Category Archives: What Not To Do in Writing Novels

Against Outlines

Do you outline your novels? Why or why not?

Eye of digits

Since my title is “Against Outlines,” you may suspect I’m going to argue against them.

Maybe, though, I’m not vehemently against outlines for writing novels.

The outlines you need!

In my brief career as a romance novelist, outlines were essential.

After all, these books were short, about 55,000 words, and I had to produce them in a matter of months. Writing one had to be like running a mini-marathon.

Marathon runners

You were given a route and a clear finish line, and you had to run the same route as everybody else. You could throw in a leap or a flourish here and there—in fact, you were encouraged to, as long as you didn’t stumble off course or onto the sidewalk. No characters allowed to stop and drift into quirky shops or down unmarked alleys. Eyes on the prize!

Lest romance writers rightly take offense, let me be clear. Setting off on and finishing this course is no snap.

Free runners sport concept illustration

Planning at this level takes enormous discipline. Directing each scene so that each actor arrives at the mark for the scene to follow requires a well-honed sense of character motive and of how dialogue and action can deliver on that motive. And those flourishes: as I learned, to carve out a lane for yourself in the genre with all those thousands of others huffing along beside you, to be you without veering off course: that takes a brand of genius. Believe me, I was there. I know.

Outlines make such a demanding fictional endeavor doable. Each scene can be carefully slotted into the overall course. Too many talky scenes in a row? The outline will flog you back on pace. Three-quarters there? Do you have enough action to fill those last pages? The outline knows.

And of course, there’s that one thing we all need that outlines amply provide: a story arc. River in KentuckySomething’s going to change before the end of the story. You can’t write your final outline entry without knowing what that something is.

But. . .

“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

That’s what a dear late colleague of mine used to say. That “surprise for the writer” is what an outline trades away.

Writing without an outline is more like setting out on a road trip than a marathon. Whimsical road Depositphotos_17645691_s-2015

You do have a destination. You can see it, a glow on the horizon. But you’re not a hundred percent sure yet what’s giving off that glow.

So off you go. Maybe you have a map, but it offers you many forks, and you can’t even tell which one is shortest, let alone which one you’ll most enjoy. Along each fork you spot little side trips, where you park for a bit and wander to see what’s there. You find your characters in those quirky shops, down those murky alleys, picking up memories, fears, loves, trying them out like costumes to see what new selves they reveal.

You didn’t know your character loves French movies even though he doesn’t understand any French, or that she loves cats even though they make her sneeze. Or that she fell out of a tree and nearly died when she was ten, did you? Oh! That explains her anger at the father who didn’t catch her; now you discover her struggles with trust.

Without an outline, you don’t tell characters what to do. You follow them and discover what they do.

It’s not like you tag along blindly. If they get too wild, you may abandon them, leave them to their own stories . . . though you may come back one day just to see where they ended up.

Without an outline, there’s a sense in which the story writes itself.

haunting road Depositphotos_23990435_s-2015Dangerous? Oh, my lord, yes. It takes much longer. It tempts complication, which can be a storyteller’s bane.

But it can save you grief as well. My one great, sad lesson from my Failed Novel was that once you set your thinly known characters loose in the world, talking to each other and finding unexpected doors to open, they create themselves—excuse the cliché: they take on a life of their own. And once that starts to happen, you must listen. The marathon route says turn right here; they say, “No, we don’t like that direction.”

Boss characters you’ve found, not made, and they’ll punish you.

So maybe we need a middle ground. A road trip into delight and surprise for the writer-on-deadline who must get to that glow this week, not next year?

Magic book

What strategies do you use to keep your novel on track without giving up the chance for surprise?

 

 

 

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Top 5 Lessons From Bad Writer

This post by Allison Maruska is HILARIOUS! And too spot on. Note to self: watch out for Bad Writer when she shows up on your computer. Don’t know how she gets there, but she’s pretty good at sneaking in!

Allison Maruska

I have an alter-ego on Twitter. Her name is Bad Writer.

BW page

She doesn’t have a million followers or viral tweets or anything like that. She exists merely to be the public face of my sarcastic side. And since I talk to writers a lot on Twitter, she focuses on writing.

Since her creation in July, she has tweeted 643 times, according to that screenshot. That’s a lot of bad advice being doled out. Some of those are quoted Retweets from Nat Russo’s #HorribleWritingTips, Sam Sykes’ joke tweets, Tweeps who reply, and other parody accounts, but most are her own content based on things that I read she reads. Sometimes, the content overlaps a little. I thought we could use those instances for learning. And since Bad Writer says the opposite of what a writer should do, the lessons will be actual constructive things with her non-examples.

Lesson 1: Stop abusing…

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Great New Post from Chuck Wendig (a writer you want to meet if you haven’t)

KnowledgeI’m back from knee surgery and scanning my blogs. Not surprisingly, here’s a keeper. Chuck is a lively writer, so there may be some bad words. Well worth it. Here he tells us what I had to learn the hard way; that character, not plot, creates story. My favorite line from this piece–“Plot is the thing that characters poop.”

 

I learned this in My Failed Novel (here’s one of several posts on How Not to Write a Failed Novel, all of which I’m sure will help you become the Next Big Thing). I forced my characters to do something they most certainly did not want to do. The single good thing about that moment was that I had clearly created characters with lives of their own. I shoved them into action, and they rebelled, and a whole lot of important reviewers saw them rebelling. And said so in the highest venues. The End.

Sad Editing!

Chuck says “give your characters something to do.” I’d add that, if they have come to life, often what they do will not be what just anyone would do. It will often be a choice specific to them, to who they have become as you watched them and listened to them. Not all your readers will admire their choices. But those choices—motivated, yes, by who they are and the context, but at the same time personal, heartfelt, unique—will trigger the next cascade of actions that we think of as plot. So don’t settle for what the latest TV hero would have done. Set loose a character with the voice to tell you what SHE is going to do. Then get out of her way. Plot will be what ensues.

Book open to the stars

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The Benefits of Joining a Writers Group

As a member of a long-running face-to-face group and now an active online group, I can attest to the truth of what Cynthia Hilston says below: that good groups exist. I spent far too many years writing in isolation; never again. Maybe I don’t like every response; maybe sometimes I’m disheartened. But I’d rather be disheartened now when I can figure out what to do about the problem than when I get that “we’re not the right agency for this project” form letter with NO feedback as to why.

I’ve posted about my group several times (for example, see “In Praise of My Writing Group“), and I did a series on the founding of our group, the Green River Writers, and its leader, Mary (Ernie) O’Dell, here in Louisville.

And I just posted the 2017 Contest brochure for this year’s Green River Writers contest! A terrific contest with low entries fees and lots of cash prizes! Check it out!

A Writer's Path

by Cynthia Hilston

There it was for probably the hundredth time on the sign outside my local library: writers group, meeting 8/18 2-4:00 PM.  Okay, maybe not the hundredth time, but how many times did I drive past the library, which is about two point five miles from my house, and see that group advertised and not do a darn thing?  The sign was one of those LED types that showed all the happenings at the library, from book discussion groups to story times for children.  And my library had a writers group.

Of course, every time I saw that sign, I wondered, What do they do at those meetings?  Do they just sit there and write?  Do writing exercises?  Or do they read each other’s work while there and comment on it?

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Stupid Writing Rules: 12 Dumb Things New Writers Tell Each Other

Fortunately for me, the members of both of the writing groups I belong to don’t traffic in most of these pointless prescriptions and proscriptions. I do, however, agree that too many people have a basic fear of the word “was.” As Allen points out, there’s a big difference between “I was reading when she came in” and “I read when she came in.” Also “had.” Sometimes the past perfect is just necessary. Do you have any “stupid rules” to add, or do you take exception to Allen’s judgment on these?

Colleen Chesebro✨The Fairy Whisperer✨

I love Anne R. Allen’s blog. I learn something new every time I visit. This is an excellent piece about bad writing advice. Check it out. Just click on the highlighted link below. ❤

Stupid Writing Rules: 12 dumb things new writers tell each other. Ignore this bad advice from misinformed people in critique groups.

Source: Stupid Writing Rules: 12 Dumb Things New Writers Tell Each Other

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Language Warning! But You Better Read Anyway!

alarmed smileyAs usual, Chuck Wendig has his own way of saying things. So put your fingers in your ears so you won’t hear the bad words, and read! 25 Reasons I Stopped Reading Your Book!

I’ve posted my own reasons more than once. Here’s what I wrote on Chuck’s post:

I’ve posted more than once about my own answer to this question. Lack of voice is way up there. Too many characters and scenes feel pasted out of the Universe of Stock that we all have access to. No surprises, not in the characters’ actions, not in the diction, not in the rhythm. All stuff I’ve seen a thousand times (and don’t subject myself to any more).

What I call “illogic” fits several of these points: When something a character does or something that happens serves the prefabricated plot and not the story that wants to emerge from the characters’ interactions. I got into trouble myself once making characters do something they were screaming that they didn’t want to do. Ruined a potentially good novel, and boy, did I pay. Nothing in this post is truer than that the characters write the story. Listen to them.

And gosh, pages of exposition (and no, that’s not “literary fiction”). And too much info, too many characters, on page 1. And books that start with action before I can understand the conflict. And . . . and . . . and . . .

This post could easily be required reading in every “creative writing” class or critique group (though it would require a language warning in most settings, i fear).

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#amwriting: point of view

Connie does a terrific job of explaining POV here. True, very, very skilled writers can “head-hop”—Larry McMurtry does it all through the Lonesome Dove books—but for most of us, suddenly slipping from one POV to another without the kind of warning Connie suggests is jarring. I’ll add that one of the easiest mistakes to make is for a POV character, whether third- or first-person, to “see” him- or herself. For example, if we want to stay true to the character’s point of view, we can’t say about a POV character, “I gave an enticing smile.” The character can give a smile that “I hoped was enticing,” or “I meant to be enticing,” but only a viewer (another character) can tell if the smile actually was “enticing.” These slips can be subtle but disorienting.
Read Connie’s piece for a good review of this important issue!

Life in the Realm of Fantasy

Xpogo_RioA young author recently asked me, “What is head-hopping and why has my writing group accused me of doing it?” Headhopping occurs when an author switches point-of-view characters within a single scene, and happens most frequently when using a Third-Person Omniscient narrative, in which the thoughts of every character are open to the reader.

It’s difficult to know whose opinions are most important when all your characters are speaking in your head as you are writing. They clamor and speak over the top of each other, making a din like my family at any holiday dinner. But you must force them to take turns speaking, and make a real break between the scenes where the speaker changes, or each rapid shift of perspective will throw the reader out of the story. But what is Point of View other than the thoughts of one or two characters?

Point of view is a common…

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