Sometimes the hardest part of any project is getting started.
The blank page, the flashing cursor—neither inspire great confidence.
So here are a few suggestions for pushing past the first stage and getting started.
#1: Sit down and shut up
Sometimes we’re content to think and dream about our idea…without actually putting in the work.
We’ve all done it—maybe you’re struck with inspiration and come up with the next best YA dystopian novel about groups of teenagers who are sacrificed to an angry octopus god every year (I’d read it.) You’re so excited that you tell your best friend, your mom, and the grocery store cashier all about it.
Flushed with success and the vision of your best-selling novel, you spend the next few months imagining all the best scenes and characters.
Then you run into your best friend, your mom, or the grocery store cashier, and they ask, “Hey, how’s that octopus book coming along?”
“I’m still laying groundwork,” you hastily say. “Doing some research first…”
They nod and move on and you breathe a sigh of relief, trying to ignore that twinge of guilt in the back of your mind.
The remedy to this charade? Do some work.
I know, I know, work is hard, but that’s kind of the point. Books are hard to write.
I recommend setting a very specific goal for yourself. Commit to writing 1,000 words a day or for 30 minutes every day. Something actionable that you can very clearly define and measure. You can even set a final deadline to ensure that you have an end in sight.
Personally, to finish writing the first draft of my book, I committed to writing 1,667 words a day for one month (during NaNoWriMo) and then writing 600 words a day until the draft was complete. In total, it took me about five or six months to complete my first draft of 130,000 words (one month of NaNoWriMo plus about four or five months of writing 600 words a day.)
Of course, I didn’t achieve my goal of writing every single day, but when I missed a day (or two or six) I rallied and was able to make up for the lost days.
The point is, you can’t write a book in your head. At some point, you’ll have to sit down, shut up, and write.
#2: Let go of perfection
The problem with great ideas is they’re just that—ideas. They live in your head in a perfect bubble, protected from anything that might pop it. And the reality is, when you start working, you will pop that bubble. Whatever you create will not live up to the shining idea in your head, and that can be incredibly discouraging.
Sometimes, our fear of failure is so acute that we don’t even want to attempt to bring our ideas to life.
To get past this, you’ll have to let go of perfection and recognize that creation is a process. When you start out, you’ll have a terrible first draft that you may never want to share with anyone.
THIS IS NORMAL.
If you create perfect first drafts, then you either have an incredible secret or you’re an immortal creature of light. Or you’re lying.
So when you’re first starting out, you’ll have to abandon the idea of perfection. Give yourself the grace to live in a few terrible rough drafts. And maybe look at the first drafts of some of your favorite authors for inspiration.
It’s all about silencing your inner editor and slogging on through the crap. Yes, it’s messy and stinky and gross, but that crap is only the very first step in a very long process.
#3: Have a plan (if it helps)
I confess that I’m an incorrigible pantser, so I don’t always heed this advice. But if you have a plan, it’ll help you carry on even when you don’t feel like it.
If you’re working on a novel, spend some time coming up with an outline (or at least a hazy idea of what’s going to happen.) If you’re super detail oriented, you can even divide your outline into scenes so that you know exactly what to write each day.
(I’ll admit, I struggle with this step a lot. If plans will only stifle you and make you avoid writing, then ditch them. In my case, I usually work with a rough outline that has a beginning, middle, and end. That leaves me free to wander and stumble my way through each scene!)
#4: Start wherever you can
Maybe you’re afraid to start your book because the first chapter opens with a critical scene that you don’t want to mess up. Or maybe it involves a ton of research that you haven’t done yet. Whatever the case, starting at the start can be daunting.
But there’s no rule that says you have to start at the start.
Start at the middle. Start at the end. Start with the scene that most excites you. Because the truth is that once you have something down on the page, it’ll be much easier to work your way forward or backward.
And if you find yourself stuck in a scene, you don’t always have to force yourself to push through it. Jump ahead and continue writing as if the problem has already been solved. You’ll keep your momentum going and hopefully save your stamina for returning to the scene later.
#5: Use tools
What if nothing works for you? What if you really, really want to write, but just can’t seem to get yourself to do it?
Never fear, dear writer. Many people are in the same position—the siren call of Netflix can be too great, which is why there are tools you can use to force yourself to be productive.
- SelfControl: This extreme all-or-nothing tool has saved my procrastinating butt on many occasions. The application allows you to set up a list of blocked sites. Then, you choose the amount of time (the range is from 15 minutes to 24 hours) and SelfControl will block access to those sites. Period. There’s no easy way of getting around this—shutting down your computer, restarting, or deleting the application won’t get you off the hook. (Only available for Mac; free.)
- Freedom: Freedom is similar to SelfControl, but this application extends across multiple devices, so when your laptop is blocked, so is your phone. You have the option to block the entire internet (mind-blowing) and even time-sucking apps on your phone or tablet. You can also schedule “set it and forget it” sessions that run during certain days or hours. (Paid subscription.)
- Write or Die: A quirky tool that allows you to set up rewards or punishments depending on if you succeed or fail to reach a certain word count within the allotted time. The interface is very customizable—you can change the background color, font color, etc. If you’re truly sadistic, you can engage the terrifying Kamikaze mode, which starts deleting your words whenever you stop writing. (One-time purchase.)
- Written Kitten: One of the more heartwarming options on this list, Written Kitten rewards you with a new photo of an adorable kitten every time you hit a certain word count. Definitely more of a carrot than a stick, this is a good option for those who love cats—or are easily gratified.
- If all else fails, you can use the good old-fashioned kitchen timer. Take yourself away from the internet—hide your laptop, put away your cell phone—and dig out a notebook. Set your kitchen timer, sharpen your pencil, and get going. Sometimes handwriting can yield incredible benefits. I’ve found that my writing is looser, more free-flowing and creative when I handwrite. I also enjoy handwriting a first draft of a scene and then transcribing it (and editing and improving it) into a word processor.
Getting started on a writing project isn’t easy. It takes a lot—courage, discipline, a willingness to turn a blind eye to the first draft crap you’re churning out.
I know I’ve struggled to start my own projects before. My book is a result of five years of false starts, third and fourth and fifth drafts, and finally a dogged determination to get through to the end.
Take the first step. You can do this.