Do You Outline?

I think I said in one of my early posts that I did do an outline for my first book. I carried around a stack of note cards and wrote down scenes as I thought of them. I figured about three scenes per chapter, twenty chapters for a compact mystery. I suppose if you were going for 75,000 pages that would be about 22 chapters. I organized them into a plot line that had a murder at the beginning, and then two climaxes after. If I was missing a logical link between different scenes, I added those in as I put the cards in order and pinned them up on the wall so I could keep thinking about whether or not the plot made sense.

I haven’t done an outline since then because I wanted to keep the spark in my writing but I think that I always end up working on my plot before I’m done. Organic translates into chaos for me. In my classes, I ask my students to write a short bio for their main character, too. This is a great way to keep track of  your characters so they don’t end up with a different hometown or even a different name!  Eventually, maybe I’ll come up with a way of putting a book together that works on every book.  Right now that doesn’t seem to be the right answer for me.  Each book seems to have its own way of growing from those first couple of ideas that I put together.  Until then, I’ll keep trying all of those great ideas that seem to pop up! 

Here’s a link from Martina Boone that has some interesting tools.

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What I Write About

Yes, I did write yesterday, all day. I was only revising ten pages for a critique at a SCBWI conference but I was transposing old verbiage into my current style. Probably would have been easier to rewrite from scratch but then I would have had to do the scrub down again. I thank the muse that I do keep improving every year except in 2008 when I drafted my tween novel during NANWRIMO (national novel writing month), I was scrambling for my 50,000 words and still very inexperienced even with a writing degree. The book is an alternate world reality story which I originally brainstormed with my son Peter – giving me the name for that genre of M. P. Stojak. That works for me. 

My literary (adult) novel came back recently and I’m anxious to get back to it for revisions that will take the quality of the book up a notch.  I had an idea this weekend about how to handle the point of view which was long over due! Still, for revision sake, immersion in the genre I’m working on at the time helps keep me on track. I’ve been reading YA and middle grade. The best so far is the Hunger Games. I was completely overwhelmed by how Collins pulls the reader through the story and glad to see that a best seller was so well written. It’s been a while since I’ve been so impressed. I was even thankful for the Kindle app which allowed me to pull down the last two books when I couldn’t get to a book store. Last summer I did read George R.R. Martin’s books (fantasy) since I remembered when he won the Omni short story contest so well. That’s been some time ago when I was single and living in Chicago. My sister’s first husband let me borrow his copy of Omni. (I was very poor!) He was (is?) a voracious reader but was more interested because George was his Northwestern roommate. With his success on HBO, I was curious about the books.  Quite a wonderful, complex world he’s created but honestly, those thousand page books should be edited down, don’t you think? 

The first two dreadful books that I wrote before I went to Hopkins were mysteries. My mom liked them but others thought they needed a lot of work but I did come close to getting one accepted by a small publisher and had a read-thru by a larger publisher. Some day, I may revise them and put them out into the electronic world for those voracious mystery readers. I was hoping that I would be done with the tween book and have early fall for my revisions to Infidelity because I want to work on a mystery during NANOWRIMO. I started one last year and just couldn’t focus because of my mom. May not be able to drag myself away from Infidelity (first drafted in 2007). We’ll see.

This is a very me-me-me post! Just remembered that I still haven’t responded to one of my students about her story and that is well over a month ago- ouch! I’ll do that tomorrow. (Today, I’m off to play with one of my musical groups at Fort McHenry for the 1812 celebration)  I had two reasons for this post – first, one of my new followers commented that he would like to know what I write. (My published works are short stories and poetry in literary mags and anthologies.)

The second reason was because of an article I read in the Guardian this morning. It’s an article about economics and made me think very Margaret Atwood-ish. Infidelity does gently question the American Dream. I have thought for some time that I would like to write a sharper-edged story – not so far in the future as some of Ms Atwood’s books and not about technology. More about how much is enough. That will be an epic I imagine so best not to work on until I’m retired and also not subject to rules about writing about the government!   Take a look!

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So we read, but do we write?

I woke up early (whoops not supposed to start with waking up!), I made coffee and looked out the window at the woods – birds making their racket or cheerful songs depending on your mood, I turned on my computer.

This is where I’m supposed to say that I’ve already put in three hours of writing. But no, I didn’t write even though I’m late sending my sample for a critique session in July. I read email, I read Twitter, I read Facebook and focused on Jay Gatsby and my niece’s wedding pictures. And I can’t say that I don’t have any ideas, I’m full of them. So, what am I doing updating my blog?????  Talk to you later…

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What’s the one thing that makes everybody a better writer?

It’s not a trick question!  The first book I remember reading had stories about Little Red Hen and the later boycotted Little Black Sambo. Grimm’s fairy tales gave me nightmares for many years.  The first book I checked out of the library was one of the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy tales. I remember reading everything in the children’s library (my librarian wouldn’t give me the okay to check books out of the adult library until I did). Because of her rules, I read a lot of biographies which were my favorites for a while and I also read nonfiction including the very dry History of Mankind. I also read comic books and all of the Nancy Drew mysteries. The books that I read over and over again, included Shakespeare’s plays, Great Expectations, Kidnapped, and later, Mahabharata and Herodotus’ Histories.

I’m not sure how much any of these books influenced me but I am glad that at least part of the time I read “good literature”.  My plots might be stronger if Nancy Drew books had influenced my writing the most, but I don’t think I could say the same for my prose. The other day while I was reading twitter posts, I ran across an article, I think it was in The Guardian, where once again an author was reminding writers to read. The advice is so obvious that I think we sometimes forget how important it is. Here’s a list that I like from a few years ago that includes many of my “postmodern” favorites.  Enjoy!

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Teaching Basics of Creative Writing – #2

By the way, I ended up not liking that Gardner book.  Just not my thing, is it too weird to say that it was too down? Even if we’re hearing about something terrible which wasn’t really the case with his book, I think that an author’s (uh-oh) voice influences us a lot. Margot Livesey’s The House on Fortune Street has disturbing things in the book but it is readable. If you’ve ever met her you would know that there is a certain sparkle in her eye that can always put you in a good mood. I imagine the author’s outlook on life probably has a lot to do with how they handle such topics. Choice of point of view is probably critical. If someone is committing a heinous crime and the story is told in first person, I don’t think I would be able to finish the book. Third person might provide the necessary distance to let us read about something very disturbing like child abuse without totally turning us off.

Quite a while ago, I went to a reading by some mystery authors at Johns Hopkins where one of the presenters had written a book with child abuse in it. Having children of my own, I couldn’t even begin to read his book after his talk. Not surprisingly, many “how-to” books discourage writing about such topics even if the actual acts appear off stage.

I guess that this little discussion is a reminder for my class notes that when you’re trying to talk about creative writing topics, it’s very hard to separate them.  I usually do tell my little classes that everything works together, so feel free to go back and change your character, plot, whatever, when you see that it doesn’t all fit together. I’ve written a number of draft novels and I can tell you that when it becomes “whole” you can tell. That’s when I have been known to do my Dr. Frankenstein act!

More tomorrow when I talk about what I intended to talk about today – how to teach characterization.

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Teaching Basics of Creative Writing

Once again it’s time for my little winter/spring writing classes. I have a basic writing course and an editing course. I have a few people who repeat the courses so I always try to vary my examples and how I present the information. Lately, I’ve been reading about voice in preparation for those classes.

Years ago someone at a course in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival said that it sounded like I had discovered my voice. I didn’t respond because I liked the person. The fact is, I don’t like the idea of voice which is what I later told my teacher. I wanted to be able to write different types of stories that deserve to be written in different ways. I remember that then he didn’t say anything to me which might have meant that he thought I was wrong. I don’t really know for sure except when I think about his published novels, they do sound like they are by the same author which is, I’m sure,  an example of his personal style or voice. These days, I do understand this kind of style but I’m not sure this is good topic for beginning or intermediate writers.

Other examples of voice are. My early experimentation with voice included a large number of different characters in different locales. Writing dialogue is an obvious way that we can change our “voice” by acting out how we think a particular character would speak. Even when I’m writing from a third person limited point of view, I tend to write in what I would assume to be a proper voice for my chosen character and their background and setting. This kind of voice is a form of characterization and description. Although I’m not one of those writers that always starts with a character, there’s no denying (at least in my opinion!) that characters are the core around which any book revolves. Many have said that plot is primary for genres such as mysteries and thrillers but even these rely on their characters’ motivations to propel their plots forward and the point of view chosesn will rely in great part on our characters as well. 

So far we have writing style which can be somewhat described as choices consistently made regarding sentence structure, vocabulary, etc. Then, we have voice associated with specific characters which can be in the way a character speaks and how they see the world in which they live. The slant or prejudice of the narrator is another way that voice is used in a novel. The ironic or humorous novels will rely a great deal on their narrator whether it is actually the voice of  a character or an observing party. If we’re writing a humorous piece, we’ll probably going to use exaggeration, simile, and other tools of the trade to create a different type of style.

Now these are all very intellectual ways of looking at how we should write and I am far too inexperienced to not think about how I write. Maybe none of us are ever beyond evaluating and calculating how our writing works. But I do know that you have to relate emotionally to your writing. If you don’t think something you’ve written is funny, then it won’t be to other people. If you don’t feel sad when your character is sad, then that emotion won’t be passed on to your readers. So, I imagine that when I talk about voice with my next class, I’ll be asking them to remember when they felt sad, happy, or afraid and to use the memory of their emotions when they work on a character’s voice or the overall tone of a book or story. Their personal writing style will develop over time.  


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Gardner’s October Light

Okay, so I’m trying to ease myself out of the doldrums I’ve been in all month and doing my usual reading about writing and my to-read list. If you’ve read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction then you probably know that he was a famous writing teacher. Art was written for beginning writers but it has some great points or reminders for everyone, just skip over the parts about talent. Those passages always make me want to throw the book across the room and I have an old copy that must be coddled so I try not to look.

The book from my to-read list is one of Gardner’s, called October Light. I haven’t finished the book yet because like my writing, I stop and then I go and then I stop again. I’ll be glad when this phase passes. My little note to you today is about the fascinating introduction by Tom Bissell in the New Directions edition (2005) where he discusses how popular Gardner and others were during their peak and how Gardner’s books are mainly read by writers today.

Will we also conquer the mountain and later become passe? Some egos I’ve met would never be able to withstand the fall but I don’t think Gardner would have splattered on the pavement. His view of the world was very opinionated (like most writers) yet he had a certain contrariness that I think would have made his writing evolve whether he wanted it to or not. We’ll never know for sure since he died at age 49 in a motorcycle accident.

When someone stops writing (I guess we could say, he had the best reason), the remembrance of a person or an era, or maybe even that corner store where the author’s mother sent them to buy milk, is gone.  That’s a good enough reason to keep writing even if you never make it to the top of your own personal mountain. More later on October Light which is available at,, and many other places.

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