Novel Boot Camp #1: How to be Creative

3102056181_9e50852f2d_oAlmost as soon as I sat down to start planning Boot Camp this year, I knew I wanted to tackle the topic of creativity.

There is this aura of mystique surrounding the creative process. When we think of artists of all types, we imagine them sitting down with their drink of choice and magically producing something whole and stunning and perfect in a frantic burst of inspiration.

This concept of creativity is a myth.

Sure, bursts of inspiration happen and creative epiphanies are real, but not all ideas are good ideas, most first ideas suck, and bursts of inspiration might not happen for weeks or months or even years at a time. When that burst does happen, it almost never carries an artist through more than a small fraction of the creative process.

After working with hundreds of writers, the biggest message I’ve learned about creativity is this:

You don’t need inspiration to be creative.

How you feel when on a creative high.

How you feel when you’re on a creative high.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that the electric burst of excited inspiration we’ve all grown to love is often detrimental to the creative process. Instead of getting to work, we wait around for that “creative high” we love so much.

This myth of creative inspiration, of getting it right the first time, of putting pen to paper and developing a masterpiece without utilizing a plan, making a mistake, or hitting a roadblock is not just mythical, it’s damaging. It sends one of two messages to aspiring writers:

  1. I can’t do this because I don’t have creative inspiration.
  2. I can do this because I have creative inspiration.

Neither of these messages are true. Both messages limit writers by encouraging the belief that when you just get your magical amazing burst of inspiration, all the pieces will fall into place.

Well, they won’t.

The truth is that a novel is a complicated beast. What seemed so awesome and brilliant during your creative high might actually not be right for this novel at all. Or it might be absolutely brilliant, but it only actually covers 2% of the plot, leaving you with a ton of hard work left on your plate.

Once you lose that creative momentum, you can’t just stop and wait for it to return. A writer might only experience one or two of these creative highs over the entire course of writing a novel, but the ones who succeed keep on banging out the words.

So what can you do?

The first step is to accept that your creativity is entirely within your control. No inspiration required. No magic. All you need to do is get your butt to your chair and your hands to the keyboard.

How you feel when you're on a creative low.

How you feel when you’re on a creative low.

Your creative skill is always inside you. It’s not just there during bursts of inspiration when you’re in love with your novel and know for certain it’s going to be an international bestseller with multi-million dollar movie rights. It’s there even when you’re in the bowels of writing hell and hate your novel more than you ever thought possible.

Don’t fall into the trap that you must “feel creative” to be creative.

You might feel like watching a movie tonight, or maybe you don’t. If you don’t, that doesn’t mean you can’t. It just means it’s not what you’re in the mood to do. If you wait around for the right mood to write, you’re going to be waiting a long time.

As Stephen King once said:

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.

Don’t fear that if you aren’t feeling creative or inspired, you can’t do your best work. The truth is that inspired ideas are no more valid than ones born of logical and deliberate problem solving. Once tucked neatly into the novel, the reader will have no idea whether your idea was born of inspiration or of logic.

So how can you logic your way through creativity?


This is a technique I call the “Maybe Game.” It frees up your mind to explore options for your novel without the terror of commitment, without thinking too hard about how it fits into what you’ve already written (or plan to write), and most importantly without the need for creativity.

To play the game, all you need to do is clearly identify an area of your novel that you know is not working. This could be an area that needs more development, such as a character that needs a motivation, a supernatural event that needs an explanation, or superpowers that need rules for how they work.

This game also works when you’ve got a gap in your plot, meaning that you know the character needs to get from A to C, but you have no point B.

Once you’ve identified an area of your novel that needs development or a gap in your plot that needs filling, write it down in the form of a question:

What are the restrictions on Jamie’s super powers?
Why didn’t Alex know about his brother’s adoption?
How come Eliza can speak on stage in the first chapter but has stage fright in the third?
What happens between Amy finding the magic bear and Amy being captured by mummies?

Putting the question into words makes it tangible. It’s no longer a blob of creativity in the back of your mind, it’s a logic problem sitting before you begging to be solved.

Once you have the question down, start writing some “maybe” statements. I find that prefacing the statements with “maybe” frees you up to let your imagination run wild without fear of commitment.

Let’s look at the first question together: What are the restrictions on Jamie’s super powers?

The writer’s “maybe” statements might look something like this:

Maybe Jamie can only use his power when he’s holding the magic stone. Or maybe Jamie needs to fill up a reservoir before the power is available to him again and he fills it with good deeds. Or maybe he fills it with souls that he steals from animals. Or maybe he can use it whenever he wants, but it makes him a little bit sicker every time he does.

Let’s look at the last question as well: What happens between Amy finding the magic bear and Amy being captured by mummies?

The writer’s answers might look something like this:

Maybe when she finds the bear it triggers a trapdoor and the mummies burst out of the tomb. Or maybe facing the bear gives her the confidence she needs to wander into a secret chamber where the mummies are located.

Don’t worry about how good the ideas are, just write down all the ideas you have. You may very well find that you come to a conclusion within a couple sentences. A light bulb will go off in your head, and you’ll shout with glee, “Perfect!” But it’s possible that you will need to put all of the possibilities away and come back later to get more perspective on what fits best into the novel.

Keep going until you run out of possibilities or find an answer that you like. If you have more problems in your novel, rinse and repeat as needed.

Homework: Play the Maybe Game on at least one problem you’re having with your novel.

Writers are often looking for this authentic sense of creativity that comes naturally and without effort, but that’s not what writing is all about. If you wait around for inspiration, you will never get anywhere. So jump into the problems of your novel and face them head-on.


Discussion Question (please discuss in the comment section below):

What is the hardest part of your creative process?

This post is a part of Novel Boot Camp. If you don’t know what that is, click here.

31 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp #1: How to be Creative

  1. Lady of Lore says:

    The Maybe Game will be helpful because one of the problems I’m having is the sequence of events. I’m going to draft some “maybe outlines” and see which one fits the story best. Great idea, thanks!

  2. Dean says:

    For me, it’s kind of the inspiration rush. Although, it’s more in the fact that I put down my ideas, and I can’t think of anything else, so the story ends up being really short. All three parts are there, but it they’re really trimmed down.

  3. tacarr says:

    I think the hardest part of the creative process if focusing on the project at hand. I have an acrostic on my monitor that I picked up somewhere (probably Zig Ziglar) that says FOCUS Follow One Course Until Successful. Creativity is such that you can’t “turn it off.” Nor do I think you would. I seem to get my best ideas when I’m working on other projects so, for me, being creative is about managing my time by following projects to completion but not letting the bursts of inspiration fade away without writing them down somewhere for later.

  4. Julie Griffith says:

    Fear. It’s my nemesis in all areas of writing. One of the hardest things is believing in my concept. I start out excited, then the doubt starts creeping in. I begin to think my idea is not good enough, or original enough. And when it comes to that burst of creativity: when it hits, I have a tendency to play out the entire novel in my head, dialogue and all, before I get it down in writing. After that, I’m not as excited about it and writing it feels redundant and boring. Anyone else have these problems? Sometimes I feel like I’m my own worst enemy.

    • Bob Buchko says:

      Yes! I pretty much have my novel idea sketched out and some of it is fairly complex (at least it seems to me). But when I try to write it out, it feels stale. Or, worse, it feels great at the time and then I re-read it the next day and it’s terrible. Nothing sucks my will to write faster.

      • Ellen_Brock says:

        Sometimes it can help to write the novel all the way through without reading it, especially if you’ve plotted ahead of time. Then you can alter each line one by one to meet your standards before reading it over to assess its value. Just an idea that might work for you!

    • Jennifer F. Santucci says:

      It sounds like we have the same process. I’ve had the same novel idea for the last year, but have not been able to do anything with it because of classes I’ve been taking. I finished last spring, but other things keep coming up. I’ve been able to jot down a few ideas and do some research notes, but last night was the first attempt at writing the first chapter and I felt like it didn’t do justice to what I had been thinking about for the last year! I can laugh at myself now, but it wasn’t so funny last night. But I agree! We are our worst enemy. I also think that phrase, keep your friends close and your enemies closer rings true for our situation. It’s hard distancing ourselves from our own work.

  5. A. A. Woods says:

    Great post Ellen! I’ve also noticed, looking back on my work, that I usually can’t tell the difference between writing I did when “inspired” and writing I did while in a creative slump. I’m an outliner, so as long as I’m plugging away on my outline, I tend to have a pretty consistent draft. It comforts me to know that even though I don’t feel like I’m doing great work all the time, looking back it’s all just as easy/challenging to edit in the end. 🙂

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      It’s interesting that often our perception of “feeling off” is nothing more than a feeling. I know I have days where I feel that my writing in my blog posts “feels off,” but then I look back and it reads the same as everything else.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

  6. Pam Portland says:

    For me, the most challenging part of the creative process is finding a space in which to work in peace, or a duration of time that allows me to put several hours of thought into a concept/scene/dialogue. I can be creative even when I am not at the keyboard (such as on a walk when I tumble ideas around in my head), but those times are also few and far between and come with interruptions. Also, when I try to reread through a section that needs some creative TLC, I often get distracted proofreading due to the horrible typist who recorded my original thoughts (oh, wait, that was me).

  7. Jennifer F. Santucci says:

    I’m so glad you addressed how creativity doesn’t have to rely on inspiration. I needed to hear that you can’t rely on inspiration alone to write a novel. I also needed to hear that creativity can be cultivated. This appeals to my pragmatic nature. I really like the Maybe Game. I’m still in the developing stages of my novel, but there are places where the Maybe Game can be used. Thank you for this post!

  8. Victoria Otazo says:

    I like what Stephen King says about amateur writers because that’s true and I am definitely either making excuses when I know I do have creativity in me or I am just plain lazy. I have too many distractions going on and I should be writing more because I do come up with alot of ideas. Whether they are good or not depends on someone else’s judgment. Its a shame I don’t write more. This is a good reason why I joined the boot camp. I am writing a script on the side too. And that was supposed to be finished by the end of the month and I am about 2-3 quarters of the way completed. Speaking of which the excuses I make are linked to my deprecating nature. But I can be positive especially when I am in the mood. Luckily I am a part of a local writer’s group so that helps big time since I’m new to this.

  9. Sharon says:

    The hardest part for me is starting. I have ideas but when I sit down to write, gone. Also, my writing clock is off. It seems I can write like crazy when I’m trying to fall asleep. Sometimes I’ve written a whole novel. Since I’m too lazy to get up, by morning I’ve forgotten the plot. lol

  10. Ginny G. says:

    I’m in the rewrite process for my first book and the biggest struggles I’ve had with the creative process is doubt and relying on other people’s truths instead of investing the time to discover my own. For example, I read somewhere (I can’t even remember where) that 2,000 words per day was the “magical” number to hit. Well, when I would sit down to write my brain would freeze and that would start a cycle of disappointment because I wasn’t accomplishing my goal, there was no reward for the time I was putting in (no words and no warm fuzzy’s of a job well done). I’ve since accepted that I need to feel good about myself, my work, and my words to be creative and to do that I need to do it my way. So, I started setting a tiny goal of 100 words per day. I now hit my goal (and then some) each day, I feel good, I’m motivated to keep writing, and with only 100 words I don’t need to always be creative I just need to show up and write. The bonus is that once I start writing I usually average a much larger word count (close to that number that was giving me so much trouble) but without the pressure or disappointment I used to associate with it.

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