Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I'm having trouble getting my ideas down on the page...

A reader e-mailed me to say:

I love writing, and I have written several beginnings to stories or have them swimming around in my head. I have trouble getting them on paper, or if I do, then actually finishing the story.

I think every writer has struggled with this at some point, especially when they first started writing stories. I know I did, anyway.

For a long time, all I really wrote were beginnings. That's fine. It's still writing, it's still using those creative muscles and learning about what works and what doesn't. So don't feel bad if you go through a phase of doing that for a while. Beginnings are really, really important, so it's a good thing to get down. When you're browsing in a book store, or when a friend hands you a book and says, "Hey, you should check this out," what do you do? If you're me, you look at the cover, skim the back cover copy, and then look over the first page or two. So, yes, it's frustrating to only write beginnings, and yes, it's good to figure out how to move beyond that, but you're also developing a really important skill - figuring out the best way to start a book.

One of the reasons I wrote only beginnings for so long is something you touched on in your question - I had trouble getting the right words on paper. Everything would go fine for the first page or two, or someties even ten, and then ... then I could still see where I wanted the story to go, or what theme I wanted to talk about, but I couldn't figure out how to express myself the way I wanted. Or I'd try, and it would come out all wrong. And then I would deem the story a falure and move on to something else.

What I'd forgotten was IT WON'T BE PERFECT THE FIRST TIME. I expected my stories to sound like real books the first time out of the gate, and that's just not going to happen. Professional writers rework their manuscripts several times. Some three or four, some nine or ten. It just depends. Then they might send their book to writing friends of theirs, which we often call a critique group, or our crit partners, or - if you're really being cute - critters. Then they use their feedback to make the manuscript stronger. Then it goes to their editor. Enter several more rounds of edits. Then it goes to a variety of other people to proofread. What I'm trying to say is professionals work hard to make their words sing, and you'll have to as well.

So if you're having trouble getting your ideas down on the page, remind yourself that it doesn't have to be perfect the first time. Or the second, even. You can keep reworking it.

Next Tuesday, we'll talk in-depth about finishing the story.


  1. I think why a lot of us start by writing stories we never finish is also about finding what we actually like to write. I tried story after story until I finally decided to write a historical that I eventually finished. Before I got to that one (and after, too), I tried my hand at just about everything. It's a matter of stretching your wings. =)

  2. That's a really good point, Roseanna. Sometimes, especially early on, it's hard to know if you're passionate enough about a story to write the whole thing. That can take some trial and error.