Staring Into Space: the Work Before

There’s that weird aspect to writing, which isn’t writing. Writing is surgery, confidently wielding words and getting them out by pixel or pen. That’s the fun part, especially when you’re working on something new. I love virgin territory, diving into a new scene and bringing it to life. I love getting a bit of inspiration that helps me twist things around and surprise a reader. But before the fun part comes the planning, thinking things like plot and conflict through, sorting ideas, remembering a character’s motivations, and generally meditating on what I want to do in a scene. I call it the staring into space phase.

I usually write twice a day, once in the morning before work, and once at night, after. The times between can often stretch on depending on the stress level of the day job. I can lose the rhythm and tone of the work in progress. I try to leave myself on a cliffhanger with the scene, the moment before a big action or change. If time runs out I leave a little note for myself preceded by an asterisk. Carving out the time to write is simple for me: I force myself to commute by bus and it puts my butt in a chair without the distractions of home, Internet, or hungry cats. If I’m in a good spot when I get home I can sit down and stretch out the work (after the cats have had their dinner). It’s finding time to stare into space and contemplate that’s hard for me.

Part of that is the nature of thinking about the work. Like yoga or meditation, you have to discipline yourself to the task at hand. Driving out other thoughts, especially stressful concerns like “did I leave the gas on?” can be particularly tough. But putting it all aside and focusing on the work at hand is essential. Plot holes start to emerge as you counter argue the strengths of your story. New solutions and angles spring to mind to answer those arguments. Most importantly, you keep your story on the rails and avoid any crashes off track.

Failing to frame my writing and prepare for it can cost me valuable time. I’ll take a scene or section in the wrong direction. Then I’ve got to retrace my steps, possibly delete work, and start over. I’ve never been a solid outliner. I like to figure things out as I go, but I do strongly believe in milestones. Certain unalterable events have to happen in the plot for the story to function: villains have to show up, doors have to be opened, and changes have to occur. I don’t keep an outline but find a roadmap is handy. So I start my planning sessions with a quick review of my story’s path. Staring off into space, I try to put myself as closely in tune with the story as possible. I pour a cup of coffee and make sure the cats are fed. Then I get to work at staring into space.

One thought on “Staring Into Space: the Work Before

  1. Karessa says:

    You should do a brown-bag on this step in terms of writing and (sorry for the work intrusion) course development. It’s too easy to consider this phase a waste of time and try to skip it, then waste even more time staring at the page being burdened by guilt that the content isn’t spontaneously pouring out.

    As always, good stuff, David. Thanks.

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