The Terrifying Incident of the Blank Page

My underarms prickled with sweat. I could hear my own breathing, shorter and faster. My stomach clenched. I wanted to get away, but I couldn’t move.

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In front of me sat a glowing, 13-inch screen. It was blank. And it was my job to fill it.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had days when thoughts sludge through your brain like cold honey. That empty white rectangle waiting for a thousand words is a nightmare. And while many writers have faced this horror and lived to give us hope, sometimes their pithy advice needs substantial clarification.

All Writing is Rewriting

How often have you heard some variation on this axiom?

“Writing is 85% rewriting,” says the encourager. “Fill that page without fear because whatever you write will be turned inside out and upside down anyway. You might as well get started. Nothing to lose!”

You Can Fix Bad Writing, But There’s No Fix For A Blank Page

Sound familiar? It’s another gem intended to inspire writers. This is for the writer afraid to sully the pure white page with their imperfect prose.

“But that’s perfectly fine!” says this particular voice of encouragement. “Bravo! What a great mess! Now let’s fix it.”

I Drank the Kool-Aid

No, it’s not another writing-related axiom, I just mean that I believed the two I’ve already mentioned, wholeheartedly. And they were very effective. They powered me through the first draft of my first novel. When I felt stuck, I just kept writing, because whatever I wrote could be made better at some later time.

Then one choice changed everything.

Truth is Harder Than Fiction

I decided to revise my second novel for publication. And like the hapless teenaged victim in a horror film, I soon realized that the first fright was not the climax of the story, but just a hint of what lay ahead.

Somewhere along the way, I had extrapolated from my inspiring axioms that populating a blank page is the scariest part of writing.

Well, as it turned out, 39,762 of my own inadequate words were even more frightening than a blank screen. I spent hours in front of my computer shifting a few sentences, making notes, and reformatting chapters.  But I was frozen with fear in front of that glowing screen. I had never done this before, not with a project of this magnitude. Could I really do it?

Fight or Flight

I finally had to make a decision. Would I battle my way toward a better manuscript, or as I had done with my first novel, shove this second project to the back of a closet and start something new? I chose to fight. My goal of being a published author could not be realized by filling the back corner of my closet with first drafts.

As I slowly, uncertainly, awkwardly started revisions, I began to appreciate what I had not understood before.

“All writing is rewriting” doesn’t necessarily mean that the stages of writing are progressively easier. It means that a piece of writing is a constant work in progress until it’s placed into the hands of the reader. It means that no mediocre sentence, lousy characterization, weak story structure or poor edit is the final word.

I didn’t have to get it all right when I wrote my first draft, and I didn’t have to get it perfect with every revision choice either. But I did have to keep writing. And I knew I could do that. How did I know it? I had made it through the first drafts of two novels.

I knew how to keep writing.

Home Free

Well, okay, not quite. Revising is hard work–don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. But once I had faced my fears about tackling revisions, I took the same approach that had carried me through the end of writing my first drafts.

I made a plan and worked at it a little each day. When I got off track I didn’t beat myself up or quit. I adjusted my plan and kept working. I found bits of time here and there to write and worked as quickly as I could for that small amount of time.

Now, a couple of months later, I’m just weeks away from finishing this once terrifying stage of writing. Or should I say rewriting?

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P.S. I’ve read that most writers prefer one stage of writing over another. Would you rather write a first draft or revise something you’ve already written?

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