This episode is “Killing Off Your Characters: Q & A with the Happy Coroner.” Struggling to kill off your characters in interesting ways? Want to get the bloody details right? Never fear! We bring in the wonderful and charming Dr. Lindsey Thomas, a Minnesota Regional Coroner in a department that serves 8 different counties in the metro area.
Lots of writing books focus on a single aspect of the writing craft. Books on Character, Plot, and such abound. It’s rare books like Stein On Writing by Sol Stein, Story by Robert Mckee and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks that present a top-level perspective of many essential writing aspects at once and shows how they interrelate.
For those dying to know what the six core competencies are:
There may be other elements of writing, but I doubt anyone will argue that these six are essential. Story Engineering not only explains each element in detail, but also takes examples from popular bestsellers, and shows you exactly how it’s done.
Tools, Not Rules
My only criticism of Story Engineering is that the useful information is slathered in a thick coating of the author’s opinion on how you should use these tools. He rails against the practice of organic writing (also known as ‘pantsing’) suggesting you must have your story structure in place before writing a word, or you’re signing your own rejection letter.
I’ve already thoroughly examined this topic in a previous blog post, Let the Muse Run Free or Tie Her Down? Organic Writing vs Outlining. The short version is that no one can or should tell you how to write. The six core competencies in Story Engineering are tools, not rules. They are descriptions of good writing, not prescriptions of ‘the way thou shalt write it.’ There is no question that an awareness of these core competencies will make you a better writer. But how you implement them (or knowingly break them) is up to you.
Despite the strong personal opinions, Story Engineering has plenty of excellent core content. Here’s how I recommend approaching the book to get the most out of it:
Start by previewing Chapter 8 – The Development Process, which presents the top-level concept of a “Beat Sheet” and gives a method for organic writers to implement the six core competencies. Starting with this information will give you a context for the rest of the book. Reading chapter eight again when you get to the end of the book will really gel all the pieces together.
Skip the first 18 pages. Or read them for what they are, an opinion. In fact, you can safely start at chapter five.
If you’re the kind of writer who doesn’t outline, bring a lot of salt.
Story Engineering by Larry Brooks reverse-engineers the qualities of bestsellers, breaking down their structure into a generic template that can be used by anyone. Analyzing how stories break down beyond the classic three-part-story-structure is useful for any author, whether you are an outlining story-structuring guru, or a chase-the-muse style of writer.
The Six Core Competencies of Concept, Character, Theme, Story Structure, Scene Execution, and Writing Voice are explained as well as how they work together in bestselling books, making it a great reference for any author. If you can master these six elements (no small task) your writing will find itself in good company.
You can read more helpful author advice (and opinions) at Larry Brooks’ website, storyfix.com.
To outline, or not to outline, that is a fiction-writers battle as old as fiction-writing itself. Books on writing are as polarized about the subject as authors.
Julia Cameron pretty much paved the path of organic writing in her famous book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Although I don’t think she called the process “organic writing” she showed how anyone can channel their own creativity into writing without using an outline.
On the other hand, Larry Brooks latest book Story Engineering trounces on the process of organic writing, calling it “…nothing short of insane,” and stating that “A scene written organically – without a mission – is already being fitted for a casket.”
So who’s right? I’ve tried organic writing myself several times. One result was my first published short story, Big Game which sold on its first submission, and has reviewed quite well. Another result was a disasterous mess of dark fantasy pseudo-manuscript that shall not be named here, and made me wonder if Larry Brooks was right.
I did some research on plotting methods and the comparison of outlining vs organic writing. Here’s a look at the differences between these two methods and my answer to the question of which is better.
What is Organic Writing? (aka ‘Pantsing’)
Organic Writing is writing free-form, without plan or structure, and no real concern about where the writing is going. Check out free writing or automatic writing. The visual equivalent would be an artist doodling until they stumble upon an image. The musical equivalent would be ‘jamming’ in which a person or group simply plays until some musical structure jumps out of the ether and manifests into a song.
Some fiction writers use organic writing as a tool to flush out a scene, a character, or even a story. They write to find out what their character is like, or where the story or scene leads. The author just… writes, letting a spontaneous flow of words rush through them. The author might be as surprised as anyone else about what hits the page. This is sometimes called discovery or exploratory writing.
I call this exploratory writing tactic “Chasing The Muse.” You let the muse out of the bottle and see where she goes. Sometimes she won’t move even if you prod her with a Tazer. That’s called writer’s block. Sometimes she plods along, (which is where this method also gets jokingly referred to as ‘plodding’ as opposed to ‘plotting’) feeding you a stream of words, and you write it all down.
If you’re lucky the muse runs, and it’s your job as an author to keep up. If it’s 2AM and you’re dead tired but you can’t stop because you’ve been possessed by the spirit of an amazing writer with words flowing faster than you can type them… congratulations, you’ve experienced true organic writing.
Some people call this “Pantsing” which is short for “Seat of the Pants Writing.” Mr. T from The A-Team would call it being “On The Jazz.” Some people call it “insane” and begging for a rejection letter. Those opposed to organic writing suggest a different method – Outlining.
What is Outlining?
Outlining is the method of defining the structure of a story before writing any of it. The analogy is often made to building a house. Planning the structure down to the nearest sixteenth of an inch is crucial if you want to build the house with maximum efficiency and minimum waste.
Likewise with story construction, if you plan out how the story will start, end, and all the pieces between, then when you actually sit down to write the story, you know not only what goes where, but why.
There are various systems of outlining. Some people use notecards. Some use the Outline View in Microsoft Word. Some use the Snowflake Method software by Randy Ingermanson. Some just have the story structure in their head.
Regardless of how they do it, the primary difference between outliners and organic writers is that outliners write from A to B, and organic writers write from A.
Which writing method is better?
Which method is better? Let’s take a look at several different aspects of writing that can be affected:
In both methods, you will do lots of work up front on something that influences the final product but will not necessarily be part of it.
Outliners like to point out that much of the organic writer’s work will be edited or cut later. This is true. This is why organic writing is sometimes called “discovery writing” in which case you are discovering the outline.
But isn’t it also true that you’ll spend a lot of time on outlining? And once the outliner’s work is done, isn’t the organic writer thousands of words ahead?
It’s impossible to say which is a faster method for you. There are just too many variables. How fast do you outline? How fast do you write? How detailed an outline do you need before you start writing? You’ll have to answer these questions for yourself, probably by experimenting with both methods to see which is faster for you. And, as my own experience has shown, which method is faster could change on a project-by-project basis.
Which method results in the best quality writing? Outliners make a good case that your writing will flow better if you know where it’s going before you start. But some argue that outlining results in contrived writing and wooden characters, and organic writing begets more natural prose. I once heard someone remark that if the ending doesn’t surprise the author, it won’t surprise anyone else either.
Your mileage may vary. It’s impossible to say which method will result in better quality writing for you.
You see where this is going, don’t you?
Which method is more difficult? It might be more meaningful to consider which method is more fun. If the thought of outlining makes you feel as though you are strapping the muse into a straitjacket… if the constraints of getting from point A to point B give you writer’s block… if the thought of writing thousands of words that might be reworked for hours and/or thrown away makes you reach for the liquor cabinet…
Again, this is a subjective measurement that only you can make for yourself. It’s impossible to say which method will be easier or harder for you.
Really Zero, stop screwing around and tell us! Which method is better?
Sorry folks – after all that analysis, it turns out the whole thing is a trick question. In the logic field of Philosophy, this is what’s known as a False Dichotomy – focusing on two possibilities when there are actually others. In this case, the question of “Which Is Better?” implies that the two can’t both be used.
The truth is you can use both. The wicked truth is that you have to use both.
Structuring and Organic Writing are ingredients, and finding the best possible mix for you is like trying to find the right combination of Jagermeister and Red Bull in your penultimate, writing Jag Bomb.
Let’s take another look at both methods, and see what we missed.
The structural method sounds efficient on the surface. Once the structure is complete, you won’t waste many words filling that structure. Every word you put into that structure will be used to make the story go forward as it should. Very little rework, very little waste. Right?
What exactly are you putting INTO that structure? Well, you know you have to get the scene from plot point A to plot point B, but when it finally comes time to fill that space, how do you do it? What do you fill it with?
That’s right, Organic Writing. At some point you have to stop drawing the outline and start filling it in.
And what happens if you fill that space as directed and when you’re done the scenes are flat? Boring? Contrived? What then? You rewrite.
But what if you rewrite those scenes a dozen times, and they still don’t sing? What if you find the structure is limiting your writing? You restructure.
What happens if your muse starts coloring outside the lines? What happens if your characters won’t behave? What happens if you find a plot hole big enough to sail an aircraft carrier through? What happens if you start writing from point A to point B and discover you’ve ended up at point C, by way of F, Y and the color Blue? What if point C is a far more interesting place than B? Now what do you do?
If you want to keep point C in the story, you’ll have to revisit the structure and adjust everything! You’ll have to change all your foreshadowing, and maybe even the ending… oh boy. Maybe it’s better just to forget you ever discovered point C, get the train back on the structure track and rewrite your way to point B? Rewrite or restructure?
Not quite as easy as you thought, eh? Don’t be fooled. Good writing is hard work.
Organic Writing, Revisited
The organic writing method sounds pretty on the surface. Pretty easy too. So easy in fact, that many writers think they can shortcut the process by organically writing a bestseller out of the air. Don’t be fooled. Good writing is hard work.
You’re going to throw away or rework a lot of that organic writing. You’ll need to go back and check that the plot flows, and the pacing and that all subplots resolve, and you’ll have to go back and check your foreshadowing and make sure all scenes are leading toward an ending you weren’t even aware of when you started…
Wait a minute! What exactly are you doing to that organic writing?
Surprise! You’re putting structure on it. Yes, you can structure your work after it’s written. And you’d better, unless you are journaling or writing poetry.
The Question, Revisited
Every author outlines, whether they do it intentionally, intuitively, subconsciously, naturally or artificially.
Every author writes organically, unless they are writing technical manuals for the military.
Those who outline have to fill their structures with organic writing. Those writing organically have to rework their organic writing to check/create/enforce a structure.
Without a structure, you don’t have a story, you have a dictionary run through a blender. Without organic writing you have a sterile description of a story.
The questions are not “which method is best?” or “should you outline?” The questions are “how do you outline?” and “how much outlining do you do?”
The Middle Path
Structure is a necessary component of ALL fiction, but whether you apply a structural outline before, after, or even during the creative writing process is not important. In other words, you should have a structure to your finished story, but how you get that outline is up to you. Some authors need to discover the story as they go. Some authors need an outline before they can start.
Between the two extremes are an entire purgatory of options that are overlooked by most authors. What if you organically wrote a story structure? What if you loosened up the story structure, and instead of putting the muse in a straitjacket, you got one of those dog leashes that allows some play before setting a boundary? What if you designed multiple ending structures and wrote each one organically to see which was best?
What works best for me is to bounce back and forth between organic writing and outlining. I write organically for a while, then take a step back to look at the big picture, and adjust the outline as necessary. Here is a link to a process called phase drafting which is very similar to what I’ve learned to do on my own. Yes, I rewrite a lot. No, it’s not easy. Need I say it again? Good writing is hard work.
The method that will work best for *you* is… whatever works best for you. If you want to improve your writing, read about organic writing in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and read about story structure in Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. But don’t let Julia Cameron, Larry Brooks or even me tell you how to write. Learn the ingredients and then mix your own drink to taste.
Part of the adventure of becoming a writer is making the craft your own, and experimenting to find a method that feels good to you and helps you release your best writing.
I’ve never given much thought to story length. My stories come out at whatever length they are, and changing the length of the story once it’s written is generally the domain of publishers and editors. But it’s interesting to hear Stephen King talk about it in this short youtube clip:
a convention for people who are serious about good fantasy and good stories.
a weekend of high-quality, high-intensity, mind-stretching fun.
a single track program sized so that everyone can experience the same panels.
an opportunity to promote interest and quality in fantasy literature.
I like that they call it a Conversation, not a Convention. The panel programming is structured like a Convention, but the audience is allowed to interact add, and steer the conversation (under the control of a panel moderator). Some of the best conversation for me was found outside the actual programming, when writers would break into groups between panels, kibitzing in the back room, noshing at nearby venues, assembling in the hotel bar for some social lubrication, or taking over the conference room after hours for a late-night music jam. The ability to digest and process the info with other authors is great because it allows you to take the high-level theory back to the day-to-day applied practice of writing. [Read more…]
Are you fighting a chaotic mess of manuscripts? A plethora of plot outlines? Reams of rejection letters? Do you lose documents and important info? Do you have enough paper on your desk to potty-train a herd of baby Godzillas?
You’re not alone.
I recently did some research on organization specifically for writers and authors, then I presented my findings to the MNSpec Writers Group. I’ll post a link to the podcast here when it goes live, but this blog post highlights five key points from that presentation. [Read more…]
This article is part 1 in a series on author branding.
If you read many books or blog posts about how to succeed as an author, you’ll eventually run into what Randy Ingermanson calls “The B Word” in his Advanced Fiction Writing Newsletter.
That word is Branding, something formerly associated with pressing red-hot metal against cattle’s hindquarters. But branding has evolved into a marketing tool that most people associate with large companies like Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola and such. Branding doesn’t just apply to companies anymore. Products and even individuals can have brands, too.
You don’t really have full control over your brand, but you do have influence. There are tons of books and websites out there that can help you discover and establish your own brand. But it isn’t rocket science. This series of blog posts will outline aspects, benefits and tactics of branding that you can use to improve your career as an author.
The “promise” your product/company/self makes to the customer
Seriously. Why not just leave the title off, then his name wouldn’t be so squished?
In essence, brand is how people label you, an important trait for authors to have. Authors already have the built-in labels provided by Genre, but Brand is much more than just where your books can be found in the library. Randy Ingermanson calls it “The set of expectations the reader has when they see your name on the cover.”
Stephen King is a brand. You have a good idea what you’re getting when you buy a book that says Stephen King on the cover. Many people will buy a book simply because it has Stephen King’s name on the cover. Publishers know this. On the cover of the book, The Dark Half, Stephen King’s name is actually larger than the title of the book!
Authors who break their established branding can get into trouble with their audience. For example, Anne Rice readers were dismayed by her drastic changes in stance on fan fiction and religion.
Brand Or Be Branded
Many indie authors evolve into a brand, just letting their brand happen over time. This is like trying to grow a garden by simply not mowing your yard. And it’s going to look awfully similar to everyone else who did the same thing. Your brand shouldn’t just reflect you and your writing, it should highlight what is special about you and your writing. It shouldn’t just place you within a genre, it should make you stand out within it. There’s plenty of room for you next to Stephen King in the Horror genre, but if your brand looks, feels and smells exactly like Stephen King… why would people buy your book when they can get Stephen King, a brand they already know and trust?
It isn’t hard to come up with a unique brand that fits your writing style. You might do this if you are planning to self-publish, or if you think it might be an attractive selling point for a publisher. All other things being equal, an author with a clear brand in place might be more attractive to a publisher than an author who simply lets their brand grow wild.
Publishers know how important author branding is, and if they sign an author, they will create a brand for them if they don’t already have one. Some publishers are a brand themselves. For example, the Dummies series of books by Wiley are a brand, and authors who write for them all get assimilated into that brand. They all have the same characteristics, cover, layout, etc.
Publishers brand authors according to a market niche where their books are likely to sell best. They can also brand authors INTO a market, whether their writing fits or not. I call this False Branding.
An example of false branding. Warning: Contents are not remotely as cool as you think.
Letting the market (or the publisher) push you into a brand can make your sales skyrocket. It can also make your sales tank. More than one Horror or Urban Fantasy author has been pushed into the Paranormal Romance genre because it’s the latest Red Hot Genre. But what if that brand is not really representative of their work?
Readers aren’t stupid. Just because you wrote a book on a subject doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about. Just because two werewolves fuck in your story doesn’t make your novel a Paranormal Romance. Try it and reviewers will slay you, your book, and your future sales. Your author brand needs to accurately reflect your work.
Take Molly Hatchet for example. One look at a Molly Hatchet album cover and you think you’re getting some kind of Epic, Apocalyptic, Doom Metal, but listen to it, and you get a watered down version of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Completely false branding. (More accurately, a false image. I’ll explain the image portion of brand later in this series.)
There’s plenty of authors out there who could be known as The Molly Hatchet of Authors, by releasing books with cover art, cover copy, endorsements and blurbs that make a promise to readers that the writing can’t back up. Like the wise man said in Sucker Punch, “Don’t ever write a check with your mouth that you can’t cash with your ass.”
So how to you take your own brand by the horns and define a workable brand for yourself?
Learn about branding– Learn what you can and cannot control. Read about branding and . See below for links to the rest of this series on author branding to learn more.
Analyze the branding of other authors – Research other authors, both in your genre and not, and see how they are using the different aspects of branding. What works? What doesn’t? What are they doing well? How are they doing it? What are they lacking?
Research the market – Look at what others are doing in aggregate within your genre. What parts of the branding are expected for your genre and what parts are assumed? Are you seeing a lot of copycat branding? Is there a place for you to fit into the genre, yet stand out from the crowd?
Research yourself – Put on your publishers glasses or your audience glasses and examine yourself from their point of view. Look at your writing, graphics, website, blog posts, social media, comments, and photos and see where your brand is right now.
Decide on your own author brand – How do YOU want to be perceived as an author? Who is your audience and what do they want in an author? What makes YOU and your writing different from other authors?
Adjust your brand accordingly – Emphasize the aspects of branding that fit the brand you want to portray and minimize or cut whatever does not fit the brand you want.
The Author Brand Series
This is the first in a series of blog posts about the different elements of author branding. In the rest of the series, I’ll give examples of how myself and others use them, and how you can use them to create a brand for yourself as an author.
This episode is hosted, moderated and refereed by myself. I discuss a bit of organizational philosophy (containers and tags, nothing too heady) then I suggest some tips, tools and techniques that authors can use to get their writing lives organized. Manuscripts, plots, submissions, research, rejection letters, and more.
There’s a reason I’ve listed Evernote on my 2008, 2009 and 2010 Free Software Christmas Lists. Imagine if you could hook up a hard drive to your brain to remember anything that can be put into text, picture or file formats: Drawings, screen captures, e-mails, notes, doodles, webpages, pdfs, mp3s, etc. Now imagine being able to effortlessly sort and search through that information database to find what you need when you need it. Such a thing does exist, and it’s called Evernote.
“Remember Everything” is the mantra of Evernote. You don’t have to have a poor memory to realize how useful an information database is. If you have notebooks full of ideas and sketches, or a binder full of research notes and printouts, or even your class notes from Fiction Writing 101, store them to Evernote. Then, the only thing you’ll ever need to remember is your username and password for evernote.com. [Read more…]