East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Think fast: outlining a novella in two hours

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So what happened was this: after posting about my idea of writing a story based on a character like Captain Katanga in the Indiana Jones movies, I was discussing details and possibilities with my friends online.
Stuff like who’d be part of the crew, would they operate only in the Mediterranean or extend their activities to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, would they kick Nazi ass exclusively or would they also punch some other occasional colonial bad guys… stuff like that.

And one of my publishers dropped me a line…

“You know where to send this one once it’s finished, right?”

And so, considering the pitch had already happened and worked without me doing nothing, I went and sent him a proper proposal and an outline for a 30.000-words novella.
Straight away.
No barrier between thought and action.
That sounds damn smooth, but first I had to put together a 1000-words/4 pages outline, and do it fast.

First of all I found a few names. For the captain, the crew, the other characters.
I got myself a list of names, and I already had a general idea of what sort of characters I was looking for – the tough captain, his female second in command (she’s Jewish), the Italian ship cook that acts as comedy relief but is a badass anyway, a few others.††

Then I went for a walk. It had been a very hot day but there were big white clouds piling up to the northwest, the sort of clouds I tend to associate with the Pacific ocean, clouds out of “Kon-tiki”.
I walked as the breeze increased and told myself a story about these characters. A very simple story – a mysterious treasure, a weird bad guy, the Thulegesellschaft, the captain and his crew caught in between.

Then I came back home, I poured myself an ice-cold tea and I wrote a very skeletal summary of the story I told myself.
And boy did it suck.
There were holes big enough for a tramp freighter to sail through.
The general idea was fine, but it needed work.

It needed bad guys.
Three bad guys, actually.
One will act as a recurring antagonist should this become a series. He’s not really involved in the main action (or is he?) and he’s here just to complicate things.
Second, the Nazis, that are following an obvious agenda.
And the third bad guy, the mystery mastermind, the one whose motifs and actual powers are a big question mark.

Then, this being an adventure story, I needed a route – because in adventure stories, geography equals story: we need to get from A to B, but events will force us through F, K and W.
My basic plot was essentially “we’ve a box that needs to go from A to B.”
So I played it out on a map, asking myself “Why?” at every step of the way.

And again it did not work.
There can’t be characters that do something “because they’re evil” or “because the plot requires it.”
Why the heck go to Crete?

So I tied my brother to a chair and told him my story again, this time with all the extra improvements. He listened (not that he had anything else to do, being tied to a chair) and then we discussed why the story did not work.
I took another walk, catching a few welcome raindrops.
Then we had dinner – spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino, for the curious out there. While we were dining I saw what was not working – we needed more boxes, moving around the playing field, and the bad guys and the heroes trying to get a hold of all three.

This complicates things, and explains why some characters do some things and go some places.

And so I sat down, and wrote a point-by-point outline, a real “here’s what happens, and what happens next”. A little over 1000 words.
I added the character summary for the main protagonist, proposed word-count and ETA, and mailed the whole off.
Now all we’ll have to do is wait, right?

(and should my proposal bounce back in the end – hey, I’ve already got the whole thing outlined! How cool is that?!)

ADDENDUM: and talking about having the work outlined and self-publishing it should it bounce back, I was pointed towards this collection of ebook templates and design tips… that might come in handy. It’s all a matter of keeping our options open and keeping an eye out.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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