NaNoWriMo Special: The Blank Page Blues
Intimidating. Infinite. Deadly. Don't let its calm façade fool you: nothing has inspired so much fear in the hearts and minds of writers. The mere sight of it can be paralyzing, and the longer you stare at it, the stronger it gets. It doesn’t even have to say a word to murder more manuscripts than the most capricious of editors. It is . . . the blank page.
No seriously! Every step of the writing process has its share of knock-outs. But most people don’t start a book without an idea (stage one), and if they do, they at least made it to the next stage. And the outline (stage two)? Technically, you can skip that, too, which gives the actual writing of the first draft (stage three) the most knock-outs by far.
The problem with the blank page is that it is perfect. An endless spread of white representing infinite possibility—for both success and humiliation. Your story—your perfect story—could be on that page. But so could something so awful, you’d fear to use your pen name on the internet forevermore.
But it’s important to remember that this is just the first draft, and that your keyboard has a delete button. You want everything to be just perfect, but your manuscript, like a kid’s knees, is going to suffer a few scrapes and bruises in growing. And that’s okay! Because you learn with each Band-aid. No written word is wasted. Every one of them will make you a better writer. Besides, the sooner you get your first draft down, the sooner you can get to fixing it!
Playing with POV
A book is not just an accounting of events. Books famously leave things out. And it’s a good thing, too! Having to experience every moment in every character’s life, from every possible perspective, would be a total nightmare. One of the most important—and invisible--parts of writing a book is choosing what scenes and points of view (POV) you’re going to use to tell your story. Do it right, and readers will be hooked. Do it wrong, and something just won’t feel right.
If something about the scene is not working, and you can’t put your finger on it--try writing it from a different perspective. Even if you don’t stick with that perspective, writing from a different point of view can help you figure out what’s going on with the scene. If you’re still having trouble visualizing it, it may be time to look at the pacing. Scott Westerfeld (author of Leviathan) & Justine Larbalestier (author of Liar) have some of the best NaNoWriMo advice on the web. Their tips on pacing and rewriting are super valuable, no matter how experienced you are.
Write What You Love
One of the most useful courses I took in college was a course on screenwriting. We read William Goldman’s excellent Adventures in Screen Trade, studied Hitchcock’s screenplays, and tried to dissect how older movies managed to tell such rich stories with so few resources. In Rear Window, the whole movie takes place in one room! And special effects were not even a question. The dialogue takes center stage—carrying the story and speaking volumes with what is said and left unsaid.
If you’re having trouble getting started on a scene, try capturing it with just dialogue. No emotions, no description, no set-up. Just two characters talking. Then, after you get the shape of it out, you can go back and fill in the details.
If you find writing description easier, try describing the scene in a way that both sets the stage and expresses the emotion you’re going for. Don’t worry about being too wordy at this point. Cutting description is dead easy, and setting the scene can help you figure out what it’s really about, and ease into writing the rest of it as well.
Watch that Tone!
John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction was my first and still probably my favorite book on writing. The writing exercises at the end alone are filled with idea, and every page is inspiring. At one point, he writes the same paragraph, about a barbarian having tea with the queen of England, several different ways to show how tone and word choice affect the perceptions of the reader. It’s really funny. But it’s also a great lesson.
If a scene is stumping you, try writing it with a different tone. Even if you don’t think it fits just try it—it might get you started, at least, and it may also help you identify pacing issues. Sometimes, that scene you think is supposed to be super serious actually plays better when written in a comedic tone.
Tell It Like It Is
You wrote an outline, right? Open it. Now select the current chapter. Good, now press copy and open your work in progress… Aaaand paste. Voila! No blank page! Just like magic. Next, try expanding on it. Don’t get fancy. Just tell the reader how it all went down. Logically, simply explaining what happens. If it helps—do explain it to someone! (Teddy bears make great listeners.) Allow yourself to be imperfect, knowing you can go back later and revise it. And who knows? Sometimes, this logical, artless writing ends up being the most engaging. It is honest, conversational, and doesn’t get too cute. Without all that other stuff getting in the way, readers can truly immerse themselves in the story.
Have Fun With It
Remember when the blank page was awesome, because it meant you finally found a piece of paper that your sister hadn’t already written all over? A piece of paper you would cover with your own stories in mere minutes? Ray Bradbury, in his inspirational Zen in the Art of Writing, talks about the importance of having fun while you’re writing, and I couldn’t agree more. So pull out your colored pencils and get ready to try to recapture the joy of writing—from back before you learned what “good writing” was all about.
By which I mean, write the scene from the bucket’s point of view. Or write the whole thing like it is suddenly a highlander romance (there can be only one!). Or start the page with a song lyric, and try to work it in. Or replace your character’s name with Muffincakes. Or start telling the story aloud, using funny voices. Or try writing longhand—in pretty colors! Writing is like brainstorming, in that once there are a few ridiculous ideas on the page, the creativity comes easier. So play with it. Flirt with it! But most of all have fun with it.
And that should be enough to get you going! If you're still stuck by next week, come back for some tips from some of the pros on how to jumpstart stalled writing. Happy writing!