Jilly: Cold Start Case Study

This week the Ladies have been discussing cold starts, sharing their tips and tricks for finding their way into a scene or story when inspiration is nowhere to be found. As you’d expect, their recommendations are as different as their personalities and writing processes.

Michaeline talked yesterday about the excitement of bashing two or three different ideas together to generate story sparks, and then using her own memories and experiences as kindling for those sparks.

That sounds like fun, but I’m not usually looking for story starters. When I commit to a character, I like to spend lots of time in their world. I’m like the worst kind of nosy neighbor: I want to know everything about everyone in the whole community. For Alexis’s epic I have at least five major areas to explore and a tentative series end date of some time in 2020.

I’m not a detailed planner like Nancy. I know roughly where I’m headed and who will join me on the journey, but until I start to write I don’t know the details. I have to cold start the beginning of each book, and I usually hit more icy patches as I’m writing.

I find that my writing troubles usually stem from my characters. If the story goes cold, it’s because I haven’t challenged them, or I don’t know them well enough to figure out how they’d react, and why.

Momentum helps me. If I spend quality time with my characters on a regular basis, they’re top of my mind and I learn a little more about them every day. If I take a break from them, I lose that proximity and have to spend time getting to know them all over again. Just like real people—if you don’t see someone for a month, or a year, it takes a while to get back into the swing of the relationship.

Right now, I’m the poster child for cold starts. Since my mum died in mid-January I’ve had neither the time nor the inclination to write. Add in some family downtime over Christmas and New Year, and I reckon it must be two months since I really got to grips with Alexis. I want to get back to work, but my story brain is feeling sluggish and unresponsive.

I decided to try a soft re-start by writing a couple of shorts using Elizabeth’s Friday writing prompts. My shorts are still character driven, but as they’re one-off vignettes, the people in them are thumbnails. I don’t need to know every last detail about them—just offer a taste of who they are and what they want. My first effort, which I posted here, I had to grind out. It took me ages and I didn’t love it, but at least I got there. I tried again last Friday, and the story flowed a little easier. Now I need to build on those small successes.

I have two main projects waiting for my attention. The first, the changes to Alexis Book One following Karen Dale Harris’s thorough structural edit, will require me to dig very deep into the characters, and I don’t think that’s a task I should attempt from cold. I’m going to put the edits on hold until I get my head properly back into Alexis’s world, although I will reschedule my postponed discussion with Karen.

The second, which seems like a better warm-up project, is the story I’ve been wrestling since last November. It’s a pre-Alexis novella about Kiran and Christal, two characters who are important players in her story. Both characters will get a POV in the novella, but I’ve been dithering over who owns the story. I know how it ends, but the same events become a different story depending on who tells it. Last year I wrote half a dozen different opening scenes, and hated them all. I think I know the conflict, but yesterday I started to wonder if I was wrong about that.

My plan is to build on the momentum I’ve generated and sneak myself back into Alexis’s world by writing a short story or two describing pivotal moments in Christal and Kiran’s past. Hopefully those will give me a lead in to the novella, and I can take it from there.

I’ll report back in my next post on 11th April, and if I’m really lucky, I’ll have a story to share. Fingers crossed!

6 thoughts on “Jilly: Cold Start Case Study

  1. After a major personal loss, I generally can’t even read books for six months or longer. My mind just skitters in too many directions to follow a story. I haven’t had that situation since I started writing seriously, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t write, either, for the same reason. Hoping last Friday’s writing success is a signal you are healing and will soon be back at your writing desk.

    • I know exactly what you mean about the skittering. I’ve read and re-read a lot of books over the last month or so, but in a superficial, neither here nor there kind of way. I definitely want to start writing again, so I’m just going to start with the short stories and see what happens.

  2. Remember all the time I moaned about how badly Phoebe book 2 was going? That was all after my mom died. The best thing I wrote in that period was an unconnected novella based on a true story. So the mojo will come back when it comes back. This is your personal recovery time.

    But speaking of who owns the story of Kieran and Crystal, have you seen the film Roshoman? It’s a Japanese film with four characters about their telling of the same event. A similar structure was used by Iain Pears in his very long (more than 1K pages) book called something like “The Incident of the Finger Post.” I’m sure I don’t have that title quite right. My librarian assured me I’d love it, but I exhausted myself turning the pages and didn’t finish. But the structure is interesting. Anyway, something like that might work for Kieran and Crystal.

    • I’m not much of a movie buff so I had to ask the interwebs, but apparently Roshomon is super-famous. I shall check it out, thank you!

      And thank you also for the reminder that it may take a while to rediscover my writing mojo. I know this is something I want to do, so I’ll keep spinning the wheels, try my best, and let the chips fall where they may.

  3. When something big happens, I find that my creativity is diverted into finding creative and friendly answers to work problems or life problems, instead of my character problems. And that’s probably how it should be! LOL, does no good to solve all the problems with the dragons and the magic swords when the problem of Who Will Teach The Problem Children of Elementary Five is still rearing its head.

    On the other hand, I wonder if it’s actually a really good time to do some creative work. While your inner censor and your writing planner are busy with Elementary Five and the Missing HDMI Cables, your girls could have a little riot and produce something you never knew was inside of you. Good for you for testing the waters out on Fridays! You might hit something really good, or you might be just dragging in interesting flotsam. The important thing is that you keep your hand in the game, and remind yourself that you aren’t just those other things in your life.

    (LOL, and in that last paragraph, when I say “your”, I actually mean “my”.)

  4. I’m glad to hear you’ve found some writing momentum, Jilly! Just continue to take care of yourself and trust that the words will come back when your mind and heart are ready.

    I had a major towering in 2006, two deaths close together, both suicides (totally unrelated to each other), of important people in our lives. Because one of them was a friend of our then fifteen-year-old daughter, we spent months just in survival mode to get her through it. I didn’t write any fiction for nine months (I belonged to a critique group at the time and took a hiatus). When I returned to writing, I spent several months writing complete and utter crap, but at least I was writing again! It takes as long as it takes. You just have to be kind to yourself about it in the meantime.

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