Plots and characters will come and go, but for successful writers, passion for the writing process burns on. Use these 6 questions to transform your creative method from craft into art.
Do I love my characters? Do I love my book? More importantly, do I love creating? The creative process is the path from essential elements of story craft to finished piece of art. And passion for that work is the fuel that propels you there.
After three decades of writing and being a writing instructor, I believe that craft can be taught. You can pack every bookshelf in your home with guides on understanding plot structure, take courses on forming complex characters, attend seminars on effectively wielding poetic devices—and with each morsel of advice, your skill set will grow.
Art is when craft is taken to the next level. We must discuss art and establish a conscious framework from which to move toward it. It boils down to a key question all artists must eventually ask themselves: How do I create? When I wrote my first manuscript in 1988, I was clueless. In retrospect, I was merely regurgitating all the thrillers I’d read in order to write my own.
More than 70 novels later, I’ve matured into a greater understanding of my own working methods. Yet even with the wisdom of experience, I’ve come to understand that the creative process is not a defined series of steps from Point A to Point B. It continues to evolve, just as I continue to do so as a writer. The longer I’ve been an author, the more I examine my process and that of my peers. Understanding how best to approach your writing—how to kindle your passion—is as essential to becoming a more polished craftsman and artist as studying the craft of writing.
Successful writers observe the practices of those they admire and employ what they learn to refine their own: polishing the positive, admitting where they are weak and working to improve. That requires moving our natural creativity from our subconscious into the conscious mind—instead of taking it for granted as an inherent trait, considering where it comes from at the source and how to best empower it. The more we understand it on a deeper level, the more effectively we can wield it. Here are six questions that will help you hone your own creative workflow:
1. ARE YOU DRIVEN BY THE PROCESS ITSELF OR THE ULTIMATE RESULT?
This question causes great strife between my wife and me. She is a process person. When she does something, she enjoys the activity itself. In contrast, I am motivated by the end result—the satisfaction of having completed whatever I set my mind to. If you have trouble completing a manuscript, you are probably a process person.
Subconsciously, the prospect of actually finishing may breed negative feelings because it means the process is over. Console yourself with the maxim that the first thing a writer should do when done with a manuscript isn’t to immediately start querying or marketing, but to start the next book and immerse in the process once more. Tackling those business aspects will seem less foreboding when neck-deep in a new project.
For the results-oriented person, pursuing a profession in which the road to the ultimate result for every book is so long and painstaking can foment tremendous angst. The trick is to set smaller benchmarks, such as word or page counts, which can provide a sense of accomplishment en route to the greater goal.
At its core, this question asks whether you are writing a book or writing to finish a book. Simply understanding your motivation can invigorate your process.
2. DO YOU FOCUS ON DETAILS OR PREFER THE BIG PICTURE?
When my wife asks me to fetch something, she doesn’t simply say, “Go get the potato peeler.” She says: “Go get the potato peeler, in the second drawer down, on the right side, behind the silverware.” And even then I won’t find it. I’m just not into details. I’m a big-picture guy. Except details make up the big picture.
Look at an impressionist painting. From a distance the image is clear, yet when you get close, the likeness disappears into thousands of details—individual brushstrokes that together compose the whole.
How do I overcome my lack of attention to detail? I love my wife, so I pay attention to what she says. And I love my characters and my book, so I pay attention to what I’m writing. More importantly, I force myself to focus on the task at hand, rather than letting my mind wander.
On the flip side, a detail-driven person must sometimes step back from dabbing those little strokes on the painting and try to envision what the final product will look like. Use external tools to compensate.
Since I’m bad with details, I have to externalize them in a single place I can use as a resource. For every book I’ve written, I’ve made a spreadsheet that I call a Story Grid. The columns across the top are labeled Chapter, Start Page, End Page, Location, Time and Summary (where I draft a brief summary of the action in each scene). Each row is a scene. The story grid is not an outline—it’s a device I fill out as I write the book to help keep me oriented.
When I co-wrote novels with author Jennifer Crusie, she made collages representing the story we were writing. As a details person, visualizing things helped her to grasp the big picture. So she externalized that in a single display she could use to ground herself in that larger canvas of the story.
3. WHAT’S YOUR PATHOLOGICAL NEED AS A WRITER?
Phrased differently: Why are you writing? What is the message you are trying to communicate?
Many writers aren’t conscious of their message. If they’re fortunate, an underlying meaning intuitively resonates with readers, even though the writer didn’t deliberately incorporate it.
A pathological need is one we can’t control. It is the core of our being. While we don’t fully control it, if we know and understand our pathological need we can work with it, refine it and channel it effectively. I often say that if you are a writer you must be in therapy. This provokes a good laugh at conferences … except I’m not joking.
Athletes must test their speed, endurance and strength. Similarly, as an artist, you must experiment with different approaches to your work in order to understand what is most conducive to your creativity.
We all have blind spots in how we think. We need outside help in order to identify and compensate for those blind spots.
Another challenge that writers must face is assuming the point of view of others—primarily, our characters.
Can we rise above our own pathological need to fully present someone else’s? Even if that person is a fictional character we’ve invented who possesses a distinctly different worldview? Even more, do we understand the needs of readers? Can we connect with them on an emotional level? Will our story resonate with them?
The answers to these questions will be different for each of us, and may even change from book to book, but keeping them in mind can help inform how we approach the process.
4. HAVE YOU OPENED YOURSELF UP TO CHANGE?
In my seminars, I often explain that in order for a character to experience a fully rounded character arc, they must pass through the three stages of change:
- Moment of Enlightenment
- Sustained Action
The Moment of Enlightenment is a revelation of some kind—the classic “lightbulb” moment, at which point a new perspective is gained. That’s followed by a Decision—not necessarily a good decision—that cannot by itself be considered change, but binds the character in a sudden obligation, either externally imposed or internally motivated. Then, through Sustained Action, over time that Decision provokes a change in behavior.
In lectures, I ask the audience which of the three they have the most trouble with. Most people raise their hand for Sustained Action. After all, it’s difficult to make a fundamental change in character seem believable. But then I ask them to reflect on key points in their own lives in which an event triggered a Moment of Enlightenment, Decision and Sustained Action, and to think carefully about the hardest part of that process. As we start to share these instances, it slowly becomes clear that to even get to Sustained Action, we must first realize there is a need to change.
Applying this frame of thinking to the creative process, we can elicit our own Moment of Enlightment: realizing that a particular action isn’t working, making a decision to try something new and training that new behavior into a habit through sustained action. I’ve worked with thousands of writers, and only a handful have truly accepted that their process isn’t working and a change is needed.
Most of us struggle with making decisions. And often, it’s not because we are afraid of the decision, but that we’re afraid of making a mistake. Of being wrong. Yet the only way to become an artist is to risk. To accept that being wrong is an inherent part of the process of creativity. By testing different methods and identifying which areas you have the most trouble with, you can figure out …
5. HOW DO YOU SABOTAGE YOURSELF CREATIVELY?
Consider, for a moment, how the first kernel of a story takes shape in your mind. Do you start with a terrific premise? A charismatic protagonist? An expansive world?
Where you begin likely reflects your strengths as a writer, whether you’re a proficient plotter, capable character creator or adept world-builder. We naturally gravitate toward our strengths, which is fine. But if we don’t address our weaknesses, we will never become true artists. And in order to address our weaknesses, we must change—just like our characters. Based on your answers to the previous questions, you should now be able to pinpoint the elements currently holding you back from fully realizing the potential of your creative process.
For example, because I am a results-oriented person, I tend to move too fast. That means I am apt to jump into a project before thinking (and feeling) my way into it. I write too fast, wanting to see that word count pile up, regardless of the quality of work. So instead, I force myself to do what is counterintuitive: Slow down. Focus. Feel. Ponder what areas of weakness hinder your work, and implement ways to counteract their effects.
6. HOW COURAGEOUS ARE YOU?
The opposite of love is not hate. Hate springs from fear. We hate what we don’t understand. We hate what we’re afraid of. Love is the power we use to overcome our fear. The number one problem facing every artist, every person, is fear.
Essayist Anaïs Nin said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” So does our art. Courage is taking action in the face of fear. The fuel for courage is the passion channeled by our process. Mastering this process leads us from craft to art.
Bob Mayer is a New York Times bestselling author and the CEO of Cool Gus Publishing. He is a West Point graduate and former Green Beret. Mayer has authored over 60 novels in multiple genres, selling more than 4 million books, including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis, and The Green Berets. bobmayer.com
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