Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Draw Me A Map

Heya Blogpeople,

This comes from here
Last week I wrote about ideas and, because some people actually read and were encouraged by the post, this week I'm going to move on to the next phase of writing your next (or first) book.

Okay so you have this great idea and you've put it through its paces. Now what? 

One thing I hear a lot is that people have great ideas then are totally daunted by the thought of writing them out. Hey, I panic before I write anything, I do. Writing can be intimidating (even when it's something you want to do) and the only way to get over that initial burst of panic is to write. A great way to start writing is to begin with an outline.

This outlining stuff is magic that can be adapted and applied to any kind of writing. When I write a research paper I do a thorough outline first and that outline is comprehensive and includes footnotes. When I write a long article, I outline with quotes and sources. When I write a novel I do anything from a detailed outline to a very loose action map because having a workable plan is like 80% of the work. Instead of going from page 1 to page 300 I only have to write from idea 1 to idea 2 to idea 3 etc. 

Best of all, outlining gets the hard work out of the way so that I can enjoy the creative part of writing. I told my son that 80,000 words isn't that much to write because most of the words are and, but, to, the... etc. and you just have to pick the right ones to go in between. Outlining helps free up your mind so that you can pick the best words. Break it down into something that is doable. Like that joke about eating an elephant [how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time- I never said it was a *good* joke]. That's how you finish your novel, one word at a time. 

Okay so you have this great idea and you have resisted the temptation to sit down and start writing until you run out of ideas. Good job! Now what?

Now, sit up straight and take a deep breath. You will probably feel a little pinch.

Either get out a notebook or warm up your PC (or Mac or whatever) and write an outline DON'T SHUT DOWN you knew this was coming, gimme a minute here. Just kind of write a list of things you want to happen in your book. It's cool- you don't have to do the letters and numbers and headings thing. Here's an example:

In which we meet the main characters through some kind of action.

Stuff heats up. Here is a good place for more action and maybe a little drama.

And we get a little foreshadowing here (you know I think this will end this way so let's see where it goes) This scene happens and it is a pivotal point in the storyline.

Here shit starts to go bad. details * I tend to sketch scenes that come to mind in these spaces. They're like little rest areas on the journey that is writing a novel*

And worse. Details.

Oh it's really super bad here. 

And the sun rises and things start to work out

Oops maybe not

But here we go, it is resolving...

Oh no it's really bad now. Shoot, that didn't work

And now we resolve the story and... Boom. The book is done.

Okay that's just an example and, in terms of plot structure, not an ideal example. Again. it isn't a suggestion that you should write your book that way or lay out your outline that way or anything. YOU have to figure out what kind of map or outline works for you. Winging it works when you don't have any skill or knowledge and results, usually, in a hot mess that may take years to clean up. As you learn more about the process of writing and plot structure and all that happy horsecrap, a map of where you want the story to go is important. It helps keep you on track. If you start your first novel with a plan you may save yourself a great deal of time and thwart a good bit of frustration.

This outlining stuff isn't difficult because you do it while the idea is fresh in your mind. It's great actually; as you write the outline thingy these characters become more and more real and the really big scenes start to take shape. It's awesome. 

And do you want to know the very best thing about this map? It is a fluid, constantly changing document. Maybe, while you're writing, a character takes on a little more depth than you had planned or you see a better way to move to your next bit of action. When this happens all you have to do it add it to the map and adjust future events accordingly. Keep referring to the map and changing it. In a way you are an explorer charting new territory. Here be dragons becomes, for instance, Florida which you can now map in detail and describe to your friends.

This map helps you after you're through writing the book too. If you are a super organized person you can write down the page number where certain scenes happen. This way, when you're editing and applying feedback to your editing process, you know exactly where to go. The editing phase of writing is one of deconstruction and your map kind of helps you to either take apart a section without creating further damage or serves as instruction on how to put it back together because ultimately editing results in reconstruction. Maps are very helpful here. 

But, oh subtle one, this strips the art and creativity from the writing process. 

Ah, grasshopper, you have much to learn. Writing is art but it is also a craft and craftspeople have to know how to make something work before they can learn how to make it pretty.

Books that don't work are no fun to read. They just aren't. The human mind craves structure and searches for patterns. If your book is all wibbly-wobbly the poor reader has to work so hard to make connections (patterns) that he is missing the 'art' altogether anyway. Your book is just an explosion of brown goo because nothing makes sense and the brain just mashes it all together into something it understands (every human knows what a pile of brown goo is and what to do with it). 

So now you have an idea and hopefully you have some kind of a map. Next week we'll talk (I'll talk and either you'll listen or you won't) about the process of actually sitting your butt in the chair and writing your next book. 

Have a terrific week, blogpeople. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Monday Book Recommendations

This feels decidedly odd- writing recommendations here- but, well, here we go.

Janet Evanovich's Wicked Business was excellent. I hate to give more publicity to someone that does not need it but she has managed to make a more intelligent, possibly even vaguely educational, but still funny and fast paced, series and this book was by far the best. Read more about it here.

Just a note on Evanovitch's better known Stephanie Plum series- I like it, it's the literary equivalent of Doritos and makes me happy. But, just like Doritos are a sometimes food, so is that series. It is the same freaking book over and over again but each book is different enough so that you don't feel like you've already read it, usually. I think she lost momentum at about book 10 but she picked it back up again for the last one. I recommend it too, but read in moderation. 

Also read:

Final Sail by Elaine Viets. This series, The Dead End Job Mysteries, is entertaining. Viets has an engaging writing style and an interesting premise. To me the best aspect of this series is that her protagonist, Helen, works in the low end jobs that authors rarely talk about in detail. It's a little like Dirty Jobs for the pink collar set. In this book Helen is essentially a maid (she has some other title) on a luxury yacht. Oh but it's just a cover because she is, of course, also a PI (although the PI gig is new. In the earlier books of the series she had to work the dead end jobs to survive, well she chose to work them. Read the books to find out why). You may learn more about this book (and the series) here.

Until next time,  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What('s) A Great Idea!(?)

Heya blogpeople,

The world is back in some kind of order and I find myself coming up with all kids of wonderful new book ideas. 

"Hey, wait don't run away, listen. I just had a great idea for a new book. Here read my preliminary outline!" I say to the first person to walk past my desk.

"Uh, do I have to?"

"Yeah. Let me pull it up for you." 

I'm so impressed with this idea that I get goosebumps just seeing it all splatted out on the page like that. I hover over the unfortunate reader watching her arms to see if she gets goosebumps too.

 "So, what do you think?" I ask after what feels like an eternity.

"Well it's a little dark."

"Is that bad?"

"No but it also feels," and then she pauses and moves the chair away a bit,"a little familiar"

"What are you talking about? I just came up with this idea today." And, hello, it's brilliant.

"But it just feels like I've read something like it before."

"Well I've read thousands of books, maybe a million [I adore hyperbole], and I haven't read anything like this."

"It just seems cliche, that's all. I'm sure it's a great idea. Can I go now?"

And I wait and catch another person, this time my highly sarcastic teenage son, who impatiently listens to my pitch and doesn't even let me finish before he sends down his verdict.

"Forget it, it's a stupid idea. You might as well write about sparkly vampires."

Huh. My goosebumps are gone and, in the harsh light that only a loved one can throw on the creative process, my idea doesn't look so great. But, damn it, it was a great idea and, damn it, I can write the heck out of that book. Bah humbug. Teenagers.

But that beautiful idea will never shine so brightly again. My problem, I assured myself, was that I showed it too early. It's like judging a beauty contest by looking at x-rays. Yeah, my idea is fine, just they don't get my vision.

Okay maybe, now that I think about it, the idea isn't super fresh but neither is great wine, right? And maybe other authors have sort of covered the basic premise but  I have something new to say about it. Harry Potter. Now, JK didn't come up with anything super fresh there. Anyone who has read YA fantasy can see where some of her ideas came from but she put them together in a beautiful and utterly unique way and she did all right for herself, no?

But I'm not pitching something that fabulous. My book idea is about sad things and displacement and the search for meaning. But it'll be humorous as well. No really, okay maybe a tad dark, but I have some really funny scenes listed out. Look!

"Um, do you seriously think a guy, what's this here? A soldier is going to use his last breath to tell a joke where a priest, a rabbi, and an atheist walk into a bar? That's not just unrealistic, it's tacky."

"But then he's going to..." I sputter but am interrupted.

"Forget it, Mom, you're better than that."

And what do you do with a statement like that? Argue that you still think it's a great idea? Get all stubborn about it? Because, now that I think about it, a soldier probably wouldn't waste his last breath on a joke about the afterlife. Not even if he was dying of a brain tumor (my book idea was sooooo tragic).

Honestly, I knew my idea wasn't going to go the distance but really, really wanted it to because I could see the whole thing right from the beginning to the end like a movie almost. My hope was that someone would read it and say "wow, you have got to write this! I want to know what happens to this guy." It loses its appeal when the pitchee can already tell you where the story is going. Bah.

Not all ideas are great ideas. Sometimes writers discover this early on and sometimes it isn't until we've written 25 pages then can't go any further. Or worse, we've written 85,000 words and can't sell the damned thing.

I have a terrible problem in that I sometimes (often) have about a hundred good ideas a day and it takes a lot of filtering to narrow them down into ideas that may work for a short story, or ideas that will pan out into novels, or even a series. Heck I forget most of them before I even get a chance to write them down. Usually I'm good at deciding what will and will not be worth spending energy on but once in a while I get carried away with a real stinker. 

This is all part of the creative process. A writer has to understand that not every idea she or he has is all that great (most of them probably suck). If we want to continue living with people for any length of time we really have to learn how to filter these ideas on our own. 

So how do you tell if you have an idea that will- seriously this is how I think of it- grow feet?

I come up with a one or two sentence pitch (hook) like I do when I'm writing query letters. This one was something like You know how they say there are no atheists in foxholes? Joe would tell you that they're not just wrong- they're dead wrong. Or something. My idea wasn't really that dumb- that's just an example and, also, I call it (y'know just in case). If that passes the light-of-the-monitor test (like the light of day test only for basement dwellers) I then write out a basic outline. It's kind of like an action map maybe- it's very loose and sketchy. If I think of a great line (or, usually, a joke) I write it in. Then I let it sit for a bit before I go back and look at it again. If it still looks good I sit down and start writing until it gets difficult.* Then I take a hard look at what I've written to this point and decide if it's really worth finishing.

I know, writers write and should always finish their shit. BUT.

I already know that I can write a whole book. I am well aware that not all of my ideas should go the distance even though I also know I could force them there. For me, the way I write and how I think, two, maybe possibly three full length novels a year is the most that I can do right now. So far I have managed one every two years but that's because I took two years off to fix the first book. And that's also why I've adopted this method of ruling out ideas.

It's so much easier to write a book correctly the first time than it is to go back and fix it later. Editing must happen- that's not what I'm talking about. It's very difficult to chip your book apart and put it back together again and, often, not really worth the time (with my latest MS I actually left spaces for expansion on purpose. Finishing that book was my highest priority and I knew I'd have to work on certain plot elements a lot in the next draft) and, all this being said, I would argue that it would be better to work the idea out on paper (outline, action map, plot structure map- whatever makes you happy) first and thoroughly  because fixing weirdness at that stage is the easiest option. My next book is going to be so well outlined that I could write an index from it if, you know, fiction used indexes.

Or you could work super hard on your hubris levels. Just pump your ego full enough and every idea is a great idea and every book is a worthy book. Why are you even reading this? You should be writing your own post!

But you should also write what's in you to write. Maybe, for your first novel, just finishing anything is the way to go. It's easy to suck the hubris out of yourself to a level where finishing an entire novel seems impossible. Understand that it gets tough in the middle, that's normal. Writing is work and sometimes it feels like it and sometimes it doesn't. Write the book, go through the process of trying to edit it and find an agent, and use the time between novels to work on becoming better (or write novel after novel until you get it right). It really is something of a numbers game (oh how I hate that saying) in that you have to spend enough time just doing before you can understand what it means to do it well. Me, I would rather spend a lot of time vetting ideas than fixing completed novels. But maybe that's because I'm in the icky stages of preparing a major rewrite. 

A really good idea is an essential first step in the writing process. It is so much better to test the quality of your idea before you move on to the bazillion hours it takes to write, edit, and probably rewrite, a book. If you find yourself defending your idea (especially if mostly you're trying to convince yourself that it's good) then you should write it down and let is marinate for a while. When you come back it'll either be ready or show itself for the stinker it is. Even if it stinks it's all good, don't worry about it. You'll have more ideas.

Have a great week,

* Most books have a point, usually about 20 pages in but it's different for every book and every writer, where writing starts to feel a lot like work. Hard work. Pushing a boulder up a mountain work. Then the next umpteen pages can be like pulling teeth until you catch your second wind. The middle is the most difficult part of writing for me and, from what I understand, for a lot of writers. Pushing through is very difficult and, in fact, impossible if you don't have a great idea, a plan, and the skill to get you to the end (oh and the ending has to be logical and consistent with the book which isn't as easy in practice as in theory.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Change Can Be Good- No Really I'm Serious

Okay so the kids are back in school and my work week is back to normal. While my life was all disrupted and loud I escaped to my happy place and thought about different changes that need to be made to this blog, my Facebook page, and etc.

The most major change will occur when I start writing my Monday book recommendations in this space rather than on my Facebook page. What does this mean to you few loyal blog readers? 

Not much. There will be a post on Monday and it will consist of one or two book recommendations. Not reviews exactly but books I have read and want to talk about. Thursday navel gazing will continue as usual (a post will appear either Wednesday or Thursday).

Why not just write reviews?

In a way, of course, recommendations are reviews. I'd like to speak honestly about the books I read but I don't want to talk about books I didn't like. Reviews are more broad than recommendations. 

Usually, for every two books I recommend, I read four or five- although lately I've been reading the first four to fifty pages of four or five books- I have had a very low tolerance for crap and not much time to read. Unless a book really upsets me I will not bother talking about it if I don't like it (mostly because I won't recommend books I haven't finished).

So, let's talk about genre.

I read anything that interests me and nothing that disturbs me because I get my fill of disturbing from the news (I am a news addict) and certain shows on reality TV (Honey Boo Boo). When I read, my imagination is very good at turning the words into images and I don't like being grossed out (when I watch TV I'm usually doing something else like knitting or making origami cats and I don't watch it as much as listen to it so it isn't too bad). I don't like being scared (although I do enjoy suspense and action novels) because a really super scary book can give me nightmares for years. I will not read books that portray women as weak little babies who need to be protected. I will not read books where the exploitation of children or animals is central to the plot (or contains graphic descriptions of same- I'm not cool with that kind of thing). 

For the most part I will not recommend indie published novels because I don't read them. I will not read them (although I do read the occasional non fiction indie book). I also do not read unpublished manuscripts (with very few exceptions) because my world has become a sad and picky place. I have to constantly evaluate the worth of my own work and it carries to everything I read. Nuff said. I'm not snotty enough to be pedantic but when I see more mistakes than interesting text I have to stop reading. 

Whew. So anyway. Next Monday you will find a shortish post that contains a couple of book recommendations. Do you have a book that you'd like me to talk about? Shoot me a message and I'll read it and see what I can do. 

Have a great day.