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Evan Munday: Blank Pages, The Pinstriped Fedoras of Writing

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Evan Munday will be appearing at Trinity Bellwoods Park on Saturday, June 22nd, from 12 - 4 pm at A Literary Picnic, part of Luminato Festival 2013. With the theme of "Beginnings" as inspiration, over 60 authors will take to three stages to share selections from their work and offer insight into where a story begins, and how writers confront the blank page. Many of the participating authors will also be setting up their own picnic blankets "backstage" for one-on-one exchanges with the public throughout the day.

On each Saturday leading up to the festivities -- as well as on the big day itself -- The Huffington Post is presenting blog posts from selected authors on how they personally handle writing that daunting first word. Last week, we heard from Ania Szado. Today, we feature Evan's contribution. And check back in next week for Mathew Henderson's take.

The best way to deal with a blank page (or blank screen) is to simply not have one. Asking how one deals with a blank page is a bit like asking how one deals with an Ed Hardy thumb ring or a pinstriped fedora. Just avoid that whole landmine by not ever having one. It helps to have a backlog of ideas -- more ideas that you could ever possibly need or turn into finished stories. I keep a text file of half-baked ideas to develop should I ever get some spare time -- and some of them aren't half-bad. (Just wait until you hear about the Christian ska band members who have to play a life-and-death baseball game against the Devil and his team of the MLB's all-time nastiest players.) Be riddled with ideas. Sodden with them. So many ideas that you start to gag just in describing how many ideas you have.

Easier said than done, perhaps. One can't just generate ideas from thin air ... unless that's what a writer does ... (Hold that thought.) Whatever the case, usually it's not the ideas that are lacking for a writer, rather the way to approach them. This is where two exercises are most useful: walks and asking questions.
Writers, like your average Irish Setters, need regular walks. Something about the leg motion circulates more blood to the brain or something (I don't know; I'm technically not a doctor), so writing blocks and hurdles are as surmountable as, like, a really small hill. Parliament Hill, let's say. Few writing difficulties I've had couldn't be sorted out by a good constitutional. Questions help, too -- always ask questions of all your major plot points and characters: Why would he get on that boat with that tiger? What made that girl get that dragon tattoo?, etc. It's the answers to these questions you can scrounge together to make something resembling a coherent narrative.

My own work involves so much pre-planning and structuring, the idea of a blank page is somewhat unfathomable. Voyages to explore undersea wrecks in the Marianas Trench have involved less preparation than one of my kids' books: notes and outlines are made, questions are asked and answered, scenes are connected with increasingly serpentine loops. By the time I start to write a first draft, my notebook looks like Kevin Spacey's serial-killer journal in Se7en. And it's not handwritten efforts alone. That's merely the first stage. After that, colour-coded spreadsheets are created -- they are severely undervalued as a writing tool. By the time I start actually writing -- like, sentences and such -- the act has all the spontaneity of a much-beloved Civil War re-enactment. I'm no Jack Kerouac, stream-of-consciously filling up a Bounty paper towel roll. Jack Kerouac didn't have Excel.

But really, the most crucial exercise to overcoming that blank screen is just writing. Write anything. As a children's author, I tell this to aspiring child authors all the time. There are so many fears, doubts and worries that can (and will) prevent you from writing. But you have to get to it and do the job. Don't worry if it's terrible -- most first drafts are -- you can fix it later. Much like how forcing your face into a smile can actually improve your mood when you're sad (it's science, folks), just moving that pen or typing those keys can improve your writing as it's happening.

That said, if you don't have anything, if the well is drier than Noel Coward's wit, you can always play my favourite game (aside from the old Try To Insert a Noel Coward Reference into Everything game). Come up with a plausible-sounding book title. Then develop the most ludicrous possible story for which that title would still make sense. The results can be strangely fulfilling. After all, I assume this same method is how both Fifty Shades of Gray and The Da Vinci Code were written.

Evan Munday is the author of the Silver Birch-nominated Dead Kid Detective Agency series for young readers. The second book, Dial 'M' for Morna, hits bookstores this October.

13 Writers Who Need To Get Writing
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