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It’s Thanksgiving week, and I didn’t expect to get anything from my publisher, they’re as distracted as everyone else. Possibly even not in the office. So I’m at loose ends again. Every so often people will ask where I get my ideas for characters or plots, or how I manage the ideas I do have. That’s the topic of this post, how I manage my own creativity.

SOAP BOX: I’ve read other advice from ‘creatives’ about how to be creative, and, honestly, those things mostly leave me flat. They assume that a ‘creative’ is someone special instead of someone lucky, and that they have a talent for creating that no one else has. Let me tell you, a single mother trying to feed her family on minimum wage can get very creative with a budget. A programmer trying to make an interface match the design specs can get very creative. A plumber trying to solve toilet issues in a a 50-year-old house can get very creative. All human beings are innately creative, that’s part of being alive. Those of us who get paid to write, draw, or act need to get over ourselves, we’re just lucky.

Now, off my soap box, I’ll share with you how I’ve learned to deal with ideas and inspiration. I’m a little uncomfortable with this, I don’t want to be like the ‘creatives’ I’ve read before, but maybe this is something other people will find useful for their own process.

  • I notice stuff. You can ask anyone I’m around, I pay attention to things others won’t, especially people. The way someone walks. The rings on their fingers. How they look at the person they’re with. Conversations between friends or strangers on the bus. It’s all relevant to me, it’s all interesting to me. I’m very conscious of my own background, privileges, and shortcomings, so paying attention to other people lets me try to put myself in their shoes, to see life from their perspective. I also try to keep in mind something my father once told me when I was being particularly insufferable: ‘everyone you meet knows something you don’t.’
  • I write down the stuff I notice. Yes, every time. Back in the olden days I had to carry around a little notebook and a pencil (pens run out of ink, you can always sharpen a pencil). Now I have a smart phone with a built-in notepad that synchs to ‘the cloud,’ and a magic genie named Siri who only listens to me when I call her name. When I get home where I have paper and a pen, I transcribe my notes from my phone.
  • I read my notes again. It’s great if you write down your observations, but if you never come back to them you’ve just wasted a lot of effort. Once a month or so I’ll drag out an old notebook and page through it. I have tons of notebooks, so I rarely repeat myself during a year. I always find something fascinating that I’ve forgotten.

Notice stuff. Write it down. Read it again.

“This is great for educating yourself on the human condition,” you might say, “but what about the meat and potatoes of writing? What about characters and plot?”

Character For me, characters start with someone I know. A character has certain traits, and I associate that character with a person I know who has similar traits. Yes, sometimes I base a character on an actual person, but more often the character has some archetypal traits that more or less match someone I know. Doing this helps me get a handle on who the character is, and I can build from there. No, I will not tell you who I’ve based my characters on; if you know the people I do, you could probably figure it out.

Plot Plots are stories, so when I’m developing my plots I pay attention to real-life stories. I watch the news, read the paper (online sometimes), and read non-fiction. You can’t make up anything more twisted and convoluted than actual events. Real life stories involve the basest, ugliest emotions and the most noble human aspirations, and everything in between. Once you understand – or try to understand – what motivates real people, you can try to gin up a plot that motivates your fake people.

There’s more to it than just these things, of course, and I’ll get into more detail in later posts.

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