Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ideas: What do you do with a Great Idea?

What do you do with a great idea?

First, a reminder: one idea isn't enough to carry a novel. Long-form stories are best understood as a complex molecule made up of great idea atoms.

So, what do you do when you have a number of ideas in intriguing relationships?

Like any good evil genius, you turn to science!

Kuhn, 1962 (from Wikipedia)
More to the point, you turn to the history of science. Thomas Khun, a physicist who also studied the history of science, wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. In that book, Kuhn challenged the notion that science was steadily progressive and argued that it is in fact episodic.

The two key ideas I want to introduce here are the alternating phases of revolutionary and normal science that make up an episode in Kuhn's model.

Revolutionary science is the time when a breakthrough throws the field wide open. Like settlers pouring into newly open territory, scientist rush from one discovery to the next as they map out the new landscape of possibilities.

Once the early leaders in the revolution have discovered the extent of the breakthrough, the discipline settles back into normal science mode. Normal science is far less glamorous than revolutionary science because it's about the careful work of confirming the initial findings and filling in the details.

"That nice for historians and scientists," you might say, "but what does it have to do with writing or creativity in general?"

A great idea is like the breakthrough that triggers a period of revolutionary science. But that's only the beginning of the job. In order to develop a novel-length story, you must do the literary equivalent of the work of normal science.

What do I mean by that?

Let's say you've just had an epiphany: the world will end when pigs actually start to fly--it's the Flying Pig Apocalypse! Tingling with excitement, you sit down to write ... and immediately run into questions: how do they fly? Levitation? Wings that grow because a mad scientist wanted bacon-flavored buffalo wings? Lighter-than air gas bladders? Do they flock or are they loners? Do they cause the apocalypse by flying, or is the fact that they take flight a sign of the impending apocalypse?

My point is that a "great" idea isn't ready to become a story until you've done the detailed, far less thrilling work of thinking through the implications of the great idea.

Like science, which we tend to think of only in terms of revolutionary breakthroughs, creativity is more about the normal work of thinking carefully about the "great" idea than the revolutionary work of having the idea in the first place.

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

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ideas: Stories are Molecular, not Atomic

In The 5,000 Finders of Dr. T, a strange and delightful musical fantasy created by Ted Geisel, there is a climactic scene that includes the following lines:

"Is it atomic?"

"Yes, sir, very atomic!"

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (Wikipedia)
You will, of course, have to see the mover for yourself if you don't understand the reference. I mention it here simply to lead into a discussion about the fact that novel-length ideas aren't atomic, they're molecular.

I first heard this concept from Brandon Sanderson. The essence of the notion is that if ideas are atoms, a single one isn't enough to carry a novel. You need a number of ideas.

But it's not simply a case of arranging a butterfly collection of ideas. The ideas must be related. Brandon described his process of developing a novel as, "bouncing ideas off each other to see which ones stick." ("Stick," here, means, "form interesting relationships.") As ideas stick together, they form a story molecule.

So, how do you build a story molecule?

Begin with the basic creative process: ask questions and then generate lots of answers so that you can find the most interesting associations. Often, the best associations will be between something common and something, which in the context of the first idea, is surprising. In The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, we have something common, a boy who wishes he didn't have to practice the piano, and something surprising, his piano teacher's plans for world domination!

When people ask where the ideas in a novel came from, they generally assume that the book was produced through an alchemical process that harnesses mystic forces to transmute the base metals of common ideas into the gold of a finished story. The truth, like the transmutation of alchemy into the cold, hard science of chemistry is more prosaic. Like chemistry, which produces complex and beautiful molecular structures through a series of processes, the final form of the story molecule in a novel is the result not of mystic transmutations but processes that anyone who is patient and persistent can master.

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

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ideas: Creativity

A question commonly asked of writers is, "How do you get your ideas?"

There are many answers (including facetious ones, like, "I buy them wholesale from the idea distributors,"). This post is the first in a series exploring techniques for collecting and assembling ideas.

The people who want to know where writers get their ideas assume writers enjoy a generous endowment of creativity. Creativity is defined as, "the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas."

Many people treat that ability as something innate and quasi-mystical. The problem with believing that ideas spring forth from a fount of creativity is that if you don't have a great idea handy then you must assume the well has run dry and you're stuck until something happens to get your creativity flowing again.

John Brown fell into this trap for a number of years before he discovered the secret to the creative process and went on to write Servant of a Dark God.

Here's John's mystic secret to the creative process:
Creativity is asking questions and coming up with answers.
A bit anti-climactic?

Perhaps I should clarify: a creative person doesn't settle for one answer to each question. If you stop after the first answer, you've done nothing more than identify the "traditional idea." Before you choose an answer, you want to come up with as many varied solutions as you can, particularly unexpected solutions. Given a large enough pool of candidate ideas, it's much easier to find "meaningful new ideas."

So how do you prime the creative pump?

Pay attention.

Notice things, particularly the things that strike you as interesting or intriguing. John says you should collect things that give you a little, "zing," when you hear or read about them.

If you'd like another perspective, spend ten minutes to hear what John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) has to say about Creativity.

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

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Writing in the Dog Days of Summer

The Dog Days of summer go back to the Romans and the Greeks, who associated the sultry weather with the star Sirius (the "Dog Star").

"[The] Dog Days were popularly believed to be an evil time [when] "the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid..." [See Wikipedia]

When I was involved with an international business, our European partners became scarce during August. Our overachieving Americans, steeped in their Puritan work ethic, groused about our poor continental counterparts forced to languish as they took state–mandated vacations.

It has long been the habit of commercial publishers, particularly those in New York City, to emulate the good folk across the Atlantic pond. There's something of a collective pause in the industry during August both because it's a good time to escape the sweltering city and because there's business that can be better handled when everyone's back on the job in September.

The standard advice for writers (which is generally given by editors and agents taking August vacations) is to focus on writing during the quiet time (i.e., the time when their emails and calls to agents and editors will likely go unanswered).

But isn't what's good for the goose also good for the gander?

I'm not saying you should abandon a project if you're in the middle of something and the heat of the fires of your inspiration is driving your thermometer to new altitudes.

Still, your muses might have more to sing about if you give them a cooler place to dance. And you'll definitely need to refill your well if you're running your creative swamp cooler at full blast.

So, what do you like to do to keep the dog days from eating your writing homework?

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /