NaNoWriMo 2009: Prewriting, NaNo Style

Prewriting is a tough subject to talk about, because it’s even more personal than drafting, and maybe that’s a good place to start: whatever prewriting you choose should reflect not just your writing style but your personality.  And because it’s NaNoWriMo and you plan to do all your writing in a contained period, you’ll want to strive to make your prewriting as focused and efficient as possible.  But really, the most important part of all is to make it personal. As such, all I can talk about is what I do, but I’ll do my best to unpack it in a meta-way so that I’m identifying why I do it as much as if not more than what I do.

Prewriting by definition is the work you do before writing story: it’s the way you get to know the story and/or get yourself in the place where you can sit down and write it.  For some people this is charts and graphs and maps.  For some people it’s doing dry-runs of scenes, playing with characters and letting them talk.  For some people it’s quite literally letting characters talk in the form of autowriting (basically opening up a document and letting the character answer you back when you ask them questions).  In Heidi-land, prewriting is music and visuals and a hell of a lot of daydreaming, and when I’m prewriting for NaNoWriMo, my prewriting approaches something close to tribal ritual.

I’ve done the outlines and the maps, and eventually usually do have at least a mental plan of how the story is going to go, but I’ve stopped bothering with putting it down on paper because it never happens the way I outline it and I end up just wasting time.  If I’m stuck on a scene I’m known to fill the 4×6 foot markerboard across from my desk with brainstorming and even a rough sketch of beats (that’s like a bullet-point march through the main actions of the scenes), but even then, just for the one scene, it never happens like I plan.  But this brings up an important point: prewriting is the work you do for your brain as much for your story.  If you need an outline to feel okay, then you write an outline.  Just don’t be upset (and don’t resist) if the story wants to go somewhere else when you sit down to write it.  Make maps, make plans, and seriously, do sit for hours and bask in the brilliance of your plans.  Maybe even indulge in an evil laugh or two, because you’ll need that ego later.  

I make playlists in iTunes.  Currently I only have one (that will change) and it’s 119 songs strong.  I’ll delete some of those songs later, and add others, and I’ll parse it out into "moods," and given the lack of instrumentals in that one, I’ll be scouring my hard drive for something appropriate or running back to iTunes.  However it happens, though, sound is key, and it’s my first lesson in letting go.  It’s not unheard of for me to pick up music for a story playlist that I have previously detested.  My life has also gotten a lot easier (but more expensive) since they put the Genius suggestion bar on the side of my iTunes player, because I can start with one song that leads me into a whole new world of sound. The playlists I create go with me wherever I go, and I listen to them while I do dishes, laundry, drive around to pick up my daughter or even grocery shop.  Certain songs usually start to stand out, and they’ll eventually get put on repeat while I sit in the quiet and just let them wash over me.  I don’t know what the music does exactly, but it seems to paint some sort of underlayment color on my psyche, and at the very least it’s fertilizer.

The other thing that I do is make a digital collage.  I’m a Mac girl, and so I use Curio brainstorming software.  I’m several versions behind now, but honestly, they’re improving index cards and all sorts of things that are fabulous, but I just slap images up there and layer them, so I’m happy with what I’ve got.  Sometimes I photoshop images in Adobe, but not always: basically, I just google the crap out of the internet, hunting down character images and something to stir the story every time I open my desktop. Currently this is what I’m working with:

(click a few times to make it big)

I’ve set it as my "cover art" on my NaNoWriMo page even though technically it’s too big and would make a lousy cover.  This isn’t about making a cover (though I did send the HERO collage to the art department with the spec sheet when they had me fill it out). This is about facial expressions and colors and the general feel of it.  For whatever reason Ethan needed to be shirtless (lower right), but it’s the haunted, dead look on his face that really catches me when I see the image.  Even the fanned out hand of cards is important.  The logline makes me roll my eyes (though it’s not half as bad as my novel summary on the NaNoWriMo profile page), but that’s because at this point any text I push on this story is just that, me trying to drive.  And this brings me to the meat of my prewriting and why everything I do is practically voodoo: for me, prewriting is about getting out of the way.

I’ve studied a lot about the how-to of writing.  I’ve read about beats and arcs and I know far more than I should about plot.  I don’t think that any of that academic knowledge is bad, and I think I use it more than I know.  But what I also know is that if I write from that cold place, my writing is dead.  Other people can manage it, but I can’t, and my stuff sucks when I try.  The only constant for me about writing is that it must feel like racing at ninety into the void.  It must feel so dangerous that I sometimes literally curl up in a ball and feel cold with terror.  I get so sucked into it that I often have to be dragged kicking and screaming back into reality.  For me drafting isn’t just a dramatic ride, it MUST be, or it doesn’t work.  I don’t for a second think that all writing must be that way, but mine does.  I’ve sussed that much out, and I’ve made peace with it.  

That’s the advice I’d give anybody about prewriting: know yourself, know your work, and find the way to get the two to make nice.  I come at story as brassy, loud, and rather bossy.  I think the story approaches me from a mystical standpoint because it’s the only way left, the only gate I haven’t guarded.  My fear is being out of control, so that’s what it gives me.  When I write, I learn things about myself and the world, and the only way that happens is if it comes in a way I’m not expecting.  It makes sense in an abstract way, and even if it doesn’t, it’s what I’ve got.

Prewriting for NaNoWriMo has to be fast and efficient.  I’m starting now and have a month, but usually I’m drafting by now.  Usually when I draft I write at least six or seven openings: I do the first third of the story so many times that I usually have to take a break from it after a month because I’m so sick of it.  Usually I find the story by wrestling with it, by cursing at it, and by pleading with it.  Usually I spend a lot of time trying to drive, declaring THIS IS WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT! and it lets me do that for awhile until it’s bored, and then it throws a wrench at my head and it’s back to the beginning again.

That’s my usual way.  During NaNoWriMo, though, there is this declaration that I will do the whole thing IN A MONTH, and as such, the prewriting voodoo gets deeper and weirder, and everybody plays nicer.  I don’t try to drive as much.  The story doesn’t hide as much.  I "write" in my head, watching internal screenings of plot lines, enjoying them (and my own brilliance) until the sparks die, the brilliance fades, and I sit with the failed ideas, trying to decide why they didn’t work.  I get to know characters by thinking about them.  I find plot by imagining.  I listen to songs over and over and let plot form from them; I stare at images and glean details of character from tics in cheeks and sparkles in eyes.  

I do some maps.  I have a Scrivener file with imported Web pages talking about Las Vegas.  I have a cast of characters and the name of the fake casino and a map of where Ethan is from.  Mostly I have this stuff because I forget names a lot, and I want to be able to reference things as fast as possible during November, and by having them in Scrivener (even the web pages), they go with me even when I move the file to the laptop.  I have a pretty good idea of what the first scene will be (at least for now), and I think I know the plot.  I’m reading a ton about poker, and we’re planning on visiting a local casino on Saturday, unless it snows. (!!!!) But mostly what I am doing is soaking in story.  I’m riding on instinct, letting the story tell me what it needs.  If it wants Beyoncé, it gets Beyoncé.  If it wants to learn poker, I learn poker.  It really wanted a trip to Las Vegas, but I had to say no to that, so I’m watching lots of movies and looking at images online.  

I’m helped a lot, yes, by the fact that this story is a spin-off of one I’m just wrapping up now.  I’ve actually never written something completely cold for NaNoWriMo: it’s always a redraft or a sequel.  If I wrote something cold, I’d probably spend some time in October writing dummy scenes, setting up characters in role-plays or even just dry-runs because that’s the biggest way I learn character.  Or I’d do something different because that’s what the story tells me, because that’s how I write.

Bottom line once again is that I prewrite the way my story and my process tell me I need to.  November is about drafting at high speed.  October is a month-long meditation on process and self.  Frankly, sometimes October is scarier.

Do what works.  Do what feels right.  And have fun.  Writing story is going into a world that no one else can access.  It’s a sacred trust, yes.  But it’s also the best and biggest and most you-centered party you’re ever going to throw.  Wear killer shoes, and dance until you can’t stand up anymore, and even then, keep wiggling while you lay in exhausted bliss on the floor. NaNoWriMo is the month when anybody who shows up can write a novel.  October is the month where you convince yourself to believe that in whatever way works best for you.

5 Comments on “NaNoWriMo 2009: Prewriting, NaNo Style

  1. Thanks for this post! Some of what you wrote about might work for me, and some won’t, but I’m glad to have the suggestions! I’m going to try just playing with some scenes and autowriting, just to see who and what my character does. I don’t even know her name yet!
    I’m hoping after I do that, I’ll have several characters, and possibly an outline. I’m definitely an outline kind of girl.

    • I tend to outline, but I include character descriptions/ snippets of dialogue and sometimes whole paragraphs of things I want to include as I go along. But I found with current WIP that the outline is very fluid and open to change as I progress through the chapters.
      I’ve tried it without a map, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I–personally–need some form of direction. Pantsing is not for me!
      Your image collage was really interesting; it’s not something I do but I can see how it would be useful. I also don’t tend to do playlists, but that’s because it would take me so long to decide what I was going to use that I wouldn’t get any writing done. 🙂 I tend to repeat an album when I’m writing, but it won’t be something that I selected to *specifically* be the music for that WIP. (I’m not that organised, to be honest.)

      • Yeah, I’m not sure where this comes from for me. I really think it’s a compensation for my natural inclination to over-plan.

  2. This is really interesting learning about your approach and what works and doesn’t for you. God, music….. I always have a theme song for my stories. When I’m writing the most crucial scene, I will play the song over and over as if trying to match the rhythm of the story with the song.
    For a long story, I can see having a playlist. I think I will snag that idea from you. 🙂
    I only made a quick outline, basically the title (preliminary) of the chapters. I also made a list of the important characters and now I’m feeling in bits and pieces of their history.
    I don’t want to do too much more than that as I find writing can be pretty magical and as you said you don’t want to put too many restraints on yourself.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • I really do enjoy flailing around most of the time; usually I start with a small playlist and maybe an image or two. I get a little more organized for NaNo because I’m so aware of the time crunch. But I don’t at all think it’s essential for anyone but me.
      I always enjoy reading other people’s processes. It’s like explaining a thumbprint.

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