Blogger’s Block

Sometimes you just need to start writing. It’s a thing I’m realising more and more, as I try to find ways past writer’s block, or past just not wanting to do my work. You put down words, and they might not be the best words, but at least they get the ideas flowing out of your bain.

Picture by Jose MÂȘ Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

Like today, I couldn’t decide what to blog about. Tor.com had a piece on characters who we love because of how damaged they are, so maybe I could reflect on that. Or there was the larp I ran recently, I could talk about its story or my involvement in it. There’s the incident last night where I spent half an hour chasing down a mouse in my study, because this is what happens when you have a cat. Honestly, the possibilities are endless.

And that’s the problem. When the possibilities are endless, how do you work out which one is good? Which one is relevant to my readers, and might grab attention in search engines, and will be satisfying to write? Because when your blog is part personal venting and part marketing tool, all of those things are relevant.

In the end, I’ve taken a copout path by going meta and writing about how tricky it is to write. Instead of deciding what to discuss, I’m discussing how difficult that decision is. Problem solved.

I mean, not really solved. I’ll be back to it next week. This is a regular blog writing problem.

Everyone gets stuck from time to time, staring at the screen and not knowing what to write. And sometimes the answer is just whatever comes into your head.

FantasyCon 2019

I’ve had a week to catch up on sleep, so it must be time to talk about FantasyCon.

The first thing to say is that I had a great time. I always do at cons. The people are lovely, the panels provide entertainment, and it’s great to browse the books of the indie presses that don’t make it into mainstream stores.

The highlights for me this year were about fun rather than learning new things. Breaking The Glass Slipper live and the Dungeons and Disorderly panel were both very entertaining, playing around with familiar characters and tropes. BTGS had panellists explain how their chosen sf+f character would deal with a difficult scenario, with the audience voting on their favourites. D&D was a ridiculous, improvised 45-minute roleplay game featuring the underdork, conspiring cows, and seven kobolds disguised as a dragon.

My panel seemed to go fine, though it’s hard to judge when you’re on the inside. I certainly got more insight into how franchise writing works, and now have some thoughts on what I can do to hunt out more work. But for me this was mostly a relaxing con, with a lot of bar chat.

Inevitably, I bought a couple of books. Luna Press are doing great work and I’ve already enjoyed dipping into their latest essay collection, as well as Gareth Powell’s new writing guide.

Going to Glasgow, or more accurately the edge of Glasgow, seemed to reduce the number of attendees, which was a shame. FantasyCon is a great event even when, like this year, it has a few organisational problems, and it should go as far north as Scotland once in a while. Multiple conventions close together also seem to have cannibalised membership, and hopefully con runners will consider that next year.

It’s a shame more people didn’t make it, but then that’s always going to be true. If you live in Britain and you enjoy fantasy then this is one of the most rewarding events of the year, especially for writers. I’m really glad I went.

Trying to Write Amid the Chaos

Writing is a lot about focus, and that’s hard to find right now. In both Europe and America, politics is going batshit crazy. The extent of our damage to the environment becomes clearer every day, as does our failure to tackle it. The economy has become this crazed web of investment instruments utterly detached from reality, which somehow holds people’s fates in its hands. And that’s just the distant, impersonal stuff.

This shit is not good for your mental health. It weighs down on you like the ocean on a submarine’s hull, a constant pressure that can threaten to split you at the seams.

When that’s happening, it’s OK to feel like crap. It’s a natural response. To quote Christin Slater in Pump Up the Volume, feeling fucked up doesn’t mean that you’re fucked up. Feeling fucked up is a perfectly normal response to a fucked-up situation.

It’s important not to beat yourself up if you find this stuff distracting or you struggle to work through it, if your thoughts are constantly off-kilter or scattered to the wind. Mental health is a societal issue, not just a personal one.

But it’s also a good idea not to let it get to you. Find ways to set the unsettling thoughts aside. Go for a walk. Try some mindfulness. Treat yourself to a massive bar of chocolate and gobble that tasty treat down in front of your favourite sitcom. Whatever takes some pressure off your brain. Then take the few precious minutes of happiness you’ve bought yourself and use them to get something done. Write a page of your novel. Cook a cool new meal. Make that phone call you’ve been putting off. Anything that will make you feel more productive, more in control.

That’s how I approach work at times like this. Just banging my head against the words won’t help. I have to take time, take breaks, and then take care to use the energy I’ve saved. Because if I let this completely stop me writing, if I let it trample me down, then I might never get up again.

It’s OK to feel fucked up. But that doesn’t have to mean letting the fucked up win.

Writing About Sex

I’m about to tackle one of the greatest challenges an Englishman can face – writing about sex.

I should be used to this by now as I’ve ghostwritten over a dozen sex scenes in four separate novels. But each time I freeze up at the thought. Right now, there are people out there in the world happily reading things that I squirmed at writing.

Part of this is my personal hangups. I live in a culture that’s terrible at talking about sex and I’ve let that shape me. Even with a partner, I find it difficult to talk about what we’re doing and what we both want. Such mundane activities as finding a condom can feel crushingly awkward.

But the culture that’s shaped me has also shaped the way we write about sex. Directness feels too functional. Metaphors create the accidental comedy of absurdity. Slang brings discomfort because we use these words as obscenities.

Obviously, people have found ways to tackle this. They depend upon the genre and audience, and often tread a delicate line of atmosphere and allusion. But even using those techniques, I clench up inside.

Some people write about sex with skill and panache. But until we’re better at talking about it as a society, we’ll be setting artificial limits on how we write. For an activity that’s so important to many people’s emotional lives, that’s a real shame.

Storytelling About Storytelling

I was recently given the chance to pitch a novel to a mainstream publisher. This forced me to do something I don’t do often – write a pitch.

Novel pitches are weird. Articles often describe them as condensing a story down into a single page. Except that that’s not really true, as I realised when a far more experienced friend gave me feedback on my first draft. Really, pitches are stories in themselves. They don’t tell your story. They let you tell a story about why people should be excited about your story. You do this by setting the emotional tone, showing some of the thrilling high points, and creating a sense of drama.

Pitches are stories about stories, and as such they’re a useful part of the publishing process. They refine and test a writer’s skills on a different scale.

But they are really weird.

Into the Woods by John Yorke

I read a lot of books and articles on writing. After all, you don’t improve at anything without learning from others. And one of the best ones I’ve found recently is Into the Woods by John Yorke.

Plotting Stories

The book cover of Into the Woods

Into the woods is all about storytelling. Specifically, it’s about the overarching shape of stories. Yorke takes a range of different approaches to this, including three-act structure, five-act structure, and the hero’s journey, and demonstrates how they follow a similar pattern. From this, he draws out a set of principles for how to tell stories.

One of the most interesting things about Yorke’s work is the variety of examples. There’s a lot of mainstream British TV here, as that’s his writing background. But he also takes examples from classic literature, Hollywood movies, and even indie films that claim to break the mould. He shows how they all, in their way, follow the same pattern.

Connecting Plot and Character

Like the best books on plotting, Into the Woods connects character and plot. It shows how the tensions and the thrills of a good story arise from the protagonist’s needs and desires.

More than this, Yorke brings together a lot of the hot topics in modern writing advice and connects them together. The gap between wants and needs. The centrality of conflict. Making the internal external. Showing versus telling. He artfully demonstrates how they aren’t just a useful set of tools – they’re an interconnected web of ideas from which a story is built.

My Favourite Writing Book Since Story

I’ve taken in a lot of good writing advice recently, from sources like the Writing Excuses podcast, the Mythcreants blog, and Lessons from the Screenplay’s videos. Some of that is as good as this book, and even reflects similar lessons. But as a book, a single substantial text on the subject, this is the best thing I’ve read since Robert McKee’s Story. So if like me you’re looking for lessons on writing, I heartily recommend it.

Writing What I Like

I recently spent nearly a whole week writing comics.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written comics. I’ve created quite a few scripts for Commando, not to mention the short I did for Top Cow a few years ago. But this is the first time I’ve had enough of that work, and few enough other urgent work distractions, to make it my main focus for a whole week.

This is one of the things about building up your own business. These moments creep up on you. You’re just trundling along, doing a little more of this, a little more of that, and suddenly you have a week that would make the you of a few years ago sit up and say “damn, that’s great!”

So yeah. I’ve spent a week writing what I like. It was fantastic. Here’s hoping I get more of the same soon.

Making Myself Be Creative

I’ve been struggling with how best to cultivate creativity.

On a day-to-day basis, when I’m writing for clients, it’s something I can essentially force. Deadlines and the need to pay bills focus me on the task in hand. If I need to write a chapter about a shark fight then I’ll damn well write a shark fight, and if it’s not the best shark fight ever, it will at least be competently done and improvable in the edit.

But for my own work it’s different. Sometimes the words that come out match my vision and I get into the flow, creativity coming with ease and more enthusiasm than on other people’s projects. Other times I get stuck, unsure how to turn concept into narrative. Nothing I think of seems right. Without the pressure of deadlines or the distance of knowing that this work isn’t really for me, I struggle to just get something down on the page. I come to a crushing halt.

So how to move on from that? I could force it, as I do with other projects. But this is the time when I want to do better, when I want to present the most dazzling version of my writing, because it really is mine.

I could leave it and hope that, by letting the idea bubble away in my subconscious, I’ll find a way. But that doesn’t feel professional. It doesn’t feel like progress.

The answer may be a compromise. Go work on something else, knowing that at least I’m being productive. Let the thing I’m stuck on bubble away in the background and hope that an answer shakes loose.

Some people say you can’t force creativity, and that’s true in as far as it goes. But you do have to force yourself to be creative, to put in the time and the practice, to work at things until they’re done. Finding the right balance, and doing it without beating yourself up or giving in to laziness, that’s a very difficult thing.

Forward to Basics

cover of The Ode Less Travelled

Sometimes I’m shocked by how little I know about language. Hell of a thing for a professional writer to admit, but there it is. A lot of us never got taught this stuff.

I’ve recently been dipping into Stephen Fry’s poetry writing manual The Ode Less Travelled. One of the things Fry talks about is the rhythm of words, the way we stress or don’t stress different syllables, how that makes language sound and feel. Once it’s pointed out, this can seem kind of obvious, but it’s the sort of obvious that you need pointing out.

Before Fry’s book, I didn’t have a mental framework to think about this issue of rhythm, never mind the language to discuss it or the tools to use it effectively. And with decades of bad habits behind me, it’s hard to make thinking about that rhythm part of how I write. But it’s also useful and valuable, a way to make my words more effective.

I’m not saying this is the sort of thing that we should teach every kid. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The curriculum’s pretty crowded. But I wish I hadn’t waited until a couple of years ago to start learning about it. And it wasn’t until I started learning that I could think to have that wish.