Before you start writing (and I don’t care if you’re a pantser or a plotter here), you’re going to need to do some worldbuilding. Lay down the groundwork of who, what, where, and most importantly, why your world works the way it does.
Everyone stops worldbuilding and begins writing at different times. It’s a personal decision, based on what works for you.
I have a bad habit of folding under the pressure of wanting to start writing. I start too soon, and things fall apart somewhere in the saggy middle of my stories.
I’ve done it before because of a looming NaNoWriMo commitment and sorely regretted it. Stained had solid potential, but I rushed it and felt like I was floundering on several key points.
It took me about 45k words before I felt I captured the villain’s voice. That’s a lot of rewriting and a lot of revision work for something that I KNEW I should have nailed ahead of time.
The trick is to make sure you answer all the really important questions before you get started.
Not ALL the questions. Leave yourself and your creative side some wiggle room for surprises.
But all the important ones.
Which ones are important?
Well, that’s another personal thing. I can’t tell you which questions make up your foundation any more than you could tell me which ones are important to me.
For me, motivations and character voice are important. If I can’t “hear” a character speak, then the words I write feel wooden. Forced. There’s a music to it, and learning how to find that music is a puzzle with a new solution for each character I write.
Motivations are huge. If you don’t understand why your villain is doing the Big Bad Thing, you’re likely to fall into the “because they’re evil” swamp, and that’s just not pretty.
Even worse when you don’t know your character’s motivation.
Magic rules are super important to me as a writer. I need to know what people are capable of, how they invoke it, and what the limitations are. I want to know what’s easy, what’s normal, what’s hard, and what can I push against in just the right ways to allow for characters to go above and beyond.
Societies are important, but on a very soft level. I want to know technology levels and how people treat each other. What are gender roles? What are jobs? Where does the food come from? Paper? Clothing? What is the role of government, both on a large-scale and in the day-to-day lives of the people living in the cities? Is there tension between the different societies, and how does it manifest? Has there been war in the past? How did it end? What were the repercussions?
I try to leave breathing room in some of them, after really cementing the bottom stuff. Take societies, for example. I can answer all of those questions and still decide to add in a special way to shake hands, or a tension between a particular tax-collector in a city.
I may not know that my characters are afraid of the dark until I put them in a tunnel. I may not think of a particular way to invoke magic until it occurs to the character.
These are all fine. I leave things loose intentionally so that I can tighten them with my story and so that I can play with them while I write.
It’s the difference between having a concrete foundation and a blueprint and just going at a stack of wood with a hammer and nails, though. Sure, I can trial-and-error my way through figuring out the plumbing on a bathroom, but I’ve played that game too many times to think that it’s very effective for me. I want to start being proud of my output, and I can’t do that if the kitchen floods every time someone flushes the toilet.
Listen to your heart AND your brain.
If you’ve got things that don’t feel right, that you’re worried will cause a problem or that you haven’t fleshed them out …
… well, you probably have a problem that isn’t fleshed out.
Take the time NOW to plan it. Time spent planning saves three times as much time spent revising after the fact.
And revision really isn’t fun. (Right Bill?)