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On Prewriting: A Schedule

This month I’ve been talking about NaNoWriMo, and how I bullied my dad and sister into writing their first novels, and my own glorious experience writing Gods Tomorrow a couple years back. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of writing a novel.

Well…actually, that’s not true. There’s definitely another thrill that matches it:

Holding a printed copy of your finished book in your hands.

In my case, right this moment, that means a glossy trade paperback printed through Amazon’s CreateSpace, with gorgeous cover art by some of my incredible friends (chief among them, of course, Julie V. Photography). That’s fun.

That’s a lot of fun. And, of course,  holding the same book with a Random House logo on the bottom of the spine would have a magic all its own. Fundamentally, though, it’s not too different from holding a copy you printed off on the printer at work after everyone else had left for the day, hole-punched and clipped in a three-ring binder.

From Humble Acorns….

There’s something incredible about holding a finished book in your hands, and the most remarkable thing about it is remembering a time when that book didn’t exist at all. When it was just a scene or two of draft, when it was barely an outline, when it was a “What if…” conversation carried out just to fill the long hours of a road trip.

Sometimes the steps in between feel tedious. Sometimes the reward seems to small for the unbelievable effort required to just keep putting words on the page. Every writer gets there from time to time — I certainly have — but the fear is unfounded. Finishing a book is always worth it.

And, in my experience anyway, finishing a book is done before the book is even started. It’s such a big task to get a book written, that most writers have to get a proper foundation in place before they get started, or they’re doomed from the beginning.

That’s how I’ve approached NaNoWriMo every year: with a foundation. That’s also how my dad and sister did theirs, by my insistence. I gave them homework, made them spend October working their butts off just to get ready to spend November working their butts off.

They weren’t always thrilled to do it…but both of them conquered NaNoWriMo on their first try out the gates. Both of them wrote first novels, and both of them have gone on to write more since.

The Curriculum

So what goes into that foundation? Over the last few years, I’ve developed a pretty solid curriculum of prewriting. It builds on itself, and guides a writer (me, more often than not) through all the critical questions that need to be asked before a story can be formed.

If you don’t do prewriting, you’ll end up facing those questions anyway. The difference is whether you find yourself unexpectedly stumped with the question, completely unable to proceed, while you’re in the middle of writing a scene and 1,000 words short of your target for the day…or if you face the question with all your attention during a dedicated bit of time three weeks before you even have a daily word count target.

Take my word for it: the latter way is easier.

So these are the critical pieces of my curriculum:

  • Character
  • Setting
  • Plot

Maybe that sounds too simple and straightforward, but those are the pieces you need to have figured out before you start writing the book. Now, “figured out” in this context doesn’t mean “perfected,” or even “nailed down.” It just means you have some idea of the shape of them.

More importantly, you need to know how they’re going to work within your story. What will each of the pieces do, and when, and where? For that, I’ve got specific assignments.

  • A mock Table of Contents makes you think through a possible order and progression for your story.
  • A handful of character descriptions makes you start thinking through the personalities involved, how they’ll interact, and how they’ll be affected by the story events.
  • A Conflict Resolution Cycle worksheet gets you thinking in terms of actually creating story (instead of just imagining it), by forcing you to consider the building blocks of scenes.
  • A short synopsis helps you focus your scenes and story into a single idea, to find the thrust of your plot, so you’ll be able to keep all your scenes pointing in the right direction.
  • And, last but not least, a long synopsis (or scene list, or detailed outline) gives you an opportunity to build your whole story in stepping stones, figuring out where you narrative will go, and creating anchors for you to build chapters on once November starts.

Your Prewriting Assignments

Honestly…it’s a lot of work. It really is. But as Courtney can attest, it makes November a lot easier. Knowing where you’re headed makes it a lot easier to get there.

In case you’re already convinced and you feel like getting started, I’ll provide more detailed descriptions of my NaNoWriMo prewriting assignments tomorrow. Some of them already have whole articles dedicated to them in the distant recesses of my almost-one-year-old-archive, and all the others will probably be getting articles over the course of the next month.

In the meantime, start thinking about your story idea, because today is the first of October. That means your novel starts one month from today.

Next month, you’re going to write a novel.

One Response to “On Prewriting: A Schedule”

  1. […] and neither of them had ever had the benefit of writing courses, so I decided to try and capture the essence of prewriting in a couple detailed assignments for […]