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June 5, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Had a pretty good writing day today.  Not so much with the actual typing and producing of pages (though I did more than my day's quota of that, too), but with that other part of writing—the part that involves pacing, muttering, and staring at the ceiling fan for hours on end. 

That is to say, the hard part.  Which is also, on good days, the really fun part.

I'm the type of writer who very much prefers to write to an outline.  Some folks can't stand outlines, and have built hugely successful careers by assiduously avoiding them.  Others can't imagine writing without one at hand, and have built hugely successful careers entirely on careful outlining.

Me?  Well, obviously, I don't fall in either camp.  I'm not hugely successful, you see.  Thanks for asking, though.

But I do like my outlines.  I like a specific kind of outline, with a particular level of detail (and generality).   Writing, like every other creative process, is very personal, and there are as many writing processes as there are writers (if not more).  It's taken me several years to get a feel for how outlines do and don't work for me.

An overly detailed outline can be confining.  It doesn't leave room for inspiration.  It ignores those bursts of creativity that strike out of the blue when I'm filling the birdfeeder or waiting for the bus or standing in the shower.  And to lose those moments, rare as they are, would be to the detriment of my writing.  For me, anyway, those random moments of inspiration often give rise to nice plot twists, or unforseen complications for my characters, or particularly nice solutions to plot problems.  The twists and turns of story that I enjoy the most, the juiciest bits of character interaction, frequently come out of those moments.

At the same time, trying to write a novel to an overly-vague outline feels like trying to drive from New York to Los Angeles according to the following directions:  Drive west until you hit the Pacific Ocean, then turn south.

So, I've learned that I work best when I have a "tentpole" outline.  If the novel is a circus tent (go with me on this) the major scenes and events in the book are the poles that support the rest of the story, and thus give it its overall shape.  The tentpole outline gives me the structure of the book.  I need the structure or I have trouble going forward.  (Bitter Seeds, for instance, has a standard three-act structure... kind of like the three-ring circus at Barnum and Bailey, now that I think about it.)

But the tentpoles don't tell you about each little ripple in the fabric, the stiching in the seams, the creases, the tiny little spots where the waterproofing has worn thin.  And the tentpole outline doesn't dictate what happens on every single page. 

It tells me which characters control which scenes, and where they're going, and roughly how they're going to get there (whether they want to or not).   To flit back to my original analogy, it's a roadmap from NY to LA with lots of landmarks along the way:  Corn Palace.  Biggest Ball of TwineMuseum of Medical Oddities.  It tells me how to get where I'm going, but it leaves me free to figure out the details along the way.  Done right, it gives my subconscious just enough freedom to have fun, but not enough to be paralyzing.  

The benefit of this, for me, is that I'm not slavishly devoted to my outlines.   When I started the Milkweed Triptych several years ago, I sat down with my writing group and, over 8 grueling hours, we plotted out the entire trilogy:  Bitter Seeds in great detail, Coldest War in fair detail, and Necessary Evil in broad strokes.    And now that I'm closing in on the end of Necessary Evil, I can look back and say that the overall story of the trilogy is remarkably similar to the original conception.  Each book begins and ends exactly where I thought it would.  Each book contains all of the major the events I thought it would.

But the details have been negotiable.  There are places—a scene here, a chapter there, an entire act way over there—where I've diverged wildly from the outline.  Not because I got lost or because I got careless (not that that doesn't happen, too...), but because I saw something really cool just over the next hill and I had to go play with it.  Something much better than what the outline called for. 

I'm not afraid to take detours of opportunity.  My tentpole outline tells me where I need to be by a particular point in the story.  As long as I can see my way back to the road, I don't mind hiking into the woods every so often. 

That's what happened this morning, as I was contemplating the final sequence of scenes in Necessary Evil.  I pulled over to the side of this long, windy road I've been driving for the past 4 years and, while stretching my legs, I discovered—just on the other side of a stand of trees—a traffic-free toll-less superhighway aimed straight at my destination.

I love it when that happens.


Kenny Jackson June 5, 2010 at 8:38 pm
Dear Mr. Tregillis, I just wanted to let you know that I truly, truly enjoyed Bitter Seeds. I plan to buy the rest of the series (and most likely anything else that you happen to write) and I can't wait (I really do check Amazon every day to see if pre-orders are up) for Coldest War to be in my hands. I wanted to let you know that not only was Bitter Seeds entertaining, but it was EXTREMELY well written. The prose was excellent, but what really stood out were the metaphors that you used and your descriptions of sounds. One part that really stood out to me was in the prologue where you described the sound of the third child being shot and disposed of on the farm...without actually ever saying that he was shot. Rather, you described it with such accuracy and with such excellence that right then, I knew that I was hooked. Hearing that you are almost done with the final book in the series makes me kind of sad because that means that the ride does not go on forever. Regardless though, you have made me a fan and I will follow wherever you decide to go with your writing. Thanks for providing me, and other readers like me, with such a great series. I can't wait for more. Sincerely, Ken Jackson
Ian June 5, 2010 at 11:18 pm
Hello, Ken! Thank you very much for the extremely kind words about Bitter Seeds. I'm touched and flattered that you enjoyed the book so much. Thanks, also, for letting me know -- I really appreciate it. And I'm glad to know there's at least one person out there waiting for The Coldest War! It's true, the Milkweed story doesn't go on forever. But, in the meantime, Gretel is just getting started ;-) Thanks again! Ian
Susan June 7, 2010 at 5:48 am
I liked the "Drive west until you hit the Pacific Ocean" -- made me laugh aloud (lal, I suppose, rather than lol). I too must have an outline, and I tend to make it uber specific and then stray from the path. Basically, it's exactly like when I travel: I buy ten thousand maps, carry my GPS, and print out google directions for every location to which I might want to venture. Then I get lost, and it's always fun when I do. Oh, and you are a wildly successful author. Everyone loves Bitter Seeds, so clearly you're doing something fantabulously right.
Chris Bachmann June 7, 2010 at 8:32 am
Some of us in the DC area are waiting for the next book as well. We can't wait to see what Gretel comes up with next.
Ian June 7, 2010 at 10:20 am
I too must have an outline, and I tend to make it uber specific and then stray from the path. I like outlines because I can't stand to not have a plan. It makes me feel like I have a safety net. If I find something better than my original plan along the way, I'll jump at it! But if I don't find something better, well, at least I've got my outline. Everyone loves Bitter Seeds, so clearly you're doing something fantabulously right. I wish! Alas, not everybody. But that's life as an author. :-)
Brian June 7, 2010 at 11:08 am
Ian, Thanks so much for the insight into your creative process. As your debut novel shows, you're obviously doing something right (actually, a lot of somethings) and I hope you don't mind my jumping on the "loved Bitter Seeds" bandwagon; it's become quite the crowded place. As I said before, my only real complaint is the wait until I can get my sticky mitts on the sequel. I find I follow a similar process to yours with plot outlines--stuff tends to happen in stories linearly (even if the story itself isn't linear, it's read linearly), and I find I require a similar level of detail to what you describe to make sense of where I'm going when I write, but not bog down with minutiae. Come to think of it, this is how I plan my vacations too, much to my wife's annoyance--she's a "details person." Another aspect of the writing process I'd love to hear you address sometime, perhaps in a future blog entry, is the modality of mapping out your characters and breathing life into them. The best I've come up is to open an ancillary file for each actor and just stream-of-consciousness coredump mannerisms, appearance, history, backstory, sentiments, great lines that they absolutely have to say at some point, how they interact with their world, what kind of changes I expect them to undergo, etc. In a way, it's like I perceive people--through a melange of impressions and episodes. Then, I try to live with them in my head for awhile as I ideate the story. This works just fine for shorter fiction, up to about the novelette length, but it gets unwieldy beyond (some poor souls invariably get neglected) and I have the nagging suspicion that it isn't a terribly efficient way to go about the craft. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Ian June 7, 2010 at 11:28 am
Thanks for the support, Chris! I hope, very much, the next book lives up to your expectations :-)
Ian June 7, 2010 at 2:48 pm
Hey, Brian, fancy meeting you here. Thanks for visiting! Gosh, I wish I knew a sure-fire way for creating characters and breathing life into them. But what I do isn't all that different from what you describe-- I keep a file titled "Dramatis Personae", which is where I store everything I know about a character, from physical attributes to family history. Two important questions I try ask myself when contemplating a character are, "What does this person want?" and, "What does this person need?" This isn't enough to completely define a character, but the relationship between their wants and needs can say a lot about their arc. What somebody wants and what she needs can be completely at odds with one another, for instance, and simply coming to understand the difference is itself an arc, of sorts. It's been argued that a comedy is a story where somebody gets what he needs but not what he wants, and that a tragedy is where somebody gets what he wants but not what he needs. I don't have the background to defend that one way or the other, but I'll toss that out for thought.
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