Outlining on the Fly

The debate goes on: to outline or not to outline.

Like many things in life, I take the third option when faced with two. Being a realist, I don’t think in terms of a glass half full or half empty—I’m waiting for the water to arrive before I make a decision.

I am a “sorta” outliner. Before beginning a story or novel, I may list a few high points, a number of plot directions I want the story to take, sometimes (but not always) the climax and end, along with basic character sketches for my main players.

If I outline at all—many times I write without any plan whatsoever—it’s bare-bones because I enjoy the journey, surprise, and mystery of where the story travels. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” and that is as true with the art of writing.

Outliners say I’m not in their camp, and non-outliners say I am. So be it.

I always, without exception, outline as I go. What, you ask, does that mean? Well, it’s the third option when faced with two.

Regardless what preliminary planning I’ve done (or maybe nothing), I list the scene actions, plot switches, and viewpoints after I have written the section. There is a critical reason I do this: to ease the pain of editing.

Writing a succinct description of a just written scene helps crystallize the story and its progression. There are even times when the short explanation gives me an idea about a future story event, in which case I make a note at the bottom of the developing outline.

When I’m finished with the story or novel, I have a listing of the story’s progression, the parts each character plays during different scenes—all the daring do’s and dangerous don’ts the characters live through within the telling of the story.

This after-creation outline is a road map where my characters have gone and when they went there, what caused their decision to follow that path, the conflicts beset them, and the outcome.

After writing a scene or chapter, I begin my outline:

Scene 1 (or Chapter 1 if a planned novel)

I. Sam enters his apartment to find his roommate drooped over the couch, dead. (pg. 1)
A. Shot in back, cell phone clenched in hand.
B. Room is thrashed; whoever killed the roommate was looking for something.

II. Sirens getting closer, then footsteps on the stairway. (pg. 3)
A. Sam climbs out the fire escape.
1. As an ex-felon with violent history, figures he’ll be accused and arrested.
2. Realizes whoever killed roommate and thrashed apartment may come back.

III. Sam goes to his friend (Alex) to see if there’s any “word on the street” why his roommate—a known grifter—might have been targeted. (pgs. 4-5).
A. Alex is fidgety.
B. Sam hears rustling in back room, leaves quickly.

Whether you initially outline or not, form an outline (separate from any you made prior, to compare once finished) while writing the story. This after-the-fact outline will clarify where and how the story goes, and will make the all-important editing process exceedingly easier—a glance at the story and character progression will reveal missing pieces, inconsistencies, and will illuminate the flaws you didn’t realize during the actual writing.

Editing is hard, mainly because when faced with pages and pages of text, the pure volume can be overwhelming and tend to blur when re-reading to fix errors. Having an outline based on what you wrote gives you a smaller working canvas—breaking a large project into smaller pieces allows the freedom to take specific problems one at a time.

It does not matter if you outline before writing or not, but outlining during the writing process is essential—unless you enjoy difficult editing sessions.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Why Word Count is Important

The first draft of my story totaled just under 6,000 words; the second draft sliced wordage to 5,191 words, and subsequent editing chopped the story to 4,980, 4,845, and 4,621 words.

Still too long.

I am not obsessed with the number of words it takes to tell a story; what I do care about is succinctly telling a story with the least number of words possible—unnecessary verbiage is my enemy during the editing cycles.

Other people (like editors) do care how many words your story totals, and they can be a bit myopic when it comes to the decision to purchase your story for publication. Why?

When I wrote for newspapers (and also published a couple small zines), I was keenly aware of space limitations, not only for artwork and stories and articles, but for paid advertising, the life-blood of keeping a publication afloat.

When laying out a daily, weekly, or monthly publication, the editor has to find a spot for each of the articles, stories, artwork and/or photos, and advertising space. Decisions are based on logistical space issues as well as aesthetic value—breaking up the publication’s pages and making them appealing while being informative (and keeping readers interested) both fall within the editor’s duties.

Planning a publication is done with a “Mock-Up,” an empty layout where each space is designated by a symbol: large X where art and photos will be placed, the headline’s font and size at the beginning of each article or story, often an arrow drawn down columns or pages for text (or lettered gibberish as in the graphic above), all without the specifics to be inserted at a later date.

So, an editor looks and sees he needs a story or article to fit within each of those arrowed slots, and a quick glance reveals the text on pages 4-7 (wrapped around the planned graphics) cannot surpass 850 words due to space allowance, and the two pages at the back must be saved for advertisers sponsoring future events, and . . . . you get the idea.

In these cases, word count is critical.

While researching a market for your planned story, one of the first delineated requirements is word count (1,500 to 3,000 words), usually following the “types” or genre the publication accepts, as well as what they are not interested in receiving. Pay attention to each guideline, and always strive to accommodate their wishes—to do otherwise will cause your story to be rejected outright, regardless how well it is written.

Note: Book publishers are not normally so defined, but there are still basic needs and guidelines you should follow. Publishing is, after all, a business, and a 225,000-word novel by a new writer will have a hard time finding a house willing to take such a chance.

As far as my story is concerned, cutting needless words—even scenes—has improved the tale. This particular story is being readied for a Writer’s Digest short story contest. The last time I entered the contest, my story placed in the top hundred, but even more importantly, the story was later purchased by a major publisher. I can only hope the same will be true for the current story, this time a fantasy rather than a mystery.

Alas, the Writer’s Digest contest requires all stories to be “no more than 4,000 words” so I have more work to do. Can I? At this point I’m not sure, having been through the story several times, cutting all the proverbial “fat” in the form of unnecessary “thats” and -ing verbs, replacing lazy prepositional phrases with active phrasing, using colons and semi-colons to eliminate conjunctions connecting phrases (not too often or they can make the writing choppy), removing weak adjectives and adverbs, and other little tricks I have learned—all without affecting the story’s central thrust.

All that being said, do not jeopardize your story just to match a periodical length requirements; if a story must incorporate 3,000 words after several edits, and the magazines of interest only accepts up to 2,500 words, find a different publication to submit your work—telling your story the best way possible takes precedence, regardless.

At magazines, deadlines are another part of the process. As writers, we need to define our own deadlines—in an effort to accomplish our goals—even when we are not producing with a predetermined timeline. Nonetheless, the deadline for the Writer’s Digest contest is October, so I better get busy cutting some more weak words and phrases . . . .

See you on the next page,

Rick

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The Art of Critique: Foundation

Since last week’s post, James and I returned our critiques to their rightful owners.

Again, I learned a great deal about my writing—and how to improve it—from James’s astute observations. Specific lessons will come in a future post: first, it’s important to lay the foundation and explain the processes which have proven most effective both to the writer and the one critiquing.

Expectations

A critique is not a review. Whereas a review explores the general sense of a story or novel, a critique concentrates on the inner workings, the how’s and why’s a particular piece works or not. Consider it this way:

You want to sell your family vehicle, so you pen a description:

1971 VW Camper Van, sleeps 4, a lot of storage, roof rack, kitchenette table.

That’s the review—general and vague.

The critique may go something like this, with pictures:

1971 VW Camper Van, only 10k on rebuilt engine, runs great, new battery and alternator, recently tuned up with oil change, 5 like-new tires, tow hitch.

In the literary sense, a review deals with the reviewer’s opinion if you should read the story or novel, whereas a critique considers the “particulars,” the nuts and bolts of prose and purpose.

The job of the critique is not the same as that of an editor, though there may exist an overlap. Nor is a critique what you would ask of a Beta Reader—more like the reviewer mentioned earlier, except without the goal to convince an audience either way.

A critique is not criticism, even though each is derived from the same root word: criticism is most often thought to be negative (though not necessarily), whereas a critique is affected by an attitude of assistance.

The creator may “feel” items pointed out are negative, but should refrain from an emotional attachment. Instead, face suggestions within an analytical framework—the point of critiquing (like self-editing) and being critiqued, deals with the separation of the two mindsets. It takes practice to improve.

Nonetheless, know this at the outset: being critiqued is rejection’s first cousin.

Critiques hurt. At times it resembles having your heart broken, complete with phases of embarrassment, anger, confusion, and doubt. The pain eases in time, and if we learn from the experience, we can become better writers, better lovers and partners, and the pain is substantiated by improved future endeavors.

James Scott Bell, when referencing how to handle rejection, says to put on the Rhino Skin. Don’t allow the pain to conquer the will to write, to improve, to reach the maximum level of your abilities. By donning the Rhino Skin, you give yourself a gift—the ability to learn.

Approach

Honesty is key: gentle, never harsh. Praise where a description works or a good bit of characterization helps influence the protagonist’s motives and goals; conversely, correcting poor grammar, a disruptive verb tense, or pointing out a viewpoint switch is part of the critiquing purpose, and thoughtful suggestions assist the writer.

When I get a portion of James’s novel, I read it through to get the story flow. Only brief notes about plot questions initially concern me.

Secondly I go through the entire manuscript word-by-word, line-by-line, correcting grammatical and contextual errors. This process is the meat and potatoes of the critique, and the phase taking the most time. I estimate to properly critique 30,000 words takes between 4-6 hours.

It is time well spent.

The third stage incorporates both the first two by editing individual notes I made to guarantee suggestions are clear and concise, and that I am not nit-picking.

Not nit-picking is a matter of attitude, one that needs to be approached with care. Remember that in the same way you agonize over word choice and syntax in your writing, so does the person whose story you are helping improve. Here I would add that it’s unwise to critique a first draft, that too-raw version.

When I finish the three phases of the critique, I write a synopsis of what worked and what didn’t as a whole. Rather than pointing out each passive verb, I highlight a few in the manuscript and then comment in the synopsis what I viewed as an overuse of passive voice (or repeated phrases, words, etc.). In this way, I concentrate on problems of tension (or lack thereof), awkward phraseology, or the use of nouns and pronouns to improve the story’s readability.

Writing, and therefore critiquing, requires discipline and a focus on the rules of the craft, but each writer has their own style and voice. As the one performing the critique, take care to not attack the intended voice.

A critiques’ purpose is to help the writer improve; there is no place for ego or the black and white of right and wrong. You will not correct all the things mentioned in your manuscript, nor will they.

You have undertaken this task to help the writer concentrate on what you perceive as shortcomings—phrases that stopped you or did not seem consistent with the rest of the prose— and to improve your own editing skills.

A word of caution: Do not undertake to critique a writing style or genre you are unfamiliar with; this does an injustice to the writer, and you want more for them.

Next post will detail a few specific suggestions James made to my manuscript.

See you on the next page,

Rick

As promised, here are a few links to critique groups.

http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com
http://www.fantasy-writers.org/
http://www.critiquecircle.com/
http://www.writing-world.com/links/critique.shtml

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Critiquing Another Writer Will Improve Your Skills

Critiquing another writer is a fabulous tool to improve your own prose. In order to embrace the responsibility of assisting another (and likewise releasing your creation to someone you do not know well), you must step from the solitary cave where all writers do their best work. The experience, though at times numbing, can be a great benefit for a number of reasons.

Writers tend to make similar mistakes and exhibit the same flaws and weaknesses; seeing errors in other’s writing illuminates some of those same mistakes in your own.

Critiquing, like self-editing, requires a different mind-set than creation, a sterner attitude requiring development and conscious attention to detail.

Talking with dozens of writers about “judging” another writer’s work (an inaccurate description, by the way) the topic is one task many dread, and thereby avoid, often because of fear they lack the skill or don’t want to hurt feelings. Understandable, yes, but like most writers’ fears—rejection, question of being good enough, etc.—overcoming them pays huge dividends. Simply, critiquing another enables you to better edit your own writing.

Whereas creation is fueled by a driving emotion, critiquing (editing) is powered by the analytical portion of the brain. Learning to better critique another transforms self-editing from agonizing to productive as you prime your brain to look for certain aspects—verb tense, active vs. passive, viewpoint switches, logistical inconsistencies, and a host of others—to repair your own creation.

Writer’s Groups and Clubs can be counter-productive, but at times can be helpful—it’s a matter of attitude. Whether within a group or matched to an individual, there should be a spirit of cooperation with one-upmanship banished to the cold outdoors.

When in one writer’s group—in which we exchanged short stories to be critiqued—another writer pointed out a market for my story I had not considered: that story, “The Accomplice,” sold to Women’s World for $500, but more importantly, a by-line in a magazine with several million readers. I am forever grateful to the fellow writer who encouraged me to submit the story.

Here, though, I want to focus on one-on-one critiquing, and finding a suitable counterpart is imperative. I was fortunate in that regard.

James and I met while walking our dogs at the local park. Soon into our conversation we discovered we are both writers. James writes speculative fiction, so do I; his novel is completed, as is mine; we both wrote from multi-viewpoints, third person past tense; both our main protagonists are immortal. The writing god’s lightning rod struck us both—too much to be coincidence.

One of those instances when the palm of fate’s hand smacks you upside the head.

Before long we agreed to read each others novels. A bit more talk and we decided to critique with the goal to improve our tales, and thus, make them more marketable in our particular sub-genres—his novel is a sci-fi/steampunk, mine is heroic fantasy.

The process began roughly six months ago. We met several times at a local pub to discuss, among other things, our hopes and expectations the budding relationship would unveil.

We discussed the overall process, and after some thoughtful and respectful debate, decided on a line-by-line edit. We also decided to pay close attention to character, plot development, inconsistencies, and general problem areas.

Currently I am critiquing his first 5 chapters, and he holds the second quarter of my novel.

The relationship has been profitable on multiple levels, though not in a monetary way—yet.

I have stated it before: No Writer is an Island. That has once again been proven during the critiquing process.

James and I have far different styles and voices (mine is more flowing with descriptive language—per my selected genre–and James’s is short and pithy with a great deal of action), but it matters little. There are, after all, many ways to tell a story.

Next post will describe the many lessons I’ve learned during our critique efforts, and a few pointers on how to be more effective when working with other writers. I’ll also add links to online critique groups.

The process is all about improving, remember, both your writing and others, so step from your cave and reach out—your courage will make you stronger.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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