Preparing to Write: A Not-for-the-Faint-of-Heart Guide

I’ve heard there are some writers who just start.

These writers, if I’m to believe the stories, put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. They stare at the trees beyond their window or the organized desk at which they sit or even the dishes piled in the sink. But instead of seeing these things, they are transported to the corners of their minds where the beginnings of stories reside.

And then, they start.

“I just go where the writing takes me,” these writers say.

“The story has a life of its own,” they assure.

“My characters are in charge,” they chuckle. [Side note: No character should chuckle.]

I do not understand these writers. They are either lying or are a breed entirely foreign to my way of being. I’ve never been able to just start.

As an academic, whether writing a conference paper or a chapter or an entire textbook, I was the picture of preparedness. I would organize all the relevant sources. I would outline. I would consider the structure of my argument so every logical transition made sense. I would take long walks and wait for proper phrases to pop into my head.

Then I would write.

And now that I write creatively, the desire to be prepared, to have all my narrative ducks in a row, remains. I will admit I now understand a bit more about the role of inspiration and serendipity. The concept of a muse makes a bit of a sense. But I’ll be damned if I’m not going to arm that muse with every bit of structure and information possible.

After I finally decided to not revise (for now) the novel I spent all of 2019 writing [you can read about that decision here] it was time to start something new. I’d had an idea percolating for many months. It’s YA historical fiction, set in the late 19th century. That’s all I’ll say about it here—don’t want to give away too much early in the game. But the very fact that it’s historical fiction means it needs SO much preparation—at least to my way of thinking. And so I began.

Phase One

I read all the books I could find about the place and time of my book.

I listened to podcasts.

I searched down obscure blogs about relevant (and probably not-so-relevant) topics.

I cursed the pandemic for keeping me from digging into archives and traveling to places I would really like to see before starting.

I took notes (so many notes!), tried to put my mind in the time and place of the novel, and moved on to …

Phase Two

I considered characters who could populate that setting and make for a compelling story.

I wrote character sketches, and drew possible story arcs for each one of them.

I considered the intersections of those arcs and started to fill them with specific ideas for scenes.

I broke down in frustration, crumpled my half-assed arc graphs, threw index cards with character sketches in the trash, and started over.

After multiple cycles of this, I finally got to …

Phase Three

I put it all in a Scrivener file. [This is the only step in Phase Three, but it is such a satisfying activity it deserves its own phase.]

After all this, I started. I’m 8000 words or so in, and it feels good. The story doesn’t exactly have a life of its own and I still refuse to chuckle about my characters taking charge, but I am, finally, going where the story takes me.

As they say in the world of Twitter, I #amwriting.

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