October 18, 2018 / 3 Comments

Chalk Outlines

Oh, hey, it’s Thursday again.

A few weeks back I asked for possible topic ideas and somebody mentioned outlines.  It’s a good topic, and a good time for it since I’m early into a new book.

Fair warning up front.  This whole post is very much going to follow the golden rule.  Outlining is an intensely personal process, and it changes from author to author and even from project to project.  Figuring out what works best for me (or you) might take four or five or twenty attempts.

Hey, nobody said this was going to be quick and easy.

Nobody who knew what they were talking about, anyway…

Outlines are tricky things.  Depending on who you ask, they’re the most important part of the process or a complete waste of time.  They just need to be a few rough lines of notes or pages and pages of meticulously planned out beats.  They can make things incredibly restrictive or let me spit out pages without a moment of hesitation. 

As I mentioned above, I think outlines are incredibly personal.  I’ve talked once or thrice before about how everyone has their own method when it comes to storytelling.  Maybe outlines are part of that method.  Maybe they’re not.

A good analogy—one that’s going to come up a lot here—is travel plans.  There are lots of different ways to travel.  Some of them might make perfect sense to you.  Some of them might be terrifying.  Again, it’s all about what works for you.

So let me blab about how outlines fit into my method a bit.

Or how they’ve fit over time.

First, there’s a pair of terms you may have heard before—plotters and pantsers. It’s (supposedly) the two big groups writers can get divided into.  Plotters are the folks who plan everything out in advance.  Pantsers make it up as they go along—by the seat of their pants.  Get it?  Hahaa, funny stuff. 

This is pretty simplistic, though, and I’ve had a couple discussions with other writers about the problems with such basic classifications.

I started out as a pantser.  I’d sit down at the keyboard and just type and type and type.  New characters, plot points, subplots… the book just went where it went, y’know.  This was how a lizard man from the center of the Earth ended up finding a crystal cave and wielding Excalibur.  Yes, that Excalibur.

Granted, I hadn’t even hit puberty yet.  But even after I did, most of my attempts at writing were usually just me coming up with one clever idea, starting at a point that I knew would take me straight to that idea, and filling in the rest as I went along.

And there’s nothing really wrong with that method.  It’s kinda like grabbing that special someone, throwing some clothes in a bag, and just going.  Pick a direction and drive.  Choose a flight at the airport.  Just go and see where you end up.

I still remember when I made the next big leap in my sophomore year of college.  A lunch conversation with a woman I was dating sparked an idea for a story about an immortal wandering the world.  Which sparked the story of another immortal.  Which implied a third.  And suddenly I realized this would be the beginning of a really cool book.

A week or so later, in the midst of writing all this down, it struck me that I had no idea what this book would actually be about.  I knew the characters, had cool origin stories for them, but past that… 

So, for the first time, I sat down and figured out—in advance—more or less how this story was going to end.  I came up with a pretty solid idea what actions the heroes and villains would be taking on the final page.  Who was going to win.  Who was going to lose.  Even a clever denouement.  And I knew it was a denouement because I’d just learned that term a few weeks earlier.

This is the slightly more planned trip, if we want to keep using that analogy.  Also in college, one of my best friends and I talked about driving cross-country after graduation.  We knew we wanted to end in California, but past that…  The rough plan was just grab clothes, maybe cameras, and go west.  Probably in her car, which was much more suited to a roadtrip than mine.  We knew eventually we’d hit California and the Pacific and who knows what along the way.

We never ended up going.

Anyway… time passes.

My next big outlining leap was kind of a bookkeeping thing.  I tended to scribble out five or six key plot points, but kept most of the story in my head.  Even with big, novel-sized projects.  When I decided I really wanted to start taking this seriously, one thing I started doing was writing everything down.  Every plot point, every idea, every snippet of action or page of dialogue.  When I finally sat down to write, I’d already have five or six pages of jumbled… stuff.  I might spend an afternoon putting it into a rough order and then—done.  Outline.

If we want to stick with our road trip analogy, this is when we know we’re taking the southern route across the USon our way to Los Angeles.  We’re also going to be stopping in Gracelandand Roswell.  A pretty good idea of direction with a few markers along the way.

Again, perfectly acceptable method.   Fine way to do things.  The first four books I sold (sold for actual money) were all written that way.  My book -14- had a little over eight pages of notes, and that included two and a half pages of character sketches. 

It was right around this time that I ended up with Crown Publishing (a division of Random House) and became a writer with a contract.  I mean, I’d had contracts before, but this was the first time the contract came first.  Everything I’d done up until this point had essentially been on spec, me writing the book at whatever pace I wanted and then hammering out a deal afterwards. 

What I was really dealing with now was a schedule.  A timetable of when things had to be done.  This wasn’t just about me anymore.  People had given me large advances based on the idea I could stick to these schedules.

My first contract with Crown was rough.  Exciting, but rough.  I ignored a lot because holy crap I was a Random House author now!!! 

My second contract…

I’ve got to be honest, the second one was brutal.  I’m still kinda aching from it.  Aching in that “Maybe I shouldn’t’ve asked Conor McGregor if he wanted to step outside” way.  It was about two years of near-constant stress trying to get through three books, start to finish.

And to be very clear—it wasn’t about them.  Despite what you may hear on some sites, the folks at Crown weren’t evil taskmasters or uncaring overlords or anything like that.  Hell, my editor gave me extra time whenever I even hinted at needing it.  he wanted the best book they could get.  Of course, extra time on book one meant I was getting into book two later, so I’d have less time for that…  But still, that was all me.  He was fantastic and accommodating pretty much every time an issue came up.  Everyone there was.  So don’t even think of using this as evidence of how “mean and demanding” traditional publishers can be.  It was absolutely, 100% nothing of the sort.

No, all that stress was on me.  My ambling, feeling-things-out-as-I-go method of writing was fine when I could go at my own pace.  But now I was on a schedule.  Those spaces in the outline where I still needed to figure things out had to be a lot smaller, because I just didn’t have time for them.

So—with some gentle prodding from my agent—I started doing larger outlines.  Now I actually figured out the majority of the story points and plot beats and character arcs in advance.  All the twists.  I had to have an ending—an entire ending—mapped out.

If we want to fall back on travel plans, this is when you’re going past “plans” and into more of an itinerary.  Things are mapped out hour-to-hour now.  Most notably, when you’re done traveling.  I just had that trip to Texas last weekend and honestly… having a full itinerary set up for me was kind of comforting.  Of course, my mom tried doing a family trip like this for us when I was twelve and it was… well, a bit less than fun.

My first couple outlines like this were just shy of twenty pages.  And really, that’s nothing.  The book I’m working on right now has a forty-two page outline.  I’ve got the next book about 2/3 plotted and it’s already close to thirty.

Want to hear impressive?  Back when I was doing a lot of screenwriting interviews, I talked with  Tony Gilroy about his script for Duplicity.  He had, by his guess, a sixty page outline.  For what would eventually be a120-130 page screenplay.  He had the whole thing nailed down.

And to be clear, this took time.  Lots of time.  It flexes different mental muscles to be examining the story in a much more clinical way.  And twice I had to junk half my work and start again.  A week or so of work—gone.

I spent about three months last year working on a handful of outlines (one of which I may never do anything with, after all that hammering and rewriting)

To be honest… I’m still not entirely sure I could say outlining saves time.  It may cut four or five weeks off the writing time, but if I spent four or five weeks working on the outline… well, it all just balances out, doesn’t it?

I guess we’ll have to revisit this six or seven months from now.

Again, please don’t take this as me saying you have to use this last method if you want to be a successful writer.  There are no such guarantees and  it’s all going to vary from person to person.  Like I just said, I’m still not 100% sure it’s going to help mebe  successful.  You may try a few of these versions before you figure out which one works for you.  Or you may find a different one altogether.

So think about the path you want to take.

Next time… I’d like to talk about why this is all happening.  To be more exact, why it’s all happening right now.

Until then, go write.

March 8, 2018 / 7 Comments

Step 1: Collect The Underpants

            Whoa!  A relevant pop culture title. First one in ages!
            Okay, there’s an issue that pops up at the Coffeehouse now and then.  Someone sent me a message about it on Facebook a week or three back, too.  And it’s something I’ve kinda had in the back of my mind to mention again.
            It takes a couple different forms, but what this usually boils down to is keeping enthusiasm up for writing.  It’s always fun to start a new project, but then they almost always boil down to… well, work.  And when we think of writing, people don’t like to think about work.  They want passion and muses and wild nights of drunken creativity when the words flow at a rate of two thousand an hour or more.
            But the ugly truth is… it’s often work.  A lot of work.  Suddenly all that excitement of that first step is gone and enthusiasm begins to ebb.  We’re not exactly sure what we’re supposed to do next.  And we’re only on chapter four!
            So here are a few things I can do to make that first draft a little easier
–Know where I’m going
            Writing a book is kinda like taking a trip.  It’s going to take time.  I’m going to need some skills.  I may need some supplies.  I can plan out every step of the way or I can be a little looser with it, but either way I should probably have some idea where I want to end up.
            Yeah, sure, there’s something wonderful and romantic about saying “wow, I just learned how to drive this weekend—it’s time to explore America’s highways!!”  Just jumping behind the wheel and taking off. No destination, no maps, nothing. Just me and my best woman/man/dog in the passenger seat.  We’ll figure it out as we go!
            Again… sounds wonderful and romantic, but I think we can all guess how a trip like that will really turn out.
            If I’m going to write a book, I should start off with a really rough idea of how it’s going to end.  I don’t need to stick to that ending, but it’s tough to keep moving forward when I don’t know what direction forward is.  So even just a very general endpoint—“Wakko and Dot sell their invention and get rich.”  “Yakko uses his giant Mechbot to stop the aliens”  “Phoebe’s the only one who gets out alive.”—will give me something to aim for.
–Schedule the time
            Okay, I admit… this can be a tough one.  I’m in a lucky position when it comes to writing.  It’s my full-time job, and I make a living at it.  I do it from home.  I don’t have kids.  My girlfriend’s a writer, too, so she needs her own time just as much as I need mine.  Most people aren’t in this position.
            But y’know what?  I wasn’t always, either. I had a full-time journalism job while I wrote Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriotsand my Crusoe mash-up novel. And I haven’t always been in such writer-friendly relationships.
            Heck, I’ll be honest. There were a few romantic relationships in my past where me announcing “I want to write for a while” got a bit of a… negative reaction.  There were rolled eyes, some gentle mocking, even a bit of resentment. And being a younger man who wanted to preserve certain day-to-day aspects of these relationships… I put my writing aside. It was ultimately my choice, and that was the choice I made.  Which is why I didn’t have much writing success in my twenties—writing was a very low priority that I was willing to ignore for other things.
            There’s always going to be other things, so I need to make time for myself to write. An hour before bed,  on the train into work, or a big block on the weekend.  Just like exercise or learning the violin or finally watching Downton Abbey,  writing’s something that’s easy to put off.  It can very quickly become the thing I’ll do nextweekend.  So I need to figure out a time and try to stick to it.
–Don’t starve myself
            I know some folks try not to read similar things while they’re working on a project because they don’t want to be influenced.  I think sometimes this leaks out and becomes one of those telephone-game pieces of advice where new writers end up thinking they shouldn’t read anything while they’re writing.  Or watch anything. or listen to anything.  Or talk to other writers.  Or…
            We need input. That’s just common sense.  No input, no output.  I can’t expect to build a lot of muscle if I’m not eating anything.
            Also—and this is, again, just my own opinion—this kind of “starvation” approach can easily turn writing into some sort of punishment.  I’d like to hang with my girlfriend or read a comic or watch the finale of Rebels…but I didn’t write today so I get nothing!  If my method makes me hate writing… maybe I don’t have the best method.
            But again, don’t use feeding appetites as an excuse to put off writing until next weekend.  Don’t fall for the same traps twenty-something year old me did!  Learn from my mistakes!
–Know what I know
            This is also a good time for me to toss out my usual comments about voice and spelling and drafts.  It’s important to learn and develop these things, because it’s easy to lose momentum when I end up second-guessing myself a lot.  If I stop to double-check every four-syllable word or verb tense or read each line of dialogue out loud… it’s going to be easy to lose enthusiasm.  Don’t forget that none of this matters in a first draft.  It’s definitely going to matter—just not right now.  First drafts are big, messy, gap-filled things.  They’re not the point where I should be worried about little stuff. For now, just plow ahead. I’ll get to deal with all that stuff soon enough.
–Just do it
            I know this sounds like crap advice, but sometimes the way to keep writing is just, well… to keep writing.  At the end of the day, sometimes that’s what it comes down to.  I can keep making excuses, let myself get distracted, promise myself to do it later.  Or I can just do it.
            Or maybe ask myself why I keep not doing it.
            So there you go. A few easy ways to keep yourself on track. If you’ve got a favorite of your own, feel free to add it below.
            Anyway… hopefully, next week’s rant will be better than this one.
            Until then, go write.
December 28, 2017 / 6 Comments

A Year of Writing

            And just like that, 2017 is almost done.
            Well, okay.  Not really “just like that.”  For a lot of folks (me included), this has been a very long, stressful year.  Maybe for you, too, although I hope you managed to dodge some of it.
            It can be tough to write under these conditions.  When you feel like the world’s crumbling around you and you’re lunging to grab your favorite parts before they hit the floor… suddenly getting 1500 words written doesn’t feel like the best use of the day.  It can even make you feel worse.  Things may be collapsing, people are scared, but I’m going to go write this funny dialogue bit in a zombies on the moon story…
            Anyway… deep breath. 
            And if the deep breath doesn’t calm you, maybe a stiff drink.
            Okay.  Let’s talk about what we did get done this year.
            Why?  Well, I like laying this out because I’ve somehow stumbled into the position of being a “pro,”  and I think there’s a lot of bad information out there about what being a pro entails.  Some people think it means writing four hours a day and getting paid very well for it.  Other people think it means typing twelve hours a day, every day, and making about the same as a retail worker.  And still other people honestly think it means living in some gigantic New York penthouse apartment (and wintering in your Los Angeles one), where you barely ever write but still constantly make the NYT bestseller list and have enough free time to help solve about twenty-two murders a year.
            True fact.  I’m still living in the same apartment I lived in ten years ago when I was a terrified, starving writer.  Was driving the same car up until this March (when it finally wouldn’t pass inspection anymore).
            Anyway.  Getting off track. Too much eggnog with too much rum in it…
            As I have in the past, I wanted to go over everything I’ve written this year.  Partly for me. Partly for you.  Let’s get a sense of what a (supposed) pro does…
            I spent the first three months of the year finishing up work on Paradox Bound. As I’ve mentioned in other places, it was very tough writing a story about America and the American Dream right now.  There were many rewrites for tone and message that continued right up until the very last minute. And even then I look back at it and see things that slipped past me, things I wish I could’ve tweaked a little more.  But many of you have enjoyed it, and I’m very glad.
            During this time I was also working on a rough outline for Ex-Tension, what was going to be book six of the Ex-Heroes series.  I even started some of the heavy lifting when Paradox Bound wasn’t sitting in front of me.  But I was maybe a month or so into it when my editor, agent, and I had some talks and, well… it’s been set aside for now.  More on that later. 
            But it actually meant I could launch into Timestamp.  It’s been tickling my mind for a while now.  I wrote about 15,000 words of it and, on request, wrote out a huge exhaustive outline.  I was a little worried, because it’s one of those complex, character-heavy stories that comes across as a bit simplistic if it gets broken down past a certain point.  But after another six or seven weeks… this got set aside as well.  And, in retrospect, I’m okay with that.  My editor and I got to sit down one night at SDCC and talk about it over whiskey and apple pie, and he made some really good observations about the story (as he always does).
            Of course, at this point the year was more that half done and I hadn’t really gotten momentum on anything. Every time I started to prick up speed, my legs got kicked out from under me.  So I made the decision that I was going to write… well, a zombies on the moon story.  Something fun that I was excited about.  Because I needed to write something before the year drove me even crazier. 
            And I just finished up a first draft of that.
            Plus, my agent and I focused on a few ideas and I wrote up three other super-detailed outlines earlier this month.  Well, two “super-detailed” and one “fairly solid” outlines.  And I’m really excited about these and thinking they’re going to end up being most of next year for me.
            I also did a lot of promo stuff for Paradox Bound.  A few mini-articles, maybe a dozen written interviews.  Maybe a solid week of writing if you added all that up.
            And there was this blog. A record breaking seventy-six posts this year but… let’s be honest.  At least a dozen of those were just Tom Gauld cartoons or memes, and maybe another dozen were random promo posts for Paradox Bound or the Dead Men Can’t Complain collection.  Still, that means these were around fifty rants on one topic or another.  I think I could call this year a tie with 2009, previously the most successful year of the ranty blog.
            There were also nine or ten posts on my little geeky blog, and I came to the realization just last night that I’m probably going to end that one.  It requires a lot more of a time investment than I can give these days, between the hobby side of it and the instructional/ writing side. I love those projects, but I can’t work on them and document to the extent they deserve.  I may try to find a happy medium somewhere…
            Anyway… that’s what I got done this year. 
            How about you?
            At the end of it all, we have to keep writing.  It’s what separates us from the non-writers. And the great apes.  We keep pulling stories out of our head and scribbling them out for other people to read.  This is the only definition of being a writer—writing.  People can make any argument or excuse they like, but if I’m not doing that one basic part of the job…  well…
            Anyway, I hope the holiday season is going fantastic for all of you.  See you all next year.

            And if you get a chance… maybe write a bit.

November 19, 2015 / 1 Comment

Outlining Our Trip

            Ahhh, jeeez.  I have to bring up the Goodreads thing again. 
            At this point The Fold has somehow made it to the final round of Goodreads best sci-fi novels of 2015.  This isn’t a humblebrag, I honestly have no idea how it ended up on this list.  There are a lot of much, muchbetter books there.
            That being said, I’ve promised the marketing folks I would keep talking about it.  So if you happened to like The Fold and maybe never got around to reading any of the other, better books, maybe you could toss one last vote its way during this final round.  Just so it isn’t a total slaughter.
            Now… let’s move on.
            This week, I wanted to talk a bit about outlines.  Thing is, it’s kind of a tricky topic.  So, to explain this in simpler terms, let’s talk about road trips.  Right now, let’s you and me plan out a trip from LA to New York.  If you’re already in New York, fly out to LA, hang out for a while, and we’ll drive back. It’ll be great.
            Now, there’s a lot of ways we can do this.  We know where we’re starting, more or less (LA is a big place).  We know where we’re going (although our exact destination in New York might affect things a bit)  But there’s still a lot of flex room in how we do this.
            We can just say, “LA to New York” and start driving east.  Done.  That’s the whole plan.  We’ll figure it out as we go.  Spend a little more time here?  Maybe sleep in a few extra hours there?  Maybe go on a wild detour just to see Great Meteor Crater?
            We can get. To. New York.  I went on a road trip once and my partner-in-driving didn’t want to stop for anything.  Any.  Thing.  Petrified forest?  Roswell?  World’s biggest ball of twine?  No, nope, and no way.  We left Tuesday morning and we were going to be in New York for the weekend.  There were four points marked out on the route and that’s where we were stopping to sleep.  He didn’t see any point in wasting time because his goal was to get.  To.  New.  York.
            We can plan out the whole thing.  All of it.  I have another friend who used to be a planner in his younger days.  Crazy planner.  He would plan road trips out for his family in half hour increments.  I’m not joking.  Meals, gas stops, bathroom stops, hotels, morning showers, 90 minutes at this natural wonder, 30 at this roadside attraction, 60 at this—DAMMIT!  We spent 40 minutes at the giant tinfoil ball!  That means no afternoon bathroom break. You kids are just going to have to hold it until dinner.  And it’ll be coming out of your dessert time, I’m warning you now.
            And all this isn’t even considering us and our personal quirks.  You might be great at that sort of long-haul, ten hours behind the wheel thing, but I might only be good for four or five hours at a time.  I might have a fantastic sense of direction, but maybe you need GPS and a map at the same time.  I love all these bizarre roadside attractions with alien jerky and the continental divide and the Sunsphere, but you’d rather spend the time either driving, eating, or sleeping
            Plus, do we have time to spare on the road or do we need to be in New York  by this time next week?  Do we need to plan this out?  Is this a business trip or are we just having some fun for a couple of days?  Or weeks?
            As I said above, there’s lots of ways to do this.
            The same is true for outlines.  Maybe I don’t need one at all.  Perhaps I just need a few story points set down.  I could be the type who likes the whole thing plotted in exacting detail.  Maybe I’ve got ages to find my way or maybe I’m on a harsh deadline and don’t have time for even a single diversion.
            Y’see, Timmy, it’s hard to give advice on outlines because it’s such a personal thing.  Every writer is going to be a bit different, and the only thing that matters is that this outline works for this person.  And—like a lot of writerly advice—the only way to find out what works for you is to try it. 
            I struggled with outlines for ages before admitting they just weren’t for me.  If you haven’t used one before and your writing output is fine… hey, why fix what’s not broken?  And if you find yourself wandering and you never seem to get anywhere, maybe planning things out to some degree might help you a bit.
            This one’s all on you.
            No pressure.
            Next time… Okay, well, next Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the States, so I’m going to be watching Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Day The Earth Stood Still while I cook.  I hope wherever you are, it’s a good and peaceful day for you.
            The week after that, though…  I’ve been getting back into one of my hobbies lately, so I thought we could talk about painting.
            Until then, go write.