writing tips

Asymmetric Creativity: Down the Research Rabbit Hole

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I’m a fiend for research. I am addicted to the chase of ideas and facts throughout history. When I conjur up a story idea I often know how I will tackle my research before I have a fully fleshed out plot. Sometimes the research serves the story, fleshing out concepts or imbuing characters with more authentic voices. Sometimes, the addiction, the jonzing for new and more information can overwhelm, bog down, and drown a story in its earliest stages. Occasionally I dive into the creative process only to get lost in the rabbit warren of journals, books and articles.

For years I would start the research and essentially kill the idea because I exhausted all of my inquisitive and curious creative energy on the research process. Realizing this only just recently has given me a new lease on life as research addicted author. I now let the story outline lead the horse, rather than the research as cart.

Seems like a no-brainer, wanting to put your all into research in order to wring out the most from source or background materials. Yet the energy is sometimes expended, leaving nothing but a snake skin of the original inspiration. If creativity strikes like lightning for you as it does for me, then grounding the lightning bolt by burying your brain in research only diffuses all the writing energy. Back in the day of libraries and bookstore visits, this wouldn’t be so much a problem, but in the day of Internet research indulgences can be fed into gluttony.

My newest tactic in combating this obsessive level of research, denying the creative process,comes by setting a deadline. As a former journalist, deadlines don’t scare me. But denying the rush and thrill of research feels like denying yourself Halloween candy after spending all night going door to door collecting it. Instead of indulging this rush, I merely channel my research into a time-frame, say two hours, before returning to the writing process, whether that’s outlining or character development.

Most important, trust your creative instincts and voice. Let the story flow with the basic framework of research. Trust your outline, trust your wandering words and new strange directions. If you write yourself into a corner, perhaps generated by a lack of information you’d need through research, then dive back in to solve the problem. But immediately reemerge to finish the creative writing.

While this is easier said than done, requiring a discipline that eluded me for ages, I think that this simple advice may help keep you on track.

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Asymmetric Creativity: Devil in the Military Details

soldiertypeFor almost eight years I was a newspaper reporter in the Boston-area. During that time my primary beat was law enforcement where I had daily experience with local and state police officers. I had the pleasure of getting to know them, training with them and writing about the job, its mundanity and its darker side. Overlapped during that period was my time writing feature stories about local men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, further hardening my appreciation for getting the details right. By getting stories and details right I gained the trust and respect of the soldiers and police I covered. That desire for authenticity has been transferred to my military or law enforcement fiction, even if the stories are about Lovecraftian monsters or future technological terrors.

Here are some basic tips that you might keep in mind when you plunge into the world of military or law enforcement fiction:

Authenticity builds credibility– Authentic language, structure and characters also go a long way to creating credibility in your work. Many authors will read military sci-fi or a techno thriller an mimic the language and jargon, but it often falls short in authenticity. Remember that authenticity builds credibility and fortifies the overall perception of your skill. A famous techno-author was great at ships and jets, but writing unconventional warfare and warriors he was quite lacking, eroding the overall credibility of the story being spun. But this idea of authenticity applies to all genre stories whether they are military, police or medical.

Magazine is not a ‘clip‘- There is a long line of mistakes made by authors when it comes to writing military and law enforcement but nothing is worse than ‘clip.’ Not to get all technical, but a clip is not a magazine. Yes, a clip can hold bullets, as in the M1 Garand’s ‘clip’ which holds rounds in a metal c-shaped clip, but it is not a ‘box’ magazine used in modern pistol or assault weapons. I learned from a police officer the need for credibility and clarity when speaking about ‘clips’ versus magazines. He told me that if he were to go on the witness stand during a legal case and called a magazine a ‘clip’ that would erode his credibility as an expert or authority as ‘clips’ and magazines are not the same thing. Similarly, a device attached to the muzzle of a pistol or rifle may have been called a silencer in the past, but its never called that now. Properly called a suppressor, or in slang as a ‘can’, it is a device that suppresses sound but never completely silences. So if you’re crafting a story of steely eyed professional, he or she should never “put a clip into the silenced rifle.”

Avoid the Slang Cyclone– You may get magazine and suppressor right, but avoid bombarding readers with too much slang. Yes, police communications or platoon leader instructions may be filled with lingo and slang, but recognize that its done with a purpose of brevity not drama. To the untrained ear most jargon or slang becomes gibberish, even if its used correctly. And if your reader knows the jargon and you load a sentence incorrectly then it lessens the credibility. Pepper the work with authentic language or details to keep the story grounded in reality, but ensure it is readable to laymen.

Never use Black Ops– This is a term that had very limited credibility for several decades, but was never the kind of term truly used in intelligence or military circles. Other jargon to avoid- wet works, commando (unless you’re writing a World War II story,) chopper (use helo or bird,) or bullet proof vest (ballistic vest/plate carrier are acceptable modern terms.)

Reference– There is a good quick hit list of slang in an NPR piece on the subject of fiction and jargon. For another list with more slang check out ITS Tactical or pick up a modern military-tactical magazine (the thing you read) for up-to-date gear and its associated language. Another way to understand the mindset or hear the cadence of modern military lingo, check out any number of videos on Youtube. These will give you a sense of character and diversity of modern soldiers, while also showing you the proper operation of many weapons used in stories but never personally handled by authors.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Asymmetric Creativity: Righting World Building Gone Wrong

YggdrasilI have an ongoing wrestling match with world building in speculative fiction. I revel in new writers producing ideas that challenge conventional story frameworks or characters. As one of those new writers I still learn as I go, producing some successes and tossing narrative failures. I plug forward with confidence and hope that my stories, short or long, will entertain readers around the world.

All that said, I do have an issue with the idea of world building some writers use in their works. To call it world building is a misnomer, as often we see a hodge-podge of cherry picked pieces of cultural and religious history cobbled together to form new faiths, nations or histories. I would suggest there is a cleaner, more energetic way at world building that harnesses creativity, while keeping the new world authentic to our shared historical knowledge.

Appreciating that many writers lavish countless hours to research before launching into a new story (a research fetishist myself) I feel sometimes the creative energy is lost in the action of stitching together. There needs to be a cohesive view of the world, not a patch work or “everything and the kitchen sink.” Perhaps other readers do not notice or take issue with such incongruities, but as a devotee of history, folklore and religion, I am sometimes distracted by the world building method employed by some writers. Sometimes speculative fiction is like the infamous movie scene where a Roman soldier wears a wrist watch. On the face of it, they seem authentic, but on closer inspection it doesn’t match up.

One of the reasons I started Asymmetric Creativity was to put down ideas that encouraged unconventional thinking that produced exciting results. World building is one such creative endeavor that I think benefits from asymmetric thinking. If I were to offer advice on how to find asymmetric influence in world building I would propose the following:

1- Museum Visits– Seems like a no brainer, but if you live in a part of the world with a robust museum community I would suggest getting outside of your intellectual comfort zone and visit a museum you would not be drawn to. If you are a classic art fan, go to a modern art museum and seek out unconventional sculpture or paintings. If you are a writer interested in world building, avoid the well worn museum galleries of Roman or Egyptian antiquities. Seek out the remnants of other cultures outside the big exhibits or popular galleries. Seek inspiration in the mundane household items or shard of pottery as often they provide insights into the greater culture. Also, spend time at local, smaller cultural institutions as regional history can provide creative triggers.

2- Seek Cultures Old or Overlooked– Unless I am constructing a story set in those culture, I avoid the typical empires or dominant societies favored by most world building writers. While I have non-fiction interest in Roman, Chinese, Egyptian and Medieval England I avoid using them as templates or research starting points for world building. Piecing together Roman imperial system with Chinese cosmology may seem new and inventive, but often they read incongruous or even silly. Find those precursor cultures which we continue to learn of their influence and astounding vibrancy. How do you find obscure or ancient societies?

3- Monitor Archaeology News– Social Media has provided an immediate and constantly updating flow of news about our past. I follow over a dozen archaeology and history organizations, websites and blogs. If you have the ability consider joining organizations like ASOR or at least following their social media updates. Or for a treasure trove of historical, anthropological and archaeological information, possibly join JSTOR. Read reputable history or archaeological periodicals.

4- Read Non-Fiction for Fun. Not Just Research– I have been a reader of non-fiction all my adult life. Currently I read 60% non-fiction to 40% fiction, with the non-fiction primarily folklore, religion and global histories. I read non-fiction for the enrichment, helping me keep the modern world in perspective knowing what came before and how it parallels today. This enrichment helps fill in the imagination, providing credible and realistic starting points for my fiction. World building fiction can only come by understand the way the world of the past operated on every level. Avoid confining the richness of your worlds to capes, armor, sword or sexual debauchery. Look at the names of men and women in 19th century America to forge characters in a strange future. Read about the faiths of Central Asia in the Bronze age to conjure a strange, yet authentic religion. While we all cannot be Tolkein, we can aspire to build authentic, individual and engrossing worlds on our own and not create a Frankenstein’s monster.

5- Write a History– If you feel compelled to create a world, then write a brief “paper” on the world you’ve imagine. Consider going back in time to your youth, to college, when you crafted papers with purpose. Now, as a fiction writer, you have a purpose to craft a world as authentic as any real society you would have profiled in college. Break it down in any form as you want, but create a level by level history of the world or society you imagined. Also, write the history with an authenticity and in a way that has a solid academic underpinning. Don’t worry about footnotes or following MLA standards, but take it seriously as you write a report on the layers of your imagined society. This becomes your history resource and creates a cohesive, authentic vision for your imagined world.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.