The Beginning of The End: Second-Stage Outlining

Novel building and rocket launching: both end in explosions.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter* may have noticed, interspersed with the power ballad lyrics and coffee adventures, that I was outlining again last week. Not a new project; just fine-tuning some of the details for the end of the current project.

You see, I have passed the halfway point on this novel, which means it’s time to start planning for the end.

I set a goal to have the manuscript done by July 1st. That gives me just a scooch over two months to type The End and mean it. Do-able, certainly. But not without a plan.

I knew, roughly, where I had to go when I started, but then I had to go back, look at all the threads I’d developed, and figure out where to tie them off. It’s time to start resolving things. But what, and in what order, and how…I had only the roughest idea when I started.

Time to plan it out now.

The result of that second-stage outline is that I now have a solid plan for the rest of the book and I can estimate how many more words it will take to get us there. I usually tack on an extra 10,000 words to that estimate, because sometimes things come up in the end that I get all excited about and it takes longer to get through them than I think. Divide that by the number of weeks I have left, and the number of days I usually write out of those weeks**, and I arrive at a daily word count that I need to hit to make that goal.

It’s about 2000 words a day. Which is well within my ability.

Having a plan of attack for the second stage of novel writing serves two purposes. One, there is far less wondering what the fuck do I write today when I get to the computer in the morning. The longer I spend thinking about that, the less I get done, and the further behind I get. Which, if I want to hit my deadline, is another source of worry.

And two, it gives me time to plan a kick-ass party for when I finish. I’m thinking BBQ. Because summer should be here by then. Maybe.

Does anyone else do this? Who out there does second-stage outlining? Or do you know how everything goes when you start? Or, hell, do you just wing it? TELL ME YOUR SECRETS.

*Your poor bastards.

**Usually five out of seven, for what it’s worth. I take Saturdays off and Sundays are for minor edits and planning out the rest of the week.

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This Isn’t My Real Face: Writing As Someone Else

HI.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve gone back to my journalling ways*, partially as a writing aid, mostly as a brain and mental health aid. Surprise: I’ve got some faulty wiring upstairs. Who’s shocked? Anyone?

Anyway, I thought I’d share the other, less well-adjusted side to my journalling: about half the time, I journal as someone else.

This isn’t as insane as it sounds. Well, it probably is, but since I’m a writer I can get away with that shit.

Most of the time*** I write as one of my characters, in an effort to get inside their weaselly little brains and make me understanding of them more complete. This works because:

1) People write shit in their journals that they’d never tell anyone.

2) While they’re not always honest, they do present the facts as they see them. Other opinions matter less.

3) Often I can work out motivations behind the scenes that they play out on the manuscript page with more realism.

I don’t always journal as the good guys, either. Most of the really interesting ones are written from the point of view of my villains. Not that you’d know it from the journal entry, because not even the most despicable tyrant refers to themselves as the villain in their diary.

Some of this is the deep background I mentioned before, the process that goes on behind the scenes of a written work. Some of it is to get a feel for voice, action, reaction, thoughts.

Mostly, though, it’s just fun. And, if the novel gets published, it’ll make for some fun extra material to release. Assuming my paper journals survive that long and my many many backups don’t go over to Skynet before then.

So give it a try. Write as your characters. See what they have to say.

You might be surprised.

*Albeit without the Sharpie’d pentagrams and song lyrics on the covers of my notebooks that I favoured in high school. These days I prefer to let my subversive thoughts pass under the radar behind the plain black covers of a Moleskine.**

**I just realized that the current Moleskine is sitting next to my new turntable, which means I’m one case of craft beer away from bursting into full, gloriously bearded hipsterdom.

***I’ll leave you to speculate on who I write as the rest of the time.

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?

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.

30,000 Words I Won’t Use: Why I Write Deep Background

Over there is where we’ll put the Tragic Childhood.

In keeping with my New Year’s Resolution, I’ve been working faithfully on this novel manuscript since January.* During the last week, though, I’ve been writing a different part of the story.

It’s the part that happened before the book started.

Some context: a few things are hinted at through the story.  What happened to So-and-So’s parents. Why that guy had to drop out of school. Stuff like that. Everyone concerned knows what they’re talking about, so they don’t need to go into much detail. And, except as character development, it doesn’t really have much to do with the current story. They’re just generally shitty thing that happened to all the main characters when they were kids.

But, while I had a pretty good idea of what happened, I didn’t know the details. Which is a bit shit when you’re trying to refer to something.

So, I’m writing it.

Most of this will not appear in the final manuscript. It’s what I’d call deep background: the stuff that shapes characters into the people they have to be to make the story happen. It will be alluded to, and occasionally someone might outright mention That Time With The Thing, How Fucked Up Was That, Did She Really Do That? But, since it has at most a tangental relationship with the story I’m telling, it’s not necessary for it to appear in its entirety.

Doesn’t mean I don’t have to know what it is, though. This is the stuff that made these characters the people they are. This is where the cracks first appeared and were papered over. This is what damaged them to the point where they will make the wrong choices. I need to know what happened so I can make sure they make the right wrong choices.

When I’m finished this, and I know what happened and what other people think happened, I can allude to it with ease. These incidents are important, all of them. And now that it’s almost done, I can see how these things serve as a prelude to the main story. They serve as the place where deeply-held ideas, the kind that shape your life, are planted. It’s the reason that main characters believe their friend could do terrible things: because it wouldn’t be the first time.

But they’ll never talk about it, because some things you don’t talk about. Some things you don’t have to.

This is the deep background. Lay it down right and it’ll tell you everything about the characters. Just try not to get lost in it.

* And keeping track with my stickers, of course.

Monday Challenge: The Geographic Cure

Eat my dust, old life.

God, the Monday Challenge. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Let’s bring it back, just for funzies.

If you’ve ever read about addiction—or had any experience with it yourself, either first hand or through others—you might have heard of the geographic cure. It’s a theory that changing location can get you sober. Move from the town where all your favourite bars and drinking buddies are, get away from your dysfunctional family or the job you hate, and maybe you can find the will to kick the habit.

I don’t know what the stats are, but I doubt the geographic works by itself. Wherever you go, you take yourself along for the ride, and that’s the part that needs changing. I’d hazard, though, that the geographic cure can help, if you’re using the change in location as a way to change yourself. Especially if it’s a temporary way to kickstart recovery. There can be relief in a momentary reprieve from the daily pressure, which is why vacations are so popular. But sooner or later, you have to face yourself again.

Aside from addiction, though, I think a lot of us secretly believe in the geographic cure. How often have you looked around and thought that if you didn’t have this job, this town, this family, this life, then everything would be different? Who hasn’t felt the urge to just leave, walking away from it all and vanishing without a trace into a new life? Into a new self?

Monday Challenge: write me a character trying to leave their problems behind. How far would one of your characters have to go to try a geographic cure for their problems? And how long would it be before the problems eventually caught up?

Holiday Writing Challenge: With Bells On

This year, we’re going to ask Santa for faces.

It’s only just past the first week of December and already the Seasonal Madness is upon us. Parties fill the nights. Gift-wrapping, baking, and fielding endless calls from family about how you’re not coming home again this year, do you not love us, seriously, you’re breaking your mother’s heart fill the days. Even if you stolidly ignore the holidays every year, you still get caught up in it, because everywhere you go, it’s right in your face.

Do not take this to mean that I do not like the holidays. I love this time of year. But let’s face it: it comes with a price.

For example, with two parties down and another still on the horizon, my house looks like Christmas threw up in here. There are still empty glasses on some of the flat surfaces from Saturday night. The cats keep dragging shreds of wrapping paper from under the couch.

But, instead of cleaning up, I’m sitting down at my desk to write. Because I am a writer, god damn it. Even when I’m busy.

So, in the spirit of the season, I bring you the Holiday Writing Challenge:

This holiday season, in the midst of all the parties and the shopping and the businesses with weird closing hours…make some time to write. 

I know, I know: you’re already stretched to your limits and here I am asking you to do something else. What a fucking asshole, right? Santa’s going to bring me nothing but coal and flaming paper bags full of dog crap.*

But here’s the thing: if you don’t make the time, it’s going to be damn hard to come back to it in January.

Besides, making some time for something you love will help you keep your cool during the insanity that is the holiday season. Whether you celebrate or not, there’s no denying the sheer amount of bat-crap crazy that descends from the winter sky like poison snow. I love the holidays, but people are fucking nuts. Give yourself some mental space by losing yourself in your story for an hour and you might make it to January without bashing someone over the head with a plastic Nativity scene.

Also, all that start over BS for the New Year is a waste. If you’re going to start over, then why wait? If it’s something you really want, then why not do it on December the 22nd? Then not only do you get a head start on all the other people who will no doubt be bombarding your Facebook with their pledges to finally finish that damn novel, you can celebrate by gorging yourself on half-eaten boxes of chocolates on Boxing Day. Win-win.

I’m not saying to skip all the parties or to lock yourself in your house with nothing but shelf-stable eggnog and fruitcake so you can write. But carve out half an hour or an hour here and there. Have one less drink at the party so you can get up earlier the next morning. Skip It’s A Wonderful Life** because you’ve already seen it a thousand goddamn times and work on the next chapter. Find a little time for yourself, and for your story.

And if you want to pour a little Christmas cheer into your coffee while you do it, well, I won’t tell anyone.

*Santa is apparently in junior high for the purposes of this sentence.

**I hate this movie, so it’s no difficulty for me. Harder would be skipping a Christmas screening of Die Hard.