Outlining and Using [insert placeholder here] to write faster

Last year around this time (was it really last year?) I was spazzing out on my writing. It felt like it was taking me forever to do things. And then, I got the revelation to trust my words. I decided to hold off on any new short story writing while I worked on Willow. It’s been a year, and I’m now halfway through. I’ve been workshopping Willow to a new writer’s group I’ve been attending, and that has been super effective.

Well, a couple of months ago, I was asked to submit a short story to an anthology that had the deadline of April 1. It just so happened that I had a story idea I thought would fit perfectly with the anthology’s theme. The only thing was, it wasn’t written out. All I had was a scene and a vague idea of the format I wanted to use, and that was it.

Usually, when I do a story, I write it out first, sit on it a bit while I research, write a second draft, sit on it while I do more research, then fine tune fine tune fine tune until I reach a point where I get sick enough of the story to stop working on it and send it to beta readers. This time,I decided to try something new.

Instead of writing out the story and figuring out what needed to be done, I would outline, research and finally write the story. In that order.

This was inspired by Writing Excuses podcast, specifically the episode where Mary Robinette Kowal showed her writing process, from Brainstorming to outlining to writing. This is similar to Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, another style of outlining, but up to this point, I haven’t really tried it, mainly because I’m an organic writer, someone who likes to figure out the style of the story as I write. For the outlining style, basically, I wrote out the main idea of my story, then expanded it to a synopsis, then expanded that to a scene-by-scene outline. I used the outline to figure out what to research, then adjusted the outline to add in what I learned from my research. I then wrote the story, fine-tuned the outline from what I wrote, then used that to fine-tune the story, sent it to beta readers, got their feedback, did a final draft, then I was done.

I also tried another new writerly thing I’ve grown enamored over, which was mainly stepping up my use of placeholders. I’ve always been a writer who would sit and stare as I turn a phrase over and over in my head to get it just right. Thus, while I write really good stories, my writing tends to be very, very slow.

Within the past few months however, I’ve been using placeholders more and more, particularly while working on my novel. I find if I get stuck on something, if I don’t figure it out within a few minutes, it’s better to make a note about it and move on with editing. 9 times out of ten, when I come back to that note, I know what I want to say; sometimes, even in the process of making that note to myself.

I’m starting to use tricks, like for instance, instead of stopping my writing and searching for a character’s name, I type @@CHARACTER NAME HERE and continue writing the story. When I come back to it the next day, I search for all the @@ and plug the information in. It’s enough to get me back into the story. I also use the “Insert Annotation feature” in Word to write notes to myself, such as what feeling I want to invoke in a scene,  or “I want something that tastes like the color blue here. What tastes like blue?” If I’m not happy with a word, I highlight it in yellow. Then if a better word comes along, I can plug it in.

I know, I know, every writer knows about placeholders . Even I was using placeholders to a degree. But forcing myself to put them in if I was just diddling with a passage, in allowing myself to say, it’s okay to come back to it, just keep moving with the editing, it’s increased my writing speed. In some cases, in the course of rewriting, I may do away with the sentence altogether, which means that placeholder is no longer needed. I feel like suddenly, I have REVISION SUPERPOWERS!

I finished this short story in two months.  And I didn’t start the actual writing of the story until the second month.

I’m floored by how quickly I was able to churn this story out. Normally it would take me up to six months to do a short story. Granted, this was a 5000 word short story. I haven’t seen what would happen if I did this with a longer story. What I can say is that outlining gave me the ability to gauge what I could put into the story to approximate the world count. I’m going to try it again with another short story that has a word count of 7500 and see if I can get the same results.

I’m also trying to incorporate this into Willow. I already have an outline, and the book written. Bust instead of going back and rewriting previous chapters as I edit, I just make notes in them for me to come back to later. It makes me wince, knowing that I’ll have to do another revision pass, but at the same time, I’m making my notes more detailed, so that all I need to do is plug in those revisions in the next pass. I’m also having my book beta read, which means that those notes will tighten up the story enough that after that next revision pass, the book will be the best I could make it.

I don’t think I’ll do every story this way. I’ve got another story that I’ve written out the normal organic way, and I’m having just as much fun working on that. But I have to admit, outlining really works. I like to think it’s helping me grow as a writer. And if not [INSERT SOME METAPHOR HERE].

Edit: And whaddya know…the story sold! Look for more information soon about it.

Book Review: “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them” by Francine Prose

Finally, I’m getting back on track with my blog posts. Here’s an overdue book review for you. My reading for the past couple of months have been very slow, but it’s been worth it, especially with this book, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.

Finding this book at B&N for $6 was perfect timing. I was getting our house clean for selling; I hardly got any writing done. I needed something writing related to keep me sane as I was chewing my nails, worrying if the next people who came to a house showing would be the ones to buy the house. Reading Like a Writer was the perfect escape for me.

I heard about the book a year ago from listening to the Writer’s on Writing podcast. Francis Prose said on it how surprised she was not to find such a book on the market, that the best way to learn how to write was to read–carefully read–great stories. Her slant in the book was to take it slow, read word by word, sentence by sentence, to get the full impact of how a writer crafted the story.

The excerpts she used in the book are mostly from classics like Dickens and Austin, though she also includes more contemporaries literary authors like Denis Johnson and Scott Spencer. She lists the excerpt, then goes on to pick it apart depending on what the chapter is discussing. On the chapter Sentences, for instance, she quotes an excerpt from Raymond Carver’s “Feathers” and then goes on to say:

“The sentences could hardly be more plain. There are hardly any adjectives except for the gray of the peacock’s feet. And there is that chilling phrase, “conniving streak,” which is all the narrator chooses to tell us about his kid. The lovely Fran has become “his mother,” “Her.” “Especially her”–two words that convey a universe of resentment and estrangement. The sentences break down into sentence fragments, just as they would in speech–in this guy’s speech–punctuating the long bass notes of the sentences that begin: ‘I remember…I recall…I remember…'”

I found Prose’s book very much like a class, a class of one, yes, but I could understand and get what she was trying to get across. I didn’t agree with all the examples she gave, but for the most part, she opened my eyes a lot in studying the different passages. And the advice she gives comes in handy. I liked how in the Narration section, she covers not just 1st and 3rd person point of view, but also the allusive 2nd person, which I’m currently doing a short story in and really appreciated the advice she gave on it.

This is a very different book from most of those writing books out there. It teaches you how to study writing of works so you can imply that knowledge to your own work. She also gives insight on how different writers spun their craft, from Dostoyevsky struggling with the best way to write Crime and Punishment (Prose lists how he wrote several sections “in the first person, as a diary, as confession, as memory, and as a combination of journal and drama”.) to Henrich von Kleist’s deadly flirtation with suicide when he wasn’t working on his novella.

As I went on, I started to try and guess what point Prose was trying to get across from the excerpts. In doing that, I began to discover on my own how to read the excerpts. I began to see the techniques the writers used. There was an especially long passage she listed that as I read it, I slowly begin to realize that two of the characters was of a different race than the protagonist. It’s never mentioned in the excerpt–I had to figure it out for myself from the clues the writer puts in the story. I had fun doing it, and I’m looking to get the book so I can read how things turned out.

In fact, Prose does include a reading list of all the books she excerpts. It’s something I’m seriously thinking about doing–just the other day, I was garage sling (ah, now there’s a verb for ya!) and came across a couple of hardbacks that looked interesting. After picking them up for a quarter apiece, I picked up Prose’s book and lo and behold, one of my books was on her list. (And for the record, let me just say, when it comes to books, garage sales in Madison rocks.) So I already got one book taken care of. 127 books to go.

But as for writing books, I know that this one is a definite keeper. I plan to keep it on my shelf, to page through it on occasion, to mark and highlight the death out of it. It’s not a easy book to read straight through during a weekend. This is a book to take it slow, to savor, to read a page and then sit back and think. And I think that’s how Prose intended it to be. Five books out of five, and if you’re looking for that interview of Prose, you can go right here to get it. Think I’ll listen to it myself.