What’s in an outline?

Every book I’ve written, I outlined. I am a planner by design (ho ho ho), and yet with each subsequent project I feel my planning process evolves: if not in cleanliness, in utility– perhaps because each time around, I better understand what makes a good story, and that allows me to better shape and reshape the whole thing at the skeletal stage.

Since the outline is a sort of growing, changing process itself (and must vary from author to author as much as from one to the next), I thought it’d be fun to share a snapshot of personal stats from my current one.

I first conceived of this idea probably last August, and began work on it more in earnest in October/November. There’s been a lot of stop and go with it between the holidays and another project so it’s hard to say exactly how much time I’ve put into it, but maybe that’s an accurate portrayal, anyway (because life IS stop and go, isn’t it?).

project: M

outline version: 4.0

page count: 31 single-spaced

format: chapter by chapter, bullets into prose

title: I started this project without one and FINALLY FOUND IT LIKE A WEEK AGO YAY

highlight colors: 3

text colors: 6

margin comments: 30

accompanying documents: 5

those documents are:

  • cuts
  • bullets that became fleshed out scenes (well, more fleshed out than the ones I left in)
  • a rambling list of story questions, plot holes, ideas, me talking myself through problems, tracking things, and points for consideration
  • a clean copy of a list central to the story
  • floor plans

placeholders? Yes, but very few at this point

research? Has been done; one minor subject left to

One thing I can say: my outlines are always messy at the start. I think because they are my truest first draft: the place where Editor Julie doesn’t exist, and I am literally just throwing ideas on the page as fast as they come to me.

Incidentally, this may be why even my outlines require drafts.

Alternative Reading Goals: Go Deeper

The Bones Clocks aes 2

an aesthetic I made for The Bone Clocks

Every year on Goodreads, over a million readers “pledge” how many books they intend to finish that year: thirty. Fifty-two. A hundred and fifty. Goals vary widely and so does the average degree of completion, but one thing doesn’t:

People are always striving to read more.

As a writer, I am thrilled to see this. As a participant, I wonder about the practicality and tradeoffs of the system: namely, defining “more” as a higher number of books. More books does not necessarily mean more pages; nor does a total include the books one didn’t finish, or other (non-book) commitments to reading. A number is not a true reflection of the reading one has completed.

Perhaps more importantly, as someone who rarely finishes a book in one sitting—someone who would rather read in increments and absorb—reading “more” books, after a certain point, can start to mean getting less out of them.

So what’s a reader to do? How does she set a higher bar for herself without lessening her book by book experience?

I have some thoughts on that.

First, if you’re going to set a number goal, be realistic. If you can comfortably read a book a week, keep at it. Two? Read on. If you struggle to finish a book a month or even five in a year, don’t “pledge” fifty. Be honest with yourself. Reading should be fun, so start with something comfortable (or a bit of a push) and adjust as necessary.

Second, consider the value—what it means to you, personally—of reading more deeply, having more fun with certain books. While deeper activities with one book won’t count towards a number goal, they can certainly enrich your reading experience—and may make you more eager to pick up the next!

Here are some ideas for deeper engagement and more fun with the books you love*:

  • Write down references and vocab you don’t know as you’re reading. Look them up.
  • Make an aesthetic (example above).
  • Draw (paint, etc.) original fan art!
  • Make a playlist based on the book, your favorite character or chapter, etc.
  • Re-read a book or series that you love. A teacher of mine used to say that you had to read something three times to get the full value of it: once for pure enjoyment, the second and third to notice things you missed and appreciate how the story comes together.
  • Commit to reading an entire trilogy/series in a year, or even just several books by the same author (bonus points for back to back). You’ll start to see patterns and notice more when it’s fresh in your head!
  • Collect favorite quotes and passages along the way. When you finish reading, post or do something artistic with them. (Then post that!)

*Side note: This list makes a decent reading challenge in itself!

Other ideas? Share below!

 

 

Julie’s Top Reads for 2015

In alphabetical order:

THE ARCHIVED

THE CHOCOLATE WAR

THE EVOLUTION OF MARA DYER

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL

THE NIGHT CIRCUS

THE RAVEN BOYS

THE SCHWA WAS HERE

THE UNBECOMING OF MARA DYER

 

Breakdown by age group:

Middle Grade: 1

Young Adult: 5

Adult: 2

 

Awards:

Most Enchanting – THIS IS SO HARD to choose just one for because at least four of the above books contend! If pressed, I would choose THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern. The premise is original, the magic dazzling. Morgenstern has a gift for spinning magic in an exquisite yet minimal way, so that we seamlessly accept the arts without needing much of any explanation for them. There are also rules at work that even the protagonists don’t understand, which puts the reader right there with them.

Best Discovery – THE SCHWA WAS HERE by Neal Shusterman. This is the one book on this list that was not recommended to me by a friend, Tumblr, Goodreads, or a bookstore display; I pulled it down off a shelf at random. And I am so glad I did, because the antics of Anthony “Antsy” Bonano and his “functionally-invisible” friend Calvin Schwa made me laugh out loud, even when they broke my heart.

Most Loved – You may have noticed a similarity in two titles listed. That’s because I devoured THE UNBECOMING and then THE EVOLUTION OF MARA DYER by Michelle Hodkin. The lone survivor in the collapse of an old asylum, life is one creepy episode after another for Mara when she wakes up in the hospital with no memory of the night that killed her friends. PTSD and hallucinations make it impossible for her to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t—especially when a string of violent deaths come to pass exactly as she imagines them. This series may be the BEST crossroads of dark, spooky, supernatural, and dreamlike I’ve yet encountered, and has some of the best relationships—close siblings, worried parents, a snarky friend and a seductive ally—I’ve found between any two covers.

 

What were your favorite books this year?

Clearing paths, tracing them

There is no end to the things I write down, nor to the places I write them: on sticky notes. Receipts. In one of a dozen notebooks, sprawling folders, the margins of whatever used paper lies handy. On my hand.

I try to consolidate and put everything I’ve written in its place—book thoughts in book folders, words to look up in with vocab, quotes in collections, titles to my TBR, etc.—but I miss stuff. And even when I don’t, there’s a very good chance that I’ll forget it once it’s filed away. Almost makes you wonder what’s the use of writing things down in the first place.

Well, I’ll tell you one I didn’t see coming: written evidence has shown me that sometimes—often enough to see a pattern—I will write something down; forget about it; then have the exact same thought again later.

I first noticed this on finding some old character sheets I’d made. The book they were for had long been finished; I hadn’t so much as glanced at the profiles after making them, and yet—surprise!—the characters had turned out almost exactly as I first envisioned them, down to very specific appearance, background, and personality details.

Another time, I found some initial scribblings for a different book—just pieces, stray ideas thrown around in a notebook. They were dated—maybe seven, eight months before I actually started work on the novel. Long enough for me to misplace and forget I’d ever come up with them. But lo and behold, I later wrote the book, and one of those pieces—what had felt like an epiphany when it occurred to me a second time—became a major backbone of the story. I was shocked when I found those early thoughts to see I’d conceived of it months before.

Do our minds subconsciously pull toward the paths we have cleared already? (Even if those paths should have long filled in again, lost to the jungle of our waking thoughts?) I don’t know, but it’s something I’m going to pay more attention to.

 

The Last Day of November

I haven’t posted all this month, so I thought it time for a check-in.

Writing-wise, I’m excited to be developing a new Agent-approved book idea! I can’t tell you much about it yet (gag rule), but I can say the concept’s a rich playing field for the surreal within the contemporary. Already having fun with that. *cackles*

On other artistic fronts, after years of lusting for a high quality camera, I’ve finally, finally, FINALLY purchased a Nikon DSLR. I have experience shooting both film and digital, but I never imagined what a task it would be figuring out the controls in the vessel that combines them! I’m finally starting to get the hang of it though, and mapping features has been a good chance for me to review my photography basics.

Now if only the rain would let off so I could take it out to play more!

Reading: a great many great books. TBR and TBRR (re-read) piles constantly on the rise. Will be posting a Top Reads of 2015 selection soon!

Watching: the second season of The 100 and the third of Parks & Rec. How I ever went this long without the comedic gold of Leslie Knope I’ll never know.

Listening to: Um, kind of falling in love with Panic! At the Disco lately. Since I got a set of Skullcandy, I swear I’ve been listening to Death of a Bachelor on repeat. I haven’t been this excited for an album to drop since AM! Also getting into Melanie Martinez, Halsey, and The Zolas, who I already liked, but keep finding more amazing singles from (Maggie Stiefvater introduces me to some of the best tunes).

Learning: assorted French. Said Nikon/photography. How to bottle the stars.

You?

Spooktober Reading Bingo

In honor of October and open spooky season, I’ve put together a reading bingo for all things horror and Halloween. If you enjoy sinking your fangs into a good scary story, this card is for you!

Available in four designs (click image for full size, which should print as 8.5 x 11in):

Spooktober Bingo - v3 Spooktober Bingo - v4

Spooktober Bingo - v7 Spooktober Bingo - v2

Remember, your mark-off options don’t stop at books: short stories, poems, and even internet articles can count, too! Alternatively, swap out “Reading” for “Story” and you can use even more mediums: movies, video games, Halloween episodes, etc. Get creative, and most importantly: have fun!

What do you wish you’d known about writing as a teen?

Have you ever found something you wrote in high school and nearly died of simultaneous laughter and mortification? Spoiler alert: I HAVE!

Revisiting an old story of mine, last week I came up with some simple tips that could have vastly improved my writing as a teen and posted them in this Letter to my Teenage Self.

What was your writing like as a teen? What would have made it better?

What starter tips would you give teen or novice writers today?

The Writing Major, Part II: How it DID prepare me for life as an author

Last week I looked back on my university writing major to evaluate the things it didn’t teach me about being an author or trying to write books for a living. This post is the follow-up to highlight the ways my program did prepare me for a career as a novelist.

Author Things my Writing Major Taught Me:

  1. That you need to read seriously if you want to write seriously. Half my writing program was lit classes, and here’s why: If you want to write well, you need to read well. You need to know what great writing looks like and learn from it. And a rounded diet doesn’t hurt, but somewhere in there you should be reading the kinds of things you want to write.
  2. A basic canon of literature and theory including everything from Shakespeare and Aristotle to Emily Dickinson, Raymond Carver, and Jonathan Safran Foer (see: plays, essays, poetry, fiction). I consider this an author thing because exposure to a wide variety of work gives you a broader understanding and palette and can translate to richer, more upmarket fiction (that happy place between literary and genre).
  3. How to critique and be critiqued. Classroom workshops were perfect for learning to give and receive constructive criticism, which is helpful because criticism is vital to revision. My classes helped me see that feedback improved my work, to develop a thicker skin, and also how to filter the useful from the outlier criticisms of a beta-reading team.
  4. That you need outside perspective. Last week, I said my major didn’t teach me to distance myself from my work so I could evaluate it objectively. But it did teach me the importance of getting other people to read it—because while we, the authors, will always be too close to our work and biased to some degree, foreign eyes will not. They will see things we don’t. And a classroom you share with friends (those who are careful of our feelings) as well as strangers (those who will be more direct) is a great place to realize that you don’t just want compliments from readers; you want the kind of comments that will help you make the story better.
  5. To read aloud in order to edit yourself. This was the one trick we learned in my program for gaining some objectivity in our own writing. Not the most practical for long-form (novels), but great for testing passages.
  6. To keep your day job (or at least, not expect to live off your writing anytime soon). Self-explanatory.
  7. The mechanics of good writing. It may have seemed harsh last week to say that my writing major didn’t teach me how to write a compelling story (or anything about writing a book), but that’s because you have to know the materials before you can build the house: the fundamentals. Craft rules like Show, Don’t Tell, pacing, good dialogue, killing the runway, using active voice, sensory detail, nouns and verbs over adjectives, etc. Rules such as these I think make the bulk of education in writing, because they are the elements that can be taught.

In sum, a formal (undergraduate) education in writing is about laying the foundations for becoming a great writer– introducing you to the craft, the tools, how to collaborate/give and receive artistic criticism, the great works that have come before. Where you take those lessons (fiction, journalism, screenwriting, etc.)– and how– is entirely up to you.

What have I missed, fellow writing (or English) majors? Share in the comments below!

The Writing Major, Part I: What it didn’t teach me about being an author

A recent chat with a friend got me thinking: There’s a lot a formal education in writing doesn’t teach you about writing—specifically, about being a novelist. And since the start of many collegiate school years is coming up and aspiring authors will be contemplating majors and minors, I thought it’d be a good time to reflect on my own studies, what they taught me about writing, and what they didn’t.

This will be a two part post, beginning with:

Things my Writing Major Didn’t Teach Me

  1. What makes a compelling story. We always discussed what we read, why it was great literature, terminology. But did I learn what made me care about characters? What made me feel, what pulled me into a narrative, what kept me turning pages? No. These are things I’ve only found through years of personal, recreational reading and writing—things I’m still realizing today. If you’re a writing major aspiring to authordom, I highly recommend a steady diet of personal for-fun reading alongside any scholarly assignments.
  2. High concept. True, high concept (a unique premise that can be pitched in about a line—“boy goes to wizarding school,” “safari-style park of DNA-resurrected dinosaurs,” or “100 delinquents sent to test living conditions on post-apocalyptic earth”) doesn’t apply to every work of fiction. But grasping the term is invaluable in storytelling, as is being able to detail your concept—what your story is about—before you even start writing.
  3. How to write a book. My program offered courses in short stories, plays, poetry, and creative nonfiction—but no “Engw 401: How to Write a Novel.” I actually can’t even remember discussing plot in a story-craft capacity, except once in a Spanish lit class. En Español!
  4. The significance of revision. Oh, we revised—but not nearly enough. The best lessons are the ones I’ve found in my own pursuits since graduating: (1) Final draft = first draft – 10-15% (Stephen King). In other words—CUT A LOT. (2) “Revisions” =/= line edits, stronger wording, moving punctuation around. Revisions mean extreme, sweeping changes to the entire story, with large portions cut and other large portions rewritten. (3) “The first draft of everything is shit,” (Hemingway), but two drafts doesn’t do it, either. Try five or ten or twenty.
  5. That distance (time away) is a necessary part of revision. On a semester schedule, there was naturally not enough time to let our work sit between drafts so we could come back to it with fresh eyes after a month or so. But this is essential to seeing your work, especially novels, objectively: to evaluating what needs to change, and how best to change it.
  6. How to find an agent.
  7. How to write a query letter (to an agent). We did just barely touch on querying literary magazines, but in the book-writing realm that ended up being irrelevant. Why? Because
  8. You do not need publication credits to get an agent. As an aspiring author, I heard time and again that pub credits looked good in your query letter and increased your chances of getting an agent. And there’s probably truth to that. But ultimately, you don’t need credits to land an agent. Your novel is what you’re querying, and your novel is what they’re looking at. So if you want to write books, write books—don’t struggle over short works unnecessarily.
  9. To daydream. To recognize and collect things that interest you, the seeds of ideas; to connect and develop them into larger stories. This is something I’m still figuring out, and while I’m getting better at it, it’s not a skill they can really teach in the classroom.

I imagine this list will grow with time and progress in publishing, but in the interim, what about you? Whether you’ve studied writing formally or not—what lessons have you had to teach or learn for yourself?

Stay tuned for the second half of this post next week: What my writing major DID teach me about being an author!