On Outlining

“To outline or not to outline” has been one of my constant refrains for years now. I was a non-outlining person for years, mainly for two reasons: one, I didn’t know how to outline, and two, I thought that outlining would drive me up the wall.

At this point, I’ve pretty much accepted that writing is going to drive me up the wall no matter what I do, and I’ve found that outlining can actually help me… climb down the wall a little? (I really should have chosen a different idiom.) However, Problem #1 remains: I still don’t know how, exactly, to create an outline.

Different writers have different methods of outlining: some follow a Hero’s Journey-type formula, while others use the Snowflake Method, or a three-act structure, or a beat sheet. My method of outlining thus far has pretty much been “here’s a list of things that are going to happen in the story”, but what that leads to is the development of a plot that has basically nothing to do with the characters. A plot that has nothing to do with the characters is only slightly more interesting than a grocery list and the opposite of what I want.

Okay, so I need to find a new method of outlining. Easier said than done? Pretty much.

There are two books that are on my Oh-God-These-Desperately-Need-to-Be-Outlined-and-Rewritten radar: Reckless, which I wrote during July 2016’s Camp NaNoWriMo, and Demonic Dilemmas, which I wrote for regular NaNoWriMo in November. I began both of these projects with my terrible, plot-heavy outlines. The outlines were definitely an improvement over having no outline, but the fact remains that both books need to be rewritten, and that both rewrites will require new outlines.

One method I’m considering for Demonic Dilemmas is a zero draft, which is basically a messy outpouring of thoughts, scene snippets, character ideas, and keyboard smashes as the writer tries to figure out what in God’s name their story is supposed to be. (Similar to the majority of my  blog posts, come to think of it.) It’s sort of like a very, very terrible first draft that turns into an outline.

Part of the reason I struggle with outlining is that my stories never, ever come together in a neat, linear way in my head. A zero draft would let me start halfway through the story, or 9/17ths of the way through the story, and then work my way from there. Since I have a hard time with structured outlining, maybe I need to move away from that and try a more fluid approach.

At the same time, I’m also thinking about a very different approach: using a screenplay as an outline. This doesn’t seem to be a super popular method, but apparently, some writers prefer to write their stories out in script form– just dialogue and action– before actually writing the novel. I’ve never written a screenplay, but I have learned how to format one, so I’m considering that as well.

Essentially, what it comes down to is this: do I need to give myself more freedom when it comes to outlining, or less? Or, in other words, what it comes down to is this: it’s time to try both and see which works better and probably end up extremely frustrated with both and end up stress-baking cookies because AHH OUTLINING IS HARD NO MATTER HOW YOU DO IT.

Anyways.

What’s your preferred method of outlining?


You can find me on Patreon and the NaNoWriMo website

On Female Characters, Strong and Weak

I grew up surrounded by strong female characters.Even before I understood the meaning of the word ‘sexism’ or knew that I would one day grow up and shout “You do not get to slut-shame Margaery Tyrell just because she’s a female character who has sex!” at my older brother, I was getting a pretty cool feminist education– an education that took place mainly through literature.

Easily the most influential people in my life, both then and now, my mom and big sister introduced me to a wonderful amount of female-led literature. My mom read Pollyanna, Mandy, A Little Princess, and Laura Ingalls Wilder aloud to me probably dozens of times. Meanwhile, as I grew older, my sister introduced me to her personal favorites, such as the Song of the Lioness Quartet and His Dark Materials. And of course, I inherited a love of Harry Potter from every member of my family and thus added Hermione, Ginny, and Luna to my long list of female heroes and inspirations.

As all this reading and being read to happened, something strange happened: a rift appeared between my Pollyannas and my Lyras. My sweet and kind girls who ran through flower-filled meadows and my fierce, snarky warriors became separated. The concept of a “strong female character” emerged, the idea being that the belligerent– and, generally, tomboyish– girls were “strong” and the sweeter, gentler girls were not. This became a pattern of thinking that I feel into and stayed stuck in for a great number of years. These also became the sort of characters I wrote– fierce and snarky girls with little interest in traditionally feminine pursuits.

Flash forward to March of 2016, when I started watching the HBO series Game of Thrones. Going into it, I already knew a lot about the series and the characters, both from spoilers on Tumblr and listening to my mom and sister talk about the show. Because of that, I was fully expecting Arya Stark, the sword-carrying twelve year old girl who doesn’t want to be a lady, to be my favorite character. And she was one of my favorites, at first. But then a strange thing happened. The more I watched, the more attached I became to a very different female character: Sansa Stark.

Sansa Stark, the young, vain, somewhat selfish girl who just wants to get married and have beautiful blonde babies, was not my usual “type” at all. She did not carry a sword, and probably never will. She wore dresses and sewed things and really wanted to be kissed by a boy with pretty hair. It seemed absurd for her to become my favorite… and yet, as the series went on, that’s exactly what happened. Sansa suffered and struggled and, in the end, underwent one of the best character arcs on the whole series. She emerged from all her suffering vengeful and determined, but still kind, still, in her own way, soft. She’s still not “strong” in my traditional arrow-shooting, dragon-slaying sort of  way, and yet she is a character I adore, a character I find inspiring. She is a hero.

And why shouldn’t she be?

We see female characters who pursue things stereotyped as masculine and call them strong, but when a female character wants to wear dresses and kiss boys, she’s considered weak, or boring, or bland. The characters I relate to most are probably the Pollyannas, and even I used to discredit them. Why? Because somewhere along the way, it got hammered into me that girls have to act “masculine” to be strong, interesting, or feminist. That’s absurd.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love my other girl heroes just a much as I used to. Lyra Silvertongue and Alanna the Lioness will always be some of my favorite characters. But I’ve also started to realize that I was pretty unfair to all my Pollyannas.

Take Anne of Green Gables, for example. Anne is one of my all-time favorites, and she’s an impulsive, whimsical girl who loves romantic daydreams and wants to wear pretty dresses and dance with dryads. She’s not the sort of character one would call “strong”, and yet she truly is a wonderful female character: she’s complex and three-dimensional, learns from every one of her many mistakes, and is very kind and loving. In fact, she’s a character I relate to in a lot of ways, and it’s a bit unnerving to think that I’ve spent so much time discrediting characters like her and Sansa just because they didn’t fit into one female-character mold.

We call any female character who carries a weapon “strong”, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that some of those acclaimed strong female characters are actually sort of one-dimensional and underdeveloped. I don’t want to read or write about characters whose only defining quality is “strength.” I want female characters with more than one personality trait. I want girls who have flaws and vices as well as virtues, who cry and get angry, who are strong and brave in lots of different ways.

There’s not just one type of woman in this world. In fact, there aren’t any “types” at all, because we’re not ice-cream flavors or paint samples. Women are human beings, diverse and messy and flawed, and as I continue to write stories filled with lady heroes, I want all of my  characters to reflect that.

Things Are Getting Better

Writing no longer comes easily to me.

When I was maybe nine or ten years old, writing my own stories was the easiest thing in the world. I sat at the desktop computer in my kitchen and I wrote. Distractions– cute videos of kittens, Facebook notifications, the fact that I probably should have been learning how to multiply fractions– had no power over me. Back then, I didn’t doubt myself (or, y’know, edit things) and so the words just flowed for me, water from a faucet.

Then the inevitable happened: I grew up, and things got more complicated. (Really, growing up is probably the worst thing that ever happened to my writing.) These days, I expect and want more from myself. I get frustrated and disappointed and sometimes hopeless. Every sentence I put on the page is a struggle. The faucet has grown a little rusty.

But there are still moments when writing abruptly gets easier. Every once in a while, I’ll sit down to write and find that the resistance has disappeared. My fingers will speed up, and for a little while, I’ll feel that same ease I used to take for granted. Because I now realize how hard writing is, I don’t count on or expect it to be easy. Still, those moments of clarity do wonders for self doubt. They reassure me that writing is what I’m meant to be doing, and that I’m not totally deluding myself by saying that I’m a writer.

Unfortunately, clarity just keeps getting more and more evasive. Going into 2016’s July Camp NaNoWriMo, I was plagued by the feeling that I hadn’t really enjoyed writing a book in a couple of years, and I was praying that my new project, RECKLESS, would be different. I was terribly afraid that somewhere along the line, I’d taught myself to hate writing, and that I’d never enjoy it again. (It sounds ridiculously dramatic, but it’s also true.)

Like with all Nano events, I had good days and bad ones. I definitely didn’t hate my story, but I wasn’t sure I was really enjoying it either. And then, somehow, it got to be the last day of Camp, and I was still 5,000 words behind. Worse, I didn’t have until midnight to finish. I was packing up for a car trip and leaving around four in the afternoon. If I wanted to finish my book and win Camp, this really was my last chance.

So I did it. Fueled by coffee, donuts, and pure determination, I sat down at my computer and I wrote. I didn’t stop to hesitate or criticize myself. I wrote, and like magic, the resistance disappeared and the words flowed easily. I finished the book with exactly 75,000 words and Icarus by Bastille still playing on repeat.

And sitting there, trembling slightly from excitement and caffeine overload, I realized something vitally important: RECKLESS is the best book I’ve ever written.

Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t good. It’s hundreds of rounds of edits and rewrites away from being good. But it’s better than THE WITCH’S APPRENTICE and THE SEVENTH CITADEL and all the rest of my books that came before it. I didn’t enjoy writing TWA or TSC, but clearly, I’d still learned some things from both of them.

It’s so easy, as a writer, to forget that everything I write is a lesson. I don’t just write to tell stories– I also write so that I can become a better writer. All of my books are lessons and tests. I’ve been overwhelmed by dislike and lack of enjoyment towards my own writing for so long, but I think maybe, maybe, I’ve finally passed that test. I’ve learned that even if I hate every single one of my characters, I still have to keep writing, keep trying. So long as I keep going, I will keep improving. That was what I learned at the end of July’s Camp NaNoWriMo: even if I’m not enjoying myself, I’m still learning. 

There’s a little piece of paper at the top of my bedroom wall that reads THINGS ARE GETTING BETTER. It’s been there for several years and has become a part of the landscape of my extremely cluttered walls. Nine times out of ten, I look at it and don’t think anything of it. But sometimes, like the morning that I finished RECKLESS and actually felt happy with my first draft, I look at it and get a surprising jolt of recognition. Because it’s true. I don’t always see it, but things are getting better– and so am I.

Dear Minor Characters: WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS?

Friends, I have a problem. I’m pretty sure my minor characters are trying to take over the world.

Or, at the very least, they’re trying to take over my story. I’m currently working on outlining my sci-fi/space opera novel, RECKLESS, for July’s Camp NaNoWriMo, and the minor characters just keep appearing. I started with four significant minor characters (major-minors, I guess you could say) and now I’m up to six and creeping towards the possibility of a seventh.

The way I see it, there are two types of minor characters: insistent and enigmatic. Insistent minor characters are the world-domination type. They’re the ones who become more and more interesting and gain bigger and bigger parts of the story until suddenly they’re not so minor anymore. Insistent minors insist that they’re important. They like to whisper stuff like “But what if this story was actually mine and not the so-called main character’s?” and  “Ooh, or what if you wrote an entirely new story just for me?”

Enigmatic minors, meanwhile, are even trickier. They’re the ones who show up and are all “Hey, can I join the party?” but get antsy when you start to question what their actual purpose in the story is. They want a place in the plot, but they’re not about to tell you where that place is.

Usually, I have a bigger problem with insistent minors– I love my minor characters and tend to give them complicated backstories, which in turn leads to me wanting to give them stories of their own. With RECKLESS, however, I’ve been having more of an enigmatic-minors-issue. Characters keep showing up, but I’m not sure how necessary a lot of them are to the plot.

The sad truth is, even if I’m fond of their personalities, characters that don’t have an actual purpose have to go. I think it might be time for me to revisit my cast of characters and send some of them off into the Great Character Void of Nonexistence. Hopefully they don’t crawl their way out and come after me seeking revenge (although, now that I think of it, that would actually make for a pretty interesting story.)

-Lilly.

Here We Go Again

Fun fact: I’m terrible at keeping track of time. Like, so terrible that Lilly-never-knows-what’s-going-on is a running joke in my family. The other day, I had a five-minute conversation with my brother before he said “Isn’t there anything you want to say to me?”, which was followed by me staring at him and saying “What would I want to say to you? What’s going on– WAIT, IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY, HAPPY BIRTHDAY.” Just a few days later, I thought “Oh, my birthday is in like two and a half weeks!” only to look at the calendar and realize that it was actually in six days.

In other words, if you need to know what day of the week it is, I am not the person to ask. However, I’m not totally inept. For example, I know that it’s currently May and the month is almost over, meaning it’s very nearly June, which means we have just over one month to go until July’s Camp NaNoWriMo! (You’re not at all surprised that this post is suddenly Nano-related, are you? I’m sort of predictable with this stuff.)

If I’m being totally honest here, Camp Nano and I have a bit of a rocky history. We started out okay in April 2015, when I wrote a 75k novel, Innocent and Heartless.  While the novel I wrote during that Camp was a complete mess and I really struggled to get it written, I did finish it and meet my word count goal, so I think it could be called a success.

Flash forward a few months and you get to July 2015, when I attempted Camp for the second time, aiming to write 50,000 words. What actually wound up happening was that I wrote about 23k, completely restarted my story, wrote 12k, and then gave up. It’s the only Nano event I’ve ever failed (something I still don’t really like to think about, if I’m being completely honest here) but I also refuse to be unhappy about it. Though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, my writer’s block that month was caused by depression, and not finishing was definitely the best thing for my mental health, despite how difficult giving up was for me.

And finally, in April 2016, I wrote 30,000 words of a novel entitled The Witch’s Apprentice. This year’s experience with Camp wasn’t especially satisfying, mainly because I didn’t actually finish the book I was writing, but I did meet my goal and manage to study for AP tests at the same time, which I’m happy about.

Now it’s very nearly June, and Camp is swiftly approaching once again. I’ve been juggling a few ideas, and I think I’ve finally settled on one. It’s a space-opera-ish sci-fi thing (no title yet) which can basically be summed up in the question “What if a bunch of angry space orphans teamed up to take down a powerful intergalactic gang that ruined all of their lives?” I haven’t written any sci-fi in quite a while, but that’s part of the reason I’m so excited about the story.

The truth of the matter is that I’ve been having a really hard time mustering enthusiasm for my own writing over the course of the past year or so, and I’m hoping that a totally different sort of story will help me feel refreshed and enthusiastic. As much as I love writing, it just becomes more and more frustrating and difficult for me as time goes on, and I really miss being able to just have fun while writing a first draft. I think (I hope, at least) I’m getting a little better about that, but it’s a tricky thing to overcome.

Of course, I always go into a project hoping that this one will be the one that makes me feel super enthusiastic again, and there’s never a guarantee that any of them will. Still, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t at least try. Despite the varying levels of success from past months/years, I’m excited to give Camp another go.

-Lilly.

A Strange Sort of Self-Doubt

I am constantly amazed by other writers.

Seriously. Their determination, creativity, and simple love of writing astonishes me. These people– who I mainly encounter on the NaNoWriMo forums– are so passionate about their stories. It’s delightful and inspiring and, if you’re me, slightly terrifying.

Here’s the thing: I’ve wanted to be a published author since the age of seven. (Before that, I wanted to be an English teacher, and, before that, probably a ballerina– even though I completely sucked at ballet.) Writing is what I do. That is, I do lots of things– I read, I volunteer at the library, I swim, I bake cookies– but writing is my main thing, my most relevant thing. It’s how friends of my parents categorize me: “This is Lilly. She’s the one who writes!”

Yet sometimes, I feel like I don’t have a right to the word “writer.” Or rather, I feel like I don’t have as much of a right to it as other people do. Those writers who are so passionate and dedicated to their stories… I’m not one of them. I don’t know how to be.

Some of my writerly friends have been working on the same book or series for years and are still so excited about their characters, but I’ve never finished a series, and I’ve never been super devoted to one particular narrative. I write, yes, and I love writing, yes, but I’m terrible at sticking to my projects, and I’ve never felt that deep, powerful connection to one particular story or character that other writers describe. Sometimes I’m afraid that I never will. It’s not a happy feeling, and it’s one that leads to a lot of guilt and doubt. If I don’t care enough about what I’m writing, who will?

One of the most common pieces of advice in the writing world is “Write what you love.”  I can’t count the number of times I’ve read that the most important thing is to write your story,  the one that matters the most to you. “If you don’t really care about this story, you’re not writing the right one!” is a constant refrain, and it’s one that often drives me into fits of despair and makes me want to close my laptop and never write another word.

Of course, I don’t do that. I keep the laptop open. I keep trying. But at this point in time, I still haven’t found my story, the one that I truly and deeply need to tell, the one with the characters who feel real to me, and I’m not sure if I ever will.

Writing vs. Reading

Freshman year of high school (before I ditched the whole public-school thing and went back to homeschooling) I took a creative writing class. I’m fairly certain that I was one of very few students who took the class because I legitimately liked writing. For the rest of the class, I think the appeal was a class they could nap in, or a nice teacher with an “I’m probably not going to fail you” sort of vibe.

Anyways, I don’t think I learned much from that particular course, as it was pretty basic and I’d already been writing and reading books about writing for years. However, I do have one vivid memory of the class: my teacher standing at the front of the classroom and reading a quote from Stephen King. If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. 

Read a lot and write a lot. It’s pretty basic advice, maybe the most basic piece of writing advice there is. Because really, what more can you do? Keep reading, keep writing, and eventually your writing will get better.

For me, at that point in time, the quote just seemed like a confirmation of what I already thought. After all, I spent– still spend, have always spent– the majority of my time either reading or writing.

Except… sometimes I think reading so much does my writing more harm then good. I find myself unconsciously echoing other people’s worlds and stories, plagiarizing without meaning to. I write a sentence and then second-guess myself, thinking “Have I read this somewhere?” I compare myself, endlessly and pointlessly, to other writers.

The last one is probably the worst offense, and it’s certainly silly. Published novels are published for a reason– they’ve  been through multiple rounds of editing and beta-reading, and most of them are written by actual adults. Comparing them to my messy first drafts is just self-destructive and foolish.

But the other things, the accidental-plagiarizing things, are harder to cope with. I want to build my own characters and worlds. I want to create stories that are mine, not lame rip-offs of other people’s. Yet I also don’t want to stop reading the books that I read, because even though I don’t want to imitate them, they do inspire and empower me and make me want to write stories that inspire and empower others.

I think that maybe the solution here is this: read a lot and write a lot, but also stay aware. It’s when I write things without thinking, without asking myself enough questions about the stories and the characters, without forcing myself to think outside the box, that accidental-plagiarism occurs. Mindless writing is almost as unhealthy as comparing myself to other writers, and I need to learn how to fight off that bad habit,so that I can begin writing the stories I really want to write, the stories that truly come from my mind and heart, and no one else’s.

-Lilly.