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Having Cheated Death, I Now Await My Superpowers

July 21, 2008 at 11:39 am

On Friday, I joined Walter Jon Williams, Melinda Snodgrass, Vic Milan, Carrie Vaughn, and Ty Franck at Daniel Abraham's new house for a day-long brainstorming session to help Daniel plot out his next big project, a five-volume fantasy epic. I can think of worse ways to spend a Friday.

Having wrapped up his groundbreaking debut series, The Long Price Quartet (A Shadow in Summer,A Betrayal in Winter,An Autumn War, and the forthcoming The Price of Spring), Daniel has been thinking about a new epic fantasy project for quite some time. Last year he called a few people together to discuss the nature of high fantasy, which resulted in a fascinating multi-hour discussion. Daniel has reported on the highlights of this informal "fantasy symposium" on his blog here, here, here, here, and here. It makes for fascinating reading. I was there and I still learned a lot from studying Daniel's synopsis.

Prior to our meeting on Friday, Daniel sent out a 10-page document that included a map (geography is central to epic fantasy, isn't it?); character descriptions of all the major characters, both point-of-view and supporting; a description of how magic might work in this fictional world; and a rough sketch of how the story would unfold over five books. By the end of the day we'd revamped, or discussed revamping, every one of these things.

Because Daniel had thought through a lot of the background details (geography, magic, etc.), this plotbreaking session was less chaotic than they sometimes tend to be. Often, when less of the background material is in place prior to the meeting, there is an initial period of wild brainstorming that eventually coalesces into something orderly. I've discussed the process, which is something magical in its own way, here. This approach to Daniel's project is similar to how we carried out the plotbreak for my series, The Milkweed Triptych.

We began by discussing the major characters-- who they are, what they want, what they need, what changes them, and what the highlights of their personal arcs will be. (Note that a character's wants and a character's needs are rarely the same thing. Often a much more interesting story arises when those two things conflict with one another.) By doing this, we were able to see that one of the characters originally intended to be a point-of-view character wouldn't work that way. So just by jotting down a few bullet points on a whiteboard we were able to identify a potential problem with the series, and fix it, before Daniel had written a single page. The magic of plotbreaking!

Then we turned our attention to the storyline, plotting out the major beats of all 5 books. Along the way we had to chart out the geopolitical progress of a major war. (We took a lunch break before tackling that. Daniel provided pizza to replenish our faltering levels of neurotransmitter.) What fun! Daniel has posted his own summary of the proceedings.

Of course, I have no doubt that even without a brainstorming session like this, Daniel would still produce something brilliant and beautiful. But it is a fun excuse to get together with friends. We wound down around mid-afternoon. During a break before heading off to dinner (Daniel magnanimously treated us to dinner, too), a few of us stepped outside to enjoy a thunderstorm. Ty, Carrie, Walter, and I were standing on the patio when lightning struck the tree at the corner of Daniel's house. It narrowly missed Ty and Carrie as it arced from tree to patio, and narrowly missed me and Walter as it worked its way toward us, arcing from one ornamental pillar to the next. Vic had (wisely) left by then, and Melinda had (wisely) taken the dogs inside moments earlier.

Nobody was (permanently) hurt. Except for having the ever-loving-bajeezus scared out of us. Carrie has posted a photo on her blog. Walter described the actual event in more detail (as well as the plotbreaking process) on his own blog. Update: Melinda has her own take on the day, too, including a nice action-photo of the plotbreak in progress.

The four of us should start exhibiting superpowers any day now. I hope I get something cool.


Aimee July 22, 2008 at 10:11 am
Hello Ian! I'm surfacing here again after endless days of digging in to new artwork, and hardly coming up for air. I read this latest entry with a large swell of jealousy forming. What a fantastic day that must have been, what with the brainstorming and lightning! Perhaps all those creative brains formed a collective bolt of Eurekaish inspiration? Either way, I can't wait to see the display of superpowers. Seriously though, that sounds like such an amazing time. I would love to be in the midst of such a powwow. Lucky you. :D
Melinda Snodgrass July 23, 2008 at 11:37 am
I'm still bummed that I won't get to share in the superpower goodies. The dane and I got skunked. On the other hand my hearing is intact, and I missed watching lightening come arcing toward me. All joking aside, that could have been a bad day for science fiction.
Ian July 23, 2008 at 12:26 pm
Hi, Aimee! Either it was Eurekaish inspiration, or Nature itself was so repulsed by the story we'd devised that it had no recourse but to take us out... ;-) I'm excited to see where your new artwork takes you! And thank you again for introducing me to Abney Park-- I've bought a few of their albums, and have been listening to them a lot lately. Thanks for that. Ian
Ian July 23, 2008 at 12:32 pm
Or a good day, depending on one's outlook ;-) Seriously, though, I should have noted that at no point did I scream or curl up into a ball. As I noted on Walter's blog, I greeted the event with laughter. Manly, manly laughter. Anybody who suggests otherwise is lying.
Sara G. July 26, 2008 at 1:22 am
As always I am fascinated by your descriptions of the plot breaking process. I'm clearly missing out on this communal aspect of writing. What, by the way, constitutes a 'good' superpower? Is the goodness not implicit in the name? Wouldn't you have to start calling a lame superpower something else? Perhaps I'm thinking too narrowly of the definitions both of super and power. Have you all thought of a name for your new superhero band? I bet you have. I maintain, as always, that perfect pitch is a superpower and that people who have it are freaks.
Ian July 26, 2008 at 10:17 am
Welcome home, Sara! (soon, anyway) Good superpowers? I suppose to a certain extent that is a philosophical question, or an issue of personal preference. To my mind, good superpowers would be things like flight, invisibility, superstrength, superspeed, the ability to throw lightning bolts, walking through walls, perfect clairvoyance, perfect pitch. (I agree with you on that last one.) Lame superpowers, or perhaps better, "sosopowers": the proportionate strength and speed of moss, the ability to turn a particular kind of feldspar into a different kind of feldspar, the ability to change eye color at will, the ability to turn water into overly-tart lemonade with a snap of the fingers. But it's also a question of context. After all, as another WC writer has pointed out, if you have the ability to telepathically communicate with all sea creatures, that's not such a bad power. Unless you live in Topeka, in which case you probably don't even know you're a superhero. Yes. I've given this a lot of thought.
musician September 20, 2011 at 10:49 pm
@Sarah and @Ian, So then anyone with perfect pitch is superhuman? As for superpowers: -ability to filter oxygen from water, thus being able to remain underwater for eternity (if you want to do that) -ability to control time -ability to read at speeds of 500 pages per second -ability to converse with animals -perfect tempo (as in can say that the metronome is clicking at 152 beats per minute without looking at it) And of course, the ability to fly!
Ian September 21, 2011 at 9:28 am
Perfect pitch is definitely a sign of superhumanity. I'd never considered the possibility of having perfect tempo (not being a musician), but I'd have to count that as a superpower, too. Given my druthers, though, I'd take the time-control and super-speed-reading abilities.
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