Sunday, May 20, 2012

Defeating the Blank Page with Misty Berries, Webs, and Fading Outlines

By Amanda Simays

Some people can start typing the beginning of a story and write all the way through until the end. I am not one of those people. Blinking cursors on blank Word documents intimidate me. How do you turn an idea for a scene into a fully-written one? Everyone has to find their own system, but here are a few strategies that work for me:

1.      Warm up by playing with words

Here’s a carefully crafted poem revealing fundamental truths about the dichotomy between nature and civilization in modern society with lots of metaphors about mankind’s philosophical state of being:

Long went the afternoon banquets
Tasting nothing
Hanging the misty berries
Along our still-ensphered home
Cold, pretty eyelids
Underneath rivers of flame ribbons
Never there
Very real

I lied. There are no metaphors in that poem, and it doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s just an exercise I do sometimes to get into the mode of writing. I flip open a random page of a random book on my shelf and write down the last word of every single line on the page. Then I play around with words, stringing as many of them together into a nonsense poem. There’s something fun and low-stress about putting words together in a way at first glance might deceive a fifteen-year-old editor of a high school literary journal into thinking that I’m saying something deep about the emotional turmoil inside my soul. But more importantly, it’s a warm-up—now the part of my brain that twists words and creates phrases is turned on.

2.      Brainstorm webs

I’m not a linear thinker, especially when it comes to creative exercises. Even an outline is too constraining of a medium for me to start out with. So instead, I open up a blank page in my notebook and make a web, jotting down phrases as they come to mind, connecting them with lines, letting my thoughts sprawl all over the page. It’s a lot easier for me to generate thoughts in this manner…there’s no pressure to start at the beginning and go through until the end. Only after I’m done this exercise do I turn my notes into a sequential outline. I try to fill up an entire page when I do this because 1) it pushes me to generate more raw material than I might otherwise do, and 2) filling up an entire page with notes like this aesthetically looks really cool. 

3.      Let the outline fade into a story

To me, this is the easiest way to solve the blank-page-anxiety problem—simply start with a page that isn’t blank. I take whatever outline or notes I have and copy and paste them into a new document. Then I flesh out my outline, adding in every detail that comes to mind, plugging every scrap of dialogue or piece of imagery into the appropriate spot. I keep doing this, adding and adding, until suddenly I’m not just writing phrases but sentence fragments…then whole sentences…and then eventually the outline starts to morph into properly-written scene. For me, this is the coolest part about writing. It’s like watching those “behind the scenes” DVD extras for an animated movie where they show a cartoon animal drawn in pencil morph into a full-color, smooth-lined animated sequence.

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