To Outline or Not to Outline…Is That the Question?

“Do you use an outline when you write?”
Every time I’ve gone to a writing seminar I hear this question, which puzzles me because I don’t believe it’s what the asker really wants to know. What is really being asked is if writers should use some system to structure their work, whether it’s an outline, software, poster board with index cards, or any other method.I asked several authors, including my co-WinRs, if and how they organize their writing.
Madeline Gornell doesn’t outline or use any formal system beyond a character list. “I ‘wing it,’ develop, build, and go back to fill in as I go.”
Andrea Hurst, author of The Guestbook, Always With You, and the soon-to-be-released Tea and Comfort(in addition to several works of non-fiction), varies her approach with each novel according to what she feels is needed.  “On my first book I knew the beginning and the end and did deep character and setting work. On my second book I knew only the very beginning and end and it just poured out. On my third and current book, I have outlined in detail the scene points and overall plot ahead of time and it seems to work well.”
Gayle Bartos Pool favors some organizing techniques, but adapts them to each project. “I have used an outline before and it worked fine, but I usually just write as I go. I do maintain a timeline to keep the action straight and it keeps the characters from bumping into each other unless I want them to do that. And I do write biographies for my main characters.”
Bonnie Schroeder works with ‘The Snowflake System’. Although she didn’t purchase the software, she follows the general approach. “You start with the germ of an idea and gradually flesh it out through several iterations, including detailed chapter and character summaries. The most valuable thing I got from this was the ‘Scene Spreadsheet’, which has really helped me see where everything happens and where there’s no conflict, etc.” For more details, go to: www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/
Rowena Williamson juggles two historical fiction series – Castle Caorann and Ryan and the Redhead – and is working on a sequel to her popular YA book, Escape To The Highlands. Despite her substantial workload, Rowena doesn’t use any system. “I can’t really plot without getting feedback from my characters.”
“I outline my stories in my head and I always know where I’m going,” said Audrey Mackaman, author of two YA fiction series, Murder Most Magic and The Dream Cycle.
Jacqueline Vick always uses an outline. “With a mystery, there is too much backtracking to clean up clues etc. without one. And it’s too easy to go off on tangents and get away from the plot.” She begins by taking notes and making up a style sheet – a quick reference tool for things she always needs to look up.  “It helps keep track of names, places, grammar problems that pop up for me personally, hard to spell words, etc.” Although this system has worked for her in the past, she is currently trying out Scrivener software. “I’m going to give that a shot with the next mystery I write. It’s gotten good reviews!”  For more information about Scrivener, go to www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php   
I think it’s very individual, this writing process,” said Heather Ames, whose publications include the romantic suspense All That Glitters, contemporary romance The Sweetest Song and Indelible, the first in her mystery/suspense series. She tried using an outline to give her writing group an idea of where Swift Justice (the sequel to Indelible) was going, but the story strayed in another direction. I’ve never used any of the writing programs. I’m a freewheeler.” 
What about me? I began writing my first novel with the idea of seeing if I could do it. I had no plan or outline, just a character, an incident, and a vague sense of the plot. I’m pleased with it now, but it took over a decade to finish. I’ve often thought outlines would speed up the writing process and now begin each book with a synopsis of the story, but I rarely stick to it. I rebel against micromanagement, even self-imposed. My second novel took only four years to complete, so I guess I’m getting faster.
From this small sampling, it appears there is no consensus. Some writers deem systems necessary to keep them on track. Others find them inhibiting; they prefer to let the story flow. Many hybridize the process; they use timelines and biographies to keep the details straight, or work with a beginning and an end, and let their creative instincts fill in the rest. And a few do whatever they find works best for a particular project. Maybe that’s what draws us to writing stories that appeal to us. We prefer having the freedom to follow our muse and only use organizational tools if we need help with our characters or plotting. Or as Rowena Williamson put it, “I couldn’t hold to a book-a-year schedule. My books would go downhill if I did that.”

Do the Details Matter in Series Writing?

I remember an author on a panel saying that writers MUST get every detail right, from street directions to building descriptions. If not, readers would riot and complain.

I admit I’ve run into this scenario. I used bolero instead of bolo for a tie description. I didn’t catch it. The editor didn’t catch it. Three proofreaders didn’t catch it. But one reader caught it and left a nasty note on Amazon reviews. He said I was “just sloppy”. I immediately changed it and uploaded the revision, but I couldn’t thank the guy who had caught my mistake because he didn’t leave contact information. So, it does happens.

However, I would like put up an argument that, if readers love the books, they aren’t going to stop reading if they catch an inconsistency, and as my example, I’ll use Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolf/Archie Goodwin novels.

In the course of reading every novel, novella and short he ever wrote, I’ve discovered many contradictions. Archie Goodwin smokes in one novel and says that he doesn’t smoke in another. He also says that he’s never seen  Inspector Cramer actually light his cigar, yet in earlier stories, Cramer puffs away.  The list goes on.

It gives me a giggle to be so immersed in his world that I catch these things. It seems as if Mr. Stout was so involved in the world of his current story that what came before (or might come after) didn’t hit his radar. I don’t consider them sloppy mistakes. They just feel like one more eccentricity of the characters coming down through the author.

One of the reasons that these changing details don’t bother me is that they don’t affect the core of the characters. Archie still complains about Wolf, while at the same time admiring him. He easily falls for females, makes smart-mouthed comments, and loves being the right-hand man of the smartest detective around. Wolf is still an Immovable Object  (Archie’s words, not mine), and he continues to take delight in cuisine and no delight women. (Though he claims to be neutral in the latter.)

I’ve put a disclaimer in the beginning of my Frankie Chandler, pet psychic, novels.  Breeds are not always capitalized, and grammar  aficionados would be quick to jump on how I capitalize all breeds. I do it intentionally out of love and respect for my furry characters.  I wouldn’t recommend that writers ignore the details, but if the world they create and the characters who inhabit that world are intriguing enough, I think that readers will let the occasional slip-up slide.

If your memory is a sieve (it will happen eventually to most of us), you can always keep those details in order by using a chart, or a style sheet. In fact, I recommend that you do. Track locations, names, dates, and anything else that you’ll need to refer to at a later date. If you have the skill of Rex Stout, discrepancies can be charming. For the rest of us, well, we might be considered “just sloppy”!

Catching Up With Jacqueline Vick

Where to start.

It’s been an incredible ride of highs and lows, and all along the WinRs were there to support me, even those who weren’t yet officially part of the group.  We may not see each other face-to-face that often (on my part) but this incredible group of women are the best.

In October of 2011, the hubby took a major fall off a ladder at work and wound up with emergency brain surgery, titanium in his collarbone, and months of rehabilitation.  Through the prayers of many and the Grace of God, both of us made it through that tough time without any scars. (Well, hubby has scars, but scars are manly on men.)

I went through the same rigmarole that each and every one of you who writes goes through. Is this working? Why am I even doing this? I’m a sham! Maybe I should write romances instead, though I don’t like graphic scenes. Maybe the leads can just be friends. Maybe I should renew my insurance license instead.

When I look at what I have listed on Amazon, I actually managed to produce more than I thought I had.  There have been several short stories and a few novels, including the Frankie Chandler, Pet Psychic mysteries, which seem to be popular with readers. (A Bird’s Eye View of Murder, has just been released in paperback and Kindle.)

I’m hard at work on Civility Rules, a Harlow Brothers mystery, and I have a mystery involving a priest–a former exorcist–who’s been condemned to work at an all-girl high school. And the third Pet Psychic mystery is written in my head. So there is a lot on my plate!

I think that as you read the Catching Up With posts, you will find that each of us has been extremely active. I’m so pleased that we’re back together again with two new members, and my hope is that you’ll find plenty to entertain and inform you here at Writers in Residence!

Let it Rest

Let it rest.

We hear it again and again as writers–“Let it rest”–and each time we “let it rest” we wonder, right at the moment of completion, when we’re awed by our own brilliance, if maybe, just this once, just this one time, this particular piece of writing shouldn’t be on display for the world to see as soon as possible.

Hmmm. A little breathing room might have saved that first paragraph.

Last night, the hubby had to work through the night. Unable to sleep, I decided to take advantage of the extra time and write. Isn’t everybody in the perfect frame of mind to pen a blog at 3 AM?

Once I finished my masterpiece, that tiny voice said, “Let it rest.” Although positive my piece was ready for the send button, I took my own advice and walked away.

Things look much different at 8 AM. Last night, I was rehearsing my acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature. This morning, I saw a mess.
Are there warning signs that you should walk away and air out your writing before subjecting other people to reading it?

1. You think you’ve been extremely clever.
2. The subject matter rouses strong emotions.
3. Your sides still hurt from laughing over your own jokes.
4. You were in a hurry.

I had titled my wandering, blathering blog “Stick to the Point”.

My subconscious was having a laugh.

Interview with WinR Jacqueline Vick

Jacqueline Vick is the author of several as-yet-unplaced mystery novels including “Family Matters” which placed in the quarterfinals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition. Her short fiction is found online and in the “Every Day Fiction Two Anthology”, and her article about pet psychics appeared in the April issue of “Fido Friendly Magazine”.

What led you to write mysteries?

Well, the dark version is on my website under bio, but I grew up under the rule of a woman who read every mystery ever written. I remember looking at my mom’s collection of Agatha Christie’s and thinking “How boring!” Since I was a teenager, I probably added a “Duh!”

I’ve become much wiser in my older age. My favorites are Golden Age and British. You cannot top British humor in my book. Robert Barnard’s “Death by Sheer Torture” remains one of my favorites, as is anything by Christie, James, Sayers, Mortimer etc. (I share Agatha Christie’s birthdate!) I’m also discovering “new” authors such as Delano Ames.

A year or so ago, I decided that, since I’m never going to capture the voice of those oldies but goodies, I should actually start reading some of the comtemporaries. I’d tried a few authors and really didn’t get into them, so I wasn’t enthusiastic. Thank goodness I didn’t crawl back into my cave, because I’ve discovered some fantastic authors since.

Do you find conventions and writers groups useful?

My first convention was Love is Murder in Chicago. I met so many fantastic authors; kind, supportive people no matter what level of success they were on. I didn’t know a lot of authors at that time, and I sat next to Charlaine Harris and humiliated myself by asking her if she wrote full time. She was so humble and nice. She said, “Well, yes, honey, I do.” Then she got up to give the keynote speech and they congratulated her on her series making it to television. I guess I should have read the program. Lesson learned: Know the authors in your field.

Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America are both great places to meet other writers and exchange ideas. Both offer programs with speakers that have helped my writing. I’ve just joined the Public Safety Writers Association which promises to be informative and fun. And my critique group (you know them as the WinRs) are intelligent, generous writers who aren’t afraid to slap me upside the head when my writing stinks. (And yet they do it so nicely that I thank them every time!)

How do you balance writing mysteries, children’s fiction, and whatever else?

I don’t. I should be in therapy. I’ll sometimes have five projects going at once and I have to step back and ask, “Would I like to do any of them well?” That usually keeps me down to two projects for a short while.

I don’t understand when people say they don’t have enough ideas. I have three different protagonists so far, I’m writing a pet psychic mystery, I have a Young Adult book outlines, a children’s mystery series in mind, a picture book waiting for an artist, the Logical Larry series, a non-fiction book promoting local businesses in Santa Clarita, a rambo-style Father Brown series I’d like to write…. (OK. Maybe not Rambo, but he is a police chaplain and former marine who get’s transferred to teach at a girls school. Talk about being unprepared. Of course a parent is murdered and things go from there.) 

What else do you do to keep on top of your writing?

I am a voracious reader. On average, I read three books a week–sometimes more, sometimes less. Besides enjoying the books, I’ll watch how the author handles everything from dialogue tags to description. I’ve even outlined the plot of books I think work especially well just to see I’ll have a revelation.

Is there an essential ingredient in any fiction you read?

Humor. There are enough humorless people walking around that I’m not going to immerse myself in their company while I’m reading. One of my favorite books is “Blue Heaven” by Joe Keenan. I’ve read it several times and it still makes me laugh out loud. “Lamb” by Christopher Moore is genius. P.G. Wodehouse is another favorite, as are Carl Hiaasen and Neil Gaimon.

I like humor that makes fun of the human condition in a gentle way.  Humor that comes from a place of superiority is only funny when the joke is on the lofty character. Otherwise, it’s just a lecture. An example is how Christie makes fun of Hasting’s arrogance through his inner dialogue about Poirot. He’s feeling sorry for the detective, thinks the old guy is losing his abilities, but it’s Hastings who can’t see the forest for the trees.

What’s next for you?

I’ll have my books at a fundraiser at the end of May. I’m working with the SinC/LA Speaker’s Bureau, putting together panels for the Burbank Library. I want to finish the pet psychic mystery, go back over my last mystery for rewrites, and write the next Logical Larry. I really need to prioritize.

Publicity Responsibilities versus Author Payment

An interesting article appeared in the January 2010 issue of The Writer. Author M.J. Rose suggested that book authors should be compensated for publicity duties. Since the marketing effort is no longer born by the publisher, revenues should be more equitably split.

Read what the WinRs have to say and then let us know what you think!

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Jacqueline Vick self-published her children’s book, Logical Larry. She has several mystery manuscripts making the rounds.

I hadn’t really considered this issue before, assuming that advances were destined to be spent on marketing, but Ms. Rose’s comments made me wonder if I’d been going with an outdated assumption.

Her two suggestions in the article were to allow authors to subtract marketing expenses from their book advance so they could collect royalties sooner and to give athors a highter royalty rate.

I’m a big fan of “buy in”, and if authors saw a benefit to spending those hard earned dollars on marketing (other than possible increased sales) then more authors might be effective at selling more books–a benefit to publishers.

Why not a tiered royalty system to give writers something to work for? This system has been used to incentify sales people for decades.

Would this system keep publishers from purchasing as many manuscripts? I don’t see why. There would be more opportunities to earn revenue.

That being said, publishers are in control unless an author self-publishes. If the current business plan says that authors have to cover publicity costs out of their own pocket, then those serious about a writing career will do it.  I think that’s what defines a successful person–she jumps in and does the stuff that most people complain about and avoid.

Another interesting note from the WD article (paraphrased): If you run into a musician and they’ve hired a studio and musicians and put together their own CD, you don’t automatically thinks it’s sub-par, that if it was good, he’d have signed with a label. Why is it that we assume self-published books are “unworthy?

Some of my favorite books and CD’s have been put together by the artist. I’m smart enough to flip through a book to see if I like the writing style before I buy it, and I’ve bought plenty of traditionally published books that I’ve hated. I’d rather run into a grammar error in a fabulous story than have a perfectly edited book that’s a stinker. I also don’t sneer at hand-crafted goods that aren’t mass produced and sold at department stores. I actually hold them in higher esteem.

***

Jackie Houchin is a photojournalist and a book and theater critic. She has written several manuscripts, so she can give us the perspective of one who isn’t actively seeking publication but may do it in the future.

If I ever did anything with the kids’ stories (or the women’s novel) I wrote, I would DEFINITELY self publish, no if’s, and’s, or but’s, about it. That way, I would not have to deal with sharing any of my advance with the publisher over marketing strategies and profits. (Of course, I wouldn’t be getting any advance – ha-ha). Instead, I’d be able to decide just how much effort I wanted to put into the project. I definitely wouldn’t be doing it “for the money”.

Since being in the SinC and MWA organizations, I’ve heard countless authors bemoan the facts of publication:

—that it is very hard to get an agent or publisher even interested in your work…

—that it takes years to publication even after one agrees to look at your work…

—that you don’t get any money to speak of…

—that you are supposed to market yourself or at least come to them with a huge “platform” so they don’t have to do much but reap the benefits…

—that you may not get a contract for another book…

—that you may be dropped if you don’t sell as much as they like…

—that your publisher may go out of business.

It makes me wonder why anyone would want try to break into the fiction industry right now.

All this sounds depressing, I know, but that’s the reason I would go FIRST to a self publishing and/or POD method.

Of course another factor for me might also be that I’ve always worked for myself (in photography and reviewing) and could pretty well set my own parameters. 
As for your original questions, I don’t think authors have much say in what publishers do at this point. They may feel a larger advance is warranted or that they should be able to deduct marketing expenses from their advances – but that is really up to the publishers. I do feel that marketing should be a tax-deductible item…but, isn’t it already for the serious writer?

***
Bonnie Schroeder has finished her first novel manuscript and is shopping it to agents.

First off, from everything I’ve read and heard, nobody earns a living off their books – except for a lucky handful of writers. My biggest gripe is the lack of attention given to new authors, but the reading public has to share the blame. Few people seem willing to invest their time and money in an unknown author not sanctioned by Oprah. Publishers make their money off superstars like King and Evanovich, and it appears from the sidelines like these writers don’t even need much marketing beyond an announcement of their next new blockbuster. It doesn’t seem fair (the “F word” in business) that these writers get free publicity that they don’t even need.

So, if I did get past all the gatekeepers and obstacles and finally sold a book and then if had to pay for my own marketing and publicity, my first question would be, what the heck is the publisher even doing for me besides (maybe) strong-arming the local Barnes & Noble into stocking a few copies of my book? I’m still looking for an answer.

However, since I guess I understand the realities of the marketplace, and since I’ve chosen to play this little game, I’d swallow my resentment and do whatever I could afford to do, to show the world what a great book I’ve written. It would then make sense that if I do a good job and work up enough interest to generate sales, that after a certain threshold (and I have NO IDEA what that would be), I’d get reimbursed for my expenses and that the publicity for the second/ third, etc. book would be covered by the publisher.

***

GB Pool is the author of several short stories which have appeared in Anthologies and penned the novel Media Justice.

The End of the Buggy Whip

Fair? Who said life was fair? Or for that matter, the publishing business.

Publishing came to America around 1800. Many famous publishing houses started back then. By the end of the 19th Century there were hundreds of publishers and a smattering of writers. The vast majority of Americans worked on farms or in factories with no time to write. Today there are five major publishers still in existence, most owned by foreign enterprises, with a smattering of small publishers picking up the slack. Farms have mechanized, factories have moved to China, but now there are thousands and thousands of writers.

What used to be a hard back book business changed into a paperback and trade paperback enterprise. It’s cheaper to make those paperbacks. Then came discount stores and Amazon. Now there is Kindle and the other downloadable reading devices that don’t require paper at all. And don’t forget the self-published author. Even the few name publishing companies provide POD (print-on-demand) books.

As the changes in the publishing business hit, the revenues shifted. No longer are people buying those expensive hard cover books. The trade paperback sometimes comes out six months after the hard cover version. And the downloadable book will soon follow.

As the revenue shifted, so did the perks. Editors disappeared. Book tours and publishing house publicity vanished. (They got rid of the buggy whip, too. Want to go back to the horse and buggy?)

Publishers aren’t making the money they used to, even with the outrageous cost of those hard cover books. Most of the old publishing companies don’t exist. If you are lucky enough to get one to publish your book, show them you will go all out to help sell that book of yours. Your effort will not only help to sell more books, but your publisher will see you as a go-getter and they might be more eager to take on your second book.

With the tremendous number of would-be writers clamoring for their books to get noticed and eventually be published, it will be the writer with the skill and nerve to face those audiences and sell their book themselves who will succeed.

Welcome to the new normal.