The Vengeful Polyglot

Looking Before You Leap: Suggestions about Pre-Writing

Posted on: April 22, 2011

Let me start by saying that I have always had problems with doing effective pre-writing. I would be bitten by an idea for something and just start writing. This served me fine for a while, at least for short fics, because most of my writing, well, didn’t have much, or any, real plot development. Most of what I wrote were essentially vignettes – nice little snapshots of time, but without much development outside of the characters’ heads. Because they were short (it took me years in fandom to write something more than 2,000 words long) and fairly simple, I actually managed to get along quite well this way. Unfortunately, once I started trying to write short-stories and chaptered fics, I ran into a bit of a problem. I would get bored with whatever plot idea I started with, or forget where I was going with it, and eventually I would usually give up.

A friend of mine, around the point in time when I was thinking of starting writing for my first NaNoWriMo, was shocked when I told her I just jumped right in to my writing without any preparation. She also didn’t understand how I would insist on only going into an online RP with extensive character sheets and notes, but I would just throw caution to the wind with fanfiction. For some reason, at the time I found absolutely no connection between the two activities, though I did decide to humor her as starting to write a novel did seem like a phenomenally large task and having some notes would probably help me stay on task.

It was then when I realized that too much of a good thing can be just as bad as not having it at all. I wrote maybe two notebooks’ full of story-lines, character references, world descriptions, and the like. I had it down. I knew every possible little detail of what was going to happen, where it was going to happen, and who was going to be involved. It was all set up, and I figured I would sail easily to 50,000. All I had to do was sit down and write it.

Unfortunately, that’s where I ran into a little problem. I had absolutely no desire to write it anymore. There weren’t any surprises, the whole story felt stale and, frankly, I was bored. I didn’t want to follow my detailed outline and just write up everything I already knew was going to happen. There’s no fun in that.

So straight out from having zero experience with pre-writing I overdid it to the point where I pre-wrote the whole fun of the story right out. It’s a fine line to walk, unfortunately.

Pre-writing is a fine art. You have to know the fine line between being too lax and going overboard. Generally, I have found that the amount of pre-writing necessary for a story is proportional to the intended length. Drabbles really don’t require much forethought. If you’re planning on writing a chapter fic, though, I would sincerely recommend at least vaguely outlining the plot. Most of the time having a general idea of the beginning, middle, and end is enough, at least for one-shots. For fanfics which are much longer than that you can outline only the basic “turning points” of the plot. This will keep you on track but still allow you to be flexible enough to say, “Well, I need to get from this point to this point, but I’m going to add these three events in between because I think that will be more in-character!

Depending on where you are setting your fic, some notes on the surroundings can also sometimes not be out of place. In AUs, for instance, it’s usually a good idea to keep notes about the location of the fic, or on the changes between the “new” universe and the canon one – that way you can prevent inconsistencies later on down the line.

There are a couple of things which, generally, you won’t be able to predetermine when going in to write. Things like the theme, which usually emerges during the course of the story, and sometimes characterization (I know I’m not the only person in fandom who has been surprised and delighted when my characters took on a life of their own right in the middle of a scene). Part of what makes writing fun and exciting is the mystery – despite it being an activity we have “full control” over, it seldom ends up exactly as we planned. That’s one of the great aspects of writing which is really brought to the forefront in fandom – despite knowing the characters you are writing with very well, they can still spontaneously shock us some of the time.

So do try out pre-writing, if you haven’t. It can do a world of wonders for the flow and consistency of your fic. Don’t go overboard, though, or you risk taking some of the thrill of the unknown out of it. Happy (pre-)writing!


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Blog by a programmer cum linguist cum writer cum total geek. One who pretentiously uses "cum" in place of any other logical connectives. Direct questions to the Ask Lauren page!

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