Friday, June 26, 2020

Book Outlining For... Uh... Dummies

One of the most difficult things about writing a book is taking a good idea (your elevator pitch) and stretching it out to 150,000 words.

No one is ever going to have every conversation meticulously planned out for every character/chapter, or have a concrete layout of their world from the beginning. That's impossible. Only John Milton did it, but he was nearly blind, which doesn't leave a lot of time to do things other than just sit and think. 

To demonstrate my method I'm going to take a simple idea and stretch it out:

Elevator Pitch

"Everyman, Mr. Smith, goes to Washington"

The above sounds a lot like a very familiar movie, sure. Mr. Smith's idyllic journey from his altruistic beginnings to the withering and corrupting ecosystem that is Washington DC is, in fact, a fairly archetypal story. The everyman has ambition, journey's out of his comfort zone, becomes disillusioned, confronts his disillusionment, and then grows from the experience. But how do you stretch it out?

Elastic Story-Telling

Most people trying to write a book have a good idea of where they want to go. For instance, with the above, I have a couple of scenes in mind that could go into the story. But what goes in between?

Every book needs a basic outline.

I make three sentence summaries for each chapter. This allows me to explore the entire plot, very quickly, without too much effort. For example, assuming this book has 10 chapters, this is what I would do:


  1. Mr. Smith is encouraged by his local congregation to explore local politics, in lieu of his grandfather's historic tenure as the first mayor of the town. He talks to a local councilman to get pointers. Mr. Smith runs for mayor and gets elected narrowly. 
  2. After 1 year of serving as mayor, he meets with state officials to discuss a new highway that will be running through his county. Edward McElroy, the representative of his congressional district is attending. They hit it off, and discuss politics, leaving Mr. Smith wondering what more he can do for his country. 
  3. Mr. Smith announces at a press conference that he wants to runs for the U.S. House of Representatives. He challenges the encumbent of his district (the very same McElroy). They have a series of town hall debates, with the last one Smith challenging McElroy directly. 
  4. With the help of harnessing the local community, though piggy-backing off the goodwill earned by his grandfather, Mr. Smith faces a difficult election day. Smith goes door to door on election day, early in the morning. Smith narrowly, again, wins the council district.
  5. Smith goes to Washington DC (finally) and moves into his office. He meets his staff and other congressmen. Big players like the House Speaker and Minority Whip are eating lunch in the commissary and having a lively conversation about X, a regular debate.
  6. Smith's first day in the House. Still learning the social etiquette of his new job, Smith makes several mistakes. Smith votes against his party and gains some enemies. 
  7. Smith Encounters corruption in both parties, with the Speaker and the Minority Whip taking concessions from two lobbying industries. Smith confronts them and is bitterly dismissed. Smith brings up his objections the following day regarding two pieces of legislation that are being debated. 
  8. The House Speaker and Minority Whip pass their laws successfully. Smith is discouraged and goes out to drink at a bar. The following day reporters confront him and he is ashamed of his lack of decorum. 
  9. Smith reads a letter from one of his supporters and is reinvigorated, admitting fault in a public statement. An amendment to one of the laws that passed the previous day is proposed, which Smith filibusters. Smith collapses on the house floor and suffers a stroke. 
  10. Smith awakes 4 months later from a coma and learns about his example in the House. His willingness to standby his principals garnered him sympathy, but also encouraged others to look into the House Speaker and Minority Whip. Extensive corruption is uncovered and Smith is celebrated in his home town. 
I wrote the above in less than an half hour, but I was able to create a story from it. That's what matters. After all, we don't live forever.

Forget What You Saw Here

While the above is useful for crafting a general idea of where the story will go, the above will drastically change over the course of the actual novel writing. New ideas, new characters, new plot devices will emerge, and directly conflict with the original outline. This, believe it or not, is totally fine. 

So, assuming that I wanted to write this book, I would write my first chapter right away. But, before I do this, I will write an extended play by play of the chapter, consolidating the chapter into a series of beats (scenes) that will compose a story within a story. (Even chapters have their own flow and drama.) To demonstrate will randomly roll a ten sided dice. (Yes, I play Dungeons and Dragons... wanna' fight about it?) 

Okay...I rolled a 6...

For chapter 6, I originally laid out the first day of Mr. Smith in his freshman role. Assuming nothing has changed, before I write anything concrete, I would jot out a series of beats that I want to take place in the chapter:

  • Smith is nervously smoking a cigarette in his dim office, trying to shake out his nerves. 
  • Helen, Smith's secretary comes in, gives Smith an itinerary, and shows him to the chamber, feeling bad for his nerves.
  • Smith Enters the chamber, almost late, and takes his seat. The representative next to him is idly chatting with a fellow party member. 
  • Smith introduces himself
  • Trying to butt in on an ongoing discussion over a bill, Smith is chastised by the House Speaker and Majority Whip for his indiscretion. 
  • Smith fumbles with his briefcase, spilling his papers on the floor.
  • A bill is being discussed and brought to a final vote. One of the bill provisions will negatively affect members of his district, and others in his home state. 
  • Smith voices his objections and he votes against the bill. 
  • After the session, two of his fellow party members angrily accost him in the hall. They demand to know why Smith voted against them. When Smith divulges his reasons, the party members cruelly laugh in his face and insult him saying that "party above policy" is what wins votes. 
  • Smith's assistant bleakly smiles and escorts him back to his office
The above is an example of what I would do when writing a chapter for the first time. Everything there constitutes a solid scene where I can explore the character and their motivations. This also helps to defeat writers' block because you have a road map for your narrative. 

Keep Calm Write On

One thing about writing a chapter is that there will be varying levels of interest regarding each beat. Some you will feel are compulsory. Beat 3 of 10 is only there to move the plot along. Beat 6 of 10 is the sweet spot. Regardless of the context just shit it out. There are so many opportunities to expand upon previous sections during later drafts and revisions, so try not to dwell too heavily on these beats. Chances are, while writing a later chapter, you will want to come back to a previous chapter and re-write it to reflect a sudden epiphany.

If you have any comments or questions regarding the above, please hit me up in the comments below.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Thoughts on Warren Ellis

Before I begin I want to state very clearly that I do not approve of what Warren did (according to some of the women breaking their silence). This is meant to be for me, to vent, to try to make sense of all this.

Warren Ellis at SDCC 2010


Yesterday my wife walked up to me and showed me a breaking article that explained Warren Ellis was accused of sexual coercion. You can find that article here. I'm devastated. Even though I don't know Warren personally, earlier this year I embarked on a journey to read everything he's ever written. I've always really liked his work, from his amazing original series Transmetropolitan to his comprehensive representation of people of color and members of the LGBTQ community in The Authority, Trees, Injection, Global Frequency, and The Wildstorm. So it's with great sadness that I now confront this awkward situation. Obviously, my heart goes out to the women who were manipulated by Warren. My pain is a parody of theirs, by comparison. Situations like these also become more real when you have a daughter, and consider the future ahead of her.

How does one separate the author from the work? Writers are traditionally fucked up people. How could they be good writers, if they didn't have some kind of trauma that they were working through? I know, for instance, that Alan Moore is deeply moved by the occult. So much so that he wrote an entire series (Promethea) to explain how it works. Likewise, Grant Morrison is convinced that he was abducted by 4th dimensional aliens--after taking a bunch of psychotropic drugs, of course--and since experiencing that he has attempted to justify that experience by writing about it in superhero comics. Neil Gaiman? I think he just read a lot. Who knows?

I remember when Louie C.K. was also outed by the #metoo movement. I remember Sarah Silverman talking about how she felt betrayed and devastated by the news. That she was a close friend of Louie, and to find out was crushing. She explained that she, at the same time, loved Louie but also hated him for what he did. In a way, that's kind of how I feel.

With comics, things get even more complicated. I would argue that if writer X, makes Batman say Y, there is a degree of separation between the author and the work. Mostly because, with comics, the writer is becoming a mouth piece for a corporate property. This property is controlled by an editorial staff. A writer can't make Batman antisemitic or homophobic, because there are a team of editors in place to make sure that doesn't happen. (Though maybe Frank Millar is an exception to the rule?) So, when I read Warren Ellis, I hear Batman's voice. I see through the eyes of Spider Jerusalem. I listen to Midnighter's rants. I feel the electricity in Jenny Sparks' hands. I taste the dankness of the Venture space shuttle, after ten years of travel in deep space. And, regardless, of what Warren did, I feel those things. And his work has strengthened the medium of sequential art as a whole.

I'm just pissed off.

It's integral to my faith in Jesus Christ that people are inherently fucked. They have no hope of being good apart from Christ. Every act of good will, of sacrifice, can be linked back to the implicit self-interest of the individual. So why should I expect any different from Warren? Like every human that has ever existed, he has made bad decisions. He has been cruel, lustful, depraved, dishonest, and cowardly. I would hope that, after all of this, he can repent of his wrongdoings and seek forgiveness and restitution.

But I can't demand that. I just have to hope.


Monday, June 1, 2020

"Thought Experiments" - An Original Short by Stuart Warren




“What’s he doing?”
                A woman, behind Jack, pointed down the line at a frumpy young man in his late twenties fumbling with a phone and a half eaten sandwich. Jack focused on the smartphone’s display and saw a lively procession of emoticons and ascending praise.
                “He’s an influencer.
                “A what?”
                “An influencer.”
                “What’s that?”
                “Someone wealthy enough to have free time, but too poor to sustain it indefinitely.”
                “That sounds awful.”
                Jack nodded. It was awful.
                The line snaked along theoretical lanes inside the crowded government facility. Etched into the bones of an aging strip mall, the Department of Motor Vehicles exuded an odor of wet drywall and day old urine. False hope abounded, embodied in the musty d├ęcor and hopeless faces of employees required, by law, to work inefficiently. Above Jack, a sign fixture dangled perilously from the ceiling:
USE OF MAGIC PROHIBITED
UNLAWFUL EXPERIMENTATION WILL RESULT IN REMOVAL FROM THE PREMISES
The woman beside Jack groaned.
                “Christ!”
                Jack chuckled. He would’ve liked to see Jesus here, kicking over desks and whipping frightened attendants like weary cattle. He was the first Magus, the supreme Mesmer. He would have burned this all down were it not for the brief detour back to the realm of immaterial.
                “Are you here for the certification too?”
                Jack turned around and saw the woman for the first time: a retro embodiment of sixties kitsch, replete with beehive hair and a tropical muumuu. She saw the surprise in Jack’s expression and shrugged. “I’m in theater. You know? Plays… This is art, okay.”
                “I’m not here for a certification,” Jack replied, slyly. “I’m here for a License to Think.”
                The woman sputtered jealously. “Lucky guy.”
                “Correct,” Jack agreed. “But it’s not all glamorous.”
                “That’s bullshit. Magic is awesome. I wish I could do magic.”
                “It has its perks. Not all of them good I’m afraid.”
                The woman snickered.
                “I haven’t seen you online, have I?”
                Jack shook his head.
                “When Experimentation Goes Wrong is one of my favorite shows,” the woman continued. “It’s like screwball comedies, if everything was on fire!”
                Jack smirked.
                “My name is Annie.”
                “Jack.”
                Jack shook Annie’s hand. It was sweaty.
                “This makeup makes me burn up. Sorry.”
                “Nothing to apologize for. Far be it from me to judge another in this desolate place. You might as well be Cleopatria in the nude, compared to the ghouls they have here.”
                Annie frowned. “That’s sexist. You’re sexist. Of course you are. You’re a fucking magician.”
                Jack wrinkled his nose.
                “I’m not a magician. I’m a philosopher,” he replied smugly. “And it’s a profession that precludes manners.”
                “Asshole,” Annie grumbled. “I’m always next to a creep…”
                Jack looked ahead, unmoved by the altercation. A ghoul, with layers of foundation caked on to her putrid skin waved him forward.
                “Nnn… Next…” she croaked.
                Jack approached the counter and flopped an envelope onto the plastic shield, protecting the faux laminate wood. “I’m here for my license.
                The ghoul looked down, straining her failing eyes. A valid birth certificate was splayed out with a social security card and a utility bill. She ground her teeth, snarling thoughtfully.
                “Ahhh… arrrr… are you pruh... prepared for a vuh… verbal test?”
                Jack placed his phone faced down on top of the documents and emptied his pockets of loose change. The ghoul looked down, identifying the rhetorical objects and growled.
                “Duh… door, four.”
                Jack smiled. “Thank you, my dear.”
                The ghoul smiled, worms crossing between blackened teeth. She dragged her arm across the countertop, sweeping the contraband into an iron lockbox. It would be returned after the assessment.
                The examination rooms were standing compartments: cubby holes with irritated, bespectacled gentlemen shuffling tarot cards and organizing talismans. Jack entered the booth, placing both hands—palms down—onto a blue stencil outline, while “Steven” carefully categorized the mystic paraphernalia with sterile precision.
                “With your hands bound, and relying only on verbal commands, you will be tasked with transmuting three objects,” Steve recited, speaking dryly from a memorized script. “You will be timed and all tasks will need to be completed before this undisclosed time expires. Do I have your consent to proceed?”
                “Yes, yes. Please, I’m ready,” Jack replied.
                Steven drew out one yellowed card from a dispenser. He reached into a box of bric-a-brac and grabbed a pewter soldier and placed it in the center of the space between them. Steven flipped over the card.
                “‘If matter is material, then what is consciousness?’”
                Jack looked down at the soldier and frowned.
                “It is the immaterial made material.”
                As Jack spoke, celestial energy coalesced around the inanimate object. The soldier flexed, the cracking of bones and flesh faintly audible, and its green skin became pink and soft
                “Oh my god,” the soldier wailed, thrashing on the ground. “Not again… Please god, make it stop!”
                Steven quickly slapped down an opened Styrofoam cup onto the homunculus and slipped the dialogue card underneath to carefully remove the figurine from the surface.
                “That’s actually my specialty,” Jack murmured whimsically.
                Steven looked at Jack, unamused. “Whatever it is that you people do, I don’t want to know.”
                Steven drew another card from the dispenser, retrieved a feather from the box, and flipped over the card.
                “I… also know this one.”
                Steven paused, tapping his finger on the countertop. He flipped over the card.
                “‘How do you make a feather weigh eight hundred pounds?’”
                Jack shrugged playfully.
                “You move it to Jupiter, obviously…”
                The feather flexed against the countertop, warping the plastic fibers of the manufactured wood, until it ripped through and crunched into the linoleum flooring below.
                Steven left the side of his booth and motioned for Jack to follow him to the next cubby over.
                In the second booth, Steven took out a dollhouse, placing it off to the side. With a swipft, Steven took another card and cleared his throat.
                “Why is there a global housing shortage?”
                Jack took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “I hate this one.”
                Steven, who probably lived alone in a one bedroom apartment, nodded bleakly. He turned to the side, looking over at someone and silently shook his head. Jack, meanwhile, focused and breathed through his clenched teeth.
                “Not too much time left…” Steven muttered.
                “It’s because people don’t share,” Jack said, though not particularly to Steven. The dollhouse shifted sideways, a transparent weave embodying the structure of the original, only minutely as dense. Steven took out a telescoping pointer and prodded the copy, which firmly resisted. He unclipped a pen from his front facing pocket and jotted down a signature on a blue receipt.
                “Bring this voucher to desk 12F.”

Jack was out and back into the world a half hour later, holding in his hands a provisional license to think in the State of Oklahoma. As he walked out to his car, he shuffled through his pockets, feeling for the familiar shape of his key fob. As he did, a blinking light on the seat caught his attention. The fob was laid out across a pile of junk mail and a half eaten energy bar.
                “Is there such a thing that I don’t lock my keys in the car like some pedestrian simpleton?” Jack bemoaned. As he did, an identical fob took shape inside his clenched fist.
                Jack grinned. “Imagine that.”
                When he opened his hand the fob was half materialized through his knuckles.