Writing. It’s easy. It’s just a matter of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and stringing words in a line. At least, that’s the theory. Better writers than me (Ernest Hemingway) have said things like “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.” I wish it were really that easy, but I don’t think that’s true.
As you start your NaNoWriMo adventure, you may find the same issue I have on a regular basis — that is, how to start writing. Writing is supposed to be like running or fucking or smoking. You’re supposed to just know how to do it, like it’s some kind of instinct a person has deep within themselves. We’re a storytelling race, there’s no doubt about it, so perhaps there is something to this idea of just knowing… just knowing how to start.
Starts and False Starts
I’ve been a professional writer for 20 years now (I’m fucking old) and a dabbler for closer to 30. That means that I’ve had a lot of starts to deal with — and I’ve learned a few things about starting to write. First and foremost, it’s important to understand that just because you’ve written something doesn’t mean you’ve actually started. Sometimes you start, but you’re not really starting — you’ve got a false start on your hands.
I’ve had editors give me advice over the years on starts and false starts and one of the most common things I hear (I actually don’t believe this) is that a writer should just start, then erase the first sentence, paragraph or section they wrote and start with the second. Because the advice is so widespread, it makes me believe that although it’s not entirely true, there is something true within it.
To write well, it’s important to understand that starting isn’t always starting and sometimes you have to start again and again before you get it right. I have days when I struggle to break the seal on my work. I may write three or four or seven introductory paragraphs before I find one that sounds right. When you’re writing for the business world, this is frequently wasted effort since the readership can’t tell the difference anyway, but we all strive to be great in our way, don’t we?
So, I guess the first thing to getting started is to understand that just because you’ve smeared some words on a page doesn’t mean that they should actually be there. This is where that nugget about killing your darlings comes in — if your start isn’t the right start, it’s all for naught anyway. Cut those fuckers before they grow up to betray you.
How to Get Started Writing
Some days you’ll sit down and start writing and it’ll just flow like warm molasses onto the page. It’ll roll down to the next and ooze and flow until all the corners are filled. But more often, you’re going to have to prime and pull again and again, like when you’re starting a cranky chainsaw. I can assure you, though, getting started is the hardest part of the process.
So, let’s walk through it. Let me help you, God knows I can’t help myself.
Research First. Whatever you’re writing, fiction or fact, requires some level of knowledge or research, or a combination of both. Before you ever set pen to paper, do all your research. Let those lovely bits of information float around in your brain, twist around one another and prepare to be rebirthed in another form. Research first. Don’t write shit until you’re certain you have the information you need.
Know What You Intend to Write. You don’t need to have it all mapped out, that’s a Hell of a way to crush creativity completely. But know what you intend to write — the bones of the thing. I usually start with an outline, even on blogs. It doesn’t have to be long or even detailed, but jot some notes down either on the page or mentally, if you can hold it that way. When you know what you’re going to write, it makes it easier to actually write it.
Don’t Stop for Anything. When you’re trying to get started, don’t stop for anything. Once you start streaming the words onto the page, just keep going. Edits are for later. Write now, spew on the page, and clean up the mess later. This, of course, is easier said than done for some of us — but the writing is the thing today. Write today, edit tomorrow. Write now, don’t look up stuff, just write.
No Peeking. When I say “Don’t stop for anything,” I mean it. Especially peeking. Don’t look back until you’re done with whatever you’ve set out to do for the day. You’ll want to kick your own ass, you’ll hate what you’ve created, you’ll want to destroy what may deserve to live if you do. Don’t do that. Remember, edits are for later — NaNoWriMo doesn’t allow you time for clean-up, it’s a race to the finish. You’ll edit in December.
Above All Else, Write. Today isn’t the day to judge your writing or to hold yourself next to someone else or even to learn new things about writing. Today is a day to write. So write. Just write. Don’t answer the phone, don’t juggle emails, don’t fucking look sideways at the cat. Just write. If you need to eliminate more distractions, wear a pair of headphones and crank the music. Whatever you do, though, JUST WRITE.