Starting a new project from scratch


Where do you start, when starting a new project? I’ll write my typical workflow for public mocker, to see if there is something I can improve from other’s disapproval.

  1. I write all the possible ideas on recycled sheets of paper, napkins, my own skin, my phone, or dictate it to any recorder I have at hand. Ideas go from a pitch, to a character’s bad attitude, to a sound annoying him, to information about a Renaissance’s recipe.

  2. Every idea is transcribed and enriched with anything resembling a text editor, from TextEdit to the Stickies. I could probably collect them in a series of cards, either in Evernote, DevonThink or Scrivener. Freeform is my preferred for in this stage: I don’t want to think to any kind of structure.

  3. When I’ve enough ideas collected to start working on them, I draft some diagrams. My old favourites have been mindmap programs, but I feel more at home with a virtual whiteboard like Scapple, allowing for freeform thinking. Sometimes I take a photo of hand-drafted diagrams, and put it in the same folder as the diagrams I’m drafting on my Mac (and drag it onto my Scapple whiteboard). My ideas go around, are put one next to the other for analogy or continuity, sometimes they are connected by lines (if there is some sort of hierarchy emerging). Keywords and storylines start to emerge. Imported images trigger new ideas.

  4. After having played with the ideas on the virtual whiteboard, and having a less nebulous profile of my project, I move everything to Scrivener’s Corkboard. When starting, there is 1:1 correspondence betewen Scapple’s notes and Scrivener’s cards. But I know they are different media: Scapple allows for a mix of narrative/development notes and working notes; Scrivener requires for narrative/development notes to be put into cards, and working notes in the Notes/Reference area of the Inspector. So, it is time to put everything in the right repository.

  5. In the Corkboard, I play with the cards, until a clear structure emerges. The structure is cleaner than in Scapple, where my project was still a beautiful mess. I’m already in the writing phase of my project, I start having control over it. It is still rough writing, but already an instant before actual writing.

  6. I switch to the Editor, and start writing. The structure is rearranged in the Binder (or the Outliner, when I use a layout with the former replaced with the latter).

  7. When I have a first draft, and am in the revision phase, I compile and switch to Nisus Writer.

Is it working? It helped me complete some researches, several magazine articles, a cople (unreleased) movie treatments, but not a single tale or novel. However, I doubt this is a problem with the tools.


Thanks, Paolo - a helpful post.

I’m loath to criticise anyone else’s process - we’re all different, and what works for one person might not for another.

My process is not unlike yours, except that I don’t use Scapple or similar as I’ve never found mindmapping to be terribly helpful or intuitive - instead I write long “discussions” with myself in which I explore plot points, character backgrounds, etc.

I’ve also found that jumping straight to scene cards doesn’t work so well for novels, at least for me - the underlying plot is a separate beast from the written narrative. For example, what if I don’t have a PoV in the villain’s camp? How do I capture the villain’s actions in a scene-based system? I can’t. It’s probably an issue that comes up less in screenplays, which aren’t tied so tightly to a limited set of PoVs.

Right now I’m writing the outline for my WiP as a single continuous chronological narrative in the “Research” folder - I do consider scene structure as I go, but only as an aside, and because everything’s in one document I don’t feel as tied to the scene ideas as I would if I were creating cards in the Draft folder.

Hope this helps!

You are more (and better) organized than I. Where I start generally is uncertain, because when I started — when the idea came along, how long it germinated, which of half a dozen aborted attempts is the real beginning — is frequently indeterminate. But I can summarize roughly the way I go from whatever the start was to present state.

My first job writing was fifty-five years ago, so I did a lot of typing before computers came along. When they did, an odd truth struck home: at typewriter speed — with strike-overs, changing paper, un-sticking the ribbon, and so forth — I could often type out notes or even a rough draft on the spot.

Then came word processing and near-instantaneous flow of ideas to text. It was no longer directly from brain to copy. First, work with pen and paper, get words and ideas started. Only then could I tackle a rough draft.

What I discovered — in addition to the toll age takes on a brain — was an optimum transition speed from idea in the head to sentence on the page: beyond a certain rate, the faster the transition, the less useful the final product. I can sit at the computer now and type like crazy about anything, but the final product is seldom coherent, never worth keeping.

So now I hand-write notes of just about everything. Sometimes — and this post is one of them — initiating material is already on hand. I can tackle a draft on the computer right away. Most often though, it’s scribble notes and draw arrows and flip through old journals before pulling up the keyboard.

Most often, when a rough draft is finished (oxymoron alert), I print it out and work it over by hand. Then another draft in the computer; after that, if it’s a major project, it goes into Scrivener for organizing and shuffling and reorganizing. (That, of course, it the idealized routine. Real-life procedure juggles the sequence, repeats it, adds and subtracts steps, etc.)

Nowadays, there’s a somewhat different routine for a frequent topic: chunks of family history. Some of these race instantly from memory to printout. And invariably, sober (or otherwise) reflection modifies or flat-out contradicts that first version. So I rewrite. What I tell my kids is not to worry. All versions are true.

Makes me skeptical about biographers, and enormously respectful toward good novelists and poets.