The Building Blocks of My Creativity

Behold…the 1979 Lego Alpha-1 Rocket base.
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This was the birthday gift I woke up to on a crisp fall day in 1980. I got to open this gift before school, which was an awesome way to start the day (although that did mean I had to wait all day to play with it). I remember marveling over the tiny faucets. I had had a few multi-colored generic lego sets before, the kind the come with flowers and windows with shutters. But until the alpha-1, legos were only an acceptable way to pass the time. Space legos, well that was a different story. Space legos rocked my world! They drew upon so much of what was exciting in my universe—the moon, space ships, astronauts, exploration. More than just a box of bricks, space legos were like an engine of creativity, waiting to be assembled and recombined in new and unique ways. The pieces were elements that just begged to be incorporated into a story—computers, wrenches, hoses, steering wheels, walkie-talkies, radar dishes, helmets, and oxygen tanks (which added a level of realism that was probably lacking in every other toy I had). This one set opened the door to creating my own world, and the many many sets the followed only expanded that universe. Whatever I imagined could be. And now as I finish up a novel I think that in so many ways I am still just creating new worlds so that I can play in them.

More lego nostalgia can be found here.

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Seek and Destroy: Tools for avoiding usage errors

I am in the middle of a big project, but I just wanted to put up a quick post about a site that is particularly useful.

In my Spell Factory workflow I recommend a stage of editing called the Usage Read.  I have no intention of detailing what errors you should be looking for. I do not profess to be an expert in grammar. If my prose occasionally comes off as polished it is because I spend a very long time polishing it.

There are a great many resources for improving usage.  I follow the advice of one of my personal heroes, B.F.Skinner, who recommended that all writers reat the  “Elements of Style” once a year.  I have done this for the first time this year, and I have found it to a timeless resource, very clear and concise.  I can’t say that I have committed it to memory, but I don’t think that is the point.

Another resource is Common Errors in English usage.  Unlike elements of style, which feels like you are getting advice from a world renown professor, this work reads like you are getting advice from a smart friend with a very good sense of humor.  I find the writing highly entertaining.  In addition to the book there is an extremely useful website which has a list of the major errors.    Here is as example: “Although the odor of the chocolate truffle you just ate may be irresistible bait to your beloved, the proper expression is “bated breath.” “Bated” here means “held, abated.” You do something with bated breath when you’re so tense you’re holding your breath.”

What I recommend is to find a resource such as one of the above and read through it. As you do, you will find some errors that you could not imagine yourself making. Happily you can ignore these. But some will leave you wondering how often you have made that particular error.  I keep such errors on a list, and then as I am doing the Usage Read, I use the “Find” feature on my word processor and search out the commonly confused word.  This allows me to check every instance and make sure I got it right every time. Time consuming it may be, but for finding one “there” where a “their” belongs will make the enterprise worth it.

The Promiscuous Writer: Balancing multiple creative projects

The Spell Factory LogoIf you are anything like me, it is certainly hard to focus on any one writing project. I find that what I am most inspired to work on shifts from day to day. For example, I find that once I have a full draft, most of the inspiration is gone. Creating is fun, editing—not so much. The siren song of a new inspiration tends to show up just when the hard work is set to begin.
I often see a quote attributed to the great B.F.Skinner that says essentially, when something inspires you, drop everything else. And it is true that if you do this, you will enjoy your work more, and perhaps, get more hours of work done overall (although you will probably have fewer projects completed). Maybe there are some people with a reasonable sense of inspiration, but my muse must have a serious case of ADHD. If I gave in to every new project that seemed super-inspiring at the moment, I would end up with about fifty rough drafts of the first chapter of that many novels.

I don’t think writing is simply a matter of following your whimsy, down whatever alluring road it leads you. I think there needs to be a balance of inspiration and discipline. This is part of why I designed a workflow method for myself that I call the Spell Factory.
First, I divided all my writing projects into the following categories:

The Main Project:

This is the work to which you will devote about 80% of your time. It may or may not be the largest project, but it is the most important, and the one you are most eager to complete.

The Side Project:

A side project is a small project that you do concurrently with the main project although it takes up much less time. Let’s estimate that the Side Project takes up 10% of your writing time. Side projects should be small so that you can complete the project very quickly. For example, you might maintain a blog in addition to your main project. Alternatively, if you are writing a novel, it might be refreshing to work on a short story when you need a break.

The Next-Up Project:

This is a kind of a coming attraction. It is often inspiring to think about the next work, and that is ok, as long as it doesn’t take the focus off your main project. Perhaps you will want to devote about 5% of your time to this project. If you have your next project in mind, it might be helpful to keep a log of your ideas about it, or collect articles that you will use later for research.

Minor Projects:

In addition to the above, there are a few minor project types that may take up a bit of your time.

The Most Recent Project is the last project that was finished, which may take up a small amount of time due to promoting, seeking publication, etc.
The ‘And Don’t Forget About’ Project is another project that was completed in the past that still requires a tiny bit of attention.
Flourishes: Sometimes you might just want to write small pieces that can be completed in under an hour. I call these Flourishes. They might be a poem or a short blog piece. The key thing here is that they are all wrapped up in at one sitting.

The main challenge here is to nail down what projects go with what slot. Once you do that you will find that balancing them will be easier. These project-types are just suggestions. You may, of course, add or subtract from the total number of projects considered.

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The following link is for a table you could use to define which of your pieces fit into each of these slots (and keep track of your progress on them based on the Spell Factory workflow). Spell Factory Progression Sheet with Categories
Next post I will discuss how to devote the proper amount of time for each of these types of projects.

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The Spell Factory: A Workflow for the Writer with a Limited Attention Span

The Spell Factory LogoYour creativity is like a work of art that has fallen from the heavens.  Unfortunately, the fall has shattered it into hundreds of pieces that went careening through every corner of your life.  The good news is that they are all there, waiting for you to find them and put them back together.  From here out, this blog will outline a means of doing this…a way to draw out the best that you have with in you. I call this approach the Spell Factory because in writing we are seeking to share an experience (the spell) but I require an organized way to do this (the factory).

I created the Spell Factory in order to compensate for my short attention span and bad habit of working on ten projects at once.  If the idea of structuring your approach to writing horrifies you, then you have my envy.  As always, my advice is that writing techniques are highly personal, and we should do whatever works best for us.

What follows are the four types of writing and 8 steps to editing that I have found useful.

2013-07-05 09.49.16 pmSpell factory Flow Chart

The Four Types of Writing

1. Plotting-

Plotting is about creating a skeleton of the story.   It’s best to not write this out in long-form prose but rather with some kind of short-hand such as story boarding, outlining, or writing a synopsis. This will serve as a scaffold for your work, and will also become a kind of to-do list.

2. Powering-

In Powering, or Power Writing, you just “go for it” and get as much down on paper as fast as you can, making as few revisions as possible. At his stage  you will be making many decisions about plot details, sequencing, and pacing. It’s best not to let small problems get you off track.   Do this by using the just-go-forward technique—never go back to change anything, instead leave bracketed notes for yourself. For example, “[Change April’s eyes to blue throughout]”.

When you confront a problem, note it and skip over it if you can, or brainstorm a solution right then and there.

If you are going to brainstorm here is what I recommend:  Ask yourself an open ended question and type it right into your draft (e.g., “[How does Mary find out that John is a zombie?]”)  Then make a numbered list of all the possible solutions. For example: “1. She notices a foul odor. 2. She reads his post on Facebook 3. He tries to eat her brains.” Once you run out of steam, pick the best two.  Then write the advantages and disadvantages of each.  With any luck the solution will have presented itself.

3. Redrafting-

Redrafting means going through the piece and filling in all the holes you left due to the speed you were going when you were power writing.  Here is where you fix it so that the wording works.  Also solve all the problems you encountered during the power write by searching for the [’s.  By the end of the redrafting, you should have a readable and complete first draft.  It is expected that the language may not still be stellar at this point.

4. Finalizing-

Finalizing means going through your first draft and looking for new problems with it. Start at the beginning and end at the end.  If you encounter a problem, work to solve it before moving on.  Look for parts of it that could be improved, or do not work as well as they could. Polish up all the prose.

5. Incubation-

Before you move on to edit the piece I recommend putting it aside for at least 2 days.  This doesn’t mean to stop writing.  It just means that you shift your focus to something else.  It may be easier to edit a piece when your mind is a little less familiar with it.

 The Nine Steps to Editing

1. First read-

In the first read attempt to experience the work as if you were a reader and were unfamiliar with it.  Read it as fast as you can, as if you were eager to see how it ends.  As you do this you will likely find that it is not possible.  Errors, discontinuities, and questions will leap out at you, tempting you to re-assume the role of the writer.  But do not give into this fully, rather, just leave a quick note for yourself.  Examples: ‘DB’ (do better), ‘WTF’ (writing thoroughly flawed),  or Redun (this is redundant). However, once you have gotten the gist of your concern down, let it go and push forward with the read.  Do not share this draft.

2. Close read-

Next you are going to read nice and slow, studying everything.  Answer all the questions you posed to yourself in the First read.  Add whatever material you find necessary.  Continue to revise your wording to make it shine.  During the Close Read focus primarily on continuity and dialogue.  For example if someone learns a name in chapter 2, they shouldn’t have used the name in chapter 1.

At the end of the close read you will have a complete, polished, and overlong work.  You might think of this as the “extended edition” like those bloated movies directors put out featuring “20 minutes of never-before-seen-footage.”

3. The Reaper Sweep-

Now it’s time to be merciless.  It is a cold fact of writing that every word is precious because attention and time are very limited.  You must protect your readers’ time.  They are giving it to you, but if you squander it they will not give you any more.  Just because you worked hard on a passage, or have a sentimental attachment to it doesn’t mean it needs to stay in the piece.  During the Reaper Sweep you are looking for the following:

A. Redundant or unimportant sections, including events that do not advance the plot.

B. Wordy sentences like this next one:  Look for sentences that appear to have more words in them than that which is required to in order to express your thoughts in a manner that is concise and to the point.

C. Statements that are unnecessary because you have already demonstrated their content through described action.

At the end of the Reaper Sweep you will have a shorter, neater, more concise work.   Do not share this work yet.

4. The Luddite-

Now that the work is in pretty good shape.  Print it out on actual paper.  Go to a different location from your usual writing spot.  That might be the kitchen table, a coffee shop, or a lawn chair.  Get out a red pen and have at it.  Hopefully the work will be in good enough shape that you will not need to do much to it.  But seeing the words on paper might evoke  a slightly different experience and provide a new insight.  During the Luddite read, focus on the flow.  How is the pacing?  How does it look on the page?  Are the paragraphs too long?  Are there any parts that make you very tired when you read them?

5. The Audio-

Many computers come equipped with Text-to-Speech conversion. Use this to listen to the work. As you do, read along and take note where your mind starts to drift as this might be a problem area.  If you don’t have access to this, just read it aloud slowly without any emotion. If your stuff works, it should sound good to you even as it is read by a tinny computer voice.  This step is important because it is hard to catch errors when the brain tends to see what it expects, rather than what is actually on the page.

6. Usage-

Read it again, this time focusing on punctuation, and usage.  This may be less interesting, but necessary.  Make sure your commas and semicolons are all in the right places.  Make sure you have all your commonly confused words right (its, it’s, their, there, they’re, thrown, throne, wretched, retched, etc.).  You might use one of the many available lists of commonly confused words as a checklist.  You can use find and replace to check every instance of the word and make sure there alright (um…I mean…they’re all right).

7. Beta it-

Ask people to read it.  If you are fortunate you will know a number of creative people who are eager to share their time.  If you don’t have someone who can do this for you then consider joining, which I have reviewed here.

8. Feedback-

Accept all feedback,even if it is rude, or poorly phrased. If it is not useful, consider asking additional questions. If a person does not provide constructive feedback, it’s best just to not use them for your beta drafts in the future, but still thank them for their time.

9. Full circle-

If you received some glowing reviews, then you are essentially done.  If not, then try to identify the problems with the text that are causing the negative feedback. Your reader may have told you the problem, or perhaps they just indicated that something didn’t work, and it’s up to you to piece together why.  This stage essentially takes you back to the Redrafting phase of writing.  If this seems a bit discouraging to you, try to imagine your work as a spiral.  As you get closer to the finish, the spiral gets tighter and tighter. One practical tip is to use the “highlighter” feature on your word processor to mark all the changes that occur in the draft and then as you go through the editing phases again, focus on the highlighted (newer) parts.

2013-07-05 09.52.10 pmUse the Spell Factory Progression sheet to track up to six projects. As you complete each phase check the column off.  This will serve as a visual indication of how much progress you have made.  Spell factory Progress

If you use this and find it helpful (or not helpful) let me know. Happy Writing!

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The coffee shop in your pocket


There are times that I feel like I am getting no where with my writing at home and need a change of pace.  When this happens I love to write in public spaces.  In an ideal world I would spend 2 hours writing in a coffee shop every day.  Yes, coffee is good.  But that is not why I go (I switched to decaf a while ago anyway).  I go for  stimulation of a different sort.  I love the experience of getting into the zone while writing and experiencing flow.  Time seems to stand still.  And then after I have done some really good work, I snap out of it and find that I really haven’t been aware of what is going on around me.  For some reason this seems to only happen when I write in a public space.  I think that this happens because our attentional capacity is at times GREATER than it needs to be for creative work.  And if the creative work does not FILL UP our attentional capacity, then our brain fills it up with whatever non-sense it can.  BUT if there is an optimal amount of background noise, it leaves just enough attention left over to write.

This effect, is what the people at Coffitivity had in mind.  This website provides you with all the benefit of a coffee shop in your pocket.  Just open it up, and you will hear all the hushed non-descript conversation you want, complete with the occasional clanking plate.  Best of all there is no risk of the person sitting at the next table taking a phone call and speaking so loud that you cannot tune them out.  Also there are no crying babies and you don’t have to stalk the outlet or bring your laptop with you to the bathroom.

I am going to be using this a lot.   Try it here.


2013-03-26 09.12.05 pm is very rewarding.  Scribophile is a writer’s community, and my early experiences with it have been very positive.  Here is how it works.  You read the works of other writers in the community, and write reviews.  By doing this you earn karma points, and the more words you write in your review, the more karma points you get (.01 Karma point per word).  To post a piece of your own writing costs 5 karma points.  You can post a piece of some length but about 3,000 words is the site’s sensible recommendation.  This is because when you want to earn some karma you have to pick a piece to read, and you are not going to read a 10,000 word piece if you can get the same karma for reading 3,000 words.  The site is free, although there are some nice perks to buying the premium membership (like being able to save your critique and come back to it later, or being able to have more than two works up at a time).  The design of the site is very well thought out, and the creators seem to have been successful in creating a very positive experience for their users.  I am sure that this, and any site will attract its share of unhelpful, unkind people, but so far (based on a very small sample) the community seems to be very warm and have a genuine desire to help each other.  Indeed, there are enticements for pro-social behavior (I wish my elementary school was run like this!).

Based on my early experiences, the community is certainly talented.  Several of the pieces I have read have been great reads, and writing the reviews has been an enjoyable experience.  There is a social networking layer to it as well (scratchpad notes serving as a wall of sorts) and  I could imagine spending a lot of time on this site.  the community might even to some extent, for me, replace facebook.  There also seems to be an active forum but I haven’t checked it out yet.

The best part about it is that I can finally stop harassing my friends and family to read my stuff (so it’s really a gift for everyone).  Thus far the feedback I have received has been very useful, and I fully anticipate my writing skill improving—and is that what it is all about anyway?

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How to define creative success?

medium_4743434817I was thinking today about something a wise man once said to me. We had been discussing the trials of graduate school and the increasingly dim picture of the financial rewards it would bring. “Why am I doing this?” I asked jokingly.

He forced me to answer the question. And after I did, things were much clearer. It comes down to this: if you do not continuously remind yourself of why you are doing what you are doing you will lose your sense of direction. Stress, hardship, pain and setbacks will crush us and make us lose our way.
After seeing that I had gotten the big picture, he simplified it for me with two goals.

Goal #1: Just figure out what you love to do.
Goal #2: Make as much money doing it as you possibly can.

I thought that was great advice. It seems alleviate a good deal of pressure. There is no fixed amount of money that needs to be made. The hard part is figuring out what you want to do.

Today I also found myself thinking about how this applies to creativity. Creative endeavors breed perfectionism. When we think of writing a book for example, it often comes to mind that if it is a “good book” it will be published. And not just published, it will be a best seller. More than that, it will make Oprah weep on live television. Such thinking does more harm than good however. It smacks of the all-or-nothing thinking that brings about depression.

For me, I think a goal of this kind needs to be relative rather than absolute. Writers should write to be read. Creatives should seek to share their work with as large an audience as possible. After all, creativity is something that you do because you love it, and because you need to.

I know that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. How do you go about creating the largest audience possible? I don’t have the answer for that one, not yet. But I feel like that is the question I should be thinking about.

What about money? See goal #2 above. But with creativity, money comes (directly or indirectly) from sharing your work with as many people as possible.
I would be curious to know how others solve this problem for themselves. How do you avoid the all-or-nothing definition of success? How do you define success for your own creative work?

photo credit: FindYourSearch via photopin cc

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The Center of the Wheel: How to make the most of creative freedom

medium_2865781749I recently completed a very large writing project, one that has taken  a handful of years.  At first I looked forward to my impending freedom like it would be a vacation.  I had made a concerted push to finish what I had slotted for 2 months in less than 2 weeks (I will say more about the project when I can).  Some of the final days were tedious as I circled around what I previously described as the Spiral of Revision.  During these days I began to look forward to taking a break from writing.  I made a mental list of what I would do with my free time.  I could catch up on reading.  I could make a serious dent in my Netflix  queue.  I could spend more time with loved ones and friends.  A massive creative project does require sacrifices, and all of these other areas of my life have suffered, and I was sincerely looking forward to restoring balance.

But then I did finish.  And after two days of re-establishing homeostasis, I found something I did not expect: A groundswell of inspiration.  I have been more excited about new creative works than I have been in a long time.  But now that all my energy won’t be focused on one project, it is running amok like well-fed gremlins through sprinklers after midnight.   I realized that for the past few years I have been a creative monogamist.  And I don’t regret it at all (I still love my old project—’sniff’—we’ve just run our course).  But now I wand to have a short period of Creative Promiscuity.  I want to flirt with new ideas, and take them for a spin.  I don’t want to settle on the first one that comes along.  When I find the right one, then I might settle down.  But in the mean time, I mean to have fun (Yes, I am still talking about creativity).

It feels like being at the crossroads.  There are so many directions I can go now.  Do I follow-up on my completed work?  Do I try something totally different?  Do I write for a new audience?  Do I force myself to take a hiatus?  Do I dust off something old that I have left undone? Do I think about what work stands the best chance of publication?  Or do I write whatever excites me most at the moment?

Here are a few rules of thumb that I have come up with to help me resolve this:

1. Give yourself the freedom to work on whimsical ideas, even if you cannot see from the outset what utility they will be.  Looking back over the creative works you are most proud of, how many of them began as a serious effort right from the start?  How many of them were initially conceived of as side projects or even distractions?

2. Create works of varying lengths.  Sometimes finishing a short work can be extremely satisfying and provide motivation to tackle bigger works.  Not everything has to be an opus or a novel.

3. Write a sample.  Don’t hang on to ideas for too long without giving them a trial run.  They might be clogging up your creative process.  You might find that when you write the first bit of what you thought would be a larger work, you don’t like it.  If you nix it, you are freeing up energy for something else to happen.

4. Capture the ideas in short form.  When you have ideas, write them down.  For example if you have an idea for a story but don’t have time to write it long form, get down the bones of it.  Its OK if there are some pretty huge holes.  If you decide to put the idea aside you might appreciate it later.  And by the time you pick it up, the incubation process might have solved all the problems for you.

So, taking my own advice (This blog is essentially me giving myself advice after all), I have decided a few things.   I will grant myself the freedom to do something whimsical but short.  This seems fitting.  As for what that is I am not sure yet.  I am going to try a few things out.  What I have done is to get as many of the ideas down as I can, outlining as I go and switching back and forth between concepts.

So that’s where I am today, in the center of a wheel looking out at all the places I might go.  It’s not a bad place to be.

by M.J.Miello

photo credit: Cellanova via photopin cc

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Play as the Theater of Creativity: Part 1 (by M.J.Miello)

Finding myself with a few free hours in Rochester NY, I inquired about museums there.  The first one mentioned to me was the Museum of Play, and at once I knew that I needed to go. I was very glad that I did.  What a bastion of inspiration.  I suppose, it is a great place bring a few spirited lads and lasses and turn them loose.  But for me, the children at play throughout were just the finishing touch on the exhibits.  This place is entirely for adults.  Who else would appreciate the treasure trove of ancient toys and game consoles?  I gladly walked through the exhibits of comic books, story worlds, muppet nostalgia, arcade games and of course, Star Wars figures.  For anyone who had or was a child in the 1980s and early 1990s there will be many well remembered landmarks to inspire nostalgia.


While I was there I was intrigued by the relationship between creativity and play.  One message that the museum presented very effectively was that play is the basis of all later creativity.  Through play, the child learns creativity.  Thinking back on what play was like for me, there is one clear difference.  Play is creativity without ego.  There is very little attachment to the process of play.  Having told a story through imaginative play, children do not feel compelled to keep it.  They have expressed it and lived it.  It has become part of their world, but having made it so, they do not need to record it or share it further. IMG_0842 I am reminded of the Haiku Master, sealing his poetry in a bottle and throwing it in the river, taking no credit for his work what so ever.  Children naturally create like this.  They do not stop to edit their play.  They do not critique their play.  They do not judge themselves to be inferior play-ers.  They just create, endlessly and with joy.  And when the are done, they let the work go, and move on to whatever is more exciting about the next moment.


I do not think I will be throwing my writing in the river anytime soon.  But I will be trying to create with a little more reckless abandon and freedom of spirit.

by M.J.Miello


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Four Principles of Creative Resilience (by M.J. Miello)

Hand SunI wrote previously about the Doldrums (a kind of depression that diminishes our creative output) and the beliefs that cause (and result from) this state. Here are some beliefs that would protect a creative from the Doldrums.

The Principle of Time.

A work can’t be judged until it is finished. If a work is still in progress, it makes little sense to evaluate its overall quality. Sometimes works change drastically in the revision phase. Furthermore, the identification of flaws is vital to the revision process. If you see flaws in your unfinished work that means you are on the right track.

The Principle of Honesty.

The purpose of creating is to bring something that you have imagined into reality. If your work matches your vision, then you have succeeded. Everything else is secondary.

The Principle of Growth.

You are never done developing your skills (And recall that creativity is in fact a collection of skills). Your skills can only grow by their use. It would be as impossible to master an unused skill as it would be to learn to ride a bicycle by thinking about it. We grow through our actions. Your growth occurs as you walk the Spiraled Path of development.

The Principle of Purpose.

Creativity is done to bring something new into the world, filling the void that was there before. If you think about this long enough, you will find that it feels like a moral imperative. Your work is something that you must do. You do it because it is consistent with your values, and because you see purpose in it. When you remember this, then all doubt, and all self-criticism are irrelevant. When you are fixed on a goal, negative thoughts are just so much extra content that will be edited out in the final revision.

Keeping these beliefs in mind can serve as armor against the doldrums. When you find yourself doubting the quality of what you are working on, remember the Principle of Time. When you wonder if your work will be liked, or when you are stung by un-constructive criticism, remember the Principle of Honesty. When you see that one of your skills is not where you want it to be, remember the Principle of Growth. And when you are finding it difficult to start, or are judging yourself negatively remember the Principle of Purpose. Keeping these ideas fresh in your mind will ward off the Doldrums and keep the winds of inspiration blowing.

by M.J.Miello



photo credit: rishibando via photopin cc

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