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finishing your book

Is Originality Overrated?

Has this ever happened to you?

I’m 3/4 of the way through my book, having sacrificed incalculable time, sleep and emotional energy to this thing for the past year and then some. Then I walk into the bookshop for a quick browse in the Middle Grade section and… low and behold, what do I see? A debut author has just won an award for her new novel featuring a story with uncanny similarities to mine!

Bummer.

That was just one of a saga of events that has brought my story to a grinding halt, all because of this one. paralyzing. fear:

What if what I’m writing isn’t original?

If you’re a writer, you know this niggling doubt intimately. And it’s no wonder! We hear from every source that originality is what counts in publishing. “Don’t do that.. It’s already been done by Such-&-Such,” or “No one will ever write that sort of fantasy as well as this author, so you might as well not try.” And pretty soon, it can feel as though every idea has been covered, every angle explored and you’re like poor Truman in The Truman Show whose teacher dashes his hopes of becoming an explorer to smithereens when she tells him, “You’re too late. Everything’s already been discovered.

Yet we cling to hope… hope that there IS still uncharted territory in the Land of Story to be discovered!  Otherwise we may as well pack up our pens, laptops and writing manuals and call it day.

Well I’m here to affirm that hope. To fan the flame!

Dare to muse with me for a moment…

Maybe… just maybe…this originality thing is all a myth.

Maybe we’re going about it all wrong, trying to write our stories in a sanitary vacuum so as to preserve them from contamination by any element that might in any way resemble some other writer’s ideas.

Maybe “contamination” is exactly what we need…

But don’t take my word for it. Two of the great heroes of Faerie (and coincidentally two writers we’re over & over warned not draw from because we will only fall short) have in fact poo-pooed this notion of all-important originality. These Giants of Story are, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Here’s what they have to say:

First from Jack:

“Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” –C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)

Let’s test his theory, shall we? Think about the stories that have most touched you and changed you. What was it that impacted you so? Was it wonderful and wacky creatures you’d never before dreamed of? Or was it perhaps something else… something old… maybe even as old as Time, like a love story, or a beautiful friendship, or a character’s heroic sacrifice? In my case, it’s the latter. Sure, the old themes may be wrapped in new clothes, but it’s what’s at the heart that drives the story, not the wrapping. And we’ve all read stories that labour the wrapping to death, yet totally lack in content. Not ideal.

So take this lesson from Lewis to heart: Write about the thing you’re passionate about…the truth that drives you, that makes your heart beat. Originality will come as a byproduct, because let’s face it: every story, no matter how often it’s been told, is bound to carry the flavour of its storyteller. You, the storyteller, are unique; therefore your stories will be too!

Now let’s hear what Tolkien has to say on the matter. In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, the old master of myth describes stories as evolving from “the long alchemic processes of time.” The process is, Tolkien says, a bit like a stewing cauldron of soup… or “Cauldron of Story.”

“The Cauldron of Story has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

Can’t you just picture it? All the myths, histories, legends and fairy tales ever told simmering together in a great cauldron? There is a bit of Arthurian legend, and there a chunk of Greek mythology, and, ooh! What’s that? I’m catching a whiff of Irish folktale.

The point is, nobody writes a story from scratch. We are all influenced. We all dip from the Cauldron of Story. BUT – and what a wonderful thought – that means you & I dip from the same pot all the great “original” authors have dipped from — The Brothers Grimm, Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling… you name them!

The important question then, is not “Am I being original enough?

Instead ask,”What will I draw out of the Cauldron? Take the good advice of our fore-bearers – draw out the flavours you find most delicious… the ones that make your heart sing and write about those.

And who knows? You may find that without really even meaning to, you’ve added a new pinch of flavour all your own to the Soup!

Part III: The Art of Asking ~ putting the ‘quest’ back in ‘question’

Only the curious have something to find. – Nickel Creek, ‘This Side’

Think of the most creative person you know. That person who always sees shapes in the clouds and pulls stories out of thin air. That person who sees the world, not as it is, but as it might be. That person who’s ever filled with wonder & bursting with imagination.

Were these creative souls simply born with it? Perhaps. But then aren’t most children born with a sense of awe, a readiness to absorb information &, most notable of all, a billion questions on their lips? The problem with many of us struggling artists is not a missing ‘creative gene’, but rather a loss of our childlike sense of life as a grand adventure. Thinking we’ve seen it all, we stop looking (see Part II on the Art of Observation). Not wanting to appear ignorant, we stop asking questions. We become jaded, & our imagination just doesn’t work like it used to…But what if we could revive that lost art that comes so naturally to children? The Art of Asking, that is.

There is a direct correlation between Curiosity and Creativity. The one fuels the other, so if you let Curiosity dry up, you can bet your Creativity will sputter out & wind up rusting in the junkyard of your busy, uninspired mind. Unless you choose to embark on a quest that can reverse the hands of time & get your Creative mind banging on all cylinders again.

The Quest for better Questions

In his book for cooking up Creativity, Five Star Mind, Tom Wujec explains the revitalizing power of asking questions:

Inside the word ‘question’ is the word ‘quest’,  suggesting that within every question is an adventure, a pursuit which can lead us to hidden treasure.

Asking questions excites your mind out of its drowsy state by laying an open road before it. Just like Bilbo Baggins startled from his stupor by a troop of adventuring dwarves, your brain secretly longs for a mystery to solve, a quest to fulfill. Asking questions is an invitation for the brain to step out of its routine & into an adventure.

Asking questions gets your brain moving. Wujec explains that a question puts the brain in a state of irresolution, a bit like an itch that demands scratching. And believe it or not, your brain LOVES this irresolute state! If you don’t believe it, just look at the masses of Sudoku & crossword puzzles sold in your local bookstore. The brain sees the challenge & sets right to work to scratch that itch. Before you know it, your creative mind is on fire!

Irresolution is a potent fuel, a source of energy & motivation. – T. Wujec

Asking questions gives you a target & helps you aim. Here’s where you can apply the Art of Asking directly to your writing, & especially when you feel utterly & hopelessly stuck. Asking the right kind of questions can be the hand up you need to get you unstuck & on your way again. So just what are the “right kind” of questions? 

The best questions drive us to see the bigger picture, not just the immediate problem. For example:  Instead of “Why is my protagonist so BORING?!”

Try “What do I already know about this character?”  -or- “How might this character respond in another situation?”

Also, the best questions are open-ended, inviting not just one answer, but many possible solutions.

For example: “In what ways can I make my protagonist more interesting? or more believable?”

It is only fair to mention a Caveat here in bold: Your questions may not lead you to a final resolution… They may even lead you to ask yet more questions!

But that’s OK! In fact, that’s the point! For the creative writer, it’s not the answers but the Art of Asking that counts. Merely asking keeps the creative mind in motion & childlike wonder alive. Mastering this art will take practice-so much unlearning to do before we can have the humility to learn afresh! But the pay-off is enormous. Just consider all the books on your shelves that began with a simple, silly question:

“What if you fell down a hole in the ground & landed upside-down in a fantasy world?”

“What if you walked into a wardrobe & found yourself in in a winter’s wood?”

“What if an ordinary boy discovered he was actually a wizard?”

Do you dare to begin the quest? Who knows where your questions may take you…

Part II: The Art of Observation~ how to seek & find Inspiration

Moment of truth: Have you ever put off writing because you just didn’t feel “inspired”? I wager most of us (myself included) would have to plead guilty.

Lack of Inspiration holds a high position on the list of excuses wanna-be writers make for not writing.

Fair enough, you may say. Inspiration is a key ingredient of Creativity, right? You can’t create cold. One needs a catalyst to get the stone rolling; a spark to ignite the flame; a bolt of lightning to strike life into Frankenstein’s monster before he can rapturously proclaim “It’s aliiiive!”

But what if the Inspiration you’re waiting for doesn’t come?

The word “Inspiration” comes from Latin that literally refers to the act of God breathing -or inspiring– life into being… breathing a soul into mere flesh & bones. Prime example: in the book of Genesis, God breaths life into Adam (the 1st man) & thereby infuses him with God’s own attributes, including & especially Creativity! Then he tells Adam to get up & start using it! Look around at all those stars, plants & animals! Give them names! Grow gardens, build houses, write sonnets, procreate & fill the earth with the fruit of Creativity…& all from that one little initial spark of Inspiration.

So here’s what I’m driving at. If you’re alive reading this, you have the same gift of Inspiration Adam had– a soul to drive you, 5 senses to take in the world around you & a brain to make some sense and use out of it all *(that, you might say is the bare bones of how Creativity works).

So why do we feel we’re lacking Inspiration? Maybe we’ve just forgotten how to find it. Maybe our 5 senses need a dusting off. Maybe instead of waiting for lightening to strike us right where we sit, we need to become storm chasers… or more aptly, Inspiration Chasers (you can just hear the epic theme music cue, right?).

I’m talking about The Art of Observation. If you’ll master it, I guarantee inspiration for your craft will never again be hard to find. But be warned: once you learn how to look, you may find Inspiration lurking literally everywhere, more than your brain & notebooks combined can possibly contain! Leonardo da Vinci summed up this principle well when he said

l’esperienza fu maestra di chi scrisse bene. (Experience was the good writer’s teacher)

When we experience the world, not passively, but through the kind of active observation that would make Sherlock Holmes proud, we have all the inspiration we need to fuel our creative writing.

So here’s my first tip: Be prepared to be surprised!

Inspiration comes in funny ways & when you least expect it… only you should be expecting it everywhere & all the time. For instance, last week I was invited to a Sunday lunch. Only when I arrived at the lunch did I discover that I was one of ten guests & the only one under the age of 75. The afternoon was spent loudly articulating every word for those hard of hearing & repeating myself to the one lady with memory loss. A waste of an afternoon when I might have been reading Rilke or waiting in meditation for the inspiration bug to bite? Ha! I came away with mountains of it!

I soon discovered my lunch companions were a kaleidoscope of mannerisms, dialects, peculiarities & brilliant senses of humour, to say nothing of the wonderful narratives they shared from bygone days that might as well be fantasy lands for one my age! Their lives were rich, their perspectives so different, & they were so very willing to share all that wealth with anyone willing to listen… on that Sunday afternoon, that someone was the privileged I.

Anyone you meet, if you look & listen long enough, has something unique to offer as fodder for fiction. And the very young & very old in particular seem to overflow with inspiring tales and insights. So don’t shun new company. Strike up chats. Be a listen ear. Hear the untold stories that walk right past you every day. They might just inspire the plot for your next fiction piece!

Secondly, gird yourself with the writer’s weapons: en garde!

Once you’ve learned to look for inspiration in every new environment, you’ll want a way to catch it & keep it before it flits away (beware the writer’s curse: Inspiration always strikes whilst in the shower or behind the wheel! Do not attempt to write or type in these situations!).

Keep a handy little notebook & writing utensil of choice on your person whenever possible. One of the best habits you can form is keeping an observation journal. Write down your first impressions of a person, place or object. What made them or it stand out? How do they differ from others around them? Jot down physical traits, speech (tone, pace, notable turns of phrase), attitude, movements, expressions… sky’s the limit! Just get it down & don’t assume you’ll remember later on.

And finally, distill your observations into literary descriptions

you could stop at step 2 & still reap the benefits of observation: your mind & notebooks would be that much fuller of potential characters, settings or intriguing objects. But if you aim to write to the next level, why not go a step further?

A good writer does more than string together a load of adjectives when describing someone or something. She chooses those descriptions-nouns & verbs as well as adjectives & adverbs–that capture the essence of the thing or character. Remember, your readers have the gift of creative thought as well. They can fill in the gaps. What you the writer must give them is an impression on which they can build their own images of your created world.

And here we come to the beauty of writing. The writer captures inspiration in order to distill it and create something new to inspire the reader. You might call it recycling inspiration! But it all begins by putting to death the old excuse that you’re “waiting for inspiration”. Instead, practice the Art of Observation! You’ll soon find Inspiration is yours for the taking & for the making!

Got Creativity?: 3-part series to get your creative juices flowing

Here’s an exercise for you: next time you’re at a ho-hum dinner party, strike up a riveting conversation by asking your fellow guests, “Would you consider yourself a creative person?” Unless the table is comprised of confident, free-spirited, arty-farty types, the answers are likely to lean towards the negative. Most people wish they were creative, but feel they just haven’t got it (it being that mystical creative spark some people seem to be just born with…you know, the J.K.Rowlings among us).

Now ask yourself the same question: Am I a creative person? Have I ‘got’ creativity? Chances are if you’re a writer, you at least brand yourself the creative type… after all, isn’t Creativity a writer’s bread & butter? Every jot & tittle of our stories requires a little flex of our creative muscles. We must be creative for our art… or die trying!

But how often do we feel like Creativity lies just beyond our reach? We turn green with envy after reading a great novel bursting with creative ideas we wish we’d thought of, but didn’t… or lose focus and flow in our story because of that dreaded Creative Block?  Do you ever feel like Creativity is evading you? You chase it down like Alice chasing after the white rabbit, but every time you gain on it, it gives you the slip! And on & on goes the relentless rabbit’s chase until your energy tank is running on empty.

This lack or loss or block of Creativity has been the death of many a potential story & nipped many a just-blooming-writing-career in the bud. “If I could just pin down that white rabbit, Creativity!” we cry. For then we might domesticate him in order that, like a faithful pet, he  would come when called upon and do our bidding! But how?

Well I’m here to say, DON’T THROW IN YOUR CREATIVE TOWEL JUST YET! So long as you are human, there is hope. After all, Creativity is one of the features that sets us apart from many of the creatures who share this planet with us… like sea squirts. *(My sincere apologies if I have just slighted any creative sea squirts out there unawares!) Creativity is a wonderful gift, not a pesky evasive rodent. It’s meant to be exercised and enjoyed, and its fruits enjoyed by others.

When it comes to Creativity, it’s not about whether you’ve got it or not. It’s how you use it that counts. It’s a thing to be nurtured, an appetite to be whet, a muscle to beef up. And for the rest of this 3-part series, we’re here to help you PUMP YOUR CREATIVE MUSCLES UP!!!  We may not have the magic key to unlock the Creativity treasure trove, but we can at least give you some tips to start you out on the right foot. We’ll unpack…

I. What exactly is Creativity anyway?  (and how do I get me some?)

II. The Art of Observation: how to seek & find Inspiration

III. The Art of Asking: the writer’s quest for questions

So stay tuned!

**Not yet following Brewhaha? You can sign up on the Home page to receive email notifications when we publish new posts (included parts 1-3 of “Got Creativity?”). If you’re a writer, reader, tea-drinker or wanna-be, we’d love for you to join our growing creative community!

 

 

 

Novel writing: not for the faint of heart

Of all the metaphors authors use to describe the writing process, there’s one in particular that resonates with me in a big way: Writing is like running in a race. And I don’t mean no piddly 5k jog. I am talking marathon here! (NB: I give full license to anyone who has actually run a marathon to chime in!). So just a quick caveat at this stage: If you’re looking for a relaxing walk in the park at the end of the day, don’t sign up to write a novel! But if you’re looking to go the distance, to stretch the limits of your imagination and pump up those creative muscles, READ ON!

Previously we said the hardest part of writing was the Start. And that’s true! Same goes for running. Most people you know will never run a marathon because they’ll never sign up to one. You’ve got to tie on those running shoes and step up to the start line before you can even breach the task of running the race. And let’s face it, that’s where most people fail at the writing business as well. Fear of failure keeps writing that novel in the realm of “Someday”, and the Horrible Whatiffer lives to die another day. (see previous blog post on starting if you haven’t got a clue what I’m on about!)

But let’s hope you’re one of the few and far between who have crossed that barrier. And if you are, congratulations! The sheer fact that you’re writing means you’re a writer! That’s more than the majority of wanna-bes-but-never-wills out there can say. But now there’s a new challenge: Sticking it out to the finish line.

At first, you and your novel may have enjoyed a ‘honeymoon’ phase. Ideas flowed like milk and honey, your imaginative mind was fueled up and on fire, and inspiration just seemed to step out and introduce itself at every turn. But now a little time has passed, and the word count is getting smaller as your stamina wanes. You fret about sitting down to that sticky scene that seems to go nowhere. You tell yourself through gritted teeth “I just want to be done with this blasted (or insert your choice word) thing!”

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Every successful writer out there has walked through the valleys before reaching their peaks. Don’t believe me? Just pick up a copy of Writers & Artists Handbook and read through some of the author bios. Successful authors are marathon runners. They are people who understand that writing requires pacing yourself. Sometimes it’s easy sailing, sure. But other times, every foot forward costs everything you’ve got. It’s not always graceful, not always pretty. You may find yourself utterly stuck in the mud! But pushing through it all, getting to the end no matter the setbacks, that’s what counts.

So here are a handful of practical tips to keep you steady and on track, or get you out of that mud puddle if you’re stuck:

  • Keep Moving, even if you don’t like what you’re writing. As author Jodi Picoult puts it, “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” (Writers & Artists Yearbook 2016)
  • Write a 1-liner pitch for your book (the bare essence of what it’s about). Every time you get stuck, return to that line. This is your finish line. Are you moving towards it? If not, where did you get off track?
  • Return to your first love. If you’re seriously stuck, lay on your back, close your eyes, put on a piece of music that expresses the feel of your story, and try to remember your excitement in those early days. Playlists are great for running, but they work wonders for writing marathons too!
  • Use the Buddy System! Get a friend to keep you accountable on deadlines & word counts. Or just to listen as you work through your story’s kinks out loud! *another little bonus tip here: keep your deadlines realistic. No need to rush it! Remember, pace yourself.
  • BE OPTIMISTIC! Easier said than done, I hear you say. And don’t I know it! But 90% of a finishing marathon happens in your head. It might just be 99.9% of writing a novel. Take those negative “I’m never gonna…” thoughts captive and choose to think positively.

turtle-finishline

Remember, writers are not a higher race of beings who produce audience-worthy material each time they set pen to paper. Writers are simply people who write, no matter the discouragements or the setbacks. So keep your eye on the prize and stride (or crawl) onward with pride. You are on your way to crossing that finish line and joining the ranks of writers on the other side!

All ye fellow writers out there! Got an inspiring story or a favourite tip to add? Share the wealth & leave it in a comment below.

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