Writing update: 5/16/11 – outlines & writing vividly

Finished chapter 5 of CURSE last Saturday. Huzzah!

The writing is a blast, even though it still requires work. Along those lines, I’ve been meaning for some time to write up the techniques and principles I use when drafting.  So I think I’m going to do a semi-regular post on a weekly basis where I share these tidbits as I run into them. It will be kind of like director commentary, although I’ll have to be careful not to toss out any spoilers.

This week I’ll talk about using chapter outlines and writing vividly. 

Bullet Outlines & Chapter Outlines

Up to this draft, what I’ve done is work from a bullet outline.  Each bullet is a short statement of what needs to occur.  Sometimes it’s very general about the story arc–presentation of the problem, struggle, and resolution.  Sometimes it’s a very specific step.  Sometimes it includes cryptic notes.  For example, here are some bullets for SERVANT:

  1. Talen goes to village, they suspect him
  2. Talen runs, sabin catches him by his hair and pulls him back, field stone size of liver. Plant idea of him catching Hatchlings
  3. Woods back home, freaked
  4. Father is not as concerned, strange, sends him out to field–Talen starts to think about catching the Hatchlings himself

As you can see, it gives me a roadmap (which often changes) so I’m not starting from nothing when I open up my chapter document.  But it’s very general.  When using this, I often have to use a number of takes to get the scene written because those first takes are me imagining the scene. In fact, my first take is usually a sketch of the scene with me blocking out my goals for the scene and how I expect the events to occur. However, in this last go at CURSE I wrote a chapter outline.  It took me about 25 hours, and the outline for CURSE ran 32 pages. I’ve pasted the first two chapters below.  You can see they’re still mostly in summary, but they represent the initial sketch of what’s going to happen.   

1.               The Village of Plum – TALEN

It’s past midnight, behind enemy lines. A thin moon hangs in the sky. Talen, Sugar, River, and five of Shim’s best soldiers crouch in the black shadows of the tree line running along the road to the village of Plum (Sugar’s former village), watching for soldiers or a village guard.

Talen jokes with Sugar, telling her he wanted a dance tonight, not a sneak behind enemy lines, even if it was in the dark. He’s more than half serious. As they’ve worked together over the last three months since the battle in the cave, he’s become attracted to her.

Also during those three months, the clans of the New Lands split into two factions. Five clans, led by the Fir-Noy, believed Shim, the leader of the Shoka clan, was being controlled by sleth. The remaining four clans followed Shim. The Fir-Noy faction immediately took up arms, initially to protect themselves, but they soon began talking about ridding the land of the sleth curse. Tensions rose, and in a series of altercations a number of people on both sides were killed. Now both factions have mobilized forces to establish pickets and patrols along a border between them.

A few days ago, Argoth received word from his spies that something was afoot in the Fir-Noy clan, as if they were preparing for a strike. Futhermore, they’ve decided to excavate the grounds about Sugar’s old house. Argoth knows Purity had her own cache of weaves under the hearth of her old home, the location of which she revealed to Sugar just before she died. Argoth has begun to train up an army of dreadmen for Shim. But he’s stretched thin. He needs all the lore he can get. So he’s sent Sugar and the others to retrieve the items before they’re lost. They’ve come on the evening of the annual apple dance festival, hoping the Fir-Noy would be less vigilant. So far, they’ve been right. In fact, Talen begins to feel like it’s been a little too easy.

As Talen and the others prepare to move forward, Sugar puts her hand on Talen’s arm. He can feel Sugar’s Fire and soul, and her touch only enflames his desire for both. He’s alarmed by this intensity, and finds it hard to focus, so he moves his arm away.

“You’re going to give me a boost up,” she says.

Up ahead in front of the Fir-Noy village stands a thick timber pole probably 11 feet high. Fastened to the top of that pole is what looks to be a skull.

“You brought us round the wrong side,” Talen says. Their objective was the ash ruins of Sugar’s burned out house, not this pole. 

“You can’t think we’d come all this way, and I’d leave without it.”

It’s her father’s skull. The only thing of his that remains. Talen, not wanting contact, motions at one of the taller soldiers with them. “He’d be taller.”

“Come on,” Sugar says and moves forward in a crouch. They move out of the shadows and into the moonlight, watching the village. Sugar climbs up on Talen’s shoulders and cuts loose the bonds holding her father’s skull. The whole time Talen’s desires make the experience uncomfortable.

Once Sugar has the skull safely in her sack, the group keeps to the deeper night shadows of the tree line and moves around the edges of the village fields until they come to a ditch. Along the way, one of the soldiers touches Talen, and he feels that same overpowering desire. Something is not right inside of him. He knows it. But there’s nothing to do about it now as they follow the ditch to the ash ruins of Sugar’s house.

Sugar and Talen sneak over to the hearth of the burned out home. River and the five Shoka soldiers take up watch. Soon Sugar finds the secret cache, but as she’s removing the items, they hear a sound come from one of the surrounding houses. Talen and the others stop and listen. Suddenly Fir-Noy soldiers burst out of the door. They overwhelm one of Shim’s soldiers and rush straight for the others.

Talen and the others turn to run, but Fir-Noy soldiers begin to pour out of four other houses. Then a Fir-Noy dreadman emerges and shouts it’s the boy that’s wanted. They can slaughter all the rest. It’s clear these soldiers were waiting for them, but there’s no way they could have know Talen and the others were coming, unless they were betrayed. 

2.               Hue & Cry – SUGAR

Sugar stuffs the last item in the secret cache into her sack and rises. The Fir-Noy are shouting, but River charges a gap in the quickly forming mob. She fights ferociously. The others race after her, Sugar and another soldier bringing up the rear. Sugar and the others are multiplied, but they’re not fast enough to avoid the soldiers completely, and Sugar is forced to fight and kick to break her way through. When she finally does break past the men, she finds she and the last soldier have been separated from the others and there’s no way to immediately join back up.

Sugar and the soldier run, but he’s wounded. He tells Sugar to run on without him. She refuses, then a company of Fir-Noy round the corner of a house. The soldier turns to face them and tells her once again to run. In her mind’s eye, Sugar sees the same situation unfolding before her as when the mob came after her mother and da. She ran then and regretted watching her father get butchered. She isn’t going to run now. Besides, she’s multiplied. So instead of running, she rushes over to the soldier and, with lore-given strength, picks him up, puts him over her shoulders, and, despite his protests, speeds away.

Sugar knows she won’t be able to outdistance her pursuers like this, but she also knows the villager Stout keeps a horse in the barn just ahead. She turns the corner on the barn, puts the soldier down, and tells him to get the horse. Then she darts back out into view of the soldiers following and leads them away. She glances back and sees the soldier slip into the barn. It’s the best she could do for him. If he can get on Stout’s horse, he’ll have a chance to escape.

Sugar looks to see how she might join back up with Talen and the others, but it’s impossible now. And while most of the Fir-Noy soldiers chased after Talen and the others, a good number are chasing her. Furthermore, others in the village are coming out of their homes. She speeds past them. All over the village dogs begin to bark, but she hears one cluster that sends fear down her spine. The villager Solem keeps a pack of prize-winning sight hounds. He emerges from a barn with his pack on a leash.

“There!” a man shouts. The barking of Solem’s dogs rises in pitch.

Sugar increases her speed then hears Solem. “Stu, boys! Take her. Get the wretch!”

The dogs shoot out after her.

So how has it worked?

So far it’s worked very well. Having that initial sketch done means I take a lot less time finishing each chapter.  However, it doesn’t change the general drafting process for me:

  1. The chapters still change as I write. I find cooler ways to accomplish what I need. I also run into things I haven’t imagined yet and have to invent them. For example, on chapter 2 when Sugar is having issues, I realized I didn’t know exactly where the houses lay in the village, so I had to sketch that. It presented opportunities and images.  For example, I thought about the Fir-Noy bowmen being on the roofs. I hadn’t imagined that before, but it was so cool to me, I had to put it in.  Then I felt I wanted Talen and her to huddle together at first. I had to run through a few options about how that played out before I found one that felt right.  
  2. I still find I need to sketch out my goals for the chapters and an initial blocking of what happens. This is much shorter than it’s been on previous drafts, but I still find it helpful. Blocking scenes helps.  This is me just figuring out where everyone is and how they move. Sketching this first helps me write faster.
  3. I still have to do takes, although I move through them more quickly.  

 As you can see, I find the sketch/draft method incredibly helpful.  Just like a painter, I sketch out what I’m thinking of painting. That might require a few sketches where I add in more details.  Then I switch over and begin to paint.


Writing Vividly

On another note, I read “Stories are made out of scenes; Scenes are made out of nouns” by author James Maxey again. I really like this essay. Everyone is always talking about verbs, but nouns are such powerhouses.

Speaking of which, here is the opening to Maxey’s “To The East, A Bright Star” which was published in Asimov’s.  It has one of my favorite beginnings. And part of the reason is what Maxey talks about with nouns.


There was a shark in the kitchen. The shark wasn’t huge, maybe four feet long, gliding across the linoleum toward the refrigerator. Tony stood motionless in the knee-deep water of the dining room. The Wolfman said that the only sharks that came in this far were bull sharks, which were highly aggressive. Tony leaned forward cautiously and shut the door to the kitchen. He’d known the exact time and date of his death for most of his adult life. With only hours to go, he wasn’t about to let the shark do something ironic.  

Tony waded back to the living room. Here in the coolest part of the house, always shaded, he kept his most valuable possession in an ice-chest stashed beneath the stairs. He pulled away the wooden panel and retrieved the red plastic cooler. Inside was his cigar box, wrapped in plastic bags. He took the box, grabbed one of the jugs of rainwater cooling in the corner, and headed up the stairs to the bathroom. He climbed out the window above the tub onto the low sloping roof over the back porch.

This all reminds me of Swain’s thoughts on bringing the material to life, which I thought Maxey did so well in those paragraphs.

Few of us read voluntarily about the primer-level doings of Dick and Jane.  Simplicity is a virtue in writing, true; but never the primary virtue.

What is?


How about brevity?

It’s important too.  Within reason.

Within reason?

Who, just learning this business, knows where or when or how to be brief? In the wrong place, brevity can destroy you.


As in the case of simplicity, brevity is never the heart of the issue. Vividness is.

How do you write vividly?

You present the story in terms of things that can be verified by sensory perception. Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch–these are the common denominators of human experience; these are the evidence that men believe.

Describe them precisely, put them forth in terms of action and of movement, and you’re in business.

Your two key tools are nouns and verbs.

(p25 Techniques of the Selling Writer)

Of course, there’s more–the telling detail, metaphor, working memory overload, details from the point of view. But it all plays into being vivid.

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4 Responses to Writing update: 5/16/11 – outlines & writing vividly

  1. Dave D says:

    “…the telling detail, metaphor, working memory overload, details from the point of view.”

    Ah, it took me a few moments to parse this at first, then, WHAM! This is my zing for the evening. So much insight in one sentence.

  2. John Brown says:


  3. Jared A says:

    I’d like to see the sketch of “goals and blocking.” Is it an actual picture for the blocking? And do you put in a goal for every named character who appears in the scene, or just the POV one?

    I’m intrigued by the process. It sounds a little like Ken Follett, which you linked to way back.

  4. John Brown says:

    Jared, I’ll see if I can’t add an explanation to this week’s update.