This one of the most significant events of the 20th century. In the midst of the War to End All Wars, one of the world’s powers collapses and the monarchy is overthrown, sending ripples throughout Europe and around the world. This leads to the Bolsheviks taking over, Russia becoming the Soviet Union, Stalin, famine, tens of millions dead, World War II and stopping Hitler on the Eastern Front. The fall of Berlin. The Cold War.

Yep, it was pretty significant. And one man, Doc, is sent back for the 24 hour bubble on the key day in 1917. But not to the Tsar, who was at a railroad station, but to the Alexander Palace where the Tsarina, her four daughters, and the Tsar in waiting, Alexei, are holed up. He must unravel Rasputin’s Prophecy and make sure history stays the same.

No matter what the cost.

I could’ve written an entire book just on Rasputin, who was, to say the least a weird dude (although assassinated the previous December). From what I’ve learned, he bears a large degree of blame for what happened. However, ultimately, blame must fall on Nicholas II. I cover this in Shit Doesn’t Just Happen II: The Gift of Failure. Nicholas’ list of miscalculations is long. Perhaps this is the problem with a monarchy. You get the leader that was born into the right place at the right time.

Coming 15 March. Time Patrol: Ides of March.

In terms of major events of the 20th Century, where you rank the Tsar’s abdication?

Think of your favorite book.  What the first thing that comes to mind?  I’m willing to bet, it’s the characters.  Most people relate to people, not things.

Characters bring emotion to story, and emotion is what attaches readers to books.  It took me a while to truly appreciate this fundamental truth of fiction.

Here are some of the key lessons I’ve learned about character development over the years.

1.     “Know the enemy and know yourself.  In a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.”  Sun Tzu.  As I teach in Write It Forward for writers and Who Dares Wins in the business world, before we can understand other people, even fictional ones, we must understand ourselves.  So, yes, if you’re a writer, you’ll need some therapy.  It is not normal to sit alone in a dark room and write 100,000 words; seriously, it’s not.  You need to understand your point of view on people and things because that’s going to come out when you develop your characters.  One of the biggest breakthroughs I had on character was when I realized I was writing a character who was doing things I would never in a million years do, but I was able to have him believe he was doing the right thing.

lonesome dove2.     Everyone one has a primary motivator.  You must know the primary motivator for every character.  Be able to say it in one word.  Because when characters are pushed to the limit, that primary motivator is going to determine their course of action, not your decision as author.  In Lonesome Dove, when Blueduck kidnaps Lori, Larry McMurtry did not have a choice as to what each of this characters were going to do.  Because they were fully developed, they all acted ‘in character’.  Gus went after Lori.  Call kept the cattle moving north.  Jake Spoon went to San Antonio and gambled.  In one of my books, my protagonist’s primary motivator is ‘loyalty’.  My antagonist primary motivator is ‘honor.’  Do you see how those two motivators can truly clash and bring the fuel of a novel:  conflict? Would you rather have a loyal friend or an honorable friend? Some people believe you can have both, but there are also times when the two can conflict.

3.     You need at least three layers of motivation to your main characters.  These layers are all present at the beginning of the book, but the character isn’t conscious of the deeper ones.  They can be layered thus

  • What do you want?
  • What do you really want?
  • What do you absolutely need?

4.     Those layers are peeled away until we get down to that need.  In the book Jenny Crusie and I wrote, each peeling away occurred at a turning point in the novel.  JT Wilder in Don’t Look Down:

  • What do you want?  Get paid and get laid.  (He’s a guy)
  • What do you really want?  A relationship. (He’s a guy who needs someone)
  • What do you need?  A relationship and community. (He’s a guy who needs someone and others)

5.     You don’t have to invent characters from scratch.  If you’re not going to use real people (modified hopefully and also not in malice which is called libel), then use what experts have developed for you.  Consider using variations of three templates.

  • Archetypes.  This is very useful for gender differences.  Is there any male equivalent of slut?  That always provokes good debate.
  • Profiling.  I’m big on profiling because it gives you character types that will act in certain ways.  And no, it isn’t just for serial killers.  You can profile anyone.  Indeed, in Write It Forward, one exercise participants do is profile themselves. If you don’t think you have time to write, profile yourself by simply writing down how you spend your time for a week. I guarantee you’ll find time where you could have been writing.
  • The Myers-Briggs.  Many of you have taken it, but it gives you 16 distinct character types you can mine.  By the way, one type, INFJ, is labeled author.  The exact opposite, ESTP, is promoter.  I often tell writers to focus not on what they are; but what they aren’t. That’s the area that needs improvement.

6.     Know your characters’ blind spot.  We use a trait-need-flaw diagram to find that.  It’s the flaw your character isn’t aware of that makes for compelling fiction and is the groundwork of tragedy. Push any character trait to an extreme and it brings the potential for disaster.

7.     Make your antagonist a real person, not a cardboard cut out.  We must understand WHY the antagonist is doing a bad thing.  By the way, evil is not a motivator.  It’s an end result. Don’t confused motivation and goal.

IMG_0972These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned about character over the years.  I can honestly say I’ve learned more about the craft of writing in the past year then in the past 25.  I think the key to success as a writer is always wanting to learn more and become more skilled at the craft in order to become an artist.

If you’re interested in an intense workshop on this, along with idea, conflict box, the current publishing industry and more, we have some openings for our Write on the River Workshop. More details here, but space for each is limited to four. We’ve worked with writers ranging from #1 NYT bestsellers, to those working on their first novel.

Plus you get to meet Cool Gus. And Sassy Becca. And, for now, Xander, the wonder dog.


TheLastCzarWe’re offering The Last Czar: Anatomy of Catastrophe, for free today, before we pull it and wrap it into the larger Shit Doesn’t Just Happen books.

It is 1917. The world’s population is roughly 1.86 billion, although the First World War, the War to End All Wars for the glass is half full people, is taking a chunk out of that. J.R.R. Tolkien begins writing The Book of Lost Tales; in the U.S. imprisoned suffragettes from the Silent Sentinels are beaten in what became known as the Night of Terror; the first Pulitzer prizes are awarded; Mata Hari is arrested for spying; John F. Kennedy is born; a race riot in St. Louis leaves 250 dead.

And in Russia, the last Tsar, Nicholas II, abdicates on the 15th of March, changing the course of history and our present.

While I’m using that specific date in my novel coming out next month, Ides of March, I’d already done research on Nicholas II, trying to understand how his personality and decision-making (or lack thereof), that led to the downfall of the Russian Empire. Using my Rule of Seven, with Seven being the abdication, I listed the Six Cascade Events prior to that:

  1. Nicholas wasn’t properly trained to lead his country.
  2. The Russo-Japanese War was a disaster for Russia, and Nicholas II in particular.
  3. Nicholas’ attempts at reform hit a middle ground that pleased neither side.
  4. Bloody Sunday, where troops fired on marchers, was a spark that would lead to revolution.
  5. His wife, Tsarina Alexandra, alienated many Russians, particularly her reliance on Rasputin.
  6. World War I was an utter disaster for Russia, and especially Nicholas when he took personal charge of the Army, something he was not prepared or equipped to do.

One man’s lack of leadership changed the course of history and dictated the fates of millions. It still affects us today. Can we say: Putin?

The rise of the Soviet Union out of the ashes of Tsarist Russia is one of the most significant developments in the past century. Lenin, Stalin, purges, the spread of communism, the Cold War where we came perilously close to nuclear war; all were a result of Nicholas.

There were numerous cascade events spread out over decades, but a recurring theme of Nicholas II is the lack of decisive leadership along with little strategic political or military planning. He spent much of his reign reacting.

Leadership, or the lack thereof, affects many, from the troopers of the Seventh Cavalry who went to their doom to the estimated 50 million ‘unnatural deaths’ suffered by Russians under Stalin. The latter of which was a direct result from Nicholas’ failures.

For more information and detail, download the book. For free. What always amazes me is so much history that’s new to learn. The Russo-Japanese War is a good example; where at Port Arthur the Japanese launched a surprise attack prior to the official declaration of war, catching the Russian fleet unaware. That sound familiar?

It is said, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And we do. Over and over.

Sign up for my newsletter here and get a free eBook, the first in my Duty, Honor, Country trilogy.

Ides(4b)And Time Patrol: Ides of March is a little over a month away. I send Doc on the mission to the Alexander Palace, to the Tsarina and her five children, where he has to figure out how the Shadow had planned to change our history on the 15th of March 1917. It turned out to be a rather wicked mission, since the Time Patrol’s job is to keep history the same. Thus, in essence, he is condemning those four young girls and boy, along with their mother to their fates. What he has to struggle with is: what is he changes things? What if he allows the Tsarina to talk her husband into not abdicating on that date? How could that possibly change history? Would it be for the better, or for the worse?

Winter Warfare trainingI’ve had that as a mantra for many years: Want to really get to know someone? Put them in crisis. This is one of the reasons Special Operations training across the board is non-stop crisis and stress. Little food, sleep deprivation. Constant high standards to be achieved. Physical stress. There’s an array of factors that can be thrown at someone to test them.

I fast-forwarded through most of the Superbowl (I was binge watching Shades of Blue, which is surprisingly good–I’m just a boy from da Bronx) and would catch up in between every episode.

I’m a big fan of key moments. Tipping points. In books and shows, I always look for the core idea in one sentence of scene. In events, like the Superbowl, I look for a single moment. Maybe it was just me, although I was slightly surprised the announcers focused on it for the time but I don’t see much on it today, the key moment was when the Panthers fumbled with about four minutes to go. Cam Newton moved for the ball, then he literally pulled back. When they reversed the angle, you can see what he saw: looked like one of those big Denver defensive linemen had the ball just about in his grasp.

indexExcept he didn’t.

The ball squired out, right past Newton and the Broncos got it near the goal line. Essentially, game over. Newton didn’t do what every player is supposed to do when there’s a fumble: dive in and fight for it.

The key is that Newton didn’t make a conscious decision to pull back. That was instinctual. A good quarterback needs good instincts. To me, that was SEAL bella bad and telling instinct. I’m not saying he’s a bad quarterback; he was the league MVP. But I think his terrible attitude at the press conference afterward was because he had a moment of enlightenment because of that play; I think he’s smart and he knows. I actually think it will make him a better person and player if he takes it to heart. With the game on the line, he pulled back.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes; some instinctual. Those are the ones that take a lot of work to change. But we can change them. It’s a question of never quitting, being aware, and being willing to change.


Time Patrol: Ides of March

15 March 2016

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