Friday, April 27, 2012

Don't Call it Outlining

The term "outlining" can be a major turnoff to many writers faced with beginning a new project. Frequently, we still remember (with a sour stomach) the process teachers made us go through when we started a new chapter in our history books. Roman numerals, upper case letters, lower case letters, numbers, etc.

Putting down on paper exactly what is to appear in a book is an absolute necessity, whether a writer is planning a work of fiction or non-fiction. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways this can be done.

Traditional Outline. If a writer rather enjoys mapping out a plot using roman numerals, upper and lower case letters, numbers, etc. then she should use that method to outline her book.

Chapter Summaries. Using chapter summaries to structure projects is very easy. The writer simply sums up all the action or information which is to occur in each chapter. It's a great way to set up a guide, and brief summaries are very easy to follow when writing the first draft of a book.

Storyboards. Index cards used to storyboard a novel or a work of non-fiction can be very helpful in laying out scenes in fiction or presenting information in non-fiction. Whether the writer tacks the cards to a wall or lays them out on a table, they're easy to see all at once which makes them very handy in determining the order of the action or presentation of information in a book.

Scene Synopsis. One of the best ways to layout the plot of a novel is by using scene synopses. In writing a synopsis for a scene the author jots down the character goal, notes the point of view character, lists the people on stage, summarizes the action, and adds a new goal at the end of the scene. Scene synopses are especially useful to the author who wants to know his story as intricately as possible before writing the first draft.

Chronology. In fiction, a writer would use scene synopses to lay out a plot according to the sequence best suited to the story. In non-fiction, a writer determines the chronology of events in a way that best serves his thesis.

Fiction or non-fiction, a writer needs to have a guide for the layout of her book--an outline. Without properly structuring her book a writer risks being tasked with fixing many problems which could have been remedied before she began the first draft if only she'd have taken the time to outline her book. Having to fix problems after the first draft is completed is a lot more complicated than fixing them before it's begun.

No one ever said everything about writing is fun...


Fran Shaff
Fran's Web Page

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Getting Ideas

The number one question authors are asked is, "Where do you get your ideas?"

Authors know ideas come from everywhere--newspapers, television shows, personal problems, nature videos, friends' dilemmas, magazines, taking a walk through the park, billboards, dreams, books, observing people in the mall, state fairs, traveling. Truly, an idea can strike at any time.

However, not all ideas are worthy ideas--that is, ideas which can be turned into good books.

For example, suppose an author reads a story in a newspaper about a man who comes out of a coma after three months and is able to return to his normal life like nothing happened. This is a terrific news story with lots of human interest, but it isn't a story idea which would translate well into a novel.

However, that doesn't mean this idea should be outright rejected. Instead, an author could expand upon the news story so she could turn the idea into something more promising. Let's give it a try...

What if the man came out of the coma, and he didn't know who he was? Now we have a better story, but it still isn't enough to make the idea worthy of a novel so we'll have to put our imaginations to work and see if we can come up with something more.

What if the amnesiac was a drug dealer who was late delivering a shipment?

What if he was a family man, and his wife didn't know he was involved in anything illegal, and, when the wife claimed him as her husband and he went home with her, convinced he was who she said he was, he thought he must be some Average Joe who worked at a bank (his cover) and had a nice family and a peaceful life?

And what if he got a visit from the woman to whom he was to deliver the drugs, the woman who'd been his lover?

And she threatened his family, his job at the bank and his life if he didn't deliver the drugs--drugs he knew nothing about, only the woman didn't believe he had amnesia? After all, he'd been lying to his wife for years...

And, since readers have to care about this man, what if he believed he was in his heart of hearts the wonderful father and husband his wife said he was, and he chose to be that man, was willing to do whatever it took to redeem himself--but the people from his previous life of criminal activity would in no way let him become the caring family man he wanted to be?

Now we have an idea which can be developed into a novel, but we're still a LONG way from writing the first draft and an even longer way from proving our idea has become something worthy of being read.

Getting ideas for stories is the easy part, probably the easiest part of writing a novel. It's everything that comes after getting an idea that is difficult.


Fran Shaff
Fran's Web Page

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Readers Choice

Have you noticed the increase in the variety of fiction that is available to readers now?

The advent of the e-book has brought readers dozens of new publishers with hundreds of new writers. In addition, authors can now easily publish independently, giving readers even more variety in the books available for them to read.

Electronic publishing has been a good thing for just about everybody. In fact, the only folks who might be hurt by it are the publishing companies who choose to cling to publishing only print editions when readers are clamoring for more electronic books.

As a writer who was first published in hardcover more than ten years ago when e-books were in their infancy, I am terribly excited about the e-book explosion of the past two years.

We writers no longer have to stick to New York publishers' guidelines if we want to publish our books. We can, instead, write our book the way we want to write it.

Many smaller publishers who specialize in e-books and print on demand seek unusually written stories, different from what big publishing houses deem publishable.

And, of course, there is independent publishing which allows writers to write what they want the way they want and even publish it as they want.

Readers always do the choosing.

They vote for which books and which authors they want to read.

Now more than ever, there is true democracy in the publishing business because no narrow group of publishers is determining what is available for readers to read.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds of small publishers, and thousands of writers are making tens of thousands of books available to readers which they never would have had the chance to read a decade ago, or even five years ago.

And isn't this exciting!

As a reader, I love the variety of books available to me. As a writer, I love the freedom of having a wide-open field as to the kind of books I can publish.

Viva e-books! Long may they live.


Fran Shaff
Fran's Webpage

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Hilda's US State Capital Visits

Hilda, a woman I once knew, prided herself on having visited all the capital cities of the 48 contiguous US states. She explained she'd never visited the capitol buildings themselves because she had a fear of government, technically known as “taxaphobia,” but she had at least entered the cities and patronized a McDonald’s or Pizza Hut located there.

During our discussion of her journeys, she pointed out that two state capitals, Columbia, South Carolina and Columbus, Ohio were named for the Italian explorer who discovered the “New World,” Christopher something or another.

Three capital cities, she noted, are French--Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Des Moines, Iowa and Pierre, South Dakota. However, she added, she found no one who understood French in Des Moines and no one who didn’t refer to Pierre as “Peer” in South Dakota.

Hilda went on to explain that the two Spanish-named capitals of Sacramento, California and Santa Fe, New Mexico are Christian names along with St. Paul, Minnesota.

Helena, Montana and Augusta, Maine are named for women, Hilda told me.

Jackson, Mississippi, Jefferson City, Missouri, Madison, Wisconsin, and Lincoln, Nebraska are named for US presidents, but Denver, Colorado, Hilda pointed out, was named after John Denver, the famous country-rock singer of the 60’s and 70’s.

That Denver remark caught my attention as my mind had begun to drift off during her dissertation.

Colorado’s capital city was named for a man who didn’t even exist when Colorado became a state? What was next? Was she going to tell me Mayberry was the capital of North Carolina?

Hilda said her favorite state capital of all was Chicago, Illinois. She loved Lake Shore Drive, the Museum of Science and Industry, Wrigley Field, the Art Institute, State Street, the Sears Tower and McCormick Place. She said she loved to spend the day meandering through the Lincoln Park Zoo from the hour it opened until the minute it closed.

Hilda’s favorite part of her visit to the Windy City was a cruise on Lake Michigan after sunset. The city was alive with lights flickering, flashing and bouncing off the waves of the Great Lake. She sighed as she reflected on her fond memories.

“That sounds lovely,” I responded to Hilda’s Chicago travelogue, “but I’m afraid the capital of Illinois is Springfield.”

Highly insulted by my correcting her, Hilda’s temper flared. “Have you visited all the state capitals, Mrs. Know-It-All?”

I shook my head. After all I had never even visited my own state capital. I’m taxaphobic too.

“Then don’t try to tell me Chicago is not the capital of Illinois,” Hilda replied smugly. “Chicago is just as much the capital of Illinois as Spokane is the capital of Oregon and Albany is the capital of New Jersey and Montpelier is the capital of New Hampshire and Bangor is the capital of Massachusetts.”

It seemed there was no arguing with a woman as astute as Hilda was. I simply shrugged and issued a smile. “When you’re right," I said, "you’re right.”

I hope your Easter is a wonderful one.


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author