In the last few weeks, having finished the work-in-progress that I’d spent the last year on, I did two things: 1) I took a bit of a writing break, of about a month or so (one I at times had to force myself to maintain, and 2) when that was over, I started a new writing project.
As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, I was a little nervous about starting something new this time around, having just finished something that I thought was/is probably my best work yet. Would my next project measure up? Would I love the idea, and love writing it, as much as I had my previous project? With writing, though, comparison is always the thief of joy – even if you’re comparing you to yourself, and your work to other examples of your work. And that isn’t productive or helpful. So I tried to remind myself of all of that and forge ahead with a new idea, one that had been brewing for a while. Actually, this idea was originally two separate ideas that seemed to magically come together to form one whole, filling in each other’s missing pieces.
So what is my process for starting a new novel project? Sometimes I make some notes before I actually start writing: character names, dates/timelines, a few lines that may have come to me here or there. Since I’m a pantser, there’s not too much of this, if at all, though I do make lots of notes as I go: reminders for things I need to look up/research, an idea for a new scene, notes for characters that have yet to be introduced, etc. There’s no rhyme or reason to this; I just jot these things down as they come to me.
Usually, though, the first step is to start writing. With this new project in particular, the opening of the novel suddenly started flowing through my brain as I was laying on the couch one night, reading, so I jumped up and grabbed my laptop and started typing until the words stopped. It’s a great feeling when that happens; when you’re just propelled to write, to drop everything and write. That’s what I always look for as a writer, and I’d venture a guess that others do, too.
Then I keep writing for a while. I test the idea out for a bit, needing to give it time to make sure it really has legs. There’s always a certain level of excitement when you first start working on a shiny new idea, but sometimes – and for a variety of reasons, I’ve found – that excitement can peter out, causing the project to stall. So I always make sure to give it a couple weeks of work to see how it goes before fully committing to the project. Am I still excited about working on it? Am I thinking about it when I’m not working on it? Am I still coming up with new ideas for scenes and character development and plotlines? Do I actually make the time to sit down and work on it?
After a few weeks, once I’m feeling like the project is definitely something I’ll stick with, I send what I have so far – usually the first few chapters, at that point – to my agent to get her take. I do this at the beginning of every project for multiple reasons: to make sure she thinks that the project is something that makes sense for my career trajectory as a whole and specifically for this point in my career; to see if she knows of anything similar that has recently sold and which would make my project a tougher sell; to get her take on the writing and story itself; and, quite frankly, to see if she thinks the project is something that she’ll be able to sell. Of course writing is a labor of love for me, but if I want to continue to be able to publish books, I need to be thinking about the market as well. And that’s one of the many things that an author’s agent can help with.
Sometimes my agent does have reservations on one or several of the above counts, in which case we usually get on the phone and talk it out and make sure we’re on the same page. She’s been doing this a long time and has way more knowledge of the business side of publishing than I do, so I always value her advice and insights – after all, that’s one of the things I’m paying her for. Sometimes, though, she loves what I’ve sent her without reservation and tells me to go for it. Then I keep writing to my heart’s content, and she won’t see it again until I send her a finished draft, which we both prefer. I love that she trusts me to get the work done and doesn’t need to look over my shoulder or check in with me about it; I wouldn’t work well that way. I’m sure perhaps some writers do, so to each their own!
Once my agent gives her blessing, I just keep writing – I don’t usually do any revisions until I have a full draft completed for several reasons, though there have been exceptions to this in the past. There’s usually a few mental/emotional milestones that I pass along the way: when I hit 10,000 words, which is when it feels like I’m not just playing around anymore; 20,000 words, when I realize that this is a real project I’m committed to writing and that this is really happening; and 30,000 words, which is always when a project starts to feel like a real novel to me. Then, of course, after 30,000 words we get into the middle of the novel, which is always the hardest part to write, for me; it’s when I’m in the thick of the plot and need to make sure everything is set up, and when it feels like I can’t see my way out and will be writing the book forever. But having written several novels at this point, I know that feeling is coming and am ready for it. It doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to get through, but it’s helpful to know that I feel that way every time and always get through it.
Now, what about research, you may be asking? Shouldn’t research come before any writing gets done? My answer to that is yes, probably. I always do a little preliminary research before I start writing, to make sure the idea works in a historical setting and makes sense, etc. I have been known to do lots of research as I go, which I don’t necessarily recommend (see above note about revising in the middle of a draft) but for the most part it’s worked out for me so far. The period of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence was something I had a solid background in before I started writing, so in that instance my research before and as I wrote was mostly a matter of filling in blanks.
This new idea is a bit different for me in that it’s set in a period I’ve already written about and researched extensively (though I won’t say just yet what that is). That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of this new story I’ll still need to research – there absolutely are – but again, it will be more a matter of filling in the blanks, and in this case I already know where to go to find the information I need.
Maybe this new project will see the light of day at some point, and maybe not. That’s the risk we take as authors each time we start a new project – there are no guarantees. That’s why, as long as I love the idea and am having fun writing it, I can usually block out just about everything else.