The Two Dreaded Questions for a Writer

B_Hepworth

Where do you get your ideas from?

What is it about?

I am incredibly fond of Neil Gaiman’s answer to the first question.

I make them up… Out of my head.’

In fact he has an excellent essay on the subject, or more accurately on the creative process, the link to which I will hide somewhere in the essay in the hope that I can entice you to read this entire blog post first. It’s not like he needs the web traffic.

Whilst I am on a roll with quotes, I see this one from Barbara Hepworth as being a good metaphor for the dreaded question regarding what your book is about.

It would very difficult to explain in words the full context of a sculpture….
you can open the door, however, to a fuller understanding.”

I am on holiday at the moment, which means not only that I get to go out and explore, but if, whilst out I discover new inspirations to replenish my store of ideas, and the mood takes me to write something different for my blog, then I have time to sit down and do it.

Having heard effusive praise for the Barbara Hepworth museum in St. Ives from my sister-in-law and her family as well as my parents, we made a point of making sure to visit it whilst we are down in Cornwall.

Firstly, if you are anywhere near St. Ives you have to go, trust me on this, it is well worth the visit.

It pretty quickly started firing the writer bits of my brain into gear. One of the first things I loved wasn’t even the sculptures, but whilst going through the initial exhibit on her life there was a wonderful series of photographs that showed Hepworth through the years, ageing but staying absolutely herself. I love how the series showed a sculptor who had found something of the essence of who they were early in their life, and that her bearing and the relation to her work remained through the years. There was something profoundly beautiful about it.

Then there was the work itself. There is always something essentially tactile about sculpture, and it is always this art form that seems to call to me to be touched, even if there are entirely appropriate signs reminding me that I am not allowed to.

All my early memories are of forms and shapes and textures. Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were sculptures; the roads defined the form. Above all, there was the sensation of moving physically over the contours of fulnesses and concavities, through hollows and over peaks – feeling, touching, seeing, through mind and hand and eye. This sensation has never left me. I, the sculptor, am the landscape. I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour.

I won’t steal the moments of discovery from you should you go there yourself, but the photo at the start of this blog is from Conversation with Magic Stones, and even before I knew the title it spoke to me of someone who was familiar with Britain’s prehistoric monuments.

I had already been put into that place where mind and heart were open to creation, and this is where the ideas come from. That spark, a reaction to something we’ve seen or connect to in that moment.

That’s the easy part. Then come the hours of trying to craft together what you want to create out of what your talents and hours of practice allow you to actually do.

To stretch a metaphor dangerously thin, a story is a sculpture honed out of words and ideas. (That is it with that metaphor I promise, but if you’re too upset to continue then the Neil Gaiman blog is here but please bear with me, I’m nearly done)

I could explain a story to you, but never fully, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Part of the process for me once that first draft is finished, is to hone and whittle what I have written into what is needed to best tell that story. There are always favourite ideas that have to be cut because they don’t serve the story, things working away in the background that don’t need to be shown.

Sometime a little mystery is the best polish for a story. Sometimes too much mystery leaves your editor confused. Luckily, if you have fully realised your world then you know the answers needed to make sure your bemused editor, and therefore your readers, can follow what is going on.

Of course, if you don’t have those details then you can always make them up.

Language is an imperfect tool, and all art produces different reactions in different people so I don’t think I could fully explain one of my stories to you even if I wanted to. If I could then what would be the point in writing it in the first place.

I know that I make up stories out of my head in response to the world around me. I never truly know what art, science, maths, philosophy, history, or any other aspect of the world is going to spark my next idea.

I just keep an open mind and make sure to make a note of it when the spark happens.

I know that somewhere in my brain an alien monument is subtly altering the brainwaves of the visitors to a sculpture museum in England, but to what end I can not say.

I haven’t written that far yet…

Editing and Madness

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

I know this quote as being from John Lennon, although if you go looking at these things it soon becomes evident that attribution is never that simple. So with two sentences I have captured what has been going on since I last posted here.

I had intended to blog in detail about the process of editing, but when you work a busy full time job, you have to grab the writing time where you can and I had to be focussed on getting a new draft finished and then getting the proof copy checked.

So what happened? Well after my discussions with my editor Karen I sat down with my edited draft and went through it, making notes on all the comments so I could form a plan.

It became apparent to me that although there was a lot to do, in essence the problem was relatively straight forward. I am carrying around in my head a complex multiverse of interconnected ideas, plans for stories and books, plus completed short stories and novel drafts. My manuscript fitted perfectly well into this multiverse in my head, but after six chapters I had stopped writing a children’s book, and slipped into finishing the draft. As a consequence both the language and the expression of ideas had got away from me a bit. There may come a time in the future where our understanding of sciences advances to the point where a nine year old is familiar with electron shells, but that point is not now.

I also sometimes struggle with how much to reveal or hide in my stories, it’s not that I haven’t thought things through, but I am not always great at knowing how much detail to go into. There’s a balance between explaining everything and dumping your reader in the middle of a new world and expecting them to work it out for themselves. It is very easy to lose track of this until someone else politely asks what did you mean here, and I don’t understand this bit.

However, despite confusing my editor in several places, I was actually comfortable that I didn’t need to do anything radical to the structure or plot of the book, but that I needed to distil the writing down. The workings of the book could stay as complex as I had made them, I just had to present them more cleanly. I am very happy with the results, I got to keep everything I wanted and finished with a much better book. I owe Karen a lot.

Having nervously submitted my new draft and got positive feedback on the new version, I was taken aback by how quickly I got my proof copy back and that was when the madness set in.

I wrote in my last post that I enjoyed the experience of being edited, and I truly do. However, there is a pressure that leads to madness as you set about your manuscript yet again but for the last time. Once submitted it is hard to make any further changes so you really want to nail any final little tweaks and get every typo and bit of punctuation right. Certainly I did. I don’t want a reader to be jarred out of the story by a stray word, and there’s enough of the perfectionist in me that I wanted the book to be as good as possible. I can’t promise the writing itself will be great, but I can at least make sure there are no mistakes.

So I printed off my hard copy and set about with a red pen, which I only had to use sparingly as once again Karen had done an excellent job, but there were still a couple of small tweaks and tiny things to change.

I was told that letting the manuscript go is one of the hard bits, and it has certainly been the case for me. Having sent off final final final draft Friday morning, I swore I would pretend it doesn’t exist for a bit.

This blog is not the best way to do this, but I said I was going to document my publishing process, and understanding the madness is hopefully the best way of putting it to rest.

Roll on the next stages of the project. It is getting dangerously close to resulting in a book, which is both exhilarating and terrifying. I am reliably told that this is the correct formula. I do hope so.

Reality Hits – Editors and the Creative Process

If you have spent any time reading or looking at things about actual writing then you might quickly notice that the reality is not what is sold in books, TV, or film. Perfect prose does not slip easily from pen or keyboard, no matter how inspired you are, and there is a certain type of prolonged effort (some might even call it pig-headedness) that you have to embrace in order to reach the end of your first draft. And this is just the beginning.

In my last blog I wrote about finding a self-publishing company, which I am happy to say is 2QT up in the Yorkshire Dales. The manuscript has been sent off to their editor and this is where the fun begins.

There is a certain trepidation in showing your work to anyone, but for me there is also an excitement about working with an editor. I am lucky enough to be working with Karen Holmes who is an editor, copywriter, and author. She works with 2QT amongst others, and has certainly given me plenty to think about already.

I can’t claim to be an expert, but knowing how involved we writers are with our words, and how hard it is to both to get and take good criticism in any creative endeavour, I would imagine there is a certain level of trepidation for an editor when a new person’s book hits their desk. Sure there is a whole new book to explore, but is it any good and more importantly, will the author engage with the process? I won’t make any bold claims about the quality of my writing as my route into the craft does not have an academic underpinning, but I think I may have one advantage over some.

One of the many reasons that writing wormed its way into my life is that enables me to express things that are simply not possible from behind a drum kit, no matter how hard I tried. However, twenty years of being a musician has taught me a thing or two about the creative arts. I know how much work goes into producing seemingly effortless results and how to maintain that effort, but being a musician has also shown me with how to navigate a collaborative creative process. In the early days it can seem to some like every suggestion, every deviation from what you originally brought to the group, is a criticism or failure. However, all of the most successful bands that I have been in were based on everyone having an equal say, taking the best ideas and moving forward with them. The important thing is to create the best work possible utilising everybody’s skill and interests to the fullest extent possible. It is also one thing to read about this, or even write it, but having real world experience is what gives you faith in the process.

I knew writing for children was difficult. The choice of word and idea has to be carefully made to hold the interest of your reader and be of the appropriate complexity for the age you are writing for, all without talking down to them. I am also aware that the first draft of anything is really about getting the idea down. Everybody’s process is different; some like to have everything planned out, whilst others sit down and write to find the story. I am somewhere in the middle, but my big thing is always to get that first draft down so I can polish it later. The difficulty here is that it is very easy once you are deep in a draft to lose focus, either on plot, language, or both. This is where an editor is so helpful, because they read the draft without any of the baggage you bring having written it. Not to mention they are very likely better than you at writing in the first place.

It was not my first or second draft that headed off to be looked at, but having got the results back, it was certainly not my last either. I am still processing what Karen and I discussed, but the important thing is to have faith in process and not to be afraid to cut things that you truly love, or fight for the things that you believe are essential. It is not always easy to know which is which, but by talking it through and working hard they should become apparent. About the only thing I am sure of right now is that there will be questions heading to Karen in the coming weeks, but the pig-headed masochist in me is looking forward to the challenge of working over a new draft.

Time for me to get started.

Heroes, and the Divisional Weekend

I have been given a gentle nudge that the main body of last week’s NFL Blog , which is about Bowie, loss, and identity shouldn’t, and I quote, “…be buried on a sports blog,” so I hope you enjoy it too.

The Wrong Football

It has been a rough few days. Between Lemmy’s funeral, the Bengals’ implosion, and then Bowie’s death, I have been wandering around in something of a haze. That’s two music icons and personal heroes gone, along with the continuing twenty-five year wait for a playoff win. That’s not even a championship, but the hope that the team, fans, and the city of Cincinnati would be spared a fifth consecutive playoff loss, but I’ll come back to the Wildcard games in a bit.

In the days following Bowie’s death there have been some writing that they don’t understand the outpouring of grief over a musician, that this is someone that you have never met so why are you sad? The answer to that was put rather beautifully by Lauren Laverne on her Monday radio show, because of course it is personal, music has that strange and magical hook direct into your…

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Why Self-Publish?

It seems that the logical place for me to start this new author site and blog would be the reason the site exists in the first place. I am not exactly new to either writing or blogging, but it was only at the beginning of 2014 when I had a short story published over at the Devilfish Review that I truly began to grab the label writer for myself.

I have had my fair share of submission rejections, enquiries about representation rebuffed, competition entries disappear, and feedback concerning what was not liked when an agent finally did read my sample chapters. I have also had my successes, and I do not feel bad about this process. There has been a lot written about rejection and the inevitability of the experience if you try to be a writer. The truth is also that publishing is a numbers game, one that is not getting any easier as publishing adjusts to modern distribution and the proliferation of books thanks to the ease of digital self-publishing.

For me the challenge is that I am still writing, and apart from wanting to work on my craft, I like any other artist want my work to be seen, or my case read. In a discussion about writing earlier in the year when I mentioned having finished books, it was suggested that I should look at publishing one online. This started the process that lead to this site, but the project as I have been thinking of it has escalated over the last few months.

The idea was initially to get read, but having been a musician for over twenty years I have always been interested in independent labels and the idea of being able to do something myself was appealing. I was thinking a digital book, but hopefully with some kind of professional edit and a proper cover design. Me being me though, I wanted to explore all my options, and that is when things started to escalate. It was whilst doing my due diligence and discussing business plans with my dad that we found amongst a plethora of self-publishing businesses, a company that seemed to genuinely care about the books they produced and so I initiated contact and got a quote.

Taking into account the economics of scale, it seemed sensible to start with the most recently completed book as it felt the most finished and was substantially shorter so I got a quote, which wasn’t terrifying. As we started working things through it became apparent that it would be possible to do a bigger launch with a sensible print run of actual physical books.

As a result, here I am, announcing the start of the project that will lead to a fully edited children’s’ book of somewhere around 30 000 words depending on what happens during the edit. Not only that, but I will be documenting process here as we prepare to bring my book to a wider audience. I’ll leave you with the elevator pitch, but there will be more to come.

Everybody knows that it is a bad idea to build on ancient burial grounds, but when confronted with a pet cemetery in the back garden of a new house, what are you going to do?

For Abby and Chris’s parents the answer to this problem was to create a playhouse for their children in a new garden shed. However, when their children start seeing ghosts in and around the playhouse, it is just the start of a new adventure. As the haunting escalates, a pair of guardian witches begins to help, but when the children’s mother is kidnapped and taken to a strange parallel world, only Chris and Abby can follow to save her.