When I first started to write books, I found it awfully hard going. I think that I’m a decent storyteller, but I’m not a natural writer - I really have to work at it. In the beginning, it didn’t take long for me to realize that getting all those grand ideas and visions of mine down on paper wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d thought. What sounded so good in my head didn’t always (okay, rarely) translate into print. Not like I’d imagined, anyway. This difficulty is why I think people put off writing, or quit after a few attempts.
That and the million other things going on in their lives.
But here’s the deal. As with any big project - cleaning out the basement, looking for a new job, getting in better shape, deciding to start a family - there is never a good time to start. There might be some times that are better than others, but generally, there is no good time to take on a big challenge. It’s now or never, my friends. So how do you do that? How do you get started?
Well, I’d like to share a few pointers with you about what I’ve done to get myself motivated. When I first started graduate school, if I had said to myself, before I am finished I am going to have to take four years of classes, write a master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation, teach classes to other students (learning how to teach on the fly), learn how to be a therapist (once again, on the fly), take a two-day test that covered my entire four years of classes, plus four years of journal articles from four different journals (and if I don’t pass, I don’t graduate until I can try to take it the next year), and do a year-long internship (that some don’t get their first time around, better luck next year), not to mention building my resume by taking on other career-related jobs and being on committees, and all while trying to support myself on a salary that put me below the poverty level…If I had said all that to myself, I would have gone screaming into the night. I would have quit right then.
But I didn’t quit. Here’s what I did instead…I pretended that none of that other stuff mattered. I’m quite good at denial, actually. That first year I focused on getting through each day and trying to pretend that this was all there was to it. You are never going to take on something big if you understood the reality of what it encompassed. It looks too huge for one person to do. So why even bother to start? The minute I gave myself permission not to have to worry about everything, it made the whole process less stressful, and therefore doable.
The same goes for writing a novel. Baby steps are important. Break up that project. For example, tell yourself…Today I just have to write the first line. Or, today I just have to outline the first chapter, or maybe just develop a character. Don’t edit anything, just get something on paper. The moment you start accomplishing something, you will feel the weight lifting off your shoulders, and that frees you up to be more productive. If you have to go back and edit later, fine. Just try not to edit too much (if at all) when you start out. It bogs you down.
How do you avoid the bogs? One thing I do is put a little symbol in spots where I am having trouble remembering a word or phrase (or what I’m calling someone), or to remind me this is important information I have to get back to later. This also works well when you’re editing. The minute I get slowed down too much, I put in one of those signs (I use the # sign). Then, when I do a search, I can easily find those signs at another time. Maybe by then, I’ll have thought of the word, or be reminded that I have to talk about this issue later, which might actually trigger where you need to go next in your book.
You don’t want to spend a lot of energy focusing on the little stuff (at least not when you’re starting out). Put in your little sign and move on. You’ll get back to it later. Writing that first page isn’t so overwhelming if all you’re expecting of yourself is just to fill it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even all that sensical. I think I just made that word up, by the way…didn’t want to get bogged down looking for the right one. I don’t recommend you do that too often, but it is rather freeing! In my opinion, the first 25 pages of a novel are the hardest to write. If you can get past that barrier, I believe the writing gets easier. At least, that’s how it worked for me.
The positive thing? The more you write and edit, the easier writing gets. You know the rules better and apply them automatically. You think of words more quickly. You have a better sense of where you’re going. It takes time and practice, but all that does pay off.
So, in summary,
1. Don’t view the project as a whole. Break it up into pieces.
2. Denial is a beautiful thing. Don’t dwell on your mistakes. Get back to them later.
3. Take baby steps. Don’t think of yourself as writing the great novel on your first try.
4. Related to that, lower your expectations of yourself. When you’ve done this writing thing for a while, raise them back up again.
5. Dream about what your life will be like when you accomplish this task. Your dream may not actually come true, but it’s a lovely motivator.
6. Don’t let others rain on your parade. People can be real downers. They think they are preparing you for the disappointment, but that can really make a person not want to do anything!
7. Finally, this does get better and easier with time. Just like anything in life when you put enough effort into it.
Good luck and remember, Life is really, really short. Don’t put off what you want to do simply because it seems overwhelming. There’s always time somewhere in your life. You just have to find it. As I always say, Dream Big! But then find a way to make those dreams come true!