Making it up as you go along

Continuous creativity and how to sustain it

Twelve tips

There have been many debates about whether or not creativity can be learned. Of course it can. It is certainly true that the inclination to be creative varies from person to person, but the creative instinct is present in everyone. You are creative, but you may also be inhibited, and the latter can destroy the former. There are simple ways to nourish the creative and inhibit the inhibition.

There are two common problems:

  • Getting started.
  • Keeping going.

It is a mistake to think that either of these indicate a lack of creativity.

Whilst teaching drama, debates sometimes arose with those who considered that individuals are fixed on the perceived spectrum of creativity, somewhere between the gifted at one end and the incapable at the other. They questioned the idea that creativity can be taught. In one sense their arguments seemed valid, attempting to teach creativity is rather like trying to teach inspiration. It somehow seems unfeasible. Creativity and inspiration are different things, however, the former is the response to the latter. Even the most naturally creative of us cannot force inspiration to happen, but we can all improve the way that we respond to it.

The crucial approach to creativity is to regard it not as a gift, but as a skill. It can be learned. If you are contemplating creating something but are unsure as to how to best achieve it, there are a few basic tips that are guaranteed to help.

The key ideas below were derived form the teachings of Keith Johnstone as encapsulated in his classic work Impro.1 Others are methods acquired over the years that have proved to be effective.

Top tips

The tips here are to help you with the writing of prose fiction, but many are also transferable to other genre.

1. You cannot not be creative

It is vital to open your mind to your own potential and to your own ideas. Many people think that they are not creative, by which they mean that they lack spontaneous and unique ideas, but as there is only one you, how can you not be unique? Johnstone suggests that trying not to be unique is like standing at the North Pole and attempting to walk forwards without going south. It’s simply not possible. Accept the ideas as they come into your head without questioning them. The more you do this the easier it will become, but don’t think you are developing a new skill, what you are actually doing is unblocking the imagination that you had as a child, and that you have unwittingly learned to inhibit.

2. Go with your first idea

Spontaneity arises from the openness to accept ideas, combined with a rejection of inhibition. Doubting the worth of your initial idea can result in never actually getting going. Just start. You can always improve something later, or cut it completely, but by then you may have created something else very much worth keeping.

The first sentence of the most popular of my novels Ice & Lemon actually happened. It is the only part of that book that is not completely fictional. My family and I were flying back from a holiday in Seville. I was watching our progress on the screens suspended beneath the overhead lockers. Then . . .

The monitor screens retracted while we were still over France.

I’m not a frequent flier, so that incident on an Airbus may be routine, but for me it sparked a simple question. What is it they don’t want us to know? What if something really terrible has happened down on the ground? What if it is truly catastrophic? What if everyone who is not airborne has died?

That felt like a ridiculous idea. Not rejecting it resulted in not one, but two, novels.

3. Don’t plan; discover

Other authors may dispute this, especially if they write crime fiction. The majority of crime writers plan out their work before actually putting creative pen to paper, though there are some brave souls who start on page one, create something apparently unfathomable and then resolve it. Deerstalker hats off to them. With the exception of a couple of plays, crime has not been my genre. When I write page one, I have no idea what will happen on page two, let alone on page two hundred-and-two. There will come a time when plotting, and planning are not only desirable but essential, but initially it is so important to get the material flowing. Creativity is self-replicating. The more you write, the more you will discover.

By simply writing down your thoughts the details that you need to start building your story will emerge.

4. The harder you make it, the easier it will be

Find out who your central character is and what they want, then make it hard for them to attain it. If Cinderella is rich, going to the ball is no problem and the story stops there.

The Russian director and drama theorist Stanislavski said, in essence, that for an actor to do an emotionally truthful performance all he needs to know is who he is and what he must do.

The same is true for a reader who is empathising with the character in your fiction. If the character must do something, and that thing is very difficult, then the reader’s emotions will be engaged.

By the middle of the first chapter of Ice & Lemon, the central character is alone amid a disaster zone, with no friends, no phone service, no electricity, no way of knowing if his family are safe, and no comprehension of what has happened, the cause of it, the extent of it, or how he can survive it. This made the following chapters incredibly easy to create.

5. Set up questions

Plotting is about creating tension and the tension is created by establishing questions in the mind of the reader (or viewer).

How can Cinderella go to the ball? What will she wear? How will she get there? Will she remember to leave before midnight?

The trick, of course, is not to answer one question until another has been raised.

The initial question facing the protagonist of my art-inspired thriller Untitled is how she can find a former lover whose name she does not know, and who doesn’t know hers. How did he manage to paint her intimately and in such detail before he had met her? How did he know about her appendectomy? Was it just an appendectomy or had something much more sinister happened to her?

6. Look backwards to go forwards

This is counter-intuitive but it really works. It’s another of Keith Johnstone’s tricks. When you get stuck, reintroduce something you mentioned earlier. It’s the way life works. We are all where we are because of what has gone before, so when you create a fictional world, what happens next must be a consequence of what has gone before, even if you failed to mention it! (See No. 7 below.)

When Cinderella is enjoying herself, the plot is given a kick, by the reader being reminded of the warning issued earlier. She must leave before midnight.

7. If the future is not in the past, put it there

Looking back over what you have created will usually give you the idea of how to go forwards, but if it doesn’t, ask yourself if there was something that could have happened that you failed to mention. Would that unlock your creative block? If so, put it in.

If Cinderella leaves the ball with footwear intact the story stalls. We need to go back and make her shed a glass slipper.

There was a curious example of this during the writing of Jyn & Tonic, which is the sequel to Ice & Lemon. The plot wasn’t quite hanging together, but then I realised that if a particular character had been introduced a lot earlier everything would make much more sense. Hence chapter three was actually written after chapter twenty-one. Of course this meant several other small adjustments had to be made but the plot problem was solved and the way ahead became clear.

8. Rewriting is more important than writing

Knowing this helps to keep the creative flow going. Don’t worry if the first draft seems flawed. Just keep writing. Improve it later. The more you create the easier it will be to strengthen what you already have created.

9. Cutting is most important of all

This too, should be a reassuring mantra. Pour it all out initially then go back and remove anything that isn’t entirely needed. Don’t worry about the inadequacies until it is time for the pruning. Just let the first draft grow, tangled and impenetrable as you like. Then produce the shears and get really ruthless.

10. Set aside a regular time to create and stick to it

This can be the trickiest trick. The temptation is to just create when the mood takes you. That mood can be your most unreliable companion. It is far better to have a regular set time and always sit down to work at the appointed hour and stay there for the duration – with no other distractions to hand – until the appointed end time. If you struggle to come up with anything, still stay there, or you will develop a habit of rewarding opting out. Once that happens you are on the highway to giving up.

When you do the creating doesn’t matter, and the regularity is far more important than the frequency. Establish whatever arrangement fits in with your lifestyle and build a routine.

If new work refuses to appear, spend the time editing what you have already done (8 & 9 above). This will often spark fresh ideas.

If you wish, you can have a word count as a target rather than a time duration. When working on major project I aim for 500 words a day, five days a week. If I exceed my target the accumulated extra words can earn me days off.

11. Finish working part way through a sentence

This is a real kick-starter for the next session. By finishing the sentence you start writing again. For similar reasons, avoid the temptation to stop working at the end of the chapter. At the very least, begin the first sentence of the next one.

12. If all else fails to unlock you, dream it!

This trick comes with a heavy health warning. It doesn’t always work, but it sometimes does. Think about your fictional problem when you are going to sleep, focussing especially on the point you are up to and what might happen next. Sometimes you may actually dream the way forward.

You do, of course, need to remember the dream, but I have found such solutions have often occurred just before getting up in the morning. (I may have forgotten the others!)

Another health warning has to be applied here. The dreamed solutions don’t count as ‘first ideas’ (see No. 2 above) so you don’t have to accept them. Dreamed creativity runs on different rules and the ideas can be too – well – dreamlike, but you can sometimes dilute them or lift out one particular strand that makes sense.

If the dreaming doesn’t work there can still be a benefit in trying because that wondrous hinterland between sleep and wakefulness can prove to be a happy hunting ground for fresh ideas. In attempting to make the dreams happen you may find that your creativity flows more freely because your mind is unleashed while you are neither awake nor asleep.

Well, there you are. I’ve been continuously creating by these rules for a third of a century. They worked for me, and I hope they will do the same for you.

1 Johnstone K, IMPRO Improvisation and the Theatre, Methuen 1979, ISBN: 041346430x

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