On May 19 the staff of the Tilton Library in Deerfield were kind enough to host me for a reading and brief lecture about my novel A Darkling Sea and my forthcoming book Corsair. If you were at the library, you can probably skip the rest of this 'blog post, but if you're among the seven billion or so people who didn't make it, I'm going to cover the same ground here.
As our economy has shifted from one based on "making stuff" to one based on "making up stuff," we've placed a huge emphasis on creativity. Everybody wants to have a billion-dollar idea before the morning smoke break. A whole industry has emerged, promising to teach people the secrets of creativity.
I'm here to say that's all bunk.
Consider the two novels I've sold. How did they come about?
Well, in the case of A Darkling Sea, there were multiple sources of inspiration. I had an idea for a Star Trek novel about a civilization in an ice-covered ocean. The story would give Captain Kirk (or Picard, or whoever) the moral dilemma that adhering to a doctrine of "noninterference" would mean those beings would never learn about the existence of the rest of the universe. I had the idea of a conflict between two spacefaring cultures on a remote and low-tech planet, inspired by the real life World War I in Africa (because Zeppelins). All those threads came together to make the novel.
Writing A Darkling Sea took several years, because I was writing it on spec (as we say). I had a rough outline, but I wrote the story piecemeal, skipping around as the mood took me. The meant I had to go back and do a huge amount of rewriting once it was pointed out to me that I'd basically left out the middle of the book. My writing workshop colleagues suggested I add a chapter at the beginning, which I later sold as a short story ("The Ocean of the Blind") while I tried to find a publisher for the novel.
By contrast, Corsair began as a short story. Back in 2006 Shimmer announced a pirate theme issue, to be edited by the very talented John J. Adams. I wrote a space pirate story for that magazine, and sold it to them. My agent saw it a few years later and suggested I try to expand it into a novel.
I thought about it for a while, then came up with a clever plot twist which relied on a quirk of orbital dynamics (the Oberth Effect, and that's all I'm saying until the book comes out). This meant that the bulk of the story had to fit into the time-frame of a round trip between the Moon and the Earth. So I had to create a very detailed outline (using the chronology of the Apollo 11 mission as my skeleton), tracking the actions and movements of my characters hour-by-hour over the course of six days.
So, to directly compare the two books. One arose from a variety of sources all stewing together in my brain over several years, the other was based on a story written to fit the requirements of a magazine theme issue. One was written piecemeal following a rough outline, the other was written in straight chronological order following a very detailed outline.
In short, two hard science fiction novels, created within a few years of each other by the same writer, had vastly different origins and were written using substantially different methods.
The idea that one can reduce creativity to a set of rules or habits is absurd. Unless you're keeping the advice so vague as to be useless ("do creative things") the precise method has to vary depending on the project, the person, and the situation. I know writers who compose the entire work mentally before they start typing anything. I know others who churn out a vast amount of stuff and then edit down to the real story. (And I've read others who seem to have skipped the "edit down" part.) "Whatever works" is the only real rule of being creative.
I think that creativity can be learned, but I'm not sure it can be taught. We learn creativity by getting as much experience as we can — both inside and outside our chosen endeavor. A writer has to read a lot, and has to do things other than reading. A painter has to look at a lot of paintings, and look at a lot of real objects.
Having gained an understanding of what good work is, the other half of the learning process is to make your own creations, and figure out how they differ from the things you consider good. This is where editors, workshops, and candid family members can help.
Since I started out talking about how impossible it is to reduce creativity to a set of rules, I'm going to stop giving rules for creativity now. But I hope this look at How We Do It has been instructive.