How to write a book

Conquer the blank page – and a way to beat writer’s block

When you sit at the keyboard (or seize your writing irons), how certain are you about what you’re going to write?
I’m a big fan of plans, but sometimes they’re frustrating. We know the next point in the story but can’t get the characters there. We need to set up a development and it won’t work. Or we need something, anything to darn well happen.

This week I heard the broadcast journalist Libby Purves (@Lib_Thinks) ask two creatives about their processes, and the results were rather interesting (listen to it here) . They weren’t writers, but what they described was exceedingly familiar.

Katherine Hooker Nail Your Novel

The moment when you get the pencil out

Fashion designer Katherine Hooker (left) @KatherineHooker and furniture maker Peter Korn (below) (who has written this book about creativity) were asked about the moment ‘when you first get the pencil out and think now I’m going to create something‘.

peter korn - Nail Your Novel sml

Peter Korn immediately modified the idea. ‘Getting the pencil out is a challenging moment. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if you’re going to succeed or fail, or how long it will take to come up with something pleasing, until the pencil stumbles on the right thing.’

Katherine agreed. ‘Rather than making it happen, you see it happening. You see it presenting itself. And then you’re away, thinking this is good.’

Beginning without knowing what you’re aiming for.

Exploring until you stumble on the right thing.

Hold those thoughts.

So – what has this got to do with being stuck? And writing??

It’s this. Often I’ve found that when I’m stuck with a scene, or frustrated because I can’t find a the right story development, the thing to do is to step back. Remove the expectations.

Usually I’m blocked because there’s a possibility I haven’t seen. Or I’m forcing an unnatural direction, or a phase in the story is missing. Or I’m repeating a beat and haven’t yet recognised it, but the creative elf has put the brakes on. No, we can’t go there again.

Whatever the reason, I’ve found the way to solve it is to forget the plan and just write. I don’t know how long the solution will take, or how much I’m going to delete, but eventually, like Katherine, I’ll see it happening.
What’s more, I’ll find something more new and surprising. (Indeed, over the years I’ve come to see the creative process as a search for questions, instead of answers. More about that here. )

And this spirit of exploration was how these two people, one creating clothes and the other creating furniture, discovered what they wanted to make next.


Here’s another remark I liked from the interview. Peter Korn said: ‘If you draw a lot, you get to the stage where you can remove yourself and the pencil can do the thinking.’

That’s us with our craft, adding the building blocks of story and character, shaping the idea into crescendoes, crises, conflict, protagonists, antagonists, hooks, midpoints.

Blank page panic

We often fear the blank page, especially when it presents at an inconvenient time. But those who do discovery exercises, such as free writing, already know that if you start the fingers, the muse can spring wonderful surprises.

I’m sure someone is about to say ‘trust the process’. Sometimes that’s our craft knowledge. If your narrative’s flagging, check the structure, look for repetition, create more contrast in your subplots. Strengthen a character’s motive. Sometimes it’s our tools like beat sheets or Undercover Soundtracks.

Nail Your Novel tailorsAnd part of that process is also allowing time for invention and knowing when to welcome the blank page. Tailors do it. Table-makers do it. This is invention at its most pure. (pic from

So in summary, here are my tips for moments when you’re stuck:

1 Back up – are you trying to race ahead to the next development? Do you need more steps?
2 Is the next development really the right one? Subtract your assumptions and see if that frees your ideas.
3 Don’t expect results. Write, and accept that you don’t know if you’re going to succeed or fail.
4 Keep going until the solution presents itself – listen to your intuition, you’ll know when the right idea comes along.
5 Add craft – and stir. Or, with reference to Ursula K Le Guin, should that be steer?

3nynsThere’s lots more about unblocking techniques in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, and lots about plot and characters in the other two books in the series.

When you’re blocked, what do you do? Have you learned any interesting insights from creative people in other media? Let’s discuss.

14 thoughts on “Conquer the blank page – and a way to beat writer’s block

  1. Reblogged this on NTJT, Ph.D. and commented:
    A good read and reminder for anyone who writes (not just novelists) that the blank page can be a welcoming invitation (rather than a scary, deviant monster). Read the tips at the bottom (if you’re in a hurry).

  2. Hi Roz, I’ve recently started a new regime of making sure I do 1,000 words a day. When I don’t feel up to working on my main WIP, I’ve found the most productive thing I can do is to write about what my characters were up to before the story started. I generally write summaries rather than full scenes, but focus in on a bit of dialogue if it’s crucial. From this I’ve got a rich amount of backstory that only I will ever see but will inform my WIP massively. Now my characters have got all sorts of items they carry, grudges they hold and motivations they’re not even aware of.

    1. Hi Jon! That’s a smart idea. I did something similar when I was exploring around the ideas I’d use for Ever Rest. Not all of it can be used as story events, but it’s darn useful for fleshing everyone out. Nice tip.

  3. I had to laugh when you wrote, “I’m sure someone is about to say ‘trust the process’.” I was thinking exactly that.

    I’ve never much liked the advice of “write through it” to deal with writing dilemmas. That sounds disturbingly like pantsing to me. However, that technique was the only way I was able to handle a tough spot in my most recent WIP.

    Writing through a stuck spot made me realize that I had chosen the wrong profession for my main character. His passions and motivations didn’t fit the role I’d given him. As soon as I figured that out, I stepped back and reworked my outline to accommodate the “right” profession. Rather than stop and fix the scenes I’d already written, I chose to keep writing forward and save the rework until my second-draft revisions. I’m very happy that I did that, because now I know exactly how I need to revise the beginning. I understand my “new” character better, and I know how the story progresses. If I’d gone back when I first discovered the problem, I think I’d have become mired in uncertainty and might never have finished the story.

    This post was great food for thought. Thank you.

    1. Hi Daniel! I wondered when someone would mention pantsing, and the great woolly world of making it up as you go along. But as you’ve proved with this comment here, sometimes that leads to surprisingly useful results. Thanks for another of your very useful contributions.

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