Do you put a lot of thought into your writing before you start typing?
I hemmed and hawed a little, and asked him if he meant for new chapters or for short stories, or at the beginning of a long, chaptered story. He said he wasn't restricting himself, and it got me thinking; how do I plan, but more specifically, how do I plan different things? This rambling meta is an attempt to answer that question. I'll reference things I've written, and there will likely be spoilers for A Matter of Time up to chapter 17. It isn't a guide to writing - I'm far from qualified, and am still learning how I write best - but more an exploration of what I do but don't necessarily put into words
After some thought, it occurred to me that the distinction isn't so much oneshot vs. series vs. chapter, but rather, it depends on what kind of thing I am writing. Which is best defined by a list, so I would say they consist of the following categories
- Worldbuilding and Description
Now, in the end, writing is a very instinctive effort, for me. My ability to write (however weak it is, at this point) rests at the conjunction of my subconscious and conscious minds. I don't think a story before I think it, and I don't often sit there and construct sentences laboriously, word by word, thinking it all through. But planning does happen, though I'll often talk as if everything just pours out of my fingers from my gut.
Plot, or the events that happen
Plot gets planned the most of all of these categories, I would say. I didn't know all the plot details of the middle of AMoT, but I had a beginning, a middle, and an end before I did much else. A lot of the plot did unfold for me as I wrote it, but the plot I was coming up with was always several chapters ahead of the chapter I was writing. Well, not always: sometimes, when I am writing a chapter, I realize that I'm at plot point M, and then next plot point I had in line was point P, but in order to get there I need plot points N and O first. It happens - but that's mostly bad planning on my part.
Looking at something smaller, let's take the challenge oneshot Miss Derbyshire Goes To War because it's a little more plot-centric than some of my other oneshots. In it, Jack is at war in France in WWII. He discovers some aliens living there, who crash-landed decades ago and couldn't fix their ship. Harriet brings him a piece of rift debris he knows will fix their ship, and they return it. That's the basic plot. It's not told in that order, it omits certain things and focuses on others, but before I sat down writing that, I knew all of it. I changed what happened a few times before I wrote it - initially, Gerald was going to come too, for example, but before I put fingers to keys, I had decided on making Harriet. That isn't to say things might not change, but if that happens, I'll usually stop and think about it, and then continue. So in that sense, I plan a fair bit before I begin writing.
The distinction between plot and action becomes important, though, when you move from overall plot to the actual step-by-step movements of the characters. For example, in chapter 13 of A Matter of Time, Ianto and Ashild rescue (or try to rescue) Kethan and Brenneth. Clearly, I knew that was a plot event that had to happen. I knew Brenneth had to die just when they got there, and I knew Kethan was going to kill the mercenaries afterwards. Those are all plot points. The details of the scene, however? That's action.
If plot is the "what" that happens, action is the "how". It can be as simple as "Ianto needs to get drunk" as the what and "Ianto drinks scotch" as the how. Or, it can be as complicated as a couple thousand word action scene, as above. Action, for me, does get planned a little, but not a lot, and how much planning goes into it depends on how many plot events I need to hit. My final action scene of AMoT? I've worked out a lot of the action-y details, enough so that I can be sure I hit every plot point. But the really nitty gritty stuff, not so much. That happens while writing, and evolves to fit my needs at the time. For chapter 13, for example, the how of Ianto and Ashild being nearby but just out of sight when Brenneth is killed is something I worked out while writing. The fact that Ianto was the one who untied Brenneth, and that it was his blasters that Kethan used to kill the mercenaries, those were all "in the moment" decisions. However, I do sometimes have to pause, think, and occasionally rewrite action sequences, lest I do something illogical.
Because action, ultimately, has to be very linear. There has to be an immediate and obvious connection between every step for the reader to follow it - there's nothing more annoying than reading an action scene that doesn't make sense. Keeping it step-by-step also puts the reader in the middle of the action, experiencing each bit of tension with the characters. So because that is my ultimate goal, I can write it while planning it, because I just write whatever would make sense next. They're on the roof and need to get inside? Down the trap door. They're carrying Brenneth back to the ship? Ashild will go get the cart to help. Action is logical, it's easy to write that way.
Sometimes, this means inventing cool technology. In chapter 15, where they break Jack out of jail, I had them twelve floors below the roof (where I decided, while writing it, they needed to get to be rescued). I said to my boyfriend "imagine you're trapped in a building, full of guards, and you need to go up 12 flights of stairs. Will you make it?" (He has a good sense for these things.) He said "uh, no." So I needed a way to get them up, and fast. Enter super-futuristic grappling gun. Yes, this is why I love writing sci fi: machina ex deus is not entirely inexcusable.
But that's how I plan action. From the plot, I know I need to get from A to B, so I write step 1, and from that follows step 2, and so on and so forth until I finally reach step 36 that happens to line up with plot point B. Most of it happens as I'm writing, sometimes, for the logistically tricky bits, I have to step back and plan.
Oh, and smut-writing? Kind of the same.
Worldbuilding and Description
By this, I basically mean any time I take the time to describe the surroundings, be it a nameless cemetary in Wales or the fifty-first century as a whole. I like worldbuilding. I could and have spent hours building worlds and societies. However, I tend to get distracted doing it and forget about important things like plot. So now, I tend to keep it fairly "need to know". There are generally two reasons why I need to put worldbuilding into writing, and they are (1) to set a background in which certain plot events can happen and (2) to evoke a mood. The first is more worldbuilding, the second more description.
For the first, the initial details are usually throw-aways. When Kethan first told Ianto he wasn't monogamous, I hadn't given it huge amounts of thought. As I wrote, however, I found themes around that topic emerging, so I put a lot of out-of-writing time into developing that aspect of their society, and some of that later wound up in AMoT. The bits of it early on, however, happened more or less on the spot as I was writing: Zui and her blowjobs, for example. Or, for example, the history of Boeshane and the Embargoed planets - that happened fairly organically, as I was working on the Evening Star's backstory. I knew I wanted them to be smugglers, but I also wanted them to be good, so I went to Firefly for inspiration and built a political situation that would warrant it. I do know more about the world than I write into the story, but not, actually, a whole lot.
There are some exceptions to this, and those are things I use to visualize as I write. For example, I know exactly what each member of the crew of the Evening Star looks like. Most of them, for example, aren't caucasian. That fits into the worldview, because I'm with Russel Peters on us all being beige. Kareh is black, Somali-style. Ellis is Scandinavian blond (but tiny). Brenneth is, other than being a big man, a bit of a brown-haired white-skinned witnesses nightmare. Soren looks East Indian. Aharon looks somewhat (but not exactly) like Sayid from Lost. Opal is probably best described as Native American, and Zoanne looks a little Southeast Asian. Ashild looks like their daughter, clearly. I know all this, because when I'm writing the characters, I'm picturing them. But does the reader need to know it? Not for how I'm writing. I'm a little hesitant even to say it, because by now people probably have their own mental images, and I don't want to mess with them. Bits of description that do end up in the story are always there for a reason - Ellis and Zoanne being small, Brenneth and Opal being big, Soren having long legs. The rest, I leave up to the imagination of the reader. But I still plan it, because I need to know.
Details like the world on Trell, those all go straight from my subconscious to the screen. Describing settings, for the most part, is like that, except when I know I need to reuse it, like the ship of the Evening Star itself, and then I draw schematics. But I am not a verbose, purple-prose sort of writer, so the descriptive details I do use are very specifically to envoke a mood. Take, for example, We Are All Soldiers. There's a lot of descriptive detail in there: in such a tight word count, it was one of the things I focused on, because I wanted to envoke the mood of WWII during the bombing of Britain. I don't actually know much about it, so I chose details, like the smells, the lamps, the architecture, the smoke, to set the mood at the beginning. I didn't particularly plan it, I just wrote it. If I were writing a longer piece, I might have done some more research, but as it was I didn't need to, so I could just write from my gut.
In fact, a lot of my WiaD submissions focus on description as the secondary point after characterization. We Are All Soldiers, Personal Effects, and Repurposing are all fairly sensual, as far as my writing goes. They're also all very moody pieces. But that's a bit of a digression.
If anything comes almost purely from my gut, this is it. By which I mean what my narrator feels, what the characters say, and how they react. Often, this comes so much from my gut that my characters surprise me.
In Personal Effects, for example, the last lines of Jack and Ianto ("I never think about-" "That's fine. I do.") are basically the most important lines in the whole piece, in that they best sum up what I was trying to get across. I didn't plan them, at all. I knew what the characters were feeling, I knew their motivations at that moment and on a greater level, and that is simply what they said. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but at no point did I say "I need them to say something that portrays Jack's dissociation from normal life and Ianto's conscientiousness of others". Or anything even close. In fact, I couldn't have told you what I was trying to do until the characters told me and said those words.
Another big example of that is the latest chapter of A Matter of Time, chapter 17. I wasn't intending on revealing that Iro is Jack's son, mostly because I didn't think it was relevant to the plot or in character for Jack. But I forgot to take something into consideration - Ellis, and the fact that, according to his personality, he needs a good, solid answer. And when he was demanding one, I realized old!Jack was likely to just tell him. So he did. Okay, easy enough.
But then Ianto confused the hell out of me by getting upset and snippy with Jack! I had no idea what was going on with him, but I thought, hey, neither does Jack, so he can ask. And as Jack prodded, and I prodded my mental-Ianto, it became clear that Ianto was jealous of what Iro's mother had with Jack. Aha. It made perfect sense, and led to a conversation that was going to happen at some point, I just hadn't figured out where. But I literally had to have one of my characters ask the other what was going on, and connect my subconscious to my fingers to find out. So dialogue? Not a whole lot of planning, there. Characters' emotional responses to situations? Not so much. (This is why I say I don't plan to write sex scenes. They are, above all else, emotional reactions, and they tend to just happen to my characters. Because it's Jack, they tend to happen fairly often.)
Which is not to say I don't plan my characterizations on a whole. I do spend a lot of time getting to the point where I know characters well enough to predict their reactions, this way. I have a list I wrote up at the beginning of AMoT, well, four lists: one for each Jack in my story, and how their characters differ and are the same, and one for this Ianto. Doing that early helped me solidify my understanding of their motivations to the point where I don't have to plan, I can just write on that edge of consciousness and see what comes out. In this way, I see writing a little like acting: I become the character to write them, I don't watch the character to write down what they're doing.
This isn't to say everything is linear, or happens only when I sit down to type: sometimes, often when walking to the bus, I'll sort of "act out" scenes in my head. It's really the same process, though, I just have to remember them and write them down for later. I have a little file of these scenes for AMoT, and when I come across the place where they belong in the fic, I clean them up and plug them in.
Okay, there's a surprise one at the end, because I realize that it's an important one I forgot to touch on. I think this is because I divided it up into fairly physical parts of the text, whereas theme is something you glean from the whole piece. Do I plan themes? No, not really. They sort of emerge from the plot, propped up by the mood and characterizations in the piece. I'm not particularly good at articulating the themes of my pieces, and anyway, isn't authorial intent dead? With my shorts, and some of my later chapters of AMoT, I've been getting the instinctual sort of "ouch" reactions a lot, which implies to me the emotional punchs I'm trying to throw are making it through. I'm fond of "the one about..." as a way of articulating themes. Personal Effects could be called "the one about the normal people who get forgotten". Repurposing could be "the one about getting what you want (only not)". A Matter of Time, being a big fat mother of a fic, has eight million themes. But I find articulating them sometimes limiting, because the reader often sees things I didn't intend, and isn't that what art is all about, anyway?
So that's sort of a rambling overview of how I write. The degree to which I know things before I put fingers to keys really depends on what the material is, not what kind of story I'm writing. Plot gets planned a lot, worldbuilding a little, description and action somewhat but not a lot, and characterization almost not at all. It seems a little dissociated, written like that, but it works for me. In the end, though, I don't think I'll ever understand how I write, because it is very organic and very "now there is nothing in my brain and then BAM, this is what is happening", at least for the actual sequence of words. But that's just like thought in general, isn't it?
ETA: I realized that I didn't once reference Lessons From Yesterday, which is definitely my most read piece. I think that's because that fic just happened to me, I didn't plan it at all. The first scene, with Owen talking to Jack, popped in my head, and then I sat down and puked it out onto the computer. I had to stop a little near then end, once I found out what the story was about, to draw it together, but since it's 98% character work, and the plot was "Owen! Tosh! Helping Jack recover!" basically no real planning went into it. That is what I call inspiration from the muses, and it is quite beyond my control.