Blank pages are scary.
more seasoned writers might disagree with me. Blank pages aren’t scary, they’d argue — they’re full of promise and opportunity! After all, a blank page is a writer’s canvas, the home of what will eventually become an incredible story. What’s more exciting than that?
I’m not saying they’re wrong. After all, there is something uniquely enticing about filling a blank page with paragraph after paragraph of plot, characters, and conflict. But there’s also something about seeing the blinking cursor in the top left corner of a brand-new Word document that intimidates me. It’s almost like it knows that I’m going to spend a good ten minutes just staring at the screen while I figure out how to start things off, or like it can tell that I’m going to write twenty-two different versions of my opening sentence before I’m finally satisfied enough to move on.
Ever since I made “finally finish a manuscript” one of my 2019 resolutions, I’ve been facing blank pages almost on the daily. From the empty legal pads that I use to plan my novels to the empty Word documents that I use to write them, I’ve had to write a lot of first lines and overcome a lot of blinking cursors. I’m currently in a stage of the writing process that I like to refer to as “idea ping-pong” — I’m bouncing around between all of the story ideas that I’ve had in the past few months, trying to find one that I care about enough to devote the next several months of my life to writing — so most of those first lines have been false starts, stories that I won’t actually end up pursuing for a while.
However, between all of the different stories that I’ve worked on, I’m starting to notice a common trend. With every new project that I start, facing down that first blank page gives me the same five worries:
What if my idea isn’t original enough?
This is something that I think about the most whenever I start a new writing project. In the book-reviewing community, books are bashed left and right for being “too trope-y” or “yet another cliche dystopian novel.” I really don’t want to write a cliche book, yet with so much fiction out there in the world, it seems impossible to come up with a completely original idea!
But then again, maybe it’s meant to be impossible. As some wise person* once said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” (As an example of this, I once read an article that shows how the plot of Harry Potter is pretty much identical to the plot of Star Wars, despite the two works being vastly different in terms of genre and medium.) It seems like every story out there has been influenced by countless other stories, whether that means drawing from physical books that other authors have written or simply taking inspiration from the outlandish tales that spring out of crazy life experiences. If that’s really the case, true originality is unachievable. But successful books still need to be able to take the hodge-podge of influences that they’re drawing from and combine them in a way that is somehow fresh and different, and that’s a skill that I’m still working to perfect.
*I tried to look up who said this quote so I could make sure I cited the correct person, and apparently no one really knows who said it? It’s been attributed to everyone from Tolstoy to John Gardner. So I’m just going to leave it at “some wise person” and hope that’s sufficient!
What if my plot isn’t interesting or complex enough?
Authors who invest themselves enough in one idea long enough to produce a series that spans six or seven books are already impressive enough. But authors that manage to make hidden symbols in the first book foreshadow a huge reveal in, like, the fifth book? Those authors blow my mind. How do they weave together so many different plots and subplots and mysteries and conflicts with such mastery? Do they plan out the entire series ahead of time so they can make sure that all of their sneaky hints get put in the right places? Or do they just take it book by book and connect things together on a whim? How?!*
Granted, this is probably a skill that comes with time, but as I try to plot my first novel, it’s kinda intimidating to think about. I’m constantly worried that the plot I’m creating is too simple or too obvious in its twists and turns, and I really don’t want that. I’ve read a few books recently where the “surprise endings” weren’t surprises at all — I could see them coming from a mile away — and they were pretty disappointing. It would bug me to no end if my own work turned out the same way.
*If you’re reading this as an author who’s done this kind of foreshadowing, first of all: kudos and second of all: TEACH ME YOUR WAYS!
How much should I talk about my project online?
Ah yes, and here we come to one of the biggest debates that I’ve been having with myself over the past couple of months: is it okay to post the details of your writing projects online? I’m talking mainly from a protecting-your-ideas standpoint here, not a seeking-motivational-support one.* Ever since I started this blog, I’ve shied away from posting anything more detailed than the name of one of my main characters when discussing my writing projects. There’s literally no justification for this other than me being nervous about the potential of someone stealing my ideas and writing a way better book than I ever could** — which I feel ridiculous even mentioning, but there you have it!
I’ve even tossed around the idea of starting a weekly feature on this blog where I (and any other writers who want to join in, of course!) write flash fiction or short stories based off of random writing prompts, but this irrational worry of mine has been holding me back. I think that once I have more writing experience under my belt and more confidence in my own abilities, I’ll be a lot less worried about this… but for now, I’m still struggling to overcome it.
*I know first-hand that events like Camp NaNoWriMo can be super motivating for getting writing done — and announcing my commitment to those events online just motivates me that much more to stay on track with them!
**Because let’s be honest, looking at my level of writing ability and my sheer lack of writing output up to this point… this is more plausible than it seems.
Am I still going to like this idea in a month?
For me, disillusionment has always been one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome while working on a long-term writing project. I’ll be chugging along just fine, writing a little bit every day and loving how my manuscript is turning out — and then, suddenly, I wake up one day and think, This is the worst idea that I’ve ever come up with. Why am I bothering? Just like that, the last few weeks of productivity come crashing down around me, and I feel the sudden urge to either abandon or completely rework my project. Spoiler alert: I end up giving in to that urge wayyyy too often… and that’s pretty much the reason why I haven’t finished a manuscript yet, summed up in a neat little paragraph.
All sarcasm aside, however, I think this is one of the easiest worries for me to overcome. Every writer who’s ever managed to be successful at their craft will tell you that “first drafts are supposed to be messy” — this is a sentiment that I need to start embracing a lot more. I need to focus on just getting the story down on paper, without worrying about how “good” of an idea it is. That can come later, in the editing stages. Of course, it’s easier said than done to adopt this mindset, but you better believe that I’m going to try my darnedest to going forward.
Is anyone actually going to want to read this?
I’ve found that I produce some of my best work when I’m writing just for myself. Every few weeks, I’ll search up a random writing prompt on the Internet, open up a Word document, and freewrite whatever story pops into my head — and it’s super liberating. I almost never produce anything that I would want to publish, but the words flow so much easier when I’m not faced with the pressure of thinking about how someone else is eventually going to be reading
and judging my work.*
When I sit down to work on a longer writing project, however, I run into a mental wall. I don’t write novels solely for myself — I write them so that one day, they might be published and read by people all around the world. And that’s pretty scary to think about when you’re staring at a blinking cursor with nothing more than a vague idea (or, if you’re a planner, a thoroughly outlined idea) of what you’re going to write rattling around in your head. During brainstorming sessions, I’ve even found myself subconsciously discarding ideas that I think aren’t popular enough in the fiction world, or that I think are funny but other people might find lame — which isn’t good, because it significantly slows down my writing process by forcing me to doubt myself.
I guess that the only way to overcome this is to write for myself all the time, not just when I’m doing my occasional freewriting. But I’m still trying to figure out how to do that. It’s hard enough to shut your inner editor up as it is, but even harder when she’s goading you by talking about how many people might read your book someday!
*To be fair, I still do have trouble coming up with my first line and conquering that blank page, but it’s significantly easier.
Writing is difficult. And for me, the hardest part has always been getting started. Sure, I may also have difficulty finding the time to write every single day, and I definitely struggle to come up with character names — but when it comes down to it, nothing has been a bigger obstacle to my writing these past couple of months than that frustratingly cheery cursor that greets you when you open up a new Word document.* Like I said above, blank pages are scary.
What I (along with any other writers out there who are having a hard time starting their projects) need to remember is that once you finally come up with that perfect opening line, it’s off to the races. The blank page is no longer blank, and it’s no longer frightening. Instead, it’s filling up with words faster than you ever could have anticipated, and as long as you keep at it, adding one word after another whenever you have time, it will one day contain something that you can be really proud of — a finished story. That’s definitely worth a few doubtful thoughts along the way!