Category Archives: Outlines

Starting Over Again … Again

Ungrateful God, the second volume of Unwilling Souls, is with my copy editor as we speak. While I’m not quite ready to announce a release date yet, it’s time to start thinking about the next volume. Beginning a new book is an exciting time full of a blank page’s endless possibilities. That being said, I’ve never done the third book in a series before, but before Ungrateful God, I’d never done a second volume in a series before, either. So it’s worth reflecting on some of the lessons I’ve learned when writing sequels. After all, a lot of those blank-page possibilities will lead to a pretty crappy book.

Do a better job outlining: Ungrateful God will be released many months after I’d originally hoped it would. The main driver for this was the substantial content edits my editor handed back. These were very necessary edits from the standpoint that the book was not living up to its potential (it is now, big time!), but they were also very unnecessary from the standpoint that I could have avoided them if I’d done a better job outlining. So that’s the plan for Book 3, a thorough outline followed by a call to my editor to go over the book’s structure and remove any large weak points before I ever put a word down. I’ve already begun this process, and given that Book 3 will be even more complicated than Ungrateful God (itself more complicated than Unwilling Souls), I’m hopeful I can avoid some pain and suffering later by doing this work up front.

Decide what kind of story I’m telling: I don’t mean to imply I’ve got no idea where the story is going. I have rough notions of major plot points for each of the remaining books in the series. But I also don’t want this series to feel too formulaic. Each book, while both standing alone and telling a portion of a larger story, should feel different than the other books in the series (at least, that’s my desire, but every author’s mileage may vary). So while Unwilling Souls was a chase book with a mystery at its core, in Ungrateful God the pure mystery element is much more front and center, leading to an explosive ending. Similar stylistic decisions must be made before the outline for Book 3 can really resonate. I have a good idea what the answer is, but telling would be, well, telling.

Decide how long between books: I don’t mean the time it takes to write the books, though that’s important too (see below). In this case, I mean the in-world time between books. Ungrateful God begins more than a month after Unwilling Souls ends, so quite a lot has changed between the volumes, and the author has to convey that information to the reader in a way that neither confuses nor bores them. Time jumps are a good way to skip straight over stuff that would otherwise bog down the story into parts that are more interesting and relevant to the story at hand. But they aren’t appropriate for every book, and as it turns out, Book 3 will begin right where Ungrateful God leaves off.

Decide how long between books, the other way: Simply put, I wrote the bulk of the first draft of Ungrateful God too damn fast. I’d set myself (and my editor, more importantly) a deadline I was determined to meet, and I burned myself out getting there, another reason the draft needed so much work. I’m still learning the answer to this “how fast can I write consistently?” and I’ve given myself more time for Book 3. It will help avoid unrealistic deadlines and ensure I can turn in a more quality draft to my editor when the time comes. I’d like to be able to put out more than one book a year, but the reality is I work a full-time day job and I’d also like to, you know, see my loved ones on occasion.

Determine if the formula needs shaking up: Above I said I try not to be formulaic. But the truth is that if books in a series bore no resemblance to one another, they would make for a pretty poor series. I decided early on that in order to make the story as epic as I wanted it, I’d have to play around with the viewpoint format from book to book. In Unwilling Souls, Ses Lucani is the lone viewpoint character. In Ungrateful God, Ses remains the primary viewpoint character with the vast majority of chapters, but I add a second, minor viewpoint character as well. In Book 3, I plan to continue that trend, with a second minor POV (for three total), and so on. At the moment, that works for me as a way of expanding the stories I can tell. Harry Potter fans know that JK Rowling occasionally broke with a strictly Harry POV in later books to give us an idea of what was going on in the wider world. One extra POV per book is a nicely pleasing number to me, but I reserve the right to change my pattern should the needs of the story demand it.

All this pre-work is a new experience for me, a dedicated pantser of a writer. But after several attempts at this and taking honest note of the delays the style has cost me, I’m confident the increased productivity (and decreased wait time of my fans that will result) will be worth all that unpleasant change.

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Preparation to Write in a New Genre

You know when you’re knee deep in a project and then you get that shiny new idea? And you’re like, “But Brain, I don’t write Historical Fiction. You must have me confused with a better brain that likes to research things to death.” And yet, you love the idea so much, you decide, maybe one day, you’ll write that shiny idea into a book or short story, or *gulp* a series.

If that’s a thought you’ve had recently, then you and I are in the same boat, my friend. Grab and oar and let’s figure out what the heck we’re supposed to do now that we’re up Poop Creek with two paddles.

The best answer I’ve found in how to prepare to write in a new genre is extremely simple, and yet will take you a very long time.

Read.

Read read read read read.

Then read some more.

Read some articles. Then read some articles about those articles.

I can hear my inner critic already grumbling. “A little excessive, dear.” OR IS IT?

You’ll find a few different schools of thought on this. Some people try not to read so it doesn’t color how they write their book. Other people don’t think you can even start a book until you’ve read a library full. You and I, my friend, need to find a happy medium.

I decided I wanted to read more in the genre I would be attempting to write which happens to be Historical Fiction. I wanted to read classics in the genre, and also recently published books in the genre. I feel it’s important to read both because then I’d be able to establish a foundation in the genre with the classics, and then see what has been selling and successful in the genre currently.

Next, I took a few weeks to think about my story and what would be the best means to tell it. I decided a dual timeline would be best, but I had also had zero experience writing dual timelines.

Finally, I ordered all the books that appealed to me with those two intersecting points (dual timeline and historical fiction).

I’ve found that analyzing these books has been more difficult than I thought… because I’m loving them so much. I feel transported to another place and time, and fall in love with many of the characters. Which makes it a little difficult to dissect a piece of literature, you know?

In order to focus on the task at hand, I took note of the things I loved. For example:

  1. What do I love about the author’s style? Is the voice unique?
  2. If the book is in first person, what helped make the character so unique?
  3. What details about the setting made me feel like I was there?
  4. How does the author set up a scene to help me feel transported?
  5. How does the author go back and forth between the two (or multiple) timelines? Is it seamless? If so, then how? If it’s not seamless, what could’ve made it better for me?
  6. Do I see a pattern of how the authors move between timelines?
  7. What, if anything, did I not like about how the author approached writing the story? Why? How can I avoid doing the same?

I’m still reading a stack of books of dual timeline historical fiction. I’m still asking myself these questions. I’m a few months in, now, and I expect this will take a few more months to complete this stage of the research.

And then there’s the research for the time period in which my book takes place. But perhaps that’s another post down the line…

Have you written in a different genre than you’re used to? If so, what tricks did you learn that you’d like to share?

 

Learning to Piece Together the Story Puzzle

I have found that there a few divides amongst writers more contentious than the arguments between discovery writers (pantsers) and outliners. I used to be firmly a member of the pantser camp. While I recognized that outlining had its benefits, I felt that planning with such excruciating detail would “ruin the fun” of creation. Plus, outlining was difficult and boring. The outline would only change as I got into the trenches and discovered something new and shiny, so what was the point? I had tried to outline a few times, I argued, and it hadn’t worked for me. It never would.

Fortunately, I had a few friends patient enough to take the time to convince me otherwise. Outlining isn’t a single, specific, regimented process, they argued, but rather a way of approaching a story deliberately. I would still create, discover the characters, the world, and the plot in the brainstorming section of the process. Then, the outline itself would be like writing an extremely condensed first draft. I would be able to edit it for major structural problems without the emotional baggage that came with hours and hours spent working on prose.

Once I had a coherent skeleton, I could write the first draft without worrying about writing my way into corners. My structural edits would already be done, and so I could focus my creative energies on producing powerful prose, vivid descriptions, and touching emotional moments. Not only would my first draft be better than what I had done before, it would also take less time to complete.

As for the “inefficiency” of prewriting, any time that I spent up front would be repaid twice over in the back end of the first draft. My manuscript would be leaner and free from most, if not all, structural problems. Additionally, outlines were guides, not shackles. Of course the outline would change as I wrote, but I would “discover deliberately” rather than wandering off into the weeds. I would be able to compare new ideas against a well thought out plot and be able to decide what was truly better for the story. Though it took a few years of conversations and cajoling, they eventually won me over.

Convinced, I decided that 2016 would be the year that I learned to outline. I struggled for a few months and grew disheartened. Outlining was proving to be as difficult, boring, and ineffective as I had feared it would be. I took my problems back to my writing group and we talked through numerous blocks. The issue, I eventually came to realize, was that I hadn’t learned the skills I would need to outline effectively. I knew how to work with character, with plot, with theme, and with milieu. I had all the pieces, but didn’t know how to put the puzzle together.

Again, I was lucky in that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. Of the three members in my group, two of us were discovery writers who were trying to make the transition. After some discussion, we decided to act as a group to resolve the problem. We enrolled in one of David Farland’s online classes, The Story Puzzle. Over the course of 16 weeks, the Story Doctor walked us through his process and theories, answered our questions via email and the biweekly conference calls, and provided valuable feedback on the writing assignments we submitted to him.

It was hard and frustrating at first, but eventually I found the joy that has always driven me to write. I was still discovering and creating, but by doing so deliberately I was finding more than I had expected. My story improved with each passing week and I began feeling the itch, the need to dive in and write prose. I resisted and kept working Dave’s process. By the end of the class, I had all the pieces that I needed and some good guidance on how to put them together into a functional outline. I was in no way ready to begin writing the first draft, but I knew how to get there.

Time passed as I continued to work on my outline. I built my world, wrote down scraps of description and dialog, and found ways to heighten my story and characters on every level. On the first day of each month, I surveyed my progress and decided if I was ready to start prose. Month after month, I judged that I was close, but not quite there. It wasn’t that I was stalling, like I had in the past when my project seemed intimidating. Rather, I had a task list that I needed to finish.

Then came the first day of another month. November first. NaNoWriMo had just begun. I looked over all of my prewriting and decided that, yes, I was ready. I dove into the prose and emerged thirty days later with my first ever NaNo victory. The story wasn’t done, in fact I had quite a ways yet to go. Rather, I had proved to myself that with a good outline to guide me, I could out-write my old pace by a fairly significant margin. Most importantly, I knew that I could do it again. And again. It was the sort of skill that I could develop into a career.

So You’ve Written Yourself Into a Corner…

Every writer has been there. Your plot is humming along. Your protagonist is sidestepping or hurtling every obstacle you throw at them, and they are well on their way to the climactic, final showdown. Suddenly, BAM! You find them squarely in a situation that you can’t see your way out of. You’ve written yourself into a corner.

It’s honestly one of the worst feelings in writing. That awful, “Oh no, how much am I going to have to change to make this work?” feeling of time and effort wasted. It sucks. But take a moment and collect yourself. We’re here to help.

FIrst, take comfort in the fact that every writer has (or will have) experienced this feeling. Those who prefer the “pantsing” style will generally feel the pain far more and probably have developed thick calluses to it, but even the most ardent outliner will have a logical hiccup in their plan every now and then and find themselves having to fight their way back out of it.

There are varying ways to tackle the problem. Which one to apply depends entirely on two factors: how systemic the damage is and the level of the writer’s improvisational skills.

But before I go into specifics, there is one rule you must obey above all when trying to correct the problem of having written yourself into a corner: Use this as an opportunity to make the story better. 

I don’t mean better in the sense of “I had written myself into a corner and now I’ve fixed it.” Go beyond just fixing the problem. Use the fix to illuminate your characters more, or to reveal richer details of your worldbuilding, or to make your plot flow more elegantly. Seeing this as an opportunity serves more purpose than simply resulting in a better story than you had before. It also helps you avoid the psychic toll of feeling as though you’ve wasted a bunch of your time writing into a dead-end. Pull this off, and you’ll be happy you screwed up, because the end result will be that much better.

The first thing you have to do is analyze the problem and the context surrounding it. Are you happy with the book up until this point? Or has the story become more like a beater car, struggling more and more to make headway as it gradually falls apart, with this dead-end being the final straw?

If things had been just fine up until the dead-end, then you probably don’t have to do all that much to fix it and probably aren’t even reading this for advice. Backtrack as far as needed and make a few changes to foreshadow a solution, or change the scenario entirely into something that works.

But sometimes a dead-end is merely a symptom of a larger problem. You can almost think of it as your subconscious’s way of forcing you to really look and see the larger issues of the story. I’ve run into this before where two hundred pages into a book, I realized that my protagonist’s actions didn’t line up at all with his personality. As Dave Heyman discussed a couple of days ago, I had to tear the story down to the studs and basically start over with a premise and some characters.

Hopefully your problem won’t require such drastic measures. Is your dead-end more character-focused but not something you can easily rewrite? Luckily for you, people are very complex creatures, full of flaws and contradictions. Think about a real person you know well. I’m guessing that most of their personality will angle in a certain direction, but that you’ll have noticed that they have a few weird tics as well that don’t seem to jibe with the rest. This sort of thing is a great way to add richness and complexity to your characters. As long as you foreshadow a character behavior a couple of times in advance, you shouldn’t have any trouble tweaking the character enough to allow for the behavior while not breaking them.

If your dead-end is more centered around logistics or plot mechanics, now’s your chance to showcase the world your character inhabits. Especially if its a science fiction or fantasy story, there are any number of ways to add a cool worldbuilding wrinkle that will enable your character to progress. Just make sure that you backtrack and insert that wrinkle (or hints of it) liberally throughout the early portion of your story, to avoid a deus ex machina situation.

If you’re REALLY lucky, you can find yourself with what I like to call the Sublime Solution. This is where those of us who practice the pantsing style of writing really come into our own. Consider: are there any other loose threads of your story dangling out there, things you put in because they just seemed really cool and now you don’t know what to do with them, so you’re considering marking them as darlings to be killed? Well, not so fast. Because maybe, just maybe, you can find a way to tie one or more of those loose threads into a rope to hoist your character free of their dead end. If you can pull this off, it’s one of the best feelings in writing. I had a situation like that arise while working on Ungrateful God, picking up a thread that had been dangling since early in Unwilling Souls and, well… saying any more would be telling. 🙂

In summary, finding yourself written into a corner is both quite common and no reason to panic. Indeed, if you look at it as an opportunity to strengthen your story the annoyance factor … diminishes. Saying it goes away would be a lie, because it’s annoying every single time. But with experience it gets easier to see it for the backhanded gift that it is.

Because it’s always better for you to find and fix the problem before a reader does.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. LittleHeadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (sometimes during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and the upcoming Dragon Writers Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.