Just Sitting Here, Staring at this Blank Page: The Scary Problems

So far in this little series, I’ve rambled a little about a number of reasons why one might wind up staring blankly at a page, stalled mid-project, and the ways I work around them when they mess with my progress on a story. But the things at the top of the list–needing a kick in the pants and needing better focus–are sort of the easy problems. Time now to tackle the scary items way down at the bottom of the list.

  • ayou need a kick in the pants. 
  • byou cannot focus for various reasons, like for instance the fact that in order to eat anything you have to find a fork in the pile of stuff in your sink and wash it, and you can’t actually reach the taps any longer to turn on the water in order to wash the fork even if you do find it, and while we’re at it you’re wearing that shirt with the holes in it for the third day straight because it’s still the cleanest shirt in the house.
  • cyou cannot focus because internet.
  • dyou cannot focus because spouse/kids.
  • e) you cannot focus because there’s this other very shiny idea running around your brain waving at you from behind things.
  • f) today/this week/this month you actually don’t love this project. You want to scream at it. 
  • g) you simply don’t know what happens next. 

The scary problems.

You suddenly don’t love this project anymore.

Sometimes this isn’t the problem; sometimes its a symptom of something else–one of those focus problems, for instance. Or it could be the result of burnout. Sometimes, especially if you’re on a deadline, you may be hating the thing because you legitimately need a break.

My last four books all had to be written, for various reasons, in relatively brief stretches of time (one month for The Kairos Mechanism and three to four months for The Broken Lands, Greenglass House, and The Left-Handed Fate). My workdays for these tended toward a minimum of 3000 words; in the case of the novels, I more often had to push to clock days that were closer to 5000 or 6000 words. At some point, I hated every one of those books, just out of sheer burnout. I go through points where I’m so focused on meeting the deadline that not just the dishes, but taking care of myself goes right out the window. Within two weeks of the deadline of every single one of the novels I got sick enough to require me to stop writing for a few days because I literally couldn’t sit up for a couple of days. It took getting sick to make me stop and slow down.

And it takes far less than this level of output to burn yourself out, especially if there are other things going on in your life that might be contributing to the angst. So make sure the problem isn’t that you need to stop and take a break. Maybe don’t give yourself such a hard time. (Says the girl who ought to take her own advice now and then.)

Now, if the problem isn’t that you’re working so hard on the thing you can’t do anything but curse it, but you’re still cursing it–that’s different. Maybe you need to be reminded why you loved the thing in the first place. Here are some ways I re-kindle my connection with what I’m working on when it starts to annoy me.

Print the thing out and read it from the beginning. I don’t do this while I’m working, usually. I might re-read what I wrote yesterday, but in general I neither read from the beginning or do any meaningful editing while I’m trying to get to the end of something. But sometimes stopping to read from the beginning is just what the doctor ordered. Reading the whole thing on paper is a great way to remind myself that what I’m writing isn’t awful. It reminds me that I want to know what happens next. And because it’s on paper and not on a screen, it’s an experience unlike all that staring at the screen I’ve been doing. Sometimes, as a special bonus, I discover things in the story that either I’d forgotten I put there or just didn’t realize I’d put there, and those act as catalysts to move things forward when I go back to writing.


Compasses are pretty, and also make a nice metaphor here.

Revisit the original source of inspiration for the thing, or look for a new source altogether. For me, this usually means go back to the research that put me onto the story in the first place to revisit the reasons I want to write this particular project. Sometimes, though, it means looking for something new to bring to the piece, a whole new chunk of inspiration. Sometimes research accomplishes that, but sometimes it takes something else: a road trip, a visit to a museum–something to open my eyes, get me thinking with new circuits and looking down roads that might lead in completely different directions from the way I thought I needed to go.

Sometimes, of course, even after trying all of these things I still find myself stranded and lost.

You’re stuck without a clue as to what happens next.

Weirdly, I actually find this a cool place to be, because anything at all can happen and all roads are still open to me. But that coolness dissipates pretty quickly after a couple days of getting nowhere and morphs into anxiety the closer I get to a deadline.

The easy solution is perhaps, next time, outline the thing. But like most easy answers, that doesn’t solve everything. I guess it depends on how you outline, how much detail you figure out ahead of time, and whether the story decides to play by the rules your outline sets out. Me, I hate outlining. I do it when necessary (meaning, when an editor makes me or when the deadline is particularly tight, like with the novellas). And I’m happy to do it in those circumstances, but in my experience even an outline doesn’t guarantee I won’t find myself staring dumbly at the screen, without a clue as to what to do next. So I…

Skip to a part where I do know what happens. This sounds obvious, but sometimes I forget I’m allowed to do it. I’m not kidding. But it’s an almost foolproof tactic when I get stuck. Just move on. There’s no law that says you have to write sequentially, or have any one section perfect before you move onto the next. There’s also no law that says you have to come back to that unfinished section until you get to the end.

Work backwards. This works for me a lot when I know vaguely where I need to go but am not sure what needs to happen between where I am and that vague endpoint. I list chapter titles. It’s kind of an outlining compromise, something like bullet points. This tactic also tends to work well when I’m writing something I need to be shorter (like the novellas). It imposes a bit of restraint.

Brainstorm or talk it out with someone who really gets you and what you’re trying to do. For me, this person is my husband. He rolls his eyes when I ask if I can talk out a story problem, but he’s a great listener, he asks great questions, and he has great ideas. This could be where you make an emergency call to your critique group or to a particularly thoughtful writing partner.

Go back to your research. Sometimes for me, the problem is not so much that I don’t know what comes next, but that there’s a piece missing without which I have no way of knowing what comes next. Sometimes it isn’t just about thinking harder or working a problem out, it’s about hunting down that missing puzzle piece. Most often, this means going back to my books; internet research tends to require (for me, at least) knowing at least what I’m looking for, but if I don’t know what’s missing, trying to find it on the interwebs turns into screwing around aimlessly and wasting time. For me, anyway. And there’s a fine line between research and procrastination.

And…well, that’s all I’ve got. Again, I can only speak to what works for me, but these are the strategies I tend to fall back on–or, in the case of everything above that argues for not being so hard on yourself or allowing adequate time for exercise and taking care of yourself, strategies I fully plan to be better about next time around. Here’s hoping there’s something here that you find helpful the next time you’re staring at a blank page. Share your thoughts and strategies, won’t you? 

And thanks, @kindleaholic, for the great prompt!

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