Fantasy author Rachel Aaron’s scientific approach to documenting and improving her writing process led her to prepare ahead of writing. It prompted me to think of an analogy to moviemaking: writing is like a movie production. Pre-production, set design, lighting, camera tests, etc. are all done before actual filming begins. No one grabs a movie camera and starts filming. Steven Spielberg can shoot a movie in 90 days, but only after spending months in serious production to prep for that 90 day sprint.

Writing is the filming. It should come way after a lot of other preparation. Check out how Pixar makes a film; the animation comes pretty late in the process. Well before the cameras roll on a movie (especially live action), directors tackle these tasks:

  • storyboard or outline
  • create character backstories
  • plan each shot
  • design sets, props, costumes
  • cast each role
  • develop lighting and sound concepts

The writing equivalent is:

  • outline the plot and the emotional beats
  • develop the characters
  • setup each scene
  • build out your world in detail
  • choose a tone, voice, pace, POV

For example, make sure you know Bob’s apartment layout before the gangsters bust in and fight him in an extended action scene. What kind of furniture is there? How well does Bob fight? Is he surprised? Who are the gangsters and do they want him alive or dead? Do you know enough about Bob to know why he’s in this situation and how he’ll react? How does this fight scene serve the larger story?

Do this all before you produce the prose. In some ways, you have to do more pre-production than in a movie, because soundtrack, special effects, pace and editing are done in post. But in writing that is just a lengthy rewrite that can upset other elements (“my magic system isn’t right, now my plot is wrong!”). When you get the hang of it, you will no longer be distracted by things that can be dealt with in post (like stopping to develop a minor character name), and you won’t have to stop for critical details you should have known already (when did Chicago last have trolleys?) but with all that work done in your head, it will improve the quality of what you write.

If you need a minor character’s name, slap a placeholder in there (X will do) and, as they say in Hollywood, fix it in post (production). Rewriting/editing is the post-production: filming pickup scenes only if needed, sound and score creation, film editing. But this should pale in comparison to the pre-production.

I have done the ‘dive right in’ approach and end up redrafting or rewriting, backing out of cul-de-sacs or becoming truly stuck on how a scene should play out. Everything comes out contrived and poorly thought out. You can fake it and just keep going, but pounding out words when you’re lost leads to making a mess that takes forever to untangle.

Each minute of pre-production planning seems to save me about an hour of time actually writing, I think. With all that pre-production active in my head, the writing happens faster and more naturally. Write faster, write better.

Lights, camera and… write!
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