10 ways to conquer the blank page when writing a novel

Wiliam Faulkner photo
Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything good.” ~ William Faulkner

How many times have you found yourself staring at a blank page on your word processor, the cursor idly blinking while you try in vain to think of something to write?

It happens to all of us who are trying to write a novel, but you don’t have to suffer. This blog is here to save you from ever having this terrible feeling again. In this post, we’ll take a look at the following tips:

  1. Remind yourself it’s only a feeling
  2. Write on another page
  3. Find some writing prompts
  4. Eat some food
  5. Use a voice recorder
  6. Let there be gaps
  7. Ask someone for help
  8. Do word sprints
  9. Change location
  10. Make a mind map for the next chapter

1. Remind yourself it’s only a feeling

First of all, remember that this feeling I described is just that — a feeling. Oftentimes, the blank page, for some psychological reason or another, makes us feel that our brains are blank too, that there is nothing there to write.

But that’s not true. Just put your fingers on the keyboard and type something, anything. Your feelings are telling you that it’s all terrible, that you’re a bad writer, that there is just nothing there. That is a trick your mind is playing on you, and the sooner you realize you just need to write anything no matter how bad it is, the closer you will be to completing your masterpiece.

We could go on philosophizing about this. Mortimer Adler, the late author of How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, said about writing, “The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.” In other words, there is no book “inside of us,” per se. It’s almost as if we form our thoughts at the very moment we are writing them. Consider any hard brain activity you’ve ever done, from writing a paper for school to sketching an invention or blueprints, and you’ll begin to realize that you have always had to work out your thoughts on paper. One doesn’t simply dream up a work of architecture like the Empire State Building and then immediately draw a perfect blueprint the first time. Neither can one do that with a work of fiction.

2. Write on another page

If the blank page is the problem, then simply going to another page to write, believe it or not, might be your solution. This is especially true if you are already in the depths of a complex document and just need a breath of fresh air.

This happened to me just a few weeks ago, in fact, as I was working on my dissertation. I needed to add a section to my paper but just stared for hours at the screen (flipping back to Facebook occasionally to procrastinate!), not knowing where to put it in my 35-page document, not knowing how in the world to make the necessary transitions, not knowing what to write.

So what did I do? I just threw that project to the side, opened another document and began typing whatever came to my mind.

I hit the same dilemma while trying to start on a new novel. I had some notes and outlines, but I felt trapped by them and felt like I didn’t have anything to add.

So I did the same thing. I just started typing in a new document, no titles or anything like that. And when I got tired and didn’t know how to continue, I just threw that page aside and changed directions on a new page.

This can work really well. It’s especially useful in minimalist word processor apps like Ulysses, where you can endlessly create new blank “sheets” by pressing Command+N (on a Mac) without having to choose templates, configure settings or wait for a new document to load like you have to do with Microsoft Word.

Another way you could apply this strategy is to leave your computer altogether and just write on a physical notepad. I love legal pads for this kind of thing, although I don’t physically write much these days due to a disability.

3. Find some writing prompts

If you just can’t decide what should happen next in your novel, seek out a writing prompt — a small idea (written by you or someone else) that you attempt to introduce into your novel. A good source for this is a deck of cards with prompts called the Writer Emergency Pack.

You can buy that pack, or write prompts yourself when they come to you wherever you may be, or go around asking your friends to come up with a weird event or character. However you decide to find/create writing prompts, they can often help you get unstuck from that soul-sucking blank page.

For instance, here’s a random writing prompt I thought of just now: “A starving-crazed coyote lurks close-by in the night, unseen by the main character(s).” Here’s another: “Figure out a way to use the phrase the primrose path in your next scene.”

This might sound ridiculous, but the strength of writing prompts is their ability to get you back on the road. You can always change it later to make it fit with your novel, if you want. For instance, one time my brother and I each wrote an individual short story with the rule that we had to include a prewritten dialogue between two characters that we had already written together. Later, I scrapped that ridiculous-sounding dialogue in the final version of my story, but it helped me get started and get the creative juices flowing.

4. Eat some food

There’s a scene in the movie “Men in Black 3” where the young alien-fighting Agent K (Josh Brolin) stops by a diner for a piece of pie in the midst of an action-packed and perilous intergalactic melee. His partner played by Will Smith is offended that he would stop the pressing mission just to enjoy a homemade confection. But of course, while Agent K is eating the pie and talking about other things besides aliens, the two happen to connect the dots they need to resolve their problem. As Agent K says:

My grandaddy always said: “If you got a problem you can’t solve, it helps to get out of your head.” Pie. It’s good.

For some of you, that might mean taking a walk or exercising, but I sometimes wonder if there really is a deep truth behind the word “brain food.” Stopping to grab a small snack helps me relax, reenergize and come up with new ideas.

You never know what you might bump in to by taking a small break. Recently, I was having trouble coming up with an idea for a novel, but instead of looking at my screen all day or distracting myself with other work, I decided to leave my desk and spend some quality time with some relatives. A conversation that transpired gave me a very actionable idea. You never know where inspiration will hit you, but it can be hard to find it in front of a computer screen. Take a walk. Eat some pie. Whatever it takes.

5. Use a voice recorder

Many great writers in history, including Mark Twain, used scribes or transcriptionists to write whatever they said. You might not be rich enough to have a personal secretary follow you around and record your dictation, but what you can do is buy a cheap voice recorder from Walmart.

Our minds think differently when we’re speaking than when we’re writing, so this can be a good exercise. It doesn’t mean you have to commit to dictating your entire novel, but if you are stuck with writer’s block, dictating a scene or a chapter might help you get unstuck.

You might be surprised by how much it helps your novel to read it aloud. It can help give a voice to your writing that is sometimes missing when you’re typing in silence. You’ll be more aware of what words and phrases have a good sound and which sound awkward. In fact, I’ve heard experts suggest that every writer should read their work aloud at some point, especially after completing a first draft, because it allows you to catch things you would not normally notice.

As far as the technical side to this goes, I suggest buying a real voice recorder and not relying on a smartphone or computer. This might seem old-fashioned in a society where smartphones have made many other devices obsolete, but a dedicated voice recorder is still more reliable than a smartphone app. With a voice recorder, you hit record, and a red light comes on. You hit it again, and it goes off. Easy. Simple. Reliable. You never know what a touchy-feely smartphone is going to pull on you. I learned this in my journalism days, so be warned!

One more thing about using a voice recorder: You can transcribe the dictation yourself using any number of computer apps made for this purpose. Some of the apps will even transcribe automatically, leaving you the task of simply fixing the computer’s mistakes. If you’re just too lazy or don’t have time for all that, there are a number of affordable paid services online that will do this for you.

6. Let there be gaps

It never fails that one day, you’ll open up your manuscript only to feel stuck in the middle of a confusing story, and you’re worried that whatever you write might contradict what you’ve already written. Maybe you’ve lost track of some minor subplot. Maybe you do remember everything that’s going on in your story but want to change directions, meaning much of what you’ve already written is now wrong or obsolete.

Faced with these daunting scenarios, many aspiring novelists will stare at their computer screen for ten minutes, sip some coffee, and then find something else to do besides write. The reason for this is that it is extremely difficult psychologically to start working on a project of which we can’t see the end. It’s going to take so long and be so hard, why even start right now? That’s the vicious cycle of procrastination.

Instead of quitting, just remember that a novel is written one word at a time. Right now, you probably should not attempt a reread of what you’ve written already. You shouldn’t try to change a bunch of stuff to accommodate the new direction you are trying to go. Just keep writing as if everything you’ve already written is fine and dandy. You can always go back and change it later. It’s OK to have storyline contradictions or gaps in the drafting phase. Learn to live with them and your life will be much better than if you’re always trying to get everything right the first time.

7. Ask someone for help

You know what they say: If you don’t know the answer, just ask. This might seem strange at first, because you think of yourself as the sole arbiter of what’s allowed to happen in your book. Historically, art doesn’t work that way; it’s not the product of an isolated, solitary genius.

Think about the many great writers who relied on other people for their timeless stories. Homer, who wrote the classic epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, got most of his information from a strong oral tradition of storytelling that the ancient Greeks enjoyed. The brothers Grimm, of course, were not the originators of the book they are most known for, but rather they copied from written sources and transcribed oral folk tales.

Furthermore, much of literary study in the last half-century has been concerned with the idea of intertextuality, that is, the ways in which books, even seemingly unconnected ones, borrow from and influence one another so that nothing is purely “original.” Every author is influenced from the world around him or her and the stories contained in that world. William Faulkner once said in a lecture:

I think the writer, as I’ve said before, is completely amoral. He takes whatever he needs, wherever he needs, and he does that openly and honestly because he himself hopes that what he does will be good enough so that after him people will take from him, and they are welcome to take from him, as he feels that he would be welcome by the best of his predecessors to take what they had done.

So I think it’s perfectly reasonable to approach your friend and ask, “Hey, what should happen next in my novel?”

8. Do word sprints

A “word sprint” is a set period of time, usually 20 minutes, in which you do nothing but write as many words as you can. No talking to other people. No answering your phone or texting. No turning on the TV.

This method has become popular in a number of venues. National Novel Writing Month groups often organize a “write-in” wherein everyone gets together and (sometimes) stays up all night talking about their novels with one another, socializing and drinking coffee in between these word sprints.

Also, in productivity circles, the Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo consists of setting a kitchen timer to 25 minutes during which you’re supposed to work without any distractions. Then you take a five-minute break, followed by another 25-minute work period.

The good thing about a word sprint or a pomodoro or whatever you want to call it is that by the end of the sprint, you at least have something to show for your time. It increases your focus and time management in an age of endless distractions that steal your time.

9. Change location

No, I’m not talking about your novel’s setting. I’m talking about you! Sometimes the thing that keeps you from writing is your environment. Go somewhere else and you might be surprised how much it impacts your productivity.

Psychologically, your habits are in part triggered by associations you have with the different places you do particular things. At work, you work. At home, you spend time with family. For praying there are churches, and for playing there are parks and playgrounds. Your location and what you do are tied up with one another.

Try going to the library. Your local library or your university’s library (if you’re a student) can be a quiet escape from a noisy world, and you will be less likely to procrastinate than you are when you’re home alone with the Netflix remote lurking just a few feet away. Libraries often have nice, big work desks and chairs made of earth-tone polished wood. Comfortable, but not so comfortable you’ll fall asleep.

Furthermore, your brain already associates the library with work and productivity. On the other hand, your brain generally doesn’t associate home or even a café with such things. When you go to the library, your mind is in writing mode.

Changing location — whether it’s the library, a park, an office or what have you — helps you clearly separate in your mind when you’re working and when you’re not. You could stare at a blank page all day at home, but the focus that being somewhere else provides will push you to start writing.

10. Make a mind map for the next chapter

If you are having trouble starting a scene or chapter, create a mind map for that chapter.

To do this, take a piece of paper, draw a circle in the middle, and write down the central action in this chapter. Don’t worry about small details or subplots. Ask yourself, “What is the main thing that I need to accomplish in this chapter?” Keep your answer short, something small enough to fit in the circle.

Then, you draw lines connecting the main circle to other circles, where you’ll put as many details as possible. However, it should build from the central action, the big circle in the middle. You can continue this web by mindmapping more circles from the secondary circles you’ve created.

The advantage to mindmapping is that it pushes you to go ahead and make decisions, because often it’s decision-making that we are scared of and that prevents us from starting to fill in the blank page.

There you have it! Ten actionable ways to get going on your novel once again, or to start if you haven’t already. I hope one or more of these strategies will be of use to you.

What about you? What do you do to conquer the blank page? We invite you to share in a comment below.

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