Why Outlining Won’t Murder Your Story

That smile? That’s because he has a map. And a fabulous moustache.

After several years away, I am returning to hardcore outlining.

I got away from it for a while. Mostly just to try something new. I hadn’t tried to seriously write something long without one since my first writing days, and while those stories turned out to be little more than half-intelligible brain droppings smeared across a page, that might have been due more to my inexperience than the method itself.

It wasn’t.

When I write without a meaningful outline, yes, I get ideas. But there’s no framework for them to hang on, and too often they’re like fireworks: burning bright and pretty to look at, but not much damn use. And there’s a lot of them, so it takes time to sort through the mess.

So I went back to outlining and, man, what a fucking difference.

I finished the final outline for my novel the other day. It’s not a scene-for-scene layout, but it’s pretty close. It’s got every meaningful moment and every decision made by every character that influences the ending laid out.

I hear a lot from the anti-outline brigade about how outlining kills the story. They feel that outlining too tightly, as I have done, kills any sense of creativity and spontaneity. Besides, if the outline is done, why bother writing it? You already know what happens.

First of all, it’s a disservice to your creative mind to assume it’s as fragile as an anaemic butterfly. Creativity is tough, and good ideas always survive. If you story dies at the first sneeze of questioning, maybe it wasn’t strong enough to carry a whole book on its own in the first place.

Secondly, outlining is not writing. It’s not even pretending to write. It’s preparation.

Or, to look at it another way: an outline is to writing what a recipe is to cooking. A recipe is a damn useful thing, especially when you’re making something complicated. Having a good one can keep you from making huge, time-wasting mistakes. But no one would ever suggest that you could satisfy your hunger by writing a recipe for blitzes.

Now, sometimes you just want to jump in without an outline and write for the hell of it. And I still do that. But now that’s part of the prep work, too. I stack all that shit with the outline as I write it, or use them as test-drives for characters or locations or ideas. But when I sit down to do the heavy writing, I’ll have my trusty outline by my side. And the writing will go much smoother and more quickly for it.

As always, your mileage may vary. But if you’ve never tried outlining for fear of crippling some creative organ, put that fear aside as the bullshit it is and give it a go. You might just find the new thing you love.

Delightfully Tacky, Yet Unrefined: How Your Good Taste Is Killing Your Creativity

And here’s where I’ll put the lasers.

How familiar does this sound: you start writing. You work hard, but your stuff just isn’t coming out the way you want. It doesn’t have that…special something that all the works you love, the ones that changed your life, have. Hell, it doesn’t even have that passable something of the works that you read to kill time. It’s bad. Real bad. Or, worse, boring.

You know what you like. You know what’s good. And the words have been there for fucking centuries. Not like someone came along and made a whole new vocabulary, unless you’re counting words like ‘twerk’ and ‘vajazzled’, and really, who does?

So you think: I should probably give up.

A lot of people do.

Welcome to Suckage Lane. This road becomes the final resting place for many a creative endeavour. You can see their bones scattered along the lane as you slog along. And, hey, a lot of those bones look awfully fucking familiar.

The problem, though, is not the road.

The problem is you.

Or, more accurately, your good taste.

Too much awareness of what is ‘good’ kills creativity. You know what’s good, so you think you should only be making that, whatever that is. Otherwise, what’s the point?

But “good” is something to strive for, not something you need to achieve right out of the gate or give up. Because before you can make something good, you have to be willing to fuck up. You have to be willing to do something epically bad. So fucking bad that it never sees the light of day. Otherwise, your perception of good will smother your infant creativity right in the crib.

You ever see kids doing something for the first time? They’re not concerned with good taste. More rockets, more glitter, more tentacles, more unicorns…kids will try anything to see if it works. That’s why they’re little fountains of creativity that we need to harvest for their sweet, sweet brain juice learn from.

Try some stuff. Story not working out? Be willing to try anything. Introduce a city-wide outbreak of Sudden Poop Explosion Disease. Make the main character a cyborg with a pet lemur. More stripper assassins. Something.

You might still fail. But at least you’ll go down swinging. And you never know: maybe that ridiculous, insane, utterly tasteless thing…was just what you needed to keep going.

And if it’s not, you still thought big. You went outside your comfort zone and tried some new shit. You braved Suckage Lane, and, instead of turning back, armoured yourself in the bones of your past projects.

Creativity is a weird little plant that grows its best in fucking bizarre soil. So if you’re dedicated to only making things that are ‘good’…you’ll end up only making things that are boring.

Writing By Comet-Light: The Lie Of The Right Time

The people in 1070 realize it’s finally time to write that strawpunk bubonic plague epic.

Here is a pervasive myth of our era: I’ll start when it’s the right time.

When I can concentrate. When I feel creative. When I can devote my undivided attention to it.

And “the right time” goes on to encompass a set of demands so far-reaching and esoteric that it could be Slayer’s tour rider. When it’s Sunday. When the moon’s full. When I have a bowl of M&Ms and two bottles of Cristal and 100 white goats for sacrifice.

But the fact of existence is that the perfect time never comes along. Ever. I’ve been on the look out for a perfect time for more than thirty fucking years and I haven’t seen one yet. Maybe they only come along at great intervals, like Halley’s Comet.

And, guaranteed, there’s someone out there waiting for the next appearance of that flaming sky ball to start writing something. See you in 2061, asshole. Rest assured we’re not waiting with bated breath for whatever masterpiece you think you’ll shit out by the light of a comet.

There will never be a right time to start anything. So you might as well get off your ass and do it now.

What’s the rush, you say. I have time. What’s the hurry?

The hurry is that the reaper is on you trail, motherfucker. And you don’t know how close it is.

A little melodramatic, but it’s true. There might not be time tomorrow. Okay, it might not be death that slows you down*, but there’s always something else. Social gatherings. Jobs. Families. The siren song of bad television. The inertia of trying to start something new. 

I fall prey to this as much as anyone. For years, I put off writing because there wasn’t time. I was busy: studying, moving, doing thesis work, learning to fight, learning to be in a relationship, learning what happens when you overwork and burn out. I couldn’t possibly add another thing to that pile.

And maybe I was right. But I know that I wouldn’t have burned out so hot and so fast if I’d made time—even a little; an hour a week, maybe—to work on something I loved as much as fiction writing.

If you wait around for the perfect time, you’ll grow old and die without doing anything. And I’m not even talking about climbing mountains or figuring out how to use monkey blood to power your robot army. This is writing. You start writing by opening up to a new page and putting words on it. Words that you know. As far as barriers to entry go, it’s only marginally higher than putting on your fucking socks. And you have to do that twice.

After getting started, of course, things change. You have to work at doing better. At doing it right. And that’s a whole other bucket of snakes. But realizing that you can start whenever you want is a pretty damn big snake on it’s own.

There is no right time. There is only the time that you make.

*Especially if the assassins fail again.

Sweat and Ink: Finding Your Passion In The Armpit Of Summer

Sun: IMMA BE HERE FOREVER.

This is it: the dog days of summer. If you’re anywhere near me, you know that it’s been hotter than the devil’s jockstrap and twice as sweaty.*

What’s the first thing to go in this weather? No, not your clothes. If you’re like me, you’ve been working in a bikini top and daisy dukes since the last week of June, anyway.

The first thing to go is enthusiasm. The muggier it gets, the harder it becomes to give the contents of a roach-infested Hyundai’s ashtray about whatever the hell your characters are doing. Or about anything other than the nearest source of air conditioning, but let’s focus on the writing.

This related to this post on writing in the summer, but if that’s Summer Writer 101, consider this Summer Writer 201. You’ve shown up to write, but your brain is too hot to get it done. To get through the oncoming stickiness with your word/scene/note count intact, we need to dredge your passion for the project out of whatever damp hole it crawled in to die. Here it is: Finding Your Passion, Hot Weather Edition!

1) Change your venue. To an igloo. You might think this is too silly to work, but that’s just the sweat talking. Moving from your stifling living room, where the Crotch-Scorching Firebrick** slow-roasts your junk, to a cooler location can give you the mental energy to write. Your local library might have air conditioning. Or there’s coffee shops. Or malls. Find somewhere to cool down your brain. And your junk.

2 a) Write the good part. There’s probably a part of your story that you’ve been looking forward to writing every since you conceived the idea. Now is the time to write it. Because, god damn it, if you can’t get excited about that right now, it might be time to hang up the pens.

2 b) Read the good part. Maybe you’ve already written the good part. I have. I couldn’t wait. So now is a really good time to go find that part and read it. Remember why you couldn’t wait.

3) Make some inspiration. No, not meth. You don’t want to cook in this weather.

Go make a playlist of music that sounds like your characters, or your settings. Find or make some art: maps, character sketches, artefacts. Put it somewhere you can look at it. Feel the inspiration.

Then make meth.

4) Spread the love. Enlist another person in your project. Find a second reader and send them pages or chapters as they’re finished. They might just get excited, which will make you more excited. And then you can get together and fan-person it up.

5) Strip down. Not like that. Put your shorts back on, slick.

Strip your story down to the most exciting idea. What makes your imagination’s loins quiver with the thought of writing it? What are you trying to say? What does it all mean? Remembering why you got into this might help you get out of it with your sanity intact.

Anyone else? How do you stay motivated to stick with projects when you’re sticking to the chair?

*By Canadian standards, obviously. Those of you from places like Florida and India, keep your weather far south of me and get back to turning into walking sweat glands.

**Also known as your laptop

 

Show and Tell: Classic Writing Advice Explained With Strippers

Aside from “do better“, my most common editing note to myself is that classic bit of writer advice, “show, don’t tell.”

And, like most classic bits of advice–see my diatribe on “write what you know” here– it’s often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean you should never tell the reader things. Just that, if there’s another way, consider doing that before falling back on the good ol’ tell. Because showing is more inviting.

To put it another way, you’re trying to titillate the reader, give them a reason to continue reading. And titillation events are called peepshows, not peeptells.

I will illustrate the difference in the traditional manner: with strippers.

Imagine it’s your birthday. Imagine your friends have hired two strippers. The first arrives, drops his* pants, and then stands in the middle of the room while Depeche Mode plays for twenty minutes. He doesn’t do anything. He just stands there and allows you to admire him.

The second knocks on the door in a fake police officer’s uniform, and comes in to ‘inspect the premises’ before spending his twenty minutes putting on a show. You are involved in the show–pulling off a glove, catching a thrown hat–and while the end result is still nudity, the process is very different.

Which stripper would do you prefer?

If you say the first, you’ve probably got a good future in writing technical manuals.

This is the difference between showing and telling in writing. Telling removes the mystery, the interpretation. It’s just there, in your face. Showing takes you along for the ride, inviting you to be an active participant.

Now, there are times when the pants-off telling approach works. Sometimes showing doesn’t get to the point. Imagine Stripper #2 leaving after having taken off his hat and one shoe. There’s a guy who’s not getting a tip.

And sometimes showing isn’t necessary. It would take too long, or interrupt the narrative flow for no good reason. Sometimes you just want to see a naked dude in your living room.

Metaphorically.**

My general rule–and as usual, your mileage may vary–is that emotions, reactions, and other stuff like that should be shown if possible. Don’t tell me someone is angry; show me their clenched jaw and the spit flying as they yell. But if it drags focus from the main purpose of the passage, slows down the narrative too much***, or otherwise distracts, then telling is fine. You should exhaust the possibilities of showing first, then move on to telling. And never forget the purpose of what you’re doing.

Flash a little skin, spin your ostrich feathers, smile…and go for the big finish.

*It’s my blog, the strippers are what I say they are. Feel free to fill in the gender of your choice.

**And not metaphorically.

***Though I should point out that, if this happens a lot, your writing style might be to blame. There are quick ways of showing most things if you work at it a little.

Back In The Word Mines: Establishing A Writing Routine

Psst. Hey. Hey. Hey, dragon. Hey. You wanna watch Korra?

You want to write regularly? Get yourself a writing schedule. No, not a fucking day planner. A routine that you follow in order to make sure you get ass in chair and actually write.

But making a routine in tricky. How do you make sure you have enough time? How do you stop people from bothering you? Does this mean you have to give up competitive wombat wrestling? All tricky questions.

Here’s how to get started.

1. Figure out your personal schedule. This has two parts: the times that you naturally work best, and the times you have available.

Me, I’m a morning person, especially for creative work. I like to have the grunt writing work done before noon, pouring out all the novel stuff in a caffeine-fueled rush like a hail of word-bullets. Then I save the afternoon for editing or non-creative projects, like writing copy. My editing brain sleeps in, but the creative brain is an early riser.

You might be a night person. Or a mid-afternoon person. Whatever. The key is: identify when you’re at your best.

Then look at the times you have available. If you’re lucky, the Venn diagram of your optimal time and your available time is a perfect circle. If not, you need to adjust. This might require sacrifice. I started getting up 5:30-6:00 am every morning to take advantage of my best brain time. Does it suck some days? Like a coked-out Hoover. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

2. Guard your time like a dragon with a horde. Other people will not respect your writing time. It’s not a mean thing; most of them just want to spend time with you and don’t understand why you insist on spending time banging on a keyboard when you could be playing Halo with them. You must be firm in your defence of your schedule if you hope to get anything done. Make them understand that this is important to you, and that they should respect that.

Or lock your door, turn off your phone, and invest in a couple of guard monkeys. That works, too.

3. Don’t waste your time. You’ve gone to all the trouble of setting this schedule up only to find yourself obsessively refreshing Twitter instead of writing. #amwriting should be #ampretendingtowrite.

Like you were firm with others, be firm with yourself. Set a word count and meet it. Try the Pomodoro technique (I’ve used it, and it works very well). Or, for the hardcore among you, download Write or Die and set it to Kamikaze Mode, which deletes words if you stop writing for more than thirty seconds or so.

4. Reward yourself. Yeah, yeah, in a perfect world, doing the writing itself would be reward enough. And, for me, most days it is. But others I need the extra spur.

Likewise, when you’re first trying to establish a routine, it pays to make like Pavlov and have the reward coming. Finish 1,000 words, get an episode of Orange Is The New Black. Or an hour of video game time. Finish a chapter, get a new comic book. Eventually you won’t need them, but, especially in the beginning, these little carrots can be hella helpful.

When I finish this novel, I get a robot. You’ve been warned.

So, what do you guys do to establish a routine?

 

Welcome To The Old Apartment: Creating Settings That Don’t Suck

This is the cafe. It's Jasper's Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That's Snowman at the table.

This is the cafe. It’s Jasper’s Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That’s Snowman at the table.

Your setting is more than just a geometric surface for the characters to stand on. And occasionally have sex on. Done right, a good setting can almost become a character in its own right. Look at Hogwarts. The worst part* of the seventh book for me is that Hogwarts isn’t much of a part of it. It’s like missing a great supporting character that you’ve grown to know over the years. Or how about Serenity from Firefly? It was a more than a mode of transportation/place for people to argue.

However, not every setting is a magical castle or a spaceship. And they don’t have to be in order to be awesome. 221B Baker Street; Gotham City; Castle Rock, Maine; Hardy’s Wessex County: all of these could–and in some instances, do–exist in our world. But they all have those little touches that made them more that just a stage on which the plot reveals itself.

A trick for making good settings? Frankenstein them together out of places in real life.

Whenever I go on vacation, I take pictures of interesting places. Most of them will sooner or later be reincarnated into a story. That coffee shop that had a back seating area between two buildings, a little alley barely three feet wide crammed with tables. The bar set up in an empty lot out of pallets, oil drums, and a shipping container. A friend’s strangely laid out apartment with the weird staircase to nowhere.

You don’t have to go on vacation, of course. Maybe your main character lives in a house with the same floorplan as your childhood home. Or they hang out at your favourite beach or restaurant. Or they go to your gym, with the grunting steroid-heads in the corner and the stack of strangely greasy magazines that you always regret touching. The trick is to find what is special about each of those places, and bring that to the fore.

Just like taking character traits from real people, you can take settings from real life locations. Change the name, change the details, but keep whatever drew you to the damn thing in the first place. The view. The proportions. The location. The barista who only speaks Esperanto.

Keep a list, somewhere. Document it with pictures if you can, or floorplans and sketches if you can’t.

And see what happens in those places.

*Fine. Second worst.

By request, I added a Feedly Follow button to the sidebar. Make with the clicky-click to get posts delivered to your newsfeed!

 

Muffin Basket From The Evil Queen: Creating Characters With Depth

Go ahead. Try one.

In most stories, there are good guys and bad guys, and you can tell who is who. The difference might be fine–you might be choosing between two kinds of asshole*–but you can usually tell who you should be going for. Good versus evil.

But good and evil aren’t that far apart, especially when it comes to people.

I prefer to think of good and evil as a progression. A sort of line with nauseatingly good angels on one side and mindlessly boring devils on the other. Where your characters sit on this line is largely due to their actions, but, and this is important, their position is not static.

Fact: good characters do evil things. For all kinds of reasons. Maybe they think they’re doing the right thing. Maybe they think the ends justify the means. Maybe the good thing is just so hard, so they slip and take the easy way out. Real people do this all the time, so why wouldn’t characters?

Likewise, evil characters do good things. Sometimes it’s to maintain an image. Sometimes it’s to fool someone. But sometimes they do a good thing because they want to.

Characters with depth slide back and forth along the line of good and evil. They might be mostly one or the other, but they’re not all one or the other. The good prince strikes out in a moment of jealousy. The evil queen aids a quest because the adventurers remind her of her friends from childhood.

If you want your characters to have depth–to be believable, because there’s no one out there who makes the right choice every single fucking time–then slide them back and forth along that line. Make their choices count. Give them consequences. They can come back to their core alignment, but it should be a choice, not a given.

Because static characters are boring characters, and, in fiction, nothing is worse than boring characters.

*Which I’ve never felt is a great story. I love a good anti-hero, especially when they’re contrasted with other characters, but having everyone be a dyed-in-the-wool bastard out only for themselves is boring. And interestingly, I’ve never read the reverse: a story where all the sides have good points and you don’t want anyone to lose.

 

The Bride of Frankenstein: Making Your Own Beta Reader From Scratch

“What do you think? Why did you laugh? Do you liiiiiiike it?” “For fuck’s sake, Clarence, shut the hell up and let me read.”

There comes a time in every writer’s life cycle–shortly after shedding the cocoon of old Dorito bags and scotch labels, but before growing the carapace and fangs that mark a fully developed member of the species–when s/he wants to share the product of their labours with another.

It’s a very special time: the search for a beta reader.*

But, how, among the scads of online critique groups and meatspace people, do you find The One?** Is there a questionnaire? Can you sign up for online manuscript dating?*** Do you just pick one at random and hope for the best?

Here’s an idea that I don’t see much: you can make your own beta reader.

No, not from parts. Put that brain in a jar down.

What I mean is that, if you know someone who is willing and able, you can teach them what to look for.

But they should meet a few criteria first. Here’s your checklist for a trainee beta reader:

1) They should be literate. Or you will have a buttload of other teaching to do.

2) They should be willing to read your stuff. And ‘willing’ here means ‘enthusiastic’. Not ‘will do it because otherwise you might withhold sex/friendship/the necessities of life’. Subtle difference.

3) They should be willing to be honest. And you should be willing to accept their honesty without going batshit, even if you don’t agree with it.

4) They should be willing to put in the time. Because what you’re asking is not small. You’re asking them to do for free what professional editors do for a living. Respect that.

After that, it’s a matter of showing them what to look for. In the case of the Husband, one of my beta readers, I asked him to note where he got bored, and why. And where he had questions: ‘who’s this chick? what happened to that guy’s head?’ It helped narrow down problems because it showed me what goes through someone’s head while they read my work.

Final note: opening yourself up to beta readers is hard. Not like digging ditches hard, but still fucking hard. Krys likened it to telling someone that you like like them: you’re letting all your messy bits hang out there in the hopes that it’s reciprocated. And it might not be. But that’s a risk you have to take.

Because if you can’t open your work up to someone you know, how the hell are you ever going to open it up to a submissions editor?

*There’s some disagreement over whether it should be alpha reader or beta reader. I prefer beta because, of course, you are the first reader of your story.

**Or, depending on your needs, The Two. Or Three. Or Dozen. Whatever, I’m not judging.

***Actually, this is a good question: can you?

 

In Praise of Incompetence

Critical failure: it happens to everyone.

Never underestimate the value of incompetence. In characters, I mean, not in real life. Try to be good at shit in real life.

But that’s the point: we try to be good at stuff in real life. And we’re not. Not at everything. There’s some stuff you’re good at, and then there’s everything else. Some of it you’re average at, and some of it you downright suck at.

So why, in aspiring writer communities, do I end up reading about so many protagonists who are awesome at everything? It’s not only not realistic, it’s boring.

We want our protagonists to be good at stuff because we want to be good at stuff. But it’s boring to have someone succeed all the time. There’s no struggle. There’s no stakes.

They don’t have to be completely fucking incompetent, because no one wants to read about someone who has to have their ass saved by other, more competent characters all the fucking time.* But they shouldn’t be unrealistically awesome at stuff that they have no reason to be. A woman raised in a nice, normal middle-class family in suburban Canada probably doesn’t know much about handguns. A man whose only driving experience is his daily commute to the office shouldn’t be able to pull off a perfect bootlegger turn when shit goes down.

Clearly, there are exceptions, but the point of exceptions is that they are exceptional. And, yeah, it’s awesome to have exceptional characters. But, one, their exceptional-ness should make sense in some way. Maybe the lady mentioned above can tell a Glock from a Sig Sauer because her grandfather was in the army and retained a love of firearms that he passed on to her. Maybe the driver knows how to do a bootlegger turn without crashing into the trees because his wife once bought him a week-long stunt driving course for their anniversary. There’s some interesting story mileage in those scenarios, but it’s not a given. There’s a reason.

And, two, they shouldn’t be exceptional at everything. Everyone struggles. And they should, because that’s where the story is.

Besides, it’s not very interesting to have someone start out completely bad ass. It’s far more fun to watch someone become that way, through trial and failure and teeth-gritted, balls-to-the-wall effort. It means something then. If it comes too easy, it’s not a story, it’s a foregone conclusion.

Better to have them fail. And then try again. Because that’s what the rest of us do.

*Note that this is my problem with Y:The Last Man, an otherwise interesting series. Yorick is pretty fucking useless, and more interesting characters died repeatedly in order to save him. He might improve, though. I’m not done yet.