Almost every Sunday evening, Joe and I play Dungeons & Dragons with a group of buddies and IT’S SO FUN. We never struggle to get started; we’re always super-eager to start adventuring.
I know it sounds like a super-nerdy thing, and it is—but it’s also an incredible exercise in creativity. It’s basically improv storytelling and puzzles. And spells and battles. And silly voices. Sillier jokes. Shaggy dog stories that get shaggier and doggier (thank you to Andrew Nixon in Slightly Foxed for that turn of phrase).
But that’s not what I’m here for today. Today, I want to tell you about Duthac Slyblade, my husband Joe’s character. Duthac is a rogue dark elf, and he’s kind of a dick. He’s devious, underhand, always grifting, endlessly in search of the next tavern, and he collects fingers (don’t ask).
Duthac also gets shit done.
Some of the rest of us may be reasonably considered to be blunt instruments, and our head-on approach can often charitably be described as “blow it up and see what happens.” This sometimes works.
More often than not, though, it results in terrible injuries, lost hit-points, and unconsciousness for the rest of the session. Meanwhile, in such situations, Duthac will often be found tricking, sneaking, or otherwise underhanding his way towards a small victory of some kind.
Which is what I wanted to suggest today, if you really want to write your book, but you’re having trouble getting started. For me, it’s like my brain and my book are two magnets with the poles facing each other—no matter how hard I try, I slide off sideways when I rush towards it. This approach ain’t working for me, so I need to try something else.
Instead of facing it head-on, embrace your inner Duthac. Approach it sideways, in the dark, and trick yourself into getting on with it.
Well, that’s easier said than done, you may cry! And you’d be right.
So here are my top 10 tricks, tips, and tools that I use to get started. I hope some of them help you, too.
1. Put a Knife Away
I heard about this trick from a chap on Instagram called Matt Raekel (@mattraekelboom) who creates a lot of content about coping with ADHD. I’d been doing this for years, but hadn’t realised it was A Thing.
The idea is, you have a big thing to do—one of the most difficult battles of all, you might say—Putting Things Away. Let’s say you need to empty the dishwasher, or put away the washing up after it’s dried, but you can’t. Because that’s a big task and standing up is difficult.
So instead of tackling it all at once like a normal person, you just put away one knife. That’s it. Just one. That’s your aim. Put away one knife.
By the time you’ve done that, you might as well put away a fork, too. And a plate. And, if you don’t get distracted halfway through and reorganise the cupboard, this works well. Hurrah!
Now apply it to writing. Not even “Write one word” because that might be too much in the moment. Instead—pick up notebook. Or—open Notes on iPhone. Or—pick up pen. Or—stand up. See? Whatever is your tiniest first step that you can’t fail at—that’s what you do.
And hopefully you’ve tricked yourself into getting started.
2. Teeny Tiny Word Count Limit
This is related to the first trick, but more specific to writing. Let’s say you’re at your desk (or wherever you write) but you are staring into space or researching emus or something instead of doing what you want to do, which is working on your book.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write three words. Just three. About anything. About emus, if you like. If they’re related to your book, that’s amazing but for now—make a mark on the paper… and then see where it takes you.
See if you can gently steer your words in the direction of your book topic, and “accidentally” start writing what you want to write.
3. Stealth-Write Your Book
I’m currently writing a memoir except I am doing no such thing. I’m simply recording little stories and feelings and anecdotes as they come to mind. I’m having ideas and scribbling them down. I’m exploring my experiences. Just for funsies—no pressure. There they all are, scattered between Notion, my voice notes, Notes app, and three separate paper notebooks. No memoir here.
And—[WHISPERS]—at some point all these pieces will assemble into my first draft, ready for editing, and I won’t even have noticed it happening.
4. Use the Timer of Delight
No, not necessarily the Pomodoro technique—that’s waaaaaay too much for brain some days.
Nope. Set a timer for 1 (one) minute and write. Anything at all.
Then see if you can keep going keep going KEEP GOING!
5. Noise-Cancelling Headphones are the Second Coming of Christ
Aw yeah. I resisted buying decent headphones for years because I had better things to spend my money on.
(Books. I had books to spend my money on. And productivity tools that DID NOT WORK FOR ME.)
One day, in spring, I found myself in a sobbing rage as the dog over the road would not stop barking and a neighbour was persistently and enragingly revving a power tool of some kind and another neighbour was hammering and I could hear my own breathing and rather than destroy the entire universe, I hopped onto the internet and bought a pair of Bose QuietComfort noise-cancelling headphones and they are quite honestly the best investment I’ve made this year.
When I find myself faffing uncontrollably or having violent fantasies about people making noise near me, I fire up The Relaxed Guy on YouTube and listen to rain through my headphones and breathe deep for 60 seconds and let the magic begin.
Then, writing is ON.
If you have any kind of sensory disorder or suffer from sensory overload, noise-cancelling headphones are a must if you can possibly manage it.
And if you’re reading this thinking, “Just tune it out and ignore it,” then may I respectfully say SHUSH. Shush. Go sit down over there and shush. Because WE CAN’T.
6. Don’t Write Your Book At All
Instead of writing your book, find a prompt of some kind. Easiest way: check out my free writing prompt calendar right here—you get a different prompt every day and you can download the calendar and print it out, or stick it on your desktop, or whatever works for you.
Or, open a book at random, close your eyes, and point—use the word your finger lands on as a trampoline.
Or write about socks. Or angry emus.
Then, when you’re engrossed in that and your brain isn’t looking, switch and start writing your book. Shhhhh. Quiet. Don’t let it notice.
7. Lie on the Floor
This is one of my favourite ways to start writing. Lie on the floor with your legs in the air and wave them around like you just don’t care. Wriggle, baby. Then leap up and start writing.
Or roll over, grab your notebook and pen, and start writing.
Or reach for your phone, open the notes app, and start writing.
Or speak into a voice note.
You get the idea.
For accessibility: if you can’t, for whatever reason, lie on the floor—just move your body as much as you can. Maybe wave your arms in the air. Spin in a circle. Roll your head around on your neck. Make silly faces. Do shoulder shimmies. Stamp your feet. Clap your hands.
Change your state, get the muscles moving, endorphins flowing—then write. Quick.
8. Routines are Queens
My office is a log cabin, and the way the logs fit together mean there are little holes, which are the perfect size and shape for a bee to build a home. And so I share my office with Beetrice.
She flies in through the kitchen window, and straight across to her little home, and back out again.
I’ve discovered that if I’m standing in her direct flight line, she gets extremely flustered. She hovers uncertainly, unable to figure out what’s going on. As soon as I step aside, she’s back to work.
Beetrice is like me. If my regular routine, or my planned day, is interrupted by something or someone unexpected, I’m scuppered. I find it virtually impossible to go back to writing whatever it was I was writing before I was so rudely interrupted. I’m derailed; frozen in faffery; diligently dithering while time slips through my fingers.
And so, I protect my routines and my time and my plans fiercely. And, these days, unapologetically—because if I derail my day on someone else’s whim, I’m gonna have a horrible time and resent them for it.
(This does not apply to people’s genuine emergencies; I would move mountains for the people I care about. But for a quick, “Can I just drop in and pick this up this afternoon?” type request—absolutely not.)
I know not everyone struggles this way; but if you do, I strongly recommend creating some kind of a routine if you possibly can.
And even if you don’t struggle this way, having protected time to write can only be helpful.
9. Eat the Marshmallow Now
Have you heard of the marshmallow experiment? I’m pretty sure I’d have failed it as a child, and half the time I’d fail it now, too. When I first heard about it, I internalised a lot of the bullshit that’s reported with it—how if you fail that test, you’ll fail at life, yada yada yada.
The thing about brains like mine is, they’re like dopamine-seeking missiles. If brain knows it makes me feel good, brain is gonna do it now.
So… use it. Get that dopamine now.
Don’t fight it, and waste time and energy and then feel like shit when you fail. Yes, reward yourself for a job well done, but many of us want—need—instant dopamine to function at all.
Here’s what I’ve discovered: when I plan a reward for myself for after I’ve done whatever task I’m failing to start, I often don’t do the task and then have the reward anyway, and then give up covered in shame because I’ve already failed.
But—when I do something that gives me the fuzzy feels I am all fired up to do the task, which I do with gusto—and then I can still reward myself afterwards.
Do something nice before settling down to write your book: dance; play with a fidget toy, eat something delicious (and preferably healthy)… then slide straight into writing while that dopamine is high and you feel like you could conquer the world.
Write like a champion—then reward yourself for it.
Rewards for everyone! All the time! WOO!
10. Use a Template
Sometimes the task is just too big. Write? Pshaw! How? Task too big. So we need a little help. Not a blueprint that means we’ll create something just like everything else; but a set of guidelines to get us started in a structured manner.
I couldn’t find the thing I wanted, so I made them—a set of templates.
If you’d like one for £49 or the whole bundle of five for £199, you can find them here.
I’m constantly improving and updating them, and I’ll email you when I do so, so you can grab the latest version if you’ve already got them.
Be kind to yourself. We are always, as my friend Jocelyn Queen of the Brains says, shoulding on ourselves and must-erbating. Instead, recognise this: sometimes writing is hard. Sometimes it’s joyful and easy and it flows like the chocolate river in Willy Wonka… but sometimes it’s just hard.
And remember, a lot of the stuff we see about how to write, and habits, and productivity, and getting started is created by neurotypical people for neurotypical people, so if you find yourself failing even though you’ve tried ALL THE THINGS, you are not a failure. Those things weren’t meant for you. They don’t work for everyone.
Try these things instead, and see if any of them help.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, I have many tools and tricks; but this is a start.
If you try a bunch of these tricks and one of them works for you, and you write a page of your book—YAY YOU, YOU ARE AWESOME, NOW GO CELEBRATE!
Because if we celebrate the little things as well as the big things, if we attach celebration to little wins, and associate doing little things with feeling good, we’ll do more of the little things.
Which is important, because the big things are made up exclusively of little things.
Psst: did you know you can book a 60 minute session with me to bust any challenges you’re having writing your book? If you’re stuck and would like my help to get going on your book again, click the button below and book a slot.
Notes in the Margin
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