Get On With Your First Draft

Ideas are dime a dozen — but ideas that get your creative juices flowing are a lot rarer. Oftentimes, the coolest or most interesting ideas are the ones that peter out fastest, and the dumbest ideas are the ones that just get your motor revving like crazy. Then you face the moment of truth; you keep imagining all the reasons people are going to say your story sucks, and it paralyzes you. Or you just sit by your window and stare at a blank sheet of paper or in front of that unblinking and perfectly empty computer monitor. “I have nothing to say,” is the only thing that comes to mind. “I am XX years old and I have done nothing, discovered nothing, been nothing, and there are absolutely no thoughts in my head that anyone would ever want to read about.”


Actually, the person at GoodReads doesn’t exist, and it’s just your own internal critic or Self-Critic talking here. It is the Censor in your brain, and sometimes that Censor is bigger than you are. You’ll need that inner voice of scorn for later, when you’re revising – but while you’re working on a first draft, you have to drown it out, possibly with loud Finnish death metal.


The Censor is there for all of us, building and rebuilding this thing called Writer’s Block, one of the Censor’s many self-limiting toys. It might be some comfort to know that even professional writers suffer from Writer’s Block from time to time. Some of the greatest writers in literature — Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway — were tormented by momentary lapses in their ability to produce text — although you wouldn’t think it possible if you’ve ever tried to pick up War and Peace with one hand.
The greatest of ideas usually doesn’t make sense at first. They were most likely shunned or laughed at before they saw the light of the day.


It is easy to take yourself too seriously, to think you’re going to write a poem or an essay that is going to be the greatest poem or essay ever written, that you’re going to formulate the greatest, loveliest, most intelligent statement ever made. So you sit there, thinking how unworthy you are, cursing the day you were born, wondering why you ever went to college, hating the very act of writing that has you so stymied. A writer has to let that go, forget about judgment. Go ahead and write drivel at first, as long as you write. Out of your nonsense and ramblings, however, believe that something good will come, some idea will catch fire right there on the page, there will be sparks, patterns will emerge. Be willing to throw stuff out. It’s all right.


You might even find that you can’t move forward until you find just the right verb in this one sentence, and then you spend a whole day’s writing time staring at the screen and trying to figure it out. This seems like a silly waste of time – just use the wrong verb for now, fix it in rewrites! – except that sometimes hitting on the right word is partly a matter of visualizing the scene in your head. Plus, what if this happens during rewrites?


There’s nothing wrong with spending a day or two fussing over one sentence. It may seem like a waste of time, it may feel like you’re stuck – but actually, you’re just paying close attention to your writing and to the way you’re depicting the scene. If this goes on for a week, though, just pick a verb and move on.


Now you know you’re not alone when your muse go on a trip. Here are some things you  can do to maneuver around the old Writer’s Block:


1. Good ideas don’t always come when we need them. It is safe to always carry a pocket – sized notebook to scribble on as the ideas come to you.


2. If nothing’s happening on the computer screen or paper, take a walk around the block. Hit the treadmill or tennis courts or drive to the gym. But take your notebook with you. Fresh blood will be flowing through your brain and jogging might just jog something loose in your head. It happens.


3. Start in the middle of your writing project. Avoid that problem of getting started by starting on a part of the project that interests you more and then come back to the introductory matter later. This sounds a bit like starting to earn your second million dollars before you’ve earned your first, but it’s really not a bad idea in any case, because sometimes it’s easier to say where you’re going after you know where you’ve been.


4. Write the book from another angle. You can try to see things through the eyes of another character. Sometimes, that’s just all you need to be able to gatther all the shreads together.


5. Talk over your paper with a friend, or just blab away into a tape recorder (even better). Play the tape back and write down what you hear in clusters of ideas or freewrite about them.


6. Another trick is set the whole thing aside for a while and find a way to relax. You could go to the spa for a massage or even go swimming. The idea is to get your mind off the work so you can have a fresh start when you resume.


7. Music is the rhythm of the soul. Listening to good music can help calm your nerves and provide the missing link. Sometimes, what you need is a word from the lyrics of a song.


After all is said and done, remember that you have to find the knife before you can twist it. Don’t give up on your work, rather, find out the root of what’s hindering you and deal with it.


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