I’ve been in a writing drought for the last week or two. Not through lack of inspiration, much to my relief, but simply through lack of time and – which is just as important thought less often discussed – lack of mental and emotional resources to spare for it.
This week, though, I’m finally back in the saddle with plans for a brand new story. I have themes and characters and a general shape, and it’s all brimming with potential. And so I find myself confronting the single most hair-tearingly difficult challenge of writing: actually putting words down.
Inspiring yourself into the ground
I know I’m not the only writer who experiences this form of “writer’s block”. It’s not that you don’t have ideas. On the contrary: the ideas are swirling around in your head, full of wonder and potential. You know your characters are interesting and multi-dimensional; you know their journey will be full of heartache and joy and eternal truths. You’ve even thought of some of the exact sentences of your story: lines that will be pure poetic magic.
But right now all of that is still in your head. Out here in the physical world, all you have is a blank page staring back at you, and it’s terrifying.
The problem with inspiration is that, unless you have the magical ability to hold 5,000 words (or 50,000 words) in your head, there’s a huge gap between the story you’re conceiving and the one you have to actually write down. In your head, it’s easy to ignore the unknowns the lie beneath and between the ideas: what happens to get your characters from Important Event One to Important Event Two? How exactly are you going to evoke that important central theme? Where should the story even start??
When you look at it like that, it’s really shouldn’t come as a surprise that a head full of good ideas can be just as paralysing as having no inspiration in the first place. By definition, that first draft is never going be as good as the story you’ve been imagining. But that’s OK: first drafts exist to be made better. When you’re at the blank page stage, the important thing isn’t to write something amazing: it’s simply to write.
And because you’re now thinking, “Well gee, tell me something I didn’t know”, here are two tricks I use when I’m in this boat to make the writing part happen:
Step one: get it all out of your head
Part of the problem, for me, is the fear that by the time I’ve gotten that crappy first draft down, I’ll have forgotten the ideas I had for making it better. But trying to hang on to them in my head only makes it impossible to concentrate on the act of writing.
So before I even begin my first draft, I grab a notepad and pen and let the ideas flow. I try to be as stream-of-consciousness as possible – I don’t worry about what order I’m getting the ideas down in, or even whether they all fit together to make the same narrative. The important part is getting them out of my head and reassuring myself that I will be able to come back and find them again later.
A quick note on notepads: I do all my actual writing on a computer, because the ability to easily come back later and edit my text is essential to me, but when my goal is to get ideas down I find the physical act of writing with a pen gets my mental juices flowing in a way a keyboard and screen never do. I don’t have an explanation for that, but there it is.
I keep on writing ideas down until the inspirational well runs dry. And now I can trust myself to forget about them and get on with writing. And if, while I’m writing, something sparks another brilliant idea but I’m not sure how to work it into what I already have, I don’t stop to figure that out – I just add the idea to my notepad of inspiration and keep going.
Step two: don’t look back
Now comes the hard part: getting started on writing, not the masterpiece in my head, but the hackneyed pile of parts that will be my first draft.
The important thing here is to just get it done, without judgement, without stopping and looking back and trying to “fix” what I’ve already written before I’ve even finished writing. Which is hard enough at the best of times, perfectionist that I am, and exponentially harder when I’m caught up in the feeling that something has the potential to be great but I can see that it isn’t.
So I set my text colour to white. I literally write an invisible first draft, where the only evidence I have that I’ve writing words at all is my hands moving across the keyboard and the cursor moving across the screen.
It was terrifying to try the first time, but now I am starry-eyed in love with this technique. Does it make my first draft worse? Sort of, yes – in that it’s full of typos and odd, dangling sentence structures and weird stream-of-consciousness bits that look like: Marcy said [no wait] Marcy cried out [no I like said better]. But it makes my first draft happen.
And here’s the thing: the majority of my first draft won’t make it into my final story anyway. Getting caught up editing the structure of sentences I’m eventually going to delete or completely rewrite anyway is a total waste of time – time I could better spend finishing that crappy first draft, so I can get on with turning it into something better.
Laying the foundations
There’s a quote I love, attributed to author Shannon Hale: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so later I can build castles.”
It’s so, so important to remember that, when you’re getting hung up on the gaping chasm between the majestic turrets in your head and the soggy mass you feel capable of putting down on a blank page. Don’t worry about the final shape – you’ll have plenty of time to craft that later. You can’t build anything without first shovelling that sand.
What tricks do you use when you’re struggling to get started?