There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
—Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Of course it’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. Hard is what makes it great.
—Jimmy Dugan, A League of Their Own
You’re out for a walk on a Sunday morning when it happens: An idea for a novel pops into your head. Excited, you rush back home, grab a pad of paper, and write. It feels electric, and the next morning, you want nothing more than to continue …
But a sense of anxiety you just can’t shake prevents you from moving forward even an inch. You feel awful, your head swimming with shoulds and the overwhelming thought of Oh my goodness, I’m writing a book?! Once that sinks in, everything freezes, and pulling the next idea out from the mess seems impossible.
This isn’t writer’s block. Rather, it’s the sense that you really don’t know where to go from here, much less how to get there. You want to write but aren’t sure if you have the time or the ability. And maybe there is something to be said for not writing. Surely it’s easier than the road ahead, right?
The same is true of beginning a new exercise routine—running, for instance. January’s initial excitement turns into February’s dread, which leads to March’s inaction …
Well, the excuses stop today. Just like running, no one said writing was easy (if they did, they’ve never done it). But there are ways to make it a little less painful. Below are twelve concrete suggestions to help get you started, push through the obstacles, and reach the finish line.
- Lace up! Set the fear aside, just for a little while, and get ready to move. Why? Because it’s only a book. Write that down. Repeat it over and over again until you believe it. Of course you want your work to matter, but if you ascribe inflated importance to it, finishing what you started begins to feel unattainable. It is only a book, and even if it’s imperfect, the universe won’t implode.
- Start with what you’ve got. Your shoes might be a little worn; your clothes, a little less than stylish. So what? Everything doesn’t need to be perfect in order for you to begin. Start with something simple: a juicy piece of dialogue, a detailed description of the setting, or even the ending of the book. Write what you have, and see where it leads. As William Zinsser advised:
The material begins to lead you in an unexpected direction, where you are more comfortable writing in a different tone. That’s normal—the act of writing generates some cluster of thoughts or memories that you didn’t anticipate. Don’t fight such a current if it feels right. Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good. Adjust your style accordingly and proceed to whatever destination you reach. Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints. (On Writing Well, p. 53)
- Find the perfect route.
- For nonfiction, it’s the subject.
Is there a particular problem you’ve always wanted to solve? A historic event that has never truly been given its due? What subject matter do you have the credentials, time, access, and patience to explore?
- For fiction, it’s the setting and time period
Because so much of a fiction story depends on where and
when, knowing the location and era (and then researching both) can bring in all kinds of details, including etiquette rules, popular sayings, and opinions about major events.
- For nonfiction, it’s the subject.
- Focus on the road ahead. There’s a reason it’s called a first draft. Words don’t come out perfectly formed; they come out exactly as they are, and they make no apologies for it. You might be stumbling along, tripping over obstacles you never saw coming, but keep your eyes up and forget about revision, editing, etc. Just get the words down. The rest will come later.
- Discover your motivation: little pieces of history or character ideas that keep you ambling down the road.
- For fiction, photographs from magazines or websites can help put faces to the main players of your book. Once you know what a character looks like, things like background fall into place more easily.
- For nonfiction, old maps, diaries, and newspaper clippings can give you an insider’s idea of the time period and its people.
- Keep the necessary tools on hand. You wouldn’t go running without a full water bottle and a heart-pumping playlist, right? Writing should be the same, so everywhere you go, carry a way to capture your ideas, because ideas and questions can come at the strangest times, and if you aren’t prepared, you might lose them.
- Keep going! Finishing a particularly tough stretch of road—rewriting a confusing scene, discovering a character’s underlying motivation, or finding a creative way to handle a plot hole (or should that be pot hole?)—deserves a reward. What do you want most, and what are you willing to do (writing-wise, anyway) to get it?
- Find your tribe. Joining a runner’s group helps keep you challenged and drives you to improve your game. Likewise, joining a writer’s group (or even starting your own) can help introduce you to like-minded friends who have been there and done that, helping keep you on track, with deadlines and feedback at the ready.
- Carve out time. Finding time for anything—even exercise—is possible; it just takes creative thinking. Get up an hour earlier, when the house is quiet and chores are impossible, or stay up an hour later. Make Saturdays your writing day, or use Wednesday nights while everyone else in the family is watching their favorite TV show. Go to the local bookstore or a favorite park. The time and place don’t matter, just that you remember to “be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days” (J. K. Rowling).
- Give your (writing) muscles a break. When your body starts to ache, it’s time to take a break. You might be stuck on the climax of a pivotal scene, or maybe you’re just feeling a bit burned out. Whatever the case, by giving yourself some time away from the pressures of writing, things might just fall into place. Rest is not only pivotal to a healthy mind and body; it’s also a natural breeding ground for ideas. As Agatha Christie once said, “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
- Move on. When you’ve maxed yourself out on running, you switch it up, right? A new trail, a new class … Well, if you’ve tried 1,000 different ideas to get your novel moving, but nothing’s working, it might be time to simply set the novel aside. Sometimes the idea just isn’t compelling enough to fill out an entire novel, and sometimes you just aren’t interested enough in the subject to keep writing (this is how I feel about running!). Whatever the case, there’s no shame in leaving a manuscript unfinished. Actually, it puts you in good company with even the most famous of authors.
Because that’s not necessarily a distinction you want to carry, however, it’s critical—at some point—to begin again. A few days or months down the road, the sting will leave and a new idea will come. Be ready, be open, and be willing. And keep running!