Hunting the Wild Subplot

Let’s start with what a subplot is – at least for me.  For other people it might mean different things.  It is one of those things that writers, living by the word, tend to give terms so many different meanings, depending on writer, time of career and sometimes mood, that you can find personal definitions for all of our professional terms: synopsis, outline, concept, subplot, character arc, etc.  (I think this is also a result of a profession where apprenticeships are kind of individual, self-created and depending on either what books the writer finds on his way to learning, or which pro he can gang press into helping him.  It might be true that when the pupil is ready the master appears, but in writing it often seems to be more under the heading of “first find a few masters.  Then pick bits of each teaching that suit you.”)

For me a plot consists of the events that serve the central theme of the book.  Say you’re writing a book about growing mutant chickens (shut up you.  It’s early and I’ve had no caffeine.)  The plot would be buying the eggs, building the incubator, possibly the money aspects of this, where you have to mortgage the farm to buy the eggs and the incubator and then through the try-fail sequence, you worry about you and the mutant cows being thrown out of the farm because the mutant chickens won’t hatch.  Then at the end your mutant chickens hatch, but they fly away (I did say they were mutants, right?) and you think all is lost until the mutant chickens come home to roost.

A subplot would be the farmer’s relationship with his younger brother who thinks they should grow pterodactyls instead and his aged grandmother going off in search of a priest to exorcise the incubator and, on the way, finding her son whom she thought was eaten by mutated sheep as a toddler, living as a prosperous witch doctor in the next village.  This will tie in, of course, with fixing the incubators, but it’s also an entire if smaller and less important plot arc.  (Yes, it’s a weird world.  LIVE with it.  Early.  No caffeine.)

Let me start by saying your novels don’t really need much in the way of a subplot.  Not if they’re going to come in as what might now be a viable length of about sixty to seventy thousand words. For this length the inevitable subplot like the relationship between the characters is enough.  And there is always a relationship between the characters, even if it’s the fact the farmer’s wife thinks mutated sheep are unnatural, not like those nice mutated cows.

Then I can – I think – explain that I don’t think I can write a novel without subplots.  Sometimes even my long short stories develop subplots.  It’s just the way my mind works to complicate things.  (Yes, live with THAT either.  Why not?  I have to.)

Also this explains my… difficult relationship with plotting vs. pantsing.  I can do a detailed outline.  Have in the past, mostly because agents or editors demanded them.

Turns out it might not be the … best thing for someone like me to do.  Why?  Well… take the outline to Heart of Light.  (Please!) When it was done, it was 50 pages, typed, and I listed every incident (I thought) that would happen in the book.  The problem?  I hadn’t listed every incident that would happen in the book.  When a plot gets in motion, my subconscious gets fully engaged.  And when my subconscious gets engaged, it produces subplots like bad chilli produces gas.

So what happens with something like Heart of Light – and btw, to generate an outline THAT complete, I’d needed to take several runs at the outline, over and over again, which took me the best part of six months because I needed to get to know the characters, whence all subplots come  – that is outlined till it’s about a quarter of a novel?  Well… it develops more subplots.  And then you have to weed them back.  Possibly with a machetti.  Or what you end up with is in fact soup.

Now, for the longest time, like when I first got published, I used to plot like that, on paper, anyway, before I wrote the novel.  This is because I didn’t trust my subconscious, which, let me tell you, is a wily and cunning beast (possibly a mutated chicken) to give me subplots that tied in to anything, much less my main plot.  And if I came to the end with a bunch of plots that pointed to nothing at all and could no more figure out how to tie them together than how to give a fish flying lessons, I’d have wasted the six months or so of writing the d*mn book.

So, what did I do?  Oh, I wrote a book three times as long as it needed to be.  (If I was lucky.)  And then I sat down with the scalpel and the sewing needle, and cut it to about 1/3 to 1/5 the length, keeping in only the relevant stuff.

I don’t do it like that anymore.  What changed was the way the field, which was collapsing under me as I broke in, interacted with another of my characteristics: the inability to give up once I start something.  You see, round about 2003 I had to make a choice.  I could admit I’d made a mistake in aiming to be a writer most of my life and working like crazy to get published, because there was no way to make a living from this or (worse) at least no way I personally could make a living from this.  Or I could find a way to make a living from this, including but not limited to, doing the work of four to six writers.

See again how I cannot figure out how to give up on something.  Blame it on parents who emphasized follow through and persistence.  Or blame it on a mind that, when I was seventeen, earned me a certificate saying I was perfectly sane.  (Pauses to let the idea of WHY one would need such a certificate sink in.)  I could give up.  I could also levitate.  Theoretically.  Not that I’m willing to test either theory.

The advantage of becoming several writers at once, is that it taught me to trust my subconscious, because I simply didn’t have the ability to write twelve to twenty novels a year (well, I’ve never tried, to tell the truth.  But at the time, the kids were YOUNG and needed a lot more watching.)  So I had to outline the plot and let the subplots take care of themselves.

For someone of my disposition, this is sort of the equivalent of learning to swim by being thrown into rapids.  (I don’t know how to swim, btw.  It’s hard to write under water, so I was never much interested.)

The first book that I did this with was Draw One In The Dark, and, to my surprise, not only did all the subplots tie in, but they tied in at the right time and in the right way.  And then it happened again, and again, till I’ve had to come to the conclusion that my subconscious knows its business, often better than I do.

So, my current process is I write the general outline, (say ten pages, double spaced) then let the subplots fall in place.  This can be distracting to publishers like Baen who emphasize plot.  I think Toni is getting used to the idea that the outline she gets might sound thin on plot, because I write better novels than I do outlines (I think.)

There are two drawbacks.  In the space operas, this plotting by sudden fits of brilliance (Ah!  I see, so that’s what happened a hundred years back!) has played holy havoc with my future history, which in turn affects other stories in the line.  I’m trying to fix it so I can do a couple of novellas in the Thena Verse, but that’s something else.

The other is that I NEVER KNOW if my subconscious will deliver the goods or not.  Okay, so it has done so for the last fifteen books, but that doesn’t mean a thing.  It could fail me tomorrow!  So I live in a constant state of terror of what lurks in my own mind.  (I really don’t appreciate that low whistle and “so you should, sister.”  Mind your own mind!)

And yet the other is that when I write a novel in public – Witchfinder – people ask me questions and say “I didn’t realize this from the beginning” and I have to say “I hadn’t either.”  Or “I might have had a misleading paragraph in there, because I thought it was so.”  I’d like to point out the truly bizarre thing is that I don’t usually have too many wrong-pointing paragraphs anymore.  Towards the middle of the novel, I’ll make a note saying something like “Make sure on revision that S and G haven’t been doing this that long.”  And I’ll go back, hunting paragraphs that say they’ve done it for five years or whatever.  (There might be one.  Haven’t looked.)  Nine times out of ten, it’s not there.  I.e. the subconscious took care of it, already, even though the conscious had no clue.  Often, towards the end of the novel my desk (roll top) looks like a postit note porcupine with “Go back and make sure” and “Drop a hint that x is y back in chapter three.”  BUT the funny thing is about half of those are already there, somehow.

I wouldn’t dream of writing a novel without ANY outline.  But I also wouldn’t dream of outlining EVERY detail of plot, because then my subconscious will just come up with subplots to the subplots and then… well… 650k word book.  Nicknamed doorstop.  Manuscripts kept in case we ever run out of fuel in the middle of winter.

Is this a sane way to work?  Sure it is.  Brother, I have the certificate.

Is it the most efficient way to work?  I don’t know.  It allowed me to make a living in the most messed up state the field ever got into.

And the lesson to take away?  Find your process and trust it.  Don’t listen to me or to any other pro in “I do it like this and so must you.”  Ignore the plotters who tell you you need graphs, charts, maps, and a step counter.  Ignore the pantsers who tell you that you must stare into the void and leap into it without a parachute.  Do as YOU must.

When the writer is ready, the personal method appears.  Now go hatch your own mutant chickens.

19 thoughts on “Hunting the Wild Subplot

  1. Thanks for the view into your process, Sarah.

    I think finding that method or the fears that they can’t find a method that works for them intimidates many would-be writers. Or they struggle with the wrong method for a variety of reasons.

    1. If a subplot won’t die, that’s may be a way or your mind telling you your actual plot isn’t that interesting to you, the way someone might compulsively think of other women if they already have a GF.

      So here’s an idea…let it take over the story.
      Then the plot becomes the subplot and sometimes things are better for it.

      I find the same thing for characters. Some are planned, others just pop out of the woodwork.

      1. No. I’ve never had a subplot take over. My brain just works in subplots. Probably because I think of the world in nested events, not in a single straightforward line, but that’s perhaps too much for me to be sure of.

  2. Ouch. My stomach hurts from laughing so hard.

    This is a dangerous thing for someone to read first thing in the morning. It would be even more dangerous if they had liquids of any sort in their mouth. You should have posted a warning.

    But I loved it. And you aren’t alone. I can’t outline the way the plotting books tell me I’m supposed to. But I can’t work without an outline. I have to have a basic framework, and let the subconscious fill in the blanks. I do this with non-fiction too.


  3. I have a novel in progress that I outlined near to death. I went through (I think, if memory serves) eight iterations with dot-revisions in between. The thing has been marinating for seven years now. I sometimes wonder if, when I get back around to it, it will bear any resemblance to the form it has since taken in my mind.


    1. Mark,
      I have a novel I did that to. It ended as the six hundred and fifty thousand word doorstop. I have let it sit for almost 15 years now, and I THINK I could tackle it now, and it might be functional. BUT I’m going to give you the advice Kris and Dean gave me, and which made Darkship viable after a similar process to the Doorstop and four unusable/unpublishable versions.

      Take all your versions. Lock them in a drawer. Do not unlock until you’re done with the new one. Now, write a short serviceable outline that SORT OF captures your idea (I suspect you’ve now thrown enough into that idea for ten novels. I could be wrong, but it’s what happens to me.) Then write, from scratch. This is called “recasting” and is the only way I know (not meaning there aren’t others) to save an over-worked piece.

      1. Sound advice, I don’t doubt. I think that you could make a list of all the mistakes I’ve been making for … oh, I dunno, lifetimes, I suppose … by going through Dean’s posts on what not to do and taking notes.

        I actually think I could do that now — the story has taken that firm a shape in my head — but I have a lot of other stuff in the queue first.

        Talk about a story metastasizing: this thing started out to be an allegory to the first chapter of Collodi’s Pinocchio. Grew a bit in the telling.


  4. I have to work from a very basic outline of the major plot points and events and like you, let the subconscious fill in the rest as I write the story. I feel that sticking to a too rigid, or precise outline only hampers my ability to let the story evolve on it own accord. The funny thing for me about writing, is I almost always know how the story will not only begin, but how it will end. The tricky part is getting all the stuff that happens in the middle figured out. The sub-plots seem to rear their heads as they may in the course of the story evolving, and if they fit with the main plot-line they stay in, and if they don’t then they get chucked out.

    1. I certainly wouldn’t mind the Mutant Chicken story after Witchfinder. It sounds like a fascinating world. 🙂

  5. Usually I hunt those wild subplots in order to rope ’em and tie them and corral them in a book. I’ve very rarely had to hunt down a subplot gone bad in a book to kick it out, but it happens regularly when I try to write short stories.

  6. I guess you could call me a pantser, I tend to outline in my head (without ever writing anything on paper) and when I think I have a basic outline ready; go write the story. I wouldn’t recommend my method however, because I very seldom finish the stories I start.

    I always remember reading that how Edgar Rice Burroughs got started writing was he was bored one day, so he sat down and wrote A Princess of Mars. I have never heard of another author who sat down and wrote an entire novel from scratch in one day, much less a first novel that started not only a successful writing career, but a successful series.

    1. Rex Stout famously wrote the Nero Wolfe novels in single draft, once through the typewriter and off to the publisher, although I don’t recall anything about how long he spent doing so.

      Of course, one of the criticisms of Stout’s Wolfe novels is that his plots were weak.

  7. I cannot believe that any sane person could ever be so presumptuous as to certify another as “perfectly sane”. Nor can I believe an insane person able (validly) to certify another’s sanity.

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