What to do when your outline melts into goo

So, you’ve got an idea for a book and instead of jumping right in you dutifully make an outline. You’ve got all your plot points laid out like ducks in a row. You’re proud of it. Everything makes sense and you can easily visualize how almost every point can become a chapter. Fantastic! All that remains is to write the book! And that won’t be easy. You don’t kid yourself. After all, this isn’t your first rodeo even if it might be your first book. You’ve taken on tough projects before and writing a book is a project like most any other. A very tough, lonely and challenging project, but at its heart merely a task like any other.

So, you start writing. And you keep at it. You’re hammering out chapters and ticking off plot points like a champ. Good job! This writing thing isn’t so tough after all!

And then something happens. It begins as a nagging feeling along about the 30% mark. You’ve set up the tension and your protagonist is starting to get deeper into the thick of the plot twists. Some things don’t make sense and you’ve marked down some questions for yourself to address in revision. After all – don’t revise while writing the first draft. Just keep writing!

But then you get to about the halfway point and you suddenly realize something has gone terribly wrong. That nagging feeling has grown into a near certainty that what has happened so far in the story as well as what will happen are things that are… well… utterly uninteresting. Somehow, your hero has become disengaged from the plot. He seems to float through the events transpiring around him, doing little more than taking notes and making observations on events that, now that you think abut it, just aren’t that exciting. That’s certainly fixable, but then you realize that in order to have your main character more involved and your plot punched up you need to rewrite the whole damn outline.

 

Pictured: Interior of frustrated author’s mind. Do not look directly at the flames.

 

That’s it. Your outline is blown. You might as well start over, right? This needs to be a completely new book. What a waste of time! Shove it in a folder marked THINGS I HATE on your desktop and forget it. Get started on that new outline at once!

BUT WAIT! Stop, I tell you! What you have written so far may be a dull and nonsensical pile of word garbage, but it will only stink up your entire computer like weeks old cole slaw on a bed of wilted lettuce if you toss it away. Maybe the entire plot needs to be revisited, but surely there were some scenes you wrote that were good. Throwing them away because you can’t face maturing your plot threads is a waste.

But what to do? You know the old adage of “just write through it – it’s only the first draft” but how does it apply to a book you know in your heart of hearts is unreadable? Well, here’s what you do. Just write through it – it’s only the first draft.

 

“That don’t make no kind of sense.”

 

This is your book and it can be anything you want it to be. So, if it ISN’T what you want it to be, then just start making it that way. No, don’t go back and rewrite. You’ll be doing plenty of that in revision. No, what I’m talking about is taking your characters and making them do something interesting. Even if it doesn’t apply at all to your plot, just start writing about what you want them to be doing.

For instance, let’s take Grant Scotland. It may be that I’m experiencing this very problem with book five of The Adventures of Grant Scotland and it might just be that Grant has been surprisingly lethargic and passive. So, maybe I write a scene where he gets drunk, picks a fight with a barkeep over the price of his whiskey, gets beaten and thrown out and then arrested for public indecency and thrown in jail, where he is later interrogated about the murder of said barkeep and then finds he needs to escape before his trial to investigate this obvious frame-job (at least, he thinks it is – his recollection is a little fuzzy).

Now, I’m not giving anything away here – no such scene exists (yet) – but it was the kind of thing I started doing when I found my initial (and adjusted) outline was a series of arrows pointing nowhere near some place that was fun or interesting. So, I broke out of the outline and wrote Grant in and out of some fun situations. And what happened when I did that was I found I could resurrect many story lines and tangle them in so they made more sense and were more interesting as they were read on the page. After about three chapters of writing scenes that weren’t quite connected but which were definitely fun, I found that I had almost completely re-imagined the book. Most of the main plot lines survived, but they were hammered into a story that was much more about the push and pull between Grant and his world.

My story was finally BREATHING. Actions were taken and reactions were made, with Grant at the heart of it all. Book five is still a hot mess, of course, but I’m excited to finish it now and then get busy revising it into the book that I now know it should be.

So, my advice to all you writers out there is, never abandon a work in progress. If you get stuck and think it’s garbage, just starting writing what you think would be fun to read, regardless of whether it makes sense or not. None other than the great Raymond Chandler once said (I’m perhaps paraphrasing here) “When in doubt, have someone show up with a gun.”

You’ll figure out why the woman with the gun is there and it is MUCH simpler to figure it out when you already have some sort of plot going, rather than starting over.

 

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As for when book five will be released, I still can’t offer guarantees. I am committed to getting the first draft done by the end of the year, but obviously it won’t be published until several months after that.

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” – Louis L’Amour
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Too cliche or not too cliche?

That is the question. But sometimes I wonder if it isn’t “To cliche or not to cliche?” Should an author avoid cliches at all costs or just use them sparingly? Or should caution be thrown to the (cliched) wind and as many of the colorful little devils be used as possible? It seems to me that some of the most popular authors I’ve read use them without any regard for whether they are apropos or not. In fact, it can sometimes seem like they actively set up scenes and dialog to use a good (or bad) cliche.

And by cliches I actually mean cliched expressions, not circumstances. I don’t judge authors harshly for using cliched plots, characters or settings. Some of those are almost unavoidable. An author generally has to use one or two here and there just to make a cohesive and attractive plot. Full disclosure, I’m a sucker for a good villain-revealing-his-master-plan scene. I cringe every time I read one of these, but my attention is also absolutely rapt. If the author did her job and kept me guessing about what the bad guys are up to, then I don’t care how stupid it is that the hero is on the receiving end of a monologue instead of a shotgun. Well, okay – maybe I care a little bit. But still, I’m willing to forgive a lot in situations of cliched circumstance.

 

“No, Mr. Bond. Instead of torturing you for information, I’ll serve you mint juleps and give you information.”

 

But cliched expressions? I can’t stand them. If I find even one in a whole book, I’m tempted to swipe it off my kindle while exclaiming “TRASH! FILTH! THE DIARY OF A FOURTEEN YEAR OLD BOY!” And yet it seems many people either don’t mind these or perhaps even like them.

I wonder if it’s the comfort level they provide. That’s about the only thing I can acknowledge is a positive aspect of using a cliche. It provides the reader with a solid frame of reference for what’s going in the book. If I tell you that a character is “in the pink of health” and “full of piss and vinegar” you instantly know exactly what I mean – assuming you’re fluent in colloquial English.

But, if I tell you that Han Solo told Luke “You look strong enough to pull the ears off a gundark” you’d have no idea what the hell I was talking about. Which is a shame. That’s an expression that never really took off. Okay, that’s a bad example. Han and Luke and the Star Wars universe are fairly well known, so you likely know that means the same as the “pink of health/piss and vinegar” thing.

But, here’s the thing. Didn’t you know what Han was saying the first time you watched Empire Strikes Back? Did you need anyone to explain it to you? Didn’t it even immerse you further into the Star Wars universe because it was an expression that had it’s own flavor while at the same time sounding familiar?

That’s basically where I’m at with cliches. If you’re writing a story and you feel like you need to use one, then I feel like the best thing to do is take a familiar one and add your own spin to it. Unless, of course, you’re narrator is a lazy and unimaginative speaker and is supposed to rely heavily on cliches to express himself. Or, if not the narrator, then the speaking character is one who has a nervous habit of using cliches. That’s fine. I get that. Although I would recommend not using a narrator who is likely to bore the hell out of your audience. You can only get away with that if your name is William Faulkner.

 

That quote right there tells you all you need to know about how irritating his narrators could be.

 

But in the course of normal narrative, I feel cliches are just too distracting. I’m instantly taken out of the story if I feel they don’t quite fit and if they are used without regard to character or narrative voice, then they definitely don’t fit.

But I don’t know. I’d like to be a popular author someday. I’d like to make a lot of money writing. So if using more cliches is the answer, maybe I should do it. Obviously, only in stories set in modern/near future. Fantasy stories that use modern cliches are never successful. I try to avoid them in the Grant Scotland novels, but I concede to little ones that might include curses or expletives like “damn” and “hell” because fantasy novels that replace those words always seem to me like they’re trying a little too hard.

But how about you? As a reader, do cliches bother you? Do the expressions bother you more than the situations? Is it the amount or the appropriateness?

 

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Hope everyone is having a good summer! Hot enough to boil eggs, amiright?

“Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” – Mark Twain

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