Preptober: Going backwards

Wow. Don’t start the day looking for opinions about outlining your novel. There is a treasure trove of information and examples, but with each gem, there is so much dirt and grime. Where people fall in the “outline or no outline” debate reveals some passionate points about art and craft and work and what it means to be a “real” writer. It’s all just shouting at your allies while author factories and AI steal readers. So, like, support each other, okay?

The reason I went on that doomed quest was to find other ideas about outlining backwards, starting with the resolution, and working your way back to the opening image. While I was freewriting yesterday, I thought this may be a good option for another project not associated with The Forest Book. It seemed like a natural fit, as this book is a different genre and more plot focused. I liked the idea of figuring out the solution and devising an epic way to get there and then slowly work the buildup. In a way it almost seemed natural.

I also think that the only reason this is appealing to me is that I’ve done a character study on my major (and a few minor) characters. There are possible plot threads that have developed out of that. Without that deeper knowledge of my characters, I don’t think outlining backwards would work as well. I have a clear idea of where I want these people to end up, what has changed about them externally and internally, where they are in their lives and careers, etc. Since I’ve figured out their ending, I feel more confident starting from there and unraveling the path they took. I’m actually a little excited to try this out.

It’s important to note here that outlining backwards is not the same as the reverse outlining, though backwards and reverse are temperamental synonyms. The reverses outline is typically done when you have a draft and you outline what you’ve already written. This can be an enormous help when dealing with plot or organizational issues as you can get a clear map of where you’ve been. People who are adamant pantsers can gain a lot of insight by reverse outlining without having to admit that outlines are helpful. They do it after the discover, you see? Nothing wrong with that. The muse has spoken, I guess.

The outlining for The Forest Book will be straightforward. As I’ve been building out the story using the Snowflake Method, I am nearing the moment when I can start sketching out scenes. After working out each character’s motivation, I feel closer to them and more aware of their desires, but also, surprisingly, have left quite a lot of space for spontaneous growth. As I get to the scene-by-scene, hopefully by the end of next week, I’ll have created a solid structure with room for play. Preptober is shaping up to be a time of experimentation for me and I’m thrilled. Remember, different books demand different things and it’s up to you to give the story what it needs.

Happy writing.

Preptober: Where are we?

As I’m reading over my old outline, I realize that there’s quite a bit of traveling going on. Not Lord of the Rings level of travel, but definitely some down time spent in a cart, or on foot, or on some sort of traveling beast that I haven’t invented yet which is really just a weird horse. Place is important in my story and the movement from place to place is important as well. How you are because of where you’re from is fundamental to the human experience, just as the experience of being from many places, or no place at all. Whether we see a place a the root of our lives or the runway, there is a moment where that place imprints upon us its unique features. The language, the culture, the clime are influential to the individual and to the society groups of individuals build.

I made a map, years ago, and for now the map still holds. While the details of the places were important, at the time, their relationship to each other felt less so. However, as I uncover more and more about my characters, where they come from becomes clearer and how those places interact with each other will be central to the story. I feel like I’m dancing around a lot of things, trying to provide valuable information without giving too much away. It’s not that the story or its details need to be kept close, but there is that weird feeling that when I put an idea into the world, it sticks and I may not be able to change it later. It’s silly, I know, but there it is.

It’s no secret that when your working title for a book is called The Forest Book, the forest is going to play a critical role in your story. In my mind, this particular forest is a collage of places: the autumn crispness of a New England wood, the mossy draperies at the foot of Mr. Rainier, the dark recesses of the suburban copse, the last holdout against the invasion of brick and macadam. All of these forests make up this one and while botanically there may be issue with some of its characteristics, in a fantasy, the world is (mostly) mine to create. If I want velvety logs and crunchy undergrowth, then I’ll have it. But those scenes haven’t been written yet.

Travel is also important and while we don’t stay in the forest long, for at least one character, it travels with them. I think how that sense of place comes with us when we enter a new environment is interesting, like some invisible suitcase that we heft along, with only one sticker on the side that says “home.” We evoke where we’re from as we encounter a new culture or a new clime and can’t help comparing the two. For some, one is always better, depending on their love of the other. For those without the “home” sticker, perhaps every place is a potential home and embraced with the curiosity and joy that we should bring to everything. For a few, they’re just passing through, having seen so much they understand the underlying truth of the world: people are the same where ever you go.

I think, moving forward, and as a way to procrastinating doing the scene-by-scene part of my outline, I will do “Character” sheets for my places, giving them a personality, a history, and maybe some sort of goal. Even if that goal is merely to persist, each place has different means of doing so. The forest must seed itself.

  • Place Name:
  • Climate Characteristics:
  • Boundary Places:
  • Trade Routes, Partnerships:
  • Main Human Activity:
  • Main Environmental Activity:
  • Main Environmental Threat:

Preptober: Stream of villainy

This is a stream-of-consciousness post. When I went back to rewrite this for the blog, I thought, “why? This is how it is.”

I am ambivalent about my villain and that worries me. As I develop these character sheets, getting to know these people and finding out how their own goals and desires either parallel or conflict with the overall plot, I’m starting to find my villain wandering away from the pack. Part of the problem is [SPOILER] but that’s more of a plot difficulty than a character flaw. Or perhaps, the character trait is highlighting a plot flaw that I didn’t see before. Either way, my villain sucks right now.

One of the things I’m most concerned about is throwing too many bad traits at my character, like putting a big neon sign above their head saying “BAD PERSON RIGHT HERE! BAD BAD BAD!” This is something even celebrated writers tend to do from time to time. Make their villain truly evil. Murderer? Sure! Abuser? Bring it! Incestuous Bigot? Spicy! Honestly, the villain doesn’t have to come close to any of these aberrations to be the villain. Mainly, they just have to be on an oppositional path to your protagonist. I need my villain and hero to be zeroing in on the same target, from opposite directions, with similar motives, but opposing values.

Let me think about that again, because I’m onto something here (I’m just brainstorming right now – these are the raw logs friends):

Villain ===> GOAL <=== Hero
Villain = MOTIVES = Hero
Villain <X VALUES X> Hero

This diagram is either helpful or stupid.

My villain and hero should be mirrors of each other (to a certain extent). So similar motives, but differing values. 

  • The hero will steal an apple to feed himself and his family. 
  • The villain will kill the apple seller and take over his stall to feed himself and his family.

GOAL = Family is fed
MOTIVE = Family is hungry
VALUES = Theft vs. Murder

Interesting. The villain’s plan is obviously more successful – he feeds his family for more than a single apple, but causes more suffering. The hero causes little suffering but only solves the problem once.

This is the kind of writing that really works for brainstorming – the kind that gives me the sounding board I need without forcing a friend to sit across from me and not talk. I don’t have friends that can not talk.

So thanks, friends that don’t talk, you’ve been most helpful.

Preptober: Streakin’

Nanowrimo is a metonymy for the streak. It encapsulates the idea that small, incremental steps builds up to the completion of a monumental feat, all by focusing on a single day’s task. With the daily writing of 1,667 words over the course of the month, you fall into November with a finished or nearly finished manuscript of the novel you’ve always wanted to write.

With the increase in Nanowrimo participation and the rise of #authortube, Preptober has become the streak before the streak: A way for writers to work out their story via outline or freewriting, to collect all of the paraphernalia they need to begin the word-slinging marathon, and to practice creating some kind of content on a daily basis. Content creators produce a lot of helpful videos during this time as well, showing their own organizational methods, selling planners (which is fine, no dig here), motivating their viewers that they deserve to achieve their goals and that taking steps forward is what’s important.

While I wouldn’t call myself a content creator, I understand the importance of Preptober, and its dangers. I missed posting two days in a row. I wrote those days, worked on The Forest Book’s outline, worked on other projects. I wrote about 4,500 words in those two days. But I didn’t post here, and Nanowrimo is all about the streak. Keeping the streak alive helps assure success. 

Listening to Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing stream yielded the advice I needed. She has been examining different outlining methods on her Twitch channel and the recording of the Story Grid has the following piece of wisdom in relation to Nanowrimo (I’m paraphrasing): “If you miss a day of writing, make sure you write tomorrow.”

That’s it, that’s the tweet,” but it was what I needed to hear. I had already missed one day of writing and was on the way to missing yesterday as well. Yet, I promised I would write tomorrow and here I am. I have forgiven myself (hopefully on a path to not blaming myself in at all in the future) and picked right back up. And I feel really good writing this. No more “Sorry I haven’t Posted” posts -we’ve all written and read too many of those. This is a “let’s workshop this moment” post where we take the kindness and care we show others and turn in toward ourselves. It feels good, right? See?

I want this Nanowrimo to be the year I finally win and I want to win with this book. I’ve been carrying these people and their lives in my head for so long and during this outlining process, I’ve been amazed at what I’ve “discovered” about them. It’s also given me a chance to be experimental and to take my plot somewhere new. Keep the streak alive, but not at the expense of your self-esteem. Sometimes we stop for a day or two. Sometimes life makes us stop. But no matter what, keep facing toward your goal, so that when you start again, you can see your target clearly. 

(Note: I’m writing this in 4thwords and have been able to keep my streak going there for two weeks. It’s been a big help and I’m hoping to keep it going until the end of the year and beyond.)

Preptober: Who are these people?

I am almost giddy to admit I was not just wrong, but willfully wrong, because I think not knowing my characters was the reason I’d always stopped those stories.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that I discovered how thin my characters were as I started to build them out. I have always thought that those character building sheets — you know the ones that make you think about your character’s eye color, or their birthday, or their favorite childhood memory — were not really useful. As I ;listened to publishing writers extol their virtues, I sat there without a completed manuscript thinking it would be a waste of time. While I read chapters in craft books written by successful authors, talking about the importance of knowing your character, I shook my head, looked at my unfinished story files and thought it wasn’t for me.

I am almost giddy to admit I was not just wrong, but willfully wrong, because I think not knowing my characters was the reason I’d always stopped writing those stories. I was asking my characters to tell me what to do and, well, sometimes they got stubborn. And when they got stubborn, I quit. I quit because I didn’t have something to draw on, a catalog of experience to fuel future actions. I was creating my character at the same I was making them take action, and when the action became more serious, they faltered and I got bored.

But they didn’t falter. While its possible to create a character side-by-side with their circumstances, that doesn’t give you time for a lot of depth, and that’s where the trouble happens (at least for me). I’ve nothing to draw on and I’m constantly asking my character to make things up as they go along. That’s actually my job, not theirs. Their job is to give the illusion they’ve existed before stepping onto page one.

And the biggest issue is that there is no growth. There character never has that initial moment of stasis where they are a full person. They may be naive, young, complacent, bored, annoyed, captured, evil, lost in that opening moment, but they should still be a fully formed person on page one. Then the growth begins. Shadows don’t have arcs, characters do.

Only when I went back to answer questions about what motivated my characters, what they wanted and what they’d do to get it, only then did I feel like I could tell their story. And, I’m afraid, that story may have changed.

People, real or not, will always surprise you.

Preptober: The first stories

The essence of the story, the transformative nature remains, even as the vestments of the tale are updated and altered.

Terri Windling over at Myth & Moor reminded me of something important today by sharing a quote from Walter Benjamin:

The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. 

I remember reading a lot of Benjamin in my college days and after Windling’s post, I was reminded of the necessary essence of a story: to transport the listener or reader. The storyteller’s responsibility is to convey meaning, emotion, adventure through the lens of narration, to transplant the images from their head into others. An infinite amount of connections are formed, some spinning out from the original story, then from those that recite, rework, and retell the tale. The essence of the story, the transformative nature remains, even as the vestments of the tale are updated and altered.

As I build out the fractal outline that will be my own story, I can see the patterns that are repeating, reflections of stories I’ve lived and loved and people I’ve encountered. I am discovering the thinness of my characters from the original outline and clothing them, adding the heft of experience, trauma, delight, and charm. Previously, while I was world building, I concentrated on the realm in which they’d inhabit forgetting completely about the interior lives that drive the choices we make in that realm.

These fairy stories have a magic that shapes both worlds. I’d be a better writer to pull from that well.

Preptober: Who you calling a snowflake?

I think what happens when outlining and worldbuilding is that we get lost in the majesty of it all. We want to walk around our created world like chroniclers, archiving all the things that make this place unique, even if it can only be a mirror of our own world, and saving it for posterity.

I mentioned the Snowflake Method of outlining in yesterday’s post, as an example of what I’m trying to do backwards, but I the idea stuck in my head and I decided to give it a whirl this morning. Could I distill my story down to a single sentence of 15 or fewer words. I wasn’t easy and I struggled with adjectives and prepositional phrases, but I think I finally got the soul of the story:

Grief turns to vengeance when a girl discovers the hidden magic of her world.

That’s it. And while so much of this story (a more honest take would be “so much of this world”) is in my head already, I feel like this sentence concisely hits the single thing I’m looking to say. Let’s break it down:

  • Grief: suggests a trauma that takes place either right before the book starts or in its first scenes.
  • Turns to: a transition, something shifts her perspective from internal to external, though her emotions are still self-centered (objectively)
  • Vengeance: a call back to the incident that wasn’t just traumatic but deeply personal and unwarranted, a call to justice
  • Discovers: it will be an important distinction if she discovers this through active or passive means
  • The hidden magic: “hidden” does some work here by suggesting either something that is purposefully suppressed, unknown for other reasons, or lost to time
  • Of her world: When you are working with a narrative with a central actor, their eventual change in worldview is catalyze externally.

She needs to see that her world is fundamentally no what she thought it was. (Conversely, I think, with what Sarra Cannon calls the Episodic series character in her How to Write a Series videos, the main character changes little over the course of many stories, but it is their existing worldview that draws the reader in.)

I think what happens when outlining and worldbuilding is that we get lost in the majesty of it all. We want to walk around our created world like chroniclers, archiving all the things that make this place unique, even if it can only be a mirror of our own world, and saving it for posterity. Using this method on The Forest Book has given me a single idea to remind me what my story is really about, like a beacon for when I get lost in the wilderness. There is so much I’ve already built but won’t necessarily need to tell this first story, and that’s okay. 

I’ve moved on to step two of the method and built out the story premise into a paragraph, with one sentence for each the introduction and conclusion and three major disastrous plot points for the story. At this point it’s harder to keep my action down to a single sentence and, I will admit, that I’ve snuck in a short sentence here or there for clarity (for who, I don’t know), but I think this helps me build up from that singular idea. I won’t be sharing that with you – spoilers. 🙂

Tomorrow I’ll move on to the next steps and work on building up my characters. I already know so much about them, but perhaps I only know them at the surface level. It’s time for some deep conversations and I’m excited to see what turns up.

Preptober: Boiling down to the bones

I’ve decided to switch metaphors. I’ve started revising my massive outline for The Forest Book and thought of it like making soup stock. Whether you prefer chicken or vegatable, a certain amount of boiling has to be done to pull the essence out of the stock elements. Boiling it to the bone – even for the vegetable, since your celery has ribs, sort of – is a way of distilling down this cluster of ideas into a useable story.

It’s a little like a reverse of the Snowflake Method, where instead of building up from a single sentence, I’m melting it all down into the elements necessary to the story. The goal is for me to have a single sentence per scene for my working outline going into Nanowrimo and allowing the description, dialogue, world building elements to exist as reference. The bits I strain out of the stock are still useable in the final product, just not as the final product.

It’s possible my soup metaphor got twisted in a way that would make you wary of eating supper at my house. That’s find. Let’s order pizza.

I feel like ultimately this will give me tighter prose and a narrative that isn’t trying to fit in all the various whims I’ve had letting this story simmer in my brain for decades. I feel like I’m covering things I’ve said yesterday, and my apologies for being a bit repetitive, but there are some realizations that take multiple rounds. Your first soup ain’t great, but it’s a start.

Question! I was wondering if there is already an established procedure or hashtag for people wanting to share snippets of their writing each day during Nano. I haven’t searched the forums yet, and I can always post it here in a separate category, but I’d like to be part of a larger community. If you’re aware of something like this, please let me know. Thanks!

Preptober: Blame the Cat

It’s day 5 of October and I still haven’t started reworking the outline. I am so intimidated by past me and what I already wrote that I feel like I am disassembling a structure piece by piece. This is like the world’s worst Jenga game.

That’s overdramatic, and I think the real issue is that I’m afraid that in all of those pages and in all of that outline and all of that work I’ve already done, that I don’t actually have a story. I’m afraid that my memory of this world, my memory of these characters, is much better than the reality. I’m terrified to go back and see that “past-me” used a lot of words to say very little. 

It’s day 5 of October and if I’m facing an entire rewrite of an outline then I should start earlier than later. If I’m going to have to wrestle with my past self and discover that what I had was just an idea, a thought, a setting, a dream,  the best time to start making it real would have been on day 1 of October.

My cat is sitting on my desk, laying on my mouse, smacking me in the arm with his tail. Either he wants me to work on the outline or he wants me to pet his head. Either way, he’s being a real jerk right now. Perhaps I can blame this procrastination on the cat. He’s certainly the reason for this shorter, more informal post being dictated by me since I can’t actually type.

But needs must and we soldier on. Time to see if “past-me” created a solid foundation or spun clouds. 

Preptober: Outline Renovation

Preptober: So outlining, instead of inspired creation, is going to be more of a renovation.

If I were staring at a blank page with a new outline that I had to create, this would be a very different blog post. But I’m looking at a notebook filled with multiple pages of handwritten notes, scrawls, scribbles, pieces of digital artwork, and old outlines. I’m looking at folders that contain text from, I don’t know how many years ago. When it comes to the story, there’s so much world building that has been done already, so much discovery, that a part of me wants to just destroy it all and start anew.

But I like what I have built so far. There’s a lot here and I really enjoy the magic system which I’m looking forward to using. So outlining, instead of inspired creation, is going to be more of a renovation, where I take what I think are pretty good first steps and rework it into an outline that will scaffold not just The Forest Book, but the foundation an entire series.

I’ve watched Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on worldbuilding and they have proven invaluable. I particularly enjoy the image of the iceberg, of how much worldbuilding you must do in order to write, and how much is really there in the imagination of the reader. I think that the key to writing a good fantasy is knowing when to stop worldbuilding and start writing. That’s the key to any fantasy, really. One that is finally read.

But worldbuilding is coming up later in this Preptober blog series and right now we’re just talking about the outline. The outline for me is all about plot, and I’m looking at about 40 scenes already sketched out. Some of them even have bits of dialogue or full conversations, paragraphs of descriptions. One of the things I don’t have is a good name for one of the major characters. That’s something I’ll be working on this month, and I’ll probably discuss it more here.

The most important thing is to get the story out there, to get the characters outside of my head and into a place where people can read them. I want others to enjoy their adventures and maybe somebody else can fall in love with them the way I have.

That’s what this blog series is about. And in this particular post, for a few moments I could procrastinate before diving into that wad of written material. Some places I need a sledgehammer, other places a utility knife. Either way, let’s flip this outline!