Q & A
Helpful Answers to Workshop Writing Questions
Sy asks: Do I need to outline my book first? How do I do a story board?
(1) DISCLAIMER: No matter how meticulously you try to plan out every detail of your novel, it will change. AND IT SHOULD. Because as you come up with new characters and plot ideas, as you build and grow your world, and as you figure out new creative ways to solve problems, things will go in unexpected directions. And sometimes writing is FOLLOWING those paths as much as it is creating them. So don’t stress over having to have everything figured out from the beginning!
(2) Outlining comes BEFORE storyboarding. Outlining is an absolutely necessary part of the process for writing anything larger than a one-act short story, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be done before you start writing. If you’re feeling inspired, just go with the flow and WRITE! Storyboarding is NOT necessary for text-only stories, but it can be helpful, especially if you like to see what you’re imagining as a visual picture in front of you. Storyboarding is necessary, however, for stories that will include a visual component such as graphic novels or screenplays.
(3) You do not have to have a lot of detail to start, and you can outline in sections. Start with the BIGGEST of the BIG PICTURE. Your first outline might be as simple as a general overview of the plot in three parts: beginning, middle, end. Or you might not even have a clue where it’s going, so it could be listing components of the theme or what message you’re trying to get out into the world. For example, maybe all you know is that you want to share some of your own experiences through fictional characters and give more representation to queer teens or people with disabilities or BIPOC. And/or maybe you want to highlight some specific social justice issues by creating analogies in a fantasy world. Even if the overarching theme is all you know, write it down. That’s your starting point!
(4) When you know more, outline more. HOWEVER, don’t sacrifice actual writing time to outline. Again, GO WITH THE FLOW. If you’re on a roll actually writing sentences and paragraphs, don’t worry about the outline at all. You only really need to use outlining to help you move forward when you’re stuck on what to do next and to help you stay organized when your book starts to get big and complex!
(5) Outline as needed as far ahead as you have ideas. Once you get started, you might only have ideas for the next few chapters. So map that out, get back to writing, then add to the outline for the next few chapters after that.
(6) There is no required format for your outline. It’s just a way for you to organize your ideas! Remember, writing a novel is not writing a school paper. You may have been taught how to outline, write, and cite a research paper in MLA format, and if you like the way an MLA outline is organized, feel free to do it that way. But you don’t have to! I much prefer an Excel spreadsheet where I can insert new ideas and cut/paste lines to easily move stuff around. But your outline can literally be just a list of bullet points. Whatever is most helpful to you!
Luna asks: I can't tell if books are better in first person or third person relating to my character--“I rubbed my eyes tiredly” or “she rubbed her eyes tiredly.” Is there generally a better one?
YES, third person is almost always better! That's my opinion though and, well, a lot of people's opinions, but honestly probably just because we're used to reading most fiction that way. OF COURSE you can write in first person, but it really only works if you want to stay in that character's perspective the ENTIRE TIME. So I feel it can be pretty limiting because you're never in anyone else's head. But again, if it's a story very focused on that one character, great. Then it actually feels more personal, and you REALLY get to know that one character better. But I think a more well-rounded story is what we call “third-person omniscient” meaning the author knows everything from all perspectives and writes from multiple perspectives. That being said, it's a great idea to practice all kinds of different styles... that's how you find YOUR VOICE and your favorite style of writing!
Jam asks: My character Casper uses both he/him and they/them pronouns. Is it okay to use both and switch between? How do I keep it from being confusing?
Yes, totally cool that a character uses both, but I would say you would have to pick one and stick with it at least in each perspective. In dialogue, it could change depending on who was talking—one friend could always use they pronouns for them, and another could use he. But in exposition, it definitely gets confusing switching, especially when you are sometimes talking about multiple people when you use they and other times just Casper. That being said, it IS possible to use THEY pronouns for individual characters, we just sometimes have to be a little more creative in making sure it's not confusing! One way to do that is to have a moment when a character explains their pronouns to another character. For my non-binary shapeshifter, Charlie, in AdderKyn, before just launching into THEY pronouns, which may have been confusing especially for readers who weren't used to seeing it, I did a set-up scene. After that, I could continue using THEY pronouns for that character with no confusion. I'll copy/paste it here as an example!
Omri looked at Charlie. “Nice wings, man.” But when Charlie frowned at him, he said, “Sorry… lady?”
“Charlie’s a little bit of everything today,” said Fable smiling brightly.
“Oh. That’s… new.”
“It isn’t,” replied Charlie. “I never feel as if I am only one thing.”
“Okay,” Omri said with a little laugh. “Then what should we call you?”
“You may call me Charlie.”
“You know what I mean, mate,” he said smacking his friend on the shoulder. “If we’re talking about you, describing you to someone who doesn’t know you.” He smiled warmly. “Tell me what to say so I get it right.”
Charlie looked toward the canopy, thinking for a long moment before answering. “Them.”
“Them?” asked Omri. “As if… there’s more than one of you?”
“Well… yes, exactly. Imagine there are two of me. Or three or four. We would not be me, we would be us.”
When Omri raised an eyebrow, Sidra chuckled. “How would you describe a school of fish?” she asked. “Or a swarm of bees?”
“Ah, yes!” said Charlie excitedly. “I will show you.” And suddenly their head shattered into a hundred tiny pieces, each of which transformed into a buzzing golden honeybee. “Does this help?” all of the bees said in chorus.
“Madri, that’s creepy as fuck,” said Omri, visibly horrified. His face then broke into a wide grin. “But yeah, I get it.”
Luna asks: Is there a sort of way to show the fact that a name is pertaining to a fantasy animal? I wrote "eleseom eggs" meaning that an eleseom is a sort of bird in the area, but I don't really know how to show it is a bird.
You could say "the eggs of the eleseom bird" to establish that's it's a bird, but you don't have to describe it more than that up front. Especially if you're working on something you hope to be book-length, you want to gradually reveal things about your world, to plant little hints about things and then reveal more info later. Writing for younger readers tends to have more exposition—that is explanation about things in descriptive paragraphs—and that's totally okay, but you don't have to explain everything in detail as it happens. You could just write about eleseom eggs now, and then later reveal the actual bird in a future scene. Or the other way around by putting something in about the bird a chapter or two before you get to the eggs. But if you feel it should be clear from the start, you can put a mini-paragraph about the eleseom bird after you mention the eggs!