Category: Plotting & Outlines

Essential blueprinting for your fiction enterprise.

Gazing Ahead

We’re very pleased with the process we’ve developed over our years of writing together, especially our secret weapon: stubs. They offer multiple advantages for anybody working on a large-scale project, and provide a crucial foundation of common understanding for anybody working as a team. Taken together, they form a kind of first draft of the first draft.

We don’t create all the stubs up front. Typically Jen will write a dozen or so at a time, and then when we’ve used most of them up she’ll do the next wave. Our main reason for this is for continuity. The progression from outline to stub to prose brings an increased level of detail and reveals decisions that get made on the fly. If we did stubs too far in advance, by the time we got to the later ones there’d be inaccuracies.

But the other reason for doing the stubs in waves is so that the material is fresh for us as we tackle the scenes. Our current work-in-progress has fallen just a tad behind schedule, which has undermined this notion of freshness. Jen did the stubs all the way out to the end a while ago, part of a push to get the manuscript finished up more quickly.

So, it was time to remind ourselves how this thing’s supposed to end. Over the weekend we devoted a chunk of time to reviewing all the stubs, reacquainting ourselves with the shape of things in the finale. We also wanted to decide whether or not to be a bit more vicious in our treatment of one character. It felt like we probably ought to, but before committing to that idea we had to check ahead for what actions might become infeasible for this person, so we could have reassigned or reengineered tasks if necessary.

Luckily for us (unluckily for that character) the adjustments were minor.

It felt great to read the ending of the story, even in stub form. We both got a nice jolt of, “I want to read that book — guess we’ll have to write it!”


Our regular readers know by now that we’re obsessive plotters. Our process includes multiple stages of outlining in an assortment of often colorful formats. Saves a lot of wear and tear on the seats of our pants.

And yet. Sometimes plot-related issues try to slip past us. Most commonly, for us, it’s some form of magical knowledge on the part of a character: the author knows that Chadwick Q Badguy, esq, didn’t commit the kidnapping, thus Detective Main C Haracter never thinks to ask for his alibi.

A form of this cropped up in our WIP (Grandson of Science Novel). Or, at least Jen thought so for a few minutes. Without getting spoilery about it, there’s an event that depends on there being no one home. No one was, of course, but how would the perpetrators know? The worry was that they seemed to take it for granted, as if the author had tipped them off.

Thinking it through in light of all the details we’re withholding from you, Jen determined that the nefarious deeds made sense as we had them after all. But she brought the matter up with Kent all the same. Because that’s what you do when you have a writing partner: you share your concerns. And your partner sets you straight if necessary, making the work stronger. In this case, Kent confirmed his partner’s reasoning. But it still makes the work stronger, because it deepens both of our understanding of the story.

There’s no substitute for talking story issues through with a partner.


Don’t Fence Me In

We like to work in trilogies. The story worlds and complicated characters we develop lend themselves to longer tales, but not the endless iterations that an ongoing series requires. Three novels is a generous amount of space to explore in and bring everything to a satisfying conclusion.

Many is the time we’ve bragged about our extensive outlining process, but even when you’re as thorough as we are in the preliminary stages you’ll probably find that things evolve during the actual writing. A lot can (and should) happen in 300,000 words, which is why we won’t publish the first book in a trilogy until the third one is written.

The dream would be for the entire triptych to be completely polished before any of it is released, just to guarantee that there are no more changes to be made, that there isn’t a single detail that could be improved. But that’s not possible. First of all because no manuscript is ever truly done. No matter how many times something is edited, there’s always a sentence that could be rephrased or a comma that could be added (or removed depending on which way the wind is blowing). The bigger issue though is that we don’t have all the time in the world. If we want to keep any momentum in our writing career, we need to release new work on a regular basis. And that means the first part most likely gets released before the third is completely done.

Emphasis on ‘completely.’

No matter how well-planned your story is, things will change during the writing. Maybe events will line up better if you adjust the timeline early on. Maybe a character who doesn’t appear until the third book will fit in more naturally if she’s alluded to in the first or second. Speaking of characters, once a characteristic gesture or phrase develops, it’s a good idea to sprinkle it in the early scenes to maintain consistency. Perhaps a minor character becomes much more important than you anticipated, and things will make more sense if their presence early on is enhanced. We sometimes discover that either Kent or Jen has an affinity for a certain character, which means they get to go back and punch things up in the other’s scenes. In the course of research you might discover a fun detail that needs to be present through the whole series. If the first book is already set in stone, it’s quite limiting.

For a satisfying and cohesive reader experience, treat your trilogy like one enormous manuscript for as long as possible.



Hit the Road, Jack

There’s a lot of music in our lives. We listen to it when we’re writing, editing, and plotting. Our sons are both omnivorous musicians, which means we’ve spent more than our fair share of time attending drum, guitar, bass, and piano lessons, marching band parades and football games, piano recitals, jazz band, concert band, symphonic band, and orchestra concerts, and battle of the bands. One son was in a metal band that had gigs at a local bar before he was 21, the other plays highly esoteric and experimental stuff, in addition to straight-up classical and jazz.

For as much as we like music, though, there unfortunately aren’t many local shows that interest us, which means that when there’s a band we want to see, we have to hit the road.

That’s just what we did earlier this week. We like to use the time in the car to brainstorm ideas, and this time we worked on fleshing out Sibling of Music Novel. It felt fitting to talk about music on the way to the concert, and on the way home we were flush with energy and insight. The drive was about six hours each way, so we had plenty of time to dig in on some details of world building and theme. Since this one is a sequel, you’d expect a lot of the world building to be done already, but we’re adding a new wrinkle which requires us to start from scratch for one of the settings. We’re talking “are the laws of physics the same here?” level stuff. There’s a lot to talk about.

Kent did all the driving, while Jen navigated, which is how we like to run things. It also means that it was up to Jen to take notes on our conversation. She used the voice recognition dealy on her phone, to quite amusing results. Our main character has a non-standard name, and in the notes it ended up being spelled at least four different ways. When we got to our hotel we had a good laugh over all the other kre8ive word choices as we transcribed the notes and expanded them.

We’ve been pretty deep into editing Elsewhere’s Twin, while also doing some writing on Grandson of Science Novel. It had been a long time since we devoted a lot of brainpower to plotting out a new story, and it felt really good. We came up with a lot of really fun stuff. Well, we think it’s fun. Our characters definitely won’t.

But back to the important thing, our concert experience: the venue was small and stuffy, there was unexpected moshing and crowd-surfing, the opening act was pretty good, and the headliners — Royal Blood — were phenomenal. We were only about 10 feet from the stage. We both got caught up totally in the music, which is just how it should be, and which is a feeling we want to be able to capture in our Music novels. The sweat, the flailing limbs, the thump and roar, the smell of the smoke machine, all of it will hopefully make it onto the page.

The evening was topped off with the surreal discovery that the building across the street from our hotel burned down while we were at the show. That unsettling feeling might make it into the novel, too, but mostly we want to just relive the excitement of a really good rock show.

Prompting by the Seats of Our Pants

Much of what we post here at the Skelleyverse are writing prompts. We have a lot of fun with them, creating a chain story and building two (count ’em) prompt generators. Something we don’t do is worry excessively, or indeed at all, about whether they make a whole lot of sense.

Those prompts are what happens when Rune Skelley writes by the seat of the pants. And they’re markedly different from our novels, which — as we might have mentioned — are written via a highly developed process with multiple stages of planning and debugging before any real prose even starts. Bump on up to for some excerpts.

Don’t get us wrong, we have a lot of fun with the novels, too. Just because we expend a great deal of energy making sure that they do make sense doesn’t mean there’s no joy in writing them. In fact, we kinda get off on the whole plotting, outlining, analyzing, researching, color-coding, debugging, and logistical machinating of our process.

We didn’t always have a process. Hard to reach back to those dark times, but in the beginning we made everything up as we went along. We’ve been there, done that, and we don’t want to go back. It was… inefficient. It was a fine way to prevent our partnership from being a strength. But we learned, and we honed a technique that has speeded up our writing at least ten-fold.

But, we do have those kooky prompts, to get our pantsing ya-yas out.

Prosing Has Commenced

Grandson of Science Novel is underway!

As we talked about a while ago, we rainbowed and outlined the two sequels in tandem. The first draft of Son of Science Novel is complete, although we are still tinkering with it. But for the immediate future, our focus will be on book three of the series.

Jen has been a stubbing maniac. She set herself a target of writing stubs up through a certain point in the plot, and this week she attained it. Yay! The word count just for this first wave of stubs is over 18,000. Yowza.

Meanwhile, there were enough stubs stockpiled for Kent to jump in and begin writing actual scenes. He had some leftover assignments in the other two Science Novels, but now all that’s cleared away and the first couple of scenes are in the can.

The trick, at this point, is to get ourselves into a good rhythm to keep cranking the words out. Real life and Netflix have a way of interfering with our good intentions, but we will see it through. As a team!

Don’t Turn Your Novel Into a Turducken

The other night we had a conversation in the writing cave about ways to flesh out a story. We know there are things we neglected to spell out, or perhaps omitted altogether, because of being a little too close to them. However, not everything that you could add is something that you should.

Obviously, you don’t include the stuff that’s irrelevant or uninteresting. But sometimes you need to hold off on making additions even if they’d be fantastic. Because not every nugget of gold belongs in the tale you’re telling right now.

Consider a scenario where your main character makes a decision after tons of soul searching, a decision that’s going to determine the direction of the narrative. You can feel the turmoil of your character throughout his sleepless night. It’s tempting to try to bring the reader into that space of conflict, share the doubt and trepidation of the protagonist. To show (not tell!) all the alternatives that were contemplated, all the attempts to bargain away the painful but inevitable outcome. And in many cases, it’d be the right call. But not always. All that’s essential for the reader to know is what the decision is, and that reaching it was difficult.

Forcing the issue will hurt the whole book. If this moment falls during escalating kinetic tension, then inserting a digression into someone’s interior world is likely to kill the mood. Dwelling on this particular moment for this character might detract from the image you intend to create. And in such cases, no level of prose quality will change the basic fact: it doesn’t fit.

Including a scene that’s a tonal or thematic mismatch is like stuffing a different story inside the one you’re trying to tell, like jamming a bird inside of another bird. Maybe turducken is delicious, in which case the metaphor falls down. Just be sure that all your ingredients really do work together.

It Counts as Research

It’s been a while since we talked about the music we listen to when we’re writing, but it’s still an important part of our process. Especially this time of year when all of our neighbors renew their passionate love affairs with their lawn mowers. It’s been an especially noisy spring around the writing cave. A few weeks ago we rode out a pretty severe storm, and ever since we’ve been treated to practically daily concerts by the chainsaw chorus. And as I write this post, the people across the street have a cement mixer beeping and chugging away in their driveway. They’re in the midst of a never-ending construction project of some sort, and I can’t imagine what they need the cement for, since yesterday it was all nail-guns all day, putting up siding.

Both Jen and Kent skew pretty hard toward the Introverted/Antisocial end of the spectrum. In order to keep our sanity we need a buffer from the leaf blowers and hedge trimmers, the shrieking kids and teens on skateboards, the yodeling beagle and that weird guy who walks the streets in the dark, singing.

No, I’m not tense. Why do you ask?

Music is our respite, and lately it’s also been research. We’re in the early stages of plotting out our third Music Novel and it’s really helpful for us to swim around in songs that we love in order to get in the right headspace.

Last weekend we went to an out-of-town concert. We used the drive time to hash out some character details and brainstorm some plot points. Once we got there, we put that part of our brains in neutral and simply had a helluva good time. Of course, being writers, we were observing everything, soaking in the atmosphere along with the secondhand pot smoke. The ride home was filled with talk of fun details to work into the two extant Music Novels.

Now that we’re trapped in the writing cave again, we’ve taken to choosing songs from our collections that we feel exemplify the sound of the various bands in our novels. Interspersed with that are stretches where we listen to nothing but the Red Army Choir. Son and Grandson of Science Novel feature Russian characters and settings, so it really helps to set the mood.

Sometimes instrumental music is called for, especially during editing sessions. At those times we gravitate toward classical guitar or piano

What do you like to listen to when you’re writing? Let us know in the comments.

The Home Stretch

The end is in sight for two of our current open projects, and it feels damn good. Tenpenny Zen has been resting quietly in a drawer, awaiting its publication date later this month. We’ll pick it up this weekend and give it one final read through to make sure our last round of edits didn’t introduce any embarrassing typos, but other than that the manuscript is ready. Kent spent most of this week’s work sessions hammering out the back cover copy. It’s a completely different style of writing, and we haven’t had a lot of practice with it yet. Kent persevered even when Jen wrinkled her nose at some of his early efforts, and we’re quite pleased with the result he arrived at.

With all those pieces falling into place, expect the cover reveal next week. It’s gorgeous!

While Kent was toiling away on one type of nonstandard prose, Jen was intent on another. Two nights ago she finished writing the stubs for the rest of Son of Science Novel. Up until now the ending was basically “stuff blows up.” We knew who survived and who didn’t, other big picture things like that, but now we know most of the details. Not all, obviously. That’s what the actual writing is for. But now we have the finale broken down into beats, and we know whose point of view we’ll experience those beats through. It’s a complex series of events, and having this roadmap will make the writing go a lot faster.

With any luck (and fewer distractions now that Tenpenny Zen is all but finalized) we’ll be in a good position to sail through the rest of Son of Science Novel’s first draft.

Either of us working on our own would not be able to accomplish nearly as much as we do working together. We find having a writing partner invaluable. How about you?

Seeking New Worlds to Conquer

As we mentioned a few weeks ago, soon all three of the story worlds we’ve been working in for the past mumbletysomething years will have their projects wrapped up. (Soon being a relative and imprecise term, qualities that recommend it for all kinds of occasions.) What then?

Well, we have some thoughts on the subject. We like being prepared, so we’ve already discussed several possible settings and plots and themes in various permutations. There’s an idea that we particularly like, although it raises something of a challenge for us.

To wit: The concept we’re considering brings along some reader expectations, not all of which rest comfortably within the Rune Skelley idiom*.

There are infinite ways to break a given set of rules, such as those defining a literary tradition. Fine, we like having options. But there’s another, self-imposed, set of rules that we want to avoid breaking, those that differentiate our fiction. We need to figure out the Rune Skelley take on this type of story, so there’s no sudden tonal or stylistic shift in our oeuvre. It’s partly a branding thing, but mainly we want to write what makes us happy, what makes us feel proud.

*Character-driven plots with a dark sense of humor, in superficially familiar settings that hide supernatural and technological menace.