The Importance of Creativity Time

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I read a fascinating article the other day on how athletes’ bodies age. Using baseball players as an example, the author explains:

[A]n athlete’s physical decline begins before most of us notice it, and even the 23-year-old body can do things today that it might not be able to do tomorrow. Fastball speed starts going down in a player’s early 20s, and spin rate drops with it. Exit velocity begins to decline at 23 or 24. An average runner slows a little more than 1 inch per second every year, beginning pretty much immediately upon his debut. It takes a little over four seconds for most runners to reach first base, which means with each birthday, it’s as if the bases were pulled 4 inches farther apart. Triples peak in a player’s early 20s, as does batting average on balls put into play. A 23-year-old in the majors is twice as likely to play center field as left field; by 33, the opposite is true.

Feeling tired yet?

Thirty-three feels so far away, but it’s already happening. The 23-year-old’s lean body mass peaked sometime in the preceding five years. His bone-mineral density too. He’s at the age when the body begins producing less testosterone and growth hormone. His body, knowing it won’t need to build any more bone, will produce less energy. Male fertility peaks in the early 20s, the same time as pitch speed and exit velocity. Athleticism is, crudely speaking, about showcasing what a body looks like when it’s ready to propagate a species.

Had kids yet?

And then there’s the brain:

Researchers in British Columbia studied decision-making speeds of thousands of StarCraft 2 players and found that cognitive abilities peak at 24. Other research has found that perceptual speed drops continuously after 25. The brain is changing: the ratios of N-acetylaspartate to choline, the integrity of myelin sheathing, the connectivity of hippocampal neurons — you know, baseball stuff.

So basically, after age 23 or so, we’re all on the treadmill to decline.

Thanks for stopping by TKZ, everyone!

Well, stats be hanged, I’m a Do not go gentle into that good night kind of guy. Might as well put up the good fight as long as you can with all the weapons available to you.

Especially if you’re a writer who wants to write until they find you with your cold, dead fingers poised over the keyboard.

Which means our brains—which house our imagination, tools of language, and craft knowledge—must be worked out just like a body.

I have long taught the discipline of a weekly creativity time, an hour (or more) dedicated to pure creation, mental play, wild imaginings. I like to get away from my office for this. I usually go to a local coffee house or a branch of the Los Angeles Library System. I also like to do this work in longhand. I mute my phone and play various games, like:

The First Line Game. Just come up with the most gripping first line you can, without knowing anything else about what might come after it.

The Dictionary Game. I have a pocket dictionary. I open it to a random page and pick a random noun. Then I write down what thoughts that noun triggers. (This is a good cure for scene block, too.)

Killer Scenes. I do this on index cards, and it’s usually connected to a story I’m developing. I just start writing random scene ideas, not knowing where they’ll go. Later I’ll shuffle the stack and take out two cards at a time, and see what ideas develop from their connection.

The What If Game. The old reliable. I’ll look at a newspaper (if I can find one) and riff off the various stories. What if that politician who was just indicted was really an alien from a distant planet? (Actually, this could explain a lot.)

Mind Mapping. I like to think about my story connections this way. I use a fresh blank page and start jotting.

After my creativity time I find that my brain feels more flexible. Less like a grouchy guy waiting on a bench for a bus and more like an Olympic gymnast doing his floor routine.

Now, I’m going to float you a theory. I haven’t investigated this. It’s just something I’ve noticed. It seems to me that the incidence of Alzheimer’s among certain groups is a lot lower than the general population. The two groups I’m thinking of are comedians and lawyers.

What got me noticing this was watching Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks being interviewed together, riffing off each other. Reiner was 92 at the time, and Brooks a sprightly 88. They were both sharp, fast, funny. Which made me think of George Burns, who was cracking people up right up until he died at 100. (When he was 90, Burns was asked by an interviewer what his doctor thought of his cigar and martini habit. Burns replied, “My doctor died.”)

So why should this be? Obviously because comedians are constantly “on.” They’re calling upon their synapses to look for funny connections, word play, and so on. Bob Hope, Groucho Marx (who was only slowed down by a stroke), and many others fit this profile.

And I’ve known of several lawyers who were going to court in their 80s, still kicking the stuffing out of younger opponents. One of them was the legendary Louis Nizer, whom I got to watch try a case when he was 82. I knew about him because I’d read my dad’s copy of My Life in Court (which is better reading than many a legal thriller). Plus, Mr. Nizer had sent me a personal letter in response to one I sent him, asking him for advice on becoming a trial lawyer.

And there he was, coming to court each day with an assistant and boxes filled with exhibits and documents and other evidence. A trial lawyer has to keep a thousand things in mind—witness testimony, jury response, the Rules of Evidence (which have to be cited in a heartbeat when an objection is made), and so on. Might this explain the mental vitality of octogenarian barristers?

There also seems to be an oral component to my theory. Both comedians and trial lawyers have to be verbal and cogent on the spot. Maybe in addition to creativity time, you ought to get yourself into a good, substantive, face-to-face conversation on occasion. At the very least this will be the opposite of Twitter, which may be reason enough to do it.

So what about you? Do you employ any mental calisthenics?

11+

Use NaNoWriMo to Repo Your Mojo

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Yes, it’s almost here, November—which is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This singular event challenges writers all over the world to complete a 50,000 word (or more) novel in only one month.

I’ve participated a few times in the past and produced a couple of published books out of it. (Not, I quickly note, without a lot of revision work!) While that is all well and good, there is perhaps a better reason for jumping in—to recapture the joy of writing.

I love the NaNo vibe. Writers writing. Newbies trying. Keyboards clacking. Coffee brewing. Possibilities awakening. It’s a major accomplishment to finish a novel. To do it in one month is astounding.

Of course, it’ll only be a first and very rough draft. But it will exist. You can let it sit for a month and then figure out what to do with it. One likely outcome is that you’ll use it as a “discovery draft” that now allows you to structure a re-write. Another is that the novel never sees the light of day. That’s fine, so long as you get some writing lessons out of it. Analyze the draft. Judge your craft. Make a plan to strengthen your skills.

At the very least you will have proved something to yourself. Unless you’re a full-time writer, averaging 1667 words a day is hard. Doing so for a month stretches you. When you get back to your normal rate of production, try to up it by 10% now that you’ve gone through NaNo.

Here are three other NaNo tips:

Plan

NaNoWriMo is catnip for pantsers. But a little planning (starting today) can make all the difference in your final product.

First, take a day to do some free-form journaling on your idea. Who it’s about, why it matters, why anybody should care. Jot down scene ideas that come to mind, in random order.

Second, take one day to define your concept with a three sentence “elevator pitch.” This will be your plumb line, what keeps you from getting too far away from the essence of your story. Even if you go down rabbit trails, you can use this to get yourself back on the main track. (On the form of an elevator pitch, see my TKZ post here.)

Finally, brainstorm a tentative “mirror moment” for your main character. This beacon of light will help you find your way if you get stuck in the dark.

Write

Check out my 10 tips for powering through NaNoWriMo.

Try to get a “nifty 350” words done the very first thing in the morning (or second, after you get the coffee going … hey, maybe invest in a coffee maker with a timer!)

Don’t edit your work except for a quick review of your daily pages. If you can do that review right before hitting the sack, so much the better. Your “boys in the basement” will work through the night and you can dive into writing the next morning.

Take Part

Go to NaNoWriMo.org and sign up. It’s free, and will give you access to “pep talks” and local groups of participants.

Even if you’re not going for a NaNoWriMo “win,” you can still use November to re-charge your writing batteries. Cheer others on via social media and get excited about their progress. Use that positive energy in your own writing. Set a November goal. Try upping your quota for the month. Or complete the development of a new project.

But whatever you do, do it with a sort of wild abandon. Be a “crazy dumbsaint of the mind,” as Kerouac put it. Repossess your writing mojo. Then spread that out for a year, when you’ll come up to November again!

Anyone planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year? How about your past experience with it? Any tips for those who are about to try?

11+

Less Focus For Better Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

On a recent Saturday morning I took one of my famous homemade cappuccinos out by the pool and reclined on a lounge with a Dean Koontz and my AlphaSmart. My intent was simply to enjoy an hour of relaxed reading before getting back to a scene in my WIP.

The weather was sublime (“Looks like another perfect day, AH love L.A….” – Randy Newman), and I found myself contentedly sipping my brew and doing absolutely nothing. Looked at the sky, the clouds, a distant plane floating toward Burbank or LAX. A little part of my mind said, You can read now. But I didn’t listen. I was enjoying the fine art of loafing.

Which lasted about three minutes. Because something happened I know has happened to you. Up there in the writing bungalow of my brain, the staff was working under the radar. A messenger send down a memo. It was about one of the secondary characters in my WIP. It was an idea that brought her more fullness and sympathy and was perfectly in keeping with her backstory.

I grabbed my AlphaSmart and wrote a page of voice journal—the character speaking directly to me. It was deep and evocative and I knew a lot of it was going right into my book.

As I said, you know that feeling. In the car, the shower, at the grocery store—a great idea flashes and you jot it down or record it as a memo on your phone. And you can’t wait to get back to the keyboard.

This bit of serendipity got me to thinking that maybe I should try to be more systematic about my loafing. I’m naturally good at it, but how much better could I be if I used a little discipline?

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus”, Dr. Srini Pillay writes about our over-emphasis on focus. We have our to-do lists, timetables, goals. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it turns out we also should be practicing “unfocus.”

In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.

When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the Do Mostly Nothing circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing effortfully. Yet, when “at rest”, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy (compared to the comparatively small 5% that any effort will require).

The DMN needs this energy because it is doing anything but resting. Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. And you can imagine creative solutions or predict the future, thereby leading to better decision-making too. The DMN also helps you tune into other people’s thinking, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.

Dr. Pillay recommends building “positive constructive daydreaming” (PCD) into your day. I do this very well at my local coffee house. I stare. Out the window. Sometimes at people. I’m really working, though. That’s PCD time!

Another tip from the good doctor: power naps. “When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert.”

But the technique that really jumped out at me was this:

Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.

When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.

This is close to something I’ve done on occasion. I may have finished a draft and am doing the first read through. Something’s not working. I don’t know what.

I set it aside for awhile and do something unfocused: like pleasure reading, eating a Tommy Burger, or riding my bike. Then when I go back to it I think of a favorite author and pretend he’s looking over my shoulder at the draft. I have him say, “I think you need to ….” and just imagine what he would advise. It’s amazing how often this can break the logjam.

In light of all the science, then, I’ve determined to take a little more unfocus time on weekends.

I’ve also gotten more specific about how I spend my focus time. I’m a morning person. I like getting up while it’s still dark and pouring that first cup of java and getting some words down. I can write for two or three hours straight. But I’ve stopped doing that. I am forcing myself to take a break after 45 minutes of writing, to let the noggin rest a bit. Ten minutes maybe. Then back to work.

In the afternoon, from roughly 1 – 4, I can’t focus like I do in the morning. So I’ll write (or edit) in 25-minute spurts. Then I’ll get up and do something unfocused for fifteen minutes. Or I might lie on my back on the floor with my legs up on a chair for ten minutes, and deep-breathe. Then I go for my next 25-minute writing stint. I believe this is called the Pomodoro Technique.

Oh yes, and this cannot be emphasized enough: tame your social media distractions or they will eat your brain!

There’s a famous story (one of many) about the dictatorial head of Columbia Studio, Harry Cohn. He walked on the lot one morning and strode past the writers’ bungalow. It was completely quiet. He blew his stack and started cursing at the building.

Suddenly, the place burst with the sound of typewriters clacking away.

Harry Cohn shouted, “LIARS!”

In retrospect, maybe he should have given them all a raise. They were unfocusing!

So what about you? Do you ever practice “unfocus”? 

***

 

For more on the mental side of the writing life, see The Mental Game of Writing: 29 Secrets For Overcoming Obstacles And Freeing Your Mind For Success.

5+

Chasing a New Idea

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Some time ago I was asked on Twitter: “When you write first thing in A.M. do you work on current project or just write what comes to mind?”

My reply: “Almost always my WIP. May do some free-form on occasion for warm up or chasing a new idea.”

The chase is what I want to talk about today. It involves five steps:

  1. Spark
  2. Nurture
  3. Development
  4. Analysis
  5. Green light

1. Spark

Where do ideas come from? Everywhere! A billboard, a dream, a news item, a bit of overheard conversation, a memory. Ray Bradbury would hop out of bed in the morning and write down whatever was in his head. Only later would he see if there was a whole story there.

Thus, for the creative artist, the question shouldn’t be Where can I get an idea? but Which idea should I nurture?

2. Nurture

Keep a list of the most promising sparks. Look at this list from time to time and see which ones cry out for more attention. Take these and nurture them into What if statements. I posted here about getting the spark of an idea watching the long-dead Peter Cushing make a CGI appearance in Rogue One. My spark was, Hey, maybe they’ll make movies someday with all dead actors. I nurtured that to: What if, in the future, a studio was making a Western with CGI John Wayne, and John Wayne (via AI) decided he didn’t like the script?

3. Development

Keep a file of your best What ifs. These are the ideas you’ll develop further. In the case of “John Wayne’s Revenge,” I developed it right into a short story. But most of my What ifs are ideas for full-length novels. I call this file “Front Burner Concepts.”

My preferred method of further development is what I call the “white-hot journal.” I got this from the great writing instructor Dwight V. Swain in his classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. Swain advocated writing a “focused, free-association document” for development. An hour to start with, at least. You’re not looking for structure, you are simply letting what Natalie Goldberg called the “wild mind” go wherever it wants to go: scene ideas, talking to yourself about why this idea is grabbing you, possible characters, settings, twists, turns, further ideas and possibilities, bits of dialogue.

Leave this document for a day, then go over it, annotate it, highlight the best parts, and add more free-form thoughts.

Do this again a third day. Start forming a cast of characters. I like to brainstorm a “relationship web,” possible connections the characters may have with each other before the story begins.

After a few days of this I have a mass of material that is starting to coalesce around a real plot. Now I’m going to ask some key questions:

  1. Are the stakes death (physical, professional or psychological)?
  1. Is there a motivated antagonist (person and/or group)?
  1. Are the characters starting to feel “warm” to me?

If I’m continuing to get excited, I’ll probably do some research. Since I set most of my books in Los Angeles, I’ll go “location scouting.” You always pick up great details doing live research. (See my post on this subject here.)

4. Analysis

How do you decide which project is going to take up the next three, four, six or twelve months of your writing life?

You start with Bell’s Pyramid.

Passion

The base of the pyramid is the most important. Without a passionate commitment to a story you’re burning to tell, your book will not be as original or vital or full of “voice” as it could be. You’ll risk sounding like all the cookie-cutter books competing in the marketplace. You might also get to the middle of the novel and be tempted to chuck the whole thing.

The key question here is, How emotionally invested are you in your main character? A novel, at its basic level, is about one character’s fighting a life and death battle using strength of will. That character will have to transform––becoming a fundamentally different (almost always better) person; or stronger (developing inner and outer resources in order to survive).

You should care about this character almost as much as a beloved family member. You should feel almost a need to see their story.

Potential

Now step back and consider the possible reach of your concept to an actual audience. Take off your artist’s hat and assume the role of an investor. If you were going to put up beaucoup bucks to publish your book, would it have a chance to recoup the investment and make some profit besides?

Find that sweet spot that joins your passion for the story with commercial viability.

Note, your assessment of potential need not be with the largest possible audience in mind. Genre writers know they are limiting themselves to a distinct group of potential readers. Even within genres, there are subgroups. Many science fiction writers, for example, are not writing “hard” science fiction, but rather books about deeply held philosophical ideas. They know that such novels appeal to some, and not to others. That’s fine. That’s a sweet spot, too.

Precision

Finally, be precise about your plot. You may be a plotter, you may be a pantser. In any case I advise you brainstorm the “mirror moment” for your Lead. It illuminates what your story is really all about and enables you to write organic scenes, no matter what your preferred plotting method. (Don’t worry, that moment is subject to change if the book demands it; but it’s best to have a lighthouse in a fog even if you end up in a different port.)

5. Green Light

As my wife likes to say out loud when the car in front of us has failed to notice it’s no longer a red light: “Green means go!”

And so you’re off. Write that first draft as fast as you comfortably can (refer to my post on working method here).

And that is how you chase, capture and animate an idea that you will turn into a full-length novel.

All you have to do now is add your genius.

11+

Permission To Make A Mess

 

CreativeFire1

I write a lot about creative permission because permission is a big deal. As kids we have to obtain permission to do things. As adults, the permission must come from inside of us.

Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, I heard a woman tell a story in a counseling group. It moved me deeply, and I’ve never forgotten it because it feels elemental to the notion of creativity and giving oneself permission to be creative. Let’s call the woman Eleanor (after one of my favorite, very inhibited characters from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House).

Eleanor had a much younger brother named Joshua. Like many oldest children, Eleanor was a rule-follower, cautious about interacting with the world because she wanted to do everything just right. Joshua, she said, was a free spirit and into everything. She loved him, but she didn’t understand why he seemed to be allowed to get away with doing things that she wasn’t allowed to do. One thing that truly tormented her was Joshua’s habit of building pretend “fires” that he set up around the house. The “fires” were heaps of toys and shoes and pillows that he gathered into great, unwieldy piles. I imagine what it must have been like, gathering all those things, pretending that they were a giant blaze, right in the middle of the living room. It kind of sounds like a lot of fun to me. Kind of is an important qualification here. While I am no neatnik, the idea of making a mess on purpose stresses me out.

Because Eleanor was older, she was required to help Joshua put out his fires. Read: clean up the mess. From a parenting perspective, this is problematic. While it’s a great idea to let kids have free reign with their creativity, it’s not fair (maybe not quite the word I’m looking for) to make your other kids pay for it. Eleanor was not invited in on the fun of building the fires. Ever. They were her brother’s privilege, and she felt like–indeed she was–the clean up crew. As the adult Eleanor talked about the fires, her anger, frustration, and sadness were in her voice and written on her face. Inside, her little kid was obviously heartbroken.

The leader of the session suggested that Eleanor build a fire in the middle of our meeting room. She was reluctant, but we cheered her on and contributed our shoes, neckties, purses, notebooks, coats…anything we had on hand. It was fun and silly and interesting to watch another adult playing that way. Her tears disappeared as she built the fire. They were back after it was all over, but they were happy tears.

Those of us who often feel inhibited creatively can come up with a million reasons why we feel that way. I’m a big fan of psychological therapy because it helps answer the why questions. It feeds the part of my brain that wants answers and loves to build a narrative. But what happens after you recognize the whys? Recognizing them doesn’t make them go away. We’re still Eleanor, angry at ourselves and often others because we can’t seem to give ourselves permission to build fires, write books, paint pictures, dance…dream.

Eleanor received permission from the counselor to make a mess. But she didn’t have to do what he said. She made the choice to gather up our things and put them in a pile in the middle of the room. How easy it would be if we all had a counselor, a therapist, a BFF, a coach, a PARENT there every moment to tell us it was okay to go ahead and DO THE SCARYFUNWILDINTERESTINGCHALLENGINGPROFITABLERISKY THING. But, no. It’s not healthy for adults to have someone tell them what to do every moment. It has to come from inside us.

Where’s the self-trust to do risky, creative things if it didn’t come boxed with our Adult Operating System? That’s a toughie. Sometimes you just have to fake it until you make it.

Sometimes we have to play a role. Fool ourselves. Pretend that we don’t think that what we’re going to do will be an utter and absolute failure and that someone is going to yell at us if we leave a big, flaming, awesome MESS right out there where everyone can see it. That we don’t care if someone else has to help clean it up. (Writer Protip: professional editors!)

We have to be Joshua. Joshua unleashed. Joshua at play.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent an awful lot of time being Eleanor. Afraid. Worried. Even angry. As much as I write, I’ve never quite been able to be Joshua. Joshua never holds back. Joshua has a great time, and his only concern is the height of his fire. I’ve held back, even when I thought I was being my most creative and pushing at the limits. They were limits, yes, but they were limits set by the Eleanor inside me. Safety limits. Comfort limits.

Here’s the thing: If you’re Eleanor, and you decide one day you’re going to take a chance and let your inner Joshua out to play, don’t worry that you’ll go too far. Eleanor will still be there, watching, setting limits, not letting you run out into traffic (even if sometimes she secretly wants to throw you into it). You have nothing to lose. I promise.

As writers, we need to play, play, play. That’s what we’re here for–to entertain. To have fun so our readers can have fun with it too.

Are you Joshua? Are you Eleanor? Both? Do you have to reign yourself in, or give yourself a big kick in the permission pants to get those words on the page?

 

Happening now over at Goodreads: To get ready for the October 11 release of my latest gothic suspense novel, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel, enter to win all three standalone books in the Bliss House series.

12+

It Came from…

orb

Life imitates art, which imitates life, which then imitates art in what seems to be a never-ending cycle.  Orwell’s 1984 came around, late, but it came around. Contemporary (as opposed to historical) thriller novels were transformed by the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Arthur Bremer’s diary was the inspiration for the film Taxi Driver which in turn inspired the actions of John Hinckley, Jr. which to this day has launched variations of jokes about Jodie Foster. And so it goes.

Accordingly…submitted for your perusal, here is an article with an embedded video  regarding a discovery made off of the California coast. Please take a moment to read the article and particularly to watch the video, which looks like a mashup of The Blair Witch Project and Alien. We’re going to base our exercise of the day around this, but you will be mightily entertained by the article and video, regardless.

The video spooked me badly for a couple of reasons. The first is the resemblance of that orb to a spider egg. Contrary to the assertion made by one of the scientists, “most” spiders don’t carry around the eggs on their stomachs. Many, though not the majority, wrap the evil little demon spawns in silk and hang them in webs, though if they are smart they don’t do it at my house. So…where did that thing come from? The second is the reaction of Little Sebastian to the egg. Sebastian at first appears to be curious, then frightened of the orb, more frightened than he was of the duct taped suction on the end of the ten-foot pole that the team used to, probably unwisely, suck that thing up. Put it in a biobox? You bet! And who gets to open it? I won’t suggest anyone, other than to note that John Hinckley, Jr. appears to have been released from custody just in time to do the job. The thing just looks…wrong: the color, the location… that video looks like the beginning of any one of a hundred science fiction films where after a half-hour of buildup things go badl, where the folks who are happily chatting and giddy-up giddy with the joy of their discovery are suddenly gouging their own and each other’s’ eyes out and getting ready to release God knows what upon a world that should be expecting it but which remains totally clueless and unprepared.

And that is where today’s exercise comes in, my friends. Tell us what happens after the team sucks the orb up, like one of those vacuum things they sell in the catalogs showing the smiling woman vacuuming the giant spider off of the curtain from a discreet, Hartlaub-approved distance. Be scary, funny, happy, or sad. Here are a few of mine:

— It is discovered that the orb is a  lost extraterrestrial artifact. The ETs, not being European, have never heard of the principle of abandonment and they want the orb back. Now.

— The vacuum sucks the orb up, revealing a drain. The ocean level starts dropping.

— The act of jarring the orb sets off a signal which is transmitted to an extra-orbital missile launching station, which slowly begins to turn toward earth..

—Suddenly, the sound of trumpets is heard simultaneously at all points on Earth. Then the clouds part and a bright light appears.

— At least three different groups blame the project for contributing to global warming and demand research money to counteract the effects. Facebook goes crazy.

— The crab scuttles back to its lair, where a female voice is heard asking, “What’s wrong, Sebastian?”

— The crab, after a series of events and mishaps, finds itself in the mustache of a biker on a Harley doing 80 mph on I-10 E out of Houston. The crab tells the biker what is happening and convinces him to turn around and save the day, but…what? Oh, sorry. Wrong crab. Forget that one.

You get the idea. Be serious. Be playful. Be whimsical. But please be creative. And share. We have the nine year old antichrist with us today so I may be awhile getting back to you but I shall do so eventually. Thank you.

1+

When Your Brainstorming Hits a Drought

gobi-692640_1280A writing friend recently shared with a bunch of fellow scribes that she was seriously stuck on the brainstorming aspect of a new project. She gave me permission to blog about it. This author needs to solidify her idea and start writing because she has a thing called a deadline. But, she says, “the story and the characters are seriously playing hard to get.”

She asked, “Would love any brainstorming tips and tricks if you have them! How do you start building your story and characters? And how do you feel productive and intentional when brainstorming is such a creative (often stubborn…at least for me) process?”

It’s a great question. Here is what I wrote to her:

I wonder if part of the deal is what so many of us have expressed over the years with each new book, that it seems to get “harder.” And the reason for that, I believe, is that with each book you’re better and your standards go up. You know what goes into writing a whole book, all the constituent parts, and think, “Man, I’ve got to do all that again! And better!” So every idea in the brainstorming phase gets tested, when it should be a time for getting as many ideas as you can without judgment.

FWIW, I do the following at the beginning of any project.

– A free-form journal, interacting with myself, asking myself questions, going deeper into why I think I want to write this, and also putting down plot and character ideas as they come. I take several days (at least) for this, writing without stopping, but re-reading the journal each day, doing some editing on what I wrote the day before, highlighting the best ideas, and so on.

– At some point I take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to Starbucks and just write down scene ideas. Random. Whatever vivid scene comes to mind. I might prompt myself by playing the dictionary game (opening a dictionary to a random page, picking a noun, and riffing off that). When I have 30-40 scenes I shuffle the deck and pick two cards at random and see what the connection suggests.

– Finally, I want my concept in a three-sentence elevator pitch that I know is absolutely solid and marketable. Sentence 1 is character + vocation + current situation. Sentence 2 starts with “When” and is what I call the Doorway of No Return––the thing that pushes the Lead into the main plot. Sentence 3 begins with “Now” and the death (physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual) stakes. Here’s an example based on The Insider by Reece Hirsch:

Will Connelly is an associate at a prestigious San Francisco law firm, handling high level merger negotiations between computer companies. 

When Will celebrates by picking up a Russian woman at a club, he finds himself at the mercy of a ring of small-time Russian mobsters with designs on the top-secret NSA computer chip Will’s client is developing.  

Now, with the Russian mob, the SEC and the Department of Justice all after him, Will has to find a way to save his professional life and his own skin before the wrong people get the technology for mass destruction.  

Here’s another example:

Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody Miss Gulch.

When a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her.

Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch so the great wizard will send her back home.

A good pitch guarantees a solid foundation. Now what?

Well, the next phase depends on how you like to approach things: plotter or pantser or something in between?

My own practice is to go immediately to the mirror moment, for it influences everything else. This is a concept I explain in detail in my book Write Your Novel From the Middle.

Now, I know there are some dedicated pantsers out there for whom any kind of pre-planning brings out a case of hives. They just want to start writing, and that’s okay … so long as you realize that you’re basically brainstorming the long way round. Some contend that this is the best way to find original story material. I would say it is only one way. There is still going to be a lot of editing and a ton of rewriting. The process I’ve described here is a faster and, to my mind, a more efficient way of getting to an original story line that you will be excited to write.

And so ended my advice, which I hope bursts the clouds for a fellow writer.

When things go dry in your writer’s mind, what are some of the things you do?

 

 

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Should Fiction Writers Tell the Truth?

david-mamet1I read a quote this week from David Mamet (left), the noted playwright and essayist:

When you sit down to write, tell the truth from one moment to the next and see where it takes you.

Over the years I’ve heard this same sentiment expressed in various forms. Novelist Wendell Berry once wrote, “The first obligation of a writer is to tell the truth–or to come as near to telling it as is humanly possible.”

Sounds noble and good, but something about this bromide has always bothered me. Maybe because it is, as judges sometimes say about statutes, “void for vagueness.”

So I decided to devote this space to figuring out what the heck it’s supposed to mean, and whether it’s at all helpful to writers.

My first question is, what’s the definition of truth? What do these folks mean by it? Do they mean objective truth (that which is true no matter what anyone thinks about it)? Or subjective truth (that which comes out of the deepest part of ourselves)?

And if they mean the latter, is that really truth? I’m not down with the whole “that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me” vibe. In that case, Mein Kampf would be a classic of world literature.

No, I think what Mamet and Berry other writers mean by “tell the truth” is that the writer must, first and foremost, be honest with himself. Not be afraid to go wherever his inner heart and life are leading. Tell that story, from the gut.

I partially agree. Exploring deep––and sometimes dark––corners to render honest fiction is one aspect of this game. But there’s another, equally important part, and it’s this: you, the writer, are in charge of what is ultimately shown in your stories.

Which means you don’t have to spew everything onto the page in the name of some vague notion of truth. You’re not a slave to your material; you’re the shaper and molder of it.

Now, I’ll grant that a novel can seem less truthful and honest if certain punches are pulled. Readers sense that. But as the author you get to decide how you want to land those punches. You should land them artfully, with purpose. You think through the strategy for your novel. The truth-at-any-cost school doesn’t always produce better writing. In fact, it may make it worse.

Case in point, the obligatory sex scene (in other genres than erotica, where they are expected). There’s no rule that says graphic descriptions of body parts, and profligate use of synonyms for pulsate, make such a rendering necessary. Personally, I prefer the closed door, leaving the rest to the imagination. That’s the way they used to do it, and it’s actually more sensual. (Read the carriage ride scene in Madame Bovary sometime.)

Which brings me to Game of Thrones.

Game_of_thronesAt the outset, let me make clear that I’ve not read the books nor gotten hooked on the series. I know both have rabid followings. So what I’m about to discuss is simply a reaction to something I recently happened across.

It seems the author, George R. R. Martin, has come under considerable criticism for gratuitous depictions of rape. One blogger puts it bluntly: “Martin is content to use rape to develop male characters, to titillate the reader, and to paint rape victims seeking justice as villains. No other raped women have a voice. This calls into question his empathy as a human being and his imagination as a writer.”

In answer to this, Martin says:

I wanted my books to be strongly grounded in history and to show what medieval society was like, and I was also reacting to a lot of fantasy fiction. Most stories depict what I call the “Disneyland Middle Ages”––there are princes and princesses and knights in shining armor, but they didn’t want to show what those societies meant and how they functioned … [If] you don’t portray (sexual violence), then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist.

A few points. George R. R. Martin is free to write what he wants to write. And I’ve heard his writing and world building are amazing. So what I’m about to say isn’t coming from a political or social agenda. It’s as a fellow writer who would simply ask Mr. Martin, “Is all this really necessary? How much of this material is carrying you, rather than the other way around? I get that you want to soak us in medieval darkness, but what about the equal value of artistic restraint? That’s not denying that something exists, but it’s also not letting it run rampant.”

Maybe for Martin that’s not a consideration or desire. And, again, he as the right to do it his way. But “telling the truth” isn’t the only fiction strategy.

I think the best writers make a case. Great fiction depicts a clash of values in which the writer will, ultimately, take a side. Yes, the side that prevails has to do so in a way that does not feel manipulative. That’s where craft comes in. The author’s job is to make the case through the characters behaving in surprising, clever, and ultimately justifiable ways.

That’s actually harder to do than just letting it all hang out.

I think this is what the novelist and writing teacher John Gardner was getting at when he said this to The Paris Review:

As I tried to make plain in On Moral Fiction, I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life … that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss.

So by all means, tap into your heart and soul when you write. But include your head, too.

As I like to counsel new writers: Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge.

So what about you? Do you think “just tell the truth”––all by itself––is helpful writing advice? Is it possible to make an argument for artistic self-restraint anymore?

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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Light BulbAuthors who’ve been around awhile, and have more than a few books out there, are often asked two questions.

The first is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I like how Harlan Ellison used to answer that: “There’s a swell idea service in Schenectady. Every week I send them twenty-five bucks, and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.”

Every now and then someone would ask him for the address of the service, and Harlan would do to that person what Harlan always used to do all such folks, i.e., not suffer them.

The other question we’re asked is, “Which book is your favorite?”

The answer is complicated. There are books we love because we worked so hard on them. Others because they were so much fun to write. And still others because they helped pay the mortgage.

But when I am asked about a series, I pause a moment, then name my legal thrillers featuring Ty Buchanan. They originally came out in beautiful hardcover editions, then trade paper.

As Seinfeld would say, yadda yadda yadda, I am pleased to report that I’m now releasing all three books in new digital editions. And to celebrate, I’m pricing each one at $2.99 for this kickoff period.

series

Allow me to tell you how I got the idea for the series, and indeed for each book. It started with my regularly scheduled “creativity time.”

Back when newspapers existed, I would read either the L.A. Times or the L.A. Daily News, and one legal newspaper, the L.A. Daily Journal. I’d scan for interesting stories or legal issues, and clip them and throw them into a box. Every now and then I’d go through that box, seeing if the ideas still interested me.

One item kept vying for my attention. It was a tragic story about an L.A. man who shot his young wife to death, then drove to a freeway overpass, got out, shot himself, and fell 100 feet to the freeway below. He crushed a Toyota, killing the driver. How bizarre is that?

So one day I wrote this up as an opening scene. When I got to the part about the woman being killed, I made up a character: Jacqueline Dwyer, a twenty-seven-year old elementary school teacher.

And then I paused, switched to a First Person POV voice, and wrote:

This would have been simply another dark and strange coincidence, the sort of thing that shows up for a two-minute report on the local news—with live remote from the scene—and maybe gets a follow-up the next day. Eventually the story would go away, fading from the city’s collective memory.

But the story did not go away. Not for me. Because Jacqueline Dwyer was the woman I was going to marry.

Who was narrating? That’s how Tyler Buchanan was born. I made him an up-and-coming, hotshot lawyer with everything going his way, until this. And especially after a shady guy finds him and tells him Jacqueline was still alive after the crash … and someone murdered her.

That book became Try Dying.

Book #2, Try Darkness, was based on a story I clipped from the legal paper. It was about illegal evictions from downtown transient hotels. There was a trick landlords were using to get around the law, so I made one of fhs evicted a mother with a six-year-old daughter, who comes to Ty for help. And then she turns up dead, and the plot, as they say, thickens.

The last book in the trilogy is Try Fear. Again, this came out of a real story I clipped. One Christmas season the LAPD stopped a very large man on suspicion of driving under the influence. He was about 6’5”, 280 pounds. He was also wearing nothing but a Santa hat and a G-string.

I found myself thinking, This has to be Ty’s next client. So that’s how Try Fear begins.

The reviews were kind. Please allow me to toot two small horns:

“Engaging whodunit series … Readers will enjoy Bell’s talent for description and character development.” –– Publishers Weekly

“The tale equally balances action and drama, motion and emotion. Readers who pride themselves on figuring out the answers before an author reveals them are in for a surprise, too. Bell is very good at keeping secrets. Fans of thrillers with lawyers as their central characters—John Lescroart and Phillip Margolin, especially—will welcome this new addition to their must-read lists.” — Booklist

I’ve been asked many times if I might add another book to this series. I’ve considered it, but I also think the series ends in exactly the right spot, with exactly the right scene, and indeed, even the right line. I am hesitant to mess with that. But if you do decide to read all three books, I would love to hear what you think I should do!

The books are on Kindle and Nook, and soon will be on Kobo and in print. If you want to know when, you can subscribe to my email alerts and I’ll be sure to let you know.

KINDLE:

Try Dying – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #1

Try Darkness – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #2

Try Fear – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #3

NOOK:

Try Dying – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #1

Try Darkness – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #2

Try Fear – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #3

Now we turn to you, TKZers. What is your favorite way to get ideas? And have you ever been to Schenectady?

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Is It Plagiarism to Steal a Plot?

A creative exercise I suggest in Plot & Structure and in my workshops is “stealing” old plots and re-imagining them. Of course I use the word stealingtongue-in-cheek. Still, I have occasionally heard an objection to this exercise, that it might in some way be unethical or even the dreaded P-word: Plagiarism!
           
It’s neither. If it were so, the greatest literary felon of all time would be a hack named William Shakespeare. Most of his plays were lifted from other sources.
           
For example, Will used an obscure narrative poem entitled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet as the basis for his play. He didn’t even change the names of the titular characters! What cheek! Which reminds me: Wasn’t there someone who had the bright idea of “stealing” the plot of Romeo and Juliet and turning it into a Broadway musical set in New York? But I digress.
I once read a thriller about a small town where people were being transformed into animal-like creatures who feasted on human flesh. One of the characters in the town, a child, was convinced her parents were not really her parents anymore.
As I read that I thought of one of my favorite movies, Invasion of the Body Snatchers(the 1956 version). At the beginning of the movie a little boy is running away from his mother because he doesn’t believe she’s his mother anymore.
And I’m thinking, this novelist is blatantly purloining the movie!
Then a bit later in the novel, it’s revealed that the animal-people are the result of biological experiments by a mad genius.
And now I’m thinking, the author has absconded with H.G. Welles’s plot for The Island of Dr. Moreau!
The clever scribe had walked off with not just one plot, but two!
Ah, but the writer was ahead of me. Further into the book he has a character think that the events are just like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Later on, another character refers to The Island of Dr. Moreau.
The author was winking at readers like me who knew exactly what he was doing!
His name is Dean Koontz. The book is Midnight. And this combining of familiar plots, with updating and his own personal stamp, makes it legit.

In contrast, plagiarism in fiction is the serial lifting of actual passages and passing them off as one’s own. 
So go ahead and look to old plots for ideas, while keeping these general guidelines in mind:

1. Don’t Lift Words
In 2011 Little, Brown pulled a book from distribution when it was discovered that the author had copied actual sentences from James Bond novels and other sources. In an ironic twist, the book’s ranking on Amazon shot up as readers snapped up the remaining copies. This is not a marketing move I would recommend!
Another infamous case involved a young Harvard student who scored a major book deal for her debut novel. Little, Brown (again!) was setting her up to be the next big thing.
Then the Harvard Crimson broke a story showing that the author had lifted several passages out of the books of another author. You can read about that kerfuffle here. The book was pulled off the shelves, the deal scotched.
These cases involved copying the words of another author. Don’t do that. What willhappen from time to time is that an author will write a sentence that sounds like another author’s voice. That can be explained by osmosis, because we do retain things we read. No problem there. The problem is when it’s intentional.

2. Make the Plot Your Own
I would not recommend that you write a novel about a spoiled, antebellum girl on the cusp of the Civil War, who wants to marry a handsome Southerner pledged to another, at the same time she is courted by a dashing rogue. But this love triangle from Gone With the Wind could work nicely in, say, a future world where intergalactic war is about to break out.
Another favorite movie of mine is High Noon (1952) starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Writer/Director Peter Hyams took that plot and re-envisioned it in outer space. Outland (1981) starred Sean Connery and is a darn good movie.
You see the point? The “stealing” of a plot idea is only meant to open up a window to new possibilities. You still need to create your own characters and setting, and most important of all, tap into a personal passion for the plot you are developing.
3. Use Plot Elements as Sparkers
You don’t need to follow a plot pattern wholesale to find this exercise of value. You can use plot elements, characters and scenes and riff off them. We do that anyway, unconsciously. When you see a film or read a book and are moved by something, it gets sent down to the basement where your writer’s unconscious mind is eating a sandwich. Later on, your sub-mind looks it over and either files it away or sends up a message recommending you do something with it. Sometime you may not even remember the source as a fresh idea takes hold. This is all natural and acceptable.
So why not be intentional about it? Keep notes on elements that work for you, and why they work. File those away and look them over occasionally. See what bubbles up.
Being creative and productive do not happen by accident. Get your gears churning. Find creative exercises to do on a regular basis. Borrowing or combining old plots might be a good one to try.
What if we took Liz Curtis Higgs’s award-winning historical novel, Thorn in My Heart,and combined it with one of those Left Behind thrillers written by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye? Why, we’d have the story of a plucky Scottish girl eating haggis and fighting off demons during the Great Tribulation.

And we could call it: Thorn in My Left Behind.
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