(In part 4 of Jeff's "Writing Horror" series, he explores the importance of setting simple and concise goals for yourself. He also imparts why outlining is useful even though you may not like it.
To catch up on previous installments, click these blatant links
PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3
Click the jump to read more and check out more excellent generic clipart.)
We all want a win.
I'm not saying I need my current project to catapult me to Stephen King type success where I have enough cash to dive into a Scrooge McDuck currency pool, but I do need success.
Let me define what that means to me: I want to finish this damn book, polish it, and get it out on the market.
I've had a great couple of years on the personal front. My family expanded as large as it will get until decades from now when my children start coupling. My wife met career goals some only dream of. We bought our first house. Any normal person should be pretty damn happy about these life events.
However, the author in me remains unfulfilled.
Creatively and professionally, though, it's been a tough couple of years. I graduated from college but found little success afterwards. I've previously lamented not getting into grad school, which was the thing I kept telling the grandmas and in-laws when they asked what my plan was. The only job I found after extensive interviewing was in a coffee shop. Needless to say, it was disappointing.
So I want a win. I want this to be something I finish and put out in the world, and that is the only measure of success. Obviously, I'll take the Stephen King millions (or thousands) if they come.
So why am I ranting about my small measure of triumph? Because it's why I chose to apply the K.I.S.S method to my first book. Keep It Simple, Stupid (or silly, or shithead, or whatever S pejorative you want to fling at yourself).
Keep It Simple, Saruman: My past projects tended to be ambitious. They opened chapters to sprawling fantasy worlds or convoluted Matrix level plot structures. Another thing they've all had in common: none of them got finished.
This time, I'm just going to be writing about vampires taking over a coffee shop. It isn't a plot that will turn heads, but it does seem nice, simple, and easy to finish. I've always said and still believe that great storytellers can make gems out of the most basic ideas. Also, I obviously know the setting well which means minimum research while still providing something unique.
K.I.S.S doesn't just apply to plot. 50,000 is the minimum word count for something to be called a novel, so that is going to be a target. In the past, I'd read that the best word length for a debut novel was between 80k-100k, and I exhausted myself trying to get there. I'm not ruling out paddling to that depth in the future, but this is book number one. Let's not kill ourselves.
In Writing Horror Part 2, I plugged both Stephen King's writing book and Sean Platt's Write, Publish, Repeat. If you read both, there is an argument about outlining that is started in one and responded to in the other. Stephen King was gospel to me for many years, so I've never outlined in the past. Again though, I also had no success finishing anything, so this time I'm outlining.
Outline: I'm giving myself the freedom to divert wildly (and already have) from this. Outlining exists to give yourself a well to dip into whenever the words are failing to come or you are sitting there going "What the hell happens next?" Leave yourself plenty of room to be surprised by your characters organically changing the world they occupy. That's what makes a good character.
So, I broke it down. You can do this too if you're writing about mummies taking over the fast food place you work at or whatever retail hell you may clock into. It just takes some math and about an hour of your time.
50,000 words divided by ten chapters is 5,000 words a chapter. That's pretty much the length of a healthy short story (or like five Barthelme stories) which I've written and finished with success in the past. My plan is to think of this like ten short stories instead of one big book. Each short story or chapter will end with a cliffhanger (O.M.Goodness what happens next?) or a button (She was his brother the whole time?) to keep the energy moving.
Also, all the chapters are going to be named after Johnathan Coulton songs. Why? Well one of the characters is into him and it's a fun thing to do. Most won't notice it, but it's a fun Easter egg that amuses me. Also, I find doing something like this takes the structure of your book in weird, interesting directions you wouldn't have ended up at otherwise.
My completed outline looks like this:
Elevator Pitch: A barista’s indie coffee shop gets bought out by a large corporation that is secretly filled with blood-thirsty, hyper violent vampires.
Scope: Ten 5k word Chapters.
Joe Harker: Privileged, white, aspiring slam poet. Runs a Tumblr of Latte foam art of Hanna-Barbera characters. Obsessively in love with Lu West.
Lu West: Owner of shop before bought. Inherited shop from dead parents. Happiest when playing music an and would like to be Jonathan Coulton, but feels the artist path is irresponsible. Receives lots of male attention, which she finds annoying.
Benjamin Barlow. Vampire. Anarchist. District Manager. Doesn't support the corporation but playing like a good family player for now. Prefers free range human cattle/loves the hunt.
Mildred Shoe. Vampire. Terrible manager. Put in charge after Lu is groomed for upper management. Stickler for corporate rules but can’t make a drink to save her life.
Fat Becky. Barista. Poet. All of her poems are about coming out to her baptist mother.
Happy Meal. Barista. Real Name Becky. Nickname given by Joe to mean “a few fries short of one.”
George Harker. Joe’s father. Let’s Joe live with him while he gets his life together.
You Could Be Her
Joe decides that today is the day he takes control of the universe rather than the other way around. He’s going to tell Lu how he feels about her. He’s going to start charging admission to “A Latte Poetry”.
Lu tells Joe that she’s selling the company, that she’ll no longer be working in store, and a new manager is coming.
Don’t Talk to Strangers
Fat Becky calls Joe a sell out for charging $1 and admits to starting rival poetry night. New management team arrives.
Benjamin kills Trenta Iced Coffee with cream, three Splendas.
Milldred is never around but every morning they come in to notes by her. A new dress code policy is posted. She won’t let anyone out for Happy Meal’s funeral and cancels the poetry readings.
Sherrif Abe is lured by Mildred to the cellar of the coffee shop.
I’m Having A Party
While Joe throws an apology/ Columbus Day party at his house where he hopes to finally make feelings clear to Lu, Lu attends her initiation into the company.
Lu is turned vampire by the corporation
Brand New Sucker
Joe sends Lu angry texts for forgetting him then regrets it when she seems missing.
Joe looks for Lu and learns that the truth about the Corporation
A Talk with George
Joe’s dad wants to have a talk he just doesn’t have time for. Joe tries to convince others of the truth.
George tells Joe that he and Mildred are dating.
Want You Gone
Joe can’t convince his dad to stop dating his boss. Lu tries to fight her urges but ends up killing
Joe convinces his father to revoke Mildred’s invitation
Mildred is hunting Joe. He decides to her back
With Mildred chained to the desk, Joe set’s the Coffee Shop on Fire
Now I’m an Arsonist
Hiding from the vampires and the vampire controlled law, Joe gathers what Allies he can to go after the Corporation’s local office.
Lu turns on the corporation and kills Mildred and others, saving Joe
Joe decides he still cares for Lu even though she’s a vampire.
Joe takes the advance money and decides to drive to Seattle to take on the corporation. Lu comes with riding in the trunk.
Stay Flexible: Do what works for you. I had to get really nerdy about this at the start but others will work better with a much looser outline or no outline at all. As long as you are keeping it simple and getting the story from your head to reality, who cares?
I'm calling this book Plasma Spice Latte because it makes me laugh. If dumb wordplay doesn't amuse you, we can't be friends.
I know I promised I'd touch on fitting writing into your life, and what to do when you fail to during stressful or depressing times in this post, but that's going to have to wait until the next installment.
For now, get outlining, get writing, and keep it simple, Sasquatch!