Fiction Blog, Musings & Bookish Things

Filling the Creative Well

Zebra by George Stubbs, 1763

Ever since our move to New Haven, my creativity levels (and if we’re being honest, my emotions), have fluctuated more than normal. One day, I’m happily whipping out a new chapter for Desertera #2 or proudly revising The Cogsmith’s Daughter (Desertera #1) for the umpteenth (but next-to-last!) time. The next day, I’m moping around the apartment with barely the energy to lift my Kindle but plenty of energy to suck Daniel into yet another round of Netflix.

One of my creative “mentors” (unbeknownst to her, which sounds much creepier than it actually is), Joanna Penn, talks about the duality of art. Above her workstation, she has a sign that says “Have you made art today?” But she also notes that it is just as important to consume art as it is to make it. After all, if we let our creative well run dry and never take in new inspiration, how can we continue to make fresh and invigorating art, whatever our chosen medium?

the unborn
The Unborn by Anselm Kiefer, 2001

Most writers I know (and several of my non-writer friends) turn to books when they are feeling bored or uninspired. Sometimes this works for me, too. However, my reading has revolved around my book review queue lately, and while I have been enjoying those novels, it’s made reading feel more like “work” than play (one of the many reasons I’m not taking new requests).

But, even when reading is purely for my own enjoyment, it’s not always the best medium for me to gain inspiration. For whatever reason, I feel inspired to write after seeing visual art (paintings, sculptures, etc.) or listening to music. Partly, I think this is because I cannot paint or make music, much to my continual despair, and partly, I think my brain or subconscious or muse (not that I think I have one) likes to “translate” these forms of art into a new one — writing.

divination book
Divination Book (Pustaha), Batak, Sumatra, mid 18th-19th century

Yesterday, Daniel and I finally decided to get out of the house (I keep saying “house” when I should say “apartment,” and the inaccuracy is driving me nuts!) and enjoy some of New Haven’s free entertainment. First, we went to the Yale University Art Gallery, where we saw everything from ancient Greek pottery to Islamic tapestries to African statuettes to colonial American furniture to just about everything else you can imagine.

I found myself moved by several of these pieces, which you can see throughout this post. In the British art section, I found my spirit animal. In the Indo-Pacific section, I found several pieces that filled aesthetic gaps in my to-be-finished novel, Desert Child. And in the Modern Art section, I found my favorite piece of all, The Unborn by Anselm Kiefer — inspired by the Jewish myth of Lilith and meant to evoke all the lost souls resulting from The Holocaust.

shakespeare in the parkAfter the art gallery, Daniel and I drove (a rather unheard of and dangerous task on the East Coast) to Edgerton Park to see a Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night. I have read several of Shakespeare’s plays (and poems) as well as watched productions on television, but I had never actually seen a live performance of one of his plays. I’m not a theatrical critic by any means, but I will say it was a lovely production, and I really enjoyed myself.

There is just something so beautiful about humanity, the way we can manipulate materials and language and create entirely new meaning out of familiar objects. Sometimes, we just get so caught up in our lives, or in trying to create art ourselves, that we forget to stop and appreciate what others have done. Even if we don’t understand it (the art itself or its effect on us), it’s worth taking the time to just exist among what others define as beauty, if only for an hour or two, and let it sink in to our subconscious. What comes out the other side will likely be entirely different, but it will be equally beautiful and equally as worthy in the world.

So do I think my creative well has been refilled? I hope so. But the proof is in the pudding. I’m off to go make my art for the day.

What inspires you when you’re feeling “uncreative” or down? Which forms of art do you make? Which art forms do you prefer to consume?

Author Business & Publishing, Writing & Publishing Articles, Writing Craft & Tips

The Puffin Rule: How to Make Your Writing Marketable AND Unique

You have the motivation to write your novel, screenplay, or poem. You’ve done your research and are brimming with inspiration and references to help bring your ideas to life. Now comes the fun (and difficult) part: sitting down to write.

Wiliam ShakespeareWithout doubt, as you start writing, you’ll start asking yourself questions. Is what I’m writing unique or am I falling victim to clichés? I think this idea is really cool, but will anyone else actually want to read this story? If you’re like me and you ponder these points as you write, you are thinking of your writing as both art and business — a great first step!

Many writers and readers argue that there aren’t any new stories out there to tell. After all, even Shakespeare borrowed ideas from his playwright predecessors. While this debate warrants its own post entirely, here is what I will say on the matter for the purposes of this post:

While it is possible to write original works, it is almost impossible to keep your work entirely devoid of old themes.

For example, if you have a pair of lovers who face an obstacle to be together, you have produced thematic relatives of the characters, Romeo and Juliet. If your story features a vampire or reanimated corpse, you have crafted thematic relatives of Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 

The point of writing should not be to write something 100% original. It is almost, if not entirely, impossible to write something that does not remind someone of anything else that’s ever been written.

The point of writing should be to write something original to you that is thematically or elementally related to another work in a way that captures a mood, embodies a zeitgeist, or catches some other reader sensibility. You can use other stories or genre staples to your advantage by knowing what they’ve done, and then doing something similar, but different. By honoring literary traditions and then making them your own, you are left with a product that is identifiable and marketable but also unique to you.

penguinsHerein lies The Puffin Rule.

Stick with me on this. Penguins are super fashionable right now. They are adorable, waddling creatures that are in movies, in children’s books, on clothing and accessories, and generally receive a squeal of adoration whenever encountered. I swear, this isn’t just me. People love penguins.

Penguins are popular, and you could easily incorporate them into your writing. However, I wouldn’t advise this. Yes, if you publish your penguin book while they are still a hot topic, you are likely to get a sales boost. However, you are more likely to get swallowed up in the market and lost. Likewise, if you miss the craze by even a minute, you will look like you were simply trying to cash in on the mania and missed.

This is where puffins come in. Puffins are a lot like penguins. They are black and white with orange beaks. They fish and live in cold climates. The differences? Puffins are cooler than penguins (they can fly — even underwater!), and no one seems to have picked up on puffins. Therefore, if you alter your story to be about puffins, you can hit the same general feeling as penguins while being a dash different and a splash cooler.puffins

Okay, leaving the bird metaphor behind, let’s look at a recent literary example. There are millions of vampire books out there. However, to my knowledge, Stephanie Meyer’s vampires are the only ones that sparkle. She took a popular literary creature and made it different. Whether you think this is awesome or stupid, the fact remains: her books exploded. By making sparkly vampires, Meyer cashed in on people’s love of vampires and adolescent girls’ love of “bad boys” and “danger” as well as diamonds and pretty things. (Of course there are plenty of other factors that made The Twilight Series a huge hit — but I would say this twist contributed.)

In short, sparkly vampires were Meyer’s puffins.

Here is the point: by taking well-known literary concepts or trends and reinventing them, you can create something unique and fresh while remaining in a marketplace that sells.

IMPORTANT: I’m not encouraging you to sell-out and only write what you think will make money. I’m also not advocating genre monogamy.

I’m simply saying, if you choose to write about popular topics or in popular genres, figure out how to make them your own.

And, if you choose to attempt a totally new mixture of writing elements, remember to include some literary aspects that will resonate with your readers.

If you mix your art and business this way, you will come out with a writing product that is both marketable and unique to you.

Good luck and happy writing!

What techniques do you use to keep your writing original within its genre? How do you reinvent literary traditions to make your writing fresh? Share your tips below!