Notes on Creativity: tips, tricks and personal anecdotes (1)

I want to, so why can’t I?

There are people who never seem to get creatively blocked. They merrily produce stories, (or artworks or ceramics or films or jewellery) regularly, frequently, without apparent let or hindrance, maybe even singing as they go.

Try not to hate them. Hating the productive does not improve one’s own life or creativity. It only wrinkles the brow, sours the mouth, and induces back pain.

There are people who agonise over every fragment they produce – such luminaries as Douglas Adams and James Joyce, according to report, expelled every desperate word in paroxysms of painful effort. You might want to write like Adams or Joyce but who wants to go through that much misery?

Most of us are somewhere in between, to differing degrees at different times.

So. There are things to consider. And I believe they apply to other creative arts as well as writing, but I’m using that as my reference as it’s the area in which I have most experience.

Firstly, is writing really what you want to do?

If you have a computer or notebooks full of beginnings, unfinished stories, poems, fragments, half-delineated characters, even a few finished pieces – you’re a writer all right, you just haven’t worked out how to keep at it, even though you want to.

If you have little or nothing, because you’re waiting for the perfect moment, the perfect story, the perfect writing implement, the perfect lifestyle, the perfect everything – I’ve got bad news for you.  It’s not going to happen.  Because you’re lying to yourself – what you’re really waiting for is for a perfectly formed story to drop into your lap without effort.  This is a bad principle to apply to anything in life, including creativity, careers and relationships.

Again, most of us who are interested in writing at all are somewhere in between these two extremes – sometimes with a headful of ideas, sometimes blank. Sometimes finding it easy to produce, sometimes impossible.  Sometimes with a handful of completed works of any length – sometimes with only two. Or one.  Sometimes self-disciplined, sometimes sulky and rebellious.

Any creative work does take effort.  But I have come to believe it doesn’t have to take blood, toil, tears and sweat for every goddamned brush-stroke or paragraph.

So over the next few weeks I plan to offer, among other things, some thoughts on why it’s sometimes difficult to produce, even when you really want to, and some methods I have found that may help to make it easier.

Just for a starter: when you begin, banish the thought of perfection. Nothing starts out perfect, nothing ends up perfect. A baby is only ever a perfect baby. It has to grow, change, be socialised and learn to walk and hundreds of other things in order to become a functional adult human, and the best of adult humans is still an imperfect being. A shrivelled little apple seed contains within it many apples – but only if all other conditions are right, if it gets sun and water and wholesome soil and the loving attention of the bee.  Even then some of the apples will end up with bruises or spots – but they’ll still be good to eat. Your seed, your story, doesn’t have to be a whole tree, right now, or a perfect tree, ever. It only has to be a seed, and get planted.

Being a Geek

The first time I heard the word geek it had something to do with biting the heads off chickens in a dodgy sideshow. (Apparently they swallowed them, too. I can’t help wondering if the heads, like the bodies, carry on for a bit after decapitation, quite possibly trying to peck their murderer on the way down – well, I would.).

A brief query to the Internet Gods reveals uncertainty on the origins of the word. It may have come from German or possibly Scandinavian. It may have originated in words meaning, variously: fool or simpleton, croak, cackle, mock or cheat.

None of these suggest anything very heroic even before the whole thing with the biting off chicken heads. If someone had suggested I was a geek, I would have been both insulted and, frankly, bemused, since I didn’t even meet any chickens until they turned up, cooked, on my plate.

So, I didn’t know I was a geek. I’ve read SF and Fantasy since I bought my first second-hand Edgar Rice-Burroughs at a school jumble sale when I was nine, but I didn’t know a single other fan. The secondary school I went to was sufficiently tiny that there was not a one to be found. I had no idea such things as cons or LARP even existed, and I came late to the main thing that might have helped me find fellow-travellers – the internet.

And all the time there were other people out there who liked the same stuff, and were prepared to admit the fact if only to each other. Geeks. Often sneered at by people who didn’t share their interests, often classed as basement-dwelling weirdos.

Of course, I wasn’t just a geek, I was a writer, from even further back. The first people I found who felt like my tribe were in fact drama students and student writers. Oh, the joy of being actually surrounded by other people who obsessed about scansion and commas! I eventually realised I had little to no talent as either a playwright or a theatre critic – I love theatre, but I’d rather write fantasy any day. Besides, it’s much harder to stage magic on an actual set than on the page.

And finally I found other genre writers, and along with them, other fans. Both my obsessions came together, and it was good. I never realised what was missing in my life until I was able to spend hours discussing both character construction and which weaponry would be most useful in the zombie apocalypse.

I became proud to declare my geekery, and did so at every opportunity, and if anyone was sniffy about it, well, I didn’t have to associate with them because I had actual friends who shared my interests.

Then some time in the past few years geek interests began to move into the mainstream.  Became the mainstream. As this went on a certain type of geekery seemed to become, for some, a badge of honour, a kind of campaign medal of having survived the Wilderness Years.

I wasn’t in the ‘nam of geekery, I never had my head pushed down a toilet for talking about Star Trek. I just didn’t have anyone to talk to about the stuff I liked. Also, I like a lot of stuff – not all of it SF/F related, and not all of it accompanied by much background knowledge or in-depth analysis. This means that to some people I will never be a True Geek.

But the ‘soft geek’ camp to which I belong seems to be more catered for by mainstream media every day. I suspect this is because we have money and can be persuaded to buy stuff with it.

So, now that everyone and her mates watches Game of Thrones and wants a LOTR themed wedding, do I deserve, can I still claim the title of Geek?  Do I want to? I’m far more of a fantasy than an SF nut, I read very few comics and hardly any manga, I do read and watch a lot of stuff that isn’t remotely geeky. Yes, I write fantasy – but that certainly wouldn’t qualify me as a true geek with some of the hardcore any more than being an actual rocket scientist would qualify someone who had never read a word of SF. I’m not even sure, any more, what geek means.

And though I have been a fool on more than one occasion, and have croaked, cackled, mocked and even occasionally cheated, I’ve never bitten off a chicken’s head, live or otherwise.

But I still call myself a geek. I’ll probably continue to do so. Sometimes you have to stick on your own badge, otherwise someone else will stick one on you, and jab the pin in you while they do it.

The Unvarnished Truth

First of all, a quick note to anyone who has posted a comment which I totally failed to reply to for months – sorry!  I’m still finding my way around all this stuff and I think I need a better notifications system.  Or a secretary.  Possibly both.

Anyway. On to the entirely frivolous matter of today’s post.

I really must stop buying nail varnish.

That may require a little explanation. Anyone who has ever met me knows I am not exactly a fashion icon – I am barely a fashion postcard, to be frank. And from about March to September, when the serious gardening is going on, my fingernails are less gleaming talons than fragmented mud-collectors.

But I do like nail varnish, when I have nails. It’s just so pretty. All those bottles lined up like lovely glossy sweets.

And the colours! When I first started looking at it (not actually buying it due to parental disapproval of anything so outré as a 14 year old girl with painted nails, I might as well have got a tattoo and some stripper tassels) the only colours I ever saw were variations from pale pink to bright red. Maybe a bit of glitter if you were lucky.

Then – the Eighties! I was away from home, I had money  – well, I had a brand new bank account and the beginnings of an overdraft that had not yet reached wake-in-the-night terrifying proportions. And there was this sudden chromatic explosion all over the cosmetics shelves. Cadmium yellow! Acid green! Cobalt blue! I could have nails the colour of a New York Taxi! A parrot! A set of Bristol glass! All the above at once! 

So I started buying varnish.

(I also flirted briefly with false nails, at which I was rubbish. I could never get them to stay on for more than a couple of hours, despite using so much glue they ended up about the thickness of a duvet. They used to appear on the floor wherever I’d been like small, gruesome clues in a murder case, or ping off into my drink. Or, worse, someone else’s drink. I even managed to set light to one while I was wearing it (I smoked back then. In the really-bad-for-you way, not the gosh-I-was-kinda-hot way.) Also, they were really expensive).

Anyway to drag myself back out of the false-nails segue, I bought nail varnish. Not every week, or anything – just enough that I had a colour that went with every outfit. I wish I could still get some of those colours, even though a number of the outfits themselves have since been deservedly consigned to oblivion – it was the Eighties, after all.

Then there were jobs, many of which I did not particularly enjoy. Outré nail varnish was a small, silly way of reminding myself that I was a creative, artistic, or at least slightly odd, person and my life was not limited to excel spreadsheets and management meetings and reports even if it sometimes felt like that.

But. The time came when I was working from home. And with all its joys, it means I don’t leave the house as often. I don’t spend the night before sorting out an outfit and making sure my nails are looking decent. So, I stopped using as much varnish.

Unused varnish goes claggy. You can try thinning it with nail varnish remover, at which point it turns into a cross between lumpy glue and Alien blood. Or the top gets jammed and you try and open it with pliers and the whole top of the bottle snaps off and your good trousers get doused in Aubergine Extreme and so does the kitchen floor and suddenly everything is purple and reeking of pear drops.

I have approximately 27 bottles of nail varnish in my nail-varnish drawer. I suspect many of them have already reached the state of no return. I need to fling out the enclagged ones, and not buy any more. At least for a bit.

There is no philosophical point to this post, although you could make a case for clutter-clearing or Letting Go or something, if you wish – or not spending money on stuff that you won’t use, or The Unexpected Side Effects Of Working From Home.

But in reality I just got sidetracked into wittering about nail varnish, instead of doing the stuff I should be doing.

And that, of course, is a whole other blog post.

#greatfirewallofcameron Christmas Challenge

Gosh we genre writers are a dangerous bunch – apparently. Last night my partner Dave Gullen and I discovered both our websites were blocked by O2, under their ‘Parental Guidance‘ controls.

A few tweets established that other genre writers, such as Gareth Powell, (Ack-Ack Macaque) had the same block in place. So we checked a few more:

Genre Writers Blocked
Adrian Tchaikovsky (Shadows of the Apt)
John Scalzi (RedShirts, Old Man’s War)
Emma Newman (Split Worlds)
Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book)
Robin Hobb (Assassin’s series, Ships series, Dragons series)

Children’s & YA Authors Blocked
Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowle)
Philip Pullman (Dark Materials)
Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games)
Philip Reeve (Mortal Engines)
Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar)

They even blocked Jane Yolen, ‘the Hans Christian Andersen of America’.

Not to mention various publishers, such as Angry Robot, Solaris, Gollancz, and Jo Fletcher Books.

Don’t worry, people – it gets better. Scholastic’s web site specifically for children’s books and encouraging children to read is – Blocked!

It turns out that a surprising number of sites are potentially risky – like that well-known bunch of dodgy geezers, the Directors Guild.

Best of all, O2 have wisely blocked Save the Children, and – wait for it – Childline.  So potentially a child might have to go to their abuser and ask for the parental controls to be unlocked so they can get help to deal with abuse. Right?  (Because we all know that abuse only happens in households where the adults are Poor and therefore Feckless, and not where they are the kind of responsible sort who switch on parental controls and please tell me I don’t need a sarcasm smiley here).

If you think this is nonsense, there’s a petition you can sign here.

Our Christmas challenge – find a web site or blog specifically aimed at helping children that is NOT blocked by O2. The first three entries will win a free copy of Dave’s SF novel, Shopocalypse. The next three will win a copy of the first ‘Babylon Steel’ novel.

Here’s the link to the O2 checker. (We haven’t covered BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, or Sky – it was late and we were tired).

Happy holidays.

Andromeda One

Spent a delightful Saturday at Andromeda One – a brand new baby con, run by the indefatigable Theresa Derwin. Who almost certainly cloned herself to get it all done.

For a one-day con it managed to pack in an extraordinary amount – workshops, kaffeeklatsches, and panels galore, covering small press publishing, gender/race/disability in fandom, steampunk, zombies, urban fantasy and SF, among others.

I would have liked to get to more panels. It’s a depressing and unexpected side effect of being a guest that you can’t go to all the interesting stuff that’s on while you’re doing something you’ve actually been booked for. As it was I attended one panel while frantically filling in signing-sheets and trying to rustle as little as possible, like someone eating wrapped sweets at the cinema. It was a good panel, too, on technology and prediction in SF, which sparked some intense discussion in the pub later. What I did get to was generally interesting and well-moderated and I also had some great conversations in between dashing hither and yon.

I was on a panel on tropes in Urban Fantasy, which (aptly enough) led down some fascinating alleyways, and a round-table on race/gender/disability barriers in fandom, which, while not managing to solve all the problems (that would have been pretty impressive) opened up the discussion in useful ways.

I was also on my first ever Just a Minute.  This was no less terrifying for being run by the entirely delightful Paul Cornell, especially when your opponents are the brilliant Jaine Fenn (that gal has a wicked hand on the imaginary buzzer) and a madly gesticulating Jacey Bedford, and you get sudden random insect subjects from Adrian Tchaikovsky, who is practically a giant bee in human form. It all resulted in a hysterical stew, with chocolate-filled locusts and evil wombles thrown in. The audience might have been throwing actual chocolate-filled locusts and evil wombles by the end of it, I was too far gone in hyperventilating overload to notice. It was, in a weird and panicky way, fun. I have just about stopped shaking.

The Custard Factory where the con took place is colourfully repurposed industrial architecture with some amazing artwork –  a giant green man (wearing a box. A window box, in this case), a fantastic 14ft bronze dragon (I’m not sure of the actual measurements, I was going to say ‘life-size’ only, yeah, dragon), and a startled bright orange squid.  Oh, and there’s a really good Nigerian restaurant called Jeun. (Brand new, so there’s not much on their website but an email address). Spicy, yummy, fresh – and huge portions. If you live nearby I’d book now before they’re full up every night.

On a practical note the con space could have done with a central meeting place/bar, better accessibility and possibly a map, but it all seemed to work OK – there was a pleasant nearby pub and the bar at the con hotel, the Paragon, was a good place to end the evening.

Ah, the Paragon. A truly astonishing piece of Victoriana which, entirely unsurprisingly, used to be a lunatic asylum. Vast façade of blood-coloured brick, adorned with Hound of the Baskerville-esque gargoyles, and the occasional small but definite tree growing out of the brickwork. Inside, a lot of walls painted Institutional Green (a rather disturbing homage to its former purpose), drips, leaks, and strange whooshes and burblings that one can only hope came from elderly plumbing. There were also, apparently, phantom footprints burned (yes, burned – one wonders exactly who was stepping out of that shower) into the carpet of at least one room. I rather hope the con itself will be held there next year. Luxurious it wasn’t – intriguing it definitely is.

Adromeda was well worth it, and it was a delightful experience to be at such a very small con, where you actually get a chance to speak to most of the attendees.  I suspect, given the energy and commitment of the organisers, it won’t stay that way for long.

This Dilemma has Pointy Horns

Well, this is interesting.

I’ve been invited onto the “Broads with Swords” panel at World Fantasy. The one about women and heroic fantasy that’s been causing some, shall we say, ructions. (See Cheryl Morgan’s blog, Jess Haines’ blog, and Kameron Hurley’s twitter feed @KameronHurley. There are probably others).  Very short version – the name is problematic, since ‘broads’ is generally considered a (female-specific) insult.  And the panel specifics suggest that women in fantasy writing about women who fight is a recent development, which as a number of people have pointed out, (see the links) is hardly the case.

I decided to accept.  I did so because I thought that the best place to have a discussion about the naming and assumptions of the panel might be actually on the panel. (I was not aware at this point that Kameron Hurley had dropped out. I understand why she did so, though I am rather selfishly sorry that she did, because it would have been more than somewhat awesome to be on a panel with her).

I am now, of course, second guessing myself; will I look like a patsy?  Will it appear I am not aware of/don’t care about the issues?  Will I be sitting there all on my own because everyone else has taken a stand and dropped out? (Yes, all right, I realise that’s unlikely as if everyone else drops out they’ll probably cancel the panel, but it’s the kind of nightmare scenario my subconscious does so love to throw at me).  But eventually you have to decide to take a stand, in the way that seems best to you.

On a less self-obsessed and rather more relevant note, am I helping to support untenable attitudes towards women and the history of women’s writing by accepting?  That’s the bother, actually, that’s the one.  This stuff is important, in case anyone hasn’t got that yet.  It matters.

I get that the name was an attempted pun on ‘broadsword’ but…no.  (I started to think of equivalent titles that you really wouldn’t have for, for example, a panel on crime writing by People of Colour, and shuddered).

As to the content: women have been written out of the history of science, of art, of war and of literature, for centuries.  Their contributions have been dismissed as minor, irrelevant, not theirs or simply not there. So this is a conversation that needs to be had, and keep being had, until people do, finally, get it.

But should it be had on this panel?  I’ve been to more than a few panel discussions that have skewed wildly away from the stated subject matter towards panelists’ personal hobbyhorses.  This can be interesting, but is often irritating.  Is it fair to the audience, not to mention the other panelists, to go on a panel actually intending to turn the discussion to the wider issues it brings up, rather than sticking strictly to the listed subject?  But since this panel has been, so to speak, pre-subverted, simply because the discussion is already taking place, maybe it’s better simply to go with it.  One cannot, and should not, pretend that the issues are not there.

Whatever the difficulties, I think it’s well worth having this discussion offline as well as on, in a public venue.  Among other things, it encourages people of different opinions to engage face to face, rather than with the intervention of a screen.  It’s generally harder for things to descend into CAPSLOCK RANTAGE under those circumstances.

So, I’ll be there, and I’ll hope to contribute something useful to the debate.   I also hope that I am doing the right thing.

Opinions are invited.  However, I reserve the right to delete any CAPSLOCK RANTAGE, unless I find it entertaining.

Jungle Drums

My Dearly Beloved likes ferns. We have royal ferns, maidenhair ferns, bird’s nest ferns. Oh, and tree ferns. Lots of tree ferns.

One of these is a particularly splendid specimen that has to live in the conservatory because it’s too delicate to go outside. This is a cyathea cooperi. It has lovely long green fronds which unfurl from tight hairy fists, very slowly, like vegetable ballet.

It has recently produced a new frond, which is in the process of unfolding. Before it started unfolding, however, it grew up. And up. And up, until it was taller than Dearly Beloved.

We looked up cyathea cooperi.

Oh dear.

This delicate beastie is in fact a very large fern. The individual mature fronds can be 20 feet long.

20 feet. That’s one leaf.  If I stand under it in a gauzy dress I’ll look like something out of an old children’s book illustration.

So once they’ve all unfolded, that’s a circle of about 40 foot width. The conservatory isn’t that big. And it certainly isn’t 49 feet tall, which is, apparently, what cyathea cooperi can grow to.

There’s a reason why they’re called tree ferns.

And there’s another frond unfolding.

If you don’t hear from me again, I’m living on the street because my house has been taken over by a very large plant.