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.

Dealing with Conflict in Writing (Or, learning how to be bad and good at the same time)

A few weeks ago I took my son to see Wreck it Ralph. Aside from being the only person in the theater to get the Final Fantasy VII reference, I really enjoyed it and I think Daniel did too. However, throughout the movie I noticed he would bury his face in my arm and whimper at certain parts. Not the scary parts, mind, but at the strangest places, like when Wreck it Ralph meets King Candy for the first time. Or right after Ralph and Glitch bake her car. Finally, I asked him what was wrong.

"He’s gonna get in trouble!" Daniel said.

"No, he’s not," I said. "See? Look. Glitch likes her car. You have to watch and see what happens."

"Oh," he said. "I thought she was going to get upset and yell at him for making an ugly car."

And that was when I realized something. My son wasn’t scared of conflict, per se. He was scared of people getting into trouble. When Ralph ran into Candy Land even though people told him not to, he was Breaking the Rules. Which meant he would Get in Trouble, and that made Daniel uncomfortable enough that he didn’t want to watch Ralph Get Consequences.

I get it, because I am very much the same way.

Maybe it’s a first-child thing, where we were always told we were the oldest, so we have to set an example for the younger kids to show them how to do things to go the right way. Maybe it comes from being a Christian, where we hold ourselves up to such a high standard, we can’t even contemplate doing something wrong before telling ourselves it’s sin. (I tell you that verse, whatsover is pure, whatsoever is holy, whatsoever is righteous…etc etc…has made my life as a writer a tightrope). Or maybe it’s due to conflict-avoidance, something I do at every chance possible.

I want all my characters to travel the least resistance. I want them to be happy. I want them to achieve their goals the right way.

But that’s not how stories work.

I’m working on a scene in Willow now where one of my characters lies to another character. I originally didn’t do it because, hey, this character is basically a nice guy, and I really liked him. But as I edited, I realize that he wasn’t doing what he was ordered to do, which was to break up a relationship between the main characters. Which meant that he would have to lie. It makes me squeamish, because there will be consequences from this, really bad consequences.  And the guy knows it. But he does it anyway, which will mean alas, this guy isn’t as nice as I want him to be.

But that also makes him more human.

I will admit, there is a small part of me that makes me want to bury my face whenever conflict or trouble or any sort of uncomfortableness rises in my stories. There’s that part of me that cries, if she does that, she’ll have to suffer the consequences. But if there is no conflict, there’s no growth either. Characters need conflict to learn. They need to test boundaries. They need to stand up for what they believe in, even if they’ll get in trouble for it. Wreck it Ralph wanted to be treated nice, so he went outside of his game to get a medal, which was against the rules, yes, but to him, it was taking a chance to get him some respect. He suffered some dear consequences for that, but he learned a lot about himself. And by the end, we were rooting for him to succeed. That what makes a great story.

As writers, we need to show the good and the bad, the angels and the demons, the unbreakable and the rule-breakers. It’s how we connect with the characters. If you struggle with it, just tell yourself, watch and see what happens, because sometimes (though not always) it all pays off in the end. 

You can also play chaotic evil characters in RPGs, which is what I’m doing. Which is not as easy as you think. Do you know how long it took to get up the nerve to steal something in Skyrim? I mean, sure, you can put a bucket over the shopkeeper’s head, but it’s the principle of the thing…

Update on Willow (or Running the race as slow as I can…)

My friend Nicole recently ran the Chicago marathon. You can read her story, "Chasing Garbage Trucks (a marathon story)" at her blog, Five Penny Nicole. It’s really moving. Nicole is a fellow Chicagoan who also moved to Madison, so a lot of what she wrote resonated with me.

I mention this because as you can see, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this month. Just putting all my energies into my current short story and Willow.  And even those have been going slow. With work and Daniel’s school, I just haven’t had any decent writing time. And I also admit, I’ve been slacking in writing in the evenings. We’ve been watching Babylon 5, and while it’s an awesome show, I haven’t been able to dedicate my usual hours of work in the evening. Sometimes I do write, but it’s hard to concentrate when I’m engrossed in the workings of the Sintari. So it’s getting to be that it takes me two, maybe three weeks to finish a chapter of Willow. And at this snail pace, it would be a miracle if I finish at all next year.

In Nicole’s blog, she talks about running when most of all the sprinters and experienced runners had taken off, leaving the slow runners behind. She talks about running on the sidewalk because the police had open the streets to cars again. She talks about passing empty water stations because the helpers had packed up to go home. And she talks about how despite that, she kept on running. She had made it her goal to finish the course, no matter what place she came in.

It’s not like I have writer’s block that keeps me from working on Willow. While it feels like I’m chipping away at each chapter, paragraph by paragraph, what emerges from all that chipping is some real good storytelling. I’m taking time to think through the logistics: atmosphere, description, believable action. It helps that I’m not in a hurry. Yes, there are times when I get frustrated. I feel that I should be further along.  Here it is getting into November and I only just now finished introducing all the players and starting the dive into the story itself…

But wait…I lie. That last line didn’t feel me with frustration at all. It filled me with glee. It’s got me rubbing my hands in anticipation. I want to see the book to the end, and the thing is, I’m enjoying what I’m writing. It’s not like it’s turned into a thing I have to slog into. This week, I’m putting in the details of a palace that’s based on African architecture. Do you know how much fun it is doing that?

So yes, I’m going slow. But it’s okay. My goal is not to write fast. My goal is to write Willow and finish, so that’s what I’m going to do. And for all you NaNoWriMo writers out there who feel like you’re flagging, like you can’t keep up with the daily word count, ask yourself this: did I sign up for this just to write anything, or did I promise myself to write and finish a novel?

If it’s the latter, then congratulations. You got yourself a goal. Now just keep writing until you reach it. Oh, and thanks Nicole for re-inspiring me. Now if you don’t mind, I got some writing to do!

LINKS…OF…INTEREST! (Interest…Interest…interest…)

This post is dedicated to Futurama, which just got a deal for 26 new episodes on Comedy Central. Sweet!

As you noticed, this blog’s got a spiffy new look, and I’ve been making small improvements (like the new Twitter feed). What spurred on these changes? I’m subscribed to the website "31 Days to Build a Better Blog." If you sign up on the email list, you get an email once a day that gives you great tips on how to improve your blog. Some of the tips deal with cosmetic issues and housekeeping, making sure your links are up to donate. But it also gives tips on making your presence known on other blogs and forums to bring more readers to your site. And best of all, if the emails get to be too much, you can always save the emails to do the tips at your own pace. There are also great tips shared in the comments section and in the forums. For those of you who want to become bloggers, or if you’ve hit a plateau and don’t know how to bring new readers to your site, this is a great email list to be on.

Having just attended Oddcon and Wiscon, I found this article in Strange Horizons called "Let’s Stop Conning Ourselves" by Patience Wieland which talk about cons that aren’t as successful, and what the con world in general can learn from these failures. I liked it because near the end it lists some good advice getting the most out of attending a con, and how to avoid being scammed.

If you’re a writer wondering how to boost your creativity, Writing World has an article called "Lateral Thinking for Writers" by Ahmed A. Khan. It lists three thinking techniques one can use to create a story. I’m sure there are other techniques out there, but for basics, it’s a good article.

Moving from writing to writers: K. Tempest Bradford is doing a Clarion West Write-a-thon to raise funds for both the Clarion West scholarship and the Octavia E. Butler scholarship. This is a great opportunity to support the fantasy/science fiction writing community in general. If you haven’t read any of Bradford’s work, Podcastle recently ran a short story of hers called "Change of Life". Hop on over and have a listen, then head to her website and donate!

Finally, if you want to read a good online comic that mixes African-American folk history with the stylings of, say, The MaXX, check out Bayou at Zudacomics. This is a wonderfully drawn tale of a little girl named Lee who travels to an alternate, creepy Jim Crow South to prove her father’s innocence. Her protector is a hulking green man named Bayou who appears meek and simple, but when pushed can fight like the devil. It’s a scary wonderful read that’s still in the works, so come back over and over for updates.

You read it. You can’t unread it. Tune in at a future date for…

TALES…

OF…

INTEREST! (interest! interest! interest!)

The In-Between Time (or when one gets addicted to LiveFeed on Facebook…)

I’ve been trying to think of a good blog post to write. It’s been a slow month, writing-wise. The only serious project I’ve been working on is prepping Willow up for the 2nd draft. The past couple of weeks, I’ve been finalizing names, places, histories, backgrounds. I’ve also put up a new word counter, seen to the right. Everything should be set for me to start writing the new draft by March 2.

But other than that, I haven’t been doing much. I’ve been toying with a story, but I’ve pretty much been slacking in the one-story-every-week goal I set at the beginning of the year. At first, I figured I needed a bit of recuperating after the intense writing session I had in January. So I played a couple casual games. Got caught up on a bunch of short story ezines I’ve been meaning to read. Did some maintenance on Facebook. Did some more maintenance on Facebook.

Around the time I found myself sitting and watching the LiveFeed on Facebook, I realized I was no longer in the Recuperating Stage. I was in the Slacking Off stage.

It’s a weird time to be in when I’m between writing projects. Granted, I should be focusing all my hard work on Willow, but the stuff I’m doing doesn’t really feel like writing, although it’s just as important. It’s more like maintenance stuff, getting all the players in place and making sure my character has gray eyes instead of green and the name of his sister is "Daphne", not "Ashley". Therefore, it doesn’t really feel like I’m writing.

Likewise with the story I’m toying with. It’s more freewriting than anything, which is what I needed to do, just letting my mind and thoughts wander while my mind plays with story ideas. But it’s not like I’m getting to the meat and nitty gritty of a story, like what makes the story tick and what not. What I’m doing is pretty much mental doodling—not really serious.

So I’m at this weird in-between place in my writing, where I’m between serious projects. On the one hand, it’s an okay place, because it allows my mind to replenish its creative flow (I was about to write "juices", but then that got me to thinking about simmering meat, which got me thinking weirdly enough about cannibalism, because I watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory last night and Johnny Depp had this great line—okay, creative "juices" seemed just to creepy to write).

But on the other hand, it opens me up to tons and tons of distraction. Like watching Facebook’s LiveFeed. Because I really, really want to know what my friends are doing at that very exact moment

What it is really, is that I have a productivity vacuum inside my head. When it’s pointed towards a writing project, yeah, I’m with it, I’m in the groove, things are rolling along nicely. But when it’s not directed towards a project, then it’s directed towards any old thing, which means I spend three days trying to escape out of a locked room… 

(Actually, you’ll be amazed at how addicting these escape-the-room games can get. Especially since the more you play, the more tricks you pick up, the easier the games get, which means you start scrambling towards harder puzzles…what? What do you mean I’m digressing agai–)

The point is…procrastination.

And the other point is…ummm….sometimes it’s good. Because when you recognize that you’ve had too much of it, it means that you’ve had enough rest and recuperation and you’re setting yourself up for your next project, which is good, because you can now look forward to your next project with eagerness, and it means that you can start looking at all the stories you have sitting in the sketching stage and think, "which of these stories can I flesh out more?" And you start thinking and start writing and before you know it, you got yourself another project to do. Which is good.

I think I’m ready for that now. And I think I need to wean myself off the LiveFeed. Too much Facebook can be a bad thing. Besides, the Facebook RSS Feed is far more useful.

Well. That was a nice rambling, makes-no-sense post. But considering that it’s something that I did after a week of nothing, hey, I’m feeling pretty productive. 2nd draft of Willow, here I come!

Flash Fiction Fun

I’m almost a week away from officially working on my Weeping of the Willows edits.

I look at the past couple of weeks, and I’m glad that I’ve given myself a month to rest. If you’ve been following me on Facebook the past couple of weeks, you’ve noticed I mentioned entering a Flash Fiction contest 8 minutes before the deadline. It wasn’t a planned thing; the deadline for this contest was January 1, but instead, it got extended to the 15. I had been toying with a story I wrote back in December, so I thought, I bet if I trim this down to 500 words, I can send it in.

Mind you, I learned about the extension on the 11th.

My friends, that was the most brutal writing experience I ever did. I thought working on She’s All Light was hard. This was flash fiction–something I’ve done a couple of times, but not that seriously–and it had to be done within four days. I worked on that sucker day and night. My hubby donned his editing cap to help me make sure it flowed well and made sense. He also donned his cheerleading cape (which is invisible, because if he really did have a cape, I would be a little nervous) to give me encouragement when I was all ready to forget the whole thing because writing flash-fiction is harrrrrrrrd and I just couldn’t do it anymore and forget the stupid prize–we don’t need $500 bucks. Well we do, but I’d rather file for 8 hours straight than put all my energy into writing

It’s really nice to have a supporting husband who tells you to: “aww quit your whining and get back to the computer. You said you were going to do this; you put all your energy into it; so you’re gonna finish it, dammit, or else I’ll never hear the end of it!”

Paraphrased, of course.

I got the flash story off, and I have to say, I don’t think I ever pushed myself to work that hard before. What came out really impressed me. Time will tell if it will actually win anything, but it feels nice knowing that I didn’t just write a story haphazardly and threw it into the contest bin just to have something there. This was all sweat and blood and tears, baby. Then again, I could open it back up next week and think it’s the worst crap I’ve ever written. Ah, the joys of being a writer.

So after all that work, my creative side pretty much crashed and I couldn’t do any writing at all for a few days. No surprise there: what I did was equivalent to having the flu during midterms and pulling an all-nighter on Mountain Dew and Nyquil (which I don’t recommend–it’s a brutal combination, especially when you wake up in the dorm’s lounge in your pajamas with absolutely no idea how you got there). So instead of pushing myself to write, I decided to be good to myself and take it easy. I finished reading a bunch of books. I got back into my podcasts. And I spent some quality time with Daniel (which will be talked about in a separate post).

But most of all, I’ve been psyching myself up to work on Willow again. This week, I’ll gather some resources together so I’ll have them at hand when I open up Willow next week. I’ve also been backing up files–I do that anyway–because my hubby plans to rebuild my computer this week. Normally, that throws me out in a loop, but this time around I’m glad he’s doing it. I want my computer to be in the best shape possible when I start working on Willow, and it gives me more time to refill my creativity well.

One more week, folks, and then the fun begins again.

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.