33

I have a problem when it comes to writing (blog posts, stories and novels). It might just be me, but maybe other people have experienced it too? When I come to start writing, my ideas before I sit down seem wonderful. But just recently, as soon as I see that blank page, it seems like all my enthusiasm drains out of me and I feel like what I'm going to write is utter rubbish - trite and derivative. Consequently I can't start writing.

I know that these states of mind are built on passing, ephemeral thoughts, but they are pervasive and fill me with alternating enthusiasm and dread.

The irony is - I love to write. I am eager to get to my computer to start on my latest idea. But the blank page stops me dead. It seems to glare at me malevolently. Does anyone else experience this, and if so, have they found a way around it?

  • 3
    It took me years before I actually started filling that first blank page. The first part of starting is to accept the first draft will be shitty anyway. Then you can just start do the best you can and later review it when you learned what works and what does not. – Totumus Maximus May 23 '18 at 8:41
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    I wouldn't worry too much about getting your questions right first time. I've never seen a question closed on here without some kind of comment to help the OP reword and I've very rarely seen any kind of antagonistic comment resulting from a poorly-worded question. As we have discussed, compared to other sites, it's very friendly here. So ask away! Like shitty first drafts, questions can easily be edited! – GGx May 23 '18 at 9:51
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    Your problem (in asking questions) is you haven't understood the constraints on questions, which are simple: We want questions focused on the craft of writing specifically that would not apply to other creative art forms (painting, sculpture, music) or other non-creative professions (fireman, store management, accounting). This particular question is fine, I might relate the blank page to a blank canvas or sheet of music, but IMO the answer (like mine) is different enough to count as a "writing problem." Some of your other Q are so broad they are not unique to the craft of writing. – Amadeus May 23 '18 at 12:35
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    Write "Frog." Mark "Frog.". Press "ctrl + c". Press "ctrl + v". Keep pressed. ... ... Release. Now the page isn't blank anymore. Enjoy. – DonQuiKong May 23 '18 at 14:00
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    It's definitely not just you. brainpickings.org/2016/09/13/writers-blank-page – Stobor May 24 '18 at 2:28

14 Answers 14

31

How do you start writing? You sit down and write. No matter how trite, no matter how derivative - you write. You give it your honest best effort. Then, the next day, you give what you've written an honest look. You note what's good, what's bad. Then, you either continue writing, edit yesterday's work and then continue, or put it in a folder of "no good", and start again. Rinse and repeat. (Don't delete "bad work" - you might be able to draw something from it later. And it's not like we lack space nowadays - it's all on the computer.)

Compare your experience to someone who wants to play Rachmaninov's concerti, but has never played the piano at all. He touches a key, and doesn't like the sound of it. So he stops. He loves the piano, but his first attempts sound horrible, so he doesn't touch the piano any more, he just wishes to play Rachmaninov.
The way this person might some day play Rachmaninov is if he sits down and practices every day, listens to what's wrong, corrects himself, and keeps going. Then, after a decade of hard work, he would play Rachmaninov, if not well, then at least tolerably.

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    Excellent response. I suggest however that the first effort need not be the best you can do. Any start will do. Writing is never really done, is it? Or rather it's done when it must be done, but it can always be made better. – Stephen Boston May 23 '18 at 9:30
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    @StephenBoston Indeed, what you often think to be your best effort you later see as being trite or silly. Always be glad that you see them as such, and have opportunity to improve them; take satisfaction from improving the older writing, though it may be laborious to re-insinuate yourself in the flow of that mindset. – can-ned_food May 25 '18 at 4:01
  • Great advice, @Galastel! – Cate Z. Jul 5 '18 at 11:22
24

Wait.

I am a discovery writer, meaning, I do not outline or plot or plan ahead, except in a minor way. I often don't know where the first Act ends, or what complications and setbacks will arrive, I definitely do not have a list of characters, or attributes, or histories. I invent them as I go.

Before ever putting fingers to keyboard,

I come up with my stories by imagining a strong character, and her dilemma, and some "partner" for her to interact with in the story. (villain, friend, boss, lover, teacher, parent, or some combination). She will generally have something she is exceptionally good at, and something she is rather poor at.

Her dilemma is going to be first introduced or described near the 10% mark (of total pages). She will undertake her mission (to solve the dilemma) near the 15% mark, she must engage with her partner in some way by then. The first Act will end near the 20-30% mark.

I don't know, when I begin writing, all the details of this, my story is simple enough to carry in my head. I don't have a page count, I just know these % are (IMO of course) how good writing happens to turn out.

So what I need is a good scene that can introduce my character, who she is, give the reader some idea about what she is good it, and what she is NOT that good at, but through the lens of her thoughts and feelings. I want them to engage with my character, even if she is a superhero, NOT through a high action scene (I think those are boring without knowing who the characters are), but definitely doing something from her normal routine, still having some kind of throwaway conflict (e.g. being late for work, having no hot water, her car won't start). This isn't life threatening or changing. In every time period, on every planet, every person struggles with minor conflicts.

That is my opening scene. That is how I will introduce my hero to the reader, she is proactive (doing something) and it has to be interesting enough to pull the reader into her "status quo" world, this is the stuff she does every day, how she reacts and deals with conflict, how she has fun, perhaps who her friends are and who she loves. That is what I want to show before I put her in the blender. The opening scene is a leader that draws the reader in so she will give a crap about our hero's dilemma when that disrupts her life.

I don't begin writing until I think I know what that scene is, what my hero is doing. The first word on the blank page is always my hero's name, she is doing something physically active (not sitting and thinking, not philosophizing). I may change that sentence around, but my hero's name will be in the first sentence, doing something physical.

The reason I don't have a problem with the first page, or first many pages, is because I have imagined how my first scene begins and how I accomplish my goal of introducing the character.

I do not jump into her story-driving dilemma. We need to build her character a little, build the world a little, and build why this dilemma will matter to her, why she cannot just walk away from it. Give yourself a few dozen pages; in an 80,000 word book, this should be roughly 8000 words; at the standard of 250 words per page, from "first word" to "beginning of dilemma" is 32 pages.

While you are building these foundations of your story, do not forget conflict. It can be tempting to just start dumping characteristics and world facts and all that, but resist that. As a rule of thumb there should be conflict on every page, be it misunderstanding, disagreement, violence, something gone wrong, something of sub-par quality. The toaster doesn't work and she improvises with the broiler in the oven. Or the milk has turned and she just glopped lumps of it onto her bowl of cereal, so she is going without breakfast. Or this is the reason she stops at the donut shop on the way to work, and meets Jack standing in line there.

Create conflict, it creates new actions and new decisions. The conflict can foreshadow the main dilemma, if that is possible. Typically that is also something that has gone wrong in her life, so you might be able to find a domestic problem that resonates: A stove top oil fire, easily extinguished but making a big mess, for something later described as a metaphorical fire (like a revolution or hostile corporate takeover): It is up to her to extinguish both.

When you sit down to that blank page, already have in your head your introductory scene, and your hero's introduction action, and ... type her name.

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    I love how this answer is so different from mine. +1 – Galastel May 23 '18 at 12:34
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    This connects with how I am currently writing. This is extremely useful. – Totumus Maximus May 23 '18 at 12:39
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    @Galastel. I love the two answers combined, and the fact that they are so complementary to each other. – Mad Physicist May 24 '18 at 19:00
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    I did this too and it works. I really recommend that anyone who reads this and who has writer's block will try this out! Good advice @Amadeus! – Cate Z. Jul 5 '18 at 11:15
12

I buy lots of papery, cheap, crappy notebooks and I get past the blank page by free-writing. I allow all that utter trite and nonsense churning around in my head to spill out onto the page and just write and write and write. No punctuation, no spelling, no writing inside the lines or margins.

(It's advice I took from both Anne Lamott and Nathalie Goldberg and it really works for me)

Somewhere in there, I try to guide my mind towards the subject I want to write about but I don't force it, I try to let it find its way naturally, and if it wanders elsewhere, I let it. But I keep trying to guide it gently back.

I don't allow the blank page to intimidate me, I intimidate it by scrawling all over it.

Somewhere in amongst all that writing, I find little hidden gems and I mine these to use in the real piece, leaving the crud in the notebook.

The thing you must always keep in mind is that you have something that nobody else in the world has - your thoughts, your feelings, your take on things - you are uniquely you. So, no matter how derivative you feel your writing is, so long as you write honestly, from your heart and speak your own truths, you will bring something unique.

I read somewhere that when a writer puts his deepest truths down on paper, he has the potential to connect with the deepest truths inside the reader and it's like a hand is coming out of the page and taking theirs.

But I wonder if that's harder for male writers? Women, at least open women, tell each other EVERYTHING and so spilling our hearts and writing our deepest truths is perhaps easier for us as we have lots of practice with each other. I don't know, I'd be interested in the male perspective on that.

But as Galastel says, just write. Don't let the blank page intimidate you. Intimidate it!!

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    @robertcday I think it is the secret to life and to writing. I’ve always been one of those people who shares all my deepest thoughts and feelings, even the painfully embarrassing stuff. 95% of the time it works for me. I have incredibly close and meaningful relationships as a result of it. But not everyone likes it. 5% of the time it gets me into trouble and a few friendships have ended over it, but I’m okay with that. I’d rather have fewer meaningful relationships than many superficial ones. – GGx May 23 '18 at 11:12
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    I may be going out on a limb here but I get the sense from your questions and comments that you are being WAY too hard on yourself. Forgive me if I’m reading wrongly between the lines, but you seem to be expecting so much of yourself and setting too hard a task for your writing: to write a revolutionary plot, a first draft good enough to be published, a story so compelling it’s able to change the way people think, and maybe even instil happiness to such a degree that they want to pass it on. – GGx May 23 '18 at 11:13
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    And on top of that, you have to create compelling real-life characters, with clear goals, who change over the life of the novel, you need 3-dimensional settings, arcing plots, subplots, unexpected twists, realistic dialogue, conflict, action, momentum, a climax, you need to know your audience, have a marketable idea, and understand how to pitch that idea. It’s exhausting just thinking about taking on these tasks, let alone the tasks I think you may be setting for yourself? – GGx May 23 '18 at 11:13
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    LOL ... so much for being able to move to chat room after 8 comments, I still haven't got the link! Apologies to everyone else for boring you with my chitchat! – GGx May 23 '18 at 11:16
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    Okay, to put it in the mildest terms possible - that has (you have, GGx) cheered me considerably. :D – robertcday May 23 '18 at 11:58
8

I just experienced what you have mentioned, before starting to write this answer.

While reading the details of your question, I felt like I can fill a page or two with helpful advice to overcome this problem, having suffered from it myself. But as soon as I scrolled down to type out my first word, I felt my enthusiasm draining.

After thinking for a few seconds, I realised why that happened.

  • Firstly, when I was reading and thinking passively, the ideas were flooding into my brain like new leaves to branches, that is, as soon as I was hitting a dead end, my thought processes were racing in another branch. But, thought process is different from writing process. I will have to use the English Language to type out my two-dimensionally (or maybe multidimensionally) spread thought process tree into an unidirectional sequence of grammatically correct sentences. That means, I will have to prioritise one idea over another, which I wasn't doing with a lot of effort till now.
  • Secondly, I saw that the top answer has got 23 upvotes already. Doubts of "whether people will really read my answer at all?" flooded my mind. For a second, I felt like giving up.

But then, I realised that what I was about to write in the answer is exactly what I have experienced right now. Thus, despite every hindrance, I kept on tapping on the keys. In the end, even though I might forget to add a few points, at least I would have finished an otherwise complete answer!

Therefore, three different points jump up straight towards us from this answer of mine:-

  1. Write the first sentence. That will be your trunk. Now your branches will grow slowly.
  2. Write down the next idea that comes to your mind. You may place a few unimportant points earlier, like I should have placed these points before my previous unordered list. This way, what you write will lose a little bit of sophistication, but then again that's what revisions and proof-reads are for!
  3. Try to come up with a way to write that broadcasts your present state of mind. This won't work if you are writing an article or prose in the conventional descriptive style, but it surely adds another dimension to your literary piece.

Last but not the least, as I have experienced this problem since a long time ago, I deliberately blog daily at Antarctica Daily to overcome the initial inhibition, as I like to call it!

7

Paper, lots of paper

I am eager to get to my computer to start on my latest idea

Get started in little ways before you “start writing”.

My key point here is that brainstorming and planning are separate phases from drafting ("writing"). Drafting is done at the computer when you are generating your prose. But before that you must have ideas, directions, doodles, outlines, and such from which to generate your prose.

Similar to the Answer by GGx, I suggest using pen-and-paper rather than computer to get started.

I myself am doing technical writing rather than fiction, but I suspect the process is similar. I walk away from the computer, literally, going to a coffee-shop or friend’s home. I carry a certain small backpack or bag with loose plain-white paper, a notebook, a fine-paper pad, and an inexpensive but enjoyable fountain pen. I pull out of my pocket some scraps of paper or napkins with a title, key phrases, or blips of ideas. From that I sketch, doodle, and draw my own version of mind maps. I do some research on an iPad. I make a list of resources to consult again later. I jot down every thought, every point, that might be useful.

Eventually I begin to organize those points, evolving into a loose outline.

From there I make rough cuts on the loose-leaf paper (or index cards). I use loose-leaf so I can shuffle to change order or replace entire pages. I switch back-and-forth from the loose-leaf pile to all the other material to make sure I included all the good nuggets, or to redirect myself if I lose my way.

Only after the pile of loose-leaf pieces come together as some kind of a whole do I approach the computer. What eventually comes out of the computer is always substantially altered, but still basically formed from the foundation laid down on paper.

as soon as I see that blank page

Notice the trick I devised: At no time did I stare at “a blank page”.

Another benefit… Drafting is just plain hard work, often a drudgery, like dragging boots through mud. One thing gets me through that: My stubbornness kicks in, refusing to waste all that time, thought, and energy invested in those brainstorming and planning phases.

Whatever process you discover for yourself, I believe the key is separating the phases of brain-storming, planning, drafting, and editing. Trying to wear more than one of those hats at the same time is what kills creativity and drains energy.

6

I've been trying another approach recently.

I hit a brick wall with a story when I don't know what to write, I've been working on getting around that by trying to outline my story before I sit down. If I can't maintain focus through the outline then I won't be able to maintain it throughout the writing process!

First I try to scope the story. What am I looking for? A short story? A novel? Something in between?

What tempo do I want to set? 2000 word chapters? 8000 words?

My idea usually includes a character or two and a very broad story arc, so I start plotting these into the chapters.

I find a chapter structure helps me. I often have an opening scene (about 10% to 20% of the chapter's word count), a first and second part (about 30% to 40%) and then a closing scene. This helps me keep structure and tempo but if a particular chapter needs to break the rules - that's ok!

For each scene I create three bullet points. These are:

  • What's going on.
  • What the conflict is (this can be something as trivial as the character burning themselves on a kettle through to a fatality).
  • What each character wants during the scene (as the phrase goes - even if it's only a glass of water).

If I don't know these three things before I start the scene I don't write it. This also means that when I do write a scene (anything from about 200-2000 words) I already have the tools I need and the writing is much, much easier.

TLDR:

If you know what you're going to write before you start, you can put your effort into the words than the ideas.

4

I use the same method for writing that I do for drawing -- put a line down. And another. And another. Put lines down until you start to see something, then begin building off that. The lines have nothing to do with anything -- it only builds something for which you to write about, so you may find yourself creating something that you wouldn't normally write about -- a campfire murder scene, cars driving through the night, the Virgin Mary's statue melting at a cathedral. Develop something, anything, an see how it propells you to do more, deliberate workings. And if you feel intimidated again, just slap another line down, and another, another.

4

That is a good and very honest question. I would like to offer my answer, which may not be directly along the line of your question, but which I think might be helpful to you.

Before you think of beginning to write, you must read widely. Yeah, writers are readers. I have noticed that if I read a lot of good material prior to my writing, I will have no trouble trying to pour my mind on paper.

So, go and find some good books and read.

And if you have already done that, then all you need is to put your pen on the paper (or your fingers on the keyboard) and write something. There is no magic at all. Just start writing, even if you do not feel like it.The feeling will catch up with you on the way.

And as you write more and more, you will start to crave for it, to need it, and ideas will flow more freely. A car engine takes more effort to start, but once on the freeway, the drive is much more smooth.

Hoping to read some of your work soon. A link will be much appreciated.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE Vic! A little tip about markdown: you need to hit Enter twice to get a paragraph. Or you need two spaces at the end of a line before hitting Enter once to get a soft linebreak, but most of the time a paragraph is easier to read. There is a little box at the top of where you type that has many useful tips about markdown when expanded and you can see the result under the box to check it before posting. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! – Secespitus May 25 '18 at 8:39
4

Every writer must wear two hats, writer and editor. All cases of writer's block, no matter at what part of the process they occur, are because your internal editor is overriding your internal writer. So all solutions to writer's block involve finding a way of circumventing your internal editor.

There are many different psychological tricks people try for this. But, ironically, the most effective advice I ever encountered for solving this issue is physiological. If you write at the time of day when you are usually least alert (morning for night owls, night for early birds), your internal editor goes to sleep, and you can write freely, in a kind of half-dream state. It sounds odd ("this one weird trick!"), but I've found it dramatically increased my rate of production and reduced my writer's block. Nor does there seem to be a noticeable difference in the quality of the writing.

Other potentially useful tricks include: Deliberately writing pages of complete nonsense ("priming the engine"), writing just one paragraph before bed the night before ("breaking the seal"), always leaving off in the middle of a sentence or the middle of an exciting scene ("keeping the engine running"), and starting from a writing prompt or exercise ("cranking the starter").

  • I've read something similar to this before (and, typically, can't remember where). Natalie Goldberg springs to mind. Or maybe that bird book by Anne Lamott? But either way - nicely put, Chris. :) – robertcday Jul 3 '18 at 14:49
  • Fantastic advice, Chris! I've got a lot of internal editor in me. – Cate Z. Jul 5 '18 at 11:52
4

Divide your writing into three stages, Planning, Drafting, Revising.

In planning stage plan out the stuff the story contains. If you are getting stuck, this will likely mean plot. In the drafting stage, write everything out, don't bother to much with editing just write. In the revising stage edit stuff so it's good.

A note on the different stages: Take as much time as you need/have available to you on each stage. For planning, some people spend years meticously planning out an entire microcosm of events and setting elements and every possible side character they can think of. Other take five minutes hashing out a few lines on a napkin then leap into drafting.

If you are always getting stuck at writing, I would recommend not taking to long, but still take a few weeks and properly plan out the story. Mainly I would recommend writing out the plot before hand. You can look up classical plot structures online, or just write out something on your own.

Stuff you can plan out beforehand:

  • Flavour (Tone, Mood, Themes,Look and Feel)
  • Setting (History, Locations, Factions, Cultures)
  • Characters
  • Plot (plot beats, specific scenes)
  • Any research you want to do.

Even if all you plan out is the plot, that can help you know not just what to write, but also pin point stuff you hadn't realized. 'oh, I don't actually know enough about this setting element. Oh this characters interacting like this makes no sense'.

In summary

Plan out the story before you start writing. If you are getting stuck, mainly plan out the plot.

While eventually you should take as much or as little time as you want planning things out, when starting out take a few weeks and don't get bogged down in it. You still want to get to the drafting stage.

Once you gotten to the drafting stage, that's when you write.

3

Ideas are abstract. Focus on them and you will write abstract texts, which is bad even in philosophy.

Before starting, try to make your idea concrete. Words are concrete, so you may get just a few of them to start. If they are concrete enough, you will know it, you will know that they are good. Sometime, the first sentence is all you need, it give you the feelings, the ambience, the air, all you need to write your story to the end.

Sometimes, it's a picture or a drawing you've seen or built in your mind. Or a music. A touch. A smile. A rock. A child laugh. A smell or a taste. Personally, dreams are my best starts.

Did you ear about Proust's madeleine ? One of the most important literary french work started with the special taste of a cooky with tea.

When you get your first feeling, write. If it is right, so will be story, as long as you stay focused on this feeling and those coming from it. At the end, you must feel your story in your flesh. Forget who you are and where you are. Become your main character and be there. And, important, while writing, do judge your work: it will drive you away, back to you desk.

3

This answer flows with rather a stream of consciousness and has less a proper essay structure. I hope that it helps you nonetheless — indeed, that's the whole thing I am advocating here: it is easier to begin filling emptiness with the right brain and to tend it later with the left brain — rather like as I said in another of my answers here.


If you are any good at writing nonsense or disconnected fragments, then you could attempt that. I do it all the time whether I am writing introductions or simply something which I could possibly use later.

Ergo, there are three situations:

  • You have a concept for project, and you wish to begin producing usable assets.
  • You come up with a scene in your head, or you are walking along a field and are suddenly moved to describe it poetically, or you want to capture an emotion suddenly expressed.
    Carry a notepad or other such device with you at all times.
  • You are in the mood to produce something, but don't have any context or scenario in mind.

See this:

The air was fetid and cold. My breath turned to a damp cloud which settled back on the open book beneath my face. Somehow, the pages collected that moisture more eagerly than my captive rattigar would lunge for my arm when I feed it carelessly.
I tilted my head upward so as to renew my watch on the horizon. The line of guardhouses was ever nearer, but my steps toward them were slow and plodded disinterestedly.

Meh, you get the idea. Some pilgrim is about to take on a new apprenticeship, or maybe a scholar has been summoned to a town to weigh in on some crisis. I don't know.

It is a little easier to do that for nothing than it is to do so with the expectation that whatever you write must fit in with something that hasn't been written yet.
When I am writing an introduction, I want to make a hybrid of that such a thing as you read above with persons or scenario already conceived.
I want to invite a reader slowly, so as to not toss about too many alien names or characteristics, but yet rapidly pull them in to the flow of the narration: I don't want to get them interested in the main character or their motivations yet; I want to get them interested in the setting. When they are interested in the setting, then I can show them how the character of a person contrasts or meshes with that setting. I do this because although a setting is vast, a person is intricate.
Of course, I usually do all this introducing in less than 7 sentences. The sequence is the necessary thing.

Oftentimes, I will move that introduction to somewhere else, or rewrite it entirely. Not often will I simply delete it, but by the time I decide to do that, I've already written other stuff.

That brings me to the next bit of advice: sometimes I will begin writing descriptions or dialogue while I've not yet done a proper introduction.
Depends on whichever is ready in my imagination.

That is where the bit about always writing down those loose fragments comes in handy: if you want to begin a new project, but have some trepidation as to how exactly to plant the seed in the blank page, then you can look through your collection of notes.
If you have something there which can be appropriated, then take it and begin. It doesn't need to be the beginning, either. Write in both directions.

Maybe, with you, it would help to see the blank page as somewhere in the middle, rather than at the beginning of your story.

2

It's because you quit believing in yourself. You labeled all as rubbish prior to even writing anything into existence. We manifest our own realities. Be sunshine and you will feel its warmth and grow;

Drown yourself within the heat of the sun, you burn whatever would have come to mind;

In that perspective, your dreams fear being birthed.

  • 1
    I thought the only word you uttered was “Nevermore”. This answer is entire inconsistent with what I've come to expect from the Raven. – can-ned_food May 26 '18 at 7:09
  • Ah. It changes you when hell burns your beak. It is because the world has suffered enough. Aren't we all deserving of love. So many search the sky for it, curse the trees. I impose. I will disrupt in the hopes that I may help force the existential darkness of midnight to retreat. I don't like it when great things shrink – theRaven May 27 '18 at 15:25
2

Wow, look at all the awesome and extremely helpful answers up there! I think I'll add my own little answer, too. :)

Write a rough outline of your story or even just a chapter!

This has helped me well and might help you too. I find that if I do this, I'm able to write a fairly good starting.

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