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Cosmology 101: The Sun is Held in Place by Six Eiffel Towers

March 2, 2008 at 8:47 pm

On Friday, I went down to Albuquerque to participate in a plot-breaking session for an incredible new novel that Sage Walker is planning to write. I enjoy plot sessions; the good ones are magical.

Sage's writing is so lyrical and poetic it makes me alternate between swooning with delight and weeping with envy. Her first novel, White Out, won the Locus Award, and deservedly so. Everything becomes mythic when filtered through the lens of Sage's prose. I've read some of her short stories set in the world of this new novel; if those are any indication, this thing is will be amazing. And I like to think that I was able to contribute to Friday's discussion.

We do a fair amount of "extracurricular" plot-breaking in Critical Mass. I call it extracurricular because plotting out a novel often takes longer than we can afford to do during our monthly critique meeting, so these sessions take place outside of our usual meetings. Which isn't to say we haven't discussed plot outlines at CM meetings-- in addition to the usual chapters, short stories, and screenplays, we've critted outlines, proposals, treatments, and zombie haiku poems. (Haiku poems about zombies, that is. Not haiku poems by zombies. CM has a strict no-zombie policy.) My own project, Milkweed Triptych, started out as a 5-page writeup outlining the universe and backstory, which I subbed for critique.

But breaking out a plot is different than critiquing it. The process we use works something like this.

First, somebody says, "Hey, I'm working out this new idea for a novel. You guys want to kick it around with me?" To which the others reply, "That depends. Will there be food?" to which the first person sighs and says, "Yes, there will be food. Now, do you want to kick it around with me or not?"

Once the crucial food issue has been settled, we pick a date and location that fits everybody's schedule. This is tricky, and it's one reason we usually break plot in smaller groups than a full CM meeting. (The other reason is that too many voices can make the process too chaotic.) With people coming from as far south as Socorro (farther, actually) and as far north as Los Alamos, picking a good meeting spot is important. I wish we weren't so spread out, but it's a western state; 100 miles is considered a social distance.

And then, when the stars are properly aligned, we convene. The person who requested the meeting usually brings us up to speed with any information they feel is important: their current thoughts on the project, the kind of story they want to tell, the parts they've already worked out, editorial requirements, how long they want it to be... the list goes on. Sometimes we start with none of that in place. Sometimes a fair amount of the ground work has already been done. It's different every time we do it.

But the fun part comes next. That's where we brainstorm madly, sometimes for hours. And it's chaotic. Whole storylines appear and disappear. Characters come and go, changing genders and species before vanishing back into the aether of imagination, all in just a few minutes. Subplots pop into existence, flit around the room, and pop out again. I find it thrilling and invigorating. When I watch people who can turn on a dime like that, it makes me want to strive for greater creativity and flexibility in my own work.

And then, at some point in the process, something magical happens. A structure, a plotline, crystallizes out of the chaos. It's like having a tornado rip through a lumber yard only to leave behind all the framing for a 2-bedroom rambler. The hard work -- writing the damn thing -- remains, but the floor plan is there.

So that's what we did at Sage's house on Friday.

Free eBook Update

I just downloaded the Robert Charles Wilson's novel Spin, which won the 2006 Hugo award. This is the third completely free eBook that I've received since signing up for Tor's giveaway program.


SarahP March 4, 2008 at 8:51 am
Interesting! My crit group, Dragons of the Corn, doesn't do this, but I might send them all over here to have a look, because it might be a good thing for us to try.


Ian March 4, 2008 at 8:56 am
That is the best-ever name for a crit group. Man, I love that.

I'm not sure I described the process very well (insofar as there is anything resembling a process), but if you do give it a whirl, I'd love to hear how it goes and if you enjoy it. You dragons would probably create an equally effective but utterly different process. And therefore different plots, too. (That's one potential downfall of our regular plotbreaking-- the danger of groupthink. So far I think we've avoided it, though.)

The thing I've noticed is that there's usually some turn in the conversation that starts the crystallization. On Friday, it was the realization that we were lacking a suitable "b-runner" subplot. Once we had that figured out, the protagonist came to life and the spine of the novel materialized.

Melinda Snodgrass March 5, 2008 at 7:37 am
The New Mexico Mafia had always done some plot breaking, but it was my experiences in Hollywood working in a good "room" that really crystallized the process. I owe thanks to Ricky, Hans and Ira for teaching me how to use the board.

I love this game a lot, and the nice thing about writing prose right now is that I only have to do a plot break every couple of months. When I ran the writer's room on PROFILER we did it every day for ten hours a day. The only respite was when you got to go away and write a .

I think one key is using colored pens. It enables you to see how the A story and the B and C runners are being serviced, and you can do the same thing for the characters. I noticed in one plot break that one of my characters had just fallen out of the final third of a book. When you can glance up at a white board or the 3/5 cards on a cork board you see the plot almost like a piece of art.

Ian March 5, 2008 at 8:13 am
That's why we always look to you to keep us on track :)

I wasn't in the group before you brought your Hollywood training back to New Mexico, so I don't know how it worked before then. But it's clear the group has learned a great deal from your experience.

Sage April 4, 2008 at 7:31 am
Eschew synchronicity, all ye who enter here. Thatís my lame excuse for not finding this until today. Now Iíll need to write something really, really good to avoid false advertising. But thanks, Ian. Dropping an unformed concept into this pool of minds can be something like watching a feeding frenzy among sharks, given that the sharks happen to be wildly imaginative, awesomely talented creative writers. I think the dangers of groupthink are straw dragons. (Dragons of the Corn? Amazing.) I am reasonably sure that if any three people who visit here took the same plotted story, complete with character sketches, home, and wrote it up, three very different stories would result. I think this, although Iíve never seen the theory tested.
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