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.

adult-black-and-white-body-271418 (1)

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?

ksignature21

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?

Advertisements

How to Write a Novel in Ten Years

france landmark water clouds
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.

ksignature21