From Idea to Project

A Writer’s Roadmap Thursday Postcard

January 6, 2022

The Idea Itself

The first step in any writing project is to create a container. The “container” consists of:

  • Your Inspiration—the idea itself
  • Your Why—why you, why now, why this book
  • Your Ideal Reader—who you see enjoying the book
  • Your Schedule and Systems—how you see yourself getting it done

All of these matter. But the first thing to look at when you’re writing a book is your inspiration—the idea itself. And the time to start looking at that is at the beginning.

“Of course,” you might say. “What kind of person would start writing a book without looking at the idea first!”

[Raise hand.]

And more than once, too.

When I start a new project, or pick up a stalled one, my unconscious way of operating sometimes sets certain things in motion that blind me to the idea itself, and how it could best show up in the world.

Case in point: Over a five-year period, I wrote three drafts of a novel about the Salish Sea severed feet and sibling estrangement. Lots of fun scenes, but it never gelled. Then I realized that a novel is one of the most complicated ways to explore any question, because the novel form brings so many layers of scrutiny—character arcs, world building, plot incidents, everything. If I’m trying to figure out something specific, it’s easier to write an essay or a blog post.

So why hadn’t I just written an essay about the severed feet, or about sibling estrangement?

Because it never occurred to me. And that was because I hadn’t thought deeply enough about the idea to begin with. My way of operating took over. My obsession with writing novels made me overlook that this was not an idea I could explore effectively in a novel, given my skill set at the time.

From Inspiration to Project

How do you get to the root of a project? How do you know what shape it should take?

Here is a step-by-step process you can use for fiction, nonfiction, short pieces, long ones—just about any idea:—Schedule in some time to think about it. 

—List your inspiration(s): words, other books, films, ideas from the current zeitgeist or from history–anything you’re into lately, even if you don’t know why or how it relates.

—Notice what’s new to you, or seems accidental. It’s no accident that weird things come into your life at particular times. [Example: The postal service accidentally started delivering “Sky and Telescope” magazine to my house. Coincidentally, I was thinking about writing a cleaning lady in outer space. The magazines, with all their cool info about the universe, made me write the stories.]

—Be aware that you might have blinders on. That’s good sometimes with writing, but not at the start. You can put them back on later, when you’ve locked into the project and just need to STRAP IN AND GET ‘ER DONE.

—Consider alternatives to the form you have in mind. What if your short story needs to be a memoir, or your essay a how-to book? What if you wrote it as a play? The nonfiction book you’re thinking about might be good as an e-course first, to zero in on the core ideas. No idea is too wacky to entertain at this early stage.

—Work with your strengths. Maybe you’re a hard worker, or super-punctual, or obsessive. (Yes, those are strengths!) If you’re obsessive, you might find ways to use one idea for several different forms. EFFICIENCY IN ACTION.

—Question your own beliefs about what you’re capable of. One of my beliefs is that I am slow when writing fiction. When I take that belief into the back room and interrogate it relentlessly, it folds like a cheap tent. Yes, I can be slow, but I can also be fast. I’m fast every Labor Day weekend, when I join the insanity known as the 3-day novel contest.

—Fool around with the idea for a few sessions before you actually start chipping away at the writing. Write little bits around it. Think about it when you’re not writing. 

Then when you have a form in mind, proceed with enthusiasm. At the very least, you’ll learn more about writing that particular form. Once you’re writing, accept that no thought is too weird to go into the piece. Those weird thoughts are what make your stuff different from everything else.

Cheers,

Pat


Recommended Read:

Writing Badly: The True Source of Inspiration

Craig Morgan Teicher on the crucial skill he’s proudest of: writing badly


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