This week we have another fantastic post on “Getting Started.”  Read on as Jackie Briggs Martin, prolific picture book author and Hamline professor extraordinaire, gives you her advice on what to do once you’re ready to start your next big project.  

This month’s Inkpot topic is “getting started,” facing the blank page. I’m taking this to mean what you do when you have no unfinished writing projects to work on and not the blank page of the next chapter. I feel as if I should have a list—“10 keys to filling the blank page”—but I don’t. I never have. I just wander around at the beginning, kind of like exploring a new patch of prairie, see what’s there, what might grow, what might be beautiful. So I can’t share answers here, just a few thoughts.

A blank page begins with a notebook, at least for me—a new notebook. And the kind of notebook I have is very important. I can’t imagine writing a new story in just any notebook. I want a notebook with the right colored cover, with ¼” graph lines on ivory paper. I don’t know why this is important but it is. And so is the writing instrument. Rolling Ball V pens or pencils go directly to my brain. Pens from the gas station don’t work. My muse is particular.

So getting the right blank page is the first requirement. Then, even at the beginning, the page is not really blank. We all have some little story idea tapping us on the shoulder, maybe not formed, just an urge, but something we want to explore. Whether we keep an actual file of story ideas, or interesting articles or just let them simmer in that unconscious part of our brains until we have time and/or inclination to develop them, something is there. So when the page looks blank, maybe we should just write something, anything—as Phyllis Root says it’s all play. Just write what our brains tell us to write. Then write some more. Let a character stroll on to the page and off again. Be goofy. It’s all play. I heard Minnesota poet Michael Dennis Browne talk about beginnings once. And he said that beginnings are like auditions for ideas. And we should welcome all the ideas we have onto the stage. I find it useful to write all over the page, at all angles, against all those prescribed graph paper lines. It somehow gives me permission to be whimsical.


The next problem can be which one of those clamoring ideas gets picked. Sometimes it’s easy. One is just more compelling, more demanding. Sometimes it’s not. They all seem to speak at equal volume. What to do? Wait. One will emerge. Or just start. Just pick. We can always put it aside.

Once I have chosen the topic, or the topic has chosen me, I have to get into a new world, the world where that story could take place. And that is true whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I have to do research, find out where the grass grows, what the people in this world do for fun, what games they play, what their shoes look like, what they do when it rains. Sometimes this involves actual looking things up. Sometimes just brainstorming lists and charts, weather reports and relationships.  As I do this research, story ideas accrue on the page and it’s no longer blank in any way but a busy carpet that takes me into the story.