Improving Your Creativity, Habit by Habit

Each of us is born creative. Some lose their creativity along the way. If you’d like to write fiction, but don’t think you’re creative enough, I believe you can increase that attribute through effort.

Researchers Carolyn Gregoire and Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman developed a list of habits practiced by creative people. In their book, Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Gregoire and Kaufman introduce and discuss those habits.

However, if you’re trying to improve by practicing good habits, it’s difficult to work on ten all at once. In his self-improvement efforts, Benjamin Franklin tackled just one habit per week. Therefore, I took the ten habits from the Gregoire and Kaufman book and rated them according to how important they are to becoming a better fiction writer. That way you can concentrate on one at a time in your creative journey.

I’ll present each of the habits in reverse order of importance, like any good Top Ten List. The order of the list is mine; other authors might disagree. Each habit is important, and all worth doing. You’ll find you do some already, so you won’t have to work on those.

10. Turning Adversity into Advantage. It’s good to develop your ability to accept failure as part of the process, to learn from it, and to move on. As a writer, your stories will get rejected; some of your books won’t sell; some marketing ideas won’t work; your stories will receive bad reviews. You’ll need to use these misfortunes to improve. As important as this habit is, I judged it the least necessary for developing the type of creativity needed by fiction writers.

9. Solitude. Writing fiction is a solitary endeavor. Creative people need to be able to tune out the world’s noise, to enjoy being alone without feeling lonely. That can be difficult for extreme extroverts. Still, it didn’t rate high on my list, since it’s not a habit you’ll need to practice before you can write. Just write, and you’ll soon get used to being alone.

8. Intuition. As you assemble words into effective sentences, expressive paragraphs, and enjoyable stories, you won’t have time to reason out what works best in every case. Most often you’ll have to go with your gut. This habit is low on the list because it’s hard to practice (try setting out to be more intuitive today) and because it should develop naturally the more you write.

7. Daydreaming. All writers do this. They let their mind wander in unfocused thought, free to go where it will, perhaps to see things anew or to connect the unconnected. The only reason this habit isn’t higher on the list is its low degree of difficulty, for most people.

6. Sensitivity. It’s valuable to be aware of the world and to understand the connections between outside events and your own mood and feelings. You can use that ability to create characters readers will love. For some, this comes naturally but others have to work on it.

5. Passion. There has to be an inner fire, some powerful force driving you to tell a story, to sustain you through the times when writing seems too hard. It’s not an easy habit to practice, though. Moreover, once you experience the success of selling a story, your passion to write more will increase on its own.

4. Openness to Experience. Your muse must be fed, and her diet is experiences. You have to get out in the world, explore new places, meet new people, try new activities, break down the doors of your comfort zone. This is easy for some, but others have to work at it.

3. Mindfulness. A creative person can focus, can think about the world, can think about feelings, and can think about thinking itself. Unlike daydreaming, this is directed, intentional. This is the usual state of writers when writing.

2. Thinking Differently. Creative folks disdain norms, shun convention, and strive for originality. They adopt a unique perspective, and break out of the everyday. Fiction writers must do this, to craft stories that will interest and delight readers. There’s a reason they call them novels, after all.

Drum roll, please. And now, the #1 habit of creative people, the one most important to fiction writers…

1. Imaginative Play. Remember your childhood games? You’d build crude replicas of things that would be huge and perfect in your mind. You’d imagine situations, assume a role, and play it out. No constraints, no rules, no limits. Your mind would ask, “what if…?” and off you’d go. Fiction writers either never outgrow that habit, or find a way to renew it through practice. It’s the essence of creative writing.

You already know what to work on, don’t you? You’ve identified the most difficult habits on the list and you’re set to practice them. Soon you’ll be tapping into hidden reservoirs from which your creative juices will flow. Good luck, Writer, and please take a moment along your wandering, creative journey to leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Creativity Boot Camp

Listen up, you dull, lazy, unimaginative bores! I’ve got exactly one blog post to whip your sorry, uninspired butts into the most steely-eyed, creative writers who ever scribbled for this great country.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drill_instructor

What’s that? Did I hear one of you say you’re just not creative? First of all, no talking in ranks. Second, you were creative once, back when you were three to five years old. You were uninhibited, freewheeling, and super-creative then. What happened to you? Get intimidated by a little criticism? Did adults often tell you that you were wrong? Did they tell you to stand or sit in neat, straight lines…?

Hmmm. Okay, new formation. I want you to sit, stand, or lie down facing in any direction you want. Still no talking, though. You will listen to everything I tell you. You will do everything I tell you, and you will become more creative. Do you understand? The proper response is ‘Yes, Drill Sergeant!’ I can’t hear you!

To allow for possible penetration into your feeble brains, I will keep these techniques simple. When faced with a writing problem, any writing problem, use these methods. They will work when you believe you can’t think of a story idea, create a compelling character, describe a setting, or get yourself out of a plot hole.

 

  1. Give me ten. No, not sit-ups. Write down ten ways to restate your problem. Sometimes seeing the question a different way helps in finding an answer.
  2. Give me twenty. No, not pushups. Write down twenty solutions to your problem. Do not stop until you get to twenty. Do not criticize your solutions, no matter how stupid they are. Remember, a stupid idea can inspire a good one.
  3. Move your lazy behind. I mean move Go for a run, or a walk. Your body and brain are one. Moving one will move the other.
  4. Go somewhere else. Move your rear end to a different place. A different room. Outside, maybe. Find a place that stimulates you, where you feel more creative.
  5. Doodle, or do focused doodling like the 30 Circle Test.
  6. Draw a mind map of your problem.
  7. Look at your problem from three perspectives. No, I can’t tell you which three without knowing your problem. It could be three characters, three physical directions, three time periods, or three other perspectives. You figure that out from the nature of your problem.
  8. Shut up. Literally. Go to a quiet place. No TV. No radio. No rug-rats. Quiet. Maybe you’ve been too distracted for the answer to come to you.
  9. Approach your problem using all your senses. You have five of them, most of you. Sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste.
  10. Quit sitting on your hands and use them to build something. Build a model of your problem, with an Erector Set, Legos, modeling clay, Silly Putty, Play-Doh, or Tinkertoys. If you see your problem in a physical way and shape it with your hands, you may think of a solution.
  11. Listen to music. What? How should I know what kind of music will work for you? That’s for you to figure out.
  12. Get help. We leave no writer behind in this outfit. Ask other writers you know, or members of your critique group, if you have one. They may think of answers you haven’t thought of. Remember to help them when they ask, too.

Do not think I came up with these ideas by myself. I got them from experts. You will visit their websites and review the information there. See the postings by Larry Kim, Michael Michalko, Christine Kane, Christina DesMarais, and Dr. Jonathan Wai. Also this article on WikiHow, and this TED talk by Tim Brown.

These techniques I’ve attempted to impart into your mundane, unoriginal skulls will increase your creativity. They will make you a better writer. They will make you feared by your competitors. They will save your writing career. Memorize them and practice them.

Ten-hut! You’re dismissed. Get out there and be creative writers. Never forget what’s been taught to you by your Drill Sergeant—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Recalling the Moment

When people ask, “how did you get the idea for that story?” it’s useful to be able to remember that exact instant when the lightning struck, when the light bulb glowed, when the muse whispered. For some of my stories, I can. For others, I have no idea.

People expect you to remember. They want to hear about the light bulb moment. After all, that’s a bit of a story in itself.

220px-Suzanne_Collins_David_Shankbone_2010Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games series, has a great story for how she came up with the idea for the first book in the series. As reported here, she was channel-surfing between a reality show involving a competition among young people, and some news coverage of a war. The two TV shows blurred in her mind, and she came up with her book idea. She also claims that the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which she read at age eight, became the inspiration for the plot.

This is often how it happens. Two or more ideas get merged in your mind, and they can be widely separated in time. Some of these ideas could be something half-remembered from childhood.

On occasion, an entire story coming to a writer in a flash, so that it becomes a race to get it written down before the memory degrades. Other authors refine and mature a basic idea over time before they are ready to write. Whichever method you use, it’s still a good thing to write down the initial idea right after the bulb illuminates, perhaps in a daily journal. That way you’ll be ready when people ask.

What’s that you’re thinking? You’re wondering how I got the ideas for some of my recent stories? How nice of you to ask.

A Clouded Affair” came from a clash of two ideas. I was in a dieselpunk mood, having never written in that subgenre. Then I saw the call for stories for an anthology titled Avast, Ye Airships! Clearly, they wanted steampunk. What to do? How about a battle between a steampunk pirate and a dieselpunk pirate?

For “Time’s Deformèd Hand,” I was responding to a planned anthology of Steampunk Shakespeare stories. I wanted a lighter tale, so I reviewed the Bard’s comedies, and selected “A Comedy of Errors.” Clockpunk seemed a better fit than steampunk, so I went with that. While my story didn’t get picked for the anthology, it found a happier home as part of my What Man Hath Wrought series.

The Cometeers” is one story whose genesis I don’t recall. For some reason, I must have been thinking about save-the-Earth-from-destruction plot lines, and thought about how I could set such a story in the steampunk era.

Here’s a sneaky notion, to wrap things up. Since you won’t always recall the “ah-ha moment” when a story idea occurred to you, and since your zillions of fans will demand to know how it actually happened, it’s probably okay in this instance to make up a story. After all, you’re a fiction writer—making up stories is what you do. Moreover, who would say your explanation is wrong? Certainly not—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Don’t Refuse Your Muse

Is your brain in a rut? If so, you’re not alone. Today I’ll examine this tendency and suggest what you can do about it.

For all its desirable features, the human brain suffers from a love of the familiar and a fear of the unknown. This served as a good survival trait for our ancestors in their world, but it’s no advantage for a writer today.

Dont refuse museThis hard-wired preference probably prevents many people from becoming writers in the first place, since that can be a scary unknown. Even for those of you who’ve chosen to writers, this unfortunate brain feature keeps you using the same vocabulary words, writing about the same topics in the same genres, writing stories with the same themes and using very similar characters. It thwarts your creative urge, putting you at war with your muse.

As I’ve said before, your muse gets bored with the familiar and seeks the new and fresh. She grabs your arm and pulls you away from the safe and the known, beckoning you to explore the untrodden path. Her brain is wired in a different way.

Perhaps you disagree, thinking you don’t suffer from the malady I’ve described. You deny being a creature of habit who rushes to the familiar and avoids the unknown. Fine. Here’s your test. Tonight, before going to bed, hide your toothbrush. Let’s see how Mr. or Ms. Creativity handles things the next morning. Good luck!

For a great illustration of the problem, I encourage you to read “The Calf Path” by Sam Walter Foss. This poem paints an amusing metaphor of how our brains work.

Advertising Director Gina Sclafani wrote about dealing with the phenomenon. I find it interesting how she thought at first the task would be easy, since she prided herself on being open-minded. Then she well describes the difficulty, the inner resistance, to any steps outside the mind’s comfort zone. In the end, she’s glad she did, because the rewards are great, but she warns it is a journey pitting one part of your mind against a powerful counteracting part.

Here’s a three-step method you could try as a writer to push yourself out of your comfort zone. I’ll illustrate it with story genres, but it could also work with characters, themes, settings, style, or any aspect of story-writing in which you’re stuck.

1. Make a list of story genres you’d never consider writing about. Include the ones you find stupid, abhorrent, unseemly, etc. It’s no big deal, right? After all, you’re never going to write in any of these genres.

2. Spend five to ten minutes thinking through each genre on your list. Think about each one as follows: “I’ll never write in this genre, of course, but if I were to do so, here’s the story I’d write…”   You needn’t write down any of these ideas, just think through them.

3. Now let some time pass. A few days, weeks, or even months. This allows your muse to do her thing. You might well find she’s yanking on your arm and leading you down an unfamiliar path toward writing in one of those unwanted genres.

A similar thing happened to me. I knew I’d never write in the horror genre. Then I noticed a publisher seeking stories for an anthology to be called Dead Bait. I dismissed it, but my muse didn’t. She worked on the idea for a story she made me write called “Blood in the River.” I’m still not a horror story writer, but it felt good to get out of the comfort zone.

One final thought. At one point in their lives, each of history’s greatest contributors (think of da Vinci, Shakespeare, Bach, Edison, Einstein, etc.) had to leave a comfort zone in order to develop his or her eventual talents. Imagine the loss to mankind if one of them hadn’t taken that step? What if you could become a popular, successful, or timeless writer if only you stretch your mind in a direction it doesn’t want to go?

You’ll have to excuse me. This calf-path I’m walking along is nice, but some woman wearing a chiton is tugging at my sleeve. “What’s that? Where? But that’s off the path and looks terrifying to—

                                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe”

Inspiration, Bronzed

As a writer, where do you get your inspiration?  To what or whom do you appeal for the creativity you need?

I have a strange confession to make.  Every weekday, I happen to walk by a statue.  Rather than just glance at it, I make a silent wish that the spirit of the man represented will imbue me with the creativity and talent I need for whatever story I’m working on at the time.

Silly?  Perhaps.  But you have to admit there’s something about statues.  At the U.S. Naval Academy, there’s a statue representing the figurehead of the old USS Delaware, a chief of the Delaware tribe the midshipmen call “Tecumseh.”  The midshipman toss pennies at the statue as a wish for good luck in upcoming examinations.

statue_john_philip_sousaBut the statue I pass by twice daily is different.  It’s a representation of the American composer, the director of the Marine Corps Band, the ‘March King,’ John Philip Sousa.  The statue’s pedestal bears the only word necessary, “Sousa,” though in my ritual, I call it J.P.  The sculptor captured him in the act of directing, left hand pointing to a section of the band, right hand gripping the raised baton, head tilted as he enjoys the music.

How, you’re asking yourself, can a writer draw inspiration from a statue of a music composer?  For one thing, there are no statues of writers along the path I walk.  Secondly, composing music has much in common with writing.  Music, they say, is the language of the soul.  Both require creativity and both demand years for the talent to develop.

I’ve blogged before about the benefit of tangible symbols to use for motivation.  If you can come to see the symbol as urging you towards betterment, prodding you to sit in the chair and write, exhorting you to be as good at writing fiction as you can be, then it will always be there for you, a steady and unchanging inspiration.

Do you have a statue or other symbol you use for motivation?  Let me know.  Do you think the whole idea is crazy, that it’s the height of foolishness to assume a statue has the power to grant fiction-writing prowess if one only pleads to it?  Leave me a comment.  In the meantime, many thanks to J.P. for being a great inspiration to—

                                                           Poseidon’s Scribe

How Do Writers Exercise?

Writers exercise like everyone else, I suppose–when it comes to their physical body.  Today, though, I want to consider how writers exercise their writing skills.  Early in life we learn the secret to getting better at any skill–long hours of practice and exercise.  Sadly, writing is no exception to this.

1.  The first step in a writing exercise program is to identify your weak area, or areas.  You can get a feel for these from your critique group, from any comments received from editors as they reject your manuscripts, or from honest self-assessment.  By area I mean some aspect of writing such as characters, plot, setting, the hook, thinking of story ideas, tension, pacing, active vs. passive verbs, conciseness, etc.  Chances are, there’s at least one aspect of your writing you wish to improve.

2.  Next is to assign yourself an exercise, and do it.  The point is to focus on your weak area and just try different things, explore different solutions.  You’ll be writing just for yourself here, so there’s no pressure; give your inner editor the day off.  If your problem is weak setting descriptions, for example, you could write a description of your neighborhood or describe a setting from a picture, or re-describe a setting from literature.  Then write several other descriptions of the same setting, but using different tones.

You get the idea.  This is your creative mind at play.  The time spent counts toward the 10,000 hours you’ve got to put in.  Permit me a strange metaphor here.  Imagine you’re shoveling manure from a truck and spreading it on a field.  The field is vast and the trucks keep coming with full loads.  You do this all day, then many days, then years.  At one point you pause, leaning on your shovel’s handle, and gaze out at the field and see a single plant, a flower, growing in the field of manure.  The rough ground beneath could never have supported that flower–it could only grow after all the shoveling you did.  That’s writing.  The manure represents your exercises and early stories.  The flower is your first successful publication.

As you do your exercises, don’t critique yourself at first.  Give your writing free rein.  Use the brainstorm technique.  Consider using mind-maps.  If the weak area lends itself to this, practice many (say ten or twenty) solutions to each problem.   If you like some of your solutions, feel free to alter, refine, or hone them.

3.  After you’ve done some exercising, review, reflect, and analyze what you did.  Which techniques worked?  Which didn’t?  This assessment should reveal whether you’re on the path to improvement or not.

4.  Last, what do you do with all the residue from your exercising?  Keep the flower; discard the manure.  Chances are, you’ve got something beautiful there you can use in a story.

I can hear some of you objecting to this technique already, before you’ve even tried it. Steve, you’re saying, we beginning writers are always being told to write, write, write.  Now you’re saying to take a break from that and do these silly, and time-consuming, exercises?  Don’t the exercises take valuable time away from writing stories?

Yes, they do, in a sense.  They take time away from story-writing in the same way sharpening a saw takes away time from ‘sawing’ with a dull blade in the Stephen R. Covey example.  Think about that. You’re saying you don’t have time to learn to write well because you’re too busy writing garbage that won’t sell.

So conjure an image of the roughest, most dedicated coach, gym instructor, or drill sergeant.  Hear that image yelling at you to exercise, to give him more push-ups, to run another lap?  What are you waiting for? You do want to improve your writing, don’t you?  Try exercising, then whether you believe it worked or not, leave a comment for–

                                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe  

 

Use Mind Maps to Solve Your Writing Problems

The concept of mind mapping has come up in my blog entries before, as a suggested tool to help writers.  I’ve said you can use mind maps for outlining, to improve your creativity, and to solve pesky plotting problems.  But what exactly is a mind map, and how does it work?

A mind map is a way of organizing and illustrating thoughts about a topic.  I learned about the technique from reading Use Both Sides of Your Brain, by Tony Buzan.  It contrasts quite a bit from other note-taking methods like the I.A.1.(a)(1)(i) outlining method you learned in school.  I’ve found it to be more intuitive, less messy, and easier to remember than other methods.  I use my own variant of mind mapping any time I need to organize thoughts:  note-taking during meetings at work, planning my day, planning a vacation.  And, oh yeah, I use mind-mapping to aid in my writing.

How do you construct a mind map?  I’ll give only a quick description here; I recommend you read Buzan’s book, or at a minimum read descriptions of the technique elsewhere online.

  • Start in the center with an image of the topic.
  • Write key words around the central image using upper case letters.
  • Underline each key word.
  • Use lines to link the underlined key words to your central image and to each other to illustrate connections.
  • Use images and symbols throughout, in addition to key words.  (Don’t worry if you think you can’t draw decent pictures; no one but you will see your mind map.)
  • Use multiple colors to separate thoughts, and to link similar thoughts.
  • Continue branching out from the center, expanding the thoughts and linking related ideas.

The best way to explain what that all means is to show you a mind map.  I’ve said you can use mind maps to solve writing problems, so let’s see a hypothetical example.  Let’s say you’re Jules Verne and you’re working on a book with a working title of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  You’re outlining the major events of the book and you want to finish with an appropriate, memorable ending, one with a big impact and one that fits the novel’s major themes.  You could make a list of possible endings, then go back and list pros and cons for each option, then choose the best one.  Or you could construct a mind map.

(Set aside for the moment, that [1] mind-mapping hadn’t been invented at the time, and [2] Verne did not write in English.)

In a more complete mind-map, Verne would have continued branching from each option, with pros and cons.  I’ve violated a few mind map rules in this example, but my overall point is for you to see how you could use the technique to aid your writing.

Stuck for an idea what to write about?  Write down key words that resonate with you, even if apparently unrelated.  Go fast and fill up a page with words and pictures.  Now pause and look for natural associations.  Re-do the mind map if necessary to keep it clean and neat.  Now, in a different color, try connecting some unrelated ideas.  Do any of these clashing notions suggest a possible story?

Not sure how to plot your story?  Mind-map the story’s scenes, with branches describing why they occur and how the characters change or learn things from each event.  That should make it apparent if you have unnecessary scenes, scenes in the wrong order, or if you’re missing some scenes you need.

Possible uses for mind-mapping are limited only by your imagination.  In other words, there are no limits.  Can you see yourself using this technique?  Have you ever done so?  Share your ideas about mind-mapping by leaving a comment.  This blog post has been brought to you by both the left and right sides of the brain of–

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

Diagnosis: Writer’s Block

Have you experienced writer’s block?  That condition where you feel the desire or pressure to write but you can’t actually come up with any words?  It’s a real thing, an occupational “hazard” first diagnosed in 1947.

I think there are two forms of it–Major Writer’s Block and minor writer’s block.  I define MajWB as the state of being unable to start writing a new work, and of long duration.  On the other hand, minWB is a short-term state of being stuck while in the midst of a work.  MajWB can last for years or even be a career-ender.  But minWB is almost always temporary, lasting a few hours or days.  I have yet to experience MajWB, but get the minor version often.

In either case, the symptoms are pretty much the same.  Words won’t come out, try as you might, and after a while you don’t feel much like trying.  I pay attention to the blogs of writer Andrew Gudgel (full disclosure:  Andy and I are friends), and he wrote a great blog entry on writer’s block on May 3, 2011.  In it, he states that the condition of not writing is only a symptom, not the problem itself.  He makes the case that only when you know the problem can you begin to solve it, and that the problem itself points to the solution.

He divides the spectrum of possible problems into craft-related problems, and problems with other aspects of the writer’s life.  I’ll divide writing block problems a different way, as follows:

  • Story-related problems:
    • plotting problems–the story isn’t going in the right direction
    • character problems–a character isn’t fully fleshed out, or is taking over the story, or is otherwise not proving suitable
    • setting problems
    • other problems with the story itself
  • Craft-related problems that are writing-related, but not about the story:
    • overwhelmed by task
    • inferiority complex, thoughts that your writing won’t measure up
    • lost interest
    • pressured by deadline
    • paralyzed by own success
    • pressure of audience too close (more below)
  • Personal, but non-writing, problems:
    • illness
    • depression
    • relationship problems
    • financial difficulties

Again, identifying which real problem is present can point toward the solution.  The stress caused by any of the problems above can really inhibit the normal creative process.  What’s thought to happen in the short term to the human brain under stress is a shift of activity from the cerebral cortex to the limbic areas.  In other words, the focus shifts from the areas devoted to attention, consciousness, language, memory, and thought to the basic, instinctual fight-or-flight area we inherited from the dinosaurs.  Extended periods of stress damages brain cells, weakens memory, and causes depression.  All of that is bad news for writers.

Most of the items on the list of problems above are self-explanatory, but I thought I’d discuss the pressure of the audience in more detail.  Writing expert Dr. Peter Elbow wrote a much-discussed essay called “Closing My Eyes As I Speak.”  He claims writers feel the presence of an audience as they write.  Unlike performance artists such as singers or stand-up comedians, writers do not have their audience physically present, but they often imagine how readers will react to their work.  Dr. Elbow considers the pressure of this unseen audience can disrupt the flow of words, and suggests writers disregard the audience as they write their first drafts.  The writing will be more natural and genuine.

As a non-writing example, look at this picture of world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma in performance.  He often plays with eyes closed, as if he’s deliberately distancing himself from his audience and playing only for himself in his own private world.  Metaphorically, we should all write that way, too, at least in our first drafts.

I’ve discussed the condition of writer’s block and potential causes, but never got around yet to how to overcome it.  Getting unblocked will have to be the subject of a future blog post by–

                                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

February 12, 2012Permalink

To Retrieve a Lost Muse

I’ve written quite a bit about my muse–that creative alter ego of mine–but I’ve not written much about yours.  You might be protesting, “But, Steve, I don’t have a muse.  I’m not a creative person.”  Well, it’s my contention that we all were born creative and that many of us taught ourselves to be uncreative over time.  However, we can teach ourselves to be creative again, regain the lost skill, and recover the abandoned muse.

Were we really all born creative?  Certainly we were born curious, and curiosity is an essential element of creativity.  When you watch a wide-awake baby who is by herself and not engaged with anybody else, that baby is looking around, curious about her environment.  She will make every effort to interact with it, to learn about it. She’ll reach and touch things, put things in her mouth, etc.  The interesting part is, she’s doing all this with a bold attitude and no fear of failure.  She will try anything.

Somewhere along the growing process, many of us learn to stop behaving that way.  We get burned by the environment too many times, or scolded or teased by others; we become afraid to try new and different things, instead preferring the safety of the commonplace and conventional.

Given such an ingrained lifetime pattern of avoiding creative thought, how can we get back to the bold, fearless approach we once had?  There is one place we can be curious and creative without getting burned by anyone or anything, and that’s our mind.  In the mind’s playground we can try anything, explore anything, see anything from any vantage, and no one will criticize us; nothing will hurt us.

One technique for building creativity makes use of this mental playground.  I learned this from my father many years ago.  He said when you have a problem, and when you have alone-time on your hands, (such as when you’re doing a drudgery task like driving or mowing the lawn or cleaning or doing laundry), you can try this method.  Just think of twenty possible solutions to the problem.  Don’t stop until you get to twenty.  Here’s the fun part–the solutions don’t have to be practical, or possible.  Each solution should be related in some way to the problem, but you are not allowed to self-criticize the solutions or reject them for being impossible or bizarre.  You’re not writing them down; this is all being done in your head.

You might be asking, “What’s the point of coming up with twenty solutions that won’t work?”  The point is that such creative play where there is freedom to imagine without fear will often generate a dumb solution that sparks a subsequent smart one, even an ingenious one.

Another way to build creativity is with the use of mind maps.  I’ll discuss that in a future blog post.

There are many more techniques you can use.  This site explains ways to solve problems by creating “distance” from the problem in either space or time.  This site provides sixteen specific methods, many of which involve shifting mental gears.  A new environment can stimulate a fresh idea.  This site gives you a list of ten creativity-building approaches that are a bit more general.

There’s an obvious parallel here with the problems of losing weight or becoming more fit. The only effective way to do those things is some combination of exercise and better diet.  The only way to regain lost creativity is to exercise it (through some of the techniques) and feed it a better diet (of stimulating environments as mentioned in the rest of the techniques).

Go ahead and try some of these methods. You’re more creative than you realize. That inquisitive child remains inside. Let it roam free in the playground of your mind.  Your long-abandoned muse will return. That’s a solid guarantee, provided by–

                                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe

September 4, 2011Permalink

How to Create Life (in fiction)

In what way are all fiction writers like Dr. Frankenstein?  Answer:  we’re all creating life.  Mary Shelley’s famous character is a better metaphor for my purposes than the phrase “playing God,” because, like the Transylvanian experimenter, we have models to copy from — all the people we see and meet.

The problem is, as Dr. Frankenstein found out, creating life is difficult.  Some writers are better at giving readers a vivid mental picture of their characters than others.  What are the factors involved in creating believable, memorable characters?

Linda Seger answers that question well in her book Creating Unforgettable Characters, which I recommend.  Her technique for coming up with great characters is to (1) research the character, (2) create a backstory, (3) understand the character’s psychology, (4) create character relationships, and (5) develop the character’s dialogue voice.  The book also contains great advice regarding the development of supporting characters, nonrealistic characters, the use of stereotype, and how to solve the character problems you may experience as a writer.

Back in the 1800s, authors could furnish long descriptions of their characters, giving readers all the necessary details for understanding them.  Readers stopped putting up with that many decades ago.  Writers had to learn to imbed snatches of character descriptions into the action and dialogue as seamlessly as possible.  No more “time-outs” from the plot to devote a few paragraphs to the heroine’s matching dress and parasol.

Then writers found a technique for describing their main character’s physical appearance while remaining in that character’s point of view.  Simply have the character stare at a mirror or other reflective surface.  Sorry, modern writers don’t get to do that either; it’s been way too overused.

Complicating matters more, short story writers just don’t have enough space in the story for complete, well-drawn character descriptions.  A short story writer must create a memorable, identifiable main character using very few words or details and not slow down the plot while doing so.  There just isn’t the leisure of space for full character development in short fiction.

That’s why many writers turn to stereotypical or “stock” characters.  Not much description is necessary for these characters, since the reader will fill in the rest.  The problems here are: modern readers are offended by negative stereotypes, and use of stereotypes marks the writer as lazy and uncreative.  It is okay to use a stock character if you give her at least one aspect running counter to the stereotype.  That makes her more human and interesting.

So far this blog post reads like a list of “don’t-do’s” without giving much positive advice.  Therefore, here’s a list of do’s:

  • Make your plot and main character fit together such that only that character could have starred in that story.  It doesn’t matter which you think of first–plot or character–just ensure they fit.  Your story’s plot will become your protagonist’s private hell, so ensure it’s the specific corner of Hell your character fears most.
  • Get to know your major characters.  Develop a brief biography.  Put more in the bio than you’ll ever write in the story.  The bio should include elements (2) through (5) in Linda Seger’s list above.
  • Ensure the main characters in your story are distinctive and obviously different from each other in as many ways as possible.  You don’t want to confuse your readers.
  • Ensure your protagonist has some measure of the Everyman about him, so readers will identify with him and care what happens to him.

I’ll have more to say on creating characters in future blog posts.  It’s a major aspect of writing, of course.  In the meantime, (Bwaaa-ha-haaa!) it’s back to the laboratory for–

Poseidon’s Scribe