Friday, March 8, 2013

Blank Page Jitters: That In-between Time for Writers

I have fallen into what I call that ‘in-between time’ for writers. That period of uncertainty between the finished novel and the not-yet started one. It can be unsettling. A time of doubts before you starting putting words down on paper.

Pestering questions always surface as you wander through this literary morass: Can I do this again? Will my next story idea be a flop? Will readers finally see my flaws and failings that I have been hiding? How can I possibly maintain this story idea through another 112,000-word marathon? 

This will be my sixth novel and I go through this little mind game every time. You would think I’d learn. I have learned a few tricks from other authors, ways to escape this momentary mental freeze. Let me share.

I try to fill this time by staying busy. For example, this week I am waiting for my manuscript, Broken Allegiance, to come back from my editor. As I wait, I began editing a previously completed novel that will become a sequel to Broken Allegiance. I play catch up by writing articles for my two blogs like this one right now. All this time, however, my thoughts return to the next novel I want to write. All I have at this moment is a great title and a vague concept of what the story might be about. I know there are more than four-hundred blank pages waiting for me to fill. So I freeze…momentarily.

One of my dilemmas is the desire to make the next novel better than the last. Writing the same stuff just won’t cut it. I need to push myself to come up with a novel that is leaner, better, deeper, and broader in scope than my last. A novel that creates a relationship between readers and my characters closer than Bogart and Bacall when they weren’t fighting.

I came across this statement from Ernest Hemingway from his Nobel Price acceptance speech he wrote in 1954:

“For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

Just add more pressure, Papa!

Really? Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed!”  Give me a break. The word might does not promise success.

All kidding aside, I think Papa really does a good job of trying to explain what a writer should be focusing on when they start the next novel. Make it better. Push you limits.

But writers can become paralyzed by their own expectations. How can one push past this and begin to write their novel. My good friend, author James Scott Bell, in his great how-to book, The Art of War for Writers, sums it up this way:

We all reach points in our writing that are like ‘the wall’ marathon runners experience. It seems we can’t go on, and we start to wonder if we ought to just scotch the whole writing thing. (To “scotch” means either to [a] give it up; or [b] drink it into oblivion. I recommend neither).

My first wall is that blank page. Getting that first sentence down. Then a paragraph. A scene. E. L. Doctorow wrote: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

One sentence at a time. Just get something down on paper. If your mind blanks, use any trick you can think of. Jim Bell suggests that writers try opening a novel at random, look at the first complete line on the left-hand page, and put that line in your novel. Start a scene with it. When you finish, cut the first line and substitute one of your own. His list of wall-breaking suggestion goes on. He summarizes this way: Do something, anything, to help get words down on paper, to push past whatever wall you have encountered.

Lastly, let me share a few ideas from other writers:

Anton Chekhov: “If you look at anything long enough, say just that wall in front of you -- it will come out of that wall.”

William Faulkner: “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it's the only way you can do anything really good.”

William Campbell Gault: “If you haven't got an idea, start a story anyway. You can always throw it away, and maybe by the time you get to the fourth page you will have an idea, and you'll only have to throw away the first three pages.”

Somerset Maugham: “All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary -- it's just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.”

J. B. Priestly: “Perhaps it would be better not to be a writer, but if you must, then write. If all feels hopeless, if that famous 'inspiration' will not come, write. If you are a genius, you'll make your own rules, but if not - and the odds are against it - go to your desk no matter what your mood, face the icy challenge of the paper - write.”

As a bit of encouragement, I like this tongue-in-cheek advice from Sidney Sheldon: “A blank piece of paper is God's way of telling us how hard it to be God.”

I don’t know about other writers, but once I have a story in mind and I start living this fictional life with my characters—words start to flow. For me it becomes an exciting journey with a lot of highs and low before the final scene. I never know exactly what is going to happen, but like E. L. Doctorow’s analogy of driving a car at night, I take one scene at a time as we travel through this literary darkness, letting the headlights of creativity carry me further down the road until my journey ends.

How do you break through the wall?

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