In which the author fails to outline

So, last night, after work, I broke out a new! yellow pad, drew a black pen and a red pen from stores and retired to the sofa to consider Carousel Seas, Socks sitting as consultant.  Since I’ve now heard from two beta readers to the effect that Carousel Sun makes sense, I feel reasonably confident in moving on with the story.

Now, usually, I work outline-free.  Which is to say, I’ll sketch in some notes, some bits of dialog, some questions that the narrative ought to address,  but that’s pretty much it.  At some point, I’ll feel like I have Enough Stuff to start typing. I type for the first, oh, third of the book, then I read what I have and see what the threads are, and consider where they’re going.  From that point on, I’ll make chapter-going-forward (or scene-going-forward) notes and so on until the thrilling conclusion.  This method is somewhat uncertain, and can become a little hair-raising in the face of serious auctorial illness or a severe bout of depression, but in general it Works for Me.  And, no, it’s probably not how grown-up writers do it.

Having said all that, I will confess that I have worked from an outline once or twice — for values of having produced an outline, which I then threw away when the story took a left turn.  After all, I’m usually under contract for a novel, not an outline, so the outline is, IMNSHO, disposable*.  From these early experiences, I learned that outlines (for me) are pretty much useless.  That scene-sketching, writing bits of dialogue, and being open to SFoG (Sudden Flashes of Genius) is much more useful to what we’ll dignify as My Process.

The trouble with all of this being that, due to mostly having day-jobs during my formative years as a writer, I’ve been pretty much a Night Writer.  Brain turns on at 5:00 p.m. and we’re off to the races.  Early in the day, I’ll edit what I wrote yesterday, and maybe noodle out some notes, but the actual work happens late in the day.  This needs to change, at least somewhat, due to Reasons, and it occurred to me that it might make the transition to Day Writer easier if I had a road map to assist my daylight-shocked brain.

And I sat there on the couch, with my pen poised over the nice, new yellow pad, with Socks, remember, consulting. . .and wrote down the questions left over from the previous book; other things I think need to be addressed, going forward…and flipped the page, thinking, “Outline.  It’s not hard.” . . .and got nowhere and, finally, gave up, because, yanno, how can I outline something that hasn’t happened yet?


This would seem to be a bigger conceptual change than I had thought.

So, writers who read here — outline or no outline?  And!  If outline, how do you outline something that hasn’t happened yet?


*I was at Boskone on a panel with a writer who swore that he produced 130-page outlines.  Which, full disclosure, seems nuts to me.  He then went on to explain that he’d gotten to the point in the current project where he realized that the outline had misled him, and was in the position of having to tear out 9,000 words — or possibly start the book over; it was Sunday afternoon, I was tired, and he was heated — and the deadline was looming.  Which only serves to reinforce my own feelings regarding outlines:  They’re only going to betray you in the end…

And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again…

Yeah, been listening to folk music again.  It’ll pass.

We’ve been busy here on a very near-end deadline — lots of sticky-tabs involved.  Tomorrow, I have an early doctor’s appointment, and errands in town.  Then, I really ought to get with plotting (for values of “plotting” that includes staring moodily out the window, but does not include creating a 130-page outline) Carousel Seas.

Over on Facebook, this image surfaced:

This is a piece of artwork, somewhere. It came to me with no attribution
This is a piece of artwork, somewhere. It came to me with no attribution The ever-resourceful Pedanther allows me to know that the piece above is entitled “The Long Awaited,” by Patricia Piccinini (


…but it reminded me of a story I read, ‘waaaay back in the Dark Ages, which I believe was by Daphne du Maurier.  Of course, I can’t recall the title.  And of course the fact that I can’t remember the title is making me crazy.  So, I’m throwing this out to y’all, you well-read bunch, you.

The plot of the story as I remember it is:  a woman becomes acquainted with an extremely disagreeable family — mother, sister, and boy in wheelchair. The boy in the wheelchair is beautiful, but there seems to be no one home. The mother mistreats — or at least is not very kind to him. Perhaps the whole cast of characters is vacationing at the seaside. Our viewpoint is infatuated with the boy because of his beauty and wishes to stand between him and his mother’s spite. At some point, it occurs to her that he seems less… lethargic… around water and she takes him down to the sea, whence he escapes his wheelchair.

…that’s all I’ve got.

Anybody recognize this story?

Hope everybody who was in the path of stormy weather over the last couple of days is warm and dry.


Oh! The snow, the beautiful snow, Filling the sky and the earth below

It snowed, did I say?  I have no idea how much actually fell here at the Cat Farm — this due to high winds that blew everything every-which-way.  The weatherbeans were calling 18-24 inches (46-61 centimeters).  I can’t argue with that.  It was certainly more than enough for my shoveling needs. Happily, however much it was, it was Light! and Fluffy!

Around about 1:00, the plowman cometh — actually, the plowman’s little boy, who I first saw only one or two winters ago, riding shotgun in his dad’s truck, hood pulled up ’round his face, snow matting the fur, and a Four Sol grin on his face at the magic of it all.  Today, he was driving the truck; sitting shotgun was a kid with a fur-trimmed hood spangled with snow pulled tight around a very serious face. . .

It seems — again, with the wind, it’s hard to tell — but it seems as if the snow’s over, for this storm.  I’ll have some cleanup shoveling to do tomorrow, on the steps and the deck.  Everything ought to be back to normal, in terms of transportation, mail, and stores being open for business, on Monday.

For those playing along at home, I have three — possibly four — more scenes to finish for Carousel Sun.  I had hoped to finish those today, but that was before I took a four-hour nap.  Tomorrow, then.

Looking forward to next week, there are various things I need to do in service of the Real World before we hand the house and the cats over to Mary and head down south, to Boskone.  Looking forward to seeing folks at the con, and celebrating the Liaden Universe® Silver Anniversary, and the release of Necessity’s Child!

Hope everyone is warm, and dry.


Contract vs. Spec

One of the things I touched upon in my talk at the Fairfield Library last month was the difference between writing a book under contract and writing a book on spec.  I like to expand on that here.

In general, working writers — by which I mean those who intend that the fruits of their creativity will form as a significant part of their income stream, and who intend to labor in the fields of their creativity for A Long Time — working writers prefer to write under contract.

There are a couple of good and compelling reasons for this:

1.  A contract brings with it an advance (i.e. “advance against royalties”), aka Money Up Front, which is always welcome.

2.  A contract is a publisher’s commitment to publish.  It’s. . .comforting to know that your finished work will be available for readers to purchase.

Like anything else, there’s also some downside to writing under contract:

1.  You have a deadline by which your work must be turned in.

2.  Within reason, you’re obligated to write the book your editor bought.

When you write on spec (“speculation”), the advantages and disadvantages are reversed.

1.  You’re working for nothing and living on dreams.  You get neither up-front money or guarantee that your book will ever be published.


2.  No deadline for delivery means you can take as long as you want or need; and you can polish every word like a pearl.  If the book flips on you in the middle, a stand-alone suddenly becomes a duology,  or a duology a single book — you can go with the flow.

Carousel Tides was written on spec, and for no other reason than I wanted to write it.  Writers get these notions in their heads, sometimes.  I took eighteen months to finish it — a longish time — and it was two-and-a-half or three years’ finding a publisher.  I was fortunate that Madame the Agent handled the submissions, because having an agent greatly speeds up response-time from publishers.

Most of the novel-length work Steve and I have done together, since, oh, 1998, has, fortunately, been written under contract.  I say — and mean — “fortunately” because of the way freelance income flows, if it flows at all.

Ideally, a freelance writer should have a backlist of work generating royalty payments, to support the advances received on new works, and to keep the cash flowing in years when there may not be a new book under contract.  This is why (among other reasons) that it’s a Bad Idea to quit your day-job with the publication of your first novel.  A one-book backlist isn’t enough to stake your mortgage payment on.  Not to mention cat food.

Now, you recall that I said writing on spec gives you freedom to go with the story wherever it takes you, a freedom that contract books do not, entirely, enjoy.

The challenge for a writer under contract is to write the best  book they possibly can, and still keep to deadline and the terms of the contract.  This is not a trivial challenge, and I am all admiration for those writers who manage the trick two, three, or even four times in a calendar year.

The argument exists, that contracts make for inferior books.  I’m not certain, myself, that this is inevitably — or even usually — the case.  While most writers’ first novel is, by necessity, written on spec, someone who wishes to be a working writer cannot afford to write only on spec.  Nor is there much evidence that writing on speculation produces a “better” novel than writing to contract.

In general, I think that contracts work better for readers, if only because books under contract have a great chance of being written and published.

What do you think?

What I did on my day off

As threatened, I worked with my spiffy new layout program, which was remarkably soothing.  I’ve also made a start on a Carousel Tides website.  It’s not by any means done yet; I want to add a cast of characters, and some sample chapters and a post about why I wrote this book — to, yanno, defuse those folks who will ask Why On Earth I wasted my time writing urban fantasy.

If you have a couple moments, do you mind going over and taking a look at the place?  Let me know what you think, and what you might find useful in such a site.

Thanks — and I hope everyone had as relaxing a day as I did.

Was a sunny day

…and a warm one.  Suddenly!  It’s summer, forget about spring.  My daffodils are ready to burst forth in song and it’s only April 3.

This morning’s adventures included a trip to the local hospital’s women’s health fair, which was pleasant, and informative, and left me with a burning desire to learn to dance Zumba.  Unfortunately, it happens that there is a Zumba class taught at the Blue Wave Studio right in downtown Waterville on Thursday evenings.  This could be bad. I can only hope that tuition costs the earth.

I happened to be at the Senior Spectrum table, looking at their display Wii when I heard the woman behind the counter tell a prospective client about the range of activities open to Senior Spectrum members, including trips, and talks by experts, including Maine Authors.  When the spiel was done and the customer gone, I stepped up and offered a card — “My name is Sharon Lee and I’m a Maine Author” —  leading to much laughter.  P’rhaps a gig will come of it.

Back home, I dealt with lunch and retired to the corner of the couch with The Leewit to get some writing done.  What I’m doing right now is writing the bits I know, which means that I have medium-to-large chunks of stuff that has to happen, story-wise.  This will enable me to figure out what needs to happen, plot-wise, since transitions will have to be built to all of these scenes.  So, progress, in a sort-of sideways direction.

Tomorrow is more writing, interleaved with laundry.  Monday, Steve is wanted early at the hospital for outpatient surgery, and I’m his designated driver.

The fun, it never stops.

Hope you — yes, you! — are having a lovely and relaxing weekend, wherever you are.

For those keeping score at home, progress on Ghost Ship is 40,007 out of a projected 100,000 words — about 40% done.

Maybe I’ll figure out how to make the little progress meter work in WordPress some other day.