This week at the SFF Seven, we’re talking about our greatest writing challenge and how we manage it.
In some ways, this is a moving target for me, because it seems that – like clockwork – each book presents its own challenge. With 64 published titles under my belt, I feel like I should have this process down and there shouldn’t be surprises.
No such luck.
What I have to constantly remind myself is that the creative process is its own creature. It’s this connection to something beyond ourselves and thus is not within our control. Particularly for a writer like myself – I am incapable of pre-plotting and write for discovery, relying entirely on intuition – letting go of that desire to control is critical. It can also be difficult, especially when I’m trying to write to a particular idea or market.
For example, I recently wrote one-hundred pages of a book for my agent, according to a very particular comp. Let’s call it Ghost meets Out of Africa. (That is NOT it, but that’s one of my all-time favorite fictional comps. Points if you can name the movie it’s from.) In thinking about this project, I consulted my friend, Melinda Snodgrass, incredibly talented novelist and screenwriter who counts among her credits the Star Trek: Next Generation episode The Measure of a Man. I asked her how closely I should follow the beats of Ghost, if at all. She gave me an incredulous look and asked why, when I had a hugely successful story blueprint right there, I would do anything but follow those beats?
So, I tried.
Turns out that, not only am I incapable of pre-plotting, I also can’t follow an outline to save my life. I struggled to write that book. Having the story laid out in essence should have made it easier. Instead it made it 1,000x worse. For me. Because that’s not my process. Once I abandoned that outline (sorry, Melinda) and followed my intuition, the words began flowing.
That’s the major challenge for me: remembering to trust the process. Particulars change with every book. This principle endures.
Happy to report that my training program to increase creative flow and word count is working! Also, additional thoughts on the ethics of using AI-generated work and how money factors into that for some people.
Cannot possibly be a spoiler for anyone who knows anything about me: No, I plan them, I might use them?
YES, I LET THE STORY FLOW.
I swear, I need to start adding topics like “when you’re intuitively letting the story flow, how do you…. ” Except then I get stuck because there’s just not a whole hell of a lot to say about writing intuitively. Yep, here I am, letting things flow. Still flowing. How will it end? I have no idea!
Amusingly enough, however, what KAK explained in her detailed analytical post is pretty much the exact scene I wrote yesterday in my current manuscript: ONEIRA.
(If you haven’t been following the podcast, ONEIRA is a Totally New Thing – new world, new magic system, unrelated to anything I’ve written so far. I’ve been calling it the book I’m not supposed to be writing – it fell on me from out of the sky and insisted on being written – but all of my friends have finally convinced me that clearly I am supposed to be writing it, so I’m trying not to say that anymore.)
It’s almost eerie, how the scene I wrote yesterday matches exactly what KAK says the pinch point with the villain is supposed to do. But I didn’t plan it at all. In fact, this scene introduced a new POV character and a new plot element, totally unexpected. But this is how I write and how I write this book in particular. It’s insisting on doing all sorts of things that I haven’t done before and don’t expect and I’ve just surrendered and am going with it. Which actually makes this project really fun, because I’m just letting it be whatever it is and not worrying about reader expectations or where it will fit in the marketplace.
All of this is to say that we all have our own process. My mantra: figure out what your process is and own it.
KAK loves to geek out on analysis, minutely controlling her stories down to pinches.
My stories just go their own way and I try to cling to the saddle.
It’s all good.
(Except sometimes I end up writing something I’m not supposed to be writing….)
How you know when your creativity is flowing, which story ideas have enough juice to sustain a novel or series, and how to handle those New Shiny ideas when you have other works in progress to focus on.
Good morning everyone this is Jeffe Kennedy author of fantasy romance and romantic fantasy I’m here with my first cup of coffee. Well ambrosia today is Thursday February seventeenth one day from deadline not that we’re counting. Okay, we’re totally counting. Ah yeah, getting there on gray magic I’ve got. About 50 fty-five hundred words to go I passed a hundred thousand words yesterday. Um, yeah, and so I like I’m down to the last couple of chapters and we’ll see how they go. Um. Yeah I I did get over three thousand words on it yesterday and I hope to get at least that many today so that I can have wind it up tomorrow and have a little bit of time to revise before I send it off. I only have to revise I’m guessing. Well let’s see that’s that’s how much it will. It is at this moment I know a lot of you don’t know worktown you know a lot of authors we work by work count because it depends you know people will ask me how many pages is that. And so I work in word and I use like standard one inch margins 12 point times new roman double space industry standards people will try to argue with me that those shouldn’t be industry standards and it’s one of those things like okay. Yeah, and there are a lot of things in this world that necessarily shouldn’t be but are so that’s still industry standard. That’s how I turn in all my manuscripts. Um, so that’s three hundred and seventy pages and I am guessing. That I will have in the neighborhood of 400 pages total when I’m done and so that means that I could go back over I mean do we know I guess we can see it’s. Guessing what it would cut it also depends on how much white space is on the page right? How much dialogue there is or as opposed to like really dense paragraphs. That’s why page county isn’t a really great mark for progress although readers of course use that. Ah.
So I’m gonna have something like 57 pages to go over. Although that’s probably not accurate because I have um I’ve been going over them so far as I’ve been working. Yesterday I had three lattes I’m cranking it. So um, yeah I could tell I’m tired I’m getting mentally tired but this is a push but then. Once I get this done turned in by about midday my time then I’m gonna do a little bit of cleanup around the house where things have been falling apart and then Darynda Jones arrives tomorrow evening in the flesh. She’s skin spend the night and then on Saturday we will do our panel for at beastly books that’s in the show notes she emily ma and I will be in person at the Jean Cocteau theater and it’ll be streamed. I think live streamed and some other people joining us via Zoom zoom. Yeah I was just thinking about something else like I won’t talk about it yet I’ll talk about next week and then we will then do into and I can have a nice lunch. She’s vegetarian these days so we’re going to um Sweetwater Kitchen here in Santa Fe which is great has great. Vegetarian choices and then we’re going out to Melinda Snodgrass’s house to learn about plot breaking very interested to learn her technique so it will be a um, a convivial weekend once I set this book aside then I will be able to just sort of enjoy company and peoples. And then Sunday morning I fly to Los Angeles where I’m going to meet up with a bunch of the SFWA people who are working on the nebula conference. We’re gonna do our site walkthrough and I will be there Monday and Tuesday coming home Tuesday evening so we’ll see how about. Podcast on Monday day Tuesday I um I might see if people want to some of the people who are there want to come on the podcast with me I might not do it. We’ll see because this is also going to be a little bit of a mini break for me. So I’m gonna set all those things aside and kind of um.
Try to kick back and rest my poor strained brains. So then yeah I get home Tuesday night and the plan is then to who knows of we have to find the correct date. So then I should have copy edits back for Wednesday so I’m going to do copy edits on Wednesday which will really only take me a couple of hours so that should be a good um drained brain activity for me and then upload on Thursday so I do have some time I mean I just have to have it uploaded by like. 5 p m on Thursday so I’ll have time if I want to do another full read through I could and then although I already have several things stacked up for the plane people have been asking me for various things that I promised to do and. So I may work on some of those things on the plane or at the hotel and yeah, and then we’ll see on Thursday and Friday we’ll see how perky am I am I might start storm princess I might just wait until the following week and then release stays the following monday. Monday the Twenty eighth and I don’t know if I mentioned here but I have officially surpassed the pre-orders for bright familiar. Thank you very much. Yeah I have more pre-orders for gray magic than for bright familiar which I think is a testimony to the the building. Interest in the series. It’s really gratifying. It’s just fantastic folks I I appreciate all the support and I have to tell you guys this really cool thing so there was someone who was in town a little while ago. And he bought a copy of dark wizard in print for be from beastly books and it was one of those things where I think he bought it to be nice. He did it to be nice to me. He did it to support beastly books. Um, he is a. You know a guy who’s really heavily into finance like Bren’s a hedge funded and this sort of thing and I really didn’t expect him to actually read the book you know because you know you do these things you do these things to be nice sent me an email you guys. I’m not guess say who it is because I don’t know if he’d want me to but listen to this email. He sent me yesterday. Um, you know nice things nice to meet you in Santa Fe thank you for being so welcoming I at last had time to read Dark Wizard over the weekend and I was so impressed.
It’s totally not my sub-genre and would never consider reading the book if some one gave me a plot summary but it is so well executed and such a page-turner I was really sucked in and despite myself I want to read the rest of the trilogy. What really amazes me is that you have such an extensive bibliography. You must be writing very fast but the quality is so high no idea how you do it isn’t that nice. It’s I’m just ah, just thrilled I mean it’s it’s so wonderful to hear something like that I you know love all of my readers and all of you guys are so awesome. But. Winning over someone for whom this is not their genre is um, is there a better feeling I don’t know and such high praise. So one of the and and I did answer him and this isn’t. Something I talk about extensively maybe not all the time. Um I did share some stuff with him. And I don’t know maybe I do talk about it more than I think I do but I kind of hesitate to go there because it sounds kind of woo woo. But I mean first of all. I’m sorry I should clarify that I’m talking about how do I write fast and of course I don’t write as fast as I want to you guys hear me bemoaning that things aren’t going as fast as I want them to go especially right now as I’m like brain drained on finishing this book. I don’t know why I have to go into the the high whiny voice I say that so writing fast and producing quality. I think the first thing is is that you have to decouple the idea that working slowly produces higher quality and this is something I’ve talked about a whole lot. This is really ingrained in us I think it gets ingrained at us in school. The idea that you must slow down that you must be working very slowly in order to produce high quality is just really pounded in us over and over again. Um you know like they tell us that on taking tests you know.
Slow down you know and give yourself time to think and go back over it. Um, all of these kinds of things. Ah I have a lot of complicated ideas about this I wanted to mention sort of as a sideline here that we watched marry me with. Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson and enjoyed it. It was very cute. My nail tech yesterday I got my nails done yesterday. Very important at least it was relaxing my nail tech yesterday said that ah she liked it? Okay, but she thought that Jennifer Lopez just played herself. She thought Owen Wilson was great but that Jennifer Lopez was basically Jennifer Lopez and I was like yes, but you know is it she always with basically oh she is um, but there’s this line in the movie that comes around because Owen Wilson is a math teacher and he says. If you sit with the problem. The answer will come to you and so so there’s part of this this idea of slowing down that you give yourself time to think about it. Um, and I don’t think. That it’s necessarily true. In fact I think it’s often not true that this idea that slower work produces higher quality. Certainly we’re all familiar with the idea that if you rush through something. You are more likely to make mistakes and so I think that this is sort of developed as the the opposite face of that if rushing causes mistakes therefore not rushing will eliminate mistakes is that actually true though. Because there’s something else going on here, especially when we talk about problem solving and creative work is that our brains don’t necessarily work slowly. So if you’re really wedded to the idea of you know we’re basically biological machines. Um. You know? and so all the wet work up here is what’s doing the work den sure you can still look at it this way because ah the way that neurons fire the the movement of electrical activity through the brain is incredibly fast. Thought. Is incredibly fast. Um, yeah, we can think about this in terms of um, you know like is thought faster than the speed of light and I think arguably it is right I don’t know why I have to mess with my hair and scratch my head while I’m thinking. But.
It helps with that biological wetwork in there. Um, but then there’s something else involved and this is where I get into the woow woo thing is that I very much believe in the creative subconscious and I know I’ve talked about that because I have that as part of like my author coaching and mastermind stuff and I you know. Productive creative I always forget. Do I do Um, yeah, productive creativity and I very much believe in accessing the subconscious that stories come from. From a place that is beyond conscious thought. However, you want to think about it. You know if it’s um, you know another world or who knows we don’t really know and in many ways I don’t think it matters. The thing is is that our creative subconscious. Offers us this incredible wealth of storytelling of problem solving for all kinds of things that we don’t have to plod through in a conscious way. In fact. The more that you can remove that conscious control the more you can get that subconscious to flow so in a way this still fits with the line that Owen Wilson used and I guess this came from a comic that was discovered at San Diego comic con on a table which is. Really fantastic that that’s where the story came from I saw it on Twitter and’s I was like this is your reminder to finish your comic or your story or whatever because here it was like on a table at Sand Diego Comic Con and 2019 I was there I didn’t see the comic but somebody picked it up and then it became this movie. Very cool. That’s kind of trusting in the serendipity of the universe too. There are these things that move beyond what we can control and understand but they work in our favor this this is like Taoism this is like the flow of the tao right. So the more you can get out of your own way the more that this can work for you and so this is how Owen Wilson’s line has the other meaning if you sit with the problem. The answer will come to you. You’re not sitting there with your brows furrowed demanding. You know trying to calculate doing the calculation in your head or something like that you allow it to come to you and that’s much like storytelling and this is why.
You know if we go back to talking about learning in school about taking exams and so forth working your way methodically through the exam might work for some people know what your process is and own it. But for many people if you. Are in tune with yourself if your mind is clear and you’re going to an exam you can look at a problem and the answer will come to you and for me I I learned to never go back over the exam because if I went back over and changed the answer I would in. Inevitably change it wrong. It was second -guessing myself is just like always bad and I’ve learned this about myself know what your process is um, a lot of writers talk about that when they get stuck when they slow down when the story isn’t working. That they know that they’ve made a mistake and that means that they need to go back that they’ve gone down a blind alley and they need to go back and figure it out. Um, for me, it means that I need to peck away and keep going because if i. Change my mind if I go back. That’s second guessing myself and I know for me that second guess sing myself is always wrong. So for me, the ideal is to get that creative flow and and I spent and this is sort of the part I don’t always talk about but um. I may have mentioned from time to time that I spent a lot of years doing martial arts um like more than 15 years doing kung fu taichee bag washingi various martial arts forms um various kinds of meditation and. I did a lot of work to kind of clear the garbage out of my mind. Um and be able to sort of sit with myself in silence to eliminate all of the distractions and overthinking. To get out of my own way that was something we talked about a whole lot getting out of your own way and so I think that’s part of why I can do what I can do and it and david has said it. Yeah because we did that together and he’s like yeah you know you’re just really good at. Clearing everything out. It’s sort of like having that nice open pipe with all of the garbage gone and just letting that story flow in and I don’t no matter how I talk about it here. It probably sounds like I’m laboring over it. But ideally I get to the point where it just comes and I just type.
But comes in when I get to the point where I’m really really thinking about it. That’s when I slow down and I think I I get in the way of the story so that wasn’t necessarily what I had started up talking about today or planned to talk about today but I won’t get my own way. Same as here on the podcast. Um, yeah, so wish me luck I’ll be back here tomorrow morning hopefully feeling good about things and yeah, you guys all have a wonderful Thursday good luck. Um. Doing whatever it is. You need to do take some time to to clear your mind and just silence all the distractions you all take care bye bye.