Tag Archives: writing

Inspiration and the future (mine, and everyone else’s)

Inspiration isn’t something that always turns up on demand. For a person attempting to work creatively this can be a bit of an issue. It’s certainly the case that trying to create can be a way of inviting inspiration to come to you. If you aren’t making room for inspiration to happen, it’s not so likely to show up. Time contemplating can also work. Getting on with life and hoping inspiration will strike isn’t very effective at all.

My major source of inspiration has always been other people. That can work in a number of ways. Sometimes I get very excited about a person and that fills my head with ideas and makes me want to write. Some of the things I’ve written have been for specific people – that can mean writing blog posts on request, writing poems for people. I wrote my most recent book – Beyond Sustainability, because my lovely publisher Trevor Greenfield asked me to. There’s nothing like someone wanting something from me to get me motivated and inspired.

Sometimes I write for groups of people. I write this blog because I know there are people reading it, and that’s a reason to keep finding topics and ideas day by day. One of the ways in which I find Patreon helpful is the accountability of having people to write for. At times when I’ve been struggling creatively, knowing that I need to produce things for my Patreon supporters has given me much needed focus, and that often opens the way to inspiration.

There are a handful of people who are always on my mind when I’m writing fiction. People who I know like my stuff and who I would like to be able to engage and entertain. Thinking about what they’d enjoy and wanting to create books for them to enjoy is important to my being able to do what I do.

When I was first writing, as a much younger human, a lot of my inspiration came out of my hopes and daydreams. As is always the way for young humans, I didn’t have much experience to draw on, and found a lot of my writing ideas in what might happen. Writing from a place of hope is different from writing from a place of experience. At this point in my writing I think I’m on the edge of a significant change. I need to dream more, but instead of trying to dream my own future, I need to dream a future that I can engage more people with. Unlike younger me, I’m not interested in my own trajectory much – certainly not as a source of writing ideas. I am deeply concerned with the trajectory of humanity as a whole. So I think that moving forward I’ll be doing more to combine younger me’s hope and future-facing ideas with older me’s interest in writing primarily for other people, and see where that takes me.

Sometimes you just have to jump

In the last few years, I’ve not attempted to write a novel on my own. I’ve co-written a novel with David Bridger, and we’re working on the second in the series. I’ve written two novellas in the Hopeless, Maine setting. Before that, during lockdown, I accidentally wrote three novels worth of material. However, the Wherefore books were written one short story at a time with a structure more like a soap opera, and collaborative partners, so that was a very different sort of thinking.

I’ve been asked to write a sequel to Fast Food at the Centre of the World – that one’s being published as a book this year having only previously been out in the world as audio files. It would be fair to say that while I’ve been thinking about themes, I’ve also been procrastinating a lot. It’s been a year since I last sat down to deliberately write a novel, and I have no idea if I can do it. I wrote that one to a tight remit in about a month for a project that didn’t work out – I was working with other people’s plots and characters, it wasn’t purely mine. This was not a good experience.

This isn’t an unusual issue for writers, or for anyone working creatively. Any time you aren’t doing the thing it is all too easy to feel like you aren’t someone who does the thing. Gaps between creations can loom large. Even if your creativity is central to your identity, there’s only so long you can go without doing it before all kinds of uneasy feelings creep in. It’s not like I haven’t been writing – I write every day. Novels loom large for me. They are large creatures, unruly, and requiring a lot of care and attention. And sometimes, as with last year, things can go badly wrong. It’s a lot of time and energy to invest in the hopes of making things work.

I started Fast Food at the Centre of the World on a plane to America, visiting Tom for the second time. The central characters were his, although I have developed them a long way from his original ideas. I started writing with a keen sense of the world, and very little idea where I might be going. I’m in the same position now, knowing the setup but not knowing the story. I prefer working this way, but it is a bit exposed. 

What’s focusing my mind is the support from the people who are into what I do. Mark Hayes was out on Twitter this week telling me that he wants to read it – without even needing to know what I’m working on. It’s a powerful gesture of support. Others of my closest people are being tremendously supportive and encouraging. 

Writing can seem like a really solitary thing to be doing. It isn’t – not for me. I depend a lot on my collaborators, on the people who inspire me, and the people I write for. Those are usually the same people. Writing is an expression of relationship for me, not just with people, but with the world as a whole.

I know I’m going to be including themes of fast fashion, AIs, disability, fatigue, parenting and the madness of late stage capitalism in this book. Maybe also looking at eco-fascism, and certainly thinking about regeneration and community. There’s usually a lot of Druidry in my fiction even though it isn’t always overt.

Then they fired the writers

It comes as no shock to me to learn that people who used to be paid to write content are now being replaced with AIs. I know people whose working lives are already being affected by this. No doubt there’s more of it to come.

I’m not personally likely to be much affected because the people who like what I do aren’t looking for cheaper alternatives. My weird imagination, my odd humour and my inclination to write things that don’t fit expected story shapes are not things an AI can replace. All our current AIs can do is cobble together pastiches of existing material – they aren’t really creating and they aren’t really intelligent, although that could eventually change. People who want to consume material from predictable franchises maybe won’t suffer much if the humans are replaced with machines. 

Writing AIs aren’t accurate. They can sound plausible and persuasive, but we’re already seeing in Pagan circles that they can’t quality-assess the information they take in. Uncritically pulling together content from any and all sources is going to cause issues for humans in all kinds of ways. After years of struggling with propaganda, fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories we’re unleashing a technology that can’t think critically about these things and has no morals. If writing AIs are designed to encourage anything, it will be getting hits and generating revenue. We can’t expect them to be truthful or responsible.

This in turn raises a lot of questions about how any of us might source information in the future. Questions of trust and value will be part of this. There’s scope for deepening cultural divides – if on one hand there are people willing to uncritically consume whatever is cheap and easily available. I suspect the kind of content I want will not be replaced by writing AIs, but it may be a lot harder for human creators to keep going when machines will be so much cheaper and able to churn out any number of words day and night.

I suspect there are serious choices ahead of us all about the kind of world we want to live in and whether we are willing, or able, to pay for things made by people rather than having cheap rehashes made by machines.

Working Collaboratively

The one thing I never much liked about the book writing process is how solitary it can be. Going away for months, maybe years to make something before anyone else gets involved doesn’t work for me. I prefer to be more interactive. It’s a big part of why I love performance- that immediacy of engagement with an audience.

Currently I’m very collaborative on the performance front – as part of a team of four who go out as The Ominous Folk of Hopeless, Maine. Hopeless, Maine is itself a really collaborative project – I primarily work with Tom Brown on this, but there’s a much bigger family of writers, artists, performers, and makers who sometimes also get involved with things.

I’ve got one co-writing project on the go at the moment. I’m working with David Bridger, which is a lovely process and taking me to some decidedly interesting places. 

Recently I’ve been exploring other ways of taking a more collaborative approach to books. Back in the winter I was working on my Earth Spirit book, and I had a test reader who took content one chapter at a time and gave me really valuable feedback. Said test reader is also going to be involved with the new Pagan Pilgrimage project, and we’re figuring out how exactly that might work, which is exciting. I’ve also been talking to a lot of people about their pilgrimage experiences, and intend to do a lot more of that, because I want this project to be about more than my own limited experiences.

Every now and then I see something online where people in the writing business make unhappy noises about anything they see as limiting imagination. Issues of accuracy and sensitivity readers come up a lot. As though an uninformed imagination is something to be proud of. The whole notion of the lonely author in the high tower making things out of their own ideas has always seemed suspect to me. What use is an author without insight and understanding? What good are we if all we can put into the world is versions of ourselves? 

Creativity is a human activity, made by humans, about humans and for humans. It seems very odd to me to try and do that without really involving other people. I doubt I’d have very much to say at all if I sat in the metaphorical high tower trying to squeeze stories out of myself. It’s the interactions with other people that inspire me. It’s the opportunities to connect with other people that I get excited about. I’m always looking for new ways to connect because I know I’m a better writer when I do that.

Adventures in Poetry

I’ve written poetry since childhood. Child me was very much a nature poet. Teenage me wrote a lot of angsty emotional stuff – which wasn’t that original of me, but there we go. The habit of using poetry for catharsis and processing stayed with me. These days I try to work it into something another person might find interesting or entertaining before I put it in front of anybody.

For some years, my writing poetry has depended a lot on having an audience for it. I put the odd poem on here, and there’s one on Patreon most months. I was at my most prolific as a poet when I had a local, monthly poetry event to go to. There’s nothing like the promise of an audience to focus my thoughts and get me interested in writing. Making people laugh is deeply attractive to me. Just occasionally I managed to spellbind hard enough to get deep silence in response to my words, and I find that highly rewarding, too.

Of course lockdown meant there were no poetry events to go to. I rapidly discovered that Zoom events with more than a couple of people stressed me to the point of malfunction, so while there was a big online poetry scene during the pandemic, I wasn’t part of it.

I’m currently in the process of reviewing the poetry I’ve written in the last two years, to see if I can make a viable collection out of it. When I’ve pulled it together, people on Patreon will get first dibs, and then later in the year I’ll put it in my ko-fi store – https://ko-fi.com/O4O3AI4T/shop – where I already have a number of ebooks, and two poetry collections. You can pick any of those books up for free, or pay what you want. I’m a firm believer in gift economy, so if you have limited resources, please help yourself to the free stuff with my blessing.

If you have resources, throwing a few coins in the hats of creators you like is a really good choice. It makes a lot of odds. It doesn’t have to be my hat – if you’re able to support other creators then that’s entirely cool so far as I’m concerned. I also benefit from other creators being able to afford to keep going.

The trouble with murder

To be clear, I have no issue with self defence. I also have considerable sympathy for anyone who kills to escape unlawful imprisonment. It happens – and it tends to be what’s going on when women kill their abusive partners. Otherwise, the standard reasons for murder are really crappy when you look at them. Jealousy, greed, revenge. For the domestic abuse escapee, the point at which you get out is the point at which you are at most risk of being killed, because loss of control over a person feels like a reason for murder, for far too many people.

As a starting point then, I have problems with books that present murderers as interesting or sympathetic. I have a particular distaste for the ‘clever serial killer who toys with the police’ trope. I’ve read and watched enough murder mysteries to have developed a certain amount of unease. I also struggle a lot with the ‘amateur detective who just happened to be there’ model, with all due reference to Murder She Wrote, and things of that ilk.

I am perpetually uneasy about the way murder can be presented as a mental health issue – as is often the way of it in the news. On one hand I think a person has to be a particular kind of unhinged to think that killing someone is a good option in most circumstances. On the other hand, stigmatising mentally ill people is cruel and unhelpful. Most people with mental illness are a danger to themselves and not to anyone else.

It has therefore come as a bit of a surprise to me to find that I’m co-writing a cosy murder series. I like a challenge, and it’s a good opportunity to look at my beliefs and assumptions around the genre and to also consider whether I could do this on my own terms. I do want to explore what the hell has to be going on in a person’s head to make murder seem like a reasonable choice. Not to validate that choice, but to make people question the kinds of thinking that might take you there.

I don’t believe that the inclination to murder is innate, or that it comes out of nowhere. The choices we make, the beliefs we adopt, the entitlement we feel and the way we justify things are all going to contribute to a trajectory. If it isn’t an accident, and it isn’t in self defence then there’s been a journey to the point where it seems like a good idea. That’s something I’m interested in exploring.

Of writing and magic

Any act of writing can be a spell. Simply putting words into the world is an act of will, intended to cause change. It is a process that can change the person undertaking it, as well. I write things on this blog because I intend to cause change.

Sometimes I write in order to understand. I find it a powerful tool for processing. There have been many times when insights have come to me as I was writing, rather than having set out to write about insights I’d already had. Even when I think I know what I’m going to say, the process of writing often opens unexpected doors and allows something new to come through.

By this means, I can take ideas out of my thoughts and place them in your mind. Thanks to the additional magic of the internet, I can do that without necessarily knowing you. Written words travel freely through time and space, connecting us with people in ways that go far beyond what many of those writers could ever have imagined. I can sit at my computer and read in translation the first known novels from around the world – something I doubt those authors could have imagined would ever be possible.

Anything you can do through meditation, trance, visualisation or similar inner working, you can do by writing. It’s all about the kind of states your mind can enter and how you choose to explore that. For me, if I want to know about something, my best bet is to try and write about it. The headstates I sometimes enter when writing are much akin to those other, more obviously spiritual states. 

Much of my writing is deliberately constructed by me, in a conscious way. Much of what I do depends on knowledge, experience and years spent learning technical stuff and honing skills. However, every now and then, something else seeps in. Not always when I’m trying to court the numinous, sometimes when I’m being entirely silly, even. Some of my best animist writing is in Wherefore – which was written to be an amusing distraction during lockdown. 

Opening up to the flow of words and ideas always makes a space where something else is possible. Just occasionally, something else comes through that is more than I expected, and takes me to places I did not know I could go. Sometimes, the act of writing is one of being enchanted – not being the spell caster, but being the one on whom the spell is cast.

Dorset adventures!

I’m delighted to announce that I’m going to be co-writing with David Bridger. Regular readers of the blog will know that I’ve reviewed several of David’s books recently, and am really taken with his work. He’s also read some of my scribbings, and the outcome was a conversation about co-writing. I’m very excited to be working with him, and feeling enthused about where this project is going.

I’m happiest when I’m co-writing. I don’t do well with the author model of disappearing off, alone, for ages, to make something no reader will see for a couple of years. I need my creative processes to be much more interactive, so I thrive when I have someone to write for, and with. It’s also why I put a lot of stuff out into the world – I need the feedback and the sense of involvement.

I expect I’m going to be fairly guarded with the content for this one, but that there will be interesting things to say about the process. One of the many things David and I have in common is that we’re interested in tradition, and in the spirits of places. Which is how we get to a photo of me reading an excellent book of Dorset folklore. Cover by Katherine Soutar, who is a friend of mine. I don’t know Tim Laycock personally, but I’m really enjoying his storytelling style. The History Press, who publish this, are local to me, so they were my go-to starting point.

I spent some time in Dorset as a child, which is an interesting thing to draw on. Those childhood memories have dreamlike qualities. I’ve also read some Thomas Hardy – Tess of the D’urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, neither of which I actually liked. However, in terms of fictional Dorset, Hardy is a force to be reckoned with, so I’m going to dig in and read a few more. He’s also, according to the internet, a very good source for Dorset conjuring traditions. Hold that tantalising thought!

Making things for people

My inspiration has always been really people centred. I do my best work when I’m writing for specific people and when I’m interacting. I had a team for the Wherefore project who made suggestions and who were a keen audience and that me going through lockdown when isolation and anxiety might otherwise have made it hard for me to create. Usually when I’m working on a large project, I have some people in mind who I hope will like it.

Acknowledgements in books I’ve written tend to be all about the people I was writing for. There are some regulars. Some, like Lou and Merry are very visible in my online community. Some of them are secretive and like to stay in the background. I name no names. My immediate household are very supportive. It helps to have more input from more people – I can get through a lot of input, and I don’t want to burn anyone out. 

I’ve had a few more involved creative partners along the way. Varying degrees of intensity and commitment on that score. I had a fabulous time writing a novel with Professor Elemental. I have a longstanding creative relationship with Tom, and we’re looking at how that will change after the graphic novels. Keith Errington has become a serious Hopeless Maine collaborator, and we’re exploring more territory there. I’m really enjoying writing for The Ominous Folk, and seeing how the performance and scratch theatre side evolves and who I can include in that.

I’m high maintenance around inspiration and needing people to interact with. I need a lot of engagement – it’s why I do things like writing blog posts and putting out the Wherefore series. Going away for months to write a book and coming back with a finished thing no one will see for ages isn’t really sustainable for me. I need the feedback, but more importantly I need to maintain a strong sense of who I’m doing this for. Thank you for reading and being part of that process!

There’s nothing like someone wanting something from me to get my brain working. It takes me places I can’t go on my own. If you’re ever reading this blog and wish I’d dig in more with a subject, or there’s something you haven’t seen me write about and wish I would, please say. That kind of feedback is really good for me.

How to be brilliant and successful

I’m always fascinated by the advice writers hand out to other writers, as though there really is a magic formula that will get your book written and published.

There really isn’t.

If something feels weird and uncomfortable, probably don’t do it. This is advice that holds up in most situations, not just writing. The exception may be around medical checkups. 

Of course it’s tempting to think there are easy answers and things that are bound to work. But honestly, if that’s what floats your boat, get into something where doing what you’re told to do actually gets you results. Whatever those things are. I can bake a cake by following instructions. I can make a granny square. What I can’t do by following other people’s rules is make something original and also be guaranteed to sell it for a lot of money. 

When you start out doing something you have to put in the time to find out how it all works. No one would expect to win a baking contest with the first cake they’ve ever made. I find it odd that many people have entirely different expectations for their first book. 

Being brilliant takes time. It means going beyond whatever natural gift you have, and finding out how to work with it. Putting in the work is essential – just dreaming about it doesn’t lead to success. However, being brilliant doesn’t lead reliably to success either. In the creative industries, luck, privilege and nepotism count for a lot. These are not meritocracies.

Most authors do not earn enough to live on and either work other jobs, are supported by other people, have resources available to them or accept being poor. Or exciting combinations of those things. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is probably trying to sell you something. It may be a book. Perhaps it will turn out to be a book about how to teach people how to write books. 

You have every chance at being brilliant. Find out how you do things to best effect and keep doing it. Brilliance has everything to do with time and determination. You probably won’t be successful economically, because that seldom happens. Other measures of success exist. Joy matters. Being able to share with people is good.