Creative friends

concert photography

I nearly titled this “artist friends”, but if someone described me as that I’d insist I’m rather low-brow for the title. It wasn’t too long ago that I insisted I was a writer, but not an author, because there’s no reason for the quasi-elite connotations of the latter; I buckled eventually, it stopped feeling like a remark worth making.

To paraphrase a singer I know, “It’s great hanging out with musicians, with artistic types. You never know if you’re sitting in on history.”

The first reason you hang out with anybody, of course, is because you feel interested in hanging out with them. We can flesh out the reasons for why you feel that way, but in my personal experience, this friendship may have low mileage if it’s only established for an ulterior motive. No, you like a person and you like spending time with them, or it may not matter what else they have to offer you. If you’re being paid to spend time with them, on the other hand, then it sounds like the vague makings of a job. We all tend to need a job some time.

I once had a job for a guy who said, “Who you are with is who you become”. Maybe there’s a bit of that hope when we hang out with creative friends, that inspiration will touch us too. That’s probably not the exact mechanism of inspiration, but if you don’t know how else it works and you describe it that way, most people know what you mean.

I prefer to have a group that leaves room for people to find their own craft. If the group is stifling by nature, then the accomplishments of its individual members don’t matter; you don’t need that. You don’t need to fit someone else’s idea of what a writer should be. You need exposure to ideas that might not otherwise occur to you, or you may even need time and space to try the handful of things you heard first because you could get option paralysis if you’re flooded with too many ideas at once. The individual gets along with the group and the group enables the individual, and there is no relevant conflict.

I like a group where we can have honest discussions, but there needs to be caring as a foundation. There are workshops, critique groups, and then just groups of creative friends, and the lattermost is where caring for others must happen. Workshops and critique groups are where you go specifically to get something you want, and likewise other people show up to get what they want, and some form of trade happens. With a good group of creative friends, accounting happens at mutually agreed upon times; who pays how much when splitting a bill, certainly, but not such a strict accounting of, “I gave you X, you’ll definitely owe me one” unless the situation calls for it.

I have a few groups of creative friends. In most of them, I’m an appreciator on the periphery, or I have a peripheral contribution level to the art in question; I may photographically document it without really doing it, or I’m in the chat room with the web comic artists but everyone knows I can’t even draw stick figures as well as XKCD. That’s the role I’m used to, so I don’t tend to vie for leadership even in the rare case when others may consider me a more central figure.

Is there one group you have that you’d like to discuss?

Music as muse

Ayria and a bagel

For the purposes of inspiring writing, music remains one of the most personal things. I have encountered writers who will settle for no less than Celtic music because they insist a particular scene to be written demands it, while I’ve chugged out first drafts to the tune of game soundtracks from the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. An album or group that worked well for me one year will do nothing the next, and sometimes there doesn’t appear to be any kind of externally recognizable logic to a song selection I make for a given project.

In light of that, my advice is: develop a feel for what works in that exact moment regardless of what reason tells you should work, don’t worry about justifying or explaining it to anybody, have a way to experience the music without making everyone around you have to experience it as well (if possible), and set aside time to listen to almost dead silence if your mind’s become so cluttered with sounds. Sometimes, even if you otherwise really enjoy a song, you may have to recognize that it isn’t helping you write and it should be turned off.

Also, if you need a specific style of music, try to find more than one example of it and make a playlist. I know I have the tendency to loop a track that’s working, but if I let it loop a variable number of times that equals too many, it could make me loopy.

Mapping out your world

TGKQ map by Steven Sandford

Maps are a staple of the fantasy genre. Sometimes, even if it’s contemporary urban fantasy, I want a map showing me relevant sections of the urban setting (though for real-world cities, we always have Google). If it’s period/historical, it can be great to have a map of how a place was at the time your story takes place.

I happened to be connected with an experienced fantasy map artist when I first self-published, and we negotiated a good price for a large hand-drawn map, plus a digital scan of it to send to the publishing service I used. The original is sitting on top of a box in an inexpensive plastic frame because I can’t yet afford a good one of the correct size, and it makes a great display piece for book fairs.

Here are a few minor considerations for mapping a place which has never been. You don’t have to follow any of these, but just in case they haven’t crossed your mind…

“Mountains that spew fire” – Are there any active volcanoes known to your mapped world? These can be a nice touch for some mountain range in your world, even if it’s not one that gets much use in your story.

Not every border needs to be set at a mountain range. If you need a reason why a shore wouldn’t make for a good landing or it’s difficult to get through somewhere, remember deserts, swamps/bayous, and other environmental/geographical features.

What’s the scope of your mapped world? In my case, it’s one known continent, and only the parts immediately relevant to the story are actually shown; I can always commission an expanded map if I’m lucky enough to publish a sequel. But once you know that, consider: is the southern part near an ice cap? The northern part? Neither? What would the climate expectations be living in each particular part of a map?

Do your rivers defy gravity, running up mountains instead of down from glaciers? They probably don’t, but this was funny to think about.

Are there any standard nautical routes to mark? Are there any warnings about where one ought not sail, due to reefs, sandbars, Longnecks, tentacle monsters, sirens etc.?

Good luck and happy cartography.

Saturday sample


My series is divided into two trilogies so far. The first trilogy is what you’re beginning to see in print. The second occur almost concurrently, following the ancestors of Derek (the first prequel), Chandra (the second prequel), and Alathea (the third prequel) through ancient dramas. This is from the first draft opening of a book that won’t see release for quite some time, tentatively called The Fall of Wancyrik.

When one looks back to one’s beginning, life is fragments of memories: images, faces, sometimes scenes and speech. Lenn Wancyek has no difficulty remembering some of these things because he sees them every day, a countryside little different, from the vantage of a Duke’s manor kept largely the same by constant efforts.

He sees the plains as far as any eye can, from a slight rocky hill on which that manor was built; he remembers how adults look from the worm’s eye view of a small child; he remembers chasing seeds from dandelions as they flew through the air, and counting the ornate beads and running his fingers along the threadwork of his mother’s dress whenever he needed to hide behind her. He remembers the vigorous breeze on warmer days.

He remembers when his father brought him out to the widest fallow field, to lay on their backs and look at the clouds. There did not seem to be anybody else around. They took off their shirts and let the sun warm them.

“What are clouds, dad?” Lenn asked.

His father seemed to have a perpetual smile.

“Great castles in the sky, cities out of reach. Not for us to know, but for our ancestors to uphold, for them to build and to display. Only breezy souls are light enough to live in them. If you were to climb the highest mountain to set foot in such a palace, you would fall. Best to live in the castles we know, and to enjoy what visions we’re shown.”

Lenn frowned. “But what can be lighter than the winds? Even little rain drops fall down.”

His father pointed to a lone hawk.

“Have you ever seen a falconer hold a bird? The man doesn’t suddenly rise in the air. Some things are intimate with the winds and are upheld by them. Sometimes the winds uphold the water and other times they lend us some. They let the hawks up a ways, but almost certainly not as high as the uppermost clouds. Everything is in its natural place up there.”

“How can the winds be up there, and also down here? I can feel them…” Lenn puzzled.

“Well, there are as many of them as we have had ancestors. And they always want us to know that even though there is such a great world for them, they will never forget us. They have never fully left us behind. And one day, we all join them.” He paused. “But for you, that day is too far away to think about. You’re young. Just stay grounded, where life is, and don’t get carried away.”

Seeing things different with artistic collaborators

Portrait of Chandra by Amber Robyn

It shouldn’t be any surprise that my creative inspirations come mostly from visual formats. While the generation of my childhood didn’t have YouTube, we had television, and we had VHS; we could re-watch anything ripped from television or from another tape, at least until the magnetic tape wore down or the VCR suddenly turned to the dark side and chewed up the tape. I recall performing a home repair on a copy of Labyrinth using a single piece of clear tape… didn’t save that one frame or stretch of tape, but did allow the VHS to play once again. And then, video games began to emerge that had increasingly complex stories, graphics, cutscenes performed to the best dramatic music you could wring out of a 16-bit platform. We still read books, but if my works have what some call a more “cinematic” arrangement or style, perhaps all art can inspire all other art; we experience movies and television, and that can influence the way we write books or sing songs or anything else.

And yet, in the world of words, I zero in on words themselves. I may start off with snippets of visuals in my mind, but I suffer from a disconnect where I don’t actually know what visual is conjured up by the reader based on the words I’ve put down; once the words are down, it becomes about their spelling, syntax, arrangement, not necessarily reaching far beyond that. I believe it’s called, not being the reader and not having their brain hooked up to mine as I write things. It’s probably better that way, because everyone’s perfectly capable of having their own disturbing thoughts without being directly hooked up to a writer.

Every time I work with a visual artist (a digital artist, or even dancers) they ask important questions and force me to pay attention to whatever I’m overlooking. I’m not nearly as detail-oriented as Tolkien, so simple things like what natural hair colour a person has sometimes get left unanswered in the copy. When I describe anybody, it’s because their differences define them in the eyes of others; for example, Chandra sure doesn’t look like the former Queen, and her physical traits aren’t average for a Kensrikan or a member of her family, and that makes a huge difference in how people treat her. But the more distant you get from her, the less I can say off the top of my head. I sometimes have more of an idea what a character wears than how she looks, but none of my characters are invisible, or collections of levitating garments.

Who do I see in the mental pictures, then? It can get random. Former classmates. People I’ve known. Animated characters. I can’t stay with them because even though the personality of a character usually has nothing to do with the person whose face I give them, it would get really awkward if I proceeded to commission art that followed the real look of a person who has nothing to do with the project. Artistic collaborators may think they have to live up to my artistic vision, but what they often do is help me elaborate the features of a person who has never been given a canonical portrait.

Just being asked what height a person is, what length of hair, eye colour, what they’re doing; these basic questions are ones you should keep with you after a commissioned artwork is done. They can form part of a useful creative exercise that you can reuse. At the very least, sailing into uncharted waters, reaching for questions for which you don’t have any immediate answer, aren’t going to hurt you as a writer.

Storytelling exercises: tarot-based “hows” and “whys”

example of a tarot card spread

I have no formal set of spiritual beliefs to share with you today, and I don’t use tarot cards in the exact way they were originally intended. I’m bringing them to the table because I find that they make for a great storytelling exercise. Each card has a variable set of symbolic meanings, and depending on the context of a reading (i.e. what the reader wants to divine, or question to be answered) the cards can sometimes help open up a path that I wouldn’t have previously considered.

For example, let’s suppose I’m borderline on the fate of a minor character. If they perish, then the remainder of the book has to take into account the consequences of their absence. If they live, then I have to find something useful for them to do, or some other compelling reason to make them go away if I have no further narrative plans for them.

This came up when I was writing the third manuscript in the “Gift-Knight” trilogy, around 2011. In this case, I wasn’t going to the cards to determine the binary lives/dies outcome for the character per se; I knew which way I was leaning. The story paths opened up to me by the cards were more like possible “hows” and “whys” than “whethers”. While there isn’t a strict moral code determining the outcomes for characters in my trilogy, answering yes or no to any decision still leaves the practical how, the practical why. I used the details of the book that I knew so far for the context.

Though the third book still needs its overhaul, and several editing runs on top of that, I will probably keep with the decision I reached. For something that worked well, I haven’t relied on this method again for that specific purpose. I would sooner go for that than a coin toss.

Instead, I sometimes do readings for people, and I take a very neutral perspective on whether or not I’m actually tapping into a spiritual force to help this person understand the “hows” and “whys” of life. The tarot reading for a person is a mutual creative exercise, where I provide prompts based on manual-derived symbolic meanings you can get from each card. I use a standard layout for longer card draws so that each card is loosely situated in a context, pre-assigned a purpose. But the most important thing is how the other person responds, and what input they bring to their own story we’re trying to tell. I’m helping them do their own reading; I ask useful questions. If they bring nothing, I deliver nothing. And they can believe whatever they want, it’s not a problem for me.

Characters may have enough formed personality that you could imagine their responses, but the character-outcome card draw is most likely to reinforce and elaborate a decision I’m leaning toward, though not strongly. Most of the time, I don’t need to go as far as to bring out my deck, but if I did, I would sooner stick with the decision reached by cards than by a coin toss. Maybe it’s just me.

Sleep deprivation and carving out your own method

a pot of coffee

Some people think I’m a “night owl”, but I have been highly sleep dependent for a long time. I think anybody can look like a night owl if they’re just transposing the sleep to the entire morning, and sometimes early afternoon, instead of doing it at night. To me, the night owls in my life are not likely sleeping before midnight, yet somehow up and functional at 6AM.

One identified issue for me has been sleep apnea, and my airways measurably closing up over 15 times per hour (according to one sleep study session). But before I go far down the personal health road, I want to remind you of the dedicated author type, the “night owl” who heroically forgoes sleep for a full week, and reports sleep deprivation hallucinations like just further proof of how dedicated they are.

They are dedicated, no doubt. But I want to ask, what works for you? Is emulating them a good idea?

One of the first courses I took at York University was called Theories of Writing. We looked at some of the ideas and research from the field of Cognitive Science, and what that view brings to our understanding of writing and writers. It’s been over a decade with no brush-up so I can’t recall every detail, but here’s the gist for you: the most successful writing method and practice you can have should be tailored to you. While I’m filing you under the writer type to keep rhetoric simpler, you’re an individual with a name, a unique set of life experiences, a brain that’s yours and yours alone, and along with it, a unique upbringing and set of psychological experiences that have shaped what’s there.

Every year (that I don’t misread a calendar or address and miss it entirely) I do at least one overnight writing session with others. Every year, on a personal level I see diminishing returns, so I treat it as a fun bit of excess that, having survived, I can laugh at afterward with the other survivors. I value the social experience of being with writers yet I am most a writer when I can tune out everyone else, and let the story come to the forefront of my thinking while every other aspect of my life… doesn’t vanish, but steps aside, takes a lower priority. So I could already reason from there that the most productive I’ll get is by being alone, but I can be happier not alone; wonderful things like noise cancelling headphones allow me to “warp” out of the room full of people for writing after I’ve found inspiration, yet conveniently “warp” back in without having to physically travel. I went on this tangent to show that the group aspect of the Overnighter isn’t really a problem.

No, the diminishing returns probably come from my increased sleep dependency. I can summarize the last one for you. Early part of the evening, things actually get done. Food. Drink. Early morning Ouija session with a small group, for fun. Return to writing, really force out stuff that ups the word count but might not stay in the final copy. Drink more coffee when it’s gradually ceasing to matter. Try to nap on the carpet with a rolled up jacket for a pillow, yet my lack of versatility as a sleeper wins out over the tiredness that you’d think would force me to pass out anywhere. The night ends, it’s officially daylight. People are asking me if I’m okay because I am officially not present for stretches of seconds at a time, but my eyes are open. I don’t always hear what they’re saying. Pancakes at a restaurant; go home, fall over somewhere comfortable.

This is a lot of me, me, me and also me, but I would feel awful if I really cared how well I fit the sleep deprived hard working author type.

I just want you to know that if there’s a trendy piece of advice or technique to try, and super famous, super successful authors are using it, and you try it and fail miserably, I suggest you treat that as your “fun bit of excess” that you get to laugh about afterward (which should be easy if, like me, five in the morning rolls around without a wink of sleep and you’re laughing to yourself thanks to sleep deprivation). The problem isn’t you. There isn’t a problem at all, unless you think you’re obligated to fit the same type as a writer whose work you happen to enjoy reading, or whose success you just really respect.

That’s their brain. If they succeeded, they found what works for them.

Find what works for yours. Maybe you’re a morning person. Maybe the span of time you normally try to sleep is when all the ideas show up. Maybe you need to be well rested. Maybe you need to swear off coffee. Try a bunch of things and their complete opposites, and take inventory of the results.

Self-pub desperation

If you’re one of those fabulous people who always makes calculated, rational decisions, and doesn’t understand how sentiments and fears can lead a person to feel compelled to make questionable decisions, then don’t read this post. It won’t connect with you, unless you have at least an outsider’s understanding of the likes of me.

Driven by fears that I can sometimes name, and that other times are just nameless and formless, as if there’s this vaguely outlined miasma of fear drifting about and finding its way into my lungs from time to time, I nevertheless started my life as a self-pub with a big group hug called a Kickstarter. Apparently there was a lot of good will pointed in my direction, and I made my funding goal, and it would have been nice if the big group hug had afforded me some long-term self-confidence.

Instead, once the Kickstarter funds had already been properly accounted for, printing copies of the book and all the other services I accepted from Matador, I was on my own to cover most of the rest (i.e. anything else under the sun that I felt like doing) with credit. I didn’t have an active team, and I had already ignored people’s advice by not going straight to Amazon or something like that, so I wasn’t about to say, “Please give me more advice that I may just ignore.” I try to value people’s time, and I can count on many of them to give advice free over the course of our friendship, so asking doesn’t always have to happen first.

The next three quarters of a year I’ve swooned in and out of this gimmick and that, lists of Fiverr gigs, Twitter blasts, pre-compiled mailing lists, hundreds of dollars’ worth of Facebook ads, and one national-level book fair. Some of those things were way better ideas than others.

With the beginning of this website venture, my March focus has been gradually trimming the fat; forgetting about the gimmick gigs that could have hurt my brand without selling a single copy; cancelling questionable services that rely on recurring payments. Hopefully, I get accepted to a local author book fair at the end of May. That will be an honest-to-goodness outreach to people who have been my neighbours for the longest time without knowing I exist, because all my efforts were directed at that boundless throng, “The Internet”. And that wouldn’t have been a terrible direction if I had done so in more intelligent ways, most of the time. However, I don’t even want to spend more on somewhat-reliable Facebook Ads (where at least I know I’m creating the ad, and in better control of my destiny) without having a plan, or at least a vague idea of what I’m doing.

Whether or not I make the cut of the book fair, I’m printing a new run of cards. Those are yet another neutral tool, and I hope to reserve them for smarter use this time around. A couple of factors already make these cards more helpful when used wisely:

When the first cards were printed, there was only a TGKQ cover graphic. There was no text on it, no way to know what that image means without reading the back of the card. The new cards have the author name and book title, just as it appears on the cover of a paperback.

When the first cards were printed, there were no social media sites or URLs for this book at all because it had yet to be published. I had to hand-write things like “Available at” on the back of every card that I wanted to make more useful. Sometimes it was a list of ebook outlets, cluttering the back of what should be a reusable postcard. The new cards will have all the relevant information they need just by listing my URL on the back; all that other info can be located on this site. At least it’ll save me lots of fatigue in my writing hand.

And a final thing I’ve learned about cards: if I so much as set foot outside my home, there will be organically arising opportunities to put the cards where people actually welcome them. I don’t have to create opportunities to distribute them, and I suspect you don’t have to, either. Don’t get nervous if your print run of cards looks big and bottomless. If they run out, you just have to pay again to get more. Let them stick around a bit longer, it doesn’t hurt.

Some people are less prone to panic, and they’ll be better-organized self-pubs from the start. If you’re like me, it’s possible that the only way you’ll learn all this is to make the mistakes. Even reading this warning from someone who’s been there won’t necessarily stop you; after all, I’m not you, and maybe if you do it, it’ll somehow work better… I know that train of thought.

I suggest in the worst case, you get it out of your system as early as possible. All you have to do is manage a personal budget, keep an eye on your credit if you have any to work with, and know where to draw lines in the sand that you don’t want to cross. If you can manage that budget aspect, you’re already bound to survive your early “self-pub desperation” phase in way better shape than this blogger.

Starting a manuscript

Starting a manuscript is still one of my biggest challenges.

Sure,the NaNoWriMo “just get anything down on the page” format gets me to do just that; there are words at the beginning, and they lead to other words which eventually leads to the story. That’s not the “starting” I want to discuss, but it bears mentioning.

There isn’t a manuscript I have profiled on this site that didn’t need a complete from-scratch rewrite of its beginning (The Daughter of Storms probably still needs it, having never been put through any editing cycle). According to one beta reader, about one third to one half of The Crown Princess’ Voyage went by before it started getting interesting and solid.

That last half was still subject to sweeping edits, but when it came to the first half, I took notes regarding what was there so I wouldn’t lose anything when I blew it all up and replaced it outright. As long as I maintained all the setups and cues I needed for the second half to make sense, that was that.

From a failed 2006 first-attempt right to the year of its release (2015), The Gift-Knight’s Quest has had three or four different first chapters. The first two iterations that never made it, treated as standalones what I would eventually transform into Derek’s and Chandra’s personal threads. I don’t remember a lot about those iterations because they didn’t tend to go over three pages in Word, but mashing together the two failures created plot dynamics that got some length out of the story. The characters would start as each other’s antagonists. Now it was just a matter of fleshing it out and answering questions.

Once the mashup occurred and the result was tentatively called The Last of the Feud, all the early attempts began with Chandra; a mirror trope describing this character to you in crisp detail, or even the “bad dream” that I kept in some form for a later chapter. A beta reader pointed out that she’s not really an “action” character from the outset, and he felt that readers wanted someone who was at the very least going somewhere to do something, to start the book in a more interesting way. The only way I could see to do that was having Derek begin the story. And once that happened, he was destined to monopolize the cover of the book.

Chandra got the cover of the second book, TCPV. Neither of them get the cover of the third. I think this is fair. A publisher could come along, pick up this series, and make the covers their own, but for as long as the current state of things persists, that’s the cover plan.

Who’s on the cover of the third book? Some art belonging to that third character will be released to social media not too long from now.

But returning to my point, it’s not like these two learning experiences allowed me to suddenly write brilliant novel beginnings right from the rough draft. You can either say it was from 2006 or 2008, right up to 2015, before I finalized an intro to TGKQ that some critics still say is too slow. It took from 2010 to 2015, most of which was admittedly working on TGKQ and not looking at TCPV at all, to get TCPV’s beginning overhauled and in my opinion ready for publication.

(Time spent not looking at it can be useful; creates a distance between me and the text that allows me to more effectively see what’s on the page, and not the memory of what I intended to have conveyed on the page. After enough time I am forced to deep-scan the actual words to remember what’s there, and that’s when I’m forced to see the text for what it is and edit it properly. If it’s my own work, that’s how it goes. If you never have that problem and can edit perfectly seconds after writing the initial text, that’s wonderful for you.)

And as I look at last November’s manuscript, the prequel The Mad King Jonnecht, the trend continues. I could reread my own ending multiple times and enjoy it, but the beginning may just shift to being the middle after I write TMKJ a proper beginning instead.