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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.