Conquering the Blank Page

For most professional writers, the incessantly blinking cursor on the computer screen functions like the blank sheet of paper reminiscent of unfinished homework. This nagging reminder of the writing task awaiting completion dares the writer to rise to the challenge. On days when the needed word count looms large and inspiration falls short, I have learned to pull out my writing bag of tricks to make progress. In this bag, I keep different elements of writing. Selecting the right elements helps me conquer the blank page.

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Here are the elements I keep handy in my writing bag of tricks.

Factual Information

When I am not sure how to begin writing a particular passage, I start by listing the factual information relevant to what I will be writing. Often when creating this list, I discover that I need to check a source or gather additional information. Once I have the information entered onto the page, I create an outline and sort the information into its proper place.

Dialogue

While the importance of dialogue in creative writing goes without question, nonfiction writers also should consider the place of dialogue in their passages. Dialogue between two characters adds action and excitement to a scene, drawing the reader into the story more effectively than descriptive language alone. Dialogue also forces shorter paragraphs, helping the reader move forward rapidly and read with greater ease.

When you need to illustrate a point, consider using dialogue, even if the dialogue simply conveys the thoughts going through one person’s mind. A few sentences of dialogue can serve as an ice-breaker for a section of nonfiction writing explaining a concept or offering instruction. Pepper sections of factual information with a few tidbits of dialogue and the blank page will begin to fill!

Sensory Language

Long sentences filled with too many adjectives and adverbs can bog down a reader, but a few well-chosen words that appeal to a reader’s senses can make a paragraph come alive. In everyday life, we form memories that encode the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures we experience. Help your readers enter into the world of your book by supplying them with information that appeals to more than one sense. Instead of appearing dull, your factual information will sizzle with delectable style.

Transitional Phrases and Structuring Elements

By now, your blank page is nearly full. To polish what you have written, make sure that the connections between the various elements of writing are clear and smooth. Use words that convey a sense of order such as first, second, and finally. In addition, weave your thoughts together by picking up a key phrase from one paragraph and carrying it into the first sentence of the subsequent paragraph.

Each project and style of writing requires a different combination of writing elements, but if you think in terms of adding these elements one by one and then stitching them together, you will be well on your way to completing the writing task of the day.

What approaches work for you when you need to conquer the blank page?

Revising Aloud

Tihamér_Margitay_Exciting_story“Reading aloud,” I’m always telling my writing students, “is the best way to revise.”

I encourage them—sometimes require them—to find read-aloud partners or start writing groups in which they take turns reading their work aloud.

“Hearing your sentences spoken lets you know whether they’re clear and natural-sounding—whether someone actually could speak them,” I explain. “And it doesn’t work to read to an empty room. You need a warm body, a listener, to complete the communication. Speaking is, after all, a collaborative act.”

Finding that read-aloud partner is easy at college, where everyone’s engaged in writing all the time. Outside the college setting, though, finding someone willing to listen can be a challenge.800px-Anker_Sonntagnachmittag_1861 People are busy. Few have time to sit still for an hour while some verbose writer drones on. That’s how they’ll imagine it when you propose reading to them. We Americans have lost—or never had—the habit of listening to people read. We had only the shallowest tradition of serial novels, released chapter by chapter as Dickens’ novels were and read to the whole family at fireside. And no comfy pubs—without blaring TVs—like the one where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their writer buddies hung out, drank beer, and read their work to one another. Writers who give public readings these days will tell you it’s hard to get even close friends to attend. Our lives are too busy for read-alouds.

I often recommend to writer friends that they make use of the lonely people in their lives: shut-in relatives, kid-imprisoned friends who wish they had a grownup to talk to, recently retired colleagues with time on their hands. 1280px-Anker-_Die_Andacht_des_Grossvaters_1893It sounds terrible, this “making use” of others, taking advantage of their neediness to assuage your own, but in my experience such mutual exchanges not only helped my writing but also transformed intended acts of mercy—“I should spend more time with my mother-in-law,” I was always telling myself—into pleasurable time together, which we both looked forward to. My mother-in-law not only got longed-for company but also felt needed; I got my warm body but also genuine enjoyment, without having to chide myselfHugo_Bürkner_Lesestunde (usually in vain) to, as Paul recommends, “give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9.7 NRSV). The mutual benefit, I found, guaranteed that cheerfulness, for both of us—because attentive listening and being listened to can’t help but nurture relationships.

My daughter Lulu has been on semester break from college for the past month, with a couple more weeks to go. It’s tricky having a grown daughter home that long. We’ve long since put our Christmas CDs away, but I’m still in the throes of Bing Crosby’s parental prophecy for the season: “And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again!”

Luckily, Lulu’s engrossed in the final revision stages of her senior project—a hundred-Amédée_Guérard_Bibelstundepage translation of and critical introduction to an East German book—and I’m busy trying to cut 30,000 words from a novel before sending it out, so we have tasks to distract us from the inevitable mother-daughter combat. Also, since we’re in about the same place in our revisions—where what we need most is to hear them aloud and find out if they work—we’ve established a read-aloud schedule: I read her a couple short chapters during her late breakfast, and she reads me one long chapter while I trim vegetables for dinner.

I can’t say it’s the perfect exchange my mother-in-law and I had. Lulu doesn’t end my readings, as my mother-in-law always did, with “That’s the best thing you’ve ever written!” And, as a writer and teacher of writing, I give more critical feedback than Lulu really wants. But our reading fills two hours of our day with mostly pleasurable, mutually beneficial work. More importantly, the listening involved gives us both practice, at this complex juncture of our parental-filial journey, in navigating our new relationship as related but separate adults. As peers, in other words. Equals. Reciprocally heard, appreciated, and loved.

5 Ways to Add Humor to Your Writing

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Humor is a life-giving stress reliever and ice breaker. I often sprinkle my talks, articles and books with funny word pictures and phrases, because laughter opens a reader/listener’s heart to the serious points I want to make. Thankfully, my home is full of crazy guys (including my husband, who’s the most hilarious person I’ve ever met) and I’m a ditzy, accident-prone bundle of midlife hormones. Thus, I’m never short on material.

It’s true that humor, like writing, is an innate gift, and some people have it in abundance. Others…well, not so much. However, certain aspects of both crafts can be taught. As a follow-up to this popular post, here are a few ways to humorously pump up your prose:

1. Wordplay.

Mae West said, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” Classic!

Cultivate your LOL quotient by reading children’s books, which are full of 1362536802le12smarvelous wordplay. Humor writers and comedians are childlike spirits–playing constantly with sounds, alliteration, and rhyme. Let loose a little, and see what happens.

2. Exaggeration.

Never stop at one when fourteen will do. In humor, less is not more and more is better. Erma Bombeck, one of my all-time favorites, was a master at exaggeration: “I’ve exercised with women so thin that buzzards followed them to their cars.”

Remember George Burns? He often exaggerated about his age: “When I was a boy the Dead Sea was alive.”

3. Surprise.

When my nine-year-old saw that our local drive-in was up for sale, he said, “Mom, I’m sad about that. It’s such an iconic part of our town.” I laughed because I was surprised that he knew the word at all, let alone used it correctly.

Want your reader to laugh? Take a phrase and change the ending to something unexpected, like Jim Carrey did:  “Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.” Stephen Wright makes a living by crafting surprise endings to one-liners: “A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me, I’m afraid of widths.”

4. Parody.

“Weird” Al Yankovich has been doing parody songs for years. More recently, Christian comedians Tim Hawkins (“Cletus, Take the Reel,” etc.) and Anita Renfroe (“All the Wrinkled Ladies”) have gotten into the act. There’s even a clever parody of the infamous song “Blurred Lines” called “Church Signs.” The writers make fun of Christians’ tendency to preach mini-sermons with little plastic letters.

A word of caution (especially for Christian writers): let’s be careful when poking fun at other people. Sarcasm can be soul-crushing, as can insult humor. Remember the Golden Rule.

5. Learn from the best.

Read funny writers, watch comedy videos on Netflix, take courses in humor writing, or read books about the craft. You can also hire professional humor writers to spice up your work (I did this with the first book proposal I sold, and learned a ton from the experience.)

While you’re learning, though, remember to be yourself and not a copy of someone else. Readers can tell when you’re trying to force a joke, and it will make them uncomfortable. Find a style of humor you like, and try it on for size. Ask for opinions from people you trust–if it doesn’t fit, simply try another.

Most of all, have fun!

How have you used humor in your writing?

Facing Your Fears as a Writer

Photo/TaraRoss

Write down for the coming generation what the Lord has done, so that people not yet born will praise him. (Ps. 102:18 GNT)

I’m always looking for ways to encourage people to tell the stories that matter most. As a writing instructor, I’ve often observed the need for others to tell their stories.

Passing along our faith and family stories helps us make sense of some of the crucial issues that we face in life. When Christians begin telling the stories that matter most, lives change and hearts heal.

But fear silences the voices of many Christians, preventing them from telling their stories. And if you’ve considered writing for publication for any length of time at all, you’ve probably faced the emotion of fear in your work. Many obstacles keep us from telling our stories—personal insecurities, writer’s block, or a variety of excuses.

Excuses. I can think of so many examples through the years when I just sat back and waited on someone else to do something that I knew I needed to do myself. And I can always come up with an excuse about why I can’t do something.

Before my own children became independent, I often reminded them, “Delayed obedience is disobedience.” I never wanted Adam and Tara to be afraid of me, but I knew delayed obedience might be dangerous and harmful at times. But even though my instructions were motivated out of my love and concern for them, they often resisted. Yet I persisted in my discipline. I prayed that they would learn obedience as children, so they would obey God and their God-given authorities as adults.

I even offer myself excuses now, when I don’t want to do something, like making my bed. What does it matter if my husband Dan does that? It’s his bed, too! And our unmade bed obviously bothers him more than it does me anyway.

But what about the things that God calls me to do? What kind of excuses do I use to attempt to justify my disobedience?

  • That’s not my “gift.”
  • I’m not trained to do that.
  • What do I have to say?
  • I’m not a “good” speaker (writer, teacher, blogger … whatever).

Insecurities. As I searched the Bible to try to find some answers to my problem of fear, I discovered that I was in good company.

In fact, when God called Moses to lead His people out of bondage, “ … Moses protested to God, ‘Who am I to appear before Pharaoh? Who am I to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt?’” (Ex. 3:11 NLT).

Moses knew that this assignment was way out of his area of expertise and experience. And Moses knew that he couldn’t do this impossible task in his own strength or with his limited wisdom. But his awareness of his own limitations proved to be one of Moses’ greatest leadership qualities. It forced him to become totally dependent upon God.

Do you think that God was shocked by Moses’ questions and concerns? I don’t.

Promises. In fact, God responded to Moses with the assurance of His presence, not His judgment. “God answered, ‘I will be with you’” (3:12).

I don’t believe that my questions surprise God, either. God still promises to always be with us today. “… And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20).

And He also promises to provide all that we need to do what He calls us to do.

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished … ” (Phil. 1:6).

What’s keeping you from telling the stories that matter most to you?

Photo/TaraRoss
YouTube/JoshWilsonVEVO (“I Refuse”)

Thank You, Doctors

compassI have a secret to share with you.

When I create characters for my novels, I often call on the expertise of two renowned psychologists. Their names are Carl Jung and Isabel Briggs Myers. Many of us know their work in the form of the theory of psychological typology, or the personality inventory called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I’ve found that once I start developing a character, I can turn to the Myers-Briggs personality types to fill out the outline of a character with true-to-life traits and behaviors using the four categories of personality type. In short, it’s like a cheat sheet for character creation.

Let’s look at an example using the first piece of the four-part MBTI.

I’ve got a rather demanding physicist I want to cast as my reluctant hero. As an academic, he fits the Introvert (I) type, rather than the Extrovert (E): he prefers private time, doesn’t do well in crowds, and is sometimes so wrapped up in his thoughts that he’s oblivious to what’s happening around him. I’d say that’s a good description of a physicist who loves to work long hours in a research lab. However, since I want him to come across as blunt and insensitive, I’m going to throw in a little Extrovert: he tends to act first, and reflect later, in social situations he finds challenging.

Here’s the scene I’m working on: After finishing a 20-hour stint in the lab, the physicist is awakened from a deep sleep by an insistent knocking at his front door.

Here’s the question I have to answer as the author: Is he going to greet the visitor with a smile, because he can’t wait to share the big discovery he made during that lab marathon? Or is he going to roll over and refuse to come to the door?

I decide he’s going to roll over and pull the pillow over his head in true Introvert style.

But the knocking continues. He has to do something to make it stop because it’s infringing on his solitude, which he craves.

Grudgingly, he drags himself out of bed; he’s not going to be a happy camper when he opens that door. Nor does he want to talk with anyone (this is an awkward social situation, remember!), but because of that bit of Extrovert quality (act first, think later), he ends up jerking open the door. When he see’s it’s his least favorite colleague from work, he blurts out a rude, “What are you doing here?”.

By using the MBTI as my guide, I’ve accomplished several things, such as giving him consistent character traits, motivation for his actions, and even the beginning of a conflict with another character.

By the time I identify the other three parts of his personality type – Sensing (S) or Intuitive (N), Thinking (T) or Feeling (F), Judging (J) or Perceiving (P) – I’ll have the keys to his actions in any situation my plot throws at him.

How do you make your characters come to life?

Amish Aliens Stole My Baby

Not really, but sure grabbed your attention, eh? And that’s the point of this post.

Calm down. I hear you. You’re a novel writer, not a journalist. Why should you care about catchy headlines? Isn’t that a lame gimmick better left to the National Enquirer?

Actually, no.

Mastering the art of grabbing the reader’s attention is a valuable skill every writer should hone.

In case you haven’t noticed, the written word is exploding from one end of the spectrum to another, from e-books to self-published hard copies to blogs. Getting your work to stand out from the crowd is more important than ever.

Which begs the question: How does one grab a reader by the throat? There are many ways, but here are a few to toss into your writerly toolbox:

Shock and Awe

This is one of the tactics I employed with my blog post title. Think controversial. Think stunning. Think outside the box. This method is most often used by rabble-rousers who get a secret thrill out of rattling cages.

Warm Fuzzies

If you start off with something everyone can relate to on an emotional level, you’ll draw in the human side of the reader. It’s a pull that’s hard to resist. In my example, I tossed in the word baby. Emotions are what set us apart from the rest of the mammals. Well, that and opposable thumbs.

Trendy Tidbit

The ol’ People magazine approach, naming what’s hip or what’s not. Naturally this works better for contemporaries than historicals…but not always. Amish is a buzzword right now, which is why I chose it for my post title.

Opposites Attract

Jumbo shrimp. Government intelligence. Amish aliens. Put two incongruous words together, and if they’re not cliché, people will sit up and take notice.

Now then, where to employ these attention grabbing strategies? Obviously your entire manuscript can’t be outrageously intense. You’d burn out your brain and your reader would gasp for air. Nevertheless, there are key areas that require some eye-popping fancy footwork. These are:

– The first sentence of a book…better yet, make that the first sentence of every chapter.

– The last sentence of each chapter. Force your reader to turn the page.

– Back cover copy. Often this is where you reel ‘em in or break the deal.

– The one-liner that sums up your entire novel.

So go ahead. Give this a whirl. Don’t be afraid to stand out from the crowd, especially when it comes to your writing. Hopefully you’ll attract the attention of an editor, not an Amish Alien.

And if you’re brave enough, share with us your re-written stunning first line of your current project (fiction or non-fiction).

The Craft of Writing

The dictionary defines ‘craft’ by making references to skill, dexterity, cunning, and even deceit. Of course, it is normally associated with a deft manual skill to produce a thing of value or beauty. Trying to decide exactly what is the good and acceptable product of a skilled craftsman we then descend rapidly into the shadowy realms of subjectivity.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison and all that.

I have just been reading George Orwell’s little manifesto entitled ‘Why I Write,’ which he published in 1946, the year I was born. Orwell was undoubtedly a craftsman, knew his craft well, and was literate and articulate enough to write succinctly about it. In the early part of the book, he lists what he believes to be the four main reasons, or motives, why a person would want to seriously write.

  1. Egoism
  2. Aesthetic
  3. Historical
  4. Political

The first motive is probably the strongest driver, if we are honest enough to admit to it. It is the desire to be seen to be clever, to be talked about, to be on the New York Times Best Seller List and even to be remembered after our death, though we won’t be around to bask in the glory.

Becoming a writer is an odd desire in many ways. What I mean is, if you want to be a painter, a carpenter, an engineer, a dentist or a doctor, it is assumed you will have to be trained and fully learn your craft before you can produce or do anything really good.

To become a writer is somehow different from all the other professions, in that you can go to university to study English literature and attend creative writing courses run by eminent successful writers. In the UK, I imagine hundreds do just this, and I guess in the USA it probably numbers in the thousands. But somehow it doesn’t quite work out in the same way as for the people who study diligently to become craftsmen in other disciplines. In my doctor’s office, I see on the wall his credentials proudly displayed–the Medical Certificate, which says he can practice as a GP. I look at that and trust him implicitly.

If writers had consulting rooms, like doctors, and I saw on the wall the University degrees in literature, philosophy, history and the like, would I assume that the holder of these prestigious awards was a great writer? We all know the answer to this question. It’s a simple, unvarnished ‘no’.

The craft of writing can be taught. The craft of learning to become a writer can be learnt, but it doesn’t guarantee that the student will be a great or even a good writer. But why doesn’t it?

Returning to George Orwell and his little essay ‘Why I write,’ he says this about considering what makes a good writer: “…it has to do with the writer’s early development; his subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in, by his acquired emotional attitudes, his temperament, his maturity and not forgetting the all-important motives, listed above.”

From the point of view given in the paragraphs above it is clear that learning the craft of writing is not enough. We can partition this activity as the objective study of writing. All the rest is established in the subjective department of the writer. This latter realm cannot be taught. It is indeterminate, unique, special, incalculable, complex, mystical, beautiful, tangible yet ephemeral, and at some precious moment even eternal.

It is the human psyche which holds the secret. What pours out onto the ‘tabular rasa’ is a miracle at times. Where does it come from? It comes from the life within. It can be good, bad and ugly, but when it is truly creative and inspired, it shows. And more importantly readers know it too. It becomes a shared experience par excellence. It binds us together in unity. It applauds the human race. It raises us out of the mire and places us firmly on the mountain top. Hallelujah!

PS – For some other writers’ views see :

  1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
  2. Ernest Hemingway on Writing, by Larry W. Phillips
  3. On Writing: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft, by David Jauss