The blank page – conquering your fears. And a couple of writing prompts

fzm-notebook-texture-28‘So you don’t find the blank page worrying?’

Creative writing teacher Jane Jones was interviewing me as part of her women writers’ summit (watch this space). Actually, we recorded it multiple times because of tech catastrophes so a lot of our discussion never got saved. (Moral: don’t use untried software. Also, Zoom helpdesk are the embodiment of patience.)

Anyway, one of Jane’s topics was how we start writing. I said I’d always felt at home talking to the page. When I was a kid, I simply loved to write – letters, stories, reactions to books I’d read. At the age of 13 I discovered science fiction fanzines and sent them articles and reviews, which I really hope have fallen into landfill. Why science fiction fanzines? Chiefly because they accepted copy from teenagers writing in their bedrooms. I was shy and awkward in real life, but in manuscript I was a right chatterbox. I could think in ways I didn’t in verbal time; be inventive, confident. The page was a welcoming place.

Which is when Jane brought up the subject of the scary blank page.

The young me, typing to the world, never had a moment’s stage fright. Because I always started with a purpose in mind.

And this is where we pinned it down. The frightening thing is not the blank page. It’s the blank mind. And I find the blank mind as paralysing as anyone.

So what can you do about it? Here are some suggestions.

How to have ideas: Your brain, mushroom moments – and why boring tasks are good for your writingFool your brain into being inspired

It’s quite hard to generate good ideas to order. I’ve had many of my best inspirations when I’m not consciously trying to work on them. While making dinner or a packed lunch for the next day, or at the gym, or walking to the station, or writing something else.

Always keep a writing task on low simmer in your mind. Perhaps look at your notes for the next scene or story you’re going to tackle, or reread a scene you’re going to edit, but don’t actually try to solve any problems. Just present it to your brain, shrug and go concentrate on something else. We all hate unsolved problems. That’s why we have the phrase ‘preying on your mind’. Before you know it you’ll be getting good ideas without even trying. (Thanks for the pic Leo Hartas. More of his work here)

First thing in the morning

Some people like to write first thing in the morning as an exercise. What if you arrive at the page without a thought in your head? Did you have a dream? Write that.

For a bonus point, write it so that another person can understand why it was significant to you. Dreams usually make wondrous sense to us and none at all to anyone else. Your task in this exercise is to write your dream so that it reveals its meaning and resonance to everyone, not just you. Add context and questions, or perhaps some answers.

Voila. You just wrote a personal essay.

Writing promptsstrangers

Books and websites of writing prompts are a veritable industry in themselves. Here are a few ways to grow your own.

Look through your photos and do this.

Nose around Flickr for people’s private photos. Set a timer so you’re not browsing for ever. Find a picture of an interesting place and write about somebody who just ran away from it.

Use music – go to my companion site, where writers talk about using music. Read any of those pieces and they’re sure to get you in the mood. Or, if time is short (or you might end up getting pleasantly lost  instead of writing), pick a song title at random and write about that.

It’s dead easy to think of writing prompts to help other people conquer their blank pages. Drumming them up for yourself isn’t. Such is the nature of blank mind.

nyn1 2ndThe micro-blank

Sometimes we get stuck in a small way. We don’t know what our novel’s characters should say or do, or how to solve a practical problem. If you haven’t got time for the ‘prey on your mind’ tactic, tackle it head on. Start writing any old nonsense – and sense will usually emerge. (In Nail Your Novel 1 I’ve got plenty of suggestions for that.)

The biggest blank of all – the next book

The scariest blank of all, for me, is when I’ve finished a book. As I edit and shape a manuscript I feel increasingly at home. Every change feels meaningful and rewarding. Even if I have ideas for the next book, I don’t want to leave the current one because I don’t have that sense of familiarity. It’s like leaving a much-loved job for a new one with too many unknowns.

The other night Husband Dave decided to discuss next books. I said, of course, that Ever Rest will be my next book after this one I’m working on. No, he said, I mean the book after that. He reeled off a few of the ideas I’ve discussed with him and said ‘I’m looking forward to those’. I took a gulp of wine because I was not. I felt panic. I’d got a sketchy synopsis or two, but no real engagement with them yet. That work still has to be done and it feels like a lot of blank, a vast Arctic of it. Here is Dave, in wife-frightening mode.

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So blank mind can also be a relative thing. It can be the contrast between a work that’s so detailed you know it as well as your own life, and something that’s mostly untrodden. Blank mind doesn’t have to be 100% unknown. If you’re going from 80% known, then 80% unknown can be plenty scary enough.

But that’s just part of the job of writing. We manage somehow.

399c89f5-67c6-477c-b2e7-5e2ac6e798b6What am I working on at the moment? This thingy on the left. 

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Give me your thoughts on the blank page, the blank mind … if that’s not a contradiction in terms.

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  1. #1 by Kathy Steinemann on February 26, 2017 - 1:47 pm

    I like your idea of using family photos, Roz. That’s one I haven’t tried yet. Great post!

  2. #3 by tracikenworth on February 26, 2017 - 10:00 pm

    For me it’s starting a book. All that emptiness to fill. I worry that I can and bit by bit, somehow, manage to.

  3. #5 by acflory on February 27, 2017 - 3:16 am

    I’m at partial blank, at the moment, after a three month ‘holiday’. The mind wants to write. In fact, it craves the excitement that comes with unravelling a new story, but all it has to work with is an old story that needs to be rewritten.
    The first week was painful to say the least. I would force myself to work on a scene, but it was just words on a page. Then, after a day or three, I had a breakthrough – one whole paragraph that sounded better than when I first wrote it. Then a very small epiphany, one of those ‘ah hah’ moments that makes you wonder why you didn’t see the obvious five years ago?
    Right now, I’m pruning great chunks of prose away so I can see the story, but I’m also starting to achieve something I like every day. I’m nearing the ‘zone’ and the anticipation is building. 🙂

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 27, 2017 - 8:05 am

      Hi Andrea! ‘Approaching the zone’ … yes, that’s the tricky part. Enjoy it when you get there.

  4. #8 by Karen Lynne Klink on February 27, 2017 - 3:45 pm

    My problem is knowing what I want to say but not being able to write it, not finding the right words or phrase. I get so frustrated and keyed up I often have to get up and walk away.

    • #9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 27, 2017 - 10:55 pm

      Karen, you might find it helps to get the rough idea down anyoldhow, then refine.

  5. #10 by Don Massenzio on February 27, 2017 - 4:40 pm

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Here is a great post from the Nail Your Novel blog on getting started with your writing.

  6. #13 by Rob Sapsford on February 28, 2017 - 4:46 am

    Your strangers in photos has regenerated my enthusiasm for this activity. When I figure out how to get my own blog ( I’m a old dog leaning new tricks) I will post what you have discovered by taking the photo of your husband. Lovers, escapees from tyranny, a spy, undercover agents, people peeking from windows so much drama. Thanks so much for your blog.
    Cheers

    • #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 28, 2017 - 6:34 am

      Hello Rob – good to meet you! I hope you manage to learn blogging. It’s a lot of fun. And I look forward to your interpretation of my photo.

  7. #15 by Icy Sedgwick on March 8, 2017 - 2:42 pm

    I love reading magazines like Fortean Times, or websites like Atlas Obscura. So many weird things in the world – your brain can’t help but asking “what if…”?

    • #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 8, 2017 - 2:57 pm

      Hi Icy – you’re so right, there are many places to restore our sense of wonder. Thanks for sharing those two. I’ll look at them when I next have a scary blank.

      • #17 by Icy Sedgwick on March 8, 2017 - 3:31 pm

        Atlas Obscura can be a very deep rabbit hole!

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