“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart…Come to it anyway, but lightly. You must not come lightly to the blank page.” Stephen King
Sage advice from a very prolific writer. He didn’t get to be prolific by accident.
Ultimately, that is my goal. To be intentional about my creativity, writing and reading every day. Every week. Every year.
Does being serious about the blank page imply that you should plan your plot, point by point? Is it important to outline your novel before facing that blank page? According to Stephen King in his book On Writing, it does not. While King emphasizes the importance of reading a lot and writing a lot, he is not a fan of outlining. He prefers a more intuitive approach, comparing the story idea to a fossil that the writer has to carefully lift from the ground, bit by bit. The key, I would suggest, to this approach is the fact that Stephen King is a voracious reader. Anyone who reads everything he can get his hands on will have a built in radar when it comes to telling the story effectively. Intuition is the result of an impressive amount of input from which the brain can draw when needed.
I find it interesting to note that Stephen King also mentions what we can learn from reading work that is badly written (wooden writing, he calls it) and how inspiring it can be to think that even you could write better than that! Yes. I could relate to that. When I was contemplating writing Winds of L’Acadie, what gave me that final boost of confidence to get me started was a poorly written historical time travel for young adults. And that’s precisely what I thought. Even I could write a more plausible story than that. Whether or not that was true, it gave me the motivation and the confidence to face the blank page.
Another writer who is not committed to an outline or formula for her writing is Anne Lamott. In her book Bird by Bird, Lamott, claims it’s all about the characters. Make your characters real. Observe people closely. Above all, be honest in telling their stories. If you do all of this and do it well, the characters will steer the story in the direction it needs to go. Our discussion for how to make characters multi-dimensional will be for another day. But I definitely think she is on to something here. When you know everything there is to know about your characters and how they will act and react, they will tell you what comes next.
Starting on a new project, while I’m still revising my current manuscript is a way to keep the creative juices flowing so that my ideas don’t dry up and it wouldn’t hurt to have something in the works once I send my current manuscript to readers. Would it be helpful to plan the plot of my next story? Or would I be better off spending the time developing characters? Writing scenes? I must admit that I have taken longer than I would like, to get both of my novels to publication. Not that there has to be a timeline. But I have a lot of stories I’d like to tell and if there is a way of getting them out there a little quicker—okay—a lot quicker, I’m all for it. Is the outline my answer?
This week’s activity will focus on some ways to get started on that blank page if the idea of an outline feels daunting, or just wrong for your writing process. If you’d prefer to have a more organized way to begin, we’ll discuss some options for outlines in the final February post.
When teaching writing workshops to young writers I tell them that at its most basic level, a story is about a character, in a situation, with a problem.
- Take your idea and then complete this sentence. My story is about (character), who (describe the situation they are in at the beginning of the story), but (the problem that arises.) As a warm up, you may want to complete this sentence using a few of the novels you have read recently. You have read a few novels recently—right?
- To effectively write that sentence, you will need to know what it is that your character wants, because that’s where the problem comes in. The situation sets up your character to pursue something that is hugely important to her. But then, obstacles continue to stymie her, blocking her from achieving her heart’s desire. Write down what your character wants more than anything else.
- Stalk your characters. Follow your main character around seeing what they do. Picture the setting for your story and imagine your character there. Wait until he does something. Keep focusing on what it is your character wants. Where does your character go? Write it down. Ask your character what he wants? What does he say? Where does he go now? Write it down. Don’t be surprised if your characters decides to do something you weren’t expecting. As you get to know your characters they will often surprise you. Maybe at the beginning, you think your character will be a follower with no original ideas and always dependent on others for direction. Suddenly, this character takes an impulsive plunge into the unknown. You think, whoa, that’s totally out of character. That’s what happened to me and I decided to go with it. I followed the character on her uncharacteristic adventure and found the reason that was strong enough to propel her out of her comfort zone. She was that desperate. This surprise made for a stronger beginning to the novel and a stronger character. Not only did she surprise her friend and her father with this bold move, she even surprised herself. Go ahead. Follow your characters. Write everything down and be prepared for some surprises along the way.