If you looked at a blank document and the words didn’t flow, you’re not alone. Mark Twain sometimes had this experience in front of a typewriter, and Geoffrey Chaucer with an empty parchment and a quill pen. So what do you do if you get stuck while facing a deadline, try to make that business presentation, complete the dissertation on plant symbolism in Hamletor complete your Jezebel article on how chewing gum contributes to toxic masculinity?
The creative process
It is important to understand the phases of a writing project:
Planning is where you develop a general plan. This can be the gist of a plot or the points you are trying to make in a monograph. This phase also includes research. If it’s a story, you can also detail the characters, to sketch out their personality and story enough to bring them to life. It doesn’t need to be too detailed, but ideally you’ll have enough information about them to be able to imagine a conversation with them or know how they would react to a given situation.
Editing is pretty self-explanatory. This involves checking spelling and grammar; no word processor will catch all errors. Plus, it’s where you refine the style and work out issues of logic and consistency. Editing is key to honing quality, but make it what you’re doing when you’re not in write mode.
The writing is the most important part. This is what produces all these words. When a project starts, you haven’t written anything, and that’s where a lot of people get stuck. Although planning is first on the list, you probably already have at least a basic idea of what you’re going to do. In addition, it is sometimes difficult to get into writing mode, which is another reason to favor it.
Most writing happens during the creative flow. It’s not exactly a trance, but it’s a bit of a different state of consciousness. This happens in any artistic endeavor. If you’re in town and vibing effortlessly, it’s essentially similar. Getting stuck in this scenario is the all-too-common experience of wanting to be social or chatting with someone but not knowing what to say. Creative flow is necessary even when writing software.
If you’ve got the inspiration all the way, then you’re putting ideas together as fast as you can type. I’ve had the experience where stories basically write themselves. Not being able to get into the creative flow causes the dreaded writer’s block. Until your first draft is almost done, always try to capture the inspiration where ideas coalesce into words almost magically.
What planning and editing have in common is that they are quite analytical and detail-oriented. So, for the most part, the left hemisphere of the brain is engaged. On the other hand, the writing phase is primarily a right-brain activity. This is where the artistic functions of the mind take place. It is therefore a very different process from planning and especially from editing.
Please note that it is quite difficult to fully engage both hemispheres of the brain at the same time, unless you are good enough in meditation to levitate or whatever.
Adopt the right mindset
You have to shift gears mentally, so to speak, to get into the creative flow of the writing phase. Again, this is what completes your first draft, so catch as much inspiration as possible. This is the trickiest part. It doesn’t just happen on command, any more than you fall asleep at will.
The right background music can help, something suited to the task. (With my latest novel, listening to Espirpe Imperial, Division 250 and Celtica really put me in the right frame of mind.) If the lyrics get distracting, find something instrumental or in a language you don’t understand well . The ancients invoked the Muses to enter into the spirit of things; do this if it works for you.
When you’re in a creative flow, it’s easy to get distracted. Schedule a time when you will not be disturbed. Grab some cravings and your favorite beverage so you don’t have to get up. Put aside worries or other superfluous thoughts and focus on the project at hand. If necessary, tell someone else nearby to let you complete your task. If they won’t leave you alone, persuade them to join STFU.
Since most writing these days is done on computers, it’s hard to avoid distractions. Therefore, you will have to discipline yourself. Stay away from emails, video games, stock charts, sprawling pornography and all that when you’ve set aside time. Turn off the ringer on the phone or put it in another room if you’re still tempted to check it out.
The editing must be done with a clear head, otherwise you will make mistakes. On the other hand, the creative flow can happen even when you are tired. Some writers even prefer to get drunk. (At the time, many preferred absinthe, although it was hard to get it like they used to. Scare stories about it were quite exaggerated.) It all depends on your personal discretion. However, it is advisable not to overuse the bug juice or use it as a crutch.
ignite the spark
So you look at a blank manuscript, and the words don’t come out of your fingertips – so what? Brainstorm and write a sentence or two. Surely you can think of something—anything. Then see if you can get anything else. Take him as far as possible. This is what shifts the gears. Soon you’ll have a paragraph or two. With luck, the words will start flying out of your fingers. Run with it as fast as possible!
Note that it doesn’t have to be in any particular order. Speed is what matters. Don’t get too hung up on fixing errors, or it will put you back in edit mode. If the ideas start coming faster than you can put them into sentences, jot the ideas down somewhere else so you can pick up the thread later.
It is not possible to overwrite a novel in one sitting. (With my latest, fourteen chapters and 88,000 words certainly didn’t happen overnight!) So you’ll eventually have to stop and pick it up later. Reigniting the spark is a little easier when you already have something in writing. You can start in edit mode, tidy things up, transition from one block of finished paragraphs to the next, and otherwise tweak what you’ve already written. When you start thinking about what else you want to do, switch to writing mode and start creating new paragraphs.
Sometimes you’ll have to go back into planning mode, if you need to work something out with logic or direction. That’s fine, but as soon as you have ideas, you can write them down and then hit them. If necessary, you can move on to another writing project, returning to the first one later. If all else fails, start doing a boring, repetitive task that you’ve been putting off for a while. Think about your ideas while you paint the living room or whatever.
Above all, have fun with it!
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