Questions for Writers #2
By Lazette Gifford
Copyright © 2009 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved
No two authors are alike in how they work, but it can be helpful see how
each experiences creativity and how they handle the actual work of
writing. With that in mind, I've started this new section for Vision.
Over the next several issues, I will send out a set of writing-related
questions to several professionally published writers and present their
answers in this and future issues. I hope you'll find them
These are the questions for this issue:
1. In general, how much pre-work
(outlines, character studies and other research) do you do before you start a
novel or story?
2. Are there some types of writing you leap into without preparation and others
that you do extensive work on before you begin the actual story?
The answers are wonderful!
C. J. Cherryh
Easy. Generally none. I get paid for writing, not outlining or doing
character studies. I look up only what I'm going to use. A good example
would be the short story "MasKs," in which I outlined the major 5 phases of
the story, realized I needed some place names, and managed to get an
accurate (fairly) map of modern Venice, Italy, off the internet. In the
evenings, aside from my regular work, I looked up a few interesting matter
like the power of the doges and the history of Venice, and compared it with
what I already knew---then just wrote. For Faery in Shadow, I got a
Celtic dictionary and spent my off time reading up on Celtic
archaeology---had one book in the bathroom, to tell the truth. But I just
On Heavy Time, I needed to know the behavior of asteroids, so I got a
computer program that tracks asteroid orbits and let it run overnight, which
told me a lot by its printout. The rest was imagination and paying attention
to NASA bulletins.
On Paladin, however, I did something I've never done: the publisher
kept delaying specifics of what he wanted, so I outlined to fill the time I
was waiting for a go-ahead; and when the answer finally came, I filled in
dialogue, changed the tenses to past tense, and pretty well had the book
written except for editing.
And on Cuckoo's Egg, I'd been bitten by a brown recluse spider and
been shot full of Medrol. I was in a wheelchair, higher than a kite, unable
to sleep for more than 5 minute stretches for 2 weeks, and filled my time by
writing this book entirely in the sleepless two weeks. I never want to do
Usually I don't do character studies at all: I envision the characters, toss
them into a room together and see what they say to each other. It's often so
colorful it has to go into the book.
So I think that sort of answers both questions in one!
RSS feed blog:
publications: [to come]
with Lynn Abbey and Jane Fancher
In general, I don't outline first. I do a
great deal of research, especially into the science of my premise. That
begins years before I start a novel. I spent about 5 years researching
Species Imperative before writing a word of it, and kept that up as I wrote.
My character and world building is usually more as I go along, although I'd
say I have a reasonably good feel for those, in my head at least, before I
start. I like the surprises that arise as I write. For short fiction, I do
outline and whatever research I need to write about the topic beforehand.
Timely question. I leapt into HIDDEN IN SIGHT,
for example, with no preparation at all. Lately? My last three books, the
Stratification cycle of the Clan Chronicles, were prequels to work already
in print so I did an immense amount beforehand. After all, I had to be sure
I had everything right before I started. For that, I spent several months
studying the existing Trade Pact trilogy, then had to invent the new world
-- nailing down everything from technology to naming systems, including maps
of the geography and way too many ecology notes. Because Stratification lays
the groundwork for the conclusion, Reunification, which I won't write until
2010, I had to also be sure everything to come was properly foreshadowed
and/or supported. The final book of the cycle, RIFT IN THE SKY, was outlined
scene by scene in a storyboard format.
Every scene. Before I wrote one word. Phew! I have to say, it was an
experience and I believe did the trick. Will I write that way ever again? I
don't know. At the moment, I'm gathering my notes and researching a
standalone fantasy, my first, called A TURN OF LIGHT. I feel compelled to
build a scale model of the hamlet where the story occurs, complete with
little buildings. Which I suppose is the ultimate answer. You do what's
necessary for the story. The best approach is rarely the same.
For a short story? None.
Pre-work tends to lead to novels.
For novels, when the idea solidifies, I write an initial synopsis then
translate that into an outline. Along the way, I write down who the main
characters are, their physical appearance (or what bit comes to mind), and
any back story that comes up. That's all I need to start writing, but if I
can tell in advance that I need to know more about something, I will do some
basic research, or if I know the timeline will be an issue, I'll map that
out. Those last two are usually dealt with as I'm writing.
Length is the big decider there
for me as I mentioned above. However, there is one other category which
comes up now and again, usually on the short story side, that changes
everything. Idea stories are usually triggered by something coming out in
the sciences or a new social discovery (maybe just new to me). In those
cases, I'll require enough research to ground me in the project, and often
have at least a basic outline. This is because something other than the plot
or characters is driving the story so I have to push the story rather than
it pushing me.
Margaret McGaffey Fisk
Curve of Her Claw
From the Ashes
The Author's Grimoire
I love doing pre-work, and I'll
do it at any chance I can. I love research, note-taking and outlines.
I have found that as my life gets more complex, the better it is for me to
have things worked out so that I don't lose track of what I'm trying to
accomplish. I have also found the added benefit that my stories are
far more complex than they used to be because I work out more detail ahead
I sometimes do quick outlines --
little more than a line or two per chapter -- and other times I do very
complex outlines and notes that might be 40 pages or more. No matter
how much I do, I still enjoy writing the novel itself, and I still find that
it surprises me. The outline is just a roadmap: it tells me the
direction I want to go, but not what I'm going to see or what the characters
are going to say and do in the situation. And when they go off on a
detour, so to speak, I have the map to get them back where I want them.
I rarely do any pre-work for
short stories, and I sometimes leap into novels without any background work,
especially if it is something written in a story universe I've worked with
before. However, if I want to create a new alien culture or work with
anything remotely related to history, I'll leap at doing research and notes.
I enjoy it, and the more I read and research, the more ideas I get.
Available at Amazon.com
Depends--is the book part of a
series? A collaboration? Or is it a very complicated one? Some need maps,
charts of tides and winds, daily calendars cross referencing events, and
chapter-by-chapter notes. I don't do character studies, though I will write
down details for ease of continuity, especially if there is a big cast.
The leap in without prep are
called the "white fire stories"--they write themselves. (Research might come
in the rewrite!)
I usually don't do character studies, make paper dolls, or write biographies
for my characters; part of what enriches the writing experience for me is
the process of discovery that occurs while I'm at the keyboard or in the
scene-thinking space. I have outlined but don't usually; and the research I
do is ongoing -- I'm *always* reading about astronomical oddities and
theories, I'm always looking at information about nifty aircraft and
spacecraft, and if I know someone is knowledgeable about guns or knives or
whatever I try to listen. I will sometimes prep the sub-brain by ... let us
call it mood reading. For example if I'm going to be working on a YA story
or one with an important YA character I'll go reread some Heinlein and
Norton and McCaffrey -- say six books, one a day, and then take a day off
before I start.
Generally not extensive work beforehand (see above, I don't consider reading
a few books as extensive work!), though I do find that when I'm working in
the Liaden garden I sometimes do have to reread a couple of books to both
recover the texture of the characters and to remember where the big story
arc was if I'm doing a kind of interstitial story.
It depends upon the material. I never seem to have a problem with
character, only with background or plotting.
Some science fiction requires a
lot of study and ditto with something like a police procedural (I'm thinking
of writing a mystery and need to have a feel for the sort of info an FBI
agent in Wichita would be communicating to other offices, for instance.) In
fantasies, once I know enough to know where I'm going, almost no research at
When I have an idea, the first thing I do is
name the two main characters and the villain, if there is one, so I have
actual names to work with. Then I write a synopsis, so I have a general idea
of where the story is headed. This is a loose synopsis in that I deviate
from often as I write the story, But I find the structure of this synopsis
useful in keeping me from straying off into dead ends. If I need to do any
research I delve into that before actually beginning the story, Which
doesnít mean I might not have to do additional research if the story brings
up new issues. I do not do character studies ahead of time, because by the
end of three chapters I know the main characters very well I donít know how
this happens, but by then theyíve either shown me or told me who they are
and what motivates them.
Yes, of course. I donít do
historicals much any more, but when I did write them my research was
extensive to begin with and ongoing throughout the story, If I used a real
historical character, I often skimmed a biography to find salient points.
For example, I used General William Sherman in one of my Moonrunner books,
so I needed to get a grip on him as a man . What I discovered was heíd been
fostered out by his father as a young boy and eventually married the
daughter of the foster family. He and his wife had been friends since
childhood, which accounts for the revealing letters he wrote to her. In
these letters, he told her how he hated war and how he planned to aim his
march through the South at ending the war as quickly as possible. The men
under him called him Uncle Billy among themselves, but his middle name was
Tecumseh, and his friends called him Cump. Would I have known that without
reading the biography? Iím a registered nurse, so when writing contemporary
stories and use medical personnel as characters, no research is necessary if
their jobs are only incidental to the story. Research on current medical
procedures is only necessary if I use a hospital setting.
I do a *ton* of pre-work, though
how much depends a bit on the kind of story...on how much of the setting and
its workings will need to explain/show to the reader. With a story close to
the here and now, I don't have to work out so much societal detail, though
the living pace, landscape, and flavor of a major city is going to be
different from that of a farm town or resort town. If the story is set on an
alien world, though, I really go to work, starting with constructing the
planet's solar system, working out day/year/gravity/etc for the planet. Draw
maps of the planet, sketch representative flora and fauna. If there are
aliens, I draw sketches of them, too, and work out details of their society
from Agriculture to Weights and measures.
I always do character studies. The character doesn't come alive for me until
I know his/her parents, pets, siblings, biography, likes and dislikes, where
he lives. If he drives a vehicle, I decide what it is and paste a picture of
one into the bio. I may diagram his house/apartment. I want to know his job.
If he is a police officer, as the protagonists of my mysteries tend to be, I
work out the structure and politics of his department.
Yes, it is a lot of work and runs the danger of burning up so creative
energy there is none left for writing the book itself. But list-making is
part of my nature, and so far, creating extensive background has worked for
me. Far from exhausting me, it invigorates me, making my setting and
characters come alive even before I start actual writing on the book. My
mania for wanting to be sure of all details led to making a world-building
list...which led to my chapbook on worldbuilding, Checking On Culture, that
Yard Dog Press published.
No, I can't just leap into
stories. While other authors do, with great success, the couple of times I
tried that, the stories ended up stumbling in the wilderness and dying of
starvation. I need a definite destination, and while I'm intrigued by the
twists and turns I discover in the road along the way -- and willing to
follow them to see where they go -- that finish line has to be out there
where I can keep aiming for it.
Checking on Culture, an aid to building story backgrounds
The Leopard's Daughter, a fantasy of ancient Africa
Elizabeth K. Burton
I'm strictly a "pantser." I get
an idea, and I either jot it down for future reference or start writing it.
The characters are usually the first to arrive, and they're like Topsy--they
"just grow" as we progress. This entails going back and revising mid-project
sometimes, rather like when you marry someone in haste and discover six
months later they aren't who you thought they were.
In recent years, I've started using a writing program called Scrivener,
though, which helps me keep things organized that previously were tucked
into various files. For example, over the course of four books set in my
fictional world of Karlathia, I've developed a language for one of the
races. To ensure the syntax is logical, I started a dictionary for it. There
followed a geography and a list of flora and fauna.
In other words, I do things backwards. On the other hand, I'm a voracious
reader on all kinds of subjects, so I may already have at least the basics
of, say, weather causes and effects stored in the wetware files.
My tendency is always to start
writing till I get to a point where my knowledge base is insufficient to let
me continue. That's less of a problem when you're creating a totally new
world, but when I do something contemporary there are always points where I
need to go look stuff up. Again, the writing program is a godsend, as it
allows me to keep not only textual material and links to relevant websites
but even graphics and videos in a project file.
Elizabeth K. Burton
The Everdark Gate
In generalÖ. I donít do
any pre-work at all. The idea comes and I go from there. I rework it and
rework it until Iím happy to put it on my hard disc.
On second thoughts I did do prework for my three non-fiction books. All
history- Spanish Armada, World War 11 and a white Star shipwreck. I had to
do prework there. In my fiction stories I donít- I let the story carry me on
where it goes I havenít a clue and this makes the process very exciting.
My first answer I think takes in
everything in the second.
The Meltin' Pot From Wreck to Rescue and Recovery, published by the
History Press is to be launched on March the sixth, and already
released by the Inishowen sub-aqua club who found the B 17 bomber.
Challenge of the Red Unicorn is out in March aswell. Published by
Jim C. Hines
I need an outline before I start
writing. For a short story, it might be a quarter-page note of major plot
points, whereas a novel gets a 3-4 page outline with about a paragraph per
chapter. I'm a Writer of Very Little Brain, and I need the outline to help
me hold the story in my head as I write. Of course, most of the time as I
write the story, I discover that my outline is broken. Either the plot
doesn't make sense or the characterization doesn't work or I come up with a
more exciting twist for the story, at which point I stop to rewrite the
outline. Most of my novels go through at least three different outlines
before I finish a first draft. I'll usually make some preliminary character
notes as well, though they tend to be shorter. I develop the characters over
the course of the story and its subsequent rewrites.
In 14 years of writing, I can
think of one story I leapt into without preparation. I didn't know what to
write about that day, so I looked down at my keyboard, grimaced at the
crumbs trapped between the keys, and started writing a paragraph about grimy
keyboards. It was an interesting exercise, but not a terribly good story.
Everyone's process is different, but for me, I need to have a sense of where
my story is going before I start writing ... even if that sense turns out to
be completely wrong and the final story goes in a completely different
THE STEPSISTER SCHEME, by Jim C. Hines
""These princesses will give Charlie's Angels a serious run for the
money and leave 'em in the dust."" -Esther Friesner
Read the first chapter at
The kind of pre-work involved
for a novel or story depends on whether the work is being done on creative
speculation or by invitation.
If I'm creating something from scratch, I'll first have an "idea". I will
then write the idea down in a journal or tap it into a word processor to
save it for future reference. After that, my concepts tend to float around
in the dead space of my mind, gathering momentum and cohesiveness until such
a time as I'm ready to write them (or at least pen down some cohesive
scenes). At that point, I'll start gathering whatever research I need to
have to hand in order to maintain plausibility and suspension of disbelief
for the readers. In science fiction, this is often some sort of pending
research, possible avenue of innovation, or theory regarding the
functionality of the universe. For fantasy, things like speeds of walking or
horseback travel, period foods, clothing, historic societies, etc. Not that
there are walls between what you need. Often, societal information feeds
forward in to SF and tech feeds backward into fantasy. In any case, I keep
track of the data as required for reference.
For invitational or requested writing, there are often "themes" or
pre-defined content that needs to be incorporated up-front. For example, the
Jim Baen Memorial contest looks at most 60 years into the future of space
travel (i.e. near-future science fiction). That puts certain requirements on
the fiction itself that requires me to some reading and research up-front. I
then take the swirl of possible tech to extrapolate a setting before I bring
my characters onto my mental stage and let the real story happen.
That's something of a point to be made. Without characters, there is no
story. The setting is there to support the characters and help build
tension. People sometimes forget that and get too caught up with the
"gimmick" and lose track of writing characters and character-driven plot
that will allow the reader to sustain their suspension of disbelief.
I'm a write-first and plan later
sort of person. Interpersonal interactions drive plot, generally speaking.
However, setting and characters are symbiotic, so I can't write too far
ahead without having my rationals and research in place. It becomes
something of a hop-scotch exercise of write, read, search, repeat.
I write historical fiction so I
do a lot of research before attempting to write anything. Since I write
about events as well as characters, there is limited plot flexibility. The
characters, who, after all, are real, are of primary interest: Who they are,
why they did what they did, how they interacted, etc.
As noted above, historical plots
are pretty much a given. However, the small interactions betwen characters
are not part of the historical record and permit some subjective
interpretation. I do an outline first, but do a lot of ad-libbing as I go.
I begin all my writing with a
simple idea or theme and the story develops as I write. Once the characters
become "real" to me, I know the story or novel is a keeper and I'll always
If you are a published author -- not self-published
(though you can be both) -- and would like to take
part, email me at Vision@lazette.net and I will add you onto the list!