This was my one rule when Lee and I started the Dead Man series:
No safety net.
That is, no outline. No planning. No plan.
In other words, everything I tell my students never to do.
But I had a couple of reasons for this. One is I’ve done hundreds of outlines over the years. Every TV episode has had a long and detailed one. Even on my Psych books, which were pretty loose, I had ten or more pages to guide me. I figure that after a quarter century doing this, I’ve got a pretty good feel for when a story is working and when it’s not.
But the more important reason was this:
I wanted my work on the Dead Man to come unfiltered through my subconscious. I wanted to go places I’ve never gone before. Places I’d never visit if I had to think about the story rationally, which is what an outline forces you to do.
The Dead Man – straight from the id.
Now it’s true that The Dead Man: Hell in Heaven did start with a story idea. It went like this:
Matt meets up with a man who has been chasing Mr. Dark for decades and has now become so crazy he may be just as dangerous as the man he seeks. But the insane man could have the answers to the questions plaguing Matt: Are they the foot soldiers in the battle between good and evil? Is Matt immortal? Or is this all a dream?
That’s what I started with.
And then I shoved it in the back of my head and started writing. And some odd things started happening.
First, I began to think that maybe this plot synopsis would belong to the next book instead of this one. Because there was a different book in my head, and even though I couldn’t tell exactly what it was going to look like, some part of me did.
What I did know was this:
The second Dead Man would be structured in three parts. The first would be told from outside Matt’s POV, as he is found wandering in the woods, insane, and hauled into jail. Where he would meet someone who would or would not have been chasing Mr. Dark for decades.
Part two would flash back to Matt’s first adventure after leaving home… and take us through the hideous experiences that were going to drive him mad.
Part three would start back in the cell, with Matt overcoming his insanity with the help – advertent or in – of the guy who might or might not have been chasing Mr. Dark for decades.
This all came to me as I started typing the book’s second page.
As I went on, I could see the story beginning to unfurl in front of me. For every chapter I wrote, two or three more revealed themselves. And I was pretty happy with where it was going. It was solid, it was fun, and it seemed to live up to what we’d done in the first book.
Then a strange thing happened. I was writing a simple expositional scene, one that was “laying the pipe” for the big setpiece that would send Matt over the edge.
I typed a line. And then another line. And then the scene went insane.
First it started getting sexy. And then it started getting weird. Really weird. And gross – disgusting. And scary. And did I mention weird?
It blasted through the walls of the reality I thought I was working in and took me places I never would have dreamed of going.
Took Matt places I couldn’t have imagined he’d ever go.
The next day I was kind of scared to read what I’d written. It had come in a flurry, and I didn’t think I had any control over it.
But it worked. I did some rewriting, even expanded it a little to make things harder for Matt. But it opened up the entire series to me, showed me directions we could go I never knew about.
And I still have no idea where it came from.
That’s why I’m working without a safety net on these books.
It’s why I love them…