Starting is hard. When you have a time you must start something, you look up at the clock and think, after I watch five more minutes of TV. I’ll get right on it after this email. Sure you’ll feel its bite like a bear trap, those moments when you’re disappointed as you look back on your day and proclaim with a optimism that “Tomorrow will be better. I know it!”

You go to your calendar, you plan it out. You get ready for tomorrow, hoping it will be better.

There are ways around this, and productivity wizards such as Zen Habits, Bj Fogg, and Tim Ferriss have great posts on how to work with that. But what happens when you do start and it’s just shit?

Currently I’m working on a novel about a young Korean American who is conscripted into the Korean army. This is my first novel and the process of writing it is interesting. Some days, the images burn onto the screen. Then there are days like today, where I type a labored paragraph or sentence, then stare off into space fighting the urge to close my eyes and return to sleep. I’m in the second month of working on the novel, and I’ve been showing up to my desk in the mornings, but as I get further and further into writing the novel it gets harder, like walking a trail starting in the hard solid rock of the mountain and descending and wading through the muck of the swamp.

Today’s work is close to the end of the book. In it’s most basic level, the scene is supposed to be the moment when the protagonist, “Bucky,” stands up to the domineering character, whose name is simply “Sarge,” who is torturing prisoners on a remote island in the south sea of Korea. It’s supposed to be the big moment when Bucky realizes that he will never receive the social acceptance he hopes for, he’ll never be part of the tribe. And so he’s left with what truly matters, what he feels is right and wrong. And torturing prisoners isn’t right.

But as I wrote, there were few moments of clarity, and few times where I wrote more than a paragraph. I stared into space, thought about lunch, and doubted the scenes. Currently in the draft there are paragraphs detailing torture (pulling fingernails, etc.), and to be honest, that wasn’t really the flavor of the novel I was going for. It also doesn’t really match characters that I had imagined. What happened today was that the story descended into the kinds of cliche  that I had read and seen in pop culture. And it was boring.

And I was bored.

And the characters were bored and started letting me know…

“Good” Said Sarge. “Shoot one of the prisoners.”

“Shoot them,” The spy said, pointing to Sarge and I [Bucky] “They’re nuts.”

“This is beyond shit. We need to get this to authorities. Yangnom, take this one to the mainland. This is too much.” 

Sarge looked bad. “We’ll be stuck here forever!” he growled.

“No.” Junho said. “We can’t keep doing this. God damn we can’t keep doing this. Shit I want to do something else.” 

“Right” I said. “I need to take the spy to the mainland because I don’t have a heart and the story is labored and not working at the moment and I just don’t give a shit anymore. Shoot me, Sarge, the Prisoners, the carrot woman, and that oyster stuck in the soju bottle on the shore. Who gives a shit. You’re not even sure what the hell is happening anymore and probably nowhere near the word count. Are we?

Not good. You know that the day’s writing is very bad when the characters are pissed at you. So I sigh and at the end of my four hour session I tried to give myself the comfort of knowing that, I did sit down at the desk and write. Yes, it was crappy. But I can work with crappy. I can work with it. (Although I suspect that at least one of the characters in the story would remark, “Polish shit all you like. It’s still shit.” Then again, he is that kind of person.)

So what to do now?

Something that usually happens after a poor writing session like this is I go back and try to figure out what was wrong. Is it in the outline? Is it just a fluke? Is it something else?

I woke, made myself a quick protein shake for breakfast, made some coffee, watch a few minutes of CNN (always a mistake), and by the time I sat down at the desk, I was groggy and doomed. Something that makes a story sulk in the corner is when you’re not alert, or at least focused enough to even know what you’re doing.

So the solution?

Wake up tomorrow. No CNN. And before writing, take a few minutes to get excited about what I’m writing about.

The easiest way to do that is to sit down without hope or despair and just write. You can always fix crappy. You can’t fix a blank page.


When starting is hard.