I have an online friend, Jacqui Murray, who puts so much effort into her groundwork for her books that I’m utterly stupefied by it. She does research, charts, diagrams, maps, worksheets, spreadsheets, and heaven knows what else. She is the ultimate plotter.
How much detail should go into the preliminary work of a novel?
When I started this first novel I’m still working on, I was a pantser. I figured I had it all in my head. Generally, I do too; although, unless you have a photographic memory, it means having to backtrack to previous written scenes to remember where you are in the story and what you want to have happen next. With my short-term memory loss problems, I end up with many storyline holes this way.
Soon I discovered background work, even if just a little, needs to be done. If for no other reasons, it keeps the creative juices flowing while writing the story and is a source of reference during the writing process.
As I travel along the path of writing this novel, I’ve found worksheets to be helpful. They’re more of questionnaires, giving me a lot of leeway on how much detail I think I’ll need in order to remember characters, settings, and previous scenes. Some details just stick while others don’t. For example, how my protagonist looks is etched in my mind forever. Yet, when it comes to the antagonist, I keep on forgetting what color his hair is and how tall he is. The character worksheet/questionnaire comes in handy for this. My scene worksheets have a tendency to grow along the way. I’ll think of something that should be mentioned and/or may be stated again about the setting, whose in the scene, and/or when the scene takes place while I work on the same scene or another one. In addition, these scene questionnaires keep me focused so I don’t go off onto a tangent that’s totally unrelated.
I found some extraordinary worksheets at The Writer’s Craft. Sure, the title of the sheets are usual—character, setting, and scene, but how they’re set up and the categories to fill out make better sense than what I have seen at any other writing help site. Moreover, all three worksheets are more comprehensive without being counterproductive. One of them that got my full attention was the scene worksheet. They call it a chart because it is set up in a table-cell format. It has all the components I use when I write my scene summaries. It’s just better arranged and, as I stated, in a chart configuration.
For this first book, I’m sticking to what I know. Even the two general locations are places I’m familiar with. Although, I do use a map to pinpoint homes, work places, restaurants, et cetera. I also know what the residents are generally like, their quirks, mannerisms, and customs. There isn’t anything being used in any of the scenes I haven’t been in contact with in my life away from the computer. Some authors dig into the history of the locations. I’m quite familiar with what went on in history for my areas where the story takes place. I know about the occupations of the hero and villain, again, because I’ve had dealing with both. In a nutshell, for this first novel, I don’t need to do any research. Even if I did, I don’t think I’d be doing a lot prior to writing the story. I’d probably do it as I need it. In my estimation, this is a wonderful way to break from the story for a short time without losing motivation.
I’ve looked—studied actually—beat sheets. I don’t see how an author can pinpoint so closely when a situation, event, or action is going to happen in a story until the moment the particular scene is being written. I didn’t know how many scenes would be the introduction to my novel until I was halfway through the last scene of that section. Even at that, it may change a little or drastically in future drafts. Moreover, I won’t know that completely until I’m writing the scene/s with these changes. Jami Gold, you have one of the best blogs helping writers in the blogosphere and you’ve given me excellent advice whenever I’ve called on you, but I just don’t find the need for the beat sheets. Maybe it’s because I can’t grasp the concept of beat sheets. (With all the spreadsheets my friend uses, chances are she’s into the beat mode.)
I’ve been told preliminary work should be flexible. I want to go a big step further and say it shouldn’t intrude on any creativity whatsoever. If the creativity is spoiled, the project becomes an uncontrollable burden.
What are your thoughts on this?
An incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many, and grows inveterate in their insane breasts. – Juvenal