Wardscrawl: The Starting Trap

Wardscrawl is a semi-regular blog where I discuss what I’ve learned about writing over the years. Or, to be more honest, lessons I’ve learned about my writing over the years. Most writing blogs pass off subjective opinion and personal quirk as absolute fact everyone can apply. I want Wardscrawl to be a bit different – I’ll be discussing what has worked (or what hasn’t worked) for me. If it mirrors your experience, or gives you some ideas how to hone your craft, that’s fantastic. But remember, I don’t have the answer. Everyone’s path is different.

Does this sound at all familiar? You’ve had a wonderful, relaxing weekend. Your thoughts have gathered. The plot issues that were driving you mad on Friday? They’re sorted. You know how you’re going to get your protagonist off the space station using only a bag of chicken feed, a broken spear and a Mars-English dictionary. It’s going to be a stellar, productive week. You just know the words are going to flow from your fingertips like weed-clogged water from a drowned corpse something nice flowing from something nicer, chocolate sauce from a unicorn, say.

Then you sit down at the keyboard, and… nothing.

All the fantastic, evocative prose you were going to unleash disappears into an opaque fog. Forget sentences; you can’t even remember words. Apart from ‘the’, and you’re starting to wonder whether that’s even a word at all. The ideas are there, but they’re hovering just out of reach, cackling like a chocolate producing unicorn that’s taking revenge for having been trapped in a poor simile. You write your first sentence fifty times – a hundred. It gets worse with each attempt. Try as you might, you can’t get going. You’ve been caught in the Starting Trap.

This very specific form of writer’s block strikes everyone sooner or later. It’s not that the ideas aren’t there. It’s not that you don’t know the structure of the passage you’re about to write. It’s just that, try as you might, you can’t work out how to begin. Every word you set on the page is wrong, and you can’t work out how to break the chain of gibberish and get on with the brilliant idea that’s burning away at the back of your brain.

Some of my worst mornings have crawled by, snared in the Starting Trap. I’m not sure it’s something you can ever be completely free of, but I do have a few tips for escaping once you’re in its maddening clutches

1)Write Alongside, Not Over

Most of us edit as we write, overtyping words and phrases in the search for the sentence that perfectly encapsulates what we’re trying to set down. Usually, this isn’t a problem, but if you’re caught in the Starting Trap , you might want to stop. However much you hate the sentence you just wrote, don’t overtype it. Leave it where it is, and set out the next version directly below. Hate that one too? Fine ­– write a third below that, and so on.

If you’ve hit ten or twelve of these and still haven’t found something you’re happy with, go back and pick out the parts you do like from the lines you’ve generated. Chances are, you’ve actually written a great starting sentence, but your brain has split it up across three of four different variants. Because you didn’t overtype those variants, you can pick them out, and build your new, all-powerful opening. You’re free

2) There is No Beginning

This one’s easy. Don’t start at the beginning, start anywhere. No, seriously, that’s it. Have a line of dialogue, a sentence of description or even just a couple of words ready in your head? That’s where you begin. Go from there. It doesn’t matter whether the words you’re writing belong at the beginning, the middle or the end. What you’re doing is using the ideas you do have straight in your head to give your brain something to anchor around, and build your confidence. Once that anchor locks into place, you’ll find going back to the beginning much, much easier – after all, you’ve just proved to yourself you know what you’re doing

3) Write Something Different

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. If you can’t make headway on the project you’re tackling, make strides with something else. Have an older manuscript that’s due an edit? Spend some time with that. Have a crazy idea for what you’ll do after the current project’s done? Go make some notes, scribble a synopsis, or whatever. Hell, dive back into an earlier section of your current piece, and give it a read over. Truth is, it doesn’t really matter which of these you go for. As with the previous suggestion, all you’re doing is distracting your brain, tricking it into dropping the walls that have inexplicably sprung up around that one, perfect sentence you wanted to start your day with.

4) Go Do Something Else Entirely

Much as I hate to admit it, there are times when no amount of trickery can rip you free of the Starting Trap. When that happens, there’s only one healthy course open to you: stand up, turn the computer off, and go do something else. I know, I know. You don’t have time to stop writing. This draft’s already overdue, and if you don’t get it finished today, the sky will fall.

Thing is, staring tensely at the screen solves nothing – it just winds you up like a cheap watch. If the words aren’t coming, you need to give your brain something different to do, to unwind the little knot of stress that’s built up in your brain. As things stand, you’re not going to finish that draft anyway, and even if you do, you’ll probably hate it, so just… go do something else. Go for a walk. Play with the cat. Listen to some music. Do the dishes. Don’t watch TV or read a book – that’ll just fill your head up with the wrong words. Before long, something in your head will click, and that one perfect sentence will be yours to inscribe. You’ll get more done in the hour following that revelation, than in a whole morning spent staring at the screen. Plus, you’ve done the dishes, so you’re doubly ahead.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my horror novel. It’s ten in the morning, and I still haven’t written that first bloody sentence.

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