MisCon 28: Keeping Track of Story Elements
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.
Panel title: Keeping Track of Story Elements
Panel members: Steven Erikson, Rhiannon Held, Ken Scholes, Mark Teppo
Panel description: Steven Erikson wrote one of the biggest, most sprawling fantasy epics out there. How does he do it? What are some of his, and other writers’, tips and tricks for keeping track of all those plot lines, characters, histories, personalities, and quirks? Join us and find out!
KS: What do you think are the elements of story?
SE: Welcome to my nightmare! After ten books, keeping track is a major thing. I’m concerned with the character in crisis. I can take a metaphor and make it real which becomes a comment on the human condition which lies under the surface. Emotional convergence is picked up during the narrative.
RH: I think of continuity details which I need to keep remembering mentally like the arc of the story. I incorporate that into the character so I don’t forget it. It’s not necessarily about eye color and other physical attributes. It can be situations. Was it the first time the character went to the zoo or not? What did they see there? What did they think about the lions?
MT: I tend not to plan a whole lot. I build meta structures with a number of loops to keep track of the book–then I go back and fill in the details. I find a natural rhythm where I don’t have to consciously think about it. For small details, make friends with your copy editor so they can help keep track of them.
KS: There are a lot of things I don’t keep track of in storytelling. I write by ear. The storytelling is internalized. For details in a long series, I reread the books before I start the next. The downside is, if you don’t start in time, you’re fucked. For the rest of you, what would you do differently next based on what you’ve learned?
MT: I write small chunks at a time. So I would just get it down. Don’t do research beforehand. Do the research later for the details.
RH: If I were doing a longer series, I might change my behavior if I find myself plodding. I make a graduated effort. I find a massive series bible at the beginning to be a wasted effort. In revision, anything can change so it can be set up to trip you up later. I also do a lot of rereading. I did it while copyediting the first book while writing the second book.
SE: In the original series, I used years to mark time but I now realize it’s a mistake. The timeline is fucked up. So I don’t mention dates now to avoid cause and effect. I don’t want to be pinned down.
KS: I want to have a world, not an entire bible but more like a map and some ideas, in place before I start on a short story. It’s a good idea to go to that place to live there and see what it’s like but not to deliberately research. If you wander, you can find a story. Sometimes a new place will inspire a story. Fans also help because they read your work. I have a fan/friend who built a glossary for my world and he can tell me details I’ve forgotten. These days, I’d rather go under the knife or write a romance than write another fantasy series. What’s your biggest book mistake?
SE: I had a character who changed gender.
RH: Some of the mistakes were caught during copyediting. But one mistake that made it into the book was that one character said that he was never threatened by a gun, but he was threatened by a gun.
MT: In my first novel, there’s a scene that takes place in Portland at the bookstore Powell’s. In the book, I wrote that the tarot cards were in the rose room. But then I was told that they had moved the cards to the orange room! So I put a note in the back of the book that the location of the cards has changed. However, I think they put the cards back into the rose room now.
KS: I had places that were only mentioned in my first book but never put on the map. The name of one character’s dad changed in different books. There is no such thing as a perfect book. Another author had put Jakarta in the wrong hemisphere. What’s the one question you (the panelists) wished I had asked?
MT: I have a question for Steve. You said you have a last scene in mind before you write?
SE: I just have to get there. Give yourself a lot of room to get caught up. Bring things in for mystery. The key is not to overbuild. Leave room, especially in role playing games.
MT: In an RPG, the GM may drop notes for where the players should go, but the players just go the other direction. It’s spontaneous.
KS: I found that the most useful game was Dungeons and Dragons for planning, interacting with difficult people, budgeting, etc.
Q: Do you have any tricks for keeping track of story elements in shorter fiction?
SE: Take notes.
RH: Have a good memory. It depends on your personality. I don’t recommend a series bible. I like graduated effort. Be aware of your own abilities. What kind of notes do you need? Time is also a factor. Writing it continuously is easier than writing scenes one year apart. Rereading is not a time commitment.
KS: You can hold a short story or novella in your head but not an entire series.
Q: Do you compile your notes electronically? If so, how?
SE: Fans have compiled a wiki for my series. I also have thirty boxes of notes. I have no idea what’s in them. You can get away with anything if you have unreliable notes.
RH: I have some electronic notes on Microsoft Word. I hit “control F” to find what I’m looking for. It’s brute force but effective.
MT: I use a pocket notebook for my grocery lists and book notes. I also use Evernote, Dropbox, and Scrivener which is great because my work and my notes are in the same file. I’m very mobile.
KS: I use a tablet of graph paper. I don’t really use electronic notes because I don’t think it’s robust yet. I’m a mix of planner and pantser. J.A. Pitts has a really robust planning strategy using Excel for characters and scenes. I like to plan it like screenwriting. I’m terrified of the commitment of writing a novel, so I break it up. There are scenes for every character and several scenes for each character. I come up with the box and then come up with the story to fill the box. And as a pantser, I only move from one act to another at a time.
Q: What are your suggestions on what to do if you lose or forget your notes?
MT: Make new notes. If you’ve forgotten it, then it’s not worth it. If you remember it, it’s worth enough to keep.
RH: Losing something can be the best thing. When you’re trying to find it, you’re searching for the “awesome” feeling you had when you had the idea and not the idea itself. So maybe it wasn’t that great.
KS: Everything I write, I lose.
SE: I lost the first 100 pages of one book so I decided to push it to later. It happens.