How to Balance Spontaneous Creativity and Planning as a Writer

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Some of our best writing comes when we least expect it–our brains often find solutions when we allow them to wander and don’t think too hard. So you have to be ready to write anytime, anywhere and not force the story, article, or other content to come. But if we work only based on when our brains wander, then we’d never meet a deadline. If you promise an editor you’ll have a draft by the end of the week or in a few months, well, then at some point, you can’t wait anymore.

So how do you balance the need for spontaneous creativity with the planning you need for consistent productivity?

I’ve found that it can help to surround yourself with or get involved in areas related to what you want to write about. For instance, if you’re writing a mystery, play some sleuthing games or go on a scavenger hunt, watch crime documentaries, or read content connected to the mystery (e.g., how a specific forensic technique works). The idea isn’t to find a specific solution so much as it is just to get more information, get some deeper, emotional and experiential knowledge of the topic and become really comfortable with the elements of the mystery world. You might find what you need to move forward without consciously realizing it. Even if the facts don’t fit what you’re currently aiming for, they might work for something later, so literally file them away.

Secondly, set yourself some boundaries. It is extremely easy to keep researching and researching or rewriting and rewriting–drafts can get better the more you learn or tweak. But it’s generally not a matter of whether you can add or adjust. It’s a matter of whether you should. Ask yourself what the piece you’re writing really requires. If your draft is clear and convincing with just six reliable sources, for instance, then don’t waste your time looking for a dozen. And if two transitions work equally well, then just pick one and move on. Have a vision or goal for your message, but don’t let what could be get you stuck or distract you from what you actually need.

Then there’s the idea of outlining and chronology. I think outlines and structure do help. But nothing says you need to work through your outline in order. If you get a great concept for Chapter 13 while you’re writing Chapter 2, then go ahead and flesh it out as much as you can. Because any writing moves the draft closer to complete. Yes, you might have to smooth out transitions later, and you might decide that your concept doesn’t work after all. But the practice of just going after the idea and rounding it out will help you everywhere else.

Connected to the idea above, don’t be afraid to work in bits and pieces. If a single sentence comes to you, then record it. With simple pocket notebooks and tools like voice-to-text and Google Docs available through smartphones 24/7, you really don’t have any excuse not to. Let go of the idea that you have to write a lot to be doing something significant, because often it’s that epiphany sentence that flashes in front of you as you stumble for your coffee that ends up being the cornerstone for entire pages or chapters, or that encapsulates the heart of your entire manuscript.

DO set some time aside for writing every day. But don’t necessarily force yourself to work on anything specific during your writing session. Instead, try to have multiple irons in the fire to choose from. Then ping around based on what feels the most complete in your head, or what best suits your mood. And if you have an idea for something else while you’re working on one manuscript, let yourself stop long enough to jot that something else down. I guarantee that this will improve your result, because you’ll always feel like you have more of a choice. Feeling forced or confined never put any writer in a good mood, and bad moods generally aren’t conducive to getting into a great state of flow.

As you work through a writing session, try super hard not to judge what’s on the page. Just get the concepts out and trust yourself to pull out the best pieces when you’re done. Try a couple different approaches or phrasings and see which one you keep coming back to later. That’s probably your winner. If you’re having trouble choosing between two options, try to identify what keeps speaking to you from both and then do a reasonable merge. Plenty of times, I’ve written the main idea more than one way and realized the best solution was to splice two versions together.

Lastly, submit your work for feedback. Often others can see what we can’t, and all we need to continue well is for someone else to get us thinking in a different way, or to point out something we perhaps hadn’t considered. And by finding and using good feedback forums, you’ll get in the habit of feeling obligated to create something without necessarily feeling like that something has to stay as it is. And much of the time, simply defending what we already have on the page shows us how committed we are to a certain description, plot line, or thesis. The more confident you feel in your defense, the more likely you are to keep on refining/promoting your work and querying even through the trolling of the worst naysayers.

Do Modern Writers Lean Too Much on Blunt Shock Value?

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Catching your readers off guard once in a while isn’t a bad thing. It can make your story seem more novel (pun intended) so that people are motivated to go all the way to the last page. But then I stumbled across this Tweet:

The tweet got me thinking about how writers are approaching fiction writing in general. Like Chris, I’ve been getting the impression that there’s a lot of emphasis on the “traits” or technical elements that go into a draft, like making characters more compelling. But you can have all of those elements and still have a book be less than incredible if your actual writing is subpar.

But what makes it stand out?

For me, great writing is poetic, not in the sense of being flowery or verbose, but in the sense of having incredibly beautiful imagery, rhythm and metaphor that stirs deep feelings of empathy. You absolutely can have your own style here. But readers get the sense from your connotations and phrasing and analogies, from hints and implications between the lines, that the character has some real experience with life. It’s truthful and relatable in an incredibly deep way.

From my perspective, much of modern writing lacks this poetry. It is incredibly sharp and blunt, designed to drop the jaw and not waste time. Perhaps that is because there has been so much of an emphasis on pacing and driving the plot. Perhaps that makes us afraid of what will happen if readers are allowed a moment to think beyond the pages into the psychological or other realities those pages contain. Or perhaps it is the reader who is already so overwhelmed that all they want is an “easy” beach read, to be entertained instead of forced to keep thinking and feeling. Or perhaps we are all so conditioned to the dramatic, to explosions and fire defining “action”, to technology forcing us to want immediate gratification and response, that we think bluntness is the only way to communicate.

This bluntness can be problematic in any genre, but I think it’s especially visible in horror/thriller. The stories aren’t just more gruesome. They also quickly throw out events that are so unexpected that I cannot help but feel like seams are showing, like it was clearly the writer’s intent to shock. And because I see the intent, I am not shocked. I’m disappointed and distracted from the story.

The solution isn’t easy. It’s to focus on yourself. It’s to be so comfortable with who you are that you don’t censure, that you no longer worry about what anyone else is going to think as you pull from everything you know and have been through. You must listen to your own instinct and capture it in a way that makes purpose clear. You can do this listening even if you choose to change scenes or character traits, and it’s not about what you say, but how. Do it well, and your voice will never be lost, no matter how many revisions you go through.

5 Rules for Creating a Killer First Draft

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Writing is a process, meaning that it’s not a great idea to expect to crank out a perfect manuscript on the first try. But I’m a sucker for efficiency and quality, too, and I also believe in creating first drafts that don’t leave you with a quite such bad taste in your mouth. So if you’re aiming for just moldy cheese instead of moldy cheese on a bed of sour tuna and limp pickle, here’s what you do.

1. Don’t write just to write.

Forced writing–the writing you do just to meet your mental deadline or because you “should” as a writer–is like the annoying thread on the edge of your hem. It typically doesn’t hold together during the final editing process, and the flow you usually get when you are responding to concepts in addition to trying to create them in an active way often is missing.

If you sit down during your scheduled writing time and it’s just not working, then don’t sweat it. Walk away. You’ll probably make up the word count on a “good” day later, so don’t buy into the idea that by waiting, you get behind.

2. Separate the writing and the editing.

Yes, it’s fine to rethink a comma or specific word choice on the fly, or to quickly move a paragraph with copy and paste to improve cohesion. It’s natural to think a little about the mechanics of it all as you work, and doing a little as you go means that there are fewer rough edges to sand down later.

But editing is like the sensible older sister who walks behind the wild younger sibling for both duty and love’s sake. It is analytic, concerned with how and why and all manner of things the younger sibling is too free to be bothered with. It is necessary to keep the story from dancing off a cliff. But it easily can disrupt your writing flow and cause you to question what you’re doing with your overall creativity.

So don’t let your editor and writer hats get confused in the wardrobe. Give yourself permission to write without judgment, no dramatic level of censorship allowed. Then trust that you can do the analysis and conscious decision making for the heavy trimming and refining later.

3. Identify the goals.

I’m not talking about word or chapter quotas. I’m talking about getting in tune with the clear attitude/intention you want for the text. Know what you want a scene to do for the reader and where it fits in the larger plot arch. This is as much emotional and empathetic as it is technical. Knowing what you want to accomplish will keep you on track in terms of length, word choice and even specific mannerisms a character shows off in the moment. The editor’s cousin, attitude/intention lets you visualize the story within a predefined rule set that keeps everything from getting too wild and irrelevant.

4. Let the story direct itself.

Genres do have a certain degree of formula to them. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that some publishers won’t accept manuscripts that deviate from the formulaic expectations, despite their calls for work that is “fresh”. Books also can’t survive without readers, so you can’t ignore their preferences completely. This is the delicate balance between originality and sellability.

But on the whole, great stories honestly don’t care two pittance about the reader. (A shock, I know.) In truth, great stories often challenge the reader and go in directions that make them question everything. They take on a life of their own. Characters are who they are. The ending is what it is–what it needs to be. And this is much more reflective of real life, in which we don’t always get what we want, situations are unfair and there’s not a quick, easy line to the next chapter.

So let the draft have its own life. Don’t do it the disservice of confining it to preconstructed rules of this time or society. The more you follow Rule #3 and connect with purpose, the more likely it is that you will create something that, for its novelty and ability to wake up the spirit, is truly memorable beyond short-term “bestseller” trends.

5. Have people read as you go.

The purpose here is not to let the readers direct the story and take you out of the driver’s seat. The purpose, keeping Rule #3 in mind, is to check that you actually are achieving the goals you defined for the paragraph, chapter or entire manuscript.

If your feedback aligns with the goals you set, then you know you’ve hit the mark. If the feedback shows that you’re communicating something other than what you intended, though, then you know you’ve got to rework.

Try not to get hung up on the “flaws” as they are pointed out to you. Just let them run around in your brain as you do dishes or take a shower and take a few notes–they can shape what you write going forward, but you’re just highlighting things at this point so you don’t forget to come back to them later. Give those areas your full attention when it’s time to do a true edit.

Every writer has their own method of working–there is no one-size-fits-all for how to write. But certain concepts can apply regardless of personality, schedule or tools. All of the “rules” above are in this vein and are meant to get you to a point of greater initial freedom on the page. The balance of freedom and conscious awareness is always the foundation for creating a killer draft every time.


The Value of Leaving What You Write Sit Unfinished

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When I was back in college, I worked at the writing center for the university. Some nights, it would be ungodly slow, and there would be long lulls between helping students with their work. On one of those nights, to entertain myself, I drew a little picture of a character and mentally came up with a funny story for it.

And over the next year or so, I wrote about 70 pages.

Then, the pages got put on a shelf.

They sat.

For 15 years.

The story sat not because I lost interest, but because all of the potential paths felt “OK”. None felt perfect. And I hate settling for what “sort of” works, just to say a draft is done.

But then, on a mommy-daughter day, I told my daughter about it. And in doing that, suddenly the right path was there. It made sense. All the puzzle pieces had the connectors I needed.

So I opened the document on my computer. Two weeks later, the story was done.

I tell this story not to focus on the specific manuscript, but to focus on the fact that I didn’t press delete on the story. I could have. I could have just assumed that, if 15 years already had gone by, I simply wasn’t going to get out of the weeds and find a fix.

But I didn’t. Why? It wasn’t that I was confident in my ability to write. It was that I understood that the subconscious mind doesn’t make connections on demand. It makes connections when the time and environment are right, as new bits of information arrive to add one more link in the chain. I trusted that that process was happening, even though I couldn’t foresee when it would be done.

Today’s society is one of impossible deadlines in overwhelming quantity. It is one where immediacy and formula have the value of the phoenix and patience gets dismissed as old-fashioned. So writers can get the impression that there’s somehow an expiration date on drafts.

There isn’t.

When you leave a draft for a while, you’ll come back to it with different experiences, information and even feelings. And all of that allows you to approach the manuscript with a more objective lens of possibility. And often, I’ve found that hurdles I thought were hurdles weren’t. A little older and wiser, my brain wasn’t stuck anymore.

Now, I’m not saying you should leave all your drafts for 15 years. Sometimes you just need to sleep on it, or just go walk around the block with a coffee. I’m simply saying that your best writing is on its schedule, not yours. Be open to that and don’t judge yourself if you find yourself waiting, unsure of where to go. It will come.

So although it’s OK to be realistic and retire pieces that just don’t interest you anymore, or that you can recognize really do have serious problems you don’t care to tackle, don’t be too quick to toss idle drafts away. Even those often have snippets that are worth saving and crafting into something new. The draft I finished I now consider to be some of my best and most enjoyable work, because I wasn’t trying to control it. I let it direct me instead.

I have held this philosophy for years. It’s why my business is Takingdictation–I believe in waiting, in listening, and then writing what my mind whispers to my ear. To me, it always has felt like a very passive process. If you balance that kind of trust with a little world practicality (e.g., working with an editor), your level of productivity will be outstanding.