HOW TO START WRITING

Endings are hard, pacing is hard, believable characters are hard, dialog is hard… the whole damn thing is hard. Sometimes the hardest part (at least until you get to the next hardest part) is getting started in the first place.

Maybe you write outlines, maybe you don’t, or maybe you at least jot down a few notes on what you’re thinking this story or novel will be about, maybe you have an idea for a character or an ending… whatever that is. That’s a place to start, assuming you write that down when it comes to you and save it somewhere.

But then starting to think that this is going to be a novel, much less some kind of huge epic fantasy or even a series of novels…? That’s fucking scary. Have you done all your necessary worldbuilding? How much worldbuilding is necessary? Have you meticulously plotted out a huge twenty-volume meta-story for the whole series? Do you have to? Should you? I don’t know… do you want to?

Is it too early in the morning to start writing, or too late at night? Too close to when you have to leave for work or too soon after getting home from work? Are these reasons not to write or excuses not to write?

“I’m driving a car right now” is a very good reason not to start writing. Put that laptop away before you kill yourself and take some innocent victims along with you.

Otherwise, we’re all living humans in the world and we have responsibilities and schedules and so on. I’m never going to advise you to quit your day job and start writing before you know you can make a living writing, which is to say you’ve already published at least one novel that has sold and continues to sell really well, or you have a really nice, active freelance career. But Hunter S. Thompson once said, “To be able to earn a living as a freelance writer in this country is damned hard; there are very few people who can do that.” That was a long time ago but it’s still true. So yeah, go to work. Take care of your kids. Do the dishes. All that stuff. But then here we are, back at the same question: How do I start writing this thing, whatever this thing is?

Here’s the magical answer, born from my decades of experience and limitless wisdom:

Just fucking do it.

You’re in a safe place and you have maybe half an hour or more of time. You have your computer, your notebook—however you write that rough draft—so then start writing already. If you don’t, you’re just making excuses. And you’re making excuses to yourself, not to me. It’s not up to me to make you write or give you permission not to write or anything like that.

Start writing the damn thing.

Literally force your hand to make a sentence. It doesn’t have to be a good sentence. It does not have to be the sentence that will be the first sentence in the book when it’s finally published. But it’s a sentence. Get through that sentence.

The guy saw a monster and was scared.

That’s a sentence. A fantasy or horror story can start with that sentence. No, it’s not a great sentence. It tells rather than shows… but who gives a crap? No one is reading over your shoulder—or is there someone there? First, get rid of that person. This writing a sentence thing, this you need to do by yourself.

Write a sentence. Then force yourself to write another sentence.

The monster had big sharp teeth and smelled like rotten eggs.

Spectacular!

What a tale!

Seriously, it’s crap, but here’s the secret: You can work with crap. The only sentence you can’t revise is the sentence you haven’t written yet. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

Need inspiration?

How about this: If you don’t start writing right now you will not have written anything in the next few minutes. Put yourself under that pressure—and no more. Will this be the Great American Novel? No. Or maybe yes. No one knows. Will it get published? Probably not—most books don’t. Will it be a best seller? Probably not—most books aren’t. But I can tell you for sure that no book that was never actually written has been published or been a best seller nor has any unwritten novel ever made a list of Great American Novels.

Harlan Ellison used to describe writing as “a job of work.” And he was right. If you’re a writer, write some shit. That’s your job. No one ever said it was going to an easy job, but I’ve never heard of a plumber who only works when he’s inspired to plumb. Plumbers plumb, writers write. Again, Hunter S. Thompson: “I never sit down and put on my white shirt and bow-tie and black business coat and think, Well, now’s the time to write. I will simply get into it.”

Start now.

—Philip Athans

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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, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to HOW TO START WRITING

  1. Scott says:

    If you’re thinking of publishing your work, you’re writing for others and not only for yourself. To create a compelling story, you must first know who your audience is. Whom are you attracting? What are the possible expectations they might have?

    • Philip Athans says:

      That’s definitely true on sort of a “macro” level. There are significant differences in approach between middle grade, YA, and “adult,” for instance. There are also certain basic expectations attached to the various genres, but that aside, the more you try to target some kind of target readership, the farther off base you’ll likely be. Most readers will say they know what they want out of a novel, but would rather be surprised than catered to.

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  3. Pingback: I WILL WRITE THAT NOVEL | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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