Tag Archives: writers

The Creative Process

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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?

Leave a comment!

Let It Grow, Prune It Later: Writing More than You Need

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A few weeks ago I came across this tweet by my friend, neighbor and favorite author:

What? Shannon doesn’t keep every simile? She doesn’t craft them so carefully and perfectly that each and every one is a gem to sigh over?

I think that even though I know better, I’m often guilty of pretending that the way I read a book, from page one to the end, is the way the author wrote the book. After all, authors are so brilliant that the books just fall into their heads fully formed, right? An author whose use of language I admire must use language that beautifully all the time.

Ha ha.

Anyhow, I wanted to share her tweet today because I’ve been thinking of it a lot this week.

I’ve been rewriting “romantic” scenes in my manuscript, which I put in quotes because I really don’t want them to be the equivalent of romance-genre romantic scenes, just subtle teen romance where the angst and electricity is palpable between two characters, you know? And in earlier drafts, the emotion was lacking, so that’s what I’ve been revising for: adding more of the main character’s thoughts and emotions so that we can experience the fall into love with her.

The trouble is, my revisions aren’t so hot. They feel clunky and awkward and cliché. I have to keep reminding myself of the advice another writer friend gave me to “fearlessly write what she’d feel”; it’s amazing how much fear gets in the way.

What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of awful writing — to the point that the fear paralyzes me.

So Shannon’s tweet has been comforting. Maybe I have to overwrite first, explore my character’s emotions in whatever similes and descriptions I can get my hands on, not being too choosy at first. And then later on I’ll get to experience the joy of pruning: taking big ol’ garden shears to my manuscript and lopping off wayward twigs and branches to expose the best ones, until the wild growth of my novel is shaped just the way I want — and will look like it was always meant to be that way.

How much do you let yourself write more than you need? How much do you cut as you go?

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Concept, Pacing & Phrasing: Trifold Revision

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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.”

“Sorry.”

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?

Leave a comment!

Truths in Fiction

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“What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books. It’s a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning. It’s a challenge to bring off a powerful effect, or to tell the truth about something.”

~Annie Dillard, “To Fashion a Text”

I’ve said it before: reading teaches us how to write. There are books I haven’t been able to read without a pencil because of lines so beautiful that I’m afraid of losing them if I don’t stop to underline. And when I look back, the passages I’ve marked are usually things that teach me about life. The best writing teaches us about life.

Right now I’m reading The Road (yes, I kept putting it aside for other books, but now I’m finally in it for good), mesmerized by its voice and often blown away by the broken beauty he captures in such a desolate and disturbing setting. Last night I underlined this passage:

He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever. (89)

And the night before that I marked this:

The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy’s hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them. (74)

These are the kind of passages that catch my breath as I read and compel me to stop and ponder the words.  They make me want to catalog them, to thumb through every book on my shelves and type every underlined passage into this post and say, “Did you feel that? Do you see?”

But maybe you can’t. Maybe these have to be experienced inside story. All I know is that when I come across these profound bits of truth in fiction, I savor them like the best gourmet food. They illuminate the world in a new way, they make me marvel, they turn simple ideas into reverent ones.

There are plenty of books that I love just for the stories, that I own and savor and recommend to other readers. But the books that I cherish above all are the ones that I’ve underlined, the ones full of profound truths.

As Annie Dillard says, it’s a challenge to write a book that way. I hope I’m up to the challenge, though. My biggest goal as a writer is to give back like this: to catch a reader’s breath with an idea worded so well that it pays tribute to the writers who have shaped me, like the sincerest thanks.

What truths do you glean from fiction? What books have caught your breath with beautiful passages?

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Back in Time to Grab a Pencil

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We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

~Billy Collins, from “Marginalia”

This morning I’m groaning, wishing I could twist back time and tweak small things. I would buy my own copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Forever instead of waiting a month on the library’s hold list. Not because I minded the month. I had other things to read in the mean time. But I wish I had had my own copy on this first read so that I could mark it with a pencil as I went.

Maggie Stiefvater is an author I want to be friends with, because she’s a writer I want to write like. Not in subject matter — werewolves are not my thing, nor is paranormal romance in general — but because of the way she puts words together.

There were sentences that I had to stop and reread. Not because they were confusing or out of place, but because I wanted to savor them — because she had phrased a simple thing in a way that made it profound.

Instead I lazed in an armchair turning pages, too absorbed in the book to get up and copy the sentences down. The story had me by the hand, pulling urgently, and I couldn’t let go.

If only I could have pressed a thin line under the words with a pencil, I’d be happier now.

Ridiculous, I know, to wish for time travel for such a silly thing. But on Wednesday I read “Marginalia” with my students; I rallied them to read with pen or pencil in hand in order to glean the most from every book and article they devour and make it their own. And here I didn’t listen to my own advice.

Small things make me happy, like knowing my absolute favorite parts of some of my absolute favorite books on my shelves are underlined, like Life of Pi or The King of Attolia or Gilead. I can thumb through them any time and savor those words again.

In fact, with Gilead, I read the first 30 pages of a library copy and then forced myself to stop and buy my own before reading any further. Thirty pages in, I knew I had to mark that book and keep it.

So today when Amazon reminded me that another of my favorite authors has a book releasing in September, I didn’t hesitate to preorder it. Laini Taylor’s books have all wowed me, most of all her National Book Award finalist Lips Touch. So I’ll be reading my own copy of her next book, pencil in hand.

And I might just have to buy Forever and read it a second time.

Have you ever marked a novel? What books or authors have wowed you enough that you might consider rereading them just to underline your favorite passages?

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[UPDATE 9/1/11: Maggie Stiefvater gives a great description of what you can learn from a single page of a novel here. I can totally relate to the part where she says the same page in her early days would have had nothing but dialogue. One of the things I’m always working on is adding the right blocking to a scene like that.]

Critique to Inspire

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I’m one-fifth of the way through my fifth draft! That has to count for something, right? It’s totally a milestone everyone should celebrate, isn’t it? Four solid chapters out of twenty! Woo hoo! We’re coasting now!

Just kidding.

In many ways, this week has felt the opposite of celebratory. In “grading” my scenes last week, I got a little depressed. Why? The voice is off. All. Over. The. Place. And voice is a nemesis of mine.

It’s so intangible. When organization is off, you outline and physically move sections around. When voice is off, you go sentence by freaking sentence “listening” as hard as you can for something impossible to pinpoint. Sort of like thumping a watermelon. Is that the right thump? Is that what’s it’s supposed to sound like?

Yeah, there’s a lot of that uncertainty: Is the voice off in this sentence? Is it better or worse now that I’ve changed it? Does it match the earlier chapter where the voice is working? Because it is working there, right?

Um, yeah. Is it telling if I admit I’ve been a little grumpy this week?

But then I stumbled across something amazing. It was a comment I discovered in the margin of my fourth draft — a comment written by a writer friend of mine who read through that draft last summer:

Just a random thought. I don’t know Wendy well enough to decide if this scene is believable. And in her previous POV sections we don’t get a deep enough penetration into her emotions and thoughts for me to feel that she’d be into a summer fling. . . . I just keep going, yeah right.

Maybe you could make it more clear somehow that she’s shocked by her own emotions, the intensity, the vibrant, thrumming, living, singing aliveness of it all and have her yearn for more because she’s never had this. Ever. And she wants it. Bad enough to throw caution to the wind . . .

Go deeper into her POV. Let us live through her emotions, not just her surface thoughts.  Fearlessly write what she’d feel. Make me believe.

Today’s post is in many ways a thank you.

This comment is beautiful. It challenges me to do better by inspiring me to want to. I love the line “Fearlessly write what she’d feel. Make me believe.” It’s been running through my head all week.

Besides, what’s not to love about “the vibrant, thrumming, living, singing aliveness of it all”? Of course I want my story to be all those things.

Thank you, Leisha, for fearlessly writing how you felt while reading my draft. You are the epitome of constructive criticism, as I’ll be gushing to my students the next time I’m trying to define it for them. Constructive criticism, I’ve now decided, points out weaknesses in ways that motivate the writer to make them strengths.

Voice might be a weakness in my fourth draft, but by the end of this fifth draft I’m determined that the voice will be vibrant, thrumming, alive and singing.

Sometimes the most important thing a critic can be is inspiring.

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