Become more creative in 10 minutes a day

George Rodrigue
Benjamin Hardy claims that if you want to become more creative, the last thing you should do is check your email when you get up.

He recommends writing first thing in the morning.

Research confirms the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is most active and readily creative immediately following sleep. Your subconscious mind has been loosely mind-wandering while you slept, making contextual and temporal connections. Creativity, after all, is making connections between different parts of the brain.

Similarly, Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, advocates getting up the morning and writing 3 pages before you do anything else. (Myself, when I tried this, I grabbed a cup of coffee on my way to sit down with my notebook.) Don’t turn on the television or radio, don’t look at the morning paper, and don’t check your email. Just open the notebook and pour onto the page whatever is in your head for the space of three pages. She has other recommendations to help people become more creative, but the first is always the morning pages.

Note: these people aren’t advocating trying to write a story first thing every morning. They’re not advocating trying to write at all. The idea is just do put down on the page whatever’s in your head, whether it’s coherent or not. Whatever’s in your head when you wake up, write it down. Some people write down their dreams. Some write To Do lists for the day. It doesn’t matter what you write. Just fill three pages without any censoring or editing.

Hardy also recommends spending 10 minutes each evening asking yourself questions about how to accomplish whatever goal you’re working on. Apparently that stimulates the subconscious to work out the problems while you sleep.

Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.

— Thomas Edison

I haven’t tried this, but I had good results from writing morning pages.

Janice McLeod found the morning pages an important part of rearranging her whole life. She was stuck in a job that she hated, and she couldn’t see how to do what she really wanted, which was move to Paris. She started with writing the morning pages and trying to figure this out. If you haven’t read Paris LettersI recommend it. Especially if you’re stuck in a job that you feel is sucking the creativity out of you. (Spoiler: she did eventually move to Paris.)

So if you’re stuck, creativity-wise, try writing in a notebook every morning.

The subconscious mind will translate into its physical equivalent, by the most direct and practical method available.

-Napoleon Hill

One word after another

Whimsy

I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.
-Laurence Sterne

Sounds so simple when someone else describes the process. I envy people who can sit down and write the first sentence, and then the second, and then the third… People who write linearly, that is. I think they must be very organized mentally and have everything laid out. The characters do what they want, the plot marches along in an orderly fashion.

I did try to write like that.

Clockwork with alarm mechanism, made by Nathaniel Dominy V, 1799 - Winterthur Museum - DSC01610I’ve tried outlining and drawing up character sheets and figuring out everyone’s motivation and then writing it all out in a straight line from beginning to end. And the result was as exciting as cardboard. The plot was predictable as clockwork. The characters weren’t people, they were cardboard cut-outs. Even I found it boring. I shudder to think what anyone else would think of it.

The only way I’ve found that works is to start with an intriguing idea and a likable character. Put the two together and then see where the story goes, let it develop in its own way.

For example, His Forgotten Fiancée, I thought: what would a man do if he woke up with no memory of himself, and a woman walks into the room and tells him they’re engaged? How would he react? I started out with the initial scene, then wrote the ending, then went back and wrote the middle.

With my next book, The English Lieutenant’s Lady, I came across a reference to British spies in the Oregon Territory in 1845. What if one of these spies fell in love with a local woman while on his mission? He couldn’t reveal his real identity, but he wanted to make her his wife. What would he do? I started out with them meeting, then wrote several scenes in the middle, then connected them up with the beginning before writing the ending.

I usually start with the beginning of the story, and I do try to write the next scene and the one after it. But the trouble is, an early scene almost invariably ends up having an impact on one or more later scenes, so I have to write down both the early and the later scenes while they’re fresh in my mind. Then I stuff the later scene into a later chapter to wait for the narrative to catch up with that moment. And those scenes tend to spin off ideas for new scenes that need to happen sometime in the middle of the story. Within a week or two of starting a story, I find myself with several handfuls of disconnected scenes that happen at various points in the story.

The secret of being is a writer is there is no secret. You do it one word at a time and that’s the only way. It’s totally terrifying. But the way you go about becoming a writer is by finding out how your brain works. Everyone’s brain is wired differently. I write in pieces. -Diana Gabaldon

Susanna Kearsley and Diana Gabaldon both write in non-linear, disconnected scenes. They discuss their writing style in this video. I found it very encouraging to know I’m not the only person who works like this!

Hey Jealousy

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“Fine, Bill. We’ll discuss this later.”

“The hardest thing about being successful is finding somebody to be happy for you.” -Bette Midler

“The only writer to whom you should compare yourself is the writer you were yesterday.”
-Thomas Pynchon

I’ve been thinking more about what happens when you encounter even a modest bit of success with your writing. To me, writing is a profession and should be treated as such. It is unprofessional to sneer at someone if they succeed. Even if you think it on the inside. Would you do that to a co-worker in an office? No. So I was surprised when I sold a book and got that reaction.

I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. I completely understand feeling jealous or comparing yourself to another writer. I look at other people’s writing and feel depressed that their writing is so much more polished or witty or that they can bring a character to life in a few succinct phrases. That’s not helpful, but I still do it. I just don’t see the point of sharing those feelings or dwelling on them. They’re a drain on your energy and will get in the way of your own writing if you let them.

Jennifer Crusie wrote a great essay about professional writers and professional jealousy.

Annie R Allen wrote about people who love to cut you down to their level of negativity.

Virtue vs. Indulgence

“Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.”
― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I’ve got a lot going on right now. The day job is heating up, to the point of working several 15 hour days in a row. Times like that, when a break comes, I tend to collapse in a heap instead of getting back to important things like writing. I get out of the habit and have trouble getting back in.

So I had to resort to an old trick. I turned off the computer, the TV, the music. I turned off everything but the timer. I set it for an hour and I sat down and wrote. Most of what I wrote was not usable, and writing it down was painful, but it helped break the logjam. If I’d sat around eating chocolate and hoping for a bright idea, the manuscript would still be stuck.

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Finding the right title

Lavery Maiss AurasA British sitcom had a running joke about a man who wrote a memoir:
Man: “I’ve written a book.”
2nd character: “Oh? What’s it called?”
Man: “My Life in Kenya.”
2nd character: “What’s it about?”

In a way, that’s a successful conversation. Even if the subject matter should be obvious from the title, at least the potential reader wanted to know what the book is about. Anything is good if it generates a spark of curiosity long enough for the person to turn the book over to read the back cover, or to click on the More link to read the description.

Writer’s Digest has 7 tips for coming up with the perfect book title.

His Forgotten Fiancée is another title that sums up the book nicely. I wish I could take credit for it, but my kind editor was responsible. The story started, for me, with a man waking up in a strange room with no memory of who he was or how he got there. A woman came into the room and told him they were engaged. Figuring out how he would react was what started me writing this story.

Do you choose a book based on its title? Or do you go for a nice cover instead?

Creating Tension

Ropetrailer2Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rope isn’t a movie that I like to re-watch because I always feel uncomfortable in a story where the murderer is the protagonist. But it’s a great example of how to create tension. In the picture above, the murderers are being confronted by the one person in the story smart enough to figure out what they’ve done, which is murder a man and hide his body in a trunk.

The murderers and the ‘detective’ are in the background. Hitchcock put the trunk with the dead body in the foreground of the shot. He always kept the tension right in front of the audience.

I have to resist the urge to keep everything secret from the reader until the Great Reveal. That doesn’t produce tension so much as it produces annoyance. It’s far more effective to use suspense instead of surprise.

Hitchcock had the right idea. if the audience can see the danger coming, the tension is high. You’ve caught their attention and they want to know what happens next.

Note to self: Twists in the story are great. But if given the choice, go with suspense every time.

What do you do when the book stalls?

Kulikov Writer E.N.Chirikov 1904
I’m judging entries in the Golden Heart contest again this year. It’s like pulling out gifts from a grab bag; you never know if what you get is going to be something you like. So far I’ve read a couple stories that fell into the “well, it’s okay” category and one that absolutely made me sit up and want more.

I think the “it’s okay” stories might be published after some re-writing, but I’m curious to see what happens to the “Wow!” story. I’ve read stories in contests that were better than most published books that I’ve come across — and yet I never see the stories published. (I do look. These are stories that made it to the finals of their contests, so I could google the author’s name.) So either the author published under a different name and title or… they never published at all.

A lot of manuscripts are contest winners because the first few chapters are incredible, and the rest of the book goes downhill faster than a slalom run. But if these authors were that wonderful in their early chapters, I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t polish the rest of the story as well, given time and persistence.

And that, I think, is the problem. Persistence. Especially when you’ve been listening to inner voices (or outer ones) that say you can’t finish. Or facing the fact that you’re simply not sure what to do to finish the book.

Napoleon Hill built a whole career writing books with titles such as “Think and Grow Rich.” His philosophy on how to succeed boils down to these steps:

  1. Try something.
  2. If it doesn’t work, analyze why.
  3. Try something different, based on what you learned in step 2.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until you succeed.

That’s where I’m at right now with the manuscript I’m revising. One chapter is falling flat and I am analyzing why it doesn’t feel like it’s working. I’m trying different ways to write it to find a way to that works. Not exciting, but it’s still progress.

Writer’s Digest wrote a post on how to resurrect a stalled manuscript.