Creating a Creative Process

I always aspired to being an author. In my teens and early twenties, I probably started a half-dozen "first novels" that never got finished (and that was probably for the best). When I started writing software, though, that became my creative outlet, and I stopped writing fiction. I even stopped reading fiction for many years.

In 2015, I decided to pick up that dream once again, and I determined to set myself to finishing a first novel. I dusted off some old ideas, tossed in some new twists, and began putting words down.

And I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to work.

All writers have a process (I’ve heard). Some writers are "discovery" writers or "pantsers," who begin with a character or situation and discovery the story as they write it, "by the seat of the pants".

I am not one of these writers. What I learned after ten thousand words or so, was that I needed a structured process. I am an outliner. And my outline was not strong enough to hang the writing on. I got stuck.

So I hung up the dream of finishing my novel during 2015’s NaNoWriMo, and resolved to take a more disciplined approach.

Currently I’m using a process similar to the one I use to create software. I’ve laid down the essential elements as cards in Scrivener: the main themes of the story, key scenes, major events. I arranged the events chronologically, and began to break down the story into acts, chapters, and beats. I’ve heard television writers talk about "breaking" a story in exactly this way to create an episode. That must be a much harder task for television writers, where the acts need to be strictly timed and fairly uniform in size. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) a novelist has a bit more freedom.

As I began to visualize my story outline this way, I discovered major problems. First, a huge amount of the action was bunched up at the beginning. The entire middle was empty of any significant action. And there was no bridge from that empty middle to the resolution.

This is where Scrivener helped me a lot as a tool. Since all my scenes were tucked into these nice index cards, I started to shuffle them. I broke up that tight cluster of cards at the beginning and started to distribute them into the middle chapters. Then, realizing that there was still a huge empty space where the second act was supposed to be, I knew I needed to add a major subplot there to carry it forward.

With a strong outline, the process of actually laying down the words becomes much cleaner for me. I know more or less exactly what it is I need to say, and I can focus on the craft of how to say it. These are two distinct tasks — determining the action, and describing the action — and for me they require two different mindsets. Creating a detailed outline helps me separate them.

This led me to the (re)discovery that building the story and telling the story are two very different things. As a writer, I need to understand the chronology of the entire arc, and the back story, and (in my case) the future story as well. Since I am writing fantasy and building a world, I have history and cultures to flesh out also.

But not all these facts will be revealed directly to the reader. Some things that chronologically happen at the beginning won’t be revealed to the reader until the end (that’s the definition of a mystery, isn’t it?). Some of it is backstory or background color that will be sprinkled into the middle, as characters talk about their past (off-screen) interactions.

I’m finding that, if I’m going to do anything interesting in the telling of the story (mysteries, flashbacks, parallel timelines) I actually need two outlines: one a timeline of events that have happened, for me to keep things straight, and the other an outline of what gets revealed to the reader, the structure of the story. I haven’t really figured out how to do that. Scrivener is great at the story structure part, but it feels clunky using it for the author timeline. I know there are some dedicated timelining tools out there. Maybe I should look into them.

There’s plenty more I haven’t figured out. I know I need to mix character beats with plot beats with world building info-dumps. Currently I’m still "pantsing" that, and I don’t feel like it’s very effective. I would like to be more deliberate about exposing the world building and character stuff in the outline, instead of painting it haphazardly onto the plot as I write. On the other hand, a lot of those things don’t come up until I’m in the character’s head in the moment, and I’m like, wait, she’s writing a letter, but was there even a post office in the middle ages? How DID they deliver the mail? And is she sad, or relieved, that she doesn’t have a husband during this trial?

It took me many years to learn how to build software well. Doubtless, it will take years for me to reach journeyman level in the fiction craft as well.