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Facing the blank page

How does a novelist begin a new tale? Here’s a couple ideas.

In On Writing, Stephen King says that his books

“tend to be based on situation rather than story….I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free.

The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way.”

This passage was quoted in The Guardian and was also the premise for a “Just Write” video.

King’s method intimidates many writers. Here’s a blank page. Put down a situation, some characters…and then? Without planning, many writers feel lost.

It may alleviate some pressure to remember that there are different levels of creativity. Not every creative act needs to be expertly executed or lead directly toward a goal, and not every completed work will display eminence, genius, or commercial success.

In Reframe, a book about her design consultancy, Mona Patel recaps the “The Four C Model of Creativity” as developed by Ronald Beghetto and James Kaufman. Patel explained:

“1. Big Cs represent eminent creativity.

2. Pro Cs are experts in the field who have put in a great deal of time (think Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell) to master their crafts.

3. Little Cs represent the creativity that everyone can access, from using fun ingredients in recipes, to editing pictures on mobile phones, to doodling while listening to a conference call.

4. Mini Cs are personally meaningful insights that are gathered from trying something new and learning about it along with yourself. For example, when you hear something and process it in a unique way, channeling it into something that only you can feel, believe, and own.”

Much of the writing process falls into the “Mini” category, constituted of little sparks that have personal meaning to you but might be hard to explain to someone else. Once you reach the place where you can share these creative bursts and they make sense to others, you’ve reached the “Little” category. After years of practice, you’re a “Pro.” Only a very few people are ever “Big,” so don’t sweat it. Sweat probably doesn’t get you there anyway.

Where I’m going with this: When you sit down to write a story and the blank page feels unmanageable, it may not be for lack of advance plotting. Maybe your internal creative process, not your story, needs to be broken down and made more visible. When you have a clearer command of how your imagination works and brings ideas to life, King’s model of writing might seem easier. Start with a situation and some characters. Let yourself have a series of creative explorations in private until you are ready to share what you’ve written. Keep practicing. Practice will get you to the pros. With luck, you, or your story, will go big.


Novelist of matters surreal and magical. Studied philosophy and journalism. Worked in technology and finance. Knows about UX design and life coaching. Helps people write their books. Ask. Don't be shy. Author of TEN PAST NOON, BAD FIRE, PAINTING DRAGONS, and ENKIDU IS DEAD AND NOT DEAD.

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