Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Wonderful World of Outlining

The Wonderful World of Outlining

AirshipBattleFleet So I’ve been working on a whole new book concept. My new story might or might not have anything to do with the genre of this nice picture. It started as an exercise for this blog and it’s blossomed into something bigger. Much bigger. What began as a 3000 word outline is now an 9000 word (18 page) outline, including a couple new subplots and a new main crisis. I also have 1500 words in other documents as notes. Don’t get too excited about the 9K wordcount; it includes a lot of structural headings and many redundancies.

So far my outline mostly lists and lists of ideas. Concepts for secondary characters, backstories, details on the main characters. I feel like this pre-plotting work is akin to laying out rows of dominoes, where one misplaced domino can ruin the entire flow. Things don’t line up, the spacing’s wrong, and events aren’t evenly paced.

But, like dominoes, it’s amazing how one idea leads to another. Every piece I change affects every other part of the outline. It’s far easier editing an 9000 word outline than an 90,000 word document.

My next step after I’m somewhat content with the outline is to start creating scenes. I have a nice checklist of scene requirements that I intend to use to ensure that each scene moves the story forward. I may include a few “backstory” scenes that aren’t included in the book but might be referenced by the characters. My two main characters are starting new chapters in their lives, but that doesn’t mean I can’t keep a couple of their old chapters lying around.

038_villainous_laugh_lj The question is going to be, “when is my outline ready? When should I start writing?” Since I’ve never outlined to this degree before, it’s something I’m pondering. Another step on this long road to publication is writing out detailed character sheets. This means describing the story from each character’s point of view. Right now I have eight main characters (2 Heroes, 1 Villain, 2 Allies, and 3 Mentors).  I have about ten other characters I’m working on as well, including some villainous henchmen (as seen in the picture).

I’ve heard people say that they lose interest in their work once they outline it, but personally, I’m dying to hear my characters’ voices. I want to see if how they interact “works” and how the plot flows. I don’t know how much more of this outlining I can take.

On an unrelated note, I’m supposed to get my Netbook back from the shop today. It’s my main blogging apparatus, which is partly why I haven’t been posting much lately. I never realized how truly crappy my old laptop was until I had to rely on it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Story Structure Part I: The Ordinary World

structure This is the first in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from “The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.

The Ordinary World

First some definitions for the purposes of discussion:
  • Hero: The main character of the story. Usually the character with the largest stakes and the biggest transformation.
  • Journey: The complete story arc of one particular character.
  • Transformation: The hero makes a choice to change their life in a profound way.
  • Goals: There are two kinds: external and internal. An external goal is something tangible and quantifiable. “I want to win a medal at the track meet.” Internal is more like an emotional state. “I want to feel loved.”
  • Conflict: Not getting what you want when you want it. Obstacles to achieving one’s goals.

The Ordinary World is the place where the hero’s journey begins. It’s not what we think of as “backstory” but it can include some. For this series of posts, I’m going to use an American football game as the backdrop for a complete journey. Our story starts as the players line up for the opening kickoff. What is going through our hero’s mind? What are his immediate concerns? The Ordinary World shows us where the hero starts, what his current flaws and strengths are (mostly flaws), and why his life must change. It’s essentially the thesis statement of the book.

Depressed QB Our hero, a quarterback, is waiting on the sidelines. The coach tells him he’s starting someone else instead, so we introduce instant conflict. We don’t have to know the history between them. We don’t need to know the team’s records, the names of the players, or anything else. What’s important to establish right away, first page, first paragraph, first line if possible, is what hero’s goal is and what the obstacles are. He wants to play. Coach won’t let him. Conflict.

One of the major conundrums that writers struggle with is “where and when do I start my story?” We’ve heard advice like, “start the story as late as possible” but it’s also possible to start the story too late. Part Two of the Hero’s Journey is called “The Call to Adventure” or “The Inciting Incident”. It’s very tempting to start the story in Part Two. You want to get right into the story and the action. A shot rings out. A body is discovered. Part Two is the first glimpse into something known as “The Special World,” a magical place where the normal rules don’t apply. Our hero is a career benchwarmer. The incident that ignites his transformation could be that the starter goes down with an injury. We don’t want to start right with the injury and throw our hero into the mix. We don’t want to start the night before when our hero is doing his homework and contemplating how much his life sucks. I think the right moment to start a journey is when the hero’s overall goal is thwarted by a major obstacle. In this case, our hero’s Ordinary World is one of underachievement, low confidence, and frustration. This is nothing new to him, this is his life as he knows it. His current state summarizes his life up to this point. When the coach informs his once again that he’s not worthy to start, his life is now “on the clock.”

The second consideration to ask yourself is, “what must the hero learn by the end of the journey to achieve his goals?” What are the major lessons and transformations? What are his dreams? How does his goals change? This is another clue as to how to shape the Ordinary World. Note that just because he starts out with a goal, don’t assume he achieves these goals. Maybe our hero will never become a regular starter. Maybe the “lesson” he learns his to make the most of his one opportunity. The point is to make sure that he doesn’t have the skills or ability to achieve his goals in the Ordinary World. He must survive the journey through the “Special World.” So, in the Ordinary world, he’s a person who’s missed opportunities. He’s not paying attention to the game. He’s distracted by a demanding cheerleader on the sidelines. His mom has been nagging him. His dad mocks him. His brother had a scholarship to a major college but our player is about to be kicked off the team. He spends too much time playing XBox instead of working out. All you need to do is paint a picture of a character whose life is about to change forever…and for good reason.

Another good thing to put in your Ordinary World is some foreshadowing to the main conflict of the story. He’s always dreamed of throwing a winning touchdown. Or any touchdown for that matter. His cheerleader girlfriend insists she must talk to him right during the game. His father is conspicuously absent on the sidelines. His coach chews out some other player. The opposing team takes cheap shots and gets away with them while the refs look the other way. Give your readers some hints that “all is not well” with the world. Lightning flickers on a faraway hill. Your hero may be completely oblivious to these signs, completely preoccupied with his Ordinary World issues, but the reader begins thinking, “huh. Looks like a shitstorm’s coming and this guy’s clueless. I wonder what’s going to happen.” If you start with the lightning storm, the pregnant girlfriend, the injured player, the screaming coach, the vicious opponent, then he’s dumped into that “Special World” and it’s just waaay too soon. He has no tools, he has no options. He’ll just run away screaming (and so may the reader). You need to show the reader why all these things are going to impact the hero. Heroes need convincing to enter this Special World, they can’t just fall into it.

The Ordinary World could be the most important section of your novel. It contains the “hook,” the first few pages where you entice an agent or publisher to request a full manuscript review. It’s tempting to throw the reader right into the action. A quick teaser is fine, like a prologue or something off to the side, but I feel like the best thing is to establish the character in their normal world, a world where they are lacking in skills to continue their present course. If you create a “Special World” like a fantasy world, or a historical setting, or a Sci-Fi universe, it’s critical that you don’t focus on explaining this world. Or your character even. Just focus on showing that your character is about to embark on a journey that will change their life forever, but they have no idea that it’s about to happen. They could be a Starship Captain, a Vampire with a Soul, or a clerk at the 7-11. I don’t need to know the details of Hyperdrive or the mechanics of the Slushy machine at this juncture. Maybe these are details the hero needs to know to succeed.

journey circle The final thing to note is that the character should eventually return to the Ordinary World, but not as the person who left on this journey. Perhaps the story ends with our hero at the start of another football game, perhaps even at a college game the next year, this time with confidence and knowledge of how to succeed. The circle is complete. This is another reason why it’s important to have an Ordinary World, to illustrate how far the character has come since he started his journey.

Ordinary World Goals:

  • Show basic setting
  • Illuminate Hero’s Overriding Goal
  • Create immediate conflict and show obvious obstacles
  • Establish hero’s inability to reach goals
  • Provide “the hook”
  • Foreshadow the main conflict
  • Provide a complete description of everything that’s happened prior to the present.
  • Insight into a character’s motivation. His main motivation right now is to achieve his goals with little or no self-sacrifice, same as everyone.
  • A deep character study.
  • Provide Details. Let the reader fill in as much as possible. Only include details that are completely necessary.
  • Include “an incident”.

Now there is no absolute “right way” or “wrong way,” no concrete rules set in stone, and plenty of counter examples for everything I’ve stated. This is just an example for you to consider when you plot your story.

Let me know your thoughts on this. How do you like to start a novel?

Monday, September 14, 2009

I Try Outlining

I Try Outlining

Story OutlineI’ve worked through a bunch of outlining and issue identification for Dawn’s Rise. At this point, it looks like I may be facing a complete rewrite. The plot can’t work as is, and I would basically be rewriting the whole thing. I don’t feel like doing that. I could write endless blogs on the specific issues, but let me summarize it by saying the whole emotional journey and transformations just aren’t right. I’m not saying that it can’t be salvaged, and that it wouldn’t be worth the effort. The problems are A) I feel really burned out and B) I don’t care that much anymore about the story. I’m beginning to hate my own characters. I know I can fix this into a publishable state. It’s just a cost/benefit/sanity issue at this point.*

So, I’m going to put Dawn’s Rise aside for the time being. I’m much more interested in creating new stories right now. I’ve been working on the same novel for 7 months. I have a partial ms, a couple of ideas, and this “new shiny idea” that I’m fleshing out. You may remember me posting a whimsical “Lover’s Journey” last week. I tried writing the same thing from the woman’s perspective (a would be “Part II”), and I wound up with a decent plot. I mean, a really decent plot. It’s a classic romance: a woman has to choose between a life of comfort and wealth or a life of uncertainty with the man she loves. (Don’t ask me why I keep getting engrossed with stories featuring heroines. But the MMC** in this outline is totally kick-ass, one of the best concepts I’ve had to date, very conflicted.). Romance writer? Me?? I already know my pen name: Andrea Rose. Would make book signings…awkward.

What’s interesting is that I wrote a whole story in under 3000 words. I don’t mean a short story, I mean a whole novel-scoped story. Obviously, it’s all telling with almost no dialog. Now, the story itself is laughably bad, and my wife couldn’t stop from laughing (at me) when I read it to her, but when I stepped back and retold it from a higher level, it worked. I started fleshing it out a bit, taking each paragraph and writing a page of details. Ideas began springing into my head: hmm, this would work as historical fiction. This would work as a Western. Heck, this would be awesome as Steampunk, which would require less research and more creativity. Is this the beauty of the outline method? I captured the essence of the story, the emotional journey, and now I can fill in the settings, the dialog, the subplots and characters to make this thing breathe. I think I may start a new blog category called “Epiphany.”

I’m probably going to work on this for a week or so, and see where it goes. I know that I will return to Dawn’s Rise, but I think I need some distance at this point. I hate doing this because I really want to be able to complete DR, but I also want to enjoy what I’m working on. My other hope is that maybe with this outline method, I can craft drafts that don’t require endless revisions and critiques—that I have the “story” part of the story worked out so I can focus on the details, instead of starting with details and working back to the story.

How has outlining helped you?


A couple bloggers pointed out their series on plotting. Here's a quick list:

If you know of more, add a comment and I'll put it here.


Couple unrelated notes:

  • I changed up my blog feed so that if you use something like Reader, you should see some links at the bottom of the feed, including a link to tweet my post. If you don’t, you might need to re-subscribe to my feed using the link on the side of my blog. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it
  • Turns out that there’s a secret pinhole on the bottom of my Netbook that resets it. I couldn’t use it for a week because I thought the problem was with the charger. The battery would just not re-charge, and the Netbook would not run on AC power. When I finally found out about the pinhole, it fixed everything. Now I have 2 chargers, which isn’t so bad.

*I have no idea what outline plan this image relates to, so I neither endorse nor discourage it. It’s for decorative purposes only.
**Male Main Character

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sweet Home NaNoWriMo

Sweet Home NaNoWriMo


Turn it up.

Gonna write a fifty thousand
Carry me home to see me win
Writing words about the Ross’s
I miss NaNoWriMo once again.

Well I heard some people bitch about it
Well I heard it’s no way to write
Well I hope that they’ll remember
There is no wrong and they ain’t right.

Sweet home NaNoWriMo
Where the writing’s purple-blue
Sweet home NaNoWriMo
Lord, I’m writing ‘til I through.

In Seattle we love our writing (ooh, ooh, ooh)
We always win, nothing you can do
Now we’re back and we are ready
To show the world we have writing flu (how ‘bout that?)

Sweet home NaNoWriMo
Fifty thousand words to go
Sweet home NaNoWriMo
Lord, I’m writing with the flow.

Sweet home NaNoWriMo
Another awesome writing spree
Sweet home NaNoWriMo
Lord, I’m writing happily.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Lover’s Journey Part I

The Lovers’ Journey Part I

I had another epiphany out on my run the other day. I was thinking about the romance part of Dawn’s Rise, and I realized that the “Hero’s Journey” is really the story of the sexual encounter. (Or is it the other way around? We’ll see).

So, I’ve taken a stab at describing the “Romantic Journey.” I don’t write romance, but I feel that I’ve come close. I’ve written this from a male main character’s perspective.

I call this version:

“The Mythical Lover’s Journey”

The Ordinary World

You’ve led a fairly successful life. You’ve conquered many a foe, defeating them in pissing contests and proven who has the most powerful orbs, but you feel that something has eluded you. Something is missing in your life. You’ve heard about this mythical creature known as “Woman”.  People say that some of these Woman creatures possess a wonderful treasure, more valuable than anything else in the world, but this treasure can only be won* at a steep price. You’re intrigued, fascinated with the idea of winning such a treasure. You’ve perhaps interacted with these creatures, and found out the hard way that their gifts are not easily won.

medusa The Call to Adventure (Inciting Incident)

One day, you come across the most exquisite Woman creature you’ve ever encountered. She’s beautiful beyond compare, alluring and mysterious. You feel that she must be hiding an invaluable treasure. When you first encounter this wondrous animal, she doesn’t immediately spear you through the heart. You decide you should pursue her, capture her, and win her treasure. Her pull on you is irresistible. You want to go on this adventure, but are you ready for it?

Refusal of the Call

You’ve heard many a time that Woman creatures are best left alone. You know of a brave knight who once tried to capture a Woman and she left him a bitter, angry loner. When hurt, they become the most deadly force in the universe. What would happen if a Woman creature captured you? She’d force you to impregnate her and raise her offspring. Not for you, no way. You would never be in that situation. No treasure is worth that. You’d rather just stay in the relative safety of the Man village.

Meeting with the Mentor

Still, you can’t stop thinking about this Woman creature. Something deep inside of you is calling. You ask your friends many questions: What’s with these Woman creatures? Is this so-called treasure really worth it? Is it really so awesome and magical? My King, how did you manage to wrangle one? How did Prince Joe? What are the secrets to capturing them? How can I tell the good ones from the bad ones? How do I avoid their traps? How can I escape from their clutches if I need to?

Meeting Warrior Woman Crossing the First Threshold

Everyone tells you to go for it. You lay your first trap for the Woman creature. She falls for the bait! Now you must figure out what to do with her. You must keep reeling her in, because these creatures have a healthy distrust for Man. You must convince her that you’re “not that bad.” You move out of your comfort zone into a strange new world, a place you fear and dread, a place where you have limited or no experience. A place teeming with flowers and lipstick and white wine. You must interact with this strange animal and keep her “happy” and “interested.” Foreign concepts indeed.

Tests, Allies, and Enemies

The Woman creature is pretty tough, and no fool. She has others of her species ready to attack if you make the wrong move. She’s even turned some of your fellow Man onto her side (the traitors!). They are wary of your intentions. Compatriots of yours provide you with bad advice at times and you make some missteps, angering the woman creature. She’s hard to tame. You’ve thrown all your best moves at her, but she remains aloof. You must up your game. You must gather some allies for this assault. They run you through tests, letting you tackle woman dummies and practice courting mannequins before allowing you to approach the Real Thing.

Approach to the Inner Cave

At last, all your training has paid off. It turns out that this particular Woman creature has a weakness for Dark Chocolates and Red Roses, and you’ve used this to your advantage. You enter her lair, and even into her secret chamber. Danger lurks all around. One bad step here and things could get ugly. You stroke her, tell her how beautiful she is, anything to sooth her and keep her off her guard. You don’t want to reveal your true intentions.

warrior woman The Ordeal

This Woman creature is defenseless before you. She has something you want, and you are going to get it no matter what. This is what you came for. This is what you’ve made all these sacrifices for. You are deep inside Enemy Territory, and she’s powerless against your onslaught. You are on your way to capturing this strange and wondrous creature!


She is yours! You have won her most precious treasure. You go home and brag to your friends. You display your victory like some scalp. You have been into the Lair of the Beast and survived. But, something doesn’t feel right. You go to show your comrades this Woman creature you thought you had captured, but she has escaped! Not only that, but you cannot find the source of all your power, your orbs. You are outraged! How can she have stolen them? Her treasure is no consolation. The victory rings hollow.

The Road Back

You must get your orbs back. You can’t stalk any other Woman creatures without them. You can’t work, you can’t hunt, you can’t fight your enemies. She taunts you with them, threatens to harm them, makes you do things you don’t want to do. She wants her treasure back, and you want your orbs back. Things seem to be at a stalemate and nobody is happy. All advice falls flat on your ears. You won’t give up the hard-won treasure, and she refuses to release your orbs. Something has to give, because you can’t live this way. You can’t capture her because she’s now fully on guard and won’t let you approach, even with chocolate and roses. This creature has become far more dangerous than anything you could have imagined.

The Resurrection (Climax)

You rail against the Woman creature, but she resists. You argue and beg. You try to enter her lair but you’re evicted. Even your own friends turn against you, not to mention your enemies who smell blood. At last, you realize you may never get your orbs back, so you head over to return the creature’s treasure, planning on begging for mercy. It’s not worth it any more. You realize you were wrong** to try to capture her, or win her treasure. But when you arrive, something has changed. You don’t see a frightening creature any more. You see a woman. Lonely WomanA lonely, vulnerable, heartbroken woman. She doesn’t seem so scary anymore. She’s just a person, just like you. You meekly lay her treasure at her feet. She says goodbye. You grasp her hand. You tell her how much you love her. You kneel before her. You tell her everything you’ve been meaning to say to her. You tell her you can’t live another second without her, and you were wrong to act the way you did. You don’t even care about your orbs anymore.  You place her dagger at your throat, and await the death blow. Instead, she picks up her treasure and hands it back to you, willingly. You ask, what about my orbs? She points. Turns out you had them all along, you just didn’t know the right way to use them.

Return with the Elixir (Dénouement)

The Woman creature is a creature no longer. She hasn’t changed; you have. She is not tamed, she is not captured, she’s not anything more than a willing companion on life’s journey. You both have survived a brutal adventure through the Land of Intimacy and learned many important lessons. You have bequeathed each other your most valuable gifts, and you want to share those gifts with the world. You both share her precious treasure called “love” and are ready to defend it at every turn. You’re finally home.


The End

Or is it just the start of a new adventure?

I’m not sure what I’m going to have in Part II. It’s either a more modernized version of Part I or I’ll try to write it from the female perspective. Stay tuned!

*In a previous version I used the word “steal” instead of “win” but DW thought it sounded too violent/rapey. I do think “steal” is the more accurate word for a man’s thought pattern but I don’t want to upset anyone. Go ahead and read it using “steal/stole/stolen” instead of “win/won” and you’ll see what I mean. You can also substitute “balls” for “orbs” :).

** See my previous post describing how Your Character is Wrong

Friday, September 4, 2009

Dawn’s Rise Title Analysis

Dawn’s Rise Title Analysis

I finally put a whiteboard up in my office and here’s what I wrote today:

DR Title

I didn’t come up with the title until I had finished the first draft. The name “Dawn” just came to me, possibly based on the character in Buffy:TVS. I thought of phrases that included the word “dawn” and came up with this one.

Right now I’m reanalyzing the entire story (and backstory), focusing on Dawn’s transformation throughout the story. I thought about the meaning of these words. I wrote down a bunch of related words on the whiteboard. (If you can’t read them, then you’ll understand why I don’t write drafts in longhand).

I want to narrow down to the central theme of the book. I like the metaphor of dawn, along with the concept of rising. Rebirth, resurrection, transition and transformation, the circle of life, and enlightenment. It just seems to work.

This is my current task. I’ve outlined the whole book, identified the major plot points, extracted the theme(s), and analyzed the problem areas. I’ve concluded that I’ve approached writing a bit backwards. I’ve written a story, then taken the above steps, instead of the other way around. I think it’s because I enjoy the act of sitting and writing most of all. It’s where I’m the most creative. Plotting and planning are a bit laborious. Even when I worked in software, I found it much easier to design code by writing bits and pieces of it. I’m discovering the drawbacks of this approach. I don’t know if there really is a “perfect” approach to writing, but I don’t see the harm in trying different things in the future.

How did you come up with your title? Does it have a deeper meaning or is it more of a marketing name?