So many writers (and would-be writers) keep a “Big Idea” on their mental shelf indefinitely; often something they expect will be a challenge to write.
It could be a memoir, an e-book, an important piece for your niche blog, or maybe some kind of long-form story. You may develop a rough outline, make notes, plink out a few scattered paragraphs, do research, draw concept art, post about it on Facebook, and tell everyone you know—but never actually turn all of that into anything complete.
Here’s a spoiler before we get started: These roadblocks are secretly manifestations of excuses that we’ve told ourselves so many times that they’ve become ingrained as beliefs.
Below are some of the common roadblocks and ways to crush them, so you can finally reach that first great landmark on the way to publication—the first draft.
Misunderstanding the Purpose of a First Draft
A lot of writers don’t understand what a first draft is. It’s your vomit draft. Your garbage draft. It’s unpolished. Unpretty. Your sixth-grade teacher called it a “rough” draft for a reason.
It isn’t what you pick up on a bookstore shelf. It isn’t what you nod your head to in enthusiastic agreement as you scroll down the page of your favorite blog. If you’re discouraged because the words on your laptop screen don’t look like the words of your favorite writer, it isn’t because they’re magical and you’re a squib.
It’s because they write draft after draft, they’ve been doing it for years, and they have good editors.
So how do you start a rough draft?
Take a deep breath if you have to, and then sit down in front of that blank page and put something on it.
You may burn an hour wordsmithing a dazzling first paragraph that you’ll decide to cut later, or get halfway down the page writing nonsense before you find the frayed end of that thread—the thread you have to pull and keep pulling until your ideas start to fall into order, and the words start coming faster than you can type them.
Fearing Your Own Creation
This is the big one, and it disguises itself well.
It’s fear of failing, fear of the finished result not stacking up to your expectations, and fear of discovering—oh no!—that you aren’t the gifted writer you thought you were. Often, these fears are subconscious and may emerge as writer’s block or being “too busy” to find time to write—but no matter how it shows itself, this fear can freeze a writer solid.
After all, which is worse?
- To live your whole life in the quiet (and romantically tragic) belief that you’re a gifted writer who just hasn’t been given the chance to realize your potential?
- Actually producing something concrete and discovering that your aptitude isn’t what you thought it was … which might mean that you aren’t what you thought you were?
This is scary, existential stuff.
So how on earth do we combat this and just keep writing?
Writers have to accept—and expect—some false starts and plenty of dead ends. You have to allow much of your writing to be embarrassing. You have to be willing to write for the trash can.
You have to be patient and accepting when it’s impossible to hammer out the dents in your lead sentence; take it in stride when two arguments cross in an unexpected, disastrous way; and be honest with yourself when you reach the ending or character beats you planned but realize the story hasn’t earned it. Because these, like your themes, are all jobs for later drafts.
Someone (who almost certainly wasn’t Michelangelo) once said that the best way to overcome the difficulties of sculpting his masterpiece, “David,” was simply to “chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.” Something like this will be your mantra in your second and third drafts, only you’ll be chipping away unsightly words instead of jags of marble.
Even if you don’t think this type of fear is holding you back—like I said, it hides itself well—keep putting words on the screen or in your notebook, and you will battle it without realizing that’s what you’re doing. This will train your mind to accept failure as just part of the process, and soon it won’t bother you like it used to.
You’ve Already Told the Story
What do most of us do when we’re excited about something? We talk about it!
Planning a wedding? Getting a tattoo? Booking a cute Airbnb on the Rhine? Getting tricked into some new pyramid scheme? (“It’s called multi-level marketing!” you keep assuring them.) We’ll tell anyone who will hold still.
But writers can’t succumb to that compulsion, no matter how excited they are about their new Big Idea—not if they want to ever see anything come of it. Because telling your ideas to others—even those in your writing group—tricks your brain into thinking you’ve already told the story.
When you sit down at your computer again to write, for some reason you feel a bit … deflated. Like someone has let a bit of the helium out of your once-triumphant balloon.
For years, I watched abandoned documents pile up on my hard drive before I realized this was exactly what I was doing.
When inspiration strikes, tell it only to the page.
If your friends ask you what you’re writing, tell them nothing more than what would be on the back of the dust jacket. Keep major story turns, especially your ending, under lock and key.
If you’re bursting to let the story out, use that. Let it fuel your late-night writing benders and weekend type-a-thons. It may carry you all the way to the finish line.
Not Holding Yourself Accountable
When I was in undergrad, a lot of my creative writing classes were at night, and they were heavily populated with nontraditional students. And by that, I mean people in their late 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond. People with full-time jobs. People with kids and mortgages and rolling backpacks.
Each of us would have to produce 10 pages of a book, or 20 pages of a screenplay, every month, and provide enough copies for the professor and everyone in the class so they could take it home, read it, and annotate it. Then they’d bring it back the next week so we could workshop it together.
What this meant was that everyone in that room, no matter what stage of life they were in or what was going on with them professionally, was consistently writing and having that work dissected and critiqued by about a dozen other writers.
Having an accountability partner or a writing group is important when you’re trying to achieve long-term goals, because it may take a while to finish the first draft. But that time is going to pass either way, and having a good chunk of a manuscript (with feedback!) sitting on your hard drive by the end of the semester is a significant accomplishment.
Not everyone has the means to enroll in a college class, but you can mimic that accountability system for free if you can find two or three other writers who are serious. These can be friends or people you’ve met on Meetup or in a public Facebook group. A writing group also has the advantage of not being constrained by a classroom or the length of a semester.
Claiming to Have ‘No Place to Write’
Finding the right spot to set down your laptop, crack your knuckles, and get writing can make you feel a bit like that girl we all learned about in kindergarten who got caught burglarizing those three bears and had to do hard time for it.
But finding that every spot is “too hot” or “too cold” is no excuse for you not to write.
Some writers advocate cultivating a cave-like environment at home for uninterrupted writing. But what if you’re easily distracted by unfinished household chores or whatever is in the refrigerator?
Or, what if you’re a highly developed extrovert, and you’ve just spent all day in a cubicle at your nine-to-five, it’s extra sunny out, and the patio at the neighborhood bar is beckoning? An extrovert can’t recharge in a cave.
If the distractions of home or a longing for what’s going elsewhere are allowing you to make the excuse that you don’t have a place to write and not start your new project, retreat to neutral ground. A nearby coffee shop with innocuous music, a comfortable vibe, plenty of electrical outlets, and later operating hours can be the key.
For the price of a cup ’o joe (or two), you can have a dedicated workstation for an entire evening. And your brain knows that when you’re sitting at a table in this space, with your earbuds in, it’s time to work.
Bonus points for extroverts, who can glean benefits from (the illusion of) social interaction without the cost. No one says you have to be alone at that table. Invite a friend who also has something to work on, as long as you both agree on what you’re really there for.
Typing the First Word
An early wall you might hit with your first draft is the question of where to start the story. If you’ve made an outline, you’ve done some of the work already, but it can still be tricky deciding exactly what to show your reader first.
An old piece of screenwriting wisdom can apply to all media: Drop your audience into a scene in progress, and then pull them back out before it’s over. If your story begins with a stickup of an armored car, maybe don’t start with the getaway driver making several legal turns with his blinker on while driving under the posted speed limit, with the robbers quietly riding in the back seat wearing rubber masks.
Ask yourself: When’s the latest we can join these characters without the scene becoming incoherent? Chances are, that’s your starting line.
Or, if your blog post is about the best corn mazes in the U.S., don’t kick it off with a paragraph about the history of corn mazes. (They were invented in 1993 by Don Frantz and Adrian Fisher. You’re welcome.)
Think about what you want to say in your intro, pick the most striking or interesting part, and make that your lead, even if you have to work backward immediately after to cover everything.
Writer’s block is a common affliction that can be the culprit if you’re still getting stuck on that first word, but there are remedies. Take a hot shower; read something that interests you; listen to music; walk around paying careful attention to your surroundings, mentally describing the things you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel; take a drive with the radio off. One of those should do it.
Few things kill your flow quicker than having to hunt for a receipt from two weeks ago, on which you’d scribbled a prize snippet of dialogue you overheard between the waiter and the drunk two tables over. You’re finally writing your restaurant scene, and you want to use these lines to launch a pivotal argument between your two main characters.
But where is that receipt? You remember it was right after the MC Hammer show, but it’s not in your Hammer pants.
This wouldn’t happen if you kept all of your notes in a writer’s toolbox. I had a professor once who described his as a little box filled with 3×5 note cards … but today you’d likely be better off keeping a dedicated page in your smartphone’s notes app.
If you’re organized, it’s harder to make excuses for why you can’t get something done, right?
Always keep your antenna up—all day, every day—ready to pick up anything that might be useful to your writing later; whether for the story you’re currently working on or one you haven’t even conceived of yet. Notice a cat watching some birds and think of the perfect way to describe it, or learn an interesting colloquialism that would help make a rural Oklahoman character sound more authentic? Good, write it down.
But maybe you’re currently writing a story about a team of researchers at the North Pole, and they’re all Swedish, and there isn’t a cat for thousands of miles. Type those into your toolbox anyway. A year from now, you might be writing something different, and those unbidden scraps that sparked into your brain can find a purpose.
Not Having Enough Discipline in the First Place
They say it takes 25 minutes to fully return to a task after an interruption. So, if you step away from your keyboard to search for a note, or dig out your phone to send a lengthy response to a text, or fall down a Wiki-hole when all you needed was the name of one Nigerian tribe, but now you’re reading about non-damaging moves in Pokémon battles, there goes half an hour each time it happens (not to mention the time you spent on those detours).
So don’t click on that Safari or Firefox icon, let unanswered texts stack up, and keep your writer’s toolbox within an arm’s reach.
Another thing that can cause your brain to throw on the squealing brakes like a panicked, old-timey train conductor is the absence of track up ahead. In the words of Axl Rose: “Where do we go now?”
The freedom to let your writing take unexpected turns is important and part of what makes it fun, but if you’re working without an outline of any kind, expect plenty of stop-and-go. Enough stops, and it might lead to a shelved or abandoned project.
So make that outline, even if you don’t think it’s your style.
Perhaps you haven’t gotten very far in your draft because you have too many interests. That’s OK, but if you’ve started a project, stick with it.
So you’ve discovered a cache of photos of 19th century Halloween costumes and it’s awakened a passion for unintentional horror of yesteryear. That’s great! Or you just took a weekend drive up 300 miles of Route 66 and have fallen in love with kitschy roadside attractions, and now you want to drive the whole thing and blog about all of them. Fantastic!
The only problem is you’re 55 pages into an e-book about abandoned gold mines in Colorado, which represents three months of research and writing, and you’re nowhere near finished.
Take your new interests seriously, lovingly shelve them for the time being—while being sure to write down all of your notes for later while they’re fresh on your mind—but keep focused on the project you’re already working on.
Just Get Writing
Most of us have heard the advice to write every day, whether or not we feel like it, but I’ve never heard a more fitting illustration of this than what Stephen King wrote for The Washington Post in his article, The Writing Life.
Imagine that every day, you’re coming to a clearing in the woods, waiting to see if your inspiration will meet you there. Some days, that scruffy little creature will stick to the trees and only be seen in glimpses. Other days, it will walk right up, bite you, and run away.
Your only hope is to semi-domesticate Scruffy.
If you’ve spent an entire evening in your cave or your coffee shop, and all of your progress amounts to just one or two paragraphs, then congratulate yourself for showing up. You didn’t waste your time; you did what you’re supposed to do. It’s easy to talk, but it’s hard to get yourself off of the couch and actually work on the thing you’re so passionate about, and that can be for so many reasons.
Tomorrow, if you’ll show up again, Scruffy might be bolder. And if you show up enough times, no matter how that creature behaves, you’ll get what you came for.