How Do You Get Going on a New Project?

by | Jan 8, 2014 | Writing Advice | 66 comments

I’m in the process of starting a new project, which is very exciting. Only I realized the other day that it’s the first time in five years since I’m starting something new. And I’m a little psyched out.

I started writing the Jacob Wonderbar series in 2008. Ever since then I’ve written three Jacob Wonderbar novels and the guide to writing a novel, but for all of those subsequent projects I already had a voice established. For the Wonderbar sequels I already had the world and characters, and for the guide I already had established my “voice” from my blog.

Now I’m confronting the blinking cursor and that feeling of not knowing exactly where to start. This is something I talked about in the guide to writing a novel, but I think I need some extra words of wisdom.

How do you get started on a project? Where do you begin and how do you overcome your inertia?

Art: The wanderer above the sea of fog by Caspar David Friedrich


  1. Shakier Anthem

    Ah, yes, the terror of the blank page. That old classic. Personally, I always have to give myself explicit permission to write el crapola at the beginning, remembering how frequently the beginning is the "on ramp" to the piece and ends up needing to be cut. It's also helpful to try and keep the good stuff about beginnings in sight: it's your chance to play and experiment with character and tone before things get more nailed down later on. Why not give your main character a Luxembourgian accent or a pet monkey, or write all in rhymed couplets? Play around and see what takes. Good luck, and have fun!

  2. Sarah

    I just wanted to say I love today's picture illustration! I always do (and that you tell us what it is) but this one is great! I can just see him contemplating a brand new novel

  3. Jennifer Malise

    Starting a new project is maddening. It's probably the hardest thing for me to do as a writer. The ideas are easy, the starting bit is hard. What I do when I can't start is go to a public library with a pencil and notebook and turn off my phone. If you're lucky, it'll be against library policy to use your phone indoors anyway. Cut out all the noise and distractions, sit for a while, and eventually you'll start writing. It sucks, but after the first few pages (or hours, or days of doing it)…you'll build momentum. And don't go back and read what you wrote, just keep writing. Now if only I could listen to my own advice and do this as well.

  4. Anonymous

    This is something I hate doing, but it always works when starting a project. I actually learned to do it through a publisher's request once.

    Start a chapter by chapter outline. It's really motivating once you get into it and many times you'll wind up going back to reference it.

  5. rebecca

    I take notes before I begin and use those notes as a basis to begin from

  6. Matthew MacNish

    Usually in fits and starts.

    But seriously? It depends on the project. If I'm writing a contemporary YA manuscript, I can usually jump in after making a few character notes, and maybe a thin outline.

    Secondary world fantasy? I'm not comfortable beginning a draft until I've got quite a lot of world notes and probably a map.

    But all in all the biggest driving force is inspiration. I'm not the kind of writer that forces it, so when it comes, it comes, and that's not always at the very beginning, if that makes sense.

    Otherwise, good luck, man!

  7. Alaniya

    Whatever you do – write, for when you write, you get happy and when you are happy, inspiration flows 🙂 wishing you amazing inspiration …

  8. That guy

    I'm pretty messy when I start a new project, collecting articles, books, ideas and just splattering them all into one document before actually writing anything at all. I play around with voice, trying opening lines that grab me (and knowing full well they will probably be rewritten in future drafts). But at this point, for me anyway, it's all about finding that line, or character, or idea that propels me from one end of the manuscript to the end. Once I can look back at the entire thing from beginning to end it's a lot easier to revise and shape the story. Best of luck!

  9. Mandi

    I love starting new projects–even if it's terrifying. I always have one or two aspects of the novel that really have me hooked. A character, a magic system, a setting, whatever, so I start there and follow it to whatever else might arise.

    Once I've done research and planning enough to have a rough idea of the story, I like to do a prewrite: 5-10k summary/brainstorm of the plot, character arcs, ect. Some description gets in there, some conversation, most of the plot points, and a good sense of character and setting.

    That, together with a few warm-up pieces (backstory, AUs, random outtakes, ect) gets me really into the novel world, so by the time I start writing the first draft it doesn't feel so much like a new project.

  10. Katherine Hyde

    I use Scrivener's index card feature to sketch out scenes and move them around until I feel like I know enough about the story to get started. It's like outlining but more intuitive. Usually one scene will come to life in my head early on—before the index card process—and will give me a start on the voice for the project. Or I may write something in the character's voice that doesn't end up in the finished book.

  11. Bill Myers

    I just start writing. It doesn't matter if it's good or even if it's the right place to start. If I just get started writing, I find that my brain "boots up" with this new information. After a while, I take a walk. Not staring at the computer allows me the freedom to think about where I might be stuck and the possibilities of where the story is headed. I often find that I have to go back and restructure something or have too many possibilities, but that's a problem for another day. Allowing yourself the freedom to start it wrong and fix it later is key.

  12. Rebekkah Niles

    When I have a character or two, I let them start talking (as if narrating a journal) until they've got voices, ones I can hear strongly. Until then planning is useless, because I don't know who I'm working with, and it's the characters that really drive the story first and foremost. In the character's first words the things they care about most take shape–which, in turn, contains hints of what shapes their world, what the story's conflict will revolve around, what their motivation to continue will be. Everything else in the story will revolve around what I mine from those first few pages, and if any of the other ideas I have don't mesh, it's those ideas that will have to go.

    Later those pages may end up deleted, or modified, or moved, or burned. But when I let a character talk, the first things said are usually what matters most.

  13. Vicki Leigh

    I'm a dreamer. So, before I start something new, I give myself a couple days to just dream about my characters and my world. Really helps get me excited about the book, and it really helps me get into the voice of my character(s). I love starting new stories!

  14. Shawn

    1. Call Catherine and ask her what she can sell.

    2. Dream up a protagonist that you can see vividly and truly love.

    3. Dream up an antagonist that you can see vividly and truly love to hate.

    4. Fill a fish bowl with water and plastic castles and pirate chests that open and close with the force of aeration bubbles.

    5. Drop in your protagonist and antagonist like Beta fighting fish and see what happens.

  15. RC. O'Leary

    in the tone of an infomercial: "Don't get psyched out, get psyched up!"

    Enjoy the chance to have a fresh new canvas on which you can create.

    I would recommend you lower the bar and put your internal editing voice on hiatus for a month of two and let your writing and ideas take you down any street it wants to go.

    I have no idea the project, but one crazy prompt would be to have Jacob W describe what the next project is going to be about and what he would suggest.

    As you have said so many times in the "Nice to meet you I'm a reviser" advice, most of what you do these first few months will get revised away anyhow so just freestyle.

    U2 had a very cool special about making Achtung Baby…they usually just get together and jam until they get the right melody and then put in the words later. Just let the words flow until you get the right melody/storyline and then go from there.

    One other tool I recommend is look at what you are thinking about from as many different directions as you can find.

    Best of luck and enjoy what I think is the most fun stage of writing.

  16. Victoria

    Meditate first. Then, do the opposite of what you think you should be doing. In other words, if you think you should be typing on your computer, go play on a swing or hug a tree, or buy some sweets you used to eat as a kid, or hug a dog. Well, you probably get the point. Think I may just take my own advice. 😉

  17. Roberta

    When I start a new project, I already have the entire book in my head. It's almost like magic. I wake up one morning and I know the beginning and ending, my characters and how the tale will unfold along the way. My only job is to get it down on paper. I don't consciously think about the story, I don't outline and I don't take notes. The book comes fully fleshed out in my head.

  18. Elizabeth

    I spend a lot of time creating the story in my head, and then I start writing by hand. I write down my ideas, maybe character descriptions, etc. And usually I write the first paragraph by hand. Then I switch to the computer.
    If I get stuck at any point, I go back to the pen and notebook. It seems to unlock things, somehow. Good luck, Nathan. 🙂

  19. Drema Drudge

    I am very visual, so I start with a single image and I write around that dominant image until it suggests action and dialogue.

    I write a lot about art, which makes it easy, because I start by looking at an artist's paintings and letting my imagination take me where it will.

    I like to have a bit of an idea of where I'm headed, but I don't want to know the whole journey, because that's no fun.

  20. abc

    Starting is the most fun! Actually, I've got too many starts and not enough finishes! I wonder what Carl Jung would say about this.

    It's fun to create a new world and create characters and daydream about their conversations. I've got no advice but I trust your talent too much to have any doubts you'll find your way.

  21. Joel Mayer

    Write the last scene in the novel first. Then write the first scene, and continuing.

  22. Adele Annesi

    The blank page doesn't reflect a blank mind, usually the opposite. There isn't just one idea or direction, but many. Instead of writing off in one of those directions, I stop and let my mind run. If I'm home, I pace or stare out the window. Eventually, I close my eyes and watch the scene or idea unfold. Then I write to catch up.

  23. Haneen I. Adam

    That's an amazing picture, Ah! it's already one of my all time favorite paintings, great choice Nathan, Oh My God! how it generates many writing ideas in my head…wait! that's an answer for you *_^

  24. Carol Holland March

    Thanks for asking. One of the biggest issues we all face, I imagine. What I do is quiet my mind, sit with eyes closed and ask for an image to appear that is related to the story. I watch it. Sometimes words come, when I'm lucky, the first sentence. Then I just write whatever comes up. Most of the time it gets trashed, but it gets me started. I often do this when I'm stuck. Getting out of the linear/word mode into pictures is very freeing for me. Hope that helps.

  25. JDuncan

    For me, I usually take several weeks putting together a story. Generally this takes the form of a lot daydreaming, notes, and talking to characters in my head. Guess you could call it, "letting the story stew". Scattered thoughts and ideas will eventually begin to coalesce into something solid, I get that beginning and ending thing down, and gradually begin to fill in the blanks. I honestly enjoy this element as much as anything in writing. Good luck with the new project, Nathan!

  26. Jennifer M. Hartsock

    When I contemplated starting my literary vlog, I knew I had to include a how-to video addressing your question. I ultimately called it "Initial Thoughts and Raw Material" and said: First, free-write a compelling image, scene, or idea. This sparks the same passion for writing the rest of your writing project. Good luck!

  27. Matthew Eaton

    You can always look into some NLP stuff, see if you know the character. Sometimes even know their history can open up a new world.

    You can also do some loose plotting, see if there's a story that jumps out at you (even one you might not have thought about until now).

    Good luck, hope you find that creative spark!

  28. JJ Toner

    First decide on your MC(s) – who they are, what they want. Then if it's a thriller or any kind of action adventure book, concentrate on one or two big scenes and build around them. Work out toughly how your MC(s) will get themselves into those scenes. For non-fiction: no idea.


  29. JJ Toner

    Oops! roughly, not toughly 🙂

  30. Linda Pressman

    I give myself extremely small tasks to do each day all in service of the book, so to speak, so I don't get overwhelmed and stop working. So I stop thinking I'm writing a book and think instead about the task at hand, whether it's writing pivotal scenes or chapter headings. I make sure I know what I'm doing the next day when I leave my office at night because I tend to get book amnesia when I'm not in my office! I also highly recommend the book Chapter After Chapter by Heather Sellers, which taught me these things. Good luck!


    I'm with Mandi: I love starting a new project. Beginnings are so glorious. It's like the first few months of a love affair, when everything is golden and perfect and effortless.
    Then the middle hits, and things begin to sag and sour.
    I usually have an idea already formulated before I begin. But I don't work from outlines. I simply sit down and allow my mind to write (maybe I'm odd but to me there is nothing more beautiful than a blank page, a blank screen. Oh, to fill it up!).
    Good luck with your new project, Nathan. I have all the confidences that your beginning will be true and right.
    Cheers and happy writing.

  32. Neil Larkins

    I've been a "tinkerer" and a sometimes "inventor" (notice the quotes on both words) for many more years than a writer. Whenever an idea for a project in non-writing came into my head I'd just play with it there until I started doing something on my workbench or on paper. If it continued to look interesting to me, I'd keep developing the thing until it either became something workable or I lost interest in it. This could be for a variety of reasons. Maybe it wasn't practical or just plain not do-able because of cost or it was beyond my technical ability to finish without engaging in an excessive learning period. So much of what I did or didn't do was from a practical approach. Since starting to write I've found that I do much the same thing: After putting a few ideas on paper/screen, I ask if the subject interests me to go further. Do I know enough about it to go further? Does it have any chance of being "successful" in the marketplace (I know this last is highly subjective)? And other questions. Some projects quickly pass through these stages and move on; some never get past the first sentence, or short blurb I wrote to remind me of what the idea was about. Not a process that works for everyone – it may not even be working for me – but that's how it goes at my desk…like it has gone at my workbench for years.

  33. Magdalena Munro

    I was recently informed by my husband that he most likely wants a divorce. For me, traumatic events unleash the creative within me; conversely, when life is going well things dry up. Go figure. If you are in any way like me, perhaps tap into episodes in your life that created disarray and see where your mind/ideas take you.

  34. Natalie Wright

    I'm in the same situation right now, having spent 5 years on one series. I keep finding things I *have* to do to delay facing it!
    I don't know if you're familiar with the Snowflake method (you can Google it), but I have found that going through those steps gets me in the right place & by the time I'm through all the steps, I'm ready to go.
    Of course, spending 2-3 days creating your perfect play list for the project is good too 😉

  35. Anonymous

    I'm really sorry to hear that Magdalena. I wish your marriage the best and hope that out of any current disarray comes peace. I believe only good can come out of writing and unleashing the emotion within, so never stop writing.

    That would be my advice for writing as well in fact – never stop. If you get stuck in writing or life, push through; likely there's a silver lining or creative epiphany awaiting you!

  36. Nathan Bransford


    So sorry to hear that. I've been there. Take care of yourself! Hope your work is a solace but take the time you need also. Hang in there.

  37. Bruce Bonafede

    I start at the end. Not that I start at the end and work backwards, although there's some of that, but that I have to know the end, I have to know where I want the audience/reader to be mentally and emotionally when the play/story/whatever is over, when the lights go down or they close the book. Once I know that, I know what I'm working toward, and I can go back to the beginning and start making something that leads there inevitably.

  38. Tammy Theriault

    Starting words on a blank page – a little scary but once you start typing it all just barfs out. in a good non smelly way at least! that's how I do it. just go go go and it will project. that sounds like more barf commenting doesn't it?? hahaha…

  39. wendy

    As someone who doesn't start new projects but relentlessly fine-tunes olde ones, I suppose I shouldn't offer an opinion…but I will. First of all, jot down notes on what you want to achieve with the story. Notate how wonderful you want the characters to be and in what way, etc, etc. Note all your highest aims and then put the story on the back-burner for a week as you write down all the ideas that come to you about plot points, an exciting incident a clever turn of phrase, a great piece of dialogue or whatever.

    Instruct your subconscious that it is going to create a fabulous and amazing story out of the elements you've already culled together. Then when until you're feeling inspired and red hot to start and allow yourself to be taken on a wonderful journey into your imagination and created world. See and hear it unfold around you as the story unfolds.

  40. patdonovan

    Nathan, your post could not have been more timely. I just submitted a revised draft to an interested (though not yet committed) agent and am waiting to see if I nailed the rewrite. I am flailing about at this time unsure what to do after 18 months of commitment to this project, which is resulting in all manner of procrastination — including writing my own blog post on this topic. Since it's my first time at these crossroads, I don't have a go-to strategy. But from your post and all of these comments, it's clear that this can be a positive experience. I just need to recapture those early exhilarating days of my first project, pick an idea from my list and just go with it, one word at a time. Thanks for the perspective.

  41. ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist)

    I start with a scene that helped me come up with the story in the first place – a scene that I really want to write, even if it's in the middle or towards the end of the story. Then I write another scene I like from my head. I add music to my new manuscript playlist. I take long walks to get my brain going.

    Eventually it all "takes" and the characters start moving in and create their home in my brain.

  42. Kristi Lea

    I am always scared to write the first chapter (and not because I always need to cut my first chapters, lol). So I start with some scene that I do know or can visualize. Sometimes that's in the middle of the book. Eventually I go back and write a crummy first chapter (which I'll have to re-write once I finally write the rest of it). And sometimes, after that crummy first chapter, I don't quite get the story back to the first-scene-written, so it gets tossed.

    Then again, my idea of outlining is like a Dora the Explorer plot: First we go over the mountain, then through the lake, then arrive at the castle! (and I don't always stick that plan either…).

  43. tracikenworth

    I try and gather as much info about the story I can. The characters, the setting. I even go so far as to research photos of both. Then I concentrate on them and before I write the first word, the character's voices come to me. I know that's hard to describe. It's just my technique. I can "hear" my protagonist and he/she just starts talking, telling me about their day, their lives, their world.

  44. tracikenworth

    I try and gather as much info about the story I can. The characters, the setting. I even go so far as to research photos of both. Then I concentrate on them and before I write the first word, the character's voices come to me. I know that's hard to describe. It's just my technique. I can "hear" my protagonist and he/she just starts talking, telling me about their day, their lives, their world.

  45. Unknown

    I'm with Shawn. The castle-and-pirate method always works for me. Begin with this scene:

    Prinzessin Esmeralda marched into the Grand Hall at Neukatzenjammerstein Castle, coming to an abrupt halt before Prinz Schwanzkopf. "Arrrr," she snarled.

    "Cut!" yelled the director. "That's a wrap."

    [You're welcome!}

  46. thewriteedge

    Funny, I'm kind of in the same place myself. I decided that I would start small, by working on the outline first (yes, I'm a planner, I admit it.) But to decrease the amount of anxiety I have toward the blank page, I am only outlining an hour a week, or roughly 10 minutes a day in the weekdays. I started with the start of the new year, and so far I have found the fear manageable. When I start to freak a little, I just remind myself, "It's only ten minutes. You can handle ten minutes of outlining." And I put pen to paper, and next thing I know ten minutes are up. I find that breaking up a huge task into smaller tasks makes it less intimidating.

  47. J. R. McLemore

    Before I ever sit and put down that first word, I try to visualize the story playing out like a movie in my head. Next, I hash out most of the main story arc with a couple of friends to identify any snafus in the plot. Also, during this period, I tend to make notes in a text file on my computer for major things to be aware of. Once all of that is complete, I sit down and dive right in. After all, this is the first draft and I can always go back and change it. It's the foundation that everything else rises from.

  48. Lost Carlson Rhoads

    I tried not to start this sentence with an I, but I couldn't help it. I am so new to the writing forum, as a life long ghost creative, starting something new, is well, way to familiar. I ask myself is it the ADD? A painter, a sculptor, it's always been a blank page, now, it really is a blank page.
    While, still completing this current project, I am in the off hours visualizing, (fantasizing?) and have an outline for the next. Verily, I feel as if I am having an affair, guilty and shamed of myself for such deceitful behavior.

  49. Lost Carlson Rhoads

    I tried not to start this sentence with an I, but I couldn't help it. I am so new to the writing forum, as a life long ghost creative, starting something new, is well, way to familiar. I ask myself is it the ADD? A painter, a sculptor, it's always been a blank page, now, it really is a blank page.
    While, still completing this current project, I am in the off hours visualizing, (fantasizing?) and have an outline for the next. Verily, I feel as if I am having an affair, guilty and shamed of myself for such deceitful behavior.

  50. birdinabowler

    Oh man, I don't know. All my projects started as wild animals that couldn't wait to get out of their cages (i.e. my brain) so I just HAD to write them.
    But sometimes, just for fun, I'll write down all the elements I want to have in my next project (dragons? a betrayal? a female antagonist? a specific piece of dialogue?) and then pick three out of a hat. Or sometimes I'll just try to include them all!

    (Though that last one usually doesn't end in anything productive. Mashing historical romance with biological warfare and sneaker drones was unsuccessful.)

  51. birdinabowler

    Oh, and I like Lost Carlson Rhodes comment above about feeling guilty like you're having an affair. I think maybe that's how a new project SHOULD feel like.
    I always have a commitment to my other projects, but then there's that one rogue one that keeps tempting me to start it. And the rogue project is usually the one that has enough substance to turn out finished.


    I'm surprised how many people have trouble with this. I generally have my next project planned before I finish my current one.

    "Planning" is making notes, writing specific scenes, or rough outlines. This is my "down time" from the rigors of my current project. I always have a note book handy with tabs for hopping about between project ideas. Creating something new is the fun part. For me, it's the current project that tends to get tedious.

  53. Anonymous

    Write about something that's very important to you. Something you care about that has affected you personally.

    You won't be able to stop writing 🙂

  54. Nathan Perkins

    A writer can't start every project in the same place. But it works best for me to start wherever I am with whatever I have. If it's a good idea that I have, then I write like crazy trying to get the whole thing on paper before it's lost. If I have a good start, I work on perfecting that to set the tone for the rest. If I have an agent dogging me to put something new out there. I go shopping (at the library or writer's conferences). Start where you're at and a sense of success will power the next step. Don't skip the next step, whatever that is.

  55. Anonymous

    I always have to have a character. If I don't, it's much harder for me to make any progress, even if the setting's great or I have this wonderful plot idea. For me it all centers around characters. Sometimes I'll have a spare waiting in the wings (or as a bit player in an earlier piece) and then she steps out ready to go when a plot or setting idea wanders by.

  56. Maya Prasad

    Good question! 2013 was full of false-starts for me, but here are some things that helped me:

    1. Hold off on sharing your ideas.
    2. Write the first draft FAST.
    3. Be brave.
    4. Push yourself, but take breaks as life demands.

    You've inspired to me to blog about this…so for more thoughts on the above, check out my post!

  57. Sheri Fredricks

    I find that a bottle of Sapphire and a liter of tonic helps me.

  58. Peter Dudley

    I hear you, bro. I just wrote "the end" on the third book of my trilogy and am about to publish another project. Which leaves me (when I'm done revising/editing the trilogy finale) with the dreaded Blank Slate.

    So many ideas. So much fear of commitment. What if I get seduced by the wrong idea? What if I have a good idea but botch it? What if…

    Anyway, I would +1 Elizabeth and JDuncan. When an idea tickles me, I longhand journal it. Characters, plot, conflict, motivations, backstory, theme, symbolism… all of it. I do this over and over until it either becomes a story that I can feel confident writing, or it begins to bore me and I know it'll never fully succeed (or I'll hate working on it). Then I throw it out and try a different idea.

    If I can't latch on to any idea for a while, I'll force myself to write poetry and light verse to keep mentally fit.

    Do you ever find yourself starting out on an idea, then realizing it sounds disturbingly like a query you once read? I imagine that's a hazard of being a former literary agent. But maybe not.

  59. inklings Anon

    Like I tell my writing partners, you have to power through it, Breaux. You do it and it will come, blinking cursor be cursed. There comes that part where you get bored of your writing, same thing, power through it and you will be rewarded (fortune cookie theology). There are also the writers who are perfectionists and won't start until everything is perfect. I have two pieces of advice for these people. #1 (not hash tag 1) Control is an illusion. #2 Power through it. Once I realized the power of powering through, I pushed out 4 manuscripts in 4 years. Two of the manuscripts I wrote while in grad school and two I wrote while working full time. Now I'm powering through being a supervisor at a call center (60+ hours a week) while working on edits for book 2 for a book release in the Summer. I am also starting a publishing house on top of that and gathering a bunch of first time writers together who should be ready to publishing the next year or two. The rule of the day is power through.

    P.S. Where do you get your art again?

  60. Joe Moody

    The best way to start a new project is not to talk about it, but to start it. Similar to a novel, the more someone talks about writing a novel the less they will actually write it.

  61. monniiee smith

    One thing I find helpful without being overwhelming is creating a playlist of my favorite music and creat a scene around how that music makes me feel. "What scene would this sound be the soundtrack to?"

  62. Adrienne Moore

    In the dreaming stages of a new project, or the stuck stages of a less new project, I've discovered that long walks are a great way to get my mind moving. I start with a question or an idea or a problem, and as long as I keep walking, my imagination stays on track. If I sit still and stare into space when I'm in a figuring-things-out stage, my ideas tend to drift off and disperse, but something about walking helps me stay focused.

  63. Elizabeth Marro

    What a great question and what a treasure trove of answers just when I needed them. I am at the start of my next project too and it is a wild, challenging time. This time I'm not starting to write anything more than notes or fragments until I've finished a few weeks of research which includes working in a vet's office, listening to how children talk at age 1, 8, and 13 and figuring out just who my lead characters are as much as I can before so I don't feel ambush half way through the novel. I'm hoping that if I do all this, my "shitty first draft" will come much more quickly than with my last novel.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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