Tuesday, February 26, 2013

How I Outline, Guest Post #2: Derrick Camardo

The purpose of this series is to debunk some of the mystery, myth, and frustration behind the concept of outlining. No two people outline the same way and there is no one right method to outlining.

I want to welcome fellow AQCer and writer, Derrick Camardo to Yesternight's Voyage today. Here's his outlining process:

The Premise

I start with a premise. I have a dozen of these bouncing around in my head at one time. Some are inspired by dreams. Some are brainstormed. Some just pop up in the old cranium. Most of these ideas have no characters or setting or anything that actually make up a cohesive story.

This means I have to do a lot of outlining to even get to a stage where I can begin writing. So I start asking myself these questions:

What kind of person would make this premise happen? What do they want?

How does this premise happen?

Depending on the idea I'm developing, questions may vary, but these are the basics.

The Heart

Once these questions are answered, I outline what I call the "heart" of the story. I've heard other authors refer to the heart of their story as something different than what I call it. So let me explain this. To me, the heart of the story is the epitome of the premise. It is the utter essence of what this idea that had been bouncing around in my head is all about. If I told people what my book was about in one sentence, and they flipped to the heart of my book they should say, "Yep. That's about what I would expect."

The heart could be a scene or a series of scenes. It does not have to be the climax. The heart is formed from the raw premise and the questions of the who, how, and where.

The next two questions form the rest of a vague outline:

What leads to the heart?

Where does the heart lead?

In those two questions, supporting characters, villains, and events are formed. But events can be vague. There are plenty of times where I come to an event that just says, "The good guy wins." So at that moment I have to use what I've written up to that point and how I want to end the book as guides to how the event plays out in detail.

The Voice

After this vague outline forms itself around the heart, I write the first few pages. This is to get the voice. I have found it very difficult to edit in a better voice after an entire manuscript is written. Nowadays, I write the first few pages and bounce that off my critique partners/beta readers just to see if the voice works.

When I get the green light that the voice is working, I write through what is outlined. As I write through the early scenes, I start to make the vague scenes that happen later more and more detailed.

The Hook

Once I have about 5,000 words written with a clear enough outline and an established voice, I write the hook. That's right. The hook as in the hook. Of the query. Which will eventually be sent to agents. After my first two manuscripts, which I really wrote for me, I told myself I wouldn't write a book I couldn't sell easily.

The Timeline

An important thing to address while outlining is timeline. This is especially important while writing contemporary fiction. In fantasy, a lot of times people just leave their old life behind to go on an adventure. With contemporary, that usually isn't the case. People have jobs. They go to school. They have special clubs they belong to.

I initially don't worry about the timeline when I first start writing, but then as I flesh out more of the details, days of the week become important. I will then go back and figure out what chapters happened on what days. Tweaking might be necessary.

For instance, I have a character who attends chess club one day out of the week. When I realized this, I was maybe 16 chapters in. So I had to go back and find what day of the week he was least visible. I picked the least frequented day. Then, wrote him out of the ones he happened to be in, or changed the day, which changed the timeline.

In two of my manuscripts, I had specific events occuring on specific days of the year. In one case, I had the outline detailed enough to write to that end as I went along. In another case, I have the following written in my outline: "At this point, go back and write in the weather." Because I don't know how long it will take me to get to that specific day, I'm instead letting that happen organically and once I get there, I will follow the timeline backwards to figure out what the seasons were during previous chapters.

Thank you, Derrick! You can find out more about him on his website or follow him on Twitter.

For more posts on outlining see:
Outlining: The Simple Version
Jumping the Tracks

How I Outline, Guest Post #1: Darke Conteur

If you would like to share your method or reasons for outlining in a guest blogpost, send an email to joycealton at ymail.com

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Guest Post by Ian Isaro: What Makes Epic Fantasy Tick

Welcome to today's guest blogger, Ian Isaro! I asked Ian to write a post about what makes epic fantasy work because he's read more of it than anyone else I know. Pretty good qualifications. Ian is the author of the Sorcery and Scholarships series. You can find him writing about fantasy on his blog.
Thanks again, Ian, for letting me put you on the spot. And here he is:

"Grand Prelate! The Sylvans are fording the Turvlebip River! The Thoris Mage has the Staff of Ghrblgk and is bringing down the Great Wall!"

"By the curly beard of Bupkis the Terrible!" Al'thir'evaeael cursed.

At least some of you think of this kind of thing when you think about epic fantasy. That example is somewhat over the top, but only somewhat. These are the doorstopper novels that have thousands of characters with a few dozen invented languages and can span decades.

I was asked to write about what makes epic fantasy tick, so I'm not going to worry too much about an exact definition of epic fantasy. A proper definition wouldn't necessarily match the above stereotypes and there's variety even within the subgenre. Instead, I'm going to focus on the five factors that I think make epic fantasy work: scope, immersion, depth, stakes, and earned endings.


I realized how much scope matters to me while reading Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. Ten books totaling over three million words - what matters isn't the length, but what that many words allows the series to do.

In the last book, there's a conversation where two characters discuss the state of reality, and there are even more names dropped than in my example. Except by that point, you know every single name - not only that, you've read entire novels about each one. The dozen different conflicts mentioned aren't just some throwaway world building, each is a place you know with characters you've walked with throughout the series. It brought home that this is truly a conflict for reality.

Scope also gives us variety and diversity. Some series pretend to be about a "world" but it's really just medieval Europe spread across a larger area. Scope isn't a million league kingdoms or billion soldier armies, it's all the details that give a better sense of size than simple numbers can. Good epic fantasy gives multiple continents, races, cultures, or conflicts. It doesn't shy away from personal problems and smaller issues, but it includes them as part of a living, breathing world.


This brings us to immersion, which is one of the central appeals of epic fantasy. Others have already written about how it brings readers back, so I'll try to focus on other aspects. Immersion is when the setting isn't just a vehicle for the author's ideas, but a fully-realized entity that has more to offer than what's on the surface. This perhaps more than anything is what draws readers into worlds and keeps them there.

It's Tolkien's complete languages. Wheel of Time's two thousand characters. The edges of Robin Hobb's maps. It's the promise that "Grand Prelate" isn't just a random title for yet another interchangeable authority figure, but reflects a culture and system that will continue strengthen to the story.

Immersion also allows for very satisfying payoffs. Because epic fantasy typically has more worldbuilding, you can afford to place all kinds of Chekov's guns on many different mantles. By the end of even the first book of an epic, readers are familiar with a wide variety of characters, places, forces, and all manner of elements that can be thrown together without the need for any more setup. Sanderson always does this, putting pieces in place for 75% of a book and then setting off a cascade of events that sweeps through the ending.

Epics stand far away from the problem of too-tidy stories, where absolutely everything seems to exist only to serve a role in the plot and tie things up with a neat little bow. Most of them err in the opposite direction, but it's the breadth of the world that gets readers to commit, since it reflects the messiness of reality and hence has the feel of a "real" story instead of a parable or fable.


Not to imply that other kinds of fiction don't have depth, but the size of epic fantasy allows it to do different things. The beauty of a short story is that it focuses entirely on one thing. By contrast, the strength of epic fantasy is that it can be about many things, and weave different themes together over a long period of time.

Length allows for subtlety, themes sneaking up on you, getting beneath your defenses against obvious Messages and Morals. Instead of characters dramatically turning from good to evil, they can slide slowly, reflecting all the shades of grey in the real world and forcing you to think seriously about the issues at hand.

The length of epic fantasy lets characters breathe, experiencing a wide variety of emotions and life circumstances. No one has to be the Coward or the Hero, but can display both heroism and cowardice at different times, closer to the diversity seen in human beings.


Perhaps the most important difference between epic fantasy and other subgenres is that in epics something critical must be at stake. All too often this is the fate of the world, but it goes deeper than that. Epic fantasy is about the world changing.

Lord of the Rings is a good example. It's about the passing of an age, old powers fading, technology gaining strength. It isn't a story where the villain is defeated and the status quo is restored, but one where nothing will ever be the same. Deeper, it's a story about the rejection of dominance as the only path to peace - several characters could have taken the Ring and won, but at the cost of their souls.

The Earthsea series reflects another important side of epic fantasy. All of it could fit into one novel of many other series, but the stakes are no less important. It's about the shifting of paradigms, first personal realities and eventually spiritual realities that profoundly affect everything.

Earned Endings

This awkwardly-named section is one that I don't see mentioned often, but I think is an underappreciated strength of epic fantasy. There are many things that might feel hollow or false in a shorter story that can be accomplished in a longer series.

Let's take a simple example of power: a naive farmboy becoming a mighty swordsman. In fairy tales, he gets a magic sword and that's the end of it. Some short fantasy has the equivalent of a training montage and then he's a master. Epic fantasy lets you see him grow and develop over time, so that when he does become a swordsman, it isn't arbitrarily granted power that doesn't matter.

This is a better match to reality than stories where doing something significant takes minimal time and effort. You cannot become a doctor after a week training with a wise old master dispensing cryptic sayings. A successful business doesn't follow a simple rising action, climax, denouement pattern. And as all the writers reading this know, you don't become abruptly published after a sad flashback to your childhood unlocks the author within your soul.

Stories that offer easy paths to the top may appeal to us, but only as fantasies because we know the real world doesn't work that way. Either the successes in those stories ring false, or we absorb a harmfully inaccurate view of work and success. Epic fantasy has the opportunity to model a more realistic path to anything meaningful.

Skills are the clearest example, but there are other things that can be earned as well. A short story can capture the feeling of the horror of war, but getting across the grinding devastation takes more time (Deadhouse Gates, anyone?). Politics don't have to be over-simplified and more complex solutions can be included. Relationships are more authentic when we see the characters grow over time. Not everything needs to be earned, but in the categories where that' s necessary, epics have additional weight.

Looking back, this post is a little scattered. Perhaps that's appropriate: epic fantasy isn't about just one thing, it's vignettes and character studies and detours that together form stories that can truly be called epic.

Many of you may be thinking of epic fantasy that doesn't meet these ideals, and that's true. There have been series that are just the Armies of Good defeating the Armies of Evil - merely taking a long time to do it. But those are imitations, capturing the form of an epic but not the substance. It's the series that take advantage of the strengths of epic fantasy that will be remembered.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Fulfilling Your Promises to the Reader

Ever had a favorite TV show that didn’t pan out in the end? I have, a couple of times. In many cases this is because ratings went down and the production company decides it’s time to wrap things up, so the screenwriters slap something together. That’s typical. But what about a series that was planned from the start, the producers knew it would go on for X number of seasons and then it would end? You’d think they’d be better at keeping their ducks in a row. Not always.

A very much enjoyed show jilted me in the end, as a viewer. Every season they built up expectations that the two main characters had this great destiny and would change the course of the world. All the characters’ hopes built on that, every episode plot arc made sure to make mention of this fact. Decisions were based on it, lives changed. Then we got to the final season, tension building, the climax happening, and…the pivotal main character died. And the other main character faded into the shadows. There was a brief, well-the-world-went-on scene with a secondary character taking the helm. So disappointed. In fact, I felt lied to. The writers not only dropped the ball, they ran over it with a steam-roller.

The same thing has been known to happen in fiction. A writer writes a book that is then built into a series. Now, if the story wasn’t originally intended to be more than one book, the writer has something of a problem, which we can talk about another time. On the other hand, if the writer intended a series all along, they have to make sure they don’t disappoint the reader.

In an epic series, no matter the genre, there is a main story arc. This is the epic problem for the length of the series. It’s introduced in the first book, but not resolved until the last. Each volume of the series should have individual arcs that are spawned from or interact with the main problem, each volume having a sense of resolution at the end.

I’ve picked up a series, been intrigued by the overall arc to have to read each book in the series. It’s the glue that holds my interest, even if it seems to take ages to get to, or I don’t care about the individual arc of a particular volume in the series. A good main arc will do that. Writers should take care that the individual arcs are just as good and engaging, that the writer isn’t stringing readers along for the sake of producing more books.

Reader expectations need to be a consideration, especially when the writer is the one who set the bar and created those expectations. If a main character is destined to be king, they should end up as king. If someone is haunted by a horrible past, we expect to see reactions, situations, and problems arise from that past. Each volume in a series should be tight, propelling the reader toward that main arc’s resolution. It’s okay to have a twist or two, which alters the main arc’s expectations, but not at the last minute because the writer wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t figure out how to get out, or because he got tired of writing the series or about those characters.
Going back to the TV show scenario, in a recent interview the producers of the show said they had their ending figured out early on and knew the main character would die and be succeeded by the secondary character. While it may have been an attempt to assuage angry fans, I think it fanned the flames. Why? Because while yes, they did build up the secondary character to be a believable successor for the main character, they still continued to ply the audience with promises of a great future for the two main characters. Huge mistake. If a major change was in order, they needed to stop making those promises and show how decisions and events were altering the main arc.

Probably the best way to examine a main plot arc and make sure that each volume in a series is pulling its weight is to do a simple outline. Make a note next to each volume’s summary as to how it moves the main arc forward or changes it. Lay the groundwork for changes so they don’t come off as convenient escapes for the writer. Make sure you have enough material to cover your projected number of books in the series. If not, trim the number down. And above all, make sure you’re not going to disappoint your audience with your ending. The ending in a series should still be a contrast and a reflection on the beginning of the series.

Writers who have planned for these things tend to have happier readers. Now if we could get more TV producers and screenwriters to do the same…

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

How I Outline, Guest Post #1: Dark Conteur

The purpose of this series is to debunk some of the mystery, myth, and frustration behind the concept of outlining. No two people outline the same way and there is no one right method to outlining.

I'm happy to welcome Darke Conteur, author of the Watchtower Series, to Yesternight's Voyage today. Here is her outline process:

When Joyce put out the call for authors to share their writing process, I couldn't resist. I hear about many new writers becoming frustrated at how to structure their story, and I thought I would share some tricks of mine.

First off, I don't adhere to the 'plotter or pantser' mentality. The first draft of a story is just that, a first draft and if I want to wander off and see where an unknown path takes me, that's fine. I'll wander all over the place, but in my opinion, when it comes down to revisions and the final edits, I NEED an outline.

1. Outline the Entire Story: Whether it's in my head, or carefully written down, I need to understand the beginning, middle and ending in order to know where my story is going. Here's where I wander; where I flesh out a plot line and see where it takes me. Even if I don't know anything past the beginning, I just write stuff down. Many times wandering allows me to discover potential plot lines that help form a more coherent storyline. New characters show up or old ones disappear. Even if it doesn't make sense or is even relevant to the main plot, I follow it. There are important details that there might be overlooked and who knows, I might be able to fit it all in. Also, I never throw away or delete anything. Even if it can't go into my books, I need that information.

2. Outline Each Book: Here's where the fun begins and I really need to pay attention. When you're writing a serial, you have to balance several story arcs in the air, so the trick is to figure out what can be mentioned per book, and what can't. Do I reveal something traumatic in a middle chapter in book two, or the beginning of book three? How does it blend in with the rest of the chapters? How does the story flow? Am I going to have enough story to encompass the amount of books I want to write? That last question is the hardest. Don't add fodder to your story just to stretch it out. Backstory and info-dumps are permitted, but I use them sparingly. You don't need several pages of info-dump. Just a few paragraphs will do.

3.Outline Each Chapter: I find this a very important step. What do I want to accomplish with this chapter? What will happen to the characters? What's the dialogue like? Any danger? What about conflict? I need to have a very good understanding of each chapter before I write. During the first draft, I let my imagination wander, but for the final revisions, I set a word goal of roughly 4k, but that's just because I prefer short chapters.

And finally,

4. Outline Each Scene: This is not for everyone, and it's a little quirk I picked up. I'm a visual writer. I picture the scene before I write. When I start a new scene, I take some time and picture the background, how the characters move and where, the dialogue, all of it. It's also known as daydreaming. I've caught myself daydreaming for thirty minutes or more. Heck, for one future series, I took to my bed for four days (after I got Sithboy ready for school), just visualizing scenes! This is handy for action scenes.

So that's it. I'm sorry to say there are no big secrets here. Just a lot of determination. Good luck!

For more posts on outlining see:
Outlining: The Simple Version
Jumping the Tracks

If you would like to share your method or reasons for outlining in a guest blogpost, send an email to joycealton at ymail.com