The Saturday Creativity Quote

Golden Reverie, pastel on paper by Jeanette Rehahn; collection of the author

“If you are going to bring something new into your world this year, find the field you will marry, as the poet marries language, as the artist marries color and texture, as the chef marries taste and aroma, as the swimmer marries the water.”

— Robert Moss, Dreaming the Soul Back Home

Writing Wednesday — brainstorming for fiction writers

“Writers depend on ideas. Whether we’re planners or pantsers, every sentence, paragraph, and scene embodies an idea. It’s inevitable that at some point, you simply will not know what happens next. You’ll be stuck and forced to brainstorm.”

That’s the opening paragraph of my article, “What Happens Next? 9 tried-and-true brainstorming strategies for fiction writers” in the February 2022 issue of The Writer, available now. I hope you’ll take a look and try some of my suggestions, worked out through my own experience, research into creativity, and conversations with other writers.

(And lest you think the subtitle a bit cliched, I promise you, I didn’t write it!)

On another topic, are you Team Prologue or Team Just Start the First Chapter? In this blog post, To Prologue or Not to Prologue, at Suite T, the Southern Writers blog, I discuss the uses and abuses of the prologue and give examples from crime fiction and other novels.

The Saturday Creativity Quote — a poet speaks

Bitterroot Winter, oil on panel by Rachel Warner (collection of the author)

For today’s quote, I turn to the US Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, who was speaking about the lessons, rituals, and gifts of the pandemic year, but I think her wisdom apt as we begin the new year and renew our commitment as creative people to the work with all its gifts and challenges.

“Poetry can hold contradictions, can hold grief that’s too heavy to bear, can hold questions, usually by asking more questions. I don’t know that poetry answers anything, but it certainly makes a place for the unanswerable to live in a way that can be even beautiful and satisfactory.

“I’ve always seen poets as truth tellers. We have an obligation to speak of what we see. Even if the truth is difficult to bear for others or for us, it’s important. That’s why you always see poets at the forefront or somewhere near any social rights, social justice movement. You’ll find the poet speaking out because that’s what that’s part of the charge of being a poet.”

A creative wish for the new year

Whether you make New Year’s resolutions, set goals, or eschew the whole idea, I am confident that you have hopes and dreams for the year to come. And if you’re reading this — first, thank you, and second, there’s a good chance you are following your creative urges, through writing, painting, gardening, cooking, or some other form of creative work and communication. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to think about what you’d like to accomplish artistically in the coming year. I’m not talking solely about manuscripts written or paintings completed, though I do find it useful to line out specific projects I plan to give my attention to, always subject to change. What I hope you’ll focus on for just a bit is what your creativity means to you and how you can best fulfill it. It’s an interior process, a spiritual one for many of us, part of our purpose in being in this world. It doesn’t require galleries or stages or publishers or sales to be important, even necessary.

As Joseph Campbell said, in what I’ve often called my personal motto, “Never underestimate the value to the Universe of the fully realized life.”

May your creative journey in this coming year bring you peace, joy, and personal fulfillment. May it light the dark corners and feed your spirit. Only then can it shed light for the rest of us or feed our spirits. I look forward to continuing on this journey together.

The Saturday Creativity Quote

Many of you are celebrating Christmas today. My thanks to you for the gift of your time and attention this past year.

“One can never have enough socks. Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”

– Dumbledore, from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Okay, so it doesn’t have much to do with creativity, but in my vast collection of quotes, it’s the only one related to Christmas.

May this be a day of joy, love, and connection — and books.

Writing Wednesday — reading like a reader

Many writers take a break from writing in the last week or two of the year. Quite a few of us spend that time reading — essentially filling the creative well and helping recover some of the spark and energy that can be lost in the shuffle of sentences, edits, promotion, and all the other aspects of being a professional writer. I’m a big proponent of reading like a writer, that is, honing the ability to identify what another author is doing on the page, whether it works for you or not, and what lessons you can learn. And I often urge writers to “read up,” choosing as your next read the latest by an author your admire or a book by a writer who gets a lot of accolades but whom you’ve somehow missed.

Sometimes, though, we should all read just for fun. If you learn something, great. If the author gives you an idea for how to handle a tricky subplot, make a note. But maybe the best gift you can give yourself these last few days of yet another particularly trying year is to read like a reader. Get caught up in the story, the poetry, the setting. Reread a favorite or pull something frivolous off the shelf. Get in touch with your inner ten-year-old, the one who read Harriet the Spy by the glow of the street light or snuck a flashlight into bed. Because a writer must first be a reader.

So grab a blankie — my gnome friend is keeping them warm for you — and curl up with a book. And I’ll see you back here next year.

The Saturday Creativity Quote — the role of distraction

WPA stairs, Bigfork MT

We’ve all had the experience: You’re at your desk, think-think-thinking about a sentence, an image, a concept you can’t get from your brain to the page. You go downstairs to make another cup of coffee or wash the dishes and the solution comes to you. Turns out, there’s a reason for that. As Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire write in Wired to Create (2015), “interruptions and diversions can help that all-important creative incubation period. ‘In other words, a distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution,'” they quote Harvard psychologist Shelley H. Carson saying.

So don’t be afraid to leave your desk when all you’re accomplishing is denting your head by hitting it on the keyboard. Don’t stay away too long, of course — discipline has a role, too. But we’ll save that topic for another time!

The Saturday Creativity Quote — the creative dream

Ruff the Cat, greeting a stone friend (photo by the author)

“Falling in love with a dream is frequently the starting point [for boosting creative performance]. Then, people who fulfill their creative dreams over the long haul balance optimism about the future with realistic strategies for getting closer to their goals; inspiration with hard work; and dreaming with doing.”

— Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire in Wired to Create (2015)

Writing Wednesday — Blueprint for a Book by Jennie Nash

Can you stand me talking about one more book? I hope so! Blueprint for a Book: Build Your Novel from the Inside Out by Jennie Nash didn’t make my list of 10 Essential Books on Writing, posted a month ago, because I had just discovered it and wasn’t sure how “essential” it would turn out to be. I took an evening webinar from Nash, sponsored by Free Expressions Seminars & Literary Services (check them out — fabulous classes!), and was surprised how impressed I was. I’d first heard about her “Inside Outline” a while back, and looked into taking her self-directed course on the topic, but decided I didn’t need another way to outline — at the time, I needed ways to brainstorm more ideas about what to put IN the outline! (More on that to come.)

I was right, and I was wrong. When I saw Nash’s course offered by a source I trust, I was in. The focus of the Inside Outline is identifying your main character’s internal motivations and using those to outline your book in chunks or events. The MC’s internal needs — what Nash calls “the point” — are shaped a bit by events, then lead directly to the next chunk of events, and so on. The result is not a play-by-play forecast of the book, but a roadmap. You’ll have a plan for getting from Tacoma to Tampa. You’ll decide on the way where to stop for lunch, but you’ll have the hotels booked and the sights you don’t want to miss identified, and you’ll significantly reduce your chances of ending up in Tucson or Toronto. Which is the point, for most of us who outline to any degree.

The book walks through all that in 14 steps, starting with asking why you want to write this book, figuring out “the point” of it, writing a simple version, then a working title, and so on, leading to a three-page Inside Outline, followed by tips on using it to write the book, revise, and write the dreaded synopsis.

I already had a partial outline when I started Nash’s book, and I have always tried to incorporate the MC’s internal motivations and stakes. But this book helped me clarify my thinking tremendously. Is it working as I write? So far, so good!

Admittedly, this book is for those who outline or who maybe don’t but want to try it, to get more clarity before they start. But even committed pantsers could benefit from the early steps or even, as Nash suggests, writing the short Inside Outline after the first draft, to help you understand what you’ve created and give the next draft more narrative drive. It’s a short book — under 150 pages — so give it a try!

Law & Fiction — revisiting two topics

LAB in the back of a police car at Writers’ Police Academy (2016), smiling because I knew I could get out any time

From time to time, I write about legal issues writers may want to use in their fiction, or mistakes to avoid. I spotted two recent articles on topics I wrote about in Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver, 2011). Whether you’ve read the books or not, you may want to know a little more about when teenagers can be charged as adults, as described in this NPR piece about the teenage shooter in Oxford, Michigan, which provides a good overview. The trend toward “Raise the Age” legislation is new since BCC; many states have now set a presumptive age, typically 17 or 18, at which a juvenile can be charged as an adult; below that, such a charge is still possible but certain criteria must be met.

I also wrote about drug courts, an approach aimed at keeping nonviolent offenders charged with drug offenses out of jail and on the road to recovery and productivity. This piece from the Washington Post focuses more broadly on addiction in northern New Mexico, but the highlights on the drug court and its judge are worth a look. (It’s part of a Post project on the importance of regional stories and what is or could be lost when local papers shut down, another important topic.)

As always, check law and practice in your story state. We may be writing fiction, but getting the facts right matters.