Doing It By the Numbers

Kage Baker was always looking for subtext. Or meta text; the structure attached to, but outside the boundaries of, the story now in progress. She said it was frequently the most interesting part of the plot. It was also the hardest part to weave into the main plot while you were writing – but it was vital to do so, as smoothly and invisibly as possible.

When Kage plotted out a story, the first thing she noted were the plots, plural. As a formula, she tried for 3 strands of plot, at a minimum – whatever the main thrust of the story was, and then two more for balance. Those were the subplots, the side plots, the metaplots; often, they were things that she discovered while researching Plot Line No. 1 and just had to include for sheer fun’s sake. The sparkly bits, she called them; weird facts or even outright lies associated with her main plot device.

Sometimes, they had nothing to do with the main story at all, but she found them too fascinating to ignore. That always changed the thrust of a story, of course, and most often it enriched and expanded it. Usually, Kage did it quite deliberately. Notes for every story began with a list: Plot 1, the Tunguska Explosion. Plot 2, which Operative was in the field when it happened, and  was badly/romantically/comedically inconvenienced on the ground? Plot 3, the notorious mosquitoes of the Siberian Summer are breeding a new kind of hive insect …  or the Tunguska Object was a failed space vessel launched by the Almas … or the Old Ones are actually interred beneath the Siberian permafrost.

Sometimes a sparkly bit would take over, and she’d end up writing an entirely different story altogether. “Standing In His Light” went that way, Vermeer becoming the main plot when she discovered he probably used a camera obscura. And after she looked up the story of the tulip bubble, and the second tulip bubble, and then the hyacinth bubble – well, then she added the plot line of the infant Latif accidentally destroying the black market theobromos economy. And all she’d had for an initial inspiration was a a friend of ours (a tall, lean, frighteningly brilliant young man) dressed in Landesknecht clothes …

Searches always yielded gold. Not always the gold Kage wanted, but who’s going to complain that you were looking for a golden dinner plate, and got a golden flat iron instead? It’s all gold, and you just adjust the shelves to handle what you found. It was one of the reasons Kage went on Internet searches as pure recreation – she never knew what would leap up and strike a pose, crying:  “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss!”*

Sometimes nothing suggested itself while researching Plots 1 and 2. Then she’d hit the home archives, the boxes and albums and repurposed Amazon boxes full of scraps of Weird News. People sent the weird clippings to her; most of you, Dear Readers, are still sending them to me. And I keep them all for reference, even as Kage taught me. When you need a little something peculiar to spice up a story line, these tidbits can be invaluable. And if it takes some effort to gently bend and banzai the plot – if at first the connection between the prim, icy Facilitator Victor the Virus and Popeye the Sailor Man is not clear – well, that’s why they call it creative writing, isn’t it?

There were even times when, eager to write but devoid of ideas, Kage would mix up a bowl of these Archives of Nuttiness and throw them like prophetic knuckle bones. The first 3 she gathered up were the facets of the plot, and she had to use all three. Those were the rules … in the last years of her life, ALL the short fiction she wrote was to order. Most was for themed anthologies, and she never had any trouble at all delivering on the theme. She had trained herself to connect any and all and at least 3 plot lines into one, years agone.

This is a system, I must add, that works pretty well for anyone. Several nieces and nephews have discovered it, upon appealing to Auntie Kage the Writer for advice on essays; or, lately to me. And I myself have found this method to be absolutely useful every single time. I would not have managed the 1 novel and several stories I’ve written so far without it; I’ll use it on everything I ever try to write. Sometimes Plots 1,2 and 3 change places, when the buttercups suddenly turn out to be chemically pertinent. Sometimes Plot 2 or 3 get dropped, or replaced; the story forges on and ends up just fine without the original cast.

Writing’s not like a dance, Kage said once, analyzing just such a maelstrom of a plot. You don’t have to leave with the one who brought you.

If you really want to, if you really need to, you should leave with the one who catches your eye and winks. He’s the one with the fast car, the electric-shock gaze, the shadow of stag’s horns on his brow …

One, two, three. Change partners, and write.



* Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlow

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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4 Responses to Doing It By the Numbers

  1. Brad Campbell says:

    I think that’s the second best instruction on writing I’ve ever read (the first being Stephen King’s book On Writing). Of course, I could toss them both up in the air & whichever landed first could be the best…..
    Thank you.


    • Kate says:

      Thank you, Brad. I revere and treasure Mr. King’s advice on writing myself. So did Kage. She always said, he knew how to honour the contract with the Reader.


  2. johnbrownson says:

    Have you read the books of George V. Higgens? His books, considered to be “Mysteries”, (although there’s nothing of the “whodunnit” about them), are unique, in my experience, in that he writes almost entirely without expository material, depending upon dialogue to convey the plot to the alert reader. His plots (and this is what tickled my memory) are convoluted and as cross-hatched as a spider web. Sometimes you don’t even know what the main plot line was, until the book’s end. It’s rarefied stuff, and not for the casual reader; he makes you work, to know what’s going on. It’s the multiple plot lines, that brought him to mind. I’d never actually noticed the technique, but now I will.


    • Kate says:

      I’m not familiar with the work of George V. Higgins, but now I’ll look him up and give it a try. I noted that he is published by Bacl Lizard, an imprint with a good reputation in hard-boiled and/or vintage crime novels. Also, that he is favourably compared with Chandler and Hammet, who are two of my favourite authors. Thank you for the tip!


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