Sunday, October 17, 2010


Hi folks,

I received an email from a friend of mine today that I thought would make a good topic for a blogpost, as I suspect there are other writers out there who face the same problems and possible misconceptions about novels. Kenn Ashcraft sent me the following as he’s thinking about using my services as a writing coach for the novel he’s planning on writing, and what follows is my response.

Also, thanks to the generosity of a lot of folks, I’ve received over twenty endorsements/blurbs for my book proposal for the Bijou book which is detailed in the post preceding this. I’m deeply in debt to you guys! And, I can use more. If you haven’t read it, I’d like to ask you to and hopefully contribute your own endorsement. It all helps and helps a lot! Thanks! I owe ya. Drinks are on me next time we meet up…

Here’s my exchange with Kenn:

From Kenn:
It is set in the mid 60's to mid 1970's. geographically in a small suburb of Kansas City, blue collar, Wallace supporters. Tentatively titled 'circle kerkin' on cardiff hill'. primarily family of eight is the mcgregor's. they live in a neo-classical, rather large colonial manse atop the hill which is named after the mother's family. teh family is all boys save the main character's twin sister. they have a black housekeeper who has a bastard son. she was raped and he is the result. He looks like and acts much like the classical actor sidney poiter. the suburb is all white except for these two black americans. he goes to school across town at an all blackschool yet is best friends with the main character, max mcgregor. max and his best friend (buddy freeman) are inseparable. max is about 5'5", reddish blonde, fair compexion and a smattering of freckles. they are stock car racing junkies and have a car. they are the local favorites and end up making it to daytona in 1976. buddy wins the race, however, is killed during his victory, that's part of the story. the story involves racial biogtry, sexual diversity, NASCAR, murder and a few other things.

that's a snapshot of the story, Les. Sorry I rambled, just didn't know exactly what I wanted to say but figure you'd get the general idea.


Kenn, based on this, I see a common flaw. You’ve got a bunch of characters, nice settings, and some seemingly interesting situations, but I don’t see the story you have in mind here. In fact, it looks suspiciously like an episodic story—this happens, then this happens, then this… etc. Unfortunately, there’s no market for episodic stories. No “Kane wandering the earth, having adventures and ending up in the lotus position having resolved world peace…”

Here’s what I’d suggest. First, to get in the proper frame of mind, I’d not call your protagonist “the main character.” Call him the protagonist. When people use terms like “MC” automatically, I suspect they’re thinking in episodic terms. A mindset that says: Get a cool character, set him in motion, let him have adventures, setbacks, etc. Alas, that’s not a story, at least not one in publishable terms. That’s something that gets “Cool” uttered by one’s writing group when described, but tossed unceremoniously by agents and editors.

Second, stories that make it to print are always about an individual with a compelling story problem that the reader can relate to and deem important enough to follow the protagonist through his/her struggle to resolve it.. The story begins when that problem is introduced, i.e., the inciting incident. The rest of the novel is about the protagonist’s struggle to resolve that problem against increasing odds and obstacles. The story problem has to color every single page of the novel. If there are subplots, they have to be derived from the main plot and only be there to contribute to it and are subservient to the main plot, i.e., the protagonist’s struggle to resolve his problem.

Third, there needs to be an antagonist, an individual whose goals conflict with the goals of the protagonist. Neither of these people—protagonist or antagonist—are created in a moral sense. Neither should be looked at as “good” or “evil” or whatever. The protagonist is simply the character through whose persona we (readers) experience the story. The antagonist is simply the person whose own goals are in direct conflict with the goal of the protagonist. In the movie, Thelma & Louise, for example, Thelma is the protagonist. She’s the one we follow throughout to see if she resolves her problem. (Initial, surface problem—to escape her husband’s petty dominance. Eventual, story-worthy problem—to escape male dominance over women in society.) The antagonist is Hal, the Arkansas state cop. He’s not a bad guy at all—in fact, he’s probably the best guy in the story. His goal is to catch Thelma (and Louise) but not for a bad reason. He wants to save them from first being arrested and then from death. Very good guy. His goal therefore is in direct opposition to Thelma’s goal of escaping male dominance (surface manifestation of that—to escape being captured and going to jail).

What I’d need to make sense of your story (and to see if you actually have a story) is for you to tell me who your protagonist is and what his story problem is and who his antagonist is. That it’s in Kansas and that there are racial tensions and all of that is okay, but that isn’t the story and not what’s important in creating a story. For story purposes, it doesn’t matter if it’s set in Kansas or on the moon or if it was yesterday, a hundred years ago, or twenty years in the future. That isn’t the important stuff in a novel’s planning. All that’s important is the protagonist and his/her story problem. That’s the cake; the rest is the icing.

Also, please do yourself a favor and don’t think of characters as “heroes” and “villains.” That may doom your book before it begins! Same with “main character.” Those kinds of terms only lead to creating plots that aren’t sound and characters that don’t work. In the case of heroes and villains, authors who think that way often end up with Dudley Doright and Snidely Whiplash. Cartoon, one-dimensional, cardboard characters. Make sense? Others may disagree, but that’s my opinion for what it’s worth…

What I always do is to send a prospective a client a handout on outlining and ask them to create an outline. Don’t panic—it’s not an outline ala those Comp I things with Roman numerals, etc. It’s a practical document, consisting of five statements and containing 15-20 words. It not only allows the writer to focus on the story, it provides a very practical road map in writing it.

BTW, did you mean “circle jerking” instead of “circle kerking?” Circle jerking is an old, well-known term, but I’ve never heard of “circle-kerking.” (Kenn wrote back that he did, indeed, intend “circle-jerking” and it was a typo. I think that makes him the pivot man in the circle jerk--the guy in the barrel… Kidding, Kenn!)

If this works for you and you’d like to look at possibly working with me, let me know and I’ll be happy to send you the outlining handout.

Also, take a look at my blog at the post on “The Smell of the Rain on the Road at Dawn” to make sure this isn’t what you’re visualizing at this point. If it is, you’ll just need to crystallize your idea so that it becomes a story and not just a vision.

Hope this helps, Kenn!

Blue skies,

This was our initial exchange, and I’m happy to report that Kenn is sending me his material and we’re off to the races! He also said it was fine to use his name and to also use his professional signature (Kenn’s a professional speaker and comic), which is: kennyGene: a Wannabe comic.

The reason I’m posting this is that I suspect other writers are seeing their potential novels in the same ways and I thought this might help in getting their novels back on the right track and save themselves a lot of time and wasted effort.

Blue skies,


Lynne Kelly said...

If Kenn didn't reply that he mistyped "circle jerking" because it's hard to type one-handed, I call that a missed opportunity.

Les Edgerton said...

Lynne! That is priceless! I'm still laughing...

ssas said...

I always write a tagline first, then a query letter, then a synopsis, and THEN, after running it by several writers I trust, I start plotting and write the book.