated to go mess up some lives now? It’s okay. Your MCs can fix them by the end (which is kind of the point, LOL).

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

Upcoming Classes for OCTOBER!

SPOOKTOBER!

paranormal, ghosts, writing, angels, demons

PARANORMAL: GETTING REAL WITH GHOSTS, ANGELS, AND DEMONS

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, October 12, 2018. 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE!

 

Ever get the feeling that a paranormal romance WIP is turning out more reality ghost-hunting television than Demi Moore pottery party?

How about when a demon ends up sounding more like a goth teenager than an all-powerful agent of everlasting darkness? Or, when angels get confused as to whether they are supposed to be Nicholas Cage in ‘National Treasure’ or ‘City of Angels’?

Let’s not forget the time when asking friends and fellow writers for advice turned into a 172-comment trolltastic thread debating minutiae of scripture and ended with all our ‘Team Long Island Medium’ friends blocking our ‘Team John Edward’ friends.

All of this comes from a fundamental paradox in writing about the paranormal:

We are trying to define and describe the unexplained and unexplainable for the reader.

Well, get your EMF ghost meters and EVP recorders ready, because in this class, we’re going to turn off the lights and turn on the night vision cams…

This class will cover:

  • Ghostbusters: five questions every writer needs to answer when writing about the living-impaired;
  • Chills, chills, chills: writing the spooky stuff so readers feel like they’re really there;
  • Flirting with danger: walking the fine line between the mysterious angelic stranger and creepy stalker demon (hint – one of them stalks your Facebook);
  • The demon is in the details: from scripture to spirit boxes, how to get your ‘facts’ right, avoid trolls, and find that unique angle that will make your story stand out.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


PARANORMAL, URBAN FANTASY, GHOSTS, VAMPIRES, WRITING

URBAN FANTASY: SALT CIRCLE NOT INCLUDED

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, October 19, 2018. 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE!

 

Be honest. How many voodoo dolls have you mutilated in your quest to become the next Laurell K. Hamilton or Sherrilyn Kenyon?

  • 0-9: You’re probably too virtuous to ever get published.
  • 10-19: Equivalent of the New Year’s resolution of voodoo…fizzles in week 2.
  • 20-29: You’ve won NaNoWriMo once or twice and wear lucky writing socks.
  • 30+: Now, we’re talking.

In all seriousness, urban fantasy has emerged as one of the strongest and most competitive categories in publishing, building on the momentum of legends like Anne Rice and expanding to embrace all kinds of sub-genres such as YA, satire, and romance.

But for all its badass convention-breaking, urban fantasy also a genre boobytrapped with the worst pitfalls of all the genres it borrows from.

If we’re not overdoing the Mickey Spillane-esque hard-boiled grit, we’re confusing which supernatural creature has which power. Or, we’re creating characters that are so wrapped up in their love lives with <insert hot supernatural guys here>, they almost miss the climactic battle between good and evil happening a couple blocks over.

Fear not! Strap on your vampire-hunting gear, grab your wolfsbane gris-gris, and don’t forget to bring your sarcastic sidekick to this class where I will help you navigate the mean streets and treacherous back alleys of urban fantasy!

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, PARANORMAL, GHOSTS, WRITING

BLOODY BEASTS: VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, AND OTHER BEASTIE BESTIES

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, October 26, 2018. 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE!

 

Every few years, publishing declares, “Vampires are dead!” and technically, this is correct. They are undead. You can’t keep a good vampire down. Or a good werewolf. (Down, boy!)

Like a dog with a bone, readers keep coming back to stories about vampires, werewolves, and other creatures because there is something irresistibly compelling about the danger of the ‘other’ that makes us question what it means to be human. Plus, vampires and werewolves can be totally hot, amiright?

However, trite tropes and careless creature creation can raise a reader’s hackles faster than a bad batch of AB negative. Okay, okay, I’ll stop with the awful mixed metaphors and puns. Still, a story that doesn’t offer anything new or compelling will suck the life out of a reader’s interest faster than day-old vampire…yeah, I know…bad joke…sorrynotsorry!

This is going to be a super fun class with a lot of juicy stuff to sink your teeth into…can’t-stop-won’t-stop….

This class will cover:

  • Only human: how to walk the fine line between immortal angst and everyday relatability and create characters so cold, they burn, baby!
  • Sparkle, shmarkle: picking through the mystery, history, and science of vampirism to create your own believable and betwitching bloodsuckers;
  • That time of the month: from caricature to cryptozoology, what writers get right…and wrong…about werewolves and wolf shifters;
  • Mortal problems: Do vampires pay taxes? If a hunter shoots a werewolf, is it involuntary manslaughter? ignoring these details can deal a fatal blow to a reader’s suspension of disbelief.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


THE CREATURE FEATURE CLASS BUNDLE

GHOSTS, PARANORMAL, VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, WRITING

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: (see below)

REGISTER HERE!

Recordings of all three classes is also included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in Boston with her husband and neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. She likes history, science, Jack Daniels, jewelry, pasta, and solitude. Not all at the same time. When she isn’t enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Time is one of many tools we authors can use when crafting a story. This said, bending time takes training and skill because it’s one of the toughest techniques to pull off well. Even those who bend time masterfully will have their fair share of critics because most audiences are accustomed to linear structure.

This is only natural.

We’ve all teethed on stories that have a clear beginning, middle and end. Any story that deviates from this familiar pattern can vex and confuse us.

This is why movies like Memento tend to divide into two camps: those who loved it and those who couldn’t make it through thirty minutes.

Time Has a Proper Order

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Humans take time for granted, which is why time is one of those things that will wig people out when someone starts tinkering with it. Remember this because we can twist the audience’s assumptions to our advantage (especially in certain genres).

Bending time can disorient and confuse readers, but that isn’t always a good thing.

Most audiences enjoy the traditional Aristotelian three-act structure (which is why the lion’s share of novels are written in linear time). Aristotelian structure has been around over a thousand years for good reason. It’s endured simply because it’s a story structure that reflects time as sane humans experience it.

Time is hardwired into our brains. Our world reflects linear structure.

Morning–>noon–>night. We are born–>we live–>we die.

When old age manifests where childhood should be, something is clearly WRONG (progeria) and has disturbed the natural order.

Time & the Flashback

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Whenever I’ve blogged about flashbacks being bad, inevitably commenters list a dozen books or movies where the writer (allegedly) used flashbacks all the time and it was super successful.

Clearly, I don’t know what I’m talking about 😛 .

First, I’d like to point out that, while we can learn from film, we must be careful mimicking movies in our work. Movies are visual, whereas writing is completely abstract. We’re creating people and worlds using combinations of 26 letters (and roughly four of those are pretty useless).

No one wants to play Scrabble and get Q.

Movies get a smidge more leeway because the audience can SEE changes in people, places and time and are less likely to suffer a brain cramp. Alas, even in screenwriting, flashbacks are a sign of lazy/amateurish writing for a couple of reasons.

First, most information can be relayed real-time. If I have a character who is OCD (As Good as It Gets), I don’t need to go back and explain WHY the character is trapped with a psychological disorder.

There is no need to hop into a literary DeLorean and go EXPLAIN. Audiences are smart and get that Melvin Udall has OCD by how he behaves.

That’s the whole show don’t tell thing at work.

In the original film version of Silence of the Lambs , director Jonathan Demme toyed with using a flashback for the tense moment when Hannibal Lecter demands Agent Starling part with her most traumatic memory in return for the key to locating Buffalo Bill.

***The time when young Clarice tries in vain to rescue one of the lambs from being slaughtered.

But Demme was too good of a director and Jodi Foster to great an actor. He knew the flashback would wreck the effect and so he nixed it and, instead allowed Foster to show just how incredible a performer she really was (which explains the Academy Award).

Because the story remained in the present, the memory was far more visceral. It intensified the story to nerve-shredding proportions.

Flashback FAIL

In most stories we don’t need to use flashbacks. In many new works I see the writer just about piques my interest, then slams on the brakes, throws it in reverse and takes me back to EXPLAIN WHY.

I have a mantra:

Resist the urge to explain.

Frequently, new writers jump back in time because they’re doing a good job at creating tension. Feeling the tension they’ve generated, they seek reprieve and so they explain. The problem with this is that they are killing the very element (tension) that will keep readers turning pages until 3 a.m.

Explanations are the antidote for tension.

What do we do when our kid acts up? We EXPLAIN. Sorry, he didn’t have a nap today. This serves to allay our own anxiety and relax the bystanders gathered round staring at us.

Explaining might work in life, but for fiction it spells D-E-A-T-H.

If the love interest in our novel is maddeningly evasive?  Leave it alone. Readers will keep reading to see if they find out/figure out what the heck his deal is.

If we go back and explain, “He has intimacy issues because his parents were murdered by a Mary Kay lady on bath salts,” we’ve just handed the reader a great place for a bookmark.

Hmm, question answered. I’ll get back to this later.

Let Them Wait

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Great writers keep layering on more and more questions that either are a) partially answered b) not answered until toward the end c) some not answered at all.

We can put some humdinger questions in a WIP and refuse to answer them. Seriously. Great writers are sadists. We’re ONLY required to fully answer the core story problem for THAT particular book.

Other than that? We writers are not required to tie everything up neatly with a bow. The best stories leave a smidge of unfinished business. Loose ends generate passion and conversations that linger long after readers have turned the final page.

***Additionally, if we want to write a series, it’s a good idea to NOT answer everything.

Tana French’s incredible book In The Woods does this brilliantly. She does her duty and answers the core mystery: Who killed the Knocknaree girl and why? But, there’s a lot more about Knocknaree’s dark past she withholds (likely so we’d read the rest of the series or because she is a brilliant author, a.k.a. heartless psychopath).

Readers long for catharsis—release—and the longer we (authors) can delay the reader getting what he/she wants, the better.

Flashback Apoplexy

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Flashbacks generally are a sign of weak writing. Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, we can go back and forth in time so just be patient.

As I’ve mentioned before I’m a HUGE fan of horror and I love, love, love American Horror Story, particularly Season Four Freak Show. Elsa Mars is one of the most beautifully conflicted villains I’ve ever encountered.

She’s layered, complex, and unpredictable. Every character and storyline is pure heart-wrenching genius.

Then, in Season Five, Jessica Lange left the show and they substituted her with Lady Gaga *face palm*. For me, this is like serving me Tofurkey when I’m used a Thanksgiving turkey a la Martha Stewart. I mean no disrespect to Lady Gaga, but she’s a performer not an actor. ‘

I’m certain they cast her because she’s a huge name (draw) but she didn’t have the acting abilities to take center stage, which is why Season Five (Hotel) and Season Six (Roanoke) are painful to watch.

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Season Five is like being trapped in a car with a teenager learning to drive a stick. Just about get going forward then REVERSE. The series keeps going backwards to explain to the point that watching became more chore than fun.

In Season Six, AHS tried something different. It takes the form of a television show interviewing survivors and what happened is “reenacted.”

The HUGE problem with this is that no matter how many monsters, how much gore, how depraved the story gets, there is NO DRAMATIC TENSION. Why? Because of flashbacks. We know the people lived or they wouldn’t be sitting there being interviewed.

How can we worry about characters we KNOW are going to make it out alive? We can’t.

Time as a Literary Device

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

All this said, time CAN be used as a literary device. Progressing linearly isn’t always ideal, especially for certain genres. One surefire way to throw readers off is to mess with their sense of time. Non-linear structure is fantastic for mysteries, psychological thrillers, horror, and suspense.

If we choose to distort time, however, there needs to be a good reason for doing so. Let’s explore a handful of reasons…

Unreliable Narrator: Non-Linear Timeline

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Whenever we open a book (or start a movie) we’re programmed to trust the MC, that what he or she is relaying is truth. Non-linear plotting can use this human propensity to trust until given reason NOT to trust for advantage. Vanilla Sky, Black Swan, Shutter Island, and Fight Club are all superlative examples of twisting truth and trust.

Yet, notice the reason time is fractured in these stories.

The point is to intimate or even emulate madness. We begin trusting the MC but this trust erodes until we’re sucked into the chaos, our bearings lost, internal compass needle spinning and unable to find True North.

Past is Key to Present: Parallel Timeline

Sometimes the story shifts back and forth from past to present. Like train tracks running parallel they flow side-by-side until finally the past timeline converges with the present to solve the core story problem at hand.

We see this in Stephen King’s speculative fiction story The Green Mile. The story opens with elderly Paul Edgecomb in a retirement facility and establishes Paul’s present reality. THEN we go back in time to Louisiana State Penitentiary in the 1930s when young Paul Edgecomb worked as a prison guard in charge of Death Row.

Though we spend much of our time in the 1930s, we’re not going back in time for no reason. What happened decades ago on The Green Mile is essential for revealing a mystery in the present timeline at the retirement home.

A lot of literary works use the parallel timeline (The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan). Parallel timelines are also employed in general fiction.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood uses parallel timelines to resolve a feud between mother and daughter. Sidda (daughter) must understand the past from her mother’s (Vivi’s) POV in order to forgive her and heal the relationship.

Memory LIES…or Does It?

Mysteries employ this tactic as well, though many authors tend to dribble the past throughout but in the form of memories, dreams, fragments of recollections the MC doesn’t fully trust. A good example of this is James Patterson’s The Murder House.

Can We Trust Our Senses?

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Ultimately, when we deviate from traditional linear timelines, we’re jarring the readers sense of what she believes she knows. By going back and forth (I.e. In the Woods) we can throw readers off figuring everything out too easily and we make them work for the resolutions they crave.

This said, jumping back and forth willy-nilly is a good way to simply tick readers off. Even when non-linear timelines are executed with mastery, there will always be certain people who will hate it.

I remember walking out of Vanilla Sky feeling like I’d just had a spiritual experience, but the people around me were irate because “that stupid movie was just too confusing.”

There are probably more people who hated Pulp Fiction than those who loved Pulp Fiction. BUT, those who LOVED Pulp Fiction did so with such passion it’s now an iconic movie.

We can’t please everyone. In the Woods was one of those books that made me weep and think, “What am I DOING? I can’t WRITE! Whaaaaaahhhhhh!”

Yet, go check out the one and two-star reviews from readers who “grew bored” or “got confused.”

Whenever we authors play with time, just accept that some people will hate it. But, since no one ever wrote a book that pleased everyone?

Relax.

Caveat Auctor

I want to put a warning in here. Just because we are zipping back and forth in time doesn’t mean our structure is sound. Employing time as a literary device is tricky because we can lose readers very easily.

Many editors loathe ‘flashbacks’ with the power of a thousand suns, but here is a post regarding WHY.

Frequently, if a writer is going backwards and forwards in time, it is more a symptom of major story problems than an indicator of genius. The above post explains how flashbacks can be symptomatic of a flawed or nonexistent plot.

***For those who’d like training in advanced plotting, I recommend the class I’m teaching tomorrow, Beyond Planet X. USA Today best-selling author Cait Reynolds and I are doing a Speculative Fiction Saturday with three classes in a row (World-Building, Character, and Advanced Plotting). The XXXFiles Bundle is the best value. Three classes for the price of two (SIX hours of training) and recordings are FREE with purchase. 

If you want to mess with your reader’s heads, then do it with style 😉 . I’m excited to teach this much more advanced material and hope you guys will join me!

I LOVE hearing from you!

What are some of your favorite movies or books that used time to mess with your head? Which ones did you hate? Why?

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

***Chris Parrett is August’s winner. Please send your 5000 word Word doc to kristen at wana intl dot com. One-inch margins and 12 point Times New Roman Font, double-spaced. Congratulations!

***FYI: The Speculative Fiction Saturday has been moved to THIS COMING SATURDAY (9/15/18).

The software that powers our virtual classrooms kept crashing our servers #NotFun. Thus, we spent all last weekend upgrading/updating all the tech and it looks fantastic!

Again, for the value, I HIGHLY recommend The XXX Files Bundle (all three classes—world-building, character, advanced plotting—for the price of two). Speculative fiction includes sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian, utopian, horror and basically all the weird stuff. Sign up and we can be weird TOGETHER!

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Upcoming Classes for September


Brand Boss: When Your Name Alone Can Sell

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: General Admission $55.00 USD/ GOLD Level $175
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, Thursday September 27th, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—6:00 p.m. EST.

REGISTER HERE

Purchase includes FREE recording of all three classes.

 


Building Planet X: Out-of-This-World-Building for Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


Populating Planet X: Creating Realistic, Relatable Characters in Speculative Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 1:00—3:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 


Beyond Planet X: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 4:00—6:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


Pitch Perfect—How To Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $45 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, September 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

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, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn. Synopses are often requested by agents and editors and it is tough not to feel the need to include every last little detail. Synopses are great for not only keeping your writing on track, but also for pitching your next book and your next to that agent of your choice.

This class will help you learn the fundamentals of writing a query letter and a synopsis. What you must include and what doesn’t belong.

So make your writing pitch perfect with these two skills!

 

 

 

 

 

 

log-line, Kristen Lamb, story structure, plot, pitching a novel, how to pitch an agent, writing tips, screenwriting, writing fiction

Today we’re going to chat about log-lines. Some of you might be wondering if I was trying to give you a heart attack with my title. Maybe you think this feat is impossible. AN ENTIRE NOVEL IN ONLY ONE SENTENCE?

Maybe something simple, plebeian and commercially formulaic *flips hair* but ART cannot be forced into a box.

Yes. Yes it can.

I know, I know. Your novel is over four-hundred pages with made up technology and wizards and folding space using enchanted Thigh Masters….

I hear you. Calm down.

A log-line is a lifeline that will allow you to pitch a novel (or series) in ONE—YES ONE—sentence. The log-line is going to save you time, energy, and sanity (save the crazy for the fiction).

We’ll get to how a log-line is going to do ALL this AND give you six-pack abs in only five minutes a day in a moment…

***Legal Disclaimer: Consult your psychiatrist before believing any writing tool will give you six-pack abs. The giant pink bunny in the corner lies, too FYI.

Anyway…

I used to try to teach story structure from the perspective of an editor, but I found that my approach was flawed. Why? Because editors are like building inspectors. We have skills best used on a finished product. We’re trained to look for structure problems.

Is that a good skill? Sure. But do building inspectors design buildings?

No.

Architects do. Architects employ creativity and vision to create a final structure. Hopefully, they will have the necessary skills to create and design a structure that will meet code standards.

Creativity and vision are not enough. Architects need to learn mathematics and physics. They need to understand that a picture window might be real pretty, but if they put that sucker in a load-bearing wall, they won’t pass inspection and that they even risk a fatal collapse.

Aestheticism must align with pragmatism.

log-line, Kristen Lamb, story structure, plot, pitching a novel, how to pitch an agent, writing tips, screenwriting, writing fiction

This made me step back and learn to become an architect. When it comes to plotting, I hope to teach you guys how to have the creative vision of the designer, but with the practical understanding of an inspector.

We’ve discussed how plot works on a micro-scale (scene and sequel). After that, we panned back for an aerial shot, and discussed how great stories–like amazeballs rollercoasters—are addictive by design.

I’ve also covered how the single most important component to plot is the opposition, and l even have a tested method to make sure your core idea  is actually solid enough to be the foundation for an entire novel.

So what’s this log-line thingy?

Basically, we should be able to tell someone (an agent) what our story is about in one sentence. That is called the “log-line.” Log-lines are used in Hollywood to pitch movies.

In fact, a book that should be in every writer’s library is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a book on screenwriting, but every writer can benefit enormously from Snyder’s teaching.

In the world of screenwriting there is a tenet, “Give me the same, but different.” This axiom still holds true when it comes to novels.

Our story cannot go so far off the deep end that readers cannot relate, but yet our story needs to be different enough that people don’t just think it’s a retread.

We as writers have to negotiate this fine balance of same but different, and that is no easy task.

So let’s look at components of a great log-line:

Great log-lines are short and clear.

log-line, Kristen Lamb, story structure, plot, pitching a novel, how to pitch an agent, writing tips, screenwriting, writing fiction

I cannot tell you how many writers I ask, “So what’s your book about?” and they take off rambling for the next ten minutes. Often why writers are so terrified of the pitch session is that they cannot clearly state what their book is about in three sentences or less.

Here is a little insider information. When we cannot whittle our entire story into three sentences that is a clear sign to agents and editors that our story is structurally flawed. Not always, but more often than not. Your goal should be ONE sentence. What is your story about?

A good log-line is ironic. 

Irony gets attention and hooks interest. Here’s an example:

The Green Mile is about the lives of guards on death row leading up to the execution of a black man accused of rape and child murder who has the power of faith healing.

What can be more ironic than a murderer having the power of  healing? Think of the complex emotions that one sentence evokes, the moral complications that we just know are going to blossom out of the “seed idea.”

A good log-line is emotionally intriguing.

A good log-line tells the entire story. Like a movie, you can almost see the entire story play out in your head.

During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.

Didn’t you just see the entire movie play out in your head with that ONE sentence? Apparently Steven Spielberg did, too and that’s why he took Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park and made it into a blockbuster movie.

A good log-line will interest potential readers.

Good log-lines exude inherent conflict. Conflict is interesting. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder relays stories of how he would take his log-line to Starbucks and ask total strangers what they thought about his idea.

This is a great exercise for your novel.

Pitch to friends, family, and even total strangers and watch their reaction. Did their eyes glaze over? Did the smile seem polite or forced? If you can boil your book down into one sentence that generates excitement for the regular person, then you know you are on a solid path for your novel.

Yet, if your potential audience looks confused or bored or lost, then you know it is time to go back to the drawing board. But the good news is this; you just have to fix ONE sentence.

You don’t have to go rewrite, revise a novel that is confusing, convoluted, boring, arcane, ridiculous, etc.

Think of your one sentence as your scale-model or your prototype. If the prototype doesn’t generate excitement and interest, it is unlikely the real thing will succeed. So revise the prototype until you find something that gets the future audience genuinely excited.

You have your log-line. Now what?

log-line, Kristen Lamb, story structure, plot, pitching a novel, how to pitch an agent, writing tips, screenwriting, writing fiction

Your log-line is the core idea of your story. This will be the beacon of light in the darkness so you always know where the shore is versus the open sea. This sentence will keep you grounded in the original story you wanted to tell and keep you from prancing down bunny trails.

The Fear Factor

Fear is probably the most common emotion shared by writers. The newer we are the more fear we will feel. A side-effect of fear is to emotionally distance from the source of our discomfort.

This is why so many first-time novels fall apart.

I can tell everything that is wrong in a novel with a single glance at the log-line. Conversely, I can tell a writer what precisely needs to be fixed by looking at the log-line.

Does the story have a core problem? Is it a large enough/interesting enough problem to merit a whole novel? What are the stakes? Is there a ticking clock or have we given the MC forever to get around to accomplishing the goal?

If you’re like me and botched your first (hundred) attempts to write a novel, RELAX. It takes time to develop the level of sadism required to write spectacular stories. Not everyone is a born psychopath like George R.R. Martin.

New writers (in particular) tend to shy from any source of conflict, but conflict is the life blood of fiction. Log-lines can show us our story is flat-lining and WHY.

One of the best ways to learn how to write log-lines is to go peruse the IMDB (Internet Movie Database). Look up your favorite movies and see how they are described.

You can even look up movies that bombed and very often see the log-line was weak and the movie was doomed from the start. Look up movies similar to the story you are writing. Look up movies similar to the story you want to tell.

Solid novel log-lines will have 1) your protagonist 2) active verb 3) active goal 4) antagonist 5) stakes 6) ticking clock.

EXAMPLE: Here is a log-line I wrote for Michael Crichton’s Prey.

An out-of-work computer programmer (protagonist) must uncover (active verb) the secrets his wife is keeping in order to destroy (active goal) the nano-robotic threat (antagonist) to human-kind’s existence (stakes/ticking clock).

Hopefully you can see how this log-line meets all the criteria I set out earlier.

This log-line is ironic. An out-of-work programmer will uncover the robotic threat.

It’s emotionally intriguing. The main gatekeeper to the problem is his wife. This spells logistical and emotional complication to me.

Also, the MC doesn’t have forever to get around to stopping the threat. If he doesn’t ACT, humanity is doomed. Also, the price of failure and success is the same…everything he knows and loves.

It will interest potential readers. Considering it was a NYT best-seller, I think Crichton did okay.

So here is an exercise.

See if you can state your novel in one sentence. It will not only help add clarity to your writing and keep you on track, but when it comes time to pitch an agent or hook readers to BUY, you will be well-prepared and ready to knock it out of the park.

Practice on your favorite movies and books. Work those log-line muscles!

If you’re struggling, I’m giving a class next Thursday, September 20th, Pitch Perfect: How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis That SELLS.

Part of this class is my special recipe/formula for amazing log-lines to impress your friends and, hopefully an agent. The first ten sign ups will get ME repairing your log-line, shining it up the snazziest it can be for FREE. Grab your slot ASAP. You can register HERE.

I LOVE hearing from you!

What are some problems you might be having? Do you find you wander too far off your original idea? What are your struggles with remaining focused?

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

***Chris Parrett is August’s winner. Please send your 5000 word Word doc to kristen at wana intl dot com. One-inch margins and 12 point Times New Roman Font, double-spaced. Congratulations!

***FYI: The Speculative Fiction Saturday has been moved to THIS COMING SATURDAY (9/15/18).

The software that powers our virtual classrooms kept crashing our servers #NotFun. Thus, we spent the entire weekend upgrading/updating all the tech and it looks fantastic!

I HIGHLY recommend The XXX Files Bundle (all three classes—world-building, character, advanced plotting—for the price of two). Speculative fiction includes sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian, utopian, horror and basically all the weird stuff. Sign up and we can be weird TOGETHER!

log-line, Kristen Lamb, story structure, plot, pitching a novel, how to pitch an agent, writing tips, screenwriting, writing fiction
It will be FUN!

Upcoming Classes for September


Brand Boss: When Your Name Alone Can Sell

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: General Admission $55.00 USD/ GOLD Level $175
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, Thursday September 13th, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—6:00 p.m. EST.

REGISTER HERE

Purchase includes FREE recording of all three classes.

 


Building Planet X: Out-of-This-World-Building for Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


Populating Planet X: Creating Realistic, Relatable Characters in Speculative Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 1:00—3:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 


Beyond Planet X: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 4:00—6:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


Pitch Perfect—How To Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $45 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, September 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

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, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn. Synopses are often requested by agents and editors and it is tough not to feel the need to include every last little detail. Synopses are great for not only keeping your writing on track, but also for pitching your next book and your next to that agent of your choice.

This class will help you learn the fundamentals of writing a query letter and a synopsis. What you must include and what doesn’t belong.

So make your writing pitch perfect with these two skills!