Seed To Flower: Bringing Ideas Along

2012-06-08 13.30.17In the last two weeks I have taken a novel from the barest seed of an idea to full outline. That probably seems fast to some of you, and slow to others. For me, it’s on the fast side. Especially since this was a cold idea, one that I just selected from the brain queue at random and said yes, you, you’ll do and not one that I’ve been rolling around in my subconscious for a few years. Every writer has a few of those.

I needed a new story. The just finished manuscript is out with betas and awaiting feedback, and there’s not point in starting the sequel yet. But writers write, and I didn’t have anything immediately on deck.

So I made something.

I picked the first idea that came to me, and started in. I wanted to test some new planning methods, and so far they’ve worked.

The first came from Delilah S. Dawson, aka Lila Bowen, who wrote Servants of the Storm and Wake of Vultures respectively, both of which are awesome. She wrote a post on using music playlists for inspiration. You all know I love music, but while I often create playlists, they’re usually done after, not before.

But I had a go. I used Spotify, gathered 32 songs that sounded about right*. It took me about a day. Then I listened to it on repeat in my big ol’ over-the-ear headphones while I knocked out fast notes on the other stuff: main character, setting, inciting incident, etc. After two days, that gave me the bare bones of what was, by this point, starting to turn into something interesting.

But it lacked structure, and I know I need structure, so I trawled through my document files until I found this: a novel outliner template by Caroline Norrington for Scrivener that I downloaded back in the long ago and never tried. No time like the present.

If you’re already had a look at that template, be warned: it’s a monster. There’s shit in there that I don’t even know what to do with. But, importantly, it had big-ass lists of questions that needed to be asked and answered before this story moves on. I can’t always think of those questions on my own. And, thanks to this, I didn’t have to.

I filled in as much of this template as I wanted, which took about a week. And now I have a scene-by-scene outline, ready to go.

Will it go anywhere? Only time will tell. And, to be honestly, it’ll tell pretty quickly; I’m planning to start writing this soon. But I have never gotten from nothing to a solid outline this quickly.

Now I’m off to make a batch of brownies.

**flies away in a puff of coffee grounds**

*About write. Eh? Eh?

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Round and Round: How To Re-Outline A Writing Project Because You Made A Terrible, Terrible Mistake

GOTG

Spin me right round, baby, right round.

1. Write down what happened. In your current draft, anyway. Simple sentences, scene by scene. Cover everything. Everything important. Hint: if you leave it out of your outline, it’s probably something you should think about cutting, because you couldn’t be arsed to write one goddamn sentence about it.

2. Code them. If you’re using Scrivener or Trello or some other index card maker thing, then mark the scenes somehow to indicate different metrics. I mark plots/subplots and viewpoint character. Then I lay them all out in order and see how they stack up. Does one of the subplots disappear, only to reappear at the end? Or never reappear at all? Am I spending more time inside a secondary character’s head than I am inside the main character’s? Cast the augury of the cards. They will reveal your weakness, through which your enemies may strike at thee.

3. Patch and fill and cut. Move stuff around, change viewpoint characters, create some scenes that resolve that subplot…or cut it altogether. Make it count or flush it.

4. Write down what should have happened. New set of cards, writing down what needs to happen now that you’ve changed fucking everything. This is the worst. It’s okay. We’re almost done.

5. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Mark up your new cards with pacing elements: action, exposition, character revelation. Does the flow work now that you’ve added in things? If not, get more cards. Oh god, more cards. Keep working at it until it flows like sweet, sweet bourbon. Which reminds me: you might need some bourbon.

6. Mark the scenes as Stop, Go, and Slow The Hell Down. I use the Label function to turn my cards green, red, and yellow. Stop is a new scene entirely. Go is a scene that can be taken 90% verbatim from the old draft. Slow The Hell Down is a scene that needs to be tinkered with in order to fit. Try not to freak out over the amount of red and yellow cards.*

7. Begin. Again. This time with a plan.

*For example, I sat down with a huge coffee at the local caffeine pusher and worked my way through all these bloody cards and here’s my breakdown: 13% Stop, 55% Go, 32% Slow The Hell Down.

Maps and Railroads: How Much To Plan When Writing

Picturesque, but not for me.

I’m a planner. This has been well established. It’s how I write shit. I don’t plan, nothing gets done. Or, it gets done, but badly. Either way, not a win.

But a common question I get is: how much planning is too much?

Well, the answer depends on the writer. Some like the vaguest idea of where they have to go next; others like every turn planned out.

How do you figure out which way is yours? Simple: plan until you know what you have to do, but stop before it hampers your creativity.

I plan until I don’t have to think about what I’m going to write the following day. I turn up at the desk, open my documents, and, hey, here we are. Next thing I have to write is that scene with the lockpicks and the peanut butter and the bag of medical-grade cocaine. So I dump the characters in that situation and see what they come up with. I know, generally, where it has to go, but I’m not sure how to get there. That’s what the daily creativity is for. I need a map, but not a railroad. I’ll get there when I get there.

Your mileage may vary, of course. You might find that planning every twist and turn is perfect for you; all you need to do during writing time is show up and follow along. I’ve found that very busy people who find it hard to carve out actual in-front-of-the-computer time fall into this category. They can plan in their heads or a notebook or a smartphone, and then get it all out once they get time to do the writing.

Others might find that they like driving in the fog: they only need to see as far as the next turn. Any more than that and they think: what’s the point? I already know what happens, so why bother to write it?

So, how about you? What’s your method? How much do you plan out ahead of time, and how much is on the fly? And how well does that work for you?

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?

It’s More Fun If You Take It Out And Play With It: How To Grow Ideas

Together, we will raise this idea to destroy cities.

Ideas are fragile things. They need care and attention before they can blossom into…

Wait a second. Got my notes mixed up. That’s kids. Kids are fragile blossoms. Or something. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really paying attention during those baby-sitting courses. And yet all my cousins survived. I think. I have a lot of them, so I’d need to do a head count to be sure.

Anyway.

Ideas. You have an idea. A little one. And you need to know how to grow it into a book, into a full-fledged mecha-Baphomet-Idea with fire breath and razor wings and inspiration spewing from every orifice. It will storm forth from your word-writing engine to lay waste to the shelves of lesser books and hear the lamenting of their indices.

Buuuuut it’s also kind of…new. Undeveloped. And until it grows and loses its first set of fangs, you don’t want to risk anything happening to your little baby idea.  So you don’t tell anyone about it. You don’t pick at it very much. You just wrap it up and keep it safe. You want to protect it from the viciousness of the word-world, with its reviewers and unpleasant Twitter accounts. You want to coddle it.

Too bad that won’t get you anywhere.

Ideas are not fragile. They can’t be and survive. You might feel protective of it at first, and that’s only natural. After all, it’s a part of you. But if it’s ever going to be all that it can be, then it needs to get kicked around a bit. Have those rough edges knocked off. If you keep it locked up away from anyone and everyone, it’ll turn out like one of those weird kids whose parents never them go outside and refused to let anyone inside the house unless they were coated in hand sanitizer.

So, here’s what you do with your brand spanking new baby idea: take it out into the fresh air. Let it stretch its tiny little wings. Examine your idea from all angles. Look for the flaws. What doesn’t fit? Where are there gaps, and what can bridge them? You can do this yourself or you can get others in on the game. But, much like toys, ideas are a lot more fun if you take them out of the packaging and play with them.

Before you know it, the idea will grow. First subplots, then characters, then a set of rending talons the likes of which the world has never seen themes. By questioning it and prodding it and generally working with it, you’re giving it what it needs to get big and strong. And it will. Eventually, if it gets big enough, it’ll dominate your thoughts, squatting in the middle of them like a dragon on a conveniently-located pile of gold*. You won’t be able to stop thinking about it.

And what do you do then?

You write it, of course.

*Handy for the shops and near a good school, just in case it gets hungry.

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.

5 Things I Learned Doing NaNoWriMo

Now the trick is to just get it out…

It’s that time of year again. The hills are alive with the sound of little NaNoNauts, about the embark on their first–or second, or ninth–cruise through the turbulent, maddening waters of NaNoWriMo. The word-puck officially drops November the First, right after Halloween.

In case you missed them, here are some of my past profanity filled takes on NaNoWriMo:

-4 Reasons To Do NaNoWriMo

-4 Reasons To Skip NaNoWriMo

-NaNoWriMo Survival Guide: Participant’s Edition

-NaNoWriMo Survival Guide: Rubbernecker’s Edition (my personal favourite)

But there’s something I haven’t addressed yet, and it’s this: what I took from doing NaNoWriMo at various points in my writerly growth.* So here they are: all the lessons I dragged from my brain.

1) An Outline Is Not Necessary, But, Damn, Does It Ever Fucking Help. You don’t need an outline. The popular “no plan, no problem” approach is often touted for NaNo. And it can work. I’ve done NaNo with no plan. But while I finished, what I created was such an abysmal festering mess that I can barely look at it, let alone try to edit it. Plus, going at the breakneck speed of words that NaNo requires, if you don’t have a plan you’re going to write some weird-ass shit. Guaranteed. Maybe that’s what you’re going for.

2) A Writing Community Helps When Everything Tastes Like Fail. Having a group of other writers to bitch to when things aren’t going as planned is very valuable. You might find the group in one of your local meetings, or you might find it online in the forums. Wherever you track them down, they can make writing a little less fucking lonely.

3) Competition Can Help Or Hinder, But For God’s Sake Don’t Be A Dick About It. Don’t be that guy who shows up to the local meeting bragging about how far ahead he is. Or the one that goes to a write-in and pouts if he loses the word-sprint. If you want to let competition power the tiny little engine that is your soul and push you to new heights, fine. But don’t bring that drama with you to the coffee shop, hoss. Nobody likes that guy.

4) People Will Just Not Fucking Accept “No, I’m Staying In To Write” As A Valid Reason To Miss AnythingI don’t care if it’s a night at the pool hall or your cousin’s ritual slaughter of goats, you use writing as an excuse, you’re going to get some serious shade thrown your way. Find a way to be okay with it or make up another excuse. Perhaps, “My writerly growth just burst.”

5) Flailing Around Like A Drunk Wombat With A Keyboard Can Be A Great Learning Experience. Maybe you’ll learn that you need to outline, or that you can do without. Maybe you’ll learn how to pace a story. Maybe you’ll learn how to meet a deadline. Maybe you’ll learn that writing novels isn’t for you and you prefer short fiction, or poetry. Or maybe you’ll learn that you don’t like writing that much after all. The one thing I guarantee, though, is that you’ll learn something. Even if you don’t like it.

So, how about you guys? Anyone participating this year? Anyone bowing out? Tell me of your plans, word goblins.

*That sounds like a tumour. “We removed a writerly growth that was the size of a basketball!”