Find Buried Treasure In Your Outline

Let’s pull a few skeletons out of the closet right away.

Do you outline your writing? 

There is a wealth of writing wisdom out there that says the first step for taking your writing from amateur to pro is to develop the practice of outlining what you write.  They say it’s a surefire way to kick your butt and get you thinking about your content the right way because it's your specific treasure map. Even paper writing needs to be outlined first. I used to work with Trust My Paper (community which offers professional essay and paper writing services) and I can assure you - this team knows how to write a high-quality essay or research paper because they know everything about outline.

I have a high level of skepticism about any "common wisdom" writing advice, but over and over again I read the same thing in interviews from writers who have "made it".  In fact, I just read the same thing from Amanda Hocking (self-publishing sweetheart and recently signed St. Martin's Press author- to the tune of $2M!).  She spends 3-4 weeks outlining each of her new novels before delving into the actual content writing. 

So as much as I'd like to sputter and say it aint' so, I can't deny the simple truth that outlines have secret powers.  They can even make you prolific.

Outlines also have something else that makes them valuable.  They hide buried treasure.  Riches beyond your wildest imagination. 

The Devil is in the Details

I'm not going to make you pull out your pirate gear and go in search of my hidden meaning here. The buried treasure that outlines hide is knowledge

When done correctly, outlines can make you a better, more efficient writer.

There is probably another part of you that is rebelling saying “Well Christy- I’ve heard you say on more than one occasion that you just need to write.  Write write write write.”

I still believe that's true.  But I can tell you from having written two manuscripts sans outlines that it has made my job of editing ten times more difficult.  That’s because I can’t see the forest for the trees.  I have to go back and forth between chapters to remember what happened when in the story.

If I had an outline to reference though, this task would be much easier.  In fact, that is one of the first things that Chris Baty suggests after NanoWrimo wraps up (and after the much needed time away from your manuscript): go back through the story and outline the important plot details.  (I didn't do that because I thought that I could do it without that.  You can ask me later how well that's going....)

The Bones of Your Story Emerge

Once we strip away all the fleshy parts, we are left with the bare bones of the story.  And this is where our analysis and quest for buried treasure really begins. 

  • Our characters stand naked for us to see  (Oops- we lost John Doe somewhere around Chapter 20.  Better go back and pick that poor fool up!)
  • We can see incomplete subplots.  (I forgot to close the loop on what happened with So and So and her father.)
  • We can see story arcs that don’t jive between the beginning and the end.  (Eek! She was twenty at the start of the book and suddenly she’s thirty-two years old at the end of a story that only spans 2 weeks.)
  • We can see where we got lost which is usually somewhere in the middle.  (Well- that makes no sense at all!  That character would never have gone to that place!)

Outlines keep us from making a mess of things.  That is why they are valuable. 

Does every piece of writing need an outline?

I would guess that most gurus would say “yes”.  They would probably say that even a briefest blog post needs an outline with your opening thoughts, three sub bullets, and closing. 

But for me, anything under 1000 words isn’t trying my skills in seeing glaring content gaps.

In those instances, I use my first draft as an outline.  But for a behemoth project like a novel, I think that it is well worth the time investment to sketch out the high level details of what you think will happen during the course of the story.  That’s not to say that having an outline means everything is written in stone.  But it shows you how to get to the end.  And it is quite comforting to know where “X” marks the spot.  You may sleep a bit easier just knowing how your story is supposed to end.

Just to get some other thoughts on the topic, here are some dead simple resources on drafting outlines:

Your Outline Is Your Friend

Building An Outline

Outline Or Not?

Do you outline?  Why or why not?

(photo credit talliskeeton)



What Else Do You Do Besides Write?


If you don’t like writing, the question of what you do besides writing is an easy one.  You are probably offering to do the dishes, go grocery shopping, get the oil changed in the car, do yard work, or any other task that will keep you away from the writing chair.

But if you are a writer by trade, the question may become more difficult.  You are probably looking at me with big confused eyes saying “Duh Christy.  Writing is what I do. Writing is what I'm supposed to be doing.”

I’m a big believer that if you have a daily writing practice, your writing spigot will constantly be open and it feels easy to do.  (Easy = good right?)  But if the only thing you do is write, I have a inkling that you will soon find that your writing is feeling a bit…stiff. 

The creative juices aren’t putting out the rockstar quality content that you have grown to expect and love.  You aren’t feeling the same enthusiasm pumping through your veins as you approach your writing chair.

That's because writing inside a void means you run the risk of becoming one-dimensional.

Shields are up Captain!

It’s a fine balance between our internal and external worlds.  What waits for us on the boundary, lurking on the external side of the fence, are distractions.  In my case, I feel like no sooner do I found my writing groove, then I get one of those annoyingly effective, gate crashing distractions pounding on my mental door demanding to be let in.

We feel compelled to create a force field around our work in order to ensure that we aren’t distracted. We close ourselves off to everything, including things that normally inspire us, because we feel like we have no choice.  We become narrowly focused on “job one”.  The “priority”.  And to hell with everything else.

External reality feeds our inner creativity

As I’ve mentioned in my previous post, I am a book-devouring vampire.  Recently, feeling a bit of a existential burnout approaching, I decided to dive in and finish a book series that I started over a month ago but never got around to finishing (because ya know- I'm busy!).

That one book turned into four books.  Over the course of three days.  Throw in an additional book that I pre-read for my kid and four books turned into five.  

The crazy thing is that instead of feeling like my brain had blown a gasket, I felt energized.  I realized that my muse was actually telling me that she needed something. She had been crying out for weeks that she needed fuel.  I just wasn't listening.  I had blocked her out and written those pleas off as another distraction.

Just like our bodies need food nutrients to survive, our creative energies need spiritual and inspirational nutrients to thrive.  If you starve your muse, it's going to let you know.  You will be powerless because the muse is so hungry for that thing that it's been craving that you don't stand a chance.

It’s worth the time to sit down and figure out what nourishes your writing so that you don't swat off those big red warning signs and plow ahead like nothing is going on. You need to bake in the required time to do your "other thing(s)" so your creativity doesn't fizzle and fall flat.

It's time for you to chime in.  What else do you do besides write?

(photo credit pasukaru76)



Just Because You Can Use That Word In A Sentence Doesn’t Make You Smart

I’m a writer and book-devouring vampire, so naturally I have an ear for words.  It fascinates me to see how we cram two words together to create an entirely new word, or use a tone of voice to completely change the definition of what a word means. 

I’ve grown quite fond of the sarcastic “awesome”, which if I remember correctly was popular back when I was a lot younger.  So not only are we constantly trying to come up with pithy new words (“tweet” anyone?  Have you “unfriended” anyone lately?  Be sure to “Digg” me- wink, wink), but we also recycle things we used to say- it’s not unlike fashion trends.

What is particularly interesting though is how we use words to try to make ourselves appear smarter.

True confession time:

When I was in the 8th grade, a boy that I was very good friends with told me he didn’t want to be friends with me anymore because I used “big words”.


True confession time x2:

My husband still tells me that I use “fancy words” too often.

Now in my defense, my excuse is exactly the same now as it was then.  I read all the time (remember- book-devouring vampire here).  I’m soaking up all sorts of interesting jargon and catch phrases.  I’m rediscovering words that I don’t hear that often.  I love it.  

And so things that I read often flow right out of my mouth no matter who I’m talking too.  I’m not thinking about it.  I just say it. 

But apparently there are people out there that perceive me as puffing out my chest and trying to appear smarter than them by using these BIG words.

Have you thought about how people perceive you by the words you choose?

I was watching a video post today from Jonathan Fields. He and his guest, Julien Smith, discussed people’s perception when bloggers, writers, speakers, etc. use swear words.  (The comments are lively, so the post is definitely worth a gander.)  Here’s another instance where someone’s choice of words colors people’s perception.

So word choice is important.  Word choice can make you stand out. Word choice can polarize.

But digging out a dictionary and slapping a bunch of random words into your story isn’t going to make your story better.  It'll probably make it worse.

Put The Thesaurus Down

I once read a bit of advice about writing dialogue.  It said that using “said” by itself was always better than trying to modify it with an adverb.  (e.g. “she said breathlessly” or “he said angrily” are better off being “he said" and "she said”.)

(This is the part where I stomp my feet a bit because "said" seems so boring!  Off I went in search of things I could say instead of "said".  Thank you Stumbleupon: Other Words For Said.)

So this is what happens.  We start second guessing ourselves and thinking that our writing is feeling a little stiff or stodgy.  So what’s the best way to fix that?  Dig out the ole thesaurus and swap out some tired words for fancy new ones of course!

This is where things go terribly wrong.

  • Hide becomes ensconced.
  • Grudge becomes rancor.
  • Kill becomes extirpate.
  • Alone becomes onliest.

See what I mean? 

Sometimes saying things plain as day is the best way to do it.  I’m all for throwing in a bit of intrigue or impact with a well-placed curse word, or a word that fits into your story because it’s exactly what your character would say.

But if you have to reach for it, then you’ve probably gone too far.  And when you've gone too far the reader can tell- the whole experiment falls flat, and you come across as disingenuous.

Big words don’t make you smarter.  But how you choose to use them definitely does.

(photo credit sjockell)



Stop Hating On Yourself: Build Your Compliment File

I have a challenge for you this week.  In principle, it probably sounds really easy.  But my guess is, in reality, it's going to be hard.

Because if you are like me, you suffer from a disease called "I-can't-take-a-compliment-itis".

The disease is insidious because of it's chameleon like tendencies.  If you wake up in a good mood, it wraps you in an invisible. vinyl raincoat to ensure that compliments slide right off your back.

If you are going through a more trying time, especially if you are going out on a limb and trying anything new, it engulfs you in full body armor guaranteed to repel any compliment within a hundred yards. 

There is a good chance that you don't even know you have this silent, but destructive disease.

Does this sound familiar?

Someone gives you a compliment.  It could be that they like what you are wearing, or something you own, or a piece of work that you did for them.

Then, "I-can't-take-a-compliment-itis" kicks in because you respond with something like:

"Yea, but..." 

Or "It wasn't really me.  It was team effort." 

Or "I came across it totally by accident." 

Or "I bought it because it was on sale." 

Or "I had to drink ten cappuccinos to get even one piece of that project to work right."

Whatever happened to just saying "Thank You" with a sincere smile?  Why all the rush to tell people why they shouldn't say something nice to you?

Recognizing the Problem is Half the Battle

I got lucky.  I come from a background where you worked hard and didn't expect recognition for doing things like getting good grades and doing well in your activities.  It's just what you were supposed to do.

So I had no idea that I had a problem accepting compliments until my husband (shortly after we started dating) got frustrated with me after I dismissed him telling me that I looked nice for our date. 

He raised his voice just a little bit and said "WILL YOU JUST TAKE THE COMPLIMENT ALREADY?"  Then he told me how frustrating it was to trying to tell me something he liked about me, and having me brush it off like it was nothing.

I was speechless.  He was giving me an opportunity to see myself through his eyes, and by not letting him do that, I was actually making him feel silly. (That was definitely not what I wanted to do.)

It was that day that I realized I spent an awful lot of time focused on all the negative things that people told me, and in the meantime I was completely ignoring the other little bits of warmth and goodness that they were sending my way.

The Best Defense against Yourself

So you may remember that at the beginning of this post, I said I had a challenge for you this week.  It's an easy but hard thing for most of us to do: Start building your compliment file.

I'm not talking a mental one either.  I know that I usually get at least one sincere, warm fuzzy compliment per day.  My husband tells me that I look pretty.  A co-worker will tell me that I did a great job on a project.  A neighbor tells us that our lawn looks nice.  The restaurant server says our kids have great manners. Somebody on Twitter tells me that I rock.  Compliments come in many forms, and from may different places.

A freely offered compliment is a genuine and caring thing that someone can do for you.  The only thing you have to do in return is say “Thank You”.  

What I'd love to ask you to do is make a quick note wherever you take notes (a notebook, a voice memo on your phone, Evernote, etc.) of what each compliment was.  If you don't have time to record the actual compliment, at least make a quick hashtick that you received one.

Then at the end of the week, come back to this post and tell me in the comments how many compliments you received.  The best part of this activity is that you've created a guaranteed line of defense against your Inner Critic the next time she comes knocking.

Because the next time you have a rotten day, and those wiggles of self-doubt start dancing a pity party in your head, whip out your (very real) compliment file.  Once you consciously pull back and focus on the good things that people have said about you, you will feel a little bit better.  And once you feel a little bit better, it’s not a big leap to start feeling A LOT better.  Your batteries will start to feel like they have juice in them again. 

I can't wait to hear about all of your compliments!

(photo credit Daquella manera)



What Gets Your Creative Toes Tappin'?

 I like to experiment with music because I know it has a profound effect on my creativity levels. 

When I was a teenager, I couldn't get enough of Madonna. (Today, I think I am suffering the consequences of listening to her albums over and over again at a blaring volume on my Walkman.)  Sometimes I'd dance around my room, sometimes I'd write like a madwoman, and sometimes I would just lay on my bed with my eyes closed and a smile on my face.

In the 90s, I scored a part-time gig as a karaoeke DJ.  I did shows three times a week, and to get everyone in the singing frame of mind, I was the one who started the show.  Having gone through my fair share of heartbreak by this point in my life, I swore by country. About a year later, my boss told me that although I sang country great, my repertoire was getting a bit stale.  Back to the drawing board.

When I went back to college, one of my general education requirements was a class where we studied different genres of music as it evolved through time.  It opened my eyes to a whole new world. I became entranced by Vivaldi, Bach, Wagner, Philip Glass, and Ravel.  I listened to classical music in the car during my commute (it help soothe the road rage).

Soon after my creative focus moved from singing back to writing.  I read that Baroque music inspires writing creativity.  I decided to try it out, and finally make use of the Pandora app on my iPhone.  It was like finding a childhood treasure that had been hidden away in a corner of the closet.  Warm memories of discovery and contentment came back, and soon my fingers were whizzing across the keyboard.  As promised, I was feeling pretty inspired.  Then I ventured a bit further even.

I found jazz, and not just any jazz, but early jazz.  I'm talking big band, brass, tappin' your toes to the beat, moving and shakin' jazz.  When I listen to it, I can't help but smile.  And sometimes when I'm walking down the street listening to it, I can't stop my hips from shaking a little bit.  (I'm okay with people thinking I'm a bit weird.) 

Baroque music makes me feel warm and fuzzy, but early jazz makes me... happy.  Deliriously happy- the "I've had four glasses of wine and I'm going to dance dance dance all night" happy.

So when I'm feeling flat, and the creative juices aren't quite flowing, I know that I can turn to music to lift me back up.  In fact, this song has been in my head all week as I've been mulling over all the changes here at ThinkBlot:

Do you have a go-to genre of music of theme song whenever you are feeling stuck? 

(photo credit pedrosimoes7)

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