As near as I can tell, “prewriting” is a trendy catch-all term for “everything a writer does before they actually sit down and start writing the story.” Even that definition is a little dicey, given how many writers go through a stage where they’re writing down bits and snippets and scenelets and even whole scenes, which they pile up and later assemble into “the story.” It can be hard to tell where the line is between “getting ready to write the story” and “actually writing the story.”
That said, nearly every writer does some prewriting, even the serious seat-of-the-pants types, even if it’s mainly in their heads. There are basic decisions to be made about intended length, starting point, viewpoint character, place and time, even “I am writing a novel” vs. “I am writing a screenplay.” How much prewriting any given writer does … well, that depends.
And what it depends on is the purpose the prewriting serves for that particular author.
Prewriting can serve to clarify a story in the writer’s mind. It can prime the pump, increasing the writer’s interest, enthusiasm, and general idea-pressure so that the story will start off with a rush of writing. It can clear away the false starts. It can help determine a direction or a theme or a structure for the story. It can improve the writing flow for the rest of the book. It can help avoid wrong turns and “stuck” places and problems, making both the writing and the revision process easier and smoother.
But prewriting will do none of these things automatically. There are a million-plus websites that talk about prewriting, and most of them talk about techniques like brainstorming, mind-mapping, character and setting creation, choosing a theme, etc. What they don’t talk about is why bother…and/or why not to bother, and that makes all the difference.
One of the websites I looked at broke down the prewriting process into steps. Steps #2, 3, and 4 were, respectively, “pick an audience,” “decide on a theme,” and “draw a map.” There’s nothing wrong with doing any of those things as a part of prewriting…if they happen to serve the writer’s purpose in doing prewriting.
I expect my prewriting to clarify the story, and then to improve my writing flow and help me avoid wrong turns. Picking an audience does nothing to help me with that (or perhaps it is more correct to say that I have no need to pick any audience other than myself). Deciding on a theme is, I have found, monumentally counter-productive for me; far from improving my writing flow, it tends to impede it.
Maps – OK, I do maps…but not always. It depends on whether I think I’m going to need one in order to keep straight where everything is and what all the place-names I’m throwing off go with. I find it a lot easier to glance at a map to see where Puerto del Oeste or Dangil is than to look up a description on a list, especially since the map tells me at a glance where it is compared to everything else, while the description is likely to only mention a couple of key locations that it’s north or east or south of. And I won’t necessarily need a map if I’m telling a story set entirely on one farm, or even in a city. I might want a floor plan showing which bedrooms each of my sixteen characters is in, but then again, it might not be important.
The point is that this sort of checklist doesn’t address my real question, which is “What do I need to know now, in order to make this story easier to write later?” If my main purpose in prewriting were to increase my enthusiasm and idea-pressure, what I’d need to do in those early stages would be different, depending on what sorts of things I thought were likely to get me pumped up about writing this particular story. (And even then, different things work for different writers. I get pumped up by talking about the story to lots of people; some of my friends get pumped up by not talking about it, so that the urge to get the story out is dammed up and gets stronger and stronger until they have to start writing.)
What I do for prewriting varies from book to book, and experience indicates that what is effective as prewriting varies from writer to writer. Among the things that can be helpful, depending, are: Drawing maps and floor plans. Making lists of characters, what they do for a living, and how they relate to other characters. Making a list of possible names of characters (so that when you suddenly need a name for the palace guard or cabby, you have a bunch of pre-generated names to pick from that all “sound right” for whatever world/country/culture you’re setting things in). Plot outlines, ranging in detail from the two-paragraph cover-letter summary to the thirty-to-fifty-page treatment. Brainstorming. Mind-mapping. Writing down bits and pieces of scenes. Drawing up a timeline. Research reading (especially if you’re doing a historical or semi-historical setting, but often useful even if you’re making everything up from scratch).
Some writers experiment a lot as part of their prewriting – trying out different viewpoints and viewpoint characters, or different possible openings, or different styles or voices. Basic decisions can also happen at this point, like whether it’s going to be a short story, novella, or novel; coming up with a theme; deciding on a structure or form; or deciding where the story begins and whether that’s also where the writing opens (or whether the writing opens somewhere else, and the beginning of the story comes later or as a flashback). You can decide whether there’s a McGuffin and what it is, or what level the main plot is going to be on (action, emotion, mental, spiritual).
Some of these things can be left to be determined when the need for them crops up during the actual writing; some will be inherent in whatever story idea the writer is starting with. For instance, Talking to Dragons started with the sentence “Mother taught me to be polite to dragons.” I didn’t have to decide what point of view to use or who the viewpoint character would be; I knew from that sentence that it was first person, and while I still had a lot of things to find out about the viewpoint character, I had his voice and a few key facts right there.
Nothing that is decided during prewriting is irrevokable. This puts a lot of people off the whole idea – why bother doing all that work, if you’re not going to stick to it? It depends, again, on why you’re doing it. For me, if I try out six wrong decisions during the prewriting stage, I’ve just saved myself months of going down blind alleys during the writing phase later on, so it’s worth it.