I don’t know how it goes for you, but I have a process when I begin a new novel. It goes something like this:
Stage 1 — I have a character and a name. I come up with bare-bones character sketches and a synopsis. I try to keep things simple, because as I write, the characters will supply the details that I’ll use to build my story toward the novel’s climax. Not a lot goes into my files at this point; however, there is a lot of mulling and hemming and hawing.
Stage 2 — I perform the necessary research so my details are accurate. My current novel begins in Spain in the province of Aragon in 1348, so I’ve been reading as much history on Aragon and Pedro the IV as I can possibly get my hands on. I need to know everything from what kinds of trees and crops were grown in the area to how fast a horse can travel (without killing the horse).
Stage 3 — I am now ready to sit down and write the first chapter. There’s more hemming and hawing and muttering as I try to ram this novel into third person POV, but it’s just not going to happen. I swear at my protagonist and promise him excruciating miseries for making my life so hard, then begin writing in first person. Eight false starts later, I finally have my opening paragraph.
Stage 4 — The inciting incident. Well we must have one. So what motivates our hero into the unknown? I stalk the house, weed the garden, and stare into space like a brain-addled dope fiend. Finally, I come upon the thing that will light a fire under my protagonist and get him moving. I also narrowly avoid rear-ending the vehicle in front of me, because I’m trying to write and drive at the same time.
Stage 5 — I begin writing the scene, each night rereading what I’d written the night before and grooming the prose to capture my protagonist’s voice. On the fifth night, I reread my work and realize I have written approximately 1,300 words of shite.
Stage 6 — I scroll up and read it again, unable to believe this is my work. I mean, seriously, someone must have opened a window and let squirrels run across my keyboard. This can’t be my writing. I glare at the cat, but he remains asleep, oblivious to my predicament. Ingrate.
Stage 7 — Unable to deny otherwise, I must accept the impossible — this is my writing. I chew my knuckles and rock back and forth before my laptop. This is horrible. I can’t write another book. I’m finished. What madness possessed me to believe I could do this? Utter panic sets in. I decide to join a circus and become a clown. Might as well. I’ve humiliated myself before my friends and colleagues. I really, really, REALLY suck as a writer. As a matter of fact, you can knock the nice, Englishy “e” off shite and call this what it is.
Stage 8 — Now major doubts arise about my last novel, which probably sucks righteously too. Oh. My. God. What have I done? I’m in a tailspin and immediately burst into my daughter’s room and scream incoherently at her, because it’s all her fault for encouraging me to write that other story in the first place. I used up all of my good ideas in that book. I’m dry. I’m ruined, RUINED!
The cat decides life is quieter under the bed. My daughter yawns, shakes her head and speaks calmly for a few minutes, kind of like people do when they’re talking to a frightened animal that could bite. My husband comes upstairs to see what all the yelling is about and reassures me that he believes in me. He tells me he knows I can achieve whatever goals I set my heart on and he’s behind me one hundred percent. To lighten the mood, he also tells me that the new SC 430 that I’m supposed to buy him when I’m published isn’t as important to him as my sanity. I love my husband.
Stage 9 — Sniffling and weepy, I go back to my computer and reread what I’d written the night before, but the distance from my laptop to my daughter’s room and back again didn’t make it better. Okay, okay, okay, okay. I can fix this. I can fix this. After all, this is what I WANT to do, right? I need to see a doctor.
Stage 10 — I go to bed.
Stage 11 [the next evening] — I open my laptop and reread what I’d written the night before; this time I see one line that may redeem me and my protagonist. I make a deal with the guy: I’ll write his story in first person if he’ll stop being such a jerk. I am making deals with imaginary people. I realize there’s something really wrong with me. I am slightly insane, but it’s starting to be okay. I cancel the doctor’s appointment.
Stage 12 — I’ve found eight lines that work, and my army is finally on the correct side of the river (thank you, Google maps). In a great epiphany, I understand why the bridge at Jalón was so important to both the Unionists and Royalists, and the scene is starting to fall into place. I’ve shot my rusty Spanish with a hit of WD-40, and the place names are sounding less foreign. I’m also learning to swear in Spanish, which has somehow improved communication between me and my protagonist. Hysterics are coming less frequently, and my family has stopped padding my office walls with soft, foamy materials.*
So what about you? Do you have major doubts about your skills when you begin a new project? Or do you just swim right in because the water is fine?
*My family should be canonized, by the way, just for putting up with me and my moods! I am eternally grateful for them.