Let’s celebrate this most frightening of festivals by talking about the scariest thing writers face in their day-to-day working lives. Not rejection letters from publishers, or fierce editorial feedback, or even negative reviews. The scariest thing is the blank page.
Every writer I have met – from young beginners to experienced pros – admit to having a nasty little voice in the back of our heads. The voice says: ‘You can’t do it!’
Six years and eight books since my debut, Castle of Shadows, was published, my own little voice is as healthy as ever. Each first draft is a struggle with self-belief. I strive for perfection, but reality is not perfection and my first drafts are never going to be good enough. I cringe at every clumsy phrase and cliché, sigh with frustration as I yet again lose my way in the mucky middle.
Experience does help; and I know that the rewriting process is where the journey towards the imagined ideal really happens. And I know that perfection is only that: an ideal. But it is this sort of self-doubt that makes first drafts so hard. Sometimes so much that writers can become haunted by the evil ‘writer’s block’.
I had a really fun day in Exeter last week, running a writing workshop for teens as part of the city’s EXEtreme Imagination festival. The first exercise was an ice-breaker. I handed everyone a sheet of paper on which was written the first five words of a story. Each person had to write the next five words and pass the story on. I brought coloured pens, so we ended up with rainbow pages of stories written in committee. Totally random, which is half the fun. And it was fear-free writing, since none of us had responsibility for the final product. Here are a few of the results:
You have only three wishes, but/only two of them work./You wish for a dragon/ and a tiny beast appears,/with vibrant, rainbow tearful eyes.
The mist solidified into a/deer as I looked on,/drops of sunlight fell on/a lush, green, silent pasture./Stars fell from the sky,/shining brightly like the moon./ The deer looked into my/eyes and sang a tune.
I watched him walk away/disappearing round the dark corner./What sort of person walks/one leg on the pavement,/arms swinging wildly and rhythmically./He tripped on the pavement/falling down into a hole/spinning, he started to fly.
The dragon smiled as it/reared up, its teeth glinting,/its tail swishing and swashing./I stared, gob-smacked, at the/millions of rows of teeth./Its eyes dark in the/sunlight shining into the room.
The sound of footsteps approached/they are loud and heavy,/cloaked by the thundering rain./I just stared in shock./The giant in the doorway,/flaming hair shaking in the/violent thunderstorm and torrential rain./I laughed and ran away.
Some great images; maybe even ideas for longer stories. And not a blank page in sight. Best of all, everyone had fun and the reading out was accompanied by laughter. And a few ‘wow’ moments, as something lovely happened through play. That is the key word: play.
So next time you don’t know what to write – or worry that you aren’t good enough to write your idea well enough – find a friend and play with taking it in turn to writing a story, five words at a time. Or select twenty random words out of a dictionary and use all of them in a short story. Even professional writers who are working to an editorial deadline must remember that our work is also our play, or suffer the horror of the blank page.
With thanks to the talented and lovely people who came to my EXEtreme Imagination workshop!