On creativity – summary of talk at Creative Fuel Conference Aug 2015

In August last year, my partner, Anne Buist, and I spoke at the ADMA Creative Fuel Conference on some of the creativity techniques that we use in writing, particularly in developing plot and dealing with structural problems.

I have a bit of a background in design theory (as you’ll know if you’ve read previous posts), Anne’s a professor of psychiatry and both of us are novelists.

So, here are a few of the techniques we talked about – topic headings and a quick summary of the points.

  1. Look for what you can use. We said this at the beginning of the presentation and it’s a good rule for any learning environment. Have a current problem (or two or three) in mind as you listen, look for anything that might help or stimulate a line of thinking and don’t be distracted by the negatives. We’ve had some of our best ideas listening to our ‘worst’ teachers, critics and editors. If you get one thing you can use from the few minutes it takes to read this list, good. Don’t write to us about the other nine!
  2. Focus your creativity where it matters. If you’re looking to write a popular bestseller, plot is going to be critical, so make sure you give it a proportionately large amount of your total writing time and throw the full creativity tool set at it.
  3. Wear the lucky socks – if they’re really lucky. Which is to say, find out what works for you and keep doing it. Try what others recommend by all means, but evaluate it. No point spending an hour doing free-form writing every morning if it isn’t helping you. If your best ideas come in the shower, or after a run or that first drink (it’s seldom the third) then do those things deliberately—or schedule creative thinking time around them.
  4. If you’re looking for a creative idea (e.g. for a story!), look to combine two ideas. Idea A (a story about running a marathon) is not likely to be unique. Nor is idea B (writing a story using three tenses and three grammatical persons). But A+B (a story about a marathon using three tenses and three grammatical persons) is far less likely to have been done before. You can read mine at http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/three-encounters-with-the-physical-20130111-2cl32.html
  5. Embrace your weirdness. Or at least identify it. At the Romance Writers Conference in Melbourne last year, I played the ‘stay standing if you…’ exercise with a big audience of writers. There were people who had PhDs, had walked the Camino de Santiago, who identified as indigenous, etc – but very few who could match any given combination of 3. Those rare combinations can be the basis of an original perspective. Think: What makes you unique? What story can you tell that others can’t? What can you bring from another field to inform your story?
  6. Redraft. Good writing is re-writing—and the creative perspective on this is that with each re-write you bring all your creative resources to the job, starting each time from a higher base. So, with that first draft, don’t get it right, get it done. Then improve. Repeat.
  7. Put it aside for a while. If there’s one thing most creativity studies show, it’s that creativity needs an incubation period. When you’ve reached a point of satisfaction, put the work aside—and work on something else. Which means you should have at least a couple of projects going at once.
  8. Separate the identification of problems from their solution. Plenty of people are good at finding problems, but not at fixing them. You’re the writer. If you want help with a solution, make that a separate exercise—and save it for the problems you can’t solve yourself in your own style.
  9. Give solutions to problems a chance. The first question is not ‘Why won’t this solution work?’ but ‘How can we make it work?’ And remember, solutions typically generate new problems—sometimes opportunities. Don’t reject a solution because it’s going to necessitate work elsewehere.
  10. Make the magic routine. When you succeed in solving a problem, look at how you did it. Strive to make that something you can do at will so you can save your creativity for the tougher problems.

On being an editee

I’ve just finished a rewrite of my novel-in-progress, The Best of Adam Sharp—which is to say we’re in the midst of the editing process. This is my fifth book (including two non-fiction), so, while I can’t claim to be a veteran, I have learned a bit about the editing process from the writer’s perspective.

I thought I’d share a few of the things that I have to remind myself of—consciously and constantly—if I want the best result for my book, my sanity and my relationship with my publisher. I haven’t self published: if you’re going that route, you’ll need to adapt the advice as you see fit.

  1. Editing is not a hurdle; it’s about working together to get the best possible book. School, university and (for some of us) academic publication has given us a model in which we do whatever it takes to satisfy someone else—to get our work over the line. Once you have a publisher who’s accepted your book, forget about pleasing them and start seeing them as a partner in getting the result you (and your readers) want.
  2. Your mindset is Were making it better. Every time you open that document, that’s what you’re trying to do. When you hit save, most of the time you’ve achieved that. Sure, save a backup in case you decide to go back. You hardly ever will. But from time to time, look back and see how far it’s come from the last time you thought it was finished.
  3. Familiarise yourself with the editing process—and the basic terminology. You’re (possibly) going to go through developmental, structural, stylistic (line) and copy editing. You should know what these are, what to expect from your editor at each stage, and what you will be expected to give back. Don’t waste your editor’s time having them teach you terminology, but do ask them to summarise what their approach to your book will be.
  4. Negotiate the mechanisms with your editor. Many editors have a love of paper compared with electronic formats, which frequently makes tracking of changes difficult. I hate making changes to a printed document, after being accustomed to working with a word processor—the page ends up an unreadable mess. Once it’s typeset, the cause is generally lost: I push to leave this as late as possible. If editors are changing your document directly, insist on changes being highlighted / tracked. (Of course they’d do this, right? No.)
  5. Don’t waste your editor’s time on the easy stuff. Think of it this way: your editor has only so much time, energy and creativity to devote to your book. The better their starting point, the better the outcome. If they’re spending their time fixing basic problems, they’ll have less to devote to the tricky stuff. And they’ll enjoy it less, which may mean they’re less engaged. So…
  6. Don’t submit the first draft. You know that, surely. Put it aside, come back, do at least one re-write before showing it to anyone else and…
  7. Get feedback before you submit. Editors may tell you not to do this: I suggest you ignore them. You should have a few trusted readers to look at least at your initial manuscript. My rule is that I consider all feedback and if more than one reader identifies the same problem, I consider it very very seriously. If you have trouble with spelling or grammar or are just sloppy (some people just can’t see that missing word) get someone who’s good at it to check it.
  8. Read it aloud. All the way through. To someone (to stop you cheating). I do this before I submit for the line edit—at which point I want it to be as near to perfect as it can be, in keeping with having my editor start from a good base as they look for my awkward phrasings, repeated words, etc.
  9. Focus on the broad problems identified by the editors, not their specifics or the suggested solution. Neil Gaiman nailed it: Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  10. Get over yourself. Re-read Point 9. There probably is a problem. There’s no point getting all righteous about how badly the editor has expressed it or how stupid their solution is. No one’s listening, except your long-suffering partner. There’s a problem. Get to work fixing it.



Plotting vs Pantsing – Why I’m a Plotter

One of the enduring debates amongst writers, and one of the most common questions I’m asked about the writing process is: Plotter or pantser (writing by the seat of ones pants). Do we / should we plan our work or make it up as we go along?

I’m a plotter (I prefer planner) and I wrote this short article for The Victorian Writer in  Nov 2014 in the lead-up to a presentation with Paddy O’Reilly, who is a (successful) pantser. It’s reproduced here with the permission of Writers Victoria, and slightly revised. Of course. So…


“I start at the first sentence of the novel and finish at the end… There is only one draft and when it’s done it’s done.” You could not ask for a more concise—and extreme—characterisation of a  ‘pantser’, though in the lecture from which this quote is taken, Zadie Smith uses the term micro manager. And she makes it clear that there is no preliminary planning stage for her—start means start.

I am not going to suggest that Ms Smith should change her ways, and if you’ve written four critically acclaimed novels and won the Orange Prize, you should probably also ignore my advice. If you regard plot as the enemy of literary writing, you should similarly look away. But if you are starting out; if you have written 30,000 words and lost your way; if you are struggling with a ‘saggy middle’; or if you think ‘good storyteller’ is a compliment rather than faint praise, read on.

I was always going to be a plotter—or, if I can choose my own word—a planner. My original career was in information systems. We were taught to work ‘top down’, to create an outline before we worked on the detail. We weren’t allowed to work on the detail before the structure had been reviewed. Before you blanch at my comparing computer programming with the art of the novel, reflect on the fact that most professions—and most designers—work in this way. Architects begin with a sketch plan; painters frequently begin with a drawing.

I studied design and creativity theory for my PhD and learned about behaviours that are observed across a variety of creative disciplines. Planning is ubiquitous, but so is working up and down—revising the plan as working on the details prompts changes to the framework.

Then I studied screenwriting. Screenwriters are also storytellers, but there is a focus on structure—some would say formula. Call it what you will, the screenwriter works with a hierarchy that divides a story into acts, then sequences, then scenes. The director will add a further layer of shots. Every screenwriter is familiar with ‘doing the cards’: writing scenes on index cards or in an equivalent computer product and shuffling them around to create the best sequence.

What hope did I have? I began my first novel with a scene structure from the screenplay that preceded it and have worked that way ever since. Here are three reasons why I’ve kept up the practice.

  1.  I can experiment with the plot without throwing away reams of deathless prose. In particular I can play with the sequence. One of the most common problems with plots is that saggy middle or what screenwriters call the hole in the second act. A common reason is lack of escalation of stakes and action, and often a simple shuffling of the cards can allow Hercules to tackle the most difficult labour last rather than first.
  2. The first draft goes easily. I’ll say it again. The first draft goes easily. I know where the story’s going, I know what the scene I’m writing is supposed to achieve, I know my characters, and I know the context. I can concentrate on writing well. If great writing is about great sentences, then I’ve made it as easy as possible for myself to produce them. There’s no writers’ block at this time. Worst case: I can lower my standards, just getting it done, and come back later. (It’s okay for me to come back later!) Or, I can skip ahead to an easier scene. Any real block has happened earlier, in the planning stage and…
  3. … I can get help in the planning / plotting stage. Screenwriters do this all the time: ‘writer’s room’ means something more to them than ‘special place to write.’ The acclaimed plot for Breaking Bad—and just about any other TV serial drama you care to namewas the result of collaboration; of creative people working together. I don’t think the actual writing of the draft should be collaborative, but the planner has the option of separating that from the plotting.

Let’s return to Zadie Smith. In her lecture, she also says that, “Worrying over the first twenty pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters.” Did she say ‘plot’? She calls this stage obsessive perspective disorder; Maria Popova, commenting on the lecture in her Brainpickings blog calls it “the psychic malady… the very state that Kierkegaard believed powers creative work.” I call it planning.

Zadie Smith’s lecture is included in Changing my Mind – Occasional Essays (Public Library). If you’d like to read more about plotting, I’d suggest a screenwriting book: for example, Syd Field’s classic Screenplay or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.