I have this funny thing that I do before I start any new writing project. For whatever reason (spoiler: procrastination) I get it into my head that before I truly begin I have to have the absolute perfect opening sentence, and that this opening sentence will carry the voice of the piece I’m working on, and that if only I could nail it I would flow through the entire story with ease, barely stopping to breathe or edit.
It begins like this: I stare out the window and decide to think for a while on what this perfect opening sentence might be. I try a few out.
They stood in the doorway, looking at each other in silence knowing that this wasn’t an ending, but merely a new beginning. DELETE DELETE DELETE. He looked up at the trees and thought to himself, “I will always remember the pomegranate.” DELETE DELETE DELETE. It was half past two on a Thursday and Sandra found herself praying to a God she didn’t believe in. DELETE DELETE OH MY GOD THIS IS HOPELESS.
Then I head over to my bookshelf and pick up a bunch of my fave books to check out their first sentences. And then I go to Amazon and go on a Look Inside frenzy. And then I get a full misery on because oh my gawd how will I ever be as good as those authors? And then my writing time for the day is up and I have absolutely zero desire to look at my project again tomorrow. Or, in fact, ever write again.
There are, undoubtedly, infinite variations on this theme: Can’t start yet, more research to do. Not ready just now, needs more planning. Almost at the starting line, but need to have my entire face remodelled for the inevitable Booker Prize winner’s photo.
Or the more insidious versions: Not quite now, I’m not good enough. In a year or so, when I’m better at writing. Maybe later, when I’ve had some practice.
We can pick apart these excuses one by one. How are you going to get better if you don’t actually do it? What are you going to practice on if not this? You can plan more once you’ve written something but first you have to actually start. But let’s not do that. Instead, let’s pick apart your brain. Buckle up mofo, we’re gonna Freud* yo ass.
First, a question: Do I really think I need to nail that magical first sentence? Given that in every course I’ve written, every blog I’ve published, every writing student I’ve spoken to, I say something along the lines of: “Stop everything else and just start writing, it doesn’t matter where you start, just start.” Coupled with: “Almost without fail, the very last thing you write will be the opening chapter.”
The answer, of course, is no, I don’t need to nail that magical first sentence. What I need to do is find a way around my brain-monkey and into the story. You know the monkey. The one that sits on your shoulder chattering away constantly, reminding you of that time you accidentally said ‘I love you’ to the bus driver instead of ‘thank you’. Or the time when you called your teacher Mum. Or the time you got a rejection for a story you really believed in and that was that – your writing aspirations are just a foolish and crazy dream, what on Earth are you thinking, get back in the kitchen and make me a sammich, woman.
“I can start once I’ve done some more research?” Same same. A clever way of putting off the inevitable. Sure, the research phase is great. But it’s also pointless unless you get it out of your head and into the story.
“I can start once I’m a better writer?” Guess what? You don’t learn how to turn the alphabet into magic by wishing. You learn by doing.
The solution is to make that monkey STFU and give you a bit of breathing space to write without doubt. As ever, we have the answer, and here it is in a super simple three step plan that even the pathologically monkey-brained can achieve. That’s you. You can do this. You will do this:
#1 Quiet please
Tell your brain-monkey that while you are very interested in what they’ve got to say, you’re currently in the middle of something and you’ll be right back so please hold that thought. Or shove your brain-monkey really hard till it falls off your shoulder and on to the floor. Gag it. Clonk it with a comedy ACME anvil. Distract it by saying ‘look over there!’ Stick it in a box. Do some focused yoga-style breathing to calm thy tits. Simply ignore it, no matter what it says. Whatever works for you. You just need five minutes respite from the never-ending barrage of jibber jabber.
#2 Save the best for first
Quickly now, while the monkey is seeing stars from the anvil, set yourself a timer for five minutes. YES JUST FIVE MINUTES. Start. Go. Begin. Do it. Quick before the monkey comes back. Start bang in the middle of the action:
- Barbara looked down to see her knickers round her ankles.
- Jon fell forwards as the dagger slid through his left buttock.
- Esme gasped and then laughed, crying, ‘that’s not my wife!’.
And then write until the alarm goes off. Just write. Turn off your brain and let your fingers move, even if it’s utter drivel. If the monkey comes back, give it a little kick. Shush it and say ‘in a minute, monkey-dude. You can have your time when I’m done.’
#3 Rinse and repeat
When you’ve done your five minutes, stop. Let the monkey back in for a minute. Listen to what it says. Watch it like a casual observer to a minor kerfuffle in the street. Then walk on and think no more of it. Then ask it if it could please be quiet again, just for a sec while you do a thing. Set your timer for five minutes. Begin.
It won’t be long before you don’t want to stop when the timer goes off and when that happens – off you go.
Doubt, self-sabotage, general fart-arsing all come down to the same thing: FEAR. Fear of success, fear of failure, fear of getting it done, fear that it might not be as good as you hoped, fear of hard work, fear of critics, fear of being vulnerable and exposing your fundamental human truth. Fear that your dad might read it (the horror!).
Fear, as we know, is a very useful evolutionary trait. Hear that lion approaching through the undergrowth? BE AFRAID. FLIGHT OR FIGHT? FLIGHT. SURVIVE. PHEW. But these days, we don’t have many lions stalking us through the mean streets of suburbia so instead we’re afraid of really weird things like clowns and having no mobile reception and writing the novel that’s burning up inside us. In these situations, being afraid doesn’t actually help you survive. It actually gets you further away from the thing you want (except clowns – stay well away from those guys).
So. Do or do not, there is no try. Fear leads to anger, anger lead to hate, hate leads to the dark side. Hush your monkey. Mind the lion. Stop fucking about and start writing. Capiche?
*Dear Lovely Pedant. Freud in this context is used as a generic term for digging a little deeper into the root cause of something, not as specific implying we are actually performing Freudian analysis although do you think your penis is too small? That might be something to look into more closely OKAY THANKS OKAY BYE.