Friday, January 07, 2011

Fill the Well Friday -- Respect Your Process

PHS Editor Michelle Styles talks about maintaining and nuturing creativity.
Fiction writers by definition are creative. We make something from nothing. We give voice to ideas. We provide a framework and a storyline. Without us, whole industries grind to a halt.

For example, all the editors, copyeditors, salespeople, digital team, accountants, legal, the guys at the distribution warehouse who lift the boxes of books, in fact everyone at Harlequin, depends on its writers to produce good solid material that brings joy and satisfaction to millions of readers. There are reasons why I get down on my knees in gratitude to these people and the important jobs they do but that is a whole other series of columns. This series of columns is about an author’s creativity – not getting it (people are born creative) but nuturing and maintaining it.

If an author thought about all the people who depend on them to get it right, they would most likely freeze. All creativity would vanish.  A friend of mine who flies jets for BA once said to me, when he is flying, he doesn’t think about the people in the back of the plane and their problems or reasons for being there or even getting them there safely, he is too busy concentrating on making sure that he gets the cockpit safely from point A to point B. The rest follows.
 For an author, get the story right and the rest of the industry follows.
With a story, it is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. But without that inspiration leavening the work, the work would feel flat.The movie Amadeus which gave voice to the myth that truly creative people are touched by God and don’t have to work at it was very unhelpful, besides being wrong. Mozart worked incredibly hard. His life and the lives of his family depended on him being creative and producing new material. He literally worked himself into the grave. He was also extremely focussed and disciplined. He had the framework that allowed his creativity to flourish. He did not wait around for the muse to strike.

And it is really about allowing your creativity to flourish. Craft and discipline provide the framework for the inspiration. But isn't creativity always there? Ready and waiting to be tapped into? Why do you need to worry about your creativity?

One thing is for certain if you don’t maintain it, you burn out. Mozart worked too hard and had an early death.
 If you work too hard or too fast without replenishing your creative source, it dries up. Not everyone maintains the same rate of creativity through out their lives. And creative people are driven by different demons and different motivations. What works for one does not necessarily work for some one else.  People who think it can never happen to them because  of xyz often find out the hard way that creativity can dry up and xyz no longer does the trick. You mine a single seam too much. You can keep going back to the same things that once excited you and find that you have said everything. Or the world has moved on and the market is flooded with the sort of story that you thought excited you.  And it can happen without you noticing until one day the well is dry and inspiration no longer is there.

When you are being creative and writing a story, it is always about YOUR process. No matter where you turn someone else always seems more creative or having things come easier or doing better or whatever. You need to ignore them and focus on what works for you. Mess with your process at your peril. There is never just one path to success or one way to write a story. At its most basic, writing is between you and the blank page. At some point everyone confronts a blank page in her own way.

Knowing what drives your process and what you need is possibly the biggest key to learning how to nurture your creativity.

So here are some things to think about and perhaps they will give insight into how you work:

What is an essential part of your routine before you begin writing? What happens every time you write a story? Linear or non linear? Do you constantly have to move scenes around or once you write a scene does it stay put? Do you create the structure first and the characters second or do you allow the characters to create the structure? Do you reach a point in your story that you have to tear everything apart? Do you need to write a discovery draft or do you do everything first? Does it depend on the story? There is no right way as each has its drawbacks.

What is your physical environment like when you are at your most creative? Do you write on the train on the way to work? Snatched minutes at lunch or in between changing nappies? Do you need silence? Do you need calm and meditation? Do you need to relax before you can write or is writing a way you relax? Do you work best under pressure of deadlines or when you can escape from pressure? Early in the morning before people wake up or late at night? Do words flow after the school run? Or after a glass of wine? Do you need photos or facts? Movies or music? Do you need to write little and often? Or in one great big chunk? Do you need to work on lots of different projects or are you mongamous with your creativity?

Until you understand and respect those things in your life that give you your creativity, you can’t protect and nurture it. Or to put it another way, in order to refill a well, you have understand where the ideas are coming from and what kept it full in the first place. Don’t apologise for your process, accept it and embrace it. It makes life easier.

Michelle Styles writes historical romance for Harlequin Historical. She has learnt the hard way about the need to refill the creative well. You can read more about Michelle's book on her website.


  1. Great post Michelle. Thanks for you wise words. There is a lot to absorb here. Have a good weekend. Caroline x

  2. Great post Michelle - some very wise words. Specially " in order to refill a well, you have understand where the ideas are coming from and what kept it full in the first place." I've so much experience of learning that what seems 'easy' doesn't equate with 'good'. Neglect that well that feeds your imagination and your inspiration can soon evaporate too. I'm looking forward to reading other posts in this series

  3. I agree with the other commenters. Now I understand why, after writing 2 stories in the first 9 months why it took me until the end of December to begin writing. I needed a break.
    I am still finding my way around my process, but have already noticed a couple things I HAVE to do.
    Very enlightening post! Thanks for taking the time to write it.