Hesitation Marks: How I Finally Started That Goddamn Rewrite

I have all the pieces…(Photo credit: wikipedia)

Last week, I was working on the new outline for the Novel Rewrite. I had index cards and a sharpie and a bunch of notes, and was happily laying them out in different patterns on the living room floor. Since more than one of the cards reads Some Dude Dies Horribly, it was a little serial killer meets Kindergarten art class.*

I finally found a pattern I semi-liked, one which made sense and that I could work with. I took a photo of it, made some more notes…and then just stopped. The cat came to sit on the index cards I had so thoughtfully laid out for her. I did a couple of blog posts.  Checked out some new short story listings. Whenever someone stepped near the cards, I’d have my Archimedes moment and tell them to not disturb my circles. And if they asked, I’d say it was going…well.

One thing I didn’t do was actually start the damn rewrite. It’s not ready yet, I told myself. I don’t want to rush this part. I have to make sure everything’s ready.

Eventually, I realized the problem: I was stalling.

Those of you who have met me in meatspace probably know that stalling isn’t my deal. I’m that person who loses patience with the never-ending discussion of where to go for dinner after ninety seconds of “I don’t know, whatever you guys want to do.”** The most polite term is probably ‘decisive’, the least polite ‘bossy and arrogant as hell’.

And here I was, vacillating like a thirteen year old girl trying to choose between two colours of mascara, Carbon Black or True Black.***

Thankfully, I figured out what was going on before I lost too much time. I was only stalling because I didn’t want to fuck it up. So I argued with myself that it was already fucked up; the zero draft is proof of that. After that, it was easier to put on my Big Girl Bra and get started.

Lesson of the day: the quest for perfection is a pointless waste of fucking time.**** All it will do is run out the time clock on your life and leave you with nothing.

Better to just strap down your important bits, grab the chainsaw, and dig in.

So? What are you waiting for?

*Kindergarten Killer, coming soon to a cinema near you.
**I’m starting to think that my friends do this just so they can watch me have one of my Hulk moments.
***The fuck does this even mean, cosmetics companies? And don’t get me started on Blackest Black, Deep Black, Jet Black, or Black Out. It’s fucking black.
****This might have also been one of the themes of the Lego movie I saw over the weekend.

Squid-Priests and Second Acts: What Novel Writers Can Learn From Screenwriting


So, this novel rewrite: it’s turning out to be a giant pain in the ass.

It’s no secret that I’ve been stuck for a while. That’s why I decided to devote this entire year to making the manuscript a good one. None of my usual method were working, so, at the suggestion my my friend Kat, I tried screenwriting exercises. And you know what? It’s finally coming together.

Here’s what I’ve learned about screenwriting methods in the last month or so: 1) they’re compact; 2) they’re broad strokes; and 3) I always imagine a bunch of white guys in suits whenever they talk about pitching an idea.*

The thing about using the screenwriting format to outline is that it’s all Big Picture. Some systems out there use a finite (and small) number of index cards to plan it out. Others rely on beats, again of a limited amount. You have to focus on the big stuff in order to hit that number. So all the fiddly bits and the little scenes and the nuance falls away. You’re left with the essentials.

This turned out to be just what I needed. I was getting too caught up on the minutia. Which, you know, is a part of it too, but I was getting too deep. Couldn’t see the giant robot for the bolts. I’m a scene-by-scene outliner, but I needed to pull back and hammer out the big moments so I could see where the problems were. Now I know, so I can start fixing them.

Moral of this story, kiddies: it never hurts to mix things up.

If you’re getting stuck in the minutia and the details and the neat character relationships but you can’t seem to get the whole thing together, try taking a few steps back. Hell, take a mile. And look at the biggest moments. You want the pieces of your story that you can see from space. Then you might see why it’s not working. Maybe there’s not enough happening in the middle. Maybe there’s too much. Maybe you’ve had the Horrible Thing happen to the wrong character.

Conversely, if you have the bare bones but the story just isn’t filling you with the righteous holy fire of creation**, get closer. Dissect it. Take a good hard look at the innards: the characters, the world, the little nagging details. The way people talk. The changes having domesticated dinosaurs has changed the nature of public transit. The headdress of the Water Priests, which is supposed to be a stylized squid but looks disturbingly like a penis, leading to their irreligious nickname of the Holy Peckerheads.*** That’s how you find the stuff we’ll care about.

Yes, I just used the word ‘peckerheads’ to illustrate things you should care about. And now you’re stuck with that image in your head for the rest of the day. You’re welcome.

*Drops the mic, leaves the stage*

*Might just be me.
**Or that could be heartburn. Hang on, let me check the coffee pot level….yeah, heartburn. My bad.
***Which now also sounds like a sports team in my head.

“You Using That Flamethrower?”: Borrowing Tools

English: Reciprocating saw

Looks like a laser gun instead of a saw. Pew pew! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe it’s the combination of meds that I’m on for a couple of Bodily Horrors*, but this seems like a great day to try re-outlining my novel.

Again. Actually, again again. I’ve already tried to re-outline this fucker a few times, using a couple of different methods. It is resisting me. I do not like this.

All the methods I’ve tried so far are tried and true. I’ve done them before, for more than one project, and they’ve worked. But not this time.

Open your eyes to my words, children, and let the truth of the creative life be written: sometimes the shit you always do with great results will stop working and you will have no fucking idea why. Why did it work for that project but not for this one? Why can’t I get my head around this? Why are you no longer working?

No. Idea.

But it is not the end. Oh no. If the old methods are no longer working—and I have the piles of scrap paper and half-finished notes to say that they’re not—then it’s time to find a new method.

Let this be the lesson of the day: if the tools that you usually use for the job aren’t working, then throw them back in the fucking toolbox and get something else. The hammer not working? Get the chisel. Or the Phillips head screwdriver. Or the reciprocating saw.

My new tool? Script-writing methods. My friend Kat was kind enough to bring me a stack of paper big enough to have been a giant redwood in a former life, all containing course notes and exercises from her screenwriting courses. It has colonized my coffee table and will not give it back. The only way to defeat it is by reading it. With a notebook and a stack of index cards.

I’ll be back with my findings next week. Until then: keep your stick on the ice.

*Hint: one of them is not ebola. So at least I’ve got that going for me.

How To Prep A Novel, Part Three: The Fiddly Bits

A treasure map

Warning: X may not actually mark the spot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All right, now it’s time for the picky parts. I’ve tried a metric assload* of different ways to outline novels, and I have learned the following:

1. When people discover that you outline, they look at you like a zoo animal that’s learned to type.
2. No one method works for every novel.
3. Often combining methods is the best way forward.

But you’ve got your events and you’ve given some thought to the big questions, yes? You did the homework? Good. Then let’s move on.

Step Seven: Write That Shit Down

What, you thought you could skip that part? This is an outline, not a dream. Pick up that pen, grab some paper, and let’s begin.

An outline is a way to organize the information you have so that, one, you can make sure it makes sense, and, two, you can see what you’re missing. Because you are missing things, and some of them you will only discover when you write the novel.

Start like this: write down the very first thing that happens. See? That was easy. That’s the what. Now answer me the why: why is this happening, and why should we care? And neither why can be answered by ‘because that’s what has to happen’ or ‘because I said so.’ Those are not answers, as you learned as a child. Those are excuses. Harry Potter does not get a Hogwarts letter because he’s the main character and something interesting has to happen to the main character; he gets a letter because he was born a wizard. We care that he gets a letter because his family are child-abusing douche-canoes. Very different things.

One final question finishes off the event: what next? And, again, not ‘what does the plot demand next’, but ‘what is set in motion by this event that cannot be undone’? Harry’s letter means he’ll meet other wizards and go to new places and, significantly, make enemies. It also means his aunt and uncle are very unhappy, and will try to stop him. One of these things is probably your next event.

Take that event, and start again.

The nice thing about this system is that it can be as broad or as specific as you want to make it. Your can hit all the events, or just touch on the big ones. Whatever works for you. I like a lot of detail in my outlines**, so I tend to zero in and go scene by scene. But it works just as well if you go chapter by chapter, or act by act. Get whatever you need to write the story

These are the building blocks of your outline:
What happens?
Why should I give a fuck?
What, because of this, has to happen next?

Go on like that until you come to the end. Then stop. Look at what you’ve got. Do you like it? Does it make sense? Does it provide you with a way to get from A to B, preferably while detouring through the nether pits of C on the way?

Now it’s time to start writing. Good luck.

*Standard unit of writer measurement
**Not that I always follow it, mind you.

How To Prep A Novel, Part Two: Stepping Stones and Questions

STS-126 - An extravehicular activity (EVA) too...

I knew Zarka was trouble. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All right. You’ve got some pieces—protagonist, antagonist, conflict, unicorn cavalry—and an Idea, and now you need an outline. You need a plan.

Three caveats before we begin:
1. Much like the Pirate Code, outlines should be treated as more of a guideline. Deviate as necessary for the story. Re-outline halfway through if you have to.
2. Try different methods. No one method will work for everybody, or even on person all the time. This is one method, but I use others.
3. Don’t get so caught up in the outline that you never get around to writing the damn thing.

Got that? Everyone holding on to their unmentionable bits? Then let’s carry on.

Step Four: You Are Here.

If you did the prep work, you’ve got some idea of where your story starts. You might have an idea of where it ends.* And you’ve probably got some ideas for things that happen in between. Start there. Write down all the things that you know happen. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a fucking clue how one leads to another. This is a work in progress.
Some people use index cards for this, others notebooks. I shift between one of those hardcover composition books, the index card function on Scrivener, and real life index cards. Sometimes all three. Whatever’s at hand and whatever I feel like working with. For the sake of this example, I’ll assume index cards.
Got your things written down? Good. Now, lay them out somewhere and start figuring out the connections. Ask questions. For example, if your beginning card is ’space debris is stolen from Jane’s lab in Connecticut’ and the end card is ‘Jane flies her ship into a star to kill Zarka the Destroyer before she conquers Earth’, there are some pretty obvious questions. How did Jane get into space? Did she steal that ship? Or was the ISS aware of Zarka’s plan and needed a plucky scientist to figure out a solution? Where did Zarka come from? Did she steal the space debris? Why? Or was her consciousness trapped in the debris and once she escaped did she build herself a new body from the materials in Jane’s lab?
Ask your questions and start filling in the spaces between the events that you first created. You can try to cross over the main plot and the sub-plot—really, you should, sooner or later—but I’d worry less about that right now than just making a path from A to B. You’ll probably find that the plot lines cross themselves over as you write, because that’s the way the human brain works.

Step Five: The Devil In The Details

Right now you’ve probably got a chaotic mess of scenes and characters, all jumbled together in a writerly orgy. It’s okay. Consider this the zero draft outline.
Take all those bits that you have, the questions and the answers and the cool stuff you want to happen, and start laying it out. This is where I like Scrivener; I can colour-code the cards according to plot or subplot or viewpoint character or whatever organizational system I’m using so I can see the differences. But you could also use different colour index cards, or highlighters on different lines.
As you’re laying it out, looking for the gaps. Is there enough time between the big events? Is the mystery solved too quickly? Or does that subplot about the waiter and the egg timer drag out too long? Spending too much time with one character, too little with another? The antagonist doesn’t appear until two-thirds the way through? Shuffle things around until you like what you see. Again, it doesn’t need to be perfect this time around. You’ll change things as you write, and in subsequent rewrites. That’s writing, like a virus that genetically reshuffles so it can’t be pinned down with a single cure. The point of this outline is to get an idea of where you’re going and how to get there. That’s all.
A gentle reminder: don’t fall in love with anything in this outline. It should all be open to change if the story demands it. You need the flexibility or you’re going to choke off any creativity. An outline is not a straight-jacket.

Step Six: The Big Questions

While you’re building that path discussed above, laying out your index cards like stepping stones, start thinking about the big ideas that will form the backbone of the story and how they fit into the events you’re planning.
For example, a couple of a years ago, I wrote a story that, aside from all the abductions and murders and threats, was ultimately about one character’s redemption. He started off the story just south of neutral—not evil by any stretch, but certainly self-centred, afraid, and weak. The point of the story was to put him in situations that would force him to choose between what was easy and what was right. All the other stuff allowed him to get there.
Think about big picture ideas like that. The term ‘theme’ gets bandied about a lot, but that brings back too many memories of high school lit class for some people. Try not to have a flashback. Just consider this: Star Wars is about Anakin Skywalker’s fall and ultimate redemption. The war and the rebellion and all the other stuff is important, but that one thread runs through it all. Find the thread that runs through yours and yank it until you find the other end.
The biggest question you need to answer is the ever-present why should we give a fuck? How can you force the reader to care? Because you’re going to need them to.

Coming next: Part Three, which includes finalizing the map before writing.

*I always like to have an idea of this, otherwise I end up lost. See here for more details.

How To Prep A Novel, Part One: Ideas and Satellites

Plato. Luni marble, copy of the portrait made ...

Pictured: Plato taking the talking heads thing a little too far. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Got a request the other day to do a piece of outlining a novel. I am an outliner; I’m routinely mocked at my local writer’s group for my OCD spreadsheets and long lists of carefully organized notes. But that’s just how I work.* I can’t figure out where I want to go without a map.

So I’m going to walk you through my process for outlining a novel, from Idea to Roadmap. A caveat before we begin, however: this is what works for me. Your mileage may vary. And, as I mentioned the other day, no process is so good that it can’t be improved.

Step One: The Idea

No one starts a novel without an Idea. A scene, a character, a setting, a mystery, something. This is the nucleus around which the rest of your story will form, like rogue electrons being pulled in to make some new, probably radioactive, element.
I’ve had different things be the nucleus. The idea for  The Patchwork King was the opening scene, after which I had to find out what happened next. A friend of mine gets very attached to particular characters and their story, quite aside from what’s happening elsewhere.
Whatever it is, whatever you find, this is the core, so make it good. Get something that inspires you to get through all the fiddly annoying bits. Whenever you get bogged down, look back to this one moment/character/thing that will make sure you go on, because stopping means that story will never be told.

Step Two: The Usual Suspects

This is your shopping list of basic elements. Have a protagonist? You need an antagonist, the flip side of the coin. You need a setting, because talking heads spouting ungrounded dialogue is only acceptable in a philosophical treatise.** You need a conflict.
These are the other planets orbiting the star of your Idea. They might not be as mesmerizing, at least not at first, but you need them to exist if you’re going to make a story and not an interesting little vignette. And it’s not unknown for the satellites to steal the show later on, when you’ve spent more time with them.
Some of the things you might find you need: protagonist, antagonist, setting(s), central conflict, side conflict(s), major characters, the high concept blurb, unicorn cavalry, some rules for magic/science/paranormal activity, an inciting incident, muffin baskets, velociraptors…
I usually find that most of this stuff clanks into place like dominos: the Idea kicks off a chain reaction and before I know it I have a little solar system of my own, where I can play god and wreak havoc. But there’s always holes, and the real brain work goes into figuring out what can—and what should—patch those holes. Stuff will change. Old ideas will fall off and get replaced by newer ones. It’s all very fluid at this point, but it should be a fluid that you’re trying to shape nonetheless.
You don’t have to have everything in place before you start outlining, or even before you start writing. But you should have enough to be going on with. You should know the answers to some basic questions, like ‘what’s the problem?’ and ‘why the fuck should we care?’.
And if it doesn’t work out later, you can always change it.

Step Three: Gather Your Forces

You’ve got an Idea, you’ve got some satellite ideas floating around up there, you’re probably good to go, right?
Wrong. At least, if you’re me, wrong. I’ve tried to start novels at this stage before, and you know where they are? Half-finished in the Purgatory File on my hard drive, never to return. And it’s a shame, because some of them were pretty good ideas. But I jumped the gun and killed them by going too fast, wrapping them around a telephone pole on the road to writing. My bad.
This is the time to put that little extra bit of work into thinking about the story. Daydream about it. Have moments of inspiration. Ideally, if you can be working on some other project at this time, it works out very well. You can get on with writing your other story while you let this one gently bubble at the back of your mind. Adding new characters. Fleshing out settings. Redefining the nature of the conflict. Solidifying.
When are you ready to go on? When you can’t fucking take it any more.

Coming Friday: Part Two, all the fiddly bits, including the Super Fantastic Outline.

*In my experience, most people lean toward either order or chaos. Personally, I think my natural bias is skewed so far towards chaos that I need the artificial borders of things like outlines in order to function.
**Even then, don’t complain if no one wants to read it. I’m looking at you, Plato.