“So Where do you get your ideas?”, Part 2: Off the Rails

In the comments of my previous post, colleague David Hallquist said this:

My recommendation to writers is this: if the answers to the questions take you in a place you haden’t expected, then you are doing it right. Don’t force the story back on the rails; see where the answers take you. The resulting story could be better than you imagined.

I can confirm this. Here is where I decided to go next in my story – and keep in mind, this is still pre-outline stage (and my next step is going to be world-building and mapping out the journey, so I’m still not at the outline stage yet – I want to be able to go right from outlining to writing without delaying every time I need to figure out what the landscape is like or where, specifically, they’re going). Pay specific attention as to how every time I solved a major problem with my plot a new one popped up.

In this particular case, I loved my concept but had no idea where to take it. I needed my heroes to meet up at one point and work together towards a common goal. But why and how? And towards what goal?

I settled on the idea of a sort of dark Wizard of Oz, where everybody needed to find and do the same thing but for different reasons.

But then, what were those reasons, and what was everybody searching for? “The Holy Grail”? Eh. That lead to two problems. One, why? Two…kind of boring, right? Typical quest and all…

Excalibur? Better. It’s at least easier to see why they would want it (get the King his weapon). But still…kind of cliche.

So I was stuck here for a bit (along with a couple of other problems – who was Maddie’s father? How was he connected to the legends?).

I decided, eventually that my characters were going to storm the fortress of Morgan le Fey, a nice interesting twist on things – finding the witch before the wizard. But…why?

I mentioned my problem on my blog, and one of my commenters came up with a suggestion: Why doesn’t Morgan call them over? After all, there is a strong mythological tradition of magicians calling up forces that they can’t control. But then she’ll have to want something from them.

Aha! I came up with an idea for Maddie’s father, and why le Fey would kidnap him. But what about Lance? Let’s go back to that vision, and to Excalibur. Perhaps, in the vision, Lance is gifted with Excalibur, which he is to bring to Arthur. But Lance is prideful. He thinks that Morgan le Fey is too pressing of a problem, and decides to attack her himself…which is what Morgan wants, as he is essentially delivering Excalibur to her (Gavin is going to go with Lance, of course).

And Bennett and Maddie are the wild cards. They are not descendents of the British, but of Americans, and their roles were never present in the original Arthurian stories. They represent something that Morgan le Fey can’t account for by looking at the past, and she inadvertently brings them into the story by kidnapping Maddie’s father. I can really play with them in a context outside of the main Arthurian legends – and indeed, I will probably use them in conjuction with the western side of my story.

This lead to one more problem, though: Why would Bennett not go after Maddie’s father but go after a random girl who may or may not exist?

Eh. I was overthinking it. Maybe he IS going after Maddie’s father, but he gets the vision of the girl at the same time. So now we have an even tighter time clock than before, as well as conflicting goals. That’s some really fine narrative potential.

I’ve now made it to the stage where it makes sense to start detailed world-building and mapping out their journey. That is, I’ve reached the present.

That’s how insane plotting can get, and I’m not even done yet. In fact, I’m barely started, and this bit alone, again, took at last a couple of months, if not more. Plotting is fun, but it’s not easy.

TL;DR: Writing a book is hard, guys.

  • I’ll third the off the rails comment. One of the best set pieces in Do Buddhas Dream of Enlightened Sheep (By best, I mean, I guess, my favorite; we’ll see how it goes with readers) came from looking at something and thinking, “What if it didn’t stop?” And boom. Looming shadow of disaster hanging over the last half of the book. Never planned for, even remotely. But then the groundwork was laid and I saw a new option.

  • I had something similar with Nobility Among Us. What happens to the leader of a group of mooks when he reports back to his superiors after failing to assassinate the hero? His story ends up dominating two-thirds of the book. Why would the evil baron’s personal masseuse put up with being used by him? She turns into a major viewpoint character, and my favourite scene in the book is just those two sitting at the same table in an otherwise empty dining room.


    I’m disappointed if my story doesn’t go off the rails at some point, it means I’m missing an opportunity.