Saturday, July 16, 2016

Creative Process for Writing Books


I started writing books as a hobby less than 12 months ago. I am in process of editing my second book now and I published my first book "Bootstrap" in Amazon last September.  Now is a good time to reflect what I have learned during this year.

I like Geoff Petty's version of the creative process that has the following six phases:

  • inspiration - the spontaneous generation of ideas; 
  • clarification - rational focus on what the ideas are meant to achieve; 
  • distillation - deciding which ideas are worth pursuing; 
  • perseverance - determinedly pushing the best ideas through to completion; 
  • incubation - storing ideas to be picked up later; and 
  • editing - the self-critical phase of amendment, deletion and adaptation.


For me the inspiration phase typically happens when discussing ideas with other people over lunch, dinner or very often over a beer. We develop an idea to many different directions, people are adding their own spin or viewpoints but often these ideas are quickly forgotten. However, for me ideas are like seeds, sometimes they get buried under the daily grind of work but after a few weeks or months, often quite unexpectedly, the idea pops up again to my consciousness and I try to capture it into my incubation file that I keep in Evernote.


In the clarification phase you put your rational brain to work and try to figure out more details. For example in my first book "Bootstrap"  I got the idea of receiving a signal from extraterrestrial intelligent beings when I visited the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. This is of course not a novel idea and many books have been written based on this idea.  I have seen the movie Contact where Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) works in SETI program at Arecibo.  In the movie she discovers a signal repeating a sequence of prime numbers, apparently sent from star system Vega some 26 light years away.

I liked the Contact movie a lot and have watched it a few times over the years. I started thinking that smart aliens would not just send a signal but something that would facilitate more interactive two-way communications.  I read Nick Bostrom's SuperIntelligence that made me thinking that perhaps there could be a way to send Artificial Intelligence software encoded in the signal. Of course aliens wouldn't know what kind of computers humans would have but that could be solved by sending a "virtual computer" along with the software much like we deploy software to cloud services using containers these days.

This arrangement would have many benefits:  aliens could establish two-way communication in real time instead of waiting 26 years for every response transmission, they could also give this AI software some concrete goals and furthermore they could encode a lot of intelligence in a small transmission payload.


After the idea was clear in my mind I created many alternative plot lines trying to figure out what kind of characters would be needed to make a compelling but also scientifically possible and accurate storyline. Some of these characters were not really needed, so I eliminated them. I pruned and re-arranged the plot details until the ideas felt good and realistic. For example the event that led to leaking the received signal to the Internet was caused by email software auto completion error.  Even the best and smartest scientist could make such an error when typing his colleague's email address that happened to start with same letters as his ex-girlfriend's email.


This has been the difficult part for me. Writing books is a hobby for me, I work full time and typically quite long days.  Trying to push forward a project like writing a book takes some perseverance and requires enough quiet time.

I wrote the first "Bootstrap" book version (27,000 words) during a summer vacation in five days. It is amazing how the story just came out when you have quiet time and got into the flow. I had a similar experience with my second book:  I was on vacation in Rarotonga with my wife and while she was scuba diving I sat down in a Cafe in Avarua and managed to finish writing a story containing 44,000 words in only ten days.  


As mentioned earlier I store new ideas in Evernote. I have found it useful to keep a relatively large collection of ideas and Evernote allows me to add some links and research material to flesh out and incubate these ideas for further use.
I think that incubation happens also subconsciously. I realize that many of the ideas I have discussed earlier with other people are somehow stored in my brain, but some new article that I read or some news story triggers a recollection:  the idea comes back but now in much richer and more complete form. It is almost like the neural fabric of the brain keeps constantly enriching the original idea.

For example, I recall reading some article about scientists who managed to communicate over a quantum entangled connection over 100 kilometers distance. This idea came back when I was pondering how the main AI character in the book could communicate with humans over a long distance.


This has been the hardest part for me. I went through fifteen editing rounds when finishing the first book. I tried to be self-critical but for example in the details on how Arecibo Observatory works with research scientists, how they would coordinate with other observatories if a real ET signal would be discovered I asked for help from Dana Whitlow who actually works at Arecibo. We exchanged many emails where he patiently explained me the physics, how radio telescopes actually work and pointed out many errors in my original plot line.

Editing is hard work and difficult to do properly. For self published authors finding people who are willing to take the time and editing effort to finish a book is not very easy. I asked feedback from my friends and colleagues at work. Many people volunteered to read my book and I am very grateful for getting their honest, constructive criticism. Finding a great editor would certainly improve the quality of the books significantly.


I haven't found any magic bullets for the creative process. You definitely need to work hard to produce anything valuable or entertaining, and you need to rely on the goodwill of the people to get constructive feedback. While writing a good book takes a lot of effort you can break the work into manageable phases by using some of the methods described above.

PS.  If you are interested in reading Bootstrap book #2 let me know.