Writer’s Block Cause 3: Not knowing where to start

Sometimes, even if we have overcome our fear and found the time, it’s difficult to get the pen moving across the page or our fingertips tapping on the keyboard. Though we have summoned the courage and carved out the hour, we may simply not know where to begin. Despite slaying some of our demons, we find ourselves once again paralyzed by writer’s block, only this time the culprit grinning at us from the blank page is confusion.

The beginning of a project can make you feel like you’re standing at the foot of a very large and very intimidating mountain. Worse, as you contemplate the task before you, that imposing edifice seems to rise up out of the earth, stretching higher and higher above you, sending small avalanches of stones skittering and sliding in your direction. The longer you wait, the bigger the challenge becomes, until you may as well be trying to climb to the moon.

It’s not that bad. I promise.

Here are a few tips to help you cut that mountain down to size (or, at least get your feet moving up the first slope):

Break it down: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Not that I’d want to eat an elephant. At all. But, it’s a well-known analogy that also applies to any project. It’s not enough for you to block out time to “work on your novel.” You need to get specific about what you will do: work on an outline, do a character sketch of the heroine’s older sister, write the first scene of chapter three, edit chapter ten. Breaking the Big Thing down into smaller bites makes it a lot more palatable (and less scary). This was never better said than by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. (A book I highly recommend for writers of all kinds.)

Have a plan: Of course, to break things down, you need to understand the component parts of your project. This is what makes it possible to develop a good plan. Do you have a process for writing a story, a blog post, a novel? How do you break things down? If you’re not sure, get sure. Figure out how you get from start to finish. For a blog post, it might involve brainstorming, mind mapping, research, a first draft and a couple rounds of edits. For a more complex project – like a novel – you’ll have more steps. I am a fan of Larry Brooks’ Storyfix planning process for fiction writing. Good stuff.

Though the artist in you might rail against the idea of process, there is something empowering about knowing where you’re going. Give yourself the gift of a roadmap for your creative journey. Just because you are making a plan doesn’t mean it won’t be an adventure.

Start in the middle: They say that starting is the hardest part, and they are right. The first word, the first sentence, the first paragraph – these are often the most daunting tasks in a writing project. How do we get the ball rolling? What brilliant line will hook our readers into reading the rest of the piece? Why, oh, why can’t we think of a single opening statement? Relax. Forget about it. It’s true that your finished piece will need a first line, but that doesn’t mean you have to start there. Start in the middle. Just start writing anything – whatever comes easily. The important thing is to build up some momentum – give yourself that jumpstart and then keep going. You’ll eventually circle back to the beginning … when you’re ready.

Remember that nothing is written in stone: One of the most beautiful things about writing is the iterative nature of the process. In truth, most of our writing is never done – we simply set it free when we reach a random point of satisfaction. The first draft is only the beginning. It’s not meant to be perfect. No one else ever has to see it. You will get a second chance, and a third, and a fourth, and … you get the idea. The first draft should be crap. That’s what first drafts are for. Revel in the realization that you have the freedom to go ahead and make a mess of things. Breathe a sigh of relief and just play. Get some words down. Give yourself something to work with. That is the writer’s first job.

Bonus: remember self-care: Creative juices don’t flow well when you’re all tied up in knots. Give yourself the gift of some TLC. Give yourself some love. Give yourself a break. Sometimes, the wisest thing you can do is walk away … for a little while. Go for a walk. Clear your head. Give your mind something else to chew on for a while. I guarantee that if you can give your creative muse the room to stretch and breathe, she’ll come back to you with the solution to your problem. I get most of my best ideas while I’m driving, doing yoga, or taking a shower. Don’t try to force things. Take care of your need for reflection, fun, play … whatever gets you going. It’ll help put you in the right frame of mind for developing your plan, breaking down your Big Project, and getting started with enthusiasm and joy.

So, how about you? What are you going to start today? How are you going to start? Tell us and then get going and get it going! 

This is the third post in a series about the causes of that fictitious condition known as writer’s block. In the previous entry, we talked about finding the time to write and in the first we tackled the topic of fear. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone who feels they have suffered from this inability to put words down. I just believe that if we can uncover and face the root causes of this uniquely literary affliction, we can slay the writer’s block dragon and get back to the work at hand. Who’s with me?

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: gigi 62

45 thoughts on “Writer’s Block Cause 3: Not knowing where to start

  1. Jamie, thank you! Although I am not a professional writer I can relate to your post from the aspect of the visual artist! The steps you have so eloquently identified hold true in any art medium. Great post!

    • Blog posts make a great warm up for something bigger, but I also think they have a lot of value on their own. I love the writer/reader connections that happen on blogs – you don’t get that with books or even print magazine articles. It’s nice to have the feedback and dialog.

      Blog on!

      • I love blogging, mostly for the connection factor. I was having a several months long writer’s block, never feeling inspired, but missing the joy of writing and connecting. I decided to make a commitment to write once a week and blogged about it. By making that connection, I really felt like I had to stick to it!

  2. “The first draft should be crap. That’s what first drafts are for. Revel in the realization that you have the freedom to go ahead and make a mess of things. Breathe a sigh of relief and just play. Get some words down. Give yourself something to work with. That is the writer’s first job.”
    The best words i have ever heard from a human tongue. I agree with a lot of things you said. I use similar ideas and methods to write. the best part about writing is that once you are satisfied with what you have written, you lose concern about what others have to say. It is a very enriching expression of self and it allows you the liberty to think, do and write as you please.
    Thank you for sharing this post! 🙂

    • Thank you, Ria. It is wonderful how we can lose ourselves in the process and along with that lose our anxiety about what others might think or say. When we write, we can be the creators of our own world and our own reality – few other practices provide such an experience.

      Thanks for coming by!

  3. I have a couple short stories that I want to write. I like the part about starting in the middle; it is usually how I start my essays as well! It never occurred to me to start a short story that way! I’m definitely going to give it a try.
    As for how I start I project, I usually do it with dialogue. My mind LOVES dialogue, and in writing it down the characters follow along beautifully.

    • So glad you’re going to give starting in the middle a try. Love that!
      Also love the spoon on your nose. That’s awesome and a game my daughter and dad often play at restaurant tables. 😉

      I’m envious that you have such an easy time with dialogue. It’s something I struggle with. It always sounds right in my head, but comes out feeling a little stilted. Ah well – good to have something to work on!

      Happy writing!

      • I think it’ll work out well 🙂

        And thank you! Hahaha I figured a picture full of personality was the best choice for me.

        I wouldn’t say dialogue is easy, it’s just an easy starting point. Oftentimes my characters have conversations in my head and that’s where I choose to start.


    • I agree with you… I tend to be over-organized. As such, I want to start at the beginning, and work through to the end. Start in the middle… the lightbulb turned on. Thanks for the great suggestion Jamie!

  4. This whole article sang to me in so many ways, thank you! I’ve followed the series, and although there were great tips in the first two that really helped me, this one packed the biggest “punch”!
    I’m one of those people caught between a creative mind, and an analytic one. I’ve been piecing together my outline in my card file, and that’s been going well, but Storyfix looks like the missing piece for me, thank you for that!
    The other part that really struck me, was your thought to start in the middle. I woke up at 4 am this morning thinking of a scene I was going to start with, and if it didn’t belong at the beginning of my book, I would rearrange it later! Perfect timing yet again.
    Thank you for all you do for aspiring writers…

  5. Thank you again. Your advice is very useful and reasuring. A few weeks ago i decided to work on the (crap) first draft of a novel I began years ago, and drop the odd passage into my blog. I warned my blogees about it so they know what’s happening and I’m hoping it will motivate me to crack on with it. Reading your blog is also a gret help. Best wishes Kath

  6. I find the self-care part hardest to implement because of all the household obligations. Sometimes I get caught up in the “doing of everything” and forget to step back and breathe. I get into over-achiever mode or become highly focused on accomplishing “X” number of things (including my writing). It’s actually better when I step back, breathe and rest. I need to remind myself of that more often.

    • I know what you mean, Laura. I often fall into that trap myself. I have to make a conscious effort to slow myself down, readjust my expectations, and give myself a little reality check (AND some TLC)!

      We’re only human, right?

      Nice to “see” you!

  7. Reading your blog was like reading my inner self talking about writing. I know all this stuff & yet find it hard to put into practise. Getting caught up in building a writers platform has been very distracting recently. But I need to come back to the ‘little and often’ – Bird by Bird is great for that premise.
    And again I was cowed to hear the right side of the brain being stubborn about making a plan/ roadmap for ourselves. When I’ve done it before I’ve found it incredibly helpful, but am always resistant to it.
    Thankyou thankyou for reminding me of all the things I need to re- remember

    • “I know all this stuff & yet I find it hard to put into practise.”
      I SO know that feeling.
      It is so easy to forget the things we know when we are in the throes of trying to create and wrestling with our own demons. Sometimes, we need someone else to throw us a lifeline – a friendly reminder (or kick in the pants).

      So glad if this helped you to remember your own wisdoms.
      I really enjoyed reading your About page – so many adventures and travels! Followed you on Twitter. 🙂 See you around the web!

      • Hey Jamie – thanks for the kick in the pants!
        And thanks so much for checking out my website & for the Twitter follow 🙂
        Hope to see you around the web too.

    • Thank you, Steven, for taking the time to say so. That means a great deal to me. It seems you have some important stories to share on your blog – keep it up. You are inspiring others, I’m sure.

  8. Hey Jamie,
    I have really enjoyed this series and have been waiting for this post.
    As far as starting in the middle, sometimes I start there, sometimes I have a great ending in my head (an ending with no story at all in mind just a killer line) and start there and write 100% backwards it is a strange process but makes writing really fun.
    I think its important not to think too hard about the project I’m on, because it just causes problems and brings the whole process to a grinding stop.
    A life long friend of mine, who just happens to be a professional writer in LA, has been asking to read the book I’m working on, so I sent it to him.
    He told me he liked it so much that he cant wait to read a signed copy to his kids, he also said “Anyway, keep hammering on that door, Jim. You’ll get in if you really want to see the other side” which I think ties in nicely with writers block, just keep at it and you’ll get through 🙂
    Jamie, great post as always 🙂

    • Writing IS a strange process – no matter how you come at it. 🙂
      I love the way you persevere and your positive outlook. That’s what it takes – you have to love what you’re doing … that will give you the energy to keep knocking on that door.

      Love it.
      Thanks for your kind words.

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  11. Thanks one more time for your post and your help, it has helping me a lot and now I’m really think more serious about my blog and my project!
    Have a really nice week.

  12. Jamie, as I have said here before, with 20+ years of bottling up inspirations and ideas from not writing and just techie-geeking, I have so far not run out of steam at the keyboard. However, I suspect there will come a time in about 18 months when I intend to get down to daily cranking out thousands of words of that long-postponed novel (one of a planned trilogy) that there WILL be days when I have to scribble grocery lists and names of herbs and insects to get myself going! Thanks for all the helpful advice here!

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