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Hello, writers.

I was going to write this week about the importance of first lines. But perhaps everybody already knows that. If not: your first line is very, very important. Instead, I wanna talk about what you do before you start writing. You, of course, can talk about whatever you want, and hopefully you will.

Here are some things that different people swear by as preparation for writing:

  1. Make a detailed outline of your story. A friend taught me to do this on the wall with different colored markers, but there's also the Ingermansson Snowflake which we've discussed before, and anyone know any other good methods of outlining?
  1. Make charts of your characters, including their physical appearances, personalities, life situations-- you can go online and find detailed questionnaires to help you with this. This can be enlightening sometimes. One problem I've had with it is it tends to pin the characters out and label them like those poor frogs in 7th grade biology. But actually we learn most about characters when they're interacting with other characters. I dunno. What do you think?
  1. Just think about the story, let it swish around in your head, for like years and years. Allegedly that's what that writer guy did with Ender's Game, and then wrote it in two weeks. Come to think of it, does anyone ever write a story that hasn't been swishing around in their head for years, in one form or another?
  1. Research whatever you're going to need to know for your story-- the history of Antarctica, how bridges are built, symptoms and treatment of rabies in humans. You need to do that research anyway, otherwise you'll probably end up lookin' like a foo. Because you can be sure somebody will read your book who speaks Lakota, knows the train timetables for rural Ohio in 1927, and has actually driven a Model T Ford to Tierra del Fuego.

(By extension, I'm always surprised how many writers seem unaware that people of races, genders, and nationalities other than their own will read their work and may be hurt by what they say.)

Other people swear by just starting to write. When I do that I run aground around 10,000 words in. For a while I tried coming up with really good first lines (first lines are important!) and then writing stories to match them, but somehow none of those stories ever seemed to sell.

Something I'm doing right now is drawing. I started doing that because of this piece by Diana Wynne Jones, where she says about characters:

You have to SEE them even more clearly than places. You have to know the shape of them and if their breath smells and how their hair grows. In fact, you have to know twice as much as you put in the story. Sit and think and SEE them before you start. And HEAR them too. Everyone has their own special way of talking.

Her argument is that once you've clearly visualized something (setting, character) you won't need to think about adding detail when you write. It will come naturally. Since I royally suck at visualizing anything, even the faces of people I've known for 40 years, drawing seemed easier.

One nice thing about it: sitting down to draw is a whole lot less intimidating than sitting down to write. (Might not be true if you're actually good at drawing, I dunno.)

So, what about you? What do you do before you start writing, and how do you do it?

Write On! will be a regular Thursday feature (8 pm ET) until it isn't. Be sure to check out other great lit'ry diaries like:
sarahnity's books by kossacks on Tuesday nights
plf515's What Are You Reading? on Wednesday mornings.
cfk's bookflurries on Wednesday nights.

Some happy writing links for the week:

Editorial Anonymous has this to say:

re: Current trends in acquisitions
Steampunk, steampunk, steampunk.

Bear in mind that she's talking kiddylit, and that trendchasing may get you nowhere-- if you start writing your steampunk today, the earliest it could hit stores is probably around summer of 2011. Hell, in today's market? Make that 2015.

On the Premises no-fee short-story contest... this quarter's assignment is a story about a plan that goes wrong.

Pimp My Novel on why the future is all about ebooks.

Originally posted to SensibleShoes on Thu Jul 30, 2009 at 05:05 PM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  You know what song I think is really cool? (16+ / 0-)

    "Unwritten" by Natasha Bedingfield.

    "I am unwritten, can't read my mind, I'm undefined...pen's in my hand, ending unplanned..."

    -9.0, -8.3 Write On! for writers, Thursdays 8 pm ET

    by SensibleShoes on Thu Jul 30, 2009 at 05:04:58 PM PDT

  •  It was a dark and stormy blog post. (8+ / 0-)

    I think all of the methods you describe are valid.  One story I researched for three years, learning railroad timetables from Omaha to San Francisco and odd facts like Deadwood, SD having phones the year after Bell filed his patent.

    The most successful publication I ever had was essentially written in a week of bourbon, Dexedrine and Elvis movies on video.

    Whatever works, I say.

    Songs up at da web site! Also. . . It's Kostown, Jake. . .

    by Crashing Vor on Thu Jul 30, 2009 at 05:14:35 PM PDT

  •  Another really good diary, thanks (6+ / 0-)

    Before my computer crashed, I did copy the six chapters of my story and the goddess short story.

    I have some hope that my son-in-law will rescue my files, but I won't know for a couple of weeks.

    But...the whole affair has left me brain-fogged.

    Best wishes to all here and a thank you to those who write so I may read!!!

    Join us at Bookflurries: Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Thu Jul 30, 2009 at 05:16:40 PM PDT

  •  Speaking from experience (4+ / 0-)

    I wrote lots of stories as a teenager. But as the average length of my stories increased, so did the chance that I would never complete them. With the longest story I wrote--15,000 words--the only reason I finished it was with the help of a friend. At other times, I would just write and write until I found myself heading straight toward a dead end.

    The reason was that I hardly did any advance planning. I would just rush into the story and make it up as I went along. This gave my stories an "around the campfire" quality which I (and the people around me) enjoyed. Unfortunately, it made the stories very hard to complete, and even when I did complete them, they had numerous plot holes.

    I eventually realized the virtue of making outlines. I don't mean formal outlines. All I mean is that I would write out a summary of each scene, plotting out the story before I actually wrote it. And when I began my first draft, if the story was novelette length or longer, I would make sure never to start revising the story until after I was finished the first draft. Thus, my first draft is invariably written quickly. If I feel myself getting stuck on a section, I either skip it or ramble my way through it. I'll have plenty of time to improve it later; the first priority is getting a complete draft, and the really good writing comes out of revisions.

    I can't say this method will work for everyone, but it has worked for me.

  •  The first line of my memoir (5+ / 0-)

    "By the time rosy fingered dawn came skipping over to Dallas from the piney woods of East Texas I had committed what many theologians might agree was an unforgiveable sin and I had also, in my little way, left my mark on the mysteries and conspiracies many feel still linger in the wake of the Kennedy assasination."  

  •  Post your pictures, post your pictures! (4+ / 0-)

    I usually write a page of nonsense, first. A bunch of character names, with some shorthand about each. Then a few scenes ideas, maybe a couple Big Dramatic Moments. Then I think about structure. What's pulling us through the beginning? How are things getting worse? I try to daydream a midpoint reversal of some sort, and then--really early on--I work on pinpointing the climax.

    Usually I get a pretty clear picture of the climax--the action the emotions, etc. Then open a new document in Word, probably my fifth or sixth, and start a bullet list. I might number it to 60. I sketch out the first ten or fifteen--the first act (I tend to think in movie terms for structure)--and then get pretty vague, just filling in one or five more blanks until 30. Then I hit the midpoint, which takes a few blanks. They I shove something into 41 and 47, and start the big climax at 55 or whatever. I write that down, then I sit back and have a cigarette.

    Then when I get back to that (after any number of interruptions) the whole thing is crap, and I start again. That happens probably three times, until I'm sick of myself, then I just start writing the damned thing--with some level of confidence about the beginning, midpoint, and end, which probably comes to a total of 20,000 words.

    Then as I'm writing, everything changes.

    I'm sick just thinking about it.

    "After two years of episodic fits and starts, I finally got past the first three paragraphs."

    by GussieFN on Thu Jul 30, 2009 at 05:26:52 PM PDT

  •  I have been percolating on a story for years (4+ / 0-)

    and I'm hoping for that two-weeks outcome!  

    I used to think it had to be a long work, but now I think it could be a lot like that AI short story that the movie AI was based on.

    Maybe I'll try the Dexedrine and Elvis movies.  But not this weekend, I'm getting my motorcycle license....

    Darwinic pilgrims claim the image fills them with an overwhelming feeling of logic. --The Onion

    by mem from somerville on Thu Jul 30, 2009 at 05:27:12 PM PDT

  •  "Adaptation" (5+ / 0-)

    The film of that name was brilliant, as was it's title.  It was about both evolutionary adaptation, and the adaptation of a film from a book.

    Heck, it inspired a pretty good review for IMDB, that I will take the occasion to put right here.

    I just viewed this film at our library, where there was a discussion afterward. A couple of my friends found the movie tepid, pointless and boring. They saw it as just talk, no action, no plot....

    I, on the other hand, was immediately gripped by Charlie Kaufman's conflict, how he was struggling to make a book with no action, as he told McKee "simply like life" into a screenplay. Giving Charles a brother who represented another part of him was a brilliant device, with Donald completing his personality. Nicholas Cage managed to differentiate the two persons by just the tone of his voice, avoiding the excesses that would have made this into an parody.

    If I had to describe the purpose, the message, of this film, it is an exposition of what the American audience will accept in a high budget feature film. It actually was two films, with the break being when McKee told Charlie, "never never use a Deus ex Machina, a device that does not follow the integrity of character and plot" That's when the film that had focused on Charlie Kaufman, a real human being, became a film "by" Charlie Kaufman with chases, the spying, the sniffing dope, the secret love affairs......all the elements available to the 21st century film industry. The second part of the film was the work of Donald Kaufman.

    The second part of the film was written for my friends who were bored to tears by the first part....all the talking, the angst, the subtle adaptation between the orchid and its pollinator, driven by a lust that like Donald's, transcended a need for reciprocation.

    Was the ending a sellout? No, I don't see it that way. Charlie Kaufman didn't have an ending. His characters, because they were real, and fixed in their own world, never did have an affair with each other; they never turned the ghost orchid into a psychedelic drug and they never tried to kill anyone.

    Charlie Kaufman brought us into his world, one where his goal is not to create art for the few, but entertainment for the masses. But, for my money, he pulled off the impossible, and did both.

  •  Steampunk? (3+ / 0-)

    I bet I can rewrite one of my current projects as steampunk ...

    "After two years of episodic fits and starts, I finally got past the first three paragraphs."

    by GussieFN on Thu Jul 30, 2009 at 05:36:59 PM PDT

  •  Characters (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GussieFN, SensibleShoes, cfk

    I find that I know a lot about them that doesn't even get written down in the work at hand.  Kinda like telling someone about a friend or relation.  You know a lot more than you say, and it's about pulling the right detail(s) to evoke much more.

    Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves, for they shall always be amused.

    by Land of Enchantment on Thu Jul 30, 2009 at 05:43:27 PM PDT

  •  Leave Byron out (4+ / 0-)

    put Keats in.  Rome.  Keats has gone there to die,  Takes a wrong turn and ends up in a catacomb and who does he see alone and palely loitering but Angelia Jolie.  Then through the looking glass to Hollywood where Keats is abandoned by that vampire maid and ends up working in a strip joint on the strip serving abisnthe.  (Baudelaire is there too)  

    Tires of the Frenchman and one night he gets into a drunken brawl with him. There, on the sawdust strewn floor, littered with billet doux, they realize that together they could do something. Together! So they struggle against their better selves but then give in and kidnap Howard Hughes who convinces them to leave this sad world and takes them to his secret aerodrome where the magical zeppelin the CrashingVor is moored.  They take off for Venus but just them (as the glide over Hawaii) they see the Japs about to attack.  They radio the president -- just in time.  They land and are hailed as heroes.  James Jones, who is stationed there, rues what just happened.  he was planning a great WW2 novel.  Shit.
    He leaves the service and ends up writing Tom Swift books.  Television is not invented.  The Shadow should be in there somewhere too.  And Orson Welles.

  •  in the past (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GussieFN, SensibleShoes, cfk, davidseth, Amayi

    I just dove right in. but now, I think I may actually think about it.

    as I tend to write sci-fi I spend more time building the world and then writing in it is rather unfun for some reason. Lately I've been reading a lot of authors I hadn't in the past (Elizabeth Moon, S.M. Stirling, John Barnes) to get a sense of their styles.

    I recently "acquired" a copy of Dramatica Pro v4. It seems good for outlining and stuff.

    (+0.12, -3.33) agree w/ me or go to redstate. i'm snarking. too many aren't.

    by terrypinder on Thu Jul 30, 2009 at 06:26:33 PM PDT

  •  Beginnings. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GussieFN, SensibleShoes, cfk

    If you ever suffer the misfortune of being in Oxford, Mississippi, you can visit Faulkner's house.  Upstairs on the wall of the room in which he wrote you will see that he wrote the outline of a novel on the wall.  In pencil.  It's still there.  Can't recall but think it's "Absolom."  Anyway, that would be one approach, and it seems to have borne nice fruit.

    The thing that's been working for me lately is driving around (I know it's not ecological) without music or radio and thinking the story.  It's amazing how much can be thunk within an hour on the interstate.  Cruise control is essential.  As is paying some attention to where you're supposed to get off.  This approach can turn a trip to Boston into a visit to the coast of Maine, and it can also fix all of those gaping holes in that paper outline.  

  •  Ok what we need to write (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SensibleShoes, terrypinder

    is a fantasy slash everything else novel featuring prominent political personalities.  Here is a passage:  Kos, Glenn Beck, Nancy Pelosi, Black Belt Jones and others on Skull Island!

    "I hit the ground hard and must have been knocked out.  When I woke up I could see that I was in the brush in some jungle.  There was a huge wooden wall in front of me.  Figures danced in torchlight on what looked to be a platform and there was the sound of drums and jungle chanting!

    "Kong! Kong! Kong!" they chanted.

    "Help," I asseverated.  And fainted.

    When I woke up it was daylight.  I swear it.  I saw some black guy in a grass skirt smoking a cigarette not 50 feet away.  There were other black guys behind him holding spears.  My first instinct was to call out but the spears made me nervous.  I slowly began to crawl back into the bush and then he saw me.  And screamed.  They all screamed and began running away from me.  I screamed and began running the other way stumbling deeper into the jungle.  I would have kept running if a net hadn't fallen on me from somewhere.   I felt a stinging sensation on my thigh as if I had been shot and the last thing I saw was a little green man holding a strange looking miniature rifle jabbering and and pointing at me.

    But when I woke up again I was back before the great wall!  Savages chanted that awful name

    I saw that Black Belt Jones was beside me looking in terror at the dancers on the platform.

    "Man, I know this muddefuggin movie."

    I saw that others were there crouched in the darkness.

    Missy Pelosi I saw and Beck the Simple...

    I tried to reason with them.

    "Let's get the fuck out of here!" I screamed.  But it was too late.

    Rough hands seized us and quickly tied us up.  We were carried to the wall and from somewhere a net was lowered.  We were all thrown roughly into the net  I could see that we had been captured by some of the guys I had seen standing around the day before..or was it a dream...?  The one I had seen smoking a cigarette rasped a command in some uncouth tongue:

    And the net was raised.   I saw that Beck and Kos were also with us and I wondered whether we few were all who were left.  More savages grabbed us and hauled us out of the net.  I was taken first and bound to a stake in the center of the platform close to the edge.  I looked down and could see the savages milling around below and what looked like sinister machines on wheels -- as I looked one of then wheeled closer to me and I thought I saw a figure seated in it looking at me and then I was blinded as some kind of supernatural light came on suddenly.  

    The chanting became louder and more rapid.  I heard Missy Pelosi scream and could -- half blinded as I was -- see that she was carried to another small platform in front of me and left there. What happened to her clothes?  Beck the Simple was tied to a stake next to me and Black Belt on the other side.  He was raving that he was a "brother" or something.  Then I couldn't see Missy Pelosi or the Kos but heard Beck the Simple’s voice behind me telling BlackBelt to shut up.  There was a sudden fetid wind from the jungle.  The moon seemed huge.  Torches threw a goblin light on the scene and the savages began their dance -- their sacrificial dance I knew ...just as I knew we had landed on Skull Island sometime... I was guessing... before 1933.  There was a scream -- all the savages screaming at once and the drums began their mad music and the chant


    and then he came... a black shadow in the jungle at first at least 50 feet high and King Kong came shambling out of the jungle, paused in the moonlight and gave a great roar.

    The drums fell silent.  

    And Missy Pelosi screamed

    as King Kong leaned over her half naked figure.

    By God he had that familiar gleam in his eye!

    Missy screamed again in what I thought was a rather interested way and the great ape peered closer.

    Missy wriggled and screamed and screamed and wriggled and King Kong reached forward with his huge hairy hand...

    and plucked  -- stake and all -- from the platform...KOS!  

    Kos seemed to relax into his hand as Kong brought him closer.

    I knew what had happened!

    "By God, that ape is gay," I shouted.  

    Missy stopped screaming and looked confused.
    I shouted to her.  "Quick, untie us!" and she bounded forward and I was loose.  In seconds the rest were free.  The savages looked confused but I knew we only had a little time.  Kong gave a great roar and began to turn.

    "Quick," I screamed.  Jump for the ape!  It's the only way." And we all jumped onto Kong.  Beck the Simple jumped a bit late but managed to grab the hair around his rear as he moved away.  The smell was horrible but were were alive and the ape loped off into the jungle.  As I looked back I thought I saw figures in khaki moving in the moonlight and as I looked down I saw Beck grimly holding on to the great beast's ass.  

    I reflected briefly on the wonders of creation.  Up above me -- in the darkness -- Kos was singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

    Life is beautiful, my friends.  And strange.  

    Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high,
    There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.
    Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue,
    And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
    Someday I'll wish upon a star
    And wake up where the clouds are far behind me,
    Where troubles melt like lemon drops

  •  Well he gets stuck up Kong's anus (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    and is only expelled when Kong topples from the Empire State Building.  He survives and gets a job with Fox News,

  •  Now consider (0+ / 0-)

    this baby starts in media res.  Like Homer's novels did...but what would an editor have done with Moby Dick?

    "Call me Ishmael."  Hmm that doesn't work.  Look Herman... I'm moving the part where Ahab goes after Moby to the front..see... a flash forward... and we'll put it in italics!  That always works!  And you need to develop the Queegqueeg Ishmael thing a bit more... I mean they're sleeping together!  But what do you do with it?  Nothing much...see...

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