The Tyranny of the Blank Page (and How to Overcome It)

4 Writing Tips from Andy Weir

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Andy Weir was first hired as a programmer for a national laboratory at age fifteen and has been working as a software engineer ever since.

He is also a lifelong space nerd and a devoted hobbyist of subjects like relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. The Martian, currently being adapted for film by Ridley Scott, is his first novel.

In your mind, your novel is an epic tale that will redefine a genre. Fans will cosplay your characters. The internet will argue about which plot twist was the most awesome. George R. R. Martin will come knocking on your door for narrative advice. It’s that good. But when you try to actually write the damn thing, you freeze up.

How can this be? You have the setting defined in excruciating detail. You could fill an encyclopedia with information about the protagonist’s childhood. You have the next six books in the series all planned out. Why can’t you squeeze out a single sentence?

You’re not alone. Every author faces this. The transition from ideal to reality is a rocky one. Every story is unique, so there’s no magic answer. But there are a few tips that might help you to defeat the tyranny of the blank page.

The purpose of the first line is to capture the reader.

You have one sentence to convince the reader to finish the first paragraph. You have that paragraph to make them read the first page. If they turn the page, you’ve got them for a chapter.

So make that first line interesting. It doesn’t have to be a major plot point. It just has to make them want to read the next line. The easiest way to do that is to tease the reader with a small mystery.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (1984, by George Orwell). An opening like that raises questions. Readers are inquisitive souls. If you make them wonder about something, they’ll read on to find the answer. Hook them with their own curiosity.

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Don’t start with exposition.

Nothing makes readers close a book faster than a long opening paragraph describing a mountain range.

Reading exposition is like doing homework or paying taxes. The reader accepts that they will have to learn this stuff at some point, but it’s usually not rewarding for them, in and of itself. It’s an investment made with the understanding that it’s critical to the story — one that readers are only willing to make after you've got them invested in the story itself.

The Hobbit takes place in one of the most nuanced, well-defined settings ever created. Tolkien invented legends, languages, songs, and thousands of years of history. But instead of trying to ram all that down the reader’s throat, the book begins with: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Feel free to start in the middle.

If you don’t know where to start, don’t bother deciding right now.

The first line of a book is critical, but there’s no rule that says you have to start there. The first words you write might end up being the middle of chapter three. That’s perfectly fine.

And as you work forward in the story, you’ll get an idea about how to work backward. Once your characters develop and the plot grows in directions you didn’t expect, you may see the perfect scene to start things off with.

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Bungle your way through.

It’s easy to get stuck worrying about the nuances of the first scene. Instead, try writing as if you were telling the story to a friend. It’s okay if it sucks. You can edit it later. You may even find a better spot to start the story. The trick is to get things flowing.

Give it a try. Open your word processor right now and write one sentence, just one, that describes an action taken by the main character.

Even if it’s “John drank his coffee,” you’ve gotten your start. Move on from there, make no effort to be any good, and narrate as if you were talking to a friend: “John drank his coffee. He didn’t know Ruth had poisoned it because she wanted him dead so she could run off with his business partner. Ruth’s his wife. See, the reason she did that was because she thought John had cheated on her, but actually he was investigating an insurance fraud …”

Clumsy, awkward, and terrible to read. But after a few sentences, your first line becomes clear: “John drank his poisoned coffee.”

Your reader now wants to know more.

This article originally appeared on Biographile.

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