Creativity Project, part 5


Has it really been nearly a month since part 4? Man, I need to suck less.

Quick recap: I’m using this article: Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking as a springboard to talk about my own creative processes. What’s more, I’ve decided to wrap it up in this last post, since 9 & 10 are pretty thin.

9. There is no such thing as failure.

I hate this one because it’s bullshit and it has nothing to do with creativity. Yeah, you can learn from failure, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t failed. The trick is to not be afraid of failing, not to spackle over it as though it never happened and never will.


10. You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are.

I’d have to say that asserting our own experiences as neutral until we give them meaning is pretty silly, but it’s a clumsy way to make a half-decent point. Every individual has unique experiences and those experiences create filters that profoundly affect our creative choices. Should we write a fight scene as a rousing show of strength or as a tragic outcome of human folly? Our own experiences directs those decisions and helps us create work that’s uniquely our own.

11. Always approach a problem on its own terms.

This part of the article is a little incoherent, but let’s gloss that over.

When I face a problem that needs a creative solution, I will often try to imagine how a more successful writer would fix it. How would a best-seller set up this scene? How would a pro handle this dialog? (I did the same thing with my social life for many years–how would a self-confident person behave? was my inner dialog on many a Saturday night.)

The article writer talks about this in general terms but gets it wrong. Don’t try to imagine the work being done by random people or amateurs. Imagine it being done by skillful pros capable of surprising choices.

12. Learn to think unconventionally

The subject header here is okay but the text in the article is wrong. Yes, we will need to push beyond the so-called “normal” thinking that will lead people to the usual solutions to basic problems. No we do not have to teach ourselves to make random associations or whatever. That’s now how it works.

This one is important: Creative solutions come from going beyond the normal, but that can be done in a methodical way. Many folks think writing jokes is about a lightning-in-a-bottle talent for inspiration, but in fact joke writers will often start with long lists of possible subjects, potential angles, and likely punchlines. They’re constructed like furniture.

For me, creativity works the same way. I don’t solve creative problems (and that’s what books are–narratives that can only be advanced through creative solutions) through some mystical skill of pulling together random things. In fact, I make long lists of possible choices, including the boring, stale ideas that have become cliche. I cross off the dull ones, then I cross off the ones that don’t work, then I keep adding to the list.

Telling me I should look for useful patterns in unrelated work is like telling me I should crave salty foods: I do that all the time anyway. What I need to be reminded to do is consume information from a wide variety of sources.

The basic point is that creative solutions don’t come from a different channel than the boring, cliche ones: they come after you’ve gone beyond the cliche.

And that’s the end of this particular blog project. I’m a little disappointed in it, mainly because the original article didn’t spur me to genuinely interesting insights. Besides, there’s been a sudden flux of new pop-non-fic about creativity and I feel as though I’m stuck in the mud while others are going farther and seeing new things. Hopefully, I can revisit the subject at another time.

Creativity Project, part 4


It’s been a while since part 3. Sorry about that, if you care. Truthfully, I’m behind on my WIP and I’m having trouble prioritizing this. Quick recap: I’m using this article: Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking as a springboard to talk about my own creative processes.

7. Expect the experts to be negative.

This section of the article is more for office workers than it is for creative people. Wait, I take that back. It’s not an issue for me because I don’t really have someone telling me that I can’t do something before I do it.

For example, when I was planning my story for the Don’t Rest Your Head anthology, I told editor Chuck Wendig that I was planning to center the story around the death of a child. Chuck wasn’t happy with that at first, because it’s a touchy subject that turns people off (and too often he’s right). Still, I told him I thought I could make it work and he told me to go ahead.

Chuck was the expert in this situation, and rather than put his foot down, he said: I bet you can prove me wrong. In the end, he accepted the story pretty much as written.

This is what it’s like when an editor–especially a really really good one–is “negative” about creative choices. As I said down in comments, it really was ego-less arguing. She wanted me to save a couple of the Game of Cages characters for a future book, and she wanted me to cut The Sentence (for those who’ve read it, it’s the long murder scene that’s written as a 500+ word single run-on sentence). Cutting that violent scene could have given the book a more upbeat adventurous ending.

Of course, I didn’t cut that scene. I did change the book substantially to make The Sentence work–including saving one of the characters–but for me that scene was the whole point of the book, and I had to have it.

Now, only one reader has ever told me they disliked it. Several really loved it, but people who don’t like GoC rarely mention The Sentence. Was my editor wrong? I don’t think so. I’m betting that, with a more upbeat adventurous ending, it would have gotten better word of mouth. Maybe it would have sold better. Maybe the series would have survived.

I still wouldn’t go back and change it, though.

So, the most a writer like me has to worry about isn’t that my idea might get shot down, the way a bright-eyed ad exec with a crazy new concept might be. It’s that no one will want to buy it, and you can’t really tell that until it’s too late.

8. Trust your instincts.

I’m not going to respond to this part of the article, except to say that the only sensible response to “They laughed at the Wright Brothers!” is “They laughed at the Marx Brothers, too.” It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s okay to give up on writing.

Seriously, I honestly believe this. I’m not one of those people who tell people to never stop trying; who’s to say what’s the best use of your time? Not me. Maybe someone who stops writing would go to work in a soup kitchen with that free time. Maybe they would spend more time with their friends, or edit Wikipedia in a useful way, or do any number of genuinely helpful things.

Write if you want to and if you think you have a chance to find the success you’re hoping for. Just be aware that you may never get it (I may never get it) and even if you do it won’t make you happy.

However, I should point out that I’d already quit writing when I’d signed with my agent. I was not going to start a new novel; I planned to go back to school to get a graduate degree in hopes of finding a career. All my writing time was spent studying for a GRE. Then my query letters started getting positive responses.

So who am I to say that people shouldn’t be discouraged? Creativity doesn’t have anything to do with success. You can be extremely creative but never find an audience for a host of reasons: Maybe your creative ideas are too far outside the mainstream. Maybe you’re creative but don’t have the writing skills to put together a sensible paragraph. Maybe you have other uses for that time, or new priorities. Who knows?

Quit if you want. Live your life. That’s what I say. Maybe, someday, I’ll do that myself. But in the mean time, I intend to write the stories I want to write, the way I want to write them. Anything else would take the joy out of things.

For the next post I’ll talk about failure. Jeez, this just gets more cheerful all the time, doesn’t it?

Creativity Project, part 3


Continuing my examination of my own creative process through an examination of this article: Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking, I’ll touch on points 4-6 here and get to the halfway point.

4. Your brain is not a computer.

This is probably the most confusing part of the article. It’s starts with the truism above then starts talking about imagining things and synthesizing experience?

The first thing I’ll say is that comparing a brain to a computer is not a very interesting way to think about this. No, your brain is not a computer. Other things your brain is not: a loaf of bread, a set of dishes, an FBI file on a U.S. peace activist, a package of Alka-Seltzer.

A good rule for brains and computers both is Garbage In, Garbage Out, but I covered that in my last post. But let me address the little point that the article writer covers: Our brains can create false experiences and treat them as real.

To which I say: yes, that is the whole point of writing a novel. You create a false experience in the mind of the reader. The entire art and craft of creating a novel involves a) imagining this experience yourself and b) recording it effectively through text.

But it’s important not to make the experience solely a visual/auditory one. Personally (and these posts are about my own processes, remember) I do imagine scenes visually but there isn’t a lot of detail in them. I certainly don’t see faces as such. If you’ve ever read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, (and you should) you’ll know what I mean when I say that the faces are “iconic.”

But I also experience the story in a different way that’s hard to describe. I also experience the character’s feelings as though they were tidal forces, pulling me one way or another. If there’s one thing that slows down my productivity, it’s translating those feelings into text without using cliche.

And it has nothing to do with my brain being a computer.

5. There is no one right answer

This one’s sort of important. You can make bad choices, creatively speaking. You can choose cliches, or story beats that ruin the tone, or that don’t make sense for the characters, or that open the story setting to questions/implications you aren’t ready or willing to address.

But there can also be numerous “correct” choices that will work within the story on one level or another. The important thing is to look at them and judge their effect on the story’s tone, the questions it raises about the setting, etc etc.

So, while you can have several correct choices, each should still be evaluated in terms of the effect it will have.

(I’m ignoring the article for this point for fear of annoying people with lay-physicist woo woo about creativity.

6. Never stop with your first good idea.

The temptation to do this is powerful–really really powerful, especially if you’ve been struggling with a particular question for a while–but don’t do it. If you do, you miss out on the chance to do the evaluations I talked about in number 5 above.

More in part four, including allowing other people to influence you in a negative way.

Creativity Project part 2


As a reminder, these posts are a response to this article in Psychology Today: Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking. Not that I think it needs a response, but because it provides a decent jumping off point.

I’m bundling points 2 and 3 together and dispensing with them quickly. Not because they aren’t important, but because they’re easy.

2. Creative thinking is work

What’s this? Coming out in favor of working hard? What a bold position to take!

Not that hard work isn’t important. Of course it is. The author of the article is correct when he says that being creative isn’t a matter of simply having great ideas fall into your lap like flakes of dandruff. So it’s true and it’s easy to say; creativity takes focussed effort.

But what kind? It’s one thing to say: “You must work hard.” That is the easiest thing in the world to type out, because it confirms so many of our own prejudices. It’s the kind of thinking that runs neatly inside the cultural groove and it quickly becomes a “My Favorite Argument” (quick def: an assertion someone feels so comfortable with that they use it to redirect new or unusual discussions toward a dispute where they already feel they have a solid argument).

But how can we manage our creative work so it’s effective and productive? Continue reading

New Blog Project: Creativity


Earlier this year, someone linked to this article: Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking. I read it and I sort of hated it. Does everything have to be a damn list? I realize lists are popular on the web, but can’t an article on creativity make a more creative choice?

Well, catch a whiff of hypocrisy, because I am going to go through the points on that list in a series of posts, because creativity is something I’ve been meaning to address here. Some points will get their own post, some will be grouped together, based on nothing but my free time and how much I have to say.

But why do it? Well, occasionally I get emails from people praising the originality of my Twenty Palaces books, and the tone always seems to suggest that it comes from some characteristic I have, okay? As though there’s some innate quality in me that allows me to create unusual stuff for my books. Other people hate the choices I make, for example calling this or that predator lame, and that’s totally cool. At least I know the thing they hate is something that (mostly) came from me.

However, there’s nothing innate about it. So I’m going to use this guy’s article as a springboard for the discussion I want to have. What’s more, I’m not planning to talk very much about generating story ideas. You can find that stuff anywhere, and it’s not very difficult. Story ideas are so common that I give them away (just click on the “seeds” tag in the sidebar; if you see an idea that intrigues you, run with it).

Instead I’m going to talk about using creativity within the story itself, especially to solve story problems in ways that the reader might not expect or to create a setting that gives your characters the opportunity to do interesting things.

I’m not going to go into the research very much. It’s all over the web and it’s very interesting, if you can get past the how-can-we-make-our-corporation-more-successful crap.

So let’s start off with the first of the Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking: You are creative.

Sounds very affirming, doesn’t it? If you take the trouble to click through and read this paragraph, you can maybe see why I don’t like it. Lines like this: The reality is that believing you are not creative excuses you from trying or attempting anything new. sound like the advice thin people give about weight loss.

But the point is not that you believe in yourself, or that you decide to be creative, or that you make the effort. What the writer should have talked about was self-identity.

There was a study that came out many years ago (I tried to Google it up but it was too deep) that measured people’s creativity. What they did was give people a test to measure their capacity for creative thought. Most people–having no need to be creative in their everyday live because they work in offices all damn day, bust their asses taking care of their families, and cluck their tongues over the current state of things–were no particularly creative.

No surprise, right? Well, I wish I could link to the study but I can’t so let’s pretend I remember it very well because I do.

What happened next was that the same people were test questions, but this time they were told to answer as they imagined a creative person might–a French painter, a hippy, a science fiction writer–and this time their answers were incredibly creative. Once they’d freed themselves from their own self-image, they were capable of surpassing their limitations.

I know what you’re thinking: Why a hippy? I honestly have no idea. Apparently people think hippies are creative? I guess? That was one of the details that made the research stand out in my memory.

So, the article writer is correct. Any of us can be creative if we put our minds to it in the right way. It’s not about avoiding something new, it’s about understanding how to get to that new thing.

More in the next post, when I get a chance to write it.