Guest post: The Word Garden by J.M. Strother

I discovered Jon after following a link from someone’s flash fiction, to the huge blog meme that is #fridayflash.  Jon is the instigator of this regular writing event, and a competent ‘flasher’ in his own right.  Today Jon talks about his own creative journey.

I find a seed

Nurture it

Give it time to grow

Then, my friend, to tell the truth

I nurture it some more

What is my creative process?

It starts with the smallest seed of an idea, which can be anything at all – a name, an image, a passing phrase. Literally, anything.

If the seed begins to germinate into something that appeals to me, I try to work out where the idea might take me, what it might become. I jot down my thoughts, even if they are but a few words, lest the notion drift away.

Then I think on it.

This is my mulling phase. It can last anywhere from ten minutes to ten years. I always hope for something closer to the ten minute end of the spectrum. Sleeping on it overnight, or taking the dog for a long walk works wonders here. I like to say my Beagle has written some of my best stuff. While he doesn’t actually put paws to keys, it is during times like dog walks and bike rides that I suss out an actual story line. Then it’s off to the races.

Once I know where the story is going I start serious writing. I do this best in isolation, often with classical music playing in the background. At this stage I like a good chunk of uninterrupted time, and I write as long as the words will flow. Just before wrapping up I jot down a few lines of where I want the story to go when I start again. It’s sort of on-the-fly outlining.

I’m sure you’ve heard the advice, don’t edit during first drafts. Well, that’s not me. I constantly edit. I may write a chapter or two, even three, but before I go on the next day I read over what I’ve written and fix the obvious errors. Not only the spelling and grammatical errors, which hardly constitutes serious editing, but I look for inconsistencies in the timeline and character traits. I feel compelled to fix these things before moving on. It’s the only way I know not to end up with a muddle at the end. It may take me longer to finish a manuscript, but the first draft will be fairly consistent in the end.

I’m not recommending this to anyone. It’s simply the way I write.

I also like to talk to people about what I am currently work on. I’ll discuss my characters and plot lines with anyone who doesn’t run away fast enough, usually my poor wife and kids. I find talking things out with them helps me solidify ideas, isolate problems, and stay on track. Many dinner time conversations revolve around story ideas. Of course that means if they make suggestions I listen to them, and act on them if it seems to make sense to me.

Once a manuscript is completed I read it over from beginning to end, looking for obvious errors. Then I print it out and ask a couple of beta readers to go over it. With luck, they will give me real feedback and not simply point out spelling and grammar errors. It is hard for a beta reader to be brutally honest—no one wants to hurt a friend’s feelings. That is a shame, really, for honest feedback is the most valuable gift any reader can give to a writer. If you find someone who will give you frank and honest feedback, cherish them forever.

I always tell my beta readers that I have the hide of a Rhino when it comes to critique, and I mean it. Writers can’t afford thin skins. We can’t be afraid of making mistakes, nor can we resent having them pointed out to us. We simply need to accept critique for what what it is, and act accordingly. That means editing, not walking off in a huff. It’s the only way we’ll grow.

I like to think there are no real mistakes in writing, only practice.

J. M. Strother writes fiction, essays, and poems from his home in St. Louis, Missouri. He experiments on his blog, Mad Utopia, with new approaches to writing. He is the creative spark behind the Twitter meme, Friday Flash (#fridayflash).

Jon enjoys gardening, cycling, chocolate, and reading. He has a Beagle affectionately known as Psycho Pup. You can follow him on Twitter.

How about you, readers?  Can you relate to this need to nurture the seed of an idea?

20 thoughts on “Guest post: The Word Garden by J.M. Strother

  1. Pingback: Creativity workshop: the end, and thank you | Not Enough Words

  2. A very excellent post. I have found that I don’t do big edits on the first draft, but will simply do the little ones as I go. Truth be told I’ve gotten rather anal about each sentence and so I won’t move on until I’m satisfied. If I’m in a groove, however, then I will just keep going until I have to/can stop and work on editing afterward.

    Thank you, Jon, for sharing your experience and sage advice.

  3. Hi Jon. I know author Larry Niven used to always talk out his stories first. I like insights into the creative process. Thanks for posting.

  4. I usually write the story in my head and by the time I get to the keyboard I do little editing unless I’m limited to word count. Unlike psycho pup, if I don’t move the chair far enough from my desk, my little doggie will try to add her contributions to the story. Sometimes I think she’s a better writer than me; sometimes not.

  5. I can’t stop to edit or I lose the forward momentum of my story and get lost in nitpicky perfectionism. But I do really like what you said about developing a thick skin and looking at it all as process and progress, not mistakes. :)

    • A thick skin is essential if one intends to be a serious writer. Otherwise people will learn to avoid giving meaningful critique and simply pass along platitudes, which won’t help the writer improve in the least.

      In a way, I think it was a blessing that I was an atrocious speller in my youth (still am, truth be told). I knew every single thing I wrote for homework would be marked up by my mom and sisters, and need a rewrite. So it has never offended me when people mark up my manuscripts.

  6. I finally gave up trying to following the advice everyone gave me about turning off the editor during the first draft—I simply couldn’t do it. As a result, my first drafts are cleaner and more consistent than most of what I see being published. How can anyone think that’s a bad thing?

    • It’s only bad if you get bogged down in the editing and lose the creative flow. I read the biography of Harper Lee last year, I Am Scout, and it became obvious to me why it took so long for her to finish To Kill A Mockingbird. She was constantly editing, never happy with the current state of affairs. I think without a dedicated editor who truly believed in her and the story, forcing her to preserver, we may never have seen Mockingbird released. That would be have been tragic.

  7. Great post! I’ve never been much for editing as I go, though I’ve seen a few people who do it that way. The reasoning behind it is sound. Keeping a consistent story, and ramping up for the day’s writing both sound very attractive to me.

    Maybe for my next book I’ll try this approach. I’m generally just too dang impatient to go back. Ever forward! is my motto.

    • I think a good alternative to editing while you go is to outline (I know some people will shudder at the very word) ahead of time. It can help avoid those timeline and character inconsistencies I work out via editing. But I’d still have to re-read the previous work, just to get back into the flow and natural rhythm of what came before.

  8. I tend to do the same thing. I find that when I do edit as I go along…sometimes it helps me pull my ideas together better and helps me transition.

  9. Good advice all the way through, Jon. Especially editing as you go. I didn’t do that on my first nanowrimo novel last fall, and I’m still trying to untangle it.

    • I fully understand the advice to resist editing in a first draft. If you get bogged down in editing you can lose that creative spark. When I edit while writing I don’t spend a lot of time on it. I just quickly read over what I have so far, and fix major inconsistencies. Fine tune editing really does come later. But I have to make the timeline and characters right before moving on.

  10. Funnily enough I agree with Jon when it comes to writing my novels, I usually let things seethe and simmer for 6 months just making notes, before launching into the first draft. However for my flash fiction, which I probably wouldn’t even be writing were it not for Jon’s platform of #fridayflash, it is absolutely the opposite and very spontaneous and written very quickly.

    But I never edit when I am writing the first draft. I do find it messes up the flow and tone of that draft to go back over and fix things at this stage. But like Marissa and Jon say, it is whatever process works for you.

    Can I just say a big thanks to Jon for his stimulation and prompt to write weekly.

    marc nash

    • Sometimes I write flash from start to finish in just a few moments — flash in a flash if you will. Other times I get a notion that’s not there yet, and it simmers for days or weeks. With luck eventually something gels. Then I can sit down and pound it out in an hour or two. It really varies, but I’ve found it best not to force it if it’s not ready. Best to come up with another idea.

  11. I agree about the editing, Jon. I have to fix things as I go as well. Great post and thanks, Merrilee. More people should be aware of Jon. He’s a great “flasher.” ;)

  12. Jon, that is exactly how I do it. The editing as I go along, I mean. I have tried to just write and not edit until I finish but have never been able to do it. Was glum when I read all the advice against my way, but it works for me!

    • You have to do what works. My favorite rule concerning writing is, there are no rules to writing – just write. No sense beating ourselves over it to try to conform to something that does not work for us, as individuals.

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