By Lori DeBoer
“It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”
Ernest Hemingway likely wasn’t recommending that one literally open a vein. I think. Besides being dark and witty, this quote keeps coming back in different forms, attributed to disparate authors, because for most of us wordsmiths, it speaks a truth.
I’d rarely had to search for that vein in my 20 years as a journalist, because the fear my editors inspired made me able to compose leads in my head during the drive home from an interview or an event. By the time I hit my computer, I already had a few full paragraphs ready to tumble to the page.
That was until I sat down to write my first piece of fiction. I pulled up a blank page and blanked. It was sheer, imposing and seemed to offer no toeholds.
I breached that blank page, with a bit of determination and a fair amount of bloodshed. Since blood, metaphorical or not, makes me faint, I’ve developed some easier ways to get into story, ones that don’t require stocking up on iron supplements.
Write nonsense–Type any old thing until your brain stops its bitching and gets engaged in the story. You may have to write nonsense for a few pages, but keep going. If you fail to gain some traction midway through your allotted daily word count or writing time, then shift to revising, research or sending stuff out.
Write a shitty first draft–I wish this were my advice, but it’s Anne Lamott’s. If you aspire to write, you must read her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She talks openly about her own fits and starts and has this to say: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”
Give it your worst shot–I teach for a living and found that my students not only loved examples of crappy writing, but they learned from trying to improve them. Since I am a do-it-yourself kinda gal, I rose to the challenge of writing some of the crappiest crap around for my advanced writing classes. There wasn’t a cliché I didn’t borrow, a run-on sentence I didn’t elongate to a ridiculous end. Writing crap turned out to be fun and liberating. Often, crap turns into keepers. For inspiration (and a spot for your own terrible writing), please visit the website for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, organized by the English Department at San Jose State University, which invites entrants to write the worst opening sentence to the worst possible novels. (www.bulwer-lytton.com)
Pen a gossipy letter–This strategy confuses your internal critic because it doesn’t know whether to bark, bite or wag its tale. That’s because writing a letter–dripping with juicy details that only someone in the know would know—is rather a quaint endeavor, don’t you think? In that letter, which you may or may not send, indulge in the latest scandal about your characters. What is up with your main character’s latest choice in lovers? What is your antagonist hiding, anyway? You love to dish. Indulge.
Borrow a line–Your English teacher would call this plagiarizing, but I prefer to think of it as priming your pump. Just remember to delete this line from your story at some point during the revision process. For bonus points, don’t pick a line you love; pick one at random. For extra bonus points, jump genres. Caveat: don’t spend all day picking out a line, please. If procrastinating’s your game, go scrub your tub.
Cut to the exciting part–Instead of walking in circles, trying to figure out where you are supposed to start story, try fast forwarding to the exciting part. Chances are, that’s your real beginning, anyway.
Prompt yourself–If you find yourself staring down a blank page, having someone tell you what to do can help. Lucky for you, there are a kazillion tried-and-true writing prompts.
Throw in some mystery–If the main point of view character encounters some sort of mystery to puzzle over or an intriguing problem to solve, chances are your fuzzy little writing brain will start puzzling over it, too. You’ll find yourself several pages in just because you want to figure out what’s going on
Come out swinging–You don’t need to have your characters taking physical punches at each other like mad monkey ninjas, unless that sort of scene suits your genre. Simply starting a story with two characters at odds with each other will send a thrill up your storyline and have you coming back for more.
Picture it–Break up a blank page by slapping some pictures on that sucker and you’ll be closer to starting your story. Many writers take this to extreme, creating whole Pinterest boards with photos of their story’s characters, settings, costumes and the ilk. If you do this, I not only approve, but am a teensy bit jealous.
Start with the ending–I like writing the ending of a story before I start the beginning because I can trick myself into feeling like the heavy lifting is done. Plus, I have a better chance of starting a story if I know where it’s going to end up, just like I have a better chance of having a successful road trip if I know if I am driving to Santa Fe or San Francisco
Well, that’s a sampling from my bag of tools for breeching the blank page. What are some of yours?
Lori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times, Pithead Chapel, Arizona Highways, Gloom Cupboard and more. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.