Tag Archives: writing

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/


Procrastination Projects

There’s no one right way to work as a creative person – and that’s true regardless of whether or not you are selling your work. I’ve never felt comfortable putting all my work-eggs in one basket – it leaves you so vulnerable if something goes wrong. I try to have more than one income stream at all times. Currently my only stable income comes from Patreon, and everything else happens when it does which is a bit unnerving, but I’m making it work.

Some people seem to do very well working on one project at a time in a really focused way. That’s never been me. I usually have a few projects on the go, and at the moment I have a lot of projects. I write for this blog, and The Hopeless Vendetta, I’m working on other Hopeless Maine written content, illustration and live performances. I’m writing a Druidry and the Darkness book over on Patreon, I’m planning a novel, which you get bits and pieces from on this blog. I write two Wherefore episodes a week. I feel a bit over extended at the moment, but less so than I’ve been in the last few years.

One of the great advantages of having many projects on the go, is not getting stuck. I experience block quite a lot. I may run into a wall with a project at any time. But, when that happens I can just put it to one side and move to one of the others. I don’t need a conscious reason, even, sometimes it’s more like procrastinating. But, if I procrastinate on one project by getting another project done, I still win.

I like to have projects on different scales and different time frames. I like to be working in different forms. I like the space to be thinking about what’s next and doing the developmental work – reading around, researching details, world building and so forth. Having various things at different stages means I have more scope to do the work I’m in the mood for. I can just knuckle down and do what needs doing, but I’m happier if I have some space for my whims and inclinations.


Show and Tell for Bards

The wisdom in the realms of written fiction is show, don’t tell. I’ve always had a problem with this and I’ve struggled to figure out why. Reading this article –  https://scroll.in/article/999215/decolonising-creative-writing-its-about-not-conforming-to-techniques-of-the-western-canon brought the issue into focus for me. It’s worth a few minutes of your time if writing and storytelling are areas of interest for you.

If you’re on the bard path, you’ll likely already know that myths, legends and folklore tend to be told. Partly this is to do with expectations about how much story you are going to deliver in how much time – which is often a consideration around storytelling. 

What the article I’ve pointed at makes explicit is that you can’t show people things unless they share your frames of reference. How people express and experience emotions is culturally informed. ‘Show’ approaches work for people in the mainstream talking about their mainstream experiences to other people who can be expected to know what that’s like. For anyone at the margins, things have to be explained and you can’t assume others will recognise or understand what you show them.

This is also true around magical and spiritual experiences. You can’t show that kind of experience to someone who hasn’t had it. You can do a lot more to help them by telling them about it. The ‘tell’ approach does more to encourage empathy as well because when we tell, we create a framework in which someone could try and understand something that isn’t familiar to them.

If we uphold and defend the validity of telling a story rather than showing it, we make more room for more people. It’s one way, as a bard, that you can make a contribution to justice and help lift and support others. Let people tell their stories on their own terms. Let people tell it like it is for them. We can call into question these cultural assumptions about what good and bad stories, and writing look like.


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.


Finding my joy

If there was a time when I didn’t want to write, I don’t remember it. As soon as I knew books were a thing, as soon as I had a pencil in my hand, I wanted to put things onto paper. I knew from very early on that I wanted to write with purpose, to have ideas that might change things for people. It frustrated me not knowing enough to yet have those ideas, but the impulse was good.

I experimented. The things I wanted to write were unsellable. I tried writing what I thought people wanted, but I wasn’t very good at it… girl meets boy… girl has a severed head in a bag. Romance was never going to work for me. I got some terrible reviews early on when I was writing erotica, because my stuff was dark and weird. Slowly, I found my people, the ones who wanted dark and weird. I found Tom and his Hopeless Maine project, which wasn’t sexy, but certainly had room for any amount of dark I might want to bring.

I tried writing for money, and I failed. Somewhere in that process, I lost a lot of my passion. I stopped believing in much of what I was doing. I didn’t write much for me. For years I have quietly written for other people – here on the blog, and around other projects. If it helps someone, or amuses someone, that’s enough.

Then, unexpectedly in the last week, my joy flared back into existence. I was working on a project and suddenly realised that I really wanted to be working on it, that my heart was truly in it and I felt excited about what I was doing. That was a startling experience. 

I already knew that this summer I would have to give some serious thought to how I work and what I’m doing. I had no idea it even could be framed by this sort of feeling. I might be going to focus on passion projects, because I might have enough passion for that to be a thing again. I do have things I want to say, and I think fiction is going to be the best way to say them. 

At the moment I’m mostly stretching, testing ideas and wondering about how I want to work and what I want to do. I’m hoping to switch over to four day weeks, at least for a little while. I’m waiting to see how the economic side of my situation pans out, and there are reasons to be hopeful. And I’m writing, because I want to write, and need to find out what happens, because there are people I want to impress, and people I want to share with.

My creative identity was, once upon a time, a really big part of my identity as a whole. I’ve had some strange, barren-feeling years where although I’ve been writing, I’ve not felt like I was inhabiting that space. I’ve not felt like myself. I think all of that is changing now.


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 about nature

When I first initiated as a bard, I pledged to use my creativity for the good of the land and for the good of my tribe. (Use of the word ‘tribe’ by white western Pagans is problematic to say the least, but that was the pledge nearly 20 years ago). The principle of making your art as an act of service is a good one, but how does that translate into action?

Writing about nature can be a way of engaging people with the natural world and inspiring them to notice it more and care about it more. If you’ve grown up urban, and never been taught the names of trees or butterflies or wild plants, then it can all be a bit of a mystery, and not in a good way. There’s quite a journey from seeing trees to seeing specific, individual trees with unique characteristics. Equally, it’s quite a journey from seeing some birds, to knowing a bit about those birds and how they live.

One of the things I try to do with poetry is to talk about nature specifically. Bandying the word ‘nature’ about doesn’t get much done – as this blog post already illustrates. It’s not a word that creates engagement. What seems to work best, is precision. A specific tree, an actual encounter, something personal, something experienced.

It can be tempting to make nature into a metaphor for personal experience, but that doesn’t do much to help the land. It fuels the idea of nature as a resource for humans to use if we deploy it in poetry as a way of talking about ourselves all the time. Equally, if the landscape is just a background framing human actors, it is still mostly scenery and mostly something we consume.

If you’d like any of my poetry, there are pdfs (pay what you like) on my ko-fi store – https://ko-fi.com/O4O3AI4T/shop

I was also a finalist in a recent competition to write poetry about urban trees – you can read that here – https://www.treesforcities.org/stories/our-poetree-winners


Beginning a creative process

There are some things I create in the heat of inspiration and purely because I want to. This is a perfectly reasonable way of working, especially for small pieces like poems and short stories. It’s not such a good idea for a longer project. It’s not realistic to expect to be able to write an entire book while in a state of creative fever. Granted, Jack Kerouac managed it with On The Road, but it isn’t how larger bodies of work normally happen.

To create something more than a heat of the moment outpouring, takes planning. There’s a process in moving from the initial rush of inspiration, towards a larger and finished piece.

One of the first questions I ask when considering a project is, who am I making this for? There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it’s a helpful focus. Secondly, if you mean to put a piece out into the world, knowing who it is for is really important. You can’t pitch to a publisher without knowing that. You’ll have a hard time finding readers if you don’t know who your readers might be. It may be tempting to imagine you are making something for ‘everyone’ but that’s not focused enough so either it will be bland, or it will be self indulgent. Maybe both.

Being self indulgent is fine. It is important to know whether you are primarily creating for yourself or for other people because it has implications. I think it’s usually a mistake to imagine you can create something purely for your own pleasure and that this will automatically translate into something lots of other people will want.

I usually identify some larger, broader groups of people – I write non-fiction books for Pagans and Druids, for example. I write fiction for Goths and steampunks, and also for Pagans and animists. I usually also have some specific people in mind. I find that really helps. If I’m writing for just one person, the odds are it will appeal to more people than just that one person. It helps me avoid being too self involved and it helps me focus on what kinds of things those other people might enjoy.

This is also where my bar is set in terms of success. If I write a poem for someone and they like it, I have succeeded. The same is true of a blog post, or even a book. If one person finds it helpful, it’s done its job. This protects me from the inevitable bruises of an industry where the average book sells a few hundred copies, and all the focus is on the people who can sell hundreds of thousands of copies.


Water Witches

Water magic is all about healing, and emotions. You place bowls of water in the moonlight to gather enchantment, and take healing baths.

Slowly, you learn to listen to the water. You discover that the water is full of sorrow.

There is plastic in the water, and pollution of all kinds. Death flows where there should be life. There is thirst in the land and in its creatures. You stop wondering about how to use water for magic, and start asking how to do magic for water.

You become a water witch. You go to the edge of the desert to make desalination equipment out of rubbish you scavenge from the dumps. You set up camp at the edge of a poisoned lake and dedicate years of your life to fishing out the plastic, filtering out the oil, bringing the plants back. You make sand dams. You try to become a beaver. You make wetlands and plant reeds and dream about hippos.

In a land of intermittent rain, you build barriers across places where the water floods. Your back hurts all the time from bending and digging, but when the rains come you are ready, and some of your dams hold, and ponds form. The soil will not wash away this time, and some of the water will seep back into the earth rather than evaporating.

When you weep for all that has been lost and damaged, you understand that water is all about healing, and emotions.

(Art by Dr Abbey – these are concepts and sketches I’m playing with, but i think we’re going somewhere with all of this…))


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.