Today, I was featured on Kevin T. Johns’s excellent podcast, The Writing Coach. In the interview, we covered how I got started teaching, my earliest influences in terms of writing and mentoring others, my productivity, the common problems of aspiring authors, and many more. Check it out!
First drafts and not being perfect
If you have an ambition, a goal, if you’re striving to achieve something or walking off the beaten path, you have experienced failure of some kind or another. And failure stings. It feels negative, and that’s why we don’t talk about it that much. We tend to focus on the positive, which is good and constructive, except for one thing: failure can be a huge positive. Fear of it is the biggest negative here.
Failure happens to be part of everything we attempt. It has to be. If there wasn’t such a thing as “trial and error”, we wouldn’t discover new things, we would never advance in any field whatsoever, and we wouldn’t be able to learn; to be confident in what works, we have to experience what doesn’t. Pablo Picasso said it best: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn to do it.”
That goes double, triple, quadruple, and a hundredfold when creating art. Art is a subjective pursuit, in which there is no set end result; as Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished; only abandoned.” In fact, the very process, the journey to the finished piece is itself as important, sometimes even more so, than the end result itself. If not for failure, art would be impossible. It is mistakes and unintended results that often lead the way to true innovation, to the greatest ideas, and to new techniques.
This doesn’t just apply to visual art. Every artist – be it actor, painter, illustrator, sculptor, musician, and writer – must learn to venture outside of their comfort zone to progress in their art. That is how they test their limits and discover that they are capable of so much more. And, by the way, “testing your limits” doesn’t mean you succeed the first time you try something outside of your comfort zone; in fact, if you do succeed right away, chances are you haven’t really reached one of your limits yet. It takes trying over and over again to be able to push back these boundaries and add another skill to your toolset.
Writers and composers have such a huge advantage over other artists in that respect. When creating visual art and you try something that doesn’t work, more often than not you will have to scrap that drawing, or paint over that canvas, or throw away that sculpture. You have to start all over again until you find the one that works. When you’re writing, though, no matter what new thing you’re trying, you’ll very, very rarely have to scrap everything and start all over again. Once you’ve got that first draft down, you can tweak it, change it, edit it until it’s finally the way you want it. You have so, so much more luxury to make mistakes than most other artists. Take advantage of it. Let loose with that first draft. Give yourself permission to fail, to write something really bad. Stop letting fear of not writing a sentence perfectly the first time around make you stare blankly at your screen for an hour. Let it be a bad sentence. You can go back and fix it once you’ve written all the rest of your sentences. Chances are high anyway that you’ll have a much better idea of the voice you want to give this project by the end, and then it’s so much easier to go back and correct it with that in mind.
A friend of mine used to say that even if you fall flat on your face… depending on your height, you’re more or less five feet closer than you were the moment before. The only true failure happens when you decide not to get up again. When you stop trying. The minute you’re not doing something that leads you to make some mistakes… you’ve stopped getting better at what you do. So continue to celebrate your successes, by all means.
I meant to talk about something else, but over the past few weeks I’ve found myself explaining this method so often that I just decided to write it out so I could have a link to post. Here it goes!!
The “post-it method” is, I find, the easiest and most efficient way to come up with an outline for your novel. Its non-linear process helps naturally eliminate surplus or nonessential scenes because you tend not to come up with them in the first place, as opposed to when you’re working in a linear fashion and constantly have to come up with what happens next.
All you need is a pen and a pack of post-its (or masking tape and index card, or sticky tack and cut up pieces of paper, you get the idea… basically something you can stick to a wall and remove and reposition easily, or a software that allows you to do that, even Word with cut and paste works great) and a piece of blank wall. I have used the staircase, the headboard to my bed, my kitchen cabinets… there’s always a space in your house that you can use to do this. And don’t worry about needing to have it up there for a couple of days or more; this method is so easy you should be spending a lot less time on your outlines.
Step 1: timelines
The first thing I want you to do is if you know you’re going to have subplots, divide your space into the amount of “timelines” equivalent to these subplots.
Behold my kitchen cabinets, and the low-battery induced bad lighting!
Step 2: the best scenes
Next, you should write out your favorite scenes on individual post-its. We all have a few scenes in our heads that we KNOW are going to happen when we come up with a story, the ones we’re excited about. Start with those, they’re likely to be pivotal, and well, you’re excited about them, so you might as well! Don’t write out the full scene; just one sentence summarizing the main action in that scene.
Behold my horrible handwriting, and more badly lit kitchen cabinets!!
Step 3: filling in the blanks
Put your best scenes up in the timelines where they belong in relative order of causality. Even if you’re doing anti-structure, your outline should be done in order of causality just to make sure you’ve wrapped up anything; you can deconstruct it later.
Once you’ve done that, comes the hardest part (and it’s really not that bad). You need to fill the spaces in between your best scenes so that the reader has all the information that they need to appreciate/understand those scenes (and obviously, the climax, if it wasn’t part of those scenes). That can be events, character development, etc. (If you’re wondering about that, you can read my posts about scenes and my post about exposition.) Come up with all the scenes that you need to fill in that information, and put them up there, until your main plot and all your subplots are wrapped up nicely and there are no loose ends.
Ok so this is the broad lines of a story whipped up in 15 minutes for the purpose of writing this post. Typically a novel would have around 30-40 post-its (at a rate of one post-it per scene), if you’re going for a 70-80k average.
Step 4: putting it all together
That is the easiest part. Basically, take all your timelines, and put them together in one great timeline, deciding which scenes are merged, which bits of timelines interact with others, etc, creating the natural rhythm of your story. This is also the part where you can deconstruct your timelines, in the case of an anti-structure storyline (as in Memento, Pulp Fiction, etc.)
Why are some of these post-its stuck on one another? I merged some scenes. You might find that you need to do that too.
Step 5: get that stuff off the wall before your child eats it or your roommate throws it away
If I’m lazy, I usually take down the post-it notes and stick them directly in a book, in the order they go in. Then, because I don’t want to lose that book, eventually I can transcribe that outline to Word (or whatever software you are using) and BACK IT UP. And you have an outline.
More horrible handwriting! And there’s my lens cover for my no-battery camera!
I hope this is helpful in its very crude and non-witty way.
Hello everyone! Last week I gave an interview to Kevin T. Johns for his awesome podcast, Ottawa Writes. We talked about many things, mainly the release of my newest book, Kindred Spirits, the themes which I discuss in my writing, my crazy productivity, my involvement in Renaissance Press, and the importance of a writing community. In the beginning of the podcast he also discusses Goodreads reviews. You can listen to it here!!
Saturday October 25th 2014, 3:00-5:00 PM at the Comic Book Shoppe 2 (228 Bank St, Ottawa, ON, Canada)
There will be free candy, because, HALLOWEEN, but also…
Because I’m a big baby and I LOVE dressing up, I suggested this… and people went with it!!! But only if this was optional. So yes it is optional, but be convinced that I ABSOLUTELY will be wearing a costume – and I will post pictures here after the fact to prove it!!
Come dressed as your favorite superpowered character, and there will be a prize for the best costume!
Excited? Well, I am. Please come share the happy!
If you’re on Facebook, please join, like and share the event!