Monday, September 26, 2011


Current Listen:  "Maybe" courtesy of Sick Puppies 
Hidden message in lyrics? .... maybe its time for a change ... maybe I'm a dreamer

First, how about those upgrades to FaceBook! Everyone happy with being submitted to a "12-step program" to find your flippin' messages? And don't you love the banner of duplicate entries running down the side? In case you couldn't read it in the center of the page, you get a second chance to review it on the side. Don't get me started. Why is it that when something is functioning properly, someone comes along and thinks they have to change it? "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" plastered the airways on FaceBook. Hint, if you haven't already figured it out, hover over the name of your "friend" until a pull down box appears. Uncheck everything you don't want to know about. Posts regarding the gruesome details of Grandma's corns being removed or little Timmy's graphic birth pictures can be prevented from popping up on your page.

Wish the same could be true with writing. A pull down menu when you're through editing that would automatically "find and rewrite" those annoying tickers that keep an agent/editor from moving past the first 20-30 pages they've requested, or at least give you some clue as to why you received the polite, "thank you, but..." email. Received one the other day and actually allowed one tear to drop. She was one of my favs off my "A List" that I saved until I felt really confident DESIGNER GENES didn't need further polishing. Argh!

But why didn't she fall in love with my story like I did? What "wow factor" did my first 30 pages miss? As always, when I ponder the deeper meaning of things and pose my question to the universe, an answer shows up...usually via email. Yes, I do believe Heaven has gone "digital."

I subscribe to social media guru Kristen Lamb's blog, and today's timely message dealt with the diagnostics of those pesky first pages of a manuscript. Awesome information. Also, I encourage any of you needing to "sell" yourself, promote your book, or any other business where "you" have to be marketed (and no, I don't mean the oldest profession, although maybe there is something of value even there in Kristen's guide to social networking...ha!) pick up a copy of  BOTH her books:

"We Are Not Alone - The Writers Guide to Social Media" and "Are You There Blog? It's Me, Writer" (both on sale for only $4.99)

While I can't do justice to Kristen's blog, but not wanting you to give me a half-hearted promise you'll leave my awesome space and not check hers, I've reposted the highlights. However, this is the last in her series of blogs about DEADLY SINS OF WRITING, which any author, published or aspiring to be, should investigate further at 

Keep in mind, before she became a full time writer/social media genius, Kristen spent a lot of time as an editor. I've taken a couple of classes she's provided and own her books, although I'm still a major klutz at Twitter. I basically flutter in, "peep" and fly off. I'm afraid of heights, so tweeting on the branch makes me nervous and I hit all the wrong keys, sending messages to unsuspecting victims (hi "Kai"), and literally crash. So to get the full "bluff and dazzle," check out her website. Not to mention a nice picture of Dr. House (love the series "House").

So here's the basics, stripped a bit. Like I said, you really need to check her site to understand the depth of this information.

1.  INFO DUMP:  The beginning of the novel starts the reader off with lengthy history or world-building. The author pores on and on about details of a city or civilization or some alien history all to “set up” the story. In my experience, this is often the hallmark of a writer who is weak when it comes to characters and even plotting. How can I tell? He begins with his strength…lots of intricate details about a painstakingly crafted world. Although not set in stone, generally, if the author dumps a huge chunk of information at the start of the book, then he is likely to use this tactic throughout.

This type of beginning tells me that author is not yet strong enough to blend information into the narrative in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story. The narrative then becomes like riding in a car with someone who relies on hitting the brakes to modulate speed. The story likely will just get flowing…and then the writer will stop to give an information dump. Also, readers read fiction for stories. They read Wikipedia for information. Information does not a plot make. Facts and details are to support the story that will be driven by characters with human wants and needs.

Sci-fi/fantasy writers [that would be "yours truly"] are some of the worst offenders. It is easy to fall in love with our world-building and forget we need a plot with players. Keep the priorities straight. In twenty years people won’t remember gizmos, they will remember people.

2.  BOOK STARTS RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ACTION  [I have actually been told to do this in other classes, so I was surprised to see this on Kristen's list]:  A lot of new writers are being told to start right in the action, and this tip is wrong…well, it needs to be clarified. We need some kind of conflict in the beginning to make us (the reader) choose to side with/like the protagonist. This conflict doesn’t necessarily have to do with the main story problem (directly).

For instance, in the Hunger Games we are introduced to Katniss and we get a glimpse of the hell that is her life and the burden she has of feeding her family. We feel for her because she lives in a post-apocalyptic nightmare where life is lived on the brink of starvation. Nothing terribly earth-shattering happens, but we care about this girl. So, when Katniss is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games–a brutal gladiator game held by the privileged Capitol–we want her to win, because that means a life of food, shelter and relative safety.

Suzanne Collins didn’t start out with Katniss in the arena fighting the Hunger Games. That is too far in and is too jarring. We need time with Katniss in her Normal World for The Hunger Games to mean anything or this action would devolve quickly into melodrama. Even though in the beginning, she isn’t per se pitted directly with the Capitol, she is pitted against starvation and depravity…which leads us nicely into the main cause of that starvation and depravity (the Capitol) and the solution to this life (win the Hunger Games).

Yet, many new writers take this notion of “start right in the action” and they dump the reader straight into the arena. The beginning of the novel starts us off with the protagonist (we think) hanging over a shark tank and surrounded by ninjas. There are world-shattering stakes and we are only on page 2.

This shows me that the writer could be weak in a number of areas. First, she may not be clear what the overall story problem is, so she is beginning with a “gimmick” to hook the reader in that she is unsure the overall story problem will. Secondly, this alerts me that the writer is weak in her understanding of scene and sequel novel structure.

Scenes are structured: Goal; conflict; disaster  ... when a writer totally skips some fairly vital parts and thrusts us straight into disaster, I already know the author will likely rely on melodrama from this point on. Why? Because that was how she began her book.

3.  BOOK BEGINS WITH INTERNALIZATION [uh-oh...] Fiction is driven by conflict. Period. Writing might be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. When a writer begins with a character thinking and internalizing that is another huge warning flag of a number of problems.

Do you need internalization in a novel? Yes! But it has its place. Most internalization will be part of what is known as the sequel. Sequels transpire as a direct reaction to a scene. When a writer begins the novel with the sequel, that is a huge warning that, again, the writer is weak when it comes to structure. There is a definite purpose for reflection, but kicking off the action is not one of them.

Also, beginning with the protagonist “thinking” is very self-indulgent. Why do we as readers care about this person’s feelings or thoughts about anything? We don’t know this character. The only people who listen attentively to the thoughts, feelings, and disappointments of total strangers are shrinks, and they are being paid well to do so.

Now, give us (your readers) time to know your character and become interested in her, and then we will care. But, starting right out of the gate with a character waxing rhapsodic is like having some stranger in the checkout line start telling you about her nasty divorce. It’s just weird. ... When the protagonist begins with all this thinking and more thinking…and more thinking, it is probably a bad sign for the future.

4.  BOOK BEGINS WITH A FLASHBACK [learned this one fast] Yeah…flashbacks are a whole other blog, but lets’ just say that most of the time they are not necessary. We do not need to know why a certain character did this or that or why a bad guy went bad. Again, that’s for therapy. 

Did we really need to know why Hannibal Lecter started eating people for Silence of the Lambs to be an AWESOME book AND movie? Now I know that there was a later explication of this….but it was an entirely different story (and one that really didn’t do well, I might mention). We didn’t stop the hunt for Wild Bill to go on and on about how Hannibal’s family was slaughtered in the war and the bad guys ate his sister…and it worked! 

Flashbacks often alert me that the writer needs time to grow. She hasn’t yet developed the skill to blend background details with the current conflict in a way that supports the story.

Flashbacks, used too often, give the reader the feel of being trapped with a sixteen-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift. Just get going forward, then the car (story) dies and rolls backward.... Also, sometimes, not knowing why adds to the tension. The Force [Star Trek]was more interesting before it was explained.

There are three really great books I highly recommend if you want to work on your beginnings (and even learn to fix the problems that bad beginnings foreshadow). Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, Hooked by Les Edgerton, and Scene and Sequel by Jack Bickham.

Many authors are being rejected by the first 20 pages, and because most agents are overworked, they don’t have time to explain to each and every rejected author what they saw. [too bad] Thus, too many writers are reworking and reworking their beginning and not really seeing that their weak beginning is a symptom of larger issues. ... It is the pounding headache and dizziness that spells out “heart condition.” We can take all the aspirin we want for the headache, but it won’t fix what is really wrong.

After reading Kristen's blog, I find some things I'm still guilty of, but more pleased that I've corrected most of these flaws in my writing. Still waiting for the right fit between "story and agent," but not giving up. Can't. My characters make those scary "oooh" sounds and keep me awake all night every time I entertain the idea.

So as a writer, what are your weaknesses? As a reader, do these so-called "flaws" distract? Make you not buy a book or put it down?  Personally, as a reader, I like flashbacks. The Notebook...Dear John... What books have you read that the author defied the rules?

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