My Experimental Film: Why My Plotting Is Ahead Of My Understanding

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So last night, I walked around the block with Gini and plotted out the last third of the last book* in the ‘Mancer series, Fix.  I knew what the characters had to do.
Tonight, I spent two hours downstairs, knowing what they would do, trying to understand why they’d do it.
Which sounds really fucking bizarre if you’re not a writer – and maybe bizarre if you are.  But I’m a gardener, and whenever I write I think of this song from They Might Be Giants:

Specifically the line, “I already know the ending, it’s the part that makes your face implode. I don’t know what makes your face implode, but that’s the way the movie ends.”
And seriously, that’s the way I work.  I have long realized to trust my subconscious – it doesn’t plot that far in advance.  I only see a chapter or two ahead of me.  And around midway through the book, it’ll say something like, “The invasion triggers a broach, and Paul heals the broach.  Now write that chapter.”
If you’ve read Flex, you’ll understand that that moment is one of the central points of the entire series.  It’s where we see that Paul’s powers are beyond what we thought they were – and, more importantly, that Paul’s worldview is fundamentally one of justice.
Thing is, Paul’s world view when I started to write that scene was not justice.
When I wrote Flex initially, Paul was a scheming politician whose ambitions were thwarted when he lost his foot in a magical battle.  And he used bureaucracy as a way to subvert the system, and – actually, hell, it was a first draft, I didn’t actually know why he had bureaucromancy as a power, I just knew he did.  And when a confluence of magic punched a hole clean through to the demon dimensions, I went, “Paul can clean this up.”
At which point I went, “Wait, why can he clean this up?”
And my subconscious went, you know.
And I went into that chapter completely blind as to why Paul would heal the broach or even why he’d think he could do it, given that Paul was sort of a greedy jerk at this stage of the manuscript.  And the broach got triggered, and the buzzsects started to gnaw their way through the laws of physics, and I went, “Why does Paul heal this?”
And I realized:
Paul was offended.
The broach was scary, but Paul was fastidious enough that watching the laws of physics gnawed away offended his sense of order.  And I realized: Paul was not a greedy politician, as I had somehow thought for the last 50,000 words – Paul was the kind of guy who straightened library shelves in his spare time, because he believed things should be set right.
He was not a greedy politician, but a supercharged Radar O’Reilly.
My subconscious knew that having Paul heal that broach was absolutely what Paul had to do, but I did not know why he did it until I walked around for two hours in my basement, pacing madly, muttering, “I don’t know what makes his face implode, but that’s the way the movie ends.”  I had leapt out into the void over a great stadium with the absolute faith that my subconscious was swinging a trapeze at me, and I clutched my fingers in the dark until I caught wood.
Once I understood what my subconscious was trying to get me to do, the rest of that novel snapped into focus.
And this evening, I knew exactly what Aliyah and Valentine had to do.  But I had no idea why they had to do it. I knew Valentine had to call her boyfriend, and Aliyah had to sit by [REDACTED]’s bedside where she’d do [REDACTED] magic –
But none of the motivations I’d given them at the end of Act II made any sense.
So I kept trying on various rationales. Okay, maybe Aliyah would do this because she was sad.  No, that didn’t work.  Maybe Aliyah was just fooling around with this newfound magic and stumbles by [REDACTED]’s bedside.  No, that doesn’t work.  Maybe Aliyah was trying to heal that character –
And I spent two hours pacing the basement again, trusting that my subconscious was right, and that no, Aliyah had to sit by the bedside and do magic.
I just had to find the right reason for that, and when I did, I would know why the rest of the plot made sense.  And I took seven pages of notes, scribbling frantically, notes that often included heavy-hitters like Boy, you don’t make it easy, Steinmetz and No, that doesn’t make sense and How is this an expression of love, or is it?
And I would think I was insane, except I heard Brandon Sanderson say on a panel that he plotted his books beginning to end before he started – but he couldn’t write his chapters out of order, because sometimes he didn’t know why his characters were doing the things they were doing until he got there.
I wrote seven pages of notes, and eventually the notes stopped being why would they do this and mutated into wouldn’t it be cool if this happened as a result of them doing this, and I got to understand Valentine and Aliyah a little more because yes, I know why Valentine is calling her boyfriend and it’s going to break your heart, and Aliyah is sitting by that bedside because what she does there will cause a misunderstanding that gets someone killed.
But I know now.
And I don’t know how I knew, but I know.
You’re all gonna be in this experimental film
And even though I can’t explain it
I already know how great it is

* – If you’d asked me when I was writing Flex, I’d have said it was a solo book – yet when I got to the end, I thought, “Well, maybe there’s more here.”  When I wrote The Flux, I said, “This is it, I’m putting everything I have into it, there will be nothing left,” yet when I got about 90% done, I thought, “Crap, there’s some threads I could explore.”
I am about 70% through Fix, and I swear to God this is all I have to say about the Tsabo-Dawson family, but I’ve thought that twice before so who fucking knows?


  1. Therin
    Nov 21, 2015

    MAN, posts like this are why I read your blog. I have a project I have all but given up on because of something like this. And I mean, I’m not surprised that the solution is probably “take the time to work it out, dumbass,” but it’s still good to hear.

  2. Twily
    Nov 21, 2015

    I am SO GLAD that Paul ended up the supercharged Radar O’Reilly (which, by the way, is just perfect) over a greedy politician. I’m sure it would’ve been a much different story with that character, but I love what Flex is (and I am seriously dying to get my hands on The Flux, but bills, alas) and while I COULD consider how the story would be different, I’m sure my vision of your alternate storyline wouldn’t be half as good your alternate vision, nevermind the vision that saw the light of day.
    I also really enjoy little windows like this into your creative process. I was talking with a friend the other day about writing process, and he’s big on outlines, where I’m not. I walked away from that conversation wondering if the fact that I don’t outline is why I only ever seem to write short fiction. The fact that you, too, know how it ends but don’t know how you get there gives me some hope. I’ll probably still have a crack at the outlining approach because, as I said to my friend, even if I deviate from the outline, at least it keeps me from rushing from point A to point Z, as I so often seem to do. But still. Hope. Thanks for that.

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