Tuesday, 27 February 2018

An update on Creativity and the Unconscious

Why have I written this article now? Well, I've been reading and reviewing and doing small fixes to the half of the Leeth Dossier MS I'd set aside in… (goes away and checks some file dates…) yikes: it may have been 2008, 2004, or even 2003!

Anyway, back then, whenever it was, I'd just re-read a print out of the whole MS and been horrified to realise the whole 2nd half had plenty of story and action — but no plot!

So I cut it in half; then realised the 1st half was now a bit short and could also do with some strengthening, and came up with the Godsson/Disten plot. From that point I left the 2nd half lying there, collecting electronic dust.

Anyway, with Books 1 — 3 published, it seemed sensible to go back to the half of the original MS I'd set aside, that followed straight on. So in October 2017 I think, I brushed off the dusty electrons and poured the MS into the word processor and started reading and reviewing. It went very slowly for a while, as I carefully polished as I went, before I realised that was silly: if I did decide I had to throw away some or all of it, such loving attention and effort would only make it harder for me to ‘kill my darlings'.

Excuses, excuses. So I just corrected minor stuff and made notes about issues that would require more effort to deal with. What with suddenly needing to prepare for Christmas — not to mention a years-overdue de-cluttering of my house — as well as allowing myself a holiday and time to spend on some other non-writing projects, progress was slow. I eventually finished my read-through on Feb 21st, 2018.

At the end, I realised my assessment from 10-15 years earlier had been correct. On top of that I found other structural flaws, all of which I felt might be corrected through ‘the right' plot adjustments. I mean, the 1st three books did lead smoothly to #4 (in particular by continuing a major plot arc from them), but overall I felt the plot was weak, with several strands that felt disconnected. It also had pacing problems too, I thought.

Overall though I still liked it, and despite the flaws, felt this could be knocked into a pretty nice shape. In particular, my gut was telling me that the right modifications to the plot would fix most of the issues I saw.

UTT to the rescue. So, with the need for some creative thinking, and having had good success with the Unconscious Thought Theory in the past (see my older blog article: Where Ideas Come From), I turned to it again.

For the UTT, the first step is to steep your rational mind in all the facts. That was what I'd just accomplished by re-reading the old MS.

But the subconscious is hungry for relevant ideas, so as different thoughts about the story and plot occurred to me — during the embarrassingly long period I spent re-reading the MS — I'd made notes I could refer to later.

Write stuff down. That's a key point: don't rely on your memory. If you don't record the ideas, you'll waste mental energy remembering them or worrying about them. Just write them down instead so you can re-read them when you find yourself in a hole.

Clear the decks of clutter. For the intense parts of the creative thinking process — the parts where you make the act of creation your top priority and give yourself time exclusively for that — you need clear mental space for a problem requiring a creative solution.

So because you need to some clear mental space, write down the problem and all the issues you can think of: like constraints, goals, characters involved, what's at stake… etc. etc. — everything you need to take into account. If you think of more problems, simply note them down as you think of them. These are all grist for your unconscious mill.

Don't get daunted. The funny thing is, that although the number of problems might look scary, each issue is just another piece of the puzzle. In a way, it adds to the richness of the solution; it adds to the stuff your unconscious can use to create an arrangement that makes them all fit.

Give yourself space. Get rid of distractions as far as you can: set them aside and give yourself time. Do this as often as you need to, in each attempt to solve the problem or come up with the needed idea(s). In other words: you can solve these problems a little bit at a time.

Try and try again. You don't need to solve the problem in a single session: you can decide, "Hmm, this might help", or "That might be part of the answer" — so, note those ideas down, too. Sometimes the solution will turn out to be a jigsaw that needs to be assembled. Sooner or later though you'll probably start sensing the big picture: and then the pieces of the jigsaw will start appearing in short order.

Trust your gut. Your gut will often tell you "This idea feels right" — trust it. Think about it, and around it. ‘Your gut' is your Unconscious talking to you. Don't ignore it!

Don't doubt yourself. At this stage, where you're not sure how much of the MS should remain for the final book (since it depends on how big a plot change or other correction is), it can be scary. You could easily spend time thinking about worst case scenarios — like tossing the whole MS! — instead of trusting your gut instincts and the hard work you put in.

Focus on what needs to be cut or added to turn your rough diamond into a fascinating piece of jewellery. At this point, negative thoughts are just distractions. So treat them like everything else: boil them down to their essence and add them to the list of Problems To Be Solved by your creative thinking.

Recording ideas and thinking. For me in this process of creation, some of the time I'll do parts of it on the computer. I'll type up notes, grouping related ideas near each other so I'll tend to reread them all when I revisit one; I'll draw up little timelines (maybe with gaps and question marks: "How does the Department discover this?" or "How do the bad guys learn that?"); I'll sometimes make mindmaps so the connections are graphical and not just linear/textual — and I'll include the holes and question marks, and maybe even colour-code stuff.

But some of the thinking I'll do on paper with pencil, lying down on the sofa. Because for some of it, the computer becomes a distraction. But the pencil and paper is important, because as soon as I have even part of an idea, I can write it down to free up my attention from remembering stuff so I can concentrate on creating stuff.

My review/read-through: While I had been (too slowly!) doing my read-through/review, I'd been:

  • Making notes of ideas that might help;
  • For my local writers' group (the Marrickville Writers' Corner — hi everyone!) I'd also written a few pieces that I felt might fit into Book 4 (Violent Causes), or might just be background events not to be included;
  • Making notes of problems;
  • Forming my overall semi-objective assessment of the MS as a whole.

So I used all these things, plus I re-read my quite large file of random ideas and notes, and the fresh ideas I'd had over the last few months. Lo and behold: a couple of months earlier I'd had a key idea which fitted very well with what I needed! It still wasn't quite right, but it felt like it could form the backbone of the plot strengthening, and so it was back to the Unconscious Thought Theory.

There you have it. With all that fresh in my mind, I thought I'd capture some of the process and get off my backside and write this combined UTT update and status report.

Ah… I suppose that means I should probably write a little status report, shouldn't I? Well, the MS now has 90k words, which at this stage I think I'll be keeping. I'm not sure how many extra scenes I need, or how much editing is needed to fix the other issues I've identified, but my feeling is that it might need as little as 10k words of new scenes (maybe 20k?). So I think it won't be too much longer before I can start trying to book an editing time-slot with Dave at ThEditors.com! I should know in a week or two.

1 comment:

Barbara Strickland said...

I think this is a real great post. I needed the reminder about my own work.