Dear Marcus: Why you should plot. And me, too. Because pantsers are in league with the Devil

Marcus: So, let me toss this at you. If you have an editor (and you absolutely should) who is doing developmental editing, he/she’s going to want to see an outline SO THAT you don’t have to go back and edit the **** out of the manuscript after the fact. 2nd, creating a novel shouldn’t be (and this idea is from Kait Nolan, and I’m paraphrasing from her introduction to the Story Toolkit by Bischoff) like just getting in your car and driving off down an Irish road hoping for the perfect romance at the end, that’s more likely to end up in you running out of gas, in the rain.

Plus, changing your outline is much more simple than changing thousands and thousands of words. It’s an outline. A few sentences about what happens here, what happens there, and so on. The point is that you change the outline first so that number of words being changed goes down from 10000 to 250. That’s working smarter, not harder, right? (Show, don’t tell! Hahahaha don’t hit me. Sorry. Dave Koster loves that piece of advice. (See his comment in response to my inanity)) Take the screenplays for the Lord of the Rings vs. The Hobbit. Besides the fact that the Hobbit was a bloated little piece of filmmaking, the Producer was freaking pantsing his way through the movie, which means it isn’t an inspired drive through the Irish countryside to find some beautiful little colleen hanging out waiting for you at the end. It was a hugely wasteful production that cost a lot of extra money to make because Peter freaking Jackson couldn’t take time out to do a little planning. So, think of driving an enormous bulldozer around the Irish countryside, paying off property owners of the places you destroyed, and hoping to get there without a map. That’s Peter Jackson in a nutshell.

Did you check out 2,000 to 10,000? It’s a buck. Go get it and read it. Rachel Aaron shows the path to professional proficiency in this craft, and it ain’t down the no-outline road. That road has only one car going down it of any substance, and it’s got Maine license plates and belongs to Stephen King. The other road, the one with outlines? That’s filled with tons of authors who publish work after work, successfully, year after year. They have a system. It works.


I’m not going to dignify pantsing with any sort of half-mumbled “if it works for you,” because I don’t think it does. It doesn’t work. It’s a lousy system and has given such masterworks as the claptrap from James Joyce, who was clearly driving down an Irish road looking for something, but it wasn’t romance. Probably another bottle of Jamesons, as this one seems to be empty.

James Joyce. Look at that eyepatch. Wait, wait: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…” Ugh. Double ugh. This is penal writing, the sort of prose that should be forced on people who do comma splices. Which I think we were doing in high school, so we deserved to be saddled with this awfulness.

All those people who say, “I pants and I do just fine,” those people are evil demons who are trying to ruin your full potential. DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM. Especially the über successful ones. Because the only way they could be über successful was if they had a pact with the Devil, who is clearly a supporter of pantsing.

The torment and anguish: Outlining Abomination

Look, I don’t like outlining. I just don’t. This does not make sense, considering my soul’s desperate desire for order. You’d think that order = not chaos, and chaos = not outlining, therefore order = outlining. Somewhere in that logic sequence is a flawed statement, but I don’t know where. In the meantime, I read stuff on other blogs that sounds vaguely like this:

Hey there, everyone. I used to type only 150 words a day, and my novel was taking FOREVER. But then I learned how to outline and now, with only five minutes of outlining a day, I now type 9000 words a day, and have finished five books last month. You can learn to outline, too, with my free 7 FABULOUS TIPS TO NO-BRAINER AWESOME BEST-SELLER OUTLINING brochure, which I will send to you if you give me your email address.

Also, I rescued 10 kittens this morning and bought groceries for the poor family down the street.

For one, nobody likes you, if you’re this person. We’re all supremely envious (not jealous) of your 9000 words a day. Secondly, we don’t believe you, unless you start pumping out titles three times a month and they’re good. Thirdly, nobody likes outlining, do they? Do they?! Fourthly, nobody rescues 10 kittens. Maybe 1 or 2 kittens, but never 10. Those things are too wild to catch. So that’s another thing we don’t believe. And the groceries thing? Fah. Maybe you did. But anyone can buy food for others in need, so that’s not a big deal.  We’re all still envious of the whole 9k a day.

Back to this grindstone of this one particular task. Obviously, I can write, as you can see from this awesome example you’re looking at with your peepers right now. How awesome is this prose? That awesome. And there’s no tyops, like you might get on an Amazon book which hasn’t been complained about yet. (Note to you jealous authors: See a book written by a competitor that has a typo or badly formatted table or picture? You can help the Amazon Book Gestapo by reporting them. “Vee haff ways of making you punctuate,” they say. Chris McMullin asks some questions and clarifies the issue. It’s interesting, in the least.) Maybe MJ is frowning at the informalness of it all, but she’s an editor and they’re supposed to frown. Though the latest post with the blonde in the boots did not get my attention for prurient reasons or anything. I read it for the post!

Not so obviously, I don’t seem to be able to outline to save my life, or my book. Perhaps it’s because I’m not original in my thinking. “That’s okay, Matt, I took my last plot and ripped it from Homer,” you say. That’s cool, except my current plot does not look remotely like Homer. I say plot, what I really mean is half-plot, since the back half of it isn’t written yet. It’s not outlined. Because I didn’t rip it from Homer.

That’s because I like to claim I’m organic and all that. As if that’s something to be proud of. “Stephen King doesn’t outline,” you drone at me. So what? Everyone else is outlining. Not only that, but they like it. And then they tell me on their blogs how much they like it.

I think I just need to get the 7 steps brochure, suck it up, and do the outlining. Developmental editing seems so much easier when it’s not for you.

PS: Yes, I’m avoiding outlining by writing about avoiding outlining. Clever, aren’t I?



Characterization Part X of Y

I’m currently reading Ackerman and Puglisi’s Negative Trait Thesaurus.  There is a wealth of data in there on the negative traits, and the book starts with a long wordy explanation of how those traits come about and how they fit with the positive traits.

I found me in there.

Yes, the Pontius Cominius Achilles heel. I found my major positive trait, and I found my negative downfall. Reading my negative trait, I was squirming and saying, “Yep, they got me.”

The big takeaway here is that I can see where you put combos together and get a tricky human. A nice, not-cardboard person who has drives, desires, wants, loves, hatreds, flaws, virtues, and is so inherently messy that the reader resonates by either squirming and saying, “that’s me,” or they identify with the positive characteristic and say “that’s ME!”  By messy, I mean that I can see where each one is being driven by their circumstances, their history, their natural inclinations.

I’m jumping between the characterization books and the Write Great Fiction by Bell. I like Bell because  he says you can learn to write and he can give you the basics. I read somewhere this weekend, wish I could remember where, that this whole endeavor was 5% talent and 95% determination.  How much grit do you have? I thus need to set some goals, and with my negative trait in mind–it really is my conflict– hold to a schedule and push hard.

This novel will be written. It will be fantastic. It will be richly characterized. It will have good structure, pacing, plot, and it will lead to a second, because you can’t market your writing with just one novel or readers have nothing to go buy after reading my first brilliant opus.  I will do complete characterization for my protagonist and three additional support characters by the end of this week.  I will finish reading Write by the end of this week.

Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.

XbyFri… Failure is NOT an option

Sorry, Apollo 13.  It is an option. It’s always an option.  Declaring this bold statement doesn’t eliminate failure, it just removes the mindset or drives it underground.

With that in mind, I have not delivered on my 10 pages by Friday deadline.  I am still knee deep in Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell.  It’s been crystallizing how the structure is supposed to look, and I’ll be able to mate that with  The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (and the dark side, The Negative Trait Thesaurus by the same authors) to get a grip on the characters and their part in the structure of the novel, upon which I can hang the words.

The thing about XbyFri was that I was attempting to produce pages for Kristin Lamb to review and give me feedback.  While I value Kristin’s kind offer, I am not at a point to accept it. Any writing I give her would be stunted and lacking in the things I’m working on mentioned above, and that would waste her time looking at it.  I would rather use her time for valuable pursuits such as those who do have content to review who would benefit from her wisdom.

Give it a few weeks. I think that the understanding of plot structure will open up the whole thing immensely.

Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.

Curse you, XbyFri! In Which the Author Rides in Airplane with a Talkative 7 Year Old

I had opportunity to review a few pages of a craft book on plotting.  A craft book, for anyone new to the biz, is a book to guide you and help you understand basics or nuances of minor stuff like plot, character arc, archetypes, and sundry other junk.

Or major stuff.

I was on an airplane yesterday with my son.  He’s 7.

Awesome, time to read how to do plot, I think.

“Say dad, I’m scared.”

“Close your window then. Here’s my phone. Fruit Ninja?”

“Fruit Ninja! AWESOME!” He descends into slicing fruit, his fears of impending death/maiming/flying forgotten. That, my son, is why I only let you play this very rarely. You treasure these fleeting moments of Fruit Ninjadom.

I open the page on my kindle and begin to read. The author explains he was deterred from writing by the conventional wisdom that good writing can’t be taught; it’s there in your bones, or forget it. He details that he finally started figuring out that no, it’s not in your bones, as much as it can be taught. And how he decided to write this book to bring the Truth to the Masses and help the rest of us pull ourselves up.  Good, good, let’s get into the meat of it. Tell me what I need to know.

“Say dad?” That’s my new name. Saydad. A majority of his sentences to me start with that.


“I have a new high score in fruit ninja!!”

“Ah, yes, very good.” There. That ended the conversation. He’ll go back to–

“Say dad?”


“Look at this high score. This is my highest score ever!”

“Yes, yes it is.” Back to plotting.

“I keep hitting bombs,” he says.

“Yes, I know, but you’re not allowed to say that word because it’ll get us in trouble. Call them cherries.”


Now to plot.

“Are we in the air?”

“No, open your window and you’ll see. We’re not moving yet.”

“Oh. It’s too bright, I can’t see fruit ninja.”

“You’ll know when we’re moving, though. You should open it.”

The plane begins to move, pushed backward by a tug.

“There, we’re taxiing. It’s like moving in a car.”

“I’m scared,” he says. Fruit Ninja is forgotten.

“It’s fine. We’ll be fine.”  I lean over and open the shade to see out. He closes it.

I get in a few more pages of plot, but the 7 year old is peppering me with comments and questions. I conclude that I will not be reading anything on this flight. This is a Big Deal for him.

A few moments after takeoff, I negotiate to open the window shade and I point out the beach below, and the mountains, and our house.

“Hey, this is pretty cool. I think I like flying,” he says. He’s an external processor. We spend the rest of the flight discussing atmosphere, height, speed, how long it will take, snowy mountains, lakes, why planes are better and safer than cars. Soon, we land, and gather our bags and walk through the terminal. I explain what a slot machine is and advise him that gambling is evil. I’m a dad, I’m allowed to paint the opposition with broad swaths and descriptions.  We look at a display of big horn sheep, a large rocket, and a model of a train. There are pictures of wild horses lining the walls.

I decide to stick it to the mustang lovers. “Son, don’t ever let anyone tell you those wild horses are natural on this continent. They are not. They are escaped horses from the conquistadors. They are not natural to this environment and there is no argument that will ever make them that way.”

We walk down an escalator.  There’s his grandma.  He stands still for a moment, indecisive. “Go give her a hug!” He runs to her, calling out “Grandma!” and is wrapped in a hug. She never thought she’d have grandkids, so this is a nice gift that keeps on giving, watching her two grandchildren grow over the distance.

I didn’t get to plot yesterday. I did get to hunt for rocks in the eroded tailings of a hydraulic gold mine, and the little boy and I played in the snow a little while.  Grandma gave us a styrofoam box and we brought home some snow for my 3 year old daughter, though it’s a little slushy now. I got to drive for 8 hours, time spent talking to my son.

Now you know why I didn’t get to read much about plot.  I tried, but yesterday wasn’t quite right for it.  I can see that XbyFri is going to be a bust; I need a lot more information on how the large picture comes together before I can make the small picture come together on the page.

Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.

My outline is wrong. All wrong. Throw it out, start over.

I’ll bet you never thought that.  Heck, most of you don’t outline. That’s English class stuff, no application to the real world.

It’s okay, I agree. About the English class stuff. Application? Plenty.

How can you write a complex plot unless you have some map?  “It ruins the spontaneity, Pontius,” you say to me plaintively.  “And,” you add snarkily, “you can’t even spell spontaneity without a spellcheck.”  Got me there. But you’re not so clever! I’ve obviously got a spell check.  Strawman Snarky reader: 0. Pontius: 1.  Just in case you missed that.

I think I get what people are sayin’.  See, there’s joy in discovering a story as you go. You write and write and a few thousand words in, the characters are changing the story in a natural direction that feels right. It’s like you’re along for the ride and the story writes itself.

Or so some of the good writers claim. “Got my little fiction ouija board here, and it practically writes itself. I got discipline and creativity coming out of my back pores. I can’t help but write awesomely. Some days, I’m in awe of how the story writes itself. Then it’s down to the bank to cash that day’s royalty checks for a couple grand.”  It’s okay. We can hate them together, and be one with our envy.

So outline it is.  It’s faster.  Better. And because most of us aren’t geniuses, we need a process to outlet our creativity.

I’ve been processing. I thought I had a good outline. Now, I’m not so sure. Scratch that. I’m sure. It’s not good. It’s meh. Indifferent! Poxy and foul! To the scrap heap, and not one more word from you. No, reader, you cannot save it.  I will rebuild. Bigger. Better. Etc.

Pity all the conflict is in me battling my outline.  I’d be better in a story.