Getting started is hard.
Whether we’re seasoned writers beginning a new project or new writers taking the plunge and learning to stretch our wings, getting started is an intimidating prospect. A whole, enormous story with complex themes, characters, and settings, all waiting to be inscribed on paper by you—the author. Without your brilliant ideas, your stunning imagination, and your mastery of words, none of it will see the light of day or come to more than a vague idea in the back of your mind.
Have you started hyperventilating yet?
What if you get it wrong? What if you give up halfway through the story? What if the story doesn’t come out the way you wanted it to, and the characters hate you forever and you can’t quite capture the incredible vision you have in your mind for this project?
Honestly, if I think of it in these terms, I’m shocked that I have ever, in my entire life, managed to get a word down on paper.
But I have. Eight books worth of words. And every single time I start a book, it’s as intimidating as it was the first time. More, actually, because I know from long experience what I am capable of, and the thought of not reaching that standard is an added burden.
So how, in the name of dictionaries everywhere, do we start a new project without first choking and sputtering out a few times?
Before I give you my tips for this, I want to emphasize one thing. Every writer is different. Every writer’s routine is different. Whether you are new to the craft or a seasoned warrior with dozens of manuscripts under your belt, you will have a unique approach to your books. That said, here are my five tips for getting started on a new project.
1) Let it simmer a while.
I firmly believe that an idea is not a story. One character is not a story. Sometimes ideas need to be set on a back burner for a little while and given time to simmer. Stories don’t come in ready-made packages, and they are not instant, just-add-water kind of things. They need time. They need devotion. And they need a chance to develop from one idea into a thousand.
I have at least five stories sitting on my back burners, bubbling away and preparing to be written. One of them is very, very close. A few others are only vague ideas, without compelling characters to drive them. They’ll all be written eventually. They just need time.
2) Know when to start.
As badly as stories do need to simmer, there also comes a point when researching, dreaming, and brainstorming becomes simply—procrastinating.
It’s much easier to allow a story to stay in the planning stage rather than thrusting it into the rough and sometimes painful process of drafting. Drafting is messy, it’s incomplete, and it never quite ends up the way we expect.
And yet, a book you never start is a book that will never be written.
If you’ve got pages and pages of research, a thousand ideas in your head that you’ve run over too many times, and characters that are starting to grow bored with your lack of progress, it might be time to take a deep breath, open a blank document, and type in those fateful words—Chapter 1.
3) Embrace the mess.
First drafts are a mess. That’s a truth in writing that will continue on for all eternity. Your first draft will never, never reach the full potential that you had in mind for this story.
And that is okay.
Sometimes it’s hard for writers—especially those of us who have several fully fledged books in our past—to really embrace a messy draft. We want our sentences to shine, our work to move us to tears, and our characters to have personalities that don’t resemble cardboard.
That will come. But not with the first draft. Writing takes time, it takes dedication, and it definitely doesn’t glow with the first draft.
So enjoy the mess. Enjoy the freedom of the flow, and worry about edits later.
4) Remember that nothing is carved in stone.
Anything you write can be changed. You can drop characters, create new ones, change names, change countries. You can add a dragon into the second draft if you want to.
It’s your choice.
So many writers get roadblocked by the fear of how much work it will be to change things later. They want it perfect now because they should only have to write something once, right?
Unfortunately, writing doesn’t work like that. I have chapters I have literally rewritten 10+ times. Others have more drafts. My first book went through so many drafts that I lost track of how many there actually are.
And—once I got over the frustration of how much work it was—I discovered the wonderful freedom of allowing a book to change and grow in the process. There is an incredible depth to stories that have been allowed the room to grow and expand over time, without the restrictions of a ‘perfect’ first draft.
5) Be brave.
“Once upon a time,” he said out loud to the darkness. He said those words because they were the best, the most powerful words that he knew and just the saying of them comforted him.
~ Kate Dicamillo, The Tale Of Despereaux
Writing takes an incredible amount of courage. It takes grit and tears and perseverance and so, so much bravery. Writing past the first chapter when you know it isn’t quite right takes courage. Finishing a story takes courage.
Sharing a story takes courage.
So be brave, dearest writer. Lift your chin, gather your resolve, and face the unknown with a smile and a ‘once upon a time’ that is solely yours.
You can conquer this. You are a writer, and you have so much bravery already.
Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.