As my tenure as Toronto Public Library's Writer in Residence winds down, I'm summarizing the three workshops I held. This gives me a chance to cover the main points for people who were unable to attend (and I know there were many).
We held the first workshop on March 25th, 2010. This opening salvo was on creativity. The issue: how to generate ideas, and how to take them from an unformed state to a final, finished story.
In this workshop, I used a scheme based on many studies on creativity. I encouraged the workshop participants to think of the creative process as a series of phases, each one with its own scope and place in the shaping of a story. What is most important is that these phases proceed in a cycle:
Looking at this scheme, you can see that the activity most people think of as writing--actually putting down words on paper (or on the screen) comes last. Each of the phases prior to actually drafting has its own value. Most of us conflate them in our mind; we mash daydreaming and outlining, plotting and revising in a chaotic way. My suggestion was that you give equal time and emphasis to each of the following activities:
- Generate/revisit. This is the daydreaming phase, during which stories gestate. Daydreaming can take years before a story pops out of your subconscious; you can speed the process up by brainstorming and similar methods, but the key is to treat your daydreaming time as important, and distinct. Ideas that you capture in the form of notes, unfinished scenes, character sketches etc., form the raw material for the next phase. Once you've gone through the entire creative cycle once, returning to this phase is the essential first step in re-envisioning the story prior to editing and revising.
- Envision/rethink. Here is where ideas and images become stories. Having raised questions, thought of new worlds and pictured scenes, you must now draw them together as scenarios. For instance, this is the phase where detailed worldbuilding might take place. In revision, you need to take time to evaluate whether the draft that you've written matches the aims you originally had for the story.
- Outline/rearrange. Laying down the roadmap for the actual draft stage is very useful, although not everybody does it for short pieces such as short stories. Having an outline for a novel is vital, even if it's all in your mind. This is where exercises such as writing scenes on post-it notes and rearranging them on a timeline is useful. When revising, this is the phase where you revisit the structure of the story and redesign it for the rewrite.
- Write/rewrite. Not as big a deal as you might think. Anything you write in your early drafts is simply raw material for the other phases in the rewrite. Nothing is cast in stone until the story's been published (and even then, you might be able to fix things in a resale situation). As I've said, many aspiring writers think that this phase is writing, but it's really an outcome of much prior work; and it's an input into the next turn of the creative wheel.