Pre- and Post-Writing Strategies: Use Down Time to Continue Creating

So, the novel is in the hands of the powers-that-be. While its future hangs in the balance, what does a writer do in the meantime?

It could be the perfect moment to step away from writing. Give the brain a break from creating and living inside your book’s world. Full breaks from the keyboard have benefits—and I do take advantage of it. Usually, it’s during the summer, and a pontoon boat and hot sun are involved.

Sending a manuscript out to be read by industry experts is thrilling. I know revision lies ahead for my work. And my mind is still in the story and characters I’ve created. But I don’t want to make changes until I have feedback from the experts. What’s a writer to do during “down time,” or the in-between stages of submission and revision?

This month, I’m using advice I give my writing students: Use this time to focus on pre- and post-writing strategies. Rather than not write, I suggest creating an outline (pre-writing). Or, I suggest writing supplemental materials (post-writing) for finished work.

Pre-Writing Strategy: Outline the Next Book

As a reformed pantser, I embrace outlines. I’ve learned that before writing new material, I must plot its structure. Otherwise, I’ll end up frustrated. I’ll write twenty-thousand words of a story, but be lost regarding pace and plot points. It takes more time and energy to fix those problems than it does to create an outline.

There are many plot charts on the internet. I think I’ve considered most of them. I recommend Larry Brooks and his craft books as a starting point. After I studied Story Engineering along with a few other craft books, I developed my own beat sheet. I had to take what I learned, then translate it into something for me.

Reading advice about writing is good. It’s how to learn to write. But beyond reading about writing, putting words to the page is necessary. As a writer friend and I discussed, it’s the difference between reading about horseback riding vs. climbing on a horse’s back. It takes time in the saddle to know how to ride.

To understand how to outline my books, I had to do it for myself. I created my own beat sheet. I made a one-page diagram that spoke to me. My beat sheet outlines the way I think. It works for me because it’s unique to the way I work and create.

There are multitudes of plot diagrams available. I start with four key points: Inciting incident; point-of-no-return one; point-of-no-return two; and climax. I work within that structure to flesh out sections such as the messy middle and the all-is-lost moment.

Writing an outline is not as fun as writing a draft. It’s tedious. It involves math. (Simple math, but numbers, nonetheless.) But the more often I create one, the better I get at it. Thus, writing eighty-thousand words seems less intimidating to me.

Others may prefer to write without an outline. My hat is off to you. (I’ll toast you when I’m on the pontoon boat!) But I’ve discovered that a pre-writing strategy of outlining my novel provides the guide that I need. So, while taking a break from my work, I’m still in the writing game by plotting action for my next novel. I’m free of the pressure of a daily word-count deadline. I’m enjoying my characters. I’m still creating, just in a different way.

Post-Writing Strategy: Supplemental Materials

The novel is one thing, the supplemental materials are another. The logline, pitch, and synopsis all should be created. Even with self-publishing, I believe they are necessary. Marketing materials sell books. Readers want to know the premise a book in a logline, a one-sentence description. Book stores will, too.

Also, pitching is invaluable for learning what a book is about. I attended the New York Pitch Conference a few years ago. It was tough. It was worth it. It was four days of describing my book in three paragraphs. There were tears. There was alcohol. “Needs revision” became my new middle name. “What’s the copy machine code, again?” was my lunch order instead of a sandwich.

I’m not saying attend an out-of-state conference to pitch. Do it today in the mirror at home. Or, ask a friend to act as an agent on a conference call. Talk about your book to him or her in three paragraphs. You have sixty seconds to describe your novel. Can you do it?

And then there’s the synopsis. That’s a cat of a different color when it comes to writing a book. To me, the synopsis is a panther, a stealth document. It’s sleek and streamlined, breathtaking to look at—when you can find one, that is. Compressing more than eighty-thousand words into a succinct one-page description is a feat few writers have mastered. It’s like spotting a big cat in the wild. But that doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t try.

I begin by writing a long synopsis. I compress my book’s action into however many pages it takes. No, I don’t mean rewrite the entire book. Write the highlights. (An outline helps with this exercise.) My long synopsis is about five pages. After that, I slash those pages to One. Single. Page. And by slash, I mean it. My five-page draft ends up shredded. And if a computer could bleed, mine would.

All for good reason. Mastering the supplemental materials reduces the fear of them. Writing them provides confidence. It means a writer understands a novel’s key ideas and can concisely translate them to an audience.

So, if you’re in a creative mindset but between books, I suggest using that time to be productive. Write an outline for a new novel. Or, if you haven’t started submitting your work, create supplemental materials that support it. It’s wonderful way to stay in the writing game—before hot sun and pontoon boats arrive, that is.

Happy February, writers. The days are getting longer. Spring and daffodils are near. I wish you a productive spring of writing. ~Tracey Kathryn

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