Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

5771025070_bddb7e2ec6_zI’m a big planner where writing’s concerned – working out where I’m going helps the words to keep flowing. But it’s interesting to see how, even for artists who prefer to improvise, preparation can be key to success.

This short video on the BBC website features jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb talking about working with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue. It’s a record that, to my ears, is one of the most sublimely perfect pieces of music ever made, a fluid, graceful masterpiece. But even if you don’t like jazz, it’s interesting to hear how Davis worked – picking the people to work with and the themes to explore meant the music just flowed, and they seldom needed more than one take.

The new year’s a great time to think about how you prepare to write, or for your other creative activities, and to set things up for success. If you feel like sharing how you do that, then please leave a comment below – I’m always interested in other people’s creative processes, whether or not they’re legendary jazz musicians.


Picture by photosteve101 via Flickr Creative Commons

Author David Nicholls has used Write Or Die to help him with his latest novel. I’m a big fan of Write Or Die, and it makes total sense that even an established author would find it useful.

Write Or Die is a word processor with a difference. Its whole purpose is to stop you delaying or getting caught up perfecting your words instead of getting them down on the page, and it can be quite brutal about it.

First you enter your goal, like maybe 500 words in 30 minutes. Then you hit the start button. Write Or Die immediately works out how many words you need to have written by each point in that half hour to hit your goal, and if you start slacking off then it tells you. Pause for too long and it punishes you. Fall behind and it punishes you. Start going back and editing rather than getting enough words down in time and it punishes you.

You get to set the punishment. It ranges from the screen going red through screeching noises and alarms to Write Or Die deleting the words you’ve already written – whatever’s going to get you motivated.

I have the old version of Write Or Die, and I don’t use the delete setting, but I’ve still found it a great way of getting motivated. When the screen goes red and the alarm starts to sound and I can see a counter telling me I haven’t hit my target, or better yet the waves of relief as I consistently reach that target…

Well, it works.

I used to do a lot of my writing in Write Or Die, but I don’t at the moment. I found that using it for a while got me trained to write at a faster pace, but that the stuff I wrote unsurprisingly needed more editing than normal. So now I just use it occasionally to get myself back up to speed, and without it I’ve got a good balance between speed and what I want to write.

It’s a great habit builder. And if your priority is getting lots of words down with the intention of going back and editing heavily later then it’s also a good way to stay motivated.

It’s probably not for everyone. It can get stressful, and personally I’d never touch the delete option – too much risk of losing some words I loved. But if you haven’t tried it and you’re looking to get motivated on your writing then it’s only $20 and well worth a go.

Thanks to Everwalker for the heads up about the Guardian article. And if you want to read some of the things I’ve written with all these high speed words, there are links to buy my books here.

The idea that writers create their works in isolation, that novels and other stories aren’t acts of collaboration, is one of my pet hates. Tackling that myth is one of the reasons why I think China Miéville’s talk on the future of books is so good, and why I couldn’t bear to listen to the audience responses. The first few responses were apparently intelligent people, creators in their own right, leaping up and defending the status quo, saying how they didn’t want people meddling with existing texts, how they wanted to carry on working in splendid isolation.

It was reactionary nonsense, scared of facing the future, and indeed the reality of past and present writing.

Not an island

It’s not just that storytelling is becoming more collaborative. I firmly believe that every creative act is an act of collaboration. Even writers, who might seem at times to be working on their own, are really working with others.

No-one stands alone

No-one stands alone

There are some obvious elements to this. The role of alpha readers and editors in helping polish the piece. The cover artists who evoke an atmosphere before the reader has even turned to page one. The people who create fonts.

But there are less direct collaborators as well. Any writer works within the ideas and expectations created by those who have come before. They adapt and build on the ideas of those who wrote before them, and of their contemporaries within their genre. They are not working in isolation, but in communication with those authors through the ideas that they have put into the world.

At the most basic level, stringing together sentences involves working with language others have created, remixing the ideas of others.

The idea of the lone creator, the isolated artist driven purely by his or her own inner magic, is utter rot.

Special snowflakes

So why does this myth persist?

I can see two obvious reasons. The first is a psychological defence. Seeing ourselves as individual creators helps us to feel special. If someone challenges that it threatens our identity, puts us on the defensive. But it shouldn’t. The effective collaborator is a far more admirable figure than the lone wolf – they work well with others and are open to ideas.

The other reason is the ‘great man’ view of history and the world around us. Thinking that the world is shaped by significant individuals and their special abilities saves us from having to make sense of the more complex reality, of intertwining social, political, economic and artistic influences. It takes some pressure off our brains by making the world seem simpler than it is. It’s very soothing.

Busting the myth

But the myth of the isolated artist is becoming ever harder to defend. In an age of remixing and fan fiction, of collaborative cross-media storytelling, of the TV writers room, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Perhaps we can now let it go and relish the fact that we are all collaborators.


Picture by Scott Cresswell via Flickr creative commons.

Today I was going to write about the commercialisation of art and the effect of economic markets on creativity. But I’m far too excited because I just booked tickets to see Postmodern Jukebox on the UK leg of their tour. So instead I’m going to enthuse about their music and then use it for a creative writing related lesson. Because, lets face it, drawing tenuous parallels to whatever’s drawn my attention is becoming my MO.

A painter’s pallet, but with notes

Postmodern Jukebox, like 2CELLOS, mostly perform covers of pop songs. But unlike 2CELLOS they don’t have a consistent musical style, instead playing around with different musical genres. The combination of styles is amusing, occasionally moving, and often better than the original version (depending on how you feel about the original, of course). I even enjoy their bluegrass version of Robin Thicke’s loathsome Blurred Lines (yes, I know it’s catchy, but that’s no excuse for misogyny).

Some people might argue that this isn’t really creativity – they aren’t writing new songs or creating new styles. But I totally disagree. Creativity is all about combining existing elements in new ways, like a painter mingling colours on her pallet.

Tolkien talks creativity

J R R Tolkien believed that the only acts of pure unadulterated creation came from God. In Tolkien’s view, what we humans do is a secondary act, using the elements that are already in place. As story tellers we create secondary worlds.

I don’t agree with a lot of Tolkien’s take on creativity,but I do think that he was onto something. In my view there is no pure, unadulterated creation, no bolt from the blue, flash of inspiration stuff, nothing completely novel and unprecedented. That’s a myth, a dream we’ve been sold that puts creativity beyond our reach, makes us feel like we can’t achieve it and so, in many cases, give up.

But creativity is about taking what’s already there and combining it in new ways. When you put together vampires and gangsters you get From Dusk Till Dawn. When you combine superpowers and food you get Chew. When you combine a pop song and a solemnly singing clown you get this:


These are all acts of creation, as pure and wonderful as any others. They all give us something new. They are all great.

Get creating

Idealising some pure form of creativity, over-using terms like ‘derivative’ as criticisms, these behaviours disempower us. No-one mocked the second cavewoman to bang two stones together and make fire. Hell, she probably used better stones than the first one. That’s creativity, a constant act of building on what’s come before.

Re-mixing, re-writing, copying a sketch, these are all acts of creativity. And that means we can all be creative, not because some secondary form of creativity is OK, but because this is the only form of creativity.*

This afternoon I’m finally going to watch the new Captain America film. Will it be uncreative because so many elements in it have been used many times before? I doubt it. And I can’t wait to see it.

In the meantime, here’s one more Postmodern Jukebox song to play us out. This one has a fantasy theme, and it makes me laugh every time:


*OK, if you believe in God then you might believe that he has another form of creativity. But humans don’t, and that’s what I’m concerned with here.

Tenabreme, who is blogging over here to find inspiration for a thesis, asked for advice on how to keep writing when you’re finding it a struggle. And I thought, hey, I’ve faced that problem a dozen times in the past few months, that’s worthy of a blog post.

I’ll admit, the pride at being asked for writing advice by a total stranger may also have encouraged me – look Geppetto, I’m a real writer now!

So anyway, some things I’ve learned that help me keep writing:

Get an early start

I’m more productive if I just get up and write. This is a family trick passed down the generations, like my grandad’s old wood working tools. My Uncle John has those tools, and he also recommended that I get up and write for half an hour before anything else in the morning. I don’t usually manage that, but an early start does prevent my brain from putting up barriers to writing. I don’t get to feel daunted or distracted, and I’m fresh and rested. Achieving something at the start of the day makes me feel productive and energised for the rest of it.

My Grandad's tools - a working piece of family history

My Grandad’s tools – a working piece of family history

Eat the big toad first

I wrote a whole other post about this, so I’ll direct you to that rather than repeat myself.

Be careful about breaks

I used to reward myself for writing by taking a fifteen minute break. I also used to swear by the full hour-long lunch break. I’ve recently learned better. Taking a break from writing means I lose the flow, and I have to face the act of willpower that is going back to work. Maybe you need your breaks, especially if, like Tenabreme, you’re writing a thesis. But try going without them for a day or two, see how it works for you.

I do still take lunch breaks, because everyone needs food. But it’s always a battle of wills to turn off Dexter after I’ve finished my sandwich and get back to the keyboard.

Seriously. Dexter is freaking awesome.

If all else fails, write about how you’re struggling to write

Sometimes you just need to get past the blockage in your head. Circling round it like a jackal round a dying lion won’t help. So if all you can think about is how you’re struggling to write, then write about that. Write about how hard it is to get motivated, how frustrated you feel, why you’re struggling. Because you clearly care about that, so it’ll get you typing away, and it’ll get you passionate. It’ll vent that blockage from your head and let you move on to more productive work.

This works for struggling with your emotions too. That’s how I learned it – from a counsellor. Thank you to her, as she pretty much saved my sanity.

If you’re taking a break, take a proper break

I used to take my laptop on holiday. I was so attached to the idea of writing, I didn’t want to let it go. But that meant that I never really relaxed. I kept feeling like I should be working.

So when you go on holiday, leave the laptop at home. By all means, make notes in your notebooks. Read books that inspire you. But have a proper rest. You’ll come back refreshed, not ragged from battling every day with whether you should be writing.

What else?

Who else has some tips? Leave them in the comments below. Goodness knows I could do with more tricks.

And Tenabreme, good luck with that thesis.

One of the best things about culture, whether it’s books, music, theatre, or any other medium, is the way that people can enjoy the same thing in different ways.

The exercise bikes at my gym overlook the swimming pool. The other day, as I strained to push my unhealthy body into action, I saw an aquarobics lesson. The instructor stood on the side, while a dozen older ladies and gentlemen followed her motions in the water. They were all enjoying the satisfaction of exercise.

And behind the instructor, in the shallow pool, four young kids were enjoying this in a different way. One was watching the instructor in silent fascination, taking in her surreal, dance-like performance. Two more were trying to join in, imitating the movements like the people in the class. And the last one was inventing her own aquarobics, spinning round to the music in her head.

Everyone in those pools was enjoying aquarobics, and so was I, taking pleasure in the joy on others’ faces – frankly, any distraction from the aches of exercise was a pleasure. Most of it wasn’t what the instructor intended, but it all made the world a richer place.

It’s easy for creators to get protective over their work. To feel defensive when others take pleasure from it in ways they hadn’t intended, whether spoof, or imitation, or subversive readings of the meaning of the text. But none of us see the world in exactly the same way, and as a creator, isn’t it better to be misunderstood than to be ignored?

I like to think that, if someone got a different meaning than I intended from one of my stories, I’d enjoy knowing that. After all, it shows interaction with the text, it shows thought, it shows intellectual pleasure.

It’s someone acting like those kids at the pool, and who’s to tell them that they’re wrong?

I was thinking again about The Prague Cemetery, and I realised that there was a lesson in how I responded to it.

Umberto Eco is clearly passionate about the subject matter of this book. Insane amounts of research must have gone into getting the details right. But that passion, that intensity, isn’t there on the page.

As a writer, it’s not enough to care deeply about what you’re writing. That won’t automatically appear in what you write, or transfer from there to the minds of your readers. You have to think about how you get that passion across. That’s a skill, not a feeling.

Guess I’d better go practice that then.

Jeph Jacques, creator of the Questionable Content web comic, was on the most recent Writing Excuses podcast. Writing Excuses (which I’ll abbreviate to WE, because it’s sooo loooong to type) is my favourite podcast, and Questionable Content (QC, same reason) my favourite web comic right now. Listening to them talk got me thinking about how much I enjoy seeing someone creative grow into their creations.

I discovered QC last year. At the time, I was in the depths of some pretty serious depression, and my brain couldn’t cope with anything too challenging in structure or content. Web comics, with their short daily format, their humour and their often soap opera-esque plots, were the perfect entertainment for me. And among the ones I tried, QC stood out as something special. I went back to the beginning and read about two thousand strips in hours-long binges. It was sharply written and increasingly well drawn, funny in a barbed yet gentle sort of way, with characters who were rounded and interesting.

One of the best things was watching Jeph’s skills grow. This is really noticeable in the art, which has been through a huge evolution in terms of style and technique. The first few hundred strips show a dramatic improvement, while later ones show shifts in style that, as a non-artist, I find hard to describe, but which are interesting to watch. I wasn’t just enjoying the comics, I was enjoying watching an artist learn and improve on the screen in front of me.

The writing has also grown as QC’s gone along. There’s an incredible diversity of characters, all of whom develop into fully rounded people as soon as they’re given attention. Jeph’s got better at both dialogue and plotting, and discussed the latter on WE. One thing he talked about was going back to little details that weren’t significant at the time – in his case isolated comic strips – and using them in later plots, making it look like you’ve set things up well in advance. It’s a good idea, and one I suspect we often see on TV, even when the creators claim they had a plan (I’m looking at you Lost).

To a lesser extent, you can also hear an improvement in the episodes of WE. The group of writers who talk on the show have got better at working with their format, delivering their points more eloquently and succinctly, adding features like writing prompts. It’s less dramatic than watching QC’s development, but it’s still interesting, as is the content of the shows – if you write any sci-fi or fantasy, you really should listen to WE.

I also get this experience with my friend Matt, who’s a talented artist of odd little things. He recently started working on a comic, and included me in the group of people who see his work in progress. While I’m terrible at giving feedback, it’s been really interesting for me to see an artist develop in detail and to read his comments on what he’s trying to do. You can see his work, much of it about ghostly bears, and read his thoughts on computer games at his Bear Cheek blog.

Jeph’s writing aside, these are examples where I’m watching people develop skills that I don’t use. But I’ve found that it still helps me to learn, because it encourages me to work out how their work is changing, and why, and so to flex the parts of my brain that deconstruct any piece of culture. That’s a skill I can take back to my writing, looking at it with a sharpened critical eye.

As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Can you think of other good examples of creative types developing their skills in public? Maybe examples you’re particularly impressed with? Let me know in the comments.

No sooner had I posted about boundaries and creativity than I found this excellent article by Richard Rosenbaum on game-changing use of genre conventions. It sharpened my understanding of how boundaries lead to new boundaries, and thus not only support but drive creativity.

Genre conventions are among the most important creative boundaries. They let you know what your audience expects, and so are important in satisfying your audience. They are shortcuts for audience understanding – if your genre has a convention that orange women are always villains, then your audience gains a lot of information just from you saying ‘she was orange’.

This also applies to conventions of your medium, for example the use of chapter breaks and brightly coloured covers in printed novels, or particular edits in film.

The flawed hero - going past convention into compulsory

The flawed hero – going past convention into compulsory

Rosenbaum’s article discusses genre conventions used in unusual ways to create great storytelling. The examples he uses – primarily an episode of House and the film The Cabin In The Woods – don’t break the conventions of their genre and medium, but instead explore them, working out their logical implications or applying them in new ways. This creates new rules – in the House case the appearance of memory gaps at particular points, in Cabin a meta-narrative about the nature of horror films – that others can play with. New boundaries and structures emerge not by breaking the old rules, but by following them in a way no-one has before.

Stunned into silence by my wisdom. Or maybe the monster at the door.

Stunned into silence by my wisdom. Or maybe the monster at the door.

This doesn’t just apply to story-telling. Nick responded to my last post by saying that the benefits of boundaries apply in design work. And following rules to create new ones applies there too. Manned flight started out pretty crudely, but with a series of boundaries, rules for what would make a flying machine. By following those rules, and trying out different ways of following them, engineers refined them and varied them, discovering even better ways to build a flying machine. Sure, we still don’t have our Marty McFly hoverboards, but we’ve moved on a long way from the Wright Brothers.

Wilbur Wright's propeller design was inspired by his brother's moustahce

Wilbur Wright’s propeller design was inspired by his brother’s moustahce

Boundaries aren’t just structures that support creativity. A lot of the time they are creativity. They are the structures we create, within our stories, our genres, our world, that allow us to create greater things. Through those boundaries, creativity becomes self-perpetuating.


Or does it? Let me know what you think below, whether it’s about boundaries, creativity, or The Cabin In The Woods – seriously, I could talk about that film all day.

People often talk about creativity as a chaotic thing, all about freedom. But I’m not convinced. For me, limitations and boundaries are the real source of inspiration.

Look, I saw a thing!

Look, I saw a thing!

A few years ago, Mrs K and I picked up a book of creative brain-stretching exercises from a charity shop. One of them was to take photographs of ten boundaries. We were on holiday in York at the time, and it seemed like it might be fun, so we looked for boundaries as we wandered around the town. We found fences and doorways, road-signs and boot-scrapers, and dozens of other objects marking the limits of things, not least the city walls of York itself. And I noticed something as we did this. All of those boundaries restricted people, but in doing so they also permitted and enabled. Double yellow lines might stop people parking where they want to, but they also help traffic to keep flowing. Without a cup to restrict my coffee, I wouldn’t be able to drink it.

Mm, tasty boundaries

Mm, tasty boundaries

The same thing applies in my writing. If I sit down without any restrictions, without a word count or a genre to work towards, I can do anything. But that doesn’t give me any focus. Whereas writing for a themed anthology, where I need to fit that theme, that gives me a starting point, a limitation, something to play off. Whether that’s a flash story on mutant worms or five thousand words on cheese-making in space, it gives me focus and it gives me ideas. Those limitations inspire me.

York city walls - really rather inspiring

York city walls – really rather inspiring

Obviously, there’s something of a balancing act to this. Without any freedom you’re not creating, just repeating. But I think that we under-estimate the value of limitations in art. Even on the most basic level, it’s the rules of language – spelling, grammar, meanings of words – that give us tools to write with. Creativity doesn’t usually involve breaking those rules, but instead finding new ways to use them.

What do you think? What limitations do you find helpful or unhelpful? Do you believe in creativity as chaos? As always, I’m interested to know, so please comment below.