Getting started

Your novel (short story, memoir, biography) is in that place of perfection in your head but somehow isn’t on the page yet. Why is that? What stops us just getting on with it? Writing isn’t fire-fighting after all or dangling from a wire over churning seas as the coastguard. There’s no actual danger to life if we just sit down somewhere peaceful and write.


Many things hold us back and for good reason. For some people, it’s the cumulative effect of too many homeworks. Years of red markings on whatever we write have scarred our brains (somehow the ticks seem to do this just as much as the crosses) and our creativity gets paralysed. Another word for this is perfectionism: the feeling that whatever we write won’t be good enough, can’t be good enough.

For others it’s fear that our grasp of grammar won’t be adequate. Well, that’s easily fixed. Grammar is the Highway Code for us writers and some of the Recommended Reads in the Better Writing section here will help you.

Lots of us are caught between the drive to write and a feeling that writing, while fun, is a waste of time in the grown-up world. Writing is self-indulgent, not quite permissible as long as there is money to be earned, children to be looked after, meals to be made and so on.

Yet that buzz at the back of your brain just won’t stop.  ‘Write,’ it says, ‘go on, you’re a writer, you won’t be truly happy until you write’.

Being a writer is no guaranteed path to happiness – I’m just saying that if you’re a writer, you’ll always be happier writing than not writing. As long as that story of yours stays inside your head, it will never have a chance to live and breathe in the outside world and you will regret it, heart, body and soul.

Your story is a living, pulsating thing, I truly believe that. It will haunt your dreams and generally torment you until you have given it the space it deserves.

War and Peace wasn’t written in a day and there must have been a time when even Tolstoy said to himself, enough of this dithering, it’s time to make a start. So, make a commitment to yourself to write something relating to your novel every day, if at all possible.

I’m a great fan of writing around our stories. By that I mean a sort of discussion on the page or screen between me and myself about what’s working and what’s not. What do I want out of the book? Why is one character evading me and another trying to take over? That sort of thing. For some reason, I find that this has to happen in written words; just thinking about it isn’t enough. There’s something about the physical act of writing that takes us deeper, so that eventually our mind and spirit are so steeped in our writing that the book begins to push forward.

The trick in getting started is to lower the bar of your expectations. Try writing about your book in bursts of five or ten minutes at a time. Time yourself and congratulate yourself each time when you’ve finished. You’ve made an important start and you’ll take it further tomorrow.  If you can’t think what to write about, try any of the following:

  • ‘I love writing because …’
  • ‘The best fun in writing is …’
  • ‘What I love best about my book is …’
  • ‘What I love/loathe most about this character is …’
  • I want my book to end with …

Find a piece of writing you’ve already done and feel proud of. Read it as if it’s by somebody else and highlight anything that sings out at you as having special energy. Use one of those highlights as your first line today.

Open a poetry book or novel at random and choose any line. Use it as your first line for your free writing today.

Remember that nobody is going to see these pieces of writing but you. They’re your private playground where you can do whatever you like.

These little sessions do several things for you. They limber up that writing muscle of yours – it might help you to think of them as like curls in the gym or a yoga stretch. They develop your sense of your book’s purpose, and where your characters are going. Sometimes you’ll find yourself writing something that can go straight slap bang into your draft. Don’t expect that every time though, it’s not the point.

The point is to get past that inner critic of yours, the one that tells you that what you’re writing is no good or you’ve no business writing at all, or it’s all been written before so what have you got to contribute. Any time you hear that voice (which afflicts most of us), say to yourself, ‘it’s just a first draft, I’m getting something to work on’.  Or you can just tell it to shut up, you’re busy.

Try and write around your book like this for at least five minutes every day. If you find that the writing is gathering power, taking hold of you and pushing towards something you never expected to be writing, keep going. That’s the richest adventure in writing and it’s wonderful.

There’ll be more about getting going and keeping going in my next post.

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