Category Archives: Kim May

Kim May

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.

Tricks of the Tradeshow

A lot of authors and publishing insiders talk about the importance of going to conventions — which is great. It’s a wonderful place to meet agents, editors, to sell your books directly to fans, and a lot of other great things. However, there’s another resource that tends to get overlooked. Tradeshows.

Tradeshows aren’t just for air-conditioner salesmen in bad suits, and overpriced cars and speed boats. There are multiple shows across the country throughout the year for the book business too. Except instead of it being a show for salesmen or the average reader, these shows are just for bookstore owners, event coordinators, book buyers, and librarians — the very people you need to know to make sure your book gets on the shelves.

These shows range in size. The biggest is the BEA (Book Expo America) but giant shows are pretty much out of reach of indies and hybrid authors like myself. So I’m going to focus on the smaller regional shows like the PNBA (Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association) fall tradeshow.

As you can imagine, in the Pacific Northwest there are a lot of indie bookstores and libraries, which is why this is such a great show. It’s usually two or three days in early October. The night before the show opens there’s a mixer for the attendees that’s also a massive book signing. There’s usually between fifteen to twenty authors and the books being promoted run the full gambit. There’s cookbooks, photography books, outdoor guides, YA, kids picture books, middle-grade novels, adult novels…pretty much everything. During the actual show there’s classes for the booksellers and librarians, and a sales floor for publishers and sidelines vendors, but the big attraction are the meals. During the show there’s an author breakfast, author lunch, and author dinner. At each of these meals there’s between five to eight authors and each one gets about fifteen minutes to talk about their new release while the booksellers and librarians eat a catered meal. At the end of the meal all of the booksellers and librarians get a gift bag with the books that were plugged — which is the show’s real draw.

This is the sort of show that attendees don’t fly to, they drive cross-country to it so they can fill their car with all the free books. If you think your Worldcon haul from the free table was impressive just wait till you see what is given away at book tradeshows. The last one I went to I was only able to be there one day because we were short handed at the shop, but just in that one day I came home with three large cloth shopping bags (the bags themselves were gifts from the publishers) full of ARCs (advance reader copies) and first editions! If I’d stayed through the rest of the show the book haul would have been three times that!

Herein lies the tricky part. For the regional shows like this there is an application process for indie authors to come promo their books, either at the big meals or as a vendor on the sales floor, but you can’t sell your newest book to the attendees. You have to give them away. All of the attendees come with the expectation that all of the books are free and anytime the booth staff say otherwise, it’s met with sneers. I realize that this means these shows are out of the realm of possibility for a lot of indie authors. I can’t afford to give away 500+ copies of my book. But if you can afford it, and your pitch is on point, you can make back that investment. You’re pitching directly to people who will stock, and hand sell, and promote your book to readers that may not hear about you and your work any other way.

So when you’re planning what conventions you’re going to go to, be sure to ask yourself if it’s better to spend $1,000 on hotel, airfare, and a badge for a big convention, or if it’s better to spend that on an appearance at a regional tradeshow.

Speaking of books, there’s a fantastic deal going on at StoryBundle. Their annual Epic Fantasy Bundle is currently available and this year’s selection has some great titles by R.A. Salvatore, Brandon Sanderson, Michael Stackpole, and three Fictorians! Gregory Little, Scott Eder, and myself all have novels in this bundle.

 

For $5.00 you get four DRM-free ebooks and for $15.00 you get all fifteen books! That’s a dollar a book! Plus, at checkout you have the option of donating 10% of your money to The Challenger Foundation, which helps fund science programs in schools across the country. Yay science! It’s only available until September 21st! You can buy it and even find out more about each of these titles here. You don’t want to miss out on this deal. It’s a lot of quality fiction for a small price!

I’m Sorry, I’ve Thrown Off My Groove

Maintaining momentum on your work in progress can be difficult and it’s never more difficult when your own brain gets in the way. All those little doubts that make you question if the scene is any good or if you should throw that outlined plot twist out the window in favor of the new cool idea you just thought of. The indecision is enough to give you that deer in the headlights look, unsure which chattering shoulder angel to listen to.

Do I have the hero kill the villain or do I have them go out for shawarma?

It’s questions and doubts like these that almost always bring my word stampede to a screeching halt. It took me years to figure out that the source of this wasn’t inexperience. It was me. It was my own self-doubt, a.k.a. impostor syndrome, a.k.a. I’m getting in my own way……again.

Now I’ve talked before about WTFS (Write the F-ing Sentence) and while that’s similar, it’s not the same thing. This is more than questioning if their coat should be azure or cerulean. It’s deciding whether or not the romance between two characters that your writer brain suddenly wants to add is going to be a good addition or a distraction from the main plot. It’s deciding if spending the next four pages exploring a character’s backstory is necessary or if it’s better to use that space for a secondary character’s nervous breakdown. The stakes are much higher with these sort of quandaries and it’s that pressure that stops progress. If it were as simple as choosing a hair color then it would be a bad habit that’s easily fixed. However since the root of the problem is a lack of self-trust rather than indecision it’s a lot harder. The only solution I’ve found is a three step process.

  1. Relax. Take a walk or a short breather to let the mental tension and anxiety melt away. The right words will come easier when you’re relaxed.
  2. Take a deep breath and go with the impulse. There’s a reason your subconscious suggested it in the first place. There’s no harm in trusting it…for now.
  3. Re-evulate. After the manuscript is finished, go back and re-read that section. If you hate it you can rewrite that section. Most of the time, when I’ve trusted my subconscious, I’ve really liked the resulting scene(s). But if I ever dislike a spontaneous scene I still won’t regret writing it because I didn’t let indecision stop me from completing the story.

I admit, the first time I tried these steps it felt like I was taking a huge leap of faith. And in some respects I was. But it was only through this that I was able to learn to trust my subconscious and not panic because a chipmunk suddenly wanted me to tell its life story. You’ll never know if the chipmunk’s story will provide the answers you need for later conflicts if you don’t allow it to speak in the first place.

When Your Setting is a Wild Card

Normally when you establish a setting in a story you only have to do it once. Unless some cataclysmic event happens, it’s not going to change enough to require another description. Huzzah! But what if your setting isn’t a clearly defined place? What if it’s more…well, this.

 

Okay, so your setting might not be the Dark Dimension but it may be like The Demos Oneiroi I created for The Moonflower in that it’s less of a landscape and more of an abstract concept given physical form. The Demos Oneiroi is the dream world of the Ancient Greek gods and since it’s quite literally the stuff of dreams it can be anything and everything all at once. A place like this, one that can change on a whim, can be hard to explain. Describing it with enough detail to get the point across without overwhelming the reader is a very tricky thing to do. It’s like doing a paint by number except all the numbers are imaginary.

The way I handled it is to treat the setting like an unreliable narrator. I established early on that the setting can and does change on a whim and that it’s perfectly normal for the abnormal to happen. If a lush forested park suddenly turns into zombie Jimmy Hoffa’s waterpark from hell, it’s all good. The reader doesn’t have to panic or re-read the previous page to figure out if they missed something. They can roll with it and get in the line for the giant octopus tentacle slide.

I hope I didn’t lose anyone there. I realize saying “do this tricky thing by treating it like another tricky thing” is not the best explanation; especially if you don’t know how to create an unreliable narrator. Don’t worry. I’m not going to leave you perplexed. It’s not quite as scary as it sounds and I promise, you don’t need to make a bargain with an otherworldly being to do this.

Dormammu, I’ve come to establish setting.

Since I keep throwing Doctor Strange references into this let’s use that film as a starting point. (Spoiler alert.)

In this acid trip on film we see multiple worlds, not all of which obey the same laws of physics that ours does. Besides blowing Stephen’s mind, it’s also establishing in the minds of the audience that there are many strange place the story can take us. So when Stephen does go to the Dark Dimension at the end of the film, we’re not shocked by it — especially since we’ve already seen weirder locations.

How do you create that on the page? In order to write an abstract setting you have to approach it in pretty much the same way that they did in the film. Start out by describing the setting as it is in that moment to create a base line. Then either through dialogue or a bit of exposition establish that things in this place aren’t necessarily what they appear to be, and that they won’t stay as they are now for long. It’s important to let the reader know that it’s gonna get a bit weird so they aren’t taken by surprise. A shock like that will knock them out of the story before you get to the really good stuff. After you’ve prepped them for the coming shift that’s when you can make the unexpected appear. How you do that, you may ask? Well that’s up to you. My favorite way is to have an inexperienced character encounter a shift in the landscape while accompanied by a more experienced character. The experienced character displays their knowledge and saves/helps the less experienced through until they’re back at a safe spot. This way I get to let my landscape live up to its potential while advancing the less experienced character’s development. Later in the story I can have them on their own, facing the same dangers — or worse — in that same landscape and it’s more plausible that they’ll survive.

It’s okay if it takes a few revisions to really get it to work well. It is a tricky thing but the freedom it gives you to create and be original makes it a lot of fun. Plus, a setting like this never gets boring. Bonus!