Tag Archives: Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers

No Need to Bleed: Painless Ways to Breach the Blank Page

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.

Here goes:

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?

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Lori DeBoerLori 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.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.

Reading Like a Writer

By Lori DeBoer

We read for many reasons—to be entertained, to be swept up in a story, to be transported into an interesting world, to laugh, to cry, to learn, to gain insight and to be inspired. But when we become writers, we need to read like a writer. We become active readers, slowing down the process and becoming conscious of the material. We examine published writing to learn what moves us, to figure out what works and what—in our not-so-humble opinion—doesn’t. By doing so, we gain insight into what we want to write and how we want to write it. Ultimately, we learn about both craft and art by reading and emulating great writers.

Someone reading for merely for pleasure engages in a passive process—he or she may romp through a book or story but probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about what went into it. An active reader may read something the first time through for pleasure, but pays attention to which parts of the story were memorable, which passages were funny, sad, thrilling or merely confusing. An active reader goes so far as to make notes in the margin to flag passages that call for a more in-depth look. Active reading requires revisiting a piece of writing many times to understand its underlying structure and all its nuances.

When I worked as the public relations director for the Liquid Crystal Institute, a research center at Kent State University, I remember that one of the research scientists showed me a really expensive, tiny computer from a competitor that he was going to take apart.

“This will show me they work.”

“Can I have one after you’re done?” I asked.

He looked at me, frowning. “After I reverse engineer them, they won’t work anymore.”

Lucky for us, when we reverse engineer a piece of writing—taking it apart to see what components it contains and how they fit together—we rarely ruin the story. In fact, we can come to appreciate the story even more because the skill of the writer is revealed. Reverse engineering is a good model for the process of active reading.

Another way of thinking about being an active reader is to think about a piece of writing the way you would a house. If we visit someone’s house for the first time, we like taking a tour and looking at all the cool pictures and furniture. If you were an interior decorator, you might observe that the rooms are harmonized with blue and red accents, or that the walls have a rich, faux paint. An architect, however, would likely visit the house and become engaged by its structure and design style, and perhaps may not be jarred if the décor doesn’t match the period. Bring along your buddy the building inspector, and you can bet he’s not going to go gaga over the décor or the architectural style. He’ll peer at the porch to see if it sags or has termites. He’ll poke around in the basement with a flashlight to see if the foundation stands firm.

Taking a cue from various building professionals, the professional writer needs to roll many roles into one, examining writing in the same way that a potential home owner might scrutinize houses. You need to incorporate not only your penchant for interior decoration (the aesthetics of the writing), but you need to cultivate your appreciation of architecture (how the story is designed) and the critical eye of the home inspector (for construction details such as grammar and spelling).

You can learn just as much from pieces you don’t care for as the ones that you love. Reading like a writer requires that you read widely, that you venture into territory outside of your preferred genre to see what you can bring back to sustain your own work.

Action Step:  Make a list of your all-time favorite books, essays or articles. Note the genre you like most to read. Leave room to jot down what you liked about these works. Be specific. Was the story riveting or were you most moved by the quality of the language? Did the characters stick in your head and heart?  You might want to revisit a few works in your personal library and read them more closely, practicing active reading.  Please let me know what discoveries you make.

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach. 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 is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman, Pithead Chapel and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award.  For more information, visit her website and blog at www.lorideboer.net.