On Pre-writing

I view the act of crafting a novel as progressing through four major phases prior to publication: pre-writing, writing, revising, and submitting. Each phase is its own peculiar journey, filled with joy, frustration, and not a small amount of head-to-desk percussion.

My latest project has just transitioned from pre-writing to writing. That is to say, the amount of planning, charting and development has concluded (for the largest part), and I have begun to put words down to screen. I feel that the moment of typing the first sentence can feel as momentous as typing the last; the threshold from pre-writing is no less exhilarating than finishing a first draft.

My pre-writing method is in continual evolution, as I learn more tricks and tips from professionals and fellow writers. However, I would like to share the steps I went through to prepare for my latest project, the working title of which is The Curse Merchant.

1. I began by creating a simple sentence, “This story is about…”  It’s just a single sentence that sums up the goal, the motivation, and the conflict. That sentence usually follows the following scheme:

Hero wants to (goal) because (motivation), however (obstacle).

Without the goal, motivation, and conflict/obstacle, there is no story. This is true for both short stories and long format fiction.

2. I have a plot outline worksheet that walks me through your basic 3-Act plot structure, from establishing the Status Quo in Act 1 leading into the inciting event, to the Trials of Act 2 and the complications that arise leading to the Dark Moment, and ultimately the Climax and Resolution of Act 3. I just fill in the blanks, and once that is done I know exactly what will happen in the story, and most importantly, how it ends.

3. I then make a list of individual scenes (which typically become individual chapters) according to this outline, wherein I fill in slightly more detail, add in character names, and become more specific with subplots, etc. This step doubles the information in my outline, gives me a skeleton for my story, and allows me to gauge whether my Acts 1, 2, & 3 are spacing out appropriately.

4. From the scene descriptions, I begin the nuts-and-bolts work of filling in my scene worksheets, spreadsheets in Excel which outline the concrete details of each scene. They include the time and weather, the miniature conflict within each scene (every scene should have its own mini-plot arc), and how the scene serves the character and the story as a whole. This is a particularly grueling process!

5. Once I have all of my scenes dissected and arrayed, I work on characters. I have another Excel spreadsheet that I use for a character template, allowing me to detail the particulars of voicing, personal history, wardrobe, appearance, and most importantly the psychology and journey of the character. I create a worksheet for every major character. I might include minor characters if I feel it’s important, or if that character may become important in a later book.

6. An additional step which I may add in the future is to create setting worksheets, including photographs of real-world inspirations for actual scene locations. I benefit from this, as I have set The Curse Merchant in Baltimore, where I work. I intend to make a field trip day to site-locate various settings within the actual story, towards providing realistic and concrete details for my chapters.

And that’s basically it. From this point, I have to cram this information into my noggin, and allow it to reduce to a thick sauce before I begin to spoon it over the page.

Not every writer goes through such an analytical planning process; many writers prefer a more organic approach wherein they begin to type and see where the words lead them. I have no problem with that, as long as it produces results. Not every writer is wired the same, and thus their pre-writing process (or lack thereof) must be equally organic.