James Scott Bell

We’ve Moved!

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on We’ve Moved!
Feb 102015
 

Kill Zone, with all the archives intact, has moved. We’re now at this address


Come on over and join the discussion! 

Be sure to change your bookmarks and feeds. 

Should Harper Lee’s Novel Be Published?

 harper lee, HarperCollins, To Kill A Mockingbird  Comments Off on Should Harper Lee’s Novel Be Published?
Feb 082015
 

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell



The literary world was all abuzz this past week over the news that Harper Lee was releasing another novel. There was instant excitement on social media. The author of the enduring classic To Kill a Mockingbird was finally, over 50 years later, going to grace the world with another book!
It was a pleasant shock, as fans of Mockingbird had come to accept the fact that Harper Lee simply did not want to publish again. She lived in her small town and avoided publicity. Her protector in all this was her older sister, Alice, a lawyer.
It was only a day later that another side of this story began to seep out, the gist being that Harper Lee, now 88, was being exploited. That she’d had a stroke and was nearly blind, and was unable to fully understand what was going on.
Instead of euphoria, Mockingbird fans were now aghast. The new novel (titled Go Set a Watchman) was actually one Lee had written before Mockingbird, and she’d never allowed it to go to print. The timing of the announcement was suspicious, too, coming only months after Alice’s death at the age of 103.
Then the publisher, HarperCollins, issued a statement that claimed Harper Lee was “happy as hell” about the release. 
On the book itself, there were some odd rumblings. It was reported it would not be edited, that it literally came out of a box in Alabama and was going to be in bookstores by July of this year. Would Harper Lee really have agreed to that?
You can get a good account of all the back and forth here.
Today I happen to be in South Carolina with Donald Maass and Chris Vogler, for the final session of the four-day Story Masters conference. On our last day with the students we go chapter by chapter through a novel to illustrate in practice what we’ve been teaching.
Our novel this year is To Kill a Mockingbird.
I’ve read the book half a dozen times now. I’m always finding new things that impress me. This last time the subtle humor of the narrator hit me more than ever. It’s a masterful touch, just the right tone to counterpoint the tragedy in the middle of the book.
Clearly, this was a novel that was labored over. There have been persistent rumors that Harper Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote (upon whom the character of Dill is based) had a hand in the manuscript. Capote’s father once bragged that Capote wrote the whole thing. Alice Lee adamantly denied it, stating unequivocally that Capote wasn’t involved at all. There is evidence to suggest Capote’s motive for letting the rumor have legs was jealousy—Harper Lee received the Pulitzer Prize right out of the gate, and he never did. Lee and Capote had a famous split because of the latter’s increasingly destructive behavior.
So the weight of evidence seems to me to be this: Harper Lee alone wrote To Kill a Mockingbirdand decided, at some point, that would be it for her. She has spent the last 55 years out of the public eye, choosing not to live a literary life.
Harper Lee came as close as anyone to writing the “Great American Novel.” And now this. 

I’d like, therefore, to toss out some questions to the TKZ community:
Do you think Harper Lee really wants this book published?
Is the world “owed” a look at this book?
What about after Harper Lee’s death? Would that make a difference? (There are reportedly other J. D. Salinger novels that might be released, something the notoriously reclusive author did not allow in his lifetime.)
What if the book is not well received? Will that harm Harper Lee’s reputation? Does that matter to anyone? 

Story and Structure in Love

 Plot, Story, structure  Comments Off on Story and Structure in Love
Feb 012015
 

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Back in November, TKZ commenter Dale Ivan Smith talked about a major challenge he faced.
Here’s the key paragraph:

The big challenge … is not taking forever on the pre-writing and outlining. How do you impose deadlines on yourself for outlining and still create a solid, damn good novel outline? My fear of drafting a bad story has to a big extent been replaced with the fear of outlining a bad one 😉

I answered him, in part, this way:

Dale, you’ve asked a great question. I think it really comes down to fear. 

There’s an easier and better way to find story, IMO: it’s to play BEFORE you write. Play on the monkey bars built of structural signposts. You actually can be more creative this way because you’re not drafting. Thus, it’s much faster, too. 

You can also play in the actual writing. But you’ll be playing a game that readers can make sense of. 

It’s the best of both worlds. Freedom AND focus, and a lot less frustration. The people who’ve been writing to me about Write Your Novel From the Middle have been having epiphanies on this. Which is cool. I’ll have more to say on writing this way in the months ahead. 

This “best of both worlds” combines the playfulness and creativity of the pantser with the beautiful form of the plotter, all with that most important person in mind—the reader! 

If you want to sell books and not just feel good about your writing, you need more than pure freedom and more than mere outlining. 

You need a guide, a map, a blueprint, but one that is flexible and freeing, not cold and ruthless. 

Which is why I’ve written a new book called Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story.
Story LOVES structure, because structure translates story into a form that enables reader connection…and those are the stories that sell.

And don’t let’s confuse structure with outlining, which causes pantsers to break out in the cold sweats. This is a common error. Any writer of any temperament can utilize structure principles, even if your approach is the seat-of-the-pants variety. To be aware of structure is not the same thing as writing a 40 page, single-spaced outline. Which is a perfectly legit thing to do. Just ask James Patterson. Or many fine writers of the past. 

But outlining is not a requirement. Which is one reason I wrote this book. It’s for any type of writer because it stresses the idea of “signpost scenes.” There are fourteen signposts scenes, or beats, in Super Structure. It’s culled from the best and most popular novels and screenplays of the past, as well as my own research and development of writing principles over the last 25 years. 

The material in this book greatly expands upon the chapter on structure in Write Your Novel From the Middle. Super Structure can be considered a companion to that book, but it also stands alone in its treatment of the elements of a solid and pleasing plot. 

Recently, the longtime literary editor for Playboy, Alice K. Turner, went to her final review at age 75. Her obituary in the New York Times talked about how she championed literary fiction for 20 years there, bringing a measure of respectability, ahem, between the folds. And she truly did, publishing some of the best writers of our time and discovering new talent.

I love what she said about her preference for a solid, well-structured plot: “If you’re good enough, like Picasso, you can put noses and breasts wherever you like. But first you have to know where they belong.” 

Super Structure will tell you where story elements belong. Then you are free to do what you like, experiment all you want.

But when your story isn’t working, and you don’t know why, Super Structure will be there to help you find out! It is very friendly that way. Say hello to it today. It’s on sale for only $2.99:





A print version will follow.

Feel free to ask me any questions about structure today and I’ll answer as best I can…before the big game, of course. After the Seahawks win, I’ll answer some more! (Which reminds me: Always keep writing, and always fully inflate your footballs.)

Reader Friday: Raise Your Sail

 Reader Friday  Comments Off on Reader Friday: Raise Your Sail
Jan 302015
 

Raise your sail one foot and you get ten feet of wind. – Chinese Proverb

What’s one thing you are looking to raise in your writing craft this year? 

How Not to Fumble Your Social Media Presence

 Bill Murray, Dan Blank, Groundhog Day, Ned Reyerson, Seth Godin, social media  Comments Off on How Not to Fumble Your Social Media Presence
Jan 252015
 

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Seth Godin, whom many consider the premier social media guru, uttered a word of caution to traditional book publishers at the recent Digital Book World conference:
The challenge we have is not all of your authors want to be good at social media. And not all of them have something to say when they’re not writing a book. Is the only way to sell books to dance faster than everyone else? I don’t think it is. … What we have to figure out is not merely does this author have 70,000 good words to say in a row, but do they have a following, can we help them get a following, are they the kind of person where a reader says, “I can’t wait for your next work.” (Quoted by Jane Friedman)
I was happy to see that, because it may be the one time I come out ahead of Godin. A few years ago I wrote about the limits of social media as a direct marketing tool. At the time I was also inveighing against the “platform pressure” many publishers put on new writers. (A nice account of that debate can be found here).
Then there is marketing expert Dan Blank of WeGrowMedia.com, who wrote a post last year about how he is changing toward social media. In short he wants “more social, less media.”
The prevailing wisdom has coalesced around the fact that social media is best for forming community, and only marginally effective for selling things like books. A good SMP (social media presence) certainly can help with a launch if (and this is crucial) you have established trust by consistently offering quality content to your followers.
On the other hand, abusing your SMP can render the whole thing a complete waste of time.
By the way, SMP in the UK stands for “statutory maternity pay.” But I digress.
What do I mean by abuse? I call it the Ned Reyerson Syndrome. You remember Ned, from the classic comedy Groundhog Day. If you don’t, have a look at this clip and then come back. I’ll wait.

What has Ned done wrong? Count the ways! He demands attention. He exhibits lousy communication skills. He makes lame jokes. He thinks the whistling belly button trick is a matter of talent. Worst of all, without an invitation, he pushes his product into Bill Murray’s face, and keeps on doing it.
I like to do a little personal research on this issue every now and then. The way it happens is that I’ll come across an indie author I don’t know but who looks interesting. Most of the time it’s because of  a nice book cover that catches my eye. I’ll click to see if that author has other books, and what the general reviews and rankings are. Then I’ll check on his/her SMP.
Just this past week that happened. I noticed a really nice thriller cover from an author I hadn’t heard of. He had three other nice thriller covers. But his Amazon rankings were not good for any of the titles. He had a handful of reviews that averaged out to … average.
Now, I believe the books themselves always have the most to do with any of this. But there may be other reasons, too.
I checked this author’s SMP. And boy, did I find Ned Reyerson.
Not one of his tweets was content-filled or a real interaction with others. Every single one was some sort of sales pitch. There were different kinds: a deal kind, then a line from the book kind, followed by a book cover kind and an elevator pitch kind. These are all fine from time to time, but not as the sole output of your SMP.
Over on Facebook, more of the same.
This author is not only wasting his time, he’s hurting his prospects. He’s making everyone who follows him feel like Bill Murray in his eternal recurrence: Oh boy, here comes Ned Reyerson again! Do I have to live this moment over and over?
Remember the time Murray sees Ned and just punches him in the face?
Here’s the SMP lesson of the day: Don’t make people want to punch you in the face. Thus:
1. Be the kind of guest people want to have at their next party.  
What kind of guest is that? One who brings something to a social gathering that people like. A content provider. A person who says things that bring a smile or a new thought or a helping hand.
2. Be patient.
Don’t run up to people and yell. Grow naturally.
3. Be real, but don’t be a boor.
Honestly, didn’t your mother teach you not to say the first thing that pops into your head?
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” (Abraham Lincoln).
4. Go 90/10 on your socializing/selling ratio.
It’s perfectly acceptable to announce a book, push a deal, remind folks about an older title. But make such things only about ten percent of your messaging. That’s my unofficial, anecdotal rule of thumb.
So what about you? What are your feelings and findings about social media here at the start of this new year? Have you run across any Ned Reyerson’s lately?

Reader Friday: Are You Daft?

 Reader Friday  Comments Off on Reader Friday: Are You Daft?
Jan 232015
 

“The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four Americans is suffering from some form of mental illness. Think of your three best friends. If they’re okay, then it’s you.” – Rita Mae Brown

So, writer, do you ever feel a bit “different” around “normal” friends and relatives? 

First Page Critique: Watch That Exposition

 backstory, exposition, First page critiques  Comments Off on First Page Critique: Watch That Exposition
Jan 222015
 

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell



Here is a first page that has been submitted to TKZ for critique. My comments on the other side:
Ride the Lightning
I always knew my law degree would come in handy. I’d been promoted from bartender to manager of the strip club outside of Biloxi in less than three months. It hadn’t hurt that the owner had walked in on my old boss auditioning a dancer on the couch in his office. The books were a mess, both sets. It turned out the staff wasn’t all he’d been tapping.
Amateur.
No one would ever find the skim I’d set up. My dad had taught his only daughter well. The owner didn’t have a problem with it because this time it all benefited him. As long as I kept the cash flowing, he gave me free rein to run The Lightning Lounge as I saw fit.
A definite management challenge cluttered my desk. I had to arrange the biggest bash in county history. The sheriff had commandeered the club for a party celebrating the execution of Billy Ray Draper. The former police officer, convicted of killing his wife, a Lightning Lounge dancer, was scheduled to get the stick in six weeks. The club owner told me to pull out all the stops and that the sky was the limit. 
I riffled through my spreadsheets and made notes. The new sound system was online and the upgraded flooring gleamed and reflected the motion sensor lights. One huge problem remained. No matter how I shuffled the schedule, I didn’t have enough waitresses and dancers to man the tables and the poles for the multi-day party. I’d placed ads and been interviewing, but the pickings were slim. 
A knock at my office door interrupted my musing. Hopefully, part of the solution had just arrived. 
“Come in.”  
She glided into the room on red stilettos. Her painted-on jeans and tank top hugged ample curves all the way up to a mass of blonde curls that Dolly Parton would kill for. She was no schoolgirl, the horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets. Her grip was strong and sure. This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy. 
***
The first 3/4 of this page is all backstory, exposition and set-up. It’s a common problem because writers think readers have to know certain information before the story can begin.
They don’t.
Remember: Act first, explain later. Readers connect with characters in motion. They don’t connect with exposition.
If you give readers an actual scene, with a disturbance thrown in, they will wait a long time before you need to explain anything to them.
Not only that, they don’t need all your explanations at once, or in narrative form. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said that all the information a reader needs can be given in dialogue, and he’s not far wrong. 
So always start with something happening in the present moment. Later, if you decide you want to be stylish or poetic in the first paragraphs, that’s up to you. Tremble when you do, though, and hear my voice in your head. Act first, explain later.
I wrote not long ago about these “tar pits” of fiction. Have another look at that post.
Here’s a self-test. Check your opening pages for use of the word had and its derivatives. That’s a dead giveaway that you’re not in the present moment.
I’d    
hadn’t    
had walked    
he’d been tapping   
My dad had taught
The Sheriff had
That’s past tense. You don’t want to open with the past. Oh, but doesn’t To Kill a Mockingbird open that way? If you can write like Harper Lee and you want to go literary, have at it. But I still recommend the action way, even for literary types who would like to win a National Book Award before they die.
Look at your opening pages until you come to the place where an actual scene is happening. Or try the Chapter 2 Switcheroo, where you toss out Chapter 1 and make Chapter 2 the new beginning. That often works wonders.
Anyway, I’d start this novel here:
She glided into the room on red stilettos. Her painted-on jeans and tank top hugged ample curves all the way up to a mass of blonde curls that Dolly Parton would kill for. She was no schoolgirl, the horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets. Her grip was strong and sure. This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy. 
***
That’s a voice I like. I want more of it. And a scene is underway. I would want to read on from here.

A couple of suggestions. Always check your pop culture references to make sure they’re not too dated. I hope I’m not insulting Dolly Parton, but is she that well-known anymore to people under 40? I’ve been editing my WIP and saw that I’d referenced a hit song from the 80s. Oops. I did a little research and found a hit song from 2005 that worked much better.
Even so, be selective with these things, because in a few years they may become terribly awkward. How about all those books published before 1995 that used favorable O. J. Simpson references?
Now to some micro-editing:
She was no schoolgirl, the horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
Here is where our good friends Show, don’t tell and Don’t gild the lily come in. That first clause is a tell. And it is not necessary, because the rest of the line does the work and does it well:
The horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
Isn’t that crisper? You want that standing alone, not fuzzed up with a tell before or after. I see this all the time. Things like: I ran up the hill. My lungs were on fire. Sweat flopped off my forehead. I was dog tired.
That last sentence adds nothing. Worse, it takes something away from the immediate experience by the reader. It’s a little “speed bump.” Too many of these and the ride is ruined.
Let’s look at this sentence now:
I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets.
I like the use of sight and sound here. But a tiny speed bump as I was wondering how jangly bracelets were dripping from her hand. It’s not too bad because know what the author meant to convey. Still, I’d consider making it clearer. Something like:
Bracelets jangled as she stretched out a hand studded with rings.
Finally:
This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy. 
I don’t know how or why someone would wrestle a tray of beer mugs. I assume the author means some kind of carrying of heavy trays. But carrying is not wrestling.
In my own writing, the things I always find during revision are metaphors and word pictures that don’t quite make it. That’s when I hunker down and try to figure out a way to make them work or simply come up with something else.
I advise the writer to tweak this one, and also to brainstorm a few other word pictures. Then choose the one that works best.
All that being said, I am interested in this character who slid into the room in stilettos! And I’d love to see the next few lines be dialogue that begin to give us a picture of the narrator and where she works, and so on.
Thanks to the author for submitting this piece.
Other comments? 

The 5 Laws of the Fiction Reader

 readers  Comments Off on The 5 Laws of the Fiction Reader
Jan 182015
 

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Without readers a writer has no career.
There are other reasons people write, of course. For therapy. For fun. For their family. Out of boredom. In prison.
But most writers write to share their stories with the hope of some financial return.
When asked what kind of writing made the most money, Elmore Leonard replied, “Ransom notes.”
Outside of that particular genre, professional writers swim in the free enterprise system, which usually involves two parties: seller and buyer.
The writer is the seller, the reader is the buyer. The product is a book. Or a story.
And in order for this exchange to work, the buyer must like the product.
In order for this exchange to become a lucrative career, the buyer must love the product.
Which brings me to the 5 Laws of the Fiction Reader:
1. The reader wants to be transported into a dream
Fiction writers often hear from agents and editors that a reader wants an “emotional experience” from a novel. Or to be “entertained.”
True, but I don’t think those go far enough. What a reader really and truly longs for is to be entranced. I mean that quite literally. The best reading and movie-going experiences you’ve ever had have been those where you forgot you were reading or watching, and were just so caught up in the story it was like you were in a dream.
It’s like one of my favorite shows as a kid, Gumby. Remember Gumby and Pokey? (If you want to keep your age a secret, don’t raise your hand).
My favorite part of any episode was when Gumby and his horse jumped into a book, got sucked inside, and became part of the story world. I wanted to do that with the Hardy Boys. Jump in and help Frank and Joe solve the mystery.
The point is, when you read, you want to feel like Gumby, like you’re inside the story, experiencing it directly.
Hard to do, writer friend, but who said great writing was easy? Maybe a vanity press or two, but that’s it.
When I teach workshops I often use the metaphor of speed bumps. You drive along on a beautiful stretch of road, looking at the lovely scenery, and you “forget” that you’re driving. But if you hit a speed bump, you’re taken out of that experience for a moment. Too many of those moments and your drive becomes unpleasant.
One reason we study the craft is to learn to eliminate speed bumps, so the readers can forget they’re driving and just enjoy the ride.
2. The reader is always looking for the best entertainment bang for the buck
In this, readers are like any other consumer. If they are going to lay out discretionary funds on something, they want a good return on that investment. Their judgment is based on expectations and experience. If they have experienced a writer giving them wonderful reading over and over, they will pay a higher price for their next book.
If, on the other hand, a writer is new and untested, the reader wants a sampling at a low price, or free. Even then, however, they desire to be just as entertained as if they shelled out ten or twenty bucks for a Harlan Coben or a Debbie Macomber.
That’s a challenge all right, and should be. But here’s the good news. If a reader gets something on the cheap and it enraptures them, you are on your way to a career, because of #3, below.
3. If you surpass reader expectations, they will reward you by becoming fans
Fans are the best thing to have. Fans generate word of mouth. Fans stay with you.
So your goal needs to be not just to meet reader expectations, but surpass them.
How?
By doing everything you can to get better, write better. To do what Red Smith (and NOT Ernest Hemingway) said. You just sit down at the keyboard, open a vein, and bleed.
That’s not just romanticized jargon. It’s what the best writers do, over and over again.
So what if you don’t reach that high standard with your book? No matter. You book will be better for the trying, and you’ll be a better writer, and you next book will be better yet.
Jump on that train, and stay on it.
4. Readers want to feel a connection with authors they love
Which in the “old days” meant maybe sending a fan letter and getting a note in return; or going to a book signing and getting a hardcover signed and saying a few words to the author.
Now we have tweets, and Facebooking, and blogs, and email. Different ways for readers to feel connected to their favorite writers.
Which is really what social media is about. It’s social, not marketing, media. Do it well and you build up a community and when you have something to offer, you will have earned the right to do so.
5. Readers need stories, so supply their needs
In fact, we all need stories. Stories are what keep a culture alive, as opposed to being on life support. Stories shape us, the best ones for the good, like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Long Goodbye. The former is literary, the latter is genre, but it’s elevated genre, it has something to say that’s deep, and in this era of 50 shades of dreck and dross, there’s a crying need for books that elevate the soul, which can be done in any genre, even horror (just ask Koontz or King).
Obey the law! And readers will thank you with a fair exchange of funds.

Reader Friday: Are Messages Poison?

 Reader Friday, theme  Comments Off on Reader Friday: Are Messages Poison?
Jan 162015
 
“I try very hard to stay away from the word ‘message,’ because I think it’s poison in fiction. I think you tell your story and then the reader gets to decide what he or she will learn from your story. And if they don’t want to learn anything from it, that’s their choice.” – Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge To Terabithia, in an interview on NPR


Agree or disagree?

An Editor’s List of Novel Shortcomings

 Alan Rinzler, David Niven, Donald Maass, self-editing  Comments Off on An Editor’s List of Novel Shortcomings
Apr 062014
 

@jamesscottbell


One of the great bon-mots of popular cultural history occurred during the 1974 Academy Awards ceremony. David Niven was at the podium when a “streaker” (an inexplicable fad at the time was someone getting completely naked and running through a public forum) jogged across the stage.
The unflappable Niven calmly waited for the laughter to die down, and then remarked in his impeccable English accent, “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings.”
Thankfully, the streaking fad is kaput. But there are other places where shortcomings are wont to appear.
Some time ago veteran editor Alan Rinzler posted on Writer Unboxed about “issues” writers today are facing. While the post itself was solid, I was more intrigued by one of his comments. Rinzler was asked a question in the combox by none other than super agent Donald Maass. Don wanted to know what the #1 shortcoming Rinzler, as a developmental editor, saw in manuscripts. Rinzler’s answer was:

I see disorganized stories of excessive complexity… intrusive narrative voices that come between the reader and the story by inserting ongoing commentary, explanation, and interpretation…a failure to research and do the homework necessary to come up with something truly original and not reinvent the wheel… two-dimensional stereotype characterization…dialogue that all sounds like the same person.

I like this list. Let’s take a look at each item:

1. Disorganized stories of excessive complexity
I once picked up a bit of screenwriting wisdom that applies here. The best movies (and novels) consist of simple plots about complex characters. That is, while the plot may contain mystery and twists (and should), it is, at its core, a basic story with understandable motives. The real meat and originality comes from putting truly complex characters into those stories. The secret to originality can be found in the limitless interior landscape of human beings.
2. Intrusive narrative voices
Learning how to handle exposition, especially when to leave it out entirely, is one of the most important and early craft challenges. So get to it. Revision & Self-Editing for Publication has a whole section on this, but here’s one tip: place exposition seamlessly into confrontational dialogue. Instead of: Frank never wanted to have a baby. Not until he was a success as a writer. But Marilyn thought his quest was foolish. After all, it had been five years since he left his job at AIG. Marilyn dearly wanted him to try to get his job back.
“You never wanted a baby, Frank.”
“Shut up about that.”
“All because of your stupid writing obsession!”
“I’m not obsessed!”
“Oh really? What do you call five years of typing and no money to show for it?”
“Practice!”
“Well, practice time is over. Tomorrow you’re going to beg AIG to take you back.”
3. A failure to research  . . . to come up with something truly original
Rinzler is talking about the concept stage here, which is foundational. Hard work on fresh concepts will pay off. And remember, freshness isn’t just a matter of something “unfamiliar.” All plot situations have been done. It’s how you dress them up and freshen them that makes the difference. Remember Die Hard? After it became a hit, we had Die Hard on a ship (Under Siege) and on a mountain (Cliffhanger)and so on. Take a standard rom-com about a writer struggling with writer’s block and set it in Elizabethan England and you get Shakespeare in Love. Heck, take an old dystopian cult plot like Deathrace 2000 and put it among kids and bingo, you’ve got The Hunger Games. 
4. Two-dimensional characters
We all know that flat characters are a drag on an otherwise nice plot idea. Such a waste! As Lajos Egri put it in his classic, Creative Writing: “Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring writing.”
My favorite book on characterization is Dynamic Characters by my former colleague at Writer’s Digest, Nancy Kress.
5. Dialogue that all sounds like the same person
Ah! One of my sweet spots. In my workshops I always say the fastest way to improve a manuscript is via dialogue. It’s also the fastest way to get an agent or editor to reject you, or readers to give you a yawn. When they see good, crisp dialogue, differentiated via character, it pops. It gives them confidence they’re dealing with someone who knows the craft.
The place to start, then, is by making sure every character in your cast is unique. I use a “voice journal” for each, a free-form document of the character just yakking at me, until I truly “hear” them in a singular fashion.
So there you have it. Five vital areas where shortcomings might be a problem. The streaking guy at the Oscars couldn’t do anything about his own vital area, but you as a writer can.

Anything you’d like to add to the list?