It took two weeks of fretting and hair pulling, but I’ve finally laid to rest the one-page synopsis of my last project. As so often happens when I’ve completed a work, I became unfocused for a while after hitting the Print button. In the past, I’ve had other activities to prolong the birthing process, such as casting the play I’d just written, or submitting the script to producers, finding a director, working up a set and production schedule, and so forth. This time around, I don’t have that luxury of gently sliding off the steep side of the project onto a feather cushion.
Instead, while I edited the last novel manuscript, I doted on previous projects and picked one that had a special appeal to me. But the thing I pondered most about it was this: How do I go about picking up an essentially dead project and breath new life into it?
Now, a few points about what I’ve discovered my writing process to be. The completed manuscript I just finished began as a series of scene studies, about five fully written chapters, one and a half discarded chapters, and around twenty pages of notes spanning over four years. I had deconstructed and re-plotted it based on the character studies suggested by the completed chapter, and drafted it based on the new plot.
What worked in this case was creating the first five chapters as a set of character studies, then figuring out the plot, then rewriting the whole thing. Did rewriting those first five chapters feel like a wasted effort? Sure. Was it worth it? Hell, yeah. In the end, maybe about one paragraph remained wholly unchanged from the initial sketch to the final draft, and about a dozen in the same chapter remained mostly the same. (I checked this using MS Word’s Compare Documents feature…)
I am now faced with a similar conundrum. How do I get started again? I currently have about 20 pages of notes and ideas, five chapters and a prologue (which are not the greatest, but they were a first draft,) and a basic idea of a cast of characters. Where do I go from here?
The first step was to mount a foam-core board and pull out the pushpins. I’ve found I don’t have space enough currently for a really large cork-board, so I keep the board strung over the front of a bookcase. Next, made a series of markers on sticky notes — the names of each stage of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I don’t really know what direction the story will take at this point, but I need to suggest some sort of structure without imposing it in the plot. The Hero’s Journey seems to be a good jumping-off point, since this seems to be a quest and a love story.
The next step is to meticulously go through the previously written chapters and notes and cull out all of the plot points and story ideas. I’ve already begun jotting each one on its own index card and pinning it to the board somewhere within the Hero’s Journey. All of the cards are the same size and color at this point, to give them equal weight. As more are added, they’ll be shifted around until they make a semblance of plot.
The very act of writing the notes and moving the cards around on the board has already helped me begin to synthesize a new plot. There are a couple of surprises I didn’t expect, and realizations of what needs to be worked on next come to me in flashes as I rework the cards. This is a case of physical activity leading to mental breakthrough. This is one of the reasons why some writers get ideas going for walks, taking showers, or even taking pen to paper (as opposed to typing.)
Do I know what the next step is? No. Am I worried? Not on your life. After the first manuscript, I now know that the answers will be found when I need them, and that worrying about finding them can drive them away as fast as scaring the muse by looking her in the face.