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Question of the Month: The Blank Page

by Susan Henderson on May 1, 2017

What do you do when your new book is only a blank page? How do you start getting ideas? The picture just below is how the great Jean Cocteau works with a blank page. What’s your process of mapping things out or free-wheeling it? I want to hear any tips you’d like to share.

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HarperCollins has my final edits on the Montana book, and I should get the copy-edits back from them any day now. Soon the book will be out of my hands. Next steps are more about collaboration than anything else as we move to blurbs, cover design, and marketing.

So now it’s on to the blank page of something new.

It’s taken me a while to leave the old book—to leave the small Montana town and the blizzard and the mortician’s tools behind. I’d stare at the new, blank page and wonder if there was another story in me that could hold my attention for two, three years. And for a long while, the page stayed blank.

What an exhilarating, intimidating thing a blank page is.

At some point, I began to make some marks on my paper—random doodles, bits of ideas I’d had over the years that I still remembered. But none of them were big enough to excite me. I need fire, obsession, ideas that send my head and heart racing.

100-Best-Silent-Films-the-passion-of-joan-of-arc

So I set out to recharge my senses and my imagination.

During what would normally be my writing time, I watched silent movies and foreign films with the subtitles turned off, taking in images and emotions and music, trying to spark any sense of curiosity or anything unresolved and burbling inside of me. I doodled on pieces of paper as I watched these movies.

This is one of J.K. Rowling’s early pages. Same, further down.

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Whenever I left the house or read the newspaper, I tried to become more conscious about what moved or enraged or frightened me. I walked a lot. And that’s when I became aware of my first notable obsession: a particular abandoned building in my town. I began walking and jogging past it regularly, transfixed.

My stories tend to begin with my interest in settings. Some writers talk about the main character’s voice beaming down, fully-formed. Other writers begin with concepts. Some dig through their personal history.

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I fall for settings, I guess. What’s on the other side of this window? What’s this interesting decoration or this elaborate padlock about? I wonder what happened in this room?

I start to collect puzzle pieces and questions. And before long, these tangible images and textures spark old longings and fascinations and wounds I carry with me. My imagination wakes up. I wonder…? What if…? And suddenly my head is popping with ideas and I begin to fill page after page, chasing a new story.

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As always, I’ll end with the books I’ve read since my last post…

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

Jim Daniels, Rowing Inland

Dan Chaon, Ill Will

Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone

Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Sally Koslow, The Widow Waltz

Ian McEwan, Amsterdam

John Bingham, The Courage to Start: A Guide to Running for Your Life

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying

Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

And one re-read:

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Jump into the comments below and share what you’re reading or how you approach the blank page or whatever else you’d like to talk about.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Ric Marion May 1, 2017 at 4:09 pm

Wow, Susan, that creative process is so interesting. I actually go straight to imagining the people in those setting. A girl standing on the landing of a walk up apartment sets me off in so many directions. What is she waiting for? Is she waiting for her husband to come home – and maybe slap her around and abuse her? Or is she waiting to share the news that she’s pregnant, still unsure how he is going to react? Is she waiting for the father who just got out of prison whom she’s never met? Or waiting for Thelma and Louise to cruise by and take her away from this mundane existence?
A whole series of short stories all predicated on one view as I was driving by…
My cross country trip with my youngest son was an amazing experience. If you get the chance to do that with your sons, don’t say no. It is chronicled over on my blog.
Now into May and an eventful summer, graduations, weddings, family, digging through the memories of my parent’s home. Mom is still with us, she will be 94 next month, but, sadly, no longer able to live alone. Flowers are blooming, sun is shining, Hope springs eternal. Life is good, right now, it is great.

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Susan Henderson May 1, 2017 at 5:04 pm

Absolutely love hearing about a process that’s different from mine, though we seem to share brains that pop off a series of questions once we attach to a character or a setting.

What an incredible journey you were able to take with your son. I need to jump over to your blog and get caught up. I’ll link it for others, too: https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/RicMarion/

Spring has finally begun here, and we have a college graduation to attend next month. The boys are going to live together in Boston this summer–the first summertime-empty-nest I will have had in 19 years. Not sure how to even process that yet.

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Billie Hinton May 1, 2017 at 10:52 pm

OH, I I love this post and the photos and the talk of process. Right now I’m editing and after this I am going back to a full (but first/rough) draft of a new novel and start in on that, so I’m not dealing much with new blank pages at the moment. I miss the excitement of following the little shimmery threads and seeing where they lead!

Looking forward to your new one(s)!!

I too am going to son’s graduation in May. He is speaking at his commencement so I am excited to hear what he says! Then moving him to Ithaca for grad school and meanwhile thankful for the buzz of delight I get from daughter who is finishing up her freshman year, majoring in Integrative Physiology and Neurobiology, and getting a lot of support from a mentor to jump into a lab this summer and fall. Add to that a new puppy and life is good. :)

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Susan Henderson May 1, 2017 at 11:32 pm

Yes about following the shimmery threads! It’s that exactly!

Can you believe how long we’ve been sharing stories about our kids? And don’t you feel like the shimmery threads of their childhood reach right to who they’ve become, only it’s easier to trace them backwards.

If you happen to tape your son’s speech (and what a huge deal that is!!), I’d love to watch/listen to it. Hope he loves the snow and change of scenery for grad school. And what a cool coupling of majors for your daughter. Nothing makes me happier than kids exploring the world and finding their passions and their confidence.

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Billie Hinton May 2, 2017 at 12:52 am

Yes yes yes about the children’s shimmery threads reaching to who they have become! I am making graduation announcements and was perusing old photos looking for one in particular of son as a wee tot when I realized that his favorite pajamas during the early years and his high chair for eating had stars and planets and the universe all over them. Did I unknowing seed his passion for astrophysics? Or did I somehow “know” that’s something he would find his way to? I got chillbumps when I saw the photos. I had forgotten those favorite pjs and the print on the high chair seat. Re: the speech – I’m told the university is videoing the entire commencement and that I can purchase a DVD so I’m hoping I can clip his speech and make it digital. I will definitely share it.

He emailed this morning telling me I *have* to read the book The New Jim Crow so I’m wondering if this might play into what he’s writing for commencement. I absolute love sharing stories with you and share your happiness in kids exploring and finding passions/confidence. It is my biggest joy.

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Susan Henderson May 2, 2017 at 11:04 am

Aww, I love the story of the stars and planets. It’s funny, we were so surprised when our youngest left the music conservatory to pursue filmmaking. And then, you look back through his childhood obsessions–dressing in costume, singing Les Mis in the backseat as if he is Javert, making comicbooks and the first few chapters of novels–he’s always been making stories. He still plays guitar and he’s crazy good at it, but his heart is in telling stories. Our oldest had a more obvious trajectory–we could see his passions and strengths pretty early–but what he ends up applying it all to is still a fun unknown.

I’m going to have to look up The New Jim Crow because I’m so curious what your kid’s cooking up!

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GC Smith May 2, 2017 at 12:15 pm

Blank pages. Hmmm, I never have a clue as to what should go on them until I start something. Between novels I keep in practice with poetry and short stories, mainly flash shorts. I’m scatterbrained about the novel process, no outlines, little idea of where I’m going for a while. I usually start by doodling out a few characters and try to figure out what he/she/they want or need. I write fifty pages or so and then think about them for a bit. Do my characters have appeal? What do they need and why? What gets in their way? In my latest novel the protagonist has guided his NASCAR team to a National championship but must do it again to prove that he and his organization are the real deal noy a lucky fluke. Right wing dingbats who believe stock car racing is a sport exclusive to white males get in the way, big time since our hero’s team is owned by a woman, has first a black male driver (murdered) and then a woman driver, and a final insult is a black woman (widow of the murdered driver) sitting atop the team’s pit box. It drives the baddies murderously crazy. So, I figure that’s enough to make a story and do so. No more blank pages, but with several murders and much sleuthing a lot of work to be done. Along the way readers critiques help. Bev Jackson read the early draft which was written as a chase against time and suggested a who-dun-it was preferable. I agreed and changed the book. She was correct it is better. Let’s hope an agent takes it on and sells it.

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Susan Henderson May 2, 2017 at 1:03 pm

I like how part of your process is about keeping your writing chops fine-tuned with writing shorter pieces. And fun to hear how you doodle and explore where the story might go without outlines.

Bev is great, and I’m glad she’s had a hand in your edits. Your novel sounds red-hot with the best kinds of tension and controversy. Also, tricky since those who want to read about NASCAR may be exposed as the bad guys when they read your book. I’d love to hear how you’re navigating all of that–it’s truly fascinating to me, and sounds like a story that needs to be told. If it’s got a good whodunit hook, I imagine there will be an audience for it.

Are you in the process of seeking an agent right now? How’s that going?

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GC Smith May 2, 2017 at 1:25 pm

Yes, I’m starting to look for an agent, but at seventy-eight I don’t have all the time in the world. I’ve had agents who didn’t deliver a contract and that’s frustrating. One agent, Rich Henshaw, read one of my books, liked it, and put it out to other readers. Finally after some back and forth said though he thought it good another reader said itlacked some indefinable something. Big help. Then he encouraged the first NASCAR novel only to say after I wrote it that he was booked up and a NASCAR based book wouldn’t find a publisher. Other agents have liked my stuff, but not enough to make a deal. So, it is a frustrating process and I have little hope of success with the process but I plug on. We’ll see.

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Susan Henderson May 2, 2017 at 2:05 pm

Oh, this road to finding agents and publishers can be so frustrating. I would think one of the keys in your cover letter will be to address the tricky part of your book — what I stated earlier — about the NASCAR audience possibly seeing themselves as the bad guys in your book. If you can figure out how that is the strength in your book and figure out who your rabid readership would be, you’ll find your agent.

Just a hint, if you watch the movie, Million Dollar Baby, which is a great boxing movie but not necessarily flattering to that industry, you may find your answer. See how they pitched it, who they were seeing as their base audience. Again, that’s going to be the biggest hurdle/sell for your novel, and when you figure out that conundrum, you’ll be very close to having your sale.

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Marilyn Cole May 3, 2017 at 7:45 pm

Loved this entry! Loved the name, the visuals, an your sharing your creative process! (Thank you!) Crazy about your watching silent movies and foreign films with the subtitles off–that, in itself, is the start of a story!

Strange thing, the creative process, and how different it can be for each of us. When I worked for a big music publishing company, I had to make my boss understand that I could not always turn it on with a switch at 9am and off at 5pm, till the next day…so, eventually, I had my own schedule, more or less, except for required meetings…until I went completely free lance (except for the required meeting).

I am not sure what tips I can contribute, I am not a published author…yet, and you and your friends, although talented in many other ways, are very focused in your writing. I’m not. I get pulled in different directions, and my problem lies not in filling the blank canvas, but in sticking to it till it’s done. One of the difficulties is that I experience synesthesia with colors and sounds, so if I am working on a painting, I start hearing its tones, its music, and usually move over to the piano, and vice versa. Oddly, that doesn’t happen with photography, perhaps because I work a lot in black and white…but black and white have tones when I paint. Maybe it’s a matter of texture.

Perhaps the creative process of writing is like falling in love. For some of us it can be love at first sight and feeling like we’ve known the object of our affection all of our lives, for others, it’s a growth process of feelings developing as the relationship grows…hopefully. The concept, with all details, can hit at once, which is the case when I sit down to write a poem and it writes itself from beginning to end as if being dictated. That beginning to end view I see in my mind of both story and characters, and who they are, happens to me also with longer stories, which I like to write mainly as screenplays. Then, it is a matter of sticking to writing it until done. When I paint, it is very different. Many times the final work ends up being nothing like it was when it started, even in color. However, I always work a new painting in my head before putting the first stroke on the canvas. But where the initial idea comes from, I don’t know.

When I lost my daughter four years ago, I developed an inability to stay with things for long periods of time. Whether reading a book or doing my own work, I had problems focusing. I also had problems letting my feelings show. After a while, I started photographing sidewalks and walls wherever I saw a story and began writing very short ones to go along with the photos. Now, I’m compiling them, hopefully, for a book to encourage creativity in young people. I think that I was drawn to that kind of work and writing poetry out of a need to create under a short term commitment.

I used to sit in my father’s advertising night classes at the University of Havana when I was about seven years old, and I’ll never forget that he opened the first class by distributing a Life magazine to each of the 40 or so students (this was many years ago). He not only introduced them to the layout and copy of a well designed ad, he also told them, “Whenever you are having difficulty in coming up with an idea, pick up any magazine, go through it, and it will come to you.” I go through a lot of art and science magazines. Used to read books about physics. Maybe that’s where all my ideas come from. After lunch, I’m going to read your entry again and the comments. I really enjoyed this a lot!

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Susan Henderson May 3, 2017 at 10:00 pm

I don’t know what it is about silent movies and arthouse movies with the sound off. I’m just kind of nuts about them. I think because it helps me disengage my thinking and just feel.

It’s so interesting–your feeling of being pulled into different arts forms before you finish one. Your vice is always your strength as well. Have you ever read biographies of the great artists who had multiple artistic talents – Cocteau, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Da Vinci? (I’d love to gather more names.) But I wonder if they discuss that, the interplay of painting and songwriting, of acting and poetry writing. I’d be so curious to hear them discuss this gift and curse of being overly talented. I love how you are so aware of tones and textures.

David has synesthesia, too. (And Proust!)

Writing (and reading and living in general) are definitely about growth for me. Or deepening, I guess. It’s like looking at a flower, enjoying how it sways in the breeze, how its petals brown and curl at the end of its cycle. And as the writer, I study that and then wonder, how is it held in the ground, and where does it go in the winter, and who lives at its roots and who feeds on it. And then all the metaphors and music that come from understanding it more deeply. To me, that’s the process of finding characters and stories, just going closer and deeper. I think my mind is always doing this, and so, like you, I toss these ideas around, and if they really fascinate or torture me in some way, I stick with them.

I’m so sorry about Denise. There can’t be a more painful and profound grief. A friend of mine who lost her mother not so long ago was describing the same thing to me–trouble reading books, which used to be her favorite thing, trouble writing and focussing. I like your instinct to move to photography and micro stories. The longer I’m alive, I’ve learned the benefit of leaning into, rather than fighting, instincts.

I love the story of your father teaching, and how art and science were so compatible in his mind. Do you have any recordings of his voice? I’d love to hear him.

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Susan Henderson May 3, 2017 at 10:01 pm

Wait, not Proust. It was whoever wrote Speak Memory. Nabokov?

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Marilyn Cole May 4, 2017 at 4:34 pm

Nabokov. :)

I actually meant that I read a lot of art and science magazines, and books about physics, and think perhaps my ideas come from that. I know for sure many of my abstract paintings do. But, Sue, you are so on the mark about my dad. He loved science and art, and his gifts to me were things like a microscope and slide kit, a geology kit and samples of rocks, a telescope and astronomy books, and he read poetry to me from Jose Marti’s La Edad de Oro (The Golden Age) for children, and Platero Y Yo (1914, by poet Juan Ramon Jimenez, who went on to receive the Nobel Prize in literature, mainly for that work). He also used to take me to the symphony concerts on Sundays and to the ballet (which I studied, and piano, for 11 years), and I loved it all! Maybe that’s to blame for my having too many interests and end up going in so many directions! Hahaha!

No, I’m sorry I don’t have recordings of him. My childhood was in Cuba and photographs–and just about everything–were left there. My father was a very busy man running his ad agency, and other things, but he always had time for me. In that aspect, I was lucky to have been an only child.

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Susan Henderson May 4, 2017 at 6:26 pm

I’ve always loved the way you blend art, math, and science.

Um, also, I am seeing a giant art piece in your paragraph about microscope slides and rock samples and all that poetry and music and the voice that only you could translate into a color or texture or image. You’re creating the outlines of a work of art just with your words. It’s sort of like finding a recording of his voice, and finding the gifts and the heartbeats of the important people who aren’t here except for in your heart.

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Marilyn Cole May 4, 2017 at 7:27 pm

Thank you, Sue, for being so supportive, and for always finding a way of inspiring me to go do it!! Whatever…however…do it!! Thank you so much for that!

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Susan Henderson May 4, 2017 at 8:01 pm

<3

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Kim Chinquee August 4, 2017 at 1:06 am

What an intriguing topic and thread. I love seeing how these great works are conceived. These drawings and sketches. Finding that tightrope. And having talked to you about this on our walks. Dictating. It’s a kind of hard meditation in a way, maybe? Some of the deepest kind of searching.

I tend to gather a lot of ideas for longer works by writing flashes. That, and dreams. Trying to find my most authentic self.

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Susan Henderson August 4, 2017 at 11:07 am

I love hearing about your process, and how those dreams and flashes incubate and connect to each other to create larger stories. It’s funny how chaotic the early parts of the process seem, even when we think we’re planning — like the waking mind and subconscious mind wrestle over control of the story.

Can’t wait to see the beauty you create. xo

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Leora Skolkin-Smith August 20, 2017 at 6:37 pm

great post, Susan. Actually FINALLY got my new book idea just yesterday so I can relate!

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Susan Henderson August 20, 2017 at 7:42 pm

Oh, I’m so glad to hear that, Leora! It’s the best feeling, and I love knowing you’re writing a new story.

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