On Deviating From Your Outline (and why you should do it)

Writing is an art form, an extension of our vibrant imagination put into the written word. Writing is a artistic expression of ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, where the turn of a phrase can excite an audience and a fictional character can tug at our hearts. There should be no doubt that the art of writing is intertwined with an author’s muse, inspiration, and creativity.

But when a writer first conceives of a story, what does he/she do? Create an outline of course! But when we generate outlines, we are putting our story into a box. Albeit, the author pours his/her creativity into the outline, but I fear that for some the creativeness of their ingenuity stops there.

As a writing exercise, try thinking of an alternative plot point from what you currently have planned, and begin outlining the events that would occur from this new pivot point in your novel. Then compare the two story paths (original vs. new); which one was better for you?

I recently did this and was thrilled with the results! My original outline didn’t capture all the particular details that lead up to Chapter 9, so upon my arrival at this point in my story, I realized my characters were stuck. There was now an obstacle that wasn’t there in my outline. I was forced to improvise – and that is when I had this epiphany!

The more I write, the more I favor organic character development – and by extension: story development. I am usually a big planner, down to every detail, so I know how important story outlines are, but now I try to keep my outlines at a high level so that I won’t stifle my creativity as I write.

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Working with an Editor

Do you want to get inside the mind of an editor? To know what they might look for? To know how they think? I recently had lengthy exchanges with my first editor, Derek Bowen, and would like to share my lessons learned from working with him on revising my short story, The Ravenous Flock.

After completing his first read through, he wanted me to consider renaming one of my races and my monster. They striked him more as descriptions (adjectives) than names, so I had to spend some time brainstorming on the topic before I finally arrived at appropriate names.

In general, the majority of his edits were opportunities to delete unnecessary words to improve flow. Here is an example: Before: “Grindor took hold of the hollow yak horn and guzzled the last of the water as it poured down his chin.” After: “Grindor took hold of the hollow yak horn and guzzled it dry.”

This all may sound rather simple, but once we began discussing substantive changes to my story, a whole other level of analysis was presented to me. In discussing my monster, Derek made me think about its entire ecology – always comparing to known living organisms to be able to bring familiar elements into the creature’s description. For example, extending tongues are normally sticky rather than prehensile (with a few exceptions like giraffes and ant eaters). But what really needed consideration was the day-to-day life of my monster. What (and how much) does it normally eat? How often does it live in water? How far inland does it travel? Basically, he wanted me to put as much thought into this monster as I do with my main characters.

Derek also introduced me to a new form of outlining after you’ve finished the chapter/passage/etc. He reduced an entire battle scene to 6 bullets. All he did was capture the behavior/reactions of a tribe of fighters during a fight to evaluate if their actions in battle were warranted or not. He claims this style of outlining is most effective to “do it by going back and constructing it from what you’ve actually written, not what you’d planned to write at the outset. It makes it very easy to discover whether you’ve put everything in the correct place—especially important in the age of cut-and-paste, where things can get moved with a couple keystrokes, and it becomes altogether too easy to separate items or leave one thing stranded after you’ve moved another.”

In addition, I have a dramatic reveal at the end of my story, but I had a difficult time making it feel as dramatic as I had intended. Derek commented that, “what you need is to convince the reader it’s that important to the character(s), whether it would be that important to anyone else in a similar situation—so it doesn’t need to be high melodrama.”  I ended up suggesting a new reveal, and together, we were able to craft it to a much better ending to my story about the forming of a unique friendship.

He was very impressed by my openness to his proposed revisions and so I thought I should share this one last quote from Derek: “In my experience, there are two main kinds of writers: the kind who are defensive about what they’ve written, and the kind who care enough about their writing to want to improve it and are willing to learn. The former are rarely successful.”

While these are the larger lessons learned, there were many subtle nuggets of wisdom that I captured from this experience. If you have any further questions, please leave them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

 

I Learned More Than Just Writing Tips From My Critique Group

I submitted my short story, The Ravenous Flock, to http://critters.org/ on 7/8/2012, where it sat in the queue. On Wednesday, 8/1/2012, it was released to their community of over 15,000 members. Later that week on a Saturday morning, I received my first 3 critiques. Verdict: It was worth the wait!

I learned some valuable lessons about my writing that I can now consciously pay attention to so that I can avoid them in the future. Some of which were just bad habits that had been formed long ago that had never been brought to my attention. For example, pay attention to the punctuation on this sample sentence: A dangerous voice spoke to him, weighted in a thick accent, “You will tell your king what I have done here this day, or I will come to reclaim your life.”

There should be a period after the word “accent” instead of a comma because it is actually a sentence and not a dialogue tag. This was an error that I had made a couple of times – an old habit that simply stayed below the radar of my critical eye. But the ability to learn things about your writing that you weren’t conscious of before is invaluable! The line by line corrections/suggestions that I received are immensely useful and will aid me in my next revision.

Another bad habit of mine shows in this sentence: The weight was lifted from his chest and Grindor began to hack and cough between his sporadic breaths. Did Grindor actually hack and cough? Or did he only begin to hack and cough? Words like “began” don’t help when trying to describe the actions in the scene and should be removed.

Lastly, I had some POV shifts that jarred the reader. Occassionally, the narrator switched from the point-of-view of Grindor to Ocamyr. I think I was trying to have an omnipresent narrator, but since the narrator spent so much time describing everything from Grindor’s perspective, it was odd to suddenly be in the mind of Ocamyr. These shifts in POV will be addressed and corrected so that the reader’s perspective of the events are all described through the eyes of Grindor.

I believe that by incorporating these edits and reworking the ending a little bit will strengthen my short story and prepare it for submission to magazines. Had I not taken the time to receive critique on my work, I may never have learned these flaws in my writing until it was too late. Having patience as a writer is a virtue. Take a moment and let that sink in. Maintaining one’s patience while on the cusp of achieving career-making milestones is difficult beyond measure. If a magazine purchases the rights to publish my short story, then I can join SFWA as an associate member. These two small events are what agents and publishers like to see on a submission and will get my foot in the door in this industry. Selling this short story could be the deciding factor as to whether my novel sees the light of day. So deciding to delay submitting it to magazines and patiently await for critique was unimaginably tortuous on the mind, but my desire to have the best chance of success for my short story overcame it all.