A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
You’d think that after a trilogy and a handful of ‘starter’ books, including a completed brand new fat fantasy novel, the fear of the blank page would have wandered off to go and have a daiquiri somewhere where it could choose another victim, but you’d be wrong.
The blank page lurks. It’s not just about starting a new book, no, it’s about the new chapter, the new scene, the new idea.
There are some authors and writers who profess never to be concerned about the blank page or having writer’s block. They’d have you think it was all smooth sailing all the time, with words flowing from them, like ambrosia from the gods. I’d like to say I one hundred percent believed them, but I am a doubter so I don’t.
Writing is hard work. There’s a lot of fun to be had too. You get to create your own world and your own characters and you get to be the boss of it all. But with that comes a responsibility, of finishing what you’ve started. I have got hundreds of half-started books that I’ve never finished. Ideas that petered out because I got stuck on a blank page and I didn’t know what next.
My trick to overcoming the blank page, for me, is to try and fool myself into thinking it’s not a blank page. Someone on Instagram, a friend of mine, recently worried about how to start a new book. And they were stuck. I glibly wrote: start with a fight, either verbal or physical and see who your characters are from there.
He went away and did that and it worked! And that is what I do, I find a situation that will put my main character into some kind of conundrum or conflict and take it from there. In the new novel, a fantasy, I desperately wanted to write something for a younger audience, for middle grade. And I knew the kind of opening I wanted, but the moment my character stepped onto the page, confronting a town bully and standing up for a beggarboy, I knew exactly who this girl was. I suddenly knew her background. I knew everything about her, the world she was in and how she would handle herself when confronted with situations she wasn’t prepared for.
My page wasn’t blank anymore. In fact, I had too much to start with so I had to go back to my notebooks and write it all down to make sense of it. What came out was no longer a middle grade, which made me a little sad, but something older and more serious.
The blank page is only as scary as you let it be. I know a lot of writers are paralysed by starting that first chapter because everyone knows you have to lure your reader in and don’t have the luxury of dilly-dallying. All the writing books tell you this and tries to give you advice. But here’s the thing that they don’t tell you, not initially at first: that first chapter, that first sentence, that first breath your story takes on the first page will probably change seven or eight times as you edit it. So if you sit there now, with your first draft, or some call it draft zero, and you agonise about perfecting that opening sentence, that amazing first page, and you DON’T move on to the rest of the story…you never will.
One of the biggest things a writer needs to learn when writing is to let go and to realise it’s only words. Words are cut and changed. Nothing that’s ever written in first draft ever stays 100% the same. You have to move on otherwise you’re just going to sit there revising the same few pages over and over and never finish it. You will be the king / queen of procrastination.
The blank page, the new story, is the chance to do something different and fun or something very serious, to push yourself out of your comfort zone. If that page really bugs you, then start with a writer’s prompt. You can find these all over the internet, or if you have a writing buddy, ask them to set you a challenge. A lot of times you just need to be in the act of writing for the real words to kick in. When I first started out and I got stuck I’d take a paragraph by a favourite author (Charles de Lint) and type it up. The mere act of writing, even if it is copy-typing, shakes things loose up there in your brain and your fingers and mind gets oiled and you go: oh yeah, this is how it’s supposed to go. I can do this malarkey.
The blank page is only scary because we let it be. If that page is in a journal, so beautiful and so pristine (why did I buy this beautiful book? anything I write in it will be puerile and awful! anything I write in it will damage its beauty and it will be ruined forever!!) you have to get over yourself and start scratching in that notebook with a pen and making notes or you would have wasted all that money buying it. If it’s on a screen, it’s even easier because you can delete really quickly and self-sensor yourself and lo! a blank page again. So my advice is: don’t self-sensor. Write it, write rubbish, write trash, and then once you’re done, you go back and you fix it. The blank page is about getting it filled with words of your own making and choosing. And it IS fun, once you’re oiled and in the zone but it is hard work, and sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it really isn’t, but the tyranny of the blank page is there to motivate you. It’s a challenge and you’re allowed to be scared and not feel brave. But in the end, it’s just words. And they can be changed and fixed. Right now your job is to sit down and make those scratches on the screen by hitting your fingers on the keyboard or taking your new fountain pen or biro and scribbling in that pretty journal of yours.
Start with a fight. Start with a confession. Start with an explosion. Just start. I bet you a once you’ve started you won’t be able to stop.