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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2009-02-11 05:57
Subject: [process] Learning from The Beast
Security: Public
Tags:beast, books, process, writing
Still thinking quite heavily over the experience of working on this just-completed draft of The Heart of the Beast. I've commented several times in recent weeks on the process working with a detailed, complex outline; something which is absolutely outside of my prior experience.

I've always said that my writing comes from deep within. That's especially true of some of the work which I consider to be among my best. A classic example of "unconscious competence," except that I seem to have skipped the stage of conscious competence to get there. With this work, I feel like I'm explicitly using some of the key tools of a novelist's art with some deliberate precision and direction for the first time.

To render a specific example, I've never thought much about scene order or function within a plot, especially not when I'm drafting. I'm perfectly capable of articulating those concerns on revision or critique, but drafting has always felt like a black box activity to me. And I've become reasonably good at it over time, in a black box way.

Working with this detailed outline has enabled me to visualize the novel's structure in much finer grained detail than I have normally (or possibly ever) done before. That in turn has meant that even while I was drafting, I was able to make choices about when certain scenes needed to fall, or where they needed to be moved to; and how other scenes needed to be added in to bring certain plot points or character transitions to the reader's attention at the right moment in the flow of the text.

This sense of conscious control is something I've actively rejected in the past as being interference with my process. I'm acquiring an understanding of the power of the outlining technique which will probably take me quite sometime to internalize back to an unconsciously competent tool, but I'm pleased as punch to be doing even this.

All the above will seem to be originating from the "Sky is Blue" department to some of you reading this, but this is my journey. I love it when I discover new territory

Originally published at jlake.com.

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S. Boyd Taylor
User: sboydtaylor
Date: 2009-02-11 15:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is fascinating.

How long of an outline are we talking here? And was it just a timeline, or did you actually have scenes and POVs listed out?

How hard was it to not jump out of the of the plot entirely? Did you find yourself feeling boxed in at any point?

Sorry if my questions are too rudimentary.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-02-11 16:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Not rudimentary. Stuff I've had to think about myself.

Outline was about 10,000 words long. Scenes and POVs were listed, though not strictly so. Essentially it was a long punchlist of scenes and plot points, some with details attached. I broke it into chapter-sized chunks (some of which were later re-arranged). There was also a separate timeline, which is useful since the narrative is non-linear.

And no, I never jumped out of the plot, and I never felt boxed in. Both of these surprised me considerably.
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S. Boyd Taylor
User: sboydtaylor
Date: 2009-02-11 16:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hmm.

Right now I can't project plot more than three chapters ahead without jumping the lines. Did you used to have similar issues?

Maybe you developed this type of precision at predicting the plot over the course of your last few novels. It certainly seems like a valuable skill.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-02-11 16:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
No, I can hold an entire book in my head at once. But that's definitely a hard-won learned skill, not a natural talent.
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S. Boyd Taylor
User: sboydtaylor
Date: 2009-02-11 16:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Very cool :) Thanks for the info!
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wyld_dandelyon
User: wyld_dandelyon
Date: 2009-02-11 15:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I almost always start with the unconscious competence (but only when I'm in the perfect zen state), then move into awkwardness as I try to understand and be able to repeat the thing (writing skill, dance step, whatever) without being in that singular state of focused consciousness. It has made a lot of people look at me very strangely over the years.
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User: csinman
Date: 2009-02-11 19:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It is a bit sky-is-blue to me, but I'm coming at it from a much lower level of competence, so it's really interesting (and edifying) to read what a more experienced writer thinks about something I do.

It's a crutch for me as much as it is a tool, because I started more with novels than with short stories, and I needed a way to hold that much information in my head. You talked before about how your brain expands every time you cram a novel in it, stretching as it tries to hold such a massive amount of story, and each time it gets easier.

It seems that an outline is something that you've discovered you can drape over the top of the novel, like giant blueprints you lay on top of the construction site to be sure construction is according to play. For me, the outline has always been a sofa that offered my novel a comfy place to sit while it grew to a size that broke it.

That's food for thought, indeed.
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User: csinman
Date: 2009-02-11 19:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:too cool for soap
Play, plan. You know. Completely interchangeable when you woke up as recently as I did.
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spencimusprime
User: spencimusprime
Date: 2009-02-12 00:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's cool to read this--and now I'm interested to see how HotB compares to your other stuff.

The most cohesive and quickly written novel I've done was based on a thorough outline--not just any outline, but one I wrote twice and workshopped. The first draft of the outline, all sixteen pages of it, was lost when a jumpdrive fried. So I rewrote it all in one afternoon to bring it to Dave Wolverton's workshop the next day, where it was further critiqued. A lot of thought went into that thing. I not only had a clear sense of what happened when, but of which parts worked and which I would tackle differently.

I recently wrote a novel where I consciously broke with this and let it sprawl, go in various directions I hadn't planned, and take its time getting anywhere. I think it was a good exercise, but I wouldn't do it again, partially because the sprawling novel ended up at 220k.
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