On Outlines, Or The Lack Thereof

I’ve always had a rather complicated relationship with the whole planning process of writing. (And some of my current projects really will require me to do some more of it, which may well be good for me.) My process has always been something like, “Well, here are some people in a situation. I wonder what happens next? I suppose I’ll have to write it to find out.”

The current thing – Cracked Pots – started with this:

The Fog was thicker than usual, and Margaret frowned at it and pulled her cape a little tighter around her shoulders, suppressing an involuntary shiver.

I think I’d written about half a dozen chapters (these chapters are short, at least, most of them a bit under two kilowords) before I knew what the Fog was and why. Margaret still doesn’t, but of course her quest to find that out is part of what’s driving the action.

As I write, I find out more, but that doesn’t always come in the shape of a coherent set of events; it’s more like landscape features half-glimpsed through, well, Fog. At some point, Margaret will make a right fool of herself with consequences; at some point, Margaret will read the book she has forgotten she had on hold at the bookstore until she had more coin to spare; at some point…. And those start to cohere into patterns, into ‘this future event has to happen before that one’ (though I have been wrong about that).

Some of it comes with realisations after the fact, things I had known to be true that suddenly coalesce into why: why this couple has no children and has been looking for alchemical solutions to that. Why Mr. Whitten likes to wear fancy gowns. Or I get an understanding of what has to be the case for a character to work like that and then it’s tracking down the friend with familiarity with classic grimoire-based magical tradition and saying, “Could I pick your brains to spec out the practice of this character?”

Then I had something new happen. There’s always something new, in the process, somewhere. I had to sit down and do a timeline of what had happened so I knew what would happen. It’s kind of almost like an outline, only written some sixty thousand words in. I suspect I only did it because of making two references to a character’s late-stage pregnancy and needing to figure out whether or not it was wholly implausible that she had not had the baby yet. (Next chapter, or the one after, depending on how much winds up in next chapter. And then I need to research how long she’s likely to be in seclusion.)

I have thus far managed to write around the problem of needing to name an Oscar Wilde expy, but that will not last. I am not entirely certain if it is a planning problem, a worldbuilding problem, or a “naming things is hard, let’s go shopping” problem. I at least have a few chapters before that problem explodes, so I can blithely ignore it for a bit la la la.

1 comment to On Outlines, Or The Lack Thereof

  • I write in a way rather similar to this. “What happens next?”

    Whatever works, works. Never mind what is supposed to work. 🙂

    (I’m avoiding the big timeline exercise and sticking specific Jacobin Calendar dates on everything in two books. Can’t avoid it forever, but even Radish with the mope is more fun.)

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