Outlining My Characters (Before I Start Writing) Doesn’t Work For Me

I’m finishing up a Reedsy Learning module on how to write characters that readers will love and care about. The idea is that the writer needs to understand her characters’ backgrounds, lives, and formative experiences, their personalities, their desires, their appearance, and their mannerisms before the point where the story begins. The problem, for me, is that my creative process is different. Does it sound odd for me to say I do some of my best creating when I’m asleep?

Here’s what happened with my first novel, Beautiful, and what’s happening again with Out of Sight:

  • I come up with two or three characters, very roughly sketched out, and a situation. We’re talking “very big picture.”
  • I tell the story of what the characters are doing.
  • This is good for a chapter or two, maybe three, then I get stuck.
  • I think about it to the point that the story stays with me when I’m asleep.
  • The next logical step comes to me in a dream or as I drift near sleep.
  • I jump up, write it down, and that gets me further in the novel.
  • When I’m stuck again, I don’t worry about it because I know the next step will come to me. It always does.

An example of this, from Beautiful, is that I had given no thought to Adam’s last name. To that point, the issue had never arisen, so I hadn’t worried about it. One night, in a dream, the protagonist, Cara, grew agitated at Adam and yelled at him using his full name. From then on, he was Adam Samuelson.

To be clear, I do end up filling out a character sheet to keep characters consistent. For instance, Cara is wary of boys and men so that it would be unlike her to, for example, say something funny in class. As the plot and subplots progress, the character sheets grow even more essential.

Also to be clear, I do most of my writing and plotting during the day, while I’m awake, like a normal person. I haven’t yet figured out how to research in my sleep.

I do not write my novels “one chapter after the other” beginning with the first chapter. I use Scrivener, which is great for writers like me who write the story as they think of it, which is not necessarily in chronological order of events. With Beautiful, Chapter One was one of the last things I wrote; I didn’t truly understand Chapter One until I’d completed the first draft of the novel.

This way of writing keeps me out of my comfort zone. Last night, the muse hit me regarding my current WIP, preliminarily titled Out of Sight. I learned, last night, that the main character Marcie (a teenage girl like Cara from Beautiful) is African-American. This makes my life more difficult because I expect my characters to be believable and real. It’s bad enough that the protagonists of both novels are teenage girls. I’m a 59-year-old (as of today!) white male and I have before me the task of writing a believable black teen girl! On the other hand, I’ve never been homeless yet Beautiful is about a homeless girl. Research is a writer’s friend. That’s how writers who aren’t themselves secret agents pen thrillers, and so on.

Query Letter (Aarrrgh!)

My first novel, Beautiful, is waiting for a final blessing from my editor. I don’t expect any significant changes at this point. The next thing for me to do, of course, is to find an agent. Ideally, I’d like someone who will sell a publisher on the idea of Beautiful. Of course! And who will work with me on marketing; I do what I can, and the agent does what he or she can. For sure! But most important, for me, is that I find an agent who is excited to work with me for the rest of my career which, God willing, will be another twenty years at least.

Aahhh, finding an agent! That means writing the best query letter I can. But what do agents want? What are they looking for? How can I avoid inadvertently turning them off? I researched query letters on the internet, but as Abraham Lincoln famously did not say, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.

So, the last week of April, I attended (is that the correct verb for a webinar?) a Writers Digest webinar on writing query letters. The instructor, Maria Vicente, is an agent with P.S. Literary Agency. From what I can see online, it would be indeed a coup for a debut author to work with PSLA. The webinar was about 90 minutes long, with a bit over an hour being Maria’s presentation. The remainder was Q&A. Any questions that weren’t answered live were answered later as a supplemental download. The best part, from my perspective, was the opportunity for Maria to review my query letter.

I was actually pretty proud of the query letter I submitted although, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I was pretty proud of my writing ability in high school and it was a shock when, in Oberlin College, I learned how much more I had to learn. So it will be interesting to see what Maria thinks of my query.

Anyway, I’m chomping at the bit to start submitting query letters. This is where authors compete to see who overcame the most “no’s.” The conversation goes like this:

Author 1: “I had 192 rejections before I found someone who would read and accept my manuscript.”

Author 2: “Ha, that’s nothing. I had so many rejections, I need to write the number in scientific notation.”

I really do understand why many authors nowadays say, “This is stupid. I’ll just publish my manuscript my own damn self.” I won’t say I’ll never come to that conclusion myself. All I can tell you is that we need to be honest with ourselves and follow our heart. My dream is for my novels to be published through the traditional pathway and to see my work on bookstore shelves. That said, I wish the “traditional pathway” would move faster.

Plastering the holes

First, a quick follow-up from last week: my wife removed the staples from my scalp, I have no headache, and the radiologist read my CT scan as normal. So all is good, though I have a healthy new respect for gravity.

This past week I’ve been plastering in my living room. We have an older house (older from an American perspective, anyway, where the country itself has only been around for 240-some years). There was water damage around the chimney; the water had leaked through the brick and damaged the plaster. Once we were sure the source of water had been fixed, I removed the affected plaster, leaving large, ugly holes in my living room wall. I replastered the holes, sanded, and now I’m repainting. Very domestic!

Plastering leaves one a lot of time to think. It occurred to me that in some ways plastering is like writing. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’m the kind of writer who creates characters, puts them in a situation, and then documents what these characters — who are real in my mind — do and say. I do not outline before I write. Imagine doing this for an 80,000-word novel such as Beautiful. There are bound to be plot holes…quite a few, as it turned out for my debut novel. Some are obvious; some are subtle. Each one must be found (thank goodness for beta readers) and plastered over so that it’s no longer a hole. When I’m done, the plot…or the wall…is seamless and complete, and looks as though it were always that way.

The other similarity between writing and plastering, of course, is that in both cases the process is incredibly messy. It takes faith, which is an action verb, to continue forward through the mess, believing that the result will look beautiful.

Eric vs. Gravity

This morning is the first real test of my commitment to writing weekly posts. Around midnight last night, I was sitting in my kitchen snacking on a soy yogurt. This is not, for most people, a particularly dangerous activity. Apparently, I fell asleep and fell off the chair. Using my catlike reflexes, I…hit the floor and busted open my head. I remember sitting in the chair, and then I remember seeing an unholy quantity of blood.

My intrepid wife and I spend the next couple of hours in the local ER. It was a strange experience, confirming to me that I do not like being on the other end of the doctor-patient relationship. The quick-thinking and compassionate physician on duty last night ordered an ECG and a CT scan of my head, but did not do, as best I remember, even a cursory neurological exam or look in my eyes. As a bonus, probably because he was worried about my self-esteem, he told me I have the brain of a seventy-year-old. I’m 58.

So yeah. My day can only get better.

If you’re not happy with something, change it!

A moment of honesty, please? I haven’t been happy with this blog for awhile. I want my readers to get to know me, at least a little. The thing is, I wait for something momentous to happen, something “worthy of blogging.” But most of life is small joys, small, temporary setbacks; most of life is not momentous. Time goes by between my posts. Imagine someone stopping by my blog. They think, “Oh, this could be cool.” But the last post was a month or more ago. They check for a pulse (we all know CPR, right?) and, finding none, declare my blog dead. What to do?

Luckily I have, freely available for consultation, one of the smartest people I know: my wife, Teresa. Her counsel was to blog every week, Wednesday morning, about whatever comes to my mind. The important thing is to establish a weekly blog, a blog that’s clearly alive. So here we go! I hope you enjoy it!

Quick progress update: the manuscript for Beautiful (version 8? 10? 14? who knows!) is back in the capable hands of my editor, Julia. I believe it should be about ready for submission to agents. We’ll see what she says. I’m excited!

I’m about 15,000 words into the sequel to Beautiful. Unrelated to that, I’ve begun work on a totally new manuscript, unrelated to the Beautiful world and characters, with a preliminary title of Out of Sight. This will also be a YA novel. I’m excited for you to meet the protagonists and their unique situation.

Letter From the Editor

My…uh…legions of followers know that I was waiting for the editor to comment on the manuscript of my novel Beautiful. This happy event occurred the beginning of February. I’ve devoted my time since then to rewriting my novel. I won’t lie: this has been a lot of work.

I can laugh now, but when I first received the comments, I remembered how I felt as a freshman at Oberlin College. I thought I was a good writer in high school, but my first few English papers at Oberlin were dripping with red ink. Huh? I’d taken care to liberally sprinkle passive voice and big words so that everyone would know I was educated…and college professors hated it. Over time I learned to write. But now, as an adult, I at first felt as though I were starting over.

In a way, I suppose, I am starting fresh. There’s a gulf between getting an A on an English paper and writing a novel that is worthy of being published and read. I read somewhere about the difference between an amateur writer and a writing professional. It’s more than saying “the latter gets paid,” because most writers can’t support themselves through their art. The difference between an amateur and a professional is in how the writer reacts to (intelligent) criticism. The professional wants to improve their craft, and if that means cutting some prose that they liked, or letting go of some plot device that they felt was “important,” so be it.

My editor, Julia, gave me an eight-page editorial memo and a marked-up version of the manuscript with many hundreds of margin notes. I opened a new version of the novel side-by-side with the margin comments in Microsoft Word. Then, I addressed each comment.

Her comments fell into two large categories: 95% of her comments I agreed with; the rest were honestly things that I hadn’t explained well enough. In other words, there were a few places where she concluded something different from what I’d intended, but I could see that if I had painted a clearer picture, there would have been no confusion. I didn’t see any of her comments as the “sorry, editor, but you’re just wrong” variety.

I cut a chapter that I deemed unfixable and half of another chapter that didn’t move the story along (even though I liked it). I completely rewrote the entire first chapter, and I rewrote much of the manuscript. Beautiful is now almost 3,000 words leaner, but it’s tighter, better, faster-paced, and much-improved.

Oh, and for fans of my original title The Chokecherry Tree, I can say only that Julia, with her vast experience in publishing, recommended that I keep the title as Beautiful. She gave me several good reasons why: It fits the major theme of the story – what is beauty? It highlights the juxtaposition of seeing someone with scars as beautiful and may resonate with readers who are trying to see beauty in ways that aren’t usually considered as such. It’s a good, strong, one-word title. The main issue with referencing the chokecherry tree in the title is that it was a negative reference in the story; Cara disparages the idea that a scar that supposedly resembles a chokecherry tree could be beautiful or powerful.

What next? Julia and I have a phone conference coming up. We’ll see what happens after that. It seems to me that the rewrite was so comprehensive that the manuscript would need another edit.

Fight Like a Girl

I was “doing research” for my novel and somehow found myself on a Facebook group called The Geek Strikes Back (don’t laugh!), and I found this:

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“Yes!” I yelled. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about!” In the world of Young Adult literature, with rare exceptions, it doesn’t seem to matter how well the teen girl main character can kick butt, she still spends way too much time wondering if the hot boy likes her. I raised three daughters, one of whom is nationally-ranked in TaeKwonDo, but despite what my wife and I tried to teach at home, my daughters soaked up popular culture that taught them that “all girls” should spend way too much time obsessing about the hot boy (who, often, isn’t worth being the object of anyone’s obsession).

I would have liked to show my girls a book with a teen girl main character who is fascinating in her own right, who is trying to figure out her place in the world but is not desperately looking for a boy, and over time she becomes friends with a young man based on mutual interests and based on him being nice and respectful to her. And then, when we get to the part of the novel where the poop hits the fan, he steps up and chooses to put his life and future on the line for her. I’d never seen a book like this back in October 2016 when I decided to write the novel I’d always wanted my girls to read.

As writers know, one very important part of the query letter you send to agents is the “readers who like this novel will like mine” part. I recently found a novel that, in my opinion, gets this relationship between “strong teen girl” and “boy who is respectful and loyal no matter what the risks” exactly right. The book is You Don’t Know My Name by Kristen Orlando. I found it an exciting and enjoyable read that I couldn’t put down. Reagan and Luke have the relationship I described above, despite both of them having the ability to kick most anyone’s ass. There was action, spycraft, dangerous bad guys, quirky and loyal friends, dysfunctional family, romance: everything that makes life fun. I was thrilled when the next book in the series, You Won’t Know I’m Gone, came out a week or so ago. I loved it too! I plan to preorder Kristen Orlando’s next book as soon as it’s available.

I hope my novel is this good! Kristen raised the bar pretty high!

What To Do While I Wait

The editor has had my first manuscript for about a month and a half. I’m not expecting a finished product until early February. What to do while I wait?

I’ve been amusing myself two ways: reading and writing. I read copiously, in and out of my genre. I read novels published through the traditional pathway, and I read self-published novels. I’ve also been doing a little beta reading, though that requires a lot of time to do right. But you have to give some to get some.

Reading is what keeps me excited about writing. I see things that work and, maybe more important, I see things that don’t work. A few weeks ago I read a novel that had been self-published on Amazon. The second chapter was a presentation of a long list of secondary characters and their back stories. I had no idea at that point which of those characters was important to the story. Later in the story, when the author would refer to one or another of them by name, I had to go back and remind myself which character that was. I also noticed a paragraph that appeared, word for word, twice in the same chapter. This experience reinforced to me the importance of hiring an experienced editor, whether the intent is to publish traditionally or self-publish.

I’m trying to control the only two things I can: my actions and my attitude. As of today, I’m a bit over 12,000 words into my next novel, yet unnamed, which is a continuation of the story from my first novel Beautiful (or whatever I end up calling it). Also, I’ve written down some thoughts for a short story or novella that is unrelated to my current project. Regarding my attitude…well, like many writers, I oscillate between excitement and despair. Some days I see myself so clearly as a financially-successful writer, other days I think my work is average at best. I’ve read that the best thing for a writer to do is to write something every day; I’ve been pretty good about that. Writing every day seems, for me at least, to modulate the low days. The more you practice something, the better you feel about it.

Getting Professional Help

In my previous post, I intimated that I was considering getting professional help. Then I clarified, for those who know me, that I was referring to professional help for my novel: an editor, not a psychiatrist! Ah, this business of finding an editor is fraught with uncertainty! I’ve learned that much as with music teachers and martial arts instructors, one can call oneself an editor without having any specific training or certification. A quick Google search reveals thousands of self-styled editors who would be happy to take a look at my novel in exchange for a pile of cash. Editing isn’t cheap!

On the other hand, I believe in my idea. I believe that inside the words I wrote, there is an excellent novel. I feel as though I’ve chipped away all the superfluous stone I can find, I feel that I’m close to seeing the angel inside the rock, but at this point, I need an experienced sculptor to help me.

I researched potential editors on the internet. Not everything one reads on the internet is true, but it’s a reasonable place to start. The first thing that became apparent to me was that not only are there a multitude of editors out there, but there are several different types of editing that an author might require. Significant structural anomalies such as problems with plot, dialogue, point of view or believability issues need a developmental edit. Once that’s completed or deemed unnecessary in the case of a very talented and experienced author, there is stylistic or line editing. When there are no further significant changes in the text, copy editing fixes the grammar and punctuation. Proofreading is the final pass over the work after the page proofs are complete. In traditional publishing, copy editing and proofreading are the responsibility of the publishing house; in the self-publishing world, the author needs to find her copy editor/proofreader. I learned that copy editing requires different training than developmental editing.

To improve the signal-to-noise ratio in my search for an editor, I determined to disregard those who are primarily authors or whatever, but who “will also provide editing services.” I looked for websites that are professional yet friendly, that focus on editing or publishing services, that include up-to-date blogs, and that provide information that is useful to writers. As examples of websites that impress me, I offer this from a publishing consultant and this from an editor. As it turns out, I don’t know either of these people, and I didn’t end up hiring them, but based on their professional internet presence I feel I would like to know them and I could see using them in the future.

So which girl did I ask to the dance? I read an article in Business Insider that impressed me. I like the way Natasa thought. The idea that I could work with one of the most respected editors in the industry, someone with extensive experience in a major New York publishing house, without my own New York connections…that fired me up! Their website met all my criteria for professionalism, approachability, and usefulness. I decided I was willing to risk paying a little more for someone who knew the business and who would look at my synopsis and part of my manuscript and match me with an editor who was likely to fit with me. I paid for a trial edit of my first 2,500 words. Here’s the critical point: I agreed with every suggestion she made, yet each idea was something I had not seen on my own until she pointed it out. My editor has many years of experience at two well-respected New York publishing houses and has worked with some famous authors. We spoke by phone. I felt we clicked. So I decided to go for it.

I’ll let you know in a couple of months how it went. But I’m excited and feeling good about it!

Name Change

My novel has a new name! When I began writing it in October 2016, my temporary working title was Scarface. Obviously, given the famous Al Pacino movie of the same name, that was not a viable choice for the long term. At some point in late spring 2017, I renamed it The Chokecherry Tree. When you read the book, you will see why that name makes sense, but there was something about it I didn’t like. It wasn’t a name that would lead a person to pull my book off a shelf. Also, I learned that few people had ever heard of chokecherry trees. I just couldn’t think of a title I like better.

On the advice of a friend, I wrote out the major themes of my novel. It became apparent to me that beauty, in its myriad aspects and levels, is really the focus of the novel. So I decided to rename my book Beautiful. I do not promise not to change the title again, but for now, I like Beautiful; I feel it passes the “pull my book off the shelf” test.

So far as I can tell after extensive research on Amazon and Goodreads, there are no other books with “Beautiful” in the title that a reasonable person would confuse with my novel.

What do you think of my new, improved book title? I’m pretty excited about it!