Writing Excuses 5.10: John Brown and the Creative Process

The now cancer-free John Brown joins us again, this time for a discussion of the creative process. John has presented a seminar on this subject in the past, the focus of which is to teach people to unlock their creativity. At the core of this is the problem-solving we all engage in at some point. You have a problem, so you sit down and try to solve it. BAM. Creativity.

With John’s help we set out to de-mystify creativity, showing how everybody has to be creative on a regular basis, and how this skill set can be broadened through certain types of behavior, and immersion in particular domains. We explore strategies for developing what feels like a good idea, tactics for getting un-stuck when we’re bogged down, and finally figuring out when we’re done.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold, read by Marguerite Gavin

Writing Prompt: A person gets surgery so in order to imitate He Who Never Sleeps…

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23 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.10: John Brown and the Creative Process”

  1. I do hope that John’s cancer wasn’t the actual source of his creativity, Samson-style. (Hint: Was it a beautiful woman who convinced you to have it removed?)

  2. Nice show. I was fortunate enough to have found John’s 12 part video called “How to Write a Story that Rocks,” on youtube.com so I got to see first hand how he makes up big lists of words or ideas that is related to the part of the story he is working on. I found his method has helped me a lot. Thanks to what I learned from John, and the Writing Excuses team my NaNoWriMo story is on target for the first time with 12,762 words.

  3. How do you respond to those who assert that various substances lubricate the creative process?

    LSD, booze, marijuana, absinthe, etc.

    Bunk and bullshit or elixir-of-inspiration?

  4. I don’t know if this is the right place for this or not. Or if this is approved or not. But I started writing on the “Magical Ink” writing prompt, and well, you guys have created a monster! I have ten completed chapters, around 24,000 words done on what I first thought was going to be a short exercise.

    Anyway here is the first chapter.


    My left hand is coated with magical ink.

    Why did you do this and what is magical ink?

    Those are some good questions. Another good question might be.

    Who is this crazy person and why is he running around covering his hand with ink? Magical ink no less.

    Well friend, come have a seat and I’ll let you in on some of the answers.

    My name is Victor Vaughnson of Velderland. I know my name is very peculiar. So, to make it easier on you, just call me Victor.

    Are you comfortable? One can’t read a book properly if your back is hurting, or you’re hungry. So if your stomach is rumbling or your spine wants to tie itself into knots put the book down and go make yourself sandwich and pop a pain elixir or two.

    All done? How is that roast beef sandwich? Come bring it closer to the book, careful, don’t get mustard on the pages. Mmm smells good. Well now let’s get on with the story.

    Ahem, dear reader can you tell those people making noise in the background to be quiet? Seriously how can you properly read and understand anything with so much noise?

    Those aren’t people in the background. It’s the TV.

    What’s a Tee Vee?

    Nevermind, it sounds like a dark form of mind control if you ask me. Go turn it off please, or better yet do you have a hammer handy? You “modern” people and your noise making things. How do you keep from going insane?

    Now I know what you must be thinking. Why is this Victor character telling me to make sandwiches and turn off my magic picture box?

    Well dear reader I don’t want to waste your time. If you’re not ready to read the story, put the book down and try again later.

    Now that all the distractions have been taken care of we can get back to the magical ink. This ink is no ordinary ink. You modern people have something I’ve heard of before, disappearing ink. No this magical ink is nothing like that. This ink stays on for nearly forever. Something as important as magic shouldn’t disappear or scrub off easily now should it?

    If magical ink is so important wouldn’t that make it expensive?

    Yes, a gills worth of run of the mill magic ink costs about as much as a chaldron of grain.

    Gill? Chaldron?

    Sorry, I forgot you modern people have such a boring measurement system. Let me see, a gill of ink is about one fourth of one of your pints, and a chaldron of grain is around thirty or so bushels.

    What’s a bushel?

    Do they not teach anything in those schools of yours? From what I’ve learned from my readers your schools seem to be more concerned with teaching children how to play Melee. I forgot you don’t call it Melee anymore, though the rules do seem quite similar. What did my last reader call it?


    Yes Football.

    Anyway, a bushel is about sixty of your pounds. So if I do some quick math in my head one gill of magical ink costs somewhere around a ton of grain. You could bake enough loves of bread for a small army or paint a few magic symbols.

    Now why is this magical ink so expensive? Well few people know the complete recipe and I won’t divulge the whole thing here in case this book falls into the hands of my enemies.

    Yes enemies, you don’t think a Magus Pictorus can run about painting magic ink on things without making some people angry do you?

    What does this have to do with an inky hand?

    Ah yes all business, I should have known, you “moderns” and your New York Months.


    Whatever. So there I was standing on rickety scaffolding, hand covered in sticky deep scarlet ink. Covering my skin was a small fortune that I was about to press onto the beak of the hissing Giant Raptor.

    “Before the sun sets Victor.” The Sergeant holding one of the thick ropes said as the bird bucked.

    “Hold her steady!” I yelled as I grabbed the swaying scaffolding with my clean hand.

    “Well if you’d hurry an mark it we wouldn’t have to hold ‘er!” Almost under his breath he mumbled, “Infernal rookie.”

    “Alright.” I said with a deep breath.

    I moved slowly toward the beast, it stopped bucking, its eye watched me as I approached. Why did we have to mark them on the beak? Wouldn’t some place on their feathers be better? I already knew the answer, feathers weren’t permanent. They were discarded occasionally.

    As I got closer I noticed the rope that held her beak shut looked rather frayed. As she pulled the rope tightened, individual threads began to unravel. Why couldn’t they have used a new set of ropes? If it snapped the monster sized bird could take off my hand in an instant.

    The poor thing must have been terrified, being captured, held down with ropes and having a strange man press his hand to its beak. Yet we needed them for the Airborne Calvary.

    “Good girl, I am not going to hurt you.” I said trying to calm her down as I placed the ink coated hand to the Raptor’s grey beak.

    I began to recite the commands as the rope twisted again. I stumbled over the words and had to cancel and begin again. I closed my eyes not wanting to watch the rope break.

    For a brief moment nothing happened, then I felt the ink leave my hand and fill the voids on the birds beak. The ink began to glow and burn. Part of me wanted to jerk my hand away; the other knew this was the price one paid to use the ink.

    The giant bird bucked, knocking the scaffolding causing it to sway. I grabbed a beak rope with my clean hand and clung to the bird. I would not fail my first major marking!

    “Hold her boys!” The sergeant yelled, too late.

    Ropes snapped, the scaffolding pitched wildly, I lost my footing, somehow I held on to its head.

    “Rifles at the ready!” He bellowed.

    They were going to shoot my first bonded Greater Raptor! “Hold men! HOLD!” I yelled as she broke free.

    The pain was excruciating I could smell my flesh burning. I had bonded lesser objects and creatures, but never anything this large before. I wondered what scars I’d have if I survived.

    The bird stumbled out of its ropes, spread its massive wings and leapt into the air. I screamed.

    You modern people fly all the time, and may be thinking Victor is a sissy. Well I wasn’t strapped into a nice cushy chair, reading a skinny book or watching a magic picture. No I was clinging onto the beak of a giant bird that regularly ate buffalo.

    I looked down, the soldiers looked tiny. Everyone was staring at me. Some of them were pointing their rifles at me. Would they shoot her? If they did we would crash and I’d certainly die. I’d seen the crash site of an Airborne Rider before, it wasn’t pretty.

    The bond was forged! The fire extinguished, I pulled my hand away pieces of flesh stuck to her beak. I screamed again as the immediate pain ended, a throbbing ache replaced it.

    Pulling my hand away unfortunately had the unfortunate side effect of causing me to shift my weight putting more strain on the rope. It snapped.

    I plummeted to the ground; soon I’d be dead on the rocks below. I watched helplessly as they came up to meet me.

    But Victor if your body was dashed to pieces on the rocks how are you here telling the story? Are you a ghost?

    First let me tell you that I am very much alive, or I was when I wrote these pages, it probably has been many, many years now that you are reading them. Hmm so I am probably dead, but a ghost can’t really write can he now?

    What I am trying to say is I didn’t die, not that day. How would it look to have the hero of the story get killed on the third page? That would make for a rather short book.

    For you to make sense of all this I’ll need to back up the tale a bit. Two years before I was in a completely different trade. I was working in the Velderland Third Army Air Corp armaments shop putting together flintlock carbines.

    “Victor! Stop yer day dreaming son!” Glenson bellowed.

    I had been watching the Airborne soldiers training with their Greater Raptors again. They soared so high above the clouds.

    “Sorry sir, I…”

    “You were watchin’ the birdies flying again weren’t ya?”

    “No… I… yes.”

    “Well pull your head outta’ the clouds and get those carbines finished! Those soldiers can’t go into battle without their weapons now can they?

    “No sir.”

    “Do you think the war is far off?”

    “No sir I don’t. We’ll probably be involved in a full fledged shooting war by the end of the year.”

    “Right, so you’ve got thirty more carbines to build, so get hopping!”

    I grabbed the lock and test fit it into the stock, it wasn’t quite there yet. I grabbed a chisel and scraped out a bit of wood out of the stock.

    Don’t get me wrong supplying arms to the Airborne was a very important job, and I was good at it, but I somehow knew I could be more than a rifle maker.

    War was coming. The Wyvern riders from Skajistan were pushing their raids further north, across the border into our grazing lands. Small bands of three to six Wyrven riders would skim the mountains at night, grab a few sheep, buffalo, or cows, torch a few buildings and fly back across the border come daybreak.

    To counteract these incursions the Velderland Senate narrowly voted to station several Air Defense Cannon crews near the border with supporting Infantry and Airborne units. That’s how I ended up in this camp at the base of the Talon Mountains building weapons.

    I finished fitting the lock into the stock, affixed a piece of flint in the hammer, cocked it back and pulled the trigger. Sparks shot off the frizzen. I loaded a charge of powder down the muzzle, rammed a patch and ball and filled the flash pan. I aimed at the target on the backstop and discharged the weapon. The powder burned, white smoke billowed from the weapon and the heavy lead ball smacked into the sand. One more carbine was ready for the “To Be Stained” rack.

    By the end of the day my neck hurt but I had been able to finish fitting six more weapons. Not a bad number if I do say. I extinguished the lamp, locked the shop, and wandered toward Tent City.

    “Armsmaker!” An angry voice yelled in my direction.

    I pulled my jacket tighter and kept moving.

    “I’m talking to you Armsmaker!” A rough hand grabbed my shoulder, spinning me around.

    A short man wearing the leathers of an Airborne rider looked up at me. They were usually short to keep the weight down.

    “What can I do for you sir?” I asked.

    “You can make bloody weapons that don’t break!”

    I could smell wine on his breath. An angry drunken Airborne rider with a short man’s complex wasn’t going to be fun to deal with. I glanced at his chest insignia, “Second Class Smithson I don’t know what you’re talking about. I test fire every weapon I build.

    “You build bird droppings! I’ve had three carbines go down on me in a month!”

    I casually put a hand under my jacket feeling the rounded handle of my pistol. “Listen friend…”

    “You ain’t my friend.”

    “Second, Sir, if you can show me the proof marks on the weapons we can figure out who’s made them and make the corrections.”

    I looked around, this part of the camp was almost abandoned, since all the workers had gone for the day, music and revelry could be heard a distance away.

    “They’ve already gone back to you talentless, worthless, smoke pole tinkerers!”

    I should have bitten my tongue, “If it weren’t for us ‘tinkerers’ you Bird Jockeys would be throwing rocks at the Wyrven!”

    For a short skinny fellow he could hit pretty hard. I ended up lying in the mud with the drunken man on top of me trying very hard to turn my face inside out.

    “I’m gonna cut you!” He said as he reached for his belt knife.

    I managed to get my flintlock pistol out, and pull the hammer back. It made a loud satisfying click.

    “Easy now I was just joking.”

    “Get off me!” He did.

    “I’m going to make a formal complaint.” I said as I scrambled to my feet, my weapon still leveled at his chest. “Drop the knife.”

    He did, the blade buried a palms width in the mud. “You know we are too important to…”

    “Wyrven’s dung! I’ve got plenty to complain about! Drunk in uniform, assault, attempted stabbing.”

    “Hey hey now who’s pointin’ the gun at who?” he made like he was going to step forward.

    “This lead ball will pierce your leathers, even those marked ones, like they aren’t even there.”

    He wanted to say something but decided I had the upper hand.

    “What unit are you in?”

    “Hog Company, 202nd Aviation Regiment, 56th Airborne Division.”

    “Good your Captain will be hearing from me in the morning.”

    “Please they’ll take away my wings; I’ll be cleaning bird droppings for a month.”

    “You should have thought about that before picking a fight with an Armsmaker.”

    “How was I to know you’d be packing a smoker?”

    I shrugged, “You can’t, maybe you’ll be wiser after shoveling bird poop.”

    “Can’t we make some kinda deal?” He pleaded.

    I shook my head.

    He bent over to pick up his knife.

    “I don’t think so. That’s mine now.”

    He grimaced and backed away.

    “You’re lucky you know.”

    “How so?”

    “You came very close to getting a hole in your chest.” I lowered the weapon, “Now get outta’ here.”

    Once he was gone I holstered my pistol beneath my jacket and picked up his knife. It was a blackened steel battle knife a bit longer than a span.

    How long’s a span?

    The distance between a man’s thumb and little finger if you spread them out, don’t interrupt.

    I wiped the mud off on my leather apron and wrapped it in a bit of polishing cloth I had in a pocket.

    “You’re dead you know.” A feminine voice whispered in my ear.

    I whirled around looking for the owner of the voice. Across the muddy makeshift street sitting in the shadows on the fence of a horse corral was a robed figure.


    “Did I whisper in your ear from way over here?” She whispered again.

    It was rather disconcerting to hear her voice so close yet she stood so far away. “You’re a Magus Pictorus aren’t you?”

    “You’re pretty smart for a craftsman.” The whispering shifted to my other ear.

    “Can you stop that? It’s creepy.”

    She waved for me to come to her. The Magus were mysterious people who painted magic ink on Armor, weapons, and giant birds.

    After I slogged through the mud and made my way over to the Magus she bowed. I bowed in return. I probably should have bowed first but I was still rattled from my fight with the drunken bird jockey.

    “Why am dead?” I asked her.

    Her dark purple robes were covered in intricate painted symbols, I only recognized a few, strength, wisdom, power. Was that yellow curly one fertility?

    She pulled her hood back letting her long brown braids free. Her face was ageless, plain yet beautiful. I could tell she wasn’t a woman who spent hours fretting over her looks. I had to blink a few times to regain my thoughts.

    “If I were you I’d think twice about making complaints with Smithson’s Captain.”

    “Why? You saw the whole thing. I’m the victim here.”

    “Ah but you did point a weapon at an officer.”

    “Only a Second Class…”

    “But still an officer.”

    I nodded, “What should I do Magus?”

    “Try and forget the altercation happened. Oh and one more thing. No need for titles Victor, call me Carolyn.”

    “How do you know my name? There are over five thousand people in this camp.”

    “Come now Victor, I’ve been watching you ever since you came to Tent City.”

    “Watching me?”

    “Don’t you remember the repair order on two ornately carved pistols?”

    “Those were yours?”

    “Remember what was wrong with them?”

    I tried to think back three weeks ago, “Umm, they just needed the flint replaced.”

    She smiled, “You really don’t know do you?”

    I shrugged, “What should I know?”

    “You’ve the potential to become a Magus.”

    She had to be lying. This must be some sort of trick. A common Armsmaker like myself couldn’t ever Paint with magic ink, it just wasn’t done. Only the highly educated ever used the ink.

    “No you’ve mistaken me for some important fellow. I could never do what your kind does.”

    “Why not? Have you tried?”

    “Well no.”

    “How do you know you cannot?”

    I thought through the logic of her questions, she was right but I never dreamed of being ever able to manipulate the magic.

    “So what do you want of me?”

    She put her hood back up and hopped off the fence. I looked down at her, she smiled, “Come to the Magus encampment first thing in the morning.” She held out a gloved hand. I took the small plank of wood. “This will let you past the guards.”

    “Are you sure you’re not mistaken?”

    “Fairly sure. Look at the symbol, does it move?”

    I stared at the curly white design on the wood, “No you must have the wrong ma…” the symbol shuddered slightly.

    She smiled again, “It moved didn’t it?”

    I nodded.

    “Good, tomorrow then.” She bowed.

    I stared at the symbol again, it didn’t move. “Uhh yes, tomorrow.” I said then hastily bowed.

    She walked away; I hardly even saw her go. I stood staring at the symbol trying to see if it would move again. It didn’t until I looked away. Out of the corner of my eye it shuddered again.

    I began walking back to my tent when the air defense cannons fired.

    Come read the rest at my blog.

  5. No, the secret source is the goiter. It’s still hanging around. For Halloween I painted a face on it and went dressed as Querril and Voldemort.

  6. Thanks guys I enjoyed the podcast. I’m glad you’re okay John, hopefully I’ll see you in Reno at World Con. Speaking of Con’s, I wanted to say thanks to Dan for letting me hang out with him at World Fantasy Con.

  7. Howard, your comments this time were especially useful. Thanks for the concrete tips!

    And, while I’m giving kudos, I want to tell Brandon that I recently read Defending Elysium. I loved it! Amazing execution of a intriguing and troublesome theme, and the title says so much. No more self-doubt about your short story abilities allowed.

  8. Also, a question I hope you can address during a future cast: What do you do when you find yourself in the middle of an info-dump? What helps you either to spread out the information or to make it feel like a natural (or at least justifiable) part of the story?

    In case specifics help: This is something I’ve found myself struggling with more frequently in my latest rewrite–I’m adding a back-story to help the political intrigue make sense. The relevant characters are in separate places, so most of it has to happen offstage (this one’s in 1st person). Since I’m trying to squeeze this stuff in without messing up surrounding scenes, it’s turning into a few large “Guess what I just heard?” info-dumps by supporting characters.

  9. @ Tony:

    If you google “creativity marijuana research” and “creativity alcohol research” you’ll find a list of articles. There’s a Journal of Creative Behavior as well. For example, here are abstracts from two of them.



    If creativity is asking questions (and coming up with questions) and then coming up with many possible solutions that also feature some that are varied and some that are unusual, then it seems to me that you’d want ALL your faculties running at 100%. You want to bring as much brain power and concentration and focus as possible.

    Creativity is NOT coming up with the strange weird idea. It’s coming up with solutions to a specific problem until you get the ones that start to zing. That answer might be novel, but it might not. The key is that it’s a valid solution, one that fits the situation, that intrigues you.

    Let’s take this to another domain. Engineering. Would you want to ride in the space ship built by a bunch of guys that were stoned, or the one built by the sober bright-eyed fellows?

  10. I can’t believe John hasn’t read Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan yet! Though Paladin of Souls is probably my all time favorite Bujold book, even if it is Miles-less.

    Enjoyed as always. ^_^

  11. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast yet, but talking about creativity as problem solving got me to thinking about one of the methods I use. Since I come from an engineering background, I draw on that:

    Step 1: Create a system. By system, I may mean a society, a magic system, a starship
    Step 2: Think about how it works, and what can go wrong.
    Step 3: Fix the really obvious problems. If it has a fatal and obvious flaw, your readers are not going to buy that it works at all.
    Step 4: Design failsafes for the less likely but still possible problems.
    Step 4: Build a story around what happens when the less likely flaw is exploited and/or fails.

  12. Talk about Creativity. John Brown, you did it again! As soon as I finish with my NaNoWriMo story I’m writing a book about stoned space ship builders!

  13. This has to be my favourite cast so far. John really put my mind at rest because I struggle with ideas. If I have a scene in my head, it just flows, but once I hit the idea wall it’s like torture…

    I’d like to know more about the Q&A system because my zing moments are cluttering my PC. I have many beginnings, but no middles and definitely no ends *sigh*

    At least I have hope now – thanks to John debunking the creativity myth.

  14. Chella,

    I’m doing a series of posts about suspense on my site. If you’re struggling on forming a story from zing, it might be the ticket to show you the kinds of things you need and the types of questions to ask: http://johndbrown.com/writers/

    As for the process, the last post in the series will cover more of the creative process stuff.

  15. Ooh thanks John. I obviously don’t check your blog enough. When I have free time will have to check these out (might be December, chasing 100k words for NaNo is time consuming when you have a day job…)

  16. Hi John

    After listening here, I went straight to your website – watched your great workshop and have you bookmarked.

    I have a lot of reading to do over at johnbrown.com.

    Thanks for putting so much info up there.

  17. I don’t know if I’m the only person mining these podcasts months or years later, but I’m getting a lot of out them, and in this one, John Brown said Exactly what I needed to hear to help me get unstuck at what was a drab and boring point in my story. I turned to your podcasts and searched for “stuck” and got exactly what I was looking for.

    Thanks guys! Great podcasts! Hope to meet you sometime at a con.

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