This was a question that came from Vivien via my Facebook page, but it’s also one that I tend to get a lot from my students as well. In class my answer is usually a very firm: ‘sit down and write.’ They are, after all, investing their HECs dollars in a writing degree and deadlines and due dates are pretty firm while they’re students. If they don’t hand in their writing, they don’t get marks.
That’s the firm teacher line. But that said, I’m not just in the classroom to make sure my students do their assignments, I want to help them be writers not only while they’re at uni, but after as well. Part of being a writer is working out how to turn those ideas swirling around in your head into life on the page when you don’t have a deadline.
Daydreaming about your work has its place. I spend a lot of time laying on my bed listening to music and trying to plot out scenes for find an emotional connection to the work, or walking the dog while having conversations in my head between characters and trying to work through plot problems in my head… Heck, I actually flew to Tasmania last year so I could walk around the parks and streets where my current work in progress is set so I could daydream in situ!
But the reason to want to be a writer is to be read, and those ideas aren’t being seen by anyone but you if you never start and just keep them in your daydreams.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
The first thing to do is work out if you’re a plotter or a pantser or some version in between.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terms, a plotter is someone who plans out their novel or story before they write, while a pantser might start with a concept or a rough theme and then they let the story unfold as they write. This is a really simplified explanation of the terms, so if you want to read more, there are some good explanations here, and here, and a really good Twitter thread about plotting vs. pantsing as it relates to Game of Thrones (mostly spoiler free) can be found here.
It took me a while to work out that if I start with plot, I’ll spend all my time trying to work out all the beats of a story and not actually getting started, so I start with a concept and a rough sketch of where I want to go and then I pants the rest. I’m a pantser for the first draft and a plotter for every draft after that.
By know what sort of a writer you are, you’ll have a better understanding of what you’re going to need in order to get started. For the plotter, you’ll have to make some notes, do some sketches, or plot in whatever way works for you, and for the pantsers? Well, we really need to just start.
Writing yourself into the story
Getting started is the hardest part. We’ve all heard the writing clichés about the pressure of the blinking cursor at the top of a blank word document or the blank lines on your notepad, and they’re clichés for a reason. But what helps me is to tell myself that it doesn’t matter what this first draft looks like: the first draft is about getting it onto the page in whatever form it comes out. So just start.
In my own writing and editing experience, the first few paragraphs or pages of what you write won’t be where the story really begins. So, take the pressure off and allow yourself to be a bit shit for a start. I call it ‘writing yourself into the story.’ I don’t mean putting yourself in as a character, I mean you’re writing to get yourself to the place where the story actually begins. One of my favourite parts about structural editing or getting to look at students’ drafts before they submit is being able to pinpoint the moment where pieces take off: the moment that the voice clicks into place and you can feel the narrative start to move.
The point here is that wherever you start, probably won’t end up being the beginning, so just get started!
Get your plot and characters out
If just getting started isn’t working for you, you might actually be a plotter and sitting down and working out how your narrative will unfold might be helpful. I’ve started using Scrivener for rewrites and I’m finding that it’s really helpful for starting to reel in my characters and plots when my pantsing makes them meander in weird directions. Scrivener is a writing software program that helps you both write and plot out long form work by giving you index cards to add character, setting, plot details; to map out chapters; write a synopsis; and structure the novel.
Like I said, I’m using it for rewrites, but if you’re a plotter, using the index cards to write profiles of your characters and settings, to outline your chapters ,and sort through some of your ideas, might help you get started. I think the program is worth the cost (around $60 depending on where you’re located and what type of computer you have), but you can do a cheat’s version really simply by creating Word Docs and folders to divide your ideas in a similar way.
I’d be careful getting caught up in too much plotting because it can just be another form of procrastination, but if you’re daydreaming and not writing, Scrivener or some other way of plotting might help you sort through those ideas and find a jumping off point.
You can do it!
You may also find that setting a writing routine or making some self-imposed deadlines helps you to stay focused — but those are some big topics that I’ll write about on another day.
So, if you want to stop just daydreaming about your story ideas and start writing: work out what sort of a writer you are, stop focusing on perfection, and get writing!
What about you? Are you a plotter or a pantser? How do you reign in your own daydreams and start writing?
Thanks to Vivien for this excellent question! If you would like me to answer your writing or editing question, leave a comment below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.