“Writing is Fear.” Someone smarter than I am said that, and boy, did he know what he was talking about. Don’t like that one? How about: “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” I think Confucius meant to encourage, but it’s downright daunting when we’re talking about coming face to face with the dreaded blank page. As any experienced writer will tell you, all the platitudes in the world won’t make it any easier to buckle down and get started.
In fourth grade I received my first exposure to “The Steps of the Writing Process.” Prior to fourth grade, writing took place on giant lined newsprint and usually included a crayon illustration. (Suitable for framing, grandma!) If it’s been a while since you were in fourth grade, here’s a reminder:
I was fortunate to have a series of elementary and middle school teachers who believed in the mechanics of writing. We were drilled in these five steps through essay after essay. We practiced them on short stories, research papers, memoirs, and poems. Oh, the red pens. The goal was to embed these steps in our psyches so that we would naturally apply them every time we wrote anything. In my case, at least, it worked. You should see how long it takes me to send an email.
If you ask most writers which step is the most important creatively (Obviously #5 is the most important FINANCIALLY, but let’s stay on topic), four out of five will tell you that drafting is where the creative process lives. A few might disagree, telling you to just get the story down any old which way you can, and use the revision step to enrich, stylize and pace your story. But veterans of the craft know the truth, and I will let you in on their secret: one hour of prewriting is worth ten hours of drafting, most of which will end up being cut or revised anyway.
The good news for busy people? Effective prewriting works like a well-structured grocery list; do it right and you can score exactly what you want AND get out of the supermarket with minimal wasted time and effort.
Perhaps your goal is a 70,000 word novel, or even a 30-page short story. Either way, the goal is so large it’s paralyzing. Where to start? In order to get the ball rolling, break it down into manageable pieces with small prewriting activities.
Here are Seven Prewriting Steps to planning out a novel:
1. Start by making a list of events you’d like to see happen in your story.
2. If you go with the scene method, think of each one as a chapter. (Stay flexible here; sometimes a juicy scene can be within a larger, contextual one.) Put each on its own index card, and mount them on a wall, white board, or even a mirror, if you have an extra bathroom.
3. Get those events in the proper order. This is a critical prewriting step, and if you do it right, you will produce a mini outline or road map that will help you push ahead.
4. Start fleshing out each scene with the 5 W’s. Who is there? How are those people connected? Why are they there? What must they learn in order to move to the next stage of the story? Each time you come up with ANYTHING, no matter how trivial, jot it on the card.
5. Cards getting full? Annex a second, or a third. If you have more than 3, you may have 2 chapters in the making. Or you might be ready to start drafting.
6. You will revisit this list over and over as the story begins to evolve. Revisiting and updating your wall is an excellent “ease-in” activity to help get your head in the game. If I know I only have 30-45 minutes of working time, I’ll often start at the wall, adding to a potential scene, perhaps adding detail about a character.
7. The key with the wall trick is that you always finish your session with a plan for next time. The plan should be as clear as possible. Will you choose/change the setting for Chapter One? Will you list talking points for that argument between your hero and his father to make it more infuriating, perhaps raising the stakes in some way? Will you identify the 3 places in the novel where your supporting character needs to stiffen her spine? Other possibilities:
I write murder mysteries, which are very detail and event driven. For this reason I use the one-scene-per notecard method of prewriting. I start at the end, with the killer and the crime. Then I figure out why she/he did it, then I figure out how. Only THEN do I attempt to picture the scene that opens the story, with my heroine becoming drawn into the investigation. I routinely fill 40 + note cards, plus 15-25 post it notes with smaller details, during the prewriting stage of planning out an 80,000 word novel. And I promise you, all those note cards get cross outs, additions, and even complete rewrites galore. I keep working my notecards AS I DRAFT. I move them around, omit them, then add them back in as my characters journey toward a solution.
Does all that take time? It does. But this thoughtful process, the quiet, careful contemplation of each aspect of my story, this is where my creativity comes from. I don’t know if there are writers out there who actually sit down and flat out compose a story from beginning to end. I tried that my first time out, and ended up with a 150,000-word train wreck. Nothing made sense. The plot had more holes than a crocheted afghan. The biggest tragedy was that some lovely prose, intricately drawn scenes over which I labored long, ended up in the circular file. Talk about wasted time.
All this prewriting sounds great, you say, and it’s certainly easy to step in/step out for someone with a schedule chopped into short work periods. But when, you ask, do I actually start writing?
I can only tell you what has worked for me. When I have a scene, or chapter, so well plotted out, perhaps two or three cards filled with details, setting, characters, the mood, what key information I want to convey to the reader, maybe a few post its with intriguing power words stuck on there, phew! When I have all of that, and I’ve reviewed it and worked it, adding to and massaging it...it starts talking to me. I hear it while I’m doing other things, like cooking or taking a walk. My family start asking me why I’m so quiet all of a sudden. Finally, after a day, or even a week, the perfect starting point with the perfect opening sentence presents itself. And as I play that sentence over and over in my head, others begin to follow. When I hear that, I’m ready to sit down, face that blinking cursor, and start transcribing the internal narrative onto the page. I schedule a significant time block, at least an hour, preferably more if I can manage it, and I begin, at long last, to draft. And while that first draft will of course be subject to revision and editing, and more revision, I know I have created a solid building block toward construction of my larger story.
I am a writer and teacher of writing. After a lifetime of attempting to squeeze writing into my busy life as wife, mother, Scout leader, teacher, and far too many additional hats to list here, I have achieved my dream of being published and becoming a 'real writer'. How did I find the time? In this blog I'll share some of my strategies for having it all--and still getting dinner on the table by six.