Writing Advice: The Blank Page

I’m often asked in interviews how I confront the dread of the blank page.  It’s a good question.  Because it is overwhelming when you begin a new book to think of the 350-odd pages that lie ahead of you. In general, I think I avoid the vertigo of the wordless page, by doing precisely that: avoiding it.

As with everything else in novel-writing, it’s first important to remember that there is no one-size-fits all solution for blank-page dread. The world is filled with accomplished writers who meticulously outline alongside the equally accomplished ones who don’t.  The prize winning books written over years in one page a day increments, line shelves next to critically-acclaimed books dashed off in a three-month burst. Likewise, there are probably no end to the various approached writers use to keep themselves from getting psyched out.

I would have sworn I didn’t have any particular approach, but upon reflection I think that I do.

When I think back to the five manuscripts I’ve written (seven if you count one in draft form and another in partial and synopsis form) I don’t really recall there ever being a completely blank page.  Because I’m terrified that it could become a thing, I don’t let it.

I never open up that new document until I have at least some idea where I’ll be going–a character or two, an image, a setting. A place to begin.  From there, I build out piece-by-piece, building the road ahead of me, or taking things–in the immortal words of Anne Lammott–“bird-by-bird.” (If you haven’t read her book, do so immediately.  Other great writing books include On Writing by Stephen King, and On Becoming a Novelist and The Art of Fiction both by John Gardner).

After that opening, I sprint with my eyes closed at for a few days.  That way I never have to see that blank page. When I finally do pause and take a breath a couple weeks later, I usually have thirty or so pages–already too long for most stories.  Undeniably, the beginning of a book.  And by then, I’m already too invested to stop.

And so the tricky part for me isn’t actually the blank page.  It isn’t those first days.  For me, the hardest part comes later, when I need to ask myself a much harder question than where do I begin.  And that’s: where exactly am I going?