Outlining: A Necessary Evil

I’m an excellent planner. I remember dates, remember information, and love to be prepared for a project ahead of time. I bring that planning to my writing as well, right?

Well …

Writing is better than planning to write. However, I can’t write everything I’m thinking of at once. I usually keep stories in my head until I’m ready to write them, and at most, write a couple quick sentences and a title so I don’t forget the idea as I devote my head space to other projects. Writing down an idea is almost like giving yourself a pensieve — the idea waits for you while your thoughts tend to other things.

Still, even when my thoughts are focused on one story, I often can’t write fast enough to stop my thoughts from swimming in my head. When I have thoughts on chapters I’m not yet writing, I start to write notes. My notes are usually quick asides, but quickly become passages and dialogue, which is why I prefer to just write the story as opposed to notes.

When a story is bigger, though, those thoughts become dedicated to more than just the beginning, middle, and end. Dates get involved. There are sequences. I need to remember what order things occur in, or when it makes the most sense for something to happen.

And that’s when I realize I need to do something I can’t stand to do: outlining.

I don’t like it. It feels like I’m clamping down the story before it even has a chance to breathe. It’s too perfunctory. I think to myself, “How can an outline help me write? Only writing can do that.” And then I write. And then I stop, because I’m caught up in the details of how the story should occur.

When a story reaches a point where my swirling thoughts on what will occur, and when it will occur, preclude the writing, that’s when I know it’s time. This happened with Please Give, and today, it happened with my novel-in-progress (over 50,000 words now, yay!). I found myself juggling timelines and thinking, “Wait, should this happen here? What month is it?” — and thinking that more than thinking about what to write next. So, I forced myself to write an outline. And sure enough, I felt better afterward, like the weight of a thousand swirling thoughts had been lifted off my shoulders and into a Google doc.

Everyone outlines their own way. My personal favorite is also how I like to plan: in dates. I consult a calendar and write a quick list of what will happen, and designate it by the date. An exact day is preferred, but I’ll write Week Of or Month Of if it’s a general course of action.These dates don’t make it into the book unless relevant to bring up, and are also subject to change — one of the ways I make myself outline is writing a note at the top assuring me that these can change as the story evolves. But outlining by date helps me as a writer to envision the action. It’s how I plan my own days, after all, so it makes sense that it would help me plan the fictional days my characters go through.

How do you outline, if at all?

Summer Writing+Reading

Today is supposed to be the hottest day of the week (and possibly the season) in the D.C. area. It’s always hot here in the summer, but having grown up in the southern Mid-Atlantic, I don’t really heed my fellow locals’ complaints about the purported oppressive heat of July and August. In North Carolina, you could barely go outside between 12 and 5 PM; and don’t get me started on the 24 hours we spent in Savannah in August one summer. I do concede that it’s easy to scoff at heat complaints while I sit in an air-conditioned room in a sundress.

Though I’ve been out of school for years, I still like taking part in summer reading. My local library has a summer reading program for all ages, and you can log your books and win prizes. Adults get the grand prize when they read six books in the designated time. Last summer, I completed and exceeded that by the beginning of July. This summer … I logged my fourth book yesterday.

My reading is still slow thanks to writing, but things like the summer reading challenge keep my bookworm fed. I just finished The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which was excellent. Now I’m reading The Girls by Emily Cline.

I’m also still writing away. Most of my focus has been on what is steadily becoming my second novel. I’m at 47,000+ words — a few days’ work away from a NaNoWriMo length! It’s still scattershot, and the plot is still coming together, but I’m both pleased and surprised at how it’s formed over the past several weeks — especially when for months, I didn’t think I had enough material for this story to turn into a novel. We’ll see where it goes!

What are you reading or writing this summer?

Writing Piece by Piece

Yesterday on Twitter, I was reminded of a good piece of writing advice:

The advice above, from Richard Rhodes, was a sentence that rang in my head last winter. I’ve been writing off and on for years, usually in ebbs and flows. In later years, that writing became fragments. I finished two short stories in college, but usually, if I picked up a pen in my twenties (or, let’s be real, tapped on a keyboard), it was always to write beginnings of stories or chapters that never became novels.

A lot of the work left unfinished was due to time, but a lot of it was also due to insecurity. I didn’t think I could write something if I didn’t have a clear, direct story in mind from beginning to end. And the times I had that, I found the story growing beyond my set outline’s control once I started typing. The forms these words took scared me, as they were going beyond what I’d planned in terms of thought and time to create. I set the pen aside (read: minimized the Word document and surfed the Internet).

Still, the desire to write never really left. I started doing daily writing about whatever crossed my mind, just to get something down. This was good practice, but I mostly wrote random thoughts about my day; and soon, I ran out of topics. I did a little story writing during that time, but once again, they stayed resigned to either outlines or something started but not finished.

Last winter, in 2016, I came across the quote at the top, about how a page a day would produce a book in one year. It was a simple thought, one so simple that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it. I thought of some of the stories I’d wanted to write, and written notes for over the years. Maybe I could write a page a day, a simple minimum, and see where those pages went.

A year and some change later, I came across that quote again, in the tweet I posted above. Since then, I’ve written a book. And eight short stories. And have both a novella and another novel in the works. I work on them every day, aiming for a page, but often going further. Even when I have to make myself type one sentence just to say I’ve written, I do it. Because each piece written is another step towards a whole story.

As they say: Keep Writing. Your story will form itself. Your words will find their place in a story. And any time spent forming that story is time both well-spent and, one day at a time, will be rewarded — be it a page, a paragraph, or a line. As the full quote goes:

If you’re afraid you can’t write, the answer is to write. Every sentence you construct adds weight to the balance pan. If you’re afraid of what other people will think of your efforts, don’t show them until you write your way beyond your fear. If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence. If writing even a sentence is impossible, write a word and teach yourself everything there is to know about that word and then write another, connected word and see where their connection leads. A page a day is a book a year. ~Richard Rhodes

Adding to the Binder

You may recall my Professional Clear Plastic Binder o’ Rejection. It sat stagnant after my first entry, even though I had a few stories out in the world, waiting to be turned down.

Well, the wait is over! I received three more rejections over the past two weeks — one from the same journal that made my first binder entry, one from a contest, and one from a different journal entirely. The collection is growing!

I swear I’m not being sarcastic. Yes, I type with my tongue in my cheek; but I’m also not typing with bitterness or anger. Rejection is part of the process, and getting a rejection letter means I tried putting my work out there, out for someone to read it. Yes, someone to read it and turn it down, but that’s better than no one reading it at all.

To anyone reading who’s afraid to submit your work for fear of rejection, I encourage you to face that fear and hit Submit. The worst that’ll happen is negligence, like the story I submitted almost four months ago and has remained unopened by the journal I sent it to (Submittable, which many journals use now for submissions, lets you see whether it was just received or if it’s in progress/being read); and even that’s not so bad.

At best, your work will be accepted!

But at somewhere between worst and best, it will probably be rejected, at least the first few times. That’s okay, that’s part of the process, and the rejection won’t be laden with insults or tell you to quit writing forever. Three submissions have been sent back to me with assertions they enjoyed reading each story, notes on the volume of submissions, a polite decline (usually in the form of “It wasn’t right for this journal”), and requests to send more work in the future. That’s it. No pain at all — just a drive to try, try again.

Keep writing, and keep submitting. Remember: every author you love was rejected at some point. Every single one. Getting rejected puts you in good company.

Now, I’m off to print another letter for the binder.

More Motivation: Reveal by Doing

My desk calendar is on a roll this month with writing affirmations. You’ll recall its words of wisdom on perfection two weeks ago. It’s at it again today, this time with an adage I’ve found to be true of forming stories:


I think about my stories a lot. I think about them so much that I sometimes forget to write them. Other times, I choose to think instead of write because I don’t have all the answers ready to write down. I’ll procrastinate, write other things, anything to avoid the grave sin of writing something that isn’t 100% ready before placing finger to keyboard.

Still, I make myself write every day, even when I groan and sigh because pages of bracket notes await me. Can you guess how many times I’ve done this and written clunky sentences and stuff to fill in later? Every time.

Can you also guess how many times the story has answered my questions for me because I wrote it down — and answered it with clarity I never thought I’d have when the words were just in my thoughts?

Once again, every time.

Write it down, even if it’s not where you think it should be. It isn’t where it should be, but that’s because it’s in your head, and not on paper where it belongs. Put it there.

Friday Motivation: Done is Better than Perfect

The following was the entry on my desk calendar the other day. It came at a great time, as I was hesitating to continue some projects because I didn’t think they were perfect or ready enough to continue or finish. In a quick post to get the weekend started, I wanted to share it with all of you. I hope you spend your weekend – or any day, really – completing your pieces! Writing something is always better than nothing. 

Done is better than perfect
Have a good weekend, everyone. 

When She Was Sloppy

All pieces start with a first draft, and with rare exception, all first drafts are bad. Aspiring writers — myself included — often forget that all great pieces came from bad first drafts, because we only get to see these pieces after they’ve gone through revisions, professional edits, and other polishes to make them less sloppy. I always appreciate it when my favorite authors share their early drafts to prove this point (though I say early, and not first, because I’m convinced that most first drafts will never see the light of day if their authors have anything to say about it).

I’ve discovered that the forgotten first draft experience can happen with my own writing. Over the past few months, I’ve engaged the most with second and third (and ninth and tenth) drafts of my pieces. The earliest drafts of Please Give ceased around New Year’s, with the first pages written getting heavily revised or completely rewritten; and any following pages being buoyed by those revisions. The new pages weren’t perfect by any means, but they were better than first drafts because I was more familiar with the story and where it was going.

Between chapters of Please Give, I worked on revising the short stories set to appear in The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales — reading them, getting feedback from readers, incorporating edits from Evelyn, and reading through them again. The first drafts of these stories were even more buried than the first words of Please Give, going back to the spring and summer of 2016.

Despite writing every day in 2017, new writing — brand new stories, with no drafts whatsoever to guide them and no revisions to shape them — didn’t happen at all until May, when the full draft of Please Give was done. At last, I had the time and mental space to start the new projects that were simply ideas. I cracked my knuckles, opened a brand new Word document, and let the words flow from my fingers.

Words that, as they I typed them, landed rather sloppily on the page.

I found myself looking curiously at these drafts. Why are these sentences so clunky? Why can’t I come up with a good transition from this scene to the next? Why did I use three adverbs in one sentence? Why am I using so many parentheses, and writing asides and exclamations instead of narration?

It’s because I’m writing a first draft — and even after writing several pieces to satisfactory completion, I still felt daunted by that, stuck on the fact that the ideal sentence wasn’t what was currently on paper. No matter how much I write, and no matter how pleased I am with the final versions of my stories, I still have to contend with sloppy first drafts. There’s simply no avoiding them.

They also shouldn’t be avoided. First drafts are where all stories begin, after all. And even with some clunky stumbles on the way, practice does make better. I find myself able to write more in one sitting, and making less of the mistakes (both style and technical) that I made almost by default not one year ago. A first draft is a first draft, though; and even with all the practice in the world, first drafts will always be rough.

Still, I appreciate reminders of when I was sloppy, and I’d rather get those reminders through writing sloppy first drafts than simply remembering them (or rereading them, though that can be fun when looking for a reminder of how far a piece has come). Remembering them means I’m not writing them. And like many writers say, writing a bad first draft — which everyone does — is better than writing nothing at all.

The Rejection Collection

I received my first rejection letter yesterday. I’m not sad about it. Every writer in the history of time has been rejected by someone or some institution. It’s all part of the process, and I almost feel a sense of accomplishment at having gotten one. It’s a first step, another writer milestone to cross off the list.

I enjoy reading accounts of authors who save their rejection letters. I wanted to do the same, but was at a loss at how to do so. I liked Stephen King’s nail on the wall (which later became a spike to hold all the letters), but I didn’t want to copy that, if only because hanging them on my wall didn’t really feel like me. I thought of boxes, notebooks, photo albums (which is how I save postcards) – all good means, but means that didn’t feel right for these letters.

What finally felt right, though, was a means of presentation from one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips:

binder-1

The strip is part of a series where Calvin has to write a report on bats. He approaches the project with the same care he usually takes with schoolwork, meaning zero to none. The whole series (which starts here) is a scream, but what tickled me most was Calvin being convinced that the key to success was a Professional Clear Plastic Binder.

binder-3

Naturally, that was not the key to Calvin’s success. He failed the report, but even in the end, he was still convinced the binder had power – it was just ignored:

binder-2

I remembered this series as I thought of ways to collect my rejection letters, and after laughing at the memory of the whole series, I decided that I had to collect them in one of my favorite running jokes.

binder-full
The binder itself is not clear, but it is filled with clear plastic sleeves which will hold my letters with pride.

I had a lot of fun putting this together. In addition to Calvin and Hobbes, the title also pays tribute to Pearls Before Swine and the running gag of creating an Item o’ Something (such as the Box o’ Stupid People). I chuckled almost the whole time as I printed the cover and placed the clear plastic sleeves in their rings. I smiled as I christened it with my first rejection letter.

I could wax poetic about the deeper meaning of presentation versus substance that Calvin’s report signifies; as well as the fact that he buried the report and moved on (though I’d like to think I learn more from my shortcomings than Calvin usually does). Honestly, though? I chose this collection method because it made me laugh. I laughed all over again as I loaded the comic strips to the blog post and read them on Go Comics. I laughed and had fun in the face of rejection. Ultimately, that’s what the process needs to be – and collecting them in one of my favorite jokes, one that always makes me smile, will help me do that.

I truly look forward to filling my Professional Clear Plastic Binder o’ Rejection with more letters. I look even more forward to starting the Binder o’ Acceptance. But, one collection at a time.

Grey Days

It’s a cloudy morning in Arlington. I’ve always liked cloudy days. I don’t want them all the time, as one too many days without the sun quickly makes my mood match the weather outside. But every few days or so, a bit of cloudiness can serve nature well. I wrote the essay below on a cloudy autumn day, and while it’s spring (technically, at least. It’s been really cold all week), I believe it still applies. Enjoy, and have a good weekend.

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Grey Days

Grey days are far from dreary. They can be just as beautiful as the golden ones.

Consider autumn leaves. Their hues of red, gold, orange, and everything in between are striking in all sorts of light. But imagine them shining against a backdrop of grey clouds. They look uniquely beautiful, do they not?

The same can be said of the greenest tree and the brightest bird. By giving the sun a break, a cloud can help to highlight all of the beauty we were too blinded by rays of sunshine to fully see.

A grey day is special in that it helps us see beauty in ways we may not have considered before. It asks you to pause, and breathe, and truly look. So if you find yourself awakening to a day lacking in the sun, do not spend it waiting for the sun to come back. Rather, take a look and see what you may miss when the sun is in your eyes.

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Stray Passage: Sea of Green

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone! I love this holiday, even though I skip the crazier parts of celebrating it. My husband and I prefer going to a local bar, getting a Guinness and some soda bread, and listening to two men who play live Irish folk music there each year. It’s how that bar celebrates until roughly 9 PM, when the musicians are swapped for a DJ and patrons like myself are swapped for recent college grads wearing the traditional St. Paddy’s garb of Party City.

I wanted to write an impromptu story about St. Patrick’s Day today, but found myself writing of the ocean instead. I then wanted to write a short story about the ocean, but found myself unable to finish after the final line. Perhaps I will finish it later, and continue it in another post. Perhaps it will become the opening of another book, once I finish Please Give. For now, it’s a stray passage in need of a home – and for now, that home is here. Enjoy – and if you have ideas for where it should go next, feel free to leave them in the comments!

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Sea of Green

When I first saw the ocean as a child, I was struck by the fact that it was green. Whenever I’d seen a wave crash on television or a boat sail in a book, it had been on an ocean of blue. My mother took me to the beach, and I furrowed my brow and declared, “That’s not the ocean – it’s green.”

She chuckled at my innocence. “That is the ocean, even though it looks green. It’s the way of the Atlantic.”

I wouldn’t see a blue ocean until many years later, as I watched the Pacific crash on some rocks beneath my balcony. I typed on my computer, sipping coffee as the sun rose and brightened the cliffs surrounding the water. Bordered by oceans of blue and green, I smiled at the thought of our hetero-chrome country, its watery eyes gazing at the varied terrains in between them. I trekked across them often, as my mother stayed faithful to the sea of green, and I’d cross any mountain, desert, or plain to see her when she called.