So We Have This Plot Hiccup, And This Deadline…

(Or, “How Fast Can You Write, Kid?”)

In my previous post as a guest blogger here at Tor.com, I touched on some of the brainstorming and planning that goes on behind the scenes when writing Wild Cards novels. I’ve written for three Wild Cards novels, and each  has been a unique experience. (“Unique” means many different things, depending upon the book in question.) In this post, I thought I’d say a little bit about my experience with Inside Straight, which is the first novel of the Committee Triad, and also where my first Wild Cards story appeared. (That is, my first Wild Cards story to be published, not the first WC story I sold to George. But that’s a tale for another post.)

Inside Straight launched the Committee Triad via a pair of interleaved stories. The first story followed the filming of a television reality show called “American Hero.” The second story involved a genocide taking place halfway around the world from Los Angeles. Oddly enough, when co-editors George Martin and Melinda Snodgrass started assembling the book—by interleaving individual chapters written by separate authors, according to an overarching outline—they found these story lines didn’t mesh together seamlessly.

There had been some concern about this possibility during the plot break. But sometimes we need to see the details of a problem, the shape of its teeth and the color of its fur, before we can fix it.

Around this time, I was busy co-writing a Wild Cards story with Walton (Bud) Simons. But, for complicated reasons, the two of us were already working on Busted Flush, the sequel to Inside Straight, and we were elbow deep in our own logistical challenges. I can’t speak for Bud, but I know I wasn’t paying much attention to the discussions about Inside Straight.

For several months, it seems, those discussions went something like this:  “Blah blah American Hero blah blah blah third round blah Team Diamonds blah blah blah blah. Blah blah Egypt, blah blah.”

Until I got the following email from George:

Ian, can you send me your telephone number? We need to discuss Wild Cards.

Naturally, I concluded that I had been kicked out of the consortium. Who wouldn’t? But I sent my number, and my phone rang a few minutes later. The conversation started like this:

“Wow, George, you’re fast.”

“The question is, how fast are you?”

“Ummm…”  (I’m quick on my feet, see.)

“How quickly can you write a new story for Inside Straight?”

And that’s when I learned about the difficulty braiding the two story lines. George recruited me (one of the new kids) and John Miller (a Wild Carder since the earliest days) to write two additional stories that would help weld the disparate plots together.

A few days later, I got together with George, Melinda, and Daniel Abraham. We did a little brainstorming over dinner, and within an hour or so we had the basic scenario worked out. I talked about plot breaking in my previous post. The discussion during dinner was a bit like that, but on a much smaller scale. It didn’t take long for us to figure out where and how the new story would get slotted into the book, because most of the book was nearly finished at this point. Next, we had to figure out how the new story would serve the overarching novel. We thought carefully about the various plotlines, and decided they had to be in state “A” at the beginning of my story, and in state “B” at the end of the story. And, over dessert, we decided that Rustbelt was the best character to use for this transitional story.

So I had my marching orders. And they were pretty straightforward, all things considered. The only catch, of course, was that the entire manuscript for Inside Straight had to be finished (barring final polishes) by December 1. It was mid-November. All of the other contributors to Inside Straight had been working on their stories for months. John and I both had Thanksgiving to write ours.

I spent most of that holiday writing (and rewriting) my contribution for the book, though I did step away from the keyboard long enough for turkey and cranberries.

But it really wasn’t as bad as it might sound. In fact, looking back on the entire trilogy, I’d say Inside Straight was the easiest of my three contributions. (At the time, though, I never expected I’d be saying that, which tells you something about Wild Cards.)

All I had to do was work out a character arc that took Rusty from “A” to “B” in the allotted word count. After that it was just a matter of building a plot around that arc. I finished it on time, at the requested length, with minimal blood loss. John finished his story around the same time. We did our work long after everybody else had written their pieces of the book. But it turned out OK in the end. Or so I’m told.

An unintended consequence of this situation (but one that is very Wild Cards) is that Rustbelt became a much more important character in the triad than originally intended. Rustbelt is a character that I proposed to George in a three-sentence email on the spur of the moment. (“He’s from Minnesota. He’s made of metal. He can rust stuff.”) In contrast, Genetrix, the first of my characters whom George accepted into the Wild Cards canon, came with two pages of backstory and character description, yet I only wrote one story for her.

I had a year to do it. But it was much harder. So in my next post, I’ll talk about Busted Flush.


Ian Tregillis is a novelist, scientist, man of leisure, and mammal. His first novel, Bitter Seeds, will debut on April 13, 2010. The second and third volumes of his alternate history trilogy, The Milkweed Tryptych, are forthcoming from Tor Books in 2010 and 2011.

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