Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Pre-Writing Preparation

Don't you love hearing other writer's pre-writing preparations? I'm in awe of anyone who says, "Oh, I just open a file and start typing. The story comes to me as I write."

That's so not me! I can actually picture myself banging my forehead against the keyboard or bursting open a leftover bag of Halloween candy like a pinata over my open mouth. To say I'm a plotter is putting it mildly.

I'm not going to bore you with all of the details of my pre-writing process, but I am going to share my favorite pre-writing method, and I hope you'll share yours too.

What's the number one tool I rely on to get ready to write a first draft?

The scene list.

Sounds scary, doesn't it? A bit intimidating, no?

At first, it is, but by the time I begin my scene list, I already know the main parts of the plot. I'm just connecting them with scenes. My scene list evolves as I find better ways to utilize it.

I type all of the scenes into an Excel spreadsheet. There are seven columns:
1. Scene Number
2. Point of View (POV)
3. Setting
4. What do they want?
5. Why can't they have it?
6. Plot points
7. Chapter

1. Scene Number--Since I usually write more than one scene per chapter, I number my scenes.

2. POV--I ask myself which character has the most to lose in this scene? This also helps me keep a good ratio of hero/heroine POV scenes. I can tell at a glance if one is overtaking the book. And yeah, I'll admit that I color code the names. The heroine is pink, and the hero is blue. Go figure!

3. Setting--I keep it simple. The place, day, time, and who is in it. Example: Pat's apt. (Fri. night, L, P) This tells me Lindsey and Patrick are at his apartment Friday night.

4. What do they want?--Since each scene should have a goal and disaster, it's important to decide ahead of time what the scene goal is. It's easier for me to think in terms of character's desires, so I reworded it from "scene goal" to "what do they want?" It could be as simple as the hero wants to get the heroine out of his apartment. (This scene would be told from the hero's POV, since he's the one with the goal.)

5. Why can't they have it?--This is the disaster portion of the scene goal/disaster. If the hero wants the heroine out of his apartment, this is why he can't get her out. It could be that she refuses to leave, or starts crying about her dead grandmother, or whatever reason works for your plot.

6. Plot Points--This is where you jot in where the scene fits into the book. I fill in the major plot points first: Hook, Catalyst (to leave ordinary world), Doorway #1 (they decide to leave ordinary world), Mid-point (false high or false low), All is Lost (Black Moment), Doorway #2 (solution to all is lost), and Finale. Then I go in and label the between scenes with what needs to be achieved in each.

7. Chapter--I type the chapter and scene number for that chapter. 14:2 signifies chapter fourteen, scene 2. I keep the amount of scenes in each chapter, three and under. So if it's a major plot point scene, the chapter may only have one.

That's it. My absolute most useful pre-writing tool.

Okay, time to pony up. What's your favorite pre-writing tool?

Join me on Friday, when we discuss mental preparation for writing a first draft.


  1. You ARE a plotter...and I am impressed and a teeny bit jealous! For my first and only book(so far), the most "prep" I did was figure out "what happens next" and then pound out a quick brainstorm (on computer) to cover the main points. I actually typed "Okay, so this is what happens. A. ends us shotting G. because she thinks he's a thief who has broken in.." I pretend I'm telling an imaginary friend "about" the scene. I'll include exclamation points and "oh, and then you won't believe this, BUT...." just to keep myself writing and to keep my emotional energy up before I have to force myself into that daunting/thrilling task of "showing, not telling" with just the right words. Patrice

  2. Excel spreadsheet? Wow, you ARE thorough! I love it! LOL

    I wish I were that detailed. I pride myself on being very organized around my home and desk, but my writing notes are a MESS. :)

    I usually do a brief 1 or 2 page outline listing G,M, & C of each main character and then I jot down a few scenes I'd like to work in or need to show. I kind of outline as I write, but I always go in knowing what the black moment will be.

  3. Wow, I admire your thorough preparation. I can see how that benefits you too, as you'll have no plot surprises, you won't get to a certain point and be left hanging, the plot points are already worked out. Kudos to you. I like to outline before I start, and modify it as I go. And I love research, which I do beforehand to inform the story. It definitely helps layer the work.

  4. Oh don't I wish I could prepare. I feel as though God is saying to me "I will give you the ideas when you are ready to start." I have to just sit down and start and the story starts to come. Now revisions are another thing altogether. They need some structure, analysis etc. and that's when I ask myself the hard questions and get serious. Another distraction for me is that I am an artist and I love houses and there are usually significant houses in my stories and I could spend hours drawing those houses, interiors and exteriors instead of just writing the story.
    So, just sitting down and writing unprepared is actually a more focused way for me to write, which makes no sense at all!

  5. Oh, dear, I'm the pinata type. I do very little pre-planning, research for location and character careers I do, but as far as plotting out the story with scenes, no way!!!

    Although, I really would love to try that some time, so I'm keeping this post handy. I do think the story out in general terms, know my moral premise and where I want the story to go, but there is no formal planning involved at all. Scary, really!

  6. Coffee! :D

    I love your list. I'm working through Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel workbook right now and it is pumping this up for me. My list for my WIP was actually quite similar to yours...scene related.
    ~ Wendy

  7. Jill, I so admire the way you can plot and stick to it. I try to use this same spreadsheet system you shared with me, but I can only plot a bare skeleton and let the 'meat' of the story come as I write.

  8. Good morning!!

    I have Internet access again and, let me tell you, I'm a very happy lady this morning!

    Patrice: Oh yes! That works great! I love your idea of telling an imaginary friend (I think I'll name mine Francois) what happens next. Cool!

    Jennifer: Don't you think writers have natural instincts about how to tell a story? I do not think plotting is necessary for everyone--but it is for me!

    Joanne: Research! I could get lost for days in research. Isn't it fun? And you're right about the reasons I plot. Also, it's made me a faster writer. I could get to the same place in my book without a plot, but I couldn't finish my books in the same amount of time.

    Wendy: What a great comment! To sit and know that God will give you the words you need--very inspiring!

    Eileen: Not scary--it works for you! We all have methods that work for us. I think better with a pen and paper in my hands. It's just who I am. Other people think best all in their heads. There is no one right way!

    Wendy: Coffee :) I'm enjoying a cup right now. Yummy! My girlfriend Connie lent me that D.M. book. It's fabulous!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  9. Connie: I just mentioned you! Ha! Ha! Yeah, we have to find the method that works best for us, not the one that works great for someone else!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  10. Wow, I envy you! I'm a mix, but reside more in the pantser side than the plotter side. The most I can do (and hopefully I can do this, for my current WIP I can't yet because I don't know what's going to happen), is write a chapter number and one word for what will happen in it... possibly one word representing each scene if I get really lucky!

  11. I always say I want to plot more, but usually get mired down in the process. I have found that, for me, it works best if I know a starting point and ending point for each chapter and then just go with the flow.

    I love hearing how other writers work and think :D

  12. That's some very intense and organized plotting. Normally I know the main parts of the plot and the characters and then I just start writing. The first...several chapters :D are always a challenge and then the second half of the book comes quickly and I can't seem to stop.

    But! With the NaNo manuscript I did the opposite and plotted and plotted, sort of like what you do. Each chapter by scene, pov, setting, thoughts the characters had, specific things they would converse about if I already had an idea. As specific as I could make it. And ah...the beginning was so much easier. I'm cruising along. So, we'll see how the second half of the book goes once I get there :D

  13. Plotting? Pre-writing? Ya'll are speaking a foreign language. :P No, the most pre-writing I do would be to "get-to-know" my main characters. Even then, I'm still learning as I write.

  14. I'm stealing the color coding your POV scenes. One POV is definitely hogging all the glory.

    This is my first time plotting, and I love it. In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein outlines his chapters in a similar way. Very clean.

  15. People not involved in a creative endeavor have the misconception that the writer/artist just whips out a pen or brush and voila. My favorite pre-creative tool is a pencil and scrap of paper. I make thumbnails to use as layouts for commission work. If I hate the design at 2", working it at a larger size isn't going to improve it. I'll do a half or a dozen and then choose the one I like best.

  16. one pre-writing tool i have to do the GMC chart. if i don't have an idea what motivates my characters to achieve what goals and what stands in the way, i have no idea where i'm going. i don't break it down by scene before hand (but afterward...weird, i know), although your list sounds great.

    sorry i've been absent lately. it'll be sketchy for the next week or so b/c i'm going to moving across country to cali again and starting my first full-time job in 2 years. yikes!

    The Character Therapist

  17. Kristen T: No need to envy--we all have methods that work for us! I'm intrigued by your one-word chapter summary. I might try that!

    Tess: I throw away all methods that don't work for me--and it sounds as if detailed plotting does not work for you. Throw it out and stick your tongue at it! I like the chapter summary too.

    Cindy: It's great to hear your first half is rolling along! Congrats!

    Ralene: Oh, definitely! We have to know our main characters!

    Tamika: Mine do that too--scene hoggers! Hmm...Sol Stein...might have to check that one out!

    CJ: Yeah, I don't have that misconception! It takes a lot of work, doesn't it?

    Jeannie: The GMC chart is extremely important, especially in romances. I use it too. And congrats on your exciting job news! I hope the move is stress-free!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  18. Sounds like you've got a great process going, Jill! I've posted an award for you @ my site! Stop by @ your earliest convenience! God bless you!

  19. Wow. I'm one of those SOTP writers. And I have to tell you I admire people who can do all that plotting and still keep their passion for the story. I've tried to plot, honestly, I have. But, by the time I plot out the story, I've lost my passion for it and the words fall like cardboard on the page.

    What I have to do is write out a very short - usually one page - outline. That way I know what the end of the story is going to be and what the message of the story is. But I have the choice to keep the whichever, whenever, whatever, POV/time/scene that will keep my passion for the story alive as I'm typing.

    I love how God made us all so different, yet we can still accomplish the same things by going about them different ways. :)

  20. Jill. I like your method. I sometimes do some but not all of the pre-writing things you do. Your method is much more specific. I think it'll help me focus on my WIP. Thanks for sharing this. It reminds me of some of the writing advice Jack M. Bickham gives in his books and he was a master.

  21. I am green over here. I would love to be even half this organized, but trying only seems to block my ability to write. I have to sit down to a blank screen to do anything productive.

    My favorite pre-writing tool? Getting enough sleep the night before. O:)

  22. Wow, I'm impressed, Jill. But since I only have about an hour a day, If I did this much planning, I'd never write!

    Most of my pre-writing planning consists of fervent pleas for help and whatever candy I can lay my paws on. I also read books in my genre to prime the muse.

  23. My favorite tool is my plot board from which I create my scene by scene document. I don't use a spreadsheet, but rather type out scene summaries in order.

  24. Maria: Thanks for the kind words and the award!

    Lynette: You're a pantster--wow! My poor brain needs notes! Your outline summary sounds cool, kind of like a synopsis.

    Paul: Jack M. Bickham's classic "Scene and Structure" is on my shelf. Love that book!

    Danyelle: You're right! Sleep is so important!

    Jeanette: Need a Nestle Crunch bar? I've got a bowl full of them downstairs!

    Erica: Scene summaries?? You're talking my language! Yum!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  25. Wow, I am impressed. How lovely would it be to know exactly where you are headed when you start a book!

    I really wish I could write like that, but alas. I wrote an scene by scene outline for my NaNo book and guess how long I stuck to it--4 pages. Then the characters did something wildly different from what I'd planned for them and the rest of the outline was rendered useless.

    Maybe someday I can plot ahead and have it work out. It sounds so nice!

  26. I'm in awe! Honestly, I get a lot of teasing and jokes about my planning and organization. I'm impressed with how well you have your stories mapped out. I plan out my stories but not to that extent. After my initial idea pops into my head, I start writing things down from there.

  27. Funny that you are in awe of those who can just sit down and write without the planning. I am in awe of those who can plan :) I would love to be able to control my writing in this way. I would love to be able to think of plans that are half as good as what happens when I just sit down and write. I guess that is what makes us all unique. We working in such different ways. I look forward to your next post.

  28. I know this was said a lot, but I'm really impressed. I've never wrote a book, but I'm thinking about it. My strength is in editing hence my business and blog, but AS SOON AS I start writing something, I'm coming back to THIS post and reading it again.

    I'm a planner as well so I can see how this would really help me get going.

  29. Research... At least the book I'm writing came from an idea, I researched it and put the story together in a fun way from the research.

  30. Natalie: The plot doesn't surprise me as I go along, but the characters usually do. Man, I love writing a first draft! But listen--we all have our best way of doing something, and if plotting gets in your way, don't do it!

    CMOM: Don't you love those ideas that pop in? I'm constantly scribbling notes and leaving them on my desk. Fun!

    Tabitha: Right on! You put that so well. We all have our strengths--writing by the seat of my pants is NOT one of mine!

    Brittany: Oh, you'll be a fabulous writer. Start that children's book. Write for the pure joy of it!

    J.J.: Welcome! Research is one of my fave pre-writing tools too! But I can get a wee bit obsessed with it ;)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  31. Oh, we are so similar! I'm a psychotic plotter...can't imagine writing without an outline. I outline all my scenes much the same way you do, but not in a spreadsheet. Spreadsheets intimidate me. :)

  32. What do they want?
    Why can't they have it?

    I love this part Jill! I need to do that so I am sure my scenes move along!! THanks!

  33. I'm going to do a post on plotting. It is EVIL to me. But maybe a necessary evil. :)

    But Jill, I am one of the writers that just starts typing. I do have a general outline of the story in my head, but I start typing and the characters take me where they want to go. I'm trying to learn plotting. So hopefully when I post about it, you'll come by and let me know what you think. :)

    Great post. I love the scene list. It boggles my mind though. Is it hard or does it all just fall into place? ARGH! Writing is not for the faint of heart. :)

  34. Wow! You're so organized. And helpful. Maybe I should adopt some of your ways!

  35. very organized! I guess I could do that.. but I don't know.. I'm more of a brainstormer I think.

  36. Nice post. This subject is always interesting to me. With my first several stories, I really just started writing with absolutely no direction. I like the results, but there was a lot of frustration involved, and it would take me forever to finish. Lately, I've been experimenting with outlines, but it still feels a bit unnatural to me. I'm going to keep working with them, though. I think I just need to adapt them to my needs. I've been wondering if I should start with just massive amounts of freewriting and THEN do the outlining after that initial material is out in the open.

  37. I need a quick and dirty mental outline of where I'm going. Every scene must have a point to educate the reader in some way. I love your list!

  38. Katie: "Psychotic plotter." I love that term! That's what we are--psychotic plotters! :)

    Terri: I know, don't those questions make sense? For some reason my brain could not process "scene goal." I understood the concept but I'd freeze. Re-wording it opened my mind!

    Robyn: I salute you! Opening a file and writing--wow! Again, NOT me! As for the scene list, once I have the major turning points in my head, the rest is just logically filling in blanks. I don't find it hard, but it does take a lot of thought.

    Janna: I'm drawn to finding the best method for me, so with each book, I tweak my approach. This pre-writing method fits me like a glove, but I know it wouldn't fit many others. It's fun to try different things, though!

    Shelby: Welcome! Brainstorming--fun! It's especially great when you can brainstorm with other writers. I love that!

    Davin: Oh, I think you should try the freewriting and then a basic outline. It sounds like it would fit you great!

    T.Anne: Quick and dirty--I am enjoying that phrase WAY too much! Ha!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  39. Wow! All I do is jot down a few notes in a notepad and then go at it. I'm impressed.

  40. Susan: Are you kidding me? I think it's cool that you can write a book with a few notes!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  41. Whoa!!! I think this spreadsheet of yours just became my favorite pre-writing tool! I love spreadsheets, and I love how you use yours. I played around with a spreadsheet, and it was just too big. I'm great with a spreadsheet of numbers, but with writing I wasn't figuring it out. Now, thanks to you, I'm on it! Thanks.

  42. Heather: I keep the font small, the rows narrow, and I only put in the most basic info. It's concise, easy to read, and I love it. Hope yours works just as well. Good luck!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!


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