Category Archives: Writing Tools

A discussion of the various software that authors employ to write, plot, backup, and ultimately use to write a novel.

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.

Plotting by Character Arcs Instead of Outlines

Plotting. Plodding. There’s a reason those words look and sound similar. Sometimes, plotting a novel can take all the fun out of actually writing the thing. With every move and event preordained, what’s left to surprise the writer while writing?

If prewriting is getting you down, I offer you an alternative: prewriting by way of character arcs.

If prewriting isn’t getting you down and you’re hardcore geeking out over it, I still recommend these books by K.M. Weiland: Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel.

Character arc. What is it? Simply, it’s the journey the character takes in a story. Expanding further, there are three types of common character arcs, according to K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs: Positive (what we usually see in movies, books, and television, also known as the hero character arc), Flat (wherein the character does not change but has the wisdom of what is right throughout the entire story, an example being the main character’s teacher or mentor), and Negative (this could be an antagonist’s character arc, or a character arc in which the character destroys others and themselves as well).

Let’s say you’d like to write a Positive Character Arc for NaNoWriMo. What does that look like? Let’s go through K.M. Weiland’s Positive Character Arc structure.

  1. Exposition – The Lie Your Character Believes
    • Where does your character start the novel, internally speaking? Is everything perfect, utopian? Does everything suck? Does the character simply believe everything is perfect (aka the character is lying to themselves)? Set up a characteristic moment for your reader that displays your character’s…eh, character. Set them up in a fairly normal situation or normal day. And also, organize your character’s internal storm: what does the character want? Now, what does the character need?
  2. Exposition – Your Character’s Past
    • Weiland calls this the character’s ghost. What happened to your character to make them believe that they need what they want and ignore what they truly need? Why does the character need to change?
  3.  Act One
    • Set up your character’s life in this act. Make sure their motivation(s) is clear. What is he after? What does she want?
    • First Plot Point – something happens here that expands your character’s mind and vision. “The point of no return.”
  4. Act Two, Part One
    • Adventure! That’s what your character will be doing here. Fumbling around, trying to figure things out, and definitely failing.
  5. Midpoint
    • My favorite part in a story; the character’s realization. Maybe he’s in over his head. Maybe she realizes there’s a lot more than meets the eye. It’s the turning point not only in your story, but in your character’s thinking and possibly motivation.
  6. Act Two, Part Two
    • This is the part where your character starts taking control. What does your character need to do to take charge?
  7. The Third Plot Point
    • Your character’s low moment. What happened? Is morale down, did they lose something as big as a battle? The character can no longer evade the truth, they must look at it in the eye and accept it.
  8. Act Three
    • The ramp up before the climax! Intensity, speed! Thrusters on full! In one word, your character is: determined.
  9. Climax
    • Weiland describes the climax as the reason for the story. This is where your character realizes the truth was worth the heartache and pain along the way. The reason for the journey.
  10. The Resolution
    • Now you can show the character living the truth instead of living in the lie they first believed at the beginning of the journey.

Instead of writing your story around what happens, with this method, you’re writing your story around what your character does to push the plot. I personally find these stories more engaging than stories where events happen to the character. I like to see the main character in control, messing up, making amends, and patching things up on their own.

I’d like to take a final moment to remind you that there is no wrong or right way to pre-write. The way that works for you IS the best way, whether that means a big, juicy outline, a short outline, pages and pages of character arcs, or jumping right in. In the end, we all must eventually jump in and write.

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.

Double Duty: Using Setting as Character, Theme, or Hook

Have you heard someone say “the setting was like a character?” I remember the first time a teacher introduced the concept and my young, logical mind thought it was pretty stupid. A character is a character, a setting is a setting. Black and white, one or the other. But I was also pretty stupid as a youngin’, and as I read more, the more I seemed to gravitate toward novels that had a strong, if not overwhelming, sense of setting. It made everything else in the story – the plot, the characters, the conflict – feel real, no matter what genre. I especially love books set in the Midwest United States where I grew up. The characters feel familiar. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool comes to mind. Set in rural Manifest, Kansas, the book carries with it familiar history of rural Kansas which informs the culture. And yet there is no town in existence named Manifest. That leads me to the first way you could add some magic into your real or realistic setting.

This first point is more of a confession. I adore the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. Love it. I love Sookie and will defend every decision she makes in the series. Come at me, bros. Now that I’ve thrown my undying love out there, I can say one of the things I love the most in the series: Bon Temps (pronounced “Bauh Tauuuh” or some crazy phonetic spelling like that), the home town of Sookie Stackhouse. Bon Temps isn’t a real town in Louisiana, but it might as well be. The tone of the town, the people in it, the surrounding towns and communities, and the culture is dead-on small town Louisiana – everything from Sookie’s charm and manners to the people of the town knowing all the other characters’ business.

This isn’t an uncommon way for an author to give their setting culture and context, and for good reason. Setting can greatly change or enhance the flavor of your plot, much like salt can bring forth flavor in food.

Another way you can encapsulate the tone of a location is by describing it without naming the location specifically. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West takes place in a war-torn country where Islam is a predominant religion. These are all the clues we are given as the reader. When the two main characters travel through doors (portals) to other countries, the cities they pass into are named: real cities, real countries. Written this way, Mohsin Hamid draws empathy from the reader, encouraging them to picture the main characters’ city as their own, or could be their city under similar political circumstances. Mohsin Hamid uses setting as theme in this case, as the plot circles around immigration and migration. In Blindness, José Saramago also offers up an unnamed setting, and yet it feels similar to every big city you’ve ever been to, adding to the creepy factor: this could happen anywhere.

Sometimes, movies have the potential to introduce a unique setting that acts as a hook. Another Earth written and staring Brit Marling is a fantastic example of just that. The story is a tragic drama, a bleak indie film with the exception of the setting. While the story is set on Earth, early on in the story, an Earth 2 is discovered, and soon it’ll be orbiting near our own Earth. As it turns out, Earth 2 mirrors Earth not just topographically… It also mirrors its inhabitants – like an alternate universe. Everything plot-wise in the story is realistic – what we could unfortunately experience in every day life, like a car crash, a devastating death. The setting is Earth, and yet the viewer’s curiosity can’t help but be tickled with the presentation of an Earth 2, making the setting(s) a major player in the plot itself. This movie and its story wouldn’t at all have the same appeal without the setting. The setting is the hook.

As a thought experiment, how could you make the setting in your current project into a character? The theme? The hook? It won’t take long to realize you have a lot to play with for storytelling when it comes to the setting. Take advantage of your setting -make it work in more ways for your book than just one.