Checking in Wednesday

I wrote over 1500 words today. Hooray! Yesterday I only had the 500 from the morning. But I’m pleased with my progress. I’m working on a slipstream romance. I really don’t know of any others, though a Google search turned up one possibility on somebodies blog. I do enjoy the flexibility of indie publishing. I’m sure a publishing company would never accept a slipstream romance. Of course it’s probably because nobody will read one.

I have a completely new story and world churning in my head. I haven’t decided if it’s a pen name story or a me story yet. There’s definitely a romance, but there’s a lot more than that going on. I see a lot of similar themes in it that are in some other stories I’ve written but never published. I’d like to start writing it to flush it out a bit more, but I can’t take the time at the moment.

Here’s some art from a game called Gems of war that I waste a little time with. I find it inspiring:

Actual Writing Advice: Be Specific

A couple of weeks ago when I read Holly’s blog post about query letters, one very important piece of advice stuck out to me over all the other suggestions: be specific. She was talking about describing your plot in specific details so it doesn’t look generic and boring. However, I realized that my world building, whether it’s fantasy or modern day, had turned blah. Or maybe it always has been.

Even when your setting is current day with no science fiction or fantastic elements, you need to build the world and how your character views it. The only way to do that is through specific descriptions, specific dialogue and specific narrator voice.

It sounds exhausting. And it can be. But like everything else in life, practice makes it easier.


Generic Fairies

After I read Holly’s post I immediately thought of the urban fantasy I’ve started working on. It begins in the fairy world. For a loooooong time, I have had a very sexualized picture of the fairy world in my mind. But whenever I go to write my stories beginning in the fairy world, I always hold back. BAD! When I hold back, my fairy world turns little better than Pixie Hollow with a bunch of flower named fairies flying around. Why should anyone read my generic fairy story? And it’s not at all what I’ve spent years imagining.

My Fairies

My Fairies

So I dug into the prelude of my urban fantasy. I’m going to post some before and after scenes for you. Warning! The below writing has adult content. I didn’t go all porn on you, but I’d give it an R rating.


Music as light as clouds floated throughout the palace ballroom. Fairies danced high above near the open ceiling, appearing like colored falling stars streaking through the night. Others danced on the ballroom floor with their noses in the air while still ignoring the fluttering above.

And they whispered.

And whispered.

The words pushed out the music in Pamela’s ears until they thundered in her mind.
Rhys would never do that. He’d pledged himself to her.

Unable to bear the gossip, Pamela stormed out of the palace ballroom, causing the whispering to crescendo. Something snagged her long red hair that flew out behind her. She swiped by her ear, knowing it was her fairy dragon, Spark, trying to get her attention.

“Don’t go check, your majesty,” the little dragon pleaded. “Go dance at your party. Find a new lover for yourself.”

The very first problem are my cliches: “light as clouds” and “falling stars streaking through the night”. I have flying fairies opposed to wingless fairies, which is okay, but I don’t really give the reader an idea of how they’re dressed or how capricious they are or how much they like sex.


Music both rich and fluffy like a bon-bon filled the palace ballroom. Flutters danced high above near the open ceiling with twinkling stars as their backdrop. Their wings, glowing pinks, greens, blues…all shades of the rainbow, accented the dark gown of night. Wingless fairies danced on the ballroom floor with their noses in the air while still ignoring the fluttering above.

And they whispered.

And whispered.

The words pushed out the music in Tanaquill’s ears until they thundered in her mind.

Rhys was fucking a Flutter.

Her fingertips burned ready to flare if she heard the name Rhys uttered by one more fairy.

A noble leaped by wrapped in a silver ribbon for a dress. She sang in a shrill soprano, “There once was a flutter named Rhys, who was famous for his really big piece. He caught the Queen’s eye, but since she can’t fly, his piece is now filling Clarice.”

Tanaquill yanked a loose end of the ribbon streaming behind the rhyming fairy. Flames raced across the ribbon while the fairy spun like a top as the dress unwound. Just before the flames licked at the singing fairy, the ribbon released her. She planted a foot, stopping the spin. Her arms reached up in a pose to show off her nude, lithe body, glittering with fairy dust.

The dancers paused to laugh and applaud, filling the room with the sound of tinkling glass.

Tanaquill shot a warning firework from her fingertips towards the Flutters high above. It burst in a bright red. Flutters scattered above the walls and out.

Grabbing the skirt of her sheer, golden gown, Tanaquill turned and stormed out of the palace ballroom. Something snagged her long red hair that flew out behind her. She swiped by her ear, knowing it was her fairy dragon, Spark, trying to get her attention.

“Don’t go check, your majesty,” the little dragon pleaded. “Go dance at your party. Find a new lover for yourself.”

I think the above is better. Bon-bons aren’t generally used to describe music. The fairy leaping around is only wearing a ribbon, and then she’s nude. Not only is she nude, but also she’s proud of it. Tanaquill is wearing a sheer gown. “Fucking” is used as well as a lewd limerick. The reader knows the fairies are brazen, gossipy, giggly and sexual. These are not Disney Fairies.

When reading over your manuscripts, look for words, sentences and whole scenes where you can dig a little deeper and exhibit better what’s in your mind as opposed to what’s on the page. Be brazen! Being shy with your pen will get you no where. Show the world what your imagination is in all it’s glory.

Inspiring Yourself

So I flooded my bathroom and bedroom. Yay. Fortunately, not to much got damaged. I’ve been wanting to clean out my closet for awhile, which made this a somewhat productive accident. My husband has been really great helping me. We got a lot of water up yesterday/last night/early morning, and the carpet is still soaked! So round two after I post this. Unfortunately, I was really on a writing roll, but the wheels fell off now.

Last week, an article about making money as an indie author really got me down because this person was making way more than me. So I asked readers how they inspire themselves to keep writing during times of self-doubt. Thanks for all the thoughtful responses. They helped me, so I hope they help the Enchanted Spark Community!

I’m not even sure how to respond to this. There are definitely days I don’t push through and I wallow in self-pity. Then, there are days I am thankful for all I have accomplished and I work through it. I imagine even those who are successful have the same motivational issues. It’s just plain hard to sit down and write. Sometimes, even when I have an idea to write about, I don’t want to write. I’d rather do almost anything than write (read, watch tv, facebook, go out and play in the snow, yeah, right!, or even twiddle my thumbs) In the long run, we just have to make a decision to do it, whether we’re into it or not. It’s all about looking at the long term goals. Do we want to be an author who can be taken seriously? Or do we just want to be mediocre all our lives?

Dave Barz:

Just like we shouldn’t directly compare our writing to another author, we should definitely avoid comparing paystubs. When the dumptruck of money arrives in my driveway some day, I will be pleasantly surprised, but it is not an expectation.

With my current project I have had up and down weeks and scrapped my beginning after letting a group of strangers shred it on the internet. To cheer myself up I read those stories that did work, that people enjoyed and told me they enjoyed them, be they family, friends, betas, or professors. You got this far with some encouragement, hang on to that and push forward. We want to read what you write next.

Other than checking emails or looking up a date/fact, I try to stay off the internet until I’m done my writing goals. Otherwise, I always seem to come across something negative that depresses me and affects my goals for the day. On the days I’m not so self-disciplined and I do get depressed from the internet, I tend to switch over to other writerly things that need to be done outside of actual writing (getting caught up on emails, updating my website, things like that).

Ooh, I like Holly’s advice to stay off the Internet until she’s done with her writing goals.

I’m like Dave, above, in that the money part of it isn’t even a factor in my writing right now. Those numbers are really pretty good sounding. I’d like to make some money writing. It would definitely feel good. Lord knows I could use it, but TIME is my biggest challenge. I still need my day job, so with everything else that needs to get done time is limited.

After pushing and pushing in November to blog every day and also work on my story, I still found my total word count to be a little depressing. It was a lot better than I had been doing, but still paltry compared to “real writers.” At this rate I’ll finish a novel in about three to five years. Haha. I don’t want to wallow in self-doubt but I am going to wallow from time to time.

So to keep going (which I am trying to do right now) I find the following helpful: A.) Don’t spend too much time comparing myself to anybody else. This is in total agreement with Holly’s advice. Just set goals and meet goals and then do other stuff. B.) No matter how much of a struggle it is right now. It can get better. I can get better. I can learn more about how it all works. I can make the most of what I write. The only way it won’t happen is if I stop. Breaks are going to happen, but no stopping!

Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

As far as getting writing done, there really is “do or do not.” You either do it or you won’t. Just write. As far as success goes, there should always be, “try.” Keep trying and keep trying and keep trying. Because failure has almost always been part of success, so try you must. Always.


What made me keep working this time was the blizzard on the East Coast. Julie had everything for the episode edited except for the last part I was still writing. I knew she’d be shoveling snow and the power might go out, and she wouldn’t be able to edit if I didn’t get it to her before Friday morning. So after a bit of boo-hoo I got back to work. I’m so glad I did because it means we’re publishing the first release of the New Year on time! I’m only one away from my sales goal for the month, so all the sales of Episode 5 will be cream…as long as I didn’t make readers mad with Episode 4 😀

But other times when I don’t have a natural disaster looming, I turn to humor. My current favorite inspiration is below. NSFW!!!!!

Actual Writing Advice: No Sleeping

After reading the very first draft of a novel that I let people read, my cousin said to me, “She falls asleep a lot. Too much.” My cousin did give me credit because there were a lot of things going on in her dreams. She was talking to dragons, fighting the villain and almost dying in her dreams that were real. How could I have the exciting dreams if she didn’t fall asleep?

Well, I worked around it. I made her more active in hooking up the telepathic bonds herself instead of being a victim to the mental weakness of sleep. Making a character more active is always a win. But I failed to see a big part of the sleep problem. In fact it took me several more books to realize what I was doing wrong: ending chapters with the characters falling asleep.

canstockphoto28637551Particularly in romances, my characters fall asleep after marathons of sex. At the end of the chapter. Which is the perfect place for a reader to set the book down and take a nap or go to bed.

Don’t give your reader an opportunity to set the book down. If your character is going to fall asleep, or gets knocked out or run over by a freight train, do not end the chapter with your character going unconscious. Sleep is boring. Carry it to the next moment of tension and then break for a new chapter.

You have to maintain pressure on the reader to keep reading.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about by an author who I think is a master of the page turner: Simon Green. This is the end of a chapter in his book From Hell with Love:

Hush,” I said. “Sleep. Everything will seem clearer in the morning.”

It seemed only moments later when we were both awakened by a thunderous knocking on my bedroom door. The room was dark. I looked at the glowing face of the clock beside the bed; it was a little short of four in the morning. Someone was still pounding on my door and yelling my name. I turned on the light, pulled a dressing gown around me, and went to the door. It wasn’t locked, but even in an emergency a Drood’s room and privacy were sacrosanct. I pulled the door open and there was Howard, Head of Operations. His face was gray with shock and his eyes were wide. He looked like he’d been hit.

What is it?” I said.

You have to come with me, Eddie, you have to come now!” he said. “The Matriarch’s been murdered.”

It might have seemed natural to end the chapter where they fell asleep together, but it was so much better to carry it on until someone shows up at the door to tell them their boss has been murdered.

How do you end your chapters? What tricks do you use to make the reader read the next one?

Actual Writing Advice: Online Presence, Blogging

This is probably not the type of writing advice you were looking for, for those of you who canstockphoto5358023said they liked the writing advice blogs, but some people have mentioned looking into establishing themselves online. Online presence has been very much on my mind since I decided to go indie. I’ve been doing more research this last year into blogs, Facebook, Twitter and even Pinterest. I’m by no means an expert or even very good, but I have a few tips that might help you if you are in the beginning steps.

Before I get into it, I want to say that your story writing should always be top priority. If you are pressed for time and need to skimp on something, skimp on your online presence and write your stories. If you are an indie author, especially, you need to get more and more titles available so if a reader likes one book, they might buy the next and the next and so on.

I believe in getting new titles out so much that I almost quit blogging entirely. The reason I decided not to kill my blog was Spark Tally. I don’t talk to writers in person much, so Spark Tally has long been my connection to other people doing the same thing. I couldn’t visualize it as an email group or a Facebook thing, so I decided to keep blogging.

But now I’m all in with the blogging.

So here are my tips: Continue reading

Actual Writing Advice: Cutting Characters

On Friday before I wrote Spark Tally, I was disgruntled about my current story. It was taking far too long to get the protagonist away from her home, and I had these new side stories going on which I’d never intended. So I wrote Spark Tally, played Pathfinder and still wanted to throw the virtual manuscript in the trash.

In the morning I woke up to my weekly critique from my crit group. I didn’t even care. I read the comments though and they were fine. I needed more sensory details and such. But I knew they didn’t touch the core of my problem. If only I knew what that problem was.

And then it hit me. I needed to cut a character.

Which meant 37,000 words shredded.

In my experience, there’s nothing an author hates to hear about their story more than “You need to cut a character.” Whenever I suggest it to someone, I always want to add, “Don’t hate me. I’ve had to cut loads of characters in my time. It’s really for the best.” But I never say that.

Writers get attached to their characters. The first time I used the current story I’m writing in a class, the teacher told me I really didn’t need all the brothers. They cluttered the story without adding anything. “But what about the Weasleys?” I wanted to cry. JK Rowling has several characters in her stories that don’t really do much. At the very least she could’ve combined the two oldest Weasley brother’s into one.

But I cut them—all but one. And magically, that swept away a whole lot of problems. I saw more clearly what I really wanted to focus the story on.

The current character I’m cutting, I’ve introduced to the story in various ways and guises. He really belongs in the second book, and I don’t know why I keep trying to introduce him in the first book. Maybe to give the main character one friend she can trust. But even though she really could use one friend, he’s not helping the story at all. He’s distracting from her brother’s story, introducing subplots that don’t belong and delaying her departure. He needs to go.

It wasn’t hard for me to delete him like it was the brothers several years ago. Some writer’s talk about their character’s being their babies, but they’re not. They’re fictional constructs. And as fictional constructs, you can reincarnate them in other stories. In fact, if you really like a character, then make a whole book around her.

Cutting characters is about being a mature writer. It’s about seeing the big picture. The worst part for me was all those words lost. It’s been awhile since I’ve gotten so far into a book before I realized a character had to go. And he wasn’t a minor character. He was major.

I’m 5000 words into the new manuscript already and so much happier. My fingers need to fly because I want to get this done before the kids are out of school. That means at least 20,000 words to write this week. I’ll let you know how it went on Friday :)

Lightning Wolves and the Importance of Setting

This summer saw the publication of my eighth novel, a western steampunk adventure called Lightning Wolves. It’s the sequel to my 2011 novel Owl Dance and continues the story of the Russian invasion of the United States in 1877. You may not remember this seminal period in history, but I can assure you it involved airships, ornithopters, lightning guns, and automata. That’s the steampunk part of the story. The adventure comes from the characters living the experience. There’s Ramon Morales, the former sheriff trying to find new direction in life. There’s Larissa Crimson, a bounty hunter with a natural talent for machines and a desire to make the world a better place. There’s Curly Bill Bresnahan, an outlaw who has stumbled on a terrible weapon he hopes to use for his own gain. Their conflict and interaction drives the story forward.

This brings us to the western aspect of the story and the importance of setting. In a very real way, Lightning Wolves was inspired by my commute to work. If that doesn’t sound very inspirational to you, I should explain that my commute to work starts in Las Cruces, New Mexico, just a couple miles from the site of Billy the Kid’s trial, to a mountain peak on the Tohono O’Odham reservation 50 miles west of Tucson, Arizona. I make this drive once a week. Along the way, I pass through several places both famous and important to the region’s history.

The end of my commute!

I grew up watching Westerns, but I often find history more fascinating than fiction. For example, John Nakayama was a Japanese farmer who settled in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley early in the twentieth century. He and his family were instrumental in cultivating robust varieties of green chile that are so much a part of both the state’s economy and heritage. It wasn’t hard to imagine a Samurai warrior displaced by the Meiji Restoration starting down the same path a little earlier in the state’s history.

My commute to work carries me by the turnoff to Tombstone, Arizona. Although the gunfight at OK Corral put Tombstone on the map, the region had a rich history even before Wyatt Earp considered moving there. Tombstone was founded by Ed Shieffelin as a mining camp near the San Pedro River, which cuts through rolling land carpeted by chaparral. In my story, the army recruits people from Arizona to fight the Russians in California and Oregon. If this had happened, Ed and his brother Al would have faced difficulties developing their claim when the only people in the area were Apaches and a gang of cattle rustlers who called themselves the Cowboys. Taking one of the mine tours in Tombstone, inspired the idea of the Shieffelin’s working with an inventor to build a machine which could tunnel into rock.

Descending into the Good Enough Mine

The area around Tombstone provided even more story inspiration. Although the Cowboys, led by the Clanton family, are famous from many western movies, not many of those movies explored how they made their living stealing cattle from Mexican ranchers and selling it to the United States Army. On the river’s banks near Tombstone is one of the few standing Spanish Presidios, dating back to the 1700s. The Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate seemed a wonderful place for characters to seek shelter during a sand storm.

My commute to work also carries me through the Council Rocks region of the Dragoon Mountains where Cochise met with General Howard in 1872 to sign a peace treaty. It was known Geronimo frequented this area as well. The Council Rocks are a dramatic formation of yellow rocks strewn over a several-mile area like a natural fortress. It’s easy to see why the Apaches used this area as a stronghold and I knew it had to be the setting for one of the climactic encounters in the novel.

A natural fortress

Setting, for me, is more than a simple backdrop. It can provide inspiration for plot when we pay attention to the kinds of stories that have happened in similar places. Setting can provide inspiration for characters when we look at the people who have been drawn to those places and the conflicts they had. Sometimes those conflicts are with people who want the same land. Sometimes those conflicts are with the land itself. While it’s true that the type of story we want to tell will drive the setting, sometimes it’s fun to start with a setting and see where it leads you.

Lightning Wolves is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords in print and ebook formats.

Guest Blog by Holly Jennings: The Query Letter

Please welcome our guest blogger Holly Jennings! I asked her to give up her secrets to writing an awesome query letter. I’m so grateful she agreed! Also, if you’re an indie writer, I think her description of the opening paragraph would make an excellent book blurb. Here’s Holly!

First of all, let me start off by saying I am in no way an expert on query letters. The one that landed me an agent went through roughly thirty rewrites. Yes, you read that right. Not three. Thirty. Some writers believe the query letter takes more time and effort than the entire manuscript itself. Some days, I’m inclined to agree with them. It sounds rough, I know. But as long as you’re not afraid to get your elbows dirty and your ego bruised more than once, you’re already on the right track.

The summary paragraphs of every query letter (except non-fiction) should have three parts: character, conflict, and stakes — in that order.

Section One: Character

Introduce your protagonist in the very first sentence of the query. Tell us what’s special about them. Do not make the character’s life seem boring just so what happens to them seems more exciting. This will lead the agent to believe your opening pages are dull. Would you like to read the book about the average schoolgirl with average grades and an average life? Or would you rather read about the boy sitting next to her who’s secretly a troll?

You can also make this work for characters that have no idea they’re different at the beginning of the story: “12-year-old Kaylee is meant to save her school from sorcery. Too bad she doesn’t know it yet.”

It is important to state your main character’s age for all categories other than adult, so the agent knows you understand the age range for each category (middle grade, young adult, and new adult).

Now, follow up the character introduction with one to two sentences about their life/world. Again, focus on what makes them different. Give us an idea of the book’s setting and tone. If it’s set on a different planet or in a fantasy world, give us a taste of the rules and environment of this new world. Just be sure to steer clear of the dreaded info-dump. Only give us the minimal necessary to understand this world and why it’s different.

To carry on with my previous example:

“12-year-old Kaylee is meant to save her school from sorcery. Too bad she doesn’t know it yet. Stuck across the hall from her friends, life in Ms. Henderson’s seventh grade class isn’t the only thing as bad as indoor recess. Her father is a genius, and her younger brother hot on his heels. Kaylee? She’s at the crossroads of Passed-Over and Loser-Ville. With braces. And freckles. Eww.”

Section Two: Conflict

This is the initiating incident. You’ve introduced us to the protagonist’s world. What happens to make everything change? Usually this paragraph starts with a “but when…”

– A deadly virus is unleashed.
– A mysterious new boy moves to town.
– A fellow student is kidnapped.

Whatever happens to turn your character’s world upside-down, show us here. To continue on with our example:

“But when Kaylee’s reflection starts disappearing from mirrors and silverware becomes gold under her touch, something special is finally happening to her. That is, until she turns the school’s coveted football trophy to dust. Now she’s the laughingstock of the whole school. Even her friends think she’s a freak. Worst of all, she can’t even tell what her hair looks like! Being special sucks the big one.”

Section Three: Stakes

The first two paragraphs should lead entirely up to this. This is where you spell out what your protagonist stands to lose. The number one complaint I’ve read from interns, agents, and others lies within this elusive third paragraph. Nearly all writers suffer from the “vague stakes” syndrome, with symptoms like:

– All hope will vanish.
– Everyone will die.
– Love will be lost.
– Humanity will meet its doom.

The problem? The above statements also describe every B-rated movie ever made, so why would an agent care about your story?

Luckily, there’s a cure: spell out what makes this important to your protagonist. It isn’t bad to have a story where “everyone will die”. You built something on an epic, world-changing scale. Awesome! But put yourself in your character’s shoes. Sure, you’d be sad about humankind losing, but you can’t picture how it would impact everyone in the world. You just can’t. But you can imagine your siblings or friends never growing up, never having a great career, or kids of their own. Making the stakes personal to your character adds a unique emotional punch.

Back to our example:

“So when the always-on-the-edge-of-suspension Trevor corners her in the gym, she’s shocked it’s not to beat her up. He’s got powers too, and they’ve been activated because the principle is dealing in dark magic. If they can’t stop him, their powers might grow out of control and the school might go with them. This is Kaylee’s chance to be someone in her genius family, win back her friends, and impress the guy she’s so not trying to impress. But really, turning things to gold? Disappearing from mirrors? If she was meant to save the school, they could have given her better powers, and a less annoying sidekick.”

Secret Bonus Section: Voice

Notice in the example above how phrases like “Eww”, “Sucks the big one”, and “As bad as indoor recess” gives the query a likable, middle-grade flavor. We get a better insight into the character and tone of the novel, and it showcases your talent as a writer. If an agent sees that your query letter has spunk, they’ll know your manuscript will be dripping with it. This, above all, can show what makes your story different. Not all plotlines will be unique, but your characters can be. No two people are alike. A story would never be told the same way through the perception of a different character. Find your protagonist’s voice and include it in your query.

I’m currently working on two novels. One is set in a noir-fantasy world. The other is set in a virtual reality video game. If each of the main characters were to talk about somebody dying, one would say “he bit the hard goodbye” and the other would quip “he got the permanent game over”. Notice how I don’t need to tell you which said which. You just know, because it matches the world they live in. Make sure you character’s voice reflects their age and their circumstances, and you’re not just golden — you’re platinum, baby.

The Facts and Credentials

Besides the summary paragraphs, you’ll also want to include the following in your query:

– Title (In all caps).
– Word Count.
– Category and genre (eg. YA Sci-fi).
– Comparable books or authors to your story.
– Your credentials, if any, including: previous publications or writing/editing experience, your online presence, or anything else relevant to the story. Include your education if it pertains to creative writing, editing, or a specific topic in the book (eg. your main character is a biologist and you have a degree in biology). Same goes for your day job. If you’re a librarian or an editor of a local newspaper, be sure to say that. If you’re an accountant and your book has nothing to do with accounting, best to leave it out.
– Personalization to the agent. Research their interviews and check out their twitter feed (most agents have one). Tell that agent why you think your book would be a good match to them.


“MAGIC, MATH, AND OTHER THINGS THAT STINK is a middle grade fantasy novel complete at 40,000 words. It will appeal to fans of [insert awesome MG fantasy authors here]. My short work has appeared in [cool magazine goes here] and I have a degree in creative writing from [epic school here]. According to your recent tweets, you are looking for middle grade fantasy with a strong, female protagonist and an unlikely team duo. I believe my book is an excellent match to your interests.”

Last Bit of Advice

Critique the crap out of your query. Send it to every writing buddy you have. Enter query contests. Get feedback from professionals in the industry. Several blogs accept queries for critique. Find them and submit. Rewrite based off their advice. Do it again. And again. Once people start to tell you “this is agent ready”, try sending out a handful of letters to agents who represent your genre. If you get a request, stick with your letter. If not, send it out into the critiquing world again. If more people tell you “it’s ready”, then it’s just a matter of finding the right agent. If not, keeping rewriting and submitting.

Querying and query writing can be a long, painful process. But if you can work, and rework (and rework a dozen more times) the prize at the end is even better than a pot of gold…

An agent.

Actual Writing Advice: Outlining or No?

Before I get started, please come back tomorrow for a photo prompt by Julie Schober and Wednesday for a guest blog about query letters by Holly Jennings.

I thought I’d spoken about this in a previous blog, but going through even the old blog, I didn’t see any mention of outlines. So here goes.

I think everyone outlines, but not everyone does it in the traditional way. In the music world, there are composers like Stravinsky who have to sit at the piano and play a few measures then write it down. Play a few more measures and write it down. Then there are composers like Beethoven who hear it all in their head and write it down without ever checking what they’ve written on an instrument. There are also musicians who improvise a song on the spur of the moment with their instrument without ever writing a single note. What they all have in common is knowing the form, structure and rules of music before they even start. They have an outline in their head even if it’s not written down. No matter what style they are creating in, there is a form to go with it. If they’re writing a hymn, the chord sequence is firm and has little wiggle room. A jazz piece is looser with chord progressions, but there is a definite arc the piece needs to follow, and so on.

When writers sit down, we know roughly the structure our story needs to take, or we should. We need to have a hook and inciting incident in the beginning. We need to have the main character try and fail, try and fail several times. We need a climax followed by a denouement. Some writers jot down what each chapter is going to be about from the beginning of the novel to the end. After the layout of the novel is done, they go back and do an outline of each chapter, showing what characters are in it and what’s the main problem. Some people take it even further: they do spreadsheets that allow them to track how many times each character appears, they draw arcs for each plotline to see when they resolve and track the themes. They are able to use the outlines and spreadsheets to remove extraneous characters and motifs. I think of them as composers like Stravinsky.

My brain doesn’t sort in that manner. Some would call me a “panster” and say that I wing it. But I disagree. Being a panster or winging it implies that I have no idea of where I need to take the story and am hoping on dumb luck to get me to something good in the end. I prefer to think of myself as being more of a Beethoven kind of writer but with more deleting than he probably did: I see the story in my head before it hits the paper. I’d say about sixty percent of my writing is mental. I think about the arcs, the problems, the characters, all the things that people who outline think about and write down. I imagine scenes in my head and various outcomes. Where would the character go if this or that happened? Sometimes before I even write the first chapter, I have various scenes worked out in my mind throughout the novel. Some burn and burn in my head until I finally write it out. Others never even get on the page.

So why don’t I write down my outline? I used to. I’d get about a third of the way through the book with an outline and get bored. So I’d start the book and find that what appeared to be clearly cut and dry in the outline, was not what the characters should or would do at all. The story would be completely changed by the time I reached the third chapter and that lovely outline would be scrapped. It seemed when I outlined, I spent much more time concerned about tying everything up with a bow rather than character interactions.

Some people would say the time spent outlining was still valuable. They may be right. But to me it was a waste of time because I could not get to know the characters at all by saying they will do A, B and C and poof story done. My solution to the problem was to start imagining character backgrounds, but those quickly turned into full-fledged stories. I have a trilogy about a character named Gwen that I would love to finish, but I’m going to have to write several backstories for the world before I can even restart the first book in the trilogy again. And all those backstories are going to be novel length. I’d try to shorten it and just outline it, but I know the world would be richer if I know how all the other characters played out.

So maybe I’m not like Beethoven at all. Maybe I’m an over meticulous Stravinsky who fills out the outlines so much that they are fully realized stories. Honestly, I enjoy finding out what really happens to a character and what she thinks about. New events crop up that would’ve never occurred to me in an outline. The backstory of Gwen’s world is vastly different now from when the concept was conceived a decade ago. Many themes are still the same and the main idea of the world is the same, but the way the family has interacted with the rest of the world has had a bigger impact. And some characters who were supposed to play only a minor part, have taken the forefront.

I think people who outline have an edge on me because I think they see their stories more clearly and can save time by cutting out chapters in an outline before writing out the long chapter. But I love my process, and in the often grueling pursuit of being published, I find I hang onto the things that bring me the most enjoyment rather than precision.