Many writers write, but do not talk much about their process. Or how they come up with their ideas. I thought I’d share a little bit about my own. Truthfully, it’s a mystery to me, but an endless source of fascination. I wondered why authors turned to drink, like Poe, Chandler and Hemingway, many who were notorious for their use of drugs and intoxicants as a source of enhanced creativity, or a deterrent to depression. I don’t know, it was never my thing, drugs and alcohol. Then I started to understand the creative process better, and the pressure creative people put on themselves to produce new and exciting ideas. Ideas don't appear to come when a person is in a ‘normal’ state of consciousness. They come in an altered state, when one is much closer to where the magic manifests. I've seen that it can happen without intoxicants, but only with a lot of faith and discipline. They happen by grace, and in unexpected moments, and through cultivating a channel.
In the same way a seed grows from the ground up, a channel can be cultivated. A plant, for example, with proper water, light, and in a conducive environment will thrive. Without it, it will become unhealthy or die.
I cannot help but think that many of those writers who suffered from addictions did not have the fortune to tap into their inner creative wellspring without the crux of addictions, and many ultimately died.
My process for priming the writing process is to get out in nature. I thrive when I get out on the bike in the park, soaking up the fresh air and energy from the trees. Especially in the fall when there are no bugs and the air is fresh and the smells of falling leaves and humus are in the air. The barriers quickly dissolve. Things that I was previously stuck on, come in a flash, and new plot twists not readily available are suddenly there, where before I could be staring at a blank screen. It might sound cheesy, but it works. Likewise, meditation works. All the problems, tough issues of plotting and character, loosen up when I clear my head and put my focus on the goal. The goal: coming up with a winning story.
To answer the question ‘Where do authors get their ideas from’, the closest I can come to an answer is, ‘by grace’. As creative people, we tap into a channel...and by magic, they are there. Sure, we are influenced by what we have learned and our overall experience, but the way by which the organic process takes place is something of a mystery. Getting that channel open is the key.
Meditation: some times I spend up to a month engaged in a process where there is no writing, just accumulating data, and visualizing the world and the premise.
By meditating, I mean closing the eyes, and visualizing the scene and characters. Many ways the protagonists can act, sink or swim. There’s an almost overwhelming number of possibilities. But not so many, if one takes into account character and theme. I try to study each character or possibility, and notice how it makes me feel. If I get a strong sense for a particular action, or piece of dialogue or setting then I put it high on the list. If I don’t get a great feeling, I put it on the backburner. The process continues. One thread of action or drama or plot finally emerges. That’s the one I run with. It gathers weight as I visualize it more and more and imagine how it relates to the overall story.
There is also the difficult task of merging all those ideas into a cohesive whole. World-building, character development, theme... I used to treat all these as separate entities, now they work together. The world is a means by which the character(s) overcome their struggles. The character is an extension of the world and helps to enhance it. It’s complex. The beauty is, all these details come together by the very simple technique of ‘feeling’. As I described, how does it feel if the MC abandons her/his duty to search out the magic item, or save the orphan? Is it right? Or no, is it going in the wrong direction?
There’s this feeling I get when I wake up in the morning. Either the character I just wrote about did something that works and furthers the plot, or they didn’t. At which point I get this sinking feeling and know that somewhere I went astray and I should rework that character or plot into something that works. This process continues. I’ve thought about this a lot and come to understand that this changeover state from sleep to waking, from dream to waking, is a time when we are closer to our subconscious. That pool of unconscious knowledge that is accessible to more intuitive understanding of the whole than our waking state brains are. In those moments of lucidity we are connected to something higher than our individual selves, something closer to our pool of archetypes, upon which we can draw and which all great stories are based.
I keep bits or pad of paper wherever I go, getting the ideas down as soon as they come. They are easy to lose if I don’t. Usually I have about 4 or 5 stories on the go at any one time. The worst is to have no ideas to fall back on when one has the urge to write.
Nor is there is anything worse than coming to a dead end with a story. Better to let go, know that somewhere down the road the story will all come together. Usually sooner rather than later, if I don’t push it too hard. The harder I push it, the harder it goes.
So, in recap, here are my techniques: I keep a file of rough ideas which grows week to week. I get out on the bike into the fresh air and the trees. I meditate. I visualize the scenes, the action, the drama, the character relations and reactions in my head as they unfold in real time. I also join critique groups to help me flesh out plots.
As for the editing process, that’s always a drawn out affair. Most writers can corroborate with this. I have less problems now than I used to, being more diligent about fleshing out a plot outline...with a beginning, middle, end, before committing to any writing. Painful reworkings in the past have taught me to avoid the temptation of ‘diving right in’ before having a working plan. Fun yes, but a nightmare when not taking into account the overall picture.
Lastly but not leastly, I've come to see ideas never happen through staring at a blank screen.
I’d like to mention also the power of ‘mixing it up’: not always writing the same scene or story or in the same genre. For example, the last project I did was a sword and sorcery fantasy, now it’s a SF horror. It forces me to switch gears. Different settings, different characters, different premises, it all keeps it fresh. It’s also more challenging.
These are all tools that help keep me nourished—that and working hard. It’s also a matter of affirmation. For example, If I think I can do it, then I can. If I think I can’t, if I think something’s too hard, or out of my reach or too ambitious then I probably won’t be able to pull it off. But If I say, ‘yes I can do it’, and even write one sentence of a plot outline to an ‘unreachable’ story, then I’m one step closer to manifesting it. Again trite, but it something that’s so basic as to work. This blog article, for example, was written in all one go in a few hours. But only after I thought about it for a while, collected my ideas, and then spit it out in one go, knowing it would manifest seamlessly and not only be something important I had to say, but of benefit to others.
What’s your creative process?