My steampunk class has spent the last month on prewriting, something that in my opinion was worth the price of admission all by itself. In the past, I’ve been a pantser, someone who sits down to write with a little idea and a lot of hope. But, after six revisions on my last book (no exaggeration), I swore to myself I’d figure out this outlining thing.
My current project – Momentum – I outlined with sticky notes on a wall. I wrote a few words per scene, then I moved the notes around until I got something I thought held together. That told the story I wanted to tell. But, after getting three-quarters of the way through, I’ve discovered my characters have changed. My plot has evolved. And my first third as a result is going to need serious revision. I walked away from the thing thinking, I still haven’t got this down quite right.
So I took a class from an author at an online forum to get another person’s take on prewriting. As Orson Scott Card says, there’s no getting around the work. You either put it in before you start writing, or you do it in revision. The first is more efficient.
Beth has us start with some brainstorming to come up with ideas. We had a genre we were working in, so we started with the expectations the readers have in that genre. Asked ourselves, what part of this draws me in? What ideas do I have within this framework? And brainstormed as many as possible.
Then, we developed freeform ideas of character and/or plot. Since I was reading Immediate Fiction at the time, I focused in on conflict: person A wants thing B but can’t get it because of C. Ideally C is a person who wants an opposite thing. The resulting conflict is what drives a story. Arguably it *is* the story. So I built a few characters and their motivations.
Then, came Beth’s freewrite. In a page or two, write down what happens in the story in a stream. Don’t self-edit. Don’t stop. What you end up will be the core of your book.
About this point she also had us reading books within the genre we were interested in. We studied their structure, their wordcount, their characters. Took the pieces we liked to model our own books.
Finally, after all this work, we sat down to do an outline. A very detailed outline, one that decided everything else in the book. I found out later that I was an overachiever on this particular exercise – I accomplished it too fast and in too much detail – but I found the exercise extremely useful.
What was different about this outline was that I decided what would happen in every chapter – scene by scene. I chose which point of view character to tell each scene. I decided on action, on plot points, on character development. I set forth the point of each scene in a paragraph or two – and drew all the threads of plot all the way through the novel.
I checked for cause and effect, that one thing leads naturally to the other. Writers are often accused of setting things up because they are convenient – ex machina, not because the actions arise naturally out of the plot. So when I ran into one of those things I went back and added the causes earlier in the book.
Then, at Beth’s suggestion, I wrote out complete backstories for each major character in their own voice.
What I ended up with is the most complete picture of a novel I’ve ever had before a second draft – a complete picture that will help me write it well the first time. I’ll keep you posted as to how it develops as I write, but here’s hoping my six drafts turns into two.
How do you pre-write your novels?