Archive for the ‘Writing Wednesdays’ Category

What’s Your Story?

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Apropos of our Writing Wednesdays, a friend of mine just started an editorial services company called “What’s Your Story?” designed to help aspiring writers polish their work and navigate the publishing world. You can find out about the services they offer on their website,

For those in New York, they’re holding an inaugural full day writing workshop on Saturday, June 9. I have been told that wine will be included….

In the meantime, if you have any topics you want me to address for our next Writing Wednesday, let me know!

Writing Wednesday: Outlines

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

You have an idea. You might even have a first chapter. Now what? Where does the book go from here?

To outline or not to outline, that is the question.

If you ask people in the writing community, they generally divide themselves into two camps: outliners and “pantsers” (or people who work by the seat of their pants). The truth of the matters is that there are all sorts of permutations in between.

Some people need to know exactly where the book is going before they start. If that’s the case for you, you might be an outliner. Your outline could be anything from a one page list of bullet points listing key events to a detailed chapter by chapter summary. Let’s call this “Extreme Outlining”. The extreme outliners I know tend to spend a lot of time on the outlining process, since that’s where the major plotting and rethinking occurs for them. By the time they get to the writing, it goes fairly quickly, since the major kinks have already been worked out.

People this works best for: people who need lots of structure; plot driven writers.

On the far end, you have Ulitmate Pantsing. This consists of sitting down in front of your computer (or clay tablet) and just seeing where the characters take you. My ultimate pantsing friends tell me that this involves a great deal of trial and error and rewriting as they get to know the characters. The upside? Going to all sorts of interesting places you never imagined the story would take you. The down side? Increased antacid use as you wonder what on earth is going to happen next.

People this works for: people who are comfortable with chaos; character driven writers.

Then there’s the in-between, into which I fall. I’ve tried Extreme Outlining. It failed miserably for me. By trying to make my characters adhere to an outline I’d written months before, I wrote myself into one of the worst cases of writer’s block of my writing career. The characters wanted to grow and develop in a different direction. I had to scrap the outline and re-think the trajectory of the plot before that could happen.

On the other hand, ultimate pantsing tends to peter out for me after about four chapters. At some point, I need to have a sense of where I’m going, of what I’m writing towards.

My solution? I wind up outlining about five chapters ahead. I re-outline constantly as I go, scribbling on little bits of paper that I then throw out about a week later. That way, I have some sense of structure, but it stays dynamic and flexible.

The downside, of course, is that there is still that measure of chaos. I never know exactly how a plot-line is going to resolve itself until I’ve hit that five chapter zone. On the plus side, since I’m constantly re-thinking and re-plotting, I don’t write myself into as many dead ends.

My suggestion would be to play around with different levels of outlining to figure out what works for you. An outline doesn’t have to look like an outline to serve an outlining purpose. Some people think well in bullet points, others don’t. Often, I find just sitting down with a pad of paper and brainstorming plot ideas and bits of dialogue helps provide direction. It may not look like an outline, but it’s still giving you an idea of where the story is going.

I know other writers who keep dry erase boards in their office, with outlines that can be altered as they go, smudging out old bits, adding new ones. They keep family trees there, character traits, whatever they might need to go forward, with the comfort of knowing that dry erase means that none of it is locked in stone unless they want it to be.

Some writers swear by collages. (Check out Jennifer Crusie’s article about her book collages.) For the artistically oriented, that serves the same purpose as my long-hand brainstorming: it forces you to focus and think out your plot and characters.

For character-driven writers, writing character sketches– bits of their back-story, their emotional reactions, their likes and dislikes– might serve a similar purpose by helping you to get to know your character better. Where the character goes, the story goes.

Don’t be too worried if you don’t know everything that’s going to happen before you sit down to write. (Unless, of course, you’re an extreme outliner by nature, in which case, why are you still reading this? Go write that outline!) Figuring it out as you go along can be part of the fun….

Have you stumbled on any outlining techniques that work for you?

Writing Wednesday: Intro

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

My first advice to you as we embark upon our series of Writing Wednesdays? Ignore advice.

When I say ignore, I don’t mean stick your fingers in your ears and hum. But do take anything that I or anyone else says with a grain of salt. There are entire industries out there devoted to telling you how to write. Some of the advice will be useful. Some will be horrendous. It’s up to you to pick and choose.

Every writer has her own rhythms and patterns. Lytton Strachey preferred to write in the bathtub. Thomas Wolfe (no, not that one, the other one) apparently wrote Look Homeward, Angel while balancing his manuscript on the top of a refrigerator. Either he was a very tall man or it was a very short refrigerator. I tend to eat a lot of peanut butter from the jar. (Chunky only, please.) Some writers work best in the mornings, others in the evenings. Some can write in snippets while standing in the grocery line; others need a week of Quiet Time. As long as the story gets told, there’s no right or wrong as to how you go about doing it.

Be aware of your own habits and rhythms. Take note of how you work most effectively. Don’t try to work against the grain because someone says “but you MUST…”; you’ll only make yourself nuts. Yes, that might work for her, but it doesn’t mean it will work for you. Some authors make beautiful and elaborate collages while plotting their books. The only thing making a collage would make me would be annoyed. I spend a lot of time scribbling long-hand notes on large sheets of paper that I then never look at again. Does it make any sense as a technique? Probably not. Does it work for me? Yes.

This applies to a whole variety of subtopics: when you write, where you write, how fast you write, whether or not you outline, how you outline.

For better or worse, writing is a process of trial and error. No matter what anyone claims, no one can give you a foolproof blueprint for How To Write a Book– because that book wouldn’t be your book.

Over the next few months, I’ll be posting about character development, dialogue, pacing, time management, and other fun stuff. Always bear in mind that nothing I say is a hard and fast rule; it’s more, as they say in Pirates of the Caribbean, guidelines. (Did you hear Geoffrey Rush in your head as you read that? Excellent.)

If there are any topics you’d like me to address, just let me know!

Teaser Tuesday: Writing Wednesdays

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

That does sound a little recursive, doesn’t it? Not to mention alarmingly alliterative. (This is the last time I let Augustus Whittlesby write my blog headers!)

I’m launching a new feature on the website: Writing Wednesdays. Like everything else on the website, this is a figure-it-out-as-I-go sort of thing, but the idea behind it is to lightly touch upon some topics of interest to budding authors.

As to what those topics may be– well, that’s where I turn it over to you. Shannon (hi, Shannon!), who gave me the idea for this series, has already asked that I address issues of time management. I’m also going to look at character development, dialogue, and that dreaded beast, Writer’s Block. As to the rest… it’s entirely up to you.

None of these are intended to be exhaustive essays on the topic. They’re just going to be short little pieces to get the writing conversation started.

Since we have give-aways scheduled on the blog for the next few Wednesdays, I’ll be launching our Writing Series on May 16th. Rather like Masterpiece Mystery, it will run through the summer. If there’s sufficient interest– and more to address– I’ll keep it going through the fall.

So with all the housekeeping out of the way, here’s the real question: what writing-related issues would you like to talk about?