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Normal World

Next in our evolutions of creating a novel, we’ll take a look at the main narrative plot points. We’ve got our main characters named and profiled now, so it’s time to outline how our story will progress.

Maybe your tongue is hanging out by now. I know mine is. I mean, we’ve had to set goals to determine just what we want to accomplish. Then we had to look at the difference between conflict and bad situations. Then we talked about all these different characters.

Whew.

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David, I just wanted to write a novel. Okay, this stuff is not necessary if you just want to write a novel. I’ve written a number of them without doing any of this.

Well, where are your novels, David? I haven’t seen them at Barnes & Noble or Amazon dot com.

That’s the point. You won’t see them, because they weren’t publishable. That’s why we’re doing all this the hard way, doing all this preliminary work. Let’s not just write a novel. Let’s write one someone will publish and people will buy and read.

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A novel we can actually be paid for.

Our first main narrative plot point is the normal world. We can’t just start right off with our antagonist kicking sand in our protagonist’s face. We don’t know anything about either one of them, so who cares?

We need to start out showing our protagonist in his or her normal world. What’s life like for this person? Why should we like him or her?

The inciting incident in Steel Magnolias was Shelby’s (Julia Roberts) pregnancy. M’Lynn (Sally Field) was immediately upset and getting in Shelby’s face about it. If the movie had started with the inciting incident, which, after all, is the beginning of the story-worthy problem—the conflict that drives the whole story—we wouldn’t have liked M’Lynn and wouldn’t have understood why she acted the way she did.

We had to see the normal world first. We had to see M’Lynn’s love for her daughter Shelby, her maternal protection. We had to see her putting on Shelby’s wedding, coming to her rescue when she had an insulin reaction, doing the little things that exhibit a mother’s love for her child.

Having gone through all of that before the inciting incident, we cared deeply about both of these women. We felt Shelby’s desire to have and raise a child and M’Lynn’s worry about what the pregnancy would do to her daughter’s health.

That’s the point of the normal world. We want to show enough of the life of our protag to make the reader care. To make the reader pull for our hero as he or she goes through the trials and tribulations (conflicts) that are about to beset him or her.

We may come to care also for the antag—as we did for Shelby in this instance—or we may have an immediate and intense dislike for him like we did for Roat, Alan Arkin’s character in Wait Until Dark. This varies according to the nature of the antag in a particular story, but we must always be led to care for, hopefully even love, the protag.

How long should the normal world be? Good question. Wish I had a simple answer. Well, the simple answer is, I suppose, as long as it needs to be. Maybe forty pages or maybe ten. In Steel Magnolias we spent a good bit of time in the normal world. In Wait Until Dark we moved right into the inciting incident pretty quickly. Only you can decide the answer to this question for your own story. Just be sure we readers see enough of the protag’s normal world to make us care.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the inciting incident.

Until then, good writing.

Ø How did your favorite book/movie deal with normal world?

Ø How would it have affected your feelings for the characters if they had skipped the normal world and just jumped into the inciting incident?

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Other Characters

We’ve discussed our antagonist and our protagonist the last few weeks. How about other characters? These could range from our protagonist’s fiancée to the guy who handed the antagonist a latte at Starbucks. What care do we need to take with these.

First question we need to determine about any individual is his or her importance to the story. Is this just an incidental character who make one or two cameo appearances to drive a bus or prepare a hot dog at an outdoor stand (mmmm—a hot dog sounds good right now), or does this person appear throughout a substantial portion of the book?

The incidental character doesn’t need to be named. In fact, we can do our readers a great service by not naming these people.

Have you ever attended a friend’s family reunion. Or maybe met the extended family of your significant other for the first time?

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Remember how you felt meeting all those people? OMG, I’ll never remember all these names. What if I call Aunt Sue Aunt Jenny by mistake? Or Cousin Joe Cousin Sam? I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s ever been in that position. I could remember Mom and Dad and brother and sister if they’d limit it to them, but all these others? How will I ever remember who’s who?

This is what we do to our readers when we throw too many names at them. There are a certain number of characters important enough to require the reader to remember them, but let’s try to have a little pity.

Okay, David, who is important enough to be named? We’ve already named an antag and a protag. Who else?

Generally, the antag needs some help causing turmoil for the protag. These helpers are called minions.

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They may be evil people hired by the antag, or they may just happen to have agendas that run at cross purposes to the protag’s agenda. We could come up with some stories where the antag is the sole disturbing element, but in general there will be one or more minions.

The protag will usually need a mentor. Remember, we discussed earlier that the protag must start out inferior to the antag. He grows throughout the story as he meets one conflict after another until he is finally able to defeat the antag.

If he’s going to grow, he probably needs someone on his side to help him grow and to direct him along his path. Again, this is not an absolute in all stories, but it’s a normal necessity.

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This mentor need not sit the protag down and lecture him like a professor with a student, although that could happen. He may just be someone our protag observes and learns from. In either case, he helps our hero to grow into his role.

The protag may or may not also have a love interest. If so, this would be a pretty major character.

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The love interest may be at our hero’s side throughout the story, or he or she may be visiting an aunt in Gotebo, Oklahoma, and never actually appear except in the protag’s thoughts. In either case, this love interest will be important to our story.

Our protag may also have one or more allies. These are generally good friends, but they could also just be people whose goals more or less line up with our hero’s goals.

Each of these characters would naturally be named in our story. They’re too important and appear too often to keep saying “The man with the funny glasses . . .” or “The woman with the whiskey baritone voice . . .” We need to call them by name.

But we need to do more than assign names. We mentioned earlier visiting someone else’s family reunion and trying to remember names. Wouldn’t it be easier if we knew Uncle John was the one who always had a mug of coffee in his hand and Cousin Fred was the one who never lit his ever-present cigar?

If a character is important enough to be named, we need to do a profile on him or her like we did on the antagonist and the protagonist. Depending on how important—and how frequently present—these characters are, we may or may not go into quite as much detail as for the two main ones, but we still have to give them identifiable traits and personalities. Our readers can remember who’s who much better if they can identify them as individuals.

Next, we’ll get into a discussion of our main narrative plot points. See ya’ then.

Ø What experiences have you had with being overwhelmed by meeting a bunch of new people all at once and being expected to remember all their names?

Ø Forget the reader for a moment—how does it help you as the author to have a written profile?

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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?

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Antagonist’s Profile

Last week I mentioned that the characters in my earlier—and rejected—novels were all plastic, one-dimensional characters who looked, acted and sounded like me. Sound familiar? Surely I’m not the first writer to make that mistake.

Since I neither smoke nor drink, none of my characters ever lit a cigarette or had a drink, but they all ate frequently and drank a lot of coffee—just like me. Fascinating as I may consider myself to be, apparently readers not looking for stories populated with David clones.

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Okay, how do we avoid that? We’re going to have to create interesting characters with their own identities and personalities. Their personalities and backgrounds are going to have to contain the seeds for their behavior in the story.

It may help to visualize a movie star or other public figure when we create a character. In fact, lets go to IMDb and find a photo of the person we’re thinking of, and lets put that picture at the beginning of the character’s profile. There’s no law that says we must do that, but at Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp, we’ve discovered this can be a big help in keeping a character in focus.

Okay, so we’ve got a photo. What else? What is our character’s height and weight? Eye color? Hair color? These physical characteristics can affect his behavior and thinking. If he or she is small or ugly or fat or skinny, that could result in a chip on the shoulder that makes him or her mean, testy or defensive.

Let’s build some personal history, too. Any siblings? Single-parent family? Father beats the mother? Loving aunt or uncle of particular importance? All of these things affect a child growing up, and we need to see where our character’s behavior comes from. We probably need a page or more of this background information before we proceed.

How about mannerisms? Does this person always let a cigarette burn until the ashes fall off without flicking them into an ashtray? Wave hands to illustrate or emphasize oral communication? Squint or blink a lot? We can use these little mannerisms to make this guy distinct and separate from our other characters.

How about fears? What things keep him awake at night? Prevent him from taking an action he may want or need to take? Drive him to do things he maybe shouldn’t do?

What are his dreams?

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Does he see himself in a multi-million dollar mansion? Owning a private island with a bevy of women serving him? Running a criminal empire? What moves him and gives him long-term motivation?

What are his stressors? A stressor is something that triggers a fear or a reminder of some important bad experience. If our guy grew up in an abusive family, seeing someone yell at or strike a child might be a stressor. If he grew up in abject poverty, old run-down shacks or clothes with holes in them could be stressors. These things will cause a strong reaction in our character.

How about his manner? Is he boisterous and obnoxious? Quiet and calculating? Kind? Polite? Rude?

What is his inner conflict? What does he really want to do or really want to be but he can’t because . . .

What are his goals? NY Times Best-selling Author Bob Mayer (http://writeitforward.wordpress.com/) suggests asking these three questions: What does he want? What does he really want? What does he really, really want? We should have three different answers to these questions, each a little more revealing about our character.

What blind spot prevents him from being able to see his path clearly?

What is his main problem in the story?

We might be able to come up with a few more things to put into his profile, but this gets us a pretty good sketch to work with. One of the things we accomplish by building this profile is that we can see in the course of writing our story what sorts of things this person would or would not do. Anyone who will be involved in beta-reading or critiquing your novel should have access to this profile to help you stay within the character’s personality and behavior.

How about our other characters? Let’s talk about them next week.

Ø Think about the cast of your favorite television show. What things so completely identify one character as opposed to another that you don’t even have to see them to know which is which?

Ø What things can you do to create such distinctive identities for your characters?

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 one of my earlier blogs, I mentioned that I had written seven novels the publishing industry was too myopic to see the brilliance of. Maybe you have one or two of those manuscripts hidden in your storage shed, too.

What prevented publication of these jewels? Well, don’t know about yours, but probably not over a thousand things in my case. Let’s start with what makes a reader turn pages and keep reading.

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Pretty prose and impeccable grammer will get us to the head of the class in a high school English class, but it won’t do much to get someone to read our work. Assuming we get our novel into the hands of John or Jane Q. Reader, we must interest him or her in actually reading the book if we want that person to buy any more or recommend ours to friends.

The thing that will cause someone to read our book and continue through to the end is CONFLICT. My rejected novels all started with a handsome hero or beautiful heroine who moved through the story gaining wealth or happiness without opposition. To my amazement, everybody except me considered that boring. There was no conflict.

Wait a minute. In one book, the heroine’s parents both died during the War Between the States. In another, the hero’s father was wrongly accused and found guilty of a crime. That’s conflict, isn’t it?

No, that’s not conflict. Those are BAD SITUATIONS. Sad to the characters, but boring to the reader. Conflict has to involve two characters whose objectives are at cross purposes to each other.

If my heroine had wanted to operate her father’s farm after he died and discovered another character owned mortgage papers from a loan he’d advanced her father, and if this other character wanted to repossess the land for his own purposes, there would have been the basis of a real conflict. I’d have had something that might interest a reader in turning from one page to the next.

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If my hero had tried to find evidence to exonerate his father only to run up against the criminal who had actually perpetrated the crimes his father was accused of, and that criminal worked actively to keep the father from being exonerated, I would have had a conflict that might have been worked into an interesting story. An agent of publisher might have seen some value to it.

Conflict is the driving force that keeps a reader interested and makes him or her want to read more. Without it, we’ve got a term paper or a family history or just some ramblings.

We need to have conflict in every scene—real conflict, not just bad situations. There must be an overall conflict, such as the criminal keeping my hero from finding the truth or the mortgage holder keeping my heroine from succeeding in her attempt to farm her family land successfully.

But an overall conflict is not enough. We can’t have a scene here that is driven by that conflict and then the next scene just showing a happy family eating dinner together. Each scene must involve some sort of conflict that prevents the hero from achieving some part of his goal, or at least a conflict that temporarily sidetracks the hero and keeps him too busy to pursue the goal.

How do we insure that conflict? Where does it come from? We’ll take a look at that in our next blog. Until then, keep on truckin’.

Ø Think back over the fiction you’ve written. Is it driven by real conflict, or do you just have characters going throug bad situations?

Ø Think about the novels you’ve liked best. How did the author work an overall conflict into scene-by-scene conflicts to keep you interested?

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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?

My First Blog

Since this is my first posting, let me briefly introduce myself. My name is David Walker. After writing off and on during a forty-two year career as a health insurance agent, I decided to get serious about writing. During our last year or so as president and vice-president of a local writers’ group, Kristen Lamb (http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/) and I talked a lot about what we would do differently if we started a group of our own. The result was Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp.

To paraphrase Kristen, one of the things that qualifies me to write about writing is that I’ve probably already made every mistake you may have ahead of you. If this blog helps you avoid some of those, it’ll be well worth the while.

Although I wrote my first novel when Kristen was in second grade and six more in the early nineties, I never understood why I couldn’t get any of them published until the last couple of years. My family liked them, and I just knew I was God’s gift to writing, but the sound of agents clamboring to beat a path to my door was somewhat like that of a gifted tracker after game. Hey, look at the wonders I’ve created. . . .

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Whoa . . . absolute silence.

Having been educated in good schools at a time when people actually paid attention to such things as grammar and spelling, I knew mine was better than that in most of the books I read. How could they publish misspelled words and dangling participles and non-parallel clauses and overlook my brilliant work?

Oh, the audience isn’t all English teachers? More interested in substance than form? Hmmm. . . .

After getting nowhere with all those early nineties novels, I decided maybe I’d better join a writers’ group. An acquaintance of my wife’s (Ann Arnold) belonged to such a group. My wife knew Ann through her school connections, and she told me she was about to have a non-fiction book published (http://www.amazon.com/Gamblers-Gangsters-Worths-Jacksboro-Highway/product-reviews/1571682503), so I decided to join her group.

After a couple of years of weekly attendance I needed to concentrate on my insurance career and put writing on a back burner, but as retirement loomed ahead, my interest in writing surfaced once again. I emailed my old buddy Dr. Mike Bumagin (http://www.tower.com/tower_search/search_3_2_b.cfm?keywords=Michael%20Bumagin%20(Author)&div_id=1&&contributor=Michael%20Bumagin%20(Author) from that first writers’ group and asked him if he still belonged to one, which he did.

That’s when I met Kristen Lamb.

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Kristen had recently become president of Freelance Writers’ Network, and at my first meeting I was impressed with her ability to see the good and bad in the work people brought to the meeting. Her critiques were lengthy and detailed—and right on the money.

When time came for the next election, she asked me to be her vice-president, which I was thrilled to do. We led the group together for several years, but we always felt like something was missing.

We would get together to discuss the group or writing in general or whatever was on our minds, and we frequently ended up talking about the fact that what we were doing was of limited value to anyone trying to get a good, publishable novel written. We began to realize that having five pages of writing critiqued wasn’t likely to produce the great American novel.

Everyone in the group had to spend a couple of minutes each week reminding the rest of us where these pages fit into a story, what had gone on leading up to that night’s reading. There was no continuity. Even with the explanations, none of us had a concise picture of what anyone else’s work was about.

Okay, so we knew there was a problem, and we even saw part of what it was. What to do next?

About that time Kristen rode with me in my motorhome the Oklahoma Writer’s Federation, Inc., conference.

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I don’t remember whose sessions I attended, but Kristen, thank God, attended one led by NY Times Bestselling author Bob Mayer. Being a true writer-hermit, I’d gone up there in my motorhome rather than staying in the same hotels as everyone else. After the day’s sessions, I went back to the RV park, but not Kristen.

Naturally gregarious, Kristen made friends with about half the people there, including Bob Mayer (http://writeitforward.wordpress.com/). He was all she could talk about on our drive back to Fort Worth. He’d made a tremendous impression on her, and she nurtured her contact with him until it became a true friendship.

For the next year or so, we continued to discuss what didn’t work about our group, and Kristen injected ideas she picked up from Bob into our discussions. Then she managed to get Bob to hold a two-day seminar in the Metroplex, and several of us attended.

For some time, I’d been urging Kristen to leave our group and start another one, or at least start a second group as an alternative to the main group’s meeting, but her loyalty is amazing, and she didn’t want to do that. After Bob’s seminar, though, she began to agree with me that we needed to quit attending the regular meetings and start a side group with separate meetings.

We both announced that we would not hold offices in our old group after the current year and that we would begin a group for those interested in a more in-depth pursuit of novel writing and marketing. Did I say marketing? That was almost a foreign concept to us at that time, but we realized its importance.

At first, we were all learning together, but Kristen learned so much more and so much faster than the rest of us that it soon became a matter of her teaching us. We began to delve into tag lines—never heard of those! And antagonists—are those serial killers or some such thing? And protagonists—those are heroes, aren’t they?

While most of us struggled with learning about such things, Kristen breezed through and began learning about using social media as a market-building tool. The rest, as they say, is history. She has become possibly the recognized expert on how writers can (and should) use social media. Her first book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media has become a bestseller, and I just finished proofing her second book on the subject, Are You There, Blog – It’s Me, Writer. Likely another bestseller.

In future blogs, we’ll examine some of the things taught in the Warrior Writer’s Boot Camp. We’ll look at the importance of preparing yourself by getting to know what you want to write about and who your characters are before starting to write the text.

Are you a writer? Please don’t tell me you’re a would-be writer or an aspiring writer. If you want to write, write. That makes you a writer. Being published makes you a published writer. Having a book on the best-selling list makes you a best-selling writer, but the only qualification for being a writer is to write.

Ø Okay, so you are a writer. Do you belong to a writers’ group?

Ø Does your writers’ group meet your needs?

Ø What do you like best about it?

Ø What do you find frustrating about it?

Ø What suggestions do you have to share?