How to Fight the Empty Page
What makes a piece of writing great? Myself and many other writers would argue that it’s the authenticity. No great book was every built without knowledge or research. As writers, it is our job to make sure that what we share with the world is honest, relatable and fantastic. It’s an enormous pressure when you consider that, and many writers spend a great deal of time battling the dreaded writer’s block.
The answer, as with many others, lies within the works of Hemingway.
“But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
When faced with an insurmountable blank page, the solution is a simple one. Put something on it. Ignore your plot, ignore your stylistic choices and just put one sentence on that page. Congratulations, you now no longer have a blank page. You have bested it.
What did you put? How do you decide what to write?
The answer does not have to be a complicated matter. I find the simplest sentences—those that are real in the moment—are the best. I once began a story based on the sentence, “I have seen a lot of half-built Ferris Wheels.” This is true, I had, and the story that followed became a story only by me thinking aloud. It was not a matter of plot or structure. All a writer has to do is think ‘aloud’ on the page. Introduce other characters when you have to and watch how they change the writing but, for the core of the novel, it is you who controls everything. That’s a tremendous burden but one that we can overcome simply by writing the truth.
Worry about the quality of the writing afterwards. The plot doesn’t really matter; it is allowed a few bumps and contradictions. Fix all this in the editing stage. Just make sure you have something down first.
Terry Pratchett was a master of the “one true sentence.”
“Give a man a fire and he’s warm for a day, but set fire to him and he’s warm for the rest of his life.”
Jingo by Terry Pratchett
This sentence does not build the plot. It is just writing. What is important about it is how it inspires the writer to keep going; how it impacts the rest of the writing and how the characters respond to this. So the next time you find yourself staring at a blank page, just write one true sentence and see where it takes you.
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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.