The Trouble with Starting

What's it called when the car won't start and you have to push it down the road with your dad yelling frantically from behind, "Pop the clutch!"? It's a memory I can recall with alarming frequency, and I remember exactly how I felt each time: annoyed, anxious. Scared. Sweaty. Basically, the way I feel when it's time to start a new writing project.

I sit down to draft and end up peering out the window. Soon, I'm trolling other peoples' blogs, vacuuming, shaving my dog—anything to avoid confronting the accusatory blank page. Out of sheer desperation the words eventually come, but I can see right off they're coming from The Bad Place. I'm writing filler that'll end up getting cut. The voice is non-existent. I've chosen the wrong viewpoint. My main character is a putz and why did I ever like her to begin with?

Whether you're writing a picture book, middle-grade story, or young adult novel, getting started is sometimes the hardest part. Why is this, exactly?

1: Writing is messy. We want our writing to be neat, to get it right the first time—a malady otherwise known as perfectionism; fear of failure; the old I-don't-want-to-write-a-whole-book-if-it's-going-to-be-crap malaise.
What to do:

  • Embrace the fact that no writing is a waste of time. Even if you write a scene that you end up tossing, that time was spent honing your craft. And learning what to keep and what to chuck is valuable knowledge, too.
  • Put bad writing to use. When I worry that I'm not getting any better at this whole writing thing, I pull out the first book I ever wrote, a middle-grade atrocity called "Dirty, Hairy, Smelly Dogs". Reading the first few pages not only makes me want to burn the manuscript to an unidentifiable crisp, it shows me that, yes, I am in fact making huge progress.
  • Realize that no one's first draft is flawless. Get the story down on paper and save your perfectionistic tendencies for the revision process, where they belong.

2: Writing is scary, particularly the idea of writing a whole book. Sure, you may get through the opening scene today, but you have three pages of outline notes to draft after that. Christmas is coming, followed by old age and eventually death, and surely these things will cut into your writing time. What if you don't finish?
What to do: Don't focus on finishing the whole project. Revisit the overview periodically so you know where you're going but when you sit down to write each day, focus only on your goal. You do have a writing goal, yes? 1500 words a day? Two scenes a week? Whatever you're able to scribble before the kids start maiming each other? A whole book may seem impossible, but short-term goals are doable. Focus on them. Write consistently and the story will finish itself.

3: Writing is hard. According to a 2002 survey (, up to 80% of Americans claim the desire to someday write a book. That's 8 out of every 10 people you know. How many of them are pursuing that goal? How many of those will actually make it?
What to do: Know that you're attempting something that is inherently difficult. It's going to involve some staring matches between you and your computer screen. Pulled hair. Tears. Rewriting or trashing passages that you agonized over. It's crazy, but this is what writers do.

So stop obsessing. Shove your neuroses in the closet during your writing time. Take pride in the fact that you're doing something that few people do and even less do well. Consider this your push-start and get started.

Crap. Now I've gotta follow my own advice…

Thought for the day: The greatest amount of wasted time is the time not getting started. (Dawson Trotman)


Susan Sandmore said...

Wow. 80%. Wow.

I don't get the sweaty shakes over starting something new as much as I get them over fixing something old.

I used to draw--pencil sketch--for fun and I remember showing my drawings to my Dad once. He had a lot of artist friends and he kindly suggested to me that real artists didn't quite . . . erase so much. That their work didn't have remnants of lines past. But I wasn't willing to leave a sketch alone and move on.

Now I feel like whenever I revise, I'm leaving those little line remnants and tiny pieces of eraser all over my page. Like I should be able to get it Closer To Right the first time--or be willing to move on. Eeek.

Becca said...

I kind of wish I got the sweaty shakes over fixing something old. It might motivate me more. My initial response is kind of a yawn.

That's so great that you draw; are you able to do your own illustrations?

Donna said...

Yeah, and 80% of those 80% of people wanting to write a book some day actually think it's nothing to write a book. And I'm Clint Eastwood.

I've found that setting a schedule works wonders for writing. I write every day on each project that I'm working on, two novels, two web serials and one fanfiction. That's no less than five days a week that I'm writing and I write what I can. That doesn't mean that I don't procrastinate to high hell before I actually sit down but the point is, I do sit down.

False starts suck but in the long run they help. With my fantasy WIP, I was about 7,000 words in when I realized what I was writing wasn't the actual story but worldbuilding. I was cranky for a nanosecond before I realized that even though I hadn't written anything for the story per se, I had developed the world.

My urban fantasy WIP was a little rougher considering I thought I was having voice issues when it really came down to me not being able to start directly to a Word document. I'm an old fashioned pen and paper girl and when it comes to writing, it's old school all the way or my story doesn't get out. I'll deal with the typing in, which I usually do once a month just so it's not bulked all at the end.

Also, perfection from the get-go leads to "writer's block." People aren't writing gold, think they're stuck on an idea and scream of blocked writing. It's a first draft. No one's going to see it but you so it's the perfect time to ge that license to write complete shit. Like you said, leave the critical eye to the editing process.


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