One of the questions I was asked, back when I was soliciting for essay topics, was this:
Something I like to ask all writers is how do they get ready to write. Do you do a lot of research first? Create an outline, if so, how detailed? Do you use index cards? A white board? Or, do you get an idea and run with it, flying by the seat of your pants? How much of your process is done with actual paper and pencil and how much on the computer?
(Thank you Evaine at livejournal for the question!)
It made me think of a Hamlet quote taken badly out of context:
If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. — Hamlet V.ii
Hamlet’s basically raving there, but as ever, he knows a hawk from a handsaw, and there’s a grain of truth in it. Readiness usually is the best skill to cultivate, and the most difficult.
None of my novels or even my long fanfics have been what you might call prepared for in advance. They just sort of took me, sometimes at very inconvenient moments, like Christmas, or grad school. (There is no good time at grad school to do anything other than grad school, but tell that to Sweet Home. As for Christmas, I refer you to Charitable Getting, which was written in a single December.)
I am, generally, a fan of the author being in control. I’ve inadvertently caused drama and offended people by stating and defending the idea that the writer controls what is written. There are writers who like to claim that their muses control them, which would be harmless if “I was just following my muses, idek” wasn’t often used as an excuse for poor work. I’ve found that it pays to be wary around people who claim no control in the artistic process; generally they also take no responsibility for its results.
That said, the decision over when and where a story hits, a story that really grasps me and makes me want to write it every hour of the day, that’s sometimes out of my hands. I wish it were otherwise, and I make sure that I never use it as an excuse for a poor finished product; I can write a story without that moment of brightness, and often do. I court the moment, which is why I have so many ideas but so few books, because not every idea will catch fire. But my best work has always followed a thunderclap, and I’ve learned to obey it.
The problem of course is that if you do get struck with the story and you’re suddenly in the middle of it, you may not have had time to plot more than a few pages in advance or work out what the climax is or why this character is even here, character what are you. And then you’re back to the worrying land of “it’s not my fault this is a winged, fanged mess”.
So what I learned — and I learned this in fandom, before I was writing original fiction, so one more point to fandom for being awesome and tolerant — is to be Ready. When it hits, to be self-aware to know that you’re in for a long haul on this one, and to start working out in your head what the end game is. (As well as how you’re going to keep clean dishes and edible food in the house for the next month or so. I am heavily dependent upon paper plates at times.)
It doesn’t work for everyone; some people can lay out a plot on a chart and follow it, and honestly, I envy them. I am a little compulsive, so I get wrapped up in the details of the chart and in rearranging all the little bits of it, and tend to give up the story in favor of the clean, simple Ikea quality of the outline. I’m pretty sure the amount of research that The Dead Isle required, and the way I organised that research, is what killed it the first time I tried to write it.
So the readiness I have learned is a coping mechanism, a way to write fast when inspiration hits but keep discipline despite not always 100% knowing where I’m going. A willingness to excise what no longer works, to change the history of the story, to give up on a character who has wandered off and quietly remove them. Plotting out ahead of the story still works, it’s just something I have to do in the document, writing little scenes that will eventually join up with the main body of the work or even just sentences like “Climax goes here; car chase with giraffes”.
(I should write a story that culminates in a car chase with giraffes. I’m not sure if it’s a chase with giraffes in the cars, or driving the cars, or it’s actually a giraffe chase scripted like a car chase, or if they’re just peripheral, watching it all happen, but it’s an intriguing thought to be going on with, no?)
So most of what I do to prepare, and most of what I do while writing, happens in my head. Most of just about everything I do happens in my head, so at least I’m well-practiced. Next to nothing happens with pen and paper; I can’t write as fast as I can think, but I can type nearly as fast, so writing in longhand is a last resort if I’m not near a computer. (I used to do a lot of it in math class in high school.)
As for research, well, knowing how to research is important, but most of mine gets done as I go along. It’s easy to fall down the research rabbit hole — but I think that particular aspect of writing perhaps deserves its own essay.
So yeah, for me, the only thing I really do to prepare for writing a novel is to poise myself in readiness for when it mows me down like a giraffe in a mini cooper.