The Blank Page
I suppose there’s nothing like a blank page to intimidate a writer. Yet it’s imperative to persevere. You see, right now, I’m writing about nothing. Is it the nothingness of Zen? No, Zen is philosophy, writing is words. Nothingness is what you have in front of you with which you must replace using the magic of words. I change a letter or two, and I change the meaning; Beef Barley Soup becomes Beef Barely Soup. The magic of words. It is Zen and not Zen. Zen would be proud of me, and then kick me in the butt for not knowing what the hell I’m talking about.
Put a word on the page. I don’t care if it’s a verb, a noun, an adjective, a gerund, a profanity, or a part of your anatomy. Put it down. Congrats, you’ve started your story.
Why did you pick that word? Don’t tell me, ask the story. Was it an object, a color, an odor, an emotion, the name of a pet? The options are limitless. Perhaps, being at a loss, you selected something nearby, like a paperclip or an eraser. Did you overlook those things? Don’t, they might prove significant.
Okay, put another word next to the first. If you’re ambitious you may want to follow with two words. You’re on your way to making a sentence. Sorry, didn’t mean to insult you. If your first word was a noun your second word might have been a verb—which would seem logical—I’m not clairvoyant. However, if you picked two nouns you really are challenging yourself. If you did, I hope you left space between the two words. If your choice was “none of the above” you may have something original. If not, check the box labeled “undecided.”
You know what a sentence is, so expand the two (or more) words, maybe adding a phrase. If you’ve picked two nouns it might make sense to insert a verb or conjunction between them. Ah, tricky word, conjunction. It is simply a word that joins or links two words, e.g., macaroni and cheese. Zen might intrude, interchanging one word, the conjunction, leaving us with an enigmatic “macaroni without cheese,” unnerving comfort food purists. The magic of words.
Try reversing the nouns before adding the verb or conjunction. Maybe you’ve selected three nouns like blood, sweat and tears. First, don’t worry about whether it makes sense, and second, avoid clichés, like the one I just used. Use your mind, not someone else’s. We’ll deal with logic when we get to a paragraph; OMG, a paragraph.
Perhaps your two words form a complete sentence and you’re finding difficulty expanding it. For example, if you’re fourteen years old you may have written, “Farts stink.”
This is actually a good beginning as you have to follow up with who thinks farts stink; the fourteen-year-old boy, or the old man sitting next to him on the bus. Are they his or the old man’s? Maybe it’s his dog—sitting innocently at their feet—whose farts stink. Let’s suppose the accused canine is innocent even as the two characters look at each other accusingly. Maybe the two characters farted at the same time; not unusual for an old man and a teenage boy. Meanwhile the poor dog (whose plight is worsened by the innocuous use of “his dog” leaving us unsure whose dog it is) is glared at by the two guilty parties as the source of the olfactory incursion. As an aside, try to avoid pompous words like the last two in the previous sentence, unless they further your story. Zen again, use what feels right.
For the rest of you, who are more mature, your two words are a sketch. Now that you have the sketch, let’s begin to add color and texture. Let’s go back to the first two words. What did the words think of each other? Friendly or confrontational? Neighbors or adversaries? Vile or courteous? Your story, your decision. The sentence begins, the paragraph expands. How did the additional word impact your story? Or did it? Maybe it stands alone, as if orphaned. Regardless, the truth is, sadly, additional words are compulsory. However, your story is on its way. Expand, express, explode. Expletives have visitation rights.
Now comes the practice. It’s the way athletes succeed. The same is true in the arts. A classical musician becomes proficient by practicing the same piece over and over. The same might be said of an actor, a dancer, and probably all of those in the performing arts. Granted, there are subtle changes they may make to improve their performance, but a writer cannot do the same thing over and over and succeed.
On second thought, I suppose some do by using different characters, environments, words and subtle changes in plot. They have a following of readers who might be likened to someone who walks into a McDonald’s in Boise and knows the Big Mac they order will be just like the one they ordered in Paris last week. But you run the risk of becoming stale. On the other hand, if you do it well, you run the risk of becoming successful. Zen again?
Many books on writing encourage you to practice what if? I endorse this method. What if Martians invaded the earth (War of the Worlds), what if George Bailey had never been born (It’s a Wonderful Life)? I know it’s a movie but it’s a great story. Your two words, or more, have begun their [insert your own adjective here] journey.
Where do they go next? Don’t tell me, ask the story. If it still hasn’t told you, maybe you need to insert adjectives in front of your nouns; or verbs that scream, cry, bitch, piss and moan. Curious, how all those words work as both verbs and nouns. Think about it; or forget it, your choice. Remember, you direct your reader, whether they want to go there or not; that’s critical in holding them captive, and holding them captive is the key to every successful piece of literature.
Don’t think about relating to an audience, an actor does that. You are relating to a reader. There’s a subtle difference.
Let’s speed up the process, and don’t second guess me or yourself. Introduce evocative elements: action that’s internal or visceral; emotion that’s heartfelt or cruel; place that’s exotic, urban or rural; and dialogue that’s loving, hateful, or a source of guidance and inspiration. You are the master of the reality you create and your characters will live, love, laugh, hate, grow old and die in that world, your world. Embrace the power of words. And never forget that axiom, regardless of what you write: words have power.
Another method, which may produce results, though not necessarily inspired writing, is one used by many successful writers, while condemned by others. Allow me to digress. Early in his career Stephen King drank Miller tall boys (16-ounce cans of beer) and snorted cocaine. Poe allegedly drank absinthe and brandy (there’s a ravin’ cocktail for you). Fitzgerald, well, he just drank. I won’t bother with other examples, they’re easy to find. So, drawing from their playbook here is my advice: If ideas are not forthcoming, toss back a couple of shots of Wild Turkey, 101 proof of course. Then think back to high school and the homework assignment, teacher, student, classroom or assembly you liked or disliked the most. Don’t worry, after the Wild Turkey it is unlikely the story will have anything to do with high school. Make it up, mix it up, rant, ramble, rave, and direct your characters (they do your bidding); you can edit it later. Want to get even for every little slight you suffered? This is your opportunity. Mind you, I don’t fully encourage this method, though it has, on occasion, worked for me. Let me clarify. Wild Turkey is an extreme, my spirit muses have been beer and wine. It was meant only as a possible avenue of pursuit.
I recently questioned a fellow writer about his regular assertion that he disliked the writing process, whereas I professed I found it rewarding. I admitted I did much of my writing after several beers or a few glasses of wine. He suggested I might have a drinking problem—a stinging rebuke. He further reinforced his argument by pointing out that having consumed several drinks might be the reason I enjoyed the experience. I plead nolo contendere. Some things in life are like that. Being in love can be transcendent and at other times maddening.
There can hardly be any question that what is paramount in your writing is to persevere. As the I Ching, that ancient Chinese book of divination, constantly advises, “perseverance furthers.”
I am all out of advice, but not beer and wine. In closing, perhaps it is wise to consider Hemingway’s thoughts, when he wrote in Death in the Afternoon, “I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things . . . . ”
About Bill Carpenter
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