On the Limits of Outlining – A Guest Post by Brian Staveley

Brian Staveley photoBrian Staveley made his debut last year with the wonderful epic fantasy novel The Emperor’s Blades, the first in a new series titled The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. The sequel, The Providence of Fire, comes out tomorrow.

Here’s the blurb for The Providence of Fire:

The conspiracy to destroy the ruling family of the Annurian Empire is far from over.

Having learned the identity of her father’s assassin, Adare flees the Dawn Palace is search of allies to challenge the coup against her family. Few trust her, but when she is believed to be touched by Intarra, patron goddess of the empire, people rally to help her retake the capital city. As armies prepare to clash, the threat of invasion from barbarian hordes compels the rival forces to unite against their common enemy.

Unknown to Adare, her brother Valyn, renegade member of the empire’s most elite fighting force, has allied with the invading nomads. The terrible choices each of them has made may make war between them inevitable.

Between Valyn and Adare is their brother Kaden, rightful heir to the Unhewn Throne, who has infiltrated the Annurian capital with the help of two strange companions. The knowledge they possess of the secret history that shapes these events could save Annur or destroy it.

To celebrate the release of The Providence of Fire, The Ranting Dragon is participating in a blog tour hosted by Tor Books. Not only are we hosting a giveaway of the book, Brian Staveley has also written a delightful guest article for us. Without further ado, I present to you On the Limits of Outlining by Brian Staveley:

The Providence of Fire blog tour

A Human Tooth in the Pasta – On the Limits of Outlining

You just don’t know, when you go out to dinner with your wife, that there’s going to be a human tooth in the pasta, prompting you to storm out of the restaurant and go to the pool hall instead, where you run into an old girlfriend, Elsa something-or-other, who is too busy licking the bartender’s ear to notice you’re there, but whose mere presence manages to kick off a marital spat that concludes in someone striking the cue ball just a little too aggressively on the break, the cue ball hitting you squarely in the face, and a visit to the ER where a sleepy doctor explains that there’s no way to splint a face, a long trip back home followed by make-up sex, and then, nine months later, a second child.

No, mom, if you’re reading this, we’re not having another kid. Still, I think the anecdote pretty much illustrates the dangers of relying too much on an outline.

I get asked a lot whether I’m a plotter or a pantser, an architect or a gardener, someone who has his metaphorical shit together or someone who leaves stale bagels in the car. I always find this question difficult to answer, because, although I’ve sometimes left stale bagels in the car, the question of plotting isn’t a binary one. I always plot out my books. And I can almost never stick to the plot.

Thing come up in the process of writing. The neatly plotted graph paper might suggest that Chapter 18 is the chance for two characters to finally have sex. Great. Sex is great. But they need a place to have sex, and I’m not an obsessive enough plotter that I’ll have cleared out a comfortable bedroom for them six months earlier. In the effort to get the characters some privacy, it’s easy to run into the unexpected.

Maybe, for instance, they row a small boat out to an island near the harbor mouth. Hold on – whose boat is it? They steal it? Fine, but theft has consequences, and before you know it, we’re into a chase scene and a chapter in jail, where the two lovebirds meet the head of a shadowy underworld…

No. NO! No time for a shadowy underworld. They borrowed the boat. From a friend. Which friend? This friend just cropped up suddenly? Now? In Chapter 18? Hold on a sec. We have to go back, have to weave her into the earlier chapters, but now that she’s here, well, look at that! She could definitely play a role in this earlier fight scene, a role that is almost certainly cool, and quite certainly not ordained by the outline…

You start to see the problem.

No writer I know enjoys writing a synopsis. I think that’s because the fun of writing is in the details – the smell of the curry, the pinch of the underpants, the nicks in the blade of the sword – and a synopsis or an outline elides the details. When it comes time to write the book, however, those details have a weight and import all their own, and it’s astounding the way one extra tooth in the pasta can lead to the birth of a child who will one day lead a rebellion that destroys an empire.

About Stephan van Velzen

Stephan van Velzen
A 31 year-old Communications student, Stephan loves publicity and design, particularly web design. When he’s not designing websites, he can be found in a comfy chair reading a fantasy book. In The Ranting Dragon, he has found a way to combine these passions and discover a new love for writing to boot. Stephan lives in a small town in The Netherlands with his wife Rebecca, an editor for The Ranting Dragon, and their two cats.

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