Are you immobilized by pre-writing? by Elizabeth Spann Craig

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

In the past month, I’ve had three writers reach out to me.  They were all writing mysteries for the first time.

They asked me about outlining with arcs and three-act sequences and character development sheets.  Two writers reported feeling extremely overwhelmed and frustrated to the point of being immobilized.

I suggested that they might be overthinking it, at least when writing traditional mysteries. That’s because mysteries provide their own structure–a very familiar structure that avid mystery readers both know by heart and expect to encounter.

In fact, when we deviate from this structure or pattern, readers usually let us know about it.

I explained my own, very simple process:

I start out by writing the back cover copy. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, it gives me a global view of my story and its set-up. For another…I already have a cover for the book a year before I write it (I like working ahead with my cover designer). So there’s a print cover with copy all ready to go.

Then there’s a simple outline.  Nothing fancy.

Here’s the structure for a cozy mystery (if you fill in the blanks with your own characters, victims, suspects, it becomes a very basic outline): 

Introduction of all characters–best to start out with sleuth so that reader knows who to identify with right away.

Either a scene showing interaction of future victim and future suspects or introduction of a body.

Set up for sleuth’s involvement (if an amateur) and then interviewing of suspects. Suspects provide alibis, red herrings, lies, and truths.

Another body at the book’s halfway mark (most of the time).

More interviews to follow up on alibis, clues, and to gather information following any second murder. Give suspects opportunity to refute evidence pointing to them from the previous murder.

Moment of danger for sleuth or moment of increased tension (hostage situation, etc.) indicating story climax.

Sleuth discusses case and clues that helped him/her solve the mystery.

Are there other components in the story?  Of course.  But this is the basic structure of a mystery, just as other genres have their own skeletons.

Other things I like to know before starting my mystery:

Potential motives, first and second murder weapon, possible subplots (just brainstorming…nothing finite).

The killer’s identity? Not really.  I have an idea who I think may be a good killer, but I frequently change my mind 3/4 of the way through the first draft.  It’s always good to be flexible.

Going back to character sheet question.  A writer asked me how much pre-writing I did with my characters before jumping in.  My answer is…except for the sleuth and sidekick?  Very little.   Here is a copy-paste excerpt from a pre-writing doc for one of my mysteries:

Victim: Celeste: A sickly older woman: sickly of mind and spirit and body. She loves to manipulate people and her favorite people to manipulate are

Her niece: Eugenia She was from a poor family who farmed her out to victim. She is subservient and at victim’s beck and call.  She keeps her tied to her with financial incentives, but she is very pushy and overwhelms his life so that there is no time for anything else (a real life).  A thin, mousy-looking woman of around thirty wearing glasses too large for her face

Her daughter:  Maisy. Same as above. Perhaps she has a shipboard romance that actually seems to be blossoming into something else and the romantic interest lives very close to her. The mother is determined to end it as she likes to stomp out all attempts at happiness.  Plump. Very blonde hair and rather too much makeup.  Eyes are hard.  Enjoys flirting with Guy.

Her son: Terrell Same idea. She forced him into a career that he hated (financed his medical school) because she liked the prestige of it all.

Ghost of a husband?  Randolph. Some kind of male companion? But he thinks he’s going to benefit from her death and he’s wrong.  Miles’s age. Gambles. Drinks too much. Dignified air clashes with his drunkenness. Well-dressed. Hair too long for his age.

Bettina A friend of the victim? But some friend! Perhaps the friend found out that victim Celeste had been the cause of her breakup, or financial issues, or losing her job, etc. Celeste just likes control over all kinds of situations and people and enjoys wielding power.  An attractive old woman who wore a lot of gold jewelry and bright clothing and a lot of mascara.

This is what I work with when I’m starting out.  It’s thin, isn’t it?  Really just a cast of characters.  But it’s all I need to get started. The characters develop a bit as I write (their character tends to come out in their dialogue) and then I layer in more development after the first draft is finished.

Here’s the question.  Is your pre-writing helping you write your story? Or is it overwhelming you and causing you to freeze up and avoid your story?  Some writers absolutely rely on pre-writing to tell their story. It can shorten the amount of time they spend on their manuscript.  If you’re not one of those writers, don’t feel as if you’re doing it all wrong to start your story with a minimum of information. I write all my books that way.

How much pre-writing do you do?

Are you immobilized by too much pre-writing? Click To Tweet

Photo credit: Mark van Laere via / CC BY-NC-ND

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28 thoughts on “Pre-Writing

  1. Love the advice! Even a seasoned writer (close to published) needs to experiment with things that could possibly work. I’ve done a lot of character outlines, and it helps me stay in track for who is who. I even wrote out a family tree for the main characters. So far, with antagonists and protagonists, majors and minors, I have over 800 people.

    1. Lady Adellandra–I think experimenting does help, for sure. Sometimes I still change things up to see if it impacts my productivity. 800 characters, wow! Definitely a situation where you’d need some diagrams to help track everyone. I really only have 5-6 new characters each book (and a couple of them end up dead!)

      1. I’ve been writing about them for over 30 years, so I’ve had time to accumulate. I used to outline my own way, but the story changes so much, an outline is almost obsolete. The blurb helps me keep on track.

  2. I like your process. Knowing who the characters are and how they interact gives you room to develop all kinds of conflict. :-)

    I tend to have a LONG outline, but I have no trouble chopping it up and moving things around when better ideas or timing occurs to me.

    1. Deb–It’s always good to be flexible!

      I’ve had long outlines in the past, too. They can work well for me…the only problem being that I write very, very short of my usual word-count and have to add more at the end of the draft.

  3. Hi Elizabeth – I particularly like your idea of writing up the back cover copy – that appeals to me … and I’m sure your notes make absolute sense to someone writing a murder story … they do to me – and I’m not. Great tips .. thanks – cheers Hilary

  4. I start with detailed character sheets for the main characters and a rough outline. I’ll stick the the general flow of the outline, but I often deviate as I’m writing. I have to know my characters well before I start though. If I don’t, I flounder.

  5. Thanks, Elizabeth, for sharing the way you go about pre-writing. It really is an important aspect of a good story, I think, even if it’s not a lot of words. It’s more a matter of getting some focus and putting ideas into a sort of reasonable structure. And it’s a great ‘cheat sheet’ to return to if you feel like you’re heading for a saggy middle, a plothole, or something else as the story goes on.

  6. This is such a relief to me! I wrote my first mystery pretty much exactly the same way you did (mystery structure, clues, cast of characters), but I worried there was some deep secret that I was missing. I couldn’t decide on the killer until the end–the person I had set up to be the killer wound up with a weak motive. I’m bookmarking this!

    1. Kessie–If there’s a secret, I haven’t found it! Mysteries are really pretty easy to write.

      The best thing about changing the killer at the end, for me, is that I believe I subconsciously point too much to the killer when I know his/her identity through the story. Changing at the end makes for more of a surprise.

  7. Hi Elizabeth! Fab post. My characters (except series characters) are also pretty thin to start. It seems that I need to write them into a scene, have them talk and frown and toss their hair before I know what they are like.

    The bulk of my pre-writing is plot structure, though it usually changes after I’m midway through, even down to which character I pick for my victim. *wink*

    1. Kathy–Me too…definitely like to see them in action.

      Probably the only thing I know for *sure* starting out is my victim. That’s because my suspects’ motives are directly influenced by the victim’s character. But, that’s just my own process. It would be easy enough to make several unsavory characters and decide on a victim farther in…or develop a story by only knowing the killer’s motivation.

      1. Actually, I didn’t phrase it correctly. I didn’t change my mind about the victim…I decided to add another victim. The original victim’s demise was only delayed, LOL. You’re right about the motivations centered around the original victim, which really symbolizes the central conflict.

  8. Great advice!

    You have to have an idea of where to end up at the least. I understand not wanting an outline, though I think writers do better with them.

    I often write an entire draft when it is a new idea and not one I’ve stewed over for years. It gives me real substance on the first “real” draft.

    We do the same thing in experimentation in the field, though. We often run an experiment quick and dirty without much respect for the outcome with the aim of finding out just what in our design has gone terribly wrong.

    The dirty first pass (not even a draft, really) let’s us identify on the macro scale just what isn’t working. The detail outline does this. the prose narrative does it too. Whichever.

    Great, great post. Writers need to hear that a lot of the initial concept ends up on the cutting room floor and the only way to identify those parts is to put something together.

    Writing is never a least-path problem. There’s a lot of wasted ink.

    it’s cheap.

    Great great post. Classic. Should be your next conference talk, even.

    1. Jack–It’s a good thing it IS so cheap, considering all the crumpled paper. :)

      It’s nice, isn’t it, to write directly through on our new ideas? I think we may be more forgiving of ourselves and our efforts that way.

  9. I love your character sheet. You make it sound easy! What’s helping me with my current cozy mystery is a table I created in Word. I created 4 columns with 5 rows. I list the Suspects in one column, then head the other columns Motive, Alibi and Secret. Once it’s filled in, you have the meat. Then below it I split the document into 3 acts and list what needs to happen. Act I is the crime and intro of suspects, Act II is motives unveiled and Act III is all secrets unveiled and the suspects narrowed down and ends with a confrontation with the murderer. It’s the first time I’ve written without a blow-by-blow outline. I almost feel like a pantser, LOL.

  10. I do very little pre-writing, Elizabeth. I generally come up with a beginning scene, and a closing scene (which sometimes changes, due to circumstances). And then I sit at the keyboard, begin typing, and let the characters take over. More often than not, it works out fine. I often have to tweak certain details, go back several or many pages and rewrite a scene to accommodate the new direction my character(s) have decided the storyline should go. But in the end, it usually works out for the best. I never fail to be surprised how my characters take control and basically finish the story, with a little help from yours truly, of course. Great and informative post!

    1. Michael–That’s a neat way of starting out. Sometimes I try to do mirror scenes (full circle feel…end reflects the beginning) and it sure would be easier to do with your approach.

      It’s a great feeling when the characters take over and we only have to be scribes! The relief is wonderful. :)

  11. A bit late to the party!

    I think all of this does come with experience :) I am a different writer now than I was when I started indie publishing four years ago and I hope to be a different writer again fours years from now. I have discovered that I am a definite a tweener. I started out being a pantser. Tried plotting an entire book once. Never again!

    One of the most useful books I have ever read on writing technique is Rachel Aaron’s from 2k to 10k. I try to use the daily “penning” method. This is where I sit with a blank sheet in my physical writing notebook and jot down a couple of sentences about what I need to write that day. They can be as straightforward as “Get A and Z from Istanbul to Rome. Revelation scene in Vatican City. Assassination of L. Chase and fight scene.” This brings focus to my 4-5 hours of writing time and I know this is what I need to get gone before my final timer goes off. As for my character bios, they grow as I get to know them. Sometimes, they can still surprise me in the final chapters!

    Over preparation can kill inspiration and every writer needs to find the right balance between planning and actual creation. Books on technique are there to guide us and show us what can work. Doesn’t mean we have to stick to them religiously.

    1. AD–Thanks for coming by!

      I do much the same thing…I call them ‘mini outlines’ and it’s really just a sentence at the end of that writing day telling me where I want to pick up the following morning. Helps to stay focused.

      Wow–4-5 hours a day of writing…that’s fantastic!

      1. Love “mini-outlines” :D Definitely helps stay focused. I am having a rare two weeks when I have more writing time than usual. November and December are going to be hellish with NICU shifts so making the most of it right now.

        Just need to keep hitting those deadlines!


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