Tuesday, February 13, 2024

ONE WAY TO BEAT THE BLANK PAGE

By Steve Sheinkin


I’ve got a deep dread of the blank page—who’s with me? Of first drafts, getting started, getting something down. So out of sheer necessity I came up with a technique that works for me. It comes from figure drawing classes I’ve taken, where we always started off with a series of “gesture drawings”—one minute model poses, and the students dash to get down the basics of the form. The lines have to be loose and fast, often with satisfying results.

At some point, I realized I could try the same thing with writing. I gather my notes for a section of the story I’m trying to tell and highlight the key events and info and must-have quotes. Then I open the blank screen or notebook page (either works fine) and then… I just go. I go fast. I scribble or type the basics of what I want to say, not worrying at all about actual sentences, just sketching out the shape. Here’s an example of a “sketch” I did for the opening of my book BOMB, where a spy knows he’s about to be caught:

Morning of May 22, 1950, house in north Philly. Harry Gold in a panic, in pajamas, searching his room, pulling stuff from shelves, shoving stuff in the toilet. FBI agents are coming, and there’s evidence of spying all over the place.

For my newest one, IMPOSSIBLE ESCAPE, I decided I wanted to open with the main character, Rudi Vrba, leaving home at 17, setting off on a journey he never could have imagined. I had a quote I knew I wanted to use, so I put that right up front—must-have quotes are a great way to break the spell of the blank page.

Rudi gets in a taxi, mother says: “Take care of yourself. And don’t forget to change your socks.” Car drives away, Rudi tears yellow star from jacket, ducks below window to stay out of sight. He’s 17, heading for border, feels invincible. Has a little cash, a compass, matches, change of clothes—not much for the journey he’s about to attempt…

You get the idea. I’ll save this sort of stuff as a “sketch,” because it’s not really a first draft yet. To me, it takes a really hard thing—writing a first draft—and breaks it down into two easier steps: the sketch, and the step of turning the sketch into actual sentences. Want to try it? Here are the steps I’d recommend:


1. Pick a scene or section of the story you want to tell.

2. Collect notes on the stuff you know you want to get in: facts, quotes, details.

3. Open a blank screen/page—and go! Don’t try to make it good; just get down the basics


I’ll usually rough out an entire book this way before writing a first draft. The “sketch” file may be about half the word count of the full draft. It’s like those gesture drawings from my art classes—they’re messy, and you wouldn’t really show them to anyone, but you’ll know if you’ve got the basic form right. Plus, the page is no longer blank!

 


About the Author 

Steve Sheinkin is the NYT bestselling author of fast-paced, cinematic nonfiction for young readers, including IMPOSSIBLE ESCAPE, BOMB, FALLOUT, UNDEFEATED, THE PORT CHICAGO 50, BORN TO FLY and THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD. Awards include a Newbery Honor and three National Book Award finalist honors. He lives with his family in Saratoga Springs, NY.

18 comments:

  1. I think this will help with the energy that one of my mss needs! Thanks! (And I love hearing of other skills/passions/hobbies other writers have or had! What a great connection from art to writing.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Awesome! I have a ms that is bound to take off with some “word sketches”. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Steve, I like how you call those notes "sketches." It is so incredibly hard to get started sometimes. I am hoping your advice will help! Thanks for sharing your process with us. Your books sound intriguing. And I do love that quote from Rudi's mom.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you for this post. Sketching may help me when I can't face a blank screen.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Good way to jump from research (LOVE IT!) to writing (love it, too, but sometimes seems daunting). Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks! Love the idea of a sketch to get going and having a quote right up front.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks so much for this post. Your work sounds wonderful, and I really enjoyed reading about your sketch file approach. I think applying this to my writing process will be a huge help going forward!

    ReplyDelete
  8. This post is very motivating! Thank you, Steve.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I love this idea of quick sketches - what a great way to save the energy and first thoughts about your story. Definitely going into my "writer's toolbox"

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks for sharing your process. I love the idea of these quick "word sketches." I look forward to reading your upcoming books!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I like the idea of sketching before drafting. Thank you for the tip, Steve.

    Congratulations on the many awards for IMPOSSIBLE ESCAPE. I enjoyed reading this amazing historical biography.

    Suzy Leopold

    ReplyDelete
  12. This is a great idea…kind of like an outline but much looser. And, as you said, a good way to get going on that blank page!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Super interesting way to go about it. Thanks for the tip!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Glad to hear that this idea sounds helpful! About to present to a group of 8th graders - we'll see if they agree...

    ReplyDelete
  15. Steve, I love these writing sketches especially as a visual thinking. Thank you for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hope the presentation went well. Starting with loose "word-sketches" is a really interesting idea & one I'll have to give a try. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  17. This is a great idea. I often get caught up in the "writing" part and lose ideas and great phrases because I'm trying to make sentences. I'll definitely try this. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Thanks for sharing! I dread first drafts, so your method is much like mine. Though I call it doodling :)

    ReplyDelete