Writing advice

To Outline or Not

Do you outline before you write?

Many people do and even more teachers recommend them. I know the composition teachers I had in high school and college all advocated writing a detailed outline of your work before you ever sat down to create a first draft. For many, it was a required step you had to submit just as, but before, you submitted a first draft and a final draft. It was considered an integral part of the writing process. And there are good reasons for that. Outlines can be extremely useful.

Outlines can keep you organized

With an outline, your work can move efficiently from point a to point b to point c, without useless and time-consuming tangents.

Outlines can help you create and maintain good story structure

In the same way that outlines heighten organization in a nonfiction work, it can keep a fictional piece focused and on track. The outline keeps you from spending too much time in the first half and not enough presenting your climax.

Outlines keep you on course

Working from a good outline removes the awful question “what’s next?” from your writing day. With the outline in place, you already know what’s going to happen next. You may even have a few lines sketched in. All you have to do is write it.

Outlines can increase efficiency

Many problems that arise in the writing process rises from the writer taking a wrong turn plot-wise. This has happened to me fairly often. Usually, I first realize I took a wrong turn when the ideas begin to run dry and the writing grows more difficult, the results more stilted. That usually means I need to backtrack, figure out where the wrong turn lies, and correct the mistake.

A good outline will avoid that problem.

Yet I, personally, do not work from an outline. This despite all the real good reasons I listed above to use one. Why?

Simply put, it doesn’t feel right.

Someone once said that there are two types of writers: architects and gardeners. The architect, just like her namesake knows where every little electrical wire and pipe is going to go before they begin building. To do otherwise, to their way of thinking, is just inviting disaster. The gardener, on the other hand, plants a seed, waters and fertilizes it, then sees what grows.

I am a gardener.

I begin with a couple of characters and a situation and a general idea of an ending (sometimes so general that it is just that the “good guys” win). Then I begin writing and see where it goes. Sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere, but that usually shows pretty quickly.

I find it makes the writing as interesting for me as I hope it is for the reader, because I usually don’t know where it’s going ahead of time either. I am often as surprised by plot twists as the readers because I hadn’t thought of them until they present themselves.

Granted, writing by the seat of your pants can be much less efficient. I go off on many wrong turns, but I realize it fairly quickly. I also end up overwriting quite a bit, but that is dealt with in re-write.

If anything, I find outlines most valuable in the re-writing and revision phase. I make the outline from the completed first draft and adjust the narrative accordingly.

So should you use an outline in your writing? Absolutely, if you find it helps. But don’t worry that you are doing anything wrong if you don’t. Despite what all your composition instructors seemed to tell you, there is no one correct way to write. Every writer is different. Every person who creates, creates through a different process.

Try everything. Find the method that makes you feel the most comfortable, most creative, and use it. And don’t let anyone ever convince you you’re doing it wrong.

Writing advice

Writer’s Tool Kit: The Dream Journal

I am a firm believer that, as writers, we owe our best, most powerful images to the powers of our sub-conscious. It is the sub-conscious that links all humans. It is the sub-conscious that informs empathy and the compassion that allows humans to deeply imagine the experiences of our fellow beings. The human sub-conscious powers everything.

It is the free, unhindered (and unedited) flow of subconscious ideas that we writers are seeking when we talk of trying to enter “the zone.”

I also believe creative people, it doesn’t matter what medium they work in, are much more in touch with their subconscious than the average Joe on the street. That does not mean accessing the subconscious is easy for creative people. It just means it’s easier. Why? Because they practice it.

If you are fairly new at this though, and would like an easier manner to tap into the creative power of the subconscious, there is a way that’s available to everyone, but is often ignored. Our night time dreams.

Everyone dreams. It is an established scientific fact. Dreams are how the tangled mass of neurons we call our brains process and manage all the sensory data we’ve gathered over our busy day. If a person is somehow prevented from dreaming, she begins to develop psychological problems. Dreaming is necessary. You dream. I dream. Babies dream. Even dogs and cats dream.

Many ancient societies (and some modern ones) believe the dream world and the spirit world are one and the same thing. They believe that the dream state is the one and only time the average person can leave the physical world and experience existence as a solely spiritual being.

But some people have trouble remembering their dreams. Some cannot remember dreaming at all. Even the best of us have trouble remembering much about a dream within a few minutes of waking. The colors fade first, then the emotions. Soon, if we remember the dream at all, it’s a bare sketch of the actual event.

The way to defeat this tendency (or one simple way) is to keep a dream journal. What is a dream journal? Exactly what it sounds like. It’s a notebook of some sort you keep beside your bed along with a pen or pencil. As soon as you wake, while the dream is still fresh, you write down significant details and images from the dream. Maybe you’ll use this. Maybe you won’t. One thing is for certain though, if you don’t remember your dreams, you certainly won’t use any of those images in your writing.

Admittedly, I don’t myself use a dream journal at this point, though I am fortunate in that I do remember my dreams fairly regularly. In fact, one of my short stories “The Fish” came to me pretty much intact in a dream. I got up the next day and just wrote it down, embellishing as my instinct told me to.

But, if you have trouble remembering your dreams, a dream journal can be a valuable tool to overcome that. And, just possibly, as a bonus you might learn an extra something about yourself in the patterns of your dreams.

So why not give it a try?

It could prove to be a dream come true.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

7 Things School Didn’t Teach About Creativity

Since anything we do or want to do with our writing and our lives as writers all begins with one common thing, creativity, I thought we could take a look at the subject. So with some help from Michael Michalko, I present Seven Things School Didn’t Teach You About Creativity.

Everyone is born creative.

The only difference between people who are creative and those who are not is simple belief. Creative people believe they are creative. People who believe they are not creative are not. It really is that simple.

Creativity is work.

It is not easy to be creative. If it was, everyone would be doing it. You must possess passion and the determination to practice and learn the process of creating. Then you must have the patience and strength to continue in the face of adversity.

You must practice creativity to be creative.

Like almost any ability in this life, if you don’t use your creativity you will lose it. Moreover, when you create new ideas, you are exercising the creative parts of your brain, which leads to more and better ideas. If you want to become a musician, for example, and you play your instrument every day without fail, you will become a musician. You may not be a great one, but you will be a musician.

There are no bad ideas.

This is a difficult concept for many people. How can you say there are no bad ideas? What about genocide? How about murdering your wife for the life insurance? Yes, those ideas are immoral, illegal, and even repugnant, but they are not in and of themselves good or bad. They may be invalid, or counter-productive, but they aren’t bad. They’re just ideas. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship of ideas. Think of all ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can. Only then do you sit down and decide which ideas will work best.

Expect the experts to be negative.

The more expert and established a person becomes, not matter what field it is, the more fixed they become on validating their ideas. It’s human nature. You’ve spent your career championing a particular set of beliefs and opinions. When someone new comes along and challenges those ideas, you’re probably going to move heaven and earth to prove them wrong. As a creative person, you should be expecting these attacks and prepared to deal graciously with them. (It means you’re succeeding).

Trust your instincts.

This is related to the previous statement. You cannot allow yourself to become discouraged in the face of rejection or criticism. Of course, this is very easy to say and quite difficult to do. Surround yourself with friends and family who believe in you and your abilities. That will help. But most of all, you need to believe in yourself. Of all the people in this world, you have to be your own most dedicated fan.

There is no such thing as failure.

There’s a story out there that someone asked Ernest Hemingway if he did writing exercises. He replied that no, he didn’t do exercises. He wrote stories that didn’t work.

Hemingway had it right. Whenever you try to do something that doesn’t succeed, you have not failed. You have learned something that does not work. If you can, figure out why it didn’t work and come up with a different way of approaching the problem. If we learn from everything we do—even if it is just establishing what doesn’t work—we never really fail. We just take another step toward our overall success.


Return of the Muse

It happened, as I knew it would, sooner or later. It always does. My writer’s block lifted (for no particular reason I can come up with) and my creativity has come rushing back to fill the void. It was nice. It felt good to get my groove back, if you know what I mean.

I never really doubted it would return. It always has before, after all. I didn’t believe I would never again be able to write a piece of creative fiction. The question was only whether I would be patient enough to let it return.

Creativity can be like a romantic interest: you have to let it go sometimes. If it was truly yours, it will come back to you. If it doesn’t return, it was never yours to begin with.

In other words, don’t press too hard.

Dealing with my occasional bouts of writer’s block (about two relatively serious ones a year, give or take) has given me plenty of time to think about this whole concept of creativity, especially when it comes to the creative arts. (There are all sorts of other manners of creativity, but I’m not talking about creative accounting here).

So where does creativity come from? Why do I write short stories and novels, but my neighbor not only doesn’t, but can’t? I’d like to think I’m special, but I’m really not out of the ordinary. I’d hardly cause anyone to think twice if they passed me on the street. But I do write stories, poetry, and novels. Why?

Because I have to. It’s what I do.

That doesn’t mean I know where the creativity comes from. I just know how it feels when it works right. So do other creative types. I’ve heard people talk about being “in the zone” when the story seems to “write itself.” Others have described it as though there were a vast flowing stream of story running invisible through the ether; they were just tapping into the stream. Still others—this includes myself at times—describe the process as if the story existed somewhere “out there” and we were just the medium it used to gain form. We were channeling basically.

It all sounds kind of mystical, doesn’t it? As though we creators were merely the pawns of some power greater than mere mortals. Doesn’t it? In other words, we the creators of art, whether it is fiction and poetry, paintings, sculpture, music, or any other type of artistic endeavor, really have no idea how the creativity works, or where it comes from. It just is.

All the workshops in the world, all the writing manuals and guides, all the how-to’s are very good at teaching us how to harness our creativity. They help us train that creativity to do what we want. (Kind of.) Some of them are very good at this, very helpful.

But there are no books or workshops, no classes that can truly teach a non-creative person to become creative. You pretty much either have it, or you don’t.

So is it any wonder that the ancient Greeks (a fairly creative people, by the way) came up with deities to explain where the creativity came from? Ever since (for some 2500 years) we have written, painted, and composed at the whim of the Muses. And isn’t the concept of a Muse pretty much the same thing as tapping into an invisible stream of story flowing unnoticed through the ether? Either way, it is an ability that we find largely out of our control. It’s somewhere out there. If we are worthy, or lucky, it will continue to bestow its blessings on us.

Whatever, the origins, when I get into “the zone” and it seems less like I’m writing the story than just channeling it from somewhere else, the feeling is amazing. Indescribable. Unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. And for that I am grateful.

Perhaps, in the end, that is all we need. To be grateful.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

The Runaway Character

As I have mentioned before, I have been meandering through a book entitled The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack Bickham. Sometimes I like to refresh my memory about certain points and occasionally I will learn something I hadn’t thought of before or haven’t considered in the manner the author suggests. I heartily recommend reading any such book you can find.

I’ve read most of Mr. Bickham’s book with interest and curiosity. Then I arrived at a passage in Chapter 25, “Don’t Wander Around in a Fog…”

“…the problem beginning writers sometimes have when they speak of how ‘My characters just took over the story and went their own way.’

“…did you ever stop to think how strange such a statement is? How can your characters take over your story or anything else? They are not real. You made them up. They exist only in your head. And you are the author. You are the one in charge!

“Part of your job as a writer is to control, discipline, and channel your imagination—not passively let it freewheel like a runaway truck…

“…Characters taking over, new ‘inspirations’ coming out of left field, and all the other good stuff amateurs imagine is a part of writing are all results of imperfect technique, laziness, poor planning, or lack of understanding of basic writing principles.”

Though I agree with much of the advice Mr. Bickham gives throughout the book and have the utmost respect for him, on this issue I must disagree.

Yes, the characters in our fiction are not real people. Yes, we authors made each and every one of them up. They are products of our imagination. Mr. Bickham is absolutely correct, but, if I’m reading him right, he seems to think fictional characters are puppets we manipulate to fit the necessities of our plot.

I think it is much more complicated than that.

Much of what makes good fiction work is the realistic depiction of character. No, they are not real people; they are the author’s realistic illusion of real people. Like real people, they are dynamic, act and react to their world based on their understanding of that world and what they want from life. And like real people, any part of that formula can change at any time. It can often change without much warning.

Part of the process of writing fiction, particularly longer works, but short stories too, is getting to know our characters. As we depict them in various situations and facing various challenges, our knowledge of their character grows. Sometimes, this knowledge of our characters means our original plan for the story needs to change. It can be a minor issue, or it could be a major plot point, but something in the nature of the character we’ve created has made our original plot outline no longer valid.

Forcing our characters into doing our something just because our plot demands it, risks turning them into cardboard cut-outs, what the critics call two dimensional characters.

In the novel I just finished, for example, I have two of the main characters, a man and woman, eating dinner in a scene toward the end of the story. The climax is behind them, the male character’s romance with his girlfriend is on life support and the woman is romantically interested in the man. I worked the conversation in that scene over and over, trying to find a way for her to tell the man that should he and his girlfriend not work things out, she was available, but couldn’t do it. I couldn’t have her just blurt it out. Her character just wasn’t that blunt; it would have been out of character. And the flow of the conversation never went in a direction that allowed her to work it in. Much as I tried–and I tried–I couldn’t bring it into the scene without it obviously reading like the author wanting to tie up a loose end.

So I left her interest as veiled hints and hope the reader picks up on them.

According to Mr. Bickham, they were my characters, my story, I should have made her state her availability.

Suppose you a writing a romance story. A lovely nurse trying to win the love of the hot young doctor. The story progresses with the usual ups and downs, but you feel it needs more conflict, so you introduce a new nurse as a rival. You raise the stakes for your heroine. Now the rival turns out to be a devious, back-stabbing witch. A real bad guy. But your heroine is no pushover, she begins to fight back. Your original, fairly pedestrian story of a nurse trying to win the man of her dreams, now becomes a different story, one that concentrates more on the battle between the two nurses, than on the love story.

Your characters can reveal what might actually be a better story than the one you initially set out to write.

Again, Mr. Bickham seems to call this amateur, lazy writing. His opinion is that you should work all this out before you begin to write, in an outline of sorts, then be disciplined enough to stick to the outline. Anything else is letting your imagination run wild.

I say let your imagine run wild. There are millions of possible directions a story can move, let your imagination examine them all, then decide which one feels right for you and the story you’re telling. There is no better way to surprise and delight the reader than by surprising and delighting yourself as you write.

My advice is to write in whatever manner feels comfortable to you. Use an outline if that helps keep you from wandering off on some tangent, but the outline should be a guide only. It might be the quickest path between the beginning and your envisioned end, but it isn’t necessarily the only path, or the most interesting one.

Perhaps, as your story unfolds and you grow to know your characters, you’ll find that the destination you had in mind isn’t even the right one for this story.