Fighting the Blank Page – How to Beat Writer’s Block

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Writer’s block – it happens to the best of us. You are brimming with the desire and motivation to write, but the spectre of the blank page has you sitting at your writing implement du jour in pure terror.

The white page syndrome is not an affliction unique to creative writers and aspiring authors – it happens to artists staring at a blank canvas, architects at a blank sheet, policy writers at a blank screen. For me, the white page syndrome is a function of three very specific preconceptions and perspectives:

1. ‘Nothingness’ is immense – The white page can sometimes seem infinite. It goes on forever and forever… and ever. Unless you do something to mark it. Similarly, the options for combatting the white page are also seemingly limitless. Where do you start? What do you choose?

2. The white page is purity – The white page is perfect in its nothingness. An icon of purity. White as the driven snow, virginal and untouched. And who might you be to think you can interrupt its purity with something that will always be less than its white perfection?

3. The white page offers no hints – With all the universe and beyond to choose from in selecting the words that will spill from your mind to the page, how do you figure out the write ones to end the nothingness and break the purity? The white page doesn’t help you, it just sits there mocking you with its never-ending emptiness.

 

I find the first two problems easier to combat:

1. Limit your choices – Before you start writing, narrow down your choices. It’s the same with all decisions in life – what should I have for dinner, where do I plan my next holiday, what shirt should I wear, what book should I buy next? Rather than rattle through a hundred or so options that are easily available, narrow them down. What should I have for dinner? Thai, Italian or Japanese? Chicken, Pork or Lamb? Chips and Salad or Veges and Mash? Where do I go for my next holiday? Beach, Countryside or Snow? Europe, Africa or Middle East? Cultural Hub or Natural Wonderland? 

Choosing between two or three options is much easier than struggling with a hundred. And each choice will lead to related ones, until you’re in Cuba sipping on mojitos and eating bbq pork with sauce dripping down your fingers.

2. Pop that cherry – First times are typically and universally awkward. Make it easier on yourself and just put anything on that page to take away the pressure of interrupting the white. Draw a squiggle or smiley face in your notebook. Type out a row of asterisks, change the background of your page to an ugly vomit green, mash your hands on the keyboard to bring up a garbled mess as a header paragraph. Things can only get better from there.

 

My solution to the third problem has only dawned upon me recently. And I love it:

3. FInish (and, therefore, start) mid-sentence – I used to finish my writing spells at clear breaks – at the end of a beat, scene or chapter. But all that did was introduce a new beginning – a new white page, if you will – for me to conquer the next time. Beginnings are tough.

When I was in school, my favourite activities were the ones where the teacher would give me a piece of paper with one half of a dissected image and I would fill in the other side.

Or the ones where she would start a story with a sentence and the kid next to her would write the next, and the kid next to him would write the next, and so on until it was my turn to add the next piece.

It’s easier to be creative when you have a starting point to build on. So, recently, I have stopped my writing process mid-sentence. To give you an example – tonight’s writing session ended with this:

He sits closer to her, his shoulder resting lightly against her own. This close she can see

What? What can she see? I don’t know yet, either. It’s like a mini cliffhanger for myself. Instead of the thing that makes me turn the page or tune in next week, it’s the thing that will ramp up my eagerness to write tomorrow. I won’t have to struggle with the blank page, because there is a springboard for me to jump off, a starting point full of unknowns and promise.

And that, dear reader, is how I plan to beat writers block.

Fighting the Blank Page – How to Beat Writer’s Block

We need some space…

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Space-Heartbreak-Novel-Mikhaeyla-Kopievsky
Space doesn’t have to end in heartbreak
(Image courtesy of Nicolas Raymond, via Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1rsQkxp)

It’s the phrase that you dread when you’re in a relationship, the thinly-veiled euphemism for a breakup by someone who is too kind or cowardly to deliver the coup de grace. It spells the end of hanging out together, spending time together, being together. They find other things more fun, more important, more interesting. Or maybe they just find the whole relationship (or you) too claustrophobic.

I’ve been there recently…with my WIP, Divided Elements (and with my blog readers, for which I deeply apologise).

It wasn’t my WIP (or you), it was me.

A new job, a challenging university degree and a new city meant that time was limited and working on Divided Elements was something that I couldn’t justify. Like splurging on a meal at Osteria Francescana when you’re struggling to pay the rent. I knew what I would rather be doing, but sometimes what you have to do and what you want to do don’t see eye to eye.

When I sat down this past week to pick up where I left off, I was worried that the manuscript would be a stranger to me, that I wouldn’t be able to fall back into the mindspace and rhythm I had built and nurtured in the months prior. What I discovered was the opposite.

Reading back over my WIP, I found myself engrossed in the story – approaching it as a reader and not a writer. This had two major advantages – 1) I could get lost in the storyline and connect with my characters as though meeting them for the first time, and 2) I could more easily locate the holes, inconsistencies and lags.

While cliched, not seeing the forest for the trees is a real thing. It reminds me of that scene in Ferris Bueller, where up close a Seurat painting is blobs of paint and from a distance a complex picnic scene. The closer you look at it, the more you look at it, the less you are able to perceive it.

Image
Perspective is all about how close you stand

Getting some space from Divided Elements gave me a new opportunity to see it in a new light and to rekindle my fire for writing it. In this case, absence definitely made the heart grow fonder (and not the fond heart wander).

So the WIP is once again a work in progress. Writing (for now) is coming easier – I know how to take the story where I want it to go and I am distant enough from the flaws to edit them without reproach. And, I am now a fan of some space 🙂

Space-Beautiful-Mikhaeyla-Kopievsky
Space can be beautiful
(Image courtesy of Aftab Uzzaman, via Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/TH4Hzd)

 

We need some space…

Sculpture & Fiction

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

The first draft of a novel always feels like a marathon for me. I will write a few paragraphs and then read them and then re-write them, add some more paragraphs and repeat the whole process again (ad nauseum). I just really, really want my novels to be good. To be worthy of reading. To be something I can be proud of.

I remember studying for my end of high school exams and Brother Celestine reminding me, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien (the best is the enemy of the good)”. Both he and Voltaire understood that our desire and desperation to be perfect was a hopeless cause and ultimately counter-productive – that it would cause stagnation through never-ending improvements spurred on by fear of failure and crippling self-doubt.

I wish I could say that I went on to heed their advice, but I still strive for a kind of perfection every time I start a novel. I want my words to encourage me along the path, to reassure me that I am a capable writer whose story is worth telling. This inevitably results in a very long (and always, in the end, aborted) first draft process.

But this time it will be different. Why? Because I have two pieces of the puzzle I didn’t have before.

The first piece – I am not alone. Seems like this is a fairly typical illness most writers are plagued with.

Second piece – I now have some reassurance that writing a messy, incoherent, awful first draft is not only common, but necessary.

Joshua Wolf Shenk said it best when he advised that it is

Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft

The quote immediately reminded me of sculptors – who hack at a piece of marble or hew a piece of wood into a rough shape first, hinting at what the final product may be, but never eliciting any real detail. Their’s is a work of constant refinement, of slowly magnifying their focus to concentrate on smaller and smaller details, until the final masterpiece is unveiled.

It made me realise, that a first draft of a any piece of writing is the discovery stage. It is about finding and setting free the story trapped within my mind. It is a first incarnation, born without sophistication, yet with a direction and sense of purpose. And it is from the first draft that we can begin to understand this beast that is our story and better understand what it needs to mature. For writers, like sculptors, this additional refinement is (as August Rodin noted) a simple matter of chopping off what we don’t need.

Sculpture & Fiction

‘Mr Miyagi’ your opening scene

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I want to write a great novel. To craft worlds of complexity, develop engaging characters and tell stories that captivate, engage and inspire. I want my first page to grab you in a way that changes your reality and creates a connection that you wouldn’t want to sever, even if you could.

We’ve all heard that the first page is critical. If they read the first page, they’ll read the first scene. If they read the first scene, they’ll read the first chapter. And (if you keep that momentum up), the rest is (successful) history.

No pressure, hey?

Recently I was stuck on writing the first few paragraphs of my new novel, Elementals. Normally, I start my writing process by whatever first line pops into my head and just sort of carry it on from there. But that was always my problem – I would have an awesome premise, great opening scene, but nowhere to go after that. No plan, no roadmap. And, consequently, I have amassed a large file of started (but never finished) novels.

So this time, it was different. I pulled together a cohesive and interesting novel outline full of promise. And then sweated on what opening words would do this story justice; would capture its essence, would capture the voice and tone of this tale that, for now, only exists in my head and on a few index cards in Scrivener.

Again, no pressure, right?

My problem isn’t writer’s block – I have a thousand and one potential opening scenes that flit through my brain. My problem is that I’m looking for the soul mate of opening scenes. The one. The opening scene that you will love and that will slay you simultaneously.

I test all of the potentials out, but they never seem to live up to my ideals – they’re flawed, meh, cliched, juvenile, unoriginal, meaningless, afraid of commitment.

So where do you find ‘the one’? I went where I found all of my fictional true loves – my favourite novels. Revisiting the opening pages of these old friends and classics was (beyond being a no-brainer), a call to arms. Yes, I was inspired, but I was also challenged – in a very real “bring it on” sort of way.

Nietzsche wrote, “One repays a teacher badly, if one always remains nothing but a pupil”. Daniel San lived up to the legacy of Mr Miyagi, Luke became a Jedi Master, Simba became the Lion King, and I want to see my name, like Dostoyevsky, on one of those Penguin Classic books.

So, I checked out some of the best opening lines of literature ever, and responded to the call. It may not go down as the best opening line, but it is a much better one than those that came before.

 

‘Mr Miyagi’ your opening scene

Writing Inspiration

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Sometimes I find it easy to get overwhelmed by the task in front of me. Surrounded by the complex characters and sublime worlds of my favourite books, I wonder if it is delusion and hubris to think that I can claim the title author. Recently in my search for advice to new authors, I came across this great blog post that shared tips from famous authors to new and emerging writers. This one I particularly loved:

Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you. ― Neil Gaiman

I love it because it says to me – you don’t have to be one of the great writers, you just have to contribute your unique voice.

Writing Inspiration