I AM HADES: Outline finished, time to write

If you thought outlining a story was hard, just wait. I decided to try my hand at outlining my latest project, instead of jumping in headfirst. I found that many of the problems I encounter writing the story don’t go away, just because you make an outline first.

I’ve always seen outlining as “cheating;” trying to get the answers before the test. And, in a way,  it is. At least for some writers. I think some writers think outlining will get them out of that icky work of actually coming up with ideas. But the same problem persists: trying to figure out what happens next.

But what can be said for outlining is that it makes getting over that hurdle a little bit easier. It’s like writing your book in miniature, a sketch of a sketch (a thumbnail, if you will). And because you’re not wading through 10,000+ words at that point, trying to make sense of it all, you can forge through the tough parts faster.

Because forge you must. The secret to getting over those blocks is to give up whatever preconceived notion you had about your story and just come up with something. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to make sense. You just have to put down what happens next. Even if it’s far from perfect.

Yeah, you can do that by simply writing your story. But the advantage of an outline is that you can quickly survey your story and decide where it should go next, in a way you can’t without one.

Doesn’t make the writing any easier. It’s not a magic formula. It might just be a mental trick. But anything that gets you through the middle of your book, to the end, it’s worth trying.

I finished the outline for I AM HADES. It’s far from perfect. Truthfully, the actual story outline is far from what it will eventually be. Chances are, I will change quite a bit about the story, by the time everything’s said and done (I don’t even have the characters’ names, for crying out loud). But that’s not the point.

Who even expected an early draft to be the final work? The same can be said about an outline. It just has to be there, like a weak light guiding your way. You’ll find your own path, if you keep walking. But, man, that light helps out a lot.

I’m not sure what it will be like writing this story, with an outline. Maybe it’s a breeze. Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe I’ll end up facing the same problems I always face. We’ll find out.

“How to Write With Style,” Part 4

This post is part of a series called ‘The Writer’s Pool.’ I will be drawing from the wealth of knowledge from the world’s greatest writers to explore their advice, techniques, tools, and more.

Vonnegut wrote that the first key to writing with style is to find a subject you care about. I think it’s worth spending time exploring this. How many writers write books for which they have no passion?

If you spend any time searching for writing tips online, you end up finding those kinds of articles. The ones that are trying to get you to game the system. Find a topic that is “selling.” Or better yet, find a topic that could sell, but nobody is writing about it. Good luck with that.

(I read an article about selling big on Amazon. He never talked about actually writing the book–he even claimed you can just hire someone to do that for you. Talk about the scum of the earth.)

The pervading wisdom, among those who care about selling above all, is to write something that will make you money. Heck, if that is your real goal, why bother writing at all? If you only care about making money, go find a way to earn passive income so you never have to work again.

(Trust me, there are plenty of those kinds of articles online, too.)

I’m not saying you shouldn’t want your book to be published. You should have a goal to finish your manuscript, improve it, and get it out there into the world. You’re writing for others to read it, yes? Then of course you need to have that in the back of your mind.

But if that is your primary goal, I don’t think you’ll stick it out long enough to finish a book. Yes, there are people out there who can churn out books on genres they have zero interest in. They are only looking at the bottom line, treating the entire process like an assembly line.

Are you willing to do that to sell something? Artists don’t really tick that way. Sure, we want money. And we should have a goal of producing something that people want to read and pay for the pleasure of doing so.

But you can’t make that your priority. You need to write about something you’re passionate about, otherwise, you’ll just quit.

Trust me, writing a book is not an easy task. You probably know lots of people who want to write a novel, but never have. They just say they need the “time.” Yeah, because it takes plenty of time to produce a book. Days, months, even years. Are you willing to sink that much time into something you are not excited about?

Let the publishing industry eat its own tail trying to chase trends. You, instead, must go write something people will care about. That’s something entirely different.

People will flock to read or watch something trendy. But they’ll forget it just as quickly. If you want your work to endure. If you want people talking about it, thinking about it, even arguing about it—then you need to care about it first.

After all, if you don’t care about it why should anyone else?

That’s what’s called writing “authentically.” And it’s harder than it sounds. Sure, you might love science fiction books. You might even have an intriguing idea for one. But can you cut through all the noise in your head to write own that’s authentically you?

Meaning, one that is coming from an authentic place within your heart and mind?

That, my friend, takes work. It has more to do than just outlining chapters and plot. It goes beyond all those tip articles you found. It takes real honesty about yourself and what you are writing.

I’m not talking psychology, there. I’m simply saying you need to write in such a way that your true ideas, unfiltered by fear, come out on the page. That takes time, work, and a willingness to revise.

Vonnegut understood this, but he was smart enough to say it in fewer words than me.

I AM HADES: Gaining Perspective through Outlining

For the last two weeks, I’ve been outlining my new project: “I Am Hades.” You can learn more about it in my earlier posts, but the goal is a fiction novel inspired by classic, superhero crime fighters. In order to make sure I don’t lose momentum—and I have a finished manuscript in a timely manner—I’ve decided to forego my usual sloppy approach. Instead of jumping into a story I know nothing about, I am trying to outline it first.

If you think that outlining your writing project is going to make it easier, I have news for you. The same hurdles you’ll face writing your story crop up during the outline. That’s because you’re faced with the same, nagging question: what the heck is this story about? You can be as energized and enthusiastic about your would-be best-selling novel all you want. But you still have to do the hard work of writing at some point.

And that requires a tremendous amount of your mental, creative energy. Working at 100%. For extended lengths of time. And that’s something most writers really don’t know how to do.

It’s a discipline. And, like all disciplines in this lazy, self-centered day and age, nobody knows how to do it. To produce a work of quality, you need more than talent. Chances are, you’re not as talented as you think. Sometimes, I think I’m talented. After all, I can churn out upwards of twelve news articles a day, for various clients. But is that because I’m just so freaking talented… or because I’ve been busting my butt every day for the last six years?

If you really want to produce a work of fiction, even a bad work of fiction, you have to perform this difficult task. That’s not to say outlining hasn’t been helpful. Perhaps only in this one area.

When writing a long work of fiction, it’s easy to lose perspective. What do I mean by that? When you’re 10 or 20 chapters deep in a book, you sometimes need to come up for air and get an overall sense of where the story is going. Where did we start? How’s the journey been so far? Are we getting close to where we set out for? Or has the story gotten derailed so much, that we’ve lost the original promise?

This is a common problem, at least for me. The story might not have lost the focus, but as a writer, you need to constantly ensure you’re still on track. That’s hard to do when you’ve written thousands of words and have no clue where you’re going next.

I’ve found that an outline can quickly help me regain perspective, to ensure my story is aligning with my original goal. Now, stories can often surprise you and go in a direction you didn’t plan. In a good way. But that kind of alchemy happens all on its own. You can’t predict it. So, you need to have a path to follow, when the story isn’t going its own way.

But I can’t say for certain that my outline for Hades is doing exactly what I want it to do. I am still struggling with that big question: what happens next? My hope was that an outline would make answering that much easier. It hasn’t. Writing, no matter your method, is always a struggle.

If it was anything otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth doing.

“How to Write With Style” Part 3

This post is part of a series called ‘The Writer’s Pool.’ I will be drawing from the wealth of knowledge from the world’s greatest writers to explore their advice, techniques, tools, and more.

We’re talking a look at one of Kurt Vonnegut’s best essays on writing. The celebrated author is breaking down style—the way your writing sounds. One of the biggest points he makes is that you must have something interesting to write about. And so he writes:

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

This might just be enough to discourage any would-be writers. As we talked about last time, how do you know if what you’re writing about is interesting? Interest and taste are subjective, so let’s look at it from another perspective.

How do you separate the “bad” ideas from the “good” ideas?

I once heard it said, “There’s no such thing as a bad story. It’s just how it’s told that matters.” Well, that doesn’t really help us, does it? We need to know if our idea is worth writing about. Will it hold a reader through a short story or exhaustingly long novel? Can it hold my attention, long enough to finish it?

We can’t predict how people will react to our writing. Not at first, at least. At the start, we are stuck with a certain kind of struggle. We just need to get something on paper. Worrying about what people think will only hamstring us. But we’re still left with this question: is my idea any good?

Forget the old, tired question of where do ideas come from? If you’re interested in writing, you’ve already answered that question. Ideas come from the driving passion you have to tell stories. The ideas come from you; or better put, that stuff that makes you, you. And, if you want to tell stories, you need to have a certain perspective.

You need to be always thinking about stories. Somewhere in the back of your mind, there is always a process going on, analyzing your environment. Little comments, images, questions, interactions are fodder for new ideas.

What you need to do is learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff. And it all boils down to passion.

That’s how Vonnegut answers this question.

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

Vonnegut believes the key to winning style is to write about something you care deeply about. At least, that’s the first key. I suppose this is the best way to decide if an idea is “good” or “bad.” For the sake of a fiction writer: is the idea so intriguing to you, so compelling, that you need to explore it? Does it nag at the back of your neck like a pinch, that you have to do something with it?

“Subject” in this sense can mean almost anything. In storytelling, it could be a character. Or a setting. Or a type of story. Or even a question. The “heart” of your story needs to be something that keeps you at your writing desk, day in and day out, until you finish the dang thing months (or even years) later.

Vonnegut says it doesn’t have to be a novel. Even a letter to you mayor about a pothole or “a love letter to the girl next door” will do. Anything that gets you writing, and writing authentically will work.

But what does it mean to write authentically? What’s the difference between writing from a place of true passion—and just writing because you think something will sell? I think we can explore this idea, next time.

I AM HADES: Outlining the book

Okay, so how do you outline a story? Last week, I wrote about how I wanted to write my own superhero story. At this point, it’s going to be a manuscript for a novel. Typically, superhero stories are comic books or graphic novels. But since I barely have enough hours in the day to do this, I figured I’d start with the words—which take considerably less time.

Normally, when I write a story I jump in feet first. It isn’t until I reach the unbearable middle of the story that I realize I need some planning. As a writer, it’s very attractive to just start with an idea, when the enthusiasm is high. But, sooner or later, the reality sets in. Writing is super hard. It’s work. It’s not as magical as those idiots in school claimed it was.

If you’re a writer, and if you’ve tried both methods of writing (outlining ahead of time like a Type-A lunatic or writing from the jump with no plans in sight), you hit the same challenges. I like to think outliners tricked themselves into thinking that, as long as they plan ahead, they won’t hit the block. But they do. Everyone does. That’s because coming up with an original story that connects with a reader is much easier said than done.

So, I wanted to show a little bit of my process, to dispel all the nonsense online. If you’ve ever looked for helpful solutions for writing online, you probably found endless articles that promise you the moon. If you only followed their “6 Easy Steps” or whatever, then you’d write a masterpiece every time. Not true. There are many hurdles you have to overcome, if you want to turn an idea into a story.

Outlining can help relieve some of your anxiety. But not all of it. While working on my new story, I realized that outlining can create a false sense of security. Sure, in a matter of days, I have over ten chapters of this book “done.” But that’s not true. I have a skeleton of ideas, strung together like a Halloween decoration. But do these ideas constitute a story? Am I spending enough time with the characters, getting inside their heads, really figuring out what this is all about?

There is a certain kind of alchemy that happens only when you’re writing. Ideas connect, synapses fire, and your story goes in directions you did not expect. I don’t think that happens as often when you’re outlining. It’s almost like cheating, getting the answers before the test.

That doesn’t mean outlining is for the birds. It means, even for someone devoted to writing their story before they write it, you have to be flexible enough to let the story change in unexpected ways as you draft it—even if that disrupts your precious outline.

What’s my progress?

So far, I have sixteen chapters outlined for I AM HADES, including a short prologue. By this time, I have reached the dreaded middle of the story—the longest part where the most happens, but is the hardest to work out. My setting has been more or less worked out, the protagonists and antagonists introduced. I have a few ideas for the main conflict and theme of the story. But there is still much more ground I need to cover, before we get to that satisfying ending.

One thing I did learn is the risk of rushing through with an outline, before letting things “marinate” in my head. What do I mean? I recommend most writers spend time thinking about their story, long before they write it. If you’re stuck, get away from your notebook, go for a walk, put on some music, and just let your imagination flow. Put yourself in that scene or setting that you’re stuck on and just see what happens.

This kind of brainstorming is necessary for building out your story. You did it before you started writing. You imagined a story in your head. So much so, you had to write it down. But, chances are, the story was long from finished. When you get to that unpaved road, you need to step away from the outline (or manuscript) and go back to brainstorming. I find that going for walks, while listening to music helps. Parts of my brain are distracted enough so my imagination can work.

I realized I needed to do this while outlining. My focus was so tightly knit on one aspect of the plot, I had neglected details needed for the story. Of course, those things could be put in as I write or rewrite. But sometimes, details need to be in there ahead of time, so that they can influence the rest of the story.

Ever wonder why stories sometimes don’t work? (Be they in a book, comic, or movie?) It’s because the writers moved too quickly, rushed out an outline or script, and never let their ideas “breath” in brainstorming. You can rewrite all day long. But, if you’ve ever finished a story and tried to rewrite, you’ll know that some things cement down very hard—and are impossible to lift up. By that I mean, there are things you put into your story early on that you can’t change. No amount of rewriting is going to fix it, short of starting all over again.

This isn’t my attempt at discouraging you from writing, but a warning sign before you cross that rickety bridge. Don’t rush ahead with your outline. Let it breathe. Take your time. Go for that walk. You’ll be happy you did.