Writing Outside the Lines: on outlines

(Crossposted to Byzantium’s Shores)

New writer acquaintance Briana Morgan has a nice post up about the evils* of outlining:

When I started using them [outlines], I felt trapped, bogged down, and nothing like myself. My whole process felt constrained. I suffocated. In my writing workshops, I was taught not to write without outlines. My professors frowned or scowled when I shunned the thought of planning. “You can’t write like that,” they said. “You’re setting yourself up for failure.” Well, they were half-right.

Outlining doesn’t work for me. For the longest time, I tried to fit in with other writers who swear by it, but the process felt forced. I was sure that everyone knew I was faking. My productivity ground to a halt. I put so much pressure on myself to do what everyone else was doing, instead of focusing on what worked for me. Since outlining wasn’t working, I must have been doing it wrong.

I don’t outline either…except for when I do. Heh!

Generally, the writing community seems to have settled on two terms to describe the respective camps: Plotters, referring to those who outline (thereby plotting everything in advance), and pantsers, meaning, those who write by the seat of their pants (or overalls, as the case may be).

So, which am I? For the most part, I’m a pantser. I roughly figure out a starting point for the book, come up with a vague idea for what’s generally supposed to happen, and then I start writing. Sometimes I have an idea of structure for the book beforehand (the current Forgotten Stars novel, Princesses III: The Sequel to Get Equal (not the actual title), has three viewpoint characters after two in Book II and just one in Stardancer), but sometimes I don’t even have that much. How can I go on so little? Well…it’s pretty much what I’ve always done. In my experience, my characters will do things on page 300 that I have no idea are even possible on page 30. New ideas will come to be a third of the way through, and I generally find that those new ideas are usually better than whatever I had already planned. A good idea always trumps the plan, if I even had one.

Here’s the thing: when you write a lot, you come to deeply trust the process upon which you’ve settled. I’m such a pantser that I started writing Princesses III: The Wrath of Spock (not the actual title) without even knowing exactly who my main villain was going to be; then, when he suddenly showed up in a scene that surprised me to have a villain in it, I still had no idea just what he was hoping to accomplish. I had to get to know this guy as my characters did. No doubt this may sound like utter lunacy to many writers, but it works for me. My approach to all this mirrors what Stephen King says in the brilliant On Writing:

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.

I pretty much completely agree with this. I have a situation: Two Princesses from the planet Gavinar are on their way someplace else but something happens and they wind up on a mysterious planet whose inhabitants see them as fulfillment of prophecy…and they just might be. That’s it. Who are the Princesses? Well, I had to figure that part out. Where’s the planet and what’s the deal with the people living there? Those details showed up, one by one, as I wrote that book and got my Princesses stranded…and then I figured out the planet’s little foibles, some of which I’m still figuring out and being surprised by.

I never would have tried outlining any of that. For Stardancer, I actually did have an idea of how that particular book’s main conflict got resolved in the end, but not so with Princesses II or with Princesses III. I just charged full-speed ahead, because that’s the only way I can work.


Because I do occasionally turn to the outline. Once in a while. Not very often.

And here’s the key: not for very long, in terms of book length.

Sometimes I get stuck, like anybody else. Sometimes I genuinely don’t know what comes next. This actually has two “flavors”, as it were. The first is easy: I get an increasingly persistent sense that I’ve gone in the wrong direction someplace. The fix here isn’t to outline, but rather to backtrack to the most recent spot where I felt things were still going in the right direction and try something else. The second, though, is when I know that what’s happened to this point is right, but I’m just not sure what happens next. Then I might outline a bit, maybe the next few scenes, just to work through some ideas and get a notion of the direction I’m going. This isn’t even always outlining, per se, but mostly a jotting down of ideas.

When I actually sit down to straight-up outline, though, is almost always when I’m nearing the book’s final act and when things are about to get complex. Almost always by this point not only do I know what’s going to happen, but the characters don’t do a lot of deviating, either, and if they do, it’s to do something cool that doesn’t really change the “big picture” of the ending. So I outline, very roughly, just to figure out the way the moving parts of the story have to line up: what happens first, what happens second, what this person is doing, how that person will respond, and so on. It’s the writing equivalent of how plumbers will lay out the sections of pipe on the floor, in order, before applying the PVC adhesive or starting to solder things together. That’s it: outlining the sequence, but never the entire story. That, I just can’t do. If I try outlining an entire novel from Chapter 1 to the Epilogue, I can quite simply guarantee that the story will change dramatically by Chapter 5, and the outline will be useless.

And besides…outlining doesn’t feel like writing to me. Outlining always vaguely feels to me like a writing-like activity that doesn’t necessarily lead to actual writing. It feels like all those times on The Brady Bunch when the boys were “fixing” their bikes but rarely riding them anywhere.

So that’s why I don’t outline, except for when I do.

* Outlining isn’t evil. It’s just a practice that some folks do and some don’t.

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Updating Progress!

I really need to make a better effort to keep new material appearing on this site, don’t I? Anyway, I’m trucking along on Book III of The Song of Forgotten Stars (unofficially titled Princesses In SPACE!!! III: More Spacier). This one’s been a bit of a struggle at times, because I had a very odd narrative problem to conquer that I hadn’t encountered before, and it vexed me rather a lot, I must admit. Now, though, I am pretty sure I’m on the way. As of this writing I have a draft of a little over 100,000 words, with my target first-draft word count being 180,000 words.

More to come on all that, but that’s where we are!

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A couple of FAQ’s

Hey, folks! Here’s some stuff that’s going on, including some answers to a few questions that come up relatively frequently since STARDANCER hit the world.

Will you sell signed copies?

I will. For now, if you want one, e-mail me directly or message me on FB or Twitter and we’ll figure something out. Eventually I’ll have some kind of mechanism in place to do this, but for now, we’ll do it the cumbersome, old-fashioned way. (Or the quaint, old-school way, depending on how you see such things!)

How long did it take you to write this book, anyway?

I am honestly not sure, but it was roughly between a year-and-a-half to two years, for the first draft. I know exactly when I finished the first draft — it was April 16, 2012 — but I didn’t note my start date anywhere, so best I can figure is sometime in the latter half of 2010. On every project since then I’ve noted the date of official start, but I’m just not sure what day I started writing Stardancer.

When I began Stardancer, it was the first long-form work I’d done in quite a few years — mostly since the Arthurian novel I worked on for a long time, way back in the very-late 90s and very-early 2000s. I learned a lot from writing The Promised King, and I even put the first volume of it online (it was a duology), but I never finished the second volume except for a single draft I wrote in longhand. I planned at the time to move on to other novel-length works, but without feeling the need to go into particulars, the middle-to-late 2000s were less than kind, by way of real-life stuff, and I just went into a five-year writing funk during which I produced maybe a couple of short stories and one screenplay that was mostly intended as an internal exorcism for some stuff I had going on. The gist of it is this: I eventually decided, at the tail end of 2010, that it was long-past time to get off my ass, so get off it I did.

After I finished the first draft, I set it aside for three months. That’s my official “cooling-off” period, during which I move on to other projects and refuse to even look at the manuscript. It’s best to let the thing recede into memory, so that when I come back to it, I’m not as emotionally invested in this manuscript right here. Distance helps the eye when it comes time to revise. That first set of revisions took a month or two, and then I got the book into the hands of my beta-readers, who gave me some very valuable feedback; then there was another round of revisions. At this point we’re up to the beginning of 2013.

I spent most of 2013 submitting the book to markets and querying agents. This process resulted in rejection a-plenty, which is normal for the writing gig, and once I exhausted all potential markets so far as I could tell, I decided to self-publish. This brings us to sometime in January or February 2014. I decided to make November my target month for publication, and after that, it was more revisions, more proofreading, a few more revisions and yet more proofreading, and so on and so forth.

So, from the first time I sat down and started writing this story to the time it was available as an actual book? About three years.

So how’s Book II coming along?

Great! I think.

I actually have specific dates for the first draft: I began on March 4, 2013, and finished August 11 of the same year. A few months later, I edited it; early this year, my beta-readers looked at it. Book II (title forthcoming) will be a major focus for 2015, obviously: I have another November release target to hit! I’m actually pretty optimistic about Book II, since now that I have one book under my belt, I have a better handle on the process and how long things take, so I can better plan things out.

Great! And Book III?

I’m drafting that one now. Having some troubles, but nothing out of the ordinary. My goal is to be done with the draft by mid-spring 2015. I’m targeting November 2016 for release of Book III, and then taking a year-long break from the Forgotten Stars Universe in 2017.

Are you writing anything that’s NOT a Forgotten Stars book?

Why yes! I have an existing draft for the first book in what will be a series of supernatural thrillers involving a former policeman who has the misfortune of being contacted by the dead, for various reasons. I’m going to work on editing that for a release sometime in mid-2016, and drafting a sequel will be a priority in 2015 as well, for a 2017 release. I actually wrote that existing Book I draft (code-titled GhostCop) in 2013, but I haven’t had a chance to get back to it since. I’m aiming for a 2016 release and 2017 for its sequel because 2017 is a non-ForgottenStars year, and I don’t want to go an entire calendar year with nothing coming out.

Also, I have a giant doorstop of a fantasy novel that I’ve been working on for a couple of years, on and on-and-off-again basis. It’s actually not technically fantasy, though, so much as historical fiction, except that it takes place in a world that doesn’t exist. There’s no magic in it, and the inspiration there is the rollicking adventure tales of Alexandre Dumas. Think sword fights, daring escapes, outlaw clans living in the mountains, hidden treasures, family secrets, villains who wear wide-brimmed hats with long poofy feathers out the back, confrontations on wind-swept promontories, tall ships running aground on the rocks, and so forth. I have no title for this, but I’ve been calling it The Adventures of Lighthouse Boy, because the main character is a young lad who lives in a lighthouse. The problem with this book is that it’s sprawling all over the place, so not only is it not done (it’s barely halfway there), I’m not at all sure what to do with it when it is done, so long will it end up being. I’m toying with the notion of serializing it for e-book first, and then releasing it in print afterward, but I’m still a few years out from being ready for it.

Forgotten Stars IV? Yeah, that’s not even on the radar yet, man.

Where do you get the time to do all this stuff?

I just use the time I have. I don’t have any time that you don’t have!

As ever, onward and upward! Zap! Pow!!


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Where STARDANCER came from

So, where exactly did I get the idea for Stardancer? Easy answer. I got it from a lot of places.

(This is long, but I hope it’s at least a little interesting!)

Like many a writer, my first efforts at fiction writing were fanfiction — Star Wars fanfiction, specifically. I suppose that’s not terribly surprising, huh? Fanfic has been the starting point for many a writer, and Star Wars was one of the biggies.

Now, when I was writing Star Wars fanfic, I wasn’t writing original stories in that universe. Instead I took the basic thrust of the Original Trilogy’s story and rewrote it, with “new” characters and some plot twists along the way. I changed Luke Skywalker from a farmboy to a competitive pilot. My Han Solo character acted the part of a cynical space-rogue, but that was just a front for his own revolutionary activities. Princess Leia? Well, she was the voluptuous space pirate who ended up being a part of the good guys. And instead of rebels versus a Galactic Empire, I had the galaxy basically divided into two “countries”, a democratic republic and a harsh Empire. These two entities had been at war for decades, and now it was coming to a violent head.

I kept some other stuff, of course. I had an Emperor and his Vader figure, although I played up the angle in the Original Trilogy of Darth Vader wanting to kill the Emperor and take over. The thrust of my Episode One (which coincided with Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) was the necessity of destroying my Empire’s new superweapon; in my Episode II, the freshly defeated Empire — well, it struck back. And so on.

I finished my own version of the Star Wars trilogy, in the first year or two after I graduated college. Then, I started working on the first draft ever of my Arthurian novel, The Promised King (and let me tell you, that draft was an embarrassing mess). I thought I was done with Star Wars fanfic, but I found myself sucked back in, around the time The Phantom Menace came out. Now I was wanting to continue on — but not, as George Lucas was doing, by going backwards; I wanted to write what would have been a putative Star Wars Episode VII.

I did start that project, but I never finished it, choosing instead to eventually leave fanfic behind for good, as I started working on that Arthurian novel a lot and writing short fiction for attempted publication. Problem was, my space opera story for my own Episode IV was sticking in my head. The central idea was the discovery of a planet that has been literally sequestered from the rest of the Galaxy for centuries, a planet that was once a part of a vast Empire that has been gone for so long it’s almost completely forgotten — but its descendants are still lurking out there somewhere. I liked that idea, and filed it away in the back of my head. I knew I’d get back to that strange planet, whose inhabitants were forbidden to travel to the stars, but I knew it wasn’t going to be my re-worked Luke, Han, and Leia who went there.

So who would?

I had no idea.

I wasn’t worried about it. I wasn’t even consciously thinking about this, much. When I get ideas, I almost never jump on them as soon as they pop into my head. I let them marinate a bit. Or percolate. Or simmer for years and years and years — and I’m not kidding about that. This whole thought process, beginning with this little lost planet? That’s from 1999 or 2000. A long way back.

Meanwhile, at some point in 2001, I got a movie on a VHS tape that I had heard was very good, an animated film from Japan that would be suitable for The Daughter, was was only 2 at the time. The film? Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro.

If you’ve seen that film, you know that it’s about two young sisters, one of whom is roughly 13 or 14 and the other of whom is around 6 or 7. They move with their father to a small village, out near a hospital where their mother has had an extended stay, and here they have adventures, some of which are supernatural and involve the giant furry beast who lives in the nearby enormous tree. (Yes, it sounds heavier and more depressing here than it really is — the film is utterly delightful and magical and you should see it if you haven’t.)

I didn’t watch My Neighbor Totoro and immediately conclude that I should have two sisters go to my little lost planet. But that notion came along not very long after I saw the movie, and it’s clear to me that this is where that part of the puzzle came from. Now, I did make my two Princesses older than the ones in the film, but I liked the idea of the dynamic between two sisters. Brother-and-sister has been done a lot, but sister-and-sister, not quite so much.

From there, it sat in my mind. For years. I wrote a couple of pages, over ten years ago, just to see what it might feel like. I considered serializing the story online, in blog form, writing one chapter at a time. I kicked around a lot of options, through the last half of the 2000s, always kicking this idea of these two Princesses (because obviously they were Princesses!) and the odd planet they found, but never quite getting ’round to writing it.

I’m not sure what I was waiting for, but finally, sometime in 2011, I decided that it was time to stop waiting for the story to be “ready”. There is never a “ready”, when it comes to stories. I believed in this idea, more than any other I had (and I have quite a few), and I wanted to write it, more than any other. The question was, What was I waiting for?

And thus, it was off to the races.

Three years later, here we are!


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No more sample chapters…boo hoo….

Howdy, Fine Readers!

You may have heard about a ton of snow that has socked my neck of the woods, south of Buffalo. I’m taking advantage of a couple of unplanned days off from work to do some formatting of STARDANCER for Kindle release. I have also had to remove the sample chapters, 1 through 3, because of the exclusivity of the Kindle Select program. Shortly I’ll have the book available for all you fine digital-preference people!

And then I’m going to go shovel snow. Believe me, I’d much rather hang out online and write and stuff, but I got two cars to shovel out. And then I get to do it again for my parents! Woo-hoo!

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Two Days Out!

Hey Ma! It’s fulla dem book thangs!


Well folks, we’re two days out from the Official Release of Stardancer. Talk about your long, strange trips.

If you’re wondering if the book is any good at all, well, I’m likely a tad biased on that subject. But two of my beta-readers weighed in on their blogs recently, here and here. Both are intelligent, discerning fellows whose tastes do tend to overlap with mine with some regularity, but we also have enough areas of disagreement that I knew getting these gentlemen on board was no sure thing.

Meanwhile, the work continues as I am now writing the first draft for The Song of Forgotten Stars, Book III (the partial actual title). Just last night my Muse dropped by for a chat — meaning, he pulled up in his crappy car and chucked an idea out the window at me, along with the trash from his recent sojourn to Arby’s — so things are proceeding apace there, as well. The adventure continues!

Don’t forget “Kaboom!” and “Splat!”

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