by Jim Denney, author of Writing in Overdrive
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
I once taught a writer’s workshop and a young woman came to me after a session and said, “I just can’t get started. I know what I want to write about, and I know my characters — it all seems so perfect in my head. But when I try to write the perfect opening line, nothing comes to me — nothing that feels good enough. Without a brilliant first sentence, I can’t write the rest of the story. I’m afraid to start writing.”
This is a classic writer’s fear — the fear of the blank page (or blank screen). A surprising number of experienced writers are afflicted with this fear well into their careers.
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, said that, even after publishing more than a dozen novels, “Blank pages inspire me with terror.”
Oscar- and Emmy-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) said, “I love writing, but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, ‘You may have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over.”1
Before Nobel-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez could sell 30 million copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude, he had to work up the courage to write the first line. “All my life,” he told an interviewer, “I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.”2
Another Nobel winner, John Steinbeck, wrote in his journal, “I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one.”3
The fear of the blank page may be as old as literature itself. In 1295, the poet Dante Alighieri wrote in Vita Nuova (The New Life), “It seemed to me that I had undertaken a theme too lofty for myself, so that I did not dare to begin writing, and I remained for several days with the desire to write and the fear of beginning.”4
If you struggle with fear of the blank page or the blank screen, you’re in excellent company. But you don’t have to be paralyzed by this fear. Here are some practical tools I’ve discovered that enable me to start writing, keep writing, and finish.
Save the first for last.
A lot of well-meaning writing teachers do their students a disservice by saying, “You’ve got to rivet your reader’s attention with a knockout first sentence.” Yes, you need to grab the reader’s attention quickly, at the very beginning. But what writing teachers fail to tell their students is that a book does not need to be written in the order it will be read.
You can start writing in the middle, or near the end, or you can let the whole thing grow organically from a pile of tangled nouns and verbs. You don’t have to write the first sentence first.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 opens with one of the best first sentences in literary history: “It was a pleasure to burn.” The novel had its beginnings in a 1947 short story, “Bright Phoenix.” Bradbury expanded the story to a 25,000-word novella, “The Fireman,” in 1950. Only when Bradbury wrote the final 50,000-word novel in 1953 did that famous opening line occur to him — and it was one of the last sentences Bradbury wrote for the novel.
Sometimes it’s best to save the first for last. As you face the blank page, don’t focus on writing a perfect first sentence. Forget perfectionism altogether. Don’t listen to the voice of your Inner Critic. Find any old way into the story and start writing. You might even put this down as the first sentence of your novel: [BRILLIANT OPENING SENTENCE GOES HERE.] Then keep writing.
Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, advises, “Simply start working. If a good first sentence does not come, leave a space for it and write it in later. Write as rapidly as possible.”5
After your first draft is written, you’ll know your story inside and out, backward and forward. Knowing your story can be a huge advantage in crafting a brilliant opening line.
Don’t let fear control you.
Approach the blank page with a chip on your shoulder. Tell fear to get off your back and out of your way. Refuse to let fear have its way with you. Erica Jong says that refusing to be controlled by fear is one of the greatest lessons life has taught her:
All the good things that have happened to me in the last several years have come, without exception, from a willingness to change, to risk the unknown, to do the very things I feared most. Every poem, every page of fiction I have written, has been written with anxiety, occasionally panic, always uncertainty about its reception. . . . I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me.6
Get mad at fear. Snub it and spurn it. The greater your anger, the less your fear — and anger can be a great motivator to get you writing. Romance writer Jo Leigh (One Wicked Night, Relentless) has a simple, blunt maxim for dealing with fear of the blank page: “Screw the fear.”
Don’t let fear bully you, control your decisions, or frighten you away from the blank page. Take charge of your fear. Stare it down and show it who’s boss. As dystopian novelist Tahereh Mafi said, “The words get easier the moment you stop fearing them.”
If you can’t start writing, do writing-related tasks.
This is treacherous territory. Doing so-called “writing-related tasks” can become an excuse for procrastination. Getting on Google and doing “research” can become a way of putting off getting started, while telling ourselves it’s really “writing-related.” I hesitate to suggest a course that might actually keep you from writing.
At same time, I know you can often get unstuck by circling around your writing, probing and testing until you find a way in. To make sure you are truly approaching the blank page from a new angle, not simply avoiding it, set a time limit — no more than ten minutes — to do research, outlining, or note-making. Within those ten minutes, probably much sooner, a piece of information you turn up or a phrase you jot down will spark an idea — and you’ll be off and writing.
Ray Bradbury would wander the Los Angeles Main Library, take down a book, read a few lines of poetry or a paragraph from an astronomy book — and his brain would light up. He’d snatch some library scratch paper and a stubby little pencil, and he’d fill those slips of paper with notes and ideas. Then he’d hurry home and turn those ideas into stories.
Young adult fantasy author Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone) says:
Never sit staring at a blank page or screen. If you find yourself stuck, write. Write about the scene you’re trying to write. Writing about is easier than writing, and chances are, it will give you your way in. You could try listing ten things that might happen next, or do a timed free-write — fast, non-precious forward momentum; you don’t even have to read it afterward, but it might give you ideas. Try anything and everything. Never fall still, and don’t be lazy.7
That’s practical advice. Keep writing, keep moving, keep pushing forward until you find a way into your story.
Don’t try — do.
Good writing is not something we try to do. It’s something we do. Good writing flows naturally. The harder we try to write, the harder writing becomes.
Sometimes, we find it difficult to begin because we put too much pressure on ourselves. We’re trying too hard to be clever or artsy. Or we’re trying to impress. Or we’re putting pressure on ourselves to be productive because we’ve got a word-count goal to reach.
When we realize we’re trying too hard, the solution is to relax. That doesn’t mean we stop writing. It doesn’t mean we take the day off. It means we stop pressuring ourselves and simply write for fun. Great writing is relaxed writing. You can be serious and be relaxed. You can work hard, hour after hour, and still be emotionally and mentally relaxed.
If you need ideas, step away from your keyboard, take a walk, take a shower, lie down and daydream, fix yourself a hot drink, or listen to music. Create a little space between yourself and your work — and allow your unconscious mind to fill that space with images, scenes, characters, and dialogue.
Don’t stay away from the keyboard too long. Don’t read or turn on the news or talk on the phone. Don’t do anything that would fill that space with someone else’s words. Don’t play an addictive game on your computer or phone. Relax quietly. Ten or twenty minutes will do. When you come back to the keyboard, you’ll be renewed and refreshed — and you’ll probably have some powerful new ideas, ready to write.
Write what you love and love what you write.
Sometimes sit paralyzed before the blank screen because we’re trying to write something we don’t love or care about. That’s when our unconscious mind rebels. That’s when the Muse stamps off in a huff.
To write freely, write what you love. Ray Bradbury said, “Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”
When you write what you love and love what you write, the blank page doesn’t represent fear — it represents freedom, the freedom to dream, the freedom to invent entire worlds out of sheer imagination. As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Reverie, “How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream. If only one could write for himself alone.”8
When you’re in love with your characters, your idea, your story, the grand vision of the tale in your imagination, you’ll sit down to the blank page and write brilliantly. Revel in the freedom of the blank page. Love is the key. “There is no fear in love,” wrote St. John, “but perfect love drives out fear.”9
Be afraid and write anyway.
“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish,” said Samwise Gamgee (quoting his Old Gaffer) in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. So accept your fear and get started. Go ahead and be afraid — but write anyway.
So you’re afraid of the blank page. So what? What can the blank page do to you? How can it hurt you? What do you have to lose by throwing some words — any words — onto that glowing screen, that blank page?
You can rearrange those words, play with them, do some word association, let one word lead to another, and before you know it, you’ll be writing. Your worst day of writing beats your best day of procrastinating, so you might as well write. As science fiction writer A. Lee Martinez observed, “Those who write are writers. Those who wait are waiters.”
It takes courage to be a writer. Not a lot of courage, not the kind of physical courage it takes to be a cop or a firefighter or a soldier. But it does take a certain kind of courage that is uncommon in the general population.
Anthony J. W. Benson, founder of Injoi Creative and Deeper Well Publishing, said, “Writers are a courageous lot. Often embattled by confusion, distraction and persistent dissatisfaction, they fight through pain, sweat and tears, as well as the unforgiving blinding glare of the blank page, to bring their thoughts forth.”10
Courage, of course, is not the absence of fear. Rather, it’s a determined, deliberate response to fear that says, “I’m afraid, but I won’t let my fear stop me or control me. By the force of my will, I will do the thing I fear.”
There are more than fourteen million copies of Jodi Picoult’s twenty novels in print. And here’s a fun fact: Did you know that Picoult also scripted five issues of DC Comics Wonder Woman in 2007? She has accomplished so much as a writer because she does not let fear of the blank page stop her from writing. “You might not write well every day,” she once said, “but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
Writing is fun, but it’s also serious business. It’s important. It’s enduring. It’s art. Let’s not get pretentious about it, but writing is a creative endeavor. As Stephen King said, “You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair . . . [but] you must not come lightly to the blank page.”11
I don’t come lightly to this blog post. I come to it in an attitude of prayer. I come to it believing that the One who created the universe is also the One who ignites the spark of creativity within us all. I believe prayer is how we connect our creative human souls with the soul of the Creator.
Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, says she makes prayer her writing ritual as well as her spiritual discipline. Prayer gives her the courage to confront the blank page. “I sit for a moment,” she said, “and then say a small prayer — ‘please help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to be written.’ Sometimes ritual quiets the racket. Try it.”12
What should you pray for? Pray for courage, inspiration, and ideas. Pray for wisdom. Pray for an opening line. Pray for the determination and imagination to continue writing, even if a brilliant opening line doesn’t come to you.
Pray over your words — then get down to business. Relax — then get to work. Face your fear — then write from your courage.
- Melissa Crawley, Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s The West Wing (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2006), 61.
- Gene H. Bell-Villada, ed., Conversations With Gabriel García Márquez (Jackson MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2006), 147.
- John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (New York: Penguin, 1990), Kindle edition, Entry for February 13, 1951.
- Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova (1295), in The Portable Dante (New York: Penguin, 2003), 610.
- Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer (New York: Tarcher, 1981), 142.
- Erica Jong, What Do Women Want? Essays by Erica Jong (New York: Tarcher, 2007), 62.
- Laini Taylor, “Five Writing Tips from Laini Taylor,” PublishersWeekly.com, November 16, 2012, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/54760-5-writing-tips-from-laini-taylor.html.
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 17.
- 1 John 4:18a, New International Version.
- Anthony J. W. Benson, “Writers Are a Courageous Lot,” Facebook.com, November 20, 2012, https://www.facebook.com/notes/deeper-well-publishing/writers-are-a-courageous-lot/552023294812064.
- Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (10th Anniversary Edition: New York: Pocket Books, 2000), 99.
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor, 1995), 117.
Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]
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Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]
These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.