Greatness from an Outline: Anonymous Book Review 22—A quick look at plotting complex story arcs and subtext in fiction writing.

I can’t say that I’ve ever written a book review for the categorical best of any genre. That just changed. After reading this graphic novel again, even after watching the movie, I’m more impressed now at the attention to detail than at any time before.

Thought I was pretty good at outlining.

I’m having doubts.

I’m a writer. Like all writers I enjoy outlining, but I also enjoy free writing, too. Nothing wrong with a pantser style when we’ve got to get a story out of us. Reading this book showed me that when working toward perfection a solid outline becomes the GPS.

The success of this story comes on the back of sixty years entrenched clichés, concepts artistic communities had been talking about, and a world in real life wracked by aibiizmdv0k8mhcjuebvexistential tension. The author had a lot to work with. So like a drunken trust-fund brat pissing away a hard-earned family fortune, this author exhausted the collected cultural capitol in a single twelve issue collection. Instead of blurry nights, fast women and fiery car crashes though, he blew his inheritance on a nihilistic monolith that buried in a shallow grave the naïve superhero tropes humanity had grown accustomed.

Whoa, sounds like someone had a big bowl of metaphorios this morning.

Yes. Yes I did.

There hasn’t been a successful sequel, nor can I imagine one. The characters, the social commentary, the conclusion belong to an era. It exposed the clichés, killed them and left only sour irony for future artists.

Until a new commentary evolves.

It all started innocently enough. After having problems personifying a main character in my novel project, I turned to the graphic novel as a case study on archetypal super heroes that played with their strengths and weaknesses.

Yes, I went into it to analyze characterization, instead I’ve picked up a thorough lesson on the potential of organization, on outlining, on plotting.

It’s a graphic novel. Images are as important to the story telling as the dialog and in this one just as technically perfect. There are clues from the very first panels as to how the story will bend. Details that draw you back to the beginning once you’ve reached the finale. Innocuous scenery—end table trinkets, by-standers, litter blowing on the motionless breeze—telling a deeper story than the words alone. To us writers this is the mysterious and alluring art of subtext, a facet of literature that pushes good stories into great tales.

But these effects didn’t come by accident. They were planned and plotted before the first words were lettered. A specific, detailed outline is especially important when working with a partner, particularly since a graphic artist needs time to interpret the story, then produce the visual standards, even if the artist is a certified genius in his own right. Which this guy is. Novels take between six months and a million lifetimes to finish and in that interval important details are, umm, occasionally overlooked. If there’s a lesson to take from this, it’s that a complete and layered outline only multiplies the quality of your work.

I once sat in a crowd absorbed in an hour long speech by the famous sci-fi author, David Brin. He was funny and engaging and spoke in that cryptic language professionally known as nerd. I loved it. In his speech he suggested that all us aspiring writers should begin our fiction careers by penning a murder mystery. His point was that writers would be forced, by the very nature of the genre, to pay close attention to the details, and that the their job was to plant clues in such a way that the reader is dropkicked by the realization that the evidence was in front of them the entire time. All while stretching out the secret for the length of the novel. Solid advice, but I’m not interested in murder mysteries right now and really don’t want to commit to a novel simply for an exercise. Too much work.

Well, this graphic novel is a murder mystery. It starts as a violent and bloody whodunnit. The one person concerned starts tying clues together. The people he comes across describe him and feed in doubt to the course he’s investigating. Alternate history and character back-story knit together, each piece connects to other characters revealing their personalities through the perceptions of the people around them. This subtlety builds a pattern throughout the novel that becomes natural and even succeeds in the nuanced justification for the surprise villain’s opportunity to eliminate his greatest threat.

This is pure showing, no telling. Sure, easy with a comic book, you say. Valid argument, but there’s so much more than that.

At one point one hero narrates his ennui in past, present and future tense. It’s a little confusing at first, though the graphics help to set the context. After a quick re-read the brilliance of the passage sank in. The story wasn’t what had happened in the past, present, or future, but how the elements of those episodes led the character toward his current state. Beyond that, the significance of those episodes led the reader to understand the character’s condition without saying it explicitly.

All the characters are plays on well worn superhero tropes. The brooding detective, the superman, the wonder woman, the rich idealist gadget man, the world’s smartest, and the comic relief. Then these recognizable tropes were turned on their heads and given normal human failings.

So what? Every writer is trying to flip a trope. It’s why there are so many Alice in Wonderland stories right now.

True, but it wasn’t the failings alone so much as the way their normal faults made the superheroes pathetic on the inside. These faults drove tension in the story as the reader came to know the conflicting motivations of the characters.

Within the novel there’s a parallel comic book story. A horrible tale told in the background of a background scene. One character acts as narrator to the overall status of the world while the secondary comic book tale works as an allegory for the mysterious villain’s descent into madness. At first I wasn’t sure this part was needed. Then I put the clues together. Dreadful acts for noble purposes still make monsters.

The details in this book were so diverse that I almost needed my own outline to follow it. Almost. The author kept the detail threads relevant throughout. At no point was I fully lost trying to piece an aspect of the story together that wasn’t purposely obscured. I say purposely because there are small elements set between big details and repeated often enough to matter, yet hidden by seemingly greater things.

Keeping the murder mystery progressing, maintaining the parallel story line, edging in the back-story and narrating in three tense, plus delving into the psychological states and motivations for a vast number of characters while holding them within the narrow limitations of their particular superhero stereotypes could not have been accomplished by writing straight from imagination. There must’ve been massive amounts of time devoted to every aspect. Outlined story development, integrating character arcs, researching many, many topics from physics to psychology to ornithology. There must’ve been years worth of meetings to generate the perfect graphics that fully portrayed the themes, tones and context of the scenes. Drawn before the digital age, there must’ve also been stacks, mounds, mountains of discarded story board drawings.

I personally appreciate outlines. For me they’re where nebulous ideas and kernels of characters gain validity. I also love free writing as stories flow from the ether of my mind. But it’s when I contemplate the completeness of this novel, the cover-to-cover perfection in the art of storytelling that, for me, outlines becomes indisputably necessary. The richness, the complexity, the webs of entangled histories and character arcs have launched this graphic novel into the strata of best.

tl/dr. The takeaway.

I couldn’t find a decent outlining map online. Not one that wasn’t uselessly cartoonish. But here’s my hot take. Outline the overall plot. I like to use this beat sheet for a point A to point B plot-line. I then annotate the main or POV character’s growth points. The points in the story when they learn something in the sub-plot that moves their character business-planning-653x339arc, which then pushes the plot toward conclusion. Within this framework the theme of the story can develop. You can see how the characters and plots work together. It’s also where you can plant meaningful details that tell more to the reader than the words on the page. In essence with an adequate story outline, with the important character arc points layered over and a fair idea of the story’s theme you can plan the subtext messages.

The available graphs and charts and spread sheets didn’t help me much, mostly because each is so static. What feels right to me is a blend of approaches. A living outline that molds and adapts to the work in progress. I don’t think a static approach to outlining would’ve worked for this novel. Perhaps I’m projecting, but the turns and twists, the attention to detail, the symbolism justified by dialog contrived by the story arc must’ve been flexible enough to incorporate new ideas, place clues and illustrate motivations long before the first draft was written.

People may disagree with this claim of best and I’m okay with that. It’s the point of my book review to look at and study an aspect of this novel that stood out to me. The elements I recognize as useful writing tools to guide my art toward perfection. I could talk about the great story, the impeccable graphics, the enormous concepts, but none of those alone spoke to the organization of details that ushered this novel to greatness. It’s in the plotting that these elements came together and not only pushed the bounds of the genre, but shoved them to the ground and kicked dirt in their faces.

I’ve read a few Hugo Award winners, they’re always brilliant. This book, however, changed what I think in writing a novel. It showed me the work that goes into details. How specific details reveal characters, how characters shape events and how those events arrive at conclusions. I’ll wait patiently for the next best ever to evolve. When new clichés develop over time. When author and artist arrive at the perfect moment to create a new and substantial commentary. But I’m sure this new best will have one thing in common with the old best. An intricate and living outline.

So continues the debate of plotters versus pantsers. Please, tell me you thoughts on either style and why that style works for you.

Anonymous Book Review 21

This book sneaked up on me like a cheetah in the tall grass of low expectations, attacking from my blind side as I drank from the stagnant waters of structural homogeneity. As an entertainment piece this book was not my cup of tea—character driven romance—though I found in it qualities that amazed me. I’ve heard talk of the author coming from cheetah 1nowhere, that he wasn’t on anyone’s radar, then surprised the sci-fi/fantasy community with good writing and fresh perspectives. I now understand their point.

This book didn’t follow the rules, yet it was written in a clear manner with restraint and nuance. And in many senses that’s what I liked best about it.

The story was set in a fantasy world bayou with science and magic all around. But it wasn’t trapped in a steamy jungle. The world was broad and far reaching. The bayou was a place, not a character. There was no romantic thread to the fetid swamp that made anyone contemplate life or seek inner truths. It was just a place. To us writers, grounding.

Totally character driven without too much of a plot to speak of, not until the final few pages did the theme of the book resonate. It stayed with the main character, never deviating from his perspective, yet stayed just far enough away to pick up on other characters’ feelings, almost omnisciently. Almost. There was the nuance.

I wanted so much more of the world. Soldiers and royal courts, mystical places and madness educing prophetess’s. The guy walked around with a pet cheetah that he could talk to! But none of that really played into the story other than setting up obstacles for the main characters’ love. Which is as it should have been, but still…. I guess it’s better to leave the audience wanting more instead of less.

The dialog sounded perfectly fantasy, however, a few places one character slipped into a dialect from the American deep south. A few word choices helped generate an idea of a person that exists in modern day. These were the only instances where the author allowed outside knowledge to draft a character’s image. I can speculate on why this happened, pieces missed in editing, reaching for a desired effect, maybe the dialect is native to the author and otherwise invisible, but it was the inconsistency that bumped me out of the story. I really like the idea of having zero ties to modern culture to draw on, but I could’ve gotten behind the character with identifiable traits, too. Just keep it consistent.

In the end this book broached a delicate topic; given the chance, would you live the life you’ve led, or would you follow your heart’s long-ago denied desire? I think this speaks to us all at some level. Personally, I didn’t care for the character’s choice, but that’s me, not the author, not the book.

Here is where my appreciation for this book comes out.

Exclamation points by the shovel full. Semicolons everywhere. Non-linear story telling. Semicolons, comas, exclamation points, periods and parenthesis all in the same sentence!

Yes, it was odd to see, a little distracting at first, but it helped generate and maintain the narrative voice. There were points of subtle emotional excitement that deserved an exclamation point. There were cascading revelations that earned consecutive exclamation points. I was good with these abuses, though reading in the proper voice cartoon7255took effort toward the end, largely due to the exclamation point’s inherent shortcomings, but also followed the logic of the literary sages concerning their overuse. They lose effect quickly. It’s tough to maintain exclamatory vigilance throughout the course of a book. But the weird punctuation fit the voice.

So this author gets it. He knows how to write on an intuitive level. Like the bastard in my calculus class who had conversations with the teacher instead of madly scribbling reams of notes. At first I was distracted, put off, even, by the punctuation. But the more I read, the more I understood just how good of a writer this author is. It happened slowly as I realized that I knew about the world, the hierarchies, the alliances and the magic system without reading info dumps or exposition. I can look back and see a few places where details were given, but none of it stood out while I was in the story. Everything I needed to know was sifted in where needed and only in amounts required to move the story. I’ve heard people say this millions of times, had an idea of how to approach it, but reading the talent on display gave me a deeper appreciation of the author’s ability.

Tangent: Have you ever sat in a writers group where everyone takes turns blasting the hell out of your writing style? And not in the constructive type of, “Maybe it could be clearer if…” but that, “Go back to fourth grade and learn how to write a sentence, you illiterate dork,” kind of critique? Not a fun place to be, especially when you’ve purposely written that way for effect and you suspect most of the hostility to be coming from places other than a deep abiding concern for a fellow writer. Or worse. A deep biding concern that you don’t write like them.

This book vindicated certain aspects of my style against a lot of mediocre critique. Not comparing me against this writer and not saying all the critique was useless, it wasn’t, but to see a similar style in print reinforced that feeling of trusting myself, even against a chorus of nay.

And I don’t buy the critique perspective of “The Reader.” It’s always only the individual’s opinion. Not a singular predicted experience of all literate people in the entire English reading universe. Speak for yourself, not a hypothetical entity concocted to justify a sense of superiority.

Sorry. Wrong tangent.

Anyhow, I thought the author used his style effectively, putting feelings above grammatical structure. Let the academics have their structure. This is fiction. Fiction transcends structural limitations to deliver satisfaction at levels deeper than a GPA.

Pull it together, man. Get off the tangents.

Okay, okay. Sorry. Back to the review.

I took a writerly lesson from this book. It’s an aspect that led to enjoyment, yet one I couldn’t identify, not until I had inadvertently read an article, a Facebook post really, about specificity. Ha! I can spell it better than I can say it. I related the article to this book as I read and paid attention to the author’s craft of similes. He dialed the similes down from something broad and relatable to narrow and specific. The recognition was reassuring, like the first cool breeze of fall, when the summer-long sweat evaporates and you skin tingles with a subtle chill hinting at a sound night’s sleep through the cricket chirps and jasmine blooms for the first night all season.

This book won’t make it to my read-again pile, but I will definitely read more from this author. I’m sure I’ll be hearing his name for decades to come. He can only get better (with constant editing. See previous post of angry man rant concerning geniuses and editing). The author broke the rules in a way that worked because he perfectly understood the purpose behind the so called rules. He was able to disregard the rules of punctuation and sentence structure because he kept the narrative voice and story clear. I think this is a lesson all of us writers should appreciate; that rules only exist until you understand their purpose.

Exit question: Have you ever loved the writing better than the story itself? Share with us your insights so we all can learn.

Anonymous Book Review 14: The Book That Was Almost Perfect.

I’ve been wanting to read a police procedural for a while and this science fiction entry was a perfect fit. In that regard, this book did not disappoint. Elements of the premise are taken from the scariest pandemics to hit the planet, the sciency technology was cool and the Earth wasn’t besieged by some contrived man made apocalypse. All plusses.

There were quite a few pleasant set-ups and pay-offs throughout. And the end was satisfying. Now that the characters are established, I see where this can become a long running series. Actually heard a rumor that the second book is in the works. But I thought it could also stand on it’s own. The author did a good job making everything big. The protagonist works hard despite a larger than life reputation. The antagonist is planning to corner a global market at innocent people’s expense. The partner has real and destructive problems that play right into the plot.

Structurally this is a great book. As it should be. The author is a Hugo award winner along with a slew of other acclaims. In many ways this, in my humble opinion, is a good example of how to write a novel.

However….

My internal editor senses started tingling almost immediately. And not in the creepy good way that secretly begs more. What struck me strange was a consistent use of a same word within one or two sentences. Not unique or scenic words. Not words for repetitive effect. Just plain words like, before. The repetition affected my reading experience in a way that I didn’t expect. It probably would’ve been ignored if not for the tingly editor senses that have ruined most literature for me. These repetitions made me wonder if I had skipped something. Like, read the same sentence twice or missed an entire paragraph. I’ve gotten so used to varying word choices, both in my writing and from popular fiction that I noticed the repeated words.

I talked with one person, a fellow writer, and the repeated words didn’t bother him in the least. I talked to a panel of readers who hadn’t noticed, then chalked it up to the author’s own admission that he writes for popular markets and that he probably wrote to popular market reading levels. This makes big assumptions. One: that the author has a good enough command of the language to dumb it down. Two: that the author has a good enough grasp on popular expectations to write sloppy sentences on purpose. I don’t buy either of these.

Now I hate to give the impression that I didn’t like the story because of technical issues with the writing. This isn’t the case and I probably should say it more. I liked the story.

With that said, let’s go to everyone’s favorite segment—Politics.

Politics matters and you’re either with them or against them. Every human in the known universe holds a position on something. There’s no avoiding, so it’s entirely possible that a writer’s opinion or outlook will get into their story.

This is fine. Who could expect different?

The beautiful thing about long form fiction is the ability to craft a narrative over the course of hundreds of pages to come to satisfying conclusions. Not only does this include the hero’s journey, but the moralistic arc as well. Into which politics falls. I’ve read stories where I didn’t agree with the writer’s position at first, but over the course of the story, elements were introduced, choices faced and decision made that guided my personal beliefs into a softer, more understanding stance. I was shown new perspectives that I appreciated and incorporated into my life narrative. As a writer this is the lasting impression I hope to achieve if ever a personal political opinion sneaks into my stories. The art demands no less.

Unfortunately, this story did not live up to the demands I’ve unilaterally placed on the art. This author is fairly well known for his politics. I knew that going in and didn’t mind a bit. About two thirds of the way through I noticed a very… what’s a word like naïve, but not naïve because I know this author is well versed, yet something was missing, not to balance a personal position so much as to acknowledge a contrasting experience…. What is the word? Ahh. Wishful! Yeah, a very wishful approach to a political issue in the book with many sticky real life analogies. At which point much of the panel discussion dissolved into modern politics with one person inartfully supporting one side and another person declaring half of the United States’ population a scornful and mostly untrue name.

Come on people. Get back to the book. We are all sci-fi.

Again, I liked the story.

Okay, how do you feel about popular culture references? Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. Me, too. Sometimes I like them. Sometimes I don’t. This near future scenario had a Star Wars reference define the accepted name for a major component of the story. While I liked the name, I had trouble with aThreep quick reference becoming pervasive. And the derogatory term for these components was a shortened version from Star Wars: The Clone Wars. That was never mentioned in the book.

Overall this book did a lot right. I like to learn from those that have gone before me and studying established writers helps me discover what works and what doesn’t, particularly for my style. While the sci-fi was cool, the plot was interesting and the characters were deep enough, my suspicion is that this book was rushed. The pop culture references put instant pictures in the reader’s head, but it seemed too easy, almost a cheat, since the references didn’t have bearing on plot or character development. The politics, while well thought out and integral, could’ve used more depth, more insight into why or why not. And the repeated words are one of those things a couple more passes by the author or editor would’ve caught.

Or, perhaps the author is popular enough not to worry about those little flaws. I’m or there yet. Maybe one day, but until then I’m going to read and pick out the details I like and don’t like from as many books as I can cram into my tiny brain.