As an author, you’ve probably heard people tell you, “Wow, you’ve written a book? I could never do that.” The idea of creating something so big out of nothing, writing and revising for months, and eventually putting it out in the world, feels overwhelming to most. Some may say it seems incomprehensible
So how do you do it?
Chances are, you have a system.
It may not be a formal system. You may not utilize all the fancy tools like Scrivener or Plottr to craft your novels. In fact, you may not even realize you’re doing it. But if you’ve sat down day after day and put your hands keyboard, you have some system for creating.
Can you create a system that ensures your muse visits early and often? Let’s find out!
My System for Creative Writing
As you may know, I received my BA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. At the time, the Fiction Writing program was something very unique and different from the typical creative writing program. They utilized the Story Workshop method, created by the late John Schultz.
John was one of the few people who believed everyone was a storyteller and that good writing could be taught. Unlike the typical critique-based programs, he focused on nurturing voice, teaching structure, and encouraging play and experimentation.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but he created an effective system generating great writing that could be repeated again and again. I experienced it as a college student in the program, and later as a teacher, running story workshops for 5th graders. The stories were different, but the system was the same.
Now, I’m not going to spend the entire episode discussing the method, you can go look it up on your own, but I’ll share a few aspects that I feel made the biggest impact.
The first is the semi-circle. Every classroom was arranged like a semi-circle so everyone could see everyone else and everyone was equidistant from the instructor. At the beginning of class, our professors could spend a good 10 minutes tightening up the semi-circle, ensuring there were no gaps or holes.
This set the stage.
When it was time to write, we’d be prompted to “give a word, any word.” Students would throw words into the middle of the semi circle and were told to “see it.” After a few rounds, we’d be prompted to “take a place.” We’d envision a place in our minds eye, the instructor sharing guidance such as, “it may be a very small place or an expansive place, it may be a place you’ve never been before or a place you’re very familiar with.” Once we had our places, we’d be prompted to search for items and people in that place, we were asked to search for a gesture or an action. We’d spend some time sharing our places with the group before diving into the writing.
Again, this is a BROAD overview, but suffice to say there would be about 15-20 minutes of setting the stage and visioning before the actual writing.
And it worked.
This system of beginning with word games to flex the creative muscles, followed by guided visualization, ensured that by the time we were ready to put pen to paper, the words would come easily. Even today, as I begun to script this podcast episode, I took a moment to see the semi-circle, my peers sitting around me all staring into the middle, throwing out words and sharing their places. And then, when it was time to write the show outline, everything flowed.
It is possible to systematize creativity.
Not all of us have the luxury of taking creative writing classes, or having chunks of time each day to warm up before the writing. Sometimes, you have exactly 30 minutes between school drop off and day job to get a few hundred words on the page. You may be writing amongst noise and chaos. You may feel fatigued, preoccupied, or anxious.
Systems help overcome this.
While I’m not a novelist, I am someone who produces thousands of words each day, on deadline, without large chunks of uninterrupted time, and usually amid chaos. I’ve also dedicated nearly 15 years of my life working with authors, so today, I’m sharing a few of the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years to help you systemize creativity.
Not all of these systems work for every author. They may even work for one book and not the other. The important thing is that you pay attention to your process to fine tune what’s kind of working and to stop doing anything that’s simply not working.
Leave each writing session, mid-sentence.
There’s something so satisfying about shutting down the computer for the day after completing a full chapter. But then the next day, you’re greeted by a new chapter and a blank page, which can feel daunting and difficult to begin. Instead, rather than ending when you finish a chapter or a scene, write just a few paragraphs beyond and stop in mid-sentence. When come back the next day to write, you may find it easier to dive right back in.
Begin with revision
Many authors begin each session by revising the pages from the day before. By dedicating some time to revision, not only will you have a better first draft, it will warm you up to drafting new content.
Pantsers vs. Plotters
These tactics I find are particularly helpful for panters, authors who don’t outline and prefer to write by the seat of their pants. If you do enjoy outlining, that’s part of your system as well. You first create the outline, then sit down each day and choose what you want to write that day from that outline. One of our authors writes with two monitors – his outline on one and his manuscript on the other. Each day, he drags a section of his outline over to the manuscript and writes. Eventually, the outline is gone and his manuscript is complete. The outline may change along the way and he may shift stuff around, but this system allows him to jump into the scene quickly, without much warm up.
All of these are very functional, pragmatic systems. But they may not work for you.
Other authors I’ve worked with create rituals around their writing, some sort of habit or signal that will trigger a pavlovian response that it’s time to write. It may be a candle that you light every time you write so the scent puts you into that creative space. You may have a writing playlist that puts you into the writing headspace. It could be an object you hold, a sweater you wear, or other tactile signals. I’ve met authors who always drink out of a certain mug or use a particular ben. You’d be amazed at how effective it is to spark creativity by appealing to your senses.
The one caveat about writing rituals, is I have met authors who rely too much on it. They feel that if they don’t have their candle or mug or fancy pen, that the muse may not come. She may take longer to find you, but once you start working, she’ll find you.
All of these systems will help you write that first draft, but as all authors know, that’s just the first step in the book. Revision is next. As I said before, there is no one right way to revise a novel, but revision does require a system. Here are some that our authors use:
- Read the entire book out loud, highlighting any sections that trip you up, then go back and improve the highlighted sections.
- Revise chapters out of order, only looking at voice, sentence structure, and style.
- Outlining the whole book AFTER writing it to ensure the pacing and narrative arc works
- Creating post it notes for each chapter, bonus points for color coding point of view, to make sure the structure works and the different points of view are balanced
- Read the entire book, cover to cover, asking targeted questions along the way. For example, if your goal is to ratchet up the tension, then asking, “What’s at stake?” in every single scene. If the book is too long and needs to be cut down, asking, “What is this scene doing for the overall story? Can it be combined with another scene?”
If you’re still on the fence about systemizing creativity, think about it this way. When you began your writing journey, chances are, you read some writing books. Whether it was Steven King’s On Writing, Donald Mass’s Writing a Breakout Book, or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, you wanted to learn how to write better. You wanted a system for writing better.
Picasso famously said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” It is possible to create a system that generates inspiration and creativity. It doesn’t make you any less of an artist, in fact, it probably makes you a better one.
This is the season two finale of the Your Breakout Book podcast. I hope you’ve enjoyed this season’s themes, interviews, and trainings. While the podcast is going on summer vacation, the Your Breakout Community is still going strong, so if you’re looking for more guidance to help you launch your breakout book, now is the perfect time to join.
As a member, you’ll gain access to monthly roundtable discussions, live trainings, and a savvy community of authors. Click here to learn more.