Category Archives: Outlines

There Are Ruts…

So the theme for September’s posts is supposed to be about getting out of the rut, or taking it to the next level.  Well, there are ruts, and there are ruts.

There are the ruts where the well has run dry, and the words are not flowing.  Judith Tarr talks about those times here.  As it happens, I know exactly what she is talking about.  I’ve been there, recently; I’ve felt those feelings; I’ve known the grief.  I was very fortunate to come out of it after a year and a half, but even now I have not finished recovery to where I used to be.  I’m not going to rehash Judith’s article.  She does a much better job of discussing the issue than I ever would.  But I will say this:  if you are in that place, or if you ever find yourself in that place, know that there have been good writers—some of them very good writers, indeed—who have been in that same place, and eventually came out of it.  You’re not alone.  And it can be done.  But it will take time; it will take perseverance; and you may have to change some things about you, about your surroundings, or about the company you keep to come out of it.  Your true friends will support you, but only you can make those choices and walk that walk.

I could stop there, and have an article worth posting, I think.

But I actually want to talk about another kind of rut in which we as writers can sometimes find ourselves.

Do you ever feel that you’re growing stale?  I mean, have you ever stopped in the middle of writing a story or a novel and realized that you’re not having fun; that you’re not excited about what you’re doing; that as B. B. King would sing, “The thrill is gone, baby…”?

Sometimes when that happens, it’s the normal and almost inevitable result of working in the middle of a long project where you’ve dug yourself into the hole but you’re not entirely sure yet that it’s going to turn into a tunnel.  And the only solution for that is to simply keep putting out the words until you get through the middle and can see the progress that’s been made.  Perseverance, in other words.  That’s actually one of the most important tools in our writer’s toolkits; the ability to keep plugging away at a project until it’s completed, no matter how long it takes.

But other times that may be the back of your mind saying, “Dude, this is a whole lot like the last story you wrote.  Can’t you write something different?”

Now formulas and templates for writing fiction have been around for generations.  Most popular children’s series during the early and middle 20th Century were very rigidly formula based.  And I can point you to a few series of fantasy and science fiction even within the last generation or so that have done that.  And those series have their fans, who seem to like that each new story or each new novel seems to follow predictably the outline of the previous works.

But for writers, especially writers who want to grow in their craft and strive for art, I suspect that falling into the formula rut is absolutely one of the worst things we can do.  It might make us money, but we won’t continue to grow or develop as writers as long as we’re in that rut.

Have I been there?  Yep.  Do I have some thoughts about how to get out of the rut?  Yep, and here they are:

1.  Make yourself use a different narrative style.  If you’re consistently a third-person limited viewpoint writer, write something in first person.  Or vice-versa, as the case may be.  That may shake up the way you view characters and characterization.

2.  Make yourself write something with a different story construction.  If your previous works have all been single-thread-of-continuity stories, try writing a story with multiple story lines running in parallel.  To really challenge yourself, you should make them non-interrelating until the end.  Pull that one off, and you’ll feel a real sense of accomplishment.  This will also widen your thinking on plotting.

3.  Make yourself write something in a different genre, or at least a different sub-genre.  After writing several of what amounted to comedies of manners with romantic overtones, I actually had a friend challenge me to write something different.  So after thinking about it, I started writing a series of police procedural stories.  Wow, did that stretch me!  Although I’m a moderate fan of mysteries and procedurals, learning to write them really taught me things about characterization and plotting that I had never considered before.

4.  If you’re primarily a novelist, try writing shorter works.  Challenge yourself to write something good under 5000 words.  When you succeed at that, challenge yourself to write something good under 2000 words.  Then try under 1000 words.  That’s barebones storytelling.  Every single word has to be weighed in the balance as to whether it’s really necessary to tell the story.  You’ll learn discipline from that one.  I have exactly one 2000 word story that I think works.  I have yet to manage a 1000 word story that I think is good.  I keep trying.

5.  And if you’re primarily a short work author, try writing a novel.  You may or may not like it, but it will force you to consider plotting and world-building issues that just don’t arise in a 7000 word story or a 12,000 word novelette.

I have a novel coming out from Baen Books on October 1, entitled 1636: The Devil’s Opera.  It’s a collaboration with Eric Flint.  And I’m convinced that I could never have written that story without having put myself through 2, 3, and 4 above.

You want to be a better writer?  Challenge yourself to move out of your comfort zone, and write things you never imagined you’d write.

Creating Your Own Mythology

Creating your own mythology – how cool! And loads of fun! We write in an era where readers embrace modern and new myth. When Bram Stoker penned Dracula, he took an obscure legend, gave it its own rules and a new mythology was born. Today, we understand the social action and values for vampires, werewolves and zombies. This is newly created mythology has been embraced by generations of readers. In Tolkien’s books, the fantasy world received a new mythology Middle Earth and that lore, that mythology, is still embraced by people today.

There are those who argue that because myth is defined as being of the distant past, that it has its own cultural criteria Zeusand that it requires organic growth in a culture, that it can’t be instantly created. Humbug! Myth is a way for people to reconcile the paradoxes of life – the things that don’t make sense to us. How was life created? How do the gods and people interact? What are the rules for interaction? Apply it to everyday life and we can call it religion. Apply it to books and we call it world building.

And perhaps that is the difference – scholars will argue that because what writers create isn’t part of the everyday, ordinary belief systems for people, then it isn’t legitimate myth. But who draws that line? Who determines when an idea crosses that line? And does it matter? Is it any less compelling? I think not. We no longer believe in the Greek Pantheon of gods yet they’re as popular as ever in literature like in Rick Riordon’s Percy Jackson and the Olympian’s series. Do we have to believe in those specific gods for the mythology to be relevant, to explain creation, our relationship with the world, our struggle with life’s paradoxes and our need to have legitimate heroes to inspire us?  Not at all. When we delve into other people’s belief systems, we challenge and enrich our own. We discover new ways to escape and to solve problems.

Mythology creates rules. How do heroes, people and proto-people (vampires, werewolves and the like) behave? What kills them (silver bullets, kryptonite or a stake through the heart)? Who are the gods, and what are their rules? How did creation happen and what happens after death? Why are their problems? Can man solve them or is he powerless?

We’ve established that not only can we create new mythology we must do it to explain the rules of the new worlds we’ve created. And many myths born of ancient legends and modern science are being created and believed by people (no judgements here). This is the mythology of ancient aliens coming to earth for their own purposes and seeding mankind (biologically and technologically). It is all a way to rationalize, to understand our history, what makes us human and to explain the anomalies and paradoxes of who we are and where we’ve come from.

And where will the next new mythology arise? The future. Outer space, I think. With the newly emerged and proven theories of space and time and the universe expanding faster and faster (not more slowly as some would believe) to end up in a black hole that swallows it entirely – like how do we explain that? Mythology, that’s how. A futuristic mythology born of predicted apocalyptic events. How cool would that be?

In creating the mythology for my books, I look closely at the world I’ve built along with the premise of the story. Mythology is about explaining how things came to be. Why they are the way they are. Why people believe as they do. It’s answering these questions that makes a world unique and believable. In one series, I asked what makes this one item so valuable? Why is it such a threat? How did it get where it is? What happens now that it’s been loosed upon the world? What do people believe about the item and their power to change destiny?

In the historically-based fantasy series I’m currently working on, the creation and afterlife myths mythology are crucial to how this world acts. The problem is, there is very little information about societal beliefs for the time period I’ve chosen to write about and I’ve been scouring academic journals for months. And that, for a writer, is perfect! From minute tidbits of factual information on tools, trade and astronomy, I’ve got just enough information to ground the story in history yet enough leeway to create a whole new mythology as to why things were done the way they were. This has forced me to really see the world through my characters’ eyes and in doing so, their actions and reactions have a genuine truth. And in doing that, the story has become so real, so alive and so fascinating!

You can take more modern or current historical events such as the decay of an empire, an evil despot trying to conquer the world, invading armies, geological tragedies, interpersonal tragedies, whatever you wish – take these larger events and change the details of the experience. Create a new world, a new way of looking at things, a new mythology which your characters use to explain their circumstances, their world, why the scourge seeps through the country – use all that to create and influence your hero, your proto-humans and your society. Or, take one of the ten basic creation myths, put you own spin on it and ask yourself, how would this influence a given society? Again, Rick Riordon did this in his series when he brought the Greek gods to America. Neil Gammon has his own unique spin on mythological figures come to the Americas in American Gods.

So go for it! Create new worlds with ground breaking, mind bending mythologies. There’ll always be a flick of our modern realities and value systems in them, how can there not be? Besides, those bits of our world in them is what will make the issues, the dilemmas and the challenges ring true for the reader. Mix, mash and have fun with it.

In tomorrow’s post I’ll talk about how I create new mythology for my worlds.

Happy mythology building!

Collaborative Projects: How to Write Well with Others

I have written and sold one collaborative novel, and I’m in the middle of writing another, so I have some experience in this sub-specialty of our craft.

Once you’ve gotten past the “Let’s write a novel together!  It’ll be fun/great/a ball!” stage, reality sets in. First of all, forget the idea that it will be less work.  It will take more time and energy total between the two of you to write something than it would if one of you wrote it solo.  You’ll be fortunate if it only takes 150% as much time and energy as a solo work.  Second, this will be different from writing a solo work.  Trust me. Here are some of the practical matters you will need to deal with.  Some of the points are my own observations, and some are gleaned from other authors who do frequent collaborations.

1.  Check your egos at the door.  Really.  You are establishing a relationship here, and although you may or may not be equals in talent, knowledge, skill, and drive, you need to be on a personal basis of honesty, diligence, and compassion.  The old teaching of “Treat others the way you want them to treat you” comes into play.

2.  Determine your collaboration approach.  To steal from my May 28, 2012 Fictorians article “Anatomy of a Collaboration,” you need to settle on an approach like one of these:

  • If sections of the novel require certain knowledge or expertise, one author may write those parts while the other writes the remainder.  This approach seems to be most commonly used when both authors are of similar levels of skill.
  • More commonly, one author will write the first draft, while the other author will do the second pass.  If one author is newer to the craft, he will usually write the first draft while the more experienced/skilled writer will do the final polish/draft.
  • And sometimes one author will look at another and say, “You start,” and the story is built somewhat like a tennis match, with no prior planning to speak of and the authors volleying responses back and forth.  A lot of “letter” stories are actually written that way.

This step is where you agree on how the byline will be styled.  If it’s a senior/junior relationship, the senior author’s name almost always goes first.  This is also where you agree on how the revenue (and any expenses) will be shared.  And even if you’re friends, write it down.  It will save grief later, I promise.

3.  Decide who the tie-breaker will be.  If you arrive at a point where the two of you are in disagreement about something serious and you can’t continue until it is resolved, someone has to break the tie.  Determine who that person is at the beginning of the project.  It may be a senior author.  Or, if you’re writing in a universe created by one of you alone, then that person will probably be the tie-breaker.  But regardless of who it is and how you determined who it will be, if it ever has to be invoked, remember Rule 1 – check your egos at the door.

4.  Do any world-building that has to be done that will be foundational to the story.

5.  If both of you are outliners, you’ll need to write an outline.  If one of you is a pantser, you’ll need to write an outline.  If both of you are pantsers, you’ll really need to write an outline.  Seriously.  If for no other reason than to keep you both facing the same direction.  Especially if you’re doing the “you write this part and I’ll write that part at the same time” thing.

6.  Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Especially about the important stuff, but since it may be difficult to know what will be important twenty chapters down the line, it’s mostly going to be important stuff.

7.  Again, communicate, communicate, communicate.  If you’re the junior author or you’re working in someone else’s universe, don’t be afraid to ask questions.  And if you’re the senior author and/or the universe creator, don’t brush your partner off.

8.  Remember Rule 1.

9.  For the third time, communicate, communicate, communicate.  If there’s one area where collaborations can really be more difficult than solo work, it’s flexibility in dealing with change.  When you’re working on your own, if you get a brilliant idea when you’re 80% done with the work, backing up and rewriting twenty chapters is not so much of a much.  When you’re collaborating, however, especially if you’re using one of the parallel streams-of-creation methods, your idea may blow up your partner’s work in a big way.  So before you do anything with your Grand New Idea, talk about it-in-depth and in detail.  If the decision is Do It, you revise the outline.  You write it down so you can both be in agreement as to what the change is, what the effect is, and who’s doing what to implement it.  If the decision is No, you continue down the existing path with no looking back.

10.  Remember Rule 1.

11.  Set deadlines as to when milestones will be accomplished.  You may or may not attain them, but if you don’t set them, this thing could drag on for a seeming eternity.  As much as possible, hold each other accountable.

12.  Remember Rule 1.

13.  When the first draft is done, review it together.  Decide what needs fixing, and determine who will do it.  Execute the fixes.

14.  Determine early on who will do the final polish to smooth out the edges and establish a consistent voice.  This will usually be the senior author, the writer who owns the universe, the person who’s the better editor, or whoever won/lost the coin flip.

15.  And finally, remember Rule 1.

Okay, that’s probably not everything that needs to be thought about, but it covers the high points. Good luck!