by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson
You know what I’m talking about. I don’t care if it’s your first book or your hundredth book or anywhere inbetween, you’ve had one of those horrible sinking moments when you sit at the computer (or legal pad, or whatever), knowing you have to write something, and the well is dry.
You stare at the screen. The screen, blank except for a maniacally taunting cursor, stares back, daring you to put something on it.
Except there’s nothing. There are words in your brain, but they are disjointed and incoherent and have nothing to do with the project at hand. Either that, or they are crystalline and perfect in your mind, but they will not go through your fingers to the keyboard, coming out mangled and incomprehensible if at all.
Even worse is when the book is finally finished – every word carefully chosen, every thought pristine, the entire manuscript polished to a dazzling gleam. It is the best thing you have ever written… and you just know in your heart you’ll never write anything so lovely again, so why even try?
Or the effort of turning out an acceptable book, one that is the best you can do, is just too much. The thought of starting over with fresh characters, a fresh location, a fresh plot (and I do occasionally wonder if that’s why we are so inflicted with long-running series today!) is not only exhausting but frightening. I got away with it last time, you think, but can I do it again? Sometimes I find myself typing the most horrible rubbish simply because I can’t think of anything else that would be better. Sometimes there’s a surprise, though, and after a little time, that rubbish you typed doesn’t seem so bad after all. It’s better than you remembered, and if it isn’t, perhaps it can be fixed. And if it can’t – well, that’s why delete keys were invented.
Luckily for most of us these moments of angst are fleeting. Sometimes a good night’s sleep, the reading of a good book – or even a bad one – maybe even a cup of coffee or a walk around the block is all it takes to get us started again. The anticipation of this predictable doubt at my abilities is what makes me always have at least four, perhaps five, projects going at once. If one is finished or goes stale, I can go on to the next. There’s something about immersing myself in a semi-familiar but incomplete world, where I can remember the main characters and the basic story but am still in the dark about exactly how, that spurs my creative juices. And on I go…
One last word of advice – if all the above fail, put down words. They don’t have to be sentences or even part of a story. Type your grocery list. Do the minutes from the PTA meeting. Just get those fingers moving over the keyboard and it will prime the pump.
E L Doctorow tells the story of how he had dried up after finishing a book. He was sitting at his typewriter (I think it was a typewriter) and his mind was absolutely blank, even though he had to write another book. He stared at the wall, knowing he had to start typing something, so he decided to write about the wall. He lived in a turn of the 20th century house built around 1909, so he started writing about how the wall was built. And about the way the town was when it was built. And about the fashions and mores of the time. Without even knowing it he had started a new book.
The book was Ragtime, and we all know what happened with that, don’t we?
Above my computer is a little, hand-lettered sign. I don’t know where the quote came from, and so cannot give attribution, but it is too good not to share. “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank screen until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Unfortunately, all too true. So – quit moaning and start typing. The words will come.