I don’t start writing anything until I have a rough idea of the story I want to tell.
As I write, ideas will occur to me that might or need to happen later. I dot point these. In the case of Just Another Week in Suburbia, which was set over seven days, I also drew up a table with columns for each day, and would dot-point where applicable. (Things still changed.)
Often, I’ll realise that something needs to be foreshadowed earlier or revised. I’ll make a list of these revisions, and attend them at the beginning of each writing session. That helps me get straight back into the writing since I’m diving into pre-existing text and know what needs to be done.
But, ultimately, it’s an improvisational process.
That’s me. I know people who plan everything meticulously before they start writing, and others who write the sections that appeal to them, and then find ways to put it all in chronological order and link it up later.
When I used to run writing workshops, I would stress that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for somebody else. It’s best for people to cannibalise what works for them, and forge their own way.
What I do believe is important is preparation.
Before I start any manuscript (or screenplay), I sit down and plan out all the characters and locations that I might use in that story.
With Just Another Week in Suburbia, the locations I believed I’d use were:
- Casper’s house
- The street Casper lives in
- Casper’s high school
- The café Casper frequents at lunch
- The corner the café is on
- The local pub
- Jane’s work
- Kai’s house.
Those locations came with certain characters:
- Casper’s neighbours: usually, you know the neighbours who immediately surround you – left, right, front, and back. I knew the neighbour to Casper’s left was antagonistic and that his wife was flirty, and the neighbours in front of him were a younger married couple who would represent marriage at an earlier time. To the right was a married couple with two kids who represent the future. Behind Casper were paddocks that were just starting to be developed.
- Casper’s school: students and faculty. I knew Casper had an officious superior, the high school vice principal, and a peer about his age.
- The café: the staff (it became a family-run business – again, as a representation of relationships).
- The corner: I had an idea there would be a disreputable character who hung around there and bullied Casper.
- The local pub: staff and regulars.
- Jane’s work: Jane’s co-workers.
- Kai’s house: Kai.
I created characters for all these locations and gave them little histories.
There were also other free-floating characters, such as Casper’s friends, and in the early drafts, two detectives (who were cut from later drafts).
The names are vital, too. When you start reading a book, you’re assimilating lots of information, so it’s easy to confuse characters who are named similarly, e.g. there’s a Ted, and a Len, and a Tom.
One trick I use is to write out the alphabet, and every time I come up with a name (often, I research names on the net), I scratch out the letter it begins with from the alphabet. This just means that I won’t come up with a Tom, then a Tim, and then a Ted, and ask readers to track them all.
It’s a painstaking process that can take days, but I believe you have to blueprint the universe as much as possible. I won’t get everything. Just Another Week in Suburbia suddenly needed to use a shopping plaza, and several shops it contained. But I try to detail the world as much as possible – anything I think I might use (no matter how unlikely) I jot down.
I compare it to drawing a map.
If I told you to drive to a location, but didn’t give you directions, you’d have no idea where you were going. You’d get lost, you’d stop and have to ask for directions, and you might never get there at all.
But if I gave you a map, you could plot a course. On that course, things would happen.
I think storytelling works the same way.
Knowing the locations helps me orient where the characters are. I knew Casper’s bedroom window overlooks his neighbour Chloe’s backyard. Late in the story, Casper enjoys a voyeuristic episode as he watches Chloe at the pool. This only occurred to me because the geography generated the possibility.
While I had some ideas about who and what the characters would do (e.g. the anal vice principal, the disreputable hood), others gained purpose as the story unfolded.
Beth is a good example. She was another member of the faculty – this free spirit Casper idealized. But as the story went on she became Casper’s confidante, and her own relationship developed this dark underpinning. She played a much bigger part in the story than I envisaged. Similarly with some of the students. Originally, they were just names on a page. But during class, their histories drove their behaviours, and that stimulated dynamics I hadn’t considered.
I think when writers suffer writer’s block, most of the time it’s because they don’t know their universe well enough.
Preparing in this way means that wherever I send my characters, I know what’s there, I know who’s there, and the little histories I’ve concocted can shape the situation, inform how it might unfold, or they might generate an entirely new idea.
Next Week: Revision: Part I in Just Another Week in Suburbia.