Tag Archives: author

What stories should we tell?

A good writer can tell any story they like. However, one of the hallmarks of the crappy author is the inability to spot the stories they aren’t qualified to tell. All the male authors who write their women boobing boobily down the stairs being an obvious case in point. This is how we get the dominance of stories in which the only gay people are having unhappy coming out experiences and dealing with abuse. It’s how we get miracle cure disabled stories, and all kinds of fantasy disability. It gives us bad takes on history, and the thoughtless repetition of racial stereotypes.

Whenever you set out to tell a story, it’s worth asking why you want to tell this particular story in the first place. Also ask what qualifies you to tell it. If the answers involve current writing fashions, or some superficial awareness of the subject that should make it obvious that you are not, at this stage, qualified to tell the story. Good writing involves research, and if you don’t have a rich body of experience to draw on, you can tackle that by dedicating time to finding stuff out.

This is also an issue we can consider as readers. Whose stories do we buy and consume? The creative industries tend to favour white middle class men. Often the depictions we see and read of anyone outside that narrow category, are created from the outside. That increases the risk of prejudice and assumption, or of treating the characters as exotic and other. I don’t want to read stories written by men in which the inside of female heads are dominated by an obsession with their own breasts. I don’t want to read weird middle class fantasies about what poverty might actually be like. 

A weak author tends to assume that everyone is basically like them. Thus they don’t do any work exploring the differences between people. They don’t actually imagine other ways of being in the world, or how experiences different from their own might shape a person, but project bits of themselves and their assumptions into a variety of bodies. This is how we get disabled characters who are only tragic or heroic and women who have emotional melt-downs over broken nails. 

Often, when people are allowed to tell their own stories, what emerges is strikingly different. Queer authors don’t tend to write stories about how hard it is being queer. What you get instead are characters who are queer, who have queer friends and queer relationships and a main story that is about them doing some stuff. Also, happy endings, because people usually want to see people like them wining and that’s sadly lacking when stories are written about ‘the other’. People from the global majority don’t tell stories centered around how hard it is not being white – why would they? 

A good author isn’t simply someone who could tell any story, but is someone who will know what stories they can tell to best effect. A good author writes what they know – and will undertake to make sure they know before they start writing. As a reader, you deserve the work of people who know what they’re talking about, not the misleading fantasies of the empathy-impared.

“Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.”

And you might want to read this much more details and far better referenced article on the limits of how we imagine each other – http://lcfi.ac.uk/news/2018/sep/7/can-we-understand-other-minds-novels-and-stories-s/


Off to the Edge

Today, Hopeless Maine is off to Festival at the Edge in Shropshire, in the UK. This is an exciting development for us. We’ve had a performance aspect to the project for some time, but this is our first time out with a script and a show. There are four of us, with songs, Maine folklore, and a story.

Hopeless, Maine started life as a graphic novel series. It was my husband’s idea. I came in to write scripts for the comics, then got into colouring and other things. It’s a world other people have wanted to play with, so we have a role play game and novellas and all sorts of other things going on. We’re always looking for ways to let more people in and do more good stuff.

Some years ago we were invited to participate in our local book festival, and given a stage on the Saturday night. What do you do with a comic at a book festival? It’s not like readings are realistic. We took a selection of short stories, some folk songs and a couple of extra people, and from there, the idea of performance grew.

I’ve been to enough events to know that authors at events aren’t reliably exciting. Unless you are already into an author, listening to them talk about their life and work isn’t interesting. And sometimes even when it’s an author you like, this isn’t a reliably fun way to spend an hour. Not all authors are good speakers or performers. If you’re a fairly obscure author – like me – then the odds of drawing an audience to your sales pitch aren’t great to begin with. But, people at events want to be amused. By offering something more interesting than a thinly veiled book pitch, I can usually get an audience.

With this in mind, we’ve been developing a performance side to Hopeless Maine ever since that first book festival event. We’ve taken songs and folklore to folk events. We’ve taken something like a radio show to a number of steampunk events. I’m plotting other things that can include more people. I’d rather be more entertaining. I have more fun at events being there as a performer than I do stood at a table.


Strip mining your life

I’m a long-standing fan of Lorna Smithers. Recently on her blog she wrote about her intention to stop writing because of the way it has impacted on her. I recognised what she was saying – that you can end up having all of your experiences filtered through the process of writing. It can feel a lot like strip-mining yourself, and you end up depleted, empty, a ravaged landscape.

It can be hard to be fully present in an experience if part of your brain is making notes so you can write about it later. It creates pressure around anything you do. It can actively get in the way of your personal, spiritual life. It is not good feeling like you’ve become a spectator sport.

I went round this some years ago when I realised that trying to write Pagan books was having a problematic impact on my own lived experience of being a Pagan. To deal with this, I’ve slowed down and taken a much less commercial approach.I write what I feel moved to write and I’m not trying to crank them out. One of the unfortunate features of publishing is that without regular new books, it’s hard to stay visible or get the sales. So be it. I’m not going to sacrifice my Druidry for the sake of writing about it.

I’ve been round this with the blog as well. I have rules. I don’t post about anything large and personal when it’s still raw, I give myself time to reflect and process. I focus on ideas and technical stuff and I don’t talk much about recent personal experience. I keep my most numinous experiences private. That’s helped me hold the feeling of sacredness. There are things I’m currently considering writing about that happened to me more than ten years ago – which feels like an appropriate distance.

There are tensions between what it takes to be a good and successful Pagan author, and what it takes to follow a Pagan path. For some of us, those tensions will be a bigger issue than for others. I’ve been able to find balances that work for me, but I have run headlong into these issues and bruised myself by so doing. 

It’s important to hold something as sacred, secret, too personal to share. It’s important to not feel you have to do everything in public. Social media means you don’t have to be trying to become a Very Important Pagan to feel that pressure to share precious things in public. Hold what you need to hold. Even if teaching is your life, you do not owe it to anyone to expose more than you can bear. It’s good to be able to treasure things, and hold them close.


The writing life

I thought it might be interesting to outline what I’m doing with my time at the moment…

I’ve got into a lovely routine where there’s often an hour between my getting up and my starting work. I use that time to think, drink coffee, sometimes I do some exercise. I approach the day slowly, rather than getting up and starting work, which used to be the way of it.

For the first hour or two, I write blogs – for this site and https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/ I also do assorted social media work. Up until February of this year, much of my day job was running Twitter accounts, but I’ve cut right back on that to make more space for other things.

At the moment I’m switching gear in the morning and becoming a colourist for an hour or two – I’m mostly working on the next graphic novel in the Hopeless Maine series. I work in pencils on paper, my husband does all the drawing which is all very old fashioned, but I like how much more texture and character you get that way.

On Wednesday mornings I sort out my Patreon content for the week, although I may have created the content on the previous day. Currently on Patreon there’s usually a poem each month, a section from a novel serialisation, a seasonal song and a Druid book in progress. https://www.patreon.com/NimueB

On Mondays and Thursdays some of the afternoon goes to writing a Wherefore episode, these are recorded and shared on Tuesdays and Fridays. You can find series 3 here – https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLd-6bmI3UuPDMpi5gY_L1KRrzTQDnQMhp It’s a sort of supernatural soap opera. Animism and comedy.

On Wednesday afternoons I’m working on a new Hopeless Maine project. At other times I’m also chipping away at world building for a new project and you can find that in the creative section of this blog.

Other, less regular things go into whatever spare time there is during the afternoons. That can mean magazine articles, reading review books, learning material, developing content for talks, doing things  to help and support friends – like reading early drafts of their novels…

It’s full on that the moment, I have to concentrate hard for extended periods. Happily, my natural concentration span is about an hour, and if I take breaks to move around, I can make that work.

This also represents quite a gentle pace compared to the kinds of workloads I’ve had at some points in the past. There was one autumn when I was working 7 different part time jobs…  At this point my life is a bit more coherent and not as difficult to organise as it has been. And still, I’m having to be deliberate at cutting myself slack for how long I can do some of these things for. I am uncomfortably aware that I expect to be able to work like a machine.  I know creative work isn’t simply about the ability to crank it out. I know I need rest time, thinking time, research time and inspiration to create well, but I still struggle with the way capitalism has colonized my head.


Writing fantasies

A while ago, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and you could sit in a pub garden and be mansplained… A man sat near me in a pub garden and told me how he was going to make his fortune writing short stories. Not a living, a fortune. He was going to put some short stories online and there they would be found by someone important at Netflix, or Amazon. Films would naturally follow, and that would be his life all sorted.

I tried to explain to him that this is not how things work. He was having none of it. I mentioned twenty years of writing and publishing industry experience, and he was still confident that not even having written a short story yet, he knew more than me – but then, he was the one who had brought the penis to the conversation, and that’s always proof of superior insight for some people.

I hit him with some industry stats – that only about 10% of authors make anything from their work and that a good income from writing is about £10k a year and most of us will never even get close to that. He was unpersuaded that The Society of Authors might have meaningful industry stats in the first place, and certainly did not imagine any of that doom and gloom stuff applied to him.

I’ve had similar conversations before. I’ve heard from people who were new to writing, there was one, memorably, who thought her NaNoWriMo fantasy trilogy was bound for fame and fortune. After all, Water for Elephants started on NaNoWriMo so clearly she was going to have the same experience.

As is often the way of it in many aspects of life, we only really hear from the authors who succeed. We hear about the best sellers, the international hits. Most of publishing does not look like JK Rowling. 90% of writers earn little or nothing from their work. For the rest of us, £10k a year is hitting the big time. There are lots of factors – timing, luck, gatekeeping, who you know, how you come across, whether you have a following already. It’s much easier to get published if you’re already famous – it’s not a meritocracy out there. Most of my favourite authors aren’t famous and many of them are a good deal better, in my opinion, then many of the published mainstream authors. There’s more diversity, originality and surprise out at the margins.

I think it’s very normal to come to writing imagining that your originality, and skill and whatnot will shine through and lead to results. People will notice you. I was like that with my first published piece, many years ago. Only it turned out that the publisher didn’t really mean to promote it beyond putting it on their website, and there wasn’t much word of mouth advertising, and I started to see why other authors in ebookland were trying so hard to sell their work.  It’s ok not to know, especially when the stories you hear are only ever the success stories. It’s important to tell those other sorts of stories, too, so that we all have our feet on the ground and aren’t going to be unreasonably hurt by this dysfunctional industry.

I don’t know if the man from the pub garden ever got as far as writing stories and putting them online – he might have done, but I do know he hasn’t landed at Netflix deal yet.


The writing life

Like many writers, I knew from as soon as I could clutch a pencil that writing was a thing I wanted to do. As a child, I wrote poetry and short stories. I fantasised about what it would mean to be an author – I think that’s common too. As I sauntered into my teens, I spent more time thinking about what I wanted to write than thinking about wanting to be an author, and I kept writing the poetry and the short stories.

It may be worth mentioning that I wanted to be a musician, too. I wanted to be Batman, I thought teaching might be interesting, I knew from as far back as I could remember that no one thought ‘author’ was a viable and sensible career path and that I’d need to keep my options open. When I was a kid it was far more feasible to be a full time professional author than it is now.

I wrote my first novel in my teens – I knew it wouldn’t be good or publishable, I just wanted the experience of putting down that many words and to get to know what a novel meant from the inside. I studied Literature at Uni, and I kept writing, poetry, short stories, novels. By the time I was in my early twenties I had a rejection slip from every major UK publisher.

At about this time I became bored with writing versions of myself and started paying more attention to other people, and what I could learn about the world. I think this is a really important shift in the life of any fiction author, although it doesn’t happen to everyone. We all start by playing out our personal fantasies, but good books usually require more than that.

I had a lot of fiction published in my twenties – mostly as ebooks in what was then a fledgling industry. I’d have to make an effort to figure out how many novels I’ve written, but, it’s a lot of novels. And of course I had that fantasy that I’d write a novel and it would naturally find its audience and magic things would happen. It isn’t like that, and finding an audience has taken time, and I’m still very small and obscure in the grand scheme of things. Success is a heady blend of luck and persistence, assuming you have something people want to read.

I got into writing non-fiction in my thirties, first with blogging and magazine articles, and then later with Pagan books. That’s been interesting to add to the mix and I enjoy doing it, but fiction remains my main passion. I’ve sauntered into graphic novel writing, game scenarios, and film scripts, and have no real plan for how any of this is supposed to develop.

Like most writers, I don’t earn anything like enough to live in. A reasonably successful author – full time, professional and with a mid-tier contract at a large publishing house, can aspire to make £10k a year. This is not generally considered to be good money in any other context. So I write poetry, and short stories, novels, graphic novels, scripts, and all the rest of it, and I work alongside that to stay afloat. I’m greatly helped by Patreon support (https://www.patreon.com/NimueB ). I’m ok with not being affluent, I’ve never been affluent, I have infamously low standards and limited interest in material culture. But, it makes me cross and unhappy that arts industries are increasingly structured so that only people who are funded by other means can participate – people with good pensions, supportive spouses, inheritance, and the like. It keeps the poorer folk out, it makes it hard for anyone not well enough to work a day job and create as well.  I don’t want creativity to be a hobby for the rich, I want it to be a viable line of work for those with talent and passion.


Notes on my killing rampage

I have to kill a hundred people. It’s an author issue, and one that is going to occupy a good deal of my time in the coming months.

I wrote a blog post about it for fellow steampunk author Mark Hayes. Which was good of him, as he’s also one of the people I killed… https://markhayesblog.com/2019/10/03/how-to-kill-a-hundred-people-a-indie-october-guest-post-by-nimue-brown/

I had meant to do a cunning reblog this morning, but the technology has thwarted me, so, here’s the opening as a teaser…

“Let me begin by explaining Hopeless Maine. It started life as a graphic novel series set on an imaginary island off the coast of Maine. There’s now a role play game, prose books in the offing and other things in planning! For people who want to get involved, there’s www.hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com which is currently full of dead people…

Back in August, when we were figuring out the details for Hopeless Maine kickstarter, I suggested I could do obituaries for people as though they had died in the setting. Those became early bird bonuses, and “yes,” I blithely said, of course I can write a hundred of them.

Of course I didn’t think for a moment that 100 people would get in fast enough that I’d have to do it.”

And for the rest, hop over to Mark’s blog.

 

 


Things I am doing

A bit of an update about what I’m up to at the moment!

I’m back down to a more manageable number of day jobs – I’m currently doing freelance work for Moon Books, Sloth Comics and Transition Stroud, alongside doing voluntary work for Transition Stroud and The Woodland Trust.

This weekend I’m off to Edinburgh for the Scottish Pagan Federation’s conference. This is my second event this month, having done the Pagan Federation Conference in Wakefield. In May, I have a video in the online Pagan Federation Conference, and am involved with Stroud’s Steampunk Weekend.

I’m still writing regular columns for Pagan Dawn, and for Sage Women Blogs.

I’m currently working on the script for the next Hopeless Maine graphic novel, fitting that in around the paying gigs as much as my concentration will allow. I have not put in the time I wanted to on finishing up an elements book, and I’ve still not found the time and energy to start on a spirits of place book. I don’t have enough hours of good concentration in a day – six is about as good as it gets, currently. It’s not enough, and I know I won’t improve this until I can take some more time off and rest up a bit. It is all too easy to get trapped in spirals of diminishing returns.

I’m still on Patreon. I’m finding it helpful because it makes me take the time each month for something creative. I’m also, frankly, glad of the money. I did slightly better than break even at Wakefield – which is good for an event, I’ve done plenty at a loss. I’m hoping to break even in Scotland. It’s necessary to get out there and do events to raise your profile as an author and sell books, but it is hard for authors to cover costs often, and the chances of coming out ahead are slim.

The amount of time that goes into writing makes it hard to make minimum wage doing it. Thinking about writing in those terms is just depressing so I mostly try not to, But, I have maybe six good hours of concentration in any given day, and I need to be economically active, so there are things to figure out. How much time I can give – to the blog, to voluntary work and to writing books alongside how much time I need to spend on things that earn money.

Fortunately I’m willing and able to live without many of the things that most people take for granted, which makes my home cheaper to run. But, time off can be a problem and I am craving a break. When I do an event and knock out a weekend, I can’t reliably take time off in the week to compensate. I managed a week off between Christmas and New Year, and I’m trying to get a week off in June. I’ll have to take a pay cut to do it – there is no other way. I do not get paid holiday leave from freelance work. I won’t be able to go on holiday for that week – the cost, and the effort of organising are beyond me. It would be nice to just slouch round the flat and read books, and sit under trees and that sort of thing.

If you like what I do, and want to help, then I really appreciate patreon support. Please consider supporting me. If you’d like to support me but can’t make an ongoing commitment, ko-fi is good for one off donations. Thank you.


Co-writing with my younger self

I’ve done a fair bit of co-writing with other people over the years. At the moment, I am in the slightly surreal position of co-writing with myself.

Tom and I are working on the 4th book of Hopeless Maine right now. I wrote the original script more than eight years ago, when I knew far less about comics. Younger me had a rather different voice to current me. Younger me did not really know how to lay out a comics page or tell stories visually. Younger me used to just hand scripts to Tom and leave him to figure out how to make it work on the page. Since then, I have become someone who can think pretty well about visual storytelling and how to get the words onto the page. Having a better grasp of the visual side also means I can see which words to take out.

A few years ago, when contemplating how best to handle an old prose piece in the Hopeless setting, I was given some advice from a fellow writer. Don’t you want it to be your best work? They asked. They were clear that I should revise and update it. In the end, I didn’t do that much. I may have more craft skills than I used to, but there are also things I used to do that I couldn’t do now. How I think about people and situations has changed. I no longer tell the same stories. I am wary of assuming that my current writing self is my best possible writing self. I think previous me had some things going for them.

I find myself working with my old scripts, trying to edit them for best effect, and feeling as though I am working with another author. Usually when I edit for people, the other author is there to talk to. This one is dead, or disappeared, or trapped in another time. I have to edit their work without being able to discuss it with them. I try to honour their vision while applying the things I know that they don’t know. It’s a very odd process. It’s shown me there are things my younger self knew and felt that I need to re-find and re-feel.

We don’t always improve with time. Sometimes our first, unpolished attempts can be the best we do because they have the most passion and energy and are least self-conscious. Sometimes the tools we collect freeze us up and have us second guessing ourselves. Younger me frankly had no idea how to write a comic, but was brazen enough to do it anyway. I am at the moment failing to write a script for something because I’m so bogged down in what I know that I can’t get started. The only way to do it will be to emulate younger me, and write the way I used to write, and then come in for a second stage with all the useful, technical things I know.


Big fish, small pond

There are a lot of personal advantages to being a big fish in a small pond. It’s good for your self esteem, your feelings of worth, usefulness and recognition. It is of course rather challenging to come out of the small pond and suddenly find you are a pretty small fish in a much bigger pond.

Many people are very good at creating small spaces in which to be big fish. I see a lot of it around me where I live, and I see it in the Pagan community too. It’s not so difficult to be big in your local Pagan community. Of course often that means in the rest of your local community, you’re insignificant.

There are all kinds of ways this can cause a person problems. An inflated sense of self worth can trip you up and invites massive embarrassment. The person who has to say ‘do you know who I am?’ is a fish out of the pond that validated them. Frustration at not being a big fish in the small pond can make people insecure, cranky and a problem to themselves and others. Being able to see the bigger pond in which you would be a small fish can do all the same things. Getting caught up in this does a person no good at all. The desire to be important often proves a barrier to getting anything worthwhile done, as well.

We weren’t designed to exist in a global community of billions. We evolved for small groups. Most of us see more people in a year than a mediaeval peasant would have seen in their entire life. We seem geared to deal with a larger network of a few hundred people at most. When we deal with other people in such numbers as these, it’s a very different experience.

In a community of a few hundred people, everyone knows everyone. No one is irrelevant. Any skill, or significant action will stand out and be noticed. Everyone can shine at their own thing. It’s unlikely anyone will cast such a long shadow that they cause a lot of other people to disappear.

In comparison, most of us will never be more than statistics, and most of us will disappear from history and memory when we die. Most of us will not have our centenaries acknowledged, or our legacies discussed.

For our own sanity, we all need small spaces where we can exist as people and feel valued. Alongside that, we all need to be able to deal with the issue that in the grand scheme of things, we don’t count for much.

It was Stroud Book Festival this weekend. I was doing venue work, not there as an author, but my being an author came up in a couple of conversations. “Should I have heard of you?” someone asked. I said, “no, I’m pretty niche.” And that, mostly, is the size of it.