August 30, 2011

To Outline or Not to Outline: Is It Really a Question?

I'm finished. For days, weeks, months, I've been dreaming up this story in my head. And finally, the basics are down on paper. My story outline is finished. I can now begin writing the story itself.

Some people might argue that an outline is unnecessary, that when you want to write a story, you just put pen to paper and everything will flow from there. But I don't believe 'em. (I will concede there are those authors who abhor outlining and have still succeeded in writing a good story, but this approach doesn't seem to be recommended.)

Maybe I'm just a strange, super-organized freak of nature who loves detail and order, but I don't think so. After all, the academic writing process (which I just taught my students today, in fact!) includes good ol' outlining as a must-do. Why should a novel be any different? After all, if I want to have any idea about where I'm going with a story, the most efficient way to get there is to outline.

I will concede that a story can change from its original outline. I know that flexibility is a must; sometimes, it's actually better if Character A ends up with Character C instead of Character B, or if the team loses the game instead of winning. Developments and changes happen, but they happen for a reason.

In other words, you should write your outline and then tell yourself to have a good reason to change it. This will help you to analyze why you're writing like you are and why you're including the events you've chosen.

An outline is also helpful in keeping you focused. When you have an outline, you stay on track. You take your project more seriously. Especially if you are not yet being paid to write, and this is your attempt to get published, an outline helps you to reach that goal in a timely manner.

Regarding how detailed to be in an outline, that's really up to you. A friend of mine likes to put the bare minimum, summarizing the story in three lines/sections: beginning, middle, end. For me, more detail is always a good thing. It gets my juices flowing and helps me to write the end product more quickly.

Best-selling author Jeffery Deaver has some interesting thoughts on outlining (you can view a short 3-minute video about his outlining process here:, though he's a bit more extreme with the process than I've been! I thought my outline was long at 14 single-spaced pages...

Onward to story writing!

August 28, 2011

A Trip to Costco

Quite a few of my friends have been quite encouraging about my dream to write a novel, and they've asked to read my work. I am only in the outlining stage of my novel, but for those who are interested, here's a creative nonfiction piece I wrote for one of my master's classes. It's modeled after GK Chesterton's "A Piece of Chalk" and Virginia Woolf's "Street Haunting." Enjoy!

It all starts with a box of lettuce. But you certainly can’t visit Costco and make a beeline for your item, retrieve it, and walk straight back to the cash register, especially if your item is in the very back of the store in the produce section. If that’s the case, you’re doomed, a captive for at least an hour, one forced to eat a variety of samples—from piping hot chimichangas to turkey wrapped in Swiss and a tortilla—and browse countless displays of items you’d never buy because you’ve never heard of them or because you already paid top dollar for them somewhere else.
Oh Costco, you vicious captor, kidnapper of time! Horrid place, really.
My own experience begins when I pick up my husband from the airport after a weeklong business trip. It is a Friday, and we are planning to watch a movie at home. We eat dinner at Sweet Tomatoes and start the drive home. But first, we need lettuce for a party two days later, and we’re in the neighborhood. So we head to Costco, home of the cheapest lettuce around: $3.79 for 4 lbs of lettuce spring mix. No sooner have we entered the voluminous cave then we gasp for air at the gasp-worthy sight before us: large, glorious paintings, as tall as me, with sweeping strokes of brilliant darkness and light, contrasts that both delight and terrify me with their reality. Cowboys ride broad-shouldered horses across the open prairie, the pink and purple sky a magnificent backdrop as it rolls past the moon. A round basket of red grapes lies on its side, grapes spilling one, two, three at a time, and I want to stomp them like they do in A Walk in the Clouds. A lone glass of red wine sits prominently, seems to inch forward out of the picture, whispering, trembling. Finally, Venice beckons; its winding highways of water are narrow and yet the opening to a world of possibilities.
I want to dive in, stand on the precipice of that Tuscan patio, there, arched and awaiting. How is it possible to lose yourself in a painting when you’re in a familiar place? How can another world, one you’ve never seen, seem like home, a place you’d love to raise your kids, the perfect place to linger with your husband, running your finger up and down his arm and leaning against him, your white muslin skirt blowing slightly with the breeze, which whispers a faint hint of wine and cheese?
Ah, smell the Gouda.
And just like that, we move on, leaving that faint world of Italy behind, onward toward a nearby display of cheeses: goat, cheddar, Swiss. I say no thanks, I’m full from overeating at Sweet Tomatoes. Why do I always overeat at a buffet? I try so hard to hold back, to stay glued to my seat instead of running like a crazed cheetah to the foccacia cheese bread, ham and pineapple pizza, blueberry muffins, chili, and—oh!—tomato soup, my eyes glazed over as I search and search for the perfect combination that will mean nirvana. I try to be the dancer, the cheerleader, the supermodel, who resists the carbs and goes instead for seconds on the salad bar, taking only greens, veggies, and a small dab of vinaigrette—but I can’t do it. My love handles would never forgive me. Instead, I go back to the pastries bar one, two, three times as if I think something new is going to be added—perhaps a platter of chocolate chip cookies?—and when it’s not, I “settle” for “the usual.” Poor me. I eat all of this within 30 minutes and then wonder why 15 minutes later it feels like my insides are going to rupture like Mount Vesuvius.
But hey, at least I went to a salad bar in the first place, right? Wink wink.
Back at the cheese samples, my husband takes one of each kind of cheese.  Three of the four go down like little kids at a waterpark, slipping and sliding as fast as possible. Number four is not so pleasant—it takes two bites to get it down, kicking and screaming—but my husband eats it because it’s free. What is it about free food that makes us eat when we’re not hungry, finish what we don’t like, and wait in long lines, even when time is money, to get it?
And we’re off again, headed slightly in the direction of the lettuce but veering off when I see a pair of lamps that catch my eye. We’re redecorating our bedroom and they look like a good fit, but upon closer inspection, they have ivory lampshades and I need white. Costco has a larger selection of furniture than I would have thought and I browse until I come upon a beautiful oak crib and changing table for only $800. We don’t have kids yet, and I’m not yet in need of ointment for that famous of all Itches, but I’m calculating in my head, and I’m thinking, wow, it’s not as expensive as I thought it’d be. Then I chide myself, because I have a perfectly good hand-me-down crib waiting for me from my sister-in-law as soon as we say the words, “We’re pregnant.” I am proud, because I will save a lot of money come baby time—and yet, here, now, I have almost fallen into the trap I’m sure I’ll face down the road, that is, to have a designer baby room like my friends, who have spent at least $1,500 on furniture alone plus designer crib sheets, curtains, bottles, and who knows what else. I ask myself why I shouldn’t buy “the best” for my children, who surely will deserve it as much as my friends’ babies do. But what is “best”? To be spoiled with new furniture when one’s parents’ haven’t even bought one new piece of furniture in their 5 years of marriage? When people say they want “the best” for their children, don’t they usually mean they want the best material goods, the best economic situation, for them? They want not just provision, but provision that’s better than the Smiths have, and—of course—the Jones.
I manage to pull myself away from the crib set with my pride still intact, on the outside at least, and we make our way to the lettuce. Victory! I grab the perfect box, with an expiration date a week out. At this rate, we’ll never make it to our movie, so we walk purposefully to the front. We’re almost to the register, and my husband veers off toward the books, says he’s looking for the new Kissinger book, teases me and asks me if I know who that is. I slap his arm, feigning indignation, and let him wander off as I wonder about how he could enjoy nonfiction so much when fiction is my drug of choice. There is an inexplicable draw that fiction has upon my soul, leading me into its depths, never to return until the high is over and I have to surface in just enough time to find another book, another adventure, another romance—another impossible situation. I equate reading with relaxation, and relaxation with slothfulness—so my habit causes extreme guilt when I spend a day wiling away on the couch, reading, doing nothing extremely productive and yet visiting worlds I’ve never seen before, so in reality, I’ve been there and back again and am more productive than I have ever been. Of course, doing anything in excess ruins you; but books are the treatment for my daily stress. Without them, I’d be efficient and successful but inhuman. Reading fiction is necessary for my health and wellbeing. But reading about Kissinger would just be a counterfeit drug to me—unless Kissinger was a spy, murdered by a band of gypsies and pirates, and I had to discover his murderer with 400 pages to go.
Finally, my husband returns Kissinger-less and we make it to the end goal, the checkout line—and it is short. The race itself may seem to take ages, may take endurance, perseverance, regret, imagination, and tough love, but the end of a race flies by in a moment—the breaking of the ribbon, the crunch of a car crash, the last breath drawn in a fight to the end. The least satisfying part is walking out of Costco. Why, when that was my goal? I’m learning that the ending doesn’t define the trip; not even the lettuce defines the trip. The trip in reality is about the details, the beautiful tapestry of paintings, the taste and smell of cheese—some we like, some we don’t—the crib set calling my name and beckoning me toward a future I didn’t expect, and the gold mine of fiction laying before us.
Next time, I won’t be so resistant. Next time, maybe I’ll even idle intentionally.

August 24, 2011

Sometimes It Takes an Army...

When I first decided I wanted to write a novel, there was one thing holding me back.

I was afraid to share my idea. I mean, what if someone thought it was stupid? There would go my self-esteem right out the window, right? I imagined myself telling someone my idea and getting a stare that said something akin to "You're going to waste your time writing about THAT?!"

I can take critiques on my writing itself--I've been having my work critiqued for years. (In a future post, I'll talk about the best ways to handle critics, I mean, critiques...) But what if the underlying idea for the novel was bad? Then there would be no hope!! Or so I thought.

Of course, I was being melodramatic when visualizing this scenario (a characteristic that has, alas, been attributed to me in other scenarios as well!). I pitched my idea to not just one other person, but four people. You see, I'm a part of a writing group--we call ourselves the neo-Inklings after C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien's club, though who knows if we will ever reach the level they achieved (here's hoping!)--and the people in the group took my idea and ran with it.

Not only did they not laugh at me, but gave me some wonderful ideas for expansion along the way. You should have seen me--sitting there, voraciously writing as idea after idea flowed. There was a great synergy that flowed in that room, and I could tell the members of my group were getting as excited about what my novel was becoming as I was.

Interestingly enough, our group is extremely diverse. We are all writing different pieces, from a sci-fi screenplay to a nonfiction memoir-type work about horses and their impact on the author's life. It has been one of the most encouraging things in my journey so far; every time we have a meeting of the minds, I want to go home and write some more!

If you are aspiring to be a published author, I highly suggest you join a writing group. It can be quite frightening at first, but it is awesome practice for pitching your ideas to agents when the time comes for that. The group can help you flesh out the good ideas and flush the bad ones down the toilet.

Because, sometimes, it takes an army.

August 21, 2011

Am I Some Kind of Crazy?

Dreaming is inevitable.

When we sleep, our brains put together a collage of images that we cannot control. The art of dreaming is something that happens whether we want it to or not. Some believe dreams are whispers from God; some believe they are glimpses into our inmost desires. Whatever they are, dreams cannot be helped.

And so it is with our living dreams, those goals and aspirations we have in life to be something more, achieve something great--to have our lives mean something. Dreaming in such a way cannot be helped--at least, I have not found a way to do so!

I find myself pushing, striving, moving onward toward the next goal. It is a seemingly irrational force that compels me. Because in this poor economy, the pursuit of my dreams has caused me to quit a stable full-time job and turn to a less-stable (but ultimately freeing!) freelance and adjunct teaching lifestyle.

I must be some kind of crazy, right?

I have always felt the need to write. Ever since I stapled a handful of papers together and composed a great masterpiece called "How to Make Mud Pie," I have felt the need to express my thoughts through the written word. Poetry poured out of me when my mother was dying of cancer and I questioned my faith. My thoughts on teenage self-image came to fruition through a creative essay. Furthermore, I've written everything from straight-up hard news stories to fluffy features and medical conference coverage pieces.

I wanted to pursue creative writing for my undergraduate degree, but I took the journalism route in order to ensure a job after graduation (I was blessed to get one!). So, for awhile, I took a break from the creative scene. But my love of creative writing was sparked in a fiction class I took during my master's program.

And thus, a dream was born.

This blog will follow my journey to write a novel in a year. I plan to include writing tips, victories, and frustrations. I'll share what I learn along the way and occasionally post some excerpts from my working piece. My hope is that my readers (if there are any out there!) will be encouraged and will take something away, if not just a good laugh at my expense. I am confident that God can take this dream I have and move mountains to accomplish what He wills in me.

So here's to craziness and the pursuit of a dream!