Writing Homework #12: Try a New Outlining Method

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Since I’m trying to wrangle my plot bunnies and choose which one gets fed during NaNoWriMo this year, and I’ve got seven to choose from, I thought this would be a great time to investigate different ways to outline. I’ve already tried a few throughout my years of writing, with wildly varying degrees of success, but I got it in my head to try as many as I can now, while I have all these ideas to cultivate.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to take a story idea you have an try out a new-to-you method of outlining it. I’ve assembled several ideas, but there are certainly more methods out there.

#1 – Standard (Research Paper) Outline

Just like the ones back in school, this is your Roman-numeral, descending outline. Straightforward, especially if you’re already familiar with it from a thousand sheets of class notes or research papers–just change the sections from Introduction, Thesis, etc. to Act I, II, II (for the three-act structure) and make the subdivisions into chapters; or if that’s too rigid, use the sections for the major plot points you want to occur, the subdivisions for scene details, and figure out the chapter divisions as you write.

#2 – The Synopsis

Take a sheet of paper (or a blank document) and write out in simple action sentences the plot of your novel. This one’s quite flexible; it doesn’t need to be as formal as writing a synopsis for publishing agents, though it still shouldn’t go into great detail at this stage. Include notes for character motivation or settings where you already have ideas, but in truth, this is the bare-bones summary of what happens in your story.

#3 – The Snowflake Method

If the Synopsis is a quick-and-dirty approach, the Snowflake Method is its fractal cousin. Its creator explains it in more detail than I can–but briefly, you start with one sentence describing your entire premise, then expand that into a handful of sentences detailing the major plot points, then expand that into paragraphs with the first details of how and who and why, and so forth.

#4 – The Headlight/Flashlight Method

Useful for us pantsers who have a character already in mind or know how the story starts, this method (which I’ve seen frequently under both names) is a brainstorm-as-you-go plan, where you take what you already have and only plan a few chapters in advance. At each major decision point, you can explore as many new ideas for how to proceed as you want before committing to writing the next few chapters. By its nature, this method isn’t as strong for a situation like NaNoWriMo when you might want all your planning done ahead of time, but it certainly appeals to me!

#5 – The Zero/Discovery Draft

An anything-goes race from start to finish, written with more depth but less precision than a synopsis; the kitchen sink of outlines, where everything from detailed character descriptions to snippets of dialogue to [insert fight scene here] is acceptable. Author Leigh Bardugo describes her process for one of my favorite YA novels Six of Crows as “I write a skeleton and then put meat on its bones.”

#6 – Mind Maps

A visual, non-linear outlining method that I have no experience with myself, so I’ll point you here for a comprehensive breakdown. It seems a little intimidating to me, as I’ve never attempted anything like it–but that means I probably should, right?

#7 – Note Cards/Sticky Notes

Another visual method with the bonus of being rearrangeable, for stories without firm timelines at the outset. Depending on your planning style and level of abstraction, each note card can be a scene, a chapter, or a simple major plot point if you’re in the early stages. You may end up using the note cards to build a more classic outline in the end, but for strongly visual thinkers, it might be an easier way to get there.

I hope this has given you some ideas for the care and development of your plot bunnies–good luck!


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Vocabulary From Books, #1

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Last year, I created a Writing Homework assignment charging you to look up the words you don’t know as you’re reading.

I’ve been keeping a vocabulary journal for the whole year, and while it goes through fallow periods when I’m reading books that don’t drop the ten-dollar words, it has been growing.

Time to share some of the entries and their sources!

He used to present copies of this otiose chronicle to his business associates, who must have been surprised, though perhaps not.

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

otiose: 1) being at leisure, idle, indolent; 2) ineffective or futile; 3) superfluous or useless

Every family had a few skeletons in their cupboards, but the Vanger family had an entire gallimaufry of them.

Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

gallimaufry: a confused jumble or medley of things

The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions.

Stephen King, The Gunslinger

apotheosis: the highest point in the development of something; a culmination or climax

A clear stream ran out of the woods and across the center of the clearing, first bubbling through a deep channel in the spongy earth and friable stone, then pouring across the splintery rock floor which sloped down to the place where the land dropped away.

Stephen King, The Waste Lands

friable: easily crumbled

“Let me see your Jewish manuscripts and incunabula.”

Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book

incunabulum: an early printed book, especially one printed before 1501

When Ivy had asked for clarification, she had been told that her abbreviations were “schoolgirlish and recondite.”

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves

recondite: (of a subject or knowledge) little known; abstruse

“If nothing else, I might accidentally step on his fleam and break it; that’s probably the only way I’ll stop him from bleeding people.”

Diana Gabaldon, The Fiery Cross

fleam: a handheld instrument used in bloodletting


I plan on doing more of these posts with the more useful and/or interesting words I turn up, but the scheduling, of course, will depend on what I’m reading and how quickly I acquire new words to share. Until then, keep reading, and keep looking up those definitions!

Writing Homework #11: Prep a Name Master List

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Every author handles choosing names differently, but speaking for myself, it’s often a struggle. Consulting baby name websites and lists of the most popular names in a given era are great places to start, but I often find myself wading through tons of blah names without feeling inspired.

What struck me lately is that I keep meeting people with fantastic names that I wish I could use. I can’t–not in full, anyway–but there’s a way around that.

If you’re like me and you have a notebook on you at nearly all times, simply write the name down for later. (Not in front of the person, that would look weird!)

But for the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to draw names to work with from a pool. Head over to IMDb and find a favorite show or movie, then click through to the full cast and crew listing.

I’ll be pulling names today from Stargate SG-1. I miss that show.

To keep this small, I’m going with ten, though a master list you could make as long as you want to start, and keep adding to it whenever you find something new. My only criteria at the moment is to pick a name I like, which is vague–maybe the first name is pretty or the last name is one I haven’t heard before or the two just sound good together.

  1. Amanda Tapping
  2. Andy Mikita
  3. Charles Correll
  4. Jonathon Glassner
  5. Jacqueline Samuda
  6. Claudia Black (okay I picked her because I’ve loved her since Farscape, I confess)
  7. Gillian Barber
  8. Karen van Blankenstein
  9. Kevin McNulty
  10. Jennifer Calvert

So, realistically speaking, we authors can’t/shouldn’t use any names as they come. If I write a book where the main character’s name is Amanda Tapping, even if the story has nothing to do with any Stargate elements and the character looks, sound, and acts nothing like the actor…well, you get the situation I had last year when I read The Summer of Chasing Mermaids. And also, if Amanda Tapping found out, she might not be pleased.

So, it’s time to break the first names free of the last names and do some rearranging. On my first pass, I got these shiny new names, all perfectly usable:

  1. Karen Tapping
  2. Jonathon Mikita
  3. Gillian Correll
  4. Jennifer Glassner
  5. Andy Samuda
  6. Kevin Black
  7. Amanda Barber
  8. Claudia van Blankenstein
  9. Charles McNulty
  10. Jacqueline Calvert

My criteria for rematching the names was simple. Everyone had to be shuffled, and I wanted them to sound good together. Which made me wonder what that means, so it’s time to take a look.

Many of these new names share sounds. “Gillian Correll” has the Ls, “Andy Samuda” the Ds, “Jennifer Glassner” shares the -er ending, and “Jacqueline Calvert” doubles down by sharing both the L and the hard C.

In the names that don’t share sounds, the rhythm of stressed syllables flows well. The hardest on the mouth is probably JON-a-thon mi-KI-ta, but it’s not terrible, and maybe that character will go by Jon instead.

There’s nothing stopping me from rearranging the first names again to switch up the ones I don’t like quite as much, but some of these names are already forming characters in my head. “Claudia van Blankenstein” is a Gothic Romance heroine name if I’ve ever heard one. “Charles McNulty” could easily be a teenage introvert whose parents insist on calling him Charles even though he’d want his friends to call him “Charlie,” if only he had any. (Poor Charles!) “Amanda Barber” would make a great real estate agent, with easy-to-spell-and-remember name gracing billboards and bench-seat ads all around town.

Go forth, my lovelies, and make yourself master lists of names, so when you’re tumbling through your draft and suddenly you need a real estate agent, you have a name ready to go.


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Writing Homework #10: And Then the Murders Began

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I’ve been seeing a post floating around on Tumblr a lot recently. “Take the first line of a novel, and add And then the murders began.

It leads to some really funny outcomes, as one might expect. Take the first line of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. And then the murders began.

Or Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. And then the murders began.

Or one of my most beloved classics, I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith:

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. And then the murders began.

So your writing assignment, this time around, is to grab a few books off your shelf (or look up a list of famous first lines, if you want some classics,) choose a first line, add the bit about the murders, and use it as a prompt for a flash fiction piece. If you end up using a line from a story you know well, you can adapt it to incorporate the murders; or you can just use the two lines as the start of an entirely new story.

I haven’t had the time yet to write my own–still slogging through WWNTR formatting–but expect my version sometime in June. Have fun and keep writing!


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Writing Homework #9: Every Song a Story

A long time ago, under a different name on an account long deleted, I was an active participant in /r/WritingPrompts, before it became a default sub and exploded into a crazy pit of meme prompts. I didn’t stick around, and to be honest, I have no idea what the community is like these days.

But I do remember one prompt in particular, to take a song that almost tells a story, and write a scene based on it.

My response to that prompt is lost to the sands of time (and the account deletion) but I do remember I chose “Shape of My Heart” because the song so clearly defines a character, but not the story itself.

So this week’s assignment is to seek out a similar song, not one that already lays out a story in great detail, but one that gives insight into the character or situation it describes, and write a drabble/scene/flash fic based on it.

I know, I know, song prompts aren’t exactly a new idea, but I want to present my take on it.

Have fun and keep writing!


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Writing Homework #8: Watch a Movie

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It sounds crazy, right? Watching movies isn’t homework unless you’re a film student.

But here’s my inspiration for this assignment.

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I saw Still Crazy while I was visiting my husband’s family over Christmas–it came from a British movie collection they had, and they’d singled it out as one of the surprise hits from the bunch. I mean, how can you not love Bill Nighy as an aging rock star trying to reclaim his former glory?

And it was quite a good movie, though it was a bit odd to see all these “old” rock stars looking so young–it was released in 1998, so I’m used to Billy Connolly with a lot more gray in his hair than he had here.

But as I was watching, well, serendipity smiled on me. I’m writing a novel about a rock band and my characters spend a lot of time on their tour bus. So do these fine chaps. I wasn’t taking notes, but that’s what I want you to do: find a movie that has a setting or situation in common with the story you’re writing, ideally something you’re having trouble visualizing yourself, like my struggle with the tour bus. Watch, observe, and yes, take notes.

The bus in my novel won’t be the Strange Fruits bus; my band is a modern rock band, not a ’70s band reuniting twenty years later. The space will be different, and the decorations, and the vibe. But seeing the space they had, seeing people actually in it, gave me a new appreciation for just how cramped it can be, and how everyone is living piled on top of each other. In a romance, well, privacy’s a bit of a concern, and my characters are not going to have much of it…


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Writing Homework #7: Character Flaws From Life

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I’ve tried several different methods of character building before, and I always seem to struggle with flaws.

Lists of flaws are invaluable for ideas, but if that’s your only resource, they run the risk of being an a la carte menu that won’t add up to a whole person–the flaws you choose might not complement each other (absent-minded but fanatical?) or illogical given your characters’ strengths.

Writers always steal from life, from the people they know, and now it’s time to flex that muscle on flaws.

So, for the exercise, think of someone you know and an obvious flaw about them–something that annoys you or makes your life difficult in some way. Write up a short summary of how the flaw presents itself to you, then speculate on why they might be that way, if you can. (Yes, you’re playing armchair psychologist. Don’t attach their real names to their flaws, if that’s a concern.)

Finally, extrapolate from there how a character might present the same flaw in other ways.

An example of mine:

Nancy is a perpetual competitor. If I’m not feeling well, she’s sicker than I am, or she’s been sicker longer. If I tell a story about an awful teacher I had in school, she’ll dredge up a story about how one of hers was worse. If I mention I went out to dinner somewhere nice, she’ll counter with a restaurant she thinks is better, or some incredible home-cooked meal her husband made for her.

I can rarely say anything in her presence that she will not try to one-up in some way. She has to have the last word.

Why? Probably insecurity. For whatever reason, she feels she is less than others, and makes everything about herself to feel important. But that’s not the only possibility–it could also be a true case of self-absorption, that she doesn’t actually realize she’s competing with others, only that she thinks we’re all interested in whatever she has to say and it never occurs to her not to share.

One motivation skews in favor of self-knowledge, and the other is more passive. They’d both be interesting, believable flaws for a character, but let’s focus on insecurity.

How might that more basic flaw present itself in other behaviors?

Nancy never lets anyone have the last word, but she doesn’t express any insecurity physically: my character, let’s call her Jenny, might. She might always have to have the latest fashion, or wear the perfect makeup or hairdo, to never be seen at anything less than her best.

Going further down that train of thought, Jenny could have a host of different body-image issues, depending on her size relative to what she considers ideal: she could be too thin or too fat, too short or too tall, or it could be focused on a very specific body part, which she dresses to hide. If she does consider herself beautiful, she may over-value her physical aspect because she feels she has more looks than brains; or she may be the plain-Jane type who disregards her physical appearance because she knows she can get by on her brains, but secretly she wishes she were gorgeous. We’ve all seen that trope, but if you don’t resolve it with the Important Makeover That Changes Everything, then it’s still got plenty of potential.

At work, Jenny might be a perfectionist because she’s terrified any errors in her work will cost her the respect of her peers, or even the job itself. She would be deferential to her superiors, of course, but she might treat her subordinates high-handedly, projecting a confidence in her position she doesn’t truly feel.

In relationships, Jenny might come across as attention-seeking or clingy. She might rely on gifts to show her affection, because money has an assigned value that isn’t dependent on how she feels about herself. Jenny might be the type to bail on her friendships or romances when the going gets tough, because she doesn’t think she’s up for the challenge, or because she doesn’t think she deserves to be happy.

So, now,  you’ve got a whole host of potential character traits stemming from a single basic flaw. Not all of them would work together for a single character, and certainly a character with only one flaw wouldn’t be well-developed. But expressing the same central flaw in multiple ways gives a character more richness, more believability.

I know I’ve just made Jenny sound like a terrible, shallow person, but pair up her insecurity with some strengths (maybe she’s charitable, because she knows what its like to feel worthless, so she wants to help others; maybe she’s hilarious and entertaining, having developed a keen sense of humor as compensation for her fears about being unlikable)–she’ll feel real in no time.


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