Getting Started

I have a writing problem which is shared by many writers: I struggle to get started.

I wrote about this problem a bit way back in 2009 when I confessed to almost destroying my professional writing career before it even started. The first six months of being a full-time freelance writer was one great big procrastinatory guilt-ridden hell.

Since then I have reigned it in so that it’s only a struggle at the beginning of a first draft.

For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.

And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.

The next day there’ll be more of the same. And that will keep on until for some miraculous reason I start typing actual words that turn into actual coherent sentences of novel-ness.

The next day the struggle will be a little bit less bad and every day will be better than the day before until I’m on a roll and the novel is actually being written.

By the time I’m heading to the climax and then the end of the book it’s really hard to not write.

It goes like that unless I take a break for a holiday, or get sick, or for some other reason stop work for four days or more. When I return to the book it’s as if I’m starting all over again. Aargh! It takes several days, sometimes more than a week, to get back into the swing again. Drives me nuts.

I have developed several methods of dealing with this annoying tendency of mine.

Procrastination is good

The first is to simply accept that procrastinating is part of my process. Often I’m unable to get started on a new novel because I’m not ready. I haven’t found the way in: the right voice, the right setting, the right starting point. I haven’t done enough research. All that futzing around is me finding a way in. It’s necessary and without it I can’t write my novels.

Though sometimes I’m just flat out wasting time. RSI has meant that I do way less of that online. I consider that to be a blessing because it pushes me out to the garden or out of the house altogether a lot more often. Nothing better for thinking things through than being away from my computer. Long walks, I love you.

Research

Not having done enough research is often the reason why I can’t get started. I need to know more about that world and those characters and what their problem is.

Before I could really get going with Liar I had to find out a lot more about lying. Why people lie, what kinds of lies they tell, the difference between compulsive and pathological lying.

Same with the 1930s New York City novel. I needed to know so much more about the city back then, about the USA back then, about how the USA wound up where it was in the early 1930s. So the idea kicked around for quite a long time before I could write anything down.

Sometimes a novel springs from research I don’t realise I’m doing. I’ll be reading a non-fiction book or listening to a fascinating radio show or see a great documentary and it will give me a great idea. That’s how my sekrit project novel, what I just finished first draft of, got started.1

Many books at once

I have learned to always jot down new ideas. For me they’re rarely ideas, per se, more often they’re a fragment or beginning. That way I always have a novel to turn to when I’m stuck on the one I’m supposed to be writing.

The first words I wrote of Liar are:

I’m a liar. I don’t do it on purpose. Well, okay, yeah, I do. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. If my mouth is closed then I’m cool, no lies at all.

That did not make it into the book. I don’t even know whose voice that is. It’s not that of Micah, Liar‘s protagonist. But I jotted that down in 2005 as the first spark of the book that was published as Liar two years later.

At the time I had already started, but not finished, the book that was to become How To Ditch Your Fairy and was on deadline to finish Magic Lessons, the second book in the Magic or Madness trilogy. I was also hard at work on the Daughters of Earth anthology. It was not a good time to start a new book, but I was stuck on Magic Lessons: so the day before it was due with my US publisher I started writing HTDYF.

Yes, I was a bit late with Magic Lessons. From memory, I think I was no more than two weeks late, which is not too bad. Starting HTDYF when I did meant that after I’d sent off the first draft of Magic Lessons I could get back to work on it. And in between ML rewrites and copyedits and proofs and having to write the last book in the trilogy I kept going back to it. It was a wonderful respite from what I was supposed to be writing.2

Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I have recently finished the first draft of my sekrit project novel. But I have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.

If I get stuck with the book I planned to work on I turn to one of the other books. Often I’m writing back and forth on several different books at once until one of them takes off. Sometimes I’m totally unable to decide and poll my blog readers or ask my agent or Scott. That’s how I went with Liar back in 2007 and put down the lodger novel and the plastic surgery novel both of which I know I’ll get back to some day. Actually I got back to the lodger one a few years ago before it was swamped by the 1930s NYC novel and then Team Human.

If I get an idea for a new book I always jot it down no matter where I am with the main novel I’m working on. Sometimes that novel takes over. The novel I just finished came to me very strongly a year ago when I was feeling overwhelmed by the sprawling NYC 1930s novel which had just hit 100,000 words with no visible sign of ending. I hadn’t, in fact, gotten up to what I thought would be the book’s first incident. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND WORDS and I wasn’t at what I thought was the beginning. AARGH. In my panic I started a whole other novel.3

In conclusion: There may be a good reason you can’t get started. Procrastination can be your friend. It’s okay to flibbertigibbet from one novel to another and back again and then to another and so on. Other writers will have other solutions and processes. Do whatever it is that works best for you.4 Zombies should not, in fact, be added to all stories. Just the ones that need zombies.

  1. It’s a sekrit project for no particular reason. I just really enjoy having sekrit projects. Makes me feel like a spy. What? I get to have fun! []
  2. That’s one of the many reasons I don’t like writing books under contract. A contract for one book just makes all the uncontracted novel ideas seem that much more shiny. []
  3. Co-incidentally, or not really, me and Sarah Rees Brennan started writing Team Human at another point when I was overwhelmed by the NYC novel. I suspect there will be one or two more other novels before I finish the damn thing. []
  4. Unless it involves hurting anyone. []

7 comments

  1. Katie on #

    That sounds much like my way of approaching the beginning of stories, which is very re-assuring. Now I just need to follow your example and actually fight my way through the procrastination so I can finish something.

  2. Eileen Lower on #

    So the sekrit project is secret. Wow, I just figured that out, and now I’m wondering if I’m qualified to take three honors courses after all. I’d always assumed sekrit was something from Australia, like an Aborigine language or dust storm (I have no idea how an Australian dust storm could be the main point of a novel, but sekrit=dust storm made sense to me) Or possibly middle-eastern garments? An African tribe? Maybe some type-setters who create a font called sekrit? Whenever you wrote about it, I pictured a Hindu in a sari reading Sanskrit, and then started imagining other possibilities.

  3. Coryl on #

    I find that I have a hard time getting past the very beginning of writing projects because I’m always going back and editing. My mind gets into this cycle of wanting to have the beginning absolutely perfect so that it makes sense with the rest of the writing. I think that, if there’s anything not perfect in the first four chapters, I can’t write past that. Of course, I do get out of it, but it takes up a lot of my time. It’s not really procrastination as it is over-editing.
    The beginning is definitely important, but I think I make my beginnings too important. But, let’s face it, if a reader can stick through something in the first bit, they’ll probably make it to the end.

  4. Jade on #

    For some reason, hearing (reading?) that your process is similar to mine, makes me feel better. I often find myself totally stuck on a novel and then I’ll turn to a different project. Sometimes I stress out and force myself to finish a novel when I’m really stuck, but all that does is make me hate said novel and cause me to fantasise about stabbing the MC in the face.

    I try to tell myself that if it’s meant to be, I’ll get it done. I just wish wasn’t such a struggle.

  5. tricia sullivan on #

    It is good to see you blogging again!

    This is all very familiar to my squidgy old brain, although maybe not for quite the same reasons. I find it much easier to start things than to do the long, hard, lonely work of seeing them through to the bitter end. For me there is definitely a value in letting one project cook in the background while distracting myself with working on something else, because being stuck feels really, really bad and also because the brain on overdrive can throw out a lot of really good stuff, and why waste it?

    I have discovered, though, that sooner or later I have to tie myself to the mast and power through.

    Anyway. I’m so glad you’re blogging again, even if it’s intermittent.

  6. Justine on #

    I think that may be a large part of the point of writing this kinds of posts so that people like Katie and Jade and Tricia and me get to say, Yes, I recognise this. It’s very comforting.

    Eileen Lower: Ha! No “sekrit” is just one of those silly spellings to allow us to mock our own pretensions. Because seriously? There is no reason earth for this novel to be a secret except that it amuses me.

    Coryl: You know, I wind up throwing away so many of my opening chapters that I have learned not to spend too much time on them. On the other hand they have to be decent or I don’t want to keep writing.

    Is your constant rewriting of the beginning impeding you from going forward? Are you not finishing things? Then it’s a problem. But if it just means you have a very well-edited opening when you have your first draft finished then it’s not a problem.

    Jade: I wouldn’t stress about it. Like I said I didn’t finish a novel for years and years but once I started finishing them I got better at finishing them. But you still have to learn to get started first.

    tricia sullivan: *waves* Thanks. It’s been fun to return to blogging.

    So with you about tying ourselves to the mast. But the reward is when it’s all flowing and there’s nothing that you’d rather do. I love that bit.

  7. John e Normal on #

    Hey Justine,

    I have just discovered your blog and I am really enjoying it.

    I am afraid I have to disagree with your final point though. Zombies should in fact, be added to all stories. It just makes them better. :-)

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