Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Guest Author: Outlining With Aliette de Bodard

By Aliette de Bodard

An extra post treat, since my friend and crit buddy Aliette de Bodard's US release of her Aztec noir mystery, Servant of the Underworld, hits the stores today. I was lucky and got to read it before she sold it, and I'm looking forward to finally being able to pick up the final version and see how she revised it.

Aliette has won the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction, as well as Writers of the Future. She has also been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Campbell Award. Her Aztec mystery-fantasies, Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of venues, such as Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction.

Take it away, Aliette...

All right, I'll confess: I'm a control freak.

By which I mean, not that I'm an orderly person (if you need to be convinced I'm not, just check the mounting pile of documents on my desk), but that there is one kind of order I need, and that's when I'm writing a novel.

I haven't always been that way. When I wrote my first novel, I relied on the advice of Diana Wynne Jones--who said that what she needed to write a novel was a beginning point A, an ending point B, and a vague idea of getting from A to B. It sounded a good idea, and I decided to put it into practice.

Except that I got lost in the woods. At about the halfway point, I looked at my characters, and thought that a. I had no idea what they'd do next, and b. it looked like my promised ending made no sense, because I hadn't thought it through properly. And things went downhill from there: for me, a novel is something with its own momentum, and stopping halfway through with doubts that turn out to have a real foundation was a disaster. I did finish the novel in the end, but I don't think it ever recovered from that stumble--or indeed come close to making sense.

So, when I wrote Servant of the Underworld, my Aztec noir fantasy, I decided upon the opposite approach: I plotted obsessively. I had a chapter-by-chapter outline that gave me every scene, with a rough idea of which characters were there, and where I wanted to go. Part of the motivation was to prevent the huge doubts in the middle of the book, and the other part was linked to the nature of the book: since it was a detective story, everything had to make sense by the time we got to the end--and I know from experience that it's hard to revise a novel once it's put down on paper. It was very much an engineer's approach: in any system, you can change the high-level specifications fairly quickly, but the lower down you go in the implementation (ie the writing), the harder it gets to do huge changes like move entire chapters around, remove a plot strand, or change a character's arc or motivations.

It was very mechanical, and I know lots of writers who would be uncomfortable with that kind of approach--they would find it constricting and uncreative, and I can totally see where they're coming from. But I need my structure, and having it really helped.

The finished novel doesn't quite confirm to the outline, of course, or it would be painting by numbers. That's one reason why I got less and less detailed as I was writing the outline: the last 3 chapters more or less read "they unmask the villain and defeat him", which left me enough leeway to gather all my stray plot stands at the end. The outline also didn't contain many character details: the relationship between the main character Acatl and his sister took an unexpected turn when she turned out to be much better at banter than him; and likewise, the young warrior Teomitl was a cypher until I actually put his words onto the page.

It's been three years since I wrote the first draft of Servant of the Underworld, and in the interval I've written two novels, and I'm in the midst of plotting a third. The basic approach has remained the same: outline and then novel writing. I have changed a few things, though, as I gained more confidence: the most notable was that I allowed myself to replot midway through. This time, though, I replot and rewrite the outline, in order to still have my guideline. Notably, Harbinger of the Storm, my sequel to Servant of the Underworld, benefited from a fresh injection of court intrigues not foreseen in the original outlines that ended up altering the course of events pretty drastically. I suspect as I write more novels, I'm going to feel comfortable enough to take more and more liberties with the outline, though I doubt I'll ever come to the point where I can write without it.

What about you? Are you a plotter or a pantster? What's your relationship with outlines?

Servant of the Underworld
Aliette de Bodard

Year One-Knife, Tenochtitlan – the capital of the Aztecs. The end of the world is kept at bay only by the magic of human sacrifice. A priestess disappears from an empty room drenched in blood. Acatl, high priest, must find her, or break the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead. But how do you find someone, living or dead, in a world where blood sacrifices are an everyday occurrence and the very gods stalk the streets?


  1. Great post! :)

    With my first novel, I was an all-out pantser. Then as I learned more, I realized the importance of at least having a vague outline ahead of time (for me, anyway). I wouldn't call myself a plotter, though. More of an in-betweener.

  2. Great post.

    I use an outline but it's based on set points rather than chapters. I actually did an internal journey and a seperate exteral journey outline for my WIP--which worked very well.

    Excited to have Servant alive in the US, finally!

  3. I did a little more pantsing with Shifter 3, and I'll go back to a more solid outline for the next book. I kept going off track. Pantsing takes skills I just don't have (grin)

    And thanks Aliette for stopping by. Best of luck on the US release!

  4. Great post. Like everyone else, I did not outline my first book before I wrote it. But when I start a new series, I think I'm going to try the outlining approach and see if it saves me time and less revising. Thanks for the advice.

  5. Lydia: I've definitely found that even a vague idea of where you're going helps immensely.
    Pat: that's an interesting approach. I usually pencil in the set points, and then fill in the holes to get my outline...
    Janice: yeah, I was never very good at plunging boldly into the unknown... (and extra thanks for the space again!)
    Natalie: I have definitely found that outlining and planning ahead of time saved a lot of grief--though who knows, I might have had more surprises on the way with a less rigid structure.

  6. No outlines for me--I MacGyver my stories (I really hate the term panters). I've never outlined anything and was always mystified why people insisted I needed to outline. But because I was having trouble with falling too short in the word count, I tried an outline a couple of years ago. Very difficult for me to do, and I might as well have thrown it away after I did it. Didn't solve any problems and didn't help me figure out the story.

    I've discovered that I need to actually write to figure out what the story is.

  7. MacGyver your stories! I love it. Seems so much more adventurous.

  8. Great advice, Aliette. Your comments on structural concerns and diminishing detail as the outline progresses were especially helpful.