I recently read an article by Charlotte Doyle titled, ‘The writer tells: The creative process in the writing of literary ﬁction,’ which closely examined the creative process of five fiction writers. Through her in-depth interviews, Doyle identified two specific patterns.
Firstly, every writer described their creative works as beginning with a seed incident. This could be an image, a sentence, an emotion, an idea, or even a title that they then wish to explore or expand upon within their fiction. This seed incident can come from outside sources, such as a comment made by another or they might witness a situation or incident. Sometimes, seed incidents occur spontaneously and the idea or image pops into the writer’s head while they are doing other things.
The seed incident is not necessarily what the book will be about—though it can be—but more often than not it is just a starting point.
Speaking for myself, Every Time He Dies came about when an exchange of dialogue randomly popped into my head one day while I was driving. Australian author James Bradley said during the promotion of his book Ghost Species that the title came first and then he had to discover the story that would match it. This process in particular reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s habit of brainstorming titles and then using them as writing prompts which is what led to the writing of Dandelion Wine and R is for Rockets.
The writer VE Schwab said that her popular Shades of Magic Series began with the image of a girl walking through a wall and colliding with a boy. Brandon Sander’s Mistborn trilogy was a way of exploring the question, ‘what if the teenage hero didn’t defeat the villain?’
Note that seed incidents don’t always come to us by chance through an external event or our own intuition, sometimes we can actively create a seed incident. For example, let’s say you want to write a fantasy novel but you’re not entirely sure how to bring something new to this genre. You could begin by considering the tropes associated with this genre and how you might subvert them, or you could take the general premise of an existing story but present it from a new angle. You can also take two competing ideas and find a way for them to work together.
Ultimately though, ideas are the easy part; it’s finding a way to explore them in a gripping story that is hard.
In her study, Doyle noticed that writers experienced two different stages when writing and she dubbed thes ethe writingrealm and the fictionrealm (we’re really going for a fantasy theme today, apparently!).
The writingrealm, refers to the writer’s withdrawal from their daily life so that they may write; this stage may include planning and reflection. The fictionworld referred to the intuitive processes that occurred while writing, as narrative decisions and options are improvised in the act of writing.
When in the writingrealm, a writer is often more critical and analytical. They shut the external world out so that they can focus on the work and closely assess it. They might be identifying plot holes and figuring out solutions, conducting contextual research, mapping out a revision or engaging with other cognitive processes to improve the work, such as line-level editing or focussing on their use of language.
The fictionrealm is different. This refers to the moment when the story takes over and the writer feels as though they are inhabiting the world. They may still need to make decisions in this stage, but the process seems more passive and intuitive than the writingrealm as the story is unfolding in real-time as the writer records it. Writers often spoke about the need to remain a ‘resident’ of this space, and one of the best ways to do this was to find the correct voice for the work. If the voice didn’t work, then it was difficult to find a natural flow with the story.
In the fictionrealm, there is little room for reflection, instead, the writer is more present with what is happening and they are following a type of narrative improvisation as they follow the story’s lead.
Personally, I think this is a pretty accurate description of what writing is like. All stories begin somewhere and often the prompt to write is very small, an idea, image, premise, or sentence. I also agree that there are multiple modes of writing and that they all require different skills and they all count as writing. Being in the writingrealm is just as important as the fictionrealm and both of these stages require the other to exist. If you don’t draft a scene you can’t edit it. If you don’t take the time to cultivate ideas, reflect, or conduct research, writing quickly becomes very difficult.
However, there are times during the late revision of a novel when you can straddle these two realms. For instance, while I was applying the last round of edits to my latest novel, I was often toggling between the writingrealm and the fictionrealm. I would begin by identifying the weaknesses in a scene, particularly in regards to language and imagery, and then I would ‘enter the story’ to apply the edits (the story playing in my mind like a movie), before jumping back out judge whether the rewrite was more successful.
Doyle’s article is helpful because it provides us with a way to talk about the process of writing and to better understand it. It also acknowledges that writing is both a critical and creative process that involves intuition, play, and imagination, as well as skilful problem-solving and a knowledge of the writing craft.
For me, having a deeper understanding of how writing happens is useful because it provides reassurance and permission. Reassurance that my approach mirrors the experience of other writers, and the permission to shut out the world so that I can enter another.
What about you? Do you identify with Doyle’s description of seed incidents, the writingrealm and fictionrealm, or is your experience of writing different? Leave a comment below and tell me all about it.
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