To Outline or Not to Outline: A Question Only You Can Answer

September 17, 2013

A few weeks ago, as I fretted over my Dark Crystal submission (which I still haven’t started), one commenter authoritatively told me I must write an outline for it. I did, and I am, because it’s such unfamiliar territory for me that I just feel a lot safer going in with a map. But that’s not always the decision I make.

Currently, I’m reading APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, which recommends outlines and disses authors who don’t use them handily in one tidbit of advice:

“Many authors find an outline too constricting, but an outline sets me free. If you can’t write an outline, perhaps your thoughts are insufficiently organized.”

I had to bristle at this. It’s one thing to offer advice to would-be writers, quite another to imply that they are lacking if they do not follow your advice. The March/April issue of Writer’s Digest featured a wonderful article on “organic writing”; that is, writing without an outline, seeing where the story might take you. I used to be an outliner, but then I met NaNoWriMo, and I discovered the joy of flying by the seat of my pants. That’s when I learned I could be an organic writer, too, and now I often write without an outline. The advantage is a heightened sense of discovery; the disadvantage is the potential to panic if you don’t know what’s next, which can perhaps lead to an increased risk of writer’s block (at least, it does for me.)

A friend in my writer’s group has recently begun writing his short stories without an outline. There is no difference in quality between those that were written with or without outlines; if anything, the ones written without outlines are better, because he continues to develop his skill as a writer.

I once read something about Stephen King in which he said he no longer used outlines, that he could “feel” when the story was getting off-track and self-correct it. I find that writing without an outline has developed this sixth sense in me as well. If you think of an outline as a map, it makes a lot of sense to use it in unfamiliar territory to keep you from getting totally tangled in your jumble of prose. But after you’ve been writing for years, especially in a particular genre, you probably will get through the thicket just fine without a map to guide you. Your intuition will tell you when you’re going down the right path, and when you aren’t. And if it doesn’t? Revision is your friend.

I’m currently working on a novel-writing webinar for girls that I will offer in partnership with New Moon Girl Media. I plan to start with the idea that there are two types of writers: “planners” and “pantsers” — those who plan in advance of writing, and those who get by “by the seat of their pants.” Both types can and do win publication, popularity, and acclaim. I recommend trying both methods to see which you prefer, and more importantly, to get a sense for which approach is appropriate for each particular work. And if you ditch the outline? It doesn’t mean your thoughts are too “disorganized” to make a good book — only that you’re brave enough to tackle your adventure without a map.


Where to Begin?

September 11, 2013

Recently, a writer friend of mine told me that the opening line for one of my stories wasn’t really working for her. Like most negative feedback, it wasn’t easy to hear–but it will ultimately lead to a better story. Luckily, I wasn’t particularly attached to that opening line–it had already been changed several times:

  1. Shortly after I wrote my initial opening for the story, I knew it was a typical “throat-clearing” opener, in which I stalled while I figured out where I was really going to begin. Only my writer’s group ever saw that opening. That particular draft had a question next to the place I would actually open the story that said, “Start story here?” They agreed that I should.
  2. The next opening line stayed around for quite a while–perhaps a year? But I got feedback that it sounded too “modern” and gave the wrong impression of the character’s “voice.”
  3. The third incarnation of the opening line (which apparently wasn’t a charm ;)) no longer sounded modern, but perhaps too archaic, and was a little confusing to boot.

There’s always this old fall-back …

At first, I felt as though I was out of options (that’s probably actually never true in writing). And I felt a little sad that the opening line was causing me so much trouble, because opening lines used to come so naturally to me. In fact, they used to be the first glimpse of a story I would get. That hasn’t been my experience for several years … I think because I’ve tinkered with so many openings professionally, and read so much about the supreme importance of opening lines, that I no longer trust my first instinct for them. And now it seems that instinct has deserted me altogether.

This is a problem, since not having an opening line makes, well, opening a story daunting. I started with a not-so-great opening line for my Rapunzel novel because November had arrived, whether I liked it or not. In revisions, I gave it a better opening line. Now, I’m poised to begin my Dark Crystal novel, but I’m hung up on the opening line again, although my mind is swirling with images for the story itself that continue to come clearer and clearer to me. But without an opening line, I feel as if they’re all locked behind a gate I can’t open.

I know that’s not true. I can climb over the gate. I can bust it open. It may be messy, but at least I’ll be inside, and I can come back and fix it later.

My friend also offered some insight that makes me feel less daunted about the whole opening line conundrum, and which I think is good advice for any writer to follow, especially those who fill their brains with too much writing advice:

“Your opening … might be a victim of overthinking. It might be a problem of you trying to figure out what’s ‘right’ in writing, and not what’s right for your story. I think you need to figure out what the story needs, and not what the writing advice columnists need. Maybe the reason that opening lines had always come naturally to you is because that was before you spoiled your brain with too much writing advice.”

Indeed. Back when openings came easier to me, I was young enough that I felt I had plenty of “time” to become a successful writer. I wanted that, of course, but I didn’t feel like a failure for not having it yet. All I wanted to do was to tell that story, so I never put locks on any of the gates.

After letting it percolate for a bit, I do think I’ve arrived at a better opening for the story my friend read, and the story will be better for it. And I’ll come up with an opening for my Dark Crystal novel, too. I just have to be OK with accepting that it might not happen at the beginning.

Rumplestiltskin ebook, beta

July 22, 2013

I’ve brought Rumpled, my Rumplestiltskin retelling, through what is close to its final revision … for now. That is, I’ve implemented everything I intended to implement based on feedback from my writer’s group, and am ready to send it to someone who has never seen it for a proofread (my eyes might fall out of my head if I read it one more time at this point.) I still need to format it for Kindle and do a little more work on the cover, but in the meantime, I’ve uploaded the “beta” version to Wattpad. It’s free there, so I’d be delighted if you checked it out!

Knowing When to Turn it Upside Down

July 15, 2013

Although I hate to do it, I find my writerly energies pulled in too many different directions right now, so I’m taking a break from Rapunzel. Ironically, this is the story I most want to be working on, and I think that’s ultimately why I have to do this — so I can free myself up for it properly by wrapping up a few loose ends — the completion of my Rumpled ebook and a new piece for a contest I’m entering. I’m hoping Rapunzel will feel like my “reward” after all of this, that the time away will only increase my enthusiasm, and that we won’t come together feeling like strangers when everything settles.

And as of last Saturday night, I’m also wrestling with a somewhat offhand comment my husband made as we drove home from an out-of-town wedding, a comment that made me re-envision the entire Rapunzel story. Different setting, different time. I began to wonder if I was doing this all wrong. It fed into a bit of insecurity I’ve had about the story for a couple months now, as I think about retellings in which Cinderella is a Cyborg, Sleeping Beauty is traveling through space, and Red Riding Hood hunts werewolves. Against stories like this, my own retelling seems quaintly traditional, staying close to the time, place, and structure of the original Grimm’s tale. I found myself often asking, Is it different enough to hold any interest, to bring anything new to the table?

Recasting it in light of Ivan’s comments would take care of that issue, but I’m still don’t feel ready to go in that direction. I’ve made so many changes already between drafts 1 and draft 1.5-ish that I kind of want to see how my new vision pans out before I do a complete overhaul of it. As I talked to Ivan about this on our drive, he said, “Why don’t you write both? Finish the one you’re working on now, and then write the other one, and see which one you like better.”

I thought, But do you know how much work it is just to write one novel, let alone two, just for the basis of comparison?

And yet, it wasn’t long before I felt like that was the course I wanted to take. There’s a reason this story won’t let me go, in its current form … and I’m going to stick with it long enough to see what that is.

In the meantime, that car conversation gave me ample fodder for many Novembers to come.

Pulling up the Weeds

July 8, 2013

At about this time last month, I planted my first garden since moving to South Dakota, and my second garden in my whole life. My first garden was almost 100% neglected, and I still got some vegetables at the end of the summer, which taught me that cucumbers and zucchini are the best veggies for a negligent gardener.

This year, I resolved to do better. Except.

I let the whole month pass with very little weeding.

The lack of weeding was, admittedly, partly due to laziness. But it was also due to inexperience. When I first started seeing green sprout up from the patch of dirt, I was elated. Something was growing! I watered profusely. Everything in the garden grew. And grew. And grew. Until I started to suspect that a lot of what I saw were weeds. (I didn’t recognize them right away because I’m so inexperienced with gardening that I didn’t know what the vegetables I planted were supposed to look like when they first came up.)

Yesterday, we bought a hoe at Big Lots, and I took it out to do some serious weeding.

There was a moment of despair when I realized 85% of that green I’d been so proud of a few weeks ago had grown into ugly, insistent weeds. In fact, the whole garden seemed to be monstrous weeds. There was a moment when I wondered whether there was even a point to tackling it.

But I’d promised my husband I would if he cleaned the bathroom, and the bathroom was already gleaming.

So, I put the new hoe to work.

I was brutal.

There *might* be something good there once I get this guy and his extended family out of the way …

I chopped through the weed canopy until I noticed that, underneath it all, there were some plants that looked, well, different.

Underneath it all, cilantro, carrots, beets, green beans, watermelon, sugar snap peas, and cucumber were making a go of it, despite the hostile weeds.

I got down on my knees then and started doing precision weeding, carefully separating the weeds from the vegetables, pulling the weeds up by the roots and tossing them aside. My frustration started to dissolve. The work started to feel rewarding. There was something worth saving after all!

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the writing (and especially the rewriting) process.

Often, a first draft looks very much like that garden overrun by weeds, especially a first draft penned during NaNoWriMo. It’s easy to write it off, to decide that it’s just not worth the trouble. But then when you go in and get your hands dirty, chopping down the “weeds” of unnecessary scenes and cumbersome sentence constructions, you can start to see some beautiful themes and words and images hiding in their midst.  You start to feel a sense of satisfaction. You start to see something worthwhile emerge from the mess. The work starts to feel like it is worth something. And then, it’s much, much easier to continue.

Most of us start each new writing project the way I started my garden — hopeful, excited, a little scared, very naive, and then deliriously elated when something, anything starts to take shape … to be subsequently overwhelmed when you realize that maybe what you’ve been cultivating isn’t what you wanted after all.

Or maybe it is, if you look a little closer, and aren’t afraid to chop and pull mercilessly until you’re reminded that the good stuff really was there, all along.

Rapunzel and Research

June 10, 2013

Last week after I finished a scene on my Rapunzel novel, I was struck with the conviction: I have to research now.

My initial plan with Rapunzel was to do as much research as possible before NaNoWriMo began last November. I was able to do some research, but not as much as I wanted, because I was also trying to finish another draft of Rumpled. Then in November, of course, there was no time for even the most basic research–writing was pretty much my only option if I wanted to finish. That was okay, though–I could research between drafts. Except somehow, March and NaNoEdMo were upon me as if December, January, and February had never happened. So I was putting in over 10 hours a week editing Rapunzel without the time to do the research I’d wanted to do then, either, although I did stop here and there to do a spot of research as needed, mainly into European growing seasons and other garden-related trivia.

I’ve never written something that requires massive research, such as historical fiction novel or novel that incorporates real people as characters. Even though what I write is primarily speculative fiction, I’ve still managed to keep a lot of the human experiences close enough to home that I could get away with not researching except as needed for certain scenes (scenes in one of my past novels that involved curing pork and assembling guns come to mind.)

I don’t think Rapunzel necessarily needs more than this level of research. Although it takes place in a vaguely medieval European world, the actual kingdoms are imaginary, and no specific dates are mentioned, nor any real historical events. Still, there’s something that’s telling me to stop and go deeper at this point, and I’m going to listen to my gut. This story has taken hold of me in a way that nothing has for years, so I’m going to let it continue to lead the way and see what happens.

My research primarily takes two paths. The first investigates the “Maiden in the Tower” motif to which Rapunzel belongs, more deeply exploring the pervasiveness and commonalities of these stories (to that end, I’ve recently ordered a book by the same name both through Interlibrary Loan and The second one centers on medieval witchcraft trials. I was surprised that I needed to go beyond my local library to find good information on the latter, as I live within the largest library system in South Dakota. Still, it seems most of the witchcraft resources that exist focus on the Salem Witch Trials. I find this an interesting turn, since those witch trials were the descendants of their European predecessors; far fewer witches were tried in Salem than in medieval Europe, and yet somehow those are the trials that loom largest in the public imagination. Is it just the ethnocentrism of living in the U.S. that makes other witchcraft history hard to get hold of?

And then, somewhat unintentionally, I’ve also begun some hands-on research. Last week, it finally stopped raining long enough for me to plant a garden. A witch’s garden figures prominently into nearly all versions of Rapunzel, so of course it’s a central setting for my novel as well, comprising one of the few places outside the tower that Rapunzel has ever experienced. I’ve never been much of a gardening enthusiast myself, but I am an enthusiast of fresh, cheap produce, so for me the garden is just a means to that end. I had a garden a couple years ago that I woefully neglected that produced vegetables in spite of that, and I was halfway expecting this garden to take the same route. And yet, already I’m feeling a greater sense of investment in this garden. Is it because it’s dependent only upon me, when I had my sister and my dad sharing responsibility for my former garden? Is it because I planted every single seed myself? Or am I perhaps channeling a bit of “Mama” (Mother Gothel in the original), who loves her garden with the same fierceness with which she loves Rapunzel? In one scene, Mama justifies taking Rapunzel because of the way her biological father treated plants:

“Your father was cruel, Rapunzel,” Mama said once, throwing aside weeds she had just pulled. “He didn’t even bring anything for clipping the rampion. He just ripped it out of the ground, roots and all. And when I confronted him, his arms full to bursting, he became whiter than a slug’s belly. He blamed his wife, and her desperate cravings. And I thought, if this man cannot be gentle with these living creatures–” Mama spread her hand to indicate all that bloomed around her–“then how could he be fit to care for a tiny babe?”

I was surprised to feel that same sort of protectiveness as I dropped tiny seeds onto the ground, then gently covered them with dirt. Here’s hoping I have a little bit of Mama’s talent with coaxing abundant and nourishing food out of them as well–although I could do without the fanaticism.

NaNoEdMo not quite there … NaPoWriMo has Arrived!

April 1, 2013

Last night, I came home from the Easter festivities bearing a headache from too much sugar but still determined to log my last two hours to achieve victory in NaNoEdMo … even though editing was really the last thing in the world I wanted to do.

Still, I was mostly dismayed (but, admittedly, also relieved), when a glitch in the NaNoEdMo site closed the deadline early — meaning that when I tried to log time at 9 pm CDT, I got a message that said, “NaNoEdMo is closed for 2013. Join us next year!”

There I was, 48 hours in, time set aside to finish … with no chance to get my external validation for those last two hours. My recourse? To complain to my husband, report it on the NaNoEdMo “bug” forums, whine on Twitter (brand new account! Follow me @laceylouwagie), and … not put in my final two hours of editing.

I’m not proud of it, but my reasoning went something like this:

  1. 48 hours in 31 days is STILL good progress, and my main reason for pushing those final two hours was a) curiosity to see what “winners” got; and b) the external validation and official bragging rights.
  2. Without items a & b, I was just as happy to say, “Yay me, I got 48 hours in 31 days, it’s NaNoEdMo’s Fault and Not Mine That I Didn’t Officially Win.”
  3. And, Now I can catch up on all the email I didn’t read in March!

Except, the NaNoEdMo folks have been very responsive, and hour logging is now open until 6 pm today to make up for the error. Which means, I still have two hours of editing to squeeze in at some point today. I was ready to simply pronounce my defeat to the world here on my blog this morning, but it looks like that would be premature. I’ll be doing two more hours of editing today after all. Yay?

Luckily, I’ve already written today’s poem, so that’s out of the way. Because right on the heels of NaNoEdMo is the next writing challenge of the year — NaPoWriMo! I consistently fail NaPoWriMo, I think because I don’t take myself seriously as a poet. I don’t read much poetry, and frankly, I don’t think anyone has much of a right to write in a genre they don’t read. But I continue to attempt NaPoWriMo anyway because I believe poetry is good for the soul, good for capturing the state of a life at a moment in time, and good for giving as gifts in people’s birthday cards. Usually I have intentions of posting my poetry from NaPoWriMo here, but then it always ends up being too personal. This morning’s poem was no different — but I did feel especially blessed to have a particularly evocative dream last night that I could plagiarize for poetry.

My car is equipped with poetry inspiration for the month, which includes Modern Scholar’s Understanding Poetry lectures and the She Walks in Beauty audiobook. It’s the first day of the month, I’ve written one poem, poetry drafts take less time than editing, and I’m not getting married this year — so, I’m feeling optimistic. 🙂

Now, back to untangle my way toward victory at NaNoEdMo.