I’ve had the opportunity to see many creative people at work recently. I’ve begun to see a pattern: they all go through the same stages to achieve their success. These people are writers, composers, and artists, people who create for a living. When they first begin, they go through the same mindsets and cycles as everyone else– the same cycles as I am still going through. This isn’t a road map to success, but it gave me an idea of what I need to work on and how much work I still need to do.
The original idea that drives anyone to create anything is the thought that they can write, or compose, or paint, as well as everyone else– in fact, since they’re unique, their works will be unique as well. The world needs more originality. Thus, beginners start out wanting to create original stuff; they want to write, draw, or compose in a way completely separate from everything anyone has ever seen. They throw all their big ideas, the ones that Tolkien unbelievably missed, into their work. They’ll have fun with it.
I wrote my first two novels with this in mind. Wise was medieval fantasy, but it had brilliant characters– fourteen protagonists and no antagonist. Fathoming Egression had an original world, with talking rocks and assassin ducks and plenty of fun stuff. I had fun with both.
But, invariably, these creators will realize that although their work is original, it’s no good. They lack the finesse that established professionals have. While their stuff is new and different, it isn’t perfect. And at this point, as budding creators, they begin to want perfection. They start looking at the professionals and seeing what they did right. They realize why no one has picked up on those original ideas of theirs already: they don’t work as well as everything else.
Here, the novice embarks on an epic journey. Inspired by the successful works they’ve just absorbed, they begin to create the exact same thing with minor differences. They copy, but from many different sources. For writers, a character arc here, a world or cultural element there, a magic system with a small tweak. Their plots mimic things they’ve watched or read. For music composers, they begin to mimic the greats– Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky– in order to make their stuff sound like everything else. Because if it’s like everything else, someone’s going to like it… right?
This was the stage in which I wrote my latest three novels. Arson had a style of Dustfinger from Inkheart, plus a lazy world mimicking bad YA I had read. Stakes felt like The Alloy of Law, with that same blend of magic and industrial revolution. Desolation took from several places at once, Partials and The Way of Kings especially. None of it felt especially spectacular, but I felt good writing each of them.
Then comes the epiphany. After taking the two extreme paths– conceited independence and near-plagiarism– the creator begins to realize that it’s a mix of the two that really works. They might be inspired by someone else’s work, but they put their own originality into it as well. They take an element they thought of themselves and combine it with something people already know. Beneath that on the structural level, they take emotional arcs that authors have done and twist them to suit their own needs. While they still get material from professionals, they begin to branch out and add their own independence into it, creating a mixture no one else could replicate. That’s when they begin to succeed.
I can’t say I’ve hit this stage yet. I might still be in the copying stage for all I know. Or I might have begun to move beyond that. I’m not sure yet– I won’t be sure for a while. But I’m confident this novel I’m writing is the best I’ve written yet.
What’s the moral of this story? This outline of creativity doesn’t really help anyone on its own– but the only way to get to the first step to the second, and from the second to the third, is by working. Work hard. Create, even if it feels completely unlike anything anyone’s ever seen, and not quite in a good way. Create, even if it feels like you’re copying everything you just read, listened to, or saw. Keep creating until you realize that while you can name a few things that inspired you, nothing stands out as a blatant ripoff. Keep creating when it’s corny. Keep creating when it’s weird. All that is okay. Just keep creating.