When I write I outline thematically, but I write linearly.
The best analogy that I have found to explain how this works is that my story is a path across a river.
I start out by knowing that I want to get to the other side, but the river is in the way. So I start throwing rocks into the stream. I grab up whatever is lying around and heave it as far as I can, and after a while I have enough stepping stones to get from here to there. That’s the outlining phase, I come up with a lot of ideas that I want to use, images, concepts, characters, situations, whatever.
Then I start writing. Now, when I write, I start at the beginning and I go straight through to the end. By and large I don’t back up to rewrite anything I’ve already written (with a few exceptions) and I don’t jump ahead. When you read one of my books, you’re reading the words in pretty much exactly the same order I wrote them.
I also observe a strict time flow in writing–this happened and then that happened and then this other thing happens. What happens on page 100 is after what happened on page 10 and before what happens on page 200.
So my writing process is kind of like starting at one bank and then jumping from stone to stone until I reach the other bank. This means that I don’t write the scenes in the order that I imagined them, I write them in the order that they happen in the story.
Now, this river is a treacherous thing, and things shift during my crossing. What looks like the safe and sure path from one bank turns out to be a dead end, and I find myself jumping to some stone that I didn’t intend to use. Often my favorite “bits” turn out to have no real use in where the path leads me. Sometimes I have to scramble to find my next step and have to dig up something on the fly and force it into service.
When I started Catskinner’s Book, for example, I had the basic premise of the universe, the characters of James&Catskinner and their sybiotic relationship, the characters of Godiva, White and Russwin, and the scene where Catskinner is paralyzed in Victor’s shop. I also had a number of elements that didn’t make it into that book, some of which showed up in Cannibal Hearts and some of which are going to be in Worms Of Heaven, and some of which I still haven’t figured out how to use.
With Cannibal I had the necroidim (who grew out of asking myself the question “What kind of person would become a cenobite, anyway?”), and the famous electric frog gun (which came from mis-hearing “electrode” as “eclec-toad”) and I knew I was going to reveal the relationship between James and Agony.
The riverboat, which became a huge part of the book and is a big part of Worms, was one of those things I had to scramble to find. I needed a project to bring Agony to St. Louis, and it happened that my roommate and I went to a local casino and the rest is history.
I am now at a point in Worms where I am finally able to use a big-ass rock that I threw into the river a long time ago. It was a part of an unfinished novel I worked on when my kids were small, a novel that provided a lot of parts that have gone into my James&Catskinner’s stories.
The problem was that it’s a concept that takes a lot of setup. I laid some background in Catskinner, and some more in Cannibal, and now I think I’ve put together a structure that can support using this concept. So I’m kind of excited that my twisting path has finally brought me back to this point, and it’s made me reflect that nothing is ever wasted, that all the oddball ideas that we have don’t go away, they just sit on the shelf until we need them.
I think this is going to be fun.