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Posts Tagged how to be more creative
I adore, adore, adore my computer. I have acres of folders for each book I write, stuffed with research links, musings about characters, thoughts about the story’s overall direction. I have thematic notes, background, significant geography, historical events that might make a difference. I write my text on the computer, I have scribble files for experimenting, outtakes files and the text proper.
But there are some parts of my work that I have to do in ink.
I hadn’t thought about this until an email arrived from Robert Scanlon, who’s using Nail Your Novel with Scrivener and was wondering whether to put the beat sheet analysis into the note cards for each scene. The short answer is, yes if it works for you. Personally I wouldn’t write a beat sheet on the computer, but we all work in different ways.
So this will be a very idiosyncratic post, but I thought it might make a creative discussion. I’ll tell you mine, then you tell me yours, okay?
Going back to Robert’s question, I find the beat sheet’s distinctive methodology ( a sheet of A4, coloured pens and smiley faces) helps me to see it as a fresh phase and therefore to analyse the material for new ideas and narrative directions. So it’s paper beat sheets for me.
In a nutshell, the beat sheet is a way to analyse your entire novel for pacing, character arcs, structure, subplots and theme. It shrinks your novel to a few easily readable pages of A4. It’s singlehandedly saved me from literary chaos over and again.
I tried writing beat sheets on computer and they were a disaster. Something happens to my brain when I get keys under my fingers. It’s like letting a fresh horse step onto springy turf. I just go. Words gallop away and I end up with a long, musing essay about the book. Although this might do me good in some ways, it is useless for analysis.
So I have to write beat sheets on paper. The pen makes me aware of every mark. Some writers like spreadsheets because the format forces similar practical distance.
Index cards for synopses
When I’m outlining, I write the main events on index cards and shuffle them to get the best order. Although I’ve tried this on the computer, my brain thrives on complication and it always gets out of control. Index cards and a fat marker pen keep me focussed. (The cards game is also a tool from Nail Your Novel.)
I plan my Nail Your Novel books differently from my fiction. I write scribbled outlines on scraps of paper. The characters book is nearly finished and I’ve thrown its notes away, so this is the outline for NYN 3, which is in rough manuscript. Yes, those are bits of paper torn from the bin. I love the organic look of them, which reflects the feeling of a book evolving and becoming better. Don’t be fooled by the ramshackle appearance. They are highly organisational and will be much-consulted documents until the manuscript is ready for polishing.
Each book generates vast amounts of admin. Research needs to be done, books must be added to reading lists. I find it easier to keep track of this in a notebook. Then I also have the pleasure of crossing items off and they stay there, a testimony to another job done. Way more satisfying than erasing them with ‘delete’.
My notebook also contains charts for each book’s production. This is a legacy of my years in books and magazines, where I had to invent systems to keep track of 30 books at different editorial stages. It covers everything from checking cross-references, finalising spine wording, buying artwork, the websites I’ll need to update when new books come out etc. Again, I prefer this on paper because I can see the books developing at a glance.
Journals of scribbled ideas were the very first kind of notebook I kept. I still use them, but the ideas in them aren’t very findable. This irks me and I wish I could x-ray them to categorise all the useful stuff, but alas that would be a mammoth job. So I now dip into them as an inspiration slushpile. Most things I find are rubbish or irrelevant to my immediate needs, but I also uncover useful gems.
Why not Scrivener?
I clearly have the organisational mindset, and people often ask me why I don’t use Scrivener. Especially as Nail Your Novel fits it like a glove, I’m told. I’ve thought Scrivener might be fun, but I like to have some aspects of my books in touchable form, on scattered (but precisely organised) papers and notebooks. Also, I love inventing, period, and that includes systems for my books. Or put another way, I’m a nerd.
If there is a general pattern, I use handwritten notes to get clarity, distance, control and simplicity. The big picture stuff. I use the keyboard to indulge my creative riffing, musing, speculating and – of course – for the writing.
Now it’s your turn. When do you use the computer and when do you use ink and paper? Do you have set habits and how did you develop them?
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In infants’ school I remember being taught to write neatly. Servicably. We copied letter-forms. As we matured, certain pupils were singled out for approval and the rest of the class fell in with their styles. The Debbie – slanting copperplate. The Elizabeth – small and round. The Katie – wide and loopy.
Seeing this, I chose to invent my own.
I don’t know why. Perhaps because we spent most of our time all writing the same thing. Copying from the blackboard, taking dictation, answering questions – 20 girls all processing the same words and thoughts. I must have decided I had to do it differently.
I experimented with letter-shapes. One week, ys and gs might curl under the line in luxuriant loops. The next they would be jagged reversed lightning bolts. I might team this with a Debbie cursive slope for a while, enjoying the clash of styles. All possible Greek letters were tried, and for a while all Rs were small capitals (very time-consuming, so not practical).
Fascinated by a computerish font on the back of a sci-fi novel, I tried to emulate that.
Serifs were another passing phase, too fiddly for everyday use. An American girl arrived at the school who dotted her ‘i’s with a little bubble. A teacher told her off for it in front of everyone. Outraged, I adopted it immediately.
This makes me sound like a rebel. I wasn’t. You couldn’t have pointed to a more obedient pupil. I wanted a hassle-free life, even if the rules were bewilderingly dumb. But no matter how often I was penalised for eccentric letters or lack of neatness, I couldn’t toe that line. My identity on the page was not the teachers’ business. It was a sacred search for originality in world where everything else was repetition and regurgitation.
Freedom – or not
At least English allowed us to express ourselves.
In the middle school, that changed too.
One day we were discussing exams, and how to tackle the essay question options – factual, debate, true-life account, story prompt. ‘You mustn’t pick the story prompt,’ said the teacher. ‘They’re very hard. From now on, we won’t do them.’
This was ludicrous. I always, without hesitation, picked the story. I got high marks. (And I bet I wasn’t the only one.)
I didn’t want to write an account of a holiday or discuss the popularity of the motor car. Not when I was being invited to finish the story that started ‘I should never have gone for that bicycle ride…’ And if no one did these essays well, should we not be taught to do them better?
This was my second great disobedience. I carried on choosing the story option, as I always had. Again there were grumbles but it did me well enough at O level, if A is a respectable grade.
These tiny rebellions gave me habits that I now realise are essential to the creative nature, whether our weapon of choice is art, music, writing (or handwriting). This is how we do what we do.
- We will not accept the ordinary
- We dig for the remarkable in the everyday
- We ignore what everyone else is looking at and peer around the corners instead
- We collect what moves us, especially if we don’t know why
- We listen to our instincts instead of the voices who tell us we can’t
- We play endlessly
- We see expressive potential in everything
- To non-creatives we probably seem infuriating and insane.
What would you add? How did you first start being creative?
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org.
My third novel is now complete and is seeking its fortune with literary agents. Here’s a preview. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
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It’s called Television Tropes and Idioms. But don’t be fooled by its name. Tropes doesn’t mean cliches; it means story conventions and readers’ expectations. In fact, you can use the site as a cliche and stereotype warning – it tells you what’s already been done to death so you can keep your story and characters fresh and original. And the site includes movies and novels as well – of all types, all genres (and even stories that don’t fit easily anywhere).
I’m using it to fill gaps. At the moment I have a rudimentary cast of characters and a fundamental conflict, so I need to see what else could gather around it. Poking around in the subject sections (‘topical tropes’, in the left sidebar) suggested a lot more places I could take the characters and ways to develop the plot. It also gave me ideas for more defined roles my characters could play.
If you want to hit a particular genre, zip down the left-hand sidebar and look up ‘literature’ and you’ll find a list of categories to clarify where you fit. You can also check you’ve covered enough bases to satisfy readers and identify possibilities you might not have thought of.
But even if you don’t fit traditional pigeonholes (like certain folks I could mention), you can look up story ingredients, such as ‘war’, ‘betrayal’ or ‘family’ – just for instance, under the latter you get a delicious sub-list with suggestions like ‘amicably divorced’, ‘hippie parents’, ‘dysfunctional’.
Some writers get their first inspirational spark from a setting – if that’s you, you can research how other authors have done your setting justice, from pre-history to ‘4000 years from now (and no jetpack)’.
One of the other things I like about it – very much – is its tone. No judgements are made about whether genres are fashionable, overworked, lowbrow or highbrow. It’s all about celebrating how stories work – or sometimes don’t. As we know, that comes down to the writer’s skill anyway, not whether a ‘subject’ is en vogue. And after a few hours in the company of their rather breezy descriptions, not only will you be better informed, you will be spurred to avoid the lazy story decision.
If you’re sprucing up your outline – especially as NaNoWriMo looms – spend an afternoon exploring Television Tropes and give your story a thorough workout.
Do have any go-to sites when you’re planning a novel – and how do you use them? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print.
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It doesn’t yet have a title, but I know its setting. So until something better comes along I’m calling it The Venice Novel.
I have a main character. He doesn’t yet have a name. I don’t know what he looks like or how old he is, who his friends and family are – except that these people will cause as much conflict as comfort, of course. They can’t be in the story if they don’t. Some of them will change, some will not.
For some reason he’s male because it feels right. This is not the time to interrogate my instincts, so male he shall be. If later he feels insistently feminine, I’ll switch him.
In any case, his gender is insignificant compared to his problem.
This problem is the touch-paper waiting to be lit and I understand it very clearly. At the moment, this simple-but-complicating problem is germinating the whole novel.
It’s too early to write formal scenes yet. I don’t know much of the plot. But certain essential beats have come to me in flashes. I’ve written them in a file called ‘Rushes’. One of them may even be the opening scene. Whether they make it to the final cut or not, they’ve told me a lot about him.
I’m reading other fiction with an altered brain, my invention function in overdrive. I’m second-guessing like mad. I read four short stories the other day and – without even meaning to – invented alternate endings for each one.
While driving, I surf radio channels for random ideas. I do that anyway because I hate being bored, but now I am on a purposeful hunt through the chattering spectrum of songs, interviews, reviews, current affairs and the whacky community radio station that sometimes plays recordings of trains. An undercover soundtrack is taking shape. The latest addition is Howard Jones. (Don’t ask. Yet.)
Today I left the house an hour late, and happened on a programme that gave me a sub-plot. It was a missing link, an extra lens for examining my theme. Less loftily, it’s a welcome source of humour and characters. A chance gift from the ether, because I left the house an hour late.
Where do novels come from? How often are writers asked that?
They come from moments as random and unrepeatable as snowflakes.
Thanks for the girl pic grisha_21
What do you do when you’re gathering ideas for a novel? Share in the comments!
If you’re hatching a novel too and are wondering what to do with all those ideas, you might find my book helpful – Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Book 2 is in the works!
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- How to write captivating characters – interview at @Sacha_Black Rebel Author podcast January 17, 2021
- How to write a memoir about difficult times January 10, 2021
- Should your book be first person, third person (or even second)? Ep48 FREE podcast for writers January 5, 2021
- How I built my career – writer, typesetter and editor Amie McCracken @amiemccracken December 13, 2020
- Stuck at the beginning of your novel? How to get going December 9, 2020
- From bust to trust (the tale of a little horse) – guest post at Martha Engber @marthaengber December 8, 2020
- Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent (and me!) at @Litopia November 29, 2020