Sometimes the hardest part of writing is getting that first sentence on the page. There is nothing quite as demoralizing as staring at a blank screen, fingers poised over the keys, with a mind completely devoid of any creative thought. Diana Gabaldon refers to her approach to combating this common writing problem as her cold start process, which she discusses here.
This week on the blog we’ve been discussing our own cold start processes. In their own posts Justine, Nancy, and Jeanne each focused on their cold start processes for existing stories. Many of their steps, like re-reading what was previously written, making sure to have a story-plan in place before even starting to write (spreadsheets and planers and outlines, oh my!), and working up a scene skeleton (with characters, beats, goals, etc.) echo some of methods I’ve used in the past, with varying degrees of success, depending upon the story in question and the amount of effort I’ve been willing to expend (day jobs can put a real crimp in one’s creative inclinations).
There are, however, two things I’ve consistently found helpful when I’m really focusing on writing.
First up is my story journal – basically a spiral bound book and pen with sections for all of my current story ideas. The journal goes with me wherever I go so that whenever I have a thought regarding a story – whether it’s one I’m working on or something new – I can capture it (unless I’m in the car; in that case, I’m out of luck). I capture character names, motivations, snatches of dialogue, songs that reflect the feeling of the story – basically anything that pops into my head relating to a story. Some of the information I may never use, but when I’m actively writing, reading through these notes is a great way to immerse myself in the story.
The other thing that helps jump start my writing is the existence of a deadline. Procrastination is my super-power and without the pressure of a set deadline, my creative productivity definitely decreases. It’s no surprise that I generally get the most words on the page during the month of November, when I’m participating in NaNo and posting my progress on a regular basis. Similarly, during the McDaniel writing program, I finished the entire first act of the story I was working on in a ten-day period, thanks to a set deadline. I really, really hate missing deadlines.
When it comes to starting a brand-new project, my cold start process is a little different. Before the spreadsheets and plans and outlines, there has to be an idea; some germ of a thought of what I want to write.
I’m constantly on the lookout for things that might trigger a new story idea. I save Facebook posts, articles, pictures – basically anything that seems interesting or makes me think “that would be a great plot for a story” or “that is a unique setting”, etc. I used to keep all of the things like this in a physical binder, but in an effort to be a little more environmentally friendly, I now store them in a directory on my computer. When I’m getting ready to write something new, I can generally rummage through this information and find something to kick-start my creativity. I’ve found any number of ideas for my weekly posts here on the blog when going through this “idea box.”
Brainstorming and Free-Writing
Our Friday Writing Sprints are responsible for the cold start process I use most frequently (and most effectively) and that is a combination of brainstorming and free-writing. With no parameters and no real guidelines, creating a coherent story from sixteen random words can be a bit challenging. Even when there is a theme or an opening sentence, it can still be difficult to decide what to do.
During the brainstorming phase, I look at the random words to see which seem to fit together. Using last week’s words for example, blissfully, contestant, charm, and flawless all felt like they worked together.
That gave me a naïve charming contestant with flawless skin in a pageant, blissfully unaware of Something Terrible Heading Her Way.
The words whiskey, photograph, and couch gave me some ideas about just what that Terrible Thing might be.
Believe, promise, and luck, gave me additional ideas about just how my naïve heroine was going to recover from the Terrible Thing, thanks to some help from her Hero, and get to a suitable happily ever after.
When I initially looked at the words, I had no inclination I was going to be writing a story about a beauty contestant dealing with a scandal regarding some regrettable photographs from her past, but playing with the words and looking for patterns got me there. I’m afraid I got rather derailed when I wondered what would happen if my crime-solving couple Cassie and Nicolai were the ones that were trying to unravel the mystery of my scandalous beauty contestant; especially when my apparently not-so-naïve contestant started flirting with Nicolai.
The flirting is what happened during the free-writing phase. That’s when I play with the ideas that come out of the brainstorming and see how things can fit together. Sometimes I wind up with bits of dialog or some sentences or a series of possible events. I write everything down I can think of and then shuffle them around and re-arrange them, like puzzle pieces, until a story starts to take shape.
Unfortunately, I often either run out of time or lose interest at that point, but when I don’t, it usually doesn’t take too much additional effort to get to a reasonably complete story. Obviously starting an entire book from scratch, without the benefit of random words, is more complex, but my process is quite similar. I start by playing with words and ideas until I get some that seem to work together, then I expand them with free-writing, and then I shuffle them about until I uncover the bones of a story. Then it’s time for planning, plotting, outlining, and the like. Ugh!
So, how do you start a brand-new story? Do you just wing it or do you have a process you follow?