Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Outlining vs. Winging It


After 40-plus years of writing books I realize I make an outline for non-fiction and pretty much wing it for fiction.

That’s because there’s little or no room for surprises in non-fiction so the research and outline matter. A lot.

But with fiction . . . For me, there’s far less chance of an entertaining story if I’m locked into a “Section I, Subsection 1, Sub-subsection A” approach. One of the great joys of novel writing is having a character suddenly say or do something you had no idea he or she was going to say or do.

(Yes, that sounds crazy. And, yes, a lot of novelists report it happening. And really liking it.)

I suppose for non-fiction it’s rely on a GPS or use a map or ask someone for specific directions.

For fiction, it’s . . . road trip!


When a Character Refuses to Obey You
This may not have happened to you yet but I wanted to put it near the beginning of this book so that you’ll recognize it when it does happen. If it happens. Don’t be frightened but there may come a time when one of your characters—even a reliable one, one you really like—will say or do something on his or her own. 
It’s . . . aliiiiiiive!
I’ll give an example. In my novel Pope Bob, two recovering alcoholic priests are talking about how their drinking influenced their lives and their ministry. The older of the two, the one who’s helping the younger, says: 
“During that particular blackout, I missed my mother’s rosary on Tuesday night and funeral on Wednesday morning. I was to be the celebrant. I was going to say the Mass. One of my sisters never forgave me and I never held that against her. She was right. Three years later she was killed in an automobile accident and hadn’t set foot in a church since Mom’s funeral. Wanted nothing to do with a religion that had a priest like me. And still I drank.” 
I, the author and creator of that character, was astounded! I had, and have, no idea where that came from. Yes, it came from me but . . . . What he shared was so sad! There’s been nothing in my life like that. Nothing I recall reading about that’s similar to it.
But there it was. 
In some ways, writing a novel is nothing more, and nothing less, than putting some people into a situation and watching them try to get out of it. And eavesdropping on them as they do it.

More on “outline or not?” at NY Book Editors here.

(Did Charles Dickens really say “stinking outline”? Well, no. The quote, about a play, is: “I am quite satisfied that nobody can have heard what I mean to do with the different characters in the end, inasmuch as at present I don’t quite know, myself.”)

Just keep writing.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

BIG can be a BIG mistake

Some advice from Little Willie Sockspeare:

Writing a piece to demonstrate your knowledge of a huge and impressive vocabulary is easy. You simply pen: “These are big words that I know: . . .” And then go on to list them.
If, however, your goal is to tell a story well, then you would be smart to avoid letting that huge and impressive vocabulary get in the way of telling the story in a way that your readers can understand it. So that they can even enjoy it without tripping over those impressive words.
I’m not saying to dumb down your work.
I am saying don’t choose a word in some sad attempt to prove how bright you are.
And, naturally, keep your reader in mind. If your piece is for children in middle school don’t use all the more advanced vocabulary words that you might use for a novel directed at adults. This seems obvious, doesn’t it?
So then . . .
Eschew obfuscatory verbiage!

Little Willie is right.

Just keep writing!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

RIP: Two Good Writers, Two Very Different Styles

I think the last time I had felt a personal twinge at the passing of a writer was Robert B. Parker’s death. He had a Ph.D. but didn’t let it get in the way of his writing dozens of fast-paced, entertaining detective novels

I truly liked his writing style. And, I suspect, stole some of it as best I could.

Then, earlier this month, another twinge with the news that Pat Conroy had died. I suppose I felt a kinship with him because of The Lords of Discipline. I’m a sucker for a story about a boarding school, having lived in one from age fourteen through nineteen.

(Or as some classmates now point out, survived one. Truth is it was a good choice for me. One I’m very glad I made.)

Conroy’s style was far different from what I usually enjoy reading and it’s one I never tried to follow. I use a pretty sparse style when it comes to description. I think I’d do a whole book in dialogue if I could get away with it.

(Uh, isn’t that called a “play”?)

Both writers had really well-developed characters and memorable scenes. And those characters and scenes always moved the story on its way (forwarded the plot). They weren’t there just to be there or to show the readers “ooh, look what I can do with words!”

That can be a temptation and it can easily get in the way of telling a good story.

Of you telling your good story.


Just keep writing.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Novels & Dogs

Lovely advice from Canadian novelist Michael Winter except . . .

Walk a dog.

That would be a deal-breaker.

We are not a dog (or cat) person. (What? You could already tell that because I . . .?)


This from the Q. and A. article:

"As a student it's hard to make the time to write. I find that I have to capture bursts of creativity and inspiration as they come, but it's not a very effective approach in trying to compile a body of work. How can I find opportunities to write and hone in on my craft?" - Michelle, Brampton
Throw away your television, disable your laptop's Wi-Fi and go to bed earlier and get up earlier and write. Drink less alcohol. Party less. Find a dog you can walk and write down what you see on your walk. But best is to write before you do anything else in your day. Write when no one else is up. Preferably in the morning. You'll feel superior all day. Also, you'll feel like you're a writer. Much better to do this than wait all day and be grumpy that you haven't written and then trying to write when you're tired at two in the morning. That's doomed to failure and also your friends and family will think you're just a lousy human being. I say that because I've been there, been called a lousy human being. It hurts. No, best to get up with the sun rising and write. Walk a dog. It's hard, just as it's hard to throw yourself into cold water and swim. But once you're in the water, it's the most wonderful feeling on earth. So, write in the morning!

The whole interview is here.

Just keep writing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Creative Writing’s Holy Trinity: Walk, Coffee, Window

I came across a writing app that gave me the heebie-jeebies. Don’t keep pounding on the keyboard and everything you’ve written in that session . . . poof. Is gone.

This, obviously, violates creative writing’s holy trinity: Go for a walk, drink some coffee, stare out the window. Those can be applied in any order at any time in the writing process. And repeated often.

Yes, you have to “keep writing” to get your book done but I have my doubts that “creativity by the clock” will give you good results. (And if your work went poof because you had to take a pottie break . . . .)

Note to those in the U.K. and India: You can substitute tea for coffee.


Just keep writing.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Sit Down, Shut Up, and Write

The chair on which ("on which" -- ooh, grammar!) JK Rowling wrote the first two Harry Potter books is up for auction next week. Should sell for a ton of money but here's the good news. It's not magical. Your chair works just fine for you writing your novel.

Just sit in it (the chair).

And write it (the novel).

There are no shortcuts. Heaven knows I've looked.

Just keep writing.