Six impossible things

Making it up in general

Writing fiction comes in two parts: making it up, and writing it down. For some writers – the seat-of-the-pants sort who just sit down and wing it – the two things happen simultaneously, or at least so close together that it is practically impossible for anything working at the speed of a normal human brain to distinguish any difference. For them, it feels like a one-part process. For the rest of us, not so much. Nevertheless, this is as close to a universal rule as anything in writing comes: you have to make stuff up, and you have to write it down.

Making stuff up is how one gets from that incomplete idea or inspiration I was talking about last week to something that’s ready to write. It’s also a large part of getting from ready-to-write to a finished draft, even for the people who do almost all of their making-up-stuff in advance of sitting down to write.

Every writer I’ve met struggles with some part of the process. OK, everybody I know struggles with the “write it down” part, but that’s mainly a discipline-and-time-management thing for most of us. The “make it up” part is a significantly bigger problem for most people, but it manifests in different ways.

For starters, the timing for making stuff up varies, writer to writer and story to story. In other words, you can make stuff up before you ever start writing, you can make it up as you are writing (either between writing sessions while you’re on the bus or in the shower, or during pauses where you stop production for a few days or weeks to fill in or develop some bit you didn’t happen to make up earlier), or you can make up stuff after you’ve finished a rough draft and realize that the story needs some things that aren’t in it yet.

Furthermore, there are lots of different things that need to be made up, characters, plot, and background being the most obvious and central. Even with the central things, some people do a lot of it in advance, and others do it while they are in mid-draft.

There are a few generalizations that I can tentatively make about this. First, hardly anyone I know makes up the physical details of every room in the book in advance. To some extent, this is because writers are lazy, and there’s too great a chance that a tiny plot shift will mean that the characters are never actually in the murder victim’s library, so why waste a bunch of time and brain cells working out the type of wood used for the shelves, the description of the wallpaper, curtains, and furnishings, and the placement of the books? Even if the characters are going to spend several scenes in the library, odds are good that the author won’t need to describe everything in detail. So most of us leave that part until the characters are actually in the library doing something.

The general background, history, and backstory are more varied. Some writers like to know how everything works before they start writing; others don’t like to be too specific about the backstory or the way the government or theatrical companies work because they want room to make up things on the fly, when the story needs it.

Characters, on the other hand, are a split decision. Some writers “write their way into” their characters (even going so far as to call them “A” and “B” until halfway through the story), while others work out their whole life story in advance and know exactly what each character is like before they start writing. Similarly, some people work out their plot in advance, while others just set their highly-developed characters in motion and wait to see what happens.

Making it up doesn’t need to happen in order. (Neither does writing it down, but that’s a different part of the process.) This applies to every aspect of the making-up – that is, one doesn’t have to start with a character, then develop the background, then the plot, in that order (or any other order); one also doesn’t have to start with a particular character’s childhood, work through their adolescent traumas, and then go on through their twenties, thirties, and forties. Nor does one have to start developing the setting with the founding of the town or the nation. And almost nobody I know develops their entire plot in order (except the pantsers who are making it up in order as they go…and even they quite often end up having to rearrange bits or insert new scenes to support something that happens later in the story).

Writers have different approaches to making stuff up, depending on the type of story, the elements that need to be filled in, and where they are in the writing-it-down process. How I work on a story idea that’s in the early stages of coming together is different from the way I work on a story that’s hit the first veil (that point somewhere in the first ten to thirty percent of the story where everything seems to have run out of steam and you suddenly have no idea how to proceed to the next scene, let alone get from where you are to the distantly-envisioned climax). What I do during the mid-book stage is different again, as is the second-draft process. And working through cryptic editorial suggestions varies yet more from any and all of the above.

So that’s what I plan to talk about for the next few posts – making stuff up at different stages of the story, and in different directions (getting from plot to characters, or from setting or situation to plot, or from characters to plot or setting). All of these things overlap, of course, especially once one has written more than a couple of pages of the story, but I’m hoping that I can make something coherent out of taking it all apart and then trying to put it back together.

  1. One of my problems with the writing-it-down part is on the micro level where the words start squirming, and the dialog, the description, or the narrative want to meander off to the side for a long discussion about chocolate cake or an infodump essay on the interaction between glassblowing and magic. This, when I need to have the characters speculate about the mysterious blood-stained letter, or for a beaker of elixir to boil over, in order to advance the plot.

  2. Thank You! You are the first person who has ever mentioned pausing to make stuff up between writing sessions. That’s exactly how I work, and it is very easy to feel like I’m making no progress because suddenly there will be days when, instead of racking up pages on my computer, I’m filling out post-it-notes which doesn’t feel nearly as much like progress. 🙂

  3. So that’s what I plan to talk about for the next few posts – making stuff up at different stages of the story, and in different directions

    Ooh, goody!

    While I still prefer to leave the making-up to my back-brain, and it comes through more often than not, more tools in the toolbox for when that doesn’t happen is always a good idea.

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