Tag Archives: books

Creativity without gatekeepers

When I was young, I imagined that publishers and record labels and people picking content for TV, and taking on film scripts all had one basic agenda – that they wanted to put the best things out there. In reality, the bigger a company is, the less likely this is to be true. What creative industries want are sure fire hits that will sell a lot of copies. This means that they are all incredibly risk averse. Things that are easy to market because they look like things that were already successful always have a better shot.

It’s difficult to get anything radical into the mix on these terms. A groundbreaking, original piece of work, is by definition an unknown quantity and no large company will be easily persuaded to gamble vast sums getting it out there. This is part of why films with female leads, or multiple female characters are rarer – it’s not what happens so there’s been little belief it could work. That it does work and is then ignored is because of the sexism inherent in the system. There’s also an assumption that white western folk, for example, are the main audience for film and need to see other white western folk on the screen in order to engage. That this is not true and is ignored is because there’s inherent racism in the system.

For many of us, the over-arching company acts as quality control. We believe that the publishers, movie studio etc will weed out the rubbish and give us the best stuff. (like Twilight… umm… ) Many people still mistrust self-publishing because there are no gatekeepers keeping out the ‘rubbish’. As a habitual reader of self published work, I can honestly say that it is easy to find good, innovative stuff.

There have always been many ways of doing things. Self publishing isn’t new. Jane Austen self published. John Aubrey’s ground breaking work on Avebury was published by subscription. Getting a wealthy patron to fund your project was also an option.

I like subscription publishing as a model because it reduces the risk all round. If a small publisher takes on a wild book, and it doesn’t work out, it can finish them. That’s not good for the author, either. A subscription model allows you to raise the idea of a book and see if people like it enough to get in there and buy on in advance. If enough people do, you publish the book. A publishing company working this way has to ask ‘is this a good book, is it exciting in some way?’ and does not have to ask ‘how do we sell it?’.

Subscription publishing can make publishing poetry and short stories viable – these are generally considered the hardest sells and many houses won’t touch them unless you’re already Neil Gaiman.

So, if you’re looking for something different, something where the gatekeeping isn’t about the bean counting… if you’re looking for a publishing house that does things that aren’t tried and tested, do check out Unbound. https://unbound.com/

And while you’re over there, check out a mind bending, dark science fiction novel Kevan Manwaring is collecting subscriptions for. https://unbound.com/books/black-box/

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Creative Community

I have never liked the image of creator as lone genius, up in their ivory tower, making Art away from the influence of nasty commercialism, nasty popularity and actual people. For me, this is an image that goes with elitism, wilful obscurity, pricing most people out of the market and creative irrelevance. I’m equally not a fan of disposable, industrialised pop culture where people make pretty much the same thing over and over for it to be consumed by other people who don’t much care about it.

There are of course other ways.

At the moment, I am blessed with a creative community. There are people whose work I am involved with to varying degrees, and who are involved with my work. People who pass me their first drafts, and who will read mine. People I trade reviews with. People I go to poetry nights with. People I can learn from, and be influenced by and test myself against. People who inspire me and who sometimes, to my great excitement, are inspired by me.

I find it always helps me to know who I am creating for. Much of my fiction work is written with a few specific individuals in mind. I can’t write for everyone; that makes no sense to me. Writing purely for myself feels too indulgent and narcissistic.

Being part of a creative community means finding out what other people are interested in, reading, looking at, watching, listening to. I may not be much engaged with mainstream entertainment, but I am engaged with things that other people in turn find engaging.

Creative community means support for what I do, and people I want to see thrive. It’s easier to get your books in front of people when someone else can say they are worth reading, simply. It’s good not to feel alone as a creator, and community helps offset the crushing qualities of the industry.

There can be a downside to all this. A small and inward-looking community can become a bubble of dysfunction. It can give people illusions of importance that stop them from doing things that would help them. I’ve seen it happen several times in different contexts. Creative cliques breed arrogance and obliviousness. The solution to this is to be part of an extended network that maybe has some tighter knit groups within it. There’s no real gain in finding a small pond in which to be a large fish.

There’s a romance to the idea of the lone creator that some creators have played up as part of their marketing strategy. The truth tends to be more complex. Stand-out famous creative people tend, when you look more closely at their lives, to have people around them. Wordsworth, for all his claiming to wander lonely as a cloud was actually out on a walk with his sister, and used her diary account of the day to help him write the daffodils poem. The myth of Solitary Great Men abounds, but in creative community we can find natural, healthy antidotes to this where we can all be excellent people in relation to each other.


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?


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.


My life with books

One of my many hats, is that of book publicist. It’s work I’m proud of, and also work I think it might be useful to talk about. As an author, and as a person with lots of friends who are authors, I know quite a lot about the publishing industry. The bigger a company you deal with, the more they look for a sure fire win. They want books that are an easy sell. Most Pagan authors would not be able to get their non-fiction work picked up by a major publisher. Or their Pagan fiction for that matter.

For me, it’s always been a case of trying to identify really good books and then get those books in front of the people who would appreciate them. I think this is what the publishing industry should be about – getting great reads to people. Most of the time it isn’t. My friends Phil and Jacqui can’t get a deal – editors love their work, but Matlock the Hare is about a talking hare, and talking animals are children’s books and these are not children’s books and therefore it cannot be done. They are one example among many.

The average book sells three thousand copies in its lifetime. A bestseller is a book that sells more than five thousand copies. Over at Moon Books, Jane Meredith’s Journey to the Dark Goddess – a book about ritual descent and shadow work, has sold over ten thousand copies. This is not the sort of book that many publishers would have taken forward, and yet, the numbers tell a different story. Some time next year Morgan Daimler’s introduction to The Morrigan is also going to pass the ten thousand mark for sales. I take great pride in helping promote these books. What really sells them is that they are excellent and needed.

I’ve seen repeatedly that an original book in a definable niche can actually do better than something that looked like a box ticking crowd pleasing sure fire thing. Forgive me if I don’t name names and ask you to take that on trust.

The author who knows who, specifically they are writing for can do a lot better than the one who imagines they are writing for everyone.

For folk on the literary side, there can be something distasteful about having to consider the lowly business of actually selling the books. The book is published, and then by magic, should sell itself by dint of its obvious literary merit. Again, I’ve seen it done and I won’t name names. The kinds of books that get listed for literary prizes have often only sold a few hundred copies before they make the list. This frustrates and annoys me. If you believe something is good, surely it makes sense to do everything you can to get it in front of people who will appreciate it?

I can say with confidence that when good books sell, good things happen for the authors who created them. The morale boost of a few thousand sales versus a few hundred is considerable.

Moon Books has proved repeatedly that a book doesn’t have to be aimed at the lowest common denominator, or an obvious easy sell in order to be massively successful. All you have to do is figure out who is going to want to read a book and get it in front of them. I see my comics publisher – Sloth Comics – doing the same thing. Sloth publishes quirky comics, and then gets out there and sells them to people. That’s not a quick or an easy process, but it is possible. I think the same must be true of anything else good, well made, beautiful, thoughtful, or worth having.

We live in a world where the norm is to make cheap throwaway things, pile them high, sell them as fast as you can and move onto the next one. I know, because I’m part of a company that does it, that other ways are available. I know there are plenty enough people out there who want substance and quality, originality and beauty. I feel no shame in trying to sell to those people so that good authors are paid for their work and encouraged to keep going.


Fantasy futures and the unprofessional author

This week saw Philip Pullman in the Telegraph pointing out that it is now nigh on impossible to make a living as an author. The book industry in the UK is worth billions, but it can’t pay its creators enough to live on. I talk about this a lot because it is unjust, and unfair, and not good. But, all of those things said, I’ve mixed feelings about the idea of full time professionally creative people.

Problem number one is that full time creativity you can make a living from has always been for the few, not the many. It is easier to get into the arts if you are white, male, well educated and financially supported by your family when you start out. Recent years have seen our Tory government telling poor kids in state schools that creative jobs are not for them. Private schools encourage their kids to consider creative industries. There have been complaints levelled recently that the BBC isn’t representative in much the same way.

I don’t fancy a system where the chosen few get paid oodles of dosh to create while the majority of us are cogs in the machine and designated consumers. People at the top of their industries can get huge advances, huge booking fees and so forth leaving only a tiny pot for everyone else. I’m not a fan.

I also know from experience that being creative full time can put an enormous pressure on your creativity. It’s nice not to have to make all of your creative work pay, to have the freedom to play, explore, develop ideas, be creative!

To be creative a person needs time, space, energy and resources. As it stands many of us work other jobs and then create as best we can in our spare time. This is not an approach likely to lead to excellence, or that means it will take us all far longer to become as good as we could be.

So, my fantasy future notions then. I think we should all be working (those of us who can work) at least some hours every week doing things that are needed. And everyone, everyone who wants it should have the time to develop creative interests. Some people will want to do other things – physical skills, personal development, fitness etc – and we should all have the scope to find whatever balance suits us. We should all have the opportunity to learn an instrument, write a book, study photography or whatever it is.

My suspicion is (and my basis for thinking this is what seems to happen in Iceland) is that more people with more time to create would actually result in more people sharing creativity and being financially viable while doing so.


New books for Druids

Australian Druidry, by Julie Brett comes out this month, while Reclaiming Civilization by Brendan Myers has just been released. Both titles are highly pertinent to anyone following the Druid path and as I’ve read both I thought I’d review them together.

Brendan Myers is a philosopher and academic with a really accessible writing style. I’ve been following his work for a long time. In this most recent book he explores the concept of civilization. Inevitably this means a fair bit of looking at the ideas of our ancient Pagan ancestors. It also means exploring what people think civilization is, and flagging up all the things that aren’t hard wired, or inevitable, and could in fact be changed. For anyone hankering after a different sort of society, this is an uplifting book, and there’s enough in it about how we live as individuals to help any one of us, alone, to start pushing more deliberately towards better forms of civilization. I highly recommend it.

Julie Brett’s title at first glance has no obvious relevance to Druids outside of Australia. But, I want to make the case that this is a book for Druids everywhere. It is to a large extent an exploration of the seasons and the landscape. Now, mostly what Druidry works with is based on solar events and known Celtic festivals. Our wheel of the year was not ancient history, most groups that we know about celebrated some, but not all of the festivals with the equinoxes probably the least celebrated of the lot.

The wheel of the year makes sense (a bit) in relation to the British and Irish agricultural year. However, for the international Druid, there may not be hawthorn in May. Imbolc may well not be the time of first flowering. There may be no harvests between Lammas and the autumn equinox. There’s plenty of information out there for Druids wanting to work with their ancestors of tradition, but not much guidance for Druids who want to work with their own seasons and landscapes.

In this book, Julie shares the methods she used to establish an Australian wheel of the year. In doing so, she’s created a road map that any Druid, anywhere can use to begin working with the seasons on their own terms. Reading it some time ago when the book was still in development, I realised that even here in the UK, there isn’t always a tidy match and that there had not been enough of my landscape in my practice.


Review: The Book of Air

This one came to me as a review book, having put a hand up to participate in a blog event Clink Street Publishing are running. Score one for uncanny book intuition, because this novel was absolutely brilliant. It is one of those books where too detailed a review of the story would inevitably be full of spoilers.

Set not very far in the future, following a massive disaster for humanity, The Book of Air offers two intertwining time lines, in slightly different periods. The plotting is brilliantly done, unravelling multiple interconnecting narratives. The two strands of the tale shed light on each other, creating a whole that is far bigger than its parts. The characters are intriguing. The unravelling of the back story to the massive disaster is fascinating, and compelling.

This is a book with a lot to say about what books are, and what we do with them. There are implications here for religious texts, for how humans mythologize and what we do as story making creatures. There are reflections on the human desire for ritual and tradition that I think Pagan readers will find especially resonant, if uneasy.  There are a lot of ideas about power, social structures, ownership, and the way we construct ourselves politically. It’s also a story full of love, regret, mistakes, massive and unfixable mistakes, loss, grief… there’s a lot of breadth and depth here.

The book blurb flags up, so I feel safe to mention that one of the timelines involves a community that has built its entire social structure around Jane Eyre. There are four books in all owned by, and inspiring this community, and making sense of what the other three are, and their implications, is both rather funny and a bit heartbreaking.

Too often what a book offers is either action or introspection, these being the boundaries between genre and literature. I’ve always wanted both. It’s a delight finding a novel that delivers both, without either compromising the other. A great deal happens, some of it is incredibly tense and dramatic. Characters reflect on their experiences, and wonder about what’s going on, and try to make sense of things.

I can heartily recommend The Book of Air. Joe Treasure has created an extraordinary piece of work, beautifully crafted and full of gems.

Find more on the author’s website http://www.joetreasure.com/


Reading for pleasure

As someone who works with books, and reviews books, I can end up doing a lot of reading in a workish sort of way. I’m also in the habit of reading as research and sometimes as market research. It’s hard for me to read a book and not analyse it, not think about what makes it work and why, not contemplate the marketing side. This is unfortunate because in many ways I got into writing because I loved reading.

I don’t think it’s a book specific issue. If you are motivated to work with that which you love most, then that which you love most becomes work and your relationship with it changes. A person can easily lose their way when the things that initially motivated them are no longer in the mix.

I think it’s important to take stock regularly, to check in and see what’s happening in life, what’s working and what isn’t. For me this often means reminding myself to make the time to read things for the sheer pleasure of it and for no other purpose. Which is why this post is not a review of Gail Carriger’s Soulless. Which was funny, knowing and delightful to read and just the kind of brain candy I needed in the mix. It’s why I didn’t review Jeannete Winterson’s The Gap of Time or Dr Geof’s The Utterly Un-Relaxing Colouring Book of Cats with their Tanks. They were also fab.

If everything becomes public facing, if every new experience has to become a blog post or a social media update, that doesn’t work for me. Having there be things that are mine and mine alone is really important so that I do not lose myself in what I am doing, and do not lose my relationship with what I am doing.


Paganism and stolen books

Recently, Lupa Greenwolf wrote a very good blog about how stealing books impacts on Pagan authors.  Most of us are not wealthy, in fact many of us struggle, and theft hurts us in many ways. As Lupa has covered that side of things so well, I wanted to explore the magical and spiritual implications of working from a stolen book. To clarify, if a person picks up an ebook someone other than the author or publisher of said book was giving away, and the author is alive or only recently dead, then the book is stolen.  You might want to look up a post of mine – Should I have this free book? – for further clarification.

I give this blog away. Most authors give stuff away. There’s tons of legitimate free stuff out there. Help yourself to that with an easy conscience and enjoy the results.

Most Pagan paths advocate honour. Stealing clearly isn’t honourable. So, from the moment you get that book you are at odds with the path. If you’ve exploring a path that has more of a grey feel, or is less about honour and more about power, consider that these are the authors who will unhesitatingly curse the people who cross them.

If you are following a deity, and you steal a book written by a devotee of that deity to learn more… are you in that deity’s good books? Probably not.

If you practice magic, you’ll run into ideas about how energy moves around. Give something for what you take so that it isn’t taken from you is a popular theory for people working with herbs, for example. Consider threefold return, karma, like attracts like, and all the other philosophies you have encountered. What is your stolen book going to do for you? How is that energy relationship you now have with the author going to work out for you?

I realise that most people don’t know copyright law, and it is easy to be persuaded that it’s ok to have something you want. There are a lot of people out there spouting all kinds of crap about why giving away other people’s ebooks is ok. It isn’t ok to give other people’s ebooks away, simply. However, anyone can make a mistake. Anyone can pick up a book because it sounded legit. If you are new to Paganism and just dabbling and exploring, there’s a lot it is easy not to know about.

If you’ve made a mistake and taken something you shouldn’t have had, you can fix this by rebalancing things. Buy another book from the same author. Buy a hard copy for yourself. Stick something in their donations pot or patreon.

What do you do if poverty put you in this position? If you truly can’t afford to give back? Focus on the things that are freely given. Save up for books. Consider what you are paying for – because if you can afford to buy coffee from cafes, you can miss a few coffees and buy a book. If you’re at the level of poverty where you have no disposable income, I know how tough this is, and it’s a bloody unfair situation to be in. Commit to rebalancing when things are better for you, at the very least. Don’t buy into the idea that you are always going to be so poor that you have a justification for theft. Try talking to the author. Some authors will give books in exchange for reviews. Many authors will happily point you at the things they already give away.

We aren’t going to get rid of book theft in Pagan circles until we change Pagan culture and value the people who make things a bit more. If you see it happening, call it out. And feel free to use anything in this blog, in whole or in part if it will help you. Copyright waved on all of this blog post. (For other blogs, credit me please, and let me know, but this one’s different.)