Una LaMarche is a contributing writer for The New York Observer and The Huffington Post, and the author of two young adult novels, Five Summers and Like No Other.
She is most recently the author of Unabrow, a collection of humor essays based on some of her more questionable life choices.
(You can follow her on Twitter @sassycurmudgeon.)
Confession: For the past ten minutes I've been scrolling through Facebook looking at photos of distant acquaintances’ vacation feet and sleeping cats because I’m avoiding starting this piece. And also because, if I’m being honest, my go-to exercise for warming up to write is rampant, shameless procrastination. (It is a fact that I once stopped scrolling through Facebook to open another Facebook window in a new tab, so desperate was my desire to do anything but start my book.)
I am incredibly anal* so no matter what I’m writing, I have a compulsion to write in order. That means that before I start, I create an outline of the entire thing (or, as with my forthcoming essay collection, Unabrow, an insane Carrie Matheson-style wall of Post-Its) so that I know, at least roughly, where I’m going. This is important because, inevitably, at some point in the process, I will seriously consider setting my computer on fire. But my outline will give me pause, assuring me that once, at least for a fleeting moment, I seemed to know what I was doing.
I love first sentences because they are full of promise. I like to think of them as an introductory handshake made of words, one that can’t be too limp, too strong, too eager or sweaty. Ideally, I think, a first paragraph should feel like shaking Taye Diggs’s hand right after he’s used one of those warm towels they sometimes hand out at Japanese restaurants.
“I don’t rise before the dawn every morning and eat quinoa and then stand patiently in tree pose until the Muse strikes.”
Unfortunately, I have no easy formula for getting that down on paper. I don’t rise before the dawn every morning and eat quinoa and then stand patiently in tree pose until the Muse strikes. Usually it’s mid-afternoon and my son is at school and I’m sipping six-hour-old room-temperature coffee just trying to remember how to spell. But I do have a few tips for tricking yourself into being at least semi-inspired.
Try saying ideas or lines out loud to yourself. You can jump right in to your first scene, test out some dialogue, or even dictate the plot in a more general way. And if you do this while taking a walk — which I find often jump-starts my creativity — make sure to pretend you’re talking to someone on the phone so the UPS guys won’t give you side-eye.
Just type something. Then delete it, because it’s terrible. Type something else. Rearrange the words. Add festive punctuation. Then delete that, and start again. Eventually, something will start to seem right. (It’s like Michelangelo chipping away at a block of marble, only instead of marble you have a computer screen and instead of a chisel you have a stress headache. On the plus side, you, at least, have a flush toilet.)
Make a “Word Bag.” Write some fun nouns or feelings — Shame! Donut! Virginity! Class trip! — down on scraps of paper and stick ‘em in a vessel of your choosing. Then fish one out, set a timer, and free-write something inspired by that word. (You can then immediately delete it as outlined in tip #2.)
Transcribe some dialogue between two characters. It can be about anything; nonsensical or mundane. Just keep writing until it takes an interesting turn, or someone breaks the fourth wall and suggests you order in nachos.
The above is the beginning of a play I wrote when I was about eight. It remains unproduced.
Sometimes I get really blocked and can’t come up with anything for weeks. During those periods I tend to avoid opening my laptop unless I get an alert that there’s a new episode of “The Real Housewives” ready for download on my iTunes season pass. It can be torturous to force yourself to stare at a blank document during a block. Yes, sitting down and putting in the time is important, but I think it’s okay to take a day or even a week off if facing Microsoft Word ends up feeling like being yelled at by the guy from “Full Metal Jacket.”
Writing advice can take that tone sometimes. I mean, almost all famous writers will tell you that you HAVE to write, EVERY DAY, to WORK ON YOUR CRAFT, or else you are NOT A REAL WRITER. But riddle me this, Jonathan Safran-Foer: Does a brain surgeon operate on brains every day? Does a rocket scientist science rockets every day? Does a plumber plumb every day? And is he not still a plumber, nay, the best plumber of his generation? Okay, fine, maybe not the best, but he’s still a plumber.
Which is my point. So hang in there.
*Note: not my lead sentence, because referencing a rectum right off the bat is a bold move best left to the Franzens and Tartts of the world.
This article originally appeared on Biographile.