When is a Review not a Review?

Over on Twitter for the last week or so, there’s been a lot of talk about reviews. Good ones, bad ones, funny ones, ones that may or may not be justified.

Now, the general consensus goes that an author must never respond to a bad review. They’re a fact of life (whatever kind of creative you are, if you put your stuff out there, someone is going to hate it), and you’ve just got to deal with them. We don’t all like the same stuff, get over it, etc.

You so know there’s a ‘but’ coming.

These days, fan entitlement has become a Thing – we’ve all seen it. And it’s aimed at everything, from the biggest blockbuster movies all the way down to us humble mortals. If the offered creative doesn’t match exactly the individual’s politics, or headcanon, or expectations, then the kickback can be scathing and horrifically vindictive.

And there’s a fine line between a review and an attack.

You may not like an author’s book, or politics, or style, or swearwords, or their use of a pronoun with which you don’t agree. You may think their work is so godawful that it had no right to be published at all. You may read scenes that are not to your liking, or that create an adverse emotional reaction. These things are your right and prerogative. You’re perfectly entitled to hate a book, to give it a bad review and one star – that’s all fine.

But you DON’T verbally assault, judge and bully someone because of it. You don’t call their personality, their professionalism, their integrity, their sexuality, or anything else, into question because of it. Please, remember, whether you liked the book or not, a great deal of effort went into its creation – author, agent, editors, cover artists, publicists. Please, remember that an author is not necessarily what they write – we’re actors, we present characters on paper, facets of humanity (and otherwise) that may not be ourselves. Please, remember that we are people too…

A personal attack is a personal attack.

It is not a review.

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Mental Health and Writing

Some thoughts, following on from World Mental Health Day, and from a conversation that sparked up, quite spontaneously, with a fellow author a few weeks ago…

Children of Artifice was written over one of the worst times of my life. I was struggling to sell my house, and having a nightmare with the associated paperwork. I was unsure where Isaac and I were going to go, and had (quite genuinely) no idea if we have enough money to actually put a roof over our heads, or whether we would have to resort to Social housing (what there is left of it), or leave London completely. At the same time, I was dealing with the long illness and then the death of my Mother, and then with another horrific mess of tangled paperwork.

At times, the whole thing felt like some bloody Quest – and I looked forwards to the day I defeated the Final Boss, and could be in my very own kitchen, safe and free from worry.

That day finally happened three years ago, but the journey really threw something into the light.

Artifice – Caph and Proteus and their unfolding – kept me sane. It was where I went to escape, to pull the covers of another reality over my head, and to escape the darkness of the world around me. Much of my relationship with my Mother, and how I felt about her death, poured itself into the book – I think it’s one of the reasons why it’s as emotional, and as intense, as it is. And when it was done, I was absolutely drained – my tanks were empty and I had no creativity left.

But it was there for me. All the way through.

And Ecko – particularly the first two books – were very much the same thing. Ecko’s savagery and rage were a reflection of the helplessness I was feeling at the time, and how angry it made me. It was an outlet, a release – not only the place I could bury my head and leave everything else behind, but it was hugely cathartic and I can’t describe how much it helped.

It’s not just about being an author. You may be an artist, or an actor. You may pour yourself into your crafting, or your music. And it doesn’t matter if you make the thing for yourself, for your friends, or for a worldwide audience – it’s still your panacea. Whatever that chosen form of expression, it’s the release valve we all need – the thing that will be there for us, that can take all of the darkness that we loose into it, and turn it into something miraculous.

When it comes to your art, it’s good to let the madness loose.

And that’s pretty cool!

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Friday Night FireFight

King’s Drive, Eastbourne, 1991. My brother-from-another-mother Alan had been playing this new ‘CyberPunk’ game with his local mates. And, in as much as any GM has a single system in which they feel at home, a world and a set of rules that suit them, then this was his system. And, even then, it already had a huge backstory – elite characters, lists of guns and cybernetics and crime families that were not out of the books. I was 22 when I statted my first character – a dark-skinned, heavy-duty, ex-military sergeant-type solo, totally and shamlessly based on Apone, and (very creatively) called ‘Panther’.

CyberPunk 2020

And from there, everything spiralled.

That CyberPunk campaign has spanned three counties, some thirty (?) players (not all at the same time), and it still goes (I believe) to this day. It’s been one world, one storyline, one massive META-gaming brainstorm that we’ve all shared, and that’s been overturned, like an anthill, every so often, to give it a new lease of life. I played for ten years before my responsibilities caught me, and some part of me still misses it – though it inevitably veered towards too much intensity, at times.

I guess it was why I wrote Ecko. 

Here’s Johnny….

Seriously, though – CyberPunk 2077. This is my youthful aphantsia come to life, all the images given form, and movement, and a backdrop of neon. It’s our past, our creativity, realised in another format. It’s all the characters we drew, all the lists we made up. It’s all the movies we all loved. It’s all those core texts that we had to read – Altered Carbon and Snow Crash and Neuromancer.  

It’s been almost thirty years since Panther first took to the streets of Night City, almost twenty since I played the game myself. 

But I’m really looking forward to seeing what it’s become. 

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On Stress, Depression and Creating Art

Children of Artifice, finished.

In the last two years, I’ve sold my house, moved twice, lost my Mum, and fought a Battle of Paperwork that’s been truly overwhelming – at times, I’ve had no idea how I’ve got the end of the day, or the end of the week.

But these are the times my imaginary friends have kept me sane. The amazing thing about art – writing, drawing, music, theatre – is that it gives you somewhere to go. Maybe it’s control, maybe it’s emotional catharsis, maybe it gives you a chance to explore how you feel about all the shit that’s going on. Maybe it’s all of them. Whatever it is, writing Artifice has been absolutely invaluable over the last two years, providing relief, and hope, and escapism, and purpose.

By animerenders

Caph, my prince in his high tower, may be the closest character to ‘me’ that I’ve even written. Gender irrelevant, he’s a younger me, a reckless and unwise me (but hell, we’ve all been there), and he gave me the chance to explore my life choices and dysfunctional relationships, and how I felt after the death of my Mum.

His narrative is very different to Ecko’s (and he swears a lot less), but, as Ecko’s anger was very pertinent at the time the books were written, so Caph has helped me make sense of things.

And so, Artifice is a love story. Not quite a fairy tale, not quite a romance, but a love story nonetheless. It may break boundaries, though that’s not its purpose; it may take you places you don’t expect to go… but hey, what love ever does?

 

 

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Is Wordcount Bullshit?

bang-head-on-deskScalzi tweeted the other day that he’d typed 700 (or so) words at the beginning of a chapter, just to work out where the chapter began – words that were needing to ground him in the scene, or the characters, or in where he needed the story to go.

I do this all the time, and it drives me nuts. There have been days where my wordcount has been in negative figures because I’m wrestling with something (and losing). And I wondered how many of us do this.

Beginning Artifice was hard; one of its two PoV characters would <not> let me into his head, and I binned SO MUCH fucking work trying to understand his thought patterns. (The other one was easy – no-one said this was an exact science). Plus, the setting was new, and there’s always the Chapter of Doom, the one bit of the book that persistently pisses off in a direction you’re not expecting and you have to fight it into submission to make it do what it’s told…

So, yeah – does that make ‘wordcount’ bullshit? Are you allowed to count the words that don’t make it? We can write 500 words a day, 5,000 words a day – but what about the stuff that winds up on the cutting room floor? Is ‘wordcount’ how many words you write, or how many words you keep?

(Come on, how many of us can actually turn them out more-or-less perfectly in one electric-and-highly-caffeinated stream of consciousness?)

Everything you write is worth it. If you have to piss away 1,000 words getting your chapter, or setting, or PoV character right, then that’s what it takes. And it may be frustrating as fuck, and you may beat your head against the keyboard when you feel like you’re not actually getting anywhere, but it all counts towards the finished product. (I swear, I’m thinking of putting a blooper reel at the end). Research often gets compared to the iceberg – most of the work you do is below the surface – and this is exactly the same. It may not show above the waterline, but the work you’ve put in matters. When a character is right – you’ll know, and so will your readers.

Plus – added bonus points! – you get that AMAZING feeling of writer-high when it finally clicks and you suddenly type like you’re on speed, going ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ and making your neighbours wonder what the fuck you’re up to.

And moments like that make it all worth it!

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Creativity – Seeing and Believing

1111065__fire-in-her-eyes_pA week or so back, the question of Aphantasia, the blindness of the mind’s eye, came up on Facebook. The posted article, by Blake Ross, discusses how it’s possible to actually hallucinate things pictures, real images of people, places, backgrounds… Mr. Ross can’t do it, but he points to a very touching article about a man who could, and who then lost his ability after surgery.

It got me thinking. When I was younger, right up to my early thirties I suppose, I could see things in my head. If I read a book, it came to life. I could see what was happening – clearly and vividly. During gaming, I could see the characters and the world and the action; while writing, I could see the settings and faces as much I could feel the emotions of the characters involved…

f59c339a5d8d3c5b1aab24506229915a_original

Metal gaming dice. Love them.

But I lost the ability when I come to London, I didn’t read, or write, anything for years. When I picked up a book, the words were dead – I couldn’t see the pictures any more. I wrote all three Ecko books in the corner of the bedroom surrounded by images – maps, fractals, character sketches, print-outs, photographs, concepts – just so that I could keep them in my head.

There were times the images came back. Ecko’s fall from the heights of Mortimer, Hiner and Thompson came from standing outside Titan House and having a smoke, looking up at the buildings over the road; there’s a section at the end of ‘Burning’ that was written after I discovered St. Dunstan-in-the-East.

St. Dunstan in the EastSimply, if I can see something in my head, I can write it in one sitting, and the language just flows, it attends to itself. And if I can’t, I’m fucked – I can write the same thing forty times, and it’ll still be shit.

(A shout-out, at this point, to the glorious time-waster that is Pinterest

I know many of my author buddies have boards for their characters and worlds, and use them rather like a visual note-taking method. Quite aside from the ‘it’s research honest’ line, it really is good way to remember things!)

So – is visualisation essential to your creativity? When you write, can you ‘see’ things in your head? When you read? When you draw? Those who still role-play – can you see the Beholder as it zaps your arse into the middle of next week? And what if you can’t – if you don’t see things in your mind’s eye, can you still create?

I’m genuinely curious. Let me know!

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Plotting Vs. Pantsing – What Works?

imagesSitting down to the New Thing, I’ve tried to do it by the book.

I’ve got the chapter plan, the spreadsheet all laid out, chapters along the top and characters and plotlines down the sides. I know who’s doing what, to whom, and where, and exactly how Miss Scarlett got done in with the candlestick in the library.

I’m sitting smug on my little achievement, all pleased with myself.

But.

Hitting the 50k mark, I’m finding it harder and harder to adhere to the dryness of it. It affects my writing, the conversations of my characters. If I know that characters X and Y have to have a conversation in which they realise Z, it takes all my interest in that conversation away. Yes, the chapter achieves its ending – but it does do with a certain practical desiccation, like an overcooked scone.

downloadAnd yes, when I take the brakes off and just let the characters do what they want, they race away with me and have passion and enthusiasm of their own – like I’ve given them their freedom. The importance of passion was something that the Ecko series was all about.

You can read all sorts of sage wring advice about seat-of-the-pants navigation versus detailed and careful plotlines and in one sense, you do absolutely need to know where the characters are going and how the plotlines tie up – I couldn’t have finished something of Ecko’s complexity unless I know what the end was, right from the beginning (if that makes sense).

But I’ve tried to discipline myself much more harshly with this and I’m finding it difficult, slow and counterproductive. The current chapter is one of the critical turning points of the plot, and I’ve written it more than once, juggling this and rearranging that – but it’s still as dry as a sandworm’s underpants, and it’s just not happening. How can two people fall in love to order? Lay their lives at each other’s feet just because the chapter plan tells them to? They might as well be signing the Contract in Fifty Shades.

sandwormcroppedI guess the art is to be able to fit the one inside the other (so to speak) – to be able to lay out a plotline and adhere to it, but give yourself rom to manoeuvre within that structure, and not cut yourself off from your characters’ feelings or the fact that they’re not always going to do what they’re told.

Whether anyone can teach you that art, of course, is another matter.

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Buckeroo – 2015 in review

IMG_4021It’s been a hell of a year.

Normally, I’d talk about work, and books, and finishing Ecko – but this year, it’s all kinda just been lost. I put my flat on the market in March, lost my Mother in April. I’ve been fighting the hissing nest of red tape that is a Lease Extension since February, not helped by an atrociously inefficient Property Management company who couldn’t find their arse with instructions. It’s been a year of hospitals, phone calls, letters, administration, Estate Agents, Solicitors, house cleaning, house viewings, accountants, funeral directors, more phone calls, endless paperwork, even more Solicitors and occasional bouts of ‘I can’t fucking do this’.

It’s also been the year in which I’ve had to edit/finish Ecko, be there for my (very upset) son and continue to go to work every day. And all of that is without getting into the stress and grief of losing someone close – and coping with the fallout. I haven’t written anything about my Mother, and I still don’t know if I can, or if I will.

IMG_3680There have been times, this year, when I’ve felt like the donkey in the kids’ game of Buckeroo – with stuff piling on me and piling on me and piling on me, waiting for the point at which I freak out and throw things because I can’t take it anymore.

But you can’t freak out – the jobs have to be done, and you have to do them. And that’s all there is to it.

Lace up your big girl boots, and quit whining.

Three things have got me though this year. One is the single sagest piece of advice I have ever heard – ‘You eat an elephant one bite at a time’. Even if you’re overwhelmed, take it one day at a time, one job at a time, and it will be okay. You’ll get mighty fucking sick of the taste of elephant… but there will come a day when you realise he’s nothing but a skeleton and a bad-taste umbrella holder, and that you can see the light again.

P1050473The second thing has been the boyfriend. I know I’ve said this before, but Jon’s strength and capability have been something I have set my back against. He’s been there for me – not only dropping everything to come after Mum died, standing tall beside me at her funeral, but fixing the house and doing the garden and painting the windows, tirelessly working so the property could be viewed and sold. And not only the practical stuff, but the being there. Sometimes, someone just making you tea is the best thing in the world.

P1050468The third thing has been a promise: that we would end a year of darkness with Christmas in the light. I’ve always wanted to go to Barcelona and marvel at the mad Gaudi artwork – it’s been a little gleam at the end of the tunnel, something to work towards. And we’ve wandered the sunlit Spanish streets, appreciating the city’s warmth and welcome and laziness, enjoying far too much wine and far too much cheese, indulging ourselves in pavement cafes and gloriously bonkers architecture, all the time remarking how London suddenly seems so dirty and aggressive. We’ve done the sights as well – jaw-dropped at La Sagrada Familia, looked for treasure at La Baceloneta, explored the heights of Park Guell and the depths of Las Ramblas… sometimes, these are the things that keep you sane.

ScaryNext year, the long-anticipated change finally comes: the housemove is imminent, now, and January may well be a bit of a scrabble. But that’s okay, I’m SO looking forward to the new start and having all of this finally over. To new working hours, to Isaac going to High School and to, appropriately enough, a whole new manuscript and world.

Moving out of your comfortzone is a bloody scary thing.

But sometimes, it’s just necessary.

 

 

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Ecko, Deepdreaming

This is GORGEOUS!

This is GORGEOUS!

These are AMAZING. They’re so gloriously fucked up – and equally so perfectly appropriate to the core theme of the books – I just don’t have words. Only: how badly I’d love a special/limited edition of Rising with this cover!

This morning’s Indy says, “The [deepdream] software works by turning the image recognising computers on themselves. By telling the systems to over-interpret images, they would pick out otherwise meaningless things and exaggerate them — turning clouds into bizarre llamas, for instance.”

Endgame in Deepdream

Endgame in Deepdream

The software is now available on Github so you can put your own images through it and see just how wonderfully, beautifully messed up they really are.

And, of course, it’s Ecko all over.

It could even have been written for him…

Alternative Cover Art for Ecko Rising - and seriously fucked up

Alternative Cover Art for Ecko Rising – and seriously fucked up

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2014 – The Things That Matter

Southwold BeachI’ve tried several times to write that ‘review of the year’ blog post, and just can’t make it make sense. Last year, the plates came crashing down because I couldn’t do it all – this year, I’ve done it all and more, and I’m still not sure how. It’s been a very dark year, but I guess you cope because you have to.

This year has seen the chaos of my work/child schedule get even more insane, if that’s possible. As the calendar of FP events gets busier, and I need to commit more time to being work Danie, Isaac still has a schedule of his own and he still has to get there – here, there, everywhere, at the last minute and at the drop of a whole shopful of hats. Just keeping these two plates spinning is a constant and chaotic headache, and wouldn’t happen without help.

Nine WorldsAdd to that the Summer of Madness – not only Nine Worlds and WorldCon and all the events surrounding, but trying to play Tetris with my furniture to get the decorators into the house. When I came back from ExCel in August, I had psoriasis, eczema, and a cellulitis infection in my ear, all flared up through pure exhaustion. I escaped a stay in hospital by the skin of my teeth and a very smart Doctor.

Unhappy CatAnd then add to that my Mum being diagnosed with terminal cancer in February. I have no words for this – not here, not now, maybe not ever. I haven’t even been with her as much I should have been. She faced three months of chemo, at nearly eighty years old, almost by herself. And I’ve felt so helpless – needing to be there, to do more – and caught in a temporal plate-spinning impossibility that I constantly struggle to control, with no real hope of succeeding. Yet her strength and stubbornness have been beyond measure, and every time I’ve thought ‘I can’t do this anymore, I’m too tired!’ I’ve reminded myself just who is facing what, and shut the fuck up.

Race for LifeIsaac and I have been with her for Christmas, and she has absolutely insisted on doing everything herself. It still isn’t real, to her either I think. I do wonder if these things ever quite stop hiding behind the Pillars of Denial… right up until the end.

Because of all of this, the delay to Ecko Endgame has been rather a blessing. The last part of the MS was rushed when I handed it in, and it’s given me a year to spin it back out and weave it back in again. In many ways, it’s kept me sane – given me both purpose and escape. Somewhere to hide, if you like.

BrightonFinally, this year, I’ve learned a huge lesson – partially from Mum and partially from sheer chaos. That lesson is to take the time when you have it. To lay the worries down, and to go to Brighton for the day. To take the bath in Bath and to look out over the hills and enjoy the moment. To walk along the beach, to play silly games on the Pier, to take the holiday when you can, to wade in the water with bare feet and climb the rocks like you did as a child, with joy and without shame.

Gull RockJon has taught me this too – has been support, sunlight and occasional sanity through a year that’s been very dark, at times. And a year that ends with me knowing that it’s going to get darker before it gets light again.

But knowing, too, that there is a light at the end of the forest, and that I don’t walk the path alone.

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