Outlines for those who hate outlining

Note: the same poor shlub is riding all three horses. Dying once isn't enough?

Note: the same poor shlub is riding all three horses. Dying once isn’t enough?

There’s one thing we always hear about outlines and writers, and we hear it over and over: writers are either “plotters” or “pantsers.” But there are some, me f’rinstance, who do both. Like many who write by the seat of their pants, I often charge into a story as if I’m in the Light Brigade. But I typically have to slow down when my regrets pile up like the bodies of Tennyson’s famed 600 in the valley of Death. (Who sez I’m not smart enough to look up classics on the interweb?)

I may have a few plot lines wandering around in search of conclusions, if not climaxes; I usually have a character or three whose role at first seemed vital but which has rapidly diminished in value; I may have had a gonzo crazy idea for a finale that I just couldn’t wait to write until I realized — oh shit! — it won’t work. So, what do I do? Scrap the whole thing and start on something else? Stick it in a drawer and pray the writing elves will execute a daring midnight rescue? Go on a bender, expressing my sorrow to anyone unlucky enough to stumble by?

Probably not. At least, not until I’ve done a little post-crisis evaluation. If the idea really and truly sucks, then a deep, dark drawer or a handy trash can would be a good place for it. On the other hand, if I’ve already spent a significant amount of time and energy on it, a better course might be to salvage some of it. I know I’m a good writer, so the content surely can’t be one hundred percent irredeemable crap. Fifty percent, maybe. <shrug> But how does one determine what can be saved and what needs to go down the ol’ flusheroo?

My method, derived from an almost countless number of misbegotten beginnings, is to go back and outline what’s already been written. Call it a reverse outline, a trail map of where characters have been and when/how events occurred.

outln-scrn-shotI break these down in a simple chart, by chapter and scene, noting point of view character (because I usually employ way too many), plot element, and word count. I also add a fat column for remarks. This one comes in handy for recording random thoughts that pop into my head (kill off this moron, add something to show we’re in the 6th century AD, make Babs a short redhead to balance the tall brunette in chapter 3/scene 2, etc.). The order of the columns isn’t important unless you’ve got obsessive compulsive issues, but that’s a topic I’d rather not schlep around in just now. [Note: The screen capture above is from my current work in progress. See? Some of this stuff I don’t just make up, some of it I actually use!]

There’s no rule that says you can’t fill in one of these charts as you go, and lately that’s exactly what I’ve been doing: write a scene, add a line to the outline. Rinse and repeat. It’s a handy way to keep track of all kinds of things, not just word count or how often one particular point of view character (POVC) shows up. The remarks column can serve to record anything that might qualify for future consideration. If it matters that a character is left-handed, or is a Polish national, or was a great athlete, jot it down there. The same goes for any minute detail you might need to recall later. (What was the name of the cop’s poodle that got squished by the mafia don’s girlfriend in chapter 3?)

11370453_ml-txtLike many writers I know, I get antsy dealing with the same character for too long. This causes me to create extra POVCs, and their very existence almost always generates additional plot lines. These all have to intersect or at least inter-relate somehow, somewhere. Having a chart like the one above makes it much easier to see who’s getting the most page-time, whose plot needs to be advanced next, and how much to speed up or slow down the pace of a given storyline. And, if the worst happens and I discover a character who isn’t pulling his or her own weight, the chart makes it much easier to decide if I should chop ’em out, kill ’em off, or fluff ’em up.

So, you see? There’s hope for those of us who don’t like to outline in advance. We’re okay with having little more than a dim idea of where our stories are headed. When it’s time to do an outline, we’ll be ready. Eventually.


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Let’s take a step back

Normally, when I’m working on a new story, I’m all about forging ahead, full steam if possible. But I realize that may not be the proper approach for everyone, especially if what they’re attempting to do isn’t what they’re ready to do. If, for instance, you decide you want to build a house, it might be a good idea to tackle something a little less involved first. The same is true of novel writing.

21896791_ml-txt58835978_ml-txtWhat you may truly want to write could be the literary equivalent of the Taj Mahal, and that’s certainly a noble goal. If, however, you’ve never actually written anything, I’d urge you to consider scaling back a bit and do the verbal edition of a deck, or maybe a doghouse — just as a warm-up, of course. It’s all about your skill set and knowing when you’re ready to attempt something as difficult as a novel.

Yes, there have been some incredibly successful one-hit wonders, but their fame is tied closely to their rarity. In all likelihood, you won’t pen the next To Kill A Mockingbird. I don’t say that to crush your spirit, but merely to help you manage your expectations.

So, how does one build a novel writer’s skill set? Trial and error may work well for lots of things, but neither writing nor brain surgery is among them. If you want to write a novel you need to do at least three things:

  1. Study the craft
  2. Write shorter pieces and put them on the market
  3. Connect with other writers

16306482_mlVery few things in life require little or no instruction, much of which is gained via observation and emulation. We see how friends and family operate in certain situations, and we learn from it. Some learn better than others. Parenting is a good example.

Writing, however, is a craft. It can’t be learned by watching someone else do it, and only the essential elements of it are taught in school — sentence structure, spelling, grammar, etc. Some emphasis is placed on theme and essay writing, but that’s about it. If you want to write something people will pay to read, you need to dive in deep and find out what works and what doesn’t. Take some classes, practice what you studied, and then do some reading, but not for entertainment. Do it for enlightenment. Study the writers whose work you most admire, and see how they put the pieces together.

The next step involves practice. And lots of it. Write short stories, essays, poetry, limericks, flash fiction, character sketches, experimental openings and anything else you can think reject-slipof. All of it will help you build the skill set you need to produce good novels. But just writing them isn’t enough. If you’re serious, you need to take the extra step and submit them for publication.

Why would I suggest such a thing when I know only a minuscule fraction of fiction submissions are ever purchased? Aside from learning a solid lesson in humility, there’s a chance you’ll get feedback from editors, and that can have an extraordinary effect on your work. At one point in my early writing career, I maintained at least a dozen short stories in circulation. Of course, I developed a huge pile of rejection slips in the process, and it seemed like forever before I finally garnered my first sale. But during that time, I also received hand-written comments on some of the rejection slips, and as a result, I concentrated on those markets. And when my writing had improved enough, I sold to them.

The third thing I urge nascent novelists to do is to find other writers with whom they can share their work, their worries, their failures, and ultimately their successes. An active debatewriters group can make a huge difference in one’s work. If you’re able to stifle your ego long enough to exchange honest critiques with your fellow writers, you’ll enhance your knowledge of the craft ten-fold.

There’s a very good reason why this is so. When it comes to our own work, most of us wear blinders. We can’t see our mistakes; our brains are hard-wired to overlook them if not to mentally correct them. Your fellow writers won’t have that problem. When they see that you’ve strayed, it’s their job to call you on it. Just as you will for them. Do this long enough, and eventually you will be able to see the boo-boos in your own work. More than likely, however, you’ll catch that stuff and fix it on the fly.

And that’s when you’ll really be ready to write a novel.


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Ya gotta have heart

Though clichéd, it’s true that the building blocks of a good novel are the scenes. I imagine if one looked hard enough it would be possible to find a novel with neither scene nor chapter breaks, but it would definitely be an oddity. Most readers like having a convenient dreamstime_m_17293986-crpdplace to pause, should nature call, for instance. But, if you approach your job as a novelist with the right frame of mind, you’ll be able to force that reader to haul your book along with them when they trot off to take care of business.

Therein lies the power of the scene, and the real reason for its primacy. Scenes offer a grand opportunity for storytellers to leave audiences hanging. In the oral tradition, because of time constraints and other issues not directly tied to the story, tales are typically single point-of-view affairs. They’re generally told in a linear fashion, too. Novelists, on the other hand, have an unlimited number of scenes at their disposal along with a potential horde of characters to supply a point of view. The opportunities for leaving a reader drooling to find out what happens next are endless. That’s power!

Does every scene need to be an old-time cliffhanger? No, of course not, but an occasional threat to life and limb rarely hurts. At least, not in the realms of fiction. At the most basic level, a scene should offer a bit of information that’s relevant to the plot or a sub-plot. Keeping that in mind will help a writer focus on moving the story forward. Scenes that don’t advance the plot, don’t belong. Go ahead and cut them now before you get too attached. This is more than just killing your darlings, which is pretty good advice. This is more like killing your darlings and their families.

I’ve written wonderful scenes which I felt sure would drive my story, only to realize they only added length, not depth. They contained nothing new, plot-wise, and the story worked just as well without them. But these were really, really good scenes! So, rather than consign them to the digital dustbin, I squirreled them away for later use. Two, in particular, drove short stories I wrote much later, adding the very depth they couldn’t provide when initially written. (Full disclosure: I had to change names and settings in both. In one case, I even changed the genre. Point is, they weren’t wasted.)

One particular element can make a scene truly worthwhile: suspense.

And how does one do that? Simply by asking a question that isn’t answered. Hopefully, you’ll be able to avoid the temptation to have the narrator (that’s you, Bubba, no matter what you choose to call yourself) ask the question in some blatantly meat-axed, melodramatic fashion: “Will the gigantic boulder break loose and crush the girl scouts camped below?”

Instead, you want the reader to pose the question. Your job is to set the scene: happy little campers frolic in the shadow of “Ol’ Man Mose,” an enormous be-prepared-compositeboulder so named because of its peculiar head-like shape. The rain has stopped, and the kiddies are preparing to spend the night, unrolling their sleeping bags amidst giggles and laughter, blissfully unaware of the danger they’re in. Meanwhile, a steady drip of runoff from countless storms has eroded one too many pebbles from beneath the hoary, moon-sized rock they pressed into service for shelter. It shifts a fraction of an inch, a movement which goes completely unnoticed.

At this point, the smart writer will end the scene and move on to some other character or characters in some other situation. The reader, much like the boulder, is left hanging. Will it shift some more? Will the girls be crushed? Can’t they see the danger they’re in?

There’s only one way to find out, and thus the page-turner is born.

So, should you infer from this example that the primary story is about girl scouts and camping? Hell no! It’s about a park ranger, or the scout leader, or a politician in Washington, DC, some 2,000 miles away. Or, more likely, it’s about all three. Is the scene necessary? Yes, provided it gives the reader a tidbit of information which advances the story. Maybe the scout leader has always camped near Ol’ Mose, despite repeated warnings that the rock is unstable. Perhaps the ranger has a history of chasing campers away from that spot, or [cue evil laughter] luring them to it. Perhaps the politician has blocked the funding that would have allowed the DNR to secure the big, bad boulder. Any or all of these things could be in play. Maybe there’s something hidden under the rock. Maybe….

Knowing when to end a scene is critical. Fortunately, the more scenes you write, the easier finding that sweet spot becomes. Eventually, you’ll be able to feel it. For now, just work toward it, secure in the knowledge that all you need to do is paint enough of the picture to leave the reader wondering. And if possible, worried.

There’s obviously more to writing a novel than this, and we’ll examine another major aspect of the craft next time. So stay tuned!

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Remakes are fine for Hollyweed

makin-copiesDo you really and truly want to write something that’s not only been done before, but done to death? Ick. And suddenly, an imagined protest from one of my students pops into my head: “Gimme a break! I’m no genius. How d’ya expect me to come up with something totally new and different? It’s all been done already!”

Though tempted, I won’t merely lean on the alleged quote from Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office in 1899 to then President McKinley, urging that his department be closed down since “…everything that can be invented, has been invented.” (The quote is almost certainly apocryphal, by the way. Sorry, Chuck. Sucks to have been you.)

Instead, I’ll quote the inestimable Martin Varsavsky: “What we need is not just intelligence, it’s mutant intelligence, mutant thinking, mutant thoughts. We need to combine the ability to reason with the ability to ‘morph’ a thought into a whole new 17249743_ml-txtproposal.” And lo, the words were spoken, and they bore the imprimatur of truth. I should have set the word mutant in italics. Mutant. (I feel better now.)

If we hope to create something new, we must attempt a bit of mutant thinking, perhaps even use some mutant logic. When a stereotypical option rears its ugly head, we need to divert our thinking onto a different path, one that’s so less traveled as to be pristine — new. So, how the hell does one do that?

Simple. One fractures the paradigm.

Instead of “boy meets girl,” “boy meets boy,” or even “human meets non-human,” we need to stretch still further. How ’bout “boy meets god?” (Note lower case “G.”) What form(s) might god take in such an instance? What if god lived in the boy’s sock drawer? (“Can ya hear me, God? It’s me, Doober.”)

What if god were another kind of animal? What if god was a parrot? Or an insect of some kind? (Watch where you step!) Before we wander too far into Kafka-land, let’s stop and consider the concept of mutant thinking. Go somewhere unexpected; do something unplanned; experience something that shouldn’t happen. This is how you morph the commonplace into the creative, how to re-make something obvious and overdone into something original.

31075440 - woman cyborg of steel and white plastic

Like… I dunno. Robot sex!

Okay, I admit, that’s creepy. And I’m not sure where one would go with it. But then, what might someone do with it? If there are robotic consorts, why couldn’t two of them meet and, who knows, fall in love? Imagine the conversations they might have, comparing notes on all the wretched humans with whom they’ve had to deal. What if someone recorded their conversations? What if…

And there it is: “What if?” The fiction writer’s raison d’etre. What if the hero is really a schmuck? Nah; everyone owns that t-shirt. Maybe the hero’s girl isn’t true blue? Again, nah. The problem here is that Hollywood has been digging in this dirt for so long, that all the easy role reversals have already been reversed. Think “Star Wars.”

So where does one go from there? Options abound, believe me. Leave the good guy/bad guy roles in their traditional forms and find your mayhem elsewhere. How ’bout the stock market? Consider an IPO (initial public offering) for shares in a company that grants wishes, or overturns dictators, or resurrects extinct species? Hm. I think I hear the theme music from “Jurassic Park.”

Here are a few What Ifs off the top of my head:

  • How ’bout a history book that allows readers to actually see into the past as if they’re watching events in real time?
  • 40898049 - cartoon rat looking through binoculars vector illustrationHow ’bout a highly trained rodent that can conduct espionage?
  • How ’bout an athlete (actor, politician, teacher, cop) who’s really an alien from the seventh planet? (No Clinton/Trump jokes, please.)
  • How ’bout a pair of shoes that’ll take you anywhere you want to go, instantly?
  • How ’bout a pair of earmuffs that allows the wearer to eavesdrop on any conversation anywhere?

The point is, you don’t have to rely on old tropes and tired themes. You just have to dig around a bit to find some turf that hasn’t already been plowed a gazillion times. And, if you can’t think of something, there’s still hope. Tell the old story better than it’s been done before. Hollywood’s been doing it for years.

 Now, go thou, and be fruitful. Or write. That’d be even better.

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And so it begins…

In my last post I touched on the essentials of a good opening for genre fiction novels: character, conflict and setting. I prefer the more memorable, alliterative rendition: a person, in a place, with a problem. (A while back I offered a simple method for generating story ideas using this approach. It’s right here in case you missed it.)

In my classes, there’s often great consternation when I discuss this approach to story building. “It’s too formulaic, too pat, too restrictive, too… whatever.” Nonsense. It’s merely a plausable framework for creating interest in virtually any sort of fiction. A more cogent question is: how profound should the opening problem be?

person-place-problemIf one takes the position that good stories feature characters who evolve as a result of the challenges they face, then the story-opening problem should not be the climactic issue. A good example is captured in this photo which recently went viral. If, for instance, we’re writing a story about a gutsy rescue worker, this might be an episode we’d want to use later, indeed much later, as something we could work toward. Opening the story with our hero dangling from a chopper while a great white shark attacks him doesn’t leave us much room for growth. After all, the best genre novels require a continuum of ever-increasing drama (often called “try/fails”) which ultimately lead to a single climactic event. The chopper and the chompers shown here seem like a perfect fit for the climax.

But wait! We could be missing some opportunities here. What if the story isn’t about the poor schlub on the rope ladder? What if it’s about the chopper pilot? Let’s call her Wanda, and maybe the dangling daredevil is Calvin, her fiancé. That could make for an interesting tale. Did they have an argument before starting their air rescue shift? Could Wanda be looking for a way out of her wedding? Maybe she’s just trying to get even with Calvin for something he did, innocently or not. On the other hand, she could be daydreaming about their upcoming nuptials, blissfully unaware of the gigantic eating machine about to turn poor Cal into an hors d’oeuvre.

chompOur intrepid adventure addict, on the other hand, will either survive or not; there isn’t a whole lot we can do with him after this, aside from handing him a change of underwear or posting his obituary.

Other tale-telling options would include making the story about the shark, or the people maintaining the chopper, or whoever photographed the carnage. In any of those situations, one could conceivably begin with the principal subject in the photo. For most writers I suspect the situation is so dramatic, however, it would be nearly impossible not to use it climactically.

Ah, but there’s the challenge. How could you start here and still amp up the drama? That’s what real writers do. Don’t accept the obvious. Don’t take the path readers expect. Don’t limit yourself to any of the first ten things that come to mind. Instead, open yourself up to other opportunities. They’re legion. You just have to look for them.

 I’ll suggest some ideas for doing just that, next time.

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Speed dating and page one

We’ve all heard about the importance of first impressions, and there are warehouses full of data which support the concept. For a novel–especially for a writer’s first novel–nothing is more important. If the opening of your story fails the first impression test with the reader, she’s gone. Forever. She’s not going to look back; she’s not going to give you a second chance, much less a second thought. You’re done.

It’s possible the next reader (hopefully, the next “book buyer”) will completely connect with your opening. Shazaam! They’ll be in love. It’s possible, sure, but very unlikely. The goal of an opening should be to appeal to a mass audience, and if the first reader turns up her nose, chances are the second one will, too. And the third, etc.

In speed dating, the first few seconds of eye-to-eye contact are the most critical. Likewise, when a reader first meets your book, your opening words face a similar prospect. You must demonstrate, in a handful of sentences, a few paragraphs at most, that the story you want to share is worth reading. The opening must be so good the person holding your book will be moved to pay for the privledge of reading it.

Reader courtship is a challenge, but it’s one all novelists must meet if they desire to be successful. The speed dating analogy offers several parallels. Originally created by Rabbi Yaacov Deyo to help Jewish singles make new acquaintences, the practice has expanded to assist a wide variety of people to meet others of similar circumstances. The opening of your book should seek to do the same.

If you’ve written something that falls entirely within a single genre–a western, a romance, a space opera, or a spy story for instance–that ought to be reflected in your opening. The most important elements in the opening, however, are character, conflict, and setting. In other words: a person, in a place, with a problem.

In the speed dating universe, many participants make a decision about whether they want to see more of a person in the first thirty seconds. Talk about pressure to perform! It’s not all that different when it comes to your opening. In traditional writer parlance, this process is called setting a hook, but I think that term denigrates the reader. I’m not looking to reel in a trout; I want to engage the curiosity and imagination of a human being who will not only enjoy my work, but who will tell their fellow readers about it.

Doing that means engaging my readers–making them care about my characters and/or their issues. At the very least it means I have to pique my reader’s curiosity. And do so quickly. On page one, if possible.

Maybe it’s better to think of that first encounter as a blind date rather than a speed date. In either case you’d want to do everything in your power to look and act like someone who’s company is worth keeping. It’s the same for your book. You just can’t afford to make a bad first impression.

So, what goes into an engaging opening? Does it have to be short and snappy, or can it take a little time to develop? Thank goodness it doesn’t have to be written in 30 seconds. I’m quite certain some of the best openings, as short as they are, took a long time to craft. How you might go about that is something we’ll tackle in the next installment. Stay tuned.

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Writing a novel is like…

63447767_ml-txt…eating an elephant. You have to do it one bite at a time. No one seems to care how the elephant feels about this. The point, obviously, is that writing a novel is a big job, and you won’t finish it overnight.

Many would-be novelists give up when they think about how big a project it is. The good news is, you don’t have to be one of ’em. All you need to do is adopt the elephant-eating mindset. Just take it one bite at a time. You’ll have the whole critter digested before you know it.

Not convinced? Okay, here’s another way to look at it. Think about the last time you went shopping at a mall. Easy enough, right? All you had to do was hop in your car and go. Easy-peasy. No big deal. But consider for a moment all the steps you had to accomplish in order to do that:

  • You got dressed and ready to go.
  • You climbed into your car, adjusted the seat and mirrors, maybe turned on the radio.
  • You opened the garage door and carefully backed down the drive.
  • You navigated several miles of road and more than a few traffic lights.
  • You may have had to change your route because of traffic or road repair.
  • You finally got to yolur destination and spent some time looking for a parking spot.
  • At long last, you bebopped into the mall and decided where you wanted to shop first.

bongAre you beginning to get the idea? Even something as simple as buying a hair ribbon at Hermione’s Haberdashery (& Head Shoppe) requires quite a number of distinct steps. And with just a little imagination, each of those steps could involve some sort of conflict or complication. (All stories require conflict or complication of some kind, be it large or small. No conflict? No story. Trust me on this for now; we’ll cover it in detail very soon.) Herewith, some potential complications:

  • While getting dressed, your hair refuses to cooperate, or you find a rip in your favorite blouse. Maybe you can’t find your car keys.
  • When you get in your car, it won’t start, or you discover someone spilled something on the seat (beer, milkshake, fertilizer, who knows what).
  • You get the garage door open and realize a garbage truck has broken down at the end of your driveway, or the neighbor’s house is on fire, or a child has had a bike accident and you’re the only adult in sight.

Any or all of these things might have happened, and you haven’t even left home yet! This set of compilations may not make for a compelling read, but it should demonstrate how one might break down a complicated process into more easily addressable chunks. Just remember to add some spice–conflict or complication, remember? For today, you don’t have to write an entire chapter; you only have to work on the scene where your protagonist discovers the hole in her blouse.

Are there clues to suggest how it might have happened? Is there someone in her household who hates that garment? Did she somehow forget the wild night on the town when she met bikersthat “bad boy”-type at the bar who talked her into going for a ride on his motorcycle, and she ended up spending the night at his place? [Note: Yeah, it’s easy for me to get crazy with ideas like this, because I’m not working from a premise. If I had one, say something like: illicit drugs lead to immorality, this scenario would be perfectly fine. On the other hand, if the premise were something like: strong will leads to success, the scene above would be much harder to squeeze in. See previous discussion on the P-word.]

So, kiddies, today’s lesson is simply this: don’t be overwhelmed by the enormity of writing an entire novel. Rome wasn’t built in a day, or a weekend, although, according to Mental Floss, John Boyne claims to have written The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in two and a half days. That makes my head hurt. The best I’ve done is a modest 70,000-word novel in six weeks (a mere 1,667 words per day).

This definitely isn’t a race, but if it were, it’d be a marathon, not a sprint. Worry about your book, and write it, one scene at a time. Getting it done is far more important than getting it done fast.


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