Well, leave it there, Watson. Let us escape from this weary workaday world by the side door of music.
– ‘The Adventure of the Retired Colourman.’ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sherlock Holmes is the archetype of a forensic detective, a man whose crime-solving method relies on direct observation and careful reasoning. But when a case confounds him, what does he do? He retreats from the concrete world of facts into the abstract realm of classical music.
Why? Because like many great problem solvers, literature’s most famous sleuth knows it is the subconscious, not the active mind, that answers tough questions.
At university I studied ‘creative advertising’. The course was designed to teach us clever ways to sell sneakers, toothpaste and chocolate bars, but the lateral thinking techniques we learned can be useful for brainstorming story ideas. Let me share some tools.
The basic theory comes from ad man James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas, first published in 1965. The book breaks the creative process down into five steps. First, you gather relevant information, mingled with your own life experience. Second, you mull over the facts until they’re all jumbled up in your mind. Third, you incubate the material by doing something completely unrelated. Fourth, you wait for an idea to pop into your head. And fifth, you refine the idea to make it a reality.
As you can see, the third step is similar to Holmes’ method of listening to music. You learn everything you can about a subject, then distract yourself by doing something different – like going to the theatre. This encourages your subconscious to work on the problem.
Another technique I learned at university was ‘write hot, edit cold’. The theory is that you should keep your spontaneous creative work completely separate from your detached, analytical work.
It makes sense, too. Writing that first draft is an exciting, passionate process. Every paragraph seems to flow, every sentence to sing. You feel positive about what you’ve just produced.
In contrast, editing is cooler, more calculated. You adopt the scowl of the professional pedant, slashing entire sections with red ink and exterminating errant commas, all the while squinting disdainfully at the amateurish attempt in front of you. Nothing is ever quite good enough.
Hopefully, the result of this drafting process is writing that is exuberant, but economical. Peter Carey, a former ad man himself, is a master of this sort of controlled creativity. His short stories render wildly imaginative ideas – a human lottery, a magical bird, a mime artist with a talent for conveying terror – in sparse, disciplined prose.
After university, I attended News Limited AWARD School, an industry-run training course for advertising creatives, where I learned the ‘fifty-box method’ of writing headlines. To get a single decent headline, we were told, you need to draw fifty boxes and fill each one with a new idea. And fifty is just the beginning. When I worked in advertising, I’d write a couple of hundred headlines just to come up with one the creative director liked. I’d scribble them down in a mad rush, grab a bite to eat, and then return to appraise the morning’s work.
There are plenty of other idea-generation techniques used in advertising. Notorious ad wanker Siimon Reynolds (yes, he spells his name with two i’s) likes to come up with ideas in the bath because ‘running water creates negative ions’, which help you think clearly. There might be some truth to this – people do say they have their best ideas in the shower.
Another method is to ask odd questions, then think of the wildest possible answers. My favourite is ‘What’s the opposite of the conventional approach?’ In the late 1950s when most Americans were buying large cars, advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach promoted the Volkswagen Beetle with a tiny picture and the words ‘Think small’. The campaign made the brand famous and is now considered the best of all time. This method of looking for the opposite can be applied to non-fiction writing as well. For example, a few years ago I read a piece about celebrity culture in which the writer stalked the paparazzi. Definitely not the conventional approach, but it worked wonderfully.
Finally, mind mapping is a great way to survey a broad issue. For those who don’t know, a mind map is a visual representation of the relationship between things, words or ideas. William E. Blundell’s book The Art and Craft of Feature Writing recommends cause-and-effect diagrams for thinking of new journalistic angles on a stale topic. You start with an event, such as a nationwide shortage of doctors, and then you map out the logically ensuing effect, which in this case might be a rise in doctors’ fees. This, in turn, leads to another event, and you map that as well. The technique helps you anticipate story developments before they occur, providing rich fodder for feature articles.
A word of warning. Brainstorming techniques are useful for quickly producing clever ideas, but those ideas can be superficial. The best stories come from lived experience and, as a result, they have a personal and philosophical depth that resonates with readers. My advice is to use the above methods only when you’re stuck, or when you need to generate a number of story ideas in a hurry.
And so, after the appropriate interlude, we return to The Curious Case of the Classical-Music-Loving Detective. The Sherlock Holmes method is still my favourite technique for idea generation, partly because it legitimises procrastination. So the next time you’re stuck for words, or you just can’t find a way into a topic, take a break. Go to the theatre, listen to music or read a completely unrelated book. And if you can do it while puffing on a curved calabash pipe, all the better.
– Greg Foyster is a freelance writer for The Age, The Big Issue and G Magazine. Visit www.gregfoyster.com.