Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Inner workings of a writer's mind

I'm researching for a piece on writers' own experiences of how they use different parts of their minds for different writing tasks, and if they are aware of this process. From what I know already, there are several viewpoints on what might actually be going on in there. Freud saw it as levels of consciousness: subconscious, ego and superego, working almost like separate entities. Some neuroscientists claim that the brain is like a number of parallel processing units all functioning at once, sending the task back and forth until it pops onto the screen of awareness. Psychologists talk about lateralisation, in which the two halves of the brain take dominance for different functions, and many books have been written about right-brain creativity, and how to harness it.

For my own part, I could almost be two different writers; if I let myself write purely creatively, the words and story flow onto the page, but I can't spell, punctuate, or write prose. If I consciously analyse my writing, my prose is great and so is my grammar, but I get mired down with detail, losing any creative flow. I regard these two aspects as my internal artist, and internal editor.

I'm interested to know how other writers find their inner workings. Given that it is National Novel Writing Month, it would seem to be the ideal time to give writers an excuse to procrastinate for a few minutes, have a look inside themselves, and let me know what they find.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Bridge

Photograph ©John Spivey

I've been hard at work writing my novel, with a set daily routine of writing in the morning, leaving the afternoons to continue my illustration work. It's easy to forget, in this head down cycle of industriousness, how important it can be to get out and watch people, or soak up the atmosphere of a place. To be somewhere and write what comes into my head, not worrying about work, or other pressures, but just taking pleasure in the expression of my immediate thoughts and ideas.

The following two paragraphs were written a couple of months ago, during a reflective walk down to the river near the place I had called home for the previous two years, and was shortly set to leave. I came across them, jotted down in my notebook, while searching for some notes I'd made. It doesn't sum up the village, but my first view of the place was across that bridge, and it will always be lodged in my memory.

It could be on almost any worthy river in continental Europe, but it is not, this is England, and it languishes in lazy arcs between Devon's red and green hills. The bridge leaps across the somnolent waters in a single, elegant span, yet is wide enough for two trucks to pass between the low, cream tinted walls that run between the ball topped decorative pillars at either end. It has a feeling of solidity. The first bridge to be built from concrete, or so I'm told. A plaque on one of the pillars reads 1908 in cast metal relief.
Traffic continues to cross with intermittent regularity, not pausing to notice the clear deep waters flowing beneath. Further downstream a gull paddles along the lip of a weir, dabbling for morsels of food, seeming to walk on the water's smooth mirror, that carries the inverted view of tall poplars that march in jaunty procession along the left bank. On the upstream side, on either bank, stand twin buttresses of broken stone, the slightest curve at the very top of each, a hint of their former purpose: a ghost from before 1908, the remnants of the old bridge, demolished a hundred years ago, a victim of progress. A dead tree now lies submerged in the waters between, it's sunken branches caught on the tumbled stone that remains on the bed beneath the loosely swirling surface.

I must remember to take the time, to give myself permission, to sit, relax, observe, and write. It is from this calm state that the best ideas will germinate.

For any further images of this place, It's all here on Google Maps.

Monday, 26 July 2010

UK Film Council to be Closed

There has been a surprise announcement that the UK Film Council is to be shut down as part of the government's austerity measures. In an article detailing the move on the BBC website the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has proposed that the UKFC be abolished and the establishment of "a direct and less bureaucratic relationship with the British Film Institute; this would support front-line services while ensuring greater value for money". The statement adds that "Government and Lottery support for film will continue". The BFI currently works to promote UK film and television, how that role might change in the wake of this announcement is anybody's guess. However, the Department for Culture Media and Sport has indicated that the £26m funding for film that the UKFC currently handles will, in future, be distributed through other bodies. Although, in a response by Tim Bevan CBE, Chairman of the UKFC, he indicates that this is not yet certain and that the Film Council's "Immediate priority now is to press the Government to confirm that the funding levels and core functions that are needed to underpin British film are locked-in".

As a former award recipient, I'm in two minds about the wisdom of this move. Yes, it has the possibility of stripping away a centralised layer of bureaucracy, and will undoubtedly get rid of a few of the closed-minded individuals that have blocked some of the more dynamic talent from receiving funding, in preference to established 'art' based filmmaking,–that is simply the way the establishment works, it resists change, hence the term establishment–but what will it be replaced by?

One of the great, and yet largely uncelebrated, remits of the UKFC is its emphasis on training. This was to try and make the up-and coming filmmakers who came through its doors have some awareness of the practical, business, and legal side of film production, as well as providing a huge emphasis on good script-writing practice. This side of things was always included in any film production awards that they offered, and sometimes the value of the training exceeded that of the production funding.

In the scramble by regional institutes for the Film Council funds, and the medium term confusion over who is going to support what, the losers will almost inevitably be the filmmakers, and as ever, animation will be remembered in all this as an afterthought.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Author as a Performer

Do writers need to learn to sell themselves as much as their work?

As part of my MA course I have recently been engaged in creating a video pitch for my book proposal. Initially I felt it was a fun, if inconvenient diversion from the process of research and writing, but after agonising over scripts, market research and which section of my book to read out, I began to wonder why I was putting so much effort into it; surely a quick off-the-cuff 'Buy my book cos' it's going to be great!' slogan, along with half a chapter's reading, ought to hook anyone. The answer that occurred to me, as I went over the script once more, was a revelation; publishers aren't just looking for the next saleable novel, they are also looking for the next saleable author.

Look in the bookstores and you will see a pattern repeated over and again, the first book by an author shows the title in big letters, whilst the author's name appears in a more modest size. On subsequent books by that author their name is more likely to appear larger than the title, sometimes larger than anything else on the cover. Dan Brown, Iain Banks. Danielle Steel, Stephen King, it is the author that sells the books. That's what publishers want: to sell the writer as much as their work. It is not just about hiding behind a laptop and churning out masterpieces; it is also about interviews and readings, events and appearances. Of course, a publisher or agent should help in arranging these things, but in the end it is the author who must be the figure-head and the driving force behind their own marque. And they need to be convincing; people can spot a poor delivery a mile off. It is something a writer might find difficult to accept, but the actual words mean less, in these circumstances, than the way they are said. And it is never truer that nine tenths of communication is through body language than when you are in front of a camera.

Which is why I need to work on my presentation skills, learn to sound and look comfortable before an audience, and gain a politician's ease in chatting to people; it is not simply the skill of selling my thoughts I must develop, but the art of encouraging people to buy into the image of me as an author.

Friday, 16 April 2010

The Twitter Short Story -delivery in progress

This is my second blog about twitter, it's getting to be a habit. If anyone has been following my twitter feed, they will be aware that I'm in the process of delivering a story, Bad Hair Daze, via twitter. Yes, I'm doing it to promote my work, come on, I'm not that innocent, but I'm also doing it because I enjoy playing with new formats and exploring how they can be used. (It's how I got into writing software reviews for magazines like Video Age). The question is, could twitter be a viable delivery tool for short, or episodic storylines, or will it remain the preserve of Haiku's and links to news items?

I'm now into my second day as a twitter novelist (Okay, short fiction writer), so far it could best be described as a learning experience. Bad Hair Daze is a romantic comedy, following the day to day life of Zel, a 24 year old features writer on Hair Magic Magazine. The story is written in a form of diary style, with Zel updating the reader about the events in her day in real-time, as a series of tweets. As a writer this has thrown up a number of challenges, the most obvious being twitter's 140 character limit for each tweet. Frustratingly, this also includes spaces, so lots of short words can be just as bad as long ones. The art I needed to learn was to make each tweet: stand alone –without the need to run onto a second–, still have meaning in itself, and still be able to drive the story forward. The second issue I needed to look at was time. Each tweet must be sent at a particular time, to coincide with Zel's day and the events that are apparently unfolding in real-time. For me, apart from that fact that it plays havoc with my concentration, it has meant getting creative with the means of sending tweets. Normally I can use the computer to send tweets, but to tweet when not at home has necessitated the use of my phone to send them through SMS text messaging. There have been one or two technical difficulties to overcome with this; including switching provider, because my original one didn't work with twitter. I'm also the first to admit I'm useless at tapping out text messages on the phone keypad. To get round this, I send the tweets as text messages using Skype, from my computer to my phone, in advance; it is then a simple matter of forwarding each message to twitter at the scheduled time.
All this should have been fine; it worked during my testing, but yesterday's experience highlighted a couple of issues with the use of my phone. The first being that, for no reason a could tell, it split one of my tweets. I sent it as one text, but it appeared in twitter as two consecutive tweets. The second issue (and lesson learnt) is that, the final tweet of the day lost the last word, appearing in twitter as:
'Evelyn stood right next to me in the lift, touched my hair, and said she liked it in this colour, but it would suit me better shorter. C …'. The last word should have appeared as 'Creepy'. What I had failed to take into account was that mobile phones can deliver more than 140 characters, and my tweet was actually 142; an oversight I should have checked before it was sent to my phone. By the time I realised, parked in a lay-by on the A35, there was really nothing I could do.

I hope that I can work around any future glitches, as I will be relying increasingly on my phone during the London Book Fair next week. Just to be on the safe side, though, I think it will be wise to seek out as many wireless hotspots, for my laptop, as I can.

Aside from any technical problems, I hope that the flow of the story will start to come through as the tweets progress and any idiosyncrasies of the medium will be forgiven as merely a kind of realism to the delivery of the story. I still intend to see the story through to it's conclusion on the 30th April, and hope that those who follow it, find it an interesting and engaging way to experience a narrative. It remains to be seen if it will be worth repeating the experiment, although I do have a longer, and more gritty, story which I may deliver towards Christmas. I may even consider writing another episode to Bad Hair Daze, if this one isn't a complete disaster.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Quick and Dirty Guide to Self Publishing

With news of award winning author John Edgar Wideman using Lulu to self publish his latest collection of short stories, many in the industry will be watching with interest to see how well he does. Vanity publishing, self publishing, print-on-demand publishing: call it what you will, it's here and it's not going to go away. I've looked into the process in various forms over the last few years and it has taught me a few invaluable lessons: what you should and what you shouldn't use it to publish, being the two most important. For new writers, self publishing a novel or short story anthology will probably be a waste of time and words, but there are ways to make it pay, if you take the right approach.

At the top of the self publishing game are and Amazon's; both allow the writer to publish their work with ISBN numbers, in either hardcopy or e-book formats, as well as offering distribution via Amazon. These sites offer the individual an ability to write, format, publish, print and distribute their work, giving them complete control of the whole process. Of course, the practicalities of this god-like power are much more mundane; the level of competence needed to write, format and publish a book is beyond the capabilities of most mortals (even if they believe it isn't), and even established publishers have difficulty selling books in the current climate. But perhaps this is where it may be worth stepping away from the standard view of publishing. The truly dire wannabe-publishing that these sites encourage occludes the potential that they can offer. Niche markets exist that mainstream publishers traditionally avoid; the associated sales volumes are just too small. But such niches often have dedicated followers who will happily pay higher fees for almost anything that is written about their area of interest. Sales may even be helped by the small scale of the niche because it's members frequently communicate through online forms, clubs, and newsletters, and word-of-mouth sells better than any advert. Hobbies, local history, genealogy, role-playing games, re-enactment, animal breeders, alternative life styles, fan-stories for specific sci-fi, horror and fantasy genres, or even specific computer games or worlds are fertile places to investigate. The following were pulled from the list of top selling titles on, note the prices:

The Boeing 737 Technical Guide, price: £68.82 –pretty self explanatory
The Ultimate Tattoo BIBLE, price: £56.39 –a book about tattoos and tattooing
Memories of the Future, price: £12.66 –a serious Star Trek fan book
The Havanese, price: £30.49 –A book about a breed of fluffy dog

Writing for such niches does require specialised knowledge and formatting the book may take a lot of time, but as a simple example: if only ten thousand people keep Burmese cats, and you make £10 on each copy of your book on the subject, you only need to sell to ten percent of that niche, a thousand copies, to make the proposition worthwhile. If they can be made aware of a book's existence and if it is reasonably well put together, there are ready audiences out there who will be happy to spend the money.

Trying to compete with publishers in mainstream fields and genres is still most likely doomed to failure. Whilst established authors, tired of poor publishing deals, may yet succeed in successfully selling their own work through these avenues, self publishing can be made to work for the first time writer if they are disciplined enough to do the job well and work hard to sell the book once it is published. Identifying the market is key.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Could Animation be Incompatible with Writing?

When I set out to learn the craft of writing, it was with the warm and fuzzy notion that my animation and the writing would be complementary pursuits. I could spend my morning slaving over a hot computer animating away, then while away the afternoons with a pen and pad churning out my next novel. But it is in the nature of a creative fantasist to give a rosy colour to such plans without any serious thought to the murky realities.

Having just spent over two months on a short promotional film I've now had my bubble of delusions well and truly popped. Rather than catch up on the odd bit of writing in the evenings, I found myself unable to write a word, I simply felt drained and my faculties to write withered. This longer production has shown me that my reasoning and creative energies need to be directed to the one task, leaving little room for anything else. I have begun to wonder if the same should not be true of the reverse; if I am going to write a novel, shouldn't all my energies be given over to that? I'm aware that there are plenty of people who work at another job whilst quietly writing a book in their spare time. But I wonder if those jobs use the same parts of the mind as writing. If it doesn't, it could well be an advantage, giving the person time to muse over their writing when they are not doing it, or allowing their subconscious mind to process some problem when their thoughts are directed elsewhere. But in my case, it feels like I'm using the same parts of my brain for both animation and writing, and to split my time between two tasks slows me down and leaves me feeling tired and concerned that the quality of my work is suffering. Additionally there are my little rewards. I'm a very simple person to please really; my rewards are simply to be able to finish what I'm working on, or at least achieve some milestone and finish a section of the project I'm working on. When this happens, I get a little endorphin rush and feel good, this in turn encourages me to get on with the next thing. But if I split my time between two projects I end up spending half my time on each, it takes me twice as long to finish and consequently my little work fixes are not so frequent (unless everything is carefully staggered, and sadly life just doesn't work that conveniently). So I start to lose focus, then interest, I slow down and (worse still) start to procrastinate.

When it comes down to it, two months of no weekends or evenings is the limit for any task, whether animation or writing. So for the next few months at least, I intend to focus solely on my writing. Perhaps after that I will need a break and go back to some more animation work. Indeed maybe this should be the way I work in future, oscillating slowly between one and the other, switching before it becomes dull and always keeping the edge, whether it is with the moving image or the written word.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Freedom of a First Draft

It seems a little odd to be talking about the process of writing a book without actually showing any of the writing itself, so to redress this I’ve decided to write this blog around a small section from my novel.

It’s a section that may never make it to the final book, not because it is bad; on the contrary, I like it a great deal, but sometimes there are good reasons to edit out a section, even if there is nothing wrong with it within itself. To put it into context, I'm working my way through a first draft at the present time, mostly free-writing sections of chapters I have planned as part of the overall narrative. Whilst the style, prose, and even structure of the work I'm producing in this stage can be downright embarrassing when I read back through it, it does serve a purpose; writing in this way offers a fantastic freedom to explore my characters and explore new possibilities for the narrative flow and colour. Sometimes I find myself writing outside the original plan because something suggests itself as worth pursuing. These explorations of character are giving me invaluable material about the characters and how they behave, interact and think, and more importantly I'm getting to know the minor characters, and through them the principals.

Not that some of it won’t be a casualty of editing when I come to a second or third draft; I realise that everything that makes the final draft must pull its weight, either moving the story forward or providing needed understanding about the characters.

The section I'm including here is part of a larger chapter, in which the principal character Melanie and her work colleagues have a group evening out. It is a very complex chapter that cycles round several of the characters and importantly brings some of the possible love interests, and complications, to the front without actually resolving them. The piece I wrote here was a complete sidetrack from everything else and I won't know, until I have completed the first draft, if it just adds complexity to the scene or is a much needed island in a rough sea. What I do know is that it provides a delightful moment of friendship that both characters had lacked up to this point, it also offers a lot more depth for Sue as well as one of the only direct physical descriptions about Melanie's appearance in the book, albeit through dialogue.

The toilets were a cool relief from the barrage of sound in the main club. The gaggle of women monopolising the mirrors above the sinks turned to stare as Melanie and Sue entered, then turned back to fine tuning their faces.
 Melanie ignored the attention, and lead Sue to a suitably blank corner, beside a hand-dryer displaying an out of order sign. 'Sue, can you do me a favour?'
'Um, Ok, what?'
'I need to brush my hair–it's all that dancing, my bag stays still but I move around inside it and my hair gets all messed up. I'm going to take it off facing the corner so no one can see me, but could you just stand behind me, I'll feel less uncomfortable with someone I know stood there.'
'Yes, Ok.'
'Um, do you want me to hold your bag?'
'Oh, thanks. You know you don't have to watch me.'
'I don't mind. I mean you're really lucky to have such thick wavy hair, mine's just dead straight, I can't do anything with it.'
'I am? I can't really tell at the moment it's full of tangles and I daren't use the mirror, everyone can see my reflection.'
'Here, give me the brush.' Sue took the brush from Melanie and passed the bag back to her. It was strangely thrilling to be without a bag in a public place and have someone touching her, even just her hair. It felt intimate and risky, but not sexual and oddly, not embarrassing. Let them look for once, perhaps they might learn something.
'You really do have beautiful hair you know, those red highlights, and shiny, like, um, horse chestnuts when they're just out of the case.'
'Are you saying I have hair like a conker?'
'Sorry, Sue, I'm just not used to compliments. It's odd, I suppose most people only get to see the ends of my hair with the bag on. I don't know why I bother sometimes, it would be a lot easier to have it all cut off. It's not like anyone would know but it's nice to hear that someone likes it. It's a good confidence booster–so, thanks.'
'I wish I had a quarter of your confidence Melanie, the guys really like you.'
'I don't think so, what do they want with a girl who has a congenital difference? I've got to be realistic. Although do you think Howard likes me?'
'Howard? Um, I don't know, I thought you liked Robbie? You're always having lunch with him and sending silly messages over the network.'
'No, Robbie and me are just friends. Brother and sister of the bag. Besides I love Japanese food.'
'There you go, I think I got all the tangles.'
'Thanks Sue, you have no idea how much I appreciate that.' Melanie slid her bag back on and turned around. 'We should do more hot chocolate lunches together at work, proper girl lunches.'
'You know, work's been much more interesting since you came. You're a really nice person.'
'You haven't seen me transform into my evil double yet. Oh–sorry I'm doing that thing with compliments again aren't I?'
'Um, yes.'
'You're a really nice person too.'

If you want to know more about the story and why Melanie wears a bag, please read the brief overview of The Different posted on my website.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

My Own Deadlines

As a writer and animator, I'm used to working to deadlines but the only deadlines I find myself failing to meet are my own.

Most of the time such things are not an issue. I set an arbitrary date by which I would like to complete a self-initiated task, such as writing a blog, and attempt to work to that. More often than I would like: work, family or other considerations will lead me to revise these self-imposed deadlines. This is fine, unlike my work deadlines, they are meant to be a flexible guide rather than a rigid cut-off point.

But I got caught out by myself recently. I had planned to write a short seasonally themed story in time for Christmas. It was to be delivered via Twitter as a series of tweets spread over a two week period, which I calculated would give me a deadline around the 11th of December. During November I had a great deal of coursework for my MA, I also had a lot of paid work during the first two weeks of December. To consider this story was probably unrealistic, but as is often the case with me, I used it as a pleasurable thing to wind down in the evenings, after a hard day of doing other things. As the deadline approached I still had a small amount of the story to write. I wanted to get the ending working well, tying up a number of threads, but I had altered the story from it's original outline and I felt the ending should also change. Unfortunately, I also had another deadline for my coursework on the same day, as well as an article I'd promised to complete. I realised something had to give.

In short, I missed my own short story deadline. I did consider posting the beginning whilst I was still writing the end; it's not the first time I've had to do that, but in the end I decided to pull the story. Which, in hindsight, was the correct decision; I had not done enough promotional work for the story and I still wasn't happy with the ending. That I didn't meet my deadline, I don't mind at all; I can revise, and improve it ready for next Christmas; I can deliver it with a more relaxed timeframe and, most importantly, I will have a whole year in which to plan how to promote it. I've also learnt that it is better to not deliver something at all than something done badly.