Prewriting

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigDSCN4401

My entire family has suddenly become obsessed with pineapple.  I don’t know what came over them.  It’s like the pineapple fairy visited one night. And they want it fresh.  Not canned or frozen (does it even come frozen)?

So…I started out by buying those containers of chopped pineapple at the grocery store deli.  But I balked at paying $6 for a smidgeon of pineapple that the family consumed in less than a day.

Then I bought the formidable looking fruit whole.  I looked up “how to cut a pineapple” online and the internet immediately coughed up a wiki-How thing with helpful pictures.  However, this process involved a bit of brute strength on my part, a couple of very sharp knives (never smart for a clumsy person), and about thirty minutes since I still had to slice out the tough black “eyes” afterward.

I decided I wasn’t the kind of person to spend 30 minutes a day slicing pineapple.

I was back in the grocery store to glumly purchase $6 worth of pineapple when I passed a pineapple slicer at the store.  It was $3.99.  I bought it and left for home.

I’m not a mechanically minded person.  But I tried.  I cut the top and bottom off the pineapple, stuck the device on the top, and twisted.  The pineapple fell over.  I said some unpleasant words to the pineapple and stood it back up.  This process repeated itself several times until the top of the pineapple became mush and my ire alerted my husband.  He’s a computer engineer, and is definitely mechanically minded.

He carefully read the instructions. Then he experimented with the pineapple and the slicer.  Magically, it cored and sliced the pineapple in about 30 seconds. My husband’s technique with everything is thoughtful, deliberate preparation.  And everything he attempts goes well…if not on the first try, then on the next.

I’m an impatient person and I jump right in.  It was this way for my writing for ages, too.  I’d find 5 minutes and tear into the story.  I had an idea where I was going, but I’d wander off where the story or characters led me, too.

Sometimes this worked really well.  Sometimes it didn’t.  The worst was when I ran into a huge issue and I was very close to a deadline. Sometimes I ran into plot holes or character motivation issues or other problems.  I marked the manuscript with Word’s highlighter to indicate the moment in the manuscript where I fixed the issue and kept on moving forward (knowing this meant that I’d have to heavily revise the beginning up until that point).

I started trying more and more prewriting before starting new projects.  Then I started doing more prewriting before my daily writing, too.   I found it helped me clarify where I was going and added character depth to even the random suspects who are one-offs for each book.

This approach helped me write faster and cleaner with more character depth in the first draft. With the conflicting deadlines from several series, I needed the help.

My prewriting before each book:

An outline (very rough).  Some call these beat outlines.  Mine are sort of like: “and then this happened! And then that happened! And then….”

A character list with names and brief descriptions. As I add more character description, I add it to this list so that I can have some degree of consistency.

A bunch of lists.  Lists of potential motives.  Lists of possible murder methods. Lists of potential killers.  Lists of potential second victims.  Lists of settings I might want to use.  You get the idea.

And then I jump right in.

Daily prewriting:

I get my head into the story before I sit down in front of the computer to write.  While I’m fixing my coffee and letting the dog out in the morning, I’m remembering where I left off and the scenes I’m about to write.

I can still go where the story and the characters lead me. I just have a plan…one that can be deviated from.

How much, if any prewriting do you do (it doesn’t have to include outlining)?  Are you a planner?  Do you jump right in?  Or is it a little of both?

Image: MorgueFile: Pippalou

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46 thoughts on “Prewriting

  1. Hilarious story about the pineapple. You and your hubby are similar to me and mine. As for writing, I didn’t pre-write with this novel. It was my first fiction book and I had no clue what I was doing. Love these ideas.

  2. Elizabeth, prewriting is a good idea. I never thought about it. I need to prewrite because I’m impatient too and I jump right into anything that I have to write and try and get it out of the way as fast as I can. Not the best way to write, I know. In fact, it’s not the way to write at all.

    Pineapple is a delicious fruit. In Bombay, where I live, pavement hawkers sell fruits, including pineapples, skinned, cut, diced, and sliced, in cellophane or on plates. You can step out of your office and eat a plate of mixed fruit right away. The fruit is cut in front of fou. A plate of pineapple slices, say about six to eight, will cost you less than 50 cents. A full pineapple will cost you a little less than a dollar.

    1. Prashant–I think impatience can drive a person…but not so great with an artistic endeavor like writing! I have to *constantly* mind what I’m doing and be patient with my story.

      I’m absolutely green with envy about the pineapple in Bombay! In North Carolina, we’re paying through the nose for it. A fresh plate of mixed fruit sounds wonderful right about now.

  3. I’m working on draft 4 of my first novel. I started out with an outline but skimped on any other rewriting before beginning the first draft. Now I’m pausing to make up for the deficit — interviewing the characters to get into their heads better before starting a fresh draft. I do a little rewriting each day, to clarify what I’m planning to write that day, to work through problems, plot out new scenes, etc. It’s all part of the process. I can’t imagine trying to write “cold.”

  4. Elizabeth – Welcome to the world of outlines and character sketches. We have pineapples – er – cookies. ;-). Seriously, I think I’ve always been a story outliner. Perhaps it comes from my academic background, where papers have a certain structure. I’m not sure. But I agree completely that pre-writing is an essential part of creating a solid written product, whether it’s fiction or not. I wonder sometimes whether I limit my possibilities when I pre-write, but I think in the end it’s worth it.

    1. Margot–I think if you suddenly had an alternate, wonderful idea that deviated from your outline (and seemed to improve your story), you’d jump on it! Maybe you’d just revise your outline first, since you’re a cautious writer. I’ve revised a few outlines, too, with Word’s Track Changes and the comments feature.

  5. My thoughts tend to wander a bit so just about anything I write, I prewrite. When writing a review there are points I want to make sure I include, so I make notes as I read. I can definitely see where the prewritten lists of motives, killers, etc. would be handy.

    When it comes to mechanical things, I jump right in and read the instructions later unless it’s something that could be harmful to me if done wrong (because I usually do it wrong the first time). Good luck with the pineapple slicer.

    1. Mason–Those types of lists are great for mysteries because sometimes we want to change the killer. Or our editor wants us to change the killer. And then we’ve got this neatly outlined alternate with motive and method.

      I think that the pineapple slicer *could* qualify as possibly harmful to me. :) Especially the way I was trying to use it…

  6. Hi, Elizabeth. Like you, I make an outline and character list before I start a book, and have notes that help me figure out the who, where, how, and why. Pre-writing is a great habit I’m going to adopt. It’s sort of like writing a shopping list before going to the supermarket, so you don’t wind up wandering up and down every aisle, forgetting to buy what you need while grabbing stuff you don’t need.

  7. Love the pineapple story! For writing, I am a pantser through and through. I know, it’s not smart. I have a rough idea in my head of where I want to go and that’s it. I start writing. Sure, I need to then go back and drop clues and fill in plot holes, but it works for me. I’ve tried to outline and end up staring at a blank screen. I need to “feel” the story and let it evolve. I wish I could do more outlining, but apparently my brain doesn’t work that way.

    1. Sue–You know, as long as it keeps working for you, I’d stick with it! I only switched because I kept getting so close to deadline. Once I did have to ask for a short extension on a deadline, even, which just wasn’t cool. That’s what prompted me to make the switch–I couldn’t afford to screw up anymore. I think panic helped me to adapt! Otherwise, I’d still be a pantster.

  8. I love my wife dearly, but you can guess what’s coming next: I try to keep her out of the kitchen if I can. She’s a very good cook — when she slows down. Mostly, she’s just in a hurry to get this over with for crying out loud. I take a more methodical approach.

    I’ve taken to writing my 12 sentences for the waypoints every story has to hit, and then building a very light scene list, nothing more. I’ve learned that my scene list is too light, so that’ll change.

    Prewriting also helps with writer’s block, general stuckness, all that, and it’s a great way to discover new approaches, new ideas. Flipping back and forth between the mechanical and artistic aspects of writing brings it closer to the whole-brain experience of music.

    1. Joel–Why do we marry our opposites? :)

      Yes, I’ve said I should write a series of cookbooks. One would be “The Distracted Cook.” The sequel would be “The Impatient Cook.”

      The amount of outlining you’re describing sounds about what I’m doing (except in a few cases when I’ve outlined more. And not sure why I outlined so much more. I think I just got carried away).

  9. I burst out laughing at your description of your husband’s efficiency with the pineapple slicer, as it is much like my husband’s efficiency with computers. I swear I do all the same things, press all the right keys in the right order, but my computer is like a wily horse who knows I only have a tentative grasp of what I’m doing with it, and will cheerfully unseat me when I least expect it. Then comes Steve the Computer Whisperer–and it will behave beautifully. Steve has just reminded me, though, that when it comes to most household things, the table is definitely turned ;)

    Anyway, “prewriting” is something I do over and over again until the end of the second draft of Act II, after which I’ll know almost for certain whoreallydunnit, the motivations, the red herrings, etc. Act III is comparatively a sprint to the end.

    I’ll have a rough outline at the beginning, but it gets refined every so often as I work out plausible possibilities. I often “prewrite” around 5 am when I’m still in bed, staring at the ceiling, taking up where I left off before, imagining a scenario where such-and-such a character would be compelled to say or do something that moves the plot along or gives my sleuth a clue.

    Then I write chunks of scenes in 8-10K-word bursts over the course of a week, and stick them where they belong in the outline. This leads to several days of refining the outline, which in turn will reveal more areas that need some prewriting. Rinse, repeat.

    Prewriting is sort of like being one’s own writing sleuth, getting the story to reveal itself to you.

    1. Meg–Ha!! The Computer Whisperer–love it! And the wily horse…the perfect analogy! I wish I could say that I’m good with *other* household items (like you are), but I never seem to grasp the inner workings of the tools I use each day. I’ve only learned to respect them so that I won’t accidentally burn myself/cut myself/set the house on fire, etc.

      Your writing schedule is really amazing. Wish I could work that way. I write in short bursts of time several times a day. Your daily prewriting sounds a lot like mine, though. Except I’d be pouring my coffee instead of looking at the ceiling.

      You’ve put it perfectly…prewriting is like being a writing sleuth. :)

  10. Hi Elizabeth – love the explanation and so appropriate to pre-writing .. and those pineapple peelers are fine for certain sized pineapples … I still cut and slice (when I buy a pineapple) …

    Thank goodness for hubbies who balance out their wives … cheers Hilary

    1. Hilary–I think I need to learn more about what to *look* for when *purchasing* a pineapple. Size, for sure, if I’m going to use a peeler…good tip!

      Yes, good to have someone who can actually make things work around the house!

  11. My prewriting on a project looks almost identical to yours. I know the beginning and end and a few things in the middle. I know a lot about the characters, but not everything. At this point we’re still acquaintances.

    With my new project, I’m going to try something similar to your daily prewriting. I’m hoping it will yield the same results for me.

    Happy Weekend!

    1. Carol–It’s a great warm-up to the writing day. I just hate that period of time when I’m staring at my computer screen trying to gather my thoughts. Anything but that. So getting my head into my story before sitting down really works for me.

  12. My pre-writing is research. Even though I am writing fiction, and my characters are made up, they live in real places and I want everything to be accurate. One book took place on an Alaska cruise, so I researched meticulously so everything that took place on the trip really could have taken place on that trip. If my characters are eating in a certain restaurant, I want what they eat to really be on that restaurant’s menu. In the book I am currently working on, I need to describe a Buddhist funeral in Hawaii. My online research about Buddhist funerals led me to believe the men all had to wear black suits and the women black dresses. But I doubt many men in very casual and laid back Hawaii even have black suits. So I e-mailed a Buddhist temple in Honolulu and found out that you can even wear a muu muu or an aloha shirt and you will be okay. That’s my pre-writing. I don’t outline. I’m often quite surprised myself when I find out who the murderer is.

    1. Sharee–That’s great about your research…I bet it helps to make the books come alive for the readers. And you’re right to do it for real places…readers will catch you on it in a second if it’s not accurate. I’ve got one series based in a real place and two set in fictitious places. The fictitious places are definitely easier.

      I usually *think* I know who the killer is. And then I change it. I’m beginning to wonder why I even outline the killer’s identity at all!

      1. There have been times when I thought I knew who the killer was, but I turned out to be wrong. I do have one series set in a fictional town in the middle-of- nowhere, Oregon, but it is close enough to Portland that I have to be careful when my characters go to “town.” None of my books have been published yet. I’m working through Create Space for that.

          1. Thanks for the tip on formatting for Kindle. I think Create Space charges more than Rick, so I will look into using him. Even the regular formatting is difficult in Word. I much prefer Word Perfect, where you can just tell it to suppress the header or the page numbering on the first page of each chapter instead of having to do all those section breaks. I’m having a really hard time with that. I’ll do a section break at the end of a page and that last line will move to the top of the next page, so my section break is in the wrong place. Frustrating!!

            1. Sharee–I found that I don’t have the patience for formatting (as, I suppose, is evident from my frustration with pineapples! Patience isn’t my forte) for *exactly* the reasons you’re mentioning. All I do is send a completely unformatted Word file (my chapter breaks aren’t even at the top of the page. I don’t have any page numbers on the document. I have no headers….) to Rik and he formats for print and Kindle and Nook and so forth for that price. The less I have to think about page breaks, the better!

  13. Elizabeth: Prewriting is essential, though I have been a miserable failure in that regard on my latest endeavor! But I’m beginning to feel that it’s not too late to get back to that stage and do some listing (motives, characters, settings, plot ideas, etc.) before I try to proceed further. I might just end up in a better frame of mind about this WIP that seems to be such an arduous task to work on in a disciplined manner. Your post has given me some needed inspiration and a “kick” in the you-know-where! :-)

    1. Cortland–Lists are *so* much easier. Less commitment. More brainstorming. Just easier to use. And once you have your lists, you can easily see what your choices are in terms of story direction, motive, etc. I brainstorm as many possibilities as I can (even the wackiest ones…I don’t edit myself) and then pick the best ideas. Hope it helps!

  14. Wait for kiwi season!

    I’m with you on outline, and pre-writing. I have to survive telling myself the story first and the early drafts at that are rough.

    When I have a story, character, motivation, and setting squared away, then the art of writing begins. I learned this in the lab years ago: when trying something new fail fast then fail again. You cannot plan your way out of what you don’t yet know and starting a story is definitely one of those things you don’t yet know.

    Ron Carlson really helped me internalize that idea … Along with the advice you share here.

    Hope all is well. Large summer was a bear here but back on track now. Oh, and enjoy that beautiful southern fall!

    1. Jack–And my daughter *loves* kiwi. I’m thinking…does no one in this family eat bananas? Because those are something like 75 cents.

      I like your advice here…particularly on failure (which I think *all* writers experience on both small and large scales).

      Glad you’re back on track, Jack! Yes, the weather here in NC has been *beautiful* this week.

  15. We’re huge pineapple fans here too – although I’m the only one who loves it on pizza (with mushrooms!)

    I’ve been attempting more plotting techniques – and the writing of lists etc might help me out a bit – thanks!

  16. Interesting article Elizabeth. I tried writing a novel with no pre-writing and the result was a short story. Then I tried writing one using a 3000 word outline and got hopelessly lost, twice. I expanded the outline to 8000 words and was able to finish a full length novel. The outline was still too short. It left some flexibility for the characters to change and forced me to write a third revision before getting to the final draft. For my next novel, the outline is going to be at least 10,000 words. As I’ve written more and more, pre-writing has become absolutely necessary for me. Even my short stories and blog posts start with outlines. Thanks for the article.

    1. Ivan–I think sometimes our process takes a little tweaking, as yours did. I’ve written outlines as long as 20 pages before and as short as two. The long one seemed too limiting, the short one a little vague. So I’m trying to keep it more in the middle of the two ranges.

  17. The first (and only) time I bought a whole pineapple was in the late 80s when I was traveling as a backpacker in southern Europe. I tried to cut the pineapple with just a small Swiss army knife. It was a Hell of a mess. I always wrote travel diaries, so the pineapple incident is documented.

    Regarding prewriting, I use similar techniques, both when writing fiction, and when writing scientific reports and articles >:)

    1. CA–I can’t even *imagine* how you’d do it with a Swiss army knife! I’d have lost a finger or two, for sure.

      The idea of writing scientific reports makes my head swirl a little. I guess I couldn’t write those in five-minute spurts…. :)

  18. Um, I want that pineapple thing! I just sliced a pineapple, and yes, it’s a tough job.

    I definitely have a plan before going back into the story. Now that I’m in revision, I’m planning before each pass. Stuff tough work, but at least it’s a bit organized :/

  19. Hi Elizabeth,

    Great pineapple story. Pineapples get easier with practice — a bread knife helps. The fresh fruit in Bombay sounds great.

    Jeanne…just yesterday we went into two grocery stores and in both, forgot what we went in for (the same item).

    I started writing free-style but have come to realize, my favorite part of writing a book is the first draft. I haven’t come to enjoy the editing and revision stage as much — yet. As such, it seems so far, that I can minimize some of the editing if I spend more time planning and outlining.

    I put down beat points or chapters (although I’ve stopped numbering them) with a few lines each. I will come up with a main turning point for the next quarter but I don’t take it to the end until I have gotten closer. I have to wait for it to unfold. I also find with chapter points, I can skip one and go back to it, if one needs more research, for example.

    Great ideas. Thanks for the formatting suggestion.

    1. Silas–A bread knife! That would certainly have at least helped me not get nicked when I was struggling with the fruit…

      Revision is sort of fun for me, too. Mainly because it means I’m almost done with the book!

      I like the way you outline. :)

      I’ve used other formatters…but Rik is the quickest and least expensive. :)

  20. Another good post, Elizabeth, and some good tips. I’m close to finishing my second novel. For both I’ve been a hybrid pantser/outliner (with the emphasis on the pantser). For my third novel I intend to change my way of working: I’m wasting too much time going down blind plot alleys by not outlining more. Thank you.

    1. Jan–I totally understand. Like you, it was the time aspect that was the big reason I changed over. And I still give myself permission to deviate from the outline. I write so much faster and with more depth for that first draft now.

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