Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A2Q Part Seven—Outlining

Here we are yet again. Welcome back, my captive audience. How’s everybody doing as we enter week... two? Three? How long have you been social-distancing at this point? Yeah, it sucks, but he way these numbers are going there's a good chance you're saving someone just by staying at home and... well, reading this.

Anyway, I know originally the A2Q was going to be an every other week thing, but we’re getting to some of the meatier stuff so I just wanted to continue with it. If anyone has any complaints, let me know down in the comments what you’d rather have me prattle on about. But for now... more A2Q.

It’s finally time to start putting things together. We’ve talked about plot, characters, story, setting, and theme. Now let’s talk a bit about how to put them all together and take a few big steps toward a manuscript.

Also, I’m going to warn you right up front... things are going to get a little vague here. As we get deeper into this it gets harder and harder for me to write out advice because you (yes, I’m talking to you, specifically) are your own person. You’re a writer with your own quirks and habits and preferences. And your story is your story. Nobody knows it like you do. Nobody knows how it should be told better than you. Which means a lot of this is going to be on your shoulders. I can offer you some general guidance, but it’s going to come down to you.

Think of it this way—and this actually ties in well to today’s topic. Let’s say you want to go on a road trip and ask me for advice. I've taken a bunch of road trips, but there’s only so much I can tell you without knowing about you, your interests, what kind of trip you want to take, in what direction, and for how long. My advice and experience might not line up with what you want to do. Doesn’t mean what your idea for a trip is wrong, and it doesn’t mean my advice is bad. It just means we all have different ways of doing different things

Also-also... this is kind of a huge step. It might not seem it, but it is. We’re going to take this huge pile of elements, arrange them, connect them, and try to do it all in a way so this contraption of words creates specific emotional and intellectual reactions from people we don’t even know.

Nervous yet? Don’t be. Well, I mean, you can be, but you don’t need to worry about it. We all get nervous at this point. Yeah, seriously. Everyone. Yep, even her. Him too. And her. Okay, no, not him—he’s kinda delusional. Nice guy, but take his advice with a grain of salt.

Also-the-third... speaking of fear, there’s one other really important thing to keep in mind at this point. Absolutely nothing we’re doing is set in stone. It’s not like once I put this element here and connect it to that it’s fused solid and they can never be moved or separated again. They can and they will. Nothing’s locked. We’ll be changing things now, and while we write it, and while we’re editing it. So I don’t need to stress out too much while I’m doing this.


I thought about this for a little bit, and I think there are four big pieces of advice I want to offer you at this stage. Plus a dozen or so links to earlier posts where I’ve talked about some of this stuff in much more detail. When the A2Q gets a book deal, I’ll make sure more of that stuff’s right here, but for now—links.

So, when we’re talking about arranging and connecting all these elements, there are four things I think we need to keep in mind.

—What parts do and don’t belong in my book
—The starting point
—The end point
—How I’m going to tell my story

Let’s talk about each of these and how they relate to that big pile of elements.

First, which of these elements do and don’t belong in my book. Which ones are part of the tale I’m telling and which ones are backstory or character details. I need to sift through them and figure out which ones belong in which pile.

Now, I know the first instinct is to say “it all matters,” and in one sense that’s true. All of these backstory elements and little nuances are going to affect my character and shape the kind of person they are. But that doesn’t mean they all need to be in my book. Some of these things will just stay in my notes or in my head and shape things from there.

Also, we mentioned weeding them out earlier but even so there’s a good chance some of the elements we talked about before that just don’t fit anymore. They’re good ideas, they just don’t work for this particular book, or maybe the book it’s become as I gathered all the different elements and polished them off a bit. The werewolf being a cyborg from the future? Really fun, I bet I could do it well, but it’s not going to fit here. Part of doing this is realizing that and accepting it. Not every idea works for every book.

Don’t worry—if Tor picks this up for a series, we’ll definitely see the time-traveling werewolf by book three.

Second is the starting point. Where am I going to begin my book? What is page one going to be? I think this gets messed up a lot, for a couple different reasons....

One is that, as the writers, we know all the lead-up events, and the impulse is to put them all in. But this quickly becomes a trap, because there are always going to be earlier events that lead to these events. I don’t want to start with the police detectives at the crime scene, I want to start with the jogger finding the body. Except I don’t want to start with finding the body, I want to start with the murder. Except I don’t want to start with the murder, I want to begin where the murder was being planned. Except I don’t want to start with the murder being planned, I want to see the event that pushed her into killing him. Except I don’t want to see that event...

See what I mean? We can always go further back. So one of our jobs is to figure out where do things actually begin for my heroes.

Another way this gets messed up feeds a bit off the last one, and it’s the old “start with action” thing. I’ve talked about this at length before, but essentially it’s a piece of advice that gets misunderstood a lot by people starting out. They twist their outline to begin with exploding cyborg ninja conflict when it might just need two people arguing about laundry from different ends of their house.

Finally, feeding off both of the last points, I think there’s some other bad advice out there that usually takes the form of “get into it as quickly as possible.” Again, this advice isn’t wrong, it’s just lacking context. Which is kind of my point—if I dive into the story too fast I won’t have time to establish any sort of norm for my heroes. Without that context—the bar to measure everything else in the book against—things won’t have the proper weight and I’ll just be confusing my readers. So I don’t want to spend five or six chapters on my hero’s normal, day-to-day life, but I can’t neglect it, either.

Third is the end point. No matter what kind of road trip I’m planning, I need to have some idea where I want to end up. Maybe this is just a long weekend away and we’re going to end up back home. Maybe it’s a longer-than-necessary trip to visit a friend. Maybe I’m moving cross country.

Whatever kind I decide it is, it’s hard to have any sort of structure if I don’t know where I’m going. I can’t tell if I’m going the right way when I don’t know what direction the right way is. It becomes less a book and more of a firehose with nobody holding the end, just thrashing around and spraying water everywhere as it slams into things.

Keep in mind, I don’t need to know exactly where I’m going. For road trip purposes, I can just say “I’m gonna drive to Los Angeles.” I don’t need a specific part of town or  a street address or the name of a nice restaurant for dinner. I can figure out the details when I get there. But I want to have enough sense of my ending that I can say “I need to head north-west from here.”
And also... there’s nothing wrong with deciding to change destinations halfway through. Maybe I’m going to shoot straight through LA and head for San Francisco. Maybe I’m going to veer off and spend a long weekend in Las Vegas. Or out a Joshua Tree. But at any given point, I should be able to say “I’m trying to get to there.”

Fourth and last of these key things is how I’m going to tell my tale. How am I going to arrange things in an interesting, compelling narrative that also creates ongoing, climbing tension? Do I want to use a straight linear narrative? A series of flashbacks? Am I going to have a completely non-linear structure?

All of these are big questions. In the past I’ve talked about structure and it usually covers three pretty big posts. I’m not going to go over them all at length here, but in my opinion it’s always best to make sure my linear structure makes sense before I try to work in lots of flashbacks, time shifts, or the like. There haven’t been a ton of studies that I know of, but I think readers always know, on some level, if a book doesn’t make linear sense.

But past that... a lot of this is going to depend on you and your tastes. It’s how you want to tell your tale, after all. Maybe you want to start simple, or maybe you’re going straight to the most complex, interwoven plot you can manage. That’s all going to be your choice, and you’ll need to think about it as you start outlining.

Speaking of which...

With those four things in mind, let’s try to make some kind of outline. Again, this is something I’ve talked about a couple times before, so I don’t want to talk too much here (look how big this is already). But let’s try to address a few things.

You’ve probably got a ton of plot and story points piled up so far. Little snippets of dialogue, cool action moments, neat reveals, maybe some good character beats. For now, let’s just deal with plot and story elements. Try to get them more or less together in one document. What do you have, two or three pages? More?

What I generally do at this point is start rearranging things. I want to put all these in some kind of order pretty close to my story. I think a quick, easy tool here is basic three act structure. Beginning, middle, end. Grab any plot element out of your pile. Seriously, look at your list, close your eyes, point your finger at something.

Now, gut reaction, is this element from the beginning, the middle, or the end of your book? Is it one of those basic establishing/introducing/setting-things-up points? Is it one of the last big twists? Don’t think about it, just drop it where it goes. You’ve probably already got a sense of where these things belong, so don’t overthink it for now. Remember—if it doesn’t work, we can always fix it later.

Once you’ve got them all arranged, read through it. Does it make sense? Does it feel like it’s lacking anything? If there’s stuff you’ve kept in your head (there’s always a few things) feel free to jot those down now, too. If you want to swap a few things around, that’s cool too. Just poke at it for a day or three until it feels like a loose summary of your story. Not a complete one, but I want enough of one that I can see the shape of it.

That thing in front of you is an outline. A simple one, but that’s what it is. If we’re talking about a road trip, this is our rough map. Or maybe an itinerary? Little of both, really.

And this brings us back to another “up to you” moment. Maybe this simple outline’s enough for you. Your brain’s buzzing to get to work, to start writing. If that’s the case, go for it. But if you want a little more that this—if you want a more detailed map or a few more things locked down on the itinerary, that’s cool too. Start pulling in your character elements, maybe add a few setting details where they’d be relevant.

For my first book, Ex-Heroes, I barely had an outline. One page of random notes, most of them about characters, a lot of stuff still in my head. For my last book, Terminus, the outline was 23 pages long. And for this new thing I’m working on, I think I had three pages of notes when I launched into it. It’s going to be different for every writer and it’s going to be different for every book. So don’t worry if yours is “right” or not. Just work with it until you think it’s enough to keep you on track from the beginning to the end.

All that said... let’s toss down a few elements of our werewolf story, move them around a bit, and see what we end up with. It's going to be rough because it's just for me. You’ll probably recognize a couple of these elements from earlier A2Q posts...

Start with Phoebe and Luna at home.  Both getting ready to go out for the evening, but Luna’s heading out to another party and Phoebe’s going hunting. So they’re looking for things, asking who borrowed what, warning each other to be safe, and so on.

Phoebe’s going to be out hunting and encounter the super-werewolf (although she doesn’t know it’s super yet, or who it is). She’s going to put a silver crossbow bolt in it and it’s going to ignore it and run off. This will also give her a chance to grumble about losing a silver bolt because they’re expensive. She can track it for a while, find the bolt... but no body.

The next morning Phoebe goes to the lodge and we meet Luc and talk about hunting last night, if he saw anything noteworthy. Maybe some one-sided flirting?

Intro. Andrea.  Maybe Andrea’s actually the head of the lodge. Warden? That sounds Masonic without going all weird with “master.” She’s willing to entertain the ‘super-werewolf” idea, and will pay an extra $2500 bounty for proof.

Down to check in with Quinn. Crossbow took a beating last night. One knife needs a nick ground out of it.

Gets a call from her job at the bar—she’s late, supposed to be there for deliveries.

Go to the bar, intro. her “norm” boss.

Work night.

After work??

Breakfast with Luna the next day. Talk about the bounty, using it to pay for college?

It’s very, very loose, but I think that’s eight or nine chapters right there. Into the second act, easy. It’s also very straightforward and linear. I’d write out more of it, but as I mentioned... this is getting ridiculously long.

One thing that immediately occurs to me—and I’ve come up against this before—werewolf stories have an inherent time limit built into them, especially if I want to go “classic” light-of-the-full-moon werewolves. And that is... the full moon only comes out every four weeks. So I’m looking at a lot of time here with, well, no werewolves in it. I’ll need to space a few things out and skip over some time. Which won’t be a huge problem since I’ve already said Phoebe’s stuck with a normal job and Luna doesn’t know she’s the werewolf.

What I might do, right now, is take the bit with Quinn and drop it down to the bottom of this little outline fragment. So that just became another day. Plus, now it means Phoebe’s getting that call from her day job while she’s in her meeting with Andrea, which can create some fun.

And at this point, forget about writing a book—I’m worried the sheer size of this post might be intimidating to some of you.

Get your elements. Organize them. Make your road map, and make it as simple or detailed as you like.

Next time... our first draft.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A2Q Part Six—Theme

Hey, everybody. Hope you’re all safe and, y’know, not bored out of your mind. Social distancing can be a pain, but it’s better for everyone in the long run.

Time for the A2Q again. Thanks for following along so far. At this point, we’ve talked about plot, story, characters, and setting. I want to go over one last thing before we dive in.

And that thing is theme.

Yeah, you just felt a chill, didn’t you? I think we all have a kinda instinctive revulsion to theme because of high school classes where it was sort of parroted out to us and not really explained. Or explained very poorly.

I’ll also be honest—I almost didn’t include theme in this little series or workshop or whatever we’re calling this. Theme is tough. It can be hard to grasp. It’s also one of those things that sometimes happens even if we’re not thinking about it. Likewise, some folks think about it too much and end up driving their story into the ground.

So... how to explain theme?

Okay, look at it this way. You know how I’ve talked about plot versus story? It’s a topic that’s come up here once or thrice before, and I’ve discussed both of them in earlier parts of the A2Q. Plot is outside your characters, story is inside.

Simply put, in the Venn diagram of plot vs story, theme is where they overlap. It’s the common bond between external and internal that ties things together in my manuscript. If you asked me what my story’s really about, my theme would be the answer that covers the most bases.

F’r example... some of you may have heard of Solomon Kane, an old Robert Howard character who’s been in books, comics, poems, and even a pretty solid live action movie—which is what I’ll talk about here. Kane’s a bloodthirsty pirate who finds out he’s actually damned to hell, repents, and ends up becoming a devout Puritan with a vow of pacifism. Problem is... he keeps finding himself in situations where the good guys really need somebody nightmarishly violent and ruthless on their side. So he has to go back to his old ways to try to stop assorted bandits, warlords, evil sorcerers, and even full-on demons.

So we can say the theme of Solomon Kane (the movie) is “fighting evil,” or maybe a better way to say it would be “fighting against the darkness.” Kane is constantly battling evil in the world, in all its many forms. But he’s also battling the evil within himself, trying to redeem himself and not fall back into old habits and attitudes.

Of course, it’s easy to identify themes in things that already exist. Trying to make them from scratch, to weave them into this story I’ve been planning... that’s a lot tougher. I mean, this is serious writing stuff now.

But it really isn’t. Honestly, I think one of the reasons we all kinda fear theme is because it’s been made into this sort of literary boogeyman—this thing that looms over the story , and also over the author. What themes is the writer trying to explore? Does this book have a simplistic, common theme? Should we discuss the novel’s theme? At length?

Deep breath. It’s not that bad. Really. In fact, it’s a lot easier than your sixth grade English teacher made it seem.

(yeah , that’s right Mrs. Goodell—I’m calling you out)

Here’s a couple things I think we should keep in mind while we’re talking about theme.

First, at this early stage, it’s okay to only have a general idea what my theme—or themes—are going to be in this book. It shouldn’t be too hard to come up with one or two. Just look at a lot of the elements we’ve been gathering up so far and see what the connections are between them.

In fact, doing this as an exercise can be kind of a test. Or maybe an early warning system. I might have a bunch of really cool elements, but if I can’t find any connections between any of them... well, that means I’ve got a bunch of unconnected elements. Which is, y’know, sort of the opposite of a book. So I might want to reconsider some things.

Second, I should be aware my manuscript might have multiple themes. Not a problem. I mentioned before that there may be multiple stories within my book, so it only stands to reason they’d all intersect the plot in slightly different places on that Venn diagram.

Look at Solomon Kane again. It has the theme of fighting against darkness, but there’s a good argument to be made that it also involves the theme of redemption. It’s an active plot element as Kane tries to make up for his past, and it’s also a story element as he realizes that A) he needs to redeem himself to save his soul and 2) his redemption may need to take a more aggressive form then normal. And that plot-story overlap is a theme, so... hey, there it is.

Third is kinda the flipside of that first one.  Again, just my opinion, but... don’t worry about theme too much right now. Definitely have it in mind. Don’t willfully ignore it. But also don’t stress over it. Just write your first draft. Worry about balancing the plot and story you want to write. When I put a lot of advance work into my theme, I run the risk of structuring things to the theme. The plot and story stop being neck and neck out front and the theme becomes the priority. Which is when my theme starts turning into more of a message. And messages can get awkward and heavy-handed really fast.

Again, just my personal opinion, your mileage may vary.

Once that first draft’s done, guess what? The manuscript exists now. And it’s easy to identify themes in things that already exist, remember? I can look back over my first draft and I’ll probably see a theme or three poking out.

Now, again, I don’t like to do too much beforehand, but... let’s look at our werewolf book.

I can probably guess survival is going to be a major theme in the book, or perhaps “what are we willing to do to survive.” After all our main character, Phoebe, hunts werewolves for a living. And her little sister Luna is a werewolf, a fact she’s trying to hide from Phoebe and their lodge on the off chance they, y’know, kill her. And there’s also survival in the larger sense, that both of them have been doing a lot of things to try to hold their lives together, as individuals and as a little family. And we’re probably going to find out that the lodge is thinking about what they’ll do to survive, too—in the sense of both humanity’s ongoing struggle against werewolves but also the lodge itself as an institution.

Phoebe and Luna are also both going to be dealing with the idea of family a lot. It’s a motivation for them and a regular thing they’re dealing with—something they’re acting on that’s also acting on them. There’s also this family legacy hanging over them, and the fact they the two of them are the broken remains of a family since their parents’ death.

Which leads me to one last possible theme. The idea of moving on with your life, of getting past things. Both of my main characters want their lives to progress—Luna wants to head off to college and Phoebe wants to get her own life back on track. As I’ve mentioned before, Phoebe’s struggling with a lot of repressed resentment, too. And they’re also going to need to get past a lot of the baggage and preconception their parents left them with if they’re going to deal with Luna’s ahem condition and how it affects both of them.

Again, though... I’m not going to worry about this too much up front. I’m just making the observations now for the A2Q. I’m probably going to worry more about plot and story on my first draft, and later I may come back, look at these early thoughts, and see how they may shape later drafts.

And if you want to think more about these things now, that’s cool, too. As I’ve often said, we all have our own way of working, and what works for me may not work for you. The important thing, for now, is just to be aware of it and have it in that pile of ingredients in your mind before we start cooking.

Speaking of which... it’s probably time we start arranging all these ingredients and get ready to start cooking. So that’s what we’ll do next time. Yeah, next time—let’s just go straight to the next part of the A2Q (unless somebody has serious objections and wants to see something else first)

Until then... go write.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Again and Again and Again and Again and

So, hey... things are a little crazy and intense in this world of ours right now. Hopefully you’re somewhere safe and hunkering down a bit. Also hopefully you’re not someone going “Ha ha ha look at me” as you wander around potentially endangering other people.

Be a hero. Don’t willfully endanger anyone else right now. Okay?

Anyway... bonus post. Figured everybody could use a little extra stuff to read while they're stuck at home.

I'd like to share a random writing-type thought that’s bounced back and forth through my head a few times recently. I think it’s something a lot of you may automatically get, but this might help solidify it a bit in your own heads. And for some of you, this may be an all new concept.

I’ve mentioned the idea of repetition in writing here a few times, coming at it from a few different angles. It’s one of those elements that can be very powerful if used the right way... and completely brutal if I use it the wrong way. Or overuse it. It’s like one of those vitamins or minerals that we absolutely need to live, but just a little too much and now it’s a deadly poison.

Anyway, it recently struck me why repetition can turn on us like that and—oddly enough—it ties back to another idea I’ve mentioned here once or thrice. And that’s a concept Damon Knight talked about in one of his short story books. The idea of information vs. noise.

To sum up quickly, it goes like this. When we come across a fact we don’t know, it’s information. When we come across a fact we already know, it’s noise. We pay attention to information, but we tune out noise because... well, it’s noise. It’s just a distraction, keeping us away from the stuff we’re actually here for.

Now, Knight was talking about this mostly in the sense of exposition, and this makes perfect sense. We don’t want to read two pages about why Nazis were bad because, well, we all know that already (okay, most of us know that...). But we’re up for two pages about how true artificial intelligence came into existence, because this is something we don’t know and (hopefully) find interesting and relevant within the context of the story.

Getting hit with the same facts we already know is... well, boring. Sometimes flat-out aggravating. It feels like the author is padding and wasting time rather than giving us what we want.

But here’s the thing. This is true of pretty much all repetition. As I’m putting words down on the page, repeating anything the reader knows (or can figure out) is going to quickly become noise.

Think of names in dialogue. We roll our eyes when characters constantly use names while talking to each other. Or if the author constantly uses dialogue descriptors with names rather than pronouns (or just assuming we can follow who’s talking). After hearing Wakko said... a dozen times on one page, we start grinding our teeth. We can’t help it. It’s noise to our ears.

The same thing holds for descriptions. Yes, I know Phoebe is over six feet tall. You’ve mentioned it seven times in the past ten pages. Or that the blood is bright red. Or that Phoebe is six feet tall. Or that Yakko is a cyborg. Or that one of my over-six-foot characters is Phoebe. See what I mean? I’m clearly doing it as a humorous way to make a point, but it’s kinda getting on your nerves, isn’t it?

And I’ve talked before about doing this with reveals. The first time I reveal something to my readers is an amazing, jaw-dropping thing. Because it’s facts they don’t know. It’s information. But the second time I show it off it’s... well, it’s not as interesting. And the third time, if there’s no point to this, it’s kinda boring. By the fourth time okay seriously can we just get on with this? What? A fifth time? Seriously?

Repetition can turn anything I have to say into noise fast. So I want to be very careful if I’m going to repeat any information for a third or fourth time. And like I just joked, if I hit a fifth time...

Wow, I should probably rethink some things.

Next time we’re going to jump back to the A2Q and talk about theme. Yeah, I know. You just had this gut, high school reaction to that word. I’m going to try to help you get past that.

Until then, go write.