Developing The Creative Compass

A journey takes us from seeing one thing to seeing another.

                                                -Declan Donnellan



I’d heard of the film industry’s terms “in development” and “development hell.” But I hadn’t thought about the importance of a development stage in a general writing context until Sierra and I worked on The Creative Compass. Early on, our book had only four stages, capturing the way less experienced writers conceive of the creative process — dream up an idea, produce one or several drafts, polish, then publish (if possible). Only later did we realize that we’d missed one important stage.

Looking back on my own work, I’d repeatedly confronted the need to step away from my draft for a time and seek the impressions of early readers, finding new perspective only at a distance. Then I could return to the material with fresh eyes and make new choices, often structural changes, that would transform the initial drafts into a more powerful work. In the writing of our new book, I came to realize the critical importance of this third stage in the process — Develop.

For example, after I’d written a 900-page draft of a previous novel titled The Journeys of Socrates, I asked Sierra to read through and share her impressions. She not only read the manuscript but also made a plot outline. She then suggested I change the order of a number of parts — and throw away the last 300 pages (in which two other characters had hijacked the story from the protagonist), which meant having to come up with an entirely new conclusion. It wasn’t easy and I resisted making this massive cut at first, but I did it. That’s development.

The Creative Compass wasn’t just a writing project for me: it was an education. Sierra and I didn’t just prescribe development, we practiced it, receiving and requesting multiple rounds of feedback from my wife (Sierra’s mom), as well as a number of early readers, not to mention the editorial team at our publisher. As Sierra and I struggled to develop the manuscript, moving form draft to draft, I could take some consolation in the knowledge that the work forced me to further develop my overall writing skills and myself.

Sierra on DEVELOP:

I find development most tempting when it isn’t yet development. Minutes or hours after I’ve finished drafting a piece, say, one of the chapters from The Creative Compass, I want nothing more than to return to that state of ‘finishing’ and to prolong that experience. I’ve won! Fear can no longer touch me — or so I tell myself.

I pretend that I’m making substantial improvements as I break a long sentence into two shorter ones or exchange one word for another but really I’m just savoring this feeling of triumph. It’s a dangerous thrill. Once I stop writing and begin reading what I’ve written, a creative act of an entirely different order, the words on the page begin to take on the aura of inevitability as I become attached to them.

Whenever I reached that point, while working on the manuscript of The Creative Compass, I sent those pages off to my (dad’s and my) first reader, my mom. She’s the best kind of early reader, because she’s neither a writer nor an editor, but she has 30 years of experience reading and commenting on my dad’s work and somewhat less than that perusing my own. Through this project and many others, she has reviewed every stage as we’ve moved through it, our dreams when we’re taking notes or talking it through; our drafts, from bad to better; and the final, published version.

In the day or so that elapsed before we spoke, I permitted myself to stop looking at my work, what turns out to be a necessary preparatory step to seeing it anew. And I grasp only now that it’s not necessarily her comments that have the greatest effect on me, though they are often helpful in concrete terms, but the tone of her voice as she begins to speak. If the pages weren’t ready, the contrast between my own confidence and her uncertainty comes across as particularly stark. It’s a moment of rupture, a milder version of the tremble of water in that glass signaling the dinosaurs’ approach in “Jurassic Park.”

Read the next post in the series.


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