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Block | Starting

One doesn’t need to have stopped working on their novel for the muse to become shy. One could, like I have, spend some time fleshing out a new idea only to freeze when it came time to sit down and write it.

Apparently I had kept the discipline and desire to write schedule-wise but I lacked the same in the knuckle down and do it dimension. I was out of the habit.

How on earth, after a month of free flowing fun, was I going to settle my mind and get it to obey enough to craft this story?

Well for one thing I narrowed the issue down to starting. I couldn’t seem to reach the concentration I needed to know what to say and I didn’t remember exactly how one coaxes such a sublime state out of a chaotic mind.

Once I identified that problem I could split it into four, sometimes simultaneous, problems. Perhaps you will find they’re problems for you too.

On days that I’m stuck with starting, I often have a secret fear that I will be interrupted. And that, believe it or not, can stop me in my tracks. Somehow the threat of the frustration I would feel settles in and I’m convinced it doesn’t matter what I do, the minute I achieve the Zen state I need, the dog will do something evil in the next room. And since I am certain I’m probably right, I spend a stupid period feeling annoyed that I can’t settle down. Even though at the moment the evil creature in question is just sitting down with a chew.

Cognitive therapists call this fortune telling. It is a distortion in thinking.

Another problem could be a feature of working on a new project. And that is when I have no idea where to begin because everything is new and I have yet to form a rhythm.

For example; I know what it takes to write the sci-fi epic I currently have on the back burner. I know what the mood is, what fits and what doesn’t. But the one I was struggling with today doesn’t have that advantage. Even though I have an extremely clear idea of what is going on, writing it is not yet automatic. The pathway in my brain isn’t established and smooth. I can’t just slot right into the action. I haven’t built a new habit for this book. Thus I needed a higher degree of concentration than usual and that was even harder to achieve.

The third sticking point happens when I have no idea what to say. Related to problem number two, on such days I can’t seem to get the chapters going because the first sentence is floating deep in my subconscious so even if I could sit down and concentrate, my brain would soon bugger off again, because the blank page would still torment me.

Sometimes I don’t notice that I’m tired, or bored, or both because I can’t tell which one it is. Sometimes damp weather will make me sleepy and my cups of tea don’t seem to be help. It should be a no trainer but I kid you not it isn’t until my lids droop that I notice I’m drowsy.

Those are all the ones I can think of thus far. Fortunately I know a few ways to tackle them. Lets work in reverse order:

Solving Problem Four:
This one is pretty obvious, at least on the surface. Take a nap. But while I bet that would solve the issue for a large percent of the population, I fall into the other group as I am afflicted by various sleep disorders.

Most of the time when I nap during the day, unless it is right in the morning, I don’t fully fall asleep. I’ve heard it referred to as combat napping. My breathing slows, I become unable to communicate in more than utterances. But I’m fully aware of what is going on around me and have passing thoughts about it. I’m still dreaming about something else but I hear the world continue go about on its business.

It isn’t as restorative as a proper nap but it is better than nothing and occasionally fixes my plot problems. So if you, like me, have a strange relationship to sleep, close your eyes anyway. You may not slip into unconsciousness but perhaps you will rest a little. And bonus, if your subconscious is being your friend you might dream, and be aware of the dream, and possibly know the next step for your book when you wake up.

If you don’t have these problems, great. Get some sleep. Relying on coffee will eventually string you out and that is very bad for business. Befriend your mind, not punish it.

Fixing Problem Three:
This is more easily handled by a non-linear approach. Forget worrying about the first sentence. Just pick a point and go from there, you can change or add the beginning later. If a scene calls for a crime and you don’t know how to get the characters there, start with something you do know.

In a way beginnings are like transitions and that is exactly how I handle being stuck on those. Once you achieve a better state of concentration you can go back and fill the spaces.

Fixing Problem Two:
No one can dig a groove in his head without regular practice. And I suspect secretly this problem is perfectionism in disguise. (Another cognitive distortion by the way) For example, when I work on my sci-fi epic I know when a line is golden. The work is of much better quality right off the bat. (Not that it started that way) But with a new baby I have a lot more uncertainty and thus need to swallow my fears and accept it’s not going to be as good. It won’t sing like the other one, not yet.

If you’ve gotten through the garbage phase to get to serious writing then you’ve got the tools to push through this. It is just unpleasant. If you are tired it is worse. Seriously go take a nap.

Fixing Problem One:
There is a reason I chose this one for last. There are many ways to try to fight cognitive distortions. All of them healthy and probably good advice. If they help you, great. But I get stuck in the, “but I know I’m right” loop. It’s not logical but there we go. The only viable solution for me is to try to ignore it. Go to problem number three and just start anywhere, put up with problem number two by telling myself it’s more like a fleshed out sketch and just hope problem number one will bugger off if I don’t pay attention to it.

This solution takes several stabs and sometimes I need to circulate through some distractions to try to take the edge off the building pressure. Like sleep it can become too heavy, too important and the subconscious can be pretty shy if you try to force it open. The more frustrated you are with not being able to concentrate the more your brain might decide to bugger off and do its own thing.

There is one other thing that helps me with all of them. But I don’t have much control over it. And I can’t exactly explain how it works. My characters have a habit of talking to me. Well some of them. I don’t hear them in my ears but I see them in my head, chiding me. Usually I settle down and work when one of them gets impatient. Characters can be very opinionated about what they will and won’t do. The only sane response is to listen.

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