Stuck at the Start (January Stuck Series Part 2 of 4)

The blank page can be an intimidating thing. Or maybe you have such a great idea that you fear once you start writing it you’ll ruin it. Or you have so many ideas you can’t possibly decide which one to start with and so you don’t start any of them. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to write a story but suddenly you can’t think of a single idea that even resembles a plot.

Any of these sound familiar?

There are many ways to get stuck at the beginning of a project.

If you find yourself stuck before you even start, take a moment to explore why. If you didn’t do last week’s journal exercises, now would be a good time to revisit them.

Fear can be a big factor at this stage. Fear at the beginning can look like your inner critic dismissing every idea as not good enough. Fear can sound like a voice inside your head telling you that the idea is great, so fantastic and wonderful in fact that you shouldn’t start it now because you’ll just mess it up and your story deserves better than your current skills. Fear can paralyze our fingers against the keys, empty our minds, and drain our creative wells.

The easiest fix to overcoming that fear is simple: Start anyway. Just write something.

I know, I know. It’s not really as easy as all that, is it? Sitting down at the page is a brave act each and every day that a writer chooses to do it. Choose to be brave.

Here are a few concrete ways to break through those stuck at the starting block barriers:

  • Journal I have found that the best way to clear my head before starting any writing or revising session is to journal. I scrawl down whatever I’m feeling as I sit down to work. Some days that’s excitement or anticipation. Other days it’s dread or procrastination. Often, just acknowledging that feeling and recognizing that I’m a little afraid of drafting that timeline or intimidated about outlining a complicated story structure or excited to write flirty banter helps me to corral my emotions and channel them into something productive. The act of putting pen to paper also ignites the creative side of my brain. I don’t follow her rules exactly, but if you want to experiment with this idea, check out Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages technique from The Artist’s Way* to warm up your writing muscle.
  • Give yourself permission to suck The beginning is the stage of writing where anything goes. Don’t worry about whether you have the skills yet to pull off such a complicated plot twist or the chops to write a sweeping historical fiction or the finesse to create a heartbreaking love story. Those are worries for future editor you. Right now? Now you get to be fun creative writer you. Give yourself free rein to make mistakes and follow tangents and explore your writing. You can’t improve if you never start. Don’t let fear tell you you’re incapable of something before you’ve even tried. Starting a new project is like going on a first date. Not all of them will lead to everlasting love, but a lot of them will be fun and teach you something about yourself along the way. Lean into that mindset and see where your manuscript takes you. It could be that it is, in fact, “the one!”

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build sandcastles.” — Shannon Hale

  • Keep an Ideas List Not sure where to begin? Keep a file on your computer or notes app, even a physical page in your journal works, and save things that appeal to you throughout a week, month, whatever. Don’t worry about what they are, but use that space as a catchall for setting descriptions from your vacation, snippets of interesting dialogue overheard on the train, articles that piqued your interest, poems that moved you, characteristics or mannerisms you observed during a staff meeting. Jot it all down and keep it in the same place. When you want to flesh out an idea to start a new project, go to the list. Look for patterns or simply pick two ideas that seemingly have nothing to do with each other and free write a page that brings them together. Brainstorm. Mind map. Visualize. Play. I am not one of these people that has millions of story ideas bouncing in her head at all times. I am monogamous when it comes to my ideas. But when one latches, that’s all I need. My current work in progress came from a posting I saw on a freelance writing jobs page. I printed it out and jotted down “what kind of person would have this job?” Then I put it in my file. A YEAR later, I opened that file and immediately the story problem for a protagonist who had that job came to me.
  • Too many ideas? I was talking to a writer before NaNoWriMo who said she had at least ten ideas that had been building up in her brain over the last several years when she’d been too busy to focus on her writing. She didn’t know where to begin. I advised her to use NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to spend a few days just exploring each idea. You could easily do the same. Every day, free write on one of your many ideas. Take as many days as you have ideas. Then, go back and take a look. Which idea really stuck with you? Was there a day you were reluctant to move onto a new idea instead of spending it on the idea from the day before? Did some ideas actually relate to each other and could be incorporated into one story? I bet at the end of your time you’ll know which story is speaking to your heart. And the good news is that when you’re finished, you’ll have all those fun ideas waiting for you again for the next story!

Now you have your idea ready. You’ve figured out what emotionally is holding you back. You’re ready to sit down at the page and get started!

But now what?

Stuck again at another beginning.

It happens. The thing with writing a novel-length work is that there are tons of opportunities for stuck to hold you back in your process.

I want to discuss how a little planning can keep your writing train on the tracks.

Now, this pre-writing, planning process might make some pantsers cringe. But stick with me. This process holds just enough structure to make plotters happy while giving pantsers plenty of freedom to discovery write along the way (while avoiding the discovery that they have no idea what they are writing about–that’s a stuck place we want to avoid!). A little planning will save you a lot of that writer’s block grief you may encounter when you finish writing that inspired scene that came to you in the shower but you have no idea what comes after it.

As an Author Accelerator book coach*, I have studied Jennie Nash’s Blueprint for a Book* method and let me tell you, I love it. It works. For all kinds of writers. At all points in the process, whether you’re starting with a fresh idea, two chapters in and already lost, or about to start a revision.

The goal of the Blueprint is to solidify some key elements of your story BEFORE you start writing, including:

  • What genre is your story? (Are there conventions you must meet? World building you must do? Tropes to consider?)
  • What is the point you are trying to make with your story? (What is your story about on a deeper, emotional level? What feeling/action/change in perspective do you want your reader to walk away with?)
  • Why are you writing this story? (What makes you passionate about this story? What unique perspective are you bringing to this story?)
  • Who is your protagonist?
  • Where do they stand in time?

And many more questions designed to help you shore up your story’s underpinnings into a solid foundation.

While I love all the exercises in the Blueprint to clarify an idea before I begin stretching it out over 300 pages, my favorite is a fill-in-the-blank exercise:

Once upon a time there was a __________________________. Every day ________________________. One day __________________________. Because of that______________________________________. Because of that ___________________________ (use as many as “because of that” blanks you need to identify the major story turning points). Until finally ______________________________________________.

I love using this container for an idea at the start of a project. It not only provides guidance but essentially outlines your character’s arc of change in an easily digestible chunk to refer back to when you’re drafting the manuscript and finding yourself a little lost. Of course this plan still leaves plenty of room for additional events and subplots and fun.

If you’ve made it through this long post, I hope you’ve found some tips and tricks to help you start and keep going. My goal is to fill your toolbox with the craft and mindset tools you need to create a sustainable writing practice. The writing and revising may still take a long time, but I want you to always feel like you’re making progress toward your goal.

Next week, we’ll dig into getting stuck in those murky middles.

If you want to prepare for a draft or use the Blueprint to guide a revision (I went through this process with a coach of my own (yes, even coaches need coaches!) this fall to prepare for the revision I am now nearly done with), please reach out and let’s chat. I’d love to walk you through it!

**Need to jump start your writing routine? Sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send you a quick guide of tips to get started!**

* This is an affiliate link and I do receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase.

Featured photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Published by Monica Cox

Monica is a writer and book coach who helps writers get unstuck so they can reach their writing goals.

2 thoughts on “Stuck at the Start (January Stuck Series Part 2 of 4)

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