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.

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.

Improvising and Rough Edges

Typewriters on a wall in a pub

I recently started attending an improvised comedy course – because apparently I don’t have enough wacky hobbies and creative outlets already. A lot of the fun of improv comes from jamming together things that don’t quite match, for example picking sentences out of a hat and then fitting them into whatever scenario you’re acting out, which for me led to a cave diving expedition turning into a misguided attempt to spark romance.

This reminded me of something I used to do with my writing years ago. When looking for story inspiration, I’d scour my notebooks for fragments of ideas and description, jam a bunch of them together, and then work out what sort of story they could make. It didn’t always go smoothly, but it led to some of my more successful stories, like the mutant whale hunting adventure Distant Rain, which made its way into an issue of Murky Depths.

Dion Winton-Patrick is currently running a similar exercise as a series of challenges for writers on his blog The Fine-Toothed Comb. Each challenge involves incorporating specific words and an image to create a story – words and an image that might not go together in obvious ways. The results are some intriguing and imaginative flash stories.

Why do I mention all this? Mostly because I’d gotten out of the habit of using this approach. These days, I’ll come up with one idea and work out from there. It tends to make my ideas more coherent, but you can go too far with that. A little randomness and eclecticism in the inspiration can give a story rough edges, pieces that are at odds or create interesting contrasts, just like in real life. This can make stories richer and more convincing.

I’m not saying it’s the cure to all writing ills, but I’m planning on picking up some of that approach again, taking a deep dive into a decade of notebooks and finding whatever fragments grab my attention. If I have time, I’ll also be rising to Dion’s challenge. Because right now, I think my writing could do with a few more rough edges. And hey, maybe it’ll be good for my improv skills too.

Filling the Gaps in the Past

I’ve been working on a comic script for Commando. Unusually for me, it involves real historical figures, not just fictional characters thrust into real events. During the course of the story, several of these real people die in battle. It’s important to the story that those deaths happen, and that’s going to work best if it happens on the page, as dramatic turns in the course of battle scenes.

So far so straightforward.

Here’s the catch – in every case, we don’t know how these people died. We know which battles they died in, but not who killed them or how. One has been the source of much debate, but for the other two, there’s just no evidence of the details.

That creates an opportunity, and with it a dilemma. Because of the uncertainty about these deaths, I could depict one of the characters doing the deed. It would add to the drama, and that’s a large part of what storytelling is about.

But that feels presumptuous to me. One thing I know is that my characters didn’t kill these people, because my characters didn’t exist. If I put the blood on their hands then I’m giving them a weight of historical significance, and I’m not sure they can stand beneath it. Maybe if the story was all about the man who killed such-and-such, then I could do it. But as a passing moment of drama in some other story? It feels like a stretch.

Do I give those deaths more emotional consequence in the story by involving my fictional creations, or do I acknowledge their real significance by keeping my characters out of it? I haven’t decided yet, but as a writer and someone passionate about history, it’s a really interesting question.

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.