The way I see it, the thing separating beginner and seasoned writers is the blank page. The former are intimidated by it, fear it, and spend a lot of their time preparing for it. The latter? They know there’s no such thing.
You don’t start writing when you start writing
If we were to take a look at the list of questions beginner/amateur writers ask practiced/professional writers, I’m sure there would be at least one that tops everything, with a considerable margin. “How do you start to write?” — or some variation on that.
(“Where do you get your ideas” is another. Nobody will ever beat Neil Gaiman’s answer to that question.)
The reason why they ask this is because of our different perception and understanding of the writing process. No professional writer worth their salt starts writing when they start writing. (No amateur writer does either, but we know the difference.) Before even a single word is written down, that fabled/feared blank page is already half full.
I can’t remember at what event, but Joss Whedon (my personal writer hero, if there ever was one) explained this nicely, and — although paraphrasing here obviously in my own words — I don’t think there’s a better way to describe it. When you start to write (that is: you put pen to paper, proverbially or actually) you already written a lot. You know the characters (at least some or one of them), you know the setting (at least part of it), you know the genre (or a good approximation of it), and so on. There are so many things that fill up that page. Actual writing is just connecting those dots. (And sometimes finding new ones.)
Granted, he was talking about screenwriting which has a plethora of external factors the writer needs to incorporate. But when you really think about it, the most solitary writer has plenty of constraints already that fill that page up.
Constraints breed creativity
I had an interesting chat on Twitter today, partially which inspired this blog post.
It made me think of something that has been on my mind for a long time, but never really articulated it, which is: the more constraints you have the better your work will turn out to be.
There are a number of things wrong with that idea. For one thing, it’s a slippery slope straight into the grave of creativity. If more is better, than surely logic dictates that no creative freedom must be the most creative, yes? Uhm. Another problem is that it really differs from writer to writer: some enjoy creative freedom while some work better when given problems to solve. I’m the latter.
So let me refine that statement thusly: a “certain amount” of constraints will enhance your creative output greatly. While more accurate, it’s not that catchy. 😒 Eh, anyway…
The way I work is that once an idea has made it through the conception and the minefield of distractions that disguises itself as my life, it’s ready to be worked on. I start with cutting it down to its core. If I can’t say it in a single sentence, it’s too complicated. There’s nothing wrong with complicated, but I prefer adding that complication myself, in the form of layers upon layers. I’m a control-freak that way.
Once I have the smallest core of the idea, I start surrounding it with stuff that — seen from a different perspective — later become my shackles. Is the idea about how to commit the perfect murder? I’m writing a mystery, then. Not only do I have a genre now, I also have a set creative process laid out: I have to start from the victim and the actual murder. Plan that murder, then turn the entire thing on its head and throw a protagonist in to find the murderer. My blank page suddenly became very much not blank.
Discovery writing and finding your way on the blank page
There are folks who prefer what’s often called “discovery writing”. It’s a creative method where you let your subconscious — your characters — to tell you where the story is going. It’s not better or worse than deploying outlining and plotting. Each to their own.
For a long time I fancied myself as a discovery writer, but that was the time where I mostly daydreamt about writing. Once I started actually writing professionally (and with that came the need to finish stuff on time) I discovered (see what I did there?) that I operate better with outlining and plotting.
It’s also worth mentioning that when you work as a copywriter (as I do), discovery writing isn’t really an option. Your client will have specs for you that you have to obey. Those specs are like an outline. And then there’s an actual outline, because having one greatly reduces the time needed to write a blog post, email, or what-have-you, which in turn greatly increases your turnover and revenue. And you damn better be able to churn out a lot of these blogs, emails, and what-have-you, or you won’t have electricity next month. But I digress.
Almost all professional and published writers I know (or heard speak about this) are plotters/outlines. They know exactly where the story is going. That’s not to say you can’t have fun along the way, and getting from point A to point B can be done in a variety of ways. But you always know where you’re headed. (I’m also not trying to start a flamewar between schemers and discovery writers. I don’t need that kind of grief in my life. 😂)
But regardless whether you’re a schemer or a discovery writer, the usual gimmicks (ending, plot, setting/world, etc. if you’re the former, and at least one character if your the latter) of writing and storytelling still apply. You still need a beginning, middle, and end. (God bless Aristotle.)
See? Your blank page has a lot written on it already.