Points on Preparing to Write

by xaosseed

So this is a request on the hows of getting set up to write. This is where the process of working for a campaign and working for a novel diverge massively (for me) so the following is writing for books only.

I’ve done this … five times now? I think. Book one was a word count driven death march from Nigeria. There the set up included a giant piece of paper with characters, arrows, a sheet with an initial flow chart and a half dozen follow up sheets with different writing methodologies tested out – three act structure, seven point arc, all sorts of gubbins. And…. the end result was a deathly mess.

The second attempt rose like a phoenix from a sheet on a legal secretaries pad. I had a brilliant vision for a final scene and then worked back from that – lining up my ducks to get everyone where they needed to be for the finale. I numbered 28 lines on a note pad and wrote a one liner for each nominal chapter charting the progress.

This one then suffered somewhat from the pointless sprawl of trying to figure out what the hell all these people were doing and who cared and why. Here there were flowcharts and I chunked it down into about three acts based on what needed to happen to the hero to prep him for the finale. I think, looking back, there were simply too many ideas rammed in there, half of which could have been hacked out and other stuff put in place. Not sure. The process of writing that was a juddery thing where I went over and back along the time line, identifying places where things weren’t fleshed out and then patching in sections into the bare bits.

The idea behind that was to be able to keep writing because I would always know what needed to be done but the flaw was that it failed hard on the “maintaining interest” stakes as I got bored and fed up since the ‘fun’ was in figuring out the story, which had been done on the layout sheets and not in the writing which was just laborious. I’ll come back to why that was another time. If memory served that beast clocked in at north of 115k words?

This ignores the two absolute failures of writing – one the original cyberpunky thing, the other a piece of fanfic that both progressed for a chunk and then hung in space because I had no idea where they were going.

For the NaNoWriMo just completed I tried to hit the middle ground. There needed to be a sketch of a plan but if I over planned it then it was going to crash out. So I knew I was going to write something and I hashed out one idea with my guildmate but then I realised that was something I couldn’t write – it was all a bit raw and would have made me miserable. Then I had a second idea salvaging some of the set up for the first one and came up with a decent bit of villany to be going on, replete with motives for skulduggery and hidden hands to act. Neat!

Then I sat down in front of Scrivener and got to work. I deliberately held off over organising, I just laid out a timeline to make sure I’d be roughly on time over the thirty days.

I blocked in the A-thread, ten or so chapters, then the B-thread, ten or so chapters, then five chapters for a Combi thread which brought the characters from A and B together so they could figure out the plot then five chapters for the finale. That was done by putting a note card a chapter in the Scrivener index page bit and scrawling on a one liner there – repeating the successful bit from the last book on the legal pad.

That was all the prep that was done – characters turned up as the chapters were written depending on who needed to be there, groups of secondary support characters similarly, others remained sketches since they didn’t really need to be there and in some cases more need to be added in editing. The B thread ended up seeming awfully sparse, for instance, I think it will need the tension ratchetted up and a good dollop of extra antagonists added.

But from the point of view of momentum, of first drafting and after a couple of different experiments I’m going to have to chalk this one up as a strong indicator that I’m a discovery writer and I prosper through not planning too much. You know, as an IOU GM maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me.

I read a lot about structuring things – screen writing; three act lay out; various ideas about where you should be at one point and I cannot recommend anything in particular beyond soak it all up, throw it all into the mulch in your brain and draw your own conclusions.

This was pretty hard won for me – very expensive in terms of time spent on trial and error so if you can figure out a way to try out methods without having to do the heavy commitment of actually finishing out a book then that would probably be wise. On the other hand, there is no such thing as wasted writing, you learn things whatever you do and you may even reuse bits you thought useless.