I am a confirmed pantseur, or a writer who disdains imposition of rules, order or God save us all, outlines on my fly-by-the seat of my pants style. Damnit, I’m a pantseur and I won’t change for anyone. F*** rules! And f*** outlining! Gah!
Yeah. That’s how my inner child, now a childish but still charming adult, thinks about the writing process. I wrote my first two novels without even the tiniest thread of an outline written on paper. Index cards? Corkboard? Character sketches? Synopses? Bahahaha! At a certain point, of course, the laugh was on me–when I couldn’t remember if my main character had brown or green eyes. Sound ridiculous? It did to me. So midway through the drafting process, I went back and drew brief character sketches in Ripple. Here’s what my character sketches look like:
Mimi Harrington; co-head of Bryson House
Big, wide, big personality and body
Long, gray hair that smells good; flowing skirt
Cary Matterly–therapist—for Phoebe and long ago, for Cass
Hippie—looks, long blond silver (very long), paisley skirt
Nods a lot—early Parkinson’s
soft on outside, crusty on inside
Anne McCaffrey, deceased, age 75, in 2012
trim, sharp, tough, twinkling grey eyes
Hair always neat, expensive, tailored well-used stuff/clothing
Lean, old, sore, but strong, upright, good shot
The Bryson House—owner; chalet on property, Ex-Olympian
Once I started making character sketches, I loved them. It really helped me have brief snatches of each character stored in one, brief document. So from now on, I’ve been using them for all my novels, and at any one time, I’ve usually got about three works in progress going at once.
But outlines? It seemed pointless. Boring. Banal. What I do when I write defies easy outlining. I create characters and for about a year, I live with them in my head. I go everywhere with them, and they follow me on all my hikes. They yammer at me when I vacuum or wash the floors. They tell me jokes and float in and out of my dreams. At some point, snatches of dialogue come to me, and from that dialogue emerges a story, a series of scenes, and eventually, I’ve got a few chapters.
Then I start writing, and I’m usually only really understanding where I’m going a chapter or two ahead of the one I’m actually writing. Don’t get me wrong: I have a loose outline of what I want to do in the book, but I like to give my characters plenty of reason to take a detour from the vision I’ve got based on how the interactions are feeling once I get them in print.
If this sounds loosy-goosy, well, I can only agree with you. Sometimes it works. Sometimes I come up with these brilliant creations. But sometimes the whole thing comes to a blinding, heart palpitation causing halt. I outwrite my outline, and my characters sit on the train station that is my brain, awaiting direction. Sometimes it can take me a month to get the train moving again, as I plot out a few different directions in my mind.
What changed? For Wave, I am thinking about publishing it serially, in blocks of about 25,000 words. When I discussed this strategy with my editor, she asked if I could get her the second block of 25,000 words before she developmentally edited it, and I balked. “How about an outline?” she asked. I whined; she laughed; we promised to talk later.
I thought about it overnight and realized I was sick of taking last second, barely-plotted writing detours. I was sick of flying not only by the seat of my pants, but completely without foreknowledge of what route I was taking. What if I published the first 25,000 words, and only at the 75k mark or so, realized I was making a huge mistake, or had left a massive plot hole? Don’t get me wrong: I can write around holes and clean up messes, but what if I didn’t have to?
After I told my editor I was writing an outline (which she characterized as a miraculous development), I sat down and got busy on my MacMama. Two and half hours and 3,000 words later, I had an eight-page outline which broke Wave into chapters. Here’s what it looks like:
Phoebe POV. Starts at the White residence. Phoebe is rage-filled because Wayne Toller’s getting out of jail. Zander is sprinting across lawn with football. Phoebe gives Zander ride to Cass and Helen’s office. Her Bronco “peppermint sled” almost crashes and breaks down in garage. Flashbacks Anne, who has passed away.
Cass POV. Phoebe and Zander meet with Cass in office where Cass and Helen work. Sets up relationships and the Toller release. Shows mother-daughter love, partners working together well, and of course funny Zander.
Scene Change: Phoebe POV. Smoking in garage, waiting for Helen to give her ride to garage and for Sled to get towed. Shows her PTSD hell as she flinches and freaks out from sounds. Flashbacks Parkings.
Jim John McMahon POV. He’s working in the garage on a car. Shows his relationship with God, easy quoting of Bible, military background, flashbacks, competence. Ronnie, his boss, asks him to stay late. Some lawyer friend of his needs to get something out of the Bronco they’re dropping off.
As you can see, my outline doesn’t follow any rules. It gives me an idea of scene, location, the all-important POV perspective, and helps me see the story arc. I’m sure there are a million different ways to write an outline. This style works for me.
I hope that however you write, you find a way of plotting that works for you. What about you? Do you outline? Is it one of those grim necessities a writer must keep in her toolbox, or is it yet one more ritual that takes a writer away from compiling his word count?
As a self-published author, or author-to-be, how do you handle the mundane and the everyday aspects of your characters’ lives? When I was crafting my first novel, I hurried the pace of the action by stripping scenes to their most dramatic words and actions. Usually, I skipped right over the boring, day-to-day dialogue. As my critique partner Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson once explained, “Your characters don’t need to carry on goodbye parties at the end of each scene.” I laughed when she wrote that, and promptly took a hatchet to place-holding and word-wasting exchanges like, “Goodbye,” and “See you soon,” and “Honey, could you pick up the milk?”
One disadvantage to skipping goodbye parties and shopping lists is it tends to create a melodramatic story. So be it. The essence of a novel is that it has a plot, and most plots, with a marked exception for some literary fiction, contain a bunch of action sequences. Readers love action.
Which brings me to a blog post written by Roz Morris I read this morning, in which she talks about removing inconsequential details from a writer’s book. As Morris explains,
One of my clients wrote a long scene about her protagonist spending a quiet evening at home, which amounted to several pages of inconsequential phone calls.
To address the problem, Morris cut most of those pages. Or as my editor would explain, she “marked and highlighted them in red ink.” So far so good. As the Morris explains, “But we wanted to create the impression that the character was busy and had friends.” So they shrunk the scene to a summary which read like this:
Brenda called. She’ll want to talk about Fred but I’m too tired for that right now. Stepfather—darn, I was going to give him the number of that insurance company. Steve from the Swindon office—can’t it wait until after the weekend? The residents’ association—yes, I’d said I’d help with the posters for the garage sale. Can I get away with not calling back until tomorrow?
With all due respect, if I were a reader and I came across the rewritten paragraph quoted above, I would groan. It’s boring and not well-crafted. If a scene is boring, just cut it. Be done with it. I know that’s hard medicine. I’ve hyperventilated over the cutting of thousands, nay, tens of thousands of red-highlighted words. But it makes for a better book. And a better book makes for happier readers.
The other thing to keep in mind is that when you’re penning fiction, it’s a creative, even chaotic process. We’re writers, not accountants. In other words, a novel need not proceed in a purely sequential manner. It can skip entire days, months, years. And while I agree thoroughly with Show Don’t Tell Directives, it isn’t excessive “telling” to simply write, “The next morning . . .” or “When Sally Lane awoke . . .” or a million other simple phrases that show time has passed.
Another technique writers can use to show scene changes is to use a header showing the passage of time. For example, she could write “One Month Later” or “Three Days Later” or any number of variations to that effect. Or if the writer is using a flashback sequence, she could put the date and location of the scene at the start of a chapter or a section break.
What’s your take on transitions between scenes? How about the boring, mundane aspects of a character’s life? Do you think it’s necessary to write about? And as a reader, do you like reading about these details?
June 9, 2013,
Running from Hell with El
Tags: Amazon Best-seller, Amazon Categories, Courage to Heal, E.L. Farris, Ellen Bass, Laura Davis, Price Pulsing, pricing strategy, Ripple, self-publishing, writing
Do you want to be able to honestly say you’re a best-selling author? Whoa, you perked up didn’t you? Grinning. I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned, so please grab your coffee cup. One of the secrets to landing on the Amazon bestseller list is to place your book in the correct category.
As a newbie self-published author, I am learning as I go, and I like sharing my lessons learned. This week, I experimented with trying a few new categories on Amazon in conjunction with a tactic called, “price pulsing,” which is just fancy writer talk for putting one of the books you’ve written on sale for (in my case) 99 cents. As a result, I reached #6 in two categories and #11 in a third:
Reaching the Amazon bestseller list will help you in a few different ways. For one thing, it gives you credibility and bragging rights and makes folks much more likely to buy your books. More importantly, and as David Gaughran outlines in his latest book, Let’s Get Visible: How To Get Noticed And Sell More Books, readers tend to skim these lists when searching for new books to read. Being a bestseller increases the chances your book will appear in “readers also bought this book” lists. And finally, Amazon is more likely to recommend your book to readers in its various charts online and in e-mailings to fans.
For example, Amazon sent one of my Facebook friends the following e-mail this week:
Hey, El, Look what I got in my email from amazon the other day.
No way! Cool! Thanks for telling me!
When I first published Ripple on KDP, I got to choose two categories for it, and honestly, I had no clue how to categorize it. I sort of thought it was literary fiction, and sort of thought it was legal drama, women’s lit, psychological thriller, family drama, and a fictionalized version of the sexual abuse workbook, Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis.
For the first few months, I left Ripple in two categories that were huge and competitive and really, quite impossible to break into for a first time, self-published author: literary fiction (general) and women’s literature (general). Last month, however, when I took advantage of KDP Select’s free days and offered Ripple: Young Adult Version for free, I put both books into the Family Life Fiction subcategory, and the YA Version shot to #1 on the charts. Even after the free day promotion ended, sales for the adult and YA versions remained very high. In fact, I sold more books in May than in any other month besides January, which was the month I released Ripple.
Fast forward to June 5th, which is when I started the price pulse for Ripple. I had always intended this novel as a fictionalized Courage to Heal, so I had only a slight twinge about placing it into the same category as the book that inspired it, even though this category is non-fiction. As I mentioned above, Ripple shot to #6 in the abuse category, as well as a related category, “dysfunctional relationships.” And now, at least for the rest of the month, anyone who is shopping for Courage to Heal will be much more likely to come across Ripple.
In the first eight days in June, I’ve sold more books that in any other month. Like those apples? I do.
Meanwhile, I searched through several categories that could be applied to Ripple, and decided to choose not so much the easiest to break into subcategory, but a new category that would allow me to gain exposure to an entirely new set of prospective buyers. Ripple is, no doubt about it, a drama (even a melodrama at times) and it takes place in the United States, so for now, it’s grabbing the attention of drama-loving readers.
You can do the exact same thing for your book: increase the chances it will be a bestseller by getting it into the right category. Go to Amazon’s Kindle Store, and click on several different categories that might apply to your book. Click on bestselling books within each category. The lower that book’s total sales ranking, the easier it will be to break into the bestseller list for that subcategory. Scribble down some notes and choose a few different subcategories.
How do you change your categories? You go to KDP and search for your category. If your category does not appear (and often, it will not), you check the box, “non-classifiable,” and then you send a note to the help desk over at KDP. Sometimes it will take a couple of tries, so be persistent but they WILL change your category.
One last thing I learned: change your category a few days before you try your price pulse or your free promotion. I waited until the morning of my sale, and it took Amazon more than 48 to change my category. In fact, by the time they changed it, I’d already dropped 1,000 places in the overall sales rankings, so I missed a chance to rise even higher in my categories.
Any questions? I’d love to chat strategy. And I’d also like to thank Catie Rhodes, who originally taught me how to switch Amazon categories.