Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Copying Creativity

Source.  Copyright Nintendo

Yesterday I read this article that someone on Twitter linked to.  For those who don’t want to click through, it’s titled “Can Anyone Be a Novelist?”. In short, it tells of how certain qualities are needed in order for one to be a novelist.  The blogger says that anyone who can type and have an understanding of the language they’re writing in can write a book.  But it won’t necessarily be a good book.

He goes further to say that two types of talent are needed to write a good book, namely the means to communicate effectively (string coherent and intriguing sentences together) and imagination.  He says:
"To create good novels an author must be able to come up with new stories, settings, characters so the reader will be drawn in and held captive, not feel as though they’re reading a re-hash of some other story they’ve read.  This cannot be learned: creativity is inborn."
That last sentence is the topic of my post.

Let me start at the beginning.  I’m sort of a copier.  When I was little, I did everything other people did instead of being myself.  At some point I realised this and swung entirely in the reverse.  So when I got out of school, I had an interest in the same line of work my brother was studying to, but in a courageous effort to avoid copying him, I swung in another direction and started studying accounting.  Eventually I dropped that and started in the writing direction.

Which brings us to the present.  Through a series of similar events as the above, I have begun being terrified that I’m doing the wrong thing.  I.e. that I started something (like the accounting) that I don’t like or am good at, but which I’ve convinced myself is what I should do.  Basically, I worry that I might be lying to myself.

So when I read something like the post I mentioned above, I start to wonder.  Do I have this creativity?  Then I notice that I copy a lot of things and from there things get out of hand I and start to doubt myself (never mind the inclination to copy other people that is already ingrained in me).

That is probably the thing that terrifies me the most.  What if I’m not supposed to be a writer, i.e. what if I don’t have the necessary requirements to be a writer?  What if I’m wasting my time doing something I’ll never be able to do (well)?

Most writers report being born with a pen in hand and writing since they could put a pencil to paper.  Me?  I wrote a bit of scraps here and there, but never really dabbled in it.

How do you know when writing is supposed to be hard and when it’s supposed to be easy?  It seems to be always hard for me.

But I will just go on.  I will remind myself that stories (rather than specifically writing) were a part of me from early on.  Maybe I’ll never be a great writer, but then at least I’ll die trying.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

“If you think in pictures, write. If you think in words, paint.” ~ Frank O'Hara

O’Hara was an American writer, poet and art critic.  He had at least seven books under his belt (most of which were poetry).  He was forty when he died in 1966.  Quite a few books with his work in were published after his death and there were also a lot of books about him.  He was a member of the New York School of Poetry. (Wikipedia)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Unrelated Friday

I couldn’t think of anything to say today, so this isn’t going to be a very long post.
Source.  Copyright Capcom.

First off, happy Thanksgiving to any Americans who happen to be reading this.

If you haven’t heard, Anne McCaffrey passed away on Monday.  Her stories will always have a place in the recesses of my mind and though she didn’t know me, I came to know her through her books and I’m glad for that.

It was Davin Malasarn’s birthday on the 16th, I think, and J.C. Martin’s on the 23rd.  I’d like to say happy birthday to both of those awesome people.  On a similar note, J.C. is holding a contest on her blog that has a bucket-load of prizes, so hop over there and join in.

Finally, the Intern has revealed her secret identity!  If you haven’t heard, here is a link to the blog post doing the revealing.  She landed a publishing deal, and therefore shed her anonymity.

That’s all from me.  Enjoy your weekend.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

McCaffrey has gone Between

On 21 November 2011, the legendary science fiction and fantasy author, Anne McCaffrey passed away.

I remember reading her Pern books in my mid-teens.  They were the first series I seriously began to read, and also one of my early looks into science fiction and fantasy which are now my most read/written genres.

Her first novel, Restoree, was published in 1967 and told the story of a woman who was intelligent and acted on her own, unlike most heroines in the science fiction of those times.

McCaffrey won both a Hugo and a Nebula award (and was the first woman who accomplished that) for the Pern novella Weyr Search in 1967 and Dragonrider in 1969 respectively.

The Pern novels were by far her most notable work, telling the story of a colony of humans who crash-land on the planet, Pern, and eventually learn to ride dragons in order to fight off Thread, a mycorrhizoid spore, that periodically rains down on the planet.

Though the Pern novels are the most known, her personal favourite was The Ship Who Sang, a story about Helva, who was severely disabled at birth but because of her exceptional brain was allowed to become a shell person, someone who is infused with a ship and acts as its pilot.

Anne McCaffrey was a brilliant writer and person, and I’m sure she will be widely missed.  I’ll leave you with the advice she gave an aspiring writer on her blog:

First — keep reading. Writers are readers. Writers are also people who can’t not write.
Second, follow Heinlein’s rules for getting published:
1. Write it.
2. Finish it.
3. Send it out.
4. Keep sending it out until someone sends you a check.
There are variations on that, but that’s basically what works.
~ Anne McCaffrey

Monday, November 21, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"We should be taught not to wait for inspiration ... Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action." - F Tibolt

Tibolt was, as far as I can see, not a fiction writer, but his words are applicable to us all.  In 1981, when he was 84, he wrote a book called A Touch of Greatness, a non-fiction book on how to get success in one’s life.  It was often compared to Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.  After a time of studying the methods and habits of successful people, he made a self-help course and later expanded it to include things like public speaking, salesmanship and the art of living.  He passed away in 1989 at age 92.

(I found the quotation via @JaneFriedman on Twitter.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Three Walls that Block your Way

Source. Copyright Activision

We all want to get somewhere.  Achieve something (even if it’s only the opportunity to achieve nothing).  As writers, most of us have a similar goal: Getting published, being widely read, being read by people who understand our work, etc.  The problem is that most of us never reach that goal because of a multitude of reasons.  Here are three points that stand in our way (there are more, but I think these ones are primary):

A lot of unpublished (or even just less successful) writers, including me, often avoid telling people what they do.  It’s because writing is not often seen as a “real job”, unless you’re selling books by the million.  For that reason, you limit yourself and your ability because you don’t even believe in your cause.  If you don’t tell people you’re a writer, you’re telling your mind that you’re not a writer. 

That impedes your progress as a writer because you’re still trying to convince yourself that you are “allowed” to do this.  In the end, it’s not the prejudices other people have against writers, but the prejudices you have.

A lot of people start out with the image of a writer being a dude in an office, smoking a cigar and wearing a tweed jacket (or is that a private investigator?), or whatever other image they have (maybe sitting in a cafĂ©).  But the reality doesn’t often pan out to be this way and I think a lot of people are disappointed, either thinking that writing isn’t so cool after all, or deciding that they’re not good enough to write, or maybe that they can’t write while in their specific circumstances.

Either way, they give up and don’t make it, because they allowed their preconceptions of the job (yes, job) to get in the way of acceptance of whatever it is that’s bothering them.  The world will likely turn out differently than you imagine, but the trick is just to hang on until it evens out again.

While you keep your pride intact, the chances are pretty slim that you’ll actually get anywhere.  Why?  Because pride doesn’t allow you to make mistakes.  And the only way to grow is to take risks, and that invariably leads to mistakes.  Ergo, your pride stops you from growing.

As a writer, you might continue polishing that manuscript, but never take a leap and ship it, or you might get to the end of your first draft and see the problems, then decide that it was just a dummy run and throw it away, beginning from scratch.  Or maybe you just refuse to learn new ways to write because you know your method works and don’t want to try something that might break it.


In these three things, your way to the end you want is blocked.  You have to break down each to reach your goal.  I’ve certainly entertained all of these at least once (and some probably still), but it’s time to let go.

If you go on and push through, you’ll find new heights where new challenges await, but that’s just all part of the fun, isn’t it?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Up for the Test

Copyright Square-Enix

A while back, I made a post that included instructions to write in short bursts.  Sadly, I had completely been ignoring it (and it’s actually pretty good advice).

See, I often sit in front of the glowing screen for a few hours and then manage to get seven words.  After a few times of this, I say to myself, ‘Self, I am disappoint.’  The first draft is supposed to be quick(ish).  With the start of NaNoWriMo (which I do in order to force myself to write a first draft faster, and they have a cool word count stat thingie), I decided to improve on my seven words in three hours speed.  But first, I had to get a more accurate recording of how many words I actually wrote in three hours.  Not having three hours, I decided to time myself for thirty minutes and see how many words I could get.

Challenge accepted.

So I smashed out as many words as I could, my only criteria being that they had to be parts of coherent sentences and that they had to be vaguely part of the story.  In the end I got seven hundred and forty three.  Which is more than I usually do in an hour.  This presented the problem that often occurs with me.  I always perform better in tests (even if I’m the only one present) than I do normally.  I.e. I can never do one of those monkey puzzle tests where they tell you your personality type, because I try to figure out which one of the options will lead me to the result that I want.  Ergo, they are never accurate.

So I redid the test, this time for ten minutes.  Three hundred words.  That means nine hundred in thirty minutes.  I did even better.

With several more tests, I came to this conclusion.  I consistently performed better when put under a time limit, whether my own or not, than when I just wrote with no time limit in mind.  Also (to a point), the less time I have, the better I perform.  Ergo, I must conclude that writing in short self-timed bursts are most effective for me, even if I have a three hour gap open in which to write.

The point?  Use your weaknesses to your advantage.  Mine is that I (for some reason) want to impress myself.  I use that by letting myself test myself.  If you have the need to impress your second cousin twice removed, tell him that you’re going to write 50 000 words in a month.  If you like impressing your cat, let her sit on your lap and continually report your progress.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like." - Phyllis A. Whitney

Whitney was an American writer of the mystery genre.  She is the author of 73 written over the span of 56 years.  She published her first novel, A Place for Ann, in 1941, when she was 38, and her last, Amethyst Dreams, in 1997 when she was 94 years old.  She died of pneumonia in 2008, aged 104.  (Wikipedia) (Official Website)

(I found the quotation via @TheBookDoctors on Twitter.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Neuron See, Neuron Do

You have the ability to read minds (sort of).

How, you ask?  Well, I’ll get to that later.  First, let me tell you a story.

In the early 1990s, there was a group of researchers.  They were in the process of doing a few studies on macaque monkeys to monitor their brain activity (via implanted electrodes) when they performed various motor functions.  One of these was the clutching of food.

One day, one of the researchers was busy in the lab checking the screens for the neuron activity.  He was hungry though, so he picked up the sandwich he had brought with him.  But before he could take a bite, he made an interesting discovery.  The monkeys’ neurons had fired when they had watched him pick up the food.  The same neurons that fired when they themselves picked up food.

Copyright Shift
Mirror neurons.  These little fellows are a select group of neurons that fires both when you perform an action and when you watch someone else perform the action.

Through this effect, we (and apparently monkeys) are able to feel what other people feel.  We simulate the same situation in our head if we see someone else perform an action.  But more than just the physical aspect, we feel the intention and emotional aspects as well.  Better known as empathy.

Empathy allows us to feel the same as another person.  When you see someone smile, your mirror neurons for smiling fires and you also feel the feeling that you connect to smiling, i.e. being happy.

Studies done also concluded that we can judge intentions via mirror neurons.  For example, we are able to discern between someone picking up a cup with the purpose of drinking from it and someone picking up a cup to clear the table, as opposed to just having a feeling for clutching cup.  Therefore, you can, by watching someone’s actions, get a feeling of what they’re thinking, i.e. mind reading.

As a last note, I have often observed in myself that I change into to what I am exposed to, to an extent.  For example, I’m currently reading Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, which is a pretty old book.  If I read it just before writing, my style, or voice if you will, changes to fit in with Shelly’s.  I find myself using old sentence structures and words that had fallen from use (i.e. I almost used the *cough*adverb*cough* gaily, which has so many other connotations these days that it is not in use in the way of happy any more).

So I’m wondering, do mirror neurons have the same effect during reading as it does during observing?  And that poses another question.  Do our mirror neurons for smiling fire when we read about someone smiling?

Perhaps, if the writer is good enough, we see the image of a smile so clearly that we are, in fact, observing it.

(Source of info and more thorough explanation here)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The More Things Change, the More they Stay the Same

Source Copyright Square-Enix

E-book (or is it ebook? or eBook?) sales are on the rise.  No doubt, this is causing self-publishing to become an ever more intimidating presence while the publishers are scrambling to stay in the game.  Are publishers on their way out to make way for the new and hip self-publishing?

Allow me to insert and inspect a hypothetical situation here.

Let’s say, in about thirty to forty years, no more physical books are sold.  And more than that, there are no more publishers, and every author self-publishes their books.

That would mean that the market opened for more people (what with no “gatekeepers”).  The editors, book designers and marketers that worked for the publishers before will probably have gone into the freelancing business, selling their services for the self-publishing authors (or flipping burgers if business is tough).  There will be a massive amount of books released every day, of which most will be pretty bad (see my next point).  A lot of people will either have no money or just not feel like it and therefore refrain from hiring an editor or book designer.

Let’s look at the cost of self-publishing an e-book.*  Say $400 for a book designer and $400 for a proper editor.  You can buy an ISBN for $100 via  Then comes the marketing and promotion.  Let’s be very conservative and say good marketing would cost $500.  So, adding it up, you come to $1400 to self-publish.  But let’s be reasonable, giving competitive prices, the prices could come down to $1200 or so.  And maybe the marketers, book designers and editors even join forces and start a company that does all three in a package deal.  So let’s say that brings the price down to $1000.

With that in mind, there would be little chance for a budding author to publish a book unless he’s got a well-paying job (Stephen King and his wife worked for minimum wage and struggled to make ends meet, so they didn’t have a thousand dollars to spend on publishing a book) or financial backing.  So maybe a rich businessman sees the manuscript of a friend and agrees to pay his publishing costs in exchange for a return on whatever the author makes.  I.e. Royalties.

After this happened, someone might see an opportunity and make a company that connects financial backers to authors (with a small usage fee, of course).  Some rich people think that it could be a good investment, but know nothing about books, so they hire an editor/ex-literary agent/old man who reads a lot to tell them if the book is worth investing in.  Because they are desperate to be published, the budding authors send their manuscripts to the financial backers to be scrutinised by the literary experts and given a place in the world via the financial backer’s money.  Maybe the rich man sees another opportunity, calling his old friends, the marketer, the editor and the book designer to join his team.  Together, they form a company and they decide to call themselves a publisher.

In another part of the world, a woman sees the opportunity to make money.  There are so many books out there, and people don’t know what to buy, so she decides that she will get a team who will read books and review them, making a list of good books.  People stream to the website to avoid buying yet another badly written book.

The publishers see this and notice that the woman and her team often miss some of the books they publish and thus create a loss in sales.  To fix this, the publisher asks to get a certification of sorts for all their books so that it is automatically a part of the list (for a fee, of course).  Because of the brilliant editor and all the good books they had published in the past, the woman agrees and puts an entry on her site that says, all books by Publisher X.

End of hypothetical situation.

Though the sequence of events is a bit unlikely, the core of it remains.  You cannot have anarchy in publishing (except for already well-known authors of course).  It will always be a business and there will always be people who need money and people who have money.  Any change in the publishing industry will circle back to a new version of the same thing.

The same equilibrium, but at another level.

* These prices are based on present currency values, so ignore the possible changes in monetary value that may or may not occur.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon." - E.L. Doctorow

Doctorow is an American author of Russian-Jewish descent with 11 novels under his belt.  He was a book editor working with authors like Ian Fleming.  He left his position as editor to start writing in 1969.  His most famous works include The Book of Daniel, Ragtime and World’s Fair.  He is a descendant of the Russian general Dmitry Dokhturov.  (Wikipedia)

(I found the quotation via @TheBookDoctors on Twitter.)

Friday, November 4, 2011

How We Justify Choice

Copyright SEGA

We rationalize.  Say, a man stole something.  His conscience will haunt him, but he will try to counter it with a rationalization.  Moreover for smaller things.  Say, you’re on a diet.  You see a piece of cake.  If you are inclined to eat it, your mind will come up with all sorts of rationalizations to explain why you can make an exception.

In the same way, we rationalize when we find ourselves in bad situations we can’t get out of.  The human mind defends itself in this way.  When you can’t fight against it, why bother?  You’ll fight only if you believe that you have a way out (incidentally, if there is a way out, you’ll want the better situation even more, making you fight harder for it).

If you take an example, divorce rates.  In the early 1900s, I’d bet there wasn’t even close to the amount of divorces as there is now.  (7% in 1900 and 50% in 1998)  Why?  Because divorce was not much of an option back then.  But more than that, how many old couples are unhappy in their marriages?  I can’t get statistics about that, but I’d wager it isn’t much.  Young couples?  Plenty.  Why?  Because they now have a way out.

There was a study done (can’t find it now) where people were given a choice of painting they could take home.  To one group was said that they could exchange their paintings the following week if they wanted to, while the other was told that their choice was final.  The next week, both groups were told that they could exchange their paintings.  The second group that had believed their choice was final ended up exchanging less than the first group.

When you made your choice and know there is no way out, your mind will rationalize that it was the best pick anyway.

Another example is the phrase, “Fake it ‘til you make it”.  If you pretend to be something, you will eventually become it.  Why?  You guessed it, you rationalize.  If you pretend to be an accountant for two years with no specific purpose, your mind will be asking, “Why am I doing all this if I don’t like it?”  Not wanting to look stupid, it then concludes that you do like it.  Unless you have a very strong dislike for it or another reason as to why you’re pretending that can be used to rationalize, you will begin to like it.

And finally, an example from Abe Lincoln.  Apparently, he had an enemy at one point who he wanted to make a friend (who needs more enemies, I suppose).  To do that, he called up the man and asked him a favour (to borrow a book, I think).  The man was so flattered that he lent Lincoln the book.  His mind was whirring in the “Why did I do a favour for Lincoln if he’s my enemy?” area, and concluded that Lincoln is his friend and so started a long and bountiful friendship.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Of Hitler and Overthinking

Source.  Copyright Westwood

You know that saying (I think it’s a saying, anyway) pressure makes diamonds?  Well, let’s just say that I’m not carbon (well, actually…).  What I’m saying is that I don’t do so well under pressure.  It’s not that I break down and hide under tables.  When I find myself under pressure, my perfectionism kicks in and I overthink, leading to a horrible product.

I remember that my Afrikaans teacher in high school gave us an assignment to write a story about one of several topics, one being something along the lines of “Die monster wat hom jaag” (the monster that chases him).  I thought about it a bit and came up with a possible concept.  So I asked my teacher if I could make the monster in the theme be kleptomania (the irresistible compulsion to steal things) and thus make the story about a man fighting against his disorder.  She seemed delighted at my idea and said that she looked forward to reading it.

We got time to prepare (and outline) for a few days beforehand.  After creating an expectation of delivering a good product, I started researching (this was for a 300 word story).  I looked all sorts of things up and overthought every possible aspect of the story that I possibly could.  I ended up with a lame attempt that included a German kleptomaniac that just sat there and thought and eventually killed himself in the exact (read, EXACT) way Hitler killed himself (why Hitler?  I have no idea).  Basically, nothing happened and it was very lame.  I got a mediocre grade and to this day, I feel like a moron for handing in such a piece of trash after creating an expectation of something great.

In another class, we got an assignment for a story that we had to complete in one period (maybe, but regardless, I didn’t plan it at all).  I wrote something and gave it in and got a good grade and some encouraging comments from the teacher.

In the first example, I had pressure to create something great and a long time to think about it and in the second one, I had pressure in the amount of time I had and had created no expectations as to how good it would be.

Don’t overthink it.

Back in 2009, I took my first step in becoming a writer by signing up for NaNoWriMo.  Against all odds, I somehow finished 50k words in a month.  I was surprised and relieved.  I didn’t think I would be able to write a novel length manuscript.  I just didn’t have the will.  But I proved myself wrong.

Because of the reasonably short timeframe, there was no time to overthink anything.  My fake novel had so many plotholes in it that it looked like a South African road, but it was done and it didn’t stink (too much) for a first draft.

This is not about outlining and (as Donald Maass calls it) organic writing.  This is about worrying too much about getting the finer points right.  The correct shade of blue the police cruiser should be, the number of switches a pilot has to flip to start a Cessna’s engine.  The best way to symbolically make a reference to Hitler.  Leave all that for later.  That’s what revision is for.  First you write your draft.  Your first draft, or as some call it, your zero draft.  It will kind of suck, and it might be wrong on the procedures a detective has to follow, but at least it won’t be boring—and that is a pretty good start.