As my last post was about finishing up a project, it seems appropriate to write one about my process for starting a new one, especially considering that I am right in the middle of that process. Also, I am in the (for me) unique position of not already having a plan for what I want to start working on. Usually I have a backlog of three or four cool ideas for projects (usually short stories) and can pick one up and start working on it as soon as I finish with whatever I have been working on. But with school and work and the weird creative slump that seems to have followed my first successful forays into publication, I found myself not only with a blank word processor before my eyes, but not even a half-dozen jotted notes on what I wanted to write about.
So, what do I do when I’m staring down the creative void, without the first inkling of an idea what to work on?
Well, first off I do some non-writing things. Call them research or centering or a break or what have you, the point is that I don’t have anything on my plate to write, so this is a perfect opportunity to not write. I just spent a weekend on a family reunion without writing a single word. For a few days before that, I spent the time I would have normally spent writing rewatching The Wire and playing X-COM 2, a game I’ve been meaning to get to for over a year. Since the reunion, my limited free time has gone into reading Fun Home and Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, both extremely well done books that lie fairly far outside my genre, being graphic memoirs. After that, I spent an evening journaling and listening to music that I usually don’t, because it’s too distracting to have on while I’m writing fiction.
Many writers, it seems, advocate a strict “write every day” policy, and when I have a project in the works I try as best I can to stick to that rule (as far as my schedule will allow, see this post for a more detailed discussion). But when I don’t have a writing project in mind, I find that sitting down and hammering on the keys without direction leads me basically nowhere. In fact, my time is better spent doing things that help me cultivate nuggets of inspiration. Exploring media, reading books (fiction and non), or even just taking some time to journal (which, for me, is a totally different experience from writing fiction) can lead to new ideas, or connections between old half-baked ideas, that can plant the seed of your next project.
Which is exactly what happened. While journaling, I thought through some recent experiences, some things I have been learning in my Masters program, and a few of my favorite stories and pieces of media that have endured as favorites over the years. I asked myself questions like “Why did that experience stick with you?” “What about that bit of new knowledge resonated?” and “What is it about Fullmetal Alchemist (as an example) that makes it so fantastic and rewatchable?”
Today, that journaling coalesced with some things I love about The Wire and some of Alison Bechdel’s insights into the nature of family relationships. The result was the seed of a new project. A few characters, the first threads of a plot line, the beginning logic and symbolism of a new magic system.
So how do you start a new project? Well, if you don’t know where to start, maybe take a break from creative work. Go back to the things that inspire you, the things that made you want to write in the first place. That’s where you found your old ideas, and that’s where your new ones most likely hide.