What I Do When I Can’t Get Started

Though I’ve been a published writer since 1972, at times I still find it a challenge to write the opening of a new manuscript.  When that happens, I make myself sit down and compose a rough first draft, not worrying about how poorly it is written. It’s a starting point, not set in concrete.  I know when I get to the end of the manuscript, I will rewrite the beginning a number of times until it fits my story. At this point, just getting something on paper frees me up to go on with the ideas trying to get out of my head and onto the pages.

I like to compose on my computer because my penmanship is atrocious and it takes too long for me to write legibly.  Sometimes I have a scene worked out in my mind, but the scene but it refuses to be transferred to the computer.  My fingers tend to freeze in one location on the keyboard.  That’s a signal to pick up a good sharp pencil, or a favorite pen, and write THREE MAGIC WORDS at the top of my paper.  My brain operates on a different track when I write by hand.  That’s why I write my Morning Pages at the kitchen table.

From Steve Manning’s Speed Writing Course I learned to use “Three Magic Words” to “prime the pump” in order to create a story, a scene, a picture of imaginary events, or to portray real-life information.  You can do the same thing.

First, choose three key words that pertain to what you want to write about. Write them at the top of your paper.  They can be nouns, verbs, adjectives, or any other part of speech.   i.e.  PETER RABBIT:  Peter – Running – Garden.

Now, set your timer for five minutes and begin writing with one of these words. Do not begin with “It” or “A” or “The” or “Once upon a time” or anything else.  Include the other two words in your first paragraph.  Do not use the word “I” in your composition.   Write as fast as you can non-stop! The faster you write the better you will write.  Don’t worry about what you’re writing.  Don’t worry about spelling or repeating yourself, or contradicting yourself.  Just keep your hand moving.

Don’t stop to ponder.  At this point you’re writing, not editing.  Your goal is to write a coherent, understandable paragraph, not your autobiography.  You’re not writing a speech  or what you think about something. Not the news, the weather or a grocery list, but something you are making up inside your head at the moment.  Write whatever comes into your mind without taking time to evaluate it. 

Once you’ve finished, read what you’ve written aloud.  Chances are you will be surprised at what your brain dug out for you to record.   If you are not satisfied with the scene, write another one, with the same words, or some new ones.  Repeat the exercise whenever you have difficulty with some part of your story.  This may not work for everybody, but it works for me, whether I am writing the opening or something else.

If you try this four or five times and it doesn’t get the desired results, I suggest Free Writing.  This is less structured. The longer you write, the more your brain will explore new possibilities. It’s easy to get started in this conversation with yourself.  This simplest way is to pick up your writing implement and record everything you know about the subject.  When you’ve exhausted your thoughts, stop and read what you have written.  Something there may stand out as the starting point for another similar exercise.

Here’s another way to Free Write.

“I need to write about (List your topic.)  I am writing this for (Tell for whom.)    I am writing it because (State your reason.)  What I want to say is that (Write whatever ideas pop into you head.)   Continue with such thoughts as these: I could say______.  I want to include________. I don’t want to forget to mention_________. 

As you let your mind ramble about, you’ll find other things you want to say.  When you have exhausted your topics, put down your pen and reread what you’ve written.  Once you see the new ideas you have generated, you should be well on your way to writing that piece that you’ve been putting off.

These procedures helped me through problem areas when I was writing my historical novels. I urge you to try them and see for yourself how they generate ideas, 

I’d enjoy hearing how they work for you.  

Guest post by Hope Irvin Marston  www.HopeIrvinMarston.com 


  1. Hi, Interesting post. I haven't tried the "3 Magic Words" trick, at least not overtly, but I think I will when the occasion comes as a way to start a story from (more or less) theme alone and see where it takes me. Thanks.


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