Thursday, April 25, 2013

The (In)Complete List of Tips to Stay Creative

One of the most miserable questions with writing is the inevitable one of creativity: "How do I stay creative? How do I avoid writer's block? How can I keep writing?"

Personally, I'm of the opinion that writer's block is just creative fatigue (or sometimes fear), and the best way to keep writing is just to grit your teeth and move ahead—it's easier to edit a poorly-written page than an empty one—but even so, it's good for creative muscles to stay limber. So I'm gathering as many tips for staying creative as I can, and leaving them here. It will probably grow. For now, I'm organizing it like an exercise regimen, because it's the closest metaphor I can think of.

Let's get straight to it, then, shall we?*


Cramps happen in the body, but they can happen creatively, too. Limberness can help prevent stiffness in your creative output.
  • Make lists.
  • Make charts.
  • Make maps.
  • Make diagrams.
  • Sketch things.
  • Have a way of keeping track of ideas, even if it's just jotting them down on your cell phone or in a notebook. (Actually, notebooks are great if you're into the romanticized writer trope.) This isn't initially a way of getting great ideas, at least not at first. But it's helpful in the long run. If you don't treat any ideas as worthwhile, you train yourself not to have any more of them. Quantity's no guarantee of eventual quality, but it can certainly help.
  • Think deeply about things—even silly things (especially silly things). Why do you believe what you believe? Why does culture function this way and not that way? What would happen if—?
  • Entertain every idea to the fullest extent you can manage. Even if the idea amounts to nothing, you've made your ideation more flexible and robust.
  • People-watch in the least creepy manner available to you. Make up stories about what they're doing, where they're going, and why—always why.
  • Surround yourself with creative people. Make them your friends. Bonus points if they're actually fun to be around.


For a while, I thought I was really good at this. Put simply, I'm an art glutton. I can watch TV all day if you let me. I sucked, though, at thinking about the art I kept ingesting. There was no consideration in my consumption. That's crucial. You can't just watch things or read things and expect it to make you a better writer. As in love, so in art: engagement is a big deal. (That's a horrid joke and I'm ashamed of it.)
  • Ingest art you love. What about it appeals to you? Why does it resonate? Try to see past the curtain. What's going on behind the scenes?
  • Consider art you hate. (Don't do too much of this or it might seep in.) Why don't you like it? What about it conflicts with your own artistic sensibilities?
  • Analyze successful books, movies, or shows. Pick them apart mentally and with friends.
  • Try to think in archetypes. Break stories down to their tiniest parts and see what they really are. A good way to do this is to transpose stories. "This is about a football team in west Texas, but what if it's just the same as King Arthur's court?" Alternately, check out this compilation about how Taken and Finding Nemo are almost the same movie, in a way.
  • Find some music you can listen to without becoming distracted. I'm partial to ambient music, like Embers, the Album LeafExplosions in the Sky, or Port Blue, but that may not be your style. Peers of mine will often listen to music that reflects the mood they're trying to write in, be that slightly frenetic or folky or stately or whatever. The key is that it not distract you from what you're writing.


Once you're limber and well-fed, the really tough part of actually doing stuff comes around. This is where most of us get a bit gun-shy (or maybe that's just me). It's necessary, though. We must work at it. It's not enough to be a creative genius or an incisive thinker if you never do anything with it.
  • Write.
  • Keep writing.
  • Take a break—but try to do this only after you've actually done something. Creativity is like a muscle. It's good to rest it after a workout, but if all you do is rest it, nothing gets done.
  • Write some more.
  • Get feedback from some of the creative friends you made back in Staying Limber.
  • Keep writing.
  • Finish things.
  • Edit the finished things.
  • Edit some more.
  • Believe in what you've made.
  • Get more feedback.
  • Remember: no one is obligated to care about your story, so it's your job to make it as brilliant as it can possibly be. Edit some more.
  • Stay focused.
  • Write.


Nomming on the Galactus Burger with an XXL packet of fries and a 72-oz. bucket of sugar water, augmented by the Double Death by Chocolate Shake, is explicitly forbidden in the codes of exercisers everywhere (even though none of the above items technically exists). Same thing with creativity: there are some things which simply aren't wise to do. They'll gum up the works hard and fast.
  • Time-waster sites. I won't list them here (since that would only give us more things to use for time-wasting), but it's not as if they're hard to spot. Odds are good that as soon as you read "Habits to Avoid," you thought of one. One helpful tool for preventing Internet time-wasting is the Stay Focused Google add-on.
  • Most video games. While I won't deny they can be fun, and even sometimes a form of storytelling, most of them are a numbing agent. They're doing you no good.
  • Mindless television.
  • Beating yourself up. Self-hatred is a pretty standard human problem, but indulging in it isn't going to do you any good.
  • Hating what you make. Also nearly universal problem, but a terrible habit to keep. If you start hating what you make, take a step back from it.
  • Shooting down ideas for not being "good enough." Doing this trains your brain never to think of any ideas. Play with any idea that crosses your mind.
  • Stopping in the middle of something. This is, by far, the hardest one for me. In my entire life, I've finished exactly 1 (one) longterm project. It was 332 pages, single-spaced, and it was awful, but it was finished. Finishing things is a critical habit to have.

Miscellaneous Encouragement

*If you happen to be a creative type, but not the writing creative type, good for you! Parts of this aren't quite going to be geared toward you, but in general if you replace "write" with "make stuff," you should do just fine.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The 64-Day Hypocrite

Some of you may have noticed a general theme in the blog of late—a sort of general purposefulness that it really lacked several months ago. Among these is the overall productivity of it. I've written more on the blog in the last two months than I have for a long time. Part of that's due to a class (I'm required to do it) and part of it's due to the excitement I started feeling about five months ago.

In October or November, I applied to go to a writing conference happening in February. I was so excited about the idea that I started brainstorming and outlining and (most importantly) writing for three solid months. It got pretty crazy—during January, I pumped out about 2000 words a day. And I was enjoying it.

There's nothing quite like the languor after doing things you love to do. Added to that was the feeling of completeness that comes when you remember that you do love it, and why. In short, it was a good month.

By mid-February, I had nearly 95,000 words of a manuscript. When I first outlined the book, I anticipated something close to 100,000 words in total; by the time I reached 95k, it was looking more and more like the book would round out at 150,000. I was okay with that, though. I could handle doing more of this. With the resurgence of schoolwork and social commitments, it had become harder, but I was willing and ready. Another 50,000 words was nothing.


After the conference, the writing stopped. My momentum deadened, and my zeal to complete the project petered out. I became more concerned with other, ostensibly more important things: homework, sleep, reading, video games. I kept telling myself I would return to the project and finish it, because that's what a writer has to do.

About 30 days after I'd stopped, I returned to the project and realized there were a number of things I needed to hammer out. Following an old personal tradition, I restarted the project, beginning with pre-writing. What followed was a long period of vacillating over fiddly world-building details, like the history of the setting and the mechanics of its magic, and vain attempts at character sketches. I'm not good at character, so sketches are an important step in the pre-writing.

So I hacked out the kinks in the magic system. I drafted possible character types, and supplemented those by ingesting really good character drama (read: watching the first few episodes of Friday Night Lights). And time passed, and I didn't write.

Day 40 came and went, and I didn't write.

Day 47 came, and I noticed, and I said, "I'm definitely not going to go fifty whole days without getting back to it."

(Because I needed to, and I knew that—cognitively, at least. I didn't know it in my gut anymore. I'd gone too long without it, so my body forgot ardor in favor of languor.)

Day 50 came, and I wrote...and then stopped. I gained no momentum. I couldn't have written much more than 500 words.

Day 51 came and went, and I didn't write.


As of this writing, I've gone about 64 days without returning to that fierce, reckless creative passion. That's 64 days of pure, stupid hypocrisy, because I've been pretty dogmatic about the idea that writer's block is an excuse, and a really, really poor one at that.

So I'm taking a more optimistic view. I'm not blocking up. I'm stocking up.

After a period of intense activity, the body must rest. So, too, it is with creating, I think, because creativity is a muscle. Going and going and going—and then going some more—is not feasible at my level. I'm not an Olympian of this craft. Not yet.

So this is a rest period, and it's temporary. I cannot allow it to be permanent. That is within my power. Continuing in the lackluster boredom—this paltry excuse for creativity—is not permitted.

Because I have found a thing man searches for his entire life: joyful effort. "Making things up and writing them down," as Gaiman says, is the first thing I've found that makes me itch.

This is the crucial thing. This is the heart of it. I have written out of shallow pleasure, out a desire to be admired, and out of a need to validate my childhood hobby. None suffice. They cannot sustain creativity, because there is nothing undergirding them—no skeleton, no true fire. They are shaped (vaguely) like the true thing, but the longer I look at them, the more they are revealed to be grotesqueries. They are not willing to endure when creation is boring, or when it is hard to create.

No, writing must come from the central place, from the nucleus of the impulse, purely from a love for creating things. It cannot be swayed by storm or, more deadly, by stillness. It will be work, and it will be lovely.

What now? That's simple.