Does an Outline Prevent Discovery?

Plotters and pantsers make up the ends of the spectrum of writers about outlining. Some hate the word, while others live by the outline map. I happen to be someone who outlines. It wasn’t always this way, but I have come to find a way to outline that keeps me focused on the story ahead.

The biggest complaint I hear from pantsers (the ones who write by the seat of their pants) is that if they outline, they’ve already written the book. What’s the point?

Maybe we have too much thrown into the category of outline. I remember them from school with the Roman Numerals and the Arabic numbers underneath. Someone must still use that kind of outline, but not most of the writers I know.

What happens to me without an outline is that I wander far from the beaten path of the story. When I have my draft, I spend more time figuring out the threads and the pieces that don’t fit than anything else. Like, why did my protagonist wander off with her dragon here? That doesn’t fit the story! Did I really need to discover that for twenty pages? (Yes, I’m exaggerating here.)

But the key to a great outline is to allow enough to keep in mind the end while not tying hands too much to get through the story. And it isn’t like an outline is set in stone. If your characters mutiny against it, the writer had better understand what happened – and act accordingly. The choice is to change the characters so they’d choose to run through the outline, or change the outline so the characters want to travel that direction.

How much of an outline is enough? It’s what keeps the writer on track with the story. If it’s enough to have that vague image of an ending in your head through the writing – go for it. An outline can be as minimal as fifteen words or as detailed as a snowflake. It’s simply a tool to work for the writing.

So does any kind of information go against the discovery of the novel? Is it forbidden by the pantser to make character sketches or physical sketches of settings or to write out the history of the world before the story begins? Maybe because I write science fiction I struggle with this. I might have years to cover with changes to the characters, society, and technology to get to the point where I want to begin the story.

I might be able to do that off the cuff, but I might get left with questions like I did from reading books like Divergent: How do you get the factionless to work in factories or drive trains or do anything when they’re homeless and don’t have food? What did Voldemort do in the thirty or so years from when he left Hogwarts to when Harry’s curse zapped him away? Thirty years feels like a long time to be gathering the supporters, if only to try to take down the Ministry of Magic the moment Voldemort gets his body back. If he gathered power to terrorize people for thirty years, wouldn’t he be a little more patient? (And I know the Harry Potter novels were outlined.)

But then again, perhaps I just overthink these things. Maybe you have your own examples of those books that have those little questions that keep you awake at night. It isn’t really possible to answer every single question about a world, but the writer ought to know. Some of that is always discovered for me while writing, no matter how tight my outline becomes.

Some resources for outlines:

Minimalist- 15 to 20 words by Les Edgerton 

Seven Point Story Structure
Choosing an Outline Style by Writer’s Digest
Brainstorming
Rowling’s Method (There has to be a name for this somewhere, but I haven’t come across it)
Snowflake 
If you have a way to outline other than these, please share!
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Demons Are Jackasses – An Interview with Tru

I invited Frankie Blooding to bring one of her characters in to talk about Demons are Jackasses. So excited about this book and I hope you will be, too. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, but I don’t mind.

Hey, folks! Today I’m here with Tru, Paige’s brother-in-law as we discuss Demons Are Jackasses! We’ve got a lot—

*waves excitedly* Hey, guys!

*frowns* Not yet. *turns back to the audience* We’ve got a great line-up for you this month as we build up the excitement for the book which is currently available only in—

*the EMF meter buzzes loudly*

*@_@ at Tru*

*frantically turns it off while studying it and trying to find the source of the EMF…at the same time*

*talks over the buzzing* Anyway, it’s still only available in paperback, but the book is SO pretty!! I really recommend having it in paperback. I’m…mildly distracted by the–*takes EMF meter and turns it off*–character joining us today! His name is Tru and he’s a ghost hunter, if you couldn’t tell.

*grabs the EMF Meter from Frankie and turns it back on* There is something here with us!

*leans over and whispers back* It’s the readers, you doof! They would show up as energy since this is CYBER SPACE!

*thinking frown*

*takes the meter away and sits on it*

*glare*

Anyway! Wow! He’s distracting! Tru is a really FUN character and I usually enjoy having him IN the scenes! He’s originally from Texas and Webster’s definition of the word “Geek”. Please help me welcome Tru!

*turns beat red and grabs digital voice recorder*

So, Tru, tell us a little bit about yourself.

You just did.

*grins and says through teeth* So tell them something else, you twit! You’re the one who wanted to do the interview.

*talks through grin* That was BEFORE the spotlight was on me.

Just relax. Be yourself. You’ll be fine.

*deep breath* Well, I’m the husband to Paige’s sister and a proud father of three—oh, wait, at this point we’re at two and a half – children.

Why don’t you tell us what it’s like living in the Ansley household.

It’s a ZOO! *dead pan look at audience* No. Really. Alma is the craziest witch I’ve ever met. This woman can make the house shake on the foundations! And she knows how to weld the wooden spoon. Like, seriously, my hand’s been nearly broken more times than I can count!

LMAO!! I’ve seen that happen a time or two!

You laugh! My oldest daughter is a fire starter, so when she’s pissed off, fire comes shooting out of her ears! It makes it really tough to be a father! So, I let me wife wear the pants. I prefer not being the pig on the spit, so I’m the nice Dad. My middle son is a bard, of all things. Now, here’s me, the dumb dad, thinking, “Hey, having a bard as a son is SAFE! My daughter might be trying to kill me, but my son is going to be AWESOME! Ohhhhhh noooooo! He threw a tantrum at the age of two and broke every glass bottle in the pickle aisle!

ROFL!!! Pooor Tru!

I MIGHT, maybe, get my pants back after the little one (that you’ll see in Angels) is grown and out of the house. But let’s just say that being the Muggle in the Ansley house SUCKS!

*picking self off floor* What are your thoughts on Paige?

*pauses…blinks…shifts in chair…explodes* Thank GOD I married the one that talks to dead people!

*chuckling* Okay, well, folks, that’s all the time we have right now! Stay tunes and be sure to check out Demons Are Jackasses!! It really is a great story!

Books

We had to move my books from the library during the move, so my husband could remove the bookshelves from the wall without worrying about when the movers wanted to put them on the truck. My empty living room became a sea of books from the fireplace to the wall about knee-deep.

It probably goes without mentioning that I love books. The sea wasn’t all of them, some had been moved to the basement to de-clutter the library and others came with me to my temporary home. As I looked at them, I realized how impatient I was to be reunited with them again. It was all I could do not to snag one of two to read right then. [Despite corralling two children away from the action of the packers.]

How do you explain to someone who doesn’t read about the joy of books? How can you ever hope to get into their heads how the fiction takes you away to another place? How the nonfiction infects your brain with more knowledge? How much space those engineering textbooks take and how heavy those things are?

Some days I’m not sure why we keep those textbooks – they were in storage for 10 years, never touched, yet they are guaranteed space on my shelves, along with my fictional pursuits in various stages of editing and first editions from published works. It’s an odd mix that the estimater under-estimated for my home.

While I’d love to share those books with everyone, especially to get the nonreaders to understand the greatness of print – I get that not everyone’s going to get it. [It just makes me sad, as a writer.] I don’t let go of them easily. Even the ones my husband questions, like “Dummies Guide to Coaching Basketball.” No, I’m not sure I’ll ever need it, but you never know when it’ll come in handy.

My writer-friend Shawna once said she’d never be surprised by any book I owned. I like that – she understood that I love books and I can’t resist the treasures they hold. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “I cannot live without books.” And why should we?

The Time for Plotting Never Passes

Some people can begin at the beginning and keep writing until the end. I don’t happen to be one of those people. I find myself mired in the ways that the story could go, and somewhere in the middle it fizzles out if I don’t know where I’m headed. Conventional wisdom says to dump something in a sagging middle like a dead body or have aliens land, but it doesn’t always work for me.

It always returns to plot. I have less trouble with my characters getting in line. I have been taking time out this month to try to correct my plot fizzling issues. Somehow I know there must be a way to carry everything through to the end while being true to my original vision of what the novel is supposed to say (and why I don’t have aliens land on the kitchen table in my contemporary YA).

To that end, I have been trying out several different ways to see a plot through, from randomly typing out from the beginning (which is why I know it isn’t working for me) to setting everything out scene by scene (which I know runs a large risk of me taking a left turn about halfway through).

I always liked the look of traditional outlines but never thought they fit me very well. Or maybe I just liked that they had such an orderly form with the roman numerals and all the other stuff thrown in. Lately I’ve also attempted to type a bare bones summary in prose form to see where that led me. Turns out the answer was ‘in circles’. I still use that method to organize my thoughts to find connections between pieces that I’m not sure fit together but seem to have possibilities.

Then I also stumbled into some worksheets. You can find them in books, too, like First Draft in 30 Days or Book in a Month. I haven’t progressed to filling them out in order, but taking time to pour over them has pushed my thinking into that kind of system. What was the climax? What is my internal or external conflict? What else do I need to get my characters from point A to point B or what obstacle do they need to overcome in order to get to this spot?

While they can be a good tool, I’m also trying not to stuff too much into them. I like giving my characters a little room to breathe while they get through the novel. When I originally drafted Don’t Tell Your Mother I only had a vague notion of what the end was going to be, and then as I got to each segment I’d write a sentence about what the next scene would be so I wouldn’t lose my place in the story if I got interrupted. [It really is a bummer, but there comes a time I must sleep.]

I’ve also read lately about Scrivener (which I thought I had blogged about, but apparently I just looked at it) being a good tool for novelists because of the functionality to rearrange things at ease. There are other software programs that also do this kind of thing, and I’m sure each has advantages and disadvantages.

It’s going to take some time for me to perfect my method of plotting, and I might just come to the conclusion that each project takes something different and it will depend entirely on my inner vision of the story. If nothing else, I’m enjoying learning the different methods and how each might be implemented to help (or hinder) my progress.

What do you choose to use to plot novels? Have you tried other methods? What did that teach you about your writing and plotting?

The Storm is Coming Anthology – Submitted and Accepted!

Sending items out means getting an acceptance or rejection. Sometimes this is too much for writers to take, the waiting and the not knowing and most of all wondering if the writing is good enough.

Good enough is a troublesome concept. It’s not just whether or not a piece is well-written. There are so many things to take into consideration, like the overall market and whether or not the editor likes it. Then when the rejection comes through, you wonder if you’d just worked a little harder, made just one little change, if it would have been okay.

I can’t be the only one wondering these things. I don’t let it stop me from sending things out. I aim high. I get rejected. I try not to let it get to me. It’s not easy.

This time I got lucky, or I just had a great fit with The Storm is Coming anthology.

My story, The Rescuers, is one I wrote a time ago, but it always sounded like Chapter 3 in a novel. I needed time to focus it into something much better. It happens that way sometimes, when you have a good premise but the writing doesn’t quite follow through on the promise.

It helps to not give up on yourself or the story that needs to be told. Sometimes that short story has to be made into a novel, but other times it can work if other pieces are different. I throw out a lot of rough drafts, and some of them I tweak endlessly (or so it seems) and others pop out fully formed and ready to be something.

I guess it just reminds me of that saying where you write what you are ready to write. Sometimes we have ideas we aren’t ready to tackle at the moment. Other times we tackle them and falter, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep revisiting the idea until it gels.

There might be more to this Rescuers story later. I can’t say whether or not the characters will try to push their other adventures into my head or if I randomly run across something I know has to fit into their world. For now, I’m extremely excited to be slated for the upcoming anthology and waiting to see what else is in store from Sleeping Cat Books.

Criticism or Ridicule?

Free speech is a beautiful thing. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and has the ability to express it.

But, sometimes, I wonder what the point of expressing an opinion in a certain way is. I love to read. I love to write. I love this form of expression – and many of you who follow me on Google+ or Facebook will have noticed the YouTube video Words Are My Sandbox.

I learned from reviewing other authors and from working in critique groups that often it’s good to sandwich the bad stuff inside the good things you find about the piece. There are some where it can be difficult to find something nice. There are also venues with spoken-only reading and critique where it is easy to focus on just one flaw and miss all the rest of the beauty of that segment. Many groups implement rules about how to treat other writers and others try to focus on how professional the advice may be – but nearly all of them are not about tearing down an amateur. I know I never would want to be the reason someone decides to stop expressing opinions through words.

How does that change when someone becomes a big name professional? Why is it that I hear conversations where people discuss only the bad aspects of some series and trash the author for it? There are so many examples, but here are two:

1. Stephenie Meyer‘s Twilight series seems to take a bad rap from a lot of people. I know many who love the novels and read them again and again. I read them and enjoyed them, but they’re not something that will draw me to read them 50 million times. I’ve heard people call them nothing but a teenage romance and think it’s awful for a 110 year old man (or however old Edward’s character was at the time of publication) to be after a 17 year old girl. Whatever else you say about them, didn’t Meyer make some interesting characters?

2. J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series has throwbacks to the British boarding school novels. Sure. I’m sure there were other critics, possibly about the whole good versus evil thing. But there were rich things in the story, too, that some of the amateur people won’t admit.

Maybe it boils down to jealousy or something else I can’t easily name. I don’t think a single novel will fit every reader out there – which is why we have so many different genres and subgenres and points of view on everything. I wonder if that’s how you know you’re successful – that there are people out there trying to trash your accomplishment. Perhaps I’m just too thin-skinned and I worry what people will say about my work if it’s out there more. It hasn’t stopped me from pursuing publishing yet, and it isn’t likely to in the future.

I can acknowledge that many of the authors I read and enjoy have flaws. Some of them take much less flack than others, but some are much better known than the rest, too. It doesn’t make anyone more discerning to burn another in effigy.

Next time you want to stomp all over someone else’s expressed art, think to yourself- did I even try to see the good in it? What is it about this that so many people find fascinating? We don’t have to “agree to disagree” (don’t get me started on the wrongness of this phrase) or agree on anything at all, but it might be nice to acknowledge that not everyone who disagrees with you is completely wrong. And, also, that the tired, worn-out, dog-eared copy of whatever your favorite novel is has its own baggage. Peace!

Sleeping Cat Books Debuts with Anthology

Sleeping Cat Books is a new entity out there – run by one of my copy editor friends, Sarah Holroyd. This newest venture brings all kinds of publishing services to authors.

I’m especially excited about the new anthology, The Coming Storm. It’s open to many visual and written options – from black and white photography to poetry to fiction.

Speaking of anthologies, my first published story appeared in an anthology, Ruins Metropolis. It can be a great way to start to build a presence and get a name out there for readers to see who you are and what you want to say. It reminds me also that the reasons all of us write are different.

I know there are writers out there who work on a book or one specific world for all of their spare time. It’s about characters who become very close to them and I was really struck almost speechless when I heard a woman say she didn’t want to end the book because then she’d be done with the characters. Maybe that explains why we just keep moving slowly through the story.

Other writers have a couple things moving at a time, each at different paces, cycling through ideas and characters as if they have a shelf life and must be written before they expire.

Do you ever feel like one set of characters or one world is so close to you that it is impossible to work outside that zone? Do you instead put a little here and a little there and mark characters in as many different times, places, situations as you can manage to imagine? What makes you decide to write this set and not a different one at this time?

Piles of Books

In my home, I have a small library. By this I mean one and a half walls are lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I’d keep covering them, but I run into resistance from my husband and the vents on the floor. This library also houses my desk (complete with computer setup and printer), two filing cabinets, and two smaller bookshelves.

It is a blessing and a curse to have so many books on so many topics. Okay, seriously, this is me. It’s all blessing. The only curse is trying to figure out how to organize them. I’m a little too obsessive to let them populate the shelves as they may, and I’m also not forward-thinking enough to leave room on shelves where I may or may not purchase more books.

Who am I kidding? I always purchase more books. Yes, I read ebooks, too, but I have this thing about print books. I love paper and everything associated with it – books blank or printed, office supplies (I have to stop myself from buying index cards until I use the ones I have), graph paper, bookmarks…

So this week I decided it bothered me enough to make a new system. The old system is still there, not yet dismantled as I figure out what I’m dealing with. Two major systems of organization are Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress. Both of them are probably a little too hardcore for me, though it’d be so much fun to figure it out. I asked my book-loving friends, but most of them organize by author and title. I just haven’t figured out how to happily associate fiction and nonfiction and the various topics and still find the exact book I’m looking for when I want it.

I look at the backs of the nonfiction books. Some of them proclaim different subjects to be filed under like Health or Science / Astronomy or Psych / Self-Help. It seems to be the start of a system, until you look at one subject and wonder why they’re not lumped together. Would you classify a book about intelligence tests (filled with exercises to increase your brainpower) under Health, Body Mind Spirit, Games / Humor, or Reference? Because I have at least one in each category.

These discrepancies from the back of the book bother me. It bothers me enough to explain the piles everywhere as I figure out what books I have and where I want them to go. I have a further constriction of shelf and book size to manage.  I’ve had all my writing reference books together for a while, and it’s nice that if I have something I need to figure out, I only go to one spot.  I love being able to find what I need.

I’m excited my science books seem to fit on one shelf. I have applied technical books and natural science books mixed together, but if I ever snag the rest of my engineering books from storage, that would account for another section entirely.

Anyone else have interesting ways to make their book organization system (or lack thereof) fit their needs? Do you randomize them occasionally to mess with visitors (like me) who need to have certain things in order? Do you pile them sideways on the shelves as you run out of room?

My other project will be putting all those owned books into GoodReads. I’ve been meaning to do it for some time, but it’s one of those things that gets away from me. I may be ready to get some of them on the swap list to see if someone wants books I’m willing to part with in exchange for something else I’m ready to read. One step at a time, however.

It’s always good to figure out what’s there first. And I’m well on my way to that.

Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It’s a book I’ve seen on many lists for writers to read. I doubt anyone can read all the writing books out there and still manage to find time to write, but many find inspiration or small gems of wisdom between the covers.

Lamott made me think in several places. Her tone is very conversational and lends itself well to letting the reader think she’s confiding directly. She amused me when she talked about her successful writer friends and how she felt she couldn’t be friends with them after their success and dealing with her own jealousy.

Some things resonated deeper, though. How do you think your life will change after you’re published? Maybe it seems like the stars will shine down and everything will sparkle, but it’s not going to give you inner validation. She’s definitely right when she says it isn’t going to change who you are. If you’re not enough before, you still won’t be.

[This is not saying it isn’t awesome. It just isn’t everything.]

There’s always going to be someone better, too, or more successful, or even less deserving. But there’s also a reminder there about why we write. It wasn’t just to be rich and famous, was it? Because there seem to be a hundred easier ways to become rich and/or famous besides writing.

Like many others who advise writers, she advocates to write. She employs examples from writing classes and conferences she’s led that illustrate how she handles things like criticism and motivating others. How many of us know how to dish out or receive a critique? Have you thought about what you would say to someone who’s a much less accomplished writer (and likely new to it) that would help them improve and yet not discourage them? It’s one thing to not think you can simply send the story out to be published, but if you crush a beginning writer, what good is that?

After finishing the book, I read the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I think the people who commented either loved it or hated it. Someone gave it a bad review because he (or she, who knows?) received several copies of it. Is that a reason to give a book a bad review? I’m not exactly sure if the commenter even read the book. That seems unfair to me.

But I guess I’d be glad for a lot of reviews on a book of mine. That would mean it was getting read. Like having it in the bargain bin in front of the store – it might be like having the store be completely unconcerned if it got stolen, but it’s much better than being remaindered in the dumpster out back.

I’m glad I read the book. I understand why it’s recommended for writers to read. I definitely see why many believe it to be inspirational. Something about finding someone who understands our feelings can make us more dedicated to the work. Whatever makes us keep writing seems like a good thing to me.

DemiCon

The beauty of science fiction conventions are friends, new and old, participating in the geekiness we generally get sideways glances for from the rest of the population. Case in point: chatting with some costumed people in the hotel lobby Friday night, we saw several groups in town for the Drake Relays staring at us. We can tell them by their matching track outfits, several with school logos emblazoned on them.

I suppose they can tell us by our nontraditional attire. You don’t see belly dancers, Klingons, steampunk, and other costumes mingling together on normal days, I suppose. Too bad!

My daughter went with me for a couple hours. She charmed everyone with her antics, but naptime came fast. Which was good for me, because I was getting tired of chasing her around.

I got to spend time with some authors, I’m sure I didn’t remember all of them running around the Con, but here’s a short list: Lettie Prell, Tom Ashwell, Sarah Prineas, Glen Cook, Karen Bovenmyer, and Mary Eagan. I know I’m missing a few, but I’m sure they’ll forgive me.

Part of the programming was “Speed Dating for Authors” – and I got outed as an author just in time to participate. A lot of fun, but I think it needs a little better description. I think everyone who participated would do it again. Thought it makes me wonder what’s the best way to give them something to remember me by – is it a flyer, a card, a bookmark, or something else I haven’t considered? Space considerations also factor in. You can certainly put quite a bit of information on an 8×11 sheet of paper, but what’s to stop someone from folding it and sticking it somewhere she won’t find it again? A business card has the advantage of being easy to put in a pocket and not getting left somewhere accidentally. And a lot of Con-goers have nice badge holders that allow for the tucking in of business cards.

Such a nice weekend, but all good things must end. It’s good to be reminded to come back to the blog. I got a lot of ideas at the Con and a few afterward, too. Can’t say they’re good yet, but at least something’s percolating in there.

When was the last time you attended a Con? What did you take away from it?

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