Before I talk about the creative side of writing — especially creating believable characters — I want to explain my writing process. It might be your process, as well.
Usually, I default to (admittedly archaic) terms like “right brain” for the creative side of thinking, and “left brain” for the analytical, tidy process. But, you could call it yin and yang. Or Bert (analytical) and Ernie (creative), I suppose.
Here’s an illustration, courtesy of CartoonADay.com:
So, here’s how I’d describe writing my writing process:
- The spark or idea that leads to a book: it’s from the creative side.
- If I’m working on fiction, the brainstorming as I build my story… those ideas are from the creative side, too. So far, for my current book, I’ve scribbled seven full pages of notes on yellow, lined paper. (If I’m working on nonfiction, the brainstorming is still creative, but more of a connect-the-dots exercise. More of a “what are the questions, and what are the answers?” approach.)
- For me, especially when I write nonfiction, the next step is a mindmap to create a tidy, organized plan for my chapters. Clearly, that’s from my analytical side. (If it’s fiction, I might create a flowchart for each main character. Things like, “When she faces the dragon, does she take out a sword? And, if so, what are the possible outcomes, and which fits best with my story?”)
- Then, I finalize my formal book outline. That’s definitely an analytical process.
- When I write my first draft…? It creative. And sometimes messy, or even really really bad. I’ve learned to throw that together as quickly as possible. No tweaks. No edits. No proofreading, either. I spill the words onto the page, and hope they make sense to me, later.
- Editing follows. That should be analytical, and somewhat merciless. Several best-selling authors have recommended a book I own but haven’t read yet: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. (If you can’t be objective about your writing, hire an editor. Or swap manuscripts with another writer, so you edit each other’s books.)
- Rewrites are the next step. They’re creative.
- Steps 6 & 7 can be repeated, multiple times. Beta readers may be involved, as well.
- Then, publish.
Whether or not this is your writing process, too, it’s important to let your analytical side have the last word.
When your analytical side says your book is “good enough,” PUBLISH IT.
Do not let your vulnerable, creative side insist, “No, it’s not perfect yet! Let’s give this one more tweak!”
(If you need more confidence, I recommend David Lee Martin’s free report, Published is Better than Perfect.)
Likewise, never end your writing process with words that landed on the page while your creative side was still steering the ship.
Editing must always be the final step before publishing.
(That’s “do as I say, not as I do” advice. Every time I’ve rushed to publish a book, thinking my latest creative additions were superb and needed no further editing, I’ve regretted it.)
Why I’m Telling You This
Right now, I’m going through nearly a dozen past books. I wrote some of them over a decade ago. Others are more recent. All of them desperately need improvements, but — until recently — I hadn’t a clue how to fix them.
Thank heavens for a recent “ah-HA!” moment, when I read William Martell’s book, Act Two Secrets. It’s brilliant, and identified a big Achilles heel in my writing.
Then I read Finish Your Book in Three Drafts… While You Still Love It, by Stuart Horwitz. It gave me a step-by-step way to analyze my books and improve them.
I’ll talk about the Horwitz book in a future article. Meanwhile, though I think his concepts are brilliant and they’ve helped me a lot… his writing books swing between boring and so zany I’m not always sure what his point is.
If you’re determined to see what I mean, immediately, start with Finish Your Book…, preferably in print. If you get to the last page and wonder what in Hades you just read, get Blueprint Your Bestseller. The latter will be repetitive and boring, but it explains several points more clearly. Maybe.
If you can get past the boring & zany stuff, I think his approach is pure genius. (And, as I said, I’ll talk about it in a future article.)
About a week ago, I realized why my characters are generally flat and uninteresting. Maybe even unbelievable.
I’d been trying to construct them analytically, with endless “character interview” forms, etc.
That hasn’t worked.
Usually, all of my heroic characters sound like me, and all of my villains sound like Miss Smith, the seventh-grade English teacher who told me (often, and usually in front of the entire class) that I’d never be a writer.
By mid-book, even I am bored with my characters. They’re flat. Often, they’re far too predictable.
But, so far, character interviews have not sparked my creativity. Deciding that my character’s favorite color is blue, and she thinks ketchup is an abomination… that provides quirks but not character.
(If you want to try character interviews, talented author K. M. Weiland has generously shared 100+ Questions to Help You Interview Your Character. Clearly, her system works well for her, and many others.)
I’ve needed a right-brain, yin, creative approach to crafting characters. And that’s what I’ll talk about in my next article.
Meanwhile, take a look at your own writing process. Make sure creativity is in the driver’s seat when you’re coming up with ideas.
And then be sure you’re handing the reins to your analytical side when it’s time to see what works — and what doesn’t — in your first draft, and especially in the final version.