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?

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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