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From Zero to Sixty: Facing the Blank Page

October 5, 2014 by Diane

hand opening red curtain on white.

When I’m churning out a first draft, I always start my writing session with a five minute warm-up. If I don’t, I find myself staring at the blank page, or trying to figure out in my head what I’m going to write, or writing a sentence and then deleting it and writing it again with different words.

In other words, I’m wearing the editor’s spectacles.

So the first thing I do is warm up.

I don’t hop in my car in the morning and zip out of the garage without first letting the oil run through the carburetor, right? On the dance floor, I don’t leap into Swan Lake without first limbering up at the bar. (On second thought, limbering up at the bar with a stiff drink would be a good idea, since I’ve never in my life danced on pointe.) At the piano, I don’t launch into Rhapsody in Blue without first warming up my fingers with some scales (and a whole lot of piano lessons). So why do I think I can sit down and rewrite the Great American Novel without warming up my literary muscles?

I need to start each session with a little calisthenics for the subconscious. I need to nudge the sleeping Muse, let her know that it’s okay to come out and play. I need to reassure her that the Big Bad Editor isn’t on the playground; he’s home having a lonely dinner, cutting his meat into precise cubes.

So…how do I reach the elusive subconscious?

I read. Just a few pages, to get the feel of language. If I’m writing snappy dialogue, I read something with snappy dialogue. If I’m writing a literary piece, I read something in the genre. Some writers prefer not to read the genre they’re writing; they don’t want the author’s voice to influence their own. I say what the heck, if the writer you’re reading is at the top of their game craft-wise, why not be influenced? It’s my own voice that trumps, anyway.

I read a page or two, swallowing the author’s riffs, and then I’m inspired to write. Sometimes I type a paragraph  from what I’m reading, to get that language flowing into my fingers.

Does it work every time?

Nope.

Sometimes I need to coax the subconscious out by losing my writing inhibitions. So I reach for the book Writing Open the Mind, and choose an exercise, say Oysters in the Mouth (and Gravel), and set the timer for five minutes, and have at it. Gibberish for five minutes. I can feel the editor walk away, disgusted, and I’m ready to tackle my rewrite.

Does this work every time?

No.

Sometimes the editor doesn’t want to eat dinner. Sometimes he wants to supervise what’s happening on the playground. As I write, he starts deleting adverbs and dull patches and lackluster verbs, and I have to ask him, gently, to back off. To stand in the corner. To let me tap into flow.

This doesn’t work every time, either.

Sometimes I get inspiration by reading one of my writing books.

Sometimes I start describing something that happened the day before, writing it from the senses only. No narrative. This is an exercise I stole from the book From Where You Dream: the Process of Writing Fiction.

And sometimes I just write badly. Pure garbage for five minutes. Usually, there’s a gem in there somewhere worth saving, something that sings. I take that gem, use it to start a new paragraph, and write for another five minutes. I find another gem in the new paragraph, use it to start another, and so on until I tap into something that resembles a piece worth pursuing. I adapted this from the book Finding Your Writer’s Voice.

These are some of the tools in my writer’s kit. Tools to make that blank page not so blank anymore. Maybe you have different tools.

Maybe you’ll share your tools with me in the comments.

Takeaways this week:

Decide how much time you need to draft a piece, and set the timer. Writing fast, I can lay down three hundred words, double-spaced, in ten minutes. That’s one page. If a blog post is five hundred words, I give myself fifteen minutes. Set the timer and let those fingers fly.

Writing Open the Mind by Andy Couturier. I’ve mentioned this book in a previous post, and it’s a goody. Not only is it written from a place of subconscious ramblings that form into coherent, quirky sentences, it’s filled with exercises that “free the writing and the writer.”

Finding Your Writer’s Voice by Thaisa Frank & Dorothy Wall. Tap into your raw voice and learn to use it to shape story. This book is a goldmine for writers.


2 Comments »

  1. These were all inspiring ideas. I also read a few pages of an author role model if I need to. Other times I’ll take a fast walk around the beach or play a few songs of something that gets my blood flowing. Water works for me as well: bath, shower or beach. The only danger with utilizing these tools is that it’s easy to run out of time to actually write.

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