How Do You Start Writing?

This is a guest post from Eric Olsen, co-author of We Wanted To Be Writers. I personally feel this topic is important as I spent many years reading books on writing before I actually got on with the writing itself! If you like this article, you might also like the How To Write A Novel mini-course – click here for more details.

Here are some suggestions to get your first words on the page.

A young writer recently asked me: “How do you start?” She told me that after spending months doing research for a novel, after filling several file folders with notes, clippings, and random thoughts, she’d yet to start the thing. But she was hardly short on ideas. “So,” she asked, “How do you start?”

A great question. I ask myself the same thing more or less every day. Or, variously, how to re-start, as in get unstuck…

There may be as many reasons for not starting as there are writers facing a persistently blank page, but I think for a lot of us, the hang-up is anxiety about setting off on the wrong path. Maybe you have an idea for a story, maybe it’s a great idea, and before you actually start to write that story, the possibilities are endless and the idea remains great. But once you start, once you set out on a particular path with particular characters and situations, suddenly the possibilities aren’t so endless. Now you’ve chosen a path, and what if you’ve set off on the wrong path?

So how can you get past all that?

You don’t have to start at the beginning

One approach is to simply not worry about “starting,” as in starting at the beginning. In We Wanted to Be Writers, John Irving (The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules, and many others) tells us he starts a novel by writing the last line first. “I work my way backward from the end of the novel,” he says, “which is the first thing I know, to what the first chapter should be. By the time I actually write the first sentence, I have a virtual road map of the whole novel — either in notes or in my head.”

I’ve never tried this, as I just don’t work that way, and Irving himself says he sincerely doubts his method would work for anyone else. But it might be a worth a try…

Write scenes

Novelist Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street, Carmelo, and many other books) takes another approach. She doesn’t start at the beginning or the end. “I don’t write in a linear fashion,” she tells us. “I write what I call ‘buttons.’ If I’m writing a story, rather than going beginning to end, I just write scenes and don’t worry about what connects them. Maybe dialogue … all out of sequence. I imagine I’m going to die in eight hours, so what part of this story do I need to write today that I haven’t written because it’s going to be published posthumously? If I’m in a funk and tired about this book, I’ll write about someone who’s tired. I just use it as a place to go off from, then write it and rework it until it’s beautiful, and then I have this little button. And my job is done. And then the next day I work on another button, and then I put them together and start to see patterns.”

Write characters

If you have an idea for a story or novel, perhaps buried somewhere in those sheaves of notes, especially if you’re a compulsive researcher like me, and you use research to put off doing what you need to do, which is to start, try writing about a character who might or might not end up being in that story; this is exploration, after all, path-finding, but not starting out on a particular path, a little like Sandra’s buttons.

Give the character a name. Describe the character. Then have the character doing something. A person doing something in space and time  –  cooking an egg, flying to Mars, visiting an art gallery, or whatever — is inherently interesting, and certainly more so than a character just sitting around thinking; the thinking can come later, if it must. Once you have a character doing something, this might lead to that character doing something else…

Better yet, start with two characters doing something. Give them both names and describe both of them. If you have two characters, then they can interact and talk to one another.

Write dialogue

One of our teachers at Iowa 30-plus years ago, the late novelist Vance Bourjaily (The End of My Life, The Violated, and many others) once told our class that good dialogue is a conflict that reveals character, desire, and what’s at stake. He also added that the bad guy should get the better lines. Action and dialogue are ways to get into a character’s head, and, indeed your own head, and thus into finding the story.  You might end up tossing what you’ve written, but if it gets you going, so what? Remember, this is about exploration at this point.

Another teacher suggested having a conversation with your characters as a way of finding out who they are and what they want, as a way of finding your story. I was working on a novel at the time and it wasn’t going anywhere and I was losing steam. I didn’t need to start, but I certainly needed a kick in the ass.

So I took my teacher’s advice. I asked each character how he or she ended up in this situation and what each wanted, and I got answers. I set it up as a series of dialogues, and I was amazed at how the characters began to take on new life and speak for themselves when I gave them the opportunity to tell me what they wanted and what the story should be.

It was an engaging, liberating exercise as I was relieved of the burden of worrying how each character might fit into the plot; how they might fit didn’t matter at that point. The exercise gave me new ideas about each character, new insights into who they were and what they wanted and, indeed, about how the story should unfold. Now I do this routinely. Of course, in our culture, carrying on conversations with imaginary characters usually leads to the court-ordered administration of psychoactive medications, but if you’re found out, just say you’re a writer and it should be OK.

How do you start writing when you actually put pen to paper?

We Wanted to be Writers, a blend of interviews, commentary, advice, gossip, anecdotes, analyses, history, and asides with nearly 30 graduates and teachers who were at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the mid-70s. They include John Irving, Jane Smiley, T.C. Boyle, Allan Gurganus, Sandra Cisneros, Jayne Anne Phillips, Michelle Huneven, Joe Haldeman, Jennie Fields, Marvin Bell, and many others.

Find out more or buy the book at WeWantedToBeWriters.com

Top image: Flickr CC Seeminglee

 

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Great advice! Usually, when I want to start (or resume) writing, I can usually get started by picking a statement from a character to build a paragraph, or even a chapter, around.

  2. says

    Thanks for these. I like that one about having a chat with your characters. (Yes folks, writing really IS a form of mental illness… ;-) ) I might try that with some of my gang who are proving hard to get to know. My neighbours will just think I’m talking to my dog again.

    I couldn’t start at the end, because I don’t know the end until I’m almost there. Isn’t that why they call it a mystery? (It’s not? Oh.)

    I definitely do write scenes, rather than in a linear way. Whichever scene is burning to get outta me at a particular time is the one I write. Then I go back and fill in the gaps.

    But I’ve found one of the best ways for me to get past the author-terror-what-if-I-mess-it-up thing is to just start writing. Often as the fingers start moving on the keys I become less self-conscious and just write, as the gang take over and start walking and talking and doing stuff. And if it’s rubbish, well so what? That’s what editing is for. This stellar technique did get my first draft finished. But now I have to start editing…

    • says

      Hi Belinda, I do often have the end scene in my mind from the beginning but with thrillers you kind of have to work towards stopping the big bad event, vs mysteries where it has already happened!
      I also write scenes and find Scrivener very useful for this. I have finished the scenes at the end of Prophecy and I have about 70% of the beginning. I currently have the 20% that ties the two bits together to write!

  3. Hugh Dykes says

    I usually start with an outline to set up a trail to follow. I try to flesh out the characters and then fill out the bare bones sketch of the outline. I usually have a good idea od the ending, however sometimes I let my mind wander and consider an alternate ending as I write. I must say that I have only had one book published and have one short erotic story on PubIt.

  4. says

    I’m a pantser so I go from beginning to end. But this week I’m in a rut trying to edit beginning to end. Thanks to your post, I’m going to mix it up a bit. I’m going to edit random chapters, making “buttons” for myself (maybe this way I can see the continuity better?). Also, I’m going interview my characters. One of my very, very minor characters has been cropping up in my mind lately. I think he wants more page time.
    THANKS for your post!

  5. LK Watts says

    Thanks for this article. It is just what I needed to read today when so many other things in life have gotten into my mind and taken over my brain, thus preventing me from writing. I feel a little better now.

  6. says

    I’m almost 60 and just starting to write! I’ve waited all these years to put my “butt in the seat,” and now, finally, I’m forcing the fanny down. How do I start writing? I accept that my writing will be bad–I assume it, of course. There’s this twisted notion about writing, this idea that if it’s not good writing, it’s not writing at all. So I write without tying an adjective to the act. When I take a walk, I don’t say, hey, you can’t walk unless you walk WELL. I just grab my dog and walk out the door and look at the trees and sky, and there I am. Walking.
    So it is with writing. All I do is tap my fingers across the keyboard and these little words appear and eventually they add up, so I put in some commas and a period at the end. And there I am. Writing.
    Anyway, that’s how I start. I save the suffering for later.

    • says

      That’s great Cindy – that same attitude stopped me writing – the sense that it had to come out perfectly. I think there has been a great deception over the millennia that writers are in some way special. But it’s not true – I think the “greats” just edit a lot :)
      You and I shall just keep at it, keep writing, keep editing!

  7. Ross Howell says

    Thanks to Eric for a great post. When to stop research for an historical novel is a maddening question. After months of filling a notebook with scribbled history and fattening a manila file with maps and genealogies, I decided to forge ahead with some characters, knowing I didn’t have the whole story. Research continues to yield great material. I know I’ll be doing a lot of rewriting. But I’d gotten to the point where it felt better to bumble along rather than to stand still.

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