Three Steps for Getting Out of the “But We’ve Always Done It This Way” Mentality and Unleashing Creativity
Silly me … When I began my transition from journalism to fiction writing, I likened it to doubling the family recipe when houseguests were coming to dinner. Following the, “do the same thing, only bigger,” principle, I approached a 300-page novel as I would a 1200-word feature article.
Turns out (and as other writers reading this might expect), while a few essential components remained the same (catchy intro, body of relevant info and a circle back to the beginning with a strong wrap-up), a short article is clearly not a novel; nor are nonfiction articles sci-fi/fantasy thrillers.
I then moved onto the way its “supposed” to be done. I outlined settings, my characters, my plotline and sub-plotlines. I began a style sheet to make sure my characters’ dialogues were consistent and that the reader got the “great reveal” several chapters before the characters did. These are all wonderful, time-tested tools, and I would never try to diminish their value. But for me – it wasn’t working. I was still trying to do what I’ve done for the past decade as a professional writer. I’d edit as I’d go along, I’d craft a story linearly, and my subjects would behave just as we’d expect.
I’d about given up entirely were it not for the fact that my characters were developed just enough as to wake me up in the middle of the night with random scenes floating through my head … And there began the Grand Experiment. My story began to flow again within days of succumbing to my characters’ nagging. Here’s what works for me (feel free to take what you can use; discard the rest):
The Grand Experiment: Three Steps for Writing Out of Bounds
- Write Spatially. I wanted a very linear outline and a story that easily went from start to finish. Instead, each day I would begin writing whatever scene happened to come to mind – no matter where it fell in the story, even if all the details hadn’t been carved out yet … I could change it later. On days where I came up empty, I would choose a character and write or expand upon their bio. Invariably, they would “reveal” something to me that I could use, and a new scene would be born. By writing out of order, it freed up my creativity and allowed the characters to act of their own accord vs. following a script. Remember, there’s time later to rearrange the content and edit.
- Allow Your Characters to Be Unpredictable. I had one scene where the protagonist was acting exactly as I would – as almost any “real” person would, and yet something didn’t feel right. It was too … predictable. As part of my Grand Experiment, I wrote down the most illogical statement that this very logical character would make and – aha! This sparked a new plot device, and a much better scene followed.
- Write Without Reserve (i.e. don’t edit as you go along). (You know, like what I’m doing with this article? Don’t do that.) When working with a short feature article, you have the luxury of working and reworking a paragraph until it reads in just the right way. Try that with a novel, and you’re more likely to be obsessively trapped rewriting your first scene indefinitely. It worked in the movie Groundhog Day, but I wouldn’t suggest it as a daily practice. Trust me, you’ll have plenty of time to edit later … and edit again … and proof … and then edit some more.
Try Your Own Grand Experiment
Feel like an experiment? I understand that what works for me may not be for everyone. However, I always ask people to consider an idea before dismissing it. Below is an activity for trying your own Grand Experiment …
Step 1: Pick a random scene – somewhere in the middle of your story – and begin writing from there. If you don’t have a story, use a writing prompt (many are available online). Do not edit as you go. If you need to, write over, under, or around an error. For example, if you started off in a blue room and you’ve decided later that a red room is much better, have the walls change color or make the characters dispute the color of the walls.
Step 2: Introduce a character, object or event – and then have them do something unpredictable. I just gave you one example. The walls of this scene are changing color – why? After fifteen minutes or so, stop.
Step 3: Go do something else. Put this experiment away. If the scene is a good one, you may be able to revisit it, working it into a future story. If this method worked, then repeat the process for other projects.
Bonus Exercise: Can you apply this method to other areas of your life – beyond writing? Where in your life can you randomly try something new, random, or unpredictable?
“If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.” ~Thomas Jefferson (Or … someone else. No one is really sure.)