Blank Pages of the Mind

by Chris McMahon

I’ve been doing a lot of first drafting over the last few months, working away on a new science fiction novel. I don’t know about everyone else, but I find first drafting the hardest work of the whole writing cycle. Plots and storylines write themselves by comparison. I find the first draft intimidating, difficult and draining. It also seems to be when I experience the greatest doubt about my own ability.

By comparison, editing and reworking material has a much lower ‘potential energy hill’ to overcome. All I need is a little nudge and I can happily do this for hours. Luckily I also enjoy re-drafting. Good thing too, since I think I have spent around twenty years doing it ad infinitum on the same few novels.

As a consequence I have been thinking about the feeling of that state of mind when you are looking at the blank page. The strange thing about human experience is that once you label a feeling, the label itself then changes the feeling and gives it meaning in context.

There is a certain mental state, like a state of ‘unknowing’ that can tip you into fear (terror!) and cascade down into the land of meaning where the associations are beliefs like – ‘This is crap.’ ‘I’ll never finish this.’ ‘This story will never be marketable.’

But what if that state of Unkowing is something else? Certainly the blank page precedes the first draft. It is the point of creation. I’m starting to think that this ‘unknowing’ state is actually a blank slate of cognition, where there is the potential for new connections. It feels scary – but only because there is nothing there. It is its very limitless nature that can make you back away. But what about embracing it? Now that is an interesting idea. Or at the very least, change what the feeling of that state means by association.

I am probably getting tangled up in my own ideas here. But I guess the question is – How does the blank page feel to you? How do you deal with that emptiness staring back at you? Is there anyone out there that loves doing the first draft?

10 thoughts on “Blank Pages of the Mind

  1. I love the first draft. I always tell myself that the first chapter, or two, is practice, and world building and will probably mostly get cut in the second draft. Therefore I can write anything. It won’t matter how dumb, because it will be cut. I don’t have to find the perfect hook to start a story with, that will come later, when I have a story.

    So I guess I look at the blank page as an invitation to hash out some odd thoughts and see what happens, find out if it’s building up enough to be a book, or ought to be cut to the bare bones for a short story. Or just filed somewhere, as Kate put it yesterday, to be an interesting bit in some other story.

    I’m just starting one now. My brain kludged up the most ridiculous combination of things imaginable, including a pack of eager but really stupid bombs, a rather self-centered and naive AI, a T-rex, and a pill to replace sleep. It’s fun, making it all work.

    Honest. Play with your ideas.

    1. Hey, Pam. It looks like you have a lot of fun with your work. Maybe that’s my missing element:) A naive AI implanted into the boy of a T-rex (maybe only the hindbrain – hee hee), who is an insomniac due to these tiny little pills it takes. . ..

    2. I don’t even open a page unless I’ve got an idea that just won’t wait. That way the page doesn’t stay blank for long. It’s like needing the can really badly, followed by the relief once you get there.

      1. Hey, Chris. Not sure I can duplicate that one. My burning desires usually get eviscerated by life & I’m left by what cracks I can squeeze into. Good idea though. I’ll stay on the lookout for that sort of impulse and try to shift things around a little. I would be a nice change, that’s for sure.


  2. Blank page = intimidation. You’d think I’d get over it given the fact that I’ve written only God knows how many papers in pursuit of my degrees but I just don’t like a blank screen. There have been times when I’ve literally typed “I hate blank screens. I hate blank screens. I hate blank screens” etc until I’ve managed to get something written. Maybe it’s just me, but I just can’t stand that blankness staring at me.

  3. Hi, Jim. That’s not a bad way to go – at least you have got your fingers moving. I find first drafts unspeakably difficult for fiction. I also write a lot of reports and documents for my work, mostly explaining the results of engineering assessments on energy use and new technologies etc – these I find so straightforward by comparison. All I do is kind of collection points and thoughts and shape them up into something readable. So much easier!

  4. I usually let the thing build until the pressure to write it pushes it out. Then there’s a flood of wordage. This can be somewhat inconvenient, since the folks at the day job would prefer I did that during the day, and when the story pressure hits “write me NOW”, it’s like an itch somewhere unmentionable when you can’t even fidget.

    Of course, I’m well known to be weird, so don’t take my situation for the norm 🙂

    1. Hey, Kate. That’s it! I need to practice being a total wierdo! Maybe I can let me hair go really shaggy, and stop showering so I kind of ‘ripen’ a little hmmm. Save on soap too . ..

      Your posts have been excellent BTW. I usually read all the posts, but don’t always comment, particularly when I’m on the fly. Kudos!

  5. I give myself permission to play with the story. No pressure. Until I get that feeling of … this is right. This is where it should be starting. And by then I know the world and the people and I can nail the opening.

    1. Roweena, I think that might be the trick.

      Don’t worry about that “Perfect Hook” opening.

      If I thought I had to start with the perfect opening, I’d fiddle with essentially _nothing_ for hours. Mind you, occasionally _I_ think I’m starting with the perfect opening, but in the end that may be the first thing cut. Sometime the inspiration for the story is that hook. But you can’t expect that, every time. You just have to play with whatever thoughts you’ve got.

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