Chip MacGregor

January 6, 2015

Before You Write: Part 1, Learn Your Process


brick green no smile b:wHappy New Year! Maybe 2015 will be the year I finally come up with a name for this Tuesday blog on craft (suggestions are welcome).

In the spirit of new beginnings, I’m going to be spending several weeks talking about some of the pre-writing processes you may find helpful as you get started on your 2015 writing projects. The more manuscripts that come across my desk, the more I’m reminded that being a competent writer does not necessarily make someone a competent storyteller: I’ve read plenty of projects in which decent writing and a good story idea or concept were undermined by significant plot and character problems. And while the surest teacher in these areas is time/experience, there are many exercises and strategies you can employ at the front end of the writing process that can improve your story structure and character development.

Because not every writer needs help in every area, and because each writer’s writing process is different, the first step in creating your pre-writing strategy is to evaluate what kind of writer you are and what pre-writing exercises will be the most helpful to you, personally. The goal of pre-writing is not to give you a dozen hoops  to jump through or a list of ways to help you procrastinate, but to help you make the most efficient use of your writing time by identifying your successes and preemptively shoring up your weaknesses. If your high school experience was anything like mine, you remember the frustration of being required to turn in junk like an outline, research notes, and a rough draft before you could turn in your final draft, just to prove that you went through the “correct” process for turning out a solid paper. (Well, Mrs. Jennings, I wrote my paper first and then created all that other stuff, so there!)

Pre-writing doesn’t have to be like that; you’re an adult, and one of the perks is that you can pick and choose whatever dang pieces of the process YOU actually find helpful. So, to prepare for the next few weeks’ worth of posts, spend some time considering the following questions and forming a picture in your head of the kind of writer you are/what your process looks like, so that you can create a personalized pre-writing plan from the exercises and strategies I’ll be talking about.

  • What are your strong points as a writer? What comes easily to you? Dialogue? Characters? Sub-plots? Settings?
  • What are your weaknesses? Where do you get the most criticism? Where do you find yourself stalling/frustrated?
  • How much content do you create at one time? I.e., do you write in scenes? Chapters? Do you set a word goal for yourself? A time limit?
  • How often do you write? Daily? Weekly?
  • Do you start your writing time by re-reading your latest content, or do you just jump right in?
  • Do you write sequentially, or do you jump around in a story?
  • Do you like to plan out your stories in advance, or just see where the characters take you?
  • Do you develop your characters before writing, or do you discover them as you’re writing?
  • Do you prefer to talk through story problems with another person, or figure them out on your own?

The better you know yourself and your processes, the more effective your pre-writing strategies will be and the more efficient your writing time.

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  • Rene` Diane Aube says:

    Thank you for asking such probing questions, Erin. Looking forward to catching up on the following blog posts. I think I’m looking forward to getting to know myself. 🙂

  • Kathy Halsey says:

    Great, I WAS that English teacher who made my 7th graders turn in outlines & all. I have actually not been doing prewriting and this is a helpful way for me to begin. TY.

  • Ron Estrada says:

    How about “Writing Craft with Erin”? I know, boring. But I’d click on it.

    My approach to pre-writing has morphed into something that is a cross between the Snowflake Method and 52 pick-up. Oddly, I’ve always thought that characters were my biggest weakness, but my beta readers and editor love my characters. Instead, they say I lack description in my early drafts. Easily fixed, but it’s not instinctive yet.

    Since last June, I’ve been on a “draft every 2 months” schedule. All my books now are YA and MG, so shorter than adult reads. It’s still tough, and the edit backlog is growing, but it pushes me to get the words out without thinking too hard on the rough draft. W do have each scene outlined in advance, so that helps.

    Okay, I’m looking forward to your posts. Happy New Year!

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    What about Tuesday Fine Tuning or maybe Tuesday Tune-up or Tuesday Tribulations or maybe something without alliteration that actually makes sense.

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    This is such a fascinating topic for me because I am just beginning to discover some of this. When I was young, I would write when I was inspired. Then in 2001, I started doggedly writing almost every day. Taking writing classes and doing the things they told me to do. There is one ms. that I have been revising for 11 years. As I said, plugging along. Then last year my sister dared me to write a novella for a specific editor who was coming to our local conference. We had 2 months! Was she crazy? I can’t write fast, I need a decade to polish. So I skimmed through a book called “Story Engineering” and Blake Snyder’s blog with examples from his book “Save the Cat” and I wrote down my 6 plot points from the first writing book and I wrote down my 15 story beats from the second book and we wrote our rough drafts in a month and then revised for a month and then pitched our stories and she took both of them! So, I am all confused as to exactly what kind of writer I am, but I am loving using the 6 plot points and the 15 story beats to help me know what the heck I am doing before I write a rough draft. Anyway, it is going to be really interesting to see what everyone else does for prewriting.

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