So here's a Wench Classic from the Mary Jo files: her thoughts on creativity and brainstorming, a topic not only appropos to her current situation, but well worth revisiting. She would love to know your thoughts on the subject — so please do comment (and be sure to congratulate Mary Jo on finishing the book)!
Creative Process and Brainstorming
by Mary Jo
There is no one right way to write. Which is a real bummer—it would be so much easier if there were clear and distinct Right Ways and Wrong Ways. But the more I hang out with writers, the more I realize how much our approaches vary.
This was most graphically illustrated at a lovely Romantic Times conference in Beaver Creek, Colorado some years ago. I was one of nine authors on a panel about characterization. I prepared a short presentation, as did one of the other nine. (She and I later became good friends, since we clearly shared certain compulsive traits. <G>)
But after we two gave our presentations, the panel still had almost two hours to fill. The program organizer had said all we had to do was answer questions. For two hours? Not likely!
One of the panelists was Judith McNaught, already a superstar. After a silence, someone asked her a question. She answered. More silence. Someone asked her another question. At which point, inspiration struck and I said, “Let’s have everyone answer every
question!” Since we were all a little desperate, we did—and it turned into a great, educational panel as it became clear that we had highly individual ways of working.
Some start with plot, others with character. Some used critique groups, others abhorred the idea. Some wro
te swift first drafts, then edited; others wrote slowly, polishing as they went so the book was basically done when they got through once. The audience was delighted, and I’m sure that many left happy to know that they weren’t “doing it wrong.”
Most of us who have been writing for any length of time have figured out what our personal writing process is. I’m inclined to think that whatever that process is, it’s hardwired into our brains and can’t be changed except in minor ways. I’m a plodder, condemned to inchworm my way through my books one word at a time. When it’s done, it’s done, except for minor tweaking. Which is good, since I’m always slammed up against a deadline. But I’m convinced that plungers have more fun!
I have a friend who hates deadlines, so she finishes her books months in advance and lets them mulch for a while, then edits them again before she hands them in. I’ll bet her college papers were always done early, too, but I like her anyway. <g> Another friend works on one book for a while. Then when she feels stalled, she works on another. Still another friend gets only one idea at a time—but when that idea shows up, it’s great.
These differences in creative process are clearly on display when we do things like brainstorm. Pat Rice, Susan and I were having our annual brainstorming session at my house. We’ve done this for several years now, and we all benefit.
But we do work very differently even though we’re all historical writers. One of us might use emotional turning points, another the hero’s journey, a third will advocate more historical research to create the skeleton of a plot.
We’ve never really defined brainstorming rules, but it’s a given that we respect each other’s work. The story belongs to the author who is tossing it out, and her judgment is ultimately the only one that counts. I’m pretty much an intuitive writer, and analytic approaches generally roll off my back. Yet I’ve gotten really valuable ideas from these brainstorming sessions over the years.
This time, just a few minutes’ discussion helped me go from the merest wisp of a story idea to a solid sense of the book that I hope I’ll write next. Last week, this story was the merest gleam in my eye; today I could sit down and write a synopsis.
Of course, we also need breaks. We go out to lunch or dinner, walk a labyrinth or stroll in the park, maybe settle down and do some beadwork. My cats, especially Grady, hang around and look intellectual. After three days, we disperse back to our caves, well armed for the new projects.
Ultimately, of course, what matters is not process but results. Readers aren’t interested in whether a story went smoothly or if it fought tooth and nail. Actually, writers can’t usually tell which books will work best for readers—we just string the words together and hope for the best. And now and then, we yearn for a different process that will be better/easier/more fun than the one we have!
Of course, everyone uses creative process even if not a writer. How do you come up with your ideas? How do you bring your projects to completion? And do you ever wish you could do it differently?!