Jan 26 2010 1:42pm

Almost Like We Planned It

My fellow Wild Cards co-author (and fellow Tor.com guest blogger, and all-around good guy) Daniel Abraham has posted about the weird style of collaborative writing that happens inside the invisible floating mountaintop fortress that is Wild Cards Headquarters. He compared the experience of writing in a shared universe collaboration to a rugby scrum, and that comparison is apt. (As far as I can tell. I’m not, you know, the rugby type. By which I mean I bleed easily.)

But I’d like to elaborate on something Daniel said in his first post, because it touches on a facet of collaborative writing that is often overlooked, yet occasionally essential and (at times) surprisingly rewarding.  I’d like to talk about the beginning of the collaboration process: the plot-breaking session.

And you thought Daniel was kidding about that huge meeting deep in the heart of rural New Mexico.

“Plot breaking” is a term we use in my local writers’ group to describe the process of planning out the general shape of a novel, or short story, or screenplay, or grocery list. We’ve even applied the process to entire trilogies. The idea behind a plot break is that it provides the skeleton for a story. It locates A and B on the map, plots a course between the two, and finds a few points of interest along the way.

The plot break is a peculiar form of brainstorming that is largely concerned with structure.  It’s an invaluable tool for writers who take comfort in outlines (like me). It’s not as useful for organic writers, or those who chafe at the tyranny of the outline. But it’s incredibly useful for shared universe projects. A beast like Wild Cards desperately requires some semblance to order before the potential contributors can start pitching story ideas.  Not every Wild Cards novel begins with a plot break, although much of the current “Committee Triad” was shaped by a pair of such sessions.

(The plot break, as practiced amongst feral bands of New Mexico science fiction writers, has another connection to Wild Cards. It came to us via series co-editor Melinda Snodgrass, who has spent years breaking plot on a daily basis as part of her screenwriting career in film and television.)

In a good plot break, the participants have received background information about the project prior to the meeting, and they’ve given it some thought. For instance, in Wild Cards, George emails the general idea for an upcoming novel or trilogy to everybody in the consortium. This gets people thinking about various ways their characters might interact with themes, story elements, and other characters.  (Character interaction being the heart and soul of Wild Cards.)

A good plot break also hits a sweet spot on the number of participants. Too few means the ideas don’t flow easily enough. But if too many people are flinging ideas into the pot, it gets easy to become sidetracked, or to get deadlocked in a clash of competing notions, or to lose sight of the goal of the gathering.  In Wild Cards, we get what we get—it’s a matter of who is available on the chosen date.

So, when the stars are properly aligned, we convene. We review what we already know about the project…then throw it all out to indulge in several hours of orgiastic brainstorming. And it’s chaotic. Entire story lines appear and disappear. Characters come and go, changing genders and sometimes even species before vanishing back into the ether of imagination. A setting moves around the world. Subplots pop into existence, flit around the room, then make a dive for the fire exits.

“What if Bugsy were a woman?”

“What if Kate isn’t dating anybody at all?”

“Can we set that scene in a junkyard, just so that Rustbelt can get stuck to one of those giant magnets? Please?”

Remember what I said about how the plot break session isn’t merely brainstorming, but that it’s also geared toward structure? There’s a point when something downright magical happens.  It always happens, yet it’s always a surprise.

After the orgy of unbridled creativity, when people are feeling spent and slightly dirty, somebody notices that hey, this idea over here and that idea way over there actually fit together if you staple that corner down, and if you move this over here and turn it sideways… Well, heck, that sorta looks like an act break, doesn’t it? And this over here actually foreshadows that over there…

Before long, somebody says, “Wow, that’s almost like we planned it.” (And believe me, we say that a lot in Wild Cards.)

So we load up on another round of food and beverages, pull out the pens, and start charting the plot on a whiteboard. Different colors for different characters, different columns for different plot lines. An entire book crystallizes out of sheer chaos. The major beats of the main plot, a couple of subplots (or, in Wild Cards, seventeen subplots), and perhaps a few character arcs fall into place. It’s like watching a tornado rip through a lumber yard and leave behind all the framing for a two-bedroom rambler. The hard work—building the damn thing—remains, but the floor plan is there.

Which isn’t to say everything is set in stone once the plot break comes to an end. The end result of the process is a very general, bird’s-eye-view “beat outline” of a story. It’s up to the writers and editors to turn that into a book. That takes months and endless rewriting. Inevitably, the final product differs wildly from the original outline. But the bones are still visible, if you look closely enough. And the book is always stronger for having gone through this process.

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.

Marcus W
1. toryx
Overall, it sounds like quite an experience. Thanks for sharing another piece of the process.
Elio García
2. Egarcia
This makes me wonder what the proportion of "gardeners" (organic) vs. "architects "(structured) writers is in the Wild Cards group, and how vicious the knife fights get. ;)
Pam K
3. PamK
I had no idea they were still making Wild Cards books! (Here, "still" = "since the early/mid 90s".) Nifty! Which one(s) are you in?
Ian Tregillis
4. ITregillis
Egarcia @ 2:

Good question! I don't know what the answer is among the rank and file of the WC consortium, but now I'm curious about it. Maybe I'll do a poll...

I can tell you, though, that our editorial team is split 50/50 on the gardener/architect issue, at least when it comes to Wild Cards. One of our co-editors strongly tends toward gardening, and the other tends strongly toward architecture. I'll leave it up to you to decide which is George and which is Melinda. :-)

PamK @ 3:

Hey, Pam, fancy meeting you here. I've written for all three books in the Wild Cards "Committee Triad": Inside Straight, Busted Flush, and Suicide Kings. (The cover of SK depicts an epic scene of crocodile wrestling from my story.)

My subsequent posts will describe my experience on each of those books -- it varies widely from book to book.
5. Guessingo
Does GRRM have final say over the plot breaks? I would think someone needs to make the call when people disagree.
Ian Tregillis
6. ITregillis
Guessingo @ 5:

Yep. I should have mentioned that in my post, in fact. Disagreements are not, um, unusual. (They're almost always very civil, however. Sorry, Elio, no knife fights! That I know of. Recently.)

In fact, during the initial plot break that launched the Committee Triad, we hit a wall and couldn't see a way forward until a major sort-of-meta issue about the novels had been resolved. So I think it was Daniel Abraham who said, "Okay. Is the point of this exercise 'A', or is the point 'B'?"

George chose one or the other, and then we moved forward again.
7. John Jos. Miller
Actually, as (as far as I know) the only person in the world who has written for Wild Cards and played rugby (prop) for two universities, I'm probably uniquely qualified to comment on the Wild Card as rugby scum metaphor.

I've never pulled a hammy while writing for Wild Card, but I've never gotten to clothesline someone who's annoying me at full speed, either.

I also come down on the gardening side on the gardening vs. architecture debate, which can, at times, be problematical in the Wild Card universe.

John Jos. Miller
8. Kenny Cather
I'm loving these blogs! In my mind, I imagined these big summits where everyone sits around madly throwing ideas at each other until some sort of creative consensus comes forth.

A question that's been burning my mind is what happens when someone wants to tell a story where someone else's character undergoes a large change? For example, and I'm trying to keep this spoiler free, what happens when an author wants to kill a character or reveal a character is homosexual? Have these situations only happened in the creative summits or has anyone ever had a great idea that requires drastically changing a character while working at their story?

I'm looking forward to more Wild Card books! (Plural - as in, lots more, please! ^_^)
Ian Tregillis
9. ITregillis
Kenny Cather @ 8:
A question that's been burning my mind is what happens when someone wants to tell a story where someone else's character undergoes a large change?

Another good question. That's where the point system comes in. More on that in a second, but basically, major changes to a character only happen by agreement of the character's creator. For instance, if I give character A a minor cameo, or a single line of dialogue in my story, I check with the creator of character A that this is okay, and let that author vet the relevant passage to make sure it's authentic to the character. Often these arrangements are confirmed ahead of time -- "Hey, Bob, I'd like to use A in my story. Is that okay?"

But. If I plan in my story to dismember A, well, then, that takes some discussion. Something major like that will be covered in the story pitch in the first place, so George and Melinda will be aware of it. Then we'd have a discussion -- me, George, Melinda, and the creator of A. If A's creator is unwilling to have the character undergo that major change, then that's the end of the discussion, and we change the story accordingly.

Members of the WC consortium each have a certain number of shares or points, and these points determine our relative slices of the pie with regard to royalties, etc. Points are apportioned for a variety of things, such as writing a story, or if one of your characters plays an important role in somebody else's story. But you can also get bonus points if you allow one of your characters to undergo a major change or to die.

So, where people might otherwise be unwilling to kill off one of their characters, money sometimes greases the wheels. :-)
Marcus W
10. toryx
So, where people might otherwise be unwilling to kill off one of their characters, money sometimes greases the wheels. :-)

Yeah, but it seems like it'd also be a lot of fun to have another writer take your character and do a lot of horrible things with him/her (assuming they live). Then you can deal with the consequences in a future story.

Personally, that appeals to me a lot.
Elio García
11. Egarcia
The point system is fascinating. It's like some roleplaying game systems, where players can earn extra stuff if they allow certain things to happen to their characters...

Although, maybe that's where the idea came from? RPGs? In any case, sounds very cool!
Dot Lin
12. fangirl
I, too, love the image of you all "summit-ing" with pens and subplots to sketch out a story line. Rugby scrums or not, I'm glad most of the disagreements are worked out in a civil fashion.. although am a bit disappointed at the lack of things being thrown- scones, dry board erasers, foam shields, etc. :p
Ian Tregillis
13. ITregillis
Toryx @ 10:

Many WC writers feel the same way. Certainly there's never been a shortage of horrible things happening to the characters...

Egarcia @ 11:

I'm not sure where the point idea came from. It was long before my time... I'm told it came about directly as a "carrot" to entice the authors to work closely together, in order to avoid problems that had arisen in earlier shared-world series. Maybe one of the folks who was there at the beginning can comment on it.

Fangirl @ 12:

I vaguely remember a documentary about Monty Python, where somebody admitted to fights where "typewriters were thrown". I'm glad the WC consortium isn't more like the Pythons.
14. John Jos. Miller
"I'm not sure where the point idea came from. It was long before my time... I'm told it came about directly as a "carrot" to entice the authors to work closely together, in order to avoid problems that had arisen in earlier shared-world series. Maybe one of the folks who was there at the beginning can comment on it."

Yes -- that's it exactly. It has been part of Wild Cards since the very beginning, to actively encourage writers to play nicely together and to share their creations while at the same time still retain a certain amount of control over them.

No sense in having a shared world if you don't share.

John Jos. Miller
15. Melinda M. Snodgrass
I don't think you can write a Wild Card story without embracing your inner architect. We have to set an overarching plot, and we have to have people submit stories that help meet the demands of the plot. Then everybody has to be willing to rewrite -- a lot -- in order to bring it all into a somewhat coherent line.

It really is like a plot break for a script on a TV show. The book is our big episode, the individual stories are essential scenes that lead to that final "run for the credits".

And our carrot method has worked pretty well over the years. It's always a lot of fun to see your character being written by another. Sometimes you get new insights into that character.

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