Friday, February 10, 2012

The Elusive Creative Process by Erin Healy

We feel tremendous satisfaction at completing the closing paragraph—the last line—the final punctuation mark on a manuscript. But, this also means it’s time to begin a new story, and a blank computer screen can feel overwhelming—even paralyzing. We may search for answers on how to remedy this affliction. Today, author Erin Healy shares personal experiences and candid thoughts on the creative process. Enjoy! ~ Dawn

The Elusive Creative Process
by Erin Healy

I’m writing this blog today instead of working on my seventh novel, because I have that feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach—the one that says There’s no way you can eat the whole elephant … AGAIN. I blame half of this self-doubt on the reality of the writing life. Most authors I know experience at least a couple of days of this feeling off and on before that first draft is on paper.

I blame the other half of my panic on the fact that I’m still figuring out my creative process. After six books, I haven’t figured out exactly how Erin Healy should go about writing a novel. I look with envy and a little suspicion on those who swear by a particular story-crafting method. Is their confidence in it is real, or are they just trying to talk themselves out of their own dread?

In the beginning I swore by outlines—until my outlines kept falling apart. My first two books were co-authored affairs that might have imprisoned me if not for my veteran partner Ted Dekker, who can (given three weeks in an isolated trailer) write himself out of any situation. In the third novel, my first effort without Ted, I knew the story’s destination but had trouble getting my characters to go there. In the fourth, I gave up outlining. The resulting freedom to discover added new dimension to my writing. On the downside, I kept losing hold of my story the way it’s hard to keep a firm grip on a flopping fish. My fifth novel started with lots of pictures and plot notes pasted to a tri-fold science-fair board, where I could keep the heart of the story ever before my eyes. It failed to solve all my story problems, though. My sixth novel existed as a chaotic dry erase board spewing rainbow ideas. It was very stream-of-consciousness. Very Faulkneresque. The opposite of an outline. Soon I ran out of space.

I called my editor in a panic. The story wasn’t coming together. I might miss my deadline. “Shouldn’t I have my creative process figured out by now?” I demanded.

She laughed at me and said, “Is that how you think this works?”

Her words were kind, and oddly empowering. They gave me permission to trust my gut—I have a good gut—and to focus more carefully on the story than on my method for writing it. 
Within days I had a breakthrough. 

If you have a method that always works for you, please tell all. I might use your approach sometime. But if you feel like you have to reinvent the wheel each time in order to tell your best story, that’s okay. As a fellow re-inventor, I humbly offer these observations:

  • Formulaic processes tend to yield formulaic products. If you’re after freshness, you’ll have to stay open to new approaches. This is a good thing.
  • You don’t want your stories to be like anyone else’s. So why should your creative process(es) be like anyone else’s? Keep trying to find your own way. Make the effort an adventure.
  •  Keep what works; throw away what doesn’t. In spite of my outlining failures, outlining two to three chapters at a time helps me keep my writing momentum.
  • Your story is more important than your method. Don’t let your search for the perfect method eclipse anything your story needs to make it great. I bet you have a good gut too. 

I'm a little amused that my Faulkneresque approach is the one that has yielded both my highest level of stress and my best effort to date. Maybe I’ll try it again sometime. But for novel seven, I’m trying Scrivener. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Erin Healy is an editor who’s had the privilege of working with many excellent storytellers (who may be experiencing a strange glee at her self-disclosure here). She is the author of six novels, most recently The Baker’s Wife and House of Mercy (July 2012).

To find out more about Erin and her books, please visit:
Facebook: erinhealybooks    
Twitter: @erinhealybooks