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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A Tale of Two Novels

Are you stuck in the middle of writing your first novel and can’t imagine ever writing “the end?”

Maybe writing doesn’t “fit” with your life right now. Or you can’t find the time. Or the confidence.

I understand.

It took me nearly a decade to write my first novel. My second novel took six months.

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Why the difference? Did I take a course that taught me how to write faster? Is there a tip, trick, or 10-step method I can share?

Nope.

I know. You’re not surprised. Those were dumb suggestions. And you’re not dumb. You know as well as anyone what it takes to finish a writing project. You plant your backside in a chair and do the work. Writers write. Right?

Yep.

So, I don’t have a formula or any sure-fire novel writing tips, but I’d like to share my experience with you. So much of what I have learned and continue to learn as a writer is gleaned from authors who take the time to share their knowledge.  Maybe my story will help you.

Context Matters 

During the decade that I  started, stopped, dreamed about, and restarted my first novel, I had five kids, moved three times, and began homeschooling our children. I didn’t have much spare time. (Or sleep.) Any free time I had was usually interrupted so many times it wasn’t truly free. I longed to write that first novel, but for many years it seemed impossible. In the end, it took me a full year to write the first draft, and that was after years of planning, plotting,  outlining, starting, stopping, and beginning again. Did I lose all the distractions when I was writing my second novel? Were there fewer demands on my time?

Yes and no. My children were all older when I began the second novel. They were all out of diapers, able to dress and feed themselves and play alone or together for extended periods of time. For the first time in over a decade, I could work at least a half hour without interruption. If I stayed up late it was usually by choice, and I could sleep later in the morning to make up for it. However, I was still a full-time homeschooling mom of five kids. There were plenty of demands on my time. But, I had learned something about writing and time when I wrote my first novel.

What did I learn?

Every Minute Counts

I had to ditch some fantasies in order to write faster. Dreams like eight hour writing days, or week-long retreats. I will never, in this season of my life, have long stretches of time in which to write. Not consistently anyway. In fact, the only consistent feature of my writing time is that it’s inconsistent. The time I have available changes from week to week, sometimes from day to day. You know what is consistent?

I have time. It may be five minutes. It may be an hour while my kids play in the backyard. It may be five minutes five times throughout the day.  It may be two hours in the morning before everyone else wakes up. It may be thirty minutes at the library while a kid finds books. It may be four hours on a weekend night when I decide to stay up late because I can sleep in the next morning. I have time. I can write a sentence or two in five minutes. And every sentence moves me closer to typing “The End.”

Yes, you’re right. It is often hard to write in erratic spurts. It’s frustrating.

But here’s the truth. I’ve chosen this life, with these priorities. If I want to write, I either do it within the constraints of my personal circumstances or, like I did for many years, I use the constraints of my personal circumstances as an excuse not to write.

I chose to write. I wrote a few minutes one day. I wrote a few hours the next night. I mined my life for precious nuggets of time that I exchanged for words on a page. At the end of six months, all of those minutes added up to the first draft of a new novel. 

I learned another valuable lesson from writing my first novel.

What I Can See Determines Where I Will Go

When I began my first novel I just wanted to write a book. My ideas about what happened after the first draft were a little vague. Oh, I knew it would need editing, an agent, and a publisher, but in the end, I just wanted to finish the novel. And in the end, that’s all I did.

It’s true that I had other priorities and plenty of distractions during the ten years it took to write my first novel. It’s also true that elongating the early planning stages and meandering toward the finish line were natural consequences of limited vision.

In contrast, when I committed to writing my second novel, I started with the furthest end goal I could imagine. I wanted to be a published novelist and publish regularly for as long as I am able. I imagined myself fifteen years in the future with ten to fifteen published books to my credit. Then I worked backward from that point to the present day. I noted the goals I would need to achieve along the way. By the time I  began writing, I had a far different mindset than when I started my first novel. Completing my manuscript was just one step toward a long-term goal. That final destination inspired me to make the most of spare moments and write quickly.

Finally, writing my first novel gave me something I couldn’t get any other way.

Experience Boosts Confidence

Doubt poked and prodded me while I wrote my first novel. Will I really finish? Who do I think I am, a real writer? Other people write novels, not someone like me. Can I do this?

I had never written a novel before. Some days I got stuck and feared I would never get unstuck. Other days I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with my brain. Some days I struggled to type one sentence. Many days I thought writing was a miserable waste of time. I slogged through to the end for two reasons. I didn’t want to turn forty with this dream unfulfilled, and I wanted to finish telling the story I had started.

Thanks to that experience, when I started my second novel there were several things I knew to be true. First, I can write a novel. Second, some writing days are brilliant, others are miserable, most are somewhere in between. Third, since my work needs revision no matter how well I write, it’s better to write quickly than to write like I can get it perfect the first time.

As for those questions I had while writing my first novel? When I wrote my second novel I had answers. Yes. I will finish. Yes. I am a real writer. (Exhibit A: Me, sitting here writing.) Yes. People like me write novels. People who are older, busier, less educated, better educated, less likely to do so for a variety of reasons have written novels. Yes. I can do this. (Exhibit B: Completed first novel.) Yes. Yes. Yes.

It never once crossed my mind that I wouldn’t finish my second novel. When I take my son to the playground across the street from our house, I don’t doubt that we’ll cross the street. We can’t reach our destination if we don’t cross the street. Similarly, I can’t be a published author if I don’t write a book. There was never any doubt. But I had to slog through the first book to earn that confidence.

If you’re struggling to finish your first novel, bear in mind that it might just be a warm-up for everything that comes afterward.

  • If you haven’t yet done so, clarify your goal. Are you just trying to finish a book, or do you have aspirations beyond writing “the end?”
  • Be honest with yourself about the limitations of your current context so that you can figure out how to work with them.
  • Look for untapped pockets of time to devote to your project.

While there’s no guarantee that subsequent books will be easier to write (sorry!), finishing your first novel will teach you valuable lessons about how you work best and give you the confidence that you have the ability to finish.

What comes after might just be a different story altogether.

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How to Write a Novel in Ten Years

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If you’ve read it, you know. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

 

I recently read a Pulitzer Prize winner that took the writer about a decade to complete. What a coincidence!  My first novel took me nearly ten years to finish. Now, I doubt Anthony Doerr followed my process when he knocked together All the Light We Cannot See, but if you’re looking to write a novel and want to take as long as possible, here are a few tips.

  1. Spend a year or two (or more!) dreaming about writing a novel. It’s very important that you not actually write at this point, unless you write about how much you want to write a novel. Other important activities include fantasizing about any of the following: scoring the highest advance ever paid out to a debut novelist; holding a hardbound copy of your novel in your hand; winning a Nobel Prize; your hometown awarding you the key to the city; adoring fans trampling booksellers to acquire your latest release, etc. It may also help to spend time with other people who “have always wanted to write a book!”
  2. Procrastination by Preparation. There’s so much to do, it’s amazing that anyone ever actually writes a book. First, you should read about writing. Books on craft, genre-specific writing advice, industry magazines, and memoirs can keep you busy for years. Reading blogs about writing is also useful. Write short stories and blog posts to help you “develop your voice.” If you run out of ideas feel free to revisit the first step. Don’t start until you feel ready.
  3. Wait for Validation. Should you really try to write a novel? Isn’t that for real writers? If you hang in there long enough, a spouse, friend, coworker, or your mom may give you permission to call yourself a writer. Then you can start. If you feel ready. (Note: this never actually worked for me.)
  4. Begin without actually writing. Spend as much time as possible researching, world-building, creating character sketches, and plotting. Tell yourself that you’re a planner. Then spend at least a year planning to write.
  5. Allow life events to interfere as much as possible. Have five kids and decide to homeschool them. Obviously, your priorities will shift. Spare time to write will dwindle. Move three times in three years. (I’m having traumatic flashbacks, so I’ll just leave that there.)
  6. Look at the time! Realize that you have been “working” on your first novel for nearly eight years. Mid-life is not as far away as it used to be and you don’t want it to arrive before your novel does.
  7. It’s time to write. Recognize that you have planned, plotted, and sketched this thing to death. There’s nothing left to do but actually write. (Don’t panic. Keep reading.)
  8. Share your dream. Choose someone who doesn’t care if you’re really a writer or not. Choose someone who will cheer you on if you want to be a writer or a world-famous butter sculptor. They’re so supportive, they hold you accountable to your writing plan.
  9. Sit down and write. Oh. It’s hard. Wish you had started this eight years ago. Stop and write a detailed outline for the entire novel because your insecure, rickety train needs rails. This might take a month or two.
  10. Sit down again and write. It’s still hard. Do it anyway. Let your friend hold you accountable. Write some more. Repeat until you finish your first draft less than a year later. It’s pretty awful, but you read Bird by Bird when you were procrastinating six years ago, so you know this is okay.

I can’t guarantee a Pulitzer Prize, but if you follow my plan, you will certainly take many years to complete a novel. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn a few things along the way. Writing your second novel may just be a different story altogether.

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Writing Life

“Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.”
~Anne Lamott
“Getting Started”
Bird by Bird

“No matter how far I venture outside my own experience, I also know that I am who I am, and that my work will always reflect my character regardless of whether I want it to.”
~Ann Patchett
“The Getaway Car”
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

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K. Ashby

Short Story: Three Chickens

As I explained in an earlier post, I like to use short fiction exercises to better acquaint myself with characters from a longer work. Sometimes I finish with a paragraph or two that puts a little flesh on an otherwise thin character; sometimes I gain a better sense of the character’s voice, and sometimes a short story takes shape. The latter happened a couple of years ago when I sat down to learn a bit more about a character in my first novel.

Tonda Neeley is a young single mother working as a secretary in an elementary school. She’s hardworking. She has a good relationship with her daughter. She’s also caustic, defensive, and particularly pugnacious with her direct supervisor. I knew that Tonda had suffered a few knocks growing up: her father died when she was very young; her mother struggled financially and without fiscal or emotional support from either her or her husband’s family; and, Tonda herself married young and chose her mate unwisely.

I knew the rough patches.  I also wanted to know what made her strong enough to be a good mom, move far from home and grind out a better life for her and her kid or I risked reducing her to a stereotype: the single mom with a tough background. So, when the phrase, “When Tonda Neeley left her husband, she took her daughter, two pockets crammed with loose change, and three frozen chickens” looped through my mind one day, I grabbed it and began to write. And very quickly, a story took shape. It was a story that showed me Tonda’s first courageous step away from sure destruction and toward life, away from abuse and neglect, toward the nurturing community of her childhood home and neighborhood.

When Tonda Neeley left her husband, she took her daughter, two pockets crammed with loose change and three frozen chickens. She had to walk, of course, and the chickens made the whole thing awkward.  Still, she figured that walking thirty-one blocks in the summer heat would start them thawing pretty quick, and when she and Lainey got to her mother’s house, they would roast them and invite the neighbors. Anyone who wanted could come and eat those chickens. They would all devour them, brown skins crisped in real butter, chopped herbs steamed against the pink flesh turned white in the oven. Every bite tender, running with juices, savory and comforting. This is what  filled her mind, pounding against the inner walls of her skull as she gripped her daughter’s thin hand and stepped off the cement front step of their home.

An hour or two of writing and rewriting produced a rough draft and cleared a nasty case of writer’s doldrums. Uncounted moments of editing here and there, in the quiet moments, resulted in a short story,  “Three Chickens”, published last month by Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.  (If you like, you can read the full story here.)

I always like my characters more after getting to know them better, even the awful ones. (And Tonda can be pretty awful.) Kind of like real people.

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Short Stories

I have written two short stories solely for the purpose of exploring individual characters from a longer work. There were two benefits to this exercise. First, I got a firmer grasp on each character’s motivations. Second, I was able to procrastinate on the longer work and still claim to be writing.  The following excerpt is the first couple of pages from one of these exploratory shorts.

She drove from the east, and the sunrise glowed from behind her, softening the dry, ragged contours of her destination. For a moment, it seemed that the town regained its youthful flush and swagger when bulging cattle cars lumbered from its tiny depot to Chicago slaughterhouses, and tankers, swollen with oil, slid in from the west.  Ivy ignored the illusion. She knew that the mid-day sun would burn it away and return her hometown to its weary habit.

Minutes later she parked in front of her mother’s home on a street of neat one-story houses that were pounded together at the end of World War II. Once as bright and eager as the newlyweds crossing their porches, these homes now squatted comfortably, their faces faded and worn from years of raising families.

A sidewalk, cracked and uneven, led to her mother’s front yard where a courageous bit of garden welcomed visitors.  It was a lush patch in the small town where much of the landscaping looked as if the owners had left for vacation and forgot to pay the neighbor’s kid to water the yard. There were roses, lavender,ornamental grasses, and tough succulents. There were heavy blossoms reaching for the sun on stately stems, and shy shade-lovers creeping out from below the taller growth, anything her mother could keep alive in this reluctant earth.

In the kitchen, Ivy’s mother was just straightening up from the oven, and her hands, engulfed by quilted mitts, grasped the sides of a formidable roasting pan. The oven released its heat in a breath laden with roasted garlic, vegetables, and rich meat, the familiar Sunday afternoon fragrance of her mother’s kitchen.

“Sugar,” her mother exhaled the endearment as she set the pan onto waiting trivets, “Sugar, can you pop the casserole in there? I don’t think I can bend down again after that.”

“Sure Mama.”

After easing the oven door shut, Ivy straightened and turned to see her mother holding out a length of pressed red and white gingham. Tiny roosters strutted across the small checks.

“Don’t want you to splash anything on that pretty dress.” She gave the apron an impatient shake and then pressed it into Ivy’s hand.  “Would  you rather have mine? I think it’s longer–might even cover your whole skirt.”

“No, Mama, this is fine.” She ducked her head through the neck strap and fumbled with the ties before her mother stepped forward, and putting her arms around Ivy’s waist, secured the apron.

“Welcome home, baby girl.”

“Thanks Mama.” Ivy kissed her on the temple, right where her mother’s thick, blonde-white hair met the soft skin of her face, now reddened from her time in the cramped kitchen. “I don’t even wear these at home,” she admitted.

“Well. I know I always made you wear them in this kitchen.” Her mother paused in front of the refrigerator and stared for a moment at the faded red OKLAHOMA! magnet that memorialized her lone venture from her home state. “Remember the blue and white one with the eyelet lace?” She pulled the refrigerator door open, freeing a wisp of cool air to swirl at their legs, and began handing fruit to Ivy.

“I loved that apron!”She laid the fruit on the counter. Pineapple, banana, strawberry, kiwi. “Didn’t it have a rainbow on it?”

“No, no, no, that was your fourth-grade apron. You know, you loved to wear the blue one and pretend that you were Dorothy.” Her mother pulled a white paper napkin from her own apron pocket, folded it in half, and pressed it to her forehead  and above her upper lip.  “You would wear that apron all day and carry Stripey around in my wicker yarn basket calling him ‘Toto’. You made it to the grocery store once in that get-up and almost to church another time before we noticed.”

“That poor cat,” Ivy laid the pineapple across the cutting board and removed the top and bottom with quick, heavy strokes. “No wonder all his hair fell out before he died. I tortured him and Stanford medicated him.” She rubbed her thumb over the pineapple’s prickly surface and smiled, “I wonder what Stanford’s patients would think if they knew he started out on cats?”

Her mother frowned at the bowl she was cleaning, “Your brother’s patients adore him. Finish that fruit and toss it with the lime juice. Family will be here soon.”

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