Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

I guess you know by now that in the next few weeks I’m going to launch a series of creative exercises for fiction writers. (The good news is that the course will be delivered for free on my social media, all you have to do is come and watch me make an idiot of myself!)

To get you in the mood for creativity, this week I want to talk about “discovery” and about its role in creative thinking.

Is questioning a major component of discovery?

What does discovery mean to you?

  • Are discoveries acquired through the use of your senses?
  • Are discoveries assimilated? In other words, do they result from the merging of pre-existing knowledge and experience?
  • Is questioning is a major component of discovery?
  • Is exploration another major component of discovery?
  • Does “chance” play a part in discovery?

I will look at some of those components but first I want to tackle the role of chance in discovery (I like to spell it “roll of chance” ha ha!)

There’s a generally held belief that discoveries only occur through “happy accident” as if Louis Pasteur was in holiday with his wife, camping in Norfolk, when he accidentally discovered vaccination, microbial fermentation, and pasteurization. It came as a complete surprise to him! Of course, that’s rubbish! I dispute the suggestion wholeheartedly. Louis Pasteur worked long hours, in laboratories, he used sophisticated equipment, having trained as a mathematician, a physicist and later a chemist, before he became a microbiologist. He had a team of experts with him and worked passionately and with logical deduction.

Let’s do a quick case study of Captain James Cook, the man who “discovered” Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. Was he sitting in a conservatory playing checkers with his housemaid when he made these discoveries? No, he’d already served as an able seaman and master’s mate on board warships, he’d already taken part in the daring capture of a French warship and the sinking of another (these adventures led to his promotion) and he’d taken navigation and boat-handling courses, and gained the relevant qualifications. After this study, he took part in a successful amphibious landing where he commanded men and vessels and helped with specialist cartography. This event led him to study map-making and surveying in greater detail.

Thanks to these new skills, he became tasked with a mission to survey the jagged coastlines of Labrador and Newfoundland. While in Newfoundland, Cook conducted astronomical observations of an eclipse of the sun and it was this work that gained him the attention of the Admiralty and Royal Society. On the strength of his skills in astronomy and map-making, and no doubt due to his bravery and commitment, they put him in command of a scientific voyage to the Pacific Ocean aboard warship H.M.S. Endeavour. Cook sailed thousands of miles across uncharted areas of the globe to make his “discovery.”

It’s the same story across the history of breakthroughs, from Johannes Kepler and his discovery of the third law of planetary motion and Galileo’s discovery of the laws of a falling body. Right through to the Human Genome Project, the discovery of exotic hadrons and first ever image of a black hole being captured… these were never random acts of luck, they were never based on a “roll of chance” but were made by thinkers who had adequately prepared themselves for success and were, above all, proactive.

Pioneers anticipate success!

It is true that these thinkers must have had unblocked their minds, to free and unravel themselves from “conventional wisdom” to make such amazing /baffling breakthroughs… but here’s a thing, and it’s a thing overlooked by many: these pioneers anticipated success. I don’t mean this is in a groovy-hippie, serenity-spa, transcendental “mindfulness” type of way… in fact I’d guess these people were not gentle people, they weren’t meek folk filled with sweet ‘n’ lovingkindness and puffing on herbal cigarettes before practicing “contemplation techniques” to whale music! No, these people were tough, defiant, (most probably) arrogant, and ambitious, jam-packed with a charisma, marked by over-overconfidence and determined (let’s say bloody-minded) to “get the job done” whatever the cost! But they anticipated success in ways others did not.

I have a “lucky” Irish friend named George. I once asked him: “Do you believe in the luck of the Irish?” He said, “Oh yeah. But it doesn’t work the way you think it does.” “So it’s not magic?” I asked.” “Oh no,” he said. “The Irish tend to make their own luck. We prepare and plan for luck, you see, then she comes looking for us!

In one of my recent occupations (during a long lifetime filled with various vocations and disciplines) my management stressed the word “proactive.” On our performance reviews, managers would judge us as “very proactive” “moderately proactive”, or “not sufficiently proactive.” I think I was in the “excessively proactive” column (I shouldn’t boast, I know.) Oddly, nobody else I’ve ever worked has used the word “proactive” in performance reviews or coaching/mentoring and it seems they don’t value proactivity. So what is it? Being proactive is taking charge of creation! It’s controlling situations rather than just responding to them. One of my favorite definitions is this:

Proactivity is: self-initiated behavior that endeavors to solve a problem before it has occurred

In other words, being proactive means thinking about the future and focusing on things that you can control instead of worrying about those you cannot. Looking back to Captain James Cook, do you see how his life was an accumulation of all the skills, proficiencies, and credentials he’d need to discover Australia. Like my friend George said, he “made his own luck.”

So the first thing to understand about discovery is that you will need to be proactive. You need to “go out and look” for what you’re dreaming of. This is as true for fiction writers as it is for scientists, seafarers and space explorers!

The second thing to come to terms with (it’s obvious, but some don’t see it) is that we can only “discover” what is already there! The Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon and Portuguese seafarer Christopher de Mendonca both landed on Australia’s coast long before Captain Cook. And what about the Indigenous Australians? They must have sailed to Australia tens of thousands of years earlier still. Of course Australia was there before Cook “discovered it.” The difference between his discovery and everyone else’s (before him) was that he made it “real” in other words, he stuck a flag into it, he claimed it, he charted it, he mapped it, he wrote about it, he brought home news about it, and he promoted it.

John Kendrick Bangs

Do you need to be a fearless discoverer and a swashbuckling thinker to be a fiction writer? Well, yes, I think that you do. Somebody has to write the first gaslight fantasy (Bram Stoker?) Somebody has to write the first monster story (Mary Shelley?) Somebody has to write the first Techno-thriller (Michael Crichton?) Somebody has to write the first Bangsian fantasy (John Bangs?) Somebody has to write the first dieselpunk, etc. All these writers are discoverers because 1) the thing they discovered was “already there” and 2) they were proactive artists.

Want to be more like Stoker, Shelley, Crichton, Bangs? Yes?

Here are nine ways to become a proactive and adventurous writer…

  1. challenge your own assumptions (see my earlier blog post about the para-other and exploring your para-otherness for potential)
  2. challenge everyone else’s assumptions. What does society say about the “sort of thing” you want to write about? Why does society like/dislike this “sort of thing?” Why don’t others write about this “sort of thing”? Why has this “sort of thing” been labelled unpleasant, unacceptable or unworkable in the past?
  3. Recognize differences between random things: i.e. the front of something is a face, why is there no working antonym for face?
  4. Recognize similarities between random things: i.e. the Polyphemus moth, peacocks and fighter planes all have eyes on their wings. Why?
  5. Make unlikely connections: i.e. if kangaroos climb trees, why don’t wombats swim under water?
  6. Build on one idea to provide another (newer) one: i.e. moles eat worms, why is there no underground predator that eats moles? Or is there (we just haven’t discovered it yet.)
  7. Look at things from a skewed perspective. Use a (virtual) periscope to look at the world from below the surface (perhaps like an underwater wombat), squint or block-out the fringes of an idea to see the idea without distraction
  8. Take advantage of the unexpected and, when it arrives, grab it with both hands i.e. Captain Cook didn’t intend to “discover” the Great barrier reef, he literally crashed into it! But he took the opportunity to map and survey the area while his ship was getting fixed.
  9. Take chances! Take chances with all of the above…

Good luck with your adventuring! Don’t forget to follow me on my social network

Words: @neilmach September 2021 ©

To participate in my FREE online creative imaginicity exercises over the next few weeks, follow my social media here

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

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