Outline or no outline, Part Two

Here’s the “weird reason” I wound up writing The Story Store without outlining. To begin with, the title came to me in a dream.

In my dream, I was sitting across a desk from Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) in what I guess was her office. She put down a script of mine she was reading, turned to me and said, “This is pretty good. Did you write it?”

I got all snippy and replied, “No. I got it from the Story Store.”

Many people don’t know this: a question writers are often asked, is, “where do you get your ideas?” Writers sometimes answer, “why, where everyone else gets them. The Story Store,” or “the writers store,” “the idea shop,” or somewhere similar. It’s a gag, not a real place.

Still half-asleep, the story of The Story Store started to fill my head. I got up and wrote fifteen pages of notes. The next day, I wrote more notes. Alex, my main character, popped up in my head as if he’s always been there. Sara, Mr. Crumley, and Benedict the writer, they all just came to me, like unexpected but welcome guests.

I couldn’t NOT start writing it.

Still, it felt like driving at night with no headlights. I got nervous, especially on days when I couldn’t think of what to write next. I wrote endless notes, started two or three outlines, created timelines for my characters, and made lists of events as I thought of them.

Nothing worked.

Lacking an order for my events, I often wound up writing a scene, or several scenes, as separate documents. It was like designing my own jigsaw puzzle, but without having the complete picture. I’d decide where they were supposed to fit in later.

Some of them fit into the Recycle Bin.

But, in the end, I had a book, and a lot of outtakes for the director’s cut. And 35,000 words of notes.

The book I’ve started writing now – working title, “When We Dream, Where Do We Go?” – is beginning life as an outline. I’ll see how it goes.

Outline or no Outline?

Here’s what I know about outlines:

In television writing, I learned that outlines were a must. The episodes had to fit into a one hour or one half hour time slot, which meant about 49 minutes or 22 minutes of show exactly (It more like 44 or 18 minutes today).

The story editor or producer needs to know if the story you pitched that sounded so wonderful was actually going to work as an episode: you know, the three-act structure, beginning, middle, end, a cliffhanger act ending to bring your audience back after the commercials.

There is no way to tell if your story is going to fit without an outline that describes the “beats,” or events in each act. If one event in, say three of Act II is “the rebels destroy the Death Star,” it ain’t gonna fit.

Less obvious are things like, do your characters act and speak (outlines include a few dialog snippets) as they do in other episodes? Is there a main story–the “A” story–and a “B” story?

So, I always wrote an outline. As a story editor, I always read outlines carefully for the things that would tell me if a story was going to work or not.

The financial end of things is: if a story doesn’t work, the writer is “cut off at outline,” which means he doesn’t see the big payday that comes when he hands in the script. Saves the budget for stories that do work.

Writing non-fiction books, an outline was essential. The publishers want to see chapters and an outline. My books with Ted Pedersen were all method books: how to do stuff on the internet. They had to be simple, step-by-step descriptions of what to do first, second, third.

My solo book, The Rosenberg Espionage Case, (in the Famous Trials series) was history. First this happened, then this happened. While this was going on here, this was happening over there. Outline a necessity.

Despite my very long experience in writing an outline, for some weird reason, I decided to write ‘The Story Store,’ my first (not-yet-published) novel, without an outline.

I’ll tell you how that worked next time.

What To Do When the Well Runs Dry

If writing were easy, everyone would be doing it. So, even though it’s like working out at the gym or running (the more you do it, the more you can do), each day can be a new challenge, a new test of your commitment and skills.

Some days it just ain’t happening. You get up early (or whenever your writing time is—did I mention you need to have a regular time to write?), sit down, crank up the computer, and… nothing. You’re tempted to Facebook, read email, clean your desk.
Resist the temptation.
Write. Write something else.
if you’ve hit a dry spell in your current novel, start making notes on your next one. More than once, I’ve found that writing down ideas for my next book (working title: “The Dreamers”) somehow, magically, generates ideas for my current one. Even if that doesn’t happen, you’re not wasting your valuable, never-to-be-retrieved, writing time. You’re creating not just a book (or poem, or short story or screenplay), you’re creating a career.
Too many would-be writers I’ve met pour their hearts and souls into their one project, then, if they finish it, spend all their time trying to get it read and published. It’s as if they only have one idea, and they’re stuck on it.
That’s not how you create a writing career.
Sometimes I feel like making notes, or even writing a chapter in my “next” book is just a way of putting off writing my current one. I worry that I’ve run out of ideas. Maybe yes, maybe no. What I do know is, writing is better than pissing away time not writing.

On Writing Every Day, continued

The more you sit at your writing place every day, the easier it gets. It’s like doing pushups: it’s hard when you start, but those flabby muscles get stronger.

After a while you can start setting goals: so many words per day is the one I use. Choose a number just a little outside your comfort zone. If you can write 250 words per day, go for 500 WPD. If 500 seems easy, kick it up to 1,000.

Don’t expect to meet that goal every day; even when you’re in the zone, with words pouring out, it can come to a screeching halt. The flow can shrink to a trickle, or dry up.

Resist the urge to quit. Don’t do the email or Solitaire or YouTube.

Writers have dealt with dry spells in different ways. Somerset Maugham typed his name over and over: W. Somerset Maugham W. Somerset Maugham W. Somerset Maugham. Sportswriter Red Smith was asked if it was hard to turn out a daily column. He replied, “Why, no. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

When I was writing for television, I knew there was a paycheck waiting when I handed in my assignment. And possibly, another assignment. Great motivation. I have no such paycheck waiting now. And some days, I cannot get to my goal. I’ll talk about how to deal with this in future tips.

Write Every Day

Write every day. I know, I promised not to say what a million other writers say, but this is important; maybe the most important tip.

And, unless you’re going through this, or have done it, you cannot begin to imagine how hard it is to follow through. Let’s go through the steps to see how to get started.

“I don’t feel like it today,” is your worst enemy. The best, and maybe only way to even begin to deal with that monster is to set a regular time every day for writing, maybe an hour or two in the morning. If you go to work early, have kids to get to school or other tasks, make it an hour or two at night.

There will be many writing times when you stare at the screen, not writing. Or play solitaire, or read email, not writing. Or do anything but write.

Sit at your computer for your prescribed hours anyway.

Allow yourself one game of Solitaire, or ten minutes of email reading if you must. But that’s it.

How to write writing tips

Here are some typical writer topics:

  1. Write what you know
  2. Write every day
  3. Best markets for writing
  4. Hot topics
  5. Dealing with writer’s block
  6. How to find an agent
  7. How to find a publisher

I won’t be discussing any of those.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of websites dealing with those topics. I’m sure some of them have good advice.

What I want to write about is the day-to-day challenges (and occasional triumph—wahoo!) I’m facing in writing my first novel, The Story Store.

To be sure, I’ve got a leg up over some of my audience. I’ve written a couple hundred thousand words of fiction (TV) and non-fiction (books), so your struggles and mine might be different.

In that regard, I welcome readers to ask questions. If I don’t know the answer, I won’t bullshit you. If I have an answer you don’t like, tell me so. Very little of this is fact, it’s opinion based on experience. Your mileage, or that of other writers, may differ.

My first tip: don’t spend too much time reading what other writers say.