Pre-writing

About a month ago, I put up a post asking people to frequently ask their questions for the FAQ page of my new website, and Alexa brought up a lot of great topics that I decided to do posts on instead of FAQs, so that I could talk about them at length because you know I love to do that. I decided to start with pre-writing, because I do a lot of it, and it’s the easiest topic to get my head around enough to write a helpful post on a Friday, especially since I have my AUT notebook on me today.

If I’m honest, pre-writing is my favorite part of the writing process (this probably explains how exhausted and low-energy I am when it comes to the end of it, a.k.a. revisions). For every book I have a dedicated notebook, usually just a college-ruled spiral-bound cheapie from Target or Office Depot or whatever. I like to get ones with bright covers, so I can tell them apart; the AUT notebook is red, the MB one is purple, the GR one is blue, and so on. SM doesn’t have a notebook yet–I’ve been doing a lot of my pre-writing for that book on the computer for some reason.

This is not to say that programs like Scrivener or a good old fashioned Word document won’t work for pre-writing, because of course to each his or her own. I’ve tried Scrivener and am not enamored, although maybe I could be with more practice, and I have plenty of pre-writing for all my books in Word docs. But the notebook is crucial because it’s portable and it’s tactile. I would never write a book long hand (laziness), but I get way more satisfaction making notes with a pen than typing them out real quick on a computer (although I’ll do anything in a pinch; Google Docs and the Drafts folder of my Gmail are routinely filled with ideas and lines and links to Wikipedia pages for research).

There are many different types of pre-writing that I do. They include:

  • Character manifestos
  • Dramatis personae
  • Soundtrack
  • Map (if necessary, although I always think it’s good to have a map of the area your characters will be operating in, so that you can keep geography straight)
  • Research (for example, my GR notebook is full of information about the real-life towns my fake town is based on)
  • Any other notes. For me, this usually includes a long stream of ideas about where the novel could go that basically read as I’m thinking them: “Maybe Neily could secretly be a mermaid! No, that’s probably not going to work, but if he’s got an aversion to kryptonite (change name?) then it makes it impossible for him to go to school for three days while Audrey”*…etc., etc.  I also apparently wrote impassioned rebuttles to some of my thesis adviser’s criticism, peppered with rambling philosophical arguments (well I was in grad school at the time). There’s a whole section on Sartre’s “good faith” v. “bad faith” that I’ll try to remember to reproduce for you someday when the book comes out (it’s spoilery)–EL OH EL I’m a loser.

Of course, you don’t really need all these things, and I don’t have all of them for every book. The most important thing for me to have is the dramatis personae (it’s pretend-like-you’re-Shakespeare Friday, didn’t you know?), which combined with the synopsis makes up the treatment for the novel. The dramatis personae is where I dump all of my notes regarding physical appearance of each of the characters, full name, personality, relationships with other characters (from an objective perspective–the character manifesto is for the character’s thoughts about themselves and their lives and their relationships with others, as well as the other characters themselves), etc. I want to keep track of their age, their year in school, their family structure, all that stuff.

The synopsis–well, you could write a whole blog post on the synopsis (and people have), probably a series of blog posts. I just try to put down in a completely straightforward way what happens in the book. My “treatments” (always Word docs) also usually have a catch-all brainstorming section, when I want to accomplish things but don’t really know where to put them. “Heroin lollipops” was in the AUT brainstorming section for a long time, probably too long, considering they never made it into any version of the manuscript. I just thought it was an interesting idea, but I replaced it with another, much better “something concealed in something else” device.

Even though pre-writing seems like the beginning of the process, it’s something I’m always doing. I try to get very prepared to write a novel beforehand, but there’s always new things to take note of and the brainstorming process is ongoing. Because of that, I always carry a notebook and a pen with me. In a pinch, I’ll write a text message and then save it to draft when I get home, or use the notebook feature of my iPod Touch to make a reminder, but the best is really to have a notebook on me at all times. For a long while I also carried notecards around in a plastic bag, which was great, too. Do it any way you please.

As an aside, I was going through my AUT notebook and I found something I’d totally forgotten about that I thought might be interesting. As regular blog readers probably know, AUT is about two teens who team up to solve their friend’s murder. The friend is named Carly, and it’s not a spoiler to say that Carly is dead because that’s the entire premise of the book. Thus, it is also not a spoiler to say that Carly has a headstone, and that headstone has a quotation engraved on it. If you’d asked me this morning if that was always the quotation on headstone, I would’ve said yes, because I’d completely forgotten that the headstone once had another quotation on it–although probably not in any actual manuscript version. I’m married to the quotation on the headstone now, and perhaps this one is way too heavy-handed, but I’m sorry I couldn’t use it because it’s really beautiful. It’s from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “A Musical Instrument”:

The true gods sigh for the cost and pain–
For the reed which grows nevermore again
As a reed with the reeds in the river.

Isn’t that just the best? Sigh.

*Not an actual excerpt. Obviously.

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One Response

  1. Well glad to have helped and this was a really interesting post. I shall definitely be borrowing some of your ideas. If I could just find a way to take notes while swimming, all my best ideas seem to happen in the water – especially dialogue!

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