“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Helmuth von Moltke
“A writer should always reserve the right to have a better idea.” – Lois McMaster Bujold
Prewriting notes – whether they’re about plot, background, or characters – are the writer’s battle plan, and therefore exceedingly important. Lots has been written about this aspect of writing, but there are really only two things that are absolutely vital to remember:
- Every writer handles prewriting differently, and
- Nothing is ever written in stone until the book is actually in print.
If you look at those two things long enough, you start asking yourself “Well, then, why bother planning at all, if there’s no right way to do it and if it’s not going to stay the same anyway?” All I can say is that, of all the authors I know well enough to have some idea of their work processes, only one or two do no pre-planning at all, and even they at least think about their stories a little before they sit down and write. Empirical evidence indicates that for most writers, planning works.
There are actually a bunch of other things that you may find useful to remember about planning, but they’re not things that everybody needs to remember. I really need to remember to spend enough time on the background and worldbuilding; I don’t seem to be able to get started until I have a solid feel for the world and its culture and history, as well as the more immediate background of the characters (i.e., how they heck did they get into the situation they’re in at the start of the story, and where do they think they’re going from here?). It’s a bit like looking at a chess problem – you know that there have been a bunch of moves made to get the pieces into this position, and before you decide what the next move is, you want to understand how they all got to this point.
But that’s me. I know writers who really need most of those pre-book moves to be unknown or undecided. They tend to be folks who have trouble changing their minds about “what happened” once they’ve made it up, and they need to leave lots of room for the pre-book events to change, in case they get to the middle of the story and discover that they need the bad guy to have stolen the crown jewels ten years ago, instead of having kidnapped the diplomat’s daughter (or vice versa, or in addition to).
Exactly what you have to do for prewriting, and how much, depends on how you think and how you write. Some people can figure this out by thinking about what works for them with other things, like cooking or learning to ski or building/making a new house or a new dress. For the rest of us, there’s trial and error.
You might need to work out who the characters are (or could be), and what their agendas and plans are, while leaving the plot strictly alone. Or you might need to work out the worldbuilding first, or a lot of the key events in the plot. Or you might need to do a massive plot tree, where you sketch out as many different ways the plot could go as you can think of, starting with “hero runs away to sea; gets berth as cabin boy, or doesn’t get berth, or is taken on as assistant by cook/sailmaker/?, or is mugged before he ever reaches docks…”
A couple of my friends do “zeroth drafts,” or what one of them refers to as “pseudocode” – a 100 to 150 page “draft” of what will eventually become a 400-page novel, which they later revise into a real first draft by adding scenes and incidents to explain plot twists or change the level of tension when it’s been too high or too low for too long. Often, adding these scenes alters the whole course of the rest of the book, which brings me to that second point.
However carefully you plan during your prewriting, it is never sacred and unchangeable. This is obvious, if you think about it a little. When you’re prewriting, you’re making stuff up – collecting materials (characters, plot turns, background), some of which you’ll use in the actual story draft. When you’re writing a zeroth or first draft, you’re making stuff up – only this time, it’s the specifics of exactly what was said, by whom, in what tone of voice, or exactly what was done, by whom, in what manner, and with what consequences. In other words, your brain is in making-stuff-up mode in both cases. So it’s not surprising for a writer to suddenly have a cool new idea in the middle of the draft that unfortunately means you have to change the plot, characters, or background in major ways. In fact, it’s more than unsurprising; it’s downright common.
Unfortunately, there seem to be a fair few writers out there who were scarred by their middle-school writing classes, and who think that once they have written an outline, they must stick to it. But if you’ve just had a really cool new idea that is going to make the story you’re writing even more interesting…why not use it? A more interesting, more effective, more surprising story is usually more desirable than the less interesting, etc., one.
Whatever the writer decides during any stage of the writing process, including prewriting, is subject to change without notice at any subsequent stage, right up until the book is published. Of course, it gets harder and more expensive to make major changes when the book is in production, but it’s still possible right up through the page proofs. If there’s a particularly egregious error, you can sometimes even talk the publisher into fixing it for the paperback version (e-books, of course, are a whole lot easier to fix at pretty much every stage of the game).
This does not mean things have to change in mid-story in order for it to be any good, nor does it mean that what changes must be large and significant. It depends on the writer. If you’re the sort who puts a lot of thought into your battle plan…er, outline and prewriting, the new ideas that you have while working on the first draft or revisions may be small tweaks that leave the main plot/characters/etc. mostly intact. If you’re the sort whose prewriting consists entirely of something like “I think I’ll write a book about a pirate,” and then you make it up as you go along, well, it’s much less likely that you’ll come up with something that changes your prewriting (though it’s possible, as when the book turns out to be about the pirate’s robot servant, or the noblewoman he captured, instead of about the pirate you started with).