Writing Excuses 9.27: Pre-Writing
Key Points: Pre-writing — outline, worldbuilding. Write from the characters’ viewpoints, a monologue, etc. to explore the character. Dan explores character in pre-writing. Brandon does plot framework and setting, ending, outline of what’s going on, solid view of world — then places characters into that world and sees how they react. Mary does outlines, plus exploratory chapters to get a sense of tone, who the characters are, whether this is interesting. Howard asks himself what is the darkest personal journey, the most dangerous situation, what is the most awesome resolution? Where can they go that they have not been before? Research is a big part of pre-writing. Keep a list of set pieces and scenes! Day-to-day pre-writing, warm-up exercises, include going for a walk, taking a shower, going back over yesterday’s work for a quick polish and review. Reading tone text during breaks. Go over the senses for the setting, the beats and plot events, pick out the part of the outline as a checklist. Look at the outline, but follow the characters. Music! YouTube video for music and visuals.
[Brandon] I’m just going to cut in here real quick and say make sure you listen all the way to the end of this episode for a special announcement.
[Brandon] This week’s episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by Dave Farland’s online writing courses. Go to www.mystorydoctor.com to find out more.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 27.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, pre-writing.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m wondering what pre-writing is.
[Brandon] Pre-writing, Howard, is all the stuff you do before you write. That doesn’t mean… I’m not talking about having your breakfast. I’m talking about all the writing sort of things you do.
[Dan] The writing related things.
[Mary] I don’t… Writing… Having breakfast can be an important part of…
[Brandon] Having breakfast… I suppose. That can be…
[Howard] When you say pre-writing… I think pre-cooking is cooking something before it gets put into the final recipe.
[Howard] But that’s not what pre-writing is?
[Brandon] Sure it is.
[Dan] It can be.
[Mary] Yeah, it can be.
[Brandon] Everything is pre-writing, Howard. This is what… No.
[Brandon] So, pre-writing for me, it generally is coming up with my outline. Coming up with my world building and all of these sorts of things as I’m preparing to write a story. However, Dan has done some really cool different sorts of pre-writing before that I’ve also been a part of, where you write from characters’ viewpoints and do a monologue or something like that, just to get your character down.
[Dan] This was valuable with John Cleaver because his voice was the most important part of the story, but I also did it again with Partials with one or two characters. Particularly in the later books, when I knew from audience response that the character had worked the first time around. I wanted to dial them in tighter. So do a monologue or do something and let that character talk to you.
[Brandon] This is actually one of the… Number one in my sort of quiver of pieces of advice for writers who are having troubles. If they’re having trouble with character and they come to me and say, “What do I do?” I say, “Try Dan’s method.” Because it just seems like a perfect idea, to do a first-person narrative with that character telling you who they are, what they’ve done, and what they’re like. You are not going to put this in your book. Let’s stress that. This is pre-writing that does not belong in the book anywhere.
[Dan] The purpose of this is to figure out what their voice is, to figure out what’s important to them. These are things you might think you know already, but once you get in there, it’s amazing how much a character will come to life when you are typing and the words are on the page and you’re starting… You have to finish their thought. So much of what we have in our heads… We think there’s so much, but when we’re forced to write it down, we realize this is just a skeleton of a character, and it’s really fleshing itself out as I just free write this random thing.
[Brandon] Now interestingly as a contrast, the least amount of pre-writing I do is on character. I come up with a plot framework and a setting in my pre-writing, and I don’t usually start a book until I have an ending and a pretty solid outline of what’s going to happen in the book, where my rising and falling tension is and all of these things, and until I have a really solid view of the world and the world building and things like this. My character I then place into that and see who they are by how they react to the world, to the other characters, to the events that are going on. I’ll usually have a list of things, they’re passionate about this, some of this background and stuff, but I don’t know who they are until I write my book.
[Mary] I’ll sometimes do something that’s kind of in between these two things. Which is that I do my outline and all of that, and then I’ll start exploratory chapters. I use that… I’m in third person, but I use that to try to get a sense of tone and who the characters are and to get a sense of whether or not the outline is going to be something that’s interesting. I’ve done that with a couple of… Like with a new project and then junked it. That’s… It’s been useful for me as a way to kind of do a little sightseeing in the world.
[Dan] This is… This is something I noticed myself doing much more in the first few books that I wrote. Because the idea of the exploratory chapter… The first few chapters I write in a book tend to get thrown away anyway. So I eventually just decided I’m going to do this on purpose. I know these are not going to get used in the final. So what do I want to make sure I’m exploring?
[Mary] My novel Stagecraft which is out in the fall of 2015, my exploratory chapters were set in the 1920s… 1930s, actually. The novel itself is now in 1907, because I got into it, and I was like, “This is just wrong for what I want this book to be doing.”
[Howard] Oh, interesting.
[Brandon] So, Howard, we’re assuming you actually do this without knowing what it’s called.
[Howard] Oh, yeah. There are things that… Lately, when I am trying to… When I have not yet begun a Schlock Mercenary book, I’m pre-writing the book, I’ll ask myself what’s the… What is the darkest personal journey? What is the most dangerous situation? And what is the most awesome resolution sort of moment that I can think of right now? That’s not this needs to be bigger and badder than the last book was. Then I ask myself is there a situation that is different that I can put them into? They’re not all oh, we take a job and we kill the bad guys. There are different kinds of jobs. There are books that are not about the job at all. So, yeah, I make those decisions… Usually, lately, I make those decisions before I start drawing anything. But for many, many, many of the Schlock Mercenary books, the pre-writing process is the first week of scripts and you get to read those because it would just be luxurious to be able to throw them away.
[Dan] Let me ask you, Howard, how much pre-… Not writing, pre-design work do you do on characters visually? If you’re going to introduce a new character, how many drafts of their silhouette and so on get thrown away?
[Howard] Boy. Not nearly enough. I’ve gotten… As evidenced by the fact that the facial structures and height and all those things change. I really am a hack.
[Howard] I freely admit that. The current story that’s online… Lieut. Haley Sorlie is the new character that I wanted to introduce. She’s not a member of the Toughs, but I wanted somebody who was very tall and had a long face and had engineering knowledge. Lots and lots and lots of engineering knowledge, and was in a situation she didn’t like. I actually drew a page full of sketches of her before I hit upon what I liked. That’s unusual for me.
[Brandon] Mary, would you count your research as part of your pre-writing?
[Mary] Yes. That was one of the things that I would say is that… My research is very definitely part of the pre-writing. That’s true whether I’m doing… Like even when I’m doing science fiction or secondary world, any of the research that I do that is informing the fiction is all part of the pre-writing. For me, that often starts(well, almost always starts way before I get to the outlining phase or who the characters are. I’m just trying to figure out what the world is and how I’m going to tweak it. The other thing that I do as part of my pre-writing sometimes, as I’m doing the research, I will keep a list of cool set pieces and scenes that when I get around to making my actual outline, I can go and… Like, “Oh, there was that one cool thing.” I don’t use them all.
[Brandon] Right. But you’ve got that… Again, arrows in the quiver so to speak.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop and talk a bit about David Farland and his online writing courses. Now Dave is the teacher that Dan and I both took in college. David Farland also publishes under Dave Wolverton. That made a big difference in our writing careers. Wouldn’t you agree, Dan?
[Dan] Absolutely. He was a big mentor for both of us when we were getting started.
[Howard] He’s been a big mentor for a lot of people. I remember that awards dinner where you asked stand up if you learned something from Dave Farland, Dave Wolverton, and the whole audience stood and we realized just how broad his effect had been.
[Brandon] Right. I would say that his class I took at BYU was the single most important class for my writing career all through my undergraduate and graduate degree programs. He is a fantastic teacher, he knows a lot about both the craft and the publishing business. He is a very, very nice guy. You will enjoy taking his classes. He started up a new online writing course. Here’s what he says about it. “Each class provides instructional videos, followed by writing assignments where Dave gives you personal feedback. In addition, you’ll take part in all my meetings, so you can ask Dave any questions you want.” They’re 25% off right now. He’s running a sale on them. You can find them at mystorydoctor.com. I’ll make an additional note that I do know Dave runs in person writing workshops as well. Any of these things would be well worth your time and money to get a personal mentor for your writing. So, once again, go to www.mystorydoctor.com. He also has a free writing book there for you to pick up.
[Brandon] All right. So. Another form of pre-writing is the day-by-day pre-writing you do before you get into your project for that day, whether it be the scene of a story you’re going to write or the chapter you’re writing for a novel or whatever it is. The strips that you’re going to…
[Howard] These are the warm-up exercises before you go out on a run?
[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah, exactly. What sort of things do we do as writers right before we start our daily writing?
[Mary] One thing that I’ve found that’s incredibly helpful, and I’ve talked about this before, is actually going for a walk. I go for a walk knowing that what I’m going to do when I arrived at wherever it is I am going, whether it’s back at the apartment or at the coffee shop, is that I am going to be writing this particular scene. I essentially daydream it or ask questions to myself. That helps me so that when I get into a space, really all I have to do is kind of download it onto the page.
[Brandon] Right. I started moving my going to the gymness, gym times, to morning, as much as I hate getting up, for that very reason. This is also kind of a wacky one, it puts the shower then as well. I am one of these shower [garbled] type of people. If I’m standing there in the shower thinking about my story, it’s one of those moments that helps me prepare. So those are both things that really help.
[Dan] I will usually start my writing day, before writing new stuff, I will go back over everything I wrote yesterday and do just kind of a quick polish pass on it, very brief, let’s find the sentences that didn’t work or let’s see whatever. What that means is that by the time I get to the end of that, I’m up to speed. I’m ready to go and write the next section in the same flow as I had the day before.
[Howard] Sometimes I am… My pre-writing is I need to scan a week of scripts and send them off to the colorist. In the process of scanning them, I need to scan them, I need to make notes for Travis about the colors and the settings and answer… Try and answer questions before he needs to ask them. In doing that, I’ve filled my brain with this story. It’s then a lot easier to get started writing the next bit.
[Mary] Now, I do one thing that is a little bit odd. Because I’m writing historical stuff most of the time, one of the things that I’ll do on my breaks which I count as pre-writing also, is that I usually have a tone text that I’m… So I… Like with the Glamorous Histories, I’m taking… Jumping off of Jane Austen. So on my breaks, I will read Jane Austen. It’s a book that I know so it doesn’t inhabit… Like I don’t get into the… I don’t start thinking “What’s going to happen to so-and-so?” I know. “Are Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth ever going to get together?” I don’t worry about that. But I… It gives me little turns of phrases that are useful. It helps remind me of what that period was like. Sometimes I’ll do that with… I’ll read historical things. Not like… But research books. I’ll read research books as part of what I’m about to write. I don’t read them going into it like I need to look for how she describes this appointment. But as I’m reading, I’ll spot a line… It’s like, “Oh, look at that [expression?].”
[Howard] I actually do something similar for the tie-in fiction that I do for Privateer Press.
[Brandon] Yeah, I did this for Wheel of Time.
[Howard] Huge body. Huge body of Privateer Press work, much of which I’m reading for reference. But sometimes I find that just sitting down and reading third person limited mass-market style adventure fiction in this setting ensures that what I am writing fits the tone because my stuff is going to be sitting right alongside this other material. That’s what it needs to sound like.
[Brandon] Something else I do that’s kind of different is when I sit down to start writing, I will go over in my head the senses. Like what does it sound like here? What does it feel like? What’s the temperature? What does it look like? What does it smell like? I’ll go through all of those and I’ll write that at the top of my chapter. Then at the bottom of my chapter, in just bullet points, I’ll write the emotional beats and plot events that need to occur in this chapter. So I’ve sandwiched between those, kind of my setting and my plot, and I launch into it then.
[Mary] I do that similar, which is that I have… I grabbed from the outline and I put that actually in… On the page that I’m going to be writing on. As I hit each plot point, I delete it from the text that is there. So that way I know that I have hit them all. If I decide that I’m not going to use it, I just go ahead and delete it right then.
[Howard] That’s what I’ve started doing with my 10-year-old boy describes his favorite movie to you outlining technique is that the story I am writing is right on that same page and as I hit those points, I delete them. So I’m looking ahead at the outline and often looking… Five or six beats ahead, I will see something and realize, “Oh. That’s right, I need to foreshadow that,” because the 10-year-old boy didn’t know to tell us that that needed to be foreshadowed, but I am now writing like a grown-up.
[Dan] My writing process is very different than this. A little looser than these particular methods. I have a chapter-by-chapter outline, usually. That’s one or two sentences saying this is what’s happening here and this is what’s happening next. I’ll look at that to give myself a sense of where I’m going, but I need to have that page blank because I need to have the freedom to follow these characters, and if they do something more interesting than I’ve outlined, I don’t want to tie myself down.
[Brandon] You are more of a discovery writer then we are. Which… That makes perfect sense.
[Howard] Oh, I mash the hard return key two dozen times before I start writing, so that I can’t see that outline stuff while I am writing. But I can roll ahead and refer to it if I feel like I need to.
[Mary] It’s just like four or five lines down for me.
[Dan] One thing that Mary said was about the idea of a tone text. I do something very similar with music. In fact, with the first John Cleaver book, I had a specific YouTube video for both the music and the visuals that I watched… I wrote this book in Brandon’s basement at the time. I would show up, I would watch that video to put myself in the mindset I wanted to be in, and then write. I still, to this day, will usually pick one or sometimes two songs per book and say… Listen to it and then write.
[Brandon] That room now holds all my magic cards.
[Brandon] That you wrote in.
[Dan] This is way back in the old condo.
[Brandon] Oh, that.
[Dan] Who knows what that room holds now?
[Brandon] Well, we are out of time. I actually have our writing prompt. This is something I’ve been planning to do for years, and never found a place for it in a story. So maybe you’ll be able to use it and then maybe someday I’ll write it and you can use it. I want to write a story that has sentient smells.
[Mary] Oh, Brandon.
[Brandon] You laugh, but the scents are alive. They are a race of beings that are basically sentient smells.
[Howard] So not just sentient smells, but sapient?
[Brandon] Yes, sapient. They are a race of smells.
[Dan] Nice. Okay.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go…
[Brandon] All right. Special announcement time. We have finally put together the first Writing Excuses anthology, called Shadows Beneath. You might recall a few years ago where we each brainstormed on air a story that we were going to write. Well, it takes some time to actually do these things, but we each finally wrote our stories. We have put them together in a nice hardback edition as well as an e-book that you can get right now on my website. It’s for sale worldwide on your favorite e-book retailer. We’re going to be doing limited edition numbered copies. If you buy the hardcover, you get the e-book for free. This has all four of our brand-new stories. What’s really cool about this is when we built this collection, we put in the transcripts of our original brainstorming episodes. We also put in our first drafts as well as plenty of other really exciting things. Like for instance, I put in my writing group critique notes. Each of the stories has a nice new illustration at the beginning, and even more awesome, last year at the Writing Excuses retreat, we each read each other’s stories, and we did a critique on air. Next week, we’re going to be critiquing my story called Sixth of the Dusk. It takes place in the Cosmere, my shared universe. So you can do if you want to pick up a copy of Shadows Beneath, you can read the first draft of the story. You can listen to the critique sessions for these stories. Then you can read the finished draft. You can see what we did. In fact, we’ve included a special edition of each story in the anthology that shows a cross out through every line that we’ve changed from the first draft to the last draft as well as bolding everything that we added. So you can compare the documents, listen as we do our critique sessions. Hopefully will be able to give you just an unprecedented look behind the scenes at creating a story. I think you’ll love the stories. They’re fantastic, some of the best writing that we’ve done. The Writing Excuses anthology, Shadows Beneath, available now. Thank you very much.