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The Benefits of Prewriting

frenchheadshot2In last week’s intro post, I posited that not prewriting your novel is like not taking a map on a quest (which happens to end with facing down a fire-breathing dragon). Today we’re going to take a look at that metaphorical map and figure out just what it really is.


Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware. I’m not selling you anything, but I still want you to buy. But before you purchase what I ain’t sellin’, you need to know what I believe to be the only “rule” for writing a novel:

Do what you must to finish the darn thing.

That’s it, y’all. That’s the only rule. Remember it and keep it sacred, and you, too, shall find rest in that incomparable land known as I Finally Finished My Book and It Is Good.

Okay, Then Why Prewriting?


Let’s get back to Bilbo and the thirteen dwarves for a moment. So they’re on this epic quest to slay the dragon and recover the treasure, right? And they know that in order to accomplish this, they have to find a way to sneak up on Smaug. They are, after all, a company rather miniscule in number when it comes to dragon-slaying. A frontal assault on the Lonely Mountain would result only in a grumpy dragon and a collection of charcoal: thirteen medium-sized and one small.

Instead, Bilbo & Co. rely on clues they find on their handy map, clues that show the way to a convenient little back door by which “burrahobbit”* Bilbo can enter the dragon’s lair and have a sneaky, revelatory palaver with Smaug. Even more conveniently, the back door provides a safe hidey hole for the company when Smaug gets a burr(ahobbit) up his butt and blasts that side of the mountain to smithereens.

The quest of completing your novel is like Bilbo & Co.’s quest to reach the mountain, confront and slay the dragon, and claim their treasure and their home.

Prewriting is the back door that lets you sneak into the last stages of novel-writing, past all of the junk in your subconscious that would stop you from completing your quest.

And by “junk in your subconscious,” I mean:

  • the can’ts (I can’t do this.)
  • the stucks (I just don’t know what’s supposed to happen next.)
  • the what-ifs (What if this book is utter crap?)
  • the why-mes (Nobody understands how hard this is.)
  • the no-times (I really don’t have time for this anyway.)
  • the should-nots (I’m being selfish for spending so much time on this book.)

If you’ve written a book or tried to write a book or thought about writing a book, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve heard those nassssty little voices before. They are great at destroying motivation, and they’re particularly good at killing your joy in noveling.

Like I said above, you can launch a frontal assault on your noveling dragon, armed only with your Shortsword of Just Finish the Darn Thing. But if you draw up your Map of Prewriting before you start your quest, you’re far more likely to arrive at the end of your novel, unseen and dragon-defeating. Your Map of Prewriting works the following magic:

  • When you think, “I can’t do this,” your Prewriting says, You’ve already done the hardest part. Everything you need for this story? It’s all lined up and ready. All you have to do is write it out.
  • When you think, “I’m stuck,” your Prewriting says, Look! Right here is what you said should happen next!
  • When you think, “What if this book is crap?” your Prewriting says, Every first draft is crap. That’s a given. But you’ve got the bones of this story aligned in a great structure already. Worry about putting flesh on it later. 
  • When you think, “Nobody understands how hard this is,” your Prewriting says, You don’t need them to understand. All you need is to look at how much hard work you’ve already done, rejoice and revel in it, and use it as fuel for your fire.
  • When you think, “I don’t have time for this,” your Prewriting says, What a crock. Dude, you’ve already put a lot time into this. You owe it to yourself to finish this.
  • When you think, “I’m being selfish, I shouldn’t be doing this,” your Prewriting says, Have some respect for yourself, your craft, and your story. Think of the readers you’re depriving by not giving them what they want: a good story. That is selfish: putting together a prewriting package and then keeping it all to yourself, never sharing it with anybody. Now sit your butt in the chair and write the darn thing.

Why prewriting? The answer is mental, emotional, and practical. By prewriting, you’re doing your future authorial self a favor by providing weapons for battling the mental dragons. You’re giving yourself practical solutions to the inevitable writing problems you’ll be facing.


What’s Prewriting, Precious? Eh? What’s Prewriting?

Okay, now we’re getting down to the what of it all. When I say “prewriting,” I’m talking about the following writing exercises you do before you step out onto the path of novel-writing:

  • Working Title
    • Name it and claim it.
  • Story Question
    • Ultimately, will Protagonist overcome his obstacles and get what he wants or not?
  • Short Synopsis
    • whos, whats, and wheres
    • maybe a why or two
  • Mock Turtle Table of Contents
    • Give each chapter a pretend title.
  • Character List
    • Protagonist
    • Antagonist
    • Supporting Characters
  • Conflict Resolution Cycle
    • Protagonist (in more detail)
    • the Big Event
    • the Conflict
    • the Obstacles
    • the Climax
    • the Resolution
  • The Story
    • evaluating what you’ve put together
  • Bonus Round: Scene List
    • scenes and “sequels”

I know. It looks exhausting.

But who ever said preparing for an epic quest wasn’t gonna take a little sweat, a little blood, and possibly other bodily fluids that I’m not going to mention here?

Seriously, though: Yes, prewriting is hard work. But don’t let it intimidate you — it’s really not as exhausting as it might seem. And keep in mind (1) how much work, headache, and heartache you’re saving your frazzled, quest-weary future self and (2) how glad you’ll be when you get to go around the back of the mountain and slip in unseen, instead of getting sizzled, fried, and crunched before you lay eyes on even a single gleam of gold.

So, come back next week and we’ll get into a little map-making together, starting with that Working Title. Pesky things, those. Best to get that out of the way first.


* burrahobbit, noun: a burglar hobbit, as explained to trolls by a terrified and rather squeaky Bilbo

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.

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