MJ, I have finally succumbed to asking you a question. Hear me out. How do you know when you’re ready to begin? I’m scared that I am plotting out too much, but every time I sit down to start my first draft, I realize that there is a vital detail I am missing. Am I drowning myself in self-doubt?

Dear afashionablefrown,

When Auntie MJ was a Teenaged Auntie MJ, she wanted to drive. My mom didn’t want me to drive, and kept on giving me reasons why the process had to be delayed. One day, when I asked for my learner’s permit (for the twentieth time), she replied, “You can’t get your learner’s permit until you’ve had more practice.”

(Note to anyone unfamiliar with Pennsylvania driving law: a learner’s permit is the thing you get that allows you to practice driving.)

She made this remark by accident, but for me, this beautiful Catch-22 told me all. I was going nowhere.

While this annoyed me greatly at the time, it’s been a useful lesson in how to deal with a draft. This sort of thing, the “I can’t start until I have done XYZ” is common. In this case, you can’t start the writing until you’re finished this outlining, ergo you can never start. You have set up conditions for yourself that have made it permissible never to write your story.

You may start to feel crazy.

Not to fret! This is a common enough problem. Rest assured the same is true of ALL these writing problems: you didn’t invent them. Someone else has had them. Probably someone you really like. The first and most important step in this case is to realize that this is just a trick your fears are playing on you. (You seem to already be aware of this on some level—now you just have to say it loud and clearly.) This whole not being able to start thing? It’s an illusion. Brush it aside. Fling it with great force, if that works better for you. As they say in the Matrix, THERE IS NO SPOON. Here is why:

1. That “vital detail” is a game that never, ever, ever, ever, ever ends. It’s called “writing.”

2. We can draw from that that what you are doing with that outline is WRITING THE FIRST DRAFT. Hooray! Consider it finished. You will find those “vital” details when you get into the next draft.

Really, this is completely psychological. Declare the outline done. If you need to, make a sign that says THE OUTLINE IS DONE and hang it above your desk. Now begin again, fresh, unencumbered, free. 

Licensed to drive,

Auntie MJ