Dominos Falling: When The Story Takes Over

Only one way to go from here.

When writing a novel, there comes a time when things become…inevitable.

Not in the boring sense. But eventually you’ve done all the work setting up those dominos in intricate patterns all over the floor, and the only thing left to do is knock them all down.

Also like dominos, this tend to happen fast. So fast that writing is like trying to stay ahead of an avalanche: move fast, step light, and for god’s sake don’t stop.

I have reached this point.

This is where the pace picks up. 1500 word days suddenly turn to 3000 word days. Or 5000. Or more. And all I want to do is keep writing until the inkwell runs dry.

So that’s what I’m going to do. As of now, the blog is on hiatus until this novel is finished. Time to stock up on coffee, crank the tunes, and hold on for dear life.

See you on the other side.

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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?

Protagonists I Would Like To Put In A Sack And Drown*

Goddamn it, Jacob, stop hugging me so I can go unleash a plague or some shit.

1. The Earth Angel. So fucking perfect all the fucking time, until you just want to smash their imaginary face in. This character is sometimes known as the Mary Sue, but that’s fucking sexist and also ignores the term’s origins in fan fiction. So I’m going with Earth Angel, because this character, whether male, female, another gender, or entirely genderless, is so goddamn perfect that they stop the story dead in its tracks. Nothing ever happens that they can’t fix perfectly, with no consequences or fucking it up or accidental deaths or anything. Snore.

2. The Psychopath. Dead, emotionless, usually bad-ass, and completely in control. I don’t know how this became a thing—though I’m looking hard in your direction, American Psycho—but it is creepy as hell. If your protagonist relentlessly mows down others in order to get their own way, then I’m probably rooting for the villain.

This doesn’t mean characters can’t be selfish. Selfishness is part of being human, and a healthy amount of self-interest drives characters to make interestingly poor choices. But a dead-eyed hustler who uses other people as a means to an end and then discards them without a second thought? Someone put a scorpion in their Armani jacket, will you?

3. The Lump. Need a character who does something? Look elsewhere. This often-found problematic protagonist never actually does anything. Instead, they’re relentlessly shoved around the story by other characters, like a leaf on storm-force winds. They might as well be a camera lens for the reader to see the story, an dispassionate observer of the events. The good news is their dead weight will be enough to drag the Sack of Crappy Protagonists into the briny depths.

4. The Emo Sad-Bag. We get it. You’re fucked up. You hurt. But, for the love of Christ’s most holy butthole, do you have to keep talking about it? Or thinking about it? Or generally sitting around like a mopey sack of crap, looking in mirrors and sighing wistfully?

Into the sack. Try not to drown in your own bravely-held-back tears before we get to the shore.

5. The Idiot. I cannot deal with stupid protagonists. Short-sighted is fine; bright but not as smart as they think they are is even better. But genuinely stupid, to the point of making bad choices for no goddamn reason at all other than the author needed a way to move the plot along? Get in the sa—actually. You don’t go in the sack. The lazy author who created you goes in the sack.

What about you? What protagonists can you not abide?

*As always, your mileage may vary. Someone out there must love psychopath characters, or they wouldn’t keep getting written.

Dawn Of The First Day: 4 Questions For Getting Ready To Write

Tick tock. Are you ready?

Saturday is the first of November. Halloween Boxing Day*. And while you’re prying yourself from the queasy grip of a sugar-induced coma, I’ll be up and writing.

Because Saturday is also the official start of NaNoWriMo.

You might not be starting a new book on Saturday—or you might be doing it a little differently—but this checklist is applicable to anyone who is starting a big ass project. So whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo, or just charting the frantic mental decline of those of us who are while waiting for a better time, check this list and make sure you’re ready.

1. Do you know what you’re writing? If you don’t, you’re in for a rough ride, bucko. Not saying it can’t be done—there are anecdotes of people doing so all over the place—but it will be like unto going down a slide made of gravel in steel-wool underpants. Maybe you’re into that sort of thing. I’m not judging.

2. Have you set aside time to write? Maybe you blocked off a section of your day, or picked a day a week which is for writing. Maybe you’re going to fit it in where you can, which I understand is the preferred** method for those with children. The important thing is to make a commitment. What that commitment looks like is up to you.

3. Do you have a borderline unhealthy addiction to something that gives you energy? I hear this is a great use for leftover Halloween candy. I might have to resort to this since I’m off coffee for a few months. It’s anyone’s guess whether or not I remember how to write without it.

4. Do you love it? The writing, I mean. Because there are going to be hard times. There are going to be times when it feels like you’re trying to knock down a brick wall with your fucking face. At times like that, you need something to keep you going. And what will do that, what will keep you standing when you should have fallen long ago, is love: love for the story, for the idea, for what you’re doing even when it sucks. Love will get you through it when coffee and bite-size Mars bars fail.

So, are you ready?

*For those unfamiliar, Boxing Day is the day after Christmas, when you either go shopping to spend whatever money you got for Christmas or sleep off your food hangover from the previous day.

**Read: only.

Chalk Outlines: How I Plan A Novel

Outlining: Not Just For Bodies Anymore.

It’s no secret that I love my outlines. And, man, I mean love. Like the way I love coffee: I may drift away, but I always come back, and while I know it’s not entirely healthy, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Anyway.

I used to outline on paper, with the straight-up Roman numeral system I learned back in the sixth grade*. Then I switched to doing the same thing in a Word document, because it meant less little directional arrows when I had to add something in the middle.** Then there were index cards, which could be endlessly shuffled around but inevitably lacked space and got eaten by the cat.

But now I have found my ride-or-die outlining system, and most of you are going to be entirely unsurprised that it’s Scrivener. I’ve mentioned this particular piece of software before, but never really gone into how I use it. Probably because that would take forever. I use Scrivener for everything from research to planning to editing. It’s a powerful suite of tools all rolled up in a good interface.

For outlining, there is a very convenient feature called the Outliner. It has a number of pre-set columns, but—and this is important for me—you can also customize those columns. Mine are as follows:

-Scene Title: often something basic like ‘Jimmy Finds Orthotics of Power’ but occasionally something more entertaining, like ‘HOLY SHIT IT’S ALL FUCKED UP NOW’.

-What Happens: does what it says on the box. Mostly a Coles Notes version with the pertinent points laid out

-Who’s There: Because characters are like cats: hard to keep track of and then they turn up somewhere you weren’t expecting.

-Questions Raised: Anything dangling hook of information that gets introduced in the scene. I keep track of these so I can make sure that all the important ones get answered eventually.

-Notes: Because sometimes I need to remember something that doesn’t fit in one of the above categories.

Once I have a bunch of these laid out, I use to Label feature to colour-code everything. Partly because it’s pretty, but mostly because it’s helpful. Sometimes it’s by point-of-view character, to make sure I’m not spending all my time inside the wrong head. Other times it’s by plot line: main, sub 1, sub 2, romantic, whatever. The colour coding makes it easy to take in, at a glance, the overall spread of attention. Am I not developing sub plot two enough? Maybe I don’t need it at all. Is Talulah the Overly Sarcastic Orderly taking over a lot of scenes? Consider bumping her up to major character, or scaling back the scenes from her point of view.

Of course, the outline thus created changes once I start writing, but I track those changes, too. Then, when I’m done, I compare what I did with what I meant to do, and see where the changes improve the manuscript and where they were the products of too much coffee and a bad dream the night before.

Most of the above can be done with any spreadsheet program, or a table if you have the patience for formatting. I prefer Scrivener because it’s simple and I have to change programs far less, but if you have something that can do all of this, more power to you.

So that’s my system. What do you do to outline?

*Heeeeeeey, Mr. Butler.

**Also less hand cramps.

Subvert The System: 6 Ways To Hack NaNoWriMo

Quick, before the NaNo Police arrive!

So I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. Kind of a last minute decision. But, since I’m already in the process of doing something else—namely The Big Edit—I figured this would be a good chance to kick start it.

Now, I won’t be starting from scratch; I’m actually rewriting the last NaNoWriMo project I did. Don’t tell the NaNo Police*, since it isn’t strictly by the rules, but rules were made to be broken, baby. Or at least severely bent.

I know there are more than a few of you out there who might have considered NaNo as a jumpstart for writing, but you don’t feel that your project fits their guidelines. Well, guidelines be damned; this is about writing. So here are a couple ways to hack NaNo to fit your project.

1) Go Short And Sweet. A small but interesting group writes short stories instead of novels for November. Some do thirty in thirty days; others try to tally 50,000 words worth of short stories in a month. If you’re more into short fiction, this could be your project.

2) Hack and Slash. Maybe, like me, you’ve got a project that needs editing. NaNo can jumpstart that, too. Depending on your needs, maybe you could edit a chapter a day. You’d be through those edits in no time! Or, if you need to spend a little more time on it, go for a page a day and really fucking dig into it.

3) Draw Me A Picture. I am a long-time lover of comics and graphic novels, as evidenced by the contents of my t-shirt drawer, and I see nothing wrong with taking NaNoWriMo and working on a comic script. Whether you’re writing a poignant narrative about life during the Enlightenment, a heady space adventure, or a rocking cape story with heroes galore, this could be your time.

4) Just The Facts, Ma’am. Or maybe you need to grind out some non-fiction. Honestly, if I’d known about NaNoWriMo when I was working on my theses, I would have jumped on it like a meth-addicted cat on a slow mouse. Talk about footnotes with your fellow academics! Or compare dodgy research methods and start messing up Wikipedia articles!

5) Roll A Craft (Writing) Check. All you tabletop gamers out there: do you think those books of rules, monsters, scenarios, and dodgy magical items write themselves? Jump in and have a go. There’s a small group that sharpens their pencils and rolls the dice to make up scenarios for their favourite games. Or maybe writes their own game. Break the rules by making other rules!

6) Something Else Entirely! There’s a group on the NaNoWriMo forums called NaNo Rebels. There’s not as many things in there as you might think; the rules have changed a little in recent years to allow for other sorts of projects than the puke-it-up-as-you-go zero draft. But if you’re not sure what it is that you want to do—if, in fact, all you have in an amorphous idea blob that could become any number of things—then trawling through there might give your project a shape.

And if you are in doubt about the legitimacy of your project, they will be more than happy to tell you whether or not you belong in the regular forums or in with the rebels. Also, I hear that they might be giving our eyepatches and parrots to eligible candidates.

Still think it’s not for you? Fair enough. But know that the doors are more open than the title ‘National Novel Writing Month’ might imply. And, even if they’re not, there’s no harm in squeezing under the door when no one’s looking.

*No such thing, but a trip through the internets could leave you thinking differently.

Five Things You Need To Write A Novel

Here. You’re going to need these.

1) A Fine Set Of Big Brass Ones. Balls or ovaries, dealer’s choice. You will need these to start, because without them, you’ll likely be discouraged by naysayers, lingering self-doubts, or the idea of putting words in order for several months with no promise* of a giant pile of money at the end. There are a million reasons not to, and before you’re done you’ll find out what most of them are and maybe invent one or two new ones on your own. If you’re pitting your will against all that, it’ll help to have the stones to follow through.

So strap on your biggest pair, because you’re going to need ‘em.

2) An Idea. Ideally, an idea that you’ve worked with a bit and which has spawned a whole colony of sub-ideas, all of which can go into creating an interesting whole. But in a pinch you can substitute a brand new Flash-In-The-Pan and see how it goes. Maybe it’ll fizzle out after a chapter or two, or maybe it’ll make a fire big enough to toast your brain from the inside. Only one way to find out, right?

3) A Practical Concept Of How You Write. Do you prefer to pick at it a little every day? Or are you the weekend binger, knocking out whole chapters while watching the Sunday afternoon games? Do you want to get up in the morning and scratch out a couple of pages while your spouse sleeps and the paper boy runs from the neighbour’s murderous Rottweillers? Or do you want to stay up past your bedtime, pecking away by the blue light of the computer? Have an idea of how you work, or how you want to try to work. This will give you discipline.

Don’t worry if it’s your first time; if it doesn’t work, you can always change it. I’m not going to come to your house and kick your door in.**

4) A Sub-Atomic Transcription-ator. Or a computer. Or a notebook. Some means by which you will take the raw, fresh squeezings of your brain and turn them into a useable form. Like making booze, you’ve got to have the right container. Charred white oak or a brand-new journal, sherry casks or a clean Word document: each will give your writing a different feel and a different flavour. Pick the one that suits the story.

5) Desire. You have to want it. And you have to want it enough that you are willing to invest something of which you have a finite amount: time.

So want it. Want it right down in your mitochondria.

That’s my list. What do you need to write a novel?

*If you do have a promise of a big pile of money at the end, congratulations on the satanic book deal for which you sold your soul.

**Unless you have coffee when I’ve run out. Or pecan pie. Big pie fan.