Monthly Archives: September 2014

Outlining for people who don’t like outlines

Save the Cat. As I mentioned in my post last week, I don’t normally write detailed outlines for my books. My version of plotting typically involves making lists of possible future scenes/events, and choosing from those (or sometimes coming up with new ones) as I write. I once tried to use Blake Snyder’s beat sheet to outline a project I’d just started and completely stressed myself out because if I couldn’t figure out where the “break into two” was or which scene lined up with the “theme stated” beat. (Side note, I know many writers who find Snyder’s beat sheet enormously helpful, and I learned a lot from his book, Save the Cat.)

But my current WIP demanded some level of outline. In fact, I found myself wanting to write an outline before I got too far into this, simply because there are so many twists to the story. I didn’t want to constrain myself to the detail of a beat sheet, so I went with a simple, three-step outline.

Step One: Divide the page into three sections, one for each act of the book.

Step Two: Pencil in the opening and closing of each act (including the opening and closing images). This was extremely helpful because I could see all the major turning points, and with a few minutes of brainstorming, I came up with opening and closing images that mirror each other nicely. (Whether I keep those images in the final draft will be another story, but at least I have an idea that I’m happy with now.)

Step Three: Fill in the blanks with other key scenes you plan to write, or scenes that clearly need to take place to move the story from one point to another.

And that’s it! I’ve already adapted my outline a little as I continued writing, but now I’m much more confident that I know where this story is going.

How do you tackle outlines? Is the beat sheet your writing bible, do you prefer to wing it, or are you somewhere in between?

Writing Tip: Character Outlines

Man writing with quill. You’ll find plenty of advice out there about outlining, the benefits of plotting vs. pantsing, etc. I truly believe there’s no “right” way to write — different things work for different people, and different methods may work better for different projects. But since I had an epiphany moment in my own writing, I thought I’d share and see if my method helps any of you.

Recently, I’d been struggling a lot lately with an idea I had for a novel. The spark of the story woke me up at 4:30am and refused to let me go back to sleep until I’d spent an hour jotting notes by cell phone flashlight (because the light switch was across the room, and who wants to get out of bed at 4:30am?). I was so excited about this story that I immediately started writing.

Two days later, I stalled. I stepped back and realized I had no idea where this story was going. I tried to plot out the whole book, got really excited again, started writing like crazy … and stalled again. I couldn’t even put my finger on it, I just knew the book felt off.

So I took a week off. I told myself I could plan, outline, etc. as much as I wanted, but that I would not write any scenes that would be a part of that story. I told myself nothing was set in stone, everything could be thrown out (and all of it will be — an entire five-subject notebook’s worth. I have no regrets.). Five days into my week off, I finished reading a fantastic book (because time away from writing just means more time for reading) that helped me finally realize what was missing: I wasn’t invested in the characters. And because of that, the plot felt flat and cliche. Characters drive the plot; if I don’t care about them, I won’t care about what they’re doing, or what’s stopping them from achieving their goals.

So I started thinking about the characters. Right away, I realized this will be a very character-driven novel. I was overwhelmed by the number of characters clamoring for attention. I’d toyed with the idea of having multiple viewpoint characters, but the more I thought about the characters, the bigger the scope of the story became, and the less certain I was about who should be telling it.

Then the planner in me stepped in and ordered me to start taking notes. (Side note, is it weird that I like to obsessively plan everything else in my life but loathe outlining my books?) I had four key players who were related to each other in several complicated ways. Some of them needed others’ help to achieve their goals; some would be hindered by the others. In some cases, characters had conflicting goals, one of which required a character’s help and another of which would put those same characters in opposition. My head was a mess of friendships and betrayals.

I decided to make a character outline for each of the four key players. I listed all of his or her relationships with the other characters, defining moments that shaped that character, and the character’s goals. Not only did this help me figure out where my plot was going, it helped me determine whose story this was. While all four of these characters are key players, two of them experience most of their defining moments before my book begins. These defining moments make them who they are, determine what their goals are, and drive their actions throughout the book. The other two characters have several defining moments that occur during the novel, so I knew they needed to be the ones telling the story.

Now I cannot wait to dive into writing this book. With just a little outlining, I feel like I have a solid handle on who my characters are and where this story is going.

Have you written character outlines like these? Did they help?

Gender norms: how pop culture fell short in my childhood, and what we can do to fix it today

Lean InThis post is partly inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which I found incredibly insightful. I don’t read a lot of “business” books, but I would definitely recommend this to both men and women. It highlights a number of social biases found in both the home and the workplace that can hold women back and in some cases cause women to hold themselves back.

These biases are formed at young ages. My whole life, I was told by my parents and teachers that I could do anything I wanted, that boys and girls were equal, etc. But many of the movies and books I grew up with told a different story. Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty don’t get to have adventures of their own. Their “adventures” involve being resented for their beauty, dreaming about a man coming to rescue them, and an awful lot of housework. Even Mulan and Jasmine, who were stronger female characters, have stories that center around love and marriage — Jasmine runs away so she won’t be forced to marry someone she doesn’t love, and Mulan has to disguise herself as a boy in order to bring honor to her family. The boys get to have all the fun, while the girls’ roles are solely and solidly domestic. Is it any wonder, then, that in my childhood games I always imagined myself as a boy dog, a boy dragon, a boy everything? I didn’t want to be a boy, I just wanted to go on adventures; and the boys went on all the real adventures.

These problems persisted beyond “happily ever after.” Even a girl who had a mind of her own, like Mulan, readily filled the traditional domestic role as soon as she fell in love. These stories taught girls that they were supposed to want to get married and raise children and give up any other dreams that conflicted with those things. What if Mulan liked being a soldier? What if the hypothetical princess wanted to travel the world or hunt pirates to protect the borders? For that matter, what if the prince wanted to teach his kids how to read or ride horses instead of spending his whole day in council meetings?

I think this is why I connected with Tamora Pierce’s protagonists so strongly. Alanna (from Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series) was my role model because she wanted to go on adventures and train as a knight, so she did it even though it went against convention. And yes, she was disguised as a boy at first, but she also made friends who accepted her for who she was, and throughout the series she grew to accept herself as both a woman and a knight. But most importantly, she didn’t stop having adventures when she fell in love. In fact (spoiler alert) she chose to end her relationship with the prince in part because she didn’t want to be a queen — and she chose to marry the man who would not only allow but encourage her to continue going on quests as a knight.

Our girls need more stories like these. And our boys need more examples of men who choose to spend more time inside the home — and are celebrated, not criticized, for it. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. For ideas of how to help, check out the Lean In organization and the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Writers, let’s tell stories that encourage our readers to pursue their dreams, whatever those dreams are. Librarians, publishers, and readers, let’s demand more stories that challenge stereotypes and show today’s children that they don’t have to match their ambitions to gender norms. I want books with female engineers like Darla in Mike Mullin’s Ashfall trilogy, and books with men who are deeply invested in their families like Day in Marie Lu’s Legend trilogy. (And is it telling that I can’t think of a single book or movie in any genre that has the father working primarily in the home unless he’s either gay or a single parent?*)

What books, movies, or other media have you seen lately that defies gender norms? Please share in the comments.

*After three days of pondering this, I finally came up with Neal and Georgie from Rainbow Rowell’s Landline, though that isn’t a book for kids, nor is it being marketed heavily toward men.

Lessons from the query trenches: subjectivity

Thumbs up and thumbs down. I’ve learned a lot from querying and applying for Pitch Wars, but the one thing I keep hearing from everyone, over and over, is that publishing is an extremely subjective business. Finding an agent — and eventually landing a book deal — is all about finding someone who falls in love with you book.

I’ve had multiple Pitch Wars mentors and agents express enthusiasm for my book, only to ultimately turn me down. My most recent rejection, while frustratingly vague, only helped to remind me of how much rejection is part of the business. The agent said she thought I had a good story but “it didn’t feel like quite enough.” She told me she couldn’t be more specific, but was responding to a gut feeling about my manuscript.

Yes, her response was disappointing. But it’s also just one person’s opinion. I’m experiencing a similar gut feeling with a book I’m reading now. It got multiple starred reviews and great buzz from a number of sources I trust, and had been on my to-read list for months. I finally picked it up the other day and … I just can’t get into it. I can’t even explain why. I love the voice — I’ve laughed out loud at several points. The characters are compelling, and the plot is unique and interesting. But for some reason I’m still not engaged. I’m half-way through the book and just have a gut feeling that it isn’t for me.

And that’s okay.

The flip side of this subjectivity, gut feeling lesson is that you never know who will fall in love with your book. The same day I got a gut feeling rejection from an agent, I had a patron at the library who I would’ve pegged for a Louis L’Amour fan (older gentleman whose wardrobe and demeanor just seemed to scream “western”) ask about the fifty shades trilogy. Without missing a beat, I put him on the waiting list for the books and directed him to a similar book we had checked in at the time. (He may have been a Louis L’Amour fan, too; I didn’t ask, and he didn’t volunteer that information.)

My point is, you could think your book is a perfect fit for an agent, and she just won’t connect with it. You could also think a certain agent would never consider your book, only to have him fall in love with it. So keep querying. Every agent who represents your genre. Because you just never know.

And it does only take one “yes.”

Have you had a similar experience while querying?

Support fellow writers, win 100 books, and more at #YAlaunch

How We Fall. I always loveThe Hit List. opportunities to champion and support other writers, so today I’m going to spotlight Kate Brauning and Nikki Urang’s #YAlaunch on Monday, November 10. These two amazing authors are celebrating the debuts of Kate’s How We Fall and Nikki’s The Hit List on November 11 with a virtual launch party that will include games, visits from several YA authors, and giveaways of 100 books.

Check out the details in this post on Pub Hub, and hopefully I’ll see you there!