Creativity’s Inevitable Hills and Valleys

Lately I’ve been splitting my writing time between fiction and fact. I’ve written before about how those challenges differ; today, I want to share the commonalities of writing a first draft. Because whether I’m trying to tell the truth or make it up as I go along, there’s a surprising inevitability to the hills and valleys of creating every single story—no matter how long or short they are. 

Hill: Best Thing Ever

I always start off thinking this next piece is going to be the best thing I’ve ever written. Length doesn’t matter; neither does subject matter. The possibilities are seemingly infinite. And it’s going to include every unused anecdote, memory, and fun fact that seems even mildly relevant.

Note: this false confidence is absolutely necessary, because otherwise I’d never start anything.

Valley: Pit of Despair

(With apologies to The Princess Bride)

About a quarter of the way through the first draft, I always start to wonder what this story is “about”—because it can’t, in fact, include everything I dreamed up while I was climbing that “best thing” hill. I have to make choices, and in doing so I winnow the story down to one direction. For a 3000 word profile, that process takes a few hours. For a 75,000 word novel, that takes… well, I’ll let you know in a year or two. 

Note: This is when I realize it’s going to be completely terrible and wonder why I ever committed to writing it. 

Hill: Finding the actual spark

Because I have made a commitment (to an editor, or just to myself), I keep slogging through… and somewhere around the halfway point, I stumble onto some tiny quote or event that points me in the right direction. Once I’ve found my “about”, the rest is just a matter of selecting the right details and anecdotes (or maybe, for fiction, creating a few) so the story moves forward toward its “inevitable” conclusion.

Note: There’s still a lot of work to do.

More to come

I’m not saying this is the most efficient way to create, and there are certainly plenty of valleys and hills ahead… which is why I’m not pulling any life lessons out of this post. But the next time I fall into the creative Pit of Despair, it will help to recognize it as an inevitable part of the process—the first step to figuring out what, in fact, this particular story is really all about. 

How about you—got a process you don’t necessarily like but must go through every time you create something new? Share it in the comments below, or drop me an email. I read and appreciate every single one (from actual humans, anyway). Thanks for reading!

4 Replies to “Creativity’s Inevitable Hills and Valleys”

  1. For me, if there is a “pit of despair,” it often finds me early on, when I’m still writing another story with an earlier deadline and can’t yet get to this one. The other one comes when I get a first reader’s feedback and realize I have more work to do. But that typically leads to the most rewarding rewrite and best hilltop view—after I’ve decided what aspect of the story to hold fast to and what to let go.

    1. I call it the roller coaster theory.

      We slog up the hill clacking away through character development, McGuffins, and necessary plot to get us to the top of the hill, where the payoff is. Then we ride the joy of the payoff to the next necessary development and plot point and the clack , clack, clack begins all over again.

      But at the end, when we glide into the station with a complete novel something that we want others to experience, we get off the coaster and say to our readers…

      “Oh what a ride!”

  2. John,
    Thanks for your comment. Agreed, the best hilltop view is the final one (though I also like that surge of “this will be the best thing I’ve ever written” at the very beginning). Onward up the hills and down the valleys to pieces worth reading!

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