I mentioned in my New Year post that 2018 is going to be dedicated to writing. I’m refocusing on the words.
I thought it might be interesting to post about how I actually do that. What my “process” is, so to speak. Fair warning: this is going to be a two-parter. This is mainly because as I wrote, it got really, really long! So you’ll get a bit here and you’ll get a bit next week too 🙂
Back before I got into publishing, before I’d even taken one course about writing, I was a dyed-in-the-wool pantser. I came up with an idea for a character or a situation and I’d just sit down and start writing, without any idea where I was going.
This is a perfectly valid way to write. Lots of people do it successfully this way. For me, what I found is that it was really inefficient. I spent a lot of time meandering around, not really sure where I was going. I strongly resisted any suggestion I do anything like outlining, because the story was in charge, not me. I had to go where the story took me.
As I connected with other writers and also worked through my graduate program at Seton Hill, I realized what my problem was and it was inherent in the way I was writing.
My husband is Dutch. When his mom came over to the US to visit us the first time, one of the things she really wanted to do was go to a grocery store.
I know. That seems weird. But in the Netherlands, grocery stores are small, neighborhood businesses. They don’t have sprawling jungles of produce and glaciers of frozen foods.
So she wanted to see a grocery store here in the US. We obliged, of course. We let her loose in a Kroger (I think… maybe it was Publix) and I went around, gathering what I needed from various sections. A little while later, I got to the dairy section and I found my soon-to-be mom-in-law standing in front of a dairy case. This older woman, just frozen there, staring at the butter.
You know… that wall of butter that is generally four feet wide and six feet tall. She was just standing there, looking a bit dumbfounded. I went up to her and asked her if she was okay. She turned to me, her eyebrows furrowed.
“Why do you need so many different kinds of butter?”
Too Much Butter
I realized that, in having literally no path for my writing, I had way too much butter to choose from. There was too much I could do. Too many paths I could take. And having that much choice, having to make that many decisions (this, but not that; those, but not these) froze me up more than it freed me.
I had so many places I could go, I had no idea where I should go.
Several years ago, I started playing with other ways to write, other processes. I tried out different methods that other people use. Some are pretty well-know, like the Snowflake Method. Others are just systems that writers have devised for themselves. I’m still exploring, but I feel like I’ve found a method that works for me. Not only does it keep me focused on where I need to go for the story, but it also greatly speeds up my actual writing, so I get things done much more quickly. (When I, yknow, actually focus on my writing.)
Writing Like a Hybrid
To give credit where it’s due, I completely ganked this method from Sterling & Stone, which is a trio of writers who not only publish books, but also produce a great podcast on self-publishing that I recommend to anyone interested in that avenue (among many other podcasts).
The method involves creating “beats” for the story as a method of pre-writing. It’s not outlining, so much as it’s note-taking for the story.
How It Works for Me
First, before I do anything else, I make character sketches. For each major character, I fill out a worksheet which details what the character looks like, their background, etc. I don’t necessarily know all the things about them at this point. I leave a lot of stuff blank to be filled in later, as I write. But I get the major stuff down now, early.
Once I’ve got the sheet filled out, then I write a page or so about the character in relation to the story. What is their goal in the story? How do they change? What is their overall attitude to what is happening? How do they feel about the other characters? How do they connect?
I don’t get into details about the story itself here, just the general implications on and attitudes of the character I’m working on. I’ll also note down how the character’s background might affect their reactions to the general plot or other characters. For example, if a character had an abusive girlfriend, maybe that character is wary of women, in general, and so holds the main character at arm’s length and doesn’t trust her.
I do this worksheet and write-up for all the major characters. For minor characters, I will do a more sparse version of the worksheet and maybe write a few lines about who they are within the story and why they are in the story. (I find it’s important for supporting characters to be in the story for their own reasons, rather than my needing them in the story.)
That done, I’ll do something similar for any major settings. I’ll write a few paragraphs with the description of the place, any general significance, and then significance to soecific characters and/or plot.
These worksheets and write-ups are important to do ahead of time for a couple reasons. First, it allows me not to have to worry about figuring out what someone or something looks like when I’m in the flow of writing. I’ve already worked out how they look.
Second, it brings me closer to the characters (and the settings) before I’m actually writing. I get to learn about them as separate entities from the story itself, which, I think, helps make them more realistic. I don’t want characters who didn’t exist before the story and only exist now because of the story. If I connect with the before-story characters, then I will convey them much more richly within the story itself.
Okay! That might seem like a lot of pre-writing, and it is! But it’s not the main pre-writing. This was the pre-pre-writing. But don’t be intimidated. It seems like a lot of work on the front end and putting off the fun of the writing itself. But what I’ve found is that when I do this (and the beats, which I’ll talk about next week), the writing is much easier and goes faster. Honestly, the writing comes 3x+ quicker if I do this stuff first.
And even besides those good outcomes, I’ve also found that because I don’t have to focus on creating all these details when I’m writing, my first draft comes out much more polished. This is because I’m able to focus on the writing itself — the scenes, the plots — rather than the details of the characters or deciding what a place looks like. It cuts down on the decision fatigue happening during the actual creation process.
Next week, I’ll talk a lot more about writing the actual beats: how and why.
What do you think of the pre-pre- writing so far? Do you do something similar? Entirely different?
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