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

07 April 2018

Options and Preferences

by John M. Floyd

Some quick background, here: Two weeks ago today, my wife and I drove down to Gulfport, Mississippi, where I'd been invited to speak to a meeting of the Gulf Coast Writers Association. The crowd included folks who'd written novels, memoirs, short stories, poetry, and songs (one of the attendees, Patti Ryan, wrote "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places"), and more than an hour of our allotted time was spent, as I'd hoped it would be, in a question/answer session. It was a gracious and enthusiastic group, and I had a great time. Afterward Carolyn and I looked for seafood in all the right places and then headed back home.

Why tell you about all that? Well, some of the things we talked about in the Q&A that day made me start thinking about certain issues that always seem to come up when writers get together. Here are half a dozen of those:

1. Question: Should I outline, or not?

Answer: Do whichever makes you comfortable. Outlining (a.k.a. in-depth pre-thinking) can provide a structure and a sense of security that can be helpful and time-saving when the actual writing starts--even if the writer chooses later to change direction. On the other hand, some writers feel that planning too many things out beforehand would stifle their creativity and make the process boring. To me, outlining or not is like squeezing the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube or from the top, or always being early for meetings or always being late, or unrolling the toilet paper from over or from under. I think it all depends on the way our minds are wired.

My preference: Outlining.

2. Question: Should I self-publish or seek a traditional publisher?

Answer: There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Self-publishing allows the writer to keep everything he/she earns from the sale of his stories/novels, but it also means handling and financing all aspects of the project: cover design, layout, production, marketing, publicity, distribution, storage, and a dozen other tasks. Taking the traditional approach means the writer earns a much smaller piece of the pie, but is responsible only for the writing (and, to a smaller degree, marketing and promoting). Self-pubbing can also allow the author to publish sooner, and on his/her own schedule.

My preference: The traditional route.

3. Question: Should I use first-person POV or third?

Answer: It depends on the story. First person is a more intimate but also a more limited viewpoint; the writer can get "closer" to the reader (I did this, I did that) but a story told in first person can't reveal anything to the reader that the POV character doesn't see or otherwise experience firsthand. Third person creates more distance between the writer and reader, but it's less restrictive. If the story or novel needs a large scope, third person can allow the reader to know things that the character(s) don't, which can help generate suspense. I've heard that whodunits are usually told in first person because the hero (detective?) needs to find things out at the same time the reader does, while thrillers are usually third person because the reader sometimes needs to know things before the hero does (Don't go around that corner; they're waiting for you there!).

My preference: Third person. But I like both.

4. Question: Should I use past tense or present?

Answer: Again, there's no right or wrong answer. Suit yourself. Past tense is the traditional, safe, once-upon-a-time way to tell a story, while present tense can create a sense of immediacy (it's happening NOW) that some writers feel is more interesting. It seems that female writers and literary fiction tend to use present tense more than male writers and genre fiction, but I could be wrong about that. I've also heard that present tense can be distracting and false-sounding to some readers, although it doesn't bother me. I think I've gotten used to it.

My preference (for my own stories): Past tense.

5. Question: Should I submit my work simultaneously or one-at-a-time?

Answer: How cautious are you? Simultaneous subs, especially of short stories, can be a little risky. If it backfires, and two markets want the same story, that can damage a relationship with an editor or publisher--especially if the guidelines say "no simultaneous submissions." On the other hand, submitting simultaneously can certainly help you get published sooner, considering the extremely long response times of some publications. Editors would obviously rather have an exclusive look at your submission. This can be a tough decision for the writer.

My preference: One-at-a-time.

6. Question: Should I edit as I go, or finish my draft and then edit?

Answer: There are pluses and minuses to both approaches. If you do edit as you go, and try to make every page as perfect as it can be before you go on to the next, you might not have to do much rewriting later--but you run the risk of having to do double work if your story takes a different direction and forces you to go back and change things you've already polished. Also, if you choose to wait until you finish a rough draft before going back and editing, that can give you a real sense of satisfaction--Hey, I've already got the story down on paper!--but you'll then of course have a LOT of editing to do. I sometimes think outliners are more apt to go ahead and finish the draft first before editing anything, and that pantsers are more likely to edit as they go. But I could be wrong about that (I'm wrong about many things).

My preference: Write the draft in one swoop (whether it's 100 words or 10,000 words), and only then worry about editing.

One question that never seems to come up is this: Should I write a literary story or a genre story? I think the reason it's rarely discussed is that most writers know already which kind of fiction they want to write, because they know what kind of fiction they most enjoy reading. I'm just odd enough to have done some of both, but (because mystery is my first love) I've written a lot more genre stories than literary. Also, as one genre writer said, I'm not smart enough to write a story that's hard to read.

What are your takes, on these issues? Are you an outliner? Do you prefer self-publishing over the hassle of finding a good "business partner"? Do you prefer past tense or present? First-person or third? Do you send your work out to more than one market at the same time? Do you edit as you go? What are some of the other do-or-don't-do questions you get asked, at signings or speaking events?

Vive la difference.

23 January 2017

Break It, Fix It, Break It, Fix It Again

Last time, I listed several books that helped me write better. They all tell what to do in order to write more effectively, but no book can tell you how to do it. That's a personal thing.

Grad school rekindled my long buried urge to write, and over the next nine years, I wrote five atrocious novels. All I can say is that I learned to produce junk more quickly. When it came time to produce a thesis/project for my sixth-year degree at Wesleyan, I decided to rewrite one of those train wrecks based on what I'd already learned from hundreds of mistakes.

I chose Dr. Joseph Reed as my adviser, partly because I knew he didn't give a rat's ass about hurting my feelings. When I phoned to ask him if he would be my adviser, he said, "Probably not, but come in tomorrow and we'll discuss it."

Because of his response, I did two things I'd never done before. I wrote a 2-page summary (Now I know enough to call it a synopsis) and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the events in my story.
Joe looked them over as though he saw checkmate in three moves. When he learned that I wrote everything out longhand and re-typed it for him--this was 1980, pre-computers--he shook his head.

"You're wasting time," he said. "Compose at the typewriter and don't worry about typos. You're going to revise everything to death anyway."

An outline and typing the first draft changed my process radically. Between 2003 when I retired from teaching and started writing full-time, few other changes merit discussion. But here they are.

Jodi Picault once said that a writer must learn to write on demand, and that's another skill nobody can teach you. Stephen King and other writers set word count goals--King's is 2000 words a day--and I forced myself to do that, too. It didn't matter if 1999 of them were crap, I wrote until I reached that number. Some days, I finished by noon and other days I wrote until midnight, but after a few years, I knew I could sit down at the keyboard and produce two or three pages of semi-coherent English is an hour.

Now, I generally write a few paragraphs in the morning and go to the health club if I get stuck. While I sweat on an arc trainer, my mind runs free to figure where I'm going next. But I don't have to write in the morning. Remember that write on demand thing? I wrote the first draft of this essay at 4 pm.

Do you outline just because your teacher told you to do it in school? If so, have you found a more flexible way to do it? If you do some form of pre-writing, is it words, diagrams, phrases, or something else? What really works best for you? I used to doodle on separate sheets of paper and move them around to figure out my basic plot and character relationships, but now I use a dry marker board. At the end of the day, I photograph it and stick it in my picture files so I can start with a fresh board the next day and still refer to the previous work.

The only other major change is my outline/synopsis. Somewhere in those years of wood-shedding, I started doing what the screenwriters would probably call a verbal story board. I list fifty scenes in order. The character name in bold type is the POV character, and I tell the essential action/change of the scene in a sentence or two. The number at the end is its order in the MS.

The storyboard tells me where I need to do research and shows if I have too many expository or action scenes together so pace is an issue. It takes me several weeks to develop fifty scenes (although I'm getting faster) and that's my first draft. Writing those scenes out as real prose is my second draft, and always shows where I've left something out, repeated something, or put events or information in the wrong order. I correct the scene list ("Chronology" in my terminology) as I go, each change a "save as." By the time I have my first full MS, I'm usually on at least the twelfth draft of the scene list. That continues through the next several drafts, and my record is 31 scene lists.

That first full MS has to come fast because that's how I find the rhythm of the story. It helps me feel when a scene is in the wrong place. I wrote the first "full" version of Dark Gonna Catch Me Here in 33 days (I didn't plan it, it just gushed out that way) and it had over 92,000 words and 57 scenes. The final version a year later lost four of those scenes, added an new one, added another POV character, and cut about 8000 words.

Through my first four or five drafts, each scene revision is a separate word file: Scene 1-A, Scene 1-B, Scene 1-C, Scene 2-A, Scene 2-B, etc. I keep them separate because it's easier to change the order by renumbering a five or six page scene than it is to cut and paste in a 300-page document. If Scene 12-C needs to move, "Save As" gives me Scene 22-D.

None of this means you should do it, too. But if you're in a rut or things aren't working, maybe put a few new parts in the machine and see what happens.

Do you write at a particular time of day because you need to get to work or the kids have to be in school? If not, try earlier or later. Try in a different room. Walk around outside before you write, or go to the gym, or listen to some music. Do you write with music? Try a different kind (baroque instead of jazz, for example) or silence. Do you hear the words better?

If you normally outline, write a scene or two without planning and see what happens. If you don't outline, try it. This is a huge change, and it's hard, but you might discover something.

Try writing character bios for your main characters before writing your story. Figure out what's at stake or what that character's weakness is. I do bios for my major characters and have a file so I have ages and major events consistent (like when Zach Barnes stopped drinking or Chris Guthrie almost lost his leg in the shoot-out), but the minor characters change as I need them, especially names.

Try writing in pencil or roller ball or ballpoint or fountain pen (my fave for early planning) or even crayon or dry marker instead of the keyboard. If you write longhand, go to the keyboard first.

Do you write a few pages, then go back and revise before moving on? Try writing the whole work before you go back. If you usually do a complete draft, try revising scene by scene.

Do you have a word or page goal for the day? What happens if you raise or lower it? What if you write a scene instead of a word count? If one scene is four pages long and the next one is ten, can you still do it? That's my only solid rule now, I have to write the complete scene in a day because the rhythm won't sustain overnight. My scenes average about 1600 words, so if I write one a day, that's about 50,000 words a month (Hello, NANO). And I no longer have to write every day. The point of the fast and messy first draft is that it gives me something to fix. A first draft is like a block of marble: once you have it, you have to chip away the excess to make a statue of an elephant. Or Michaelangelo's David.

When I finished that MS in 1980, Dr. Reed encouraged me to send it out, and it collected a stack of rejections. I knew I'd revise it yet again someday--when I'd learned more craft. When I looked at it again a few years ago, I understood that the opening dragged because the important subplot took a long time to develop. Re-sequencing with several overlapping flashbacks helped, but that created another problem. For the first time, I listed all the events in the story in chronological order before I wrote the new outline so I could keep the back-story coherent. I've only done that with two other books (one of them is currently a WIP) because they had more history to them than usual.

I added a couple of scenes and expanded one character, but beyond the re-sequencing that demanded some new transitions, at least eighty percent of that book is what I wrote in 1980. That astonished me. I finally self-published Postcards of the Hanging (Another Bob Dylan allusion and not the title from back then) in 2014, 34 years after it was a thesis and 42 years after the first version began in the back of a spiral notebook.

Gotta keep it fresh, right? My next project is to learn to write with my left hand...while standing on my head.

What have you changed since you started writing? What do you wish worked better?

20 August 2016

Outliners Take Note--Don't Call Me a Pantser!

NOTE: I'm pleased today to welcome Elizabeth Zelvin as a guest blogger. Liz is, she says, a semi-dormant SleuthSayer ("Like writers in general, we never retire"), and she's the author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series: five novels and five stories published, plus two additional stories accepted for publication. Her short stories have been nominated twice for the Derringer and three times for the Agatha Award. Other publications include two historical novels, two books of poetry, an album of original songs, and a book on gender and addictions. Liz lives in New York City and can be found online at, on Facebook at and on Amazon. Good to have you here, Liz!--John Floyd

Having completed the first draft of a new short story and feeling mighty good about it, I got to thinking about my personal creative process, with which I've become fairly well acquainted over the years. I call myself an into-the-mist writer, because when I sit down to tell a story--we're talking fiction here, whether long or short--I can see only a little way ahead of me. I have to peer into the dimness to see my way, and what comes beyond the limited compass of my headlights is a mystery. In fact, it's an act of faith to trust that there's something there, and believe me, I have many moments of doubt.

The image that comes to me when I say the words "into the mist" is a drive I once took along the Blue Ridge Parkway on a foggy summer morning. My husband was with me, but he is a New Yorker born and bred who came to cars late in life, and at the time, I was still the family's only driver. There was supposed to be a scenic view of mountains off to the side, but we literally saw only the gray wedge in our low beams, which revealed swirls of mist, a hint of the winding road, and once a doe escorting a couple of fawns.

That's what writing the first draft of a story or a novel is like for me. I can see a glimpse of where I need to go next. I have a few ideas--like notes in a guide book--of features that may show up along the way ahead. But I'm never sure that I'll get where I'm supposed to be until I get there. When I do, there's no mistaking it. It's my destination, all right. I heave a big sigh of relief--and buckle down to the much easier business of killing my darlings and cleaning up the mess.

I've tried to write the other way: planning in advance, laying it all out neatly. It doesn't work. My creative process starts with my characters talking in my head. (Well, my husband says it starts with "I can't"--but after that.) Anyhow, I can't plan the jabber of those unruly characters. I'm not in the driver's seat. Bruce's wisecracks and Barbara's enthusiasm are a gift from the muse or whatever you want to call it. It happens, and it's the best feeling in the world. All I can do is make a beeline for my laptop or my Post-its or the voice recorder on my iPhone, whatever's handy, and start writing down what they say.

Once my characters start talking to each other, their conversation shapes the course of the narrative, even if I know in a general way where the story is going to end up. My series characters all have strong personalities, and it doesn't take much for them to start talking and acting exactly like themselves. The secondary characters in a particular story spring up as needed. They become my suspects and witnesses and law enforcement folks with their own personalities and ways of reacting to the situations I put them in and the characters they meet. They only come to life because I don't try to stuff them into some preset mold.

One of my favorite true stories from my historical novel about Columbus's voyage in 1493 is how one of the Spanish priests who accompanied the expedition went around Hispaniola collecting what he called folktales from the Taino, the indigenous people. When he got back to Spain, he published a collection of these tales. Like most authors, he was very proud of his book. These simple people have such charming folktales, he said. What a pity that they have no religion! The point, of course, is that the Taino were telling him about their religion all along.

That's kind of the way I feel when writers whose creative process involves outlining call writers like me "pantsers," a term that I consider demeaning. Who are they to dismiss my creative process as "flying by the seat of my pants"? It's my process, and believe me, there are no pants involved--no recklessness or lack of thought, merely an equally valid and effective way of summoning creativity, however different from theirs. So don't call me a pantser!

29 August 2015

OPs and No-OPs

by John M. Floyd

I have read with great interest the recent SleuthSayers columns by Melissa, Jan, and others on the subject of outlining. It's a fascinating topic, and at the risk of beating a dead horse, I'd like to offer a few more views.

First, let me--like Donald Trump--clearly state my position. I always outline my fiction. Having said that, I should point out that I don't usually outline it on paper. I write mostly short stories, so I outline them mentally. But believe me, the result is still an outline, and I depend on that pre-determined structure to guide me through the writing of the story.

Decisions, decisions

I should mention several other things as well.  The first is, I don't choose to outline rather than fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. For me, it's not a choice. I outline because I have to--I couldn't do it any other way. Well, I suppose I could, but if I did, it would take me much longer because I'd go down all kinds of wrong paths and have to constantly retrace my steps and start over again. Life's too short for that.

Another thing. Although I always have an outline in my mind when I begin writing (in fact I never write a word until I'm pretty sure I know where the story's going), I often wind up changing the outline during the writing process. Sometimes I think of a better ending, or an additional character or two, or a reversal in the middle that adds something to the plot, etc. So my outline, unlike my head, isn't rock-hard. But I do have to have a map spread out on the dashboard before I start my trip.

And yes, I do plan things all the way to the end. I don't necessarily plot backwards from the end, as I've heard some folks do, but I have to know the conclusion before I begin. Again, it might change during the course of the journey--I might travel a little farther than I'd thought I would, or make detours, or stop a little sooner than planned--but I feel that knowing that destination before I start out helps keep me on course throughout the story.

Sneak peeks

Unlike my friend Janice Law--who is a wonderful writer, by the way--it doesn't bore me to "know" ahead of time what I'll be writing about. I've also never felt that that prior knowledge stifles my creativity. Instead, it gives me a feeling of security, an assurance that I won't stray too far off the path. Besides, the process of pre-plotting is probably (can you say "alliteration"?) the most enjoyable part of the writing experience, for me. I love coming up with the storyline. Since it's done in my head and not on paper, I don't go into painful detail with this mental preview, but I do spend a lot of time putting it together, and--again--when it's done, the framework is there for me to build on.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying outlining is the only way to go, or that you should do it. Or even try to do it. In fact, I agree with another comment Janice made recently, in a different post: she said every writer must do whatever works best for him or her. We're all different. I think the need to outline or not is already wired into our brains, and that circuitry would be difficult--maybe impossible--to change. Some of us are always early to appointments and some are always late; some are night-owls, some are early risers; some of us squeeze the toothpaste tube from the end and some don't, or prefer the toilet paper hanging forward over the roll instead of backward, and so forth. Same thing applies here. You're an outline person or you're not (author James Scott Bell says you're either an OP or a No-OP). I've even heard that engineers, programmers, accountants, etc., are more likely than "ordinary" people to be OPs. Maybe that's my excuse.

Truth be told, I respect and envy those writers who don't find it necessary to plan things out beforehand, who just sit down and start typing away with no idea where things are going from there. How convenient that must be. I also envy their confidence, that things will turn out well. That ain't me. If I did that, I'm fairly confident things would not turn out well. And I confess that I find myself a little suspicious of famous writers who insist in interviews that they never, ever outline their fiction in any way or to any degree. My response would be that veteran writers have been through the process so many times that indeed they probably don't need a blueprint anymore in order to build the house. The plan is probably in their heads whether they realize it or not.

The same old song-and-dance

You know what I'm going to ask. Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Do you ever go halfway, and plan only the beginning, or a few plot points, and then free-wheel the rest? Have you ever tried or seen the need to change your approach? If you're a No-OP, do you ever find yourself taking the wrong path, maybe to a blind alley? If you're an OP, is your outline on paper or just in your mind?

Either way, I wish you good writing and successful narratives.

And don't touch my toothpaste tube!

NOTE: My friend Art Taylor, who I'm pleased to announce will be permanently joining us at SleuthSayers in October, will be guest-posting in my slot on Saturday, September 5. I don't know if he's an outliner or not, but he's a fantastic writer. Be sure to stop in for his column next week.

03 August 2015

With a Little Help From My Friends

Mystery Author Jan Grape

When I'm writing fiction, I don't outline because I'm a seat-of-the-pants style writer. I also hate writing synopses. Recently, I had to write a synopsis for a Short Story. Now I'm having trouble writing the story. Any of y'all have a suggestion on how to unblock my muse?

I posted this statement yesterday on my author page and on my home page, tagging several published writers that I thought might have some idea for me. The responses were fantastic and I thought it would be a good idea to share.

Jan Burke: Next time use the old Nora Roberts trick--write the story, then the synopsis. (She did this book after book to make her editor happy. When the editor realized what was going on, she told Nora to stop bothering with the synopses.) For this one, tell yourself the truth--you don't have to follow the synopsis at all. It has nothing to do with you anymore. I promise you, if the story is good, no editor worth his or her salt will turn it down.

Nancy Pickard: Amen. Why did you "have" to write the synopsis, Jan? You don't have to say, I'm just nosy.

Alafair Burke: ^^^^Jan Burke is smart.

Billie Sue Mosiman: Jan Burke has the best advice possible.

Will Thornton: Always do it your way, Jan Grape. We don't do this for our sole income and living. It's therapy and very personal.

Ron Tatar: Sometimes I just let it sit, and when I come back to it I see things I missed. Once I looked at a scene I had written on a script, and realized that in ONE line of dialogue I had three key characters that hadn't been key before. Two got into the main character's goal and the other one the reason he was doing what he was doing. I was thrilled that what I missed was already there and I just had to find it.

Paul D. Marks: I agree with Jan (Burke), write the story first. I hate doing synopses or treatments. I have a lot of little tricks I do, take drives, listen to music, walk. Once when I was having trouble with something, I went down to Palm Desert and hung by the pool all day, wrote all night. But the real key for me anyway, is to just sit at the keyboard and write. Just let your characters talk and walk and it doesn't matter if you end up using any or all or none of it. You're getting to know them and see them in action. Eventually you'll break through--(I just happened to do a blog post for the Criminal Minds a few weeks ago if you want to check it out.)

Brendan DuBois: It seems like the act of writing the synopsis tossed you off--so I'd put the synopsis in the shredder, start fresh and just do it.

Robert Lopresti: I was going to say what Brendan said, but I also point out the piece Brendan wrote in the latest issue of The Third Degree, if you receive that. Some helpful hints there.

Les Roberts: Jan Grape and Jan Burke - as you both know, I've been good friends with Robert Crais for twenty-five years. One night, back in the day, we were talking over drinks and he said he always writes at least a sixty-page outline before he begins writing his book. I told him my "outline" is approximately two paragraphs about the plot, which I then put into a drawer and never read again. I told him while he was writing his sixty-page outline and or synopsis I was busy writing the first sixty pages of my book. I dunno - he's a GREAT writer and I really respect what he does - but for me, outlining just doesn't work.

Kathy Waller: Trying to outline makes me nervous. Tony Hillerman didn't outline. Said he couldn't. Good enough for me.

Jill D'Aubery: The one and only time I ever attempted to outline or synopsis a story and then write the thing I got as far as five pages into the actual writing when the characters took over and what was  going to be a humorous spy story with a ghost spy from the 19th century helping a modern day spy became a full-on unamusing, rather violent thriller with no ghosts at all. No suggestions. Just get the synopsis out of your head and ask the characters what's going on with the story. Then do what you always do - by the seat of your pants.

Louise Stone: Relax in a comfortable room, with a tape recorder, close your eyes; take deep breaths to fully relax, and let your mind wander on the subject of the story. Something will come.

Jan Grape: All these suggestions/ideas were excellent. And I did actually get to the bottom of y problem, thanks to something Nancy said, "Why did you HAVE to write the synopsis?"
As I thought about that I discovered what I think had happened. This was a new editor and I suppose the editor thought I needed to show that I was capable of writing a decent short story since I'd never done a story for this editor before. I think that by thinking the editor might not think I was capable somehow got stuck in my subconscious. My inner self was doubtful that I was capable. Silly me, I know. I know I'm capable. I won an Anthony Award for Best Short Story for goodness sake. Other stories I've written have been chosen for more than one anthology. I've been nominated and won other awards. I know I can do it. Thanks, Nancy, for asking that question and thanks, Jan and Brendan for reminding me I don't have to follow that synopsis. And thanks to Everyone for great ideas and suggestions. And for my friends, Amber, who said on my author page that I could smoke pot or have a glass of wine to help. To Jeff Baker, who wished he could do a "half-asshat synopsis. And to my sister, Sharla, who reminded me that somehow to just go back to my story idea before I was rudely interrupted by writing the synopsis and go for it.
And to my friend Les Roberts, who reminded me of his four word advice to aspiring writers: Shut Up and Write. Good advice for all of us. Now back to my story which is moving along nicely.

16 December 2013

I, A, B, II, A, (1) (2) (a),(b) B

If you've heard this before, and some of you have, now's the time to go for another cup of coffee. Please come back with it because before this ends I'm going to tell you how and why I used an outline for the first time when writing a book.

Last year, my grandson's language arts teacher told the class, "All writers plan their works with graphic organizers or outlines."

Aeden's hand shot up and he responded, "Not all of them."

"Yes, real writers do."

"But my G-Mama doesn't."

To shorten this story, the class wound up Googling me to satisfy the teacher that Aeden's grandmother really does write professionally.
Grandson is now
a teenager.

Aeden insisted that I don't use organizers and outlines, but the teacher still made the students all use the graphic organizer sheet she'd printed.

My classroom days are over, and I agree some of the forms used in classes no doubt help develop better student writers. Some of them address plot; some, characterization; some, setting; some, literary devices; some, other topics ad nauseam.

Frequently the forms are cute and most kids like cute much better than the old outline form with its capital letters, lower case letters, Roman and Arabic numerals that was used when I was in elementary school.

In my personal opinion, a lot of what's being used is too restrictive, even for students. Aeden's accelerated LA instructor this year sometimes uses forms requiring the writers to use a metaphor in the first paragraph, onomatopoeia in the second, direct quotations in the third, and on and on and on.

So where am I headed with all this? I haven't used an outline or, heaven forbid, a mimeographed graphic organizer sheet since I was a kid... until this year!

I started the first Callie book with a nursery rhyme, stuck a casket in it, and produced a title. (A Tisket, a Tasket, A FANCY STOLEN CASKET) I then thought of an ending. I wanted to have the protagonist wind up locked in a casket, and I actually wrote the climatic chapter first. After that, it was easy to start from the beginning and write until I reached the ending.

That pattern worked for the next four books, but the sixth required me to actually have a plan, an outline of sorts.

This time, the idea wasn't a nursery rhyme, but a song--"The Twelve Days of Christmas." The full title naturally was On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me A CASKET UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE. I wanted to relate it to the song, so I Googled and printed out the traditional words. That led to wanting to sing it, so my sons and grandson began making up lines that fit the melody but were related to mystery or crime or the South. I decided to use them as chapter headings. We came up with twelve presents to use. Here they are:

Everyone knows the pattern. It begins with the first verse:
On the first day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me,
A corpse under the Christmas tree.
The second verse is:
On the second day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me,
Two broken hearts,
And a corpse under the Christmas tree
Each additional verse adds a new present and then repeats all the previous gifts. At the end, it goes like this:
On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me
Twelve eggs a’nogging
Eleven axes grinding,
Ten turkeys trotting,
Nine guns a’smoking,
Eight collards cooking,
Seven doggies howling,
Six tongues a’wagging,
Five stolen rings,
Four falling flakes,
Three red wreaths,
Two broken hearts,
And a corpse under the Christmas tree
I had an outline--not with all those letters and numbers, but a plan. I decided each chapter should be twenty to twenty-five pages to make twelve chapters add up to novel length. Later I added recipes for my friends who laugh at recipes and knitting patterns in cozies and also because my agent likes for the Callie books to run between 80,000 and 85,000 words.

Next task: Develop an overall plot using chapters appropriate to their titles. I confess it took some thought, but I managed it and made one-line notes for each chapter. Then I wrote A Corpse Under the Christmas Tree. I can now say I've written a book essentially from an outline.

Currently I'm not working on a Callie, and I've reverted back to my favorite kind of writing. I call it "falling into the page." Stephen King describes it this way:

Until we meet again, take care of!

30 April 2013

Journaling and Outlining

This column continues threads from (read "leans heavily on") two recent posts, one by Brian Thornton on journal keeping and one by John Floyd on outlining. I'm both a journal keeper and an outliner, and I don't know which is more important to my writing. Prior to reading the aforementioned posts, I probably would have said that outlining was a defining characteristic of my approach to mystery writing, while journaling was merely a secondary or even incidental one, like my preference for writing in longhand. (It was good enough for Cervantes.) After all, you can divide a group of writers into warring camps--or at least into debating teams--by mentioning outlining. Journal keeping doesn't provoke that kind of response. But since considering Brian and John's posts together, I've come to see how fundamental journaling is to my work habits, in part because it makes my outlining possible.

As as aside, I have to say that, like John, I've always enjoyed hearing writers talk about the nuts and bolts of writing. I don't even mind the rare occasions when a writer bangs the podium and insists that there's only one right way to do something. When I hear "this is the way," I always mentally translate it into "this is what works for me." And when I speak to a group of aspiring writers, I always tell them to make the same mental translation if I should pound the podium, though that would be wildly out of character.

As an aside to the last aside, it fascinates me that writers seem to outline or not because of some inherent predisposition. You may be able to influence a few fence sitters, but most writers are firmly in one or the other pasture. Great writers reside on both sides of the fence. My favorite examples are two Southern novelists who happened to be friends, Shelby Foote (outliner) and Walker Percy (non-outliner), and two mystery writers who happen to be friends, Peter Lovesey (outliner) and Michael Z. Lewin (non-outliner). Their photos are reproduced here in the order named. You may notice that the outliners (on the left) appear less stressed and more serene in general. (I refuse to comment on the respective hairlines of the two pairs, but I can't stop you from drawing your own conclusions.)

I start my writing day with my journal, a spiral bound notebook. If I'm at work on a book or a short story, I record my progress from the day before (pat myself on the back) and write about the new day's challenges. From there, if I'm lucky, I move right from the notebook to my latest yellow legal pad and start the actual writing. This priming of the pump or stretching of the writing muscles is one of the things I value most about keeping a journal. It's a non-threatening way to get the pencil moving, a defense against the writer's-block-inducing pressure of writing for posterity right out of bed.

My journal is a writer's block defense in another way, of course. It's a storehouse for book and story ideas. If I'm not writing a book or a story, my journal entry will probably be about a new idea or a reconsideration of an old one. Some ideas demand to be written fairly quickly. Others are improved by "blue skying," a term I picked up from software designers back when I was a technical writer. For me, blue skying is simply kicking an idea around, asking questions like "What if X happens?" or "What would Y do then?" until the story starts to take shape. Brian mentioned that he sometimes writes himself into a corner when he's working on a story. That sometimes happens to me in the idea development process, and this is also when I back out of the corner, if I can. (If I can't, it's on to the next idea and no hard feelings.)

At this point, if the idea is for a short story, I'll probably just write a first draft. For a book idea, I'll next write a step outline, also in my journal. It's just one line for each major event (usually a chapter) of the novel-to-be. This process will be interrupted by more blue skying as I encounter breaks in my plot chain that require new links. Say I'm writing a book for Owen Keane, my ex-seminarian amateur sleuth. My questions to myself will now be "What does Owen believe to be true at this moment?" and "Believing that, what would he do?"

Next, I turn to the legal pad and write an outline--by which I mean a plot summary--cribbing from the plot notes and character sketches in my journal. My mystery novels average around 75,000 words. My plot summary for a book that length will run around 6,000 words. When it's time to write the book, I place the outline in the three-ring binder that will hold my daily pages. Now the outline is not only a prompt to my memory; it's also yet another anti-writer's-block device. I never have to figure out what Keane is going to do on a given day, though I may still have to work out exactly how he'll do it. For example, the outline may only tell me that Owen has to interview the manager of an apartment complex to find out what happens to the belongings of a tenant who skips out (and maybe wheedle access to those belongings). On the day I write that scene, I still have to come up with an interesting setting, cast the part of the manager, and write some deathless repartee. (And make lunch.)

To me, this process answers one of the common criticisms of outlining, which is that it's somehow less creative than simply following one's muse. That might be true if I were getting my outlines from Plots "R" Us or producing them using a complicated formula and a calculator. In reality, I acquire an outline by--gasp--following my muse. I'm just recording a high level or macro view of that muse's traipsing around. In fact, I see outlining as being creative of the macro level and writing the book as being creative on the micro level. But I'm always being creative. (Except when I'm making lunch. If it's turkey on rye on Monday, it's turkey on rye every day that week.)

A second criticism of outlining--one that John mentioned in his post--is harder to answer. It's the fear some non-outliners have that they will lose interest in a story if they know how it ends. Such a writer is motivated by the suspense of not knowing. For a certain type of storyteller, though (and perhaps the Irish are overrepresented in this group), there is something compelling about knowing the story you're telling, knowing where every shock and laugh is, knowing that the payoff is worth the effort of the telling. Think back to some favorite story you love to tell (the one that makes your children or grandchildren elbow each other and roll their eyes or, perhaps, lean forward in anticipation). Writing from a solid outline gives the same kind of satisfaction.

Where I think the chase-the-muse writers may have a true advantage is in the all-important matter of pacing. But that's a subject for another post.

13 April 2013

Flying Blind or Outlined?

by John M. Floyd

I've always enjoyed hearing writers talk about the process of writing. Everyone seems to have different ways of getting ideas, describing settings, using dialogue, developing characters and plots, even rewriting and marketing.

Last week at this blog, Rob Lopresti posted what I thought was a fascinating column about the way he constructs a short story. He first writes the parts that are the most important and enjoyable (to him), and fills in the other parts later. I also read with interest the comment by our new colleague Terence Faherty, which mentioned his preference for outlining. And although I'd never thought about it before, I realized then that I use a combination of those two techniques. I always do an outline and I also always write my favorite parts first--the opening and the ending, usually, and a few scenes in the middle--and, as Rob said, build a bridge between the islands. Rob and Terry both turn out great stories, so I feel I'm doing at least a few things right. (I also like to use lists similar to those that R.T. Lawton talked about in his column yesterday--devious minds do indeed think alike.)

The question of whether to outline or to fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants has always been interesting to me both as a writer and a teacher. In my fiction-writing courses my students are usually divided equally, on that subject. Some are outliners and some are freewheelers, and I never ever try to steer them away from their chosen path--mainly because I don't think it's chosen at all; I think our brains are just wired either one way or the other. Some folks need to begin with a blank slate and let their creativity run wild, and others need to have that preconceived structure firmly in mind before they start writing.

Thinking inside the box

I've always said, at this blog and at Criminal Brief, that I'm an outliner. Not because I want to be--I actually admire those who can start from scratch and see their story develop as they go, never knowing what's around the next corner. I'm an outliner only because I wouldn't be able to do it any other way.

I often hear writer friends say they outline their novels but not their short stories, because the stories are, well, short. I maintain that if you're an outliner you're an outliner, period. The difference is, the outline for a novel is almost always written out, whereas the outline for a short story might be solely in your head. My short stories are always outlined that way--I map out the plot in my mind, all the way through to the ending, for several days or even several weeks before I begin writing. The plot might change as the actual writing is done, and usually does, but that unwritten layout of the story is always in place beforehand. It's just the way I have to do it.

Unplugging the GPS

As an outliner and primarily a "genre" writer, I was surprised to learn that many of my favorite genre authors (Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and others) have stated that they never outline their work before they start writing. King has said he enjoys not knowing what will happen before it flows from his pen or keyboard, and Leonard has said the same. I respect their views, but I suspect that they do in fact outline to some degree. After writing so many successful novels and stories, I imagine they have a pretty good idea of what the storyline will be and how it will flow, when they start out. After a while, that kind of thing becomes second nature. If you've hiked the same woods over and over for many years you probably don't need a map anymore, and--as I believe Loren Estleman once said--if you've built a thousand houses, number 1001 can probably be finished without your having to rely on a blueprint.

Authors can sometimes go to extremes as well, where outlining is concerned. I once heard a famous writer say his novel outlines sometimes run two hundred pages or more. To me, that doesn't sound like an outline at all; it sounds like a first draft. And the late Robert B. Parker said he liked to compromise, and do a pseudo-outline, maybe of certain parts of the novel. Whatever the case, I'm a believer in doing what works for the individual writer, however different and/or crazy that might be. Forgive the cliche, but if it ain't broke don't fix it.

Holding the course

A quick word about one of the biggest criticisms of outlining. Many think that once a writer knows what happens in his story, his interest in the story flies right out the window, and he loses the incentive to keep writing it. I don't feel that way. Knowing my ending ahead of time ensures that I won't put anything in the story that doesn't point toward that ending. I'm also one of those odd folks who truly enjoy the process of rewriting and polishing a story, so it doesn't bother me to put up the framework first and then hammer merrily away at a half-finished structure.

Besides, I didn't major in writing in college. I majored in engineering. How could I not want to plan my stories out beforehand?


This has been asked before, but now that we have new SleuthSayers in the fold, and hopefully new readers as well, I'll ask it again: if you're a writer, are you an outliner or a blank-pager? And why do you like your side of that fence?

Either way, I hope you write a zillion stories and sell every one.