The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Another Process Post

| 24 Comments

I just tweeted the following: “Good news: Vlad just figured out what’s going on in this book. Bad news: Now I have to.”

That is, in fact, quite literally the truth. When I’m working without an outline, which I do fairly often, one of the joys is the trip into the morass of plot hoping for (and counting on) the answers to appear. They usually do, though it can be more or less painful to pull them out depending on how big they are and what part of my anatomy they’re stuck in. But what I just became aware of, and find kind of interesting, is how I get into this position of suddenly needing Answers.

The thing is, dialogue drives things for me, because I just love it. By “drive” in this case, I mean that the creation of tension, and its release, are both usually marked, if not determined, by who says what how. I know that sounds pretty abstract, but in practice it’s quite simple. Today I was merrily plugging along, with Vlad in conversation with someone who may or may not have some of the answers he needs in order to figure out What’s Going On, when I suddenly wrote the following:

“Oh,” I said. “That’s it.”

Yes, Vlad suddenly got it. I, of course, had, and still have, no idea what he just got. So, why did that happen? Because the moment was right. Because of all of my instincts told me that, in order for the story to have the right feel, that was exactly the point when he needed to have a revelation about Stuff. I wasn’t consciously aware of that until I’d written it, but as soon it showed on the screen, I knew.

I want to make several points here: The most important is, that once I figure it out, that might all change. That is, there is no guarantee that that moment will still want to be in the final version. It is also very possible that, when I do figure it out, and keep moving forward, it’ll change entirely. Working without an outline means extensive revisions; sometimes wiping out pretty much everything you’ve done. But the point is, it keeps me moving, it keeps the story moving, it keeps the emotional tension at the pitch I want it, and it keeps me fascinated and delighted with it as I work.

I do not think this is inherently a good way to work; nor is it inherently bad. But letting dialogue control the emotional feel, and letting the emotional feel, in turn, control the plot, is one way to get there. From here, I have many approaches to how to get me caught up with him. I might keep writing and see if the next line, or paragraph, or page gives it to me. I might go back and read everything I’ve done so far hoping for a clue. I might stand up, pace, scowl at the dog, and mutter until I figure it out. Or I might write another blog post on writing process in hopes the idea will get frustrated at being ignored and come popping out to find me. We’ll see. For now, back to work.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

24 Comments

  1. skzb

    *snorfle* How long have you been holding onto the picture waiting for the perfect time to use it?

  2. Isn’t this where Loioish says something like, “You mean just figured out that you’re going to wander around with no clue until someone unexpected does the impossible at an improbable time to save you?”

  3. It’s more fun to write that way. Good luck on figuring out what Vlad knows. He’s pretty sneaky and clever.

  4. Having myself done exactly the same thing when i writing an old style AD&D adventure i can totally understand how that can work both to your advantage and be a detriment later on down the line once you now have to flesh out that scene. While my little gaming adventure’s are nowhere near on par with Vlad and Loioish’s adventure which i have been a Huge fan of since you began writing about them back in the early 80’s i look forward eagerly to the release of Hawk here in October and to the one you are currently writing with baited breathe.

  5. You could also have Vlad start talking with any number of his friends he bounces ideas off of, give them cryptic hints so they can make the same leap of logic he had, have them pretend to realize what he’s talking about, say it’s “pretty thin,” agree he probably has to kill someone (or put himself in a situation to get killed) to figure out if it might be right, and the he can go off and do that. After which, the friends can look at each other and ask, “Do you have any idea what he was talking about?”

  6. Don’t feel too bad; Vlad usually figures stuff out before I do too.

  7. skzb

    Thanks, Jeremy; that helps. 🙂

  8. One solution would be to let Loiosh do the questioning for you for the next chapter or so until one of his guesses stick.

  9. I will neither confirm nor deny that I had a tab open to the squirrel tea party for weeks before posting it there.

  10. SKZB, your writing process is foreign to me, so I feel like I could learn something incredibly useful if I can understand why you design plots this way. I would love to hear your theory behind the plot creation process, and what gives your strategy an edge.

    I concur that outlines and extensive revisions are essential, but how you decide what comes next seems completely backwards compared to how I go about it. Here is my usual order when creating problem solving/sleuthing plots.

    #1 I decide what the solution is and who is involved.

    #2 I roughly decide what very general information the protagonists will need to reach the solution. This gives me a context to brainstorm related events.

    #3 I decide the narrative pacing and a bunch of chronological whens: when various conflicts happen, when certain relationships form, and when particular revelations are made. At this point, everything is still outlines and overviews.

    #Revision cycle for steps 1-3: I recreate and reorder potential events and the solution until it looks like I have a compelling plot with a finished feel.

    #4 I decide what the protagonists need so that they will follow the plot without awkwardness. I answer questions like, “What clues do the protagonists need so they will go to the next event and not elsewhere?” My answers are usually a decision about what the chars know, what they don’t know, and what they want to learn at the moment. As a consequence I am forced to make a detailed map of what info the characters know and what they are speculating at all times. If I don’t have this map, I can’t progress coherently in the drafting process.

    #5 I decide who the protagonists need to meet and where they need to be so they get the information to justify their thoughts. I still don’t have conversations, just lists what info is acquired from who and where.

    #Revision cycle for steps 4-5: Purge the contradictions. I can’t think of all the angles on the first pass, so there are usually incongruities, “fridge logic”, lack of precedent, out of character behavior, and plot-induced artificial blindness or insight. Getting perspectives from other people really helps here.

    #6 I realize most of the detail work I did earlier for flavor and wit is now useless because the context for it no longer exists. Characters who I thought were going to be important aren’t, and the ones I didn’t pay much attention to now are. I have to redesign them so they are interesting and do their plot jobs. This is where I draft actual dialogue and ‘microevents’.

    #7 Lots of writing, with occasional panic cycles when I unexpectedly cross with a surviving contradiction or an opportunity to take advantage of some “fridge brilliance”.
    I’m going to be honest, I have gone through steps 1-6, but have never completed 7 because that would mean mostly writing a book, and I’ve never felt confident in my plots or characters to justify spending the effort needed to finish something.

    Sorry I rambled, but if I had to give a summary of my theory of plot creation, it is “order the design steps so that I ask myself what *must* be done/said, in contrast to what *will*.” I would love some critique on my process, and would especially like to hear how and why your process works for you.

  11. After posting regret P.S.: I probably should have phrased the summary as “order the design steps so that the dominant question you are asking yourself is what *must* be done/said next, in contrast to what *should* be done/said next”.

  12. skzb

    I don’t think my process has any inherent edge. Indeed, what I’m describing here isn’t the only way I work; in some measure, I reinvent my process with each book, based on the needs of that book. Sometimes, I’ll go ahead and create an outline, other times not. I can’t critique your process, because I don’t see anything wrong with it. If it produces work you’re happy with, that should be enough.

    What I get out of going about it the way I describe above is this: I know when an emotionally charged moment happens, because I feel the charge myself, just as (if I’m doing my job) the reader will. Thus I can gauge the readers reaction, in at least some measure, by my own as I’m creating it. One thing this does is keep me delighted and engaged as I’m writing–more so the deeper into the book I get.

    But I want to emphasize that I’m not saying this is necessarily a good way to go about it, and it is certainly not the only approach I take. But, so far at least, it is how Vallista seems to be working.

  13. Thanks for taking the time to respond!

  14. I’ve recently become a contributor to the Lyorn Records, as I am now in my third reading of the books of Dragaera.

    I’m currently in the middle of the Paths of the Dead, and wishing that Verra takes it into her head to transport Vladimir a ways into the future*, where he somehow meets Paarfi and causes some justice to occur. The sort of justice a decadent Phoenix, like myself, enjoys, but probably the sort that is a bit alarming to the typical Iorich.

    *If Vladimir were to do this in his own time, then certain books I’ve already read would have to be unwritten of course, as I notice they are written in Norathar’s reign, which I’m not expecting Vladimir to live to see. And it’s not that I wish for them to be unwritten, exactly, but… Well, perhaps a historian with a more lose shirt could take over.

    Phoenix, by the way, is my actual given middle name. I think I’m a pretty equal mix of decadent and reborn, as my first name, Raederle, means Royal Fortress as well as Princess. Of course, perhaps Zerika is right, and the only difference is whether you question yourself or not, and whether you know when to abdicate. I like to question things, especially myself.

    Now, I come dressed like a certain Countess of Whitecrest, and under pretense of completeness of records, ask:

    Firstly, does the universe interloper — that is, do you — believe in reincarnation outside of the realm of Dragaera?

    Secondly, to hop back across the spans of universes, dimensions and the warp and weft of time itself — that is, within Dragaera — are there any lords who take it into their minds to save a stash of wealth for their reincarnated self? If not, why not?

    I have other wonderings, but I don’t pretend to enjoy spoilers, so don’t tell me if we’re ever going to hear from Savn again, if you’re actually going to give us the story of Vladimir’s short-time lover who is a Dragaeran who he mentions to Cawti, or if we’re going to meet the second living Phoenix within the Vladimir series.

    I will only say that I am whole-heartedly backing these wonderings as suggestions, and also, I wouldn’t mind if you got distracted by starting up a third timeline within the Dragaeran realm, or even a fourth. For example, a story with Devera at the center would be quite interesting. Also, Kieron’s time would be of interest. Maybe after Verra plays a hand in a certain Paarafi getting really shiny, another historian will emerge.

    On a more laconic note, I really respect the different writing styles you play with. 🙂

    PS: Baroness of Papercut — I used to think I needed to write a book that way, but within a few years I realized that as soon as I “had it all figured out” I got bored. So I feel like Steven’s process is the only process I could ever use.

  15. skzb

    “I’ve recently become a contributor to the Lyorn Records”

    Thank you! That is a very useful resource for me.

    “Firstly, does the universe interloper — that is, do you — believe in reincarnation outside of the realm of Dragaera?”

    In a previous lifetime, I proved that reincarnation is impossible.

    “are there any lords who take it into their minds to save a stash of wealth for their reincarnated self? If not, why not?”

    Given the character of the Lords of Judgement, that would be a good way to guarantee you were brought back as a brush-chicken.

  16. What’s “brush-chicken”? Anything that tastes like chicken?

  17. skzb

    Sure, that works.

  18. He knows but you don’t? Just like when Archie assumes that you—the reader—is already way ahead of him, eh?

  19. skzb

    That is one of the things I most adore about Rex Stout. The food is another.

  20. And this is one of mine: http://www.nerowolfe.org/pdf/stout/home_family/BSI/Watson_was_a_woman.pdf

    …courtesy the Wolfe Pack’s website. There’s some fun things out there. :o)

  21. Thanks for your entertaining replies! I’ll remember that next time someone asks me about reincarnation. 🙂

    I just finished Sethra Lavode again last night and realized some of my wonderings were already solved by the end of The Viscount of Adrilonka. Like, I had forgotten entirely about Illista. Also, I’m entirely heartbroken over Tazendra. I think I had intentionally blocked that part from my memory when I read these a couple years ago, and so it came as a shock all over again. Ironic, Tazendra being my favorite of the four companions, and Aerich being my husband’s favorite.

    Okay, so that was the final Khaavren Romance then?

    Well, why not have a historian, perhaps an Iossla historian, write about Kieron the conqueror? 🙂

    I’d like that. I also wouldn’t mind more books in the vein of The Brokedown Palace.

  22. skzb

    Thanks. I actually don’t have a plan to write or to not-write any of those; it’s just a matter of what happens to hit me.

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