Getting started is hard. In fact, I’ll even admit to having had a hard time starting this blog post. I procrastinated in every way I could: attending to other projects, watching Youtube videos (even horrible ones, I’ll spare you a link), cleaning, tweeting, talking on the phone, exercising, etc. I knew I had to write it, and knew I’d feel a sense of accomplishment when it was done, and even knew what I wanted to write about. So why couldn’t I just do it?
Just doing it becomes even harder for me when the writing in question is of the fictional variety. Overcoming inertia seems impossible at times. This is particularly true when I’ve taken a long break or have only been able to write sporadically. That elusive thing called “flow” is absent and I feel I’ll never get it back. I sit down, turn on my computer, and stare at a screen, intimidating in its blankness. I think. I sweat out a few words. Delete. Type and delete. Or if I’m trying to add on to an existing piece, I re-read and edit. Re-read and edit. Perfecting my old words suddenly seems more important than creating new ones. The truth, of course, is that I’m avoiding the harder work.
In these circumstances it’s easy to become paralyzed and frustrated, seek the instant gratification of a nicely folded pile of laundry. But that won’t get me any closer to my goal.
So how do I get over this hump (aside from the tried-and-true adage of “butt in chair”)? Below are some of my tricks, though I admit I need to use them more often!
I didn’t used to be the sort of person who could have background music on and get any work done, but all that’s changed with writing. Now I find it unlocks some creative part of my brain; lowers my writerly inhibitions. Perhaps it provides just enough of a distraction from the angst of starting a sentence that a few words can sneak out. Or maybe my fingers pick up on the rhythms. Certainly music helps set a tone. Once the words start coming I have to turn it off, but sometimes listening to a few songs is what it takes to break the log jam.
However, this could be an individual quirk of mine. I could see music becoming another procrastination tool or too much of a distraction, especially if you continually fiddle with your iPod in search of songs. But it’s worth trying.
I was introduced to this concept (credited around these parts to W. O. Mitchell) during a weekend course at the local university. A more detailed explanation can be found here, but basically the idea is this: just write something. Anything. Whatever comes to mind, no matter how silly, trivial etc. It doesn’t have to be part of your story or intended to be part of any story. You don’t have to use proper sentences or grammar. Describe something you see out the window. Imagine a conversation (I once wrote a few paragraphs of banter between Axl and Slash, which was great fun!). Write a stream-of-consciousness account of the random thoughts in your head. Just let your fingers go. The point of this “messy method” is to access “uncritical spontaneity,” which, I think, is what we need to tap into for a first draft.
You only need to spend a few minutes doing this and you’ll find yourself relaxing into the writing zone. It’s much like stretching before exercise. There’s no pressure to write well, or meaningfully, though you just might be surprised.
I have taken many creative writing classes over the past few years, and have become a big fan of writing exercises. Several of my finished stories (and even one that’s set to be published in October) were written in response to prompts from my teacher. My favorite of these is what I’ll call: 20 words.
We were given a list of 20 random words (or short phrases) and told to write a one page, complete story, using all of the words in a unique way. So, “salt and pepper” couldn’t be used to describe actual salt and pepper (e.g. “There was salt and pepper on the table”) or something clichéd like hair. An acceptable sentence would be something like: “She scratched at her burning salt and pepper skin.” This was fun, challenging, and got me thinking about language and story in an entirely different way.
While some might be reluctant to do exercises (“I want to write what I want to write! Not what someone else tells me to!”), they can yield amazing results. You aren’t worried about tracking your outline, rendering the perfect climax, or the requirements of a market, but are focused on a sort of game. Sometimes this alternate, less goal-oriented approach is helpful to get you going.
Deadlines & Accountability
The sad truth is that I’m always more efficient and motivated when I’m busy and faced with a deadline. (As is evidenced by the furious pace at which I wrote this post, due today.) If you know you’re the sort of person who needs external pressure, find some! Aim to send a story to an anthology or magazine with a drop-dead date for submissions. Promise to hand in a piece to your writing group. Volunteer to do a reading. Announce your goals publicly on Twitter or some other place (such as in our new Inkpunks forum!). It’s amazing how peer expectation or the fear of “failure” (i.e. missing a deadline or not living up to a commitment, though I’m not suggesting there aren’t sometimes good reasons for this) can light a fire.
One fun thing the Inkpunks did over the holidays was a sekrit Santa exchange. We drew names and then posted a prompt for our sekrit Santa to use. So, for example, Morgan drew my name and had to write me a flash fiction piece based on my prompt (“men who wear pink”)*. This was fun, and a great way to encourage us to keep writing (or even write something we normally wouldn’t, which is important to try occasionally). Wendy even sold her sekrit Santa story to Scape! And there’s no reason an exchange like this couldn’t be done at another time of year.
So, those are some tricks I use to get started and capture flow: listen to music to open up creativity and set the tone; freefall write for a few minutes before getting started on a project; try a writing exercise; or seek outside pressure. Hopefully some or all of these will work for you. And once you find flow, keep going! Allow momentum to carry you by writing often, ideally every day.
Do you have trouble getting started? Or do you find editing more difficult? I’d love to hear your comments, tips, and tricks.
* For the record: I loved Morgan’s sekrit Santa story for me, which was about clockwork ballet dancers. (How awesome is that?!) I also very much enjoyed writing a story for Christie based on the “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater” nursery rhyme. Thanks, ladies!