A short search through the blogosphere will reveal that writers are often of two opinions about their method of writing. Either they prefer to start with a well-laid-out outline, or they ditch the outline and write their magnum opus without one, by the seat of their pants.
Soon after finishing NaNoWriMo 2007 with a dandy 50,037-word, seat-of-pants manuscript that was practically useless, I tried to reign in the horrible mess by outlining what I had already written. This was exactly like herding cats, enormous and frustrating. So giving up on it was easy.
My great manuscript was a mystery story, and though I pounded away at it all month, it came down to a handful of poorly stitched together scenes. All of these scenes were important in some way. I wanted to understand my heroine and get her into and out of some trouble. But the plot was practically nonexistent, and I even went down a path I did not particularly enjoy, having her pursue her investigation by logging into an online social website a la Second Life. None of it was working out!
And then just recently the reason hit me: the novel was floundering because I new nothing about the actual crime! Oh, I had a vague idea, but nothing solid; and let’s face it, the crime is central to the mystery. Without a sense of whodunit, whydunit, whendunit, and howsitcoveredup there was going to be no novel.
An outline was key. Having one would be the result of thinking out all the details and red herrings central to a good mystery story. Now, I like the idea of having an outline to give me a sense of order and purpose. But because I’m not used to thinking about a story in terms of writing an outline, I always ran into a roadblock; the energy of this story always petered out, and I gave up easily.
But now I have a purpose and a plot for this mystery. What changed was how I looked at creating an outline. [A small digression: I am usually an all-or-nothing kind of thinker. If I use an outline I have to write everything in outline form. This meant that I had to have it already thought out, which meant that somehow something (the outline) had to come from nothing (chaos), but that I couldn't acknowledge the chaos part because the plotting process was supposed to be neat and orderly.] I started to let a little chaos back into my thinking. I thought, Yes, it will be better to have an outline, BUT FIRST I will do a little non-linear creating to get the plot going.
I new next to nothing about the crime, as I’ve already said. So to develop the crime’s story arch I started to write the scene where the criminal confesses everything that happened. I put in some characterization to liven it up. But more to the point, I wrote the scene without any preconception as to how it would turn out. As I wrote it I gave myself permission to discover what happened at the crime scene at the same time as the heroine. I inserted a little seat-of-pants chaos into my outline. Now I know the crime, who committed it, and why. Now I can plot out the timeline, the clues, the red herrings. And once that is done, I can stick my heroine into the thick of it with all of her own personal story and make the two storylines clash and crash all they can to make things interesting.
Here’s the essence of what I’ve just discovered: if you’re a seat-of-pants writer who wants to make a switch into creating an outline, go for it. But if the actual process of making that outline seems too epic, try to start by writing a scene out without plotting it just to see where it goes. This actually become a part of the plot, or illuminates the plot, and it always happens that you discover something interesting that you didn’t know. Give yourself permission to put the chaos into the order.
It’s December. The sky is overcast. A slight but steady sheet of snow will obscure my driving vision tonight. Among other reasons to be sad in December is that NaNoWriMo is over for this year. (Insert heavy sigh.) Did you get to participate? Did you win? And what are you going to do with your manuscript?
I know how I did…lousy. Yes, I signed up for NaNoWriMo this time, but did not get a single word written. As I’ve mentioned before (and trust me, I feel like I’m just shelling out excuses) my hands were a little tied. The good news is that The Boy is sleeping just a little bit longer at night!
However, though I was not nearly as productive as I would like to have been, I did get some work done on the ms I wrote for the 2007 NaNoWriMo. It got shelved soon after I finished it because it was so awful, and it soon lost the energy it started with. It was a mystery story where I did not know whodunit, whydunit, or even whattheydun, really. That’s how bad it was.
I still believe in the main character and her friends. The idea is still solid. I just have to work on the actual plot. Piece of cake, right? That’s where a post at The Intern caught my eye: NaNoRevisMo, or National Novel Revision Month. Check out the article. It made perfect sense to me. Instead of beating myself up that I couldn’t do NaNoWriMo this year I switched my focus to revising something I already had. I didn’t put any major pressure on myself, just that of working on the ms to prod it along. And IT WORKED. Did I make a lot of progress? No, but I now have non-zero progress in my work. And that feels good. What is more, the little bit of work I did gives me some not little bit of insight on plotting a story that I will share with you soon.
Please please PLEASE comment on how you did this month. Even if NaNoWriMo evaded you, you wrote something, right? Let’s hear about how you did. After all, that’s what it all about.
We are fast approaching the most exciting month of the year. November! Now, some (here in the US, at any rate) get excited because they are looking forward to their next supersaturation of L-tryptophan, but not this humble wordsmith. No, November 1st at 12 o’clock a.m. begins the hallowed National Novel Writing Month.
NaNoWriMo — as it is known to those who love it — is the wonderful month-long foray into sleep deprivation and overclocking of the plot crank, yes, that caffeine-driven deluge of words on page without rhyme, reason, or regard to personal safety. If you’ve done it right, on November 30th at 11:59:59 p.m. you will have several things: 1) 50,000 words of a previously unrealized novel, 2) friends and family who complain they don’t see you enough, 3) a mean coffee monkey, and 4) serious bragging rights. What you will also have is an obligation to finish what you so hastily started: a novel!
Alas, I will not be participating in NaNoWriMo this year (heavy sigh). There is quite enough to do in the Wade household with The Boy now starting his third month of benevolent dictatorship. But I did want to weigh in with my full support to anyone who is curious about it or is planning to give it a go. Do it! It will be worth it. Go to the NaNoWriMo website and sign up. Just having access to the forums is worth the price of admission. Well, it’s free to sign up, but…you know what I mean.
There are also many bloggers out there who are posting NaNoWriMo content this month and the next, posts about how they are doing it and giving excellent tips on how to make it through this next great month of November. I’ll have another post, soon I hope, with links to some of those. In the meantime, all of you my faithful and teeming trove of readers are welcome to post comments here about their NaNoWriMo experiences and tips as well.
TTFN and keep cranking!
There’s a book inside you. You know it. You can see it when you close your eyes. The characters are familiar friends. The world they live in is old and well-visualized. There is only one thing keeping you from bringing it outside: You.
What is your roadblock? Often times it’s only the perception of a roadblock that keeps you from starting or completing your project. If your complaint is “there isn’t enough time,” “my family keeps me busy,” or “I can’t see past a certain point in the story, I’m blocked,” then rest assured that those are the worst excuses ever devised; they are not even clever enough for a writer to have come up with. But, if you find yourself buying into these anti-productivity slogans, then perhaps what you need is a little self-competition.
Competition can be very good for a writer. Think about it: if you are getting paid to write an article for a magazine, your competitor is either another writer or your deadline. Nothing changes when you are writing for your own pleasure, or if you are banging away at your first novel in the hopes of getting it published. It’s just that your competition is ‘softer’ in a way. Your competition is YOU.
You’re not just one runner in a marathon. You are two runners: the pace runner and the runner trying to keep pace. If your pace runner isn’t doing his job, there is no goal to shoot for. You can just stop whenever you want and chat with an onlooker. On the other hand, if your pacer (that part of you egging you on) is ahead of you shouting encouragement and taunts, well, there is nothing you can’t accomplish. Are you a worthy competitor?
If you need to set a pace that will stretch your abilities, consider one of several ‘self-competitions’ that will challenge you by challenging yourself.
- NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month is the grand master of writing self-contests. The idea is to write a 50,000 rough draft of a novel from whole cloth in the month of November. Creator Chris Baty has built quite a website that administrates the contest, where you can log in your progress through the week and talk in forums with others who have accepted the same challenge. I completed NaNoWriMo in 2007 with a manuscript that was around 50,010 words. Yay me! What a rush that was. Now, to edit it into something that doesn’t resemble sad mush. I’ll be posting about this later. I have ideas!
- JulNoWriMo: Not to be outdone by November, July has its own contest. Though newer and not as fancy, its participants are on the rise. Too bad we just missed it! Keep it in mind for 2010.
- 10K Day: Milli Thornton at the Fear of Writing hosted the first 10K Day in June, and it was such a hit that she decided to make it a regular thing, and even to add a second day (a Saturday) to the monthly challenge. Check out her site, which has just moved over to WordPress and so has a little construction dust right now. This is a good site for a little jolt of inspiration to get you back to writing.
- The 500 Words-a-Day Challenge: Debbie Ohi at Inkygirl has put out a daily challenge of writing 500 words a day or 1000 words a day. If these word counts seem small then keep in mind that a single Lego seems small, but with enough of them you can build a rocket ship or landspeeder or castle. Or TARDIS! It certainly helps that Debbie offers cool Yay Me! badges. That’s reward enough.
There are other self-challenge sites out there which you’ll find with a quick browse. Some of them require an entry fee. All of them challenge you to challenge yourself.
Let me know: which challenges have you accepted? And whether you completed the challenge or not, how did it help you with your writing? Feel free to post your answer in the comments below.
Just a quick jot to link to this awesome article about fear in writing: I’ve done it, probably you’ve done it. Stared at the screen or page wondering what is going to go there. It’s your internal editor heading you off at the pass, saying “You don’t have anything brilliant to write. Just don’t bother!”
Well, we have to fight that feeling. For every excuse, there is an equal and opposite excuse-killer. Our job is finding it.
Michelle Russell at Copyblogger lists 5 reasons why we should throw caution to the wind and write the Most Horrible Blog Post (or story, for that matter) Ever:
- It’ll Give You Courage
- You’ll Fail Faster
- Happy Accidents Happen
- Nobody Likes Perfect People
- People Need You
Go check Michelle’s article out. Now I have to go write badly horribly. Keep cranking!
Do you want to write interesting stories, or boring ones? The answer is obvious: to avoid making a yawner story (for both your readers and yourself), you want a main character that is not boring to be around.
And all you have to do is HATE. YOUR. CHARACTERS.
A common quote that is passed around the writing-sphere is “Chase your character up a tree, then throw rocks at him.” In other words, don’t give your character an easy time of it. Easy is boring. If something can go wrong, make it go wrong 100% of the time. Be relentlessly mean to him. Don’t give him a break. Or, if you do give him a break, it’s only to make the final jab in the gut that much more painful. Anything else is pulling punches and playing fair.
Start with what your character cares about the most. If your character cares about something, then attacking that thing (or person) will cause him the most pain. From a writing standpoint, pain is good.
This means you have to know your character well enough. A sketchy character with a cardboard personality will not have likes and wants, just action scenes. Work on what motivates him. Then hit it hard.
I’m going to give you a real-life example. My wife and I are expecting our first child, a boy. The little guy has been moving around a lot recently, and feeling him bump around inside his mommy’s belly has pleased me to no end.
Princess just started her third trimester, and just at this time, we realized that two or three days flew by without any movement. We started to get worried. After all, the book we’re reading (which is an excellent book in every way) tells us to time our baby’s movements, and if they’re too slow or nonexistent, we should worry and see the doctor immediately. So, we spent an anxious night losing sleep, full of worry, wondering if our baby is okay and afraid that he’s not.
If this were a work of fiction, the point where we realize the baby is not moving is chasing the character up a tree. But it doesn’t stop there. A writer who wants a good, dramatic story will throw rocks by thinking of what more can go wrong.
With a little bit of imagination, we can think of all sorts of things that can go wrong when an expectant couple fears for the safety of their unborn child:
- The couple can start to blame each other, perhaps suspecting that some habit of the father’s (such as smoking) or the mother’s (such as drinking) is to blame. A loud argument erupts before even there is a trip to the doctor.
- The father throws the mother into the car and speeds them off to the emergency room. On the way they have an accident and the baby is hurt. Now they don’t know if the baby was really in trouble before, but now it’s too late.
- The father cannot function. He goes off to the bar/gym/work and gets hammered/injured/fired.
- The father suspects his wife of hurting the baby on purpose. He begins to confide in a female coworker.
I’ve purposely focused on the father’s reactions, mostly. If I tried to brainstorm for the mother, I would easily double this list. But, clearly by adding some carefully selected reactions and overreactions we can make a bad situation worse. Even if the baby is healthy, we have added a level of complication that we wouldn’t have if we went the easy (boring) route and just went to the doctor in the first place. Chase your character up the tree and throw rocks at him!
(BTW, Princess and I did take the boring route and went to the doctor. The baby is fine, but he’s not moving as much as before because he’s running out of room in there! It’s funny that in real life, boring is so much better.)