Facing a Blank Page? Here’s How to Get Started | #Author Toolbox Blog Hop

Posted by on Oct 18, 2017 in #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, Creativity and the Writing Process | 11 comments

Facing a Blank Page? Here’s How to Get Started | #Author Toolbox Blog Hop

I recently heard the quote “I hate to write, but I love having written” (attributed to George R.R Martin, Dorothy Parker, and Frank Norris, among others). After kicking this idea around for a few days I decided that I can’t relate. I love writing. I like the weight of a pen in my hand and the shuffling of my fist as it brushes across the paper. I’m enchanted by the physical act of forming letters and fascinated by the fact that my words change sizes, growing smaller and neater the more focused I am. I even enjoy wrestling with a sentence for an hour to find just the right way to convey a thought clearly to my reader. No, it’s not the writing I hate—it’s getting started.

If you’ve been writing for any amount of time, then you can relate. It’s not only the intimidation of creating something worthy enough to actually put ink on paper. It’s also the effort involved in carving out the time to write, ignoring the needs of my spouse and children to spend a few uninterrupted hours plying my craft, silencing the voice of my inner critic, denying the small voice that calls me impostor… and so much more. Yet every time the writing is done, I consider the effort of getting started worthwhile.

The technique for beginning that I employ most consistently is the practice of timed writing. I first learned of this practice when I found the book Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes by Roberta Allen (Story Press, 1997). This gem of a writing resource contains a chapter on how to implement the technique, a few chapters about writing short stories, and 300 prompts.

I began utilizing the timed writing technique merely as a way to claim I had done some sort of writing on any given day, then as a way to generate ideas. When my children started school and I returned to the work force, I forced students in my creative writing classes to complete one set of prompts (which I made up) as homework every week night. In my on-level and AP English classes, students practice responding to a single prompt every Tuesday and Thursday. Those victims who groan about the practice later tell me the lessons learned from the technique proved to be very helpful when they had to plan and write an essay for an AP or college entrance exam in a limited amount of time.

How This Works

Implementing the timed writing technique is very simple. All you need is a timer and a list of six prompts. These prompts can be about anything, but should start with the phrase “Write a story about…” For example:

 

Write a story about a storm in a forest.

Write a story about a craving for beef stroganoff.

Write a story about a mood ring that never changes color.

Write a story about staying up all night.

Write a story about Christmas lights.

Write a story about chasing a dream—and failing.

 

If you create your own prompts, do it on-the-spot or several days before you plan to use them. You don’t want to be so familiar with them that you’ve had time to plan your response. Part of the technique’s effectiveness lies in spontaneity, so you want to write about the prompt as soon as you can after the initial exposure. If you prefer to use prompts created by someone else, then I highly recommend obtaining a copy of Roberta Allen’s book. You can also search the term “timed writing prompts” on any search engine.

Once you have your prompts and your timer and you’re ready to write, read the first prompt, set the timer for five minutes, and write about the first thing that comes to mind, without stopping, until the timer sounds. This is important because writing without stopping is the key to this technique. This means you don’t take time to ponder the best way to respond, you don’t evaluate the worth of your idea, you don’t worry about finding just the right word… everything your internal editor normally tells you to fix on or rework, you ignore for the sole purpose of filling the page with as many words as you can for five minutes.

What happens if your mind goes blank before the five minutes expire? When this happens, think your way to another topic on the page. Don’t stop writing, just record your thoughts. For example, if I’m writing a story about pizza and find I’ve nothing left to say, I might write, “I’m out of thoughts about pizza. I don’t know what to write next. I wonder what’s going on at home? What are the boys doing in their classes today?” and so on. The point is, don’t stop.

 

How This Helps

By making timed writing a part of your daily writing habit, you are giving yourself permission to ignore a lot of inhibitions that can keep a page blank. Because no one except you will see these exercises, you learn to write honestly, which helps you find your voice. You learn to follow your ideas, which can lead to some great material. And you learn how to conquer the blank page. Currently I use this technique whenever I need to start a new scene (chapter, novel) and I have no idea how to approach it. I tell myself that I’m just playing around so there’s no consequence to having a bad idea and, because I’ve been using this technique for so long, I often end up using the material that began as something I was just playing around with.

What about you? What tips and/or tricks do you use to move from stuck at a blank page to amazingly productive writing session? I’d love to hear your writing hacks in the comments below.

 

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11 Comments

  1. “Write a story about” seems like a novel way to handle writing prompts.
    Many prompts I’ve encountered in the past were far more concrete, often offering an opening sentence and then telling the audience to “keep going”.
    These feel far more open, but also very grounded in their own way. There’s no implication about how the character feels about this situation; the tone and genre are left for the audience to decide.

    I definitely believe in timed writing. I don’t generally tell myself that I have to “write continuously” for a set span of time, but I will sit in the chair and spend that time in service to writing, in one form or another.

    Lately I’ve become fond of using music as prompts. In recent years bands like Two Steps From Hell and Audiomachine have made nonlyric music far more prominent, so I have no trouble finding what I call “soundtracks without a scene”.
    The idea is similar, something that evokes ideas, but leaves a lot for the audience to determine for themselves.

    Often this is how stories start for me. Then the challenge becomes how to develop them.
    When I can I like to plot it out, drawing up outlines and sketches of how things might unfold.
    I don’t consider myself married to any one idea, but it gives me something to react to.
    If what I’ve planned feels off, I can do the opposite, and keep reacting until I find an alternative that works.

    For me the biggest challenge is finding the faith to press on, even though it feels like I take far too long just to find the right words for a single page, let alone a whole story.
    But quality has to come first. I can only hope that with time my rate of writing will increase as well.

    I love to write but there are also times where it can feel very difficult, so I can imagine what they are saying.
    When it’s good, it’s magical, but sometimes it takes a while to rekindle the flame, and in its absence the doubts are that much harder to deny.
    But I try to remember that at the end of the day all anyone can do is try, and as long as you try, you’re a writer.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. See, it’s quieting that stupid editor in my head that makes such a problem for me to begin a story. So I sometimes attack the story plotting by writing a piece of dialogue; a description of the external problem; perhaps a middle piece or the ending and poke, prod, and mesh the storyline into completion.

    Thanks so much for sharing this! Enjoy your day.

  3. I’ve been to conferences where we’ve done this in the sessions, and it really works like a charm, especially for short stories. I’m really bad at short stories, so it was good to be reminded of this technique. Also, the Reedsy newsletter sends out 6 or more prompts every week, and you can win $50 weekly for entering your story! Win win. I really hope to get in the habit of that.

    http://micascottikole.com/2017/10/17/wdc17-3-mechanics-plot-twists-authortoolbox/

    • Ooohh! I didnd’t know about the Reedsy newsletter. Thanks for the head’s-up!

  4. Writing prompts are very handy and an excellent exercise. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  5. Never have I had a better understanding of how prompts can be helpful in honing craft. Great post, Lauricia! I also can’t relate to being a writer who hates writing, and I also spend oodles of time perfecting sentences. Each time one falls into place, it’s a mini high. 🙂

    • Right?

  6. Earlier this year, I started applying myself to the Daily Prompt provided by WordPress. It turned out to be a useful exercise, one that I hadn’t done since my eighth grade Language Art classes, to get me into the habit of daily writing. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Thanks for sharing this technique. (especially since the book is no longer in print)
    Going to try this and see what happens

    • I hate it when a valuable resource goes out of print. : (

      I hope your practice with this exercise proves helpful!

  8. I agree that the act of writing is just as nice as having written, but starting is always difficult. For me, my timed writing happens during my lunch break. I have a certain amount of time I can take before I need to go back to the office and back to work, so I write for the hour and try not to stop. Being able to start a piece at the drop of the hat is definitely useful for test taking and essay-writing in college. I took the GRE a few years ago, and I actually finished the essay writing portion early enough to do some serious editing, and it was all because I could just buckle down and start. Great post, and thanks for sharing!

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