Tag Archives: Ideation

Blank Page Syndrome

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By Chris Hutton

          Almost every writer that I know dreads it. It may be the most daunting thing with which a writer ever has to grapple – at least when it comes to the work of writing. It taunts you; it challenges you; it just plain gets under your skin.

          I absolutely loathe the blank page.

          Sure, it is rife with possibilities, a clean canvas upon which to paint your story, a journey yet to be begun, or some other green grass metaphor, but it is also a trap. It is the source of every so-called “writer’s block” that I’ve ever experienced. Now as to the actuality of “writer’s block,” perhaps that’s another story, as there are ways to push through. Then again, perhaps it is entwined with this one. Maybe you’ll see what I mean momentarily.

          When I think about the blank page, it is not simply the empty word document or the literal blank pages of a writer’s notebook that come to mind, no matter my choice of illustration above. The blank page is the starting point. It is the beginning of something new, whether it is time to dig for new ideas, the moment you sit down to outline a story, the first moments before drafting those opening words, or even the return from a narrative break.

          It’s also an excuse. When I’m at a beginning, I might as well be at a stopping point. The two feel as one and the same. Let me explain.

          I’ll start with the first example:

Searching for New Ideas

          As discussed last week, searching for inspiration for that next story can be a difficult task. Yes, it is the beginning of the story, but it can just as easily be the end. Tell me, which is easier: 1) to push through all the techniques that I mentioned in the Searching for Inspiration post, or 2) to say, ‘You know what, I’m not inspired, today,’ then take a seat on the couch and watch some TV. When I’m tired I guarantee you that option B is the easier route, and I work a full-time job, have a two-year-old daughter, am writing new story material, and am managing my online presence completely on my own. I guarantee you that I am tired a lot. Hell, I didn’t come up with the idea for this blog until October 27th, while trying to justify why it would be okay to skip one day. Guess what?

          It wasn’t okay.

Beginning the Outline

          Let’s say you have an idea. It’s great. It’s an amazing idea. Now you want to write it. How does it begin? How does it end? Who is the main character? Where is it set? What is it about? What’s the plot? The themes? How do all of these elements tie together? How do you sequence this out to tell your story? That’s a lot of work to start. As long as the page is blank, the outline hasn’t begun and once again it becomes easy to say, ‘You know what, it’s late. It’s 12:30 am and I really need to get some sleep. I’ll start this outline when I wake up.” After finishing my work day on October 27th, (a few hours before this very moment mid writing this post), that seemed like a valid excuse. I could have ended it there and put this off until tomorrow. Instead, I sucked it up and drafted out the basic ideas of what I wanted to express. Why? Because once I start typing, the blank page is gone and I can move forward. As long as I mull it over and keep it blank, it is so very easy to stop before starting.

Starting the Story

          Okay, you’ve nailed the idea, the outline is down pat, and now it’s time to start writing (which technically you’ve already started even if you don’t realize it). So how do you get going? That opening line seems too cliché. It is always a dark and stormy night, right? You need something original. Did you just begin your story with the word ‘it?’ That’s a no-no. Is that opening paragraph too long? It’s too short. It’s too dry. Too clipped. No sentence fragments.

          As you start your story there is an immense amount of pressure. In screenwriting the purported rule is that you have ten pages tops to catch your reader, probably less. In prose, the literature always speaks about the great opening lines, and how the writer captures the reader from the first sentence. Likely this source quoted A Tale of Two Cities. In either scenario, the alleged experts have laid down the gauntlet and its tough to accept that challenge. Moving back to this post, as 1 am rolled by, and I fixed my OS on my computer and could finally start putting words to Word document, I reminded myself that I’m sick, and that a good night’s rest was in order. I still agree with that, but I post every Friday. This post had to get done. So I pushed all thoughts of perfection out the window, and I set down to type.

Returning from a Narrative Break

          Finally that story is underway, but then you reached a logical stopping point. You wrapped up your current narrative arc, saved the file, and shut down. When you come back, that page doesn’t look blank, but it is. You stopped before starting the next train of thought, and now you might as well be at a new beginning all over again. The best example I can give of this is when writing a novel. You finish a chapter and you close out. The next day when you return to write, you’re staring at the words ‘Chapter 2,’ but there is nothing yet written beneath that headline. You are once again at the blank page. For once, I have no scenario from this posting to provide. I’ve been pushing through as fast as I can, so no stopping point has presented itself, but I guarantee that had it presented itself, I would once again have found myself having to push forward.

Advice for Pushing Beyond the Blank Page

          And that’s all well and good, but how do you push forward when you’re on that blank page? Obviously saying that you’re going to do it is much easier than working up the nerve and plowing forward.

          In the end, I think it comes to will and desire. If you really want to write that story (blog, poem, etc.), you find the willpower and you push forward. But again, a few pointers can’t hurt. So here’s my advice, for whatever it may be worth.

Searching for New Ideas

          Be observant. Rifle through your everyday and your personal experience for ideas. Keep a dream journal, especially if you already have vivid dreams. List out what if scenarios off the top of your head and see what pops. Think about your favorite story types and what unique spin you might be able to offer on each. Try stream of consciousness writing. Whatever ideas you don’t use for that particular story, jot into an idea list for later use when confronted with an inspiration block, i.e., the blank page on ideation. See my longer blog post for more details on the above methods.

Beginning the Outline

          If the story hasn’t come to me with a narrative arc already set in stone, then I turn to drafting a bible (especially for longer works). In that bible I focus on these elements:

  • Basic Premise / Logline
  • Setting
  • Tone & Style
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Story Arc

          As I explore each in drafting the bible, the outline begins to shape itself. Looking at the premise I consider what setting might be a reflection of that premise or a natural corollary for that story. For instance, a story about a man with a forgotten past sets very well in a town that has itself been forgotten. With setting and premise locked, I think about what tone I want to use. If it is a series about a bunch of teenagers, do I want to aim for a CW style tone? If it’s a horror story of something beyond our imagining could I be looking for something more arcane and intellectual, something in which the prose itself is doused in insanity (a sort of Lovecraftian approach)? Once I lock those three aspects, themes often emerge naturally. Dreams manifesting in a town that is dying with a teenage cast and a CW tone? Maybe I’m looking at the difference between our dreams and our reality. I’m telling a coming of age story that compares the ideal world we hope to live in, and the reality or nightmare we face upon stumbling into adulthood. By the time I’ve moved this far into my process, my main cast has already begun to shape itself, I have an idea of where the story begins and ends, and then I can outline by determining major beats that I want to hit along the way.

Starting the Story

          Here I think one just has to let the idea of perfection go. It’s very easy to avoid writing caught in the impression that every line has to be perfect, especially those opening lines. They don’t. Writing is rewriting. Don’t trust me? Check out Jack Epps, Jr.’s book Screenwriting is Rewriting. He makes a valid case and offers up more suggestions for the process than I can here in the limits of this blog.

          The point that I hope you take from this advice, however, is not that you need to go read this book in order to write, but that it’s understood that your first draft is not going to be perfect. It will need to be rewritten, then rewritten again, then polished. Case in point, I’m currently rereading and editing this post at 2:30 in the morning. This is why writers need editors. So don’t get hung up on perfecting that first line right out of the gate – not at the expense of writing at all. Look back to your outline, push through those first couple of paragraphs, and get your momentum going. Once you do, once you have that forward drive, you can always go back and revise. Just don’t go back too soon. It’s good to seize that momentum while you have it.

Returning from a Narrative Break

          With this one, you could easily follow the same advice I applied to Starting the Story – just not getting hung up in perfection and reminding yourself that you can rewrite. That being said, there is an easier method. Don’t stop at a logical narrative break. Coming up with ideas, outlining, and starting your story are three steps that have an absolute blank page. At these natural breaks a writer will always have the temptation of avoiding the work and making excuses. But a narrative break, whether it is a chapter break or a scene break or whatever it may be, can be avoided. If you have your momentum going and you reach the conclusion of some narrative structural unit, then keep going into the next section. Ride that momentum through your next story beats. Don’t go far, but write just far enough that a new scenario has presented itself – that the next arc of your story has begun. Now when you return the next day to continue your story, you don’t have to face that blank page. You already have a few paragraphs or even just the first few sentences started. That can easily be enough to move you past the fear of the blank page, past the tendency to put off to another day, and on to writing.

Time to Draw This to a Close

          So yeah. That’s my basic advice. We are all faced with blank pages at the start of any new project, and at the logical structural breaks between the phases of that project. Each of those breaks is a blank page – one that taunts you and whispers in your ear that it’s okay to go off and get some sleep, or watch some TV, or do anything but move forward. You can’t listen to that voice. You have to be determined, and you have to seize on any method you can to move on and get writing, painting, composing – whatever your art may be.

          Though if I have any more advice to give, its just this. Work on your project every day. Even if only a little. As it applies to writing, write every day. At least jot down ideas. Outline. Rewrite. Do something. Keep yourself moving forward and avoid the negative writer brain telling you its not good enough. Don’t stop and give up, which most of us have wanted to do many times. Finish your story. If you do that, you’re already doing better than so many of us that get started, but don’t’ see the story through to its conclusion. Eventually, we too often succumb to that blank page and leave our work unfinished and unstarted.

          Don’t be that writer. Don’t let the blank page stop you, and don’t give in to excuses.

          On a side note, if you’re in a relationship, following any of the rambling excuse for advice given above is much easier to do if you have an understanding significant other. Thank you, Nicole. I realize it is 2 am right now (now 2:40 am after proofing) and I’m going to be very cranky in the morning and probably still sick, but hey… I finished my blog post.

          And that’s a wrap.

          Happy Writing

Searching for Inspiration

© Alexey Fursov | Dreamstime.com – Man in dark tunnel

By Chris Hutton

          So, I’ve been away all week at a work conference – super busy but good stuff. I managed to prep my short story for this week and next week in advance, and had the best intentions of drafting out my blog post for today while flying from LA to Madison. Instead I fell asleep within moments of boarding the plane. Suffice to say, not much writing happened. That left me in the decidedly awkward position of trying to brainstorm a blog topic while on a work trip, and there really isn’t much time for that. So, during brief moments of calm between meetings and/or assignments, I would ponder to myself what it was that I should discuss today, but I was coming up blank. Then, last night, at one of the keynotes, I bothered to open my eyes for a moment and take in my surroundings. The theme of the entire conference was Inspiration to Impact. My topic was right there staring me in the face the entire time.

          Inspiration to Impact, you ask? Well, not really. That’s a great topic perhaps for another day, but inspiration itself, that was the exact thing that I had been searching for all week. So today I want to explore the topic of inspiration as it pertains to writing (and quite likely can be applied to other arts as well).

          The source of a writer’s stories can seem sort of mystical, this otherworldly thing conjured into existence from a mad mind that obviously just doesn’t work like everyone else’s mind. I imagine that many have pondered this sort of sentiment when thinking of the greats of any genre. For me that would be the likes of Stephen King, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Joe Hill, and Nick Cutter among many of the modern horror writers, not even touching upon science fiction or the writers of the classics.

          Obviously I cannot speak for those above, but I can attest to the origin of my own stories, and I can guarantee you that my stories don’t just leap from some sort of madness. While I may be a little crazy, inspiration is not plucked from the ether, nor is it created from nothing. For me it is sought and it is found. That doesn’t mean I have to meander around aimlessly (much like my current rambling) shining a light into the dark, but rather that there are methods that can be employed to help simplify that search for inspiration and keep a writer writing.

          Indulge me a moment or two more and I will provide another recent example. Before leaving for this work conference I spent my free time after office hours trying to develop ideas for two new horror stories that I could draft in advance of my trip to Madison. I tried pulling them from thin air… I really, really did. I would sit and stare at the monitor and I seemed to be pleading for a story to arrive. Bad method.

          Sure, after a few hours of this, some threads of a story formed, but were they any good? That’s another question, but my gut is going with not very likely.

          Well, after jotting down my rough notes for my potential story, I left the house to attend a concert. My friend, Michael Meinhart, and his band, Socionic, were playing at the Whiskey a Go Go. It’s not often that I’m free on a night that he has a show, so with the stars aligned and my wife watching our daughter, I left.

          One amazing performance, way too many beers, and a shot later, I caught a Lyft home and crashed for the night/morning. When I woke up, I had the worst hangover I have had in many years – mainly because I’m a prematurely old man.

          Point being, that hangover became my inspiration. It hurt. It hurt like hell. My head was pounding and some of my decisions (like to have that extra beer or two) needed to be questioned. Pondering those life choices and the dizzying, pounding world around me, I caught the scent of a story. There’s something scary about a hangover. About the lack of control. About the drumming pain. About the obliviousness of the night before (if you happened to black out – which was not the case here). Still, there was something to work with. I kneaded at that kernel and molded it until the “idea” of the night before had been completely abandoned, a new outline drafted, and a new story born – not from nothing, but from observation of the world around me. Thus arose my idea for Last Call (the first part of which posted on Monday).

          That’s not to say that if you want inspiration you should go out and get drunk and hope you wake up with a story. That’s terrible advice and you should definitely not do that.

          However, you should look at yourself, look at the life you’re living, and take inspiration from that real life experience to find a truth upon which your fiction can be built. Finding that truth that you want to tell and establishing that foundation provides an amazing place from which to draw your fiction – or not… maybe you hate The Last Call. If so we can talk about that later. For now, let me have this one. Please.

So what the hell am I getting at? Again, it boils down to methods of finding inspiration that can lead to your next story. Above I described one method:

          Being Observant

          Pay attention to your surroundings. Notice the large banners, signs, and programs, with the words Inspiration to Impact plastered all over them. There might be an idea for a blog there. Wake up with a terrible hangover? What does that feel like? What are you struggling with physically and emotionally? Is there something there that could help form an original horror story?

          Just open your eyes. Watch people. Open your ears and listen to people. Pay attention to your surroundings and be cognizant of your own emotions and personal experience. Everything you observe is potential fodder for a story – just find that main thread that sparks your interest. As an amazing writing professor of mine once told me, you have to live your life in order to have stories to tell. Now that’s terribly paraphrased, but the point he made was that you had get out into the world, you had to live new experiences, and from those experiences you could find inspiration and material for your writing.

          But obviously there is more that you can do to find inspiration than just open your eyes. So what follows is a brief list of some of the other methods I employ when searching for inspiration.

          Rifle Through Your Personal Experience

          Explore your past. Maybe you had a unique childhood experience, or probably many. What are those moments that you remember most vividly and why? Is there a story there? What jobs have you worked? What experiences have you lived? Which ones rocked you to your core, bowled you over, knocked you off your feet and other cliches? Myself, I have to look at those experiences that inspired me, hurt me, and shaped me. The happiest and worst moments of my life, of any writer’s life, those are the depths to be plumbed to tell a story with true emotional resonance.

          Keep a Dream Journal

          If you’re a vivid dreamer like me, there is plenty of material. Half of my stories come from my nightmares. While my deranged mind decides to torture me in my sleep, I try desperately to remember that horror upon waking, write it down, and file it away. With a little twisting to reinsert the logic of the waking world, one’s nightmares make a great starting point for unique tales. At least two of my pilots and a quarter of my prose has been drawn from dreams.

          What Ifs

          Maybe you’ve tried being observant to no avail, and your dreams just aren’t providing. You can still generate inspiration. Take a moment and brainstorm. One of the methods that I enjoy is to start a document with ‘What if…’ at the top. Then I create a bulleted list and type out as many possible ways to finish that statement as I can at that time. Many of these ideas are going to be terrible, but one or two of them might just spark something worth writing.

          Story Types

          Let’s say you’ve gone through all of that, and it is still not cutting it. Well, though I love looking to the real world, to my dreams, and to my imagination as a starting point, there is nothing wrong about considering your favorite stories. If I know I want to write horror, I might stop and think what are some of my favorite horror stories and what type of story is each? A zombie story? A vampire story? A ghost story? The destruction of the fabric of the universe by some Eldritch God? It could be anything, but I try to boil it down to its simplest. Now I have a list of story types that I enjoy reading. That’s great, because you know what, we write best what we know and what we love. If you don’t want to read it, why write it?

          Anyway, with a list now generated, I examine the common story types and I think to myself, what can I do different here? For instance, I like stories about Mars, so maybe I want to set a story there. Okay, but what is my angle? Well, what if I examine a problem like drought, which I see often in my home state of California? Is there a story that I could uniquely tell about the value of water on Mars? Maybe. Currently its called Inflow, and this is how I came up with it.

          Stream of Consciousness

          Another method I like to employ is stream of consciousness writing. I just sit down at the keyboard and I write. Usually this doesn’t start off pretty. Half of the time it starts off with, ‘I really want to write, but I don’t have an idea right now. What can I write about?’ Even then, at least it started. From there, I just let my mind go. Though it may not result in something every time, plenty of my story ideas have birthed from this random vomiting of my stream of consciousness onto the page. In fact, my last pilot, The Cage, began in just this same way. After five minutes or so of random nonsense I stumbled upon my own unique perspective on a werewolf story. Then I tucked it away and let it simmer for five years… which brings me to my final method:


          Sometimes I can try all of the options detailed above and still come up with nothing. My observations from that day aren’t popping out at me. My recollection of my past just isn’t hitting me upside the head with anything useful. I didn’t have any good dreams the night before and my what ifs are coming up blank. In addition, I might try to twist some common story ideas, but I’m not finding an angle that is uniquely mine, and none of my free-writing is producing anything worthwhile. Those days are going to happen. That’s why you create lists, at least that’s why I do.

          When all else fails I go to a saved folder on my hard drive or open up my Moleskine, and I look through lists upon lists of story ideas that I’ve previously jotted down, but didn’t explore. And where did these ideas come from? From every other method listed above, because I guarantee if you’re employing methodology to find your inspiration, there are going to be times when you come up with multiple excellent ideas, some of which just have to be saved for another day if for no other reason than the constraints of time.

          Moving on…

          So… yeah. That’s how I do it. That’s how I concoct the madness that is my fiction. You might have other methods. Feel free to let me know in the comments. I am always curious about new ways to find that next great story idea. Right now, I’ve got my ears open, and I’m observing. I’m listening to a strange, howling wind blowing through my hotel room despite the lack of an open window, and I know that an idea is forming, and it’s being written down in my Moleskine as soon as I press publish on this post.

          That said, go find your own inspiration. Get cracking. And as always,

          Happy Writing