Facing the Blank Page

Lately, whenever I “finish” a novel I find myself thinking, “I couldn’t possibly have written that story. Someone else sat down at my computer and did it for me. How did I make this happen?”

I submitted my first draft of Taken‘s sequel to my editor about a month and a half ago, and just a few weeks back, I sent a revised version of a stand-alone WIP to my agent. (It’s these kind of major milestones—finalized first drafts, revised mss, etc.—that I’m speaking of when I say “finish” a novel.)

Since turning in these projects, I’ve caught up on a lot of reading, blogging, and emailing, but every time I sit down to write, I stall out. It’s not that I don’t have an idea. I do. I have three different mss on my desktop that all have somewhere between one and five chapters written but haven’t been touched in months. It’s not that I’m not inspired. I am. I think about these three potential stories almost daily. I want to be working on them.

The truth is, I’m paralyzed.

I’ve been trying to figure out why. I think most of it comes from this weird irrational fear that I don’t have another story in me. That the ones I wrote so far were flukes. That I got lucky. That there’s no way I can bring the magic again. Another part of me thinks I’m just overwhelmed by the fact that I’m standing at the base of a very steep mountain, well-aware of the sweat and tears and hard work that will be necessary to complete a new novel. Having just turned in a refined, polished ms, I know perfectly well how bumpy the road of blank pages will be. I know how many hours I’ll have to put in. I know how lost I’ll sometimes feel. How many times I’ll need to revise before it’s even half the story I want it to be.

The silver lining is I know I’m not the only writer that gets this how-did-I-possibly-write-that-last-book-and-how-will-I-ever-write-a-new-one feeling. An established author recently told me she still gets it. Every. Single. Time. She had it starting book two, and she had it starting book twelve.

This is reassuring and also somewhat daunting, but I’ve found it always helps to talk about these things, because chances are if I’m struggling with it, one of you readers is too.

I know I’ll find my stride again. I always do. Sometimes I need to take some time off and just read. Sometimes I need to acknowledge that I’m being a wimp and force myself to sit down, to kill twitter and gmail and force the words onto paper. Sometimes I need to write longhand poetry if only to silence my inner editor and get the words flowing until I fall in love with writing all over again.

Brian Yanksy, one of my agent-siblings, recently wrote a blog post that I think so wonderfully sums up this weird Blank Page Phobia. You can read the full post here, but he said this:

In spite of this initial panic, I do, eventually, get started. I write the only way I know how. One word after another. Sometimes the words fall out of me and sometimes I have to pull them out. Usually they make sentences as awkward as a middle school dance. But eventually one paragraph is made and then another and another…Slowly, a story starts to emerge and once that happens the panic fades and I’m writing.

And gosh, isn’t that the truth? You put down one word after another. It really is that simple. And at the same time, this is exactly what makes it so hard. You just have to keep going. Even when you know it’s going to be tough. Even though the first draft might be an atrocious, unreadable mess. Because those previous books you wrote weren’t flukes, you just didn’t stop putting down the words. And when you reached the end, you went back and revised. Again and again and again until it was done.

That’s it. Each and every time. One word. Then another. It’s not a miracle. It’s hard work and a labor of love. I did it before. I can do it again. Many times, actually. I’m pretty sure we all can.

I think I’ll go work on a New Shiny now. Happy Writing, everyone! 🙂


16 Responses to Facing the Blank Page

  1. Meredith Jul 17 2012 at 8:08 am #

    Oh my gosh, yes. I was nodding my head through most of this post. I found myself in a similar situation after my last book went on submission a couple months ago. I had a bunch of vague ideas floating in my head and started writing a few of them, only to stop after a chapter or two. I was just sort of burned out by the whole thing and feeling very daunted by the idea of having to start over again from scratch.

    But, like you said, the only way to really get over this is to push through. To force yourself to write. I went away on a writing retreat this past weekend where I knew I’d have two days with no Internet access and basically nothing to do but stare at that blank page until the words came. And it totally worked. It was just the jumpstart I needed. Because you’re so right—you just have to do it. One word, then another word, repeat until done.

    Great post! 🙂

    • Erin Bowman Jul 17 2012 at 9:46 am #

      “I was just sort of burned out by the whole thing and feeling very daunted by the idea of having to start over again from scratch.” <-- Yes. This! The difference between completed manuscript and blank page is so vast it's quite terror-inducing. I think the hardest part is getting through that first draft, but once it's out you have things to react to and fix and chances are you've fallen in love with/feel invested in the story. But man, those blank pages! 😉

  2. Stephanie Jul 17 2012 at 9:19 am #

    Urgh I’m in the same position, I’ve written two chapters, and I’m so excited about it but every time I go to write I stall and I’m amazed that I’ve ever written so much before. To be honest, my only completed manuscript was Nanowrimo and I worry that I didn’t finish it because I loved writing but because I’m so competitive I just HAD to beat the other friend taking part. I know I need to push through and I while Uni’s out I have no excuse, hopefully It’ll start to flow soon though 🙂

    • Erin Bowman Jul 17 2012 at 9:49 am #

      Nano definitely helps from a focus and deadline perspective! I’m sure you’ll find your stride again. One word at a time. (So easy! But so hard!) 🙂

  3. Alexa @ Alexa Loves Jul 17 2012 at 9:47 am #

    I absolutely ADORE this post. It’s the truth – sometimes, it just takes pushing out one word after another to get started.

    • Erin Bowman Jul 17 2012 at 9:49 am #

      Aw, thanks so much, Alexa! Here’s to getting those words on the page, one after another! 🙂

  4. Tracey Neithercott Jul 17 2012 at 10:03 am #

    Well said, Erin. I guess for me it’s always the questions: How *do* you write a novel? Because even when I’ve just finished one, I look at a blank page and have no idea how it happens. It’s a huge matter of trust, believing that our minds will fill in all the blanks, and they always do somehow. When I get to the end of a first draft I still can’t understand how all of that stuff made it onto the page when I was so lost in the beginning. I guess we underestimate our imaginations, or at least I do.

    • Erin Bowman Jul 17 2012 at 10:08 am #

      Oh, I so hear you, Trace! That “how do you write a damn novel” question was how Brian started the post I referenced. He opened with this:
      “W. Somerset Maugham once wrote, “There are three secrets to writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” ”

      Because, yeah, I think we wish we knew the secrets. I think we all want it to be easy or straight-forward, or least have a play-by-play rulebook that if we followed would turn out a solid, clean first draft. But the nature of the beast is that each book is different and each one must be written a different way. And we figure that out as we go. Gah, I wish it were easier 😉 (But you’re right–we totally underestimate our imaginations.)

  5. Ryan Graudin Jul 17 2012 at 10:25 am #

    Going through this exact phase right now. Well, almost. I woke up this morning thinking about Book 2 and what will I possibly write? AHH!

    • Erin Bowman Jul 17 2012 at 3:24 pm #

      It’s soooo overwhelming at first, right? I know you’ll power through. Good luck, Ryan! 🙂

  6. Ellen Jul 17 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    I’m having this problem right now. I just finished putting what I hope are the final polishes on one novel, and then I had to go and outline another one. The outlining–which is usually remarkably easy for me–was its own ordeal, and now I have to actually write the book I outlined. And it’s terrifying. I’ve been in editing land for so long that the idea of starting something new and watching it suck until I can fix it is scary.

    Any way, I really needed this post. Thanks very much for writing it, and for the gentle reminder that writing isn’t easy but still rewarding.

    • Erin Bowman Jul 17 2012 at 3:26 pm #

      Thanks so much, Ellen! So glad my post came at the right time for you. Oh, and you are so right re: writing is hard but rewarding. Even with all the work and hair-pulling, the pay-off is always amazing! Good luck with your new story 🙂

  7. April Tucholke Jul 17 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    Yeah, I really get the whole “Who just wrote this thing? Because it sure wasn’t me.” On the one hand, I know logically that I can write a book, because I’ve done it before. On the other, I feel like the person writing my books is someone else, someone cool and stoic and mysterious who I don’t really hang out with because she’s eccentric and a little scary.

    • Erin Bowman Jul 17 2012 at 3:27 pm #

      “On the other, I feel like the person writing my books is someone else, someone cool and stoic and mysterious who I don’t really hang out with because she’s eccentric and a little scary.” <-- HA! (But to be honest, I feel this way too, sometimes. Like...whoever wrote that last novel is a badass. I better not cross her.)

  8. JQ Trotter Jul 17 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    I completely understanding what you’re saying! And I love the way Brian Yanksy summed it up, too. I recently completed (final revision done) my manuscript and when I was reading through it the last time I kept wondering how I ended up writing it because when I got to work on my WIP the words are just so awkward…

    Good luck with your writing!

    • Erin Bowman Jul 18 2012 at 10:49 am #

      Oh, yes. The words while drafting a WIP always seem so clunky and awkward when you’ve just stepped away from a polished ms. You’d think I’d learn, but each time I’m always so surprised to learn I can’t write a clean, polished first draft. I always think, this time, I’ll nail it. Nope. 😉

      Good luck with your WIP!!

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