D. L. Mackenzie is the author of the gently satirical steampunk series, The Magnetron Chronicles. These putative memoirs of eccentric Nineteenth Century inventor Phineas J. Magnetron follow the globe-trotting, crime-fighting aristocrats of the Hogalum Society as they solve peculiar mysteries and attempt to keep order in a world inclined to disorderliness. The first volume, The Last Adventure of Dr. Yngve Hogalum, is available as a free Kindle ebook. Learn more about the series and author at http://themagnetronchronicles.blogspot.com.
Four Techniques for Sparking Your Creativity
by D. L. Mackenzie
Readers often ask me, “Where do you get all of your ideas?” as if they’re hoping I’ll share some magic formula, or perhaps a link to an online idea consignment boutique presenting prepackaged suites of novel concepts attractively priced for struggling writers. My stock answer to the question “where do you get your ideas” has always been “from everywhere and anywhere,” which—while true—isn’t a particularly helpful bit of advice to an aspiring writer. Upon further reflection, I realized that I hadn’t devoted much conscious thought to the murky mechanics of my creative process, and I didn’t really care to, either. Like turning on the lights at a séance, I feared a dispassionate analysis of my own creativity might break the spell for good. I’m pleased to announce that I’ve conquered that fear, it didn’t hurt a bit, and I have actually gleaned some useful (I hope) insights into the creative process. I’ve identified four techniques I had been using all along without really thinking about them.
So, returning to the question, “Where do I get my ideas?” again, the answer is still “everywhere and anywhere,” but perhaps an example will shed more light: I was driving home one day, absentmindedly pondering what topic I might write about for this blog, while also half-listening to the radio. A National Public Radio story on the topic of educational testing grabbed my attention, specifically, a few odd moments of that piece which focused on testing creativity. A relatively new test has been devised to test creativity in much the same way we now test intelligence. It’s done by asking questions such as, “What would the world be like if all of its animals could speak English?” and gauging the answers on a creativity scale. And voila! I had a pretty intriguing topic for my blog article, illustrating the first creativity technique:
Creativity Technique #1: Listen and observe
It’s impossible to pay attention to everything, but you can pay attention to what you pay attention to. The television program you watched about Mayan civilization. Your mailman with the bushy eyebrows and handlebar mustache. The time you spilled coffee on yourself on your way to work. Any of these mundane occurrences might pass unremarked in the real world, but each has the potential to add texture to your writing—if you are paying attention. Every moment of your non-writing time becomes a grand brainstorming session, with ideas coming a mile a minute. Song lyrics, offhand remarks, YOUtube videos, bits of poetry, off-color jokes… anything that gains your attention and gooses your imagination… everything goes in the hopper. This technique really works, if you follow through with the next technique:
Creativity Technique #2: Think Uncritically
Yes, think. The tidbits you’re collecting won’t amount to much unless you let them stew a bit in your fevered mind until something intriguing pops out. Mix and match them with existing story elements to see if anything clicks together. Maybe you’ll decide the source of your antagonist’s power is a lost Mayan amulet. Perhaps that two-dimensional character of yours would come into starker relief with some bushy eyebrows and a handlebar mustache. Perhaps your heroine might meet a warrior prince and realize later she had a nasty oil stain on her blouse. Who knows? The point is that you will generate a limitless stream of new ideas. Of course, most of them will be banal claptrap, but don’t worry about that yet. We’ll deal with that shortly as Creativity Technique #4.
Creativity Technique #3: Ask Questions
Remember the creativity test I told you about? The testers ask questions to see how creative the subject’s response is. Now, it’s probably not a particularly novel observation on my part, but it seems to me that this is the job of the fiction writer: to answer thought-provoking questions in narrative form. A steampunk writer might ask, “How might someone from the Nineteenth Century envision the future,” and then answer that question in narrative form. Or, “what if airplanes had never been invented and airships had become the dominant method of air travel?” And so on. For me, the key takeaway is that the great bulk of creativity is bound up in the question itself. We can be imaginative in answering the question, but asking such a question in the first place is perhaps the most creative act of all. To be truly innovative, we cannot be satisfied merely to answer someone else’s question. We must pose our own questions to unleash our greatest creativity.
The strangest thing is that we don’t have to be extraordinarily imaginative to pose questions that will in turn spark our creativity. We can avoid staleness in our own writing by uncritically asking questions about everything we have accepted as an unquestioned state of affairs. What if steam is suddenly challenged by petroleum and internal combustion engines? What if airplanes appear on the scene to wreak havoc on our heroes’ airships? What if lighter-than-air craft were declared illegal or immoral? Any of these questions would pose challenges for your characters, and challenge you to construct a credible back-story,
Creativity Technique #4: Think Critically
All right, you’re generating lots of new ideas now, but that doesn’t mean they’re any good. Just as in conventional brainstorming, the goal is to spark creativity by popping off with whatever crack-brained notion comes unbidden. After the brainstorming is done, though, each new idea must be analyzed critically. Does it really add to the story, or is it an unnecessary aside? Does it really help flesh out a character, or is it an irrelevant distraction? Real life sometimes seems like an arbitrary succession of random events, but our job as writers is to distill the chaos into a coherent whole with a recognizable plot and theme. The bottom line is as always: if it doesn’t strengthen the story or move it forward, get rid of it.
I am knocking on wood as I type this, but I can honestly say that I have never once stared at a blank screen waiting for inspiration to strike; rather, I am typically bursting with ideas, worried I’ll forget them before I get a chance to get them all written down. If you use these four simple techniques, I’m confident you’ll always have a trove of ideas clamoring for your attention. I’m guessing you have already cooked up a few new ideas just from reading this article. Try writing a few paragraphs on your new idea to see where it leads. If it doesn’t pan out, there’s no harm done, but if you start getting that familiar itch and can’t stop writing, you’re probably on to something.