Writing through the shock

I crashed my car in terrifying fashion on Friday. Lost control at seventy miles an hour, span across three lanes of traffic, smashed into the barrier and yet somehow escaped unscathed.

While it wasn’t my first thought, it didn’t take long for my writing brain to kick in and go ‘hey, that’s a life experience, what can I do with that?’ As I sat by the side of the road, cold, shaken, angry at myself and at my insurance company for leaving me there, some part of me was analysing it and storing the experience away for later.

This is a good sign. I clearly have my writing brain well trained and enjoy using it enough that it spontaneously takes over in moments of crisis. But it’s a strangely distancing thing too, when you’re not so much feeling the shaking of your own hands as noticing that they’re shaking and thinking that’s an interesting detail.

For the record, I’m absolutely fine and no-one else was even involved in the accident. Poor Oli, my mighty metal steed, is in less good condition, currently locked in a police impound and awaiting some serious repair work.

I’m incredibly grateful to the drivers who stopped to help me out, and to my friend The Northerner, who rescued me in my hour of need and reminded me to have a hot sugary drink to counter the shock. Dude, you’re an absolute legend.

So, in the spirit of writing what you know, I imagine I’ll be writing a few car crashes over the next year. Or at least making a better job of describing how people feel after a shocking event. Because a writing brain is a pretty powerful thing, and if I can’t use it to profit from my scare then really, what’s the point in being a writer?

Frankenstein and progress

This morning I caught up with recent episodes of Thug Notes, including an episode on Frankenstein. It’s years since I’ve read Frankenstein, but it still gave me fresh food for thought just by bouncing my brain back towards Shelley’s classic.


Frankenstein remains a powerful story for me. It shows a difficult journey for both the monster and his creator, and I like a rich seam of darkness in my culture. Some people talk about how dark science fiction has become in recent years. Where’s the optimism, they ask? Where’s the light? And that’s fair enough, but for a genre that arguably started with Shelley’s bleak book, is it really so weird that we sometimes get brooding?

The light in the monster's life?
The light in the monster’s life?

But the thing this really made me think about is progress. Not so much the story’s own reflections on progress and its flaws, though it’s an interesting theme. But rather how writing has progressed in the past couple of hundred years. However much Frankenstein might be a powerful work of genius, the writing and plotting can seem clumsy by modern standards. And I don’t think this is just a matter of shifting tastes, or of our sensibilities being worn down to blandness by popular culture. I think that, as a culture, we’ve learned how better to excite readers, how to play more vigorously on their heartstrings and imaginations.

Not all change in culture is progress. Variety and loving the old is great. But the progress is there. New techniques are there. We are learning.

The reasons I’m not likely to re-read Frankenstein are the same reasons why I gave up on listening to an Arthur C Clarke book – the writing style just isn’t as engaging as most modern writing. Those old books just can’t hook me in as well. And you know what? That’s a great thing. We’re progressing. We’re getting better at what we do. Because human beings are awesome, and that’s where I see the light in science fiction.

Any thoughts? Am I right? Am I ignorant? Does Frankenstein bring the monster in you to life? Let me know, leave a comment.

Watching creations grow

Jeph Jacques, creator of the Questionable Content web comic, was on the most recent Writing Excuses podcast. Writing Excuses (which I’ll abbreviate to WE, because it’s sooo loooong to type) is my favourite podcast, and Questionable Content (QC, same reason) my favourite web comic right now. Listening to them talk got me thinking about how much I enjoy seeing someone creative grow into their creations.

I discovered QC last year. At the time, I was in the depths of some pretty serious depression, and my brain couldn’t cope with anything too challenging in structure or content. Web comics, with their short daily format, their humour and their often soap opera-esque plots, were the perfect entertainment for me. And among the ones I tried, QC stood out as something special. I went back to the beginning and read about two thousand strips in hours-long binges. It was sharply written and increasingly well drawn, funny in a barbed yet gentle sort of way, with characters who were rounded and interesting.

One of the best things was watching Jeph’s skills grow. This is really noticeable in the art, which has been through a huge evolution in terms of style and technique. The first few hundred strips show a dramatic improvement, while later ones show shifts in style that, as a non-artist, I find hard to describe, but which are interesting to watch. I wasn’t just enjoying the comics, I was enjoying watching an artist learn and improve on the screen in front of me.

The writing has also grown as QC’s gone along. There’s an incredible diversity of characters, all of whom develop into fully rounded people as soon as they’re given attention. Jeph’s got better at both dialogue and plotting, and discussed the latter on WE. One thing he talked about was going back to little details that weren’t significant at the time – in his case isolated comic strips – and using them in later plots, making it look like you’ve set things up well in advance. It’s a good idea, and one I suspect we often see on TV, even when the creators claim they had a plan (I’m looking at you Lost).

To a lesser extent, you can also hear an improvement in the episodes of WE. The group of writers who talk on the show have got better at working with their format, delivering their points more eloquently and succinctly, adding features like writing prompts. It’s less dramatic than watching QC’s development, but it’s still interesting, as is the content of the shows – if you write any sci-fi or fantasy, you really should listen to WE.

I also get this experience with my friend Matt, who’s a talented artist of odd little things. He recently started working on a comic, and included me in the group of people who see his work in progress. While I’m terrible at giving feedback, it’s been really interesting for me to see an artist develop in detail and to read his comments on what he’s trying to do. You can see his work, much of it about ghostly bears, and read his thoughts on computer games at his Bear Cheek blog.

Jeph’s writing aside, these are examples where I’m watching people develop skills that I don’t use. But I’ve found that it still helps me to learn, because it encourages me to work out how their work is changing, and why, and so to flex the parts of my brain that deconstruct any piece of culture. That’s a skill I can take back to my writing, looking at it with a sharpened critical eye.

As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Can you think of other good examples of creative types developing their skills in public? Maybe examples you’re particularly impressed with? Let me know in the comments.