Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

Although I have famously said about ideas, “It’s not where they come from that matters. It’s where they go,” this has inexplicably failed to stem the tide of people asking authors, “Where do your ideas come from?” (I know, I can’t explain it either.) Normally, I would avoid this subject, or simply admit that no one really knows, but…

Ideas come from the oddest places. Sometimes they are not even fully-formed ideas, but simply notions that come to mind and are written down, possibly to be re-examined and combined with other notions that together compile an idea. Case in point: The other morning I woke up and said to my wife, “There are no baristas in Hell.”

Being far too experienced to be fazed by anything I say, particularly first thing in the morning, she simply replied: “That means you can’t get a latte.” Which, as need not be said, is pretty much the definition of Hell in a nutshell.

Interestingly, I took the phrase to mean that baristas (like nurses) are too good to go to Hell. She took it to mean that there’s no way to get a good coffee drink there (although she said she could easily see my point, as baristas are paragons of patience). Both are valid interpretations, and either may be useful someday, whether alone or combined.

I believe there are two conclusions to be drawn here: One, ideas come, often as not, from your subconscious, which explains why no one can answer the question. And two, it is more important where they go, because two people can take the same notion and drag it into two completely directions. This is why Shakespeare was able to steal so many ideas and make them work. This why all of us emulate Shakespeare, at least in this one respect.

Where will this notion go? Will it go anywhere at all? Beats me, all I know is this:

There are no good story ideas in Hell.

Run with it.




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Whence to Where

I recently tweeted something I thought was a tad clever: “People ask where you get your ideas. It’s not where they come from, it’s where they go that counts.” That’s why it’s ironic that I know where this post came from, but I have no idea where it’s going. But then, no one knows where the story is going when they start.

It’s true that some authors see the ending first, but this presumes that the story won’t take over and write itself. And the ending in itself is not “where the story goes.” That concept encompasses the entire structure, from beginning to end, and perhaps most importantly, the middle.

“What’s that?” you say. “The middle?” And I say, “Yes, the middle.” And there’s a reason I say that (aside from the fact that this is the middle part of this post). It’s simple: Beginnings are tough, but you can start anywhere. Endings are formed by everything that has gone before. Middles, on the other hand, have to carry the beginning and the ending. They have to connect them. They have to be interesting and further the plot without resolving it (or they become endings). They are the most vulnerable to wandering aimlessly. Parallels to middle children are left to the reader’s imagination and experience.

So how do you know where an idea is going to go? That, unfortunately, is not a question anyone can answer completely. Most ideas go nowhere. Every writer has a notebook full of ideas that will never leave that notebook. As for the others, where they go and how the writer determines that, depends on the writer. I favor an organic approach, where each part is like an ending in that it is dictated by what went before. This results in a linear narrative. Other writers may favor a less straightforward approach. To each his own.

Hey, what do you know? Here we are at the ending. And you know, it really doesn’t matter how we got here. It only matters that the journey is complete.

Tomorrow, we start again.



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It’s one of those times when the ideas just won’t come. I finished The Cosmic City a few weeks ago and gave myself some time off (well, I edited and formatted and published and promoted it, if that’s what they mean by time off). Then I tried to get back into writing, and I wrote a little vignette and immediately shelved it because it wasn’t really what I was trying to say. So I rewrote it as a completely new story over a couple of days, and now it’s incubating before submission.

So now what to do? I’m happiest when I have a project, a direction to go. (That’s the nice part about writing novels, but then you only have one product to sell, and if it doesn’t, you’re out of luck.) I thought this story would give me a direction for a few days, but it wrote itself too darned fast and now I’m afloat again. And it’s hard.

It’s hard because I’m hard on myself. I’m in the “you should write every day,” camp, but I don’t. Even the waiter at dinner tonight at our favorite hang-out was talking about how he’s worked on his screenplays for 50 days straight. Fifty days in a row of at least three pages. I admire him. I envy him. I want to slap him. (Lousy so-and-so, how dare he make me feel so bad?) I left him a big tip.

The truth is, sometimes you can’t write. Sometimes you have to extend that vacation a while. If the ideas aren’t there, they just aren’t. (I actually have a couple, but they’re so embryonic I have to leave them in the neonatal ICU until they’re stronger.) And until then, or until something else comes along, you need to do something different, change your routine: you need to relax.

Finishing and publishing The Cosmic City–the conclusion of a trilogy, no less–was a peak. You can’t jump from peak to peak. You have to cross the valley between them first. There will always be another peak to climb, even if right now it’s hidden by the clouds.



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While the excitement of finally bringing a new novel into the world is energizing, it tends to fade a little while you’re waiting for it actually to come out, and in the case of an e-book, that means while you’re formatting and prepping and ordering the cover, etc., etc. This means that at some point, even though you’re not really finished with your massive project, an unwanted thought is going to invade your brain like an insidious virus sent from your Overmind:

What Am I Going To Do Next?

For some, this is not an issue. Some writers routinely juggle two or three projects at once; for them, finishing one simply means focussing on another (and maybe starting something new, but there’s always a list of those). For others of us, though, starting a new project is a daunting task. We can postpone it by saying, “Oh, I’m still editing,” or “While that cover is on order I’ll make sure my e-book is formatted,” or even the time-honored “I deserve a vacation,” but eventually the Overmind rears its massive head and thunders: “You Have To Think Of Something To Write.” (Yes, the Overmind always speaks in capitals.)

Guess where I am in the process?

Often when in this bind, I have taken the coward’s way out, and simply started another novel. Novels are easier: You have only one story to tell, and it takes a long time, so starting something new is a problem you can put off for months. But I have consciously decided to concentrate on short stories for 2017, so that option is barred. And now I am almost done with formatting The Cosmic City, so that’s no help, either. What’s boy to do?

Well, to start, he can write a blog post so he feels like he’s being creative…

The world right now is ripe with subjects that lend themselves to a science-fictional slant, problems that can be addressed through a speculative lens, making them seem less political because they aren’t happening in the here-and-now. I’ve done it before. But it’s very easy to become pedantic and transparent, which in turn makes the work hard to sell. I was hoping to focus more inwardly, touching universal truths by exploring personal truths. This, however, involves much spilling of blood all over your screen (or page, if you’re a Neanderthal like me), and we just vacuumed the carpets. So there’s that.

In the end, this is a question that I’ve faced (and answered) many times. I have developed various mechanisms over the years to deal with the issue. Most involve reading–a pastime which has suffered greatly of late–but all involve sitting down in a chair and writing.

You know, the kind of thing I’m doing right now, Mr. Overmind! This is over 400 words right here! And then there’s my tweets, they count, and I still haven’t finished formatting my book…


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Since “Dead Guy Walking” is making make its dramatic-reading debut tonight in Portland, it seems appropriate to visit (or re-visit) the question of where writers get their ideas, with the point of view that they get them where everyone else does–from real life. I like to say that DGW, about a man who thinks he may be dead, was taken from real life. This is not to say that I have ever had any delusions on that subject; I know perfectly well. But it was based on a real-life experience, or actually, the combination of a couple of experiences.

First, I once took a bad step on a steep staircase, and by some miracle managed to run down the stairway about thirty feet to the ground, hitting probably every third step, and I landed upright and completely unhurt. Second, I lived in an apartment years later where I had to carry laundry down another steep stairway. Somehow the two melded into falling down stairs while carrying laundry, an accident that could very well prove fatal. That’s Bobby in the story. Sparky, his dog, was inspired by my own dog when I was a teenager, who, like Sparky, lived in a house with a flat roof where he could sun himself. The part where Bobby may be the living dead? I have no idea where that came from.

The point, however, is that even the most far-fetched fantasies have their roots in the writer’s own life. (Please don’t ask me how much Lovecraft’s real life intruded into this stories. I don’t want to know.) SFF authors are just like mainstream novelists, except that we sprint where they fear to tread. And yet, ironically, we cover the same ground.

Because the point of science fiction and fantasy is just like any other writing. In its simplest and purest form, it entertains. But it also illuminates the human condition. Look at how many epic fantasies explore the question of courage, for example. In fact, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter both take that examination one step further: They delve into the courage that it takes to fight Evil when you’re not the chosen one. And they inspire that courage in their readers.

Two of the three most recent finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction were genre works. (Of course, the third, that wasn’t, won.) If there were ever an argument to be made that genre labels are strictly a marketing ploy, that’s it. Even the Pulitzer committee recognizes that SFF and mainstream lit are the same. They’re just not dressed in the same clothes.

And yet they each pulled their clothes out of a closet. Just because the SFF writer’s closet leads to Narnia doesn’t make it any different from yours.


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For the better part of the last two decades, it has been my considered opinion that the decline of fantasy and science fiction literature can be expressed by its increasing similarity to that universally-acknowledged fount of conformity: television. Go to the SF section of your favorite retail bookstore (or should I just give in and say “Barnes & Noble”?), and you will see without much effort that 90% of the selections can be broken down into a very few classes: military, Buffy-esque, steampunk, supernatural mystery. It’s like cable TV with four channels that anyone watches and a bunch of golf channels that only get a dribble of viewers. Or so it seems.

But until today, that was as far as my simile extended. No more is that the case! Not content with the idea that our literature was becoming more like TV, our friends at Microsoft have come up with a way to make the books themselves more like TV. I think this was what ruined the Romans.

In my day (he said his cranky pre-Millennial voice), the pictures you made from books were the pictures you made from the books. Part of the charm was that no two people saw the same character the same way. Your book was your own private world, and if you wanted to imagine that the hero/ine looked just like you, you could. If you wanted the villain to look like your boss, that was okay, too. A book was a collaboration between you and the author, and that lead to all kinds of differing interpretations that in turn lead to book groups, and convention panels, and English lit majors who can’t get jobs.

Now they not only want to make your favorite story into a TV series, they want to make your book into one. I’ll be the first to admit that TV is fun, addictive, and occasionally even original. But it requires no imagination. Even radio required you to make the pictures up in your head. Everybody knows that the scariest scenes are those you imagine yourself, and the sexiest fantasies are those you construct in your own mind. You’re not going to convince me that the best stories are not those you play out in your own head–and where do you think the training to do that comes from? Novelists don’t get their ideas from television. They learn narrative arcs and characterization and foreshadowing and world-building from other writers’ written words.

So if you want a generation of television writers, turn their books into television. If you want novelists and short story writers, turn the TV, and the HoloLens, off.

Note: I first learned about the HoloLens here. You could check it out.


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You ask any author what the hardest part of the job is, and you’ll get one of a hundred different answers. Some think it’s editing and revising, some think it’s naming characters, some it’s writing a satisfactory ending, and so on. I personally think it’s almost all of the above. (I’d say which, specifically, but writers are like magicians and we have to keep some mystery. Unless we’re writing mysteries, in which case we have to dispel any mystery in the end. Like I said, it’s a difficult job. It does help to be insane.) I have tackled this question before, and I thought I answered it, but I was wrong.

The very hardest part of the job is starting. And I don’t mean staring at that piece of paper (yes, I find working on paper helps the process, and you youngsters can ask your parents what “paper” is), I mean coming up with the idea that will lead to someday putting pencil (ask) to paper. It’s hard enough to know what to write, but it’s even harder to know what to write about.

And even that’s not as easy as it looks: You have to define your terms. When you say you’re going to write “about” a space pirate working as a privateer/spy for the king of one star system fighting a cold war against the king of another star system, what kind of story are you trying to write? Is it going to be a “message piece” where “war is bad” is inherent in your tale, or are you writing about the pirate himself and how he views his own life, or are you penning a straight spacebuckler? (Hands off, I just made that up. Honest. Just this minute.)

In a perfect world, you will incorporate all of these elements, but you have to be careful. If the first or second outweighs the third, you risk being boring (and having people yell at you). If the third outweighs the others, you’ll never get any critical respect (or award nominations). So it helps to have some idea which it’s going to be before you start. (Ironically, the fact that you can always change your mind later makes things even worse, not better.)

Me, I almost never know what I’m going to write about next. I have notebooks full of ideas, but seldom do I use one. I have proto-plots for at least five novels in my head, but I don’t really want to take the time to write a novel at the moment. So here I sit, plotting out a blog instead, because 500 words is easier than 5000.

And yet, what good is it to coin a word like “spacebuckler” if you’re not going to use it? Hmmm…

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