March 25, 2013

Outlining a Book

By the time I started writing my very first novel-length book, I had read so many different how-to articles, columns, essays and blog posts on writing techniques that I should have been an old pro long before I typed the first word.

The reality is, however, that most of you people -- and you know if I mean you -- don't know what the hell you're talking about. Not that you aren't smart people, or that you haven't figured out how to get the most out of your own writing time, just that you don't know me. You do not have the necessary understanding of my personality, work ethic, bad habits, good habits, and mental deficiencies in order to authoritatively declare what will or will not work for me when it comes to writing a book. Trouble was, having never written anything longer than fifteen pages, neither did I. After piddling around with the idea of writing a murder mystery for a brief period of time, say twenty or so years, I decided to put aside all the conflicting advice and get to it. Write the damn book, already, and get it over with.

So, the experiment began with me believing I could jump in and write the bits I felt strongly about and fill in the open spaces between. It took less than three days to see the error of my ways. In order to maintain consistency of tone and character traits, it would be necessary to start at the beginning and tell the story straight through to the end. But how is a person with a memory like a sieve supposed to do that? With an outline, of course. Easy solution. Outline the story, noting important actions and scenes, to provide a roadmap. Okay. Great idea. Now, how do I go about creating an outline?

The first outline I threw together was a pages-long, micro-detailed rant that essentially was me telling my future self: "Hey, stupid! Write what I'm telling you to write and don't stray an inch from the path laid out for you."

Apparently, not only do I behave like a pissy little girl when other people tell me what to do, it turns out I behave like a pissy little girl even when it's me telling myself what to do. Psychiatrists around the world, had they been able to observe those early days of the writing process, would have had a field day watching me argue with myself about the ridiculous character notes and story elements I was telling myself to force into my own book. The uber-specific outline lasted only a couple weeks before being replaced with something much looser.

Too loose, it turned out. Instead of the seventeen obsessive bullet points per chapter of the first outline, the second outline allowed too much freedom and not enough guidance. It was like suddenly going from living with the most controlling, uptight parents in the world, to living with communal, pot-smoking, free-loving spirits to whom things like goals and objectives were just tools "the man" used to keep you down. Clearly, the proper outline for the kind of writer I was striving to be lay somewhere between the two extremes.

And that's exactly where I found it. A couple bullet points to serve as reminders of the most important things to have happen in any given chapter, a note about a character or important bit of dialogue to introduce here or there, and then get going. Structured, but not rigid. Informative, but not detailed. A roadmap, but one that offers options along the journey.

Now, after having successfully completed two books using this method, I begin two more secure in the knowledge I am gradually moving closer and closer to the realization that I don't really know what I'm doing, but I can fake it if I'm smart enough.

© 2013 Mark Feggeler

March 17, 2013

Salvaging An Idea

Somewhere during the process of writing the first draft of Damage, one of my former coworkers asked if the murder mystery I was writing took place in a hotel. This was not in any way a strange question, since I have worked in the hospitality industry for more than 13 years and have a wealth of stories I have gathered from my experiences. The immediate answer, however, was no, Damage would not involve hotels.

But the question got me thinking how fun it might be to weave some of the bizarre tales I'd heard and lived through at the seven hotel brands I have represented throughout the years into one comical story. A fun murder mystery, in which the mystery is a minor support element to the real story: the interaction between diverse and eccentric characters brought together under the roof of a single hotel.

The biggest problem facing me was this story could not serve as a sequel to Damage. Good or bad, Damage is a serious-minded murder mystery that deals with death and suicide in a manner as realistic as the limits of my writing talents would enable me to present them. There was no way for me to take the main character, Ray, and drop him into a farce without whittling away significant aspects of his personality in order to cram him into lighter fare. So, I cast the idea aside and continued with the more serious task of finishing Damage.

Still, the idea of using the hotel setting to throw some memorable real-life characters together for a night or two nagged at me. Every time I thought I had put it out of my mind, another idea would pop up for a scene or a snappy line of dialogue. Unfortunately, I simply couldn't develop an image of the lead character, the hero. He, or she -- I had no prejudice -- was stubbornly refusing to present himself, or herself.

Then, only recently, while sitting on cold metal bleachers one night and waiting for my sons' hockey practice to end, it struck me. There was a minor character in Damage I had used for a little levity and to help move the action along. A senior reporter at the local newspaper at which Ray works, Walter would be perfect to carry this new comical story. He is opinionated, intolerant, self-centered, sexist and boorish -- all wonderful qualities, to be sure, that did not get much opportunity to shine through when he was merely a supporting player.

Any reservations I might have had about making him the lead for a comedy/mystery vanished when I started giggling like a schoolboy at the myriad ways I could torture him with a hotel full of people he hates. Now, only six pages into the first draft, the ideas are coming so fast and furious I find there's barely enough time to jot one down before the next one comes along.

2013 Mark Feggeler

March 07, 2013

Finding the Right Writing Group

The first, and until recently the only, time I joined a writing group was way back when during my college years.

I had written several short stories, one of which won an annual fiction award sponsored by an alumnus, and had been told writing groups were the thing to do if I intended to be a serious writer. A writing group would offer constructive criticism, support, and a chance to test out on others bits of what I had recently written. So, I joined. After attending only three times, I realized it wasn't for me.

I had absolutely no problem with the constructive criticism I received, because I never received any. Nor did I have an opportunity to sample the support a group of fellow writers might have given me. Nor, again, did I have the chance to receive feedback on my writing from the group.

You see, the problem with the college writing group in question was that it was not so much a collective of writers banded together to support each other as it was a small gathering of bootlickers huddled together to feed the egos of two group members whose poetry had been published by small local presses. These two poets, who cumulatively had not netted enough advance to pay for a pitcher of beer, were the unofficial leaders of the group because they were published. They lorded over the meetings, reading aloud their latest poetic offerings, monopolizing the conversation, and spiking my blood pressure with their dismissal of others in the group. Little wonder I don't care for poetry...

Fast forward twenty-some years, and there I was considering the possibility of joining another writing group, as if I hadn't got my fill of bloated windbags the first time around.

Two ladies from my church, it turns out, had been meeting monthly to discuss the children's books they were writing. My wife, who regularly encourages me to attend author presentations and events at our local independent bookstore, suggested I contact them to ask if I could join their meetings. Reluctantly, I agreed it couldn't hurt to try again. As a result, I've come to realize through recent months that all writing groups are not created equal.

The three of us meet for two hours once a month. We start off talking about recent developments with our existing projects and how we've applied, or disregarded, each other's comments and suggestions from previous meetings. Then, we take turns sharing new writings and inviting criticism. No egos, just simple and honest give and take of ideas, which is exactly what a writing group should be. Best of all, my confidence and productivity have both improved.

Who knew?

2013 Mark Feggeler

March 01, 2013

Welcome to Books by Feggeler!

There's been quite a bit of activity since the start of 2013, even though most of the hard work came long before that.

After more than a year of waiting patiently for me to finish writing about them, the characters of "The Psi Squad" finally saw the light of day when Book One of the series went live in January. Now available as an eBook for Kindle, Nook and Kobo, "The Psi Squad" has already garnered some stellar reviews at Amazon and Written for middle grade readers (age 9-12), this book is intended to help fill the gap between children's literature and more mature YA material. I've already begun drafting Book Two and am very pleased with the shape it's taking.

Click HERE to learn more about "The Psi Squad."

And another project three years in the making became available in February for Kindle, Nook and Kobo in the form of "Damage" -- a murder mystery set in North Carolina. My first novel-length book follows a week in the life of newspaper reporter Ray Waugh as he finds himself personally involved in a murder investigation. This is not a book for kids: there's a little foul language and a bit of violence sprinkled here and there. It is a murder mystery, after all...

Click HERE to learn more about "Damage."

Links to purchase "The Psi Squad: Book One" and "Damage" can be found on the HOME page or by clicking the tabs at the top of this page.