It happens to all of us. The dreaded blank page stares at us with high expectations. Our fingers freeze. Our eyes glaze over. The blinking cursor demands words from us.
There is no need to fear the blank page when you have concrete steps in place to finish your novel.
Today, we have editor Eric Anderson with us to share his advice on how to conquer the blank page and get your story written.
Over to Eric…
Conquering the Blank Page
It doesn’t matter if I open a new document on my computer or take a notepad to a cozy café, the moment I look at the blank page, my mind follows suit. All the ideas I had percolating inside seem to vanish, and I’m left either doodling in the margins or distracting myself on Twitter. Some writers are able to sit down and start writing immediately, letting the ideas flow out of their minds onto the blank page. I am not one of those writers.
For me, having a smart outline is essential before I ever start filling in sentences. Think of it like building a house: you need to draw up the blueprints before you start to pour the concrete. I’d like to share a useful strategy to help conquer the blank page and set your writing project on the path to success.
Begin with the basics. Grab a piece of paper and draw a horizontal line. At the left is the beginning of your story. Here, make a few notes about what the story’s world will be like on the first page. Keep it simple. Add general things like the date, location, and other foundational details. On the other end is the last page of your story. Here, note where things will end up. Is it in the same year, or the same place? Are all of the original characters still alive and together?
From there, you can fill in the major plot points where they fit on your developing timeline. Since this is an introductory exercise, you don’t need to be detailed. Don’t wrack your mind at this point—it’s just a matter of getting the big events in order. At the start of the line, you can add characters introduced at the beginning of the story (even if they change later). Others can be added along the line where you imagine them being introduced. How far down the timeline will you bring them in? Add important details to flesh this out, but don’t let it get too unwieldy. The idea is to use it as a guide as the story develops, so avoid the temptation to make it too complex.
Here’s an example I created for a recent sci-fi story:
The next step is to create a more detailed outline. Whereas the timeline was horizontal, this is vertical. To start, open a new document on your computer or grab a blank notebook page make a list of ten chapters. Your book may eventually have more, or fewer, but this is a good place to start until you have a sense of your story’s length. Under the heading for chapter one, insert all the details from the beginning of your timeline, including the date and location, initial characters, and other important establishing information. Fill in the other chapter sections with the rest of the information you have so far. For example, if you’ve added a major plot point or introduced a character halfway through on your timeline, put that under chapter 5.
Under each chapter, add the main points you want to cover, and then under each major event, add smaller details like the characters involved and how they interact, important aspects of the setting, or even key lines you have already drafted. When these are organized, it will begin to look like a cascading list of details. Major points will have smaller details under them, which can be ordered and expanded on as you progress. You may find that some pieces, or even whole chapters, need to be reordered to make a cohesive plot, and that’s easier to do now than when you’re working on your first draft. Let’s look at a small piece of my outline from the sci-fi example above.
Eventually, you will have chapters that start to feel a little full. In that case, it’s easy to add another chapter to break up that section of the story. In my example, perhaps I find there is so much to say about Paolo’s time on the highway that I want to make his arrival at the hidden city into its own chapter. With a working outline, that’s easy to do. Conversely, you might find there isn’t enough to fill ten chapters, and you can then easily use a shorter outline or add more events to fill it up.
The key to this process is flexibility. While the outline and timeline are great tools for getting past the blank page and starting the writing process, they should also be living documents that change as your project develops. You may start writing and discover that a character should be introduced earlier than you originally planned. No problem! You can easily go back to your outline and play with the new structure, moving sections around as you write to make sure the changes don’t introduce any issues like continuity errors or plot holes.
When it’s finished, the outline should be a nearly point-for-point overview of the story and may be several pages long. You can see where subplots begin and end, when characters are introduced or leave, and how each chapter will flow from beginning to end. Then, when you being the real writing process, it’s simply a matter of fleshing out the points you’ve already listed. You can write any section that inspires you at the time, without worrying that it will change the order or development of the story. Are you most excited by the big fight scene towards the end? Write that first while you have the spark, without worrying that it will mess up things that came earlier. By using and adapting a working outline, you can keep things organized while focusing on the aspects of the project that excite you the most. Soon, you’ll look back and realize that maybe the blank page isn’t so scary after all.