So, You Want To Be a Writer? Part Two - How to Fill Empty Pages
You’ve made the conclusive decision that you are 100% determined to lay your soul bare on the page and write from that most vulnerable place where you truly open yourself and your deepest feelings to the reader. Yep, you’re all in. You’ve set aside the time to write your manuscript and have maybe even rented a cabin in the mountains or some seaside oasis of creativity to ensure your writing will be of the highest calibre possible.
The cupboards are stocked with Nescafe and Tim Tams, there are soft rays of autumn sunshine falling through draped windows and wistfully onto your study’s timber flooring. There’s an ashtray and a pack of cigarettes on one side of your desk, a bottle of whisky on the other and maybe a record player is within easy reach too, ready to fill the air with some Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan as seems fitting. And with a lightly knitted cardigan loosely hugging your shoulders and wrists, you really do fit the mould, almost too well, for being the finest writer to ever brush paper with ink.
The stage is set and now all you have to do is fill a few hundred blank pages…Ahhh, shit!
The common phrase goes that everyone has a book in them. I definitely believe that to be true. But, as fate would have it, human anatomy 101 should alert you to the great difficulty encountered when trying to cleanly extract those things which are inside us and bring them out to the wider world.
How to fill empty pages? And how to fill those pages with words that a reader will tear through and be wanting more? How to bring the book within to the pages below?
There is, of course, no easy answer, but here are some tips:
I’m sure someone out there can take a seat before a laptop or typewriter and tap away with breakneck haste, filling pages with spectacular prose and insights. That person must exist. Good luck to them. That would be an amazing gift. I am certainly not that person. No, to carefully construct both the story you want to tell and then be able to express it in the way you want requires inspiration, planning and some controlled recklessness.
Inspiration: You can’t sit at a desk and expect to be struck with genius that flows straight to the page. You need to be inspired. And I’m not talking about the sort of inspiration that half-time pep talks are filled with, I’m talking about the inspiration you need to transport you to the part of your story that you want to write about.
Stand at the place you first kissed a girl, eat the meal that was your staple during your overseas exchange program, walk the same path you were afraid to go down when bullies in the year above were likely to be waiting, read the newspaper clippings you saved from that time you were featured in the local paper, listen to the song that played when they laid your Father to rest. Let yourself be overcome with memories, with emotions, with inspiration. And make sure you have a damn pen and paper to write it all down!!! Write everything as it comes into your thoughts – no assessment or analysis, just write, Forest, WRITE!
*If you should happen to see me out in the world being a total weirdo, you may notice me scribbling away like a maniac in my phone. I’m not tweeting, well sometimes I am, but more often than not, some thought has entered my mind and I’m making damn sure to write it down in the notes component of my phone before I forget it.*
Then, when you return to your desk and commit to sitting down in front of that first empty page you already have a treasure chest of your deepest, darkest and most uplifting snippets to draw from. This process is one that has to become integral to you throughout the entire life of writing your novel. Remember, a novel is simply a collection of a few hundred short stories and insights, eventually all glued together into the one tome when you finally understand what your subconscious has been trying to tell you all along.
Planning: It may seem odd to put planning second, inspiration first, but there’s no point planning if you are uninspired. The same people who believe that each of us have a book within are more than likely the same ones who have sat down to write their masterpiece and figured out after 5 pages that it is bloody hard work, and after 20 pages that it was all too much. As a very general rule of thumb and a number that is completely landed on by yanking said thumb from my belligerent arse, you want to have at least 50-70 pages of scrawled notes filled with all manner of snippets of wisdom, sentimentality, hilarity and despair in your inspiration treasure chest before you decide to proceed with writing an entire novel.
Search for the inspiration first, then you will honestly and more accurately know whether or not there is a book within that won’t cause terminal damage to extract. If there isn’t, no big deal, there will be sooner or later. But if there is, then it’s time now to make a plan of attack.
Are you going to write as a narrator or will you write from a first person perspective (my favourite by far)? Do you have a clear idea of chapters and turning points in the story? Can you enhance the tale through the use of flashbacks or flash-forwards? Who are the chief characters and how can you position the story to best engage the reader in the transformative events of each character?
You’ve already done the hard work of seeking out inspiration, you’ve got a treasure chest of ideas that emanate from your heart and genuine life experience and you’ve put together a general plan of the path your story will travel, the way it will be told and the ways in which you can enhance aspects of the story to best engage the reader. Is it just me or are you absolutely on fire!! So far, you are deadset killing it!
Controlled Recklessness: There’s a strange phenomenon that arises when you sit down to write and have thoughtfully completed all the pre-planning, as well as systematically sought the requisite snippets of heartfelt inspiration to guide your tale…your words and the overall story will most likely take on a life of their own and be led completely astray from where you originally set out. There is a life force on the page and within your fingertips once you truly commit to your writing. A peripheral character will become pivotal, a nothing event will become the metaphor that defines the very meaning of life itself, the entire narrative you had envisaged in your head for years will be comprehensively replaced with something new and previously unimagined.
If you find yourself seated at the keyboard, overcome with this controlled recklessness, you have no choice but to succumb. Your thoughts and fingers have to be trusted, let them guide the story if they choose to, let the words flow forth from fuck knows where and don’t dare stop writing until those finger muscles seize up.
This can strike at anytime. If you truly are a writer, you will have absolutely no qualm with waking at 1am from a restless sleep and find yourself drawn to the laptop until 7am, not once stopping to think, simply letting the words borne of a lifetime of observation and imagination finding their way to the screen as they’re needed the most. This is writing. This is what you will have the extreme good fortune to experience only fleetingly and only when you’ve committed wholeheartedly to the manuscript. Embrace it.
Thanks for reading and best wishes with your writing,
Liam Carroll is the author of Slippery, a story set in Southeast Asia about capitalism on steroids, it makes the world of Gordon Gecko look positively gentlemanly, and Sweet Dreams of Fanta, a nostalgic romp in time back to the Sydney of 1988, seen through the eyes of a freckly, moon-faced, seven year old Fanta addict and devoted Balmain Tigers lover.