• Tag Archives writing
  • How Innovative is Too Innovative?

    People are a paradox.

    We crave the novelty of the new but also the comfort of the old. You can see it any time a superhero gets a revamp – some people will love the bold new direction, others will cry out against it, and some will take entirely different views on the next controversy over.

    One of the publishers I work for is trying to adjust its output. They want their content to be more modern in its style and more diverse in its content. But when they say this to me as a creator, I face the implied question – how much do you really want to modernise? How much do your readers want? How much will they take before they feel that they’ve lost something familiar and comforting?

    I would be happy to play around with different story formats and to fill those stories with characters who aren’t white, male, straight, cis, able-bodied, and neurotypical. That would be a lot of fun for me and much more in line with how I want my culture. But if this publisher’s style moves too far too fast, it’s going to lose the audience. I want to change things up enough to keep readers entertained but broaden their horizons. I rely on the publisher to guide me in this, just as they rely on me to do it well.

    Creatives and marketers face this problem every day. When asked, they’ll get lots of responses asking for new things. But if they actually deliver on that, they’ll often find that their audiences miss parts of what they had.

    Captain Marvel looking badass
    Oh no, she’s going to get lady cooties all over your man space!

    Of course, some people will complain no matter what you do. You can see that in the pre-release complaints about the Captain Marvel film from entitled men who think that a trailer featuring a female superhero is feminism gone mad. To them I say, you can fuck the fuckity off. Superhero films currently have more white male leads played by guys called Chris than they do female leads, there will still be plenty of what the whiners want. Asking to be represented is fair. Asking for everything to be about you is bullshit.

    But when writing for the rest, the question remains, how much challenge and change do people really want compared with familiarity and comfort? How much innovation is too much innovation for this audience? And that’s a question I face when I sit down to write.


  • 2019 Aims

    I’m not big on new year’s resolutions. I do a lot of self-assessment over the course of the year, setting myself new goals and sometimes even hitting them. Associating that stuff with one time of year is too limiting for me.

    Still, this is a good time for self-reflection, so here are a couple of writing-related things I’m planning on doing differently this year.

    First, I want to put more focus on style in how I write. I know how to structure a story and I’ve spent a lot of time studying that. But beyond using plane, stripped-down language to convey information, I’m not much good at reflecting on and working on style. I want to develop more of a style for my fiction, so that’s one of this year’s goals.

    Then there’s marketing. I’m terrible at it, which means that much of my effort at self-publishing goes to waste. It’s only possible to be a creative freelancer if you’re willing to overcome the small embarrassed voice that says “don’t talk about yourself”. So this year, I’m going to learn more about book marketing and start investing more time and money in it.

    How about you? Do you have any resolutions around writing, publishing, or creativity? Let me know, let’s see how we can get on with our goals together.


  • The Graffiti of Literature – Fan Fiction and Power

    Fan fiction is one of the most important forms in modern literature.

    I say this is an outsider, not someone with skin in the fanfic game. The last time I wrote fanfic I was seven years old and mis-spelling the name of Superted’s nemesis (or maybe inventing a new one in the form of Texas Qete). But as an active part of the science fiction and fantasy community, I’ve become increasingly aware of how prevalent, how beloved, and how important fanfic is.

    Because while it might just look like people having fun, fanfic is very much about the assertion of power.

    No, not like that, you filthy-minded, E L James reading monsters. I mean, if that’s your bag, by all means chain up the heroes and bring on the lube. But what I’m talking about is cultural power.

    Before I disappear down some postmodern, Marxist-flavoured rabbit hole of post-Foucault sociological bullshit, let’s start with the basics. What am I talking about when I say fan fiction?

    Fan fiction is playing with other people’s imaginary toys. It happens whenever somebody takes characters created by another writer, whether from a book, a film, or a TV show and makes up their own stories just for fun. Maybe they take one character or property and tell the stories they’d like to see. Maybe they mash several together, wanting to explore how Fievel from An American Tail would cope on the mean streets of The Wire. Maybe they throw in some extra characters of their own. It’s something that people do for pleasure, and for many it’s their first foray into fiction writing.

    This is distinctly different from hired writing on a licensed property. Sure, that also involves playing with someone else’s imaginary toys. But it’s done with a permission which can be withdrawn, it’s done professionally, and the results are officially recognized by the owner of the original work. Fanfic, on the other hand, is unofficial, unendorsed, and done just for the love of creation.

    So what does this have to do with power?

    To make that case, let’s start by talking about graffiti. When an advertiser pays to put an image up on the side of a building, that image is officially allowed. The advertiser uses their power and wealth to gain access to that space. They might or might not care about the product, the place, or the people who live there. The results may or may not be beautiful, but they can put that picture up because they already have power.

    When a graffiti artist puts their image up on the building, they do so without permission. They probably live in the area, but outsiders like multinational companies have far more power over their lived environment than they do. For better or for worse, graffiti becomes a way of asserting some power over that space, of making it theirs in the face of greater forces. The results may or may not be beautiful, but in putting that picture up, they fight back against the power.

    Fanfic is a lot like that. We all live in cultural environments shaped by big corporations and the properties they own. Most people have little power to shape that cultural landscape, including elements that are hugely important to them. But by using those properties without permission they can gain some control over their cultural environment. For a few pages at a time, they can make it theirs.

    Fanfic is the graffiti of literature.

    While I say this as a positive, I want to be clear – every piece of graffiti and fanfic isn’t by definition good. Both can end in ugly, misshapen messes that no-one but the artist should have to see. Either can be turned into a petty assault on cultural monuments that matter to others. But they can both be empowering, and in a world where we feel increasingly disempowered and disenfranchised by the big business and unresponsive governments, that’s a good thing.

    We are constantly told that big cultural institutions like Star Wars and the Marvel universe should matter to us, while also being reminded that we have no control over them. Fanfic flips that around. It gives us power over the things that matter to us. It’s a way of asserting power and transforming your environment, instead of letting big businesses have their way. That’s awesome.

    Does this mean I’m going to run off and write fanfic now?

    No. I have my own toys I’d rather play with. But I have huge respect for the people who get other people’s toys out, scuff them up, and leave them doing things we’ve been told they shouldn’t. They’re challenging the power dynamics of our culture, and that’s a great thing.


  • Writing Space

    I’m not the only one who values these bookshelves.

    I’ve just spent half a week unable to work in my study, during the gap between painting the walls and waiting for new carpet to arrive. It made me realise just how much I need this space. It’s not just having an ergonomic desk setup and standing desk. It’s not just having my reference books accessible. It’s not just having my calendar and whiteboard up by my desk. Those are practical things and there’s far more to a working space than what’s practical.

    Having a room I use specifically for work creates an effective working ritual. When I come in in the morning, I know I’m here to work. My brain shifts into that gear. When I leave at lunchtime or the end of the day, it shifts gear again, letting me relax. It’s something I used to get from a commute, and while I much prefer the speed of this version, the ritual element is important. The physical transition creates a mental transition. The doorway to this room becomes a magical portal that transforms me from ordinary Andy Knighton to Writing Man.

    It’s been a tough few days without, but order had been restored. The carpet’s in, the shelves are back up, and the books are in better order than ever.

    Writing Man is back.


  • Facing the Fear

    One of the biggest challenges for me as a writer is committing to something. Whether it’s writing a story, buying a book cover, or submitting a novel to a publisher, I have to force myself to it. Not because I don’t enjoy my work or value what I get out of these activities, but because of The Fear.

    The fear of failure.

    The fear of rejection.

    The fear of getting it wrong.

    Sure, succeeding in writing is about skill, imagination, and persistence. But it’s also about facing the fear, day after day, and learning to move past it.


  • Bringing Together Two Stories – Agents of SHIELD Vs Daredevil

    When you’re creating something as sprawling as Marvel’s superhero screen efforts, there are going to be inconsistencies. Still, it’s strange to see the lower prestige show Agents of SHIELD get something right that Netflix blockbuster Daredevil got wrong.

    Season four of AoS and season two of Daredevil share a similar structure. Two plot strands are built up. One dominates the first half of the season. It’s then resolved and the other strand emerges to take centre stage. They sort of connect up in the end, but not in a massively substantial way. There’s some thematic resonance, but it’s a little strained.

    Watching Daredevil, this left me disappointed by the payoff. Finishing AoS the other night, I felt satisfied. So how did the usually less impressive show get it right?

    It might partly be about expectations. I expect great things from a Netflix Marvel show, with its high production values and careful approach to storytelling. AoS is more of a broadcast TV adventure-of-the-week phenomenon. Relatively speaking, it takes less effort to look impressive there.

    But I don’t think it’s just that. I think that the writers on AoS also did a better job of managing my response to their story. They made it clear that a climax was coming for the Ghostrider story. They gave the follow-up arc with Aida higher stakes. They carefully and naturally made me care about that arc in advance. They gave it an interesting novelty, in the form of an alternate reality, that kept me engaged. And when they brought the plotlines back together, they did it in a way that made it feel important.

    Daredevil is still a more powerful show, but in resolving these seasons AoS made better use of what it had and deserves credit for it.

    Structure is important in storytelling, and sometimes the nuance of how you use it can make all the difference.


  • Author Help

    This post’s for the other writers out there.

    My friend and fellow author Russell Phillips has recently gone into business providing support services for self-published authors. His Author Help business offers proofreading, formatting, technical support, and very reasonably priced web hosting for authors.

    I’ve known Russ for over twenty years, and he’s been a huge help to me over the past few years with self-publishing and website issues. I can heartily recommend his services – I’m planning on moving my web hosting to him soon. So if you’re an author in need of help, then hey, why not try Author Help?


  • Even Evil Overlords Worry About Their Cats

    He’s much better now, and as helpful as ever.

    When we’re writing stories, we often expect the characters’ motives and decision making to be all about the big stuff. Their doomed romance, their grand ambitions, their quest to save the world. But sometimes little things are just as important.

    Take me. My cat Elmo recently had an injury. Nothing serious, but it got infected and he was grooming it too much, which stopped it healing. There wasn’t much I could do about it except take him to the vet and then feed him his medicine, but for two weeks it affected everything I did. I arranged my schedule around vet visits. I was extra cautious leaving the house so he couldn’t get out. I lost sleep because he was waking me in the night instead of going out hunting. Even when I wasn’t directly dealing with him, his health was constantly in the back of my mind, shaving away a fraction of my emotional processing power.

    When you ask “why did someone act that way?”, you can always provide a big issue answer. But the reality is that there are often little things too, and they can make the difference.

    Of course, writing isn’t just about presenting reality. We want our characters to mostly be concerned with the grand issues and big emotions. But it’s worth putting in those petty little factors from time to time, the things that distract us from the big cause or put a little extra strain on our brains. They can make characters more convincing and give you an excuse to vary their behaviour.

    After all, even evil overlords must worry about their cats.