In this fast-moving world, it's too easy to think that speed is the answer to writing a book or building a career as an author. But creativity doesn't work like that for everyone, and the joy of writing is in the journey, not the destination.
In today's article, Ginger Moran goes through the four stages of writing: Conceive, Create, Craft, and Connect.
For many of us, creativity and self-expression are fundamental to who we are — we’ve been listening to and telling stories from way back.
And we aren’t the only ones who see story as essential. Freud saw it as central to human experience and used story as the means of healing wounded psyches.
Jung saw it as a way of dipping into the collective unconscious, the stream of experience that underlies all of history and humanity. And the Bible itself tells us that in the beginning was the word.
So, if creativity is so fundamental to our being, what makes it so hard sometimes to write what we see in our minds?
Sometimes life gets in the way. And sometimes we get in our own way by not understanding that there are stages to the process, which, like any other natural stages, cannot be hurried or one put before the other.
I understand both ways of slowing down the process. I was a writer with a PhD in creative writing and national publications and awards, a professor of creative writing, and a mother of two young boys, when my life changed utterly. I got divorced and my elderly father came to live with me when he was diagnosed with cancer. My full-time work turned into quadruple time.
It was a hectic period, full of the kind of details and exhaustion that take over your brain, and I pretty much couldn’t remember what writing was, never mind do any of it
I took refuge in some old tricks I’d learned about writing even the smallest amount on a daily basis and began to pile up the pages again.
I base the way I think about this now in a model that the author and life coach Martha Beck originated. In the cycle of change model she describes, people go through predictable stages of change much like a butterfly does.
With her permission, I’ve applied these stages to writing a book.
Our natural tendency when writing is to push when we should be resting and to resist the difficulty when the process calls for discipline.
Stage 1: Conceive
In the first stage of writing a book, which I call “Conceive,” you are aware that there is an idea for a book, maybe, somewhere in your head.
You aren’t sure—there are just glimpses of it from time to time. Sometimes you think you’ll just go on with your life, and ignore this pesky idea, and sometimes you are just gripped with the idea that you have to capture the thoughts, bits of dialogue, the world that is developing in your head.
You emerge from those times as if you’d been on a journey.
Like the caterpillar, you have climbed into the chrysalis and begun the long process of disappearing into your book. And, like the caterpillar, you don’t want to look too closely at the process.
Because, if your idea is actually like a caterpillar, it has melted down into something unrecognizable. It seems impossible that this thing that is unrecognizable could be a beautiful butterfly or a book.
What is important at this stage is not to disturb the process, to let it be a mess.
The mantra I suggest for this first stage is, “I don’t know what is going on with this book. And that’s okay.”
This isn’t the time to think about publication, or how good it is or isn’t, or platform. Don’t think about what people will say. Because the people who “ooh” and “ahh” over butterflies when they see them fully formed would be appalled if they saw the goo that was inside the chrysalis early in the process.
Stage 2: Create
The next stage is the draft writing stage, which I call “Create.”
Here you are actively dreaming your book into being, writing that terrible first draft, and it is still a genuine mess. That is what the first draft needs to be.
When Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, talks about writing a really awful first draft people often take that as permission to write badly, but what she is really saying is that it HAS to be bad — or you might not get the real lifeblood, the heartbeat.
I often tell people I’m working with that they need to make their book worse — they need to pull off the prettiness, the need to please, and go to the heart of the problem. They have to let their characters suffer. Because that is where the real story is.
The mantra for this stage is, “There are no rules to writing the first draft. And that’s okay.”
Stage 3: Craft
The next stage is the revision stage, which I call “Craft.” Here you will need to know the craft, apply it, test it, be willing to revise and revise until you have it right.
I have heard from best-selling mystery writer Mary Burton, who is prolific, that she puts each book through seven revisions, from first draft through several stages of developmental editing to address plot, character development, and dialogue, to copyediting for coherence, to proofreading for technical corrections, to one final read-through.
Although it is often the case that you have a good idea, if you don’t know the craft, you are going to have to learn it. And when you’ve learned it, you’ve going to have to practice it and be willing to fail — a lot.
It is easy to write and publish a book these days, but if you want it to have lasting relevance and readership, one thing is required: it has to be good.
Here the butterfly is struggling into being, doing the hard work of taking her final form. Now is the time to embrace the difficulty of the process, to buckle down and learn the craft, ask for and listen to good critique, and revise and revise.
Although you can do this on your own, it is easier, faster, and more reliable with help.
My mantra for this stage, is, “This writing a good book is much harder than I thought. And that’s okay.”
Stage 4: Connect
And then comes the fourth stage: taking the book into the world.
For many of us who love the dreaming and the drafting and who might even get a kick of a hard revision process, the “Connect” stage of publishing can be confusing and the marketing more of a challenge than we ever dreamed.
For one thing, nothing ever seems to stay the same in the world of publishing. But this has always been the way publishing has been — just when the monks got good at copying manuscripts, Gutenberg came up with the printing press!
Change is at the very heart of the business and the ”golden days” of publishing are just that — a dream and delusion that either never were or lasted briefly.
When the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, a whole new adventure and set of challenges is ahead. It’s time to take full advantage of the good advice you’ve gotten about publishing and platform, toughen up, and have a clear goal, and pursue it.
My mantra for this stage is, “Everything is changing in the world of publishing and marketing. And that’s okay.”
It’s a Natural Process
People often make the first two stages of conceiving and creating the first draft much harder than they need to be by not understanding that these are the stages of hands-off, self-compassionate acceptance of messiness and imperfection.
And the last stages—the revision and the publication and marketing—are by their very nature demanding, difficult stages that call for self-discipline, craft, investment, resilience, and persistence.
In the natural course of things, my kids are grown and my dad gone. Now I’m a full-time writer, speaker, and book mentor who has written five novels, one collection of essays on being a single working mom, and a nonfiction book.
We can make the seasons of our life and writing easier by understanding their nature. I am and work with people doing the work of book metamorphosis every day. The work is both challenging and miraculous.
How do you approach the different stages of writing your books? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Ginger Moran, Ph.D., has published in salon.com, Oxford American, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and magazines. Her first novel, The Algebra of Snow, was nominated for a Pushcart Editor’s Choice Award and published in 2012.
She is a certified Martha Beck Life Coach and KMCC Creativity Coach and a member of the National Speakers Association Academy. She now works full time as a writer, speaker, book mentor, and editor.
Her book mentoring business, Creative Authority, is here to help you write the story you have in your heart and mind and get it to your readers. She offers teaching through her blog and a free strategy call. You can sign up for either or both at her website.