If the first hurdle to writing a book is to tackle that first blank page, then the next hurdle is to do it day after day after day. Every page in a book was once a blank page.
This year, I’m turning a messy two-story garage into a space for another kind of mess—play dates with my paints (among other things). The past couple of weeks have been about emptying the space (or coming close), replacing a garage door with found glass doors , repairing the floor,
,removing half the upper floor and installing windows
( trapezoidal at Restore, $10 ! ), buying mortar paint to whiten the dirty gray walls, then realizing I still haven’t gotten the obsolete vacuum cleaning system off the wall (it’s like the word in a manuscript you can’t see anymore).
. I’ve noticed this work is like the grass growing, there's never a blank page. What needs to come next is always clear to me, the ultimate goal being a clean, well-lit space, and always, always,always at the end of day. . .
I'm somehow successful. Not finished, not by a long shot, but something I started out to do is done.
Knowing that each day there is a blank page to be filled, there’s a kind of friction to starting. That's always true of writing. Coming to it after half a day in the garage, friction looks more like a series of speed bumps. I’ve had to think about the way I get myself going, and I’ve had to be more deliberate in my methods. It’s not enough to read for fifteen or twenty minutes (achieving an alpha mind state) before I begin
to daydream about my own work, which leads to writing by hand or on the computer. Lately, it’s not enough to read the last page I wrote yesterday to know what I need to write next. The creativity trickle, always ongoing in all of us, isn’t thinking about this character’s problem, it's thinking about how to get that vacuuming system off the wall without calling somebody who wants $65 an hour to do it. So I’ve got a method for jump starting the kind of creative energy I need for writing.
See if it won't work for you:
At the end of each writing period, I do a word count, so I have the number of pages (or paragraphs) I actually wrote.
Write a summary of those pages, for your eyes only. this step helps me to know if I moved the story along, or if I just did the thing Steve Martin says makes writing so easy—just put down any old word (he says it charmingly in Pure Drivel). I’m asking myself, what just happened here in terms of an event? Who drove this scene (and, is it a scene with a setting and dialogue, emotions expressed, but also drawn from the reader—good work, or is a character just telling what happened—a section that will need to be revised?)
This is the moment to put down any thoughts that come to mind. Things like: this somewhat lazy character is turning out to be fairly good at getting someone else to supply what he needs—I can present this as a good thing or a bad thing, which one works for the story? That introverted character negotiates social events too well to be really introverted--is that character hiding something?
Think of what might logically come next—a reaction to a challenge, responding to an embarrassing or ambiguous situation, an answer to a Big Question. I try to finish on a small turning point in the story, so that something fresh might present itself tomorrow.
‘Label’ the scene that needs to be written ‘the wedding,’ ‘the confrontation between student and teacher,’ ‘help little brother find his lizard,’ whether or not it comes next in the story line. Most of the time we have an upcoming scene we know will turn the story, or maybe we know only the working parts. I think it helps to keep those in mind (so the vacuum system solution isn’t all that’s flowing when the creativity trickle springs a gusher). Of course, I write down any details, any dialogue, that comes to mind. I write down as much as comes, even if it’s only a debate of the purpose of that scene.
The next day, I concentrate on what I thought should come next (unless I come to the table with a scene that appears to be writing itself, and not one word is vacuum). In this scene-wanting-to-be-written situation, I write that scene. Then I move on to the work I planned for that day.
At the end of the writing day, I do a word count. I write a summary of those pages I wrote today. In other words, I start all over at the beginning of this list.
Audrey Couloumbis is the Newbery Honor-winning author of Getting Near to Baby. She sometimes writes sad stories with a happy ending, and she's published by St.Martin's Press, G.P. Putnam, and Random House. Look for her books at your favorite bookstore. audreycouloumbisbooks.com
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