Starting something new
How my writing process follows the calendar year, and how I go from wisps of inspiration to a novel-shaped idea
My writing process always seems to sync up with the calendar year.
Back when I was a teacher (and before I was a mom), I wrote much, much more during the 2.5 months of summer than I did during the other 9.5 months of the year. For a few years in a row, summer was my time for finishing and revising one book and then beginning another, which I’d work on as much as I could (but never as much as I wanted) during the school year, setting myself up to give it all my focus and finish it up when June rolled back around.
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Now, the timing has shifted. The last three books I’ve worked on—Saint Ivy, Coming Up Short, and my next book, which is tentatively titled Keeping Pace—have all sold on proposal, based on a 50ish page sample and a detailed synopsis. They’ve all been slated for the spring publishing season (in 2021, 2022, and 2024 respectively), so my deadlines have followed the same basic schedule each time.
What that means is that in 2019, 2020, and 2022, I had to turn in a full draft of a book in early November. Spring and summer were my time for drafting the book (often while launching my last one), then early fall was for finishing the draft and editing it, and late fall and early winter were for catching up on everything that had piled up as I focused on my deadline and re-filled my creative well.
Because of this schedule, January has become my time to start something new, knowing I’ll put it aside whenever I get an edit letter for the book that’s under contract. I like this rhythm of new year, new story . . . as long as the new story materializes.
I’m not a writer who has lots of ideas. I have these little floaty bits of inspiration, and sometimes, those wisps come together into an actual, actionable story idea pretty easily. Coming Up Short went from general bits of inspiration to a fully realized character and fully formed plot so quickly it felt like magic.
Other times, the evolution from idea wisps to actual idea takes a lot of time and a lot of false starts. That was the case with this book that’s slated to come out in 2024. I had a few things I knew I wanted to explore, and I tried to start the novel in January of 2021, before I got edits for Coming Up Short, but I didn’t really get anywhere. I came back and tried again that summer, after revisions and line edits and copyedits for Coming Up Short were done, and finally by the next fall, I was onto something.
One benefit of my struggle to get going with that novel is that I added valuable new strategies to my collection of tools for starting something new. I read Save the Cat Writes a Novel and learned about beat sheets. I bought Nina LaCour’s self-paced Slow Novel Lab course, which is filled with enlightening lectures and thoughtful writing exercises that helped structure and enrich that generative time.
So this January, when I was ready to corral my newest wisps of inspiration into a story idea, I went back to the Slow Novel Lab course and Save the Cat. In the early weeks of 2023, I did a lot of brainstorming and writing exercises and tentative beat-sheet creating, and then eventually, I started writing actual chapters.
I have four chapters and a little over 30 pages of this new thing, so it’s definitely early days, but it feels right so far. Not these exact pages and plot points, maybe, but the characters and the overall premise. I’m at about 10,000 words, which is an important threshold for me—if I write that much and still feel excited about the story, that’s a good sign that it might have legs.
I thought it would be fun to share about my process of starting something new, so I put out a call for questions on Instagram, and I got some great ones that I’ll address now.
Q1: What does your idea for a new book start with? A concept, a setting, a character?
My initial seeds of inspiration are usually linked to an emotion, a general topic, or something I want to try craft-wise. With this brand-new story, I wanted to write a dual point of view story in third person, and I was pretty sure I wanted to write about soccer and a explore a couple of specific family dynamics. But I couldn’t start writing scenes or thinking up plot points until I figured out who my main characters are, what they want, what they actually need, and what their wounds (or shards of glass, per Save the Cat) are.
So basically, I start with these general concept, craft, or emotion-related pieces that lead me to characters, and then those characters lead me to a story.
Q2: Do you make changes to your characters as the story progresses?
Absolutely—especially at the start.
I shift back and forth between brainstorming and side writing in a notebook (usually that means writing scenes from the past that won’t necessarily make it into the book) and drafting actual scenes on the computer. Whenever I get stuck in a scene on the computer, I go back to my notebook to do some more detective work about my characters, and then I change my scenes to reflect what I’ve learned. I inevitably need to make revisions that impact the characters and their journeys later in the writing process, too, but in general, I take my time with the first 50 or so pages to really figure out who these people are, and that process involves a lot of trial and error up front.
Q3: How do you figure out all of your plot points?!?! I’m stuck.
Ah, plot points. I used to just figure out the inciting incident/catalyst, the midpoint turning point, and the climax, and then I’d start drafting from there without a real outline. That approach felt organic and sometimes led me to plot points that surprised me in a good way. But the danger of that approach was that sometimes I’d go way off track without realizing it and have to scrap lots and lots of work.
There are some situations in which writing stuff that doesn’t work leads you closer to stuff that does, so for some people this might not be a problem! Some people even write “zero drafts” they plan to scrap. But I’m so enamored of feeling productive that I can just push forward with things that aren’t leading me where I want to go because I hate the feeling of not “making progress,” and this can actually lead me to think a project is unsalvageable when really I just got way off track about 50 pages ago. (I almost abandoned Up for Air for this reason, but that’s a story for another time!)
These days, I like to figure out all the beats on the Save the Cat Writes a Novel beat sheet pretty early in my drafting process (before I discovered that, I used a similar set of key scene types to hit based on a lecture by David Macinnis Gill), BUT I keep going back to my outline to adjust/cut/completely change plot points along the way. I don’t want to close down interesting possibilities and land on a plot that isn’t as complex or satisfying as it could be because I’ve outlined too early, but I also feel like I need that general road map so that I can cut down on stress and unhelpful detours.
Q4: At what point do you let first readers see pages?
My ideal situation is to share pages with critique partners once I have around 10,000 words. By that point, I usually have a clear enough sense of the characters and story that I can tell whether or not other people’s feedback fits with my vision, but I haven’t written so much that it feels daunting to change major aspects. So I have a good balance of clarity and flexibility. Sometimes I’ll ask for input earlier if I’m stuck, but that’s my favorite time for initial feedback if things are going decently.
How about you? If you have other questions about my drafting process, or different approaches that work for you, I’d love to hear them!
I’m eagerly booking virtual and in-person visits for spring 2023 (I have some availability starting in April) and for the 2023-2024 school year. I’ve added more detailed school visit information on my website, so please check it out and be in touch if you’d like to set something up, or feel free to share my site with educators who might!
What I’m reading:
I just read Nicole Kronzer’s new young adult novel, The Roof Over Our Heads, which is an utter delight. It’s funny and fast-paced with a charming setting, Victorian-era antics, and tons of fun theater content, and it’s also really tender and moving, with characters I loved and a sweet and satisfying romance.
I’m now reading Lisa Yee’s wonderful middle grade novel Maizy Chen’s Last Chance, with Christina Soontornvat’s The Last Mapmaker and Claire Swinarski’s What Happened to Rachel Riley? on deck. (Pretty pleased with myself for putting the first two on hold at the library before the ALA announcements figuring they might be harder to get my hands on afterwards, and so excited for Rachel Riley, which is structured like a middle grade Where’d You Go, Bernadette.)
I tend to listen to a lot of adult novels on audio, and my most recent listen was Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt, which is heartwarming and ambitious with such great characters.
Softball season is coming!
We just booked a trip to Florida to see some spring training games during my kids’ spring break in March, so I have baseball/softball season on my mind. If you or a 10-14 year-old in your life are excited about softball (or baseball), do I have the book for you! I’m hoping more softball players and fans will discover this book this spring (though kids definitely don’t need to be into sports to enjoy it). Perhaps some teams might even have a little book club? I’d be delighted to visit (virtually or in person) with any that do.
Thanks as always for reading my newsletter, and I hope 2023 is treating you well.
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