Monday, February 24, 2014

The Mechanics Behind Creativity, by Mark T. Barnes

Today I am so pleased to welcome fellow 47North author Mark T. Barnes to my blog.  He's put together a FANTASTIC guide for anyone just starting on this writing journey and answers the big question:  how do you get those darned words onto that darned blank page?  It is a wealth of information.  Enjoy!


As much as writers enjoy telling their stories, and hopefully touching people with their words, there is a different journey that takes us from the blank page to something we can edit, then show our first readers.

I use the phrase the mechanics behind creativity because telling a story is not all about thinking about story, plot, characters, and the other elements of story. At some point we need to transform the blank page to the full page. At a high level you can break it down into simple chunks by knowing:
  • What you want to say;
  • How you’re going to say it;
  • In who’s voice you’re going to say it; 
  • How much you’re going to say; and
  • How quickly you need to say it.
For the purposes of this essay we’ll assume you’ve already answered the questions about what you’re going to say, and how you’re going to say it. Knowing what your plot and story are in reasonably defined (though not necessarily concrete) terms is a big help to save a lot of rewriting later on. Your understanding of how you’re going to say it and in whose voice, knowing whether the story is best old in first or third person (and their variations), and who the point of view characters are, will help you with setting the style and the tone of your story.

What we need to do is to turn the idea into something tangible. There are many articles that discuss how many words you should write in a day, or what process you should use when writing. For example some people will say that you should write a minimum of 1000 words a day, starting at the same time every day, writing in the same place. I’d argue that what you’re trying to do is to form habits. It’s rare for a new writer to be able to sit at the keyboard and smash out 1000 words in a day, any more than you’d expect a person to put on their shoes and run a half-marathon firs time out. Writers need to build writing fitness: you need to train your body and mind to produce good words, and to get better and more productive over time.

Don’t be hard on yourself when you start. Getting annoyed or disillusioned with your progress won’t help you. The fact is you need to build your writing fitness up in achievable increments, and not deny yourself the joys of the world outside your office, café, bedroom, or wherever it is you choose to write. Start with realistic goals that you can attain, then once you’ve mastered those push yourself harder by forming the habits that will help you write consistently, and write more, the more you work.

The only right process for writing is the one that works for you, but for example:
  • You may start off with a goal to write 250 words per day for five days. Take the evenings and weekends off: don’t deny yourself time with family and friends, doing the things you love. Train yourself to know that your writing is not to the exclusion of everything else in life. Start at a time that you’re feeling relaxed, and when your day job and any domestic responsibilities are complete. Avoid distractions as best you can.
  • If 250 words has worked for you, up your goal to 400 words a day, or 500. Nothing too onerous and something that is still achievable. Again, keep your weekends to yourself while you’re getting fitter.
  • For the third week, and the weeks that follow, increase your word count. You’ll eventually find a word count, as well as a duration, that works for you without compromising the quality of your writing or your life. Once you’ve reached this point you can try and push harder and see how it works for you, and possibly add free times from your weekend, or set aside additional time from the weekend, to write and edit.
From my own experience I landed the writer’s dream. I had planned The Echoes of Empire series of books, with the first trilogy reasonably well developed. I intimately knew what would happen in The Garden of Stones, knew reasonably well what was going to happen in The Obsidian Heart, and had a looser idea for The Pillars of Sand, though the ending was pretty secure. I did it this way because I wanted to give myself some wriggle room should the characters and story head in directions I’d not expected. With the first book written I was offered a three book contract with my publisher, which meant that I was no longer writing to my own schedule, but theirs.

The mechanics were no different: set goals, build writing fitness, then set harder goals. This time against a deadline. I won’t lie. It’s as daunting as it is exciting. But having developed writing fitness I was able to write and edit 300,000 words in about nine months, while managing and operating my own business. It may sound like a lot, but the more you do, the more you can do. To be honest it’s not the kind of workload I’d want to carry again, as there were a lot of sacrifices involved to fit everything into the time frame required. I’m working on two new series at the moment, producing circa 3500 to 4000 words a day. If I’m feeling good, I’ll keep going until I feel the need to stop. Some days I do nothing, particularly if other distractions have sabotaged the writing day. I don’t let it upset me: it is what it is. I simply wait for the next day and get back to work.

Yes, there’s more to writing stories that coming up with interesting stories, wonderful worlds and compelling characters. There’s the need to prepare yourself for the hours you’ll be working, of intense concentration and finding the right mix of environmental aspects that allow you to be creative. But by being realistic, being kind to yourself, and by not comparing yourself to any other writer’s process or goals, you’ll find the writing journey that’s right for you.


Mark Barnes lives in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of the epic fantasy Echoes of Empire series, published by 47North. The series includes The Garden of Stones (released May 2013), and The The Obsidian Heart (released October 2013). The Pillars of Sand is the third of the series, due for release in May 2014. You can find out more at, his Facebook page at, or follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTBarnes.

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