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Playing in a Sandbox the Size of the Sahara

One question I get asked a lot in interviews or at conventions is what my writing process is like.  Do I use an outline, or do I just wing it?  For the most part, I wing it, but I always have to add the caveat that it depends on the story.  I prefer winging it, because I like to be surprised as I go.  I often don't know how a story or novel will end until I'm almost there.  The big exception, however, is with the Apocalypse Shift series.  

The AS series didn't start out as something large and unwieldy.  The first time I created the OneStop Mart along with Caleb and Gloria was in the story "The All-Night, One-Stop Apocalypse Shop."  It was merely something that struck my fancy at the time.  I wrote it and figured I'd be done with it.  But as I was finishing up the story, I knew this was a setting that could be used for plenty more adventures.  So I did one more story set in the AS universe, "The Power Pastry."  I enjoyed writing that one too, and eventually wrote two more fragments set in that universe.  I didn't finish these fragments right away, and I figured that was the end of it.

I was very wrong.

The first of these fragments kept plaguing me.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to do that story, but I couldn't quite get the shape of it right.  The fragment at first seemed to me like it might be a novella, then very briefly I started working on it as a comic book script.  Neither of those shapes really worked.  Then I got it in my head that if I wanted to get anywhere in my career in writing I would need to write a novel.  This fragment seemed like it would perfect for that, and I got to writing.  This then became The Apocalypse Shift.

That was supposed to be the end of it.  Really.

The problem was that when I decided to make TAS a novel, I knew it could no longer work within the confines of the OneStop.  Stories that take place just in the one store may be fine, but a novel length story would have been bogged down by the static location.  So I kept the store as a very key location, but I had the characters get out and give me a chance to explore the rest of the bizarre neighborhood that is the Hill.  I created other businesses, more characters, and many hints of a larger history.  And with every one of these additions, I realized that I was creating new ways to tell stories in the universe.  But for all those new potential stories, I came up with one specific idea that I thought was really cool and wanted to tell more than any other.  This idea had a problem, though, in that I knew it wouldn't work unless it was one of the last chronological stories in the AS universe.

I knew that if I wanted to get to that last story (one that really couldn't be done as one of the shorts.  It had to be a novel.)  I would have to have an idea of what came before it.  In short, I would have to do something I never ever do with my fiction: I would need to outline it.  And that's where I am right now.  I have the whole shape of the Apocalypse Shift series, or at least the basics.  In order to get from the original TAS novel to the last one, I had to figure out what would happen in every novel in between.  The universe is broad enough that I can tell many other stories in it, but I have certain stories that must be told in between to make everything tie together.  All in all, current plans for the series put it at five total novels, enough shorts and novellas to fill three Tales From the Apocalypse Shift companion books, and one possible spinoff series.  I've built myself a sandbox to play in, but it's so big I'm having trouble seeing where it ends.  It's daunting, but it's also fun.

In the end, isn't that all that matters?