November is nearly upon us, and so another National Novel Writing Month begins. Last year, I took part in my very own International Thesis Finishing Months, so I was too busy to write any fiction in November. This year, unless I come up with an exciting new idea for a story within the next 10 hours, I will be doing a National Novel Rebel Month.

It’s coming!

Instead of writing a new book, I will be going back to one of my old ideas. This idea started out as a failed attempt at doing my own NaNoWriMo while I was unemployed, then a script I wrote for Script Frenzy, and then again an incomplete novel. After all this time, across all these versions, I still haven’t found a decent way to finish the story. So I’m going to start at the beginning, making a few changes right away that will hopefully make the book more exciting and add at least a bit more diversity (it had talking llamas before it had a non-white person, and I am sorry about that). I won’t be starting exactly with a blank slate, hence the rebel part of my participation, but like most NaNoers I’ll have no idea where the story will take me, which will hopefully be somewhere unexpected. With new forward momentum, and my previous experiences of successfully pantsing my way through novels, I hope I will finally encounter the ending I’ve been looking for. Even if I don’t succeed, I will have had more than a month away from my finished draft of a different novel, which I can then attack (i.e. edit) with a vengeance.

First, I must start. Good luck to me, and to you if you’re also taking part. I would love to hear from other rebels out there. If you’re not taking part, keep writing anyway!


Reading’s a steal: Lessons learned those who came before me [part 2]

While I have read Sir Terry Pratchett’s last book very recently, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at it with any sort of analytical eye. There are too many emotions caught up in it for me, too many goodbyes. So instead, I’m taking a stab at Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in a trilogy. I’m currently reading the second book, which has given me some more perspective on the first one.

The kindle cover of the version I’ve read

To shortly summarise the book, it’s about a boy who is the son of a crown prince and an unknown woman, a bastard as everyone so often reminds him. When he is dropped off at one of the royal palaces, his very existence causes the crown prince to put himself into exile. He is grudgingly accepted as Fitz, i.e. bastard, and raised by the stable master. As Fitz grows up, he comes to pledge his royalty to king Shrewd and the new crown prince, his uncle Verity. They train him as a royal assassin, a faithful executioner for the crown, and try to teach him the Skill, a form of telepathy. Naturally he is more inclined to the Wit, a highly forbidden form of telepathy with animals that sometimes gets him into trouble. Throughout the book, there are increasing hints of political friction between members of the royal family, which eventually leads Fitz to be caught in the middle of an assassination plot that nearly kills him as well as Verity.

Of course, there is a lot more to the story; it is a big book. I hope I haven’t given too much away as it is. Robin Hobb is not afraid to take her time, and slowly build up the world of the Six Duchies and beyond. As a result, the world seems very big and alive. She also does a lot to set up the sequel(s), by introducing a variety of different, interesting characters that clearly have more story to tell, and leaving the ending open (just like most political situations are never-ending). There’s a second trilogy that centres more on one of the minor but very vivid characters with his own secret past. Given the richness of the world, I’m sure there could be an infinite amount of books set there. If you don’t mind books that build slowly, or getting frustrated by how much the bad guys seem to keep winning, then this is a great book (series) for anyone who loves the worlds of Middle Earth, Ice and Fire, Arthur, Mazalan and Tortall.

So, what have I learned?

  • If you write well enough and make readers invest in your character, not much has to go wrong to cause anguish. This in turn keeps people reading.
  • There is a fine line between suspense and frustration.
  • There is such a thing as being descriptive in the right way (I have just passed a sentence in the second book that’s close to purple prose but then also just so perfect in a universal, philosophical sense).
  • I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write a novel in this style; I’m too impatient for real action to happen. Also, I was right to never go into politics; I would literally start stabbing people out of frustration.
  • The book is basically a masterclass in how to build a rich, vibrant world, and how not to dump all of it into the reader’s brain against their will.

That’s about all I can come up with. Has anyone else read the book and stolen some tips from it? Have I interested anyone in reading the book? I got it when Robin Hobb was offering the ebook for free, so keep an eye out on (necessary evil) Amazon.

The driving forces of creativity

A lot has been said about creativity, and even more because of creativity. Some writers seem to churn out a book a week, like they’re on some sort of creative-IV-drip. Others take a long time, and a lot of breaks, to turn their creative sparks into stories into publications. This leads to the question, are the first kind of people more creative than the second? Is creativity a limited resource for all but the best of us?

In a previous blog post I have discussed inspiration and how you can’t wait for creativity to find you; you have to go after it with a club. But there is a lot more to creativity than just being inspired. Many psychologists have studied creativity, over many centuries, and yet it still remains elusive. If the fictional people in the previous paragraph are any indication, there is certainly an element of personality to how creatively inclined a person is. While psychologists disagree on whether creativity is linked to intelligence, there does seem to be a clear link to mental illness, due to a certain personality type that is attracted to creative pursuits. That does not mean that people more prone to mental illness are more successful with their creative output. There are many different factors involved, as with everything else in life.

Aside from personality, which we can’t do much about, another important aspect of creativity is knowledge and skill. I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction essay collection, A Slip of the Keyboard, at the moment, and in it he describes the importance of reading a wide variety of things. Not just fiction books, but history, technical stuff, basically anything you can get your hands on. And once this information is in your head, you can find it spilling out of you, transformed into a story that might look completely different from what the information started out as. The same goes for skill. Creativity is best built upon a foundation of skill, so that when it strikes you’re ready for it. There are all things that you can practice, ways in which everyone can be creative.

The most important aspect of creativity, in my opinion, is probably intrinsic motivation. The main reason some writers are more productive than others is because they manage to ignore everything else and focus on just writing as much as they possibly can. If you write so much, every day, you are bound to get better at it. It also means that you are right there, at your desk, ready to write down any inspiring thoughts that strike you, and keep producing work even when those thoughts don’t come. Many writers have said that they can’t tell the difference between the words they write when they are inspired versus when they are not.

Motivation is also the most important because it is the hardest to achieve. You can have the right personality, read up on all the things, and practice, but without proper motivation, it is hard to keep churning out stuff. It is certainly the aspect of creativity that I struggle with the most, as I often get demotivated by the thought that my work is not good enough. It’s also why things such as NaNoWriMo are so important, because they offer some nice external motivation to make up for any lack of intrinsic motivation to ‘suck’. Unfortunately, external motivation doesn’t last nearly as long as intrinsic does. If I ever find out how to keep my motivation-switch permanently on, I will be happy to share it, but I suspect it is a different kind of switch for everyone. Please do share how you manage to stay motivated in the comments though, maybe we can figure out the secret together.

If only I had a hook with some chocolate dangling next to my laptop.

Often discounted in discussions of creativity is the environment you are in. This includes the environment you grow up in. If your childhood has you surrounded by books and people writing, you are more prone to read widely, thus developing knowledge, and try some writing yourself, thus developing skill and the idea that it’s not that hard, which feeds back into your motivation. Even if you didn’t have this nurturing environment as a child, there are still things you can do with your workspace as an adult to help you be creative. Sometimes it helps to sit in a cafe, observing people, gaining knowledge in that way. This is again something that differs for everyone; some people need to turn off their internet, some people thrive having twitter side-by-side with what they’re writing. You do you, as the hip kids say (do they still say that? I feel old now).

While I have focused here on an artist’s creativity, and of course writing, there are many different types of work that require creativity. Science is built upon creative endeavours, new ways of looking at old problems. While a scientist requires a different personality type and knowledge background from a fiction writer, they both thrive when they are being creative. Scientists just use creativity in a more restrained, functional manner, which links back to differences in personality types and might very well be why there isn’t a link between science-style out-of-the-box thinking and mental illness.

There is however an interesting link between science and fiction writing, with a lot of scientists who try their hand at writing fiction churning out great books. This probably goes back in part to Sir Pratchett’s motto of accumulating interesting facts. Whatever it may be, I hope I will someday be one of those scientists who becomes a successful writer.