A Whole Nother Book: Literally

Okay, so, a funny thing happened. I was watching a movie last weekend–a pretty dumb movie, truth be told–and all of a sudden I thought, “wouldn’t it be fun to write a book about X?” And I got really excited. And I tried to figure out how to make it work, and then suddenly I thought, “what if I combined it with Y?” And I got REALLY excited. Remember last week when I talked about how the best stories come from combining disparate ideas in cool new ways? Well, this idea started aggregating awesome idea after awesome idea like some kind of super-magnetized katamari, and it was all I could do to keep up. I came into work Monday morning and tried to work on Nightbringer, but I just couldn’t focus: this other idea was too cool, and too urgent, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. If I’d been in the middle of Nightbringer I would have found a way to deal with it, but thankfully I was only barely starting, still early in the planning stage, so it was easy to shove Nightbringer back into the closet and switch gears into something else. So now I’m working on something else, which for lack of a better title I shall call Extreme Makeover: Apocalypse Edition. Let me assure you that it is awesome.

From an artistic standpoint, Makeover is a great project to be on right now because I am incredibly fired up and passionate about it. I don’t know if anyone else wants it, but I don’t care because I want it, and I want it a lot. From a business standpoint, though, it’s still a pretty good move: it’s a great follow-up to Strawberry Fields because it’s set in the modern world and screws with reality is some pretty cool ways. It’s also a great follow-up to the other book I’m trying to sell right now, A Night of Blacker Darkness, because it’s a darkly comic farce about horrible people doing horrible things. Interestingly, Makeover is science fiction, which I don’t typically write (though Strawberry Fields is close, which is another reason this will be a good follow-up). So it’s something I want to write, which means it’s likjely to be good and go quickly, and something that fits with my recent work, which makes it a little more sell-able. I can’t really ask for much more than that.

So: I’m not writing a fantasy anymore (and my SF is set in the modern world), so I don’t have a ton of worldbuilding to do. The next step is, as I’ve talked about before, the “Cool Stuff” phase of planning: I open a file and start writing down every cool scene or character or complication I can think of, based on the core idea. What does this idea suggest? What have I never seen before? What will the readers want, and what will they not be expecting? I write down every idea I can think of, with another file open to jot down character ideas and major story arcs as they come to me. It’s important to note that I don’t do this in a vacuum; my brother is also a writer, and an excellent sounding board for ideas, and I don’t think I will ever write a book without brainstorming with my friend Ben. I even brought my writing group into the mix, pitching them the basic idea and seeing what popped out, and I’m pleased to say they thought of several cool new things I hadn’t even considered.

With a burgeoning file of cool ideas I opened another file–an Excel spreadsheet, as geeky as that sounds–and listed out the seven points of the Star Trek RPG story structure system I’ve blogged about before: Hook, Plot Turn, Pinch, Midpoint, Pinch, Plot Turn, Resolution. By this time I had a main character in mind, so I jotted down his story arc in very basic terms. With that is place, I opened the two windows side by side–my plot spreadsheet and my Cool Stuff file–and started grabbing cool ideas and scenes and shoving them into the plot wherever they worked best. I use a spreadsheet for this because it’s a very easy way to keep different plots organized in different columns, so I know which events are happening at what times in the story. It’s also very handy to be able to insert a new line wherever I need it. Eventually I’ll probably convert this back into a normal document style, but in the planning phase a spreadsheet is great.

So that’s where I am now: I have a 62-line spreadsheet full of all the major events and twists and scenes, more or less in the order they need to be in. My next step will be to go back through again and identify the major viewpoints and subplots–most of these are already pretty obvious from the spreadsheet, but I need to formalize them a little more to make sure all the moving pieces mesh without breaking. I tend to write very fluidly once I get to the actual prose work, but only because I outline very meticulously; if I do all this administrative work beforehand, it’s very easy to change things on the fly while writing because I already know where a character can and can’t go, and what information can or can’t be revealed by a certain point. This lets me spend the writing time focused on my artistic concerns like character, tension, and humor.

I feel very good about this book. The planning is coming together really smoothly, and I should be able to start actual writing by the end of the week. I’ll keep you updated as things move along. And yes, I can say “whole nother” if I want to. I’m a descriptive grammarian–we can do WHATEVER WE WANT.

8 Responses to “A Whole Nother Book: Literally”

  1. Kathiravan Isak Arulampalam says:

    I am a bit sad that you won’t write Nightbringer, or whatever it’s called now, but, since your writing this, i guess it’s going to be good.

  2. admin says:

    Don’t worry, Nightbringer will still happen, I’m just stopping to write this first. Also, you have one of the most awesome names I’ve ever seen. Can I steal it for a character? Where is it from?

  3. Sean - Texas says:

    I love it when lightning hits the brain like that. Ride the high as long as you can.

  4. JimJimmyJimJimJimmyJimmyJim says:

    Aw, I love when I get mentioned by my famous friends. Also, based on all the brainstorming ideas I’ve heard, I’m very excited for the book too. It presents a staggering amount of interesting situations, and I can see it making for some cool sequels as well.

  5. Donna says:

    I love being a descriptive grammarian!!! So psyched to see what comes of this uber new idea. Sounds like a gift. Glad you are taking hold of it.

  6. Mike - New Hampshire says:

    Dan, Have you done spreadsheet outlines for your other books? I’m curious as to the format you use. I love to see the nuts and bolts of how writers develop their work. Would it be possible to post an outline from an older book or put up a sample?

  7. admin says:

    I’d love to show some of the spreadsheets, but I didn’t start using them until book #3 of the serial killer trilogy (called Full of Holes), so unfortunately we’ll have to wait.

    I used a spreadsheet in Full of Holes because I had a lot more characters than I usually use, and I wanted to make sure I knew where they were going to be and when–and to make sure the reader didn’t forget about them while I talked about somebody else for five chapters. Each column was a main character and each row was a chapter, so I could look at it quickly and see who did what in each chapter. Then I put the chapter together from there, deciding much more organically how the information should be presented.

  8. Jeff V. says:

    Hi Dan,

    Just curious — How long does it usually take before you’re ready to start drafting?

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