The Sheer Terror of the Blank Page

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It’s been a long time since I started a new novel.

Well, maybe not as long as it seems. I had an aborted attempt around a year ago. But I’m really zeroing in on novel writing now, and I’m discovering something I probably knew, on some level, but didn’t really, y’know… KNOW. Namely, that when life with a two teens, a tween, and an eight-year-old just entering serious activities smacks into writing, everything suffers.

(But writing suffers more than the kids. I’ll never apologize for putting them first.)

2019 has been an intense year–much of it the best possible tension–a cavalcade of good things raining down on me! And I am so very grateful for it.

But nonetheless… intense.

I’ve always been a burn-the-candle-at-both-ends person, but lately I’m really feeling how little is left at either end. I’m dropping balls all over the place. I forgot a piano lesson, people. And a doctor’s appointment that I scheduled on a day off school to make my life less complicated.

I’ve been struggling to get momentum going on a new novel. I’ve been working on that this week, as best I can, and I’m coming to some new insights. I’ve known for a long time that for me, starting a major fiction project is like getting a huge machine in motion. It’s agony at the start, and as I slowly grind into action, the motion itself clarifies things, which clarify more things, and so on, until I’m writing as fast as I can and making notes to myself for things that will happen a dozen scenes down the line.

But first, I have to invest the time to get that motion going. And it is an intense effort that really does require big blocks of uninterrupted time.

2019 has been a year of interruptions. Some were cause for celebration, others for tearing my hair out. There was a period of 3 weeks this fall, for instance, when 2/3 of the weekdays I had one half or the other of my kids home, because the public & parochial schools don’t overlap their teacher PD days. Ever. It’s like the school systems put their heads together and went out of their way to make PD days consecutive rather than concurrent.

I have been philosophical. Well aware that I only have 3 1/2 years left with my oldest, I am trying to be present in the moments of my life.

But that means ignoring not just writing, but also the Mount Everest of laundry in need of folding. Yes, yes, the kids should do it themselves, but they only get half of it and they mismatch and do it wrong and it’s harder to fix it than to do it myself in the first place!

Ahem. Back to the point at hand…

There’s a conventional wisdom among writers that you have to get the story down, no matter how bad it is–you have to turn off the internal editor and allow yourself to write a crap first draft. I’ve never bought into that. Crap drafts are harder to fix than good ones.

Unless, of course, you have no draft at all because you can’t get the momentum going. And then yes, maybe it’s time to exile the internal editor and get the story on the page.

I also realized that what makes a first draft is so terrifying to me is that literally everything is up for grabs. The major backstory event that kick starts my protagonist’s journey could be caused by something she did, or by something another character did. There are positives and negatives to both ideas, and which one I choose impacts how her present story unfolds. What time of year did event A happen? Because I have to count X number of months/years forward from that in order to figure out when Event B in the present will take place. What, precisely, did Character C do to cause my protagonist’s problem? I need to know, because her story is all about fixing it.

And every time I set out to answer one question, I discover a dozen more that need answering in order to settle the one I thought I was working on.

So for right now, my job is to decide on anything–this little thing, that little thing. Create some little anchors. Because the more anchors I put down, the more solid the framework becomes. And the more solid the framework, the clearer the picture. And the clearer the picture, the more possible it becomes to write.

(Who said there’s no world building in contemporary fiction?)

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