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>I keep coming back to Creativity

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Here is a small jeweller’s crucible.

I keep coming back to the creative crucible because that is where we draw from. And when it runs dry we feel, or at least I feel, half alive.

Do creative people think differently from non-creative people?

This article looks into research on the topic. Researchers were studying the brain patterns of people who were asked to solve anagrams. They were looking for that Ah ha! moment.

Before they began the problem, their brain patterns were studied while they waited. Then their brain patterns were moitored while they worked on the anagrams, which could be solved by methodical unraveling of all the combinations, or by an intuitive leap. People were asked to report which method they used, then their brain patterns were studied. Guess what?

‘the two groups displayed strikingly different patterns of brain activity during the resting period at the beginning of the experiment – before they knew they would have to solve problems or even knew what the study was about.’

Not surprising. If someone said to me wait here for fifteen minutes, I would be busy writing stories in my head. Never a dull moment!

The article goes on to say:

‘One difference was that the creative solvers exhibited greater activity in several regions of the right hemisphere. Previous research has suggested that the right hemisphere of the brain plays a special role in solving problems with creative insight, likely due to right-hemisphere involvement in the processing of loose or “remote” associations between the elements of a problem, which is understood to be an important component of creative thought. The current study shows that greater right-hemisphere activity occurs even during a “resting” state in those with a tendency to solve problems by creative insight. This finding suggests that even the spontaneous thought of creative individuals, such as in their daydreams, contains more remote associations.’

Well, yes. If that is the way your mind is wired, that is the way you think all the time. It would be interesting to find out what percentage of the population are wired to think this way. I grew up in a non-creative family. But I can look back at the odd great aunt who was creative. So it could be a recessive gene.

Do you come from a creative family? Are all your friends creative types? What would you think about if you were told to wait somewhere for fifteen minutes?

>So just where did that come from?

>”Am I a plagiarist?”
It’s a question which I think every honest author thinks somewhere down the line (the dishonest ones I assume know they are, and lie about it). I recall an unlikely Indian name in a 1970 sf novel. It stuck in my head. Years later I came across it another sf book (which bore no relation to the first book in content) I asked an Indian friend of mine – he said it was so implausible it had to be a made-up name. One British, one American Author – both people I respect, both people who would be shocked at the idea of idea-theft, let alone plagiarism. I think it was a name that stuck in your head, whereas the book was non-memorable to be honest, and was purely accidental (in both cases the character was a minor redshirt). But I think if we had to be truthful withour selves all our work (and I mean ALL of us) builds on the foundations of past sf/fantasy. The genre has its own conventions and shaping influences – it’s why the work of some the ‘literati’ who pour scorn on sf and then write it, claiming that ‘it’s not science fiction’ often read rather like 1930’s fan-fic with literary pretentions. (Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood spring to mind – actually, Margaret, Squids in Space represent less than 0.0001% of the sf books I’ve read. Precisely 2 books, one of which, Mother of Demons, where the squids are not in space, is a better philosophical / sociological piece of sf than just about anything else written in the last 40 years) And – with the exception of sf-writers who have developed that terrible ailment Literaripretentitus themselves – only read and enjoyed by the sort of reader who would never lower themselves to sf. In other words, unsophisticated sf-readers without a background in the conventions of the genre, so they think these works good and original. I suppose this might imply that someone who came at this afresh from a non-sf background might produce something new and exciting. I’ve seen a few non-readers attempts over the years. (I used to be a fairly active member of Critters.) In most cases it is very easy to ID the movie/TV series that they were drawn from – or the youthful brush with HG Wells or Verne or a cheap pulp story. (You can’t escape some form of sf. It is pervasive, often in the worst form.) Where I think there really are some exciting possibilities is where writers learn the conventions and foundation of the genre, but also cross-fertilise from others (yes, unlike Ms. Winterson and Atwood, I think one can learn and adapt a great deal from other genres, and one should read a fair selection from them, rather than sneer from ignorance. Each of them has value. Romance, Mystery, Horror, even modern literary novels. To believe otherwise is akin to xenophobia, which is fine for stupid bigots, but not really something to aspire to). Or where they draw a different cultural background into the mixture. We’ve seen a little Japanese and Chinese creeping into fantasy particularly, but I think the sleeping giant is probably India, where English is widely read and understood, and is often a first language, but the culture is as unique as European or Chinese or African – without the language wall.

Anyway – I’ve strayed from what got me onto this topic – I was working on a proposal for a fantasy story… and getting the cald grue. It all worked. It actually seemed to be fitting into a pre-ordained path. I knew precisely where the story was going.
It’s an unusual aspect of a very well-known mythology- but we know it from its derivative or its medieval derivative of that derivative version, and the authors that went there went down one layer, not two (at least as far as I know). But I felt I was borrowing a narrative from something else I’d read. When Kate gets here, her even more extensive knowledge of fantasy than mine is in for a grilling. I’ve had this before – where I thought I had a great idea and story line and several people told me ‘that’s Stargate’ – which I had not at that stage come across. What I had come across and been influenced by is what I suspect was at least one of the original seeds for that – ONE STEP FROM EARTH.

So: how do you stop yourself from doing this? I’m a mass of the imprints of several hundred thousand books inside that gurgling splurting grey goo I call my brain. They muddle and mix and churn. And, duh, sometimes I swear because of the influences you find yourself ‘channeling’ other writers (I wrote something – far less well – than Sir Terry Pratchett, that he published 10 years after I’d written it. No. He DID NOT STEAL MY IDEA. We just obviously had some of the same influences. I was pleased.) And do others of you channel yourselves deliberately down a style and voice by immersing in that author or authors? (ie for the WIZARD of KARRES – I read (surprise) nothing but James H Schmitz, for several weeks before and for the duration. For DRAGON’S RING, I ‘coloured’ myself with Scott Rohan, Zelazny, Beagle, Nix and DWJ, for SLOW TRAIN, Heinlein (duh, surprise) Clarke, Niven, Simak and Harry Harrison’s CAPTIVE UNIVERSE)

>E-Books in the news — again

>This week has been an interesting one on the e-book front. Amazon released its latest version of the Kindle. The Kindle boards have been alive with anticipation — and frustration — as all those who ordered the first day waited on the UPS truck to come down the road. As I read some of the posts, all I could think of was that scene from The Music Man where a very young Ron Howard lisped his way through “Wells Fargo Wagon” as he and the rest of the town waited for the delivery of the band instruments. Of course, there were the subsequent posts about how wonderful the new Kindles are, about the ones that didn’t live up to expectations and the wails of despair because their Kindle had yet to be delivered.

But the new Kindle wasn’t the only bit of news surrounding e-books this week. There has been a lot of speculation the last few years about whether e-books are really here to stay or if they were just the latest flash in the pan. People have predicted the tipping point for e-books has been everything from just around the corner to years down the road. Well, my friends, I have a feeling it is closer than we think. Laura Lippman’s new book, I’d Know You Anywhere, went on sale the 17th of this month. The sales figures for the first week show that the electronic version of the book outsold the hard copy version. And it wasn’t by just a few copies. For that first week, 4,739 e-books were sold of the title as compared to 4,000 hard covers.

“This is the first book of ours of any consequence that has sold more e-books than hardcovers in the first week,” said Frank Albanese, a senior vice president at HarperCollins. “What we’re seeing now is that if a book gets a good review, it gets a faster lift on the digital side than it does on the physical side because people who have e-readers can buy and read it immediately.” The same article notes that e-books sales have risen to approximately 8% total revenue this year for the leading publishers as opposed to 3 – 5% for the same period last year. More importantly, by the end of 2012, these same publishers forecast that e-book sales will comprise 20 – 25% of their total revenue. Yeah, I think e-books are here to stay.

What struck me as truly interesting in the comment by Albanese above is the phrase “first book of ours of any consequence”. Call me paranoid, but it sounds to me like this isn’t a new development for HC. It’s just the first time it’s happened with one of their best sellers. And, because it has, they can no longer deny the existence of e-books. What will be interesting is to see how HC and the other major publishers react as this trend becomes more and more the norm.

WSJ had another article about e-books and e-readers, this time looking at reading habits. I’m sure you remember the uproar a few years ago when a couple of studies came out decrying the decline in reading in the U.S. Well, according to preliminary research, “[p]eople who buy e-readers tend to spend more time than ever with their nose in a book.” The reason, with so many gadgets able to display e-books — everything from dedicated e-book readers to smart phones to net books and so on — people read in places they didn’t before: check out lines at the market, etc.

Now, before you point out the study that came out earlier this year about people reading slower on e-book devices, I’ll say I agree with the WSJ article that part of the reason may be the technology of turning an e-page. But there is another reason, at least for me. It is a lot easier with a physical book to skim pages, skipping over those massive infodumps to get to the juicy action, than it is with an e-book. You simply thumb through the pages, scanning for the return to action. It is a familiar action for almost all of us. It is something we have to learn how to do with an e-book — at least in my case. And, to be honest, I hope it’s one I don’t learn because I’m enjoying reading every word an author wrote — usually.

So, what do you think? Are we reaching the tipping point with e-books? Did you find the “books of consequence” language by Frank Albanese as interesting as I did? And what about your reading habits/purchasing habits? Have they changed over the years and, if you are the owner of an e-book reader or a device that lets you read e-books, has that changed your habits? Inquiring minds want to know.

>Happy Birthday Dave!!!!!!!!!!!!

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May you write much and live long. May your cares be few, your books many (this is utterly selfish of me) and your descendants countless and all good sorts. And may you always wake up excited about the new day.

>The Legs of Passion

> I’ve been doing a little brainstorming lately thinking about the things that all contribute to my own passion for writing. Humans are complex organisms and there are many elements.

Not to say you could not break this down any way you choose, but these are the categories that I came up with. I broke it down into the six ‘legs’ of the writing table.

The first leg was love of story. Ideas really propel me, but it often takes a bit of inspiration to drive them: interesting non-fiction, good books, films, other weird ideas or what ifs. Character is another driver. I don’t think most of the MGC writers need help to get their characters to come out to play, but often mine do get a stale kind of feel. To try and reconnect I often let myself go a little left of field and explore their backstory a little more extensively – it’s amazing how often this helps to solve plot problems.

Putting more humour into your story or dialogue is another fun thing to do. Depending on your inclination, plotting out maps and drawing the street plans of cities, or painting characters and settings is also a good way to get enthused. Look for movies or books or art that inspire you for the piece you are writing.

My second leg was the excitement of a potential market. Where are you thinking of sending your work? What publishers are doing great things in your genre? I find having a potential market in mind – a deadline is even better! – to be really motivating. I love writing with some destination in mind, like a themed anthology for example. Hunt for books at the local bookshop or library. Find something that excites you then research the publisher. Think of this as a potential market.

The third leg was health and energy. Yes, we are human animals. Health is often neglected by writers, but has a huge impact energy levels. Sleep. Strangely most people need it. The quality of your food, the amount of rest you get. What do you do for stress reduction? That’s important as well. How about exercise? Small amounts of low impact activity have been well demonstrated to have large positive effects. Walk the dog.

The fourth leg is support. Share your dreams with the people you love, reach out to other writers. Go out to crit groups even if its just for coffee and a bitch. Open as much communication as you can. Go to cons. Meet other writers. This is important, and also neglected, often by new writers. That’s why the impact of your first convention as a writer can be overwhelming and a revelation at the same time.

The fifth leg is belief. Dream. Don’t be afraid. Create your future in your mind. Look at your stories critically, examine their strengths and their weaknesses. When you send out your work, know it well enough to believe in it – if you know it well you will be able to immediately rebut unfair critique or review. Stay positive. One thing is for certain, if you don’t have your work out there you will not publish.

And lastly, the sixth leg, celebrate! Many writers are perfectionists with impossibly high standards. When you do achieve a success milk it for all it’s worth! Take the family out for dinner. Go to the cafe and have that piece of cake. Take 10mins and just look wistfully into space. Take the time to recharge. Have a break and rest – knowing that you have taken one more step on the path.

OK. Well there is my brain dump for this week:)

Have I forgotten any legs? Remember – leave off one leg and the writing table falls over! And I’m not coming over to clean up the mess!

>Stop the world I want to get off

>We’ve all heard something like that plenty of times, and most of us have felt that way at least once (In my case, that’s once a day, but I’m ‘special’). But is it really a good idea to step out of the chaos and become an onlooker?

When you watch, you can see things you’d miss if you were in the middle of the action – but you don’t get to feel it. Sometimes that’s a hell of a lot easier.

So, right now, I’d like to get off the whirlwind tour of “things in life that suck boulders through coffee stirrers”, but – me being a mad writer – there’s a part of me that’s still observing the emotional roller-coaster ride and taking notes for future writing. But I still want to get off. I’m heading to Australia in a bit less than a week, and I’m exhausted. I need time to step back a little and absorb it all.

Yes, I’m whining. I’ve had a hell of a time lately, and while I’m sure it’s a very valuable experience to know how it feels to hear that your mother has had a stroke, and I’m sure that sensation of my stomach burrowing through the soles of my feet will find its way into my writing somewhere, right now I just want it all to stop.

Meantime – how many of you have wanted to step away from everything for a while? Do you think it’s a good thing? A bad thing? Or am I just in meltdown and need to be kicked in the butt and told to get on with it?

>Wake UP!

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What should it be permissible to think? What can we allow people to believe? What should never be whispered, even in the dark? How can we shut down people who think incorrect thoughts?

If you are giving serious thought to those questions, congratulations. You are an authoritarian and the only thing distinguishing you from Stalin is that you lack the power to enforce your wishes.

So, why do I start the blog with those questions? Because (yes, that again) I’ve been Heinlein blogging and it made me think of heresy and the price of being an heretic and what I always thought was the whole point of science fiction and fantasy.

The first Science Fiction book I ever read was Have Space Suit Will Travel, but that’s not important right now. The workings of the family in it were so “natural” to what my real family was like (no, not the same, but on a continuum) that it never occurred to me there was anything fantastic about it. Oh, the space thing was cool, but it wasn’t that far off. We’d gone to the moon, right?

The next sf/f (turns out fantasy, though the spine said Science Fiction) book I read was Out Of Their Minds by Clifford Simak. And that was the one that captured me into reading the genre, partly because it shocked me to the core.

Picture a child raised in a religiously conformist society who is all of a sudden faced with the idea that the devil might be created or at least shaped by human minds. I didn’t know the phrase but “blew my mind” would be appropriate. And then I went in search of more books like that. I wanted to see what other heretical thoughts people had. I wanted to know what avenues of reasoning I’d missed.

Over the next few years I must have read hundreds of science fiction books, many of them the inevitable load of nonsense, but all of them interesting and different, because if they weren’t I’d set them down and go find one that was. My being young and of a romantic disposition I was inevitably attracted to those ideas whose appeal seems to be baked in to the human race: a superior civilization before ours; aliens who can guide us; universal peace. But the truly irresistible books – to me – were the ones that turned those thoughts on their heads: A Canticle For Leibowitz, with its hint of circular time; Childhood’s End, with the aliens that “guide” us; City where the universal peace exists only in the absence of humanity.

I might reject the thesis utterly, but I enjoyed thinking in unusual directions. On my own, I came up with the thesis that Heinlein proposed at Denvention: the purpose of science fiction, in so far as it had a purpose, was to limber up minds. This was needed because humans are creatures of dogma and tradition (shush. We’ll get to that) who take a long time – as a species – to change direction, and because the pace of human technological discovery is changing life faster than normal human society can adapt. Our social behavior is being required to race faster than evolution prepared us to do. Science Fiction — I thought, after observing the behavior of friends who read sf/f and those who didn’t — made the mind more adaptable, so we could better deal with challenges.

But it is not like that now. Part of it is because – see above – the human animal is one of dogma and “fitting in”. You can see how this would be important in our evolutionary history. The hominid band where there were more opinions than members would be at a great disadvantage when facing a cohesive one. (This by the way is why I think everyone tends to romanticize the idea of a “great leader”. It’s built into us. But that’s a side avenue we won’t explore right now.)

Given time and the ability to ossify, the establishment absorbs the young Turks. Either they subdue or the young Turks become the establishment and their mad, wild ideas become the new enforced and enforceable conformity. Think of it as the oyster laying down a barrier between itself and the irritant inside the shell. (If you think the results aren’t as pretty as a pearl, you haven’t paid much attention to award banquets. The sparkly dresses, alone…)

The other part of it is that the young Turks, as they age, want recognition. If I hear one more SF person telling us that their goal is to be taken seriously by the literary establishment, I’m going to hurl. (I have a degree in literature. The literary establishment are those people who have so successfully made their books boring that they need to be assigned for anyone to read them.)

And the other part is something more basic and human, the need to enforce “conformity” and “right thinking”.

If you’re shaking your head and saying this is not true and you can write about whatever you want to – WHICH world have you come from, and do they have an easy immigration application?

Sure, you can write about whatever you want to. By law no one can stop you. Humans don’t need the law to stop other humans thinking saying or doing things. Look at smoking. Perfectly legal, after 21 (!) but not nearly as many people do it as in the fifties. Science? Bah. The normal person doesn’t give a hang about science. Indoctrination and conformity.

In sf/f what stops most of us from writing truly heretical works is knowing it will never get published. (Look, they’re called gatekeepers for a reason.) And no, it is not because the heretical wouldn’t sell. Rumor in the field has it that John Norman’s Gor books were still bringing in the cash, but he stopped being published because they were in bad taste. (Disgusting? Of course they were. And that’s just the grammar. The ideas… are ridiculous. But don’t go claiming any higher purpose in suppressing them. Most men I know who read them were not going to be influenced by the things. They provided a pressure valve, maybe, but if these men ever got a woman to look at them, they’d treat her like a queen.)

This was brought to the fore by listening, in passing, to a comment yesterday about Pirates of the Caribbean asking if the new Hollywood screen writer contracts require women to rescue themselves. Someone said, “no, they don’t, but–” But the conformity is there, the stultifying conformity, without which you’ll get nowhere. (Mind you, my women tend to rescue themselves, but that’s because it’s boring otherwise. However chickie in P of C couldn’t rescue her way out of a paper bag – as proven by her abandoning the trunk she’d be told to guard to go try to stop the men fighting [spit] )

We all censure ourselves before it gets to the gatekeepers, of course. Some of it is simply because we think we’ll reach more people that way. But some of the self-censuring is ridiculous and would surprise our would be readers, if they knew what gatekeepers turn books back for. I’ve heard of books rejected because: the character isn’t a lesbian (no, it wasn’t a specialty line); communism is described as an evil system in them; a character grieves “too much” over her murdered fiancé (not that this paralyzes her, but she, you know, gives a damn the man she was going to marry is dead.)

Don’t even get me started on “scientific” conformity. Suppose you want to write a novel in which statistics are a dog’s breakfast and the human population world wide has already started to fall. Will it get accepted? Does it have a chance of seeing the light of day? Don’t make me laugh. “Everyone knows” about the “population bomb”. (And no one knows how statistics are produced in third world countries. Well, no one in a publisher’s office.)

How about truly heretical notions, even if you support them in the text: mankind came from the stars; there are aliens among us, controlling our every thought; women are naturally inferior to men (for a fun experiment guess how fast a book will get published that proposes the opposite!); religion was programmed into mankind by the creator.

There are successful, classical novels for all of those. Heck, there are multiples for all of those. From back in the time when science fiction was vibrant and, what was that word? – oh, yeah, READ.

But now, no one would dare publish those. Pity the gatekeepers. They’d be afraid of being shouted down and called racist, sexist, anti-science and possibly uncouth. Which is why 99% percent of sf (and much of the fantasy) published today is pap for restless infants who want to be lulled to sleep – yet again – with the same old story. When a book is called “daring” for positing that all races are equally capable (yes, I had this for my third published book) you have to wonder how far the rot goes. Daring? Because what? All those people who believe in one race’s supremacy will shut me out of jobs and housing? Daring would be to write that in the thirties. Less so, given the avant-guard nature of the then literary establishment, but still notable in the fifties, sixties and seventies. After that, it’s just mouthing the same old platitudes. (And no, that wasn’t the point of the book. Just a critic’s notion.) Which is why SF is bleeding readers. There is only one unforgivable sin in writing – to bore the reader. It’s time we got past the little tin-pot Stalins and dared read (and write) stuff that shocks and thrills and interests people again.

For heretical ideas, I recommend: Simak’s Cosmic Engineers; Arthur C. Clark’s Childhood’s End; Walter Miller Jr A Canticle For Leibowitz; Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment (yes, I know, but you have to dig for the ideas. Stealthing they are); Heinlein’s Glory Road; Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

What are your favorite heresies? And what are the ideas that make you recoil at the thought that someone, somewhere is thinking them? Let’s discuss and explore this. It is in those ideas that the powder keg lies that can wake up those who fell asleep reading us.