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Posts Tagged ‘outlining’

Over time, I have been trying to develop a more studied and consistent method of writing books, largely with the goal of writing them more quickly. For this purpose, I have attempted to outline more before I write.* While my efforts have been semi-successful (I typically outline the first quarter of the book and end up winging it from there), it has contributed greatly to my speed. Ironically, however, it is the latter part of the process, where I don’t have but the vaguest idea of where I’m heading, that I’m enjoying the most.

I’m finding that outlining is good for getting me started on a story (which can be very tough), after which, with luck, I will be so into the flow that I can continue by the seat of my pants. This does lead to some hiccups, but when it works… When it works, there is nothing like it. It’s the joy of discovery.

What am I discovering, you ask? Why, the same thing you are when you read the book. I like to keep my readers hopping, never knowing what’s coming next. It’s not always possible, of course (particularly with the class of readers I attract), but it seems to me that the best way to keep all of you from knowing what’s going to happen next is if I don’t know what’s going to happen next. And believe me, I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even know what’s happened already.

Take my latest hiccup. I finally resolved my dilemma by doing what I should have done at the start: I went back to find the point where the story went off the rails, and as is usual with me, I found it in the first chapter. It wasn’t so much that the narrative had gone awry, as I hadn’t told it right; there was far more backstory to my main story than I had given credit for. So, 3000 words later, I prepared to return to whence I had left off–when I had another inspiration and realized that until I made a proper go of the beginning, nothing that followed would feel right. And tonight, the story is 730 words longer–at the beginning.

Which might never have happened were I a strict outliner. Which is part of that joy of discovery, for me and I hope for you, too. But there’s another part.

I was re-reading some of my manuscript the other day, and it suddenly dawned on me (not for the first time), that what we writers do is really damned cool. We literally make up universes. I mean, yes, we all know that we’re gods to our characters; they live and die at our whim. But it’s more than that; we make stuff up out of nothing and spin it out for fifty, a hundred, three hundred thousand words. I re-read these stories, and re-visit the trials and the triumphs that I wrote, and I ask myself: “I did that? How the hell did I do that?”

And the answer is, sometimes I know what I’m doing, and sometimes I just go along for the ride and watch the scenery. It’s not always beautiful, but there’s a surprise around every corner.

*I actually tried to outline my very first novel start to finish, but I abandoned it pretty quickly. This is probably for the best, since my grasp of narrative structure left a little to be desired.

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Country Brains v. City Brains

It has been no secret to anyone who knows me (since college, if not longer) that I have no head for higher mathematics. The computer age has only made this worse. The problem has become obvious to me (using my inside knowledge): the kind of logical, step-by-step reasoning which is math, or using a computer, is–to put it mildly–not my thing. (Oddly enough, I have always been killer at spelling.) I like science; I’m just bad at it.

On the other hand, I have been a storyteller since I was in grade school. It was not until relatively recently, however, that I allowed myself to believe that I’m actually good at it.

Now that I have, however, it occurs to me to wonder: Why am I so good at one and not the other? And why are so many of my friends brilliant scientists who would rather solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded than write a ten-page paper? The answer: Country brains versus city brains.

O-o-kay, you’re thinking. What’s that all about?

Relax, this is not a red-state, blue-state kind of thing. It has nothing to do with where you’re from and everything to do with who you are.

Country brains are those that operate without maps. They prefer the open spaces, where they can blaze their own trail.* No clear path? “So what?” asks the country brain. “I’ll find a way to where I’m going, or if not, somewhere equally interesting.” If you put a country brain in the city, it sees the myriad intersecting streets, the hard-marked paths for getting to specified destinations, and throws up its hands. “How am I supposed to remember all these directions?” And it shuffles forward slowly, never taking its eyes from its map, a target for every tourist-hunting pickpocket on the street.

City brains love maps. Maps remind them of instruction sheets, and instruction sheets remind them of numbers. Nice, neat, solvable problems that have only one answer. (Ironically, city brains have to show their work, while country brains only release the final draft.) If you take a city brain out to the country, where country brains range freely and happily, it will refuse to leave its internet-wired cabin.

Obviously, I have a country brain. I will wander through the wilderness of a story (I have to get back to outlining!) until I have arranged seventy or eighty thousand words into a pattern that is not only cohesive, but sufficiently persuasive that a reader will suspend his disbelief and pay for the privilege. Most city brains could not do that any more than I could extract a cube root.

There’s nothing wrong with having either a city brain or a country brain, of course. I don’t know if we’re born that way or if it’s something we develop; it’s just the way we are. Neither is better, just different. Like everything else, it’s a spectrum. There are actually people whose brains can operate in the city as well as in the country.

If there’s an advantage to being a city brain, it’s that the path forward is clearly marked. On the other hand, if you’re a country brain like me, you can flail around for an hour just trying to figure out a clever way to end a blog post. Unlike our city cousins, we don’t have the luxury of knowing there’s a single right answer.

And sometimes, there is no answer at all. But then, I’m a country brain, and we don’t care.

 

*Country brains are perhaps more properly called “pioneer” brains, but that interferes with the alliteration, so we’ll stick with “country” brains.

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It’s scary starting a new book. You have an idea, maybe just a scene that you’ve been carrying around in your head for weeks or months, waiting to see if it grows into something you can use. If it’s a series, you already have your main character(s), so that’s a help. But you don’t have a plot, you don’t have secondary characters, you don’t have a beginning, a middle, or an end… You have to write 1200-1500 words per day for the next four months and you have no idea what Word One is going to be! Help!

It’s exciting to start a new book. There’s this image you’ve been carrying in your head for weeks or months that you can’t wait to get down and see where is goes. This is the fourth book in your series, and you’re really getting into your characters’ psyches, and you’re learning more and more about your setting all the time. Right now you’ve got nothing more than maybe a half-page of scattered notes, but in a few months you will have a book: Tens of thousands of words that you put together in a way that has never been done before and never will be again. Your universe, your mark on history. The possibilities!

And you wonder why writers can never seem to confine themselves to the here and now, even when they’re away from their typewriters. They are in a constant state of simultaneous terror and awe. (No, not shock and awe. That’s different. That’s when someone buys your book.) There are those who say fiction is irrelevant; it has no relation to, or effect on, the real world. They’ve never written a novel. Believe me, when you write a novel, it affects your real world a lot.

I am at the “ten lines of notes that I may never use” stage. And I have a blurb. In fact, the blurb came first. It was the first thing I wrote, because once you have a blurb, you have a story. You just have to fill in the details.

I have no idea right now what those details are going to be. I am in the same state as anyone else starting to read this book; I have little to no idea what’s going to happen.

It is scaring my pants off, and exciting as hell.

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It’s late, I’m tired, I probably should leave this until tomorrow, but it’s not been a good day writing-wise, so I’d like to go to bed knowing I accomplished something. I’ll try to be coherent.

My last book (The Scent of Death), I wrote up as “The Experiment,” a mostly-weekly rundown of how well I had kept to my 8,000 (later 6,000) word schedule. Now I’m working on Son of the Experiment (The Killing Scar), and it’s not going nearly so well. After seven days, I have close to 5700 words. (It is, again, ironic that under my old system this would have been considered quite satisfactory.) And the words are all right; I have no problem with them; the characters are behaving themselves. Although it took time, I have the major plot points worked out, and the settings, and all that. But it’s been slow, and I’ve been slow to realize why.

The problem, I now understand, is that I’ve been trying to go too fast. Not that I can’t put out 1500 words a day (I wrote 1900 last night), but I’ve put the cart before the horse. The whole basis of my new system is outlining–and I kinda sorta forgot to do enough outlining.

I thought that because I only outlined the last book up through the first dozen chapters and wrote the rest with a vaguer sort of guidance, I could write a whole book that way. Turns out I can’t. You see, as long as you know where you’re headed, the closer you get to the end of the book, the easier it is to write. In the case of The Scent of Death, I was able to apply that principle to the last 40,000 words (and the last 10,000 flew by). But that still means I wrote 20,000 words from a pretty detailed outline, a luxury I haven’t given myself this time.

Last night’s 1900 words came in the form of a prologue–that I wrote after I was 3000 words into the book. If you’re writing a huge prologue after you’ve started the book, something’s wrong with your schedule. It means, most obviously, that you began your book in the wrong place. And if you start in the wrong place, you cannot end in the right place.

So I’m going back to the outline. (I feel better about the whole process already.) I’ll outline the first quarter-to-half of the book, maybe more if it is working. Then I’ll be able to jump into the real writing with a sense of confidence. Yep, I’m rarin’ to go now!

After I get a good night’s sleep. I don’t want my characters yawning in the middle of their dialogue.

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As you are aware, by this point in the proceedings, the plan was to have reached 40,000 words, the putative 2/3 mark of this monument to one man’s ambition. However, as you are also aware, from having read the title of this post, things this week did not go entirely as planned.

Through a combination of events largely out of my control, I couldn’t keep up the pace this week. Apparently, 32,000 words per month is my limit. (Already the experiment is yielding valuable data.) Even before Life took precedence, I had decided that 2000 words per day, even working only four days a week, was just too much. It was eating up all of my “free time,” and this gig doesn’t pay well enough for that. (Doubtful that it ever could.) So I ratcheted my goal back to 1500 words per night, which will extend the time it takes to finish, but not as much as you might think, since I’m so far into it already. I’m thinking ten weeks instead of eight. This should still leave enough time to make my September 15 deadline. (And if it doesn’t, I-the-publisher can fight me-the-writer over it.)

For the record, I am at 37,418 words. Since I already gave myself permission to slack off, however, this means I am only about 1100 words behind schedule on the sequel to The Choking Rain, which will now with 90% certainty be called The Scent of Death. Our Heroes, having hied themselves to an Asian kingdom where they don’t know anyone, don’t speak the language, and which is threatened by both revolution from within and invasion from without, have been attacked by a mob in the market square, resulting in becoming separated from their guide, the princess they’re protecting, and one of their own gang. Add to this a mysterious method of assassination, a gallery of untrustworthy high officials, and a couple of “allies” with their own secret agendas, and it’s all pretty much business as usual.*

And that’s all I can tell you. Fortunately, as part of the outlining process, I know who’s who and who’s not. Unless you count this character, who just kind of showed up and introduced himself, and that guy who’s not what I thought he was, and the other fellow who’s now…

I’m telling you, this would all be a lot easier if the characters would just read the outline first.

*And that’s not including the fact that their fearless leader has taken on a new identity so secret he won’t even tell them.

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As of the end of Week 4, I am at 32,189 words. (Target threshold: 32,000.) If you remember, at the end of last week I was about to embark on a Big Action Scene. Turns out 50 bandits was a little on the heavy side, and I settled for 30. How that all turned out, who faced up to the danger, who was shoved to the sidelines, and who got shot, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

The plot is beginning to coalesce, with the cast of characters growing, potential villains set up, potential allies acting mysteriously (could they also be villains?) and making various shocking disclosures. (All I will say is that there are more people sneaking around the palace after lights-out than there were during the day.)

I am now considering a tentative release date of September 15. This presumes, of course that (a) I finish on time; (b) I can commission a proper cover, not only for this book, but a coordinating one for The Choking Rain as well; and (c) editing does not take more time than I anticipate. Plus, of course, I need a title. The Scent of Death is hanging around like, um, a mysterious and sinister perfume, and unless something really cool comes up, that will likely be the winner.

Meanwhile, of course, the Smashwords July sale is still on, and you can get all of my titles at reduced prices (one is actually free). So don’t be shy; I write these things to amuse myself, but you might find you like them too…

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I’ve never really tried writing to an outline before, but now I’ve outlined the sequel to The Choking Rain, provisionally titled Something in the Air (but very much subject to change), and I’ve spent the last two evenings writing the first 4300 words. The idea is to write 2000 words a night, which would bring in the first draft before Labor Day.

I hadn’t planned to write another novel so soon; the idea was to concentrate on short fiction this year. But after a couple of tries (and one completion), the Muse wasn’t hanging around. “Well,” I thought, “no plan to do something is good if it keeps you from doing anything,” so I allowed myself to think about writing another book–but only if I could get it done quickly. None of this “twelve months and a bit” this time. None of this foundering in the middle trying to figure out how the plot was going to get from A to Z. (A and Z are easy. It’s L, M, and N that will kill you.)

So I tried outlining, and surprisingly, it wasn’t tough. (I’ve had this idea for a long time, so that helped.) I had the outline done in half the time I had allotted, including details for the first dozen chapters, so I started even sooner than I thought I would. So far, I’m 300 words ahead of schedule. We’ll see how tonight goes.

I’ll keep you all updated every week or so, unless I fall completely behind, in which case I will close this page and start writing under an assumed name, something with fewer expectations. I’m leaning toward “Will Shakespeare,” since no one thinks he ever wrote anything anyway…

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