Supplemental material for Writing Excuses — A Fire in the Heavens

For Writing Excuses, we are demonstrating our process by actually working through some stories from brainstorming, through outlining, to the story itself. The material below is meant to be a supplement to the podcasts.

When I start writing a new story sometimes goes like this… I have an idea. This is the core idea, or the thing that gets me excited. Sometimes it’s a Big Idea like “Jane Austen with magic” and sometimes it is something softer like an opening line, “The clockwork chickadee was not as pretty as the nightingale.” Whatever it is, that’s what I call the core of my story. Now, sometimes in the course of writing, I’ll find something that is more interesting too me, but for the most part, this reminds me of what the Gee Whiz factor was when I started writing.

For this exercise, it was a core idea that I’d had for years and been unable to come up with an idea for.

Core idea:

On a tidally locked world, an explorer sails over the curve of the world and sees the moon for the first time.

On Writing Excuses, we brainstormed together to come up with a basic story idea. This is what I call a thumbnail sketch, based on my time as an art major back in college. Like the core idea, this gives me a framework reminder of where the story is going. It shows me the beginning, middle, and end in general terms so that I can see what the overall arc of the story will be.

Sometimes, I’ll do several of these for a single story until I find one that excites me.

Thumbnail sketch

On a tidally locked world, an explorer sails over the curve of the world and sees the moon for the first time. The coastal city he visits is completely different, culturally and – because their nights aren’t dark – more advanced technologically. He’s escaping religious intolerance and realizes that this is going to be a worse place. He has to escape without leading them back to his homeland. He threatens to drown the moon, because he knows that’s what it looks like if they follow him. When he gets home, they need to jumpstart the technology to catch up with the other side of the world.

Next, I write a synopsis that deals with the specifics a little more clearly. This still isn’t an outline, because it isn’t going through on a scene by scene basis. If the one paragraph version is my thumbnail sketch, this is the pencil sketch on my canvas. I’m starting to refine my idea and look for structural flaws. Note, as we move to this one that my explorer is now a woman, and not an explorer for the sake of exploration.

Which each step, if I find something that works better than my original idea, then I go with that so long as it is serving the story.

Take a moment to skip over to Writing Excuses to listen to the episode on Outlining if you haven’t already.

Synopsis:

Katin is aboard a ship fleeing from religious persecution in her homeland. Her people worship the seven-sisters, a group of dieties that resides in the night sky and are visible as a tight cluster of stars. It has sailed farther West than anyone has sailed before. Some think that they will sail off the edge of the world, but she is confident that the ancient stories of a land far to the West are true. She dismisses the tales that accompany the stories of light in the night sky called “the moon” as exaggerated superstition. It can be nothing more than a large star or a strange cloud. She’s called from her cabin in the middle of the night because they believe they have spotted land. The night is cloudless and the stars are clear. There is a glow on the horizon, as though a great city were there with all it’s lights ablaze against the dark of the night. The light is like nothing she has seen before. Silvery. As they sail, the thinnest crescent shows above the horizon. It is not a single light source but a broad arc that glows with an unearthly light.

#

Something like a dim sun, but impossibly vast, has risen in the sky. It is the moon. She must gather her people on the deck and reassure them. Each day as they sale farther West it fills more of the sky. She begins to wonder if there is no land except this sphere. The crew hints at mutiny.

#

Land finally comes into sight. The coastal city is completely different, culturally from anything she has experienced. She had not expected the land to be inhabited and certainly not by a culture that is technologically more advanced. The quality of their textiles astonishes her, as does the metalworking they have on hand. Most wonderous of all are firearm which can strike a man from a great distance. This seems to come at a price though, because the culture is a rigid martial one. With a sinking feeling, Katin realizes that this will be a far worse place than where they came from. They worship the unchanging moon and have never heard of the seven-sisters. With so much light in the sky, the stars are dim things, mostly inconsequential.

The rulers are, however, very interested in the idea that there is another land beyond the sea. They had seen other travellers wash ashore, but had always assumed that they came from one of the islands to the South. When they take the navigator captive, Katin realizes that they plan to invade her homeland. She must rescue the navigator and help her people escape, without leading them back to her homeland.

#

She gains an audience and threatens to drown the moon if they follow her, because she knows that’s what it looks like if they follow her.

#

As they are sailing back west, she realizes that when she gets home, her country will need to jumpstart the technology to catch up with the other side of the world.

And NOW I actually write my outline. There are a lot of things that I can use straight out of the synopsis, and other things that I have to flesh out. For a short story, I just make a list of scenes. Part of what I’m looking for when I do this is a logical progression. I want to make certain that my characters are being intelligent and that their plans are actually intelligent.

You can also see a series of [square brackets] where I have a larger world building question, or need to remind myself of a structural point. I just write those down where they occur to me and then later deal with them at the appropriate spot in the story.

List of scenes:

  1. Katin is aboard a ship fleeing from religious persecution in her homeland. Her people worship the seven-sisters, a group of dieties that resides in the night sky and are visible as a tight cluster of stars. It has sailed farther West than anyone has sailed before. Some think that they will sail off the edge of the world, but she is confident that the ancient stories of a land far to the West are true. She dismisses the tales that accompany the stories of light in the night sky called “the moon” as exaggerated superstition. It can be nothing more than a large star or a strange cloud. She’s called from her cabin in the middle of the night because they believe they have spotted land. The night is cloudless and the stars are clear. There is a glow on the horizon, as though a great city were there with all it’s lights ablaze against the dark of the night. The light is like nothing she has seen before. Silvery. As they sail, the thinnest crescent shows above the horizon. It is not a group of light sources but a single broad arc that glows with an unearthly light.
  2. Something like a dim sun, but impossibly vast, has risen in the sky. It is the moon. She must gather her people on the deck and reassure them.
  3. Each day as they sale farther West it fills more of the sky. She begins to wonder if there is no land except this sphere. The crew hints at mutiny. Land finally comes into sight.
  4. They land at a substantial dock in a vast coastal city. [Consider language issues. Drat. That’s going to be tricky to work around…] The city is completely different, culturally from anything she has experienced. She had not expected the land to be inhabited and certainly not by a culture that is technologically more advanced than her own. The quality of their textiles astonishes her, as does the metalworking they have on hand. Most wonderous of all are firearm which can strike a man from a great distance. This seems to come at a price though, because the culture is a rigid martial one.
  5. When they cannot make themselves understood to the officials at the dock, they are taken into custody. By miming, they finally make their captors understand that they are from a land on the other side of the sea.
  6. A priest of the eternal moon is assigned to teach them the local language and to learn theirs. The people here worship the unchanging moon and have never heard of the seven-sisters. With so much light in the sky, the stars are dim things, mostly inconsequential. With a sinking feeling, Katin realizes that this will be a far worse place than where they came from. They had seen other travellers wash ashore, but had always assumed that they came from one of the islands to the South.
  7. When they take the navigator away, Katin realizes that they plan to invade her homeland. She begins planning a rescue of the navigator, and a group escape, without leading them back to her homeland.
  8. Something that involves her going into total darkness and using a light from a phosperescent bug to do so. [Establish earlier]. [I think the land of the moon would have far poorer technology for light sources BUT because of mines they would still have some ability.]
  9. They make a daring escape and are almost to their ship when they are caught. She threatens to drown the moon if they follow her, because she knows that’s what it looks like if they sail across the sea.
  10. As they are sailing back east, she realizes that when she gets home, her country will need to jumpstart the technology to catch up with the other side of the world. Her group agrees that the seven-sisters may have lead them to this place to save their homeland.

As I write, some of these scenes will get rolled together, some will get cut, and some will expand. But based on this outline and knowing how long my scenes tend to be in short fiction, I can make guesses that the story will probably be between 9k and 15k. I could expand it further and turn it into a novel by bringing in more subplots with other characters. I could also make it shorter by removing characters or try/fail cycles.

When the story is finished, we’re also going to do an episode where we critique it. You’ll get to see a rough draft as well as — eventually — the final, post-critique story.

 

18 Responses

  1. Becca Lee Gardner

    Thank you SO much! The Mary Way makes so much sense to me. I can visualize the structure rather than feeling like I have to plug in the right numbers. It lets me keep my creative eye open and still see the whole picture. Thank you, again!

  2. Grant Gardner

    Thanks for the insight. This actually makes a lot more sense to me than I thought that it would. The engineer side of me likes the order provided by using a structure, but I always felt it was a bit to rigid for my drafting process. Revisions, on the other hand, I can see using the more structured method on, but the Mary Way is a lot freer.

  3. Fric

    I’ve kind of struggled with outlines, and kept getting trapped in the grade-school structured outline. Seeing things like this make far more sense to me. I think maybe my own process is shaping up to look very similar. Do you sometimes end up breaking process and discovery writing for a bit, or going back and forth between outlining and discovery, or do you now always stick with doing the above?

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Oh, absolutely. If you look at Scene 8 in the outline, you can see the beginning of that in action. “Something that involves…” I had no idea what the specifics of that would be as I was coming up with the structure, only that structurally, that darkness needed to happen. I figured out what that was as I went.

  4. CM

    Thank you so much!

    I find that my outlining process is becoming very much like this (I even started comparing it to my art process too). I made up mine by combining the various outline styles like those of Dan, Howard, and Brandon along with MICE. Mine ends up much larger than yours because I’m a very absent minded/ADD and find that I can’t write unless I have a very detailed outline that includes guides as to what the character is seeing and thinking at each point; otherwise I just stare at the page and get frustrated that I can’t think of what to write, even though I know what is supposed to happen plotwise. There always seems to be too many possibilities of how to write any given sentence.

  5. CM

    Question: what do you do when you are writing your thumbnail or synopsis and you think of larger ideas or structural points that don’t fit in a thumbnail or synopsis format as given above? Do you add brackets as with the final outline, or do you place it somewhere else so it isn’t cluttering?
    I am constantly thinking of disjointed bits and pieces to add, but I find it hard to organize them in a way I can easily remember them when writing a draft without getting an extremely dense and daunting outline.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      You know, I actually cut that part of the document out because I found it hard to explain. But… usually in the thumbnail portion, I’ll wind up just jotting down a list of ideas. For this one my list was:
      gunpowder
      Bringing back technology
      Drown the moon

      Once I get into the outline, I use the brackets when I have the ideas, then later put them into the part of the outline where they belong. The outline is a tool for me, so it doesn’t actually have to make sense for anyone else.

      1. CM

        Thank you for the response. That makes sense now. I thought for a moment that maybe you were an evil robot monkey who could block off the part of your brain that spits out ideas and just compartmentalize them in a dark corner until they are needed to complete your vile plan to take over the world one story at a time. But I guess that must be Howard’s plan. :D
        This has all been very helpful. Can’t wait to get a draft and hear the critique.

        PS I would also love to hear how you and the guys go about turning your outlines into the words of an actual draft. How do you chose what to say out of infinite possibilities? This is my biggest hurtle. But I’m guessing that would be hard to put a finger on. If only you actually were evil robot monkeys, then I could jack into your brain and study it…hmmm.

  6. Jon

    Thanks for doing this, Mary! Interesting. A little like the Snowflake Method, but not nearly as repressive. :)

    A question, if you have time: You say, regarding the outline:

    > For a short story, I just make a list of scenes.

    How does the outline differ for a novel or novella?

  7. John Brown

    Lovely. This series of more detailed sketches is the general method I use as well, although I’m more of a messy bullet point guy. Your stuff looks so nice and tidy above.

  8. Benjamin Brewster

    Thanks so much. listened to the podcast 3 times to figure out exactly what you were doing and finally had a chance to come here and check it out. I have trouble maintaining an outline and seem to run off into tangents of discovery writing that are pools of tar pulling at my creativity. GOing to try this as map to my story to avoid said pools…

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