Elizabeth: Back to Basics – Starting a “New” Story

Stories Yet To Be WrittenA few weeks ago I mentioned that I was trying to decide wether to keep plugging away on the current manuscripts I have in process or to call it a day and get on with my (writing) life.

The part of me that felt I was trapped in revision paralysis was all for “let’s build a bonfire / I’ll get the matches.”  The part of me that never stopped reading a book partway through (until Madame Bovary), was more “quitter, quitter, quitter.”

A conundrum, indeed.

Fortunately, I think I’ve come up with a solution that pleases no one combines the two options.  I’m taking one of my three manuscripts and starting it all over from scratch.

Sounds like fun, right?  No?  Well, it was Jilly’s idea.

When I raised this issue in my recent Sunk Cost Fallacy post, Jilly commented that she had changed so much as a writer since she’d written her earlier stories that she’d probably start with a blank slate if she ever went back to them.

That made a lot of sense to me.  My writing style and skills have changed quite a bit since the McDaniel program where my stories in question originated.  Continuing to attempt to edit them as they are feels a lot like trying to cover leaks in a boat with duct tape.  Hardly likely to succeed.

Starting from “scratch” gives me the chance to (fingers-crossed) avoid some of the writing dead-ends that I continually found myself in.  I also know the characters a lot better than I did at the beginning when they were just generic placeholders that I hadn’t even named yet.

I’m planning to read through the story notes I made along the way, pull out the collage and outline I put together at some point, and try to re-frame the big idea for the story.


How do you start a new story (or a new take on an old story)?

Do you start with a general idea of what the major conflict is, or do you just start writing with no idea of what is going to happen until you’ve got the words on the page?

Do you block out the major acts and turning points so you have a general idea of what needs to happen when and how the pieces will fit together, or does that kind of pre-work get in the way?

Or does your process depend on the story?

Realizing that everyone’s writing process is their own, what suggestions do you have to help someone get a new story successfully off the ground?

9 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Back to Basics – Starting a “New” Story

  1. Considering that my story is NOTHING like it was 6+ years ago when we started the McDaniel program, I’d say Jilly’s got a good idea there. I’ve essentially written this story 4 times. About the only thing that’s the same is the character’s name (and honestly, I think Nate’s name changed somewhere along the way). So I think you’ve got a good idea there. Start with the very basics and see where that takes you. Maybe keep one or two elements from your original story, but basically start it over.

    As for how I start a new story, it’s mostly jotting down ideas and a basic framework and running with it from there. I tend to be more plotty, less pantsy, but not in a spreadsheet way. I tend to regard things like beats (which I still really don’t understand, TBH) as something sort of organic and instinctual (in other words, I don’t plan them out). I pay close attention to the character’s misbelief (that whole Lisa Cron thing) and my character’s emotion, then fix the rest in edits. I know, probably not helpful.

    Good luck with your new/revised story. I’m sure a second go at it will be just what you need to rev the writing engines.

  2. I hope this approach works for you, Elizabeth! When I start a new story I usually know the main characters, the premise/conflict, and the ending, plus maybe a few other stray characters and details. After I’ve written the first act (about a third of the book) I would probably make a list of the scenes needed to finish the rest of the book. Just a one-sentence description of what happens in each scene. I still have to work out the details as I go along, and if necessary I’ll tweak the list, though not the end point.

    For your story re-boot project, I have a question: how do you approach your quilting projects? They are a stunning mix of craft and creativity. Maybe what works for you there would work with your books?

    • That’s an interesting question, Jilly. When I quilt, I typically start with a piece of fabric that catches my eye (a character), then I look for other fabric to go with it ( supporting characters). Then, once I have a potential stack of fabric, I think “what pattern would look good with these?” (Basic story line). At that point I have a basic plan forward, which I then tweak and embellish along the way.

      Hmmm. Maybe that approach would work with stories too. Must think more about that. Fortunately I have a long plane ride coming up, so there will be plenty of thinking time.

  3. Good luck, Elizabeth! I would find it hard to erase from my mind all that went before and start over, keeping the characters and maybe the conflict and then reorganizing it and rewriting it differently. I think I would have a hard time getting out of the rut I’d built and nurtured for so long.

    When I start something new, I begin with the character. I know the conflict and trouble she’ll be in, and I know the ending. Everything else is a crapshoot.

    But for you—maybe if you know the characters better and give them/her different goals and conflicts, it would be easier to begin again? I don’t have any good ideas.

    • Yes, getting out of well established ruts is a challenge, as is letting go of favorite scenes or actions. At least it is for me. I guess I won’t know until I try.

  4. Sounds like a great idea. The story must spark joy for you, or you wouldn’t want to get back together with it.

    I start with a premise. Then I start thinking about the kind of characters would allow me to illustrate that premise. I’m currently noodling on the fourth book in my demon series, The Demon Goes Hungry (gluttony). I’ve done a pinch of discovery writing with the first scene (which did not go well), but I have a spreadsheet laid out with the 4 major characters and each of their external and internal goals, conflicts and motivations.

    It keeps telling me that it’s ready to be written, and will be much easier than trying to slog my way through Book 3, but unwritten books have lied to me too many times for me to believe that.

    • It’s funny you mention spreadsheets, Jeanne. I use them so much in my day-job that I just assumed I’d be the kind of writer who had everything laid out and plotted in spreadsheets. Turns out, not so much. Instead, I seem to need to wander around down random paths until I eventually see the light of the story.

      I think I’ll just focus on maintaining that “joy” feeling and keep believing that that process will work itself out eventually.

  5. I’m a bit of a panser and have to just get words down on a page before I can get a grip on how things are going. I need to hang out with living, breathing characters. Then after a bit I take stock, and start looking at it from a plotter’s viewpoint and take things from there. So far so good with the first three novellas of a series one trilogy I’ve been working on, but with series two, I got off to a very wonky start. I went away and worked out what the problem was, and immediately realised that I had to go and do a least a bit of detailed planning. Overall I always know where I want to head, in general terms, which I believe is essential, but really had no real sense of the immediate journey. A notebook and pen were necessary to map out more detail. I realised I’d started the story in an entirely wrong place, and it was dull. Scrapping was the best thing I did. Even with the latest version I ran a concurrent Mark 1 and Mark 2 version, until I’d altered then transferred across sufficient material to ditch Mark 1. Another good move. Ditching stuff and starting over takes guts. It takes willpower to stop simply bashing away on a keyboard and get a grip on the nitty gritty. But in the end it spells freedom, and movement forward. Well done for having the courage and determination to do that.

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