Don’t. If you don’t have anything to say, or don’t know how to say it, gazing into the eyes of a blank document is unlikely to help. Go do something useful but not beguiling: unload the dishwasher, clean the loo, put away all that stuff in the hall. It will give you a sense of achievement and the idea that sitting at your desk is actually quite nice, both of which are more useful to your project than the guilt and distaste resulting from faffing on the internet. If you still don’t have anything to say, it’s not time to write. Go about your business until the writing idea is tapping on your shoulder and murmuring in your ear, stopping you on the way up the stairs to bed or waking you early like a persistent toddler. Then it’s time (unless you do in fact have a persistent toddler, in which case think about writing all your waking hours and type, ignoring all housework, every time your child sleeps, unless you also have another child in which case, honestly, maybe leave it a year or two, books don’t go off if you don’t write them for a while).
What you write at first doesn’t matter. There’s a way of starting a piece of knitting called a ‘provisional cast-on’, which means that you take some scrap yarn and make a start that you will later unravel and replace with permanent, aesthetically and structurally sound knitting. The first draft of the first few pages can be a provisional cast-on, a temporary fix to get started on the real thing.
The first sentence, the first paragraph, even the first chapter that you write need not and probably should not be your reader’s first encounter with your prose. Knowing that can be freeing; you’re not writing Chapter One, Page One, The Beginning, just humming to yourself, doodling, playing with words for a while before it’s time for lunch. It’s merely an experiment, a placement of words you could undo more easily than a pebble pattern on a beach. Take some more and make another pattern. And again. That’s pretty, what would look nice next to it? Try another one. No? Oh well, how about this instead? You’re not Writing Your Novel, nothing like that. Think of it as verbal flower-arranging, and then keep going.
This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2020/21 by Sarah Moss.
Sarah Moss is the author of seven novels and a memoir of her year living in Iceland. Her most recent novel Ghost Wall was longlisted for the Women’s Prize. She was born in Glasgow and grew up in the north of England. After moving between Oxford, Canterbury, Reykjavik, West Cornwall and the Midlands, she is about to settle in Ireland. She teaches English and creative writing at University College Dublin.