May 28, 2014

My Bag of Tricks

by H. Linn Murphy

I have the memory of a nail clipper. Which explains why I keep forgetting to look at the announcement of my due date I've red-lined.

So today I blithely went about working up the new outline for my newest Sci fi book (the 19th of my books), totally forgetting about my imminent due date. So this is going to be my subject--not the lack of organization skills--but the way I like to outline.

I don't like to be tightly locked into a strict plan in which I have no wiggle room. To me, my stories need to have some structure but also a chance for some serendipity to happen. Lots of times the story I want to tell and the story my characters insist is their reality are two different things. Lots of times theirs is a better, more truthful story.

By truthful, I mean that it sticks to the reality of the story. If you have a character who only wears frilly long dresses, pearls, and gloves and carries her chihuahua in her Gucci bag everywhere she goes, and you have her suddenly talking like a longshoreman and breaking into Escrima, it's going to sound off. I'm not talking about a legitimate twist here, but an untruth to the character. A twelve year old modern boy probably wouldn't comport himself in such a way as to indicate he might be in all actuality a grandmother of two and eighty of the year 1843.

You see what I did there? It didn't fly.

On the other hand, flying by the seat of my pants has lead to chaos in the past. I sometimes found myself navigating strange paths for days on end and unable to slog back to the real story.

So this is the way I like to work it:
I go through and lay out the main points I want to hit like forks in a silverware drawer:

-Averil breaks out her phaser and lets the Xiril have it in two of his brain pans.
-The Xiril goes down in a haze of green droplets but gets back up one last time.
-Averil pushes the Xiril off the rotunda.

This allows for additions and changes:

-Averil breaks out her phaser and trains it on the Xiril's third brain. 
-"I'm going to enjoy destroying your entire civilization."
-The Xiril goes down in a haze of green droplets but gets back up one last time.
-Averil pushes the Xiril off the rotunda.
-Averil leads her unit to take out the other two lieutenants.

Then I go through and start plugging chunks of story into the mix, erasing the outline as I go:

Averil leveled her phaser at the lowlife who had killed her grandmother. She shivered and had to keep realigning the sites to the blackened figure of the Xiril. The Xiril laughed at her, advancing. "You'll never destroy me, human. Not before I take out your entire civilization."

Averil let a ragged breath escape, thumbed the firing bead of the phaser and sent it's ray not to the Xiril's visible brain, but to the invisible tertiary brain. Then she moved to it's primary. The secondary brain was the only one she could reason with. That one could stay.
-Averil leads her unit to take out the other two lieutenants. 

That way I can play with the story a little bit. If I do the whole outline this way, I can use it to add bits in, even out of order.

Another trick that saves my sanity is a character bible, usually situated at the top of the manuscript (and later erased), or in another file I can readily pull up.
I detail what that character looks like, how he/she thinks, any salient behavioral points (ie. intrepid, selfish, fearful), points about the story like addresses or descriptions, and anything I need to know if I'm taking chunks out of order. 

I also keep a 'slag heap'--another file I can toss things into that don't work in that place in the story but might work later or in another project. It makes effecting changes in the manuscript much less painful if you know your good hard work and countless hours aren't going down the drain. The slag heap has saved me countless times, especially if I accidentally erase something I didn't mean to.

When editing, don't rely only on spell check. Sometimes you really actually mean 'he tilted his head' instead of 'he titled his head.' And go through it more than once, preferably with multiple Beta readers. The fewer go-throughs, the more mistakes you leave in there.

Don't forget to BACK IT UP! BACK IT UP! BACK IT UP! I do it in two extra places because I've lost twenty five pages before, and the gnashing of teeth wasn't worth it. Thumb drives are your friends.

I hope these little hints can help the newbie writer. Most of the rest of us have our own systems. These work well for me, however.


  1. These are great hints, Heidi. I love learning how different writers make things work. Thank you for sharing! hugs~

  2. Well done. I'm not that organized


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