Creativity, Talent and Discipline

I stumbled across a short clip from contemporary Irish artist, Guggi, the other day while off chasing links through the interwebs. He’s talking specifically about painting, but broadly about creativity in general, and I found it very refreshing to hear someone speak so plainly about the process, rather than waffling on about muses and inspiration and Art-with-a-capital-A.  It’s easy to translate what he says about his creative medium (paint and canvas) into advice about mine (words and paper).  Here are his thoughts on writer’s creativity block, for instance:

There’s no doubt about the fact that painting is not all about the “great stroke” — the great stroke that brings it all together, that now makes sense of all of the work and all of the effort. It’s also about priming canvases, it’s about sweeping the floor, it’s about mixing paint, it’s about so many things. And you know what? People can call it luck, they can call it whatever they want, but the more time I spend in the studio, the luckier I get. I don’t entertain people that sit around for a year waiting to be inspired. That’s bullshit.

I think I need to remind myself of this the next time I spend three hours in front of the word processor and come up with exactly one good paragraph.  Because sometimes it really is just about mixing the damn paint.

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The Writer and the Critic: Episode 2

The second episode of our podcast is now available for direct download and streaming from the website or via subscription from iTunes. Feedback is most welcome!

Here are the show notes:

At the start of this episode of The Writer and the Critic, Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond spend a little time addressing some listener feedback from last month concerning social media and book recommendations. They have picked a book recommended by a listener to be read and reviewed in February but they’re not telling you which one because, as Ian says, there aren’t enough surprises in the world anymore.

The Writer and the Critic is a proud contributor to the global surprise quotient.

Then follows a very lengthy discussion about The Book Thief (one of the novels from the previous podcast) which was sparked off by a passionate and thought-provoking review of the same from Catherynne M. Valente. Free-from digressions may or may not be included. Conclusions may or may not be drawn. Ian and Kirstyn vow not to mention this particular book again for quite some time.

This month’s official books up for review are Feed by Mira Grant (recommended by Ian) and The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan (chosen by Kirstyn).

A final set of questions . . .

The final installment of the Book Lover’s Club competition questions. Thanks to everyone for their interesting and though-provoking contributions!

Firstly, from Diane Ayres: I would like to ask Kirstyn where she got her inspiration for this book, and whether she bases her characters and story lines on real people and real situations or they come from her own imagination?

I honestly can’t remember specifically what inspired me to write Madigan Mine. I know the idea started as the germ for a short story and rapidly metastasised, leaving me with a fledging novel that ended up bearing little resemblance to the original story idea (which would have ended about where the novel begins).  This is often how it works. An idea will mutate, join with other ideas, become something different. Usually in my head before I even begin to put fingers to keyboard, but sometimes in the writing of it as well.

I very rarely use real people for the basis of characters, although I will sometimes borrow traits or personality quirks if they suit. My characters become very real people in their own right, as I have usually spent months or years thinking about them before I start writing about them. Real situations, on the other hands, are very often the basis for storylines — although, by the time the story is finished, the resemblance to anything which might have occurred in real life can be almost gone. That’s the difference between the spark of an idea, the flash of inspiration as it were, and actually creating a work of fiction. Things change. The unexpected happens. The story you think you have turns out to be something else entirely. An idea might come from a real person, a real situation, but then imagination takes over. And that’s what keeps me coming back to the keyboard each day.

Heather Luedi would like to know: Was this style of writing what you always wanted to do? I have heard some authors say that they just seem to be able to do this type of writing but love a different genre altogether.

I read widely and always have done. (Well, once I got over the Ponies! fetish I had as a kid, that is.) I tend to lean towards what is termed “speculative fiction” and my subject matter/themes/stories of preference are usually on the darker side. This carries over to my writing. There is lot of stuff that I read that I won’t ever probably write, because my imagination doesn’t seem to take me in those directions, but I don’t have a great yearning to write anything other than the stories that come to me. That said, I am constantly inspired by the writing of others and there is very little that I read that I don’t find myself learning something from. And there are lots of books that I love and kinda wish I had written — but of course, if I had, then they wouldn’t be those books at all, they’d be something else entirely.

And finally, from Sharni Luedi: I was wondering if you would ever do other forms of writing like young adult books for example and i was also wondering if you are a planner or whether you just allow your characters to go where they want?

I love young adult fiction and read a lot of it. It’s a very exciting corner of the literary world right now with some brilliant authors producing some truly astounding books — Liar by Justine Larbalestier, to name but one recent example. Every time I get the beginning of an idea for a young adult story, however, it morphs into something not so much. Or at least that’s how it feels to me. Perhaps one day I’ll find a idea that sticks. 🙂

The idea of planning out a novel is very appealing to me. So appealing, in fact, that last year I bought a whole bunch of different coloured post-it notes with the notion of plotting out my current work on the blank wall of the spare room. Yeah, I still have all those post-it notes. Planning just doesn’t work out for me. Once I have the characters and the beginning of the story and a vague sort of idea of where it’s heading, that’s when I start to write. And I don’t stop until it’s finished or it fails. I don’t know if it’s about letting my characters go where they want as much as letting the story follow it’s own lead. Probably it’s both. A complicated dance between character and story that takes place between my head and my hands. It can be very daunting sometimes — all that unknown, uncharted terrain out there in front of me — which is why sometimes I wish I was a planner, but it’s also an exciting way to work. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing a scene and thinking, “Wow, I had no idea I was going to write that today!”

If you’re on Facebook,  please take a minute check out Book Lover’s Club — a site dedicated to the discussion of books of all genres, for book-lovers right across the globe.

Questions again . . .

Part three of the Book Lover’s Club competition questions.

Loony Lihn asked: Is she proud of her book? Because I bet people get this thrill when someone compliments something they’ve made/written. And also, are you glad you chose to follow this storyline or did you think one of your other ideas would have made a better story?

In a word: YES. I am very proud of Madigan Mine. Sure, there are still minor things I would probably change — they tell you never to read your work once it’s published, and they’re right! — but overall I love the book and I’m extremely pleased with the finished result. And yes, I am always thrilled when someone tells me they like it as well. Especially when it’s someone I don’t even know. Because, you know, only my friends would bother to tell me they like my work, and that’s just because they’re being nice, and blah de blah. Stupid inner critic. 🙂

In answer to your second question, I write the ideas that are ready to be written, and write them until they are either finished or stop working for some reason. Madigan Mine never stopped working, so it wasn’t really a matter of choice. I don’t get too many ideas for novel-length works (I’m a short story writer at heart, and probably always will be), so once I knew the idea for Madigan Mine could be a novel and started to write it, that was really it. I know a lot of writers have a backlog of novel ideas but I’m not of that tribe. I have the novel I’m working on and, if I’m lucky, the novel I will probably work on next if it percolates enough in the meantime. Short stories, though, sheesh. I have waaaaaay too many of those knocking around in my brain.

Juliet Ramone would like to know: You have a masterly command of the art of creating depth of mood and feelings that are simultaneously negative and dark yet illicit great energy and light. Every sentence, every word, every grammatical point appears deliberate and highly polished and yet it conjures raw emotions. What are the processes involved in producing this duality of language? Is it simply an innate ability (if so, I’m jealous), or do you produce copious drafts?

This is a really difficult question to answer. My use of language feels innate, but really it comes from a lifetime of reading and absorbing the words and sentence structures of other writers. Sometimes consciously, especially these days when I find it quite hard to turn off the inner-writer and “lose” myself in a book, but mostly unconsciously I suspect. It feels like I have developed an “ear” for language in the same way a musician has an ear for music. Although I’m tone deaf and can’t sing or play a note, I will often use words that “sound” right — literally, the sounds the words make when read aloud, their flow, their rhythm, the way they fit together, the beats between them. All the while maintaining syntax and meaning, of course. I’m not sure I’ve really answered what you were asking, but I’m also not sure I can do any better than that!

In terms of drafts, I don’t go through too many as a rule. With my short fiction, there is usually just the single full-length draft and then — providing there are no major plot-holes or structural issues — a couple rounds of polishing. With novel-length manuscripts, there are necessarily more “drafts” floating around, as there is more editing required to get to the publication stage. Novels are bigger, more complicated beasts, and are somewhat impossible to hold in your head all at once so more problems get through to the first full draft. But I should stress that I am a very slow writer. I revise and re-write as I go, so my “first” finished draft might be closer to another writer’s fourth or fifth. Everyone approaches the craft in a different manner. I’m a tortoise in the initial writing, but a fricken caffeine-fuel hare in the edit stage. 🙂

And from Janice Channer: I would like to ask Kirstyn when her writing career took off? Was being an author always something she dreamed of as a child, and who or what inspired her into writing?

I’m not sure my writing career has really “taken off” yet but the publication of my first novel, Madigan Mine, has certainly stepped it up to a new level. Having a novel out there means more people have access to my work, which is fantastic. As much as I love writing short fiction, and as proud as I am of the stories I have had published over the years, it is usually very hard for people to find them.

I’ve wanted to write for almost as long as I can remember. I was quite a solitary child and always made up stories to entertain myself, and sometimes my sisters. And I was an incurable bookworm, reading books far above my age group once I soon exhausted the ones meant for girls like me. Once I realised that books are written by people, once I made that connection, I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life. For this I blame my mother, who let me read anything I damn well wanted and let me dream anything I damn well dared.

If you’re on Facebook,  please take a minute check out Book Lover’s Club — a site dedicated to the discussion of books of all genres, for book-lovers right across the globe.

Cattiness over at Amazon

That might has well have been the headline for this Daily Mail article about the problems with anonymous reviews over at Amazon. Essentially, the story is:

Alongside details of a book for sale, the [Amazon] website offers supposedly independent verdicts from customers, including a rating of from one to five stars.

However, rival publishers are accused of hijacking the system to praise their own volumes and disparage the opposition.

Authors are turning on each other, agencies are charging up to £5,000 to place favourable fake reviews and Amazon has recruited a team of amateur critics to restore the balance.

Which, you know, what-the-hell-ever. Writing malicious reviews about a competitor under cover of an anonymous pseudonym isn’t new. Recruiting other people to do so for a fee quite likely isn’t new either. Neither is recruiting yet more people to provide positive reviews in the name of “balancing the books”.  (Although, the hefty price tags attached to these services might very well be!) Whichever side of the fence you’re on, it’s a tawdry business, and if you get caught, you will deservedly look like a scoundrel and a cad.

What really got under my skin, however, was the headline:

Women writers at war over fake book reviews on Amazon

Excuse me, but who now? As we all know, men are just as likely to make dicks of themselves over in the Amazon review pages, and in fact the article specifically mentions a male author — Simon Winder, who even garners a photo — along with two female writers, Rosie Alison and Polly Samson, who has had trouble with malicious and anonymous reviews.

To be fair, the text of the article itself doesn’t seek to make any mileage from the gender thing and I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if not for the headline which primes us to read the piece as one about catty, vindictive “women writers” from the very outset. It’s not “writers at war” — it’s “women writers at war”. Yeah, it’s probably just an overenthusiastic sub-editor with a penchant for alliteration. But that’s kinda the point, isn’t it? That these sorts of inappropriate headlines are still being written? After all, if the authors in question were all male, I very much doubt that the headline have read: “Male writers at war . . .”

Grrr. Cross now.