Last week, I talked about the beginning stages of developing Midnight House into the second book in The Field series. This week, I wanted to talk a little more about pre-writing, how I write, and a little about my drafting process.
What’s It All About?
Every book, every film, every TV series, documentary, and play are about something. Whether the issues presented are profound or topical, these themes are a way to help the writer structure a sense of meaning into the story. All writers want to tell a story about characters going through things they want to discuss with the reader/viewer. These themes can be expressed directly or indirectly, but they are an essential part of crafting a narrative.
For Midnight House, I knew I wanted to continue with Daniel’s story from the first book, so I researched the lasting effects of childhood trauma and its impact on the victim and their families. Needless to say, this was rather grim research, but I found the elements I was looking for to use in the story.
With Kyle, I wanted to explore high school sports but more specifically, sports hazing. This also sent me down a dark road that helped inform Kyle’s arc throughout the story.
This research helped me to nail down these thematic elements to ensure a truth to them while also allowing me to take creative license in how the characters dealt with these specific issues.
While there are many other themes explored in Midnight House, these two overarching story elements help the main characters change and evolve throughout the story.
When you apply for a job, there are many steps people do to get ready. Most people don’t just jump online and start applying; there is work to be done before the hunt begins:
- Research into available jobs one qualifies for.
- Writing a cover letter.
- Crafting a resume.
- Committing people to be personal references or write letters of recommendations.
These steps can take time, and while you may be itching to apply for jobs, taking the time to get the prep work out the way will help you in the long run.
Writing a novel is a lot like this. You want to be prepared. You want to know where the story is going, have a sense of where the characters’ arcs are headed, and know what the story is about. Jumping in headfirst into writing a novel can be an exercise in futility; you probably will run out of steam pretty fast once you realize that you don’t have a plan.
This doesn’t mean you need to plan out every chapter, but you need to sit down and figure out the basics: beginning, middle, end; big story moments; relationships between characters; know your protagonist and antagonist and why they are in opposition. Now you have a basic roadmap to work from. You can change things and alter the route as you go, but giving your story a direction gives yourself a key to completion.
With Midnight House, I sat down with a legal pad and started to map out all these items listed above. It took time, but I needed to get the ideas on paper, figure out sequencing, figure out what story elements should go where, and work on how Daniel’s and Kyle’s stories would intersect throughout the novel.
Last week, I talked about how I have story notes and ideas on my phone, on a legal pad, and on my laptop. Once I had a clearer picture of how the story would unfold, I took the notes from my legal pad and phone and added them to the Word doc on my computer. At this point, the goal was to get them on the computer to be saved; I wasn’t worried about the order they were being added in.
That was the next step. I started a new Word doc and started the painstaking process of going through the notes and putting them into a rough sequence in the new document. Midnight House happens over several days, so I was able to decide what events would happen on what days to help make a more organized – if still rough – outline.
Now I could see the story taking shape. I could see what ideas worked and which ones didn’t in service of the story and characters.
Organizing your notes like this will help you see your story in its rudimentary stages and show you how much more work is to be done to flesh out the story. Read through these organized notes and if an idea comes as you read, add it where you feel it belongs in the story.
Let Your Story Loose in Your Brain
When I’m working on a story, I let it invade my brain 24/7. If I’m on a walk or a run, I’m working out the story. If I’m reading or relaxing, I’m working on the story. If I’m asleep, my brain works on the story. You may not be sitting with a pad and pen or in front of a computer, but these moments of creative thinking allowing your conscious and subconscious mind to work on the story are part of the process.
Make sure when something pops up that gets you excited to write it down and add it to the rough outline when you can.
I used this technique throughout the writing process for Midnight House. I would often find myself stuck on a story element, or maybe even a scene between two characters, and I would allow my brain to process through as many possible outcomes as possible. When the right decisions kicked in, and the ideas started to flow, I knew I had the missing piece to help me move the chapter and story forward.
This is all part of the process and a needed part at that.
My Writing Process
I’ll let you in on a little secret: as a writer, I lack discipline. I don’t write every day. I don’t set hard and fast goals for myself. I often will choose to watch a movie or a TV show instead of writing. I sometimes get anxious and overwhelmed at the thought of writing something as big as a novel.
And, yet, I’ve written two. So, how did that happen?
When it comes to writing, I take a filmmaking approach. Films are shot out of sequence and reassembled in the editing bay once the shooting has wrapped. I write the stuff I want to write when I want to write it. If I feel inspired to write the final chapters of the story, I’ll work on those. If I want to take time to focus on chapters about one character, I write those. Maybe there’s an emotional scene that I know will be a challenge to write, so I only work on that for that day.
Each element is saved in its own file on the computer, labeled, and dated, so I know what it is. And slowly but surely, the files, pages, and story begin to grow and emerge into a cohesive narrative.
All of these chapters will be rewritten later on, some will be cut entirely, and others will get moved around. But they do get written.
If you already have a writing process that works for you, keep it. Every author has a unique way, place, and time when they write. The key is to get the work done. Even if it takes longer than outsiders think it should. I believe that crafting a quality story that you’re proud of is far more important than rushing the process.
Find what works for you and try it for a while. If you want to be more productive, make the necessary changes. For example, for my next book, I will plan a more rigid writing schedule so I can get a draft done faster.
As I said above, I don’t always set hard and fast goals for my writing time, and there’s a reason I don’t: I tend to psych myself out. I will be at work and decide to write 10,000 words over the weekend. Then, I get home, and Saturday morning arrives, and I’ve overwhelmed myself with a goal that I’m not sure I can meet.
Don’t do this to yourself. Make a small choice: “I’m going to work on the chapter at the junkyard Saturday.” Done. Now that’s all you have to work on. If you decide to keep writing or realize there’s a chapter related to this later on that you want to write, keep going.
If you know your story, your characters, and your themes, and a rough outline (thanks to your notes), you have the necessary information you need to start writing your story.
Take your time, and you’ll get there.
Remember, No One Likes Their First Draft
There’s a reason why it’s called a First Draft. It’s usually filled with chapters that go on too long. Characters that ooze BORING on the page. Dialogue that doesn’t flow or sound real. Plot points that just don’t work or go nowhere.
And we all have to accept this, deal with this, and make it better.
Every published book you have on your bookshelf or have seen in a bookstore or on Amazon began with a crappy first draft. It’s inevitable. But, here’s the neat part about that first draft: It exists.
That’s right. You can’t fix and edit and improve upon nothing, and that lackluster first draft is now an opportunity for you to elevate and bring to light a better story than the one drafted before you.
Next week, I’ll dive into what I do to make my initial draft better, how I get it ready to send to my editor and feedback partner, and how I deal with notes, and deciding when the book is done.
See you next week!