Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ideas: Think Differently

Like the old beer commercial where people argued whether the best thing about the brew was that it, "tastes great," or that it's, "less filling," writers persist identifying themselves as, "plotters," or "pantsers."

If we must have distinctions, I think, "architect," and, "gardener," respectively are much better labels.

But we'd be even further ahead to view architecture and gardening, not as defining our nature as writers but as techniques in our toolbox that we use--like an artist uses pastels and oils--when appropriate.

I came across evidence, on the PsyBlog, that I'm not entirely out to lunch for thinking such a thing. They describe a study, in a post titled, "Unusual Thinking Styles Increase Creativity," in which people who solved problems "using systematic patterns of thought" (rational) and people who solved problems "by setting the[ir] mind[s] free to explore associations" were asked to change their problem-solving style.
The researchers wondered if people's creativity could be increased by encouraging them to use the pattern of thinking that was most unusual to them. So, those people who naturally preferred to approach creative problems rationally, were asked to think intuitively. And the intuitive group was asked to think rationally for a change.

Participants were given a real-world problem to solve: helping a local business expand. The results were evaluated by managers from the company involved. When they looked at the results, the manipulation had worked: people were more creative when they used the thinking style that was most unusual for them.

One of the reasons this may work is that consciously adopting a different strategy stops your mind going down the same well-travelled paths. We all have habitual ways of approaching problems and while habits are sometimes useful, they can also produce the same results over and over again.
The parallel should be clear: architects (or plotters) prefer to write rationally; gardeners (or pantsers) prefer to write intuitively. You likely feel more comfortable in one mode or the other. But if your deeper goal is to write creatively you would do well to switch up your style.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ideas: The Hallmarks of a Good Idea

It seems only proper, after encouraging you to distrust your first idea, that we should look into the question of how you know you have a good idea.

Of course, it's not possible to be certain you have a good idea until you test it on others. If it were, we'd have institutions that follow the model of drug companies devoted to finding and exploiting as many good ideas as possible. So the good news is that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. The bad news is that the best we can do is find heuristics to help us sort the good ideas out from the bad.

One of the best heuristics I've found is that good ideas have a longer shelf life or more staying power than mediocre ideas.

I once heard of a couple who didn't buy anything until they'd talked about needing it at least three times.

Similarly, if an idea comes back to you at least three times you may be on to something.

But by, "comes back to you," I mean something more than simply remembering the idea. When John Brown talks about creativity, he emphasizes, "zing." That's John's way of saying the idea gives you an electric shimmer along your spine each time you savor it.

Good ideas are the ones that still deliver that zing when you come back to them the third or fourth time.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ideas: Don't Trust the First One

I've encouraged you not to stop with one good idea. Implicit in that advice was the assumption that you started with a good idea. Being certain that you have a good idea is much harder than recognizing when your idea falls short of good.

The first litmus test for a poor idea is simple: is it your first idea?

In the game show Family Feud, the challenge wasn't to come up with the correct answer but to guess the answers most likely to be given by the hundred people surveyed. Of the four or five hidden answers, the top one or two usually account for more than half the responses. That is, the first answer that came to mind for a person taking the survey likely came to mind to every second or third person taking the survey.

As we've often observed, 'novel,' means, 'new.' If you go with your first idea, you stand a good chance of going down a well-worn path. If you want to be a novelist, you must internalize Monty Python's catch phrase, "And now for something completely different."

But this isn't novelty simply for novelty's sake. The deeper question is how can you take the raw conceptual material and make it your own.

Chances are, your first idea really isn't your idea. (Why, after all, did so many of the people surveyed for the game show come up with the same answer?) It's simply the first association that bubbled up into your consciousness. The first association is likely the strongest, having been reinforced by external influences. To make the idea your own, you need to let it steep in your unique soup of mental associations until it morphs into something that's unmistakably you.


Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ideas: Strength Through Association

You've likely heard the spiritual, Dem Bones, and know that the toe bone's connected to the foot bone, and the foot bone's connected to the ankle bone, and so on. It's both an anatomy lesson, of sorts, and reference to the Biblical prophet Ezekiel's vision of a valley of dry bones.

In the vision, Ezekiel prophesies, as commanded, to the bones and they come together, bone to bone, and sinews and flesh until "and exceeding great army" stands before him. Without delving into the religious significance of the vision, we can appreciate the structural significance: by themselves, the bones are dry and impotent but in proper association they become a strength and a beauty that is greater than the sum of its parts.

One of the strengths of the mass of interconnected neurons inside our skulls is in making associations.

I've talked before about story molecules: how a single idea isn't enough to carry a novel, which is why you need a constellation of ideas, working together, to sustain a long-form narrative. Associations are what bind those ideas together.

Think of it this way: if ideas are points, associations are the lines that join those points. Two point can be joined with one line. With three points, each can be connected to the other two with three lines. Four points have six lines; Five points have ten lines; and six points have fifteen. Each time you add one more idea, the number of possible connections jumps. It doesn't take many ideas before you have a rich web of associations.

Another way to look at it is that associating two ideas is a simple way to create a whole (the associated ideas) greater than the sum of the parts (the ideas in isolation).

Let's play a game: we'll start with one object, a gun, and associate it by proximity (i.e., placing it next to) another.
  • What comes to mind if we place our gun next to a shot of whiskey?
  • Now, what comes to mind if we place our gun next to a pair of baby shoes?
Associations become even more powerful if we link ideas into a chain. There was a fascinating series on PBS called Connections, in which host James Burke showed how an event or innovation in the past traced "through a series of seemingly unrelated connections to a fundamental and essential aspect of the modern world."

The associations in your stories need not be so profound, but you can use the same principle, particularly when brainstorming, to turn common-place ideas into something special.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ideas: How to See Something Special

I once heard a rabbi, speaking to a mixed audience, say, "You know the story of the Burning Bush and how Moses turned aside to see it. I like to believe that Moses wasn't the first to see the burning bush, but that he was the first to turn aside." (See Exodus 3)

While taking care not to conflate writers and prophets, one of the fundamental ways writers can get ideas is by being willing to turn aside and see something--even something incredibly ordinary--in a new light or with new eyes.

Something happens to us as we morph from children into adults: we move from a world of concrete and specific things into a world of abstractions and classes. The process is innocent enough. When a child points at the feathered creature hopping across the lawn and asks, "What is that?", they want to know about the specific one in front of them. But we answer, "Oh, that's a robin." In doing so we give the child a word for a class of birds, of which the specific one they see is only a representative. In time, we stop seeing that one one bird and instead see a robin.

What, then is the technique for seeing something special where others don't?

Like the child, ask, "What is that one? How did that one come to be here and now?"

Human language is powerful because of its abstractions, generalizations, and indirections. Most people use that power for their own purposes without realizing the degree to which they are, in turn, controlled or at least constrained by it. Writers, who regularly wrestle words to make meaning, are among the best equipped to get out from under the oppression of the abstractions and turn aside, like Moses, to "see this great sight."

I won't promise you a revelation, if you turn aside, but you're likely to see something special.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ideas: Random Name Generators

A question commonly asked of writers is, "How do you come up with names for characters?"

The technique for finding names presented here is a good example of the general habit of wondering how the things you notice came to be that way--which seems common among the good writers I know.

The pattern is simple:
  1. Find interesting names
  2. Play with the history implied by the name.
Interesting names appear all the time in the written and spoken environment. I once noticed glycol ester of wood rosin among the list of ingredients in a bottled drink. Instead of fretting about obscure food additives, I wondered how Esther Glycol, the Regency-era daughter of an impoverish vicar, came to be mistress of the estate of Woodrosin. (You didn't know you could get that much from a list of ingredients, did you?)

If you need to find names more quickly, you can play the phone book game: open to a random page and drop your finger to find a given name or a surname. On one occasion, when I needed a set of modern, ethnically diverse names, I collected all the surnames and given names from the credits of a recent movie

I've written simple programs that randomly combine names from two or more lists of the lists I collected. If your list of surnames isn't too large, you'll get several first name/last name pairs and it's easy to imagine they're related. Not only will you have names, you'll have genealogies, and perhaps some ideas about family histories as well.

I've also used this approach to assemble names from syllable lists for fantastic or alien characters. One nice result of this approach is that the names sound like they came from the same culture because they're assembled using the same rules.

The important thing is to generate a number of names and then choose the handful that speak to you. Play with the names that are most evocative and see what else springs to mind.

I have to be careful when I play with names because it's so easy to find interesting names and invent histories and relationships that I inevitably collect more names than I can use and spend more time doing so than I should.


A Sample of Name Generators on the Internet
  • BehindTheName.com is a site for the "etymology and history of first names." It has a generator that can be restricted to particular ethnic groups.
  • There's a US Census-based name generator at http://www.kleimo.com/random/name.cfm
  • Seventh Sanctum™ has a cornucopia of fantasy/gaming-inspired name generators for everything from people to pirate ships.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ideas: Don't Stop with One Good Idea

Animator Patrick Smith, writing at Scribble Junkies, shared some of John Lasseter's advice in a post on the 7 Creative Principles of Pixar.

The first principle is, "Never come up with just one idea."

Here's how John explains it:
“Regardless of whether you want to write a book, design a piece of furniture or make an animated movie: At the beginning, don’t start with just one idea – it should be three.

“The reason is simple. If a producer comes to me with a proposal for a new project, then usually he has mulled over this particular idea for a very long time. That limits him. My answer always reads: 'Come again when you have three ideas, and I don’t mean one good and two bad. I want three really good ideas, of which you cannot decide the best. You must be able to defend all three before me. Then we’ll decide which one you’ll realize.'

“The problem with creative people is that they often focus their whole attention on one idea. So, right at the beginning of a project, you unnecessarily limit your options. Every creative person should try that out. You will be surprised how this requirement suddenly forces you to think about things you hadn’t even considered before. Through this detachment, you suddenly gain new perspectives. And believe me, there are always three good ideas. At least.”
The first key here, and it bears repeating, is, "this requirement suddenly forces you to think about things your hadn't even considered before." There are a lot of people out there having good ideas. If you stop with your first good idea, chances are very good that someone has already thought of it. But with each additional good idea you bring to the table, the chance of someone else thinking of the exact same ideas drops dramatically.

The second key is the perspective you gain through detachment. That is, if you have more than one good idea then you've got a fall-back if one of the ideas proves less good than you thought. More importantly, you can compare and contrast the ideas and get a better sense of their relative merits than if you have only one, precious idea ... gollum.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net