Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of the start

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Georges Simenon

If finishing a novel is one of the hardest things in the world, starting it can’t be all that far behind—and that doesn’t even take into account the treacherous ground in the middle. I’ve written for just about every working day for most of the last seven years, and although I’m reasonably confident in my abilities to see a project through, I always feel a little trepidation when I sit down to write something for the first time. Part of the reason I’m so obsessive about productivity and routine is that deep down, I have a hunch that these are the only things keeping writer’s block at bay: I secretly fear that if the day comes when I don’t manage to write a full chapter or blog post, I won’t be able to write a word ever again. For me, and I suspect for many other writers, productivity is almost a neurotic response, or a sublimation, of writer’s block itself, and the authors who seem to get the most done are often the ones who dread the alternative the most. Whether or not this is a healthy way of living is something I’ll let others decide; all I know is that if I stop, like the mythical shark, I’ll drown. Here are a few of the strategies I’ve developed for getting that shark in motion:

1. Pick a start and end date. Clearly, this is important if you’re trying to meet an actual deadline, but it can be equally valuable when you’re writing only for yourself. Whenever I start a new writing project, one of the first things I’ll do is print out a set of calendar pages for the next few months, roughing out the various stages in advance: a month for research and outlining, say, another month for working on the first draft, a week off, then two weeks of revision. The schedule I’ve worked out—which is based on my own sense of my writing speed and routine—is subject to change, and I always write it in pencil. But there are benefits to having at least a tentative timeline. It’s a great motivator; it prevents me from getting hung up on any one stage; and it reassures me that the road ahead, while still daunting, has a definite end. It’s nice to remind myself that if I can write a thousand words a day, I’ll have a novel at the end of six months, but it’s even better to know that this means I’ll have a draft in hand by March 31. This method works best if you’ve outlined the novel fairly carefully, but even if you’re the kind of writer who likes to plunge in without a plan, a start and end date will give structure to what can otherwise be a frighteningly amorphous process. (I’m not alone in this, by the way: I know that Georges Simenon, among others, kept a careful calendar of his work.)

David Mamet

2. Divide the work up into achievable tasks. I’ve quoted David Mamet on this point many times before, but it’s such a good piece of advice that I can’t resist citing it again:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

I’ve expanded elsewhere on what this means, but one point worth emphasizing is that different tasks are suited for different hours, circumstances, and states of mind. I’ve found, for example, that when it comes to writing the first draft of a chapter or section, I need a long stretch of uninterrupted time, so I’ve taken to doing this after the baby goes to bed. For revision, outlining, and general brainstorming, I can do much of it in bits and pieces, so it ends up being scheduled for odd moments during the day. It takes a while for any one writer to figure out his or her best schedule, but once you get a feel for your best working routine, it makes sense to structure each day accordingly.

3. Clean your desk—but only once. Since you’re going to be spending a lot of time alone in a room, you should do what you can to make the space a pleasant one. My own desk has a way of accumulating every piece of clutter in the entire house, so I devote an hour or so before starting a project to clearing away the worst of it, leaving only the notes and materials relevant to the work at hand. That said, compulsive organizing can turn into its own form of procrastination, so I’d recommend just doing this once, before you begin, and then leaving it to fend for itself. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that the clutter will soon return, but instead of being a mishmash of materials from the rest of your life, they’ll be items relating to the story you’re writing—outlines, scraps of paper, sketches, diagrams, reference books, pictures. What you’re really doing is creating a narrative haven, to use Lawrence Block’s memorable phrase, “much as bits of ribbon and cloth are woven into a songbird’s nest—for color, to tighten things up, and because they caught my eye and seemed to belong there.” That nest is where the best writing takes place, but only if you’ve cleared the ground first and allowed it to grow on its own. So get a calendar, divide up the work, prepare the stage—and then, if you’re lucky, you’re ready to begin.

Written by nevalalee

February 10, 2014 at 9:33 am

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