Archive for the ‘Toolbox’ category

why I don’t outline

October 7, 2021

I’ve long thought that the reason so many writers love the “rules” (whether that’s grammar or genre conventions or the proper use of dialogue tags or whatever) is because there is so much self doubt in what we do. Is this good enuf? Am I good enuf? Will anyone want what I write? Will anyone read what I write? Should I be writing something else? And on. So when someone comes along and says that this or that rule about writing is absolute, a good many of us are quickly seduced by the imagined certainty and cleave to that rule.

Of course one writer’s rule is another writer’s suggestion and another writer’s antagonist. Long-time readers of this humble blog (both of you) will know that I don’t give much allegiance to the rules (even spelling — the word “enuf” occurs throughout Obelus — and I suspect my use of em dashes is often incorrect). Sentence fragments seem to be integral to my natural style. But then I know of at least one 100+ word sentence I’ve written as well.

One of the fundamental bits of guidance writers are given when starting out is to outline the intended work in advance. Organize your thoughts. Put them in order. Re-order them. Organize sub-thoughts under major points. Work from a premise and work toward a conclusion.

Yeah, I don’t do that.

When I start on a story, I do generally have an idea of where I’m going and what I want to achieve. But in nearly all cases, my result is far from the original idea. Latest Big Project is a good example. I had an idea for writing a semi-serious work of seeming non-fiction that was really going to be a very unconventional work of fiction. And while it’s still that, the semi-serious portion is barely holding on. The seeming non-fiction part has grown more absurd as I’ve been writing it. Crazy thoughts come into my head throughout the day about how I could develop this idea or introduce that idea. I had introduced a sub-plot that I thought would give my character some depth, and that sub-plot has taken over and become the main (hidden) point of the story.

Similarly with Obelus, a certain character was intended all along to be an ambitious free-lance journalist, but when it came to showing her as such, I suddenly shifted her into something altogether different. I don’t know where this revelation came from. I hadn’t planned for it, but it took the novel in a different, and better, direction. It’s a vastly different novel in tone and plot (the plot is the MacGuffin).

My point is that if I had outlined what I wanted to write in advance, I don’t know that these “revelations” would have come to me. If I had been neat and orderly in advance, I think I might have missed out on the creative chaos and discovery that seems to work so well for me. I’d have been devoted (blinded?) to developing the story as it was originally conceived rather than flowing with it as it evolved.

So I don’t outline. Well, not in advance. I am about to begin outlining Latest Big Project, which I have mostly finished, so I can see where to wedge in hints and references to the sub-plot that’s become the main plot. It needs to build to that (where all is revealed in the final chapter). So having an outline of how things are now will be a kind of after-the-fact guidebook for where to take it further.

What about you? Do you outline in advance?


(Funny, this post is not at all what I had started out to write.)

white noise

November 9, 2020

Due to some particular quirk of physiology, I am able to hear my own heartbeat in my right ear. If the room is quiet, and I am sitting still, which is pretty much the definition of my writing time very early in the morning, I can hear the pulse of blood through whatever artery is near that ear.

When I first noticed this years ago, I feared it was a sign of dangerously high blood pressure, but my numbers have always been low in that regard, and when I mentioned it to my doctor, he dismissed it as nothing to worry about. And so I haven’t for all of those years.

But I have found it to be distracting when I’m trying to write in the quiet of my early morning sessions. And so I’ve begun an experiment with white noise to override the sound of my heartbeat and let me drift along whatever creative waters I’m on.

Back in the days when I worked in an office, the building had pumped in white noise as a sort of damper to nearby cubicle conversations so individuals could work without overhearing others (much) and general clatter. This was believed to have worked, and I guess it did. (The Wikipedia entry on white noise does offer this caution though: “There is evidence that white noise exposure therapies may induce maladaptive changes in the brain that degrade neurological health and compromise cognition.”)

I found a YouTube “video” that plays a constant hiss of white noise (for ten hours!) that I’ve been playing in the background as I work. At first, and as expected, I found myself listening to the white noise, which is a truly unremarkable sound, but when I turned my attention to writing, I soon forgot that I was hearing it and just got to work. I think I will get better at this the more I use it.

And it works. I cannot hear my heartbeat when the white noise is hissing in the background. Whether that will mean a boost in my productivity, I cannot yet say, but I’m grateful so far to have this apparent success with it.

omne trium perfectum

January 30, 2019

Like a dog worrying an old sock, I sometimes just can’t let go of an idea. That can be a good thing, of course, or it may be a bad thing, or it may just be an inconsequential thing.

I mentioned in this recent post about what I believed was the genesis of my use of “threes” in my writing. I’m reading a Joseph Conrad novel now — a rippin’ yarn about a sailing crew on a long and dangerous journey that carries some implied and overt lessons about racism, including Conrad’s own perhaps — which makes me think about those “threes” again.*

And it turns out that use of threes is actually commonplace as a rhetorical device. This Wikipedia entry goes into some detail (with the added links) about not only the device in its various forms but examples of it across ages and cultures.

I don’t know if knowing this is humbling or exalting for my ego and writing aspirations. I like to think that I came by it honestly, that I absorbed it by osmosis from reading or that it is part of human hardwiring. But as I’ve said here many times, I don’t really want to know too much about my creative process lest I slay it with consciousness. I suspect that I’m going to be extra aware in the weeks and months ahead, either deliberately choosing to use the device or questioning/doubting when I do so unconsciously and then recognize it later. (And I realize that with these kinds of things, less is generally more. More or less.)

Also, I wonder if this is the reason I am a strong advocate of the Oxford comma.


*This copy of the novel has about forty pages of foreword and analysis about the novel and Conrad’s writing in general, including a reference (maybe even a gibe) to his use of threes.

Also, the title of this post is supposed to be set in italics, and I have used the proper HTML to do that, but it keeps getting dropped.

Always the first person

May 19, 2010

“In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained;
that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not
remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking”

from the “Economy” chapter of Walden
Henry David Thoreau

Obviously, I’m not the first person to make this observation!

I’ve noted here before that, ultimately, all narration is done in the first person. Someone is telling us the story that we read. And I’ve asserted here as well that the narrator of our fiction must be as much a character, at least in our own minds, as every other character in our story, even if the narrator is not a participant in but only an observer of the story. The narrator’s personality may be subsumed in the telling, or it may emerge as important to the telling. But as writers, we must make this decision consciously. Who is our ambassador to the reader?

When we sit down to read a book, we sit across the table or the campfire from the person telling us the story. Even if the story is written with a third-person narrator, there is a narrator who is speaking.

*   *   *   *

The quotation above from Walden goes on in the very next sentence to deliver one of the more famous aphorisms of the book:

“I should not talk so much about myself
if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” alert

April 10, 2010

Some time ago in one of my Toolbox posts, I provided a list of sites that might be useful for finding magazines and ezines for your short stories. One of them was for

Until I hear otherwise from the site, I’ve broken that link. It’s coming up as an “attack site” in my security software. Whether that means it has been subject to an attack by some malware or that it was deliberately set up to attack users or some other reason I cannot say.

If anyone knows anything and would care to enlighten me, I’d appreciate hearing it. Otherwise I’m going to leave it dark.

Motivated Grammar

February 23, 2010

Finally, an antidote to all of the simpering entreaties on the web that creative writers must follow the “rules” of grammar if they are to succeed! Treat yourself and your creative genius to a gander at the Motivated Grammar blog.

Scoffing at the “prescriptivists” who preach (sometimes with embarrassing inaccuracy) the rules of grammar, this blog often delves into the origins of a given rule, which, in turn, offers insights for when the rule truly applies, when it might only possibly apply, and when it can be quite correctly dispensed with altogether. It also looks at perceived grammar or usage errors and identifies them as being incorrect in many cases. And it generally sticks a pin in the self-important, hyper-inflated blowhards who think that the few writing “rules” they happen to know are the alpha and omega of creative writing.

There are few writers who actually follow the grammar rules to the letter. A careful reading of good writers in just about every genre will show this. And creative writers have a license to dispense with them as they need to. It’s our job to evolve the language! The Motivated Grammar blog shows how we’ve been doing that for centuries.

You won’t go to it finding a catalog of discussions about this or that grammar rule, though I suppose you could find specifics in it if you searched. Rather, this is more like shop talk among serious, thoughtful folks. It is a blessed respite from the nincompoops and grammar Nazis, it’s a good read, and it’s a much needed breath of fresh air in the blogsphere.

The seduction of rules

January 20, 2010

“There are three rules for writing the novel.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

W. Somerset Maugham

I see this a lot: a writer must know the rules of grammar before breaking them in any creative writing. That is a non sequitor.  I certainly don’t believe that is true.

If you’re like me, you probably know a capable and successful adult (in whatever field) who never went to college. Such people achieve through practice and drive, not through the acquisition of formal rules about how to be an adult or how to “succeed.”

The same is the case, I think, with creative writing. We learn good writing from reading and writing. A good creative writer may never have heard of a “dangling participle” or a “squinting modifier” yet turn out wonderful work. A good writer doesn’t need to know the rules before breaking them, but it may be true that knowing the “rules” can keep a writer from ever being truly good. Anguishing over the rules of grammar can prevent a writer from composing an effective sentence, merely allowing a “correct” sentence. Creative writing needs to be liberated from the rules.

S.S. Van Dine once wrote a list of twenty rules for writing mystery novels. Among these rules is the famous admonition that a mystery story must involve a murder, since 300 pages is too long for a reader to bother with anything less. (Also listed is that the killer cannot be a household servant because he or she is not a “worth-while” person.) Despite the fact that virtually all crimes in the real world do not adhere to Van Dine’s views of how they should take place, and despite my suspicion that Van Dine intended his rules as a joke, I know that many mystery writers consider his rules to be hidebound absolutes and write their mystery stories with their guidance.

Similarly, many writers cleave with unquestioning loyalty to Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing, including its infamous “never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” (This specific rule has been attributed to several people.) Hemingway may have approved of Leonard’s rules, but we would be without most of the rich, enduring classics of Western literature if serious writers took these rules seriously. And yet I see appeals to such authority in blog posts and comments all the time. Lesser writers, better known for their sales than their styles, make similar pronouncements and many aspiring writers feel as though they have thus been delivered from the wilderness.

And that, I suspect, is why such rules are so readily grasped and defended.

What we do is terrifyingly subjective. Most of the time we are working in the fog, uncertain of our progress or even of our goal. Does this sentence work? Does my character seem credible? Have I strayed from my theme? Can I even state my theme? Is this the right word? We stumble in the dark, wearing bad shoes, not even sure where we want to go. We question ourselves and then doubt our own answers.*

Thus I can understand the seduction of what seem to be clear, simple rules that tell us what will make our writing work, what should be avoided, and, if the rules are simplistic enough, what we don’t even have to think about at all.

Any given writing rule, whether it deals with plotting or grammar or metaphor or whatever, gives us the short path out of the fog of our doubt, even though that path may lead us to a far less interesting or accomplished or worthwhile work. The rule about only tagging dialogue with the word “said”, for example, actually seems counterproductive to creative writing. Here is a chance to use a stronger verb — something regularly advocated by writing instructors — yet many defend using the anemic “said” even though it is against their best creative interests. And simply because someone somewhere has given them a rule to save them from worry.

Such rules spare us the hard work of thinking for ourselves, of making our stories exactly right within their own context, in part because it removes their own context. The rules say one size fits all.

The goal of creative writing isn’t adherence to the rules. The goal is communication. The rules are merely tools, information about common conventions but not standards for well done writing.

*For another view of this, go to this post. You can see some of my more recent fuming about this little matter in this post.


November 5, 2009

I received a couple of comments from the folks over at LitList inviting me to take a look at their new layout. You can check it out here.

There’s apparently more to it than just a pretty face. I understand there have been some improvements to the coding and platform as well.

The number of listings (for short stories and poetry) is still comparatively small (compared to Duotrope’s Digest, that is). They’re still broken down between print and online publications (and I don’t see the point of that), and sorted alphabetically, but now you can specify whether you want only listings for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, art, or other.

The blog has also had some recent entries, and they’re eager for user input.

You might want to give them a look. The way I see it, if you find only one publication there that you hadn’t elsewhere, everyone wins.

Writer’s block

October 13, 2009

I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced writer’s block (and I hope I never do), but I don’t know the exact definition of the term, so maybe I am plagued with it and just keep writing because I don’t know any better. This Wikipedia article seems to do a good job of defining and describing the condition.

I say that I haven’t experienced writer’s block, but maybe I have. I can think of a couple of times in my writing efforts when the words didn’t come, and being “blocked” sounds a lot better than being “lazy.”

As part of a college program more than two decades ago, when I was a callow youth (is that redundant?), I undertook to write a whole novel in one semester. It was a young adult novel, and I still have fond memories of it (even if I no longer have a physical copy of it). But I do remember coming to a point where I didn’t know what to do next in the story telling. As I look back with my more experienced eyes I think it was a problem of not having “imagined” my story sufficiently at the time. I think I may have set my characters loose in a rough framework of a plot and then run into some problems filling out that plot. (I realize that some writers work this way — often work with even less structure and planning — but it sure doesn’t work for me!) I think it may also have been that I wasn’t sufficiently disciplined yet as a writer to muscle through the hard parts of writing. Perhaps, then, I truly was suffering from writer’s block, but I’ll leave that for you to diagnose.

In any case, I came up with a technique that helped me get over my block. I took all of my characters (from my young adult novel in progress) and wrote them as characters in a short story set in the American Old West; I made them cowboys and cowgirls. I didn’t magically transport modern characters to an “exotic” setting through some time travel device to watch them cope with a strange setting. I simply tried to write them as though they were characters of that time and place. Born, raised, and living there, as much a part of it as every other character inhabiting it. I’m not sure where this idea came from; I’d like to think I thought of it myself. (Let’s say I did, okay?) What it did for me, though, was to give me a fresh perspective about each character. I saw how they would react and behave in a different setting, and it seemed to energize my approach to them in the novel where I wanted them to be. That got me through the writer’s block and on my way again.

The second “incident” I suffered lasted many years. This is the one I attribute to laziness rather than creative failure. As I noted in an earlier post, about fifteen years had passed between the publication of my first short story and my second. I continued writing, though it was almost exclusively nonfiction. During that time I had more than sixty feature articles published in various newspapers and magazines, as a free lance. It was a heady time in my writing life, filled with the pride of accomplishment, and I was actually paid for some of it (!). What I wasn’t doing much of, however, was fiction writing. I think I may have poked around with some short stories that went nowhere (like the story that eventually became my novel-in-progress, The Sleep of Reason), and I may have even submitted a few, but I can clearly remember thinking “when I write my novel” and “I should write a story about that” and such. I was thinking about writing a lot more than I was actually writing. Was I blocked or was I lazy? (Or was I also a husband and father with young children and a mortgage and other responsibilities? This may be a large part of it since I am writing fiction furiously fast and frequently now and the nest happens to be empty.)

As I said at the start of this rambling post, I don’t seem to suffer much from writer’s block. I have so many stories in my head and in my notes that I’ll never lack for subject matter. And I think I have developed sufficient discipline to keep myself before the keyboard to do the sometimes tedious work of actually writing. And I think further, in some undefinable sense, my creative self has matured sufficiently to allow me to see my way through my fiction to get it done.

Several writer resources

October 6, 2009

Duotrope's Digest: search for short fiction & poetry markets

Regular readers of this humble blog (both of you) know that I am an advocate of the online writer’s resource Duotrope’s Digest. It is an aggregation of more than two thousand publications that accept submissions of poetry, short stories, novels, and other writing. The publications are organized in several ways: by genre, interest, length sought, payscale, whether they take electronic or paper submissions, and so on. Highly searchable, with sketch information about each (including reports of submission response times) and links to the actual publications. It’s really a wonderful resource, and the last couple of my works that have been accepted found their homes through here.

Duotrope’s Digest also provides a submission tracker linked to the sites it represents so that you can have a handy record of what you’ve submitted. You can record the submission date, the date you received a response, and whether or not your fine work was accepted. All of this is then added to the information already compiled about the publication. You have to register to use this function, but the publication search function is available to everyone.

I especially like the Deadline Calendar, which shows specific themes given publications are pursuing. This has helped me target my submissions.

Duotrope’s Digest is worth your time to explore. There’s a lot there. While it does not advertise, you are encouraged to make donations so they can keep the lights on. (I have.)

Litlist is a new outfit (since 2007) that does much the same work as Duotrope’s Digest. It doesn’t have nearly as many listings as Duotrope’s Digest — it’s clearly in its building phase — and they are, oddly, broken down by journals and online mags (plus publishers). I suppose the journals are print publications, but I don’t see much benefit in such a distinction. The lists aren’t searchable beyond being alphabetized. The search function is available to all visitors, but you must register to use the submission tracking function.

The site does run advertising, but it is not intrusive. The blog hasn’t been updated since February 2009. It’s been more than a year and a half since anyone has published a book review on the site. Assuming this site is still active, it seems to be more focused on attracting publications than writers, so its usefulness to those of us who scribble may improve in the months to come. only recently came to my attention. It has a search function that is at least as sophisticated as the one Duotrope’s Digest uses, but it doesn’t have a lot of publication listings yet (488 according to the site), so the refined searching isn’t doesn’t do much for you. Otherwise, you can manually click through alphabetized listings that are color coded to show things like how traditional or nontraditional the publication is; whether the site takes poetry, fiction, both, or neither (whatever that may be); and even if it is a print or ezine publication. Each listing includes a link to the publication’s website so you can get more information.

Update: I’ve broken the link to because it has been reported as an “attack site” by my security preferences. I don’t know what this means, whether the site has been the subject of an attack itself or that there is some malice about it or some other reason, but I’m not going to link to it until (if) it is cleared up.

*   *   *

The venerable Poets & Writers Magazine has an online presence that includes a searchable listing of publications that accept work from writers. This is open to non-registered users, and though the listings seem to be vast, the basic function is only searchable by poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction, which doesn’t help very much. Beyond that, the listings are sorted alphabetically. There is an Advanced Search function, but you have to scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the needlessly minute link to get there. Once there, you can search by publications that accept simultaneous submissions, electronic submissions, size of readership, percentage of unsolicited manuscripts published, and even the state and country where the publication is. When you get a listing you think you might like, it will give you the link to go to that publication’s actual website.

Their Classifieds listing might be more focused. These listings are purchased by publications seeking specific work, and if you read through them, you might find someone who is seeking a short story or novel exactly in the line of your fine work. The trouble is, you have to scroll through the whole list to find these nuggets.

Poets & Writers Magazine, even in its online presence, has a lot more to offer a serious writer, and it is worth your time to poke around a bit. I haven’t registered online with them, so there may be more resources there that I don’t know about. (I saw a link for podcasts, for example.) I know there is a discussion forum, and given the caliber of the articles I’ve seen, they seem to attract a more literary (rather than commercial or genre) crowd, so the discussions on the forum may be worthwhile.