Tag Archives: Kristen Lamb

It’s Stories All the Way Down

When I started writing, I didn’t have a clue about structure.

I mean, to be fair, I didn’t a clue about anything else either, but at least there were things I knew that I didn’t have a clue about. So I read lots of books that had advice on things like avoiding adverbs, and using active verbs wherever possible, and generally focused on honing my style.

But structure was a dark area of the map for me. On some instinctive level I understood that there were certain things that a story needed to have, but I couldn’t quantify it, couldn’t look at what I was writing and say whether it had those ingredients or not.

And then, a little over a year ago, I stumbled on Kristen Lamb’s blog. Kristen Lamb did two things for me.

First, she got me blogging. Yes, that’s right. This is all her fault. I was just an innocent bystander and one day, Kristen comes up and she says, “Wanna try some blog? First one’s free.” And the rest is a story of dark alleyways and illicit WiFi connections.

Second, she got me thinking about this little thing called “structure.” Kristen would throw out these concepts like conflict lock, and Big Boss Troublemaker (this was especially confusing for me, since I’ve been calling my wife the Big Boss Troublemaker for going on two years now) and it all seemed seriously overwhelming.

But recently I discovered something for myself that made all that confusion melt away. What I discovered was this: when we think about writing a novel we think of telling a very long story with a beginning a middle and an end. We see the big picture. That’s the easy part.

But I think it’s the little picture that trips us up. Scene by scene we struggle to keep the tension up, and the stakes high. We know there’s a better way, but we can’t quite see it, and maybe we’re confused by talk of scenes and sequels,  conflict lock, and BBT’s.

But the truth is far simpler than we imagine. The truth is that stories are made out of other stories.

In a way, it’s like one of those pictures where smaller pictures are arranged together to form a single larger picture. Each scene should tell it’s own story.

And what is a story? It’s a construction in which entity “a” wants thing “b” but is hindered by thing “c”.

Plug whatever you want into those slots. If a = boy, b = girl and c = whatever, then you’ve got a romance on your hands. If a = con man, b = a million dollars and c = a bank vault, then you’ve got a heist story going on.

And every major scene in your book needs to have this a-b-c construction. You should be able to pick any single scene out and let it it be the cheese that stands alone.

It may be missing details from earlier in the plot, and it should lead into something that keeps the reader going forward, but it should still be able to stand on its own.

So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed with trying to find the problem in your plot, or pushing through the mushy middle, try taking a different approach. Look at your scene and ask yourself, “How well does this work by itself? If this scene were a short story, would I enjoy it?”

If the answer is no, then maybe it’s time to monkey about with those a-b-c mechanics. Because no matter how it looks, every big story is really made up of a bunch of little stories. Make sure every one of them counts.


Of Battling Bloggers and the Zen of “Duh”

I don’t usually like to respond directly to other blogs, but I thought today merited some exception to that rule. See, on Wednesday Kristen Lamb tried once again to whack us in the noggin with the idea that as writers trying to grow an  online audience, blogging about writing is not a good idea.

This is not new. Kristen has been talking about this at least since I started reading after her at the beginning of the year.

Then Austin Wulf, another blogger I like and respect, answered back with a post arguing against Kristen Lamb’s main points. I recommended you read both blogs for yourself if for no other reason than the fact that they represent two very well argued and opposing viewpoints.

But here’s the deal: I’ve been thinking a lot about this blogging thing lately. More importantly I’ve been thinking about audience numbers and how to expand them. Of course I’ve always wanted more readers, but for a long time it was something almost academic, simply a way to fuel my pride about my blogging ability.

But about a month ago something changed. I released an ebook called A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw. Many of you who are loyal readers of this blog bought the book, and I thank you. But about two weeks after releasing the book my numbers basically hit a brick wall. I’d sell one every couple of days, but the numbers just weren’t there. I’d tapped out my audience, and now I was swinging in the wind. And I don’t know about you, but the prospect of making money really makes me perk up and pay attention.

So I started thinking about what I could do about it, and what I came up with was this: maybe I shouldn’t be blogging exclusively about writing.

Because I believe it does limit my readership to a certain extent. Looking back over posts of the past, some of the most popular by SEO numbers have absolutely nothing to do with writing. And now that I’m further along in my blogging career SEO is a big part of bringing in traffic.

Now there are clearly writers that can pull off writing about writing and garner an audience by the boatload, but as far as I can tell all of those writers are named Chuck Wendig. I am not named Chuck Wendig, nor do I have even an iota of the man’s skill in crafting pithy punchy posts.

Which is why you may have noticed in the past few weeks, that I haven’t been writing as much about writing. Instead I’ve been dabbling in other topics that interest me to see what kind of reaction I can get from the audience at large. This is not to say that I’ll never blog about writing again, but after all this time, I’m finally starting to think maybe Kristen was right all along. And even though it did take me a while to realize it, I’m not ashamed.

Sometimes you have to understand something for yourself. You hear it over and over, and one day it finally clicks and you’ll say, “You know that thing everyone tried to tell me I should do for all those years. Maybe I should give that a shot.”

And the people who tried to tell you for all those years are smacking their heads with their palms and saying, “Yes, what a brilliant idea. Maybe you should try that.”

And that’s okay. Because sometimes you just have to learn it on your own.

Addendum: don’t worry. The economics post was a bomb, so you won’t have to worry about seeing Money Mondays anytime soon.

Addendum 2: I have a new/old short story out for the Kindle. It’s a terrifying little tale that mixes science fiction and horror into a delightfully spine-tingling concoction that I call Derelict. Maybe you should check it out.

Doing Battle with the Green-Eyed Monster of Wordcount Envy

Oh, Twitter. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Let’s see…carry the one…adjust for inflation…taking the Kentucky windage into account…um…seventeen. No wait! Eighteen.

Twitter is a great thing for writers. And I’m not just talking about the whole, “build your platform and get your name out there” kind of thing (though that’s on the list). Twitter is host to a whole community of writers. And I’m not just talking about the big names here. I talking regular people like me and you, people who are still struggling to be published. Maybe they’re even still working on their first book.

When you’re feeling down, they’re there to encourage you. When you feel like no one in the world understands what you’re going through as a writer, chances are someone in your Twitter stream does.

But sometimes Twitter is a double-edged sword. At least it can be for me.

Lately I’ve been struggling a bit with my novel. Actually struggling is probably too strong a word. I know where I want to go with the story, but because of the fact that I’m doing research as I go, added on to the fact that I’m writing a slightly different voice than normal, things just haven’t been moving as fast as I’d like them to.

And then I log on to Twitter and I see Chuck Wendig and Adam Christopher and Kristen Lamb talking about the thousands of words they’re writing each day, and I start to get a little discouraged about my measly 700 words.

Maybe you’ve been there too. But I’m here to tell you not to worry about it.

Why? Because no two writers and no two stories are the same. It may be you just don’t have time to churn out daily word counts in the thousands. Or maybe you’re like me and the story you’re writing requires you to be more painstaking than usual.

The details don’t matter. What matters is you. If you let wordcount envy get you down, the next thing you know you’ll be saying to yourself, “Well, if I can’t write as much as those guys maybe I don’t have any business writing at all.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG.

Wow. That word looks weird when you repeat like that. Kind of like when you say a word over and over again and it starts to sound like…no wait. I was going somewhere. Yeah okay. You can only write as much as you can write.

Profound huh? But it’s true.

Terry Pratchett only wrote four or five hundred words at a time when he first started. Chuck Palahnuik wrote Fight Club in fifteen minute increments on his breaks at work.

It’s less important that you write a lot, and more important that you write consistently.

If you can only manage a couple of hundred words a day then commit yourself to those couple hundred words. No, you won’t be finished in a month. You may not be finished in a year.

Possibly the most important key to your success as a writer is that you make writing your habit. It should be something you do day in and day out, rain or shine, muse or no muse.

And I think you’ll find that if you keep going you’ll find yourself stretching the limits of what you’re capable of further and further. You’ll look back at those early days of writing and say, “I can remember when I thought a thousand words was a really good day. What was I thinking?”

That’s what we call growth my friend. And growth is what it’s all about.


I haven’t done this in a while, but I’ve got a reading assignment for you all today.

First up is a fantastic post by Jody Hedlund about why it’s so hard to be objective about your own work.

Second, go check out Chuck Wendig’s post about the closing of Border’s. It’s powerful stuff.

How to Ignore Perfectly Good Advice in Three Easy Steps

You are not alone.

You ever notice how often that phrase pops up in commercials? Do you ever feel a little creeped out by it? Maybe you look around the house to make sure that there’s no one there with you. Well if you do, then you are not alone.

But all silliness aside, as a writer you really aren’t alone. There are hundreds and thousands of other writers out there, from all different levels of the skill spectrum, and many of them are eager and willing to help you out on your journey toward the fun and lucrative world of being a published author.

This is a good thing. Sometimes.

But sometimes it can be overwhelming. There are lots of great people out there with tons of knowledge, and lots of great advice to give out. They’ve been there, they’ve done that, and they know all the mistakes you’re going to make if you’re not careful. You’d be a fool to ignore them.


Except sometimes their advice doesn’t work for you. And sometimes it might actually contradict other advice you’re getting from equally credible sources.

This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit recently because it happened to me in a big way. Let me explain.

I started blogging seriously solely because of the influence of one Kristen Lamb, media expert and all around awesome person. Her blog is an invaluable resource on how to leverage social media as an author, as well as having great tips on plotting and structure.

(Also she has a book entitled We Are Not Alone. How’s that for your freaky coincidence?)

She encourages writers to do things like start a regular blog, get on Twitter and Facebook, and for the love of Bob use your writing name wherever you can.

As you may be able to tell, I’ve taken most of her advice to heart. But one of her bits of social media wisdom is this: Blog about what you write about.

You may be noticing that I am in fact blogging about writing. I do not write about writing. Except now. Which doesn’t count.

But I didn’t make the choice to pass on that particular piece of advice at a whim. I went through a process of thought and introspection which I’ve boiled down into three steps.

If someone’s giving you advice you’re not sure about maybe this will help.

1. Listen

This is very important. Sometimes a piece of advice might not be for you, but if you dismiss it out-of-hand then you’re doing yourself a disservice. At least give the person the benefit of the doubt that they’re not just blowing smoke. They want to help you. Don’t ever ignore that.

When I first read Kristen Lamb’s advice, I didn’t just snort and say, “Well that’s stupid. I’m not doing that.” I listened. I gave the idea room to take root in my mind.

2. Think

Now that you’ve got the bit of advice in your head, mull it over, do your best to understand it. If you can, try to incorporate it into your process. Even if it doesn’t feel natural at first, give it a try. If it doesn’t work for you try to understand why it doesn’t work. There may be some deeper kernel of truth within the advice that may be able to benefit you.

“Blog about what you write about” is really a great piece of advice. Kristen’s deeper point is this: we need to connect with our potential readers not just other writers. And that’s something I’ve tried to keep in mind as I’ve slowly expanded my writer’s platform.

3. Decide

Because hey, you can really do whatever you want to do. Ignoring advice isn’t wrong. If it doesn’t work for you then fine. If it does work for you and improves your craft, even better.

Obviously, I decided not to follow Kristen’s advice. I made my decision mostly because it’s hard to blog on topic when your work-in-progress is a horror story about a monster mulch pile.

I’m gonna talk about what? Organic gardening?

But for someone writing a more conventional genre, say legal thrillers, blogging on topic could be a fantastic opportunity to connect with readers.

The bottom line is that one size does not fit all. You need balance. You shouldn’t reject advice simply because you don’t feel like doing it. But neither should you feel obligated to go on following advice that just isn’t working out for you. You have to use wisdom and discernment, and consider which path is best for you.

And that’s my advice. You know what to do with it.

Memoirs of an Imperfect Snowflake

When I was learning to write (and who am I kidding, I’ll always be learning) I knew I had to read a lot of books in order to hone my craft.  After all, I could learn all the writing “rules” in the world, but I knew the best way to grow as a writer was by absorbing all the subtle nuances and hidden rhythms that make up good prose.  So when I started blogging seriously I took the same approach.  I figured if I was going to have a blog, I was going to need to study other blogs, good and bad, to see what worked and what didn’t.  If I was ever going to be successful I needed to know who was doing it right and who was doing it wrong.

But yesterday I hit a snag.

Let me set the scene for you:  A new reader named mlkabik had just commented on my blog.  Whenever someone does that, I always check out their blog and try to find something I can comment on beyond just saying “I like this post.” There are two reasons for this.  First, I’m trying to build a following here.  I know if another blogger knows I cared enough to click through and comment on his work he’ll be more likely to come back to see what I have tomorrow.  But second and just as important, I really do enjoy encouraging my fellow-writers.  If no one ever commented on this blog I’d probably get discouraged and give up, and I know I’m not the only one in need of encouragement out there.

So I clicked through and took a look at mlkabik’s blog.  Here is a small sample of one particular post that caught my eye.

The smell reminds me of my awkward flirtation, both with her and her church (though only one smelled like my hands do now). The overstuffed couch and her wandering, milk-fed legs. The early morning drives to my mom’s – the fogginess of what the night was.

Now I don’t know about you, but I love this stuff.  The meandering evocative prose is like manna to my soul.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is, I can’t write like this.  Not even close.  Well, okay, I could try to write like that.  I might even manage some kind of success if I sat down and really worked at it.  But it wouldn’t be me.

Once upon a time that bothered me.  I’d read an author and think, “I can’t write like this guy can write.  This sounds so different from my stuff.  I’ll never be as good as he is.”  If you’re a writer you’ve probably experienced the same thing.  And what’s worse, that feeling of inferiority can be crippling if you let it fester.  You’ll start to think to yourself “If I’m never going to be as good as this guy, I might at well hang it up. What’s the use in pounding out my second-rate drivel?”

But recently I realized I was approaching the problem in the wrong way.  Because the truth is I’m not a bad writer.  And if the comments are anything to go on neither are you.  Do we need some rough edges knocked off? Sure.  Do we still have a lot to learn? Absolutely!  But we’re not inferior just because we can’t write like someone else.

Don’t believe me?  Keep reading.

Ever heard of Ernest Hemingway? If you haven’t you should stop reading right now and go and read The Old Man and the Sea, because it is awesome.  Seriously, go.  We’ll be here when you get back.

Done? Good wasn’t it? But do you know how Ernest Hemingway got his start as a novelist?  He started reading after F. Scott Fitzgerald.  You’re probably most familiar with Fitzgerald as the author of The Great Gatsby which is another fantastic book.

But the two have a style that is nothing alike.  Fitzgerald could string out grandiose and magnificent sentences of such eloquent beauty and poetic perfection that it’s hard not to cry when you look at them.  Hemingway, on the other hand, wrote sentences like a man swinging an ax.  Methodical, rhythmic, effective.

Now imagine if Ernest Hemingway had read Fitzgerald’s work and said, “My writing isn’t like this at all.  I should give it up and go home.”  We would have lost one of the greatest writers of our time.

Because the truth is we don’t all write alike.  We all have a voice that shines through our words, and that voice, when all the distractions and all the insecurities are stripped away, is something as complex and unique as a fingerprint.  And that isn’t a bad thing.  To become better writers we must study what other writers have done, but that doesn’t mean we’re under some obligation to produce the same kind of work.

Because I may think mlkabik’s writing is like manna from heaven, but every once in a while, I’m in the mood for a little pumpernickel rye bread, lightly toasted, with just a scrape of butter on the top.

And now, I’ve made myself hungry.


On a completely unrelated note today’s post is number 111 and it falls on 1.11.11.  I didn’t plan it that way, but I think it’s uber cool.

Learning Curve

I was reading through Kristin Lamb’s latest post about plot structure today, when I was struck with the realization that I still have a lot to learn as a writer.  And I think the scariest part of this realization is that if I’d known at the outset how hard true success in writing would be I never would have made it this far.  Back then I had a special brand of stupidity known in some circles as optimism.  I had read all the advice about how hard it was going to be to get into the fiction world, but of course I knew none of it applied to me.

And even though I know better now, I’m glad I didn’t back then.  I’m glad I had enough stupid optimism to keep going, to reach the point where I’d be able to take joy in the writing for itself, without wondering whether it would sell or not.  Don’t get me wrong, I still really want to be published, but now, five years and six unsold books after I first started writing, I’ve come to realize that the journey may still be just beginning, and part of me is okay with that.

A few years ago, I made myself a promise that I would keep writing until I was either published or dead.  More than once since then I’ve had my doubts about whether that was a wise commitment to make, but today I’m as firmly committed to my writing as I’ve ever been.

Maybe five years from now, I’ll look back at myself and wonder how I could have been so naive, but for now at least I know I’m moving in the write direction. 🙂


I think I’m going to have to do something I really don’t want to do. Something I’ve told myself and others that I would never do. I’m going to get myself a Facebook account.

See, I’ve been reading this blog, by a woman named Kristen Lamb, and she has some pretty tough talk about writers establishing themselves as a brand, even before they’re published. The stuff she has to say make a lot of sense, and if you’re interested in ever writing professionally I highly recommend you check out her blog.

The downside is, I hate the idea of being on Facebook. I mean, everyone is on Facebook.

Which I suppose is the point. If I want to get my name out there I’ll have to join the rest of the lemmings and open an account. This is only going to hurt a lot.