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