Outlining – Why Bother?

Finding time and energy to write can be difficult enough. If you’re going to add a step to the creative process–one that itself has some disadvantages, as I discussed last week–you’re going to need to get some serious benefits from it.

But in this case, outlining has a ton of things going for it, and some of them directly counteract the effects of the disadvantages. A good outline makes a better book, and makes it easier to get the damn thing written. An outline is a good deal all around.

The number one advantage of an outline is that it is the number one way to defeat writer’s block. Now, I’m one of those who refuses to buy that writer’s block even exists; it’s a convenient excuse, and one that I’ve readily used myself in the past. But when your writing is stalled, I think it’s a sign not that you’re blocked, but that you need to do more thinking.

And that is exactly what the outline forces you to do: get your thinking out of the way early on. You have already gone through the process of figuring out who does what, and when, and why. You’ve already got those scenes mapped out, to some level. And by separating the thinking from the writing means that instead of getting blocked, you can get to the fun part of making the scenes come alive.

But an outline can do even better than this. You have probably had the experience of sitting down to write, and watching the cursor blink for a few minutes before you really get down to the business of making another cup of tea. And maybe petting the cat for a while, and doing some dishes, and painting the porch.

What I’m saying is that writing is often a matter of momentum. When you sit down, it can be really hard to get back into the scene, and to remember what the next paragraph, the next line, the next word was going to be. Each time you return to your manuscript, you’re resetting your mind completely.

An outline gets you past that. It was written by you, as a guide to writing the book; it’s probably the best possible way to get your mind back into the groove. I found that my writing speed picked up immensely without having to wait for the right idea to reintroduce itself to my frontal lobes.

I’m not the only one, either. An outline is the number one piece of advice from SFF Rachel Aaron, who created a sensation a while ago with her blog post (and later e-book) about going from 2,000 to 10,000 words a day. Read it, and check out her e-book as well. If you’re struggling to increase your output, you’ll definitely want to take a look at her advice.

So outlining helps with the day-to-day task of putting words on the page. But it is also, of course, a big picture tool. How many times have you found yourself halfway through a novel, wishing you’d taken just a slightly different approach to that character? How many times have you had to go back and shoehorn a brand new scene into an already completed part of the book?

If you’re outlining, it’s easy to do those things: you go back to the earlier part of the outline and change it. Add a chapter, add six chapters, move things all around if you like. And if you discover that you could add something awesome but that would need wholesale changes throughout the manuscript, you can do that too.

So the outline has a lot going for it: it can make you a better writer in many, many ways. However, as we’ve discussed before, an outline can also have its disadvantages. So next time I’ll tell you the secret to outlining, the thing that made me the outliner I am today: finding your outlining level.

E-book Redistributors: Disadvantages

Cross-posted from the Calamus Communications blog.


E-book redistributors (start here if you’re not familiar with the term) make a compelling case for independent authors: they are an easy and cheap way to get your e-books up on multiple platforms, which can mean higher sales and visibility. There are plenty of other advantages, too. But it’s not all good news.

The main problem with any one-size-fits-all solution is that the size may not fit everyone exactly right, or in exactly the same way. This is definitely the case when you publish an e-book once to get it on a multitude of different sites.

All of the e-book sales platforms require mostly the same basic information about the book, which is why these redistributors work at all. But they also might use this information differently. For example, Amazon allows only seven keywords, and in some cases they have specific uses (for example, the keywords might determine which sub-categories a book goes into).

And some authors have found ways to supercharge their Amazon keywords too – ways that might cause issues on other sites. You want to maximize your sales on all the different sites where your books are sold. For the ease of publishing on multiple sites at once, you could be trading away significant royalty dollars in return.

Another problem is the follow-on sales from e-books. One tried and true means of boosting sales is to include links to other books in the same series or by the same author at the end of every book. If a reader just finished your book and is desperate to read another one, putting a link right there in the e-book might lead to a second sale.

But using a redistributor means that you can’t add those links in. You’ll only be able to put the links in for one site at a time, and some sites, if not all of them, will simply delete links to their competitors’ sites. (Why would Kobo want you to go to Amazon to buy the next in the series?)

Another trade-off is control. You can’t tweak your book to look its very best on every device; all your content has to be at the lowest common denominator among the different sales platforms. And to make sure that your images and content look right, you’ll have to publish the book, and then test it out on each platform or device separately.

It’s always the same story: the trade-off between convenience and perfection. If you’re just starting out with e-books, and you aren’t doing anything complicated with them, you might be fine with the redistributor approach. But you also need to think about what the convenience is costing you, not just in their commission, but in potential sales as well.

In the last post in this series, we’ll look at some of the redistributors who are out there – and recommend our favourite!

Outlining – Why Aren’t You Already Using One?

So I’ve already admitted to being a planner, not a pantser myself. But even if you’ve never written with an outline before, you have probably wondered about it. You might have read an article on it or heard a talk from a successful author about it. Lots of authors swear by the technique. Why don’t you?Plan1

For myself, some of my first few attempts at writing novels started with an outline. Sometimes the outline was a point-by-point breakdown of the plot of the novel; sometimes it was just a couple of paragraphs explaining what would happen in the novel, and when, and why.

These novels never got written – and in many cases never even got started.

In my experience, and for many other writers I’ve discussed this with, this is the primary drawback to writing with an outline. They rob you of momentum. They steal the magic from the process of writing.

And you can even lose that momentum halfway through writing the plan for a novel. By the two-thirds point, you hit the wall and there’s no coming back. You don’t care about the characters any more, you don’t care about the ending, you just want out. And you file that outline away, and never look at it again.

Sometimes, though, you’ll actually finish an outline, and maybe even draft the book from the outline. It might be a short story or a novella, and maybe you did it for an event like a novel marathon or NaNoWriMo. But the book lacks something; it’s too rigid, too mechanical.

I know a novelist of some fame who is an avid outliner; he writes extremely detailed breakdowns of each part of the novel, to the point where every single scene is described in detail before the first draft starts.

I’ll confess that I don’t like his novels. For me, they are clockwork novels; everything is so formally constructed that the twists and turns aren’t interesting and the big reveals are always telegraphed. It feels like a slog to get through the books. I like the author very much, but his books leave me a bit cold.

His novels strike me as the product of too much planning and outlining. And that’s the second major problem with outlines: sometimes the novel feels like it was built to serve the outline, not the other way round.

So these are what I see as the major drawbacks to writing outlines. We can all agree that a non-fiction book needs an outline – especially publishers, who don’t offer a contract without reading an outline first. With fiction, there needs to be a little bit of the unknown, a little bit of magic – a little bit of art – in the books you write.

And if an outline dims that spark of magic, you’re better off writing without one.

Although there are many advantages to writing with an outline. We’ll talk about those next.

E-book Redistributors: Advantages

Cross-posted from the Calamus Communications blog.

Last time I talked about what e-book redistributors are: services that allow you to submit your e-book once, and then automatically publish it to a number of the biggest sales platforms. For an e-book author or publisher, this confers a number of huge advantages.

EbookThe biggest plus is that it increases your reach. One of the keys to higher e-book sales is making them available in as many places as possible, therefore putting them in front of as many customers as possible.

To do this one by one, and figure out the intricacies of each separate platform, would be extremely time-consuming. But by using a redistributor you can have your book published in six different places, almost instantaneously.

It also allows you to manage your published e-books better. What happens when you’ve got an e-book live and on sale in six different places, and you find a typo in the first sentence? If you published it on each platform individually, you would have to create a new version of the e-book and then upload it separately six times. You might even have to work with multiple versions in different formats. That’s a lot of work.

If you are using a redistributor, you change it in one place, and it gets published to all the different places automatically. No need to go to multiple places – and you won’t forget to update one of the sites either.

Sales tracking and payments are much easier too. You can see how books are doing on all the different platforms at once, and at the end of the month you have one set of royalties, not six or seven.

So there are plenty of advantages to using an e-book redistributor, and they are typically well worth the money you’ll pay in commission. The ease of publishing alone makes them worth considering as a writer.

Are they perfect? No, of course not: there are a few disadvantages as well. But we’ll deal with those in the next post.

Outlining Your Novel: Yes, I’m an Outliner

Plan1The argument about whether you should outline your work before you write it or not has almost become a religious war. Both sides are utterly convinced of their correctness, and both sides are in fact correct.

Creative writing is difficult enough without deciding in advance what will work or not work for you. There’s no magic bullet, nothing that will get your book written except writing words, nothing that will get your books to improve except editing and learning and writing more. Those are the only absolutes.

However, the argument about outlining has become so polarized that it’s worth considering whether either side is completely right. In fact, up to a few manuscripts ago, I was not an outliner in any serious way.

I had a rough outline for my novel L.M.F. that was about twenty lines long – I listed where each chapter took place and what major incident took place there. And that one had a fragmented timeline, with two timelines presented in parallel, and the earlier one ending at the point where the later one began. It was complicated enough, and I was new enough to novel-writing, that I needed a rough guide.

But for the novels after L.M.F., I didn’t even put that much thought into what would happen. I would sometimes make some notes when I was done about what would happen in the next scene, or in the rest of the current scene, when I was finishing my writing session and putting the pen down. Otherwise, I relied on the novel’s premise and my own understanding of my characters to figure out how to push the story forward.

The first change, for me, was when I embarked on a novel that had four different points of view. (Not published yet – but someday.) With four interlocking stories, I had to make sure I was balancing them well enough; was Stan in too much, or Zsolt in too little? When did I need to have this crisis, or that one? It took a bit of care and planning, and an outline was absolutely crucial. I ended up making a few handwritten pages of notes in the back of a notebook to get that one done.

Around the same time I was struck with an idea for a science fiction novel. (Not published yet – but someday.) The concept, the characters, and the entire story hit me all at once. I sat down and over two days completed a 9,000-word outline for the book. I started working on it right away, and in five months, writing only on lunch hours and coffee breaks, I had finished the 90,000-word manuscript.

That was the point where I became an outliner, for every book I wrote. I even plot out the general points of a story when I’m writing a shorter piece. But everything has its own document somewhere in Google Docs or Evernote that I can open up, skim through, and figure out what happens next.

So in the religious war, you can put me on the side of the outliners. But I’m still agnostic enough to accept that it might not work for everyone. So if you’re an outliner, what drawbacks do you have to keep in mind as you work? If you’re not, should you consider doing it?

Next time: the problems with writing an outline – all the reasons you haven’t done it before.

E-book redistributors: what you need to know

Cross-posted from the Calamus Communication blog.

AmazonKindleUser2If you’re considering publishing your work as an e-book, you’ve probably encountered the bewildering number of platforms out there. Amazon, Kobo, Apple iBooks, Google Play, Barnes and Noble — all of these sales platforms are worth considering to sell your book.

Just putting the books on one platform is daunting enough; dealing with the many intricate details of this vast array of platforms and getting your book on all of them seems like an impossible task. How do authors do it without taking on e-book publishing as a full-time job?

The answer is e-book redistribution services. These are web-based companies that don’t necessarily worry about selling your books directly to consumers; they’re more interested in publishing books on your behalf on other e-book platforms, and taking a commission on each sale you make.

How do they work?

Publishing a book through a redistributor is not much different from publishing on any e-book platform. You enter the details about your book (like the author, title, blurb, and keywords); you upload a manuscript and cover; and you send it for publication.

The difference is that you do this once, and the redistributor does the work of repeating those actions for every different platform they support. They’ll reuse the book details and put them in the right place; they’ll convert the manuscript (usually from Word or HTML) to whatever format each platform requires; and they’ll jump through all the hoops needed to publish the book. You publish once, they publish a half-dozen times. Pretty efficient!

What does it cost?

Typically, the fees are far from exorbitant. There are no upfront fees, so if your book doesn’t sell (or if the platform rejects it for some reason), you don’t lose anything. And on each sale, the redistributor tends to take about 5% of the royalties. For Amazon, where you’re getting just over $2 for a $2.99 e-book sale, that comes out to only a dime. That’s not such a bad deal.

It takes a little longer for your sales to show up – the platform reports them to the redistributor reports them to you, which delays the process sometimes. And the redistributor typically collects the royalties together for all of the platforms and provides them a month or so after they receive them, which means you get a nice lump sum from all your sales at once, but it might come a little later than if those sales were made directly on the platform.

Are they worth considering?

Given the small slice that the redistributors take in commissions, their efficiency and effectiveness are amazing, and any e-book author should consider using the services. However, there are drawbacks as well. In the next posts we’ll look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of using e-book distributors, as well as review the services that are currently on the market.

How to Get a Literary Agent

Asking “how do I get an agent” is the wrong question. Some excellent advice in this article:

It’s not because self-publishing is the future or because you don’t need an agent in 2014 or blah blah. There’s plenty of room for those discussions elsewhere. It’s just the wrong question because asking it means you think the process matters.

It’s like saying: How do I enter the password? That’s helpful sure, but um, you have to have the actual password first. Chances are, you don’t. None of us do at first.

To make that clear: the password here is to have a really great book. A book with a lot of potential to sell or win awards or accomplish things that people in publishing find important. Actually not just potential, but likelihood, real likelihood of fulfilling it. That might not be easy, but it is really simple.

This is exactly it. The process doesn’t matter; you’re not selling your ability to follow a process, you’re selling a book. The book matters. Worry about writing a great book.

Who’s stealing ebooks?

This infographic makes the case that the cost of ebook piracy is far less than the benefits of DRM-free distribution. It’s not a question of whether copyright ought to exist (which is where this sort of discussion often seems to go); it’s a question of how, in the current technological world, copyright holders are best served.

I knew about TOR Books removing DRM from all of its ebooks a couple of years ago, and by all accounts the experiment was a success. Most e-publishers (e.g. Kobo, Amazon KDP) allow for non-DRM distribution as well, although it’s rightly the author’s choice.

I think we’re going to see that, like the iTunes model, making content easily available for a reasonable price is what will win the copyright battle for the rightsholder. I know I’d much rather buy an e-book from Kobo or Amazon than find it, download it, and sideload it. There’s a real convenience in the current system and I’m willing to pay for it. I’m even put off when people offer free epubs, because I don’t really want to go through the hassle of getting it on whatever device I happen to be using.

I also had a recent issue where I bought an ebook from Kobo and discovered that I was allowed to read it only on their desktop reader, not on any device. I’m not one to stare at my desktop computer monitor for 200 pages’ worth of reading; the question is why that limitation would exist at all. I argued until I got a refund, which is something Kobo doesn’t normally offer. They ended up with hassle, a lost sale, and an annoyed consumer; I ended up without the book I wanted; the author ended up with nothing. We would all have been better off if the content were automatically available for multiple platforms.*

Am I wrong here? Is there any real benefit to keeping ebooks under DRM’s lock and key? I think it’s more likely that we should be working on streamlining distribution, ensuring that when readers want to pay for a book they can, and that everyone else in the chain – retailer, distributor, author, publisher – is paid in the process.


* It’s quite possible that this book was published a long time ago, and the necessary rights couldn’t be obtained from the publisher for some reason. Still, it was on the Kobo store, so it was reasonable to assume it would be readable on the Kobo app.

Coming soon: the Toronto Novel Marathon

In one month I will be running the only kind of marathon I’m likely to finish: the Toronto Novel Marathon. One weekend to write an entire novel. Yeah, that’ll be fun. I’ll be preparing all through July for this gruelling run… uh, this gruelling write.

But there’s a catch: it’s in aid of Renascent, a charity that helps those suffering from addiction in the Toronto area. So I need pledges! Please consider throwing a few bucks in the pot here.

More on the preparations will come as I get closer to the date…

Access Copyright’s Payback Program is open

This year’s Payback Program is now open for registration. If you are a Canadian writer, and have print publication credits to which you hold the rights published from 1993-2012, you can collect royalties from this program.

Don’t know anything about this program? Read the FAQ [PDF].

Here’s where you get into the Payback program.

To be part of the program, you need to register with Access Copyright — and if you didn’t register with them as of the end of last year, you’re not eligible for this year. But that means you should register with Access Copyright today, and be ready for next year.

The reason to get into this program is because you actually get a real, live cheque in the mail every fall. Even with one book in print, you are eligible for a portion of the royalties paid out to writers. It’s pretty nice to get a cheque for a couple hundred dollars every year — it’s not a lot of money, but it feels good.

If you qualify, get registered. If you’re not sure whether you qualify, find out.