Completing a large project like writing a novel or screeplay without any feedback is daunting. It's all too easy to start wondering whether you've chosen the wrong story or the wrong structure or even whether you're wasting your time writing at all.
However, asking for feedback too soon can be destructive as well. A negative respone can crush your spirit.
One solution is to get small servings of feedback on specific elements. For instance, if you're writing a thriller, you might discuss your villain with someone without having them read anything, or you might just give them the paragraphs that describe that character.
Ask them specific questions: What's their first impression of this character? What are they curious about? What kinds of action might they expect from such a person?
Discussions like this can help you see whether or not you're on the right track (that is, the track you want to be on) with elements of your writing, but without the usual negative effects of getting input too soon.
(You'll also find friendly and practical advice on writing your book or screenplay in my book, Your Writing Coach, published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
One of a series of quotes for writers and others that you might find useful in thinking ahead to the new year: "Get that dream clearly in sight, start thinking weirdly, be committed and confident, use pressure as your energy bar, and practice laser-like focus. And, like all great performers, learn how to get into the trusting mindset routinely. Above all, be an artist. You have nothing to lose but your mediocrity." - John Eliot, in his book Overachievement.
I got to thinking about this after reading on the 99u site about some studies, including this one, relating clothing and other items to creativity:
"A 2011 study led by Charles Lee at the University of Virginia showed that university students perceived a putting hole to be larger (thus making more putts) when they used a putter that they thought belonged to the pro player Ben Curtis, as compared with a standard putter."
I think that effect accounts for the popularity of Moleskine notebooks. They sell for a premium because they sell the story as much as the notebook. This is from their site:
"It all started many years ago, with a pocket-sized black object, the product of a great tradition. The Moleskine notebook is, in fact, the heir and successor to the legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries: among them Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Bruce Chatwin."
That "heir and successor" claim could be made by any similar notebook but the Moleskine people were smart enough to stake that claim first.
What prop makes you feel more creative by association? It could be reading a few pages of a book autographed by your favorite author, or a fountain pen like the one they used, or wearing something similar to what they wore.
Perhaps an image can work, too. On a wall near my desk I have a frame that holds postcard portraits of some of the writers and thinkers I admire: Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell, W. Somerset Maugham, and Graham Greene. Hmm, maybe I should spend more time looking at those pictures...
Want an even simpler link to greatness? How about breathing? I have it on good authority that Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Heminway, and Bruce Chatwin all breathed. In fact, if you send me a mere £25/ $39 I will send you a container of air that is the heir and successor to the air breathed by the greatest writers of all time.
(You could also be inspired by the writing advice given by the greats. You'll find masses of it in my book, Your Creative Writing Masterclass, published by Nicholas Brealey and available now from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
Can what you wear influence your success? As living proof that one size does not fit all (I'm 6' 7" tall), finding clothes has always been a challenge for me. Even in the "big and tall men's shop" it turns out that most of the clothes are for big men (horiizontally rather than vertically big).
That's why I was interested to see a post on the 99u.com site about the influence of clothes on our atittudes and behaviour, and thus ultimately on our success. In this case it's not what you wear when you are meeting with an agent or a publisher or producer, it's what you wear when you're doing your work:
"Consider the findings of a study published last year by the Kellogg School of Management. They showed that students were far more accurate on tests of attentional focus and sustained concentration while wearing the white lab coat of a scientist. Crucially, spending time thinking about the lab coat didn’t have this benefit, it had to be worn."
That raises some questions:
What should we wear to be more creative? All black? Or would that just make us fee like people who want to be seen as part of the creative crowd without necessarily doing anything creative?
One simple aspect of this I've heard (and experienced) is that if you work from home, getting dressed as though you're going out makes it easier to get down to work. When I turn to critiquing I find it useful to change location, usually just from my home office to the living room, and to change my posture from sitting up to sitting back, so the idea that changing clothes could be helpful doesn't seem that much of a stretch.
You can also get some useful effects from props--we'll look at those in the next post.
One of a series of quotes for writers and others that you might find helpful in thinking ahead to the New Year: "Top performers do not generate fame and fortune--or fervent happiness, for that matter--by following the conventional wisdom or struggling to be 'normal'." - John Eliot
If you show your unconventional nature by wearing a beret or having a few tattoos, that's accepted and in some quarters even admired. Try going much farther afield and it won't be long before you'll see why this is a road not travelled by many. We have been brought up to care what others think and to behave in a way that won't call too much attention to ourselves.
The late Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, used to get people to go into public and do embarrassing things like asking strangers for a pickle, to demonstrate that being embarrassed isn't the end of the world. If other people think you're an idiot, so what?
I heard Ellis, who passed away in 2007, give a talk once and I think his ideas make a great deal of sense. The core of REBT is that it's not what happens but our beliefs about it that are the greatest source of unhappiness.
It has a lot in common with Stoicism, which unfortunately is misrepresented as suffering in silence. In fact, it's more about not getting attached to possessions, relationships and outcomes. I highly recommend reading the sayings of Epictetus for a fuller view of Stoicism.
REBT also recognizes that people are not always rational and we have to deal with the world is it is not as we would like it to be. "He shouldn't do that!" someone says, and spends a lot of energy on resenting whatever the other person does or doesn't do.
REBT says obviously in that person's worldview his behaviour IS acceptable; if you can't accept it, and he's not willing to change, move on.
Easier said than done, but well worth the effort!
What's the dark side of thinking mostly about success? Director Guillermo del Toro:
"If all you think about is success rather than fulfillment, that's a dangerous coin you're dealing with. That kind of success has a horrible exchange rate of currency. Horrible. It's never going to be enough to pay the debts you have in your soul as an artist."
(in a roundup of wisdom from various artists at the Fast Company website)
Are you making enough time for that?
I think the 80/20 Principle applies to this. You may be familiar with the version that says 20% of what you do earns you 80% of your income. Doing more of that 20% increases your income exponentially.
I believe 20% of what you do gives you 80% of your fulfillment. Doing more of that 20% will give you lots more satisfaction.
In both cases, though, you have to stop doing some of the things that currently take up 80% of your time. Here's a plan for doing that:
Make a list of everything you do and how much time you spend on it. This should include work, social activities, housework, etc.
Circle the ones you don't find fulfilling.
For each of those, ask yourself:
Does this need to be done?
What would happen if it weren't done?
What would happen if it were done to a lesser extent?
If it does need to be done, do I have to be the one to do it?
Who else could do it?
What needs to happen for them to do it instead of me?
If I absolutely have to do it, what can I change about how I do it that would allow me to do it in less time?
Use the time you save to do more of what fulfills you. If you do that, success might just follow.
(You'll find lots of creative strategies for making the most of your time in my book, Focus: Use the Power of Targeted Thinking to Get More Done. You can get it from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
This is the time year when we start looking ahead. In that traditions, IBM has released five predictions about what changes will come about over the next five years. See whether you find them plausible:
1: The classroom wlll learn you. In other words, the type of individualized learning that has been on the horizon for so long will finally appear. About 30 years ago it was called "programmed learning," but it didn't get every far. Also, learning disorders will be identified more quickly and students given the treatment and type of education that help them learn more effectively.
2: Cancer will be treated taking into account each patient's DNA.
3: Buying local will come back into fashion. Customers will inspect the physical goods at a bricks and mortar outlet, place an order and get it delivered to their home the same day. (They didn't mention whether or not this would involve drones.)
4: The city will help you live in it. "Cities will become less bureaucratic and more open to sharing of data and social feedback making each citizen part of the decision-making process." They will gather masses of data ("freely provided" by residents) in real time to help improve transportation, education and other services.
5: A digital guardian will protect you online. Instead of passwords, your computer will depend on "a contextual security system that has a 360-degree view of your activity and connects the dots to know that you're you."
I find the digital guardian quite plausible, because that's also exactly the kind of information governments want to collect (and already are), so selling it as being in our best interests will undoubtedly be the approach they continue to take.
The predicted advances in medicine also are plausible, led by private hospitals that serve the people who can most afford them.
What about education? Well, my time in that world convinced me that it's very slow to change. Years ago I was part of a project in the US to determine how well schools were using audio-visual equipment they'd bought with federal grants. In school after school we found the equipment gathering dust in locked storerooms. The attitude toward tech has changed but I still doubt that a time traveller jumping five years ahead would be astonished by the changes in the average school.
The buying local scenario seems rather far-fetched. And as for government being less bureaucratic, well, let's all have a good chuckle about that one!
It's fun to take a look from time to time at what kinds of creative projects people are doing. Here's a little roundup:
A new perspective on Word War I and on the format of a book: Joe Sacco's book The Great War is actually a 24-foot-long foldout illustration. No captions.
It shows the events of the day from the preparation for the Battle of the Somme, takes you into the trenches, and leaves you with images of the effects of the carnage.
The Australian illustrator drew upon extensive research and incorporated images of kindness--German and British injured helping each other--as well as the machinery and devastation of a day that resulted in 21,000 deaths and close to another 40,000 injuries on the British side alone.
Director Michel Gondry did an animation of his conversations with philosopher, linguist and anti-war activist Noam Chomsky (Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?). Here is a nine-minute film about how he went about it: http://youtu.be/m7dbZBgmV3E . You can rent the film itself from the American iTunes site for $6.99. It's an hour and 28 minutes long.
STORIES OF EVERYDAY COURAGE AND JOY
The video storytelling platform Magisto teamed up with country music star Brad Paisley to invite his fans to make short films about how their lives have changed. The soundtrack they were asked to use is Paisley's song, "I Can't Change the World."
The sponsors selected a Grand Prize Winner and ten runners-up. One woman created a film about a soldier's homecoming, another made a tribute to her brother, who had four bouts with cancer, and a father created a celebration of his daughter's first birthday. The Grand Prize winner was about how a family went from fostering one child to adopting twelve. You can see the winners here: http://blog.magisto.com/2013/12/18/winners-brad-paisley-contest/
If you've ever thought about writing a radio play, this could be your chance. The BBC World Service and the British Council are sponsoring an International Radio Playwriting Competition. They are looking for scripts that will come out to about 53 minutes. They say:
"There are two first prizes - the best radio play by a writer with English as their first language and the best by a writer with English as their second language. The overall winners will each receive £2000 sterling and a trip to London to see their play being recorded for broadcast on BBC World Service.
We are very happy to run this year’s competition in partnership with Commonwealth Writers again and to welcome our co-producers - The Open University. This has allowed us to introduce another prize – the Georgi Markov prize for the most promising script.
The playwriting competition welcomes scripts from anyone living outside the UK, whether established or new, and encourages writers to use the immense power and accessibility of the medium of radio drama – to tell your story, use your imagination and have your “voice” heard. Reading your plays – and hearing the winning plays on air – is a unique way of hearing what’s happening around the world.
The competition is now open for entries and the closing date is midnight GMT on the 31st January 2014.
The great thing about radio is that with dialogue and a few sound effects you can create a picture in the mind of the listener that could require a fortune in special effects in a movie. At the other end of the scale you can also create an intimacy unmatched by any other medium.
If you're uncertain of the correct format to use, or how to deal with sound effects, the tips on the site explain it all. Good luck!