Tag Archives: writing

Colouring for poetry

One of the things about illustration work, is that the spark of inspiration tends to come from somewhere else. When I’ve got my colouring hat on, I’m several stages down the chain of inspiration. Writing inspires a black and white drawing, which Tom then passes to me, and I do my best to make colour-sense of. What I do is very much led by what’s already been done. On the plus side, this means I can often work on colouring when I’m feeling short of personal inspiration.


This is one of our more recent pieces – a cover for a poetry collection by Adam Horovitz.

Working on the convolvulus had me thinking that I could perhaps go back to drawing plants in detail – something I’ve not done since my late teens.

Writing a view of the land

You’d think, that as a lover of landscape and a fiction enthusiast, I’d appreciate nothing more than a long, descriptive sections about a place, in a novel. Often I find the reverse is true, and these passages make me unhappy. For a long time, I’d not poked into that to make sense of the mechanics, but a recent reading juxtaposition has made it all make sense.

I’ve been reading David Abram’s Becoming Animal, and a great deal of work by Kevan Manwaring. I noticed over the winter that I greatly enjoy Kevan’s landscape writing, and that this is unusual for me. David Abram talks about how we treat landscape as scenery, and this helped me realise how much I struggle when descriptions of a landscape are largely, or purely visual. Often what happens when a writer describes a scene, is that you the reader are positioned as an observer. You’re stood outside, looking in, and the landscape is scenery. It’s the backdrop for the action.

Where Kevan Manwaring noticeably differs, is that his writing of landscape is immersive. He doesn’t position the reader as an outsider, but as someone actively engaged in the process of being in that landscape. The landscape is not scenery. It impacts of the experiences, thoughts, feelings and inner landscapes of characters. The human is permeated by the bigger picture. As a reader, I experience this much more intensely. I have a feeling experience of what it’s like to be in a place, even in the kinds of places I have no personal experience to bring to bear.

As a walker, I’ve long been interested in what happens to bodies in a landscape. How we experience the land varies, and depends in no small part on our expectation. The person who is waiting for the view is not immersed in the same way as the person who is excited by every turn of the path. The person who goes out to be in the landscape has a different experience from the person who is just going somewhere specific. How a person is in the landscape must therefore inform how they write about it. Too often we’re consumers and observers of the land, not participants in it. It’s a self-propagating cycle, because if we only read about scenery, we’re in a mindset that won’t help us appreciate being present, and if we’re not present, we’ll only ever notice scenery, we won’t immerse. It is possible to break out, but you have to think breaking out might be possible.

You can find Kevan Manwaring here – https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com

The unconscious plotter

I’ve had a bit of a revelation this autumn in terms of how my creativity works. For the majority of my creative life, I’ve resisted doing much planning of stories, and avoided too much time pressure. I did once write a novel in 6 weeks (for money) but it took so long to recover afterwards, it wasn’t worth it. The whole ‘write a book in a month’ thing that is NaNoWriMo leaves me cold. This, I have realised, is because plotting is better for me when I do it less consciously.

If I sit down and lay out a plot, the odds are it will take a fairly obvious shape. I’ll think about beginning, middle, end, action, tension and resolution. I’ve tried doing it this way and there’s a very high risk I’ll get bored and never finish the first draft.

If I go the other way, the slow way, something else happens. I usually spend a lot of time before I start writing just thinking about the setting and the main characters. I get to know them. I explore their first person voices in my head until I know how those voices work and what sort of people I’m crafting/summoning/channelling. Then I let it go from there. It’s not a smooth process, it takes as long as it takes, and sometimes there are gaps. I don’t always know why I’ve written things. However, if I let go and trust the process, what invariably happens is that apparently random things will slowly weave into a coherent-ish sort of story, where the narrative emerges and has an odd shape of its own.

I wouldn’t get to that kind of story if I tried to plan it.

The human mind is a complicated thing, and much of our thinking isn’t done at a level where we can see it. Our ability to calculate, to find patterns, and to experience inspiration, all happens beneath our own radar. To do something in a fully conscious way is to only use a part of what we’ve got at our disposal.

I use the second draft as the time for conscious, deliberate crafting and the application of skills and knowledge. I find it works better that way, shaping the raw clay my unconscious mind generates. There’s no point, I have finally realised, trying to make my creativity flow at a predictable rate in tidy ways. If I want to be inspired, I have to go with what works, and my inspiration goes at its own pace, or not at all.

Authoring and inspiration

I generally avoid writing about writing because it’s dull, and the internet is awash with it, but there’s an issue I think needs tackling. One frequently offered piece of advice on blogs about writing, is that you should do it every day, or often. The impression given is that waiting around for inspiration is unprofessional, it’s the approach of the self indulgent hobbiest. I read the opening to an interview with Hilary Mantel a bit back in which she said of course she writes every day, she wouldn’t want anyone to think she was one of those people who just does it for fun (I paraphrase). I did not feel inspired to read any further.

Call me old fashioned, but I think there’s a role for ideas, imagination and creativity in books. I’ve tried it the other way, and I can reliably grind out words to meet both word counts and deadlines, but it’s rare these are my best words. I’m not at all sure the world will greatly benefit from more books that were written in a disciplined, professional way, without any inspiration in the mix. I have a suspicion this is how a fair amount of fiction is written, and I know the majority readership picks up books that conform to predictable shapes. It’s certainly what we’re telling each other to do. Books are more perspiration than inspiration, of course, but without inspiration, what are they? Painting by numbers?

For the person who wants to be An Author – published, recognised, and with decent sales figures, it makes sense to go after the markets that pay, and the dependable readerships. Give them what they want. As a reader I’ve never been attracted to those books (give me Matlock the Hare, give me Sheena Cundy and Carol Lovekin…). More than anything I want to be surprised, I want to be caught up in the imagination and vision of the author.

No doubt one of the (many) reasons I’m not very successful is that I was always more interested in the creativity than in being An Author. I wanted to write books that weren’t like anything else out there. I wanted to have ideas that would surprise, delight, blow other people away. I wanted to say something of substance about life and the human experience, but do it in a way that is readable and doesn’t require a degree in English Literature. I live in hope of achieving some of this one day.

I can’t do that without having ideas. I can’t manufacture ideas, I have to wait for them to turn up. I need time to reflect, to research, to experience, to gather material, gather wool, weave something in my head. At the moment, the balances in my life aren’t delivering the space to think creatively very often. I can and do sit down and write pretty much every day – I write this blog – but I wouldn’t create a novel this way.

The Emperor’s new poetry book

Of all the things I try to review, poetry is the most problematic. For context, let me mention that I have a degree in English Literature. I’ve studied literary criticism, I’ve written degree level essays on poetry from the last couple of centuries. I’ve read a lot of poetry, historical and more modern. Compared to an academic working in the field of poetry, I’m a lightweight. Compared to the average reader, I’ve read and studied a lot of poetry. And yet, when I look at how other reviewers respond to some books, I can often be stumped.

I’ve just fallen out of a collection. I don’t think I can face reading it to the end. It felt like hitting and sliding down glass walls, with occasionally a sense of meaning implied, but always unavailable to me. Individual lines seemed well wrought, charming even, but added together to make… nothing I can figure out how to respond to. My only emotional response has been frustration.

And yet, other reviewers have heaped praise on it. “A gorgeous, brilliant book,” says one. “Complex sensuousness and deep intelligence.” “Unintrusive precision” – what does that mean, even? “Her almost painterly imagery implodes gracefully.” Ah, so that was what I was missing.

When other critics respond in this way, it’s hard not to feel that as the reader, I must be the problem. I’m too ignorant, no doubt. I couldn’t spot the graceful implosion of a poem if it splattered itself all over my face, I expect.

As an ordinary reader of poems, I’m basically looking for something I can connect with – images, moods, ideas… Some point of meaningful engagement between me and the text. I want something to happen, other than me feeling confused and dense. I can handle ee cummings and Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and the metaphysical poets. I can cope with complexity, I think. I can cope with metaphor and surprising juxtapositions. In the realms of story and non-fiction, I feel confident saying when something doesn’t add up. The nature of such writing makes it easy to point at problems. We have some collective ideas about what stories and essays are. But what is a poem? What does a poem do? At what point can we safely say ‘this poem is not doing the things’?

A continuity error in a story is easily flagged up. A failure to resolve a plot in a satisfying way is easy to talk about. An argument that isn’t logical, or well founded can be taken apart. ‘I do not get this poem’ can be answered with ‘you didn’t read well enough’. I’m wary about picking holes in poems for this reason. Am I an insufficiently sensitive reader? Am I too old fashioned, too low-brow, insufficiently read and educated. I look at my qualifications, and my reading experience.

Back when I was writing Fast Food at the Centre of the World, I had a poet character. He’s a charlatan. Let me write you the kind of thing John Silver would write…

“In the withheld breathe, a moment of iniquity,

Longing becomes a windmill, exacerbated

By time, for the wind is change and I am the eye

Of a storm that caresses immortality.”

I can do this all day. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s designed to sound like poetry and that is the sum and total of what it is for. Sometimes, in matters of poetry, I am deeply suspicious that the Emperor has no clothes on.

The Pagan and The Pen

Druid Life started as a column on a wordpress blog for Pagan authors – https://thepaganandthepen.wordpress.com/ . When I started I half expected the Pagan Police to show up and tell me I wasn’t allowed to do it. Impostor syndrome is a bit of an ongoing issue for me. I angsted over the title, worrying that this would sound too definitive, too dogmatic. On the whole, I think I’ve got away with it. For various reasons, the column became and almost every day thing. I felt a bit out of kilter with some of what was happening at the site, and founder C.S. Scarlett left. I followed her a little while later and set this up instead. This was all about five years ago.

Then out of the blue this year, C.S. Scarlett got in touch with me. The Pagan and The Pen had fallen by the wayside. No one had posted to it for several years. Could I still get in? I could. We reclaimed it, and restarted it. There followed a lot of spring cleaning, removing the reams of book promo. It’s a problem with inexperienced authors – the temptation to use something successful as an easy way to flog books. What you end up with is wall to wall book promotions and no actual readers. It’s been great fun seeing who wanted to come back, and what could be re-thought.

I’m doing a few things. I’ll be putting up monthly book news – a single post for the releases of new Pagan titles. Contact me if you have something you’d like me to share. We’re doing one post a month, or so, of reviews – again all Pagan titles, picked out by in house reviewer Cosmic Dancer. I’m also looking after the monthly featured artist column, and for the first month of me doing this, I featured Jacqui Lovesey from Matlock the Hare – you can read that here – https://thepaganandthepen.wordpress.com/2016/05/15/jacqui-lovesey-artist-and-illustrator/

Also on The Pagan and the Pen – daily festivals from ancient calendars, herb lore, Sheena Cundy’s music column, Laura Perry writing about Minoan spirituality, and no doubt more as we get into the swing of it. I’ve wanted a project like this for a while – heavy on lifestyle, community and creativity, with multiple contributors. There are a few other collective Pagan sites out there – Patheos Pagan site, Witches and Pagans, Sage Woman… but I think this one has enough of its own style to contribute.

Fiction and Appropriation

A good writer should be able to write about anything. Cultural appropriation is something we talk about a fair bit around Paganism, but not so much around fiction. When is a story an act of appropriation? Are there things authors shouldn’t be writing about unless they have experienced them? Write what you know is common advice, and highly applicable in this case. At the same time, why should any subject, place, person or time be off-limits to any author based on the accident of their birth?

On one hand, there’s an important case to be made for including people who are often excluded, by putting them into stories. Authors are less likely to be disadvantaged people, and can champion those who are. Writing about the people who have no voices – both the living and the dead is important. Writing about people who are unable to speak for themselves. On the other hand, there’s theft, misrepresentation, and exploitation. How do you tell, as an author or as a reader what it is that you’ve got? What should we be celebrating in terms of good diversity in writing, and what should we be discouraging?

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought of late, and I don’t think I have anything like all the answers, but I may have a place to start.

Who does the story serve? If the author is writing beyond their experience, is that because they think it makes them seem cooler, more exotic? Is it to capitalise on a timely story? Is it to express their own assumptions and beliefs about the people they’re (mis)representing? If so, then I think there’s every reason to call it exploitation.

Imagining what you think it would be like to be trans, or disabled, or from another culture, and so forth, is not the same as knowing. Sure, imagining is a good thing, but its easy to cough up prejudice and assumptions. If an author wants to write outside their experience well, they have to do the research. Find out. Most essentially, listen to the people they want to write about, or those close to them. Find out how things really are for them. If we want to give a voice to someone else, we need to know what their authentic voice sounds like. Or could sound like. And of course people are individuals, and one voice is not a social grouping, and we should not be ok with one character being made to speak for a whole group of people, especially when the writer doesn’t have that background.

If the point of the story is to reveal something true, to support, to empathise, then its probably acceptable. It’s not acceptable to make a fetish item of the ‘other’. It’s also important to avoid indulgent redemption narratives that show people like the author saving people who are not like the author – all too often with ridiculously little effort. Rescue narratives often perpetrate myths, and power imbalances.

Respect for your subject matter is key. The author who respects what they’re writing about handles it very differently from the author who sees a cheap thrill to exploit for cash. Work based on genuine insight tends to have a lot more integrity. Imagination rooted in research tends to be a lot more engaging than people making inaccurate guesses based on assumptions.

Anyone who wants to argue with appropriation as a ‘PC’ issue, had better be prepared to defend their work on the basis of its inherent quality. It has to be said, people talking out of their arses seldom write good books.

Open Art Surgery

When we do events, Tom and I quite often find there are people who would like to talk to us – or to other already in-print people – about their own work. We’re happy to do this, and it’s something we anticipate doing formally at Asylum this year (massive Steampunk event, August bank holiday, Lincoln). Next week (13th February 2016) we’ll be at Museum in the Park, in Stroud from 11am – 3pm, feel free to seek us out and ask us questions.

In the meantime, here are some FAQs that, to be honest, I’d rather not be dealing with at Open Art Surgeries, not least because there’s very little I can do to help you if I’m faced with one of these…

  • I had an idea for a book. This is lovely, and best of luck to you, but an idea for a book is not a book, and if I take on helping you to move that book from the idea stage to the writing stage it’s going to use up more time than I can spare. Learn about characters, plots, world building, dialogue, etc etc, and then try and write the book. If you want to talk to me, or anyone else about publishing, there’s absolutely no point even asking until you’ve established that you can write. Many people start their first novel and don’t finish it and go no further. Let’s find out if this is you or not before we talk.
  • I started a novel and I can’t finish it and I don’t know what to do! Don’t worry, this happens a lot. Most published authors have some failed attempts along the way. It is ok to ditch the first attempt and try something else, or re-write it in a different way – this is a learning process. It’s ok to feel stuck for a while. If you can get through this patch, you could be the sort of person who writes books. If you can’t get past it, you are not cut out for authoring.
  • Will you read my book? Probably not. If you’re a friend, or I’m really taken with what you’re doing, I might offer, but if you have to ask me, it’ll probably be a no. It’s a time issue. If you are going to ask me to read, be clear about what you’re asking for and why you think this will help you. If you’re looking for reviews and endorsements, I may say yes, if it’s clearly my sort of thing.
  • Can Tom do me some art? If your book is unwritten, and there is no budget for art, this is not a question to be asking. If you want to do a comic and don’t have an artist, you need to find an artist at the same career point as you, i.e. someone who has never done a comic and wants and author to work with. Art takes a lot of time, think carefully before you ask someone if they are willing to give you hours of working time for nothing when they could be being paid. They would have to love you a lot to say yes. Tip – if you want to re-use a piece of art someone’s already done, the chances are they will license it to you for something more affordable, that one’s always worth enquiring about.
  • My child wants to be an author/artist. Then make sure they have some means of earning a living during the long stretch of a creative career when you can’t get paying work and everyone expects you to give your stuff away for ‘exposure’. Currently the industry is a mess and creative people are sorely underpaid. We have no idea what the score will be in ten year’s time.
  • I can’t draw a stick figure. We hear this a surprising amount, and we don’t know why people feel the need to come and tell us this, but we can’t do much to help you except say this. Art is not magic, nor is writing. Mostly it comes down to graft. If you are willing to put in about ten thousand hours (on this, or any other thing you might not have mastered) you will probably master it. That’s all you have to do. Spend ten thousand hours drawing or writing and you’ll be a whole other person.
  • Can you put me in touch with X? Again, we may offer to hook you up with people if we think you are just what they were looking for. If you have to ask, we’re probably going to say no. If you think about someone else’s contact network as something to access and exploit, you’re on shaky ground. What we have is relationships with people built up over time, nourished by care, effort and attention. We aren’t going to give you their phone number unless we have a really good reason to do so.

If you’ve established that you can write, or draw, if you’re trying to figure out how to take your work, or your project to the next level, do come and talk to us. We may be able to offer advice and insights, and if we like what you’re doing and we can think of a way to help you, then we will.

Relating to the land

There are fashions in terms of how we relate to landscape. That’s been an odd concept to wrap my head around. I’ve become a reader of landscape writing over the last few years – partly because I love landscape and want to know what other people think. Partly to learn more about what I’m seeing. Partly because I have a very low opinion of authors who write without reading in the same area of thought. It is from this reading that I’ve learned about fashions in landscape appreciation.

Of course the first thing to note is that we don’t have a complete written history of landscape appreciation. Insight into historical thinking comes from travellers and early tourists – people with money and the means and time to write letters. We have the cheerful adventurer colonialist climbing mountains no one has ever climbed before, going into unknown lands. The people who live there and knew about it all along do not count. 3rd Englishman up the Matterhorn counts, but the native assistants don’t, by this peculiar way of seeing things. Had they climbed before it was fashionable? I don’t know.

Poor people tend not to write letters about their hobbies to distant friends who keep and/or publish said letters. They don’t tend to write poetry, or memoires, or how-to books, either. There’s a glorious exception in the form of peasant poet John Clare, whose love of landscape flows through page after page of observation. Was he a lone freak? Or were other men following the plough while meditating on the curve of the soil, or making verses to honour the skylark? Or women for that matter – because most of the writing that makes up history comes from men. Teaching women to write was not always the done thing, and illiterate women leave no notes on their opinions for historians to find. There is a silence then, surrounding how most people related to landscape most of the time.

Folk tales and folk songs, legends and place names can suggest very rich cultures of landscape. Unusual landscape features tend to attract tales – how many giant stones around the country are attributed to the Devil? Barrows attract ghost stories, half remembered fragments of history become legends. The thing about the people who work the land is that they tend to stay on the land, generation after generation. Things get passed down. One of the most interesting examples of this I’ve found is in Alan Garner’s The Voice That Thunders, where a story of a farmer from Mobberly who takes his horse to sell in Macclesfield but has a strange run in with a wizard, turns out to be an aural mapping of a route through prehistoric settlements. Map making isn’t always about marks on paper – they can be narratives of key features in the landscape, as with the old Parish boundaries.

The history of landscape appreciation, as written, tends to be about rich people delighting in charming novelties and the picturesque and other such ideas – more of that later. These are the views of people for whom landscape is an object to enjoy, or to find lacking. The view exists to please. A person living closer to the land is bound to have a different perspective – valuing what can be used, valuing places with ancestral connections and yes, I expect finding aesthetic pleasure too, but not necessarily having a language to express it in, or anyone making notes who would take that expression seriously.

Spells for the Second Sister

I find it hard talking about works in progress. There are reasons. Fear of having my ideas stolen is not actually one of them! Partly it’s because I am a panster, not a planner. In the first draft of any book, I’m flying by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go along. I usually put a lot of time and thought into world and character building before I start, but the story I have to find as I go or I get bored, and don’t finish it. Once I have a first draft, there’s a reason to knuckle down and turn it into something that works. So, I am wary talking about a book while I’m writing it, because a great deal is likely to change between now and when I’m finished.

There’s a superstitious feeling that if I talk about it, some of the magic will get away. However, I’ve pushed that one in recent years because I share my first draft with my husband Tom as I’m going along. I find the instant feedback useful. As we’re collaborating on a number of projects, we have an established working relationship and a sensitivity around not standing on each other’s toes. I can trust Tom not to tell me how to write a story unless we’ve agreed that we’re co-writing.

This is a bigger deal than you might think. One of the reasons I stopped talking about work in progress was a run of several boyfriends who felt entitled to tell me what I ought to be writing. How the story should go. What the characters should be like. People who were readers, but who did not read the books I read, and who wanted me to write the books they wanted, not the books I wanted. A boyfriend is someone who, if they get in your book and start making demands, can derail the whole process, as I learned to my cost. I’ve had it from people who were virtually strangers, too, who asked what I do, and when told, started telling me what I should write about. At best it’s bloody annoying. I’ve never once found that an unsolicited suggestion for a novel plot has done me any favours at all.

I like a challenge though. The editor who asks for a 750 word article by the end of the week, or more recently a request for a 250 word tale (more on that as it comes). A frame and then freedom to create within it suits me well, and a remit from a professional is very different from someone who has never written anything trying to tell me what my book should be about. I try not to be snobbish about these things, but it is a truth that if you’ve never tried to line 75,000 words or so up in a way that makes sense, you really don’t know what writing a book is like.

That work in progress then. I may have settled on a title – Spells for the Second Sister. I’ve probably got some 20,000 words of it now, and a structure, and the plot is just starting to make sense to me. I started with a place and a person, an implied back history and a thing I knew was going to happen. Other characters have sauntered in since. I’ve fed the story by reading a lot as I’m working. I know some authors shun the work of others for fear of being influenced. I set out to be influenced as much as possible by the ideas, creativity and awesomeness of others. I figure, if I can find a dozen things to be influenced by, I won’t come out too much like any one other thing, I will have learned useful stuff and I’ll know where the bar is set.

Spells for the Second Sister currently owes a lot to my admiration for Alan Garner’s work. It owes to fairy tales, and Talis Kimberly’s song about the middle child of three, even though there are only two sisters in this, and every folk song with sisters in it – usually murdering each other – and all the fairy tales with siblings setting out and being tested. It also owes something to Adam Horovitz and his A Thousand Laurie Lees, and to Anthony Nanson’s Deep Time, and the way that took me into writing where the land is personified, and the questions around gender politics and colonialism this raises for me. Which doesn’t really tell you anything about the story, and for now, that might be just as well!