Outline Shmoutline

Don’t get me wrong. I admire writers who outline and stick to it. I’ve never been that way. While I definitely have plot points I work towards, the discovery process is amazing.

For example, in my WIP, a chapter one throwaway character just resurfaced in chapter eight completely by surprise. She’s fun, complex and throws an interesting wrench into the works that I hadn’t considered before.

Discovery ho!

Perhaps a rigid outliner won’t have as much rewriting to do at the end of the first draft, and that’s a plus, but so many things in a discoverer’s (I don’t like the word pantser) process allows for organic growth and delightful surprises. I’d been concerned that a character is too good, and with another throwaway line, I discover his flaw, and how it will engender more flaws.

I admit, I do this all wrong.

  • I dove straight into writing with the barest research and pre-planning in writing.
  • I had an idea of the genre and sub-genre (historical speculative fiction), but it may evolve away from that.
  • I have no planned length (it’s at 110 pages and the first act hasn’t ended yet),
  • It’s for young adults, but I’m using short sentences that I may have to make more complex in the rewrite.
  • My characters are evolving past my expectations.

Yet… that’s all what makes writing fun. On the bright side, I’m writing a lot faster than normal. That helps.

For you outliners, what do you consider the strengths? How rigid are you? Do you ever throw out your outline, or if there are changes, to you rework the outline? Give us your process!

Memoirs, Like the Corners of Your Mind

Whose story do you know better than your own?

If you’re like most people, you think your life is boring, like a great big rock just sitting there. Remember that every great sculpture starts with a big rock.

You also may not like writing about yourself, but that means you’re halfway there.

A reflection of essence, not life.

A memoir is no different from a novel. It requires a similar structure, the same rises and falls, and interesting characters.

A memoir is not a novel, nor is it non-fiction. It is the beautiful blending of a life lesson with structure and calculated shading of the truth.

Unless you’re a celebrity, astronaut, or spy, your memoir doesn’t have to encompass your whole life. It may only be a month or a year.

So, which year or moment? Think about moments of epiphanies or sudden realization. From there, you work backward to identify different aspects of your life that relate to that epiphany. More important, redact everything that doesn’t relate; you don’t need that for the memoir.

For example, when I was 40 years old, I was mowing my lawn and realized that my children were past the age when the bone disease that completely altered my life could manifest. They were all in the clear, and what felt like a literal weight fell off my shoulders. This was my epiphany.

Now I’d look for all the key moments related to my own battle with the disease. That would include my father smoking, the symptoms of the disease manifesting, overhearing the doctor tell my mom I’d probably never walk again. There are dozens of other moments I’d capture.

There are also moments of my life that are interesting but don’t relate to the spine of the book (me dealing with the bone disease). So my encounter with Cher screaming at me goes out the door. Same goes for Gene Hackman. (They would fit if I was instead sharing my time at the Space Needle in Seattle).

Emotionally, it would cover the fear as a kid, the lies to the doctor to find relief, and the shame as an adult (didn’t make any sense, but shame often doesn’t)… that’s a lot to make it compelling.

Then you’d want to examine the people of the relevant bits of your life. Two things to consider:

  1. Would they mind you writing about them?
  2. Can any people be consolidated into one to make the narrative more clear? For example, I have three sisters and a brother. I might consolidate the sisters into one (for family, that might mean consolidating the actions and words, so one sister is active and the others are just mentioned).

That second point leads us to another important truth. Not every moment of the memoir needs to be accurate to be “true.” You’re telling a story, and a story has to be clear and organized. That isn’t life.

Examine each “scene” of your life, consolidate similar events, and shape them to tell a compelling story, not to be true to life. Imagine how a camera can tell a different story by focusing on a particular viewpoint. In the same way, it isn’t true in the sense of fact, it’s true to the emotion and the story.

From there, you use the “rules” of fiction to write the book. And you don’t like talking about yourself? Even better. Consider the “you” in the story as a different character, true to the essence of you, if not the word of you.

Finally, a memoir can be funny, scary, thoughtful, or any other subgenre.

There’s a lot more to be said about writing a memoir, but this might be enough to whet your appetite to consider a writing one.

Show, Tell… Bestsellers Break Rules

I recently read The Boys from Biloxi by John Grisham. I mostly enjoyed it, but it also frustrated me.

Grisham breaks the rules like there weren’t any. He tells, he doesn’t show. Very little dialogue, just tell, tell, tell.

Why does he get away with it? Two reasons:

  1. He’s a bestselling author, one the of the biggest. Why?
  2. Because he tells an incredible story.
Fill my eyes, not my ears.

Biloxi swept through decades and characters. To show it would have made it as long as one of Stephen King’s bigger books. It’s an odd experience reading his tales. Had he shown them, I would have hated some characters. It would have been an emotional read. Instead, it’s more akin to an intellectual read where you ask, “What’s he going to do next?”

Truthfully, it reads more like a really, really long synopsis. Yet the story is so good that movies made from it (show, show, show), work well.

This is poignant to me because I recently read a submission that was a great story, but came off more like an oral history of interest to family, not to general readers. YET I LOVED THE STORY. I loved the characters. I could see at least three novelized books come from this, maybe four. It hurt to say no to this author, but I truly hope she takes a whack at novelizing it.

Had she been a bestseller, with a little shaping, this book would be acceptable. But first you have to show.

In John Grisham’s first book, A Time to Kill, he still tells, but with much less narrative distance. Somehow, he succeeds in emotionalizing telling. Another key to Grisham’s success, as I’ve said before on this blog, is that he writes about lawyers, making them unlikable. We all like to dislike lawyers.

Telling is, “What happens next?” Showing is, “What will I feel next?”

Consider this example:

Telling: Jake’s soup was hot. He told his wife to turn the down the heat.

Showing: Jake lifted a spoonful of steaming soup. “I just want to talk about your spending,” he said, then put the spoon in his mouth. Heat set his tongue on fire. Spitting the molten soup out, he shouted, “What? Are you trying to kill me!”

Showing takes longer, but you feel what Jake is going through (and probably his wife!)

Commitment to Story

I love a good disaster movie. And some bad ones. The Core is a sci-fi disaster movie that practices really bad science. The 60% of critics who hated it, though, admitted to having a soft spot for the movie.

I’ve watched The Core half-a-dozen times.

There’s a good reason for that soft spot and it is commitment. Every actor, every beat, is committed to the believability of the science. Sure the science was bogus, so much so, that it was almost fantasy.

A novel is similar to this. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has horrible symbology and Christology, but the characters believe it, the internal consistency is rock solid even though the reality is completely off.

Oddly, there are people, such as Dustin Hoffman, who are championing scientific accuracy in sci-fi movies. That would write off Star Trek, Star Wars, and just about every other sci-fi film.

Story is about being believable, even when it’s not remotely believable. It’s why fantasy, which has no rules, must have consistent rules impressed upon it. One of the reasons Harry Potter is so successful is that the magic rules aren’t broken (or so I’m told; I haven’t read it).

The most common trope is the unheard, unknown scientist with crackpot theories that are borne out to be accurate. Then The Man, normally the military or politicians, tries to squash the “truth” before being persuaded. This is a welcome trope because the maverick scientist is always a unique, conflicted character. Anyone who disagrees with the scientist is the bad guy, which reinforces of the story truth. Then again, when they have to accept the story truth.

The scientist may question himself, but he/she is proven correct in systematic fashion. Then, with all of science in question, the odd-ball team is assembled, and the planet is saved.

Star Trek works because the characters took it seriously. It wasn’t campy (like Lost in Space), or tongue in cheek (like Orville), the actors believed they lived in that world, and all choices were made to reinforce that world, first with the tech of the ’60s, then with better and better effects.

Even if your story isn’t sci-fi or fantasy, we have to believe in your world, and that takes commitment, clear rules, and consistency.

Are you committed to your story?


We, as a people, are against gun violence, but our stories, particularly video, are replete with unrepentant gun violence.

A popular show has a female teacher “involved” with a 15-year-old boy student. No consequences except loss of job, whereas if the genders were reversed, that teacher would be in jail.

The normalization of teen sex.

All of these things are things we should be against, even the last one, though some aren’t.

I firmly believe any subject can be written about, however immoral things should not be normalized, glorified, or gratuitous/graphic.

There are pervs in this world who think all the above things are just ducky. Pervs will be pervs and 1st Amendment rights cover even them to a degree.

But as a writer, and a reader, be true to your better angels. Sometimes you need to listen to outer angles, too, when yours are silent or flat out wrong.

Not every book should be a moral teacher, but by the end of the book, you should be in accord with your beliefs and principles. That doesn’t mean, if you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jew, et al, that every book of yours must preach your religion. I’d suggest it shouldn’t go against the tenets you believe in, though.

Do you agree or disagree? Discuss.

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