Tag Archive: associations


Log Lines

We interrupt this series to bring you a news flash. Okay, not a news flash, but a subject I probably should have included several weeks earlier. My bad.

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The first time I heard the term “log line” used, I wondered what the person was talking about. Since we were in a writers’ group meeting, I was fairly certain it had nothing to do with organizing fresh-cut timber into orderly rows. At least I didn’t think it did. But what did it mean?

Wait, she asked me what the log line for a book I was working on was. That was a clue. It did have something to do with writing, not timber. I finally had to give up. I couldn’t imagine what the term meant, and I certainly didn’t know. I might have just remained silent and tried to find out later in order to keep from exposing my ignorance, but the question had been addressed directly to me. I was expected to answer.

The situation sorta reminded me of when my wife, who is a home-grown horticulturalist, would point to a tree or flower or plant and ask me what it was. I’d say, “I don’t know. We’ve never seen one of those before.”

Then she’d say, “Of course we have. It’s a ____.”

The whatever in the blank would be something she’d pointed out to me a hundred times. How could I not know? But I was only embarrassed before my own wife in that situation.

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Here, I was about to show my ignorance in front of the writers’ group I’d helped start. Looking around the table at a bunch of people thirty years or so my juniors, I thought this was doubly embarrassing. I mean, these people were barely out of diapers when I wrote my first novel (which the dummies in the publishing houses had somehow failed to recognize the brilliance of).

Sensing my fumbling and not wanting to make me squirm any more, my BFF Kristen Lamb (http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/) spoke up. “Your one-sentence synopsis of your book.”

“Oh.” Relief flooded me for a moment. “Well, it’s about this young girl. Her parents died in the War Between the States, and she had to . . .”

“No. A one-sentence synopsis that describes the gist of the book. It summarizes the point of it. What you wanted to accomplish by writing it. The story you wanted to tell.”

“Oh.” I made two or three more attempts to put it into one sentence before it became obvious to everyone that I couldn’t do so.

At that point Kristen and several other members of the group proved a truth about the first half of the title to Kristen’s book. We are not alone. It would have been easy for these people to laugh at my unease, to criticize my ignorance. Instead, they loved me.

Those who were somewhat familiar with my book made suggestions. I took their suggestions and mulled over them, taking part of one suggestion and combining it with part of another until I had a reasonably cogent log line.

According to my Warrior Writer friend Nigel Blackwell, who may be the most knowledgeable person I know on the subject, a log line should follow this pattern: “Protag MUST protag’s-active-goal BEFORE antag’s-active-goal-with-consquence.”

For example, “Woman must stop Nazi’s granddaughter from perfecting cloning techniques before she takes over the world.” or maybe “Man must find and expose murderer before his own father is wrongly convicted of the crime.”

Both of these sample log lines give a concise statement of what the story is about. If we can’t come up with a log line, we haven’t got our story firmly gelled in our minds. Working on it makes us focus our attention and get down to the nitty gritty of our plot.

Once we have something usable, it’s good to enter it in small print under our headers so it will appear on every page as we write, serving as a reminder to us about what I was trying to accomplish. This is not only helpful when we actually start writing our text, but while we work on antag, protag and other character profiles. We need our thoughts focused as we do this, also. Then when we start to chase a rabbit down some side trail, a glance at the log line will remind us of what we’re doing and steer us back to where we belong.

At an agent pitch opportunity at a writers’ conference a few years ago, I recall her rolling her eyes when she asked me for a one-line summary of the book. I now realize that my hemming and hawing made me look like I didn’t know my own work.

Coming up with our log line should probably be the first thing we do when we get ready to write a story—novel, short story, or whatever. My friend Kristen will disagree with this statement. She puts the log line after other preliminary work and just before starting the actual manuscript. That’s fine for her, and it may be for you, too, but I think there are good reasons to put it first.

If we don’t know what our story is about, how can we create the powerful characters who will carry the action? As we develop the characters, we may change our ideas for the story a bit. That’s okay. We can change the log line, too, but at least we’ll have some direction to guide us.

If we don’t keep our log line firmly in mind—like I do by adding it to my header—how will we realize when we digress and start chasing rabbits? And if we don’t know what our log line is, how can we appear to know what we’re talking about when a fellow writer asks us what our book is about?

A concise, powerful log line can go a long way to getting you going in writing your story.

Ø Do you have a log line embedded in your mind for the story you’re working on?

Ø Got an anecdote about log lines?

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Protagonist

The last couple of weeks, we’ve talked about our antagonist. I know. . . . You identify with your protagonist, not your antagonist. That’s natural. The protagonist is the good guy. In fact, don’t tell anybody, but in a lot of our work the protagonist is actually us. Oh, you didn’t realize we knew that?

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Yep, that swashbuckling hero or drop-dead gorgeous doll is very frequently the author. I don’t want to picture myself as the little skinny guy on the beach getting sand kicked in his face by the bully. I want to see myself as the handsome, macho lifeguard who steps in and chases the bully away. Since we find ourselves very interesting, we can’t wait to talk about ourselves. . . . Oops. I mean our protagonist.

Okay. It’s time to do just that. Conflict, primarily created by the antagonist, drives the story and keeps the reader turning the pages, but the protagonist IS the story. There would be no one trying to overcome the antagonist—and therefore no story—without the protagonist.

We said a couple of weeks ago that the antagonist doesn’t have to be a serial killer or a sadistic rapist. He just has to have a goal that’s in conflict with that of the protagonist. Likewise, the protagonist doesn’t have to be some kind of angel. He can be a colossal screw-up or annoy people. She can talk too much or spend too much time touching up her lipstick. In fact, if this character is some near-perfect vision, no one will be able to accept or identify with him or her. He or she must have warts. The main requirement is that he or she can win the reader’s sympathy.

Well, he or she must also have a worthy and positive goal. The goal probably isn’t apparent at first—even to the character. That usually begins to jell after the inciting incident, which we’ll discuss in a future issue. The point is he or she can’t be just wandering through life willy-nilly. And the goal must be positive.

For instance, the goal can’t be trying to avoid being obliterated in a nuclear explosion. That’s a negative goal, and it won’t make into a story. It’ll fall flat on its face.

On the other hand, joining a special ops team to go behind the lines in some rogue nation and destroy that nation’s ability to wage nuclear warfare is positive. The goal is to accomplish something, not merely to avoid something.

And our protagonist must be incapable of achieving the goal. Whoa. Wait a minute, David. This is the hero. He’s supposed to win. What are you talking about?

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Our protagonist cannot be Superman at the beginning of the story. There’s nowhere to go from there. He must start out as Clark Kent. Through his dealings with the antagonist he grows to become Superman, but he can’t start out that way.

If he had a battle with Lex Luthor at the beginning of our story, Lex Luthor would have to win. Our boy must have an arc, beginning in relative weakness but growing through the conflicts along the way to become stronger and stronger until he can defeat Lex Luthor.

One of the books I wrote which the publishing industry managed to miss out on was about a fourteen year old girl who lost her parents in the War Between the States and had to make her own way in life. But I had her start out being able to out-smart, out-shoot, and out-bluff everybody from page one. She defeated robbers, rapists, murderers, card sharks and all manner of bad guys right from the start of the book. No arc. No real conflict. No story.

Okay, so we’ve got this character in mind. Now we need to build a profile just like we did with our antagonist. This is where we make this character an identifiable person with his own distinct personality, character, habits and so forth. Our reader should be able to tell from this person’s behavior and manner who he or she is. This can be accomplished only through the building of a detailed profile. Refer to the things we discussed about the antag’s profile. The protag’s profile needs all those same things spelled out in detail.

Next week we’ll get into some of the other major characters. Meanwhile, have a good week.

Ø What differences do your antag and protag have in appearance, voice, manners, habits, and so forth?

Ø What flaws or weaknesses can you give your protag at the beginning of your story that he or she can overcome along the way?

If you liked this, please comment and repost link on FB or Twitter.

Antagonists

If you ask the typical layman who the most important person in a story is, he would probably say the hero, or protagonist. A lot of writers would say that, too. Until we got into Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp, yours truly would have been among them.

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We would have been wrong. The protagonist is the person we want our readers to love and identify with. He or she is the person we want the reader to pull for—the person we all want to see win. But the protagonist does not drive the story.

That’s the job of the antagonist. His or her agenda is at cross purposes with that of our protagonist, and that is where the conflict comes in.

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When we first began talking about antagonists at WWBC, we all had the idea this person had to be a mass murderer or serial rapist—or at least the guy in the old movies who always tied the heroine to the railroad tracks. Had to have a skinny handlebar moustache and skulk around going “Bwa-ha-ha!” in an evil voice.

Not so. An antagonist can be Adolph Hitler or John Wayne Gacy or the Unibomber, but he doesn’t have to be. An antagonist is simply the person whose agenda conflicts with that of the protagonist, causing the conflict that drives the story.

In the movie Double Jeopardy Ashly Judd is the protagonist. She was framed by her husband to take the fall for killing him. Knowing she was innocent, she figured he wasn’t really dead, and when she was paroled from prison she set out to try to find him and either exonerate herself or kill him.

Tommy Lee Jones is the antagonist. He’s not a serial killer or anything like that. He’s her parole officer. When she violates her parole, he goes after her. Not a bad guy—just a man doing a legitimate job. But his job is at cross-purposes with Judd’s agenda, which makes him the antagonist and creates the conflict driving the story.

In the movie You’ve Got Mail Meg Ryan is the protagonist. She owns a small independent bookstore and just wants to run her own business and maybe find love.

Tom Hanks, the antagonist, is not a villain. He just happens to run a family-owned chain of bookstores that puts independents out of business whenever it comes into a neighborhood. When he begins exchanging emails with Meg Ryan, he has no nefarious scheme in mind. He’s also seeking love, just like she is. Two basically good guys with conflicting agendas that drive a good story.

Your antagonist may be a thoroughly despicable criminal, like Alan Arkin in Wait Until Dark, or Patrick McGoohan in Silver Streak, but he or she doesn’t have to be. All that’s needed is that the antagonist must have a goal or purpose that keeps the protagonist from achieving his or her goal.

Since our antagonist is the driving force of the story—the one that makes the reader continue to turn pages—we need to be careful in designing his or her character. No room for playing by ear here.

Remember those seven novels I told you about? The ones the publishing industry failed to snap up and turn into mega-million sellers? Want to know how I built my antagonist in those stories? I didn’t.

That’s right. I didn’t. I just sat down and began to write the stories, giving little or no thought to what kind of people my characters were. I ended up with plastic, one-dimentional characters who all looked, acted and sounded like me.

To avoid making this blog too long, we’ll wait until next week to talk about how to build an antagonist with his or her own character traits. Someone with his or her own distinct personality, who doesn’t look just like you or like your other characters.

Have a good week, and we’ll meet again next Monday.

In our last blog, we discussed goal-setting. No sense starting to write unless you know what your objective is. Now that you’ve decided you not only want to write but want to become a professional writer, what’s next?

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Unless we’re experienced columnists or reporters for newspaper or magazine, in which case we would have made the decision about becoming a professional a long time ago, we probably need some help. Very few of us were born with the knowledge of how to write, much less how to market ourselves and our writing to agents, publishers or the reading public.

Where can we get that help? If you’re a recent graduate with a teacher or professor who has real knowledge of writing and the publishing industry and with whom you have established a strong rapport, you might seek him or her out.

If your aunt happens to be Nora Roberts, or John Grisham is your brother-in-law, you might go to them. If you can catch them with the time to sit down and talk to you.

Most of us don’t happen to number people like that among our relatives and close friends. What do we do? Where can we turn for help?

How about a critique group? We can find them in most major cities—and a lot of small towns—across the country. Surely we can find one, even if we have to drive to the next town for the meetings.

But wait—are all critique groups created equal? Unfortunately, no.

So, how do we decide what group, if any, to join?

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Who is in the group? Are there any writers who are successfully getting published in the field we’re interested in? If everyone there writes poetry and we want to write novels, the group probably isn’t going to be that helpful.

Okay, here’s a group over here where everyone is working on a novel, but the only one who has one published is a guy who self-published and has sold 300 copies in the two years it’s been out. Do you think we’ll find the kind of expertise we need from that group? Somehow, I doubt it. If it’s the only group around, it may be better than nothing. We might find help editing our typos and misspellings, but that’s about it.

We need to find a group comprised of people working on the same sort of thing we want to write—preferably one where at least one member has had some success at it. If our bag is short stories, we need a group with several short story writers.

Oh, I forgot—you wanted to be a novelist. Okay. Good choice. So you need to find a group that includes knowledgeable and successful novelists with a handle not only on how to write a novel but also on how to market it.

Unfortunately, we’re not likely to find a group that includes J. K. Rowling. What should we do? One place we can start is to attend some writers’ conferences. We can Google them and find what’s available in our area. Then we can attend and rub elbows with the other attendees, asking questions about writers’ groups in our area.

We can talk to the speakers who present sessions at the conference. Most of them are friendly and willing to speak to us. See what suggestions they have to offer.

We can also friend people like Kristen Lamb (http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/) and Bob Mayer (http://writeitforward.wordpress.com/) on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. Both are successful authors who understand today’s market and can offer a wealth of insight.

Kristen Lamb, my Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp co-founder, has an on-line group. She also leads our local group which meets weekly, and there’s a lot of progress being made in both groups. In fact, one of the members of the on-line group, Donna Collins Newton (www.donnanewton.wordpress.com), has been in Hollywood recently working out the details for a tv series based on her screenplay.

Another valuable tool is reading blogs of other writers. We can take advantage of the experience (read mistakes) of others and make the way for smoother sailing for ourselves.

Writers used to live in caves, isolated from the rest of the world, but we no longer have to be hermits. Nowadays, we are not alone, to steal from the title of Kristen Lamb’s best-selling book, We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media. As writers seeking to break through, we need to take advantage of every opportunity for help we can find.

Ø Are you taking advantage of all the help available to assist you in reaching your own personal goals?

Ø Is there a local critique group that is right for you?

Ø Do the group members help one another with characterization, plot and so forth, or do they just critique a few pages of your prose?

Ø Interested in joining Kristen Lamb’s online group? Start following her blogs at http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/, as well as following her on Twitter and maybe friending her on FB. Then send her a DM or a FB message inquiring about joining.

They Also Serve

John Milton said, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Seems like a strange thing to say. Isn’t it the movers and shakers who make all the difference in this world?

Sometimes we get to thinking that way, but is that correct? Where would Julia Roberts be if there weren’t someone on the other side of the camera filming her? Someone making sure her hair and makeup looked right?

Where would George Strait be if someone didn’t drive his bus to get him and his band to their appearances? Someone to see that the proper wardrobe was ready?

Buddy Holly was an overnight sensation back in the late 1950s. In fact, many consider him to be as big an icon of Rock and Roll music as Elvis Presley. One of the guys who stood behind him on the stage attracting little or no attention was Waylon Jennings. Waylon didn’t soar like Buddy, but he’s entering his sixth decade as a fixture in country music.

One of my favorite items in the comic pages is “Pluggers” by Gary Brookins. A plugger never jets straight to the top, but he plugs along doing his thing and working himself toward his goals.

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Some people cast very visible shadows, and others live in those shadows supporting the visible ones. Both types have their parts to play.

If your writing hasn’t brought you the level of success one of your peers has achieved, or if it hasn’t improved as rapidly as you thought it would, don’t despair. Just keep plugging along, learning all you can about your craft and incorporating it into your writing.

Those of you who read my entry last week, “My First Blog,” are aware that Kristen Lamb (http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/) and I co-founded Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp. We met numerous times discussing whether or not to step away from the comfort of an existing writers’ group.

As is human nature, we both had a certain fear of venturing out. Sure, there were things about the group we were in that we both thought kept us from progressing as writers and leading others to progress, but the group was familiar. We frequently hold onto our own darkness rather than venture out into an unknown light.

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Kristen would tell you I had to push her and stand behind her and prop her up before she was ready to take that step into the unknown. Once we made the decision to do so, we began meeting to discuss what we would do, how we would go about accomplishing what we wanted to accomplish. I don’t even know how many hours we spent and how many cups of coffee we drank working up our agenda.

In retrospect, a lot of our agonizing over what to do and how to do it proved pointless, because we soon began to junk parts of our agenda and replace them with newer and better thoughts that came along only as we got our feet wet. Before long, we hardly recognized the baby we’d created.

Somewhere along the way as the group began to jell, the ideas for what we should be doing began to crystallize in her mind, while my mind seemed to hang back where we began. She seemed to know instinctively—actually, it had a lot more to do with how much she read and her contacts with Bob Mayer (http://writeitforward.wordpress.com/) than with instincts—what we needed to do and where we needed to go.

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Before long, I found myself a follower rather than a co-leader. I began to feel like a non-contributing failure. I should have been helping Kristen teach our group, but instead I found myself not even understanding or at least being very slow to apply what she was teaching.

Every time I said something about how I’d lagged behind her, she would remind me that there would be no Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp—and likely no We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media if I hadn’t pushed her and supported her in the beginning. I still sometimes feel like a dunce compared to the progress she’s made in the last two years.

Last summer I wrote a few blogs which were read by about three members of my own family. I didn’t understand Twitter—still barely do—and I didn’t understand putting tags in my blogs so someone could actually find them. With no one reading what I’d written, I just quit writing. I’ve remained an active part of WWBC, attending meetings regularly and adding what I can, but no writing.

It wasn’t until Kristen sent me the manuscript for Are You There – It’s Me, Writer, her followup to We Are Not Alone . . . that I began to put some things into perspective with regard to my own writing. I made up my mind that I would begin blogging regularly and effectively. I’m even determined to learn how to use Twitter effectively. After all, I have a true expert available for help.

You may have a young and nimble mind that immediately grasps these things. Like Kristen, you may grow in your craft by leaps and bounds. But there are also some out there like me who were born far too long ago to pick up, adapt to, and use all the new things available to writers.

The good news is that there’s a place for us, too. We may not be the stars who shoot to the top of the best-seller lists, but we can plug along and work at our craft and become good at it. In time, we may even be able to join our more fleet-footed acquaintances on that best-seller list.

Meanwhile, we can learn from and support those around us. I don’t kid myself that I’m responsible for Kristen’s success, but I do take joy in her success—and maybe just a tiny bit of pride. I’d love to see every member of our group become a successful, best-selling author. Some of it might rub off on me, but even if it doesn’t, I can rejoice in the success of others I love and care about.

Ø Are you the rock star soaring to success or the plugger trudging along the way?

Ø What do you do when you get discouraged with the pace of your progress?

Ø How does your writers’ group help you or intimidate you?