Posted on by Ryan Gauvreau

This post originally appeared at The Oak Wheel on June 19th, 2014.

Say what you want about the unfettered spring of creativity, but I find that there’s a lot to be said for being mechanical and thorough at some parts of the operation.

The best example of this might be the Better Novel Project, which is taking a very deliberative approach to writing a blockbuster novel. What’s one of the things that you could point to as an indicator of runaway success? A film based on the book. Which books have been the most consistent at turning into films— and successful films, at that? YA novels. And of these, you wouldn’t go wrong with holding up Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games as series that enjoyed great commercial success both in print and on the big screen.

But what do they have in common?

Did you notice: they open on a celebration of some kind?

Did you notice: there’s a hospital scene at the end?

Did you notice: the frequent trips to the cafeteria?

Heck, there’s an emphasis (strange) food in general?

I’m not talking about the Better Novel Project to beef up my word count, lords and ladies. Even if you’re not writing a YA novel, there’s no telling how much of its advice you could still apply to your situation. So go forth (here’s the link again). Read and learn. Apply, young grasshopper.

This “examine a bunch of books and tear out their insides” approach is not what I typically do, but it’s a good example. While I’m just as happy to take notes when the BNP is talking, most of my system looks at building blocks from a different angle and does not, surprisingly, use index cards.

It uses Excel documents, if we’re gonna be specific

And of course we are. Of course we are.

I keep two more Excel documents besides my record of submissions (three, really, but the third isn’t easy to explain), and each of these reflects a part of my approach to writing stories. The first is a list of literary devices, narrative modes, styles, tense, points of view, and genres that it’s occurred to me to use, and how many of my stories use each one. If something doesn’t have at least three stories attached to it then it’s still on my radar to look for opportunities to incorporate it into future stories. Some of them may be a little oddball but I can’t be sure about how something will work for me until I’ve used it a few times.

I want to increase my vocabulary, and I want to not be using the same dang words in my stories fifty years from now that I was using in my stories five years ago. My current solution is to commit to using three new words in every story, and I keep track of them in my next Excel document. Each row holds a different story, and columns two through seven are divided into word/definition pairs. For novels and other longer stories I’ll probably commit to more new words.

But Excel documents aren’t all I use

Awhile ago I wrote an article about cool bits, the stuff that makes you go “Aw yeah” when you read or write it. Author appeal, TV Tropes calls it, but that’s only one side of the equation, so “literary kink” might be a little more accurate if I can say that without turning the comments section into the worst of 4chan. Some of my cool bits are knives, generational sagas, girls in suits, alien psychology and biology, and the Anglish language. Heinlein liked redheads, cats, and politics. George R. R. Martin writes food porn. Robert Jordon did clothing (I have a milder form of the condition myself, which I discovered after I realized that I was having a character get undressed purely to have an excuse to describe her clothes).

I keep a list of these things in a Word document, and I add to it whenever I notice something else that can reliably spark my interest. Tattoos, religious themes, self-mutilation in order to achieve a goal, you name it. It’s also a pretty fair bet that if I notice the same motif coming up again and again in my stories then there’s a new cool bit to add to the list.

This is important to my process because I don’t leave these things be. If you’re writing a story then it pays to be interested in it, and the most reliable way to be interested in something is to make it out of interesting things. I don’t just create a story out of my cool bits (though that would be a pretty interesting experiment once I’ve got, say, a hundred of ‘em recorded) but after I have a certain amount of the story down (the pitch, a couple of paragraphs, a few pages of information) I refer back to my list of cool bits to see what’s there that I can throw into the mix.

What about time management?

There are a couple of strategies that I’ve tried. The first one that I went with adapted a tool that I used while I was serving an LDS mission, the daily planner. I don’t have the space to get into it here (it could probably take up an article in itself) but the meat of it was including daily and weekly goals. If you decide to make goals for yourself like that, try to figure out what can be measured (or made a “key indicator”) to determine how close you are to your goal of getting a story published. My key indicators included stories outlined, words written, stories submitted, and how much (or little, preferably) I was doing stuff that didn’t really contribute, like watching television.

I don’t use it anymore but that’s because my days aren’t very different from each other, which means that my goals are pretty easily committed to memory. Monday may differ from Thursday from Sunday, but it’s a lot like every other Monday. Once school starts up again that should change (or at least I’ll prefer having a written schedule for awhile until I know that I have the new regime down pat).

The other strategy that I’m using, which I should be blending with the previous one when autumn swings around, is based on a rotation of what I call crazy/on months and off/prep months. I spend an off/prep month making a backlog for my blog, researching for and outlining stories, and doing whatever else needs doing. I also take a little more time to relax than I normally do. On my crazy/on months I focus on writing stories that I intend to sell and not just put up for free.

Both of these approaches are characterized by a willingness to adapt. The daily planner has gone through several iterations, and my rotation system originally planned for crazy/on months to include only writing but now accepts outlining and other prep work (for my novels). Whatever you choose to do, time management or vocabulary tracking or something I haven’t even thought of yet (if you come up with something that’s not here, let me know so I can try it!), you won’t get it perfect from the beginning. When you see a way to improve your process, improve it.

Your turn: What’s your creative process like? Do you write freeform? Is your outline so detailed that it’s practically a first draft in itself?

R. Donald James Gauvreau works an assortment of odd jobs, most involving batteries. He has recently finished a guide to comparative mythology for worldbuilders, available here for free. He also maintains a blog at White Marble Block, where he regularly posts story ideas and free fiction, and writes The Culture Column, an column with cultures ready for you to drop into your setting. 

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