Back in my Youth, before I had written any novels, I spent a lot of time brainstorming and taking notes. I was working on a complicated novel idea at the time and I needed to invent a whole world from scratch, which happens when you’re writing science fiction. So I came up with a bunch of ideas and wrote a bunch of notes.
Pages and pages and pages and pages of notes.
Like, hundreds of pages of handwritten notes. And I have small handwriting.
I would now like to take this opportunity to yell something at my younger self.
“STOP THINKING AND START DOING.”
At the time I was writing all those notes, I thought I was being productive! I thought I needed to brainstorm to get all of my ideas out there. I thought people like J.R.R. Tolkien had imagined every blade of grass in Middle Earth before he started writing, and by god I was going to brainstorm down to the precise shade of green on every blade of grass in my world.
And yes, sure, it helps to get some of the broad contours of your world and plot in place before you start. But there comes a point when you’re just sitting on the fence and being idle and you’re not getting into the action.
Brainstorming is the easy part. Getting into the nitty gritty of writing a novel is where things get tricky.
Here’s what I didn’t appreciate: It’s way more helpful to just get going and trust that you will figure things out as you go along.
When I actually got down to writing the novel I was brainstorming, how many of those notes that I had spent hours and hours writing did I end up using?
Yeah, pretty much none of them.
That’s because the ideas couldn’t withstand the pressure cooker of a novel. They were abstractions, they weren’t particularly useful. Once I tried putting the plot together and getting the characters in motion, a lot of the ideas no longer made sense.
All that time I had spent brainstorming was largely wasted. I would have finished my novel so much faster if I had just tried to get going writing instead of feeling like I had to have everything figured out first.
If you’re in a similar place where you think you’re being productive but you’re really just idly brainstorming, I’d urge you to think less and write more.
I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! More info here. And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
Art: Der vor seiner Staffelei nachdenklich sinnende junge Maler by Napoléon-François Ghesquière
This describes me so truthfully that it hurts to acknowledge it. I'm great thinking about writing, but write nothing. There's always something more interesting or important, or I don't have time, or whatever.
Nice to know it happens to more people.
Back in my youth, I tried repeatedly to just write things and always ended up going off on tangents or getting stuck in the weeds of some problem or other and never getting to the end. It was only when I started working things out and figuring out the world and the plot ahead of time that I had any hope of writing a satisfactory story. (Admittedly, I am not published, so I have somewhat less credibility in telling this particular story than you do, but I have seen other published writers talk about doing worldbuilding first, so I'm pretty sure that worldbuilding first does in fact work for some people who have found success in writing.)
The moral of the stories (IMO): there are many different types of novels, and many different types of writer, and if sometimes the first thing anyone tries does not work perfectly, it's not necessarily because doing that particular thing is completely wrong or a waste of time (though it may be true that there are more efficient ways of doing that thing than one can figure out when one is just starting). It's just that many people are going to find that they need more than just the first thing.
Nathan Bransford says
It's a tricky balance, and I agree that ultimately authors have to decide the style that works best for them. I get into this in a bit more nuance in my guide to writing a novel — I suggest a series of questions that will help flesh out your world a bit before you start. I just don't think it's helpful to do that endlessly.
Everyone is different — but directionally, I'd err on the side of action than thinking.
I am so guilty of this as well! As a fantasy writer I always have a map drawn, all my territories laid out, basic religious systems outlined for each culture, etc. before I get any real WORDS down on paper, which I don't think is a bad thing. However, oftentimes I have so much fun building my world that I get stuck in brainstorming purgatory.
I think the trick for telling when it's time to stop world/character/whatever-building and start actually writing is to be honest with yourself on one question: Am I just doing this because I'm scared to move forward? A new story idea is always a shining bubble of non-existent perfection. At some point brainstorming is just you putting layers of armor around that bubble – that's the point when you have to actually put pen to paper, in my opinion.
I think you're spot on with regards to the fear of moving forward. Worldbuilding is safe because you're not risking anything. You don't have to care about plot, or character development, or story. You're not doing anything you'll show to other people, it's just for you.
JOHN T. SHEA says
If the endless writings published by his son Christopher for decades now are anything to go by, J. R. R. Tolkien imagined not only every blade of grass but every detail of the microscopic structure of every blade!
Yet even Tolkien did not really invent Middle Earth from scratch, as many readers have noted, asking where the Hobbits' pocket watches came from, for example. The Shire is an idealized 18th Century English county surrounded by a primeval world where Conan the Barbarian would be quite at home. Only God can create a world from scratch, and which of us has not complained about His handiwork!?
I brainstorm action, set pieces, devices, dialogue and other events, but settings really only to the extent that the action requires and the world differs from our present-day world. In the absence of clear evidence to the contrary I believe the reader is entitled to assume present-day Earth conditions prevail. I like to leave enough in abeyance that I can explore the world afresh in writing and then go back and fill in details where they may be useful.
Writing has many counsels of perfection(ism!), one of which is that the author should draw up an exhaustive biography for each character. That can be useful in some novels but certainly not all. Like world-building, it can become a kind of displacement activity.
JOHN T. SHEA says
So younger Nathan is busy scribbling away when he hears a familiar throat clearing, followed by a familiar voice shouting “STOP THINKING AND START DOING!” Which he decides is an hallucination caused by working too long and hard.
So he goes to bed. And wakes up IN the SF world he created! How does he get home? Using his hundreds of pages of notes, of course! EXCEPT, they're in his tiny script WHICH HE CAN NO LONGER READ! So he embarks on an epic quest to find the Great Graphologist of the Galaxy, who alone can decipher his writing.
He also gets a strange message from someone or something called John T. Shea saying “GET A COMPUTER ALREADY, OR EVEN JUST A TYPEWRITER!”
Nathan Bransford says
That is basically exactly what happened.