Creativity is a Muscle

I’ve had a lot of time to myself lately, due to various circumstances. When word first came down to stay home and keep to myself I thought, “Great! I need lots of me time to do my writing and art, so let’s put all this down time to good use!”

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried very hard to do just that. I’ve invested time in writing projects, I’ve more than doubled my output on the art projects I have ongoing, I’ve worked on outlines, I’ve researched editors who can help me take my projects to the next level. I’ve put irons in the fire and stepped on the bellows – I’ve got a lot I want to do before I die and not the greatest amount of time to do it. But I’ve found that I also have to stop for breaks far more than I anticipated.

Creativity is a muscle, and  the more you use it the more tired you get.

That’s something I’d always known, at least intuitively, from my time in college when classes with heavy writing elements would leave us with “writing burn out” for a week or two after the semester ended. I hadn’t suffered as much from these burnouts, at least it felt to me, as I’d always had some writing project stewing during the semester and sometimes I just had to replace personal projects with school projects. But what I rediscovered in the past few weeks is that devoting large chunks of the day, every day, to creative work takes a pronounced toll. So whether it’s the result of a global disaster or just your next writing retreat, here’s some things I’ve found that really helps the mind clear and reset after the creative fog rolls in during your next prolonged burst of creative work.

1. Cook a meal. 

Writing and drawing both require engaging the mind, as I’d assume most other forms of serious creative work do, and the brain demands more calories than any other single organ in the body. Doing a lot of creative work can leave you feeling more than a bit peckish. A lot of people will just keep a snack at hand while writing, so they can munch on nuts or chips or something when they start to feel hunger pangs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it does fill the stomach. But it can get unhealthy very quickly and doesn’t really give your creative muscles a chance to bounce back. Holding out a little longer then stopping to cook a real meal for yourself – and anyone else interested in it – can go a long way to letting yourself relax and reset your creative energies while allowing you to eat a little healthier food in more controlled portions.

2. Clean up your workspace. 

Clutter in your area is actually very taxing on your mind. Constantly having that novel or magazine at the edge of your vision causes a part of your subconscious to dwell on the plot of that story or the article about hair dressing you were reading last night. Not ideal. Taking ten minutes to clear up your workspace, putting things away, dusting, vacuuming and generally making things more pleasant to be in, not only lets your brain relax it makes an environment more conductive to your work in the future. Depending on how dusty it was, it may be healthier for you, too.

3. Take an exercise break. 

Balance that hard mental labor with a little hard physical labor. Getting your heart rate up and the blood moving moves oxygen to your brain and helps it reset and the intense focus on simple tasks will let your mind relax and get ready for another round of intense creative work. Aerobic exercise works better for this endeavor than muscle training, at least in my case, but it couldn’t hurt to try both until you find one that really works for you.

4. Socialize. 

Not so easy to do right now, but a quick check in with family or friends can go a long way towards clearing the cobwebs and energizing your mind. Give your mother a call or hit up a Discord forum and chat about something with your friends there. After twenty or thirty minutes you should be refocused and ready to go.

In general, even experienced authors cannot sit and write all day. They tend to break their work into two or three large chunks, with meals, errands and chores to in between to clear their heads. So if long term writing has your brain wearing out, give some of these things a try and find what works best for you and don’t be afraid to take a break if you can’t focus during long creative bouts.

Spring 2020 Fiction Roundup

It’s been a while since I read or watched a fresh tale and felt truly inspired to sit down and think through everything I loved and hated about it, what worked and what didn’t. That’s partly because I haven’t been reading as much fiction as in days past and partly because I haven’t seen as much that really impressed me in the last few years. Maybe our cultural institutions are on the decline. Maybe I’m just more jaded and cynical about media these days. Maybe it’s a combination of both.

That said, I’ve had the pleasure of watching, reading and listening to some very entertaining fiction in the last year or so months and I thought I would share some of it with you. Strap in, because we’re going to go through this quick!

We begin with Another Kingdom by Andrew Klavan. I covered this series once, after the first season concluded. With the conclusion of the audio version of this series now out and available for free on the YouTube you can sit down and enjoy a truly rousing adventure story that takes many of the shibboleths of modern culture (particularly in Hollywood) to task while showing one man’s transformation from timid and uncertain to confident and purposeful. There’s a lot of interesting allegories at work in the story, clear enough to speak to the audience but general enough not to come off as preachy. While Klavan’s prose sometimes belabors a point a little too much and Knowles’ performance still doesn’t always sell the female characters listening to Another Kingdom is still quite the fun experience.

In much the same vein, This Sounds Serious is a hilarious sendup and love letter to the true crime podcast. From the rivalry of two very odd twin brothers to the fascination an entire small town in Washington has with Joe Rogan, the creators of this spoof podcast series has an eye for the absurd that they always try to emphasize while crafting fun and devious crime stories to tell us about in a mockumentary fashion. There’s not a lot of great traditional character work here, nor are you likely to grow over attached to any of the characters as the cast will mostly change from season to season. But there is a kind of suspense built over time and it is quite fun to listen to, even if you’re not likely lot laugh out loud more than once or twice an episode.

The Dragon Prince is an interesting take on a fantasy property. While I’ve found its approach to some issues to be a little lacking in thought on the whole it builds good characters and takes a nuanced approach to most of the issues it discusses, showing even its obviously evil characters as well rounded and even occasionally sympathetic characters. It has an eye for action and a wonderful aesthetic to its world. While a lot of questions about the philosophical questions it wants to ask are unanswered at this point on the whole I prefer that willingness to let the issues breath. For example, Dragon Prince brings up issues of prejudice quite often. So far, the issues that prejudice presents have never been resolved in a single episode, as many other shows aimed at younger viewers would insist on doing. Some of the lesser side characters are never confronted about their prejudice since confronting this lesser evil would take away from the character’s ability to pursue other goals, forcing them to chose which good ends they will pursue. Thus we see the characters interacting with prejudice in much more realistic, true to life ways. That’s nice to see, and I’ll probably continue to follow Dragon Prince until its run is over.

If you’re wondering what I thought of Castlevania Season 3, as I said in my Castlevania Seasons 1 and 2 review, I’m happy with where that story ended and don’t plan on watching it. However, Sei Manos, an interesting blend of the Western and a Kung Fu film, produced by the same studio as Castlevania, manages to bring a new level of smoothness to the animation while crafting a radically different tale about a Kung Fu master with a devilish secret who dies, leaving his three pupils to struggle with various dark powers as they try to unravel the bizarre blending of drug trafficking and occult powers that threaten their small Mexican town in the late 1970s. It’s mostly intense action but, much like in their previous vampire tale, the writers and animators find plenty of human moments to leaven its ghostly tale. But more than that, it manages to take an animated character, who tends to take a lot of their personality from their voice actors, and make him a mute while still giving you a clear window into his personality and desires. A remarkable achievement, all things considered.

A Letter for the King is very different from many fantasy products aimed at young adults. It presents us with a totally normal protagonist – no, not totally normal. He’s probably a bit weaker and more cowardly than most. It then sends him on an adventure pursued by friends and foes alike, with the charge to deliver… well, a letter to the king. The journey will cost Tiuri far more than he thought, and along the way he will have to confront poor decisions on the part of himself, his family and his friends. He’ll find that his good character is rarely rewarded by the world around him. And in the end he’ll make things right not with magic, strength or cunning but determination, trust and courage. There are major failures in the writing of this series, particularly as regards the climax. But the heart behind the message and the decision to put character at the heart of the conflict makes it a refreshing change from most of its peers.

Last summer I was beta reader for a novel called The Last Warpiper, which is a fantasy novel about an elite soldier who plays the bagpipes.

Wait! Come back! The bagpipes are broken for most of the story!

In all seriousness, Warpiper is a very straightforward, John Wick kind of story about a man who has been wronged by the King and has only one means to set things right. It’s good worldbuilding, an interesting protagonist and anthropomorphic cats. What more could you want, amiright?

Marion G. Harmon’s Repercussions marks a major inflection point in his Wearing the Cape series. Hope Corrigan spends the first three years of her career as a professional Cape protecting the city of Chicago but in this story we see her scope of operations believably enlarged to an international scale. It’s been interesting to watch Harmon’s slow building stakes over the past three or four novels and in this one he has finally decided to go all in and swing for the fences. Many superhero stories try to do this far too quickly, putting the fate of the world in the balance very quickly and it frequently strains believability. This is Harmon’s eighth book and he’s just now getting to the global stage. Rather than coming too soon, I’m almost annoyed it’s only happening now. But only almost – this was an excellent paradigm shift for the series and if you like the series or superhero lit in general it’s well worth reading.

That’s all of the really noteworthy stories I’ve taken in since I started writing Pay the Piper. If you’re looking for something to do in the next few weeks (but why would you be?) then they’re well worth checking out. If you’ve already read them, be sure to let me know what you think!

Joe Exotic and the Dangers of Story

Like many people these last few weeks, I’ve had more time than normal on my hands. So I took a moment to flip on the Netflix machine and skim through the titles and what do I see? A little thing called Tiger King, a true crime documentary about big cats and the big personalities that work with them. I figured, sure, why not? Tigers are neat and I’ve enjoyed some true crime podcasts in the past (also, This Sounds Serious which is definitely not true crime but more on that next week). And it was number one in the most watched list so it must have some redeeming value, right?

Not necessarily.

If you’ve watched Tiger King already you’re aware that it’s basically a slow motion trainwreck as the titular tiger collector, who goes by the name Joe Exotic, got so wrapped up in a rivalry with another big cat collector, one Carol Baskins, that he nearly went bankrupt and got himself entangled in a murder-for-hire scheme that would eventually see him arrested, tried and convicted. Pretty grim stuff for a man who ostensibly just wanted to bring beautiful and exotic animals to the public. And if that’s all he was, I’d probably be pretty sympathetic to him.

The problem with Joe Exotic was one I see playing out over and over again in modern life, one I’ve spent a long time thinking about myself and one that culturally Westerners are very, very vulnerable to. Joe Exotic got caught up in his own story, so much so that he lost the plot.

I don’t intend to break down the nuances of Joe vs. Carol in their approach to conservation of wildlife or the nuances of how they cared for animals under their charge. Nor do I intend to delve into the quite torrid details of their personal lives and the various accusations that can be leveled against either of them. Tiger King does that quite effectively itself, if that’s what you want you can watch it. What fascinates me is how far afield Joe went while ostensibly defending big cats and other specimens of exotic wildlife from extinction.

We often say that everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story. While the accuracy of that truism is debatable in some cases, I think it’s more accurate than not. Of course, accuracy is not the point of the saying, the point is to try and inspire a little empathy for others. But in the case of Joe and Carol that was not the effect it had.

Both Joe and Carol were in the process of trying to help out big cats. If the things they said about their efforts are even partially true they both saw themselves as heroes in this endeavor. But they wound up fundamentally at odds, even though they were not located near each other and their methods were not radically different to the outside observer. This opposition seems to have come from the need for a heroic character to have an easily identifiable villain.

Now it is possible for a hero to face stiff opposition without a specific face to put on it, as in some disaster movies. And the opposition doesn’t have to be a villain per se, many sports heroes compete against honorable and admirable men, as we see in the rivalry between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. However humans generally react the most strongly and vividly to a battle between good and evil. So it’s no surprise that, as Joe and Carol grew more and more firmly opposed to one another, that’s the tenor their conflict took. Each wanted their supporters firmly set against the other and strove to expose what they felt were hypocritical and evil actions on the part of the other. That’s not wonderful, and it really didn’t help the cause they espoused, but in and of itself it’s not enough to hire a hitman over.

Where Joe went particularly off the rails is when he tried to pivot to politics.

On the surface it seems like a natural progression – Carol was trying to change the laws, Joe tried to become a lawmaker. The problem was it wasn’t – as really would have made more sense for Joe to lobby as well, rather than take a job that would have removed him from his animals and his zoo entirely. That’s much the same reason many other high profile members of niche causes don’t go into politics. Politicians have to consider the desires of a broad range of people, special interests want to remain focused on their… well, special interests. But by this point Joe was fixed on being the hero of the hour and riding off to Washington, then later the state capitol, to wage war for his cause must have seemed like the next logical move. But instead he nearly bankrupted himself and wound up vulnerable to a series of lawsuits over the next few years.

While those lawsuits were quite avoidable, Joe would not have gotten pushed to the point where he basically lost possession of his zoo, a lifelong project, and spiraled to the point where he could get arrested for hiring a hitman if he’d kept track of the priorities. Instead he fell into the story where he was the hero, battling the villain trying to undo his zoo. Now he’s just a supporting character, keeping America entertained as we suffer through trying times.

I suppose Joe isn’t the only writer to lose track of where his story is going. It’s a tough balance to walk for even experienced writers. But that’s the problem of looking at your life like you’re the main character. Whether the story is good or the story is bad, at least you have control of all the variables, at least you know everything that’s going on. You can make judgements about the parts characters are playing with full information and with the knowledge that things will turn out how you want, whether other people like it or not. In real life, you don’t have the information and you can’t foresee how things will turn out and it’s very easy to go from the king of the cats to another dog in a cage. Maybe sometimes it’s better to play the supporting character and let others decide if you’re ready for the spotlight.

Wold Building: Organic Vs. Thematic

When you read about building a world from the great fantasy and scifi writers of the modern age almost all of them agree that the best way to go about it is to begin with the foundational premises and carry them out to their logical conclusions. Are there aliens to think about? What planet do they come from, what’s the environment like, what kind of culture results? How are they physically similar or different from humans and how does that change the ways they think and act? Does your fantasy world have magic? How does it work and how will that change the culture and politics?

This approach likely goes back to the legendary Tolkien, a linguist who developed the languages of his world as he wrote stories about that world. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, which I call the organic approach. Starting with the big picture and figuring out what the backdrop to your world is like is a great way to give your story consistency, predictability and easily understandable stakes. At the same time, it’s not the only way to build a world, nor is it necessarily the most effective way.

The other form of world building is thematic – when you have a particular idea you want to break down it may make more sense to build the world around those ideas first and foremost, then do your best to create rational consequences for those ideas later. Is your story about gambling? Create a massive underground society revolving around gambling in place of more traditional commerce. Is it about the grinding nature of competition? Create a world where war is replaced with a kind of game and explore the detrimental effects on society.

In my own writing I’ve tinkered with both kinds of world building. Years ago I wrote “Emergency Surface” as a quick entry into a much larger meditation on the future that had coherent rules, a three century long timeline, concrete rule for technology from faster than light travel to microcomputing and more. I haven’t written too much in that world beyond further explorations of the New Ice Age where I started but I’ve always had plans. (We’ll see what comes of them.) One thing that did and still does excite me so much about that future timeline is all the different kinds of stories I can tell around different major events in the world and different technologies available there.

On the other hand, when I sat down to write Schrodinger’s Book I was interested in telling a story about memory, how we tell stories and the real meaning of the victors writing the history books. From the mostly abandoned and empty Earth to the mass manipulation of books for the purposes of controlling culture and memory, to the suspiciously articulate enlisted spacers who had to explain the integrity of books to the now clueless Earthlings, every aspect of the Triad Worlds and UNIGOV Earth was chosen first to cater to these thematic elements and then refined to facilitate the coherence and verisimilitude of the world. Information manipulation on the scale presented in the story is, in my opinion, impossible even given the cultural and technological realities of the time. But my desire was less to explain how such things came to be and more look at what part of our nature gives rise to the impulses that create such things.

Interestingly enough, Martian Scriptures, the sequel to Schrodinger’s Book that I’m currently working on, contains a blending of these two takes on world building. I was interested in examining how patterning ourselves and our societies on story (a very popular notion these days) is an alluring and dangerous concept. As I looked at how I might go about tackling these themes I realized there were elements introduced in Schrodinger’s Book that played heavily towards this theme, most notably the idea that the Triad Worlds had an offshoot that was deliberately trying to emulate the ideas of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek. From there it was a very short walk to a basic conflict that led to most of the story arc falling in to place. At the same time, I had to organically extend the ideas introduced already to make sure that Martian Scriptures didn’t come off as inconsistent with its precursor and introduce new ideas to allow for the clear mechanical execution of some of the more “futuristic” portions of the story.

I don’t have any problem with organic world building, but having done quite a bit of thematic world building in the past few years I’ve found that there are some clear advantages of the one versus the other. Organic world building can often become a trap. People spend so much time building their world they lose interesting in telling stories about it, much like the overly fastidious dad in The Lego Movie. On the other hand thematic world building can leave blind spots all over your story and you can easily write yourself into a corner because you weren’t thinking about the consequences of your thematically appropriate decisions.

On the other hand, thematic world building is fast and powerful so long as you avoid the pitfalls. It makes the audience feel they’ve really experienced your theme to its fullest extent when executed on properly. Well done organic world building drags the audience into your world and lets them experience being there in a way no other story really can.

The real question is what your story needs. Many adventure stories rely heavily on organic world building to keep fun and interesting obstacles in front of the protagonists and to keep an endless supply of new and exciting locales on hand. On the other hand, thematic world building often gives the best setting for deep examinations of characters and motive or cultures and consequences.

Even if you’re not creating an entire world for your story you still have to populate the environment around your characters with businesses, subcultures and objects from the real world around you. Learning to world build will give you a better feel for what these choices mean for your characters and story. And an oft-overlooked part of that is the balance between the organic outgrowths of your choices and the thematic implications of them. So no matter what kind of writer you are, consider your world building from both sides of the coin.