Show, Don’t Tell–What Does That Mean, Anyway?

I was sitting onstage taking questions one year at our annual fall writing conference, and a woman I knew asked me to explain the opt-quoted concept of Show, Don’t Tell. “That sounds great,” she said, “but this is a novel and sometimes you just have to tell people what’s going on. Don’t you?” I didn’t have a ready answer, but that’s always good, because when I actually have to think about something hard enough to explain it, I usually end up understanding it much better than I did before.

I eventually suggested that my questioner distinguish character from plot. Yes, to move the story forward, you will eventually have to tell the reader what’s going on, perhaps fill in a little background, and not all of it can always be shown. When writers talk about Show, Don’t Tell, though, they are usually referring to revealing what’s going on inside the viewpoint character’s head, what they’re thinking, or even more importantly, what they’re feeling. The idea is that, instead of saying, “Sally was mad,” you say, “Sally raced up the stairs, slammed her bedroom door, flung herself down on the bed, and pounded the pillow.”

Not a subtle example, but you get the idea, right? There are legitimate reasons for writing this way. For one thing, words expressing emotional states tend to be flat and to have little impact on the reader. If you portray the emotion, however, it will come to life and have far more impact on the reader. This is closely related to the all-important concept of viewpoint. You want to keep the reader inside your characters’ heads, experiencing the story through their eyes and ears. Few readers get wrapped up in a story that is narrated to them, but if they feel as if they’re inside the story, as if it’s happening right before their (inner) eyes, they are much more likely to be engaged. When you just tell the reader about a character’s emotional state, it feels as if the story is being narrated. After all, no one really stands around thinking, “Grr. I’m mad.” On the other hand, if you show their emotional state by describing their actions, you’ve kept the reader inside the character’s head.

This so-called rule is usually attributed to the playwright Anton Chekhov, who wrote in a letter to his brother, “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” He was writing about description rather than emotional states, but the core idea is just the same.

Hemingway is renowned for what he left out, not just adverbs and adjectives but anything he thought the reader could figure out for themselves (the theory of omission). One of his most famous stories is “Hills Like White Elephants,” which is simply a few pages of two characters not talking about what is uppermost in their minds. The clues are sufficient to allow an attentive reader to figure out what it is, though, and it strikes with much more impact because the reader is led there rather then being hit over the head with it. For the same reason, Chuck Palahniuk has recommended a ban on what he calls “thought verbs,” such as “thinks,” “knows,” “understands,” “realizes,” “wants,” etc.

By the way, there’s still room in some of my summer writing retreats. More than two dozen of my students have been published, and three of them are up for awards this coming weekend. Is this the year you should join us? For more info: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Myth #8: The Good Writers Always Get Published

Since this is the season to be jolly, I wish I could tell you that this myth is true. Many people believe this to be true. I’ve heard it whispered on many occasions (even in bookstores), usually in the context of, “Why do you waste so much of your time trying to help writers? If they’re good, they’ll make it.”

And my answer is: Because I know that’s not necessarily true.

If you’ve read the classics, and I’ll bet most of you have, you know that many if not most of the greatest writers of all time were not popular and may not have even been published in their own lifetimes. Sometimes it takes a while for readers to catch up with the writer. And sometimes the writers just don’t know anybody, don’t have connections, don’t know how to structure or dramatize their work to make it publishable. I’ve always speculated that Emily Dickinson might’ve had a happier life if she’d just been lived in Boston rather than Amherst. Surely someone there would’ve appreciated her talent and known someone in the business. If you’ve read A Confederacy of Dunces–and I hope you have–then you’ve read a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by a man who could not get published, and eventually, in utter despondency, took his own life. I bet the posthumous awards did not make his family feel any better.

Sure, talent is important–though hard work and perseverance are more important. But they are no guarantee of anything. I know how fortunate I was to find a publisher early in life–and I know that not everyone in the world is so fortunate. So I’m doing what I can to give back a smidgeon of what I’ve been given.

This myth is not exactly the same but is certainly in the same ballpark as another myth I wrote about earlier in this series–the one about writers being born, not made. That’s silly–as if there’s a special writer DNA strand or something. There’s not. And there’s similarly no guarantee that the universe will serendipitously lead all great writers to their publishers.

I don’t say this to depress anyone. Just the opposite. I do it to encourage you, first, not to be discouraged when success doesn’t come overnight, and second, to not give up. Write every day. Revise and revise and revise. Seek outside input. Even if there are no guarantees, you can give yourself your best shot by doing everything possible to achieve your dreams. I don’t believe in the magic writer gene, but I do believe that if you keep learning and writing and persevering, eventually you will have the right book in the right place at the right time–and that’s when you get published. It’s not predestined by your talent. It’s made more likely by your determination.

On the subject of learning, my previous offer still stands. Register for one of the 2017 summer writing retreats before the end of the year and we’ll knock $100 off the price. I’ve seen a lot of talented people come out of these programs and publish. I sincerely hope you’re the next one.

Enjoy your Christmas–

Bill

2017 Summer Writing Retreats: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

For more info or to claim the discount: 405 203 8641.

Should My Novel Have Multiple Viewpoints?

During a visit to Thrillerfest a few years ago, I heard the same question posed to two different writers (during two different sessions). Each was asked, “How many viewpoint characters can you have?” The first author, who is successful and well-respected, answered, “Three is good. Five is the max.” When my friend Phillip Margolin received the same query, his answer was, “How many do you need?”

I’m with Phil, but I do think we need to establish some guidelines. You should have a central protagonist. Though there are exceptions to every rule, readers generally are happier when they know whose story they are following and who they are rooting for. Books with co-protagonists rarely work. So regardless of the number of viewpoints, the protagonist should have more scenes than anyone else and those should recur most frequently. I think it’s usually a bad idea to be away from the protagonist for more than a chapter.

Multiple viewpoint is more common today than it has been in previous eras. Arguably, the epistolary novel was a form of multiple viewpoint, but subsequently, single-viewpoint novels were more common. In time, though, writers realized that multiple viewpoint was a great way to drum up suspense. In mysteries and thrillers, a departure into the viewpoint of a competitor or villain allows the reader to know something the hero doesn’t–ratcheting up the tension (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). This might also give you an opportunity to make the antagonist more empathetic and less of a cardboard bad guy. In romances, multiple viewpoint–switching between hero and heroine, is more common today (A Run for Love by Callie Hutton). And you will also find it in SF/fantasy and literary fiction (The Hours by Michael Cunningham or The Help by Kathryn Stockett). Ultimately, you have to decide what is the best approach for telling your story.

I recall one of the best writers I know, David Morrill, railing against writers who introduce a viewpoint character for one chapter only (usually because the character dies at the end). For David, this is lazy writing. There’s always a better way to convey that scene than by asking the reader to become invested in a character who will never appear again. It’s not only a cheat but an unwelcome bit of misdirection. When you put your reader in a character’s viewpoint, you suggest that this character is important. They will not be pleased to learn the character is simply a victim. And it’s always a bad idea to introduce a new viewpoint just to drag in some exposition or infodump.

And now, having established the rules, let me explain how and when I broke them. When I wrote the last Ben Kincaid courtroom drama, Capitol Offense, one of the topics I wanted to address was the common law enforcement policy of not pursuing lost-person reports from a spouse until someone has been gone a long time, often as long as a week. Their excuse is that, in most cases, there’s been a squabble and the spouse has simply run off. But this policy has led to many tragic results. In my novel, Ben’s client was devastated by the loss of his wife–because the police waited too long to look for her. I wanted the reader to feel his pain, and to me, that meant they needed to know his wife personally. So I introduced the wife in the first scene, her work as an oncologist for children, her sense of humor, her great love for her husband. Obviously, she did not survive far into the story. But I still felt the excursion into her viewpoint was justified.

Capitol Offensehttps://smile.amazon.com/Capitol-Offense-Novel-Kincaid-Book-ebook/dp/B002PXFYJC/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1479663628&sr=8-1

Myth #6: Real Writers Are Compelled to Write…Always

Here I am, posting a blog the day before Election Day, trying to come up with some jazzy way to tie this into the election–and I already used “Fear” last time. Darn! This is what comes from not thinking ahead.

Today the myth I’m addressing, one you have likely heard many times, is “Writing is a compulsion,” or perhaps “I can’t not write.” Some aspiring or amateur writers love to say this stuff because it sounds so writerly. But is writing a compulsion? Since I always advise people to commit to a regular writing schedule and to write every day, you may be thinking I will buy off on this one.

Wrong. (See, I just quoted a candidate. I’m making this work.) I can’t not write? Give me a break. I love writing, especially when the words are flowing and I can tell it’s good. But I can’t not write? There’s a new episode of Black Mirror on tv, I haven’t worked the NYT crossword yet, I’m still trying to learn that Death Cab for Cutie song on the piano, I’m halfway through Anne Tyler’s new book…you get the drift? There are a lot of marvelous things I could be doing other than writing. So don’t kid a kidder. I could not write. But I will anyway. I will make myself write, because I know that’s the only way a book gets finished. It’s not that I can’t. It’s that I force myself to do it anyway.

This doesn’t mean I dislike writing. It means writing is hard work, which is why you commit to a schedule, basically telling yourself that even thought there are other things I could be doing, I’m going to force myself to get words down on paper anyway.

This leads directly into another great writer myth: writer’s block. This is another topic not-yet writers like to talk about because it sounds so romantic and tortured and deep. But truth is, this is a complete hoax. You never hear anyone complaining that they have plumber’s block. What makes writers so special? Why do we get a ready-made excuse for not working? Isn’t this just self-indulgence? Isn’t this just coming up with an excuse for not working that doesn’t require you to admit that writing isn’t a compulsion? “I can’t not write…but today the words aren’t flowing. I’m blocked.”

Roz Morris said, “If you’re the kind of person who believes that block will stop you, you’re the type to get it.”

To me, writer’s block means: 1) you don’t know what happens next because you didn’t think it through before you started, 2) you can’t think of anything to write about, or 3) you don’t know why you’re writing. If it’s   the first problem, sit down and make an outline. This will not only help you see the big picture, it will be so painful that tomorrow you’ll be anxious to write. If it’s the second problem, go to the library (or bookstore, if you can find one). Walk through the stalls. Read some dust jackets. Not to copy–to be inspired. Ideas will fly at you. And if it’s the third problem, insufficient motivation, honestly, this may not be the right profession for you. Perhaps you like the idea of working with books but not writing itself. There are other occupations in the book industry you could consider.

Or you could (shameless plug) read my book Powerful Premise. Because if you do want to be a writer, I think that book will get your neurons firing and put you on the path to starting a book that you will work on every day, not because you’re compelled to do so, but because you’ve got a terrific story to tell and you want other to read it.

Don’t forget to vote tomorrow. Unless you’re planning to vote for the wrong person. Then you should stay home.

Powerful Premise: https://www.amazon.com/Powerful-Premise-Writing-Irresistible-Sneaker/dp/0692425101

Myth #5: I Fear I Can’t Write Because…

Since I’m posting this on Halloween, I thought it appropriate to continue the series on writing myths by specifically addressing the single factor that has prematurely ended more promising writing careers than anything else: Fear.

What are you afraid of? There must be something. Comes with the DNA. We have different fears, but there’s always something at the core creating insecurity or concern. And that’s a problem for a writer. Because a writer by definition has to, first, create something that never existed before and, second, put it out there for others to read. That requires a bit of ego–the assumption that you’ve written something worthy of another’s attention. Fear will prevent you from mustering the necessary ego to push forward.

Let me address a fear I’ve seen repeatedly in my writing retreats: fear about writing skills. Note I used the word “skills,” not “ability.” You can learn to write better–that’s the whole point of the retreats. But some people are better spellers, or better with grammar. Personally, I’ve never been a particularly brilliant speller. I’ve learned to check when unsure. And not to rely on SpellCheck, which at best tells me whether the letters I’ve typed make a word, not whether they make the word I intend. SpellCheck is useful, but there is no StupidCheck. When in doubt, look it up. Which you can do on that phone in your pocket in about five seconds.

Similarly, I’ve had students worry about their grammar or punctuation. “Do all writers have to be grammar Nazis?” No, I say, pointing out that the Nazis actually lost the war, and you want to win the battle to be published. You will have to acquire those grammar skills, though. GrammarCheck is better than it used to be, but far from perfect, and it will probably never understand that fiction writers sometimes deliberately use fragments, or write dialogue in colloquial language or slang.

Fortunately, there are many free tools online for improving your grammar, and if you take advantage of them on a daily basis, you will soon see your skills improve. There are many grammar blogs (Grammar Girl is the most popular), grammar email service (Word-of-the-Day), and even grammar games and apps. At the end of this blog I’ll post a list of excellent grammar-related websites. If need be, hire a tutor, which you can also find online or perhaps at the local community college. But do not let this readily fixable problem deter you from achieving your dreams.

The last fear I often hear is someone worrying that they haven’t read enough to be a writer. Look, it is not necessary to have an advanced degree in English Literature to write a book. It is not even necessary that you be “well read.” What is essential is that you be extremely familiar with the kind of lit you want to write. You can’t write romances if you don’t know how they go. You can’t write SF if you don’t know what’s already been done.

But reading the Great Books, while beneficial, is not essential. I have a good friend who is an extremely successful thriller writer who often laments that he hasn’t read the classics. So he can’t recite poetry or drop Shakespearean quotations or other pompous stuff I’m more likely to do at dinner. But he knows the world of thrillers inside out (much better than I do). It’s all he reads, all he’s ever read. And that gave him the background he needed to build the writing career he wanted.

Mark Twain said “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” So this year, celebrate Halloween by banishing fear and committing to the writing career you want. If necessary, start reading in your area or playing online grammar games. But the most important step is to start writing, regularly, every day. Commit to the future you want.

Grammar Websites: https://prowritingaid.com/art/111/10-Websites-to-Help-Improve-Your-Grammar.aspx

What Should I Write Next?

Many times throughout my life (including this weekend at my writing conference), I’ve heard people ask what book they should write next. What genre should they pursue? Should they chase the latest trend? Should they write this idea or another? My reply is always the same: Which idea do you care about most?

If you don’t care about a book, if it doesn’t mean anything to you, there is no point in writing it. This past weekend, I heard the wonderful Katherine Center advising people to write a book they would want to read. Excellent. Why write an idea or genre you don’t care about? Don’t tell me you’re doing it for money. That book will not turn out well, so you’re not going to get rich off it. Of my forty-three published books, only one was based on someone else’s idea–and it’s by far the worst book I ever wrote. (No, I will not tell you which one that was.)

Chasing the latest trend is even stupider–because by the time you get a book written, the trend will probably be over. Fads come and go (legal thrillers, chick lit, dystopian YA, you name it). How long they last is impossible to predict, but imagine your poor agent being stuck with a book that he or she can’t sell because the fad has passed. Worse if you spent a year writing it, never liked it, didn’t care about it–and now no one will ever read it. A year gone for no good reason.

The marvelous David Morrell always advises people to write the book that matters to them most. (That’s the one that will likely turn out best, too). David’s theory is that even if the market turns against you and you can’t sell it, it was still worth doing, because it was important to you. David only rarely has written a non-thriller, but when he did, you can be assured it was for a good personal reason.

Which brings me to my most recent novel, Challengers of the Dust. I am aware that some of my readers would much rather have another Ben Kincaid novel, or at least a thriller. But the truth is, I’ve written eighteen Ben books and they no longer represent a challenge. I hit a round-number birthday and started to envision a tombstone that only said: HE WROTE A BUNCH OF BEN BOOKS. I wanted to do more, so I left the series behind and focused on other characters and other forms. I don’t regret this decision in the least.

I love my two poetry books and the reviews they have received are the best I’ve seen in my entire life. These books will not put my children through college, but I am very glad I wrote them. This most recent novel was a shot from the heart, a chance to bring some Oklahoma history to life with two eccentric characters unburdened by thriller elements. It’s not boring, but don’t ask me what genre it fits into, because I don’t think it does.

I also think it’s the best book I’ve ever written. Thank goodness I took time to write it while I could.  I wouldn’t trade the praise I’ve received for these last three books for all the royalty checks on earth.

Are you planning a book? Heed my words. Write from the heart.

Link to Challengers of the Dust

The ABCs of Editing

Everyone needs an editor, even experienced, multi-published writers. At some point in the process you become too close to your work. Glaring flaws, immediately obvious to others, may elude your notice. Experience won’t cure this. And don’t imagine that because you read a lot and got good grades in English, you’ll never make a mistake. You will. We all do.

The sad truth is that no book ever published was ever perfect (at least not in the first edition). No matter how many eyes proofread the manuscript, something will slip through. Your job as a writer is to keep that to an absolute minimum, because every little boo-boo erodes confidence and draws the reader out of the story. If they occur too frequently, your reader will likely stop reading.

That said, a good editor is hard to find. I’ve had far too many people come to my retreats after spending thousands of dollars getting some of the worst editing and poorest advice I’ve ever heard. Don’t let that be you. Don’t hire anyone based on an ad or a conference appearance. Here’s what you should be looking for:

  • Actual Publishing Experience—If the editor has never published anything or worked in a publishing house, why would you imagine they know what publishers want? You’re not looking for a grammar nerd. You’re looking for someone to help your book succeed. That requires a knowledge of what agents and editors want, what makes a book read professionally.
  • Past Successes—There are some people who can’t create anything original but are still good editors, so if they haven’t written anything themselves, they should at least be able to tell you what books they’ve worked on in the past. Have any of those books attained any level of success? If the editor speaks in vague generalities about past work, that’s a red flag.
  • References—Similarly, if the editor has worked on books or with authors with a successful track record, they should be able to produce references. If the editor can’t give you a name, don’t part with your money. If the editor has any real experience, there will be testimonials on their webpage.
  • Professional Organizations—Another measure of professionalism is affiliation. Is the editor a member of Publishers Marketplace or the Editorial Freelancers Association? Both of these groups charge dues, so that factor alone will weed out many amateurs. Also look for affiliations relevant to your work, genre-specific groups like Mystery Writers of America.
  • Terms—Make sure you are absolutely clear on what you will get and when you will get it before you part with your money. Your editor should be able to provide a sample edit. A contract may give you even more peace of mind.

If you’ve evaluated the editor based on these factors and still feel unsure—don’t do it. Trust your instincts. And yes, I’ll edit your book if I have time, and if I don’t, I’ll refer you to someone I know is good and won’t charge an exorbitant fee. Just email me (willbern@gmail.com).

FYI—Kindle Scout has become a terrific opportunity for forging alliances with Amazon, the shop that sells more than 50% of all books sold in the US. My wife Lara’s book, The Wantland Files, is currently on Scout. Would you please take a moment to nominate her book? It’s free. All you need is an Amazon account (and if you don’t have one, you can set it up in a few seconds). If Lara’s book is chosen, you’ll receive a free copy. The writing community is all about helping one another. Please follow this link and nominate.

Nominate The Wantland Files on Kindle Scout

The Ten Most Common Myths About Writing

I think I’ve written enough about the publishing world and not enough about writing in this blog lately, so I’m going to take a break and address the ten major myths, the cliches I hear spouted most frequently at conferences and workshops despite the fact that they are completely and demonstrably wrong. At least in my opinion. I’ll do the first five, take a break, then get back to the others later.

Today’s myth: Writers wait for inspiration to write.

It will probably come as no surprise to you that I think this is nonsense. If we all waited for inspiration to write, there would be a lot less writing, and probably nothing longer than a short story. In my experience, creativity flows when you’re writing. Often the best ideas come unexpectedly when you’re writing a scene and immersed in the characters and the situation. If you write every day, the ideas will come more frequently and purposefully. The smart writer will chase creativity by committing to a regular working schedule, rather than sitting around idly waiting for lightning bolts from heaven.

In Excellent Editing, I discussed the growing “pantser” phenomenon, that is, those who prefer to write from the seat of their pants rather than planning their books in advance. This approach may seem like more fun, but is far less likely to result in a polished (or even finished) book. At conferences I’ve asked self-professed pantsers if they’ve produced work they were able to publish, and the answer has never been yes. I think sometimes people are misled by author interviews. Authors in the spotlight never admit to planning or outlining. They’re afraid that will make it seem too mechanical, less creative, and subject them to abuse from snob critics. But don’t confuse what people say in interviews with reality. Most professional writers outline, because they’ve learned it results in a better book with less time wasted.

I like the answer attributed to Somerset Maugham when asked if he wrote on a schedule or only when inspiration struck. Answer: “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning.”

I have often wished I had a magic formula I could give my writing students that would make writing easier, but I don’t. Writing is hard work. You write and rewrite and rewrite and hope that in the end you get something worthy of your time and talent. But there are no easy paths or quick fixes. I can give you tools, ideas, and suggestions, but you still have to put in the effort. If you think your first book will be easy (or easier than your current job), you’re probably wrong. The next one might be a little easier because you’re more experienced, but it still won’t be easy. It never will.

That’s why it’s so important to work through all the steps in the writing process (detailed in Excellent Editing). And most importantly, don’t shy away from the outline just because you’re anxious to start the book or it doesn’t sound fun. If you write a solid 60-scene outline, your chances of finishing a first-rate book increase exponentially. It’s worth the time, and it won’t stifle your creativity. To the contrary, it will give you a useful framework within which your creativity can be most productive.

Next Week, Myth Two. Wanna guess what it will be?

Have you considered attending the Rose State Writer’s Conference in OKC, September 23-25? I organize the conference, which this year features over thirty presenters, including top writers and literary agents. It’s the lowest price and best value you’ll find anywhere. Take a look at the website and see if it might help you take your work to the next level.

Excellent Editing: http://ow.ly/tLZX3032C3G

Rose State Writer’s Conference: http://ow.ly/BK4n3032Ca0

What’s the Fastest Growing Format in Publishing?

Audiobooks.

If you’ve been to one of my writing retreats in the last three years, you’ve heard me say that audiobooks are huge and getting huger. It’s still true. In fact, despite the huge growth of recent years, audiobook sales jumped another 21% last year, while most publishing sectors declined. Audio revenues increased by 36%. As a result, publishing houses are increasing audio budgets and hiring big-name talent. Reese Witherspoon recorded the audio for Go Set a Watchman. Stephen King released “Drunken Fireworks” in audio format four months before it was released in print.

But the fact that the Big Five are producing audiobooks doesn’t mean you can’t too.

Once upon a time, audiobooks were impossible for self- or small publishers. No longer. Now anyone can do it. I won’t say it’s easy. But I will say it’s possible. And if you don’t do it, you’re not giving your book its maximum possible exposure. To put it in Hollywood terms: You’re leaving money on the table.

The reason for this surge in sales is digital downloads. Audio is no longer dependent upon bulky and fragile physical media like CDs and cassette tapes. Listeners can download audio directly to their phones or iPods in seconds. They can listen while they drive, exercise, run, watch a kid’s softball game, even while they swim (waterproof iPod). Listeners often switch between media–listen with the phone in the car, listen from a tablet while they eat, then switch to actual reading (eBook) when they’re at home. WhisperSync allows them to pick up reading right where they stopped listening to the audiobook.

The largest producer of audiobooks is Audible (now owned by Amazon). Their membership increased by 40% last year. And the stats indicate that Audible members also buy 40% more books in all formats after they become members. They read with their eyes, too, when they can.

In other words, if you still have the audio rights to a book and you haven’t produced an audiobook yet, you’re making a mistake. My wife Lara records audiobooks, and what she has seen time and again is that the existence of an audiobook increases the visibility and spurs sales of both the audio, print, and eBook editions. She has also seen books that have middling print or eBook sales but surge in audio. Sometimes, publishing is just not predictable. You want your book to be available to as many people in as many places as possible.

Have I convinced you that you need to produce an audiobook yet? Good. In the next blog, I’ll tell you how to do it.

To Outline or Not to Outline

I just learned that the first book in my Red Sneaker Writers series, Story Structure, is highly recommended in another writing book (Structuring Your Novel, by KM Weiland). Praise from your peers is always pleasing…and causes me to think about structure. One of the biggest debates on the writing-conference circuit these days is whether to be a planner or a “pantser,” that is, someone who outlines or someone who writes by the seat of their pants.

Those who have read my books, especially Structure and the new one, Excellent Editing, know that I advocate planning, specifically pre-writing and outlining, if your goal is to produce something of publishable quality. (If you’re just writing for fun or therapy, I suppose you can do whatever you want). I think the reality is, many people are not outlining, not because they believe this will produce better work but because outlining is a lot of work and they’d rather start writing on this brilliant idea they’ve had. The problem is that the idea peters out in a hundred pages or so, and then they have no idea what to write next.

Outlining does take time, but it isn’t really that hard. Here’s a streamlined version of how to do it (the more detailed version is in Story Structure):

Purchase 60 index cards.  Break them up into (3) acts, approximately: Act 1 – 15 cards, Act 2 – 30 cards, Act 3 – 15 cards. Each card should contain one scene.  Each scene should contain 5-6 beats.

Notes about Act 1:  The inciting incident takes place early in Act 1.  The protagonist must be introduced.  The antagonist should probably be introduced.  All viewpoint characters typically will be introduced.  Perhaps a subplot or two will be introduced.  Supporting characters may be introduced.  The Act will end with the first major Turning Point, which sets the protagonist decisively on his or her journey.

Notes about Act 2:  A character turning point (a glimmer of an indication that the character might change) should appear mid-Act 2.  Plot twists are recommended to keep the story from losing energy and sagging in the middle.  The main plot and subplots should be advanced.  Viewpoint characters should be carried forward, as well as any other important supporting characters.  The protagonist should be faced with progressively more difficult obstacles or challenges.  Act 2 ends with the second major Turning Point, the ‘dark moment” or “crisis,” when the conflict has escalated to its highest point–often by becoming more personal to the protagonist.

Notes about Act 3:  The protagonist undertakes difficult steps to overcome the obstacles or challenges.  The climax is a large sequence, the largest and most dramatic in the book, and appears toward the end of Act 3.  Denouement follows to wrap up any loose ends or character business and give the book emotional resonance.

Finally: Once you have all the scenes mapped out and in the correct order, type up your outline from the cards, or pin them to a bulletin board.  Save it in a safe place. You will undoubtedly add to or subtract from it as you actually write the book.

Pretty simple, right? Give it a try next time you start a writing project. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Story Structure: http://www.amazon.com/Story-Structure-Successful-Fiction-Sneaker/dp/1484024893/

Excellent Editing: http://www.amazon.com/Excellent-Editing-Writing-Process-Sneaker/dp/0692703225/