Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.8: The Alchemy of Creativity

Your Hosts: Howard Tayler, Kaela RiveraSandra Tayler, and Megan Lloyd

How do you translate things from the spark of inspiration into a work that someone else can consume? Like, instead of turning a movie into a book, you’re trying to create a book out of the movie in your head. And what if your “spark” isn’t a movie in your head, but instead a suite of emotions?

In this episode we discuss how we do it. That might not answer the question for you, but hopefully it’s a good start. Alchemy is pretty magical, after all.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Choose a scene from a film and write up a “novelization”.

Thing of the week: Every Frame a Painting (YouTube Channel).

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: The Alchemy of Creativity, aka how do you translate from one medium to another and keep the original spark. How do you turn the movie in your head into compelling prose? How do you take a script you are handed and turn it into comics or storyboards? Movie in your head people, remember that prose needs room to breathe. Pay attention to the difference between ideas and execution. Sometimes you need to write down what the movie in your head shows you. How do you transform ideas into thing and keep the excitement? Rough draft! Use 10-year-old boy watches a movie outlining! Write the part that excites you. Dessert first writing! That’s one way to capture the lightning in a bottle. Sometimes drafting is the slog, and revisions are where you put the lightning back in. Sometimes you may need to change the POV or tense to make something work. I.e., find the right framework so you can execute it. Make sure your bottle is shaped right to catch the lightning. 

[Season 17, Episode 8]

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, The Alchemy of Creativity.

[Kaela] 15 minutes long.

[Sandra] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Megan] And we’re not that smart.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Kaela] I’m Kaela.

[Sandra] I’m Sandra.

[Megan] And I’m Meg.

[Howard] The Alchemy of Creativity. How do you translate things from one medium to another and keep the original spark? Meg, you pitched this to us. How do we do that? What are we even talking about? I’m confused.


[Megan] Okay. So this isn’t me saying, “How do you turn a book into a movie?” Because I’m sure we could talk circles around that for hours. But on a smaller scale, how do you turn the movie in your head into compelling prose? Or, how do you take a script you’re handed and turn it into something like comics or storyboards? What are some of the things you have to personally consider when you’re going from one form of a story into another?

[Kaela] Okay. So I am a very movie in my head person, which I think most people have… Recognize when they read Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls, because it’s a very visual book. Now, one of the challenges that this gives me is that sometimes I get… What’s the word? Micromanage-y about everything that’s happening. Because in prose there needs to be room to breathe. You can just say someone crossed the room, you don’t have to say exactly how. You try to deliver the exact experience that you’re seeing in your head, it will overwhelm people and it will ruin the delivery. Because I’m like I want to tell you every little twitch of their facial expression, because I see it so clearly in my head. But doing that robs the reader of the opportunity both to see it in their own way and it over crowds… Like… It completely over crowds the delivery. So that’s something I really have to watch. I have to pull myself back.

[Sandra] That’s fascinating to me, because I do not have a movie in my head.


[Sandra] I have a feel of the scene or an emotion of the character. So… Then there’s also the sound of the words in the feel of the words in my head. So it’s all about the words and the feel and the interaction of those things for me. So, right there, we’ve got a difference in alchemy and approaches which I love hearing about. Because until you said that, people talk about having movies in their head or how they read a book and see it in their heads, and I just don’t. I don’t see things. I don’t visualize. But I feel it. I feel whether the words feel right, whether the character’s emotion is correct on the page or whether my theme is being expressed.

[Megan] So you have to translate this more spacious emotion into words. How do you go about doing that?

[Sandra] This is where I wish I’d thought that through before…


[Howard] [garbled One of my?] Favorite things about Writing Excuses is having an epiphany in front of the microphone and then not being able to follow up on it, because it’s still an epiphany. I can’t take this apart yet. Let me say this. Another way to articulate what we are talking about here is the difference between ideas and execution. It doesn’t matter where I get my ideas. I’m full of ideas. I never run out of ideas. The movie in my head is always running and it has a soundtrack and it has a rumble track and it is always there. How do I execute on that huge library of interconnected and unrelated and sloppy information in order to create a thing that delivers an experience that some part of me will look at and say, “Ah, yes. That is the experience of that thing as extracted from the brain… That is the experience we meant to come across.” That is where… What’s the expression… That’s why they pay me the big bucks.


[Howard] They don’t actually pay me the big bucks, but having a career as a creative lies not in having good ideas, but being able to do what Meg has called alchemy, [garbled] execution.

[Sandra] Yeah, that’s… This is one of those places where you have to learn your own creative process. I really love that we have already two competing processes that are… Not competing but different to compare. Because I can’t… My process is going to have to look different than Kaela’s process is, because we’re starting from different places and our brains just work differently. If I spend a lot of my craft learning time trying to see a movie in my head so that I can then follow Kaela’s process, that is wasted effort. If I… I don’t need to see a movie in my head, I can move with feelings and emotions.

[Megan] So, for work, I generally have to translate other people’s words to visuals. I’m a storyboard artist for animation, which means that every six weeks somebody hands me a script and says, “Turn this into a movie.” So I actually have a couple extra steps than most of my coworkers, because I read the script, watch a movie in my head, and I’ll take out a pen or a pencil and a mark on the script itself where I’m imagining the camera is cutting. Then I have to write up detailed list of my shots. Like, okay, medium camera up close, foreground is this, background is this. Wide camera, these characters doing this. I’ll pinpoint like emotional moments, and I’ll star them, all this stuff. I have some friends who can read a script and instantly just board it finalize. They can just go immediately from one to the other. But it’s, like, personally, I have to translate it into two or three different creative languages before I can get to my final set up, because it is a, for me, a process of turning a script into storyboards.

[Sandra] Yeah. On Twitter, just recently, I was reading a thread from Ursula Vernon talking about how she writes and how her writing process can’t actually speed up anymore because she can’t sleep often enough. Because she will, like, as she’s falling asleep, the characters talk in her head and the story progresses. Then when she gets up in the morning, she just writes down the thing that her brain did while she was falling asleep. So there’s no way for her to write any faster, because she can only sleep so much. That’s fascinating to me because Howard does the same thing. He will fall asleep with character dialogue and things going in his head. I can’t do that. I have to shut my brain off and turn off the stories in order to be able to fall asleep. Because if I let the stories run in my head, they will keep me awake. For… Hours! And hours, and hours. Then I will have anxiety and I will have to get up and write down the thing because I’m afraid I will lose it while I sleep.

[Howard] See, my method is more, look, characters, if you guys aren’t going to tell me a nice story at bedtime, I’m just going to have anxiety instead because I’m going to spin on real stuff, and that’s boring. So… Have some fun.

[Yeah. See, this is…]

[Howard] My brain is your playground. Go! Don’t break anything.

[Sandra] This is actually a skill I would like to learn. You know what I was talking about… I don’t need to see a mov… I don’t need to learn how to see a movie in my head. But that one I would actually like to learn, because it sounds like a nicer way to fall asleep than me with my wrestling thoughts every night. So… Yeah.


[Howard] Emptying the head is hard.

[Emptying is hard]

[Megan] So you’ve thought up a great moment for your story and you can feel the emotions all right, and you’re so excited to do it. How do you transform ideas into thing while keeping what made you excited about it in the first place?

[Sandra] This is where rough draft is my friend. Just… Or… Oh, I know. Howard has this outlining method he calls 10-year-old boy watches the movie. Like, he literally writes down the idea as if a 10-year-old has seen this movie and is telling you about it. Okay, so then they were in a car chase, and then the train comes sideways out of nowhere. And then there’s a helicopter… Oh, by the way, there was a helicopter way back in… Like, literally back and fill as we’re telling the story. Just dump it. Then you can go clean it up. So there’s this let the excitement just blah onto the page, and then you can engage your more critical brain at a later stage. Seems like one of the ways that people do that.

[Howard] We need to take a break for a thing of the week.


[Megan] Right. Thing of the week, this week, is a YouTube channel called Every Frame a Painting. It is a series of video essays dissecting how different creatives bring their own vision to the big screen. Two of the videos I’d especially love to recommend is how Jackie Chan does comedy and how Edgar Wright edits for jokes. I don’t think those are the actual titles of the episodes. Ah. Edgar Wright: How to Do Visual Comedy and Jackie Chan: How to Do Action Comedy. There you go. These are my two favs.


[Howard] Cool. I haven’t seen either of those, but they have comedy in them, so…

[Megan] You need to.

[Howard] It’s possible they will be right up my alley.

[Kaela] I love Jackie Chan, so I know what I’m doing…

[Sandra] Yes. [Garbled I’ve got] plans for after we’re done recording.

[Howard] So. But let’s come back to those tools. You’ve got something you’re excited about. What do you do to capture that excitement, that energy, that elemental spark in the medium in which you execute?

[Kaela] One thing I do is I just let myself go write that one. Like, I know I used to try and pull myself back because I was like, “Oh, I have this perfect scene idea in my head. I can feel it. I can see it. I live it.” Then I was like, “Oh, but I’m not there in the story yet, I can’t write it yet.”

[Howard] Write the homework first.


[Kaela] I just let myself have dessert first. That’s probably the best way of putting it. Dessert first writing. Where when I love it and I’m excited and I can feel it, I just dive in and I just full on draft it. Drafting is my favorite part of the writing process, anyway. So I’ll just let myself go ham. I don’t worry if I’m like, yes, I used three paragraphs to write something that should probably be one. Because I’ll do that later. That’s what revisions are for. I’ll do that throughout the book. I jump around, and I go back and forth and up and down in order to get to all of those dessert places. Whenever I feel the excitement for it. It’s all about the excitement, it’s like… So I’ve captured that lightning in a bottle feeling.

[Howard] Meanwhile, the guy who’s putting green vegetables on the buffet is like, “What?”


[Howard] “What! You gotta eat your greens.”

[Kaela] I’m sitting down with seven different cakes. Hello!

[Howard] You’ve plowed through 11 bowls of pudding.


[As many as four kids. That’s terrible.]


[Sandra] This is another interesting place where Kaela and I apparently are different, where… Because most of my aha moments, most of my lightning in a bottle moments, are actually in revisions. Drafting is kind of a slog for me. It is in the revisions that I catch the lightning and put it back. Like, I drafted, and all of the beauty leaked out in my drafting. Now it is just flat on the page. So in my revision, I go catch the lightning and put it back in. Howard and I used to, early on in the comic, I remember so many conversations with Howard where he would bring me comics and say, “Okay. I think this was funny when I wrote it, but now it is all drawn and I think the funny has leaked out.” It’s this thing that happens when we become overly familiar with the scene, we lose touch with the thing that is actually still there. We just have said the words so often it makes no sense to us anymore.


[Kaela] That is me and revisions.


[Sandra] Yeah. So I’m happy that for me, putting the lightning back in is a thing that happens for me in revisions, because it makes the revision process exciting and interesting. But… Again, different people, different approaches.


[Megan] And they all work.

[Sandra] They do. That’s…

[Howard] Any other tools? Any other concrete bits? Crunchy stuff?

[Sandra] I’m trying to think… We were talking about influences in a prior episode and talking about going back to the well, going back to remember the thing when you feel like you have lost the track or lost the thread, stepping back and describing your thing to somebody new. Saying what is the thing, what was it that excited me about this story. And seeing that…

[Howard] Yeah, that was part of the process for my story An Honest Death in Shadows Beneath. Shadows Beneath is a compilation from Brandon and Mary Robinette and Dan and I of things that we workshop on the podcast several years ago. My story, there was this bit that really excited me and every time I sat down to write the story, that bit kept leaking out and I realized that the bit was only working if I told it in a different tense. If I changed the way, just the POV, and the narrative unfolded. I wanted to shoehorn it into the third person limited POV and it just didn’t work until I pulled it forward into a more immediate tense. It’s which is weird, but that was the way I’d originally, I guess, heard the idea in my head, and it wasn’t until I came back to that that the story flowed cleanly.

[Kaela] That’s a really good point about finding the right framework as well. It’s not always just about executing something, but sometimes it’s finding the right framework so that the execute… So that you can execute it at all. Like, there… Like Cece. I wrote two different books with Cece. Cece’s idea of souls being on the outside of your body and how that would change your world. I wrote two different books about that, and it just didn’t work for some reason. I was like, “Why? Why isn’t it working?” But then I said it in a completely different place, I gave the main character really specific motivation of trying to save her sister. Then I decided, yeah, I’m going to do a Shonen anime tournament. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to make this like a battle to the death Pokémon style, like somewhere between Pokémon and the Shonen battle. That actually created so many more… And first person instead of third person. Like, all of those things amalgamizing together into one thing ended up being the framework where that kind of a story could shine. Because it put into question… The stuff that we joke about with Pokémon is that like legal? You’re making animals fight against each other? But in this world, it’s criaturas and their people, which is what I wanted to explore about, like, how would it affect other people’s souls, like, on an emotional theme level. That was the thing I was most interested in exploring. I didn’t have a world previously or an emotionally intimate enough voice because it was third person. First person really brought that out, to give that the justice that I wanted to. The thing that made me want to write it.

[Sandra] Yep. If you want to catch lightning in a bottle, the bottle needs to be shaped right to catch the lightning.

[Kaela] Yay.

[Sandra] So if you can go back and remember what your lightning was, what the spark was that drew you to this story or this character or this location, and figure out, okay, what else do I need to change around the thing so that it can live here without being squelched.

[Howard] I’m now picturing 20,000 Writing Excuses listeners all out on assorted hilltops in thunderstorms…


[Howard] With huge arrays of bottles holding them up saying, “This one’s round, please?”


[Howard] “No? Here’s a square one. Please?”

[Sandra] All we need is Robert De Niro as the pirate captain on an airship to go catch the lightning.

[Howard] Oh, my.


[Sandra] Sorry, guys.

[Howard] All right. That might be a good mental picture to wrap up on. Because his portrayal of that lightning pirate in Stardust brought me such joy.

[Sandra] Oh, so much joy.

[Howard] Such joy. Lightning in a bottle indeed.

[Howard] Okay. Do we have homework this week?

[Megan] We do have homework and it’s practicing turning an idea from one form into another. This week, you’re going to choose a theme from a movie you love and write it up in a novelization style.

[Howard] That is much better advice than standing on a hilltop during a thunderstorm with a collection of glassware around you.


[Howard] So… Fair listeners, thank you so much for joining us. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.