Skip to content

Dragons, and Something to Blow Your Nose On


Author with Penchants

Greetings, fellow writerly one! I’m Courtney Cantrell. You might know me from the column I used to write here at Unstressed Syllables, What I Learned About Writing This Week. Or you might have followed me over here from my own site, Court Can Write.

In either case, you already know that I’m a writer. You might even know that I’m the author of five published novels. Perhaps you’ve even followed me long enough to know that I have penchants, a bangerang switch, and vorpal unicorn morphing powers.

And if you’re a new reader, at least you now know a few things about me already. ; )

They’re Taking the Hobbit to Erebor

For the next few weeks, possibly months, I’ll be telling you about a thing called “Prewriting.” As for the details on what it is, why it’s great, and how you can beat it into submission and make it your slave, those are all subjects we’ll cover in later posts. For now, I’d like to share with you some of my experiences with it.

Or without it, rather.

Once upon a time, I didn’t do any prep at all before diving into writing a new story. I’d sit down, open up my notebook (either a paper one or a computerish one), and just start scribbling (or typing, as it were). The words would flow and the sweat would fly. Brilliance poured forth. Epiphanies and revelations abounded. And after about 12,000 words, the entire thing would grind to a clanking, heart-breaking halt. Cue weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I don’t let that happen anymore.

To date, I’ve completed ten novels in five genres. Of those ten, five are published. Of those five, two have had the benefit of prewriting. Comparing these two to the other three, I can say without a doubt that just finishing the darn novel is way easier and faster when I do the prewriting.

I don’t get stuck. The story doesn’t stall out. I always know what my characters need to say or do. Whatever plot point I need next, it’s there. So-called “writer’s block” is a thing of the distant past.

Have you read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit? Or seen either the 1977 cartoon or the 2012 live-action film? Brief plot descrip: Bilbo the hobbit and a band of dwarves go on a quest to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, intending to recover stolen treasure from the dragon Smaug. Key point: They have a map that shows them how to get to Erebor and how to get in.

Without the map, Bilbo and the dwarves would’ve ended up only so much short-legged barbeque on Smaug’s fiery doorstep.

Writing a novel without pre-writing is like heading to a showdown with Smaug without a map. You’re gonna end up flame-broiled.

Packing Your Pocket-Handkerchief

When Bilbo bolts out of his hobbit hole hellbent on catching up with the dwarves, he forgets his pocket-handkerchief. The dwarves have their map and their dreams and their vengeful determination. Bilbo has his enthusiasm and little else — not even the comfort and practicality of a pocket-handkerchief. He throws himself into his adventure and has to rely on fate, luck, and the generosity of others to provide him with the little things he needs along the way.

Writing a novel is your adventure.
Finishing your novel is your dragon.
Pre-writing is your map.

I’d like for this series of articles on pre-writing to be your pocket-handkerchief.

So get your reading caps on, folks. Throw yourself into the adventure of writing your novel, by all means. But don’t end up fried and sizzling on the threshold of finishing your story. Take along your map so the dragon won’t get you. And if you’ll come back next week, I’ll make sure you even tuck away your pocket-handkerchief.

Courtney Cantrell is Head of the School of Writing for the Consortium and author of the epic fantasy Rethana’s Surrender. Every Monday she shares an article about storytelling technique.

Find out more about Courtney Cantrell at her author website.

2 Responses to “Dragons, and Something to Blow Your Nose On”

  1. Trish Pogue says:

    Hi, Courtney. Long time listener, first time caller.

    This is a much needed topic. I was recently inspired to write a young adult story . I have a general idea but need to develop it. I hope that this article will help me out.

    Specifically, I would like to know about character development. This is my first book and I’m having trouble writing a compelling story with the characters I have. How do I make them more interesting?

    Look forward to your advice. Thanks.

    • Hi Trish! Thanks for visiting and commenting! : )

      We will definitely be getting into character development as part of Prewriting/Storytelling. But that particular article is a few weeks out.

      In the meantime, here are a few points on how to make your characters more interesting:

      –Give them obstacles. Your main character should encounter lots of them in her/his quest to reach his goal. (Most of them should come from the antagonist.) There’s nothing like facing adversity to bring out someone’s most interesting personality traits.

      –Give them quirks. Paradoxes within their personalities. She loves cars but hates driving. His apartment is a wreck, but all of his books are alphabetized. She has a great sense of humor but rarely smiles because a front tooth is crooked. He works a repetitive desk job and goes home at night to paint elaborate murals.

      –Think about the real people in your life: What makes them interesting to you? Write down those traits and see if character inspiration strikes.

      I hope some of this helps. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more! : )