Exactly a year ago today I started writing my Space Opera. The very first email my CPs got with my chapters said “this is not what I’m supposed to be writing” because I was in the middle of wrapping up the urban fantasy I’d been writing for NaNoWriMo 2014. But this book was one of those stories that hit me completely out of nowhere and poured out of me and just took over my life to the point where even now hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about that world or those characters. Recently, one of my favorite authors said that it’s not about falling in love (i.e. having that great big awesome flashy idea) but staying in love. And despite the numerous breaks I’ve had to take from that book over the last few months, I still always keep coming back to it.
So in honor of my first year spent pursuing writing seriously, I thought I’d talk about five things I’ve learned about creativity in the last year.
The most important thing I learned about the creative process is that you have to be willing to adapt to the situation, and you have to be willing to evolve. What works on one day, or for one month, or on one project doesn’t mean that is your Process-with-a-capital-P or that’s the only Process you’ll ever need. Every project comes out differently, and every day is a new day with it’s own set of challenges and requirements and external obligations.
My first novel that I wrote last November was a breeze. Any time of day that I wanted, I could sit down for an hour or two and knock out a predetermined number of words. I mean the novel itself wasn’t great, but getting myself to write it wasn’t a problem. My second novel was much harder. I would sit down for hours and write half what I was used to writing daily. So I had to start planning scenes and jotting down notes before I started writing each day. I had to change my approach—and that’s okay.
Takeaway: there is no one Process—figure out what you need to do now to get the thing you’re working on done. At the end of the day, as Susan Dennard says, “the writing is all that matters.”
Let it go
In the words of Queen Elsa (or Tina Fey), you sometimes have to Let It Go. People in the writing community very often hear that the saying “kill your darlings,” and while there are many varying posts about what that means, this is my take on the saying: think objectively about whether you really need something in your work (and I mean really need) and don’t be afraid to let it go if you don’t.
For example, I opened my novel with a point of view (POV) character who, while he had other chapters in his POV, wasn’t the main character. I was so attached to this opening chapter because I was so sure it conveyed everything the audience needed to know about my book: political intrigue, action, and general scifi-ness. But as more and more people looked at that chapter and didn’t connect with it, I had to accept the possibility that it just wasn’t working as an opening. It was a painful decision, but I decided to throw out that first chapter—along with every other chapter in that character’s POV. And you know what? The book is much stronger for it.
And this letting go applies to many things: actual parts of things you’ve created, relationships with other creative people, expectations of what it means to be a creative person—the list is endless.
Takeaway: don’t be afraid to try things—but also remember it’s okay to change your mind if you realize something isn’t working.
Work with other creative people
I’m pretty sure in the last year I haven’t been able to shut up about my critique partners (CPs) and there’s a good reason for that: without them I wouldn’t have been able to make even half the progress I’ve made.
They’re going to be the ones who will tell you when your opening sucks and you have to let it go or remind you of everything they love about your story when you’re getting ready to throw out half your book. They’ll be your cheerleaders, your People who you talk to when you have a crappy creative day, the people who are honest with you and push you toward creating the best work you can.
And that’s another way to be flexible with process: see what your creative friends are up to. Maybe they have another way of getting through a particularly rough part of the process and you can borrow their solutions.
Takeaway: meet people who do good creative work and learn from them even if you’re not exchanging work or collaborating.
You do you
Everyone’s path to “success,” however you define it, is different. It takes some people over a decade and 10 books to get published. Others do it on their first try. Some people get book deals from stories they’ve self-published. Others get there by traditionally querying agents. It doesn’t mean that one is better or worse than the other—they’re simply different.
There will always be someone out there who is doing what you’re doing better or faster, but just because that method of painstakingly outlining every single detail works for them, it doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly going to become better or faster by copying that. My process is a giant mess that involves next to no planning and just figuring it all out as I go. Is it an empirically great process? Probably not. But it works for me.
It’s really hard not to get caught up in envy when people are constantly boasting their success all over the Internet (and here is a great post on dealing with that), but it’s important—and frankly quite exciting—to remember that there isn’t just one path—there’s only your path.
Takeaway: there is no one Right Way to succeed in a creative field—just keep your eyes trained on your personal goals and do what you need to achieve them.
This is probably the hardest thing I’ve had to learn. Whether it’s dealing with the creative process itself or everything else that comes with it, some things in life simply take time. It’s tempting to want to hurry the process up when you see friends talking about their creative successes, but it’s important to trust in your process and take the time you need.
I’ve always been a slow worker. In college I would go to class and take notes—then I’d come home, listen to the podcasts and rewrite my notes. And then I’d study. And I had to do every single step to get an A on a midterm or final. And unfortunately, that’s how I have to approach writing as well. I write terrible first drafts to figure out what I’m even trying to say, and then I fix the plot and world and characters, and then finally the prose itself. It’s a slow process—but so far that’s the only way I’ve been able to work.
And it sucks sometimes seeing people around me get through their revisions so quickly or know exactly how their plot fits together before they start (and here is a fantastic post on comparing). But I also know that it’s paid off to be patient—my book is getting better. Maybe not as quickly as I would like, but it’s still progress.
Takeaway: doing good creative works takes time—keep working; there’s no expiration date on your creativity.