Tag Archive for Preller first draft

Writing Process: Using Index Cards, Developing Character, Creating an Outline

On school visits, I’m frequently asked about my writing process. I’m always a little stumped by this, since I’m not usually aware of having one, exactly. Certainly not a consistent one, from book to book, year to year, decade to decade. It changes.

Lately I’ve concluded there are times when I don’t want to write. I’ll start writing and grow bored before I get to the end of the sentence. My mind drifts, I’m not fully present. Which is a problem, since good writing is about focus and concentration. You have to be there.

My latest thinking is to accept this phase of my writing process — the non-writing part — and wait it out as productively I can. I’ve also come to understand that the Pre-Writing phase is deeper, more complicated and mysterious, that I originally imagined. It’s not just Brainstorming, it’s Serious Daydreaming. There’s more focus to it. If Brainstorming is wide, then this phase is narrower, more concentrated.

So my Writing Process, like Story itself, is something I make up as I go along. Only upon reflection can I really go, “Oh, that’s how I got here!”

Which brings me to my recent reliance on index cards. I don’t want to write, but I do need to remember and organize the story points in my head. So I scribble on cards. I can shuffle them later, and they will form a structure, or storyboard, for my story. It’s my way of creating an outline.

Here’s one example:

I had an idea for several students who are trapped in a school while scary things lurked outside. I needed to figure out these characters, who they were, why they were there, and whatnot. On this card, I hit upon a Telling Detail. One girl was the type who, as I wrote, “reminds the teacher when she forgets to give the homework assignment.”

It was like a door opening to character. I understood something essential about this girl immediately. And once you have character, then story ideas open up.

If character is the tree trunk; then story

is the many branches that grow from it.

Here’s a different kind of index card, for the same book:

I wrote: “SCENE: The Face in the Window.”

Because, again, I didn’t feel up for writing it. And that’s the exact word to describe it, “up.” I need a degree of ooomph, zip, energy, drive in order to write well. I need to feel like it, I guess. Or maybe: I need to be ready. Yet when I jotted those words down on the card, I had a concept for a full scene in my mind. It was going to be the first time the kids got a good look at the horror outside of the school. Soon they would see the face in the window.

Here’s a snippet from an unedited draft that grew out of that index card. It’s actually the part the comes right before the face appears in the window:

The wind was still. Not a leaf stirred. High above a full moon appeared like a cloudy eye that stared, unblinking, through the gathering mist.

“There, see ‘em?” Carter put a hand on Esme’s back and pointed.

Dark shapes moved through the grounds. Men and women, drifting aimlessly on shuffling feet, like lost sleepwalkers.

A murder of crows flapped and bickered near the figures, landing on heads and shoulders. None of the dark shapes seemed to mind.

“It’s people,” Miranda said. Her breath smelled like strawberry gum. She cracked it loudly and chewed.

“Yeah, but . . .” Esme hesitated, uncertain. “They don’t seem normal.”

Nooooope,” Arnold agreed.

Could this be real?

Esme saw, or thought she saw, through the fog, a crow peck at the face of one of the figures. Again, and again, the black scavenger plucked at the man’s eyes.

It’s the Thought That Counts

I’m conflicted. I realize that some readers enjoy it when I open up about my writing process. At the same time, two thoughts pull me in the other direction: 1) It’s bad voodoo to talk about work before it’s finished; and 2) It seems a little pretentious to me, prattling on about my process.

But, anyway, the blog’s name is jamespreller.com so I guess I’m already shin-deep in pretension.

Lately I’ve been keeping a little spiral notebook on my desk, just to the left of the mouse pad (I’m a southpaw from Long Island, remember, and my fastball has natural movement). I jot down things, make “To Do” lists, etc. This morning I woke early and went immediately to work. We’ve got a snow delay, Lisa’s home until 10:00, so I need to make hay.

I wanted to get out a new post for my fabulous Fathers Read blog — please check that out people — knock out some fan mail, scribe a witty Facebook Status Update, and work on the new book. I had woken up thinking about it last night. This morning, before the coffee kicked it, I scribbled this in the aforementioned notebook:

Can you read that? It’s just enough to fuel my writing for the day.

Okay, to fill you in, there’s a scene that just happened. We’re in a middle school and our main character, a boy, endures a moment of petty cruelty. He stands at his locker, absorbing the verbal blow, and watches his foe lope down the hallway.

He thinks:

I so want to be his friend.

That was the surprising thought that woke me up. And it makes sense to me; it’s realistic for how kids think, especially in bullying situations, that paradoxical response, a middle-grade version of The Stockholm Syndrome. (BTW, not at all sure about the word “so” up there, which strikes me as lame and lazy, but I won’t fuss with that now; like birthday presents, when it comes to first drafts, it’s the thought that counts.)

Then another voice surprised me, a new character I hadn’t planned on. I mean, okay, I “planned” on there being more characters, just hadn’t figured out the details. No outline, nothing, just vague and formless thoughts. But before I could begin to conjure this one’s profile and backstory, there was her voice:

“No you don’t.”

In my notebook, as you might be able to decipher, I next wrote:

I turned to see _______ _______ standing next to me. A little awkwardly close.

This is what I think of placeholder text. I don’t have time to, or don’t feel like, actually visualizing the details right now. I know I need to describe her, set the scene, her lank hair and pale complexion, the way her arms hang limply at her side, but I’m just not ready to go there yet. What’s her name? What’s her story? And look at that sentence, “A little awkwardly close.” Again, I’m more interested in the idea — that she invades his space a little, and it’s uncomfortable — than the actual writerly part of things right now.

I had another notion, one I wasn’t sure about, and had to move quickly to get it down:

It was as if she could read my thoughts.

Hmmm. In this particular book, I want to be open to the magical, the psychologically true, so I can’t dismiss that possibility. Can she actually read his thoughts? Or was it just one of those things that happen happen when two people have a connection?

Now I have to think a bit. And write. Because usually it’s in the writing that we do our best thinking.

We don’t write what we know. We write to find out what we know.

Have a great weekend!