Blocks and Creativity

The human mind is a dangerous thing. Most times our brains run amok, thinking random crazy thoughts connected to each other by the most tenuous of tangents. Of course, our thoughts also run along habitual furrows created long ago – ruts. We like to think that we are logical beings; rational creatures making our way in the world. Writers and other creative artists tend to think of themselves as beacons of truth, lighting the way for the rest of humanity. The reality of it is that creative artists have no more of a grasp of truth than anyone else, perhaps less.

It’s a nice thought though, if self-serving. Perhaps artists, who often are more self-conscious than other professionals, feel that if they are part of a higher order of the human race. This being the case, what they think, write paint, and do is important, and demand our attention. The fact is, however, all people and all professionals have access to the same level of creativity. Although some people are able to tap this creativity more readily than others, everyone, no matter what their profession is, is able to tap this reservoir of creativity.

One of the differences between professionals and artists is how they handle personal blocks. Professionals get the job done, no matter how ugly or mean it appears. Their careers depend on providing an acceptable result. If they don’t deliver, they don’t get paid and they don’t eat. Completing the task is their primary responsibility. If it doesn’t come easily, they power through it or find a technique that allows them to dust off their hands and move on to the next job. Artists, on the other hand, fret, pace endlessly, attend workshops on overcoming artist’s block, from support groups and so on. For artists, if it doesn’t flow, something is wrong.

The thing is, blocks are a part of the process just as much as the flow is. Blocks are creations of our own minds and exist for a reason. Sometimes it’s to tell us that we’re taking the story in the wrong direction. Sometimes it’s the brain telling us that it needs more time to come up with a blockbuster story solution. Other times they are manifestations of our fears – of failure, of success, of a lack of knowledge of the subject, of a belief that our readers will expose us as frauds. Blocks exist for an infinite number of reasons. It doesn’t matter. Blocks exist to be broken. They are the curtain that hides the wizard of Oz. They are the ‘go to jail’ cards that stop us from passing ‘go’ and collecting two hundred dollars. And blocks don’t go disappear by trying to workshopping or wishing them away. We break them, we drill through them, and we climb them.

But never give in to them or flee from them – because we’re only fleeing from ourselves. We’re better than that.

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Another Movie Gone Wrong

Taking a bus between northeast Thailand and Bangkok takes hours – usually a good six to seven. To while away the time, I watched a movie. Many of these buses have monitors at each seat and a passenger can watch a movie, listen to music, or watch a television show. The problem was that most of, well everything, is in Thai – a language I haven’t picked up yet. My main tactic in this situation is to check out every movie and watch whatever movie has English subtitles or dubbed in English.  Unfortunately, I found one: The Season of the Witch.

I wish that I had had access to Rotten Tomatoes website or something similar, but I didn’t. It was passable, in that I didn’t have an urge to renounce my citizenship in an attempt to distance myself from this celluloid travesty. Not like “Attack of the Killer Clowns” (Thanks a lot, Netflix. /shudder). Anyway, I got to the end of the movie and all I could think of was this: ‘that was a stupid ending.’ But it got me thinking – how would I make it better?

Endings are hard. I don’t envy professional writers where their reputation is on the line with every novel. Even then, endings be far from great. There are few Stephen King novels that I felt ended well. I liked Thinner and the short story “The Fog,” but still feel “Needful Things,” which seemed to be a retelling of Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” had a disappointing ending.

In any case, writers have reams of information about what makes a good ending. A quick search at shows 93 books on endings. So why are they so hard? I think it’s because a story is like a funnel. In the beginning, the possibilities are near infinite. However, as the story progresses, the options that the writer has diminish. If the writer chooses high fantasy, then that rules out space aliens and inter-galactic armadas. Granted, there are cross-over stories and genres, but even those preclude other story options. And the funnel continues to narrow the story’s options until the end of the story.

I think part of the problem is that by the end of the novel, the range of satisfying endings has narrowed to only a few options. Clearly, the actions that the protagonist takes must logically stem from their personality and within their skill set and the same holds true for the antagonist. An antagonist that doesn’t put out 100% at the climax can destroy a book as well. Perhaps the greatest indicator of a failed ending though, is an inadequate emotional story. People read fiction to be moved, to feel. A story that doesn’t kick the reader in the gut emotionally is a failed book. And that is truly hard to do.

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Writing Assumptions

A couple of weeks ago, a friend gave me a copy of a book called “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Clayton M. Christensen and others. Christensen is a Harvard professor, but the book is essentially, as it’s not too hard to tell from the title, a self-help book. I enjoyed the book and I noticed many things that applied to being a writer. One of the topics that really got me thinking was the one on assumptions. From the book:

“As simple as it sounds, companies seldom think about whether to pursue new opportunities by asking [“What has to prove true for this to work?”]. Instead, they often unintentionally stack the deck for failure from the beginning. They make decisions to go ahead with an investment based on what initial projections suggest will happen, but then they never actually test whether those initial projections are accurate. So they can find themselves far down the line, adjusting projections and assumptions to fit what is actually happening, rather than making and testing thoughtful choices before they get too far in.”

I like this. As a writer, I am concerned about what I don’t know about the business. And I realize that when I don’t know something, I make assumptions to fill in the knowledge gap. Even when I do know about a subject, there are assumptions tied into my knowledge. Christensen et al., go on to say that when working on a project, we should list all of the assumptions, going from the most important assumptions and least verifiable to the least important assumptions, most easily verifiable.

It reminds me of the Mark Twain quote: “It’s not what you don’t know that kills you, it’s what you know for sure that ain’t true.”

I know that I have many assumptions built into my NIP (novel in progress). Even from page one. It’s a fantasy novel and the main character is the leader of the equivalent of a SWAT team. Even if I had lived thirty years as a SWAT team captain (which I haven’t), it would create certain assumptions about how it these teams would operate in a fantasy world – and they might be wrong.

So now I’m in the process of listing all of the assumptions that I have about this character, what he does, and why. Then I’m going to take a look at what evidence I have that backs up that belief. It seems like extra work, but for m,e it comes down to this: if I can’t convince myself the reasoning why my characters are acting a certain way, then how can I convince my readers?

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Digging a hole to China

Almost China, anyway. Thailand is a fascinating country. I have many opportunities to depend on my wife for communication with the people. Nothing seems to make me more aware of my powerlessness than not to be able to share all but the most basic needs without a translator. It’s still good though – I agreed to a contract to teach university students how to read their textbooks; which is something within my skill set. On a more writerly note, I’m now up to nine pages of writing a day. Living without a television or a computer in the home does wonders for one’s writing ability.

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Writing The Breakout Novel

I’ve been tightening the screws on myself and starting on the novel project that I’ve been kicking around for a while. Usually, when I write longer stories, I start out with a three sentence premise, and expand on that. But this time I drew up empty. I decided to just write out the outline and see what came out. I ended up with a ten page prose outline that I thought worked well.

However, I wanted something more. I remembered how Donald Maass wrote a book that seemed to strike  a tone with writers a while back. It’s called “Writing The Breakout Novel” and I thought I’d give it a chance. So far it’s good. I’ve read half of the book in the week that I’ve had it and run through the premise and stakeholder activities and I have started on the exercises in the workbook.

I have to say that I’m getting a stronger feel for the story and the characters, but I’m still behind in actual scene construction. That will come soon enough. Overall I like the direction that he gives out. But the test will be in the product.

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Boy Scouts 101

Last weekend my boys and I went on a Winter Klondike Boy Scout camp. I grew up in Hawaii, but I’ve lived in Colorado for the last four years and more, so I thought I had things handled. Well, I was clearly wrong. But hey, we survived.

The camp was at Chimney Rock Wyoming. Perhaps I would have thought more seriously about the camp if they had told me that it was on top of the mountain. It wasn’t a great height as such things go (8,000 feet), but it was enough to dump a bunch of snow all over the campground. We arrived at nine pm at night in near zero degree weather. We pulled out all of our gear out of the trailer and with flashlights in hand, we went to find a spot to pitch our tents. We found it alright – under two feet of snow. (Note to self: next time bring a snow shovel).

By 11:30pm, we finished digging out our spot in the snow, getting close to ground level, enough to put the tent down. That’s when I noticed the second problem – I forgot the poles at home, or rather, I decided not to inspect the tent for the poles in the first place. I decided we’d lay the tent on the snow, put blankets on top of that, camper pad on top of the blankets, then our sleeping bags and finally another blanket on top of our bags. Other scouts were doing the same thing, only they were adding a layer – a large tarp – to the top of the heap. However, luck was with us and someone brought an extra tent and my boys and I slept in that.

The next morning, the standard Boy Scout activities filled the day: a breakfast of a “stew” of eggs, hash browns, and cheese. After that, we visited a number of stations where the scouts engaged in various activities. Case in point: leaders told the scouts to build a snow fort and take on another troop in a snow ball fight. (Evidently this was key component to earning the Snowballery merit badge…). Other events included fire-building and sled-racing.

All in all, it was a good trip, even if we weren’t nearly as prepared as we should have been. My sons had fun and we made memories. And I think that is the most important thing.

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Anchor Stones (Or How Do I Know What To Write About In My Stories?)

This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while and I’ve briefly mentioned it in groups that I’m a part of on LinkedIn and another writers blog. It’s the belief (mine, if you’re wondering), that it’s impossible to write about everything that happens or sensed in even a single location. For example, as I write this, I’m sitting at a cluttered desk with note cards, direct mail offers for Internet and television packages, a recharging MP3 player, an odd tangle of yarn, and a set of headphones, among other things. And I’m just getting started. I didn’t say what color the note cards were (no, they are not white), whats written on them (no, not scenes for a story), the texture of them (no, not baby-bottom smooth), and so on.  There are so many details from a single object, character, line of dialog, etc, that you could spend forever describing that one thing – and even if you did completely describe it (did you convey the construction of the molecules and atoms too?) – you will bore your readers into a coma.

So, what to do? Anchorstones. I took the idea of touch stones, those items in our life that have meaning, and applied it to writing. Now, if you follow my reasoning, since a writer can not, (or should not if you think that you can defy the laws of logic), try to describe everything, the writer has to identify what he or she should be including in their descriptions.

There are two primary considerations, perhaps both being of equal value: painting the word picture and giving it the voice of the narrator. In the first part, the writer has to decide which details will create a picture in the mind of the reader. That is to say, of what is going on, with setting and characters – a sense of liveliness. If the scene takes place in a classroom of an urban school district, do you point out the sea of Hispanic and Black faces blatantly ignoring the teacher or the two white students staring out the window? Do you focus on the teachers haircut, broken nose and crumpled clothes? Or the classroom: well-organized, brightly lit and decorated with optimistic posters?

It depends. The author has to know their scene. The why of it. Why is it even in the story? What does the author want the reader to know when the scene is over? Why is the scene in this part of the story and not in another part? Why should the reader care? Knowing the whys will tell the author which details will answer those questions in the readers mind.

The second part, the voice of the narrator is also important. It’s easy to identify the narrator if the story is told in the first person, but what if it’s told in the third? Is it one of the characters? Is it the author? Is it a god? The writer should know the answer to this and color the descriptions appropriately. Each person will look at a scene differently, the combined effect of culture, gender, family background, educational background, economic status, and more, shape our perceptions and the words we use. Five narrators, if they are different individuals, should write about the same event in five ways that are distinct from one another. Their anchorstones are determined by who they are.

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