A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 8

by syaffolee

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

On Sunday morning (5/27), I managed to get to the panel “Plotting Over the Course of a Series” a couple of minutes before it started. The panelists were J.A. Pitts, Peter Orullian, and George R. R. Martin. (AQ is an audience question.)

JAP: There are many types of series. But how far out do you plan?

PO: When I first sold, it was a complete surprise. And they wanted outlines for books two and three by 48 hours. I’ve consulted pro writers who said that it didn’t matter what you put in the outlines. They’re guideposts. But I already knew the ending.

GRRM: When I first started A Song of Ice and Fire, I had two one-page outlines–which bears no resemblance to the books. The publishers like books in triads, groups of three. First you come up with an overplot. I did my Wildcard series with a New Mexico gaming group where we had a retreat for the writers to plot it out and hammer out the details. The act of writing creates a new story. Some of it is technique you can get from writers in Hollywood. You can write a television episode and get help from other writers. Some writers like to break a story. But I don’t like anyone else breaking my stories.

JAP: Tor asked me how many books I had planned. I told them I already planned three, so they bought three. I break my stories with my son who finds the piece that is missing in the story. You need multiple arches and character plotlines. You need to find anything that’s surprising.

PO: I use Excel for outlining. I have a row for characters and a column for what happens. But by the second book, I’m coloring outside the lines so I needed revision. For me, it’s more of a discovery process, which is part of the fun. For writers like Brandon Sanderson, they need more architecture.

GRRM: Not all writers are pure “architects” or “gardeners.” Do you have a green thumb? Then you’re more like a gardener–you plant the seed and let it grow. If you’re an architect, you have to plan out how many rooms and so on. Writing is both. But then again, architects really don’t do any building. They let a contractor do it. So if the architect makes the contractor do the work, what’s the writer equivalent?

JAP: James Patterson and Tom Clancy. They have other people write their books.

GRRM: That’s fraud! It’s like V.C. Andrews. She became even more popular after she died.

JAP: I ended up putting stuff meant for book 4 in book 3, so the title changed. I put in many plot points subconsciously. It’s like the gun on the mantlepiece. It’s organic. But I do like to outline to see what to do next in order to get to the end. Do you do a different arc for each character? What about secondary characters?

PO: I trust the process. Sometimes you drop a hook and don’t know why. But trust it. It will work out if you relax and go with the narrative.

GRRM: I don’t do plot arcs for all of my characters. Some are bit players–they end up dying or they’re there to just serve tea. But I certainly have arcs for major characters and major secondary characters. Sometimes I don’t know all the details from A-Z, but there’s also a lot of discovery. That’s the fun of writing.

JAP: One negative side is if you have interesting things happen, but then you can’t get back to what you originally planned. Do you end up changing your plans or do you prune back? Connie Willis listens to what her characters have to say, but then she tells the characters what will happen. Do you religiously stick to outlines?

PO: I color outside lines a lot. My editor tells me to pull out the gratuitous writing, so only a tenth of what is written is used. However, I don’t get too far to the point where I need to scrap the book. I write to please myself. But I also have a day job so I can write for myself.

GRRM: When people label something in a book as gratuitous, is it unnecessary to the main plot? I don’t think that anything is gratuitous. Plot is only one element and not the most important. Otherwise, we would just read the Cliff Notes. Create a book that’s immersive. Great books will make people feel like they lived it. Critics will call a lot of detail, sensory detail, gratuitous. But by describing, it makes scenes come alive. They also call sex scenes gratuitous. But the journey is the thing and the details in the journey. Richness of detail might not be in some other genres–like John Grisham. I like gratuitous scenes.

PO: One example of detail is the description of women’s clothing in Robert Jordan’s books. Other writers might have no plot but rich description.

JAP: Learn the rules so you know how to break them. If words don’t do two or three things, then cut them out. It’s like poetry. But you can’t be so sparse. You have to figure out what’s right for your writing. One example is the wedding feast scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Keep the reader engaged and don’t bore them.

GRRM: Different readers are bored by different things. I get bored by action movies–especially car chase scenes. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote a screenplay with twenty pages of just talking in a car because he thought people would be interested. Then again, I liked My Dinner with Andre. Write for yourself and hold tight to it. Write what you want to read and hopefully you’ll find an audience. Urban fantasy has the advantage of being in the modern day. You don’t need to describe McDonald’s because everyone knows what it is. But in epic fantasy, you need to describe the inn.

PO: James Patterson used “lobby” as a shorthand. But in a secondary world, get into sensory detail. Due diligence of imagination will be the view lens of what happens with the plot.

JAP: I don’t like to take shorthand. I don’t take my characters to Starbucks. I take them to some other coffee shop. Plotting is the skeleton. I mostly describe character.

AQ: If you write a phrase of dialogue or prose into the outline, does it make it into the story or is it more organic?

GRRM: Outlines are more functional than polished. More comes from the actual writing.

PO: James Patterson created a spare part of a novel, turned it in, and it worked. That became his formula. When Kevin J. Anderson builds a building, he needs a detailed plan. Brandon Sanderson writes many notes including narrative. But don’t be slavish to the outline.

AQ: You mentioned the gun on the mantlepiece, Chekhov’s law. How often do you realize you have forgotten to set up a plot point?

GRRM: Often, because I get distracted. It’s easily resolved in a novel by rewriting the novel. It’s tricky in a multi-part saga since the first couple of books are already published. Gene Wolfe, the author of The Book of the New Sun, was the editor of an engineering magazine so he wrote on weekends. He wrote four books in first draft and then revised all four at the same time. That’s the way to do it. But realistically, you either need a full-time job, be disciplined, win the lottery, or marry an understanding woman with a good job.

PO: If you’re still editing book one, you can still go back. But after it’s published–be thoughtful so you don’t paint yourself into a corner later.

JAP: Balance what’s right for your career.

AQ: It’s hard to know how much research to do. How much time do you set aside for ground work and outlining?

JAP: I take the same amount of time to do an outline as the first draft of a 90,000 word manuscript.

PO: I do a lot of thinking about world creation although not all of it. I do some creating as I go.

GRRM: I don’t do outlines.

AQ: Are you ever surprised by a minor plot twist?

GRRM: Yes. Sometimes it leads to the best stuff, a better idea. Sometimes it’s a dead end so I need to go back.

PO: I literally had a character turn left rather than right and it turned out the path was my favorite. Once I got most of the way through the book and decided to do something else. The revisions took a lot of work and were grueling, but it panned out.

JAP: Sometimes I do an outline and get bored. So I trash the outline and make a new one that’s better.

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Stay tuned for Part 9, which includes a panel on the psychology of going into space.