Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Want to be seriously creative? Have Fun!

Society tells us that hard work pays off, and I can't disagree with that, but there's more to being successful.  Too many times in our lives, we think the key to doing something great is being serious about it all of the time.  If we joke around about something, then we feel like we're not trying.  In one of my minor, infrequent epiphanies, I realized that this is in fact the opposite of what's actually happening.  

For example, my son's travel baseball team works hard at learning the finer points of the game, but during games, they were putting too much pressure on themselves to perform.  So our coaches, being much more astute than me, decided to add some fun elements to make them loosen up and have more fun.  They got some kids to bat left handed, started introducing new pitches to trick batters, etc.  My wife was beside herself when my son got up to bat left handed, but she calmed down after he brought in the runner on third with a well-placed bunt.  And the kids started winning more games.

My point is that we often put the same kind of pressure on ourselves in our everyday lives, and we don't realize that the pressure we place on ourselves actually can lower our performance...no matter how hard we work.  This is especially true when it comes to creativity.  How many times have you asked yourself, "How can I be more creative?"  Practice?  Sure.  But you can't be serious all of the time.  You need to figure out the "trick pitches" that make it fun to do what you do.

For me, when I'm writing, I enjoy thinking through the most outlandish scenarios that my characters could experience.  Or wondering which character would be the least likely to turn bad halfway through the story...and then figuring out how to make that happen.  The goal is to have fun with it.  Because if I'm having fun, then it's pretty likely that my readers are going to have fun, too.

I also find it extremely helpful to do collective storytelling sessions at schools.  In these sessions, I let the kids work together to develop a story idea and guide them along the way.  Kids in this setting are having a lot of fun, and during the process, they are creating great stories.  And of course, I'm having fun right along with them, so my creative output is also firing on all cylinders.

So if you find yourself stuck in a creative endeavor, try framing the problem in a context that you enjoy.  Or try kicking around fun ideas with family and friends.  You'll be surprised how being "seriously fun" can increase your productivity and creative performance.  

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Inspire Creativity in Kids with Collective Story Telling

Looking for a way to spark creativity in children?  The good news is that it's in there waiting to come out.  All you need to do is provide the catalyst.

So What is Collective Story Telling?

It requires a little thought on your end, but all you need is a quick set up to a story and the kids will take it from there.  To get started, you need provide a group of kids (typically a group of 5 to 25 kids) with a setting, a couple of characters, and a unique event.  Then ask this question:  "What happens next?"

From that point, the kids' imaginations will take you down some interesting paths.  You then become the facilitator, guiding them through the story that they create.  Your main role will be to ask questions, encouraging them to expand on the description of a character or a particular setting.  And most likely, you'll start getting excited about the story, so feel free to add your ideas from time to time, especially when things slow down.  As you get further into the story, you will need to recap what's happened up to that point, particularly in larger groups.  This will help the kids stay on track as to where the story is heading.

Limit the time for each session to about 45 minutes.  Beyond that, everyone's brains will get tired from all of the creative energy they're expending.  Believe me, I've had sessions that passed an hour and by that time, only a few kids were left in the game (probably future authors).

How Do I Get the Kids to Participate?

The biggest problem you'll have will not be getting the kids to come up with ideas, but rather which ideas you choose to move the story along.  I've been doing this for schools now for a few months and I'm amazed that the collective stories go down different paths every time.  And I'm only using a couple of story starters.

To get maximum participation, you need to remember a few things:

1. Make it fun.  Your story starter and your interjected ideas really help.  You also have to show excitement for the ideas that the kids come up with.  (This usually isn't too hard - they tend to surprise you)

2. Organize chaos.  You have to let the group run for a bit.  Everyone wants to talk over each other with ideas that just can't wait to be expressed.  Chaos is OK in the creative process.  Give them time to get it out, then praise the ideas and ask the group to vote on a particular direction.

3. Encourage the quiet ones.  With every group of kids (and adults), there are always folks who'd rather not speak up.  Find ways to involve those kids as well.  When you get to a turning point in the story, move closer to the quiet kid and ask him/her what they think?  Remind them that being creative means not being afraid to be judged.  The quiet ones typically have good ideas, they're just afraid of what people will think.

Story Starters

Here are a couple of story starters I use.  Hopefully these examples will help you get started.

Idea One - for middle school age and older
A group of young teenagers are out for a joy ride.  One of them just got his license.  While they're out goofing around like most teenagers do, they get pulled over by a policeman.  The driver is freaking out and the other kids in the car are reacting in different ways (use this as a point to have the kids describe the driver and the other characters).  The policeman gives the driver two options:  Get a ticket or help him with an interstellar mission.  Stop here and look at the kids in the room.  It usually takes them some time to soak in what you just said.  Then ask, "What happens next?"

As they come up with ideas, be ready for some potentially dark ones from this age group.  Don't be too concerned.  This age group is exposed to video games, action movies and actually might pay attention when the news is reporting crimes.  I usually steer them away from things that get too far out of my comfort zone.  You can do this by reminding them that this isn't a horror novel, it's an adventure novel.

Idea Two - for elementary age kids
A girl and her mother are heading out of the neighborhood on a Saturday to go to the store.  As they drive down the cul-de-sac street, talking to each other about [insert topic], mom abruptly slams on the brakes.  They get out to see a giant footprint-shaped hole in the middle of the street.  What happens next?  Be sure to get the kids to name the girl and describe her.  Is she tall or short?  How old is she?  Does she have any siblings?  How does she react?  Is she scared?  Or is she excited to figure out what made the footprint?  How does mom react?

The last time I used this story, we ended up having two giants that came from a world in the sky.  One was a good giant and the other was an evil giant that wanted to mine the earth for rare gems that were too deep for humans to reach.  The good giant was captured by the military and had to convince the people of earth that he was there to help.  The bad giant was taking kids back to his world so he could lure all of the adults there and capture them.  This came from a group of kids ranging in age from 9 to 11.  And it all happend in the course of 45 minutes!

Get Started Now!

All it takes is an idea and a group of kids.  Once you try this exercise, you'll be hooked.  I could do this every day.  Not only is it exciting to see the kids light up with creativity, but it is also a great way for you to enhance your own creativity.

Happy story telling!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Writing Guardians of the Scepter

When I set out to write the second book in the Bruten & Tommy series, I wanted it to be packed full of action, like the The Secret of the Portals, but this time, the boys would be at another level of danger.  Now they have the Golden Scepter in their possession...and everybody wants it.   I had to up the stakes, get their parents involved, and make them avoid would-be scepter thieves at every turn.

In this book, I also wanted to introduce some new characters in a new world that would carry through to book three of the series, but this time, I really wanted them to be similar to you and me.  They could walk amongst us without being noticed.  I introduce a character in this book that does just that.  And I plan to make this dynamic a component in book three as well.

Writing with the third book in mind was a critical component to book two, because I needed to set the scene for one final epic battle (in book three) that would take Bruten and Tommy to the ultimate level of adventure...saving an entire civilization.  So in Guardians of the Scepter, I put Bruten & Tommy in situations that would make many adults crumble.  The boys deal with death, betrayal and of course, greedy thieves who will stop at nothing to get the Golden Scepter.   I also gave Tommy an opportunity to be the hero and Bruten the opportunity to be humble, in effort to add maturity to both of them.  All of this was intended to prepare the boys for the biggest battle yet in book three.

I had a lot of fun writing Guardians of the Scepter, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Collective Story Writing: Title TBD

Working with kids to create a story as a group has given me an idea.  I'd like to brainstorm and develop a story based on feedback from my friends on the web, Facebook fans, blog followers, etc.

From what I can see on the web currently, it's not a new idea, but I don't see anyone taking one story and seeing it through to a conclusion, especially a full length novel.  This may not pan out, but I'm gong to give it a shot, because you know what they say about creativity... Be Fearless!

So here's the start of the story.  Feel free embellish on characters, setting, and plot lines.  The main goal is to keep the story moving along.  Post your ideas in the comments, and I'll use the comments to add to the story.  Nothing vulgar, please.

Even if it takes a year, when we get to the end of the story, and I'm satisfied with the result, I'll publish and promote it.  Any money made from the book will go to charity.

Happy writing!



It was the start of an ordinary summer day in the suburbs.  Little kids were starting to mill around their houses in their pajamas.  Neighbors were letting their dogs out to do their business.  The sun was casting long shadows of the ten-year-old maple trees planted in neatly manicured front flower beds.  But something felt different.

Tim Johnson rolled out of bed at 9:00 a.m.  He had to grab some breakfast before he went to driver's ed class.
"Morning, mom."
"Timmy, you need to grab something quick, we need to get over to the school for driver's ed," his mom replied as she handed him a breakfast bar and some juice.

Tim wolfed it down and headed back toward his bedroom to get dressed.
"Don't forget to brush your teeth and put on deodorant," his mom yelled down the hall.
"I know, mom, jeez."
Tim's mom rolled her eyes.  Hygiene was not the first priority of a fifteen-year-old boy ... unless a girl was going to be around.

Tim finished getting ready around the constant prodding and nagging of his mom.  The two of them got in the family's mid-sized SUV and backed out of the garage.  Tim was driving with his learner's permit.  He'd been driving for six months now and had gotten pretty good at it by this point.  At least that's what he thought.  His mom was still nervous.

"Timmy, be careful of the mirrors."
"Mom," said Tim, perturbed by her constant nagging.
"I know, honey, it's just ... you're new to driving.  I just want you to be safe," she replied.

Tim cleanly extracted the SUV from the twenty-by-twenty-foot suburban garage and backed out onto the cul-de-sac.

"Watch the neighbor's trash bin," his mom said in a voice that said she was nervous, but trying to be calm.
"Mom, I've got this.  Relax."
"I know, honey.  I know."  She didn't sound very convincing.

Tim put the car in drive and began to head down the long cul-de-sac street to the main road that snaked through the giant subdivision.  Something seemed out of place.

"Mom, look at those trash bins.  Why are they all over people's lawns?"
"Huh, that is strange, honey.  I'm not sure, but don't let it distract you from the road."
"C'mon mom!  I've been driving for six months now.  You need to rel ..."


"Mom, are you OK?  There was nothing in the road a second ago.  I swear!"
Tim's mom was dazed from the sudden impact of the airbag.  Her face was bruised and it looked like her nose was broken.
"Mom!  Mom!"
She opened her eyes and wobbled her head toward Tim.  "I'm alright, but owww!" She gingerly touched her nose.  "I think my nose is broken.  Are you OK, honey?"
"I'm fine, mom, but I'm not sure what I hit.  And whatever it was, it's not there now."

The two of them got out of the car to inspect the damage.  Tim's mother was holding a wad of tissues over her nose to soak up the blood.  As they rounded the quarter panels to the front of the car, it came into view:  a giant indentation in the street.  It was oval-shaped and about the entire width of the SUV.  The indentation in the blacktop was nearly a foot deep.

The two of them just stared at it for a moment as the fear set in.
"Mom, what on earth could do this?!" Tim said, visibly frightened and shaking.
His mom didn't speak right away.  She was as frightened as her son, but she had to collect herself.
"Timmy," she said in a nasal, broken-nose tone, "we need to get back to the house and report this to the police."
Tim nodded in agreement, and the two of them walked quickly back to their two-story, four-bedroom house on the cul-de-sac.  Somehow, the quiet streets of the suburb didn't seem very safe anymore.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I wish I could...

Do you ever find yourself saying, "I wish I could [insert dream/goal here]"?  

But then you start to think of the reasons why you can't.  Too busy with work/school/something else.  Not sure I really have the talent to do that.  How are others going to view me if I do that?  Don't have the money to do that.

Even if you decide to try it, people around you aren't quite sure how to react to your new endeavor.  Your first attempt doesn't go well, so you're just not sure you should pursue it.  Maybe you really aren't cut out to do it.  If this is something you've experienced, you're not alone.  Many people never realize their true calling because they fail to believe in themselves.  And the truth is...

No one is going to believe in you if you don't believe in yourself.  

If you want to realize a goal, think big.  Look around at role models.  Figure out what they do and start doing it.  What most people don't consider when they see a famous athlete, actor, artist, etc. is that famous people typically weren't always famous.  Most of them worked hard to hone their skills and more than likely, failed many times before they succeeded.  And along the way, you can be sure there were people who told them, "Don't pursue it.  It's too risky.  Very few people ever become big time."

What most people don't realize is that making it to the big time is great, but even if you make it to the "medium" time, you can live comfortably and happily, because you're doing what you love.  And if you're in the medium time, the big time is much closer than it used to be.

At this point, you might be saying, "That's great, Brant, but I just don't have the time to do anything.  I work 12 hours a day to support my family and keep a roof over my head."  I understand that.  I have three kids.  However, my reply to that would be this question:  How important is this goal/dream?  If it's truly important to you, you'd be surprised what your family is willing to sacrifice to let you pursue it.  I'm not saying quit your job and let everyone go hungry.  I'm just saying that often times, it just takes a lifestyle change to free up money (no cable, cheaper car, smaller house, etc.).  When you free up money, you might consider a different job, because you don't need as much money to live.  A different job could free up time.  And free time is what you need to focus on your dream.

Too often, we pursue material objects as a source of happiness.  Since we're always paying for or saving up for material things, we are handcuffed from trying anything new and different.  If you want to go after a dream, you have to remove those handcuffs.

I know it's easy to say I'm going to rearrange my life to pursue my dream, but it's not easy to actually do it.   It typically means changing the way you live and being different than others around you.  This generates internal and social turmoil in your life.  However, in my experience, any major change I've made in my life takes about a month to get used to.  It's going to feel strange and a bit scary at first, but if you can push through the initial shock of the change, you'll become accustomed to it.  And the people around you will too.

Once you've gotten yourself in a postion to follow your dream, you need to remember that it will be an uphill battle that will likely take awhile.   But as the great Babe Ruth once said, "You just can't beat the person who never gives up."  Persistance.  Persistance.  Persistance.  Not just for a month, not just for a year, but in perpetuity.

So the next time you find yourself saying, "I wish I could", remember the three P-words:

  1. Position - You have to be in the position to pursue.  Remove the unnecessary stuff from your life.  It's holding you back.
  2. Pursue - You have to take the steps to go after your goal.  Model the behavior of others that you wish to emulate.  Believe that you can do it.
  3. Persist - Press onward.  Learn from mistakes.  Try again.  Never stop trying to get better.
Decide on a goal/dream you want to pursue, position yourself properly to do so, and go for it.  You'll be happy you did.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Creativity Tip: Be Fearless

Whether you think about innovative painters, like Picasso, or innovative inventors, like Edison or daVinci, you can always be certain of one shared personality trait between them... fearlessness.  They had no fear of failing, no fear of being different, and no fear of being judged.

When you do anything creative or innovative, you have to let go of your internalized views on failure and people pleasing.  Let's face it.  A majority of us have been raised to fit as nicely into society as possible.  And as we get older, we are expected to behave in a certain way.  Unfortunately, this expectation often works counter to creativity.  We can't fail.  We can't do something out of the ordinary.  Or we'll be judged for it.  And we don't like that feeling.

Edison tried many different ways to create a light bulb.  99% of them failed.  He just kept on moving forward, banking on his failures (learnings) and his intelligence to lead him to a solution.  When you set out to be creative, I promise you... you will encounter failures.  In some cases, people will tell you that you're wasting your time.  Your neighbors might act a little different around you.  And it's OK.  It might seem strange at first, but eventually, most people will get used to the new "you" and they will come to accept it.

But as you move down the creative path and take the leap to put your work in front of the masses, you will inevitably find "haters" on Facebook, Twitter, and in real life.  You must always stay confident in your abilities, and remember that these people will take any chance to point out your failures.  I've worked in a creative field for a long time, and I was once told by a boss that I greatly admired, "Anyone can judge a work of art, but few can create a work of art from a blank sheet of paper."  If you remember that one simple fact, then you realize that you are one of the few that tries to contribute to the world.

And one last note about being fearless:  If you continue to practice your craft over and over, without letting others decide your fate, you will become great at it.  So don't be afraid to try.  Don't be afraid to fail (and learn).  If you feel a creative calling, be fearless.  It will take you a long way.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Creativity Tip: Get Over Yourself

Sure, you've got a gift for writing or painting or singing or something.  You've been told that by your friends, your parents, your teachers, etc.  And don't get me wrong, you need to have confidence in your abilities, but being humble about your abilities can lead to a far greater result.  Here's why:

  • You will never feel that you are the best, therefore you will strive to get better now matter how far you've risen in your craft.
  • You're always open to suggestions and thoughts.  When you do anything creative and put it out for the world to see.  Some will love it, some will hate it, and some won't care.  When you remain humble, you take all of it in stride.  Often times if we are too eager to defend against bad critiques, we miss great suggestions for personal improvement.
  • People that read/view your work will be impressed by your humility.  This garners more respect than someone who's gifted and can't wait to tell you about it.  
The end result is a better you.  By practicing humility in your craft (and in other aspects of your life), you will reach en even higher potential than you imagined.

Humbly yours,