Banish the Blank Page and Keep Writing Even When Your Mind is Blank
The one thing I did to keep writing everyday that really worked.
It’s kind of two things, actually, but they’re related. Bear with me.
Writing a novel is hard. Writing your first novel is exceptionally hard. My first novel took five years in total, and I have to be honest, I cringe a little when I read it now. But there was one thing I did back then to keep going that I still continue to this day, sixteen books later.
Like I said, it’s a two-parter.
Write in Public
Part one is to take yourself off to a cafe or other public place to write.
Five minutes walk from my house was a lovely little tea shop, and while writing my first novel I got into the habit of printing off what I’d written the day before, taking it down to the tea shop, ordering a coffee (I like tea, but I don’t like a hundred different choices so I always ended up ordering coffee), and sitting down to read over my words.
That was back in 2008, so I’ve upgraded to taking my laptop with me now, but I’m not sure it’s as effective as those printed pages. I always took an extra blank page and a pen, so I could continue writing once I finished reading. I often managed a couple of hundred extra words this way. Then, when I finished my coffee, I’d head back home to my computer, type up the new words, and keep going.
There are a few reasons I think this process helped me write:
1. It was a Process.
I’ve written here about the benefits of processes. Printing yesterday’s words, going to the cafe, sitting in the same seat (most of the time), reading, and then handwriting a few hundred extra words before going home to continue was all a process that my brain got used to — each step a trigger for the next so I didn’t have to think, I just did it.
Once you do something every day, or at least most days, momentum works to carry you forward. It becomes easier each time.
3. Writing in Public
I’m the kind of person who’s comfortable sitting by myself in a public place, but only if I’m doing something. Again, this is where I think those printed pages and a pen came into their own. If I had my laptop back then, with all of its distractions, I may not have been so successful. But those few pages and a pen meant the only thing I had to do was write. In order to not feel foolish sitting in a cafe on my own, I put that pen and paper to work.
Which brings me to part two of how to banish the blank page, and it is horrifyingly simple.
Anything, it doesn’t matter. As long as you write.
I learnt this trick on one of those days back in 2008, sitting in the tea shop drinking my coffee (yes, I know how dumb that sounds), staring at that extra blank page. The tea shop was filling up — work colleagues having a quick conference over a cuppa, couples having breakfast, women with babies in prams catching up over a more leisurely morning tea. And me, sitting on my own, staring at some papers or off into the distance.
I felt out of place. For some reason my brain told me I could only justify my singular existence in this little oasis if I was busy doing something, yet I was stuck. I couldn’t think of a thing to write.
So that’s what I wrote.
It went something like this:
I can’t think of what to write next. I feel stupid, sitting here by myself amongst all these people. I should be writing, but I don’t know what comes next. I don’t know what these characters are going to do next. Maybe I could think about that. What would Cooper do next? I should probably figure out how he feels about what just happened first. What did just happen? Oh right, he…
I didn’t just think these thoughts, I wrote them down. And that’s the key.
Write what’s in your head. If there’s nothing in your head, write nothing. I mean it, write the word nothing fifty times if you have to. I guarantee something else will come. And then something else, and something else. And eventually your thoughts will turn to your characters, or your story, or your topic if you’re writing non-fiction.
Just start the process, and at some point your brain will get the message and switch to the job at hand.
You can always go back and delete the rubbish later. Or if you write it longhand, as I did back in the day, you can skip that part when you’re typing it up.
Write in public, and start writing whatever is in your mind. These two things helped me finish my first novel, and they still help me sixteen novels later.
Maybe they’ll help you, too.