Page Fright — The Struggle is Real

You know that thing where you are all “I’m totally ready to write my NaNoWriMo* pages today!” and you’ve got your writing pants on, and your beverage of choice at hand, and the dogs have been fed, and your phone is on Do Not Disturb, then you sit down at your desk, pop open your document, take one look at that empty white screen and your mind goes totally blank?

It’s the exact same feeling when you’ve practiced your speech/lines/talking points until you’ve got them down cold, but you step out on stage and all of a sudden you can’t even remember your name.

Page Fright. Sometimes known as Blank Page Syndrome.

mac image

Flickr Image by David Michalczuk under the Creative Commons License

Should you experience Page Fright, the first thing to remember is, Don’t Panic. It’s an acute but temporary condition. It arises from the same mechanism as the more chronic Writer’s Nerve Block—that is, fear and self-doubt.

Remember back when you went to sign someone’s yearbook or a greeting card, and you planned to say something clever but once your pen is over the paper, and the pressure is on because the bell is about to ring, and you don’t want to write something lame, but your mind is blank, “Have a nice summer”?

Maybe it’s some sort of genetic memory from the days of typewriters and correction ribbon, or back when monks hunched over scrolls, when making a mark on the page was a big commitment. But it’s real, if irrational, and an irrational condition cannot be reasoned with. You have to resort to trickery and mind games. Some of the tips below might seem silly, but I’m willing to bet one of these things will work for you, as sure as I am that the notes on the treble clef are Every Good Boy Does Fine.**

When a blank page makes your mind go blank, too, try these tricks:

  • Make a list. Write your protagonists To Do list. Things in your POV character’s pocket/purse/backpack. Start the scene with them using one or more of those things.
  • Describe the setting in detail, using all the senses. Get as detailed as you want or as you can. Bring the description in toward the protagonist like a camera. Or, start small and expand outward to find your character doing the first thing they need to accomplish in that scene.
  • Type nonsense for half the page until it’s not blank anymore.
  • Write some dialogue. Have two characters talk about the weather until the scene interrupts them.
  • Set a timer for five minutes, put your pen on the paper (or fingers on the keyboard) and don’t pick it/them up until the timer dings. Type anything. You can start with: I don’t know what happens in this scene, but I know that… (example: Mary and John have a fight about Susan. It all starts when Mary picks up a glass of water and…)
  • Start the scene with a pen and paper, then it’s already begun and when you transcribe it into the computer, you’ve got momentum.

Page fright is a pretty specific type of “Writer’s Block.” (Of course, Writer’s Block doesn’t really exist. I say this all the time, even when I’m suffering from it.) “Just write” is easy to say but hard to do sometimes. These tips are meant to get your fingers and brain moving so that you build momentum to carry you into the scene/days work.

(And hey, if you’re not writing a novel this month (or ever) these will ALSO help when you don’t know where to start writing your English paper or History essay. Just remember to go back and edit out your nonsense before you turn it in!)

*I do this thing whereI assume everyone else sips the same nectar from the social media fountain as I do, so I’ll launch into a tirade talk about something and get blank looks. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is one of those things. But if you’re reading this blog, you are probably tapped into Book World enough that you know this is where people try to write a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November, and if you don’t you can click on the bold link and read about it. It’s kind of like Movember, except at the end of the month you have a book (or half a book) instead of a caterpillar on your lip. (Or you might have that, too. The last week of writing can be a little all-consuming. I don’t judge.)

**Mnemonic devices are also mind games. Face it. Half of writing is gaming our brain into the right state of… well, you know. 

Leonardo’s To Do List and Michelangelo’s Groceries

I really like lists.

Leonardo da Vinci's To Do List circa 1490 (direct translation, amendments in brackets by Robert Krulwich). Illustration by Wendy Macnaughton for NPR. Original Article here.

Leonardo da Vinci’s To Do List circa 1490 (direct translation, amendments in brackets by Robert Krulwich). Illustration by Wendy Macnaughton for NPR. Original Article here.

Lists, timelines, graphs, charts…not because I’m the most methodical of people, but precisely because I’m not. There’s always a lot going on in noggin, and it’s not terribly orderly in there. The big ideas are kind of wibbly wobbly all over time and space, and the little idea are sort of this gnat like cloud around my head.

I’ve always kept a sort of catchall journal. My packing list for World Con will be right next to my character notes for Splendor Falls and a (terrible) sketch of the layout of Bluestone Hill.  A reminder to get dog food is on the back of the page that has the Goodnight family tree which is next to my notes about who I’m going to vote for in the next election. It’s a little willy nilly, but it’s the way I’ve done it for ten years, and the notebooks are lined up on my shelf.

Recently, as part of an ongoing quest not to forget so many things, I’ve been on a quest to find The Perfect System that works with my system. The smartphone is great, because there’s nothing like something that will ding at you. But there’s also nothing like paper for permanence. In college, I used to study by rewriting my class notes into a neat outline. By the time I was done, I knew the material. I am much more likely to remember something I write by hand than enter in my phone. (Which is not to say I’ll remember it, just that I’m more likely.)

There’s the idea of physical permanence, too. When I look through a previous year’s notebook, it’s interested to see where my head was at a particular moment, or what I was dealing with while I wrote X book, or what I thought was important to remember from Y conference. I’ve found ideas jotted down on paper napkins, and business cards from people I’ve met (sometimes I’ll even remember who they were). Sometimes I’m impressed with my brilliance. Sometimes I wonder why on earth I though I needed to pack three sweaters to go to Alabama in October.

I remember finding a stack of letters that a great-great-aunt wrote in the early 19th century. Genealogy is great, but reading Audrey describe her train trip to Palacios and ask if Rosemary (!!) has recovered yet from her cold, made her a real person.

Da Vinci's packing list.

Da Vinci’s packing list. “Get hold of a skull.” (Image from an article in The Daily Mail)

The illustration at the top is a direct translation of a recently discovered (well, recent in 2011) “to do list” jotted down by Leonardo da Vinci. I mean, that guy wrote everything down. But It makes me happy to know sometimes he wrote it down just for himself.

Da Vinci’s notebooks are a record of his genius and all, but this packing list sketches a more personal picture. No pun intended. (Okay, yeah, pun totally intended.) “Spectacles with Case. Human skull. Nutmeg.” I’m sorry, but how awesome is it that “nutmeg” seems like the oddest thing on this list.

Michelangelo's Shopping List (image credit: Casa Buonarroti)

Michelangelo’s Shopping List (image credit: Casa Buonarroti)

Then there’s Michelangelo’s grocery list, which he had to illustrate because his servant couldn’t read. Let’s just think about that for a sec. This is a grocery list illustrated by the painter of the Sistine Chapel. And we know he liked herring and anchovies. Yum.

Not that I’m comparing myself to Leonardo or Michelangelo (even in a Mutant Ninja Turtle sense). I’m not jotting things down for posterity… just to remember them after I’ve slept and cleared the data banks.

I mean, I have to do something so I can get on with the business of being a genius!

Edited to add: I came across this in my quest for the Perfect System. (Pinterest, incidentally, was so helpful that it was not helpful.) Twelve types of journals you can keep. 

Are you a lister? Is yours one of those planners covered in colored pen and washi tape? What kinds of things do you like to write down? (Typing counts, too!)

The Manuscript Cometh

You know that feeling you get when your teacher is posting grades for papers or tests? How you brace yourself, take a deep breath and hold it like you’re doing the Ice Bucket Challenge?

It’s the same thing with books.  Imagine getting your corrected test or term paper back, only it’s 400 pages long.

My edits still come on paper. The UPS man (or woman) knocks on my door and hands me a big, fat package. There’s no mistaking it for anything else. It’s manuscript shaped.


I bring it in and set it on the kitchen counter with a mixture of reverence and terror. What is my editor going to say? How much am I going to have to rewrite? How many stupid mistakes did I make?  The only way to know is to open it and find out.


That’s a lot of paper. On top is a letter that summarizes all the things that are wrong with the book. Sometimes this is a long letter.

I usually read it standing right there by the counter. Then I hyperventilate. And then I go for a walk, or a coffee, or a something, and I don’t come back until I stop feeling like a loser for not writing a Perfect First Draft. (No one writes a perfect first draft, no matter what they tell you. There are always things that can be better. I have been tempted to go through Barnes and Noble with a pen and tweak the phrasing here and there in my books on the shelf.)

That big pile of paper sits on the kitchen counter—maybe a few hours, maybe a day, maybe a weekend—while I cogitate on how I’m going to fix what I need to fix. (Sometimes it’s something big like “This entire part in the museum here doesn’t make sense.” Sometimes it’s small but pervasive, like adding more explanation of how magic works or description of settings.)

Finally, the manuscript gets to move to the workspace. (In this case, the sofa.)


I’m not quite ready to open the document on the computer and start haphazardly making changes. First I go through my editors’ (and agent’s) notes, page by page, wincing at the things I think I should have caught myself, or the things I thought I could get away with but didn’t, scribbling my own ideas, getting up every now and then to freak out. Like, “How I’m going to cut 25 pages out of the middle without losing any of my brilliant scenes?!” Or, my favorite: “OMG I have to come up with a logical reason for that to happen?” Or it’s close cousin,”It doesn’t seem like they know what’s going on there because I don’t know what’s going on.”

From there on… I won’t say it’s easy, but the analytical part of your brain kicks in and you flinch less. Two things safe my sanity right now: (1) I know I’m my own worst critic while working on a book, but (2) I can still fix things. I try and enjoy that while it lasts.

PS It’s not a Goodnight book.

PPS  It doesn’t come out for more than a year. But it’s going to be EPIC when it does.

Week in Rewind

I spent most of last week in rehearsal for a reunion show at my creative arts school in Arlington. We performed two shows this past weekend, to sold out houses.

It was like a class reunion with just the people I like. Only it was also more than that, because there were thirty-five years of alumni participating, so I got to meet new people as well as see with the people who were basically my family for three years.

My friends!

My friends!

See that lady in turquoise to my right? She was my musical theater teacher, and one of the first people (other than my mom) to tell me I was talented and I could do whatever I wanted. She led by example–she wrote plays and lyrics, she directed shows, plus she was a great actress herself. I wanted to be her when I grew up.

That blond guy to my left? He used to send me hand drawn valentines. Now he’s an award winning director who was knighted by the king of Belgium for the documentary he made about the Belgian resistance during WWII.  (He has a lovely wife and parter and adorable children. I’m sure his valentines are better now.)

That guy in the middle, with the goofy smile? He was MY junior high crush. (Well, he was everyone’s crush.) He just (a) had a baby, (b) released his first album with his band and (c) his wife just sold her first book.

That guy with the glasses? Does the documentary shorts that go on the DVD extras. Yeah, so he hangs out and chats with Christopher Nolan and stuff.

That girl on the box, hovering above me?   She (a) got most of the roles I wanted and (b) dated Junior High Crush.  So did the redhead on the end. Everyone dated my Junior High Crush but me. But we were friends anyway.

That chick in black in the middle?  She’s all in black because she lives in NYC doing fancy NYC stuff.  She hosted the halloween party where we played spin the bottle and seven minutes in heaven. You know. Like we would have known what to do with seven minutes.

That’s ancient history. I only attended the school for three years. I loved being on stage (I still do) but it takes a special kind of fortitude to be a career actor. However, my favorite part was the storytelling and becoming a character, and that led me to the realization that I wanted to write books. (It was kind of weird that I ended up working in a theater while I worked at that goal. Or… maybe not.)

Still, the particular chemistry of that environment established the basis for everythingNot just theater school, but that theater school with those people and those teachers. They had an idea for a creative arts school and they made it happen. They created their own shows and stories, they made things out of nothing into something. And they instilled that in the students.

When I was teaching drama, I used to tell the parents that chances were, their kid wasn’t going to end up acting as a career (or be on Saturday Night Live or anything), but that the things they learned in the theater–confidence and creativity and teamwork–would help them in whatever they chose to do. I think that’s definitely been true for my students, as it was for my class.

Enjoy what you do, and do it one hundred percent for as long as you love it. It doesn’t matter if it’s what you’re going to do forever. (Does every student on the football team end up in the NFL? Of course not.) Nothing you learn is ever wasted. It will show up somewhere, some way you don’t even expect.

P.S.  Any Glee fans read this blog?  You know what? Warbler Nick is even better looking in person. (And not really in high school, so it’s not gross that I said that.)

Spirit and Dust Countdown

The local cops kept staring at me. I couldn’t decide if it was the plaid miniskirt in subarctic temperatures, or the fact that they’d never seen anyone talk to the dead before.

Here’s something weird about me. I almost always start writing with the first line of the book. Image

I know, I know. It doesn’t sound that weird. Where else would you start other than the beginning?

Only it’s not that simple. You have to know where the story ACTUALLY starts. Backstory and characterization are good things for the author to know, but we don’t need to put it in up front. We want to start as close to The Thing That Sets Stuff In Motion as possible.  (Imagine if you had to sit through ten minutes of Luke Skywalker fixing moisture vaporators and whining to his aunt and uncle before the droids showed up. No. Just, no. Instead we start his part of the story with the droids arriving, shorthand in a few lines of characterization, and then, boom, we’ve got a Princess in Peril and off we go.)

I’m not talking about that part. I’m saying that I LITERALLY write the first line of my book first. In my head. Sometimes before I even know what the plot of the book is going to be. Prom Dates From Hell was like that.  And so was Spirit and Dust.  I knew from the moment I finished writing Texas Gothic (where Daisy is a minor character) what would be the opening line of her book. I didn’t know if or when I would get to write it, but I knew how it would start.

(By the way, you do NOT have to read Texas Gothic or Spirit and Dust in any order. The only thing that connects them is the characters come from the same family. Their stories are independent and don’t have spoilers for each other.)

Anyway. That’s the first line of Spirit and Dust. More teasers to come.


Better Than Chocolate and Hot FBI Agents

This morning I retweeted something from one of my favorite paranormal romance authors* (and awesome person) Alyssa Day:

RT @Alyssa_DayDear Readers: You know that part where you tell us you like our books? We love that part like chocolate.

First off, I would amend that to say we love that part better than the chocolate-covered marshmallow Easter eggs that I have stashed in a secret place in my office where my mother can’t find them.**

The thing is, it’s not just that we (as authors) are looking for the ego stroke. At least, I’m not.  Or mostly not.  But hearing from readers who have enjoyed my books is honestly my favorite part about being a published writer, and here’s why:

A book is a collaborative process in more than just the writer/editor/cover-designer/publisher/marketer way.  It’s a collaboration between the author and the reader. See, when I write a scene, or I describe a character or setting, I have a picture in my mind. Literally, for me, because I tend to see my scenes as multi-sensory movies in my head.  That picture is drawn based on my own experiences: places I’ve been, people I’ve met, plus a whole lot of my own dreams, emotions and neurosis.

When you read a book—MY book, for the sake of this blog post, though it’s possible you’ve wandered to this site by accident, or because you Googled Alyssa Day or chocolate-covered marshmallow Easter eggs—then my words, if I’ve done my job right, make a picture in your mind, and that picture is drawn by YOUR experiences.

So if I write this***:

“Hey, Agent Tasty,” I’d said, when I saw Agent Taylor waiting beside the car. I liked Taylor, and not just because he was young and really hot for a buttoned-up guy with a G-man haircut and a newly minted FBI badge. I sort of like liked him, but we worked together and I was still three months shy of legal age, so it stayed with they boundaries of “sort of.” None of which kept me from noticing that he did not skimp on the FBI physical training program.

I might be picturing this (I’m not, btw):

FBI Dean

You could be picturing this:


Someone else might be picturing this:


Or going old school: 

Or REALLY old school:


None of these, by the way, are models for Agent Taylor, who is fresh out of the academy as well as my imagination.

I do draw on real people and places for inspiration sometimes, but rarely just one. It’s this model’s hair, but this dancer’s height, and this actress’s cheeky grin, etc.  I rarely, if ever, tell anyone what/who I have in mind because I want you to form your own picture.

Even my editor and I have different ideas. She said, “I picture Daisy looking sort of like a red-haired Taylor Swift, only with a lot more eyeliner and black nail polish.”  (Which got me thinking, would Taylor Swift even BE Taylor Swift with red hair and a lot more eyeliner and black nail polish?)  However, Swift is quite tall (or she looks that way) with really long legs, and so body-type-wise, that’s exactly what I’d described in both Texas Gothic and the new book, so I considered this a success.****

ANYWAY. This brings me to reader tweets/comments/email.  The fun thing for me is to find out what stuck with you from the story. I have my favorite parts, so I love hearing yours. I know what *I* think Ben McCullough looks like, but I love to hear what reader’s imagine. I think that the shared universe of a book is something kind of magical. When I see fans of a wildly popular book/series sharing ideas, fan art, world-building theories, character analysis, that book becomes almost like a virtual reality.

That’s why I love reading, and that’s why I love writing. PLUS, I got to spend my morning looking up pictures of hot FBI agents. It really is better than chocolate.

FBI Castiel

* No, really. Day really gets it RIGHT. You can tell that she loves the Fantasy part as much as the Romance part, and it’s not just an excuse to have the couple to have Magical Soulmate Sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I suspect Alyssa might be a bit of a SFF fangirl at heart.

** This is not an exaggeration. I bought a ridiculous number of packages when they went on sale, and if I don’t want Mom to eat them ALL AT ONCE, I have to hide them. When did I become my parent’s parent?

*** Why, yes, that IS pulled from SPIRIT AND DUST! So glad you asked.

**** Dear Ms. Swift. If you’re looking for a starring vehicle, the option on Spirit and Dust is available. Ha ha.*****

**** No, really. Call me. We’ll do lunch.

Into the Cave

It’s time. I’m going into my writing cave.cave_eyes_fire_md_wht

I’ve blogged before about a peculiarity of my “process” which is that sooner or later I just have to become a hermit, dive into the book and write without distractions until it’s done. And by “distractions” I mean “showers, exercise or balanced meals.”

I’ve been pretending to go there for awhile, but I’ll still accept invitations… or rather, accept social invitations and then flake out because I feel guilty that I’m supposed to be writing and then feel guilty for flaking so that I don’t get any writing done, either. (I know guilt is an important emotion to keep us from being, like, sociopaths or whatever, but I could use a little more logic associated with mine.)

So rather than even pretend I’m going to be a decent friend/blogger/Tweeter for the next few weeks, I’m just letting everyone know that I’m morphing into that cranky old hermit in the woods for awhile, and I’ll see you all when I’m my sunny self again.

The BRIGHT side of this is that when the book is done, I’ll be less superstitious, and be able to tell you stuff about it. :D

P.S. Which is not to say I won’t Tweet or reply to emails or comments. I get the Internet in my cave. Let’s not be ridiculous. It’s the 21st century, after all.

This entry was posted on February 18, 2013, in Writing.