Starting a new project always feels impossible. I open a new file, type “Chapter 1,” and . . . then what? How the heck do you write a book? How do you go from that first blank page to a completed manuscript? It feels like I’m standing at the bottom of a mountain, trying to figure out how to be on the summit.
Of course, no one expects to be magically transferred from the foot of a mountain to its peak. It doesn’t work that way. You have to plan your route, and then make the effort to get there, one step at a time.
And so it is with a new writing project. For nonfiction, I plan my route by writing a book proposal, then work with an editor to refine that proposal. Part of the proposal is an outline that I’ll use to structure the book. For fiction, I plan my route by brainstorming, writing character sketches, and finally drafting a loose outline that hits the major plot points.
Once you know the route, making the journey becomes a lot easier. In nonfiction, a detailed outline is a lifesaver. I don’t have to worry about “the book” or “the chapter” I’m writing — just the limited, defined part of the outline I’m covering today. In fiction, I focus on a scene. I try to start with the inciting incident, the scene that propels the characters into the story, even though I know that may not be the opening scene of the novel. From there, my outline gives me a series of goals to write toward.
Along the way, things might happen that make me take a detour from the route I’ve planned. In that case, I check my outline and make adjustments as needed.
Right now, I’m in a situation where I need to start several different projects at once: two nonfiction books, the next novel in my urban fantasy series, and an idea I have for a second fantasy series. I’m not just staring at a mountain, I’m staring at a whole damn mountain range. Still, the process is the same. I’ve just got to be a little more organized than I usually am.
Earlier this year, I talked to a college writing class. One woman in the class said she’d love to write a novel, but she didn’t know how. I said, “You don’t write a novel; you write a scene.” She shook her head. Obviously, to her, writing a scene was like trying to leap to the top of the mountain. So I said, “Okay, you don’t write a scene; you write a sentence.” That seemed achievable to her. I’m reminding myself of this now because I’ve done the work to plan my routes, and all I have to do is write one sentence at a time.