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Most of the posts here are part of the Rogue Writer Blog


This is a top down blog...it's actually going to be a book one day. Chapters are listed on the right.

I'm going to tell you how to be a writer...
April 03, 2018

Except that I'm not. 

Welcome to the first Rogue Writer blog post! This blog exists, undoubtedly, because someone or something on the Internet pissed me off and I feel the need to write about it. Actually, I've been thinking about this for a long time. I'd like to write a book about writing books, but that seems daunting. Better to put it all in a blog. 

So, if you're here, you want to be a writer. I can tell you how to do that. But I really can't. The truth is that, despite what most other people will say, no one can tell you how to be a writer or how to write a book or a story. You have to figure it out for yourself. But I can tell you a few things. 

1. Stop listening to other people.
2. Do whatever it is you have to do to write the way you want to write.
3. Stop trying to please other people.
4. Trust yourself.

 There are as many ways to write a story as there are people writing them.

I can tell you some other things, too.
1. This blog is going to piss a lot of people off.
2. People are going to tell you that I'm wrong.
3. That's okay.

So, what am I going to be telling you about? Simple. I'm going to talk about writing. What it is, what it can be, what you might want to think about when trying it. I'm going to talk about the publishing industry and self-publishing. I'm going to talk about editing and formatting. And I'm going to tell you that everything I tell you can go in one ear and out the other, because the truth about writing is that it is an individual act. It is something that you can (and if you ask me should) do alone. All by yourself.

 It does not take a village to write a book. It takes you. Just you.

 So, hold onto your cats, people; it's going to be a bumpy ride

 

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Can you really be a rogue writer?
April 04, 2018

So many writers are suckered in by the idea that they cannot write a book all by themselves. They've been taught that it takes a village to write one. A village of critique group members, editors, beta readers, agents, and back again.

But that's not true. In fact, it will actually be damaging to your writing and your book to put yourself and it through this gauntlet of "writing by committee."*

But can you do it alone? I mean...can you do it alone?

Here's the thing. There are as many approaches to writing a book or a story as there are...okay maybe not that many approaches. But the approach you take is likely the approach you take when you challenge yourself to do anything.

Take me, for example. I'm one of those crazy people who, when I want to do something, goes all in.

Here's a story (I'm a writer, remember? I tell stories. This one won't be particularly exciting, but it's a morality tale.):

Some twenty or thirty years ago (yeah, I'm that old) I did a bit of sewing. I wasn't very good at it, but I did have this particular pattern for a top and I made that top over and over again. Now, after twenty or thirty years of not sewing, I decided I wanted to get back into it. I wanted to sew clothes because I wasn't all that happy with my choices in shopping. (And honestly, I'm becoming something of a hermit and my self-esteem is pretty much in the gutter. So...going to Macy's and trying on clothes? I don't think so.)

Okay, so here I am, wanting to sew again. What do I do? I prepare!

I bought a sewing machine. And a serger. And a coverstitch machine. A store in a nearby city was going out of business so I used their sales to stock my creativity room with fabrics of all kinds. I purchased nearly every specialty foot I could find for my machine. I have all the gadgets and doo-dads. Tools to make my own binding. Tools to turn tubes. So many patterns I haven't the room to store them. A 50-yard bolt of muslin and pattern drafting tools. Drawers full of thread, bows, trims, buttons. You name it, I probably have it. And I can't tell you how many hundreds of dollars I've spent on online sewing classes! I watch Youtube instructional videos, too. And I have books on sewing. I also watch Project Runway like a junkie and subscribe to sewing magazines to look at what other people are sewing.

I am prepared!

Of course, I didn't wait until I got all of that to start sewing. No. I started right away, with just that first machine, some fabric, thread, and a pattern. The first things I made were crap. Pure crap. I had to throw some away. Then they got better; I only had to donate them to Goodwill. I mean, they've got to fit someone, right? And only now, a couple of years later, am I able to finally start making things I feel I can actually wear out in public.

Now, take you.

You might approach things in a completely different way. Maybe you're the kind of person who decides he wants to start sewing. You purchase a decent machine. A pattern (or not, maybe you'll rip up a favorite shirt and create your own. Maybe you'll go completely rogue and just start cutting and draping fabric on yourself.). Some thread. Scissors from the kitchen maybe. And off you go.

Now, the important takeaway from this little story is this: No one can say that your end project is worse than mine. No one but you, anyway.

Sure, some people might look at your stitches and claim they're wobbly. Some might claim your neckline is sketchy. But is that important? No. Because those same sorts of people can, and no doubt will, say equally critical things about my project.

Why?

Because opinions are like assholes.

If you love what you made, I guarantee there will be other people out there who will also love it. And that's very important when it comes to writing. Not so much in sewing, because, who cares if anybody else likes what you're wearing, right? (And sure, you might feel that way about writing too. No worries.)

The only determining factor as to whether or not you or I can wear our newly sewn shirts out in public is our own opinions. Do you like it? Do you feel good in it? That's all that counts.

And here's the kicker.

One thing neither of us will ever do is go to a sewing critique group every week or month and let other people handle our project, sew seams, add trim, adjust the fit, or change our fabric. Why? Because we don't want to wear clothes the way they would make them. We want to wear clothes that we like. We had visions of our project in our own heads and that's what we intended to create.

That's the whole point of making clothes. (Okay, not the whole point. We might also simply enjoy the process. Or maybe we want to make some money sewing. That does present different challenges that we can talk about later. But for now--and hopefully even when doing it for money--we're writing...er, sewing, for ourselves.)

Sure, we might take some advice here and there. Suppose we're out at the grocery and someone says, "Did you make that? That's so cute. You should really use some contrasting thread on the placket. Would really make it pop!" And you think, "Hey, that's not a bad idea. Maybe I'll try that sometime." But this is not the same as seeking out opinions because we've been told that we can't be objective about our own work. (Utter nonsense!)

Sewing is like writing.

You decide you want to do it and you prepare for it the way you would anything else. If you're a crazy person, you go all in. Learn all you can, get all the tools imaginable, and read a lot of books. If that's not you, who cares? Who am I to tell you that you can only do things my way, or the publicly accepted way?

As long as you're not breaking any laws, you can wear whatever you like wearing.

And the laws in writing are a lot more lenient!

You can do this. You can and should do this by yourself. Why? Because only you can write the way you do. Be you. Don't be a committee. Be just you.



*I don't know if Dean Wesley Smith coined this phrase, but I first heard it from him. When asked about critique groups, he said he did not believe in "writing by committee." I'll tell you some of the devastating results of writing by committee in the future.

 

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Who am I to lecture...?
April 11, 2018

Seriously. Who the hell do I think I am? Why should you listen to me? Why should you care what I have to say about writing and publishing?

You shouldn't.

That's right. Just click off and go back to something more important. Because I'm a nobody. I assure you, you won't be the first person to think I'm not anything special and have nothing to say about the subject of writing. But, if you think it might be fun, and if you have this eerie feeling that you agree with me a bit about this whole writing and publishing thing, then stick around. At the very least, you'll hear a rogue opinion.

But, let's talk more about me. I'm not my favorite subject, but there are a few things you might want to know.

I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first short story in fifth grade. I wrote my first novel in middle school. I don't remember anything about it. I wrote my second novel in high school. It was awful! My main character's name was Sherland. She was, of course, gorgeous and super popular and made the cheerleading squad! Unfortunately, her mother was dead (naturally) and she had to move in with her father and his new wife and kids. So, when Sher made the squad, she took the place of her stepsister. And of course, she managed to steal away the boy her stepsister liked. Anyway, in the end, her stepsister runs over and kills the boyfriend. I don't know, now that I think bout it, it wasn't so horrid after all.

Then I stopped writing for a while. I piddled here and there. Tried to publish a few short stories. Got some really good rejections. I did publish a few times in a local writers' group journal.

Then, around 2010 I think, I started to get serious. I wrote some books. In 2011 (?) I sent one to a publisher and got this amazing rejection. You know the sort. The "this isn't for us, but send us more" sort. So, I figured, what the hell? And I created my own imprint and started publishing my own stuff.

So, you have questions.

Am I published with a traditional/corporate publisher? Nope.
Have I had any short stories published in a literary journal? Nope.
Are my self-published books best sellers? Nooooooo.
Have I won awards? Well, as a matter of fact, I have. A few.

I've won firsts and seconds for various novels in the Royal Palm Literary Awards. One of my books got an honorable mention in the Writers Digest Self-published Book Awards. And I've won or placed or honorably been mentioned in a few other obscure awards.

I don't make awards my life.

So that's it. I'm just an old woman who knows writing, loves writing, and publishes her stuff.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

 

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Why do we write?
April 28, 2018

This morning, last night's dishes calling to me from the kitchen were a hated chore, instead of the welcome distraction they've become these last months. For so long, getting myself into my office in the morning to write has been like pulling teeth. That's a terrible metaphor, really. Pulling teeth is easy. Just grab and yank. It's getting the patient to sit still in the chair while you're doing it that's the hard part.

I've been stuck for so long inside my own negativity and self doubt. I knew the only cure was to just keep plugging away, keep trying, never give up. (I have a paper weight on my desk that says: Never, never, never quit. A quote supposedly by Winston Churchill.) Eventually, something will kick in. And it finally did. I was eager to get to my writing projects this morning.

A lot of people might say, "If you hate it so much, if it's so hard, why do it? Just do something else."

Why do we do it? Why do we write? Why do we put ourselves through this process at all?

Well, no doubt there are a lot of reasons people write. And there are people for whom writing isn't a chore. It's either a job that they do on schedule, or they're not crazy like I am and they can just sit their butts down and do it. (I hate those people.)

Why do you write?

For me, writing is a part of who I am. It was born out of a childhood dredged in fear and loneliness. I was raised by a narcissistic mother and a father certain family members call The Fog. I prefer to call him, The Shrug. As a child, I was shamed and teased into silence, leaving me anti-social, without adequate social skills. Speaking was horrifying--it often still is. But when I wrote...when I wrote I was free to make myself understood. Writing for me was, and still is, a way of navigating through, and understanding, this world.

I get that that's pretty deep (oh, heavens how I loved to think of myself as "deep" during my crazy adolescent years), so let me be very clear: you don't have to have a sad back story to be a great writer. So, if you write just because you have a cool story that you want to tell and you sit down every chance you get and write it down, that's wonderful.

Is your reason a good one?

Yes.

Even if your reason is because someone you know is doing it. Or you want to get rich and famous. It doesn't matter why you do it. If you want to do it, do it! Don't let anybody tell you that there is a pure and sacred starting point for writing, because there's not.

For some people, writing is art, a form of expression; it's a serious and intense undertaking, even if they're writing humor or fantasy.
For others, writing is a business. Write, publish. Write, publish. It's pragmatic. Practical. Logical.
For others, writing is a hobby, a joy. They don't think too much about it, but they enjoy the process and the product.

It doesn't matter why you write. And if you write, you certainly can publish. And you might even sell.

The key here is very simple, and also extremely difficult. The key is...

keep going

Don't stop writing. Even when you start to think that maybe this writing thing wasn't such a great idea after all. Try to remember why you started. Was it because it's an integral part of your nature? Then you can't bottle that up! You have to let it out. Was it because you wanted to make this a business? Then you're the CEO; you can't quit! Was it because you enjoyed it so much? That joy will return. I promise.

Whatever your reason was, just keep going!


Never, never, never quit.

 

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Everyone really does have a book inside...
May 09, 2018
 

First, we have to talk about the title of this post.

It should read: Everyone really does have a book inside him. But people won't like that, because I said "him." That's sexist. So, I'd say: Everyone really does have a book inside him or her. But that's too long and awkward. What a lot of people would do, is write: Everyone really does have a book inside them. But I cannot abide the singular "they."

The word "they" is plural. Yes, yes, I know that it's been used in a singular manner forever. But I don't like it. It doesn't sound right to my ears. I use it all the time in speech, but I suppose for me, writing is different. It's more thoughtful. Meaningful. Important. So it must be done correctly. (That's all bullshit, of course.)

Rant over.

It's true. You have a book inside you. Probably more than one. Everyone has a story. We know this. How?

Because storytelling is innate. It's part of the human experience. We've been telling each other stories since we lived in caves. Stories teach us, they warn us, they entertain us. A joke is a story. You tell people stories when you tell them about your day, or about something crazy that happened to you at the Walmart.

You can tell a story. You know how because you've heard them, read them, and watched them all your life. You understand innately about beginnings, middles, and endings. You have a sense of what sorts of stories you like most...and those are the ones you will be most adept at telling.

That doesn't mean you should shy away from any story in your head that you aren't certain about. Not everything is meant to be easy for us. If you have a story idea and you want to pursue it, do it! It might be so difficult you hate it. And it might stink. But it was an idea and pursuing it, even if it doesn't work out, is worthwhile.

There really isn't all that much to learn before you start writing. The most important thing you can do is start. Just write. The worst mistake you can make is to first decide to learn "how to write." You take writing classes and join a critique group so other people can tell you how to write. That's a really bad idea. Why?

Because you already know how to write a story.

Sure, you might have a grammar deficiency. And maybe you aren't exactly sure about sentence structure. But those things can wait. The very first thing you ought to do is write. And write and write and write. And read what you've written. Read it aloud and hear the way it sounds.

It doesn't have to sound grammatically correct or perfect. In fact, perfection is the death knell of a story. Perfection is bland. It's dull and uninspired. You don't want your work to be too polished, too "writerly." You want it to be honest, and human. Authentic. Authentically YOU.

Only you can write the way you write. If you learn too much too soon, if you start letting other people tell you how to do it, if you try to do it the way other writers do it, you will lose your authentic voice. You will be teaching yourself that your voice isn't good enough.

Don't do it! You are a writer simply by being a human being.

So, when you sit down and stare at the blank screen or page, just start writing. Write anything that comes to your mind. And here's the kicker:

Don't try to make it sound good.

Seriously. Don't try to sound like what you think a writer sounds like. Don't try to be smart and use a lot of fancy words. Don't try to be "literary" and make your words sing, or paint pictures.

Just tell the damn story. In your own words. The way you would tell a friend. Be YOU. Write like no other human being on the planet can write: like YOU.

I promise you. You can do that.

 

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What makes a story great?
October 17, 2018

When I started all of this writing and publishing nonsense, I had a hard time finishing a novel. I'd start rather strong and then, after a few thousand words, lose heart. My story wasn't great enough. There wasn't enough conflict, not enough action. The stakes weren't high enough or I couldn't figure out the stakes at all.

But that all changed one night while I sat in bed reading A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby.

Nick Hornby is one of my favorite authors. There is only one book of his that I didn't like. The rest are wonderful. And as I sat reading A Long Way Down, something smacked me on the head. A realization. This book is very simple. A group of people meet atop a building on New Year's Eve all with the intention of hurling themselves off it. It's not as silly as it seems. This particular building has a history of that sort of thing. Anyway, they meet, they manage to put off jumping. And from that point on, their lives are entangled.

There were no grand families. No generational sagas. No end of the world or world shattering conflicts. Just a group of people with difficult lives, learning from one another.

And I suddenly thought, "Hey, wait a minute. There's nothing to this story. It's just...a simple story. And I LOVE it! I love all of this guy's books."

After that, I started to relax and just tell my stories.

So, what is it that makes a story great?

Everybody you talk to has an idea. Conflict, they might say. You have to have a powerful conflict. Without a huge conflict there is no story at all. High stakes--even if it's not the end of the world, it's the end of something big for someone. Beloved characters. Characters that readers identify with, empathize with. And those characters must have an "arc," meaning, they must grow and change somehow. A great narrative voice--one that's easy to understand. Clarity. A beginning that sucks you in, a middle that keeps you on the edge of your seat, and a fantastic, unforgettable ending.

Wow. That's a lot to live up to, isn't it?

But...think about it. Is that really what makes a story great? I mean, can't we all think of some stories that are considered great that aren't all that? I can.

What about The Grapes of Wrath? What makes that story so great? A lot of people will tell you that it isn't a great story at all. That it's boring. It's just a miserable story about miserable people. What makes it great, for me, is that it's well told, it makes you (well, some of us) feel for the characters, and it's realistic. But more so, it's about the human condition. It's a powerful narrative of hope, and hate, injustice, and fear, and the way we treat each other.

The Grapes of Wrath is a great story to me. And when I was trying to write a novel, I kept trying to make my story just as great, just as deeply meaningful and important. But some people hate that story. And that's what you have to understand about great stories. There are all kinds of them. Some people will love your story and some people will hate it.

The truth is that there are great and popular books that don't have all the supposedly necessary elements everyone insists make a great story. Take conflict. Everyone says if you don't have a great conflict, you have no story at all. But what does that even mean?

What's the conflict in The Bell Jar? It's a rambling sort of story about a depressed woman. What about The Catcher in the Rye? These stories seem to lack any real conflict and there are many others. The conflict in these novels is within the main characters. There are minor conflicts between characters but the major gist of the story is just the main character feeling at odds with his environment or self.

There are books in which nothing seems to happen at all. Some people love them. They're usually called "character driven" stories. Because they're all about the character and what's happening in her mind. Does she grow? Well, she doesn't have to. The story could end with her right back where she started. Does that make the story bad? Nope.

Then there are books in which something happens, but it just doesn't seem to matter. Take The Great Gatsby. Some people think it's one of the best stories they've ever read. Others come away thinking it was a waste of time.

You don't even really need a great narrative voice for your story to be great. Often the simplest told stories are the most loved. Fifty Shades of Grey anyone? And who can argue that the Harry Potter books, simply and not expertly told, are as beloved as J.R.R. Tolkien's literary tomes? The truth is, one person's great narrative voice is another's fingernails on a chalkboard.

I recently finished reading Paper Moon by Joe David Brown. After I read it, I took a look at some of the reviews at Goodreads. One person gave the book a very low score because the characters were immoral people. I literally laughed out loud. This person read a book about grifters and then low-starred it because it was about grifters!

You can't please everyone and you should not try to.

What does a story need to be great? Two things. First, a character. A person, an animal, a planet, an environment. Some kind of character through which the reader can hear the story. Second, a basic plot. Something must happen. It doesn't matter what, that's up to you. And that something could be as simple as the character walking through the streets of New York City thinking about how much life sucks.

Your story doesn't need to be great. Or powerful. Or important. It doesn't have to have subplots and twists and metaphors. It just has to be your story.

Kurt Vonnegut outlined six basic story arcs in the video below. It's a must see. But what he says up front is the wisest thing anybody's ever said about story. He said something like, "Here's a story: A man gets into trouble and he gets out of it. People never get sick of that story."

The most important thing to remember when trying to write a story is that it doesn't have to be great. It just has to be yours. Write the story the way you see it. If you love it, that's all that matters.*


 

 

*Fine. If you want to sell thousands of copies, you might want to try plotting out a story with some conflict and great characters, etc. But the truth of it is that you were brought up on story. You know how a story works. And you'll do your best work if you write the kinds of stories that you want to tell.

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Delusions of grandeur or suckiness; neither serve you well

 

Do you suffer from delusions of grandeur?

A long time ago, I was contacted by a guy who wanted help with his book. This book, he said, was a bestseller! It had everything! It was a biography, and he already knew who would play him in the movie adaptation.

Helpful as I tend to be, I told him to write that book! (Did I mention that he hadn't written it yet?) And then, after he wrote it, he should edit it. And then get it published.

He wanted me to do all of that, of course. Because this was a sure-fire bestselling book. When I declined, as I had books of my own to write, he seemed a tad miffed.

I'm not sure, from a psychological standpoint, what it is that makes some people believe that they are fabulous in nearly every respect, especially in their chosen fields of endeavor. And those of us living in the real world tend to view assertions of greatness with a smirk. But who am I to judge? That guy's book might very well be the next huge hit about a drug addled motorcycle gang member who turns to Christ and changes the world.

But one thing is for certain, he won't get very far with that attitude. The proof is, as they say, in the pudding. And the pudding has to be made.

There are two problems people have with publishing. They have either delusions of grandeur or they have delusions of suckiness.

Those with delusions of grandeur submit their work to publishers and blame the publisher for not accepting their kind offer. And then there are those who blame their work when they are rejected. Worse, there are writers who will tell you that if your story was rejected by several publishers, you need to fix it.

Neither of these is the correct approach, of course.

If you want someone else to publish your work, you are basically looking for a job. If you blame an employer for not hiring you--if you say they must not recognize greatness when they see it, or they just don't know what a good employee looks like--you don't understand business at all.

Or maybe you're the type who, when rejected, automatically thinks, "That's it. I've been turned down for employment by five companies. I'm clearly not qualified for a position like this. I should go back to school. Or find something else to do."

Either way, you're wrong. Just wrong.

Publishers are in the business of selling stuff. Whether it's books or magazines. They're looking for content that they think will make them money. Do you have any idea how many submissions they get? Thousands a year. For some, thousands a month.

If your story or book is rejected it means nothing. NOTHING.

Your work just didn't make the cut. There could be all sorts of reasons. Maybe it just wasn't what they were looking for. Maybe it was the wrong subject, the wrong tone, the wrong viewpoint...for them. Who knows? And who cares?

Sure, maybe it's not good enough for that publisher. But maybe someone else will think it's great. Maybe it's not good enough for any publisher. Maybe nobody in the world is going to like it. So, what?

Do you like it? Because that's all that matters.

If you have any doubts about it at all, set it aside and write something else. The more you write, the better at writing you will be and if it was true that the first story you wrote sucked, eventually you'll see it and fix it, or abandon it.

But you can't know if it sucks or not by obsessing over its rejection.

On the other hand, making yourself feel better by assuming the publisher doesn't know good stuff when they read it is hardly beneficial to you. For one thing, if you don't care for what they're selling, why would you send your work to them? Seriously...are you sending work to a publisher because you think their stuff isn't any good and therefore, they will get down on their knees and praise you for sending them something brilliant? (Come on now, admit it: you've had that thought at least once in your life. Maybe we all have.) But if you honestly believe your work is a gift to your employer...you're not living in the real world.

Be realistic. They didn't want your work; it means nothing. Send it to someone else. Keep writing new stuff. And listen to that little voice inside your head that says either, "This is really good; I love it," or "I'm not sure this is really all I want it to be."

Your voice is the only voice you should be listening to.


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Let's get this party started

Let's back up a bit now and assume you haven't finished much of anything at all so you have no delusions yet, neither of grandeur or suckiness. And let's assume that you don't already have the fully formed idea for the greatest bestseller of all time. 

I'm willing to bet that most writers don't start with a complete idea in their heads. They might have a smidgen of an idea. Or they might just want to be a writer and don't know where to start. There are those, I'm sorry to say, who would tell a person like that to forget writing. "If you just 'want to be a writer' but you have no clue what to write, writing isn't for you," they'd say. Hmph, I say. Wanting to be a writer is a perfectly acceptable reason to try to be one. Duh.

Granted, I didn't come to writing out of the blue, standing in my kitchen and suddenly blurting out, "I want to be a writer." Writing was always just something I did. But however the idea bubbles up within a person isn't important. It's getting started that matters.

How do you come up with your ideas?

That's something all writers are asked at some point. 

Writers get ideas all sorts of ways. There are ideas everywhere. In the news. In your family. An overheard conversation. A vivid dream. Some writers carry around notebooks because they feel like they'll have a fabulous idea and if they don't write it down, they'll forget it, and they may never get another one. Personally, I don't write down any fleeting ideas I get. I used to. What I ended up with was a little leather notebook in my purse that I never looked at except to jot down weird bits and pieces of...life.

I never lack for ideas. If you do, then there are exercises you can perform to help you find them. Here are some suggestions:

1. Take your favorite story and ask yourself...what if? What if Elizabeth Bennett was actually the sister of supermodel Jane in 1986 Great Britain? What if she didn't think the wealthy brother of the most influential new designer was arrogant so much as a cad? What if she accidentally ran onto the runway during one of Jane's shows while chasing an errant cat and dove off it, landing in this guy's lap?

See? You are so far away from Pride and Prejudice now it's a whole new story. 

2. Watch the news or read the paper and ask yourself...what if?

3. Jot down whatever you remember of that crazy dream you had and ask yourself...what if?

4. Listen to that couple's argument over eggplant at Publix and ask yourself...what if?

Do you see the pattern here? What if is the greatest tool writers have. In fact, it's the tool. Anytime you're stuck, you just shout it into the void and listen for the answers.

Some writers get a title in their heads. Then they think about what that title might mean. What sort of book does it suggest? What sorts of characters? Then they start asking what if?

Some writers get a character in their heads. A name, or a vision. Then they imagine what sort of situation that character might find herself in. If they like horror, they ask what if...little Jenny finds Satan living under her bed because he's on the run from his demon ex-lover?

Some writers even see an ending first and ask what if backwards. Why not? This is your book and your process. Do whatever works for you.

Some writers merely have a vague idea and work through it. 

I raised three sons. When my youngest was about eleven, I decided I wanted to write a fantasy book with a young boy as the main character. I thought and thought and asked myself what if? I imagined what kind of world he would live in. I imagined what I thought a fantasy story ought to have in it--a powerful object, perhaps. Magic. Fantastic creatures. A prophecy! And I was off to the races.

The first draft of Children of Path, the first book in The Kell Stone Prophecy trilogy, focused mainly on Fenn Foster and the two friends he meets as they attempt to solve the riddle of the prophecy from which they are on the run. But the end result was a much bigger story, with a cast of varied ages, exploring bigger themes. I'll talk more about finding the core of your story in another post.

The point is, I didn't have an idea, or a character, a genre, or a conversation. I just had a desire to write a book with a young boy as a main character. (I suppose that might qualify as starting with a character, but I don't think so.)

But my story does suggest another exercise for you. Ask yourself what genre you want to write in...for this project. (Don't ever imagine you have to stick with a particular genre.) What intrigues you? What do you like to read? What sorts of films or television shows do you like? What do you think you'd have the most fun with? Start there. Then imagine a world, or a character, or a bit of conflict that might work itself into a plot (Karen hates her husband, Hector must save his sister, the gods have plotted together to murder the only creature in existence who can force them to be good--egad!). 

Then start writing.

It's as simple as that.

I hear you whining. "But what do I write? Don't I have to have a plot? What about an outline? Where do I start?"

For now my padawan, just sit down at the computer and write. Write anything. Describe your character, or her world, or what sort of magic she wields. What do you see her doing right now? Or start with a conversation she's having or a scene that pops into your head.

Don't worry about whether or not it's any good. Don't worry about whether or not it will even end up in the final product (it probably won't). Just start writing as soon as you feel that spark of energy and write until you're tired. And then come back and read the next blog post. 

I'll get right on that...


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I'm Stuck. Now What?

Writers often ask others, "Are you a plotter? Or are you a Pantser?" I prefer the term "pantster" myself. It's weirder, but easier to say.

A plotter is a person who outlines his story, sometimes meticulously, before he writes it. A pantster sits herself down at the computer and starts writing. Either way, the assumption is that at the other end of the process, a novel is born. 

I have met an author who does in fact create a highly detailed outline for each novel he writes. The problem with this guy was that he insisted that you also had to do this. It's the only way, in his mind, to write a good story.

I, on the other hand, have myself sat down and written a book from start to finish without an outline or a basic plot idea. I knew a few things that were going to happen. And I knew the scene that would end the novel. But the rest was writing by the seat of my pants. The end result is Camelia, a story told by a suicidal alcoholic. After having written more than ten books, Camelia is still my favorite. Maybe I just have an affinity for suicidal alcoholics.

Here's the thing: what works for me or that outlining guy isn't necessarily going to work for you. And worse, what works for you on one novel may very well not work on another.

My next novel in the so-called Women's Fiction (egad) genre is a case in point. I had a vague idea of what would happen and I sat down and started writing. After more than 40,000 words in, I was lost. I started to outline a little bit to see where I might go from where I'd gotten stuck. I struggled between outlining and writing until I realized there was no saving the story. It was not going where I wanted it to go and I didn't like it. So I abandoned it, opened up a blank document, and started again. 

This time, I thought a bit about the story I was trying to tell: a guy has gone into a fugue state of memory loss and his ex-girlfriend tries to help him remember his life as better than it actually was. I started writing, and when I came to a point at which I wasn't sure where to go, I did some outlining. That's the point at which I came up with the format of the novel--past versus present and how many chapters of each. 

I still wasn't sure what I was going to write, in what form the main character's trauma would play out. I did have an idea of what was going on in his home as he grew up. But the fabulous (in my mind) details I uncovered through the completely creative process of just letting my inner creator take control would never have come about had I outlined too much detail. The most interesting thing was the way I started into the story the second time. The words came out as if I were Magnolia, writing to Jack.

That book is Always Magnoliaan honorable mention in Writer's Digest's Self Published Book Awards.

For other projects, however, I have done more detailed outlines for, at least, parts.

The point is this, you have to do what works for you. 

I like to start writing right away. I write until I get to a point at which I'm not sure where to go, where I want to go, or how is the best way to get there, wherever that might be. So I stop, and jot down a bunch of notes. Sometimes it's a list of plot points--this is what I want to happen. Other times, depending on the type of story, it might be a drawn calendar grid in my notebook on which I keep track of the passage of time with plot points. Sometimes, it looks more like the kind of outline you might have made in school for an essay. But it's never complete--just to the point to get me writing again.

I sometimes don't ever look at my outline again and end up at some point having to do another outline that matches all the ways in which I ignored the previous one. This is because while it's good for me to know where I'm going, I don't want to let my own ideas get in the way of my creative process.

That isn't to say that I always follow this creative mind where it wants to go, but that's its own blog post.

The biggest piece of advice I can give someone who has never written a full first draft is this: Just keep writing. Even if what you're writing is complete trash. As long as you come to moments of brilliance, those times when you feel the rush of authorism washing over you (and you might start practicing interviews in your head), you're doing it right.

I'd say, as long as you get that spark now and then, keep going, even if you have the feeling that this project won't make it. Just finishing a complete first draft will prove to yourself that it can be done. If at the end, you don't like it, put it in the virtual drawer, and start something else.

And never ask anyone's opinion! Well, unless you want to. I'll talk later about the dangers of critique groups on the budding writer's process. But if you feel compelled to show your work to someone else, be forewarned: this is your first ever first draft. If you hear it's fantastic, great. But don't let that deter you from being objective. If you hear it's not so great, try not to let someone else tell you how to make it better. Remember this: You don't want to write their story, or your story the way they would write it. You want to write your story, your way.

And there's no reason you can't do it.

 

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Chapters

I'm going to tell you how to be a writer...

Can you really be a rogue writer?

Who am I to lecture...?

Why do we write?

Everyone really does have a book inside...

What makes a story great?

Delusions of grandeur or suckiness; neither serve you well

Let's get this party started

I'm Stuck. Now What?