Eleven Reasons to Love Outlines

This colourful outline brought to you by Scrivener’s binder feature.

I know what you’re thinking, those of you who know me. Why would a non-outliner write a post about loving outlines?

It’s not that I’ve come entirely over to the dark side become an outliner, but I do recognize that sometimes they can be useful, whether you’re a dyed-in-the-wool planner or a steadfast pantser. And in fact, this post has been co-written by my sometimes author assistant, Emily, who actually is an outliner and therefore knows more about the whole outlining thing than I do. Here’s what we’ve come up with in our collaboration on the topic.

1. There is No “Right Way” to Outline. Outlines can take on different forms depending on who is making them. Some writers use programs like Scrivener to create digital outlines, others prefer to use note cards or index cards. Any way you want to outline is a good way to outline. You might even find that you don’t have to go the full mile and outline your entire plot, but an outline of your main character’s arc would be helpful, or a timeline of historical events to set up your current world. You’re free to outline whatever will assist you and your writing, and pay no attention to the rest.

2. Outlines Are Inspiring. Whatever method you decide to use for your outline, make it not just helpful to you but visually or aesthetically pleasing. If there’s a color you find particularly inspiring, incorporate that into your outline. If you have images that get the creative juices flowing, represent your characters, or paint the picture of one of your locations, include them in your outline so you are always reminded of them when you return to your outline. Remember that no one else is going to see it; it’s just for you and it should make you excited as well as get you organized. Just don’t get lost in adorning your outline when you should be adorning your plot. Keep it simple and fun!

3. Having a Plan. The beginning of a story can be intimidating to write. So can the middle. And so can the end. Having an outline provides you with an overview of the plot, detailing how things start, how they progress, and how they end so you know where you’re starting and also where you’re going. There is no frightening blank space lying in wait just beyond that exciting first scene. You always have something to fall back on if you forget what you wanted to happen next.

4. Defense Against the Dark Arts…er, Writer’s Block. Every writer faces writer’s block at one time or another. A conversation isn’t working, an explanation requires some research before it can be written, a scene just isn’t interesting enough. An outline provides you with numerous distractions from that one difficult section; you can move onto another scene that you know needs to happen, but with a basic understanding of what needs to come before or after.

5. Structured Spontaneity. Outlines can, at first glance, seem to be an obstacle that will stand in the way of your creativity. If you know everything that’s going to happen in your story, is there really room for discovery or development? Absolutely! Think of your outline as a foundation; your action, characters, and themes all have their own jobs and interactions, and are probably not going to adhere to the outline indefinitely. Your writing will still surprise you, and on that note…

6. Outlines are Not Static. Sometimes characters do things that we don’t expect or a rogue plot point will plummet into the thick of our stories seemingly out of nowhere. This doesn’t mean that your outline becomes worthless. When things need to change, an outline can change with them, and you already have a platform to input new information and step back to see the whole picture in terms of this new development. An outline does not need to be restrictive.

7. Outlining is Pantsing in Disguise. Whether you do it before you write or as you write, you are still creating this storyline, these characters, and these events out of your imagination. Outliners are just pantsers who do more of their imagining prior to the actual act of writing, and write it down so they don’t forget it. So no matter which camp you think you fall into, it’s more a matter of perspective and style than anything else. If you’re a pantser, don’t let the prospect of an outline be scary or off-putting, because it’s not fundamentally much different from the way you usually tackle story construction.

8. Revision Tool There’s no better tool to have by your side when heading into a novel revision than your trusty outline. It gives you a necessary overview of the structure, pace, and logic of your story when you’re trying to ferret out where change is needed. To that end, if you’re not an outliner before you write, create an outline as you go. At the end of every writing session, briefly describe in a sentence or two what just happened. Even if you didn’t start out with an outline, you’ll have one by the time you finish the first draft.

9. Synopsis Tool Likewise, an outline can be an invaluable tool when it comes time to write the Dreaded Synopsis. Particularly if you’ve updated your outline to reflect changes that happened during the actual writing and revision of the novel, or created the outline in tandem with the novel and revisions, you have an accurate but brief reflection of the story from beginning to end, and can set to work polishing it up into a synopsis right away.

10. Aid to Discovery Your outline can reveal things about your novel or story that you may have included subconsciously, like themes and motifs. They’re revealed subtly throughout the story itself, but looking over your outline it may be more obvious that certain elements or objects repeat and resonate throughout the manuscript.

11. Series Tool Maybe you didn’t set out to write a series, but the first book or story has given birth to a followup idea. Your outline can be the first thing in your series bible, and refresh your memory on many elements of the previous story as you set out to write the next installment.

Eleven Reasons to Join a Writer’s Group



They’re definitely plotting something…

I’ve belonged to writer’s groups–in real life and online–for many years and in many different formats. Face to face meetings, message boards, email lists and Second Life; I’ve reaped many benefits from those interactions. Here’s why you should consider becoming part of a group:

1. Company. Writing is (in most cases) a solitary endeavour. It’s you and your writing implement of choice, and a whole lot of imaginary folks with whom you do interact, but in a wholly different way. Sometimes it’s nice to share some aspects of your writing life with others who understand, just so you don’t get lonely.

2. Information. No one can find every good book on writing, every great article on the internet, or every helpful resource on their own. Writing pals are great for passing along information that’s helped them, and might help you, too.

3. Curing Self-Doubt. Almost every writer suffers from self-doubt at some point, but connecting with other writers reminds us that we are not alone in these feelings. It’s always heartening to voice a worry and have someone else agree that they’re bothered by that, too, or, better yet, share how they got past it.

4. Critique. Not all writer’s groups swap writing for critique, but it’s a benefit of belonging that far outweighs the time you spend reading others’ work. The better you get at catching and commenting on mistakes made by someone else, the better you get at catching your own–or avoiding them altogether. A group can set guidelines and methodologies that work for all members to make sure the experience is a positive one.

5. Comrades in Arms. The great noveling experiment that is NaNoWriMo attests to the power of attempting something crazy, new, or daunting with others at your side. All the struggling you do to finish that first draft or complete that umpteenth revision is just a little easier when you know that your friend is at his or her desk wrestling the exact same thing.

6. Feedback. Sometimes you don’t need a full critique, you just need to throw out a problem and listen while your writing comrades chew it over. Not sure how to get your hero out of a pickle? With a writer’s group, you can sketch his dilemma and ask for opinions, then sit back and take notes. Chances are the discussion will reveal an answer, or spark a new idea in your own brain.

7. Empowerment. There’s nothing like the power of a group mind to help when poring over the arcane terms of a publishing contract or bolstering you up to make a tough decision like pulling a manuscript out of submission. Again, you’ll make better decisions and rest easier on them when you don’t undertake them alone. Having the insights of others with experience and knowledge helps you see and evaluate all sides of the issue.

8. Fun. Most writing groups are not all business. Other writers appreciate the value of writing for play, so freewriting, prompts, timed challenges, and other ways to play with words are often on offer. Nothing frees the creative mind like play, and it’s that much more fun when it’s shared.

9. Collaboration. Not everyone wants to collaborate with other writers, but there are many kinds of shared projects that can blossom when writing comrades get together. It could be a chapbook of your group’s work, a project you take on with just one other writer, or something completely unique. But it takes those minds meeting up for the idea to be born.

10. Validation. It’s not always easy to stand up and say “I am a writer,” especially if you’re just starting out. Being part of a group of writers who are also just getting their feet under them, or who remember what that was like, makes it easier to think of yourself as a writer. And that makes it easier to make writing a priority in your life. Which is another side benefit. You’re likely to simply write more when you’re regularly meeting with other writers and talking about writing.

11. Opportunities. Besides simply having more information about opportunities coming your way as part of a group, sometimes the group itself engenders opportunities. A member might decide to put together an anthology and offer first submission opportunities to fellow members. Or a member might start a blog or podcast and draw on fellow members as guests or contributors. The possibilities are really endless, but you have to be part of the group, on the spot, to be able to take advantage of them.

Do you belong to a writer’s group, physical or online? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments!

Photo credit: lvklaveren

Eleven Reasons to Love Writer’s Block


Even a pretty wall is still a wall

“Love writer’s bock? Come on!” you’re saying. There cannot be even a handful of reasons to love writer’s block, let alone eleven. Well, let’s see what we can come up with.

1. Being blocked is often a clue. A clue to the fact that *something* has gone wrong with your manuscript. It’s often your brain telling you, hey, something is wrong here, and I’m not letting you keep going until you figure out what it is and fix it. Listen to your brain. Sometimes it’s the smart one.

2. Being blocked is an opportunity to change gears. If you’re stuck on one project, you can sometimes get unstuck by going off and working on something else for a while. Concentrating your efforts elsewhere allows your subconscious to mull over the problem with your stuck project without the pressure. And: bonus! You’ve made progress on something else.

3. Being blocked can result in a really clean house. Or garage, or desk, or closet. In other words, go do something else productive that isn’t writing. Again, it can lift you out of the rut of worrying at the problem and let your subconscious work at it.

4. Being blocked offers a great time to do research. If you can’t move ahead in the story, use your time productively by working on something associated with the story, that isn’t actually writing it. Sometimes looking at photos or floor plans, reading up on time periods or settings, or working out how the murderer actually did it can be the key to getting you unstuck, and as a bonus, you have your research done.

5. Being blocked is a great excuse to get some exercise. Go for a walk, take a hike, sweat it out at the gym instead of staring at the blank page or screen. You’ll feel better even if you don’t get unstuck, but often the rush of endorphins lets new ideas rush in, too.

6. Being blocked makes you try new things. Ask some writer friends how they get unblocked, and you’ll likely get a lot of different suggestions for things you’ve never tried. Even if you don’t expect them to work, take them for a spin. You never know when you’ll try something that will become part of your regular writing arsenal in the future.

7. Being blocked can improve your social life. Been shunning your friends and family while you struggle with this manuscript? Walk away from it and have a party, go out to dinner, or see a movie. Any change of pace can get you unstuck, and you can reconnect with people at the same time. People, you know? Those folks we base our characters on? It’s good to interact with them once in a while.

8. Being blocked is a great excuse to read something new. Forget your own characters’ problems and get immersed in some other writer’s world for a little while. Chances are, they struggled with their story, too, but in the end they overcame their pitfalls. Besides being enjoyable, it’s a little reminder that you can, too.

9. Being blocked is an opportunity to do something else creative. Most writers I know are creative in other ways, too. Turn your left-brain on to something else it can sink its teeth into. Draw, paint, sew, craft, take photos, do woodworking–whatever is your thing. Any creative efforts can prime the pump for your writing.

10. Being blocked forces you to try harder. So you’ve realized that there’s a problem with the manuscript and you don’t know how to fix it? Now is the time to level up as a writer. Read some books or articles that might help, confer with writer friends, draw charts, make index cards, brainstorm a mind map. You’re a writer, dammit. Keep trying new things until you hit the one that works.

11. Being blocked is a chance to start over. Maybe your manuscript has gone off the rails so badly that there’s just no fixing it. While this is a drastic response, sometimes you just have to ditch the whole thing and start again. Save this for your last-ditch effort to break the block.

See? Eleven reasons to love writer’s block, not hate it. Next time it comes around to visit, don’t despair. Use one or more of these ideas to make it actually work for you.

Photo credit: ba1969

Eleven Reasons to Talk to Your Characters


My husband hates it when I talk about my characters as if they are autonomous beings–when they surprise me, or won’t seem to do or act the way that I want. He can’t quite get his head around that aspect of the writing life–and I realize that not all writers feel this way, either. Now, intellectually, I know that I am in control of what these imaginary beings do, say, and feel. But it doesn’t always feel that way.

That’s why I think it’s important for us as writers to spend a little bit of time “talking” to our characters. Getting to know them. Because although they are imaginary beings, they are also, on some level, little windows into our own psyches or the psyches of people we know, and the better we understand them, the more they will come across as real to our readers. You can talk to your characters in many different ways: have a mental conversation with them, write out a bit of dialogue between the two of you, take an online personality test and answer it the way your character would, write a journal entry for them, interview them as if you were writing for a magazine or news story. Or come up with your own methods. (However, you may not want to let your significant other catch you talking to your characters out loud.)

Why do these exercises? Here are 11 reasons:

1. If the character is real to you, they’re more likely to feel real to your readers.

2. Your character has to have believable motivations for what they say and do. Let them tell you what those motivations are.

3. Talking with your character helps you find that character’s voice, so they’ll sound consistent throughout the story.

4. The more you know about your character’s secrets, the more you’ll understand how they impact him or her. And what he or she will do to protect them.

5. Sometimes you character’s priorities will not match what you think they should be. Give your character a chance to explain this to you.

6. “Talking” to your characters can break down your own mental barriers (like feeling stuck in a story)–giving your characters a voice and control can allow you to let them “take over” for a while and sidestep that sticky point where you don’t know what to write.

7. Even if you think you’ve worked up a thorough background for your character, you never know what telling detail will insert itself or come to light when you give the character a little free rein.

8. Telling your character why something has to happen to them and how you think they’ll react can open new plot doors and windows–especially if they want to argue the point with you.

9. If you treat your character as a separate entity, there’s less chance they’ll just end up sounding like you.

10. It’s better to know about your character’s long-lost brother at the beginning of the story instead of having them spring it on you halfway through.

11. The better you know your characters, the less likely you are to become blocked as you find your way along the path of your story.

Image Credit: http://www.sxc.hu/profile/miamiamia

Eleven Reasons To Love Deadlines

Photo by stockarch“Yeah, right,” I can hear you saying. “Deadlines are horrible. Deadlines are stressful. Nobody likes deadlines, let alone loves them!”

Well, I can see your point. Even the name is kind of scary, isn’t it? Deadline. Obviously there are going to be dire consequences if such a thing arrives and you are not prepared.

For writers, though (as well as others, but on this blog, we mainly talk writers, right?), having a deadline can be a positive experience—if you look at it in the right light. Here are eleven* reasons that a deadline can actually be your friend.

1. Deadlines force you to plan your time realistically. You’re always trying to get more organized and use your time better, right? Well, a deadline will make you look at how you’re spending your time and how much time it actually takes you to accomplish something. If you take that knowledge with you beyond the deadline, that time-planning can spill over into your other work and help your productivity beyond this one project.

2. Deadlines make you take control of your work instead of letting it control you. This is a common pitfall for writers; let me give you an example. If you are going to have this eight-thousand-word short story ready to submit before the submission period closes, you don’t have the luxury of following every whimsy of subplot and character idiosyncrasy that your brain comes up with. You have to write this story in a good tight first draft, edit it judiciously, and call it done. You have to take control. Bring that kind of control to other projects, and you’ll end up more productive overall.

3. Deadlines force you to be focused and efficient. Here’s another example. You have five days to finish this manuscript. It shouldn’t take you more than one of those five days to figure out, for instance, that you work most productively in the mornings and are essentially useless after dinner. The next four days, you’re going to make sure you spend time on your deadline project in the mornings. Take this knowledge with you to the next project, and stop doing email and blogging in the mornings instead of writing. Let deadlines teach you skills that go beyond a single project.

4. Deadlines force you to re-evaluate your level of perfectionism. If you have too many manuscripts sitting around on your hard drive because they’re just “not quite ready yet,” this one is for you. Yes, you may end up with a less-than-perfect manuscript if you set a deadline to finish it. But the perfect manuscript is something of a mirage, anyway. Better to have a finished one in submission than a never-done one languishing in a drawer.

5. Deadlines make you develop strategies to bypass procrastination. This one doesn’t need much explanation. You may have the cleanest house on the block or be the best Angry Birds player in town, but if you’re going to meet deadlines, you have to learn to recognize and bypass your own procrastination strategies. One way to do this is to make your procrastination tasks reward tasks instead. You can play ten minutes of Angry Birds or switch your laundry loads along after you work on your project for an hour (be sure to set timers for both!). You may find such things less appealing as rewards. If so, swap them out for something that really appeals to you–as a reward.

6. Deadlines make you realize what it is actually possible for you to achieve. Anyone who’s participated successfully in NaNoWriMo understands this one. Deadlines take all the skills we’re talking about here and let you smoosh them into a big ball of I-can-do-this. And once you know what’s possible…well, you’re likely to take on, and accomplish, more.

7. Deadlines allow you to plan for what’s beyond the deadline. If you have a deadline to meet, it means you’re actually going to finish this project and be able to move on to something else. No-one really wants to edit the same novel manuscript for the rest of their lives, do they? Of course not! You want to finish something so you can get to the Next Big Thing. But neither do you want to drop half-finished projects just to get to the next one. Deadlines let you set parameters to work on things, finish them, and then move ahead.

8. Deadlines help you figure out what your real priorities are. This is sort of related to #7. Sometimes you’ll have to choose between projects because of conflicting deadlines. If you’ve been dithering, trying to work on two or more projects but not really making satisfying progress on anything, a deadline can make you choose what’s important and focus on that.

9. Deadlines make you stop wasting time and actually complete something. Maybe you’re one of those people who’s always talking about writing but not really writing. Maybe you’ve been working on the same damn manuscript for so long that even you’re sick of it. Maybe you’re really trying to write, but something is holding you back—fear of failure, fear of success, yada, yada, you know the list as well as I do. A deadline can make you, er, produce—or get off the pot.

10. Deadlines let you cross something off your project list. Ah, the list. Don’t tell me you don’t have one, and that you don’t know the sweet, sweet satisfaction of crossing something off it. And if you don’t, you should make one. Really. Because there’s nothing as lovely as “Finish X by DD/MM/YYYY” with a big fat strikethrough running across it.  Unless it’s writing “The End.”

Off to try and meet a big deadline of my own.

*Why eleven? Because everyone does lists of ten. I’m trying to think outside the box, here, people.

Photo credit: stockarch