How to start writing when writing seems impossible

“I want to write. I have always had a story in my head but whenever I open up a fresh document I just end up staring at a blank screen. Maybe I type a few words here and a few words there but after a while I run out of steam and ideas. How do I do this?”

These may be your words. Perhaps all, perhaps some. However you cut it, and however you try and explain it, the result remains the same. You just can’t get started. I get it. It’s happened to me, too. The whole process is not as easy as it sounds. Many writers, when asked this question, will nod sagely over their double-decaf soy latte and say: “dude, you just need to write, hey. The words will come when you tune into your earth mother/muse/creative centre/insert favourite but useless inspiration tactic here.”

So let’s step outside of the trendy coffee shop and back into the real world, for a moment. I have spent many anxious hours staring at a screen, watching the clock tick. Nothing seems as disastrous as that whooshing sound a deadline makes as it goes flying by. Here are just five things that I do that will help you, as well, if you choose to follow them. Whether it is a series of articles you want to do, or a blog about your own experiences, or a novel, these will get you started and on the right track. I can’t promise you your creative centre and I am crap at double-decaf soy lattes, but I can write in a pinch, when I have to, on the fly and with deadlines looming.

And at the same time, I have fun doing it. Because it you’re not having fun with the process, and you don’t love the hours of thought beforehand, the nervous moment before pressing SEND (if it is for a client) and the exhilaration of the aftermath, then perhaps you’re in the wrong game. I don’t think you’re in the wrong game. Because you’re asking the right questions.

So here goes:

Start in the middle

Everyone wants that super-cool, impactful and uber-lasting opening line, the one that wins the Booker Prize. Apparently, the best opening line of all time is from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. And sure, it worked very well if classical literature is your bag. One of my two all-time favourite opening lines is from a Terry Pratchett book: “The moon hung above the land like a giant ball of rock.” Dig it. It’s great. The second is from Stephen King’s 20-year epic, The Dark Tower: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” They’re hard to beat.

So don’t try and beat them. Start in the middle. Don’t decide right this second. While the first line is important, it is not a deal-breaker if you don’t have it right now. Start somewhere else, maybe mid-way through the first chapter, and go for it. Perhaps your Chapter One ends up as Chapter Three, who knows, or the other way around. As you work forward in the story, you will find yourself better equipped to work backwards as well, filling in all the blanks. One day you’ll write something and you’ll say: “there. That’s the opening line.” You’ll copy that to the front, fill in the gaps, and now you’re sorted.

Start small and build up

A book is not a Hollywood movie. A movie has the ability to start with a massive and explosive opening scene and then fill in the blanks. A book? Not so easy. If you start your book with a huge event, an awe-inspiring piece of literary genius that blows everyone’s socks right the hell off, you end up having to keep that pace up for the remainder. So many people go big at the beginning, and then have a second chapter that falls flat. Nothing annoys a reader now than a proverbial bucket of cold water first thing in the morning. Start with a small mystery and build to a bigger one. Don’t give it all up straightaway. The big hook you planned at the beginning is hard to live up to so cut yourself some slack and start small.

Commit to a title up front

I always start with a working title. It gives me a vague idea as to the direction I want to go in. My first book was called The Harvest Festival. Half way though it became The Organ Grinders Monkey. My second book started as When the Bell Tolls, and then became The Flat Earth Club. By all means don’t harp on it, but DO pick something. Something that says: “this is kind-sorta what it is about.” It will give you a name in the middle of the night when you’re doubting. It will give you something to mention in conversation. You will quickly find whether or not the placeholder (because that is all it is when you start) is the right one. We may not be able to choose our own names, but we can choose the names of our stories.

Make it up as you go along

I don’t use elaborately designed and laid out plots (shock, horror). I write as I speak and as I think. Apparently that works for me. Sometimes I have a decent idea of where I am going with something but I don’t make the mistake of writing that all down and turning it into some sort of plan. Some writers do; some writers need to. Some, like me, prefer to make the story up as we go along. In The Organ Grinder’s Monkey I had an idea of an event, a set of circumstances, that I wanted my characters to experience. I let them experience it and allowed the story to develop as it moved along. If this, then that. If Joe went home, what did he do? When he woke up, what did he discover? When Sally knocked, what did she say? Keep it real, keep it relevant, avoid the ghost in the machine and see where it goes. I have been surprised by my own endings every time. So don’t sweat it too much.

Write often

Practice, like in most things, makes perfect. This is no different. I try to write 1000 words a day. You may say “that’s impossible” but you would be wrong. In a normal font with a normal size, it’s only a couple of pages. When you’re in the throes, when the world gets blocked out and everything just flows, you’ll be 2500 words down before you realise it. But when you start, aim for time. Go for 30 minutes of writing every day. 30 minutes becomes 40, 40 becomes an hour, and 1000 words isn’t far away from that. And If it is not your project you are working on right at this moment, then throw some words down on something that happened in your life, be it a sad story, a funny story, whatever. Have fun with it. Embellish it. Lie a little. Stay true to the events but colour in the details. Then post that story to your Facebook profile for others to read. Use it like your personal little venting space. People will read it, they will probably like it, and the positive affirmation will spur you on. But just do it.

And if you want to know what 1000 words looks like, this article is 1244. You’re welcome.

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