Characters out of Context

S and I are counting down the days until NaNoWriMo starts, and we’ve just about finished all our prep work.  We have outlines, character profiles, and even maps.  The last thing I’m doing before I start actually writing my novel (Last Outpost), is to spend a little time getting to know my characters a little better.

One trap that writers can fall into is turning our characters into mere cogs in the wheel of the plot.  And this is particularly a danger for those of us who are obsessive outliners, like me and S.  It’s all too easy to look at the outline and not bother to think about character or motivation when you read something like, “Susan goes to the market, meets Bob.”  Why did Susan go to the market?  Well, to meet Bob.  And why did she meet Bob?  Well, because it’s their story, and it’s chapter 2, and it’s time for them to meet, already.  I’ve completely failed to consider what Susan might have been planning, or what she was doing before she ran into Bob, or what sort of a person she might be that she’s going to that particular market in that neighborhood at that particular time.

To keep myself from making that mistake, I like to write some short scenes with my characters–scenes that are outside the plot of the story and aren’t intended ever to be used as part of it.  The point of this is to put a character in various situations and see what happens.  I just free write; I don’t try to outline these scenes (there’s no point, since they’re usually only 400-600 words long).  This helps me to think of the character as a real person, rather than simply as a game token to be pushed around the board as the plot requires.

Most of the prompts I use are from the Poets & Writers website.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Express lane character check.”

A secret inscription.”

The holidays.”

Where leaving takes us.”

And this one is always especially fun: “Nice Try.”

That one involves you (as the author) imagining getting an earful from a disgruntled minor character.  And in fact I try to do a number of these prompts from the POV of secondary characters, so I get a sense of what they’re like and how they really feel about the main characters of my novel.

Some of these were clearly designed to help writers get started and give them ideas for new stories.  I use them when I already have a story and characters, however.  For me, they’re a way of getting to know the characters a little better by taking them out of the context of my story.  And even if they don’t end up in the novel, the short scenes can become part of a character’s backstory if they turn out well.  In any case, it’s a good warmup for NaNoWriMo, so I get back into the habit of writing several thousand words per day.

J

Roman Stirrups and Medieval Ballet: A Theory of Anachronism

An anachronism is bad if it pulls the reader out of the story.  Unfortunately, this rule isn’t much help to an author, since it’s so heavily dependent on the subjective impressions of the reader.  And some readers and viewers are just picky.  I would submit that if you can’t enjoy Gladiator because Russell Crowe has stirrups or if you can’t see Zulu without moaning about Michael Caine’s Webley revolver, then that probably says a lot more about you than it does about those movies.

As authors of traditional high/epic fantasy novels, we spend a lot of time reading up on the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Our hope is that we will be able to create a world that feels authentically old, but of course we know we’re going to get some things wrong.  Early on, therefore, we started talking about what we could and couldn’t get away with.

First we tried to represent a specific time and place: the 15th century in England.  That way, if we wanted to know what type of food our characters would eat, we’d just have to go look up what food people in England were eating in the 15th century.

The trouble is that even very good, highly detailed reference works are not quite as specific as that, particularly if you’re looking for information on non-military topics.  You’ll be reading along about cooking or textiles in the 1400s, and then the next paragraph will start, “In 1528…,” or there will be a digression into something that happened during the First Crusade (1096-99).

So we had to use a much broader swath of history.  But once we let ourselves be vague about the time period, how could we decide what we could use and what we couldn’t?  Could we just throw up our hands and let the Myrcians have zippers, credit cards, and breakfast cereal?

We decided that, in general, technological anachronisms were worse (or at least more noticeable to the lay reader) than conceptual, philosophical, or artistic anachronisms.  In other words, there are 1) things that didn’t exist at a certain time period because the society literally lacked the technology to produce them, and 2) things that could easily have existed, if only someone would have thought of them.  We decided to allow anachronisms in the second category, but not the first.

According to this rule, Myrcia can have ballet, but not electric guitars.  In our world, ballet started in Renaissance Italy, though the kind of dancing we associate with the term today is mostly a product of the 18th and 19th centuries.  There’s nothing that would have stopped medieval English dancers from trying to dance that way, however.  They just didn’t happen to think of it.  Obviously an electric guitar is different, since you have to know what electricity is before you can even imagine such an instrument.

Still, anachronisms must be paid for.  You have to make sure to follow through with the implications.  If a country has ballet or opera, then it also probably has a more highly developed system of professional music and theater than you would have found in 15th century England.  If you have ballet, then you have ballet schools.  You have ballet troupes and big theaters for them to perform in.  You have wealthy patrons who can front you the money for all this, and you have relatively sophisticated audiences who are willing to buy tickets to watch people prance around stage in tights for several hours.

Anyway, that’s our rule.  There are some gray areas, of course.  And I’m sure there will be readers who sniff and scowl and complain that we clearly don’t know how medieval kitchens worked, or whatever.  But our system works for us, and so far I think it’s resulted in a pretty coherent secondary world.

J

The Deep Breath Before the Plunge

It’s been a little quiet here on the blog this week for a couple reasons. One is personal life intrusions that are just boring to talk about. The other is NaNoWriMo prep. We were both ready to go at the beginning of the week, and J still is.  And I had a 11K word outline for my NaNo novel just sitting there waiting for me.  Then on Thursday morning I got this crazy idea that I absolutely needed to write a different novel, with only 8 days to prep it before Midnight November 1. (We do a great kickoff event with our local NaNo group, so it will literally be Midnight.)  I doubt I will have time to do the kind of outline J described for my entire novel, but there’s no way I’m going to try and write this sucker by the seat of my pants, so I’ve got to put in some time planning.  And needless to say (but I will anyway), I’ve recruited J to help me.

So, I’m sure we will have something tomorrow (we do our best to post every Sunday evening), but once NaNo starts, we might only be dropping in to give quick updates about how that’s going.  Oh, and I must add that I am terribly excited that J’s mother brought his old art/drafting desk for me to use!  I think 50K words will be handwritten much more comfortably at an angle.  Hopefully, there will be pictures of that to come.

But for now, off to work on character outlines.  Good luck to everyone doing NaNo!

S

UPDATE: The promised pics are at Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/jsmawdsley/posts/307013602819404

Persuasive Yet Mysterious

UPDATE: 7/16/17 I’ve added a note at the end fixing a mistake I made regarding some characters in Persuasion. ~S

In our second post, I mentioned that as English majors focusing on lit as opposed to creative writing, J and I were never taught in a formal environment what makes a piece of writing good. Since we started thinking about this question seriously,  we’ve come up with some interesting, and possibly even correct, answers, but I’m still occasionally haunted by a particular bit of writing, storytelling, or characterization that I simply cannot figure how it was done. After all, one of the most common pieces of writing advice I see is “Steal,” but how can you steal something you can’t understand?

Sometimes, it’s fairly easy to figure out why something is good. Those brilliant openings, for instance, are easy to spot, and what makes them brilliant is often clear. (Not necessarily easy or clear to replicate, but that’s a different problem.) Take the opening of The Great Gatsby.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

The prose is beautiful, the idea the perfect mission statement for what is to follow. The tone for the entire novel is right there in those two sentences. Brilliant. And although my chances of ever writing something so extraordinary are slim, I can, in fact, see what Fitzgerald did.

On other occasions the perfect opening might be less overtly and beautifully crafted, but no less apt, and when the reader is lucky, funny. I would give my right arm (and being someone who hand writes everything, that’s a serious sacrifice) to write an opening sentence as delightful as what CS Lewis did in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

Again, the tone for the novel is immediate set. And you’ve learned more about Eustace in those first 13 words than most authors could have conveyed in an entire first chapter. It’s a brilliant opening, and there’s no mystery as to why it is.

Endings are also frequently easy to spot when brilliant. Again, look at The Great Gatsby.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

All the promise set up in the opening two sentences, paid off here in the closing. The metaphor is lovely and apt, and if you dig a little deeper, as did Stanley Fish in his book How to Write a Sentence, the rhythm of waves is highlighted by the repetition of the letter “B.” (Really, read the sentence out loud.) All of it’s brilliance might not be immediately apparent, but with a little work, you can puzzle out its genius.

For elegant simplicity, there’s the ending of Return of the King.

He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.

What better way could there possibly be to end the epic quest than that? After all of the danger, strife, loss, and victory, Tolkien opted for the quiet ending. Brilliant.

Brilliant moments in the middle, though, often prove tougher to see and understand. But some authors have gifted us with obviously great set pieces. “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter from The Brothers Karamazov is an obvious example, particularly because it can even stand independent of the larger work. Its ideas are so strong, they need no other words.

Another, and more recent, set piece that I particularly love can be found in Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes. The novel tells the story of a single battle, and after establishing the tone and structure of the book, he departs for a particular charge. The POVs are literally disposable–each POV only lasting until the character is killed, the narrative then picked up by the killer. Clever and appropriate, the chapter moves the reader across the battlefield, the structure underlining the gruesomeness and unheroic nature of battle.

But what about a passage in the middle of a novel written by an author difficult to “catch in the act of genius”? Virginia Woolf famously said Jane Austen was the writer hardest to catch in the act of genius, and after spending two years trying to understand how Austen made a favorite moment in Persuasion so extraordinary, I still don’t know that I’ve figured it out. In the scene that has me flummoxed, our heroine, Anne Elliot, is visiting her sister and taking care of her two young nephews. Anne is trapped in a room with the two boys as well as with two men, both of whom proposed to her, but were refused. One is her brother-in-law, Charles Hayter,* who she refused without regret. The other is Captain Wentworth, and her decision to revoke her initial acceptance of his proposal has haunted her ever since.

Here’s the passage in question.

There being nothing to eat, he could only have some play; and as his aunt would not let him tease his sick brother, he began to fasten himself upon her, as she knelt, in such a way that, busy as she was about Charles, she could not shake him off. She spoke to him, ordered, entreated, and insisted in vain. Once she did contrive to push him away, but the boy had the greater pleasure in getting upon her back again directly.

“Walter,” said she, “get down this moment. You are extremely troublesome. I am very angry with you.”

“Walter,” cried Charles Hayter, “why do you not do as you are bid? Do not you hear your aunt speak? Come to me, Walter, come to cousin Charles.”

But not a bit did Walter stir.

In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.

Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. His kindness in stepping forward to her relief, the manner, the silence in which it had passed, the little particulars of the circumstance, with the conviction soon forced on her by the noise he was studiously making with the child, that he meant to avoid hearing her thanks, and rather sought to testify that her conversation was the last of his wants, produced such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from, till enabled by the entrance of Mary and the Miss Musgroves to make over her little patient to their cares, and leave the room…. But neither Charles Hayter’s feelings, nor anybody’s feelings, could interest her, till she had a little better arranged her own. She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.

So, what did Austen do here? Why do I return to this passage over and over again nearly as overcome as Anne? The prose, as always, is flawless, the characters behave as they must, and the action is described elegantly. But that doesn’t explain why this scene has such a hold over me, and why I obsess over its brilliance. I think the attraction is Austen’s ability to make the little incidents of life feel so important. I’ve run across writing advice that preaches the stakes must always be high, in fact, they should as often as possible be death. Anne is in an awkward situation, but no one is about to die. Literally at any rate. But this is precisely what Austen does so well. She makes these simple scenes in drawing rooms seem as though the stakes are, indeed, death. Stop and think about this: how many of us have been in battle, sailed off to a magical land, or gone on a great quest to destroy evil? On the other hand, how many of us have found ourselves in an irritating situation in front of someone we love who we fear doesn’t love us back? Austen’s stakes are the kind most people can actually relate to, and when we remember those moments, they certainly felt like life or death.

But Jane Austen is hardly unique in finding the drama of ordinary life. Surely, there must be something else, some other mystery in need of solving to explain how she did it. On different readings, two things have occurred to me that shed some light. My first clue: I never highlighted this passage until two years ago when I was reading the book for the third or fourth time. How had I never noticed it before? How did I miss the pathos? This is hardly the first, and I doubt the last, time something positively brilliant jumped out at me for the first time upon rereading a Jane Austen novel. The second clue emerged when I went back to reread just this passage. For anyone who has never read Persuasion, you probably read the above and made some sort of face, either a confused squint or an eye roll would be my guess. “What on earth is so special about this?” you ask. It doesn’t stand especially well on its own, ala “The Grand Inquisitor.” In fact, I’ve rarely been so moved by a scene in a novel that so utterly and completely depends upon what came before it. Without knowing Anne in particular, what I quoted is nearly meaningless.

And this is what drives me crazy as a writer attempting to steal from my favorite authors. I can’t steal this scene. I can’t in some way take this and make it my own, because there’s no single piece to steal. This scene only makes sense, is only obviously brilliant, when read in sequence with the nine chapters that came before. Austen has so thoroughly interwoven characters and plot and theme that you cannot examine anything bit by bit. Aside from a few excellent opening sentences, there are not passages in her novels at which to point and say, “See? Brilliant.” She has hidden her genius in plain site, in every word and decision to the extent that you can’t see it. So, even if I am right, even if I have solved the mystery, I’m not sure that I’ve learned anything as far as “how” to do what Austen did. Other than be totally brilliant all of the time. Talk about difficult to replicate.

S

*Having just finished rereading Persuasion, I realize I made a mistake here, but I am firmly blaming Austen for this one. There are no fewer than four characters named Charles in this novel: Charles Hayter, Charles Musgrove, Sr., Charles Musgrove, Jr., and Charles Smith. Charles Musgrove proposed to Anne, not Charles Hayter, who eventually weds Henrietta Musgrove.

Rampant Profiling

Very early on, we started keeping profiles of all our characters.  Some of these are only a few lines.  Some are pretty big.  The profile for the heroine and “author” of my million-word memoir, for example, is five pages and 2,059 words long.  It has to be that large, because it tracks her entire career as an army spy.  It includes sections for all the places she serves, all the medals she earns, the dates of all her promotions, and so on.

That’s a special case, of course.  Usually these things take up no more than half a page.  Here’s the general format that we use:

Name:
Age:
Born:
Family:
Likes/Dislikes:
Physical Appearance:
Other Characteristics:
Other Facts:
Voice:

The amount of detail that we include depends, naturally, on the importance of the character to the story.

“Name” is the character’s full name, with any nicknames, titles, or military ranks indicated.  Sometimes we will add a brief description of the character’s role in the story here, too: “Wizard Boyfriend” or “Grumpy Sidekick.”  That can be especially useful if we haven’t bothered to come up with a name, yet.

“Age” is the character’s age when the story starts (or, in some cases, the character’s age during the main action of the story)

“Born” probably should be “birthplace,” instead, since that’s what we usually put there.

“Family” can be quite short for minor characters.  For instance, it could be something like, “Parents farmers.  One younger sister.”  For major characters, though, we could have an entire elaborate family tree, with dates of births, marriages, and deaths recorded.

“Likes/Dislikes” are a good way to start thinking about the character as a real person.  We usually try to mention any close friendships or bitter rivalries that the character has, particularly with other major characters.  We would also have favorite foods, beverages, hobbies, and so on.

“Physical Appearance” includes, at the very least, the character’s height, eye and hair color, and general build.  If the character has a distinctive manner of dress (e.g. always dressing in black), that would probably get mentioned here, too.

“Other Characteristics” are any qualities or attributes that aren’t related to physical appearance.  Is the character sarcastic?  Or greedy?  Or particularly bad at math?

“Other Facts” is a catch-all category that usually ends up being a brief biography of the character.  For major characters, this might be pretty detailed.  At the very least, though, we would try to think of any parts of the character’s backstory that might be relevant to the plot: where did he go to school? How long has he been at his current job?  What did he do before that?

Is all this necessary?  In my experience, it certainly is. Many times I’ve gone back to the character file to confirm a fact I was sure I knew, only to discover that I remembered it completely wrong.  There’s one character in the memoir, for example, who I kept thinking was blonde, even though it says right there on her profile that she has light brown hair.  A more embarrassing example involves one of the four main POV characters of the Quartet.  He’s quite athletic, but he’s not especially large.  Somehow, over months and years of writing scenes of his martial arts exploits, I got it into my head that he must be huge and buff.  Then one day I happened to look at his character profile, and I realized that he was five inches shorter than I thought.

So, yeah, it’s important to write this stuff down, and it’s important to check it regularly.

J

Collaboration and Resistance

If you haven’t done so already, check out our new section describing the Mercia ‘verse!

As we noted on our “About” page, a friend once told us that we were “unicorns,” since married couples who collaborate effectively as writers are supposedly so rare as to almost be mythical creatures. Not to toot our own (single, magical) horn, but I do think we work particularly well together.

My students just finished up their group essays (a required assignment for entry-level composition classes), and as always, some of the groups worked together better than others. Some of the students seem to have become fast friends. Some of them aren’t even talking to each other anymore. So this got me thinking about why some collaborations work and some don’t.

Why do some people so fiercely resist collaborative writing? I rarely see such visceral negative reactions in my students—such grimacing and groaning, such eye-rolling and head-smacking—as when I announce the group essay. I suppose the reason is that, by the time students get to college, they have all worked together in groups dozens of times in school, and they have all gotten burned at least once.

There are two basic problems that most students complain about: the slackers who contribute very little to the group, and the dictators who take over and push everyone around. Both of these problems arise from a lack of preparation and a lack of clearly defined boundaries.

One: Preparation

We outline obsessively, so this makes it easy for us to divide up the work. Since we started our latest revision of the Quartet, we’ve actually been making detailed outlines together. This means that S knows exactly what I’m supposed to be writing in my scene.

If I’m writing a chapter where Susan meets John at the market and jokes with him about George, S can write a scene that takes place later in time and know for certain that 1) Susan and John have met, 2) they like each other, and 3) they have a shared inside joke about their mutual friend, George. I, in turn, know that S is depending on me to convey that information so she can build on it in her scene. If I wrote a scene instead where Susan met John, argued with him, and ran off in a huff, S would be annoyed with me, and justifiably so.

This leads us to the issue of….

Two: Boundaries

We don’t just co-write novels. We also write solo works set in a shared world. This means we absolutely have to make sure we discuss what we can and can’t do with that world and the characters in it.

For example, I once wrote a story about a rather lonely middle-aged woman who eventually finds love and starts a family. Sometime after that, S started writing a series of crime novels set in the Myrcia ‘verse. She asked if she could include the heroine from my previous novel. I agreed immediately, of course. But she also made sure to ask what she was allowed to do with the character.

Frankly, it would have annoyed me to have the happy ending of my story undone simply in order to “raise the stakes” for S’s detective character. So I asked S to please not kill the character or her family. And S, being the excellent collaborator that she is, readily agreed to respect my wishes.

So how do collaborators achieve unicorn status? Work out ahead of time what you’re going to do. And perhaps more importantly, discuss what you’re not allowed to do.

J

Mightier Than the Sword

S and I are a mixed marriage; I compose everything at the computer, while she likes to write everything by hand and then type it up. Likewise, when I revise, I always do it on my computer, while S sometimes likes to print out a copy of the story or chapter she’s working on and mark it up with pen or pencil.

Right now, her favorite pen for writing is the Bic Velocity.

Whether it begins on paper or on a keyboard, all of our stories eventually end up as Word docs, which we access on any one of our growing collection of laptops. All of the computers are named after characters in our stories.

We’re both very particular about keyboards. S particularly likes Lenovo keyboards. Right now, her main laptop is a Lenovo Z510 named Konrad.

Konrad is less than a year old, and is the newest laptop in the house. S wanted a laptop that had 1) a 1080p screen, 2) the best processor in the house (finally), 3) at least 8 GB of ram, 4) a CD/DVD drive, and 5) a good backlit keyboard, while still being 6) no more than about $800. It’s amazing how few laptops actually met all those requirements.

For greater mobility, S also has Leofe, a Lenovo Yoga 11 (the original one, with Windows RT).

Leofe is pretty slow, but it gets absolutely amazing battery life. And being able to flip the screen back and use it as a tablet is kind-of cool, too. Not that we do that very often, but it’s cool in theory, at least.

My main laptop is an HP 8560p, which is named Esmond.

It’s more than three years old now, but the i7 2720QM in it is still very fast, so I’m not in a great deal of hurry to find a replacement. Esmond weighs 6.4 pounds, though, so usually when I’m leaving the house, I take one of my two smaller and lighter laptops.

The first is my little old netbook, a Toshiba NB305 named Rhys.

It’s not very powerful at all (opening several large documents or spreadsheets at once is an exercise in frustration), but it’s more than 5 years old now, and the battery life is still pretty good.

The second is Erlene, an 11″ MacBook Air.

Erlene isn’t actually mine–it belongs to my mom, who wants me to learn how to use OS X so I can teach her. Sooner or later, therefore, I’m going to have to give Erlene back (and presumably provide tech support afterward).

There are more, which I might introduce sometime, but these are the ones we do most of our story work on.

It would be unkind of me to say which of our stable of laptops I like the best; I refuse to play favorites. Generally, I like whichever one happens to be on hand at any given moment.

J

5 Sites to Answer Your Questions When You Can’t Get to a Librarian

Being a librarian, I do like a good reference website. I thought I would share a handful of my favorites, although I could easily list a couple dozen more.

Behind the Name and Behind the Surname
If naming characters drives you nuts (and it does me), these two sites are the best thing I’ve ever found.

Online Etymology Dictionary
Especially for fantasists and historical fiction writers who need to know word meanings and when they came into use, this is my favorite free source. (For favorite not free source, see the OED.)

Mayo Clinic
For people who are physically cruel to their characters and want to hurt them or give them some horrible disease, there are a lot of good medical websites out there. For instance, PubMed, is an excellent site, but I’m a huge fan of the Mayo Clinic site, especially the stuff found under Diseases and Conditions. It’s reliable information and easy for a normal person to understand.

Legal Information Institute
If there’s anything harder to understand than medical information, it’s the law. Cornell Law School runs this really excellent site explaining all manner of legal terms, concepts, cases, etc., in a way you have a hope of understanding.

Purdue OWL
Purdue’s Online Writing Lab is awesome for answering pesky grammar/language questions, and every writer has those from time to time.

So that’s it for now. I’m sure I’ll post more handy reference information from time to time.

S

Why I Stopped Pantsing

Both of us are hard-core outliners. When we write our novels, either alone or together, we plan them out thoroughly ahead of time. This means that, in the grand, Manichean division of fiction writers, we are aligned with the planners, rather than with the “pantsers” (i.e. those who write by the seat of their pants, or make it up as they go).

It was not always thus.

When we started our first four books together, we had a sort of an outline: a spreadsheet listing the scenes we had planned for each of our four POV characters. We did that so we could divide up the work between us. “I’ll do this scene. Do you want that one?”

The descriptions of these scenes were pretty minimal, like “Susan meets John.” So we pretty much got to write as much or as little as we wanted, provided that by the time the scene ended, Susan had, in fact, met John. Having never done this before, and having no real idea of the scale of the entire project, I tended to overwrite my scenes. One three-day battle sequence, for example, went on for more than 20,000 words in its first draft, even though the only really important thing that happens is that one of our POV characters sees a relative of another POV character get killed. In our latest revision, that battle now takes about 6,600 words, which is much more in line with its importance in the story.

After we finished the first draft of the Quartet, I spent two years working on a solo project, which was the “autobiography” of a minor character from the Quartet. It grew in the telling considerably, to three volumes and over a million words. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever written, and it’s probably the longest thing I ever will write.

The first volume of this autobiography covered the minor character’s early life and then her involvement as a spy in the events of the Quartet. I made that part up more or less off the top of my head. As long as I had her show up in the right places and the right times to meet the POV characters from the Quartet, I could have her do whatever I wanted in between.

Then that first volume ended, and I had to make up the whole rest of her life.

I had ideas about what would happen to her and her friends, but I had a nagging sense that unless I worked it all out beforehand, I would forget something. I realized that I had made all sorts of “promises” to the reader—vague allusions to future events—and I had to make sure that those things actually happened somewhere in the book. I had to keep track of all the other spies she serves with in military intelligence (dozens and dozens of them) and all the various places that she is posted (from one end of our imaginary world to the other).

I realized that if I kept going by the seat of my pants, the book would require vast amounts of revision to patch all the plot holes. So that’s when I started making outlines—serious, detailed outlines.

Instead of “Susan meets John,” I would write, “Chapter 33: Aug. 25. Susan goes for walk in rain, meets John at the market. Description of market. Description of John. First meeting, but both know George. Susan remembers a story about George, tells John, who finds it funny.”

This worked pretty well for a while, but even so, I started to notice that my overwriting problem would invariably crop up whenever I had to write a particularly important or dramatic chapter. I would get about halfway down the second page and find that I was still describing the market, and John hadn’t even appeared yet. So I started assigning word lengths to the different sections, like so:

Chapter 33 (Aug. 25)

  • Part 1 (500 words): Susan walks to the market in the rain. Description of market.
  • Part 2 (600 words): Susan meets John at the vegetable stand. They’ve never met before, but each knows the other by reputation. Description of John from Susan’s POV (she’s clearly attracted).
  • Part 3 (600 words): John mentions George, whom they both know. Susan remembers a funny story about George, tells John, who laughs.

Now of course, when I went to write this chapter, “Part 1” might have ended up being 442 words or 763. But the point is that I had a firewall to keep me from getting carried away with the things that didn’t really matter, or neglecting the things that were absolutely crucial. Notice that in this example, I’ve left quite a bit of space for Susan’s description of John. I’m basically telling myself, “This is really important to the story. Don’t skimp here.”

When I started outlining like this, I discovered a happy side effect: 600 word sections are about as much as I can write on an average lunch break (while still leaving time to eat). And I always knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I never had to sit there thinking, “What happens next?” I had already worked out the content; I just needed to worry about the wording.

Later that year, we decided to do NaNoWriMo for the first time, and I discovered that this kind of outline was perfect for writing quickly. Even if the end product was 50,000 words, rather than a million, it still helped to break it down into small, manageable chunks.

So that’s how I became an obsessive outliner. I have nothing against people who write by the seat of their pants, but I’m glad I’m not one of them anymore.

J