On we go with another mid-week guest post!
by Matthew J Mimnaugh
Greetings Eternal Scribblers,
My name is Matthew J. Mimnaugh and this is a guest post. Today I’m going to be talking about pre-writing, or the various approaches and tools a writer can implement as a precursor to putting words on the page with the intent of sharing with an audience—it’s an important distinction, trust me. This isn’t a list and I don’t cover everything—not by a long shot. Instead, much like my own blog, it’s a smattering of ideas with a general takeaway. So, without further ado, let us begin:
As much as I hate dichotomies, there are two sides to the spectrum of pre-writing: the prepared approach and the unprepared approach.
During my graduate schooling, I worked with a man named David Poyer—yes the David Poyer that shows up immediately when one jumps on the internet and does the Google.
Anyway—and as might be expected given his background—he approaches writing with military precision, creating detailed outlines, character matrices, and summaries before he writes the first word of a first draft. He told me that he knows every sentence he needs to write before he begins. This epitomizes the “organized approach.”
Now looking to the other side of the spectrum, consider an author whose name might be a touch familiar: Stephen King. Mr. King has an entirely different approach, diving into a book’s first draft as soon as an idea pops into his head. To hell with organization, he sets sail upon the sea of creativity and lets the winds of whimsy decide where the story will go. An anecdote attests that a dying fan wanted to know how The Dark Tower Series ended, but King could not say because he himself did not know. This epitomizes the “disorganized approach.”
Finally, there’s me, included in this list for no other reasons than my own familiarity with myself and to illustrate how spectrum-y the spectrum really is. If I take the King approach, I might come up with a decent story, but not one anywhere near publishable on the first draft—and not for reasons of spelling, mechanics, etc.. If I utilize Poyer’s approach—as I did in grad school—I spend far more time than I personally need and end up with a lot of pent up frustrations.
My method is somewhere in the middle: I put information, ideas, and inspiration together into a world bible and, once there is enough pent up impetus and anticipation, I rocket into a first draft, usually having a strong, but loose, idea of where the story’s going. This is where things get all spectrum-y.
Simply put, Poyer’s approach is efficient, while King’s is fast, but risky, and then there’s most other writers doing their own writer things and such. Writing is a craft, yes, but it is also an art and artists are nothing if not persnickety
Now, to offer my own dewdrops of wisdom to the sea of knowledge, I’d like to examine a hand full of pre-writing strategies. First I’ll go over the ones that I utilize in my own process and then some I don’t. Like everything in writing, it’s good to try each method once, twice, or until adequately familiar and then decided if it is effective enough for one’s own use.
Let’s start with brainstorming. It’s the least specific of the bunch and requires only the mind—and possibly a good pot of tea, mug of cocoa, or perhaps something a bit stronger, as many a writer can attest. This is a great way to crack the nut, so to speak, and get the initial picture of the story in one’s mind. All one needs to do is think and decide, but I find that the best method for my own process is to employ the old “Journalist’s Approach” of asking Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. I personally put a strong emphasize on Why and like dig in a half dozen levels on each layer—I believe this give a story a good foundation in reality, as causality plays a huge role in earth life.
For me, the next thing on the list is the world bible, which is a fancy term for a compendium of all the things that are even tangentially relevant to your story. For example, once I had the brainstorming for my last book done, I began by working out the physics of galaxy, star system, and planet—as radiation, heavy metal dispersion, and inter-magnetosphereric interaction played a significant part of the book.
Next I mapped out the continents, did some anthropology, and went wild with cryptozoology. If you hadn’t guessed, world building is one of my specialties, but your own emphases might concern characters, the plot, or even thematic ideas or the development of tone. Choosing one’s emphasis is where the art comes in, but do be sure to pursue said art with the vigor of craft
Now, on to things that I don’t personally use. First, the outline helps an author structure a piece and ensure everything is there before the writing begins. Personally, I use the first draft as an outline of sorts, but I know plenty of authors that need that structure to get their thoughts organized. Whatever your situation, know an outline can be as detailed or sparse as you desire. My first exposure to outlines was the grade school “Roman numeral, number, letter, etc.” list variety, but David Poyer’s approach had me writing what basically came out to scene summarizing paragraphs.
Another tool I don’t use is freewriting, which is essentially writing without pause in order to generate ideas. I avoid it primarily because my brain works far faster than my hand and my creative juices flow like a tsunami; don’t worry, though, I pay for that blessing with the attention span of a goldfish, dyslexia, and downright pitiful spelling and grammar. We all have our gifts and weaknesses; it is ours to employ and improve them, respectively.
Now those were fairly general and I have no intention of creating an exhaustive list—that’s another thing for Google. What is important and worth your time to read, is the approach one uses with regards to their writing. What is important? What do you assign significance?
Personally, I value the synergistic relationship between characters, plots, settings, and ideas, using tone, mood, POV, etc. as a means to convey them—if writing is cooking, the aforementioned group is the ingredients and the latter is a recipe of sorts. You know your writing better than anyone else so you are best equipped to determine what needs to go into the stew to get the right flavor, so to speak. For me, as said, there’s a huge emphasis on building the world early on and then, once that it known, time is spent working out the plot.
Next, I use the first draft to meet and understand my characters—who often stubbornly change the plot’s direction—and finally, the polishing drafts that refine the ideas and reveal the profound intricacies that my subconscious had been kind enough to develop as we wrote.
All told, it comes down to you. To know yourself and your writing is to have all the information you need to judge whether or not a method of pre-writing is or isn’t effective for your process. Take time to work through your process and experiment. Always be willing to try new things or new permutations of old things. And, finally, write.
Thank you all for reading. I’ve been and will be Matthew J. Mimnaugh, the lovably insane writer from South Florida. If you want to read more from me, visit me on my own blog at https://matthewjmimnaughdotcom.wordpress.com/. My posts are short and regular—barring this last week which has been a nightmare. Also, be sure to subscribe to Ari’s blog here if you haven’t already; her words are a constant source of learning for me and will be to you too, I’m sure. Thanks again for letting me contribute to your awesome blog!
Thank you kindly to Matthew for his great article on Pre-Writing. Do make sure you pop over and check out his blog.
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I’ll be back on Friday with a post as usual.