The Creative Process

the current stage of my creative process: altering scenes and tracking goals

Last week via Twitter I came across an article called “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking.” While it goes into depth and gives examples of each, the list goes like this:

  1. You are creative.
  2. Creative thinking is work.
  3. You must go through the motions of being creative.
  4. Your brain is not a computer.
  5. There is no one right answer.
  6. Never stop with your first good idea.
  7. Expect the experts to be negative.
  8. Trust your instincts.
  9. There is no such thing as failure.
  10. You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are.
  11. Always approach a problem on its own terms.
  12. Learn to think unconventionally.

These are all so true that I would simply like to say, “Amen!”

But I’d also like to illustrate.

A few weeks ago Hubby and I were talking about my writing, and he mentioned how he feels as though, personality wise, I’m much more analytical than I am creative. Therefore, he said, shouldn’t I pursue analytical writing of some sort (haha, such as these blog posts?) rather than fiction writing?

I agreed with him to a point: I am naturally analytical, and creativity is hard work for me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not good at it once I get there. I noted that he hasn’t read my fiction yet and explained to him that though my characters and stories don’t come easily to me at first, I use my analytical skills to bring them to life one draft at a time.

The conversation made me realize that I’ve decided to be creative, decided to believe that I can be creative, and even decided to believe that I am good at creativity.

I think that’s why I loved the article. I experience those twelve concepts on a regular basis. I have to believe I’m creative; I have to work hard at wrapping my brain around my projects; I have to go through the motions and be open to all kinds of ideas; I have to trust my instincts and pursue the projects and designs I feel inclined toward, trusting that I can achieve the potential I imagine; I have to be willing to think outside the box all the time, questioning “rules” of writing and when to adhere to or break them.

What’s been especially phenomenal the past month and a half is experiencing the height of the creative process. I swore to Hubby and Twitter that I would aim for two goals: (a) to write every day, no matter what, and (b) to revise a chapter a week in order to finish this latest draft by April 1. As I’ve done those two things, I’ve been amazed at the creative output I’ve discovered. I’ve been completing each chapter early every week because the ideas have flowed so freely. I’m so excited to write every day that I can hardly wait to put everything else aside (especially children — since I have to wait for the toddler’s afternoon nap) and open my manuscript again.

Part of the credit goes to the place I am in the process. Since it’s a fifth draft, where I expect to be ready to submit to agents after this round, the characters and story are all in place and I’m simply monkeying with individual scenes, altering and moving and deleting them to enhance the telling of the story and the showing of the characters. It’s a fun stage, juggling and rearranging pieces and having new epiphanies all the time about how to improve them.

But I think most of the credit goes to pushing myself to write every day.

I used to let lesson plans and grading papers encroach on my writing time, but now I’ve decided not to. I’m an adjunct teacher, meaning that it’s a side job. Writing is my main job (besides motherhood), so the writing has to have its regular structured time. The side job has to fit in on the side, where it belongs. So when the toddler naps, I write — no exceptions. And so far I have fit in the planning and grading elsewhere, like when the kids are busy playing with toys.

Writing every day keeps the story and characters fresh in my head. I don’t waste time trying to catch myself up and figure out where I left off. I can dive right back in every day and keep the momentum of the story building as I revise. And my enthusiasm for it grows as well.

As it turns out, when I invest myself in the process I am creative!

What have your experiences with the creative process been like? What points on that list are particularly meaningful to you?

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Matching Story and Character

I was so glad to see this tweet by my friend and neighbor who also happens to be an author:

Sometimes I have unrealistic expectations, thinking that I should have known my characters before ever drafting, that they should be so clear to me that it would be impossible to imagine them any other way.

Instead, they seem to evolve, as does the story. What I write in one draft can turn out to be completely wrong for that character in the next draft — or completely wrong for the story I’m trying to tell. And I keep changing my mind bit by bit about just what that story is!

In other words, characters and story are elusive things, and not only do they have to be pinned down and made real, but they have to work together.

What haunts me especially is when I think of books I’ve read where even just one character did not feel real, coming across too generic. When that happens, it ruins the book for me! I certainly don’t want my book to be that way. I need to get to the point Shannon describes, where by the final draft both story and characters are KNOWN.

I’d been stuck on a particularly crucial scene in my novel for a long time. With each draft, I’d try writing it a different way, trying to channel the two characters involved and figure out how the two of them would fare in this confrontation. But yesterday I realized that even though I’d scrapped the scene and started over multiple times, I always brought it to the same conclusion: one character wanted something and the other character said no.

Working within those constraints, I’d agonized over how to make it work. I knew what I wanted the scene to feel like, having readers sympathize with both sides and feel the desperation of both sides, but I couldn’t make it happen.

Finally yesterday I asked myself, “Would she really just say no, flat out, end of discussion?” That actually didn’t seem like her at all. But I knew that she wouldn’t say yes either, with so much at stake and with her loyalties firmly elsewhere.

That’s when I realized what she would say: “I need to think about it.”

So simple! And yet perfect: enhancing both story and characters. The other character struggles with patience, so what a great way to test that patience. And it creates a new dynamic going into the next scene that I think will help the flow of the story.

I love it when it clicks — when a solution pulls multiple aspects together, like synergy.

So I’m going to try not to stress about not being sure of my characters from the beginning and just enjoy the process of finding all the right matches — the ones that make story and character gel.

Readers, can you tell when a character hasn’t been fleshed out enough? How does it affect your enjoyment of the story? Writers, what do you do to know your characters? Do they gradually become three-dimensional as your story evolves, or do you begin with them fully formed? I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts.

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Concept, Pacing & Phrasing: Trifold Revision

I’m deep into revising my second novel — five full drafts deep, with multiple “sub-drafts” in between each full one. And it’s a great feeling, but at times it’s like I’m at all stages of the writing process at once — because every scene in my manuscript is at a different level.

As I started thinking about it, I can pretty much lump them into three categories:

  • scenes that aren’t working at all, and so need to be revised on the conceptual level (which often means scrapped and replaced completely);
  • scenes that are working conceptually but read either too slow or too fast, and so need pacing adjustment;
  • and scenes that are working well in both concept and pacing but are still “off” at the word or sentence level, and so need to be re-phrased.

At the risk of boring you, I want to offer a sample of each. I love to see how other writers revise, so I’m hoping this demonstration will be helpful to those who feel the same way — or even just those who might be curious to peek at what an unfinished novel looks like. Enjoy!

Concept Revision

Sometimes a scene might seem to work on the pacing and phrasing level but not with the big picture of the novel. If you don’t revise for concept first, you get stuck in a rut: polishing and polishing the pacing and phrasing but unable to figure out why the scene is “off.”

Conceptual revision is a matter of stepping back and asking what needs to happen in the scene as far as character and plot development. How does it need to build off the scene before it? Where is it leading for the next scene?

This is a sample of a scene like that for me — that seems okay when you read it but didn’t fit the arc of the novel:

Draft 5c

“You’re here!” The interruption came from up on the balcony, from a girl with designer clothes and long blond waves of hair. She hurried down the steps to the parking lot, talking the whole way.

“I can’t believe I’m actually meeting you guys in person! Isn’t this crazy? Did you see my note on your blog? I tried to talk my friend Cami into coming with me, but she’s totally into her boyfriend right now. They’re at that disgusting PDA stage. I can’t take them anywhere together. So believe me, it’s better I came alone.”

The girl planted herself right in front of the boys, holding her hand out to Zander. “I’m Brianna, and you must be Zander. I recognize you from your picture. And wait, let me guess everybody. Phil, right? And Topher? Drew?”

Wendy coughed. “We were just about to take a picture.”

“Oh!” Brianna exclaimed. “Sorry about that. Here.” She turned to face Wendy, backed up so she was in the middle of the guys, and put a huge smile on her face.

This scene just never worked for the story I’m trying to tell. I didn’t like it, readers didn’t like it, but for several drafts I couldn’t figure out what to do about it.

Then it occurred to me that it doesn’t even make sense on a technical level. Brianna couldn’t have gotten there before them. So I cut it completely, and replaced it with a scene that instead puts focus where I need it more: on Dee’s confrontations with her dad. When they arrive at the hostel, Dee’s phone rings and she goes off into the trees to answer it without the guys seeing her get teary-eyed.

Conceptually, the new scene is way better than the Brianna one. It deals with the character arcs I need to address and simply makes more sense in the story line with the scenes before and after it. (As far as pacing and phrasing, however, it’s so terrible that I’m too embarrassed to give a sample of it yet.)

In order to introduce Brianna, I added a few lines to the next chapter:

STATUS UPDATE: Out on the deck watching the sunset, hanging with new comrade Brianna of the Goldilocks ringlets. ~Drew 10 minutes ago

Zander huffed his usual noise from over on one of the deck’s low wooden chairs.  He shoved his chin into his fists.  “Brianna, tell me there’s something to do around here.  Anything but sitting around.”

The blond invader laughed, and Topher thought how glad he was Brianna sounded nothing like Gina.  In the two hours they’d known her, it hadn’t taken long for Brianna to fix her attentions on Zander, and Topher was more than happy not to have her superficial, flirty laugh directed at him.  If she’d had an ounce of Gina’s perceptiveness . . .

Well, no.  He wouldn’t want Brianna’s attention then either. 

He only wanted Gina.

Brianna is a very minor character, and this introduction keeps her in her place while also allowing me to explore Topher’s character a little more. The pacing and phrasing will still need adjusting, but conceptually I’ve now dumped a scene that didn’t work and replaced it with pieces that do.

Pacing Revision

For me, pacing has to do with fleshing out a scene once I’ve cemented the concept. I have to imagine it more deeply and picture every detail: facial expressions, tone of voice, mood, clothes, props, actions, setting. I can tell that a scene is ready for this when the idea is working well but feels bare, like this one:

Draft 5c

Drew’s heart was still racing from seeing Wendy stagger like that. “You’re okay, right?” he asked for the thousandth time as he turned onto the main road and shifted into second gear. The car groaned and lurched, and Drew felt his face get hot.

“Yes,” Wendy said. “I’m so okay that I could definitely drive my own car right now. She’s old. You have to be gentle.”


She sighed and tilted her head back. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”

He couldn’t think what she was talking about. “What isn’t?”

“The road trip. No car, no money, and now Zander’s messed things up so royally that I don’t see how he and Topher could stand to be in the same vehicle anyway.”

It’s like Maggie Stiefvater points out in her post “How to Turn a Novel into a Textbook,” how you have to pace a scene by filling in between the dialogue. We need clues about how the characters are feeling, clues about what’s happening in their physical surroundings, clues about where the story’s headed. A few drafts ago I thought short beats like “she sighed and tilted her head back” were enough; this revision below shows how the potential goes way beyond short beats.

After Drew says, “Sorry,” there needed to be a long pause. He’s not good at conversation. He’s not good at driving her car. It would be awkward. Plus, he is so hypersensitive about Wendy that he would be thinking about her, noticing things about her.

I’ve marked the changes in blue:

Draft 5d

Drew’s heart was still racing from seeing Dee stagger like that. “You’re okay, right?” he asked for the thousandth time as he turned onto the main road and shifted into second gear. The car groaned and lurched, and Drew felt his face get hot.

Dee did a half-reach, like she’d wanted to grab the wheel and then thought better of it. “I’m so okay I could definitely drive my own car right now. She’s old. You have to be gentle.”

Letting her down dropped a sour pit in his stomach. “Sorry,” he said quickly, and then had no idea what to add to it.

Traffic had congealed, moving like rubber cement from all the high school students on the road. First and second gear were not going to prove his driving skills well. He’d only driven stick a handful of times. But in between shifts he managed to glance over at her and see her eyes squint shut and her fingers dart up to her temples.

She was not okay. But if she wanted to pretend she was, he wouldn’t say otherwise. He focused instead on the essentials: getting her home without stalling her car or rear-ending the one in front of them.

Dee sighed and tilted her head back. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”

He couldn’t think what she was talking about. “What isn’t?”

“The road trip. No car, no money, and now Zander’s messed things up so royally that I don’t see how he and Topher could stand to be in the same vehicle anyway.”

The lines still aren’t quite right: the half-reach and the sour pit and the part about first and second gear definitely need to be tweaked as far as phrasing. But the pacing feels right to me now. It needed those extra sentences to slow down the dialogue and round out the scene.

Phrasing Revision

To be honest, the phrasing of my novel still makes me cringe. That’s the revision stage I always want to skip to even though I know it’s a waste of time until concept and pacing are in place. But once I get to play with phrasing, I love the way these changes finally sync everything else together and make the scene feel right.

Here is just the briefest example of tiny changes I make at the word and sentence level:

Draft 5c

But she felt reckless with the success she’d already had. Wendy was falling for him and glowing stronger than ever. That had to make it easier for Caprice to borrow a slice of it soon—so long as she could keep the selkie himself from stealing all of it. Having Phil on guard duty had reassured her a bit, but there was still so much at stake.

Draft 5d

But she felt reckless with the so-far success. Wendy was falling for him, glowing stronger. Surely Caprice could skim a slice of magic soon—so long as she kept the selkie himself from swiping it clean away. Having Phil on guard duty reassured her only a smidge with so much at stake.

In this case, the concept and pacing were fine, but the earlier draft didn’t sound anything like Caprice. I needed to alter the phrasing to fit her character better. The changes were minor, just tiny cuts and changes within each sentence, but it makes a difference.

There’s no guarantee that I won’t tweak it more, or even decide to cut these lines altogether down the road, but it’s a decent example of how I revise for phrasing — trying to hone in not just on the idea and the details but on how that character would express it all.

Once all three levels of revision are perfected, that’s when each scene comes alive.

Do you differentiate what kinds of revisions you need to make when you write? What helps you break a novel down and see what changes it needs?

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Writer Meets Teacher: Grading Your Manuscript

When Hubby is around while I’m writing, the poor guy gets subjected to some of my thinking out loud. Like today: “Is there a check mark symbol on Microsoft Word? I can’t find one. Oh, or I could use an X. Just need to check off which scenes I’ve revised on my outline.”

Two minutes later: “I need a code. X isn’t enough. I need to mark which scenes need the most fixing. If I use ABC like a priority list, then A would be the highest priority, which means a scene in the worst shape. But that would totally confuse me because the best scenes would get a C grade, which is average, not best.”

“Um, aren’t you wasting more time creating a code rather than just fixing the scenes?” he finally asked.

Ha ha. Yes. But . . .

If only revising were as simple as opening the document and fixing what needs to be fixed. Unfortunately, almost every sentence needs to be fixed on some level, and it’s definitely a matter of priorities. I need to fix the big stuff first before I waste time on little sentence issues. I’ve revised most of the scenes in chapters 1–4, and today I wanted to see a clear picture of what I’ve fixed, where each scene’s at, and what I should concentrate on the most.

And suddenly I realized the solution was obvious. I’m a teacher, aren’t I? What could make more sense than to give an A to the best scenes, B to those that need a little improvement, C to the mediocre ones, D to those in bad shape, and F to the segments I might as well cut and redo from scratch?

Ah, simplicity is wonderful.

(Yes, the outline itself looks complicated, because I have lots of info there, but the left-most column is simply ABCDF, with an X above once I’ve made significant revisions this draft.)

It took less than five minutes to go through my outline and assign grades based on my gut reactions (if only I could do that with student papers!), and now I can see at a glance where I’m at and what needs the most help.

Hooray for a great new strategy!

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Honing in on Minor Characters

It has finally happened. The baby is napping regularly — and I’m back to writing regularly! I was hesitant to declare victory at first, but it’s been a few weeks now, so I think it’s safe. Hooray! Imagine the cheers I’ve been doing. While continuing to teach with the baby has been great, writing is also a big part of who I am and I’ve missed it.

This week the major hurdle has been a particular scene with my main character’s mom. The scene as it currently reads is pretty blah: we get a slight feel for the mom’s character, but it doesn’t show us at all Wendy’s conflict with her mom.

So I decided to go back to the drawing board, sort of literally.

Last summer, when I created avatars of my characters, I only did the main ones. Like, the ones that show up on more than just two pages. When I started agonizing over the scene with the mom, I realized that I didn’t have a clear picture of her in my head.

As I mentioned in a post earlier this year about the movie Easy A, I believe how you portray the parents in young adult fiction is a crucial element to the story. I have been very turned off by flat parents in otherwise great books. And yet the parents in my own manuscript are incredibly flat! Oops. But I swear I’ve always meant to round them out; I never intended to leave them that way. This week I’ve finally started to get around to it.

While I was at it, I decided I better create every character that has a speaking line in my book. Suddenly my cast of eleven ballooned into eighteen portraits. The setup below shows the hierarchy: top tier = main characters, second row = secondary characters, third row = minor teenage characters, bottom = minor adult characters.

Some of them I tweaked from the original portrait, like Brianna and Abuelita, who needed just one or two different features. Some of them don’t even have names that are absolutely solidified. (Peter’s mom, currently labeled “Karen,” has been fluctuating the most, and the craggy-faced gnome doesn’t even get a name in the manuscript right now, so I threw “Vydin” on his picture just because those were the syllables that came to mind first.) And some of them, like “Mitch,” still don’t look right but are close enough for now.

It’s helping. There’s so much you can tell about a character by how they look. Once I can picture them, it’s easier to see how they might act and react in a given situation.

My next job is to try a tactic I heard on the radio last weekend, which is to come up with five adjectives for each character and have at least two of them be positive. Such a great way to make your characters complex. Wendy spends such a large chunk of the book upset with her dad that I want to be sure  he has redeeming qualities too. Hopefully between the portraits, the adjective exercise, and all the scene blocking I’ve been working on, I can round out these minor characters of mine.

That is if I can quit getting distracted making avatars . . .

What can I say? My attention is starting to stray to my next book. While for other writers this might happen any time, for me I get so fully immersed in each manuscript I work on that I don’t think about the next one until I’m ready to push the current one out the door. So this is a good sign! It’ll give me more motivation to wrap up Wendy and the Lost Boys, especially since seeing these two new main characters makes me so excited to start working on their story.

They are going to be cool, let me tell you. But I’ll keep my ideas for them super secret until I have a full draft, probably by early 2012. Consider these avatars a sneak peek and an assurance that soon WLB will be off to solicit an agent.

In the mean time, I’d love your thoughts about minor characters in general. What are some of your favorite minor characters — especially favorite parent characters — in books or movies? What makes them great?

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Blocking a Novel Like a Stage

Yesterday I got to fulfill a decades-long dream: seeing Les Miserables live on stage.

I was enthralled on multiple levels — enjoying the beauty of Salt Lake City’s Capitol Theatre, loving the music I’d grown up on, analyzing how each actor/singer fit his or her part, remembering scenes from the book as they unfolded, trying to catch all three sets of lyrics during the overlapping melodies. The romantic in me savored the emotional moments; the pergola-builder in me geeked out over the technology of the sets . . .

And the writer in me studied the craft of the story.

Earlier that morning, I’d been polishing the blocking in some of the scenes of my manuscript, adding descriptions of what the characters were doing to make sure that a reader could get a solid picture in his or her head of what was happening in each segment of the story. When I mentioned to Hubby that I’d been working on “blocking,” he said, “What’s that?”

Well, that afternoon at the matinée provided a tangible example. There on the stage? That’s blocking. Where the sets are placed, where the actors enter and exit, where they stand, where they face, how they move, what they do, the choreography of fight scenes and kisses.

It all has to be calculated; every object, every person and every movement arranged with purpose: to show the story.

In Les Mis it’s especially crucial that the blocking be efficient — every detail adding to the story — because in a three-hour production (and that’s the short version of Les Mis, with super fast songs) you can’t waste one motion.

Writing teachers talk about it in terms of “show don’t tell.” Most recently, I noticed it in novel form when I read Heather Dixon’s Entwined; Heather is a storyboard artist, and that book was so well blocked that I got to see every emotion on the character’s faces. Such a delight! (And makes me want to take storyboarding classes.)

My manuscript is based on Peter Pan, and yesterday I thought about the play version again. If you’ve never read J. M. Barrie’s stage notes for Peter Pan, I highly recommend it. Here’s a taste from the very beginning, showing Mrs Darling’s character, my favorite parts in bold:

[She is the loveliest lady in Bloomsbury, with a sweet mocking mouth, and as she is going out to dinner to-night she is already wearing her evening gown because she knows her children like to see her in it. It is a delicious confection made by herself out of nothing and other people’s mistakes. She does not often go out to dinner, preferring when the children are in bed to sit beside them tidying up their minds, just as if they were drawers. If Wendy and the boys could keep awake they might see her repacking into their proper places the many articles of the mind that have strayed during the day, lingering humorously over some of their contents, wondering where on earth they picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When they wake in the morning the naughtinesses with which they went to bed are not, alas, blown away, but they are placed at the bottom of the drawer; and on the top, beautifully aired, are their prettier thoughts ready for the new day.

As she enters the room she is startled to see a strange little face outside the window and a hand groping as if it wanted to come in.]

MRS DARLING: Who are you? [The unknown disappears; she hurries to the window.] No one there. And yet I feel sure I saw a face. My children! [She throws open the bathroom door and Michael’s head appears gaily over the bath. He splashes; she throws kisses to him and closes the door. ‘Wendy, John,’ she cries, and gets reassuring answers from the day nursery. She sits down, relieved, on Wendy’s bed; and Wendy and John come in, looking their smallest size, as children tend to do to a mother suddenly in fear for them.]

Isn’t it lovely? And by the end of those stage directions, we have a very good sense of exactly who Mrs Darling is — based on what she does.

I learned the value of this sort of description as I fleshed out my characters last summer with avatars and bios. As I wrote the bios, miniature stories unfolded, similar to this one about Mrs Darling tidying her children’s minds. They were little scenes such as how two characters first started dating, or how a character started pursuing a certain hobby, etc, and they helped so much in allowing me to picture each character more fully.

Now, after seeing Les Mis and thinking again about the stage notes for Peter Pan, I’ve decided to try writing stage notes in the margins of my manuscript as an experiment in blocking. If this story were a play or a movie, how would I tell it? What would you see happening on the stage? What would you hear? How would it work? Where is each character and what is each one doing?

Whatever bits in the margins work especially well I’ll then transfer into the actual blocking of the scenes, but the main point will be making sure that I can visualize each scene well enough to write and polish it.

I spent this past week writing chapter summaries of no more than eight lines per chapter, just to make sure that each chapter does what I need it to, and I love how much that’s helped me see the cohesion of the novel and where I need to tighten the plotlines. (With the secondary purpose that agents and editors sometimes want to see chapter summaries as part of your synopsis, so now I’ll have that ready.) Stage notes seem like the next logical step, making sure that all the physical details of the novel are blocked out and working right.

Sure, I already said last week that I need to get the details right. But sometimes the hardest part is figuring out a method for doing it. Now that I have a revision plan, I can move a little faster than the nit-picky line-editing I slip into when I’m lacking a plan.

Thoughts? Been impressed by the blocking of a story recently, whether play, movie, novel, comic, etc? Know where I can take storyboarding classes? Ever blocked a story before? Other ideas or suggestions?

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