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How do you get started with a new story?

If you're going to be a writer then there's one thing you absolutely can't avoid - getting started! And sometimes that can be the trickiest part of the whole process. This week we're mining the Scribble hive-mind for some tips and tricks on getting a new writing project up and running.

Usually with a bolt from the blue. Quite often I’ll get a very vivid image in my head or a strong line of dialogue. It will bother me until I write it down. Once it’s out on the page, it tends to just keep growing! Often this happens at the most inconvenient times - my recent short story Grey cost me an entire night’s sleep, for example, but it was well worth dragging myself out of bed at 2am!

At the start, the most important thing for me is to find the sound, rhythm and voice of a piece before any real structure starts to fall into place, so I focus on getting hold of that language and style before I worry about things like plot and narrative. If I start on a new idea and it feels or sounds flat, I’ll usually walk away and work on something else, to give the idea a chance to percolate a bit longer. I’ve got a folder full of opening lines and snippets of prose that I can dip into.

Sometimes I have a really clear idea of everything that needs to happen in a story and sometimes anything past the opening setting is a complete surprise. This is less problematic with short stories than with full-length novels, so letting the story build itself and then tightening it up in the edit later can be a really fun process. When further plotting is required at the outset, for longer or more complex projects, my approach is still quite similar. I write until I’m under the story’s skin and then I’ll plot the rest.

I like to keep a collection of interesting images and articles that have sparked my imagination. All ideas start somewhere, so give your imagination as much fuel as you can. It will process what you consume and start making suggestions. Then it’s up to you to act on them.

More than likely (and I know this is a cliché), a new story will attack me unprovoked. Often in the middle of the night, five minutes before my train arrives at its destination, or halfway through an important family function. That elusive beast that is inspiration has little care or empathy for my convenience or social schedule. It wakes me at three in the morning, four hours before I have to get ready for work and screams “make the most of me now you bastard or I’ll be gone forever”.

After I’ve been rudely interrupted from my daily life, I usually do either of two things. One of them is to furiously type or scribble out everything that is clogging my head and keeping me from my precious sleep. As much as I can, as quickly as I can. A lot of that is normally drivel, but some good stuff slips through occasionally. After that, I’ll edit and rewrite until I’m happy.

My other method is to jot down as many notes and ideas as I can and then forget about it until a more convenient time. I tend to do this over the course of a few days while I try to keep the idea lodged in the back of my mind - I find that this helps me to develop aspects of the story like characters, settings and plot. Then, when I feel prepared, I’ll look through my notes once and start writing. Most of the time I try to avoid coming back to my notes until I’ve finished a first draft or hit a wall.

The thing is, I imagine everybody’s methods for starting a new story differ to some extent or another. The important thing is that you get started. Don’t leave it too late and let the idea slip away, don’t be afraid to jump in too soon - when you have an idea that interests you, do something about it. Worse case scenario, it’s awful and you start again with a new story.

I visualise it and build from there. I try to write in a way that I would enjoy reading, so it's often helpful for structuring stories and giving me a good framework to plan around. Getting started is the hardest bit (check out our post on that!) so I just try and get a few sentences going. Once the initial words are down, usually it just flows out of me for a while.

Having notes is a really great way to keep hold of all my ideas, plot points, character quirks and anything else I think of too. Plus, it helps stop me going off on a nonsensical adventure and making my editing process even more frustrating than normal. The best thing to do is to avoid overthinking it, even if it makes some things nonsensical and weird, you can always edit it out later. Eventually, it will all make sense - or not, don't quote me on that one!

Make notes, keep things written down and just get something on the page.

Before I sit down at the computer (actually, before I fish the laptop out from down the side of the bed and start typing with bleary eyes) I go through a process of staring out of windows, dragging my poor dogs out for long walks and maybe doing some half-hearted, half-assed craft projects, as I circle my story like a not-particularly-hungry lioness who doesn’t really fancy zebra tonight...

I used to beat myself up for this stage, thinking it was simple procrastination, but these days I recognise it as part of the writing process. It’s the writing-before-writing; the limbering up for the first draft. The trick is to be ready for the sweet spot; the moment when the story reaches fruition, and start writing before the Inner Snark kicks in. That’s why I keep the laptop by the side of the bed. I know I’m going to wake up one morning and be ready to write the damn thing, and it’s essential to be prepared for that moment.

I think of writing the first draft of a story as a process of gathering raw materials. After my week of reverie, I have a vague idea of which characters are going to be in it, what the setting is going to be, and what might happen. Beyond that, it’s a case of throwing words down onto the page until there’s enough there for me to work with. I often say to my creative writing students that while sculptors can buy a lump of clay to work with, writers have to create their own, and only when a big formless lump is on the page can the writer start to shape, pinch, smooth and sculpt to create the finished piece.

Keeping that image in mind can be very freeing, as it removes the pressure to get your story ‘right’ first time. Just keep throwing lumps of clay onto that bench. Your story is in there somewhere. Then, like Michelangelo with his angel, you just have to set it free.


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Cover image by Mystic Art Design via Pixabay


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