When You’ve Lost the Thread

It’s been a while since I’ve written about writing, mostly because I’ve found a system for fast-draft writing that has worked with my ADHD. I used my system for seven novels and I’ve been comfortable with the results. I have never been a detailed outliner. I work from a scene list and character goal-motivation and conflict sheets and let my story evolve organically within that framework. I typically draft a 60-65K novel in four to six weeks and then spend three to four weeks revising and editing my draft before submitting it.
Trusting in my system, I used it with my current project, a novella-length paranormal romance with dual points of view. With this project, because I needed to attend to two character’s points of view, along with paranormal conventions, I’ve been feeling my way along the story, and it was going well, slowly, but well.
And then I needed to take some time after my brother-in-law’s death. I set my story aside for three weeks, and when I started working on my novella again, I was lost. I couldn’t remember what I had written, or where I was going in the story.
Because my way of working falls somewhere between a painter and a plotter I used a technique that is a routine part of my revision process, I printed out what I had written and reverse outlined the story as a way of figuring out what I needed to do to complete my draft.
After reviewing my outline I know I need to write six more scenes to finish my first draft and have about 13K words to complete those scenes and stay within my word count limit.
What is a reverse outline? It involves reading what you’ve written and then creating an outline from that document. It can be detailed or brief as it fits your style. For me, it’s a one-sentence description of what happens in each scene.
I don’t stop to edit my work. I merely outline my story as it stands. After I have completed the outline I read over it to assess if my scenes flow as they should, that my story beats are where they should be, and in this case that I’ve given equal time to each character’s point of view. I use highlighters to tag types of scenes and transitions.
It is the simplest way I’ve found to check structure and beats, and if you have lost your way, it is a road map back to your central story and ensures that critical elements of your novel are not missing. If you struggle with plotting and structure, try adding a reverse outline to your routine revision process.
This time a reverse outline was a way of finding my way back to writing after a family tragedy, and another step toward preventing my grief from keeping my words bottled up.
Will a reverse outline work for everyone? Nope. If you are detailed outliner and are able to stick to your outline religiously, it might be redundant, as a plotser (panter+plotter) it is essential for me. Try it the next time you’re stuck and take advantage of a simple way to assess your story structure.

Brenda Murphy writes short fiction and novels. She loves tattoos and sideshows and yes, those are her monkeys.  When she is not loitering at her local tea shop and writing, she wrangles two kids, one dog, and an unrepentant parrot.  She reviews books, blogs about life as a writer with ADHD and publishes photographs on her blog Writing While Distracted. You can find her on Facebook by clicking here.  Sign Up for her email list here  www.brendalmurphy.com

Books available at

Amazon 

NineStar Press

Knotted Legacy

Both Ends of the Whip

ONE  

Sum of the Whole 

Dominique and Other Stories 

 

The Deep End of the Pool

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My kids have been swimming in this pool since they were twelve months old.  The first time we came to visit their grandparents we would all take turns with them in the water. We used tiny life jacket and floats to help them learn to navigate the pool.  Back home we spent hours at the YMCA pool with swim classes and family swim time. Beside the fact that I think that everyone should know how to swim as a matter of personal safety,  I wanted my kids to be comfortable in the water. Notice I said comfortable not cocky. I wanted them to respect the process of swimming and to understand that not everything in life can be “hacked”.

Work, practice, and more work are the keys to getting better and experiencing success at anything. And work means that, doing the thing you want to be better at, swimming, cooking, writing, whatever,  not reading about it, or talking about the thing. You have to do the thing. Short cuts are for road trips, not skills. There is no substitute for time and practice.

 I am constantly amazed by the people I meet who expect overnight success as a writer. Writing, just like swimming requires time and commitment and overcoming your fear. Submitting a  short story, or poem, or novel, or play, or whatever it is that you write is like jumping into the deep end of the pool.  

 Don’t expect the first time you submit your work to go smoothly.  You will freak out and stew and worry before you press the send button or drop the package in the mail.  You will most likely be rejected and flail and struggle to get to yourself to submit again. Don’t quit, be fearless, jump in with both feet, honor the process of learning and practice.  

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Do the work, hit the send button, then get back to work so you can jump again.

Alisse Waterston: Making Theory Accessible with Intimate Ethnography

This is my sixth post in my Year of Women’s Voices blog
series, and features my review of Alisse Waterston’s ethnography My Father’s
Wars: Migration, Memory and the Violence of a Century 
(2014).  In this intimate ethnography of her father, Dr. Waterston
has written a frank portrayal of her father as a man, a survivor, a soldier, an
entrepreneur, husband, and father.  Her
writing honors her father without maudlin sentiment.  She frames her father’s lived experiences
with migration and violence, and uses his experiences to illustrate social
theory in a way that makes it accessible for non-academics.
Her writing is crisp, clear, and rich with detail. She
chooses a concise series of her father’s life events that create a reading
experience that is informative, and moving. The reading experience is enhanced by the companion website that
contains photographs, documents, audio files, and videos of her interviews with
her father as she worked on this ethnography. The book becomes a much more intimate experience through watching the
interactions between Dr. Waterston and her father, observing their body language, and listening to their voices.
 As a writer I appreciate Dr. Waterston’s explanation of her
struggles in her dual roles as daughter and ethnographer, and her process of
conducting research. I truly appreciated her discussion of the discipline it
took to not be distracted by the numerous ideas for other projects that called
to her during this project, especially when the experience of the project
became difficult.
If you are interested in ethnographic studies, social
theory, history, Judaic studies, anthropology, or if you are looking for an
extremely readable book that might help you understand how the experience of
violence shapes lives, this is the book I would hand you.
 What I have learned as a writer:
  1.    It is okay to include yourself in the story.
  2.    Stick with the project even when it is hard, or
    other projects beckon seductively from your research.
  3.   It is possible
    to portray unflattering behaviors in a way that is not overly sympathetic, nor  vindictive.
  4.  Multimedia
    can make a non-fiction project a richer experience, and allows the writer to
    include    research material that would be otherwise not be available.
  5.   Write the story that is hard to write, be
    fearless.
  6.    Don’t be trapped by conventions of disciplines
    or genre.
 I am grateful that
Dr. Waterston has created a work that is compelling, and readable on a subject
that is difficult to read about. When
confronted with violence, most of us want to turn away, to shield our eyes and our minds from horrific events. Dr. Waterston reminds us that even if we
want to look away, we must not, we need to understand.
For a biography and more information about Alisse Waterston and her other books, this is the link to My Father’s Wars website and this is the link to Dr. Waterston’s home page

 

 

The Lush World of N. K. Jemisin: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I love N. K. Jemisin’s  The Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods).  If you like speculative fiction I can not recommend this series enough. Even if you think you don’t like speculative fiction you should read this for the sheer joy of reading a story that is so well written. I first came across N. K. Jemisin’s  writing through a short story collection Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories (2011).  Her short story “The Effulent Engine” featured strong, intelligent women, and I was hooked.

As a reader I love stories that pull me deep into the character’s world. Ms. Jemisin creates a world that is rich with conflict, full of complex characters coping with cultural beliefs, manipulation, grief, oppression, murder, betrayal, and love.

The environment that the characters live, love, and die in is essential to good story telling. So many speculative writers lose focus when it comes to the world their characters live in, taking short cuts,  they end up creating a cardboard world. That is not the case here. Ms. Jemisin creates a world that is original, enchanting, and essential to the the story. Her writing is tight, focused, and a pleasure to read, the writing never distracts from the story.

As a writer this is what I have learned from reading N. K. Jemisin:

1. Main characters come in all genders, shapes and sizes.
2. Create your own world, make it real, make it sing to your readers souls.
3. Speculative fiction is custom made to explore complex issues.
4. Write tight, make every word count.
5. Weave environment and culture into your story.

 

 

 

Powerful and Evocative: Octavia Butler

 

Give me the thorns…

It was 1981 when I discovered Octavia Butler’s fiction.  I fell hard, reading everything that I could find that she had written.  As an long time fan of Science Fiction/Fantasy, I craved stories that featured women as more than objectified window dressing. Octavia Butler’s writing is populated with women who are intelligent, strong, survivors, and creators.   Her writing is evocative and powerful. Crisp and clear, her pacing forces you to read on, long after you should have turned off the light.

Octavia Butler was not afraid to write about pain, death, rape, slavery, the future, sexual violence, power dynamics, and racism. The difficult topics that so many writers look away from, or gloss over in their work, she featured front and center in her stories.  Her writing pulls you close, and forces you to keep reading, even when part of you wants to look away. Her language is intoxicating. Her voice draws you into her world, and everything else falls away. Be warned: Ms. Butler will make you think about things you might not want to think about.

My favorite books/stories are:

1. Blood Child- (Blood Child and other Stories, 1995)  Insects, male pregnancy, power dynamics and love.  This story won both the HUGO and the Nebula award. It was the first of her works I read, and the one I go back to when I need a fix.

2. Fledgling (2005) Vampires, Race, and Society.  A welcome twist on the vampire motif. No sparkly vampires here!

3. Kindred (1979) Nightmare fantasy, time travel, and slavery. Read it at least twice to get the full effect. Her ability to weave past and present events is exceptional.

4. Lilith’s Brood ( Xenogenisis Trilogy- published as omnibus editions since 2000) – Genetics, third gender extraterrestrials, sex and power dynamics.  Lover or master? Rescued or captured? Or all of the above? This collection of stories is seductive and terrifying.

5. Parable of the Sower (1993) Dystopian future, Race,  the power of learning, a new religion, and hope.  This novel reminds me that there is always a way forward for those that strive to make their own way.

What I have learned as a writer reading Octavia Butler:
1. Don’t be afraid of exploring and writing the hard stuff: Race, gender dynamics, sexual violence, power dynamics, hate, and love.
2. Wrapping difficult topics in a captivating story makes them provocative and powerful.
3. Story construction and pacing is as important as word choice.

Octavia Butler left us in 2006. I still grieve for the stories she had inside that we didn’t get to read.