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  • Writer's pictureWriting Voices

How do you get started when you can’t get started?

The blank page. Sometimes it's the best sight in the world, brimming with possibility. And then there are those days when it becomes your nemesis. You have a fantastic idea and absolutely no idea how to get started. What do you do?

Do something else. Go for a walk. Have a shower.

I’m sure it works differently for everyone, so I can’t give concrete advice on this. But this is what works for me.

First, I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that procrastination is the key to getting started. That would be counter-productive. I’m quite a procrastinator myself, I even put off writing this for the past two hours while I searched for a new printer online. The thing with procrastination is that it occupies your brain and pushes writing to the side. If you have an idea and you don’t seem able to begin, maybe the idea isn’t quite ready. That’s how I see it.

So, I do something else (something that doesn’t take up much space in my brain) and the whole time, I’ll hold the idea in my head. Don’t think about it too much. Don’t plot and plan. Just hold the idea in your head and let it soak in. After that, it should be easier to get going.

If that fails, you can force yourself to write. When I do this, I normally find that the first two hundred words or so are no good, so I delete them. And that’s okay, because I’ve started and that was the hardest part.

Writing is the thing I love doing more than anything else, but the shadow side of this is that it’s the thing I care most about. This makes sitting down and getting started a scary prospect. I can’t mess up a story I haven’t yet written; it’s much safer to let it swim freely around my head like a mermaid, elegantly avoiding being caught, pinned down and filleted.

But there comes a point at which the thing has to be written, and I’ve found the only way to achieve this is to sneak up and ambush it before my Inner Snark has a chance to wake up and talk me out of it.

My Inner Snark is not the same as my Inner Critic. The Inner Critic is a pussycat, compared to the Snark. The Snark is the Queen of ‘Who Are You Trying To Kid?’, the Empress of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and the Duchess of ‘ Don’t.’

She tends to wake up about five minutes after I do, so the best thing to do is to keep my laptop next to my bed, and reach for it the moment I wake up. That way, I can catch the Inner Snark napping, and be in my stride before she’s had her first fag and Special Brew of the day.

The sheer frustration that comes with having an idea but having no clue where to start has definitely had the best of us banging our heads against the keyboard.

Sometimes the worst thing you can do is stare at a blank page, so don't. That really is my best advice, if you've planned what you can or made notes or whatever your usual prep is and you still can't start? Don't. Not right then anyway, walk away for a bit and do something that will totally distract you from it. My go-to escapes are either reading, taking the dog for a walk or going for a drive and blasting music. Then go back to the piece, re-read your plan/notes and try again. It's surprising what you'll come up with once you've cleared the cobwebs out of your mind and stopped obsessing over your writing for a while (don't worry, we all do it!).

I think it's important to remember to be kind to yourself, it can be incredibly disheartening when you can't begin a piece, but you will figure it out, just give yourself time!

Having a good idea and not feeling the creative energy to shape it is really frustrating, probably even more frustrating than not having an idea to start with. For me, I need to feel the rhythm and voice of a piece before I find my flow with it. These are a few things I try to get off the ground when getting started isn't happening for me:

  • Write a bullet list of all the things that you want to happen and any details you know.

  • Forget trying to write in continuous prose. Just start writing random paragraphs and sentences. They don't have to make the final cut. They don't have to be in sequential order. Describe setting and actions. Write dialogue as a transcript. Have your character mooch about and do things / feel things / react to things. Just get something down and kill that intimidating blank page.

  • Try different tenses and perspectives. Sometimes something isn't working because the wrong character is telling the story.

  • Try talking through your idea aloud and bouncing some options around, either with some creative friends or by yourself - my dog is a particularly good listener!

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you hammer at an idea, it’s just not ready to be born. This is where having a few projects on the go can be pretty useful; swapping to a different project for a while or doing something else entirely can give a stubborn idea a little bit longer to gestate.

Try not to get frustrated, getting started is a bit like yanking the cord on a pull start motor; it might take a few false starts to get going.


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Cover image by voltamax via Pixabay


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