February 8th, 2012 / 4:06 pm
Craft Notes

On Starting Things

I’ve started something new. I guess I’ve been in the “starting” phase for months now. Every time I start though, I forget what beginning feels like. I forget how to write a novel. There is a process of re-learning. How many novels does one have to write before she understands the process?

The disheartening moment when I open a document – Document1 – Pages: 1 of 1 – Words: 24 of 24. Delete to Words: 0 of 0. Add some, Words 5 of 5, delete again. I know that page one will become two and on, but looking at page one, with the scant words, the lack of momentum, stagnation, it’s rending. And so I quit MS Word. I check Facebook. I check my eight email addresses. I check HTML Giant. I play games on my iPad. I check blogs. Read some reviews. I check email. I play more games. I put something pithy up on Facebook. No one responds, so I delete it after thirty seconds. I open MS Word. Of course, I didn’t save. There was nothing there anyways – what’s the use of saving five words, maybe a dozen, maybe, if I was very lucky, a full sentence? (I’d save a full sentence, probably.)

I’ve had an idea for this novel for months now, a year even. There is no lack in ideas, but the process of typing it out, making prose from concept alone, it seems impossible.

How do you start a big project? How do you not become overwhelmed with the emptiness of the screen?

See: I’m trying something new with my process this go-round. I usually write by hand, and I thought I’d try typing from the beginning. When you transcribe, it’s not so jarring, the blankness. When you write by hand, it’s comforting to see a clean page. Empty word documents don’t feel clean, not to me, they’re dirty and oppressive. Maybe it’s my head. Clearly, it’s my head.

But then I open that same document today – Novel, Ver4 – and I see “Chapter Three.” I see Pages: 37 of 37. Words: 12164 of 12164. I don’t know how they got there, but once you get to Chapter Three, everything’s going to be ok. The novel will happen. It will move. It’s getting there that’s the wretched and wrecking.


  1. Michael J Seidlinger

      I’m not so sure it’s possible to get comfortable with writing. I’m also not sure it’s a good thing to get comfortable. There should be an ample amount of heart-racing and sweating out the details. 

      As for getting started, I usually force myself. I put myself in the mindset of something not unlike being held existentially at gunpoint. If I don’t write X amount of words in X amount of hours, I will die. But that only works, I guess, if pressure and strain helps you be productive.

  2. sam salvador

      how many e-mail addresses do you need until a diagnosis of schizophrenia would be apt?

  3. sam salvador

      how many more e-mail addresses before you get diagnosed w. some sort of multiple personality disorder?

  4. Ryan Bradford

      Get a cheap recorder. Go to a park and record yourself telling the beginning of the story. Don’t go longer than 15 minutes. Come home and transcribe it. When you’re done, you will have something. It will not be your story, but it will be something to work with. It will be letters on a page. You’ll be happy to have something to write instead of your own nervous voice.

  5. Heath Ison

      I did the unthinkable and deactivated my Facebook account. (Yes, quite absurd, I know.) That has been nearly five months ago and I have been A LOT more productive since. It’s an obsession in our brains to constantly crave new information every five seconds. So I just decided to delete the temptation (temporarily).

      And yes, staring at a blank document is very intimidating. That’s why I usually have a pen and steno pad to my side, jotting down whatever comes to mind.

  6. lorian long

      do u exercise?

  7. lily hoang

      A real fear of mine, Sam. Eight is an exaggeration. But I do have quite a few – university, editorial, personal, etc. 

  8. lily hoang

      Two hours a day, five days a week. I am big into routine. 

  9. lily hoang

      My voice is not pleasing, when nervous or otherwise.

  10. lily hoang

      There was a point, maybe a year or two ago, when I had a competition-writing group with Shane going, we’d shoot low – 1k a day – but low goals often mean achieving said goals.  

  11. lily hoang

      If I’m actually writing, I am very productive very quickly. It’s just starting that’s hard, that initial movement towards. Once I have twenty pages, I will have two fifty without visible self damage. 

  12. lorian long

      damn girl!

  13. lily hoang

      I’m a routine or bust kinda girl. Better crazy workouts than busted, yeah?

  14. Anonymous

       ‘routine’ might be why you hesitate at starting things.

  15. Ryan Bradford

       You should find a talkboy (from Home Alone II). And even if that doesn’t help you with writing, you’ll be able to scam your way into a classy hotel room.

  16. Scott Riley Irvine

      The Lime Works.

  17. leapsloth14

      Come to the line prepared.

  18. Brian M

      “ass glue” a writer once told me was the only way; you know, glued to where you write. I believe some famous writer said it. Seems like you are doing it though!

  19. Matt Tyler

      The best way to start is never stop.

      I practice writing every day.  I assume most people who do ‘something’ practice their ‘something’ frequently.  Otherwise, shit atrophies.  Practice is important in things like foreign language, weight lifting, running, doing math, dieting, ‘being nice’, conversing OUT LOUD with new people, everything ever, etc.

      You mentioned routines.  Do you keep a journal?  I assumed every writer keeps one.  

      If you do keep a journal, just extract and edit some of that to get a project started.  If it’s not interesting, just be more interesting in real life.   I think it’s as easy/hard as that.  There are as many excuses as their are distractions.  

      PS in regards to 8 email accounts:  it’s 2000+something.  how many identities do you have?

  20. Anonymous

      Obsess about the idea. Get reallalalalay pumped. Set a day to start it. This Saturday! Start it this Saturday.

      Go to a cafe on Saturday around noon. Order four shots of espresso on ice. Find a GOOD TABLE — one that doesn’t wobble, large enough to hold yr laptop but small enough to prevent you from feeling like you are sitting at a table that could be more efficiently used by a larger party.

      Turn on computer. Feel free to check email and stuff while drinking espresso. Keep track of time. Give yourself a half hour, should be two to three shots through drink and have visited enough sites to sate Internet craving.

      Put on whatever song/album/artist you are really digging at the moment into yr headphones relellelellalal loud. Maybe even set up a playlist of the songs you’re digging before you arrive. Actually, do that, to be safe.

      Open up word document. Don’t make it a full window. Make it so it’s over your web browser but not completely covering your web browser so you can glance at your web browser without minimizing the word processing window. This lets you trick yrself into believing you’re “checking internet.”

      Go nuts on the idea! Hit a sentence, realize it needs more research? Write in caps NEEDS RESEARCH and keep going and don’t stop till you’ve written a chapter that feels good. Then keep going until you’ve exhausted yourself, and when you go back, DON’T LOOK AT IT. Look at it once the first draft’s completed.

  21. postitbreakup

      schizophrenia =/= multiple personality disorder (dissociative identity disorder)

      dunno why people make this mistake all the time

      schizophrenics hear voices, DID patients have multiple personalities

  22. Anonymous

      People who think schizophrenia is a multiple personality disorder also think the new mcbites are safer than petting a pitbull.

      Multiple personality disorder was announced as bullshit long ago. 

      Fuck Sybil.

  23. postitbreakup

      i refuse to believe that DID isn’t real, because toni collette would never lie to me

  24. deadgod

      nobody starts novels on bar napkins and newspaper margins any more?

      it’s all third millennium level shit!

  25. lily hoang

      I usually write novels longhand. This shift to the computer thing is a big change, and I don’t like it. I think we’re all – I’m talking about myself and assuming others agree, which probably no one does, the only lesson I’ve learned from writing on Giant is that no one agrees with me – too cynical to write novels on bar napkins and newspaper margins. Too fucking romantic. 

  26. Alexander J. Allison

      To me, the most interesting observation here is perception of the word document as a site. In Lily’s consciousness, it has transformed from a tool into a space. The human eye and mind are very quick to pick up on false imitation. I believe that the controlled, turned, physical space of paper is a world apart from the screen. Paper retains the failures that Lily has dismissed. Paper demands that spaces are filled. This engineers the momentum that Lily felt lacking. Virtual spaces can never be filled – the endless scrolling is a form of oppression. Virtual space offers a perfect void, versus physical space as a site for projection, potential, birthing.

  27. Anonymous
  28. Greg Gerke

      I delete status too. Glad to see others do too. One time I said something about Tiger Woods. One time.

  29. Stephen Tully Dierks

      i did cross-country in high school. my coach was named mr. kearney and he somehow rocked what i would call an elegant gray mullet. he was a gruff-sounding man, liked to bark things and exude confidence, but there was always this faraway gleam in his eye that was nice, made you think he kind of loved us or something. anyway, he would always say before a race, “strong hearts to the front of the pack, weak hearts to the back.” he was an english teacher and always taught some joyce, usually in conjunction with joseph campbell and the monomyth. i’ve been back to my high school only once, for martin luther king day mass, and i saw mr. kearney in the cafeteria after mass and he said he was reading through “finnegans wake,” slowly, a page or so a day, consulting a guide as he went. he said he was going to finish it.

  30. Anonymous

      Yeah, I know precisely what you mean about the difficulties of going digital. There’s an attraction-repulsion complex around the idea of a fluid text, for me, immutable if you choose it to be, but gone in an instant. This is always your copy of the latest version, it is here and up-to-date, waiting for you to make it even more current than it already is.

      Whenever I’m forced into scribbling, though, I’m not thinking about how Romantic it is–too busy getting it down. I’ve typically shown a tendency toward idiotic levels of diffusion with my text–I’ve got massively integral sections, phrases, sentences, descriptions, cast about in the fronts, backs, and margins of my books, which means that when it comes time to consolidate textually, I have to follow the piece through memory, recalling precisely what it is composed of, and hunt those scribbles down. Sometimes, to double-check myself, I go through all the books I’ve read recently in reverse-chronological order, and I keep a pile of things (currently it’s got napkins, movie tickets, receipts from Shake Shack, pamphlets from god-types, a Playbill from two years ago, anti-abortion literature, an advertisement for driving lessons, and other people’s bookmarks) which I will have to pore through. Newspapers are occasional but not frequent victims, as I will either be finding or leaving mine on the train, as it happens, and keeping old papers around gets crypt-ological. On top of this, I do actually keep notebooks, in which a great deal of my work occurs, though not always the same passage continued in the same notebook. This plays out tediously, really, in the practical world, and is about as anti-romantic as possum teeth.

  31. lily hoang


  32. lily hoang

      Fuck, I just ordered a full set of possum teeth for Valentine’s Day! 

  33. Anonymous

      “Order four shots of espresso on ice.” i’d say a double’d get you there but that’s awesome.

  34. deadgod

      I was slaloming from your reminder above – about starting–months and years cascading from a handful of dust swirling at a ridge flute.  But also edging eddies at-oddly propelling the slide – into a Village.

      (I don’t think I agree with Alexander (below) about the endlessness of an e-scroll being more obstacular than the endlessness of virgin-paper reamage.  The joy-oscillant threesome of Ambition, Sloth, and Timidity antecedes ink and will survive The Screen–it’s a reproductive condition for the possibility of language, in my view.)

  35. Anonymous

      haha, yeah, well, on the weekdays after work I’ll limit myself to two. But on Saturday? “It’s the freakin’ weekend baby/I’m about to have me some fun”

  36. Anonymous

      I have to say, I sometimes feel that writing as a necessarily arduous/unpleasant task is not only untrue across the board, but moreover self-important. Come on people, we sit around in our free time making shit up. Personally, I relish every single moment granted me outside of work obligations to sit down and do what I love to do. It only becomes torture or martyrdom when you need it to be in order to justify what you’re doing. 

  37. Springtime Inspiration from Lily Hoang « bombay gin

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