Tag Archives: writing

Landscape, and fantasy landscape

I’m currently working on a Hopeless Maine novel. Most of the Hopeless Maine stuff I wrote years ago, but as the graphic novels will be coming out steadily from Sloth now, I feel it makes sense to get back into that setting and write more. In the time since I wrote my last Hopeless book, I’ve read a lot of landscape writing and this has had some considerable impact on me.

When I’m writing for the graphic novel of course much of the landscape stuff is down to Tom and the illustrations. It’s his island, he knows what it looks like. However, I’m working on a novel, so I have to do all the backgrounds myself! It’s really interesting putting to use what I’ve learned over years of reading landscape writing.

One of the things I’ve learned is that I don’t like writing that focuses on viewing the scenery. It makes the person in the landscape into a tourist. I’m interested in ways of writing that place the person within the landscape, and that often comes down to how they interact in a bodily way with the place. It’s not just about looking, but moving through, smelling, tasting, touching, eating, and so forth.

In a novel, great reams of description can be dull and irrelevant and slow the story down, so I’m working to make the experience of landscape a key part of the story. It also gives me opportunities to have my characters interact with the strange creatures that inhabit the island. This in turn gives me chance to air another issue that is close to my heart – challenging the idea that human and nature are two separate states.

We’re got some decidedly fantastical things living on Hopeless Maine. In the graphic novels, they are mostly background and the stories are about people. I think that speaks to the way in which humans are so often oblivious to non-human things going on around them. But, I want to do something different with this

Reading landscape literature has changed how I think as an author of speculative and fantastical books. I’m only now finding out how that works because I’m using it. Fantasy fiction is so often seen as an escape from reality, but I’m seeing the scope to make it an act of re-engagement and re-enchantment.


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.

Inspiration and grind

Creativity depends more on effort than it does on inspiration. There’s the work you need to put in to develop your craft and study the forms you want to work in. There’s the effort it takes to go from original, brilliant idea to finished piece – planning, researching sketching, drafting, editing, revising, learning, practicing – depending on what you do. Without graft, that first spark of inspiration isn’t worth much at all.

But at the same time, without the spark of inspiration what does the grafting do? To my mind, when its just graft, what I’m doing is developing my skills, not creating something new. Sometimes that’s a very good thing – as with practicing a song, or looking at other people’s work in order to learn.

It is of course possible to set about something in a deliberate, workish way, and then have the inspiration turn up because you’ve made a space for it. Some people may find this an effective method, for others it won’t work as well. I find it works well for me to play with ideas in my head when the spark of inspiration turns up, and get it to the paper when I have time. I don’t have to be all fire in my head for the writing down part of the process, just for the ideas stage.

Some things don’t need full on fire in the head creativity. This blog doesn’t. Not every day. Today I’m working with what I have – habit and craft – rather than a flash of wild creative thinking to get things moving. There are quite a few things I can do from this sort of headspace. I can edit and work as a colourist, and I can write articles if someone chucks a topic at me.

I have in the past tried to write creatively when I’ve felt no real inspiration but just wanted to feel like I was still a writer, or had a deadline to meet. That approach doesn’t work for me. It leaves me feeling hollow and weary. The creative writing I produce when I’m just knocking it out is not work I tend to like at all. I do not get to access my best thinking, and there may be some very solid technical reasons for this.

If I use my conscious mind to knock out a piece – well, that’s fine for nonfiction, where putting together facts and ideas in an organised way is the main point. What I think inspiration means, when looked at mechanically, is that the less conscious bits of my brain have absorbed an array of things and put them together out of sight of my conscious, and it is now all ready to roll. If I’m working consciously, I will tend to do things that are obvious, less original, there won’t be that underlying flow of ideas moving me onwards. It all feels a bit constipated.

Very conscious, deliberate, planned writing allows a person to stick to traditional story shapes, and I assume traditional methods in any other art form. Creating unconsciously from inspiration rather than a plan can allow all kinds of previously unthought and unthinkable things into the mix. Often a balance of the two is called for, bringing skill, knowledge and discipline in to balance up the delirious outpourings.

Jack of all trades

Yesterday’s post featured a rag rug, with a design drawn by my other half. I know three ways to make rag rugs. There are a great many other crafts I can do a bit, numerous musical instruments I can play passably, and a vast array of other things in which I have dabbled over the years. I like to dabble, I get excited learning new things, and I get bored if I spend too long doing all the same things. However, while I’m pro dabbling and experimenting, it’s not without hazards.

If all you end up doing is learning new stuff, you can find you don’t develop anything properly, never get beyond beginner stage, never learning to push and never doing anything for long enough to have it bear fruit. It can be a way of avoiding dealing with happens when you commit. As a dabbler, you may never finish anything, never really achieve anything but there’s always a new exciting project to wave at people. All the attention, none of the exposure of making something people can experience for themselves, and maybe judge.

Without a doubt, the best creative work comes from a mix of inspiration and dedication. It means building a skill set so that when you have a fire in your head, you can make best use of it. It takes a long time to become truly good at something – the general estimate seems to be about ten thousand hours. The more time a person spends dabbling, the less scope there is to get to that point with any given skill. But on the up side, you can become an expert in learning how to quickly learn things, and there are plenty of times in life when being a Jack of all trades is more useful than being the master of one.

I find that when I dabble, I deepen my appreciation for people who do the things well. When I know more, I am better equipped to enjoy and appreciate. I think this is because I’m pretty good at staying realistic about my own skills and insights. If you do a single course, or a brief session and you think you are then an expert, that can have some seriously distorting effects on how you see other people’s work.

Dabbling enriches my understanding of the world, and anything that teaches me feeds back into my writing. It keeps me fresh, and interested, and hauls me out of ruts and gloom. If something isn’t working for me I will eventually stop banging my head against it and pick up something else for a while. Dabbling is play, and fun and often what I do with my leisure time. I like making things, I like exploring.

As a creator I’m increasingly interested in what happens when disciplines collide. Not just putting words and images together, as with the graphic novel work, but putting music and images together, exploring stories through craft, how I can use my body more in spoken word performance… I love stories made out of fragments and ephemera, and that means I need to learn how to make more of the pieces.

So, I advocate dabbling, exploring, and playing. Know that’s what you’re doing, don’t mistake it for having the same depth and breadth of knowledge as someone has when they’ve worked on a skill for many years. Don’t use it as a substitute for seeing a project to conclusion. Don’t require yourself to achieve at the same standard as an expert when you’re only playing with something. Don’t lose sight of your personal goals, vision etc in the muddle of trying to learn to do ten thousand things. Sometimes a new skill is just a shiny distraction from the things you need to be doing. Pausing regularly to take stock helps make it all work.

The courting of poems

Everyone who writes will have their own process, or more than one way of bringing words together. For some it’s all about jotting down notes, mapping out ideas, sketching, doodling, trying things and putting together the bits that work. It’s rare that a good piece of writing comes together fully formed and straight onto the page, even those of us who don’t do much development writing expect to have to edit and tidy up whatever emerged in the rush of inspiration.

For me, a poem usually begins with a seed idea. That can come from absolutely anywhere, so of course every single day is full of hundreds of things that might be poems. There’s an unconscious selection process that makes me latch onto some things and not others. A sense of possibility, of something I can follow and develop is usually part of this, and I notice it happening even though I’m not in deliberate control of it.

Once I’ve got that seed idea, I’ll hold it for as long as it takes. Usually a few days, but sometimes longer – months, in a recent case. I’ll think about the idea I’ve got, feel my way around it, see what it connects with. I won’t pick up a pen and risk catching it on paper before it is ready, and I’ve learned that it pays not to rush. I’ll play with word arrangements in my head, testing turns of phrase against the idea.

For example, I recently posted a poem called ‘The Use of Cauldrons’. It was a response to the OBOD work I did with Taliesin more than a decade ago, and to Lorna Smithers’ The Broken Cauldron, which I read last year, so I’d been gestating unconsciously for a long time. I simply woke up with a sense of how to write about cauldrons. It then took several days of just letting that wash around in my brain, and then I was able to sit down and write a decent first draft fairly quickly. I left it alone for a couple of days and then tidied it up. A second poem written recently was sparked back in the winter, I knew what I wanted to do but not how to do it. Again, there were unconscious processes, and then an invitation to read locally, and things fell into place.

For me, the process of creating a poem begins long before pen meets paper. I can’t manufacture those little seeds of inspiration that stand out, and have the potential to become something. They are a consequence of richness in my life – that can come from time spent outside, time with friends, time being inspired by other people’s creativity and anything else with that kind of depth and intensity. If I don’t deliberately make room for that kind of experience, then there won’t be the ‘ping’ moments that give me something to write about.

Notes on creativity

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know I’ve had ongoing struggles with creative work. The creative industries are a mess, austerity means many people can’t afford books, art or music. It’s really hard making a living at the moment. There’s only so much time and energy available to me. However, over the last six months or so I’ve learned a lot of useful things about staying creative, so, here’s what’s been helping me get moving again.

  1. Not using writing to pay the bills. It’s incredibly stressful and requires a rapid output, which I have found depressing and exhausting every time I’ve tried it. I am more likely to make money from writing if I write the things I want to write and then try to find a home for it, and not have making it pay be my primary concern. If I’ve got my responsibilities to my family covered, I feel freer in my writing, and other forms of creativity too.
  2. Peer support. Knowing it’s not just me, it’s not my failing but an industry-wide issue. Feeling recognised and respected by creative people I admire and respect helps maintain morale.
  3. People to create for. For me an art is only complete when it encounters someone else. A book no one reads is unfinished. People to write for give me a sense of hope and purpose. This blog helps me keep going, I’ve also felt really inspired as a consequence of support for my Patreon. It’s more about people wanting my work than the money, but the money helps.
  4. Making headspace. I can do the disciplined churning out of words, but to really create I need time to daydream, wonder, question and whatnot. I need time when I’m not directly using my brain for other things. I need to be ok with apparently doing nothing in order to make a space for inspiration to come in.
  5. Time to study. I need raw material to use creatively. This means reading, experiencing, learning. I need time to take workshops or lessons, time to pick up courses – not all of it directly about writing, either!
  6. Opportunities to be inspired. Other people’s books, live music, theatre, film, walks, good food, nights spent dancing, conversations with friends, beautiful landscapes… If I don’t feed my soul, all the time, then I can’t create. Get this right and I’m much more likely to be inspired.

Put that together and what you get are creative friends I can spend time with, whose creativity I can be inspired by and who are up for reading my stuff as well. People to walk with, cook with, hang out with, go to gigs with… and as there’s been a lot of that in my life in recent months, it turned out all I had to do was start making better spaces for myself, and putting down things that don’t serve me, and creativity becomes a good deal more feasible.

The people who sneak into your home

Modern technology means we’re letting a lot of people into our homes, into intimate spaces where they can talk to us without interruption and we can’t question them or answer back.

If you give a poem, one person to another, on a card, in an email, it becomes personal. It hardly matters what the poem says it will seem like there must be some kind of personal message in it. At the same time you can put a more personal poem in a public space and unless you’ve made some unmistakable references, most readers will not assume it’s about them. People don’t tend to take it personally if you give them poetry collections, also, unless perhaps it’s all handwritten and manifestly about them.

Poetry itself is a delivery method which suggests the personal – something I’ve blogged about before.

It’s worth thinking about the things that we allow into our homes to speak to us personally and directly. Who gets to stand in your living room (on a screen) of an evening and tell you how it all works? Who is on your phone, in your hands, talking directly to you? Do you feel like their message is for you? One of the things many broadcasters seem to do on radio (I don’t watch TV, I can only speculate) is create a sense of intimacy, it’s just you and them in a small, dark cupboard (maybe that’s just me!). Having dabbled in making youtube videos myself, I know how to do it, how you talk to the camera as though it was a good friend. It’s also how I write the blog, aiming for a specific kind of tone, a feeling of closeness and complicity…

Now, if a person presses a handwritten poem into your hand, that’s a rare event and it stands out. The people who come to whisper to us in our own homes are there more days than not, and familiarity can have us paying less attention. It’s worth paying attention to how these curious guests make you feel, and if they make you feel uncomfortable, turfing them out and not inviting them back is always an option. I don’t have a television because there are too many people I don’t want to invite round of an evening.

Every book imagines its reader. Every speech imagines its audience. In part because it is hard to communicate well without imagining you are talking to someone. It helps to know your audience and to pitch the language accordingly. But at the same time, anyone who has studied writing, or speech making or any other kind of presentation soon learns things about how to make the recipient complicit. How to make them feel involved, and like this is very much for them and about them. This blog, it’s just between you and me, dear reader. When you read it, you read it alone, and sometimes I strike a chord and you may feel I wrote it just for you, and maybe… I did.

Like any tool set, these skills can be used well or badly. Communicating in a way that develops insight and understanding has to be a good thing, but I don’t think that’s what mostly happens at the moment. If the glimpses I get of mainstream media are indicative, then the intimacy of the voices we let into our homes is not doing us much good, collectively. It’s discouraging empathy, feeding feelings of powerlessness, making us wary of each other, and inclined to blame each other and not looking for who or what is moving on the other side of the curtain. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…

Getting beyond myself

Recently when I wrote about finding a voice for performance, Lorna Smithers raised the issue of finding voices that are not your own. I think this is a really important developmental stage for anyone working with words, and that it merited a follow up.

I’ve worked in publishing for about twenty years now, which has given me a broad perspective on what authors do. New authors tend to write autobiographically. This is one of the reasons first novels are often best left in a drawer! Write what you know is perfectly good advice for getting started, but it’s rarely enough to give you a great book. New authors will dramatise their own hopes and fears, revisit their own experiences and cast themselves as the unlikely hero.

Some authors never move past the autobiography stage. Some find they can’t, and drift away from writing as a consequence. The authors who will go on to do really good work will start to find things other than themselves interesting. They’ll wonder and ask questions, and start writing about things they did not know. Research and experimentation may replace casual experience. They may visit locations, swot up on subjects, observe others, and use this to fuel their imaginations.

In fairness, I have read some really good semi-autobiographical first novels. They tend to come about because the author has learned something from personal experience that they want to share. It’s not a form of wish fulfilment, but a desire to express something significant.

These days when I’m developing ideas for a novel, I spend time exploring the first person voices of many of the main characters. I try to get in their skin and see it all from their perspective. I’ll usually put that down to write in third person, but it helps to individualise characters and establish what makes them tick. It’s a bit like sketching.

Making art is often a curious balance of things. Imagination coming from within, inspiration coming from without. Working with what we know and feel, and with what is unknown and can only be speculated about. Grounding in known things and letting fly into realms of speculation. It’s in the tensions between these things that it becomes possible to create something original and exciting.

In search of a voice

Finding your voice is a key part of development for any creator working with language. In non-linguistic arts, finding your own style is just as relevant, so all of this can be applied more widely.

Give me a keyboard or a pen, and voice is not an issue for me. I started looking for my voice some twenty years ago. It has changed over time, as I have changed, but it’s not something I have to reach for any more. I know what I sound like on paper. That holds even if I’m working in first person and using a voice not strictly my own.

When it comes to performance, voice is something I’ve not sorted out. I can sing – in the most literal sense of having a voice, that’s been fine for nearly as long as the writing. I used to MC, without much confidence, I do talks and workshops at events and I now spend a lot of time in the company of performance poets and storytellers. It has become apparent to me this year that in terms of performing, I haven’t found my voice. I don’t have my own style.

Who do I want to be when I’m performing? What do I want to sound like? What impression do I want to create? I notice that some people have pronounced performance voices that are different from their personal voice, and some don’t. Some people use their everyday language, and some take on a very different vocabulary for the stage. How words are paced, the tones used, the physical movement or absence thereof all goes into creating an overall effect.

Part of what makes my written voice the way it is, is that I pause to consider my phrasing. I’m not the sort of person who has to sweat out each line, but I don’t rush, either. Then I read it back and check that it does what I want it to do. I care about exact phrasing, because I want to convey specific meanings. I also want to avoid dogma, authority, accidentally excluding people, and unnecessary verbal aggression. When I’m speaking, I can’t edit. I can of course write ahead of time and commit it to memory, but that can result in a more stilted performance unconnected from what’s going on around me.

The only way forward is to experiment. I need to try out different ways of doing things, and see what happens. I need to be willing to make mistakes, change direction, and feel uncomfortable. I cannot expect to magically have my speaking voice turn up and function at a professional level and I am going to have to learn how to do a decent job in the company of people whose experience and ability far exceeds mine. There is no scope for development without some risk taking. While I’ve no great enthusiasm for falling flat on my face in public, I also have no desire to stay put. Overcoming the fear of looking like a prat in front of people I respect has not been easy, but I think I’m there now.

I know that my main aims are to be more relaxed about the whole thing and more able to trust my spoken voice. I’d like to be a better public speaker. Beyond that, I don’t know – which is also why the process is so important. There are many things I can’t figure out by wondering, but will come to understand by doing.