On Plotting/Outlining and the Benefits of Experience*

I find that after ~16 highly outlined novels, I mostly don’t need that scaffolding these days. The outlines have become internal to my head.

To elaborate: I find now that if I know where I’m going (almost always before I start the book) I no longer need to do much advance outlining. The things that I need to make a coherent story of the target length with all the bits that are needed for something to be a story are in my head in a very firm way.

If X is my goal then U, V, and W have to happen structurally to provide the story beats. It’s much less mechanistic than that, but that’s more or less how it works now. I know that the plot tools will be there when I need them, so I can focus on the themes and character and bigger picture.

I started to get the first flashes of it around novel number 10 and I’ve been using it ever since, but it really kicked in solidly with Crossed Blades, which was number 17.

This is almost entirely a function of experience. I’m up around 4-5 million words of fiction written counting all the stuff that fell by the wayside. I’ve got around a million words in print, another million that’s forthcoming or that I expect to publish, and 2-3 million that ended up on the cutting room floor.

That last 2 million plus was at least as valuable as the stuff I kept, since it represents reflection and change. I used to cut ~4 words for every survivor when I started. These days the ratio is reversed, but it took 20 years to get here.

The process has allowed me to create heuristics for writing a Kelly McCullough novel, heuristics which I constantly work to improve as I strive to become a better writer.

It’s that experience and that practice at solving the problems of writing a novel that allowed me to write Blade Reforged in 100 or so days and have something I could turn in without massive rework. Likewise, writing Drawn Blades in 88 days.

It used to take me a year to write a novel because I had to do a lot of backing and filling that I can avoid now. Mind you, I prefer to have 150-175 days, but it’s nice to know I can do it in less when I have to. Unfortunately, the only way that I know of to get there is to hammer out the work day after day and year after year.

*Importing and expanding my contributions from a Twitter conversation about plotting/outlining with Paul Weimer, Tobias Buckell & Damian G Walter