Working at inspiration

There’s a tendency to talk about inspiration as something mystical, some flash-from-nowhere power. I think that’s nonsense. Inspiration is like any act of imagination, it’s something you work at.

Partly, this is a long term project. The more time you spend thinking about how you can apply your experiences to stories the more effortless that will become. When I first started writing I’d occassionally notice something interesting. The way light streamed from a porch on a spring evening. The curve of a statue in a gallery. A concept from sociology that explained why people listen to others. I’d note that thing down, I’d think about its ramifications or how it could be used to add colour to a story. I’d mould it into a shape that I could use.

As time went by that got easier. I’d see that fall of light and I’d know straight away how to use it in my current scene. Or I’d hear that sociological concept and see immediately how it could motivate a character. And that was when those moments of inspiration really started to fly. Those flashing insights, the realisation that, hey, that bird would be a good model for monster A, a great metaphor for Lord B’s character, or maybe a hobby for character C, like ornithology or taxidermy, and that’s why her and B don’t get on, and…

Those moments were coming because I’d worked at building a better creative engine, a set of thought processes that were better than ever at creating the ideas I wanted.

But working at it is a short term thing too. This week I’ve been reading Eileen Power’s Medieval Women, because I’m planning a story that involves several medieval women*. For the first few pages I didn’t get much from the book. It was interesting enough, but nothing was really sparking. Then I took one concept, about the deeply divided attitudes to women in medieval Christianity (praise the Virgin Mary, bemoan Eve’s part in the fall, compare all women to both, develop feelings of confusion normally restricted to teenagers). I thought about the ramifications of that for my story and wrote it down. Half a page later, with that idea already in my head, I read something else that fitted with it, so I noted that down. And again. And again. Ten minutes later I was spending more time making notes than actually reading. That engine I mentioned earlier had got warmed up, and now it was really rolling. One of the most important fuels for creativity is more creativity.

So, messy engine metaphors aside, what’s the point of this? It’s that ideas and creativity don’t just happen, and realising that, working on mine over time and in each moment, has really helped me. Inspiration doesn’t just happen. You make it happen.

*And also because I’m something of a history nerd – there’s a reason I studied it solidly for six years.

Striking Black Silence

Striking Black Silence crouched in the dusty shadows, clothed from head to toe in the slate-grey folds of her shinobu. Only the twinkling pits of her eyes showed through the surrounding darkness. The Emerald Dragon Palace towered above her, a gleaming bastion amid the markets and slums, its green walls rising to curved roofs of yellow timber.

A civil servant paused in the street, tidying himself before approaching the high barred gate. His long crimson robes cast a tapered shadow in front of Striking Black Silence’s hiding place. She pulled a pale, thin ninjaken from her belt, a blade as sharp as a jilted lover’s hate and light as moonbeams. Leaning forwards she slashed through the base of the man’s shadow. Snatching the patch of darkness away with long, thin fingers, she stepped nimbly into its place. The civil servant never even looked around as she willed herself to become insubstantial, a dark layer draped across the world, and when he walked past the guards and through the high obsidian gates he did so with a darker shadow, one that did not wear his robes.


Inside the Palace, the civil servant crossed a mosaic floor and ascended a wide staircase with a handrail of carved mahogany. His footsteps joined those of other red-robed figures shuffling wordlessly from room to room, their way lit by delicately scented candles that cast flickering patches of light across tiled walls. At the top of the stairs he entered a tall antechamber, lined with darkened niches and shelves full of scrolls. As he paused, reaching for one of the high shelves, he felt a moment of distraction, like a thread tugging at the corner of his mind. In a flash it passed and, lighter of heart, he plucked a wide leather-bound tome down from its place and passed on into the next room.

Striking Black Silence crouched in the darkness between the shelves, watching the shadowless man depart. A lowly clerk of tepid spirit, it had been easy to break away from him. She waited motionless as four more of his grade came and went, never even glancing into her dark niche. Then came a man in purple robes with silver trim. As he stood with his back to her, Striking Black Silence drew her blade and cut away his shadow, stepping lightly into its place, her toes brushing his heals as she joined to him and willed her body into shreds of gloom. Oblivious, the mandarin selected a scroll from the shelf and left the room, leading them both upwards into the refined halls of the Highest Tower.

Traversing the corridor to the Third Expectant Chamber they passed a guard. He bowed his head to the mandarin, the brass plates of his armour clicking together. His close features broke into a frown as he gazed at the floor beneath the mandarin’s feet and the short, trouser-clad shadow behind the tall robed man.

Before the guard could part his lips to speak, Striking Black Silence was pulling free, trying to become solid. But the mandarin’s spirit was stronger than that of her last carrier, unwilling to relinquish its dark partner. For a long moment she was caught in place, unable to break loose, her will straining against his. Then the bond of shadow to shadowed broke and she was free, a veil of darkness coalescing into the coiled body of a killer. She lunged forward, one arm wrapping around the mandarin’s neck. It twisted with a snap that echoed through the silent room. Then she was past, her blade darting up beneath the guard’s arm. It slipped between armoured plates, piercing muscle and sliding past ribs into his heart. Hot blood spurted across the marble as he fell to the floor.

Eyes peeled for signs of movement, Striking Black Silence rushed down twisting corridors and up a stairwell. Seeing the backs of two guards ahead she sprang into the air, grabbing a roof beam and swinging herself into the rafters. She stepped carefully from beam to beam, arms outstretched, hunched in the low roof space. The guards turned and marched down the stairway beneath her, their helmets close enough to touch, shadows crumpled across the steps.

For the next hour she roamed the rafters, creeping from room to room above oblivious guards and servants. She knew when the bodies were found. Gangs of armoured guards began roaming the corridors, staring fiercely through doorways, scouring every room. But few had the sense to look up, and the ceiling space was filled with concealing shadows.

At last she found herself emerging onto a balcony above the great gates, on which four figures stood with their backs to her. Most striking was a tall man in yellow robes. He held himself straight and still as he surveyed the sprawling shacks below. Beside him stood a scribe, stylus poised over a wax tablet, and flanking them were a pair of guards, their gaze fixed on the ground below, eyes prowling the sprawling streets for any sign of archers.

‘Write this down,’ the tall man said without looking at his scribe. ‘To the Daimyo of the Ninth Province, from Fierce Dragon Wind, Shogun of the Rising Sun…’

Beneath her mask, Striking Black Silence gave a tiny smile at the mention of her daimyo. Without even the faintest his of steel on silk, she drew her ninjaken and reached out of the doorway’s sheltering darkness, towards the shogun’s shadow.

‘…I am aware of your plans against me. Only today, I captured another of your ninjas trying to infiltrate my palace…’

Striking Black Silence stiffened, but no-one turned around. The guards continued their downward vigil, the scribe etched at his tablet and Fierce Dragon Wind stood contemplating his domain. She reached forward once more and, with the utmost care, severed the shogun’s shadow.

‘…As you know, the duties of government keep me here. I therefore leave it to you to ensure your own punishment, safe in the knowledge that any I am forced to inflict shall be as the death of paper cuts, gentle, slow and endlessly painful…’

Striking Black Silence pulled the shadow to her and hid it in the deeper dark of the doorway. Then she stepped forward, holding her breath so as not to breathe on the shogun’s neck.

‘…To this end, you will build yourself a prison, with a bare cell no wider than you are tall. You shall set your own men to guard it, and to feed you water and rice. Make sure they know that, should you escape, their corpses will be left for the vultures, never to find rest with their ancestors…’

Listening to his words strengthened Striking Black Silence’s resolve. She willed herself to become a shadow once more, thinner than air, lighter than fire.

‘…Write it out in your finest hand and bring it to me to sign…’

The scribe nodded and turned, heading into the palace. He paused for a moment, glancing at the ground behind his lord, and Striking Black Silence readied herself to pounce. But he stooped, picked up a button form the floor, and moved on.

‘…I shall be in my chambers,’ the Shogun said, passing in turn through the doorway, taking his shadow with him.


Fierce Dragon Wind strode into his private chamber. Outside, two guards pulled the ornately carved door closed, leaving their master alone. Paper lanterns cast a fierce orange glow, lighting the room like the heart of a bonfire. Everything in the room, from the ivory inlaid writing desk to the black-glazed sake cups, cast a multitude of fragmented shadows, faint patches of shade cast by the different lamps. Everything except the shogun himself. Behind him lay a deep pool of darkness.

Striking Black Silence’s time had come. She took a moment to plan the blow, the dance of the blade through the air, the surrender of his flesh to that fine, gleaming edge, the exact angle at which his head would fall. Then, remembering the fate planned for her daimyo, she focussed her spirit to a sharp point, one moment of swift certainty, and willed herself solid.

Nothing happened.

She tried again, straining to pull a foot away from the shogun. But she could not move, her leg refusing to leave his body. She reached for her ninjaken, realised her arm was held in place, posed as the shogun’s own limb.

Fierce Dragon Wind turned and looked down at the shadow. The corner of his mouth twitched as he raised his sake cup in a wry salute.

‘Well done, little ninja,’ he said. ‘You have come far. Your will is strong. But I rule a whole kingdom without leaving this tower. What sort of will must that take?’

He stared down at Striking Black Silence. She felt her thoughts flung down a dozen different paths, her body wrenched and shaken. The deep pool of darkness became a collection of faint, flickering shadows cast by the paper lanterns, scattered puddles of shade where once there had been a striking black silence.


First published in EMG-zine, October 2007

Comfort writing

I’m used to the idea of comfort eating. In my time I’ve done more than a little comfort drinking. And over the last few months I’ve often soothed my stressed-out brain through comfort viewing on TV. But this week, for the first time, I discovered comfort writing, and realised that I’ve been doing it all along.

Many things affect what I choose to write each time I sit down. A market I’m aiming for, a story that’s niggling away in my brain like a frantic cockroach, a need to vent my anger or frustration or joy. A lot of the time I just pick what I was working on last. But not last Thursday.

Last Thursday, I sat down determined to write. I had several hours set aside and wanted to make the most of them. I’d been having a lousy week, and writing was going to make me feel better. But when I started looking at my list of stories my brain just wouldn’t work. That short story I started in the art gallery? Not interesting. That other one with the pirates and the flood? Too messy, just working out where to start was a headache. The great novel idea I’d cooked up? Too dark and serious for a week that already contained stress and loss.

Then I noticed an old file, a tale of action, adventure and mad science that I started years ago. I’ve picked at it occasionally since, but while I enjoy the characters and setting I recognised a while back that the story structure’s terribly messy, possibly irretrievably so, and I’d given up on it. But just seeing that file, thinking of those characters and the things they were up to, thinking of the fun I’d had writing them, it lifted my spirits. So that was what I worked on, typing away for two hours at a story that even I don’t think will ever see the light of day. It was like any other comfort activity – not productive, but it made me happy.

That morning’s writing is very precious to me. It reminded me of why I write, and left me feeling enthusiastic about my other writing. I might not touch that story again all year, but it’s served its purpose. One of my stories has made someone happy. That someone is me.

The future is cardboard

The debate’s been going for some years now on whether e-readers are the future of reading. Early adopters evangelise on behalf of the gadgetry. Traditionalists talk about how you can’t replace the smell and feel of paper. We’ve even had this debate within my not-terribly-techy team at work, so it must be getting old by now. And yet I recently had an experience that shed new light on it for me.

I love my e-reader. The elegance of its design, the convenience of being able to carry hundreds, thousands of books in something the size of a slim paperback. If you’d told fourteen-year-old me that, two decades down the line, he’d be able to fit his whole library in his school bag he’d have been overjoyed. Never mind hoverboards and moon bases, that was the future I wanted. Looking at books through the eyes of an adult, or even the memories of a bibliophilic teenager, I’m sure this is the way to go.

But the other day I got an insight into a younger sort of reader, and why there’ll always be a place for paper. I don’t mean junior school kids, with their illustrated reference books and their well worn copies of Harry Potter. Not even the infants, with their wonderfully illustrated picture books. No, I’m thinking about the children who can’t even read yet, the wobbling toddlers first learning the joy of books.

The source of my insight was my niece, lets call her Ever-ready. Ever-ready is one and a bit years old. She’s seen her sister, the previously-mentioned Princess, reading books. She’s seen mummy reading them, and daddy, and that funny-looking Uncle Andy. And in the past few months she’s started to appreciate them for herself. At first, the words and pictures meant little to her. She knew that other people made noises at them, but I don’t think she’d connected the noises with the things on the page. What she got a kick out of, what first got her handling books for herself, was turning the thick cardboard pages of baby books. I could see satisfaction in her smile as she worked her way through from beginning to end. She wasn’t worried about the details. She didn’t, to the Princess’s shock, stop to take in every page. She just turned, and turned, and turned those pages, and suddenly books were within her grasp. They weren’t just something that was read to her. They were something she controlled.

Ever-ready has moved on already. She’s started recognising that certain pictures have certain noises, saying ‘moo’ when shown the cow, ‘baa’ for the sheep. She loves that too. But the thing that first drew her in was turning those pages, feeling ownership over the experience. It’s too long ago to remember, but I’m sure I must have felt that too, the thrill of page-turning leading to a life-long love of words.

When we talk about paper versus e-readers we do so through the lense of our adult lives. But if we pause to think about younger perspectives we’ll see that the future isn’t just micro-chips, or thin leaves between paper covers. The real future of reading is in those thick, cardboard pages, and in learning to make them turn.

The joy of rejection

As promised, to balance my heady post on success, here’s the flip side – the heady joy of rejection…

It can be hard to stay motivated as a writer when you’re getting a lot of rejections. My Duotrope account tells me that I’ve got an 8.8% acceptance rate for the last twelve months. That might not sound too bad – heck, I’m happy with it – but it still means that for every acceptance I’ve had ten rejections. That’s a lot of people saying no. And yet, one of the things that most motivates me as a writer is a good rejection.

Good rejections are hard to come by. Most of the rejections I’ve received are form emails. I don’t mean this as a criticism – the editors at most short story markets don’t have the time to make it personal. They’re receiving hundreds of submissions, and mine is just one more in a mountain of things they don’t want.

But just occasionally I get a really good rejection. One that tells me what I did right, and more importantly what I did wrong. Just a couple of brief sentences, but ones that really lift me up. Seeing that someone took the time to have a well developed opinion on my story is great in itself. What’s writing for if not to provoke a response? But the content is important too. Knowing that someone else sees a fragment of value in my story, even as they’re rejecting my work. And, less moral-boosting but far more useful, identifying something that I can improve, both in that story and in my wider writing.

Receiving just a few rejections like that helps me face the rest with a smile, and to keep going. So, to the writers of those rejection notes – in particular the people at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, who have never published a single one of my stories but have given me many pieces of constructive feedback – thank you very much.


I had a post prepped for today about rejection and then, oh the irony, I had a story accepted. So I thought I’d write about that instead.

(And before you start screaming ‘that’s not irony’, the term irony has different uses in different areas of cultural and intellectual endeavour. The definition of literary irony, for example, isn’t even the definition of irony that some people fail to use correctly. So point one, this may or may not be ironic depending on what irony we’re talking about, and point two, you know what I mean so quit fussing. Now, moving on…)

I won’t get into what the accepted story’s about – I’ll post about that when it’s published. What I want to explain is the journey this story went through to get published. Because this one is about persistence.

I started writing this story in January 2008. The second of January 2008, in fact – when I’m feeling diligent I write these things down. And it was accepted on ninth June 2012, four years five months and seven days later. It was rejected by thirteen different markets, and went through at least three substantial re-writes, all of which made it better. When it got rejected I sent it out again. When I got feedback with the rejection I did a re-write first, incorporating that feedback, and then sent it out again. I kept plugging away until, at last, my little tale found a home.

Not all stories are worthy of publication. I’ve written some real dross in my time. But if you believe in your stories then be persistent, don’t give up after the first rejection, or the first dozen. Write, submit, re-write, and do it all again. It might take time, but you’ll get there in the end.

And I’ll discuss rejection another time.

Out now – The Wizard’s Stairs

I have a story, The Wizard’s Stairs, in the current isue of EMG-zine. It’s freely available to read throughout June, so go, read, enjoy.

This story came to me while playing with my niece, the Princess. The Princess is three years old, with a three-year-old’s interests. She likes fairy tales, with their particular logic, where ideas have power and magic defies reality. In fairy tales, a phrase like ‘all the towers in the world’ can be meaningful because it catches your imagination – you don’t need to think about the rules of magic or the logic behind the situation. As long as there’s a lesson, it works. So while she may be too young to appreciate it, this one’s for her.

McKee’s ‘Story’

I’ve recently acquired a small pile of new books on writing, things that had been recommended by friends or caught my eye in articles on the craft. So while I’m glowing in the fake sense of achievement my online shopping has provided, I thought I’d recommend one of my favourite writing books – ‘Story’ by Robert McKee.

McKee is a screenwriter, and the book is designed for script rather than prose writers, with examples taken from film. Despite this, I’ve found it very useful in thinking about story writing. McKee looks at stories in terms of structure and scene. He looks at the way a story is structured overall, different structures to use and the dramatic elements contributing to them. He discusses the emotional charge of each scene, the necessary shifts in this, the sense of conflict and crisis necessary to draw your audience in. He connects both of these themes to characters, and how they drive stories. And he also covers some of the odds and ends, such as different genres and dealing with exposition.

A lot of what McKee says will seem familiar to anyone who’s read around the craft of writing. It only takes a casual flick through a beginner’s book to learn about three act structure and inciting incident. However, McKee provides real focus and coherence in bringing ideas together, and an impeccable grasp on the details. It’s not the be all and end all, but right now it’s my favourite book on writing.

YA – filling a niche

I just finished reading the latest issue of the British Fantasy Society Journal, which was focussed on young adult (YA) literature. YA’s a big thing at the moment, particularly with the prominence of the Twilight and Hunger Games films. The question of YA’s popularity with adults came up several times in the journal’s interviews and articles, and they touched on some interesting causes. But there was one factor that wasn’t mentioned, and it’s the one that most interests me – niche.

Look in the sections of a bookstore aimed at adults and you’ll see a lot of weighty tomes. It they’re not thick with dense, literary prose then they’re physically thick, proper doorstoppers full of action, adventure and/or romance. And there are commercial reasons for this. Both ways, the buyers feel like they’ve got good value for money, whether through challenging art or the sheer volume of pages. The latter tendency has encouraged publishers to turn popular novels into lengthy novels. Particularly in the realm of adventure stories – thrillers, murder mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, and so on – the adult novel has evolved into a bit of a beast. Go back a few decades and you could pick up slim thrillers and sci-fi pulps clocking in around 200 pages. These days they’re likely to be double that.

This change, this slow evolution of the form, has left a niche. Many adults still want something short and accessible, like the old pulp adventure stories. The YA novel neatly fills that gap. It often focusses on adventure and heightened emotion; while not necessarily shallow it is by necessity accessible; and it’s seldom long.

People talk about YA as if it were a recent phenomenon, and as a market in its own right it is. But it seems to me that the role it plays for adult readers is an old one. A gap opened up and YA grew to fill it. If YA hadn’t then something else would have.

Going Underground

I’m fascinated by what lies underground, especially underneath cities. I don’t know whether this comes from my childhood reading of Robin Jarvis’s ‘The Dark Portal‘, later followed by watching Neil Gaiman‘s ‘Neverwhere‘, or whether I found those things appealing because they were in a setting I liked. Perhaps it all comes from exposure at an early age to Roland Rat and his ratcave, in retrospect a screaming example of just how weird children’s television is. Maybe it’s something innate to the human psyche, something reflected in legends of hell and journeys into the abyss.

Either way, I find myself drawn to the underground. Mrs K and I spent the least romantic afternoon of our honeymoon in the Paris sewer museum, enjoying the unique smell of a museum that is what it says on the tin. And I’m equally unable to resist books that look at the city beneath the city. So my heap of bedside reading currently includes ‘Subterranean Cities’, David L Pike’s fascinating exploration of the nature and meaning of life beneath 19th century London and Paris; ‘Secret Underground Cities’ by N J Camley, about the underground factories and storage shelters scattered across Britain during the Second World War; and ‘The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste’ by Rose George, a charity shop impulse buy that half fitted the theme. Given my distractability they’ll probably still all be there in a month, as slowly but surely, a chapter here, a few paragraphs there, the tube trains and sewage pipes take over my brain.

So why the fascination? I think that it’s about finding a world that’s close to ours, that’s fundamentally connected to it, and yet is full of mystery and darkness, both literal and metaphorical. Like the Victorian planners who feared no-one would use underground trains, I picture a world of secrecy and skulduggery inches beneath our feet. A place for rats on four legs and on two. But I also see a place full of potential. Somewhere for the objects and people that have been cast aside. A world of renewal, as in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. And that’s where adventure resides – somewhere with danger, somewhere with potential, somewhere with the tension between darkness and light.

I’m not working on an underground story at the moment, but I always have one waiting in the back of my brain. Whether it’s Victorian adventurers hunting Da Vinci’s head through the sewers, Enlightenment scholars exploring the classical underworld, or robbers fleeing through the belly of a moving city, there’s always something there. And after a recent trip to the Manchester Museum my notebook’s filling up again with ideas around sarcophagai and tombs. It won’t be long until I’m going underground again.