John Cleese on Creativity

A few years ago I heard a talk by John Cleese on creativity. Readers may remember him from Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and the antic skits of the characters.

Cleese didn’t talk about the expected issues of creating characters or structuring story lines. His focus was on creativity broadly defined, and how each one of us can learn to be creative. One comment in particular stayed with me because it seemed simple but also hard. It wasn’t particularly profound but it was the kind of insight that came as the result of experience. He said one of his co-workers jumped on the first idea that came, he was sure it would work, and he insisted on going forward with that. I certainly understand the feeling of facing a problem in a story and having a solution fall into my brain that seems absolutely perfect because I want it to be perfect. Not knowing what to write next is extremely uncomfortable. Maybe other writers don’t feel that way, but I certainly do. My instinct is to grab the solution and run, grateful for having an answer to my problem pop up.

Cleese’s warning was this. The first idea to come isn’t the best. His co-worker, Cleese felt, invariably produced something far less successful or not at all successful than what he would have developed if he’d waited. Cleese’s point, put less elegantly, is to consider the first idea the clutter that is concealing the better ideas, which require more time to surface. As frustrating as this can be, he’s right. 

Living with uncertainty is hard especially when you want to maintain the forward motion of the narrative. You’ve set up your characters to act and now you’ve got them marking time, marching back and forth across the page, and you’re worried they’ll lose their mojo. 

My current WIP seemed finished—polished and well put together, the story arc complete. I had a quiet doubt that maybe one or two aspects weren’t quite right, but I was ready to attribute those to the usual insecurities of the writer. I was wrong to do so. I just got the ms back with comments that hit those passages, and they need work. (Thank Heavens for the honest reader.)

This feedback reminded me of an earlier experience when an academic colleague gave me a draft of an article to read and comment on. I pointed out the various spots where he hadn’t answered related questions. He insisted they didn’t matter, but I felt they did. “You have all these puzzle pieces that are part of the question, but you only resolve half of them. You have to resolve all of them,” I told him, “to justify your conclusion.”

In my mystery novel I’m dealing with creating steps in the logic based on facts I created. To solve the problems of the plot, I have to sit with it for several days, listening to the characters, and letting the desire to get things on paper fall away while I wait for my unconscious to work. I have to be patient and trust my own creative resources. I have no idea how long this will take, but it’s necessary. And once the hidden ideas come to light, things will start to make sense, and I can move forward.

If you want to learn more about John Cleese’s approach to creativity, you can explore his book Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide by John Cleese,

On Reviewing

Like most writers, I read widely and not only in my favorite mystery genres, and post reviews of most of what I read. I read lots of nonfiction as well as fiction, but I only hesitate when it comes to reviewing crime fiction. For many years I happily reviewed for the Drood Review of Mystery, edited by Jim Huang, as well as for Publishers Weekly and Mystery Scene. I thought a lot about what to say and how to say it, what to omit and what to emphasize.

An editor I did freelance work for back in the 1980s explained how she approached each manuscript. In general, she said, it takes a lot of work to complete a book that is worthy of publication. No matter how many readers may dislike it after it’s published, that level of quality is still there. She remembered that when she ushered it through the publication process and sent it out for review. Her perspective held very good advice.

I think of her often now when I read a mystery novel that doesn’t work for me. For whatever reason I dislike it, I try to temper my view with the broader understanding that an editor and others in the publishing house saw something worthwhile in it, and were willing to back it financially. This doesn’t mean that I overlook anything that is offensive or stupid or very poorly done. It does mean that I think twice before I eviscerate a book.

Some readers reading this will rise up from their chairs in outrage, to tell me I’m failing as a reviewer because I’m not giving the reader my honest opinion. There is some—only some—truth in that. My honest opinion is not worth more than anyone else’s, but the person who has a blog or a newspaper or magazine column has far more influence than the ordinary reader, and I take that into consideration. This does not mean that I withhold an opinion on the tropes that I’m sick of—young female assaulted and murdered by demented male—or that I give a rating of five to a book that will never have enough substance in it to rate a five only because I know the writer. I know I’m in the minority on this one.

I’m thinking about all this now because I’m increasingly aware that some forms of crime fiction are susceptible to ideas and behaviors that are offensive to most women. The genre is by definition conservative, designed to depict the breakdown of social norms that are restored in some measure by a significant figure, male or female. This isn’t always the happy ending but it is a restoration of some form of stability. When a writer explores this limitation, I find a lot to praise. This is what I look for in my reading—something that challenges both the form and the reader, something for my mind to grapple with, and a story told in a way that will broaden the reader. These are the stories that will get the highest rating, the ones I’ll remember and tell others about. 

What do you look for in a mystery?

Writers’ Groups

Twice a month I moderate a writers’ group for men and women writing in diverse genres. This isn’t the first group I’ve worked in, and probably won’t be the last. 

Two people make a group, which means the novel I wrote in college was the topic of a group consisting of me and the typist and sometimes me and my boyfriend. But the first group whose intent was to bring its members’ work to publication was one I joined in 1989, and attended regularly for several years.

I’ve been thinking about groups and their purposes lately because even though I’ve been moderating the current group for several years, I rarely contribute. This one began as a walk-in opportunity for library patrons, but with the advent of the pandemic, we switched to zoom, and over the last several months, using a private (not library) zoom account, we have decided to become a private group, freezing the membership to its present number.

We are here for different reasons. Most groups are organized around a single goal that every participant agrees to. The group focuses on a certain genre, for example. A writer I knew back in the 1990s wanted to start a group for those working on crime fiction set in foreign lands. Since I wasn’t yet writing the Anita Ray series, I was out. The group fizzled. Another group was for established writers, those who had published at least one book in any category and now wanted to work on mysteries. That was fine until the woman who assumed the role of moderator invited writers she met and liked, which changed the dynamic. The unwritten rule that the group decided on whether or not to send an invitation to join after meeting the writer was buried and forgotten. The group of professionals helping others develop their work morphed into an entirely different series of sessions.

Other groups popped up over the years. I enjoyed one that included four people, including a moderator who gave lots of advice and then checked up on us to see if we followed it. I didn’t last long. In another we got assigned pages to read and comment on, which felt like work in addition to what I was writing.

I have enjoyed and learned from every one of these groups, but probably not what the group organizers were expecting. First, the more diverse the genres the better. A poet among mystery writers will teach about language and the rhythm of language. Writers of fantasy among literary fiction writers will challenge others’ imagination. Writers of nonfiction in a group of novelists will challenge us to describe reality, settings, physical details with greater precision. 

But mostly, groups of any kind of diversity will teach us about human nature. I still look back on some of the earlier groups to pluck out humorous or unexpected quirks for a fictional character. There’s nothing like watching writers grapple with different points of view on something intensely personal to them to see an emotional range in human behavior. The more diverse the group, also, the wider and more free-flowing the discussion, something I always enjoy.

Every writers’ group I’ve ever been in has been a terrific learning experience for which I’m grateful—the good will, the insight, the language skills, the thoughtfulness, the overall support. Writers are generous people, always ready to help their colleagues. I may not get (or ask for) help with a specific piece, but I gain every time I listen and learn.

Typos and the rest of it

I’ve read several posts lately about the carelessness of authors and editors today, with typos and other errors missed, often to the point of driving the reader to dump the book for something else to read. I too notice the misspellings, confusion of names, missing words, and other slips in the text. And I too have learned to read right past them. No text is going to be perfect, and holding the writer to a strict standard of three or five errors misses the point of reading fiction or any other prose. I cringe just as much as any other writer when I come across a goof in what I’ve written, and for self-serving reasons I argue that it doesn’t hurt to be generous as a reader. That said, I have another perspective that hovers in the back of my mind.

The rate of error for any human endeavor is two percent. I first learned this in the library at the University of Pennsylvania when I occasionally thought I’d come across an error in the card catalogue (remember those?). A librarian, skeptical, mentioned that figure while examining the card in question one day, found it correct, and explained why I might have thought its location to be inaccurate. Two percent sounds minuscule, but in a collection of twenty-two million items, such as at the Boston Public Library, that means 440,000 could harbor an error. That’s not a negligible number even though it’s only two percent.

I think of this percentage when I come across an error in a printed book. In a novel of 80,000 words, the reader could expect to encounter 1,600 typos or other mistakes. That’s a lot of goofs in a typical book, and I’m guessing most of us would be too disgusted to continue reading past the first dozen.

There’s a reason we’ve come to expect a nearly perfect text. Over the decades, publishers have trained us to expect a clean page, and they achieved this with a battery of experts. Writers turned in a type-written, or sometimes a handwritten, manuscript, which then went to a content editor, next to a line editor, and finally to a copy editor. At each stage the writer reviewed the work. The text was then sent to a compositor who put words into type, and don’t think the compositor wasn’t also sometimes reading, noting what he was seeing. But once the text was set, it was printed, went into galleys, and was sent to at least one proofreader as well as the writer. Think of the number of trained people reading the novel, catching those 1,600 slips, saving the writer from embarrassment. (And consider this: many publishers charged for the correction of errors in proofs after the first ten or twenty. That may explain why some nonfiction books were riddled with errors in earlier decades.)

Most of those people don’t exist today, and if they do, they’re probably working in very specialized areas where accuracy counts more. Think of chemistry, mathematics, and other technical subjects.

I think of these things when I’m reading along and trip over a missing word or letter. Occasionally I think about writing the author so she or he can make a change in the next iteration, but I don’t do it. Instead I marvel at how proficient we’ve become at catching these little stumblers, and how clean our texts are now. We demand a lot of writers today, and for the most part we writers deliver a clean, readable narrative with few flaws to make a reader feel brilliant for catching the slip or smug that she or he never made that one. At least, we haven’t yet. Every time I catch an error in whatever I’m reading, I remember to be humble. That could be me next time.

How many drafts?

On a variety of blogs lately, writers have been talking about drafts, and I’ve been taking note. I’ve enjoyed reading other writers’ processes, and learning where I can. My process is a little different from the others I’ve read.

I begin with an idea and an opening scene, which sets up the core problem for the main character. As the idea develops while I’m working on other things, I jot down more ideas—a scene later in the story, a line of dialogue, a supportive character, a subplot, an interesting name, setting details. After a while I have a few pages of these bits and pieces, and I can feel the story growing warm and alive. That’s when I begin writing. I know it’s the right time because I wake up in the morning looking forward to working on the story.

By about page fifteen I have added something else, a detail not on my original list, which will mean correcting an earlier statement. This happens all the way through, with sometimes larger changes and scenes inserted to bring the various threads into alignment. Is each change a new draft? By the end of writing out the story for the first time, which could be Draft 23, I’ve made numerous changes, added at least half a dozen scenes to flesh out information I hinted at, and changed the murderer at least twice. Each change shifts the story, tightens the plot, clarifies and sharpens. What I end with feels close to what I had imagined, but in execution it can seem quite different with a fullness I didn’t imagine.

And then comes what I consider the real work—reading through the entire ms again, before printing it out, to ensure that other details (motivations, physical appearance, timing of revelations) are consistent throughout. This is when I find it necessary to add another two or three scenes to reinforce the logic of the entire mystery, and the story begins to feel complete. After that, I print out the whole thing, which by now should be the word length I wanted, about eighty thousand words, and read it again, this time with pen in hand to polish and tinker with words. I may do this twice. I know I’m finished when I find less and less to change or improve, and can read through pages without scratching out or inserting anything.

Perhaps I have only two drafts—online and printed, or four, two online and two printed. Or perhaps I have about 25 online drafts and two printed. However they are counted, the drafts pile up slowly until the finished narrative feels new to me, partly a surprise and partly a relief that it actually holds together.

How many drafts do you produce? How do you count them?