Starting to Write: Filling Your First Blank Pages
5 minutes read
Whether you’ve just begun to explore what it means to start writing, or are finally ready to start that next serious project, you are about to come up against an obstacle familiar to all writers: the blank page. To get started on your writing journey, you must begin to face your blank pages and gain creative confidence and discipline.
If you’re struggling with where to start, or how to come upon inspiration, here are some pieces of advice and small exercises in idea generation to get you going.
Going on your nerve
My favourite poet, Frank O'Hara, in his 1959 essay 'Personism: a Manifesto' says 'just go on your nerve.' A quote which gives us permission as writers to step out of our comfort zone sometimes and see what fun can be had rolling with the punches: having a pop, taking a shot and seeing what goals we can score.
If you’re here, you’ve already worked up some courage and decided to write. The first piece of advice we have for you is simply this: start writing. ‘Take a shot’, launch into things and see what happens.
Filling pages up regularly will get you accustomed to writing and ease the pressure of perfection on your page as you begin drafting the stories you’ve been wanting to write.
Try this: For the next three days, sit down to write just a single sentence about something you’ve been thinking about but are too intimidated to write. This may be a story you think you don’t have the skills to write yet. Each day, once you’ve written one sentence, see if you can get to a paragraph, and from there, a page. You might find it’s like learning to ride a bike, and you’ve travelled much further than you expected.
Writing a bad first draft
Ashley has some simple advice about the early stages of a story:
You can’t edit words that aren’t there to begin with, so try not to overthink too much in those early stages; the purpose of any first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written.
Often, a blank page is intimidating because each new word on it feels like a blemish. When you start to see your first drafts as a stab at something, and ‘see what goals you can score’, you suddenly have a first draft to work on. All first drafts need work, and to be able to work on them, you need to first create them.
If you want to write a story, write it. It isn’t in its final form yet, but now you have the clay to sculpt.
Try this: Look back on the work you produced doing the previous exercise. As you edit this work, reflect on how the process makes you feel about your writing. Does it feel easier now that you have words on the page, even if you don’t think they’re perfect?
Making ideas come easy
The advice above is about alleviating fear and writing something, whatever that may be. As Ashley sums it up:
To requote O’Hara ‘…just go on your nerve’, a similar sentiment in many ways to the words of writer DBC Pierre who simply says in ‘Nutshell’, ‘you just have to write’.
But write what? Not every writer is a fount of fantastic ideas – in fact, most aren’t. Writers have to work at generating ideas, intentionally seeking inspiration in the serendipitous. Ashley says ‘The world around us is gold in terms of ideas generation, primed to be polished later to shimmer and shine on the page’.
If you want to start generating ideas, you have to gather the gold from the world around you. This may be from reading as widely as you can, eavesdropping on people, or paying attention to how your friends walk and talk.
Another interesting way to generate ideas is through randomisation. This is an exercise where you rely on randomly selecting something from a set of possibilities, like pulling a card out of a deck or reaching blindly for Scrabble tiles. You then use your selection as the basis of a story. Randomising is a good starting point because it forces you to appreciate that anything can become the kernel of a story. Maybe you want to shuffle a deck of tarot cards or walk a set number of steps and use where you end up as a setting. Perhaps, you want to embrace serendipity even further and crack open some fortune cookies.
Try this: Stumble upon something intentionally. Go out into the world, and choose one setting, one object and one stranger you see that day. Write something about them.
Ashley Hickson-Lovence is the lead tutor of Getting Started: Beginners’ Fiction (Online). He is a novelist and Creative Writing lecturer based in Norwich. While working as a secondary school English teacher, he completed his MA in Creative Writing and Publishing from City, University of London and is currently finishing his AHRC-funded PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. He lectures at the University of Suffolk and works with young writers for First Story. His debut novel The 392 was released with OWN IT! in April 2019. His second novel Your Show, based on the life and career of former Black football referee Uriah Rennie, was released with Faber in April 2022 and was longlisted for the 2022 Gordon Burn Prize. His third book Wild East, a YA novel-in-verse, will be released with Penguin in 2024.
Book your place on the next online iteration of Getting Started: Beginners’ Fiction here.
Tejaswi Rawal is the Online Assistant at Faber Academy. Reach out to her and the Faber Academy team with any questions about the course at email@example.com.