Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 20, 2017

Tips for When You're Stuck in the Beginning


Aimie K. Runyan

I just started writing a new book—well, two of them, but that’s a story for another time. Yesterday I sat in front of my screen for hours and ended up with fewer than 600 words to show for it. It seemed like every bit of volunteer work, every mundane administrative task I had to do was calling my name. That’s not me. I’m the writer who can blissfully ignore e-mails and let the dishes pile up in the sink. My writing time is sacred.

But as I sat at the keyboard, frustrated beyond measure, I realized this phenomenon wasn’t new for me. When I began my last book, Daughters of the Night Sky, I experienced the same phenomenon. It took hours to eke out a few hundred words and I would end my writing session drained and cranky instead of the satisfying fatigue of having “left it all on the field” …or computer hard drive, I guess. With Night Sky, I actually slumped into a depression for a few weeks. I had attributed it to other stressors in my life, which were certainly part of it, but this time around it’s clear that the only thing dragging me down was starting a new project. I had thought I’d done everything I needed to do to be successful:

  • I had clear goals for the scenes and the chapter
  • I had a grasp on my themes, the voice I want to convey
  • I know my main characters well enough to get in their heads
  • There was enough left unknown for me to have the thrill of discovery.

For me, this should have been enough. Your mileage may vary, of course, but these are typically the only things I need to stave off writer’s block.

The problem? This wasn’t writer’s block. Not the kind I typically waltz around in the murky middle when I’m not sure if the project is living up to my expectations or I don’t know that my plan for the book is on course. This is full on failure to launch. And the good news, is that I had an epiphany. I have a really bad case of nerves when I start a project I care deeply about. It’s likely why it took me ten years to start writing my debut Promised to the Crown in earnest.

Starting a new book is like the first mile of a marathon or the first hundred feet when you’re climbing Everest. If you think about all the toil that lies ahead, it’s very hard to be excited about the journey ahead. Especially if you’ve written a novel before, you know that there are drafts and drafts in your future. Then edits. Then beta reads. Then more edits. All before your agent and editors get to look at it. But the key to all of this? That’s not the problem for today.

Today all you have to do is get words on the damn page. Shovel sand in the box so you can get to building your castles down the line. I realized that I was letting myself get overwhelmed by the prospect of the task ahead of me. What’s more I was putting sub-conscious pressure on myself to make the first draft of this book as good as the polished draft of my last. If I had a boss come up to me with those unreasonable expectations, I’d get HR to intervene. Since I’m self-employed, I have to do something even harder: learn to live with my own foibles.

But now I’m aware of my fault, and as the saying goes, knowledge is power. I’m taking some proactive steps to help get my WIP—and my head—into fighting shape.

  1. I acknowledge that the blank page is daunting. By admitting this, and understanding this truth, I can move past it.
  2. I spend extra time getting to know my characters. Sketching them out, studying their personalities and motivations, can help bring the words out onto the page.
  3. Freewriting before a session helps gets the juices flowing. I set a timer for fifteen minutes and just write whatever comes into my head—generally pertaining to the characters or the story. It’s a great tool for opening the word gates because the pressure of making the words publication-worthy isn’t there.
  4. I adjust expectations. It will take several sessions to be able to hit my usual productivity. If I don’t obsess over the word count for a few days, it will happen faster.
  5. Just keep typing. Soon enough, I’ll get more invested in the story and it will all come together.

So far, it’s helping to get the words on the page and I’m sure I’ll add more tricks if future projects prove daunting (I take solace that this hasn’t been the case for every book!). 

What tips do you have for getting over the “New Book Blues”?

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About Aimie:

Aimie K. Runyan is s an author of historical fiction that celebrates history's unsung heroines. Her first two novels, PROMISED TO THE CROWN and DUTY TO THE CROWN (Kensington), explore the lives of the early female settlers in Louis XIVs Quebec. Her forthcoming novel. DAUGHTERS OF THE NIGHT SKY (Lake Union, November '17) follows the Night Witches, the fierce all-female regiment of combat pilots who flew for Russia in the Second World War. She is active as an educator and a speaker for the writing community and beyond. Aimie lives in Colorado with her wonderful husband and (usually) darling children. 

23 comments on “Tips for When You're Stuck in the Beginning”

  1. "I adjust expectations." YES!!! Exactly what I needed to hear today. Thanks for the reminder, Aimie!

  2. Boy, Aimie, you sure nailed it with this post. I am happy to know I'm not the only one who feels grouchy at the end of the day if I don't do as I expected - feeling like I should get a big fat red "F" for not meeting word goals - or I DO meet them, and realize I'm likely to delete most the next day when I re-read. Good. Grief. Right???

    What I've come to realize is, for me anyway, there will be the good days and bad. I know just how I'm going to feel as I struggle to get something, make that anything (!) written. You've already covered a lot of great pre-writing planning stuff - knowing where a scene is headed, any themes, knowing the characters, etc.

    Something else I do is to read a book that is similar while I'm writing my new story - or re-read - and I always find a ton of inspiration with the particular turns of phrase the author may use, or in reading how they worked through a particular scene, studying how they portrayed emotions, how the worked the dialogue, etc. I'll keep that book - or even one or two beside me while I write, and if I get stuck, I take a break and read passages. I can't explain it, but many times, I can go back to my own work, and sort of break free from where I've bogged down.

    Anyway - great post, and happy writing all!

    1. Exactly, Donna. Finding inspiration--even just a word or an image--can make all the difference. I love reading to my weaknesses as a writer. Words that mirror the words we want often beget fantastic results. Also--I can't wait to read Dixie!

  3. I usually write historical fiction. I can become un-stuck in the beginning by writing a scene about one of the battles, or whatever historical events I'm writing about at the time, saving it for later, and beginning again. I just wrote my first contemporary crime novel (no historical facts here) and I became horribly muddled after the first 500 words. For the first time in my writing career, I had to actually sit down and plot first. I didn't like it, but it helped me go from just the beginning to the end. The plotting changed a lot along the way, but at least it got me started!

    1. I've evolved from "pantser" to "plotter" and find that my editing process is far less messy if I dive in with a plan. I do love the thrill of discovery, but it's nice to have a map!!!

  4. Thanks for these tips. I start work on a new book in a new genre next month and I've already put an immense pressure on myself about it - including trouble with outlining the plot. I'll try character sketches and free writing. Good luck!

    1. Oh putting pressure on yourself is a surefire way to a slow start. I do the same thing. Every. Damn. Time. Just let it flow one word at a time, the best you can.

  5. I love the analogy--"shovel sand in the box to build your sandcastl s". Thanks for the motivation.

    1. It's true. We just learn to recognize our foibles and work around them. I don't think we ever overcome all of them. We just constantly evolve to do better. And it isn't linear either. Some books just come more easily than others.

  6. Oh putting pressure on yourself is a surefire way to a slow start. I do the same thing. Every. Damn. Time. Just let it flow one word at a time, the best you can.

  7. This! Get out of my head! 🙂 Seriously, though, thanks for the great reminder that I'm not the only one who experiences this and for some tools to help get me over the initial self-destructive hurdles. Another tool that has helped me in these moments is doing writing sprints. Something I need to do more of, but it's a newish-to-me tool, so I'm still trying to learn to not be a procrastinating perfectionist. Get the sand in the sandbox. Anyway, thanks for the reminders. Appreciated.

  8. I remind myself of Stephen King's quote - write with the door closed, edit with it open. In the beginning, the only person I have to make happy, is ME! It takes the pressure off.

  9. I am positive that my new WiP is not starting out at the place I want it to begin. I am pretty sure the hook is not there. I have misplaced it or I have never found it in the first place. Yet, my WiP is started. Somewhere along the way, I will discover the hook. It may not happen until revision time but I have faith. At least I have started.

  10. I am such a pantser that seeing you with characters, goals, etc., all in place at the outset is foreign territory to me. But your DAUGHTERS OF THE NIGHT SKY looks fabulous and intriguing and a Must Read for me.

  11. I've been wanting to write a book about my experience being sexually assaulted when I was a teenager, yet... I've never written a book and don't know what I'm doing. I enjoy writing, and I think I have a worthy story, I'm just... too terrified to move. Advice? Suggestions? Where do I start?

  12. Aimie, Thanks, I think I needed this. I am stuck in a spot with 2 stories I am writing, I cant seem to move forward. I get to about 8000 words and poop out. ugh. Well, now I will go back with a new approach! Thank you

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