Tag Archives: process

Your Mind Is Beautiful, Your Notes Need Not Be

IMG_20140428_003107One of my favorite things about writing is how entire worlds, full of connections and characters and meaning, can simmer in your head right up to the moment when they burst out onto the page (or screen, as the case may be). Even so, thinking about stories, and eventually writing then down – especially once your life has reached a point where you’re snatching minutes from other obligations – can make keeping a train of thought difficult.

While I’ve never been one for formal outlines, over the years I’ve come to realize that making some kind of lose structural notes can help me both keep a story on track and make sure it’s tightened up before I have to restart it too many times.

My toolbox has a few basic methods in it, and today I’m going to share it with you.

1. Whiteboard/Visual Outlining
This is one of my favorite ways to outline a writing project. Whether you’re working in prose, film or theater format, I find that visual representations of ideas can be a great way to get ideas out of your head and down on paper.
Pros: fast, informal, fun, free-form. You can follow your gut and explore new pathways easily, with fewer lasting repercussions. Want to change a theme or an action, or foreshadow something happening later in your story? Just go back and add in another layer of your thought-web.
Cons: can be tricky to transcribe easily, leaves you looking like you went all BEAUTIFUL MIND if you happen to use a whiteboard wall. VERY unstructured, usually requires another round or two of thinking through what you want to say before you have something you can really work from. Hard to share with others.

2. The Save the Cat Beat Sheet
Last year, a friend introduced me to this tool during a too-infrequent visit. Based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat model, which is geared towards screenwriting, the adaptation I’ve been using is from a site called Liz Writes Books, and lets you plug the length of your project in, then adjusts for length. This is the method I’ve been using on the project Sareliz and I are working on together, and it’s been nothing short of brilliant. Using this excel sheet, we can easily communicate ideas and plot lines, and once I finished the sheet for the first novella in our series, the first draft was finished inside of a week.
Pros: Organized, helps make sure you’re hitting every note on your way through the novel.
Cons: The last time I tried to share the link with someone, the Excel sheet had been taken down. It looks like it’s back up, but who knows for how long, so I’d advise you to save a copy to your hard drive. The names of the steps can be a little misleading, but there’s plenty of additional information on Snyder’s theory out there to read up on.

3. Step-by-step Guide
Most of my notes for stories wind up being in this format. The other day, for example, I went all Beautiful Mind on my whiteboard; in transcribing the ideas over and making them into something I could coherently share, the ideas fell most easily into this form. An example would be, “Jane talks about her feelings. John doesn’t want to hear it, he leaves, she follows him, they argue. Everything blows up in her face.” Nice and succinct, gives you a general throughline on the story.
Pros: Easy to write organically, easy to keep up with your thoughts.
Cons: Hard to share in raw form, since specifics are rarely spelled out. Requires you to keep the specifics in mind as you work – what are Jane’s feelings? Why doesn’t John want to hear about them? 

4. Formal Outline
I hate formal outlines. I probably only use them when writing feature scripts and TV scripts, since those are two of the most structured forms of writing I know. If I’m writing a play, I rarely use an outline at all until I’m at least halfway through and have learned a bit about the characters. Anyway, a formal outline goes scene by scene and details what’s going to happen in each. Usually, they require several drafts themselves. What I find is that where feature films and TV scripts are concerned, they’re absolutely necessary, because you need to be able to adjust the story in major ways before you commit to writing a 50- or 120-page script. With short films and shorter episodic stories, however, I find they’re kind of a waste of time. In the time I can write a formal outline, I can work through two or three drafts of a short film script.
Pros: You pretty much must write one for a longer filmed project, and it’s good to at least know your way around putting one together. If you can keep focused, they make the actual writing of a script go much more quickly than it might otherwise go.
Cons: They’re bloody boring to write and then iron out, and in some cases you run the risk of getting tired of the project before you’re even at a first draft stage.

So, there are four methods for gathering your ideas and turning them into a coherent piece of creative writing. There are plenty more options – index cards, for example, though I’ve never been able to get the hang of using those – and these are just my preferences.

What method do you use in working on your creative writing pieces? Have you heard about other ways of working that I haven’t listed here? I’d love to hear about them if you have, so feel free to leave a comment!

Today I’m a Cat In a Hurricane (Blog, NaNoWriMo 2013)

This NaNo thing is hard.

I write every day, so it’s not just the act of sitting and churning out 1600 words (give or take) a day that’s proving to be rough. It’s the doing it all on the same project, and retaining faith in that project as I go on, and doing so despite all the other things going on in life, that are turning out to be the month’s real challenges.

I never thought this would be the hard part. I write every day: blog posts, short stories, full-length plays — and in between those, dozens of ideas for new onws – and I’ve gone through long, arduous projects that made me want to scream or kick them or abandon them and run away. But there’s something about living with a nascent idea of a book, day in and day out, for a month (shut up, it’s only been ten days, I know, shut up) that’s a very different animal from what I’m used to. I have an outline to work from and I know that it’s just a matter of sitting down, every day, doing the words, and eventually I’ll come to the end of the month and the end of the book and then holy crap I’ll have a whole book and – well, all those lovely things that come after.

Unlike most participants, I’m not even in this alone. I have my trusted friend & project collaborator, Sare Liz Gordy working with me – well, parallel to me, on the second book in the series we’ve planned – so unlike plenty of other people who have taken on NaNo this month, I have someone to bounce ideas off of, talk things over with, and generally remind me that this pile of words I’m steadily piecing together is worth it and will work when it’s done and all those other things we writers like to know as we sew the firings of our neurons into the tapestry of a story. (Shut up, shut up, leave me alone, all my clever metaphors are going into the book.)

And then there’s the Brain Chemistry. Caps, because it’s my brain, you know? And at some point between Friday and today, my brain chemistry went wonky, and right now, I hate everything. Not just the clothes I yank out of my closet in pathetically mismatched combinations, not just the fact that the leak over my apartment radiator is still dripping and the intercom speaker still doesn’t work, but everything. A coworker and I sat at lunch together today, talking about this, and he suggested if I wasn’t getting joy from what I was doing then maybe I ought to pull the plug. And I realized that the problem with making an assessment – any assessment based on liking anything – when I’m having the Brain Chemistry is that until things right themselves it’s not going to be a rational decision. (Which is NOT to say that at any point the idea of quitting NaNo has been one that’s come to mind, just that my friend asked why I didn’t and I had to explain why not.) Picture a cat, soaking wet in a hurricane, clinging with all its claws to a telephone pole while the wind rattles and howls around it. Right now, le chat c’est moi.

And anyways, when I’m capable of liking something I like this story a lot. Right now, I think the code for my mental “like” button is going through some kind of DDOS attack, so I have to just keep working blind until tech support can come in and debug whatever’s going wrong. (Leave me alone, all my good metaphors are going into the NaNo.)

So I get home from work and sit on the edge of my bed for a minute just to catch my breath, and the next thing I know I’ve been napping for three hours and I have to figure out something to do for dinner because when I feel like this eating healthy is one of the best things I can do for myself, and I use my cast-iron skillet to fry a piece of bacon and a whole bunch of vegetables I picked up in Chinatown and I sit at my computer and I stare at the Drive document that holds the outline I’ve put together, and I fire up Open Office and I take a deep breath and I stare and then I jump in.

Even if I don’t make the full quotient of words for today, at least I know I’m still going. Having something to sit down and chip away at is exhausting – Sare aptly compared writing these books to running a marathon, and ten days out of thirty in, I’m at a pace that’s more or less comfortable and I like what the characters are doing and the turns the tale is taking – but keeping it up is hard work.

I don’t mind working hard, I just mind working stupid,” a friend of mine says, and at least I know that I’m working smart: an outline, a plan, a support structure, a clear goal. So that’s okay. I’ll just keep going, a cat in a hurricane with my claws dug into a telephone pole, hanging on for dear life and wondering where the hell did I put my pen and can I swat at the keyboard without flying off into the wind.

I’ll get there. It’ll take about twenty more days, but I’ll get there, and I’ll look back and read this and wonder what made it seem so hard.

Until then, I’m off to write another bunch of words. I’ll forgive myself if I only hit five hundred today – that’s the whole point of working ahead of oneself, when one can – because anything is still progress, and progress of some kind is what counts.

When you search for "cat in a hurricane" on Google, this is the first cat picture that comes up.

For those who came expecting cats: when you search for “cat in a hurricane” on Google, this is the first cat picture that comes up. Today, I am this cat.

Wanna Write? Gotta Write.

This is a companion piece to a piece I wrote about treating the artistic process like an industrial/mechanical one over on Jesse Abundis’ ARTISTS UNCENSORED blog. That post was inspired by a request for inspiration, and its response, below:


First, what is it to be “in the zone”? I had written about being in that precise place in this blog entry, which I posted a day or two before. Being in the zone is comparable to flow.

But it doesn’t always come easy, and sometimes it just doesn’t come. Sometimes – often those times – there are external conditions necessitating a piece be written. It’s for a magazine or a website, or a class paper. You want to make sure you have a relevant piece of writing on your site when visitors from another blog come calling.

In this hypothetical, we’ll say the situation is this: an article you wrote on another site is being  published, and you want to talk about how writing something on demand is a skill writers need to develop.

That’s when you rely on your craft, your writer’s toolkit. That’s when you force yourself to be disciplined and focused.

Cancel plans.

Jot down ideas.

Make an outline. (God I hate making outlines.)

Take a break. Come back, look at what you’ve written. Evaluate it. Re-arrange your ideas.

Then trust yourself and start writing.

You may delete every word for an hour. You may feel self-conscious about every point your argument strikes. You will, I guarantee, have to go back and read the thing multiple times, probably print it out, possibly even read it aloud – and add and delete sections that you missed or rambled on in the first time around.

In the end, you’ll have written something. Your best work ever? Maybe not. Something that communicates your point? Hopefully.

The process is more complicated in a creative endeavor – more the territory of writing exercises and accessing your subconscious than just working with craft, because a writer’s emotional connection to their work is so clearly reflected in it.

Capturing that lightning in a bottle is a blog entry for another day.

An Exercise in Editing, or, Why The Hunger Games Makes My Eyes Bleed

From the back cover of THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. The following quotes, from other writers in what one might call “related genres,” are meant to draw attention to the positive features of Collins’ work.

Go ahead. Read ’em.

Note that each of these quotes, from luminaries and sources including Stephen King (Entertainment Weekly), Stephanie Meyer (OMG she’s OBSESSED), and John Greer (The New York Times Book Review), talks about the plotting and structure of THE HUNGER GAMES.

Not a single one of the back cover comments brings up the question of the quality of the book’s prose. 

There are many reasons this might be the case: the marketing team may have learned that putting quotes about suspenseful page-turners sell more copies and left out things like “Collins’ prose challenges some of the greats of our era with its artistry and subtle evocation of the stresses that authoritarian governments manufacture to maintain control of their populations.” They could have left out, “Her words added an emotional depth and clarity to this packed, well-paced story.” They could have left out lots of things. I haven’t looked up the full reviews.

My personal feeling is that they cherry-picked quotes about pacing because THE HUNGER GAMES suffers from a case of seriously bad writing.

Which brings us to this blog entry. Collins is an author who presumably worked with an editor to get her words to this pointI presume they both considered it publishable. (And charge-for-able). Editors do a lot of different things when it comes to getting manuscripts ready for publication. One of those things is language. And I think both Collins and her editor fell down hard on that front.

My background with THE HUNGER GAMES:

I read chapters 1-4 on my Kindle when @tyyche gifted me a copy. I was at the tail end of two weeks of intensive editing work on Hot Mess, and while I could certainly see why Collins’ story was an entertaining one, the actual quality of the writing made it impossible for me to continue. I said at the time, and continue to maintain, that my guess is the book translates better to the screen than most adaptations. If I ever see the film, I’ll make sure to let you all know.

Anyways, fast forward to the end of May. My roommate’s copy is lying on the kitchen counter and it’s Memorial Day Weekend and after walking past the book a few times, I think, well, maybe I should pick that up and just breeze through it, so at least when people start defending it on Twitter I can come back with a more informed opinion than the one I have now, which is based on reading four chapters of the thing on a Kindle.

There was no way in hell I was going to start reading the book from the beginning again. I backtracked about a paragraph into chapter 4, then continued with chapter five, which was badly written but at least kept moving, then headed into chapter six. It wasn’t until the last page of chapter six that I became aware of a string of paragraphs I probably would have let go through without too much rewriting: page 85 in my edition, from the point where the Avox girl is picking up Katniss’ unitard (UNITARD!) to the end of the chapter. This was the first time that the spare, simple voice beneath Collins’ prose really came out to me, and one of the first times (only 85 pages in!) where I felt like Collins had really hit her stride.

Then it was into chapter seven, and that wasn’t any bloody fun at all.

By this time, half of Twitter had figured out that I was actually reading the book I’d been complaining about for months, and I started getting snarky comments from my co-writer, Eric, particularly because I’d given him such a hard time back when he did the reviews of the first book for The Masquerade Crew. One thing led to another and when I started talking about how what I actually want to do is a top-to-toe rewrite on the entire thing, and I half wanted to do red marks all over a page from the book and show people what my editing process was like, Eric challenged me to do precisely that.

So everything after the break is his fault.
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