books, creative writing, inspiration, reading, writing

Summoning The Daemon

 

The title does not contradict my previous statements on inspiration. It is inconstant and should not be relied upon as part of a writing process if you want to achieve a regular body of work. I do, so I don’t rely on it. I write through all the different shades of feeling.

Feeling ill? Still writing

There’s a new season of that show I like on Netflix that I have time to binge watch? Still writing.

However, inspiration is pretty wonderful and when it lands upon you, it is like mainlining the universe. In Ancient Greece, they referred to it as a spirit called a daemon. Inspiration, in that context, can be seen as summoning it so I will use that metaphor going forward. Sit down, kids, this is going somewhere interesting.

Sources of inspiration:

The most obvious one is reading. I include audiobooks amongst this, as the science supports that listening to one resonates in the brain in the same way looking at words on a page or screen does. I will break that down for you into some further definitions.

Fiction – I say this and it is kind of hammered into you that if you are a writer, you should be reading. The why of that, to me, is the following reasons. It allows you to see the possibility of what can be done on the page. There are no right or wrong books to be reading. A good book can inspire envy as well as  much as a bad book can inspire contempt.

Reading as a writer is different from reading as a reader. You want to see what effects are possible, then you look at how and what the writer uses to convey that effect. Don’t see this as an adjunct to dry, literary analysis, think of it as figuring out what they did and how you can reproduce it in your own writing. It is not plagiarism, which is stupid to do in the days of software that can analyse and point it out, although people still do it and even sell books online with it. Warren Ellis, the comic book writer, offers this up in terms of comic books. Tear it apart, use the entrails to see a possible future for your work. Chuck Palahniuk has a lovely quote that I use.

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.”

You should do the same with bad writing too. What that means is subjective to you, but if you get that faint sense of ‘I can do better than that’ or not even the faint sense where you resolve yourself to a vigilante crusade to burn every copy of that book in existence, then you can still learn something useful from it. Bad books have a malign sense of energy, and some of the subjectively worst books have been the most popular. Slag Dan Brown off all you want, he won’t hear you from atop the massive pile of gold and escorts that he sleeps upon.

So, read, listen to fiction. It gives you scope for your own work.

I also add that it is good to read outside of your genre. If you want to work in a particular genre, it is arrogant not to read the leading proponents of the style. Who those are is also subjective, but I believe that if you read outside of that, then you can incorporate elements to make your voice unique. It is healthy and lends itself to original work, if you can do it in a natural way. What matters is that you look to make those elements organic, not some Frankenstein’s Monster literary hybrid that lurches from the slab with lightning running through it’s decayed veins.

Non -Fiction.

I will refer to Tom Clancy for this:

“The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”

I would argue that any written non fiction is fictional in construction. Actually it is not me who argues that but Steven Pressfield because you are still choosing which moments and perspectives form your account. Reality television is not, because it is not a dogme 95 camera trained on a fixed point and neither is non fiction writing. I digress though.

Non-fiction is a mine of inspiration for me. It is an education awash with pleasure because you can pick up a great deal of images, incidents and story prompts from the stuff of life itself. You can change the names, details but keep that little spark there alive and you have something that resonates whilst still having the plausibility of real life.

Pick a subject, look for the good stuff and let it wash over you.

OBSERVATION

I work a day job, lots of us do. Your colleagues, your customers are all potential sounding boards and sources of inspiration. Listen, ask questions that relate to whatever you were working on and need some juice to pump into your writing. Anecdotes are everywhere, and you should use them wherever possible, legal issues and ramifications withstanding.

I hope these points are of interest, and that they help. Feel free to disregard what does not work for you, and please offer up your own points in the comments or to me via the contact form at the bottom of this post.

 

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creative writing, process, writing

On Writing – Second Drafts and Approaches

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I am now 65 pages into the second draft of Lawful Evil.

What has been interesting for me is that I am a lot more ruthless with it than the first draft than I have been in previous books. A lot of that comes from experience, an understanding that my first drafts are about getting whatever is in my head onto the page without worrying about it being perfect. Some people do, and that’s okay but for me, having multiple stages allows me to not feel any performance pressure in terms of getting the book to a point where I feel comfortable sending it to the agent, and in turn, making it a viable prospect. I can waste my own time, but I won’t waste yours. We are up against kitten videos and hot and cold running pornography after all, so you need to make sure the work is worth someone’s investment.

The first draft is where I figure out what I wanted to say, I use the story grid to ensure that the work has a progression that meets the expectations of the audience, which is a conversation in and of itself, and also allows me to know the overall shape of the work itself. Within that, first drafts are where I meander, overwrite. Remember playing air guitar (pfft remember I bet you’re doing it right now)? Same principle.

I write in longhand, in pencil because it is something that I find connects me to the work and allows me to approach it from a different area of my brain than typing does. It is comforting but in it’s low fidelity approach, it is portable, easy to pick up and put down. I use A4 lined pads and work through until I am. It is done at a rate of 2 pages a day, but I do work in flurries when time allows so there are extra pages done but the baseline is 2 pages in order to take away the pressure but also to be productive.

It sounds boring, but I look at it like this – on a bad day, it is only two pages. On a good day, you walk away hungry and that builds fortitude and discipline, like saving for a rainy day. The rainy days will come, and I have faced more than my fair share, but as a practice, I have kept writing.

I wait for at least eight weeks before I start a second draft. I do not review it until the notification comes up on my calendar and I read through it, typing and editing it. I aim to remove whatever does not serve the story.

Stories are what I tell. I don’t know if I am any good at them, but I study their structure, read and absorb them, to the extent that I can talk with passion about them. I like to write because it’s low-tech and doesn’t initially rely on anyone else to make them. I have beta readers, an agent and eventually a publisher and editors there, but for the most part, it is just me and the drive to do it.

I view writing as my purpose. The more I’ve aligned my life around it, the happier I have become. Sometimes it makes me appear stoic, even taciturn and perhaps self-obsessed but in truth, it really does make me happy. I cannot say whether I am any good, but the work is something that I can do, and if I don’t have any natural talent, then I can work to the point where there exists the appearance of it. I am ambitious in my goals, but that came about as a desire to do more of what I love. I think writing is magical, it’s introduced me to some wonderful people and those of you reading this are amongst them. I don’t have dreams because you wake up from them, I have goals and they are big ones because it is better to reach high and fail rather than aim low and succeed. I don’t talk about writing as much as I do write, if that makes sense. It is a better balance, much like watching a sport when you could be playing it.

I feel successful because I have written a book before. What I want is more of that, and although it is lonely work, and you sometimes have that fear of missing out, when my work colleagues talk about playing Elder Scrolls in PvP, or going out and I’ve been writing or reading, I worry that there might be something wrong with me. Then I look at what I have achieved in the last few years, see that people from countries all over the world visit here and take the time to like and comment, and it is all worth it.

My ambition is to someday send you links to the listing on Amazon, or tell you that a book of mine is available in bookstores but that is the beginning. Thank you for reading.

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craft, creative writing, creativity, experience, process, writing

Patience and Process

Sit down, listen and I will share something I’ve learned.

I have learned this through pain and upset, which is how the best lessons are learned. Ask a thwarted lover, they will tell you, if they can manage to stop crying long enough for any degree of clarity.

The most difficult thing to learn when pursuing a goal, artistically or otherwise, is patience. Society is geared towards instant gratification, to the point that it sinks into the unconscious and you are unaware of how that desire has been stitched into you. So, for instance, when you’re writing and you want to get feedback even as the first draft resembles a hostage demand written by a dyslexic clown with a crayon between its teeth.

You know what I am talking about but you need to breathe through it.

I got your back on this. Trust me.

It never goes away, but you make your peace with it. It is a long game, and you have to approach these long periods as part of your training. Think of a montage in an action movie and use that time to educate and improve yourself. Develop a practice that can sustain you through those times. My patience is being tested whilst waiting for a nod from a publisher about the second book so having a process inures me to that, to a certain degree.

When I say that, I will break that down into stages so that we are clear on this matter, together, okay?

By that I mean, something that you commit to daily/weekly/monthly for an amount of time where you focus either on the act of, or learn something about your art form.

I write two pages a day, sometimes it is done in one heady rush, it can be awkward or slow but it gets done. That two pages can be part of a first draft, it can be editing towards a later draft, it can be two pages of a short story but it gets done.

Why?

OK, so my reasoning, and it is sourced in research and experience,

  • It gives you something to do whilst waiting for the time to pass. The devil makes work for idle hands, and all that. If you’re always working on something, you’re using that ambient emotional energy in a productive fashion.
  • You improve over an organic period of time, by working on it in small (manageable) increments without being consciously aware of it. I don’t believe in the idea of natural genius. There is talent, there is hard work that gets you to a level of talent and genius is normally the perfect storm of the two.
  • A little each day builds up courage, like saving pennies. I think it’s a good antidote to ‘writer’s block’ which I prefer to frame as resistance, and in turn, think it’s a fear of writing poorly. Don’t worry about it, get it down and get it done.
  • You get used to the idea of being productive regardless of circumstance. Writing to inspiration is great, but it is inconsistent and doesn’t lend itself to a professional mind set. I believe in being professional, it is a source of my personal enjoyment in the craft. Behaving like a professional tends to get you treated like one, and I believe in that attitude for a number of reasons. One, it lowers the pressure if you do get to that point and two, it lends itself to a better nuance of enjoyment when you are honing in on different levels of craft or the project. That’s before we get into things like manifestation and goal setting, which I probably won’t. A man has to keep something back, you know?

OK, so hopefully that gives you something to think about. Montage over.

If you have any questions, then please use the contact form and I will answer them. Anonymity is assured, should you wish and please put that in the body of the question so I know.

 

 

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craft, creative writing, creativity, writing

Basics of Writing

Ok, so I have been writing a little while now, and have things to show for it, some of which are in arenas beyond here. Infernal Ink in April of this year and the For Her anthology in Cleiss Press (release tbc). I have an agent (Kelly Marshall at SMART Talent Agency), a writing practice and I must stress, I’ve written things, other than reams of material about writing advice. It’s a small distinction because the theories and practices of writing can generate a large amount of theories and esoterica related to it but I’ve learned there’s no substitute for doing and failing/succeeding.

Most writing advice offers the idea that you can avoid or circumvent mistakes and you should not do that, nor should you view them as mistakes or failures.

They are setbacks, roads taken and discarded. If you consider how we learn anything, it is through repetition, from walking and speaking through to everything else, then you should apply the same approach to writing. I don’t believe myself to be especially gifted or blessed, other than understanding that there is work and determination involved. What tends to happen is that you enjoy it enough that your brain forgets all the dead ends and you get lovely rushes of dopamine and serotonin when you get it right.

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he tried and discarded thousands of variations that did not work until he found the one that did. Look up or around and see a light bulb, it is a tribute to the determination of one individual. See the same with a book or a short story or a poem.

Don’t worry about being good to start with, don’t worry about it at all.

Here’s an analogy I really like, it comes from the bass guitarist Victor Wooten. When you play air guitar, do you play any bum notes?

So the first basic is just to write it, put it down somewhere and go from beginning to end. Enjoy it the way a child would, without expectations or notions of quality. It is the simplest and most difficult notion attached to art, because you compare yourself to those who have been doing it for decades. It will not look like the work of anyone that you admire or even hate, but that’s okay.

The second basic notion is that you are not in competition with anyone other than yourself. The person you were yesterday.

No, note that I am not selling you anything, or even going that deep into it. The basics are there, within you. Flannery O’Connor once said a couple of things that stayed with me.

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
Flannery O’Connor

It feels quite bitter that, but don’t let anyone dissuade you. If you enjoy it, then write or draw or paint, because art is healthy. If it gives you a reason to go on, then keep doing it.

If anyone wants me to continue these, let me know. There’s enough of this sort of thing out there, and I don’t disparage that, but I just want to give my version of it, which reflects my experiences thus far.

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If you have any questions that might be useful to other writers, please contact me and I will answer them in future editions.

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craft, creative writing, writing

Process

I am quite disciplined in my writing practice. I feel, for me, it’s important to be productive and to work to a schedule. I aim to be as professional as possible, even though there’s no money involved at this stage for me, I turn up every day and do the work.

Inspiration is lovely, but it’s not reliable. I work at it every day.

The trick, for me, was to build up to it. I studied the habits of people who are really good in their respective fields and figured out what was applicable to my situation, and then applied them.

  •  Start small. I have a general rule of two pages a day for first drafts in longhand or five when editing. I built that up through doing it every day. Start with as small an amount as you can easily manage. Use a calendar to mark off the days you achieve it. Jerry Seinfeld calls it a row of Xs.
  • Stick to it for 30 days. The science behind this is that a practice like this creates neural pathways and you move the habit from the conscious to the unconscious.
  • Finish what you start. Abandoned projects are part of the territory but seeing something through that doesn’t work is instructive. If you can balance your desire to be good with a little humility, then every mistake is not failure but feedback.
  • Protect your writing time. I get up at 4 in the morning, it’s quiet and when I go to my day job, I know that no matter what else happens, I have attended to my heart’s purpose.
  • Leave your completed first drafts alone once they’re finished for as long as possible. I set a reminder for eight weeks and in the meantime I am usually editing or working on something else. Editing is something worth a post on its own.

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craft, creative writing, poetry, writing

On poetry

Poetry is a useful practice for a writer at any level. It is a tool to hone focus and develop clarity of expression, in that we all have an inherent sense of what a poem is, to us as individuals, so we give ourselves room to play. 

Benjamin Franklin would translate his own prose into poetry as an exercise in  consolidation. You can do this as a literary x ray to find flaws in your own prose. 

A good friend of mine once said that my prose reflected what was in my head whilst my poetry reflected what was in my heart. I would say that you should, as with any artistic path, work from a place of genuine emotion and passion, and not as a limiting choice. Write for a person, an ideal, a belief and put your heart into the work. 

Don’t let anyone stop you from expressing yourself. Use a pen name, keep it private if you want to, but do the work and find solace in it. It can be healing or a beautiful riposte to injury, but mostly it is an art form that invites everyone. Good or bad are relative terms and don’t apply if you love what you do. 

I will let you in a secret, I don’t necessarily rate myself as a poet. I write poetry and enjoy it but I’ve never submitted any poetry for publication. The means of expression is what matters and the honesty of that expression is what resonates with people. 

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craft, creative writing, writing

On First Drafts and Editing

The first draft of anything is shit.  – Ernest Hemingway

It might sound like cause for dismay, but it is liberating. You are not under any obligation to share it with anyone, so you can struggle through that sensation of clumsiness with all the joy that you can muster. You can make your mistakes in private, then when your work is ready for public consumption, you will look more competent and focused. By public consumption, I tend to refer to submitting editors, agents and publishers who are busy people. If you have time to do this, then don’t assume that anyone else does. Fuck up alone or with a trusted friend/beta reader so when you are showing your work, you know that you’ve done what you can to make it work on the page.

You also have the freedom to chop and change as you need to. Which is something that I healthily admit to doing. I don’t outline beyond having a story grid, but I am never rigid about what I have decided if something better comes along to replace it. You keep the story moving, much like emptying the basket of a hot air balloon to maintain elevation, discarding the excess baggage to keep the damn thing afloat.

Lawful Evil is a perfect example of that. I’ve discarded an ongoing thread of antagonism between the two main characters, and one of those characters is now an amalgam of two characters, because there was a backstory element that felt too good to be used to flesh out a secondary character. I’ve simplified and pared it back to the core elements, which is making it easier to write and it’s moving faster.  It’s not about working faster but smarter and not being precious about the work. After a few rounds of agent’s notes and in anticipation of publisher/editorial notes at some point, I work to an idea of what is required and balance that against my need in terms of the book. What I want to express is a story. My politics, my beliefs, my passions and preferences may come out within that but ultimately the story is the boss.

What you will ultimately read is not the same thing that I finished. So much of the relationship between me as author and potentially you as reader is that I give up control of the interpretation when it is in your hands. My intentions are irrelevant, so I just make sure that it is as good as I can manage it and hope that you enjoy it. Part of that is resisting the urge to show off, to be clever and harness that passion into something accessible and clear. I look at my earliest writing, all the purple prose and need to cover everything possible, seeing the insecurity and accepting it as the price of a ticket to the big show of writing. I love my process and find triumph within that. The work is the juice, but I keep working towards a point where I can do that all the time.  It is a challenge because I suffer the insecurities and fears that besiege us all, and sometimes I do so alone, but the work is the cure.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

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