December 4th, 2020

Getting Past the Blank Page

by James Preston

When I read a great novel, I often find myself thinking, “How on earth did the author do it?” followed by, “Where did he start?” Every published author has had to get past the blank page.

Let’s talk about Plato, the Athenian philosopher. You remember him, right? He told “The Parable of the Cave,” which went like this:

There once was a group of prisoners who had been chained to the wall in a cave their entire lives. They had never seen the outer world, only shadows cast on the wall in front of them. For them, the shadows were reality.

Then one of the prisoners was set free and moved into the outer world. She was amazed — there were three dimensions! Color! Reality was far more complex than she had imagined.

I recently reread James Clavell’s magnificent novel, Noble House. This thing is huge; the hardback is over a thousand pages, so it is not a book to be undertaken lightly. On top of that there are probably a hundred characters, all of them with lives of their own, backgrounds and a part to play in the story.

I had the usual questions: “How on earth did the author do it?” followed by, “Where did he start?

Then I read a brief article that included the parable of the cave and the two things — my feeling of inadequacy when I looked at Noble House and was awestruck and Plato’s shadows on the wall — came together. Sometimes things do that.

I realized that, like the prisoners, I saw the shadow. I saw the product, not the object that produced it. When we read a novel we don’t see the effort, the false starts, the rewrites, the edits that went into it.

This realization led me to a question I get asked every now and then by people who want to write . . .

How Do I Start?

We’ve all heard the stories about the writer who rolls a sheet of paper into her typewriter (see below) and stares at the blank page.

You know you want to write a book. In fact, maybe you’ve already tried and quit, and now you want to do it again and “get it right” this time. You read articles and see advice like, “Start with a character,” or “Start with a problem,” and on and on. And then there is the blank page.

The Blank Page has defeated lots of writers.

I’ll describe several ways of getting going and some of the advantages and disadvantages of each. Plus, I’ll talk about how I wrote my first mystery.

Note: For younger readers, click here for more about typewriters. Trivia fact: You can find apps that will make “typewriter noises” as you keyboard. Tom Hanks even invented one that works with the iPad.

Let’s begin with some basics.

Setting

You might know that you want to write about a small town in west Texas. Clavell wrote about Hong Kong. I write about Southern California, specifically Huntington Beach, Surf City, USA.

Character

This one’s obvious, right? In Noble House, it’s Ian Dunross.

Plot

Can you start a story without a character? Sure. Think of a situation, for example the protagonist is given control of the family business, because it’s failing.

Denouement

And in the end . . . One way to create a novel is to start with the end and figure out how it happened.

There are many ways of getting to The End. In my case I was writing scripts for a medical training company (thrilling shows about surgical instruments and how to give injections). One of the directors was an avid sailor. He mentioned how shallow parts of the channel between Orange County and Catalina Island are, and how supertankers had to stay in northbound and southbound lanes. I thought, “That’s interesting,” but there wasn’t a story there. (More on this in the next section.)

So these are the parts you need to work with. We’re still left with that question . . . What do you do first?

4 Ways To Start

1. Begin with an outline

An outline can be on the back of an envelope or it can be a hundred pages or anything in between. A traditional outline would look like this:

Chapter One

A private jet lands in Hong Kong and the police discover guns being smuggled. Introduce Linc Bartlett, Inspector Armstrong, K. C. Tcholok.

Notice it’s linear; one thing happens, then another.

Another type of outline is more free-form and might look like a group of circles connected by lines. In this case it would have a circle for airport connected to “Linc Bartlett,” “guns,” and “smuggling.” 

Advantage: An outline forces you to think about the story. Whether it’s linear or free-form, you have to answer the dreaded question: What happens next?

Disadvantage: I think there are several, but one that can sneak up on you is that you might actually like your outline. If and when your characters come to life and start to speak to you (and, BTW, that is one of the greatest moments in what we do), they may not care about your Roman numerals and numbers. There will be a temptation to make them toe the line. Sometimes you have to make characters follow orders and sometimes you have to let them run wild and free. But that’s the subject of another post.

Yet another way is 3” x 5” cards. Years ago I read an essay by the famous science fiction writer Larry Niven, author of the Ringworld series, who said he used index cards and on each card something had to happen. Side note: I have lost that reference. Sorry, Mr. Niven.

Advantage: Obviously, you know where you’re going. You can spread cards out on the floor and see the whole story at once — allowing you to identify sections that are slow, or places where too much happens at once.

Disadvantage:  This is a big one. We live to tell stories. Once it’s outlined it’s possible to lose interest. After all, the story is told. (This same pitfall applies to telling too many people about the story before you write it.)

A more practical disadvantage is space. I laid out cards for my first mystery, covering the living room floor. (I have a very understanding spouse.) Then my cats came and rearranged all my work. Pro tip: if you do cards, number them so you can put them back in order.

2. Begin with characters

You can start by listing the people in your book. There are many sample character development forms, but most involve physical characteristics, occupation, education, and so on.

Back to my story for a moment. Sometime after I heard about the shipping lane and supertankers, I found myself thinking about a stockbroker living in Manhattan “happily moving around electronic piles of money,” who returns to California when his wife is hospitalized.

To this day I have no idea where he came from, but there he was and he just wouldn’t go away. I thought, “That’s interesting,” but once again it’s not a story.

3. Start with the ending

Another way to start is to write the end. It won’t spoil Noble House to say there’s a typhoon. In my case I saw a supertanker, unable to either turn or stop, bearing down on a disabled small boat. And the bow of the tanker is on fire.

4. Assemble your pieces

I had the shipping lanes, I had my broker, now back in California, who is sailing back from Catalina at night, hits fog, and then hears – feels – a supertanker approaching. Close, so close to a story. Obviously, he doesn’t get run down and killed. The end is another encounter with a tanker, only he can see this one because the bow is on fire, and he’s right in front of it.

Final Thoughts

Here’s the answer: it matters less how you start than that you start. Let’s say that again: it matters less how you start than that you start.

If you have an idea for a character, or a situation or an ending, write it down and go from there. The blank page is waiting for you to fill it.

Oh, what happened to my broker and the supertanker? Why, I went from one idea to another to a third and then to 3” x 5” cards (the cat playground), and he came to life and told me his story. Don’t worry, he didn’t get run over. After a lot of work the novel got me an award, an agent, and a contract.

Note about references…

The problem with references is that there is such a huge amount of writing about writing that it’s not only hard to choose who to read, it’s possible to only study and never write. Plus, nowadays you’ll find different opinions on just about everything.

My suggestion is to follow your instincts and listen to those teachers who seem to be speaking directly to you. They are out there and the simple act of finding them will be worthwhile for your writing.

Now it’s your turn. If you’ve done it, how did you beat the blank page? What did you do first? If you are standing at the edge of this pool, thinking about sticking a toe in, what does your gut tell you to do first? C’mon, we’ve given you some ideas here — what looks good?

Come with me. The water’s fine.

*  *  *  *  *  *

About James

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.”

His webpage is www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at james@jamesrpreston.com.

23 responses to “Getting Past the Blank Page”

  1. Jenny Hansen says:

    Great post, James! One of the best tools I've ever found for overcoming blank page nerves is speech to text software. Whether it's the Windows tool, OneNote, Word's speech recognition, Google dictation or Dragon, talking the story out and having the words on the page to play with is the best way I know to prevent those Blank Page Heebie Jeebies.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Good one, Jenny, and one that I've never tried. All the benefits of talking your story out, without the problem of finding an appropriate audience. Then do you print out the document?
      Thanks!

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        I absolutely do, or I just transfer it into Scrivener and get cracking in there. 🙂

        • jamesr403 says:

          Oh, I like it a lot! Talk --> text --> Scrivener. For those of you who are not familiar with Scrivener, it's a word-processing and outlining program for authors. For more information, use the WITS search engine. The Search box is on the right of this page. You will find several articles. Worth a look!

  2. Terry Odell says:

    I grab a character, throw him or her on the page and transcribe what they're doing or saying. It may never come close to appearing in the novel, but now I have a page I can fix.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Right, Terry. I think the most important thing is having something you can look at and respond to. I like visuals -- I'll throw a situation on a page, like a teenage girl lying in a field next to her dorm with a man holding a straight razor standing over her, and see what I can do with it.
      Thanks for a good suggestion!

  3. Ellen says:

    Wonderful post, James!

    Beginning a book is a lot like putting brush to canvas. The start can be scary. Which method to use? What colors are best? Where on the canvas is the best place for the first brushstroke?

    My stories tend to be character driven so I am good with dialogue, but there are still those pesky questions. Which genre to use? What POV will work best? Where will the story begin? Who needs to be in the story?

    I answer the questions and put words to page, diving in head first with hopes that my characters continue to speak.

  4. jamesr403 says:

    Yes! You've nailed it, Ellen. The thing is providing your characters the opportunity to speak. I firmly believe that, given time, they will tell you their story -- I think they want to. If you hear a line of dialog in your head, does it provide clues to the speaker? Maybe the slang used?

  5. bowieauthor says:

    James,
    Another great post. I love the story about shadows. I’m a nerd (as you know) and have always been in awe of mathematicians who spew out all these amazing formulas. It wasn’t until I met a few that I realized these gems don’t appear full-formed from their heads but are the result of hours/days/years of work. Can you imagine working for years to get one line right?

    My story ideas usually come from the news. I read an article about this amazing group of scientists that have helped the government for over fifty years. All it took was one question: “Gee, what if one of them was a traitor?” to set me off on my latest.

    Best,
    Jack

  6. jamesr403 says:

    Yet another way to start. Thanks, Jack! But I wonder -- what did you put on paper first? That situation? A character? Mr. Bowie writes the excellent Adam Braxton thrillers. Good to know where the idea came from.

    • bowieauthor says:

      Since I write in a series, my protagonist (and friends) are always available. But I guess I start with the hook, then do a bit of outlining on the major plot points (beats), which invariably requires identifying the main antagonist(s), and the likely ending. Then I start writing. From then on, its pretty organic. I try to figure out what each of the characters will do as I throw twists and obstacles in their way.

      • jamesr403 says:

        Jack brings up another situation: the series. And who doesn't want to write a series? Laura Drake, RITA winner and WITS contributor, has the Chestnut Creek series. Janet Evanovich has Stephanie Plum. So after Book 1, you know one or more of the characters and are looking for the situation. Does that make it easier or harder to put that first word on paper? Maybe another contributor can tackle that as an essay topic.

        • Laura Drake says:

          Thank you, James!

          • jamesr403 says:

            You're welcome, Laura. I still want to know if it's easier to start with a series character that you know and -- presumably -- like, or if a clean slate is smoother. Oh, well. There's always more to learn about our craft.

  7. Eldred Bird says:

    I almost always start with a character, get to know them intimately, and then figure out a way to mess with their quiet, normal routines...you know, throw their life in a blender and see what happens. Cruel, but effective.

  8. jamesr403 says:

    Okay, doing a rough assessment so far: starting with character is way out in front of other approaches. Interesting. I didn't have a book until I had my protagonist. Jack Bowie seems to be an exception with his "What if?" I don't think we'll ever know for sure, but I wonder if Michael Crichton started The Andromeda Strain with a "What if an alien came to earth and it was a bacteria?" I would have thought the "What if . . ." would be the most popular.

    Also, for those of you who track social media, the essay has at last count been picked up by three web pages.

  9. dholcomb1 says:

    I have a friend who used the note card method for a screenplay and she won the Nicholl Fellowship, so obviously it can work.

    As for the blank page, that's not my problem. I can sit down and write.

    It's revisions, ones I'm not sure I believe in, which get me. And, I know I'm supposed to trust, but the rationale for the revisions seems to be warring with my author's voice.

    denise

  10. jamesr403 says:

    Yes! Denise, i know just what you mean. The writing, especially when it flows and it feels like you're just channeling your muse, is great. But the revisions are more deliberate, like, "This is really well-written, but it just doesn't move the story forward," that part of our craft is difficult. I seem to remember a WITS essay that talked about what to do with material that you cut, but I don't remember who wrote it. Anybody remember that one?
    Thanks for the spot on comment.

  11. JL Nich Author SFF says:

    I've read quite a few books that start with a scene and end with the same scene only with the newly adapted character change. For example, Char A wakes up to the sound of the alarm and knocks it off the nightstand as they struggle to get out of tangled bedding...but at the last chapter Char A wakes up and shuts off the alarm and rolls over to their a)new love of their life b) goes back to sleep because they no longer work for that so-and-so c) shut it off properly, get up, and greet the new dawn with open arms without a struggle because they have finally found their groove.

    I like this approach. You can write the END perfectly, then go back to the beginning and do the complete utter horrible opposite.

    Examples of movies that come to mind are:
    Tolkens "Lord of the Rings" saga....start in the hobbit shire, end in the shire
    The Wachowskis "Jupiter Ascending" - start with the drudgery of family cleaning business, end with family cleaning business
    Bayona's "The Impossible" starts on the plane ride into Thailand, ends with the plane ride OUT of Thailand.
    Disneys "Mulan" "Frozen", "Lion King" etc etc etc....starts in the small village where she grows up, or in Arendelle, or at Pride Rock and ends in the small village where she returns a hero, Arendelle, or at Pride Rock.

    Always a great plan to write the ending first if you are stuck.

    • jamesr403 says:

      JL, you're right! That's a terrific suggestion, backed up with good examples. Hmmm, I haven't seen "Jupiter Ascending," but know I can think of a few more where the novel's "heads and tails" make it work. Have you used that approach in your work? Thanks for sharing!

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