Fair Isle, Novels, and Outlines: Orchestrating a War, Designing a Sweater

I’m between novels at the moment, resting my brain a bit, but doing a lot of reading and research towards the next. I’m also plotting a Fair Isle sweater. I don’t write with outlines, but sweaters don’t work that way. Not for me, anyway. I’m using Alice Starmore’s instructions for designing your own “gansey”, and trying to work out something that will fit me the way I like a heavy sweater to fit (nice and loose for lots of layers underneath), that will be right for my gauge on the needles that seem right for the yarn, and will use the yarn I have on hand from the abandoned and unravelled project. I have a whole lab notebook of graph paper (which has stern injunctions that everything must be done in ink, no pages removed, each page signed, etc. for patent protection — where did this notebook come from, the JPL?), crayons, calculator … I’m drawing and colouring blocks of borders and peeries and doing complicated math. Very complicated math. The JPL would be proud. “So, six stitches per inch = x, divided by y, need border patterns that will fit into z evenly so it will be centred, damn, I can’t remember how to work out factors (JPL would not be proud), better just try random division and write down all the whole numbers I get, and how many rows to the underarm gussets? Since I have a variety of yarns that are “well, almost, but not exactly” the same weight, I’m hoping for the best. They seem to end up the same gauge when knit together, and that’s the important bit. More or less. Well, okay, they don’t pucker, that’s point one in my favour, and I’m taking six rather than 5.5 stitches per inch for the size, so it won’t end up too small, anyway. (Not like the last sweater I knit, which was in adolescence, just as I went through a growth spurt, which resulted in outgrowing it in both the arm and, er, chest regions by the time it was done. Must find it and give it to Number One Nephew, who at least won’t have to cope with the latter problem.)

So what does this have to do with novels? Well, the thing is, this is not how I write a novel. I’ve just finished reading Diana Wynne Jones’s Reflections and was interested to find what I’d always been fairly certain of, she wasn’t an outline person either. Outlines, she said, killed the story, which is exactly my experience. I wrote a book with an outline once. And it was horrible, dead and flat. I threw it out and wrote it again — not a revision, but a completely new file, finding out the real journey the characters and their situation had to take to get to the end I could glimpse in the distance. That turned out to be a much better, living, story. However, I also once started writing a story too soon, before the character and the situation that would be the seed of it all, in my normal way of writing, showed up, and that was just as disastrous and time-wasting. It was a sequel, so I had the vague shape of it, knew certain things that needed to happen and so on, but I didn’t have the seed from which the story needed to spring burning in my head. I floundered and floundered, trying to force the writing onwards. I didn’t have an outline (I tried making several — they were all failures and got me no forrarder), but I didn’t have the driving heart of it either. I was making things up and it showed, flat and discordant. I went through a record number of drafts and some false starts that added together would probably make several novels in length before I realized where the root of the problem lay and was able to let the proper heart of the story take over and drive the journey. The result, I think, was the excellence that only happens when the words are on fire. Like Jones, I have to have the burning seed of the story, and a few scenes along the way, and an idea of the the end, and then the rest is a journey of discovery that is sometimes hard good work and sometimes a transcendent poetic inspiration.

Frowning and calculating and clutching my crayons, designing my sweater, I am thinking about this, with relation to the book I’m currently brooding on. I know where it starts — even some of the dialogue of the opening scene is there in my head, though that may go completely differently when I come to write it. I have two significant moments that are detailed and could be set down at any moment, allowing for the fact that I’m not exactly certain where, geographically, they happen, the characters not having set out on their journey yet. (They are, in fact, hanging out in a tavern, a good place to wait, no doubt, though one of them has a notoriously poor head for drink.) I have an ending. (I often write the endings quite early in the book. By the time I get to them, they’re usually quite different, but significant bits of the dialogue or relation of the characters to one another and the world endures, and it’s important to have that distant mountaintop on the horizon so I know where I’m going from the start.) This book is a bit different in one thing, though, and that is that it does contain a war, not mere skirmishing and short decisive battles. And that means — I have done this before, in something that never saw the light of day but was very good training — forethought is required. Rather like calculating all those repeats of peerie and border patterns for the Fair Isle sweater, trying to make sure things will fit in evenly, in fact.

I don’t need an outline of my story. I do need an outline of my war. Real wars are fought more the way I write a novel. It begins, and both parties have their eyes on the distant mountaintops of their respective intended end result, but little certainty of what the journey there will be like. Fictional wars, however, need to be rather better planned. Otherwise the wrong side might win, after all … Actual battles along the way can happen as necessary, but I definitely need maps and arrows, distances and times, which province starts off on which side, worked out before I start. Somehow, designing the sweater has left me certain that for this impending story, an outline — of the war, not the story of the characters — is necessary. Realizing this now, rather than a quarter of the way into it or worse, will hopefully prevent me having to make massive revisions to story and map partway through. An outline of the war, probably no more than a big map with arrows and a list of times and notes, will provide the stage on which the story will unfold.

I expect it will be done and probably, dis volentibus, published, before the sweater is ever finished. I am not one of the world’s speedy knitters.


About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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3 Responses to Fair Isle, Novels, and Outlines: Orchestrating a War, Designing a Sweater

  1. C says:

    Very interesting in many ways…for those of us looking over your shoulder to see how its all done–the writing bit, not the sweater bit. Re: importance of ‘sweater outlines’–have a new respect and will now definitely wear the Christmas Number my aunt sent me.

  2. KV Johansen says:

    Yes, it’s important to respect your aunt’s knitting! Today I’ve been amusing myself, not with knitting, but by laying my maps over real ones, to scale, to try to fix firmly in my mind what the distances really feel like. I don’t want to end up having to redesign the geography in any major way halfway through this time.

  3. Ryan M says:

    I can’t write with an outline at all. I get to caught up in the little details, and everything just expands to the point where I have no idea where I started. I end up getting lost in the outline and end up abandoning my idea, I tend to get “World Builder’s Disease”.

    I am much more of a discovery writer, rather than being an outliner. I’m in the Gardener’s camp and no the Architects.

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