Overcoming the psychological barriers of beginning
Tips on how to overcome self-imposed barriers to finally kickstart your writing project.

We want 2023 to be the year that you start your writing project. This article explains how and why we create barriers to starting our novel or story and make excuses for not writing. We spoke to a number of writers and teachers including Megan Bradbury, Lucy van Smit, Lynne Bryan and Jenn Ashworth to help you change your mindset, spark your creativity and kickstart your writing journey. Read on for great advice that is also applicable to poetry, literary translation and more!

Ready, steady, stop

Megan Bradbury
Novelist and NCW Academy tutor Megan Bradbury

Writing a story involves so much more than just the writing. There are ideas, planning, typing, rewriting, editing and rewriting again.

Many of us have an idea or even a whole story, plot and cast of characters. Some people can feel their characters talking away inside them, bursting to get out, but something stops us there and we never end up putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.

‘Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.’  — Anne Lamott

The act of writing somehow repels us and we conjure up excuses for not starting today, not just now, when I’m ready. As NCW Academy tutor and novelist Megan Bradbury explains, it’s psychological. Many inexperienced — and even established — writers don’t know what it takes to start to write a novel. So, we don’t.

This article will help you understand why we build mental barriers to writing, and how to overcome them so that you can start the new year with your writing project.

Excuse #1: That feeling

Many of us think that when we sit down to ‘write our novel’, what must flow from our mind and through our fingers is perfectly formed sentences, paragraphs and chapters, cohesive plots, compelling characters and clever twists. Such pressure!

We assume that readiness to write our novel will correspond with a feeling of readiness. Until we feel able to deliver a perfectly formed novel onto a page, we don’t even start. When that elusive feeling doesn’t arrive, we just continue to wait.

‘If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.’ — Margaret Atwood

But as Thomas Edison said: ‘Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.’ This is true in music: great melodies come slowly over hours of jamming, hundreds of repetitions and iterations, notes nipped and tucked until perfect.

Worse, as we delay, we feel less and less able to actually sit down and write — and so we wait some more.

‘Writing a novel is like building a wall brick by brick; only amateurs believe in inspiration.’ — Frank Yerby

The problem is that we have placed unrealistic expectations upon ourselves, not least because most new and inexperienced writers don’t know how bad, how messy, how unfinished, first drafts of novels are. Megan often shares the first draft of one of her novels with her students to show them quite how different early drafts are from the finished article. We have to be prepared for a long journey that doesn’t start with brilliance, only its promise.

‘I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.’ — Pearl S. Buck

Caveat: Yes, a small number of writers write slowly, editing and rewriting as they go, ensuring that each chapter is perfect before proceeding with following chapters. The result is a near-finished work that needs minor edits before publishing, for example Yelena Moskovich. This is rare and, as NCW tutor and novelist Nicola Upson explains, many of those who write in this way, only reach it after several novels.

Excuse #2: Time

Many of us don’t sit down and write because we’ve only got 20 minutes before we need to do something else. ‘That’s not enough time to get into the zone and start writing anything good and I’ll only have to stop mid-flow and I won’t be able to pick up where I left off because I’ll forget, or the feeling will have passed…’

You have the power

The uncomfortable truth is that you have the power to write your novel. There are no real-world barriers. Yes, you might have a job and kids and other commitments, but if Fiona Mozley can write a Booker-nominated novel on her phone during her commute, you can make a start!

‘You fail only if you stop writing.’ — Ray Bradbury

Mindset

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In our podcast, NCW Academy course tutor and novelist Jenn Ashworth explains how she discusses sports psychology with her students, because writing a novel isn’t just about getting ideas onto a page. She describes how various stages of writing a novel can present problems for writers: losing one’s way, a lack of momentum in the middle, persevering with bad drafts and, of course, finding it hard to start. She explains how we can overcome barriers and start writing, simply by reframing how we see aspects of the process.

We need to change our mindset and our relationship to the various parts of the process, in particular sitting down to type and/or starting our story.

‘I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.’ — Shannon Hale

Stop thinking that when you sit down to write, you have to be typing your finished novel.

We don’t fly direct to perfection, we circle it, drawing closer and closer over time. The aim should not be to sit down at 7pm after dinner and start writing act one scene one of your novel. The aim should be to write something, anything.

You have to write to know what to write. So write.

‘You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page’ – Jodi Picoult

Change your expectation of what you will write: you won’t write beautiful, intelligent, cohesive prose. You are just creating the first draft. The first of many. It will be ugly, clumsy and confusing. It will contain omissions, inconsistencies, repetitions and clichés. But once your Frankenstein’s monster has been assembled, you can slowly, methodically tackle its issues, beautifying with every draft.

Typing

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The key is to write. Write anything. Once the act of putting thoughts onto paper or screen is decoupled from the act of ‘writing my novel’, writing your novel will come more easily.

As NCW tutor and novelist Lynne Bryan explains, she writes every day, whether she’s writing for a specific project or simply describing what she sees around her as an exercise. This means that ‘writing the novel’ comes from the act of regular writing, rather than being the same thing.

‘Write. Just do it. Then again. Then some more. And more. Do not wait for inspiration; if you do enough of it often enough, inspiration will eventually come.’ — Nancy Kress

Award-winning author, screenwriter and artist Lucy van Smit knows this. That’s why she created the Writer’s Journal Workbook, specifically designed to break writer’s block and get you quickly and easily back into the groove of writing. It has short exercises that help you get thoughts down, without worrying about it being perfect. Olympians train before competing, often doing things that seem unrelated to the actual sport. Writers must do the same, we must exercise — get match fit.

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Our brains don’t work in words, they work in ‘semantic concepts’ — synapses and electromagnetic signals. That’s why most of us speak to think; things becoming clearer to us as we say them. We’re hearing our own thoughts turned into words, then hearing them back to understand what we think a little better. Writing works in this way. The act of writing helps us know what we want to say, and how to say it.

So write and, by writing the wrong thing, you’ll know what the right thing is.

‘Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.’ — Jane Yolen

It has been said that ‘writing is editing’. If editing is where the real writing happens, you’ll need something to edit. So write.

Read between the lines

Take a book from your shelf. Open the first page and read the opening lines until you’ve finished a paragraph. At what stage in the writing process do you think this was written? Were they the very first lines, or do you think they came later? How many iterations do you think there were before the author settled on these? Which words and clauses were added? And of course, you can’t see the parts that were removed….

That text is the result of a hundred creative decisions: writing, editing, rewriting, removing. The polish of a blade that has been beaten into beauty with a thousand blows, the sheen of a thousand hours of buffing.

‘Half my life is an act of revision.’ — John Irving

The words you first type when you start writing are just the foundation.

Jenn Ashworth says:

‘When writing a short story, if I have the idea, I have enough to start, but not enough to finish, so I need to write into it.

‘I will probably write about twice as much as I need. I let myself ramble, dither, write repetitively, use as many cliches as I like. The actual writing takes place in the second, third and fourth drafts where I make everything as short and clean as possible.

‘Ann Patchett says that the most important thing is to forgive the first draft for being what it is. A lot of the students I work with fall foul of the process. They compare their first drafts to finished drafts of the short stories they love, and they don’t realise that there’s six months of crying and deleting and editing between those two.

‘Some people may find it hard to start a project not knowing where the destination is, but the purpose of those first drafts is to find out where the destination is and, over time, how to get there, and how to get their efficiently and beautifully.’

Plan

Plan to write. Even if only for 10 minutes. Decide that you’re going to use X window of time to just sit down and type a few words.

Place no pressure on yourself to do anything specific. Don’t even commit to writing any words. Just know that you can if you want to, and it doesn’t have to be relevant to your actual project.

‘Start before you’re ready.’ — Steven Pressfield

By removing the expectation and pressure to ‘write your novel’, you will make sitting down to write easier.

Enjoyment

Remember that you enjoy writing! When we think negative thoughts, it releases stress hormones which make us feel bad. This means we start to associate these negative feelings with the subject matter. If the idea of writing (or not writing) makes you feel bad, you are less likely to want to do it.

‘Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.’ — Barbara Kingsolver

The simple way to tackle this is to write. By writing — an exercise, some thoughts or even chapter one — you will soon rediscover that you enjoy writing. The ideas will start to flow, the characters will grow, and the plot will unfold. Even if what you write isn’t for your story idea, you will start to feel able to tackle your project.

Promise yourself

Promise yourself this: ‘The only expectation when I sit down to write, is that I will write something. Something good, something bad; something long, something short; something cohesive or just fragments, but something.’

‘Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.’ — Sylvia Plath

Why not try this right now? Even if you’re on your phone. Send yourself a message with a sentence or two about the story you’re going to write: maybe something a character might say or a line describing the place in which your story is set.

New beginnings

The year is about to end, and a new year will start. What a perfect watershed moment to finally embark on your writing project. Whatever story has been growing roots in your imagination this year, make it happen in 2023. Commit to writing something, anything — even if it’s one word — every day, and you’ll be building the foundations upon which to build your novel.

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Our NCW Academy online tutored courses for beginners have been specifically designed to get you writing. The courses include group Zoom sessions, exercises, assignments and 1-2-1 tutor feedback and will help you build your writing routine. Click here to explore our courses, including fiction, crime fiction, poetry, screenwriting, non-fiction and historical fiction.

Who knows, this time next year, you may be holding your finished work in your hands — all printed and bound, ready for gifting!

Read our article: Nine Tips To Cure Writer’s Block

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