Reasons for NOT Writing… #7 : “I can’t get started.”

Reason #7 : “I can’t get started.”

It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move,
all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough
to put down what he says and does.”

— William Faulkner


A blank page or screen can be terrifying. It sits staring back at you demanding words, and while your mind is buzzing with ideas, you can’t quite seem to find the right ones. What image should you open with? What words? We all know opening lines are critical. All the writing books and blogs say so. They set the tone, grab attention, and how can you possibly match ones like these …?


I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

— Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex


I’m still not sure I made the right choice when I told my wife about the bakery attack.

— Haruki Murakami, The Second Bakery Attack (short story)


It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.

— Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers


It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs,
and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar


I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.

— John Fowles, The Magus


Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

— Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude


Or you could start more prosaically:


I’m pretty much fucked.

— Andy Weir, The Martian



No, it’s not an eloquent opening, but it does the job. It gets the story started. And that’s all you’re really after.

“First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka,
or just shuffling your feet?”

— Hilary Mantel

Most of us do quite a bit of shuffling to start with, just make sure you keep shuffling forward because I’m about to let you into what – if there is any real secret to writing – you might call the sneakiest, dirtiest one of the lot …


Writing’s dirty little secret

Brace yourself. If you’re standing up, you might care to sit down. If you’re of a nervous disposition or have a medical condition, you may like to have your medication handy. Ready?

While books are read from front to back, they don’t need to be written that way.

Surprising, isn’t it? Possibly even shocking. I may be particularly slow, but it took me years to realise that simple fact. Up until that point, I kept “writing forward” – re-reading what came immediately before then trying to carry it on. If the precursor wasn’t quite right it would have to be fixed, then if what came after didn’t quite mesh, I’d circle back again in an endless reiterative cycle.

Some of the creative professions can’t easily go back and patch up their mistakes. Sculptors, for example. (“Whoops! Well, this David didn’t have a nose, okay?”) Fortunately, writing’s not like that.

I’ve heard of writers starting at the end and working forwards, or working in a piecemeal fashion – a bit here, a bit there – then stitching the patchwork together like a giant story quilt. I had a similar experience myself writing my novel Telling Stories. Early on I had a beginning and an end and just needed to fill in the middle bits.

So make a start, any sort of start, and press on. Just get your story down. You can “fancy up” that opening later.


How do you get started?

Ah, the $64,000 question. The answer to which is you just start.

Take a deep breath. Relax. Clear your thoughts and let out that creative two-year-old hiding away in the back of your mind. It’s not important. It’s fun. Just let them play and see where they lead you.

What do you see in your mind’s eye as you stare at the blank screen or page? Is it a first-person view? (In which case, who are you?) Or a third-person one? (Who is that person?) What’s the situation? Where is it? When is it? Look around. What are the sights, sounds and smells? Just be in that moment – as yourself or your character – and start to capture it in words. Don’t think about plots or endings or character development or any of that other high-school nonsense, just focus on the moment and let it lead you into the next one, then the next one, and the next.

Your creative brain knows how stories work. It’s been listening to them since long before you learned to write, and it knows all about that high-school stuff; about beginnings and middles and endings. Just let it go. Set its own pace. See where it carries you.

Don’t try to judge or second guess it. You’re going along for the ride.

As you travel, you’ll find possibilities opening up ahead of you. Ideas, character traits, observations and whole incidents you wouldn’t have guessed at seconds earlier appear. It’s engaging, enthralling and addictive – which is why we do it.

But it won’t happen if you don’t make some sort of a start. Even if it’s an Andy Weir one.


Another writing secret

The computer age has deprived us of one fascinating resource: first drafts. These days, there’s really no such thing. You can still see Dickens’ first drafts, [1] every scratch and touch of his pen, every crossing-out and correction, but ours are lost forever in our computer’s innards.

That, generally, is a positive thing – although it does make going back and endlessly reworking previous material dangerously easy. The document you start tomorrow, full of fears and trepidation, can be the very same one you send off with a flourish, polished and ready for publication, a year from now. But it shouldn’t be.

As I’ve suggested, in the old days first drafts were tangible items. At the very least you’d need a neat and legible “fair copy” before sending it off to a publisher, (who might then deduct the cost of having it typed up from your future royalties). I suspect this division between the rough and the neat added a subtle but important psychological separation to the writing process, something we’ve lost in the WYSIWYG world where every keystroke looks as though it’s already part of a perfectly finished document. You can even add drop-caps and justify your text, just like in a proper printed book. Why then are we surprised to find ourselves endlessly going back and trying to make everything “just so”?

Stop it, that’s all I can say. And you can. The easiest way to do so is to re-institute the draft. No, not compulsory military service, but a system of working within tangible divisions: rough draft, revised draft and final draft, for example. Because that’s writing’s other little secret: You can redo stuff and make it better.


Don’t start with number one

It may be my computing background, but I never start with Draft 1. I always start with Draft 0 because that’s how computer’s count. (I should mention I trained as an assembler programmer, and in binary such things are important.)

What difference does it make? A subtle, psychological one, at least to me. Draft 0 is the nothing draft, the throwaway, the one no ever gets to see. It’s a place where I can make mistakes, go off on tangents, ramble. The place where nothing matters.

That’s not to say it’s a cesspit of freewriting, bad spelling and incomplete sentences. I do try to write well, and it does have some structure and form, some coherence. But it’s rough around the edges. Workmanlike. The tool marks may still be visible in some places.

Once Draft 0 is complete – and only when it’s complete – I start on Draft 1. This is where we have one over the write-by-hands and the old-school typists because it’s simply a matter of copying the document and renaming it Draft 1. If I’ve kept a separate document containing a synopsis, notes and ideas, I do the same with that. I then move the original(s) to a folder named Archives in case of a disaster or I ever need to refer back to them, and proceed from there. In a sense, Draft 1 becomes the first real draft because it’s semi-presentable and semi-coherent. If I’m lucky, it’ll contain large lumps of its ancestor. If I’m not, at least I’ll have a framework to work from.

Once Draft 1 is done, I repeat the process and move on to Draft 2.

How many drafts should you do? That’s a bit like asking the length of a piece of string; it varies. When you think it’s done, when you get to the last page, sit back and say, “Yep, that’s nailed it,” do the following …

Print it out in full, pop it in a drawer and start on something else. The sequel, perhaps.

In a month or two’s time, when the raw heat of creation and the sheer bloody work is a fading memory, pull it out and read it through as if you’d just plucked it from a bookshelf.

This stepping-away period is important. I call it “necessary distance”. In the interim, instead of being something you’ve sweated over for months, The Book has now become a thing, an object, something anyone might pick up and read.

So read it!

Mark typos and misspellings by all means, but this is not a critique. You’re reading for the story. If your mind wanders or you fall asleep partway through, mark the spot and carry on; you’ve a bit more work to do there. On the other hand, you may find yourself turning page after page, skipping through the occasional misplaced word or less than perfect sentence because you’re caught up in your own story. Perfect! If it’s entertaining you, it’ll surely entertain readers.

In truth, you’ll probably find a mixture of the two, (but hopefully much more of the latter). What necessary distance really gives you is some breathing space, some time away from studying the thing through a magnifying glass. You’ll see the whole picture more clearly and spot any major weaknesses or misshapen elements.

Then it’s decision time. A few quick fix-ups or some heavy-lifting work? A Draft 2.1 or a Draft 3.0? You’ll know.


One-draft writers and Heinlein’s Third Rule

Some writers contend you should never rewrite, or only do so to “editorial order”. It’s known as Heinlein’s Third Rule and comes from the 1947 book Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing, edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach. In Heinlein’s chapter, the acclaimed sci-fi author wrote:

“I’m told that these articles are supposed to be some use to the reader. I have a guilty feeling that all of the above may have been more for my amusement than for your edification. Therefore I shall chuck in as a bonus a group of practical, tested rules, which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer.”

He then proceeded to list his rules:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.
3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
4. You must put it on the market.
5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

A little later he added:

“The above five rules really have more to do with how to write speculative fiction than anything said above them. But they are amazingly hard to follow–which is why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants, and which is why I am not afraid to give away the racket! …”

He’s right. They are amazingly hard to follow. And one day I hope to reach his level of focus and proficiency so that I too can get out exactly what I want in a single draft. But it’s dangerous advice for newcomers because it doesn’t account for where Heinlein was in his career.

Being asked to contribute to a book called The Science of Science Fiction Writing is, perhaps, a clue. It seems reasonable to assume that the editor didn’t pick a bunch of barely-knowns who’d only had a couple of stories printed in Astounding Science Fiction. In fact, in 1940 alone, seven years before this piece appeared, Heinlein wrote three short novels, four novelettes, and seven short stories.[2] A novel he wrote the previous year, (1939), didn’t see publication until 2003![3]

In short, these are the words of a man who’s conquered his medium. He’s been living off his writing for almost a decade. According to a couple of notable critics, “No one ever dominated the science fiction field as Bob did in the first few years of his career.”[4]

Rule Three is not good advice for beginning writers – or even moderately proficient ones – because it robs them of a key learning facility: the ability to discover and correct their own mistakes. Whether it’s the repetition of certain words or phrases, (one of mine is “for a moment”), or gaping plot holes or horrendous character flaws, not re-examining your text robs you of a chance to discover the ways in which you work – and sometimes don’t. It robs you of a chance to look at your work objectively and, if necessary, fix it.

Rewriting is sometimes conflated with writing a sloppy first draft then going back to fix it. Yes, get the first draft down, but never write sloppily; always do your best. And sometimes, on reflection, you’ll find you could have done better.

Rewriting does not mean slavishly changing every sentence just for the sake of it. It simply means finding the bits that don’t work, and fixing them.

What’s missing from Heinlein’s Rules is the way in which one-draft writers really operate. The impression given is that they bash out a story in one go and send it off. Write another, send it off. Yes, they may write a story in a single draft, but within that draft they’re constantly cycling back tweaking it. Need a gun in the penultimate scene? (see Reason #10), then cycle back and place it in scene one – all within that single draft. In essence, they’re writing and rewriting at the same time. It’s the result of years of practise and experience, and it’s obviously fantastically efficient, but it’s unlikely to be something you’ll achieve on your first (or even second) novel.

(And presumably, Heinlein put his neophyte 1939 novel “on the market” (Rule #4), and kept it there (Rule #5), even though it didn’t “sell” until fifteen years after his death!)

Heinlein’s Rules are something to aspire to. A target worth working towards – and I am (slowly!) getting better. But for now, it’s still multi-draft me.


“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing … I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times … The first draft of anything is shit.”
— Ernest Hemingway



♦ Just start your story, anywhere, anyhow. You can always tidy and re-order it later.
♦ Books are read from front to back, but they don’t have to be written that way.
♦ Writing is a form of energy. Words generate more words – if you’ll let them.
♦ Few writers write a perfect first draft. Getting a story down is much harder than revising it later.



[1] Some of them are online here: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-dickens-manuscripts. [return]

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._Heinlein#Early_work. [return]

[3] The novel is called For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs. It’s available here: https://geoffpalmer.co.nz/RFNW09. [return]

[4] Wikipedia, op cit. [return]


Reasons for NOT Writing & How to Overcome Them is published
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Previous parts: Introduction, Reason #1, Reason #2, Reason #3 , Reason #4, Reason #5, Reason #6

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