Outline or fossil?

Okay, I’ve got the character, setting and initial situation. Is that all I need to start writing a novel? What about outlining? What about writing scenes on index cards? Who’s driving this ship, anyway?

And the answer is, of course, the story is driving the ship.

This is different from how I usually work. Historically, I’ve been an outliner, a planner. I’ve been the kind of writer who writes character sketches, outlines the scenes in ever chapter and generally spends so much time researching and “developing” a story that I never get around to actually writing it.

NaNoWriMo makes that mode of storytelling almost impossible. The overriding requirement to get 50,000 words in one month, over 1,667 words a day, every day, makes such planning an impossibly expensive use of my writing time. Because keep in mind, I have a day job and a social life, and will not be putting either on hold for NaNoWriMo.

Fortunately, meticulous planning isn’t the only way to tell a story. My other option is the fossil.

I’ve talked about this before. In his excellent On Writing–and if you’re serious about writing and you haven’t read this, you really should, no matter what you think of King as a writer–Stephen King likens stories to found things, like fossils in the ground. Writers don’t invent stories as much as we uncover the stories that were already there, lying quietly in our minds. The really good writers don’t break very much digging it up.

King starts all of his novels much as I’m starting Sins of the Mothers. He has a situation in mind, a character or two, and sets events in motion. Like a lot of writers, I’m sure he has an intuitive feel for where to start the action, but once it starts, he just keeps asking “and then what?” until the story plays itself out in his word processor. He says that only rarely does he have a definite ending in mind.

I’m doing things a little bit differently. I do know where I’m going to end the story, but only vaguely. I have a sense of supporting characters, both protagonist and antagonist, and what their motivations are. And I have a basic sense of how the story has to start. Here’s my “outline” for lack of a better word.

  • Start with Sophie learning about the end of the Nemesis war and the destruction of Earth.
  • Sophie learns that the Sendeni plan to kill her rather than figure out what to do with her.
  • Sophie goes on the run.
  • Sophie meets up with some male Sendeni, and is able through her telepathic abilities to communicate with them in a rudimentary way. I don’t know yet why they don’t just kill her on sight or why they decide to hide her.
  • A whole bunch of stuff happens, during which Sophie becomes a revolutionary leader for the male Sendeni.
  • Sophie is killed, maybe in battle, maybe assassinated. The story will tell me which.
  • Sophie’s lieutenants pick up where she left off and achieve their independence.

So you can see, I have a pretty clear big picture view of the first act, from the opening to Sophie joining forces with the males. I have a less clear but still relatively solid view of what act three has to contain. I have no gorram idea at all what will comprise act two, the bulk of the novel. Basically, I know where I’m going for my first 10,000 words and my last 20,000, but the 40-50k in the middle is a complete mystery to me.

And that’s as it should be. Between Heaven and Hell was rigorously plotted, down to 3-5 major scenes per chapter, 20 chapters per “book”. In a lot of ways, I wrote it like I was structuring a 3-season run of a TV show, because I was reading a lot of writing advice from Joe Straczynski at the time about how he did Babylon 5 and that’s all I had to go on as far as how to actually do this stuff. Since then, I’ve written “Do Over!”, a novella, and nearly completed two novels: Mistaken Identity, the sequel to Between Heaven and Hell and the start of the Nemesis War, and Homeworld, my Mars novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2006. In writing all of these I’ve learned that my instincts as a storyteller trump plot. The last ten thousand words or so of Between Heaven and Hell veered wildly from my outline because by then the story had me in its grip and I was just racing to write it all down. I got into that zone a lot earlier in Mistaken Identity, veering off track into a much better story than I had planned about 30,000 words in, and slipped into that intuitive mode almost right off the bat with Homeworld, because NaNoWriMo doesn’t give you time to plot.

In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. When I was a little kid, we’re talking maybe six or seven, teachers used to pull me out of class and take me up to the fifth and sixth grade classrooms. I’d stand there in front of a class full of kids over one and half times my age and ad lib fairy tells, complete with morals, right off the top of my head. I was born with a storyteller’s instincts, a fundamental understanding of Plato’s three act structure before I ever knew who the heck Plato was. And story is story, there’s no difference between a five minute oral fairy tale and a 100,000 word novel. Each is a fractal reflection of the other, and that fractal image is etched into my DNA.

Between now and November first, I’m doing everything I can to make sure I have a solid foundation upon which to build. I’m going to know as much about Sophie and the initial conditions of the novel as I can. I’m going to know as much about the Sendeni and their culture and government as I can. I’m going to craft a solid opening line. But no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and no outline surives contact with the manuscript. Once I start writing, all this prep work drops away and it’s on.

All I need to do is get out of the story’s way as I’m writing it down.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-10-11

And we’re back to POV again

I know I promised to talk about world building, but I have another crisis to address first. I’m hung up on point of view again. I don’t know if other writers struggle with this choice as much as I do. I just know I really don’t want to get 80,000 words into the first draft and realize I picked the wrong narrator.

Here’s what I had in mind initially. Given that Sophie is the only human on an alien planet where just about everyone wants to kill her, I thought this would be a great opportunity for first person narration. There are a lot of reasons for this. It gives the reader an easier, closer connection to the protagonist. It reinforces Sophie’s isolation and the alienness of the Sendeni since we’d never see any viewpoint other than hers. And it would give the story a nice noir feel that I really enjoy. (I wish I could say my fondness for first person narration stems from classical noir like the works of Dashiell Hammett, or heck, even Mickey Spillane, but sadly, it really goes back to Chris Claremont’s work with Wolverine.) I also like that a first person narrator can editorialize about the action, giving me both a more active, entertaining narrative and an easy way to slip in exposition, of which there will be quite a bit.

I know that first person is technically harder to pull off than third person limited, the only other POV seriously used in American fiction (I was surprised to find out that Europeans, Aussies and Kiwis tend to use a lot more third person omniscient, which has fallen out of style here.), and I know that’s a risk. The same things that make me like first person for this particular story also make it hard to do well: extremely limited scope, the tendency for the narrator to ramble. To me, the benefits outweighed the disadvantages.


I was getting caught up on podcasts from the Dead Robots Society and they had a topic about the differences between comedy and tragedy, in the classical sense. Happy endings vs downer endings. One of the things they pointed out is that you can have a bittersweet mix of the two, where overall the good guys win, whatever that means for your story, but pay a high price. The Firefly movie “Serenity” pulled this off particularly well. And that got me thinking about my main character.

Early drafts of Mistaken Identity, the first book of the Nemesis War, began with an argument between two historians looking back on these events from much further downstream in time (a trope I believe I came up with before the Babylon 5 episode “Deconstruction of Falling Stars” but I don’t remember now). The idea was to lend the weight of history to the story, to drive home that however they appear at first, these are Important People, doing Things That Change The Course Of History. That people in this universe will look back and remember people like Jack Killian, the human commander who formed the Alliance, found the Last Guardian and ultimately destroyed the Nemesis, sacrificing himself, Earth and the rest of the Sol system to do it.

And it occurred to me that history would similarly look back on Sophronia Mukta Leelavathi. She would be remembered as the human telepath who led the Sendeni revolution. And then my brain, causing trouble for me as it is often wont to do, pointed out that a lot of revolutionary leaders are martyrs. What if Sophie doesn’t survive to see the end of the war? What if the males she’s led and inspired and taught to think for themselves rise up and finish the job without her, in memorial to her?

That’s a better ending. I like better endings.

But if Sophie dies before the end of the story, how is she the gorram narrator?

So now I’m reconsidering third person. And I have to admit, there are advantages to this as well. I can hold my third person camera tight on Sophie for most of the book, still get into her thoughts and reactions, but I can also, when needed, show other characters and how they’re reacting to what she’s doing. I’m thinking mainly of her opposite numbers in the Sendeni High Council and Military Officer Corps. I can slowly transition from her perspective to showing more and more scenes from the point of view of her lieutenants, who will carry on without her later. I lose some of the intimacy of first person, but gain other benefits to compensate.

The one sticking point I’m still having trouble with is the narrative voice. With first person, I get to tell the story with Sophie’s personality coming through in the narrative. In third, I’m going to have to fall back to what I call my “Asimov” voice, a nearly invisible narrator that stays out of the way and just tells the story. This frictionless narration served Asimov well, as it did Hemingway before him, and it’s really the only way I can tell stories in third person. I’d love to have a stylish, in-your-face narrator like Neal Stephenson used for Snow Crash, but I just can’t pull it off. So moving to third person means losing a big chunk of the personality I had in mind for the piece. But the alternative means writing it in first person anyway and then trying to figure out how to switch narrators after Sophie dies without it feeling like a cop out.

So what would you do? Should I just suck it up and deal with third person? Or is there way to salvage a first person narrative with the ending I want that I’m not seeing?

Developing character

NaNoWriMo is bearing down on us, and I have an interesting idea for this year’s novel. I’m skipping over the epic space opera I’ve been tinkering with for two decades and telling stories on the other side of it. Here’s what you need to know if you’re going to follow my creative process through NaNoWriMo. The galaxy has just been through a devastating war against an ancient terror that returned after being driven away a thousand years ago. The war is over, the Nemesis has been destroyed once and for all, but in the process Sol went nova and the remains of humanity are scattered among the stars, without a homeworld or even a government. Even though humans were the glue that held the alliance together, the survivors are shunned because it turned out humanity was an offshoot of the Nemesis, the only other humanoid race anyone has ever seen. We were a science project of the Guardians, an even more ancient race of protectors, left on Earth to develop under the watchful eye of nanotechnologically immortal shepherds, the angels and demons of Between Heaven and Hell. Got all that? It’s all back story now.

Sins of the Mothers features the Sendeni, the most powerful of the former alliance races and the species we first encountered when we ventured out into the stars. They’re dinosauroid/avians, and look like a cross between a big brained velociraptor and a turkey. Their society is rigidly matriarchal, as the males of the species are considered too violent and too dumb to hold any positions of authority. After the Nemesis War, the males, who have seen during the war how other species treat their males, rise up in revolution for equal treatment, leading to a civil war that nearly tears the Sendeni apart.

That’s the setting. But I still don’t really have a story.

Story is about character, first and foremost. So who is this novel really about? A civil war is a big thing. I could tell the story in a sweeping, cast-of-thousands Tolstoy style, but there are two problems with this. One, that’s not really a narrative style I’m comfortable with, or that appeals to me as a reader. Two, all the characters would be aliens, making it difficult for the reader to connect with any of them or even pick up the tenants of Sendeni culture and society.

So I decided to make this a smaller story. The story will be about a human stranded on Senden after the Nemesis War ends, a human who then has to try to survive as civil war erupts around her (the choice to make my focal character female was a gut choice that I really don’t have a reason for; I just like women, especially strong women). But who is she? Why is she there in the first place?

I felt she needed to be a diplomat or ambassador of some sort, some reason to be the only human on the planet. But what kind of ambassador would you choose to send to an alien world? Anthropology and linguistics might be more valuable skills than basic diplomacy. Then it hit me. Those of you old enough to remember the cold war, remember how both CIA and KGB agents always had official titles like “Cultural Attaché”? That’s what she is. Her official reason for being on Senden is to provide the Sendeni High Council with insight into their new allies in the Nemesis War. Her unofficial purpose for being there is to spy on the Sendeni and relay everything she can about them back to Earth.

Of course, as the book opens the war ends, as does her entire reason for being there. Both of them. The Sendeni don’t need her anymore and there’s no government back on Earth to report to because there’s no Earth anymore. What does that mean for our protagonist? What will become of her now. Taking inspiration from James Patrick Kelley’s “Think Like A Dinosaur,” I think the Sendeni will come to the idea that they should just kill her. It’s a lot cheaper than sending her back, and besides, humans are really the same thing as the Nemesis, right? May as well go for the clean slate. So shortly after establishing the setting, we end up with our protagonist on the run on a planet where there are no humans and everyone she meets will want to kill her.

Now that sounds like a good story.

It goes beyond that, of course. Our protagonist is different than most humans, too. She was the communications officer on a Terran destroyer that actually fought the Nemesis. The Nemesis looks human but is a single telepathic hive mind, millions of “people” acting as a single organism. When it comes in contact with humans, the telepathic waves it sends out actually awaken telepathy in 0.1% of humans. Of the roughly one million humans left in the galaxy, that means that about a thousand of them have become telepaths (as nearly all of the humans left are war veterans who came in contact with the Nemesis at one point or another). And our protagonist is one of them. It’s part of the reason she got the job after being taken out of the military. Her abilities are still developing, and right now are limited to involuntary flashes she gets of other minds. She can’t control it very well if at all, and has been doing well just not to let the Sendeni know she’s a telepath. But one of these telepathic flashes is enough to tip her off to their plan to kill her, and it’s enough to help her communicate with the males (who obviously haven’t been taught English) she meets up with later.

So now we’ve got almost everything we need. A compelling character, an interesting setting and some conflict to start us off. But we still need a name.

I’ve got a few resources I use for character names, because the names I come up with off the top of my head are almost invariably lame white-guy names. The Terran Republic during the Nemesis War has been a single world government for nearly two centuries, and I want a character that reflects post-European diversity. I decided to make her Hindi, since statisically speaking there’s a better than one in three chance even today that any randomly selected human will be either Indian or Chinese. Consulting 20000-names.com, which gives me a nice selection of names from around the world, I pull out two interesting names.

LEELAVATHI: Hindi name meaning “free will of God.”

MUKTA: Hindi name meaning “liberated.”

SophieBoth of these tie into the theme I’m going for with the book, as this human helps to liberate the oppressed male Sendeni, who have been second-class menial laborers for centuries. Now but neither has the flavor I’m looking for for her first name, the name we’ll be calling her most of the time. For that I pull out an app on my iPhone called Baby Names that has names, origins and meanings and scan through the female names until something catches my eye. And there it is. Sophronia, from the Greek for foresighted. Nice name for a telepath.

So now I have my main character. Sophronia Mukta Leelavathi, but she goes by Sophie. Thanks to another iPhone app called Avatar Creator, I also have a picture of Sophie, to help solidify her in my mind’s eye. We know who she is, what she’s doing on Senden, how she got there and what has to happen next. Next up, world building.

UPDATE: Okay, I lied. I do know why Sophie is a chick, I just didn’t know I knew it when I wrote this article.

Even though this story is about aliens and humans in a far flung society, it’s a story for early 21st century readers. Most societies on Earth today are either strongly patriarchal or have patriarchal histories, and I’m turning that familiarity on its head by making the females the oppressor class in Sendeni society. The males will be the scrappy underdogs who aren’t getting a fair shake. But given that the background of the novel is a gender war, I want to make sure that I, as a male writer, don’t allow the book to come across as misogynistic. So I’ll make the focal character, the protagonist, heck, the gorram narrator–since I continue to have an unhealthy fascination with first person narrative, even though I know it’s harder to write well–a female.

Maybe this balancing act comes across as calculating or artificial, but in many ways that’s what fiction is. This is a made up story. There aren’t any real Sendeni or, to the best of my knowledge, telepaths. Fiction is about creating stories that are more satisfying than real life. In a lot of ways, the artificiality of fiction is why we read it in the first place.

POV madness

(WARNING: I have no idea if this will be interesting or useful to anyone, but it is a look inside the process of a working novelist. Proceed with caution.)

It all started out so simply. I wanted to tell the story of Ghost Ronin from the sidekick’s perspective, a la Watson & Holmes. The problem is that while our protagonist and narrator are together in the first chapter, they don’t share a scene again until act three. For most of the book, the protagonist (Mike) is acting alone, and the narrator (Chris) is nowhere to be seen. So the end result is that we have one chapter of first person narration, then nine chapters of what appears to be third person, then back to first person again for the final five chapters of the book. The nine chapters in the middle are technically still first person narration, still Chris telling Mike’s story, but it doesn’t sound that way because there’s no action for Chris in those chapters. The idea is that since the entire book is told in past tense, Chris is relaying all this to the reader at some point downstream in the timeline from the events of the entire book and can tell us what Mike was doing without him because Mike clued him in to what he did first.

So here’s the question. Has anyone done this? And who’s to say the entire book has to be done in one point of view anyway?

Most books are, of course, because it’s the safe way to go. Any time we as writers diverge from that we’re taking risks. But sometimes it works out pretty well. One of my favorite examples is Stephen King’s Christine. The first act is told from the first person narration of Denny, the best friend of Christine’s new owner. Denny breaks his leg and is out of commission for the second act, where the story is told in third person narration, and we get to see what Christine does when no one is looking. Then Denny comes back into the picture for the third act to try to save his friend from the possessed, demonic car and the last act is again in Denny’s first person narration. It works well, and I think that’s why this has always been one of my favorite King novels. But again, do you have to be Stephen King to pull this off? (I might argue that while not his first novel–that would be CarrieChristine was comparatively early in King’s career and that he wasn’t then the 800-pound literary gorilla he is now.)

There are several ways I can go here. One way is to make Chris more of an active narrator, commenting and inserting his own opinions into the narrative while he tells Mike’s story. This keeps Chris in front of the reader while keeping it Mike’s story. It also makes the narrative peppier, something I’ve tended to avoid in third person narrative. I’ve historically tended more towards the Asimov, invisible narrator side than the Neal Stephenson Snow Crash in your face narrator. Could be an interesting challenge.

Another suggestion I’ve gotten is to jump straight from chapter one to their reunion in chapter 11, and tell the preceding nine chapters in flashback as Mike brings Chris up to speed. I don’t like this idea because I think it sucks all the momentum out of the story. Basically we end up with two Army buddies sitting in a living room telling war stories for the majority of the book. Not that you can’t make a compelling book that way, but that’s not what this story is about.

My sometimes writing partner Josh Curry (@tibbarerew on Twitter if you want to harass him) had a similar, but much more complicated idea. (This surprises no one.) He also suggested I jump straight from the end of chapter one to the beginning of chapter eleven, maybe throw in a few graphs about Chris coming home from Afghanistan, struggling with PTSD, and then reintroduce Mike and keep going with the story, dropping in the previous nine chapters I skipped in bits and bites of flashback as our heroes go about their plan. This seems to me to actually be doable, but I balk at it for two reasons. One, it would be really hard. And two, it would mean completely restructuring the book. Right now the book is set up as a playlist because I’ve established Chris as a grafted-to-his-iPod music junkie, starting off each chapter with the lyrics of that track in the playlist. Each track ideally captures the mood or events of that chapter in Chris’s mind. Josh’s idea completely jumbles that whole structure.

In the end, I realized two things. One, the Robots are right. The first person narrative is an affectation that not only isn’t necessary to the story, but in many ways obstructs it. In my readthrough, I noticed several scenes that I really shouldn’t lose, but that I can’t explain within my narrative structure since neither Mike nor Chris were actually there to witness the scene. In order to do this story justice, I have to tell it from the third person. I can still keep the playlist structure, especially if I start the book with a quote from Chris, something along the lines of, “Life is a playlist. You just have to pick the right songs.”

The other thing I realized is that in order to do this properly, I’m going to have to scrap the 20,000 words I’ve already got and start over. I know where I’m going with the story and how I’m going to get there, but very little in the draft I already have is usable. And if I’m going to start over, I’m going to need time to focus. Time I don’t have with NaNoWriMo coming up. Better to spend October ramping up for Sins of the Mothers and recording podcasts.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-10-04

  • Wow. Brandon Marshall FTW. #broncos #
  • Oh and BMarsh wouldn't have had the shot without STIFLING Denver D. #broncos #
  • Broncos 4-0 behind NFL best defense! #
  • I think the stomach bug killed my gall bladder. I simply cannot tolerate fat anymore. #mylifeisover #
  • @JNGold Have been for years. Some treat their body like a temple; I treat mine like a pool hall. in reply to JNGold #