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Wednesday Writers’ Cafe: the art of ‘No’

You may have read Bri’s tips for success in Novel in November earlier this week. They mostly involve carving out time, ’cause let’s face it: Time is one ingredient every writer requires. No novel has ever been written without it. But if you’re like me, Time is something of a slippery friend. Next to impossible to pin down.

Hence Bri’s top tips for carving out time in November!

But I got to thinking about this problem, universal to all writers, of making time. I think it’s where rubber hits the road for us — it means sacrificing other opportunities. It means saying ‘No’ to people and things that inhibit our commitment to our craft. And it’s particularly hard to say ‘No’ when writing isn’t your full-time, income-earning job (yet!). Few people understand that an inspiring writer IS WORKING even if he/she hasn’t landed a publishing deal just yet. Many such misinformed folk will expect you to drop your ‘hobby’ at any and every request or invitation.

This is where the art of ‘NO’ becomes a vital weapon. It is possible to be polite and forceful, but it takes practice! And most of all, it takes confidence in the work you’re doing – belief that it’s worth the sacrifices you’re making.

So I thought today, as we ready for Novel in November, I’d open up the floor to your thoughts and experiences in this challenging area.

What sacrifices have you made for the sake of your dream of being a writer? How have managed other people’s expectations, & learned to say ‘no’ when your writing time is under threat?

We’d love to hear about your struggles and your victories in making time. Share in the comments below – let’s get talking, & as always, KEEP WRITING! 🙂

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!

Daily Doses of Magic: the world-builder’s diet

I confess. I am a sucker for Fantasy Worlds – for the soaring landscapes of Middle Earth, the heart-wrenching beauty of Narnia, the delicately spun fabric of Faerie. When I read descriptions of such supremely beautiful realms, destined for epic adventure, I get lost like the Pevensie children and never want to return to the ordinary world I live in.

Of course I want to create worlds as wonderful for my characters! Worlds my readers will happily get lost in. But when it comes time to build them, I always feel that I’m falling deplorably short. I almost believe that other writers whose worlds have transported me have actually been transported themselves. That’s how they do it! They have a window into Fairyland that I’ve yet to find. If only I could get a glimpse. If only…

Do you ever pine for that glimpse into Faerie as well, sure that you’ll never spin a satisfactory world of your own until you find that magical window?

So I might be pining away forever… but then I venture to the forest on a fine summer’s morning with my dog, and the trees whisper some sense into my wistful head: “Here is your window, you silly thing! The very same that your fairy tale for-bearers looked into for inspiration. It’s called Nature, and it’s positively buzzing with magic!”

G.K. Chesterton wrote, true to his style, a supremely sensible essay called “The Ethics of Elfland” which recaptures the lost wonder of this fairyland we live in. My morning, woodland walk brought home something he’d said, and I had to agree:

The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, ‘charm,’ ‘spell,’ ‘enchantment.’ They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery… this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic.

His point? Nature is as surprising and mysterious as any fairy realm ever could be. We have simply got used to her habits and labelled them as ‘laws’… rather unromantically. But what if you went outside for the first time and saw the world with fresh eyes? Chesterton reckons the fairy tale’s purpose is to teach us to do just that.

These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.

So here is my challenge to you (as well as to myself in the midst of a world-building project!). Start an observation journal. Just try it. Make it a habit to observe one detail – however grand or minuscule – in Nature each day, with fresh eyes of wonder that it is as it is. After all, it might have been some other way. Or as Chesterton puts it, apple trees might have produced candlesticks instead of apple blossoms!

When it comes to creating fantasy worlds, there is nothing new under the sun. As world builders, the only colours we have to paint with are the ones Nature offers us. But Nature is hardly a miser – what a wealth of resources she has to offer! So go outside, marvel at the Elfland that is our home. Then take all those colours and all that marvel and paint a world in words. Enjoy!

In honor of this theme, I’ve dug out a very, VERY old poem I wrote as a kid. Rarely do I post poetry for the world to see, but as this one comes from a far distant life, I shall make an exception!

“Daily Doses of Magic”

In January,
Falls with silent grace
A glistening shower of soft white lace.
The earth with pride is sure to glow,
When dressed in a shimmering gown of snow.

Magic’s yours for the taking,
If only you dare.
If you’ve not yet claimed it,
You must not care.

In February,
When nature’s left bare by the cold,
Is a grand time to go out hunting Leprechauns’ gold.
Take a peak in mum’s garden, or on window sills
For the shining golden heads of spring’s first daffodils.

Magic’s a treasure most precious,
Though not terribly rare.
So don’t waste one more moment
Before claiming your fair share.

In gently March,
When earth’s long sleep is shook,
The sprite’s and pixies sneak out for a look.
But should spring showers threaten their fun with gloom,
They’ll pop up, spit spot, and umbrella mushroom.

Magic’s no fib,
No story, or fable.
Don’t suppose you can’t find it.
You are perfectly able.

In April,
Sky’s majestic concerts play
While silver streamers the night array.
Tucked snug in bed, safe, dry, and warm,
You can listen to the music of a spring thunderstorm.

Magic’s no secret,
It’s as plain as blue sky.
If you’d like me to prove it,
Why just open your eyes.

In May
When day gives way to night,
I watch the flickering fairy lights.
They disappear in the blink of an eye.
What a curious creature, the firefly!

Magic isn’t just in books.
If you haven’t found it,
You haven’t looked.

In June,
You’ll find a magical gem
To put in your pocket should you have the whim.
Watch violet turn green before your eyes
When june bug opens his wings and flies.

Magic comes in packages
Of every size.
Should you come across it,
Don’t be surprised.

In hot July,
While seaside dreaming,
I can hear the mermaids singing.
There sweet and mystic voices swell
Deep down inside an old conch shell.

Magic’s in every cranny and nook.
If you’ve not yet found it,
You’ve not yet looked.

In August,
Silvery silken nets are cast
To catch moon droplets of liquid glass.
Morn’s sunbeams turn these to dew drops instead,
That dangle from each dainty spiderweb thread.

No need for a wand, spellbook,
Or white rabbit.
If it’s magic you seek
Just reach out and grab it.

In September,
When nights are cool, crisp, and quite clear,
The sky’s faithful watchman is sure to appear.
A sign that fall’s magic will be upon the world soon,
Is the sleepy-eyed man on the pale harvest moon.

Magic’s oh so much more
Than a make-believe game.
Why, to miss out on magic
Would be a most dreadful shame.

In October,
You may encounter upon neighbors’ porches
A mischievous nimph with eyes shining like torches.
But don’t be alarmed by his snaggle-toothed grin,
For jack-o-laterns, quite often, make jolly good friends.

So if life’s too ordinary,
Then do precisely as I say:
Take a daily dose of magic,
And add dazzle to each day.

In November,
Fair rubies drip from trees;
But shaken by an autumn breeze,
They dance down gracefully as you please,
To make fall’s rainbow rug of leaves.

Magic’s there, it doesn’t hide.
If you haven’t seen it,
You haven’t tried.

In December,
When magic falls in drifts like the snow,
A billion flick’ring candles set all earth aglow.
On still, frosty nights, these bring joy near and far,
To hearts warmed and eyes twinkling under heaven’s kind stars.

So whatever the season, day, or the hour,
Enjoying some magic requires no special powers.
Just open those eyes up,
Dust off your nose and ears.
With practice, you’ll find magic every day of the year!

Wednesday Writers’ Cafe: paper & ink? or keyboard & screen?

In this era of digital EVERYTHING, many writers plan, write & edit their work entirely on screen. But biros & parchment haven’t entirely been regulated to curiosity cabinets quite yet. Neil Gaiman still hand writes his novels, J.K. Rowling spent five years creating her magical world in hand-scribbled notes on just about any scrap of paper she could find, and G.R.R. Martin types out his never-ending saga Game of Thrones on an old  word-processor machine…(no wonder we’re still awaiting the last installment!).

There are certainly pros & cons to any method. Some writers feel the only way to think freely is on paper where you can doodle, scratch out & squeeze notes into the margins to your heart’s content. But of course there’s the practical side of things– typing is quicker & removes the agonizing step of transposing your handwritten notes to type later.

The jury is still out on this one. So let’s hear what you think:

How do you prefer to write: by hand? or straight onto the screen?

Or maybe it’s a little of both? Comment below or write about your preferred “dark writing materials” in your own blog & link back to us here at Brewhaha Book Cafe.

Whatever method you’re using to churn out your stories today, happy writing!

Interview with author/illustrator Anna Caroline Grant (top tips from a born artist)

If Creativity were contagious, every struggling author and artist would want to hang around with Anna Caroline Grant. To this bright, articulate, life-loving ten-year-old, creating seems as natural a thing as breathing… or dancing, in her case. Her recent works include such novelties as the legend of why the willow tree weeps, and the chronicles of a traveling bouncy ball. I’ve had the pleasure of proofing quite a few of her illustrated stories, and my reaction is always the same: “How does she come up with these amazing ideas?!” followed by, “Why can’t I think up ideas like these?!” The answer is simple: because Anna Caroline is one of a kind, and her stories and pictures reflect that to a tee.

Anna hails from the USA, but lives in Spain along with two parents, four siblings and one dog. I was lucky enough to pin down this little sprite in the midst of her busy, creative daily life and ask her a few questions about her creative process. Read the interview below & prepare to be inspired!

Q: When did you first start writing & illustrating?                                                                        A:“I knew I was going to create children’s books since I was 4.” Of course, back in those days, Anna’s stories were much simpler — a description of a flower or a fairy. But Anna explains that her stories have grown along with her. “I’ve been writing stuff like that until now, when I’m writing stuff I feel like I’m going to publish.” And with her winning attitude mixed with dedication to her craft, getting published is only a matter of time for Anna. So next, I wanted to know…

Q: Where do you get your ideas?                                                                                                        

IMG_1828
Anna’s illustrations are characterized by emotive power & attention to detail

A: “That is a very good question!” Anna exclaims, stopping to consider. It seems her sources are myriad. But one stands out from the crowd. “So the key to this is reading other books.”Anna gives an example of recently reading E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and getting an idea to write about an unlikely animal friendship. “Not a pig and a spider, because that would be copying.” The key is mixing bits of inspiration together to form something new, Anna explains, like cooking up a story stew. “I put that idea with an idea from another book, and it makes a new story that’s a bunch of other stories mixed together.”

Funny thing is, I recall a very similar description of story-making from another, much older author by the name of J.R.R. Tolkien. Looks like Anna’s in good company!

Besides books she’s reading for fun, Anna also gets ideas from her language classes at school. She explains how studying parts of speech gives her the tools she needs to write descriptively. And then it’s down to practice. Sounds like a lot of work goes into these wild and wonderful stories, so I’m wondering…    IMG_1849

Q: What’s the best part of writing and illustrating?                                                             A:That answer comes easy: “Illustrations!” I recently attended an interview with some of Britain’s most celebrated author/illustrators included Oliver Jeffers, and I was curious to hear how Anna would answer this question that they all seemed to struggle with…

Q: What come first, the story or the picture?      A:“I always think of an image in my head first,” Anna answers without a moment’s hesitation. “For example, I read a fairy book and think of a fairy that can’t fly.” For Anna, all it takes is one image like that flightless fairy to give birth to a whole story. She makes it sound so straight-forward, so easy! So I have to ask…

Q: What’s the hardest part?                                                                                                                      A:(Having been pulling my hair out over my latest book this week, I’m bowled over by her answer) “It’s mostly easy… but if I had to pick a hard part, it’s when I can’t think of the next story to write.” But Anna is a classic glass-half-full person, so even those stuck-in-the-mud moments can’t keep her down for long. “In those tough times… you just write descriptively,” she says confidently, as if it’s a given that stories come out of writing what you see just like apples come from apple blossoms. And why not? It’s clearly working for Anna, though I still suspect she has some secret super-power when it comes to Creativity. So I ask her to spill the beans…

Q: What advice can you give to kids or grownups who want to be writers but don’t know where to start?

A: Anna’s top tips are GOLDEN NUGGETS: *(DO NOT MISS THESE!)

  1. Do the first thing that comes into your mind. If you don’t like it, you can just do something else.
  2. Keep practicing and keep reading
  3. Look back at old stuff you’ve read or written. Sometimes you just need to put the pieces together.
  4. Anna’s #1 piece of advice:

The secret to drawing and writing is to try to have fun doing it. Not just thinking ‘this is important. I have to do this perfectly.’ Don’t take it too seriously so it’s ‘Think, Think, Think.’ Think about it for a moment and then write it! Just do it!

My suspicions prove true. The pixie dust that gives Anna’s Creativity flight is special to her, but it’s also something we can all take away from her approach to creating stories and art. It’s supposed to be FUN!

And that’s what inspires me so much about Anna Caroline Grant. She works hard, but her stories flow out of a joyful, life-loving spirit. After all, what’s the point of writing if you don’t love doing it? Take it from this 10-year-old, and watch this space! You’ll be seeing her name at your local bookshop ‘ere long! But for now, here’s an exclusive sneak peak at Anna’s new venture: illustrated poetry!

“A Child’s Dream of Nature”

by Anna Caroline Grant

IMG_2183
Inspiration: “Looking out the window!”

Wednesday Writers’ Cafe

Every artist has a unique method for getting into the creative mindset. Before composing, Brahms stoked his creative energy by shining his shoes, Beethoven poured ice water over his head, Samuel Johnson kept a cat, orange peel & tea close at hand to fuel his creativity, and Dickens rearranged the furniture, turning his bed to face north in the belief that the Earth’s magnetic field would pull the creativity right out of him!  Hey, each to his own.

So here’s our Wednesday Writers’ Cafe question for today:

How do you get your creative groove on when it’s time to write?

leave a comment below (keep scrolling down – it’s there!) or write about it in your own blog space & link back to us here at Brewhaha Book Cafe. Let’s get our collective creativity stewing!

Why Good vs Evil will never go out of fashion in Kids’ Lit

I’ve recently noticed a trend in the books being published for children. Quite contrary to old-school fairy tales where wicked deeds are dealt swift justice, the new brand gloss over evil, or even victimize the classic villain. Faerie is no longer the realm of high beauty & serious consequences, but of safety rails & political correctness. The wicked witch isn’t really so wicked… it’s just her insecurity complex that makes her behave badly. The big bad wolf’s viciousness boils down to a misunderstanding among neighbours.

Last year during our annual writing retreat, Bri & I went to see the film version of Into the Woods. While we thoroughly enjoyed the production, I couldn’t help squirming in my seat just a little at the paradigm shift being worked into the threads of Faerie. This modern reconstruction of classic fairy tales makes a point of turning our traditional notion of clear-cut Good vs Evil right on its head. The subtle aim is spelled out loud & clear in the song “No One is Alone”. Here’s a just a taster:

People make mistakes,
Holding to their own,
Thinking they’re alone.
Honor their mistakes
Everybody makes
Fight for their mistakes
One another’s terrible mistakes.
Witches can be right, Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good

This post-modern pantomime may at first sound open-minded & profound to our 1st-world, highly sheltered & sanitary sensibilities, but it will  never succeed in supplanting the classic goody vs. baddy tales of old. Why? Because it is wholly unrealistic & wholly unsatisfying. Some over-protective parents may like its sickly sweet sugar coating, but children will not. They are much more raw & robust when it comes to stomaching the truth about evil.

So here’s a plea to writers & publishers alike: Do NOT become squeamish of writing absolute evil into your stories. Here are just a few reasons:

Reading about evil prepares children to face it in reality.

However much we might like to delude ourselves, evil is a reality. You need only flip on the news or pick up a paper on the way home for proof. Children don’t need to the news to tell them evil is real. Even sheltered children when playing make-believe seem to know by some instinct that the game should involve a hero battling a villain. It’s as if they are born with a heightened sense of justice. By filtering out evil in Story, we do a serious disservice to our young readers who are grappling with it’s reality and need to come to terms with it on page before they face it head on in life.

I recently watched an old TV special about J.K. Rowling & was rather struck by this comment Stephen Fry made about the fearless honesty with which she writes about evil in Harry Potter:

I think it’s a function of literature to give children nightmares just as it’s a function of the biological world to give them measles. Because if they don’t get their nightmares when they’re twelve, they don’t wrestle with the dread of the unknown. Then, when it comes later in life, you’re really in for trouble, just as mumps at thirty is a much bigger deal than mumps at eight.

The darkness of the evil in Harry Potter is demonically dark. Surprising that the series is the hugest success in Kids’ Lit history? Hardly! It’s a testament to fact that kids want more than entertainment in laughs from what they read. They want meaning, truth, heroes they can champion because those heroes face villains they can & should rightfully hate. The evil of Voldemort motivates Harry to fight for all that is good in his world.

Steve Kloves, the screenwriter for most of the Harry Potter films, observed the grand & compelling themes in Rowling’s story:

The Thing about Potter is that it’s very earnest about expressions of things like Loyalty, Courage and Redemption. Audiences were hungry for that.

He couldn’t be more right. Loyalty glows in Harry Potter in contrast to treachery & self-aggrandizement. The moment of Redemption, when Love breaks through & wins the day, is so powerful only because of the vileness of the evil it’s overcome. These are the oldest themes in Story, and they have hardly lost their luster.

And this brings me to the second reason we must not shy away from writing about evil–not gratuitously, for the sake of inflicting our readers with nightmares, but meaningfully…

The greatest stories are redemptive, but without evil, good cannot prevail.

The presence of evil takes a story from entertaining to compelling. Just consider what Lord of the Rings would be like with no Sauron–a lyrical description of the quaint and beautiful lives of hobbits, dwarves & elves. Perhaps enjoyable just as a pretty painting is for its detail. But the beauty of Middle Earth is enhanced ten-fold after its near decimation. Hobbiton is all the more splendid at the end of the books because Frodo, through toil & humble sacrifice, has fought and saved it from a great and powerful evil. Middle Earth is redeemed. We rejoice with its victors.

Going back to “Potter”, If J.K. Rowling had written a book all about a boy wizard who wants desperately to make the Quidditch team, we would have found it amusing & imaginative. But would Harry Potter have become the phenomenon that it is had Voldemort–a paradigm of pure evil–never threatened to destroy all that was good & wonderful about the wizarding world? I think not. Evil raises the stakes of Harry’s plight, & our commitment to seeing Harry through to the bitter end rises with them.

What so often makes Children’s stories the best stories, the ones that stick with us all our lives, that mold us into who we become, is their very boldness in dealing with the Big and Real stuff of human existence, namely Good vs. Evil. Chivalry, Heroism, Sacrifice, Courage, Justice, real Adventure all depend on there being real threats & real dangers posed by real evil. Those are themes kids can and should sink their teeth into. Ultimately, happy endings are happiest when they’ve been hard won. Or as Kathleen Shumate from the fantastic blog The Story Warren puts it:

The depths of suffering in a story only serve to make the redemption that much richer and more satisfying.

So will the newfangled notions of Into the Woods replace the traditional formula of Good vs. Evil in future fairy tales? Er… don’t hold your breath on that. I reckon these lyrics from “Wonder” ( from Lord of the Rings the Musical) are likely to resonate far longer in the land of Story:

Out of death, life
Out of night, day, glory from sorrow
Out of grief, joy
Out of storm, comes strength for tomorrow
Out of dust, gold
Out of fire, air, comfort forsaken
Out of rage, calm
Out of loss, find, glory awaken

Let’s be bold for the sake of our readers. Let’s write stories that will arm them for future battles, inspire them to hope in dark times, & give them a taste for Glory!

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!

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