Attack of the Plot Robots: Working Backwards

Oh God, what does it want? TO SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS IN AN IMPLAUSIBLE MANNER, FLESHBAGS.

So, as I mentioned Wednesday, I now have my outline. It’s very shiny, and will probably remain that way until I start writing and it gets kicked around a bit.

An important note, though, is that when I was finished my outline, I went through it again. And this time I went through it backwards.

If you’re setting up an ending, you need to make damn sure the threads of it are unwound throughout the story. Yes, even a twist ending. I’ve mentioned this before, but the ending of the story should be the inevitable outcome of the character’s actions as seen in retrospect. In other words, even if it looks like a twist at first glance, the reader should be able to look back and slap themselves in the forehead when they pick up on the clues that were scattered throughout.

One way to do this: work backwards. I knew my ending, and I knew what that ending meant. So, I had to make sure that it was set up properly: characters making certain references or acting in a particular manner; the room where it goes down has a particular type of flooring; the tradition that ends things is mentioned and seen in action much, much earlier. By doing this, the ending doesn’t come out of nowhere. It doesn’t feel forced, or like a deus ex machina.* It becomes about character choices and actions, not about hammering discrete events together into a Plot Robot.

For example, if your protagonist is going to take out the Big Bad with a previously unknown branch of magic, then don’t you think you should at least hint at the possibility of new magic before she whips out the Flaming Balls of Rh’leh, God of Social Diseases? And possibly show Protaggy McGeee experimenting with her magic before she has to try it on Big Bad? Maybe praying to Rh’leh a couple of times? Otherwise, no one’s going to buy Protaggy suddenly becoming one with Rh’leh at the moment when it is the most fucking convenient for her.

Coincidence is evidence of a badly-thought-out story. Excise it without mercy.

*No one likes a deus ex machina. I have to believe that even the gods don’t like that shit. They’re all like, “Fuck, what did you guys do this time? And now I have to save your sorry ass again? Fuck it. Pray all you want, you shit-disturbing assholes, I’m out. OUT.”

I might have missed a few points in theology class.

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Why Outlining Won’t Murder Your Story

That smile? That’s because he has a map. And a fabulous moustache.

After several years away, I am returning to hardcore outlining.

I got away from it for a while. Mostly just to try something new. I hadn’t tried to seriously write something long without one since my first writing days, and while those stories turned out to be little more than half-intelligible brain droppings smeared across a page, that might have been due more to my inexperience than the method itself.

It wasn’t.

When I write without a meaningful outline, yes, I get ideas. But there’s no framework for them to hang on, and too often they’re like fireworks: burning bright and pretty to look at, but not much damn use. And there’s a lot of them, so it takes time to sort through the mess.

So I went back to outlining and, man, what a fucking difference.

I finished the final outline for my novel the other day. It’s not a scene-for-scene layout, but it’s pretty close. It’s got every meaningful moment and every decision made by every character that influences the ending laid out.

I hear a lot from the anti-outline brigade about how outlining kills the story. They feel that outlining too tightly, as I have done, kills any sense of creativity and spontaneity. Besides, if the outline is done, why bother writing it? You already know what happens.

First of all, it’s a disservice to your creative mind to assume it’s as fragile as an anaemic butterfly. Creativity is tough, and good ideas always survive. If you story dies at the first sneeze of questioning, maybe it wasn’t strong enough to carry a whole book on its own in the first place.

Secondly, outlining is not writing. It’s not even pretending to write. It’s preparation.

Or, to look at it another way: an outline is to writing what a recipe is to cooking. A recipe is a damn useful thing, especially when you’re making something complicated. Having a good one can keep you from making huge, time-wasting mistakes. But no one would ever suggest that you could satisfy your hunger by writing a recipe for blitzes.

Now, sometimes you just want to jump in without an outline and write for the hell of it. And I still do that. But now that’s part of the prep work, too. I stack all that shit with the outline as I write it, or use them as test-drives for characters or locations or ideas. But when I sit down to do the heavy writing, I’ll have my trusty outline by my side. And the writing will go much smoother and more quickly for it.

As always, your mileage may vary. But if you’ve never tried outlining for fear of crippling some creative organ, put that fear aside as the bullshit it is and give it a go. You might just find the new thing you love.

Coffee, Create, Repeat: Planning Chaos

My schedule is not that different from this. I even schedule a nap some days.

I have a daily routine: get up, read articles, drink coffee, get dressed*, write, exercise, lunch, shower, edit. Nearly all of the aforementioned activities are accompanied by music and the occasional caffeinated beverage. It sounds boring. That’s because it is. And that’s by design.

The less random daily shit I have to devote brain power to, the more space gets freed up for actual creativity. In other words, every second I don’t spend deciding if I’m going to read articles before or after my run is a second that I can use to think of reasons why my main villain seemingly devoted his entire life to being a giant douche. You know, the important stuff.

People think creativity is all about chaos: the endless swirl of energy that moves ideas around in your head and makes you spew them out on the page or the canvas or the eight-track**. And, you know, that’s part of it. But only part. Because the secret is to balance chaos with order. Very little gets created when you’re standing in front of the open fridge, wondering if you should have lunch now or later.

And then there’s the matter of time management. If your writing routine consists of ‘sitting down whenever I feel like it and scribbling down a few words before not looking at it for a month’, then you’re not going to produce as much work as someone with a more regular routine. Because of that, what you do produce will likely be of lower quality as well. Not because of talent, but because in order to get better at something you have to work at it consistently. I started a routine a couple of years ago, and the improvements I’ve seen in my writing in that span of time have kicked the living shit out of the improvements I saw in the years before when I was flailing around and figuring things out.

Now, what ‘consistently’ means to you is variable. I have to write five days out of seven, but I often do more because I want to. A lot of weeks I write every day. But not everyone likes to do that, even if they can. Maybe you’re a Saturday writer. And that’s fine. Maybe your routine involves getting up at 2 am to paint yourself with chocolate frosting and run naked through your neighbour’s backyard. And that’s fine, too.*** Whatever your routine is, just make sure it works—i.e., it makes you write.

And don’t forget to break your own rules every now and then. It’s a routine, not a prison sentence.

* I don’t like working in my pyjamas, though since I work from home, I totally could if I wanted to. That’s right: I’m just throwing that opportunity away because I can.
**I know there are artists out there who record on vinyl; is there anyone who’s doing eight-tracks?
***Just stay out of my backyard. I’ve placed bear traps.

Hesitation Marks: How I Finally Started That Goddamn Rewrite

I have all the pieces…(Photo credit: wikipedia)

Last week, I was working on the new outline for the Novel Rewrite. I had index cards and a sharpie and a bunch of notes, and was happily laying them out in different patterns on the living room floor. Since more than one of the cards reads Some Dude Dies Horribly, it was a little serial killer meets Kindergarten art class.*

I finally found a pattern I semi-liked, one which made sense and that I could work with. I took a photo of it, made some more notes…and then just stopped. The cat came to sit on the index cards I had so thoughtfully laid out for her. I did a couple of blog posts.  Checked out some new short story listings. Whenever someone stepped near the cards, I’d have my Archimedes moment and tell them to not disturb my circles. And if they asked, I’d say it was going…well.

One thing I didn’t do was actually start the damn rewrite. It’s not ready yet, I told myself. I don’t want to rush this part. I have to make sure everything’s ready.

Eventually, I realized the problem: I was stalling.

Those of you who have met me in meatspace probably know that stalling isn’t my deal. I’m that person who loses patience with the never-ending discussion of where to go for dinner after ninety seconds of “I don’t know, whatever you guys want to do.”** The most polite term is probably ‘decisive’, the least polite ‘bossy and arrogant as hell’.

And here I was, vacillating like a thirteen year old girl trying to choose between two colours of mascara, Carbon Black or True Black.***

Thankfully, I figured out what was going on before I lost too much time. I was only stalling because I didn’t want to fuck it up. So I argued with myself that it was already fucked up; the zero draft is proof of that. After that, it was easier to put on my Big Girl Bra and get started.

Lesson of the day: the quest for perfection is a pointless waste of fucking time.**** All it will do is run out the time clock on your life and leave you with nothing.

Better to just strap down your important bits, grab the chainsaw, and dig in.

So? What are you waiting for?

*Kindergarten Killer, coming soon to a cinema near you.
**I’m starting to think that my friends do this just so they can watch me have one of my Hulk moments.
***The fuck does this even mean, cosmetics companies? And don’t get me started on Blackest Black, Deep Black, Jet Black, or Black Out. It’s fucking black.
****This might have also been one of the themes of the Lego movie I saw over the weekend.

Squid-Priests and Second Acts: What Novel Writers Can Learn From Screenwriting

‘Sup?

So, this novel rewrite: it’s turning out to be a giant pain in the ass.

It’s no secret that I’ve been stuck for a while. That’s why I decided to devote this entire year to making the manuscript a good one. None of my usual method were working, so, at the suggestion my my friend Kat, I tried screenwriting exercises. And you know what? It’s finally coming together.

Here’s what I’ve learned about screenwriting methods in the last month or so: 1) they’re compact; 2) they’re broad strokes; and 3) I always imagine a bunch of white guys in suits whenever they talk about pitching an idea.*

The thing about using the screenwriting format to outline is that it’s all Big Picture. Some systems out there use a finite (and small) number of index cards to plan it out. Others rely on beats, again of a limited amount. You have to focus on the big stuff in order to hit that number. So all the fiddly bits and the little scenes and the nuance falls away. You’re left with the essentials.

This turned out to be just what I needed. I was getting too caught up on the minutia. Which, you know, is a part of it too, but I was getting too deep. Couldn’t see the giant robot for the bolts. I’m a scene-by-scene outliner, but I needed to pull back and hammer out the big moments so I could see where the problems were. Now I know, so I can start fixing them.

Moral of this story, kiddies: it never hurts to mix things up.

If you’re getting stuck in the minutia and the details and the neat character relationships but you can’t seem to get the whole thing together, try taking a few steps back. Hell, take a mile. And look at the biggest moments. You want the pieces of your story that you can see from space. Then you might see why it’s not working. Maybe there’s not enough happening in the middle. Maybe there’s too much. Maybe you’ve had the Horrible Thing happen to the wrong character.

Conversely, if you have the bare bones but the story just isn’t filling you with the righteous holy fire of creation**, get closer. Dissect it. Take a good hard look at the innards: the characters, the world, the little nagging details. The way people talk. The changes having domesticated dinosaurs has changed the nature of public transit. The headdress of the Water Priests, which is supposed to be a stylized squid but looks disturbingly like a penis, leading to their irreligious nickname of the Holy Peckerheads.*** That’s how you find the stuff we’ll care about.

Yes, I just used the word ‘peckerheads’ to illustrate things you should care about. And now you’re stuck with that image in your head for the rest of the day. You’re welcome.

*Drops the mic, leaves the stage*

*Might just be me.
**Or that could be heartburn. Hang on, let me check the coffee pot level….yeah, heartburn. My bad.
***Which now also sounds like a sports team in my head.

“You Using That Flamethrower?”: Borrowing Tools

English: Reciprocating saw

Looks like a laser gun instead of a saw. Pew pew! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe it’s the combination of meds that I’m on for a couple of Bodily Horrors*, but this seems like a great day to try re-outlining my novel.

Again. Actually, again again. I’ve already tried to re-outline this fucker a few times, using a couple of different methods. It is resisting me. I do not like this.

All the methods I’ve tried so far are tried and true. I’ve done them before, for more than one project, and they’ve worked. But not this time.

Open your eyes to my words, children, and let the truth of the creative life be written: sometimes the shit you always do with great results will stop working and you will have no fucking idea why. Why did it work for that project but not for this one? Why can’t I get my head around this? Why are you no longer working?

No. Idea.

But it is not the end. Oh no. If the old methods are no longer working—and I have the piles of scrap paper and half-finished notes to say that they’re not—then it’s time to find a new method.

Let this be the lesson of the day: if the tools that you usually use for the job aren’t working, then throw them back in the fucking toolbox and get something else. The hammer not working? Get the chisel. Or the Phillips head screwdriver. Or the reciprocating saw.

My new tool? Script-writing methods. My friend Kat was kind enough to bring me a stack of paper big enough to have been a giant redwood in a former life, all containing course notes and exercises from her screenwriting courses. It has colonized my coffee table and will not give it back. The only way to defeat it is by reading it. With a notebook and a stack of index cards.

I’ll be back with my findings next week. Until then: keep your stick on the ice.

*Hint: one of them is not ebola. So at least I’ve got that going for me.

How To Prep A Novel, Part Three: The Fiddly Bits

A treasure map

Warning: X may not actually mark the spot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All right, now it’s time for the picky parts. I’ve tried a metric assload* of different ways to outline novels, and I have learned the following:

1. When people discover that you outline, they look at you like a zoo animal that’s learned to type.
2. No one method works for every novel.
3. Often combining methods is the best way forward.

But you’ve got your events and you’ve given some thought to the big questions, yes? You did the homework? Good. Then let’s move on.

Step Seven: Write That Shit Down

What, you thought you could skip that part? This is an outline, not a dream. Pick up that pen, grab some paper, and let’s begin.

An outline is a way to organize the information you have so that, one, you can make sure it makes sense, and, two, you can see what you’re missing. Because you are missing things, and some of them you will only discover when you write the novel.

Start like this: write down the very first thing that happens. See? That was easy. That’s the what. Now answer me the why: why is this happening, and why should we care? And neither why can be answered by ‘because that’s what has to happen’ or ‘because I said so.’ Those are not answers, as you learned as a child. Those are excuses. Harry Potter does not get a Hogwarts letter because he’s the main character and something interesting has to happen to the main character; he gets a letter because he was born a wizard. We care that he gets a letter because his family are child-abusing douche-canoes. Very different things.

One final question finishes off the event: what next? And, again, not ‘what does the plot demand next’, but ‘what is set in motion by this event that cannot be undone’? Harry’s letter means he’ll meet other wizards and go to new places and, significantly, make enemies. It also means his aunt and uncle are very unhappy, and will try to stop him. One of these things is probably your next event.

Take that event, and start again.

The nice thing about this system is that it can be as broad or as specific as you want to make it. Your can hit all the events, or just touch on the big ones. Whatever works for you. I like a lot of detail in my outlines**, so I tend to zero in and go scene by scene. But it works just as well if you go chapter by chapter, or act by act. Get whatever you need to write the story

These are the building blocks of your outline:
What happens?
Why?
Why should I give a fuck?
What, because of this, has to happen next?

Go on like that until you come to the end. Then stop. Look at what you’ve got. Do you like it? Does it make sense? Does it provide you with a way to get from A to B, preferably while detouring through the nether pits of C on the way?

Now it’s time to start writing. Good luck.

*Standard unit of writer measurement
**Not that I always follow it, mind you.