I am not a fast writer. To my readers who have been waiting such a long time for my third book (Sorry! Sorry! It’s coming!), this is probably painfully obvious. I’ll likely never be the speediest of writers—I won’t be that indie author pumping out new books month after month. But I am trying to pick up the pace by being more efficient with my time.
The biggest change to my process has been my pre-writing exercise, which I began using several months ago. This is the time I take, before writing a scene, to block out what will happen and identify significant elements such as tension and character development. It’s worthwhile because I no longer waste time writing my way into a scene if it is flawed, boring, or a dead end—I now figure out these issues in advance, and adjust.
Sometimes I begin this with pen and paper, particularly if I anticipate having difficulty. I think it taps into a different part of my creativity. But, ultimately, I type all of my pre-writing exercise up in the “Document Notes” section in Scrivener, that way when I flip to Composition Mode to write, I can keep my detailed notes easily visible.
I have tried pre-writing and blocking out beats in the past, particularly after I read Rachel Aaron’s excellent book 2K to 10K. But I was not successful until I adjusted the process to work well for my writing style. The first modification I had to make was the amount of time I allotted for this task. Most writers say it takes them 5-10 minutes. This process usually takes me longer—sometimes a lot longer.
The problem I had in the past was that I would sit for 10 minutes, trying to think of just what should happen in a given scene. I would come up with nothing, say “screw it” and just start typing. Usually something would come to me—but not always the right something. The issue, for me, was directly linked to my usual inability to outline. I never know what to write until I’m “in” the scene. I need a level of immersion before my creativity kicks in.
So, the first step in my pre-writing exercise is to close my eyes (in public I probably look like I’m praying to my MacBook. Ah, well.) I count up or down from 10 and visualize the numbers, usually as calligraphic numerals scrawled in a book, and my imaginary hand reaching out to turn the pages. I do this to push aside all of the errant nonsense going on in my mind and to focus. Sometimes I don’t need this step. Other times I really, really do, and I have to start over and over again because I get to 7 and start thinking about overnight oats recipes or the Walking Dead or something. I probably have ADD. But I digress…
And then, eyes still closed, I begin with the first item of my pre-writing exercise: location. I picture my character, and then I picture where they are. I do so with specificity—not just the city or building, but the room. I imagine the place in detail: the smell of candle smoke, or the dust motes floating in the shaft of sunlight streaming through the window. This step helps to anchor me, and oddly enough, it almost always helps me begin imagining the scene as if I were in the midst of writing it.
Once I have that firmly established in my mind’s eye, I open my eyes and begin. Here is my full pre-writing exercise:
Pre-Writing Scene Breakdown
Time of Day –
Time Passed –
Plot Advancement –
Character Development –
Tension / Obstacles –
Best Bit –
Character info revealed –
World info revealed –
Research for scene –
The location, time of day, and weather I type in quickly because I’ve already imagined them in detail. “Time Passed” is the amount of time (hours, days, weeks) since we’ve seen the POV character. My stories have a lot of time jumps, so this is significant and something I really need to decide before diving in.
Next, I write up the beats. I start with the “opener” – what’s the very first thing we see the character doing (and make it interesting, informative, plot and character significant). Then I move to the middle, which is often quite long. I write out the scene in detail, often including the gist of conversations and setting descriptions, but without thinking about actual word choice. If there is a fight scene, I block out the whole fight. This is a huge help when I go to actually write the scene.
If I get stuck at all, I close my eyes again, re-imagine the setting, and then try to run through the scene in my mind, as if I were watching a movie in my head. I ask myself what I would want to see next.
Finally, I end with a hook—a hint at a future problem, a gut-punch of emotion, a mystery, etc. Something that gives the scene a sense of deliberate closure and makes the reader want to know what happens next.
Once I’ve finished blocking out the scene, the next four points are a kind of test to make sure that the scene is working as it should.
-First, I look at plot advancement: what plots/sub-plots are being furthered in this scene? If none, then the scene needs to be reconsidered.
-Second, I need some character development—as an author of character driven stories, it’s important for me to consider how my characters grow and change little by little over the course of the series. Obviously they aren’t going to have life-altering epiphanies in every scene, but I try to always be giving them a little nudge.
-Third, I identify the tension and/or obstacles in a scene. Scenes with no tension whatsoever don’t have a place in my book. Even scenes that are primarily upbeat have some kind of underlying tension: usually that the happiness the characters are experiencing is a lull before the storm and can’t last. Or one character is having some form of inner struggle.
-Fourth and last is identifying the “Best Bit” — this is the moment in the scene I’m most excited to write and/or readers will most enjoy (or hate) reading. This is important, and I think it works best as the last test, because it helps to boost my excitement for the scene and gives me a cookie to look forward to. And, if I can’t think of a single element of the scene that I’ve just blocked out that is excitement-worthy, then I need to go back and fix something. Every scene should make me want to write it, or it’s the wrong scene.
That’s usually where I end my pre-writing exercise and get started on actually writing (or pre-writing the next scene. I try to do the whole day’s worth up front so my writing flow isn’t interrupted). However, there is the “optional” section which I sometimes fill in before hand. This is most helpful early on in a project when new world and character info needs to be artfully delved out as the plot begins progressing. It is also a useful tool during editing to easily determine when significant details are revealed.
So, that’s it! It isn’t a five minute process for me. However, in the end, I save myself time by splitting my scene creation into two different steps: imagining what happens, and then putting what happens into words. If I am diligent in pre-writing, I am far less likely to punch out a scene and know immediately that it will need to be scrapped. And I enjoy the writing process much more when I can focus on the music of the prose and the sharpness of the dialogue, without having to simultaneously be answering the question “and then what happened?”
Even if you’re not a very type-A, organized writer, I would recommend giving this a try—and then tweaking it to better work for you. I didn’t think I could ever plot ahead, not even within a single scene, but in the end it was a matter of adjusting the process until it suited my personal creative style.
What sort of prep work do you typically do prior to writing a scene?