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Creative Process – Your Toolbox for Self-Improvement

In a former incarnation as a Commissioning Editor at a creative production company, I came across many samples of writing by ambitious writers making their first foray into the professional realm. It was always quite outstanding how many writers jumped the gun with the same common mistakes and gaps in experience. These common themes are repeated over and over - and we wonder why there is a slush pile?

Rather than berating the writer for jumping the gun, however, or the agent for not processing manuscripts diligently enough or fast enough (as it can be viewed from outside), perhaps this begs the question ‘Where is the tool for helping writers measure their own work?’ I’ll tell you.

It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist not because it is an impossibility. It doesn’t exist because a self-sustaining tool threatens our carefully put together system (or, more precisely, is perceived as a threat); a system that is collapsing under the strain. But need it?

Writing isn’t merely the craft of getting fine words in a fine order down on a page; this act requires something far more robust than that. It requires the writer to open themselves up to human experience fanning out over many levels to enrich the words on the page.

Unclear on what I mean? Allow me to elaborate. In order for a narrative to be a success it must operate on multiple levels. When a core element is missing, it is evidenced on the page; for writing is one of the most revealing of the arts.

More often than not, in life and writing, we have a blind spot. The creative process is exactly that – a process. If you weren’t learning, you wouldn’t be so driven. And when it comes to having your work read there is always that school-child feeling of having your work marked. But be reassured this isn’t a matter of marking you down, only showing you how you can improve.

Common Openings/Omissions in First Drafts

Version 1. The first chapter begins completely in your character’s head. You (the writer) and they (your character) are totally wrapped up in his/her experience. This is a deeply emotionally climactic moment for them. Now the reader can understand that or not, that’s irrelevant, as far as you're presently concerned. You’re still figuring this out.

What is often omitted in this approach:

Little sense of where your character stands physically and socially in relation to others. The scale and scope of what is going on around them. Often things jump out at the reader such as the room isn’t empty but packed with people.

How novice writers frequently attempt to counterbalance that:

What can happen is the writer tends to focus on what their characters’ hands are doing or what they’re seeing. What tends to be missed is a sense of scope, scale and proportion.

Version 2. You (the writer) begin by fully immersing your reader into your setting and social scene. We know what’s on the walls, where everyone sits in relation to everyone else, even what carpeting there is.

What is often omitted in this approach:A sense of proportion. Where is the focus in this scene? Whose pov are we talking about? Yours or your characters? Too much description and your reader begins to disconnect. No human being can take in that much detail in one go. The reader’s attention begins to wander.

How novice writers naturally attempt to counterbalance this: By counterbalancing those dense passages of description with dense passages of dialogue. Rather than weaving the two strands together (an art that comes with time and practice), novice writers have a tendency to chop and change between the two at an interval of a page... or two... or more. One rationale for this is it is because one practice flows more naturally for the writer, while the other is more of a chore.

Version 3. Getting us into the action straightaway. Boom, and we’re in. It’s all terribly atmospheric and pacey.

What is often omitted in this approach:

More often than you’d credit, name and gender are missing. Novice writers naturally attempt to counterbalance this in the following ways:

  1. They don’t, and carry on full throttle; taking the approach ‘keep up with where the hero is, and who you’re referencing’ if you’re quick enough.
  2. Undermine the action and pace by alternating between this approach and providing huge swatches about the back story of a character. A favourite technique is the incorporation of flashbacks early on and rather frequently.

Version 4. The book opens with a prolonged prologue, which fills the reader in on a sizeable amount of back story.

What is often omitted in this approach:

While this technique (use of prologue) is often used as a source to generate mystery and suspense, it often has the opposite effect to what the writer envisages. Ways of assessing this are:

  1. How long the prologue lasts before getting to your main story [too prolonged and it is probably not best serving your story
  2. The amount of passages inserted into those first few chapters that fill in historical details about your characters’ past/childhood/morning activities preceding the action of your scene.

All this - instead of allowing for a picture to slowly build of the character of your protagonist – robs your reader of identifying with your hero’s values. Instead they are informed of them. Quite the difference.

How novice writers naturally attempt to counterbalance this:

If there is a tendency to reveal back story, you’ll often observe a tendency to counterbalance this with rather clumsy cliffhangers. This is often tied into a desire to ensure suspense through plot twists rather than a more natural unfolding. They are not clumsy in themselves but only appear so in relation to the other.

If you found this article useful, you might like to try:

Six pet hates of an editor

What to do after the first draft's done

First draft review