How do you start writing a novel, short story, or non-fiction piece from scratch? Well, you probably have to get out of your own way first.
I was scrolling through Pinterest again last night, reading through the Writing Advice boards to see what all I might have missed in my sort-of hiatus from social media. ((For those of you that don’t know, I’ve been working on some freelance stuff, that it’s pretty much taken up all my time. That, and working at the pet store, finding other places to publish writing samples and articles… Safe to say I’ve been a little distracted, and my already tiny blog has sadly been one of the things that’s been neglected.))
While scrolling, I noticed how many different blog posts on writing talked about getting started.
Just getting started.
I’ve seen the reason for the popularity of the topic on Twitter: there are many people who just don’t know where to start. They have a story idea, but where to begin? How do we tackle the story now residing within our mind without doing it an injustice, or killing it?
If these are your questions, or if you’ve started and have hit a roadblock, keep reading. This post is for you.
I think the number one thing that prevents so many people from writing is intimidation. Let’s replace the word “story” with the word “dragon” for a moment, because that’s more accurate. A huge, beautiful, powerful dragon, capable of creating worlds and destroy them. It’s a temperamental, moody creature. Some days, all it wants to do is sleep. It cannot be roused, no matter how hard you try.
You don’t want to offend it. You don’t want it to fly away. You also don’t want it to incinerate you with a single puff of it’s fiery breath. So instead of beginning to walk around the cave, look at the creature from all angles, perhaps put your hand out to gently press against its scales to see what they feel like, you sit a safe distance away and stare at it.
Because what else do you do with a dragon? Especially a dragon that insists you pay attention to it every second of every day despite your obvious fear?
Every writer starts somewhere.
And like every other part of the writing process, why and how and when a writer begins to explore the potentials of a new project is entirely a personal matter. What works best for one person might not work best for someone else and so on. But I think we all, to some degree, feel that level of intimidation at first.
I know I personally like to think about a project for a little while before starting. Sometimes though, an idea hits me out of the blue. Suddenly, there’s a story there and holy shit where the hell did I put that pen and notebook because I gotta get this down before it leaves me.
There are times when I catch it, and there are times it escapes before I can.
But for our creative minds, another story is probably not too far away.
Elizabeth Gilbert has an absolutely beautiful section in her book Big Magic on escaped ideas. She recounts the time she met the poet Ruth Stone. Stone grew up in the countryside, and sometimes poems would come to her while she was out in the field. Stone described these as gusts of wind blowing through her, how it was always a race to get back to the house in time to write it down before the idea left her completely. Gilbert adds to the story in her TED talk, “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” saying Stone would sometimes get to the house just as the tail-end of the poem was crossing through her mind. She would grab it just in time and pull it back with her pen – only to have it come out backwards.
Side Note: If you’re really struggling in beginning your project, I strongly encourage you to hunt down a copy of Big Magic. Seriously. It’s a wonderful book. I read it when I was in such a horribly anxious state I couldn’t write or create anything, a state that had gone on for nearly two years. I wasn’t even done reading the damn thing before I started writing again. This book basically cured two years of writer’s block and helped tame the black poison that had seeped into my mind. Just try it. The worst that could happen is you read a chapter and then decide to put it down.
But what if that’s not you? What if you feel that wind blow through you, see the idea before your mind’s eye, but rather than racing to catch it, you just clutch your gardening tool and let the thing go by?
If that’s you, then you my friend have what’s called Imposter Syndrome.
“What right do I have to tell a story?” you ask. “What right do I have to even try?”
Well, your inherent right granted to you by your very existence. You might not be the best writer in the whole goddamn world – very few people are. But when an idea has presented itself to you, then you’ve been given permission to try it out. No one has to see it if you don’t want them to – no one even has to know you did it. But letting those ideas slip by is a waste, a waste of an idea that you – and maybe even the rest of the world – could have benefited from had you not ignored it.
“Okay, fine,” you might be thinking. “I’ll write the damn thing. But where do I start?”
This is a question I admit I’ve never had to ask. I’ve certainly started and gotten stuck, but the initial starting point? Yeah, never a problem. Writing has always came naturally to me. I didn’t think I ever had to ask for permission to do it until much later in life, and that’s when things got fucked up for me. (Again, Gilbert has a whole section on the idea of needing permission. She offers some wonderful advice on how to eliminate that blockade from your mind and move forward.)
I start with the first thing I see and hear of the new world. I know my writing process (see post on Discovery Writing), and I know chances are pretty good I’ll go back and re-write the beginning later. I usually don’t have the whole thing planned out yet, I just go and see where the idea takes me.
The first thing to do is let go of the need for that first draft to be perfect.
Really, it doesn’t have to be. In fact your first draft should be far from perfect. That’s how you learn. Sure, the mess is a pain to clean up later, but you’ve got more of a chance of finding something worthwhile in a pile of junk than you do in an empty room.
So, take a moment right now. Think about your new idea. What’s the first image that comes to your mind? What character do you see first? Is someone talking?
Really focus – close your eyes if you have to. The first thing you see, hear, smell, or taste of that world inside you is the first thing you write.
Even if that thing ends up happening in the middle of your story.
Or the end.
Or, you decide to cut it out entirely and write a whole new beginning later – I’ve certainly done that about 100 times by now.
It’s all okay.
You have to start somewhere, so start with what you know. Even if all you know is one of the main characters has red hair, write that. Is the sky blue? Or is it cloudy? Maybe there’s a thunder storm. Write that. The words will flow, but you have to let them; you have to let yourself make mistakes.
If you really need help getting started – if the idea is there but the details are not, then sure: turn to other resources. Try outlining, answering questionnaires about your world and characters, make a spread sheet if you must.
But before you do all that, take a step back. Is it your lack of knowledge about the new world holding you back? Or is it your own fear of failure?
I know from personal experience that a lot of those “pre-writing” steps can sometimes only add to the feeling of being overwhelmed, of adding confusion, of making mountains out of mole hills.
If that stuff works for you, then great. Don’t stop what you’re doing.
But remember that sometimes, you just gotta open a blank document or grab a notebook and pen, and let go.