So if you are going to do some pre-planning before you start writing your book, where do you begin and how do you do it?
As usual, it depends on the writer and the story, but here are a few things to consider:
First, why are you doing the planning? There are two good reasons and one bad one for this. The two good ones are 1) You have tried advance planning before and found it useful, so you are going to keep doing it, or 2) You have never done any advance planning before, but you think that it is likely to benefit you (or you just hope it will help, possibly with some specific problem you already know you have).
The bad reason, of course, is because somebody else told you that you had to do an outline and/or a ton of planning in advance, and so you think you should. If this is you, please reread my previous post, paying special attention to the part that talks about writers with a different process, and then throw away all the planning stuff and sit down at the computer and surprise yourself.
If you fall into one of the first two categories, the next question is whether you have something specific that you hope to accomplish. If you’ve done this before, presumably you know a bit about what works for you and what doesn’t. If you haven’t – is this a complete experiment, or do you know that you never have a decent plot, or you always have trouble with the characters, or your settings and backstory are never as satisfying as you want them to be?
It is important to think about this stuff because what you hope to achieve by planning has a lot to do with what kind of planning you do, and with where you start. Contrary to what the how-to books generally say, there is no one right place to start planning, and no specific type of planning that is right for every writer.
For instance, if you know that you always default to really generic descriptions, your pre-writing planning might focus on places – figuring out where certain Big Scenes will (probably) occur and making up detailed layouts and descriptions of what makes each place unique. Even without a terribly detailed idea of the plot, one usually can pick out at least a few places where the main character is going to do things: their bedroom, living room, and kitchen; their workplace; their favorite post-work hangout; their best friend’s apartment; the woods they’re going to get lost in or travel through. You may need to stop and come up with some more place-descriptions when you’ve written enough story to know what else you’ll need, but you can probably make up enough to get started.
Or if you know that your characters always lack something, you might focus on that aspect – making lists of people who logically might be in the story, given what you know about its plot and where/when it is set (e.g., cab driver and grocery clerk for a modern city; hostler and mudlark for Victorian steampunk). The idea behind this is not to look at characters you already know you will need, but at all the other folks who could be around and might be useful to know about at some point, the minor characters that you might not otherwise think about but who can make events more real-feeling just by running through a scene in the background.
If it’s the major characters who give you fits, you might find writing a description of everyone’s relationship to everyone else helpful. Or possibly one of those fill-in-the-blank character sheets would work for you. Or, since many writers get to know their characters by writing them, writing a couple of scenes from different characters’ viewpoints – scenes that don’t belong in this story, or at least, that you don’t intend to put in it – can help. Roger Zelazny said that he always wrote a few scenes from his main characters’ pre-story, little incidents that had nothing to do with the novel, before he started writing the actual story. This can be particularly helpful for characters who are important to the plot but who don’t have much stage time and/or who aren’t supposed to be viewpoint characters in the main story.
Maybe it’s the names of imaginary places and cultures that’s your particular problem. On occasion, I’ve made up a bunch of place-names and/or first and last names that I can mix and match later, just so I have a bunch of things that sound right to choose from. I find it a lot easier to make up a list of five or ten names that sound sufficiently similar to come from the same background country/culture, and that will be sufficiently different-sounding from my other list of five or ten names from some other background, if I do all of it at once, up front. But some writers have no trouble getting the same effect by keeping tabs on things like that as they go.
The most common problem that drives writers to do pre-writing planning seems to be problems with plot, and there are a gazillion how-to-do-it methods out there. Most of them seem to start with “what do your main characters want?” or “what is your main character’s problem/goal?” which is fine if that works for you. The first time I heard this, I thought it was a brilliant idea; it took me a while to figure out that that is never where I start looking when I look for a plot.
So before you dive headlong into any of the systems that are out there, stop for a minute and think about whether it feels right to you. Not “right” in the “this is True” sense; right in the “this fits me like a custom-made glove” sense. Because you can start with what your characters want, but you don’t have to. You can start with where they are from, or with what they are afraid of, or with wanting to write about a particular event like Carnival in Brazil or a presidential election or the invention of the printing press.
Lately, I seem to be starting with either a completely outside-the-main-character problem (like a natural disaster that is about to break over my heroine’s unsuspecting head) or with the villain’s Clever Plan and/or backstory. Oddly, this doesn’t mean starting with what the villain wants, necessarily; in the current work-in-development, I have a group of people who commit a murder prior to the start of the story. Of the four or five of them, I know what one of them wants and why he decided to help murder the victim, but the other three? No clue, yet. And I’m not worrying about that part at the moment – I’m more concerned with what each of them does in the ten years or so after the murder and what positions they are in at the start of my current story. Oh, and what the “murder victim,” who is perhaps not as dead as they expected him to be, has been doing all this time.
The point is this: if you are going to spend time on this kind of pre-writing and planning, aim it in a direction that is likely to be useful to you. There is no other reason or purpose for doing it. No editor is going to ask to see your detailed diagrams of the furniture layout in the hero’s sitting room (and if you offer them, the editor will likely groan); no publisher is going to want a look at your character questionnaires or early scenes or plot diagrams. And nobody is going to ask whether the final manuscript follows the plot outline you started with (well, except maybe some grad student looking for something to write a thesis on, but even then it isn’t usual). And if all you need is a list of place-names that sound right, you do not have to laboriously work through a detailed plot-plan or setting list or character questionnaire. Just do the parts that you fine helpful.
Because the only reason to do any of this work is if it helps you perform some aspect of the storytelling more easily and effectively. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a waste of time. If doing any of this gets in the way of your writing, if it’s counterproductive, stop immediately and throw it all away. Ultimately, you are trying to write a story, not create the most detailed database of background notes ever made.