What Writing a Novel Has Taught Me About Creativity

If you’d asked me a year ago if I’d ever write a novel, I’d probably have told you ‘Hell No!’ Sure, some people can write a novel in a month, but it never felt like my kind of project. It was too big, too overwhelming, too long term for my creativity. I felt best suited for one offs: poems, essays, short stories. I had a desired to be published, but not for a novel.

Today, I’m 20,000 plus words into a story that’s looking more and more like a novel. Not just any kind of novel: but a sci-fi/fantasy novel, world building included.

Oops.

This surprising turn of events hasn’t just gotten me writing a novel, it’s reminding what creativity is all about. Here’s a few lessons I’m learning about creativity and big projects.

1. Break it down

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Part of what always terrified me about writing a novel was the sheer size of it. I may be able to read 200 pages in a day, but writing that? That was a scale I hadn’t ever really thought about creatively. My creativity was in bits and spurts, small chunks of insight. I just couldn’t mentally grasp writing that much.

Writing a novel, I realized, is the same process. It just has more sections or chunks than other projects. Each section feels like chipping away at a block of stone, slowly moving toward completion. I didn’t have to change how I work. I only had to change how I saw novels. It made a scary project no longer, well, scary.

If you’ve been thinking about a big project, say creating a multiple course meal, break it down. Think of it in chunks. Find your inspiration for appetizers. Then go onto the next section. You’ll still tackle a big project, without as much fear holding you back.

2. Research is your friend

Chasing ideas

So my novel is set over 300 years in the future. Another panic that came up for me was around world building. How do I envision a world of the future so far ahead? Will people still work? How will they communicate? Will they still enjoy melted cheese on bread? God, I hope so!

It’s easy to say ‘Hey, it’s your novel! The world can be anything you want it to be!’ Yet, I also wanted this world to seem believable to people. So, realistic world building continues to be critical for me.

So, part of the process has been research. No, I haven’t been consulting psychics, but rather looking at what are the innovations/technologies today? What could their future be? Some of this has been looking at potential space travel and ideas people have for faster travel, including solar sails and electro-magnetic propulsion. I’ve also had very good scientific friends help me when certain concepts start to become complicated for me.

Instead of just pure fanciful imagination, I’ve tried to instead extrapolate a world based around these ideas. I believe it will give my novel a realism that imagination alone can’t provide. Plus, research inspires new ideas, whether it’s a plot twist or describing future building types.

Creativity has never been in a vacuum. Inspiration is everywhere, even inside scholarly articles, or physics discussions with friends.

3. Embrace Your Process

I doubt that my novel writing style is like a lot of other writers. I develop plot as I write the novel. My writing style is linear: I write from beginning to end in a linear fashion (as of now I still don’t know how my novel ends.) It’s probably a more exhausting method than say, outlining it first. Yet, it’s how I get a grip on my characters and develop the story in a natural way.

Afterwards, I go back to flesh it out more fully. For instance, I just spent a week adding background details, expanding dialogue, and tightening the novel’s timeline. It’s messy, chaotic, and probably more time consuming than it had to be. Realizing that made me feel self-conscious. Worse, it made me wonder if I was doing it wrong. If I was, how could I write a good novel?

I had to take a step back and remember: I’ve tried writing to an outline. I’ve tried being more organized. It’s just not how I write. In fact, it stymies my creative process. My process could be messy, long, and disorganized, but here I was, writing thousands of words. Wasn’t that what mattered?

Every person has a different process. Perhaps you’re an incredibly organized musician. You have a tight system for writing a beat, laying down lyrics, and stringing together a great song. Awesome! Perhaps you’re more like me, figuring out what a piece will be as you make it. Whatever is your process, own it. Comparing your process to others only fills you with doubt and undermines your ability to do great work.

4. Side projects are a good thing (sometimes)

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Some days, I just can’t look at my novel. Don’t get me wrong, I love the project, but it’s like being in a long term relationship. You love your partner, but sometimes you just need to get out of the house and catch up with a friend.

In my case, this means putting down my novel occasionally to write and do other projects. This can mean writing essays on real world topics or writing poetry. Sometimes, it means an evening spent journaling nonsense or coloring.

Do these side projects make writing a novel longer? Perhaps. Focusing solely on my novel could seem like it would go faster. Yet, these side projects give my brain time to rest, allowing the novel to flow more naturally and I believe, become a better work overall.

The only issue that seems to come up is when you have multiple large projects overlapping. Of course, I’ve also been working on a photo poetry book. While they’re at very different stages of development, having two large projects makes it harder to focus on either finishing.

In the end, it’s not just multiple projects but a variety of them that’s important.

5. Enjoy the ride

Ride it up

It’s easy to get caught up in worry. Is what I’m doing any good? Will anyone like this? Is it realistic? Oh god, what am I doing?

If you can’t tell, I’m an expert worrier.

But you know what? I had no idea how fun writing a novel could be. Yes, fun. I get to learn new things every day. The other day I was doing research on Mars’s geology and dear God, I enjoyed it. Writing a scene between my two main characters made me laugh. Reading it over, I still smile.

Writing a novel has been fun, despite the worry and work. When the doubt and worry come up, I use that to refocus myself. It doesn’t matter whether or not the work is ever published. I am the first and last reader. It helps me write for myself before pleasing anyone else.

Large creative projects are time consuming. They are hard, especially if you have full time work as well. If you aren’t enjoying the process, what’s the point? You don’t have to finish any project to say you’ve finished it. In fact, that’s often when I find my creativity dry up.

Stick to your guns. Enjoy creating it or let yourself move on to something that’s a better fit for you. It’s not so much a failure but gathering data of what doesn’t work for you. It brings you closer to your real success.

I won’t claim to know everything about writing a novel: this is my first and I’m only 20,000 words in. National Novel Writing Month, for instance, sets the word count for the project at 50,000. If there’s any take away, it’s about getting out of your own head.

A big project is just an idea. Whether you need to break it into smaller chunks or reframe it inside your process, adjust the project to how you work, not the other way around. You’ll find your creativity flowing as you tackle your big project.

Have you tackled a large creative project? Tell me about it in the comments!

2 Comments

  1. Great article. As someone who is started many, many stories and never had the guts to finish literally any of them, I needed to read this. This piece will go in my favourites and I will read it again and again until I get the message!

    1. Aw, thanks Liam! Finishing is really hard. Putting something out into the world can be nerve wracking. Sometimes, you have to be gentle with yourself: your story doesn’t need to be perfect. One thing I like to do is also share it with a supportive person who also gives honest feedback. They’ll tend to give criticism that’s helpful rather than mean or a general thumbs up.

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