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The Beauty of the Blank Page

I have heard several authors compare writing a novel to raising a child. First, an idea takes root inside and grows into a unique plot that explores the nature of life and truth. Then, the author spends months, or even years, drafting and developing that plot until it begins to mature. With a great deal of nurturing, an author breathes life into the story with well-developed characters, vivid language, and aesthetic details that make for an unforgettable piece of literature that will one day make its way into the world, or more accurately, onto the shelves. However, just like a wayward child, the author must distribute swift discipline in order to make the story the best it can possibly be.

In other words, writing the first draft is only the beginning.

I have honestly lost count of the number of drafts my current work in progress has undergone, but it has to be at least four of five. This week I received some eye-opening criticisms and invaluable suggestions on my manuscript from someone in the industry I both respect and admire. Now, I’m not too prideful to admit that those comments were a little overwhelming and painful, not because they were off-base or overly-critical, but rather, because they were basically spot-on. So, armed with copious amounts of caffeine, fervent prayer, and a determination that bordered on obsession, I sat in front of my computer to tackle the much needed revisions.

Everything went smoothly…at least, at first.  But then, like David, I found myself armed with only a slingshot before a sword-wielding giant. After three years of work on this manuscript, there was one loathed chapter that would never yield to my guiding hand. Whether it was the images, the dialogue, or even plotting issues, nothing ever seemed right. It was too long, the pace dragged, some of the scenes were too static. What is a literary mom to do with such a rebellious chapter? After several attempts that left me ready to pluck my head bald and chew off all my fingernails, I finally just let go and approached it from a new perspective: the blank page.

I opened the blank Word document at 7:30 on Friday morning. Wordless and full of possibilities, I took a deep breath, unleashed my imagination, and began to type. Without the worry of making a big old mess from an already messy chapter, I simply started over. By ten o’clock that night, I had a cleaner, clearer, more concise chapter that had been reduced by a third.  By then, I was exhausted and twitching with overly caffeinated tics,yet filled with a since of triumph. It still needs a little direction, but I defeated my giant and tamed my wayward chapter.

I also came to fully comprehend something I’ve heard often enough but never truly understood. As writers, we need to get out of our own way and let the story lead us on the journey it needs to take. Sometimes, when you’ve written hundreds of thousands of words, the best place to start is a blank page.

  1. The blank page and a blinking cursor are powerful things indeed. There’s something liberating about them. The more I practice prose writing and, now, screenwriting, the more I appreciate each and every occasion when I get to open a blank document. Nice post!

    1. Thanks, Dustin. While I have never attempted screenwriting, I would imagine that it is even more difficult to revise than prose since you are already dealing with the bare-bones minimum. I have read STORY by Robert McKee, which is a great screenwriting book you might want to check out if you haven’t already. It really helped me to develop a better sense of scene in my prose (even though it is technically for screenplays)and included some great tips for revision. Happy writing!

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