Writing Problems: Starting Something New

I mentioned the other day that I was having trouble focusing, now that I’ve put my “completed” work aside. I did wind up deciding, at least for now, to put my main focus on writing something new. I do think that this was the best path, since brainstorming ideas seems to generate more energy for me than it saps away. But I also forgot what a giant mess it can be.

For the story I’m working on, I had already scribbled out some hasty notes that I managed to not lose. But before I could even start writing, I wrote pages of possibilities to figure out where this story began, and where it was going. I even spent at least an hour figuring just what everyone’s name should be, and then whether or not a character should even exist (still not sure on that one). And I had to take time to make sure I understood, at least in vague terms, what their motivations actually were.

I’ve always been a big fan of the famous E.L. Doctorow quote: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I rarely have more than a vague sense of the point of my story, or how it will end. Or, if I do know, or at least assume, what the ending will be, I usually don’t know how the characters will get there until I start writing.

But it’s not just the ending or the middle ground that can be muddled for me. Often, I don’t even know where it begins. With my last manuscript, I had so many false starts, changing the location, the time of day, even the way in which I began to story before I found one that maybe sort of worked. I had to keep writing the beginning until I figured out exactly what that was.

And that’s what’s been making me hesitant about starting another story. It’s not the ambiguity of the ending — I’m used to that, and I’m a firm believer that you can’t figure that out until you’ve been writing the actual story for a while. But it’s not being sure of the beginning that holds me back, not knowing if that first step is on solid ground or if its just a patch of grass hiding a sinkhole. I could wind up rewriting the first chapters several, a dozen, who-knows-how-many times. It’s impossible to know where to begin — I’m just looking in the headlights, and I won’t know if there’s something in my way until I come right up to it. But, I have to remind myself, even if that happens I can always turn around, and maybe I’ll pick up something that will help me further down the road.

How do you feel when you start a new project? Do you know where to begin? Does your beginning change as your story reveals itself?

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