Dr. Bulletpoint or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Outline My Stories

If you’d asked me what kind of writer I was just a few months ago, I would have said, without reservation, that I was a discovery writer.  (This despite the fact that, in a loose way, I had outlined much of the novel I had written a few years earlier in Wikidpad.)

Now, though?  Well, for one thing, I’d say that outlining and discovery writing are not a binary, one or the other, but a spectrum.  Like gender.  The very act of writing an outline is indeed an act of discovery writing.  More to the point, though, I actually learned how to outline effectively by being made to outline a story (actually five stories, though I’ve only written one of them so far) in Mary Robinette Kowal’s workshop.

Previously, I would just sort of plunk away at a story, generally going from one idea to the next, and if I was very lucky, I knew the general shape of what I was building towards.  And that method can still work for me.


(And this is a big “but,” which I like, and cannot lie.)

But this method presupposes that I have all the time I want for my writing (or that I have a deadline—in undergrad, deadlines were generally a pretty effective way of getting me to finish a story).  I don’t now.  I have a full-time job.  I have a family.  I have many obligations, and I must shoehorn my writing into the crevices between those.  And if I can sit down and have an outline telling me where I’m going next, I won’t waste as much time noodling and staring at an empty page wondering what the fuck I’m going to write next.

This covers the “why” decently, but not the “how” of outlining, or at least of the outlining process that I learned from Mary.

The how starts with a sketch.  A hundred words, give or take (at least for a short story), that covers the basic beats of the story, beginning, middle, and end, along with which MICE element(s) come up.  During the workshop, I managed to bang out five of these in about an hour and a half, with a little twittering and cat-wrangling in the middle.

From the sketch, I pretty much went straight into a bulleted list with each point being a beat of the story (plot, character, emotional).  This is the stage where I can really start to work out the problems of the story; the initial sketch is just the shape of the story, but this is where the detail starts to emerge.

From the list of story beats, then I make another list, with each point being a distinct scene in the story.  If the first ~100 words were a rough sketch of the shape and the first list was starting to pencil in the details, this next list would be the next stage of pencils if not an initial inking.

What Mary suggests, following this scene-by-scene breakdown, is to make a copy of this list and stick it in the live document you’re writing in, and then remove sentences as you actually write those parts of the story.  While this may seem too rigid of a process for some people, I’ve found that it still leaves me plenty of freedom.  Just because you’ve written an outline doesn’t mean that everything you write must follow it to the letter.  (I will say, however, that if you find yourself diverging too far from your outline as written, it might be prudent to re-outline the as-yet-unwritten parts.)

Will this process work for 100% of people 100% of the time?  No.  Nothing ever does.  But this works for me, and it might work for you, too.

Of MICE and MFAs

In the course of something else entirely, I stumbled across my notes from when I attended the 2011 MFA Winter Residency at my alma mater, Warren Wilson College.  What stuck out to me from those notes was something a professor had said on the subject of poetry: “You know you’re getting to the end [of a poem] when themes from the beginning start showing up again.”

My notes revealed, further, that this was said to be true of poetry moreso than of fiction, that it was an indicator of the poem’s coming to an end, since, unlike in fiction, there is rarely some large ending action in a poem.

I think that in four years of studying writing in undergrad, this was the only time that anyone really talked about endings.  I know that I learned a lot about writing in that time—if you go looking, you can find some of my old writing, pre-college, and while it’s not the worst ever, it is painful for me to look back on—but I don’t remember talking much about the mechanics of stories.

I don’t know a whole lot about poetry.  It’s not my thing.  I can appreciate a good poem, though “good” is, of course, very subjective (I think moreso than with prose).  But I just wrote this thing down, four years ago, and forgot about it because I didn’t have anything to connect it with.

Mary Robinette Kowal, in her workshop, teaches a variation on the M.I.C.E. quotient.  I’d heard about it before, chiefly from Writing Excuses, but I’d never really gotten it before that workshop (if you’re reading this, thank you, Mary!).  As someone who works with computers and studied programming, if not computer science, in both high school and college, the idea that you have to close every element, be it Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event, that you open, and, critically, in the reverse order of their opening (<M><C></C></M> rather than <M><C></M></C>, for instance) in order to make your story work right resonated with me.

And that’s what that person was talking about in that classroom in the basement of Jensen four years ago.  They probably didn’t know it.  My experience with that MFA was often one of “genre” fiction being very much second-class, only occasionally able to “transcend genre” and reach the level of Art.  I doubt that anyone there had read Card since high school, if ever.  I very much doubt that there was a secret class about M.I.C.E.

Nevertheless, they hit the nail on the head, and not just for poetry.  You can tell that a story is coming to an end when the questions/problems/whatever raised at the beginning are finally coming to a close.  And if it goes on after that last element is closed, or if it stops before closing that element?  Well, that’s what revision is for.

Great Market News

Hey, remember how you pretty much never submit to F&SF because they only take postal submissions?  That excuse isn’t relevant anymore.

Some of you probably remember that C. C. Finlay did a couple of spots guest-editing the magazine in the past year during which time he was taking electronic submissions (I might add that he sent me a fantastic rejection during his last reading period).  Well, it was just announced that Finlay has been named Editor of F&SF, so e-subs will stay open.


At the Mountains of Madness

Some time ago, I posted, somewhat cryptically, that I was working on a thing.

Well, I’m proud to announce that, finally, that thing is done.

What started as a quick project over the summer to make a game alongside my students in PuzzleScript has led, eventually, to the completion of At the Mountains of Madness, a game based on the novella of the same name by H. P. Lovecraft.

So go ahead and give it a shot.  The whole game, or interactive graphical fiction-thing, whatever, should take a first-timer around ten to fifteen minutes to play through.


Math for Writers

So I just finished an intensive weekend workshop taught by Mary Robinette Kowal (and can’t quite believe that I’m back at the keyboard already).  I got a huge amount out of it, and I hope I can get back on my game enough to talk about it more here, but that’s for another time.  For the moment, I’ll just say, first, that if you get a chance to take one of Mary’s workshops, you really really should.  Your writing will thank you, and you’ll make some new friends.

Second, I wanted to share something that came out of the workshop that we talked about in detail, and which I then condensed into this handy (not a guarantee) formula.  If you want to know about how long a story you’re going to be writing, given an outline, just remember:


In other words, the Length of your story (roughly) will be the number of Characters (C) and scenic Locations (L) times 750, further multiplied by the number of major elements of the M.I.C.E. Quotient (M) that you are focusing on.

This is, of course, a very rough calculation, based on the assumption that each Character or Location adds between 500 and 1000 words to your story, per major M.I.C.E. element focused on.  It shouldn’t be seen as some magical target goal that you must hit exactly and should never go under or over (especially since I’m using the middle-ground figure of 750 words, rather than either extreme).  Rather, it’s for planning.  If I want to put five characters and seven locations into a CE story, but I only wanted it to be 4K words, this would quickly tell me that I either have to adjust my goals or make some major cuts.

Market Opening: Uncanny Magazine

Hey everybody, sorry for the recent drought of posts, but real life has been keeping me away from blogging.  I’m not here to whine about anything, though; I’m here to let you know about a new market opening.

Uncanny Magazine is opening for submissions in just two days (that’s September 11th, 2014).  I’m really excited to have this new market opening, not just because I like having new places to send my stories, but also because I like having new places to read great fiction.  (Though I think that I failed to post anything about it at the time, I did recently help fund their Kickstarter.)

So, go get your best manuscripts ready, and help make the launch of Uncanny great.

Submission information is here.

I’m Making a Thing!

It’s a…it’s a…it’s a THING!


Plug: The GameMaster’s Apprentice

Full disclosure: I know the person behind this Kickstarter personally, and I like to see my friends succeed whenever possible.

When I’m writing or running a game, sometimes (often) I run into situations where I need more information, and I need it fast.  Often this means that I need an NPC or side character.  If I’m writing, this inevitably means opening a web browser, looking up a list of names associated with a culture/language/region, and then opening Wikipedia and falling down a link hole, never to return.

That is sub-optimal.

That’s why I’m excited by The GameMaster’s Apprentice.  It’s a deck of cards that can help keep you off of the internet when you should be writing.  I suppose you could also use it for its original purpose of saving face with your players when you’re running a game and they go and do something you weren’t expecting.

In addition to knowing Nathan, the project’s creator, personally, I also know his work.  As he mentions in the video above, he worked on the Serenity RPG, which is a system that I absolutely love using when I want to run or play a swashbuckling adventure game, whether I’m in the Firefly universe or not.  At the time of this writing, the project is a bit over 50% funded, which is great, and if this looks like a useful tool to you, I’d encourage you to back it yourself.


This past weekend, I went to the Bay Area Maker Faire, billed as “The World’s Biggest Show and Tell.”  There were a lot of really interesting things there, way more than I could have seen in a whole week, and one of those things that I missed (because I went on Saturday, and it happened on Sunday) was Adam Savage’s talk.  Luckily, we live in the information age, and it’s already up on youtube.  You can watch the whole thing on your own, though most of it is a question and answer session, but I’m mostly interested in something that Adam said in his semi-prepared speech at the beginning.  To paraphrase, he said that what separates novices from experts is knowing where you need tight tolerances and where you can get away with loose ones.

Adam was talking about this in the context of making things, but that, especially, resonated with me as a writer as much as a maker.  Precision of language is something that can make or break a story.  Knowing where you need to be precise and where you can be more vague is the difference between holding a reader’s attention and either boring or confusing them.  If a character, Bob, has been sitting in a chair and then leaves the room, you only need a loose tolerance in your language to tell readers that the character stood up from that chair, walked to the door, opened it, and left the room—you can just say “Bob got up and left the room,” or even just “Bob left.”  That’s a pretty loose tolerance, but readers don’t need any extra verbiage to get the intended meaning from that sentence.

You would need close tolerances, though, if Bob left the room without getting out of his chair: “Bob, still seated, rolled his chair across the room and out the door,” or “Bob half rose, still gripping his chair, and shuffled out of the door.”

The important part in both of those examples, though, is knowing what level of precision is required and keeping your language compact while meeting the informational requirements of your sentence.

All of Adam’s 10 Commandments of Making can be seen in the video below, and I think most of them can apply beyond making things, but this one lodged in my head particularly.

Spurious Writing Prompt

Ok, time for a writing prompt, because I don’t know when the last time was that I posted one.  This exercise is inspired by an exercise I did way back in my freshman year of college (thanks, Gary!) where my class was asked to base a story around a picture selected from a book of pictures of mid-century America.  Rather than a picture, though, inspiration comes from a graph (yes, I know that graphs are pictures of data).

Specifically, your story should draw from any of the graphs at Spurious Correlations: a collection of curious statistical correlations generated by a computer from publicly-available data.

Correlation: 0.915876

Of course we know that correlation does not imply causation, but for the purposes of this writing exercise, it might well be more interesting to assume a causative relationship between the data.

I can think of an xkcd for almost any situation.

If you write anything that you want to share, post it (or a link—if you try to post a novel in the comments, it won’t make it out of moderation) in the comments.


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