The Nameless Horror

Of monster outlines and dialogue-only drafts

I found myself trying to describe how I’m writing the current book the other day as part of a discussion about outlines, plans and structure. I couldn’t explain it all that well at the time, but I’ve got a lot more space - and a little more time - here, so let’s give it another try for the sake of posterity.

Scrivener, last week

Having planned it out as usual as a brief list of character/plot beats on post-its, I’ve written it, aside from the ending (which I’ll complete once everything else is tied off) almost as a film script. Dialogue and brief stage directions/description only. Now I’m going back and filling out those descriptions fully. It’s a little like working to an insanely detailed outline, a little like doing a second draft on a finished project that needs a lot of work.

This is largely a question of practicalities; normally, I’d plan, but write things out like anyone else. Nowadays, though, my time is limited. I’ve got a lot of freelance editing work, and I carve off only a limited amount of time each week (Fridays, generally) to work on my own stuff. Because I can go a week between sessions, it’s important that I don’t lose the thread, and important that I don’t think I’m getting nowhere, treading water, and that it’ll take forever to finish.

What this means is that I now have a ‘before’ that looks like this:

(Gabe is sitting in his car, watching the Juneau ferry delicately maneuver into port and tie up at the jetty. He’s talking on his phone to a voice, badly distorted by interference.)

G: I know I’m just supposed to be liaising. The body will be transported back in the next couple of days. We’re still waiting on a full tox report. Obviously everything will be passed on so you’re in the loop. I was just trying to—

V: I can’t tell you any more, Officer Knox.

G: Even just a little, I mean, people here are won—

V: No, I mean, I can’t tell you more. You want to talk to Officer Gillman.

G: She’s handling family liaison?

V: She’s our researcher. Looks after the records.

G: (Surprised; he’d figured this for a much smaller department.) She knew Ms Folguera?

V: She looks after the records. If anyone did…

G: OK. So, can I talk to her?

V: She’s not on shift right now. You should call back (burst of static that nearly deafens Gabe) around midnight, our time.

G: She’s on nights. OK. This goddamn line is terrible. It always this bad?

V: Oh, yes.

And, once written out properly, an ‘after’ like this:

Gulls wheel above the dark blue stack of the Eastern Wings, dodging the plumes of black smoke billowing up at the clouds every time the ferry’s helmsman adjusts its heading and speed as the ship delicately clears the winding channel through the shoals and approaches the wooden piles of the jetty. There are crewmen, empty silhouettes against the sky, either side of its bridge, watching. No one on the deck. Just a couple of trucks waiting shoreside. The twins are there, ready to tie up.

“I know I’m just supposed to be liaising,” Gabe says into his cell phone. The line fizzes and pops brokenly with interference, digital distortion bad enough to render half the conversation he’s already had completely unintelligible. “The body’s going to be transported back in the next couple of days. We’re still waiting on a full tox report. Obviously everything will be passed on so you’re in the loop. I was just trying to—”

“I can’t tell you any more, Officer Knox,” the voice at the other end says, all fuzzed around every consonant.

“Even just a little? I mean, people here are won—”

“No,” the voice cuts him off. “I mean, I can’t tell you more. You want to talk to Officer Gillman.”

Gabe notes the name in the pad perched on his steering wheel. “She’s handling family liaison?”

“She’s our researcher.” The last word is so badly warped that he has to think twice to decipher it. “Looks after the records.”

He’s surprised at that; he’d figured the Muhlenberg County Sheriff’s Department for a much smaller force, one not much different to his own, without the resources to have a researcher on staff, even if she pulls double duty as a regular cop as well. Ahead, the Wings chugs to a halt at the dock. Grant grabs the mooring line and hands it off to his brother to tie the vessel up. “She knew Ms Folguera?” Gabe says.

“She looks after the records. If anyone did…”

“OK. So, can I talk to her?”

“She’s not on shift right now. You should call back—“ The voice breaks off as a burst of static rips through that nearly deafens Gabe. “—around midnight, our time.”

“She’s on nights.” Stranger and stranger. Hydraulics in the back ramp of the ferry shriek as it lowers to the jetty. “OK. This goddamn line is terrible. It always this bad?”

“Oh, yes,” the voice says as a couple of vehicles roll out, a thin trickle of foot passengers alongside.

(Example taken from what I’ve worked on last week, so it’s all first-draft quality.)

This approach has had definite up- and downsides. On the upside, some of the dialogue in this book is tighter and more expressive than I’ve written in ages. Overall, I’m really happy with the characterisation and sense of colour in what’s here, and having the thing mapped out like this has meant I’ve been excited to get through it first time around and still excited to flesh it out on the second, knowing the underlying structure is solid.

On the downside, in places it’s actually made direct description more redundant than I was expecting, and consequently I’m not sure I’m going to hit target word count. I have a backup plan - and, for God’s sake, always have a backup plan - to add extra material without having to add padding, but even so this one’s a lot harder to call than anything else I’ve ever worked on.

The story is good, the setting is gold, and I’m loving work on it despite the challenge involved in writing what’s almost a cozy, just very bleak and, at times, weird, having more fun than I’ve had since writing THE LEVELS way back when (not coincidentally the last time I was completely unconstrained by any outside influence at all). I just don’t know if the way it’s written will leave enough of it to make a properly meaty novel first time out. It’ll be good. Really good, I think. But there might need to be more of it.

It’s also patently nuts, and it’s taken a while to find a voice for the description having already sorted those for the dialogue, and then to keep a consistent tone throughout. Not necessarily harder than adding in extra material in later drafts in a regular book and having the whole thing hang together consistently, but certainly a challenge. It’s not a technique I’d necessarily recommend to others.

On the other other hand, it’s a damn sight easier than constructing an outline more detailed than a collection of post-its, and it’s still enabled me to spot potential structural and pacing issues before I’ve written thousands of words of material that then needs to be scrubbed. Given how much I hate outlining, that’s a definite plus.