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Hiveminded Episode 018

Show notes

Queenie Chan’s website

Ryan K Lindsay’s website

Part 1 of our conversation (episode 017)

Transcript

NB: This transcript has not been checked for accuracy. I apologise for any errors.

[Music]

Karen Beilharz: Welcome to Hiveminded Podcast, an occasional and seasonal podcast about the creative arts and the people who create them. My name is Karen Beilharz and I’m coming to you from Sydney, Australia.

During this mini season of the podcast, we are focusing on comic creators. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down all the conventions and zine fairs where I would normally see my friends in the Australian comic scene, I thought instead it would be fun to catch up with them and interview them about comics, and ask them all the little niggly questions I’ve always wanted to ask them about their projects and their creative processes.

This episode contains the second part of my conversation with comic creators Queenie Chan and Ryan K Lindsay.

If you’re not familiar with them, Queenie Chan is a manga artist and comic creator, known for her Picnic at Hanging Rock-inspired horror trilogy, The Dreaming; her collaborations with Dean Koontz and Kylie Chan; the fairytale-inspired fantasy adventure Fabled Kingdom; and a series of children’s non-fiction works about famous queens throughout history.

Ryan K Lindsay is an award-winning writer known for such works as Headspace, which is set inside the mind of a serial killer; Negative Space, in which his main character goes to pen a suicide note and gets writer’s block; Beautiful Canvas, a crime miniseries about a hit woman trying to reconcile her profession with her role as a mother-to-be; and Everfrost, a science fiction miniseries about a woman on the brink of death who comes face-to-face with the son who died in her arms as a child.

Whereas in Part 1 in the previous episode, Queenie, Ryan and I talked about our comic creator origin stories, the genres and tropes that we are drawn to, and how we actually go about writing comics, in part 2 of our conversation, we discuss where we start with a project, how we think about stories, how we keep going when the going gets tough, the things we’re good at and the things we’d like to improve, and the projects that are currently obsessing us.

We hope that you enjoy it.

KB: So just thinking when you get an idea or a character—I guess you’ve talked a little bit about this—but how do you go about fleshing it out and working on it? ’Cause I know that, Ryan, you talk about breaking stories: how do you go about doing that? Seems very violent! [Laughter]

Ryan K Lindsay: It’s certainly a laborious—I find I just—so once I really sink my teeth into a character or a story and want to develop it and commit to it, I commit a notebook to it, and then I just go through and write down question after question after question, and then answer them and draw arrows back, and I cross stuff out. And I just feel like I end up writing a dozen versions of different possibilities. And then just start cutting off possibilities that aren’t getting me excited about the story or that don’t fit or make sense anymore the more I explore and unpack it.

So, yeah, it usually stems with me having a character and me being, “What are they like?” or “Who’s around them who matters to them?”—all this sort of stuff. And then, “What problem are they facing?”, “Why is it a problem?”, “Why can’t they overcome it?” And I find the actual act of writing the question down so that I can then write what the answer will be is much better than just sitting there and trying to do it in my head. I find that that—I don’t know; it just doesn’t yield a result. For some reason, my brain just seems to work well with pen and paper.

And so, I do that for the character and the character, and then I start going, “All right, well, who are some of the other main characters?” Maybe, some locations. Maybe some MacGuffin-y-type things. And then I just start writing plot out. The moment the plot stops flowing, I’ll ask a question: “Well, what could they do now?” and I’ll write down three options of branching narratives, and go, “All right: well, this is the one I’m going to go down.” And sometimes it’s the wrong one and I’ll dedicate ten pages to that, and then go, “All right. Well, that’s dead” and have to sort of like scrub it out. But I might steal bits out of it. But, yeah, just becomes lots of writing and writing and writing and writing.

And then I’ll try to do, like, a diagram. And so I’ll try to map it out over, like, a five-act structure. And I’ll do that over two pages and I’ll draw out the arc and start to arrow in where different moments should occur. And that’s sort of,  I guess, my way of checking that what I’ve done is working or makes sense. I don’t like starting with those plot diagrams, but I find they’re just ingrained in us: we know them from childhood. We understand how stories work, and we understand why they’re satisfying, and we understand when they’re being broken up into different things and for reasons. But to actually consciously do it, I find that it’s good to use it almost as, like, a quick measuring lens of what I’ve got. ’Cause often it will show me one act that’s just a bit lacking, and I’ll go, “Oh yeah, that is thin there” or “Oh yeah, it doesn’t quite set up the broken climax of the character so they can get to the proper climax.” And so there’s different elements like that that go into that.

But I don’t know if it just comes from a history of constantly in my head doubting myself and questioning everything that I’m doing, and so that’s my process—of just asking again and asking again, and just getting stuck in a loop. But this time, externalising it into the notebook—whether that is what works. But even then, I’ll find, once the plot works, I’ll—much like I do at the start of the notebook, where I’ll write the character and I’ll just write down all their information, I’ll do a new page for the character and then write it down again, because it’s almost updated. There are certain things from the character that’s half a notebook ago, and some of those pieces I’ve retconned out of the story and don’t fit. So I write the new character down and it helps me f—like we said before, like, polish it—things away and bring things to the fore.

So, yeah, it is just this manic John Doe in Seven-style diary entries of just [Laughter] insanity and—and then hopefully, it—what I get to is a point where I can say, “All right: I have, like, a four-page synopsis in my notebook. I can type that up into about two pages and it’s clear and concise. And everything else that matters is either still in my head or if I’ve forgotten it, it’s probably not important to the character or there’s something.” If there’s a great thing that’s going to happen, it should be so good that I won’t forget it.

Yeah, I think, years ago, I remember Stephen King saying that if you have a good idea and you need to write it down, well, maybe it wasn’t that good, because it should have stuck with you. Which I disagree with a little bit, ’cause my memory is terrible for just everything. But I think after a while, if I’ve been living with this story for six months in a notebook, I should know the parts that are going to pop. And I have done this, where I’ve gone back into notebooks and gone, “Oh yeah! I did say this thing was going to happen, but I didn’t put it in the script, and I didn’t something better.” That thing wasn’t important as long as I got the story arc. It’s like if you were rewriting Hansel and Gretel and you just wrote the plot down, when it comes time to “Do they leave breadcrumbs or do they tear leaves off or snap branches?”, that’s just polishing the chassis. You could do that however you want, and hopefully you’ll come up with the best version of it, whenever you write it. But as long as you know the structure, I think that’s what gets me to plotting versus pantsing. I very much have to plot it out. But when I sit it down, I still want to be excited. I still want to have moments of discovery. And I want to be allowed to break away from that form, so I don’t want to have a plot that’s so laboriously written out that it really is just everything, and then I’m transcribing it. I think that would take away—

Although, in saying that, when I sit down to write the comic script, sometimes I just want to discover how it will translate to the page. So I want enough of the story existing in my head or in a notebook or in the synopsis, and then I can sit down and go, “All right: how do I best use comics to make it pop on this one page?” if that makes sense.

KB: Interesting. Yeah. So do you gravitate towards the five-act structure? Do you mix it up and use different ones for different projects?

RKL: That’s usually the one that I find, even if I haven’t been thinking about it, my stories have lent themselves to that anyway. But I find that structure just really clear and it really delineates—I mean, it’s just—it really is the same arc as the three-act structure, but I really just break it down a little smoother in my head. And it also helps with comics if you’re selling, like, you know, a miniseries, you can usually do the first two acts in the first issue, and then each other issue is Acts 3, 4 and 5. So it kind of does generally, roughly speaking, balance itself out.

KB: Yeah. And so, where would you put yourself on the pantser versus plotter continuum—or gardener? [Laughter]

RKL: I definitely think I plot more than anything else. I’m happy to have happy accidents along the way. But I won’t pitch a story to a publisher unless I really know what’s going to happen. So a lot of my discovery is in the plotting and in the synopsis and stuff like that.

And I think I then have the benefit of when I’m writing it, I mean, you hear about writers who say, “Well, I already know the story now and I’ve already written the synopsis; what’s the fun of writing it again?” But I get it to write it in this way where I’m setting it up for an artist, and so I’m thinking about every tool that comics had in its war chest to bring it to life. The analogy, I think, that would be best is like saying a director doesn’t feel like, “Oh well, I guess I’m just filming the script; the story already exists.” They’re bringing it to life! And I feel like the comic script gets to do that and the artist, then, really really does that. But before I get there, I definitely need to know that I have confidence that I can tell the story to a satisfying conclusion. So I plot plot plot plot as much as I can.

And then, you see what happens. I know with Headspace, again, there were eight short issues in that. And I had this beat at the end of Issue #6, and we’re really starting to lean into those final two acts. And I had this beat at the end of Issue #6 and I scripted it, and I sent the script off to Eric, and as I did, he’d sent me an email at the same time, and he was, like, “Ooh, you know what should happen at the end of Issue #6 is this totally different thing!” [Laughter] And I was, like, “Ohhh, no, he’s right!” [Laughter] “It’s such a good idea!” So I was, like, “Well, ignore the email you just got from me. This script is going to have to be fixed.” And I rewrote the second half of it. And ultimately the story structure became still the exact same thing, but we just tweaked it in this one beat to do something different. And that was really fun and exciting.

And I think collaborating with artists is cool because they come with that knowledge of story as well. So they’re going to have their input as to what goes on. So that part’s pretty exciting too. So I never feel bored, even after I’ve plotted it out fairly intricately.

KB: Mmm, yeah, I love that—that they make you better [Laughter]—whoever you’re collaborating with, which is fantastic.

RKL: Every single time!

KB: Yeah. Queenie, how ’bout you? Where does it start with—if you’ve got a story idea, what do you do with it? How do you break it down and flesh it out and run with it?

QC: Wow. I think I’m going to be different to everyone, because I actually don’t brainstorm on paper. Everyone else I know does. I’m just, like, brain—sit there and brainstorm in my head. Everyone’s like, “How do you remember this stuff?” And I have no trouble remembering it, so I don’t know what my secret it. [Laughter] I’m not sure if I have one! [Laughter]

I think for me, is that—oh look, I’ve written a lot of stories—some long, some short—and if you’re talking about how do I plot, it’s just very simple: like, these days, if it’s a short story and the same if it’s a long story, is that I just go, beginning, middle, end, you know? A very, very general idea of where the story’s heading. And sometimes these stories are very, very simple—on a simple emotional arc.

While we’re on the subject earlier, I’ll talk about the game that I’m making. It’s like you’re trying to rescue your grandfather from hell. Like, it actually happens partially in the afterlife. And so, this guy who raised you, who you always thought to be a great human being, turned out to be imprisoned in hell. This is Chinese hell, so it’s not a Christian hell. And you don’t know why, because he never really talks about his past. But you’re able to be free—to free him from his imprisonment, which is partly mental and emotional: you have to find out what it is—his one greatest regret in his mortal life was. It’s like it’s simple beginning, middle and end. One of his regrets turned out to be something to do with a very good friend of his. So that is it. And it’s all the other details that happen—all the people you meet; all the random stuff that happens; all the weird, crazy stuff that happens; all the murder mysteries that you run into, or whatever—it’s like they’re just things that you hang along this particular emotional journey, and this clothing line, basically, of the plot. And so, that’s where I make plots these days. I start off with something very simple and then just randomly hang stuff on the clothesline just like they were pieces of clothing.

And I think this works a lot better than some of the other stuff that I’ve tried. It’s like I find that when I plot too much on paper, it’s that I often don’t end up using a lot of the stuff. And it’s just like, “What is the point?” Like, why am I writing out all this stuff and then a lot of it just doesn’t get used? All that energy and time I could have spent drawing it out or doing something else, it’s like why write so much? ’Cause I find that things change all the time in stories. You know? Characters that you thought you were going to do something and they turn out not to be doing something, and so on and so forth. So I just don’t take that plotting out method so much these days, ’cause I find that, end of the day, the emotional arc is what really matters.

And of course, things have to make sense. It still has to be good, and people still got to still enjoy your story, and they still got to, you know, make sense in that way—particularly with the mystery story. But because of that, I just go by feeling more so than by plotting.

And I find that it works for me as well. And this is for both long and short stories, but for long stories particularly, I deliberately don’t write anything down, because I think when it comes to long stories—stories that can go on for quite a while—is that it all comes down to the characters and whether you even, as a writer, want to spend time with them. I think about how much time we’re spending with these people in your head. You know, do you even like these people? Like, are they all that interesting? And that’s the thing: I find that with really long stories where the characters actually are going to be around for a while, it’s really, really important that I leave them alone in my head without writing anything down until they come across to me as almost like actual people. And your impression of them is so strong that you don’t need to look at notes or—and I try and do a character design for them, so I have an idea of how I might picture them in my head if I see them sitting in front of me during a scene or talking to someone—it’s like what they would say, what they would do, any weird mannerisms they might have. And it’s like I feel that by the time that, years later, and sometimes it happens years later, you get a grasp of who these people actually are—like, impressions of them. I think being an artist really important, here, as well, because I have to draw them. And whatever their mannerisms are, that has to come across in the artwork as well. So once you get a strong enough impression of them, they kind of feel like friends to you. And I think that is really helpful, because then they become fully three-dimensional in your mind, and they have likes and dislikes, and they want to do certain things. And it may not be what you want them to do, but because they much grown a third mind in your head, it’s like you then just sit them there, ’cause you have such a strong impression of who they are and how they might interact with certain kinds of people—just dump them in a room and see what they do.

And very often, they do entertaining stuff, because they’re often entertaining people. They may or may not be annoying, but if you at least like them enough to actually want to sit down and watch them do their thing. So that’s probably how I do my longer stories, the ones that sit in my head for years, because if a character’s boring, you know, no matter how awesome the plot that you’ve created for them is, it’s like you eventually swap them out for someone else who’s more interesting. So I find that having a really strong impression of your characters that lives entirely in your mind is incredibly important, because then your impression of them becomes so strong that they can actually go from story to story, and they’ll still be an interesting person, no matter what the setting is.

KB: Yeah. Interesting.

QC: So this comes right back to my character thing, where I think characterisations is probably the most important thing, ’cause that’s how you—well, you create characters that people love and want to hang out with.

This is especially a problem when you’ve done a lot of stories, and they may or may not—’cause I’ve written so many stories and I’ve worked on other people’s stories, and it’s like, “Can I remember accurately each of my characters’ impressions when they’re from a long story, short story?”, blah blah blah, so on. ’Cause it is very easy: you know who the forgettable ones are, after a while. And so you try and avoid these kinds of qualities.

So sometimes some characters are written, because I need a short six-page story and here you go, here’s a character. She’s a, you know, stand-in for all twelve-year-olds, or whatever [Laughter] like that. And that happens from time to time. But then that gives you a good grasp of what is it about this character that isn’t interesting versus this character who is interesting to you?

KB: Does the character, once you’ve drawn it, does the character become more real or does it not matter, whether or not you’ve drawn it yet?

QC: It absolutely helps. Sometimes I create characters based on character designs, ’cause they look so interesting. And it’s always a challenge in manga—I mean, there is this stereotype that all manga characters look the same. But the truth is, all superhero characters look the same as well. [Laughter] It’s not like Western-style of art is definitely a lot more interesting than manga-style. It’s just that this is how a human being looks like, right?

But sometimes you do come across character designs that are just cool-looking, for whatever reason. And when they’re expressive enough, sometimes you just develop a character for them. Like for example, I remember this one character who I was developing. And she looked pretty normal—until, because of a relationship she had with someone else, I gave her a really, really big and loudmouthed personality. And she’s just one of those people who just won’t shut up—just go on and on and on. And I just—eventually that caused me to give her a really, really massive mouth. Like, larger than usual mouth. [Laughter] And you can do that with, if you exaggerate character—depending on their style, obviously if you’re doing realistic-looking characters, it won’t look—it will look very strange. But with manga, you can kind of stretch these qualities, and suddenly you have a unique character design, whereas previously, the character looked kind of boring, because she wasn’t meant to be a main character, just someone who appears at certain times in the story. And now I had someone who suddenly had potential, because she had such an unusual-looking face that is different to all the other characters I’ve designed. You know, so sometimes things like that can happen—is that characters can grow from designs alone, and grow personality traits. So I definitely do try and do character designs.

And interestingly enough, my character designs don’t change much. As a designer, that’s how it’s always been. You know, there’s a lot of people, when they do character designs, they do a wide range of stuff—they do three, four, five, six—and then they choose someone—a character that they like from that, or just—they show it to other people. I’ve actually only ever designed one to two characters. This includes people that I’ve worked with as an illustrator: here’s a brief (?) description, create something, and so [I] was like, “Here’s my one character design for your character.” And they’re, like, “Yeah, that looks great! Yeah, go with it.” [Laughter]

KB: Wow!

QC: You know? So I’ve never had an issue where people didn’t think my design suited the character unless I really was wildly off the mark—like, completely wild—as in, “This person’s meant to be a handsome 23-year-old man and he looks like a middle-aged, bearded angry guy” [Laughter] and it’s like, “Okay, so he’s meant to be a handsome 23-year-old man, as opposed to a middle-aged, angry, bearded guy. Fine.” Or maybe this guy’s supposed to be a—one of the characters for my Dean Koontz book, in the original book, he said he was a wrinkly sheriff with sagging jowls, and I drew someone—an ugly dude that basically looked like a bulldog. You know? He was fat, balding and, literally, drooping jowls, and it’s like, it turns out he’s meant to be a handsome, 50-something-year-old guy—like Kurt Russell or something [Laughter]. It’s like, “That’s wildly off the book’s description, man! The book said he’s like a 50-year-old guy with sagging jowls.” It’s like “What did you expect me to think?” But, no it turned out to—you know, “Not that kind of sagging; the good kind of sagging!” [Laughter] You know. [Laughter]

RKL: Yeah.

KB: “The good kind of sagging!”

QC: So it’s like it’s always—you know, that’s the funny thing about working with prose writers is that from their descriptions, you assume someone is … a character actor, [Laughter] if you want to be nice about it. [Laughter] And then you ask them—it’s like, “No! He’s meant to be … handsome!” [Laughter] “He’s actually really handsome. Just old!” [Laughter] It’s like books and prose novels are obviously full of really good-looking people who are very sexually attractive. You’ll never know from reading their descriptions, but from talking to their authors, everybody is very hot. [Laughter]

KB: Of course!

QC: Yeah, that’s the joke. But I definitely think character designs can go a long a way.

KB: Yeah. So it’s interesting: so what you’re doing for other creators is a little bit different from what you do for your own characters, because it sounds like, from what you were saying, you have a particular idea of your character even before you draw them—

QC: Yeah.

KB: —and the modification’s afterwards are, in a way, that’s pantsing/discovery thing, where you discover something about them in the course of using them and writing them, like your character who, all of a sudden, had this big mouth and stuff. So—

QC: Yeah. That doesn’t happen often, though. I would argue it’s an interactive process. ’Cause sometimes you get ideas from other people’s amazing character designs as well. And so, you do [your] own riff on them, and then entire worlds are born. And that’s got nothing to do with anything that I came up with: I just saw this cool character design by some person and you come up with a completely different story based on that purely. I’m like I’ve had that happen. A lot of these stories don’t hold up, because, at the end of the day, a character design isn’t compelling enough for them to be born an entire universe. There has to be else there that is interesting. But I would argue that, generally, an interactive process is that it goes from back to front—though there are characters that are pretty much born whole cloth with their character designs intact already.

And I guess it does come down to the importance of the character of the plot as well, because with character designs, you do want the main cast have the most interesting and attractive and easy-to-recognise designs, and the secondary cast to be whatever. And there is a way to design characters that look like they would be NPCs [non-player character] and characters that look like they would be the main character in a story, because they have that distinguish—that X factor. It’s just like real life: it’s like some people, you pass them in the street and it’s, like, you don’t notice them, ’cause they’re so average-looking, and other people, it’s like, they may not be conventionally attractive, but they have that X factor. [Laughter] You can’t stop looking at them. And character designs are the same. Like, it’s a very, very hard thing to get right, in my opinion.

But when you do get it right, you can actually attract a lot of readers, because of the power of aesthetics, I suppose. It’s like when you’ve got a really good-looking guy and people think that [he’s] conventionally good-looking by cartoon standards and really easy to remember, and it’s like people do remember you.

And the thing about character designs is not just about the way a person looks; it’s about how they meld with that entire cast and that entire universe. So everything comes into it—the architecture, the clothing, the way that things look, the clutter that you have in a room—that sort of thing all comes through the universe. And there are some career artists who are really, really good at doing that. I think I’m just completely average at doing that. I don’t think I’m great at background design at all. If you look at other artists who do that kind of stuff—how much of their personality they can bring to a character from what their room looks like—that is all part of characterisation as well. But I’ve never been good at that. And I don’t think I have the patience or attention to detail to be good at that, unfortunately.

KB: Can you talk a bit more about—you were saying earlier, when you think about story, you’re hanging all these things up on a washing line, in a way. Like, how do you know what to hang—what would stay and what you might reject? Because Ryan was talking about how he asks questions about his characters and what they might do, and then rejects certain possibilities. And then, also thinks about how the story fits on a five-act structure, just to make sure he’s hitting certain beats and establishing certain things. How do you do it, Queenie?

QC: I go from just more internal rhythm, I guess. After writing for a while, you get used to a certain kind of rhythm. But more importantly, well, I think the real challenge is not finding things to hang on your clothes line. You’re going to have a million things that you want to hang on your clothesline. And some of them are more interesting than others, so obviously you just take the most interesting stuff.

Obviously that’s still a lot of stuff. But the real hard part is juggling all these bits and making sure that that particular piece of clothing gets to the end of the story arc intact, and doesn’t implode halfway. Story threads, when you start them, as in new questions about these characters—new questions about the universe—new questions about the murder mystery that you’re going into—all these story threads, they’re very easy to open up. It’s very easy to throw a big question mark in the middle of a story, or at the beginning of a story, make your readers go, “Oh!”, you know, “This is not what I thought it would be.” It’s very easy to do that. What is hard is sustaining it and giving it a good resolution.

So I think that is the major challenge: it’s easy enough to find stuff to hang on your clothesline, but how do you resolve it? And how do you tie it up with all these loose strands in your story? How do you resolve it up to the point that the reader is satisfied? ’Cause sometimes you do need to leave story threads open just so you can have a sequel [Laughter]. Or just so you can write it in your notes, “Yes, I did think about that. So it’s not like I didn’t.” But the challenge comes from being able to put everything together in a neat little package.

And there are some story threads that you can’t resolve. And you do it—when you hang a bunch of stuff on your clothesline—your best, most interesting story threads—that’s the stuff that’s going to make a reader go, “Ah! Oh my God! I’ve got to find out what happens next. I want to know more about this mystery.” It’s easy enough to come up with stuff like that. But if you can’t resolve it, no matter how entertaining that story plot started, you gotta nix it. And that’s sad, but maybe it might belong in a different story—like, whatever amazing plot twist that you’ve just thrown in there. ’Cause there is a plot twist graph as well through your story, if you’re going to do the plot twist thing. At some point in time, that plot twist is going to come and it’s going to have the right kind of payoff. Because if you have a plot twist and everyone can see it coming from a mile away, then that’s not much of a payoff. Or if it doesn’t make sense, it’s not a payoff either. Or if it’s not emotionally satisfying, it’s not a payoff. And so these are the hardest things to do. And if you cannot carry a storyline—a random story thread—to its best ending, then you just might as well drop the whole thing. And that happens a lot.

And sometimes unexpected emotional moments come from plot threads that intersect with others. And suddenly this thing that you didn’t expect appears—like, this emotional entanglement suddenly happens, and you weren’t expecting it, but it happens and you’re like, “Wow!” you know? “I thought this plot thread was a total mess and that it wouldn’t work out, but then it intersects with another plot thread” or some other element from your story, and then it’s like, “Ta da!” A new twist on the ending, or a—not a completely different ending, but a different angle to do the ending from. So suddenly it subverts your own expectations, despite you being the writer—

KB: Yeah.

QC: —of a particular story. So I guess that’s how I figure out what I want.

And it’s a complicated process. And it takes months and months to get a good, satisfying story. And it comes from your own personal experiences as well—what you’re going through at that time. Maybe you go out, you meet someone, you see something, you watch a movie, you get some new ideas, and it’s like, “Oh, I can put that in my story. Oh, that’s one way you could tackle an emotional moment like this.” And so on and so forth.

KB: So it does seem to happen more in your head—the pruning—as you—

QC: Yeah.

KB: —explore certain possibilities and then reject them and go with others.

QC: Yeah. Like I said before, I find it’s more of an emotional process for me, and there’s an internal feeling about something. And if I’m not emotionally satisfied, there is no way a reader’s going to be emotionally satisfied. If you don’t believe in the power of your own story, there’s just no point.

And that’s—maybe that’s why I don’t write things down, because I feel that it loses its power when I’m reading over my notes—is that doesn’t feel the same way [Laughter]. So if something is goddamn amazing and mind-blowing, plot twisty awesomeness, you’ll remember it. You don’t need to write it down, ’cause it is so “Oh!”—mindblowing to even you.

And if you can’t impress yourself a lot, then don’t bother trying to impress your readers, ’cause they’re not going to be impressed.

KB: That’s interesting. So I feel like I’m a bit more on the plotting side in that I need to know the end, but I don’t always know how I’m going to get there. And sometimes the writing part is a bit more like just colouring in the bits that I’ve already established. But I feel like—well, this novel that I’m working on at the moment, a prose novel, I know that there’s going to be about roughly 16 chapters, I know exactly what’s happening in each chapter and even the breakdown of some of the scenes, but I don’t always know exactly how some of the scenes are going, if that makes sense—or how they’ll unfurl. And that unknown part, I guess, keeps me interested, instead of—like, I know some people who go, “Oh, I know the end. What’s the point?” I don’t quite know how it’s going to unfurl; I just know that it’s going to unfurl this way [Laughter] in a way. I know the end result and what’s going to happen. But that’s interesting.

When you’re in the middle of a project and you’re in the saggy middle, how do you motivate yourself to keep going? Ryan?

RKL: I’ve often found writing a first issue is pretty fun and pretty easy, ’cause you’re asking all these questions and you’re introducing all this awesome stuff. I often find, though, the second issue, I’m usually really satisfied with, and that I start to capitalise on what’s set up. I actually quite enjoy—it almost worries me sometimes that I feel like I do some of the best or better stuff in the second issue, and I’m like, “Oh, I wish we could have put that in the first and made it more of a hook.” So perhaps I need to restructure things going forward, I don’t know.

But the middle of the story: I don’t know. I find—and maybe it’s because I have a lot of the plotting worked out, so if I think about when I’m plotting the story and I’m not getting that churn towards the end and it’s not coming together, I think putting down a really terrible version of what’s going to happen is my path forward, and just going, “All right, then they’re going to do this and this and this and that gets them to a really unsatisfying end. Awesome!” And I close the notebook and I walk away, and I do something else for like a solid fortnight. And then I come back to the story and those notes, and really start to analyse, “All right: what’s boring? What’s not working? What are we missing at the end?” And then sort of reverse engineer it a little bit, and sort of fix it back up to go, “All right: well, we needed to sow some seeds here or this whole detour in the third act is rubbish. It needs to do something else with the character. It needs to get us to another place for the plot.”

So I think it’s just doing something terrible. You can’t edit a blank page. You can’t improve upon it. It’s just going to continue to be what it is.

KB: Yeah, it makes me think of that quote by John Swartzwelder: he was the head writer on The Simpsons, and he was interviewed about how does he write his scripts? And he said, “I have this trick whereby, well, I find writing really hard, but rewriting’s relativity easy”, so on the first day, he tries to get out the worst draft possible of his script for whatever episode—

RKL: Yeah.

KB: —he’s working on. When he comes in the following day, at least it’s been done, and it’s like these crappy little elves have come and done all this really crappy work [Laughter] and all I’ve got to do now is fix it.

RKL: Nice! [Laughter] And—and that—that becomes the thing, and I hate rewriting, but I know it’s where the best stuff comes. The writing part—the writing is flowing and it’s fun, even when it’s maybe not the best, at least stuff’s, like, coming out. It feels like painting with a roller, and then the rewriting is like, “All right, I gotta get nitty gritty, or I gotta get the goggles on with the extra zoom-in goggles, and I gotta get the single horsehair brush and fix little things.” And it’s where all the big mistakes can happen. You can’t make mistakes with a roller; you just slam it on there.

But I also find most of the stuff I’ve done has been four-issue minis, and I always find the first script, I will do ten to a dozen full drafts on that first issue. And then as I go through each issue, usually the fourth issue is one draft, maybe—I mean, one draft, for me, is usually a vomit draft to fix and then what I pretend is my first draft. So it’s probably three drafts. But the first issue is a lot, and I find I’m taking this story that I’ve concocted and actually applying it and going, “All right. Well, you said you can do it. What does it look like? What does it sound like?” And I’m trying to find the best format, and because I’ve done all the working out there, each subsequent issue becomes easier to do, because I’m building on all the voice, all the tone, all the science, all of the setups, all the seeds. And so it all sort of comes together really well, and I usually find my final issues do not take as long. So I think it all comes back to how much of that plotting that I do in just getting terrible.

It’s really interesting to go back through old notebooks and think to myself, “Oh my goodness! This story: there was an iteration where it went this path. How terrible would that have been if that’s where I left it!” And I think it sort of comes back to what Queenie was saying in a lot of regards: is it satisfying? Does it pay off? ’Cause I think anyone can write a story that begins and then resolves. But is it any good? And just because the pieces fit, doesn’t mean they match. I always think about really cheap jigsaw puzzles are all cut with the exact same grain. And so, someone had figured that out and they would put together a train puzzle, but then they would find the cat puzzle and they’d put the cat’s face in the middle, and it would just fit. Of course it would fit. But it didn’t quite match! And I feel like that’s really quick, terrible story writing. And I know that because I do that in my first draft when I plot stuff out! It’s quick and it’s terrible, and the cat head goes right on the train, and then I have to fix that and get nitty gritty with it as to whether it’s figuring out how to get the right tubes that actually do put a cat head on a train, or whether it’s removing that cat and figuring something else out.

But, yeah, I find, much like when I break a story and I’m asking questions and just writing answers, it’s just getting something down. It’s just keeping momentum going. And giving yourself the chance to be terrible. I think if you can be terrible before it gets to the public eye, that’s the best time and place to do it.

One of the other things I have tried is talking to people about the story. I don’t like it as much. In telling it, you start to make excuses for the terrible parts that you haven’t worked out and I start to feel really bad at what I believe is my job, which is writer. But it does help. I’ll do it with my wife, where I’ll be like, “And then this happen and then this happens.” And invariably all she says is, “Why?” And I’m like, “Uh, uh, uh, because all trains have cat heads, stupid!” [Laughter] But we sort of realised [Laughter] “Oh. You know, what if this happened?” And then you have a bit of a dialogue. So, again, it’s just another question and answer process. So I think that’s usually my best process for that—that terrible middle where you have to actually do the grunt work to lead to that sweet finale.

KB: But do you ever lose motivation or drive on a project and you feel like giving it up? Is there anything that stops you from giving it up?

RKL: Oh no, there’s heaps of stories where I’ve tried to, like, plot them out, and sometimes they just will not wind together. And I just shelve them forever or for a long time. But usually I get that done before I would ever pitch it. And I think that’s why I only pitch stuff where I have plotted it and resolved it and know that it will work. My biggest fear would be to get a publisher on board something and then I sit down and go, “Oh. Uh. I don’t think I know. Oh. Do I know how to do this?” And I’m not sure if the story’s genuinely going to work, or if I can do it in the right amount of time.

I think any writer, given enough time, can make brilliant stuff. But when a publisher’s footing the bill and they want the wheels to turn, you go, “Oh, oh. I need to do this on a deadline.” And knowing the writing is my—not just second job, but very secondary job, compared to a full-time teaching load, I can’t get guarantee that I can turn things around from nothing to awesome in the way that I would want. So I try to do all of that before it would get anywhere. So there’s heaps of stuff that I have completely shelved and just gone, “Hmm, it’s not coming together.”

But I try to keep—like, I’ve got probably about four ideas on the go at the moment that I’m breaking. And I’m just sort of rotating between those notebooks, so I keep coming back to them. And sometimes it is coming back to something that might be two years old and going, “All right: let’s have a look at it with fresh eyes—fresh perspective—fresh experience”—and seeing what can come out of it.

But I think sometimes, and maybe this is a problem: once I’ve plotted something out and I’m like, “This is great. I’m going to pitch it.” And it doesn’t land anywhere, and it’s too big for me to conceivable do it completely independently. I’ll set that story aside and I’ll never even want to go back to it. And that way, if I get an in at a new publisher and they say, “Do you have anything to pitch?”, I invariably won’t go back to those really old pitches that I completely worked out. I think the fire’s gone. I think I told the story in the synopsis and I would have a chance to apply it, but now it’s just very cold embers. I might strip-mine those stories for a MacGuffin or a character that could be in a new setting—a new problem—but, yeah, they sort of disappear. But I’m more than happy to let—if a story is not clicking—I’m happy to let it die. ’Cause I’d rather that than put myself into a position where I just have to finish it off, ’cause I got myself stuck into a commitment that is beyond my control, I guess.

KB: Yeah. How ’bout you, Queenie? What helps you to keep going with a project and make it happen?

QC: I think when it comes to motivation, it’s always an issue when you’re a writer/artist. ’Cause with art in comics is that, unlike writing prose fiction, you could just rework it if you don’t like it: just add an extra paragraph, delete a few sentences. You cannot do that. You cannot do that with comics. It’s like once you’ve drawn the art, the amount of time and investment—the hours that you put into finishing this particular panel—it’s like, “Oh God”: if you had to re-do it, it’s like—

And age comes in with it as well. It is incredibly taxing when you get to a certain age. I cannot draw really long comic stories anymore, because my health is—my health is fine; don’t worry [Laughter]. Nothing’s happening, like, to me. But the days where I could sit down and grind out a page—eight-hour, ten-hour marathon sessions of drawing, those days are gone. And they were never that great to begin with anyway.

So if I’m going to start a story these days, as in draw it, and this is the same for—working for other people’s a bit different; that’s just work for hire. You know, I’m not emotionally involved in that sense; I’m just bringing someone else’s work to life. So I have a completely different feeling and motivation when it comes to stuff like that, ’cause that’s just work. But when it comes to my own stuff, unless I feel really, really, really strongly about an idea, I don’t even attempt it, because there is no time. I have no time to work that way.

So whatever it is that I’ve decided to create, if it’s not a job, then it’s because I feel really, really, really strongly about it. And that, at least, helps you when it comes to motivation, is that this has been around, often, for years, and I’m going to make it happen, because this mob has taken permanent space in my head. It’s rented a room there. It’s constantly making a lot of noise 24/[7]—I mean, it’s paying rent. But [Laughter], you know, it’s constantly there and in the background. And it’s compelling that I can’t evacuate it from my head. I have had long—entire universes in my head just leave after a while, because I grow older; they’re not as interesting anymore. I mean, that happens. You change as a person; what you find interesting is different, so you don’t feel the same way about these characters that you once loved to death.

But there are universes that stay. And when that happens, it’s like, “Okay, then I’ll do it.” And that kind of passion for something that’s been around for a long time, because you’ve changed and it hasn’t, because it doesn’t need to; some things are timeless, and you know you’ve got a really, really good story there. And it’s something that you absolutely care about, because apparently you can’t let it go. And for that reason, to make sure that I don’t fall into the trap of doing something that I feel really unenthused about is that whenever I get any new story ideas, and I’ve got—I say I don’t write the stories down, and that’s true. But this is more or less the same process: you could just keep it in your head—park it in your head for a while, leave it for about two months—and I’ve had story ideas that I thought I was—really awesome, and then two months later, I come back and I think, “What the heck was I thinking? This is so stupid.” So spur-of-the-moment ideas are never great to work with, if you’re going to develop it into a full-blown idea—a full-blown story.

I always suggest people to just sit on a story and then wait for a while and see whether you still feel the same way about it [in] two months’ time—three month’s time—a year’s time—two years’ time—five years’ time. Depending on what else you’re doing in your life, it could actually go on for quite a while. And the thing is, if you care enough about something, that’s still going to be there in five years’ time. But once the fire’s gone from that, then just leave it. You know [Laughter]—unless you’ve already written—I’ve written story pitches that are still sitting around somewhere in my house—that I just completely don’t think about, ’cause I’ve completely forgotten about most of them. And that’s it: if it’s not compelling, then you won’t even remember it.

And I think it’s so important to have that passion for a story and let it sit for a while and see whether you still feel that strongly about it after a certain amount of time. Because sometimes people create things based on circumstances in their lives, and that was so compelling to you at that time, but when those circumstances pass, it’s like, “Why do you still care?” Often you don’t care anymore. And that’s why the fire just goes. And so, I try and avoid these situations like that by sitting on stories that I really want to do.

Once you’ve started it, it’s just a matter of putting it out. Like, seeing something through to the end. Motivation is always hard, but motivation to exercise is also really hard [Laughter]. So as far as I can tell, like, with exercise, it’s something I have to do, so I don’t die prematurely. And it’s the same when I actually get to sit down and work on a project: it’s like, “Okay, I’ve started. I will see it to the end. It’s not always going to be fun. It’s going to be pretty much like a job.” So even though when I’m doing my own work, and as opposed to working as an illustrator for other people, that’s a job plain and simple—when I’m doing even my own work, something I really care about, and I’m hitting that wall that you always hit when you’re doing exercise [Laughter] and you’re just like, “I want to go home,” it’s like you just plough through it. I mean, that is the only advice I can give. I wish I could tell you: it’s like, how do you do the magic motivation injection and suddenly find the motivation to get through this really difficult, un-fun part of the story that you need? It’s like I just treat it like a job.

I find that it’s not always going to be fun, and you have to come to terms with that and make peace with that. And sometimes it’s going to be really sucky. And your motivation is to finish this thing and boot it out the door [Laughter] so you can work on the next thing. And a lot of the time, I find myself thinking that way, when I’m trying to get through a really boring passage or something.

KB: Yeah.

QC: Yeah, just do it and never ever leave it and then work on a more interesting part. [Laughter] I find that if you do that, it’s like you are never going to go back to that boring part—particularly if it’s really important. That is the worst thing you can do. So I work on something fun, I—“Oh no, here comes a boring part”—work on the boring part [Laughter] and then get back to the fun part. I find that if you do the thing where you work on the easy parts first—the fun parts first—then you’re going to end up with a massive workload at the end that you don’t want to do. And that is a massive obstacle to finishing everything—anything at all.

So, a lot of people find it hard, because when it comes to creative work, people think that it should be fun all the time—constantly. And it’s like, “No, it’s work.” Work, no matter how much you love it, it’s going to be 50 per cent fun, 50 per cent awful. And that’s just life, unfortunately. It’s just something you accept.

KB: Yeah. It’s good that you have those intrinsic motivators that, as you said, this idea has been taking up space in your head for so long [Laughter] it has to come out. It just has to. But also—

QC: Might as well, right?

KB: Yeah. I like how—

QC: It’s not going anywhere! Oh, it’s clear. [Laughter]

KB: Yeah.

QC: It’s not leaving my head. So.

KB: I like what Ryan said as well—like, in a way, you’re beholden to other people and that’s a big motivator. That, I think, has been a big motivator in the past for me is, “Oh: other people are relying [on] me to get this thing done. I can’t quit!” [Laughter] Yeah.

QC: Yeah. I guess that’s where it comes in when I’m working for other people as an illustrator. ’Cause then it’s just pure work. It’s like so-and-so is going to pay me $X amount of money to get this done by a certain date. So get it done by a certain date so you can get paid.

KB: Yep. Yep. [Laughter]

QC: So that’s it. You know? So sometimes it’s really fun to work on other people’s stuff. A lot of time it is.

KB: Yeah.

QC: But if you treat it like a job, then it doesn’t really matter, ultimately. You are doing this for someone, and you have to do it by a certain deadline, and that—that’s about it. That’s all there is to say. [Laughter]

KB: Yep. Yep. Okay. So we’re down to the last couple of questions. What is something that, as a comic creator, that you’re good at and also something that you wish you could improve. I should also say I stole these questions from Antony Johnston’s podcast, Writing and Breathing

RKL: Oh, yeah, yeah!

KB: —because I really like them.

RKL: Nice! [Laughter] So I guess it’s like what do I bring to comics—what do I bring to my writing that people, I guess, are coming for—that they’re coming for because it’s done well, or that they can’t get somewhere else. I hope it’s maybe a marriage between trying to write about genuine emotions or actual character motivations. I try to delve into that a lot with the characters that I write in the stories that I write. Whether I do it well or not, I don’t know. I don’t think I could ever say that I do.

One thing I certainly try to do well that I think maybe I do do well is use the comic form as part of the storytelling. So really consider, within my script and within my relationship with my artists, how we’re going to use everything that we have at our disposal to maximise moments of tension, to maximise the frenetic nature of a moment, to maximise the story points—whether it’s as simple as a page turn or a panel size, or whether it’s elements of image-free static moments within storytelling, or whether it’s using the—I love using the gutters, especially, within my stories to control time, because then you are controlling the pacing of something. Or at least telling the reader how they should think about controlling it, ’cause they’ll skim it as fast or as slow as they want to, with their eyes. It’s not like film, where you are in charge of the timing. That’s definitely something that I think about a lot. And so I think, hopefully, it does come through well in my books and within my stories.

Something that I’d like to improve upon: I think one of the challenges that I’m sort of setting myself at the moment is—I don’t know, it’s to sort of simplify my stories a little bit and keep them as emotionally resonant. So without having to sprawl too much. I find I put a lot into my stories and thinking specifically of more recent ones like Everfrost and Beautiful Canvas, they have a lot of moving parts and a lot of strangeness and a lot of working elements within them. And I want to see if I can dial that back to something that’s a little more simplistic in its view, I guess? Even if it is within a fantasy world or even if it is within some sort of dystopian sci-fi noir story—to really strip back that character arc and then dive deeper into it, I think would be something that I would like to look at—to make sure that everything is clear for the audience, I think.

’Cause in general, when I’m writing, I’m a big fan of not explaining everything. I think the audience either doesn’t need to know certain things, so I’m not worried about explaining what the power source is of a vehicle. But I also don’t mind them having to dig for elements that still drive the plot. I want the readers to be active. I want to them confused at times, because they’ll figure it out later. I want them to reread my stuff. That’s by design. But I’d be interested to then flip that and go, “All right, well, let’s lay something so there’s not as many pieces hidden within each issue and it’s all just there, and you still get that sort of kick to it.” So whether that’s a straight-up more singular character-driven story, or whether it’s a really stripped back old-school pulp crime story engine that just sort of rockets forward, that’s something I would like to improve is just having it all there and then making sure that I’ve structured it and shown it in a way that is completely clear, but still offers moments to completely wow the audience as things occur.

And I love to throw a lot into a story. I love a melting pot of strange science, and strange locations and characters, and really strange moments. And it would be cool to try something. And one of my stories that I’m mapping out at the moment is very much that me trying to, whenever my story twists and turns, mine the past of the story to keep it a really streamlined spear, rather than the sort of meandering six-headed sentient arrow that I seem to shoot into the world when I come off of these things [Laughter].

KB: Fantastic! What about you, Queenie? What’s something that you think you’re good at and what’s something that you wish you could improve?

QC: I don’t know about the writing part, because there’s certainly different kinds of audiences, and people seem to at least like my work. So I don’t want to talk too much about how you emotionally connect with readers, ’cause there’s so many different kinds of people out there.

But in terms of as an artist, I guess it’s—that’s easier to quantify. I think I’m good at doing character designs—bringing a certain personality to a particular look—to a particular personality—and making sure that these match and making sure that you can distinguish the primary cast from the secondary cast. And creating an environment—or at least drawing in a way that makes it looks like that this person actually belongs in this environment. Because artists can create characters and backgrounds that are very detached from each other. It’s like they don’t even look like they’re in the same universe. I mean, that would be bad. But that’s a problem that I’ve never really had. So I think, at least, when it comes to the worldbuilding aspect, I think I’m okay in that, at the very least.

I’m not great; there’s people who, I think, does it much better. But do I think that it’s an important skill for me to want to have? I don’t think so. I think I’m adequate [Laughter] and I’m good with just being adequate [Laughter]. Yeah, I think I’m fine with that. I think other things are a bit more important when it comes to building the story—like the emotional resonance and particular character arcs or a particular moment; I think that’s more important. So I think I’m going at that. But I … don’t really look to improve on that, like, interestingly enough. I think I’m fine where I’m at.

I guess I’m also good at trying new things. Like, doing the experimentations that I have. I’ve got a good idea of what I want to do. So I’m not sure whether I’ll find an audience. Who knows? It seems that, at least for Fabled Kingdom, nobody seems to care about the format it came in; people are just interested in the story and that’s it. So I think that’s good news.

But ultimately, in terms of things I can improve, I think I could have more patience [Laughter]. Yeah, sometimes I think I try and churn things out too quickly. And not at the beginning—like, never with my ideas—but I think when I’m getting to a point where it’s really boring, sometimes just want to cut corners. And the drive to do that is very hard to suppress. That’s where you get sloppy as an artist and you end up churning out work that isn’t so great—or, at least to your eyes, it’s not great; but who knows who’s looking at it? Some people just think it’s—they can’t tell the difference, really. But to the trained eye, you definitely can. And I wish I was less—like, I had a bit more patience to pay attention to the small ideas—like, some artists are really, really good at that. I am not. I just lose patience if I spend too much time on a single piece of artwork. And with comics, it’s so grindy, then what can you do?

So other things I’d like to improve: probably I like to work more with other people. I think you can learn a lot from working with others. And I think as someone who writes and draws, you don’t need a collaborator, and I think attitude’s not really a good one. I feel I could collaborate more with other people and learn new things that way, or maybe encounter new ideas and things, and so that’s what I’d like to do a bit more. I wouldn’t say I’m bad at it; I’m not difficult to collaborate with, or anything, or at least nobody’s complained [Laughter] in the kind of collaborations that I’ve worked with. But I think opening myself to more of those experiences is good for everyone involved.

KB: Yeah, agreed. It’s—you learn so much from the people that you work with, and if it’s working really well, you also spur each other on to better work, which is really, really cool.

QC: Yeah.

KB: Yeah.

QC: And I am collaborating with people on a number of things. But we shall see!

KB: Yeah, yeah. So let’s talk a bit about what you’re working on now, if you can talk about it, ’cause I’m always interested. Queenie, you mentioned you’re doing your PhD and you’re doing the game engine story. Do you want to talk a bit more about that and how it’s going?

QC: Oh! Sure. The game is pretty much a game, so I won’t really talk that much about it. I’ve mentioned it a little bit earlier, at least, from a story writing perspective, and I think I’ll stick with that for now.

In terms of the comic that I’m working on that is in a game engine, it’s going to be a story about class differences. And I think when it comes to comics and video games, a lot of people start off making video games and then they use comics aesthetics in it. And that’s fine. But these are games that borrow from comics. Which I think is very interesting, but I don’t see things going the other direction very much—comics that borrow from games. And I think in my PhD, I have to make that distinction is that there is a difference between video games that have Biff! Boom! as sound effects when people punch out each other, or portray their game play in a series of comics panels. And these are interesting games who do that—who borrow a lot from the language of comics. But these identify as games first and comics second.

What would the approach be if you start off with comics first and then move into games? How would that approach be different? I would say the approach, in terms of differences is actually kind of negligible, because at the end of the day, if you’re using a games medium—a games engine to create something—people are going to consider it more of a game, just by the nature of the tools being used.

But part of doing what I do is push back against that way of thinking. Intent matters. The person who’s creating and what they think they’re doing matters. So if I’m saying that this is a digital comic, even if it uses a game engine, then it’s a digital comic, because I say so. But how can I keep the idea of comics within a game?

One element that I really like to work with is the idea of comics is that you can see every single panel on a page at any point in time, no matter which panel you’re supposed to be working on. ’Cause the time in comics is entirely a creation of the reader: you present an entire page to the reader and the reader can see everything—past, current and future in this page. Where they are at in point in time is up to where their eye is, and that is controlled entirely by the reader. So I do want to add that element to this digital comic, I guess, because I think that is unlike video games or movies—film, in other words—or prose, which is not visual. I think comics is unique and that is a unique element of comics—about being able to see everything—like, there’s time—whole timeline in one go; it’s just a matter of where your eye is at a particular moment. And so I think presenting the comic story in that format is quite important for me for this project.

So I’ve an idea of what I want it to look like, but it’s not going to be easy. But like I said, interactivity, it can go any way you want. And so it’s going to be interesting to see how it goes. But we shall see! But talking back to the more technical aspects of what makes a comic a comic and why’s it different to an illustration or a series of illustrations.

KB: Yeah, definitely.

QC: So bringing that into the comic that I’m doing is going to be a bit of a challenge. Yeah, anyway, might as well talk about what’s the theme of it is: it’s going to be capitalism/parallel lives. And so, you are going to be controlling a character that you choose, who’s either going to be rich or poor. You’re going to have two lives that are going to be running parallel to each other—one rich, one poor. And the idea is you can choose the character, but there’s only one control; it doesn’t matter. Both characters behave exactly the same. It’s just that what differs is their environment and how the environment reacts to them.

And so, that is the basis for the PhD in that you are talking about how—’cause I guess Neoliberalism, it isn’t economic structure that we live in now. And a lot of the rhetoric that comes with it is the the idea that, if you work hard, that you’ll succeed. That’s almost like a slogan—a Karl Marx slogan of the times that we love in is like if you’re not succeeding and winning at life, then it’s because you’re a lazy person. And if you work harder, you’ll be like Bill Gates [Laughter]. That is the general idea behind some of these slogans for Neoliberalism. And it’s very easy to debunk.

And my game, out right of the bat, just debunks that. Because at the end of the day, you can have the two exact same people—one who grew up in a rich family, one who grew up in a poor family—and the environment reacts very differently to them, even if you do the exact same thing. And as you go through your life, what you have accumulates. So if you start with a lot, then you’re going to get more; you start off with nothing, you may not be able to get that much, no matter how hard you work. It’s not a matter of working hard at some point in time.

So, I mean, there’s a lot of academic stuff in that as well. It has to do with a lot of academic arguments about video gaming as well, but I won’t go into that. But that is the general gist of the story. It is meant to be a digital comic, even as it borrows many elements from video games.

KB: Fascinating! I’m looking to that coming out.

QC: Yeah, it’s going to be pretty weird!

KB: It will be interesting!

RKL: It sounds awesome!

KB: Yeah!

QC: Yay! Social activism now! [Laughter]

KB: How ’bout you, Ryan? What are you working on now?

RKL: At the moment, it’s a balance of all these little things. So I have no singular focus, which kind of sucks. ’Cause that’s like the best spot to be in when you’re just in the grind on one thing. But we’ve got Everfrost that I’ve created with Sami Kivela coming out through Black Mask. We’re prepping the trade, so we’re just getting everything sort for that. So there’s lots of little tweaks on that and we also have Black Beacon that I’m creating with Sebastián Píriz at Heavy Metal that has the last two issues to be finalised, and then we’ll start prepping the trade for that. So I always sort of factor that in because it does take time, when I get in the office, to tweak all the things here or there, or check things out.

But then what I’m looking at, moving forward, is the next volume of SHE is finished with the script and so now I’m chatting with the artist about it and looking at all the logistics and timeline of it, now that it’s finally all in its final draft and form, which is really good. I’m watching art come in for a short graphic novel I’m doing with Louie Joyce, who you both know really well, and is both lovely and insanely talented. So I’m in a really lovely spot of just watching art drip in on that and it’s looking amazing. We’ve been looking to do this book together for years and years, so it’s nice to see a lot of traction happening now.

And then beyond that, looking forward, I’m sort of working on breaking a bunch of different stories. One is kind of like a sci-fi/strange futurescape story of a young woman who finds herself with a very large problem thrust upon her, and she’s trying to figure out a solution to it. And so, that’s coming along fairly well. It’s breaking fairly well. I just need to find the right home for it, I guess.

And I’m also, then, putting together another story that’s a fantasy novel—almost DnD-inspired story that is very much about how we look at characters and how much we take our read of a character based on what they look like or what they can do, as well as what they actually do, and whether it’s our perception of what they do that makes them the sort of character we think they are—sort of looking at archetypes of good and bad—things like that. I’ve not really done a lot that’s full-on fantasy, and it’s fun to use that landscape and the way that we code characters so strongly in that.

So I’m trying to figure that one out. And so those two are fairly well plotted out, mostly. Certainly the engine of the story’s definitely in place. But then there’s a third one—a crime story that I’m tinkering with that I’m trying to figure out exactly how it goes together. I’ve probably been sitting on this one a year now and keep cycling back to it. And this is where a lot of my stories start: it might have a really great high concept, but that’s not a character and it’s not a character arc and it’s nothing else. So I’m trying to get it in a way where it’s really satisfying. So far, I’ve written, I think, three versions of the plot that work, but they’re very much cats heads on trains [Laughter]. And so I’m trying to fix that and make it pop. But I really, really love a lot of the characters in it, and I love the concept. And I feel like I’m waiting for that extra element to click into it to mash up.

But, yeah, they’re all the things I’m working on, and so I’m in this really annoying pocket of time where I’m not currently really heavily scripting anything. And I hate that. That’s the dead zone for me: you’re waiting on either publishers to pick something up, and that’s out of your control, or you’re just waiting on things to finalised, so I’m likely waiting on an artist, or, again, a publisher to stitch things together or blah blah blah. And again, it’s out of my control.

Whereas, when I’m sitting down to write scripts, that’s my job. That’s what I do. And so, I know all the other stuff I do, writing is about 10 per cent of the job, and the rest is the emails and the meetings [Laughter] and the story breaking. But I love the writing part, and it feels like you’re doing work. And I never give that credit to all the story breaking that I do before I write. That feels like something that should be quicker and easier for me, so I hate how laborious it is. But I’m very much in the thick of these three different stories mostly, and there’s a fourth one that I’m sort of very nascently toying with, putting all of those things together.

So I feel like, as well, I’m spread really thin. I actually sat down yesterday while we were watching a movie as a family and just started to map out on an A4 sheet of paper what are all the different projects that are currently happening. And it was 11 or 12. And I thought [Laughter], “Oh, God. No wonder I feel so scatterbrained!”

But once I got it on paper, I was like, “All right: well, Everfrost is done: I’ve written it and we’re just prepping the trade. All right. That’s in a neat corner.” And then I’m like, “All right. I’m trying to break this crime story. All right: that I need to give a bit more time and a bit more focus and more energy to.” So I need to work out where to put my efforts. But I’m really just waiting on whichever story gets picked up so I can push everything else aside and say, “All right: you are the thing that now gets me for”—I usually set aside a solid season—a solid three months to write something, ’cause I’ve done all the hard work. So I’ll see how it all comes together.

But I actually am in a situation right now where I’m doing a very big change with my day job of teaching.

KB: Oh wow!

RKL: So I probably shouldn’t feel like I’m stuck with deadlines. I need to reflect that I actually think this happening for a reason. I need to focus a little bit on the day job, and if I knew an artist was writing on script too, I’d be freaking out and that would be no good.

So I feel like the right story will pop through at the right time to allow me to do it in the right way. So trying—very much the word—trying there, but trying that zen approach of, “All right: just handle what you can at the moment and see how it’s coming together.

KB: Yeah. Wow. That is a lot of things, Ryan! [Laughter] That’s amazing.

RKL: It’s a little manic. It’s probably not the smart—if I had more of a through line of knowing what would get picked up, I could focus on a story, pitch it, get it picked up and write it, and it would be a linear path to my brain. But, man, it is the shotgun approach, unfortunately.

What are you working on, though, at the moment?

KB: Oh, I’m still working on a prose novel. It is a YA fantasy thing. I shifted gears a bit: I started this three-POV [point of view] novel last year and it wasn’t working, and I realised I really should learn to walk before I run—start with one POV.

RKL: Yep.

KB: So I’ve taken one of those characters, and the story’s about him and it’s just set about three years earlier. And it’s his origin story. So it’s set in a fantasy world, which resembles Edo-era Japan, and essentially—[Laughter] the pitch I always have is “It’s about samurai magicians at magic school, basically.” And so, he is from the very, very lowest class of society and is discovered to be a seer: he can “see” magic and can manipulate magic, and is taken to the Academy to be trained. But in the midst of that, all these other things [are] going on, because the way he was discovered was that he tried to rob another seer who was quite high up in the government, and landed in prison. There’s a thing going on there, which hasn’t been revealed yet.

So I’m about a quarter of the way through, but it’s very slow-going, and with lockdown, it’s just been hard, because home learning [Laughter] has been dominating—home learning and my job!

RKL: Yeah.

KB: But it’s slowly getting there and, I figure, at least I’ve been writing when I can, and when I have writing group once a month, that’s the big kick up the pants to actually do something. And so the John Swartzwelder method of the crappy little elf has been working well—

RKL: Nice!

KB: —I feel like I’m making very incremental progress on two fronts: the crappy elf front [Laughter], where I write it badly and then the revising front where I try to—

RKL: Yeah!

KB: —write it better! [Laughter] Yeah.

Okay, to finish off, where can people find you online?

RKL: Mine is just “ryanklindsay” with anything else that you need on it: throw a dot com on it, put an “@” sign at the front for Twitter, whatever you need: @ryanklindsay is where I’m most active on Twitter. I have my own site. I have a Patreon where I write flash fiction and I deconstruct stuff and I share scripts and do a bunch of that sort of stuff. And I have a newsletter, which would be ryanklindsay.substack.com, where each week, I send out a brain dump of just either what I’m working on or how I’m working or what’s going on. It’s like people who like to watch train wrecks, that’s the place to go: you can just watch me [Laughter] slowly fold myself into an origami unicorn for your sickening pleasure. [Laughter]

KB: [Laughter] How ’bout you, Queenie?

QC: My website’s at queeniechan.com. I’ve had it for years and you can buy some of my books there for free shipping. So if you’re from the US/Australia, you can get it for free shipping and that’s on my website.

I’m not on social media very often—I don’t get much time to go on social media and chat with people. But for whatever reason, “queeniechan” has been taken on social media, so I’m “queeniechanhere”, whether it’s Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. I want to go on social media a bit more often [Laughter], but it’s just, “Ah, my God! All the stuff that I do.”

If you want to see what I’m doing any given month, I do try and update my website every month or every second month, so I can let people know what I’m doing and what I’m working on, and all that. But thanks to COVID, things have been kind of crappy for a while. So nothing much has happened. All the cons have been cancelled.

I’m still doing a fair amount of work and so the lockdown has been okay for me, and I’m working on my PhD as well and doing all this other stuff. So it’s been okay. But I guess I’ve been a bit slow on the social media because of the lockdown. It just motivates me to not update stuff or look at what other people are doing [Laughter]. It’s just, hmm, kind of depressing.

But anyway, that’s where you find me, and by all means, there’s a form that you can contact me with on my website. So that’s probably the ideal way to contact me, because I always pay attention to email. Sometimes people contact me through social media and sometimes I miss it, ’cause I’m not on it often. So I always recommend email’s the best way to contact me.

KB: Great. Thanks, guys, so much for your time and for this chat! It’s been a lot of fun.

[Music]

KB:  Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Hiveminded Podcast!  For links, show notes, a rough transcript and some free comics, head to hivemindedness.com. Audio editing and production was done by me. Our theme music is “I’m going for a coffee” by Lee Rosevere (which is slightly ironic, because I don’t drink coffee). Website design by Ben Beilharz. And special thanks as always to Rebecca Jee and Guan Un of the Hive Mind, whose undying support has made all this possible.

Posted on

Hiveminded Episode 017

Show notes

Queenie Chan’s website

Ryan K Lindsay’s website

Transcript

[Music]

Karen Beilharz: So it’s been three years since our last podcast episode, which was our writing retreat miniseries back in July of 2018. Since then, Bec, Guan and I have been involved with other projects—projects that, unfortunately, haven’t involved this podcast. Since then, other podcasts have sprung up that also have the name “Hiveminded Podcast”. And if you’re listening to this, and it’s not the podcast you were expecting, maybe stop now and look elsewhere.

Then last year in 2020, I was all set to attend my very first WorldCon: the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, which was supposed to have been held in Auckland, New Zealand. And then COVID-19 shut everything down. Things were just starting to open up again in Sydney when the convention was being held via livestream. I was still working at the time, so I couldn’t attend any of the panels live. But I did get up at some ungodly hour just to attend a small group Zoom session with Kieron Gillen, the comic writer. I tried to catch up on as many panels as possible over the weekend, playing them a double, sometimes even 2.5 speed, and I enjoyed the panels I was able to hear.

But while I was listening, I couldn’t help wishing that I could hear comics people talking about the sorts of things that WorldCon panellists were talking about—things to do with creativity and process and influences, and all things to do with making art. There were a couple of comic creators among the guests, but the majority of them were prose writers. I came away from WorldCon with the idea of making something happen myself.

Of course, I was in no position to organise a whole convention, and certainly COVID wouldn’t allow for that. So I thought perhaps doing a podcast would work. I thought perhaps I could revive the Hiveminded Podcast. Furthermore, as COVID had pretty much cancelled all the usual comic and pop culture events where I would normally see my comics friends, I thought this would be a good excuse to catch up with people. And it would give me a chance to ask them all the little niggly questions I’ve always wanted to know (mwahaha!)

And then my website broke, and we moved house, and whatever grand plans I had were shelved.

One year later in 2021 in the midst of the second Sydney lockdown, I found myself thinking about the idea and trying to figure out how to make it happen. And thankfully, I found a way to make it happen.

In this episode and the next episode of the Hivemind Podcast, I talked to comic creators Queenie Chan and Ryan K Lindsay. If you’re not familiar with them, Queenie Chan is a manga artist and comic creator, known for her Picnic at Hanging Rock-inspired horror trilogy, The Dreaming; her collaborations with Dean Koontz and Kylie Chan; the fairytale-inspired fantasy adventure Fabled Kingdom; and a series of children’s non-fiction works about famous queens throughout history.

Ryan K Lindsay is an award-winning writer known for such works as Headspace, which is set inside the mind of a serial killer; Negative Space, in which his main character goes to pen a suicide note and gets writer’s block; Beautiful Canvas, a crime miniseries about a hit woman trying to reconcile her profession with her role as a mother-to-be; and Everfrost, a science fiction miniseries about a woman on the brink of death who comes face-to-face with the son who died in her arms as a child.

Queenie, Ryan and I talk about our comic creator origin stories, the genres and tropes that we are drawn to, and how we actually go about writing comics.

Enjoy!

KB: Hello, and welcome to the Hiveminded Podcast, which today is with me—that’s Karen—and Ryan K Lindsay and Queenie Chan. And we’re doing a miniseries about making comics together. And these next few episodes are going to be about writing comics.

But before we get into the business of writing comics, I thought it would be fun to talk about your comics creator origin story. So Queenie, do you want to go first and tell us: how did you get into making comics in the first place?

Queenie Chan: So my name’s Queenie. I’m a manga-style comic book artist, which means that I draw in a very Japanese style, because that’s what I grew up with. So I grew up reading Japanese manga in Hong Kong. And then I came here when I was a kid. And so just continued my habit, thanks to Chinatown importing a lot of these kind of comics.

And I had this fantasy of becoming a manga comic book artist in Japan. And unfortunately, that was years ago, and it still isn’t really possible these days to do that without moving to Tokyo. But I guess when the internet came into existence, and I just started going online and talking to people and finding a lot of people online that had dreams similar to mine, I thought, “Oh, you know”—that kind of inspired me to sit down and actually give it a try in becoming a manga artist, really, from Australia.

Amazingly enough, it kind of worked out okay, for me—not the way I envisioned, but considering how scary Japanese manga—the industry—can be when it comes to working within it, I’m kind of glad things turned out this way. But—so I guess I started thanks to the internet and just growing up reading manga and just wanting to be a part of the manga-producing world, I guess.

KB:  But you were quite—like, you weren’t in high school, were you, when you started? Is that right?

QC: No, I was in university, actually. I wasn’t encouraged to draw as a child. So it wasn’t until I was in university that I started drawing and writing my own stories, because I didn’t enjoy my degree. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I had gone into Information Systems—so programming—and it was not as I had hoped, you know. So I thought, “Oh, you know, maybe I’ll just do something else.” And, you know, my escape from university life was actually my manga-drawing hobby that I had.

KB: That’s fantastic.

QC: And that’s how it started.

KB: Wow. How about you, Ryan? What’s your comic creator origin story?

Ryan K Lindsay: That’s funny, I was just trying to think of when I decided I wanted to, you know, write comics. I knew I was never going to draw them! That’s certainly never been even something I thought of.

But I was actually trying to think of, like, I know, roughly when I started to write comics, but I don’t actually remember why I thought that was something I should be doing. All I know is from a very young age, I knew I would grow up to write. And I called it early and said I would be an author and a teacher, and have now successfully managed both of those career paths, if you can call the writing, you know, career. But it pays some bills.

But it was—it was after I’d gone to Uni, and I’d graduated and I was teaching at the first school that I was placed at. And a few years in there, my brother sent me The Walking Dead Volume 1, because we are real old-school zombie fans. Um, and he was like, “Oh, apparently this thing’s really good.” And it was probably about three volumes deep at this stage—it was like fairly—fairly nascent days. And I remember reading that and it rekindling this love of comics. And because I was teaching and I had all of this disposable income, I had started to buy comics again, like I did all the way up to late high school. And I think it was that reading lots of comics again, and going on eBay and finding stuff that definitely, like, sparked that passion again.

And I’d been tinkering with writing different things at that time. And I can’t remember why, but I get the feeling it might have been—I was—I was filling in a lot of my Daredevil collection on eBay. And so I decided to write some Daredevil stories in comic script form, which, as everyone knows, is—is not the way to break into comics or to make comics. But as people also know, fanfic is a hell of a way to get yourself to sit down and write stuff.

And that sort of kickstarted me, you know, learning about script format and all that sort of stuff, and finding what I could online, which, you know, 15-odd years ago, wasn’t as much as there certainly is now. And so from there, it took years of writing, um—and I always say, like, I—before I published my first comic one shot, I wrote about 60 issues in script form that just sort of went nowhere, or were just practice or were horrible, or might be diamonds in the rough waiting in my trunk, but I’d never really go back to them. And I’d written a few novels as well. And I count all of that as practice—really invaluable practice.

And then finally in 2013, I put out my first one-shot—22 page comic—and sort of took that around to conventions. So yeah, that was definitely the origin story.

KB: So that was Fatherhood, wasn’t it—the 22-page?

RKL: Yes, that first one that I did was—was Fatherhood, a nice standalone. By the time I got to that point, I realised you don’t write Daredevil, you don’t pitch 60-issue Vertigo-style things—like, it’s just not going to happen. Although if you figure out how young Garth Ennis was when he wrote Preacher, very young, and it’s insane that he was so good and got that opportunity. But he’s Garth Ennis, so I guess he earns it.

But yeah, it took me ages to realise I needed to do something self-contained and manageable to—you know—to engage a creative team and to be able to afford printing, and to make it not like a $50 book that people won’t know who I am and won’t take a chance on, but $5: I could probably get that out of somebody at a show, and did manage to on more than one occasion.

KB: Yeah. Wow. That’s fascinating. So it was really rediscovering the love of comics, then deciding, “I’d like to do that” to having a go and putting stuff out there. And yeah, and then from—

RKL: Pretty much yeah—

KB: Yeah.

RKL: —just having that passion. And I’ve always loved writing, and I’ve always sort of like—even pretty much—for always, if it’s not a short story, it’ll be something else. I’ve always sort of tinkered with stuff. But I think that weaving it all together and then clocking it in with the passion that I have for comics, just sort of, I guess, was the right recipe.

KB: Yeah, there you go. Like for me, I grew up reading the strips in the Saturday paper—like, was it Prince Valiant and Thin Ice and Snake and that sort of thing. And it wasn’t until—I think it was university/late high school that, you know, all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh my goodness: you can get longer novel-length forms of comics.” And I had these friends who would just keep lending me stuff, but their tastes skewed more towards—I guess, more independent Image-type, a little bit of Vertigo, like Sandman, that sort of thing.

But I never thought I could do it myself, because I just write; I don’t draw at all. And then I was reading an interview with Kieron Gillen, because I think it was about the time I discovered Phonogram. You guys read Phonogram? Wow, okay. It’s one of my favourite comics. It’s about basically—

RKL: So good!

KB: Yeah, music is magic. And I was reading interview with him, where he talked about how he got started, which was just to talk artists into doing these five-page things with him for free. And I thought, “Oh, I could do that!” I started writing five-page scripts and—and things and then taking it from there. But yeah, that’s pretty funny because I never thought, “Oh,” like “this is a way you can make comics”. And I didn’t know anybody who was making comics at the time. It was only later, after I’d put out the first anthology, Kinds of Blue that I actually met other comic creators and you guys and stuff like that. Like, I think the first time I met Queenie was at a signing you did it Kinokuniya. I can’t remember what year it was.

QC: Oh!

KB: It was very a long time ago.

QC: I guess I don’t really remember either. That must have been it. I do do stuff with Kinokuniya. But that was a while ago. Obviously, with COVID, nothing’s happening.

KB: Yeah.

QC: And—that’s right: they used to do Free Comic Book Day. And that was really great.

KB: Yeah.

QC: But of course, COVID has kind of ruined that a bit. But yeah, yeah. I mean, the comics industry has changed so much. What can I say: I started working in it in about 2005. Or probably before that: that wasn’t—that, like, okay. So long ago, it’s hard to think—I’ve actually have a think about how long it’s been since I started drawing comics. I’d say about 20 years.

But, um, you see, my first officially published work was with TokyoPop. So that was in 2005. But before that, I was with an outfit called Wire Pop. And I was getting paid for my comics. So perhaps, if we’re going to talk about getting paid to publish your work, I mean, TokyoPop definitely wasn’t my first publishing experience. It was with Wire Pop. But back then, people were actually still willing to subscribe to a comics website to read comics. Nowadays, I don’t think that there is so much willing to—or, at least, if it’s happening, it’s not really happening in, I guess, Western spaces.

I think Webtoons, for example, has a pretty good system where people do pay to read comics. But I’m not putting myself up on Webtoons. The ecosystem there, it’s very different to what it used to be back in 2002 or 2003. Yeah. Okay.

So I guess my first published work was actually a horror story called Block Six. That was what ran on Wire Pop. Yeah, so yeah, there’s that. So just thinking about how much, like, the comics industry has changed over the years thanks to the internet, and how different things are, and how different people are when it comes to doing stuff. Like that’s—that’s—I guess that’s quite interesting and worth talking about.

KB: So you’ve always been drawn to horror in some way.

QC: Not really, I guess. I wanted to challenge myself. I like all kinds of genres and whatever appeals to me—mystery, horror—I like romance as well, if it’s well written; there’s a lot of terrible romance out there, let’s just say. A lot of good ones. Action—anything that entertains me is good enough. I think.

I don’t do much action comics, because I guess—it’s a lot of effort as an as an artist, I guess—like, who writes and draws—it’s just, like—it’s a constant balancing act of how—what can I write and whether I can draw it. So sometimes I choose my stories based on that.

But then again, I also—like, as a writer/artist, I’m also really interested in pushing comics into new directions—like, pushing the boundaries of what can be considered a comic—the kind of tools you use—you can use to do something that qualifies as comic. I mean, you were an editor for one of my experimentations, Fabled Kingdom, that was mixing prose with comics. And I thought that was interesting.

So right now, I’m doing something in a completely direction—a different direction—for my PhD, which I’m doing at Macquarie Uni. I’m mixing comics with gaming. So I’m creating a comic with a game engine. So it is a digital comic, in my opinion. But I guess, again, it’s about going in a completely different direction to the direction I went in with Fabled Kingdom, and seeing what kind of interactivity you can bring to a digital comic using gaming mechanics and gaming tools, since I’m a huge gamer as well, apart from a comic book reader.

KB: Yeah.

QC: So that’s kind of some of the stuff that I’m doing right now—which is, you know, it’s—it’s really different to what everyone else is doing. So it’s a little bit strange, talking about it on a comic show. But I think that people are always interested in experimentation and new ideas. And so, yeah.

KB: Yeah, definitely.

QC: So that’s what—I mean, I guess I’ve always gone to the beat of my own drum or whatever!

KB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because your work has, yeah, encompassed a whole bunch of different themes. Just—I’m just thinking about the ones that I have read, because I haven’t read all of it. But yeah, certainly like The Dreaming was the Australian gothic—the—Picnic at Hanging Rock sort of thing. And then with Fabled Kingdom, it was fairytales and fantasy, and about governments and queens, and so on, so forth. And then with the—the queens series that you’ve been doing, that’s diving—

QC: Oh yeah, nonfiction as well.

KB: Yeah, nonfiction and history, and all the research that you did for that as well. It’s really, really interesting.

QC: Guess what my theme for my PhD is.

KB: Yeah, what?

QC: It’s capitalism! It’s going—my PhD is on Neoliberalism, and working conditions of comic book creators and  video game workers. So that—so the creative class in a neoliberal world. Again, something completely different, and I’m actually really enjoying it, because it’s a topic that I know a fair bit about, even without being in academia. So again, it’s a completely different direction. But it’s going to be a mix between a video game and a comic, and interactive to boot. So that’s—it’s going to be fun.

KB: Wow! It sounds really cool. Ryan, what kind of genres or stories do you gravitate towards in your own work?

RKL: Bleak ones, it would appear, from most of what I’ve written. I’d actually read a thing recently on crimereads.com that talks about why sci-fi and crime—especially noir—mash up so well together. And it just perfectly encapsulated why I write a lot of sort of that genre, to be honest. It talks about with—with noir, normally, you know, everyone’s a little bit criminal, and the system is definitely against the lead character, but ultimately, the lead character is also emotionally against themselves, which is another fascinating trope. And sci-fi, it’s—it’s quite often, you know, dystopias, and things like that. And so it’s someone against this larger, broader system that’s against them. And when I look through my work and had spoken with—I have a really good mate who’s a—who’s a really analytical reader. And he had pointed it out to me a while ago that a lot of my stories is someone against, like, a system that is—that is corrupt. And so you see in Negative Space, there’s this mega corporation. And you see in Headspace, it’s this sort of shadow government organisation. And so it sort of seems to come through in my work a lot that it’s this—this—I don’t want to say, like, it’s too pessimistic, I guess. I certainly do try to find elements and slivers of hope and beauty in my stories. But usually they are the minority in the world, or in the story or in the character. But it’s that sort of mash up.

And I think it comes—it comes back to, like, a childhood of watching things like—like Blade Runner, and even watching movies like the Alien franchise, where it is, like, there—there is just a thick layer of corruption. And I mean, if you want to talk about capitalism, I mean, it generally seems to be the grounding tenet of it that if you follow the trail that is generally money, that it’s not the best interests of people at heart; it’s the best interest of replicating more money. And so that, I think, makes for really interesting—the story fodder.

And I often wonder, like, “Can I can tell different stories moving forward?” You know, there is an interest to want to experiment and explore different things. But I do wonder how often I will come back to genre tropes within, like, sci-fi, especially, because I do love that element that you don’t necessarily have to make everything believable, and you don’t have to make everything real, and you don’t have to explain everything. You have to make everything make sense within the story engine of the world that you’ve constructed. But if you want to leave something off the table, I think that’s fair game.

And I’ve just this fortnight been reading Frankenstein for the first time. Which is—which has been a really interesting gap to fill. And I’m fascinated by how little science there is in the first science fiction novel. It does not really go into any detail as to how any of the science occurs—how the, you know, the body is really created or how it is really animated. And the story is not any less for that fact.

And I think there are great science fiction authors that build intricate—they build whole languages from whole cloth, and I think that that’s fascinating. But it’s never what I want to do. I want to tell a story about a character, and then some peripheral characters, and I want to build a world, but I only want to show enough of it that shines back on the character arc. So, yeah, it is something I—I think about often, because I want to make sure if it’s a weakness, either I improve upon it or I have enough excuses to get away with it. They’re my two options.

KB: Yeah, yeah.

QC: I think bleakness in pop culture is very—very suitable for the times. When Ryan mentioned the interest in dyst—dystopias, I was like, yeah, you know—I was thinking exactly Blade Runner.

RKL: Yeah.

QC: Basically we’re—like, if you consider outliers right now in COVID lockdown and with the hot mess that we are in right now, it is a lot like—later on, all with, you know, lots of government and corporate corruption, but minus the fancy lights.

RKL: Yes.

QC: It’s a boring dystopia. You know, all the fun stuff about Blade Runner, nothing’s—we’ve got nothing and none of that: no flying cars—

RKL: No.

QC: —no cool neon lights, no radioactive food. You know, no—no weird—well, we have the bullish police brutality, but not any of the fun stuff, like speaking a mishmash of different languages—none of that old, you know, folding little unicorns in front of, you know—

RKL: Yeah.

QC: —people you’re about to arrest or beating them up. We don’t have any of that. We just have the same old boring life, but with all the negative stuff from Blade Runner and none of the positive.

And so I think that, um—other kinds of entertainment, like zombie—like Walking Dead, you mentioned earlier, is another example of this kind of, I guess, alienation people feel from the way our society is now and how much we want to press the reset button and start all over again as well—you know, that—that is kind of fantasy as well, apart from the dystopian one.

So I think um, you know, you’ve—you’ve hit a very good vein of societal alienation there, Ryan, and I think you could continue to plumb that for quite a while, given the way things are going.

RKL: I—

QC: You should write one about the pandemic next time.

RKL: Yeah, I feel like there’s, you know, there’s enough there that people can sort of—it resonates with them. And if—and if you do it right, it can—it—I never want people to feel worse after reading my stuff. I don’t mind if they think more and that they sort of maybe don’t feel great about everything that happens in the story or what’s the lead character about the end. But there’s just, yeah, so much that you can mine in there.

I have noticed a little bit of a trend that my stories are getting a little more hopeful over—over time. The first few miniseries that I published, certainly—I love a good ambiguous ending, and they would do that, but also lean towards, like, well, you fixed one problem, but it’s small in comparison to the very systemic problem you found. But congratulations on winning, you know, the battle; the war will crush you. Whereas now it sort of seems to be, like, well, maybe there’s a chance you can get away from the war. And very rarely do I think I will resolve or solve the war in my stories. But yeah, I have noticed a bit of a trend that—I don’t know if I feel bad for my lead characters. But for some of them, I’m like, “Oh, let’s see what we can do for him at the end of the story” or see how it’s going to work out.

But I think there’s an element of if you do it well and you do it right, and you do it honestly, people—people like a story that’s, I guess, well constructed. And having written Negative Space that is heavily steeped in suicide and—and deep depression, it’s something you want to make sure that you write really carefully and really tactfully and really true within the story that you’ve constructed. And that was the one I’ve certainly put in a lot of effort for. And it’s been, probably—it was one of the highest sellers I’ve had and it’s been the one that won all the awards. So I guess, hopefully, that means I did  tiptoe across that line just right.

KB: Interesting. Yeah, I think for me, um, the—I guess is that the genres that I more gravitate towards is, well, fantasy, on the one hand, YA at the moment and a bit of romance. Like, I do love a really good love story. I’ve been watching Crash Landing on You on Netflix, which is this [South] Korean drama. And it’s about this South Korean woman who gets caught in a storm when she’s paragliding and ends up in North Korea, and runs into a North Korean soldier. And yeah, I like the way that romance genres tend to do with character—like, I feel like it’s a bit more rich and more about their interior lives, not just about, “Oh, great: how do we get these two people together and have that happily ever after?” But that journey to there is really interesting for me.

So I thought what we could do now is talk about one particular project and where the idea came from.

RKL: Headspace is the one where, especially if I’m teaching, like—like, a class about how to get story ideas, it’s often the one that I come back to—in that it’s about a sheriff of a small sort of seaside town who comes to realise that this town is inside the mind of a killer, and the killer’s mind has discovered that this incursion exists and so is going to try to wipe this town out. So the sheriff has to try to survive.

And so if that’s the story, and then that’s the setup, the kernel of that came from me teaching the First Fleet to students at the primary school where I teach, and talking about, you know, why the First Fleet occurred, which was that the overpopulation of prisons in in Britain was causing an overflow on an issue, and that they were even getting prisoners and putting them onto ships that were in the rivers that had been, like, founded there. And they would call—they were called “hulks”, these ships, and they would turn them into mini, like, overflow prisons.

And I thought to myself, wouldn’t that be a cool modern idea if they would take, like, a prison and shrink it and then inject it into somebody—à la sort of like Innerspace, which is that sort of stupid, goofy, classic 80s movie with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan? And so I thought to myself, “That’d be cool if we got, like, a prison and then shrunk it down and just, like, in a pill, almost, injected it? And what if, then, you injected it into a prisoner who’s in a prison? How many prisons could you fit in a prisoner?” And I started [to] spin, like, this idea around and trying to work it out.

And initially, that’s—that’s just a concept. And so I had to sort of dig around. I actually heard a great quote this morning on a podcast, and I—it was like a roundtable thing, so I don’t know the author’s name. But she talked about, you don’t write about problems and the people within them; you write about people and their problems. So I sort of—I had the problem and was creating a solution, and then I needed to flip and go, “All right: who’s my character?”

And eventually, in doing that, I’m—like, semi spoilers: the sheriff in this small town that’s in the killer’s mind, that’s not a prison. Like, it’s—I eventually got rid of that idea. And the only thing I kept from that initial First Fleet/sci-fi rip off was, “What if there was, like, people within people?” But I made it more, I guess, organic, and that they just sort of existed within there and didn’t know they were there. And it then very much became the focus on the sheriff, Shane Garretty, figuring out the brain—that he’s in a brain, that the brain is the brain of a killer, and that he has an opportunity, perhaps, to do something good. You know, if you’re in the mind of a killer, perhaps you could tweak them or kill them.

But then also, in roaming around the memories in this brain, he sees his son who was murdered years before. So you can see he has a very decent personal hook to the story and a reason not to just find the off switch, but to try to figure out—I mean, it seems fairly obvious why your murdered child might be in the mind of a murderer, but you would probably want to track it down—one would assume.

So, yeah, we weave all that together. And it very much then becomes a story of a person and his problems, and we branch out from there.

And so by the time I wrote the story, and it’s now been published, it’s really not that prison within a prisoner thing at all. But through asking questions, and spinning and spinning and spinning, that’s how we got there—which is a fun and for me, sometimes, can take years as a process, which isn’t great for productivity. I know some people can sort of spin ideas out one a month or more. It takes me a while to really percolate on it to get it right. But that one came out, I think, really, really well. I do—I created that book with Eric Zawadzki and Sebastian Piriz, and I absolutely love it. Yeah.

KB: Yeah, some ideas na—need time to kind of gestate or percolate or something, don’t they? Like they—they just need a bit of time to form, in some ways, and they lose the dross. And then the—

RKL: Yeah.

KB: —the diamond shines through, in some ways. It’s interesting.

RKL: Basically, yeah: you’re scrubbing bits off, and then you’ve got to find that extra element supporting that, and that’s usually what I’m missing. I’m like, “Oh, I need something else.” And it was—for that story, it was when he saw his child roaming about in the mind and was like, “Oh, this”—like, that’s heartbreaking for me. Like, that would be a terrible, terrible situation to be in—like, one of the worst. And so once I got that little piece of it, I was like, “Oh, okay: well, everything is going to spill out from that.” But um, yeah, I find it takes me a while to

I had a similar thing with Beautiful Canvas, which is about a hit woman contracted to kill a small child. And I was like, “Okay, well, that’s terrible.” And it sort of sat there: for about three years, I kept pushing it aside, and I would do other stories. And eventually I realised, “Oh, her girlfriend’s pregnant. So she’s going to kill a kid, but she’s going to have a kid.” Now there’s internal conflict. So yeah, sometimes it’s just the right mash-up, just waiting to bump into stuff in my brain, I think—

KB: Yeah.

RKL: —probably more by accident than by any skill, sadly

KB: How about you, Queenie?

QC: Um, I’ve done a lot of different kinds of stories, and all of them have different origins. One of the—I mean, to follow on what from what Ryan said, what—a lot of the time it comes from random research. You know, I like learning about new things. So a lot the time, I’m like, yay, I want to know about this. And then ideas just come from this kind of thing.

Other times it was because I was working for a publisher and they wanted a particular kind of story—like, that’s how The Dreaming came to be, is, like, give me a haunted school story. And I was like, “Yeah, here’s a haunted school story.” Yeah, so that is a good catalyst.

Other times in—it’s stuff, like, you know, I want to do research on something. And then I’m like, “Okay, if we’re going to do research, might as well, you know, give it a go and see, you know, what I come up with.”

And I have noticed—like, I’m going to talk about something that might be interesting to people is that sometimes you come up with entire universes, and they don’t get in—turn into an actual script and, you know, an actual story. That’s happened to me on multiple occasions. And these are stories set in a similar kind of universe.

Like, for example, I’ve had three stories based on Chinese mythology—one that I actually—was published, but it wasn’t written by me; it was written by Kylie Chan and I illustrated it. And here’s the thing: she used characters that pre-existed in Chinese fantasy—I mean, in Chinese mythology—and Taoist religion, so to speak. And I did designs for them. And I said to her, “Look, you know, these characters are—they’re not characters; they’re, you know, gods—myth—mythological beings.” And I’m like, “I’m design—I’m doing a character design for you here. But if I was going to do my own version of the story—my own version of these characters—can I reuse these designs?” And she was like, “Yeah,” you know, she’s all for it. So it’s kind of created a universe where Kylie’s version of Chinese mythology is nothing like mine. But the way that certain characters look is actually exactly the same, if I was going to do that story—my own story.

And it is very strange, because I’ve written two—actually, I’ve actually got two stories published. Small Shen was one of them—the one with Kylie. And that came out in 2010 with Harp—yeah, 2011, with Harper Collins, I think—no, 2012 with Harper Collins—and that book did pretty well. So that was part of her White Tiger series—part of that prose fiction, you know, series that sold really well. So that’s a prequel to that. And I also did a story about a scent merchant with Yen Press back in 2008. So that was published in a magazine that was only available in America. And that was called Yen—Yen Plus, I think. I think it’s defunct now. But there’s also another story that I wrote for a competition. It didn’t win. But these characters all seem to share—are from separate stories with completely—like, they don’t connect at all in any way, to be honest. But they share—they come from the same kind of mythological universe.

And so now what I’m doing is that because of the comics game thing that I’m working on, and I’m also working on different game as a way to train myself to program and learn to how to use Unity in programming tools. There’s like, “Oh, I might as well do a farming live sim game and—that’s set in this Chinese mythology universe.” And now all these characters are back! And they’re all actually in the same universe as this game.

And I’m, like—I think it’s really interesting that writers sometimes have these ideas, and then nothing happens. Or maybe something happens, and it’s very small portion of them becomes a story that gets published or, you know, you do some illustration work for someone else. And so these characters do kind of exist in a particular kind of space. And then, years later, these characters all become part of something else. And I think there’s something to be said about these kind of creative universes and how things can spring up years ago, and nothing happens, but years later, they reappear in a different form.

And it’s never the universe as well; it’s always the characters. There are some characters who you really feel connected to when you’re, like, “I’m sorry, I can’t put you in a story” or maybe, “You appeared in the story for two pages, and that’s sad, because you’re so cool” and all that. But then they reappear in other forms in your other stories. And that’s—or that’s how I’ve experienced my kind of created universes. And it’s like—

It’s completely unexpected, because you always expect that you will—you will always be a comic book artist who does comics and that’s it. But I didn’t expect to be creating a game. That was entirely for my PhD so I can learn how to program. That’s it, but here it is: the game has actually made pretty good progress in terms of programming. So I’m just, like, “What?” You know. And maybe this is my life: it’s just unexpected, how these things happen. But what I—my point is, is that when it comes to being a creator of any kind, you can’t expect your work to just stay in one medium or just to stay in one story even. They just kind of blur or blend together after a while, and that character that you couldn’t put in a story kind of reincarnate sometimes in a different form.

KB: That’s really lovely that they’ve come back again—that you’re using them and reusing the designs and things, but also that they have their roots in Taoist mythology, and yeah, they have a history, in a way. That’s really really cool.

QC: Yeah, it’s—it’s strange. Sometimes other characters are born from interactions between these characters. It’s like—it’s all about filling out the edges of a universe when you’re trying to build a coherent world, and you have your main core actors, and then you have all these situations, and new characters are born from these situations.

KB: It also seems like you and Ryan, in a way, approach the whole concept of—of story from the opposite—opposite directions, in that you’re a bit more concerned with the world, and the characters, in a way, just come into it, whereas with Ryan, the world may be there, but what’s more important first is the character, because that is the viewpoint through which the reader will experience the rest of the world. I don’t know if—maybe I’ve misrepresented that but—

RKL: It’s also very important that I do it this way because I’m really lazy. And so—and I think that’s shown between, like, Queenie doing all of this insane work right now, and I am definitely not. But I do: I like to cut corners within things or, yeah, I’m—I’m—I get very stripped back in that, whereas—and I’ve had people ask questions like, “Oh, there’s this thing: tell me all about everything around it.” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” Like, it didn’t come into the story, so I didn’t—didn’t figure it out.

Every now and then, I’ll get on a jag and something will be really known and not end up in the story. But otherwise I’m—I’m just, I think, exceptionally lazy, whereas Queenie, I think, holds a lot more in her head and brings it all together, which is definitely, I think—like, I think that’s a really cool. I’m very jealous of ability.

QC: Oh, thanks. I don’t think it’s an issue at all. Like, everyone’s different. But that’s the whole point of being a creative is that—

RKL: Yep.

QC: —everyone’s got different approaches. And I would say my approach might be from the fact that I actually grew up more with gaming, than with video games—than with comics. And I would say that—like, it sounds strange, but um, sometimes—interactive worlds require you to fill out these kinds of questions, because you have to make maps. And that’s actually the first thing you got to do is that—if you’re talking about Super Mario, the very first game that I really got into—like Super Mario Brothers, it’s like “What is it with this crazy world with mushrooms everywhere and—”

RKL: Yes!

QC: —giant turtles attacking you and this plumber guy jumping around?” It’s like, “What kind of volume did this shear wackiness spring from?” And so, I think for a lot of game creators is that—they do start off with an environment first and obstacles and—before they come up with the characters. And because—I—I started playing video games before I ever started reading manga. So perhaps that had some influence on me, because I was thinking—that the reason why I became a programmer and took an IT degree was because I wanted to be a games programmer. That was my original goal. But, of course, Australia, back then, they didn’t have such—anything such as game companies. That was just—you know, that’s a very recent thing in comparison. So I didn’t—wasn’t able to make my dream—my game-making dream come true. But you go in a different direction. And you know, that’s fine.

But I think it might be because of that—because I did so much gaming—like, there’s a lot of world building in manga and comics as well, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just that when you write a linear narrative, is that you go from point A to point B, which is what most films, movies, comics books are like. It’s like you have a narrative and your character goes on a character arc. If you start off like that way—that way of thinking about your creative projects, then obviously, Ryan’s approach is actually a very good one. Because then you start off with a compelling human story. But I think if you start off with thinking you’re making a game, that’s actually not your first thing; you actually start off with your environment. It’s like, “Is it going to be a platformer, like Mario?”, or perhaps it’s going to be a story-driven RPG and you go around fighting monsters and building up your levels, and then you take on the boss, and that story naturally grows from that.

But if you are actually—well, that’s how it feels like when you’re playing a game. But if you were making that game, well, where would you start? You always start with a map.

RKL: Yeah.

QC: You know, this is my hometown, and you know, buy houses here and then my awful neighbours, and then there’s a town hall and this elder lives here. You know, that sort of thing. So perhaps my approach comes from having a having a background and a childhood—done with playing—playing a lot of this kind of stuff—is that there are all these things that may feature in your story. Well actually, in a comic, it may feature in your story for five seconds or five pages. But in a game, you will probably go back to it over and over again. You’ll go back to your hometown and revisit these people and all that. So these—in a game situation, they have to be recyclable, meaning that they have to come back within the context of the game’s narrative.

And so you have to build it differently. So maybe that’s where it comes from. I actually haven’t really thought about that. I assume that everyone just does things differently and I never really gave it thought. So that was a—that’s an interesting thought—

KB: Yeah, that’s fascinating!

QC: —comparing different ways of storytelling.

RKL: Well, I definitely wasn’t a gamer as a kid. And so that would track. What I was was I would play with, like, He-Man and GI Joe, and we couldn’t afford, like, vehicles and, like, Castle Grayskull. So I would just have these lone things going on journeys. This all makes sense: our entire storytelling thing is rooted in our own origins! This is—this is an exceptional breakthrough.

KB: Wow!

RKL: I’m assuming Karen, you’re charging, like, $180 an hour, because this is some serious therapy. I’m loving it!

KB:  I just like asking people questions.

RKL: It all makes sense!

KB:  Yeah, because for me, it’s different, again, because, often, for me, it starts with a particular idea or concept, like, so my science fiction comic, Eternal Life, it was me getting irritated with reading various bits of science fiction, and the people who were religious were always portrayed as being, basically, lunatics. They’re all crazy, and—

RKL: Yeah.

KB:  —it really annoyed me, because, being a Christian, I just thought, “Well, okay, say the world keeps going for another 2,000 years. Christians are still going to be doing the same thing that they’re doing now, which is basically reading and studying the Bible, going to church, talking to other people about Jesus, and stuff”, and that’s where it began, because I thought, “I just want to write about Christians who are ‘normal’ and not crazy in the future.” And so I had this family of missionaries who were going off to a planet, but the planet get—got blown up by a suicide bomber, and so they were a bit stuck on a—

QC: The planet got blown up?

KB:  Yes! The whole planet.

QC: Wow!

KB:  Yes. So they get stuck on a space station and that’s where they meet this girl named Bri who’s com—basically on the run from her past and stuff.

But a lot of my stories don’t start with characters the way I feel like Ryan’s do. It’s more with this—this weird idea, me getting irritated about something. I wrote this novella a year or two ago and it actually started from an exercise that Ryan got us to do at the Australian Comic Arts Festival a couple of years ago where—I think it’s the one where you get us to write down a whole bunch of different ideas in the span of five minutes or ten minutes or something, and you take three of them and try to develop them further, and then you take one of them and try and develop them further. And it was around the time that Pokémon Go came out, and I was fascinated—

RKL: Yeah.

KB:  —because I’m not a gamer, but I found the whole Pokémon Go phenomenon just fascinating, just because it got people out of the house and going out into the world and meeting people. And I read this story about this—this autistic boy who’s totally into the game and was connecting with other people about the game, just, like, going around his neighbourhood and—and people saying to him, “Oh, you can get”—whatever Pokémon it was—“in this area, if you go here” and his mother was writing about it online and saying how wonderful it was that her son was actually connecting with others.

And from there, though, me being me, I thought, “Oh, what if it was—if you had a game that was, like, for people dating and the game tried to match people up and sent them on different dates? And so I wrote this novella about that, where, in this society, like, everybody is working so hard, they have no time to settle down and meet people and have families, and the government is very concerned about the falling date—birth rate. So then they run this dating program over the summer every summer, and it’s compulsory. And—so the novella was just about this girl going through this—this game—this program and going on different dates, and some of them are completely disastrous and some of them are, “Eh”, okay, and—and so on and so forth. So it’s really fun.

[Music]

KB:  Well that concludes Part 1 of my conversation with Queenie Chan and Ryan K Lindsay about writing and creating comics. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Many thanks to Queenie and Ryan for coming on the show. If you’d like to find out more about them and their work, head to queeniechan.com for Queenie and ryanklindsay.com for Ryan.

Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Hiveminded Podcast!  For links, show notes, a rough transcript and some free comics, head to hivemindedness.com. Audio editing and production was done by me. Our theme music is “I’m going for a coffee” by Lee Rosevere (which is slightly ironic, because I don’t drink coffee). Website design by Ben Beilharz. And special thanks as always to Rebecca Jee and Guan Un of the Hive Mind, whose undying support has made all this possible.

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Rejection and the art of getting over things

Lately I’ve been finding it hard to blog. I plan posts in my head, but don’t ever get to putting them down. I have good intentions. I even clear time to do it. But when it comes to actually putting fingers to keyboard, I often feel like I run out of steam. Or I have nothing worthwhile to say.

So this blog lies here doing nothing when I want so much for it to say something.

I was contemplating this today while doing something I’ve meant to do for a while—which is transcribe the most helpful part of this episode from The Happiness Lab podcast about rejection: “Treating the pain of a broken heart” (Season 3, episode 2). It’s in the section where the host, Laurie Santos, interviews psychologist, speaker and author Guy Winch about practical things people can do to mitigate the pain of rejection:

Laurie Santos: … Guy [Winch] argues that we need to learn how to treat rejection pain right away—the same way we’d grab a first aid kit to put a bandaid on a cut.

Guy Winch: If you leave it up to our mind to make a decision about what’s the best way to heal an emotional wound, it will inadvertently send you down the wrong path. It will do the wrong thing, because it’s just trying to protect you from having that wound again. It’s not trying to heal it in an adaptive way.

LS: When I think of rejection first aid, I’ll be honest: I think of booze, frankly, and ice cream. It’s, like, what I think of—so is this kind of common?

GW: You didn’t invent booze and ice cream. In other words, that is the go to. But, yeah, we tend to numb the pain. That’s our basic response: let’s numb it with sugar; let’s numb it with alcohol. All very well. Doesn’t actually solve anything. You’ll wake up feeling both hungover or nauseous, and still in emotional pain the next day, so it’s not necessarily the most useful.

What would be useful is to counter some of the impacts by, first of all, exhibiting self-compassion—you know, like, we literally go and find ways to beat ourselves up when our self-esteem is at its lowest point. And so, instead of reviving our self-esteem and our confidence, we’re actually doing the opposite. It’s one of the most unfortunate tendencies we have, post-rejection.

LS: So that’s the first step of rejection first aid: stop making all those rejection wounds worse. Don’t kick yourself when you’re already down with all that negative self-talk. But a second step is to fight the urge to lick your wounds in solitude. Healing from rejection requires a dose of social connection.

GW: We’re tribal animals, and part of the rejection is about our need to belong—our need to feel affiliated with certain groups. It can be a church group. It can be our amateur softball league. It can be our clique of friends—our college roommates. But that group membership gives us, literally, this layer of protection—this shield—because we feel part of a group. We feel more protected. In a moment of rejection, you won’t. But then go and reach out to your group and reconnect and have a few chats with people in the group to remind yourself of your fact that you belong—that people appreciate you. And it’s an amazing tonic.

LS: But what if you can’t get that social support in person? What if you’re like [actor] Tim Colceri, stuck in a foreign country, away from your friends and family when you get fired or jilted? For situations like these, Guy recommends a practice he calls “social snacking”: just as we grab a snack when we hungry, but can’t eat a full meal, so too can we ease our social hunger with small reminders that we’re connected to others. Studies show that merely surrounding yourself with pictures and mementos of people you love can make the hurt of rejection subside a bit.

But the most important rejection first aid treatment, according to Guy, is a practice that actively helps you remember your own value. You need to recall that you’re still a good person, but not in the way that self-help books suggest. You don’t need to launch into a bunch of cheesy, positive affirmations.

GW: Like, “I’m beautiful and I’m going to find great love” kind of things, and they often don’t work, because in a moment of rejection, you actually don’t feel beautiful or very optimistic about finding great love. That will actually make you feel worse.

LS: Guy’s work has found that a better value boosting technique is to get really specific.

GW: Let’s say it’s the romantic domain. Your head is going to take you to all your shortcomings and deficiencies. What you need to do is balance them out. So make a list of every quality that you know you have. It’s got to be stuff you know you have, not stuff you would like to have. But things you know you have; it’s got to be real—that make you a good dating prospect: you’re emotionally available, you’re good with in-laws, you bake stupendous muffins, you give a back rub—whatever it is. Make the list long and exhaustive and varied. And then choose one of those things that’s actually meaningful, and write a couple of paragraphs about why that’s a meaningful thing in relationships, how you’ve exhibited it in the past, and how that’s been appreciated or how it might be appreciated in the future. Do one of those a day when you’re feeling rejected romantically.

If it’s about you got rejected from a job, do one about what makes you a good employee: you’re loyal, you’re reliable, you’re responsible, you’re timely, whatever it is. But do the things—you know, write out what you’re bringing to the table—what makes you valuable—to directly counter that tendency to do the opposite in your head.

LS: Guy has found that leaving our emotional wounds untreated without any rejection first aid can have long-term negative impacts on our psychological health.

GW: We do think differently. We become very, very risk-adverse. We withdraw. Our instinct isn’t to then go out and reconnect with the people who we can reconnect with; it’s to withdraw because we then become risk-adverse; we just don’t want to suffer anymore rejection.

I love the idea of having an emotional first aid kit—a go to list of tools to employ when you’re in pain that will actually do something about that pain. I love that part of that kit involves connection and community, which is a very Christian idea (see Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” [ESV]). But I also love that part of that kit involves self-care and pushing back against the negative self-talk with positivity. It sounds quite counter-intuitive, and I dare say that one of the ramifications of Tall Poppy Syndrome is that we Australians feel less incline to talk about our strengths because it sounds like bragging. But I can see how it would be helpful to remind ourselves—particularly when there is no one who will do it for us—of the things that we are actually good at and the positive effect that being good at that thing has had. Surely it will help us become more resilient.

I wrote in my now defunct newsletter once that I felt like I didn’t have much resiliency. Several years and a number of rejections on, I think that’s still the case. I feel like I’ve become more and more risk-adverse—not putting myself out there as much (and blogging is part of this. So is social media, I think; maybe I will blog about that sometime when I feel like I have the constitution to do so), withdrawing, being reluctant to suffer any more rejection.

A good friend asked me not long ago whether I had been through something that had delivered a significant blow to my confidence. I was about to answer “No”, but then remembered that I had: I had applied for a creative development program and had been unsuccessful. But the being unsuccessful part hadn’t been the part that stung: it was the letter of feedback I received. It was prefaced with “the judging panel have some feedback for you which we hope will be helpful”, but the feedback was written in what I found to be a most unhelpful manner. Reading back over it, I think it’s because it was one judge’s comments copied and pasted out of their report; it wasn’t actually feedback written to me as the direct recipient. This meant that the feedback came across as cold and brutal—the very opposite of helpful.

At the time, I posted on social media,

Another rejection with some rather savage feedback on my work. I look forward to the day when this hurts less, instead of leaving me feeling like I’m bleeding all over the floor.

And my community rallied around me, providing encouragement and messages of support.

I wallowed for a while. I reminded myself that the work this judge had critiqued had been shortlisted for a national award, and when it didn’t win, one of the judges for that award had said some nice things about it in private. I added it as another line in my rejection spreadsheet. And I tried to rally.

But I was still very affected by it.

I still am, I think.

I don’t quite know how to get out of this trench I’ve found myself in. I’m reluctant to leave it as I don’t fancy getting shot at again. But I know that if I want to write and put my work out there, I have to.

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So I’m working on a novel …

I’ve been meaning to write a post about my novel for a little while—if only to have something to refer people to when they ask me about it and I don’t have time to respond.

But I also find it a little uncomfortable writing about it. I’m uncomfortable for several reasons: firstly, it’s still in progress and who knows whether it will ever see the light of publication? Secondly, there are cultural issues involved that make the whole thing a little sensitive, and while I don’t quite agree that I have no right to tell this story the way I am, I am conscious of the issues and how complicated the whole thing is. Thirdly, I’m not sure I have more to say other than, “I’m writing a novel and it’s about this”.

 But anyway. Here’s a post about my novel. Enjoy.

Genesis

To talk about this novel, I have to talk about another one first—one that I started and then stopped, because it wasn’t quite working.

It was during the period Ben and I were going through a trial separation (which is a story I am not going to ever blog about, but I’m throwing it out there because it happened, we are all the stronger for it happening, and just as it’s helpful to know that other people also struggle with depression and anxiety, it’s also helpful for married people to know that other people’s marriages are sometimes difficult and complicated, but that’s not the end of the world for the relationship).

So as I said, it was during the period when we were going through a trial separation. I was quite depressed, and one of the ways I coped with my depression was to lose myself in daydreaming. I had this idea for a fantasy story about a girl chosen by a magician to become his special helper because they shared a magical connection, and I thought it might work as a novel.

I started writing bits and pieces of it while I was working on my novella (which is very close to seeing the light of publication if only I had the time and energy to do the necessary revisions and get it out there). The setting started off as being very European medieval fantasy. But then I read someone on Twitter bemoaning the fact that most fantasy was European and medieval, and couldn’t writers conceive of something else? And something in me shifted.

Mugen and Jin from “Samurai Champloo”.

Around the same time, I had been revisiting one of my favourite anime series, Samurai Champloo, which was made by the same director as Cowboy Bebop. It had just come to Netflix and even though I own the series on DVD, it’s so much more convenient to stream things instead of fiddling with players and discs. (NB: It’s no longer up on Netflix, but you can watch 25 episodes on this YouTube playlist plus episode 26 with an English dub.)

The series is about a teenage girl named Fuu who enlists two rogue swordsmen—Mugen from the Ryukyu islands and Jin, who is a rōnin (i.e. a master-less samurai) to protect her and help her find a samurai who smells of sunflowers. The three have little love for one another, but as they travel along the length of Japan and have all sorts of crazy adventures along the way, they develop a bond—something deeper than friendship, something forged of promises and loyalty. A lot of people find the ending anti-climactic, but I think it’s because their expectations are wrong: it’s one of those series that is more about the journey than the destination. The more I’ve watched it, the more I’ve come to appreciate the story and why it ends the way it does.

Edo Japan

Anyway, one of things I really love about it is that it’s set during the Edo/Tokugawa period—that section of Japanese history 1603 and 1867 when the country was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. (Though on reflection, Samurai Champloo probably set more towards the end of that period as it has an entire episode about American baseball.) I find the Edo period fascinating: it was a time of peace as the country had been more or less united under the shogunate; it was a time of prosperity as peace and social stability led to both an economic and a population boom; it was a time of great social change when the ruling classes—the samurai and the nobility—were on the decline while the merchants were becoming more prosperous; and it was a time of artistic flourishing when a number of traditional Japanese arts and crafts really came into their own. (It should also be noted that it was a time of isolation as well, because Japan shut its borders to everyone except the Dutch East India Company. Samurai Champloo episode 6 has an interesting story about a character who worked for them.)

In my depression that year, another thing I found myself doing was travelling to Japan in my imagination. I have only been there once—in January of 1993 when I was 15 and it was bitterly cold. I remember visiting Tokyo Disneyland when it was snowing; seeing people wearing face masks in the subway because they either had colds or wanted to avoid getting colds; seeing beautifully dressed girls in kimonos in one of Tokyo’s gardens (though I don’t remember why they were all dressed up); going up Mount Fuji and marvelling at how I could see one side of the country to the other; staying at an inn known for its hot spring but not understanding why that was significant; waking up the day we were supposed to go to Kobe and learning about the earthquake, and thinking about the guy on the bullet train the day before who had been going there and wondering if he was okay (I don’t actually remember how I knew he was going to Kobe; maybe he disembarked there before we did?); and catching the bullet train back to Tokyo. I would very much like to go to Japan again, and I had started saving up for a trip when COVID hit. (And then we bought a house, which decimated the fund, so I’ve had to start again.)

Somehow those two things—my novel and my love of Edo Japan—coalesced and I decided to make the setting of my fantasy novel Edo-inspired.

Of course, the moment I decided to do that, I ran into a whole bunch of world-building problems. It wasn’t that I wanted to be slavishly faithful to the Edo era; it was more that as I researched the period, I started to see how different aspects of Japanese culture influence and determine other things. For example, geography and climate: Japan is an island nation that sits on the ring of fire, which means that it is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. (I confess I did know until a couple of years ago that Mount Fuji is a volcano.) Its weather ranges from extreme snow in the winter to soul-crushing heat and humidity in the summer. This is why traditional Japanese houses are built in a particular way—to facilitate air flow and temperature regulation when it’s hot, with the ability to close everything off when it’s cold (though the Japanese are more into space heating with hearths in the floor, instead of heating the entire house). Houses are usually made of wood, which makes them a little bit more flexible in the event of an earthquake, but wood also means that fire is a major hazard, and often it is expected that structures will be rebuilt after a suitable period of time has elapsed.

The more I researched (as much as one can via the internet, and I certainly feel very lucky to have the whole of the world wide web at my fingertips for this, though it makes me feel a lot like armchair traveller Ann Radcliffe), the more I would come across little details that were essential to my story, but that were of no interest to historians. Sometimes I was able to unearth answers after trawling the internet in different ways. (For example, did Japanese sailors use hammocks on board? The answer is no, but you’ll have to read pages 678-679 of the book I linked to to find it.) Sometimes I couldn’t find the answer—even if it was for something that I thought was rather simple. (For example, how often did Japanese people do laundry in the Edo era? Given that cleaning a kimono involves taking it apart, washing it and sewing it back together again, I take it they wouldn’t have been doing that very often. But their undergarments? Absolutely no idea. But I’d guess surely they would change those almost every day, given the Japanese penchant for bathing, which is linked to Shinto and ideas about pollution.)

I know, I know: it’s fiction. It’s fantasy. I could have just made stuff up. But I kind of liked that the research was leading me in all sorts of place to all sorts of things I had never considered before—which is why I stuck with it as an exercise in world-building. Japan is different in just about every regard to the western culture I had grown up. And yet there were parts of it that felt familiar to me because Japan borrowed so much from Chinese culture—Buddhism and Confucianism, of course, but also their writing system, their style of dress, and even aspects of their cuisine and handicrafts. At one point, I read something about Japanese history and was struck by a line saying something about how Japanese society back then was obsessed with Chinese culture. It shocked me because I have never had much interest in Chinese culture, despite that being my heritage. But seeing China through the lens of Japan changed all that. My appreciation for Chinese culture and history, and even my own Asianness, started to grow. (It also helped that around the same time, I discovered xanxia dramas.) Even so, my relationship with my Chineseness is an ongoing journey that I’m not sure I can write about at the moment. (Or ever …)

The thing is, I know that me writing about Japanese culture (even if it’s heavily disguised as fantasy) will be seen as problematic. I’m not Japanese; I’m Chinese. Japanese history and culture is not mine. Furthermore, the relationship between China and Japan is difficult and fraught with traumatic history. (I don’t know how true it is, but I heard that my own grandfather, who died before I was born, became an alcoholic sometime after the Japanese invaded Hong Kong.) The whole situation is complicated and messy.

However, one thing I admire greatly about the Japanese is their ability to borrow things from other cultures—not just Chinese, but Portuguese and even American—and make them their own. I hope they will not mind me doing likewise.

Boring Fantasy Novel

Back to the novel—not the current one, but the other one—the one I called “Boring Fantasy Novel” as a joke when I participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that year. (This is log line I would tell people: “Magician samurai at magic school who need to learn to work together in order to defend their kingdom from an invading empire”. That makes it sound less boring.)

Going through a trial separation meant that I had more child-free time on my hands, because Ben would take the girls to his place every Friday and drop them back on Saturday. I had always wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo, but every year had seemed like a bad time to do it. With more time and a project I actually wanted to work on, participating that year was a no-brainer. And as you can see from the above certificate, I did actually finish.

The following year—2019—I worked on Boring Fantasy Novel—the story about the girl who was chose to become a seer’s helper or familiar. But it branched: initially I had approached it as a single narrator story told from the point of view of the girl, who I named Sia after the musician Sia Furler. (It’s not a particularly Japanese name—it comes from Old Norse—but it is kind of fitting for Reasons that would probably take another blog post.) She lives in the kingdom of Archaia (also not a particularly Japanese name. Reasons. Also, I just liked the name [it’s a comics publisher]) where magic is a part of the natural world. But only the seers—the magic-users—can see it and manipulate it to their ends.

As my cast multiplied, I decided to adopt two other point-of-view characters: a boy named Taika (who is a seer, but not the one who chooses Sia) and a girl named Piper (who is also a seer, but also not the one who chooses Sia). Both Taika and Piper are friends with Caspian, the seer who does choose Sia. You’d think Caspian as a POV character would be the obvious choice, but I didn’t want to make him one. I was drawn to Taika and Piper instead—again, for Reasons.

Anyway, I kept going with Boring Fantasy Novel, telling the story from three points of view—Sia, Taika and Piper. I’d never written a multi-POV novel before, and I dealt with it by switching between the three of them in a set pattern—Sia, Taika, Piper; Sia Taika Piper, etc.

Then I realised I had completely underestimated how much story would fill one novel. That’s what happens when you have three POVs and plot arcs for each of them! I had a rough outline and enough story to fill a trilogy. But what I was calling Book #1 waaaaaaay too long: I hit 80,000 words and realised I wasn’t done. I thought it would work if I split what I was calling Book #1 into two books, thus making the trilogy a quadrilogy. The thing with doing that is that the first half didn’t quite work as a self-contained book. Furthermore, when I started workshopping sections of it with my writing group the following year, I realised from their feedback that it really wasn’t working—that each POV didn’t stand on its own—and that I had to do something quite drastic.

Of course, my solution was to run. I was 67,000 words through what became Book #2 when I did it, and it was because I was writing a Taika chapter and realised I needed more of his backstory.

The Taika Novel

It was around this time the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia—about the second quarter of 2020. In between supervising home learning and trying to do my job, I wasn’t writing much of anything. I was trying to keep it up, but it was fragmented and rough, and I found I was using the time to work things out. I wrote about Taika and Piper’s backstories, trying to trace the trajectory of who they were up to the beginning of Boring Fantasy Novel. I thought it would just be a useful exercise in character development. But as I looked over what I’d written, I realised that Taika’s story could work as a standalone novel on its own. (Piper’s could work, but it’s not quite there yet.) Boring Fantasy Novel/Quadrilogy wasn’t working, and that was partly because I was trying to juggle three POVs. I decided I should learn to walk before I tried to run and attempt just one POV instead.

So earlier this year, I started on the Taika Novel. It starts a few years earlier than Boring Fantasy Novel and it is about Taika, a fifteen-year-old boy who was born into the lowest social class in the kingdom of Archaia (which is analogous to the Burakumin in Edo Japan; that’s something else that might get me in trouble). Taika is discovered to be a seer and made to enrol in the Seer Academy. He must learn to master his powers and make his situation work for him, despite the hostility and obstacles he faces (the Seer Academy is full of aristocrats, you see). The alternative is execution, because the Crown can’t have untrained magic users running around; the law says that everyone who is discovered to be a seer must serve the King and the Kingdom.

I describe the Taika Novel as being a “small” story that’s not aiming to do much. As I’ve been writing it, though, I’ve been drawing correlations between Taika’s story and mine—connections that were largely unconscious until I realised how they were influencing the material. Chief among them is that feeling of entering an existing situation where everyone else has been there a while and is familiar with the way things work, while you feel out of place and don’t know anything. Taika doesn’t know how to read or write, but everyone else at Seer Academy does because they all come from the upper class and had private tutors. It’s a lot like when I was six and I moved from to Canada to Australia. I struggled a lot at school. In Canada, I had completed Kindergarten 1 and Kindergarten 2 at a bilingual school where lessons were taught in English and French. But I didn’t know how to read, and when we arrived in Australia, my age meant that I was placed in Year 1 halfway through. (We arrived in July.) I went from being at the level of my peers to being far below. I have a very clear memory of standing up in front of the class, being asked to write “jump” on the board and not being able to get past the letter “j” while all the other kids yelled the answer. For the rest of that year, I had to sit at a desk right beside the teacher, who set me special work to help me catch up. And for the longest time, I thought of myself as not being particularly smart—until I started excel academically and discovered what I was really capable of.

As I wrote in this post, I’ve outlined the whole novel and written bits of it. I’m currently writing the rest of it rather badly and I’m almost halfway. I’d really like to finish the whole thing this year, but that will depend a lot on the pandemic, us coming out of lockdown and the girls returning to school.

What of the Boring Fantasy Novel Quadrilogy? Well, I do actually have a plan for that, but it’s looking more like two more stand-alones plus a trilogy, according to my current rough outlines. None of what I wrote will be wasted. In fact, many of the characters in that are in the Taika Novel; I’m just writing about them when they were younger.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Learn to walk before I run. Let’s finish the Taika novel first.

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Write like a 3D printer

Writing (pre-pandemic)

This is how I used to write before the pandemic: I organised my part-time job and my life so that I had very set writing mornings—Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Depending on the day, I would walk the girls to school for drop-off, go to a local café, and write and have a hot drink in the half hour before the library opened, then move to the library where, if I was lucky, I got my favourite desk. If I left it too late, my favourite desk was snapped up by an elderly Chinese man who liked to read the papers and mumble very loudly under his breath while reading. He’d stay until baby rhyme time began—during which I would be surrounded by parents and infants and would be trying to drown out the librarian who couldn’t sing in tune with very loud music piped through my headphones.

After baby rhyme time, I would continue writing and often try to stave off hunger pains/the need to go to the loo (as the library one was terrible as they shared it with the food establishments around it and you needed to ask them for a key). Then I’d walk home when I couldn’t leave it any longer, often still thinking about my novel.

Or some mornings, I’d go do my gym class and then sit for a couple of hours with my laptop in the food court of the shopping mall above the gym while people came and went around me.

Doing this, I managed to clock eight to ten hours of writing a week.

Writing (mid-pandemic)

Of course, COVID changed all that. During lockdown, I couldn’t go to cafés or libraries or food courts. I tried to make do with my little desk—or even my balcony while the weather was warm. But I usually couldn’t manage more than half an hour to an hour, and that was on days when Ben was able to take the girls out for exercise.

I expected that: we were all going through a hard time after all, and sharing a two bedroom flat with three others who needed to do home learning as well as paid work was stressful enough. I purposefully kept the bar low.

But then things began to open up again and we were allowed back into cafés and food courts (though not always libraries). I’d go occasionally, but I was more aware of the risks (even when masked). It was safer not to risk mingling germs with others.

And then we moved out of our two bedroom flat into a house—a house where, for the very first time, I got to have my very own a study. With a door. (It’s not a lockable door, but it’s a door! And if I really wanted, I suppose I could pay someone to put a lock on it, but a Do Not Disturb sign would probably do just as well if I could be bothered.)

But even with a study, I’m not being as productive as I was pre-pandemic. It’s easier to write when I’m not at home, away from the distractions of housework, parenting and the endless To Do list. The pandemic isn’t over, and while public health guidelines regarding masks and indoor spaces are still in flux (particularly at the moment), I’m still not completely comfortable with resuming my old writing haunts.

I’ve tried to set up my study so that it will work for writing: I have the two desks (one for writing; one for the paid job, and they face different directions). But I wonder if doing my writing in the same space as my work is having a detrimental effect. (I say this while being very conscious of how spoiled I am.)

It’s just that often I find myself doing a lot of trying to write and not actually writing.

Writing (or rather, not writing)

Part of it is my perfectionism: I have been known to spend hours and hours agonising over how to craft the right sentences and paragraphs for dialogue and description. Transitions are often a huge problem for me as it isn’t always clear how to move naturally from point A to point B in a scene. In addition, I am always falling down research wormholes, because my novel is set in a fantasy version of Edo-era Japan (which I did because one, I LOVE Edo-era Japan, but also two, it’s an exercise in world-building; there’s nothing like modelling your setting on a real historical period to make you curious about why things were done the way they were. Which reminds me, I should write some novel research posts sometime …)

After a couple of months of near-zero productivity, I decided I needed to change my approach. I’d been listening to Antony Johnston’s Writing and Breathing podcast (in which Antony Johnston interviews writers of different backgrounds and mediums about their origin story and their process) and several authors talked about how they wrote like 3D printers, building up a scene one layer at a time. Some would start with the dialogue, then add the dialogue tags (“he said, she said,“ etc.), then the action, then the setting/description, plot stuff, etc.

It reminded me a lot of a conversation I had with Louie Joyce at the last Australian Comic Arts Festival: I had been talking to him about making the switch from comics to prose, and how sometimes it helped to write what writers often call a “zero draft” first—a word sketch of a scene that might include bits of dialogue and action, but also the main point of the scene and the central conflict and any other important bits. Louie compared the zero draft to the thumbnailing stage in comics—when you’re sketching out how characters should look, how the story should be told in panels and what shots to use. He pointed out you’re often making key creative decisions and doing the bulk of the creative “work” in this phase, as when it comes to inking, colouring and lettering, the most important work has already been done—even at this stage when everything is still rough and raw.

I liked that analogy immediately and it helped change the way I thought about writing. It sounds obvious, but I fell into the trap of thinking that not all writing is “writing”. That is, “writing” does not simply consist of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard; “writing” also encapsulates the thinking and the scribbling and the sudden burst of inspiration you get when you’re on the loo and you have to race to capture it before you forget. “Writing” means the toiling and the crafting of sentences and tearing out your hair while you search for that elusive perfect word. And “writing” is the redrafting and the reshaping and the reworking you do in response to feedback as you whittle away the thing, trying to get it as good as you can make it.

(Related to the zero draft/thumbnailing/writing being difficult thing: recently I stumbled across the excerpt from an interview with John Swartzwelder, who used to be a lead writer on The Simpsons:

I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it. (Source)

Just quietly, I love the concept of a “crappy little elf”!)

My point is, it’s all writing. Why did I think it wasn’t?!

And the point for me was that as my current way of working wasn’t serving me, why not try something different? Why not approach writing prose the way I and my collaborators approach making comics?

Writing, writing, writing

The thing with this approach to writing is that there are no helpful metrics by which to measure progress. It’s more impressive to say, “I am now 50,000 words through this project!” compared with, “I’ve just finished sketching out the whole book!” I suppose you could do it a bit like the comics job sheet that Antony Johnston uses and make up your own boxes to tick off.  But that doesn’t quite work for me.

Neither does time: I tracked my hours for a while using Toggl Track (which I use to log my work hours), so that’s how I know I used to write between eight and ten hours a week. Yet I can easily spend a lot of time at my desk, getting sucked into a YouTube research vortex and not actually writing anything.

So how do I measure progress instead? (Well, aside from divorcing my self-esteem from my productivity.)

The answer is I’ve become a little less fixated on it. I am trying to be content with any forward movement, no matter how small. So with my current novel project (which I am calling “The Taika novel project” after the lead character), I’ve outlined the whole thing. I have a chapter by chapter and scene by scene breakdown that I think works (though I won’t know for sure until I write it). It will clock in at about 16 chapters (and hopefully at least 75,000 words, which is about standard for a YA novel). Chapters 1-2 are in early draft form, and have even been workshopped with my writing group. Chapters 3-4 are at zero draft stage. I’m currently working on the zero draft for chapter 5 using Tansy Rayner Roberts’ 100 words per day for 100 days challenge (see From Baby Brain to Writer Brain: Writing through a world of parenting distraction; so far, I’m up to a 42-day streak). It’s all very slow-going.

That’s okay. I keep reminding myself it’s better than nothing. The fact that I am writing anything during this period of creative depression is a small miracle. I’ll go back over it, and go back over it again, 3D printing up and up and up. One day I’ll have a book.

One day.

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Convertibly cute

Around the time we moved, I stopped knitting for about six months.

This is A Big Deal. Anyone who knows me knows that I always have something on the go, and when I don’t, I’m like an addict, chomping at the bit for my next fix. I need to keep my hands busy because it helps me keep my mind focused, and one of the nice things about knitting is that it’s not being faced with a blank canvas or yarn; you’re building on what other people have made and following/riffing on their directions. So it’s creativity with scaffolding.

Still, moving put a spanner in all of that. It wasn’t because I had to pack up all my needles and yarn (though I’m sure that was part of it); it was just not having the brain space to deal with it. And then afterwards … well, that was partly figuring out where to put things.

Of course, all the yarn (which used to live in a couple of boxes on top of a shelf in the lounge room) was going to go in my study; there was no question about that. But the wardrobe in the study had been built for clothes, and there was a lot of wasted space as I wasn’t hanging clothes in there. So we hired a handywoman who put shelves in for me (and put in shelves in other wardrobes in the house where there was wasted space, because who needs that many clothes?!) An IKEA trip later and I had some boxes—roughly one for all the ridiculous numbers of plys of yarn I own. The result was this, which isn’t very photogenic, but is immensely satisfying for the organisational side of me:

Still, it took a few months more to get some momentum back. It’s not enough to want to knit; I need the thing I’m working on to be useful. As the weather turned colder, I started wishing I had more hats to cover my head and my ears. But also Astrid asked me to knit her some new gloves.

I made her a pair back in 2017:

The pattern is based on the Knitty pattern Fetching, which is quite a fun pattern to knit, featuring 4×1 rib, cables and picot bind-off. It was modified by a designer who goes under the handle “Aufildesjours” and sized down for children (Convertibly Cute pattern link).

Not long after I made them, she lost one as children are wont to do, and it was never retrieved. (Not sure what happened to the other.) Anyway, earlier this year, she asked for ones that were the same—only black (because that’s her favourite colour at the moment). I raided my yarn stash, trying to find something that would work that would also be soft to the hands as she had tried the ones I had made for myself and complained about the scratchiness of the yarn. Fortunately I had some Bendigo Woollen Mills Luxury yarn in black, but it was 8ply and the pattern was written for 10ply.

As usual, Ravelry was an invaluable resource: checking out the pattern page for Fetching and the other knitters who had made it unearthed someone who had made it in 8ply, so I raided their notes and adjusted everything accordingly. Different ply means a different needle size, which means a different gauge, which means adding stitches and repeats to make up the difference, and you’ve got to do it for the whole pattern, not just part of it.

In addition, I threw out Aufildesjours’ instruction to knit a length of i-cord and then sew it on the top of the mitten shell; it’s much sturdier if you decrease the number of stitches at the top of the shell and then knit i-cord off that (and then, if you can, decrease/cast off by picking up stitches around the base where the i-cord begins).

The button to fasten the mitten shell to the back of the gloves proved to be a little tricky, though: I was keen not to buy buttons. (I have nothing against them; I just didn’t want to make a special trip out of the button store for two, and I felt like the ones I used back in 2017 were a little to big.) I had the idea of making them out of yarn—thinking about the sort of bobbles you can knit into jumpers—but further research revealed that they wouldn’t hold their shape well enough to act as an anchor for the loop of the mitten shell. So I looked elsewhere and discovered a pattern on Ravelry for an i-cord knot button. Again, I felt it was more secure to pick up four stitches across the back of the glove where the button would sit and knit the i-cord from that, but tying the cord into a knot proved to be rather tricky, and with the end result, I do wonder if I should have just gone with a button instead.

Anyway, Astrid seems pretty happy with them:

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Blog revival

So sometime last year, my website broke. More specifically, it was my online store: WordPress did something that caused WooCommerce to have a hissy fit, or maybe it was vice versa, but the upshot was that I didn’t have a functional store and had to rejig some things in the interim. And somewhere along the way, my website also started experiencing issues, which meant it wasn’t working all the time.

Of course, 2020 being a pandemic year, fixing the store and the site dropped to the bottom of my priorities. But it wasn’t just the pandemic keeping it there (because, most fortunately, I live in Sydney, Australia, where COVID-19 numbers have been very low and the government has done well to keep things under control, so while we went through lockdown, it wasn’t for as long and it wasn’t as intense as the rest of the world). The other big thing that happened last year was that after 12 years of living in a two bedroom flat, we bought a house, so much of the last third of last year was dominated by packing and moving, and then the first third of this year was dominated by selling the old place, setting up the new place and getting used to the new routine.

It’s now been six months and I still don’t feel like I’m back to where I was, creatively speaking. Oh, I’m still writing and doing a bit of editing, and I had the privilege of doing a workshop and a panel for Comic Gong earlier this year. I’ve even been attending my old writing group fairly regularly this year. And yet, I feel like I’ve stalled.

It’s partly the fallout from the move (and it’s interesting to see what moving and purchasing property score on the Stress-O-Meter). It’s partly because Ben was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea part-way through February (and I felt like I lost two months to terrible sleep). And it’s partly because I haven’t had a decent break since … I can’t remember.

I know why the fuel tank is low. It’s just not something I can do much about at the moment. And through it all, I still have this broken website.

Lately Ben did me a big favour and moved it to a new webhost. He was even able to re-instate the template and re-import my old blog posts. The store needs work, however, and somehow I need to clear some time and space to fix it among the billion other things that are on my plate. But because I’m working on the site, I keep thinking about reviving the blog.

Part of me thinks it’s a bad idea. Part of me wonders how I will fit it in on top of everything else. People keep telling me I’m doing too much, and it’s true that that might be part of the energy drain: as well as my part-time job, parenting duties and writing activities, there’s uniform shop (only twice a term now; that’s my new limit as I’ve picked up something new), Scholastic Book Club, I’m the class parent for Miss 10’s class, I still do morning church band, and I’m co-leading Bible Study.

But part of me really misses blogging. Social media just doesn’t do it for me (and I am increasingly finding social media, with its inbuilt algorithms, incredibly frustrating in the way it buries my posts). And part of me wonders if returning to blogging—perhaps with a modest goal of at least one new post a week—I can hack my way out of feeling so stuck.

I do think I’m in some sort of creative depression at the moment. It’s partly the low energy. It’s partly still getting used to the new routine in the new place. It’s partly my cold office (but hey, at least I have an office now! And it has a door!) It’s partly COVID. (You will not believe the number of times I yell at my kids, “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic! Wash your hands!!”) It’s partly feeling useless and unproductive, which then becomes a self-perpetuating spiral (in that feeling useless and unproductive leads to not producing anything, which further fuels feelings of being useless and unproductive). It’s partly feeling discouraged with everything: I see my peers moving forward in their creative careers while I remain stuck; I don’t want to be stuck, but can’t do anything about it on my own steam. And it’s also partly feeling under-supported as a creator, despite having a network of creative peers: only a handful of (very lovely) people ask me about this part of my life, and the rest seem oblivious that it even exists. There’s a rather odd dynamic in the creative life whereby when you put something out in the world, the momentum of doing that gains you attention, connections and perhaps even followers, but when the fields are more fallow, people tend to forget about you.

My other issue at the moment is that I have pivoted away from comics into prose: I am currently trying to write a prose YA fantasy novel. So the people who follow my comics work are less interested in that, and I don’t have a readership in prose yet. Also, no one is waiting for this book: it’s just the project I am the most interested in writing at the moment, and I do hope to sell it one day so that it is professional published by a major publishing house. But of course, I need to finish it first.

Anyway, given the circumstances, I am focusing on doing what I can with what I have. I remind myself that small progress is always better than no progress. I’m currently doing Tansy Rayner Roberts’ 100 words per day for 100 days challenge (which she talks about in From Baby Brain to Writer Brain: Writing through a world of parenting distraction). I am adopting the 3D printer mode of writing, which often comes up on Antony Johnston’s Writing and Breathing podcast (and which I might blog about sometime as it’s helping me break through some of my inbuilt perfectionism). And I am actually reading—reading!—more in years: at least one chapter a day, but sometimes more, which means I’ve already completed my initial goal in the 2021 GoodReads Reading Challenge.

I’m going to revive this blog one post a week. But it won’t be focused on anything particular, which I do think will be maddening to some. The topics will probably jump around a lot—musings on creativity and ideas, the occasional interesting tidbit I’ve stumbled across, a review or two (even though I don’t want this to become purely a review blog), and also news about what I’m up to. I gave my old blog the name “/Karen/” because, to me, the name connotes a directory or folder of all things related to me, and I think it still fits (even if I can’t get WordPress to obey me on this front—*SIGH*). Feel free to cherry pick what you read. In any case, I hope you’ll come across something interesting. And hopefully I’ll emerge from all this all the better for it.

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Trying to write during a pandemic

Attempting to create art at any time is an audacious and difficult act. Attempting to do it during a pandemic can be near impossible.

When I realised that COVID-19 was serious enough to warrant keeping our children home from school, part of me was also deeply in denial. I knew that home learning in combination with my part-time job would completely decimate my writing time. It had taken a while, but I had finally reached the stage where I had managed to confine my paid working hours to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, thereby leaving Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings free to focus on the writing. (I would average about 8-14 hours per week.) I had grown accustomed to spending many a happy hour sitting in one of my local cafés, the library or even the food court near my gym, plugging away at my current work in progress—a young adult fantasy novel set in a world that roughly resembled Edo-era Japan. I viewed writing as being my part-time unpaid job, and even though no one in particular was awaiting this manuscript and even though it may not end up being very publishable (because the one book has since turned into two and publishers are less likely to pick up series these days), I liked what I was doing and wanted to see it to completion.

I spent that last day before home learning began out on our balcony, ignoring my paid job and defiantly scribbling because I knew I would not get the opportunity to do that for a long while.

Then when shutdown measures were put in place and our girls were home with us all the time, life changed completely. It took a while to get used to the new normal, but eventually it started looking like this:

  • Waking up later than usual and having my breakfast (one nice thing about the pandemic is being able to sleep in a little; I am thankful I have kids who will do this);
  • Getting the girls up, dressed and breakfasted; supervising home learning for both Miss 9 and Miss 6 using the schedule the teachers send through at the beginning of the week (it consists of a weekly timetable filled with tasks—mainly English and Maths, but occasionally there are activities related to Science, History, Health, Art, Library and [guh] PE. [I never thought parenting would involve teaching my child the Macarena and the Nutbush]). On a good day, I will spend most of my time supervising Miss 6 while Miss 9 just gets on with it; on a bad day, I will be on both their cases to try and get them to do the work. On a great day, I will even be able to get a few work-related tasks done at the same time. We are fortunate to have enough devices for this: Ben and I never got rid of our old laptops, so the girls have one each for their school work and occasional Zoom meetings;
  • Breaking for lunch: I pack four days’ worth of lunches at the beginning of the week so all the girls need to do is take their lunchbox out of the fridge. But I still need to prepare lunch for me and Ben. Most days it’s a salad of some description. On Fridays, we get takeaway from our local café as a way of supporting them and keeping them in business;
  • Making the girls do a bit of tidying and chores. In the early days, we worked on decluttering and tidying their rooms as the build-up had gotten a bit out of hand. These days, it’s more surface cleaning. Or sometimes I will get them to make a card to post to someone (e.g. if there’s a family birthday coming up) or finish some colouring in they started that they refuse to part with. This is also when I am able to squeeze in some housework;
  • Letting the girls have screen time: at the moment, they are completely addicted to Minecraft Education, so I log Miss 9 back into the laptop she uses for home learning and I log Miss 6 onto the iPad. The nice thing is they can play together in their virtual worlds. Occasionally they even get together with other school friends and play. They also never seem to get tired of it!
  • Working on tasks related to my paid job. Now that I’m finally doing just one job instead of two and I have a very lovely employer who is happy for me to work flexibly and who has always allowed me to work from home, I tend to spread my hours across five or six days a week. I also have some time in lieu I can use if need be;
  • My husband taking the girls out for some exercise at around 4pm. This is when I drop everything and write;
  • Throwing dinner together;
  • Squeezing in another hour or so of work after dinner while my husband does the dishes, bath and bedtime (though sometimes this time is also devoted to housework);
  • Spending my evenings after the girls are in bed either watching Netflix, reading, doing more work for the paid job (if need be), catching up with someone over the phone, online Bible Study, etc.
Hallway PE lesson

Hallway PE lesson.

Given I no longer have large swathes of creative time, I’ve found that there’s certain types of writing that I’m just incapable of doing right now. I can’t write new stuff. I can’t even re-draft what I’ve already written because I don’t have the brain capacity. Instead, my writing has consisted of scribbling longhand in a journal about things to do with my novel. It’s not quite a zero draft (though aspects of it are); I think of it being more like a subzero draft. It’s not the prose that will go into the novel; it’s writing around the novel to do with things about the novel.

Initially I wrote about the section I was up to and the section after, trying to work out what happens in it and why. Lately, though, I’ve started sketching out the arcs for each of my point of view characters—trying to work out where the plot twists and turns, as well as some of the finer details around that. Sometimes the sketching takes me off on research tangents. (I spent a very long time looking into Japanese arrows and how they’re made one afternoon.) Sometimes the scribbling is about minor characters I’m trying to get to know. The rule is that I must write about the novel, but I can write about anything I want related to it.

An old me would not have seen the value of this sort of writing because it doesn’t seem like actual writing (even though I am averaging 5-6 hours a week on it). And then a couple of years ago when I was at ACAF (Australian Comic Arts Festival), I was talking to my friend Louie about it and he compared it to that stage of comics when you’re thumbnailing/sketching roughs. He said something about how when you’re doing that, it can seem like you’re not doing much, because usually you’re just messing around and trying things. But often you end up making very key decisions that carry over into later stages of the work—when you’re pencilling/inking/colouring, etc.

That little comment stayed with me because I realised he’s totally right and that it’s true of prose writing too: as I’ve been playing around and giving myself permission to write whatever (even if it’s a grammatical and spelling nightmare, and it sounds completely incoherent), I have been making key decisions about story and characters that I know will carry across into the finished work. What I’m doing isn’t a waste of time; it’s actually constructive and helfpul. Furthermore, it’s even fun.

And when it’s fun, it’s a very nice escape from the current situation. (Indeed, one of the good things about writing a fantasy novel is being able to slip away into a different pandemic-free world.) And that’s very good for sustaining my mental health—at least until the time when I will finally have my writing days back again.

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Time for creative projects

Time for creative projects

As promised last month, this month I thought I’d write a bit about finding time to do creative projects. People often ask me how I do it—especially when they find out I’m a parent of young children. “Where do you find the time?” they say.

168 hours a week

The thing is, I don’t have to find it; I already have it. You do too. We all do. We all have the same amount of time in our lives—24 hours a day, 168 hours a week, 8,760 hours a year (and 8,784 in a leap year). We may feel like we have less (or more, though people generally don’t feel like they have more time). But in reality, we all have the same amount of time. It’s just that we all have different demands on our time.

See, we all have time, but we don’t always have control of how we can spend that time. A certain amount of time must be spent on certain things—housework (as I discussed at length in this post), eating, sleeping, commuting, working in your paid job, raising children, maintaining your relationship with your partner (if you have one) and so on. Some of that time is non-negotiable: if you want to earn your salary, you need to put in the hours and have something to show for it, or you’ll get fired. If you want your kids to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults, you need to spend time feeding them, clothing them, talking to them, nurturing them, shuttling them to and from school and other activities, being there for them, and so on. And if you want to prevent your marriage from disintegrating, you have to spend time working on the relationship—checking in with one another, having fun with one another, being intimate, working through problems together, maybe even going to marriage counselling together. (Please note there is no shame in going to marriage counselling. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed; it means you’re willing to work on stuff. More couples should go—and long before they find themselves on the brink of divorce.)

That said, there is always some portion of time—no matter how small—that is negotiable: there are no particular demands on it and you can choose how you want to spend it. Most of us tend to spend that time on rest and recreation, which is a perfectly wonderfully way to spend it, because rest and recreation are important and restorative, and act as valuable fuel for the rest of your life. But some of us choose to spend at least some of that negotiable time on making art. And because that time is so small, often we yearn for more.

The thing is, for all for us, time is a finite resource: once it’s gone, you can’t get more of it. There’s no way to increase your 168 hours per week to 170. You can’t buy more. You can’t steal more. You can’t get time from someone else to extend your life the way that people do in that 2011 Andrew Niccol film In Time, where time literally is money. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). He’s right: you can’t. (Believe me, I’ve tried!)

Instead, our task is to spend our time wisely—to make the most of what we have—what we have been given. As Moses sang in the Book of Psalms, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). We all have 168 hours per week; how are you going to use yours?

Daily patterns

That said, not all time is the same: it changes throughout the day. Or rather, our experience of it changes throughout the day. At the risk of repeating myself in this post, I’ve found the chapter on the daily pattern we all traverse in terms of our energy levels and output in Daniel Pink’s When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing quite helpful: after waking, we rise to a peak at around lunchtime, which is then followed by an afternoon trough (or “slump time”, as I like to call it), a smaller peak in the late afternoon/early evening and then a gradual decline towards bedtime. Contrary to what many in society might actual think, we are humans, not machines; we can’t be “on” all the time.

Our days follow roughly the same shape (peak, trough, smaller peak, decline), but as Pink also points out, we start that shape at different times, according to our chronotype. Some of us are larks and rise early. (I’m definitely not one of them.) Some of us are night owls and rise late. But most of us are what Pink calls “third birds”: we fall somewhere in the middle and wake—not as early as larks, but not as late as owls. (I know it sounds ridiculous, but I was rather disappointed to discover that I was a third bird and not a natural night owl, which is what I’d been calling myself). If you’re interested in finding out your own chronotype, do the Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ). If the results of that aren’t satisfactory, another way to figure it out is to fill out Pink’s daily tracker worksheet, which directs you to write down what you’re doing, how alert you feel mentally and how energised you are physically every 90 minutes. Depending on your chronotype, you’ll start the daily pattern at a different time of day to the rest of the population, so the shape of your day—the rise of your energy levels—may look slightly different.

Sleeping woman

Even accounting for the daily pattern, our energy tends to fluctuate in 90-minute cycles: Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project says these cycles are derived from our ultradian rhythm: we rise to a peak part-way through the cycle (which is roughly 90 minutes long—so the peak occurs at about 45 minutes in) and then decline towards a trough. He recommends taking a 15-minute break every 90-minutes before getting stuck into things again. He also recommends doing things (like resting) to boost your energy, as energy, unlike time, is not a finite resource, it’s a renewable one. (For more about that, check out his talk, “The myths of the overworked creative” or this summary.) Your energy levels are obviously affected by all sorts of things—how much rest you’ve had (or not had!), how much exercise you’ve done, what’s currently stressing you out, and so on. But according to Schwartz’s thinking, if you can manage and control those things, you can boost your energy and thus your productivity in the time you have.

That said (and as I said earlier), not all of us have total control over our time: our time is often shaped by external factors—even for those who lean more towards the unstructured/spontaneous end of the spectrum. The patterns of the day can end up falling into blocks that fit around, say, the 9 to 5 workday, the school run or the baby’s feeding schedule. I don’t see this as a negative: if anything, it’s a positive, because endless time actually isn’t actually that helpful for productivity. In fact, having endless time can be absolutely terrifying because it contains so much potential and it can be wasted in so many possible ways. Having pre-existing fences around your time is actually quite helpful in the same way that having good interpersonal boundaries helps you to thrive.

Making the most of the time

So to bring all this together, where can you find the time to fit in creative work? Here are a few suggestions that might be helpful, depending on your circumstances:

  • Schedule it in: Figure out your chronotype and the periods each day when you are more likely to be productive. It might be in the early morning before the break of dawn. It might be late at night after the household has gone to bed. It probably won’t be after lunch during the afternoon slump. Once you’ve worked that out, look at your daily and weekly timetable, and the natural rhythms/externally imposed boundaries they place on your time. See where you might be able to fit in some creative work—but make sure that these blocks of time are as close as possible to your most productive periods. It may not be possible, but perhaps there’s a morning or two—or an evening or two—that you can reserve for yourself. An hour and a half is ideal (bearing in mind your ultradian cycle—90 minutes). If you can’t manage that, see if you can squeeze in even 30 minutes. Anything is better than nothing. Once you’ve scheduled it, stick to it. (For me, I currently have Tuesdays child-free, so after I’ve finished drop-offs, I go to a café and write for a bit, and then move to the library and write for a bit longer. I usually stop around lunch time and try to spend the rest of the time on R&R.) You may not get much done in that 30 minutes. But remember that a little is better than nothing. And maybe once you get into the routine of things, you may be able to block out more time.
  • Use your incidental time: Incidental time happens in the corners: it’s the time you spend standing in queues, commuting to and from work, sitting around in doctor’s waiting rooms, or even watching your kids play in the playground. If you can, try to make the most of that time: get out your phone and scribble down some story ideas; let your mind chew over that plot problem you’re having trouble untangling; daydream and let those unrelated connections come together to fuel your creativity. It’s surprising how much creative work you can actually do in the corners of your time—often when you’re supposed to be doing something else. (Remember the Zeigarnik effect, which I talked about in this post.) I once outlined the plot for a children’s picture book on my phone while following my then two-year-old around the IKEA showroom floor. Normally parenting and writing don’t mix, but it did that time.
Subway passengers
  • Boost your energy: If you have no choice but to schedule creative work during slump time, one way to make the time work better for you is to make sure you take decent rest before you go into slump time. Daniel Pink has a list of helpful ways to reinvigorate yourself in When that don’t actually take up much time. But, as Tony Schwartz says, energy is a renewable resource, so boost your energy by trying to make sure that you’ve slept well and rested well before you embark on creative work during slump time. If that doesn’t work and your mind and body are still choosing to rebel, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, roll with it: make the most of it by using the time to feed yourself with creator medicine. Watch a movie. Read a book. Passively consume things that will enrich you creatively. And don’t feel guilty about doing any of that: it’s still creative work.
  • Be realistic with yourself: That said, often creative work is hard going—particularly when other things in your life are going poorly. It’s helpful to acknowledge all of that and be compassionate towards yourself, instead of beating yourself up for not meeting some arbitrary high standard that you’ve set for yourself. As David M Barnett tweeted, “Time to write is an under-acknowledged privilege that a lot of us take for granted.” Not everyone can write 2,000 words a day (particularly not those who have to get dinner on the table every night, says Ann Patchett!) Not everyone can clear some time to do creative work—particularly if you’re a single mother of three who works full-time. Some people have chronic health problems that mean they’re barely functioning for most of the day. Talitha Kalago, author of Half a Million Words in Nine Months: The time management guide for finishing your manuscript, struggles with a range of chronic health problems, but still manages to be productive in the time she has. If this is something you struggle with too, the following posts may be helpful:
  • Deal with time sucks: With limited time—specifically limited quality time—for creative work, we don’t want to be wasting it by video hopping on YouTube, getting sucked into games or scrolling endlessly through social media. Part of the problem is that a lot of our entertainment options these days are designed to be addictive: they’re designed to activate the dopamine/reward centres of our brain so that we experience an almost Pavlovian response when we achieve that “win” or receive certain notifications. Some of these things are also designed to be intrusive—to interrupt whatever we’re currently doing and grab our attention so that we’ll be drawn to our phones, instead of concentrating on the task at hand. If you suspect this might be a problem for you, there are apps you can install on both computers and phones that monitor and report your activity so you can see first-hand what is sucking up your time. But there are other ways to deal with time sucks. Try the following:
    • Acknowledge to yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Are you depressed? Do you have a psychological need for attention? Are you just bored? If so, maybe it’s better to treat your feelings in other ways that don’t eat as much time and that are more effective than scrolling endlessly through Facebook.
    • Limit your distractions during creative work time. Turn off notifications. Put your phone on airplane mode. Use Freedom to block certain apps. Create two logins on your computer: one for personal stuff and one for creative stuff. (This might end up being annoying, though; let me know if it works for you!) “DO NOT DISTURB” is your friend. If anyone tries to contact you, get back to them later; most of the time, it’s not urgent, and it’s ridiculous to make yourself available to everyone every hour of the day.
    • Be sensible: if you’re trying to work and you’re having trouble focusing or concentrating, or you’re finding yourself nodding off, maybe the problem is you haven’t had enough rest (and by “rest”, I mean both the sleep variety and the leisure variety; everyone needs to waste time sometimes because wasting time is an important curative for good mental health). Rest, as I said earlier, is valuable fuel for energy, so don’t neglect it.
Journal and earbuds
  • Do what you can with the time you have: It may not be much, but it’s all still useful and helpful in the long-run. Sometimes, as a way to warm up, I start with morning pages (from Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way), or I have a dedicated journal that I use for scribbling 100-word exercises—little scenes or flash fiction that aren’t for anything except my amusement only. Sometimes I just write about the thing I’m working on instead of writing the actual thing. (I feel like it’s the writing equivalent of sketching or doing rough layouts in comics, and I used to feel a bit embarrassed about it until I had a conversation with Louie Joyce, who pointed out that often the hard work happens at that stage, because you’re making key decisions about how things should look and work—decisions that pay off later when you’re building on that foundational work during the pencilling/inking/colouring stage.) As I said, it’s not much, but it’s still all valuable.
  • Supercharge your creative practice: For some people, showing up is all they need to do to get the creative juices flowing. For others, something more is needed. As I said in this post, sometimes setting timers helps as it puts a fence around the time and only locks you in for a short period, forcing you to be productive. Sometimes leaving things half-finished is an easy way in the next time you have a chance to work on something. Sometimes a bit of preparation is all you need: recently I’ve been struck by this blog post, “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day” by Rachel Aaron/Bach and what she wrote about the triangle of knowledge, time and enthusiasm: once she worked out what she was writing before she wrote it (knowledge) and she figured out worked best for her in terms of time of day and length of time (time) and she identified the hooks that made her excited to write particular scenes (enthusiasm), her output went up in a phenomenal way. And this was while she was looking after a newborn!

It’s difficult to find time to do creative work—difficult, but not impossible. Life can be very busy and very crowded. But even in the chaos of the day-to-day and your never-ending To Do list, you can still find the time. You just need to want to do it.

(P.S. For more on this subject, I also recommend checking out René Pfitzner’s post, “How do I find time to make comics?” and Mark McGuinness on “How to Find Time for Creative Work”.)

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Creator medicine

It’s the same old story: you want to create, you want to produce, you sit down at your desk and then nothing comes. The hours tick by. The page remains blank. You feel like you’re wasting your time. You feel stuck. You feel like this sucks. You feel like you suck. You get angry with yourself. You start beating yourself up—well, metaphorically. Of course that doesn’t work; the page is still blank. Why did you even think that would help?

Your mind wanders and you start thinking about the state of your life. There’s always so much to do—your paid job, of course, but also the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry; all the admin and logistical stuff that has to be done related to your kids and their activities (soooooo many school notes!); and while you think longingly of your couch and spacing out in front of Netflix and your current favourite show, you know that you won’t be able to get there until all the other stuff is done.

“Why aren’t there more hours in the day?” you think. Your rational mind knows that everyone gets the same amount—24 hours a day, 168 hours a week—but the petulant part of your brain longs for more—more time to sleep (you are so tired; why did Miss 4 wake up at 2am this morning???), more time to read, more time to think, more time to create. You stare at the clock, willing the second hand to stop moving forward, Shakespeare echoing in the back of your head—

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with what which goes before,
In sequent toil all forward do contend.

(Sonnet 60)

—but it’s no use: you can’t even construct a proper sentence; what makes you think you can stop time?

Your mind drifts again and you find yourself thinking of your friends—the people you consider your creative peers—all busy creators with amazing outputs whose work ends up getting shortlisted for or winning awards. “Patrick’s been invited to be Guest of Honour at PopCultchaCon,” you think to yourself. “Why can’t I be like him?” Well, the answer’s obvious: you don’t produce, so you don’t have anything to show for your labour. That’s why you don’t win any awards. That’s why you don’t get any recognition.

“Well, I would,” you think resentfully. “I would—if I had a writing studio like he does—if I had a job that afforded me more spare time—if I had a partner who supported me, did the lion’s share of the housework and was happy to look after the kids while I went off and wrote.” And before you can stop it, the bitterness sets in—the anger, the envy, the despair … the depression.

“I try so hard,” you think. “I’m exhausted all the time. What’s the point? I’m over this.” So you get up and walk away.

Let me suggest an alternative: rather than walking away and giving up, when you feel these things—when you feel frustrated, angry, envious, despairing, depressed, exhausted, uninspired, even burnt out—perhaps consider these feeling as sign posts pointing to the fact that the creator in you is in need of nurturing. Maybe you just need to step away and replenish yourself creatively before you can dive back into it. Maybe you need to take some time to combat the unhelpful thoughts that circle your head, causing you to doubt yourself, hovering anxiously over your every move. Maybe you need to find more helpful ways of working that fit better with your lifestyle or life stage. Or maybe you just need to rest for a bit.

Below are some remedies that may help your specific malady. Obviously not everything listed here will be helpful, and some stuff may be completely unsuitable. Cherry pick as you please, and use this as a launchpad for producing your own list of creator medicines.

Nurture yourself

It’s important to nurture yourself as a creator: every time you create, the energy goes out of you and into the work, which means you need replenishing. Obviously this includes replenishing your body with food, drink, exercise and sleep, because if you’re feeling drained, hungry, thirsty or tired, being creative is harder. But it also includes replenishing yourself creatively—replenishing yourself with things like ideas, concepts, stories, social time, other people’s creations, and even play. Try doing the following:

  • Consume other people’s creations (comics, novels, TV shows, movies, music, artworks, etc.)
  • Listen to podcasts on interesting topics. One of my favourites is Song Exploder, a podcast in which songwriters take apart their songs and talk about how they were made. I’m not a songwriter, but each episode leaves me wanting to write music.
  • Watch or read inspiring talks or articles about creativity. Here are a few I love and revisit regularly:

    My friend Guan has more listed on his website.

  • Go for a walk somewhere beautiful in nature.
  • Rub shoulders with likeminded creators. I do this by attending conventions, festivals or other events, where a lot of the more established creators can be found; following creators I like on social media; being an active member of groups like the Sydney Comics Guild; and also deliberately keeping up with particular people I consider my creative peers.
  • Talk to other creators about what they’re working on, how they like to work and what inspires/nurtures them.
  • Create in another medium. If you’re a writer, play or write music. If you’re a musician, take up sketching. For me, I’ve always got a knitting project on the go.
  • Work on multiple projects at once. That way, if one stalls, you can always switch to another.
  • “Play” with your medium. Try something new. If you’re an artist, experiment with a new technique or a different set of tools. If you’re a musician, try playing a new instrument. Give yourself permission to do whatever you like without the pressure to create amazing work.
  • Tackle a shorter project—something manageable that won’t take over your life. Finishing it will give you a sense of accomplishment and achievement, and boost your confidence for longer projects.

Look after your mental health

It’s one thing to nurture your creativity; it’s another to deal with the unhelpful thoughts and feelings you may be experiencing around your creative work that hinder that work—things like, “I’m not good enough”, “This is a waste of time”, “I wish I was more like that person”. Try doing the following:

  • Write it out: put actual pen to paper and write out everything you’re feeling at the moment—all the anger, pain, frustration, depression. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling or even sentence structure; just get it out there on the page.
  • Identify unhelpful thought patterns (for example, “I can’t write” => “I suck” => “I am a waste of space”). If necessary, write them down. Then cross them out and combat the unhelpful thought with more helpful ones: “I can’t write” => “I can’t write right now” => “I’m going to do something else to practise self-care/work on another project” => “I’ll try again another time” => “I’m trying. Go me!”
  • Remember that “Comparison is the thief of joy” (as one or both of the Roosevelts said): nothing good comes from comparing yourself with others, so don’t do it. Instead, be happy for this other person and celebrate their success. Creativity is not a zero sum game and this is not a competition.
  • Practise self-compassion. You may be going through a lot at the moment, for there are always things that make life challenging. But you’re surviving. You’re trying. You’re making baby steps, and baby steps are better than nothing. (Incidentally, I was very encouraged recently by something that my friend Louie Joyce said: I was talking about how I was producing all these really rough bits and pieces of prose and how it was like sketching or doing thumbnail layouts in comics, and he commented that that stage often takes the longest and feels the hardest because that’s when you’re actually working things out and making key decisions about how the work should go; the later pencilling/inking/colouring all builds on that, and they’re easier because you’ve already put in the hard yards.)
  • Celebrate your wins. So you only wrote 200 words today. Congratulations! That’s 200 words you didn’t have yesterday. So you didn’t end up writing anything. Congratulations! You showed up; many people don’t. So you didn’t even get to your desk. It’s okay! Try again another day.
  • Create for yourself. No one ever has to see this; this is just for you. Do it because you can. Do it because it’s fun. Do it because it brings you joy. All creativity should start from this point, because if it doesn’t, you’ll not want to do it when things get hard.

Consider the importance of timing

Sometimes the problem isn’t so much what you’re doing, but when you’re doing it. I’ve been thinking about this more and more while reading Daniel Pink’s When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing. Many books are about how to do things; Daniel Pink’s When is about when to do things. I used to think that every hour of the day was equal. Daniel Pink showed me that this is definitely not the case: one section of his book is focuses on the pattern of the day—how, after we wake, we experience a peak in our energy and motivation in the morning followed by a trough in the afternoon and then a smaller peak in the early evening. This, coupled with his section on chronotypes (i.e. early birds, night owls and what he calls “third birds”) has changed the way I do things. On my child-free day off, if I can, I tackle writing in the morning. Then I break for lunch (the most important meal of the day, Pink argues). I then expect that seven hours after my waking time (around about 2pm), I will start to feel the effects of the afternoon trough and trying to work will probably be futile. (Often I find myself nodding off around that time due to sleep deprivation anyway.) I’ve also noticed that my brain tends to be really alert around 9:30/10pm, so occasionally I will make good use of that time. But that period of the day also interferes with sleep, so if I can, I avoid using it.

Here are some articles on timing by other people that you might find helpful:

Rest

Another thing that I’ve gleaned from reading Daniel Pink is making the most of breaks: one of the surprising things he found when talking to pro athletes was the number of breaks they took. It wasn’t because they were lazy; in fact, the opposite was true: the breaks made them better at what they did. Furthermore, it’s been shown that breaks help you work through the afternoon trough, which means that, overall, you are more efficient and productive. Pink challenges his readers to add breaks to their daily To Do lists, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, it’s something I try to bear in mind as I go about my days.

(Pink has a lot of advice about how long your breaks should be and what you should do when you’re taking them, because doing things like walking in nature while chatting to a good friend are actually more restorative than scrolling through Twitter on your phone, which is my preferred form of break activity. But I won’t go into those here; you’ll have to pick up his book.)

But rest, in my opinion, involves more than daily restorative breaks. It involves more than just sleep. It’s also about letting your creativity lie fallow for a bit—giving those muscles a rest before getting back to it so that they work more effectively in the long haul. I often think of Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk on “The power of time off”—how once every seven years, he would take a year off from his work as a designer, travel to Bali and just create whatever he wanted. To his surprise, the stuff he worked on while on sabbatical became integral to the work he did in the following seven years.

Nurturing yourself. Looking after your mental health. Considering the importance of timing. Taking breaks and resting. These are all forms of creator medicine—ways to feed and care for your creative self so that you can keep going for the long haul. Because continuing to create is a much better alternative to quitting.

So go forth and create!