I should have labeled this with a sort of series title: THE HARDEST PART, PART (whatever). I’ve identified a few “hardest parts” of writing before: mustering the required patience, adhering to your own internal rules, and so on. There are a lot of hardest parts to writing fiction in any genre. Here’s today’s: getting started.

I’ve said before that you should never sit down to write unless you know what your first sentence is going to be. I stand by that advice. Staring blankly at a white screen (or blank piece of paper) is a form of self-torture you don’t deserve to have to undergo. At the very least you need that one sentence. Everything follows from there. Like Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The short story of a thousand words begins with a first sentence.

But it’s not always as easy as that.

Some authors outline, some don’t. I do. Some authors outline only the beginning of the story then let it tell them where it wants to go. I don’t. I have to know what the end is before I start, which doesn’t mean that by the end I haven’t changed my mind and thought of a new, better ending, but that just helps me get going.

You’ll probably have to do at least a little research.

You’ll need to do some worldbuilding.

You definitely need to fix some rules for yourself: how magic works, or how the high tech gizmo functions.

All this stuff combines to make it possible for you to write a coherent narrative that obeys its own internal logic (I promise not to further belabor the plausibility/realism thing), has motivated and interesting characters, and so on.

But let’s say you’ve done all that. You have notes. You know who your characters are and what they want and why that’s causing some kind of conflict. You know how the ray guns work (more or less) and what the aliens can and can’t do.

Now you have to sit down and write the thing, and that can be, yes, you guessed it, the hardest part.

Practical advice:

Know what your first sentence is. We’ve got that one already.

New advice:

Don’t worry that it might suck.

I know, you don’t want your writing to suck. No one does (I hope). But at this point—the point at which you’re just sitting down to start, no one but you is going to read it. And that’s something you need to control. Don’t show it to anyone yet. Just start writing, having given yourself the permission to suck. There’s nothing you can’t fix, or at least throw away. And that’s hard for a lot of writers. Throwing away any text feels like wasted time and effort, but it isn’t. Everything you do gets you somewhere and the realization that this scene serves no purpose in this story counts as somewhere. It’s okay to head down the wrong path—that’s better than not setting out in the first place.

Write out of order.

There is no law that says you have to start at the beginning of a story and write it in order as it will be read until you get to THE END. You can write the end first, or the middle first, or whatever scene you think is easiest or hardest. This is your creative process, not mine, and not (yet) your readers’. You are entirely free to follow whatever path you choose, as long as you’re actually writing, and it helps you get to a finished story you’re proud of.

And an aside: When I say “story,” I don’t just mean short stories, I mean a story of any length including a novel or even a series of novels.

Expand your outline.

When I was working for Wizards of the Coast I once got an outline from an author that was 104 pages long, single spaced. The author then went and added layers to that document, one layer at a time, until she had a complete novel. That worked for her. It could work for you, too.

Change your scenery.

Do you normally write at home, at your desk? Take your laptop or notebook out of the house to . . . wherever you want to go. A coffee shop? A bar? The local library? A park bench? Anywhere is fine. I’ve said over and over again that you should teach yourself to be able to write any time and any where, regardless of distractions. Don’t try to write while you’re driving or operating machinery, but pretty much anywhere else is at least worth a try.

Add inspiration.

I often write while the TV is on. I choose movies that I think will help me get into the mood of the piece I’m working on: lighter fare for lighter stories, darker stuff for moodier pieces. But sometimes the TV starts to irritate me, so I turn it off. I sometimes, but rarely, write with music playing. This is hard for me because I find music, strangely enough, more distracting than TV, and becuase my iTunes on shuffle play will end up sending exactly the wrong song for the mood I’m trying to convey in the story, and I get all confused and frustrated. But that’s just me, and I’m not you, and we will never be each other. Does music help you? Play music—play a particular kind of music, a particular band or album.

Talk to yourself.

Tell yourself the story out loud. Walk around in circles talking to yourself. Does that get you started? Yes? Then do it. If it just makes you feel like a crazy person, then don’t.

And my last piece of advice:

Do anything.

I can’t think of everything. What gets you started? What gets your creative juices flowing? The only thing I can absolutely guarantee is that your answer to that question will be different than anyone else’s. There’s only that one you, after all.


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to GETTING STARTED

  1. Keith Strohm says:

    What do you mean “don’t worry that it might suck?” I already know it does…I wrote it. Do you need a memo?

  2. Mark Sehestedt says:

    Having worked with lots of authors over the years, I noticed a trend.

    Those authors who thought that every word they typed was unvarnished gold tended to be the writers most in need of serious editorial help, if not outright resuscitation.

    Those authors filled with self-loathing who begged for help tended to be those least in need of help.

  3. Pingback: A LITTLE ABOUT ENDINGS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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