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/


Excellent Editing: The Writing Process

You will probably not be shocked to hear that today’s blog is an excerpt from my new Red Sneaker book, just released, titled Excellent Editing: The Writing Process. The book discusses how to edit, revise, and proofread your books to perfection (or as close to perfection as we humans can ever aspire). But the book also emphasizes that editing is a part of the entire writing process, so it covers the steps for taking a book from the initial idea to the final product. Too often people have terrific ideas but can’t convert them into a polished book, or they start books but run out of steam and never finish. This book is designed to prevent that from happening, to help you create a book that is successful and published, a book you’re proud to see bearing your name.

I do not, however, recommend that people try to edit themselves while trying to get a first draft down on paper. Here’s an excerpt from the book on that subject:

It’s important that you don’t try to revise while writing the first draft. The time for revision will come later. Right now, you want to keep the flow flowing. Don’t lose your momentum. I’ve heard one writer compare premature revision to applying the clutch while you’re still driving up the hill. Don’t throw out your clutch! Keep the pages flowing! George Miller wrote, “Polishing at an early stage is usually a complete waste of time.”

 

The truth is, regardless of how much thought you’ve put into your project, no matter how smart you are or how much research you’ve done, you never really know what you have till you’ve completed and read your first draft. After that, you can read the whole thing and understand what you’ve got and not got, what works and what doesn’t, what are the strengths and weaknesses. That brilliant denouement that only occurred to you as you wrote it may have changed the tone or focus of the entire project. Perhaps you stumbled across your theme as you wrote and realized that it required a scene to be added or subtracted, a character to be added or given a gender change, a motivation to be altered. Only after you’ve finished the first draft can you see the big picture.

To put it more succinctly, I hope you didn’t spend a week revising and perfecting chapter three, only to realize that chapter three has to go.

You’ve probably heard people say that writers must “kill their darlings.” What this usually means is that if you’ve composed a turn of phrase that’s particularly clever or lovely, it calls attention to itself. And if it calls attention to itself, you need to cut it, because readers should be immersed in the story, not thinking about how ingenious the writer is. Similarly, if you get to the end of the first draft and realize the tone or direction or focus of the book has altered, you’ll have to do some cutting and revision, perhaps more than you anticipated. That’s fine—do the work that needs to be done. But I don’t want you to waste a lot of time during the first draft beautifying language that will end up on the cutting room floor. Save the revising for later.

Here’s a link to my new book, Excellent Editing: https://www.amazon.com/Excellent-Editing-Writing-Process-Sneaker-ebook/dp/B01FHYK3N2

Facebook is Your Friend

I know it isn’t what you want to hear, but I won’t lie to you: Whether you self-publish or traditionally publish, you will have to promote your book, and most of that promotion will be done on social media.

I’m used to seeing crushed faces when I announce this at my writing retreats. Hey, look at it this way–It’s way better than traveling around the country taking 5 am flights to morning shows in Nowheresville, signing books at Waldenbooks when no one is there, etc. Social media is relatively quick and painless and free. Just don’t let it replace your writing time.

I also get wide-eyed expressions when I run through the gamut of social media options: Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Google Circles, etc. But the truth is, you don’t have to do all of them. Choose your battles. Here’s your guideline:

Facebook is king.

See the chart at the top of the page? Note the age group (though it would be no different in the 18-35 class). Facebook annihilates the competition. It is the best for meaningfully engaging an audience in a way that might lead to readers. Facebook has more people spending more time than any other platform. And it isn’t just kids. It’s the primary book-buying demographic.

Here are some rules for useful Facebooking:

  1. Start with your “Friends” account. Start a Fan page when that hits the 5000 limit. (People want to be your friend, not your fan.) On average, Americans have about 300 real social contacts. So the other 4700 will be fans masquerading at friends. Let them. I love my readers and I bet you will too.
  2. Switch the default setting to “Public” so everyone can see everything you post. Why not?
  3. Use video. Facebook now delivers more videos than YouTube. Take advantage. People love to see your smiling face. As long as it’s saying something of interest.
  4. Don’t talk about your books all the time. The hard-sell gets old. Do it maybe once a week. The rest of the time, chat. Engage in subjects of interest to others. Show your friend/fans what you’re really like. You can join up to 6000 fan groups. Is there any reason not to?
  5. Make Facebook your hub. Use Hootsuite or similar programs to post to Facebook, but send copies everywhere else, so you can effortlessly focus on Facebook but engage the other media.

Hootsuite: www.hootsuite.com

When to Edit–and When Not

Sneak Preview! Here’s the first-ever excerpt from my forthcoming Red Sneaker book, Excellent Editing:

Don’t try to edit yourself while writing the first draft. The time for editing will come later. Right now, you want to keep the flow flowing. I’ve heard one writer comparing premature editing to applying the clutch while you’re still driving up the hill. Don’t throw out your clutch! Keep writing!

The truth is, regardless of how much thought you’ve put into your project, no matter how smart you are, and no matter how much research you’ve done, you never know what you have till you’ve finished the first draft. Then you can see for what you’ve got and not got, what works and what doesn’t, what the strengths and weaknesses are. That brilliant denouement that only occurred to you as you wrote it may have changed the tone or focus of the entire project. Perhaps you stumbled onto your theme as you wrote and realized this new idea requires a scene to be added or subtracted.

To put it succinctly: I hope you didn’t spend a week revising and perfecting chapter three, only to realize later that chapter three has to go.

You’ve probably heard people say writers must “kill their darlings.” What this usually means is that if there’s a turn of phrase that’s particularly clever or lovely—it probably calls attention to itself. So you need to cut it, because readers should be immersed in your story, not thinking about how clever you are. Similarly, I don’t want you to waste a lot of time beautifying language that will end up on the cutting room floor.

Wait until you’ve finished the first draft to revise or you may find yourself wasting an enormous amount of time, or worse, never getting to the end. This project will take a long time even if you work with maximum efficiency. Don’t make it any worse than it needs to be.

At Last! A Cure for Writer’s Block!

Writer’s block is the bane of the creative scribblers, so you will be pleased to hear that there is a cure. And of course, as you probably expected, the cure comes from modern technology.

Designer Manuel Ebert has released “The Most Dangerous Writing App.” The title is not hyperbole. The goal is to eliminate stalling, procrastination, and window gazing. How? Once you start writing, you are not allowed to stop. If you stop typing for more than five seconds–the app deletes everything you’ve written.

Draconian? Yes. Effective? I don’t know. But a desire to eliminate writer’s block definitely exists. The app has only been out two weeks–and it has already been downloaded more than 100,000 times. I’ve heard other writers say they work best under a deadline, but this must be the harshest deadline of all time. Ebert says, “MDWA means I don’t need coffee to make my heart race.”

I suppose if you want to play with this app while you’re writing your daily journal entry or something nonessential, fine, but I can’t recommend anything that could cause you to lose a day’s work due to an inopportune phone call or a sudden attack of colitis. Let me suggest some more practical approaches to writer’s block.

  1. Go to the Library. What does “writer’s block” actually mean? Assuming you’re not just indulging yourself, it probably means you don’t have anything to say. The best authors write because there’s something they want–perhaps need–to share. What’s your message? If you don’t have one–go to the library. A good bookstore might work too, but why not support your local library? I don’t know how you could walk through those aisles and not be inspired. Read the plot descriptions. Try unfamiliar genres. Think about what made your favorite books memorable.
  2. Prepare an Outline. Yes, I know being a “pantser” is more fun, but in real life (not the delusional writer’s life often portrayed in author interviews), pantsers typically have fun for a few days but don’t finish their project. Eventually they run out of steam and don’t have a plan to keep them moving forward. Or they have fun letting their characters “take over the book,” but it doesn’t lead to anything cohesive. I know, outlining is not fun and you’d rather plunge right into the story. Do it anyway.
  3. Set a Goal. I don’t mean a time limit. No one can predict when they will be published or meet other publishing-world goals. But everyone works bests when they have a clear and designated purpose. What’s your purpose? Why are you writing? There are easier ways to make money or achieve prominence, so there must be something more. What is it? When you know you’re doing something worthwhile, something that matters, it’s easier to force yourself to sit in that chair and write.

Is Your Amazon Book Description Doing Its Job?

At my writing retreats, one of the hardest assignments I give is this: Write a 100-150 word description of your book. Like a synopsis, only harder. I give this assignment for good reasons. First, focusing on the core of the story, its strengths and target audience, often helps students finish the book. But today there is a second reason–the brief Amazon-page book description may be the most important 100-150 words you ever write. Studies show that, more than any other element, those descriptions sell the book. If you self-publish, you’ll have to come up with the description yourself. Even if you use a traditional publisher, you may be asked to write it, and at the least should be asked to provide input or editing.

Make those all-important words count. Make them sell your book.

Here are your goals:

1) Quickly summarize or hint at what makes your book intriguing or unique. Tantalize the reader.
2) Define the genre (or subgenre). Readers must know what kind of book this is.
3) In most cases, suggesting similarity to bestselling books in your genre is a plus.
4) Integrate keyword phrases that readers might type into the Kindle search bar when looking for their next good read.

One good place to get ideas for your description is the Kindle Bestselling Books list in your genre.  (Ignore books that are free. They may only be “selling” because they’re free.) See what makes those descriptions work. See if you can create the same effect for your book (without copying). This approach may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed how few writers actually do it. Too many writers blow this description off with a few cursory lines that don’t inspire anyone to read, much less buy.

A few more tips for writing this all-important description:

1) Start with a riveting blurb about one or two sentences long. Why? Because initially, Amazon only shows the first bit of your description, followed by a hyperlink to “read more.” You need a compelling opening that will inspire readers to click on the “read more” to get the rest of your description.

2) Include some reviews of your book. If you don’t have any yet, you can add this later. If you have writer friends, see if you can persuade one to give you a blurb. You can’t control what others post in their reviews, but you can control what goes into your description, and potential buyers will see this first.

3) Show your first drafts to critique partners, friends, fellow writers, readers, anyone who will look. Ask them honestly: Would you buy this book? Listen to their input and revise accourdingly.

I know you’d rather be an artist than a salesperson. Me too. But like it or not, an author is, in addition to being an artist, someone selling a product to a consumer. In a field with much competition. A brilliant description can separate your book from the pack and give you the attention your deserve.

Creating Conflict

In my book Perfecting Plot, I discussed the three levels of conflict you can use to enrich a story. They are:

External conflict: the protagonist in conflict with the world

Personal conflict: conflicts arising from relationships

Internal conflict: mental problems, personality faults, spiritual issues, phobias, etc.

Yesterday, I was reminded how popular–and how successful–this approach to story and character is as I saw Kung Fu Panda 3 with my kids (which includes my wife and myself, the oldest kid in the family). Despite being a sequel, I found it enormously entertaining and not just for five-year-olds. Part of the reason the story works is because, instead of relying on bodily function humor and silliness, the writers baked multi-layered conflict into the scenario.

It breaks down like this. To save the world as we know it, Po, the Dragon Warrior panda, must defeat:

External conflict: the malevolent bull who wants to take over the world

Personal conflict: an identity crisis arising when his biological father appears and wants to take him away from his adopted father

Internal conflict: to fulfill his destiny, Po must become a master of Chi (just go with it).

These layers of conflict may not speak to the children in the audience, but they speak volumes to the parents paying to take them there. I thought the personal conflict particularly astute because it metaphorically addresses the modern blending and redefining of the family unit. The two dads of course eventually work together, giving younger viewers a model for unconventional families, blended families, stepdads, adopted dads, gay dads. This is not only clever conflict but a good example of a well-developed and effective theme that doesn’t club you over the head with obviousness or forced morality.

Writing Dialogue “Off-the-Nose”

DialogueOne of the hardest aspects of writing for me to grasp was the idea that characters shouldn’t always say exactly what is foremost in their mind. After all, we don’t always do that in real life, right? Often we beat around the bush, or make elliptical comments designed to elicit information without asking for it, or make provocative suggestions hoping for a revealing response. The cliche about “the elephant in the room” reflects that often what is not being said is paramount, not the trivia that is spoken.

The preference for off-the-nose dialogue is much like the preference for showing rather than telling. When a character says, “I’m sad,” it seems obvious and, frankly, boring. The savvy writer will use an off-the-nose comment which, coupled with what the reader already knows and perhaps a bit of suggestive action, reveals the character’s true thoughts. Yes, the reader has to work a bit, but they always do in more profound works, and that causes the reader to have a more profound literary experience.

Here’s an example from my book Dynamic Dialogue:

Beth peered over the rim of her coffee cup. “I think maybe this year we shouldn’t put up a Christmas tree.”

Her husband did not look up from his newspaper. “I thought you loved putting up the tree. You always make such a big deal about it.”

“I don’t think anyone cares but me.” She took a long drag from her mug. “Especially now that the kids are gone.”

“What about the stockings? The Christmas lights.”

“I can do without them, too.”

“The wreaths? The crèche?”

“Why bother? Better to make a clean sweep of things.”

He laid down his paper. “And me?”

She held the mug in both hands, treasuring the warmth.