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Posts tagged ‘creativity’

A Change in Plans

A quick note before I get into today’s post. The series on formatting will continue next week. I want a little more time working with some of the programs I’m going to discuss before blogging about them. Sorry for the delay but I wanted to be comfortable with the programs before not only reviewing them but, in at least one instance, recommending them.

As for today, well, the title says it all.

Last week, I released Nocturnal Rebellion. It is the fifth book in the Nocturnal Lives series and the sixth title overall. This was the first series I started and Nocturnal Origins was the second book I published. To say this series and its characters have held a special place in my writer’s heart is to put it mildly. Because of that, I expected a few days, maybe more, of mourning after Rebellion’s release. Why? Because Rebellion brings an end to the current story arc and I’m not sure where the story will go from there — or when the next installment will happen.

Okay, that’s not quite right. I have a glimmer of a spark of an idea about where to go next but that’s it. Knowing Mac and company won’t be part of my regular writing schedule for a while is, well, odd.

Normally, I take a week or so away from writing after a book release to do some promotion and to simply get my head cleared of that book and ready for the next project. That’s when I try to catch up on my reading, reorganize my office — okay, cleaning it and getting it ready for whatever I’m about to start writing — sleeping and gaming. It is also when I catch up on those projects around the house that I put on hold while I got the last book ready for press.

This time, however, it didn’t happen like that. I took a day. A single day. Then I dug into my office, clearing away all the notes and research used during Rebellion’s writing. Once that was accomplished, I sat down and over the course of the next two days, made notes on the projects that have been floating around in my mind, those I knew I needed to get done in the next six months or so as well as others that, it seemed, had been lurking just below the surface until I finished Rebellion.

By the time I was finished, I had notes on 12 separate titles. 12. What the bleep?!? Fortunately for my sanity, not all of them are novels. More fortunately, some were for titles I’d already planned and, in a couple of occasions, are projects I’ve already gotten very rough drafts completed for — the next in the Honor and Duty series as well as the next in the Sword of the Gods series. What I hadn’t expected doing this were the several standalone titles that cropped up or the additional titles I hadn’t planned in the Eerie Side of the Tracks, including a novel that hit me out of nowhere but that I’m very excited to write.

So what’s the change, you ask.

First, and least important, is the fact I sat down and actually made notes on more than the current work in progress. I very rarely do that. While I’m not a pantser, I most definitely am not a plotter either. I’ve always fallen somewhere in-between. Whether this indicates a change in my process or not, I don’t know. I’ll admit, the prospect of my process changing is a bit scary. But it’s happened before and I adapted. I’ll do so again.

The second change is in the publishing schedule. Again, it’s no biggie. That is the joy of being an indie. I can shuffle my schedule as needed. But, in this case, there is no shuffling needed. I simply added more titles to it. In a way, that’s reassuring. It is also daunting because it means I can’t goof off and say “I don’t know what to write”. And yes, there was a teen-like whine with that quote.

The change is the obvious one. For the first time in more than five years, I don’t have a story with Mac in the hopper. Part of me mourns that. But it was time for this particular story arc to come to an end. Yet, even as I write this post, I know Myrtle the Evil Muse is thinking about what to do with our band of heroes next. She’s already teased (okay, tormented) me with a scene with a panicked Mac discovering she’s pregnant and wondering the best way to potty train the baby of two people who shift into jaguars. Do you buy stock in diapers or kitty litter? Do you buy teething rings or scratching posts?

You see why I call my muse evil?

Crap!

Even as I sit here typing in this post, I hear Myrtle cackling madly. It’s not enough that she inflicted me with a book that wants to be written NOW! I feel a new series coming on. In case you’re wondering, it’s a bit like feeling a headache coming on. Why? Because Myrtle isn’t subtle. She comes racing in with her combat boots and bullhorn.

Seriously, the change I refer to in the title is more of a mental change than anything else. I noticed something as I wrote my last couple of books. I was allowing myself to be distracted by the internet, by gaming, etc. I know the reasons why but knowing them doesn’t always mean I do anything about them. So, I made the decision to change one very basic and yet important part of my writing. I have switched machines. My PC laptop no longer is my work machine. I’ll still use it for a couple of post-edit functions because it has a larger screen and some of the programs I use after I finish a manuscript. But the actual writing now happens on the MacBook Air. So far, it has been a very positive change. It is as though my subconscious understand that when I’m on the Mac, it is “work”. the PC is “play”. We’ll see how long that lasts.

I’m not recommending everyone go out and buy a laptop or desktop that is a totally different OS from what you have now. What I do recommend is that you review how you write and be honest with yourself about whether you are allowing yourself to become distracted too easily. I know authors who have machines without internet connectivity that they use to write on. Others don’t put games or social media apps on their work machines. I finally am starting to understand why.

The other thing I’ve done is blocked off several hours in the morning and then in the afternoon where I don’t go online. I don’t check email and I don’t go to Facebook or similar sites. This is “work” time. That has helped as well.

In other words, I am practicing what I preach — I am treating my writing like my business. I’m still looking at ways to get better, both with time management and with promotion. Boy do I need to get better at promotion. How about you? What can you do to improve your productivity? What techniques are you using that seem to help?

Living the edges

Blame Sarah. Her post yesterday started me thinking on this line, and anything that gets me thinking moderately philosophical thoughts is dangerous.

Anyway, as Sarah said yesterday, madness and creativity are pretty closely intertwined. Very few highly creative types don’t argue with some form of mental illness, and frankly, once the intelligence levels get high enough, the same kind of thing happens. Our species seems to be built to design specs with a caveat in big flaming letters “Extremes are Bad Things” (Yes, evolution will in fact do this. Extreme anything is bad. Moderation in all things, including moderation, appears to be the way to go). At any rate, moving too far from the averages, whether creativity-wise or in terms of intelligence, almost always introduces a bunch of negative effects.

There’s a “sweet spot” in the order of about 1 to 2 statistical deviations above the norm. In that range, whatever it is is good enough to help the fortunate possessor without introducing much in the way of nasty side effects. In the realm of intelligence, this is where the people ordinary joes consider bright are found. Beyond that a person gets to be in a realm where they can’t understand normal people, and no-one outside their very small group of mental peers can understand them. With creativity it tends to be even more marked – mildly more creative than usual often looks a lot more impressive than extremely more than usual because at the extreme there’s not much there an average person can recognize. This is why stunningly new things usually take a long time to get adopted. They’ve got to trickle down through the not-quite-so-extremely-creative to be translated into something that the not-particularly-creative can relate to.

When the ability is so strongly linked to insanity, well, that just makes it even more interesting.

My personal theory – I’m fairly sure I’ve mentioned it here in the past (yeah, says the inner editor, like once or twice a week. The inner editor is a demon, and lies.) – is that the essence of creativity is in pattern recognition and generalization. The more someone can observe patterns across fields of thought or practice that rarely intersect, the more creative their observations are going to be. When the patterns and fields of thought pillage mythology, legend, and every work of fiction ever, that’s a heck of a lot of ground to cover. Take someone who doesn’t have the normal “this is socially acceptable” filters (I’m intimately familiar with this), and you’ll get high-octane nightmare fuel played for laughs (a.k.a. the con vampire books). Add that to a subconscious that actively collects all of this and then spits out the shiny “Ooh! Story!”, and you get what Sarah described with A Few Good Men (which is totally worth any amount of money you choose to spend on it. Just saying).

It’s fragile, to say the least. In my case the wrong choice of music can shut me down for days. Of course, if I get a nasty shock, I can tip straight back to suicidal, so I don’t count myself as particularly stable anyway. Of the several flavors of antidepressant I’ve taken, I’ve only found one that leaves the writing ability more or less intact. Not surprisingly, I’m not that keen to experiment any further. I’m not aware of antihistamines shutting me down, although any form of physical illness does a number on me, so it may simply be that the effect is masked by not being well enough to think.

Of course, being narcoleptic, I’ve got the advantage of very vivid dreams, including some that happen without me needing to actually be asleep. Those are usually the trippiest, probably because I experience them direct, without any kind of “remembering the dream” filters. The flip side is that the medication for that takes me from permanently functioning as if I’ve just come off a 48 hour shift to functioning as if I’ve just come off an all-nighter. I don’t actually remember what “awake” feels like. Curiously enough, I describe exhaustion rather well…

In my view, it’s all input towards whatever the next story happens to involve. Or the one after that. Whatever works.

I think that’s possibly where all the research on creativity, intelligence, and mental illness has gaps: the focus tends to be on the ones who can’t keep their grip on the world their body lives in. The ones who figure out what works for them and can keep hold of the physical world when the worlds of the mind are calling so seductively mostly manage to slide past under the social radar. Most of us prefer it that way.

Of course, most of us would also deny the hell out of any evidence we were losing our grip. And therein lies its own set of nightmare fuel.

Crash Recovery – Mental Health And The Writer

Fair warning, there’s going to be a good-sized chunk of icky personal stuff in this post, so if that’s not your thing you might want to stop reading here.

Still reading? Okay. Just remember, you were warned.

The background information is that creative folks in general and writers in specific are much more prone to mental health issues than Joe Average. In fact, the latest research suggests that creativity is effectively focused and channeled mental illness (Still want to claim everyone is creative? Go right ahead and pathologize the entire population).

This is probably no surprise to most of the folks here. The part that matters is what happens when something a bit more intense hits and what to do about it when it does, not least because drugged to the eyeballs is an ineffective and unpleasant way to spend life. As someone who needs the psychoactive drugs to function, I can say with absolute authority that being so drugged you can’t think is better than being at the mercy of the worst your own mind can do to you, but it’s still not something you actually want.

My personal bugbear is clinical depression, most likely caused by narcolepsy, although from what I remember before that I may have been/may still be mildly bipolar. I was certainly a very moody child and capable of swinging rapidly from one extreme to the other without any obvious reason – multiple times a day. Depression and permanent sleep deprivation has damped that more than a little.

Since my major breakdown, I’ve had several crashes of varying severity, as well as a number of declines (where I slid gradually into an episode rather than crashing into it). One thing is constant: when I’m in the pit, writing does not happen. It can’t: there’s nothing there. It feels to me as though the entire system shuts down. I can’t even manage daydreaming in narrative: instead I’ll stare into space with – at best – next to nothing going on between my ears. At worst it’s a battle between suicidal thoughts and denying the damn things.

I’ve identified three broad levels of suicidal thought: the first stage is the generic “it would be better if I didn’t wake up” kind of thing, which is somewhere between suicidal and escape. Next stage is when I start thinking that my death is the best thing that can happen to the people I care about because it will take me and all my problems out of their way. It’s still fairly passive-escape. After that, though, I start planning. The last time I got to that point, the only thing that kept me from acting was knowing that the cats would starve before anyone found me.

Unfortunately, while I’m mostly stable, I’m still fragile, which means a bad enough shock can throw me right into an episode. This happened over the weekend, courtesy the World’s Worst Air Conditioning Installation. Fortunately the worst of the episode only lasted a day (I’m quite relieved to have only had one night of alternating nightmares and thinking I’d be better off not waking up), but I’m still not up to writing, in the sense that there’s no there there. I can reach for it, but I’ll come up blank. This is where the pros call it in or paint by numbers if there are deadlines that must be met. I’ve yet to meet one who’s satisfied by what they did when they had to call it in.

I’m hoping I’ll recover before I need to do that. It will depend on stress levels (involving getting the AC install mess fixed) going down to something less than “nuclear” – a situation not helped by the day job’s tendency to generate its own stress bombs (aka “release day” – my employer has Klingon code that isn’t tamely released, it escapes leaving a trail of battered and bloody software testers in its wake).

In addition, something that tends to get forgotten, mental illness also includes significant and unpleasant physiological problems. I’ve gone from my stomach being so tightly knotted I was nauseous to butterflies, and I’m not “enjoying” permanent headache, but I’m still getting random shooting pain from various locations. I’ve also still got issues focusing on anything. It’s just as well most of my job doesn’t need me to focus that much. There’s a lot I can do while sleepwalking, as it were (and as a narcoleptic, I’m quite capable of sleep-anything – except normal sleep).

Everyone’s specific symptoms during an episode of whichever mental issue is their personal demon are somewhat different, of course. Some people find themselves vividly imagining opening their wrist veins. Others project outwards and go crazy-psycho on whoever happens to be in the vicinity. Others go ‘flat’ and can’t find the energy to care about anything. The part that matters is that once the worst has passed (during the worst sometimes it’s all a person can do to keep breathing) the process of digging out gets going. Because no matter what the cause of the crash, there are things that can make the next one less severe or shorter, or maybe even circumvent it altogether – but it’s necessary to be mostly recovered before trying to deal with that.

Part of what works for me is being the kind of insane stubborn that flat refuses to give up. I might drop the bundle for a while when I get hit by an episode, but after that I’ll pick up and try to claw my way back. And I’ll do whatever I need to to get there. Even if it means learning how to think again (of course, it helps that when you look up “stubborn” in certain dictionaries you find me and my family tree there). I also vary the methods I use to deal with the symptoms. When it’s really bad, I engage in forgettery – doing things that don’t require much thought or energy but lock up all my attention so I can’t think about wanting to not be alive (oddly, I’ve never wanted to die but I’ve been in states where dying seemed the best of a really crappy set of choices). As I get more able to focus, I do low-stress, easy things that will give me some kind of sense of achievement. I try not to push myself too far, because that can crash me again. If I do have to push, I’ll clear off the plate of everything else, so that I’m compensating for it elsewhere. It’s an odd kind of balance, but it works for me.

Every writer builds their own set of tools to get out of the pit – because staying in the pit is not an option. It gets deeper, and eventually someone who stays their loses the ability to climb out.

Creative Burnout

Rowena here. Using my covers because I don't have an image that applies to this post.

I came across this article about Steph Swainston, author of the Castle Cycle. She’s decided to step back from her writing and train to be a chemistry teachers. She says:

‘I have to get back to real life again. It wasn’t an easy decision, because it took a lot to get to the stage of being a published author. But during my teacher training so far, I’ve dealt with so much – flooded schools, fire alarms going off, children being sick …Chemistry feeds that sense of wonder that made me want to be a writer in the first place,” she says. “Besides, I’ve never said I won’t write again, just that if I do write another book, I’ll do it on my terms.’

This is interesting because I was at the crime writers conference  SheKilda, last weekend and I attended a panel of script writers who write for both TV series, True Crime series and movies and they said they wished they had the freedom of novelists. Their scripts are constantly being interfered with by the TV executives.

At the same time I do understand what Steph means. I’ve found since I took up teaching movie treatment, script, storyboard and animatic not only has it been mentally stimulating but I’ve discovered a real appreciation for top notch TV series and movies. Many aspects of good story telling apply to both the written word and movies.

Establishing character, introducing the world of the story, arousing the audience’s interest in the core premise of the plot, eliciting their sympathy for the protagonist, maintaining narrative tension and pacing and, of course, delivering a punchy ending.

Film has advantages in that music can enhance a scene, although I have heard there are kindle books coming out with appropriate sound tracks to enhance the reader’s immersion in the story world. Film also has the advantage of setting up the world with an establishing shot. What writers have to describe, the camera can pan over and the audience can put it all together in their head. The challenge for a writer is to write ‘filmicly’ so that the reader can visualise the story as it unfolds.

So are you ever tempted to take a step back and put your writing on hold for a while? Does letting the ground lie fallow result in more creativity when you return to writing?