Cultivate Creativity in Your Day Job & Down Time

Creative Color in Your Day-to-Day

Before “breaking in” to a regular income–producing readership, most novelists, poets, and essayists toil away at day jobs while wordsmithing on the side. But just because you have a day job doesn’t mean you can’t exercise your creativity during the 9–5 grind. When you cultivate creativity in your day job and down time, you can approach your creative writing with a greater capacity to generate interesting ideas to communicate and intriguing ways of communicating them.

Creativity = Problem Solving

Creativity isn’t magic. There isn’t an Idea Muse who sends you incantations that conjure eloquence onto your blank pages. Creativity, at its most basic, is problem solving. It’s looking at the materials in front of you and devising a way to make them fulfill a need or desire you have. Author John Brown and the cast of Writing Excuses talked about this in a particularly good episode about the creative process.

Recognizing creativity as problem solving takes out a lot of the mystery of exercising it. There are problems that need to be solved in every situation a human being inhabits, and there are a few main steps to creatively solving problems in any given circumstance.

Learn your materials. Understand what you have available to help you solve your problem (whether that’s scissors, humor, or tax law). Be aware of your surroundings and resources.

Acquire your target. Most times you won’t have to create problems: they’ll come to you. Whether the problem is your children’s unwillingness to eat vegetables or all your wasted time at a slow desk job, there’s bound to be one or two basic issues you have to face regularly.

Apply your materials to your target. Obvious, isn’t it? Take what you have around you and use it to solve the problem in front of you. Find a way to make your grumpy coworker laugh; improve the office filing system; create a new product that fills a niche. Every time you find a new way to solve a problem, you become a little more practiced in the skill of creativity.

Problem Solving = Creative Writing Solutions

Using the process of knowing your resources and applying them to a specific target lets you practice a process that crosses over into your writing directly. When you’re writing, there are some tools you always have in your toolbox: plot, character, genre conventions, metaphor, scene changes, chapter breaks, punctuation, etc. You can use these in conventional ways, or you can turn them to unorthodox uses. (Similarly, you can use scissors as scissors or as an extension of your arm that helps you retrieve a document from the crevice between your desk and the wall. Or, you know, as a murder weapon or something.) If you keep an awareness of your resources and your target, you can use your exercised creativity chops to find inventive solutions that will delight a reader.

In each writing project you’ll also have project-specific tools: a character’s penchant for plums, the rhyme scheme you’ve been using for four stanzas, the death-theme you began on page 1. These are probably where the day-job creativity practice is most useful, especially the practice of making yourself aware of resources. The more aware you are of the tools you’ve given yourself, the better you’ll be at adapting those tools to plot twists, character arcs, and giving your reader a rollicking reading experience.

Creativity isn’t magic: it’s your applied problem solving skill. So the next time you run into a 9–5 roadblock, ask yourself, “How creative can I be today?”

Image by Simon Howden via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Weekly Roundup: 10/15–10/21

Page from the Book of KellsChristopher Butler: How Disregarding Design Limits The Power Of Content

This is a pretty long article from Christopher Butler that talks about how design can shape and inform meaning and interpretation. It’s especially relevant today when design is so fluid—ebooks change from device to device, etc. Butler points out that the problems with fluid form aren’t problematic for everything, but fluid form does present limits that are problematic in some instances.

Kevin Canfield: Can Harper Perennial Reinvent Publishing?

In this article Kevin Canfield examines how Harper Perennial is staying nimble and relevant in today’s publishing climate. It’s a good look at how publishers can adapt to the opportunities available today.

New York Times: Authors to Get Sales Data Online From 3 Big Publishers

The New York Times reports that three big publishers are implementing online access to sales data that they will release to their authors. This is a great change, in my opinion. Authors have been a bit starved for information in many situations—that’s one of the appeals of epublishing. Changing that discrepancy will strengthen publishers’ positions in the market.

Duolit: Get Noticed: 5 Steps to Boosting Book Publicity

The team over at Duolit gives out five key points for publicizing your book. Their tips help you look professional and prepared. Another piece of their advice—having your publicity plan figured out before you publish—is key to publicizing your books properly.

Writing Excuses: Endings

Writers often get a lot of advice about starting out and beginning, but advice on endings is a little harder to come by. Lou Anders returns to Writing Excuses to discuss sticking your novel’s ending.

Weekly Roundup: 10/1–10/7

Writing Excuses: Hollywood Formula

This week’s episode of Writing Excuses is a gem. Lou Anders, from Pyr joins the regular crew to talk about the Hollywood formula, which centers around three main characters and their relationships. Lou says the formula is a method many screenwriters use to ensure they’re getting the best emotional effect possible from their story’s climax. It’s well worth the listen, I assure you.

Roz Morris: Four tips for writing good prose

Writer Roz Morris gives four great tips on getting your prose right. I especially like her second tip, “Develop an ear.” I’ve edited for writers who have excellent vocabularies and clear ideas, but the sentences they write are like poorly paved roads. Your readers needs to be able to glide through your words, hit the beats you need them to hit, and continue through your story.

Emily Books: An Indi(e) Bookstore

Emily Books is a new indie bookstore that sells a subscription to 12 ebooks a year (the owners hope to sell a larger variety later, but will always keep the subscription model). They embrace ebooks, and they say, “We want there to be a million stores like Emily Books, with dedicated booksellers—not algorithms—deciding which books to recommend. When a monolith is in charge of selecting which books readers get to hear about, everyone loses. We think independent bookselling is good for publishers, authors, and readers!” It’s an interesting idea in the realm of content curation. Not sure Emily Books would be the bookstore for me, but it would be interesting to see more curator-style stores popping up.

Lou Anders: The Tangled Webs We Weave

Lou Anders makes his second appearance in this week’s roundup with his essay “The Tangled Webs We Weave.” The essay will only be available online for a limited time, but it appears in Webslinger: SF and Comic Writers on Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, which is edited by Gerry Conway. Lou aims his essay at how science is becoming less sexy in our culture, and how media both reflects and contributes to that change.

John Scalzi: Writer Beware and “The Write Agenda”

Author and SFWA president John Scalzi discusses a new group called The Write Agenda. This group is determined to discredit resources aspiring authors have used for years to keep tabs on industry scammers. TWA seems to make hefty use of boycott lists and one-star reviews on books written by authors they don’t agree with. Leaving one-star reviews for anything other than the contents of the book is a ridiculous practice regardless. Read Scalzi’s write up and be cautious.

Weekly Roundup: 9/24–9/30

Gini Dietrich: Control Your Own Destiny

Gini is not in publishing, per se (though she is writing a book). Gini is in PR, and she’s also a business owner and she’s not keen on blaming your shortcomings on the “current climate.” While reading her article, the arguments she was refuting reminded me of common complaints about the publishing industry. She says, “Stop blaming the economy and start working twice as hard to build [y]our businesses”; I hear, “Stop blaming the industry and start working twice as hard on your writing.” Write great sentences; write great chapters; write great books. If you get a pile of rejection letters or your self-published novel tanks, don’t blame your circumstances. Brush yourself off and do it all again, only better. Books are you business. Don’t fall into this human flaw Gini points out: “We’re human beings. We like to have someone/something to blame when things don’t go our way. We’re inherently lazy. And we are always looking for shortcuts and the easy way out.”

(Reading Gini’s blog, Spin Sucks, can also be very informative when it comes to marketing, especially authentic marketing like that championed by a lot of publishing pros. I read it every day, and while I don’t always find something relevant to me, I find relevant posts often enough that I keep reading.)

TABISSO Punctuation LampsTABISSO: Punctuation Lamps

I want one of these lamps. The closing quotation marks are beautiful, but depending on where it was going I might pick the colon instead, because I love colons. (By the way, last Saturday was National Punctuation Day, and I intended to entertain you with a lovely post about the dash family—hyphen, en dash, and em dash—but I was celebrating the first wedding anniversary I’ve spent in the same country as my husband, so I never wrote the post. I’ll write one for you later, because I believe they grant you amazing options for communication and nuance.)

Amazon: The Kindle Fire & Cheaper Kindle Models

You’ve probably already heard about Amazon’s Kindle Fire, the $199 color tablet that was announced this week. My thoughts? If I’m getting an ereader, I want e-ink. I personally don’t like backlighting at all. If I’m going to get a tablet, I would probably go with something other than the Kindle Fire. Currently it appears that Amazon is trying to exert the kind of control over its appstore that Apple has over iTunes, but their submission process has been complicated, flawed, and unhelpful for the app company I work for. Apps get rejected before they’re reviewed and then the company gets reminders to resubmit the app—even though the app is already resubmitted. The system needs ironing out before the Kindle Fire can have the same ecosystem as other tablets.

GalleyCat: Kindle Ebook Errors in Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE

This week Neal Stephenson’s new novel, REAMDE, was released with egregious errors in the Kindle version. From what I’ve heard described, it sounds like the file was probably converted straight from PDF and not proofread afterwards. If publishers are charging a premium on their ebooks, like the price they were asking for a brand-new Stephenson book, the ebooks need to be as pristine as print. That said, if you’re a reader who’s getting pristine ebooks, realize that the publishing house probably put extra work into proofing them in multiple formats (.epub, .mobi, etc.), and don’t squawk too much about the price being the same as the print version, because re-proofing those books is probably worth much more than the $2 is costs to print a hardcover.

Amazon has since mysteriously replaced the copies of the book that had been downloaded, once again proving that if your library is on a Kindle, Amazon has control of it. (Admittedly, it was sort of an opt-in system this time, though cryptic, but Amazon has a habit of doing things that control or obsessively track your use of the things they sell you. Case in point: All your web browsing on the Kindle Fire is tracked, and you can’t opt out.)

Shawn Coyne: Acquisitions P&Ls

Editor Shawn Coyne shares an inside look at acquisitions profit and loss statements (P&Ls). He talks about how to pitch in a way that makes money sense (not just story sense) and gives those who don’t work in a publishing house an inside look at how a manuscript goes from a well liked submission to a book with a contract offer.

Writing Excuses: Writing Assistants

This week the Writing Excuses crew talks to Peter Ahlstrom and Valerie Dowbenko, writing assistants to Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, respectively. They all talk about why hiring a writing assistant helps authors manage their ideas, keep up with deadlines, and accomplish assorted writing-related (but non-writing) tasks. In short, they talk about how writing assistants and other hired help give you more time to just write.

Orbit: Spring-Summer 2021 Covers

Orbit put up a blog post with its covers for the 2012 Spring-Summer catalog. Sometimes Orbit’s covers really delight me (I still practically cackle whenever I see Feed by Mira Grant), but sometimes they don’t quite hit the spot for me. (For example, although Brent Weeks’s Night Angel trilogy has good covers, they are also strikingly similar to Karen Miller’s mage series. The branding for the two has too much crossover for my taste.) Which are your favorite covers in the upcoming catalog?

Weekly Roundup: 9/3–9/9

Cory Doctorow: “Why Should Anyone Care?”

Cory Doctorow shares his thoughts about working at a bookstore and how that opened his eyes to how the book-producing industry chugs through the years. He also provides some practical thoughts on self-publishing based on his own experience. My favorite quote: “I knew I’d have to do some of the stuff my publisher had done, but like everyone doing something complicated for the first time, I dramatically underestimated how much work this would be. ”

Stacy Whitman: “Some Thoughts on Middle Grade Voice”

The editorial director of Tu Books shares her thoughts on voice in general and the middle grade voice in particular (I thought this article would follow up last week’s Wordplay podcast quite well). She focuses on how hard humor is, and why it’s really bad if your writing displays the difficulty of your undertaking.

Nathan Bransford: “Publishers Are Squandering Their Cachet On Imprints”

Nathan Bransford presents a post about how publishers lend credibility to authors associated with their brand name—and why that credibility may be squandered on lesser-known imprints and specialty groups. (I’d like to comment more on this, but I recognize more imprints than most people should, so I can’t really say which imprints are actually adding brand-name power to a book.)

Wordplay Podcast Episode 2: “Character, Plot, & Protagonists”

This week the Wordplay team has Ally Condie, the author of Matched, as a guest on episode 2.They talk about the difference between character-driven and plot-driven fiction, and why you need a balance between the two. They also harangue the idea of a paper cutout villain who doesn’t have believable motives or a certain degree of emotional complexity.

Writing Excuses 6.14: “Suspension of Disbelief”

The Writing Excuses crew has Patrick Rothfuss joining them for a podcast about suspending your reader’s disbelief. Some highlights: don’t make everything too tidy, don’t betray human nature, lay your groundwork, and make use of the slow build to absurdity. Rothfuss also highlights the concept of bathos, which boils down to undercutting serious or weighty things with commonplace events or thoughts.

Jon Schindehette: “Is Illustration a Viable and Productive Art Form?”

Illustration is the art of books, from two-page illustrated spreads to covers. In this post Jon Schindehette (creative director at Wizards of the Coast) briefly looks at illustration as an art form from an artist’s standpoint. He also addresses the viewpoint of an art director or editor. “[Art directors and editors] are responsible for ensure [sic] the artist that is chosen is appropriate for the task at hand, but they are also responsible for communicating the ‘needs of the text’ so that you [the illustrator] understand what success will look like.” If you’re an author looking into being your own publisher, you should also start thinking about what it takes to be your own art director as well.

Kristin Nelson: “In The Author’s Shoes”

Agent Kristin Nelson shares a conversation she had with an author who has recently changed agents. The author pointed out three things every author should be sure of before signing with an agent. Kristin adds her thoughts on each point. These points serve as a reminder that the author–agent relationship should be a partnership, and you should approach it as such. If you can’t ensure they’ll be a good business partner, you shouldn’t be signing with them.

Weekly Roundup: 8/29–9/3

This is the first of my (hopefully) weekly roundups where I post articles and events in publishing that caught my eye this week. The focus is that these are what caught my eye, so they may not be the most important stuff for anyone else.

Wordplay Podcast: Young Adult & Middle Grade Novels

Nathan Bransford (former agent, author of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow), James Dashner (author of the Thirteenth Reality series, Maze Runner Trilogy), and J. Scott Savage (author of the Far World series and the forthcoming Grimville Case Files from HarperCollins) launched a new podcast this week called Wordplay. Their first episode was “Young Adult and Middle Grade Novels,” which, given their publishing credentials, was a perfect topic for them (the episode is around 20 minutes long—I’m pretty sure they don’t intend for it to become an hour-long monster ’cast).

The point they hit on that I appreciated the most was defining the idea of a middle grade sensibility. That sensibility is something I’ve heard a lot about, and when I read a YA book and then a middle grade book I can definitely feel the difference, but it’s hard to define. They essentially said that reaching a middle grade sensibility means writing from the perspective of a young reader—the things that get noticed, the way they’re interpreted, etc., should be seen like your ideal reader. This can come from channeling your inner 12-year-old (and trying to sound like them) or simply capturing the sense of wonder associated with what your ideal reader will fall in love with (they use Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as an example of a middle grade book that doesn’t have a middle grade voice but still captures the middle grade sensibility). Portraying your ideal reader’s interests in a way they’ll appreciate is good advice no matter the age group you’re writing for.

Another interesting point they hit on was whether the MG/YA distinction is going to matter quite as much as people move away from physical bookstores (where things are shelved categorically, instead of by author). Nathan mentioned that middle grade is the youngest genre that gets read up by older people; James said he has the same reader in mind when he’s writing the Thirteenth Reality books (MG) and when he’s writing the Maze Runner books (YA). They all think the distinctions are going to become less important for future electronic markets.

The podcast will also have special episodes every third Monday that are just for younger writers and readers (3rd through 8th grade). You can email questions or requests for content directly to contact@wordplaypodcast.com.

Writing Excuses: World Building Communications Technology

If you write in speculative fiction, you’ve probably already heard of Writing Excuses, the writing podcast from Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, and (new to this season) Mary Robinette Kowal. For episode 13 of season 6, they put out “World Building Communications Technology.”

The podcast is basically an encouragement to think outside the box when you’re thinking about your speculative world’s communications capabilities, and they also warned against defaulting to the level of communication you’re familiar with. When you’re in a pre-industrial world, remember things like the semaphor, or the communication capabilities of the Great Wall of China (old war technologies are good things to look at). In Victorian England, they had mail deliveries and pickups 10 times a day—that’s practically as good as email if you live close enough together.

To find inspiration for conflict in your communications, the WE crew recommended looking for failure points in your communications system (where can servers clog up, what happens during natural disasters, etc.).

Nathan Bransford: The Place for Publishers with Big-Name Authors

Nathan Bransford makes his second appearance in this week’s roundup with his blog post entitled “By the Time A Self-Publisher Hits It Big, Do They Really Need a Publisher?” In the post he looks at John Locke’s recent distribution deal with Simon & Schuster and questions what publishers can offer authors who have already made a name for themselves (i.e. the authors who do much of the work to make publishing a functional business). He wonders if publishers who survive the revolution will need to focus on the package of services they provide authors and instead become service providers instead of top dogs.

Janet Reid: Pitch versus query

For those of you planning to go with traditional publishing: the literary agent behind Query Shark posted about the difference between a pitch and a query—with examples. Examples really are the best way to learn this stuff.

Joe Konrath: How To Succeed

For anyone trying to be published (traditionally or on your own): self-publishing advocate Joe Konrath succinctly outlines how to succeed. My favorite line? “No one deserves to make money writing. The world doesn’t owe you a living, and you aren’t entitled to huge sales. You simply need to work at it, until you get lucky.” I also like his answer to “What if I never get lucky?” and “Can it really take forever to be successful?” No matter what you’re trying to do with your books, it takes hard work, dedication, and a lot of luck. That doesn’t mean you need a lot of those things concentrated over a matter of month, or even over a few years.

Lou Anders: Thoughts on eBooks

Please take a moment to consider Lou Anders’s thoughts on ebooks. I wholeheartedly agree. I’ll probably add more thoughts on this in future posts.