Showing posts with label outlining. Show all posts
Showing posts with label outlining. Show all posts

Saturday, September 28

Book Outlines: Helpful or Harmful?

Book Outlines: Helpful or Harmful?

To outline or not to outline. There are few questions more contentious in the writing world -- and writers (God bless us!) can be a rather contentious bunch.

Here is my tl;dr answer: Ultimately, I think whether you should use an outline depends on the writer, and everyone is different, so there is no one definite answer. That said, I think everyone should try outlining at least once. Otherwise, how could you know whether it works for you?

Stephen King: Reject the Tyranny of the Outline

As you likely know, Stephen King doesn't like outlining. He writes:

“I’d suggest that what works for me may work equally well for you. If you are enslaved to (or intimidated by) the tiresome tyranny of the outline and the notebook filled with “Character Notes,” it may liberate you. At the very least, it will turn your mind to something more interesting than Developing the Plot.” (On Writing, Stephen King)

I think I might talk about Stephen King too much but he is one of my favorite writers. And he’s straightforward, one of the traits I appreciate most in a person. I don’t always agree with King but what he has to say is well thought out and has worked for him over the course of decades, so it’s worth taking seriously.

Stephen King is exceptionally talented. His story, ‘It’ is one of my favorites -- after I read it I couldn’t use the washroom without fear for a couple of decades (especially at night). But, on the positive side, he gave me worlds to live in, he gave me characters I love and who have stayed with me. This may seem like an odd way of putting it, but it’s true: he gave me the gift of his thoughts.

I’m writing about Stephen King here because I think he is one of the best defenders, one of the best advocates, of pantsing.

Pantsing vs Plotting

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of constructing stories:

1. Plot a story 

Let’s talk about plot. In most stories the hero starts off in the Ordinary World, doing what he usually does every day. He wakes up, brushes his teeth, goes to school, wishes he was brave enough to ask Betty to the dance, gets bullied for his lunch money, etc.

This is where you show your readers your character’s soul, often by giving her a mini-adventure (think of any Bond film you’ve ever seen).

Then there’s a Call to Adventure (which is often rejected). The protagonist will be given a foreign dictator to subvert, or tasked with retrieving nuclear weapons from a sexy despot. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Often, the hero meets a mentor who gives him a gift that will aid him on his Journey into the Special World of the Adventure (Obi Wan Kenobi gave Luke the lightsaber that had belonged to his father). And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with a strongly plotted story. For one thing, it can help you determine early on whether the story works.

I’d like to make another point before I go on to the next section. You can have an outline without having a strongly plotted story. It all depends on whether an outline describes what is already in your story or whether it describes what you want to have in your story but isn’t there yet. I’ll talk more about this, below.

2. Pants a story

This is the idea that if you develop strong characters that the plot will spring from their actions. You put strong characters in a particular situation and then you say: What would these characters do in this situation? And then you write your answer down. That’s your story.

I wish I could remember where I read this, but years ago I read an article by Thomas Harris where he described writing his book, Red Dragon. His story emerged from what he saw his characters doing, from what he heard them saying. Psychologically, they were living, independent, entities. I think Harris is on the extreme end, he is an extreme pantser, but that’s the idea.

You don’t actually have to see and hear your characters for this technique to work! (Though it would help.)

My Experience

There are innumerable ways of writing a story, and I don’t think one way is intrinsically any better than another, it all depends on the writer using it, what is best for him or her.

When I pants a story -- when I start writing with a few characters and only a couple of ideas rattling around in my head -- I’ll often first write what I like to call a vomit draft. (Sounds nice, doesn’t it! ;)

The vomit draft is just that, I vomit up thoughts, thought fragments -- whatever -- onto the page. I ignore spelling, grammar, research, facts and good taste. No one will ever see one of my vomit drafts but me, it would be like walking out of the house naked.

I use a writing journal and so I scrawl this all out longhand, and that gives me the opportunity to incorporate images out of old magazines if they … how do I describe it? Sometimes an image will pop out at me. For example, I’ll see a woman’s hairstyle and I’ll realize, Yes! That’s what the protagonist’s hair looks like, so I'll cut the image out and paste it into my writing journal. (Yes, my journals look like something out of the film 'Se7en')

When I begin writing a story I try to write the story straight through and to be as brief as possible. If I realize I have to change something at the beginning of the story (e.g., the protagonist’s hair needs to be brown rather than blond), I'll make a note of that, but I’ll keep going.

Okay, my point is that at the end of this messy process I’ll have a pretty good idea of the story, of its shape. From that I can easily put together an outline. So … am I a plotter or a pantser?

For me, an outline is just a snapshot of where the novel is at, not necessarily where the novel needs to go. One of the HUGE advantages of using an outline is that it’s easier to come back to the novel if I have to break off working on it for a bit.

Just Do It

If you haven’t already found a method that works for you, for instance if you’re just starting out and wondering whether you should outline, then outline. At least try it out. Even Stephen King has tried it -- which is one reason he can confidently say it’s not for him.

An outline doesn’t have to be complicated. Just tell the story as briefly as possible and then break it up into sections. Identify the Call to Adventure, the confrontation at the Midpoint, the Final Showdown. Even if you only have those three things it can be a help. Or not.

If you find outlining doesn’t work for you, if you find you don’t need it, then fine!

As always, have a good writing day and I’ll talk to you again soon. :-)

Wednesday, August 6

The Structure of a Short Story: The First Complication

The Structure of a Short Story: The First Complication

Today I continue my series on the structure of short stories.

Short stories are a terrific way to learn the craft of writing:

It is easier to find beta readers for short stories than it is for novels

A reader can finish a two or three thousand word short story in a few minutes and so requests for feedback are much more likely to be successful.

Writing a short story can help cleanse the palate after finishing the first draft of a novel

Try writing a short story between the first and second drafts of a novel, it will help take your mind off the novel and will help you come back to it with fresh eyes.

Writing short stories can improve one’s writing

Writing is like any other skill: use it or lose it. The good news is that through practice we can develop and deepen our skills. 

In a short story every line has to count. Every line has to either develop character or move the story along. Anything that doesn’t do one of those two things will stand out like a neon strobe light in the dark. 

Also, short stories provide excellent opportunities for trying out new and different techniques. For example, writing in first person present tense, or writing a story from the perspective of the villain, or trying to increase reader identification by using free indirect speech. 

The First Complication

In the first post in this series I outlined six parts that most short stories will have, especially genre stories: Setup, First Complication, New Plan, Major Setback, Climax and Wrap Up. Last time we looked at The Setup so today let’s look at The First Complication.

Last time we talked about the importance of the main character of the story--the protagonist--having a concrete, clearly defined goal. 

In the First Complication the protagonist’s plans run into a snag as an opposing force (the villain) derails the protagonist’s attempt to achieve her goal.[1]

An Example: The Matrix

It’s difficult to discuss the First Complication without also talking about the Call to Adventure, so please indulge me for a moment. In The Matrix Neo’s Call to Adventure was issued by Trinity in the nightclub scene at the beginning of the movie.

Trinity: “I know why you're here, Neo. I know what you've been doing... why you hardly sleep, why you live alone, and why night after night, you sit by your computer. You're looking for him. I know because I was once looking for the same thing. And when he found me, he told me I wasn't really looking for him. I was looking for an answer. It's the question that drives us, Neo. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did.”
Neo: “What is the Matrix?”
Trinity: “The answer is out there, Neo, and it's looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to.” (IMDb)

Neo’s Call to Adventure is a challenge to want the truth badly enough to be willing to risk everything.

But The Call isn’t what we’re interested in at the moment, we’re interested in the First Complication, the first roadblock to this goal.

When Neo arrives at work the next day Agents come to take him into custody. Before the Agents arrive Morpheus gets in contact with Neo and tells him he has a choice: leave the building with the men who have come for him (the Agents) or climb out onto the window ledge and follow it until he reaches a scaffold. He is to then use the scaffold to reach the roof.

The Complication is the Agents and their pursuit of Neo. Trinity has asked Neo whether he wants to find the answer to the question, “What is the Matrix?” Now we find out how badly Neo wants the answer: What is he willing to risk? Does he want to know what the Matrix is badly enough to risk everything?

It turns out the answer is: No. Neo says, “This is insane!” and retreats inside the building to be hauled away by Agents.

The First Complication is a setback but not an All Hope is Lost moment. It is the first resistance to the hero achieving his goal after he has accepted the Call to Adventure. 

The First Complication should do three things:

a. It should give the reader a good idea of what the protagonist is up against, of what the opposition is.

b. It should raise the stakes.

c. It should tempt the protagonist to give up his goal.

The First Complication isn’t a single point in time, it is a sequence, a daisy chain of scenes and sequels.

Sometimes when I think about the important turning points in a story I think of them as discrete moments in time, but these turning points are usually sequences of significant events set off by an unusual occurrence. 

What we have been discussing, the First Complication in The Matrix, is a good example of a startling occurrence setting in motion a chain of events. The event that triggers this sequence is Neo receiving a package, finding a phone inside, and then (this is the startling part) the phone ringing the second it is unwrapped--just as though he is being watched.

That unusual event is like a push that knocks over the first domino in the sequence, in this case a sequence of scenes. In our example the sequence ends with Neo waking up in bed from what seems like a nightmare. Each scene in that sequence took Neo farther away from his comfort zone, from the Ordinary World, and drew him further into the Special World of the adventure. Then, at the end, he is snapped back into the Ordinary World of his mundane reality.


At the First Complication introduce opposition to the protagonist achieving her goal and also raise the stakes. 

For example, let’s say the protagonist’s general goal is to make their grandmother happy. Her concrete goal is to raise enough money to pay off the bank so that her grandmother’s home won’t be foreclosed. 

The protagonist’s initial plan: Raise the $150,000 needed by putting on a telethon at the local television station.

The opposing force: A land developer who wants to buy the grandmother’s land from the bank.

The complication: Not enough people give money. Why? Because the opposing force, the land developer, blocks all incoming calls at the local television station. By the time the protagonist realizes what’s happening and gets the phones working again the telethon is over.

We can up the stakes by saying that when the protagonist’s grandmother hears about the land developer’s dirty tactics, she has a heart attack and is rushed to the hospital. It turns out that Gran will be fine, but she doesn’t have medical insurance, so what money she had saved is now gone. Instead of having to raise $150,000 they now need $300,000 and the bank has used a technicality to move up the date.
(Alternatively, we could have let the protagonist succeed in raising the needed money and then have a thief steal it from her on her way to the bank. The protagonist could be injured during the holdup, making it more difficult for her to raise the money a second time.)

That’s it! What is the First Complication in your work in progress? What is your protagonist’s goal and how do you raise the stakes?


1. For the purposes of this article I’ve made the opposing force a villain, but there are many other options. The opposing force could be society, or nature, or even the protagonist herself.

Photo credit: Untitled by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, June 18

Creating A Creative Outline

Today I'd like to talk about outlining. 

Outlining doesn't have to be mechanical.

From several discussions I've had about outlining with various writers I've come away with the idea that certain writers who are vigorously opposed to outlining see it as in some sense mechanical. I'd like to show that outlining doesn't have to be.

Each method of outlining is unique to the writer.

Before I start, though, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not suggesting anyone else use the same method as myself. Each story is different and I suspect that how each story is written differs as well. 

With this blog post I'm saying, "Hey, by the way, this is what I do" in the hope that some of you will, in the comments, share your own methods.

The Index Card Method

One of the reasons outlining works for me is that stories usually come in fits and starts. I'll get one piece one day, another the next, and usually these pieces don't fit perfectly. 

It helps to have a board where I can scribble down my thoughts on index cards and arrange them in terms of the story's chronology.[4] In my case, the board is several sheets of magnetized metal hanging on the wall, but I could do this on a piece of paper or a file on my computer.

Step One: Write the events of the story down in no regard for order.

Often I'll know that something--a particular event--occurs but won't know if it occurs in the beginning, middle or end of the story. I won't know why it occurred or who it will effect.

That's okay. I write the event down. At first I usually write these down in my journal and then, when my journal is getting full, I'll comb through it and transfer the events onto index cards which I then place on my Lost Scene board. 

Each of these cards ... I think of it like catching the tip of a dragon's tail. Each one could lead me to a different story; they are entry points; they are day-dreaming aids. 

As soon as I have enough cards on my 'Lost Scenes' board I start putting them on my story boards. Then I play. I play with the order, I play with writing new scenes. But most of all I think about the core of the story and dream. Perhaps I'll write new scenes in my journal and start the process again.

Step Two: Give each character a card.

I say this is step two, but I do it at the same time as step one: I jot down the character's name and everything I know about them. Sometimes this uses up several cards.

Step Three: Write down clues.

Occasionally I want to put in hints at what is to come, or perhaps I've included a mystery, so must leave a smattering of clues for the reader. I'll write one clue per index card. Later on I'll pin each clue to the scene where I introduce it.

Step four: Write a scene or write an interview with one or more of the characters.

As soon as I have a clear idea of a few of the scenes I want to have in the book, as soon as I have some sort of fledging sense of my protagonist, I'll start to write. 

What I write is different for each story. Sometimes I'll do a character interview, sometimes I'll write a piece of flash fiction featuring my protagonist (or my antagonist or both). 

I need to connect with the characters and the events of the story (I need to break into the story) as soon as possible so that I know that what I'm working on isn't just smoke and mirrors. 

For me the bottom line is: if I can't connect to the character's there is no story.

Step Five: When the story begins to coalesce I look for pivotal scenes.

At some point the story will more or less coalesce and I'll have grasped certain big events--pivotal events--that change the characters lives. These events help me find the joints of the story.

In case you're wondering, I find the joints of the story by thinking of the movements, the beats, in the classic three act structure. Keep in mind, though, that these points aren't intended to be a straightjacket. I don't feel as though I have to shoe-horn my story into any particular structure. 

That said, thinking about the three act structure often helps me find the beating heart of my story.

Step Six: Plan the pivotal scenes.

Deborah Chester just published two terrific blog posts (Scene Check, Part 1; Scene Check: Part Who) where she lists some of the many questions writers can use to plan a scene:

- Who is the viewpoint character and what is their objective?
- What is the viewpoint character's motivation?
- What is at stake?
- What will the protagonist do to achieve their goal and what will the antagonist do to counter it?
- Why is this event important to the story?
- When will the scene's outcome affect events down the line?

Once I answer a few of these questions for each of my pivotal scenes my mind will be awash in ideas for intervening scenes, scenes which lead up to the big events. 

Step Seven: Keep doing Step Six.

For each new scene I tack up on my board I plan it out in the same way I planned out the pivotal scenes, though perhaps in less detail.

Step Eight: Don't be afraid to reorder, delete or add scenes.

A story doesn't live in index cards (or in computer files or on pages of looseleaf), a story is a living thing that resides within the storyteller. 

Since a story is a living, breathing, growing thing it's inevitable that it will grow and change and transform. When this happens, even though it can be painful, index cards have to be taken down and stored in my RIP pile and new ones created. 

Step Nine: Write an outline.

At some point I'll feel the story is just about there, just about right, and I'll write a hurried outline.

Step Ten: Redo the cards.

Inevitably, whenever I write an outline, the story will change a bit and I'll go back to the cards and shift things around, keeping an eye on whether the clues that I've scattered through the story need to be changed, moved or deleted.

Step Eleven: Type the cards into a word processor.

At this point I'll type all the cards on my story boards into Scrivener and, in so doing, write a detailed summary of the novel. I'll print this out and keep it handy. 

Step Twelve: Don't hesitate to change the outline.

For me, an outline is important because at some point when I'm writing I'll get lost and wonder: Okay, where am I? What happens now?

If I have an outline I look at it and see what I'd wanted to do originally. I don't have to do that, but often I'll look at it and think, "Oh yes, I remember!" and off I go. But I could just as easily change the outline.

I like how Mary Robinette Kowal describes the outline as a roadmap. When I take a roadtrip I like to have a destination and I like to know where I'm going to stop along the way. That way I know (roughly) how much gas I'll have to buy, I can book a hotel to sleep in, I can search for interesting spots along the way I might like to visit.

Having a roadmap doesn't mean I can't change my destination mid-trip. But if I do, and I have a roadmap, it'll be easier to calculate how much more (or less) gas I'll need, see what spots I can stop off along the way, and so on.

Final thoughts.

Some writers get hold of a story through prose. Other writers get hold of a story through daydreams. Other writers ... well, I suspect that the number of ways to get hold of a story--to catch a dragon by the tail--are as numerous as writers.

The important thing is to catch the dragon--to write the story--before it eats you.


1. Chuck Wendig's blog is wonderful--plenty of pithy tips about writing, plenty of encouragement. (But be warned, his blog is NSFW.) Here are two articles CW wrote about outlining:

2. Mary Robinette Kowal on outlining:

3. Lee Goldberg on outlining:

4. I use index cards but you can use anything. Strips of paper, a file on your computer, pages in a binder. Use whatever method strikes your fancy.

Photo credit: "Creative Outlining" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

Thursday, April 24

Chapter Length And Genre

Chapter Length And Genre

The other day I wrote about James Patterson (see: 7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose). I learned a lot about the man, things I had known but hadn't thought too much about. For example, Patterson sells more books than anyone else and has done so since 2001; one out of every seventeen hardcover books sold has Patterson's name on it.

Now, granted, Patterson doesn't write all these books himself. Some believe that whenever he writes a book with another author that Patterson's sole contribution is his name on the cover.

While I wouldn't be the least surprised if Patterson left the bulk of writing to his co-authors I think he contributes one very important thing: the outline.


Whether are not to outline can be a contentious subject. Some writers feel outlines sap a story of its life, of its artistic worth. Others feel that without an outline they could waste valuable time going down dead ends, doing rewrite after rewrite after ... well, you get the idea.

One thing that I have heard from every writer who has used an outline is that it saves time. Sometimes a lot of time.

It came as no surprise that James Patterson uses a detailed outline. The extent to which it changed during the writing did come as a surprise. I believe that sometimes writers think of an outline as something set in iron, but it's not. It just gives you a detailed account of where you've been and where you intend to go. You can always change your mind.

I think the great advantage of an outline is that, like a map, it lets you know where you are.

Since Patterson's chapters are short, averaging about 600 to 700 words, even one paragraph of chapter summary composes a significant amount of the book. If his book is 60,000 words long, the outline would be about 1/6th the length of the manuscript!


A few months ago I began listening to the podcast Under The Influence, by Terry O'Reilly. The podcast is all about how advertising affects ordinary people. 

One of my favorite episodes is Advertising Alumni, about famous people who began their careers in broadcasting. When I heard James Patterson's name mentioned, it took me off guard. Here's an excerpt from the program:
"Patterson took a job as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson in 1971. He went from being a writer to Creative Director to running the ad agency in only two and a half years, and was later named CEO at the age of 39.

"While there, he penned the slogan, "I'm a Toys 'R Us Kid" for the toy retailer, and "Aren't you hungry for Burger King now" for the fast food giant.

"He wrote his first book on the side, called, The Thomas Berryman Number in 1976, but it was turned down by over 30 publishers.

"When it was eventually published, it would win Patterson the Edgar Award for Crime Fiction.

"But his breakthrough book came in 1992, when he published Along Came A Spider.

"Against all opinions in publishing, Patterson insisted the book be promoted with television commercials. He wrote, produced and paid for the commercial himself, and aired it in the three most influential book cities in America - New York, Washington and Chicago.

"When the ads went on, the book jumped onto the best seller list immediately.

"In 1996, James Patterson would leave the advertising world, and focus on novel writing full-time.

"Unsatisfied with the publishing industry's informal approach to marketing, he handles all his book advertising - from the design of covers, to the timing of releases, to the placement in retail stores. And he demands to see market share data and sales trends.

"Stephen King once called James Patterson, "a terrible writer."

"Patterson just shrugged it off, saying that thousands hate his stuff, millions like it.

"He has written over 100 novels in the past 30 years, 47 of which topped the NY Times best-seller list, making him a Guinness Book of World Records holder. And he has sold more books than Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined." 
My takeaway from this is that James Patterson has a goal: he wants to sell a lot of books. 

How is he doing that? By writing the kind of books people want to read. 

Of course, that's the trick, isn't it? Figuring out what people want to read, what kind of stories they'd like to hear. One aspect of this, one that I've overlooked until recently, is chapter length.

Chapter Length

I was in a drugstore yesterday and stopped by the rows of books they have at the back of their magazine section. Right on the end was one by Mary Higgins Clark (incidentally, Clark, like Patterson, used to be a copywriter)[1]. 

For my article on James Patterson I had gone through various books of his and calculated the average length of his chapters, which turned out to be around 640 words. As I stood in the drugstore isle, I opened one of Clark's books and looked at the length of her chapters. 

They were about the same length as Patterson's. 

When I got back home I checked and found that her latest book (published April 1, 2014), I've Got You Under My Skin, has an average chapter length of 768 words. I'll Walk Along (published May 12, 2011) has an average chapter length of 1,021.

You may be thinking: so what?

I mentioned these chapter lengths to a friend who doesn't read anything on the bestseller list and they were surprised. "That's short!" they said.

And it is. Very short. But that's only when you compare these books to books from other genres.

My Research

Here are the chapter lengths of two of the top sellers in the Amazon Kindle Store:

The Target, by David Baldacci. 
- Published: April 22, 2014
- Currently #1 on the Kindle Store.
- Around 1,555 words per chapter.
- Genre: Thriller, Assasination thrillers

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
- Published: Oct 22, 2013
- Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Currently #2 on the Kindle Store.
- Around 24,767 words per chapter.
- Genre: Literary Fiction.

Now, of course, that's not even close to being representative, but what a difference! The Target's average chapter contains 1,600 words while The Goldfinch's average chapter contains 25,000 words. That's a novella! That said, of course the books couldn't be more different. Baldacci writes light entertainment; a literary snack if you will; while Tartt's book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 

I looked at a few more books and found that, as one would expect, there are trends within genre. Romance books tend to have longer chapters (about 3,000 words or so), as do science fiction novels. Thrillers, though, tend to have shorter chapters of around 600 or 800 words. 

I would like to write another post about this sometime, about the average chapter lengths of the bestselling books in each genre and how that has changed over time.

In Summary

It sounds simple, perhaps even simplistic, but I think that the key to James Pattersons phenomenal success has been, at least in part, his focus on creating stories readers want to read. I think he approaches writing with marketing in mind and uses his talent for catching the public's interest to write books that will entertain them.

Part of crafting a book that will entertain is knowing the expectations genre readers have when they open a book. For instance, thrillers are supposed to be, above all else, suspenseful. Page turners. Romance books are supposed to be about the emotions, the ecstasy of love won and the agony of its loss. And so on.

It may sound silly, trivial, but readers of a particular genre or sub-genre also expect chapters to be a certain length.

Common sense might tell us that a chapter can't be 600 words long. But Patterson shows us that it can. 

What genre do you write in? What is the average length of your chapters?


"Before beginning the actual writing of her books, Higgins Clark prefers to develop an outline and perhaps detailed character biographies. Each chapter is continuously revised as she writes, so that when she is ready to move on to the next chapter, the current chapter is considered done and is sent directly to her editor. By the time the editor receives the last chapter, the book is primarily done." (That information comes by way of A Conversation With Mary Higgins Clark.)

Photo credit: "Far de Capdepera" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, May 14

4 Ways Outlining Can Give A Writer Confidence

4 Ways Outlining Can Give A Writer Confidence

The other day someone wrote to me and complemented me on my blog--which was very nice and made me blush--and then wrote something to the effect, "By the way, you sure talk a lot about some guy named Chuck."

I suppose I do! (grin) But only because I talk a lot about writing on writing and Chuck Wendig has done some of the best. I also write about Dean Wesley Smith, Kris Rusch, Passive Guy and a number of others.

Which is all a way of working up to saying that this is another blog post inspired by something Chuck Wendig wrote!

The Mysteries Of Outlining

I outline.

While I acknowledge it's not the only way of going about writing I admit to being boggled that there are those who don't.

Dean Wesley Smith for example. Also Stephen King.

These are both excellent, prolific, writers who make a good living from their exercise of the craft/art. So it's not as though I think there's only one way of going about things.

That said, the thought of writing anything more than a 6,000 word short story without some sort of idea of both where the story is going and how it is going to get there gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Why? Well, I'm glad you asked that.

1. Outlining gives a writer confidence

Chuck Wendig explains why:
Sometimes what kills us is a lack of confidence in our storytelling. We get hip-deep and everything seems to unravel .... You suddenly feel like you don’t know where this is going. Plot doesn’t make sense. Characters are running around like sticky-fingered toddlers. The whole narrative is like a 10-car-pileup on the highway. Your story hasn’t proven itself, but an outline serves as the proving grounds. You take the story and break it apart before you even begin — so, by the time you do put the first sentence down, you have confidence in the tale you’re about to tell. Confidence is the writer’s keystone; an outline can lend you that confidence.
I think that is the number one reason why I outline. Also, though, ...

2. Outlining saves you time, work and frustration

[W]hat happens is, you finish the first draft (tens of thousands of words) and what you suddenly find is that this is basically one big outline anyway, because you’re going to have to edit and rewrite the damn thing. An outline tends to save you from the head-exploding bowel-evacuating frustration of having to do that because you’ve already gone through the effort to arrange the story. A little work up front may save you a metric ... ton later on.
That. What he said.

3. A good outline is a flexible outline

Mary Robinette Kowal compares an outline to a roadmap. But roadmaps can be altered. Chuck Wendig writes:
No plan survives contact with the enemy, and while you’re writing you’re going to see new things and have new ideas and make crazy connections that are simply not in the outline. Make them. Take the exit! Try new things! Don’t let the outline be a pair of shackles.

4. The zero draft: an outline in disguise

This is what I often do. Chuck Wendig writes:
Some folks never do an outline up front — they let their first draft (or the “zero draft,” as it is sometimes known) be the pukey, sloppy technicolor supergeyser of nonsense and then they take that giant pile of quantum hullaballoo and from it pull a proper outline before attempting to rewrite. This may take you a bit longer but if the result is a story you’re happy with, then ... go forth and do it. Every process you choose should be in service to getting the best story in the way that feels most… well, I was going to say comfortable, but really, comfort is ... forgettable in the face of great fiction, so let’s go with effective, instead.
I'll often start off with a picture, an idea, an inkling, a mood, a feeling or a desire to explore a certain genre, and I'll start writing.

Often I'll change direction, but (and this is the main thing) I'll discover more about what it was that I originally had hold of. Sometimes, sure, I'll decide I didn't really have hold of anything and then abandon the idea, but, overwhelmingly, by the end I'll have grasped something, some story, that I'll then know well enough to do an outline of.

Chuck Wendig's article is food for the writerly soul--or is that chicken soup? Anyway, I can't recommend it highly enough (adult language -->): 25 Things You Should Know About Outlining.

Also, CW mentions his previous article: 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure, which I talked about here: Chuck Wendig on Story Structure.

Do you outline? Ever? Why? Why not?

Other articles you might like:

- 4 Things To Keep In Mind When Choosing A Title For Your Book
- Beware Damnation Books
- Where To Find Cover Artists

Photo credit: "sharp" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 19

Outlining: Kim Harrison's Character Grid

Outlining: Kim Harrison's Character Grid

A few days ago I wrote a post about how to use MS Excel to outline a novel. That post grew out of my own need for a visual structure, a way to see my novel in front of me all-at-once. (See: Using Excel To Outline Your NaNoWriMo Novel: Defeating the sprawl)

Today I want to talk about another way of using Excel to outline your novel: The Character Grid.

This method comes from Kim Harrison, author of the Hollows Series. Let's dive right in.

"My rule is no more than one scene shift per chapter, and try not to stay in any one place for more than two consecutive chapters," (Kim Harrison, Character Grid)

In the following, knowledge of the world of the Hollows is plus, but you can get the gist without it. The following should give you something of a feel for Kim Harrison's process. She writes:
Yesterday I rewrote my plot to take out the demon plotline and expand two others of crime and love. It made a much more tidy story and I was able to dig deeper into the relationships instead of skimming over them.

My one page synopsis turned into a 13 page synopsis, casually broken into maybe-chapters. Today I’m going to begin to break this up into clear chapters so I can better balance the entire work as to pacing, place, and characters.

I don’t want to spend too much time in the church, or be moving from place to place in any given chapter. My rule is no more than one scene shift per chapter, and try not to stay in any one place for more than two consecutive chapters. Same thing with characters.

Variety keeps the reader interested and the story moving. So to better see the patterns that the story is taking and head off any potential problems, I have come up with a character grid. It’s about the only piece of “software” that I use, and it’s just an Excel spreadsheet that I’ve modified to my needs. Here’s the one I used for ODW [Outlaw Demon Wails] [see Figure 1, below]. (I inserted the paragraph breaks) (Kim Harrison, Character Grid)
Here is Kim Harrison's Character Grid:

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge)

(Here is a link to the original character grid.)

Kim continues:
Characters are down the side, the locations of the scene are on the top, and the action is at the bottom.  (this is an early version, so it might not dovetail perfectly into the published book) The color shift is an indication of a change in day (which can be seen by the dates) and the chapter numbers are under that.  The Xs are when a character is an a chapter, and sometimes I use an O to indicate that they are in the chapter by way of phone or scrying mirror.  I usually have the month and day the book takes place in across the top, and the sunrise and set and average temps at the bottom, but I recently had a software upgrade, and I lost my headers and footers in Excel.  (sucks big time)

My character grid is how I first realized that Jenks was in almost every chapter in the earlier books, and I’ve become better at getting him out so other characters can shine.  It’s also how I know if I have a character who is needed for a crucial scene, and yet is not introduced anywhere until that scene.  Very bad.  Same thing with the bad guys.  I try to have them show up early, and then at least one more time before the end.  Another rule of thumb is don’t introduce too many characters in the same scene, even if they are returning characters.  I like to have only two at the most, and will break a chapter just to avoid this.

A character grid of some sort is also a great way to make sure that your male to female ratio isn’t wildly out of balance.  Mine usually slant to the male end of the ratio, but since Rachel is female it works out.  Oh, and when you go to rewrite and need to add something that revolves around a character, it’s really easy to go the grid, see where they are, and place your clue instead of spending an hour thumbing through the file and guessing where to put it is. (Kim Harrison, Character Grid)
Kim Harrison's post is one of the best I've read on plotting and structuring your work-in-progress and it's part of a series.

Kim Harrison's Series On How She Plots A Novel

1. Where you at in NaNoWriMo?
"Today, in my official Not-NaNoWriMo, I have again procrastinated with other work, confining my rough draft of book ten to ideas in my head. Tomorrow, I will pick up my pencil and write something down. Promise. How about you? Where you at?"

2. Writing starts with “I want”
"I’ve been developing my writing style for over a decade, and this is what works for me. There’s no wrong way to do it as long as you’re making progress.)
I want. . .
That’s what it’s all about at this point for me. What do I want to see or accomplish in this 500 page monster. So today I’ll be sitting down with about ten sheets of paper and a pencil."

3. Procrastination: I’ds da queen
"My word count is still zero, but I’m almost ready to start writing. My post yesterday gave you some indication of how I went about organizing my thoughts for a new book. Well today, I’m going to tell you exactly what I did."

4. Day Two Of The Plotting
"Well . . . I took my six pages of notes from Thursday and wrote up a free-flowing, one-sentence brainstorming list of “ways to start” and a list of ”ways to end.” I still don’t have a good way to start the book, and I won’t until I have the end, but my goal is to have in the first five pages the hint of the problem that is settled in the last so to make a full circle."

5. Character Grid
"For those of you who haven’t been to the drama box in a few days, I’m taking the opportunity of NaNoWriMo and me just starting rough draft to detail out my plotting process. Disclaimer:everyone writes differently, there’s no wrong way to do it. This is what I’ve come up with over the last ten years or so, and what works for me. It’s a process that’s still evolving. Oh, and my word count is still zero."

6. And on the fifth day . . .
"So far, while using my character grid, I’ve found that I’ve got a slow spot, and I moved some things around to quicken it up. I also named a new character, learned a few things about him, and Rachel has told me she likes him better than the guy I thought she’d be interested in. He kind of likes her, too, or maybe he just likes the way she makes him feel. (Be smart, Rachel.) I’ve also learned what the story is about besides solving the crime and settling the love interest. (By the way, it’s not settled.) What I’m talking about here is the character growth, I suppose. And without character growth, not only would the story be stale, but I’d be bored to tears writing it."

7. And now . . . it begins
"... again. (grin) Last night, I finished breaking my 13 page synopsis into chapters, using it as a guide to write about a page of handwritten notes about each chapter, being careful to include who is in it, where to begin, and what poignant thought to end it with. It’s here that I usually find my hook into the next chapter that gets you to turn the page instead of turn off the light and go to bed."

8. Last day to send me your costume pictures
"Yesterday I finally finished my plotting and started actually writing the thing. Taking my one page of notes on chapter one, I spent the morning writing out the dialog, then in the afternoon, I turned it into prose. Today I’ll take my one page of notes on chapter two and do the same, and in about three to four months, I’ll have turned my 27 pages of notes into a 500 page manuscript."

How do you plot your novel? Does it look anything like Kim Harrison's method? Thanks for reading!

#  #  #

NaNoWriMo Update: I'm at 35,528 words, so I caught up last night and did an extra 500 words. That makes me happy. Hopefully I'll be able to get up to 38k tonight. (fingers crossed)

Other articles you might like:
- Vanquishing Writer's Block
- How To Design A Great Looking Book Cover
- Using Technology To Sell Books: Quick Response Codes (QR codes)

Photo credit: "I Want To Believe … In Fairies" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 15

Using Excel To Outline Your NaNoWriMo Novel: Defeating the sprawl

Using Excel To Outline Your NaNoWriMo Novel: Defeating the sprawl

We're smack in the middle of NaNoWriMo and, I hope you're faring better, but my novel has grown a mite cluttered.

I did have an outline when I began (really, I did!) and I have followed it ... more or less ... but my characters had ideas of their own. I've ended up adding new scenes and modifying old ones.

The result looks a bit like a ball of wool after a cat played with it.

Normally I'd go back and tidy things up by re-writing what I have so far. But the beauty and the curse of NaNoWriMo is that there's no time! Because, let's face it, if I went back and tidied things up it would hault the flow of the story and might squelch my caffeine-fueled creative drive.

Outlining the NaNoWriMo Novel: Excel To The Rescue

The solution? Excel. At least I'm hoping. I came across this article today: How to Get a “God’s-Eye View” of Your Story in Microsoft Excel by Jeffrey Scott. (Jeffrey writes scripts, but I think his way of organizing a story works equally well for novels.)

It's marvelous! Using Jeffrey's system:
- you can see where you are in your outline (halfway through act one, at the midpoint, etc.)
- you can read a brief description of each scene
- you'll know WHERE each scene takes place as well as WHEN it takes place.
- you'll know which characters are in the scene (the main ones).

When I first saw Jeffrey's spreadsheet I was a bit intimidated, but just hold on, everything is simple and easily explained.

Here's a link to an example of one of Jeffrey's spreadsheets, this one is of the movie Independence Day: Outline of Independence Day done in Excel.

Let's step through Jeffrey's spreadsheet column by column:

Column 1

- Tells you were you are in the act structure. Jeffrey uses a 3 act breakdown, but it will accommodate whatever act structure you prefer.
- Black & gray color coding: Indicates different acts, or parts of acts (1a, 1b, 2a, etc.).
- Page length estimates for each act or part thereof

Column 2

- Page length estimates for each scene. Jeffrey sums these at the bottom to get a running count of how long the story will be.

Column 3

- Brief description of the scene. What does your point of view character want to accomplish in this scene?

Column 4

- Your slug line. A slug line consists of 3 parts:

a) Is the scene inside (INT.) or outside (EXT.)?
b) Where is the scene taking place? For instance, "Jeffrey's apartment".
c) At what time is the scene taking place? Day? Night? Dusk? Dawn? Late night? Early morning? Also "Later" can be used to indicate the passage of time.


Slug lines are a screenwriting tool, but I find them helpful when I'm writing a first draft. (For more information on slug lines: Screenplay slug line.)

Column 5

This can be whatever you want. A longer description of the scene, notes, whatever you like.

Color Coding

Color code each scene according to either who has the point of view in that scene or according to who is the most active in the scene.

Jeffrey does a great job describing his outlining method, I'd encourage everyone to read his well-written and exceptionally helpful article.

I'm hoping that, using Jeffrey's method, I can quickly do up an outline for what I've written and it will bring the clutter under control by helping me sort out the different plot lines.

Thanks to The Passive Voice Blog for mentioning the article Tools to Outline Your Novel over at Galleycat which mentioned Jeffrey Scott's article.

#  #  #

What do you think, was this information useful? Do you use an outlining method that lets you see your novel at-a-glance?

Other articles you might like:

- Donald Maass Talks About How To Make Your Readers CARE About Your Characters On The First Page
- 8 Do's And Don'ts Of Writing Fiction From Neil Gaiman
- Using Technology To Sell Books: Quick Response Codes (QR codes)

Photo credit: "wallpaper - The ISLAND" by balt-arts under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, October 27

Chapter Breaks: Where Should They Go?

Chapter Breaks: Where Should They Go?
"Stairwell, Annecy" by Alex Brown under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

A couple of days ago a friend mentioned she had trouble deciding where to insert chapter breaks. I said something blithe about breaking in the middle of tension, but it got me thinking. Where should we put chapter breaks? Are there rules of thumb?

As I was surfing the web this morning I happened across, not one but two, articles about where to insert chapter breaks. I love it when things like that happen!

The first article is Writing a Novel: Chapter Breaks by Courtney Carpenter and the second is 3 Ways to Know When to End Your Chapters by Aaron Elkins. I summarize their points, below.

Where To Insert Chapter Breaks

The Goal

You want your readers to continue past the chapter break. Or, since it's unlikely someone will read your book in one huge eye-reddening gasp, you want them to be interested enough in your story that they will come back after laying the book aside.

1. Use a chapter break to mark a change or transition

When you do your outline you'll map out scenes and sequels and then, as you write your first draft, indicate where you feel a good place is for a chapter break.

But that's the question, isn't it? What IS a good place for a chapter break! Aaron Elkins advises that "Changes of place, changes of time and changes of point of view are all excellent places for chapter breaks. (3 Ways to Know When to End Your Chapters)"

For instance, does your main character have to take a flight somewhere? End one chapter with him getting into the plane and start the next with him landing. Do you want to shift your point of view from one character to another? This usually happens at a chapter break.

2. Put a chapter break where the action is most dramatic.

Courtney Carpenter in Writing A Novel: Chapter Breaks writes:
The most important thing is that at the end of each chapter the reader should be craving the next chapter. Make the reader want to turn the next page. An old-fashioned cliffhanger is not required (though they still work), but tension of some kind is essential. End not where the action lulls but where it is the most dynamic. Give the reader new information right before you cut him off.
When you want to increase tension and make it impossible for your poor reader to put down the book--even at 3 in the morning when he has a 7 o'clock meeting--you can use one of the oldest tricks in the book: the good old-fashioned cliffhanger. You want to put your main character in peril, it seems almost certain he's going to die, he has only one small, teensy, improbable chance to live. It would take an incredible amount of skill/courage/brilliance on his/her part to pull it off.

You get the idea.

Use this ending sparingly. If your hero is in mortal peril at the end of every chapter and manages to save himself at beginning of the next chapter the trick will stop working.

Keep in mind that, as Aaron Elkins mentions, the cliffhanger doesn't always have to be about putting your hero in physical peril. It could be she has a deep dark secret she has decided to tell right at the end of the chapter. She reveals the secret at the beginning of the next chapter. Nice!

I hope you found something of value here to help with chapter endings and beginnings. As with most things there's no clear-cut answer. But I suppose that's why, at it's core, writing is an art not a science.

Best of luck!

Other articles you might like:
- Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining
- Book Review Blogs That Accept Self-Published Work
- What to do if your book isn't selling: Tips from Johanna Penn
- Dialogue: 7 Ways of Adding Variety

Tuesday, October 23

Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining

This post is a continuation of Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story where I explain what Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient is and go through the various structures: Milieu, Idea, Character and Event.

My goal today is to show how MICE can be used when outlining but to get there we first need to be initiated into the mysteries.

How To Create An Outline

This material is based on Mary Robinette Kowal's workshop The Mysteries of Outlining I attended at SiWC this last weekend. Mary has a great website (love the black cat!) and an incredible selection of articles on how to read aloud.

I was going to use a different example from the one Mary used in class--Sleeping Beauty rather than Rapunzel--but she knows what she's talking about and I'm still learning, so I hope Mary won't mind if I use her example.

Please keep in mind I scribbled this in my notebook, there was no handout, so any mistakes are mine, not Mary's.

1) Write down all the events of the story

This is easier for us since we're working from a story, Rapunzel, that's already written. When you're outlining a story being created you'll write down all the events you know take place.

Mary stressed that outlines are fluid and meant to help you as a writer, not to lock you in, so just because something is in your outline doesn't mean you're committed. Mary compared an outline to a roadmap. If you have a roadmap you can see where you're going; it helps you stay on track and to reach your destination without unnecessary detours.

But perhaps you want to detour.

When you're on a roadtrip to Los Angeles from Seattle you can decide to take a detour and see the grand canyon, but it'll cost you. If you think the detour is worth it, then go for it! In fact, you may decide that instead of going to LA you'd much rather go to Vegas. You can do that too, but that's a very different road trip and there will be a cost. Your outline helps you see what that cost will be and evaluate whether it's worth it to you.

To sum up, an outline is a tool to help you reach your goal of finishing your book. It helps you keep track of both where you are and where you want to go. It can also help to reveal plot holes and help you get around them.

List of actions:
1. Parents steal a Rapunzel plant
2. Baby born
3. Witch takes baby
4. Grows hair
5. Prince out hunting
6. Prince climbs tower
7. Witch discovers prince
8. Loss
9. Blindness
10. True love

2) Look for plot holes and fill them in

Look at what you have so far and figure out where the plot holes are, then fill them in.

We need to insert "locked in tower" between (3) and (4) and between (5) and (6) should say something about Rapunzel seeing the prince and trying to attract his attention.

3) Look for duplication

Are any scenes serving the same function? Can you roll them into one?

For instance, we might show Rapunzel is lonely by writing a scene where the girl watches a nest of birds and tearfully waves goodbye to the chicks as they fly away. We could use this scene to show how lonely Rapunzel is, now isolated she feels. We wouldn't then also need a scene where Rapunzel brushes her hair and thinks how lonely it is in the tower. We've done that.

4) Flesh out the scenes

For each event--these will becomes scenes--write down:
a) What happens.
b) When it happens.
c) Where it is.
d) The character arc.
e) The time of day.
f) Who is the main character of the scene.

Outlining: Multiple Points of View

In part (1), above, we wrote down a list of actions. These actions are going to get us from the first event: the parents stealing the witch's plant to the last one, true love. (Mary did a great impression of The Impressive Clergyman in The Princess Bride. If you ever have a chance to take one of her workshops, do! It's a lot of fun. Moving on .... )

Balancing point of view (POV) scenes
For each scene decide which character has the most at stake, that's the POV of the scene. Now look at which characters have POVs and if you need to balance them. To balance things you may need to change what's at stake for a character within a scene.

For instance, lets look at the scene where the prince climbs the tower for the first time. It seems reasonable to write that scene from the prince's point of view because he seems to have the most at stake. He could fall, the witch/enchantress probably would do something nasty to him if she came back and caught him, and so on.

But if we needed for Rapunzel to have the point of view we could talk about how much it hurt to have someone climb your hair and how much she would be in trouble with the witch were the prince discovered.

When NOT to give a character a POV scene
One thing Mary stressed was that if a character has nothing at stake then you don't write a scene from their point of view.

POV and your main character
Keep in mind that, all things being equal, the character you start with will be the character your audience most identifies with and so that is the character you need to end with. For instance, if your first scene is told from Rapunzel's POV then you need to end with a scene from Rapunzel's POV.

Outlining and the MICE Quotient

Wow! This post is a lot longer than I thought it would be.

Although this section was what I had intended to get to, it's what I've been working up to, I think I'm going to leave off and come back tomorrow. My post yesterday was lengthy and contained a lot of information so I don't want to overload anyone.

Please do come back tomorrow and I'll (finally!) talk about how to use the MICE quotient with your outline to create a killer story. :-)


Here are all the articles in this series:
- Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story
- Mary Robinette Kowal And The Mysteries Of Outlining
- The Mysteries Of Outlining And Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories
- Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive

Other articles you might like:

- Book Review Blogs That Accept Self-Published Work
- What to do if your book isn't selling: Tips from Johanna Penn

Photo credit: Barnaby Kerr Photography

Wednesday, September 12

Writing Resources

Writing Resources

Writing Resources

I thought I'd try something different and share a few links. Originally I was going to share 5 or 6 but I kept finding more!

 1. The Hero's Journey: giving your story structure
- Blake Snyder's beat sheet. A fabulous explaination of Blake Snyder's beat sheet is here: Save The Snyder – The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet of Structure.
- Michael Hauge's hero's journey. I had the pleasure of hearing Michael Hauge talk about the Hero's Journey. Excellent! He also explains it here: The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Scripts.
- The inner journey. Janice Hardy has a terrific article going into more depth about what Michael Hauge has to say about the inner journey: The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Inner Conflict That Make Sense.
- Your story: where to begin
- The hero's journey: an interactive illustration
- The hero's journey: summary of the steps
- Story structure: What is it and why should I care?
- Jim Butcher: how to write a story

2. Outlining
Dan Wells On Writing A Short Story
- Outline your novel in 30 minutes
- Novel Outlining 101
- Chekhov's Gun
- How to write a romance novel

3. Character Building
- Here are 10 ways of building your characters
- Web Resources for Developing Characters. Dozens of personality tests you can use for character building.
- A character sheet. Another character sheet. Do you know your character's eye color? Their favorite desert?
- Build your character! Here you'll find there quizzes. See how well you know your character.
- Interview your character: Interviewing Characters: Follow the Energy
- Different kinds of antagonists: Villains are people, too, but ...
- Character writing exercises

4. Dialog
- Robert J. Sawyer, Speaking of Dialog
- All Your Characters Talk The Same — And They’re Not A Hivemind!

5. Names
- Medieval Names Archive
- Behind the Name: the etymology and history of first names

6. Idea generators
- 36 dramatic situations
- 200 plot ideas

7. Conflict
- Does your story have enough conflict? Give it a conflict test.
- Plot without conflict

Miscellaneous Links:
- 102 Resources for Fiction Writing
- The Uncomfortable Pantser: When Your Method Doesn't Fit Your Personality.

Are there any links you'd like to add?

Other articles you might like:
- Five steps to better proofreading
- Writing: The Starburst Method, Part 1
- Thinking of becoming an indie author? Some tips

Photo credit: Macskafaraok