Tag Archives: creativity

Cream of the Crap by Jeffery J Micheals

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The following is an expression of opinions based on observations regarding the writing trade. They may be crappy opinions. They are my opinions and frankly, I may not even believe them completely myself. I try not to force my opinions on anyone.

There is a generally held belief that, in writing, or any creative endeavor, the cream of the crop rises to the top. It doesn’t matter that there is a plethora of content available to the buying public. It is commonly believed that things that are crap will sink.

As aspiring or even published authors, many creatives take comfort in this concept and work hard to perfect their craft, seeking to become known for their genius level skill set and integrity to the high road of ART. Many aspiring or even published authors are also working a day job whilst their less than artistically pure colleagues seem to be succeeding in spite of producing derivative garbage.

Surely the public wants higher forms of ART and they are merely unaware of your BRILLIANCE.

Perhaps not.

As a creative, you may have an entirely different, specific set of parameters by which you measure yourself. Different from whom? The paying public of course. And here is where we creatives get challenged in our perceptions. We think ART, but others think entertainment. The successful ones think, “Business savvy” and we keepers of the flame of integrity are sometimes left in the literary society dust.

In the writing game, the important thing to remember is that your perspective is not the one that matters. The masses chose the definition of “cream.” For example, Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, Sharknado, and Snakes on a Plane rose to the top. Arguably crap in terms of artistic merit, but in terms of the more valuable entertainment rating, they rock the world of the masses, those with disposable income. Perhaps those starving artist souls reading this might feel “flushable income” is the better term. But I bet most of you have read one of those books or seen at least one of those movies. You do not have to admit it out loud. I’ll join you in not admitting.

Understand that at the time of this writing Sharknado FIVE is released, for better or worse. Why? Money, of course.

Another way of describing this “cream of the crop” belief is to say, “If you build it, they will come.” Crap. If you believe this then the fickle public will certainly tread all over you in the rush to get access to whatever the newest highly promoted trend is that week. Now, I want to point out that this is one of those cynical moments where I make a statement that is harsh and dogmatic and later on try to retract or modify.

The fact is that sometimes, SOMETIMES, there is a moment when against all odds something gains momentum all of its own accord and proves to be an amazing artistic triumph that advances the causes of social liberty and human rights, motivating millions to take a new and unique action in their lives and adjust the world’s global karma. However, more often than not, it is something on the level of Angry Birds or Pokemon that attracts the audience.

In the not too distant past an author would sell their manuscript, receive a contract and soon an ad campaign director and a publisher would place a budget on a project, employ artists and copywriters to create a unique image or series of images to place in newspapers, magazines, on the side of buses, and often even billboards, alerting the public to the importance of your book. Well placed editorials and strategic marketing plans would create a place on Bestseller Lists or in “trending author” articles and you, the more-famous-by-the-moment-author and recipient of such attention, would get booked on PBS talking head shows, or perhaps if you were photogenic enough a spot on daytime talk shows like Dinah Shore or Merv Griffin. If you were witty and personable, Johnny Carson might even bring you on the Tonight Show (Yes, I am that old).

These days success is called Going Viral and relies heavily on algorithms called Bubble Sort and other interesting sounding titles (but really they are just counting hits) and placement of your brand and platform on the internet. It is all done by YOU unless you have a fair amount of money you wish to throw at this effort and can hire someone to do the work for you, results NOT guaranteed. It can all be exhausting. It can detract, discourage, and debilitate you into the status of permanent writer’s block. You can become sidetracked into this morass of externals and somehow never actually finish your books.

I know of at least two writer friends who excel at marketing. They have shiny websites that have won awards. They produce excellent blogs followed by thousands and display excellently reviewed sample chapters from their soon-to-come books. They garner rave comments from those who visit their website and read their blogs…but in over five years neither of them have moved a new word into their manuscript. Have they lost interest or just lost their creative way? Yet they have the appearance of success. They are keynote speakers at conferences, presenting their skills at marketing, social media, internet savviness, viralishness, and platform awareness stuff. They look real good, but there is no substance. At least to my perception.

To my way of thinking, if you wish to be called an author, you need to have written a book. All of the marketing gets to be important at some point, but…here is my opinion and it may be crap.

What you, as an author, need to focus on is creating the best product YOU can produce. Once you have that in hand, polished and finished, professionally edited and with a well-designed cover, then and only then is it time to focus upon making people aware of your best product. For the artistic individual, a person who is more than likely to be rather undisciplined or introverted, this gets tricky. You find yourself shifting from creativity to business acumen and often the two are polar opposites in terms of skill set.

The path to being a successful author is not one that can be completely defined and success can be a relative term. But there are two stages and it is important that creative souls face the reality early on that at some point they will find it necessary to get their work out there and sell their art. It is easier if the book, film, or any other creative endeavor fits an existing and recognizable-to-the-public genre. Selling a mystery series is easier than selling literary fiction, no matter how elegant your prose. People like mysteries (because good triumphs) and they like the same thing but different. Or maybe not so different. But they do like a well written, well-crafted mystery or romance or horror novel. And in that case, the cream really does rise to the top.

I sometimes think I am a snob when I look at the state of the creative business today. But at heart, I still recall the pure enjoyment of reading the old pulp novels from the thirties and forties (Reprints. I am not that old!). I admit, I have seen Sharknado (In my defense it was the Riff Trax version) and enjoyed the crude silliness of the dumb, stupid movie. But I have also seen My Dinner with Andre and Citizen Kane multiple times and even own the BluRay versions of each. I will watch those again and may even see another Sharknado film. I read higher quality these days than in my youth. Why? Am I such a better person for it? No. What I am is more experienced and less able to tolerate what is now, to me, predictable storylines. I want more from a book or movie. Most of the time anyway.

And when I write, I refuse to write downward.

I believe that a writer or creative of any kind can and should seek to show the audience the world in a better light or at least show that there is a path out of dark days of fear and the daily crap that occurs. And sometimes, at the end of the day, when the world is just heavy and the news is perpetually about confrontation and loss, I believe that a writer should entertain and brighten the audiences’ lives. A little well-written nonsense may be just the thing. And if you can make a buck or two while helping others rise out of the crap? Well, maybe I should just get off my high horse and keep my opinions to myself! I do have an idea for a funny zombie story…

jeffreyjmichaels4wendy2Jeffrey J. Michaels is a Gemini. As such he is deeply involved in whatever interests him at the moment. He describes his book “A Day at the Beach and Other Brief Diversions” as “metaphyictional,” combining fantasy and humor with metaphysical elements.

He is currently polishing a sweeping fantasy series of interconnected tales collectively known as “The Mystical Histories.” It is varied enough that he says he may even finish most of the stories.

In his real life he is a well-respected creative and spiritual consultant.
He does not like to talk about his award-winning horror story.

a-day-at-the-beach-book-cover“A Day At the Beach and Other Brief Diversions”

What if… …your perfect day never ended? …your life were to pass before your eyes, one person at a time? …the genie in the lamp had a wish? …you heard the perfect last words? Versatile author Jeffrey J. Michaels invites you to explore new ways of looking at your world and worlds beyond in this selection of metaphyictional short stories.

3 Steps of Intuitive Writing

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This past summer, I attended a speculative fiction writer’s workshop in Lawrence, Kansas. The Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction was founded by James Gunn. Every June, the school hold workshops on novel writing, short stories, or could be used as a writer’s retreat to work on your own project. The attendees live in a dorm and are there for a two-week session of intensive writing and critique.

I was told by one of the instructors that the final story I submitted for review was “unique”, something that she had not seen before. A comment that I appreciated since this is one of the main goals of my writing process. This statement had piqued the curiosity of one of the workshop attendees, who was no slouch herself when it came to storytelling. She asked a question that most authors get at one point or another. “Where do you get your ideas?”

With humor, I thought to reach to her ear to pull out a coin, much as a carnival magician might, and reply, “I found the ideas in your ear.” That would be as good an answer to “where” ideas come from as any. The question is not a matter of where, but a question of how we as writers develop a method of gathering concepts and train our brains to make those unique story connections. For me, it is a three part process that utilizes my trained muse and study of story structure. Much of my process is ingrained. Because of this, I did not give an answer in the workshop, but I have been thinking about her question since I’ve returned home and will attempt to answer it here.

Gather Research into your File System

As a science fiction writer, raw material is needed to start the story process. I have created a computerized notebook system to gather articles from scientific journals and science blogs. I cut and paste the articles into Evernote and include whatever photos are relevant to the article since images are a powerful part of the intuitive process. Sometimes, I include notes that I write during panels at science fiction conventions. The panels are a great place to gather data on current day writing tropes or explain science concepts that are geared toward writers. Online science classes are another good source of raw material.

The key is to have a file system in place and to actively add new material to this file on a regular basis. You do not need to use EverNote as I do. Pocket or OneNote are great alternatives or even an old-fashioned handwritten notebook. Train your eye to observe what is going on in the world of science and have a basic understanding of scientific principals. As time goes on, you will be able to grasp what is as old as time and space and what is fresh as a supernova. Let this raw material accumulate and look over it to allow the information to seep into your mind.

You can use this same process to gather place locations, interesting characters, or plot ideas from newspapers and other types of journals. Many a thriller author has taken a stranger than fiction real life story and turned it into a tale “ripped from today’s headlines”. The key is recording these ideas into a file system and keeping the information in a manner that allows you to access it easily.

Activate Your MUSE to Create Connections

This is where the magic happens. Where the ideas for your stories develop and come to life. It is not a logical process, but one that happens under the surface of your conscious mind. Often times, the ideas seem to pop out of nowhere or come from a source outside yourself. The ancient poets called this experience “speaking to their muse”, hearing a goddess that whispered inspired ideas into their minds that they could not claim as their own.

All human beings have two parts to their mind. The Ego, or the conscious logical mind where thoughts, identity, and structure happens and the Id, a mysterious wordless place where images and information bump into each other until the moment when a solution is found and kicked upstairs to our Ego where we can make use of it. The Ego is the newer part of our brains and the Id that ancient part of the brain without the ability of language. Both are equally intelligent. Both are YOU.

Activating your muse can be difficult. For most people, waiting for that moment of inspiration to arrive is their only experience with using that ancient part of the brain. Do not wait for the muse, train it to work for you. Training your muse means that you have a closer connection to that part of your mind and can guide its process.

When I direct my muse, I pick out ideas from my research that appeal to me. I focus on those ideas I want the story to take place in. Then I literary walk away. I go on strolls with my dog. I ride my bicycle. I go to sleep. I put stress behind me. Occasionally, I might pull up the original article and reread it or look at images associated with it, but otherwise, I put it out of my mind. A few hours or a day later, an image will burst in my mind, or a new character will come forth and speak to me based on my researched material. I’ve noticed as the years have gone by, this process has become faster. My brain has been trained to work with this innate ability and control it. When you first attempt to train your muse to create new ideas, the process will be slower. It is like training skills or muscles, it takes time and repetition.

Apply Ideas into Story Structure

The final step is to gather these new connections and plug them into a story structure. I use Scrivener to create virtual index cards of all the random ideas associated with my intuitive sessions. I put the new characters, created locations, and other concepts into the program as individual files. Using a beat sheet, I organize the ideas to create a plotted structure of events as an outline. As I outline, more ideas and connections will flow in until I feel that the story is ready to draft.

This step is the one that most writing articles and classes cover. It is where the Ego takes over and applies the craft of writing to the story. As there are many different methods to create a story, I won’t go into too much detail here. Every author has their own methods that work for them. My craft process will certainly be different from others. You must find the methods of the craft that works best for you.

Conclusion

It was a pleasure to meet Mr. James Gunn this past summer in Kansas. He gave our workshop a ninety-minute presentation on the creativity behind writing science fiction. Most of the talk was on how to tap into your muse and to keep on writing one word at a time. I felt a deep connection to his words. Mr. Gunn is in his mid-eighties. He is still publishing in pro-magazines and creating top of the line novels, using his well-trained muse to fuel his stories. He too speaks of how to find ideas, not where they are. Ideas are in the wind, catching them is the key. I can’t imagine the high level of creativity that Mr. Gunn must enjoy at his age, but I hope one day to do so. I am inspired.

Generating Science Fiction Stories

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The act of creativity has been a subject that fascinates me. I have always been a creative woman, I can not stop creating things any more than I can stop breathing. It is a major part of my life and shapes who I am. When the desire to write burst within me in 2010, a single character demanded that I start to write his story. More characters in the story followed and together all these people have become a steampunk science fiction series that I will one day publish. Yet, a single series does not an author make. From time to time, I have been asked to contribute a story to an anthology or a magazine and I found myself frozen, unable to write a word or meet a deadline. I was forced to let these opportunities go without submitting a single word.

Outline The Problem

I became determined to overcome my science fiction writer’s block. While I have published memoir shorts and a regency romance, I consider myself to be a science fiction and fantasy author. I am well versed in the genre having read most of the classics from Robert A. Heinlein, Issac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, to a range of women science fiction authors such as Vonda McIntyre, Andre Norton, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. This has allowed me to become familiar with the genre tropes and style of the “golden age” of the 1950s and 1960s when science fiction gained its footing in popular culture. Yet, how to generate science fiction ideas for myself eluded me.

My first thought to solve the problem was to listen to other authors in the genre and get an idea of how they developed their ideas. I attended convention panels with Vernon Vinge, Todd McCaffery, Greg Benford, David Brin and other famous authors to glean how they came up with material that gained them Hugo and Nebula awards. Over time, I realized that each of these authors had a system to store ideas for themselves related to science fiction. Every author had a different way of obtaining these core ideas. Some had buddies who worked at JPL or NASA, others were scientists themselves with years of training in their chosen field. They attended science conferences or read journals about the world of technology today, took these raw facts and concepts, pushing the ideas into the future and giving it a literary twist.

The Past Through Tomorrow

Being a collector of fountain pens and notebooks, I had read how people in the past had kept journals known as “commonplace books”. This was a compilation of ideas and information that the author thought relevant. It was popular with the thinkers of 15th century England and eventually became a scholarly tool adopted by major universities. I liked the concept of the commonplace book and wondered if I could apply it to my science fiction idea generating problem.

To find the basic facts to form ideas from, I signed up for free science journals on a variety of subjects. I joined science fiction clubs and listened to what concepts intrigued the readers.

My paper notebook failed.

There is such a barrage of information in the journals, many fields are expanding their knowledge at speeds that make it difficult to keep up with, that copying the information by hand became overwhelming. I switched to using Evernote and set up folders where I could cut and paste various science-based articles that I thought might have a possible idea to base a story on. Using this collation method proved to be easier to maintain and slowly, I began to have folders of possible science-based​ concepts to write about.

Sharpening The Tools

Although I was generating facts to draw on, I was still having trouble generating science fiction stories except for my Opus Magnus. An author friend of mine suggested that instead of writing short stories, I should try poetry. The form was short and wouldn’t take up as much time to write. I had also taken an online writing course put out by the University of Iowa where one of the lessons said that to practice scene building, try writing haiku first. Haiku was about describing a single moment in time, which are the building blocks of stories.

This is where my love of Scifaiku was born. The poems are only three lines long and I can do them in batches. I would start with facts from my commonplace folders in Evernote and then apply an emotion, setting and time to them. It worked. I began to assemble science fiction poems and much to my surprise, people seemed to like them.

In September of 2015, one of my online writing communities held a writing challenge. Write one flash fiction story a day for the entire month. If I did the challenge to the end, I would have thirty flash fictions to show for it. I decided to try. I would focus all my creative energy on writing science fiction or fantasy and see where it led me. As it turned out, writing with a group of authors gave me the support I needed to complete the challenge. Not all the stories I wrote are good enough to submit, but a number of them were good enough to either send out as a flash fiction or to expand into a longer and better story in the future.

I have followed up with doing two more challenges in 2016. For the first time, I have a backlog of science fiction and fantasy stories to draw on. What is more, I seem to be able to create new characters and plots without the strain that I used to feel. This practice has sharpened my skillset.

Last Word

Today, short stories and poetry come to me more easily. I have established a method of generating science fiction stories that works for me. As time passes, my files grow richer with more science-based concepts to draw from. I hope that by outlining my creative process this gives you ideas on how to be more creative in your own writing.

Discovering Your Inner Muse: Tapping into Intuitive Creativity

Nine Muses PaintingWithin each of us is a buried spark that drives the intuitive creative process, a deep place inside us that we are not aware of, but shapes our thoughts and feelings. As an author, it is a place that we must travel in order to create innovative ideas in our novels, short stories, and poetry. The writer of today struggles with the act of creation. He may set schedules for himself to write so many words a hour, peer at countless photographs on the Internet to find a concept to use, or search for a trend that will sell his books. All of this is logical and a conscious use of his mind to create, but is it the best way to invent the plot lines for your novels?

Ancient poets of Greece and Rome believed that creation was inspired by a muse, a god-like being who was the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. In myth, there were originally three muses, but as time went on they became nine: Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Terpsichore, Thalia, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Urania. Each muse had a specialty art that they inspired. The muse would come to the poet as a companion, whisper in his ear and grant him three gifts: a laurel branch to use as a scepter, a beautiful voice with which to sing his verse, and knowledge of the future and the past to guide him in writing his poetry. This ancient poet believed that creativity was divine inspiration, coming from someplace outside themselves. The ancient poet felt that he was the conduit of the muse’s message. The muse dictated and the poet created. There was no need for hubris by the poet since he was not responsible for what he wrote and performed. All credit went to the divine muse. A sense of gratefulness to the gods and a release from the burden of performance was given to the poet. Throughout the height of the Greek and Roman eras, the companion muse speaking to the poet was the accepted norm.

Modern science has been learning more about how the human brain functions as to our thought processes, memory, and how we use the information in our brains on a day to day basis. Much of the viewpoints of the ancient poets and their muses can now be explained and better used in our efforts at creativity.

Each one of us has dual levels of identity, a conscious ego and an unconscious companion, known as the id. The ego is the conscious mind, the one who is in control of what you think, what you plan to do, and what you will focus on. Accompanying these rational thoughts are involuntary memories, images, feelings, that have influence over you, but are autonomous and beyond your control. This is the primal thought processes of the id. Our conscious mind has a more limited capacity of how much information that it can process. What it can’t handle goes down to our primal levels and stays there until needed. What the ancient poet termed to be a muse is your unconscious mind working to solve problems below the threshold of your awareness. It is the place where epiphanies happen, where short-cuts and indirect methods of thinking can create original connections in the mind of a writer.

When you follow the model of thinking of your id as a companion or muse, an entity separate from yourself, it gives you the writer the ability to hand your creative problems over and then later accept the heady insights of inspiration when they come. You must learn to work with the unconscious part of your mind, it is a wild spirit that works at its own pace and should not be forced. When your id is busy and offering ideas, you the writer must be ready to accept and work with it. When it is at rest, you must accept that and allow it time to work unseen in the back part of your mind. Do not begrudge the time, remember that your “muse” is a separate from yourself and works at its own pace. Do other tasks; keep your hands busy with something unrelated to the story problem, or do exercises to keep your writing skills honed. The use of morning pages or word prompts are good choices.

When you least expect it, your unconscious mind will deliver. Make sure you have a notebook or a tablet ready to scribble down the stories when they come. The idea may arrive as a character that speaks to you and refuses to depart until you write her down, or it may be a series of images that connect together in a new pattern. Often these answers are driven by hidden emotions or old memories put together in innovative ways. This is the natural expression of our dual thought processes within, the ego and the id working together to create inspiration for the stories that is at the heart of what makes us writers.