Almost Like We Planned It

My fellow Wild Cards co-author (and fellow 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.


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