Outlining for Fun and Word Count

Photo by landschaft on Flickr.

Until recently, I was not big on outlining. I believed that making things up as I went along was vital to the creative process, that it kept things fresh and unpredictable, that it prevented boredom. I believed that outlining somehow sterilized the process and rendered it artistically inert.


Now, I’m not here to tell you that you need to start outlining right this minute to be a professional (or, god forbid, “real”) writer. As always, you do what you want. But I’m going to tell you why outlining works for me, and about the significant positive results I’ve had.

The Why

I started my first serious outline while working on a very un-serious project for a friend. It was a casual piece of fiction that got out of hand (like so many casual projects do). Originally intended as a small-scale piece, the cast of characters swelled to gargantuan proportions, and the plot with it. (This happens to me all the time. I seem incapable of sticking to a small, concentrated cast of characters. But that’s a story for another day.)

To keep track of these characters and the emerging and labyrinthine plot, I started making a rough outline. The rough outline became a spreadsheet, which eventually became several spreadsheets. One handled scene order and timing. Another tracked characters through chapters. A third listed personality traits, goals, and ambitions at a glance. For the record, I recommend starting with the first of these and seeing how that goes.

I hadn’t yet considered outlining my more serious work, which is why I think this knock-off story became such a breakthrough for me. I had no hangups about this piece. It was intended for a tiny and personal audience, and I’d never have to worry about salability. That unstrung a lot of my issues and let me start outlining, rather than fretting over some abstract and ill-defined notion of artistic purity.

The other big “why” came out of that great pantsing Mecca, National Novel Writing Month 2010. That year, I wrote the second book of a series I’d been working on for a while. Midway through, I created a whole bunch of new characters, a new secondary plot, and took the story in a whole new direction.

That was a mistake. I later realized that I’d only gone in that direction because I had no idea where the main story was headed. I’d written thousands of words on some new story that didn’t have those problems, hoping that when I got back around to the main plot, I’d somehow have an answer to its nagging issues.

As you can guess, that didn’t work. I ended up throwing away a lot of work and wasting a lot of time — all of which could have been prevented with an outline.

The How

When outlining, I tend to start simple and work toward complex. Since story for me is always centered on the characters, I start with them. I begin with something like this:

That tells me their most basic arc. I do the same for the other major characters. Then I start defining their relationships with one another. Once I figure out the character’s ambitions, story goals, and motivations, it’s time to start blocking out scenes. My scene spreadsheet looks something like this:

I generally include:

  • The scene number
  • The POV character (color-coded for easy reference)
  • The details of the scene
  • Word count
  • Date written
  • Notes on what purpose the scene serves
  • A field for whether or not the scene’s been written (so I can skip over something and come back to it without Ruining Everything Forever)
  • Optional: day of the week (for watching timing issues)

Sharp-eyed readers will recognize this as a variant on the Snowflake Method scene sheet. I use it because it’s served me well in the past.

The important thing to remember when writing an outline like this is that things will change. All the time. The whole point of the outline is not to create a rigid, inflexible flowchart. It’s more like a roadmap showing where all the turnoffs, construction work, and washed-out bridges are. Looking at the notes in my scenes, I can instantly tell which ones are weak and need revising or cutting.

As you write and develop the story, you’ll find problems. You’ll see things that don’t work. You’ll move scenes around. This is good. It means the outline is working. Don’t get hung up on following the outline no matter what. The outline is not the story. At best, it’s a Frommer’s guide. It’s Cliff notes. So don’t sweat it too much.

The Results

After trying the outline on for size, I made a point of tracking how much faster I wrote with an outline in hand.

When simply improvising my work, I averaged anywhere between 500-1500 words a day before I’d burn out. At most, I’d write two or three scenes.

My record when working with an outline was over 6,000. My actual average was somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000, usually an average of four or five scenes.

A dramatic difference. In terms of numbers, there’s no question that outlining works better for me.

But what about enjoyment and spontanaeity? Actually, that’s measurably better as well. Knowing what purpose the scene is there to serve, and its place in the greater story, leaves me free to play around more with the prose without worrying that I’ll get off-track. It’s like being in a theme park where all the entrances and exits are clearly marked. You can still ride all the rides, but you don’t have to wander around looking for a way out afterward.

So, pretty demonstrably, outlining works for me. Does it work for you? Does it not work for you? Tell me your story.

Surly Questions: Cara Michaels

Today’s Surly Questions interview is courtesy of Cara Michaels, #MenageMonday magnate and author of Gaea’s Chosen. Thanks, Cara!

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I discovered a talent for writing in the middle grades or so, but I didn’t really start to consider a writing career until high school and college. Then I waited another 5-10 years for the idea to settle in and grow… not unlike a parasite. At some point in my mid 20’s, I realized I couldn’t not write.

3. What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

I gave five chapters to an editing friend. He told me quite calmly that the story had potential but it was boring. Then he did me the greatest favor ever and told me WHY it was boring. Passive writing kills the pace of a story. It may seem simple, but we rely very heavily on passive words in everyday conversation, and that carries over into writing. Once I got through the stages of denial and grieving, I picked up the manuscript and realized he’d done nothing but tell me the truth.

4. Who are the most influential authors when it comes to your writing?

Hmm… I don’t actually know. I actually try to avoid reading authors that write in similar genres because I don’t want to end up cloning their work. I’m a big fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden and Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, though.

5. You list yourself as an author of fantasy, horror and science fiction. What brought Gaea’s Chosen to the top of the heap?

Divine providence? LOL. The original run of the story was a full on horror tale titled ‘Prayer for the Dawn.’ I didn’t plan on anyone making it through to the end. The story popped into my head, more or less fully formed, like Athena in Zeus’ skull. All I had to do was sit down and write. As I wrote, I more or less fell in love with the characters and knew I wanted to do more with them, so I completely rewrote the majority of it.

6. You have a daily presence on Twitter, you run the #MenageMonday flash fiction contest, and participate in a lot of other contests. What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media and contests?

To be perfectly honest, the writers I’ve met through Twitter revitalized me and my writing. Daily contact with folks going through the same day-to-day struggles of managing real life and the imaginary lives we thrive on really boosted my drive to succeed. Add all the little challenges to that, and I find myself writing every day and absolutely loving it. Even when I just want to go to bed, I still steal a few minutes to write.

7. What advice would you give to other writers looking to build a community and a platform for themselves?

This would really depend on what a writer is wanting to accomplish. I see a lot of writers hiding behind anonymous blogger names and Twitter handles. I think for any writer looking to build a platform it’s important to embrace the name and/or concept you want to market.

8. What is “defiantly literate”? Who or what are you defying?

Hahaha. I love the name of my blog. As a proud geek girl, I’ve spent my fair share of time on boards. ‘Defiantly’ is my favorite chronic misspelling of ‘Definitely.’ I laugh every time I see, ‘Oh, I defiantly want to try that!’ or ‘I’m defiantly going there!’ I picture all of these interwebs people saying to hell with convention and marching proudly into the corner store or picking up the latest bestseller.

9. Can you tell us a little about the world of Gaea’s Chosen: The Mayday Directive and the upcoming Event Horizon?

The Gaea’s Chosen series is set a bit over 19K years from now. That gives me a lot of flexibility as far as creating technology, but I do a lot of research to make things believable. No, mankind has not discovered countless alien races. Instead, they’ve evolved due to life in space and scattered across different planets. Since the Gaea crew leaves Earth a little over 200 years from now, much of their tech, specifically the arc blades, travel speed, and potential destinations expands on current devices and knowledge, hopefully just enough to be believable yet still exciting.

The Mayday Directive tells the initial story of the ship Gaea’s Ark and her crew, dubbed by the media of their time as ‘Gaea’s Chosen.’ Essentially the crew wakes from 19K years in stasis to discover a whole lot has gone wrong while they were sleeping, including crewmembers being jettisoned and the ship landing on an already inhabited planet. Event Horizon picks up six months after the ending of Mayday. In this tale, the Gaea crew finds out what happened to at least one of their missing crewmembers. They also discover they’re not alone in their little corner of the universe.

10. You seem to have a lot of projects in what you call the “Red Pen Death Trials.” How merciless are these trials, and what are we going to see from Cara Michaels in the future?

No word is sacred. Except maybe sacred. 😉 I’m ruthless when it comes to editing and do not hesitate to cull the word herd. My 2012 schedule is packed with stories to write, edit, and publish, including a couple of ancestor stories (tentative titles Safer Waters and If a Tree Falls) for Gaea’s commander, Gemma Bryant.

11. How do you feel about the success of #WIP500 since its inception? What, if anything, has it taught you?

Yeah, I totally did not see #WIP500 taking off like it did. When I started it, I hoped to get 15 or 20 people wrangled into my brand of madness. Now there are over 80 people working hard to, if not make the goal, at least keep writing regularly. I think the network building is important to a lot of folks. Some writers are solitary, but I think a fair number of us are pretty damn social. Having companions on the same journey makes it seem less arduous, I think.

12. What inspires you?

Music. Overheard conversations. Storystorming with my offspring (though that inevitably ends up with killer robots or boy wizards… sometimes both). Mostly music, though. The right music and lyrics can help evoke a specific emotion for me, which is great.

Promises, Promises

“In order to dare we must know; in order to will, we must dare; we must will to possess empire and to reign we must be silent.”
-Eliphas Levi, Transcendental Magic

Photo by discoodoni on Flickr.

I used to be a big old planner and maker of promises. Now by “plan” Of course, I don’t actually mean plan, I mean talk about planning. You know, the kind of plan where you tell all your friends about this big project you’re going to start, maybe even set a vague date (“maybe next week” or the always-hilarious “as soon as I have time”), and then no one ever hears about it again? Maybe you give it a fancy name. Yeah, I’ve done that. It often starts with “Operation” and ends with something badass-sounding. No deadline, outline, or coherent goals, but man check out that awesome name it has.

That kind of plan.

I’m now convinced that this sort of thing is the fast track to Shamesville.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure this works for someone. But it’s certainly not me. The conceit behind this idea seems to be that public accountability among your friends and family will somehow act as surrogate for actual motivation.

And here’s why that doesn’t work.

Scenario A: Your friends are quality people who love you and don’t want to see you hurt. Therefore, when you declare Operation: Supermotivated September and then proceed to watch the entire run of M.A.S.H. in your underwear, they’re not going to call you on it. Chances are, you’re miserable enough already. And because your friends aren’t interested in kicking you while you’re down, they keep silent. And so everyone forgets Supermotivated September ever happened, until Damn-the-Torpedoes December when the whole farrago starts over again, and you feel like everyone has just a little less faith in you before, whether they do or not. Your faith in yourself is probably eroding nicely by this time, though.

Scenario B: Lacking your own internal motivation, you try to foist it off on those around you, hoping somehow that they’ll jump-start your motivational engines by badgering you. Now your friends are irritated at being handed this unwanted responsibility, and you’re irritated because of the badgering, and mysteriously you feel no more motivated than before. The subject gets dropped quickly so the hurt feelings will go away. Everyone loses.

Scenario C: You make a public declaration of goal-setting, and everyone’s behind you. You get some words of encouragement, and they really help — until the darkness comes and the wolves howl. Then you trip up, miss a couple of steps, but you don’t want to disappoint anyone. So you hunker down, hoping no one will notice. Then, because you feel shitty about that, your goals just sort of fall apart. A month or a year later, someone asks, “hey, how’s that project going?” But now the last thing you want is anyone bringing it up and exposing your shame, even though you’re the one who brought it up in the first place.

I’ve done all these. None of them have ever worked. Ever. That’s why I think the whole notion of “public accountability” in goal-setting is kinda bullshit. It’s not that I don’t care what people think — quite the opposite — it’s that disappointing others isn’t actually a sufficient deterrent against slackassery.

A close friend of mine once told me that when he starts some big new project, he doesn’t so much as mumble it into a hole in the ground. He keeps his mouth shut until he’s already started and has a reasonable chance of finishing. As a breaker of promises and a hoarder of shattered dreams, I liked this idea so much that I’ve done my best to adopt it ever since.

Just to be clear, the whole declaration-of-intent thing is not the same as getting support from your friends or your peers once you’ve started. I don’t mean that you should start your next big novel and then not say word one about it till it’s hit the shelves. That’s crazy, not to mention crappy marketing. But you have to do something first.

For me, the motivation always comes from starting, not saying I’m going to start. The evidence is right there in the neglected online to-do lists and journal entries full of new year’s resolutions I dutifully repeated every year and only thought about again when I looked back on them with regret.

Screw that.

But that’s my story. If you have a different one, I’d love to hear yours. Does declaring your intentions to write that novel / edit that story / submit that screenplay / whatever actually motivate you? Has it ever really paid off? Tell me about it in the comments. Thanks!

Writers, Don’t Forget the Love

Photo by Muffet on Flickr.

Today is Valentine’s Day, that special time of year when a person’s fancy turns to thoughts of soulless corporate megaliths co-opting our emotions so they can sell greeting cards, fancy dinners, and Russel Stover assortments. As we look to the sky and scream curses at a blind and uncaring universe that has so blighted us, we remind ourselves that love cannot be bought, at least not when some company explicitly recommends it.

Okay, let me start again.

Today I actually do want to talk about love. The love that we, as writers, can sometimes lose sight of when things get tough.

Writing advice blogs are generally full of hard-nosed advice about What It Takes to Be a Real Writer. There’s often not attention paid to the froofy bits, because in general, writers are assumed to have that pretty well locked down. All writers truly-madly-deeply want to write, so cultivating craft is far more important than cultivating passion, right?

I’m not so sure.

I know a lot of writers who struggle with their passions. The calling becomes a chore. The joy gets buried under a mountain of obligation. Yes, writing is hard work. Editing is hard work. Querying is a beat that can sap the will to live. Rejection sucks. There’s plenty not to like, ultimately. But they are necessary things.

And that’s why the writing blogs share their expertise about these necessities, because they can’t be ignored, much as we would love to ignore them.

But I think it’s equally as important not to lose sight of the reason you’re putting yourself through all this in the first place. Don’t forget the love.

Feeling nauseated yet?

I want to link to a video that’s been stuck in my head for the past few days. In this brief talk, Shawn Achor talks about how we can rewire our brains for happiness. It’s not that long, and it’s funny and informative stuff.

I included this video because I believe in the “happiness advantage” — that happiness is more productive than guilt or self-recrimination.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m generally a gold-star procrastinator. I’ve put things off to such an epic level that they’re deeply embarrassing to talk about. Writing is no exception. There are days where I would do just about anything to dodge the scary work — whether it’s busting out a draft, editing a troublesome passage, or outlining.

I want to do these things — to hear me talk about it, anyway. But they intimidate. They annoy. They inflate to unpleasant proportions. I still write, but there’s all this bullshit I go through first, and it’s exhausting.

Some people don’t struggle with this. Some people are all type-A writers who go forward without any internal struggle. I envy those people. Most of my life, I haven’t been that guy. But I’m working on re-wiring my brain.

My method isn’t complicated or large in scale, because I think complicated large-scale methods are a great way to fail. Every morning, I have some coffee. I have some breakfast. I fire up Write or Die. A half-hour to bang out a blog post. Break. Edit the blog post. Break. Another half hour to write a scene from my Big List of Scenes in whatever I’m working on at the moment. Break. Then, work on whatever I want.

So at the very least, I’ve gotten in a solid hour of writing. Often much more, but I don’t go through the day promising myself I’ll write, and then shrug and let it go, thus buying myself a ticket for the Guilt Train.

The biggest benefit of this is that it builds momentum. Every day, the writing gets easier. The words come faster. A couple of days without writing, and I feel like I’m working the rust off the gears again. But I built the habit, day after day, and soon enough it just became a part of me. I don’t dread writing, or agonize over not writing, when I stick to this plan.

This method works for me. I encourage you to find what works for you. Try new things until you discover the best way to break through your laziness, break down your block, mow over your avoidance. And no, Twitter does not count. I’m sorry.

Whatever you do, though, don’t forget the love.

Outbound, 2/13/12

I’m a bit short on time today, so I’m going to refer you to some other awesome material on the Interwebs.

First, a great post by Kristen Lamb, author of We Are Not Alone – The Writer’s Guide to Social Media. It’s about what to do when you burn out in your writing. You Bring Back That Lovin’ Feeling.

A great post from Paul Dorset on social media and paying it forward.

5 Writing Myths from Writability.

The inimitable Jeff Goins has some advice on what to do when you’re afraid to publish.

Emmie Mears writes a terrific tribute to Buffy. Mears has a whole series on strong women in fiction and it rocks.

Angela Ackerman on how to transform your writing weaknesses into strengths.

The Geeky Shopaholic shares the best Twitter advice on the web.

Write One interviews Jennifer Gracen about her copyediting services. Jennifer’s pretty amazing, FYI.

The Writing Bomb on why no one is buying your book.

K.M. Weiland thinks you should write yourself a bad review.

Finally, Jennifer Dohonue has something to say about imperfect characters and why we should put them in our work.

Okay, that’s all.

[Flash Fiction] The Darkest Part of the Wood

This is a piece for Anna Meade’s flash fiction contest at Yearning for Wonderland. With apologies to Tracy McCusker, who’s heard this idea somewhere before.

# # #

They’d brought her to the country to heal. The fresh air will do you good, they’d said. As if the creaking house and smell of rotting October leaves would somehow undo the slow cellular unraveling inside her. As if she’d ever be allowed outside in the cold autumn rain.

Here was her life. A beachhead of pillows above shoals of white sheets, armies of prescription bottles standing sentry, favorite books stacked in a hopeless fortress against boredom. The distant murmurs of her parents, in some parallel universe where people were healthy.

Rest, and get well.

Then one night she saw the goblinoid shadow, rendered by moonlight, flicker across her bed. The skittering of tiny feet on the roof.

She’d hid under the covers, quivering in terror. In the morning, she’d found a tiny doll. Knots of pale yarn, raisins for eyes, a blank idiot smile stitched across its face. A dry topknot of hair. Her hair.

It liked her.

So she waited. When her parents brought her cookies, she saved one for it. When she saw its shadow in the corner, she begged it to speak. But it never did.

Not until one rain-sheeted midnight when she felt bony fingers take her hand, and woke to see pale yellow eyes glimmering in the dark.

Come home.

It held her hand and beckoned her to follow. Down the stairs in her bare feet, out into the cold wet grass and cold rain and the fresh air her parents had wanted her to have. It whispered of adventures.

She was so happy she barely noticed the first rasping cough that shook her as she followed her friend into the thorny darkness of the wood.

Come home with us, it said. Wither, and live forever.

Sicken, and be healed.

# # #

Surly Questions: Chantal Boudreau

This week’s Surly Questions are courtesy of Chantal Boudreau, an author and illustrator of dark fantasy and horror. When you’re done reading, make sure to visit her website at Writers Own Words. Thanks for the interview, Chantal!

1. When did you know you wanted to write?

I was four – there was a children’s television show called The Pencil Box that would take stories written by kids and turn them into full scene tales on their show (sets, props, dialogue, costumes, etc.) I was too young to write a coherent story, but I knew I wanted to create something for this show. Sadly, by the time I manage to write something decent, the show had been canceled.

2. You write mostly horror and dark fantasy. What do you find so alluring about the darkness?

It’s cathartic. Most creative people are hyper-sensitive to the troubles of the world and writing about dark things lets you flush them from your system. It also allows you to turn things around so that the hero or heroine vanquishes those dark things in the end, if that’s what you want. There’s often some element of hope to the endings of my stories, especially the novels. Less often with the horror stories.

3. What’s your favorite thing about writing? Least favorite?

My favourite thing about writing is getting lost in a scene. It happens more often with action or battle scenes, or one of those really moving portions of a plot where you get completely immersed in a character. The thing I like least is the editing. Picking apart the technical elements of the story, and forcing yourself to pay careful attention and to avoid getting lost in the plot again, can be pure drudgery.

4. You seem to have excerpts of your work up on Scribd. Has that helped increase your exposure at all?

I believe it has. I have people who read my excerpts and who have taken an interest in my work, giving me feedback, who might never have sampled my work otherwise. It’s hard to translate that into specific numbers, but every little bit helps.

5. In a recent blog post, you talk about why authors shouldn’t respond to negative reviews. Do you feel the same way about positive reviews?

A “thank you” never hurts, but I try not to say more than that. Reviews are subjective and while a good one is appreciated, you shouldn’t go on about it. It may express that person’s opinion, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect how the book will be received in general. You don’t want to come across as gushing or egotistical either.

6. You also relate an anecdote about a reader taking you to task for writing a male protagonist in one of your books. Do you think male readers are intimidated by female writers writing male POVs?

I don’t think that individual was intimidated, as much as he felt that there aren’t enough good female role-models in books and therefore that it is specifically the responsibility of female authors to present that type of female protagonist, since we have a better understanding of what girls or women have to deal with on a daily basis. I got the sense he had a bone to pick with characters like Harry Potter and felt that Rowling had failed her gender by offering up a boy wizard as her protagonist. He was taking out his frustration on me because I happen to have a young male protagonist as well, in Fervor. I don’t usually have male readers questioning the gender of my protagonists. It usually comes from female readers. I don’t, however, feel like I have to have a woman as the focal character of my stories. I like to follow whatever inspiration strikes and I have a fairly even ratio of males to females.

7. You draw in addition to writing — how have the two disciplines influenced each other?

A few of my drawings have inspired stories, like the first in my Masters & Renegades series, Magic University. More often, if I’m struggling a little with a story, I find I can solidify my thoughts by sketching them out. I’ll do that if I find myself stuck. It’s also a good way of attracting attention to an excerpt. If you have a striking drawing accompanying your writing, it can hook an observer’s curiosity and they’ll give it a read.

8. If you had to pick one passion over the other, which would it be? Or could you choose at all?

Oh, I’d definitely pick the writing. I find them both somewhat therapeutic but I “love” writing while I only “like” drawing. I feel that it’s much more difficult to achieve what I’m striving for when I’m drawing. I can usually capture what I’ve envisioned in writing with more ease.

9. Who are the most influential authors and illustrators in your life?

I’ve read so many books it is really difficult to pick only a few authors. I grew up on Anne McCaffery, Tanith Lee, Mervyn Peake and Roald Dahl, adding Theodore Sturgeon, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tad Williams and Frederic Brown to the mix as I went. Lately I’ve been reading Robert J. Sawyer and some great lesser known authors like Ren Garcia and Arlene Radasky, as well as a fabulous variety of horror writers. Illustrators that have influenced me include Darrell K. Sweet, the Brothers Hildebrandt, Michael Whelan, Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell, and lately, Carol Phillips, Eve Ventrue, Shawn Conn and Fantasio. There are so many great artists out there who put my efforts to shame.

10. What are you working on now?

I’m working on an experiment – a paranormal thriller called Intangible involving a young man who discovers that he has the ability to astral project. This discovery leads him to the victim of an abduction, a little girl who looks to him for rescue. But the protagonist can’t make use of his talent on his own and is forced to pair up with a homeless medium. She is the only person whom he can trust will believe him and help him, even though she can’t convince others regarding the situation either. It’s quite different from the many other novels and short stories I have written. I like to play with new concepts and stretch my boundaries from time to time.

11. What songs are in your writing soundtrack (if any)?

I have playlists for every novel I’ve written, most of them stretching 3 to 4 CDs in length. Alternative rock is my music of choice although I have eclectic tastes and I went pretty old and mellow for what I’m working on now. My usual listening preferences range from things like Linkin Park, 30 Seconds to Mars, Finger Eleven and Evanescence, to artists who are a little more obscure, like Bif Naked, Megan McCauley and Sarah Slean.

12. What’s the single best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

“Don’t be fluffy.” I have a tendency to over-describe things that have little importance to the story if I don’t purposefully rein that in. I heed that advice carefully, and while my writing may end up a little sparse in description as a result, I stay true to the stories and characters, which aren’t bogged down by unnecessary detail. Having a little flavour is good, but when it drowns out everything else, you have a problem.

13. And now, the clichéd question: your top five “desert island” books?

I had no idea that was a cliched question. I guess in a way that depends on your definition. Lord of the Flies is my absolute favourite pick for this, hands down, both set on a desert island and a book I’d want to have with me. Godbody by Theodore Sturgeon is a must and I’d want to have Arlene Radasky’s The Fox and Ren Garcia’s The Hazards of the Old Ones. The last one would be a tie between a classic, Jane Eyre, and a moving and dark novel called The Gargoyle.


Notes From the Writing Abattoir

Love of writing is a very peculiar kind of love. We spend hours alone, putting imaginary people through the paces, forsaking sleep and mental health in favor of coffee and scrawled character charts. We construct entire imaginary lives and then end them, in a way designed to upset those real people who have spent their time and money for the privilege of being upset.

But we love our characters, and that’s why, when we unleash some hellish fate on them, we’re polite enough to sigh and say “oh, you poor bastard” before picking up the knife again. And sometimes those characters and subplots and brilliant passages have to leave the story entirely.

Angela Goff (via @sirra_girl)calls this “stabby love,” and I think it’s a proper term. We hold knives to the throats of our characters, daring them to get out of the situations we’ve put them in. Challenging them. Be more interesting. More exciting. Be vital to the story — or you die.

If this seems a bit morbid, well, I guess it is. I don’t think dropping entire characters and storylines is a pleasant task — but it’s a necessary one. When it comes to editing, you can’t be a loving mother or father. You’re a narrative hitman, and your mission is to root out everything that isn’t the story.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, as Kirk said in Star Trek II. In that movie, Spock died so the rest of the crew could live. In your writing, sometimes characters and subplots must die unmourned so that the rest of your story can live.

They don’t get any heroic speeches — they’re simply gone, perhaps to live again in some other story. Perhaps not. Writers are constantly making compost heaps of their own work, and some of those old ideas will thrive in new soil. But not everything returns, and that’s as it should be.

This is rarely easy. A beloved character can seem vital even when they’re not. It’s very easy to rationalize their existence, to alter the story to keep them around, when you need to just cut them. A great subplot or even an eloquent passage can be a liability if it drags the rest of the story down. It is a hard heart that kills.

But remember that you only kill out of love. Yeah, okay, that’s fairly ghoulish, but that’s the writing abattoir for you. You’re serving the rest of the story — trimming away dead material so that the rest can thrive.

So raise a toast to your brave, unnecessary characters, and do what must be done.

Blog Hop Contest Winners

It’s Tuesday, and that means today’s the day we announce the winners of the Blog Hop Contest sponsored by Lillie McFerrin, Angie Richmond, Angela Goff, and myself!

First, though, thank you all for sharing your work and putting it out there to be judged. Picking five people was so difficult. There wasn’t a single entry I didn’t enjoy, and I hated having to narrow down my choices. You all rock for being a part of this. Thank you, and keep ’em flying.

And now, the winners:

1st Ruth Long
2nd Donna McNicol
3rd Jo-Ann Teal
4th Jenn – Brewed Bohemian – who will be getting a 10-page critique from yours truly.
5th Gwen Tailios

To the winners — a big congratulations! Collect your badges!

And if, by chance, you haven’t read the fine entries by all our participants yet, do yourself a favor and drop by their excellent blogs.

A Misleading Sign on the Road to Writertown

A few weeks ago, I noticed a brief trend sweep through the writers’ blogosphere (do you hate that word? I kinda do) about the proper time to label oneself a “writer.”

Some proposed calling oneself a writer to empower the act of writing. Some advised writing and then applying the label. Everyone seemed to agree with Stephen King’s pithy maxim “if you’re a writer, you write.” Which is great, because if someone came out in favor of calling oneself a writer without ever writing, well, I’d have to put that on the big list of good ideas with the Ford Pinto, DIVX, and the CueCat.

I didn’t sound off at the time, because I’m a big fan of busting out my opinions long after everyone has stopped caring. But as far as I’m concerned, where and when you choose to label yourself doesn’t matter. Not even a little.

Now, when I say this, I’m not talking about “writer” as a description of one’s profession. If you’re already a writer by profession, you don’t need to worry about this question. In fact, you can take the rest of the day off. You’re welcome. Drink one for me, buddy.

However, if you’re a starting writer still wrestling with your first draft, or just staring at the blank page in despair because you can’t resolve this burning and clearly super-important existential question — maybe I can help.

What does “being a writer” mean? Whatever you want. As long as you put words on the page. If you’re not putting words on the page, it means exactly nothing, regardless of how much imaginary weight you give it.

Think of it this way. If you’re on the road to Writertown, and words are your fuel, then the “writer” label is a road sign. You can place that sign anywhere you like. Put it at the beginning of the journey to point the way. Put it in the middle to keep you on track. Put it at the other end of Writertown and gaze lovingly at it only after you’ve made it through.

But the sign doesn’t mean anything by itself. If you never get on the road, it doesn’t matter where the sign goes. You can call yourself a writer all day long, if it gets words on the page. If it doesn’t, then it’s about as meaningless as labels get (and they tend to be pretty meaningless anyway).

On the other hand, if you think that “writer” is something genetic or inherent or vague or luck-based that you have to somehow earn before you can write something — stop thinking that. Just write and stop creating artificial barriers for yourself. You’ll have plenty of real ones to deal with soon enough, believe me.

If the label “writer” puts some nitrous in your metaphorical engine, then go for it. If it motivates you to carry that road sign in your car while you travel, super. Do that. But if it’s holding you back, or keeping you down, or preventing you from putting words on the page in any way — chuck it out the window and don’t look back.

Just write, and let the labels take care of themselves.