Jan 192014
 

I love writers who never stop, who keep on pounding the keys no matter what decade of life they're in. Writers like Herman Wouk, one of America's greatest storytellers, who had a new book come out at the age of 97.


Don't you love the way he looks in this photo? (Captured by Stephanie Diani for The New York Times. Used by permission.) "I'm not going anywhere," he seems to be saying. "Not with all the stories I have yet to tell."

That's what I want to be like when the deep winter of life rolls around. Still writing. Still dreaming. Still publishing. Thus, I was intrigued by a story with the provocative title Is Creativity Destined To Fade With Age? It begins:

Doris Lessing, the freewheeling Nobel Prize-winning writer on racism, colonialism, feminism and communism who died recently at age 94, was prolific for most of her life. But five years ago, she said the writing had dried up.

“Don’t imagine you’ll have it forever,” she said, according to one obituary. “Use it while you’ve got it because it’ll go; it’s sliding away like water down a plug hole.”

Uh-oh. Does that mean older writers are destined to have a dry well? One researcher cited in the article says No:

“What’s really interesting from the neuroscience point of view is that we are hard-wired for creativity for as long as we stay at it, as long as nothing bad happens to our brain,” Walton said. (Lessing had a stroke in the 1990s, which may have contributed to her outlook.)

Another researcher, however, added a caveat:

But repeating the same sort of creative pursuit over the decades without advancing your art can be like doing no exercise other than sit-ups your whole life, said Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco and the author of Soft-Wired, a book about optimizing brain health.

One-trick artists “become automatized, they become very habit-borne,” Merzenich said. “They’re not continually challenging themselves to look at life from a new angle.”

This is one reason I love our self-publishing options. We can play. We can go where we want to go without being tied to one brand or type of book. We can write short stories, novelettes, novellas, novels and series. When I'm not working on suspense, I like to challenge myself with a different voice for my boxing stories, my kick-butt nun novelettes, my zombie legal thrillers. I'm currently planning a collection of short stories that will be of the weird Fredric Brown variety. Why? Because I can, and because it keeps my writing chops sharp.

Which appears to be the key to this whole longevity business:

Older artists can also be galvanized by their own sense of mortality. Valerie Trueblood, 69, a Seattle writer who did not publish her novel, Seven Loves, and two short story collections until her 60s, said age can bring greater urgency to the creative process.

“I think for many older people there’s a time of great energy,” Trueblood said. “You see the end of it, you just see the brevity of life more acutely when you’re older, and I think it makes you work harder and be interested in making something exact and completing it.”

People with regular jobs usually can't wait to retire. A writer should never retire. Fight to be creative as long as you live. Do it this way:

1. Always have at least three projects going

I wrote about this before ("The Asimov"). I think all writers should, at a minimum, have three projects on the burner: their Work-in-Progress; a secondary project that will become the WIP when the first is completed; and one or more projects "in development" (notes, concepts, ideas, character profiles, etc.). This way your mind is not stuck in one place.

2. Take care of your body

The writer's mind is housed in the body, so do what you have to do to keep the house in shape. Start small if you have to. Eat an apple every day. Drink more water. Walk with a small notebook and pen, ready to jot notes and ideas.

3. Stay positive and productive

Write something every day. Even if it's just journaling. Know that what you write to completion will see publication, guaranteed. It may be via a contract, like Herman Wouk. Or it may be digitally self-published. Heck, it could be a limited printing of a memoir, just for your family. Writers write with more joy when they know they will be read, and joy is the key to memorable prose.

4. Do not go gentle into that good night

Write, write against the dying of the light! (apologies to Dylan Thomas). Refuse to believe you have diminished powers or have in any way lost the spark that compelled you to write in the first place. If they tell you that you just don't have it anymore, throw your teeth at them. Who gets to decide if you can write? You do. And your answer is, I've still got it, baby, and I'm going to show you with this next story of mine!

So just keep writing and never decompose.

What about you? Are you in this thing to the end?

Sep 152013
 



Calliope, the muse of epic poetry and story, is a fickle goddess. She drops in depending on her mood, tickles the imagination, and then takes off to party with Aphrodite. Homer famously called on the muse at the beginning of The Illiad and The Odyssey, and she deigned to answer the blind poet. But many another author, cold and alone in his garret, has cursed her for not showing up at all.

So what do you do, scribe? Wait around for a visit? Implore Zeus to flex some muscle and order his daughter to your office or Starbucks?


No! You haven't got time to waste. You've got books to write. So I suggest you take the initiative and set about to prod the capricious nymph out of her scornful lethargy. 

How? Play games. Set aside a regular time (at least one half hour per week) just to play. And the most important rule is: do not censor yourself in any way. Leave your editorial mind out of the loop and record the ideas just as they come. Only later, with some distance, do you go back and assess what you have.  

Here are ten of my favorite muse-goosing games:


1. The "What if" Game

This game can be played at any stage of the writing process, but it is especially useful for finding ideas. Train your mind to think in What if terms about everything you read, watch or happen to see on the street. I'm always doing that when waiting at a stop light and looking at people on the corner. What if she is a hit-woman? What if he is the deposed president of Venezuela?
           
Read the news asking "What if" about every article. What if Tim Tebow is a robot? What if that Montana newlywed who shoved her husband off a cliff eight days into their marriage is a serial husband-killer? Or a talk show host?


2. Titles

Make up a cool title then think about a book to go with it. Sound wacky? It isn't. A title can set your imagination zooming, looking for a story.
           
Titles can come from a variety of sources. Go through a book of quotations, like Bartlett's, and jot down interesting phrases. Make a list of several words randomly drawn from the dictionary and combine them. 

           
3. The List

Early in his career, Ray Bradbury made a list of nouns that flew out of his memory and subconscious. These became fodder for his stories, often drawn from his childhood. 

Start your own list.  Let your mind comb through the mental pictures of your past and quickly write one- or two-word reminders. I did this once and my own list of over 100 items includes:

THE DRAPES (a memory about a pet puppy who tore my Mom's new drapes, so she gave him away the next day. I climbed a tree in protest and refused to come down).

THE HILL (that I once accidentally set fire to).

THE FIREPLACE (in front of which we had many a family gathering).

Each of these is the germ of a possible story or novel. They are what resonate from my past. I can take one of these items and brainstorm a whole host of possibilities that come straight from the heart.


4. See it

Let your imagination play you a movie.  Close your eyes. Sit back and "watch." What do you see? If something is interesting, don't try to control it. Give it a nudge if you want to, but try as much as possible to let the pictures do their own thing. Do this for as long as you want.
             

5. Hear it

Music is a shortcut to the heart. (Calliope has a sister, Euterpe, goddess of music. Put the whole family to work).
           
Listen to music that moves you. Choose different styles--classical, movie scores, rock, jazz, whatever lights your fuse--and as you listen, close your eyes and record what pictures, scenes or characters appear.

           
6. Steal it

If Shakespeare could do it, you can too. Steal your plots. Yes, the Bard of Avon rarely came up with an original story. He took old plots and weaved his own particular magic with them.

So did Dean Koontz. He amusingly winks at us in Midnight about combining Invasion of the Body Snatchers with The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Listen: this is not plagiarism! I once had a well-meaning but misinformed correspondent wax indignant about my tongue-in-cheek use of the word steal. There are only about twenty plots (more or less depending on who you talk to) and they are all public domain. You combine, re-work, re-imagine them. You don't lift exact characters and setting and phrases. That's not kosher. Reworking old plots is.

In Hollywood, they do this all the time. Die Hard on a boat becomes Under Siege. Die Hard on a mountain becomes Cliffhanger. 


7. Cross a Genre

All genres have conventions. We expect certain beats and movements in genre stories. Why not combine expectations and turn them into fresh plots?
           
It's very easy to take a Western tale, for example, and set it in outer space. Star Wars  had many Western themes (remember the bar scene?). The feel of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man  characters transferred into the future in Robert A. Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. The classic TV series The Wild, Wild West  was simply James Bond in the old West. 

When zombies got hot a few years ago, I pitched my agent the idea of a legal thriller series with a zombie as the lawyer-hero. I figured most people think lawyers and zombies are the same anyway. Kensington bought it and it became the Mallory Caine series under my pen name, K. Bennett.

           
8. Research

James Michener began "writing" a book four or five years in advance. When he "felt something coming on" he would start reading, as many as 150 to 200 books on a subject. He browsed, read, checked things. He kept it all in his head and then, finally, he began to write. All the material gave him plenty of ideas to draw upon.
           
Today, the Internet makes research easier than ever. But don't ignore the classic routes. Books are still here, and you can always find people with specialized knowledge to interview. And if the pocketbook permits, travel to a location and drink it in. Rich veins of material abound.


9. Obsession

By its nature an obsession controls the deepest emotions of a character. It pushes the character, prompts her to action. As such, it is a great springboard for ideas. What sorts of things obsess people?

      ego
      winning
      looks
      love
      lust
      enemies
      career

Create a character. Give her an obsession. Watch where she runs.


10. Opening Lines

Dean Koontz wrote The Voice of the Night  based on an opening line he wrote while just "playing around"--

"You ever killed anything?" Roy asked.

Only after the line was written did Koontz decide Roy would be a boy of fourteen. He then went on to write two pages of dialogue which opened the book. But it all started with one line that reached out and grabbed him by the throat.
           
Joseph Heller was famous for using first lines to suggest novels. In desperation one day, needing to start a novel but having no ideas, these opening lines came to Heller: In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.
These two lines immediately suggested what Heller calls "a whole explosion of possibilities and choices." The result was his novel, Something Happened.
           
Well, I could go on, but this post is already too long. If
you're interested, I have 10 more of these games in my book, Plot & Structure (from which this post is adapted).

The main lesson: don't let the inconstant Calliope rest on her mythic derriere. She's a muse, after all. This is what she's supposed to do. 

So what do you do to get creative? 
Jan 212013
 

by Pari

This is being written in real time. Two, maybe three, minutes without editing. At least as much as I can do without editing. You see, people always talk about how they can’t find the time to write. Hell, I complain about it all the time, especially since I started working full time and am so tired when I come home from work. Mornings are out because I have to get up earlier than I’d like in the first place so that I can exercise. But writing, ah, writing, it’s exercise for the creative body and it needs its expression too. So, how long does it take to write, say, 100-500 words. I don’t know. I’m writing this as one of my kids goes to the bathroom ( I know, it’s not very glamorous that, but that’s the test I set up for myself), just typing as quickly as I could without editing until my kid gets out of the bathroom and we head to the store. It’d been two minutes now . . .and the door is opening. 178.

Day two: I wanted to make a point with this speed written blog. Namely, that it’s important to power through excuses because, most of the time, excuses are the stuff of fear. Of what? Of not being good enough, of not being profound enough, of not being able to hide from the fact that we’re never satisfied as creative with what we’ve created. The truth is, that’s a good thing. To be self-satisfied is to kill creativity. At least, that’s what I think. So here’s the blog. I’m going to type until I reach two minutes and then I’ll spend three or four to edit and then that’ll be it. I’ve already completed the equivalent of one double-spaced page and that was in  123: 2 minutes exactly
______________________________________________________________________

I wrote the first two paragraphs of this blog in a very short time . . . and decided not to edit. They’re not brilliant, I’ll grant you that. But they’re evidence of something that I have to face myself. There is always time to write! I noticed two things while trying to go as fast as I could:

  1. I couldn’t stand to make typos. I had to correct them and that took time I could’ve been creating.
  2. I wanted my writing to make sense and it was such a struggle not to go back and edit small phrases and punctuation while in the writing process. However, I only paused a few times, only corrected a few errors, too.

There’s no real profundity here, just a test that I’m sharing with you this week. I had originally thought about writing a blog about prejudice or something commemorating Dr. King, but this topic intrigued me.

After all, Dr. King didn't let excuses or fear stop his mission, did he?

So today, why don’t you try this experiment too? Set a timer and go for 1-2 minutes in the comments and see what you come up with. It might be fun. It might reveal something interesting to you. Or don’t share the test with us . . . but do leave a comment. I’m actually home today and can answer.

By the way, this last segment -- with its self-consciousness and spell checking in real time -- took me 4:29 to write.  249 words.

 

May 132012
 


Got an email some time ago from a guy I played high school basketball with. Nice to hear from him. Those were glory days. We had one of the best teams in the city. I wrote back and finished off my email with this: "We had a great team, didn't we? A bunch of hard working, normal guys . . . and Jim Caruso."

Caruso. He was a year ahead of me and clearly not wired the same as I was. I was dedicated to being an athlete. I didn't smoke, drink, party or stay up late. Caruso was the exact opposite. 

To give you a picture, we were once playing in a winter league at another high school. We drove over to Pacific Palisades on Wednesday nights, played, drove home. To get there and back we had to take twisty Sunset Boulevard. 


So I was driving back once after a game. It was a cold night in the canyon, and I carefully guided my Ford Maverick along Sunset. Suddenly, a convertible comes tearing by me. I don't remember who was driving, but I do remember who was in the passenger seat: Caruso, a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, his sweaty blond hair blowing in the wind. I remember he was laughing. 

The thing was, Caruso had all this natural athletic talent. He was about six feet tall and built like a bull. And that's how he played basketball. He had one speed, full, and I don't think he ever took a shot that looked the same as any other. He was at his best when driving the lane and jumping in the air...then figuring out what to do once he was up there. Which was usually something very cool that either ended up with the ball going through the hoop or off the wall.

This drove our coach, John Furlong, absolutely crazy. Furlong was a strict disciplinarian and team-oriented coach. He yelled a lot. He got red faced mad at you if you messed up too badly. None of us wanted to be on the wrong side of Coach Furlong.

Except Caruso. He just didn't seem to care. No matter how mad Furlong got at him, Caruso would take it silently, then go out on the floor and pretty soon do the same thing again. Which was why Furlong wouldn't start him. But he couldn't keep him on the bench for long because, despite everything, Caruso was too good not to be in the game, scoring points and grabbing rebounds. 

It was impossible not to like him. He had this infectious smile and he seemed to go through life with a certain damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead kind of joy. In pickup games he'd always be laughing, joking, talking smack and slapping you on the butt when you did something good.  

Jim Caruso graduated in my junior year. The next year we had another great team at Taft High, this one disciplined and predictable, much to the relief of Coach Furlong. Still, I couldn't help feeling our team lacked a certain, what's the word, exuberance? I missed seeing Caruso cutting through the key, doing his thing, a thing uniquely his own.

Then one Saturday I was in the gym shooting around and a fellow teammate came in.

"Hey," he said, "did you hear about Caruso?"

I stopped shooting. "No, what?" I figured maybe he'd been picked up on a DUI or something.

"He's dead," my friend said.

I just stared at him, stunned. 

"Killed in a car accident," he said. 

And I immediately remembered that night I saw Caruso in the convertible, and thought maybe this wasn't such a shock after all. In fact, looking back, it was both sad and oddly predictable. That year, in our high school yearbook, there was one of those "In Memory Of" pages for students who'd died. It was the last any of us would ever see of Caruso, and that was hard to believe.

I don't know what was going on in Jim Caruso's life. The only thing we had in common was basketball. It was enough. I didn't want to emulate his off the court antics. What I did want to do, when the situation was right, was go for the wild shot, the totally improvised move, just to see what happened. I knew you couldn't play a whole game that way, but you at least needed to have that kind of fearlessness in your arsenal. 

I draw an analogy to writing here. Discipline, fundamentals and hard work are still the keys, but you have to be willing to "go for it" sometimes. You have to jump in the air and figure out what to do when you're up there. Fearless.

I still have this indelible picture of Jim Caruso. It was in a pickup game, the first time I'd ever played with him, just before I started at Taft. His name had been whispered to me. Everybody knew about Caruso. I was a little bit intimidated at the prospect of playing with him. But then we started the game and I remember just watching him, marveling at his raw ability. Crunch time came and the game was tied. Caruso did his thing, driving toward the hoop and jumping up with a taller guy all over him. He seemed to hang in the air for a full minute. His legs were splayed and his left elbow (he was a lefty) stuck out like divining rod. And then somehow, some way, he got off a hook shot (it was the only shot available to him) and it banked off the backboard and through the net.

And he came down laughing and turned around and looked at me as if to say, "See? That's how it's done, son."

And sometimes, it is.