Filling the Blank Page

And then what?

It’s a question I seem to be asking myself almost constantly, under my breath, in the strangest of situations—chopping vegetables, brushing my teeth, washing the dishes—and then what? In the back of my mind, I’m always trying to figure out how to fill the next blank page of my work in progress, always trying to figure out what comes next. The question is reflexive at this point, almost a verbal cliché, and while sometimes I have an answer for it…sometimes I don’t.

A subject that comes up a lot when I do events is the dreaded Writer’s Block—that moment when What Comes Next is just a blinking cursor and a lot of nothingness. Anyone with an interest in the craft wants to hear how others deal with being “blocked,” and as I’m about to embark on a shiny new writing project, I figure now’s as good a time as any to talk about three simple steps that work well for me!

Nota Bene: I primarily write thrillers, and the below tactics largely address specific stumbling blocks I’ve encountered while working in that genre! Your mileage may vary

1. Plan ahead. An account I relate frequently is how I finished my first full-length manuscript. It began as a short story, a writing prompt from a close friend; but after about five pages I knew there was more to the universe I was creating, and I wanted to dig deeper. The plot revealed itself to me as I went along, getting to know the characters and exploring their lives, and after two and a half years of wandering down one dead end after another—constantly having to write my way out somehow—I completed it at a whopping 160,000+ unpublishable words.

Part of my problem was that I didn’t know what was important to the plot until the story was completed and I knew what the plot was—at which point it all felt important—and tugging on any one of the tangled threads that formed the finished product threatened to unravel the whole thing.

By contrast, the first time I decided to try writing from an outline, I completed a working first draft of 90,000 words in just three months. All the headaches and frustrations I’d experienced in trying to figure out where a given scene was going—and what would come after it, and what, collectively, the scenes were building to—were gone; having a blueprint meant no more dead ends, and meant that, every step of the way, I knew exactly What Came Next.

Planning ahead meant kissing goodbye to constantly wondering where I was headed, to problem solving on the fly, and to hitting walls so solid a complete rewrite was necessary.

2. When two roads diverge, take both. Outlining, of course, has its own issues, and a conundrum I frequently face while sketching my initial narrative thumbnails is seeing two or more potential directions for the plot at once—and not knowing which one will lead me to the best possible version of the work at hand. Recently, I wrote a short story about a character trying to hunt down a spy in an unfamiliar environment, and I was overwhelmed with options in the planning stage. Would it be better if the spy to turned out to be Character X or Character Y? Should the protagonist figure it out by these means or those? Simply put: When the world is your oyster, how the hell do you find the pearl?

The fact is, building a maze can be almost as hard as trying to navigate one, but at least you have the advantage of a god’s eye view. Before making any decisions, the first thing I did was map out each possibility in my head. I picked an end point (“the spy is Character X”) and then considered briefly how the story would have to develop in order to support that conclusion; once I felt secure in that version of the narrative, I picked a new end point (“the spy is Character Y”) and started over again. Eventually, I had a general sense for the twists, turns, and potential emotional impact of each different approach, and chose the one that felt the juiciest.

When I first started writing, of course, this is a process I undertook in real time—following each thread for days or weeks of writing time before having to double back; now I do all of this exploration mentally.

Going for a jog is how I find my center and explore my ideas—an hour with my entire body occupied in a single, repetitive activity so my brain has time to just think without distraction—and it really is my personal miracle cure. I can’t even begin to count the number of knots I’ve untangled in my mind while working up a sweat, but the method that works for you might be something different! Meditating, gardening, cooking…even taking a shower might be what unlocks your creative impulse and frees your imagination.

3. List your puzzle pieces. Even when I’ve identified points A, B, and C, and have a plan to string them together, it can still be a challenge figuring out how to do so in an artful, organic way. Orchestrating action and dialogue so important information is communicated smoothly and naturally—especially when a lot must be revealed in a single scene, and multiple, seamless transitions will be required—is a tricky thing. When faced with this problem, the first thing I do is make a bullet point list of my puzzle pieces.

Referencing my outline, I’ll take stock of exactly what must result from this particular scene and what each character present is attempting to achieve, and set it out point by point. And I mean that literally: I will create a bullet point list where I detail in unadorned prose what must be accomplished in that chapter. Then, with each puzzle piece sitting in front of me, I’ll start figuring out how I can fit them together to form a pleasing and cohesive picture.

Similarly, when I’m struggling to figure out how to make a character express themselves with just the right line, I’ll state for myself in blunt terms exactly what they’re feeling in that moment and what they want. Defining their state of mind in plain black and white is my first step towards building the appropriate nuance and shades of gray in how they reach for their goal.

Even if none of these suggestions precisely address the sort of troubles you might be facing with your own writer’s block, I hope they help you come up with solutions that will. And if you have your own remedies, please feel free to share below in the comments! Like I said, I’m about to start another WIP, and it’s never too late to learn new tricks…

2 Responses to Filling the Blank Page

  1. Kathleen Maggio Sep 25 2018 at 10:22 pm #

    Are you sure that you aren’t watching over my shoulder? I’ve had similar experiences with past pieces, and my current WIP keeps asking which direction to go. Just before I nod off at night I try to figure out where to go, then of course I fall asleep and forget what decisions were made. I am stoked to try out your method. Thanks

    • Caleb Sep 26 2018 at 7:24 pm #

      Sometimes it feels impossible to figure out which way is the right way, but I almost always find that once I start opening each of the different doors and peeking at what’s on the other side, I’ll make up my mind before I’ve even realized it! I hope it works for you — best of luck!!

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