Category Archives: Bardic

Changeling, Changing

Three days after the birth, faeries emerged from the wood

To steal the baby, leaving in its stead a thing fashioned

Of mud and twigs and old, dead leaves.


At first, no one noticed. It was a quiet baby.

It slept a lot.

Years passed before they realised the truth,

Felt the texture of bark and leaflitter

Under the illusion of baby skin.

They meant well, and so raised the changeling,

The baby that never was. Raised the twig child,

Telling it gently of its nature.


The twig child watched the wood margins,

Waiting to be taken home, expecting one day

To fall apart into mud, and twigs, and old, dead leaves.


Years follow years and the twig child continues,

Cannot explain itself, feels its difference, grows

Looking human but feeling twigs, mud, dead leaves.

Meets its reflection in a woodland pool, surprised

To see lips and eyes, cheeks and soft hair.

Like some proper human.

Wonders long, and uneasy

At changeling tales, sees no twigs, no mud.

Crawls into human skin for the first time,

A lost child, coming home to itself.

Wondering if there ever was a stolen child or why

It had been told such stories, considers

It may no longer be an it.

It could have a name.

It could be a person.


It could be a me.


How to be a poet

Creativity starts long before you sit down with the tools to make a piece. For the sake of coherence, I’m going to focus in this post specifically on what needs to happen before a poem is written.

A poet needs a love for and skill with language – I would say more so than any other kind of writer. A poet needs to be alert to the sounds, shapes, and rhymes of words. They also need to be conscious of the implications and possibilities each word they use may hold. Sensitivity to language and to the way it can be used is something to be involved with every day.

Poems tend to be smaller than other forms of writing. They call for precision. To be precise, you have to know what you want to get across. To do that well, you need to understand what the most important features are, or what will most readily evoke it. That in turn requires paying attention.

I think I can tell the difference between a poet who had an idea and sat down to flesh it out, and a poet who starts from keen observation and then whittles it down into a piece. The second instance produces poems that are richer and more surprising, because there’s an alertness to detail that you can’t have unless you’ve been working on it all along.

Any experience has the potential for poetry in it. The person who lives in a state of awareness, noticing the details, the nuances, the processes, is well placed to draw on that wealth of experience.

The person who only looks at their own experience, and does so in a fairly superficial way, tends to write poetry charged only by the feeling of the moment. What they won’t necessarily know how to do is make that accessible to other people. If you work only at the surface, you get the hot anger and the cold resentment, soft feelings of love and hollow feelings of loss… but there are many, many poems out there that talk in superficial metaphors about common human experiences. To have something new to say, you need to know more than this.

Poets also need to be people who read poetry. Other reading certainly helps, but encountering – as text or performance – really good poetry makes a lot of difference. Poetry can take many forms, and exists in many cultures. The shape of the piece is often part of where it comes from and what it needs to say. What you’d try to express in a Japanese haiku is not what you’d be trying to express in Icelandic rap, which is not what you’d find in the rap styles of urban America. Slam poetry has its own rhythms and purposes, but has a different flavour to poetry inspired directly by beat poets. And so on, and so forth. Know the form you mean to write in, and get to know as many other forms as you can, because it all helps.

You should be able to read back your finished and edited poem and justify every word and comma in it. You should know why each is there and why it couldn’t possibly be replaced by some other word, or a colon. You should be confident that no word could be taken away without harming the whole and that equally, no word could be added, without it causing more harm than help. You should reach this point confident that your poem does what you intended it to do, and that a reader or listener will be affected in the right way by it.

How to create

There are silly numbers of blogs out there offering advice for writers. They say clever things like, if you want to be a writer, write! Write every day. Write a set number of words every day. Write what you know. No one would say the same thing to a musician. Want to be a guitarist? Just get a guitar and play it every day! Want to paint? Try to paint at least fifteen square inches of canvas every day! Want to make craft items? Make what you know… It doesn’t work, and why and how it doesn’t work is pretty self announcing when we talk about anything other than writing. No one thinks that everyone has a found objects sculpture in them.

To create, it helps to have a body of knowledge about the possibilities of your preferred medium and what people already do in it. If you’re excited about a form, then obviously you want to know about it. You want to read it, look at it, wear it, sniff it – as appropriate (or not!). You’ll need some of that insight before you start, and then you keep working on it as you go along. You also look for relevant content from other disciplines. A songwriter might decide there’s stuff to be learned from reading poetry and going to gigs in other musical genres. A violin player might decide to broaden their understanding of music by learning the piano as well.

Learning skills is essential. If you want to choreograph, you need to learn how to dance, and learn how people express dance to each other in written form. Whatever you’re making, there will be tools available to you and you need to know how best to use them.

You need feedback as you go along. Yes, the idea of vanishing into the creator cave and emerging, blinking into the light a year later with the perfect, finished thing is appealing, but it doesn’t work like that for most people. Trustworthy people to share with can save you from going off the rails. We all need peers, and mentors. Even if those people aren’t doing exactly the same thing, it is good to have them in the mix. Feedback can keep a person going when it all starts to get tricky – which it will, sooner or later. Sharing the challenges, lessons and insights can be a great advantage all round.

You need to know what your creativity is for and where it is going. You may be just doing it for yourself. That’s fine. Don’t, however, think that you can make it purely for yourself and then put it out into the world and magically find that everyone loves it. Building an audience takes time, and work, and if you don’t actively seek people to share your stuff with, they will not manifest out of the ether when you need them.

There is no point in this process where you get to stop studying, learning, experimenting and practicing. If you’ve finished with all of that, you’ve finished developing, finished being relevant. You might get some mileage repeating yourself – we can all think of authors who have essentially written the same book over and over. In the short term it can make commercial sense to stay in your niche, doing what people expect you to do, but for most creators, this will turn out to be the beginning of the end. If you aren’t excited about what you’re doing, why would anyone else be excited about it?

How to tell a story

Humans are drawn to stories, but the ability to tell them is not innate. This blog was prompted by seeing author Mark Lawrence on Twitter yesterday pointing out that if telling stories was easy, we’d never be subjected to boring retellings of other people’s dreams. This connects, for me, with two recent incidents of reading comments about how children can’t tell you what they did at school today because they do not know how to tell their stories.

There are many situations in which we need to relate stories from our lives to other people. Much of that is social and about entertaining others through anecdotes. You may need to tell your story to the police, or to a jury. You may need to tell your story to get funding, keep your job, or get a new one. A well told story can be a powerful tool. There are of course no simple tactics that will work for all circumstances, but here are some places to start.

  1. Think about your audience. What do they want and need from you? What kind of story do they want to hear? In a legal or professional context, it has to be relevant and appropriate. In a social context, stories exist to amuse, or to share something personal with someone you trust. Oversharing, and making people listen to you for a long time can be antisocial and defeats the object.
  2. Unless you are talking to a counsellor in a counselling session, assume that people do not want to play the role of your counsellor. If you are going to tell that sort of story in a context that is not already involved in sharing difficult stories, at least ask if it’s ok before you start. Do not assume that people want to do emotional labour for you by hearing about your bad stuff.
  3. How does the audience need you to tell the story? If you’re talking to the police, they need a blow by blow account with all the details you can remember. If you’re telling a story in the pub, the gist and the punchline are likely to work better. In most normal situations, people do not want to listen to you trying to remember who said exactly what and when. Less is often more. Rehearsing the story in your head can help with better delivery.
  4. The longer a story is, the better a teller you must be to sustain interest in it – even if it’s a good story. Brevity is the soul of wit. If you’re just trying to be the centre of attention, this will show, and people will learn to leave for the loo when you start a tale.
  5. Being spontaneous and off the cuff can seem like the best and most natural way to share a story. If you don’t normally tell stories, then relating your funny work anecdote or strange dream won’t come naturally. It pays to rehearse. If you think something is worth sharing, run it through in your head. Figure out the order to tell it in before you open your mouth. Be alert to key events and work out what, if anything, makes the story potentially attractive to someone else. This can also weed out boring, pointless stories before anyone has to sit through them.
  6. Try and remember who you’ve told your stories to already. If the story about how you made a walk in wardrobe was dull and annoying the first time, that’s nothing compared to how much people will hate it when they’ve heard it half a dozen times already.
  7. Listen and be a good audience. People who insist on leading all conversations back to themselves and their stories are not enjoyable company. Story sharing has to be a process of exchange in order to work. If you’re going to say “that reminds me of…” then it had better be a good link. The more tenuous it is, the weaker your story sharing feels.

Hopeless Sinners

I’m excited to announce the arrival into the world of Sinners, the next volume in the Hopeless Maine series. It’s been a bit of a journey – having been picked up, kicked into the long grass and then dumped by Archaia, we found the awesome home that is Sloth Comics. But, it made sense to reboot the series and put the first two books out again. It’s been a long wait to get something new out there.

Let me mention at this point that Personal Demons and Inheritance were the Archaia titles, now gathered into one volume at Sloth called ‘The Gathering’. When we left Archaia they sent us a letter to say they’d stop selling our books, but those books are still being sold and we get no money for them. I’ve no issue with people moving second hand books about, but the length of time Boom (who took over from Archaia) kept them out there was dodgy to say the least. Also, while it says on Amazon that you can buy these – it doesn’t always turn out that there’s one to buy. People trying to buy old versions have had problems.

Sinners picks up with the characters who survived the first two books and continues their stories. By this point they are young adults. You can jump in here without having read the first two stories. I’m confident about this, because Sinners was the first thing I wrote for Tom. He went to a comic con, saw the power of the cute and wanted to do a young Salamandra story, which is where the first two books – written as prequels – came from.

Getting comics out into the world makes merely trying to publish a novel look very easy. A graphic novel – or fat comic – represents six months to a year of full time work (ten hour days, five and six day weeks) for the artist. We’d have to sell tens of thousands of copies for that to turn into the minimum wage. We can realistically expect to sell a few thousand. The only way to do something of high standard as an indy comics creator, is to be willing to accept poverty as a consequence. A lot of people are making that choice because they want to tell their stories and put beauty into the world. For comparison, Tom has worked for larger publishing houses and on projects that paid advances, and even then, he wasn’t on minimum wage when we figured it out by the hour. The book industry in the UK alone is worth billions a year, but creators are treated as disposable by the companies with the most money.

These are issues across the creative industries. People have to work part time at something else to pay their bills. We want nice things, but we don’t pay for them. The internet makes it easy to have nice things at no cost – and in many ways this is a good thing. Creators are not the only people wrangling with poverty, and lack of financial power should not mean a life devoid of good things, I feel. It’s one of the reasons I’m happy to put time into this blog every day. I want everyone to have good stuff.

I work part time as a book publicist to pay the bills, and I create with what time and energy I have left. I buy books, art, tickets for live music, CDs. I have no desire to exploit other creators, but I also have limited funds to pay them with. If those of us who can pay a bit here and there do, it helps keep creative people going. Part time comics artist is not a realistic trajectory when it can take a whole year of work to create a single book. If you’ve only got a couple of hours a day, it could take more like a decade. As a part time artist you don’t have the opportunities and time to develop your craft or much time to create anything.

And on that merry note, here’s a pre-order page for the new Hopeless Maine book–Maine-2/9781908830142 

Here’s The Gathering

(you can get them anywhere that sells books)

And here’s my Patreon page in case you can spare me some small change every month.

Inhabiting the song

If you have a decent memory, it’s possibly to learn songs, tunes, poems and stories at a fair speed, and thus to perform them from memory. For some purposes, that’s enough. Storyteller Martin Shaw in his various books talks about a much more involved process. Sitting with the story, living with the story for a year or two, telling it to the landscape it came from, telling it to wildlife and working up to sharing it with a human audience. In this approach, it isn’t enough to know the surface of a tale, you have to climb inside it and enter the heart.

Something changes when you undertake to make a piece part of yourself. I’ve found it with tunes and songs, and I’ve found it with the stories I’ve carried with me though my life. They become points of reference, they develop new meanings, and carry with them the resonance of where I’ve sung or played them, who I was with, and so forth.

I have a whole set of seasonal songs, some of which I’ve been singing at their proper time of year for more than a decade now. The process of singing them year on year builds associations and insights that go beyond what a single year of singing can do. This isn’t necessarily a clever and thinky process, it is more often a body knowledge of song and season, memory and place. Sometimes I come up with new interpretations of songs I’ve known for a long time because life experience shows me something that gives the song a different sense.

Singing with other people changes my experience of a song. This may be practical – different versions of tunes and words, different pacing, unfamiliar harmonies. Another singer may bring new meanings to the song simply by how they use their voice. Sometimes, a different voice changes the feel or even the meaning of a song. There’s also a thing whereby if someone nails a powerful harmony line, a song can come alive for me in an entirely new way.

For me, an important part of the bard path is this process of forming a deeper relationship with the material. It is in part the process of being shaped by the material. The O’Carolan tunes I’ve played since my early teens have settled into me, in ways it is difficult to describe. The songs I’ve sung since childhood are part of my sense of who I am. The occasional songs I write are partly a consequence of what I’ve internalised, and what I need to express that I can’t express with existing material.


Of novels and graphic novels

One of my longstanding projects – Hopeless Maine – is a graphic novel serious, devised and illustrated by my other half, Tom Brown. He lured me in to write it for him long before we thought about living together. It is a big part of how we’ve ended up married.

Initially, I was intimidated by comics writing. You have to mostly focus on dialogue and there’s not much text on any given page. I felt naked and exposed without a narrator. It’s a totally different way of telling stories, much more stripped down and focused than novels. To get a story in a hundred or so pages of sequential art, is a very different process from novel writing. Inevitably we can lavish much more attention on what things look like.

What I can’t really do as a graphic novel author is spend a lot of time inside the heads of characters, exploring their feelings, history, motivations, and so forth. Whole relationships may have to be defined in just a few facial expressions and physical gestures. One of the things I’ve always liked doing as a novelist is taking journeys into people’s heads. I’m as interested by inner process as I am by action.

At the moment, I’m working on a Hopeless Maine novel – which is going to be illustrated. With an illustrated novel, there’s more room to write, and the art supports and enhances that, but doesn’t have to do the bulk of the work. This has the added benefit of requiring far fewer hours of art to make it viable. There are two Hopeless Maine novellas already – set in the lead up to, and the same time frame as The Gathering. Those will emerge into the world eventually.

Novel writing gives me a chance to dig into the details. Hopeless Maine has a lot of details in it that I’ve not been able to explore. We’ve only seen a tiny portion of island life so far. What goes on outside of the main town? What do young people do for fun? I’ve worked out a story that will give me more Hopeless grandmothers, and some scope for narrative mapping. I started working on this book with an aim to make it a bit like Around the World in 80 Days, only around the island. As the story has found its own shape, I’ve moved away from the Verne, and the feature of the original scheme I am most likely to keep is a hot air balloon, which Verne didn’t have. The principle of exploration remains, and for exploring the way islanders, and by extension, the rest of us, talk about landscape.

I re-read Around The World in 80 Days last summer as part of my warm up to doing this book. It turned out not to be an adventure story, but a tale about a man obsessed with timetables. Verne’s hero doesn’t really want to see the world, and thus the author is largely spared from having to describe anywhere he’s not visited. It’s rather clever, and I found it funny. As a child reader, I’d missed that entirely. There’s a definitely charm in having a main character who is looking the wrong way or interested in the wrong things. Will I carry that idea into this novel?  Don’t know. I don’t plan books in too much detail because for me, the pleasure of writing is the act of exploration, not the business of sticking to the timetable.

A Steampunk Manifesto

Something cheering today, I thought! I first heard this piece in Lincoln last summer, and it was a wild blast of a performance full of mirth and enthusiasm. What’s below is A steampunk manifesto, not a definitive work. It’s more of an invitation, I feel, for people to go away and think about what their own steampunk manifesto would look like. Or their Pagan manifesto, or anything else they wanted to write an impassioned declaration about.



You can find Kevan Manwaring over here –

And you can find the manifesto on Tom’s Etsy page, along with other originals and posters that we will send to you in exchange for money.

(We will later exchange said money for foodstuffs, art supplies, coffee and a steady supply of presentable trousers).

What are stories for?

Stories have many different impacts on our lives, but for the purposes of this blog post, there are two aspects I particularly want to consider. Stories have the potential to show us ourselves and the kinds of problems, challenges and potential we have. Characters who we empathise with and who catch our life stage, feelings and so forth can be really enabling, and also cheering. The other not unrelated aspect, is characters who appear to be nothing like us, but who we learn to empathise with and whose perspective we come to understand.

Either way, this aspect of story gives us a wider perspective. It gives us tools for getting on with life, ideas about how to deal with stuff, a sense of where we fit. It reduces feelings of being alone with our challenges. Our scope for empathy with people who are not like us is increased. Our ability to see our similarities with people we might have assumed would be very different, is increased.

Key to this, is having diversity in stories. Authors with different backgrounds and life experiences writing what they know and what they imagine give us all a chance of finding ourselves reflected and finding the unfamiliar as well.

UK publishing has always been a white, male, middle class, straight, Christian and most likely Oxbridge educated creature. Not only in terms of what gets published, but what gets hailed as great by reviewers and critics (who likely have the exact same background). The more aligned a writer has been with that background, the better their chances. It has got better in recent years, but this is in no small part because internet shopping offers wider choices than bookshops used to, and there are more small publishers now who aren’t affluent Oxbridge men.

There are similar trends in films – how many action films can you think of with a female lead? How many films can you think of with only male leads? Hollywood thinks that a middle aged white man can be anyone from anywhere (I recently watched Troy, in which Sean Bean is Odysseus) but keeps people of colour in roles that are about being people of colour. How many famous disabled actors can you name? How many films are there with autistic characters where the plot isn’t basically about how challenging it is for the ‘normal’ people dealing with them, but how the ‘normal’ people grow as a consequence?

If mostly what we see are stories by and about straight, middle aged, middle class, Christian, white, educated, able bodied men, we get a very narrow sense of the world. The majority of us never see a world in which we even exist. Add up female people, LGBT people, non-Christians, the working class, and the disabled and you have a good deal more than half of the population, and yet we’re still talked about as a minority. People who read books and see films in which only a certain kind of white guy is an active and powerful character are more likely, I suspect, to believe that no one else can do anything worth mentioning.

A small percentage of the population sees a lot of stories that appear to be all about them and very little about anyone else. Most of us see stories that are not about us and do not reflect us. I for one am very tired of seeing women written and designed by men and for men. Women who exist in stories to be prizes, to create motivation by dying, or to applaud and reflect the man’s glory. Women who cry over broken fingernails, occupy very little space and are mostly passive and there to be eye candy.

As individuals, we can’t do much about the gatekeepers, but we can vote with our wallets. There are many people telling other kinds of stories, and we can support them. One of the things upholding the narrow story is that it appears to sell, and bean counters tend to assume that if they haven’t seen it sell, it won’t sell. Ignoring a long history of skewing the market by investing in some stories and not others.

Making room for inspiration

I only write fiction and poetry when I feel inspired to do so. I’ve got a small trick for the blog which is to note down subjects when I’m inspired and then do the writing first thing of a morning. However, only writing when I’m inspired doesn’t mean sitting around waiting for inspiration to show up. I don’t have to be feeling like I’m on fire to redraft and edit, or to promote books so there are parts of the process I can do any time. I also do things to give inspiration the scope to happen.

A lot of our brain processes happen out of sight of the conscious bits of our minds. This is as well. I don’t want to have to micro-manage my internal organs in a conscious way. Aspects of how we absorb information are unconscious. Inspiration is often the putting together of bits and pieces from here and there and seeing how a new thing can be made. That little spark can then be fanned into flame by imaginative work – playing with the ideas, testing them, exploring, and then waiting again for more of the alluring pinging noises as new things come into being.

If I’m not feeling inspired, I need two things – input and space.

Input can be absolutely anything at all that nourishes me. It can be reading a novel, a non-fic book, a blog post. It can be music, film, or it can be live performance. It might be a conversation with an interesting person, a walk over the hills, an unexpected encounter with a fox. If I’m not feeling inspired, then I have to feed myself things that my brain can chew on and turn into something.

I may do some of that chewing in a conscious, deliberate way, but I won’t settle for what comes out of that process. Deliberately trying to come up with ideas results, for me, in ideas that are far less interesting than the ones I let come to me.

Waiting is an important part of the process for me, too. It’s the most unpredictable part. How much time I need varies a lot. I need time when my mind can wander a bit, when I’m not feeding it, and there is room for the magic thing to happen. I have found a number of activities really good for holding this stage. Walking, crafting and housework. Although not too much housework…

Inspiration is not just about making forms of art. It is an issue for all aspects of life, and anything you do can be enriched if you have the space to get inspiration and act on it. I think the absence of that space is a soul destroying thing and I’m conscious that many jobs leave very little room for personal innovation.

I took a week off between Christmas and New Year. I watched a lot of films, read books, pottered about and hung out with people. I did no deliberate planning, although I realised that I needed to do some deliberate planning. A few days after that patch of time off, I had a light bulb moment about where we are economically as a household, what options we have and what I need most. This is going to be a Hopeless Maine year in a serious and dedicated way.

How inspiration will work for anyone else, I can’t say. But, I think the principles of feeding it and giving it space to happen are likely key.