Stepping In It: Writing Outlines With OH SHIT Moments

OH SHIT PRESS THE BUTTON

Thanks to high school language classes, we’ve all been taught to outline the same way:

1. This Thing I’m doing

       A)First part of the thing

              i. Thing that supports first part of the thing

Or some variant thereof. Very organized, very logical, very hierarchical.

But what do you do when that doesn’t work?

You can:

A) Give up, because that’s helpful.

B) Force it to work somehow. Square pegs, anyone?

C) Try a new way. This is probably the best bet.

Here’s an alternative to the hierarchical outline structure: the tentpole outline.

Tentpole moments are your big story events, the stuff that stands out. Or up. They support the rest of the plot—the tent in this metaphor—giving it a shape.

I prefer to think of the tentpole moments as OH SHIT moments. They’re what make the characters react strongly in some way. For example:

Main Character: oh, hey, this is a nice house OH SHIT IT’S HAUNTED better fix that, cool, we did it OH SHIT THE GHOST IS INSIDE ME NOW I can handle this, it’s not so bad OH SHIT I’M GOING INSANE damn it need to get rid of the ghost once and for all OH SHIT I ACCIDENTALLY RIPPED OUT MY OWN SOUL ALONG WITH THE GHOST.

Actually, that’s not a bad story. Dibs.

Caveats to the tent pole outline:

1. Tent poles should be a big fucking deal, not something the characters can ignore or otherwise not doing anything about, unless ignoring it leads to something even worse until they eventually confront it. No straw men here.

2. Tent poles should be related. In The Tale of Ghosty McGhostface up there, every big moment—and the thing that fixes that big moment—leads directly to the next big moment. You can throw random shit in there, but nine times out of ten it will just feel fucking random, like those filler episodes in long running TV shows.

3. Don’t take too long between tent poles, or the whole thing falls down. Also, we get bored. If there’s a lot of space between your big moments, maybe re-examine your story. You might be world-building or character examining or just generally pissing around when you should be telling the story. Which is fine in a first draft; sometimes you’ve got to write it all out before you figure out what to cut. But check for long spaces between OH SHIT moments when you reach editing.

So, we’ve established that I used the hierarchical outline and the tent pole outline, among others. What kinds do you use? And do you ever change tactics mid-story?


Four Ways For Writers To Read More Non-Fiction

This bridge shows off the latest Italian fashions for winter.

A shocking number of writers only read fiction. I ain’t judging; until a few years ago, I was among them. And even then, I tended to read within a few specific genres. Read what you want to write, right?

Wrong. And boring. Reading only what you want to write, whether it’s space opera, short stories, or Supernatural slash-fic, is too limiting. Read broadly. Read indiscriminately. Read like the book slut* you always wanted to be.

But it’s hard to get started with non-fiction. Especially if you go to the library or the book store or Amazon and see the endless, endless choices. So here are a few entrances to this new field. Explore at will.

1. Read about something you’re already interested in. Like historical fantasy? Have a go at reading about royalty, or technological achievements of that era, or the Big Gooey Plague That Melted Everyone. Or, if family dramas are more your thing, start reading some memoirs about people who lived with their real-life fucked up families. Bonus: this might help you write your book in that genre and not make it sound like everyone else’s. Also, you’ll finally learn what a lot of Victorian/Steampunk writers and their cover artists seem to forget, which is that corsets go on the inside.

2. Learn more about something odd. Remember the last time you saw a news story on something you thought was strange? Like the Large Hadron Collider, or the Tea Party movement, or yarn-bombing? See what you can find out about it. Maybe you’ll pick up a new interest. Maybe you’ll just expand your knowledge of the complete insanity that lives in our world. Either way, from a writing perspective: WIN.

3. Find a book one of your characters would read. This gets a little meta, but follow me: if you have a character who’s really, really into woodworking or wine or shibari-style bondage, you’ll be able to write them more effectively if you read something on it. And, once again, you never know: you might find yourself eyeing the rope section at the hardware store with more interest.**

4. BOOK ROULETTE. Pick a book at random on a topic you’ve never heard of and get cracking. Sounds insane, but I’ve done it and discovered some books that I otherwise never would have read. And because I’m a writer, no knowledge, no matter how esoteric, is ever wasted. Because who doesn’t want to write a bouncer/cage fighter with a serious knowledge of hand-made lace?

Now, go forth and read! And tell me: what’s the weirdest knowledge you’ve ever acquired?

*No book-slut shaming, either.

**But don’t. Go to a sex shop and get some bondage rope. Your skin—or your partner’s—will thank you.


Who Let The Philosopher Drive?: Keeping Your Ideas From Murdering Your Story

Who let the Essential Absurdity of Life drive again?

I was reading yesterday, it being Sunday and me still being trapped inside by the winter snow like a caged beast. For real, am I ever going to see the lawn again? I can barely remember if we have a lawn.

Anyway, I was reading a book that had started off well but was losing me now. Eventually I gave up on it, but being a writer, I had to figure out why I gave up. Sometimes figuring this out is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle of preconceptions, expectations, and whatever bullshit I absorbed through trawling the internet lately. But this time it was pretty damn simple:

It was an idea, not a story.

There were some very interesting concepts, but they were driving, and it wasn’t a trip I wanted to take. Because in the car with me were the biggest collection of cardboard characters I’ve encountered outside a porno.* The ideas were in the driver’s seat, and no matter how fast they drove, they had no idea where they were going.

Nor should they. That’s what characters and plot do. Compelling characters and a decent plot make it a story, instead of an essay or a philosophical dialogue.

But, alas, in this story, the Ideas had taken over, and the story was dead. I felt like I was being shouted at, not being told a good tale. And who wants that?

You cannot let your ideas murder your story. Well, you can. You can do whatever you want, because I’m just a stranger on the other side of a monitor. Or possibly a voice in your head. Am I a voice? Do I sound like Bane? I hope I sound like Bane.

Anyway, you can do whatever you want, but so can your readers, and if they find out that you’ve taken them down Didacticism Lane instead of Story Road, they might get justifiably bored and bugger off to do something else. Something more interesting, probably.

No one likes to be preached at. That’s not to say that you can’t present points of view that you feel strongly about; you should, because if you don’t feel strongly about something then you probably aren’t writing. But be a little subtle about it. And don’t ruin the story in service to an idea.

The ideas should serve the story, not the other way around. If you find your ideas are what you’re really interested in, maybe switch to essay writing. Because no one wants to pick up what they thought was a novel only to find that it was a sermon.

*Inside a porno, at least it’s stiff cardboard, AM I RIGHT?


Boring Things Are Boring: Getting Stuck And Getting Past It

FIRE THE PROBLEM CANNONS.

Raise your digital hand if you’ve done this:

You’re writing, and you hit the point you just don’t want to write. You don’t know why, but getting through this part is a fucking slog. It’s like trying to climb a mountain wearing lead boots and cement underpants.

You’re just not interested in writing this part. It’s necessary—you can’t just flip from the intro to the big EXPLOSION at the end*—but, damn it, you’re bored writing it. So you do other stuff—hello, Twitter—and complain and generally go slower and slower.

Well, here’s a thought:

Maybe you’re bored because it’s fucking boring.

It’s an unfortunate thing to say about your own writing, but think about it: if you’re bored writing it, how interesting is is going to be for a reader? I was writing a section recently that I had avoided for ages, because it bored me. Eventually, I just cut it altogether and you know what? No one noticed.

The middles of books are tricky. You’ve introduced most everyone, you’ve got the conflict going…but you’re not sure how you get from there to the end.

So the characters remain in a holding pattern, which is boring as shit.

You’re treading water, so better get out of there before the sharks turn up. Try cutting the part you don’t want to write. Does it make a difference? If not, great! Move on. If you still need it, maybe you’re being too nice. The middle of the story is a great time to fuck things up.

What would make the section less boring? A new villain? An old boyfriend? An explosion? A car accident? Basically, what shit do you not want to deal with in real life? Try that. That might be good. Tie it into the main plot somehow, load up your Problem Cannon, and let loose with both barrels. That gives the characters something to scramble around and fix—badly, usually, because that’s how authors roll—while you explain whatever it is was boring you in the first place.

But whatever you do, never settle for the boring scene, or chapter, or book. If it can’t keep your attention while you’re writing it, guaranteed it’s going to boot the writer out of your little world faster than a handsy drunk out of a strip club. It’s up to you, writer, to make it interesting enough that they stay. And that means you have to be interested, too.

*Even if it’s a FEELINGS EXPLOSION and not a regular one.


Vacation Home: Things I Learned Visiting Discworld

The Discworld, my brain's favourite vacation home, captured in all its glory by Paul Kidby.

The Discworld, my brain’s favourite vacation home, captured in all its glory by Paul Kidby.

I spent half of Thursday crying and the other half reading. Both because Terry Pratchett had just died.

It’s hard to explain why I was so upset by the death of a man whom I had never met. And now, never will. Part of it was that, probably: I will never be able to tell him how much those books meant to me. Something I’m sure he heard a thousand thousand times, but I like to think that no one really gets tired of hearing how they touched someone else’s life.

It was the stories, of course. And the characters. And the turns of phrase that stuck with me, year after year. I have all the Discworld books, and some of them have been read so many times that they’re falling apart, and need to be replaced. One, in fact, finally split on Thursday afternoon, after sixteen years of me reading it over and over.

Reading those books was—and is— fun. And reading has got to be entertaining, or what’s the point? But it wasn’t just fun that made me stick with them, or them with me.

Those books were, to paraphrase Tolkien, a light in dark places for me. They told me that being weird wasn’t just okay—the world is full of places and people who will tell you that being your weird self is ‘okay’, like you need their permission, and besides, ‘okay’ is the very fucking definition of mediocrity—but that being weird was awesome. It was something to be celebrated. And the people who didn’t understand that were probably Auditors* in disguise or something, so fuck those people.

The books told me that even things that hurt you can be laughed at. And should be.

They also told me that I wasn’t alone. That no matter how isolated or lonely I was—and there were long periods when I was both—that there were, somewhere, people who understood. One of them was this odd British man who wrote characters that felt like me, like someone had ripped out a piece of me and stuck them to a page**, but there must be others. I wasn’t sure how I would find them, but just the knowledge that they must be out there was enough to get me through. It meant that I wouldn’t always be alone.

That sort of thing means a lot when you’re sixteen.

And now I’m thirty-two. It’s been a lot of years since I first picked up a Pratchett book in the library—Lords and Ladies, if anyone’s wondering. But I’m still reading them, and now I read as a writer. And you know what? They’re still just as good. In fact, as a writer, now I can appreciate the economy of description and sharpness of observation that were among Pratchett’s hallmarks. I can see the humour and the anger.

I’m going to spend some of the next few weeks re-reading all my favourites from the series. And when I read about Death and his garden and the black desert, I’ll be thinking of Sir Terry.

Goodbye. I hope I can someday write something that touches someone half as much as your work did.

*The Discworld incarnation of rules and conformity, and exactly as boring as that sounds.

**Vimes and Susan in particular.


Decide or GTFO: I Hate Your Wishy-Washy Character

Which do I want? Toast? Muffin? TOAST OR MUFFIN? I WILL SPEND THE ENTIRE BOOK ON THIS DECISION!

It’s no secret that I love a good bad guy. A great villain can make a piece of fiction, just like a shitty one can make me wish I spent my time doing something else, like regrouting my bathroom or organizing photos* or conquering a neighbouring country.

The conflicted bad guy, the grey area bad guy, the downright evil bad guy…I love them all. And my love for them is matched only by my hate of another character.

No, not the good guy. It always surprises people, but I love good guys, too. From the slightly-shady Black Widows to the perfectly stand-up Captain Americas, they are their own kind of fun and I love them for it.  It doesn’t matter if they use guile or brute force to achieve their aims. Because what I like is conviction.

And what I hate is wishy-washiness.

That is the character I hate: the one who won’t commit. The one who lingers on the sidelines, wringing their hands, never getting a damn thing done.

The heroes who refuse to take a stand.

The villains who won’t take the steps needed to win.

The secondary character who could have solved all this if you had just bothered to do anything.

You all suck.

Worse: you’re all boring.

I’m not saying they can’t be conflicted. Look up the page: I love conflict. Have a hard time with a decision. But then decide.

Writers, beware: life is full of enough hesitation and half-measures. I don’t need that in my fiction. Go big or go home.

And make sure your characters get the memo.

*I still have not printed a single wedding photo AND I DON’T CARE.


If It’s Not Broken, Break It

This hamster very firmly believes in not judging books by their covers and that when it rains, it pours.

I’m learning to hate adages.

I shouldn’t; I mean, they’re just words. But, much like Twitter*, the effort of condensing a sentiment into a small, memorable package means that it either 1) comes across as something a mentally-deficient hamster would say or 2) loses all meaning and context.

Adages are too often the shortcut of thinking.

Today’s annoyance? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Sounds good on the surface. Why mess with something that’s functioning perfectly well? After all, it’s working, right?

But.

But.

What if there’s a better way out there?

Something that you’re refusing to see because good enough is…well, good enough?

Much like ‘write what you know’, this phrase has the ability to become a straight jacket. You get stuck in a routine or a method of creation because it’s always worked and it’s fine and trying something new is too much work. But if you’re never going to fix anything as long as it functions with the minimum efficiency, you’re never going to expand your horizons.

If I didn’t try to change things that weren’t broken, I never would have written short stories, or horror, or young adult fiction, because adult fantasy novels were fine. And while not all those experiments worked out for the best, they were still valuable.

Hell, from the Real Life Files, that adage would have seen me never ask my husband on a date, because we were fine as friends. It would have seen me still trapped in an academic career, because it was good enough. It would see us stuck in another province, because why risk the move to a strange town?

So fuck that. Sometimes you have to break things before you can make new things. Break your routines, break your characters, break your stories, and see what you can make out of the pieces. If you can’t make anything, then go back to what you knew. At least you tried. But in the trying, you might just make something great. Isn’t that work the risk?

You always write at home? Go to a coffee shop, or a library, or the park by the river. You always write hard science fiction? Write a romance. Learn something from it. You only read speculative fiction? Pick up a literary award-winner or a non-fiction history.

The new and the novel are where ideas come from. Complacency is the enemy of creativity. And if you’re a writer, then why the hell would you choose complacency?

So break things. Raise new things in their place. And find out what you can do, not just what you can get by doing.

*I love you, Twitter, but you are possibly the shittiest place on earth to have a nuanced conversation about anything.


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