If you find staring down a blank page terrifying, know you’re in good company. A search on Pinterest for writing quotes shows that at least half of them have to do with braving the blank page.
Prolific writers and gifted writers alike confess to an absolute terror when sitting down with a fresh scene, but they’ve learned the tools to tame their fears. Here are a few tips to get you started.
1) Start early in the day. Your mind is at its best after a good night’s sleep, and your book deserves that best. Even if all you can give in the morning is half an hour before getting the family up or heading off to work, getting a few paragraphs written gives you that dose of courage that makes you feel as if you can finish the scene later in the day.
2) Outline or jot down a few notes beforehand. Having the skeleton of what you’ll write gives you a good start, even if you veer off in different directions once you begin writing. I’m no outliner, but writing down a few key points for the scene ahead gives me the feeling that I’m not staring into an abyss when I look at the blank page.
3) Remember the first draft is just the clay. It’s rough. It’s flawed. And that’s okay. Later you’ll mold it into something beautiful, once you’ve got something written down to work with. As the popular Nora Roberts quote goes, “I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank one.”
4) End your day’s writing in mid-stream. This was Hemingway’s technique. By leaving his day’s work where he still had something to write, he guaranteed that he would have the words to begin the next day’s work.
5) Prime the pump. Write anything at all, even if it’s not your story. John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in a notebook. Each day, he wrote a letter on the left-hand page to his editor and friend, sometimes about the work, but often about family, politics. and whatever interested him. Once he finished his letter, he was ready to fill the right-hand page with the next scene in his novel.
6) Write quickly. Too much thought might be what holds you back. Writing fast allows your subconscious to take over, and you might be surprised with what it brings up to the surface.
7) Jot down random words. Ray Bradbury typed up lists of nouns and adjectives, reviving old childhood fears and fascinations, and remembering recent beauties and horrors. When he was stuck, he always found something in the list to get him writing.
8) Focus on the page, not the novel. A page per day makes for a 365-page novel in a year, but breaking the task down makes it less frightening.
9) Remember the joy. Writer’s block, obstacles in the writing, marketing, the difficulty in getting published, or finding time to write can all make writing a burden. Remember what brought you here in the first place – the love of words, dreaming up stories, bringing healing to the world, or whatever it is. Stick with that and forget the rest.
10) Read and read some more. “One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment,” Hart Crane said. Read poetry. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. And you’ll be so saturated with words and ideas, you’ll have the material to work with. Even better, start your writing day by reading a page of someone else’s breathtaking writing.
There are probably dozens of other ideas where those came from. Ask other writers. But most importantly, ask yourself. What gives you the courage to write?