the writer's arsenal: organized vs. overkill

Every now and then, I plan to do a blog about some aspect of the writing/publishing journey as I assume many of you reading this blog have an interest in those topics. I've learned quite a bit about both sides of the publishing business over the years I've been in it, and what good are tips and advice if you don't pass them on?

I'm calling this series The Writer's Arsenal because publishing can be brutal and every aspiring (and published!) author out there needs the right tools if they want to survive. I'm not just talking about a computer or pen and paper (though those are important too), I'm talking about skills, habits, and mindsets--those things that you can't just stock up on the next time you're at Office Depot. A writer needs a lot of tricks up their sleeve if they want to survive.

To kick things off, I want to talk about getting organized. Whether you're a heavy outliner or not, every writer does something to get organized before delving into a project. Personally, the very first thing I do when an idea hits is try to write the type of short blurb you'd see in a query letter (which we'll discuss in a future post). It's similar to the synopsis on the back cover of a published novel--just a few paragraphs that give you the setup and the hook. If I can nail that, I know I have a decent story on my hands. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it should capture the idea in an exciting way. From there, I'll do a loose chapter-by-chapter outline that is guaranteed to change as I go, but it gives me a basic road map of where I'm starting and where I want to end up, which somewhat helps with writer's block as I go.

Some writers simply write. They think of a great idea and just dive in. I don't think I could ever do that myself, but I see how some people can. On the other side of the spectrum, there are writers who start by taking the time to do heavy outlines, character sketches, maps, etc. If you're writing a novel that requires world building, it's definitely important to keep your facts straight and you should have a story bible where you keep everything handy--continuity is key--but sometimes we get so wrapped up in getting organized for a project that we run out of steam before we even leave the gate.

It's important to never lose sight of what you're trying to accomplish--writing a book. The absolute hardest part of writing a book isn't having a good idea, it's actually finishing the book. I could probably build an empire on the piles of unfinished manuscripts out there.

"I can't start until all of my pencils have been sharpened to a perfect point!"

There is such a thing as being too organized and if you spend more time doodling the exact curvature of your protagonist's wavy auburn hair than you do getting words onto the page, you're spending too much time getting organized. Same goes for writers who need to thoroughly check their email, or their Facebook, or have nine more coffees before they can start. At some point, you need to push past these distractions and start writing. You may be surprised to find that the character you planned out so carefully takes on a completely different personality once you put him into action. Characters can be funny that way. One of the wonderful things about writing is how the story can take on a life of its own and before you know it, you'll just know what needs to happen next, not to mention how every one of your characters will react to it.

But you'll never get to that point if you don't start writing. And keep writing. Another major pitfall is the need to "get organized" before each and every writing session. Unless you're re-plotting or making notes after a major light-bulb moment, don't go back to your outline and revise character sketches or other details. Keep the organization concise. That outline you spent hours perfecting is bound to change as you go so don't let it consume you. It just needs to be enough to get started. Then get to writing. It's the only way to finish your novel.

Have an idea for a writing or publishing related topic you'd like me to cover? Leave it in the comments!