What STAR WARS Means To Me

Given all the chatter that’s sprung up about Star Wars since THE FORCE AWAKENS was released, I thought I’d post a little piece regarding it and my history with the franchise.

Ahem ahem…

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What Star Wars Means To Me

If you’ve heard this story from me before, please bear with me. I repeat it here now so that it’s fully and officially on the record.

STAR WARS, what we would later come to alternatively call EPISODE IV and A NEW HOPE (depending on your level of geekery), was released upon the world in May of 1977. I was four and a half years old. I clearly remember my parents taking me and my little brother Scott (he wouldn’t have even been two at the time) to the local drive-in movie theater to see it. The weather was clear, the playground up near the screen was filled with kids swinging and clambering over monkey bars, and the smell of buttered popcorn drifted through the air like the promise of a great summer to come.

Being so young, I really had no idea what the movie was we were there to see. Movies hadn’t penetrated my fledgling mind yet, nor had any books my parents read to me or shows on the television. I was a tabula rasa, just waiting for the right thing to come and spark my juvenile imagination. My joy at being at the drive-in came mostly from the play area. What little boy doesn’t love sand boxes and seesaws? But, when the sun went down, it was back to the family car to watch whatever film we’d come to see. So long as I had a small bag of popcorn and a coke, I didn’t really care what it was. But, when the projector burst to life like some sort of Asgardian artifact and that famous Twentieth-Century Fox fanfare poured forth from Angelic horns, my life was forever, irrevocably changed.

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I couldn’t read the words that floated down the whitewashed movie screen ahead of us, but sitting on the roof of my parents’ car it didn’t matter. I knew they were important by the music and the way they marched with steady purpose through a field of stars that looked so much like the stars twinkling over my head at that very moment. And then when the camera panned down to reveal a spaceship racing away as lights flashed against it, only then to watch as the vessel that followed it thundered above me like a metallic monster that grew larger and larger and larger with every moment, a leviathan hounding after a goldfish. It was amazing, and the lights reflected like stars in my little eyes.

Nothing, though, could have prepared me for the introduction of Darth Vader, a figure that haunts me to this day, mostly in various plastic forms around my office. After all the whiteness of the small ship’s corridors and the Stormtroopers that quickly poured into it, Vader’s immense blackness sent chills through me. Sitting on the roof of that car, I felt true fear for the first time. Later, when Luke and Han were doing their fumbling best to save the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my young life, I felt joy, and love, and excitement. When the end credits finally rolled, there really aren’t words to describe how I felt. To be honest, I don’t know if even I – after all these years – truly understand just how I felt. But I do know this – I was changed. The boy that crawled back into his parents’ car and went home to dream of heroes in white and villainous evil in black, was not the same boy who played in the sand just hours before.

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Before I move on, I need to say one final thing about the memory I just shared with you in the interest of full disclosure: I don’t know if it’s actually true. That, right there, is me being honest. I think it’s true. It certainly feels true. When I cast my mind back nearly four decades, those are the things I honestly remember happening. My mother could come along and say, “Oh, son, that didn’t happen. We saw it…” and she would probably be right. But, that doesn’t matter. Not to me. I know my truth. Real or not, those memories are what I recall when I think about Star Wars. We all have mythologies about ourselves that we create using as much truth as we can and then filling in the rest with “that’s how it should have happened” bits. For me, those shared memories are my Star Wars origin story. That is where my heroic journey began. Now on with the show…

Over the years since May of ’77 the level of my fanaticism waxed and waned. I played with all the toys when I was kid, turned my bedroom into Hoth and Endor, held X-Wings and ran through the yard with them held high as they soared after Tie-Fighters. But with each year that passed after RETURN OF THE JEDI’s end credits faded, so did my passion. I read the Marvel comic every once and awhile, and if I stumbled across some toy or item I’d never seen before I’d do my best to get it, but aside from the occasional book there just wasn’t much to keep the Star Wars fire burning. Such is the way of things.

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That doesn’t mean my love of science fiction and fantasy diminished, however. No no, my brother, not even a little. Because of Star Wars I launched into the fandom of all things nerdy with a greedy abandon. Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, Dune, the Dragonlance novels, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek, and on and on it went. When everyone else wanted to play sports, I wanted to keep my face in a book, or play a game, or rewatch CLASH OF THE TITANS. While my friends wanted to play Rambo out in the woods, I wanted to play as a Jedi or an X-Wing pilot. It was just the way I rolled.

As I’m sure you can imagine, all this led to me to being a pretty geeky kid. And yeah, sure, there were rough moments from time to time holding that freak flag aloft. If I had a dime for every book slapped out of my hands or every “you’re such a nerd” spat in my face I could have bought LucasFilm instead of Disney. It never got me down though, because it wasn’t as if I could be any other way. Geekdom is woven into my very DNA.

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Luckily for the Star Wars fan inside me, the fires returned when it was announced that new Star Wars books would soon be hitting bookstore shelves, starting with a new trilogy to cap off the movies! OMG! Just as I’m entering college, Star Wars is returning to my life, and in a way I adore – books. From there suddenly there were new games, new toys, even new music (Shadows of the Empire rocked!). And then came the Special Editions! And more books! And then…holy frijole…EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE. Say what you want now, but back then the idea of new movies shook the world. I have plenty of issues with the prequels, believe me, but I never make myself come down and hate them. As bad as some of it is, there’s good too, like Vader himself proved possible. Star Wars was once again a cultural phenomenon. I couldn’t have been happier.

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Star Wars has been a gift to me, and somehow it never ceases to give. Of all the things it’s led me to, however, none is more important to me than my writing. The books I’ve written that sit on someone’s bookcase wouldn’t exist were it not for Star Wars. My mind was blown open at a very impressionable age, and in the decades since I’ve absorbed as much science fiction and fantasy as possible across as broad a range of stories and characters as you can imagine. And all of that, once filtered through my mind, comes out in the novels and short stories I’ve written and will go on to write. I cannot thank George Lucas enough for what he created, and when I say that I mean both Star Wars and myself. He was practically a third parent, tending to my brain while mom and dad took care of the rest.

Does that sound odd, or perhaps excessive? Maybe. But, I do think Star Wars has led to me being a good person. Because of my travels across space and time I’ve met so many different types of people, both real and imagined, and through that I became a very accepting person. I don’t judge people because of what they look like, or who they love, or who they worship. We’re all children of the same long ago stars. I try to be empathetic, forgoing fear for love, like a Jedi should. Some of this I gained directly from Star Wars, and some came through the universes Star Wars led me to. When I say I am who I am because of Star Wars, I honestly mean it. And I think it’s a good thing.

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And perhaps that’s really it. I love who I am. I love that my mind is filled with alien worlds and ancient kingdoms. I love that my shelves are crowded with Stephen King books, Marvel movie box sets, and action figures that cover the gamut of science fiction and fantasy. When someone says, “Where do we go?” in my mind I follow it up with a mentally sung, “From here…” (That’s a Buffy reference, y’all). If a person asks me who my doctor is, I immediately want to answer with, “David Tennant.” And of course when anyone says, “I’ll try,” you know I want to tell them, “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” My nerd runs deep, and it runs rough.

Some might say that all this makes it impossible for me to be unbiased when it comes to the Star Wars universe, and more specifically the movies. To them I answer, you’re right. I can’t. But that’s not because I lack the objectiveness needed to see the flaws and failings of the movies; rather, it’s because they aren’t just movies to me. They’re friends. Hell, they’re more than that – the Star Wars movies are my family. They’ve been with me practically my whole life, through good times and bad, giving me advice when I needed it, hope when I felt hopeless. I know the films aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t make me love them any less. I acknowledge all the problems with Star Wars, can understand why some might not like them, but I can do  all that without lessening my affection one iota. I don’t let the rough patches make me stumble, or get lost in plot imperfections. I accept the movies as they are and love them unconditionally just as a father loves his children, or as a brother loves his siblings. Is Jar Jar an idiot? Yeah, but he’s my idiot. Are Ewoks cool? Nope, but who cares, they’re still cute and still kill Stormtroopers. Could I have possibly written better dialogue than, “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth,”? Probably. But a cheesy line has never made me love my younger brother any less, so why would it with Star Wars? For me it’s all the same.

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So there you have it. That is what Star Wars means to me. To most people it means a lot less, and that’s cool. I don’t expect them to love it as much as I do. Wish, yes, but not expect. And I understand that most people haven’t grown up with it in their lives the way I did. We can’t change how we grew up. For me Star Wars goes beyond fandom to family. I know it has its problems, but I’ll always love it, and it will continue to be unconditional.

Until next time…

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FRAGILE One Step Closer To Publication

As some of you may be aware, my latest book is a follow-up to STILL WATER, my first horror novel. FRAGILE tells the continuing journey of Maya, a paranormal investigator who also happens to have a touch of the supernatural about her. Maya is a character I adore (she might be my favorite creation), and I love getting to tell more of her story, something I plan on do more of in the years to come. Last week I finished my first editing pass, and now it’s in the hands of several beta readers who will hopefully help me make it a tighter, more entertaining book. Once I get their notes back I’ll give the book another editing pass before sending it to Gryphonwood Press. My fingers are crossed that it works as well for others as it did for me while writing it.

Stay tuned for further developments. I want to make the eventual release something special.

STILL WATER cover reveal!

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Coal is the hard, black heart of the mountain town of Stillwater, West Virginia. But, far beneath it lies something much darker, an evil beyond time, waiting to rise and bathe the world in blood and fire once more. When unwitting miners dig into its tomb, only Kyle – Stillwater’s prodigal son – and paranormal investigator Maya stand between humanity and Hell. Time is short and evil runs deep in… STILL WATER.

April 22nd, 2014, is the official publishing date of my upcoming horror novel, STILL WATER. It will be available in print ($9.99) and ebook ($3.99), with the audiobook coming out sometime in late summer. I hope that all of you are anticipating this release, as I think it marks a change in my writing career. I love science fiction, and I love urban fantasy, but horror is where my heart really seems to lie, and STILL WATER is only the first of what I’m hoping will be many scary books to come. So now mark your calendar for April 22, and stick around for more news as it develops. Thanks for your interest!

“In STILL WATER, Justin R, Macumber brings all the vivid Americana of Stephen King and all the creeping evil menace of Lovecraft, to a cloausterphobic tale of horror lurking in the deep parts of the world. The plush prose pulls you in and carries you along at a mounting pace until a confrontation so bloody, you can feel the claws raking you.”
Kane Gilmour, bestselling author of RAGNAROK and THE CRYPT OF DRACULA

“You’ll want to leave the light on long after you’ve turned the final page of this dark thriller.”
Jeremy Bishop, author of REFUGE

“Justin Macumber excels in the dark. STILL WATER will trap you and never let go.”
Edwarn Lorn, author of CRUELTY

“Macumber’s STILL WATER marries Lovecraftian-dread with a character driven thrill-ride that will leave you shivering with fear.”
Paul E. Cooley, author of GARAAGA’S CHILDREN

Two New Book Contracts Signed

Yep, you read that right. In 2014 I have two more books being published. First I want to talk about A BROKEN MAGIC. This is the sequel to A MINOR MAGIC, where we find that just because Skylar was able to defeat her enemies doesn’t mean her job is done. In ABM she will be heading north in the hopes of finding someone like her, another child of the House of Gairn, to help her heal the world from the damage done to it by Sau’faen’s foreign magic. On her journey she will find what she is looking for, but it will come in forms she never saw coming, and it will take everything she has to save the world once more. I hope that if you read AMM you’re excited to read this story, and if you didn’t read it, correct that mistake now! I’m so proud of AMM, and I think ABM is even better. If these sell well enough, then I have a third book in mind to close out the trilogy. Please help me make sure that happens!

The second book that will be published next year is a horror novel entitled STILL WATER. This is my first horror story, but it certainly won’t be my last. I enjoyed writing it so much; too much, really, to ever think about not doing it again. Succinctly put, STILL WATER is about a small coal mining town in West Virginia that accidentally awakens an ancient evil that’s been slumbering in the mountains around it for millennia. As it slowly rises, the town and its people change, transformed under its terrible influence, and the only ones who can stop it are Maya, a supernatural investigator, and Kyle, a young man who once called the town home and thought he left it in his rear view mirror years before. I have plans on carrying some of these characters into future novels, but – again – I can only do that if this first one sells well. I think it’s a great book (though I *am* biased), and everyone I’ve had read it so far has loved it too.

Well, that’s it for now. Thank you for keeping up with me, and I hope that these stories sound interesting to you. I’ve poured my heart and soul into them. Hopefully soon you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy them. I’ll keep you abreast of developments as they happen.

I’m in a new anthology – DIRTY MAGICK: LOS ANGELES

Hi, everyone! I know, I know, it’s been awhile, but I hate to spam just to fill in content. I want to make sure when I post that it’s something worth reading. This most certainly applies. I hope you’re as excited as I am.

DIRTY MAGICK: LOS ANGELES is an anthology from Lucky Mojo Press. The synopsis for it reads: “Dirty Magick: Los Angeles” is an urban fantasy anthology exploring the crossroads between magic and crime. Set in the city that invented noir, these stories comb the back streets and side alleys where the shadows are so sharp they can shave you clean.”

My story for it is entitled THAT OLD HELL MAGIC, and it’s about a police detective on the hunt for a demon that has stolen souls in a night club on the Sunset Strip. Right now it’s available in ebook form for the Kindle and Nook, and soon it’ll also be available on the iBookstore and in print. When it is I’ll update this post. I’m really proud of the story, and I’m proud that it’s featured in this anthology. Please click on the links below and purchase your copy today. It’s at a great price point.

Thanks, and I’ll be back soon with even more great news!

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Purchase for the Kindle

Purchase for the Nook

My Next Project

Life never quite goes where you think it will, and the same goes for art. I figured after finishing the edits for STILL WATER and A BROKEN MAGIC (which I’m nearly done with, by the way) I’d work on one of the new ideas I mentioned in a previous blog post. I already have plenty of stories that are waiting to be told. But, when I asked my wife Krista what she thought I should write next, she said, “You need to writer another HAYWIRE story.”

That threw me. While many people have asked me in the past to tell more stories about the Titans, it wasn’t something I’d really considered. HAYWIRE was the story I wanted to tell, and I’d told it. Honestly, I hadn’t been all that interested in going back to that universe. But her words gave me pause to reconsider. Were there more stories I could tell? Sure, absolutely. Would I be interested enough in telling them though? Come to find out, maybe. Now I just have to figure it out. I have an opening already in mind, and I definitely have an ending, so now I sort out how I get from the one to the other. That’s the writer’s toughest task.

As early as this new project is, though, I have already come up with the title for it. Are you ready? You wanna sit down? Here it is —

TITANS RISE

Yep, there ya go. In the next month or so I’ll begin outlining the story of how the Titans came to be, and of the beginning of their battle against the Hezrin invaders. As more develops, I will keep you in the loop. I also gave my brother Scott an idea for the cover, so he has plenty of time to make it just as good or even better than what he made for HAYWIRE. And when it’s done hopefully the fine folks at Gryphonwood Press will want to publish it.

That’s it for now. Hopefully I’ll have news regarding the future of STILL WATER and A BROKEN MAGIC soon. Until then, stay classy…

Stay on target!

Earlier in the year I posted a list of things I was going to work on in 2013. Have I managed to stick to that schedule? Eh, not exactly, but I’m not far off either.

I anticipated it would take a month to write the two short stories THE DRAGON AND THE SPARROW and IT CAME FROM THE BLACK. It actually took almost two months. Luckily both of them were well received by the anthology editors who’d requested them. THE DRAGON AND THE SPARROW actually needed a bit of edited done to it, which took about a week or so, but the story is stronger for it, so I’m happy. I really can’t wait for them to be released to the world.

Doing a second pass on STILL WATER wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I added a prologue to it, which was probably the biggest bit of work. All in all, though, it flowed pretty well. Now it’s out to beta readers to see what they think. I’m hoping they liked it and have some good notes on how I could make it even better. We shall see.

Right now I’m doing my second pass on A BROKEN MAGIC. I’m only a few chapters in, but I have to say that I’m really liking it. With every word we write we’re supposed to get better at it, so it only makes sense that this would be my strongest effort yet, but that doesn’t take away from my joy at seeing my craft evolve and improve. Let’s hope others think the same thing.

But, along with those things I’ve also been kept busy with other writerly items not on the list. First, and of course most importantly, the audiobook of A MINOR MAGIC is now available. Veronica Giguere did an amazing job narrating it. She lifts the words and makes them sing. I can’t thank you enough. If you’re interested in listening to it, you can find it at the following locations:

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Audible.com
Amazon.com
iTunes Store

I’ve also published my short story THE DAME WORE WHITE to the Kindle store at Amazon. If you’d like to read it, it only costs $0.99, and you can do so by clicking
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Anyway, that’s it from me. I’m hoping I’ll have A BROKEN MAGIC out to beta readers by the end of April. After that, on to more writing!

My Progress So Far

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As you may recall, this year I had a lot of projects planned, and I had a schedule laid out for how I was going to get them done. I’m almost two months in, and while I’m not exactly on track, I’m not that far off either, and I’ll take that.

My first two projects for this year were short stories, both for anthologies I was asked to write for. The first one, THE DRAGON AND THE SPARROW, took longer than I thought it would, which is why I’m a little behind schedule. Why is it late? Because getting into the mode of writing a western (which I’ve never done before) with Samurai influences (which I’ve also never done) proved trickier than I’d expected. Instead of two weeks to write it, it took me almost a month. But, the good thing is that I wrote what I feel is a quality story, and the anthology publisher loved it too. Whew!

The second project was IT CAME FROM THE BLACK, a story inspired by the classic Universal film “The Creature From The Black Lagoon.” Because that one was more in my wheelhouse, it was much easier to write. I had so much fun, in fact, that I wish I could write more of them. The characters I came up with really spoke to me. I allotted two weeks to write it, and that’s exactly how long it took. The publisher is looking at it right now. Hopefully I won’t have to edit it too much. I think it’s great, but I’m rather biased.

So, what do I work on now? Well editing STILL WATER of course. It feels like forever since I wrote that first draft. I barely remember it, in fact, which is good, because it gives me a fresh perspective on it. I’ll start on that tomorrow. Today I’m busy catching up on email and other things (like this poor blog, for instance). I hope you’re looking forward to reading the new short stories, because I’m really excited to get them out to you.

2013’s Works In (Or Soon To Be) Progress

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2012 was a pretty busy year, but when I think about everything I want to accomplish in 2013 it makes last year look lazy. For those who want to know what all I have on the docket for the new year, here is a list. Please feel free to tell me what you think, especially if any of these ideas excite you.

THE DRAGON AND THE SPARROW – This is a short story for an anthology entitled WAY OF THE GUN I was invited to be part of. The theme of the anthology is “Samurai meets the Old West via gunslingers.” I love that premise, and today I started work on my story. I should be done with the first draft by the end of next week.

IT CAME FROM THE BLACK – This is another anthology short story I was invited to write. The theme for this one is a new take on Universal’s classic monsters. I picked The Creature From The Black Lagoon. This one will probably round out January.

BURNING HEAVEN – With this one I’ll be heading back to sci-fi. I’m going to brainstorm this one on the Roundtable Podcast, then write up an outline. But, before I can begin full scale work on it, I’ll need to work on…

Second Draft of STILL WATER – I think this horror novel has sat on my hard drive long enough. Time to give it another whack, then send it off to beta readers to see what they think.

Second Draft of A BROKEN MAGIC – While beta readers are going through STILL WATER I’ll be going back through this one. Hopefully by the time I’m done with the second draft I’ll be getting notes back on STILL WATER. When my beta readers are ready, I’ll send out this book for notes.

I’m figuring that at this point I’ll be around the end of June. If so, I’ll possibly be getting started on a new secret project. I’m not saying much about it now because (A)it might not happen, and (B)I want some mystery to build up to help promote it.

While that is (or isn’t) going on I’ll be working on the third draft of STILL WATER. Depending on the notes I get this could be a quick edit, or it could be a total rewrite. We’ll see. After this draft is done I’ll send it off to publishers.

Third draft of A BROKEN MAGIC – Same as above.

BURNING HEAVEN – This is an odd one, because originally it was going to be a novel, but I might end up writing it in serial form and releasing it that way. If so, it might get peppered in with the other work mentioned here.

Oh! And I can’t forget a horror screenplay I’ll be working on with my brother Scott. This was also originally going to be a novel, but after thinking about it more and discussing it with friends, a screenplay sounds like a better idea since it’s a story about a TV film crew. Not sure how where and how it’ll fit in with all the things mentioned above. I’ll find a way though. Since my brother will be working on it with me, that’ll help.

I imagine that all of that will take up most, if not all, of my year. We’re talking two books, two short stories, a screenplay, and a serialized story, along with a secret project. Not too bad. If I somehow find that I have time left before 2014 rolls around, I have two more books I want to get working on. They are A KILLING MAGIC (the third and final book in the MINOR MAGIC trilogy) and HEARTLESS, a horror novel about a man who looses his wife and in his grief finds that there are worse fates than death. I imagine, though, that those are books I’ll be talking about next year.

So, that’s it! Whew! I think it’s enough. Don’t you? I’ll try to be better at keeping you guys up to date on my progress on each of these. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you’ll also stop by the page for A MINOR MAGIC and buy a copy. If it doesn’t sell well, then all my work on A BROKEN MAGIC will be for naught, and A KILLING MAGIC won’t happen at all. Don’t let that happen.

Later on, friends!

It’s an outline, not your spouse

You would think that writers, being a sedentary sort of people, wouldn’t get into too many fights, but that isn’t the case. Writing is a dangerous business, and battles are fought constantly over things like first-person narratives versus third-person, past tense and present tense, whether prologues really work, and character-centric plots versus story-centric. But, one of the most brutal battlefields in all of Literaryland is the one between those who outline and those who write by the seat of their pants. The liters of scotch, not to mention blood, that have been spilled over this issue could fill rivers, and it probably won’t end any time soon. But, in the interest of making this blog of mine more interesting and perhaps informative, I will attempt to do what I can to heal the divide. And, if not accomplishing that, perhaps I can at least bring some understanding. So, here I go…

And, for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to go with the shorthand of calling people who outline “plotters,” and people who write without them “pantsers.”

When I first started writing, I was a pantser. It made sense. I mean, writing is about discovery, finding the story and bringing it word by word into the world. So, for me to discover it in much the same way as the eventual reader will discover it seemed only natural. Along the way teachers tried to show me the value of outlines, but the process seemed so boring and technical that I never gave it any thought outside the classroom. That sort of thing might work in the sterile environment of school, but at home I needed more freedom, more room to work my magic. That was how I went on for a long while.

When I tried to turn writing from a hobby into an actual artistic pursuit, though, things started to change. They changed even more when I moved from writing short stories to novels. But, before I get into that, let me detour for just a moment into another aspect of writing, one that isn’t often discussed outside the cloistered confines of author discussion groups.

A book, whether short or long, is the result of several iterations and revisions, editing pass after editing pass. A lot of young writers make the mistake of thinking that the first draft of a book needs to be perfect, so they’ll go over every sentence and paragraph with a fine-toothed comb to make sure it sparkles. The problem with that is sometimes you’ll discover a problem down the line in a later chapter, and to fix it you’ll have to go back a ways and change something. Stories are much like ponds, in that disturbances — even minor ones — will have ripples. So, all those sentences and paragraphs that were shined to a high polish suddenly have to be edited, or perhaps even thrown out entirely. It took me a long time to realize that first drafts, where the story’s clay is at its lumpiest and has to be hammered into shape, doesn’t need to be perfect. The first draft is where you paint with the widest brush, getting the broad strokes of the story worked out. That way any changes that have to be made are far less painful. Then, once that first draft is finished, the editing passes to follow are where the story finally gets cut and polished until it shimmers. Whether people know it or not, the book they read and loved, the book that seemed so perfectly written, was actually a Frankenstein’s monster of cut paragraphs, sutured chapters, and slashed words. If you never noticed, that means the writer (and perhaps their editor if they had one) did their job(s) right.

Now, back to outlines…

It only took a few times of having to completely toss out ten-thousand-plus words because of plot problems before I knew there had to be a better way of writing a novel. The act of discovery is a wonderful thing, and in the heat of pantser writing a new idea can seem like the greatest idea ever conceived of by man, but when a great idea in chapter ten means that the ideas in chapters three and four no longer make sense, that’s not so wonderful. The number of words I had to kill back then would make World War II pale. There had to be a better way. But what?

And that’s when I returned to the idea I’d disregarded so easily in my youth — outlines. But, this wasn’t going to be my dad’s outlines, lists that went from I to A to 1 to a. No no, that would never work. I needed something that had more of the flow of a novel, but not so… novelly. Short, perhaps in bullet points, chapter by chapter, something that would let me see the overall structure of the story so I could fix any plot problems there might be long before the actual writing began. I also needed it to be flexible. I didn’t want to be locked down to anything. Room always had to be made for inspiration. Was such a thing possible? Absolutely. It just took a little while and some trial and error to work out. Here is how I craft outlines, and if you’re a writer who’s been having trouble, this might help you too.

First, realize that an outline isn’t your spouse. You’re not married to it. Outlines are guides, nothing more. A way for you to work out what the story is you want to tell, and in such a way that you can see problems before they materialize and require mass word murder. Outlines can be changed at any point. If it helps, think of them like blueprints. Someone building a house doesn’t just start hammering as the mood hits them, do they? No, they have a set of plans, and they work off those plans so it all fits together. But those plans were worked over and worked over well in advance, with all sorts of erased lines and moved walls. It’s safer, not to mention cheaper, to do it when it’s just pencil marks. Same thing with a story. It’s easier to fix plot holes and add new ideas when you’re dealing with a few thousand words in an outline versus tens of thousands.

Second, don’t be rigid in the structure of your outline. For every plotter I know, there are different ways to outline. They’re like snowflakes — no two are alike. Make it work for you. My outlines look like a few pages of paragraphs, each one numbered and in order. I start with CHAPTER 1 (or PROLOGUE, but don’t get me started on that one), and then I write out a brief, quick sketch of what that chapter should be about. If I have a particular line of dialogue already in mind, I’ll put it in there. Then I move on to CHAPTER 2, CHAPTER 3, and so on, until I have a high-level map of the novel. By the time I’m done with it I’ve worked out the general plot, made sure it made sense (in as much as good fiction can), and that I hit the beats I meant to hit. Then, if I have someone I like to bounce things off of, I’ll have them look at it to make sure I didn’t miss anything. If they say I’m good, then I motor on. If that sort of outline works for you, go for it. If not, chart your own path.

Third, don’t be afraid to be inspired. Just because your outline said that chapter three had go one way doesn’t mean you can’t go another way. If heading in a different direction doesn’t change the overall flow, great. Your outline is preserved. If it does, then go back to the outline and look for where alterations further down the line need to be made. In my experience I rarely make big changes from my outlines. The story I worked out is nearly always the story I end up with. But, I’m often making small changes, little tweaks here and there to add more drama and character moments. And I love doing that. One big complaint or argument that pantsers have against outlining is that it takes all the surprise and sense of discovery out of writing. To them I say, “Feh!” I’m constantly surprised at the things I come up with while writing, the discoveries I make. For example, in my current work-in-progress, chapter five is described as starting with my point of view character being taken into a city and put before one of the book’s antagonists. But, when I sat down to write, it didn’t make sense to jump that character right to the city. There was a good distance he had to get through to be there, so why not create a scene where he is forced into a cramped space and treated like livestock until the city came into things? It wouldn’t necessitate any changes in my outline, and it would let me get some information out in a way that made sense and was natural. My outline was preserved, it still worked, but I still had room to write and be creative.

So you see, outlining doesn’t have to be boring or spirit crushing. Not in the least. In fact, when done right, it can let your writer’s spirit really soar, because you have confidence in the story you’re going to tell before you start telling it, and you know you still have room to fly around and see what else is out there to discover along the way. I’ve found the process to be rewarding and very fulfilling. If you give it a shot, maybe you will too.

Okay, that’s it from me. I hope all that made sense, and that you got something out of it.

Peace…