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Plotting to become a dictator!


Yes, I stole the title of this post from Kevin J. Anderson. Because imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism. But that’s not all I stole! Or at least that’s not all I want to steal, if I can figure out how! ‘Cause I really just want to do the fun parts of writing.

How’s this for a title?

The Fiction Factory (Being the Experience of a Writer Who, for Twenty-Two Years, Has Kept a Story-Mill Grinding Successfully)”

Inspiring stuff. Not sure of the author’s actual name, but I very much enjoyed his story. So I ordered a (print!) copy of “Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots” which purports to be from the same guy. Turned out not to be all that useful, but it’s still fun to peruse.

Where am I going with this? Well…I really love writing. But (although I appear to need to prepare in advance as a so-annoying crutch in order to dictate fiction successfully), here’s a carefully considered opinion:

Outlining? It sucks ass. Unwashed donkey ass (which you’d prefer to think of as redundant, but it just isn’t at the moment) as you ride the smelly beast along a narrow trail above the Grand Canyon and wonder whether jumping right now would be better than waiting for the inevitable fall and messy bloody death, plus the donkey in front of you just crapped on the only level spot your donkey might have been able to use to navigate a twist in what some sadist advertised as a “trail.”  Oh, and on top of that you’ve got the runs yourself. Just sayin’ this about outlining because it’s true, as a public service. You’re welcome.

There’s this thing where, once I get started on plotting a novel, I start wanting more monitors for my computer. I used to use four of the things back when I wrote software, but consolidated to two when I gave that up in favor of writing words–and then distracted myself with the extra open windows, so I later ruthlessly pruned to a single screen. And I tend to write with only one window open, in full-screen mode. This, however stupid, has helped me write new fiction. But it doesn’t help me outline.

I always want to look at more “views” of my outline. I want to look at settings, and subplot summaries, and a list of significant plot points, and a list of minor inconsistencies and character background info I’ve generated along the way, and…well, when I don’t have all that available? I feel lost. I start to think I don’t know what I’m doing. Because, on a conscious level, I really don’t. Though it all seems to work out okay in the end. So far. Hypothesis: for me, writing is only peripherally related to any sort of conscious planning. Outlining, though, just doesn’t happen in the happy dreamspace in which I prefer to work. Ouch.

So. I guess I could create lots of supporting documents–character sketches and the like. Many writers do. Thing is, I’d probably never look at them again. And I do so enjoy letting these things arise organically as I write. I’ve tried software to help me outline (both Inspiration and FreeMind are interesting), and I’ve tried physical index cards. I’ve tried plain-and-simple documents. I’ve tried using Scrivener. Yep, Tarot cards too. None of it quite works for me.

Maybe, I mused, I’m just too much of a spoiled software geek. And maybe I’m just using all this is a way to avoid writing, too. But…back when I wrote Pagan Sex, I had two POV characters–John and Jeanette–and their stories, though interleaved in the final novel, were mostly written separately. This required a certain amount of outlining, and is probably why that novel took so long to write. Because outlines suck. OTOH, I had the notion that when I was done writing the individual stories I would have to spend a lot of time revising scenes to make them reinforce each other. But, guess what? I didn’t. In fact my brain did that stuff for me, or maybe there were a lot of lucky accidents, but either way it worked out well with very little effort on my part.

So…maybe I can write software for this? I could have a list of scenes. Each scene could have an associated setting, and a list of characters, and a justification for its existence. I could then pull a list of scenes just to look at their settings, and see if maybe they were all set at Denny’s or something. I could do all sorts of stuff. Then? For a brand-new novel? I could create a list of settings, and characters, and maybe some rules about how often I want which characters to appear–and maybe some generic things like “dies,” “has a revelation,” “meets somebody important,” “suffers an existential crisis,” “gets laid in an unusual setting,” or whatever, could be set up–and I could make the software generate the skeleton of a novel. It wouldn’t be a real plot. There’d be a challenge in trying to make the software’s result actually work within the context of the novel I’m planning to write. But it would be a fun toy, and as I went I’d be able to pull up different “views” of the novel, ’cause all this stuff would be in a database.

Okay. That’s probably crazy. But, you know, I just might do it. Today, though? I made these:

  • A list of POV characters, with no other details about the scenes in which they’d appear, covering (in theory) all scenes through the end of the novel.
  • A list of settings for each scene, again with no details beyond the scope of a setting–and without referring to the list of POV characters.
  • A list of goofy things that happen to each character, and things each character does–again with no reference to either of the other lists.

So IOW I didn’t know what would be going on with whom, or where it’d be happening, but it became my job to figure it all out. And it’s already been very helpful.

I just used OpenOffice Writer for this (MS Word, or any text editor, would work as well). It required no special software. But now I’m going through and trying to force all of my lists to make sense in the context of the novel I’m writing. It’s totally fun, and I thought I’d share this notion on the off chance somebody out there has the same plodding-plotting issues I do.

But seriously, I may write that software someday. It would be fun to make it generate plot skeletons of some sort and then see if I could creatively flesh them out. It would certainly force me to think about the structure of a novel in very concrete terms, and messing with my lists turns out to be a fun/creative exercise. How could that be bad?

Okay, back to work. Have fun out there!

Published inMy FictionPersonalRandom Rants


  1. It’s been interesting to read about your adventures in outlining, and thinking about my husband’s writing habits. He will do only what he calls a “back of the envelope” outline (and will literally grab a business envelope to write it down, despite my attempts to keep him from writing on any and every paper surface in sight). He outlines the plot points or beginnings of act one, act two, act three, and can do that for the entire series he has in his mind. I can’t keep track of it all; somehow, he does. Once he writes the books I can keep track of the events and specifics pretty well, sometimes even reminding him of inconsistencies with previous books (“you can’t have her do that there; you had the other character do it before in a similar setting”). But I’ve never seen him attempt a more detailed outline, as you have been discussing. He’d probably think I was trying to make him do more work than he already is. But I know some other writers who have to have an outline before they will even start writing, and think my husband is nuts for doing it the way he does.

    Writing is beyond my creative abilities. Good luck with your outlines, I’ll stick to my quilts. 🙂

    • David

      Glad someone’s reading ’em. Been kind of a one-trick pony, who can’t quite do his trick, lately. I don’t really want any more of an outline than I need to be comfortable doing one day’s worth of dictation. But…maybe someday it’ll be easier to do a bunch of outlining all at once? ‘Cause right after a day’s writing session I’m kinda brain-dead, and trying to prepare just before bedtime for the next day’s work doesn’t seem all that effective either–too many pleasurable interruption-candidates! {8’>

      I’ll figure something out. Maybe even soon!

      Thanks {8’>

  2. Lynelle Paulick

    “Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism”????

    Shit…you are so hilarious, DHY. I can barely stand to read your stuff, it’s so funny. But…I do anyway.

    • David

      As of course you should. {8’>

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