In the past, I've always just jumped right in and started writing. This is the approach Stephen King recommends in his book, On Writing, and it seems to be the way Robert A. Heinlein worked, as well, as documented in Grumbles from the Grave—but it's certainly not the way every writer works, and it may not even be the way most writers work. I wonder if anyone's ever taken a survey?
Sometimes, in my case, there has been a kind of pre-planning document that came first, where I sort of told myself a bit about the story in order to get it clear in my mind (or at least enough about it to get started), and sometimes, later on, when I've gotten stuck I've had to do a similar bit of writing about the next part— the part I was having trouble focusing on—in order to continue.
More often, though, I've actually started with worldbuilding and exposition and so forth before I even had much of a story.
Saviors of the Galaxy is a case in point. In the first draft, the conversation between the human and the alien he meets in a bar was considerably longer then what it wound up being because the human was explaining what the hell he was doing way out in that part of the galaxy to me, as well as to the alien. Once I had it all straight, I was able to cut that scene considerably.
And it may still be too long—it just might be a little too much infodumping to lay on a reader all at once. In the end, I decided to keep it because I felt it was interesting infodumping, and because I felt I had whittled it down to a bare minimum, but I don't think I'll be doing much of that sort of thing in the future.
If you want to see what I'm talking about first-hand, the first 35% of my book Incident on Sugar Sand Roand and other stories is free for anyone to sample, and it includes the scene I'm talking about. If you care to take the time, I'd love to hear what you think.
Anyway, what I think I'll be doing from now on is making the pre-planning document (a sort of mutant hybrid between a synopsis and an outline, with lots of cryptic notes to myself) a definite first stage of any serious project, and putting a little more work into it.
I did just exactly this recently, during the week I was without a computer. First I wrote (on paper, with a pen) quite a bit about the universe the story was going to be set in. This was satisfying to the creative side of my brain, and I generally did this at night.
The next morning I would look at what I had come up with, and if I felt that warm creative glow I would continue—but if I didn't, I would look at what I had with a more critical eye, checking for lapses in logic or continuity or whatever. This was satisfying to the analytical side of my brain, and it's something you have to do at some point anyway. Better to do it before you've gone too far down a wrong turn, I've come to think.
Next I wrote a bit about my characters. I had hazy, vague notions about them, but they came into sharp focus once I'd written a little bit about them—a cave girl and a barbarian swordsman, from two different cultures—and three or four paragraphs apiece was all I needed to write.
Then came the story itself, and this is really the first time I've tried to think one through in advance. I'm not talking about plotting, a story, or structuring it so much as discovering it for myself for the first time—in essence, it's a really abbreviated, condensed first draft that I'm talking about here. Writing is creative, in my way of looking at things, and plotting is more analytical—and I agree with Stephen King that it's not exactly trustworthy.
Thinking about it all and setting it down, though—telling myself the story, in other words—was again satisfying to my creative half.
But toward the end I got a little stuck for a bit. The girl, Teshua, and the barbarian, Denegor, had reached Denegor's home city, and Teshua was out of the predicament that had driven the tale up until then.
At this point I started to flounder a bit. What came next?
I flirted with the idea of having Denegor sell Teshua to a brothel—but really, I wondered, what was the point? He's a barbarian, to be sure, but he's not really such a bad guy...
That was when I found myself involuntarily switching gears again from creative to analytical. It's not something you want to do in the same writing session, usually, or at least that's how I feel about it, but this time it was helpful; I was able to clear the blockage that was stopping me. The theme of the story, I realized, was hope. Poor Teshua has been driven from her home into a big wide scary universe she has some mistaken notions about, but she never gives in to despair. Why not?
Because she has hope. It's internal, and the loss of everything else in her life doesn't take it away. Of course she can never rely on anything outside herself again, and that does include Denegor—but it's also true for him; and Teshua realizes this whether he does or not.
At that point I was able to come up with a much more satisfying conclusion to the whole segment.
What I'm going to do next is transcribe the story in detail from the notes I've written so far. There will be enough new things to discover, I believe, that it will be fun. I think it will go fast and that I'll probably be able to do it in a warmly creative sort of mood.
And then I'll just leave it alone for a bit.
See, that's another thing I'm changing about the way I work. No more endless tinkering. I still have some early drafts of Saviors of the Galaxy and they're not really that much tighter or better than the finished product, in spite of the fact that I've been fiddling with that story for years. This is in itself a sort of revelation. There are passages I altered a dozen times, to the point where I probably wound up changing it back to what I had in the first place. That's just silly.
As far as I'm able, I've come to think it will be a good idea to keep the two halves of my mind separate, and work on different stages of the work on different days.
So that's what I plan to do. Thanks for taking the time to read, and thanks for stopping by.