I’ve posted about this a long time ago, more as a personal diary type thing than anything else, but I’m a strong believer in having a fully constructed universe in place for my stories before I start writing. In my experience it makes the actual process of writing much easier, and saves you sitting there wondering how you’re going to get from A to B. The following isn’t a guide as such, but it might offer a few pointers for you.
The majority of the time and effort I put into a project goes into the period before I start writing the story. We’re probably talking about an 80-20 split in favour of preparation over writing. That might sound like a lot, especially when it takes about 50 hours or so for me to write an 85,000 word novel. But if I’d have gone into that novel without knowing my characters, their voices, how they would react to the situations I threw at them, it could have easily taken twice as long to write.
I keep a very basic list of character traits to get a feel for them as I write the story. Simply personality traits (laid-back, quick to anger, analytical etc), which I then mix with secondary personality traits (dedicated, cowardly, heroic, etc). I like to ensure that everybody has a few shades of grey to their personality. Preferably not fifty, though, as that could be horrendous and also terribly convoluted. Unless the story calls for it – a dumb action film, for example – I find more enjoyment in coming up with complicated personality types to write about.
As for the wider world, what sort of place is it? Are your characters up against an all powerful government? Is it a corrupt system or are your characters antiheroes? They’re all questions I ask whenever I start planning a story out, and more besides. You can never have too much of this sort of material, although I’d recommend not throwing absolutely all of it into your manuscript. Use it to colour and add flavour to your setting by all means, but explaining everything? Not so good.
The moral of the story is that preparation is key for those of us who have attention to detail. Pantsers (people who just sit down and start writing, so called because they’re writing by the seat of their pants) might be able to get into a story with little or no advance planning, but I’m more inclined to have the details plotted out well in advance. At least that way I know that I won’t end up walking myself down a one way alley with no way back to the story I was trying to tell.
As I often say in these posts, working out the most appropriate process for your own needs is perhaps the most important part of writing. I’ve done moderately okay with this way of approaching writing in the past, and if you get something out of it too, then great.
So the big question: what works for you? Do you do something similar to me, or have you got a completely different approach? I look forward to reading and responding to your comments.