So, it’s National Novel Writing Month, and you’ve decided that you’re going to give it a shot.
There are a lot of difficult things about writing, from character development to story continuity to plot development to research, not to mention making sure that your writing is any good! (Psst, that’s what editors are for.)
But it doesn’t take long to discover the hardest part of writing: starting.
The Challenge of the Beginning
It’s understandable why setting out can be so difficult. Starting to write is like starting anything—you have to move from a state of rest to a state of motion, and if the law of intertia tells us anything, it’s that an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by some outside force. Sometimes our desire alone isn’t enough of a force to get us moving.
So here are a couple of tips to help you get started.
Your Calendar Is Your Friend
The best thing you can do is block out time to write and do nothing else. My most sucessful writing project was undertaken when I was on sabbatical and made writing my book my job. The mornings were for reading, catching up on emails, and going for bike rides. The early afternoons were for any research I wanted to do, and the mid-afternoons to evenings were for writing. I had a routine and it helped me to be more productive at writing than I’d ever been.
Now, my situation was a best case scenario; most of us aren’t lucky enough to get three-months of paid leave to study, research, and write. But we can find an hour here or there, and we can block that time off as if it were any other appointment or obligation.
Making an appointment on our calendars is a way of telling ourselves that this work is serious—it merits a spot in our busy schedules.
Location, Location, Location
Once you’ve found a time, find a place. Different people have different preferences for workplaces. I find I do my best, most creative writing in public spaces like coffee shops. I like the din of public spaces and find it easier to tune that out than the buzzing lights of a library or the small coughs and sniffles of people trying to be quiet in a quiet space.
Furthermore, when I’m at home or at the office there are simply too many other demands on my attention, too many excuses not to write. As a former professor of mine once said to me, “My kitchen was never so clean as when I was writing my disseration.”
So, find a place where you’re comfortable and where you feel that you’ll be able to dive in without distraction.
Give Yourself Some Headspace
Having said that you should find a place where you can write without distraction, prepare yourself for the idea that writing doesn’t always look like writing.
Back in the days before freely available public WiFi, one of the things I liked the most about my favorite coffee shop was that there were only three things I could do: eat, write, or stare out the window—all of which are part of the writing process.
It was one author who said that the hardest thing about working from home was “convincing my family that I’m working when I’m staring out the window.”
Creative writing is something accomplished as much by the subconscious as by conscious effort. Some of our best ideas are those that come to us without beckoning, usually while brushing our teeth or taking a shower. They come because the conscious mind is at rest and the unconscious mind has the opportunity to process and mull things over.
Any good writing environment will let you get a lot of writing done. But it will also give you the space to just be—to sit, to stare, and to let your imagination bubble up.
Plan. Or Don’t.
Whether you plan your writing or not really depends on what you’re writing. If you’re writing a work of non-fiction, having an outline can be really helpful in getting your research started, even if you throw out the outline completely.
If you’re writing a work of fiction, it really depends on what you’re writing and what kind of writer you are. If you’re writing a huge, generation-spanning epic, it might be a good idea to chart some of it out so that you don’t get lost.
But not everyone needs to be like J.R.R. Tolkein, who wrote out the entire history of Middle Earth (it would become the Silmarillion) so that when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, he’d have his world already built. And it’s important to remember that while part of Tolkein’s genius is that his world feels so rich and fleshed-out, it’s the story that draws people in. You can sketch out the most fascinating world ever recorded in literature, but if your characters are boring and nothing really happens, it won’t matter.
A Very Good Place to Start
But let’s imagine that you’ve sat down at your desk, kitchen counter, or coffee shop table, with a pad of paper and pen or a trusty laptop. You’ve got the time, the materials, and the right place.
Now what? How do I start?
There can be a lot of anxiety about getting to the beginning of your story. After all, how are you supposed to come up with a memorable first line? After all, how many of us are going to come up with gems like It was the best of times; it was the worst of times, or Call me, Ishmael, or It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen, or Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way?
Now, if you’re starting off by trying to top Dickens, Melville, Orwell, or Tolstoy, you’re probably setting yourself up for failure. And who says you have to start at the beginning, anyway?
While Julie Andrews might tell us that the beginning is a very good place to start, you, as a writer, are under no compunction to start at the beginning. Some people start with the ending and work backwards. Some people start in the middle and work out. Some people might start with a scene to help them get a feel for their characters and the style of their book.
It doesn’t matter where you start, so long as you start.
Putting Pen to Paper
So, grab that pen, pencil, or laptop and get to work. Once you get moving, you’ll find that it gets easier—at least until you hit your first major block, but we’ll deal with that later.
But once you’ve started writing—whether at the beginning, middle, or end—you can take comfort in knowing this: the hardest part is behind you.