One of the most common things I see writers struggling with is a collective Fear of the Blank Page. It’s as if each new Microsoft Word Doc comes preloaded with the usual suspects of Overwhelm, Self-Doubt, and Perfectionism. Even for the most experienced writers, the first words can be the hardest to write.
I find, for a lot of authors, it has more to do with our expectations than a lack of inspiration. We (and I do include myself in this) struggle to write those first words, because we know they won’t come out exactly how we want them to. Compared to our favorite works, it just won’t be up to snuff, so we’re gearing up to hear all of our own meanest thoughts: Look at this crap, This is bad, No one will want to read this…
Why would I start anything if I knew that’s what I was going to hear?
The moment we start playing the comparison game in our writing, we deprive ourselves of the freedom to have a process. When we read published books, we don’t see all the experimentation or the discarded drafts. We see the neatly bound, edited, printed, so-called masterpiece.
We can absolutely learn from the works we admire. But just as that print edition is a product of one writer’s personal experience of the world, so your work should be a product of yours.
The question, then, is how can we turn down the volume on our self-criticism and make space for a big, beautiful, satisfying Mess?
While there are truly a million things you could try, here are three nuggets to get you started:
I’m not a huge fan of timers once I’m in the weeds of a project, but it can be an excellent tool in those early stages.
Pick a timeframe that’s fast enough for you to feel a fire under your bum, but not so fast that you can’t get anything on paper. I love me a 20-minute limit.
Get yourself somewhere free of distractions (e.g., roommates, kids, Instagram, etc.). Make yourself comfortable and Go. Whatever comes to your head is correct; just get it out. No editing. If you want to start a new thread or paragraph, just continue further down the page.
When your time is up, go back through and read what you’ve written without judgment. Pick out anything that you found interesting, and start there the next time you sit down to write. Or keep going right then. Who am I to tell you to stop writing?
At any rate, now you have words on paper and are working from something a little more tangible than a white expanse of nothingness.
Whoever said you have to start with Chapter One is just wrong. If you have a clearer idea of what happens in some random chapter in the middle of the book, start there. By writing the easiest bits first, we create a foundation from which to build out the rest of the story, so the hard bits aren’t so hard when we’re ready to come around to it.
Does that mean every chapter will be a cake walk? Nope! (So sorry.) But it may make the most daunting parts of the story feel more manageable.
When in doubt, I find the best place to start is with a question.
That question can be anything you feel curious about. You might ask, “What do we sacrifice when we strive for change?” Or “What would happen if a ring could rule the world?” The most powerful questions often don’t have a neat answer. All you have to do is ask them.
When we start with a question, we put aside any expectations about how we think the work should look when we’re done with it. We work from the foundation up.
No matter what you do, don’t try and write it “good.” As if there’s even a singular definition of that. Write it at all. Honor each step in your process for exactly what it is. If you start to slip into self-criticism, take a breath, and remind yourself that at the end of the day, you’re creating something, and that’s inherently beautiful.
I'm a fiction book editor and writing coach. If you like my stories, I want to hear yours!
I help authors develop and polish their writing, so it's reading exactly the way it's meant to.
The world deserves to hear your story. Let's get it right.
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