A PARENT IN MY child’s school recently forwarded me an 11-minute video about skills we’ll need for the 21st century. What really stuck with me was the bit about creativity:
“Most creative thoughts happen when your mind is left to wander: daydreaming; doing the dishes; exercising.”
This rang true for me. My last novel, Thieving Forest, had a lot of plot components that needed careful coordination, and in many ways these were cerebral exercises: how long would it take someone to walk through the Great Black Swamp, south to north? How long would it take someone to canoe up the Maumee River? How could these two characters from these two places meet up, and where?
I made a lot of lists, and I did a lot of calculations. When I wondered how a Potawatomi would greet someone, I looked it up on the internet. When a character reminisced about her childhood in 1790, what might she say? All in all I spent a lot of time reading and writing things down.
But when I got stuck, I went to the beach.
Whenever I walk along the beach looking at the sand dunes and the ocean waves and the little tiny black specks of surfers braving the cold Northern California waters, and I think about my current work-in-progress, my imagination begins to sort of hop from scenario to scenario. I picture characters doing this or that, saying this or that. It feels a bit like playing. There are times when nothing stands out, but most often I have an “Ah-ha” moment. I imagine something happening, or a character saying something, and I think, That’s It.
I can’t think my way into this place, I just have to sort of imagine it.
Daydreaming is an activity that doesn’t seem to get a lot of buzz lately. Ever since the Puritans came up with their eponymous work ethic, we’re all trying to get a lot more done in a lot less time. I’ve heard podcasts targeted for writers trying to speed up the process of getting a novel finish so that they (we) can write a lot more books. There’s a definite business model for writers that is based on producing as many books as quickly as you can.
However, taking a softer approach is also a worthwhile model. Time away from the keyboard is not necessarily time wasted. Daydreaming, wool gathering, trying out various scenarios in your mind while you walk the dog or do the dishes—all these can make for a much more complex, interesting story.
Don’t get me wrong, you still need to put words on paper or screen, and that requires discipline. But taking some time to not write can be very productive.
How do you dream your stories?
But only four of those seven years were spent on research and writing: it took me three years to find an agent; work with her on revisions; send the manuscript out to editors; get precariously close to an offer (twice); research the self-publishing business; hire professionals to edit and format the manuscript and design its cover; and, finally, publish the novel.
What I like to say about this process is: I’m now both a writer and a small business owner.
It has been an interesting and fulfilling journey. Thieving Forest has sold over six times as many books as my first, traditionally published mystery sold. It’s made me question some business practices I took for granted, and find new ones I had never considered. I feel as though I’m an expert now in this slice of the publishing business — until I remember that it changes day by day! But it’s exciting to be part of an industry in flux.
To mark this one-year anniversary, I’m giving away three signed copies (either paperback or hardcover — winner’s choice) of Thieving Forest. Thanks to everyone who has made this year so successful!
To sign up for the giveaway, please enter your name below. Winners will be notified September 1st. Good luck!