The Seven Stages of Creativity: A New Perspective on Writing a Book

Photo by wezlo

Today’s post is by Orna Ross, whose book Go Creative! How to Create Anything: The Seven Stages of the Creative Process that shows the same process that creates one thing creates anything, leading you through the seven steps that will bring whatever you want into being… and help you cope with the challenges, resistances, or blocks that are inevitable along the creative pathway.

She says:

The Go Creative! series was born out of my experiences teaching Creative and Imaginative Practice at University College Dublin. I believe the creative process is not just about a specific set of tasks—it’s an approach that can benefit all areas of your life. Identifying the seven stages of this process allows everyone to begin applying them to any task from your everyday life—to be mindful of creativity and how it can help you in most situations. It’s a deeply personal topic that has helped me through challenges in my own experience, and one I feel incredibly passionate about because as I have seen from my students, it actually works.

Orna Ross is an author-publisher. She writes stories, poems, and the Go Creative! books. She has been named “one of the 100 most influential people in publishing” (The Bookseller), for her work with The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). A long time teacher of creative and imaginative practice, Orna lives in London and writes, publishes, and teaches around the globe. She has a dedicated belief in the power of the published word to transform and liberate. When she’s not writing, you’ll probably find her reading.

Follow Orna on her blog, Facebook, or Twitter.

There are three distinct phases—Intention, Making and Revision—culminating in publication, each of which can be further broken down (see below), giving seven stages to the process.

When we’re making something that comes easy to us—family dinner, F-R-E-E-writing, a dollar—we don’t tend to notice those stages.  If it’s something more challenging—conference catering for 300, a published novel, a million dollars—becoming more aware of the process is often essential, if we are not to be derailed in our doing by thoughts and behaviors that belong to a different stage or phase.

A common example is writers who try to edit into shape their early ideas and insights (clarification stage), instead of first allowing them full formation (incubation stage).

The Seven Stages at a Glance:

I use the organising principle of the tonic sol-fah: doh (c) — ray (d) — mi (e) — fah (f) — sol  (g) — lah (a) — ti (b), to describe the stages, as they are more like notes in a scale than a list or a ladder. Each interweaves and loops around the other, in a waltz, while holding a dominant note, transcending its predecessors but also containing them, much as a sentence transcends but includes words.

Knowing which stage of the process is dominant allows us to follow the right steps at the right time, and to settle in and enjoy the dance.

The Intention Phase: Knowing What You’re Saying

Doh, c: Conception (Choosing)

Ray, d: Incubation (Germinating)

Mi, e: Investigation (Researching)

The Making Phase: Saying What You’re Saying

Fah, f: Composition (Drafting)

Soh, g: Amplification (Deepening)

The Revision Phase: Saying What You’re Really Saying

Lah, a: Clarification (Editing)

Ti, b: Completion (Finishing)

Publication

• Full Octave, abcdefga: (Gifting)

 The Intention Phase:  Knowing What You’re Saying

People write a book for a great many reasons. Maybe you want to explore a theme, a character, an idea, a setting or a scenario (“What if…?”).  Or maybe the book chose you, as when an idea rises, unbidden, or a passion, a puzzle, an image, a voice and with it, the irresistible compulsion to write.

Doh: Conception (Choosing)

Main Challenge: To establish a clear creative intention.

Regardless of where the impulse originated or direction was followed, the end point of a creative intention is a conscious choosing. You separate out this one possibility from the many others you’ve had, or could have, and know not both that you are going to write a book and what it is about. And what you think it will ask of you.

Creative intentions differ from the SMART goals set by managers and entrepreneurial types in a number of ways (more on that here).

The moment of confirmed intention is the most important moment in the whole process. It’s like the stage that comes after you’ve fallen in love, when you decide to stop seeing others. You bend your knee to this idea, offer it your time, and talent, and energy, and heaven only knows how many months or years of your life. You are the one, you say to it, as you choose each other.

Now F-R-E-E-Write This:

What will it take to write this book? Are you ready? Why this idea?

Ray:  Incubation (Germinating)

Main Challenge: To learn and implement activities and routines that invigorate the imagination and foster your creative intention while keeping your steady.

The task of incubation, whether in a premature baby ward at the maternity hospital, a bacteria-breeding laboratory or a writers’ imagination is consistently the same: to provide the environment in which growth can be best nurtured.

Writing a book is always challenging. You’re reaching beyond your boundaries, taking off in a new direction and, if the book is meaningful for you, stripping away a layer of skin. You have to take these risks from a place of safety and that’s what germinating practices like meditation and F-R-E-E-Writing provide.

You’re looking for activities that induce a dreamy, somnolent connection to your ‘Deep Mind’ and ‘Beyond Mind’—as well as Inspiration Meditation and F-R-E-E-Writing, you can do yoga, running, walking, doodling, or moodling. Solitary hobbies are also good: horseback riding, floor polishing, playing tennis against a wall, solitaire, gardening, whittling…  So long as it’s silent, repetitive and your idea of fun, it’s good incubation.

Sleep too is your friend during this phase. Get lots of it and keep a notebook by your bed. Going to sleep at night, pose a problem or development in your book. When you wake in the morning, before you get out of bed, scribble some notes about it and also about what you’ll write later this particular day.

Now F-R-E-E-Write This:

Joan Miro: “What really counts is to strip/the soul naked. Painting or/poetry is made as we make/love; a total embrace/prudence thrown to the/ wind, nothing held back.” What might you be holding back?

Mi: Investigation (Researching)

Main Challenge: To do enough research to thoroughly know the story world.

Investigation is embedded in every stage of the creative process. As research seeds are sown and reaped, story and character grow. As story grows, new questions are asked. Origination and investigation travel together, back and forth, pushing and pulling each other into shape all the way to the end.

When we know what we want to say, we just say it. The key to that knowing is investigation, also known as research. Most writer’s block is due to under-investigation, skipping or sketching this third stage of the process, and beginning drafting too soon.

Investigation takes three forms:

  1. Library/Internet/Other People: See Research For Writers, by Ann Hoffman
  2. Memory: Investigating when you used to feel like that and writing it out.
  3. Imagination: Here’s Robert McKee, one of Hollywood’s favorite screenwriting gurus on this aspect of investigation: “Lean back and ask: ‘What would it be like to live my character’s life hour by hour, day by day?’ While memory views whole chunks of life, imagination takes fragments, slivers of dream and chips of experience that seem unrelated, then finds hidden connections and merges them into a whole.”

Now F-R-E-E-Write This:

If your book were a song, what would it be? If it were a colour, what would it be? If a taste, a sound, a touch? (Repeat with characters, situations, and emotions).

The Making Phase: Saying What You’re Saying

In the first three stages of the creative process, the emphasis was on the unconscious mind. During this phase, and from here on in, the conscious mind plays a more active role.

This phase requires the writer to create a structure through which inner and outer challenges can be met and a first draft completed, a structure that’s open and fluid enough to allow digression, playfulness, originality, individuality; artistry and inspiration.

This is often called the ‘down draft’—you just get it down to see what’s there. Later drafts are ‘up drafts,’ where you get to tidy and fix.

Fah: Drafting.

Main Challenge: Making it to The End.

There are a few writers who write in perfect sentence, all worked out in advance, but for every one of those there are 100,000 who need to let go of their inner perfectionist and just write anything for now, knowing you can fix it up later. If you haven’t read Annie Lammott’s eloquent discourse on the merits of Shitty First Drafts, get thee hence and here she is on quashing the inner critic.

Along with giving yourself permission to be bad, time and space are your other key resources. Find your space: the place or places where you will write this book. They could include a bag that you will bring to the library every day, a dedicated desk or room, a cosy corner of a local hotel…

And find your time by taking out a diary and allocate the time slots, each week, in which you’ll write your book. A date with yourself that you’re not allow to break.

Now F-R-E-E-Write This:

Where and when will I write? How do I feel about that?

Soh: Deepening

Main Challenge: To go all the way.

Every book is primarily an act of self-discovery; it’s during this stage that we often learn what our project is actually about. Deepening is an act of creative listening to our first draft, listening in the cracks, in the spaces between the words to pull the “unspoken” out. Questions are our method. The deepening draft is all about open questions and opening to the answers.

Approach the subject matter from a variety of angles: fleshing out memories, complicating characters, questioning motives, and layering awareness upon fresh awareness. Wheel around the material like a hawk, until you are confident enough to swoop in. The aim is to drive wedges of fresh insight into the old prose. The best deepening question, the one that encompasses them all, is: How do I help the reader to see more clearly here?

Now F-R-E-E-Write This:

What is this book really about? Why am I writing it?

The Revision Phase: Saying What You’re Really Saying.

When Thomas Mann said, “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than other people,” he was referring to the challenges of revision. This phase, like the previous one, is characterized by deep attention to your own writing. What shifts in this phase is the direction of focus, now turned towards the reader. How-To-Create-Anything-EBOOK

Lah: Editing

Main Challenge: To get the words right—by moving/removing/improving anything that interferes with the reader’s understanding.

Hover over your own book looking at it as an entity, in all its constituent parts—chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences and words—with two readers in mind—A Ms. Know-It-All and a Mr. Know-Nothing. Your treatment of your subject, and the shape of your sentences, must work for both: must enlighten the former while not boring the latter.

Aim for four qualities in your writing: brevity, clarity, simplicity and unity.  One action above all others will help most: cut, cut, cut.

You’ll find a list of editing questions that will help you with the job here.

 Now F-R-E-E-Write This:

What does the reader need from me here to see more clearly?

 Tee: Finishing

Main Challenge: To finish strong, giving your book an appropriate ending.

Finishing strong is something writers—like athletes—need to learn. As the end approaches, it is easy to let unacknowledged anxiety about the quality of the work, or the reception of the book by the outer world, derail the process.  To move into endless tinkering. Or to leapfrog the process, produce a sketchy ending and start thinking about the next one.

“There is a completion stage,” Louise de Salvo says in Writing as a Way of Healing, “during which we again revise, revisit, rethink, and refashion… Often the drive to finish a work takes precedence over other needs and obligations—like being social or taking showers or eating well.”

Go with it, that drive. Until you’re finished, completely finished, tunnel in. Tell everybody what you’re doing now and ask for their help and support until it’s done.

 Now F-R-E-E-Write This:

Am I too impatient for publication? What do I think of this book I’ve almost completed? What do I really think?

Presentation.

It’s over. You really are actually finished. You’re tinkering now, rather than improving. It’s time to let go.

For most writers, presentation will mean publication, either self-publishing (a whole new creative journey) or trying to find an interested trade publisher. But not always. Some of the most important and urgent writings are not intended for publication. Their place is the bottom drawer or even the fire. These too need a ritual to acknowledge that this huge writing task is over. Otherwise, it may well fail to do its job.

Writing a book is enormously life-changing. Everybody, even someone who never writes—even those who don’t read—knows this. If the book is not going to be published and publicly launch, you need a private ritual that acknowledges you’re finished and that you’ve just been through a transformative experience.

Whether public or private, a presentation ritual helps you to move on to the next creation.

Now F-R-E-E-Write This:

What did this book mean in my life? What’s next?

And so you are back at the beginning, with the Intention Phase again. Next time round, in some ways it’s easier, as everything always is the second and subsequent time, but in other ways it will be just as challenging. We reach beyond our boundaries again, take off in a new direction, strip another layer of skin.

That’s the creative act, that’s the writer’s life, where the seven stages get repeated ad infinitum.

Will you implement these steps to reach beyond your boundaries?

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Comments

    • says

      I have to admit that’s kind of what I thought, Tony. This is just too left brain for me. If I tried to process through all of this before – or during – the construction of a book, I’d never finish. For me, it’s all about putting my butt in a chair & telling a story.

      This reminds me of college, where I would have flunked grammar courses if I hadn’t aced all my writing assignments. Diagramming a sentence: left brain. Writing a novel: right. Guess which one I am?

      :-)

      (BTW: I have two books releasing next month, so my right-brain process seems to work.)

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      • says

        I would agree with both of you that writing can be as
        simple as the act of sitting down and creating the story. For me,
        the most helpful way to write is to write on a deadline (even if it
        is just a personal deadline).

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        • says

          I work best with a deadline too, Ryann. Found that out while writing for a newspaper.

          It’s because of a deadline that I finished my novel — I was named a finalist in a contest but had to get a completed manuscript to them in 5 months. I did, and won the contest.

          Hooray for deadlines! :-)

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  1. Denise Willson says

    Thanks, Orna. I’ve printed this for future use, in case I ever find myself off track and in need of nudging. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  2. says

    I have been writing novels for ten years without ever letting myself get to the “finishing” stage. And that’s where I finally am with my current project. Only I didn’t realize it was a stage kind of like you put it here. And I am starting to ask myself about the quality of the work. I am starting to think about just finishing it quickly and diving into the next thing. All of it. These are good things to think about. Thank you.

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    • says

      Do finish, Pam. Finishing is a vital part of the process and if we don’t finish we have nothing to share, another important milestone. Wondering about the quality is another way that the “resisting mind” stops us from finishing. A book is never all we want it to be, Irish Murdoch rightly said: “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.” But finishing is important, not just for that book, but the next. Good luck and thank you for your thoughtful comment.

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  3. says

    “to be mindful of creativity and how it can help you in most situations” –

    something i’ve believed and (lightly) written about for a long time, but not nearly with the clarity and organization here, very very nice

    as you say, esp helpful when in one stage and impulses to work as if in another stage keep intruding

    and then, beyond that, still staying flexible enough to bend and mix these stages as and when needed – and see if it works ;-)

    great stuff, thanks so much!

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  4. says

    Thank you for writing this post! I love it and I’m going to print it also. My ritual to let go of a finished novel is to start a new one. Even a published novel isn’t enough “completion” for me because, if I’m not working on something new, I’ll focus too much on it, wonder how it’s doing, and hover over it like it’s my only child. The creative force never completes and so I begin something new to satisfy that urge and to release the finished product.

    Thank you again for writing this article!!

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    • says

      Oh yes Jennifer, the only cure for the book disease is another book! :) Who was it said being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life… ain’t that the truth. I’m glad the post is useful to you and thanks so much for your kind comment.

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  5. says

    I think I needed reminding of this today. I’m in the middle of a “shitty first draft” of one manuscript and trying to simultaneously polish the seventh draft of another one.

    But it’s all just part of the process. I’m ready to pull my hair out, but I’ll get there. And hopefully have a few strands of hair left when I arrive. (Or perhaps a really nice wig.)

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  6. says

    It seems like a lot to digest, but at the same time quite natural. My biggest mistakes early on stemmed from jumping into writing before the incubation period was over. I’ve heard some writers will let an idea sit for a year or more before plunging in (though, of course, they’re working on other ideas as well). I’m working on the shitty first draft now, too. After three months of incubating, scratching, and plotting. The key is not to read the crap you just wrote. It comes easier after the first hundred pages.

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    • says

      Oh yes Ron, all the firsts in writing are the hardest, because you’re teaching yourself how to do it as you do it — and at the start of the book, because the story world isn’t clear yet. It can be quite overwhelming and many people get lost. But if we keep going, the mists clear. I’m glad the post is helpful to you. Good luck with the book.

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    • says

      Another seven lover… Do you know anything about numerology? I don’t but everything in these creative books I’m writing is coming out in sevens. It keeps happening. Glad the post “spoke” to you Graeme.

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  7. says

    Thank you for this interesting article, Orna.

    My starting point differs from yours.

    My starting point: remaining open to inspiration.

    For example, I woke at 2 a.m. this morning and wrote an over 1,000 word short story.

    My intention was to wake at 7:30 a.m. and continue working on revisions for my 56,000 words manuscript.

    I wasn’t aware that my short story existed. But it found me because I remained open to inspiration. This wasn’t the first time this has happened and I hope it continues.

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    • says

      Oh yes, creativity is capricious and protean, isn’t it? I often end up doing something I hadn’t intended in the moment and on a short project, we can go through all seven stages unconsciously. The analysis is not intended to be a blueprint, just a help to understanding if/when we get lost in the process. But I absolutely agree, if it ain’t broke, there’s nothing to analyse. Wishing you unending inspiration Leanne!

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    • says

      Thanks Marcy, I guess that’s how I see the process… both easy and challenging. Everything about creativity is a paradox, isn’t it? Glad you enjoyed the perspective.

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  8. says

    Wonderful post. I especially like how you tease out the “incubation” process – Natalie Goldberg talks of composting. Sometimes I think it’s like we are midwives to our chosen craft.

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  9. says

    Thank you for such beautiful advice – gladly welcomed as I continue to embark on the first draft of a novel and keep getting discouraged. Knowing where I am in a process, part of a cycle, is encouraging.

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    • says

      I’m so pleased if the post has helped you to keep on keeping on Jillian. That’s exactly my intention in analysing the process in depth. Good luck!

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  10. says

    I found this article extremely interesting and took notes to keep in mind when writing my book. I’m now learning while revising, so have a long way to go. Thank you for the detailed, helpful information.

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