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