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The Motive Center
November 13th, 2005
09:39 pm


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New England Crimebake 2005 - Tess Gerritsen
The Crimebake is a local mystery/crime fiction conference which my wife and I have attended since the first one in 2002. This year I did a small roundtable which enabled a few of us to have real conversations about specific people's issues. A lot of interesting data, which I will parcel out in chunks, since they applied to different aspects of motivation and writing.

The Guest of Honor was Tess Gerritsen, a thriller writer who was charming and thoughtful in her approach to writing. She gave what is to me a sterling example of the Generate and Select approach to creativity--or to put it another way, how you get startling creativity out of incremental steps. I'll borrow her story here.

She started out with a story about her then 14-year-old son, who for various reasons had gotten into trouble by shooting a flare gun and unintentionally setting off a Coast Guard search-and-rescue. (False alarms on this carry a Federal fine of $100,000, incidentally. Don't do this!)

Her thought as she was taking her son home from a painful discussion with various officials was "I don't know this boy anymore."

This progressed by steps:
1. What if I were afraid of my son?
2. What if I had reason to be afraid of my son?
3. What if a whole town had reason to be afraid of their children?
4. What if their children were killing people?
5. What if this happened regularly, like every fifty years, and no one knew why?
6. What if there was a reason...?

And thus an incident with her son became the key point of her book Bloodstream.

If you started with the end at the beginning: "what if an entire town's children started killing people for no apparent reason every fifty years" it sounds bizarre and impossibly unusual. But you can see that each step is a small one.

No one sees anything but the last draft, remember. For those who say "I could never be that creative," look at Ms. Gerritsen's steps and ask yourself if you could make those jumps yourself.

The "Select" piece of the Generate-and-Select, incidentally, is knowing when to stop this process! Take one more step out, and it might become absurd, e.g.:

7a. What if everyone in the world did this?
7b. What if the reason was the same mind-control machines the CIA uses?
7c. What if aliens did it?

You get the idea--any of those could become reasonable notions, but you'd have to work a lot harder at it, or it would have to be more into science fiction than she wanted to go on this novel...

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(2 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:November 19th, 2005 07:55 am (UTC)
No one sees anything but the last draft, remember.

I think we often forget that, wrapped in the, OMG it's such crap, feelings about drafts #1 - #37 or whatever. I recently had a look at the first rough plot summary I wrote for my last novel and compared it with what I eventually wrote. The final product is very different, and so much better. And yet, I could never have gone directly to the last stage without going through all the interim crap. So I think Tess Gerritsen is definitely right about creativity being an incremental thing, especially when it comes to writing.
[User Picture]
Date:November 19th, 2005 08:02 am (UTC)

Creativity is incremental

This has got to be one of the biggest obstacles I see. People get inspired by great writers, but intimidated by the standard they represent. I avoid some writers when writing, because it depresses me!

Seriously, I once went back and read Robert Heinlein (one of my favorite writers) in order, and it was very helpful, because I could see how he got better. I also read his previously unpublished first novel, and his prose was highly engaging (he wrote political speeches before going into SF), but the book pretty well sucked. Reassuring!
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