Banishing the Blank Page

January 29, 2009 at 4:20 am (Uncategorized)

I’m afraid I’ve only got time for a very speedy post today. You see, I’ve banished the blank page, and now I fear there is much, much work to do keeping it in exile. I decided after a couple of weeks of scribbles and cloudy thoughts that yesterday was the day: I was going to start. I’d been delaying making a start because I’ve become aware that my biggest weakness is plot. It’s just not the way my mind works. Or my imagination. Hard as I try to concoct a fully realised plot, the truth is I tend to think in terms of character, and if my first manuscript is anything to go by, what might happen to that character or set of characters in terms of a story or a plot comes along a good deal later, once I’ve already been writing about them for some time.  

Which is all well and good except when it fails to deliver a coherent plot that keeps the pages turning. I’ve been doing secondary reading on this issue, and both Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird and Stephen King in On Writing suggest that the characters will lead the author to the story and not really the other way around. Which did eventually happen with my own manuscript, but only very late in the piece, and even now it’s still touch and go, or if not touch and go then hardly a slam dunk. Put it this way: I know there’ll be another draft. And I think the main point of that draft will be polishing the links in the story so the whole chain gleams. 

I’d half hoped to change my modus operandi this time. I was hoping that if I just thought about it long and hard enough, a perfect story might present itself. But it hasn’t happened. I had several characters rattling around in my mind, and eventually one of them won out. I guess her voice was louder than the rest. Well, she did have some help. They’re more like a quartet. But then I did take a piece of Stephen King’s advice (and it won’t be the last – I first read On Writing in 2001, and rereading it now is excellent, it’s so useful and funny), which was to think in terms of situation. Characters in a particular situation that they must get out of or resolve. Lamott also asks a question I need to keep uppermost in my mind, and that I need to take back to my manuscript and check against it: what’s at stake? What does a character need to find, hold onto or defend? Good question. And that idea of first and foremost placing characters in a particular situation instantly made sense to me, whereas all this plot-the-path-ahead business really woollies my head. I think every writer needs to find whatever works for them, and certainly I seem to be, at this fledgling stage, someone who needs to hang out with my characters for quite a long time before they’ll even consider telling me where they would like to go. And then all I can do, it seems, is stand to one side and hope to help light their way. For now, it’s enough that I’ve banished the blank page, and with over 1,000 words yesterday, and another 2,000 today, you might say we’ve made our introductions.



  1. litlove said,

    Well done you for getting on with it! My writing has ground to a halt yet again, with term starting. Sigh. Funnily enough I gave up writing fiction years ago because I could never think of a plot, but then I didn’t have very good characters, either 🙂 I have every faith that you’ll work it out and find exactly the right things for your virtual people to do.

  2. Pete said,

    Yes, keep writing. Sounds very promising. And I like the plot advice about indentifying what it is your character needs to find, hold on to or defend. I need to find some words for a freelance story.

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    Just keep writing. Every writer has an individual process and as long as you keep at it you’ll find yours. Don’t get discouraged if you need to write another draft and another. Give yourself that opportunity. Kids don’t learn to read on the first try or the second try or the third. The same thing is true with art and creativity. Just keep at it and don’t give up. Nobody else can write the way you can. There is something you can say that is uniquely yours. Keep going.

  4. doctordi said,

    I’d like to know how long ago that was, Litlove, and if you’ve still got the whispers in your head. Because one of the things this job does seem to require is a really bullish tenacity (a madness, I’m sure), so I wonder if, being younger at the time, you were a little too hard on yourself, and discouraged too soon.

    But to all three of you, thanks… I do worry about it, but I also think there’s only one way to find out, and there’s only one way to improve, and I think we all know what that means. Read and read and read, and write and write and write. You make me feel better about the battle – these comments are incredibly fortifying, thank you.

  5. litlove said,

    Oh sweetie, it was years ago. Ummm, I gave up when my son was about two and he’s 14 now. So there you have it. I still don’t feel I have anything particularly interesting to say in a fictional story, but I do like non-fiction, and figure that’s the genre, if any, that something might come together. Well, I say that: I have a literary agent and am supposed to be putting together a book on motherhood, so I need to bring something together in a less airy-fairy way than my words might suggest! 🙂

  6. doctordi said,

    Twelve years ago… let’s see… twelve years ago, it was 1997… oh god, I think we’re a similar vintage, Litlove, and if you could only SEE the extent of my cluelessness regarding all things fiction back then, you’d be pretty heartened, I think!!! But I have wondered even in the last six months whether I’m barking up the wrong tree, so I hear you loud and clear. I read far more fiction, but over my lifetime have written more – and had much more publishing success with – non-fiction. Hands-down. Unfortunately fiction writing doesn’t seem to be my default setting. I really have to apply myself. Will it come together? Who knows. I hope so, of course I do, but at the moment I’m happy – ecstatic – to be a beginner, starting all over again.

    In the meantime, I think you’ve got the right idea. You have an agent, and a book idea, and motherhood sells like the bible. What’s not to love?! Llew and I both often wonder aloud if I should try better establishing my non-fiction writing career first (I do have some book ideas) before moving into fiction, because non-fiction profiles and success give the appearance of being more attainable, but I know I’m going to find fiction hard enough as it is, and it’s my Everest, so I think I’d better just stay focused on keeping one foot in front of the other.

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