Category Archives: Outlines

The Incredible Shrinking Outline

Asking an author about their pre-writing process, in some ways, is like asking them what color their underwear is. While it’s an interesting conversation starter, the answer is really personal. I know authors who do a full bio sheet for each character, and others who just keep it all in their head. Me, I write massive and slightly strange outlines.

The way I learned to write outlines back in grade school was the typical bulletpointed lists with headings and subheadings. That’s great for some people but it’s too vague for my needs. You see, because of a childhood illness I have a chemically rewired brain. All that rewiring made my memory a little wonky. I can remember the most trivial details of a conversation I had three years ago, or the exact placement of a particular book on my shelves. But remembering what I meant by “Morpheus starts a fight” isn’t quite enough to tell me what kind of fight I’d intended for that scene or even who he’s supposed to fight. If it’s an early chapter, yeah the chances are good that I’ll remember. However, when I’ve put 10,000 or more words down, too much time has passed for me to recall every little detail. Plus I found that putting all of those little details in subheadings is visually annoying to me. In addition to that, my theater experience taught me how powerful a few key words can be when I’ve forgotten what my next line is. With all of that in mind, what I do instead is this:

(If you haven’t read The Moonflower, there’s spoilers ahead)

Chapter 13

Ariana’s class goes on an outing to the Louvre. Mr. Talbott takes them through an unmarked side door and takes them down to the basement. One of the students asks how he got permission to come down here. While down there, Ariana finds an old carved stone frieze from ancient Greece laid out on a work table. It’s one of Sair’s. She recognizes it from his workroom. She decides that she needs to know more. She runs home and re-enters the Demos Oneiroi in order to find him and learn more.

 Chapter 14

Ariana enters the dream. She searches for him in the field first, then checks all of the landscapes that they’ve visited before, but doesn’t find him. She is frustrated and scared for him. She tries to think of how he would search for her and remembers that he pops in and out of places at will. She concentrates hard on Sair and tries to will herself to his location. When she opens her eyes she is in a white marble Greek temple. A blindfolded woman dressed in white walks up and asks if she can be of any assistance. Woman is Dikaiosyne, the spirit of justice. Ariana meets Phobetor and Phantasos. Zosime is thrilled to see Ariana again and brings her in to see Sair. She says that she’s looking for Sair and the attendant escorts her without any difficulty.

I’ve found that a paragraph style outline is a lot more helpful to me. I can fill it with as many details as I like and since I’m the only person who sees it I can use run on sentences, poor grammar, wrong punctuation, leave out punctuation, use colloquialisms and slang…pretty much whatever I feel will give me the right cues. Sometimes the outline paragraph is only three or four sentences, and sometimes it’s half a page. I just keep writing until I get the full scene mapped out. I’ve even been known to put things in my outline that usually have no business being in an outline. Things like character descriptions or a song with the right tempo and mood for the scene that I need to play in the background. That doesn’t stop me from adding them because it’s a cue that I’ll need later.

I also don’t outline the entire book. I outline all of the major/really important chapters, whatever minor chapters I can think of, and then put all of those events in linear order. If I know what chapter 9 and 11 need to be but not exactly what comes between I’ll leave empty chapter headings and fill it in later. All of this though usually only covers about 2/3 of the book. It never fails that once I get about a third of the way into a manuscript I think of another cool twist or two that adds more depth and/or character development or I finally figure out what is supposed to be in a hole I left so I purposely leave room for those additional chapters.

Yes, there’s nothing unusual about that. I realize that many writers outline this way or in a way that’s very similar to this. But this is only half of my outlining process. What I do with that outline is where it gets unusual.

I’m a disciple of Alton Brown in that I like tools that can multitask and that’s exactly what my outline does. You see, there’s a reason that my outline is in bold. When I’ve finished typing out my outline, the very last thing I do before I start writing the book is make a second copy. The first copy of the outline stays in a file, pristine and untouched so I can refer to it when I’m working on subsequent books. The second copy is what becomes my manuscript. You read that right. I write the book in the second copy of my outline, right under the outline paragraph. When I’ve completed one of the items in the outline I delete it. That way I don’t have to re-read what I wrote the previous day in order to figure out where I’m at. I can look at what’s left of the outline for that chapter and immediately know where I left off. Life is crazy and NaNoWriMo in particular is crazy. Some days I only have thirty minutes to write and I can’t spend that time re-reading. This makes it so much easier for me to jump right into it so I can make the most of the time that I have. (It’s another reason that having the right cues in my outline is so important to me.)

So many pre-writing tools are single purpose but if you’re an outliner there’s no reason why it can’t serve multiple purposes and be adapted — even Frankensteined — to be tailored to your exact needs. Besides, it’s just a tool. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just needs to do the job efficiently.

4 Things Every Pantser Needs to Know to Write a Great First Draft

NanoWrimo is coming. Or, you have two weeks of vacation and you want to write that novel. Or, you have a deadline looming for the next book. Sometimes, you just want to get that first draft done so you can work on the revisions. Or, you have a great idea for a book and need the glue to put it together.

Whatever the case, there is a way to write a decent first draft quickly. Here are four things to help write your first draft well without a lot of outlining. While some like to outline in great detail I find that it doesn’t always work very well for me. But, like it or not, we all do some form of outlining even if it’s just in our heads.

The first three you’ll think are no brainers, but the fourth? It’s the secret glue to making a story come together and stick … and it’s more important than you think … and sometimes this fourth point is actually your number one consideration!

1) Follow a basic story arc.
Whether it’s the hero’s journey, or knowing the beginning, middle and end with two or three try/fail cycles thrown in, know the basic story structure for your genre. It what’s readers and publishers expect you, as a professional writer/author to know and follow. So learn it and use it.

2) Know your protagonist and the world your protagonist functions in.
There are a lot of great posts on this site about creating great characters and what motivates them. Know your protagonist well because that will inform how he responds and reacts in situations and what motivates him to take on the challenge the villain presents and how he will respond to that challenge.

3) Know your villain and what motivates him.
You may not appear on the pages as often as the protagonist but you still need to know the villain in as much depth as the protagonist. The villain motivates the protagonist, is who the protagonist reacts against, and sets the obstacles. In a murder mystery, the author needs to know the crime scene, the victim and the criminal in a s much (or more) detail than the protagonist before writing the first draft. I’ve come to believe, that in every genre we all need to have similar cache of knowledge to write a good first draft.

And now for the secret glue that holds all this together …

4) Theme
Yup. Theme.

Most authors don’t try to figure this out until they’ve completed their novel. Not understanding your theme ahead of time, creates massive revisions, and characters who don’t always have depth and who don’t have distinct voices.

Theme is about making a universal truth personal. It is taking a larger truth such as good prevails over evil, love conquers all, David can beat Goliath, and so on, and making it a central stake in the protagonist’s world.

Theme is the idea which all characters from the villain, the protagonist and the supporting characters will either try to prove or disprove. Theme informs motivations for each character as they will either be, to varying degrees, for, against or ambivalent to the idea. Because of their attitude or belief with regards to the theme, characters will either support, hinder, or be decidedly unhelpful. Most importantly, they will have different voices.

With theme, characters will always move the story forward, illuminate the point you the writer are trying to make in telling the story and theme and they will broaden the scope of the issue thus making the story richer for the reader. Every character’s desire to either prove or disprove the theme forms the central conflict.

You are thinking that if you’ve followed steps 2 and 3 and you know your protagonist and villain, that you have your central conflict. You are right. But your writing will be more informed if you are aware of the conflict and what it means or what the principle surrounding it is. That is theme. It is the deepest motivation, the desire, the earnest yearnings and dreams your characters have. It is what makes the prize or the goal so valuable. Once you’ve got his nailed, then you develop the rest of the cast to illuminate the theme and the conflict.

Conversely, if you have an idea and don’t know where or how to start the story, think about the theme and what universal truth or belief you want to write about, Then, create the host of characters who show different sides of the struggle.

Finally, knowing the theme also gives purpose to character transformation. The protagonist has to change, for if he or she is ambivalent, there is no story. Basically, the protagonist knows what he wants to accomplish and must overcome internal and external obstacles to get the prize. Theme gives your character a reason to grow and change.

In short, know your theme. Choose characters who will represent different sides, who have different opinions, and you will have a lot of options for conflict, a lot of different voices.

So my fellow pantsers, if you are aware of these four things, you’re well on your way to writing a truly spectacular first draft!

 

When Disaster Strikes – Getting My Momentum Back

I’ve blogged on the Fictorians before about the infection that nearly killed me in 2014. What I may not have mentioned that outside of that scary situation and hospital stay, it really wrecked my writing momentum. This was February 2014. If we rewind back to mid-2013, I went into the most productive period of my writing at that point. From July 2013 to January 14, I wrote two novels. I wrote what became my debut novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL and another shorter novel that’s my tribute to Elmore Leonard called SUPER SYNC. In that six month period, I also wrote a few short stories and my overall total of words written was probably somewhere near 180,000. This was an incredible time and I really felt like I was getting into a higher gear when everything came crashing down.

After my illness, I barely wrote anything new for a year. Yes, I sold and went through subsequent edits on both SLEEPER PROTOCOL and an earlier novel RUNS IN THE FAMILY, so I was “writing” but I wasn’t writing anything new, which we all know are two entirely different things. But, in that period from April 2015 to January 2016 came the impetus for the sequel VENDETTA PROTOCOL and I decided to try my hand at a prequel to RUNS IN THE FAMILY. Writing was slow and arduous. There were several times when I wanted to simply give up. I was going to publish a novel, after all. I ultimately decided that I wasn’t going to be happy with one book on that shelf by my deathbed. It was time to write more, so in January 2016, I decided that it was time to get off my ass and write. I’d been incredibly productive before then, and I believed I could get back to, or surpass, my productivity. It just required self-discipline to get into the chair and write and a little faith that I would get better, both mentally and physically.

It was slow going at first, but I outlined an alternate history novel. From there, I went into the draft of VENDETTA PROTOCOL with the goal of writing it in three months. SLEEPER PROTOCOL took me 7 weeks and I figured I would need about double the time. Turns out, I wrote VENDETTA PROTOCOL in 9 weeks. Because I could feel myself getting faster and I trusted myself as a writer. Was it perfect? Hell, no. But I was getting it out of my head. I turned around from that draft and wrote a novella LANCER ONE. After that, I was asked to submit to a military science fiction anthology, so I wrote a 9,000 word story “Stand On It.” At the end of 2016, I started work on the alternate history novel I’d outlined in February-March. I worked on that draft into February of 2017.

Not long after I finished that project, my military science fiction anthology story turned into a novel titled PEACEMAKER. I wrote that novel in less than three months. During that time, I was asked on short notice to provide a story for the upcoming X-PRIZE: Avatars anthology. I had to turn it around in two weeks – I did it in a week. All of that “new writing” ended back in June of this year. I’ve been editing ever since. The results are crazy.

PEACEMAKER get worldwide release on August 25th. VENDETTA PROTOCOL gets an ebook release on September 13th and a print version following. The novella LANCER ONE is due out in October. The first anthology A FISTFUL OF CREDITS was released in June and is selling like hotcakes. The X-PRIZE anthology is due later this year.

Two weeks ago, I turned in the alternate history project to my editor/mentor. It’s the most difficult book I’ve written to date. I’ve now laid out a plan for the rest of 2017 and it’s ambitious as hell. I can get it done, though. My momentum is back. How did I do it?

Go back a few paragraphs. For me, it’s about putting my butt in the chair and writing. Yes, I plot and outline, but I’m also thinking about the books and projects all the time. I take a lot of notes. Some of them work, others don’t. The best ideas I don’t have to write down because they stay with me. Once I’m committed to writing the project, I let go of my inner critic – that little bastard that likes to click the backspace button more than he types. I write because I know that I can fix it later. I get the story out of my head. If it comes in short or over the desired word count, I go back and fix it. All of that is faith in myself. Will I make mistakes? Yes. Can I fix them? Yes. I’ve taken very strongly to the belief that I can fix anything in editing. The result is my productivity is higher than ever.

Let go. Have faith. Write.

< Insert amazing blog post here >

Hello everyone! Momentum is a key element for success in completing any writing project, and this month has already be loaded with lots of good advice from folks who have been doing this a lot longer than I have. Some of their advice might contradict the advice I’ll be offering, but that’s part of the joy of writing. There’s no right or wrong way to do it – just the way that works for you.

I too have some advice to offer, something that works for me. This one simple trick, you might say, to avoid getting stuck in your path. (“Writer’s Blocks hate him!”) It may work for you, or it may not. In order to give my advice context though, I have to talk a bit about how I write. It’s a brief side road but I think the trip will be worth it.

Writers seem to be broken up into two general groups: the outliners and the pantsers. I have great admiration for pantsers, those brave souls who just sit down at the keyboard and make it happen live.

That’s amazing, but it will never be me. I am an outliner and I never sit down for my writing session with no idea what’s going to happen. I do several extensive outline passes of my plot and character arcs before I start page one. I often even have much of my dialog pre-written (or pre-recorded).

Once I start that first draft, I want nothing to stop me until I finish the novel. A story finished is a story fixable. I may be newer at this than some Fictorians, but I’ve had more than a few stories die from the blank screen of death because I stopped and just couldn’t get going again.

3,000 word days? Great. 1,000 words? No problem. 25 words? At least I moved forward. The only number I don’t want is zero. As long as I’m moving in any way, I tend to keep moving. It’s when I straight up stop that the problems begin

Yet even with the best outline you can run into issues. Maybe you realize a plot hole you didn’t count on, or dialogue that sounded great in your head just reads corny now that you see it on the page. Very common for me, you knew there was a fight scene here but you didn’t block it out and now it makes no sense.

Any of these can get me stuck, lead me to a zero day where the cursor blinks at me and I simply blink back. This is the one thing I don’t want. So, what do I do when I’m stuck?

I cheat.

I simply skip where I’m stuck by using my two best friends: left angle bracket and right angle bracket.

If you look at my completed first drafts, they will be riddled with these. A few examples from my first draft of SEAS OF EVEREST, Book 2 of the trilogy I am working on:

<finish this up>

<a little more here>

<describe the city>

<she gets upset>

<insert amazing mammoth fight scene here>

Yep, I used them to summarize an entire action scene. I was very stuck on the blocking of that scene (there was a wooly mammoth in it after all) and couldn’t just sit there and work all that out. I took a shot at it but realized my writer brain was not in ‘write action scene’ mode that day. I could stop and try to force it, or I could throw some angle brackets down and move on.

Move on. You know, keep my momentum. No zero days.

That’s exactly what I use them for. So I can maintain my momentum. Gots ta keep on keepin’ on or that book is never going to be finished. I knew that fight scene would come to me later, and it did.

When I finished SEAS OF EVEREST I went back and found I had 83 angle bracketed items to go back and fill. Some were quick and easy, others were decent projects. Closing those 83 items took me all of three days and I freely admit those days were pretty long.

But the book was done. The story was complete, I had got to the end of the tale. That is always the goal for me, get to the damn end. Once you’ve been there, you can always go back and clean up those items you left undone along the way.

If you stop and hammer out each one? Well, you might never get where you’re going.