The Slings and Arrows: Outline Plotting

Last night I was lying in bed at the end of a long, draining day, picking yet again through The Art of War for Readers, when I came across the section regarding the differences between writers who don’t use outlines to plot and those who do.  At first, I felt some twinges of panic; I know that I’ve mentioned before that I used to be a non-outliner, then became an outliner, and am now practicing some sort of hybrid of the two, but something about reading their reasoning made me a little anxious, because I felt like the pro-outline side reflected more of what I wanted from storytelling. Spirit Authors has a comprehensive list of why you should outline, but these are the ones that resonated for me:

It makes writing easier. When you go to sit down to work, you know exactly what parts of your book need to get done. And remember, just because you have an ordered outline, you are NOT committed to writing it in order. You can start anywhere.

Yeah. This is definitely true, and part of why I’m still creating an outline for the next novel, even as I try to build in some wiggle room for the characters. It absolutely avoids the blank page syndrome that a lot of us suffer.

It makes your message memorable. Readers can remember your message when there is a structure attached to it. It makes abstract concepts more memorable, and enables readers to feel they have gained something they can take away from the book, after they have finished it.

This was a big piece of why I took up the practice in the first place. I was interested in weaving complex story structures together with some abstract concepts, as the idea of imposing a rigid structure upon some of the more airy ideas that float through my head seemed appealing. The problem is that I soon learned it wasn’t that easy for me. I have to let those airy ideas float in and out of the story.

It helps ensure you are thorough. If you have an outline, you won’t accidentally omit something vital to your message or storyline.

Big concern of mine, as you could probably tell from some of the items that I’ve discussed here. I worry about continuity and consistency, as one missing piece in the story machine that should suspend the reader’s disbelief can cause the whole mechanism to come crashing down when it’s time to do the heavy lifting. Was that a tortured enough metaphor, or do I need to go on?

It helps ensure your book has balance. A good outline can help you see if some parts of your book are less substantial than others. A well-balanced book is organised in such a way that the ideas are balanced both in quantity and in quality against each other.

This wasn’t a topic that I had considered before last night, but it has a lot of merit. One of the biggest challenges as a writer is trying to avoid an uneven pace that jumps and jerks, and outline plotting is a great way to do it.

So I started panicking as I read this. Was I doing this all wrong by allowing my characters to have rein over the story?

For the other side of the equation, let’s take a look at some of the disadvantages of outlining as listed at Daily Writing Tips:

1. Spoils the mystery and the fun…for fiction writers, some don’t want to outline because they feel they cannot use their creativity and it takes away all the fun if you just fill it up. To solve this problem, Randy Ingermanson revealed a new method – the Snowflake method. It does let you outline, but doesn’t let it spoil your story.

I’m of two minds about this particular topic. One is that it’s not the writer’s place to experience the mystery and fun; if you want to experience that, read and then figure out how another writer did it so that you can apply that to your own work on how to best recreate that mystery and fun. I’m not saying that writing shouldn’t be fun, but that there shouldn’t be too much mystery to what you’re writing or you’re going to create all kinds of internal problems. On the other hand, I do like seeing what a character can bring to the table, and how things can follow down an entirely different path. That can be good fun, and can lead you to new facets of the story that you may not have considered. So I guess my overall view here is that mystery and fun is good, but it also serves well to have some sort of map ready in advance.

2. May not be as good as you first thought. If you get a complete different idea for your story later, your outline is pretty much useless work. Therefore, you should try to get all the best ideas from your brain and commit them down to paper to avoid this problem.

This has happened to me twice already. Not much more to say about it – sometimes you find that the path your left brain maps out may not be the one that your right brain finds the most intriguing, and you end up with something boring and flat. But the big one…

3. Just doesn’t seem to agree with your writing style. Some people find it hard to write from an outline. They want their writing to be creative: as creative as possible. I’m one of those writers, although I sometimes write few of my ideas so that I don’t forget it. Lengthy outlining doesn’t work for some, although it does for others. It’s useless to find a one-size-fit-all outlining method, simply because there’s no such thing.

This pretty much sums it up, and I think this is the in-between method that I’ve been developing of late. Write out the ideas, map out the general direction of the story (even down to a simple outline form), get to know the characters, and set them loose. When things seem a little unclear, go back to the outline.

I just don’t think there’s a simple way to do this, or a right or wrong answer. It’s all up to the individual style and preference of the writer in question. That realization eased a lot of my anxiety and helped me to see that I’m moving in the right direction. Always a boon!

Oh, and I was intrigued by the Snowflake Method. We’ll take a peek at that one tomorrow.

Stealing a Minute

I may have a longer entry on tap today depending upon how the day goes, but I at least wanted to get something out, as I can feel myself slipping a little bit without stretching my mind in the usual fashion. The subject of what to do when you’re so busy and tired that you can’t write seems pretty appropriate, as it’s something that I’ve struggled to do this week.

You see, this was supposed to be the week that I finished up the first draft of Corridors of the Dead, and while I have all but one scene in the can on my voice recorder, I’m forever stuck at the penultimate scene, it seems. At least, for the last two days. Tuesday I added a lot of information to the new book but wasn’t able to get much added to Corridors for varying factors. Wednesday I added a bit, but I found my usual zeal to push over the finish line had been sapped by the long days and intense thought required for what we’re doing at work now. I only managed a handful of paragraphs before having to shut down. And yesterday…well, yesterday was pretty much a complete wash as I was in early and out late.

I can’t help but ask myself what I could have done differently. Preparation is not really the answer, as I have another set of all-day meetings next week and was going to prepare myself for that by having a bunch of material ready to go this week, but this set of meetings just sneaked up on me and clubbed me in the night. Voice dictation definitely helps, and I’ve been pretty diligent about that (save last night, when the brain was simply too fried). So what?

I guess the answer is if I can’t change the situation and I had no time to prepare, then I just have to reframe it as just one of those things that happens. I think I’ve written about that in the past, in fact – sometimes we just have to accept these things that come up. I’ll have time to write in the future, and in the meantime I can slip in little moments here or there to add to what exists.

Time to get to it. We’ll see what today holds…

Character Development and the Influential Novels of my Life Pt 2

First things first – I was informed that this is my 100th post. Worthy of celebrating, I think. Hmmm…I’ll have to figure out something to do next week, when the brain isn’t leaking out the ears.

Okay, so let’s pick up where we left off yesterday, shall we? I’m ready to finally talk about my method of creating characters and how I get to know them better. Here’s the funny thing…a lot of it is drawn from a limited experience of tabletop role playing games. I played a short campaign in my Sophomore year of college (Star Wars, not Dungeons and Dragons, as if one were dorkier than the other), and after I got over the initial shock of realizing that this was basically just acting with a formalized set of rules, I saw the potential for what it could mean for creating characters. Of course, I was also mystified that GMs would go to all the trouble of creating elaborate story lines – story lines that could be used in short stories or novels – and keep them restricted to these small groups. Why not take all that creative output and put it toward something that could really make a difference? I have to confess that I still don’t fully grasp it, but I can at least understand the fun that people derive from the process.

But the important thing here is the characters – those amazing, difficult, hard-to-pin-down characters. Where once I viewed characters as a nuisance, I pretty much rejoice in their humanity. It’s a lot of fun to work with a “real” character. But how to get there? Here’s my process.

  1. Imagine a given actor in the plot that you’ve devised. Seriously. Matty in Corridors of the Dead started out imagining Natalie Portman as a punk rock girl. This gave way to a different view of the character entirely, but trying out these different approaches within the plot can give you some ideas that you never thought possible. How about Liam Neeson as a man pursued by a stalker? Jason Alexander as an action hero (well, trying to be one)? These are ideas that led to some very interesting character and plot possibilities for me. Eventually, you have to settle on one that presents the most story possibilities. Once you’ve gotten that actor “archetype” nailed down, take that archetype to step 2.
  2. Interview the Character. Imagine yourself in a room with that character. Just you and a tape recorder. Imagine the questions you want to ask them. You may jot down the answers, you may not – I typically don’t, as I find it helps more to internalize the character’s speech patterns and the actual answers are secondary. Those answers may come in handy later in the story, however.
  3. Fill out a Character Sheet. Remember what I said about roleplaying games? This is the place where it comes in handy. Height and weight are useful, but you also need to be answering key questions about psychology. Relationship with parents? Formative sexual experiences? Favorite music, movies, books, etc.? Whatever you think is relevant. I have my own sheet template that I use, but I don’t have it handy at the moment. I’ll post it when I get a chance.
That’s pretty much it – at this point I have a solid idea of the character and usually don’t need to refer back to too many of these things, but the process has internalized enough of the characters that I can call them forth. I personally think there’s a deep connection between writing and acting, another passion of mine. In the few chances I’ve gotten to act, I’ve used similar tricks to get into character. Frankly, I’m surprised there’s not more crossover.
Now, on to Part 2. These are the books of our lives…

4. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. I have had a lifelong love of learning, even if I didn’t favor the methods that schools used to teach me (and still don’t) – I’m a self-driven learner, and do just fine that way. So it was only natural that after getting into the Beat Writers, and especially Kerouac, that I understand the genesis of the Beats’ worldview. I dug into Kerouac’s background and discovered his influences, along with their influences. I’ve mentioned it on this site before. It was an attempt to map Kerouac’s literary DNA. When I hit Hermann Hesse, I found a point of view that resonated with me, and represented the clearest map for the Beat philosophy. Steppenwolf was the first Hesse novel that I dug into, and I’m not sure that I can convey how very closely it matched my worldview at the time. The main character’s view of the world was so very close to how I felt at the time – cloistered and dedicated to study – that I couldn’t help but fall in love. I’ve moved on since then, but this book is still my favorite in Hesse’s bibliography, and highly influential on my works.

5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a journalist. I know, dodged a bullet there, right? This period began well before I entered my “beat period”, but continued even after I had left college. I had visions of the traditional journalist life, and once I left college, I kind of figured that was dead. Then I discovered Hunter S. Thompson, right in the middle of my Beat period (which also coincided with some fairly heavy recreational drug use). Yeah, talk about kindred spirits. I immediately sought to ape his style as do most young writers who discover Thompson, and it finally stirred up my desire to run off, drive across the country, and document my drug-addled experiences. Not exactly original, but I was already a young man who romanticized damage, so there was a lot of romance to the idea. Ultimately, I ended up choosing a different path (one that involved a lot less self-destruction), but this book will always stand as an icon in my life.


6. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. I spent the last few months of 1998 in South Africa, an attempt to cast off the bonds of what I saw as a wasted life back here in the States as I tried to work out a relationship with the woman who would become my first wife. Yeah, she was South African, and we met online during that incredibly damaged period of my life, so the idea of moving to a new culture and discovering it was very appealing to me.  I mean, I grew up in Small-Town America. The concept was mind-blowing! So I packed up three suitcases, the remains of my life, to go there. I also picked up a handful of books to accompany me, as I knew I would have no job there. This book was one of them. I had no idea how it would change my outlook on fiction, and it’s only really settled in for me in the last few years that this book even was influential for me. A book of paranoia and the concept of fiction becoming reality, I can see that it’s driving a lot of the ideas behind Entanglements for me, and has driven me toward similar concepts that involve bringing real-life mythology (even urban mythology) to storytelling. A sneaky, slow-burner of an influence.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the last four, and some of them really surprised me…

No Hand-Me-Down World: Plot-Driven Vs. Character-Driven

I guess this is the time of year that I start clearing the decks of some ideas that have been kicking around in my head for awhile. This particular entry is something that has been sitting in my to-do pile for a few months now, but I think now is the time! No better time than the present! Other meaningless platitudes!

As you probably deduced from the post title, today I’m talking about Plot-Driven stories versus Character-Driven stories. Quick recap of what the two are according to Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, which  basically says the same thing I had wanted to say in this space:

Plot driven
“In a plot-driven story the events of the story move the story forward and cause the character to react to those events.  Characters are secondary to the plot.  They act in accordance with the plot and do not create events or situations on their own.

In a sense, the plot takes over like a tornado.  If a tornado suddenly comes through a town out of nowhere, the characters can’t stop it; they have to brace themselves and react to what ever happens around them.  They don’t cause the tornado–the tornado causes them to react to it.”

Character driven
“In a character-driven story the character moves the story forward through action and choices.  She initiates the events of the story and causes the events to happen.  Each secene is instigated by the characters within it.

If  a character chooses to stay home one day and work in her garden, no event or situation will stop her from doing so, but another character may try to make her feel guilty for it.  This may cause her to decide not to garden, but it is totally her choice even if it seems like someone else is manipulating her.

If a tornado comes through town, the charcters will always have the time needed to decide what to do.  The focus is in the characters and how and why they make their decisions to stay or leave.  These decisions have the power to move the plot in different directions.  The characters have options and choices that affect the outcome.”

That’s pretty much perfect – I think plot-driven stories have a dense plot, and the characters are often dragged along and forced into a path with no other choice. The original Star Wars trilogy is a good example of this.

I’d say character-driven stories revolve around the characters’ motivations, their decisions, and personalities. Their psychological makeup drives much of how the story operates. What I was talking about on Friday regarding fear being a good character motivator would be best handled in a character-driven story. I think the Star Wars prequels attempted to be this, being centered all around the characters’ choices and motivations, but failed pretty miserably. Most literary fiction, however, is character-driven than plot-driven.

During my college years, though I was focusing on genre fiction, I espoused an approach that entirely focused on the characters in these fantastic settings. So, for example, though I would write about a trio of magicians traveling on a pilgrimage, the rising and falling of the story was driven by their motivations and their interactions rather than things happening to them.

I followed that path all the way up until the early 2000s, when I wrote the novel with the character who went to the artists commune. At that point, I found that having the characters sit in the driver’s seat and make the decisions was resulting in stories that collapsed under their own weight.

This made me into a strict plotter. I completed some novels using that approach – the problem is that, as I’ve noted before, they had little soul and little complexity of psychology within the characters, which is probably my forte. I’m beginning to realize that I’d almost rather write a story that’s terrible but has a soul than something that’s competent but has none.

I think that’s part of why some stories, while not very well-written on the surface, end up so popular: because they have a soul. Look at Harry Potter, for instance. While circumstances in some places do certainly drag Harry along and overall it’s clearly a plot-driven story, you still have your nice little character moments and moments where they interact and make things happen.

Take the circumstances in the Deathly Hallows where they’re not sure where to go and end up at Godric’s Hollow. While the riddles from Dumbledore that are obviously designed to drive the story get them partially there, the rest is handled by them thinking through these riddles and pushing the story forward on their own initiative.

I think this highlights what I’ve been thinking of late: that the hybrid approach, somewhere in between, is the best way to approach a story. Like I was telling my friend Rob the other day I think some stories are more popular because their characters are so realistic. In this particular instance, we were talking about our own internal contradictions. Almost everyone has these internal contradictions. For instance, someone might be very strongly opposed to gay marriage but internally are very curious about homosexuality. Or someone might appear to be a hardass on the outside, but cries at romance movies.

Aside from fueling tension in a story, these contradictions suggest that something more is going on inside – that these people are human and not archetypes. Like I told him, if everyone consistently felt the same thing about all things, they wouldn’t be a person, they would be an archetype. You know, we’re different from moment to moment, much less day to day. You can have a consistency in your internal value system, but there are bound to be inconsistencies at any given moment, and your characters should reflect that.

That’s why I think that a good character-driven story, even in a genre that is predominantly plot-driven, can really grab hold of a reader and draw them in. Yes, the overall story of Harry Potter is interesting, but I think the big hook for people is the characters, because they feel like fully-realized humans. We see Hermione being more than just the stereotype of the nerdy teacher’s pet. We see Harry struggle with his own internal darkness.

That’s why I think stories should blend this approach, because let’s face it. Outside of literary fiction, a plot is pretty important to a story – it can draw the reader forward. If you have something like that and can combine it with good characters? That’s just gold. It’s tricky, but it can be done. It’s a matter of honing the craft and learning how to do it.

I think I’ll talk some about my ideas of how to blend those things in the next entry.

In the End: A Word or Two About Endings

So yesterday I talked about writing a good beginning, leading with peril. Today I’m going to look at the trickier question of what makes a good ending. You see, where there’s a fairly straightforward formula for a beginning, endings aren’t quite that easy. A lot of it is based on the dictates of the story itself, not to mention trying to put an original spin on something that’s been done before – and just hope you’re aware that it’s been done before, because  if you don’t know and a reader who has seen this before reads it…well, who knows what they may think after getting so far through the story, to this point, and getting hit with a cliche ending. This underscores how important it is to read what is done in your genre and what you could consider a common trope.

I’ve also read that subplots are typically influenced by the word count of a story, so you want to look at where you want to bring the thread of the subplot into your main plot. Do you want it resolved in the climax, or do you want a mini-climax for the subplot that leads into that? In that case, you’re writing almost two endings.

Another thing that I’ve read and observed is that it’s important for a climax not to be too far from the very end of the story but also not too close to the end of the story, because you want some falling action but also not too much because then your story starts to feel anticlimactic. The reader might not realize that the climax has come and gone because there’s so much story still left.

It’s a tricky thing. From so much of what I’ve seen and read and experienced, it’s not easy to teach. It’s something that you kind of learn by doing. My personal inclination was always to put the climax very close to the end, which may have left the ending a bit abrupt, but I’d rather have an abrupt ending than something that keeps going on and on. Look at the movie version of Return of the King. That was a movie where the climax(es) happened a little too early and there was way too much falling action afterwards. It felt like the ending was never going to come.

I can think of a few tropes that I’ve seen. Sometimes I like to see the main character really showing how they’ve changed through the events of the story. You could almost present a scene that is a mirror image to something that happened earlier in the story, showing how your character reacts differently. For instance the character Matty in Corridors of the Dead is pretty misanthropic when the novel opens. As the book goes on, she learns to value and cherish human life. So while this is not necessarily what the last scene, it could be fitting to show a scene where she has an opportunity to turn her back on someone in need but ends up helping them instead, where we’ve seen her turn her back on people before. You know, showing her embracing this new facet of herself. To me, that’s almost always the best ending to a story.

You could also show how the environment has changed. If you’re talking about the end of the world, show the after-effects. Make that the last thing that you linger on – maybe how those effects impact a person.

I do think it’s very important that an ending relate to the climax in some way. I don’t just mean as a consequence, but presenting an echo of it at the end.

For example, let’s say that the climax of a given story is a knife fight between two characters (and this is totally pulled out of my ass) but the protagonist, who once would have been eager for the fight, is reluctant to act and is only pulled into it by the antagonist. So the protagonist fights the antagonist and ends up stabbing them and killing them. You have your falling action wherein the protagonist discovers that the old self is not that different from the antagonist that he just killed – essentially, the enemy is (or was) himself, and he faces, for example, the friends of the antagonist and owning the responsibility of what he’s done.

It’s not the best example, but I would need all of the threads of that story to pull together and show this. This is where you get into the problem of why it’s so hard to teach this stuff, and why writing an ending is so difficult. It’s very hard to just come up with an example off the cuff, whereas you can easily rattle off three examples.

But you see what I’m saying: it’s key to match the emotional tone of the ending to the emotional tone directly preceding the climax. You get some echoes, at least.

This is definitely a topic that I plan to revisit once I get some more experience and read and study more. I’d love to hear what anybody else has to say about what they think makes an effective ending.

Tied to the Tracks: Leading with Peril

First off, apologies for not having an entry yesterday. I’ve been sick the past few days and am only starting to climb my way out of it.

But that’s not today’s topic. Today’s topic is Leading with Peril. Now what do I mean by that? Well, when you start off your story – novel – screenplay, what have you, you want the story to grab the reader by the lapels and really shake them around. It should say “hey, this is important!”. God forbid you lead off with an internal monologue or a “weather” beginning.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with a “weather” beginning (though it’s quite a cliche by this point), it begins by describing the weather that a character is experiencing, something of which I’ve definitely been guilty. I’ve also been guilty of the internal monologue beginning. I mean, hell, the book that I was trying to sell – the one that may indeed still sell – starts with an internal monologue. The rewrite does not. The rewrite follows the principle of leading with peril.

But let’s look at an example from my own past to establish just what I’m talking about (from the second draft of my own long-abandoned novel, Jazshael):

The congested I-81 corridor from Northwestern Virginiais more than just a thoroughfare; it is a means to transport a traveler into a land of carmine autumn mountainsides, spacious verdant fields, and unresolved dichotomy. The unsuspecting traveler to the Shenandoah Valley moves from a place where a rural sensibility informs the outliers of a metropolitan area to an insular, unique land, where a BMW may find itself stuck in a no-passing lane behind a black horse and carriage, where drunken frat boys from that metropolis rub shoulders in sparse, redneck bars with mountain men just come down from ancient familial perches in the Blue Ridge. It is a place where the citizenry would fly both a Confederate Flag and an American Flag and see no contradiction, so long as some know-it-all from the city didn’t think to comment. The average tourist may remain unaware of the nature of the land, but those who have lived there know it, and feel it in their pores for the remainder of their lives.

It’s a travelogue, basically. I’m sure it would work just fine as a travel book, but as the beginning of a novel, it’s pretty damn weak, even if I do think the writing itself is fairly strong.

Now, I don’t necessarily mean that the character has to be in danger right from the outset. That will get a reader’s attention, but what if you’re writing a book where the character is not in physical danger at any point? I’ve read in a few places that the danger you present may be emotional. Or a career danger, or a mental danger. So that gives you some possibilities. You could lead off with the end of a relationship, or the threat of ending a relationship. Or having a job threatened.

I mean, stories are, at their core, about conflict – conflict that changes characters. If you can lead your story off with a conflict that’s even remotely related to the main plot, it’s a really good start. As I’ve become more selective about what I read, I’ve definitely noticed that the poor, slow starts always turn me off. I always sit there wondering when it will get going. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that sometimes literary works are slower burns.

But there is a way to make a literary novel also start with this peril. Like I said, it’s about identifying an immediate danger to the character – even a literary novel has some sort of conflict, and that’s what you need to be focusing on. For instance, one of the novels that I wrote once upon a time was about a young man who moved to join an artists commune in Northern California in the early 70s. It was intended as a deconstruction of the end of the Hippie Era and the end of the 60s in general.

The prime conflict within the story was that this guy wanted to become the best artist he could possibly be while living within his own ideals – more beatnik than hippie in nature. But within this commune there were rules about collective bargaining; now that I know a little more about the world, the plot is fairly ludicrous, but give me a break, I was 19 when I started it. Anyway, the rule was that it was okay to sell your works, but no agents. Dissatisfied, a group of artists broke off and made a deal to produce counterfeit art with this man who claimed to be a great agent and would eventually get them big gallery shows (which he did deliver upon).

There was also a subplot involving him falling in love with a woman who already had an abusive boyfriend who tries to kill her, but they end up killing him and running off to Mexico. It was all very melodramatic, but I was trying to wrap an artistic approach around that. Obviously I didn’t feel it worked, because I never sold the book, but I learned a lot. The reason I mention this book, however, is that I recall the opening to this book:

But that was after.

Before, it was a hot July day. Before, I was dealing with one of those days I’ve always hated, when nature wants you to soak you in your own juices. Before, I hadn’t met Norm.

Wait. Let me back up and tell you a little about Norm Lavoy.

Of all the bastards I’d seen come and go, Norm was the most significant of them all. When Norm was a kid, he kept live rats in his basement. His mom would tell him to kill them, he’d put them in a box. Norm would tell you to fuck off, then hug you like you grew up together and were just boys.

And now (or rather, then), I stood before Norm’s apartment door having never met the guy, knowing only of him through second-hand anecdotes of one of his stoner friends. My stomach was tight in my throat, my heartbeat in time to agitated thought behind my eyes. Those thoughts weren’t that important, but they involved some variations of him laughing his ass off at me, followed by homelessness, followed by hobosex in the back of a Jack in the Box at 3 AM in exchange for some trashed burgers. They weren’t that important. I knocked once, a quick tap.

That’s right, hobosex.

The only answer to my knock was machine-gun-fire barking. I imagined a gnarled dog hunkered down in some World War I trench, firing off barking rounds to protect its position from the encroaching cat army. Then…ah, yes, it paused, peering over the trench to see if the enemy was still there. I heard footsteps behind the door.

Then the doggy soldier unloaded another fusillade as it dove, ass-first, back into the trench.

This bit of a mind-movie, amusing as it was, was interrupted by a thump against the door and the quieting, but not ceasing, of the dog’s volleys.

Actually not as bad as I had once thought, but the second paragraph describes the weather, and there’s not much hint of a conflict here, and it doesn’t get much better over the ensuing pages. We just meet Norm and his jail-bait girlfriend. But keep in mind what you see above is the fourth draft. In the original draft, we followed him in agonizing detail as he walked from his car to that front door. It was a slow, plodding affair, because I had been reading a lot of literary works at the time and wanted to emulate that style. It was a very Kerouac-influenced book.

If I were to rewrite this today, I would likely start with him wondering what the hell he’s done signing this agreement with this “agent” and then work backwards from there to show him arriving while cutting out the extraneous details. At the time, though, I felt that I needed to show as many of the opening events as possible. Now, of course, I’ve realized that you can shorthand a lot of stuff.

I mean, that’s just one example of how you can do it. Look at the key point in your story and how you can harness some of that to get the story going. Some books I’ve read say that beginnings of novels are actually easier than endings and I’m inclined to agree. Now that I’ve actually learned the secret to creating a good beginning, I don’t have much trouble with it. Here are a few off-the-cuff examples that I’ve come up with, and there are loads more that can serve as spurs for writing:

  • Mark wanted to understand why he was a marked man, but the gun in his back was a more immediate concern.
  • She’d always suspected there was something unusual about her dog. The bones in the kitchen just proved it.
  • It’s not every morning you awaken in another world, but today just happened to be that kind of day.

And on and on. You get those, and you can sit down and think about which ones really work for you. Sometimes I think it’s good practice to just write these intros and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is the character saying or observing this?
  • What is the situation all about?

From that you can get solid story ideas and proceed onward.

Again, leading with peril. Leading with conflict. We’ll talk about endings tomorrow.

Today’s featured blog is Middle of the Road Reviews, which I think really tries to present a balanced perspective on book reviews. They’ve created their own rating system, and also offer reviews for parents so they know what they’re getting into. Check it out!

You Deserve a Break Today

Today’s subject is breaks – when is the right time to take a break? This topic is something that’s been sitting in my to-do list for awhile, staring at me from the side of my screen whenever I open up to write a new entry. Funny that I would procrastinate about writing something about procrastinating, but that’s me. It’s been a specter for most of my writing career. My “fallow period”, one that I’ve written about before, was the result of a lot of procrastination on my part. I always told myself I would get around to doing the work at some future point, but I had too much to deal with in my personal life at that time.

Since then, I’ve come to realize that life doesn’t stop. Something will always come up. There will always be a distraction, always a personal problem. The question is how much you’re willing to put up with to chase your dream, to live the life you want to live. If you want it badly enough, you have to just gut your way through it and do the work that’s in front of you.

Where this really gets interesting is the question of when it’s okay to not get everything done. For instance, last week I fell well short of my goal. My typical weekly writing goal is 10,000 words, and I try to average 5 days of around 2,000 words each. Most weeks I overshoot the mark by quite a bit. I’ve had some weeks where I’ve gotten to 12,000, and I suspect this week might be another such week. But last week, a combination of a holiday, stress, exhaustion, and general busywork, got me to only around 6,000 words. Granted, that’s a little over 1,000 words a day – pretty good. At that pace you could write an average book in a little less than three months.

I worry, though. I always worry when I take these breaks. I worry that I’m getting into the habit of not working like I used to, or what if the inspiration is going away? But so far I’ve been going at this for eight months, which is frankly unprecedented in probably my entire writing career. I haven’t had any real downtime aside from a day here or there or maybe a slightly slow week.

I’ve been tracking my hours and words written since the end of March, and, you know, you can see things go up and down regularly, but at the end of the month I’m right around the same area consistently. Of course, things have changed a little as I’ve developed more efficiency in my processes, which allows me to either take more time off or write more.

So the question becomes, when is the right time to take a day off? I don’t do a whole lot of writing on the weekend, I confess to that. I like to take the weekends off to spend time with my fiancee, play video games, and get things done around the house. Which is why I’ve shortened my writing week to five days. Pretty reasonable. I average around an hour and a half every day. If you do the math, it gives you an idea of how many hours I’m writing a week – and a month.

I haven’t decided on a formula for when I have a down day. I know that I will tend to have very productive days, and then the next day might not be so productive.  For instance, on Tuesday I wrote over 3,000 words, the first day for that ever. Thus, yesterday, Wednesday, I wrote 2,536. Still way above my goal, but a drop-off and the lowest day this week. It also doesn’t help if I don’t sleep very well. When that happens I realize that I need to maybe have a slower day or take the day off. Usually if I’m home sick from work, I’ll take the day off from writing as well. Though that’s not always the case, either, because sometimes I work from home when I’m ill.

I try to take holidays off because I usually plan to be around friends and family. My biggest problem is being okay with taking a day off. I start to feel like I’m shirking my responsibility. I get a little panicky and worry if I’m going to be able to pick up where I left off. Last week was particularly bad.

So what I plan to do from here on out:

  1. Schedule things in advance. So if I plan to take, for example, Labor Day off, I’ll make a note of it. That’s all right. That’s fine.
  2. Know that some days I don’t have it. Maybe on a given day I’ll only be able to write 800 words. Or 500 words. I need to be able to be flexible with that. Maybe I’ll make the total for the week, maybe not.
The key is not to condemn myself in either of these situations because that’s when the whole spiral takes over and then I do end up going off the rails completely.
Discipline is very important in this field. I believe in what Bradbury said about writing a million words to become a better writer. The more I write, the better I see myself getting. But we’re also human beings and not machines and need to take time off as our bodies and schedules dictate. It’s just important to be in tune with yourself, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

And the Man with the Golden Gun: Chekhov’s Gun

When I was a young writer, maybe 15 years ago (and wow does that make me feel old), I wrote a short story. Okay, I wrote many short stories, but this particular short story is our focus – one written for a creative writing class. I worked at Burger King at the time, and I had a good friend who also work there. She was a Senior, and I was a Sophomore, so I thought she might be a good person with whom I could share my story, maybe get a critique. She really enjoyed the story, save for one minor detail: I included this character named Dogg. I had put him in as a background detail, something to “set the scenery”. She said she felt a little misled because she was interested in Dogg, but he never turned out to be anything more than a background detail.

That’s when she explained to me that everything, especially in a short story, should be there for some purpose. That’s a lesson I took to heart. I have to tip my hat to Jan for that. We’re still friends on Facebook and talk from time to time, but I wonder if she realizes what a role she played in my development as a writer. Well if not, maybe she’ll see this.

Years later, I came to discover that this rule was known as Chekhov’s Gun. From Wikipedia:

Chekhov’s gun is a literary technique whereby an element is introduced early in the story, but its significance does not become clear until later in the narrative. The concept is named after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who mentioned several variants of the concept in letters. Chekhov himself makes use of this principle in Uncle Vanya, in which a pistol is introduced early on as a seemingly irrelevant prop and, towards the end of the play, becomes much more important as Uncle Vanya, in a rage, grabs it and tries to commit homicide.

The TV show Lost was especially guilty of violating Chekov’s Gun. Walt’s powers, for instance, were played up as significant in early seasons, then turned out to be a plot dead end. Lots of other items on the show could also be seen as violations – like Claire’s baby having to be raised only by herself, Libby’s story, and Ben’s childhood friend (loads more here – warning some are nitpicky).

The writers claimed that most of these questions were answered in an oblique fashion if the viewers just managed to read between the lines, but frankly I feel that’s a cop-out. If, as a writer, you have to point at something and say “the answer is between the lines”, you haven’t been an effective writer. I mean, I love the show, don’t get me wrong, but it had some major flaws.

Hmm, wonder what happens next.

So Chekhov’s Gun is one of the key elements to keep in mind when writing a story. Some argue it’s about foreshadowing, and that’s partially true, but it’s also about in-universe consistency. For instance, a character in my current novel said he had a bad feeling about where they were going. I had no idea where that was going when I wrote that line, but I knew that I had to do something with it. The outcome worked rather well within the framework of the story, thankfully, though I imagine when one is writing by the seat of their pants they often have to go back and remove those things if they don’t have a payoff.

Return of the Jedi was particularly bad about this, because Han says he feels like he’s never going to see the Millennium Falcon again. This was, of course, a remnant of the earlier version of the film, where Lando Calrissian died. I have no idea why they left it in the final cut because it doesn’t amount to much more than a red herring.

Now there’s a thing: red herrings. Sometimes you do want to build these into a story to maintain a sense of mystery, but by the same token you don’t want to fill the story with them because you might sever the tenuous connection between reader and writer, as the reader no longer knows whether to trust you. If you can misdirect them enough to realize that they were misreading the situation from the beginning, then you look clever. It’s almost like a magic trick.

Speaking of magic, I think the novel of the Prestige does this particularly well. Given that the book is about two magicians who war with one another, it’s appropriate that there is a great deal of misdirection within the story itself. It actually took me a long time to catch on to what was going on, and I felt a lot of delight when I did. Fight Club is another example of this, with Tyler Durden’s character. Both of these books throw out red herrings but still obey Chekhov’s Gun. The questions about his sanity in Fight Club do turn out to be important. The misdirection is just as important as the events in the story.

What I’m trying to say is don’t throw out elements wily-nily without having some idea of where they’re going, and if you do, keep track of them. I keep a running list of questions I raise within a story and as I answer them, I check them off. This not only builds a sense of accountability into the plot but also helps to establish that all-important trust between writer and reader.

The Lost writers once said that they didn’t introduce any element without knowing what it was; for instance, they said they knew what the hatch was, and what was inside it. Turns out they only had a vague idea of what was in the hatch, and none of the details surrounding it. They knew “a man” was in the hatch. I think this highlights the problems that they faced: dealing in an episodic medium, it was difficult for them to go back and erase those dead ends that a normal writer would get to erase. Once they were out there, they were out there for good.

As someone who thinks that a good sense of mystery is important to a story, even if the story is not a mystery per se, I think you have to be very aware of these devices and keep a good balance when using them. I’m still not quite there in my proficiency of using these devices, which is why I’ve re-written the novel. Only by continuing to practice and read can we learn the best ways to work with these elements. I’d love to see some recommendations from others when it comes to novels that do this well.

Too Much, Too Little, Too Late – On Spontaneity and Ideas

Today’s concept for a blog entry came to me as I was driving home; in fact, I dictated some of it as I was driving home. I’ve spoken at length about trying to capture moments and capture ideas and, frankly, sometimes I think the whole concept is overrated. An idea that has been honed can be more powerful than an idea that is captured in an off-the-cuff setting. Sure, one could argue that going with something purely impulsive gives an artist something that’s a little more…well, spontaneous, of course, but that it also reflects more of the creator’s subconscious. If you’re trying to tap into emotions, that’s great, and I know I do a lot of that.

But I also think it’s a good idea to sometimes take that initial idea and hone it, refine it. I can’t remember where the quote came from, and can’t find it, but I think it was a director who said that it was often necessary to kill his favorite children – i.e., his favorite scenes or characters – in the name of a better story. I think that applies to our ideas, too. Sometimes we have to explore them and refine them and figuratively beat the crap out of them in order to see what’s really there. Sometimes facets of those ideas or even whole ideas end up getting completely wiped out.

Take my novel Jazshael, for instance. I had a dream in 2000 about an angel who took care of a family, and in this dream the angel went berserk at the end, destroying the house and ultimately self-destructing. As I had this dream I thought “wow, this will make a great novel” (this happens to me quite often), and of course wrote it down immediately. In this particular instance, I wrote the book and finished the first draft.

Then I realize the emotion wasn’t there. I take that back. There was too much emotion there, it was a little too maudlin, a little too cloying. This was the first time I’d written with a formal process and while that process got me to the end with a story that was coherent and made sense, the final product was awful. Several rewrites failed to get my problems with the story nailed down, and I realized that it might not have been the best story idea in the first place. I could well have been chasing something that wasn’t really there. Or perhaps I had taken something that was spontaneous and overplanned it. I don’t know.

It took me five years to reach that conclusion, and I believe I went through four or five drafts during that period. Maybe one day I’ll go back to the well, but in the end it turned out that killing the novel at that time was the right choice because I was about to enter the “fallow period” of my career anyway.

I attempted a few novels between then and now anyway, the most prominent of which may still have a shot at publication some day if I get around to it – I’ll address it some other time. The other was based on an album that I really like, the Afghan Whigs’ Black Love. Upon first hearing the album, I had conceived a story that was lurking there in the lyrics, just waiting to be born. Who knows, maybe I’ll put that album on someday when I’m in a creative mood and it will spur me back to work.

But what I’m really focusing on here is the idea that we trade in ideas – we trade in, literally, dreams, like the ones I have. We must have a surplus of these because not all are going to be winners. How many times have you watched a bad movie or read a bad book and thought “there’s an idea that should have stayed away from the public”? We all have them, it doesn’t mean that we’re not creative or crappy, it’s just a matter of figuring out when it’s right to unleash the idea and when it’s not.

I think having readers to give input into your work is very important, but it’s also really important to be objective about your work. People tell me that’s not possible, but it’s not true. I know I’m capable of being objective about my work; hell, I’m one of those “own-worst-critic” people as long as I give myself some space from the work. Take a few weeks, maybe a month, away from the work and come back, I can usually determine whether something is a good idea or a bad idea, or decide whether I can take it and turn it into something more fully realized.

Right now I have the opening of Book 3 in mind and am right at the close of Book 2, and am having some trouble forming a bridge between the two. I have a handful of images and the question is how those images fit together. While I could surely just crap something out that doesn’t make a lot of sense and come back to it later, but for now I’m trying to be a little more comfortable with myself, being able to sit back and think “Okay, maybe this approach – maybe that approach. Maybe in this scene X character really wants to do Y. What if I let her do that? What does that look like?” Then I go through those iterations in as many different permutations as is needed.

The opening of Book 3 is particularly troublesome, as there are so many different possibilities. At the beginning, Matty gets into the Corridors of the Dead. The contents of the Corridors are pretty clear in my mind, where she’s going is clear in my mind, but what happens in between is a character-driven situation. I already have two characters to account for right away, and a third joining pretty quickly. It then becomes a question of what these characters really want to do, what is the optimal interaction, and how do I establish tension in the plot via those interactions?

I think I found the key. This is something I’ve been doing throughout the process of this novel rewrite – something I’ve never done before. It’s spurred me on; delivered the goods, so to speak.

I’ve gone on a bit here but what I’m really trying to say is that once we determine that an idea is indeed worth using, we have to then hone that idea into the optimal configuration to drive the story.

Finally, since it’s Friday, it’s song day. How about the source of today’s title, shall we? By the excellent band Jellyfish, here’s Too Much, Too Little, Too Late:

Good News

Good morning, everyone. Today’s entry may be shorter than anticipated, as many outside events press for my attention. The most important of these events is that a publisher has requested the full manuscript of the original version of Torat. You can imagine my happiness when I read the email this morning, and I have already cleaned up the manuscript and sent it off to the publisher, along with a note concerning the overhauled version of the novel. No worries, however; if they choose to go with the original version, I will simply re-purpose the overhauled version into a completely new novel. The story is different enough that it would work just as well on its own; the original features a woman dragged along into a strange world, while in the new version, there is a far higher amount of agency on her part. It wouldn’t take much to rework that into a new novel.

So, good news, but still just a step on the path toward publication. Excitement abounds, but I have to remember to temper it with reality – there are several hurdles still to be cleared.

Re-reading the manuscript, however, it is quite obvious how far I have come since completing that version. That alone is reason for excitement; being aware of growth and expansion is a good thing.

I’m afraid that’s all I have to say for today. I’ll get back to the regularly scheduled posts tomorrow.