The Blank Page

Imaginary Friends

Before fame and a guest appearance on the Tonight Show, writer must read the fine print…

I sat on my bed tonight wondering how I would get though the chapter-by-chapter outline for my book.  In truth, it’s been three nights of sitting and staring at the blinking cursor on the blank word document.  It’s been me and my friends, the shadows on the wall, and the characters in my head, thinking the same thing—how will she do it.  The shadows, so bored took to making bunny puppets on the wall, and the characters waiting for their story to be written, are opening bottles of French Bordeaux and smoking unfiltered Camels, as if they are struggling artists sitting in cafés around Prague. There I was, alone with blinking cursor in my own private version of hell on earth–a blank page and no words on the horizon.  There was no tap-tap-taping, only the tickey-tick-tick-tickey-tock of the clock talking, reminding me of time lost.  The outline and me losing ground and staring one another down, waiting for the other to blink first, to cave in.  I have a strong dislike for these particular types of beginnings—something structured that comes with fine print, also known as rules.

As per the guidelines for fame, fortune, publishing, a guest appearance on The Tonight Show, and for a novel to be listed on Oprah’s must read list, a writer must first complete the book proposal package, which includes the outline, before fame can ensue.

The outline requirements:

  • Reveal how the chapter begins
  • Reveal the gist of the chapter
  • Reveal how the chapter ends

Easy peezie, no problemo, piece of cake, slam-dunk, Bob’s your uncle, and glory halleluiah.

I’ve written the damn book at least three and half times, so it’s not as if I don’t know the story inside and out.  It’s written on my body, if not etched by a blunt instrument on my soul.  Writing is writing is writing, but writing something structured isn’t something I know how to do.  Seriously.   I’ve wallowed, howled, cajoled, offered that bloody muse of mine, Tobias, my first Emmy, if only he’d give me a line,  hell, I’d have settled for a three word sentence.  He snorted as he faded out of view leaving me alone with my friends, the shadows on the walls and all the other characters sitting around in my story waiting room.  Arianna, my lost empathic Tarot reader has cursed me endlessly for leaving her story untold, glared hostilely at me with her amber colored eyes. If she could speak she’d have said, “You writers take and take, you think we will wait forever, we can’t.  Get on with the outline. It’s my turn.”   I can’t blame her for being angry, but I confess she scares me, she’s a fury I don’t know what to do with. But she isn’t the problem I need to resolve.

As with everything in life, there are rules and guidelines.  I realize there is difference between the two, but to me they are one in the same.  If you knew me—the core, the inside, the nitty-gritty—you’d know flat out, that rules and me don’t get along.  Give me a rule and I’ll surely break if not ignore it like I do the number on my bathroom scale.  I don’t think I am entitled, I am just independent in thought. And it seems to me I’ve already done all the hard work—writing the book—so why do I have to write the outline. HOWEVER, since the fame-forever-writer-guideline that promises a talk show appearance if newbie writers follow the ten easy steps, also said writer must blog—which I didn’t want to do nor did I know how to but did it anyway—I’ve accepted the outline is a must do.

After seventy-two hours of the blinking cursor taunting me and the air blowing through my ears I poured myself a glass of wine hoping the effects of the fermented grape would remove the double-wide writer’s block parked illegally in front of my word well—where I go for words—and allow me to write the first sentence. Just one line I begged, give me an opening.  I looked at the how-to manual on my left at least thirty times before returning to the blank word document. It’s not as if I can’t write or didn’t have a thing to say, it’s just that I didn’t know how to write what I needed to write.

I sipped, swigged, and finally swallowed that earthy Bordeaux in a single gulp.  I closed my eyes and felt the wine warm my veins as it traveled without destination.  I had two choices, sit in the story waiting room with Arianna and let her read my fortune, or write.


What do you do when you are facing the blank page?


Post script: this isn’t what I planned to post tonight, but it’s what came out of me after I wrote the outline for the first two chapters.  Is it perfect? No, but it’s a start.  Glory Halleluiah.

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I’m a writer and hoarder of one-size-fits-all panty hose. Until the hose fits over my bum, I write to provide an alternative view on writing and perfection.

47 thoughts on “The Blank Page

  1. When I feel blocked, I give myself permission to turn off my brain and just type. Believe it or not it works. I start typing and the next thing I know, I’m past the scene. Sometimes you have to allow yourself to write anything, even if it’s horrible, to get to the good stuff.

    • Kelly, it was more of a mental block against the structured write. I wrote, over the course of the three days. It was only the outline that WAS elusive.

  2. Lynne Favreau

    I sympathize Brenda, I’m horrified when asked to write anything other than my novel. I keep getting advised to write for mags, articles and such but I go completely blank when I have to produce a work that is formulamatic. Even trying to help my daughters write an essay stymies me. I have to look up how to write one every time.

    I’m never blocked writing fiction, or poetry. Even when adhering to a strict form like a sonnet I have no trouble, but give me an assignment…brain-freeze!

    • I know, Lynne! Anything is writeable .. I wrote the poem on Monday with ease, and in lieu of the outline. It’s always amusing to me when I have to manage my own mind.

  3. “manage my own mind.” Love that elusive bugaboo!
    For me, outlines are just a different kettle of fish. No fun, just a chore. I’ve done it for my novels. But when I’m finally writing the outline, I find it gives me a way to analyze how well the novel it working. Then again, I love to analyze. It gives my brain a different action that feels fulfilling, like knocking of a “to do” list. Sometimes it’s a break from the writing and I’m refreshed going back to the writing. Although, I’d rather be writing.
    Love our blog, Brenda!

    • Valerie – That is actually a good way to look at, thanks for sharing. As for me managing my mind, I knew the outline wasn’t a big scary monster, but it was as you said, a chore I wasn’t interested in, and for me it was having to conform. Clearly I wasn’t blocked as the this post I hadn’t planned on writing came out faster than I could type it. Glad you stopped by.

  4. Honestly? I’ve hidden from possible opportunities because I didn’t want tone forced to follow the writing rules. Not yet anyway. I still want to think of myself as a dark horse who writes narrowly escaping guidelines about success. But that is only because I am so crazy busy right now and won’t take the time to do it “right.”. I long to be in your shoes, deadlines and outlines. The words will come. They always do. There is no such thing as procrastination. We are always working it out in our minds before it hits the keys. Well, most of the time. Sometimes.
    I love the image of shadows being characters drinking wine and smoking unfiltered camels! There’s longing in those words;)

    • WCM- I kind of knew we had the same view on those damn rules. I get there are compromises along the way, but it doesn’t mean I can’t whimper about them during the process. Yes, me my shadows. Writing is a solitary pursuit, so it had better be a passionate one.

  5. Love this post. Rules & authority have always been entities with which I have had difficulty going back to junior high school.

    I write stories as the scenes and characters come to me, not in a linear fashion. I found the hardest part of writing my ms “Amy’s Own” was when I took all the scenes I had written and tried to put them together to make a whole. My writing group at the time suggested at one point that I could use a particular scene to tie two other scenes together and provide information that they thought would be relevant to the story.

    One morning, I got up about 5 a.m. knowing I had about two hours before I had to nudge my girl awake. I made some coffee and put it on the dining room table after making room for it (by lifting up a pile of weeks of unfiltered mail and dropping it onto a chair), opened the window right at my elbow, pulled out my cigarettes, lit up, took a sip of coffee, mulled over the slightly pretty view of Hollywood outside the window, then looked down at my open composition book with it’s blank pages, ready to write the scene.

    I found I was really mad. Mad that I “had” to write something in particular. That’s not what I like doing. That’s not how I like to write. I got madder and started to write, grumbling under my breath the whole damn time, knowing that what I was writing was absolute shite, but I kept going impatient to get through it and get to the end of the scene. I did not feel happy or successful when I finished, but I was finished.

    I put that scene aside for about two weeks. Didn’t even look at it or think about it. When I finally had emotionally removed myself back far enough (I’m 98% subjective personality, so it’s not easy for me to tap my 2% objective side), I sat down and read the scene. And was stunned that it was not half bad, that I could actually work with it and make it good, which I think I have accomplished.

    This too-long comment ends with the lesson that I learned: not to shy away from writing mad, when feeling resistant, whatever. It’s an “easier” process now (okay, maybe only a smidgen better; infinitesimally better; but, still better).

    So nice to have a moment to read your post. I enjoy the way you write; I feel like I am sitting with you, you describe the atmosphere so well. And you make me laugh, which is the elixir of the gods. Thanks.

    • Kat-I too write in the manner you describe. It was how I wrote the book. For the most part it was fine. It was a learning process going through the editing process. I do see in hindsight that structure is good. Now that I’ve started the second book, I’ve made a point to outline (a spreadsheet, really, for timeline and days.) My stories tend to happen in a short time period, thus it’s important to have that clear in my head. I can see you with that pot coffee in a trance writing out the words before you are even awake. Such a wonderful place. Thank you kindly for your words, the encouragement, and for sharing your story. Here’s to our successes.

  6. I’ve never been in this situation – yet, thankfully, and hope to never be as it sounds excrutiatingly painful! Sorry I can’t offer any help; perhaps Annie Borenson or Deborah Lawrenson can…

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. I wasn’t actually blocked for words, rather I didn’t want to write the outline and I wasn’t sure where to start. In the end I just wrote it out. It was getting over the hurdle of a structure, which is not much fun for me.

    • You’re sweet.. I am prone to being dramatic and living large (in my imagination) but.. one can hope, if not work damn hard on your dreams.

  7. k~

    An editor, and friend of mine says to me all the time “Once you KNOW the rules, it’s a writer’s choice to break them with style.” Perhaps this is that opportunity Brenda. You have a strong style, and the outline, is typically boring… Splash it, own it… make it yours!

    • K- I know this rule – know before you break – and you are right about making it my own. How silly I didn’t think of that in the first place, so typical to get caught up in my own knickers.

  8. I always find the story will eventually write itself in its own time. Words crafted into a well-written narrative are always worth the wait. I usually go do something else. When I least expect it, the first line appears in my head.

    • Very true, Maria. I tend to turn to music when I am stuck, which helps the fiction in me surface. The outline seemed daunting because I haven’t had to do that..Valerie noted (in comments) that it helps her evaluate how the story is working. Many thanks for sharing and stopping by.

  9. Maybe *you* should have stopped trying to write it and asked each of your characters to write it. Write an outline from Stella’s POV as to what’s happening, and then from Jack’s POV, and from Stella’s best friend (whose name escapes me, I’m at work on lunch), then boil it down.

    If that fails, there’s always pissing time away on Pinterest. Or reading other blogs.
    I do love having the double-wide monitor, so I can have my document open on the left, and cruise the ‘net on the right, in case inspiration grabs me I can jump over there and type my little brains out.

    • I like the idea of writing from one of the characters’ POV. I did that when I had to write the synopsis for my ms. I was so pissed that “they” say the synopsis should be in the voice/tone/flavor of the novel itself—whaaat? Do you not know how long I’ve been writing, rewriting and editing this? The process became easier when I took a different tactic and blew off a few of “their” rules.

      • Kat -I am convinced the old guard and rules are in the process of being challenged. More good books are cast aside then should be.. and more mediocre books are published than should be. I get that given what is happening to the publishing industry. Writers are fighting back and making their voices heard. I was shocked to learn how much agents and publishers make off the back of the writers efforts. It’s not surprising many are self-publishing.

    • Bev- you sound like Stella, she said the same thing. She made a big too do about not messing up her story and for me to get on with things because wants a movie. What’s up with that….

  10. When faced with a living or literary blank page, I remember that both life and fiction are a series of scenes linked one to the next, and that every scene has a cause (ie. a lover doesn’t show up for a dinner date) and effect and the effect has 4 responses: an emotional response (ie. ‘seeing red’), a reflexive action (ie. throwing a dish across the room), a thought or idea or mental response (I should make him pay if he doesn’t have a really good explanation for ditching me), and the decision to act/react in some way (ie. I won’t answer the door when he shows up, contrite and smooth-talking, as always). And miracle of miracles, this action then becomes the cause of the next scene and so off we go, around and around and around and where we’ll stop, nobody knows…

    • Solid advice, Cathy. I know with my fiction there is a very fine line between real and unreal, the story isn’t mine to tell, but I know I make it in to the story. In this case, it was the structure that was throwing me, which was odd since really all I had to do was write a simple summary. Once I did ( at imaginary gun point) it wasn’t so difficult. It just wasn’t fun.

  11. —so why do I have to write the outline.—

    Brenda, I sooo agree. Why?

    Why must we listen to what these people say? Who the hell are they? Who wrote up these rules & regulations?

    Can’t an editor just look at the entire manuscipt?

    Damn them all.

    I understand your frustration. I really do.

    Did you write a fiction book?

    I can’t wit to read it.

    Do you have a publisher yet?

    You. Will. Do. What. Needs. To. Be Done.

    Xx Love from Minnesota.

  12. Don’t be afraid of the blank page. Creativity has always, for centuries been connected with suffering. But more sane is the approach which we all should learn that the genius and creativity have their bad days. You may try to eat, pray or love – or hear the speech made by Elizabeth Gilbert on TED in 2009 – it really helps to understand your very own blank page days!

    • Cosmopolla- the Ted video of Elizabeth was amazing. It’s not the blank page the had me shaking in my knickers so much as the outline, but with all this amazing and wonderful support, not to mention a few sleepless nights, I might be over the hurdle. Many thanks of your words….

  13. Ah, yes. The dreaded rules. Those selfish bastards, demanding attention and reverence and obedience. I have a problem with them, too. I despise rules, can’t function when they’re present, can’t summon the muse, can’t turn the panic off, can’t turn the creativity on. I have an assignment complete with rules waiting for me. Time’s a tickin’, and I’m no closer to an article. This is why I love blogging. Nobody’s rules but my own. I’m the boss. Everything else is irrelevant. Hmm. Rules are meant to be broken. (Aren’t they?)

    • Laura, I suspect you and I would get along just fine. Toss them rules out the door. I hadn’t expected to enjoy blogging but like you, I do. I do what I want, write what I want, and mostly have fun experimenting. As for the me and the next steps, agent, etc., it’s a matter of figuring out how I am going to approach the process. Scary, but kind of like riding on the back of a Harley with a dream lover (mine is tall, sharp features, and brilliant… )

  14. Feathered Pen

    I don’t suffer much from what you are going through facing a blank wall because I don’t really write seriously. Most of the times, it’s the editing part I have difficulty, shortening it. And I understand that part when you know what u want to say but u just can’t grasp the right words. That’s when the style of the author really comes in. We can be referring to the same thing but saying them in different ways. I find going out for awhile, getting some fresh air helpful,exercising, to pump the blood in my body .Inspiration comes in unexpected places. Btw, thanks for stopping by my blog 😀

    • Dear Feathered, it was my pleasure, and thank you for coming back around.. Writing is writing is writing until I am required to conform. But as K (November Rain) said, I might as well make it my own and stop worrying about it.

  15. Kat

    Since I’ve never submitted anything for publishing I don’t know much about the rules but I do know you are a gifted writer. Love your blog. I’m sure the inspiration will come when you least expect it.

    • Hi Kat, I’ve had my share of rejections, but every now and again I get the letter from the Editor that tells me they are publishing, so I keep going. So glad you came bye, and thanks kindly for the good word.

  16. When I feel the writer’s block syndrome, I do something else. When all else fails, I take walks with my dog and somehow that clears my mind and helps me come up with ideas. Like a sentence will pop into my head and that’s all it takes. Keep going! You’re almost there!

  17. I hate writing outlines! I want an editor to read my whole story, not a shortened, watered-down version of it! My outlines always seem so bland and boring that it makes me wonder why any editor would ask to see the whole story, but they do. So I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe the actual content of your outline doesn’t really matter. They just want to see your style of writing, maybe?

    • Paula, a woman after my own heart ME, TOO!!! I think you articulated my fear – that my outline is dull and not a reflection of me. Thanks, for sharing this with me, I do believe I see the light flashing. Thanks, for stopping by.

  18. Honestly, writer’s block isn’t a problem for me and that’s probably because my writing is limited to short stories and poetry and if I get stuck I can shut it all down and walk away and come back later. And I’m also not working under any deadlines. If I were to ever write a book I don’t know if I could do that though. Are you familiar with George Pelecanos? He’s a modern crime writer and he was on a show called “Writers” with Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly and the subject of writer’s block came up. All three writers agreed that writer’s block was a myth. Said Pelecanos: “People who have other jobs report to work every day when they don’t feel like going. Get back to work.” Leonard agreed by saying, “No such thing as a block. You’re writing the wrong scene or you’re not approaching it correctly. Get back to work and figure it out.” I thought their comments were interesting.

    • Hi Michael- I am not familiar with him ( at least I don’t think so) and I am not blocked to write, I was struggling with the outline. It’s the structure of the writing of the outline that was putting me off. It’s only an outline, right?

  19. I’ve been taught to write the outline first, before I even start writing the book (actually, I’ve been using it for writing screenplays, plays and so on, but it goes for novels too). That way I can see the possible structure problems, plot flaws and the characters acting unbelievable in advance. It’s a great help, shortens the editing time a lot, and doesn’t restrict me in any way. Writing the outline has only been a problem if I didn’t have the story in my head.

    • Ivana, I’ve heard/read that is a the way to approach a book, but I am not that sort of writer. I see the story in my head–start to finish–and then I write. When I first started writing, I tried to follow a outline but my characters had something else in mind and before I realized it I wasn’t following my own guideline. In the process of writing my book I did learn it’s beneficial to clarify little things.. like the timeline!

  20. Brenda…this should be your first line…”I poured myself a glass of wine hoping the effects of the fermented grape would remove the double-wide writer’s block parked illegally in front of my word well—where I go for words—and allow me to write the first sentence.” That is classic! Love it. I hardly think you have to worry about where the words come…just know that they come, and are brilliant.

  21. Sometimes I find the best way to get past writers block is just to start writing. Which sounds simplistic and obnoxious but even if the words don’t merit publication or sharing it’s still a start and sometimes you have to wade through rubble to find the treasure. Good luck to you!!

    • Kristen- I did do just that, I wrote it out. after about two pages of shite and babbling I got to where I need to be. I do love to go back over my raw writing, though, sometimes I find good stuff buried within the muck. Thanks for stopping by.

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