Drafting a Book Meme


Via Justine Larbalestier, Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear, Tim Pratt Cherie Priest and Ben Peek (who gonzoes it up enough that he might indeed have really nailed the proper method).

So, the novel process. A lot of what has been said is true for me as well, but the one thing I want to add to this is the movie trailer. I tend to spiral off into research and never come back so getting enough of an idea together to get started keeps me from vanishing into faux academia. Usually I’ll knock one of these out in a few hours, collecting all the images and structural bits and what-not that I’ve got until something that resembles a movie trailer. It serves a few purposes:

(a) it is supposed to get me excited about the book, teasing me with enough bits that I want to find out how they fit together,
(b) it starts formulating a thematic structure and the way in which it might be pitched should such a time come, and
(c) it collapses what I know down to a workable chunk that I can file away and come back to later and unfold it all again with little effort.

Here’s an example. This is a trailer for a fantasy novel that I was working up with a buddy back in 1999. This is what I gave him as an info-dump of what I had.


A rose dawn on the ocean. The vessel is a triple-masted schooner. There is no land in sight and camera comes down around the crows’ nest, past the slumbering watcher. There is little movement on deck and the creaking of the rigging in the light breeze is the only sound. The deck is worn smooth by the passage of feet and there is more than one section that has been recently patched, the planking a darker wood than the surrounding boards.

The door to the forecastle opens and a single man walks onto the deck of the ship. He stands for a minute staring east into the rising sun, idly buttoning up a worn leather vest. Some beadwork used to rise across the left shoulder, a once-rampant griffin, now missing most of its wings and breast feathers. The buttoned vest obscures a still red scar running around the man’s midsection, just below the fifth rib on the left side. His long black hair is pulled back with a jeweled clip, somewhat out of place with his worn surroundings and his frayed vest. He climbs the steps to the upper deck and leans a booted foot against the railing near the masthead.

He’s got a pair of blood oranges in the loose pockets of his vest and he pulls one out and begins to peel it. He throws the strips of peel off the boat, flinging them with some intent as if he is trying to strike something. Camera pans across his shoulder and reveals that a man has been tied to the bosom of the masthead and has obviously been there for several days.

His shirt is stiff with dried saltwater and his face is obscured by salted scabs and encrustations. His hair has been bleached white by the sun. He is still alive and the pelting of the orange peels has penetrated his consciousness. He raises his head slightly, an almost instinctive reaction to the stimulus.

The vested man finishes peeling the first orange and noisily devours half of the fruit in a gorging motion of his fist. Some of the juice overflows his mouth and runs down his chin. He wipes his face clean with his hand and flicks the juice at the bound man. “Still alive?” he says. “What’s that now? Four days? Five?”

The young man tied to the masthead tries to lick his salt-encrusted lips and fails. The ship is heading due south and he can barely make out the streaks of rose across the water to the east. He turns his head so slightly and looks across the water. The movement of his head away from the other man is not missed.

The man in the vest laughs. “Sunrise on the ocean. Not quite the way you intended to see it, not quite what you had planned for an adventurous life at sea?”

CAMERA moves around to young man’s face and we see the calm intelligence there, the spark in his eyes that isn’t quite ready to die. Not just yet. Something that may have once been a smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. “Not quite,” he mouths, his voice all but lost to the sea.


The young man flinches, shakes in his bonds.

CUT: Sparks again. A heavy hammer rises in fire lit darkness and falls. Sparks along the edge of a enormous ax head. This weapon is meant to terrify its victims by the mere sight of it before it cleaves them in half.

CUT: The young man, hale and healthy, on the streets of a city being swept along by a masked parade. His companion: a young woman with diamonds in her hair.

CUT: A torch lit temple. A Skesh priest throws back his hood from his serpentine head, his tattoos gleaming in the light.

CUT: C’dani warriors in burnished breastplates, their manes tied back with silk ribbons, their facial hair streaked with black and red warpaint. They are standing in formation and, in unison, clash their curved broadswords against their gleaming shields.

CUT: A train of captives traveling across desert sands. Men in tattered rags tied to one another by bronze chains, looped around their wrists and their necks. A shadow passes across the line as they stagger along and they shy away from the tall figure which looms near them.

CUT: A ship yawing uncontrollably in the ocean, her decks and masts on fire. It is a fine ship, probably carried royalty at one point. There are dead men on the decks.

CUT: A woman with a top-knot of black hair. A band of faint tattoos crosses her eyes like a fine mesh mask. Her skin is dappled with sweat and she laughs as she effortlessly twirls a bright blade in her hands.

CUT: A C’dani Lord, resplendent in brocaded robes of crimson and silver standing in a sunlit garden. He is clipping tropical flowers, broad leafed plants with vermilion petals. There are several other lords in attendance, their cloaks and robes not quite as magnificent. Not all of them have the same colors. The Lord pauses in his harvest and turns to the others. “Haradzhad will not fall. Not while I live.”

CUT: There is a boat that travels in the edge of sunset. The sun vanishes behind a mountain range and, as darkness falls across the valley, a ship appears to pass through the streets of the city. After it is gone, a man stands in the roadway, a man touched with darkness. He pauses for a second and then is seemingly swallowed by the night.

CUT: The young woman with diamonds in her hair stands over the young man who is asleep in a large bed. The fine sheet is twisted around him, pulled unconsciously during slumber tight around his body. His hair is tousled and his face is relaxed and peaceful in sleep. Sun is streaming through the open window behind her and she bends down quietly over him, her index and middle finger brushing lightly at the hair across his face. “Fortune watch over you,” she whispers. He turns slightly at her touch, but doesn’t wake. She steps back and is gone when he wakes.

CUT: A huge temple cut from limestone shimmering in the desert haze. It isn’t finished and the tattered line of slaves stagger into the corner of the frame. The third man in the line sees it first and freaks out, screaming and staggering back from the distant structure. The line comes to a halt and ripples as the frightened captive tries to single-handed pull the line away from their destination. The man in line behind him tries to calm him, tries to stop him from disrupting the march. The second man grabs the first by the shoulders and tries to reason with him. This second man is standing with his back to the camera and we hear the thwock of a bowstring and the first man’s face goes ecstatic and then limp. The second man looks over his shoulder and we see that it is our young hero. He glances down and camera pans with him. A black arrow is quivering from the belly of the first man, having flown between our hero’s arm and side. He looks up and past camera.

CUT: Something is blocking the desert sun. It moves and, briefly before we are blinded, we are struck by the ridged shape of the creature’s head. And the teeth.

CUT: Obligatory shot of pirates aboard their pirate vessel. Sharp-eyed watchers will note the sight of both top-knot woman and our hero in their midst.

CUT: The young woman with diamonds is decked out for the court ball and she looks like a million bucks. There are many men eager for her attention and the level of obsequiousness is matched only by the foppery of their cloth. Camera pans up and back to a high window overlooking the ballroom and through a missing piece of stained glass our hero is watching the proceedings.

CUT: Early morning mist split by the rushing attack of the C’dani warriors. This isn’t their first charge and somehow the mud and blood on their faces and breatplates only makes them look fiercer. They are charging hard down the hill towards an unseen enemy.

CUT: The ax, that damn huge ax, buries itself in the center of a large wooden doorway. A doorway glimpsed earlier in the back of the ballroom (for those who were watching). There is blood on the ax and blood remains on the door as it pulls out a large chunk of the wood.

CUT: The deck of the pirate ship, looking out across the docks of a large city. Our young hero is standing next to the railing with a taller bearded man who looks like the First Mate (at least). “Haradzhad,” he says to the young man. “Fortune lies within for any man brave enough to come this far for it.” The young man (who looks really young and green in this shot) stares at the city, repeating the name under his breath.

CUT: The C’dani Lord, angry, leaping out of his great chair and laying hands on the robed front of a Skesh priest. The priest’s entourage is shocked by the total breach of protocol. The priest’s hood falls back enough that we can see his great, whirling eyes. He has clearly provoked the Lord and hasn’t flinched from the assault.

CUT: The rooftops of Haradzhad. Our hero and a couple other pirates are scampering towards the rounded cupola of the
Skesh temple. A shadow tracks them-the man who comes from the boat at the edge of sunset.

CUT: The face of the great desert temple. Our hero slides across the face and nearly goes all the way over the edge. He is caught at the last minute by an out-stretched arm. He dangles precariously, looking down on the disturbed ritual taking place below. Skesh priests look up. He gives that rakish yeah-I’m-the-hero-what’s-it-to-you? grin.

CUT: Top-knot stretched out on the broad forehead of the temple statue, straining to pull our hero back up. From the shadows behind her comes the ax first and finally a glimpse of the creature who wields it. The leathery lizard visage of one of the really tall Khazir.

CUT: The C’dani Lord standing on the balcony of his citadel, looking out over Harazhad. The city is burning.

CUT: “Not quite,” the young man says again, lashed to the masthead, and this time we can hear his voice. “Fortune hasn’t left me yet.”

There is a cry from the crows’ nest, a cry of “Ship ahoy!” The man in the vest looks up and then to the east, squinting into the early sun. His eyes widen and then his gaze returns to the young man tied to his ship. There isn’t time enough to spare any more words and so he settles for a tense snarl as he rushes from the poop deck.

CAMERA flows up across the edge of the boat and settles down in front of young man’s face. Shouts of alarm begin to sound on-board the boat behind him. He smiles finally, a broad wolfish gleam that belies his bound position, and he stares straight into the camera as we fade to black…

When I thought about this outline today, I could remember five or six of the scenes before I even found the file. After reading it again, I could start drafting this book next week without much trouble. It’s a like a little time capsule. Handy for when books have to be set aside for later consideration.

Anyway, another bit of the drafting process that has worked for me. Justine (and Scott’s) spreadsheet seems terrifyingly organized but, as my writing time is more piecemeal these days, it might actually be a useful tool to use. Better than those half dozen “notes.txt” files that I cart around with the working draft file.