Creative versus technical imagination

Wonderbook has a great discussion about creative imagination versus technical imagination. If you don’t already own it, consider this a soft sell. Break some pots, cut some tall grass, get sufficient rupees together and take them to your local shop ship.


Your creative imagination is where your ideas come from, and what you should ideally be using to write your first drafts. It’s the weird stuff, the delirium and the dark bits, what happens in dreams such that you wake up and feel unsettled or awestruck. It’s usually the place where your excitement to write comes from as well, the unrestricted child-mind that delights in the act of creation without worrying about the final product.

Your technical imagination, on the other hand, is what you use to take all the creative stuff and arrange it into a pleasing and understandable form. It’s still imaginative and creative because you have to make thoughtful choices when it comes to structure and diction and syntax and imagery and so on. But it’s kind of like the difference between designing a building and drawing up its plans so someone else can put it together.

It’s really important to let the creative part do its job without the technical stuff getting in the way. It’s not that the two are inherently, completely separate–there’s a lot of overlap, especially as you level up your writing skill. But often when you lose the spark that got you writing in the first place, it’s because the technical imagination is taking over too soon. Some people call this the inner editor, but that voice is often more disparaging than constructive, so it’s worth separating the two.

Okay, explanations are fun, but how do you make it stop?

Unfortunately, that’s a really personal thing, because it often ties into mental health issues. So what works for one person may be useless to another. Some things you can try:

  • Setting a timer for ten minutes and writing the whole time without stopping. Take a break, repeat as needed.
  • Meditating before you start writing, so you’re more focused and relaxed.
  • Noting while you write when the technical imagination or inner editor starts being generally critical or distracting you with revision notes, then returning your attention to the actual writing. Noting is just an acknowledgement of the thing; don’t focus on it or give it any mental space beyond that.
  • Creating some kind of outline before you start, in whatever format you like, to whatever degree of detail helps rather than hinders.
  • Fostering friendships with people so you can encourage each other whenever you’re flagging.

Last note: don’t let guilt and fear take over your writing process. Guilt for not writing consistently. Fear of producing garbage, or of running out of ideas. Your time is your own, and you choose what to do with it. You don’t owe anyone anything. Write whatever you want, however you want, and let other people decide whether they want to come along for the ride. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to write well and improve as you go, but don’t get so bogged down in mechanics that your creativity starves. Find the thing that makes you WANT to write and feed that first.

New article on Fantasy Literature

I wrote an article for Fantasy Literature about how to write worlds and magic systems where magic is treated as a profession. If that sounds like your cup of tea, take a sip.

Comment on the post and you could win a book of your choice! The selection looked pretty sweet to me.

Daily writing prompts

I’ve started to post daily writing prompts on Tumblr, primarily for my students but also for anyone who needs a little nudge to get back on the wagon. Or to fall off the wagon? Possibly to caulk the wagon and get across the river.

Anyway, here it is, and I hope it helps.

Forgetting to fall

11 years. That’s how long I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo.

It’s weird to look back at my life and think of things that have happened in that span of time. New job. Marriage. Childbirth. Friends coming and going. Multiple iterations of the iPhone. And yet, every November, I start with a blank page and a stack of notes and write until time runs out. I spin straw into, if not gold, then at least yellow thread that I can maybe weave into a tapestry that I will eventually sell for gold.

At the beginning of the month, someone I follow on Twitter was trying to decide whether to try writing a novel when they already had too much on their plate. I told him, “Sometimes you get to the edge of the cliff and think, ‘Maybe I could fly.'” And he asked, “But what if I fall?” I said, “To paraphrase Douglas Adams: the trick to flying is forgetting to fall.”

If there was ever a year when I was going to fall, this would have been it. My job ramped up such that I had extra work on top of being on call for about 12 hours every day. I’m teaching two creative writing classes. I lost two days to driving back and forth from Georgia, plus the days in between where I didn’t want to totally ignore family. I was sick for a week while my husband was out of town, so I was single parenting while trying to extract some kind of sea urchin from my throat.

I also had a whole week of vacation all to myself. My first time off this year, in fact. It happened to be the week I was sick, but that meant I had the luxury of drinking hot tea and writing at a leisurely pace instead of struggling to make word count.

And make no mistake: for most of the month, it was a struggle. Every morning, I got up early to write for a half hour. Every day at lunch, I went down to my car and wrote. Every night, after doing work for class, I wrote for about two hours. I budgeted my time like a miser counting pennies, even set alarms on my phone to go off at different points during the day to remind me of what I needed to do when. That alarm tone is going to haunt my dreams for probably the next 11 years.

But I didn’t do it alone. My husband took over bedtime duties. My mom babysat on weekends. Netflix filled in where necessary. I went to write-ins at least twice a week, and sprinted with friends online every night. People even sent me pep talks–you know who you are, you glorious, fabulous people. Sometimes it takes a village to write a novel, and it is my privilege to have a damn fine village.

Every year that I do this, I remember that I can do it–relearn how, even–and this year doubly so. And here I am, 50,000 words later. Spinning straw. Forgetting to fall.

Can’t wait to see where I’ll fly next year.

How to apply critique, part 2

So you’ve given your work time to cool off and you’re ready to dig in and get dirty. Again, there are no shortcuts and no consistent maps to follow, but generally speaking, here are some tips to maximize effectiveness.

1) Take notes before, during and maybe after.

You probably already have notes, sure, but more things may occur to you as you read and revise. Maybe even after you’ve finished a revision and are, say, trying to relax in a hot shower before bedtime. Don’t rely on your memory to supply and store this information, because your memory is a fickle friend and will bail on you at the worst possible moment.

How you take the notes is up to you. Write in the margins of a printed version, or on a separate sheet of paper. Use the Comments feature in the word processing program of your choice. Plaster your wall with sticky notes. Create a wiki or a story bible. Dictate to a recording device or your spunky personal secretary. But be as clear as possible or you’re setting yourself up for a “what’s in my pocket” riddle game later.

2) Pay attention to what you’re doing.

This seems like a really obvious thing, but it can be surprising how automated our actions become sometimes. If you quickly rip through your work “fixing errors,” you’re less likely to internalize the rules and reasoning behind those changes. Slow down. Focus. Think about the why and the how, and the ways everything connects. The more conscious you are of what you’re doing now, the better your subconscious will be able to apply these lessons later.

3) Proceed in the way that works best for you (this time).

Everyone has their own process, and you have to figure out yours. Maybe you like to go in order, starting at the beginning and moving through until you reach the end. Maybe you prefer to skip around, tackling the easiest problems first and leaving the hard nuts for last–or vice versa. Maybe you compartmentalize by edit type, dealing separately with typos, dialogue, description, structure and so on.

There is no right or wrong way to do this, except in the sense that you want to try to avoid duplicating effort or getting mired in a pit of “I can’t do this” despair. If one approach isn’t working, try another. What works with one project may not be ideal for another.