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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

How My Writing Process Saved the Day, and How it Can Save Yours: Guest Post by Joel D Canfield


JoelDCanfield.2015.noir_

Guest Blogger Joel D Canfield

Once again, author and author consultant Joel D Canfield made an intriguing comment, this time on the question of Who Gets More Creative Flow: Planners or Pantsers, so I invited him to expand his comment into this guest post. Joel is the author of fourteen books and the Someday Box blog for those who want to get a book out of the someday box and into the world. You can find more of Joel’s insights at www.somedaybox.com

Yesterday my novel in progress came to a screeching halt. I was convinced, having reached the first plot point 25% of the way in, that the story I wanted to create was broken beyond repair.

Wait; after 25,000 words about the clinical environment and militaristic rigidity of the Agency for the Prevention of Historically Anomalous Events, we’re jumping to an ancient jungle? Who’s going to follow that? What do I even write? And if I write that, what comes next?

What was I thinking when I planned this?

That last question was my answer. Because I had planned this.

Here’s why that matters so very much.

I Am Pantser, Hear Me Whimper

roller coaster canstockphoto9677999My first work of long fiction was pantsed. I sat down every day for a month and wrote an average of 1,667 words, every single day. I never knew, when my fingers hit the keys, what was going to happen next. As a result, every day was somewhere on the spectrum between intense excitement and abject terror.

Can you say “dopamine fix”?

It was so much fun, I started another. A touching coming-of-age story came to a grinding halt when abject terror crushed intense excitement in the dust.

Knowing I’d succeeded once, I tried again. This one became a 40,000-word draft, a complete story. But not a very good one. It was soft, confusing, disjointed, vague, and ultimately unsatisfying. That went in the metaphorical drawer along with the coming-of-age story.

I’d done it once. What would it take to do it again?

The one I’d finished had been a story I was deeply passionate about and I was driven by clear deadlines. Obviously, I just needed to find the right story, put myself on the clock, and type like the wind.

After 10,000 words, my light mystery with a female protagonist faltered because I didn’t have a clue where to go or what to write. This time, it wasn’t so much fear as despair that went into the drawer with a book I badly wanted to write—but which I didn’t want to write badly.

My Construction Background Rises from the Ashes

blueprint canstockphoto4934987Fortunately, my LBW (Life Before Writing) saved me. I’d studied architecture and worked in construction for quite a few years. Much of my work in the architectural field was writing technical specifications for construction projects. I knew that creating a building without extensive plans would be irrational, dangerous, expensive, and futile.

Planning prevents problems. But how could I possibly plan art?

That’s when I discovered story structure. And it saved my life as a writer.

Story Has Structure — Who Knew?

Story is part of our mental and emotional engineering. The structure of story is hardwired into our brains.

Familiarity with that structure gives me a framework to start with, allowing me greater freedom to wax creative as I move through the writing process.

Over the next three years I blended pieces I learned from Larry Brook’s Story Engineering and Story Physics, Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid, and Robert McKee’s Story to create a planning process that puts all the hard work of figuring stuff out up front, when I’m still fired up about the story and at peak creative energy regarding the project.

The planning process I’ve adopted allows me to skip back and forth at will between analytical structural planning and intuitive storytelling creativity during the early stages. Flashes of insight can be worked into a loose framework before it’s set in stone.

And then, once the framework is solid, sensible, structurally sound, I can dive in every day, pantsing my way in a frenzy of emotional outpouring through each segment the plan calls for.

Trusting My Own Blueprints

trustWhen construction workers aren’t sure why there’s a cutout in the sheetrock here or a bit of unusual framing there, they don’t have to worry about it. They trust the reason for the apparent anomaly is detailed into the plans.

When we are of two minds, plotter in advance and pantser in the fray, the creative mind (aka construction worker) sometimes forgets what the analytical mind (aka architect) put in place and why. Hence my inner wail yesterday, What was I thinking when I planned this?

I remembered that as long as the construction workers trust the blueprint, as long as the creative mind trusts the plan, it works.

So I trusted the process, ignored the self-doubt du jour, and wrote what the plan told me I needed to write. Today, it’s beginning to make sense. I’m going to trust my process because the story made sense when I created all the critical elements. When I review them now, it’s still a ripping yarn.

Even after yesterday’s panic, I’m writing today. And will be tomorrow. And every day until my scifi adventure is finished.

In the next post, I’ll describe my life-saving planning process in more detail.

Joel D Canfield writes literary noir mysteries he calls Chandleresque introspectives. He recently started experimenting with writing his first reading love, scifi adventure. Read about his books at http://JoelDCanfield.com and his indie author consulting at http://SomedayBox.com.

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23 Comments on “How My Writing Process Saved the Day, and How it Can Save Yours: Guest Post by Joel D Canfield”

  1. Icy Sedgwick April 25, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

    I never used to plan, and to some extent I still don’t – I prefer to have the major points in mind but I like to make stuff up as I go along in between those points! But yes, having a plan is definitely useful – if it doesn’t make sense in the plan, then it won’t make sense in the novel! I’d also recommend James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure (http://amzn.to/1SJ8lX1) too!

    Like

    • Joel D Canfield April 25, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

      I love the freedom to pants my way from point to point, but I can no longer stand the work of rewriting to tuck in foreshadowing, weave in subplots, and emphasize theme, all that stuff that is either planned or rewritten, but never happens by accident.

      James Scott Bell is intimately acquainted with craft.

      Like

      • Icy Sedgwick April 25, 2016 at 2:24 pm #

        I suppose I always re-read my work as I go and I leave a short summary of what’s happened so far at the start of the next chapter so I don’t need to do a lot of rewriting at the end.

        Like

        • Joel D Canfield April 25, 2016 at 2:30 pm #

          That’s fine if you have your whole story in your head (which, of course, would be planning) but if you don’t, anything that happens after the midpoint will affect things that happened before the midpoint.

          Like

          • Icy Sedgwick April 25, 2016 at 3:04 pm #

            I do understand how structure works. My method has been working for me so far.

            Like

    • rosannebane April 25, 2016 at 4:52 pm #

      Thanks for the recommendation, Icy!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Donna McGuigan April 21, 2016 at 7:01 pm #

    Joel, this is so great thank you. I so look forward to more about your ” life-saving planning process in more detail.” I am currently gridding my completed novel with Shaun’s work and am reading Robert Mckee’s “Story”…and am somewhat overwhelmed with all the info, but plodding along determined to get it all straight. I really grok the importance of the blueprint, am intrigued by this info. Thanks again.

    Donna

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joel D Canfield April 21, 2016 at 7:55 pm #

      Those are deep works, Donna, so don’t think you’re slow because it feels overwhelming.

      My coaching goal is to create systems to help me hold the process in my head. Then I can help other authors get their heads around it a bit at a time.

      Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

      Liked by 2 people

    • Karen J April 22, 2016 at 12:54 pm #

      Good morning, Joel!
      Thank you for these fine “What my problem was, and what I did about it” words of wisdom. All applicable to the rest of Life, too.

      Like

  3. 1authorcygnetbrown April 21, 2016 at 8:28 am #

    This is exactly my view of why so many people claim to have writer’s block. They haven’t developed a structure upon which to build their stories (or in the case of nonfiction, information.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joel D Canfield April 21, 2016 at 8:34 am #

      Bingo! I sometimes have a “creative block” during my planning, because I need to take the time to create something entirely new, and that ain’t alway easy.

      But when it comes time to write, though I still deal with Resistance every single day, it’s never because I don’t know what to write.

      Liked by 1 person

    • rosannebane April 21, 2016 at 9:30 am #

      Hi Cygnet, I agree that lack of research (for both fiction and nonfiction) can be a source of resistance (aka writer’s block). And when you do your research, sometimes the following incubation stage where you figure how you will put the pieces together in your unique and fresh way can FEEL like resistance or block.

      My experience as a teaching artist and creativity coach gives me great compassion (and solutions) for writers experiencing resistance. You might be surprised how many writers I work with struggle, not because they haven’t developed the structure, but for a multitude of other reasons.

      As Joel says, resistance shows up when he’s writing even when he has a structure. What I tell students, clients and readers is that the point is not to never experience resistance, it’s to know how to respond to resistance, how to keep going. And boy, is Joel right about having and trusting a plan!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Joel D Canfield April 21, 2016 at 9:33 am #

        Rosanne, do you think there are different kinds of “writer’s block”, in that sometimes we don’t know what to write, and other times, we can’t write for more Resistance-related reasons?

        Liked by 2 people

        • rosannebane April 21, 2016 at 10:21 am #

          Great question, Joel. Absolutely! There are many sources of resistance and they present in different ways. Sometimes thinking “I don’t know what to write” is really perfectionism (which is one form of resistance I mention in Around the Writer’s Block). We do know what we want to write, but we keep stopping ourselves because what we’re about to write “sounds stupid” in our head.
          Sometimes we don’t know what to write because we haven’t moved through incubation to the A-ha insight and we’re not ready to write. This is why I encourage writers to commit to Product Time instead of writing time. There are things we can do to help ourselves move through incubation and plenty of writing-related tasks we can do during Product Time even though we haven’t reached the fingers-on-the-board, pen-on-the-page stage. In fact, there’s a lot we have to do before we CAN get to the fotb, potp stage. I think a lot of writers stall out because they don’t understand the stages of the creative process.
          Thanks for the question Joel, you just inspired several future posts!

          Liked by 3 people

          • Joel D Canfield April 21, 2016 at 10:31 am #

            Ah, yes; product time.

            I’m still squirming a bit as I feel my way through this shift in my story. I need to trust that I can clarify confusing points and make the transition more reader-friendly during rewrites.

            Taking time to live with my high-level outline, thinking it through at that level instead of the sentence-by-sentence beat level, will remind me that the story works, I just have to get the bones down so I can flesh them out later.

            Liked by 2 people

          • rosannebane April 21, 2016 at 3:05 pm #

            Thanks for sharing the ongoing struggle, Joel. It’s hard to remember, so it’s valuable when someone (you in this case) demonstrates how our understanding of the story we’re writing grows over time, which means that uncertainty is our near-constant companion, even with a plan. You know, of course, that the questions you have and the questions you fear your readers will have are gifts; recording them now will guide you as you draft and as you rewrite. It’s our only ego that thinks we’re supposed to know everything all the time that makes those questions scary. Don’t know how the transition to ancient jungle is going to work? Woo-hoo! The adventure begins anew.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Joel D Canfield April 21, 2016 at 3:52 pm #

            Have I mentioned lately that you’re completely mad?

            (Yeah, me too. It’s working so far.)

            Liked by 1 person

          • rosannebane April 22, 2016 at 12:11 pm #

            I think creative madness is part of the job description. 😉

            Like

  4. Joel D Canfield April 21, 2016 at 8:20 am #

    Thanks so much for sharing your toys, Rosanne.

    Liked by 2 people

    • rosannebane April 21, 2016 at 8:26 am #

      My pleasure, Joel! Thanks for sharing your “Legos”.

      Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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