The Journeyman Author

On writing for writers.

Category Archives: Tips on Writing

A story without an outline is a person without a spine.

Right now, I’m supposed to be revising my outline for Martyrs before I go out of town for the weekend. I’m thirteen chapters in, I’ve edited the manuscript down by at least three chapters already (the exact number escapes me–my original outline is in the kitchen and I’m too lazy to go collect it), and I have probably another seven or so to go. It shouldn’t take me long. I know where I want to go and what edits or rewrites I want to make.

However, I’m not working on my outline. Primarily, it has something to do with that “my original outline is in the kitchen and I’m too lazy to go collect it” bit. It’s also freezing outside of my office, and I have “The Iron Giant” playing in the background, so I’m pretty comfortable sitting where I’m at. Regardless, I wanted to be somewhat productive tonight as far as writing goes, so here you go! New blog post!

My procrastination from my outlining also gave me the idea for today’s topic: the importance of outlining your novel.

We’ll start with an anecdote. When I originally began writing Martyrs, I was fifteen years old. It was really a simple beginning. I had characters, I had a general idea of what the hell was going to happen, and I had a computer with a keyboard. So, I sat down, and I wrote.

It took me a long time to get even halfway done with the book. That was partially due to time constraints in high school and partially due to having no clear-cut path upon which to take the story. I was having a really hard time writing, and that drove me crazy. When I got to college a few years later, I finally had the time to really look at the manuscript.

(I know, I know–more spare time at the university than in high school?! It took me a few months to make friends, so I was a hermit.)

Anyway, I digress. When I looked at the manuscript and reread the first fifteen chapters, I realized something. There was absolutely no coherent flow. The ideas didn’t mesh well together. Events that happened in the first chapter had absolutely no influence on the rest of the book. I had whole scenes that were nothing more than “filler text,” used to boost my chapters to an appropriate length. Basically–everything I had written was absolute crap.

I realized my problem immediately: I had gone into writing my novel with absolutely no direction or plan. The lack of preparation reflected in my work.

The first thing I did was outline the entire book–then the entire book series–and then, I wrote.

Since then, writing my novels has been significantly easier and, more importantly, my work has been substantially better. The ideas are more concise, the writing is more fluid, and the books, overall, turn out cleaner and clearer.

Outlining is such a vital part to writing a story I’m surprised at how many writers still don’t do it. Without an outline, a book simply will not hold together the way it should. Without an outline, you have floundering chapters with massive disconnects and little flow. Without an outline, how can a writer even start developing a cohesive story where every single element is thought out and put together in precisely the right way to make the work truly profound? I would argue that they couldn’t.

The arguments these writers–the non-outlining writers–have made to me against outlining are weak. It stifles the creative process, they say. It puts their writing into too “tight a hold” and stops the story from developing for itself. The worst one yet is probably the claim that outlining traps them and their story.

I shouldn’t be quite so annoyed. Ultimately, these are the words of amateur writers, probably writers who believe the first draft of their novel will be even remotely similar to the final draft, or those who think a longer piece of work is a better piece of work. These are likely the writers who haven’t yet realized that they will most likely rewrite the entire book at least once before they can even think of submitting it to agents–hell, maybe they’re even the same writers who don’t believe in rewriting at all (yes, I’ve met some of those, too).

Regardless, I have yet to be corrected. In my novel writing course, the very first thing we were taught to do was to outline our novels. Even in creative writing courses focusing on shorter fiction, nonfiction, and even essay writing, outlining was an essential step to starting off. Though with smaller works it may be vastly less important, for novels it stands true: starting a book without an outline is like building a person without a spine. It simply can’t hold together.

These non-outlining writers have fallen into believing grave misconceptions. They believe an outline is a strict rule and cannot be broken, which is absolutely not true. They believe they cannot change it once they’ve written it. They believe it stops them from being able to come up with new ideas.

But it doesn’t. All an outline does is give you a very cohesive, collective plan for where you want your story to go. If, while writing, you discover something that isn’t working, or if you develop a brand new idea to incorporate into your story, there is absolutely nothing telling you not to edit your outline and your story. All an outline can ever possibly do for a writer’s work is make it better–why wouldn’t anyone want that?

Perhaps later I’ll write a post about how I outline. Maybe someone out there would read it and actually find it useful. All I know is this: I wish I had learned about the importance of outlining seven years ago when I first started writing Martyrs. Perhaps I’d actually have the whole thing finished by now. Instead, I’m sitting in my office, putting off rewriting a brand new outline!

(Admittedly, this new outline is awesome, and I can’t wait to start writing this novel–again!)

Cheers,
Mary

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Five ways to inspire yourself.

Finding the time to write is one thing. Finding the inspiration to write is another. This has been one of my major issues for the greater part of the last twelve months. Before that, my problems revolved primarily around the lack of time. I was a full time student and part time worker, which sucked up every hour of spare time I had available. Somehow, I still managed to write a book in 2008, one in 2009, and one in 2010.

In 2011, my writing boom came to a very abrupt end.

I finished my last book in August, 2010. The following September, my mother was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. She passed away on June 6, 2011. Since her original diagnosis, I haven’t written more than a couple of pages per sitting. Mostly, I just don’t write.

That should suffice for back story. Writing, like anything else, comes in waves. You can’t force it when you aren’t feeling it, and nothing is going to dampen a writer’s will to work more than depression. Some people can write through it, but I am not one of those people.

It’s been almost eight months since Mom died, and I’ve been stuck on this strange teeter-totter between wanting very badly to start writing again and being completely unable to actually string any words together on the page. When I do sit down and get something done, I feel like everything I’m writing is absolute crap. I feel disheartened to see other writers my age, with my experience, finishing books, submitting queries, and furthering their writing careers. I get frustrated that I am not doing the same–I could, couldn’t I?

I have the time. Until recently (yesterday, in fact!), I was only a part-time employee. I worked twenty-eight hours a week and had at least two and a half hours to myself every day before my fiancé came home. I could have spent that time writing, but instead, I was sitting on my ass, taking naps, or wasting my time on the vast procrastination machine that is the interwebs. It hasn’t helped boost my morale, to say the least.

However, enough is enough. My cousin, another aspiring fantasy writer, has been talking me through my writing woes. We’ve come to the same basic conclusions. One, I am mourning, and I need to give myself the time to mourn. Two, I need to find a way to reinspire myself.

That has prompted me to writing this particular entry. Writing isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it, and everyone would be publishing. Similarly, finding the inspiration to write something truly profound isn’t easy, either. Many writers fall into heavy ruts of writer’s block or suffer from a down season that cuts their inspiration, their productivity, and therefore their self-confidence down by a significant notch.

So, for writers who have found themselves in the same boat as me–lacking motivation and drive from a dip in inspiration–hopefully some of these ideas will help.

1. Work on smaller projects.
The blog you are now reading is exactly this. I started blogging for a few reasons, but I would be a liar to claim that the single largest factor leading to my decision to write a blog was not simply my desire to write again. Sometimes the big picture is too much to handle. You have a manuscript outline of twenty-six chapters waiting for your revision, characters demanding your attention, and perhaps you don’t feel like you can give them any justice. You’ve been down, and your funk is affecting your writing. Instead of forcing yourself to work on the things you “should” work on, do some smaller, more menial projects to get the creative juices flowing.

Blogging is an excellent way to do this. I also have a running “role play” with a friend going on right now. For those unfamiliar, this basically means he and I take turns writing part of a story through email. It’s simple, easy, and pressure-free. Most importantly, it gets me back into a writing mindset. Even if all I have to do is think about a two page blog post or my character’s next move in a simple plot line, at least it gets me sitting down in front of a piece of fiction again. If blogging isn’t your thing, try short stories or poetry.

2. Read.
And I don’t mean “just read anything you can get your hands on.” My cousin and I had this conversation, too. Read things that excite you, things that make you want to write. While I was getting my undergraduate degree, needless to say I was doing a lot of “reading,” but very little (in fact, likely nothing) I read actually inspired me to do anything but either sleep or grab the nearest sparknotes available.

By read, I mean read material that genuinely interests and excites you onto the prospect of storytelling. I’ve been fighting to get through a couple of books loaned to me by loved ones. These books are, by no means, bad books, but they are not in my prefered genre and ultimately don’t suck me in. It can take me months to read these books, picking the novel up whenever I have absolutely nothing else I can bide my time with, or when I’m stuck in line at the DMV.

When I find a book that does enthrall me, my story is quite different. I can get through a book in a matter of twenty-four hours if I’m excited enough about the story. Books that capture my spirit into their pages also spur my own creative juices. “I can do this!” I think to myself. “My story can capture the hearts of my readers as this author has done to mine!”

So, if you find yourself lacking the inspiration to write your own book, pick up someone else’s instead and, for once, be sucked into a story other than your own.

3. Talk about your ideas.
This one was a particular issue for me. I have dozens of ideas but very few people to talk to about them. Honestly, this is mostly my fault. My fiancé, for example, would love to hear all about my twisted plot lines and tragic characters, but I don’t want to give away too much of the story. Part of the fun for me is watching him untangle the mess on his own and seeing if I’ve successfully landed my reader where I want to land him. In essence, my poor fiancé is my reader-guinea-pig.

Alas, this also means I can’t indulge into deep conversations about the finer points of the story line.

The friends I do have to talk to about my novel are few and far between. Recently, I reconnected with one that is my main “bouncing wall,” if you will. She knows my plot lines almost as well as I do and can engross me in conversations about my work that no one else has the knowledge base to do. She’s become an invaluable asset to my work. Unfortunately, schedule conflicts kept us from talking in quite a long time.

However, when we do get the chance to sit down and talk, she refreshes all of my ideas and makes them feel new and exciting again. Reopening old pages really helps rekindle the fire and gets me excited to write again.

4. When the mood strikes you, take advantage of it.
If you’re suffering from a major writing rut, don’t ever let inspiration get away. Carry a notebook around with you everywhere you go. When you finally catch a droplet of motivation to get some writing done, don’t miss your opportunity. They may be few and far between, and the less often you take your subconscious up on it’s spur-of-the-moment will to write, the less often those moments will happen.

My advice is to put down your other chores–laundry can wait, and order take-out if you have to–if you are hit with the urge to write. You, as a writer, should know that nothing feels better than being struck with inspiration and following it through until the end.

5. Fall in love with your own work–again.
Hopefully, throughout all of this, you’ve also rekindled your own passion in your writing and yourself. We all have those characters, those plot ideas, and those settings that have become more than simple elements in a story. They are our babies. Somehow, though, we’ve forgotten just how much they mean to us while other things get in the way. School. Work. Life in general. That’s fine, and that’s normal, but perhaps the best way to reinspire yourself is to fall in love with what you’ve already created all over again.

For me, it can be as easy as sitting down with my manuscirpt again and rereading my favorite scenes. Perhaps writing out short stories can spark it. I don’t know. All I do know is that falling in love with my books all over again makes me want to write them. It makes me want to take the time to sit down with them and develop them into the shining stars I know they can be.

Unfortunately, my stories cannot turn into shining stars until I get off my lazy behind and do something about it. Neither can yours.

Happy writing, and good luck!

Cheers
–Mary

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