Do you remember your first-ever creative writing flow state? Mine was in 2013. I didn’t start with a beat sheet, or an outline, or even a protagonist; just a class exercise involving two characters.
I sat in a chair, and I started writing, and I didn’t stop for three months, except to go to work and talk to my boyfriend occasionally.
I didn’t pause for breath; I didn’t jump on Twitter to see who else was writing; I didn’t log words. It was true flow.
Four years later, I took the play to a small stage in London. It was a milestone for sure, but four years is a long lead time for a single story. Isn’t it?
Since then, I’ve invested more in learning about structure and plotting and, critically about the art of planning the beats of your story, so it doesn’t take four years to write. But flow writing is by a long way my most favourite part of the process.
You’ve heard the quote from Thomas Edison about genius being 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration, haven’t you? The same goes for creative writing.
I keep coming back to bicycle analogies but being in a flow state is similar to downhill mountain biking; flying down the mountain at top speed with no fear.
With the wind rushing by you, time disappearing and at the end of the session, you arrive, exhilarated.
If momentum is the inspiration, I need a way of turning the other 99% of the process into flying down the mountain too.
My flow stage is being in the story rather than building the foundations with plot points and act breaks. I try and plot it out, but I get stuck, which means I slow down, get bored, and do something else or give up and find something more dynamic to do.
If I don’t fix this process, I’m doomed to spend the entire journey downhill stilted; breaks burning and in danger of flying off the bike and maybe one time I just won’t get back on.
It’s time to fix the mechanics and increase that flow state across the entire writing process.
What’s your favourite part of the process? What’s the gap between the slowest and the fastest activities within one creative project?
What small steps can we take to create more flow and less waste?
That’s what I’ve been investigating.
Laura Vanderkam, writer and goddess of time management talks in her book 168 Hours; You’ve Got More Time Than You Think of the idea of your core competencies; the things that you’re good at and that, in doing, add value to your life.
We all have them, she said, but we don’t often focus on them.
Savvy corporations are, right now, investing in people competencies because it’s people, not tools that are driving creative and innovative solutions.
Laura advocates outsourcing the activities that fall outside of your core competencies which makes sense if you’re spending hours designing websites when your true skill is writing short stories.
But within the creative process, there are other competencies, and there are gaps and I think it would be difficult to outsource the organisational elements of writing a story if you’re a solo writer.
Instead, perhaps we can learn to turn our other competencies into the core activities that lead us to the flow state?
My core competency is creative writing, but my planning and plotting skills are not as good. In the creative realm, the two things are interconnected; inspiration and perspiration are the necessary states.
Freewriting = inspiration = core competency but what about the other 99%
As I move into a new project and new type of writing it’s time to revisit my process or risk spending another massive amount of time strolling from draft to draft; albeit in a state of freewriting bliss.
What’s your core competency within your creative endeavour? Maybe you’re a planner already? Perhaps that’s your flow state; how do you then get into the writing zone?
The Whole Process
My creative writing process looks like this:
1. The idea comes from outer space (maybe my favourite bit)
2. I sketch out the protagonist and their issues.
3. Create the other characters
4. Character biographies
5. Figure out the three acts and ten plot points (I highly recommend a Scott Myers course for this — his classes are the best I’ve ever taken)
6. Write the outline
7. Write the story
8. Rewrite, write, rewrite, and so on.
Whenever I’m in a plotting, rather than writing phase my momentum and energy dither; that’s every part but writing the story.
I see what Edison means about the 1% inspiration.
If I were to fish out the three stages of the process that are least likely to get me into flow state they would be:
1. Figuring out the three acts and ten plot points
2. Writing the outline
3. Creating the other characters in the story
If I then look at the differentiating characteristics between the phases of plotting and writing, they are:
1. One style of writing flows with fast-paced typing and badly spelt sentences, and the other is s more rigid note-taking style with lots of breaks to stop and think.
2. One involves operating within the story and the other working outside of it.
3. One is the left brain and the other right brain.
Now I know where I’m pulling on the breaks in the process perhaps there’s some shapeshifting I can do to change the properties of those activities.
For example, changing from a short, note-taking process to a paragraph style flow when I’m drawing up characters.
Taking time to quickly visualise the story together before I start putting the plot points together helps get me in the zone.
I know that the end of plotting is to figure out the information, but if that stage stifles you, then throwing a quick structure together to work underneath could work.
Like a temporary structure at a building site or the plastic supports that the 3D printer creates to enable a print to be constructed.
Like Hemingway’s six-word story just to get the images moving around in your head. Recreate the conditions of being inside the story, in the way we recreate the structure of our day or move around objects on our desk to give it a different appearance.
If shapeshifting your process doesn’t work for you, I find a good dose of the +10 always gets down me down the hill quickly.
When my boyfriend tells a story, he generally exaggerates by a minimum of 10%. I call it his “plus 10”.
Sometimes when I’m lost outside of flow, I forget to remember what the end game is. A fantastic novel, of course, or an award-winning screenplay, a shit hot director on your script; what is the finished product?
Now, let your imagination loose, what is the +10 on your end goal or product?
Mine is a finished novel, ten agent offers, a Netflix option with the director of my choice and since we’re in the abundant land of the imagination let’s film it in Corsica and move my family and me out there for a year.
Can you feel the wheels rolling down the hill towards a new and +10 exciting destination?
What’s your +10, if it can’t get you back into the flow it’s not big enough.
Up the magic ante.
These are my two tactics for increasing the flow state of my writing process.
Sure, at some stage, I need to take a more cautious editorial head to the process that doesn’t involve flying down a hill, but until then I like to maximise my time in the creative zone.
Try and compare the characteristics of your flow stage with your stilted ones and see where you can change the dimension to create a different experience; one more similar to your peak performance.
The Pro Is In The Process
Jo Nesbo, the Norweigan crime writer, says in an interview with WHS that he loves every stage of the writing process. With a warm smile, he summarises what he likes about writing; adding an analogy ranging from the first tug on a fishing line to being on stage playing a gig.
Having written a crime series, novels, kids books and stories that have been adapted into Hollywood Films and a Netflix 3-part series, it’s safe to call him a seasoned storytelling pro.
And a super relaxed one who says he loves his process; and I believe him.
Maybe the process of going from an amateur to a pro is optimising your process so that, like Jo, the whole damned thing is one big state of bliss.
I listened to an interview with the Motocross champion Ricky Carmichael this year, and he talked about hating being an amateur and not enjoying the sport at all until he was a professional.
Was this because as a professional he’d figured it all out? He’d learned his lessons, made his mistakes he’d found his line of flow?
Is this why reading a thousand ‘how I write’ blogs don’t help with your process? Because it needs to come from within you; not from a book or podcast?
All that remains to be done is to take on the wise advice of Al Einstein and try to:
Out of Clutter Find Simplicity
From Discord Find Harmony
In The Middle of Difficulty lies opportunity.
And keep those wheels rolling down the hill.
Thanks for reading.