Monday, January 28, 2013

The Blank-Page Blues

Nothing triggers my fight or flight response quite like staring at a blank page. (Not even those creepy taupe-colored spiders.) For years now, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with writing. When I’m struggling with writer’s block, nothing could be more frustrating. But when I’ve persevered and I’m happy with something I’ve written, I’m beyond ecstatic.
Even though I’m an editorial assistant at Harlequin, my job does involve some writing. I write the occasional blog post, and I do a fair amount of work with back cover copy. Although much of our cover copy is written by freelancers and then looked over by editors, it is sometimes written in-house, from scratch, by someone like me.
Writing and editing are really two sides of the same coin, but even though they require similar skills, it can be difficult for someone who’s used to flexing their editing muscles to sit down and write. In fact, I find it almost impossible to be creative when I’m wearing my editor’s hat. If I think too much about the finished product my ideas fall apart before they’ve had a chance to form.
But fighting that fight—struggling and succeeding at sharing your story with the world—is important, and my own minor skirmishes have helped me to become a better editor. A co-worker once gave me some valuable editing advice while I was struggling to write some copy. She didn’t think that a paragraph I’d written was working, so she gave me a few suggestions for how I could fix it. When I thanked her, she told me that she always took the time to offer alternatives, so instead of telling an author to change something, she’d make the suggestion and show them a few ways it could be done. I remember being so grateful for her point of view and for her suggestions that I’ve tried to follow her advice ever since.  
These days, I’m usually writing cover copy, which involves capturing a story’s plot, characters and tone without giving too much away. It can be tricky, but most cover copy is only a few hundred words, so I have trouble imagining what it’s like to write a full-length novel. I’d love to hear about your strategies for writing. What do you do when you’ve got a deadline and you’d rather do anything—cleaning, cooking, one thousand consecutive games of minesweeper—but write? I’d also love to hear how you turn off the internal editor to let your creativity loose!

(p.s. Roz, it seems as if you and I are on the same wavelength. I really enjoyed reading your post!)

11 comments:

  1. Dana, Since I began my writing career I have been impressed by the people who write the back blurbs. Try as I may, I cannot write "short". I'm too wordy. When I have to do art fact sheets and they ask for a brief synopsis, the brief part is the hardest for me. I always do that part of the AFS in Word and edit and edit, and re-edit to make it brief. I have to rein in my synopsis writing, too, or I'd just probably write the book. And that's good advice about offering alternatives. I try to do that if I critique someone's work. And that's another thing I am not fond of doing. It's hard to see my own flaws, let alone anyone else's.

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  2. I began my writing career as a Young Adult author and was taught to keep my synopsis to one page... two tops. When I joined Harlequin it was quite a jolt to realize I had up to 18 or so pages to really flesh out my story outline with character backstory/motivations/conflicts and key scenes that lead to the dark moment and resolution. I loved the roomy feeling maybe a bit too much because I wrote a recent proposal that topped out at 27 pages and had to cut it down to 18! I treasure my writing time because I get so few hours with my precious lap top. I am a full time teacher and my day extends past school hours because I'm often grading essays and book projects as well as volunteering with student clubs. When I arrive home, it's time to make dinner, do some house cleaning, help my daughter with homework, and follow through on my work-out schedule... when all is said and done, I have only three hours at best to write a weeknight and they are bliss. It is the only 100% me time I get and I can let my imagination run wild. That white page is- more often than not- a welcome site because I say, "Hello gorgeous- I'm about to make you beautiful :)It's not always easy... especially if I've been a part of a contentious parent-teacher conference or had other issues at work with students or colleagues that are quickly resolved but may impact my mind set. On those days, I watch The Bachelor (always at the ready on my TiVo) or something on Bravo, treat myself to something not on my approved weightloss plan, and don't dwell on the fact that for that night, at least, I need a break.

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  3. The blank page intrigues me; the changes stymie me. There are many wonderful, talented editors who've helped me. On my last edits, Adrienne suggested writing a scene for the other POV even.

    Karen, I was up at 4 something this morning writing. You do it when you can.

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  4. Guys, I wish I could've got on here sooner to let you all know that Dana was called away unexpectedly and hasn't been able to check in today!

    I did want to chime in about her topic though. I used to be a magazine journalist, but the more work I edited, the less easily writing came to me. I cannot imagine writing 70- to 75,000 words and staring at each of those blank pages! My hat goes off to you writers.

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  5. Hi, All! I feel so guilty that I have it relatively easy compared to you youngsters with full time jobs and children at home. (Just a little guilty - mostly very excited that that's no longer me!) I'm the daughter of Old World parents and went to Catholic school to boot, so I'm generally so responsible and obedient that it's kind of disgusting. And my name signed on a contract to deliver so many pages on a specific date is like an anvil on my shoulders. I work as much as I can, as often as I can and when I'm walking the dog, waiting for Ron in the doctor's office, doing dishes - I'm thinking about my plot. (My hill to climb!) I love to create character, describe setting, and get started, but making it all work out according to plan is another matter. But I'm able to keep going despite obstacles because it's always on my mind and that seems to keep the momentum alive. And my hat goes off to editors who can see the rough gem in the middle of a lot of pages that probably shouldn't be there and figure out how to fix it - according to my plan and not yours. That's a skill.

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  6. Roz, I often have the same problem with keeping my writing short. When I’m entering a synopsis for an art fact sheet, our computer system will often reprimand me for going over the allotted word count, and I’m forced to go back and try to edit my summary again. :)

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  7. Karen, My mother was a teacher, so I’ve seen firsthand how hard teachers work outside of classroom time. I’m glad that you’re able to find time to write and relax.

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  8. Pamela, Wow! 4:00 a.m.! That’s really impressive. I hope you can get some time to rest, as well. :)

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  9. Muriel, I agree with you. When I’ve got any kind of deadline, I just can’t forget about it. It’s probably very helpful to think about your book while you’re doing lots of different things. I imagine it would be helpful for coming up with new ideas.

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  10. Dana, this is a great (and timely) post!

    When faced with the blank page, I also tend to play solitaire on my computer before jumping into writing. Or I will wash dishes, do laundry, clean out my closet. Or go grocery shopping. Anything to avoid that blank page. I am learning to get better though... I think LOL.

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  11. Thanks very much, Syndi. You're right! Cleaning and doing dishes are never more attractive than when you've got something else to do.

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