Where do new projects come from?

Have sent my book-for-adults to my agent! But am still fiddling with it a little bit, because I know it won’t go on submission till January at the earliest. However I’m also thinking about what might come. I’m not sure, really. I’ve never been certain where new projects come from. When you’re faced with the blank page, it feels like you can write about anything in the world, but it’s not true. You can only write the stories that only you can write. Everything else feels lifeless.

I have an exercise where I imagine opening a new book, and I imagine staring at “Chapter One” and I imagine looking at the page and what I’d like to see on it. What’s my ideal page one? Not my all-time ideal, but my ideal for right this minute. What do I want to be on that page?

Usually what comes to me first is a certain shape. I want the text to look a certain way on the page. Right now, it’d be a short first paragraph, maybe three lines long, then one long paragraph continuing through the page and maybe halfway onto the next page. After that, the first dialogue. But just a brief exchange, maybe ten lines of dialogue. Then our character looks around, we get some setting description, and we’re already on page three.

In terms of subject matter, it’s a little trickier. I think right now, I’d like to read a character who’s less self-aware, who’s less intelligent, and who’s more confused by the world around him. This character is not without their gifts, but they’re by no means a master of this world. That usually means, in turn, that the narration won’t be as close.

These days I like books that take place in the real world. Invented worlds don’t have the depth of the real world. There also tends to be a lot of describing how people are dressed and what they look like. It all ends up feeling contrived. I don’t want to read a book that’s about other books. I want to read a book that’s about life.

Right now I’m reading Evelina, an 18th century novel by Fanny Burney, and it’s pretty great! The main character is an innocent, a rustic from the country, experiencing London for the first time, so in her letters she gives wonderful descriptions of ordinary life: for instance, I just read a scene where she offends one dude by dancing with another dude after refusing the first dude (which was not okay, apparently, if you were going to refuse somebody, then you needed to sit out the entire dance, so it wouldn’t look like a snub). These are things no Jane Austen novel has ever told me.

I like novels about society, no matter what form that society might take. Webs of relationships always interest me. Smaller-scale, more claustrophobic stories interest me. I like stories about work and about money and about experiences that, while not quite quotidian, are nonetheless somewhat common. I recently read a book about an older Manhattan couple trying to sell their apartment, and it was excellent. Moving is stressful. There’s room for a novel in there. Surely not all novels need to be about adultery..

But where does this leave me when it comes to page three of my novel? Well, I’ve never seen a reason not to set a novel right here, in San Francisco, in the world I know. One of my favorite writers, Edith Wharton, set all her books amongst New York’s high society, even though she freely admitted these were boring and small-minded people. It was the world she knew.

There is a way to write about the real world, however, that comes off somewhat false. If your first scene takes place in the humming office of a startup, with twenty-four-year old techies shooting each other with nerf guns, then you’re not writing about the real world anymore, you’re writing a book about this vision of the tech world that’s been promulgated by films and movies. Not that it doesn’t have truth to it, but you should begin with the truth that only you know, not the truth everybody knows.

So I don’t know. I’ve gotten a dog recently. Maybe I would begin my book at the park, where my dog is running around with the other dogs. Maybe it gets bitten by an out-of-control dog. Plenty of drama there. I would definitely read that book.

In my most recent few projects, the plot has changed dramatically over the course of each rewrite, but what’s remained is the setting and the core of each characters’ motivations. I think when you’ve got some good characters, who want things deeply, you’ve got the beginnings of a story.

But even with all these exercises, you still often end up with a blank page. Or with a page full of crap. So you delete it all and try again. Or just keep soldiering on and hope the crap gets better. No easy answers here.

One thought on “Where do new projects come from?

  1. Lisa Eckstein

    I’m also at the end of a project and don’t yet have a plan for what to write next. When I try to follow the frequent advice to write what I’d most want to read, I always get hung up on the fact that I like reading so many different sorts of books. But your idea of specifically imagining the first pages is a cool approach. I’m going to be pondering that. Thanks!

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