Author Archives: Bob Mayer

Outlining—Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Many Theories, One Concept

How do you organize your life? How do you organize your day? I submit to you that however you do that, that is how you will initially approach organizing your novel. Do you outline your day? Your month? Your year? Your life? Your career?

Once you recognize this, though, you can always change.

I grew fonder of outlining the more I wrote, but then backed off that as I learned to trust my subconscious more and more as I gained more experience as a writer. A novel is very complex when viewed in its entirety, most particularly mainstream fiction. Working without an outline is sort of “winging” it. Remember that an outline is a living document that you can constantly revise and add to as need.

I believe every hour spent outlining prior to starting a novel, saves you many hours in the actual writing process. It also helps you to write a better novel as you will ‘tighten’ down the story in your outline before you write, rather than having to do it in rewrite.

To be honest, I only outlined my first complete novel when I had a contract that called for a complete outline to be submitted to the publisher prior to final approval for the project (and more importantly a portion of the advance was to be paid on acceptance of the outline.). You are going to have to “outline” sooner or later when writing. You can do it as you go along or you can do it before you write. Doing it as you go along often causes you to have to waste a lot of time writing material that either has to be thrown out or be extensively rewritten. It is prudent to do a lot of the thinking work ahead of time.

The major problem in working without a good outline is that you tend to get “stuck” about halfway through. When I first began writing this wasn’t a major problem. My stories were basic and relatively straightforward action/adventure and, while I didn’t have a detailed outline, I did have a good idea of where I wanted the story to go (as they were based on personal experiences) so I managed to blunder my way through. As I tried writing more complex stories, I found myself getting stuck more and more often and having to take days away from the keyboard to work out where the story was going and keep the subplots in line.

When you start your manuscript with your one sentence original idea, you have a relatively blank slate to work with. The further along you get, the less options you have. If you work without an outline, you may find yourself with no options at some point. Or at least no good options. This is, to slightly understate the predicament, not good.

If you combine many of the other chapters in this book such as narrative structure, the beginning, characters, etc. you get a good overview of the pieces you need to put together a novel. Outlining is putting those pieces into a framework. The basis of your framework is that one-sentence original idea that I beat into you early in this book. Then you decide your storyline and the characters who are going to live the story.

I cannot overemphasize (OK, I probably could) how important it is to have a feel for your characters before you begin writing. I consider getting that feel part of outlining—bringing your characters to life.

Outlining is also very critical in keeping your subplots tight to the main plot. You will restrict yourself from going off in tangents if you know at which point in your main story a subplot develops and where and how it will eventually come back and tie into the main story line.

Another advantage of outlining is that since the outline is tight to start with, as you write and add flesh to your outline, you can make the story even tighter.

One of my biggest obstacles to outlining was that I just wanted to get started writing and didn’t want to take a couple of weeks doing the outline. Now I realize how much time in the long run it saves me to stay away from the manuscript and do the outline first.

The degree of detail in your outline is personal. In fact, you may chose not to have one at all. But don’t treat it like the gospel once you do devise one. As you go along the characters will develop a life of their own as will the story. As you fill in details, occasionally these details will cause you to change parts of your story as opposed to what was outlined. None of my recent, more complex novels, turned out the way I thought they would way back in the beginning when all I had was the original idea and some research.

Remember that outlining is an ongoing process just like the writing. If you view a novel in the beginning as a large blank slate, then the original idea is a sentence you write at the top of the page. From there you start your outline, tracing characters and events along the timeline of your story. When you feel you have an adequate outline, you start writing. As the story progresses, you must go back every once in a while and redo the outline, tightening your story down.

I view this for me as writing in surges. I project out my story as much as I know at the time. Then I proceed to write. When I sense that I am losing track, I go back over my outline and fill in what I’ve already written, adding in all the details. With these new details, I redo the outline, tightening down what has yet to be written and making sure it is in congruence with what has already been written. Sometimes, I also have to go back and add a layer to the story, or take a layer away.

There are some critical questions that you must answer before you begin your manuscript. Answer these questions in writing, not in your head. To me, the bottom line on outlining is writing down everything I can possibly think of with regard to the story. You will find that the process of actually writing down those great thoughts you have might knock you up against the harsh rocks of reality. Sometimes it looks very different in black and white on paper, than in color in your brain.

Here are the questions:

What is my one sentence original idea?

Who are my main characters? What are their primary motivations? Do their primary motivations naturally lead them to assume the role they must, in this novel? How did they get these primary motivations? How do I show the reader the characters primary motivations?

Where and when is my setting?

What point of view will tell this story best?

What tone will I have?

What should be my initiating event?

How will conflict escalate?

What will be the moment of crisis for my protagonist?

What is the climax of my story?

How do I maintain suspense/reader interest throughout the novel?

Caveat. Be careful that your writing doesn’t appear to be just a blown up outline. When that happens, the writing appears to be stilted and a little forced. Also, just expanding an outline leaves little room for creativity and allowing the characters to react and “live”. You may have outlined certain events occurring, but when you actually sit down and write your characters experiencing those events, usually you will find that it turns out not exactly as outlined. Sort of like real life. Go with it. Allow your characters to be living beings involved in the story.

Find the degree of outlining that you are comfortable with, but at least consider doing some sort of outline. There are some very successful authors who can break a novel down by sections and structure and crank out certain genre novels according to a “script” they have for that type of book. And, although many don’t like hearing it, there is a formula to some type of novels. Although we all want to be original (or maybe we don’t?), realize that if you are writing a romance and you produce something totally unlike any other romance on the bookshelves you’ve done two things: you haven’t written a romance in the first place, and secondly, when you try to market it, it won’t be viewed as a romance. You may be the trailblazer like those I mentioned earlier and start a new field, but the odds aren’t good. If you feel strongly about your writing, don’t let that dissuade you, just be aware of the reality of the situation.

I definitely feel that updating your outline is important every day when you sit down and try to write chapters. Pick a start point and an end point for every chapter. Then ask yourself how do I get from one to the other? What is the purpose of this chapter? Also look at the chapter in terms of the overall story. Where does it fit? Is this the right time for this to happen? If you don’t have a definite end point, your chapter will meander.

Do you outline?  How do you do it?

189 Years Ago Today: Thomas Jefferson & John Adams died

The Jefferson AllegainceOn the 50th Anniversary of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Book 1 in the Presidential Series THE JEFFERSON ALLEGIANCE a #2 National Bestseller

The 4th of July 1826. As Thomas Jefferson lies dying, he gives his part of his Jefferson Cipher to Edgar Allen Poe, with instructions to take the disks to West Point. In Massachusetts, John Adams entrusts his part of the Cipher to Colonel Thayer, the superintendent of the Military Academy. As Thayer rides away, Adams utters his final words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

In the present, Green Beret Paul Ducharme has been recalled from Afghanistan after the ‘accidental’ death of his best friend, the son of one of the Philosophers. While Ducharme is visiting his friend’s gravesite in Arlington, an old man is executed by a member from the Society of Cincinnati know as the Surgeon, who is seeking to gather all the pieces of the cipher. In a nearby restaurant, former CIA and now Curator at Monticello, Evie Tolliver, waits anxiously for her mentor to arrive, but he’s killed by the same assassin at the Zero Milestone. His heart and the Philosopher’s head are displayed as a grisly message on top of the stone, echoing Jefferson’s famous head-heart letter.

Ducharme and Tolliver, the unknowing heirs to become the next generation of caretakers of the Jefferson Allegiance, team up and must battle the Surgeon to assemble the Cipher and find the Jefferson Allegiance, a document that has kept the balance of power in the United States for over two centuries.

The story is a race back through history and the founding of the country.
This is the first book in a new series: The Presidential Thrillers, each novel based on a historical puzzle left behind by a President. The Kennedy Endeavor will be released in summer 2012.

The Society of the Cincinnati was founded in May of 1783. A leading member was Alexander Hamilton, and the first President of the Society was George Washington. Thomas Jefferson was not allowed membership. The Society of the Cincinnati is the oldest, continuous military society in North America. It has its current headquarters at the Anderson House in downtown Washington, DC.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson, well known for his strong opposition to a standing army, established the United State Military Academy, the oldest Military Academy in North America. In 1819, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, the first college in the United States to separate religion from education. It has its current headquarters in Philosophical Hall on Liberty Square in Philadelphia.

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Thomas Jefferson 1787.

Train Derailment near Write on the River– Dealing with Chemical disasters

TrainWe just had a train derailment the other night here in East Tennessee, along with a fire. The affected car and fire spewed toxic fumes into the air, not very far from our home. While we were not affected, over 5,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

Do you know how to deal with with a chemical attack or accident if it happens close enough to you, that you’re affected?  Here is an Excerpt from The Green Beret Survival Guide

Biological and chemical weapons are normally not weapons of choice for the military because they target indiscriminately.  Even for terrorists they have a high failure rate because even though they can be very lethal there is the problem of delivery and dispersal.  So many variables can affect chemical and biological agents:  air quality, winds, temperature, humidity, and the shelf life of the element itself.

When you consider biological/chemical weapons, you also have to consider accidental release of these agents.  In the case study for this, we’ll discuss the Bhopal Chemical Disaster where over 2,000 people died immediately, and many more have since died along with hundreds of thousands affected.  A factory accident, a train derailment, a lab breach:  all can lead to problems.  Again, looking at your area study, do you have a level four containment facility for biological agents around the corner from you?  Not likely, but what industries are in your area, upwind, or upriver?  Are you along a rail, water or road line on which dangerous agents are transported?

Anthrax is pretty much 100% deadly when it enters a person’s lungs.  A minimum fatal dose is one spore.  However, the spores are highly static and tend to clump together and with dust and dirt, making them too big to actually get into the lungs.  Thus a package containing anthrax would be very dangerous to the person opening it, or an anthrax bomb deadly for those directly exposed to it, but beyond that immediate circle, others could quickly clear the area and be safe, because it has a very low rate of secondary uptake.  This means once it’s on the ground, it tends to stay there.  So if you are in an area where anthrax is released, go to a sealed room and wait it out.

Of more concern is smallpox, because it spreads more easily and is more persistent, although its lethality rate is lower.  The problem is that you must quarantine people who are exposed because symptoms might not appear for several weeks.

One method of dispersal would be of agents via a crop dusting plane.  The plane would have to fly quite low, but if you ever see one in a place where there are no crops to dust, seek shelter.  A good target for such an attack would be an outdoor sports stadium.  Even better, an air show where people expect to see planes.

Another mode of attack would be to put a biological agent into a water supply.  This is one reason to have a filtering system in your house and use it for drinking water.  Even better, use bottled water for all drinking.

You can purchase a gas mask, but the problem is you must know when to put it on and how to use it.

Avoidance is the best defense for these kinds of attacks.  As noted, targets are places where a large group of people are contained in a tight space.  I don’t go to movie theaters (watch it on-demand).  I don’t go to sporting events (can you say Black Sunday?). Ditto on air shows.  When going shopping, go at off peak times, during the week, rather than on the weekend when malls and stores are most crowded.

If you are at home when there is a chemical/biological attack or accident, shut all air intake into the house:  windows, doors, garage.  Turn off your heating/air conditioning.  You do not want air circulating inside the house or coming in from outside.

Choose the room that has the least windows and doors.  Run tape along any windows where there are seams.  Cover the windows with polyethylene sheeting.

LBM Poly 6X8-C “Poly-film” 6 MIL Polyethylene Sheeting 8X10

You should have one room in the house designated as the safe room to survive the initial stages of a nuclear, chemical or biological incident.

SurvivalFinal_KindleBoardsWhen you have all team members and supplies in the room, finish sealing it by taping around the door, paying particular attention to the gap between the bottom of the door and the floor.  You can use a wet towel and then tape it over.  Look for any air vents (either in or out) and seal those with sheeting.


I harp on this all the time, but the true key to survival is PREPARATION. It’s too late when something happens to be prepared.  The Survival Guide has links to a variety of supplies one needs for survival.

Yes, once more Amazon is “screwing” authors: Set to pay them .006 per page

1245957311_the-hurt-locker_1The amount of misinformation and disingenuous commentary on the Internet is exceeded only by the self-interest.

A group of authors who write shorter works are claiming they’re being discriminated against because Amazon has shifted payment in Kindle Unlimited from titles borrowed to pages read. Imagine? I don’t seem to recall a single one of those authors crying out about getting paid the same amount for a fifty-page book as the author who has published a four hundred page book. If I missed your blog about this, please let me know in the comments section.

And apparently, according to this article in the Guardian, the authors who wrote these shorter works are: “A lot of self-published romance authors are disabled, stay-at-home mums, or even a few returned veterans who work in the field because a regular job just isn’t something they can handle,” she says. “People are shedding a lot of tears over this.”

EverythingSo writing is not a regular job? (And don’t get Jen going on the ‘stay at home mum’ thing.) I have no doubt that quite a few authors relying on this have issues. And that the change is hurting many. But last I checked Amazon, and almost every other company I can think of, isn’t in the business of developing their business model to do anything other than succeed. And for those who think I’m an Amazon apologist, please read my other blogs. I always recommend anyone doing business, even as a customer, with Amazon, read The Everything Store. My takeaway from that was that Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos isn’t in it to make a lot of money; he’s in it to win. And that indeed is dangerous to any who do business with Amazon. But that’s the reality.

In Special Forces we were taught winning was everything, so I understand that mindset to an extent. Because losing in that line of work had far deeper repercussions.

Here’s more reality: Kindle Unlimited is voluntary. Let’s accept one fact: a lot of people jumped on board with this because they were gaming the system. Knocking out a lot of short works to gain an inordinate payment under the old system. In fact, at Cool Gus, we adjusted some things for the change, breaking each of our Shit Doesn’t Just Happen books into 7 shorts about each specific catastrophe– I was even interviewed by the NY Times about KU when it first came out.

But overall, authors who wrote full length novels were actually getting screwed. If I’d wanted to game the system, I should have focused on writing five 20,000 words stories (earning $6.60 if all are borrowed) rather than one 100,000 page book (earning only $1.32 if borrowed). Under Kindle Unlimited my income would have been five times what it is. Under the new system, my income is more, as long as those pages get read.  Yes, the caveat of quality.

I’ve been blogging about things that Special Forces has taught me. Another thing I’ve brought into being in business for myself is to not react, but act. Jen and I spent a good amount of time discussing this change and what it means to our business model and plan and how we might need to adjust. No knee jerk reactions. No screaming the sky is falling. And we have to remember that while the Kindle has been around a bit, and eBooks a bit longer, this is still all very new and there will be disruptions in the business. We’re only on day 2 of it. Ah, for the old cro magnon  days of publishing where your royalty statements came in with the pterodactyl carrier.

Here’s one of the most bizarre comments in the article: “By placing the emphasis on length of book rather than quality of book, Amazon is shutting out more than just erotica authors.”

Uh, excuse me? Unless I’m greatly mistaken it’s exactly the opposite. A reader has to read in order for the author to get paid now. Not simply borrow a book and get to 10% of the pages. That would seem to tilt toward quality. In fact, it was those who gamed the system who were focusing on quantity, not quality.

But here’s the real key: Enrolling a title in Kindle Unlimited is a choice. If these shorter works are of quality, here is a simple solution: disenroll them. Price them at whatever is needed to bring in the same royalty (a $2.99 read will earn more, slightly more than $2). Of course, readers might not pay that much for a short read (although it’s less than the average cup of coffee).

Maybe be thankful for the six months during which you made money at the expense of authors of longer works?

But that’s not the way it works. Amazon is the Evil Empire. Except, without Amazon, almost none of those authors who are now indie would be making much of anything or have made much. Apple, Kobo, Nook, etc. did not lead the way in opening up publishing. It was Amazon. So once more, authors turn to bite the hand that fed them. Much like the Authors Guild published a letter in the NY Times, yet every one of them still has their books on Amazon and cashes their checks (eventually after everyone else in between takes their slice).

I’m not saying I like getting paid per page (although I can opt out and only some of my books are in KU for various readers). But I didn’t invent it, and I as Jeff Bezos was quoted: Complaining is not a business strategy.

And let’s point out another fact:  In traditional publishing, an author receives a royalty on a paperback. Let’s say it’s priced at $6.99. The author gets a royalty usually from 8% to 10%.  Let’s be generous and do 10%. So the author gets .70 per book sold. Let’s say the book is 400 pages long.  The author gets a whopping .0017475 cents per page (Authors Guild, rise up!!!). Wait, let’s take out agent 15%.  The author gets .0014853 cent per page.  And that’s giving them credit for every single page. In fact, The Guardian, the same paper, doesn’t seem to read it’s own articles since it points out that  The Goldfinch, the 37th bestselling ebook of the year for Kobo,  was completed by just 44.4% of Kobo’s British readers.

Of course, that’s all as disingenuous as the other arguments since trad authors get advances. But if you’re midlist or below and don’t earn out, you’re not going to be getting many of them.

It’s business.


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