Monday, January 31, 2011

Pre-writing Schme-writing

So, it was pretty cool of Tahereh Mafi to host a bloglinkapalooza, huh? It’s been great seeing the many different approaches to doing this blogging thing. I found a bunch of new interesting, funny, clever folks to follow, as well as gained some new interesting, funny, clever readers (hello and welcome! I’ll try not to suck as a blogger!). I’m not even halfway through the list yet, but I’m determined to get all the way to through to the last blog because this has been a great opportunity to see who else is out there!

On to today’s topic!

I've never been a fan of pre-writing. It never seemed as fun to be as, you know, writing writing. Besides, any discoveries that I could have made while pre-writing can just as easily be made during writing writing, and then I just have to go back and adjust the manuscript as needed.

Yeah, well, when the thing you realize is a your characters’ wants, needs, and motivations – and you’ve already written the entire novel – going back and adjusting everything from the beginning turns out to be a lot of work. A lot more than pre-writing probably would have been. (That’s not to say that there won’t be things to discover along the way even after doing pre-writing.)

So this time around, as I regain interest in a WIP I started and then stopped writing months ago, I thought that maybe I’d give some of this pre-writing business a go. Tentatively. Not like it’ll kill me or anything. Right?

I’ve found myself gravitating toward articles about plot—and as you may already know, many folks have had much to say on the subject. I lean towards the school of thought that plot comes out of character. Learning about plot structures can be helpful, but is only half the job if I don’t consider who my characters are and how what they want effects what they do.

Thusly, ergo, concordantly, vis-à-vis, for my first official voluntarily-embarked-upon-pre-writing exercise in a really long time, I decided to start by asking myself: What does your MC want? From there I could ask myself what he would do to get it and that in turn would help me discover what should be happening in my story.

Way back when I started writing this particular story (and got 20,000 words into it), had I even asked myself what my MC wants?

Apparently, I was waiting ‘til I got to the end of the manuscript to find out.

Well, when I finally got around to asking myself that question, the answer was pretty obvious. But then I had a new problem. The thing he wants is not just out of his reach, it is as out of his control as anything can be. Fate, it seems, is the only thing that would land him his want. How does a character actively pursue something that is basically like pre-destined only no one knows who is pre-destined for it until it’s like “BAM! Congrats! You’re invited to the party?” He can’t! That’s how!!


Or, I guess I can try and see if there’s anything he can do about it. Since I’m already kinda invested in this.

So I continued my questions, typing my questions and answers out as they came to mind. After “What does my character want?” cameIs there anything he can do to make that happen? Why not? So what the next best thing?” and more from there.

I think I was going a little easy on myself as an interviewer. Barbara or Oprah would have asked better questions. Wendy Williams would have been more invasive. I'll have to work on channeling them next time.

But actually, my questioning sent me on a nice little winding road. If I couldn’t think of a question to prod things along, I fell back to “Then what?” and “What’s the worse that can happen?” This exercise took me places that had very little or nothing at all to do directly with his want, but since it came out of his want (bad decisions bring about certain consequences) I figured that was okay.

Soon I started a second document and started with the same four questions, but thought of a new answer as to what the “next best thing” might be. That sent me off on a whole other adventure. Then I had to open another new document because I thought, What if he hears a rumor that there is a way to trick fate into giving him what he wants? What would the rumor say he had to do? What’s the worse thing the rumor could say he had to do? What if he goes though all that and finds out the rumor isn’t even a little bit true? What if the rumor is true?

Maybe I’ll try this out on some other wants and some other characters. Potentially I’ll have like a gazillion strands of plot and I can let their powers combine to create some kind of super awesome plot mutant with rainbow powers of engaging the reader!

And this is before I’ve entered the possibility of how the antagonist may complicate things. Suddenly I’m wandering through a garden of forking paths (bonus points for literary reference!). Or I can use a door analogy.

Okay, maybe that last reference was a little forced, but Will Ferrell is just so funny!

While I may not put everything that comes from this exercise into my WIP, it has certainly given me a lot to think about. Maybe there is something to this pre-writing stuff after all, eh?

So, pre-writing. Do you do it? Got a favorite exercise?


  1. I do it. Lots and lots of it, in fact! Pre-writing is when I discover my story's overall feel and rhythm. I build a structure. A canvas for the novel.

    Writing is when I blow life into it.

    Also, J.S.Bell wrote somewhere in his Plot and Structure book that the most original ideas were never the first to come up. "Our mind jumps to cliches" is how he put it, I think. Cliches and tropes and used path.

    Pre-writing gives you a chance to find other paths and explore them. Enjoy it! It's so much fun. :D

  2. Love the link to the Matrix that you put in your post. I like your approach to writing and truthfully, I think you have to take writing advice with a grain of salt because anyone that gives you writing advice is just doing so to tell you what they would buy. And that really is the bottom line. If all you want is readers then there are tons of places to post your stories where people will read them and they don't have to have plot. I go to this website where other gay guys write 400,000 word plus soap operas with no plot at all that have like 50,000 plus reads to them and hundreds of reviews. Do they make any money? Nope. So the bottom line is that if you want to make money and get paid to write then you have to write what the people with the money are going to buy and I think that's where the whole "conflict" and "frustration" comes with writers versus market. I've seen enough on the internet to know that there's hundreds of people out there willing to tell you what you need to write in order to make bank...but they really know? If they did, wouldn't I read about them in Forbes?

  3. Claudie - Too true about cliches and pre-writing. I've realized that the difference between my current WIP and the two manuscripts that I've completed is that those two manuscripts came from ideas that had been stewing in my brain for years. While I wasn't actively pre-writing, I was always revisiting those ideas and throwing out earlier choices for better ones. My current WIP is a new idea and therefore I need to condense the entire process that I went through at leisure for my other projects into something that doesn't take years and years. So yeah, pre-writing! I'm totally going to get that J.S. Bell book.

  4. I used to have a bunch of separate docs for things, but Scrivener seems to work well for me now that I do that pre-writing thing too.

    Dan Wells has a pretty good series about plotting (and the Matrix is his example, btw)

    Thanks for commenting on my query at Matt's blog the other day. :)

  5. Glad you liked the Matrix spoof, Michael!

    I do appreciate what you’re trying to say and thank you for your concern. But no worries! I’m not conforming to anyone else’s idea of how to do things because I think it will get me rich quicker (as a matter of fact I'm pretty sure that becoming a writer is just about the slowest get-rich scheme out there). For me, trying out different ways of approaching novel writing is all about craft and getting the most out of my own potential.

    Also, I don't think that a writer who wants to make a living as a writer has to throw out his or her integrity or dedication to the craft in order to do that. Have any of your favorite books done well, or even okay, financially?

    My spidey-sense are tangling. I think I know what my next post will be about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. It has sparked my own thoughts on the matter. This is a good dialogue to have.

  6. Awesome, Caroyln! I'm definitely going to look at that series. I don't know if I'm ready for Scrivener yet though. I thought maybe I'd try that taping-things-on-my-wall software and see how that works out. Baby steps, you know.

    You're welcome. I do really like that story idea. I'll be waiting to hear when it's available at bookstores--or maybe I should say online, at the rate bookstores are going... :(

    Wait! I don't want to end this comment on a sad note. Think of puppies! PUPPIES!!!