Creating a World in 6 Short Weeks

I wrote five new novel manuscripts in the twelve months between November 2018 and November 2019. That’s probably not as dramatic an accomplishment as it sounds, since I have been retired from my day job for some time. Now, I have time to devote to writing, photography, and other interests.

Still, I am happy with the work, as I’ve developed quite a process for myself. I have standardized templates for plotting the books, and so, by the time I start, I know what I am going to write and how it will be organized. I find that’s critical in order to avoid penning a shitty first draft that, frankly, requires a great deal of work to repair.

Blank Novel Plotting Template

Given my stories are all character-centric, I spend more time on understanding the characters than I do any other single point. If I don’t know who the story is about, I’m not certain how I would describe their world or, god forbid, narrate using their own words, as in the case of first-person narrative. Sometimes, the character detail emerges after the first chapter, when I have a taste for the Main Character’s (MC) style. I am a visual beast, so I almost always have sketches or photos of characters before I begin.

The story background is simple here, no more than a few paragraphs for a typical 90,000 word novel. However, for more epic tales or involved plot outlines, I have expanded this section substantially, including details such as outlines for all major characters, major obstacles to be overcome and their proposed solutions, and even location details for stories where world building is a key dynamic. All of this is important, but varies from book to book.

The critical part of the outline, though, is the last section labeled “Main Plot.” The plot outline is a bulleted list comprising no more than one paragraph per bullet (number) in sequential order. Each paragraph is a chapter in the book. Thus, given I know approximately how long a chapter is, I have a pretty accurate guess as to the book’s length before I begin. Some chapters’ outline paragraphs are as long as a half-page, where I know specific plot points or dialog, but some are no more than a few sentences. Importantly, holding my outline to a paragraph per chapter keeps the book’s pace moving and ensures that I only have one thing going on at a time. Readers can jump back and forth, but they can’t do two things at once.

It took me a while to get to this outline, and I used variations before I stumbled across it. I suppose the effectiveness of any process is 1) results and 2) repeatability. I’ll have to await feedback from my primary and beta readers on the results, but repeatability is proven. Each of the first four manuscripts I wrote was finished in 6-8 weeks, with the fifth book having been completed in a mere 17 days. The long books, to my surprise, took no longer to write than the short ones. The main variance seemed to depend upon how complete the plot outline was when I started, and how tight my writing was, frankly. I wrote WIP number 2 at the slowest pace, but that was deceptive, as I rewrote each chapter after I finished it. Essentially, it was two drafts at once, and required far less editing than the others after completion.

Words per 30 days. For comparison, Nanowrimo is 50,000 (1667 words per day). I found that writing almost daily caused my productivity to remain high throughout the 12-month period.

I haven’t decided about publishing these–whether or how–but I am being encouraged to do so by my primary reader. For now, they are written in a pen name so as to differentiate them from the 10 books I’ve already published. But more about those to come. For now, I’m heavily into Science Fantasy editing mode.

These books are quite a ride. I hope you get to take one soon. Cheers.

Plot Outline Template

As a novelist, I’m firmly in the plotter camp. For some of my shorter stories, and, oddly, most of my novelettes, I tend to let the story unfold organically, thinking no more than a page or two ahead. But for novels, there are too many intricacies and loose ends that need tying together to just let the work evolve on autopilot. Now, I know that some people hate working that way and prefer to fix problems in editing, but I’ve found that the best way to fix problems is not to write problems in the first place.

Some of my plots are relatively simple, such as for my novel, The Stubborn Life of Jesse Ed McKinney, I pretty much knew the major problem and the ending, and let the rest of the details come to me as I write. For mysteries and my epic Sci-Fi story, Hard As Roxx, there is no way I could have had a cohesive story without a fairly detailed outline. Now, outlines change, and my books rarely stick to the script. That’s okay. They aren’t meant to; they’re supposed to be dynamic. At the least, I want to know what happens in each chapter. If nothing is going to happen, there’s no chapter to write.

This weekend I mapped out the first sequel to Roxx’s book, Cool Like Jazz, which will be at least a involved as Roxx, with political intrigue, war, adventure, and general dystopian madness. So how to keep all the marbles under the right cups? I came up with an outline template for Microsoft Word that helps me at least organize my thoughts. How much detail goes into an outline is dependent on the writer and the work. This one is  seven 8 1/2x 11 inch  pages long. For a simple plot, it could be much less. For a murder mystery, wherein you have to lay out how the crime happened, all the clues to solve it, and the order that they’re discovered, it could be much longer.

If you’re browsing around for a basic outline structure, take a look at the one below and tell me what you think. The meat of it is Section F, the Plot Outline. For me, each “Step” is pretty much a chapter, and this allows me to know ahead of time what basic thing happens in each chapter — the action, reaction, etc. — and the order they take place.

I.         Opening Setting:

  • Date:
  • Place:

II.         Characters:

  • Name – Born
  • Name – Born

III.         Locations

A      First Location – Important details that go in the story.

B      Second Location – Important details that go in the story.

  • Location Notes
    • General information regarding settings in the story. Do they have a common thread that needs to be brought out?
    • Is there research you need to do before writing?

IV.         Main Plot Structure

A      Background:

  • Any background info goes here.

B      Current State, Day 1:

  • What is the opening situation?
  • What do the readers need to know in Chapter 1?

C      The Big Problems

  • Problem 1
  • Problem 2
  • Problem 3

D     Primary Obstacle –

  • What inhibits our Protagonist from solving the Big Problems?

E      Proposed Solutions

  • How does the Protagonist solve Big Problem 1? Does the solution create another problem or reaction?
  • How does the Protagonist solve Big Problem 2? Does that create another problem or reaction?

F      Plot Outline

  • Step 1 – Action, Opening. (Each of these can be chapters or larger or smaller chunks of the story)
  • Step 2 – Action or Reaction?
  • Step 3 – Action or Reaction?
  • Climax:
  • Resolution
  • Ending

Le Journal de Das Book, Day 0

I am seldom subject to self-delusion. It has been the bane of my existence, this longing for rationality. No, it is not the desire of my dear, sweet frontal lobe, that tattered handmaiden burdened to my subconscious’ longing for prime numbers in all things. The poor dear is merely slave to its master, doing the ill will of that leftist guerrilla that insists that “if it cannot be proved, then it cannot be known.” As such, for all my life, I and my frontal cortex march in enslavement to the structural norms of the multiverse. Indeed, I would insist  that imagination was no thing directly up to and including the time I wrote two novels in three months based on dreaming, despite the fact that I hadn’t dreamt myself in the 30 years prior.

“No,” I’d say. “I’ll believe it after it happens, providing someone smarter than me can prove it actually happened.” Such a soul never appeared, and so, I spat on wishes and dreams and continued my forward, mechanized march.

But now, the MUSE, she screams in my left ear, and I cannot drown her out. I get the idea … no, the insistence, that I am about to write the veritable fuck out of this book … these books, these two or three. On impulse, and in an attempt to free my enslaved frontal lobe and thus cast off the self-identification that has constricted me for these long years, I followed the silly, delusional whisperings, those impulses that I’d long held back.

“Buy those books,” she said. “Your books will be those books, but twisted into a slow, jazz cookbook.” I thought it silly, but this time, did its bidding.

I only vaguely see the connection, and it isn’t in story or plot, because I never read, really, much less follow others’ ideas. Hell, I barely read fiction and most of what I do read, I write. On a whim, and via a pointer by a talented writer who stopped by, I added another to the list, Jazz, by Toni Morrison,  which seemed a good choice given I’d already decided to commit these books as works of music, of long-form poetry that masquerades as prose.

Do I have the talent to do that? Almost certainly not. Can such a style exist in the 21st century without becoming tedious? I’ll let Ms. Morrison answer that for me, but the MUSE has already spoken. “Just you WATCH,” she says, in her shouty, pouty way.

Can one mix tragedy with comedy? Surely, and often. Can one write tragedy so that it makes you laugh in counterpoint to all the happy bits that make you cry? Perhaps. Can I do it, MUSE? Am I enough?

“NO!” she says. “But WE are enough.”

So, there, I suppose, it begins. My antagonist already talks to me, and often, in his Louisiana backwater drawl. I cain’t hardly shut the ol’ boy up, his fat, red-tinged face becoming vivid now. His cheeks are rouge and puffy with the exertion of making his case, but I don’t want to listen. His spiky strawberry blond hair is so loud that even my wife could see it. But then, she often sees or hears a thing if I remember to think it hard enough. I so seldom do remember to do that.

If you knew me in person, and be glad you don’t, you’d likely mistake me for a stand-up routine. So, I suppose that alone qualifies me to write a tragedy. Now to sort through all the literary quarks and bind them into atoms so that I can begin–just a small start–in hearing this lot. I still don’t know how many books this is or why MUSE wants me to write them all at once. She insists it’s all one story, but that makes no sense. And non sense is even worse than no thing to my frontal lobe. But I’ll sigh and move forward.

I suppose I’ve already been given a hint I’m on the right path, guided as I was to Josephine Tey. Long have I ranted about how formulaic books have become, writing has become. We no longer read books, but revisit characters. We are all in a Bizarro Marvel Universe, waiting for the next volume even though we already know what the hell the book will be like before it’s written. And then there’s the soft, straight prose of the book I’m reading, and it asks, “Did no one, any more, change their record now and then? Was everyone nowadays thirled to a formula?”

Yes, Ms. Tey, I change my record quite often. The first Jeanne Dark was Oscar Peterson, in fact. This one is all Coltrane fused with Robert Johnson as he fights off traces of Hank Williams, Sr. It’s old-school, with a touch of 1970s British Rock, thank you very much, and it’s quite the mélange if you get the formula right. Here’s to hoping someone passes me a recipe.

A bad mix is just a bunch of noise, and there’s too much of that already.

So, it’s Day 0, the day I start. I’m writing sequels to books I’ve never bothered to publish. I don’t need to. I like them, so who needs more validation than that? But Hank, my antithesis, he wants his own book, his own brooding darkness and I’m not sure my soul can bear the stain of it. Maybe I can bend him toward the light, just a bit, just enough to wring the Douglas-Adams-infused black humour from him.

That turn would be enough. You with me, dearest MUSE? More importantly, am I with you?


The November Project

“Androidgynous,” the tale of a genuinely sexy robot.

I’m torn. Some of you may have heard of NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month. It runs for 30 days in November of each year. Well, I’ve done it a few times, and it’s no big deal at this point. In fact, it’s a little asinine in that the objective is to write a 50,000-word “novel” but most participants write neither. Even if they did, 50,000 words does not a novel make. In any case, the only real “prize” for “winning” is knowing you did it and feeling superior to the cretin who failed like the losers they are.

Ahem. Sorry.

Even so, I’ve found it a good stimulus to continue to write. I always write something in the summer and start or finish a major project in November. This year, I can’t decide what my next project should be. I’ve begun writing short stories toward my next anthology, the working title of which is Dark City Stories. I have 3 written, 1of which I really like , and a  second story is underway.

So, for November, I can either continue working on my short stories, and try to crank out 50,000 words (143 pages) worth, or I can start work on my long-delayed detective novel, Jeanne Dark. I chose the name Dark City Stories as I’ve considered starting Jeanne out as a novelette in the collection. (It would be her second story.)

For the short story collection, I already have a number of ideas:

  • “30 July 3013” – Life in the city.
  • “321 Hell Street, Apt 7” – There is a darkness in the penthouse apartment of an old building populated by a diverse group of city dwellers. Rumors are its been there forever. But now it wants to leave.
  • “A Girl Named Serenity Sea” – This is a fun and lyrical tale of a very unusual woman, and the complement to the novelette I completed named “Holy Mother of Selina Sky” (my favorite short story to date. It will be one of the first short stories ever penned that is based to a large extent on internet memes, with a real story wrapped around it.

    “If you ever feel as though you’re stuck behind the looking glass, the only logical thing to do is to build yourself an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ room”
  • “Beyonder” – A tale of a wise and worldy elephant
  • “The Girl Who Wore Shoes” – this is the tale of a young woman who wore shoes, but nothing else.
  • “The Nebula that Awoke”
  • “Umbrella Girl” – This one is a surprise … to me.

For the most part, instead of written ideas, I’m plotting the stories initially purely visually, using images as prompts. Those interested can check out my Pinterest collection. I also have some other ideas that I came up with traditionally: a sensual love story that takes place in a large city on another world, the love story of two people who discover they live in non-linear time, and an urban tale of gang life in the distant future. While writing short stories is satisfying, I find it more draining than books, because each “chapter” is a separate book. All the ideas have to be fresh.

It’s damned hard to come up with ideas. Even then, sometimes translating them into coherent stories takes real work. “Selina Sky” was the hardest thing I ever wrote.

My other choice is starting Jeanne Dark. I’ve previously written about her character, more than once. I recall writing that I cannot begin the novel until I’ve finished it in my head. I’m almost finished. I even have her car, which I’ve personalized. I’ve had her in my head since March 2012. She’s a collection of unique traits, with the skill of a Sherlock Holmes but none of the personality. She’s a synesthete, for one thing. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting on, until very recently, when I met the real-life version of my Jeanne. She’s so much like my character it’s scary.

So, I can also begin writing Jeanne, except for one thing: I have NO IDEA what mystery she needs to tackle. What’s something fresh that’s not been over-explored? Don’t know.

What do you guys think? If you were me, what would you tackle, the short stories, or begin work on Jeanne Dark? The good news with Jeanne is that I already have the cover art done. 🙂

The Rest of the Story

So, I’m at the point in my web serial where I can either continue to post, or wrap up the online portion. My latest work-in-progress, Hard as Roxx, also started as a serial. But due to spotty readership and my unhappiness in posting a 1st draft, I turned it into a novel. Two drafts later, and it’s my favorite book.

Similarly, while eating lunch today, I had a gust of insight as to the rest of the story line for Skip Tracer. As one might expect, it will be a mystery with quite a bit of romantic intrigue, as well as cross-country (or beyond) manhunt, with a few other twists thrown in. Being naturally twisted, plot turns come easily for me.

I am already about a month ahead in the writing, given the posting frequency, and I can continue to lay out the story here, as my 1st draft, or I can just focus on writing. Doing a web serial is a bit like washing your underwear in public. People are bound to see some stuff you didn’t want to show. However, I think it forces me to try to keep the pacing quick and the story tight; plus, it gives folks a chance to see my writing style, and perhaps buy my books. (I’ll be releasing 2 in paperback later this year.)

Anyway, feedback is welcome. I have the usual blog dilemma: people “like” who don’t read and others read but don’t interact. If no one cares, I’d just as soon use the energy elsewhere, so let me know what you think. I’d still like this to be an interactive exercise.

So what do think: keep it a web serial or switch to writing a book?

Overthinking and Underthinking in Plotting


I often see writers debate about which is preferable, “plotting” or “pantsing.” Plotting refers to diligently lay out your story’s plot before writing in earnest, using outlining or some similar method. True plotters may create outlines so detailed that they are actually incorporated into the work during the writing phase. Evan Marshall, author of The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, should be considered the patron saint of plotters.

Pantsing refers to those writers who write via “the seat of their pants,” without the benefit of a true outline, and sometimes without knowing what the story will be about in advance. Stephen King is a well-known advocate of this method (which is why some critics claimed his early works used to fall apart in the final act). *Bill raises his hand.

I won’t describe these two methods in great detail as they’ve been described a lot, and you can look them up for yourself. Instead, I want to discuss the pitfalls of each and how to find your way in between the two extremes.

Now in truth, few people probably fall into the extremes of either method, and both can be used successfully. I fully plotted my third novel, Emprise, in advance, as it was the conclusion of a trilogy, and I was determined that 100% of the plot lines would close. That is the great benefit of plotting, being able to analyze plot lines in advance, and construct your story so that it is fluid and logical.

It’s also the trap. For some, it’s too easy to start thinking of the outline as your story. The story isn’t written until you write it, and much of it will be in your head before you ever sit down to the computer. Even the most detailed outline should be considered a guide, not a prison. Rigid plotters sometimes overthink so much they are filling in their story’s blanks to the exclusion of imagination.

Pantsers, in the extreme, sit in front of the computer, and make shit up. They let the characters guide the story, moving from one scene to the next without a pre-designed flow. Often, they don’t know what the ending will be until they get there. Plotters, in contrast, often write the ending before they begin the book.

The trap here is easy to see. You can be a Stephen King, 900 pages into a (600-page) book, with no clear way of shutting down the story. (If you’re King, you’re also too big for an editor to back you down.) A less skilled (and most of us are) writer will discover s/he has painted him or herself into a corner. The result is backtracking, massive editing, and often, choppy and uneven writing. Why? Underthinking. You can’t make up a 75,000-word story on the fly and expect it to hold together. Want to know why 1st drafts suck? That’s why.

I’m not talking about wordsmanship when I say choppy writing; I’m referring to pace. I can often tell a pantser’s book because the pacing is uneven. There will be a section rife with action: one, two, three  chapters in a row of chills. And then, suddenly, we’re hit with 50 pages of backstory dialogue at a party. Why? Because the author hadn’t thought in advance how long to be in each scene. That’s the plotting part.

It also leads us to how to use bits of plotting to shore up your work without getting bogged down or ruining your flow. Let’s be scientific here for a minute. If you are a natural pantser, you will likely never shift to the plotter mode. Why? Because it’s determined by your brain and personality type. Plotters are what Carl Jung and Myers-Briggs calls Judging types, who naturally organize their environment. *Bill raises his hand again. They plot, because it helps them to manage the world. Plotters write in Word, because they knew the outline in advance. Pantsers are the Sensing type, who do precisely the opposite. They navigate the world by maximizing their flexibility. Plotting restricts and stresses them. Pantsers write using tools like Jutoh, so they can move whole chapters or sections around after they’re written, according to what feels right.

So, how do you get the benefit of both methods – to know where the story will go, and roughly how to get there, without stopping to use the bloody road map? Easy.

There is a hybrid method. I first began to merge the two in writing short stories, where there is insufficient space for a long plot. Although a natural plotter, I began to see the advantages of letting the story lead – most of all, having the plot twist all of its own accord. More on plot twists tomorrow, but suffice it to say that when you have no pre-conceived ideas for a story (or a chapter) your imagination is freer. It’s writing by brainstorming.

After a few short stories, I tried my hybrid method on a longer piece – my 400+ page science fiction novel, Hard as Roxx. Roxx was the perfect vehicle, as much of the story takes place “on the road,” with things happening to the characters that they have to deal with. As a result, the book would remain fluid even if the lack of heavy plotting bounced Roxx and her kids from episode to episode. I spent more time choreographing the fight scenes than outlining the novel.

So what did I learn from the process? That some structure is almost imperative, for any work much above 5,000 words, unless you are fine with doing a lot of moving around during editing. But too much structure limits the imagination in ways you may not have intended. At a minimum, I’d recommend the following as a hybrid, limited-plotting method.

1. Know who the main character is. This doesn’t have to be very detailed, just enough in your head that the MC is well rounded and consistent. Of course they will grow in your story, and they should, but don’t make them an introvert in chapter 1 and the life of the party in chapter 3.

2. Have some idea of the ending. You can change the details later. However, you should have a good enough idea so that you know when your story is over. (That will already put you ahead of some writers who end too soon or too late.) Sure, you can expect the ending be happy when you’re plotting and then kill all the bitches off at the end, but at least you’ll know it was the end.

3. Decide how long (in words) you want the story to be up front. DO NOT start writing until you decide. You may change (as I have) from a short story to a novelette if you’ve guessed wrong, but you’ll very quickly know your original idea wasn’t workable and be able to adjust before you build yourself walls you can’t overcome.

4. Think in terms of quarters. 1st 25% – we learn the basic story line; the main “what if” or problem is identified. Next 50% – we learn the story and stuff happens to the hero; subplots form. Last 25% – the climax and resolution of plot lines. Don’t think this is important? Watch any of your favorite 60-minute TV dramas. I bet you that the climax happens with precisely 15 minutes to go (right before the last commercial break). The formula not only works, readers come to expect it, even without realizing it.

5. If you have a fun idea, run with it. It’s your story. Not only should you not worry about changing your mind, you should be worried if you don’t. You may write a minor character who’s more interesting than your main ones, and find her taking over the book. Let her; she’s a natural star. You may add to your story, on impulse, a puppy that  a neighbor tried to give you that day, and find your readers “love” that puppy (*cough, Apache!). Give the puppy more work. *Bill raises his hand for the last time.

The point of the exercise is to discover that having some structure is positive and it needn’t get in the way of the story. My web serial is being written with no advanced plotting at all. However, the hybrid method still works, because when I get an idea, it’s easy to plan the next chapter using the method I just laid out.

Give it a try and let me know how you made out.

Don't get pantsed
Don’t get pantsed

Background Work

I decided that the main character of the new book, Jeanne “Dark” D’Arc, owns a 1972 Renault Alpine. She is proudly, almost stubbornly French, and the year is special to her. Her personal symbol is the Ibis, which she had painted on her car. It is a clumsy bird, inelegant, until it can take flight. Having been injured by an accident in her teenage years, the same can be said for her.

I’ve learned that I can’t write a character properly until I “know” them. For short stories, that means grabbing the one thing that motivates them through the story. For longer stories (novelas, novelettes) I have a very brief sketch of who the main characters are. For novels, however, I get to channel my inner OCD. I have full character profiles that include any of the following items:

  • Name, date of birth, place of birth, zodiac sign
  • Parents, siblings
  • Genealogy up to 2-3 generations back
  • Full personality profile – Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Brainstyles, psychological profile, quirks
  • Strengths and weaknesses (included in MBTI)
  • Loves, Hates, and oddities

I don’t really like spending years with a character who is exactly like everyone else you meet. Mainly, that is because I’ve never met anyone exactly like everyone else. I don’t reveal most of the above right away, and quite a bit I never include in the stories at all. However, they form the basis of the “personness” to me. Once I have them in my mind, it’s as easy to write from the character’s perspective as it would be to pen an essay about my mom. That’s as it should be. These characters are my kids.

Shouldn’t we be able to tell our kids apart?

Take Jeanne, for instance. In looking for classic French cars, I came across the Renault Alpine (above) and the 1959 Renault Floride. Now, I knew little of classic Renaults, but I knew the character was “created” while I was looking at a jazz video by Melody Gardot, and she would remain cool and elegant. She doesn’t like convention, and is an artist’s soul in a pragmatist’s body. So her choice of car would be something almost no one had. However, her pragmatism means that she rarely drives it, as parts are nigh-unto impossible to get. So, she owns a beautiful car, mainly as an occasional escape. Given it’s mostly a work of art, why not have it custom painted, to make it hers?

Who knows if the car (or her little mostly reproduction Floride) ever make it into the book? But I’ll know what she does on her weekends, and what car she’s in when she needs to head to a New England getaway. That’s what really matters, I think, that we know. It’s like telling a story to friends, where you leave out the “irrelevant” details. They will want to know the stuff you omit, based on the hints you’ve dropped. That’s how you keep them interested.

At least, that’s my theory. Who the hell knows if it works? Still, if you saw a pretty lady with a slight limp, large, dark sunglasses, wearing a hat and coat that looked as if she stepped out of a Humphrey Bogart movie, wouldn’t you be intrigued?

Getting Dark

My next book, which I will start plotting this month, stars a female Security Analyst – a female Sherlock Holmes type – who is gifted with Synesthesia. Her partner is a burly, ex-Army Ranger with what he calls a “Crazy Magnet.” Together, they stumble across a plot that threatens to unravel the uneasy thread of peace among major Superpowers. It will not be a typical crime/espionage thriller. I’m not the typical type. However, I do intend for it to appeal to readers of that genre.

My lead’s name is Jeanne D’Arc, professionally known as Dark. Her partner is Foster Cain, Foss for short (Mr. Cain if he doesn’t like you.)

The photo at top is the 1st mockup I developed for Dark. I need to decide on how she looks before I start. I’m very visual, and need to be able to “see” my characters as the story unfolds. It isn’t so much a picture of their appearance as it is an image of their attitude. I capture their “vibe” or essence, as I write. In a way, it’s much like remembering a dream. Even when I find a photo that looks like my character, it isn’t really them; instead, the photo is an actor playing the role I write. Sometimes, the image comes first. Other times, a photo resonates, and gives me the character.

Dark is the most illusive of all my leads. I can feel her, visualize her clearly – all but her face. I see her attitude – the quiet surety, her comfort with being a very square peg in a round societal hole, her gifts. But I cannot see her face; maybe it is because she does not see others’ faces the way we do. They are colored with other things. Likewise, Jeanne Dark is colored by her synesthesia and the Dark glasses.

Perhaps her appearance changes. We shall see. There are other possibilities for Dark. She will come, and even if others try to steal her from me, they cannot. What I have revealed is 1% of her. There is more to come … much, much more. And. there is Foss. he has already starred in a short story, and has agreed to narrate Dark’s. So much more to come.

Which image do you find the most intriguing as a lead?

  1. The quiet, detached, confident, dirty blonde? She shows a cool exterior; she is logical, precise, but follows no one’s lead but hers. Paths are not the way forward, but merely departure points for finding her own way.
  2. Perhaps the brunette beauty of unknown ethnicity. She knows you want to know more, is confident of her ability to intrigue you. She often looks into your eyes, and reads you from stem to stern, but you will not know she notices, unless she chooses that you know. She is smart, strong, and sexy. They are weapons, she knows, but none of those things are what she values. She only values the truth.
  3. Or maybe she is the third woman. She is ice blonde – not like you. Her world is different than yours, what she sees is a blanket that covers her, and the only way she can survive is to shield herself from it. Her eyes are her weapons. On some days, she feels like Cyclops of the X-Men – she fears if she unleashes their full power, you will be destroyed by her. Still, she is compelled to find the truth – it is an obsession, and she is locked onto you like radar. You will not know her, for she is not like you. But she will know you – better than you know yourself.

One can get a lot from a photo, no?

Outlining Short (or longer) Works


Getting  organized can really blow.

Typically, I don’t outline short stories. That isn’t because I don’t think I need them. Frankly, I think any story can benefit from a bit of outlining. Rather, I use short stories as stretching exercises; since I am by nature organized, I use shorter pieces to expand my extemporaneous writing style. In other words, I go all Stephen King on them (minus the hard drink).

For you more free-wheeling types, you might try the converse. Use short pieces to try your hand at structured writing. You may find you like it enough to add it to your repertoire. I think too many writers view structure as the enemy – as if somehow it will put your imagination in a corner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The right amount of structure (right for you, that is) allows for a framework that lets your mind run free. It allows you to tap into the deepest parts of your imagination without having to worry about whether your story will stay cohesive. Done correctly, it is no more confining than say, deciding you are writing a gothic romance rather than a contemporary one. How would your story unfold if you decided that you don’t need to adhere to a time setting, genre, or even a set of characters?

Your story would suck.

See, you are already using structure. Plotting structure is no more confining. In fact, it is during outlining that my mind is the most free. Outlining is the time I allow myself to engage in brainstorming. Here is where the best “what-if’s” come out. In addition, outlining allows me to chop out the dead ends before I use up too much mental energy barreling down the wrong path.

With that in mind, let me offer up a suggested approach for a short piece.

 1. Setting – Setting is not just the “where” of the story, it is the “when,” the “why,” and more. The setting, in effect, sets the backdrop upon which your story is painted. It comprises, among other things:

a. Location (where) – ______________________________________

b. Time (when) – _________________________________________

c. Historical/Political/Societal context (if relevant to the story or the readers’ understanding) ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­______________________________________________

d. Environment – what do we see? smell? hear? feel? taste? – _______________________



e. All of which leads to Mood. What is the mood of the story (or main character), given the setting? _____________________________________________________________________

 The setting can encompass something as broad as a societal norm (e.g., a dystopian society’s set of rules) or a narrow as a place (sunrise in the Sahara). This should shape the story being built upon it.

 2. The Big Suppose – What is the main “suppose” in the story, the big idea? For example, “Suppose there was a society in which only one child could be born per woman.” The big idea of your short piece is probably a single suppose, but longer works could have several. In addition, the main idea should stimulate smaller ones, or lead you to explore what conditions are necessary for the Big Suppose to happen in the first place.

a. The Big Suppose – Suppose … _____________________________________________


 Try Robert Bloch’s Psycho’s Big Suppose: “Suppose there was a creepy motel owner who killed single women, but believed his mother did it?” This naturally leads the writer to start asking follow-up questions: Why would he kill? Is his mother still alive? Was she the murdering type? How do the victims get to the motel? Can I slip in a naked shower scene to pull in male readers? It gets silly, but fun, if you have the right attitude.

 3. The Major Conflict/Problem – What is the major obstacle that your protagonist will need to overcome? ___________________________________________________________


 a. What events  make the conflict worse or builds suspense? ______________________


 b. What can resolve the conflict? ____________________________________________

 c. How does the story climax? _______________________________________________

 d. Who is involved in the conflict? ____________________________________________

 Remember, this is the main conflict, but there should be secondary ones. No one wants to see a protagonist winning all the time. Neither do they want to spend a weekend reading about a gigantic tool loser. Let them win sometimes, but put them through the wringer. These are the actions that will elicit reactions. More about that later.

 4. Characters – Seems intuitive that you need to have stars of your story, and it is. However, here are some things to think about.

a. Protagonist (Hero) – This is your star. The readers will need to care about what happens to this person or nothing you write will make a bit of difference. I recommend spending time developing the traits of all your main characters, but more thought should go to this one. There are two ways of doing it – having a broad brush and letting the details naturally fall into place, or thinking about and writing them out in advance. I do the latter, not to restrict things, but so that I have something to check against later, just for consistency. I change this all the time, until about midway through the story

b. Antagonist (Villain) – This actually doesn’t have to be a bad person. In fact, it’s better if there is a little gray (or even goodness) in them. However, conflicts are more appealing if the hero struggles against not just a thing, but a who.

c. Main Secondary Characters – Love interests, BFFs, Bearers of suckage (obstacles) – Don’t try to be all-inclusive, just map out a few you can’t afford to forget. This is your playbill.

d. For Each Main Character, fill out the below:

  i. What is their background? ____________________________________________

 ii. What is their personality? Introvert/Extrovert? ____ Planner/Impulsive? ________ Logical/Emotional? ____  Organized/Free Spirit? _____  This alone will give you a big picture personality type (Myers-Briggs) that you can use to fill out your character. I can point to more info if you want (just drop in a comment).

 iii. How do they talk? Are they educated? Formal? Ghetto? Foreign? _______________

 The cool thing about using the character types like Meyers-Briggs is that you can quickly determine what types are compatible with your star, and who (and how) will grate on their nerves. Having this in mind makes dialogue flow much easier.

 4. Point of View (POV) – What POV is your story in? In general, stories are told in past tense. Pick one viewpoint per section, chapter, or even book.

a. First person past – A character is telling the story. “I went downtown …”

b. First person present – If you want to go all Hunger Games on your reader, try First Person Present – “I go downtown, and Bob is there. I hate Bob.”) Harder, but you’d be surprised how much quicker the action flows when you write like this. Be careful, however, it can get pretty hokey fast. I often write action sequences this way, and convert them to past tense later.

b. Third person – A narrator is telling the story. “Brady went downtown.”

c. Second person – Don’t. No. Bad writer. Bad.

d. Third Person Omniscient – this is where you are in everyone’s head at once. It is hard to pull off effectively, and even then it’s problematic. Amateurs often write this way, so even if you are skilled, you run the risk of having readers (agents) think you have no idea what you are doing.

 5. Action / Reaction  – According to Evan Marshall, every scene is either an action or reaction. To me, this is the key to laying out a plot. You don’t have to fill in each section in detail. In fact, you can limit it to a sentence or two that explains where in your plotting the section you are writing falls. It should include the Setting (where), Character (who), and the POV (how). The what will be determined in the scene itself. Why the action unfolds is based (at a high level) on your overall Suppose, and at a lower level by the flow of the action itself. Start with your opening, and lay out the plot in sequences as follows:

 a. Action – This is what happens. Unless it’s your 1st scene, it should relate somehow to the previous scene (or a prior scene if you have multiple plotlines weaving through the story).

  i. Character, POV,  setting, relation to prior scene _______________________________

 ii. What is the character trying to do? __________________________________________

 iii. What obstacles are in their way? ___________________________________________

 iv. How is success further complicated (arguments, fear, etc?) ______________________


 v. What does character do to try and overcome obstacles and complications?  _________


 vi. How is it resolved? Success? Failure? Things get even worse ____________________


 In summary, this is WHAT HAPPENS to character. The character does stuff, and bad things happen. Sometimes good things, but not always … please.

 b. Reaction – This is a response to the prior action. It can be a chapter, or just a brief scene within the next chapter that shows the events don’t happen in a vacuum.

 i. Character’s emotion state – in response to how Action was resolved ________________

 ii. What does character do in response (review? react? regain control of emotions? analyze?) How they respond will be determined by the severity of the action, and their personality type (which you’ve previously profiled- right?).  _____________________________

 iii. Character takes action or formulates plan ____________________________________

 In summary, this is HOW DOES CHARACTER RESPOND? Their actions should set up the next scene. Using this method, you should be able to logically follow a plot to its conclusion.

 6. Flow – I like Evan Marshall’s 3-act play flow model. It’s simple, and if you study movies and TV shows, you will find a remarkable consistency with this. Think 25%, 50%, 25%.

a. Start – this is time zero. For a 10,000-word story, this is word 0. “Once upon a time…”

b. First Failure/Surprise – 25% in. Here, at about word 2,500, our hero is hit with their first major setback. This should be the conflict wherein we the reader now understand what the story will be about.

c. Middle Half- Stuff Happens – for the next 50% of our story (5,000 words), more things happen. They follow in action/reaction sequence, building to the ultimate climax. There have been little (or major) setbacks along the way, and some victories as well.

d.Climax – At 25% from the end (7,500 words in), the MAJOR FAILURE happens. Our hero is devastated. However, they rise heroically, and spend the last 25% of the story achieving victory. (Or failing miserably, if you hate happy endings.)

 If you don’t believe me on the flow, watch a 60-minute drama. See if the big commercial break that follows the climax doesn’t happen at 15 minutes before the hour. Of course, with anything else, your mileage may vary. Feel free to adjust this as needed, or in accordance to your own personality. For short works, I don’t use action/reaction as much, but in the actual writing, I keep that sequence in mind. Let me know what worked and didn’t.


A Very Small Matter of Outlining

Now, I already know what you’re saying, Alica McKenna-Johnson. “I already told you, I’m a total pantser.” Yeah, yeah. Oh great, now the rest of you are nodding. (sigh)

So there you are, happily kicking the story along by the seat of its … pants. You don’t want to stop and outline, because the words are flowing, your Right Brain is engaged, rolling through your minds’ lilied fields, and if you stop to get all organized, your stupid Left Brain will build cubicles around your characters, and they will get bored, and leave.

I get that, actually.

Although I test as being very organized, I’m secretly not. In fact, I’m right-brained by nature. Don’t know which one you are? Look at the spinning lady. (From The Herald Sun.) Mostly right-brained thinkers see her spin clockwise, left brained folks, counter-clockwise. Although I see the dancer moving in the right-brained direction, if I close my eyes, and think about things I need to do, I open my eyes and voila’, she’s spinning in the left-brain direction. We can train our minds to include structure without losing the basic benefits of being creative.

So, is there a compromise in writing outlines? I think there is. For short stories, I never bother to outline. If there are plot holes, it’s fairly simple to fix them in a short work. For books, where I want the action to be spontaneous, I use a limited outlining technique. Essentially, it consists of defining the word count, characters, location, story background, simple plot (the 1-2 sentence pitch), and a very rudimentary outline.

For characters, I only deal with the principals: Main Character, Main Supporting Character and/or Love Interest, Opposition, and any other major characters that will drive the plot. I don’t worry about incidentals or minor characters. Those will show up when they need to. For even long works, in my simple outline, I only have 3-6 characters defined when I start. Now, for me, novels are character-driven. If I don’t care about them, I don’t care about the book. As a result, I tend to decide the critical things before I start: their basic personality type, the key elements of their back story, key physical features, etc.

But here’s the fun, right-brained part. This needn’t be structured. In fact, I achieve better results when I just let it flow all right-brained, disorganized style. (Chuck would be pissed. If you don’t know who Chuck is, shame on you.) There is plenty of time to get organized during those start-up periods of your daily writing wherein you’re trying to get back in the flow of the book. This is where I tidy things up. But doing this before I start writing usually means there is no cleanup needed.

The background information is pretty much what you would expect. It varies depending on the story. Again, I find I get better productivity when I allow this to flow naturally. No editing, no thinking too hard. I can do that before I start to write.

So now I have my elevator pitch – the big “What If” (also sometimes called “The Suppose”); I have my characters, and the very basics of the backstory and the plot. I’m anxious to get started, and don’t want to spend years weeks days trying to get the structure set up.

I use a short form of Evan Marshall’s method to set up an outline as follows (remember, we’ve already decided how long the book is – let’s say, 80,000 words):

  • First chapter – introduce main character, jump into story as deeply as possible to engage the reader, try to limit characters introduced to no more than a few.
  • 25% of the way into the book (20,000 words) – The 1st Major Failure – This is where the first major failing and/or obstacle is introduced. By now, the reader should know the problem, and have a pretty good idea of what the story is about.
  • 25% – 75% – Story progresses – more failures, growth, etc.
  • 75% into the book (60,000 words) – The final Big Fail – I’m using the term “fail” loosely. It’s the big problem, conflict, or whatever structure your story needs to overcome. Don’t believe me? Look at a 60-minute TV drama, and see if the big drama doesn’t happen with 15 minutes to go.
  • By 90% (72,000 words), you should be at, or pretty close to your Big Climax. If not, you may need to do a little re-structuring during your edits. But having this as a milestone will at least get you to think about it.

That wasn’t so bad, was it? What’s cool is that you can fill this in more up front, or even as you go. If you are writing scenes in the classic Action – Reaction – Sequel flow (stuff happens, people respond, follow-up happens) you can map out your chapters between your key milestones.

Again, only use as much of your left brain as you want to. Oddly, I’ve found that having this structure actually lets me write more seat of the pants than I would without it. Since I kind of know what will happen in Chapter 11, for example, I can just sit down and write out notes, which turns into actions, and then dialogue. I can let the story flow without worrying about having to fix what goes where later.

Anyway, what the hell do I know? Try your own method. Just don’t let yourself be certain you can only write one way. You might surprise yourself. I was a total plotter until I tried this. Now, I’m a hybrid, and proud of it.

Very funny. That is NOT what I meant.