Writing Advice: Don’t Fear the Outline

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We each have our own view of writing as a practice and a craft. If writing is your job, for example, you’re likely to see it in a much different way than someone who simply writes for fun. If you are a writer of any variety, and if you have experienced writer’s block, you may have some superstitions as well. You might believe that writing on the weekends messes with your mojo. Writing in the morning may feel more productive for you than writing in the evenings. Or, perhaps, you believe that creating an outline will kill your muse.

To an extent, I understand this belief. The outline is an effort to turn writing from an art into a science, something that appeals to me. Of course, writing is an artistic pursuit no matter how you prepare for it or execute it, but some may see the outline as a regimented intrusion into their muse-fueled world. But perhaps you are placing undue power and blame on the outline. Here’s a quote from Chuck Wendig, overlord of all things writing-related:

“The myth isn’t about the magic; the myth is that the magic is so fickle that something so instrumental as an outline will somehow diminish it. If after outlining a story you think the thunder has been stolen and you don’t want to write it anymore, that’s a problem with you or your story, not with the loss of its presumed magic.”

Don’t blame the outline, writer friends! The outline has your best interests at heart, the outline wants to shepherd you along the path to your story’s perfect ending, the outline only wants to help. I think Chuck makes a good point here — if you outline your story and find that something feels “off,” you should revisit your original plot ideas and re-tool.

If, after reading this post, you are still wary of outlines and believe that they will rob you of any writing magic you possess, I’m afraid I cannot help you. We’ll have to agree to disagree! I, for one, am going to continue using outlines to keep my crazy thoughts and plot ideas in check so that they make sense in the final product. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Plot Strings

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Something that I really admire in fiction is the ability to fully develop several characters’ story arcs and then tangle them together in interesting ways. For example, think of the crew on “Firefly.” When that first episode starts off, you can tell that the main characters each have their own storylines going, even as they’re united by the spaceship and their general mission. Then River and Simon come aboard, and we get to learn their storylines as the other main characters do. Throughout the show, each characters’ personal goals and traits tangle together to create one cohesive story. Each character is so rich and well-developed, and their coming together means the story is also rich and well-developed.

It might be helpful to think of these storylines as strings. In a recent blog post, Chuck Wendig — author and blogger extraordinaire — said, “The story is the string tying a character’s problem to the struggles in fixing that problem. Multiple characters mean multiple strings.” To create a story that makes sense for the characters you’ve included, you must follow that string. In “Firefly,” Mal is steady in the rules he imposes on his ship and the belief that he was on the right side in the war. As long as he follows that string, his story will make sense for him.

Of course, creating a plot string for each character and having them follow it isn’t enough. “Firefly” would not have been quite so interesting if each person had simply kept to their own storyline, following their own singular plot and never mingling with the other characters. Once you have those plot strings, you have to cross them and get them tangled up together to create plot. So, Mal decides to help River and Simon, and then Simon becomes involved with Kaylee, and so on.

Setting the string metaphor aside, the best way to create a compelling and complex plot is to let your characters mingle with each other. Have them help each other, get tied up in each other’s emotions, and create friendships and romantic relationships. Once you do that, your writing will be more engaging for readers and more accurately mirror real life, with all of its intricacies and tangled-up humans.

Good luck with your plot strings, and happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: How to Write More

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On this side of November, word counts may become significantly smaller. For those who don’t know, I spent the month of November participating in National Novel Writing Month. This is a global endeavor made by hundreds of thousands of writers, who all attempt to write 50,000 words during November. This can be a difficult challenge, but it’s also an exhilarating one, and by the end of it you have a 50,000-word first draft. A problem arises, however, when the support group you had in November dissipates and suddenly all you want to do is eat Christmas chocolate and lounge around watching Netflix.

Every year, I experience this writing slump when November is finished. And every year I make a vow for things to be different. Unfortunately, I generally end up succumbing to holiday sweets and sedentary activities. If you want to try continuing the writing flow that you had during November, or if you just want to achieve that same writing flow all year-round, Chuck Wendig has some really fantastic tips for you.

In this blog post, Chuck Wendig discusses how he manages to write almost 50,000 words every month, not just November. Wendig has some really great tips in this post, and I suggest reading the entire thing. He talks about using an outline, avoiding editing (an important part of National Novel Writing Month), writing notes for the next day of writing, and even taking breaks. One of the things that really helps me during November is having a schedule. And Wendig talks about this too. He says:

I endeavor to write five days a week, and then don’t write on weekends. I need that break. Every day that I do write, I write regardless of how I’m feeling — I write through illness, anxiety, life trouble. This is not saying you need to do that. (What did I tell you about comparing yourself?) You have to find your pace. Maybe you write all your weekly count on Monday at 2:15. Do what’s best for you. The good news is, for the most part, routines are valuable. Establish the routine and stick to it and after a couple weeks, you’re good.

I think this is a great idea. Everyone needs a break, and you can get a lot done by writing five days in a row. If you manage to write every weekday, why not take the weekend off? If you’re writing on weekday evenings after working your day job, you doubly deserve to take weekends off. This can also be great motivation. If you know you’ll get to do whatever you want on the weekend, you’re more likely to push through and write on weekdays rather than turn to Netflix.

Again, I encourage you to check out Chuck Wendig’s full post. If you find something useful there, you just might find  yourself a more productive writer by the time the new year rolls around. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Let the Plot Be

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Each writer has their own technique. Some of us are planners and some of us like to fly by the seat of our pants. If you’re a planner, then you probably spend a fair amount of time outlining or describing what your plot is going to be. That can be a very helpful and worthwhile process, but it’s important to remember that those outlines aren’t set in stone.

In a post that detailed random storytelling thoughts and tips, Chuck Wendig reminded us to sometimes let the plot go. He says, “If you want to know why your characters keep getting in the way of your plot, that’s because it’s the characters’ job to get in the way of your plot. The solution to this is discard the plot and let the characters be the characters. We don’t read books for plots. We think we do. But we’re also dumb. Characters are everything in a story.”

You know how strongly I feel about the importance of characters. So, it’s no surprise that I agree with this advice. If you stick rigidly to a plot that you set out at the very beginning of your story, you run the risk of missing opportunities to discover things about your characters or let your story move in a new direction.

Now, that’s not to say that you should necessarily write a rambling character study in which nothing happens. Unless, of course, that’s what you want to write. And this doesn’t mean that plotting or planning is useless. Do your plotting, but know that your characters may lead you to a new plot you hadn’t planned on.

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Character Depth

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Your story is a finite thing. At some point, one assumes, you will reach an ending. The time before that is spent in character study, plot development, and language manipulation. Along the way, you’ll let your readers in on many characters’ secrets. Those characters will most likely be the main ones you’re focusing on, but those aren’t the only characters that populate your story. There are probably background characters moving about behind the scenes, somewhere between the star of the show and the extras in a movie. They may be as close as the best friend of your main character or as far away as the man she runs into on the street one morning. There isn’t time to explore all of these characters to their deepest depths. But your goal should be to write them as if you could.

In a recent post on his Terrible Minds blog, the inimitable Chuck Wendig imparted 100 Random Storytelling Thoughts and Tips. One of those tips just happened to catch my eye. For number 21 on his list, Chuck writes, “Every character is a rabbit hole. Every character goes all the way down if you let them. Not every character demands falling down that hole — but every character should feel like it’s possible. Every character should feel like they possess hidden depths and secret motivations and a great big history all their own.”

It would be so easy to fall down all those rabbit holes, wouldn’t it? But, as I stated several sentences ago, your story is a finite thing. If you want to keep the plot within reasonable limits, you have to curtail the rabbit holes. And yet, you must make it clear that there is a rabbit hole for everyone who populates your story. This is a fine line to walk, but it’s important for the realness of your characters and the perceived vastness of your story’s universe. If you want the world and the story to seem like they contain real people, you have to imply that everyone has a storied past and everyone has unexplored depths just waiting to be explored.

This is the type of thing that allows readers to go hog wild with fanfiction. For example, J.K. Rowling may not say as much as she possibly could about the character known as Hannh Abbott, but I guarantee you that several fanfiction websites feature a tag for Hannah Abbott. With a few well-placed details, Rowling gave readers just enough info on Ms. Abbott to allow them to imagine her on their own. Rowling hinted at Hannah’s depths — and the depths of many other background characters — thus adding depth to her overall story.

The best way to do this? Write up character sheets. No one has to see those, but if you know what your character’s backgrounds and pasts contain, then you can imbue that into your writing of them. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Use Dialogue

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Hello, blog readers! Last week, I wrote about the importance of building up a history for your characters. Giving them a strong, fleshed-out background story will make them more real for your readers and for yourself as you write their story. This week I have more character-related advice because I honestly think characters are the most important aspect of a story. Before your readers can really know your characters, you have to know them really well. One great way for you to know your characters and therefore make them seem more real to readers is to utilize dialogue. This is a really simple way to create background for characters and it can also be quite fun.

On the topic of using dialogue, our good friend Chuck Wendig has this to say: “Plot is whatever happens in the story: a sequence of events. This happens. That happens. Then another thing. In the process: characters talk. Characters are everything, and it behooves you to know them. One of the ways you get to know them is: let them have conversations.”

If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. If you want to get to know an actual person, you talk to them. If you want to get to know your characters, you have to at least let them talk to other characters so you can eavesdrop. Of course, having your characters do things is important as well because it gives them agency and gives you something to write other than non-stop back-and-forth conversations. But those conversations can be really important. Depending on who your character is talking to, he or she will act differently, say different things, and reveal different amounts of information. If you have your character talking to his or her best friend, for example, you can probably get a lot of information out of them.

Now, let’s be honest, not all of these conversations are making it into your final draft. You might indulge your characters and let them yammer on for pages about their favorite flavor of ice cream, but readers aren’t going to care about that. After you hit the ice cream conversation, though, you might stumble across something that’s important to the plot or simply important to your character’s development. You have to get through the ice cream conversations first to find those nuggets of information.

So, let your characters talk! Aside from being helpful, dialogue can be so much fun to write. I know that I always get higher word counts when I’m writing dialogue. Exposition can go on and on and begin to feel stale, but giving your characters voice and personality is always interesting. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Character History

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I’ll keep saying it because I believe it’s important: characters are the backbone of your story. If readers care about your characters (or vehemently dislike them), they will care about your story. Why do people return to soap operas week after week? Because they want to see what will happen when one character destroys another, or discovers another character’s secret, or sleeps with another character’s boyfriend. You don’t have to write stories that are as tawdry as those you would find in a soap opera, but you should have compelling characters moving through your plot. One of the important components of creating a compelling character is crafting a history for them.

For this post, we return to the wisdom of my favorite internet dude — Chuck Wendig. In his post, “25 Things a Great Character Needs,” Chuck talks about the need for a character history. He says, “Your character didn’t just come karate-punching her way out of some storytelling womb. She wasn’t born pale and featureless like a grub only to grow her wings and limbs halfway through the tale. The character’s been around. Whether she’s 17 or 70, she has history. She has life. Stories. Things that happened to her and things that she did…What we see of a character in a story is just the tippy-top of the iceberg, just a nipple poking out of the water while the rest of the body remains submerged.”

This is so, so central to what makes a good character and I think Chuck has articulated it really well here. Just as you’re introducing readers to a world or to a storyline, you’re introducing them to your characters. What you choose to show them as your story begins should not be the only information you have on those characters. Say you begin by telling readers about the job your main character currently has and that he or she is married right now. That’s fine if that’s all you want to reveal to begin with, but you should know the character’s past jobs, past loves, and just about anything you can invent for them. Having all of that background knowledge allows you write a richer, more complex character who has believable motivations. Those richer, more complex characters will help readers engage more fully with and be more interested in your story.

There are plenty of character profile sheets out there on the internet. But I don’t think those sheets are always necessary. If they help you, then go for it! They can be a great guideline if you’re not sure where to begin when constructing your character. But I think writing a rambling, stream of consciousness description of your character can work just as well. Try opening a new document and just beginning to type anything that comes to mind about your character. If you want, make it more structured and write a mini biography of your character, explaining their past and fleshing out their life. Make the character as real as you can by filling in minute, specific details. You can call up those details later when you need to justify a character’s action or explain their feelings.

Once you feel like you really know this person, so that you could predict how he or she would react in certain situations, you’ve got the character history nailed down. Then you can confidently write your story and know that if a reader were to ask you a question about this character, you would have a realistic answer for them. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Critiques

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Recently, my posts have been focusing on the editing stage of a writing project. However, there is something else that typically occurs once you have finished writing a first draft: critiques. These may come from friends, family members, or random beta readers you find on the internet. No matter the source, critiques can be really helpful. But how do you make the most out of the critiquing process? How do you avoid feeling insulted and take your critic’s advice to heart?

Of course, there is tons of advice out there for dealing with critiques. But where do I always turn when I want to know about something writing-related? You guessed it — Mr. Chuck Wendig at the Terrible Minds blog. Not too long ago, Chuck made a post all about critiques and offered up ten tips for getting the most out of them. I think all of his tips are great and you should definitely read the entire post. But the one that stood out to me was the “look for patterns and potholes” tip near the end of his list. Take it away, Chuck:

One critique has some value. But several critiques offers you the power of patterns. If three people say the same thing — blah blah blah, that character doesn’t have enough agency, that plot point doesn’t make sense, why is the story narrated by one of those dancing windsocks you see out front of car dealerships? Then okay, that’s worth a long, hard squint.

Also worth realizing that critique is a curious animal. We are driven to not only point out deficiencies but then also to fill those deficiencies — it’s a noble goal, but what it ends up being for you, the writer, is that the reader will tell you both a) what’s wrong and b) how to fix it. Pay attention to a). But ignore b).

This is a great piece of advice because it tells you something you may have not thought about — you need more than one critique on your project. Sure, you may feel winded after reading feedback from just one person, but everyone has different opinions. You do yourself and your work a disservice by getting the opinion of just one person. If you belong to a writer’s group, pass around your piece and let everyone take a stab at tearing it to shreds. If you’re signed up for a website like Critique Circle, let lots of people read your stuff through that valuable outlet. Many eyes means you’re more likely to catch mistakes.

The other great nugget of advice here is to pay attention to patterns. Once you have multiple perspectives from multiple people, it all depends on what you do with that information. As Chuck says here, be on the lookout for problems that several people point out in the same area of your story. That’s where you need to focus when you prepare to edit. Look for the consensus.

One more thing — Chuck mentions here that critiquers will often offer up their own solutions for how you might fix issues with your story. But you don’t have to listen. I completely agree. You might take tidbits of what they say and craft it into your own solution, but you don’t have to take exactly what they say and incorporate it into your story. Solutions should come from you, and you’re under no obligation to take advice from your critiquers.

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Book Adultery

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When you read the title of this post, you might be wondering what “book adultery” means. It’s a term that I found on the incomparable Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog, which is where I find a lot of my writerly wisdom. Wendig posted something a while back about the importance of finishing your writing projects. One of the reasons he gave for finishing projects is to prevent book adultery. By definition, book adultery is when you “commit adultery” on your current project by starting another one.

I’m sure we all know the siren song of the new project. Compared to the one that you’re working on, that new project probably seems glittery, fresh, and enticing. It’s very tempting indeed to abandon your current project — which is, by now, musty, boring, and drab — in favor of that new one. And why, you might ask, should you prevent this abandonment? Well, Wendig sums up some very good reasons for finishing projects in his post, but I’ll say that finishing projects just makes you feel good. To write “the end” on a story and know that you’ve followed through with your idea gives you a sense of accomplishment that can then propel you into your next project, which you’re now more likely to finish because you’ve built up a habit of finishing.

Wendig also mentions the power of habit. He says, “a lot of the things we do as writers are given over to habit. We can develop bad habits…or we can develop good ones. Develop the habit that helps you finish your work. Prevent [book adultery] by keeping that new manuscript in mind (take some quick notes, write a logline, then move on) while actually finishing your current one.”

My favorite part about this piece of advice is that it allows you to cheat just a little bit. If you can’t seem to keep your mind off your new idea, jot down something about the story. Write out a bit of dialogue that keeps nagging at your brain, or start on an outline so that you don’t lose those precious nuggets of information. Always remembering, of course, to return to your current project.

So, stick with the story that you’re working on right now! If you feel that you’ve lost your enthusiasm for the story, find something to make it more interesting. Add in a spicy new detail that will get your imagination working again. With just a bit of work, you can breathe new life into a project that seems boring now. And when you finish this one, then you can move on to another. And you’ll have a finished manuscript hidden away for the day when you catch the editing bug.

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: New Environment

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As writers, we often spend a lot of time decorating our workspaces and tailoring them to help inspire us. There are lots of posts out there on the internet that suggest ways to make your workspace more comfortable or more appealing. By nature, writers often spend time in one spot for long periods of time, so it makes sense to invest time and money into our workspaces. But maybe we’re investing too much time. You can still decorate your workspace in a special way, but it might be a good idea to get away from it now and then.

In a recent guest post on Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog, author Delilah S. Dawson offered up some writing hacks. One of these hacks entailed getting away from where you normally write. She says, “….your brain will perk up if you get out into the world with a freshly bathed bod, feeling vibrant and being among other human beings. Listen to conversations at the coffee shop, take an interesting class, browse a bookstore, see a movie, go to Sephora, visit a zoo or pet store. It can be very easy, as a writer, to get into a vicious cycle of sitting in your house like a mole doing nothing and staring at a blank screen, furious because the writing won’t come.”

I think this is a great idea and a great piece of advice. No matter how many inspirational photos you put up in your workspace, outside stimulation might be just the thing to get your mind working. Hearing other conversations might give you an idea for some dialogue in your story. Seeing interactions might prompt you to complete a scene that you’re writing. Just being out and away from where you usually spend time writing can unexpectedly kickstart your mind. You can find inspiration in other people, in new settings, and even other pieces of fiction.

If you’re feeling stuck or like you’re suffering from writer’s block, try getting away from your desk. Being in a new environment may give you some new ideas. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan