Tag Archives: writing

Co-writing with my younger self

I’ve done a fair bit of co-writing with other people over the years. At the moment, I am in the slightly surreal position of co-writing with myself.

Tom and I are working on the 4th book of Hopeless Maine right now. I wrote the original script more than eight years ago, when I knew far less about comics. Younger me had a rather different voice to current me. Younger me did not really know how to lay out a comics page or tell stories visually. Younger me used to just hand scripts to Tom and leave him to figure out how to make it work on the page. Since then, I have become someone who can think pretty well about visual storytelling and how to get the words onto the page. Having a better grasp of the visual side also means I can see which words to take out.

A few years ago, when contemplating how best to handle an old prose piece in the Hopeless setting, I was given some advice from a fellow writer. Don’t you want it to be your best work? They asked. They were clear that I should revise and update it. In the end, I didn’t do that much. I may have more craft skills than I used to, but there are also things I used to do that I couldn’t do now. How I think about people and situations has changed. I no longer tell the same stories. I am wary of assuming that my current writing self is my best possible writing self. I think previous me had some things going for them.

I find myself working with my old scripts, trying to edit them for best effect, and feeling as though I am working with another author. Usually when I edit for people, the other author is there to talk to. This one is dead, or disappeared, or trapped in another time. I have to edit their work without being able to discuss it with them. I try to honour their vision while applying the things I know that they don’t know. It’s a very odd process. It’s shown me there are things my younger self knew and felt that I need to re-find and re-feel.

We don’t always improve with time. Sometimes our first, unpolished attempts can be the best we do because they have the most passion and energy and are least self-conscious. Sometimes the tools we collect freeze us up and have us second guessing ourselves. Younger me frankly had no idea how to write a comic, but was brazen enough to do it anyway. I am at the moment failing to write a script for something because I’m so bogged down in what I know that I can’t get started. The only way to do it will be to emulate younger me, and write the way I used to write, and then come in for a second stage with all the useful, technical things I know.

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Daily Creativity

This blog was prompted by reading a recent post from Cat Treadwell about daily creativity, and how that might work. What roles does creativity play in our lives? What happens if we are creative every day, or more days than not?

Writers are often encouraged to write every day – and there are reasons for considering this, and also reasons for rejecting it. Writing every day will help you build a skills set if you are fairly new to the craft and need to develop. There are things you can only learn by doing them. You won’t know how to write a book length piece until you’ve done it a few times, for example. Most writers learn so much writing the first few books that they don’t want to share them with anyone else. Later in the process, turning up every day can be about refining and revising your work towards a suitable standard as well as putting down words in the first place.

As an occasional musician, someone who dances for fun, colours professionally, writes books, crafts and has even acted on occasion, I’m pretty alert to the mechanics of creativity. You have to practice to develop skills, and regular or at least reasonably frequent practice is best. Even if you’re looking at being creative just for personal pleasure and relaxation, it works better if you have skills to deploy and can feel rewarded by what you achieve. Invest ten thousand hours in anything and you’ll be something of an expert at it. All of this makes clear why daily creative work is a good idea.

However, practicing skills isn’t necessarily a creative-feeling process. Scales on a musical instrument, repetition of dance moves to get them right. Learning a craft technique, or a poetic form, or committing something to memory. These are not things where the fire of inspiration will burn brightly in your head. These are workish things that take you forward.

Often what’s attractive about creativity (especially to would-be bards) is that fire in the head experience. The rush of inspiration, the energy and drive of it, is exciting and powerful. Unhelpfully, when we’re shown creative people in films and media, we’re usually shown them working from that state, going from blank canvas to finished work of genius in the heat of creative passion. No study drawings, no sketching, no planning. This is not how real creativity normally happens. In a real process, there are moves back and forward between flashes of inspiration and working out how to deliver it.

Whether you need to show up every day and do something creative depends a lot on your inspiration rhythms and where you are in your process. If you are learning or refining, then turning up as often as you can is the best idea. If you are waiting for inspiration to strike, turning up can be counter-productive. Some people find it works to make the space for inspiration by sitting down to write something. I don’t find that works for me, and the work I force out when I don’t feel ready is never work I like. It is better for me to ferment ideas, and run with them when I feel ready. I also find it helps to take time off and give my brain space to come up with ideas.

Much of what I do isn’t heat-of-inspiration work. I don’t need to feel inspired to do comics colouring, it’s a process of applying what skills I have. Ideas may occur to me as I colour, but they aren’t big or dramatic ideas, just ways of delivering on the work I am doing. Crafting is similar – I need inspiration to start a project, but once I have that, the rest is just mostly about getting it done.

There’s no one right answer here that guarantees success and good quality creative output. You have to know where you are with your skills set – if you are learning and if practice is the most important thing. You need to know what the form you’re working in really requires. You have to know where inspiration fits in your process, and you need to know what you need to do to find the inspiration you need.


Creative trajectories, novel issues

Those of you who have followed my blog for some time will know that I’ve had a fair few meltdowns about creativity. Some of it is simply because publishing is highly problematic, and for a good 95% of us involved, doesn’t pay enough to live on. Some of it, I have recently realised, is about my attitude to novels. Now that I’m looking at it with a critical eye, I’m not sure why novels loom so large in my mind. It is usually my failure to write novels that gets me down. Or my failure to get them out there (I have a few lying around waiting for something to happen to them).

I feel very strongly that I want to write for other people, not simply for myself. I can’t really justify the many hours of work that going into a novel if that novel does nothing. I want to write for people in a way that readers of my work will get something from. It doesn’t have to be about numbers or economics – if one person finds a blog post useful, I feel I’ve achieved something important.

In terms of engaging with people, this blog is the biggest and most important thing I do. There are some four thousand of you subscribed to it now. This might be the most useful, relevant and valuable form I work in.

The poetry I write also has good scope for connecting with people. I post it on here, and over on patreon, sometimes I make films around it and much of it goes out to live poetry spaces for direct sharing. I like how all of this works.

The graphic novels engage people, and the colouring work I’m doing on those seems to be a good thing, but I take it less seriously, am less willing to own it. I see those as my husband’s project on which I help out with writing and colouring. He doesn’t see it that way. I need to rethink all of that.

Why do I treat novel writing as the pinnacle of writing? It’s been an unquestioned assumption for me, that novels are somehow best, and that writing them is the best sort of writing. It’s not a form of writing that enables me to quickly engage with anyone else. It’s not a form with which I can do anything economically productive for my household. It doesn’t have the scope for direct engagement like a poem or a mumming play. Certainly, novel reading is a big part of my life and has helped me in all kinds of ways, but it’s a form with all kinds of issues.

You can’t write a novel without conflict in the lives of its protagonists. Increasingly, I want to write about simple, good things that work. I want to write about landscape and seasons, the beauty of the wild world. Poetry lends itself far better to this than novels do. Non-fiction can carry it well.

I’m in a process of re-evaluating the forms I work in, and what of that does what I want it to do. My fixation on novels doesn’t make any sense to me at the moment. It’s not what’s needed, it’s not what I’m inspiredo t write. I want to write things for people. There will no doubt, be more novels, and I need to work out what to do with the ones I’ve already written, but I need to get over it as a form, and give myself more room to enjoy what I most often do, and what clearly has most impact.


The writing of chants

I’ve been writing chants for a while now, with varying degrees of success. I started because the chants I was encountering didn’t do what I wanted them to do. I wanted seasonally specific material that connects directly to my landscape. I find chants difficult to write because my inclinations are to use more words than anyone else can easily pick up, and to write tunes that aren’t easy to sing when you’ve never heard them before, so I’ve had to push back against that.

For chants to be available to people who haven’t had weeks to learn them, they need to be simple. Not too many words and plenty of repetition. Tunes need to be simple enough that less confident singers won’t be put off by them. However, chants that are dull don’t inspire people, so there’s a balance to find here.

For ‘Turn with the year’ I used the repetition of the word ‘turn’ to give something easy to latch onto. There are some significant intervals between notes here, but I think they’re the kinds of gaps that make immediate sense to the ears of western, northern hemisphere folk. It’s also a tune that’s very forgiving of people singing something else alongside it – which is often where harmony lines come from.

For my recent Beltane chant, I relied on echoing a song I think a lot of Pagans will know from The Wicker Man – Summer is acomming in. So I think it feels familiar, and apart from one line, the tune is really simple. When I tested this one on friends, they picked it up in a couple of goes.

The folk tradition has a broad and deep history of songs designed for people to pick up quickly and join in on. These are often more complicated than the Pagan chant. They depend on one person knowing the words, and an obvious pattern – there might only be one or two new lines in any given verse. I was thinking about shanties when I wrote Three Drops. The line ‘Fire in my head’ repeats three times in every verse and every verse ends with ‘three drops of inspiration’. There’s one new line at the start of every verse – three drops, into the forest, salmon in the well and drink from the cauldron – people get the ‘fire in my head’ sometimes even in the first verse on first hearing.

So, the questions to ask when writing a chant are, I think – what do you need to say? How can you say it in the fewest possible words? How can you make it easy to pick up? How singable is it? How interesting is it? Will people enjoy joining in with it?

I don’t think the point of a chant should be to send people into a trance born of boredom and monotony. Chants should be about the power of raising our voices together, the feeling of involvement and togetherness this brings. A good chant uplifts and inspires people. If you can hum a tune and string a sentence together, you have the key skills to try writing your own.


Things I am up to

Thus far this year has not gone to plan. I’m increasingly fine with that. One of the things I didn’t get to do I’m glad I missed – the feeling of having dodged a bullet there. I’ve become involved unexpectedly in other projects as well.

I’ve just launched a new column on The Hopeless Vendetta – Mrs Beaten is judging you. Mrs Beaten is the sort of character who worries about whether the orphans are speaking proper English, and complains about their poor postures while ignoring the fact that half of them have rickets. She’s all about appearances. Writing satire always means the risk of people thinking I’m serious, and to make this even more exposed, I’m doing cartoons for it. Tom is now working on the next Hopeless Maine graphic novel and I really don’t want to take any of his time away from that. Mrs Beaten will be unleashed on Sundays, you can find her here –hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/category/hopeless-tales/mrs-beaten/ 

I’m still blogging alternative wheel of the year stuff for Sage Woman every month. I blog intermittently at Moon Books. I’m writing a regular Quiet Revolution column for Pagan Dawn, and I’m writing about tree activism for the Pagan Federation International.

Over on Patreon, I’m putting up content every week, including new poetry, and fragments of fiction that may eventually turn into a thing.

Alongside this, I’m doing a bit of online campaign work for The Woodland Trust and helping out where I can with The Pagan Federation Disabilities Online Team. I am behind on learning sign language, but I do have a chant written for the next festival.

I’m supporting a number of authors who are at various stages of trying to get their work into the world. I feel strongly that getting your work out there should not depend on being able to pay. I don’t want to live in a world where arts careers are only for those who have a lot of privilege to begin with. So, where people need help and can’t afford to pay for it, I do what I can. Which is, I fear, a very small drop in the ocean of what’s needed. One of the reasons I’m reviewing every week is that it’s an easy way of helping people make their books more visible. I only review books I feel largely positive about.

Quite a lot of my time goes into unpaid work. Donating via the ko-fi link, (thank you those of you who have already done this) and supporting me on Patreon (thank you!) helps me stay viable while giving my time and skills to other people. It helps me afford to continue with Tom not taking as many illustration commissions so as to focus on getting Hopeless Maine out there. It gives me time for my own speculative work rather than having to focus on the things that are definitely going to pay. It makes losing money on events less scary, too. Train fares cost a lot, and we need to get out there to meet people and promote our work, but in the short term it is all too easy to lose money on this.

Of course much of this is true for many creative people. Having resources to invest in developing your work can be really difficult if you’re barely scraping a living. Creating part time isn’t a good answer for many people and it brings us back again to only getting creators who are in good health and well resourced. If you support the creators you love – in any small way you can – you help keep them going. Review them, re-tweet them, tell a friend. And if you can throw money at them, know that it makes an enormous difference. A hundred dollars a month on Patreon can easily be the different between keeping going and not keeping going.

If you want to wave money at me, you can do so here.
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Creative Community

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

There are of course other ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.