Making that first footprint can be terrifying, and that old enemy Procrastination can hinder progress whatever stage you’re at.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
If you perpetually avoid putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) here are five possible reasons why, with some ideas to help you out of each particular novel-writing rut:
1: Fretting over your first lines
Much hangs on the opening pages (and the opening sentences) of a novel. Literary agent Noah Lukeman emphasises this clearly in his excellent book The First Five Pages:
‘People … have secretly made up their mind [about a book] after page 5, and 99 per cent of the time, they’re not going to change it.’
That places an enormous amount of pressure on the opening lines of a novel, and it’s so easy to get hung up on crafting them that you never actually write the rest of the book.
So don’t start at the beginning. This may seem weird but honestly isn’t as daft as it sounds. Starting somewhere else in the plot gives you the breathing space to create a setting, explore some action, and get to know your characters without the pressure of the ‘first impression’ hanging over you as you write.
Chances are, you’ll rearrange your scenes many times before your novel is complete anyway, so anything you write now could be useful, even if you can’t yet see where it fits into the overall plot.
Where you start right now isn’t what matters. The act of starting is what counts.
2: Concern about ‘doing it wrong’
Do you prefer to plan out your story in detail before your write (a Plotter’s approach)? Or is your preference to fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and just write and see what comes out (a Pantser’s approach)?
When I’m working on a developmental edit, authors will sometimes share with me the ways in which they tackle their writing, by way of contextualising the framework of their novel. It’s fascinating to see the variety of routes taken. And refreshing, too, because what’s clear is that there is no ‘right way’ to write a novel – in fact, to write anything, as expressed exquisitely in this short article by Scott Myers (‘There is no right way to write’, Go Into The Story, 2013.)
I’ve had stories cross my desk that have been planned into near oblivion before an author wrote a single word, and others that were created without pause in an outpouring of words and punctuation, before being moulded into a more cohesive shape. Both approaches work equally well, and sit towards either end of a vast spectrum of different ways to write a novel.
If you’re struggling to gain momentum in your writing, think for a moment about where your natural style sits on this continuum. It may be that you’re locked into a certain method, and switching out of your writing comfort-zone and challenging yourself to come at your novel from an alternative perspective could be just the boost you need.
3: Poor time management
Writing takes time, and for most of us that means squeezing extra minutes out of perpetually busy days. If you’re already finding it a challenge to get started with your novel then ‘lack of time’ offers the perfect justification for not writing.
I like inspirational quotes, and the following one from the late US author, entrepreneur and motivational speaker Jim Rohn has always resonated with me, because in all but the most exceptional cases it’s true. No matter how hard I try to justify my lack of progression towards any goal I may have, these simple words set me straight:
‘If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.’
I have a client right now who is waking at five each morning to put in two hours on her novel before work because it is literally the only time she can find in her day to do it. That’s dedication. And very few writers can create a novel without it.
How else can we find time for writing, and then make the most of it?
Think creatively – this is inside you already, so simply apply it to your time problem:
- Can you write in the early morning/late at night?
- What other leisure activities could you swap for writing? Watching a film or TV show, indulging in social media, gaming, knitting, reading – whatever you spend your spare time doing is time that you could use for writing instead.
- Is there any ‘dead’ time in your day that you could use to jot down plot notes and prepare for your writing sessions? For example: the daily commute/waiting out a music lesson that your chid is attending/part of your lunch break?
- Carry a notepad/journal/tablet with you everywhere. If you find yourself with some spare time you hadn’t anticipated, you’ll be ready to make the most of it.
Set aside dedicated writing time each day – even if it’s only 15 minutes – and guard it fiercely. Developing a habit is part of the battle.
Have a plan – when time is short you want to make every second count, so before you even sit down, try to have an idea in your head about what you’re going to write.
Set targets – number of words, a chapter, a scene. Make these manageable within the time you are giving yourself.
Make lists – I love lists, and break my work (and my writing goals) down into manageable chunks that I then use as my targets. I’m a planner junkie and stationery addict and love nice pens, pads, stickers, washi tape, planners and notebooks – using them to manage my work makes me smile as well as keeping me productive.
What works for you? Please do share any alternative time-creating or productivity-enhancing methods in the comments.
4: Not being appropriately tooled-up
Your writing tools are like an extension of you, and being comfortable with the manner in which you are laying down your words is important for getting you into your writing zone. Scratchy pens, clicky keyboards, and impenetrable software can all distract from the business of writing, so ensure you are tooled-up in a way that works for you before you start.
Even if you write in hard copy you’ll need eventually to put your words into an electronic format to have the best chance of them being seen and read. Many authors are perfectly happy to work on a Mac or PC in Word, and that’s great. A lot of editing for independent authors is done in Word, and it’s an easy format in which to submit your manuscript to an agent or publisher.
For those who like more of a framework there are a number of tech alternatives, in the form of free or paid-for software and apps that are specifically designed for writers. They offer various useful features, such as plot organisation tools, character template sheets, research storage capabilities, and alarms to help you keep track of time when you’re writing.
Paid-for software includes:
I’ll be offering more detail on the some of these in later posts, but for now it’s useful to know they are out there, and may offer a solution to a problem is stopping you from writing before you even start.
5: Getting hung up on perfection
No finished draft of a novel is perfect, even after many revisions and hours of self-editing by an author. (And any honest editor or proofreader will also ensure you know that even after many professional editorial eyes have scoured a novel, perfection remains challenging to attain.)
It’s natural to want your text to shine. Just don’t let this desire get in the way of getting your ideas down. I confess I’m terrible at this myself and have to actively turn off the editor chip in my brain when I’m writing. I’m constantly reminding myself that – at the risk of showing my age – Fairground Attraction were wrong. It doesn’t have to be ‘Perfect’. Catchy song, elusive concept (in matters of the heart, or the written word).
Just right can come later: for now, just write.
A note on procrastination
We all do it. Writers, editors, everyone.
We put stuff off.
That’s natural, and okay. To a point. To lift the lethargy in your writing world, I think it’s important to look at the reasons behind your own personal procrastination problem. Look honestly at what’s holding you back. And then consider the worst that could happen if you forge ahead anyway. It’s probably not as dreadful as you imagine.
Cards on the table here (in the spirit of openness, and because I love a good Christie reference!) – I had great plans for the launch of this blog in 2017, but then life got in the way.
Or rather … I allowed it to.
To be fair, I was incredibly distracted. But still.
Truth is, I was afraid no one would read my words. Or worse, that they would read and then scoff, or laugh, or judge.
This year I promised myself if would be different. Because you know what? Each of those imagined responses from my invisible readers (positive or otherwise) is an emotional reaction. And if my writing can do that, whatever it’s intended purpose, then I’ve touched someone. I’ve made a connection.
For me, that’s part of what writing is about. And it’s why I love editing, too – facilitating that connection is a real thrill.
So here I am. To take that step of sharing your words with another is a leap into the unknown, and in many ways a leap of faith. As a writer myself I’m always mindful of that. And it’s why I’m always encouraging and supportive of the authors I work with, whatever their writing ability, and wherever they are in their authorial journey. Editing is a privilege, and I never forget that.
Believe in your words. If you never get them down you’ll never know what reaction they’ll attract. We all have to start somewhere, so why not make today the day?
Hey, Mr Crisp White Page … let’s talk.
Owner of Enigma Editorial