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.

Can creativity be taught? Yes.

I thought I’d celebrate the second anniversary of my last blog post with another on the same topic – viz creative writing courses.

A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to convince a friend of the value of these, and not making much progress. After what was, in retrospect, a painfully long process, we discovered that our disagreement came down to a fundamental difference: he assumed that creativity could not be taught. Thus, a writing course might impart grammar, principles of structure, advice on point of view and tense, but the magic – and that was his word – had to be there from the start. Innate.

I suspect the reason it took so long for us to get to the assumption was that it was well buried: never really recognised, articulated or tested. And if we do test it, it falls over pretty quickly.

Let’s start by recognising that creativity is routine and everyday, as everyday as talking. Every time we speak, unless we’re following a script, we’re being creative. We’re making it up. Every time we write a sentence, same thing. Sure, we can be more or less creative: not every sentence is going to be deathless prose, but we are making something that wasn’t there before, something original. So teaching creativity is not about jumping from non-creative to creative, but about helping people get better at it.

Let’s turn it around. I used to write computer programs and build databases, and that involved coming up with designs and solving problems – classic creative activities. I started off not being very good at it, and progressively got better. I suspect most of us can relate to that: doing something creative and getting better at it: it’s called learning. Teaching is nothing if not about facilitating the learning process: offering techniques, practice, feedback.

That said, the creative process was probably the most poorly taught aspect of both my writing and technology studies. I suspect many of my teachers shared my friend’s implicit belief that it was either unteachable and / or magic. Strange, because there’s a substantial body of research on creativity and design theory. Seems it doesn’t cross over into the applied disciplines where it’s needed.

Let me be a bit more practical. Here are five dos and don’ts in teaching creativity – and not just for writers.

  1. Do recognise the creative process as something that can be managed and improved. Teach some models and principles. I studied general design theory and found it remarkably useful in story design and review (I did a Tedx talk about it – it’s at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSA06HBdb8w)
  2. Don’t assume your own experience is universally applicable. This is probably the greatest failing of teachers and indeed the famous authors who publish advice on the subject. Rather than teach what works for you, encourage students to identify the settings and mind-sets in which they solve problems or generate new ideas and encourage them to replicate them. (Drug and alcohol warning here).   
  3. Do force students to expand their tool-set and to get practice with the new tools. Make them write in different tenses and persons, program in different paradigms. Problem solving is easier when you have a variety of options and models to draw on.
  4. Do teach the value of incubation, recognised as one of the central components of the creative process. Get students into the habit of putting work aside and coming back to it. Perhaps make them resubmit an early project for a second assessment.
  5. Don’t treat Edward de Bono as the only authority on creativity. His lateral thinking techniques are useful tools to have in the box, but they represent only a tiny populist part of a rich field.

Creative writing courses – do they help?

The subtitle of this post is “do they help?” rather than “do they work?”. The latter subtitle suggests a process that will, by itself, reliably churn out successful creative writers. I haven’t seen one, and I’m not going to argue that they exist or are possible. But, as a consumer of creative writing education over the past six years, I’m going to argue that it can help immensely.
The topic is timely in Australia, because the new fee regimes for TAFE education mean that enrolling in a course is likely to cost a lot more than it once did, especially for mid-life changers like me who already have qualifications. What do you get for your money?”
Well, if you are one of those mid-life changers, or indeed anyone with skills in a job or hobby, ask yourself: what does it take for someone new to my area to become proficient? I suggest that the answer is going to include instruction, practice and feedback. And these in turn require discipline – to study, to put in the hard yards and to accept criticism.
A good creative writing course will give you all of these. There are other ways to get them, of course. You can read, practice alone or in a group, find a mentor, submit work for publication and take note of the feedback.The creative writing course is just one means to that end. But for many of us, it’s the most convenient,and the assessment system imposes a discipline. Sure, it’d be nice not to need the discipline to be impose externally, but most of us do.
On the downside, it’s back to school, with its fixed hours, rules for interaction, public criticism and those assessments. For some of us that’s going to be a turn-off. Many men, in particular, of my age, had experiences at school that they may not want to revisit. Personally, I didn’t enjoy most of my schooling, but my recent studies have felt like a second chance.
Do I need to say that enrolling in a course and earning the qualification won’t guarantee publication or production? Writing fiction is a tough game – think tennis, golf and acting. We don’t expect everyone who studies these disciplines to achieve their dreams, or even making a living from them. And that’s when we start talking about talent, previous experience, and the amount of work you’re prepared to do. IN my observation, the last of these is one least often blamed for failure but the most common reason. You can pass a course with WAY less than the 10,000 hours experience widely quoted as the benchmark for proficiency in a field. I’m not criticizing here – many of us struggle to find time for our writing in a life that includes family, friends, leisure – and a full-time job.
But enrolling in a course is a start…
At a personal level, my Professional Screenwriting and Professional Writing and Editing studies at RMIT in Melbourne have connected me with like-minded people who have become valued collaborators and good friends, and with the production and publishing industries. They’ve made me do things I wouldn’t have done if I’d designed my own learning program – and that stretching has been to my benefit. And my fellow students have given me examples of what to do and what not to.
Recently I’ve had some success with my novel, The Rosie Project and the associated screenplay. But if I had not, I would still have regarded my investment in creative writing as one of the best I’ve made.