The Terror That Is Mystery Writing

Or any other writing, for that matter.

Gerry Boyle here, and I don’t mean Stephen King-style terror, that holds readers in its irresistible grip. I mean the terror that’s turned the other way and gets you, the writer, by the throat. I’m talking about—

That first blank page.

If you’re a writer you know what I mean. Maybe you just felt a tremor in your spine, a tightening of the stomach muscles, a slight elevation of blood pressure. Because even if you’re on page 200, if you can see the end in sight, you remember the intimidating, fear-inspiring sight of Page One.

It’s the same if you’ve written a dozen novels or not a single one. It’s the same if you’ve been published a bunch of times or if no publisher knows you exist. It’s the same if you’ve been reviewed in the New York Times or you’re setting out to write your first novel in secret.

I say this as the Blank Page looms closer. Even as I’ve been finishing the last book, I’ve been mulling a new one. Doing research for a new book. Notebooks are filling with scribbled notes for the new book. When I’m supposed to be thinking about something else I’m thinking about the new book. I’ve even had a couple of conversations with a trusted advisor about the new book. (This first conversation is also something that you approach with trepidation for fear that the idea that’s been percolating inside your head for weeks or months, when first shared with another human, out loud, will sound stupid.)

But the first conversation pales in comparison with the terrifying emptiness of the first blank page.

As people who make a trade of considering the reasons for human behavior, we know why this has been so for as long as writers have been putting paint to the wall of the cave. It isn’t the first blank page that is frightening. It’s the possibility that we will stare at the white-out blizzard of that empty screen and–

Nothing will happen.

No first sentence.

No first paragraph.

No first chapter.


The next level of fear is that the first page will fill up with words but they will be crap. For whatever reason the well will have run dry. Or never have been filled. The muse will have vacated the premises. You will no longer be a writer. You will be–

A typer.

But then, just as surely as the blank page intimidates, it invites. A first sentence, coming in a burst after you sit and stare for minutes, hours, days. A first paragraph, punctuated triumphantly as you hit that most wonderful of keys.


And then you’re off and writing and the vanquished blank page is soon a distant memory, buried with words, sentences, chapters. Forgotten in the plotting, the trafficking in characters. Me intimidated? Yeah, right. Two-hundred pages and counting, baby. A great idea for a killer ending. Dialogue to die for. The first blank page? Was there one? We barely remember.

Until the next time.

If you’re a writer, it helps to know you’re not alone in this. If you’re a new writer, rest assured that the people who stare from the top of this page, who’ve written books up the wazoo, know this feeling. If you’re a reader, it serves as a reminder that at one time that book you’re reading didn’t exist. There was no story. No characters. No title.

Not one word. Just someone staring at a blank screen, fingers on the keyboard. Waiting for that mysterious thing to happen. If you have a book in your hand, it did.

We all lucked out.

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2 Responses to The Terror That Is Mystery Writing

  1. Barb Ross says:

    “It’s the same if you’ve written a dozen novels or not a single one.”

    Oy. This is not good news.

  2. Sarah Graves says:

    Yup. That blank page is as blank for me as it is for anyone else. All I can do is tell the blank-page monster to go watch cartoons. And then I just keep repeating ‘you can always rewrite it, you can always….’

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