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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.

Keep Your Writing Approach Fresh Guest Post by Cheryl Campbell


Cheryl Campbell

Cheryl Campbell is the author of the Burnt Mountain fantasy series and Echoes of War, book one in the upcoming Echoes trilogy. She describes herself as “a techie with a creative side, or perhaps a creative with a techie side.”

There is no doubt that Cheryl is creative in both her approach and the results. She shares how she combines techie tools with creative thinking in her writing.

Although I can “pants” my way through writing short stories, when I started my first novel, not having an overall plan left me staring at a blank screen for longer than I’m willing to admit. I needed to change my approach.

As a person who requires organization and structure in my day job, I realized I might benefit from adding that to my creative efforts too. I started playing around with different tactics.

What Works in One Place Might – Or Might Not – Work Elsewhere

I tried scribbling notes on paper, sticky notes on the wall, and making notes in Word. I learned Story Grid which relies on spreadsheets to record chapters, scenes, scene turning points, POV, and several other details specific to each scene.

I use spreadsheets every day at my day job and for personal banking and budgeting. Why I had never thought to employ a spreadsheet into my writing practice, I’ll never know. Once I did, the game changed entirely.

© Cheryl Campbell spreadsheet for chapters 1 and 2 of her novel Echoes of War

Scrivener Corkboard feature

After wrapping up my five-book Burnt Mountain fantasy series, I decided to tweak my writing process to start a science fiction trilogy. I switched from Word to Scrivener and gained a wealth of organization tools. (Dave Chesson discusses benefits of Scrivener here.)

I adapted the virtual index cards on Scrivener’s corkboard feature to physical index cards because I prefer pencil and paper when drafting ideas. Plus, they’re easy to work with when I’m waiting in the airports. (More about benefits of index cards.)

My Novel Mix: Cards, Excel and Scrivener

© Cheryl Campbell scene card for chapter 2 of Echoes of War

Each index card was dedicated to a scene, which was roughly the equivalent to a chapter. I drafted each story beat for that scene on the index card and included shorthand designations for tracking miscellaneous details to help me stay organized.

I occasionally moved cards around in sequence, and Scrivener allowed me to easily do the same with chapters I’d already written. Each card ultimately ends up in an Excel spreadsheet with similar notations, which allows me to search the spreadsheet to locate my index card if I need to go back to it.

Scrivener offers a search function and there are several places within Scrivener to add notes, but I prefer the visual layout of my notes in Excel. With Excel I can zoom out and see several chapters with notes all at once; I can’t do that in Scrivener. I also use color coding to highlight specific cells or notes in Excel; if it’s possible to do that in Scrivener, I haven’t figured it out.

© Cheryl Campbell Scrivener screen shot from Echoes of War

I can write for hours using my cards as a guide. I’m not as easily distracted because I have my map in front of me. I don’t wander down rabbit holes; my map keeps me on course. When my travel schedule pushes my primary writing time to weekends, my index cards motivate me to bang out chapter after chapter.

What Works for Me Might – Or Might Not – Work for You

© Can Stock Photo / iqoncept

The way I use index cards, Scrivener and Excel is compatible with the way my brain works. I customized a method that meets my needs for organization and efficiency. You can customize your approach to fit the way your brain works.

If you gravitate toward technical solutions, try a spreadsheet. If you need a visual cue, try using sticky notes on a big wall; I like to stand up when doing this so I can step back from the wall and see how my stickies line up for the story line. Or try the index cards to organize your thoughts and stay on task when you start writing.

Stay flexible as you customize your writing process and tools. What works for one project may need tweaking for the next. Take time once or twice a year to consider what tools, techniques, routines, etc. work for you. What used to help that is no longer necessary or gets in your way now? Is there a tool or technique you stopped using that you might benefit from returning to?

Cheryl Campbell is the award-winning author of the five-novel Burnt Mountain fantasy series and the upcoming science fiction Echoes Trilogy.  

She was born in Louisiana and lived there and in Mississippi prior to moving to Maine. Her varied background includes art, herpetology, emergency department and critical care nursing, and computer systems. In April of 2018, she returned to her interest in a wandering lifestyle which she first did during her graduate studies of garter snakes on Maine islands. She is now rarely in one spot for more than a week before relocating. When not nomadic, she lives in Maine and has won five awards through the New England Book Festival for her fantasy series.

The first novel in the science fiction trilogy, Echoes of War, just released on 10 Sept 2019 through SparkPress. You can find her online at cherylscreativesoup.com and on Instagram and Facebook at cherylscreativesoup.

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