How to Begin the Writing Process in 4 Easy Steps

Step 1: Consume coffee.
Or any caffeinated beverage of your choice. (Alcohol, optional.)

Step 2: Procrastinate for as long as needed.
This step is crucial, so don’t skip it (ha, of course you won’t). For example, you can ask yourself existential questions. Draw sketches of your next tattoo. Compose an email that doesn’t need to be sent. Google different ways to end the email because “Best” is so boring and such a cop out and never felt complete to begin with and what does it even mean? Best what? It’s lazy, that’s what it is. Or you can post a status about writing to make yourself feel like you’re at least doing something writing-related, even though writing a status does not count as writing but don’t tell yourself that because trust the process and this step is so crucial, did I mention that? (Do you feel the caffeine?)

Step 3: Stare at your document and try not to panic.writing is
(Easy.) Try not to do this all day, though. Step 3 is like quick sand so keep your mind strong and whatever you do, do NOT leave your chair. The blank page may hypnotize you, it may give you hunger pangs, it may speak to you in a foreign language inside your head. Let it. Be brave. Practice breathing exercises. Feel the words tumble in your head. Gather them like chalk in your hands. This is your arena. You were made for this. Blood will be shed. (Metaphorically, of course. Calm down.)

Step 4: Write something. Anything. Just start writing.
The magic will happen but only if you start. Remember, the first draft is about giving yourself material to work with. You can’t mold your creation if you don’t have clay. Those first words to fill up your page are warm-up words. Don’t criticize them, celebrate them, coax them out. Those first words are the first logs in a fire pit. They will catch fire, but you have to add more, you have to keep going. Write first, edit later! (Note: Writing “Blah, blah, blah” is acceptable, but only for the first minute, or so, give or take, depending on the day, and the temperature in the room, and whether or not you had breakfast. Also, stop biting your nails. No need to be a savage.)

Step 5:
There is no step 5! Stop trying to skip steps and go back to Step 4!

(Also, stop putting so much pressure on yourself; you’re not writing the next Game of Thrones episode. But man, wouldn’t that be fun?) (Note: Do NOT write the next Game of Thrones episode, unless you are still on Step 2, in which case… carry on, then, and send me a copy.)

~ Mad Girl Writing

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The Stalling Before the Writing (Or, the Tragic Plight of My Poor Nails)

Your deadline is a headlight zooming towards you on a dark road. It’s speeding, angry, coming at you with music blasting, yet you find yourself standing there, in the middle of the road—shocked into a dumbness, unable to move, hypnotized by the light that’s getting brighter by the minute. You can see the crash happening, so why don’t you move? Why don’t you write?

Or maybe you don’t have a deadline. An external one, I mean. Maybe your deadline is simply internal, self-imposed; the usual tug of war between the procrastination troll that lives inside the crevices of your ears and the discipline fairy who’s ironically a pretty lazy fellow considering his purpose—he comes and goes as he pleases; he’s never there when you need him and when you don’t need him he’s hanging out on your shoulder, legs dangling, cracking jokes and eating grapes.

You sit yourself down to write but a million and one things are not right with the state of your work space. A million and one minuscule things that don’t matter at all. You begin to think of all the people you know and wonder why you haven’t reached out to so-and-so, and maybe you should send them an email, so you do. You’re so thoughtful.

You paint your nails (if painting your nails is something you do) to prevent yourself from biting them (if biting them is something you do) because the waiting and the stalling makes you ache with anxiety. You hate that you bite your nails (if that’s something that you do) and wish that you would stop, as you’re doing it. You wonder if this is what crack feels like. You start a story with a crack-addict antihero then stop before the first paragraph is finished because… it’s a crack story.

You check a few more emails. You eat a cookie. You decide you’re still hungry even though you ate a meal not long ago, and just ate a cookie. You start writing a blog post (ha). You check your phone for notifications of any kind. You’re mad when there are none.

This is the stalling before the writing.

But at least you’re in your place. At least the page is in front of you. At least you know what you have to do.

Why is it so hard to begin sometimes? Is it fear? Is it your over-caffeinated brain? (You over-caffeinated because you thought it would help jump start your writing. But it’s been exactly one hour and thirty-four minutes since you sat down and all you’ve accomplished is managing to stay put in your writing chair.)

But at least you’re in your place. At least the page is in front of you. At least you know what you have to do. At least.

You breathe. Try to harness your thoughts. You put tape over your nails to keep from biting them. You can’t type with the tape on your nails so you rip them off and feel disgusted with yourself. When did this nail biting habit even start? You dive into a google search. How to stop biting your nails. Why do people bite their nails. What do sloths eat.

You pull up your page again and suddenly the whiteness becomes a halo. Suddenly, you’re in a trance; you start seeing your words dancing… they’re inviting you to join them. You’re transported. You finally hear the music. You finally found the portal—the portal to the writing. The stalling has ended. The stalling has ended. You rejoice, but not too loudly lest you become distracted again. The writing begins. It’s happening!

But now you have to pee.

Ta-Nehisi Coates On Writing

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I’d never heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates until the 3-minute and 40-second clip below that I happened to click on yesterday. His take on writing is so accurate and so heartfelt that I’ve watched this clip several times now.

He talks about writing being an act of courage because it’s a process about failure, which he says is the main reason more people don’t write. Writing, after all, is the desperate and often obsessive attempt to transcribe an idea in such a way that it becomes a mirror image of what you’d imagined in your head. This being an impossible feat drives a writer to madness revising over and over again:

You try to go from really bad, to okay, to acceptable. You never really get to that perfect thing that was in your head.

He talks about pressure being a catalyst for creative breakthroughs. Which makes sense when we think about survival of the fittest, and the way diamonds are made. Comfort zones are breeding grounds for perspiration and daydreams, but being under pressure triggers the fight or flight response—you either fight (persevere) or flee (give up).

I’ve heard and read endless advice on writing. This section of my blog is dedicated to the writing process because I find it therapeutic write about. So of course I’m aware, as I’m sure you are, of the number one advice on writing—that perseverance is key.

But there’s something about the way Coates delivers this familiar advice. Perhaps it’s the look in his eyes or the honesty in his voice or the eagerness with which he shares his thoughts. Whatever it is—his words had an effect on me, and I hope they have an effect on you too.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

The not-so-magical time between stories

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Writing is a magical process…

Magical because the whole experience of creating a world from nothingness is so mysterious and so beautiful that you can’t possibly explain what it’s like to a non-writer.

But what happens when you’re done with a writing project?

Take reading, for instance… do you ever take some time to process a book when you’re done with it? Let it simmer in your mind for a while before you pick up another? I do… and quite similarly… I take some time between writing stories. When my brain is coming down from its writing high and relishing the small but earned break I give to myself before I tackle the next world I have on queue to create.

I write short stories. I can only work on one story at a time (even though I may have 10 other story ideas poking at my brain all at once). Coming to the end of a story draft is a glorious time filled with light and hope and happy dances and the feeling that you might actually be able to call yourself a writer after all.

I print my draft, feel the paper in my hands, my inked words, my tangible imagination—it feels so good!—I read it over with a pen, circling, underlining, running a line through sentences, words, paragraphs, praying that I won’t hate this draft in the morning; I email my story to a few trusted readers who promise to get back to me with feedback. And then I wait.

And I wait.

And I wait some more.

I might pluck a few guitar strings while I’m in this time zone between stories.

I might write a poem or two. Or bake some cupcakes. (I don’t bake very often, so the latter is a big deal.)

I might peruse through other story drafts, scratch my head and wonder where to pick up and continue the narrative.

I might binge on a TV show I neglected while I was being so good sticking to my writing routine all those weeks, before I arrived at “The End.”

And all the while the glorious feeling of having finished a story begins to slowly fade. The time between stories stretches along and I realize I should probably stop waiting idly for feedback from my readers and start working on another story while I wait.

But I need closure! I need closure for my finished story draft. I need it to be a final draft, which is much different from a finished draft, mind you. And so I’m working through this struggle that is moving on to the next story when the one before isn’t exactly done yet. (But can a story ever really be done? That’s another post all together…)

I’ve been doing really well with my writing routine this year and I’m proud of myself. When I’m on a roll, I’m on a roll, and I feel invincible as far as productivity goes. But when I finish a story draft… that’s another… well, story. I’m finding that I have a hard time gearing back up into writing mode again.

Does this ever happen to you?

I guess the trick is to not spend too much time away from writing. Celebrate the fact that you’ve finished a draft, but don’t hang by the camp fire long enough for it to go out at your feet. Initially, I extend this time between stories because I’m waiting for feedback from my readers… I can’t work on another story until I get feedback about the story I’ve just finished…

Excuses, excuses!

And yet… I know that taking time away from finished drafts is important for perspective. If you’re like me, you’ve read your story draft 1001 times and you can therefore no longer read it objectively. So you do in fact need some distance from your story, so you can come back to it with the fresh perspective needed to revise it fully and completely.

But I need to get better at controlling this time between stories. I can’t linger in this limbo for too long… I need to learn to set my finished story aside and move on to my next project a little faster. I’ve been getting better at consistency as far as writing regularly goes, but the juncture between one story and the next has proven to be a little trickier to navigate.

How about you? Do you linger in the time between stories? If so, how do you spend this time? How long does it take you to bounce back into the writing zone—into your next writing project? Or do you not take a break from writing at all?

I’d love to hear from you!

When I Write

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When I write, I suddenly remember that my room needs to be dusted. I see the particles on my window sill, I hear them calling me, accusing me of being lazy. I am suddenly aware of my clothes everywhere. The clean and the dirty and the in-between. And that I should probably get to sorting them, because let’s face it, I’m not going to come home one day and find that my dog has so kindly decided to help out with the chores.

The priorities in my life, it seems, are mounting, and my eyes keep lifting from my computer screen, shooting disconcerting glances at pairs of shoes and socks tossed in a corner, and the despicable pile of mail that swells larger on my shelf each week.

My room is my comfort. My cocoon. It holds me like a giant pillow. No one disturbs me here, at least not directly. The walls are not sound proof (I need silence when I write) but it’s where I do my writing, usually on my bed with my back against the wall because I have no headboard (I don’t know why I have no headboard, I just don’t).

I have a small desk that I bought at a yard sale a few summers ago. The old lady’s hair was a fizzy, blonde-grey. She sat in a folding chair and smiled so jovially that you just felt drawn to oblige her. She seemed very pleased with her collection of unwanted things, among which was the desk. It might have been a school girl’s at one time (or boy’s, I suppose). Its pale yellow paint was chipping all over, revealing streaks of wood underneath, and I found the desk’s imperfections to be charming.

Now it sits in my room holding a small hill of clothes and a stack of books and papers that I should really get to sorting. It’s spotted with post-it notes and I don’t remember the last time I used it for writing.

Oh, yeah… writing. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

Why is it that I get so paralyzed when I sit down to write sometimes? All these menial chores that sit on the back burner of life suddenly rise to eye-level when I pull up my work in progress. If only my characters would tell me how they felt instead of beating around the bush so much. I spend so much time prodding them to trust me. I feel like a shrink in a clock-ticking room: Talk to me about your childhood. Tell me your most precious memory.

I enjoy getting to know my characters, but sometimes it’s exhausting. Sometimes they’re so tight-lipped and snooty faced I wonder why I even bother. I threaten to kill them off or thrust them into tragedy, until finally they uncross their arms and agree to tell me a juicy secret, albeit reluctantly.

It’s easy coming up with story ideas. They come to me multiple times a day, hitting my brain like jolts of caffeine, making me giddy. But sometimes when I write, the white page pours over me like salt water. I wonder, is this even a good idea? Maybe I should do laundry first. I just took my dog out but maybe she needs to go out again. Do you need to go out again? Huh, girl? But my dog is napping, of course. You should really get a job, I tell her.

Sometimes when I write, the words flow through me like a waterfall, and I feel like I’m swimming, no—gliding, with so much exuberance and grace, that no one, not even my noisy neighbors, can disrupt my immaculate flow, and I feel like the writing gods have lifted me up in the palms of their hands, holding me up high, past the clouds, far above the earth, in a perfect and complete glow of illumination and transcendence. Yes!

And then I retreat into the book I’m reading and I think—how did the author do that? What an asshole. And my characters all of a sudden look like flailing fish on my page, squawking like ugly one-eyed birds, and I sulk, and wonder about my plants and the last time I watered them. They’re probably thirsty. And I’m kind of hungry, come to think of it.

There is magic to writing, but mostly hard work. You have to do it everyday, religiously, I keep hearing. I am getting better at consistency. At ignoring the pointy finger of my inner perfectionist who says (because he always has something to say): Well, this is a step up from the rubbish you wrote last week, but not by very much, I’m afraid.

I just know that I love stories, and that even though I struggle, I’ve decided to use my stubbornness for good and work hard to not give up on my characters. They need me, but I’m finding that I need them more. They are real. They dwell inside me, lost in an avalanche of words, and the only way to dig them out is to keep writing.

Keep writing!

Or I can just go for a run. It’ll make me feel totally refreshed and ready to take on this next scene I’ve been drafting, which is going to be epic, by the way. So epic! And it’s going to look marvelous on paper. Just marvelous! And all the world will rejoice because I didn’t give up on my stories. All will be saved and all will make sense. There will finally be peace on earth.

And then I can finally get to dusting my room. It’s not going to dust itself, you know. And I would just hate for the dust bugs to grow into a monster and clog my air passages at night and choke me while I sleep. Because then how would I get my writing done? You can’t do much when you’re dead. And writing is serious business.