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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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?

Monday Challenge: First Steps

STFU n00b.

I’m starting something new this week: I’m going to learn acrylic painting. I draw (mostly ink and markers) and I used to dabble in watercolours, but this will be a new experience.

I expect it to be messy.

Being a beginner at something is both exciting as hell and frustrating as trying to explain superhero retcons to non-fans.* Exciting because: new thing! I will make all the things! And they will be great! Hey, do you think this paint is poisonous? Frustrating because: why does new thing not come out like I imagined? Why am I not great at this right now? I AM GREAT AT EVERYTHING.

It’s probably for the best that Snowman’s working a lot of hours this month.

There’s a great scene in the Engineer Trilogy by K.J. Parker in which one of the main characters, a nobleman in hiding, has to sew something for the first time ever. Because he can’t reveal his ineptitude for fear of being discovered, he can’t ask for help. So he instead looks at the materials and the tools and works out what sewing is from the first principles. It’s a very funny little scene in the middle of what is a near-constant storm of grimness**, and it gives a great look at learning to do something for the first time ever.

We all have to start somewhere with skills. I’ve been learning to code in Python for the last couple of weeks, and, boy, was that eye-opening. And I expect that acrylic painting will be the same.** Writing sure as hell was: a mixture of thrill and frustration, interspersed with moments of brightness and wild inspiration.

Or, if you want a relatively universal example: remember having sex for the first time?***

Monday Challenge, in honour of my upcoming +2 Art Skill: Write about something trying to do something for the very first time. Awkwardness, frustration, wild inspiration, and all.

*”No, see, it’s fine because in this timeline, she’s really that girl’s sister, except they were both exposed to Zorg radiation, which made them think they were the same person….”

** But with less of a possibility of creating a roboctopus army.

***Spoiler alert, virgins: it’s gonna be awkward.

Monday Challenge: Abominable Journey To Planet X!

Action! Adventure! Exploring space with a dust ruffle attached to your boobs!

It should come as a wild galloping shock to absolutely no one that I love pulp fiction. The genre, not the movie.* You can keep your poignant tales of ennui and evocative period dramas; give me the spacemen and cowboys, the monsters and robots, the gruff detective and the dumb-ass high school kids who go parking in the wrong place every fucking time.

While my lovely and intellectual grad school colleagues were going to see moving films about ballerinas in Chernobyl, I was burying myself in cheap paperbacks covered in intrepid explorers, destructive machines, and busty redheads with chain mail bikinis.

I’m not what one would describe as ‘tasteful’.

But, by Loki, I love those things. I love the unapologetic brashness**. And, with the advent of New Pulp and the rise of some very interesting authors, I get to see that shit come back in a big way. There’s even a new take on the quintessential chain-mail bikini heroine, Red Sonja.

Monday Challenge, hobgoblins: write the plot synopsis for one of these randomly generated*** pulp titles:

Assault Of The Titanic Bee-People

Cannibal Wednesday

The Chromatic Kid

Nuns Of Fear

Android Breaker: The Return

I Was An Atom-Age Caligula!

Go forth and write something that would have had parents of 1958 worried about the hearts and minds of their children.

*Though the movie’s not bad. Not great. but not bad.

**This also explains my love of hair metal, punk rock, giant robots, and Jack Daniels.

***This generator, along with other fine random generators, can be found at The Seventh Sanctum. The fan fiction generators are particularly recommended for those with neither qualms nor taste.

 

Monday Challenge: Playing Catch With The Dark Lord

If only it was this simple.

Last week, I read a kid’s book that was fun, interesting, and, strangely, morally challenging.

Not a usual description of a book meant for ages eight to twelve–and, let’s face it, not exactly a cover blurb that would appeal to the intended audience–but from the point of view of a well-read, slightly jaded adult, it made the book so much better. And, while they wouldn’t put it that way, I imagine it improves the story from a kid’s point of view, too. There’s so much in kid’s lit that’s safe and nice that it’s not a surprise more kids don’t read. If you think children can’t spot your condescension a mile off, you’re in for a very rude awakening.

Remember the stories you liked when you were a kid? Better yet, remember the ones you told yourself? How many of those were nice? I’m betting not a lot. Because kids, as a rule, aren’t nice. Not in the way that adults think of the word. They can be sweet and funny and amazing, but nice requires an emotional maturity that most kids don’t have yet. Developing that is part of becoming an adult.

Kids are like tiny barbarian warriors: everything they feel is bigger and stronger than adults, but there’s not a lot of subtlety. When they’re happy, it’s really fucking happy. When they’re sad, the world is ending. And when they’re angry…batten the fucking hatches, because a Category 3 Kid-icane is blowing through.

And all this stuff usually comes from the one kid.

The School For Good and Evil details a school where the descendants of fairy tale characters learn to be heroes and villains. Simple enough. But, because these are the children of famous characters, we see the stories from the other side. The Sheriff of Nottingham’s daughter whose dad was always away at work. The son of a slain werewolf, who’s just trying to make enough money to give his father a proper burial. The vain, greedy daughters of princesses who found their happy ending. The stupid, musclebound poser prince who was taught every day that looks and shoe size are the only things that matter when choosing a mate.

It’s a simple reminder: there’s more than one side to every story.

Monday Challenge time, children: write a popular story from the point of view of someone who cares for the antagonist. Everyone has someone: their parents, their children, their friends, that first grade teacher who still sees something worthwhile in them.

And maybe go read that book. It’s a good summer read, no matter how old you are.

Monday Challenge: No One Rides For Free

You can get a lift, but it’ll cost you.

Let’s talk about compromises.

Your characters, if they do anything interesting at all*, will sooner or later have to make deals with other characters. And those other characters will want things in return. Things that your character might not want to give. But, if an agreement is to be reached, they will. Or they won’t, and there’s no deal.

This is about cost. As the old saying goes, ass, gas, or grass: no one rides for free.

It’s especially true in fiction. If conflict is the essence of story, then why make things easy for your protagonist? Don’t give them a free ride. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, anyone who gets things too easily is either boring or hated. Either way, not protagonist material.

What is your character willing to pay in order to get something? What kind of deal will they make? And with whom? Are they sure they can trust that person? And, if they’re not, then why are they making the deal?

Monday Challenge, kiddies: Write someone making a deal at great personal cost. What kind of deal, what kind of cost? Hey, that’s your call. You expect me to do everything around here?

Now, go write.

*And if they don’t, then, seriously, why are you writing about them?

Monday Challenge: Superstition

Is it still good luck if it falls on your head?

I used to be a very superstitious kid.

Maybe it was growing up Catholic–”say this many Hail Marys and Acts of Contrition in this order, and all your sins are forgiven. Also, you might see a ghost appear in the bathroom mirror.”–or maybe it was growing up in province that held on to a lot of the old Irish superstitions, but there were rituals. I still remember my great aunt telling me to take an iron nail when I went out picking blueberries; otherwise the fairies would get me.* And to this day I can’t spill salt without tossing some over my left shoulder into the eye of the devil.**

And then there were the personal superstitions. When I was ten or so, I had a ‘bus summoning’ that would make the school bus arrive faster in the winter when I had to wait outside. There was a certain number of cars of a certain colour that I had to count***, and then a little dance I had to do. I’m pretty sure that it was just a way to pass the time and keep my internal organs from icing up, but I still did it. If nothing else, it served the dual purposes of warding off hypothermia and entertaining the neighbours.

Monday Challenge: write me what happens when a silly superstition turns out to be true. Satan really does hear if you don’t knock on wood; a horseshoe really does bring good luck. Or maybe those lucky underpants you wore when you first got laid really do make you irresistible.

*No cute Tinkerbells in our mythology. These were the stealing, fighting, fucking, murdering fairies. More fun, I think. And way more dangerous.

**Suck it, Lucifer.

***The colour varied by day of the week. Obviously.