How to find your process when writing

Art school teaches student to focus on ‘their process’- the optimum way for them to work to make the things they want to make. It is a combination of the manner of working, the speed and timing along with the materials used and the subject matter chosen. It involves everything! Now, as someone with less facility at drawing and painting than writing, I have, over the last few weeks, been forced to look more at process as I have been drawing pages for a rather strange and free illustrated book. First I found a style I liked, and a subject I could draw easily. I like drawing from life, but if I needed to work fast (another one of my self-imposed limits) I needed shapes I was familiar with and could summon up from my memory. I like boats, the sea, prehistoric and shamanic art, islands and…dots. Dots are a great way to mark time as you work out what to do next in your drawing. Using this method I could produce up to eight A4 pictures a day that I was satisfied with. If it all sounds strangely bloodless then that’s a failure of the writing, not the process! It was very exciting and interesting and multi-dimensional to do. However, just as you learn impro acting from some simple external rules; I believe you can ‘learn to be optimally creative’ with simple external ‘process’ rules.

I realise that many artists are TOO skilful. They’re like the slick guitarists who become session musicians unlike the Clash who could only play three chords. But when your palette is three chords you are FORCED into creative overdrive. It’s rather like the lesson on story writing where instead of asking the student to write about their life, or their street or even their house (that’s boring!) you demand a story about one brick in their house. The flood gates often open at that point. We live in a world of fantastic choice and opportunity but that very abundence stymies the creative powers which thrive on problem solving, and for that you need defined problems- which in art are the rules you set yourself which often reflect your limitations. It’s hard to set limiting rules, that’s why real ones created by limitation force the hand and create a ‘no escape’ scenario.

So how can this apply to writing? I think every aspect of the writing process needs examination- the machine you write on, the paper, the printer, the ideas, the subject, the style- all with regard to speed. I don’t just mean absolute speed- so many words per hour (apparently Dr Johnson could manage 1800 words an hour when a deadline was on for the appropriately named Idler magazine) I mean speed over time. It’s not so good if you write 4000 words a day for six weeks and then crash and burn and do nothing for a year. Or maybe it is. That’s how Frederick Forsythe writes his novels. Others drip feed 200- 300 well turned words every single day for a year. Very often you hear of writers doing a 1000 words a day. From my experience the range of the professional writers I know is around 1500-2000 a day. But there are many exceptions and this is all secondary to KEEPING GOING. You have to hone this whole process with one goal in mind- keeping going, because giving up on a writing project is your number one enemy- nothing else. So reverse engineer your process with that in mind. Build in routine, nice little breaks, a policy of having fun as you type (I put in all the stupid puns, rude jokes and pretension I can- all is pruned out later – but it KEEPS ME WRITING rather than self-censoring). You are either in flow mode- downloading and creating or EDIT mode. You can flip between the two, and of course you get better at that, but generally you want to be full throttle in flow mode for good work.

And I think it helps to think about what you are good at and what you aren’t. Don’t try and fix it- try and work round it. Arthur Ransome, when he illustrated the Swallows and Amazons books (and I LOVE his illustrations) was really lacking in confidence when drawing people and especially faces (it’s common and often simply stems from using line rather than shading and as a result, not knowing what the important lines are- in drawing objects that we like, or things that don’t move we find the important lines more easily). Digression aside, Ransome DIDN’T learn to draw faces better- he simply drew people from behind or wearing low hats! And there you have the beginning of a ‘style’. So find the kind of writing you excel at and do more of it. Do less of what you can’t do. If dialogue is not your thing- don’t do it, or, like John Updike, add commentary to any dialogue, thus giving it more resonance. Find your limitations and then get creative- use them to do what you want to do. For example if you want to write a sci-fi book but can only manage travel writing as a genre, write a sci-fi novel which takes the form of a travel book about visiting some place in the future- with all the conventions of a travel book except it is set in an imaginary place. If you can only ‘do’ academic style writing write academically about removing the dog poo that walkers leave behind in those horrid little black bags. Or something! Mix it up. The Nobel prize winner J.M.Coetzee is quite a nerdy left brain kind of writer. He admits to being uninterested in description. But he uses his limited palette to great effect. The creativity doesn’t exist in having a ‘great idea’, it lies in using your limited palette to do more than at first is apparent. The punk rockers could have stayed in their garages playing old rock hits badly- instead they took the tools of old style rock and did something very exciting and new.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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