Monday, 28 November 2011

A Writer's Methods: Using an Outline

Over the next while I will be posting a few observations on methods I’ve chosen to follow as an author. I hope that those of you who are beginning to write your own fiction may be able to find something useful in my approach that you can apply to your own work. I invite you to add your own comments and links!

I thought I’d begin with a step that always draws much debate: to outline or not to outline?

Many writers use an outline to plan their way through a story, but others react rather violently to the entire notion. “I know where I want to start, and I know where I want to end. The journey from Point A to Point B is what makes writing fun!” they insist.

Fair enough. I understand completely the need to feel free and unconstrained. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life, and no two writers approach their craft in exactly the same way, or else we’d be stuck reading computer-generated fiction rather than stories produced by the wonderfully quirky human imagination.

Consider, though, all the elements you have to juggle over the course of writing your manuscript: maintaining a balance between “showing” and “telling”; developing your characters and staying consistent within them; making sure your dialogue is not only realistic but, again, consistent to each character; setting a pace from chapter to chapter and ensuring that the reader is moved constantly forward…. There’s an awful lot to keep track of as you’re writing your story.

I’ve found there’s a certain amount of comfort to be found in working from an outline when I’m writing the actual manuscript. It’s like working with a safety net. Most of the risks have been worked through and planned for. I know not only where I want to start and where I want to end up, but also how I want to get there and what I want to accomplish on the journey.

These last two points are important. If you write an outline of your story first, you’ve made a dry run through your plot and proven to yourself that it works and that it will be something readers will want to read as you’ve designed it. In addition, you’ve blocked out the themes you want to explore and have either embedded them into the storyline or at least spotted places where you’ll be able to bring them out. You’ve also had a chance to watch your main characters move through your plot and perhaps found opportunities to develop them that didn’t occur to you up front when the “great idea” formed itself in your head.

During the outline process you may also have an opportunity to do most of your research and collect the information you’ll want to use during the story-writing process. Because you’re working with the storyline and characters at a somewhat lower level than when you got that “great idea,” you’ll be picking and choosing the subject areas you want to focus on as you write the story, and identifying those which need a bit of research before you’re comfortable writing about them. The outline phase is a great opportunity to dig around. Sometimes, when you run into plotting snags as you’re writing the outline, a bit of research will suggest a solution to the problem you hadn’t considered before. It may even suggest an entirely new direction for your plot or subplot.

You’re working with ideas in the raw, mixing and matching, picking and discarding, tinting and coloring, weaving and unweaving and weaving again until you like the way it will look.

As I say, by writing an outline first you decide how best to move your readers from the beginning to the end of your story. As well, though, you have a chance to bring a very clear focus to what you want to accomplish on the journey from word alpha to word omega, and I want to stress this point a little before I get down off my soapbox for today.

Designing a story involves a lot of problem-solving, as I mentioned. When things aren’t working the way you initially imagined them in a particular scene or with a particular character you need to back up a step and take a second look. Why doesn’t it work? What do I need to do differently here to make it work? 

Most often the solution to these various problems will come more easily if you ask yourself the following: what the hang am I trying to accomplish here? What’s my point? What’s my objective?

When I’m writing my manuscript and working from an outline, I know every morning when I get up and turn on my computer where I am in the story and where I need to go next. I’m following a plan. Most importantly, I know which chapter I’m working on and WHAT I WANT THAT CHAPTER TO ACCOMPLISH. The best stories are well-crafted, and much of the craft involves deliberately leading the reader from point to point to point, hitting each note clearly and in the correct key.

Lest you think this approach to writing lacks creativity, spontaneity and freshness, consider this: I haven’t actually told this part of the story yet, have I?

I’ve imagined it, I’ve planned for it, but I haven’t told it yet.

Now comes the part that’s the most fun for me: actually telling the story. Choosing the words, finding the rhythm, imagining the reader with me now, word for word, as we watch my characters actually perform the dance with all the emotion, pathos, violence, grit and humanity that I’ve been planning for, all this time. How long have I been anticipating this moment of telling? Getting impatient for it? Knowing how good it could be? Now finally, here it is, this scene I’ve been building toward for the last few days, here it is, the payoff!

How delicious to write those passages I knew were coming and worked so hard to set up. These are the times when I look up at the clock, see I’ve been writing for four hours and wow! where did the time go? And there it is. On the page. Done. The dance has been danced.

So. What’s next?

Back to the outline for my next cue.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Follow Friday, Nov. 25, 2011

It's another edition of Follow Friday, as hosted by and This week their featured blogs are Books and Beyond and The Book Addict. Be sure to hop over to these fine blogs and take a look.

Today's question is Thanksgiving themed: what are you thankful for (blog related)? Who helped you along the way? What books are you thankful for reading?

There are many people in my life I've been very glad to have known, and grateful for their help, including my parents, my wife and my son. In terms of writing, though, to remain within the scope of the question, I'd say I'd have to reach way back to high school to begin with. English teachers Bill Tapp and Smokin' Joe Carey were a perfect good cop-bad cop combination who not only insisted that I must write well but that I could. As an undergrad at Trent University I was fortunate to study under New Zealander Geoffrey Eathorne, who introduced me through his Comp Lit course to The Viper's Knot (Francois Mauriac), The Counterfeiters (Andre Gide) and other remarkable stories (in translation) I might otherwise have overlooked. As a grad student at Queen's University I was very thankful for the kindness of John Stedmond who, although an 18th century specialist, stuck with me manfully as I ploughed through my thesis on Sherwood Anderson, and to second reader Kerry McSweeney, who wrote stuff like "fatuous" in the margins and was, of course, correct. Another excellent good cop-bad cop combo.

There are so many books I'm glad I've read that it's hard to focus on just a few. Perhaps one of the most special for me was Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, which I read as an impressionable teenager and still think about quite often. Just the names Cooger and Dark still give me chills. This novel taught me that the darkness can still produce enlightenment.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A Different Kind of Morning

Of course, today would be a day I have to go into town to do a bunch of stuff, so naturally there would be a surprise ton of snow on the ground when I got up!

My word, they were forecasting freezing rain and I'm very glad we ducked that one. Ever since the horrible Ice Storm that hit eastern Ontario in 1998 I'm deathly afraid of freezing rain, and I'll take snow instead any day. But I have to admit I wasn't quite ready for this much snow on the ground, piling up to about a foot on my driveway.

As I sat here a few minutes ago, cramming caffeine into my blood stream getting ready to go out and clear the driveway, I watched the blue jays, cardinals, juncos and other regular visitors try to find something at our bird feeders, which are covered with snow. Then they all disappeared. After a few minutes I discovered why, when this hawk, shown on the left, landed authoritatively on a branch right outside my window and began to survey the yard for stragglers. It's not much of a picture, shot in haste through the window, but it looks like it's a sharp-shinned hawk. Tough-looking little fellow.

Things change so quickly. One day we're having record mild weather for November and the next I'm getting ready to go out and start my new snowblower. Now, as I type, the juncos and cardinals are ducking in and out of the mock orange bush right in front of me, against the verandah, trying to verify that the hawk has gone to better hunting grounds before making another try at the feeders.

Nature copes, it adapts to whatever the morning brings, it follows the curve and takes whatever experience gives. A good morning lesson for me to remember....

Monday, 21 November 2011

Ottawa Authors and Artisans Fair 2011

Yesterday I was very pleased to be a part of the annual Ottawa Authors and Artisans Book Fair, sponsored by the Ottawa Independent Writers, to sign copies of Blood Passage and The Ghost Man. It was a very busy afternoon and I had an opportunity to chat with a great many interesting people, which is what makes these events so special for me. Thanks so much to everyone who stopped by my table. I enjoyed meeting each one of you.

As always with book fairs such as this, I was able to take a few minutes to get to know some of my fellow authors and their work. Jasmine Aziz was signing copies of her novel Sex and Samosas while children's authors Neven Humphrey and Claude Cardinal, Margaret Singleton, vampire novelist Patricia K. McCarthy and Darren Jerome, who writes short stories based on the history of the Rideau Canal as Craig McCue, were also in attendance.  I spent a pleasant afternoon chatting with Laurel Balsor Pardy and her husband Gar Pardy at the next table. Laurel was signing two books, one a historical novel based on her ancestor and another a collection of essays and anecdotes drawn from her experience as the spouse of a Canadian diplomat.

Congratulations and many thanks to the OIW executive for having organized this event and to Randy Ray for the publicity.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Chapters Kanata Book Signing

This afternoon I appeared at the Chapters book store in Kanata to sign copies of Blood Passage. It was a very busy day with everyone getting a head start on their Christmas shopping, and I was happy to be able to chat with many very interesting people. As you can see, I was right at the front of the store next to an island featuring the new book on Stephen Jobs, which drew a lot of interest.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by and bought a book, and a special thanks to Fred Lemay, a former Canada Customs colleague whom I hadn't seen in quite a few years. Fred, you're always a pleasure to talk to! Special thanks also to William and Roberta Sherman of the Pen and Paper group for sharing part of their afternoon with me. Much appreciated.

In addition, thanks to Kevan and Shelley of Chapters Kanata for their help, their kindness and their infinite patience.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Book Signing Weekend

Although today is Friday, I've decided to skip the usual Follow Friday blog hop in order to concentrate on preparations for this weekend's book signing events.

Just a reminder that I will be appearing tomorrow, Saturday, November 19, 2011 at the Chapters Kanata in Ottawa, Kanata Centrum, from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. to sign copies of Blood Passage.

On Sunday, November 20, 2011 I will be appearing along with my fellow Ottawa Independent Writers at the annual Ottawa Authors and Artisans Fair from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Room 203 of the Jack Purcell Community Centre in Ottawa, located just off Elgin Street. For more information on this event, click here.

Next week things should settle down, my nerves will be less jangly and I can get back to regular blogging, tweeting and, oh yeah, writing!

Monday, 14 November 2011

Reminder: Chapters Kanata This Saturday

Here's an early reminder to readers in eastern Ontario that I will be appearing at the Chapters Kanata this Saturday, November 19, 2011 from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. to sign copies of Blood Passage.

This is a golden opportunity for you to get a head start on your Christmas shopping and pick up a special gift for the avid reader on your list!

The Chapters Kanata store is located at Kanata Centrum, 400 Earl Grey Drive. See you there!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Salvage Sunday

So I'm driving home from town at noon today, a fifteen-minute drive on a few back roads that are relatively quiet, and at the half-way point I stop at an intersection and notice a car door sitting on the shoulder of the road. No cars in sight, no people anywhere, just a red car door sitting there.

Curious, which I guess is my middle name, I pulled over and got out for a look. It was a car door, sure enough. Red. No handle. Big dent and a scrape in the middle of it. It must have fallen off a junk yard truck.  The driver must have been bringing a load to his scrap yard, stopped a little abruptly at the intersection or took off a little too quickly, and the door fell off the load without being noticed.

I was about to get back into my car when I realized the window was still in the door, and it looked unattached. Curious (my middle name, again), I reached down and sure enough, I was able to pull the window right out of the door. It was a driver side window from a Honda. (No, I won't ship it to you.) Stricken by inspiration, I threw it into the trunk of my car, left the door where it was, and drove home.

Here's what I'm going to do with that darned window. It has a really cool tapered shape, almost like a fish's fin. I have a large white pine tree back on my property that was blown down in a wind storm last year, and I've been bringing up chunks of it now and again to do stuff with. So I'm going to cut a chunk of pine big enough to make a slab coffee table,  put that window on top of it, trim the pine to conform to the cool finny shape of it, and have it as a glass top outdoor table. How neat is that?

Of course, I was supposed to come home with beer and I forgot. But I did come home with a car window. Close, right?

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Plaid Raccoon is happy to note that avid readers have now passed the 1,000 mark in downloads of Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel publications on Smashwords since July of this year. Since this is an average of about 250 downloads a month, the Raccoon thinks this is pretty good for starters.

Thanks very much to everyone for your support!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Follow Friday, Nov. 11, 2011

Yes, it's another edition of Follow Friday, as hosted by and This week their featured blogs are Motherlode, a.k.a. Grace Krispy, and The Book Nympho. Be sure to hop over to these fine blogs and take a look.

Today's question is an appropriate one on this 11.11.11: Tell us about your favorite soldier and how he or she is saving the world.

I've chosen to honor the memory of two family members. My grandfather Harry Brook (left) lied about his age as a boy to join the British Army and saw action in the Boer War. Later he was on the ground with the 4th Middlesex of the British Expeditionary Force in World War I and become known as one of the "Old Contemptibles" who defied the Kaiser. He suffered a leg wound in Belgium that bothered him the rest of his life.

My uncle Wilfred McCann (right) was born and raised in Westport, Ontario. He was killed in action in France during World War II, far too young and much too far away from home.

My respects to all veterans and their families who are marking this day. We're very grateful for their sacrifices.


Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Blood Passage E-Book Giveaway

That's right folks, now's your chance to grab a free copy of Blood Passage in the e-book format of your choice. Simply bang on this link: and enter coupon code NC87T to download a free copy of the first Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel.

Don't delay, because this current giveaway expires at 8:00 a.m. Pacific time on November 12, 2011 (by Smashwords reckoning).

Enjoy the book, folks!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Life, Interrupting

Recently I read a tweet from Rick Mofina, a local mystery author, reminding his followers that writers must show discipline and write every day in order to be a success. I realize the truth in his words and I think about long stretches I've had where I've been able to hit the keyboard every day and produce, and believe me, those times are golden.

Recently I've been able to publish the first Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel, Blood Passage, complete the manuscript for the second, Marcie's Murder, and write the outline and about 20 per cent of the draft of the third book in the series, The Fregoli Delusion. I consider this to be pretty good output, but for the most part 2011 has been a difficult year to maintain the pace. Without getting specific, I’ve found that the world has a way of taking over your life despite your best efforts to resist. Those golden hours have been very scarce this year.

Perhaps worst of all in terms of time stealing has been the work necessary to market Blood Passage. Every writer out there with a book to flog knows what I’m talking about, especially when I say that this summer marked my first entry into the e-book universe and online marketing. Again, without getting specific, I can tell you I’ve opened up 25 different online accounts so far that are connected to the production and marketing of my book. Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest. A year ago I swore I’d never be dumb enough to do online banking. Are you kidding me?

But the brain has ways of compensating, and through experience I’ve learned to keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut, because while life is busy interrupting me it’s also revealing itself. If I’m observant, it may show me something resonant.

This week is a good example. Yesterday morning I couldn’t get anything done because I had to drive into town for an appointment, then make several other stops before I could come home. But by the time I walked out of the office after the appointment I had a full-blown protagonist and his environment expanding like a balloon inside my head, based entirely on what I’d seen and heard in the building while I was there. Then this morning I had to take the car in to have the winter tires put on. While I sat there waiting I borrowed some paper from the guy at the service desk and wrote an overview of the storyline around this character, realized it was too similar to a well-known crime novel I won’t name, tore it down and wrote a better one that I know will work. When I got home after lunch, I spent the afternoon online doing technical research to begin fleshing in the details. Next on the agenda will be the outline.

I’ve discovered that writing the actual fiction engages my brain differently than this other stuff. It requires deep concentration and emotional equilibrium. I’ve discovered, for example, that if I begin the morning by writing a blog post and commenting on other blog posts, tweeting on Twitter and all that other stuff, my brain sometimes finds it difficult to switch gears and slip into that semi-coma which produces pages of actual story. Perhaps it’s a question of different brain waves or something. If I can’t slip into that semi-coma, I’ll move sideways into background sketches or whatever I can do to contribute toward the overall construction of the story that needs to be written.

Writing for many of us is a compulsion. It’s something we have to do. When we can’t get at it, it eats us alive.

So to compensate, we do whatever it takes not to be defeated by life’s interruptions.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Indie Music Note

Thanks to this great, buzzing, crowded, noisy platform on which we're all working, trying to draw attention to the product of our creativity, it's possible to find all kinds of wonderful people doing terrific things.

In another post dedicated to our brothers and sisters in the indie music scene, I'm pleased to direct your attention to Michael Martyn, formerly of the Michael Martyn Trio. His current website is deliberately cryptic and offers little more than a selection of mp3s and some great photos, but if you want to hear a guy with an acoustic guitar and a compelling voice singing some very good songs, bang on this link and enjoy:

I did a bit of a Google search looking for background on Michael and discovered he was active a few years ago in my home town, Peterborough, Ontario, and was organizer of the Peterborough Folk Festival. His Myspace page and Twitter profile (@michael_martyn) tell us he's now employed by the city of Orillia, Gordon Lightfoot's home town. As I say, his current website is a little cryptic and I think it's because he's offering us a challenge: listen to the music as it is, and judge it on its own merits. Well, all I had to do was listen to "Long Way Down" and I was convinced. (By the way, I hope it's okay that I copied your pic and stuck it here.)

Record the rest of that stuff you mentioned, Michael. And good luck.

Thanks to Kate Burns, Ottawa author of The Ophelia Trap, for a great tip in her blog, which you can read here:

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Book Signing, Ottawa Small Press Book Fair

Today I appeared at the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair to sign copies of Blood Passage. It marked the public debut of The Plaid Raccoon as a small press in the small press crowd, and he got through the event without rummaging in the trash can or stealing anyone's corn. I also had with me copies of The Ghost Man, my first novel, in case anyone was in the mood for supernatural fiction.

Book fairs like these are an opportunity to meet a wide range of interesting people, and today was no exception. Friend and fellow OIC members Jasmine Aziz and Dwight Williams were in attendance. Thanks to Jasmine for snapping the photo above.

I also had a chance to meet Juliana McDonald, a visual artist with a remarkable vision. She was displaying a small portion of her 16-foot "book" consisting of photographs and text rendered as transfers mounted on acrylic, and was selling small hand-made versions of the book printed on vellum paper. I highly recommend a look at her website, Her work is quite amazing and the book is exquisite.

I also chatted with Marcella Kampman, who has published a book retelling Sumerian myths in an interpretation suitable for young readers. Inanna, Goddess of Love is visually very attractive and the stories are  well-told.

All the best to everyone in attendance today.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Follow Friday, Nov. 4, 2011

Yes, once again it's Follow Friday, hosted by Alison Can Read and Parajunkee, with this week's feature blog The Magic Attic.

This week's question is an activity, to post a fun pic either with our current read or doing something we enjoy doing.

It's way too early in the morning to take a picture that wouldn't scare people real bad, so instead I'll pull this pic from my jump drive. It shows me doing something I enjoy tremendously, giving my energetic border collie a hug. Cody showed up in our yard one day and decided to adopt us. I usually tend toward labs, but this guy was a revelation. Anyway, here we are.

Oh yeah, while you're here, give my book trailer a quick peek and tell me what you think. Appreciate it!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Saturday Ottawa Small Press Book Fair

Just a reminder to everyone in eastern Ontario that I will be appearing at the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair this Saturday, November 5 from noon to 5:00 pm in Rm. 203 of the Jack Purcell Community Centre, just off Elgin Street.

We will be flying the colours of The Plaid Raccoon Press and I will be signing copies of Blood Passage, the first Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel, but I will also be signing copies of my first novel The Ghost Man, which is supernatural fiction.

Hope to see you there!